Changes

“The moment you know you know, you know. “

-David Bowie

I started this blog a long time ago.  The objective, if there was one, was to share the positive things that cycling has done for me.  Back then, I naively believed that more people would cycle once they figured out how good it was for them.  Now I know they won’t.  Most people are pretty set in their ways.  Those who do want to improve, by and large, want a quick fix…a magic pill.  Cycling is not that.  Cycling takes a lot of time to change you.  

The Loess Hills.  This is as close to heaven on earth as a guy like me can get.

But that’s fine.   Cycling has changed me and that’s enough.  I still do it every day.  I can’t imagine a scenario in which I’ll ever stop.  Winter hasn’t stopped me.  I rode 18 miles one January day when the temperature was -14° and the wind chill was considerably lower.  Wind and rain and blistering summer heat hasn’t stopped me either.  Rattlesnakes and cougars and bobcats and moose haven’t stopped me.  I’ve run into all of these on the trail, and more.  Angry motorists who have serious issues and ought to be locked up in cages haven’t stopped me.  205 miles from Seattle to Portland didn’t stop me either.    Looking back, all of that stuff just made me hungrier for more saddle time.  I love being outdoors in God’s unpaved world.      

Encounters with rattlesnakes were pretty common in May and June on the bench east of Ogden Utah.   I learned that Great Basin Rattlesnakes like this one are docile and won’t attack unless cornered.  I’m no longer afraid of them.  Knowledge is power.

Unpaved…that’s the key.  In hindsight, that’s the real reason we came to Iowa.  I thought it was bike paths but they have bike paths everywhere.  Nobody has gravel like we do.  Well, maybe Nebraska and Kansas and South Dakota and eastern Colorado this side of the Rockies and that little southwestern corner of Minnesota do, but most places where people live don’t.  Gravel is endless in Iowa.  

And, increasingly, gravel is where I want to be.  I still ride to the grocery store and the post office.  I still pay my bills by bike.  That’s never going to change.  It’s just that those things are not enough.  I still want to ride, on average, 30 miles or so each and every day and most of those places are less than a mile from home.   If I want to go further, I can either take the Raccoon River Valley Trail down towards Des Moines or I can hop on gravel roads and go pretty much anywhere my heart desires.

I’ve made a lot of changes this year.  The biggest was riding from Seattle to Portland.  It made me realize what I am capable of.  I like how it made me feel, and so I want to do more of it.  What I didn’t like about StP was riding on the shoulders of busy highways to get from one to the other.   It’s not nearly as much fun as tearing down an empty gravel road with no cars buzzing me.  

And so I’m going to pull the plug on Pedalfree after four years.  I’ve started a new blog called Old Man Gravel (that’s me).  I’m going to be 60 years old (that’s old in a society focused on youth)  in 2019 and then I’m going to seek out gnarly gravel events, train for them and see if I can compete with the youngsters.  The first of these will be SBT GRVL on August 18, 2019…two weeks before my 60th birthday.  If that goes well, I’ll get serious about it. 

There are four other events I’d really like to ride while I still can.  One is the Land Run 100 in Stillwater Oklahoma.   The second is the Michigan Coast to Coast gravel grinder that runs from Au Gres on Lake Huron to Ludington on Lake Michigan.  It’s about 210 miles, more or less.  The DAMn (Day Across Minnesota) is a midnight to midnight 240 miler than extends from South Dakota to Cheeseland.     I saved the best for last.  I want to ride the DK200 (Dirty Kanza) just one time.  

If I’m able to do all that, I’ll figure out what comes next.   In the meantime, the new blog will be viewable at http://oldmangravel.wordpress.com.  If you’re interested, you can click on the site to follow along.  I may eventually re-brand the Pedalfree Facebook page to reflect the new site.  Then again, maybe I won’t.  If you want to reach out, email me at oldmangravel (at) protonmail (dot) com.

Happy Trails!

First Rides: Giro 100 Proof Lobster Claw Mitts

I had the opportunity to ride this morning in a new pair of lobster claw mitts I recently purchased sight unseen on the Internet.   They’re Giro’s 100-Proof winter cycling gloves.  I’m not sure I understand the name, but whatever.  The more important question is would they perform in Iowa’s rugged winter weather.   The answer is a resounding yes.

Giro’s 100 Proof Lobster Claw Mitts are ready to roll!

For what it’s worth, these are a replacement for a similar pair of Craft lobster claw mitts that lasted three solid seasons.  Last Saturday, I rode about 23 miles in a 33° downpour, though, and that was pretty much the end of the Crafts.  I literally had to stop and wring them out three times along the way.  That was fun.  I washed and tumble dried them when I got home, but the insulating layer is just never going to be the same.  I’ll get some use out of them on more mild days but that’s about it.

Giro rates their gloves as good to +15° F and wouldn’t you know it but that was the temperature when I took off in the pre-dawn darkness this morning for my first ride in these babies.   The wind chill was six above, but we don’t spend too much time thinking about wind chills in Iowa.  If we did, we’d probably stay in bed.

Speaking of wind, it was a relatively light 6 mph out of the southeast, and so I decided to roll the dice and take the Fargo out on gravel.  I’d done a little gravel earlier in the week and so I knew it was going to be icy, but the fatbike is equipped with Bar Mitts and they’re so good that I can literally go gloveless on all but the coldest days.  It wouldn’t be a fair test of the Giros.  It wouldn’t be a test at all.

I love the smell of gravel in the morning!

So off I went on the Fargo for a quick 20 miles.  I say quick because after five straight 20 milers on the fatbike, this was a little like taking the Porsche out of the barn.  The verdict on the gloves?   They’re good.  I was out for 90 minutes, more or less, and my fingers weren’t at all cold until the last five minutes.   I remember feeling them and looking at the time on my Garmin.

Eighty five out of ninety minutes on a 15° F morning is about as good as it gets in my little world.  Operationally, I had no problem with the shifters or brakes.   There’s even a little pocket in the mitts for those handwarmer thingees if you’re into that.  I’ve never tried them.   Bottom line, there’s no downside to this product that I can see except possibly wear.  I don’t have any concerns here, but you never know.  We’ll see how they hold up over time.

If you want a pair, size up at least one full size.  I normally wear larges and I followed the advice of previous purchasers and went with the XLs.  They fit, but they’re not at all big.  Large’s would not have worked.  Expect to pay somewhere around $50 which, truth be told, is why I went with these.   The similar Crafts were in the $70-$80 range.

 

The Real Beauty of Cycling? Simplicity.

“Don’t buy upgrades.  Ride up grades.”
-Eddy Merckx

Peloton wants me to join  the movement.  Their advertisements have been popping up on the web pages I visit.  They somehow got the idea that I am their target market but they are wrong.  The last thing in the world I’m going to spend money on is a stationary bike with a video screen.  I already get more than enough screen time.

The places I’ve been…

I thought about this on my ride yesterday.  The wind was gentle and the temperature was in the 40s.  It was pleasant, at least compared to the last couple of weeks.  There were birds and deer and coyotes along the trail, all getting ready for the snow that’s on the way in tonight and tomorrow.  I’m not sure how they know it’s coming, but they do.

Ride up grades.  I think I understand.  When you’re out on a bike, you feel even the slightest slope and because you feel it you learn to see the natural world differently than you would if you were in a car or even walking.    I couldn’t imagine cycling indoors at this point.  I need the wind and the weather in my face to feel alive.  I need real hills.

Strip it all away and the real beauty of cycling is its inherent simplicity.   No matter where you live, you can probably walk down the street on trash day and pick up a free bike.  You don’t need a special uniform or other equipment to ride it.  You don’t really even need a helmet.  The people who ride bikes most often…the Dutch and the Danes…typically don’t wear headgear.

But simple is not profitable and so everywhere I look it seems like people are trying to make cycling more complicated than it needs to be in order to monetize it.  It’s sometimes easy to get swept up in all of this and think that we need the latest and greatest stuff.  We don’t.

Pure cycling is so simple that anyone from a young child to an elderly person can do it and if they do it will  make them feel better, no matter how little or how much they do it.   It is truly tragic that more of us don’t.

 

 

 

 

Winter’s Here (Let’s Roll)

The season’s first wave of seriously cold weather is upon us.   Highs will struggle to break freezing by the weekend.  There will be wind, of course, down from Alberta and Saskatchewan.  There is always wind in this part of Iowa.  Yesterday morning it was blowing steadily at 20 mph with gusts to 30.    The wind chill was in the teens.   Sounds bad, I know, but it really wasn’t.  Honest.

Winter cycling is magic in so many ways.

This will be my fifth winter on the bike.   The first year, I’d just venture out when the weather was somewhat tolerable.  I didn’t do snow at first.  I also didn’t realize what I was getting into or just how addictive it was.

The second winter is really when everything changed.  We were still in Indiana and I distinctly remember riding down a lighted side path in a howling blizzard.  A minivan passed on the adjacent street.  In the back were two young boys with their faces glued to the window.  They were looking at me with jaws agape and there was no doubt what they were thinking.   It wasn’t the same thing their mother up front was thinking, that’s for sure.

As I rode on, it occurred to me that, yes, this really was as cool as those boys thought it was and so I found myself cycling more and more, no matter the weather.   People ski, I rationalized.  This wasn’t much different than that.  I rode eight miles on the coldest day of the year, a day when the ambient temperature was -15° F.  It didn’t kill me.  Instead, it offered me a glimpse of what I was capable of.  I liked the way it made me feel.

There are two primary challenges to winter cycling in these parts.  One is staying warm.  The other is staying upright.   Staying warm has gotten a lot easier.  Modern synthetics, from Gore to Polarfleece, are pretty amazing.  There aren’t too many days when I’m uncomfortable for more than a few minutes.

Head, fingers and toes are the only real challenges.  I use bar mitts on my fat bike and Craft lobster claw gloves from Sweden on everything else.  I change over to platform pedals which accommodate a pair of Solomon boots on my feet.  Those boots are good to minus thirty, and so ever since I made that change my feet are never cold.  As far as my head goes, I wear beanies under my helmet.  I have one from Outdoor Research with a Goretex band around the ears that’s really nice and I recently picked up a Polarfleece beanie from Duluth Trading that has become my new favorite.   It’s part of their Alaskan Hardgear line.  On really dangerous days, I slip a Goretex balaclava under the beanie.

This is the best beanie I’ve ever warn. It completely covers my ears and the Polarfleece keeps me warm.

It took me a while to get the apparel part of the equation right.   Layers are important and finding the right mix requires experimentation.  What works for me might not work for you.  One thing to be aware of though is that cotton is the enemy in the winter.  You don’t want to wear cotton.  It will absorb moisture and make you very uncomfortable.  In the perfect storm, it could cause serious hardship.

Staying upright is always a concern whenever the temperature dips below freezing, but if you haven’t tried it you might be surprised to discover that it’s not as big of a deal as it seems going in.  Like anything else, the more you ride on snow and ice the easier it gets.   You’ll learn to recognize different types of conditions and adjust for them.  I still fall from time to time, but not often and mostly when I get a little sloppy and lazy.  I’ve never hurt myself and so it’s not something that I worry too much about.

I have several winter bikes that I alternate between depending on conditions.  My go to bike is my Salsa Fargo with 29″x 2.25″ knobby mountain bike tires.   When the snow’s a little deeper, I ride my Surly Wednesday fat bike.

I’ve cycled in the winter in states as different and unique as Utah and Indiana.   These days, most of my riding is done near our Iowa home in rural areas where there’s little or no salt.  If I was to ride in the city, I’d get an old 26″ hardtail mountain bike and make it my winter runner.   If it was flat where I lived, I’d seriously consider something I could convert to single speed.  Road salt and other chemicals are a toxic brew that will eat derailleurs and other add ons pretty quickly if  you don’t rinse your bike off after every grimy ride.  Simpler is generally better.

Fat bikes = fun.

On the dangerously cold days (which I define as days where the temp is below zero and the wind chill is -30° or lower), I tend to ride closer to home.  Instead of an out and back course, I might do a loop where I’m never further than a few miles from  my front door.  If I need or want more miles, I might ride the loop twice.   I also pay attention to the wind and try to ride out into it so that I have it at my back on the way home.  Nothing is worse than working up a sweat only to turn around and have the wind hitting you in the face for ten or fifteen miles.

Speaking of miles, I cycle fewer in the winter…on average about half what I do the rest of the year.   That said, I’ve gone as long as 40 miles on days where the temperature never got out of the twenties.

It’s not some macho thing with me to ride in cold weather. I do it because I genuinely like the way it makes me feel.  Riding a bicycle is important to me, regardless of the weather.  That said, there is a certain sense of accomplishment that comes with heading out into inhospitable conditions and making it back home.  It’s more about knowing that I can adapt and survive than it is one of “conquering” nature or anything else.

So if you’ve thought about doing this, I hope that this is the year you will give it a try.  Cycling in cold weather can be magical.   It’s really a shame that more people don’t do it.

 

 

The Quiet Season

They’re all gone…the summer cyclists decked out in full kit and pedaling as if the peloton is back there about to reel them in.  Their handlebar boom boxes are no longer booming.   Their bikes are hanging from the rafters in the garage again, or wherever they put them, not to be used again until spring.  Where they’ve gone I do not know.

Evening fog rolling in…Raccoon River Valley Trail.

I ran into a couple of pheasant hunters on the trail this past weekend.  They were friendly.  Their dogs were well behaved.   It doesn’t bother me to see shotguns on the trail.  In some ways, I find these guys preferable to the Tour de France crowd.   They’re quiet and humble and focused on the task at hand.  They don’t litter.  They, too, are dressed in bright colors but for completely different reasons.

I’ve found myself struggling a bit this year to adjust to the cold.  I’m not quite ready for it, maybe because I know what lies ahead.  It’s not really going to warm up again in any sustained way until April.  Last year was our first in Iowa and I naively believed that by the first of March or so that Spring would arrive.  Maybe it did, but it was nothing like the Spring they get a little further south.

Since starting a new job, I’ve also been riding in the early morning dark most days.  That will change a little with the switch to standard time this weekend.  I’ll have a little more light, for awhile at least.  It’s been amazing to see just how much daylight I’ve lost since I started doing this three weeks ago.  This won’t change for another 50 days or so.  Then we’ll turn the corner and head back towards the sun.

It’s quiet on the trail these days and I can’t help but juxtapose it against the rest of life.  Those missing boom boxes are no small thing.  Our culture values the busy and the noisy.  We receive powerful, non-stop, external messages (mostly from people who wish to sell us something)  that tell us we must be on 24/7/365  and too many of us mindlessly play along by cramming our lives full of meaningless detritus and then we wonder why we are stressed and anxious.  When we find ourselves alone in the quiet with nothing to do, our natural state,  it’s very uncomfortable.

It isn’t that hard to deconstruct this.  Seek quiet and see how it impacts you.  Yes, I know, it is an act of defiance to consciously choose to opt out and to reject this way of living.   There are social costs that have to be paid, without a doubt, but as with most costs there’s also a return on investment.  Is it worth it?  I think so.

One of the things that cycling has taught me is to value quiet time.  When you learn how to be still, mentally and emotionally, everything changes.  It’s all very clear and makes perfect sense when you ride a bicycle through the wilds of middle America, in November, by yourself.

 

 

Sioux Falls in the Snow

Jan and I headed up to Sioux Falls the weekend before last.  I had planned to ride the Omaha Jackrabbit, a 125 mile gravel grinder through the wilds of eastern Nebraska, but a confluence of events had caused me to reconsider.

First, I’d started a new job the week before and was in Dallas right up until the day before the event.  I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to get to Nebraska in time to start.  Second, weeks of heavy rain had turned the roads in these parts into a quagmire.  I decided to bail on the event before I left for Dallas and it turned out to be the right decision.  Nobody finished.  The two guys who made it the furthest covered around 90 miles in 14 hours.  It hurts just to think about it.

Downtown Sioux Falls. Sasquatch is a local hero. I like that.

The twenty mile bike loop makes it easy to get anywhere in Sioux Falls by bicycle.

Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny…not.

But I ride on because that’s what I do.

I am rewarded for my troubles. Just beautiful.

So we headed up to Sioux Falls instead to explore a little corner of the country I’ve passed through many times but never paused to check out.  For those who don’t know, Sioux Falls is the largest city in South Dakota with a population of around 175,000.   It’s located in the far southeastern corner of the state, not far from the point where South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota come together.

Named for the waterfalls on the Big Sioux River in the heart of town, it’s a delightful little city.  Downtown was vibrant and fun and they have a trail network that forms a 20+ mile loop around town.

We stopped into Two Wheeler Dealer, the local Surly/Kona bike shop and learned a little about the local cycling scene.  People here are friendly and helpful as can be.  Just about any place in town is accessible by bicycle, and bike racks are a common sight.

We also discovered that motorists here are probably the most mellow and cautious of anywhere we’ve ever been.  Nobody’s in a hurry.  They typically come to complete stops (and sit, and sit, and sit) at stop signs.  This is pretty typical in this part of the world, but if anything it seemed even more pronounced here.

Climate is a little drier than the Twin Cities and north central Iowa, which means that temperature fluctuations are a little more extreme.  The highs are higher and the lows are lower.  This is exactly what happened during our stay.  Saturday was delightful with lazy sunshine and highs pushing 70 degrees.  We rode in shorts.  A cold front passed through late Saturday night and we woke to three fresh inches of snow on Sunday morning.  It was snowing hard, so even though the sun wasn’t up yet, I headed out figuring it was only going to get worse before it got better.  It wasn’t a big thing except for the fact that I’d brought the wrong pair of gloves with me.

Sioux Falls is decidedly Midwestern, but in many ways it felt more like a Rocky Mountain town to me.  There’s a little bit of Boise here.  The vibe was more laid back than is typical in the heartland.   The local river runs fast and clear.  There were restaurants with rooftop decks and mountain gear stores.   If you looked towards the horizon and squinted, you could almost see the peaks.

The falls up close. 

The big picture from the city run observation tower. It’s free.

Most places wouldn’t allow you out on the rocks. I like this…a lot.

On a scale of one-to-five, I’d rate Sioux Falls a solid four in terms of cycling experience.  There’s not much to dislike here, though I suspect that winters are pretty brutal.  Snowfall totals vary widely, with a recent low of 15 inches in the winter of 2011-2012 versus a recent high of 69 inches just three years later.    I don’t know if they plow the trails like they do in Minneapolis.   The average January low is a bone chilling +7°F.  December is +10° and February is +12°.  That’s three long months hovering around single digits if you ride early in the day.

Great Outdoor Store. We did some serious damage here. The sales racks are upstairs.

If you find yourself heading this way, I’d recommend checking out the Clubhouse Inn and Suites on South Louise Avenue.  It’s located right on the bicycle loop and just minutes from everywhere.  It was clean, quiet and breakfast was awesome.  We got a suite, and it was a real suite as opposed to the pretend suites so many places sell these days.  There’s a strip of typical chain restaurants including Chevy’s and Granite City within walking distance.  Downtown is five minutes by car, fifteen by bike.

Must visit stores downtown include Duluth Trading (our first visit and lots of fun) and the absolutely delightful Great Outdoor Store if you’re into outdoor gear.

You also have to visit Falls Park.  Pictures don’t do the falls here  justice.  They’re quite a bit larger than they appear to be when viewed in two dimensions, and the  surrounding park is just delightful.  Sioux Falls isn’t into protecting you from yourself, so you can scramble right up to the water’s edge on the rocks.  This will probably change soon enough, but for now it’s still possible and one more thing that made me fall in love with this quirky little Rocky Mountain town hidden deep in the heart of the Great Plains.

 

 

 

 

The New Normal

It was dark and I was cold. Sunrise was still an hour away. There wasn’t a hint of orange or even gray in the eastern sky. I’d rolled out of bed not thirty minutes earlier and my eyes were still waking up. If it wasn’t for the 700 lumen blowtorch mounted on my handlebars, I never would have seen the skunk in the middle of the trail, dead ahead…

I skidded to a stop not more than ten feet from the little critter half expecting all hell to break loose. It never did. The skunk wasn’t bothered by me at all.  She eventually turned and ambled down the trail before turning into the brush. It was only then that I clipped in and moved on.

Shortly after the skunk, I hit my light and sent it flying. It was easy enough to find.

Welcome to the Iowa Outback after dark. This is my brave new world since starting a new job two weeks ago. The first week I was in Dallas, not far from downtown. I rode in the dark there, but it never really gets dark in Dallas or any other city for that matter.  If there are people around, there are also street lights and security lights and lights in store windows. Even the Katy Trail, my preferred route, was lit from end to end. I’d read reviews before heading out where people complained of “dark spots” along the way.  If only they knew.

The torch does a nice job of lighting my way. Without it, darkness wins.

Out here, darkness is pretty much absolute.  I pulled over this morning and turned the torch off for a moment just to see.  I held my hand six inches in front of my eyes.  I couldn’t see anything.  Then I looked up, drawn by the light above.   The heavens were ablaze (that’s the right word) with stars, none of them closer than 100 million miles to us.  Is there intelligent life up there?  Yeah, of course there is.  The universe is too big to believe otherwise.

I know that there are risks to riding in the dark, but it’s not like I really have a choice.  I ride when the time is available and they need me at work when the sun is out, so I’m riding early.  I bought the 700 lumen torch and it helps a lot. The biggest risk I face is a collision with wildlife.  In just three days this week, I’ve seen everything from raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, deer and a fox or coyote…not sure which…to the aforementioned skunk.   Just because a critter is small doesn’t mean he or she is not capable of doing some serious damage.

That said, I’m not afraid of wildlife.  Through numerous close encounters,  I’ve learned that most of nature’s critters are better at assessing and responding to risk than we humans are.  Animals don’t overreact.  Take this morning’s skunk, for example.  She didn’t spray me.  I probably would not have been so reserved if our roles had been reversed, and so I think that maybe I still have some things to learn from nature.

Morning breaks.  I can’t think of too many prettier sights.

Luther Standing Bear, the wise Oglala (Sioux) chief, once wrote that our hearts become hard when separated from nature.  I know this to be true in my own life.  Perhaps it explains some of our collective angst as a people.  We’ve been doing our level best to eradicate nature and beat it into submission for as long as I can remember.  This is one of those times when even if we win, we lose.  I wish we could see the damage we’re doing and then just stop doing it but I know better.  That’s not how we’re wired.

It seems to me that the real magic of cycling, the thing that makes it unique and special,  is that it allows us to slow down to a speed where we can see the world as it really is instead of just passing through it at the fastest speed possible on the way to some lit up big city at the end of the line.  When I look at it that way, riding before sunrise isn’t a hardship at all.  It’s a gift and a blessing and one that I feel very fortunate to have had foisted upon me.

Canopy By Hilton’s Bike Friendly Ethos

I hadn’t heard of Canopy Hotels until the company I just went to work for told me that’s where I’d be staying this week in Dallas.  Intriguing name, Canopy.  I wanted to learn more so I headed out to the website and wouldn’t you know it…they have bikes.

So orange…just like Holland.

Complimentary Dutch cycling socks make me happy.

I came to Dallas fully expecting my 600+ day streak would be broken and it still may be, but I was able to cycle last night after work and again this morning.  The streak lives on.  More importantly, I’ve discovered a new bike friendly business to rave about.  I really like this place.  I’d go out of my way to stay here again.

Protected bike lanes, downtown Dallas.

Big city problems.  Not worth worrying about.  It’s not going to change any time soon.

They say it’s the little things that make a big difference and that’s certainly on display here.   The room is not exceptionally spectacular but it has a contemporary edge that just feels good.   It’s clean and quiet and has a great view of the skyline.  The coffee machine makes espresso.  You get complimentary orange socks so you can get your Dutch cyclist on.

The staff here is exceptional.  They go out of their way to make you feel special and it’s all very sincere and real.  You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever stayed at a place where they force it.  It’s so obvious when someone’s heart just isn’t in it.  Here it feels like everyone’s heart is in it.

Speaking of hearts, the hotel sits in the heart of the Cityplace West development in Uptown Dallas.  This is a genuine, walkable urban village.  There’s a streetcar (DART M Line) that you can catch downtown.  There’s also the Katy Trail, which is lighted and open from 5:00 AM until midnight, which makes it easy to get some miles in before or after work.  You can head southwest towards downtown.  The trail ends at the American Airlines Center, home of the NHL’s Dallas Stars and the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks.  From there you’ll find protected bike lanes that take you right into the heart of the central business district.  Head the other way and you’ll end up in Highland Park.

The bikes are Dutch cruisers, akin (although a little less robust) to what you’re likely to find in most bikeshare programs.   Bring your own lights and helmet if that’s important to you.  I wouldn’t recommend riding after dark without lights here.  You’re going to be on the road for a few short stretches and traffic is relatively fast and heavy.  I rode sans helmet as I didn’t have room to pack one.  It wasn’t a problem for me.

If you’re used to riding something a little sportier, be forewarned.  This is not that.  So what?  It’s a chance to ride like they do in the old country.  If you haven’t yet experienced that, you should.  It’s so different.  You sit upright and speed is pretty much out of the question.  I averaged a little over 10 mph this morning and I really worked at it.   I had a little bell and I rang it almost constantly.  It made such a happy noise.

For me, there’s no better way to explore new urban places than on a bicycle.  Thanks to Canopy, it was easy for me to do so in Dallas.  If you find yourself in a city they serve, I highly recommend them.

Cyclists Fare Best When…

There’s nothing sadder to me than a trail head parking lot. You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s a place to park your car so that you can go cycling. My local trail is lined with them. How ironic.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to cyclist safety. One posits that cyclists fare best when separated from traffic via so called “safe spaces” like trails and protected bike lanes. The problem with this approach is that it’s virtually impossible to get anywhere by bike if you limit yourself to protected infrastructure. Advocates for the safe space have a simple solution: just build more. All well and good, but even the Dutch didn’t build their networks overnight.  What are those of us who cycle now supposed to do in the mean time?

There’s really only one viable answer to that question, and it is to learn to ride safely and effectively in traffic. That brings me to the other school of thought. It’s championed by a man named John Forester. Forester’s mantra is that cyclists fare best when they act and are treated the same as other road users. In Forester’s perfect world, we’re just another class of road user.   We might be slower than the average single passenger automobile, but so are Amish and Mennonite buggies, big rigs and buses.  Motorists adapt to them.  They will adapt to us, too.

I’ll never forget the first time I was told to take the lane. I was training to become a League of American Bicyclists’ Certified Instructor. It was November 2014. The weather was cold and blustery and I was on Allisonville Road on the north side of Indianapolis. I thought the instructor was nuts when she told me to ride down the middle instead of as far to the right as practicable,  but I did it anyway and a funny thing happened.  The cars behind me slowed and waited to pass until the oncoming lane was clear.  She wasn’t nuts at all.   She was teaching me John Forester’s worldview and it was if a light bulb went off in the deep, dark recesses of my brain.

When there’s diagonal parking as on this street in Lincoln NE, taking the lane is the safest approach.

Taking the lane also makes sense on this kind of road where motorists can easily change lanes to pass.

So last week while I was browsing the stacks at Half Price Books in suburban Des Moines and came across a lightly used copy of Forester’s classic book “Effective Cycling,” it was a no-brainer to purchase it. I haven’t been able to put it down since. It is without a doubt the best book on cycling I’ve ever read, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is serious about cycling and wants to ride more safely.

This is my favorite kind of bicycle infrastructure. I long for a day when the stencil won’t be necessary.

Is Forester correct? I think that’s up to you to decide for yourself. In my case, I know that since I’ve learned these techniques that I’m now often more comfortable on the street than I am on a trail where ear buds are common and many users are even more inattentive than motorists.   It’s liberating to ride on the street. It opens new possibilities and makes cycling much more enjoyable.  I don’t have to stop and let cars proceed before moving on myself.  I go with the flow.  It allows me to use my bicycle in ways that people who drive to the trail head can’t.

But this post isn’t about me.  It’s about you and so I just want to throw this out for your consideration.   You don’t have to wait 50 years for safe spaces.     There’s an alternative.  You can take a Bike League Smart Cycling class and learn how to ride on the street.   You should, too, because it will make you a more confident and safer cyclist.  This will cause you to cycle more and when you do, we all win.

 

 

New Adventures Ahead

I rode 42 miles yesterday.  It was a perfect Iowa day with lots of sunshine, a light breeze and temperatures hovering around seventy degrees.   It was absolutely as good as it gets.

I’m still training for the Omaha Jackrabbit, a 125 mile unsupported gravel grinder that  will take place on October 13 in the wilds of eastern Nebraska.  My cycling of late has been all about that and so I’ve been dividing my rides into four equal segments and trying to do each segment a little faster than the previous one.   I go out at about 6 hour century pace and turn it up from there.  Some days I turn it up a lot.  Other days, just a little.  It depends on how I feel.  So how’d I do yesterday?

  • 1st 10 miles: 36:21, 16.5 mph
  • 2nd 10 miles: 34:14, 17.5 mph
  • 3rd 10 miles: 31:19, 19.2 mph
  • 4th 10 miles: 28:55, 20.7 mph

Not too shabby…  I’ve found that there’s no better way to learn to be a disciplined cyclist than by doing this.  I used to do two segments, but using four completely changes the dynamic.  It’s much more about riding under control and it is much harder to pull off.  You have to be engaged the entire ride.  This may sound like drudgery, but I find it to be anything but.  It felt like I was back home in no time at all.

It has been fun, this magical bicycle journey.  I have learned so much…about myself…about the world around me.  When I first got back on the bike in 2013, I never dreamed I’d get to the point where I would be doing the miles I am doing today.  I never expected to go here.

Going forward, I’ll be doing less.  I gave my employer notice this morning.  I’m leaving my corporate home for the last four years and the new job is going to require a lot more time out of me.   That means there will be less time for cycling.  I’m going to have to travel, too…as soon as early October.  That means the end of my continuous day streak. It’s all good.  It really is.

Going forward, I still plan to ride most days, but instead of averaging 40 miles a day, I’m probably going to be closer to 20.  I’m okay with this.  I think I’ve proven to myself whatever it was that took me down this road.  I love cycling more today than I ever have.  I plan to continue doing it until they put me in the ground.   It’s just going to be a little different for the next little while.

I have been vaguely uncomfortable with what I was becoming for some time now anyway.  I justified it because I wanted to complete Seattle-to-Portland.  It was so far out of my comfort zone that I had to treat it seriously.  That’s what I told myself.  Maybe I went further than I needed to.  I don’t know.

In hindsight, it was all merely justification for riding more miles because more miles was where I was getting my validation and sense of worth from.   I think I finally got clarity a few weeks ago in Omaha when some nice person snapped this picture of me. Add big hair and a red nose and you have Bozo the bicycle clown.  You can even see my beer belly right there between the Space Needle and Mount Rainier.  How truly mortifying.

Cycle Dork. Not my best look.

Cycle Chic, Copenhagen.  The normalization of the bicycle commute.

But I’m never going to get rid of this picture because it will remind me of what I don’t want to be.  That said, I am slowly getting rid of most of my cycling specific clothing.  This week alone I tossed two jerseys and a pair of lycra shorts.  I will be replacing them with loose fitting hoodies and cargo shorts.  I’ll keep one or two pairs for really long rides but the rest has got to go.  My helmet (because we Americans wear helmets) is designed to be as inconspicuous as possible.

So what does my future as a cyclist look like?  I’m not really sure and I don’t think it’s all that important.  I’ll still cycle most days, but I think it will be more relaxed and spontaneous.  I’ll be slower than I am now.  I might leave the Garmin at home and not worry about how far I go.   I think my around town bike might be more upright and have only one speed…something that doesn’t need to be locked.   It might even be clunky.  There’s something about those bikes I really like.   I’ll also have to eat better because I won’t have those 40 mile calorie burners every day to bail me out.

Regardless of what it looks like, my primary objective won’t change.  I want to have fun and feel the wind in what’s left of my hair.  I want to smile spontaneously and see the deer run and the birds fly along with me just like they do now.   I’m not interested in changing the world.   I plan to explore and will keep the blog to share thoughts and pictures of the places I go by bike, but I’m dropping my League membership and will no longer be a League Certified Instructor.

In hindsight, I never was any of that.  I guess I felt like I needed it to prove that I was a cyclist.   Now that just seems silly.   Now I know I’m a cyclist.  I don’t need the clothes or the titles or the miles or any of that.  All I need is a bike.  New adventures await and I will share them as they unfold.  Until then, roll on.