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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Blank Canvas

Blizzard, Peter Forg, Somerville MA
For many of my cycling friends, winter is the time for making big plans. Like the vast snowscape outside, the seasons ahead spread out, blank canvas-like, glittering with possibilities. We are increasingly spoiled for choice here: Beautiful unpaved rides, formal and informal brevets, invitational weekend getaways - it's enough to make one's head spin. And it all requires budgeting, scheduling, prioritising, oftentimes with advanced planning and registration. And so in the coldest days of February, over cups of scalding coffee, cyclists speak in agonised whispers of events to come in the summer months.

I used to listen with curiosity and detached amusement. As someone who generally resists planning, I could not imagine scheduling a summer's worth of weekends around cycling events. But this time around I am getting swept up in it all. 

Staring at the pile of snow outside my window, I find myself considering a hill climb race. I don't expect to do well at all, but I think I might enjoy it. Feeling that is a surprise to me; wanting to do it is a surprise. But when I imagine the climbing and the festive atmosphere, I want to be there - pedaling and feeling the strain, delirious as I strive for a summit I might not have the stamina to reach. Weird, isn't it, the things we can enjoy.

Plodding along the riverside trail, I contemplate this year's brevet series. I love the idea of randonneuring. But truthfully, I don't think I am serious about it - or ready for it, depending on how you look at it. On long rides that pass through beautiful places, what I really want to do is explore, carry a big camera, stop any time I like and constantly take photos - which is at odds with being on the clock. It might make more sense to finally put aside some time for a light multi-day tour. 

Cleaning the salt and crud off my bike after a slushy outing, I remember long dreamy rides on unpaved roads. It seems almost fictional now: Going from the "baby" D2R2 route to the hair-raising loose descents of the Kearsarge Klassic in a matter of weeks, riding borrowed bikes with unfamiliar components, rental cars at 5:00 in the morning... Absurd. But oh how I long to do it again (minus the borrowed bikes, I hope), and how I long to find more rides in the same vein. I am even willing to plan in advance and make commitments. 

This winter is turning out to be brutal. But the months ahead are a blank canvas, and putting down the initial sketch is keeping me sane. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Keeping Your Bicycle Saddle Dry

Basil Saddle Cover
After the previous post, I’ve had some inquiries about the polka dot saddle cover pictured on my bike. It is from Basil and yes, it is waterproof. But let me backtrack and use this opportunity to discuss saddle covers more generally.

If your bike is equipped with a leather saddle and you tend to leave it outdoors, a saddle cover is essential. Without it, the leather will sag prematurely after getting wet – especially if you ride the bike without letting it dry first. But even many synthetic saddles, if left in the rain long enough, can get soggy – resulting in a wet butt on the ride home. Saddle covers are generally inexpensive and easy to carry around, taking up little room at the bottom of a pannier and saddlebag. If you are wondering which to get, here are some factors to consider.

This may seem like an obvious one. However saddle covers are not always waterproof. Some are designed to protect the saddle from fading in the sun, or to provide a bit of extra cushioning, but have no water repellant qualities. Others are water resistant, but are not intended for all-day or overnight use. Read the product description to determine whether the level of waterproofness is what you need, and ask the manufacturer if this information is missing.

Shape and size
Bicycle saddles come in different shapes and sizes, as do saddle covers. A cover designed for a narrow road bike saddle may not fit over a wide city bike saddle, and vise versa. Some covers are designed with more stretch than others and are more versatile, but overall it's a good idea to check dimensions.

Some covers are designed to stretch over the top of the saddle only, whereas others are designed to also cover the underside. The latter style is useful when you are riding the bike on wet roads, especially if your bike does not have fenders.

Surface Texture 
If a saddle cover has a slick surface texture, it can feel slippery to sit on. If you want a saddle cover that you can keep on when you ride the bike, look for a matte or textured surface.

Brooks Saddle Cover
Sources for Saddle Covers
If you purchase a Brooks leather saddle, a cover is usually included (not sure whether it is the same cover they sell individually - possibly). However, these covers are not fully waterproof and will not fit all saddle shapes. 

On my roadbike, I use an excellent cover that Rivendell used to sell, but no longer does. They've now replaced it with this Aardvark cover, which they describe as equally waterproof and designed to fit a similar range of saddle shapes. I have not tried it, but hear that others are satisfied. They also sell the fancier Randi Jo cover that offers extra coverage and is available in road and city sizes.

On my city bikes I recently started using the Basil Katharina saddle cover (the polka dotted one in the pictures), which the US Basil rep sent me to demo. I know that a number of US bike shops sell these covers in person (try Clevercycles in Portland, Houndstooth Road in Atlanta, Dutch Bike in Seattle and Rolling Orange in NYC) but online they are not always easy to locate. If you do manage to find one (either the Katherina or the Elements series), they are inexpensive, completely waterproof, and available in a variety of patterns. The shape is just right for wide, thick city bike saddles, including those with heavy springs. 

I am sure there are other quality sources, and your suggestions are welcome.

Gazelle Lock-Up
Alternatives to Saddle Covers
In a pinch, a decent plastic bag makes for a fine saddle cover. I do this all the time when I forget my real cover at home or am riding a borrowed bike. The trick is to wrap and tie the bag securely, so that the wind does not blow it away. Granted, sitting on a bag-wrapped saddle is sub-optimal (slippery), but it is better than nothing. 

A more elegant method for those who do not want to buy a cover, is to use a shower cap. Usually they hold in place, but some choose to attach velcro straps for extra security. And of course, if you are the crafty type, you can also make your own cover from scratch using waterproof fabric and elastic. 

Well, I think that pretty much covers it. Lots of options for keeping your saddle dry, for happy riding in wet weather. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Errandeuring and Errant Weather

Post-Blizzard Rain
Today were possibly some of the worst conditions I have ever cycled in - a situation made all the more dramatic by the fact that I wasn't merely cycling; I was erandeurring. But let me start from the beginning. You see, there is an entire culture out there that thrives on turning transportation cycling into a sport in its own right - reinventing commuting as series of challenges to make it more interesting. While this approach is pretty much the antithesis of my own, I am nonetheless intrigued by it. When the utilitaire and coffeeneuring crazes swept the nation last year, I followed along with interest. Loosely modeled on randonneuring, these games involved keeping track of one's coffee shop and utility rides, complete with control cards and minimum mileage requirements. The authors of the Chasing Mailboxes blog in Washington, DC hosted the challenge, diligently collecting entries from participants all over the US, posting updates and results.

This winter they announced their latest project: the errandonnee. Participants are challenged to "complete 12 errands in 12 days and ride a total of 30 miles by bike between February 9-20." A detailed list of rules was again provided, along with control cards. I read through it all and decided - what the heck - to give this thing a try. While riding a minimum of 30 miles in errands over the course of 12 days would not be out of the ordinary for me, I wondered what it would be like to keep track of this mileage, to categorise it according to the rules, and in general to reframe everyday cycling as taking part in a challenge.

Post-Blizzard Rain
The thing I did not foresee, was that the challenge aspect would become quite real. On February 9th we had our blizzard, and on the next day I still did not feel like braving the streets on two wheels. So as of this morning, I had only 10 days to complete the 30 miles of errands. Not only was there plenty of snow still on the roads, but it was now also raining badly.

Post-Blizzard Rain
I may lack the words to adequately describe today's road conditions. There wasn't just snow, there was deep water. Temperatures had risen sharply overnight, with snowbanks melting and additional rain coming down. By mid-day, some streets were downright flooded, and in many cases the water concealed slush underneath. On top of this, it was raining quite hard, with poor visibility and all the extra traffic chaos that comes with that. I now own a bright yellow raincoat for days like this, and that's what I wore. I also always have my lights on when it rains, despite it being daytime.

Post-Blizzard Rain
Even along stretches where the road itself was mostly clear, turns were treacherous, as that was where deep water and uncleared snow were gathered. Street corners were also where snowbanks were at their highest, which, as I soon figured out, meant that cars turning onto the main road from side streets had poor visibility. After a couple of close encounters, I decided the safest place to ride was smack in the middle of the travel lane.

Post-Blizzard Rain
Mid-day traffic was bad, and being on a bike did not put me at an advantage this time. Between the snowbanks and the trucks, there was not always a way to cycle past the standing traffic. My pictures were taken close to home, on a street where I felt it was safe to get off the bike and photograph the conditions of the roads. But for most of my route it didn't feel right to stop. Rain kept coming down, cars were honking at each other and executing all sorts of crazy maneuvers, roads were flooded and/or still covered with snow, and the whole thing was more than a little stressful.

Post-Blizzard Rain
In the course of all this, I completely forgot that I was errandeuring, remembering it only once I'd returned home. So far, the awareness of taking part in a challenge has not made me feel any differently about doing errands by bike. I had to go out today either way, and riding was still preferable to walking in ankle-deep water.

My impression of the utilitaire, coffeeneuring and errandonnee family of challenges, is that they are largely for athlete cyclists who might normally drive for transportation, but are looking to do it more by bike. The competitive paradigm appeals to them, so they've extended it to transportation cycling as a form of motivation. But I do know of cyclists who are purely commuters and have been enjoying the challenges too. Ultimately, I see errandeuring as a celebration of cycling, with its elaborate rule structure as largely tongue in cheek. Now to check whether bonus points are in store for the epic road conditions I've endured...

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Blizzard Report, from Somerville MA

Blizzard, Beacon St, Somerville MA
As you may have heard, we've had a little snow here in the Northeast. We were out of town in the days before it was expected to hit, and hurried to make it back before the travel ban went into effect. Yes: a motor vehicle travel ban for all of Massachusetts was declared, with violations punishable with a year of jail time. Still, here in Greater Boston many doubted the seriousness of the blizzard to come. We've been fooled before with promises of sensational snowstorms, only to receive a measly couple of inches.

Blizzard Front Door, Saturday AM
This time however, the universe followed through. Over 2 feet of snow had piled up outside our front door by morning, and that was after the stairs had been shoveled the night before. 

Blizzard Front Door, Saturday AM
Beyond the front door I could see an awkward heap of snow, which I realised was the neighbours' car. 

Blizzard, Beacon St, Somerville MA
Our street looked like this, after the plows had gone through it.

Blizzard, Beacon St, Somerville MA
The normally busy main road looked like this.

Blizzard, Beacon St, Somerville MA
And this. (Notice anything missing?)

Blizzard, Beacon St, Somerville MA
At around 9:30am I saw a procession of plows making their way down the road. 

Blizzard, Beacon St, Somerville MA
But it continued to snow until mid-morning, quickly covering any progress the plows made with another dusting.

Blizzard, Union Sq, Somerville MA
I encountered surreal scenes, such as this one. Any car that had been left out on the street had now turned into a giant snowbank.

Blizzard, Union Sq, Somerville MA
Once the snow stopped falling, vehicle excavations began.

Blizzard, Union Sq, Somerville MA
They would continue zealously until sunset.

Blizzard, Union Sq, Somerville MA
Clearing sidewalks was tricky, considering how much snow had fallen. Some dug trenches, which had to be navigated single file - the snow nearly waist-high. 

Blizzard, Union Sq, Somerville MA
But for the most part the sidewalks had not been cleared and pedestrians took to the roads.

Blizzard, Union Sq, Somerville MA
Mostly on foot, by sometimes on sleds, snowshoes, and skis.

Blizzard, Union Sq, Somerville MA
I was a little envious of the snowshoes I have to admit; I would love to try them. 

Blizzard, Union Sq, Somerville MA
In the first half of the day, I did not see any bikes being ridden. The road surface was too uneven and soft for most cyclists and bicycles, myself included. 

Blizzard, Beacon St, Somerville MA
At least in the first half of the day, the driving ban was enforced. A police SUV slowly circulated the neighbourhood shouting threats over the loudspeaker at anyone who attempted to drive, other than snow plow operators and city workers. 

Blizzard, Union Sq, Somerville MA
Pedestrian movement was not impeded, and soon people took over the roads. 

Blizzard, Union Sq, Somerville MA
At some point, word came that a party was being held in nearby Union Square. 

Union Square Snow Day, Somerville MA
Pretty soon, it seemed like the entire neihgbourhood headed that way (except those still digging out their cars!).

Union Square Snow Day, Somerville MA
There was music blaring and people dancing. Despite the potentially serious nature of a blizzard of this magnitude, the atmosphere in the entire neighbourhood was downright festive. Those out on the streets were saying hello to one another, and smiling ear to ear.

Union Square Snow Day, Somerville MA
Kids, adults, everyone looked happy to be outdoors, enjoying themselves.

Union Square Snow Day, Somerville MA
Some wore costumes. 

Union Square Snow Day, Somerville MA
Others came ready to fight.

Union Square Snow Day, Somerville MA
Which they did, to the sounds of dance music, with the Somerville Gateway mural as proud backdrop.

Blizzard, Union Sq, Somerville MA
As the afternoon waned and the snowplows laboured tirelessly, I began to see a few bikes here and there.

Union Square Snow Day, Somerville MA
But still mostly sleds.

Blizzard, Union Sq, Somerville MA
And toboggans.

Blizzard, Union Sq, Somerville MA
And skis.

Blizzard, Union Sq, Somerville MA
And various snowboard-like contraptions. 

Blizzard, Union Sq, Somerville MA
I did a lot of walking throughout the day. Many layers were donned to deal with the cold, but nothing out of the ordinary. 

Blizzard, Union Sq, Somerville MA
Others got creative with plastic bags, various DIY overshoes and blanket-capes. 

Union Square Snow Day, Somerville MA
To see our entire neighbourhood so active and energetic at a time when it was expected to be immobilised was quite something. By mid-afternoon a few local businesses opened their doors to meet the foot-traffic demand for coffee, alcohol and groceries. All of these places were packed. 

Blizzard, Union Sq, Somerville MA
It seems that Somerville, MA has weathered the storm well, and there have been no disasters. In the meantime, the snow plows are still at it. Excavations of vehicles continue. And although the motor vehicle ban is now lifted, along the largely unplowed side streets snowshoes continue to rule the roads. 

More pictures here - enjoy the rest of the weekend!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Product Review: The Winter Beard

With winter in full swing here in New England, increasing numbers of gentlemen cyclists sport a popular cold weather accessory: the winter beard. Even for those normally clean shaven, this effective and budget-friendly solution can be hard to resist once the frost sets in.

Having surveyed a number of male cyclists, the most popular means of obtaining a winter beard seems to be the DIY method: Simply stop shaving your face, and in as little as a week you could find yourself in possession of a modest to moderate wooly facial appendage. In weather that's merely cool, that might very well suffice. In harsh winter climates, continue growing to taste, or until coworkers/ loved ones begin to complain. To shorten or shape, use a beard trimmer.

Maintaining your winter beard is simple: Handwash with soap and water, and check for trapped food particles after meals. If you notice people staring at the lower half of your face in disgust, you may not be performing these maintenance tasks diligently enough. Otherwise, you are probably fine.

The winter beard has many benefits. It is temperature-regulating, wind-proof, breathable and quick drying - more so than any wool or synthetic balaclava on the market. It is natural, organic, and ethically grown. It is inexpensive. You are unlikely to lose it or leave home without it. And it colour coordinates with any outfit.

Possible drawbacks include extra maintenance, and potential protests from your significant other. In the event of the latter, I suggest pointing out the communal usefulness of your beard: For instance, it can function as a loofa-like facial exfoliant for your spouse, or a scratching post for your cat.

In growing your winter beard, pay attention not only to length, but to total area of coverage: The most effective beards are as thick nearer to the neck as they are at the chin, providing the warmth of an extra scarf.

And finally, do exercise moderation. Local cartoono-anthropologist has documented breakouts of Competitive Beard Growing disorder among cyclists in winter, which are not without side-effects. Sure your luscious facial locks might impress your friends and terrify your enemies, but if a beard is long enough to get stuck in your bicycle's components, you have gone too far.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

All Legs

Well, I finally watched the Triplets of Belleville. For those who have not seen it, this is a French animated film about cycling, music hall singers and sinister men in black - surreal and somewhat disturbing (in a good way). No subtitles required even if you do not understand French.

There are many fascinating details in this film, but I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't watched it. Instead I just want to note one hilarious element: the caricatured cyclist's body.

Ah, the gaunt, emaciated cyclist. Sunken eyes, protruding cheekbones. Head bobbing up and down as if the straining tendons of the neck can barely support it. Hunched back and shoulders. Spaghetti arms. Non-existent waist, narrow hips... And then, suddenly - bang! An explosion of thigh muscle, bulge upon bulge, tapering at the knees before exploding again into freakishly well defined calves. I have seen such exaggerated renderings before, but none as expressively done as in this film. The half-soulful, half-dead look on Champion's face completes the archetype.

I have now met a few real-life cyclists with similar body types. They disguise it surprisingly well when wearing regular clothing, but once in lycra the leg explosion is revealed. Seeing such marvelously distorted proportions in person, I try not to stare. But it's kind of awesome, and awe-inspiring. Gives "all legs" a new meaning.

PS: You can tell it's winter, because I'm falling prey to cycling movies. Any recommendations besides the usual suspects? For now, I'll just have to live with "Belleville Rendez-Vous" stuck in my head...

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Main Parallelogram

Step-Through Experiment, Notched Mockup
I am working on a step-through bicycle frame - a design which is simultaneously common and unusual. It is common if you look around the streets of Boston, which are teeming with vintage step-throughs. And it is unusual considering that no one I know has built this exact style of frame. Mixtes and modified step-throughs yes. But not plain step-throughs where the top and down tubes are parallel. In fact, this bicycle does not even have what can be called a main triangle. It is a main parallelogram. 

The head tube and the seat tube are also parallel lines - each at a 72° angle. This double set of parallels makes for an interesting visual pattern. 

Tubing, Artisan's Asylum
For this frame I used straight gauge tubing, so that I could practice cutting and brazing unsupervised without worrying about butting and thin walls. The hardy tubing should also minimise flex and twist in the step-through design, as well as make it possible to store the finished machine outdoors and generally treat it as a beater bike. 

Step-Through Experiment, Notched Mockup
The joints will be fillet brazed (lugless) - partly because I would like to practice fillet brazing, and partly because there isn't currently a reliable source for a step-through lugset. Fillet brazing requires using brass as the filler material and heating up the joints considerably more than you would with lugged silver brazing. Since I am using straight gauge tubing, this should not be a problem. The only thing I am a little nervous about is the bottom bracket. With a lugged bottom bracket, the tubes are inserted into hollow sleeves, allowing you to look inside after brazing and check whether the filler material has pulled through properly. With a plain shell like the one pictured here, this cannot be done. I've considered using a lugged bottom bracket while fillet brazing the rest of the joints, but ultimately decided against that. I'll just have to be especially diligent in this area. 

Step-Through Experiment, Notched Mockup
My goal in making this frame was to get some practice with basic technique without having to worry about thin wall tubing, unusually wide tires or multitudes of braze-ons. However, it was also crucial to me that I ride the finished bike as much as possible as part of everyday life, and I knew that would not happen with a plain diamond frame. The resulting compromise was a single speed 26" wheel step-through with a raked-out fork. Basically very similar to the prototypical English "Sports Roadster," but with lower trail. 

Step-Through Experiment, Notched Mockup
Getting the slanted top tube was in a sense straightforward, but not without its quirks. To start with I specced out the slope to match the angle of the downtube. Funny thing though: When the angles were mathematically identical they looked off to the human eye (several spectators confirmed this), so in fact the tubes had to be not quite parallel in order for them look right. Paul Carson taught me how to use his notching lathe, and none of the notches were problematic except for the top head joint. That one had to be adjusted repeatedly to make the angle look right - but finally it got there. 

As the mocked up tubes are starting to look bike-like, those who see the beginnings of this frame tend to have an "Aha, I know what kind of bike this is!" type of reaction. It's been nice to get that feedback. While the first frame I made was done in the privacy of a teacher-student environment, now I am working in a shared shop space with loads of people around. Random people passing through will ask what I am working on, and repeatedly I find myself articulating not just the concept of the frame but the step-by-step process of building it. No doubt this recital helps me make more sense of the process myself.