Friday, September 27, 2013

Sidewalks, Great Commuting Link, Bikey Dates

Can I get a hallelujah for cooler fall weather? 
With lows in the 50s and 60s and highs barely above the 80-degree mark, being outside is a good thing again.

Since my last post, I rode my bike as transportation three times, and three days in a row! I rode to a retreat 2 miles from my home on Saturday, to church two miles from my home on Sunday, and to work 6(+) miles from my home on Monday. It's been a long time since I've ridden that much and 21 miles in 3 back-to-back days did me in. I will try to ride twice to work next week, and go from there - maybe add once per week and see if I have a week where I can ride all five days?

The bike is set up perfectly for commuting, now, in terms of accessories: I love all my baskets, and having ready access to my phone (photos while stopped; safety) is fabulous. I also continue to love my easy-to-charge-mount-remove Serfas lights. Where I'm struggling this week is with the hills to and from work. I am trying to decide whether to replace the rear wheel/hub and shifter (currently a 3-speed Shimano Nexus) with an 8-speed Shimano Alfine. I wonder if that would help much on the hills... I struggle on a few. I may also require (at least temporarily), a slightly different route in order to reduce some of the hills. In particular, a route I favor for familiarity and safety and reduced traffic may not be my best bet. It may be better to take the road just a smidgen West of it, which I have been reluctant to do because: (1) it also functions as a highway on/off ramp in both directions in addition to being an overpass, and (2) it requires additional time on a very busy, if only somewhat bike-friendly arterial road (which makes it friendlier by a mile when compared with most other arterial roads in the area). My current route places me on this large road for .3 miles; the changed route would place me on the road for .6 (1/2 kilometer vs. full kilometer).

On this arterial road, I find my ride east in the morning to be okay to share with cars. I think this is because the sun is blocked by tall buildings, and because there's not really a standard "start" time to cause a total glut of cars - people are working their way in to their offices any time between 7:00-9:00am. My ride home is a different story. People flee the area between 5:00-5:30 en masse, and after a day of work, they are anxious to get home and annoyed with traffic. Their mood is not improved by a struggling bicyclist huffing up an incline at 5MPH. I feel crowded, like I'm at risk, and it's upsetting enough to make me want to ditch th commute...all for this .3 miles of my 6+! That's, what, 5% of my ride? Crazytown. So, Monday, I opted to take the sidewalk on my westbound .3 miles on this road. There are occasionally pedestrians, but there were none that day. The sidewalk is hardly ideal. It is narrow, bumpy, and quite close to the road, but the decision was made for me when I saw that the position of the setting sun would operate to blind both me and the cars behind me. (Ah, that time in the fall when the sun is right in your eyes at 6pm. Duly noted; no staying at the office past 5pm when you're biking home, Rebecca.) Added to my stress about this stretch was the realization, at about 5:30pm, that I had left my pouch with my bike lights at HOME. So I couldn't even be blinky to help my visibility, and I was stressed bout getting home in time for the 7:00pm sunset. I ultimately decided that the decreased visibility (I got home before dark; no worries from that angle), the aggressive rush-hour drivers, and the narrow and busy arterial street posed a greater risk (one which I had minimal control over) when compared with the sidewalk for the following reasons:

1. Limited risk of pedestrians. In half a dozen rides so far, I think I've seen pedestrians twice. If I see a pedestrian approaching from the opposite direction, I can hop off the bike to let them pass comfortably. This is entirely within my control.

2. Exclusive sidewalk-riding on this particular road. One of the most dangerous things a bicyclist can do is alternate between sidewalks and the road. Weaving in and out makes you unpredictable, and cars are not looking to interact with or avoid bicyclists on the sidewalk and aren't prepared for you to enter the stream of traffic. On this part of my route, I was able to turn directly onto the sidewalk from a quiet side-street, and stay on the sidewalk until I could cross the route with a crosswalk, then resume road-riding on a less-crazy and wider street (=friendlier for bikes).

3. Very quiet side streets and minimal driveways.  On the .3 mile route, there are only two side streets which intersect the sidewalk, and only a couple of business driveways. Again, this is something I can control for by being especially observant of traffic patterns around me. I ride slowly on the sidewalk (~4-5MPH) and looked around extensively prior to entering any driveway or street.

I am generally an advocate of "bikes belong in the street / pedestrians belong on sidewalks", but I also think that you have to make a call based upon how aggressive your vehicular companions are and how visible and easy to avoid you can be (in this stretch, and with the particular angle of the sunlight? NOT EASY).

If I decide to continue west past my normal street to the next option to the west, I will lose the sidewalk option, but gain a wider shoulder. The road, in general, gets a smidgen wider and quieter at this point, so I think this could be okay. And when I reach the road on which I'd need to turn off, I can, as with the current route, take advantage of the crosswalk and light to safely transverse the five lanes of traffic.

The advantages to the alternate route? It's flatter. Also: shorter! By half a mile. How do I know?

There is a great link I discovered (in desperation, due to some of the hills I encounter) called Flattest Route. You put in your start and end point and it tells you, in color code, and section-by-section, the % grade of every incline you encounter. It defaults to the flattest route (which, in my case, would require heavy reliance on two arterial roads that feel more like courting suicide than reasonable options), but like on most mapping software, you can grab parts of the route to move it, and see how that affects distance and the grading of the slopes you'll encounter.

Mapping my current route and a proposed alternative, I am able to determine:

  • The current route is 6.5 miles and is estimated to take 43 minutes (this assumes I can cover a mile in 6 minutes and 40 seconds; it takes me more like 8 minutes and 10 seconds per mile or closer to 53 minutes to complete the route).
  • The proposed route is 6.0 miles and is estimated to take 40 minute (extrapolating from my real-life experience with the 6.5-mile route, this would shave about 4 minutes of my route, getting me to work in 49 minutes instead of my normal 53).
  • The current route has a maximum slope on the way to work of  15-20% ("Very Difficult") twice. There are two places where the incline is over 10%. On the way home
  • The proposed route never exceeds 15% slope and exceeds 10% just four times in each direction.  
  • My lowest altitude is 465' above sea level; my highest altitude is 603'. In both routes, I start high, work my way to the lowest point about 1/3 of the way through (toward work) or 2/3 of the way through (toward home) and end high. 
I may try out the route this weekend; if it feels good, I will try it for my work commute next week. Through this site, I can find even flatter routes, but certain bike-commuting obstacles, like highways, business complexes, or an inability to avoid arterial roads, require me to increase those routes to closer to nine miles.  

Let me just say that I totally understand why people consider bikeability when they scope a new residence, now. If (when) we decide to move someday, I will definitely require the route to be at least as, and preferably more, bikeable than my current route.

Upcoming bicycle events:

Next Arch Women brown-bag lunch: Wednesday, 10/16/13 from 12-1PM
Where: Railway Exchange Building, 611 Olive Street, 12th Floor Lobby
Topic: Knowledge Is Power! (Missouri Bicycle Laws)

Special bike events:

25th Trailnet Anniversary Ped-A-Palooza
Friday, October 11, 2013, 630-11PM
Randall Gallery downtown
Drinks, dinner, dancing, raffle, prizes!
Registration by 10/4, cost: $150pp

25th Trailnet Anniversary Family Fest
Sunday, October 13, 2013, 11AM-4PM
Culver Pavillion at Forest Park
Free entry; food and drink available for purchase
Registration encouraged, demonstrations, helmet fittings, cake, raffles

More information about either special event here.
More information about weekly rides and events here.

Happy fall! and happy riding!

Photo Source. Image Credit: Bryter Later / Flickr.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Trunk When You Need It; Coat Guard When You Don't

A story about storage.

When I first purchased Fleur back in May, I had grand plans for her. She is the full-on car-replacement bicycle option in my developing fleet (I will get the mountain bike and 10-speed into "transportable" state by adding fenders and rear racks, but want to preserve their off/on-road nature pretty carefully). I have tweaked her as need, gifts, and my budget allow.

Fleur came with her rear rack and Fenders. I immediately stole my husband's red bungees (free) and bought a new U-Lock ($50). The bungees allowed me to strap my U-lock to the outside of the rear rack, where it was FAR more secure than on its bracket -- and besides, brackets and and racks and things are almost always designed for diamond-frame (straight top-tube) bikes, rather than slopey/swoopy loop frames, like the Dutchi has. 

The next step was great lighting. I opted for Serfas lights ($200 for front and rear), and so far I've been super-pleased. They are easy to mount and remove, sufficiently bright, and recharge via USB cord. I have had them since June and have not had to recharge them yet (though I really haven't done much night riding). They really have been great lights and make me feel visible while lighting my way home when the sun sets.

For my first few rides to work, I used a diaper bag (which I'd purchased to use as a camera bag due to the bottle-shaped pockets working well for lenses and the fact that, when traveling, it suggests I'm carrying diapers instead of fancy camera equipment). The straps that let you attach the bag to stroller handles also allowed me to attach the bag to my rear rack. This worked just fine as a pseudo-pannier, but the soft shape meant that I was often adjusting things to ensure nothing touched my spokes or tires, and it meant I didn't have a dedicated camera bag. 

This issue was resolved when I received my front rack for my birthday in July. I specifically chose the Linus Delano model, because of the drink ring. Again, due to the shape of my frame, there's not a convenient place for a drink (water, coffee, whatever). My diaper/camera/pannier bag had a mesh pocket for drinks, but I couldn't access that without getting out of the saddle, and it often collapsed once the drink was removed, which required both hands to replace it. Not the end of the world, but once again, not ideal. This basket solved the soft-bag and soft-drink-pocket problems for me. I can access things easily, there's a place to throw my helmet when I'm locking up or not riding, and to carry bags, cardigans, and other things while I'm riding. Huge improvement

Unfortunately, as anyone with a front basket quickly learns, extra weight on your front wheel (the basket mounts to the wheel, not the frame, in my case) makes steering...different. As in, It's really hard to remove a hand to signal to turn without the bike wanting to veer off in either direction. I realized quickly that I do require the front basket for convenience, but do not enjoy carrying heavy loads on the front of my bike. The other issue I found was that the open-cage design on the basket meant that I still had to tuck my phone safely away, making mid-trip photos (while stopped, of course) virtually impossible, and also hampering my access to the phone in the event of an emergency (flat tire, assault, whatever else might happen). Also, YES, you can technically strap anything down with just a rear rack and bungees, but I dare you to figure out how to transport a loaf of bread that way. WITHOUT SQUISHING IT. Exactly. If my bike is really going to function as a car alternative, it needs a trunk for my junk.

So I purchased two things for my bike recently: two rear, folding Wald racks ($50 for 2), and an inexpensive handlebar phone mount ($5). Installing both was easy as pie. The hardest part - by a mile - was unlatching the folded baskets because they desperately needed some oil for the latch to move. Once I oiled them up (and the rest of the moving parts on the basket), they worked smoothly.

The baskets, awaiting attachment.

The basket is just hanging from the rack at this point.
I then used the screws provided to attach the top of the baskets securely.
Tip: I skipped the metal loop provided to attach the bottom of the baskets and used black zip-ties instead.
There was no real way to access the screw to tighten the metal tie-downs, making them essentially useless.

Before I strapped anything down too tightly, I ensured that there was clearance between my heel and the basket.
This is especially tricky on my bike since it's a small frame and shorter overall.
I have clearance, but may move the baskets back just a scosche to give myself a little more room.
My foot position varies based on my footwear. 

Tadaa! Mounted baskets.

Baskets, folded.
When folded, the baskets function as a dress/coat guard. Yay for multi-tasking!
The downside is that it means the U Lock now lives on top of my rack, which is fine,
but unhooking everything to access the baskets can be a slow step.
A general reminder with bungees - practice safe securing.
Those suckers can get you good if they snap back.

View from the mounted camera (before adjusting).
This shows my little Yakkay helmet/cover, and my pouch of "bikey essentials".
I carry this to hold my tools, lights (when I remove them from the bike) and lots of lip balm.

Strange angle, but you can see the camera mount.
I was able to record my ride to church the next morning, and carry my music in the rear basket.
I want to edit it down, in part because it's 20 minutes long (I'm slow), and in part because it's super-jiggly.
(For the record, I did have to move my foot forward on the open-basket side twice due to heel-
strike, so I WILL be adjusting both baskets a little closer to the rear of the rack this weekend.)

All-in-all, Fleur is just about perfect now. I toy with the idea of upgrading to a Brooks saddle, or maybe purchasing this gorgeous bag as a casual and bike-friendly alternative to my leather work-tote (especially for days or trips where I'd be inclined to use another bicycle with just a rear rack), but I feel like she's in pretty good shape at this point. For future FYI, I am considering swapping her rear wheel and shifter for an 8-speed IGH (306% ratio vs 186%; could be very nice with hills, especially because Fleur now weighs about 40 pounds with her extra baskets and the U Lock before any extra cargo). The three is functional, but I do find myself wishing there were steps between 1/2 and 2/3 and something above 3. (I spend 50% of my time in 3, 45% of my time in 2 and about 5% of my time in 1). Alternatively, I wonder if tweaking the cogs for the current 3-speed set-up might work without utterly disabling the granny gear when I need it... I'd like to go faster on flat terrain in order to address the major slowdown on hills. That said, I plan to get my mountain bike and my mom's old 10-speed up and running for alternative transport before I determine if that is really necessary or ideal.

As far as the rest of the "fleet", I'm hoping to take the mountain bike (a 1996 Trek 8000) in to have a once-over and find out about installing fenders and a rear rack (both jobs I am disinclined to tackle). I also need some chain grease. 

The ten-speed bike (a 1970s Peugeot Mixte) has been given a once-over by my brother, who has determined that she needs new tires, tubes, brake pads, and brake hoods, and probably new cables. I am hoping to pick her up toward the end of October.

In riding news, this week was a bust (other than riding to church on Sunday, my schedule and weather conspired against me), but next week looks perfect: highs in the upper 70s, lows in the 40s-60s, and clear. I'm so excited to get back on the bike and take advantage of the new baskets and phone mount!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Honk-Honk, Rattle-Rattle-Rattled...

Thursday, the hot weather finally broke, and I was feeling much better in terms if whatever is left from my recent cold and allergies. So, I got home from work, and I thought "yay! I'll ride my bike to my rehearsal tonight." 

On the way to my rehearsal, it was still pretty warm. I also had to ride pretty defensively at times, because the sun was setting and I knew it made me pretty hard to see. (As in, impossible.) You know when car lights don't make a difference that little lights aren't going to help you, no matter how much they blink. Still, it was a nice ride, an I enjoyed being back on the bike. My legs and lungs definitely took note of the time since I last rode (too long ago!!). Erffff. Back in the saddle...literally.

After rehearsal, darkness had fallen, and in preparation for my ride home, I turned on my bike lights. I set them to blink any time I can (anytime I don't need the steady beam to see where I'm riding), because it makes me easier to see (small, steady light is easier to ignore; super-blinky crazy lights might just get you to stop texting and not run me over). As I pulled onto the "busiest" street on my route home (4 lanes, but pretty quiet by "real big street" standards) a large SUV pulled up close behind me and laid on the horn. As they passed me, a woman in the passenger seat leaned out of her window, waving her arms at me and screaming obscenities



Friday, September 6, 2013

Of Illness + Excuses

Ever since I returned from Montreal on the 27th, I have been fighting major allergies and a cold. I'm currently at the stage where the tissues aren't needed constantly, but breathing continues to require extra effort. 

I have struggled with minor asthma issues throughout adolescence and adulthood -- usually brought on by strenuous exercise or very extreme weather (heat/cold). 

This is a huge reason why I run very slowly - I top out at 5.5mph and often run as much as 1mph slower than that - and am so happy to embrace "slow biking". 

At any rate, this is all to say that when breathing is hard, it's exhausting. I wanted to ride to work on Tuesday (low in the upper 50s, high in the lower 80s) and I slept poorly and was so exhausted that it just seemed like a miserable proposition. Then it warmed up, and I didn't feel any better. 10 days after I started to feel icky, I'm still feeling... exhausted. Under the weather for sure.

The weekend will be warm, but next Thursday, we return to highs around 80 and lows in the 50s, so I'm hoping to bike to work again next week. It's been a long time since I've biked to work, and timing and/or meeting locations have not allowed me the extra minutes I need to make biking a viable option, which is problematic, too.

This is why I want to talk about reasons for biking and St. Louis: traffic. For all its ups and downs, St. Louis has pretty amazing traffic. Drive in Chicago, New York, or any major city in Europe, and you realize that our "rush hour" woes are pretty insignificant, especially if you can avoid the central corridor (we generally can with our work commutes). In those big cities, people often hop on the bike because it's faster than public transportation and faster than sitting in the virtual parking lots that rush hour can become. But that's not the case for me in St. Louis, and, as a result, biking too often becomes the "if I have time/luxury" option, when I'd like to strive to have it be the first priority, at least with a little more regularity. Between heat, illness, and, frankly, inconvenience, added to the fact that there isn't as much visible bike-commuting in the county (which is a safety issue), I have allowed myself to fall into a pattern of making excuses to take the car instead. The car is, frankly, easier, and I find myself a little bit jealous of the bloggers who are in towns where biking is the easier, better, faster option, because it provides the extra incentive to hop on two wheels instead of four. 

My dedication to incorporating bicycling into my life has not waned; I knew summer in St. Louis would be a challenge and remain shocked that I have been able to ride as much this summer in glorious weather as I have been able to do. But if I'm struggling with some of these "ifs and buts", then you probably are, too. So let's look at them.

Weather. The heat is a real thing. For me, I am unwilling to kit up and then change at the office. My door doesn't lock, and the bathrooms are small, and I don't want to get ridiculously sweaty, since there is no shower at work. So for me, that means lows in the 50/60s and highs not exceeding 85 (all Fahrenheit) or so is the max for an hour ride or longer. My test ride to work last June was to/from (back-to-back, or about 13 miles) in slightly shy of 90-degree heat. Even with water, it was hard, and it took me well over 30 minutes to cool down. I don't enjoy running or bicycling in that type of weather, so I don't. I am not naturally inclined to exercise, so one of my rules for myself is that if an activity makes me resent being active, it's not worth it. Riding when the weather is more pleasant, on the other hand, makes me wonder why I don't do it more often!

Similarly, I will not ride when rain is very likely on the way in (sprinkles are fine) or if thunderstorms are likely. It's not particularly safe to ride in lightning, and it's not worth the risk to me, when coupled with decreased visibility and slick roads (for me and for the cars). This is as much a reflection of the fact that St. Louis is becoming, but is not yet, a particularly bike-friendly city. Especially in the County.

Not sure about snow policy yet; I am planning to set up my mountain bike for some light commuting, and if it handles well in light snow, I'll base my winter precip policy accordingly.

Illness. If I can't breathe easily, it will affect when and how I ride. So bad allergies, upper-respiratory illnesses, and asthma can affect how I feel about riding. These are safety, comfort, and "potential resentment" issues, too. 

Time. This is my biggest issue most days for work, or for church. It takes me 7 minutes to drive to my church and park, so I need about 10-15 minutes from door to seat. I don't sweat when I drive (at least not just from driving), so I don't need cool-down time. It takes me 25 minutes door-to-seat for work in the morning. Ditto sweat/cool-down comments. It takes me close to 20 minutes to bike to church, and 10 minutes to cool down. It takes me 50-60 minutes to bike to work, and 10-20 minutes to cool down. So if I can leave at 10:15 am for a 10:30 church arrival time by car, I need to leave at 9:55-10:00 by bike. If I can leave at 8:30 am to comfortably be in the office by 9:00 am. I need to be on the bike by 7:30-7:45 am in order to be just as cool, calm, and presentable by 9:00 am when I travel by bicycle. 

Some of this is problematic because of how I'm wired... I tend to procrastinate, and I don't naturally manage my time well. So even when I get up early enough to be ready and leave by 7:30 or 7:45, I often get distracted by coffee, the Internet, some project I decided to tackle "really quickly" before leaving for the morning. 

I am very curious to see how trying the mountain bike and road bike, once they are ready for a commute, affect my transpo time to work, and affect my feelings about the hill that is in the middle of the ride!

So time, she is my biggest enemy. The issues cut straight to my personal Achilles' Heel (time management) and flirt with the temptation of faster travel and convenience. 

I want to address these because anyone biking in St. Louis is likely to face these same issues (maybe not the heat as much if you sweat less than I do or can tolerate it better). Part of incorporating bike transportation into my life will be about changing my habits and prioritizing bicycling over the ease of the car. This may require tweaking my hours slightly, forcing myself into better morning routines, or just getting out there even when I'm hesitant. I continue to look to the more consistently cool fall weather to have multiple days to push this new (to me) habit. The one thing I know for sure is that the more I ride, the more I want to ride; the less I ride, the easier it is to just take the car.

Do you have "nah, take the car" voices that you fight off when you get on the bike? If so, let's talk about and through them. Let's talk. And then ride! 

Cheers and happy riding,