Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Life at Twelve Miles Per Hour

I have been thinking recently, and by recently I mean the past thirty years or so, about simplicity and bicycles and how it is very easy to get caught up in the minutia of efficiency. In mulling these things over I keep coming back to one basic idea: in terms of speed and distance, a bicycle amplifies a human by a factor of four.

Now we can quibble about exact numbers, but for purposes of this discussion I'm going to keep the numbers round and the math easy. Let's say you can walk comfortably at three miles per hour. Without a lot of training or a very fancy bicycle, you can probably roll at twelve miles per hour with similar effort. And the distance that you'd think of as a reasonable walking distance is probably about one fourth the distance that you could easily cycle. In terms of distance, the factor is probably greater than four since you can sit down on a bicycle and you can also coast. But that simple machine really amplifies your traveling capacity by a factor of four.

Now here's where I think it is easy to go awry. We take that simple amplifier and we say "four is good, but five is better." Or even six. Or maybe more. There is nothing wrong with that, with pushing the limit, but the business of bicycles and the culture of cycling is pretty much entirely built on marketing this or that as being better because it is faster or lighter or more efficient. And while it is not wrong to think about those things, I think it is wrong to only think about those things.

Thoreau wrote, "It would be worth the while to build still more deliberately than I did, considering, for instance, what foundation a door, a window, a cellar, a garret, have in the nature of man..." and Gandhi said, "There is more to life than increasing its speed." Taking advice from these two wise fellows, I built up my latest bike, the bike I got for $20, with an eye not toward speed but toward simplicity -- considering, for instance, what foundation foot retention, a cycle-computer, spandex, carbon fiber, or a heart-rate monitor have in the soul of man.

Gandhi also noted that "actions express priorities" and my priorities do include carrying stuff and riding at night and staying dry in the rain, so my bike has baskets and lights and fenders. And I have fat, tough tires rather than fragile fast tires because I don't enjoy repairing punctures.

And I tend to pedal the bike at about 12 miles per hour.

I'd been commuting on this bike but this past weekend I rode it 100 kilometers up to Arlington Washington. Next weekend is the SIR 400 kilometer brevet, but I volunteered to work one of the check points for that ride. The week before the event, ride organizers do a "pre-ride" to check out the course. This pre-ride lacks the staffed controls of the true brevet but we ride within the time limits and get our control cards checked by locals and the pre-riders are counted in the official brevet finishers.

I rode up to Arlington Friday after work, taking advantage of the chance to check out the Centennial Trail that runs north from Snohomish almost all the way to Arlington. This converted rail-trail is a nice, quiet alternative to riding up Highway 9.

I think all the other brevet volunteers stayed at the motel in Arlington but I enjoy getting in touch with my inner hobo on these trips so I rolled out my 25 year old Goretex bivy and slept in a convenient patch of darkness not far from the motel. Sometime after 4:00 AM we all breakfasted at the Arlington Dennys and at 5:00 AM we all rode off.

There were nine of us on the pre-ride. On brevets I tend to be somewhere in the middle of the finishers, but I wasn't sure how this trip would go. I hadn't really tested this bike on any long rides, and I wasn't sure how things would go. I wondered how it would be navigating without a cycle computer and I wondered if I'd miss having Power Grips holding my feet to the pedals. I also wondered how my moustache-ish handlebars would work for the long haul. I always advise new randonneurs not to make a bunch of changes before an event and my bike was really something of a departure for me. I also advise folks to train, but I hadn't really done that. Sure I'd ridden a bunch of brevets in the past but this year, I've been mostly just commuting and riding around lugging bike maps to commuter fairs and things like that. On my weekends off I've been doing wonderful things like having tea with my wife instead of logging the long kilometers.

What I found out on the pre-ride is that vague math is all I need to navigate and 12 miles per hour really works fine for brevet riding. I took a lot of pictures with my nine dollar camera. I chugged along, following a cue sheet marked in miles. I figured about five minutes per mile, kept my eyes open for the next turn and really enjoyed looking at the scenery instead of staring at the numbers on a cycle-computer.

And my feet felt wonderful.

The four fast guys were off ahead of me all day, but I saw the other four riders at the first couple of checkpoints. At the end of a long day, four folks finished ahead of me, four folks finished behind but brevets are not races. We all were well within the 27 hour time limit (actually we all finished in under 24 hours). There is more to life than increasing its speed.

I did tweak the handlebar setup after the ride. I been running some thin rubber grips on the bars and after a few hundred miles of rough roads, my little fingers were numb on both hands. But Sunday morning, on the ride back home to Issaquah, I found a hunk of pipe insulation on the road just outside Arlington and I fashioned some temporary hand grips pads from that. When I got home I wrapped the bars in some old cork tape that I covered with inner-tube rubber.

It's all a learning process, but I'm liking life at 12 miles per hour.

Some pictures from the 400 kilometer pre-ride are here:

Here is a map of the route (click for big):

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