Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Wooden Bicycle

The good folks at Lee Valley Tools just published a great article by 16-year-old high school student Marco Facciola. You can read Marco's wonderful story of his amazing wooden bicycle here:

http://www.leevalley.com/newsletters/Woodworking/2/3/article1.htm


In every age we have people predicting the end of the world, doom and gloom and how we as a species are just too stupid to survive. While there certainly is a lot of stupidity in this world and a very large share of problems, there are also folks like Marco. And when I see that this world, with all it's problems, still manages to turn out a guy who can make a chain out of maple and make a freewheel system out of wood, I can't be pessimistic.

Keep 'em rolling.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Why Doesn't Everyone Ride Recumbents?


Note: Basically every word I'm recounting here occurred in bits of conversations I've had with various recumbent enthusiasts over the past dozen years. For purposes of brevity, I've compressed these discussion to a single conversation and created the composite character of Perry. Perry is not a real person, although his resemblance to any real person is far more than coincidental.

-----

When the December drizzle settles in on Seattle, it's a good time to hole up in the corner coffee shop with a warm beverage and maybe a good book. I'd just settled with some hot, liquid form of caffeine in one hand and more than a thousand pages of Thomas Pynchon's latest tome in the other when my friend Perry rolls up, locks his sleek, laid back bicycle up next to mine and strolls into the coffee shop. Mr. Pynchon's novel can wait for another day.

Perry lays his dripping helmet on the table and after getting his own drink in order, opens our conversation with his standard gambit, "Still riding that horsey bike, I see."

I counter with my standard rejoinder, "Still lying down on the job."

Years ago, while recovering from a broken collarbone, I decided to learn about and test ride some recumbent bicycles. As things turned out, I wound up riding and owning a lot of those machines, even building a few recumbents of my own and going on lots of rides with the local recumbent club. I got to know folks like Perry and also Bob Bryant, the publisher of a little magazine called Recumbent Cyclist News. Bob convinced me to write some articles and I became a semi-regular columnist for his magazine. It was certainly an interesting couple of years and the people I met were at least as interesting as the laid back machines they rode.

While the machines might be laid back, many of the riders, people like Perry, were anything but. They were passionate about their chosen vehicles, evangelistic in their enthusiasm, willing at the slightest provocation to expound as to why their machine is what a bicycle should truly be. And many of these folks, not all but many, would speak of a conspiracy or at least a conspiracy of ignorance, that kept the world from embracing the design of the recumbent bicycle. In the future, they were sure, "wedgies" would join the high-wheeler as a quaint reminder of a more primitive age. And our current time, with bike shops filled with bikes that look like what Lance Armstrong rides, is still a primitive age.

When I went back to riding what Perry insists on calling "horsey bikes" some of my recumbent cohorts took this as some kind of betrayal. Perry, on the other hand, figured this was evidence that I was not too bright. Bob encouraged me to write an article about my choice, but I became more interested in the bigger picture and the question I posed to Perry right now.

"If recumbents are so good, why doesn't everybody ride recumbents?"

"Well, you don't because you're dumb, or maybe just because you like to piss me off. But most folks don't even know about recumbents. And even if they've heard of them or seen one, there's hardly any place to buy them."

"But why is that?" I press.

"C'mon," Perry says, "Don't play dumber than you are. You know this. 1934? The Ban?"

"Yeah, I know about the ban. In 1934 some guy on a 'bent beat the fastest folks on upright bikes and the UCI declared his machine wasn't a bicycle. And you really want me to believe that's what's keeping folks off 'bents?"

"That's a big part of it," Perry says, wagging his head. "Folks watch the Tour de France and think they're seeing fast bikes when they don't even get to see what a fast bike looks like."

"I guess you have a point there, but let me throw out a counter-example." I say, "Look, they don't let cars in the Kentucky Derby, but somehow autos managed to catch on. I can't run a motor in the America's cup, yet somehow speedboats are doing a booming business. If you've got a better mousetrap, isn't the world going to beat a path to your door?"

"Emerson was a better poet than a businessman," Perry notes.

"Quite true," I concede, "but he actually made quite a bundle off his writing and speaking gigs. However it looks like he may have never actually said that thing about mousetraps and in any case the history of the mousetrap is filled with neat designs that never resulted in riches. But enough about mousetraps, let's get back to 'bents. Today, there are lots of events where recumbents aren't banned. They race in RAAM and recumbent riders show up on brevets and international events like Paris-Brest-Paris. And the IHPVA has their own series of races..."

"Yeah," Perry inserts, "and we kick ass. The recumbent hour record is much faster than the UCI record and..."

"Freddie Markham in a Gold Rush is way faster than Eddy Merckx ever was on his 'horsey bike'," I break in. "Look, a guy taped inside a pedal-powered carbon-fiber torpedo can go like hell on the salt flats, no argument from me there. But that isn't going to make me go "ooh that's the kind of machine I want to ride down to the coffee shop."

"That's 'cause you're a slow learner," Perry explains.

"No, I don't think so," I say, "I think the recumbent speed thing is over-rated. Winning this race or that one isn't going to change a bunch of people's minds."

"But getting the bikes seen might," Perry ventures.

"Maybe," I concede, "and I guess with the way the ban went, we'll never know. But don't give me the 'if they let us in the Tour de France, we'd kick ass' argument..."

"But we would..." Perry begins.

"No," I say, cutting him off, "you wouldn't. The Tour is set up around the peleton, team tactics, sprint finishes and climbing. There are only a couple of time trials in the entire thing and the whole race is built around wedgie bikes, wedgie teams, and wedgie tactics. A recumbent stands as much chance of winning the tour as my cat does of winning the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show."

"So you admit wedgie bikes are dogs..." Perry says with an evil grin.

"Hardly," I say, taking pains to look pained, "and in real world riding, with hills and traffic lights and all the rest, most stock recumbents won't get me to work any quicker than my plain old upright bike does."

"Yeah, but a stream-liner," Perry begins.

"Feels like an underpowered car to me," I say. "I know you love your enclosed HPVs but I don't like riding around in a coffin. And that's what HPVs feel like to me."

"But what about your open low-racer, didn't you have fun with that?"

"Yep," I admit, "the Pillow Bike was a blast. But I got tired of lying down in the rain and I really got tired of being at tail-pipe height in traffic. On my wedgie, I've got a much better view."

"How about a high-racer, something like a Bacchetta?"

"Bacchetta hit the scene after I'd moved back to uprights, so I never had a chance to ride one..."

"Aha!" Perry shouts, loud enough that some of the other folks in the coffee shop looked over at us. "That's what you should be riding," he added in a softer tone.

"Perry," I say, "I hardly think the fact that I haven't ridden a bike means it's destined to be my bike."

"You'd love a Bacchetta," Perry enthuses, "it's fast, it's comfortable, you wouldn't have that wedge of plastic crammed up your butt..."

"And that's another thing you 'bent folks just don't get," I say, matching Perry's level of animation with some volume of my own, "I AM COMFORTABLE ON MY BIKE!"

"You're kidding, right?" Perry looks genuinely confused.

"No," I say softly. "I want you to understand this. I'm comfortable on an upright bike. Lots of folks are."

"No," he says, "I know lots of folks who are miserable on wedgies. I see 'em on the STP, rubbing their necks, walking like cowboy's in their dorky pants. They can't wait to get off their bikes."

"Look," I say, "I'm not saying everybody is comfortable on every bike. Some folks have their handlebars too low or the wrong kind of seat. Maybe their bike just doesn't fit or maybe they really can't get comfy on an upright bike. But there are people, people like me, who are comfortable riding an upright bike."

Perry still looks doubtful, "Really?" he asks.

"Really," I say, "Recumbents solve problems I don't have. They solve problems lots of folks don't have. That's why people don't buy them and that's why wedgies aren't going away."

"But...but...recumbents are better!" Perry insists.

"Better how?" I counter, "Faster? More comfortable?"

"Yeah!" Perry says, "C'mon, you know they are..."

"Well, Perry," I say, "my experience to date hasn't convinced me of that but what if I grant you those two points? What if a recumbent is faster than a wedgie bike and more comfortable. If my upright bike is fast enough for me and comfy enough for me, I don't think I'm going to change. It's like the Dvorak keyboard..."

"Hey, I use a Dvorak keyboard!" Perry exclaims.

"And this doesn't surprise me at all," I say, "in fact I think I'd be more surprised to find out you were a QWERTY man. Do you live in a geodesic dome as well?"

"No," Perry says, "but I've always wanted one."

"Me too," I confess, "at least I did until I read this article by the author of the two Domebooks that points out a lot of the problems that show up when you try to put the theory of domes into practice. I think a similar thing happens with recumbents."

"Like what?" Perry wonders.

"Like some are so laid back you get a crick in your neck from holding your head up to look forward. Or the way some people get numb toes from a high bottom bracket, or recumbent butt from a more upright seat. 'Bents aren't always magically comfortable."

"And then there is the drive-train thing," I continue, "if you've got the pedals out front and the drive wheel in the back, you've got a lot of chain. Chain is heavy and you've got to manage it somehow. Idler wheels suck a little bit of power..."

"But those things can be worked out," Perry counters.

"Oh yeah," I agree, "I'm sure every problem I can list has been solved by some 'bent, somewhere. But it's not like folks have settled on a common solution and different designs have different trade-offs. Front-wheel drive 'bents beat the chain problem but they can't climb steep hills in the rain. A long wheel-base bike like a Tour Easy is great for cross-country touring but not what I'd choose for busy urban riding."

"That's what you need the Bacchetta for," Perry states.

"What, did you become a Bacchetta dealer when I wasn't looking?" I wonder out loud, "look maybe it's the greatest bike ever and I'm really missing out..."

"You are," Perry insists.

"OK, OK," I admit, "you like Bacchettas, I've figured that out. My point is this, we're not moving to some future where everybody rides the same kind of bike. Look at that," I say pointing out the window to the street.

"Look at what?" Perry asks.

"The street, the cars, the world. There's lots of stuff out there. Look at that Honda Accord."

"What about it?"

"It's a car. As cars go, it's probably a good car. I've heard good things about 'em, but what do I know, I'm not a car guy. But let's say," I continue, "that it's a great car. Let's say Accord owners just love 'em. Does that mean it's the perfect car for everybody?"

"Of course not," Perry says.

"So you see my point," I say relieved that I'd finally gotten through to my friend.

"Of course I do," Perry said, "they shouldn't be driving Accords or any other car for that matter. They should be riding recumbents. And so should you. In fact, I think you should be riding a Bacchetta!"

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Queen of Gleen (or another one of my damn hippie pals)


Yesterday I was riding with a reporter from the Seattle Times, helping him out with a story he's doing on Seattle's bike infrastructure. Somewhere in the course of our four hour tour of the city, he asked "So does your Bike Alliance job pay you a living wage?" "I don't need much," I replied, but when I saw his eyes still looking puzzled I tried to elaborate with "I worked in software for over twenty years, let's just say I make a lot less doing this and like it a lot more." I could see him connect the dots the wrong way, but then most folks do. He figured I'd packed away some huge pile of money and now could do what I want. The truth is simpler, I'd given him the simple answer in the first four words, but people seem to want to believe that rich people must be happy and happy people must be rich, so they go with the more complex fable instead of the simple truth. I think Thoreau had it right when he said "wealth is the ability to fully experience life." By that standard, I'm pretty wealthy.

I've never met my friend Jacquie or her husband Charlie, but of course I've known about them damn near forever. A month or so ago I got a big kick when Jacquie sent me a fan letter. I told another one of my buddies, "I feel like a kid playing guitar in his garage who just got a fan letter from Clapton." Since then we've been trading little bits of email and one of these days we may manage to have our tire tracks intersect and actually meet up on terra firma.

Jacquie wrote a terrific article about how being wealthy isn't really about money. You can read it here:

http://tinyurl.com/yvogwr

Of all the adjectives I can think of to describe Jacquie, "anonymous" isn't one of them, so I found the byline on this piece to be particularly amusing. Also, since Jacquie ratted out her authorship both on her own blog and in an email to her buddy list, I don't feel bad about spreading the news. Articles by Jacquie are one of those things that makes all our lives richer. You can read more of her stuff on her blog here:

http://www.jacquiephelan.com/

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Steal This Wifi

As I've written before, I have a tiny Nokia N800 portable computer that I use to keep in touch and do things such as update this blog while I'm off bicycle touring. On my trip around Washington last July the N800 worked like a champ and I'm still pretty pleased with the device. The N800 is still doing a great job and even though the new N810 with it's built-in keyboard and GPS might be even a little nicer for touring cyclist, I'm not rushing out to replace my N800.

Open wifi hotspots are great boon to the touring cyclists but it seems like every time the subject of wifi comes up on the Touring list you get people expressing the "that's stealing!" viewpoint. My own approach to this one of intent, I try to use hotspots that I believe have been intentionally left open. And if I'm using a coffee shop's open wifi signal, you can bet I've bought my coffee there. Unless they're closed, then I don't feel guilty.

In densely settled urban areas in the US it is common to pick-up connect to an open wifi spot without being able to figure out exactly where it's coming from. Very often these hotspots will just have an identifier like "Linksys" which is the default name for a common brand of wireless router. It is these spots where it is almost impossible to determine the intent of the router's owner. Did they leave the spot open because of neglect or courtesy?

My router at home is open because, as my son notes, "you're a damn hippie, Dad." I've tried several times to explain this to people but Bruce Schneier over at Wired just did a better job of explaining it than I ever could. You can read his essay here:

http://tinyurl.com/22s3wx

Like Bruce, I sometimes talk to strangers. Sometimes my computers do as well.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Where do you think we are?

"Where do you think we are?" At this point my friend Mark Vande Kamp's question is more than a merely academic inquiry. It's a cool January morning and I can say with a high degree of confidence that we are somewhere in the Taylor Mountain Forest, but I take off one of my gloves to indicate the spot on the map with greater precision.

"I'm pretty sure we're here," I say indicating the convergence of two dimly dashed lines. "Down there," I wave, "we should find this little trail." I point to an even dimmer dotted line. Mark and I point our bikes in the direction I've indicated and find something an optimist might call a trail.

Mark is the ideal companion for such adventures, for he's the kind of fellow who gets up on a rainy morning and rides the twenty or so miles to my place simply because he'd earlier said that he would. While we ride we discuss important matters of the day, comparing Felini's "8 1/2" with "Superbad" and trying to decide if Sherlock Holmes is more or less fictional than Angelina Jolie.

Taylor Mountain is the area I've been exploring lately and while that doesn't mean I know it well, I do know it well enough to show Mark some of the things I've found there so far. Today we are here to push beyond what we know. We have a map with us, but we both know the truth of the adage "the map is not the terrain."

This map is a close approximation of the terrain but it's unique in that while it has the problem common to all maps, the problem of reducing three dimensions to two, it has the added complexity of being askew from reality in the fourth dimension as well. This map is untethered from our time. It is an optimist's map of the future, drawn over a lost map from the past. And Mark and I are stubbornly using it to navigate this undiscovered country we insist on calling the present.

Perhaps I should explain.

Taylor Mountain is a chunk of land about 8 miles south of Issaquah, land that had been owned by timber interests until a few years ago. It is now owned by the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks. Well, most of the land is owned by the county, a couple of parcels are owned by private citizens, folks with strong senses of the boundaries of private property, folks who put up very serious-looking warning signs expressing their desires for privacy and fervent beliefs in the second and fourth amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Having a strong desire to keep our bikes and bodies in their current lead-free configurations, Mark and I take their boundary issues seriously and thus try to play close attention to our map.

But our map is one of utmost optimism, drawn over the old roads and trails from the logging days and labeled "Public Use Concept Map." So it shows trails-yet-to-be and roads-that-once-were and we, we are Magellans of the moment, navigating an uncertain present. Even the most modern GPS could not tell us exactly where hope and reality converge, this is something only we can discover.

The tiny dotted trail is more notional than actual and after fifteen minutes of hiking with our bikes through terrain filled-in with fallen trees, underbrush and blackberry vines more tenacious than ourselves, Mark and I retreat to map lines of more definite pigmentation.

Our next attempt is more promising, not exactly inviting but at least not so openly hostile to our passage. Someday, the map assures us, this will be an equestrian and hiking trail but in the here and now it is series of narrow gaps in the undergrowth, hopefully marked here and there with fluttering bits of blaze-orange plastic. We crash downward off the mountain, riding small bits where we can, walking others, scrambling and puzzling now and then.

The crossing of Holder Creek will be lovely in the future, We can almost see the bridge they'll build because most folks wouldn't want to ford a knee-deep stream. Most folks don't know that if you keep moving the water is not that cold and that wool socks keep proving their worth when you push beyond the comfortable trails you know. Most folks don't know the things Mark and I have learned to take for granted.

We gradually pass through the future and as the trail winds closer to the outer boundaries of the land we hear the cars rolling on contemporary pavement. The path becomes clearer and more rideable as the map converges with the present. Now our tracks are laid down clear, tempting others to follow back along our course until they run, baffled, into a future yet to arrive. I'm reminded of an other trip, years ago, when my friend Andy and I followed paths that became faint elk trails and then nothing at all from Roslyn all the way to theTeanaway River. When we came splashing across the river and into the campground, other campers asked where we'd come from. "Roslyn," we said. "I didn't think there was a trail," they said. "As near as we know, there ain't," we answered.

For better or worse, we build the future. Stumbling, our tracks are something others follow, assuming we must have known something they do not. Can we tell them that our maps work best because of the empty spaces, because of the spots marked "Here Be Dragons?" They wouldn't believe us if we did. And years from now, when these tracks are well tread, we will have fled, "No one goes there any more, it's too crowded."

Looking back at our tracks coming out of the woods, Mark comments, "You know, a lot of folks wouldn't even hike that." "Yeah, not yet," I agree.

I can't rail against a more accessible future, one that my own tracks are helping build but somehow I know that when it's built it won't be home for me. My tracks will be somewhere else, some other dotted trail torn loose from time. A future yet to be or a past mostly forgotten. A spot not perfectly triangulated on the map. "Where do you think we are?" If I knew for certain, we wouldn't have to go. "I'm pretty sure we're here."

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Triple bike racks being (temporarily?) removed from Metro bus fleet

Metro just updated the bus bike rack info on their website here:

http://transit.metrokc.gov/tops/bike/loadbike.html

There have been problems with some bikes falling off the triple bike racks on the bus fleet and Metro is taking this very seriously. Here's the text of the notice:

----- Start of Metro's statement -----

CYCLIST ALERT-Updated Jan. 4, 2008

Starting Saturday, Jan. 5, 2008, bike racks will not be available on some Metro Transit routes and trips.

Some bike racks are being removed due to rack-operating concerns, and will be replaced in the coming weeks as they become available.

This change affects all bus trips on routes 1, 2, 3, 4, 10, 12, 13, 14, 36, 49 and 70, and some trips on routes 7, 43 and 44.

The concerns regard bikes remaining tightly secured to the 3-position bike racks. Metro is working with the manufacturer to resolve the issues. In the meantime, all 3-bike racks are being removed. The goal is to temporarily replace them with 2-bike racks, but there are currently not enough of the 2-bike racks to equip every vehicle in Metro’s fleet.

During the transition, it is possible that some buses may or may not have racks when or where cyclists expect them. It is not possible for Metro staff to know ahead of time if a bus has a rack. Cyclists are reminded that rack use is first come, first served, and, with the exception of bikes that fold safely, bicycles may not be carried inside buses.

Metro appreciates your patience while this issue is being resolved. Please check this site for updates.

------- end of Metro's statement -----