Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Planet Bike Blaze 2 Watt LED Headlight

It's no secret that I use and like the stuff made by Planet Bike. Use the search function on this blog and you'll find me saying various nice things about various Planet Bike products. I was getting ready to write a review of the light I've been commuting with for the past month, the 2 Watt version of the Blaze, but when I checked Amazon a couple of other folks already said pretty much all the nice things I was going to say about this light. So click the link above and read the reviews there and then come back and I'll add a little bit.

OK, it's a nice light. It uses 2 AA cells and it works great with NiMH rechargeable batteries. It works fine for commuting but if I was going to ride all night on a brevet, I'd take some spare batteries just to be safe. I have good night vision and run it on the low setting most of the time and on low it'll run all night. The light uses the same mount as its 1-Watt and 1/2-Watt siblings as well as the Beamer 3 and Beamer 5 lights, something I find handy because I have several bikes and swap various Planet Bike lights between them.

The 2-Watt Blaze project fairly tight cone of light with a bit of spill and as to be expected, on the low setting on the 2-Watt Blaze seems to be just about as bright as the high setting of the 1-Watt Blaze. LEDs seem to run more efficiently at lower power so the 2-Watt on low makes better use of the batteries than running the 1-Watt on high. Plus, it is nice to have the higher beam available for quick, dark descents.

In cold, wet weather I've noticed some condensation inside the lens of the light, but it hasn't caused any problems.

Finally, I prefer the sleek, Darth Vader black of the 2-Watt Blaze to the i-Mac white of the 1-Watt model.

Keep 'em rolling,


Monday, December 28, 2009

Vashon Island Cycling Tree Huggers

"It's a bike in a tree? No, I'm not going. You and your hippie friends are just going to totally hug it." My son Eric declined my offer to join in the fun of cycling on Vashon Island on the day after Christmas but his dismissal did give a focus to the day. My hippie friends and I would be sure we totally hugged the Bike Tree.

I've written previously about the Vashon Bike Tree and those wishing to follow in our icy tire tracks can find the directions here. On this particular Boxing Day I leave the house before dawn, note that the temperature is a couple of degrees below freezing as I bomb down the Factoria Hill and spin the rear tire on frost a couple of times on the steepish hill right before the turn onto the floating bridge connecting Mercer Island to Seattle. On the Seattle side of the lake I meet up with Mark and Mark (Vande Kamp and Canizaro) and we roll through the tunnel and down the trail. The sun is rising as we roll along Alaska Way, a road we all agree is one of the crappiest commonly cycled roads in Seattle. But traffic is light and it's a good day to ride.

In west Seattle the Genessee hill is white with frost and our tires can't get traction. We walk the steep block, remount our steeds and head to Fauntleroy ferry terminal.

The Marks and I board the ferry and settle in for the trip to Vashon. Liam Moriarty and his brother Tom make the ferry with seconds to spare. Tom moved to Seattle a couple of weeks ago from Kansas and this is his first trip to Vashon Island. Kansas is flat, Vashon is not.

When the ferry docks in Vashon, we meet up with Brad Hawkins and Jon Muellner. Brad had taken the ferry up from Tacoma, where he'd been spending time with family, while Jon had driven down from his home in Port Townsend and come across on the Southworth ferry. A ferry worker warns us about the icy roads, but Brad, who'd just come across the island including the infamous Burma road assures us that "it's not too bad." Some people might hesitate before taking routing advice from a man whose helmet looks like a fistful of M&Ms and bears the proud label "NUTCASE" but those are the people who lack a certain sense of adventure.

While people of extreme sense are still at home asleep and people of moderate sense would stick to the relatively clear Vashon Highway and take the most direct route to the bike tree, my hippie friends and I follow Brad down and up and up and down the many cardiac spikes that comprise Burma Road. Burma Road must have originally been mapped by a drunken Sherpa and in these modern times the road continues to exist mostly because it serves as such a convenient hazing ritual for those cyclists who have recently moved to the Pacific Northwest from Kansas. The only thing more exciting than riding Burma road is riding it on a frosty morning, a fact we are reminded of at every frosty blind turn.

Remarkably, as these words and photos attest, we all lived to laugh about this and tell the tale. We rejoin the main road, find the famous, hidden bike tree and hug the heck out of it. Then it's back into the fog and frost and hills. We roll and chat and separate and regroup. We roll onto Maury Island and snack at the lighthouse. Liam's rattly rack and fender doesn't seem to bother him but they are driving me crazy so I donate two unused M5 bolts from my second set of bottle bosses to the cause of silence and security.

After the huge climb away from the park, the Fellowship of the Chainring splits into two groups with Liam and Tom deciding to take the more direct route north, while the rest of us follow Brad south, to the southern ferry terminal. Tom is now convinced, beyond any doubt, that he is "not in Kansas anymore!"

Brad catches his ferry to Tacoma and the Marks, Jon and I work our way back north. In the town of Vashon Jon spots a sign on Perry's Vashon Burgers "Come in -N- eat or we'll both starve." It's the kind of logic you don't argue with, so we stop -N- eat. It's wonderful.

We catch up with Liam and Tom at the ferry terminal. They also stopped to eat.

It was a wonderful day on the bike, 36 miles of hilly riding on the island with another 56 miles of riding in the there and back again part. And we totally hugged the heck out of that tree.

Keep 'em rolling,


Monday, December 21, 2009

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

As I write this some of my friends are out there riding their bicycles through the shortest night of the year. My wife persuasively argued that I get plenty of night riding on my commute and in the words of Brother Ray, "the night time is the right time to be with the one you love." But there is something special about night riding, something known to randonneurs and all-year, all-weather cycle commuters. Even though this time I chose to be home, to sleep and to write while others ride, I've been out there enough to know something of the draw of the darkness, the wonder of a world feared by many and loved by some.

Things easily taken for granted in the world of light, things like being warm and being able to see, are not free gifts in the night world. The night world is still the frontier, animals lurk in the darkness and may skitter across your path and what lies just beyond your headlight beam could be smooth pavement or a pothole. That edge, the limit of your vision and experience, draws you forward. You can not conquer the night, but you find, with practice, that you can explore it and you may find that you love to explore it.

The legendary randonneur Jack Eason, taught me the single most valuable thing I've ever learned about riding at night. Years ago, riding with Jack on a dark night in the Canadian Rockies, he noted, "you're looking where the light is pointed, don't do that. Look beyond, into the darkness. You'll see what's in the light anyway." Jack was right, he'd learned to navigate a blacked-out London in England's finest hours. And thanks to his lesson, I've had many fine hours on darkened roads, looking not at the light, but at the darkness.

In 1999 I rode Paris-Brest-Paris, alongside several hundred other Americans and thousands of folks from Europe and the rest of the world. In that time, before high-efficiency LED lights and commonly available quality generator hubs, rigging a bike light that would run all night was something of an art form. The American lights tended to be more powerful and we home-brewed battery packs with lots of cells and sent them ahead in drop bags. The French, in general, opted for dimmer solutions and at the time I joked that I expected to see some French fellow with two fireflies in a jar strapped to the front of his bike. But the French riders made it through the night and I think the difference is faith and experience. As a novice randonneur I was putting my faith in electrons and photons and was intent on doing my best to make the night into day. The French, instead, made peace with the night.

In the world of randonneuring the 400K brevet is the distance where most folks have to ride at night. On a couple of 400K rides, I've been riding next to someone who confesses as the sun is setting that they have "never ridden at night before." I always find this amazing. You don't get to the point where you attempt the 400K distance without some training and given the fact that (unless you live at an extremely northern or southern location) it gets dark every night of the year. Those nights are opportunities.

Now I know some folks, perhaps most folks, think it must be more dangerous to ride at night, but I've thought about this and considered the data and I think that while there certainly are some risks, there are other factors that can help to balance out those risks. At the end of the day, so to speak, we make our best choices. I ride at night and I actually think I may be safer riding at night than I am riding in daylight.

There is less traffic at night. It is like riding in a less populated world. Fewer drivers on the road translates into fewer chances for collision.

But what about those stats that show more accidents at night? David Smith's analysis of a couple of years of accident data shows that yes, unlit cyclists do die. But lights and reflective gear do a lot to make a cyclist visible. In the photo at the top of this post, I'm the guy whose helmet and sash are glowing in the reflected light. Over the years I've tried to enlighten folks (pun intended!) about the virtues of lights and reflective gear. This post is part of that continuing effort.

But there are drunk drivers at night, people say. Well, yes there are. And there are distracted drivers during the day. I do try to avoid the bar scene but some times, especially on brevets, you will encounter a drunk. My friend Jon, lit-up and well-reflected, had a memorable encounter with a gentleman lit-up in the other sense, on a brevet a few years ago. The fellow drove slowly past Jon, pulled his truck over and flagged Jon down. "What youse guys are doing, it's really dangerous man. I mean, I drink and drive. I shouldn't, but I do. But you guys, you shouldn't be here, 'cause it's dangerous. But youse guys, I can see you from a long ways off. So you're doing something really dangerous, but your doing it in pretty good way. But you should know guys like me are here."

Night is a time when we as riders stand out. In the bright light of day, even our bright clothes can blend into the busy background. At night, we stand out. One dark, rainy night I was stopped at a light (yeah, I do things like that, call me a rebel) and a lady in a SUV pulls up along side me. She rolls down her window and says "you're very well-lit, thank you." 'Thanks for not running me over," I reply. I never quite know what to say in those situations.

The night time is the right time to be with the one you love. But sometimes, by circumstance or choice, we ride at night. With some lights, some reflective gear and some practice, it can be wonderful.

Ride safe out there and keep 'em rolling,


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Cold Snap Cycling

At the point where water turns to ice, many cyclist turn sedentary. Sure, hearty souls who live in places like Minnesota or Alaska persevere in temps well below zero, but when you live in a more temperate climate you can make the very sensible case that if you wait for a couple of days, things will warm up so why not take it easy? And those slick roads, packed with SUVs and harried Christmas shoppers probably are not the safest places for a cyclist to be. This is why people buy rollers, indoor trainers or gym memberships. Or why they stay inside, packing on an extra layer of fat for the winter.

The high temperature today might reach the freezing point of water and Mike, Mark and I are riding. We are going where most of my "fun" rides go these days, east and up on trails and car-free, gated gravel roads. I'm the instigator of this action, the guy who sent the email referring to this as a "freeze your butt ride." I sent the email to 72 people. A vast majority of the recipients have good excuses or what is sometimes referred to as "common sense." Mike, Mark and I all have the things you need if you might be lacking in common sense. Things like warm clothes, studded bike tires and restless natures.

I have a Thermos Mug of coffee hanging from a carabiner on my Camelbak. The Camelbak is frozen but the coffee is still warm. I'm wearing multiple layers of wool, fleece and nylon and when I breathe out the moisture condenses in a cloud that quickly vanishes into the dry air. It has not snowed here, but the cold pulls the moisture from the air and deposits it in frost patches on the ground. Still water freezes, but the creek before us is tumbling swiftly and it's wider than I'd recalled. In August, the last time I was here, I'd splashed across it, hopping from rock to rock.

The rocks are slick now, many coated with a dangerous sheen of ice. Mike has the longest legs and the best rock-hopping judgment. He gets across and we pass the bikes to him. Mark and I have shorter legs and more cautious natures. Mark also as super-slick cleats on the soles of his shoes. After much debate of rock-to-rock paths and the addition of a handy board Mark found in the woods, we make it across. I manage to have my right foot slip off one rock and wind up wringing the damp out of one set of wool socks.

The day is bright and cold and while we are headed up Rattlesnake Ridge, we still are not quite sure where these old roads lead. The studded tires perform brilliantly and I'm thrilled with the way my new-old bike is riding. I don't have studded tires that fit my 29er Flight and when this 1985 Mongoose ATB Pro came into Bike Works last week and our Recycling & Reuse Coordinator priced it a $50 as-is, I knew I was getting another bike. After replacing the cables, housing, dry-rotted tires, and uncomfortable saddle, the bike was ready to roll. A couple of hours with some Chromax polish and the bike shone like a jewel.

We ride up, then down, then up some more. Then up a bunch more and we come the world's most uninformative road sign, two weather-blasted wooden arrows, one pointed where we've been, one pointing the other way. Years of wind and rain have erased any fragment of useful information. Mark's GPS tells us we are up in somewhere very blank. My map, brilliantly left back in Issaquah, tells us nothing. The time of day, the lowering sun and Mike all wisely counsel us to go back the way we came.

The descent is quick and cold. Studded tires rumble on the gravel but go silent when they grab the ice. Back at the creek, we cross using my method, using the bikes as a crutch and a third leg as we hop from rock to rock. We'd noted on our first crossing and now investigate the oddest thing, Maglights in the water. Fishing around with a stick, we retrieve not one, not two, but three different Maglights from the depths of the creek. How they got there, we have no idea. Actually we have a couple of ideas. One involves some four-wheeler, stuck and dropping lights and swearing. My more fanciful theory involves there being some upstream vein of Maglights and that we could make our fortunes by staking a claim to the mining rights for this patch of land. I'm sure we'll never know the true story of how the lights came to be in the creek, but I can tell you that these are tough lights. Two out of the three lit right up when we pulled them from the creek and I bet the third one just needs new batteries.

Mark flies past me on the post-creek descent, uttering what I momentarily suspect will be his last words, "oh shit, no brakes!!!" I guess dunking sub-freezing aluminum rims into an icy creek is a good way to coat them with ice. My old-school Cunningham-designed brakes are still working great and eventually friction reasserts itself and Mark manages to somehow get his Bianchi under control. The three of us pause to chip the worst of the ice off our machines and then continue down toward the world of men.

We roll down the freeway and the frontage road between Preston and Highpoint. The sun is setting as we roll down the gravel road by Tradition Lake and the trail underneath the power lines. Our lights pick out the rocks along the trail behind the high school and the beams glint and glisten in the frost.

In the cold, if you stop, you tend to freeze in place. But if you move, and keep moving, you find the damnedest things. Things like Maglights in a creek, things like sign posts that tell you nothing. Things that you don't understand.

There are odd things on the trail, weird things. Like the fortune cookie fortune we saw this morning, "Your mind will make your body rich."

We can't understand or explain everything.

It's better to be moving. I don't know why, but I know that it is.

Keep 'em rolling,


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Planet Bike Spok Lights

Spok lights are not designed to help you see the road, they are designed to let other road users see you. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's something you should be aware of. I don't use Spok lights as my only lights, but I've bought a few sets of them and I find them very useful.

They are the lights you put on the bike you don't want to burden with lights.

They are the inexpensive spare lights you have in case your main light goes out.

They are the lights you give to your friend when you realize he's riding after dark and his bike has no lights.

They are the stocking stuffer gift you give your cycling pal because even though she has a bunch of lights already, these are handy and cute.

They are the lights you buy because you like the fact that Planet Bike sends 25% of their profits to bike advocacy groups and creates ads that talk about their products instead of spending bucks on some hip and sexy advertising campaign that doesn't seem to have much to do with bikes at all.

They are the lights you put on your lightest helmet and it still remains your lightest helmet.

In short, I like these little lights. Now if I only knew for certain how to pronounce the name of them. I think the name is pronounced like the thin metal rods connecting my bike's hubs to the rims, but I suppose the name could be pronounced like that of a certain logical Vulcan.

BTW the batteries seem to last a pretty long time and the Spok lights use the same CR2032 battery that is used in my Cateye Cycle Computer. CR2032 cells can be found in lots of places these days but they are small enough that buying a batch online is worthwhile.

Keep 'em rolling,