Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Random Thoughts from Portland

Working in a bike shop means that I work on weekends and my days off happen in the middle of what the rest of the world views as its work week. Last week my Dahon and I visited various friends in Portland. Rather than write up some sort of "I did this and this and this" report, I offer instead this collection of blurry snapshots and random observations from some guy on a little red bike.

Speaking of the little red bike, my Dahon totally freekin' rocks. Christine bought me a nice nylon bag for the bike and early Wednesday I rode from Issaquah to the Seattle Amtrak Station. Amtrak also totally rocks as a way to get from Seattle to Portland -- thirty bucks and about three and half hours each way. I unfold the bag, fold up the bike, put the bike in the bag, carry the bag on the train, and settle in for a nice train ride.

Portland is a bike-friendly town, with a huge number of riders and lots of bike-related businesses. It is the kind of town that not only has a bike map, it has a pocket-sized bike map that is easy to carry on your bike. It is a town that has signs everywhere telling you where the bike-friendly streets are. It is a town where biking to work is normal. And it is a town that expends a huge amount of energy and angst wondering if it is bike friendly enough, if its bike infrastructure is only serving white people of privilege, if Minneapolis really is more bike-friendly than Portland and so on. I often suspect that a large number of people in Portland think that people elsewhere think about Portland more than they actually do.

But when I'm in Portland, I do think about Portland and the Portlandia dream, which is very easy to mock. The real city is shaped by dreams of those who chose to move here or keep living here and as I ride down these real streets and talk with these real people, I can't help but be impressed by the ways people really do manage to make a living in this weirdly wonderful city.

Dan and Erik left Planet Bike a few years ago to start a company called Portland Design Works. They make lights and fenders and other bike bits and currently share space in a gigantic tin shed with a company that makes traffic cones and a bunch of other small bike business. I first met Dan via email back when he was at Planet Bike and they helped me get the Bicycle Alliance Get Lit program rolling. They continue to give back to the community while making nifty products. Dan tells me that they are finally at the point where they are hiring a third person and are going to be moving their operation to a bigger space. A space, by the way, big enough to enclose their velodrome. Portland is the kind of town where buying your own velodrome (they did get a hell of a deal) makes sense.

Dan and Erik show me prototypes of the new PDW fenders, which are metal and have a grey finish that will look good on a wide range of bikes. The finish looks identical to that of Shimano's current Ultegra components. The discussion of fenders leads us to one of the other businesses housed in the big tin shed, where I meet Shawn, the chief engineer of Ruckus Components. Shawn does something very few people do, he fixes and modifies carbon fiber frames. He also makes some very cool, very light carbon fenders for bike whose original designers never gave thought to fender clearance.

Portland is a town where a random guy riding down random streets will see three-wheeled electric cars and bike-towed mobile homes parked by the curb. It's a town where Cyclone Bicycle Supply uses a bike cargo service to deliver parts to bike shops. It's a town where if a guy has enough friends, it's virtually impossible for him to pay for a cup of coffee or a meal. It's the town where the egg you had for breakfast came from a chicken with a name and you'll constantly be asked if you're vegan and you may feel guilty that you're not.

Portland is a town where you can completely randomly get into a "how much wool are you wearing?" contest and the guy who wins is the guy who "is not wearing any non-wool." And you may feel guilty that you don't know the name of every sheep that was shorn to give you that wool. That undercurrent of sincere earnestness that lets me visit Portland and enjoy it, but still be very, very certain that I'm much happier living elsewhere.

Portland is a town where there are signs saying "Do Not Enter (Except For Bikes)" and people who will tell you how much bikes are oppressed here. It is a town where 78% of the drivers and 93% of the cyclists roll through stop signs. I tend to be a pretty law-abiding cyclist and I found myself rolling through Portland stop signs because they have about eleventy-billion of the things. It seems like every damn corner in every tiny neighborhood has at least a couple of stop signs. I am reminded of what some folks said about the old Campy Delta brakes "they are not for stopping, they are for modulating your velocity." Now I am not suggesting that Portland remove all its stop signs (I've heard they tried that and people kept running into each other) but I am pointing out that "normal" varies from place to place.

My friends Russ and Laura have made Portland their winter home, despite the rains, but for them Portland is less a home and more of a long campsite. They know perhaps too much about pedaling to ride too long on paths these pedaled and they are plotting routes to places they have yet to see. We speak of making enough to keep moving, of small bikes and big trains, of extension cords and the cost of data plans. We speak of going to empty places to find what it is we need to fill.

Some folks find Portland is the place they grow roots, while others find it odd or gloomy and move on. My friend Scott has been three years in this city and is still uncertain of the rain, still less than in love with the city. Portland is tolerant of many things and many lifestyles, but an immunity to the charms of the Rose City is viewed with the most extreme suspicion. But no place is the place for everyone.

I come here to roll down streets that welcome me and converse with people building up a city of which they're justly proud. But this is not my town, my place. It is a place I wonder at and enjoy. I take pictures and memories of conversations and ideas and I roll away.

I'll probably be back, but for now I have to keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Magical Wheel Size

In the early days of bicycles, they were direct drive machines. The bigger the size of your machine's wheels, the more ground you would cover in a single pedal stroke. The upper limit to wheel size was determined by the maximum extension of a human leg and the high wheeled Penny-farthings ruled the roads. Rear wheels on these machines kept them from toppling backwards without the rider needing a unicyclist's balancing skill, but the dreaded "header" (when the wheel stuck in a rut or struck an object and the rider flew off, head first) was always a danger. The 1889 American Eagle and Star bicycles addressed the header problem by placing the smaller, non-driven wheel in the front and making that the wheel that steered. Of course it would now be possible to fall backwards off the bike. I would love to think that falling backwards off your bicycle and landing on your bum was the origin of the word "bummer", but the folks who write real linguistic histories don't seem to agree with my theory.

The chain drive (which allowed a gear ratio to be selected independent of wheel size) and the pneumatic tire (which allowed small wheels to provide a smooth ride) led to the rise of the "Safety" bicycle. Bicycles with two smaller wheels of the same size became the norm and the high-wheeled Penny-farthing is now most often seen in museums, nostalgic advertisements and the occasional dandy tweed ride.

Some folks (myself included) just love to tinker with bicycles and over the years, a wide range of machines with various tire and wheel sizes have been tried. This is natural when you think about it. People come in different sizes, they ride bicycles over a variety of surfaces and they use bicycles in different ways. Different wheel sizes and different tires have different properties. No one wheel size will be perfect for every application, but every few years someone discovers (or rediscovers) a certain wheel size and it becomes "the greatest thing ever!"

Path dependence puts a lot of inertia into the manufacturing and marketing loop. If you are going to invent something like a mountain bike you wind up building the early ones out of parts you have: old Schwinn's from the 1940s because they had the big cushy tires, gears from the skinny-tired euro-bikes. Graft them together for Mountain Bike 1.0. And for at least the next decade mountain bikes will have wheels that have a diameter of 26 inches, the same size as those old Schwinn paper boy bikes. But is 26" the best size for a mountain bike? Some folks questioned that and now a bunch of those folks are riding 29ers. Guitar Ted put together a great history of 29ers and it is fascinating reading.

Now I love riding my 29er. The wheels do have more inertia, they roll over some things easier and so forth, but 26 inch wheels have certain advantages as well. In some cases (lots of starts & stops or very twisty trails) smaller wheels might be better. Reasonable people can have reasonable reasons for riding a bike with different size wheels.

On the road bike side of things, some people love, love, love 650B wheels. These are smaller in diameter than the now dominant 700c wheels. You can build a frame to that allows cushier tires or in some cases retrofit this wheel-size into a 700c frame (you need to find some longer reach brakes) and then you can get the cushy tires and your life will be wonderful. Or so the 650B folk tell me. It's the same sermon the 29er folks preach but going a different direction. And I've also heard from some folks that actually 650B is the perfect mountain bike wheel size as well. My pal Beth has a great heretical rant about 650B wheels.

I actually think that there is no magic, perfect wheel size. It's not magic, it's physics and physiology and psychology and something about different horses for different courses. My 29er is a great bike and I like winding the big wheels up to speed and letting 'em roll down a long, rugged trail. But I still have a 26" wheeled mountain bike and by golly it's lots of fun and I ride it a bunch. My 16" wheeled Dahon folder is light and fast and the little wheels spin up in an instant. It is my favorite bike for many rides and it lets me buzz around town like a hummingbird. The little wheels are quick, but it's not as fast on the long haul as a big wheeled bike.

Some people seem to think that everything is evolving toward some perfect end, but from what I've seen the world doesn't work that way. We have whales and hummingbirds, turtles and cheetahs. And as long as we have bicycles, we'll probably have them in a variety of shapes & wheel sizes. I think that's pretty cool. Heck, it's damn near magical.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

Saturday, January 15, 2011

6 Books in a Backpack: Episodes 2, 3 & 4

Last month I wrote about my idea for 6 Books in a Backpack, a scheme I had that would give me reasons to ride, keep in touch with friends & get some ideas flowing in the form of book exchanges. I've now done a 4 of these exchanges and I have another one scheduled for next week in Portland.

The principle behind these exchanges is that from zero to 6 books can change hands, but you have to leave with the same number of books you came with. Barb Chamberlin describes this as The SISO Method for Life Management. In my first exchange with Joe, 6 books changed hands. In the second exchange with my friend Lexi, we traded 5 books. In my meeting with Barb, we swapped 3 books and when I met up with Ryan, 3 books changed hands.

In the past I've been vague about identifying a certain camping spot because I'd really be happier if a bunch of people didn't wind up camping there and similarly I've concluded that it's best not to detail every exchange in a "I got this book to A and got this book in exchange" fashion. A couple of the books I've gotten in trade I've already really enjoyed and I've thought "Oh, X will really like this, I'll put it in the pile of books I'm taking to my meeting with him." It would be a real shame to meet with X and have him say "Oh yeah, that was a great book, I bought it as soon as I read about it on your blog!"

I will, within these self-imposed concepts of vagueness, report on the great success of this project. While the first 3 meetings were with old friends, my latest was with a new friend, Ryan who was up visiting from Portland and got in touch because of my initial post on this subject. I turns out that Ryan and I have friends in common & we traded a couple of emails to assess our tastes in books.

In every exchange I've gotten books that were new to me, some by authors I've never read. The self-imposed deadlines of these meetings have me reading more, scanning my shelves and talking more books with more people. All good things. And I've ridden at least one hundred miles going to and from these meetings and had terrific, wide ranging conversations.

The exchanges themselves remind me of playing cards. We each pull out our six books, describe them and then we may or may not swap. Sometimes there's a "Oh yeah, that's good, I read it in college" or "Nah, I've got too many historical novels on my plate already" and that's fine. Sometimes we discuss books we didn't bring, other books by the authors we've brought to the table, or books that we find similar in theme or tone to the books at hand.

I'm reading more, riding more & having a lot of wide ranging conversations because of the 6 Books in a Backpack project, so I count it as a rousing success. If you're at all bookish, you might want to give it a try.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Want Is Not Need

While the title of this post is one of those "Well, duh!" aphorisms, I find myself lured from lethargy to type those words. I'm by no means certain that I need to type this but I certainly want to type this because it seems to me that much of the trouble we bring on ourselves is a result of our conflating and confusing the simple concepts of want and need.

While discussing this subject with my lovely and talented spouse, she reminded me of a time long ago when our kids were still kids and learning the ways of the world and the ways we use language to make sense of things. In the store and on a budget, Christine tried to teach the boys the difference between want and need. "You don't need Oreos," she explained, "you just want them." Our boys were sharp students and learned quickly. Needs trump wants so from that day forward they learned and practiced the mantra of the marketplace, a grating whine centered on the word need with the pronunciation drawn out so it sounds like neeeeeeeeed. Christine really did need some quiet and a respite from the high-pitched pleas, so more than a few times we found ourselves with the Oreos we desperately needed.

The problems with the tricks we learn as children is that we often keep using these tricks past their useful lifespans. We believe our own words and build a world where happiness is always just a few key objects away. Whether we're lusting after the latest iPhone or we've convinced ourselves we would really be happy if we could only get down to 57 good things, we seem to think stuff is the problem. We have too much or too little, but either way it's a drag. Stuff is sticky and it's hard to let it go, but stuff seldom falls cleanly into the need it or not piles. In some sense, we need to want, for want is what keeps us moving. Our goal often turn out to be mystical macguffin, but it doesn't matter if our Maltese Falcon turns out to be a cheap forgery, if it has gotten us in motion. I suspect the value lies not in the goal, but in the pursuit.

When stuff, either a lack of item A or too much of item B, is seen as a need when it is in fact a want, we run the serious risk of either delaying our departure or riding with the brakes on. I was prompted to write these words after reading this blog post:

The man describing himself as "Average Joe Cyclist" does a good job describing how his e-bike helps him ride more, gets him in motion and made him stronger and that's all well and good. If e-bikes help more people ride, exercise and do more with less, more power to 'em. But I think Average Joe missed an important lesson in his tale: he made it up his big hill, carrying the motor and batteries as dead weight. Yet he concludes that he needs to ride with an electric assist. How does he know? The evidence I see in his story leads me to a different conclusion.

I love all different kinds of bicycles but something strikes me as a bit off when I hear people say things like "you need a Long Haul Trucker to tour cross country." A Trucker is a fine machine and if you want one, go for it. But do you need it? Or do you just want it?

We gain strength and grace by moving forward, pressing ahead when we're not quite sure we have all we need. We seldom have all we want. But if we try sometimes we just might find, we've got what we need.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Seattle I-90 Bike Tunnel

Yesterday I rode into Seattle to have lunch with my friend Barb. As I rolled off the floating bridge and through the tunnel it occurred to me (not for the first time) how amazing it is that we have both a bridge that floats on water and a tunnel that serves both pedestrians and cyclists. These are the big pieces of infrastructure that really do make a big difference. The bridge cuts miles off the alternatives of going around the north or south ends of Lake Washington and tunnel eliminates a huge climb by boring straight through the ridge that forms the eastern edge of Seattle.

While I've ridden through the tunnel a few thousand times, I realized I didn't know much about its construction. Arriving home, that curiosity paired with Google led me Robert's page about the I-90 tunnel. And now, as Paul Harvey used to say, I know the rest of the story.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Instigators and the Opening Day of Biking Season

Photos by Mark Canizaro and Brad Hawkins.

One of my great fortunes in this world is that I know Instigators. Instigators are folks who pick a point on a map, a day on a calendar or something else random and not only say "hey, let's do this thing", they show up and do it.

The first of the year is a good excuse to shut down the usual business that fills the day. The Seattle Cargo Crew refer to this day as the Opening Day of Biking Season and my own gang of instigators use riding to their ride as an excuse to ride. It's a wonderful thing.

I live 17 miles east of Seattle but Brad, Mark and Michael, who all live in Seattle, ride out to meet up with me in my icy part of the world. I'd managed to convince them via email that despite Seattle's relatively clear streets, it was still icy as hell in the Issaquah convergence zone. These are times when tires are chosen for maximum traction, not minimal rolling resistance.

After a brief, strategic stop at our local purveyor of warm, caffeinated beverages, we roll south out of town toward the May Valley Road. Michael's theory that the May Valley Road, being on the southern, sun-exposed side of Squak Mountain, will be fairly ice-free proves to be mostly true. The same can't be said for exposed water bottles, which quickly ice up in the sub-freezing air.

We loop northward on Coal Creek Parkway, pause for pictures on the icy trail at the Bellevue Slough. Crossing Mercer Island on my old, highly optimized commute route, we calculate that I've ridden these roads and crossed these bridges thousands of times. There are always new sites, overlaid with old memories. One of the things I miss from this commute is the smell of breakfast bacon that used to come from one of the houses along North Mercer Way. A few years ago either the owner moved or made some healthy resolution because the bacon aroma went away. But the memory, that lingers.

Our cautious pace is not up to Brad's optimistic time-table so we head not to the start, but to the destination of the Cargo Crew. We are the first riders at the park and Brad informs us of his generous and welcome plan to buy us all Phở. Warm soup on a brisk day is very welcome and while the three of us stake our claim to one of the park's sunnier picnic tables and split up our stash of little muchie bars, Brad pedals off to the one of International District's many fine delis for the soup.

Brad and the Cargo folks converge on the park at about the same time. Like last year, the Cargo people bring more than most people would ever think you could carry on a bicycle. Cast iron frying pans, a wood stove, wood, several axes, charcoal, and vast variety food and drinks are quickly and skillfully deployed. One woman passes me an insulated mug the size of my head. "It's hot chocolate with some whiskey in it," she tells me. It's actually hot whiskey with a bit of chocolate in it, but I don't bother to correct her.

Aaron, Val, Megan, Carl and all the rest put on a hell of an annual party. I'm glad to know such instigators, fine folks who know that pretty much any day can be a good day to ride.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA