I Broke The Law Tonight

Tonight I broke the law. I did it knowingly and willfully. I'll probably do it again tomorrow and probably over 100 times before next April. At least I hope to, if my work and personal schedule do not get in the way.

The Act

What did I do that was so heinous? I rode my bicycle home from work.

I did it in the dark on a multi-use trail, the East Lake Sammamish Trail, which runs along East Lake Sammamish Parkway in Redmond and Sammamish in Washington State. This trail, along with other connecting trails, offer amazing benefits to commuters, like me, to allow us to ride on trails where we are the fastest user, as opposed to riding on roads where we have to mix it up with cars, trucks, and motorcycles. On these trails the worst thing we have to worry about are retractable dog leashes, joggers wearing headphones, and soccer-moms walking three or four abreast.

What law was I breaking?

King County Code Section 7.12.480  - Presence in parks during hours the park is closed.  No person shall enter or be present in a county park area during hours the park is closed except persons who have paid the applicable use fees to camp in designated campsites or trailer sites, or to moor boats overnight at designated sites and persons using park facilities as part of an event authorized by the department.  Park areas are open dawn to dusk unless open for scheduled or reserved recreational activities.  (Ord. 12003 § 12, 1995:  Ord. 8166 § 6, 1987:  Ord. 6798 § 48, 1984). (Emphasis added)

Ouch. The trail is effectively closed during hours of darkness. Not just the East Lake Sammamish Trail, but also the following very popular trails used by commuters-

  • Burke-Gilman Trail (Connects Seattle to Woodinville, WA)
  • Sammamish River Trail (Connects Woodinville to Redmond)
  • Marymoor Connector Trail (Connects the Sammamish River Trail to the East Lake Sammamish Trail)
  • Snoqualmie Valley Trail
  • Interurban Trail

The Punchline

If the dusk-to-dawn hours were enforced, every bike commuter would have to take an alternate route during Pacific Standard Time (i.e. when Daylight Saving Time is not in effect) because, during that time of year, sunset is somewhere in the neighborhood of 4:30-5pm.

This would impact THOUSANDS of people in the greater Seattle area.

What is the possible penalty?

Sections 7.12.650-670 describe the possible penalties of this offense: up to a $500 fine, up to 90 days in jail, and suspension of use privileges (i.e. leave and don't come back). These are enforced through the King County Sheriff. Yes, this means business.

How do I know all this?

I was at a Sammamish City Council meeting in March of this year where they were discussing the East Lake Sammamish Trail (which is currently in the process of being paved). A local homeowner asked the City and County and the King County Sheriff to enforce the current trail hours (same as KC parks, essentially dusk to dawn), with locking gates, fencing-in of the trail corridor, and fines for violators. Neither the City Council nor the County commented on this “issue” so I did a little research on the county website and could only find mention of park hours of operation.

So I submitted this question to the King County website-

In regards to the various multi-use trails that the county maintains, such as the Sammamish River Trail, East Lake Sammamish Trail, Snoqualmie Valley Trail, etc., and their hours of operation: are there enforced hours of operations for these multi-use trails? Most KC parks have operating hours such as "opens half an hour before sunrise, closes half an hour after dusk" or similar. Are there similar rules in place for the trails?

I use several trails on a regular basis as part of my commute. During the fall/winter months (i.e. when Daylight Saving Time is NOT in effect) I ride to work in the dark (6:30-8am) and come home in the dark (between 5:30-7pm). If the trails are "closed" during hours of darkness it will significantly impact my ability to use the trails during my commute.

After being bounced from one person to another I finally received this reply, pretty much a cut/paste type of response (all names shortened)-

Good afternoon, Lee:

Thank you for contacting King County regarding the hours of operation for King County’s multi-use trails. We appreciate your inquiry. Currently, the hours of operation for these trails are a half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset . Per King County Code:

            7.12.480 Presence in parks during hours the park is closed.  No person shall enter or be present in a county park area during hours the park is closed except persons who have paid the applicable use fees to camp in designated campsites or trailer sites, or to moor boats overnight at designated sites and persons using park facilities as part of an event authorized by the department.  Park areas are open dawn to dusk unless open for scheduled or reserved recreational activities.  (Ord. 12003 § 12, 1995:  Ord. 8166 § 6, 1987:  Ord. 6798 § 48, 1984).

Please do not hesitate to contact me directly if you have further questions or comments on this rule. You can reach me at <email redacted> or at 206-477-4527.

Thank you for using King County Parks and Trails. Have a nice day!

Sincerely,
Matthew P.
Parks and Recreation Division

This raises more questions than it answers so I replied with this-

How is this enforced on multi-use trails that are essentially commute corridors with no access controls (i.e. gates)?

At a recent Sammamish city council meeting regarding the East Lake Sammamish Trail, one home owner along the trail corridor asked that King County Sheriff enforce the park operating hours on the trail through fines and/or arrests. This would mean I can’t use a King County maintained trail for bike commuting for 6 months out of the year since the sun sets well before I ride home. The same goes for the thousands of other commuters who use the BGT, SRT, I-90 trail, etc.

After 2 weeks I received the following response, which sums up the current situation pretty well.

Hi Lee.

I'm the regional trails coordinator, so your questions have found their way to my desk. I'm not certain that you got a final answer, so I'll wade into the last question. If you have already received an answer, then please consider this as additional guidance.

With respect to the question below, it is true that, presently, King County's regional trails are closed after dark. They are essentially parks in this regard. We recognize, however, that people commuting on the trails to and from work or school often need to use them after hours. It has been our decades-long policy that this use is tolerated, if not broadcast. Occasionally, someone will be stopped by local law enforcement as they commute to Seattle at 5:00 am and asked to leave a trail, but it hasn't happened very often! Of course, quiet commuting is better than boisterous commuting in these circumstances. Folks along the East Lake Sammamish Trail through Sammamish are particularly sensitive to trail use after hours with the concern that trail access may encourage crimes and/or inappropriate behavior. They are most anxious about their privacy, and we respect this.

Regional trails throughout the region under the management of other jurisdictions such as Seattle and WSDOT are generally open 24 hours. King County manages about one-half of the regional trails, so our rules are not universal. Of course, many of our trails are the ones most people use, so that makes it a little more complicated. We are proposing to modify regional trail hours to make this more consistent throughout the network, however. This requires a change to the King County Code, and there is no telling when that might occur. The ELST may always be an exception. We may have to continue to officially close the trail at dusk. This would likely necessitate bicyclists using East Lake Sammamish Parkway for part of their commute. This route will eventually have full bike lanes along its length, so it will provide a more bike-friendly environment along with better illumination.

I hope I have answered your question. In summary, the ELST is closed dusk to dawn, but we recognize, value, and generally tolerate regional trail commuters after dark. ELST creates a unique situation that may present some commuter challenges, but East Lake Sammamish Parkway may provide an alternative for part of your commute.

If you have any additional questions, please don't hesitate to contact us.

Sincerely,
Robert F.
Regional Trails Coordinator

The short version is this: there are hours of operations (pretty much a CYA policy) but we are not enforcing it on commuter trails. Why have a trail that doubles as a commute corridor if those commuters can’t use it half of the year? And those months where it makes the most sense from a safety point of view? And the hours will only be enforced on this trail because of... the local homeowners? What about the homeowners along the Burke-Gilman Trail? I decided not to push my luck on that point.

I pinged Robert one more time, 6 months later, to see if anything had changed in regards to the King County Code. His reply was exactly what I expected to hear-

Hi Lee,

Glad you checked back. The rules are currently the same. A change of County Code is currently being considered by the County Council, but I don’t believe final decisions have been made. I believe we should hear soon, however.

Robert F.

The moral of the story and the future

So what happens next? King County plans to finish the paving project on the south half of the ELST sometime in 2017, pending ongoing legal action by local homeowners.

The King County Council may update the current county code to allow these trail corridors to be used during commute times, even if they are after dark, but I'm not holding my breath on that one.

Moral of the story: keep riding, be quiet, be a good citizen, and hopefully we won't get cited for riding a PUBLIC TRAIL in the dark. Hey, at least they paved it!

}B^)

Getting Back On Track: T-Minus 4 Days

"What does a dyslexic owl say? How! How! How! He should get together with another owl and the werewolf then all they need to know is when." - Boy #3

That's how my day started. How about yours? }B^)

It ended like this...

Our town is on a plateau with rather steep sides all around. Once you ride off the plateau, getting back up can be a challenge. On the north side of the Sammamish Plateau, where we live, there are three choices, all of which have 1/4 mile sections that with a 10% average grade-

 

  1. Sahalee Way - 1 mile, average grade 8%, max grade 12%
  2. NE 42nd Way - 1.4 miles, average grade 6%, max grade 24%
  3. Inglewood Hill Rd - 1/2 mile, averge grade 9%, max grade 13%

 

There is also 244th NE but it is a little out of the way and very narrow, not my perfect combination. 

Today I was riding home with my eldest son, Patrick, who recently turned 12. He has always been an enthusiastic bike rider and takes every opportunity to ride with me, even when it means riding up big hills. Today we rode from my office to his swim practice via the East Lake Sammamish Trail and then home via Inglewood Hill Rd. I like to dangle carrots in front of him to see if he can push himself a little more.

Today's challenge was a big one: ride to the top of Inglewood Hill Road without stopping.

The reward: a trip to his favorite fast food place, Jack-in-the-Box.

I guess I already spoiled it, didn't I? The last time he rode up this hill, not more than a month ago, he was very proud of himself when he only stopped 3 times. This time he got into a groove and held it all the way up the hill, without stopping or putting a foot down until he reached the top. We consider the Inglewood Beach Club sign the "official" top of the hill, even though the grade isn't completely level for another 20 meters.

For me this represents 3 consecutive days of effective exercise. I cannot remember the last time I did this. Yes, it has been many, many months, probably April of last year, just before my injury.

Tomorrow promises to be a bit wet but we still plan to do some mountain biking at Tolt MacDonald Park at arguably the most last-minute campout ever planned by boy scouts. 2 days notice. Sheesh!

Bike Light Review


For 4 months out of the year I commute home in the dark. Not sunset, dusk, or twilight, I'm talking the dark of NIGHT, the witching hour, when good little boys/girls turn into pumpkins... OK, I'm out of lame darkness-related sayings. It's dark. On December 21st Seattle gets 8 hours and 25 minutes of daylight (sunrise to sunset). On the flip side we get nearly 16 hours of daylight on June 21. It is SOOO fun going for a bike ride at 8pm and coming back an hour later and the sun still hasn't gone down, but I digress. Back to the dark.

During the dark months of the year riding home in traffic is scary. Are you visible enough? Are the drivers paying attention? And if it is raining all bets are off. I wrote a lot about bike safety a while back and have strong opinions about what I think it takes to stay safe on the roads. Being visible is one of the most important things you do to improve your night time safety.

Can you spot the ninja cyclist in this video?

 

What if you could be brigher without breaking the bank?

I started off my winter riding career with the basic Cateye front and rear lights (similar to the HL-EL135 and TL-TD150 respectively). It only took me a couple of night-time rides to figure out that these lights simply would not do.

There are 2 types of lights-

  1. "Be Seen" Lights - cheaper lights that flash or strobe and are used primarily to increase your visibility. They are not very good if you actually want to see the road on a dark street. Cost: usually less than $20 each.
  2. Headlights - These lights are bright enough to allow you to see the road/trail on a dark night with no other light sources around (i.e. street lights, the moon, or other vehicles). Cost: the cheaper ones start at $50 and go up from there.

By watching various clearance sales and websites (i.e. chainlove.com) I was able to pick up a very nice front headlight that goes up to 600 lumens-

Front light: Light & Motion ARC NiMH Bike Light (Discontinued)
Rear light: Planet Bike Superflash Stealth Rear

But I was unsatisfied with my overall visibility at night. One day I was shopping at REI and found a couple of products that would fit the bill: increase visibility at a low price point.

Wheel lights: CatEye SL-LD120 Orbit Spoke Light Kit

Frame light: BikeGlow Safety Light

Unboxing

The lights came with basic instructions for installation and battery insertion. No need for complicated tutorials here, these lights are pretty simple. 

Installation

Putting these lights on my bike was relatively simple. On the Bike Glow I attached the battery pack and wound the light cord around the bike frame, securing the end with the included zip tie and electrical tape.

The Orbit light was even easier: attach the center groove to a spoke and slide it toward the rim until the ajoining spokes secure the sides in place.

The final result, as seen in the dark-

Comparisons Videos

Now for the field test! To show just how these lights operate in the dark I, here are some videos...

The "before" shot - riding with just my front and rear lights.

 

 The "middle" shot - riding with just the new lights.

"After" - All lit up and nowhere to go (yet).

Summary

CatEye SL-LD120 Orbit Spoke Light Kit

Pros:

  1. Great attachment to the spokes, very solid. We'll see how it wears over time.
  2. Uses a very common battery.
  3. Doesn't distract the rider's eye during use.

Cons:

  1. Difficult to turn on/off without the right leverage.
  2. Only available in 1 color (amber).

 

BikeGlow Safety Light

Pros:

  1. Battery pack uses velcro strap and rubber to stay in place: very secure.
  2. Zip ties and electrical tape included for installation.
  3. Doesn't distract the rider's eye during use, even though it is visible (depends on how you install).
  4. On/off button is easily accessible (I mounted the batter pack right below my seat on the top tube).

Cons:

  1. Emits a very high frequency whine during operation which is only audible when not moving. When the light is in the flashing mode the whine goes on and off with the light.
  2. Limited retail availability (REI only?)

Conclusion

These lights are cool and draw a LOT of attention. They greatly increase your visibility from the side where my other lights are primarily focused on the front and back. 

What about battery life? Not enough experience to guage this one. The Bike Glow runs on a 4 x AA batteries while the Orbit light uses a pair of CR2032 batteries. So far they have survived a couple weeks worth of night commuting with no issues or run-downs. 

The only downside that I can see is that they may attract TOO MUCH attention. They may cause people to gawk and increase other risk factors. Right now it's fun to tell people about them.

My kids saw it and immediately started calling my bike a light cycle and have named it "Flynn" after the main character of the movie Tron.


Light Cycle from Tron: Legacy

Bike Shopping!

Cracked rear dropout on the chainstay, driveside.

Since this can be considered a gear review, please note my standard review disclaimer.

This post was STARTED back in October but, well, life happens. I actually made the purchase last July. Now you can enjoy it after 3 months of editing!

Back in July my trusty all-weather commuter bike bit the dust. It was sad to lose an old friend but there is an upside...

I get to go bike shopping!

My primary training method for triathlon season is bike commuting so replacing my main commuter bike was a top priority before the weather turned sour.

At the outset I must let it be known that I am a geek: technically minded, detail oriented, and obsessive about certain things that most people would consider trivial. As such this entire process may seem remarkably similar to a technical RFP (Request For Proposals)

Why not just troll Craigslist for a cheap beater bike? I tried that for a few weeks and couldn't find a bike that fit my requirements that was in my size. There are lots of bikes on Criagslist but once you get into the larger/sturdier bikes... you would have better luck finding a date for Saturday night that wouldn't land you in jail.

In 2007 I went bike shopping for the first time in nearly 15 years. I was floored by the shear number of choices to be made. I like having lots of alternatives but the number of decision points can be staggering-

  1. Bike type: standard diamond frame, recumbent, or trike?
  2. Riding surface: road, off-road, or hybrid?
  3. Frame material: steel, aluminum, carbon, titanium, wood, bamboo...? (the list goes on)
  4. Big name brand, low-cost leader, or custom built?

I'll just stop right there. That only covers the basics of getting started. From there you have to think about brakes, drive train, handlebars, and a hundred other factors that go into making "the perfect bike."

HINT: This is no such thing as the perfect bike. Trying to find the perfect bike will drive you nuts.

Shopping Methodology

These are the basic steps I used to decide on my latest purchase-

  1. Gather requirements
  2. Look around at what is currently on the market
  3. Make an exhaustive list of possible choices
  4. Narrow down the list through online research, visiting local bike shops, and in online forums
  5. Test-ride the top 3
  6. Final decision and purchase

Step #1: Gather requirements

Buying my first real bike in 2007 was what my wife called my "rookie mistake." Over the next several years I took notes about what I liked/disliked about my bike and looked for other models that would have better suited my needs. I ended up with a pretty good list of priorities to use in my bike evaluation process.

Main purpose: serve as an all-weather commuter (95%) and a touring bike for on and off-road (5%).

Requirements-

  1. NOT carbon fiber: steel or aluminum preferred
  2. Disc brakes
  3. Lower gears via a compact triple or large granny-gear on the rear cassette
  4. Drop bars
  5. Mounts for fenders and rear rack
  6. Purchase from a local bike shop (LBS)
  7. Heavy-duty (rims, frame, forks) 

 "Nice to have" items-

  1. Mounts for a front rack
  2. 150+ mm saddle (I'm a big guy)

My first requirements were fit, durability, and a LBS but eventually I added disc brakes to the list after seeing how many were available in the 2011-12 models. In the colder/wetter months the route I like to use has a very steep hill (NE 42nd way, 16-20% grade) and going down that hill with wet rim brakes is almost a religious experience. 

Step #2: Check out what's on the market

This has been going on since 2007. Yes, I have been looking around and taking notes on bikes since I bought my last one almost 5 years ago.

Step #3: The exhaustive list

My short list turned out not to be so short-

Kona Honky Inc.

Kona Sutra

Redline Conquest Classic

Salsa Casseroll

Salsa Vaya

Specialized Tricross Elite Disc

Surly LHT

Surly Cross Check

Trek Portland

Steps #4 and 5: Narrowing down the list and test riding

After some extensive online research the was whittled down to the Kona Honky (Eastside Ski & Sport), Salsa Vaya (Kirkland Bike), and the Specialized Tricross (Pacific Bicycle). Now the real fun begins: shopping the local stores and test riding!

Kona Honky Inc.

2012KonaHonky.jpg

My first stop was Eastside Ski & Sport to check out the Kona Honky Inc. Don't let the name get to you: this bike is all business. Although it does sound like you are about to blow your nose.

Pros: 

  • Steel frame
  • Disc brakes (Avid BB-7)
  • Drop Bars
  • More "upright" geometry than your run-of-the-mill road bike
  • Mounts for front/rear racks and fenders

Cons:

  • Short cage derailleur, 12-28 cassette (not the best climbing gear)
  • No clearance for tires wider than 28mm.
  • Didn't like the fit on the larger sizes

Summary: It fell short in only a couple of places. Very nice bike with a quality build. Handling was great with fantastic response.

Salva Vaya

2012SalsaVaya.jpg

Next stop: Kirkland Bike to check out the Salsa Vaya. This bike caught my interest last year when I discovered they had a titanium version. If my budget was a little bigger I would have jumped on the Ti version: it is one sweet looking ride. 

Pros: 

  • Steel frame
  • Disc brakes (Avid BB-5)
  • Drop Bars
  • VERY "upright" geometry, more so than the Kona Honky Inc.
  • Mounts for front/rear racks and fenders

 Cons:

  • 48/36 Front chainring (compared to 50/34 on other models)
  • Didn't like the fit 

Summary: It was hard to say no to this bike. The fit just wasn't right. I had my eye on it for almost 18 months and was ready to buy it until I saw...

Specialized TriCross Elite Disc

2012SpecialisedTricross.jpg

I dropped into Gerks Ski and Cycle in Redmond, WA, on a whim one day after work. After only a few minutes I found the Specialied TriCross Elite Disc sitting in the very back of the store without a price tag. Turns out it belonged to the sales guy. They didn't have a floor model because it was a 2012 model and they weren't yet shipping in quantity. Gerks didn't even have literature on it. The bike was gorgeous! The look of the brushed aluminum was amazing. I was SOLD. The sales guy said he would call around to see where I could find one. I gave him my number and went home. He never called back.

The next day I went down to Pacific Bicycle, just over a mile from my house in Sammamish, WA. The sales guy was much younger than the other stores but he knew his stuff (turns out he was the son of the owner). They didn't have the new TriCross Disc model but they did have a TriCross Comp, which has the same geometry, and in the right size (61cm frame size, measured from the height of the seat tube). 

Pros: 

  • Aluminum frame
  • Disc brakes (Avid BB-5)
  • Drop Bars
  • Cyclocross geometry, not as upright as the Honky Inc. or Vaya but still quite comfortable
  • Mounts for front/rear racks and fenders
  • 155mm saddle
  • Secondary brake levers (along the top, flat-part of the drop bar)

 Cons:

  • Aluminum gets a little wobbly when I really load up the rack.  
  • Rear disc is outside the rear triangle, just above the rear dropout, which means I needed a rear rack that attaches via an extra-long skewer.

Summary: The aluminum frame isn't as stiff as steel but it still beats my carbon bike in terms of handling. Everything else about the bike is what I was looking for: durability, disc brakes, and the right gearing (climbing gears but high gears as well).

Step #6: Final decision

I was sold on the TriCross Disc before I even officially rode it. I took the Tricross Comp for a test ride and ordered the disc model on the spot. 

The first thing I did after getting it home was replace the incredibly cheap plastic platform pedals with my Shimano A530s(SPD/platform combo). 

The disc brakes stop very quickly. When I first got on the bike I was just about to ask them to tighten the brakes and then, mid-sentence, I almost flipped over the bars in the parking lot when I braked too hard. 

So far I am very satisfied with my choice. I should cross the 1000 miles barrier by the end of the month (2 weeks away!). No issues so far other than normal maintenance and cleaning. I did have to learn the care and feeding of disc brakes. That little red wheel has to be turned slightly every few weeks to keep the brakes adjusted properly.

Here it is fresh home from the shop with rack and fenders (still has the stock pedals)-

WP_000194.jpg

A couple of honorable mentions:

Salsa Fargo: Imagine a 29er mountain bike with drop bars and you have the Fargo. Not quite what I'm looking for in terms of riding style but this one certainly is bullet-proof. The website even uses the term "bikepacking". They even have a titanium version. 

Salsa Casseroll: This one bike of note that was eliminated early due to lack of disc brakes. It reminds me a LOT of the old ‘70s Schwinn that my Dad handed down to me in the late 80’s. If I wasn’t so set on disc brakes I may have purchased this instead. Very sweet looking ride.

Kona Sutra: One of the best loaded-touring bikes. Not really the ride I want. It's like driving a truck. I was looking for more of a SUV-hybrid.

Specialized Source 11: Very similar to the TriCross but with a Shimano SuperNova generator hub, integrated lights with routed cables, rack/fenders, a front light, and a belt drive with interally-geared hub. I knocked if of the list due to the price ($2700) and the flat bar otherwise this is my perfect commuter.

Trek Soho: Like the Specialized Source but with a belt drive and internally-geared rear hub.

Update: I was just pointed to the Civia Bryant. WOW. Another worthy choice but it missed my radar before I made my purchase. Internally geared rear hub, belt drive, drop bars, disc brakes, steel frame... WOW.

Bike Commuting: Safety

This post is the third in a series on bike commuting and covers some of the "how" related to bike commuting. Other posts include How?, Why?, When?, and Weather Issues.

Update: Active.com just posted a great article titled "How To Handle a Bike Accident With a Vehicle." It's a great read outlining the steps you should take if you are involved in a bike/car accident. The same principles apply in just about any moving-vehicle accident.

From the article-

"So what do you do if you're in a cycling accident with a vehicle? If you're healthy enough to walk away from the crash site, that doesn't mean you should consider that the only victory you need. Instead, take these steps to make sure you're as protected as you can be."

~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~-~

When I tell people that I commute by bicycle to work year-round I get some pretty interesting responses. After telling me I'm crazy, the responses generally fall into three basic categories-

  1. "It rains 9 months of the year in Seattle."
  2. "It is really dark for 6 months out of the year."
  3. "Wait, don't you live at the top of a big hill?"

My first response is typically a rip-off of Dr. Sheldon Cooper: "I'm not crazy, my mother had me tested." Well, she didn't actually have me tested but it does get a laugh. Am I crazy for riding in the rain? Sometimes I wonder about that myself. I bike in all weather except snow/ice.

Sunny and hot? Check.

Sunny and cold? Check.

Cold and monsoon rain? Check.

Dark when I leave in the morning and dark when I get home in the evening? Check.

Dark and raining so hard that you literally POUR water out of your shoes? Check.

When I walk in the door, dripping wet and soaked through to the skin with a smile on my face, my wife always looks at me funny.

Me: "Wow, I feel like a wet rat."

Wife: "...And my nose is cold! And my tail is cold!" (Quoting 101 Dalmatians)

It is possible to be soaking wet and still warm but I'll leave that for a future post about commuting in the rain.

General safety

Safety is my #1 concern for any outdoor activity, much to the dismay of my children. My most stressful time as a parent was standing at the top of a 750 foot cliff east of Seattle with my three boys. I have never been more afraid as a parent as I was during our 15 minutes at the top looking down at the lake below. Now I understand those "child leashes" you see at the mall. Call me a control freak but when my kids repeated ignored my request to "stay away from the edge!" it ended our little hiking trip in a hurry. This is one of the few photos I took from the top before we headed down-

 Boy #3 looking out over the great expanse of the Cascades from Rattlesnake Ledge just east of Seattle.

Boy #3 looking out over the great expanse of the Cascades from Rattlesnake Ledge just east of Seattle.

I could write page after page after page of basic safety information but I'm sure most of you don't need to partake of that particular brand of sleep-aid. Countless other folks have addressed that issue far more eloquently and authoritatively. I can't get away from some of that but, instead of waxing profoundly obvious, I hope to contribute some of the things I do that may be unique, peculiar, or just plain odd.

Riding a bicycle on roads in the U.S. is a risky proposition no matter how you slice it. You could be riding along a country road, minding your own business, when *BAM!* you are hit from behind by a driver with a suspended license who isn't paying attention (driver in this case claimed to not even know he hit a cyclist and continued on his way to work). You can't avoid the bad choices of other nut-jobs out there but you can make it easier for them to see you and avoid getting into a bad situation.

Visibility

A friend from work, who commutes by both bicylcle and motorcycle, gave me this advice a couple of years ago: "Treat all cars as if they don't see see you. You are invisible to them."

What happens when they don't see you? You have to take evasive action...

The rider in that case was crossing in a crosswalk, with the walk signal in his favor, and still was hit.  The driver wasn't paying attention and was trying to run a light. Riding between stopped cars like that is also fraught with peril but the main issue here is that the driver simply didn't see the rider in time to miss him. She did see him early enough to only tap him with her car as opposed to running straight through him which undoubtedly saved his life.

So how do you make yourself seen? After you have realized that you cannot make people see you, consider the following steps-

  • Bright Clothing - the fluorescent green/yellow jackets seem to be very popular these days. I have a couple of jerseys that color but my jackets are old-school yellow. "Construction orange" also works well. On cold days I look something like this-
Me at the Cape Blanco lighthouse, Cape Blanco State Park, Cycle Oregon 2011 Day 4.
  • Reflective clothing and bike stickers - Most of my fall/winter commute clothing has reflective piping, screen printing, or decals. My bike and bags have them too. I even added a few. The best reflective material for stickers is the stuff they use to make road signs. There are various sources out there on the interwebs.
  • "Other" lights - I have been experimenting with other forms of "non-traditional lighting" for my bike. (UPDATE: My bike light review!) Seeing a guy with his bike wrapped completely in Christmas lights inspired me. A couple of people around Seattle even have the Down-Low Glow. This subject will have to have its own after I have some time to play with the lights and actually review them.

Not completely sold on the idea of bright clothing? This video does a nice job illustrating the difference between a cyclist wearing a bright jacket and one wearing all black. Which one would you rather be while riding in traffic on a rainy night?

Riding on trails

As far as overall safety is concerned you can't beat trails. Without the threat of cars your chances of actually dying while riding are significantly reduced. While this is true about fatalities it is not necessarily true about injuries or incidents in general. Trails are filled with other types of traffic such as walkers, joggers, kids just learning to ride their bicycle, skateboarders, roller-bladers, and, my all-time favorite, cross-country skiers. Yes, I have seen skiers on the trails that I use in the Redmond area but they are typically riding on skis with wheels. If this were Butte, Montana there might be real skiers on the trail but that would require actual snow.

...or cross-country snow boarders. You can't make this stuff up, but I digress.

I have a commute route that is back roads and trails all the way home. Yes, it is about 2.5 miles further but on cold, dark, rainy days I would much rather take the long way home and meet 2-5 cars than be passed by 100+ cars with impaired visibility and stopping distance.

Some tips for trail riding-

  1. Cover your light: When you pass oncoming traffic, be sure to cover your bright-as-the-surface-of-the-sun headlight. It's tough to see when you are riding into a bright headlight. As you get closer to an oncoming rider, cover your light with your hand. I've been known to shout at people who don't do this because if I can't see the least I can do is annoy or scare you. }B^)
  2. Watch out for young kids on small bikes. Multi-use trails, like the Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle or Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, have all types of traffic but young kids, although cute, are the worst. They are unsteady, slow, and, worst of all, unpredictable. Don't get me wrong, I love watching little kids learn to ride, and they should always be allowed on public trails, but I find them very difficult to ride around safely.
  3. DO NOT wear headphones. They are very distracting and you can't hear me yell "on your left". Or the cursing of that jogger you just side-swiped.
  4. Watch out for Dog Walkers. Gotta love them. Most dogs are curious and want to play, unless they are looking to chew off your face. Either way dogs love to come toward you or dart across the trail to clothesline you with their leashes. Give them lots of room, slow down, and keep your hands on the brakes.

Riding in traffic

If you like to ride faster than 15 MPH then roads are pretty much your only legal choice in Washington State. Some trails have speed limits at 15 MPH, some don't have any, and some are as low as 10 MPH (no, I'm not kidding).

I have heard a few cyclists say that you must assume that all cars are trying to kill you. While this does put you in a defensive mindset while riding, which is a good thing, it can make you over paranoid and that doesn't really help you ride safer. You should ALWAYS be on the look-out and ready to react.

...even when you are riding across Africa and forget to yield to cross traffic, which apparently doesn't stop.

  1. Get a rear-view mirror. I use the 3rd Eye bicycle mirror bar end mirror. It has the perfect mix of adjusts and stability.
  2. Stay OFF the sidewalks! The only times I have EVER come close to hitting a bicycle rider while driving my car was when they were riding on a sidewalk at a faster-than-jogging speed (i.e. more than about 8 MPH). Drivers don't expect sidewalk traffic to be going faster than that speed so they rarely look.
  3. Ride in bike lanes or, when there is no bike lane, in the lane of traffic. Your local laws may vary, but in Washington State you are allowed to ride wherever it is safe: if the bike lane is not safe then you are allowed to take the lane (RCW 46.61.770)
  4. MOST IMPORTANT: be predictable.

Your local and state laws may differ significantly from Washington State so make sure to do your homework.

When I am riding in traffic I go for bike lanes and wide shoulders, preferring roads with these features over those that don't. If you find yourself on a road without either I suggest taking up a lane. Yes, I mean that you should block traffic if you have to. If you ride too close to the right then cars are tempted to squeeze past in the remaining space which may not be the safest thing for you, the rider. You should always use your best judgement and obey traffic laws but that is my personal suggestion about lane placement.

Drafting and Pace Lines

Call them drafters, pace lines, wheel suckers, whatever.. I hate them. Not that I personally dislike the riders I just don't like riding that close to other riders. It rarely turns out well for me. Several times, as recently as last month, I have almost crashed in pace-lines because of the stupid actions of another rider. Being in a pace line is a privilege, not a right. If you learn the etiquette and hand signals for pace line riding it can be a life-saver on long rides. It can also be a disaster.

Moral of the story: don't use aero-bars unless you are at the FRONT of the pace line. 

Many times people have come up behind me to draft and I don’t even know they are there. Now that I ride with a rear-view mirror this is not as much of a problem. One day back in '07, while riding home on a local MUT, I passed a guy going the other direction who waved vigorously and shouted, “Hi Tim!” Someone behind me shouted something like, “Hi Mark!” He was so close it almost made me jump out off my bike. I had no clue he was there. Perhaps I should be doing a routine clearing of the baffles a la “Crazy Ivan” from Red October (my wife’s suggestion)? Drafting behind someone without their knowledge seems like a very dangerous situation.

Not long after that I was riding on the Sammamish River Trail from Bothell to Redmond in Washington State. I passed through a section with some tight turns under a railroad trestle in Redmond. As I came around one of the bends I found a mother goose crossing the trail with her goslings. Canadian geese are very common in Redmond along the Sammamish River, especially in the fall and spring. Good thing I had already slowed down for the blind curves. When I saw the geese I hit my brakes hard and came to a stop when I suddenly heard, "Oh Sh*t!" behind me followed immediately by the unmistakable sound of metal hitting metal and carbon fiber several times. I immediately jumped to the side thinking I was about to get hit from behind. Scattered on the ground behind me were 4 riders all in a heap. They had been drafting me and I didn't even know it. They all ended up riding away from the scene with only scrapes and bruises leaving me shaking my head.

As they rode away I called out, "How long were you guys behind me?"

"Since Woodinville." That was 6 miles or about 20 minutes given my average speed back then. The next week I bought a mirror.

If you MUST draft...

  1. Stay away from me. Seriously. If I wanted you to draft me I would invite you. The only drafting I allow is in times of war.
  2. Make sure the person you are drafting knows that you are back there. Shout something like, "On your wheel!" or "Do you mind if I draft?"
  3. Know the etiquette and hand signals for turns, slowing, road hazards, etc. The best way to do that is to ask someone because everyone seems to do it somewhat differently.
  4. Only take the lead if you know what you are doing. If you don't have a clue how to lead a pace line admit it and ask to stay back in the pack. If you screw things up you will get some choice words from the other riders and then dropped like 3rd period French.

Hills

I live around hills. Big hills. Think "San Francisco" style hills. They simply can't be avoided. Don't believe me? My rain route has a hill section 200m long with an average grade of around 16% and a max of about 20-22%. I don't always have to take that route but the alternatives are a 1 mile hill with a 10% grade and a 1/2 mile hill with a 13% grade. A pitch like that will get your attention. Going up steep hills is one thing but going down them, especially in the rain, can be tricky.

In 2007, when I got back into cycling, I bought a cheap bike computer. One day I was going down my favorite hill, in traffic, and decided I was going fast enough to "take the lane" and ride with traffic. I knew I was going over 40 MPH but it didn't feel all that fast. When I hit the bottom I glanced down at my bike computer to find my max speed: 52.7 MPH. Holy cow. That was, and will remain, my fastest recorded land speed record. On that descent I pulled into traffic about 50 feet behind a panel truck, thinking they might be safer to follow than an SUV or mini-van. What I didn't realize was that, even at 50 feet, I was still in his air pocket. In a sense I was drafting him. That's why it didn't feel that fast. I pondered on that speed all day. That was a risk I should not have taken. I control my speed much better now.

Over at the Fat Cyclist blog, Fatty tells about his experience riding in France where one of the riders in his group crashed on a fast downhill. That little incident resulted in multiple fractures for the rider, one of them a compound fracture.

In 2010 I found myself head-over-heels after coming into a turn too fast during a triathlon. It happens to the best of us. }B^)

If you ride hills...

  1. Check your brakes frequently - The last place you want to discover your worn out brake pads is when you are bombing a descent at 40 MPH. Your helmet is not rated for crashes at that speed and spandex... well, you get the picture.
  2. Invest in a bike with disk brakes - My new commuter bike has disks and I LOVE IT. If you can't put disks on your existing commuter then...
  3. Consider ceramic-coated rims for your next wheelset - They offer similar stopping power to disk at much lighter weight and can be put on just about any bike.
  4. Keep your speed under control - The best way to minimize stopping distance is to minimize speed. Yes, I love to bomb down my favorite hill but only in good weather and during light traffic. Other times I keep my speed down and my hands on the brake hoods.
  5. Get to know the stopping power of your brakes and how long it takes to do an emergency stop. Have you ever TRIED locking up your brakes at 30+ MPH? Would you be able to keep control and execute an evasive maneuver? The best time to practice is NOT while trying to avoid a BMW or SUV in traffic.

Snow and Ice

From early November through March I am constantly checking the weather forecast. Is there snow in the forecast? I would hate to get stuck at work with my bike during a snow storm. I'll bet I could get a lot of work done!

When I get up in the morning the first thing I look at is the temp outside. If that temp is below 35 degrees I don't ride that day. Or, if the sun is coming out, I wait until the sun has been up for a while to warm up the roads. Two-wheeled vehicles don't fair well on black ice. They tend to lose verticality.

There are companies that sell studded bike tires and one of these days I may make the jump. At $70-90 per tire I think I'll wait a bit.

What About the Pros?

This only applies to professional triathletes but I'm sure there is a fair number of pro cyclists with the same idea.

There is an amazing trend in professional Triathletes: a growing number of top pros are training almost exclusively indoors.

Why?

  1. Predictability of conditions.
  2. Nearly infinite ability to completely customize the workout (no reliance on location of hills or long straights).
  3. SAFETY – don’t have to worry about cars, trains, or other riders

Think about it for a minute. If your income and livelihood depend on your ability to perform on race day why would you go out and mix it up with crazy motorists, dog walkers, ninja joggers, and all the other idiots and road hazards out there? Training indoors makes perfect sense for that group of people.

It just doesn't make sense for me. I do have an indoor trainer which I use when the temp drops below freezing. Otherwise I would go NUTS spending all my riding time indoors staring at the walls or watching TV.

Conclusion

And that about covers it. Except for this...

No post about bike safety is complete without an '80s era rap video about riding safely. "Strap it on kids, and WEAR YOUR HELMET WITH PRIDE!"

Ride Report - Bike To Work Day 2011

Commuter Station at NE 124th between Redmond/WoodinvilleLast Friday, May 20th, was Bike To Work Day (BTWD), a great excuse to get people to ride their bikes to work who usually don't have the time, energy, or motivation to otherwise do so. What does that mean for those of us who regularly commute via bike? More people to share the fun! The more people we can get biking the better.

There are bike snobs out there (sorry, I refuse to link to them) who think that Bike To Work Day is the worst day of the year. Some of those even boycott the day completely. I relish it! OK, maybe not, but I am no where near the attitude I refer to. If you want to read the vile put out there about the N00bs who dare to get in their precious way, then please go and do a search yourself. Go ahead, my blog will be waiting for you when you get back from cleaning the vomit off your keyboard.

My favorite BTWD in 2008 was the best. I was in fabulous shape (compared to years previous). I pulled up to a stoplight at the back of a pack of about 20 cyclists waiting to go up a big hill (corner of E. Lake Sammamish Pkwy and Leary Way in Redmond). As the light turned green the guys in the front (obviously not regular riders) were having trouble getting started which caused the group to stop, accordion style. I pulled out to the left of the group and was able to pass the entire group. As I climbed the hill I was able to look back using my rear-view mirror to see the incredible carnage playing out behind me: people falling over because they stopped mid-stroke and couldn't unclip, pushing their bikes (out of shape), while the regular commuters weaved around them trying not to become a victim themselves. Overall there were no serious injuries but lots of colorful metaphors.

This year I decided to do something new: a long route starting early in the morning that would take me by 2 of the BTWD commute stations (i.e. SWAG stops). I even invited some friends from work to join in the fun.

  • Start time: 7:20 am
  • Estimated distance: 19.24 miles
  • Estimated climbing: 1033 feet
  • Estimated time: 90 minutes
  • SWAG stops to hit: 2

Of course things don't always go as planned...

  • Actual start time: 7:35 am (missed meeting my friends)
  • Actual distance: 28.87 miles
  • Actual climbing: 1520 feet
  • Elapsed time: 2:01:55
  • Swag stops hit: 3

      Commute Station on the Sammamish River TrailThe weather was FABULOUS (sunny, highs in the 60s) with very little wind. I kept to my route for the most part but diverted north on the Sammamish River Trail a bit to hit a third SWAG stop in Woodinville. The bad news was that they were closing up shop. The good news was that they told me to take as much food as I wanted because they didn't want to transport it. SWEET! I loaded up on samples of nuts, dried fruit bars, Cliff Bars, and assorted other snacks (this proved useful later). The other commute stations along the way at 60 Acres and the 520 trail were also very thin so I didn't stay long at either place.

The final destination of the morning was a BTWD breakfast hosted by my employer but when I arrived I found that they had literally just run out of food. No! What was to be the highlight of my day turned out to be a bit of a downer. As I was sulking, looking at the empty tables, a good friend, Steve, arrived as well to find the bad news. That's when I remembered by bag full of snacks! The two of us sat down, exchanged ride stories, and chowed down on all the snacks I picked up earlier. The morning had been saved.

Overall the day was a success: I got in my long-ride for the week, hit the commute stations, ate some pretty good food, and socialized with some friends. When I got back to the office I took inventory of the SWAG take for the day, including the snacks that weren't eaten earlier...

BTWD SWAG collection

My ride home was supposed to be an easy 8-mile ride that I have done hundreds of times before but it was not to be. Only 3.5 miles into the ride I popped a spoke nipple and ended up taking the bus home...

Popped rear spoke, drive side spoke nippleMy saving grace, KC Metro route 269

To end the day I took the family down to the Marymoor Park Velodrome in Redmond for some bike racing action. My kids eat this stuff up, especially the Kiernan race with the scooter...

Setting up for the Cat-4 Chariot heat

Next year I think I'll start something new: "Bike to anywhere but work day," thinking that I will take the day off to just bike anywhere that suits my fancy.

 

April 2011 Wrap-up

Training Summary

Swim

Number of swims: 0

Distance: 0

Improvement over previous month: None

 

Bike

Number of bike trips: 13

Total Distance: 128 miles, 9016 feet of climbing

Improvement over previous month: +9 miles

 

Run

Number of runs: 2

Total Distance: 7.3 miles 

Improvement over previous month: -12.98 (much lower this month)

 

So my training fell off what I expected in April. May should be much better with the commute challenge and bike-to-work day. As usual I joined the team from work called "Up Hill Both Ways" which describes the route we take. Yes, we seriously go up a big hill both directions.

Cat-6 riders in NYC, courtesy of Good.is

Cat 6

I posted a couple months back on Cat-6 racing.

According to Gustavo, a fellow triathlete from work, "Cat-6 is ON!" What in the world is Cat-6? Well, it started out on the BikeRadar.com forum page in 2008 with a thread titled "Silly Commute Racing." 1039 pages and 3 years later the thread is still going strong. They even came up with a scoring/ranking system to see how well you are doing each day. A blog entry from the New York Times got a lot more people thinking about it.

Even more links: Commute racing from Good.is who I think is credited with coming up with the term "Cat-6", and a view of Cat-6 from Shanghai.

Cold Weather Commuting

I thought I was tough because I tried to bike commute through the Seattle winter. Nope, I'm a wuss because I don't ride when it snows/freezes outside. While looking for articles on Cat-6 I ran across this video about bike commuting in Chicago, even through the winter. The helmets and clothes make me think that the video is a few years old but it still makes me look bad. The coldest temp ever seen while I was riding was 28F. A guy in the video doesn't have a problem with 22F. Chicago does have a leg-up on the Seattle in one way: Chicago is pancake flat (compared to the hills in Seattle). If I knew my commute was going to be cold for 1/3 of the year I would probably invest in the studded tires to do it. For now I'm not willing to drop the coin.

Fun Articles

Why Bicyclists Hate Stop Signs - I know I hate them (while on a bike anyway). This article does a fine job of explaining in a somewhat-scientific manner why cyclists should be able to treat stop signs as yield signs. Yet another reason for car drivers to hate cyclists.

The Truth About Running Vs. Walking - I've always heard from various sources that walking and running 1 mile required the same amount of energy so, if you are trying to lose weight, it made no difference if you were walking or running. My father, a life-time distance runner, has always disagreed with me. Looks like he was right all along. Or was he?

How To Get Your City To Notice and Fix Potholes  - This is priceless. One of these days I'll actually try it. Click to link to see why it is so funny.

 

 

 

 

Bike Commuting: How?

This post is the second in a series on bike commuting and covers some of the "how" related to bike commuting. Other posts include Why?,  Safety, and Weather Issues.

Commuter Bikes

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me "What kind of bike should I buy?" I would be a rich man.

The short answer is: whatever bike that you will ride the most. Does that sound odd? The most expensive bike in the world is the one you never ride. I'll write up a longer article around bikes later on but here are the basics:

  1. Fit: this is first-A-#1 important. If your bike doesn't fit then you will be miserable and might even develop muscular, skeletal, or posture related issues.  And you probably won't ride it very often. A good bike shop will start with fit (probably charging you for it) and move on to bike models from there.
  2. Bike type: Off-road, touring, road racing, TT/Tri bike... the list goes on. If you are training for triathlons then you have to ask yourself: do you want a tri bike that you can use for commuting or a commuter bike that can be used for triathlons? I went somewhere in the middle: a carbon road bike that doubles as a good-weather commuter with clip-on aero bars for tri racing.
  3. Find a good LBS (local bike shop). A good LBS will find the best bike that fits your body and for the type of riding you will doing. After the sale be sure to patronize them for accessories, clothing, and maintenance since their margins on bike sales are razor thin. When you need them in a pinch that relationship can help you get expidited maintenance/repairs and the only thing it will cost you is a dozen doughnuts extra.
  4. Test Ride: Narrow down your selection to 2-3 bikes and then take them out for a ride. And I'm not talking about a 5-10 minute trip around the block. Get out on a trail or road and spend a good hour-plus in the saddle. Do you like the way it handles? Does it shift smoothly? Do you like the saddle? (most places will switch out saddles)
  5. Ride it early and often. Most shops will work with you to fine-tune your setup in the first month or so, even switching out components or saddles with minimal cost (unless you upgrade). They are less likely to do this if you let the bike sit for 6 months before you decide you need a 135mm saddle instead of a 125mm.

One last word on shoes: if you are new to riding get yourself a good pair of bike shoes. Cleat type is subjective but most any will work in the long run. Your pedal power will increase tremendously, especially on hills. Don't believe me? Borrow a pair from a friend or try a test ride at your LBS and you will be convinced. On my first climb up Sahalee Way (a local street hill near my house) I cut over 3 minutes off my time (1 mile, 10% average grade). And the next day I couldn't stand up from the muscle soreness. Don't make that mistake and ease into climbing big hills.

Commute Gear

Where do I start? The basics for your basic "fair weather rider" can be pretty slim -

  1. Jersey
  2. Shorts
  3. Socks
  4. Shoes
  5. Gloves (light, fingerless variety)
  6. Helmet
  7. Bike
  8. Bike Computer
  9. Repair Kit (pump, spare tube)
  10. Flashy lights (be-seen lights)

Seems pretty spartan, right? That's the point. In the warm months (late Spring through early Fall) I don't carry much more than that. I do sometimes have a small backpack for my computer which I sometimes have to bring home.

In the colder/wetter months the list gets MUCH longer, changing to long-sleeve jerseys, long cycling pants, rain jacket, the list goes on (for the full list, check the gear page). The point with my clothes is not necessarily to stay dry but to stay warm even though you may get very wet. I have been so wet that I was literally pouring water out of my shoes at the end of the ride but was toasty warm.

Why the bike computer? I use my Garmin as a training aid and because I'm a statistics nerd who is anal about numbers. I use the course feature every day and race against my best times for a given route to see if I can get a faster time. The training this provides allows me to skip a trip to the gym several times a week.

If you are on a budget it makes sense to start out as a fairweather commuter and then venture out into the cold and wet when you have gathered enough gear to make it comfortable. It only takes a couple of cold commutes to figure out where your tolerances lie.

Issue #1: Time

The first big hurdle I had to overcome was time. It takes time to commute by bike, typically more than by car. When I first began bicycle commuting my typical commute by car was 40 minutes "in" and 45-60 minutes to get home (round trip of 85-105 minutes). The ride in via bike was just under an hour of riding. Add in all the other time factors and the 1-way trip can be even longer-

  1. 5 minutes: gather gear for your bike and fill water bottle
  2. 5 minutes: pre-flight check on your bike (brakes, tire pressure, chain lubrication status, etc)
  3. 55 minutes: actual ride time (varies from 50-60 minutes)
  4. 10 minutes: shower/change (a MUST in my case, but YMMV)

Total time: 75 minutes. Compare that to my 40 minute car commute and the time starts to add up quickly. My drive and ride times have gone down recently (20-25 by car and 35 by bike) but that means the comparison of bike to car is now 25 vs. 55 minutes (more than double the time). Making this choice means making some time sacrifices in other aspects of your personal/work schedule. In bad weather months the car commute time goes up to 40-60 minutes while the bike times remain about the same.

What about other forms of commuting? Is a bus worth the time? In my case the answer is "maybe". If I time it right I can be to work in just under an hour by bus, which includes walking time (bus stop is 1/3 of a mile away from my house) and time on the bus (bus stop is a few hundred yards from my office). It is an option on days where I don't wish to ride but still much longer than by car.

Sometimes busses can be incredibly slow, as illustrated by this video by a NYC commuter where he beat a bus in a 1 mile race on a Manhattan street on a big wheel. Yes, a child's play toy can be faster than riding a bus in a metro area with high street congestion. Imagine what you can do if you bike, run/jog, rollerblade, etc.

Issue #2: Weather

The day I'm writing this section (18 Apr 2011) it snowed on me. Then in the afternoon of the same day it was sunny with only a few clouds. Unless you are in the desert in the middle of summer or Monsoon season in southeast Asia your weather can be an unpredictable nightmare. Do you dress warm? Do you bring a rain jacket? Should you be prepared and suffer the extra weight of all that ballast?

Here are my main rules for weather:

  1. Temp below freezing or ice/snow on the ground = I don't ride. I can drive my car in the ice/snow but riding on 2 wheels without studded snow tires is a recipe for disaster. My preference for remaining injury free overides my necessity to ride every day.
  2. I made the investment in rain/cold weather gear so, by jove, I'm going to use it. Rain won't stop me but hail/snow will force me to pull over and wait it out. Have you ever had hail hit you in the face at 40 MPH? It doesn't feel good.
  3. If there is even a hint of rain in the forecast I bring along my rain gear, or at least my rain jacket.

Issue #3: Fitness (Getting Started)

This issue depends completely on your locality, commute distance, and topography (more on topography below). If you are a couch potato, like I used to be, getting on a bike and riding even 5 to 10 miles can be a challenge. When I first bought my road bike, after a 10+ year hiatus from cycling, I rode it around the block. I learned 2 things immediately-

  1. Pinch flats can be easily prevented with proper tire inflation. }B^)
  2. I was incredibly out of shape, even though I had recently lost 60+ pounds via diet and exercise.

It may take several months of dedicated riding to get your fitness level up to the point where you are comfortable commuting on a daily basis. At any rate, go to your doctor and get a physical exam before starting a bike commute regimen, just as you should before starting ANY exercise program.

Issue #4: Breakdowns

I HATE flat tires. I have very little tolerance for them, so much so that I spent extra money on some Schwalbe Marathon  and Durano tires for my commute bikes that are nearly bullet proof. I also ride with Slime Tubes (self-healing tubes). This allows me to ride on all types of surfaces that may not exactly be "debris free" and do it without the fear of getting a flat. 

So what do you do if find yourself with a mechanical issue that can't be fixed with the supplies you have on hand (which, for me, is most anything other than a flat tire or broken chain link)? You must have a backup plan. That plan can include having a taxi company in your cell phone address book (make sure you ask them to send a mini-van or car with large trunk for your bike), have your spouse or significant other on-call, and/or ride along a bus route where you can catch the bus and get a ride home.

I have done all 3. It never hurts to be extra prepared.

Issue #5: Emergencies

How do you get home quickly/immediately if there is a some type of emergency involving your family, the weather, or your health? Once again this is where you need to make additional plans ahead of time. The taxi, spouse/significant other, and bus are options. Some employers also provide a "ride home" in such emergencies if it happens while you are at work and will transport you home at no cost to you. YMMV.

Issue #6: Topography

I live in the Seattle, WA area and man, do we have hills! My typical commute is 8 miles and 650 feet of climbing, each way. Yes, my commute is "up hill both ways". I'm sure some day my kids will laugh at that joke. On my way home I immediately drop 300 feet of elevation in the first mile, ride across a valley, then climb up 400 feet and end it with a couple of rollers. My ride into work is the opposite.

Hills can be a big challenge. If you don't have a shower facility at your work this may be a show-stopper. Some of us (ahem, like me) really work up a sweat that would make me rather "anti-social" without at least a quick shower before returning to work.

Your fitness level may dictate if this is even an option. It was several months before I was able to climb the hills around here without stopping to catch my breath. Now it's not even a consideration. The only time I have stopped on a hill since then was due to mechanical or weather issues.

Issue #7: Illness

As I wrote recently, illness can be a huge issue for commuting/training. The summer months are the easiest because the sickness level at our house goes through the roof once school starts.

So what do you do if you get sick? Well, that depends on what exactly is making you sick. Common cold? Bacterial infection in your nose, sinuses, and/or throat? You might be able to ride. Ear congestion? Dizzy, vomiting, or flu symptoms? Hang up your helmet and stay home. Your best bet is to talk to your doctor. Sorry, there is no easy answer on this one.

Well that about does it. Next time we cover more safety strategies.

}B^)

Bike commuting: Why?

This is the first in a multi-part series on bike commuting. Other posts cover How?, Safety, and Weather Issues.

My History

I got my first bike when I was 6. It was a Coast King 5000 BMX-style bike that I literally beat into the ground. My parents were smart enough to get me a helmet back in the days before helmet laws. I rode that bike to school every time I could, which was quite often. I handed that bike down to my brother when I picked up a Diamond Back Viper for my 11th birthday. I rode that bike to school through my Junior High days and off-road into my teen years until the frame broke (joint between the down tube and headset).

When I was big enough I started riding my Dad's Schwinn Varsity road bike to school, complete with 70's all-leather Brooks saddle. I'll have to dig up a pic of that bike in its hey-day before my brother and I destroyed it with years of abuse and poor maintenance. That road bike got me into doing longer rides. I even rode it to my first job as a teenager at the local Kmart. One of these days I'll write up the story of my night-time encounter with the skunk.

At the age of 19 I served a mission for the LDS church in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi. If you have ever seen Mormon missionaries then chances are you saw them on bikes. My mission bike was a Schwinn High Plains mountain bike which I bought new in 1993, outfitted with rear-rack and full fenders. I took much better care of that bike and, 17 years later, I am still riding it as my primary all-weather commute bike. All told I estimate that I put nearly 3000 miles on that bike in 2 years. Then, with only a few random bike experiences, it sat nearly idle until 2005. I did try out a couple of bike commutes around 1999 but wasn't very commited to it.

Reason #1: Fitness

Between 1997 and 2005 I really let my health slide, gaining a lot of weight and paying no attention to it. That is until I went to get a physical exam from my doctor and found out that my cholesterol level was 235 and I had high blood pressure and hypertension. This scared me into action. Several folks from work recommended the 20/20 Lifestyles program at the Pro Club, just down the street in Bellevue, WA. To make a long story short I lost 65 pounds and redunced my cholesterol and blood pressure to very managable levels and put my life back onto the fitness track.

In an attempt to maintain my weight I set a goal in 2007 to complete my first Triathlon. In order to do that I had to have a bike, of course. My bike shopping experience was a little overwhelming (more on this in a later post). In the end I purchased a Scattante CFR Comp road bike and started riding. I race in Triathlons as a goal but the primary method I use to get there is bike commuting.

My "How?" post details how I use bike commuting to maintain fitness.

Reason #2: Gas prices

In 2008 gas prices in my area spiked up to almost $4.35/gallon. This pushed me to do more bike commuting than the year before and eventually do 3 triathlons and my first century (Bike MS tour in Mount Vernon, WA).

Has bike commuting affected the amount of miles that I commute? ABSOLUTELY.

Reason #3: Reduce commute expenses

With significantly declining mileage each year it is obvious that bike commuting has positively affected the amount of money I spend on commute expenses. The primary cost is not gas but vehicle cost (less than $1800/year): I drive an older car and have no current plans to replace it, assuming no accidents or unforeseen mechanical disasters. Defering the cost of that replacement and extending the life of that older car does come with a higher maintenance cost (older vehicles are inherently more expensive to maintain). That maintence cost is much less than the initial purchase price of the vehicle spread out evenly each year over the life of the car (i.e. depreciation for you accounting nerds)

Now this whole idea of cost savings may be a pipe dream. Why? Bike commuting isn't cheap if you go for all the gadgets, clothing, bells/whistles, etc. that are being promoted out there by everyone and your dog. If you aren't familiar with this phenomenon go to any REI, your local bike shop, or any online bike store and you will see the vast array of things for which they will gladly give you for a price. I have accumulated a lot of gear over the past 4 years but it has been very gradual. I am also a big fan of the clearance rack and wait until I can find things at very low cost before I make a purchase. The "normal wear and tear" items will rack up quite a bill as well: tubes, tires, chains, cassettes, shorts, shoe cleats... More on this one later too.

Reason #4: FUN!

I love to ride. My commute is beautiful. I have met new friends and re-enforced old friendships while riding to work. Local commute challenges and contests make it even more rewarding. The miles I ride get me in shape for the really cool stuff such as Tour de Blast, Cycle Oregon, Crater Lake Century... the list goes on.

So there you have it. I ride because it keeps me healthy, might save me money, and it's a heck of a lot of fun. Why do you commute? Share your thoughts in the comments!

}B^)

2010 Mileage Report

Back in 2006 I took a statistics class at a local junior college as part of my transfer program to finally finish  my college degree. I needed to find a statistically interesting set of stats to study for my final class report. It took a while to decide but I remembered something weird. My wife learned a habit from her father: when you fill up with gas, always write down the information in a note pad for future reference. She records gas fill-ups, oil changes, brake and tire replacements, any service done on the car, etc. The information looks like this...

Car Mileage Recond 

It is a simple spreadsheet in a spiral notebook. The data fields are date, mileage, fuel cost, gallons purchased, and dollars spent. You will also notice the notation of an air filter replacement and tranmission fluid flush/fill.

Using this data I came up with a range of interesting statistics:

  1. Miles per gallon
  2. Average miles driven per day/month/year
  3. Dollars spent per day on fuel
  4. Miles/time between oil changes

Since I always buy gas from the same place (when possible) the data also show the historical price per gallon in a fairly accurate way (regular unleaded). One of these days I'll post on my blog the results of the study I did regarding the relationship between gas prices, my driving habits, and my fuel buying habits.

Since putting all this data into Excel is a bit arduous I do it about once a year. This time around I found it had been 3 years since my last update to my ever-growing spreadsheet. I did buy the car new 14 years ago! (1998 Subaru Legacy L wagon)

What did I find out this year?

  1. Average miles driven per day: declined 3 years running to 19.71. This is the lowest level since 2003 (18.84) and a significant drop over 2007 (27.33).
  2. Total miles per year: same decline as #1, following the same trend. The high in 2007 was 9974 while the low in 2010 was 7195.
  3. Gallons purchased followed the same pattern as miles driven but the changes in dollars spent was amplified by the volitility of fuel prices. 2008 was a lower mileage year than 2007 but a spike in gas prices in 2008 raised total fuel purchased to $1416, a $91 increase over 2007, and $387 higher than 2010 ($1029).

Bike mileage -

  • 2007-08: 1475, avg. 737 per year (missed about 300 miles before I purchased my first odometer)
  • 2009: 1727 = 784 (old odometer) + 943 (garmin.com, includes 450 miles for 2009 Cycle Oregon)
  • 2010: 950 miles

 

Conclusions:

  1. I'm a major nerd. Anyone who knows me will confirm that fact.
  2. Buying my bike in 2007 dramatically reduced the miles I drive per year. 2003 was the year after our twins were born so we didn't go very far that year (not much other than commuting, plus vacation and 1 month infant care leave, all spent at home).
  3. As my bike commute miles stack up the miles driven in my car continue to decline.
  4. Gas prices are fairly volitale but still below the high of a couple years ago ($4.35 on June 26, 2008)
  5. My crash in August 2010 really put a dent in my annual biking mileage but not my car mileage.

The rest of this year should be even better than '09 as long as I stay injury free. I signed up for Cycle Oregon again this year, which should add another 500 miles, and I'm already above 200 miles for 2011 YTD. Maybe I can reach 2000 miles for the year?

Sorry Kris, I got nothin' on you...

Daily Mile Blog entry about Kris R, a guy I know from work.