Monthly Archives: March 2012

30 days of biking

I draw the line at renting a surrey again, however. (Oh Portland, how could you?)

Have you signed up for 30 days of biking? All the cool kids are doing it.

I was on the fence about 30 days of biking, which predictably involves committing to ride a bike every day of April, because I knew I was going out of town for a conference for part of the month. I am compulsive about, uh, everything. Signing up for 30 days of biking knowing that I’d only be doing 27 days sounded like cheating to me.

But I ended up riding a bike every day that I was in Portland. There was a bike stop within walking distance that offered rentals, and the hotel was happy to store my rental in their bell room when I wasn’t riding it. No problem! If I could fly to Portland and ride a bike (or two) every day, surely I could manage to get to Sacramento and ride a bike every day. It was close enough that I shouldn’t even need a rental bike.

One of my co-workers is going to Sacramento as well, and she doesn’t own a car (she rides a Bianchi Milano, upgraded with an internally geared hub; a lovely bike). She said she took Amtrak there every year. Of course! You can take a bike on Amtrak. Unfortunately the train doesn’t stop in San Francisco; instead, Amtrak sends a bus over to the city to take passengers to Emeryville. This sounded more complicated than I’d hoped, but evidently it is possible.

So I signed up for 30 days of biking. And although I had not intended any such thing, it appears I may be turning into a bicycle tourist of sorts after all. I still draw the line at Atlanta, though.

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It is in no way an overstatement to call Portland the bicycling capital of North America

Watching the Hawthorne bridge go up

Technically I was in Portland to attend a professional conference, but in case it wasn’t obvious, I blew off some of the part that involved sitting in windowless hotel rooms listening to other people talk.

Due to a rare convergence of travel schedules, my kids were in Washington with my mom while Matt was flying to China. But I had a pretty non-negotiable commitment to give a talk on Saturday morning in Portland, so I wasn’t going anywhere until then. So on Thursday and Friday, for the first time that I can remember, I had minimal work obligations and zero responsibility for my kids. And I was in a city filled with awesome bike shops and a bunch of friends from graduate school that happened to be experiencing a freak early spring. The result was that most of the time I bounced around Portland feeling as giddy as a dental patient on nitrous oxide, without any of the painful drilling.

Jackie has green hair (pics or it didn't happen? no problem)

My friend Todd, who lives in Portland, got conscripted to be the cargo on a cargo bike, but my friend Jackie, who also lives in Portland, actually rides a bike of her own. This is something of an understatement, as she regularly rides Cycle Oregon. She has a road bike like a real racer and wears lycra. In fact she has three bikes. When she told me she was impressed that I commuted on my bicycle, my reaction was complete disbelief. I’m pretty pleased with myself if I cover 5 miles; she sends us updates on her long rides every ten miles or so. Sometimes there are several of these in a single day.

Anyway given that I had a rental bike in Portland it seemed like it would be fun to ride it to meet her somewhere, and so that’s what I did. She picked a restaurant between her house and my hotel and gave me what seemed to be pretty implausible directions, which I summarized mentally as, “It’s complicated, so do what the other bicycles are doing.” It seemed kind of optimistic to assume that there would be enough other riders around to make the route obvious, but boy, was I wrong.

Follow those bicycles (or barring that, the 15 others behind me)

I am used to riding in car traffic, but rarely ride in bicycle traffic. Even in the Panhandle, which I used to consider a busy route, the bikes are pretty spread out. But riding in Portland during commute hours was actually a little unnerving, because there were dozens of bicycles in the lane. At more than one point during my ride I wanted to stop and get a picture of one of Portland’s many weird and wonderful bike lane markers, which include disembodied riders without bicycles, riders wearing helmets and riders not wearing helmets without any apparent rhyme or reason, riders with the heads of dogs, riders flying off their bicycles jauntily, etc. But I couldn’t figure out how to politely stop to snap a photo. That never happens to me in San Francisco.

Full bike corrals on every corner, 40 acres, and a mule

Jackie picked an amazing restaurant, of course. And its bathrooms were in a hallway shared with a yoga studio featuring a row of inside bike parking against the wall. And those bathrooms had showers. Really, Portland? Really? It is rare that I have the occasion to feel like a yokel after living in San Francisco for several years. But I might as well have been barefoot and wearing a straw hat and overalls with all the gaping I did when I saw things like this. Portland has ripped out street parking for cars to put in bike corrals. And it’s not just a demonstration project, it’s all over the place. And those bike corrals are full.

What better advertisement for your bike shop than a beer bike?

After dinner Jackie proposed that we ride over to see another grad school friend she sees regularly but I hadn’t seen in years. Steve lives in a pretty neighborhood with his lovely wife and two charming little girls, and was making dinner for them when we appeared unannounced on his front porch. They are in the school lottery for a Japanese bilingual program for the girls, and so we had lots to talk about. Jackie, who speaks excellent Japanese, thought it wasn’t such a hard language. I, who can speak just enough Japanese that I might be able to find a bathroom and not starve if air-dropped into Tokyo, disagreed, as did Steve. Steve offered us beers. Everyone offered me beer constantly while I was in Portland, it’s even more of a thing than the bikes. These twin obsessions were perfectly merged in a bike I saw at Clever Cycles rigged to carry two growlers. I’m not a huge beer fan and people always seemed vaguely disbelieving when I declined their offers, like I’d just belched in their faces but they were too polite to comment.

I asked Steve what he’d been up to for the last few years; I hadn’t seen him since before we’d had kids. “Oh, nothing much,” he said.

“He won a Pulitzer and was a finalist for a second one,” said Jackie.

This is why I don’t get to live in Portland. I am insufficiently awesome.

Modified Portland bike lane marker

I rode back to my hotel that night buzzing on all of it. Even late in the evening there were many other riders on the trip back, and we all expressed disbelief at the amazing weather. We could do this because like me, those riders all stopped at traffic signals. On the trip back across Portland’s Steel Bridge I passed three pedicab drivers, who urged me politely to pass. I got back to the hotel and checked my bike into the bell room (“of course we have bicycle parking here!”)

I realize that living in one place long enough can make a city’s charms less obvious, and people in Portland complain that there is still a lot of work to do. But to my outside eyes, it looks like paradise.

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Electric assist: BionX PL350

Portland's bike shops make me want to gut myself in envy

I am not usually good at getting to the point, so let me try here: I am so buying the BionX.

Despite the fact that I have speculated about electric assist a lot, until this week I had never tried one. I knew enough to know that I wanted a pedelec system (which works only when you’re pedaling) rather than an off-on throttle (where pedaling is irrelevant). Otherwise I might as well just buy a scooter. I just want to be a little stronger, so that going uphill is less of a Bataan death march at the end of a long day, or to ride with my daughter to preschool.

Surly Big Dummy with BionX

So before I went to Portland I wrote to Splendid Cycles, knowing that they carried cargo bikes with electric assists. Joel, one of the owners, said I was welcome to take one of their bikes up a hill in Portland (and they do have some hills there). They could not have been nicer, all their bikes are amazing, and most of them would be appropriate for hauling kids and/or cargo up the side of a mountain. I ended up riding a Big Dummy with the BionX PL350, a system widely praised in reviews, apparently the most responsive of pedelec systems. It adds about 17 pounds to the bike, counting both the motor and the battery. (BionX also has a 15 pound version with comparable power and a longer battery life. It costs more.)

Todd on the Bullitt (I took this picture for his wife)

Joel rode an assisted Bullitt, which is very cool in its own right; it was the first box bike I’ve ever seen in person that I have thought would be practical in San Francisco, as it is lightweight and narrow (and fast). Because my kids were already in up in Washington with my mom, I was cargo-less. So I brought my friend Todd along. Todd and I went to grad school together and although we are both pretty junior he’s now the chair of his department at Lewis & Clark. Guess which one of us makes our advisers proud? But he remains a relentlessly good sport about the crazy things that I propose. At 145 pounds, Todd is cargo overkill, the equivalent of almost four kids. But better too much weight than too little; my kids are growing.

Todd doesn’t really ride bikes, so Joel carried him in the Bullitt while I was figuring out how to use the BionX on the way to the hills. And I carried him back to the shop on the Big Dummy.

Most of Portland, to my mind, is pretty flat. The neighborhood streets we first rode on certainly were; on those streets, on an unloaded Big Dummy, turning on the BionX was wildly entertaining, but hardly seemed necessary. You turn it up and you go a little faster. It’s like magically getting stronger without the bother of having to train. There are four levels on the way up, which are activated by pushing the + button. I perceived them as ranging from “I barely notice anything” to “I barely need to pedal.” There are also four levels in the other direction (push the – button), for regenerative braking to charge the battery a little; this was fun, because it meant that I barely needed to use the brakes.

And then we got to the first hill. Todd hopped off the Bullitt and onto the Dummy. From a dead start on an incline, I could barely move the bike. With the assist on level 1, we were moving slowly. And with it ramped up to level 4, getting both of us up the hill was like going up a slight incline with an unloaded bike. It was unbelievable. On the way down, the regenerative brakes slowed us to a crawl even though together with the bike we weighed ~350 pounds.

On the second, steeper, longer hill, still with Todd on board, I was already moving on the way up, and managed to make it about 100 (very painful) feet before I switched on the assist. Near the top of that hill I was back at level 4, moving pretty quickly, and laughing so hard I couldn’t speak. And it was at that point that I realized that I would, if necessary, give up almost anything else I owned to have this assist.

Although there are hills in Portland, the city has built switchback ramps to make the climbing easier. Let us take a moment and contemplate this.

The BionX doesn’t take the experience of hills away; it was still work to get up that second hill. But even with a person who weighs more than I do on the back, on a heavy bike, going up was manageable, and it didn’t make me want to die. It made we want to find an even bigger hill and storm up that one too. I didn’t want Todd to get back in the Bullitt; it was more fun to talk with him on the Dummy. He commented that the motor was completely silent. “If I didn’t know it was there,” he said, “I’d just think you had really strong legs.”

With Todd on board I ended up keeping the assist on level 1 or 2 for the stop signs, even on the flatter ride back. Starting a bike loaded with kids has always been slow for me; it takes time to get that much weight moving. But with the extra boost of the assist, we took off at the intersections at the pace of a racer.

The BionX has some quirks. Some of them are counter-intuitive. It is responsive to pressure on the pedals, so to get more assist on the way uphill, I learned to shift up to a higher gear. The harder I pushed, the harder the motor worked. This happens automatically at intersections, but on the hills sometimes I geared down low enough that I wasn’t getting as much help. I suspect gearing down to reduce the assist would actually be a useful way to train to ride hills unassisted if one were so inclined.

There is an awful lot going on at the right handlebar grip on a BionXed bike; occasionally I found myself changing the assist level when I meant to shift gears, or shifting gears when I’d intended to brake. I’m guessing that this kind of thing is temporary.

Finally, the motor cut out once. We were on a flat street, fortunately, and when I asked Joel what happened he said the sensor had jogged loose. He nudged it and the assist starting working again. There is a reason it is so twitchy, evidently, but I didn’t understand the explanation. However it is also apparently possible to set up the control so that it doesn’t cut out like that.

Todd drove me back downtown after our ride, patiently listening to me babble gibberish, which was something along the lines of “OMIGOD OMIGOD OMIGOD!!!” I couldn’t stop grinning, not even when I was sideswiped by a jogger on the walk back to the hotel. I found myself laughing randomly when I tried to explain what riding with the BionX was like to other people. I’m laughing now.

The BionX would change our lives. A lot of our remaining driving miles are, “No way am I riding up THAT hill” trips. Joel said he’d taken a fully loaded Bullitt+BionX up a 25% grade. We have a hill like that near home and we find alternative routes even when we’re driving. He noted that the BionX could get overheated on steep, extended climbs (>20 minutes) in hot weather, at which point it would reduce the assist level to protect the motor from overheating. But our hills are short and broken-up with stop lights, and it never gets hot in San Francisco. With really serious cargo loads an EcoSpeed would be better, but two kids and groceries are evidently not what people have in mind when they talk about serious cargo.

How much do I love this assist? I would have bought one on the spot if it would work on the Breezer, even if I had had to talk Splendid Cycles into prying one off of a bike in the shop. But I will have to give up my Breezer to use a BionX; it won’t work with an internally geared hub. That’s not going to happen right away—there’s the non-trivial issue of figuring out what bike to ride instead—but it is most assuredly going to happen.

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Hello, Portland

Hello, stranger

I went to Portland to present a conference paper. Stacy at A Simple Six suggested once that I take advantage of my professional travel to write about riding bikes in multiple cities, which is an excellent idea but seemed like way too much work for me to do consistently. And my trip to Atlanta did not swell my ambition on this front. But I figured I could manage to rent a bike in Portland, especially since it turned out Clever Cycles was about 10 blocks away from my conference hotel.

They rented me a Breezer Uptown 8 (ha ha!) It was both familiar and unfamiliar. They put the seat up higher than I’m used to—I have kept my seat low because I like to be able to get a foot down flat with a kid on the back. But I found I liked the new height, and I will move my seat up when I get home. They also had a nifty Axa lock with an integrated chain, which made locking up the bike very easy. And finally, I have to admit that their bike is significantly better maintained. Overall their Breezer was a pleasure to ride, and I should take better care of mine.

My co-author Todd picked me up at the airport, because he lives in Portland and because he’s that kind of guy. Thanks to some professional meet-and-greet obligations, we had to squeeze the trip to pick up the rental between a reception and dinner, which meant shoving the bike in the back of his car for a few hours.  It felt a little stupid to rent a bike and then drive it around, but oh well. I’ve done stranger things.

Guess who's coming to Portland?

After dinner he dropped me off at Powell’s Books, with its expansive bike racks and world-renowned selection of reading material. I was sure they’d have a city bicycle route map somewhere. But despite the four bicycles locked up immediately outside the cash register, the guy staffing the information desk was completely mystified as to where I might find a bike map. Eventually a co-worker stopped by to investigate. “In the bicycling section, of course,” she said. With that hint he could point me in the right direction, but it turned out that there were copies of the map strewn through every room. He could have sent me anywhere.

These bikes evidently know where they're going

I left Powell’s after browsing for a while with two books and a bike map. I would have left sooner, but it felt very intimidating to ride out into a strange city after dark, on a sort-of-strange bike, with only a limited sense of where I was going. However I decided a few years back to stop making choices based on fear, and feel like overall this decision has made my life better, at least on the occasions when I follow through. And I certainly wasn’t going to walk that bike back to the hotel.

The river path by day (my camera is too cheap for a night shot)

In the first few minutes of the ride back, I realized that despite my nervousness, riding a bike in Portland was going to be okay. Drivers in Portland are clearly used to bicycles, and were predictable and courteous. Eventually I ended up riding along the river, where I wished that I had thought to wear my winter gloves. I saw a crowd of people, some with bicycles, along the way, mixed in with shopping carts; it turned out they were there to meet a homeless services van. I passed other riders and pedestrians and looked over the city and the lights on the bridges. Portland is pretty, and it is flat; I can’t remember the last time I rode in San Francisco for over ten minutes without having to shift gears. Maybe never.

By the time I got to the hotel, I decided that riding a bike in Portland was much better than okay.

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On the road again

We're off to see some big trees

My recent frenetic posting pace reflects a kind of end of term wrap-up. The university, the school district, and our preschool are all closing for a week of spring break.  Matt is going on a two-week business trip to Beijing. But let us not judge his carbon footprint; he is there to site renewable energy plants, surely an offset for using all that jet fuel. Instead let’s judge mine: rather than stay home and twiddle our thumbs, the kids and I are headed north to visit my mom in Washington.

But there is a stop along the way: I am going to Portland, North America’s bicycling mecca, to attend a professional conference for a few days (some of which I will skip in order to ride bicycles, shop for books, and visit friends I haven’t seen in years). Frankly I’m so excited I could jump out of my skin.

At any rate, posts for the rest of March are likely to be irregular at best. I’ll be back in April.

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San Francisco destinations: Roll San Francisco

Welcome to Roll San Francisco

The bike shop my sister hauled me to on Saturday has an interesting concept. Roll doesn’t sell bicycles as much as it sells services. It’s not a business model I’d ever considered.

Most bike shops, to my mind, are kind of 20th-century enterprises. They tend to have limited websites, if any, and don’t bother to post inventory or prices anywhere. A few lack the attention to cleanliness and presentation that you would find at even the most slovenly used car dealership. Virtually all of them seem naively optimistic about the level of knowledge that new customers bring in the door. These aren’t always bad things—I for one would happily never set foot in a used car dealership again in my life—but they can be off-putting. It had been a long time since I’d ridden a bike when I bought one, and I certainly could have used reminders that I would need a lock and should pump up my tires once a week. There is a certain hobbyist flair to the bicycle shop (and in many cases, bicycle manufacturing) enterprise that leads me to believe that many of the people involved grew up thinking that “business” was a dirty word.

They fix unicycles, don't they? (Because someone asked them to.)

My sister was excited about Roll because the owners have thought about some of these issues. They recognized, rightly I think, that there is an abundance of stores in San Francisco that can sell you a bike, and that they didn’t want to compete with them. They do have a couple of bicycles for sale (literally: they had two bicycles for sale) but they are mostly about what happens after you buy the bike. They’ll repair anything, and by anything I mean that one of their current jobs was blasting the rust off a frame that someone found in an attic, which had been made by his grandfather, which they would then build up into a functioning bike. They posted the prices of all the services they could think of right on their website (admittedly not yet updated to include blasting rust from a 50-year old frame). They are open from 8am to 7pm so that you can drop a non-functioning bike off in the morning before leaving for work, and pick it up on the way home. You can make an appointment in advance online. Transparency! Availability! Online scheduling! What’s not to like?

Front and center

The owner we spoke with, Renita, was a long-time bike commuter who had evidently been saving up a list of her irritations with traditional bike shops for a while. There is, for example, just one other bike shop in the city I know that keeps comparable hours; that is Warm Planet, which is open 7am-8pm M-F because they primarily serve Caltrain commuters (they offer free valet bicycle parking). Traditional bike shop business hours (Renita: “They’re better than banker’s hours”) have annoyed me as well; once when my tire was low after I arrived at work, I figured I might as well pick up a pump to keep at the office. But the bike shop near my office didn’t officially open until 2pm, and I was warned that I’d be lucky if they actually showed up by then. I had a class to teach that afternoon, so I ended up getting a pump during lunch at the hardware store in Laurel Village. Good thing I don’t have Presta valves.

Bicycle surgical unit, complete with sink to scrub in

I mostly spoke to Renita, because Sam, the mechanic, was keeping busy working on bikes. They are evidently doing a land-office business, because they just hired a second full-time mechanic. The shop was packed with bikes when we came in, but it was not overwhelming. Renita was justifiably proud of their setup, noting that they wanted to put the bike stands and tools up front, where everyone could see them, rather than hidden in the back. There is a back cubby, however, where they do all the scary things that no one wants to watch that involve tools like saws. I could not help thinking of this room as the operating theater.

Step up to the bar

She was also proud that they had something else I had never seen in a bicycle shop before: seating and books, as well as a television that played bike-oriented shows (at the time we were there, an incredibly boring bike race). I am used to standing around bike shops waiting to be helped and staring at the walls by now, but have never enjoyed it. Including seating was an inspired move, particularly given that they wanted a space where women and kids would feel welcome. My sister and I agreed: mission accomplished. They even have a child seat in stock, a Topeak. It’s not the model I would have chosen (either Bobike or Yepp would be better) but it’s nice that they made the effort.

And they aren’t snobs. Like Sosuke in Ponyo, they love all the bicycles. Hence the custom Seven we spotted between two decidedly-not-custom bikes, a Giant and a Cannondale.

The frame-mounted front rack, my new Holy Grail

When I saw the front rack on a Storck (which I was told was the only aluminum frame Storck model, like I would know that Storck primarily makes carbon bikes, which I guess I know now) I asked if they installed frame-mounted front baskets. Sure, she said, they had a metal fabricator on call that could create one and add it to any bike. (I’ve since realized that a Soma Gamoh would serve our needs more than adequately. But FYI.)

We don’t live anywhere near Potrero Hill and getting to this shop would be a five-mile slog for us. This would not be ideal if our bikes actually needed repair, but I understand why locals seem to be swarming it. My sister has a bike mechanic hanging out at home in the form of my brother-in-law, but I imagine she’ll be back for larger jobs he’d prefer not to do. Overall, although I can’t speak to the quality of their work from just wandering around taking pictures, I was impressed. This is a different kind of bike shop, and it’s different in a good way.

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Another day, another commute

Usually cheerful, but not always

For the last couple of weeks Matt has been taking our son to school, because I’ve had various committee meetings at the end of the term (e.g. Admissions, and here’s my tip for getting into graduate school: Follow The Instructions.) When my son found out that I would be taking him to school this morning, he was not happy. “I don’t want to ride on your bike,” he said. When we asked him why, he said that I was too slow going downhill, that he didn’t like slinging his backpack over the back of the Bobike Junior, that my bike didn’t have a double kickstand, and then the rest of his complaints trailed off into vague mutterings. What can I say? He dislikes change. Also: he’s right. My bike is slower than Matt’s.

But things improved once we got moving, as they usually do. It is quiet in the morning but there’s always a lot to see in the city.

We trailed behind a backhoe for a while in Golden Gate Park, and all kids love construction equipment. My son’s mood improved markedly at this point. (The city is re-striping a separated bike lane across the park.)

As we were headed into the Panhandle, we were passed by an electric bike (a Hebb Electro Glide, if I read the logo right); the rider was pedaling slowly and moving fast, and we both found that fun to watch.

After that, we caught up with a recumbent hand-cranked bike ridden by a man with one leg (presumably custom, certainly nothing I recognized). We kept up for a while, but he blew past us and another bike on the way up the hill to Alamo Square. It was extremely impressive.

Sweet new bike racks!

When we got to school, we locked up at the new bike racks, along with another early arrival. By the time we reached the playground, my son was cheerful again.

It’s harder for me after dropping him off. My commute to work from his school goes up Webster, an arterial frequented by some of the nastiest drivers in the city. I have yet to go three blocks on that street without someone blasting a horn, apparently because I exist. One driver once honked at me and shook her fist while I was walking my bike through the crosswalk with the light. Getting off Webster I turn onto Post, and go several blocks uphill on a steadily increasing grade. To pile insult on injury, there are always multiple trucks parked in the bike lane. Once I get to the top of the hill, the only way to enter the campus is by making two left turns on busy thoroughfares (or riding on the sidewalk, but this is illegal in San Francisco, and the potential fine is large).

It’s annoying, but it beats driving.

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