Category Archives: travel

Maker Faire San Mateo

Being pulled in all directions at Maker Faire

Last weekend we went to Maker Faire in San Mateo. I had never heard of Maker Faire before last week, but it’s a big event that pops up around the country featuring, appropriately, people who make things and the things they make. These are mad scientist kinds of people. Legos, robots, hovercraft, steampunk: that kind of thing. And although May in San Mateo is pretty hot, there seemed to be a heavy emphasis on things that blew fire. My kids were enthralled.

This robot dragon shoots flames. Also there are couches inside.

I heard someone say that Maker Faire was Burning Man for capitalists. This seems like a reasonable enough description to me. There was the usual crafty emphasis on display with a swap tent and a fair number of handcrafted giveaways, like the circuit kit my son picked up, but there was an awful lot for sale as well. And where people are buying and selling tech, can overpriced junk food ever be far away? In this case, no it could not. At least there was decent beer.

More than a penny-farthing.

But enough about robots and beer. Luckily for us, it turns out that crafty people like bikes. Although I came in with no expectation other than that my kids would get to play with robots (robots that SHOOT FLAMES—righteous!) we were all impressed by the outrageous bikes at Maker Faire. We liked the Two Penny bike best, a combination bike made up of two penny-farthings welded together. It actually seemed far safer than the sum of its parts. (I only recently learned that the origin of “penny-farthing” was that these bikes looked like a penny and a farthing next to each other—little wheel, big wheel. Clever!)

There was a fun-bike mini-velodrome.

In addition to the Two Penny, the ship-bike, and various other random hodgepodges, all of which evidently could be ridden, there was an area for Cyclecide, where people could try out all kinds of random bikes, including one that hinged in the middle so it wobbled right and left while being ridden and another with odd-sized wheels that bounced the bike up and down like a lowrider. Plus tall bikes, kids’ bikes, side-by-side tandems, and a bunch of others, most of which I lack the imagination to understand or describe. The most impressive of these were entered into the figure-8 pedal-car/bike race, which evidently could get a little rough, as the commentators all seemed to be competitors who’d been sidelined after getting mowed down.

To infinity… and beyond!

My kids were violently opposed to the idea of riding any of the bikes made available for attendees (provided you signed a liability waiver). They wanted to make rockets from paper and blast them from the massive air compressor provided for this express purpose. Admittedly this was a pretty appealing alternative.

Do you have any idea how many bikes I could buy for the cost of one electric car? Too many, that’s how many.

Maker Faire is pretty obviously about promoting alternative transportation, what with the crazy bikes and the hovercraft. (More appealing to the masses, frankly, were the electric cars and motorcycles, not to mention the flaming robots. The bike area was relatively under-populated.) One of the ways this was encouraged was in materials describing how to get to Maker Faire, because the San Mateo fairground is not rich in auto parking, and prices for the parking that was available were high. For the ambitious (and childless) there was a bike train from San Francisco at an estimated time of 90 minutes each way, assuming a fast pace. Or you could bike from CalTrain. There was also free parking at Oracle, served by a bike route and a shuttle to the event. I tried both.

The boat-bike was cool, but I doubt that it actually floats.

Unfortunately there is work to be done on promoting alternative transportation that is practical, rather than cool but functionally useless. The shuttle was horrifically late, and there was no shade while we waited. The bike route was unmarked, and the instructions were terrible, so I ended up riding for quite some time on a pretty awful stretch of El Camino Real, a six-lane drag strip down the Peninsula, in the blazing sun, being buzzed and honked at by cars. Good times. A bike ride is a bike ride, and I try to take them as they come and enjoy the experience, but this particular trip made that more challenging than usual.

Maker Faire bike parking was packed, although not exactly valet parking. I always appreciate free attended bike parking, but the advertising was confusing.

Maker Faire also advertised free valet bicycle parking, which was a misnomer. They meant free attended bicycle parking, but there was no valet. Many cyclists accustomed to the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition definition of valet bicycle parking (which means a person takes your bike, gives it and you matching tags, and parks it for you in a secured area until you come back and retrieve it) were given a lot of blowback from the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition members (who defined “valet” as “we’ll watch your bike after you lock it to a portable rack”) about not bringing their own locks. Free attended bike parking is more than fine, but calling it valet parking confused almost everyone. Moreover, although many kinds of wheeled transportation were allowed on the grounds of Maker Faire, security specifically excluded bicycles, even my little Brompton, which is smaller than most strollers, which were out in abundance. And the SVBC folks did not have any knowledge of the supposed bike routes to either the train stations or the parking lots suggested for cyclists willing to ride the last five miles, which is part of the reason I got dumped onto El Camino Real. Apparently SFBC has been spoiling me rotten, so that now I expect valets who are in fact valets and who can give decent directions.

Are you sure you want to push that button?

Overall Maker Faire was fun, but kind of overcrowded and ad hoc. I don’t know if we’ll go again. That said, if the bike people who came there, the Fun Bike Unicorn Club (FBUC), ever host their own event, we are totally there.

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Wine country weekend

Calistoga=hot springs+vineyards+palm trees

On Saturday I met my sister and we headed to the wine country for a long ride. This was my first attempt at driving somewhere to ride a bike. I’ll admit that it was a little overwhelming.

As things head into summer, the wine country gets more and more crowded. Napa in particular turns into a parking lot on the one highway rolling through it, as everyone is trying to go to the same places on a single road. I hadn’t been there in summer for years, not since a visit in graduate school with friends where we ended up sitting in traffic for four hours at the end of the day while watching cars pull over to disgorge visibly drunk passengers (and sometimes drivers) who threw up at the side of road. What is it with driving and vomiting?

Road closed (to cars): no problem!

But the wine country is pretty and it seemed like a nice way to spend a few hours with my sister without interruption. It took longer than I remembered to get up north, with all the traffic, but I didn’t mind much because the company was good. When we got to Calistoga, the road was closed. No problem! We headed away from the town center until it was easy to park, then rode our bikes back.

Walking around looking at muscle cars: this seemed weird.

It turned out that the road was closed for a classic/muscle car festival. The irony inherent in closing off the street so that people could walk around and look at cars amused me.

At any rate, by the time we finished lunch and started riding it was pretty late. But it was still extremely hot, around 90 degrees. Living in San Francisco, west of the fog line, I haven’t been within 10 degrees of that temperature in years. So I was moving pretty slowly.

One of Calistoga’s rare and pretty bike paths

To my surprise, the wine country does not offer much in the way of dedicated bike paths. So we mostly rode on the road, which offered a marked bike lane in the form of the road shoulder. Sometimes it was generous and sometimes it was narrow (like 8” wide along a rock wall). Mostly the pavement was smooth, but sometimes it was so rough it set my bell ringing. There were hills, the long and rolling kind, but that was fine. The heat was overwhelming for me, though.

My sister shows off one of the rare winery bike racks we spotted

And then there were the drivers. People go to the wine country to drink. And they drive from winery to winery. The inevitable result is drunk driving. I came to appreciate the sight of limos, as they were almost guaranteed to be driven by sober people, who obeyed the speed limit, did not honk at people on bicycles (or to be fair, other cars), or swerve unpredictably.

What, St. Helena? No bike racks?

My sister had planned a route of 22 miles, but we agreed after riding a little while that we should cut the ride short. We had stopped a couple of wineries by then, and one even had a bike rack. We had seen some entertaining and quintessentially California sights, like palm trees growing in the middle of vineyards. I had my first experience of hitting a head wind so strong that I had to pedal down a long hill, which I actually enjoyed because it cooled me off. From a bike, wineries look oddly out of scale, like Vegas-sized attractions, given that they’re meant to catch the attention of people whizzing by at 50 miles per hour. We headed to St. Helena to visit a bakery and chocolate shop and then turned back. Our shortcut ended up being 23 miles in total. Oops! Numb hands, numb seat.

My attempt to get a shot of the Silverado Trail sign

Would I go back to the wine country for a bike ride? Probably not, but it was still fun. Bike rides are always fun. And I liked having several uninterrupted hours of adult conversation with my sister. But it was too much driving for too little biking, and the drunk driving was unnerving. Next time I think we’ll ride around the city visiting wine bars.

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Hello, Sacramento!

Catching the Amtrak shuttle bus to the train to Sacramento

Last month I went to Sacramento for a conference. Because it was right in the middle of 30 days of biking, I took my bike. This was more complicated than it should have been.

At the suggestion of a car-free colleague, I decided to take Amtrak, because Amtrak takes bikes, and it would be cheaper than renting a car that could take the bike and parking it (not that this necessarily mattered immensely, as this was business travel). The downside of this plan is that Amtrak does not actually go to San Francisco. Instead, you have to get to one of their pickup points, catch a free shuttle bus, then get driven across the bay to Emeryville. This takes an hour or so, which is, unfortunately, the same amount of time it takes to drive to Sacramento from San Francisco. Then it’s another 90 minutes on the train from Emeryville to Sacramento, assuming that the train arrives on time, which I am sorry to say it did not.

The whole experience was daunting. If I had known what I was getting into, I would have rented a car after all. Amtrak is a great option if you live in the East Bay, but in San Francisco, not so much.

When I mentioned to one of my coworkers I was planning to continue 30 days of biking in Sacramento, she asked, “Oh, so will you be riding one of the stationary bikes at the hotel gym?”

And I said, “Well, that would be the SMART thing to do, but instead I decided to take my bike on Amtrak.” [Head-smack!]

On the train: in for a penny, in for a pound

When you add in the hour-plus it took me to get across town on a university shuttle, with bike, just to get to the Amtrak shuttle bus stop, I was feeling like an idiot before I even left San Francisco. But I didn’t want to wallow. So I did the shuttle bus to train transfer and a few hours later, rode from the Amtrak station in Sacramento to the conference hotel. Sacramento is a fun place to ride, as it is resolutely level, and at 10pm, I was the only person on the (wide, smooth) roads.

I had hopes that I might be able to sneak out to the famed American River trail, which is evidently an incredible place to ride, or maybe even arrange to meet Tiny Helmets, but a look at the conference schedule made me realize I was doomed. Breakfast started at 7am each day, and every following minute was scripted until 8pm, at which point we were released to dinner. This conference was held by one of my funders, and it was clear in the first 30 minutes that they were paying attention to attendance. Alas, this wasn’t Portland.

I was so fried after the first day that heading to the hotel restaurant was the extent of my ambition. I ended up eating with the toxicologists, and they are a fun crew. They all worked in air pollution and talked about various exposure chambers they built, projects that involved sheet metal and blowtorches. Listening to their dinner conversation was like eavesdropping on Iron Man. Two of the moms swapped stories of how, when their children got lice, they broke out the microscopes (toxicologists evidently have home microscopes) so they could show their kids the nits that they had combed out. Even by the standards of the science crew I run with on a daily basis, this is extremely hard core.

Davis commuter: a bamboo-wrapped tall bike with an animal print seat and a pet carrier on the rear rack.

I got a couple of bike rides in by skipping 15 minutes of the poster sessions to take a quick turn around the convention center. I assumed from looking at local riders, and there were a fair number around, that taking a bike on the sidewalk was okay, but who knows for sure. I was unable to skip out for a ride when I gave my own poster on the last day. I had planned to make it up by riding my bike back to the Amtrak station, but when one of my toxicologist friends offered to drive me back to San Francisco, I figured it would be easier and faster to throw the bike in her car and ride somewhere when I got back.

It turned out that hitching a ride was absolutely worth it, because she wanted to know more about how I was bike commuting with our kids, and because we stopped in Davis for dinner. Davis is an amazing place for bikes, nearly Portland-esque, but even flatter, which of course means more wildly impractical and entertaining bikes. And I found a new biking-mom friend. Unfortunately she lives on the other side of the city.

Davis has bike corrals all over downtown. Get in the game, San Francisco.

This kind of business trip wasn’t the best case scenario for trying to travel with a bike, to say the least, but I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to keep a bike handy. The Sacramento hotel staff, just like the Portland hotel staff, was happy to store my bike in the bell room. Having the bike made getting to the hotel from the train station a breeze, and it was nice to stretch my legs after all the time on buses and trains. Getting to Sacramento and back was the tricky part. Transportation between cities isn’t really set up for people who want to ride a bike once they get somewhere. Amtrak makes it possible but inconvenient, and they won’t take cargo bikes. Driving a car is an option for some trips, but once you’re in a car, it’s extra work to drag a bike around. And it seems to sort of miss the point. Flying is nightmarish even without a bike in tow.

The problem of traveling with bikes is admittedly a specialized one, a real first-world problem. It was nice to read that A Simple Six is also thinking about this, as it suggests that if I am crazy, which seems entirely plausible, that at least I’ll have some company when I’m institutionalized.

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Bellingham destinations: Kulshan Cycles

Surprise! We visited a bike shop in Bellingham! Unbelievable, right?

There are places in Bellingham that I recognize and places I don’t. It’s been about 20 years since I lived there, and like anywhere else it changes. From my jaded urban perspective many of these changes are improvements; it is possible, for example, to get a decent meal in a restaurant, if you aim squarely at the paper-napkin-but-the-heavy-kind level. With this target firmly in mind we headed one evening to a brewpub. We were not the only people who had this idea, it turned out, and the place was packed; even if the only patrons had been riders of the bicycles parked in front, they wouldn’t have been able to seat us. So they gave us a beeper and told us we could go anywhere within four blocks for the next hour. We took the kids outside because they were being raucous. It was the best decision we could have made, because a block away was Kulshan Cycles.

This is only 1/3 of the store.

Kulshan Cycles was a store that I did recognize. It turns out they’ve been in business in the same location for 37 years, longer than my family has lived in Bellingham. I had a vague memory of going in once before, but whatever I remember pales in comparison to reality. It was in some ways the strangest bike shop I’ve ever visited.

A display like this is always a good sign.

In San Francisco, bike shops specialize. There is a shop that sells only folding bikes, and a shop that only  does repairs, a couple that sell only electric bikes, and about a bazillion that specialize in either mountain bikes or fixies. Bellingham is not big enough to have specialty bike stores. Instead, it has Kulshan, which does absolutely everything. I know just enough about bikes now that I was blown away by the diversity.

We had to drag them off these bikes, literally.

My kids ran to the kids’ bike section. The display bikes in various sizes made the only practical use of training wheels I’ve ever seen—the store had attached them to boards so that kids could use them like stationary bikes. Mine spun on those bikes for about 40 minutes, and it was very easy to see which bike fit each kid. In the meantime I walked around their enormous store, increasingly impressed.

This Brompton featured my high school colors. Nice touch.

They sell Bromptons, and had a display Brompton that I could practice folding and unfolding. And speaking of the UK, they sell Pashleys, which I had only ever heard of before, as heavy 3-speed English bicycles are about as practical as Hummers in San Francisco. They’re not very practical in Bellingham either, which is hilly, but they had one just in case.

Well hello there.

They sell mountain bikes. They sell commuter bikes, and nice ones at that. And they sell many cargo bikes! An orange Batavus Personal Delivery, which I knew listed at over $1000 (later I checked: list is $1300) was on sale for $750! It’s also not a good climber, which perhaps explains the screaming deal. But if you are in the market for a Bat, I’m guessing that even with shipping it would be tough to beat this price. They had a Trek Transport, which I’d never seen in person before. They had nearly every Surly under the sun in stock, but had recently sold their Big Dummy.

Pretty commuter bikes

At this point I had started talking to the guys on the floor. One of them told me he had built his own Xtracycle-type bike the year before the FreeRadical came out, and had put a child seat for his son on it. Then he showed me the child seats they sold; a rack-mounted seat even cheaper than the Topeak (which I now think of as the finger-slicer). They stocked that particular seat because that was what had sold historically, but had ordered and installed Yepp seats for customers recently.

Unicycles: are they more or less practical than fixies? Discuss.

I told them I was blown away by the selection. “Oh, have you seen our overpriced fixies?” they laughed, pulling out a bike painted the same flat black color as cars that speed on country roads late at night with their headlights off. I know nothing about fixies except that they have no gears and that in San Francisco they are primarily ridden by people who hate children, but evidently this one was an exemplar of the genre, as it cost $3000. And this was at a bike shop willing to sell a Bat for almost half-off. In San Francisco I presume it would sell for $5000.

When I told them I was visiting from San Francisco, they asked if I had an electric assist on my cargo bike. Because it turns out that they also sell electric assists, primarily the BionX, and given the local topography, that market has been growing. They had a loaner Trek with a BionX in the back that they let customers use for a few days if they were thinking about electric bikes, and did I want to borrow it? It was very tempting, but that bike didn’t have child seats, and they’d need a day to put them on, and we didn’t have another day.

Trailers and child seats

Would they rent it to me on a future visit? They were willing to consider it. Will I be calling them to try to rent a bike the next time I’m headed to Bellingham? You bet. But if that doesn’t come through, it turns out that there are other shops that rent bikes in town: Fairhaven Bike & Ski (which is the same vintage as Kulshan, and also offers rental trailers), Jack’s Bicycles, and Fanatik, none of which I visited but all of which I will check out if necessary, because the next time we visit Bellingham, we’ll be rolling on two wheels.

My son wanted the Sumo wrestler horn. I told him he already had a horn.

In the meantime, Kulshan has unicycles. They have beach cruisers. They have Sumo bike horns. They have multiple child trailers, which make sense to use outside of major cities. They have t-shirts with bike-friendly messages in sizes down to infant. They had a balance bike displayed on a repair stand, and that made me laugh. The employees were clever and friendly and funny and happy to see kids in the store. I liked Kulshan Cycles. Not every small city has a bike shop like this, but all of them should.

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15 days of biking

These riders have it easy: it's flat on this side of the city.

I came into 30 days of biking knowing that there would be some challenges. Not least among these was the fact that I was going to Sacramento for a conference halfway through the month. I was there most of last week. Unlike a normal conference, this one was arranged by one of my grantors, and that meant blowing off part of the meeting to cycle around town was: unlikely.

Just to make me look even more unprofessional, my poster arrived looking like this (fortunately it was undamaged).

This expectation was pretty much spot-on, as it turned out attendees were expected to see and be seen from 8am to 8pm every day. Skipping part of the poster sessions to quickly ride around the Sacramento Conference Center felt like both a huge accomplishment and a huge risk, as explaining myself to colleagues who spotted me was sort of complicated. I proposed that I was wildly eccentric and they did not disagree. At least I missed most of the thunderstorms in San Francisco.

If I had been thinking, I would have headed to one of the many all-night bodegas in our neighborhood. But evidently I look just Russian enough that the owners here get annoyed when I speak English.

But I missed doing even this on the last day of the conference. So when I got home I scanned the kitchen to discover that our grocery situation was dire, made lunches for the next day with the available remains, and went out to ride once around the block in my dress clothes and high heels around 11pm. The only way to ride around the block where we live involves an unappetizing choice between (a) going up, then down, or (b) going down, then up. I picked the former. My choice of timing, route, and dress were atypical, and several oncoming cars stopped dead as I approached them (we live next to a hospital; there is traffic at all hours). It could only get easier from here.

Water in the basement, down from 5 inches to 2 inches

There were also some unexpected challenges. The hospital building behind our street was built over everyone’s former backyards without regard for neighborhood drainage, and as a result, whenever it rains heavily, every basement and garage on the street ends up several inches underwater. This happens a few times every year. It happened last week. As an aside, when we first moved in to the neighborhood, we were the kind of people who put things on the floor of the basement. These days, like every basement on our street, ours looks like an ad for the Container Store. There is nothing on the floor except garbage bins and modes of transportation, but just to be safe, everyone keeps the bikes and scooters on the uphill side. (The bins float so they can go wherever.)

Our son arranged this hardware--Matt insisted I take a picture because it is proof, as if any more were needed, that he is in fact my son.

So when I came home the basement was still draining away several inches of water and everything was covered with mud. Per usual the campus maintenance people came by and pressure washed out most of the mud, but everything was still moderately grungy. Today our kids decided to clean up the rest of the mess. Although they’re not really up to the task, we were so touched by their effort that we took them out to Japanese food and ice cream. That’s another ride in the bag.

So that’s 15 days of biking. Some of the days have been unimpressive. Twice I have ridden only to get takeout pizza (a perfect application for the bungee net!) But I’m not going anywhere the rest of the month, the forecast predicts sunny weather all week, and I’ve already totally embarrassed myself professionally, so barring a plague of locusts, I’m feeling like I should be able to manage 15 more.

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Families ride!

We love Seattle!

When Stacy at A Simple Six heard I was headed up to Seattle for spring break, she introduced me to Family Ride (she knows everyone!) We don’t have much opportunity to ride our bikes with other families in San Francisco. We have friends who ride with their kids to school, and we see them on the playground in the morning, but there are no city rides along the lines of Kidical Mass, unless you count Bike to School Day, which I don’t, really, as it is once a year. Anyway people in San Francisco tend to flinch when they hear anything that sounds like “Critical Mass” in this city; its reputation is mixed at best. I know I do. So I’d only taken my kids on a ride with friends just for the fun of it once before, when we had the Yuba. But after spending the day with Family Ride, I wish San Francisco had more kid rides, even if they were called Spawn of Critical Mass.

All lathered up after a nice long ride in the rain

We didn’t have much choice about the day we visited; my mom works in Seattle one day each week, so that’s when we went. After scoring incredible good fortune weather-wise while in Portland and during most of my stay with my mom, my luck finally ran out when we headed to Seattle. It rained the entire time we were in the city. I grew up in the constant drizzle of the Pacific Northwest, and although generally I find any non-temperate climate appalling and think that central heat is a wonder of the modern age, I can handle drizzle. Unfortunately I didn’t think to pack rain clothes. My kids spent the entire ride in rain gear cobbled out of garbage bags. I got wet. And soapy! Evidently the rinse cycle on our washer leaves something to be desired, because after a couple of hours pedaling in the rain, my pants actually began to lather up. I was glad I packed a change of clothes.

Four little monkeys

Despite all of this, we had a great time. Family Ride was an awesome host, arranging a ride with multiple stops to dry out and refuel the kids. Mine were on what I think of as “vacation strike” and eating a diet that consisted largely of chocolate chip cookies. But a stop at Theo Chocolate led them to expand their horizons by consuming several handfuls of chocolate samples as well. Theo Chocolate was an inspired stop; the kids clambered on the bike rack and had to be coaxed inside. My son was so enamored that he spent the entire trip home telling me about his plans to open a Theo Chocolate branch in San Francisco when he grew up.  I only wish that we had taken the tour, because he has little understanding of the chocolate making process and wants to start trying to create new flavors at home, and it is difficult to communicate to him that the specialized equipment involved makes this the kind of thing you need a factory to develop. Plus I have no idea how to import cacao beans for personal use.

Let's think of some other things that start with C... oh, who cares about the other things! C is for Cookie!

The end of the line was a Dutch bike shop, complete with café and a return to chocolate chip cookies. This was the first time I’d been in a Dutch bike shop, and it was interesting—all the bikes there looked great for riding in the flats, but improbable for hills. Family Ride told me she knew a mom who actually had a bike like this and lived on a hill, and she walked it home every day. I don’t think I could live like that. From there we turned around and headed back. The official detour for the closed path was on a sidewalk, and it felt like living dangerously to ride there, as this is totally illegal in San Francisco.

My kids were both wildly impressed with the pink bike

How good a host is Family Ride? She let us ride her new pink Big Dummy for the day! It is a great bike, and although I did not come anywhere near testing its capacity to haul stuff, it carries two kids with ease. I felt very lucky, and also tried very hard not to drop it. I was successful, although the turning radius was wider than I expected. Keeping the seat down helped me maneuver it.

Guess which hill? There's no way to ride on it.

I also got a taste of Seattle hills, which are different than San Francisco’s but challenging nonetheless. Here the hills tend to be either steep and short or long and shallow. In Seattle they were long and moderate—10 or more blocks at a time of real climbing. None of it is so steep as to be impossible, but after the first three or four blocks, the prospect of going another six or seven feels very grim indeed. I’m pretty impressed that Family Ride does this every day with two kids on deck.

30 days of biking: almost as crazy as Theo Chocolate calling their World Bicycle Relief bicycle "not a bike"

Talking with Family Ride was what tipped me over the edge to try 30 Days of Biking, even though it was going to require a commitment to do some things that normal people would consider genuinely crazy, like haul my bike to Sacramento so I could ride around the block while attending a conference where I could not, this time, avoid several sessions and visit bike shops. But if Family Ride could go around the block before midnight in pajamas the first year to make all 30 days, hauling a bike to Sacramento and barely riding it seemed like small beans by comparison. She said that 30 Days of Biking was what made her the hard-core bike commuter that she is today—and she rides everywhere, at all hours. It is very impressive. I’m still a reluctant night rider and whine about hills. But with such a good example, maybe I can get better.

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Bicycles in Beijing

Rental tandems in the Huohai lake historic district

While I was riding around Portland and Seattle (more to come), Matt was in China for business. Because he knows I love bicycles, he took some pictures of the ones he saw while he was in Beijing. Most of Beijing is evidently terrifying by any mode of transit, and Matt claims that even standing still and breathing there feels risky. However a portion of the city, the Huohai lake historic district, is off-limits to cars and thus packed with bikes, bikes, bikes. He sent me these photos labeled “Copenhagen East.”

Little bike, big seat

In virtually all of the photos I’ve seen of bikes in China, riders have not shrunk from carrying passengers on bikes, even if said bikes were technically not designed for this purpose. The rear seat on this bicycle is disconcertingly far back on the rear wheel, which must make the bike itself fishtail like crazy. So I find it especially impressive, or alternatively crazy, that the rear seat is large enough that it could almost certainly carry a second adult. And that seat does not lack style. Compared to the sea of gray plastic child seats I see mounted on rear racks in this country, it is a nice change of pace for the child seat to outclass the bike.

Three-seat tandems, city-bike style

But if you really want to ride in style, you can rent a three-seater tandem. Compare these rides to the surreys you see in American parks: there is no comparison. I especially like that they come with fenders, chainguards, and front baskets, as though they were actually viable commuter vehicles, which seems pretty improbable. But it’s nice that that’s the assumption; tandems in this country seem primarily targeted to the road biking set. This is a shame given that kids love tandems.

Really basic bike shop: no walls, no ceiling

By contrast, the bike shops of the lake district are a lot more ad hoc. In Portland they put everything on cargo bikes, and I imagine that this is handy when you have a flat by the side of the road: rolling bike shop to the rescue! But in Beijing a bike shop is evidently a guy on the sidewalk. Despite having a lot less real estate at his disposal than even a tiny San Francisco bike shop, this guy has nonetheless provided customer seating. I thought that was a classy touch.

Maintenance lessons for the next generation

In keeping with the customer-focused theme, the owner of this open-air shop started giving a young customer a bike maintenance lesson while Matt was there snapping photos. I like that they’re working on another mama-bike–you can see it’s balanced on the child seat in the back, and has the usual commuter accessories: fenders, chainguard, front basket. The bikes in all of these photos probably sell for the equivalent of less than $100, and every single one of them is a more practical commuter than over 90% of the fixies I see in San Francisco’s Financial District. The US is a great country, but also crazy.

Soft and Lazy Restaurant, clearly catering to the tourist trade

Unlike me, Matt was not able to bail on many of his business obligations to ride bikes around a strange city, more’s the pity. So his impressions of actually riding a bicycle in Beijing will have to wait for another time–there will be at least two more extended trips this year, and I have faith that eventually he’ll make it out of the taxi. He said he came back feeling much like this perhaps-too-honestly-advertised restaurant. Chinglish: it’s funny because it’s true.

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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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Filed under commuting, traffic, travel

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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Filed under Breezer, rides, travel