Category: Bicycling

Commuting with a Touring Bike

In many ways, a bicycle set-up for touring represents the ideal commuter – strong, durable, comfortable, relatively upright, and dependable. But for those of us with U.S.-scale commutes (like my 10-mile ride into work with hills), the racked, bagged, sturdy touring bike can be overkill and less than satisfying riding home after a long day. Plus, I like to think that my 20-mile round trip commute stands as my fitness regimen, rendering trips to the gym or runs after work unnecessary (plus, more time at home with the kids).

That being said, at least one day a week, I find myself needing to slog in a bunch of stuff – clothes, books, grading, and my 15″ laptop. This is when a touring bike can be handy. But I pine for a commuter-version of my Ebisu randonneuse – light, quick, perhaps with only a porter rack to bring a computer bag and even a small grocery run on the way home.

The DNF – Lemonade out of Lemons.

I rode a strong and happy randonee with San Francisco Randonneurs two weeks ago. Then, my spring break provided an opportunity to get out of town, clear my head, visit with far-away friends, and ride an exceptional course for the Russian River 300k.

Heading home, I had the Solana Beach 400K in my thoughts, but I hadn’t committed to it. The Healdsburg/Hopland 400K I rode last year felt great – probably one of the best rides I’ve ever had. But I didn’t commit to this year’s 400K until the day before. Since returning from San Francisco, time at home with my kids has seemed especially satisfying. Maybe it was the head-clearing function of a nice long randonee. But I had mixed feelings about signing up – until I jumped in at the last moment.

A 4am start would mean a typical 5 hr. per 100K pace would get me in before midnight – but it would also mean I’d be away all day, and likely sleeping most of Sunday. It also meant a very early morning – but I was ready. Unfortunately, when I showed up to the start right at 4am (I need to time driving distances better from our new neighborhood!), there was no one to be found. I circled the parking lot of the Solana Beach train station a few times, and eventually parked and walked around the area where the Corona 300K begins and ends. Then a sick feeling came over me – I just assumed this ride would start here – but upon shining a flashlight on my cue sheet, it became painfully clear that the start was a mile down the road at a Holiday Inn. I drove over, got my stuff out, and started 20 minutes behind. This was to be a very lonely 20-22 hour ride.

Yet, bombing down the coast before dawn was a blast. Riding up Mission Valley and Mission Gorge, up toward Alpine felt great. Then I started climbing out of Alpine toward Descanso. I felt OK. But I also wanted to be home with my kids. Maybe that’s why out-of-town rides result in more focused riding. Its hard to explain, but as I approached Descanso, the thought of a DNF popped into my head. Already 60 miles in – I could at least get a good 200k for the day and be home for dinner. But finishing the ride provides its own rewards, stretched over several days afterward.

I guess my head just wasn’t in it for this Saturday. My body felt fine, and could have pressed on. But I just didn’t want to – something that occurred to me even when I finally signed up. These rides are just the best thing – if one’s head is in for it. Mine wasn’t. So I called our RBA and turned around. Immediately, it felt like the right decision. I thought about dinner with my kids, a burbon before bed, a nice morning of newspaper-reading, and taking the family to mass before pancakes.

On the way down, I felt relieved. Maybe two weeks is not enough time to digest a ride and prepare for another. Maybe I should have finished that revise-and-resubmit before the ride to cast it from my thoughts. Maybe – just maybe – I wasn’t mentally prepared. Other things got in the way, and I felt like I made the right decision – especially as I began my descent back down into Alpine, stopping at the famous Alpine Brewery for a photo.

The winding descent vial Arnold Way and Harbison Canyon provided the smell of spring-chapparal and tactile thrills as the Ebisu carved the turns effortlessly. By the time I hit Dehesa Rd., familiar backcountry terrain pulled me homeward. Then at the Sycuan Resort, I saw some familiar faces from sdbikecommuter gathering in the parking lot – several friends among them. They were headed on a ride from North Park to the Alpine Brewery for lunch and to fill growlers. I told them about my morning travels and turn-around, and wished them a good time despite their invitations to join, as I was focused on riding back to Solana Beach to get my car. Then one of them – perhaps Jeff – said something to the effect of “you have a big chunk of the day already blocked off – come along!” That stuck in my head as we pedaled our separate ways.

About a quarter-mile later, I found myself turned around and trying to catch up. When I did, I couldn’t have been more happy, even though it meant climbing back into Alpine after *really* enjoying the descent. This just meant I’d be able to ride the descent again! I met some great folks, and enjoyed riding with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and had an excellent cask-conditioned ale with a pulled-pork sandwich. Some folks loaded up their panniers with freshly-filled growlers and we headed back. I split off to ride back home to La Mesa while they took a northern route through Mission Trails. They reminded me how much fun one can have on bikes with friends. I had about 120 miles on the day, which felt great. And when I was sitting at a long table at probably San Diego’s most exclusive brewery, enjoying the stories, ideas, and camaraderie of good people, I realized that this is what randonneuring – wandering – was all about. There will be another 400K, but I had a blast.

I rode home, took a shower, and held my kids in my arms while enjoying a beer. I looked at the clock – 4pm – and wondered where I’d be if I stuck with the course. Maybe close to Hemet? We drove up to Solana Beach for grub and grog at Pizza Port, then walked along the beach under moonlight before retrieving the car and heading home. It was a great day.

Wine, Wind, and the Water: Russian River 300K

After a difficult 300K in February, it was time to redeem myself. My spring break fell in between NAHBS and the San Francisco Randonneurs Russian River 300K. I was going to head north to stay with my in-laws, write a little, and ride a little. But I couldn’t be away for two weekends, so the choice became clear. It was easy – ride with SFR and skip the show!

The adventure begins on I-5. Cool W123.

I took the Brompton, the Protovelo, and the Ebisu up for the trip. Its rare I get to drive up with an empty Volvo station wagon, but being alone, I had plenty of room for a different bikes for different riding. The nearly theft-proof Brompton took me around the city and Oakland while cafe-hopping, rode the Protovelo around the East Bay, and took the Ebisu into Hiroshi to inspect the wheels and size some low-riders. I couldn’t believe it, but the chain needed replaced after only a year of riding. Hiroshi remaked gently that randonneuring is tough on bikes, and that components may need more attention than nomral. It was nice to visit with Hiroshi, and I got to go to Rivendell and talk with those guys, and check in with the fellas at Box Dog.

The weather looked great – overcast and cool. There were more than 100 riders at the start. We took the pledge, said some hellos, and headed off over familiar territory. With SFR, I’ve ridden Lighthouse and Two Rock/Valley Ford 200ks, Old Caz 300K, and Healdsburg/Hopland 400K. All of them I absolutely loved. The terrain is varied, and the course – especially from the bridge through the Marin towns – feels as familiar as home.

We made our way through the Marin towns, and then up toward Petaluma. I fell into a group following Willie’s tandem into Healdsburg, perhaps the easiest 30 miles I’ve ever ridden. At the Safeway in Healdsburg, the thought occurred to me that I’d break off on my own through the grape vines of Healdsburg and along the Russian River on River road, but luckily I found Bruce on his excellent white Ebisu and we traded pulls for a while. Then we found a larger group including Carlos and Bill and pacelined toward Highway 1. The wind howled, and the heavy fog turned into light rain down Tomales Bay. The rollers between Bodega Bay and Marshall include climbs that slap you in the face, but the rollers after Marshall are more even. Something on the Edelux light mount was wrong, began to slip, and the mount broke in half before i got the Golden Gate Bridge. Besides fidgeting with the light, it was an exceptionally enjoyable day. I finished in 14:50.

The day begins: Camino Alto

Bruce et. al.

Paceline is cool. Photo by Hillbubba.

Happy rider. Photo by Hillbuba.

By and large, this was my favorite course yet.

Mixed-Terrain Madness: Old Cazadero 300K

There’s not much more to say about San Francisco Randonneurs’ Old Cazadero 300K after reading Max’s description here. It’s a carefully curated route, with Max adding as much climbing – often going out of his way to do so – as seemingly possible to make for an epic, interesting, and unusual 188 miles. I think the route should win some kind of medal, as I found it to be the best randonnée I’ve participated in.

Riding up Wilson Hill Rd. Photo by Eric.

What do you want in an event: Excellent camaraderie among riders? Exploring the woods? A surprising, expansive view of the Sonoma Coast as you begin a steep descent after a 10-mile climb? Climbing 5 miles through redwood groves on a dirt road? Close-up views of vultures feeding on roadkill?

Near the summit of Willow Creek Rd. An absolute highlight of the ride.

15% dirt and 15,200+ ft. of climbing. This was about the best of what you can do on a bicycle during one day, while carving out serious adventure on a Saturday.

Besides the three big climbs, Max put us on every hill in Sonoma County. It certainly wore me out. I experienced my typical ebb and flow on such a ride: enthusiastic riding the first 3rd, exhaustion and some hopelessness during the second, and then re-invigorated spirited riding on the last 3rd. The climbing proved rhythmic and often facilitated the most enjoyable parts of the ride. The long ones – Old Cazadero, Fort Ross Rd., and Willow Creek – were bliss as I settled into a turning rhythm in my seemingly sensible 34-30 low gear. The relatively shorter climbs were more slaps-in-the-face: Burnside Rd. into Occidental, Valley Ford/Franklin School Rd, and Highway 1 up from Stinson Beach and Muir Beach. Jackie has a great turn-by-turn emotive write-up at the Box Dog journal.

Charging up Old Cazadero Rd.

The descents proved more trouble for me. On the dirt descent of Old Cazadero, I lost my front wheel in some clumpy kitty litter and went down pretty good. Just as I got going, I thought “maybe I should put on my gloves and let some air out of the Pari-Motos (pumped to 55psi), and then I proceeded to hit the mess and fall on my right arm and chest. Pretty cut up, but I felt OK. Only 100 more miles to ride on cut-up hands! I’m telling, you, true adventure! At the bottom is Austin Creek, which we crossed and got a reprieve while putting our shoes and socks back on. I was able to wash up in the creek. It was a kick in the teeth, though. I’d slow down on descents from here on out.

Once I climbed out of Valley Ford, I started feeling good on Hwy. 1. I stopped in for clam chowder in Bodega and picked up the pace past Marshall and into Pt. Reyes Station, where nothing tasted good. I spoke with the other riders about the last 40 miles ahead of us, which would be in the dark and on the 1. I charged a head, feeling great along out of Tomales Bay and toward Bolinas Lagoon. It was pretty fun riding on the flat stretch along the lagoon toward Stinson Beach. I wasn’t fond of riding at night with some of the traffic coming in and out of Stinson on a summer Saturday, but the cars became more infrequent as I climbed out of Stinson.

I was feeling strong, and really wanted to finish when I flatted in the dark. It was a very small piece of glass that made its way through the fairly-fragile Pari-Moto on the front wheel. It was a real bummer – I had trouble pumping the tire back up for a number of reasons, including my sore rib from the earlier fall. Kirk and Ernesto arrived just as I finished, and we rode most of the remainder together.

It was great to get in, despite a small unintended detour at the end with Kyle, who was on his first randonnée. I got to ride with some great people – I think there were about 25 of us, so there were clumps of people who generally got to see each other at the controls. I would have liked to ride more with Ian and talk about his new Pelican. Next time.

And there will certainly be a next time – I can’t wait to so this again. Yes, I admit thinking in alliterative terms about our route creator: “masochist Max,” “mad Max,” and “Mean-old-man Max.” But he’s a very genial person, and I’m happy he had us suffer. Endorphins cure all, including memory of pain. Next year, get in your car/plane/bus/bike and get yourself to this ride. The best I’ve ever done in a day.

7-day Tour: What I brought

On our recent central coast tour, Dustin’s ultralight set-up had me thinking a lot about my packing. I rode with a traditional rack-and-pannier load, on the lightish side with only two panniers in the front, along with a rando bag and one of Acorn’s brilliant large saddlebags in the rear.

After busting out 60-80 miles per day, I’ve concluded that this is the maximum I’d ever want to tour with, unless I was eating far less mileage and taking my time. But with young children, I don’t really foresee such a long-form tour happening in the near future.

We ate out (praise the maker!), so didn’t take cooking supplies or food. I realize that saved a lot of weight and bulk. On a California costal tour, we had to be ready for cold, wet nights up north, and sunny warm days down south. Besides tubes, tools, bars, and a pump, this is it. Plus a paperback T.C. Boyle novel and a Moleskin pad and pen. So, what did I take, and what could I change to save weight and make room for?

• Top: (1) Icebreaker wool t-shirt; (1) Swobo wool polo; (1) Patagonia cotton/polyester cotton shirt; (1) Woolistic jersey.
I could leave the Woolistic jersey (bulky) and Patagonia shirt, which I thought would dry easier, at home. I would add another polo, as the collar can be flipped up for sun protection. Not bad around town either if its not too nasty from riding.

• Bottom: (1) pair of Bouré Elite shorts; (1) pair of Ibex wool knickers; (1) pair of Swrve lightweight softshell knickers; (1) pair of Swrve cotton pants; (1) pair of cut-off shorts; (1) pair of Swrve wwr shorts; (3) pair of wool boxers.
Too much! I’d swap out the Bouré shorts and Ibex knickers for a couple of padded wool shorts if i could. I’d also get a pair of lighter-weight wwr Swrve knickers and leave the softshells and cut-offs at home. One pair of Swrve pants would be good for the evening.

• Outer: (1) Swrve windbreaker; (1) Patagonia down jacket that also served as a pillow (1) pair of wool armwarmers; (1) pair of wool gloves; (1) pair of Camper shoes for riding; (1) pair of Chaco flip flops.
Nothing to trim here! The Campers are trusty, but Adidas Sambas will take their place next time. I’d add a pair of arm coolers, as my arms got quite a lot of sun despite my sunblock efforts.

• Gear: (1) Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 tent; (1) REI Lite-core sleep pad; (1) REI down sleeping bag; (1) Jetboil PCS; (1) yoga towel.
The yoga towel was too big, but I couldn’t find my very small pack towel, which I apparently lost and need to replace.

I think with my changes, I could keep this two-pannier-and-rack set-up the same and add some freeze-dried food to use with the Jetboil, or even a frying pan to make something more interesting. Of course, the ultra-light route is also very tempting, forgoing the weight of racks and Ortlieb bags. This is what I’d likely pursue on my Black Sheep adventure bike. Some Kirtland-style canvas panniers would also make my Ebisu, with very lightweight low-rider racks, a capable fast and minimalist tourer.

Which Bars?

I don’t have any hand pain/numbness issues in general, so by and large, I can change handlebar type and height with impunity. If anything, changes provide for variety and different riding experiences. I love mustache bars for off-road and Jitensha bars for city riding, but I don’t like riding either for longer than 40 miles or so. Drops always seem to work and facilitate harder efforts. Albatross bars offer multiple hand positions, too. For a 7-day tour, I took out the Protovelo, which was wearing Albatross bars that I like to use for commuting. The Protovelo has a long top tube, and it ideally fits swept-back bars. In previous builds, even with an 8cm stem, I found the reach with drop bars feeling too far out there.

Riding with a buddy on the tour, I’d have to keep up, and drops seemed necessary. I pushed the saddle forward on the seatpost, set the bars even with the saddle, and took a test ride around the neighborhood. All felt well, although its difficult to see what it would be like over 80 miles. Low and behold, the bike felt perfect. I used my favorite drop bar – the Nitto 135 “Randonneur” in 45cm at the ends. I had multiple hand positions, the ability to cruise downhill in the hooks, and I could pedal hard to catch up to Dustin.

Albatross bars would have been fun if I was alone and took fewer miles per day. But I’m sure glad I left them at home for this adventure.

Do women ride in Paris? Hell ya.

I’ve read elsewhere that one way to gauge the bike-friendlienss of a city is to assess the number of women riders. In Paris, it would be silly to even ask such a question, as bicycles are woven into the culture. Its worth noting, however, the particular version of femininity that French culture displays, and how that does not deter riding in the least.

The Lure of the Crappy-riding Bicycle

I had a Brompton for a little while – a decade-old M3L that I enjoyed using. But I found the ride quality to be generally unacceptable. Used to riding premium bicycles, the little quirks of the little bike got on my nerves and built up into intolerance. The Brompton comes in one size, and I find (just my opinion!) them to be twitchy, uncomfortable over distance, and shit for climbing. And in San Diego, you climb.

I sold it to buy a Bike Friday Tikit, which I loved. It rode more like a real bicycle and had standard-components, which I favored over the Brompton’s proprietary pieces and closed-system. At the same time, the Tikit’s fold was larger (as is well-documented and discussed), but not by much. I got used to the ride, and enjoyed it, but it still wasn’t like my other bikes. So it left the stable and went to a good home.

Now I find myself wanted a Brompton again – something my wife and I could both ride as a city bike to do quick errands and keep in the car trunk. I’m ready to accept its limitations. How did this happen!?

Riding the Velíb around Paris had me thinking about the trade-offs that may come with incredibly useful but poor-riding bicycles. No one would say that the Velíb is a fine machine. It does the job, engineered for durability and theft-prevention. The fit isn’t ideal, its heaviness makes it sluggish, and it doesn’t plane (!). But it does the job, and once you accept its limitations, it becomes rather magical and delightful.

I’m thinking of the Brompton the same way, as I’ve seen a few bounce around Paris. It does the job, and then tucks away underneath the cafe table.

Fendered, Floating, and Flooded in Paris under a Pink Sky

As I was waiting to video chat with my wife and children, I decided to put the plastic SKS fenders on the Velo Cult, as some rain was forecast for the next few days. Very few city bikes appear throughout Paris without fenders. Makes sense to me! Despite a severe drought here, many people and municipal workers still use water to sweep. So even if it doesn’t rain, often in the morning plenty of puddles and wet sections have the potential to make my bobeau outfits all dirty.

I flirted with brining aluminum 50mm Honjos on this trip, just to be all spiffy when I got here. But common sense reigned and I threw SKS plastic fenders in the S&S travel case at the last minute (knowing Paris can be quite wet in the late spring). The plastic fenders can bend in the case, are less likely to scratch the bike already in a position prone to scratches (it comes with the territory), and are relatively easy to mount. At one point I had these on another bike, so upon installation, I needed to punch a new hole at the seat stay bridge. As you might imagine, a waiter’s corkscrew stands at the ready in my studio, and the serrated foil cutter performed the the job perfectly. I’d highly recommend SKS fenders for travel. They don’t provide the looks or full coverage of metal fenders, but they’re darn easy to fiddle with.

I mounted the fenders and went for a ride across town under a pink sky. Storms passing through all weekend rendered a sky the color of those lovely Gérard Mulot dessert boxes. I zipped around the 13th, 5th, and 6th, heading over the river just as the Eiffel lit up at sunset.

Just as I began to look for a bite over in the 2nd, I saw lightning flash to the south of the city. The drama of lightning behind Notre Dame caught my gaze and my imagination. But I also knew that rain was coming, and I had to make good time toward my studio apt which sits on the border of the 5th and the 13th on the south side of the city. I hustled over the Seine and bombed through the cobbles of the Latin Quarter, and then up and over Rue Monge, cutting through Square St-Médard to make it to my place on the other side of Rue Armand. I flew past Velib riders and darted between scooters. I almost made it.

The rain began as I cut through the square, and within seconds it was too much to ride in. Blinding. Under an overpass on Rue Pascal, I found shelter from what turned out to be a fantastic thunderstorm. Like evacuees from a natural disaster, Scooter riders huddled together smoking cigarettes. Soaked pedestrians came in from the rain one by one, with the women holding their shirts out so as not to reveal their bodies in a way the a drenching makes possible. We all just kind of stared at the downpour and each other. I knew what they couldn’t have guessed – I was to blame for installing the fenders.

Your Commute is Killing You – Unless its Making You Happier

Slate has a new piece that summarizes a slew of studies that confirm what many already know: long commutes, mostly by car (but also by train or bus) make us unhappy, and may even raise the level of stress that shortens our lifespan.

What the article doesn’t mention is that if you commute by bike or walk, it could make you happier. The Cascade Bicycle Club pulls together a number of studies into one of those (now almost annoyingly) cute animation shorts:

For the last 9 years, I lived very close to work – only about a quarter mile. The convenience cannot be overstated. But I found myself having a difficult time separating work from home – not enough mental and physical space between dinner with my family and the class I just finished teaching. Now I enjoy a 10 mile commute by bicycle, and couldn’t be happier. Commuting by bicycle or as a pedestrian means moving through interesting spaces, alert to the world around you using all senses, using the rhythm of the body. I arrive to work with a fresh mind, and I arrive home with my exercise done.

While my commute is about 45 minutes, I know a colleague who lives near me and does a nearly 3 hour walk each way in the summer. Most people thing that’s crazy, but his kids are grown, and I can’t help but think about how refreshing that is for the mind. Long walks everyday are clearly underrated.

Use your body on the commute!