Sunday, January 29, 2012

Pedals for the people

Capital Bikeshare’s 1,100 bikes are nerdy, heavy as hell, stiff as slate and equipped with only a three-speed internal gear. And they're awesome.

They’re awesome because people use them for real transportation. A lot.

After years of reading about bikeshare programs, I spent last week in Washington, D.C., where I finally got to try one. More cities should have programs like this. Especially those lucky enough to have a mild climate and relatively flat terrain.

Washington’s traffic and shortage of parking make traveling by car unappealing, so why bother? The streets and bike lanes are full of cyclists, from hipsters on fixies to commuters and tourists on bikeshare bikes. As a visitor, I could buy a 24-hour membership in the program for seven dollars, then drop bikes—and get new ones for subsequent trips—at 110 locations. Locals can pay $75 for annual memberships.

You can use a bike for free (other than the membership fee) for the first 30 minutes you have it, then pay hourly fees for any extra time. Considering that it seems like a fit rider could get almost much anywhere in central Washington within a half-hour, that’s a pretty decent deal.

I checked out a bike last Tuesday night after a long, evening walk on the National Mall. I hated the idea of walking all the way back to my hotel, and cabs are expensive, so being able to grab a bike and get “home” 15 or 20 minutes was a perfect solution. (By the way, each bike also has flashing lights both front and rear, which comes in handy at a time like this.)

After wrapping up a tiring week at mid-day on Friday, I picked up another bike so I could wander around, and next thing I knew, I was in Georgetown. I decided to drop my bike at one of the self-service stations, then walk to some bike shops and stop for a cold beer. An hour or so later, I retrieved my bike so I could cruise along the Potomac past the Watergate Hotel (where crooks used to operate) and up the National Mall to the U.S. Capitol (where crooks still operate). A little later, I dropped the bike at a station near my hotel, then picked up a bottle of wine and walked to a friend’s house for dinner. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon in a new city.

Something like this probably could never work in Anchorage. Our urban sprawl and small population would make a bikeshare program inefficient. Plus, our weather keeps most of the local population off bikes for about eight months a year.

I would never trade our mountains, snow and long winters for life in D.C., but I am a little jealous of programs like this.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Baggin' it

This is one of the most detested consumer products anywhere. The disposable plastic bag has a vile reputation — much of it well-deserved — as a wasteful use of resources and a huge source of litter that isn’t just ugly, it’s dangerous to sea creatures and wildlife.

It also comes in damn handy. You can stuff a couple of these puppies inside a bike jersey to block cold wind, or wear them over your socks to keep your toes from freezing. (Don’t forget to trim away the excess material that sticks out of your shoe, lest you blur the lines between frugality and homelessness.)

But my favorite use for these evil little things is moisture protection for my camera. Cold temperatures cause camera batteries to barely function. Often, they’ll completely fail to work until they warm up again. The best solution I have found is to carry my camera against my body to keep it warm. But that subjects the camera to excessive moisture from body heat and sweat. On top of possibly damaging sensitive electronics, this causes the lens to fog up when it is moved from a warm, moist pocket into cold air.

I need a way to keep my camera dry but accessible for quick shots. Discarded grocery bags are perfect. I drop my camera in the bag, roll the bag up around the camera and then stuff it in a jersey pocket under my jacket. As long as my clothing layers allow reasonable access to my inner pocket, I can grab the bag, let it quickly unroll, then snatch out the camera and turn it on.

Once I’m done, it’s only a matter of quickly wrapping the camera again, then stuffing it in my pocket and riding away. Even if I keep it out too long in sub-zero cold and the battery is dying, it will usually be warmed up and ready to go for at least a couple of shots at the next stop.

Green groups encourage us to “reduce, reuse, recycle.” This is one nasty, disposable plastic thing that can be reused in several ways by cyclists, and it's free.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sharing the fun

I wouldn't usually endorse
a mapless, helmetless night ride
through central Washington, D.C.,
traffic on a hoopty rental bike.

But sometimes, shit's just
gotta be done.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

It slices, it dices

Over the past few weeks, I’ve often found myself using some cheap doodad that works well and makes life a tiny bit better, and thinking, “Damn, I should blog about this shit.” So, in the interest of sharing my little treasures, each Thursday or Friday for the next few weeks I’m going to feature some little gadget that I’m glad to have.

A couple of years ago, I was killing time before a flight out of Denver, and ended up in one of those hook-and-bullet superstores where guys in camo caps and sleeveless T-shirts sneak away from their wives for some heavy petting with bass boats.

One wouldn’t ordinarily expect to find much of interest for a moun
tain biker in such a store (and one would be right) but I stumbled across one of my favorite winter-biking accessories for a mere 20 or 25 bucks: a super-light wood saw that stows away in its own handle and makes easy work of clearing small branches and trees from trails.

This little beauty from Gerber has become a standard piece of gear in my frame bag. It’s light enough that I can leave it there all the time, which is good because I’d otherwise forget to take it on post-storm rides. That’s exactly what happened the first year I owned it — every time I needed the freakin’ thing, it was at home in my toolbox.

But last fall, I put it in the bag and vowed to leave it there. It’s satisfying to come across a small blow-down on the trail and be able to cut it up and re-open the route. It’s no chain saw, but it cuts pretty quickly through branches up to about four inches thick. That’s perfect when there’s only a branch across the trail, or a small tree that can’t be moved by hand because it’s still attached at the trunk or wedged between other pieces of vegetation.

This baby is like a Swiss Army knife of portable saws. After a big windstorm last month, there was a big spruce down across Rover’s Run. I couldn’t remove it, but five minutes of cutting was enough to clear some branches and open a route over the tree, which made life a little easier for everyone until someone could get out there with a gas-powered chain saw.

I love an inexpensive tool that works well. Especially when it makes a job easy and allows me to feel good about doing a little quick trail maintenance during a ride. Everybody winter fat-biker should have one of these things.

Hell, it might even be a good idea to carry it all summer, too. Yo
u never know when one of your buddies will get a compound fracture in the backcountry and need a field amputation.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Passion, or status symbol?

I’ve gotta tell ya, it’s been feeling lately like fat bikes have jumped the shark. They’re selling like crazy, but there are only so many hardcore winter riders. I have to wonder if a big-tire bike hasn’t become just a status symbol for many new owners.

Why do I say this? Because this is the kind of winter for which fat bikes were made. Anchorage averages 63 inches of snow per year. Right now, we’re a shade over 90 inches, and it’s only mid-January. Snowstorms have been coming back to back, leaving almost no time for bike traffic to pack the trails into prime condition.

But when conditions are marginal, only a small handful of people are usually seen hitting the trails. And, in most cases, they’re the same devoted riders who have been riding in tough conditions for years. Others seem to be waiting until the singletrack is “groomed” by other riders.

And then there’s the cold. I admit it can be hard to feel motivated when the temps drop below zero, but only the truly addicted know the joy of a frigid, bluebird day like today. Leonard and I rode for a couple of hours in the sunshine today, and passed by Smokejumper trailhead when the temperature was about -15F.

Only two cars were in the parking lot. And it was a beautiful day.

I think owners sometimes need to be reminded that Alaska fat bikes were inspired by cold air and soft trails. They exist so we can ride on days when a lesser bike just won’t cut it. But the full benefit of such bikes is revealed only to those who are willing to work for it.

Jimmy Doogan said it well in the movie A League of Their Own:

“If it was easy, everyone would do it.”

(Photo credit: Today's shot of me was taken by my daughter, Hannah.)

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Up an island creek without a pedal

For Christmas, I received an S&S hard case for transporting my coupled Surly Trucker Deluxe. Actually, the case didn’t arrive in time, so I received a borrowed case from my friends Adam and Jo-Ann, which I filled with my dismembered Trucker just in time for a trip to Hawaii.

Fortunately, I remember meeting Adam on a downtown street last summer and talking about the advantages of traveling with a bike equipped with S&S couplers. Because it’s easy to dodge the airlines’ unconscionably high fees for flying with a bike, as Adam pointed out, you can take a bike on a trip, and not feel terrible if you never get around to riding it.

Yeah, that’s what I’m getting to. My bike never left the case.

I had every intention of using it to get to the beach for snorkeling, leaving our rental car free for my family to drive for other activities. After all, I wasn’t going to Hawaii to ride. I was going so I could play in the ocean and generally thaw out for a week.

But the weather was hotter than I expected, and our condo was several miles up a long hill covered with lava, dead grass and a baking strip of asphalt with little to no shoulder. For a guy who is in slow-cruising, fat-bike mode this time of year, It just wasn’t very inviting. Long highway rides with all the triathletes training on the nearby Ironman bike course didn’t seem like fun, so I started doing the mental math. It didn’t add up.

Without the advantage of a repair stand, it would take about an hour to reassemble the bike – my large frame and super-long fork/steerer tube had required more disassembly than anticipated (the fork had to travel in a separate box) – and there was no convenient storage space for it once it was assembled. Sticking it in the living room was sure to cause problems. Dealing with all that for maybe a couple of quick rides? I just didn’t want to do it.

I’m sure I’ll take heat from a few friends for not riding in Hawaii, but on a vacation that’s not really about biking, I prefer to ride only if the benefits outweigh the hassle. And I don’t want to make myself ride just for the sake of riding. Bike exist to enhance our lives, not to encumber them.

If it ain’t fun, why bother?