Friday, May 28, 2010

Bicycle Commuter Tip#5: Brakes

Brakes on bicycles as a blog post can generally be seen two ways, either it is such an obvious and simple subject that it is unworthy of mention or it is a fatal error that the subject has only now come up.  For a while, I was allied with the first school of thought, but now I'm not so sure.  From a logical perpsective, virtually all bicycles come with brakes and anyone who has learned to ride should have acquired an appreciation of the need and importance of the ability to stop by the time they have reached any level of proficiency.  Unfortunately, everyday living teaches that what should be obvious is not necessarily so in practice.

Bicycle commuting in NYC places great demands on a bike's brakes.  "Stop and go traffic" is mainly thought of with respect to automobiles, but cyclists have their share of braking to do in city traffic as well.  The sheer density of the city demands it.  When city cyclists complain about obstructions I find it rather silly--they're biking in the wrong place.  I certainly understand the annoyance, but it can't be helped.  Good, working brakes are a necessity and keeping them well-adjusted is just as much of a necessity.  The need to stop will come unexpectedly, inconveniently and far more frequently than desired.  I repeat maintain your brakes, do not forget about them and see that they are adjusted as needed. 

Pretty simple and straight-forward so far, right?  Well, it happens that there are some folks who insist on not using brakes.  Yes, it's true, some folks insist on not using brakes.  These have typically been messengers on fixed gear bicycles, but the fixed gear trend has spread some.  I have nothing against it, but I am opposed to cycling without brakes!  Fixed gear bicycles do not have to be brakeless and often they are not, however, sometimes they are.  These cyclists use their feet against the pedals to stop their bikes, which does work--eventually.  This may be fine for racing, or cycling in low-density areas, but for urban cycling it's an absurd risk to take.  I just don't get it.  If we count the foot braking as a rear brake, then adding a front rim brake is the least one should do.  This lack of brakes may also explain why some folks come tearing down the Manhattan side of the Williamsburg Bridge endangering both fellow cyclists and pedestrians alike.  I happen to know that the Councilmember who represents that district is unhappy about it and such persistent displeasure leads to more regulation and enforcement--when it happens I will say, "I told you so."

Incidentally, I have never owned or used disc brakes, but heard much about them--I'd love to know the opinions of those out there in cyberspace who've experienced both rim and disc brakes.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Statue in the Park

One of the cool things about biking is that it provides an opportunity to view the world from another perspective.  It's not so different from that of a pedestrian, except that one is much more mobile and tends to see more, with more leisure, because of the ease a of travel a bicycle offers.  It is also so much easier to pull over, contemplate, and even take a picture than when one is driving a car.  I make no claim or pretense to being an artist or photographer.  I just see things I like and take a picture of it and write about it here.  Such is the case with this photo of this statue titled simply, "Valley Forge."  I think it's George Washington and it is located in a park, at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge.  I often whiz by the park as I rush home or go to work, but I do notice the statue.  The park isn't much to look at much of the year.  It's mostly pavement and benches and it's right by the entrance to the bridge in a less than well to do neighborhood.  However, as the weather has been warming up I noticed this rather dignified looking statue increasingly framed by growing green foliage and colorful flowers.  I tried to capture that.  The park is aptly called "Continental Army Plaza."

Monday, May 24, 2010

"Lost: Season Six Finale"

Okay, this post has nothing to do with cycling, besides being part of this cyclists life.  I don't usually watch television and I admit to being a snob when it comes to popular culture.  I don't think snobbishness is a virtue, but hey, sometimes it happens.  The idea is to fight it when you recognize it.  When I saw that the last season of "Lost" was going to air, I decided to see what all the hubbub was about (It can't be smart to be mindlessly opposed to whatever is popular.), so I went to Netflix and started on episode 1 of season 1 and I was hooked!  Before I knew it I was watching episode after episode--I caught right up a few weeks ago and started watching "Lost: Season Six" on the ABC website and on TV.  I loved it and I'll miss it.  I loved the characters: Kate, Jack, Locke and the gang.  I think all us fans are in a state of nostalgic mourning the day after the finale.  I couldn't wait for that finale and yet I dreaded it because I knew it would signal the end.

I also worried that the finale would be unequal to the task I expected of it.  There would too many gaps to fill, too many mysteries to explain, and I wondered, "Had the writers outrun their own imaginations?"  I think all these were true, yet I still think the finale was a success.  I'll admit, I walked away scratching my head, trying to understand what I'd just seen, but what makes that episode any different from the other episodes?  Nothing.  You can't say the writers weren't consistent.  So I asked myself, why was I dissatisfied?  Had I wasted my time with this show?  I can't afford to waste time.  The answer I came up with was a tentative "No."

I realized I had focused on the specifics, but the "Lost" writers (story-tellers) were more interested in the larger concepts and the elements of drama.  These they played superbly.  The themes and ideas of life and death; destiny and choice; good and evil; individual and community; floated constantly through and throughout.  Folks looked for clues in the Egyptian paintings, the statue, the names chosen for the characters: Jacob, Christian Shepard. etc..., but truly I now believe these were intended to demonstrate the universality and connectivity of religious and spiritual experience.  I don't think the "Lost" writers ever planned to get specific.  Unfortunately, this vague, lack of specificity, leaves us feeling a little...well, lost. 

The trouble is that any specificity gives away the mystery.  Even more dangerous, being more specific may narrow the audience, and judging from the commercials, it seems that ABC was taking care of business--literally.  It would be naive to expect otherwise.  Furthermore, in this multi-cultural, anti-religious age of ours, it would be highly un-PC to give too overt a nod to religion--especially with any specificity.  And so it was, I believe, that possible genius may have been a bit compromised by being too universal and vague, whether by accommodation or design.  Nevertheless, the dramatic expertise and the sheer largeness of these ideas carried the day.  I actually thought the alternate reality with the flashes of realization were excellent and very likable.  "Did you feel it brotha?"  There might have been a few technical issues like why are babies being born in alternate realities where everyone is dead?  Why is Baby Aaron in the church scene when they're all dead?  Is the baby dead too?  Notwithstanding, there was a beauty to that church scene--sad and peaceful at once.  The Lost writers had quite a task before them and I think they did a good job.  The final chapter on a fine piece of television history ended last night--it won't be forgotten anytime soon.

Trio Bike

I biked my usual path today and came across an unusual sight right on Grand Street.  It's called "Trio Bike."  It's a bicycle with a front mounted carrier that accommodates two children.  I saw a man on the bike with two children and a small dog in the front carrier.  It looked comfortable, spacious, and stable, unlike the rear-mounted child seats that looks like none of these things.  The gentleman mentioned that "Trio Bikes" were from Denmark and all seemed content.  I peddled away thinking that it was very nice, but this isn't Denmark or Holland and riding with children in traffic is an unnecessary risk.  No doubt the rider is extra careful, but they don't call 'em accidents for nothing.  I prefer to risk myself alone and leave the insurance money for the wife and kids, if it comes to that.  All the same, it looks like a great carrier and it detaches for use as a stroller, though it seems large and unwieldy for the purpose.   It looks like great fun for family recreation. 

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Brooklyn Bridge

Yesterday was Bike to Work Day, which is appropriate since May is Bike Month.  Naturally, I felt obligated to bike to work yesterday.  I took a different route yesterday and the day before.  The Williamsburg Bridge is half closed and the available entrance ramp is narrow and the incline is steep, which makes it dangerously crowded, and Grand Street from the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge to Bushwick Avenue is torn up in preparation for re-paving.  I look forward to the re-paved street, but meanwhile, it makes for a bumpy ride and an unnecessary strain to me and my bicycle.  Having no shock absorbers is usually no problem, but not on that road.  Thus, I decided on the Brooklyn Bridge and a Flushing Avenue approach.

The Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian walkway is so full of pedestrians that I nearly felt it was unfair to expect a bike lane on the bridge.  Everything I've written about pedestrians in this blog applied.  Funny thing is I've walked that bridge so many times--it's a wonderful bridge for walking and the views are excellent, but these were the first occasions that I was biking across.  I think I'll keep it that way.  The wood planks along much of the way are not an ideal riding surface.  This coupled with barely enough room to get past pedestrians and a few close calls with fellow cyclists killed the mood.  If the destination is downtown Manhattan, then the Manhattan Bridge is a better choice.  From my direction though, I think I'll stick with the Williamsburg.

The photo above shows the view of the Manhattan Bridge (blue) and the Brooklyn Bridge behind it as seen from the Williamsburg Bridge.  As you can see, they practically take you to the same place. 

Monday, May 17, 2010

Useful NYC DOT Webpage

In my cyber-travels I came across a NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) webpage.  It essentially seeks to do what Google does, except that it's specially tailored to NYC and its own guidelines and system of road arrangement.  Anyway, for those of you who're interested, this is it:  If you scroll down you'll find bike maps (useful for recreational cycling) and other information about the city's bridges.  I'd really like to do more plain recreational cycling, but it rarely fits into my schedule.

As you can see from the map, the bike system is far from adequate for commuter use, which is why more effort should be put into simply sharing the road with with cars.  Another thing I'd like to see, in keeping with this view, is what roads the city would forbid to cyclists.  A clear message here would be useful.  I don't assume that cycling will work everywhere.  One cannot drive everywhere, or even walk everywhere, so why not establish some clear boundaries for bikes.  One clear no-no is riding on sidewalks.  Another clear one are the highways, but there is a lot in between.  I don't imagine that there would be a lot of roads, but some simply do not have enough space on the right for a cyclist and traffic is too congested to give up lanes in some places. That said, I am pleased that the city appears, from what I have seen so far, to have a commitment to making this city more bicycle-friendly.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Bike Commuter Tip# 4.1: Pedestrians

Now I realize that the previous post offered a philosophical perspective rather than a pragmatic one, so I decided to continue the subject.  When I first began commuting I found pedestrians to be nearly as problematic as automobiles.  This was especially the case in Chinatown.  This is a very crowded section of downtown Manhattan where many Chinese live.  In this part of town, pedestrians do what they want, when they want, and they pretend not to see you.  Although this may have cultural roots, I think it is simply a human reaction to crowding, we may observe this phenomenon in a crowded subway car: everyone crammed together trying, with varying degrees of success, to ignore one another, or even on the streets of Soho where like Chinatown, sidewalk space is spare compared to the number of pedestrians using it.  Now that I'm used to it, I prefer it.  Why?  Because one of the greatest problems with pedestrians is panic and unpredictability, so a pedestrian who ignores you isn't so bad.

Typically, pedestrians don't know what to do with cyclists.  This is one of the practical reasons why it is ILLEGAL to ride on the sidewalks.  They panic and while you may be completely under control, they may not be.  It's like that awkward moment when you "dance" with a fellow pedestrian as you fail to second-guess what the other will do, except that this carries a greater danger of serious collision.  Also like that event, it happens when you're close and they actually notice you.  Pedestrians can be a greater problem than cars--especially since cyclists are obliged to share various paths with pedestrians, including pedestrian walkways on bridges, and all car-free promenades (I hear there is a bit of a clash going on in Central Park.).  If I have to choose, I prefer to share the road with cars.  If you insist on riding car-free, then prepare to yield to pedestrians--a lot!  And yield you must, so get a hold of yourself, man or woman up and do it.  If someone has to go, who do you think it will be?  I think we have to lobby for more signs, at the very least, encouraging pedestrians to leave space on the road for us to pass. 

This is where a bell--yes, a bell, horn or whatever turns you on--comes in handy.  It helps snap walkers out of their daze, but use it with care or you merely precipitate panic.   It's is not going to work like an automobile getting people out of the way while you speed through, and if you drive like that you're not not only a menace, but endangering all cyclists rights.  Use it to nudge the inconsiderate pedestrians who do not grant enough space to pass--they know what they're doing and won't panic.  Allow enough reaction time.  Be careful.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bike Commuter Tip #4.0: Pedestrians

Walking is the most basic, primal, natural form of human transportation, yet it has also been unappreciated through the ages.  To be a horseman or own a carriage was always preferable to walking and carried class distinctions as well.  Even among peoples without draft animals a litter was employed and often flower petals or cloth was laid down so their feet should not touch the ground.  What I describe may be history, but such notions are not gone.  In the United States this is especially the case.  Now we've come along way from the times and places mentioned, but our automobile culture produces the same effect.  Technically, pedestrians have the right of way at all times, but outside NYC and like urban environments pedestrians are an afterthought, if they are thought of at all.  Try walking the streets outside the city--often you will be walking the streets because there are no sidewalks!  Try waiting for a chance to cross the street--it will be tricky at the very least.  You may find mercy walking a mall parking lot, but general walking is tough.  On the rare occasion that I see someone walking in these places for transportation, what comes to mind is that they must be very poor and that their situation is not functionally sustainable.  Thus, the association with walking is one of poverty and poverty occupies a very low place in the public mind. 

This whole scenario is completely reversed in NYC.  In America the car may be king, but in NYC pedestrians rule!  I told you the rules are a little different here.  There is barely a spot in this city that is not accessible to pedestrians.  Nearly all the bridges have pedestrian walkways.  Don't get the wrong idea, the car is hardly dead around here--the streets are crammed with them!  It's just that this is the city where you don't really need a car to get around.  There was a time when folks used to brag about that, especially Manhattanites.  In fact, if you live in Manhattan, go out of your way to own a car without a really good cause, and suffer for it--don't complain, you'll get no sympathy.  Here everyone walks and even the Mayor takes the subway--I know, I've seen him!  We all know he's not poor.  As any straphanger knows, they're going to be walking from the station to their location, and sometimes it's just better to walk period.

Once you grasp this golden rule of city transportation, everything else makes sense.  You can begin to unlearn your previous misconceptions and stop training for the Tour De France on NYC streets.  It also helps a cyclist to better determine his or her place in our city's transportation hierarchy.  Our place is still being determined.  I don't mind the ambiguity--there's freedom in it.  I prize freedom.  Unfortunately, it gets misused quite often and laws are then put in place that curtail everyone's freedom.   

Sunday, May 9, 2010

AAA and Cyclists

I was browsing other blogs just to see what was out there, and I found "Dave Moulton's Blog:", which had a great article about the AAA openly encouraging drivers to share the road with cyclists.  Here is the actual AAA article:  This is a great first step and suggests that wisdom may yet prevail.  Although this may simply be AAA at its politically correct best, it shows how the winds are shifting and the landscape is changing.  I submit that motorist behavior will not change as a result, however, this is a good time to push measures that could produce a change.  Driver education, whether it be for a learner's permit or a defensive driving course, should be a forum for such recommendations and perhaps a presentation by the NYC Department Of Transportation.

Driving is reflexive.  Once learned, it requires very little thought, and this is good.  Reflex is faster than thought.  However, most drivers are operating on old, out of date assumptions.  I learned to drive when cycling was only an occasional pastime, so I have to re-learn how to respond.  This re-education is a major task, but the key is to gain and maintain momentum.   We've got to put cyclists on the motorist's radar screen whether they like it or not!  The time seems right to me!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Coconut oil

Yes, this is a cycling blog, not cooking or health, though both are relevant to cycling. Here I relate an interesting bit of information gathered through casual conversation. I have a neighbor I chat with on most mornings. His child rides the same school bus as mine do. He teaches me a few words in Bengali, which I get to practice with him as well. I've actually found it quite useful. More and more of the folks I meet from the Asian sub-continent are from Bangladesh. We speak of various things--in English (I only know a few words of Bengali.)--mostly mundane. Coupon cutting, work, weather and the like. Occasionally, he tells me stories of his home. He reminisces, I learn.

After the bike tour my bike developed a bad squeak that I figured was best treated before further riding (bottom bracket overhaul), so I took the train and met my neighbor along the way. As we walked I mentioned my need to get to bicycle maintenance. My neighbor commented on the ubiquity of bicycles in Bangladesh, and then he said something very interesting. He said that back home they used coconut oil to grease the ball bearings on their bicycles. I thought it was a cool Third World improvisation (Yes, I thought it just like that--didn't say I was perfect.). Naturally, I thought it was acceptable not optimal--a quick thinking poor man's substitute. I wondered whether it was really a good idea and decided to do a little research.

What I learned was that coconut oil was being tested as an industrial lubricant to replace mineral based lubricants, and testing favorably. Check out this article in "The Hindu,", and "The Sun Star" of the Philippines: I could not help but wonder at the fact that the South Asians were taking the lead in green industries. I was compelled to wonder at the prospects of a future economy that may be neither dollar nor petroleum based. It is suggestive of a future economy with a regional basis and multiple solutions, not one. A global economy that tends towards polyculture, not monoculture. After all, there must be many sustainable, renewable substances with a similar make up that are regionally appropriate elsewhere. The argument against greener methods has been that there isn't one solution large enough to meet our current massive needs. We've already begun to address the massiveness of our needs, but who says we need one solution.

Meanwhile, I will be exploring the matter further, including trying coconut oil next time I overhaul a wheel hub or bottom bracket--especially during the Summer since coconut oil congeals and hardens in cooler temperatures.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Reflections on the NYC 5 Boro Bike Tour 2010

I survived the bike tour. I actually did better than I expected. I finished the entire 42 mile distance and I wasn't sore the next day, which is today. It was a blast! My favorite parts were riding on my bike on the car-free highways. My first rush was riding on the FDR Drive, then the BQE, and finally the Belt Pkwy and across the Verazzano Bridge to Staten Island. This, of course, is because I am used to driving through the traffic on these roadways. The BQE can get pretty snarled and the Belt is worse. The FDR, well, you never know. Yesterday though, it was smooth riding everywhere.

My only complaints were crowding and out of towners. These two complaints are double edged. I don't know much about the history of the event, but turnout was great! From the Verazzano I could see so many cyclists that they looked like ants all the way down the Belt Pkwy., stretching back as far as the eye could see. It was an impressive sight. At that point I was no longer in the vanguard, so it was even more significant. The crowding at eye level, however, made a pleasant, relaxing tour difficult and while I was able to hustle up to a more lightly populated part of the tour around mile 20 I began to lose some steam. Around mile 28 or so I stabilized and finished it out. Water on the head was the key. The other challenge is that the prolonged ride is a little hard on the derriere.

At first, I felt a little lonely with so many out of state, or out of the city folks, and wondered why we native New Yorkers were so poorly represented. After riding the tour, I can see why that might be. First, they live here and easily take the city for granted. The tour didn't take me anywhere I hadn't been. As a cyclist, I bike in many of these places anyway--cars or no cars. As previously stated, my favorite parts were the highways, which for me were quite the novelty. It is probably best shared with active family from out of town because it is a cool thing to do. It does also border on being a rather touristy thing to do. As far as that goes, it is one of the better, smarter things tourists do. The trouble with tourism though, among other things, is the often accompanying sterility and lack of realism. Here tourists get to come to the city en masse and ride not only without cars but even without New Yorkers who got yelled at for walking their streets! Quite disturbing.

I would do it again and bring more company. I did meet a co-worker along the route, but next year more folks for sure.