Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The sweet cool of a shadow

It's the end of the season, training starts for the new year, and you wonder, "is this the year I decide to take drugs?"

There are many books on training and sports psycholology. Some are bibles, accessible to everyone, others appreciate a degree in physiology. There are those for old-timers, new-timers and mid-packers. There are the zen-inspirationalists, the laugh-inducing and the somber. And so, post-prose for a certain brand of running shoe, "Anima sana in corpore sano", we falter, we stumble, we fall. And as the pain of the grit dribbling out of both open wounds and shut-down minds, the medication is suddenly there, where we didn't notice it. No, not "we"... I.

It was just a small bike race, in the industrial district of Guelph-Waterloo. 70km, cat 3/4, 14 loops, I think. I was eighteen, my first year off from any kind of school so I could concentrate on training and racing. My form was coming on, I could feel the front of the pack. So, confidently, I drifted to the back and took a drink of water. We were going down a hill, not much of a hill, with a nice leafy tree at the bottom, the kind you'd stop under for a drink. It was the 4th time around now. The sun was bright and warm, the road almost brand-new. It had one of those concrete shoulders that came to meet the asphalt a foot in. About half-way down though, there was this small pot-hole, enough to break a rim. We all knew it was there, some rode left of it on the concrete, others to the right. No big deal. And then a bunny-hop.

I was 3 bikes back from this guy who thought it would be fun to do a little jump. I get that - going around the Commissioners Street/Unwin loop, I would put in a little speed and jump the tracks. Man, it was never dull. Same on the donut ride - there's something a little special about a bunch of cyclists hopping tracks together, like ants climbing over a branch, but at 50 kph. There's the trust, the mix of skill and serious danger over such innocent play. And then, supporting the occasional one that wobbles. It's such a small gesture, keep the arms strong and straight and bike upright, head up, undistracted, say a few words, "It's ok...I've got you, look straight...lean back up...you've got it, no worries."

And don't lean back. Never lean back - be like a post, stuck in ground, firm, never pushing, never forgiving.

And so, at 73 kph, the bunny-hopper leaned on his buddy, his buddy leaned back. Their bodies folded into the asphalt together and their bikes alighted into the sky. And the next row, and the next row. I veered right...far far right, racing a black Kestrel missile. There was no way I could make it, and remembering my times jumping tracks, I righted myself and jumped. I pulled my bike so high, deep into my crotch, I was soaring, I was in the air, higher than I have ever done before, destined for the clear road ahead.

And then the missile pitched up like a gate springing from the ground. My helmet crumpled into four pieces between the asphalt and my head. A Dura-ace pedal, with its beautifully sculpted nose, sheared through my jersey and through my back. I finally stopped rolling, the lesson of what brakes are for immediately evident, and lay for a while in the shadow of the tree.

The sweet cool of that shadow pulled me out of the pain. In case you need to know, you go farther when you crash mid-air. "If you can brake, brake fucking hard" I thought to myself while waiting for the ambulance to come by. The flicking of sunlight bade me to lift my hanging head up. And then I saw the best Kodak moment - the six other guys standing there, shorts torn perfectly so that their bloodied butt cheeks were mooning me. It was a good moment that shook me out from hearing "what the fuck am I doing this for a cat 3 race" running in my head.

Finally home, I had to deal with a shit load of road rash. The cotton bandages the clinic applied were thoroughly firmed into my wounds after a night of sleeplessness. Popped 3 Tylenol, waited and hour, sat in the tub and ran warm water over everything to loosen that stuff off. It didn't work, it wouldn't free, so I beckoned to my brother for his filleting knife and a pack of ice. I thought of the pain and took my time. The acetaminophen doing its thing, I cut as lightly as I could as awkward as it was with a cast on my wrist, and then poured iodine over it all. I did this for 3 days straight, using up the cotton the clinic gave me. I made my way to the drug store and found non-sticking pads next to the cotton stuff. Fuck.

My body healed soon enough, the broken bones were not weight bearing so it should have been easy to pull myself back on my bike. No, it was not so easy, my mind was still scarred, still cracked on the asphalt under the shadow of a tree...


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Like Oil and Water - Riding Safe

To begin, I hope that someday, the tensions between cyclists and non-cyclists will be eased.

In my version of what needs to happen, cycling has to be safe for all users, right down to the lowest common denominator.

For me, that is: if a family can occupy a car together, that same family should feel equally safe if they are on bicycles, pulling double trailers.

However, in reality, in as much as I have a double trailer, not one road has been designed with enough safety features to feel safe with my family in tow. The roads that I choose are safe only because they are not well traveled by vehicular traffic.

Please consider for a moment how poor road safety infrastructure is, by applying the idea of using a double trailer down, say Bank St, or any major road (heck, even a single trailer, or having a child on the road, period).

Certainly you think, "There's no way for this to work! Painted lines are not enough. Thunder strips are not enough! Even painted "barrier" lines are no where enough".

Whole cities have been designed for pedestrians and vehicles. That's all. Painted lines do not deter people from texting. Thunder strips do not help if a driver is drunk or a cyclist is caught in a multi-car accident, or if someone is just pissed off and decides to look away. (At the right time no less! People actually do this!).

IF cyclists are pedestrians on two wheels (and I have seen cyclists who ride slower than I can run), would you take a stroll on the side of the road and feel safe while pushing a baby jogger? What amount of space does it take to feel safe as a pedestrian? Forget laws and regulations for a moment. I'm talking about real environmental aspects to feeling safe with 2+ ton vehicles around you and your family.

Sure, as individuals, out training, the basics of road etiquette will keep you relatively safe. But real actual change to help everyone? The only way is to build cycling-specific infrastructure. No pedestrians. No cars. Bikes only.

This is a Dream.

So long as it is not safe for our kids to be with us in a trailer, all the solutions fall to hoping that some technology will save us. Proximity alerts, lane departure prevention (basically a bunch of radars on cars), auto motion sensors that turn off cell phones. Blah blah blah. They are great to patch up the infrastructure we've got.

But it will never be truly always safe.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Distracted driving - what an understatement!

Articles on distracted driving are getting a lot of impressions these days, so for the past few weeks, I've been wondering what exactly does it take for people to see me. In order to find that out, I've made a few observations of road infrastructure, drivers' viewing angle, car density and movement, numerous roadside distracting factors and so on.

In the end, I dreamt what Rick Mercer would say, "so let me get this straight - you ride a bicycle, which is 1/7th the size of a 5 passenger car and what, maybe 1/100th of a semi-truck, on THIS street, cars driving with their glaring lights on, not just one though, THOOUUSSAANDSS of them, coming at you from behind (from behind!) at 80 kph (because that's the unofficial speed for all streets in Ottawa). The drivers don't actually see you until the very last second because we drive on the left side of the vehicle, so the car in front of them is obstructing their view - what's that you say - 10 meters! That's all we've got to avoid you before we hit you!?! Holy F***! And that's if we see you! Because our eyes are being distracted, not only by in-car tech stuff, but also street signs, people honking their horns, the bright lights from on-coming traffic, rain, snow, pedestrians, big trucks, brightly lit advertisements and the War in Afganistan! Why? Why do you ride a bicycle?"

Sigh, yes, I ride a bike.

So on top of this, we have the usual: cars turning right or left or exiting a driveway and "not seeing us", people opening their car doors in our path and...not seeing us, people running us off the road because they....don't...see...us.

So, after being hit by cars five times in my life, and being very very lucky, I've succumbed and bought two very bright lights - an amber taillight running a 5 watt L.E.D, and a headlight running two 7 watt L.E.Ds.

The tail light makes around 140 lumens, and the head light 350 lumens. Total cost? Nearly $400 CDN.

But is that enough? Cars have two to four headlights and usually 2 to four taillights, using L.E.Ds that are brighter than mine! Have you ever noticed while driving a car, just how blinding those Cadillac/Mazda 3/Acura, etc taillights are? And headlights run a minimum of 1000 lumens per side, with those HID lights coming in at 2500 to 3200 lumens each!

My headlight, as bright as it is by bicycle standards, doesn't come close when sitting next to one car, let alone hundreds on a three lane road. 350 lumens vs. the culmulative lumens of hundreds of cars? Sheeeeeeit...

So how do I get noticed? A big bad yellow vest? Nope. Reflectors out the wazzoo? Nope.

Ever notice how police cars and ambulances get noticed? Do we really hear them honking, sirens blaring - nope, not until they are within 4 car lengths, not with the stereo on.

It's their lights - they flash like crazy! And they are not dim 1 watt L.E.Ds either. But how do we judge their distance from us? Their highbeams, not flashing, but just on constantly (if that's a mode), give us the ability to know how long we have before they need to pass us, and the flashing lights alert us that they are coming this way.

So now, I've got my bike set up with one extra light, the same amber on the front, fast flash, beside the white L.E.D on medium to not drown out the light of the amber (on high, the white L.E.Ds do drown out the amber light [due to the proximity to one another - this does not happen if you increase the distance by at least 30cm], and has the result of no added visibility in rear-view mirrors - in high traffic, give the amber light priority, it stands out in a sea of car headlights).

The amber light is still no where near the brightness of those ambulance lights, but it does a very good job of attracting attention. And the other benefit? Standard street way-finding signs (the ones that say stuff like "Bridge ices over before the road", etc) reflect the flash back behind me, getting those distracted drivers attention, from a high angle too. That helps those truckers and bus drivers out.

As a result, drivers start their avoidance maneuvers earlier, and leave an unpainted lane ahead of me, even 100 metres ahead. I've had not one obscenity communicated in my direction, and everyone can predict my behaviour.

Hope this helps.

-Vise-Grip Mikey.

P.S. I now use my lights day and night.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Riding a bike in Ottawa during the winter

First off, this already sounds like a bad idea:

Roads + salty snow + hidden, bad, deep potholes + snow banks + only 30% of drivers have snow tires + bad, angry drivers + white outs + salt that will quickly destroy every part of your bike + cold + icy, rutted, salt and sand covered streets + very little daylight + snowy days + pedestrians + extra layers of clothes + bike thieves + man hole covers that are even slipperier than imaginable (metal + plus ice + plus snow).

Ottawa's saving grace for winter cyclists:

Wide lanes. There seem to be ample wide lanes in Ottawa. A good cyclist will constantly be aware of the roads he/she's on. Anything that gets too narrow, I change my route or tactics, such as:

Sidewalks. They are a cyclist's saving grace in the winter. They will save your life while still getting you to work. They are generally as clear as any road, and when the road gets too narrow, hop onto the sidewalk. If you get to a pedestrian, hop off, run by and jump back on again. Kinda like cyclocross. And as anyone knows who rides their bike in the winter in Ottawa, you're not exactly going to be riding at top speed anyway. And in my mind, there are many sidewalks that could easily be converted to multi-use paths, but that's another discussion...

The Canal. Ride on the Canal or ride on the paths beside the Canal. The National Capital Commission keeps them pretty clear and the Canal goes from Carleton U all the way past Ottawa U to downtown.

Downtown. Traffic downtown generally sucks and is very slow, thus conditions are relatively safe for riding on the street. There are lots of side streets so you can get anywhere without hitting main street traffic.

Safety Notes. Be super visible. Use a yellow jacket and get the brightest lights you can afford (I can't stress this enough). Put reflective tape everywhere on your bike. Use clear ski goggles.

Get seriously studded tires. Not the cheapo $45 Toronto version of studded tires, where the studs are spaced out by 5 centimetres and only have 100 studs or less. Get the Ottawa versions. $100 per tire. 300 studs. Seriously knobby. I bought Nokian brand (I found them at Peter White Cycles in the U.S.) because they have developed a compound that doesn't use petroleum. They call them environmentally friendly, and they are compared to regular tires. They use the same compound as their high-end winter car tires so they don't turn into hockey pucks at -20C.

Preparation. Something that was missed in the MEC article that I copied: Use Rust Check on all your metal parts and for your chain, not WD-40. You can unhook all the cables on your bike and spray the stuff on all your cables. Use it on your pedals, bolts, derailleurs, seat post, seat post head. Hold a large sponge behind whatever you're spraying to catch over-spray. The stuff fizzes into every crevice and penetrates deep down into the threads and springs. Don't be shy with it, and keep using it all winter.

If you want to keep the snow and ice from building up on your bike, spray it down with PAM cooking spray or Jig-A-Loo. It'll help.

Other than that, ride slow, pedal in perfect circles to keep from slipping, keep your elbows relaxed and think like a cat - be agile and ready to change directions at any moment, try to ride "light", always try to land on your feet and generally avoid people (and their cars). And if you do, be nice :-)

Good luck and stay patient - those car drivers are doing their best not to run you over...really.

Riding in the freezing rain is really dangerous. While I have studded tires and had no problems with grip, I suddenly realized that cars do not! Huh...this is where riding on the sidewalk is a really good idea.

Another issue with riding in the freezing rain: while your rear derailleur will get frozen in whatever gear you spend a significant amount of time in (not a problem really, you can still shift the front derailleur to get up hills) - the DANGEROUS thing is that ice will build up on your disk brake rotors or rims, so no matter what, you seriously need to slow down on hills and before stops by a very significant amount - in fact, start squeezing the brakes at least 50 feet before you need them in order to clear away the ice. Maybe even squeeze them every so often even if you don't have to, just to see how bad they are before you need them.

Also, when you put your foot down at a stop - keep your leg firm as if it was a kickstand - your shoes don't have studs like your tires and you will slip and fall :-) Maybe sit on the top tube for added balance (lowering your centre of gravity), especially for panic stops.

Wearing ski goggles is a good idea, though I prefer the motocross type that have the acetate tear-off sheets. Road grit and salt will make the lens of your goggles deteriorate very fast - if you have to clean them, shower them off and then BLOT dry, do not rub them, they will scratch and then you won't be able to see very well.

Being seen from the side is difficult for motorists because your headlights and taillights are very directional. I'm experimenting with using a small LED on my handlebars and pointing it backwards onto my stomach. It lights up my legs and body, so I'm hoping drivers will also be able to make out my moving legs to make them aware that a cyclist is coming down the road. It also helps with roadside repairs because it's already on the side of my drivetrain.

SCRUG is the new nickname I've given to the mess of snow and ice and salt and grit that makes the worst car tracks on the streets that you can get caught in. You will be defeated by it, so move to the sidewalk. If you have no choice but to ride it, do this:

1) Ride with your arms bent such like you are riding up a very very steep pebble hill. Pull back hard on the bars to keep them rigid but elbows bent at 90 degrees so that as you go up and down and pushed around, you'll be able to keep some margin of control.

2) Ride them like you would cobblestones - faster than comfortable, in the big chainring, really focus on keeping your pedal stroke round and don't get distracted.

3) Aim for the part of the road that has the least number of tire tracks - tire tracks are what makes it impossible to ride. So go as close to the edge of the road as you can. Riding though fresh snow is much easier if you can find it, even up to 8 inches deep.

4) Lower your seat by a centimetre and be ready to pull your foot out of the pedals to keep yourself from crashing.

Staying warm is hard to achieve sometimes so keep two heat packs (those type you can find at outdoor activity supply stores) in your pack, just in case.

Ice in your cables often occurs, even though you sprayed them with Rust Check. It helps to keep a small bottle of lock de-icer (for car locks) in your pack.

Tire pressure should be adjusted outdoors, so that you get it right for the temp outside. For example, 45 psi at 20 degrees Celsius goes to 25 psi at minus 20 degrees Celsius. I really recommend whatever the minimum pressure is stamped on the tire.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Negligent behaviour with hard objects

You'd think that throughout our lives, we'd learn that smaller things generally always cringe in terror when threatened by larger things. And, smaller things tend to be smarter than larger things, and usually employ an even bigger thing than the thing threatening him or her. And as there is always something bigger than you, you should leave the smaller thing alone, and the bigger thing will also leave you alone.

Some of us empathize with smaller things and learn that being mean is just not a great thing to be.

So, just as when I'm riding on a recreational path, I yield to children and pedestrians, because they are going to be seriously hurt if I get into an accident with them. I'm also aware that every kid learns from the behaviour of adults, all adults, and I want them to have a positive view of cycling. I also don't want to be the cause of their parents screaming bloody murder, in full view of other people with kids. That's just not nice and ruins the whole day for everyone. Days are always longer when you get in a confrontation.

And what do you look like in the end? An ass? No, you look like a cyclist. And so forms the general opinion that cyclists are not good to share a path with.

If I want to get somewhere, I use the same rule as I do when I'm driving. I pick up the pace when I can safely see that I'm all alone. I slow down and take care when I come up to a pack of people, take the time to see what is happening and estimate how long it will be before I can safely get through. I usually have to take an extra deep breath to keep my cool because sometimes, it can be extremely irritating. But because I know I've been in the same situation as the person in front of me, or someday will be, I can only conclude that they appreciate the extra patience I'm trying to extend.

When the opposite happens to you, it's very difficult to resist being aggressive back. Yesterday, I was turning right onto Colonel By Drive when a woman in a Volvo took it upon herself to scream and veer her car into me. Since I had enough room, I just kept going and ignored her. I had the right to pass on her on right, that was enough for me. I could have stopped and tried to negotiate an educational lesson, but since people don't really buy into shit unless they're paying for it, I couldn't find a reason to stop.

Also, I didn't have a video camera. Evidence is very important to cyclists. While yes, it sucks that there's this imbalance of blame (For those who don't know, the anecdotal evidence heavily suggests that the law is on the driver's side - that cyclists are usually in the wrong, and that drivers can get away with murder by saying "but I didn't see her/him officer"). Maybe I'll get one of those helmet mounted video cameras. It's a bit ridiculous to suggest, but it's a lot safer than stopping, pulling out my cell, and hope that the woman keeps screaming on camera.

In any case, pushing on. I'm the smaller thing, and want to employ a bigger thing (the legal system) to stop a driver who is raging in my direction. So I keep a few things in mind.

1) Use your voice, loudly. Call attention to anyone and everyone and say something to the effect of "You are threatening me with your vehicle - Stop it! Everyone here is watching you rage! You have no right to threaten me - you are being negligent and aggressive with your vehicle!" and yell this as authoritatively as possible. This helps to diffuse the situation by pulling attention to the driver and making them realize that you know what to do and that you are in control - and they are not.

2) If you have the time, pull out your cellphone. But don't film the event, call 911 and narrate everything that is happening if you can. In this day and age of video and photographs in court being thrown out due to poor quality, the 911 recording is the best evidence you have, especially if you drop your phone in the process. Leave videotaping to witnesses.

3) If the driver gets out, defend yourself as you would against a rabid dog. Get off your bike, pick it up and keep it between you and your attacker. Do this before any punches are thrown and yell, "Don't come near me, Stop! The longer you can resist a person's attack, the more time you have to a) get more witnesses, and b) avoid a fight that you will most likely lose and c) have a hard object in your hands to protect yourself with - your bike, while your attacker has left his - his car.

P.S. This is the best case scenario. Having this opportunity is a bit like surviving a cougar attack - if you see it before it gets you, they screwed up. They were supposed to get you from behind, before you were aware. In this situation, there is not much you can do. Again, a pencil cam under your saddle will help you after the fact, but other than an extremely bright taillight and headlight that says, "you can't miss seeing me, nobody can, so if you hit me, I can prove you did it deliberately", you can only pray.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Starting out

I suppose I should introduce myself. When I was a kid, I lived on a hill in an area of Toronto called The Beaches. I used to hate that hill - it always tired me out. I remember helping my mom carry grocery bags up from the grocery store, fingers aching from the plastic handles digging in. I would get so winded. Man I used to whine so much. I remember that, whining to my mom to wait for me.

I had a tricycle that I used to love riding down that hill. I used to stop it by dragging my toes behind me, until one day my feet got caught under the rear plank and dragged my knees into the sidewalk. My first road rash. Mom applied iodine, and though it hurt like blazes, I still use that stuff today.

I finally got my first bike, a red BMX with yellow tires, at age 9. I tried so hard to ride up that hill. I tried every day. My house was halfway up that hill and I did it after a while. Soon I was counting down the number of houses left to the top - 7, 6, 5, 4...and then, I finally rounded the corner, up at Kingston Rd.

Things were so different back then. My neighbours were elderly, and very much friendly and warm to talk to. I remember the 5 cents I would get by shoveling their sidewalk in the winter, and the cold pop from their fridge in the summer. I've moved away to Ottawa since, and from my visits there now, things are very different, very expensive and very egotistical.

I used to ride my little BMX as fast as I could make those 20" tires go, through Ashbridge's Bay Park, and to the tip of Leslie St. Spit on weekends. I would wave to everyone as I wizzed along with my big black rimmed "Top Gun" Rayband knockoffs.

And so the hill became less of a challenge, until one day, some guy on a road bike blew past me. On my hill. I was hooked. I had to get a speed bike. I was 13.