Sunday, January 26, 2014

Bikenomics - Book Review

Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the EconomyBikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy by Elly Blue

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Elly Blue is a columnist for and well qualified to write a book about cycling's impact on society. I suppose the rationale for the title's focus on the economic benefits of more cycling is because that is what we are all supposed to care about these days, but the twelve chapters provide something more like a reader or introduction to the main social issues of increasing use of bicycles in America, from "asphalt bubble" to "whose streets?"

As with most advocacy texts of this sort, the author's intense expressed enthusiasm for her position suggests to me that few cycling opponents would have any interest in reading this, so there may be a "preaching to the choir" problem. My public library purchased several copies (and presumably others did too); perhaps some folks who are in the middle or open to learning about the topic will consult it.

At least for me, it hasn't been easy to find books on "cycling policy" that make for engrossing reading. I certainly didn't sit down and read this from cover to cover - eventually I read about half of it, jumping around. I knew some of what was described, but I learned a few things, too.

View my reviews of cycling books.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Limits of Cold Weather Commuting

As in, my limits. Well, my limits and the limits of my cycling equipment.

My ice commuter, for better or worse

Today was the second day I rode back and forth the ten miles between my house and Capitol Hill with the trails pretty icy and in reasonably cold weather, particularly in the morning. In my years of commuting in more or less all weather, it is fairly unusual to have sustained cold such that the trail conditions didn't change that much between two days. In a few places some salt had cleared areas, but it was not like the second day was a huge improvement. (Mostly the trails are not treated.)

This morning it was cold, for here at least, at around 12-14 F - around -10 C. It was colder than yesterday and since it took me over an hour to get to work, my fingers were starting to get cold on one hand - but overall my cold weather biking clothes work OK at least down to this temp. But I need to keep moving, spinning, to maintain my warmth.

The bigger problem is with my bike and my fitness (my "fitness" in the broader sense of being physically ready for such an endeavor). The bike is an old Giant that I have only ridden in the last few years when I want to take advantage of the studded tires I have mounted on it, and that's it. The bike could use some adjustments. The rear brakes in particular don't work well in these conditions and of course when it is slick the front brake can't be used (much) without instantly causing a crash so the poor rear brake performance isn't helpful at all. (I should fix that!) The 1.95 inch wide tires with the studs are lovely for traction when the surface is mostly flat/smooth but if there is accumulated snow or snow+ice they have a terrific amount of road (or I guess snow) resistance - the width isn't helpful.

But it does work. Two days running I rode back and forth on a lot of slick surfaces and didn't fall once. And I got back and forth.

The Gravelly Point area of the Mount Vernon Trail; another riding north as I head south

I don't see too many other riders on the trail on a day like this. Today I saw two riders coming the other way on my ride home (total) - one was a commuter and the other fellow just seemed to be out enjoying the fun to be had. The photo above shows the commuter I saw, chugging along. He did not, I think, have studded tires - he was riding a cyclocross sort of 700 size tire bike and was hugging the right edge of the trail. I am familiar with this approach - basically you stay away from where other riders have been riding and especially stay away from icy sections. The narrow tires cut through the snow OK and you have traction but it very tiring to maintain this kind of straight-ish line.

My approach with the wide mountain bike tires is to stick to the middle where the snow is pounded flat and where there is compacted snow on ice and try to skirt as much of the clear ice as I can. The studded tires will allow some riding on clear ice, but you can't brake or steer (much). And sometimes you hit a bump and the bike simple slides. The studs aren't a perfect solution.

It's an adventure (or something like one, for me) but I'm glad to have the weekend now to rest up. I don't know if I could do more than two days running of this. I was unhappy this morning to pass a guy walking his bike on the Mount Vernon Trail near the airport, on one of the bridges - he had a very nice bike, but apparently was having no luck staying upright. He didn't look like he was dressed as warmly as me, and walking . . . I didn't have anything to help him with this problem, so I just kept going.

A snow-bike patent for a set of attachments from 1900 - but my problem was ice, alas

I have a sort of cyclocross bike that is presently out of commission with disk brakes - I should get some studded tires for that thing when they are on sale so I have a bike to ride in this kind of weather with working brakes and have narrower tires to cut through snow. For next year. Yeah.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

My Cool Bike - Book Review

My Cool Bike: An Inspirational Guide to Bikes and Bike CultureMy Cool Bike: An Inspirational Guide to Bikes and Bike Culture by Chris Haddon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

150-plus pages of photographs of a very wide variety of interesting ("cool") bikes with enough text describing their owners and/or history - what's not to like?

I suppose there is a certain prevailing hipster sensibility to the choices, but in a very broad sense. The only type of bicycle clearly excluded by design is that of modern racing bicycles - well, really modern mass produce bikes "for the masses" of all kinds, I suppose. Mass production bicycles from the past are included where they have been adapted for modern use in some way but otherwise the emphasis is more on bikes made in limited number for different enthusiast audiences.

The photographs are by Lyndon McNeil who apparently mostly does motor sports and vehicles - the photographs are a good mix of "action" shots and closeups of bicycles sufficient to make out interesting details.

The book was published in England so while there are some bikes from the U.S., the U.K. and Europe are much more heavily represented.

Some sections are almost more about the activities done with the bicycles than about the bicycles - from playing polo to riding around the world. The sub-title references "bike culture" - it appears that there is much variety in what that phrase may mean as there are different types of bicycles, if not more.

A lovely book to page through for the cycling enthusiast.

View all my reviews on cycling books

Monday, January 20, 2014

Kickstarter Bicycle Proposals - Short /= Good

The idea of Kickstarter is that with a compelling "ask" online a person can get funding for a great idea that would have otherwise been difficult if not impossible for most "regular" people to achieve. It is important to have a good network of online contacts who will use social media to plug your idea on your behalf, but first and foremost a person needs an attractive idea and to present it in a compelling way. While it can be good to be brief, it is possible to be too short.

I know this having bumped into the Bamboo Bicycle Modules Kickstarter proposal.

A minimalistic Kickstarter proposal if there ever was one

In addition to its brevity, another problem with this Kickstarter could be that it doesn't explain very well what it is offering, I suspect. For around 100 years, almost all bicycles frames were somewhat like tinker-toys in that bits of metal tubing where inserted into specially designed "lugs" and welded/brazed together - here the idea is that you substitute (your) bamboo for the tubing and use his special lugs to hold the bamboo together. He also offers some sort of magical way of holding the frame pieces together (that I don't think would work) rather than a traditional jig. And I still am not sure if he means that with his "modules" the bamboo is inserted into the things or if the modules are inserted in the bamboo. I find it puzzling that one is expected to use carbon fiber with the epoxy to hold the materials together. It seems antithetical to the bamboo approach to slather carbon fiber on it to hold it together.

Examples of lugs from the 1890s - available for purchase much like the "bamboo bicycle modules"

This Kickstarter's author seems not to have followed the usual approach of offering various levels of "awards" - his one option, for $600, is to get a set of the modules so you can build your own bamboo bike with them. Where is a T-shirt with a logo and a bamboo bike on it for $25? Where is getting a postcard if you give $1? And so on. While a couple of people have pledged a total of $102 (as of today), neither will receive a "reward." So far not one person has funded at the reward level and the fellow has about two weeks left.

So minimalism doesn't seem to garner good results. Or is it the quality of the proposal? Perhaps both.

If I write any more, my blog post will be longer than the Kickstarter.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

When Capitol Hill Staffers Were "Bicycle Crazy"

1896 was the height of the 1890s "bicycle craze" - when cycling was highly fashionable and popular. So much so that this short article appeared in the [Washington DC] Morning Times on May 24, 1896.
EVERYBODY around the Capitol has gone bicycle crazy. As a consequence more people are limping around the corridors than one would suppose. They are all learners. So it is no strange thing to hear every person laughing when some one comes limping along. Most of them have been there before and have gone through the same experience. The case of the clerk of a prominent Presidential candidate illustrates the heartlessness of the initiated, of those who can dodge a cable car, coal carts and street sweepers all at once. He was limping along the corridor when he was greeted by a friend with:
"Halloo, Billy; sick?"
"No; bicycle."
That was all except the laughter.
Since most cyclists were riding fixed gear bicycles at this time, either with no brakes at all or primitive spoon brakes, it was not just that many cyclists were learners but also that cycling was generally more risky since stopping (in particular) was more problematic.

This photograph illustrates the suggested approach for coasting with an 1890s fixed gear bike, with the rider putting her feet on pegs on the fork while the pedals spin below - she does have a brake on this bicycle, at least

A photograph of fashionable young then-Washingtonians, some with their "wheels," near the U.S. Capitol

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Robot Cyclist for a Rainy Day

The weather today here is terrible, following what was for me, as a bicycle commuter, a tiring week. After several weeks of riding very little while on vacation, I came back and worked a full week (imagine that!) and rode the "Polar Vortex" on Tuesday and yesterday in freezing rain in the morning when I managed to find the one icy spot between my house and work and fall down. (I did not suffer much physically from the fall, it was just unpleasant and inspires further thought about how to avoid such things in the future.)

Anyway, I happened to bump into this video on YouTube that I find very entertaining - yes, it is several years old. It only has around a million views, however, so not everyone has seen it . . .

Robot manages to keep the fixed gear bike upright with internal controls

The general direction the robot takes and the speed of travel is controlled by someone with and RC unit but keeping the bicycle upright during travel is up to the robot itself as an independent activity. The robot rides a fixed (single) gear bicycle that simplifies things somewhat - the robot doesn't use a braking system to slow the bike down but simply pedals more slowly until it is almost stopped, then puts its feet down quickly to keep the bike upright.

The person who created this thing states, "I'm interested in artificial intelligence, and in that context I think intelligence and skills have equal value." I am not even vaguely an engineer, but I am someone who rides a bicycle a lot and there is sometimes (rarely, but still) a conflict between the direction I want to have the bicycle follow and the almost reflexive "keep the bike upright" moves my hands make with the handlebars - it can be a little unnerving. Here, the operator steers the bicycle only approximately since the robot must make independent adjustments with the handlebars to keep the bicycle balanced. To me, it isn't whether the intelligence to choose the route and the skills to keep the bicycle upright are equal, it is that they are independent and if not managed intelligently can be in conflict - for example, with poor planning on my part, I end up running off the edge of the trail because my reaction at some point causes me to steer off the trail to stay upright because I choose (with my intelligence, or lack of it) to ride to close to the edge otherwise.

This kind of thing seems particularly relevant for "intelligent" drone robots that will be flying overhead, it seems. They will also combine intelligence to choose routes with reactive flying skills that may (or may not) have the same issues.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Bicycle Commuting & the "Polar Vortex" (in DC)

So, Tuesday January 7, the temperature when I would normally take off to work on a bicycle was around 8 Fahrenheit. (Apparently that is around -13 Celsius.) Also it was windy, although thankfully not too windy, and not directly from the north.

If I had any sense, I would use Metro. Apparently I don't have any sense. And I have all this biking stuff I have accumulated over the years - surely if I put it all on, I would be able to ride in this weather? In my mind, I had drawn a line at about 10-15 degrees F - below that, stop riding. But I have purchased still more stuff, so perhaps 8 was OK. This would be the coldest weather I have ridden to work in.

In front of work, having arrived - I don't look so good, as a matter of fact

I managed to get there, but I can't say I enjoyed it much. Neither my toes nor my fingers got cold, so the clothes worked OK (I guess). Here is what I wore, from head to toe:

* (Cheap) hiking boots - I have some low-rise boots that are not intended for cycling (at all) that are not "breathable" (due to their cheap design) and therefore are windproof. I swap my usual pedals for platform pedals so I can use these.
* Odd polypropylene "cycling" socks for cold weather - I bought these odd things from Performance some years ago and they do a good job of keeping heat in and cold out, but they don't breath (moisture) at all, so are only really useful when it is really cold.
* Two pairs of wool socks - not real heavy ones, but two pair.
* regular bicycle fitted shorts.
* Cycling cold weather windproof tights.
* Regular cycling tights on top of the other tights.
* A pair of shorts.
* Medium sleeve fitted bicycle wool base layer shirt thing.
* Long sleeve fitted bicycle wool base layer shirt thing on top of that.
* Long sleeve wool cycling jersey (old style).
* Long sleeve lycra cycling jersey with hood built in.
* Short sleeve lycra cycling jersey.
* Polyfill vest
* Cycling windbreaker that is truly windproof.
* Pair of full gloves with fingers.
* Pair of "lobster" gloves (thumb plus two compartments for fingers in pairs) over the other gloves.
* Polar fleece watch cap thing.
* Some other watch cap over that (and over the hood of one of the shirts)
* Wool scarf pulled tight over face, up to below eye level.

There you go!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Land of Second Chances: The Impossible Rise of Rwanda's Cycling Team - Book Review

Land of Second Chances: The Impossible Rise of Rwanda's Cycling TeamLand of Second Chances: The Impossible Rise of Rwanda's Cycling Team by Tim Lewis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book covers in a fair amount of detail the development of a road cycling team in Rwanda that began with the cycling equipment entrepreneur (and mountain biker) Tom Ritchey's visit to Rwanda in 2005 until the beginning of 2013. But it is more than that, with a description of the history of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and a brief summary of the relevant history of Rwanda and the region.

Team Rwanda is more of a program to develop young Rwandans as possible professional cyclists on other teams rather than a true racing team. The team (or program) was led by an American former Tour de France racer, Jock Boyer, who was persuaded by Tom Ritchey to start the it after Tom had started a cargo bicycle program to support Rwandan coffee growers - Ritchey observed that the conditions in Rwanda were excellent to produce professional cyclists, if only they had leadership, equipment, and . . . well, a lot more. Which is what this book is mostly about.

The author's decision to spend the first ~50 pages of the book on background, including introduction of rather many people, means that this may be a difficult book for some to get into if they thought they were going to be reading mostly about a bicycle team's activities. Jock Boyer, the leader of the team, isn't even introduced until after 90 pages, as another 35 pages or so are spent on the coffee cargo bike program.

This book is as much about the challenges for Americans (or others from the west) in trying to provide on-the-ground assistance and motivation in sub-Saharan Africa as it is about a bicycle team.

With a subject like this, where the author has to choose a moment to stop his coverage of the story, the events don't necessarily cooperate to create a neat end - this seems the case here. It isn't obvious where things are going to go with Team Rwanda in the future.

Westerners seeking to provide help and the Rwandans themselves will have different views on what works and what doesn't and why or why not - the author makes this clear with an update he provides on the coffee cargo bike program that Tom Ritchey started (before Team Rwanda even came into being). Lewis follows up with the Americans who are still nominally responsible for the program and they make various excuses but mostly state that the Rwandans didn't want the cargo bicycles for cost or other reasons. Those Rwandans who received the bikes and used them (but then had maintenance problems with them, since they used them very intensely) disagree. The Rwandans claim that no parts were available but then Lewis quickly finds a warehouse of spare parts. It is not clear what the real problem or problems preventing the further success of this clever program to provide cargo bikes to Rwandan coffee growers is, just that it isn't working and that (apparently) no one understands why not. This would seem to map to discussion of the more robust and complex Rwandan cycling team.

Philip Gourevitch had a long article in the New Yorker about Team Rwanda in July 2011 (unfortunately only a short version available to non-subscribers online); this book is to some degree a much expanded version of that (albeit by a different author). There is also a documentary movie out covering the development of Team Rwanda - Rising from the Ashes.

View all my Goodreads reviews of books on cycling.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

DC Bike Messengers 100 Years Ago - 1912

In a blog post a few days ago, about some bicycle accidents in 1913 in Washington DC, I included a photograph of a bicycle messenger (below) - I have since looked to see how many other photos of DC messengers were digitized and available on the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Catalog - it seems there are just two more.

Title: Sam Maddox, 132 N St., S.E., Washington, D.C. Western Union No. 227, one of the young boys pretty close to the age limit. Was born Oct. 3, 1898, which makes him 13 yrs. old. Has permit to work from Juvenile Court. Has been troublesome in school. Location: Washington (D.C.), District of Columbia.
Creator(s): Hine, Lewis Wickes, 1874-1940, photographer
Date Created/Published: [1912 April]
Medium: 1 photographic print.
Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-nclc-03766 (color digital file from b&w original print)
Library of Congress
Lewis Hine was a photographer (among other things) whose photographs were important in getting child labor laws passed - many of his collection items have been digitized by the Library of Congress, including photographs of bicycle messengers from different parts of the U.S. Of which there are three from Washington DC.

Title: Earle Griffith and Eddie Tahoory, working for the Dime Messenger Service. They said they never knew when they were going to get home at night. Usually work one or more nights a week, and have worked until after midnight. They said last Christmas their office had a 9 yr. old boy running errands for them, and that he made a great deal of money from tips. They make about $7 a week and more, sometimes. Said "The office is not allowed to send us into the red light district but we go when a call sends us. Not very often." Location: [Washington (D.C.), District of Columbia].
Creator(s): Hine, Lewis Wickes, 1874-1940, photographer
Date Created/Published: 1912 April.
Medium: 1 photographic print.
Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-nclc-03757 (color digital file from b&w original print)
Library of Congress
Apparently one concern was that bicycle messengers were often assigned to make deliveries in "red light districts." (The "titles" for these items are taken from the annotations from the collection and are interesting.)

Title: Wilbur H. Woodward, 428 Third St., N.W., Washington, D.C., Western Union messenger 236, one of the youngsters on the border-line, (15 yrs. old) works until 8 P.M. only. Location: Washington (D.C.), District of Columbia.
Creator(s): Hine, Lewis Wickes, 1874-1940, photographer
Date Created/Published: 1912 April.
Medium: 1 photographic print.
1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in.
Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-nclc-03761 (color digital file from b&w original print)
Library of Congress
If you follow the links to the LC presentations of these items, they have different versions that were digitized from the glass plate negatives that are (in effect) B&W rather than these digitized prints, which are "in color" in the sense that they reflect the way that the prints look now (i.e., sort of sepia toned). I prefer the digitized prints, but others might prefer the digitized negatives. Something for everyone ~

Friday, January 3, 2014

1914 - The Year World War I Started

Later in 1914 we will have the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, about which I expect we'll read and hear plenty. Bicycles were a relatively low-cost way to achieve a more mobile infantryman, but their use seems to have been limited. Still, one does see photographs.

France - Cyclists of Army, from the Library of Congress

[between ca. 1914 and ca. 1915]
1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller.
Notes: Title from data provided by the Bain News Service on the negative.
Photograph shows French soldiers with bicycles during the beginning of World War I.
Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Subjects-World War, 1914-1918.
Bain News Service Collection persistent URL for version at Library of Congress.

While cyclist-soldiers take up most of the visual space in the photograph above, there is one mounted cavalryman to the left. One wonders how the two groups, cyclists and traditional cavalry, regarded one another.

Cycle orderlies under fire, from the National Library of Scotland

From the National Library of Scotland description of this photograph: Cyclists sheltering from shelling, Western Front, during World War I. A shell bursting in the rubble of ruined buildings beside a road. Two cyclists have turned their bikes upside down and are using the wheels to give a little shelter from the blast. Curiously, a third man, appearing totally unconcerned, seems to be using a hammer and chisel on a rock in the road.

Bicycles were used quite commonly, not only for general transport, but also for carrying dispatches. Motorbikes, runners, pigeons and dogs were also used to carry messages because field telephones were limited by the need for cables and wireless was still unreliable.

I think the person who wrote this annotation is lacking imagination - rather than using a hammer and a chisel on a rock, I believe the fellow is bashing some bicycle part to try to bend it - that would make more sense. I also don't think they were seeking shelter behind their bicycles - not much shelter to be had! It seems more logical that they were simply working on their bikes, the photographer was going to record that scene, and by chance the photographer captured the shell going off in the background as well. Anyway, I like that theory better.

By chance I found this book written by a young American journalist, Roadside Glimpses of the Great War by Arthur Sweetser, published in 1916 before the United States was part of WWI - amazingly he did much of his travel in the war zones of France and Belgium by bicycle. On page 23 he starts what is probably one of the more unusual bicycle travelogues:
It was obvious that even if the Germans entered Lille at all, it would be only with a small holding force. The main army was driving through farther east. Douai, they told me, was the centre of activities, but how to cover the forty kilometres there was a poser. At last the idea of a bicycle struck me. It would be quaint indeed thus to chase the battle-front blindly all over France. After a whole day's hunting and tremendous linguistic effort, I secured the best the city could offer, the best bicycle, I soon believed, in all France, a machine which, costing me but $23 secondhand, was destined to take me half across the country.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

"Ringing in the New Year"

Christmas "doggie" bell added to handlebars of carbon fiber road bike

I got this bell in my Christmas stocking and decided I would try it. As it turns out, a few days after Christmas it was warm and I took it for a ride and decided I liked it better than "on your left" all the time. And in DC at least it is the law to have one.

More typical modern bell in roughly the same location on my older steel bike

I had this bell on the stem, but it isn't a very convenient location. I thought since I have no trouble finding the downtube shifters without looking that I wouldn't have any trouble finding a bell that was on the stem without looking but it hasn't worked out that way. So I have moved it to this location, which seems a lot simpler to find.

Bike bells available in 1900 - quite a variety!

A number of the bells available in this catalog are described as "electric stroke" bells. I don't think any electricity is involved; this is meant to evoke the way it works somehow. There are also "single stroke," "double stroke," "push button," and "continuous ring" bell - this last one activated as by the rotating tire somehow.