Friday, July 18, 2014

Making Faces When Pedaling Places

Brompton Blur
Last week some bicycle bloggers and forumites were passing around a link to a funny post on Vox.com. Entitled The 19th-century health scare that told women to worry about "bicycle face," it brings to light an article circa 1897 written by a medical doctor that warns ladies who pedal against producing a "wearied and exhausted" facial expression. So unattractive! 

Of course the title and content of the article immediately made me think of the popular online comic Bikeyface, whose author sees the matter differently. To her, a "bikeyface" is an expression of unbridled joy, rather than a pained grimace.

But despite their polarised definitions, both parties do agree on the underlying notion: that there is such a thing as a facial expression specific to bicycling. As someone whose former career included research in nonverbal behaviour, I find the idea irresistible. Could there really be a set of facial expressions specific to bicycling? 

It's a cool idea, though anecdotal evidence gleaned from my own experience gives me pause. 

Thinking back to the days before I began to ride a bike myself, my impressions of transportation cyclists fluctuated depending on what country I was in. I remember observing cyclists in English cities and finding their demeanor alarmingly aggressive. And I remember thinking that people on bikes on the East Coast of the US looked huffy-puffy and stern - as if what they were doing was both very difficult and very important. On the other hand, watching cyclists in Austria, Holland, Belgium and France, I  do not recall finding their facial expressions remarkable in any way. Some people looked happy, some looked sad, some annoyed, bored or lost in their thoughts - but none of these states seemed to have anything to do with them being on a bicycle. Cycling in its own right was matter of fact, causing neither bliss nor wearied exertion. 

Interestingly, I first noticed the "bikeyface" - in the joy/bliss sense of the word - in myself, catching my grinning reflection in a storefront as I cycled shakily past. And with the rise of the city/transport/ cute bike movement, I did begin to spot other cyclists in the Boston area with this stamp of bliss on their physiognomies. Increasingly, that, as well as the continental European indifference, are if not replacing then at least generously supplementing the super-serious look that first dominated in those parts. 

What this extremely unscientific sampler of impressions tells me, is that the faces we make while pedaling may depend less on cycling in itself than on our attitudes toward it - which can vary tremendously. Today, cycling can be perceived as a risky athletic activity, a fashion statement, a political act, a way to relax and have fun, an independent means of travel, or as any combination thereof. Unsurprisingly, the facial expressions these attitudes yield will differ. And in cultures where transportation cycling is so normalised and easy as to be unremarkable, we are as unlikely to see the bicycle face against which Victorian doctors admonished as we are to see the bikeyface which pedaling enthusiasts promise.

By now, cycling really should be normalised for me. After all, I do it in some form or other nearly every single day. But even when riding my bike in entirely mundane circumstances, on occasion I still catch myself grinning. What can I say? I love it.

Stranger though is the habit I apparently have of smiling even when I am not having fun on the bike. Several friends have now pointed this out to me, but it seems that when I am having a particularly difficult time on a roadbike I tend to smile in leu of displaying the "pain face." This gives the impression that I am far hardier than I actually am and that I am enjoying myself, creating genuine puzzlement among my companions when I later tell them I was struggling or suffering. "But you seemed so happy! - see?" And sure enough, a snapshot will be produced showing my red face distorted by a mad grin. As I never remember doing this, all I can say for myself is that smiling must be a coping mechanism - à la the facial feedback theory: Research has shown that if our muscles contort in a way consistent with a specific emotion, we can genuinely feel some dose of that emotion regardless of whether it is situationally appropriate. So the smile must be my way of saying "I will not surrender to the pain face! If I smile, then I won't be miserable…" 

Thankfully most of my time on a bike gives me no cause to employ this technique and my grins on two wheels are, for the most part, quite genuine. Is there such a thing as a bikeyface? Perhaps not once we control for other factors. Nonetheless in me it is alive and well. When I catch myself doing it, it feels silly and embarrassing - though I am hardly complaining that cycling makes me happy!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Love Bicycle Art? Share Your Favourites!

"Milk Race" Poster, by Mark Fairhurst
In honour of renovating a good chunk of my house, I have put up some paintings, photos and posters, including a couple of pieces of bicycle art. This is actually the first time I've surrounded myself with any sort of cycling-themed decor. For some reason I'd never felt like doing that before. But when I saw Mark Fairhurst's "Milk Race" poster, I could not resist. Living next door to a milk farm (with access to unprocessed milk as one of the perks!) a scene like this has been a fantasy of mine for some time. And while I'm not sure the local farmers would go for it, this poster makes me smile whenever I look at it - which is often, as it hangs right over the kettle. 

Mark Fairhurst is a photographer and graphic designer active on twitter whose cycling posters have gained popularity over the past couple of years. A good deal of his work is racing-oriented. But the poster that caught my attention initially was "Mercian Dream" - depicting two boys standing in front of a Mercian Cycles shop window and staring in awe at a purple track bike. Almost every Mercian owner I've met in the UK and Ireland has described to me a childhood memory similar to what this picture depicts. I thought it was interesting how the poster managed to express that sense of longing for the glorious unattainable bike. Its rather austere style simplifies and sharpens the sentiment of the scene. If you're into cycling-themed art deco posters, Mark's work is a treat - even just to browse online. 

"Hollyhocks" Print, by Dave Flitcroft
My other acquisition is a lovely linocut print by Dave Flitcroft. Entitled "Hollyhocks," it is a small, intricate thing, based on an old Victor Bicycles advertisement, depicting a woman standing with her bicycle in a garden. Being a printmaker myself who works mostly with linocuts and wood blocks, this piece immediately appealed to me. It is not an image I'd be inspired to make myself, but I am glad that another artist was, because I enjoy looking at it on my wall. Combining my love of the printmaking medium with my love of old cycling adverts, it draws me in every time I walk past.

Dave Flitcroft - or Velo Dave - began making bicycle themed art as a hobby, but has recently opened up his own etsy shop called Art from the Bike Shed, selling mostly limited edition linocut prints. Have a look!

And if you like printmaking, another artist worth checking out is Mike Rubbo. On his website Sit Up Bike Art, Mike sells moody linocuts and rubbings, as well as paintings and drawings, with themes centered on utility and leisure cycling. 

"Hollyhocks" Print, by Dave Flitcroft
At one point or another, we all buy things to decorate our homes with. And if you're looking for cycling themed decor, it may surprise you to learn that handmade items and limited prints bought directly from the artist might set you back not much more than mass-produced trinkets. So why not support an artist and fellow cyclist?

Andy Arthur - aka the Magnificent Octopus - has become quite well known for his lovely and often hilarious posters (he even made one of me in his early days!). Christine Evans - aka Artist on a Bike - is one to go to for cycling themed cards. Bekka Wright - aka Bikeyface - sells t-shirts, bags, and other lovely things through her online shop. And of course there is the famous Taliah Lempert, who will create your very own unique bespoke painting of your bicycle.  

Have you any bicycle art in your home? Share your favourite pieces and artists!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Drafty Morning

Today something amazing happened to me on the way into town. I was cycling though the countryside,  half way through my usual 7 mile commute, when behind me I heard the put-put-put of a tractor. I scooted over toward the hedges and slowed down, to make it easier for the cumbersome heap of metal to pass me. And it did, huffing and creaking as it maneuvered around me on the narrow winding road. It was one of those smallish things with a flat-bed at the rear, piled high with freshly cut grass. These types of machines are not meant for the road and they move slowly - faster than a typical bicyclist, but closer to bicycle speed than car speed. In the cabin, the driver gave me a friendly wave as he passed. He then made some other gesture I could not make out and slowed down. I did not understand what he wanted at first. Why did he pass me only to slow down to a speed slower than mine? Soon I was a foot behind him and applying brakes. Now what? If I pass him, we will only play leapfrog.

Confusing me further, at this point the driver turned around, made eye contact and gave me a thumbs up. Then he began to speed up again. I followed suit, and as I did, it finally hit me what was happening: He was offering me to draft him!

Quickly I scanned the back of the tractor.  A metal ledge and a pile of cut grass; no sharp edges to impale myself upon. This was crazy, but what the heck!

As he increased his speed, I followed suit and increased mine, so that the distance between us remained the same. I did not have my computer, but by feel alone I could tell I was traveling faster than I would on my own power. It was just like riding in a paceline, sort of.

Occasionally, the driver would turn around and give me a questioning nod, like "speed still okay?" And I would reply with a thumbs up.

Cruising along at what was probably 25mph on my folding bike, I spun madly in my high gear feeling little resistance. It was just like that scene in Breaking Away, sort of. I kept expecting him to stick his fingers out the window to challenge me to daredevil speeds - three fingers, four, five! Alas, the rickety farm vehicle was no more capable of such feats than I.

At the next roundabout, the tractor turned off and I rolled into town, beside myself with giddiness in the flickering sunshine. There are plenty of drafty mornings. But not quite like this one.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Room at the Inn? Accommodation Strategies for Bicycle Touring

Approved Farm House Accommodation
Some years ago, an Austrian friend of mine planned a lovely bicycle tour around the west of Ireland. She put together a scenic route, booked rooms in B&Bs and hostels, took a week off work, flew overseas with her bike, and… had a miserable time! It rained every day, with visibility so poor she could hardly make out any of the scenery, and winds so strong she struggled to complete her daily milage. After a few days of this and with the forecast promising more of the same, she decided it might be better to stop and hang out locally instead of continuing to tour. So she tried to extend her stay at the B&B she'd last spent the night and cancel her other reservations. Unfortunately the B&B had no room for her to remain there for extra nights, and some of the places she'd booked ahead would not allow last-minute cancellations. She was essentially locked into continuing her tour. And she did, returning home with a pannier full of soggy clothing and pictures of blurry rainscapes. Now whenever someone mentions touring in Ireland, she grimaces and tells this cautionary tale. It was in fact what influenced me to pick a place and use it as base-camp for day trips, instead of touring from point to point, when I first visited in 2012. 

The thing about bicycle touring in Ireland, is that you have to be kind of flexible. There are stretches of beautiful, sunny weather here. And there are stretches of stormy, miserable weather. If you plan too far in advance or too rigidly, you might be committing yourself to a trip consisting entirely of the latter. And while normally I don't mind cycling in the rain one bit, with touring it's more than about being cold and wet. It's about wanting to experience the local scenery by bike. If all you are seeing is mist and sheets of rain, that rather defeats the purpose! 

Luckily for me, I do have some flexibility. What working freelance lacks in income, it makes up for in allowing for a degree of scheduling freedom. And so this summer I'd love to take advantage of this and try a little mini-tour. Nowhere far or exotic, but maybe to this little spot I like in County Sligo, just over 100 miles away. One day last month, when the forecast for the next few days looked good, I thought "Great, this is it!" and began to phone up B&Bs and hostels. But my spirits were quickly deflated when it turned out that most of them were booked, with the ones that weren't either costing a fortune or inconveniently located. Planning has its perils, but apparently so does spontaneity. 

There are other options of course, such as camping and asking around for contacts of people to stay with. One friend has even told me that he's toured all of Ireland, making no plans in advance what so ever but simply knocking on farmers' doors every evening. They would usually have a spare room where they'd let him crash - sometimes for a modest fee, and sometimes free of charge. I don't think I'd be quite comfortable with that, but it's nice to know that people can be so hospitable. 

For those experienced in touring, what are your strategies for securing accommodations? Do you book in advance, or take off and hope for the best? Do share your stories!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Running and Cycling

Over the winter I wrote about my dislike of running, and moreover my inability to understand how someone could stick with something initially so painful and unpleasant. While cycling lured me in with its gentle, romantic demeanor, running had all the charm of a back alley beating - each encounter leaving me clutching my side, tasting blood and seeing stars. I have tried running at various stages of my life, usually as part of attempts at "fitness," and each time with the same result: hating every moment of it so much, that to continue after several efforts just felt like masochism. The same thing happened this winter. After 5 years of cycling and a general increase in fitness, I had hoped things might be different and, inspired by several local friends who are runners, gave it another try. Through sheer force of will I'd manage a mile up and down my lane, but again hated every agonising second of it so much that I soon gave up.

This makes what happened this summer all the more bizarre. One time I accompanied my boyfriend on his evening run - not to run myself, but to keep him company on the way there and back. I took my camera and wandered around photographing while he did his 10K. A short while later he returned, eyes glazed over and in a state of thorough depletion, yet so elated that he seemed to be levitating. Seeing him this way, something shifted in my perception of what running was, or could be. And I felt jealous - in an "I want what he's having!" sort of way. Next time I would try running too.

Cautiously excited that I actually wanted to do this, he offered some suggestions when I described the problems I've had in the past. Ankles hurt? Try hard sand or dirt instead of pavement. Lungs hurt? Start ridiculously slow. I replaced my 10 year old sneakers with a new pair of running shoes. And then off we went to the beach.

My first time I ran 3 miles on sand, slow and steady. I expected this to feel like some tremendous feat, but when I finished the loop I realised that I could have kept going. I had none of the symptoms of misery I recalled from previous attempts. My lungs were not coming out of my throat; I had no aches or pains. I felt a tightness in my legs, and I would have been bored out of my mind if it wasn't for the music in my earphones, but that is it.

The next time I ran 4 miles and felt much the same. This time I started slow and then sped up when I felt my energy increase on the return leg. Two days later I ran 5 miles in the same manner. And two days after that, I increased the distance to 7 miles. All of this was on sand - trying to pick a line close to the water, where the stuff is hard packed.

My boyfriend was greatly entertained by my sudden success with this activity I used to hate. He had not expected me to increase distances so quickly. At the same time, he felt I was not getting much fitness training out of the running if I was able to do it this way, my breathing close to normal at the end. He suggested next time I try a shorter distance but make it more intense. So we decided to cut back to 3 miles, but incorporate sprints - bursts of very fast running.

On the day of the evening we had planned to do this, I forgot about it and went on a 35 mile bicycle ride. Then on my way home I remembered, but figured I could still do the run since my bike ride was not all that long or intense and there would be a break of about an hour.

The result was interesting. Starting the run so soon after a bike ride, I felt a distinct shallowness in my reserve-pool of energy. At the same time, stretching out to run felt good as a contrast to my scrunched up position on the bike; it was as if my limbs and torso were unfurling.

While normally we run each at our own pace after the first few minutes, this time my boyfriend accompanied me most of the way to demonstrate sprints. We ran slow to start with, then increased the pace, then ran fast, then back to slow. On the return leg this was repeated more intensely, the fast part replaced with "as fast as you can." After doing this last bit, I had trouble catching my breath even after the final stretch of very slow running. My legs were killing me, my lungs were on fire, my entire body was overheated, and my heart was pounding so fast and so loud it blocked all other sensory input. But I wasn't miserable and I didn't hate it.

What changed this summer to make me not only able to run but actually enjoy it, I don't fully understand. But I do know that cycling the next day felt delightful …if a bit unnervingly easy!