Friday, July 31, 2009

En-Lightened Cycling

We enjoy cycling at night, and we want to be safe and confident doing it. The Pashley Sovereigns come with an excellent lighting system: a hub driven dynamo headlight and an LED rear light. This is sufficient for some night-time riding, but not optimal for the kind of riding we were doing. So we have made some enhancements to suit our needs.

HEADLIGHTS

Headlights serve two main purposes:
1. They make your bicycle visible to others
2. They enable you to see where you are going

What we immediately noticed, is that one headlight cannot do a good job at serving both of these purposes simultaneously. If the light is angled for optimal visibility (straight ahead), it does not provide optimal road illumination. If the light in angled for optimal road illumination (downward), it does not make you maximally visible to others.

If you live in an area that is reasonably illuminated at night, you do not really have a need for #2 and one headlight is perfectly sufficient. However, if you live in the country, in the suburbs, or in any other area with stretches of unlit road, you will need to see where you are going. This is especially important for avoiding pot-holes, objects on the road, patches of black ice in the winter, pedestrians dressed in dark clothing, and those cyclists who travel with no lights on (in the Boston area this is alarmingly common!).

Pictured here is a set of Cateye Opticube LED bike lights, attached to the brackets on the front tire of my Pashley Princess, pointed downward. In the first photo on this post you can see how far the beams illuminate the road in the dark.

REAR LIGHTS

With rear lights things are simpler, because visibility to others is the only requirement. Still, because we like to travel through poorly lit areas, we added something extra to what Pashley already provided.

We attached these Cateye Bike LD610 tail lights to the stays of our rear racks. These can be set to be solidly lit, or blinking, or lighting up top to bottom and back, like Christmas tree lights. The effects can be quite fun.

And here the same Cateye tail light (just one) is used as a rear light on Marianne (photo on the right). It attaches to the rear rack with a special mounting bracket. In a pinch, you can also use electrical tape. The photo on the left shows the enormous SunLite Low Rider Bullet headlight that I've permanently mounted on Marianne. Since we use the Motobecanes for recreation rather than transportation, the lighting set-up is not as extensive as on the Pashleys.

Having a good lighting system on your bicycles makes cycling in the dark considerably safer and more enjoyable. Rather than rush to get home as fast as we can once it gets dark, we can take nocturnal joy rides on bike trails and country roads. Let there be light!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Cycling Clothes for the Lycra-Averse

After reading yesterday's Minuteman Bikeway post, you may have been wondering: So what does a girl wear on a 22-mile ride on a fierce roadbike? I am glad you asked!

CYCLING CLOTHES:

I am not against athletic clothing when it comes to cycling as a sport. My problem is different, and I know that other women share it: My skin hates synthetic fibers, especially in the heat. Yes, the new synthetic materials are supposed to be feather-lite, super-wicking, fast-drying, ultra-comfort, and so on... But somehow my body just does not agree. If I attempt to wear anything synthetic, my skin goes haywire, and I immediately get this icky, sticky, "get-it-off-me!" feeling -- not to mention horrible rashes and irritations. Sadly, my skin is also sensitive to wool, even very thin, lightweight wool. I can wear wool as an outer layer, but not directly next to the skin.

As far as normally-available fibers go, this leaves me with cottons, linens and silks. Raw silk is the most comfortable of these, and has excellent natural wicking properties. Old-fashioned ski clothing used to be made of rough silk, but now these are super-expensive and hard to find. Cotton and linen are breathable, but not ideal for wicking. Still, if left with no other choice, it is possible to achieve wicking with cotton by wearing it in ultra-thin, gauze-like layers. Gauzy cotton clothing is currently in fashion, and I have taken full advantage of summer sales. The dress pictured in these photos is a good example.

This mini-dress consists of two layers of very thin, gauze-like cotton. I bought it in Europe, but I have seen many like it available in the US, from the Gap, Old Navy, H&M, and many other stores. The loose baby-doll style with large arm openings around the straps provides superb breatheability. Worn over a cotton sports-bra and cotton leggings (the leggings function as "bloomers" -- i.e. underwear and leggings in one), this sort of dress allows the breeze to circulate under the wide hem, through the arm openings, and in between the two gauzy layers, providing amazing ventilation. I had zero sweat stains during the 22 mile ride. It is crucial that this kind of dress be short and wide enough, so as not to get caught on the saddle when mounting and dismounting. Notice also the enormous pockets -- handy for storing hair elastics, mobile phone and camera. The leggings + sportsbra + gauze dress outfit, in several colour variants, is basically my cycling kit for longer, sporty rides.

CYCLING SHOES

Simple shoes -- the best bike shoes! I saw a heap of these on clearance at the UGG/Teva Outlet in Wrentham the other day. I remembered reading about these on BikeSkirt some time ago, and decided to give them a try. I wanted something athletic, but summery, that could be worn without socks. The Simples are great, because they have a thick, hard, shock absorbent sole that is extremely effective for pushing down on pedals. The natural canvas material makes them breathable and light in even the hottest weather, but the enclosed rubber toe is great for those times when your toe hits the pedal -- which can hurt like hell on a roadbike in open-toed sandals. I have worn Keds, Converse and Vans, and the Simples work better for me as bike shoes than either of those.

Cycling clothing for the lycra-averse (and the athletic-gear-averse) need not be impractical. I was completely comfortable cycling for 22 miles+ in this outfit and shoes, and could easily have gone for longer. At the same time, we were able to go straight from the trails to one of our favourite restaurants for a dinner out. Of course, everyone's experience is different, and what is comfortable for one person may not be for another. Experimentation and listening to your own needs is key.

Minuteman Bikeway

The Co-Habitant and I finally took Marianne and Miles to the Minuteman Bikeway. The Minuteman Bikeway is an 11 mile paved bike trail that runs from the edge of Cambridge, Mass., through Arlington and Lexington, ending in Bedford.

The trail was built along the old Boston-Maine railroad line, which you can see a glimpse of in Bedford. This train car has been converted into a cafe serving hot dogs and ice cream to hungry cyclists.

What I loved most about the Minuteman Bikeway is the abundance of shade! I am one of those persons who burns horribly and gets instant heatstroke at the mere whisper of direct sunlight in temperatures over 75F. A bike trail that runs almost entirely under overarching trees is a rare blessing. I can come here at any time of day and do a 22-mile loop without falling into a heat-induced delirium!

What I did not love so much, is that the trail interrupts for road intersections. The cars were courteous, but still I dream of an endless bike trail without interruptions -- Is there an American version of the Danube Cycling Path?

I was warned that going on the Minuteman on weekends was not a good idea, as it gets congested with slow-moving families and joggers. But we went mid-day on a Saturday, and didn't find it too bad. Certainly less crowded than the Charles River Trail.

Conveniently, there are several cafes and grocery shops, and two bike shops along the trail. Pictured above is the Bike Stop, selling lots of nice used bikes in addition to new ones, as well as cold drinks and snacks.

And at the end of the trail is the Bikeway Source, selling new bicycles, athletic bike clothing and many accessories, including some neat grocery panniers made of bamboo. We were told by the employees that after the Bikeway ends in Bedford, there is an unpaved dirt trail that continues all the way to Concord. It is accessible by mountain bike, but only during dry weather conditions, turning swamplike when it rains.

The Minuteman Bikeway is a scenic 22-mile round trip trail that is useful for pros and accessible to beginners. Riding Marianne was great fun and the longish ride made me a lot more comfortable with handling her. The most difficult part was cycling to the start of the trail from our house, in busy traffic through Somerville. Those who live around Boston know that this area is not ideal if you are not 100% steady on your bike! As I've mentioned earlier, I am not comfortable riding a road bike in traffic yet, so this was a challenge. The Co-Habitant gallantly made it easier by riding and signaling in a way that made us both visible. I probably could not do it alone at this point. One step at a time!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Bike and Cat Gallery!

We have two cats, and they both love to sniff and investigate our bicycles. After a reader sent me a photo of his own cat examining his vintage Raleigh, I decided to start a gallery. If you would like to share a photo of your cat with your bike, please send it to the address at the bottom of this post. I will keep expanding the gallery.

One of my own two kitties, photographed during a moody moment through the spokes of my Pashley Princess.

My other kitty, looking longingly at the Co-Habitant's Pashley Roadster.

This gray kitty belongs to reader J.E.P., photographed with his newly acquired 1979 Raleigh Sprite.

Trisha's new kitten Wally, on her Peugeot mixte. From Let's Go Ride a Bike.

Dottie's beautiful kitty sniffing her Rivendell Betty Foy. From Let's Go Ride a Bike.

The white kitty in this spectacular shot belongs to KT of Velo Vogue. This is one of my all-time favourite bicycle photos, and notice the Motobecane mixte!

Shelly's kitty Lazlo, from Riding Pretty!

C_C_Rider's Guest Kitty, from Ride your Bike. No doubt the guest was attracted by the Surly in the background.


Submitted by coldfeet via bikeforums: "I know he hates riding in cars, must try him out in the cat box strapped to the rack." (Um... yes, let me know how that goes!)

The intriguing Smudgie belongs to Maschka at bikeforums. He is performing the same acrobatic maneuver with two different bicycles. Maybe it is his bicycle dance?

Machka's Sabre (RIP), photographed with her Maruishi touring bike.

This photo of little Willow was submitted by terraskye from Edmonton, via bikeforums. "My cat loves my bike... Anytime I bring it out of the storage room she has to come over and take a look.. This time she was just watching the ice melt in the water bottle."

JanMM's Spooky inspecting his Rans V-rex. Submitted via bikeforums.

This basket-cat belongs to Beth Terry from Fake Plastic Fish.

This feline camper is from the website of David Naylor.

And this sweet kitty is asleep in one of David Hembrow's bicycle baskets.

Submit your bike and cat photos to:

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review of "Marianne": Motobecane Mirage Mixte

I. THE BICYCLE:

Marianne is a 1981 Motobecane Mirage Mixte in a shimmery aquamarine colour. She is a 21" frame, 12-speed, with original Weinmann and Suntour components. Motobecane was one of the better-known manufacturers of French road bikes in the 1970s-early 80's. The Mirage was a mid-range model. We bought the bicycle from the original owner, who had not ridden it much and kept it in good condition. Photos of the bike in its original state can be seen here.

Even though this is a vintage bicycle, I am reviewing it, because it is a readily available product in many areas of the US. Search your local Craigslist and similar sources!

II. IMPROVEMENTS & CUSTOMISATIONS:

Tires: 27 x 1 1/4" Panaracer Pasela Tourguards. I chose these because they combine puncture resistance with the nice vintage look of amber walls. Some people dislike vintage French road bikes because of the non-standard 27" tires they use. But I love the size, as it seems to suit my proportions just right. Also, apparently 27" tires are now undergoing a "renaissance" and are easier to get than they used to be.

Fenders: Fluted Honjo fenders. These fenders are extra-extra long, which is useful for wet conditions, but also makes scrapes more likely. And I fell in love with the stunning art deco details.

Saddle: Brooks Flyer Special in brown. The Flyer is exactly the same saddle as the B17, only with springs. The Flyer is designed for riding with the saddle at about the same height as the handlebars. The springs are very stiff, so they do not bounce you and do not impede speed. But they do act as shock absorbers when the road is less than perfect, which is very useful. The "Special" differs from the regular Flyer in that it has copper rivets instead of chrome.

Saddlebag: Carradice Barley. I am so in love with this bag! It does not take up much space, but is surprisingly roomy inside, and remains amazingly stable while cycling. Mine is secured both to the saddle loops and to the rear rack, because I like for my bags to lie horizontally. The side pockets are super-convenient for grabbing small objects (like mobile-phone and camera) while remaining on the saddle.

Handlebars: I decided to keep the original drop-bars and see whether I could handle them. As described here, my idea was to make them a sort of neutral/olive green. Initially we used cotton tape for this. It looked great, but my hands hurt like hell, because the bars were too stiff and too thin. I had to ride wearing padded gloves, and even that did not entirely take the edge off. So eventually, we wrapped the bars with Cinelli cork tape in "celeste", which turned into an organic-looking olive green after 2 coats of amber shellac. The tape is secured with shellacked cooking twine. The cork tape provided enough padding to stop the pain, and made the diameter just right for my long fingers to wrap around. The drop bars now feel fabulous.

Bell: Japanese brass bell with a "watch-winder" style ringer in the smallest size.

Flowers: Faux cherry blossoms from a local craft store. Maybe they are a bit over the top, but I could not resist!

Lights: The headlight is a very retro-looking Low Rider Bullet Headlight by SunLite. A vintage-style headlight was very important to me, and Harris Cyclery was nice enough to do some reaseach and find this great product for me. In the rear we attached a CatEye TL-LD1100 onto the back of the rack. Both of these are battery operated.

III. FIRST IMPRESSIONS:

This was my first time riding a bike with drop bars and narrow tires. And okay, I will just come out and admit it: When I first got on this bicycle, I was unable to ride it down the street. I tried to take my feet off the ground and start pedaling (after all, a bike is a bike -- how different can it be?) and almost fell off. It felt like I was trying to balance upon a razor's edge. Frustrated and close to tears, I consoled myself that at least we hadn't spent any money on restoring the bike at that point, because clearly I had made a mistake in imagining myself capable of riding it.

But just as I was about to dismount and call it a night, frustration gave way to determination, and I kept stubbornly practicing until finally -- it seemed magically -- I was able to ride it. It was scary, and I felt incredibly unstable, but little by little the Co-Habitant coaxed me further down our street, then across the street, and before I knew it, I had followed him on a 10-minute ride to a local coffee shop without incident.

Whew. Seriously, Ladies -- if I can do it, anybody can! And just two days later, Marianne and I went on a long ride along the Charles River trail.

IV. PROS AND CONS

Of course I had known that road bikes are very different from mountain bikes, transport bikes, and hybrids. But knowing is one thing; doing is another! Here are the pros and cons of my experience with Marianne so far:

Pros

. Speed: She is a gazillion times faster than any bike I have ridden before.

. Hills: What hills? Up hill, down hill, it is all the same to her. I feel nothing as I climb the same hills that leave me panting and covered in sweat on an upright bike in 1st gear.

. Weight: At "only" 30lb including saddlebag, she is a joy to carry up and down the stairs compared to my Pashley.

. Aesthetics: I love the graceful look of vintage French road bikes!

Cons

. Stability: The narrow tires, low handlebars and light weight make Marianne radically less stable than any other bike I have ridden. Once I get going and pick up speed I am fine, but starting and stopping, as well as riding slowly through tight and narrow spaces with lots of turns, can feel like a circus act. I also have a hard time handling pot-holes and objects on the road.

. Sensitivity: Most racers would consider it a good thing that this bicycle is super sensitive, but for a beginner the sensitivity makes the bicycle difficult to control.

. Cycling in Traffic:
I am not confident on this bicycle in traffic at all. The drop bars place my body in a position where I find it difficult to look back over my shoulder, and I also have trouble taking my hands off the handlebars to signal.

While some people report physical discomfort from riding road bikes with drop bars, I do not find the position uncomfortable. It is certainly different from the relaxed upright position of my Pashley, but I have not had problems with pain in my back, neck, or arms. It took some time to get the saddle and handlebar positions just right, and I encourage you to experiment with this as well if you experience pain. Try changing the height of the saddle and handlebars, as well as moving the saddle backward or forward. The right saddle and handlebar tape will also play a major role in your comfort level, acting as shock absorbers for your hands and butt.

V. CONCLUSIONS

Giving new life to a vintage bicycle is an immensely rewarding experience. You can make the bike as personalised and unique as you wish, while maintaining a connexion to history. Vintage French road bikes are a world onto themselves -- a world of beauty, performance and quality. Mixte frames in particular have a romance and charm that is hard to resist, as well as a wonderful versatility: If you can't ride with drop bars, north roads and albatros bars are just as glamorous.


Edited to add:

Since this review, Marianne has undergone many changes. See here for updated reviews:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Can We See Beyond the Basket?

I have been taking out my Pashley Princess every day since I picked her up a week ago. She gets lots of comments and compliments. The comments come from passers-by, from other cyclists, and even from people in cars (waiting to turn left at an intersection, I heard a man say to a woman in the car behind me, "Don't you want a cute bike like that with a basket?").

And this brings me to my point: Interestingly, 95% of the comments I get have something to do with the basket. "Beautiful basket," "look at that basket," "Oh, and she's got a basket!" Even when people stop and ask about the bike itself, their body language betrays an irresistible attraction to the basket -- they start stroking it lovingly, examining the wicker and the leather straps in great detail, with the actual bicycle clearly occupying only the periphery of their attention. Witnessing this, my husband joked that bicycle sales and usage would increase astronomically if shops made a point of attaching a basket to every commuter bike. It is as if the wicker bicycle basket -- much like kittens and babies -- is genetically pre-determined to evoke a cooing response from otherwise level-headed adults.

To what extent then are we able to see beyond the basket to the actual bicycle? The basket on the Pashley Princess is so enormous, that it does seem to both define and dominate the bicycle itself. And while I love baskets, I am not sure I want that. The beautiful lines of the Princess frame and its countless other charms deserve to be seen. I have now ordered a different basket, which I think will be less overbearing and more unique than the stock one. Will see how that goes. The allure of the basket is a force to be reckoned with!

PS: I know that I have not been very expressive about my impressions of the Princess since having gotten her. That is mostly because I am still not entirely done customising her and getting to know her. Soon she will be in her finished state and I will post a full photo shoot and review. She even has a name!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The World of Vehicular Cycling

I have been feeling pretty comfortable cycling with traffic. The Pashley Princess is so sturdy and reliable, that I feel more like a small car than a bicycle, which gives me the confidence to behave like a motorist. I have always been a nervous driver, but interestingly, I have not had the same anxiety while cycling.

As I began to cycle in the city, I quickly realised that many ideas about cycling I'd held since childhood were counterproductive. Reading up on the topic, including the iconic Effective Cycling by John Forester, has confirmed this. The biggest example, is the false belief that riding on the sidewalk and on the opposite side of the road (in order to "see the oncoming cars") are safe alternatives for beginners who do not feel brave enough to cycle with traffic. I wish there was a way to communicate to the public what an extremely bad idea it is to do these things. The sense of safety they give the beginner is a dangerous illusion, since there are far more opportunities to get hit by a car this way than by cycling with traffic and obeying motorist rules. If you are new to cycling, please have a look at this website for a to-the-point analysis of the kind of behaviour that leads to accidents.

Given the option of using perfectly designed segregated cycling facilities, I would gladly do so. But the reality in North America today, is that vehicular cycling is a de facto necessity, since no proper cycling infrastructure exists. For that reason, I think it is crucial for cyclists to learn the rules and do it properly. A pretty skirt, high heels and a basket will not save you from the dangerous situations that misinformation and lack of skill can create.

Monday, July 20, 2009