Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Velo Conversations

Over the past two days I have been cycling a lot around town on various errands. It's been cold but sunny, and the roads are entirely clear of snow. Cycling down a main road, I often get the feeling that I just want to keep going and going, picking up speed until I am faster than all the cars and not stopping until I reach some mysterious far-off place, like Western Massachusetts. Alas, there were errands to do.

One nice thing about winter cycling, is the availability of bike parking. In the summer, all the bike racks next to or even near the post office are usually full. But nowadays I am one of the few bicycles there.

Interestingly, the racks outside my favourite grocery store are full even in winter. When I came out of the store, there was a woman waiting for me next to my bike who wanted to ask some questions about it. She was riding a "winter bike" - an aluminum mountain bike with very wide knobby tires - and complained that it was much too slow, and that the chain often came off. How was mine? I summarised for her everything that I've described here, and she was excited - until she asked me about the price. She then told me that she is "not in a position to afford a bicycle in that price range". I asked how much her winter bike cost. The price she told me was 60% of what my Pashley cost. I decided to leave it at that, rather than get into a long conversation about "value".

This was one of several unexpected velo-conversations with strangers that I've had over the past few days. The second one happened when I was stopped at a red light. A cyclist on a road bike pulled up next to me, said hello, and asked whether I was riding an electric assist bike. "Oh no, it's just a regular bike," I said - secretly offended that someone would even think it was electric assist. He then asked what the hub on my front wheel was for, and I explained about dynamo-powered lighting. This seemed to be a new concept for the roadbike cyclist and he was pleased to learn about it.

I wonder now how many others who see me cycling think that I have electric assist on my bike because of that front hub! Hopefully, as city bikes with good lighting and drum brakes become more popular, such misunderstandings should decrease. As it is, even Shimano is all about dynamo hubs and drum brakes - as this advert I recently saw attests. It is nice to see a large manufacturer embrace the image of the upright city bicycle in its ads: It is a good indicator that city and transport bicycles have a future in mainstream cycling.

But the third conversation I had took the cake: I went to a cafe to do some work, and locked my bike outside in a way that was visible from the cafe windows. As I settled in with my coffee, a group of older ladies began a conversation with me that basically consisted of disturbing admonitions about all the horrible things that could happen to me on a bike. One of them had a grandson who was hit by a truck. Another knew "at least six young people" who had been involved in gruesome cycling accidents. And so on. I assured them that I was very careful on my bike and somehow managed to politely disentangle myself from the conversation. But my goodness, it is frustrating that cycling seems to invite unsolicited advice of this sort. On the one hand, I know that it's because people "care". But on the other hand, there is a fine line between "caring" and relishing an opportunity to dispense advice. I try to keep that in mind.

36 comments:

  1. Wait, I thought Pashley sold an electric-assist-like device compatible with the Princess Sovereign line of bicycles for £195.00, but only in Great Britain. Right?

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  2. ugh, I envy you! It has been great weather to be riding but I have been shut in all week with a bad cold :(

    And it is amazing that the snow is completely gone (aside from the small dusting we got today)

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  3. I too envy you! There has been no riding in the Appalachians for almost a week now. :( Further justifying my plan to buy a Pashley before next winter. It's become an official goal now. :)

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  4. Oh wow, it never occurred to me that anyone might think I'm riding an electric assist bike! They are pretty common here now, mostly with food delivery guys, and those guys are always on MTBs. I have never seen one on a bike like a Pashley.

    Being lectured on safety is tedious. It's always surprising for me when strangers are so "concerned" as I cannot imagine invading someone's space in that way. I have a friend who was standing with her baby in a sling waiting for a bus and a sex worker in a fishnet body stocking came running over to her waving her finger to tell her that her baby was cold and needed more clothes. Which I guess, ok, if you're wearing a fishnet bodystocking you do KNOW it's bloody cold.

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  5. I'm sure the grandmother was unconcerned about her grandson's comfort (or even survival) in a world with an atmosphere of 500 or 600 ppm CO2. Better to kill him slowly by driving a car than to give him a habitable world by riding a bike.

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  6. MDI - shouldn't that be a cake?... Doesn't seem like a very effective product otherwise.

    neighbortease - The sexworker story is splendid!

    S Molnar - You think I should use that as a comeback next time?

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  7. I know at least a dozen people who drowned after their car trapped them under water, and several more that fell off roofs or balconies. I can't count the number of older ladies that have died as a result of too much injudicious drink. Try NOT to think of any of those trivia items next time you fall in with the busybody brigade. They'll wonder why you're smiling...

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  8. Here are some stats for those times when someone starts lecturing you about the dangers associated with bicycle riding:

    http://www.ecovelo.info/2009/05/04/contrary-to-popular-belief/

    Alan@EcoVelo

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  9. my winter bike has a big fat black clamp assembly on the seat tube that accepts a quick release rear child seat. *two* people have asked me if it was an electric assist motor.

    several people have asked me if the drum brake on my dutch bike was a dynamo, and one person asked me if the dynohub on my raleigh was a drum brake...

    my basic response to people who try to lecture me about safety is that i've done my own research, weighed the risks and benefits of whatever it is i'm being lectured on, and come to my own informed decision, but thanks for caring!

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  10. "Antique" post and ring. Interesting.

    In future you might point out that your bike costs so much, in part, because it's hand made in England and that there are bikes similar to a Raleigh Sport available for much less.

    Lord preserve us from Yentas.

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  11. Far off.

    Mysterious.

    Western Mass.



    Heh.

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  12. I arrived at a meeting on my bike a few months ago only to have someone at the meeting engage me in a rather defensive conversation abut bicyclists endangering themselves and others on the road. Odd. Here I was with my helmet, my yellow jacket, my headlight and rear blinker, arriving in one piece and in good humor and I am being lectured about the hazards of bike commuting.

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  13. I tell the danger brigade that I have life insurance, so I'm worth much more dead than alive.

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  14. Interesting encounters. I love how cycling opens me up more to talking with strangers, but as you describe, it's not always good.

    People who feel that it's socially appropriate to lay into cyclists about the danger and throw around words like "kill" - well, they annoy me. I think we all know of at least one person who's died in a car collision, but we don't get telling every driver and passenger about it.

    I've had people ask if my Dutch bike is electric assist, including a cop at a stoplight who rolled down his window and asked me how many miles I get per charge. I was confused.

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  15. I often get people telling me its rediculous when I commute by bike, typicaly due to weather conditions, despite that I have adequate gear for the weather. They make my husband off to be this bad guy when he needs the car for a day leaving me to take my bike in the snow. Im often told to get another car! Oh ignorance how you cloud peoples ability to comprehend things out of the norm..

    I too would feel slightly affended if people thought I used an assist. I take pride in the physical, non assisted, struggles of biking places.

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  16. Lemony.

    Those ladies are like my maternal grand mother!
    There was a time when I was on vacation and stayed with her for about 3 weeks. Each time I went cycling with a neighbour she seemed to be gripped with anxiety for my safety.
    One day I had some 'quality time' with her. It was then that I gave her a 'wider perspective' on 'road-kills' and the steps I had been taking all along not to become a statistics in the road-accident department. Now she is one of the activists in her neighbourhood on 'safe driving' and her anxiety for me as a cyclist has ceased. :D
    My grandma (and the ladies too) do care and mean well ... and I'm thankful for that.
    All my grandma needed was some help to 'broaden' her perspective and 'general education'. Now let's be positive and gently help such 'older' ladies (and probably 'older men') to have a better/wider understanding of the world around them.
    Onward towards a more caring American society/community always!

    Lemony ( 28 going on to 29 .. hopefullY :D )

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  17. I don't really get annoyed at these kinds of ignorance -- it kind of makes me feel superior.

    When people call me "extreme," I usually reply that I think it's way more extreme when people spend tons of time, freezing their feet walking everywhere (to their cars, included). Me, on the other hand, I get to wear any shoes that I want no matter how slushy it is!

    I quickly and strongly respond to comments about safety or helmets by talking about how dangerous cars are. They are, after all, the number one killer of people aged 18-35 and contribute to the deadly sedentary life style.

    I also sometimes point out or ask if they are jealous that I can eat anything I want and stay slim because I get 1.5 hours of exercise a day as I ride errands. I know this is BS but they believe it, so that's an easy win in the conversation. :)

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  18. Thanks for the interesting replies. The odd thing is, that I seem to be a magnet for this kind of attention from strangers. Whether on a bike or off, something about my appearance or demeanor seems to invite a disproportionate amount of bizarre encounters, overly-personal questions, and so on. As disturbing as that is, I guess I can't really see myself telling the person off or snapping back with a clever comeback in these situations. Not because I am too shy or too nice, but because the idea just depresses me... Or maybe so I tell myself because I am not good at comebacks!

    Doohickie - Western Mass. is mysterious. I keep hearing about these paradise-like places to ride there - hundreds of miles of peaceful rural roads with overhanging tress, that sort of thing - but no one will tell me where exactly they are or how to get to them. De-mystifying suggestions welcome!

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  19. "I keep hearing about these paradise-like places"

    The Deerfield River area, up into Bennington County Vermont, is about as close to paradise as you can get; because paradise itself is just a bit further up the Valley along the Battenkill and Mettowee.

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  20. That would be splendid, to go there. But what about somewhere I can start close to Boston?...

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  21. I doubt that you are a magnet for the comments, they seem to come no matter what. I've been riding daily for years, everybody I know knows it, and they still have to talk about it when they see me. Always when somebody sees me at the Post Office or grocery they will offer a ride, or ask if I'm "getting some exercise," don't I worry about traffic, etc, etc, blah, blah.
    One amusing encounter was a woman I knew who waved from her SUV as she passed me on the street. Five minutes later I ran into her in the aisle of the grocery and she stood in amazement and said: "How did you get here? I just passed you on your bike"
    I said, "Yes, I was there, now I am here."
    She just stared blankly, slackjawed and said,"But you were on your bike..."

    I guess I crossed some cultural boundry by stopping at the store without a car.

    Marc

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  22. Well, that would be, like, in EASTERN Mass.; wouldn't it? Go to the Common, get on Rte. 2 and head west until it starts looking paradise-like.

    Course the riding might suck a bit until you get out past 128.

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  23. What interesting convos you have! I've been asked about the electric assist on the Bat, but I was kind of flattered when the guy explained that he just thought it was electric because I was riding so fast. ;-) As for the danger lecture, so far, so good, other than the occasional person asking if riding isn't scary. Funny how there is a much higher perceived risk for cycling despite the fact that it's actually not more dangerous than many other daily activities.

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  24. I come up against this idea of "value" all the time, and I think it's one of my least favorite things about America - that our sense of value is strictly limited to price. That is, low price equals good value. So people would rather buy a $300 bike that is impractical to use and requires a lot of maintenance (which then results in them not using it) than buying a $1000 bike which is comfortable, practical and requires almost no maintenance. Of course, this idea spreads all across the culture to almost all products and services, including food.

    It has always baffled me why other people are so concerned about actions which only effect my own safety, such as wearing a helmet. Why do so many people care so passionately that I wear a helmet, when not wearing one literally makes no difference to them? Of course there are still those that think I'm crazy for riding a bike at all, but thankfully in Portland there aren't many people like that (at least, not in the city, in the suburbs, yes).

    At this point, whenever the topic of "safety" comes up and the other person is clearly trying to foist uninformed advice on me, I try to just kind of smile politely and end the conversation or change topic, as from experience, it seems clear that trying to have an intelligent conversation on the matter is nearly guaranteed to be a failure.

    When it's the case that it's someone I know doing this, it usually is from a starting place of actual concern, simply with a lot of misinformation and propaganda (afterall, everything is out to kill you these days) layered on top.

    Anyway, a weird phenomenon of our culture, for sure...

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  25. Perhaps you should print up a business card with prepared responses. One for the electric assist questions. Another one for the safety issues...Some cards you could omit your blog address, others would have it, dispense on a case by case basis.
    Then just sweetly smile and wish them well. Disengage from the contentious, engage with those you choose. You are an ambassador of sorts so you can turn this into an opportunity to do 'Outreach'!!! Maybe make a few converts to your blog in the process. Or help Pashley sell a few more bikes ;)

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  26. These comments remind me of when I had twins, every day would herald the same over-familiar personal comments from strangers, and often 'advice'. Now they're older it's eased for some reason.

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  27. It must be the season for free advice on biking - or the weather? I had a similar week.

    I love it that people assume you're getting an electric assist - that's how effortless your riding must look! Though it is sad that we've made biking look so grim and gritty that the assumption on seeing a cool and easy cyclist is that they're not pedalling all their own.

    I would love to see a discussion about the "value" vs. price. Newly riding an Oma (which I'm LOVING) I see what I've been missing. But if I had thought I needed such an expensive bike when I began riding, I wouldn't have ever begun.

    Bike Gallery in Portland had Electras in the $400-$500 range at the first of the year. I had to agree with your suggestion (thank you Lovely Bicycle!) that the geometry was not great for my purposes and am much happier with the Oma. But are there good workable options for new budget-minded buyers?

    Just this past week I've had a woman my age and teenage boy ask me a little wistfully where to look for a bike they could afford. I don't know that either of them are in a position to choose "value." Budget is not just a simple choice for some.

    In the Netherlands there seem to be plenty of inexpensive bikes that work just fine? Isn't that what we need here to get more and more people pedaling?

    Emma J

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  28. @imaginary bicycle: my few cents worth - if the Oma you're riding was built in the U.S. in a factory similar to the Azor factory in the Netherlands where those are built, the cost would be much cheaper. However, there are just not places in the U.S. building bikes like that on any kind of scale that allows thrift (some handbuilt bikes in Portland and other cities, but they are usually upwards of $2000).

    Brands like Linus and Electra have bikes that approximate those to some extent, and I think as entry bicycles, they do the job - I've ridden an Electra Amsterdam for about a year and a half before finding my vintage Raleigh, which has largely replaced it, and with a few modifications (rebuilding the rear wheel with a sturdier rim and getting better tires, primarily) it was a decent bike for everyday use. Still, with those modifications, that leaves someone in the $700 range for a 3-speed, at which point, they might just as well get a Batavus or something.

    I do think that, in the Netherlands or in the U.S., you're not going to get a good bike for $100. In the Netherlands, the bicycle is seen as a necessity for mobility (the way a car is here, and people spend beyond their means to own and operate one), so people are willing to spend a month's wages on one that will last. Here, the mindset is totally different, a bicycle is usually seen as an accessory that someone *might* use occasionally, and for that reason, spending more than a few hundred dollars on it seems really excessive.

    I think once people start buying the Electras and Linuses and those types of entry level bikes, and then making more and more trips on them, realizing there are a lot of really practical things about them, but that they just aren't quite up to heavy use, they will start to realize that it's worth the investment in something more like the WorkCycles bikes, Pashleys, Gazelle or Batavus, etc.

    I'm not sure there's a good way to convince people otherwise, as most people here in the U.S. really just don't view the bicycle as a feasible primary vehicle until they've tried it.

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  29. imaginary bicycle - First off, you got an Oma? How cool, I will check your blog for the juicy details!

    Regarding affordability, I agree with pretty much everything portlandize wrote above. In the NL, the Dutch bikes we import are somewhat less expensive (because they are not imports), but still by no means cheap for the average citizen. People save and budget for a good bike just like they save and budget for other necessities, such as apartment rental and food. If you are completely broke, then one solution is to buy a used bike. In the US, these bikes have not been around long enough to buy used. But either way, there is just no way to make a bike with a solid steel frame, curved fork, all the necessary braze-ons & adequate tire and fender clearance, and to fit it with crucial components such as hub brakes and dynamo lighting.

    Also, even in the US there is a fairly wide price range for quality city bikes. A hand-made ANT can be had for $2,000, and a Retrovelo is not far behind. An Azor is, I believe, in the $1,600-1,800 range, and Velorbis is around the same. Pashley and Gazelle are around $1,200. And a Batavus can be had for as little as $700 (and there was even one on clearance for $395 at a local shop last summer!)

    The woman who spoke to me outside the grocery store was riding a $700 mountain bike of not very high quality that she bought especially for riding in the winter, because she was told she needed a winter bike in addition to her roadbike. On top of the cost of the bike, she no doubt put at least $200 into it getting racks and lights, which did not come standard with the bike. And on top of this, she is unhappy with the bike - it is incredibly slow and has a problem with the chain slipping off. Yet she feels that paying a total of $900 for that is reasonable, while my $1,200 Pashley, the perfect winter bike that requires zero maintenance, is apparently in a different price bracket. And that's the part I don't get.

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  30. I don't know if it's the case for that woman, but I hear the opinion a lot that these types of bikes are fashion accessories, or luxury goods or the types of bikes that you just toodle around on for your Sunday ride around the cul-de-sac (in which case, $1600 would make it a luxury good). Since they aren't sporty, they aren't "serious" bikes, as ludicrous as that is.

    Here in Portland, these kinds of bikes are quite often referred to as "cruisers", even by people in the bike scene or who ride bikes often, and of course that name carries with it that Sunday toodling connotation, because that *is* what cruisers were designed for.

    As all of us here know, these are not even remotely similar to cruisers when you get down to it, but that's the perception people have. Even if they like the fact that their chain won't fall off, they still don't see it as a feasible bike for daily use.

    I'm sure that will change with time, but for now... who knows.

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  31. I'd imagine that in the NL, given the indestructibility and ubiquity of their bikes, that there's a good second hand market and you probably can walk away with a decent bike for a reasonable price, just not a new one. Here in the UK finding a second-hand bike that you are confident hasn't been stolen is the challenge - one of the reasons why I got a rebuilt bike is that the charity I bought it from only takes donated bikes, thus making it less likely they're 'hot wheels'. Police auctions are another good way to go - the bike probably has been stolen, but at least it's not the thief that's benefiting.

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  32. Good for you, for patiently chipping away at the (vast amounts of) misinformation that's out there. Hopefully knowledge and common sense will eventually prevail.

    Regarding the danger mavens, like most people, they don't really understand the risk levels of daily life. They feel that things they do regularly (like driving) are safe, even if they are actually very dangerous. And they don't think at all about the things that are most likely to kill them, like heart disease which could have been prevented by regular bicycle riding...

    Finally on the subject of bicycle value. I've been working on a post about this for a while. There isn't a good selection in the US. Most city bikes are imported or made by a small shop, which drives the price up in both cases. I think that is going to change a lot in the coming year or two. Gazelle, Raleigh, Electra, Giant, Breezer, and some others all have products they call city bikes, urban road, roadsters, which look really practical and fall in the $400 to $800 range including fenders, rack, etc. They don't have the loveliness of the Dutch-style frame, but there will definitely be a large, latent market for them.

    And there's always second-hand. I constantly hear about great vintage dumpster finds.

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  33. I suspect you invite some conversation, but in my experience merely riding a bicycle for transportation is enough to inspire a surreal range of comments. In addition to the usual “Bicycles are not allowed on the streets, you better ride on the sidewalk or get your exercise in the park”, I’ve also had old ladies here in Delaware tell me the back roads have poor sight lines and stick to the main roads (like the highway I had to use to get to the store where I met them).

    To be fair to them, it was clear that while they were not active enough to ride for transportation, they were open minded enough to accept the fact that I found it normal and useful to ride on local 6 lane highways. This was so reasonable on their part it’s only funny because the comments from other people that don’t ride for transportation is almost always to avoid 40-50mph highways, not to choose them. (If bicyclists are going to the same places as the motorists, how do we get there without access to the same roads?)

    Marc, while the people here are often surprised that their cars are no faster than the bicycle in local traffic, they don’t seem to the cultural boundary you encountered. It’s actually obvious to them I traveled from one location to the other by bicycle.

    Value
    I don’t understand the value issue either. The $900 bicycle seems to cost almost as much as the Pashley, but isn’t reliable enough to be worth buying at all. It sounds like she got advice from someone that didn’t understand transportation vs. sport.

    Most of my bicycling money has been for lights, Brooks saddles and Carradice bags; theft/vandalism was severe enough in Philadelphia and Boston years ago I bought a number of Sports when they were available cheap. Even other bicyclists often don’t understand buying bags or saddles that cost more than the used bikes they are attached to, but compared to parking fees at work or the cost of driving, the bicycle improvements pay for themselves in 1-2 months, and last for 10 years+.








    Safety

    Value/geography
    smarter - know how arrived

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  34. I love your Pashley and your blog. I used to ride an Austrian Sears 3-speed. It was virtuous. Now I have my dream touring bike, but wished it had some of the elements your Pashley presents; internally geared hub, enclosed chaincase, drum brakes, hub generator and kick stand. I really love the green, but am disappointed it's not offered on the Roadster :(

    I also can relate to the "celebrity" factor of your bicycle. It is both blessing and curse. Our family car is a beautiful Ruby Red 1967 Beetle. It is great around town on weekends to get groceries and run other errands. There are no car payments and maintenance is easy. I enjoy the smiles from the children, and watching people notice the car and then punch each other in the arms. BUT, I've become thoroughly tired of, "excuse me, what year is your car..." Sometimes I just want to go about my business without having to hear how great my car is, or that everyone and their uncle used to have one. Now, that being said, last summer, when I borrowed a "square" car, as my children called it, no one noticed us at all. It is nice to feel special...

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  35. If you want to have ppl make conversation with you, get a Brompton! It could prolly make an autistic social phobiac babbling!

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