Monday, February 15, 2010

Why Don't We Do It in the Road? New Adventures in Vehicular Cycling

Today we decided to cycle to Harris Cyclery in West Newton, Mass., which is an 18-mile round trip from our house. We have cycled there before, but on our road bikes, mostly on the Charles River Trail, and not in the winter. Today we went on our Pashleys, on a very windy February day, and on the road with cars. This was our longest vehicular cycling trip to date.

Getting there was the more challenging part, because large chunks of the route are uphill. We hadn't realised it before, but the Charles River Trail - though overall longer - avoids many of these hills, while the vehicular cycling route takes you right through them. No matter what anybody says, I do not recommend a heavy upright bicycle with limited gearing on hills for long distances, unless you have the stamina and leg strength of a hardened cyclist. The hills were bad enough, but the hills plus a killer headwind nearly did me in. I did make it though - soaked with sweat, bright red in the face, and without a clue how I was going to get the energy to cycle back! Oh, and Harris Cyclery was closed - we hadn't realised that their winter hours were 6 days a week only.

Thankfully, the sandwich place down the street was open, and we secured a table with a spectacular view of our bikes, partaking of their refreshments until I could muster up the strength to ride back. The return trip was considerably easier, though there were still some uphill patches.

While the hills and headwind bothered me, cycling on major roads with cars did not. Granted, there are some aspects of cycling on the road long distance that make it challenging. For one thing, it is not as easy to stop on a busy major road as it is on a trail. On the trail, if you are tired or need a drink, you can simply stop the bike. On the road this is not always an option: You need to find a good spot to pull over, signal - and only then can you stop. There is also more pressure to cycle at fast and consistent speeds. At this point I feel that I am a strong enough cyclist for this, but just barely. Especially on those winding roads with 40 mph+ speed limits and no bike lanes - one has to have a certain degree of confidence and stamina to make it all the way through: Once you are there, there is often no alternative way back other than on the same road.

Having said all of this, I still enjoy cycling on roads more than on trails, because I feel a greater degree of freedom. On a bike trail, I am constantly aware that a pre-determined path has been prescribed and it gets pretty boring. There is no sense of exploration or adventure, unless I have not been on that trail before. The road, on the other hand, offers limitless possibilities - which for me at least, is a major "high" in addition to cycling itself. Of course I prefer a road that is as scenic as possible, with as few cars as possible - but a road nonetheless. And I can't wait to get my Sam Hillborne built up - because I cannot imagine willingly doing this sort of ride on the Pashley again!

24 comments:

  1. Pashley+(hills+wind)=pain. I can relate to the sweating and red-faced part, there are some rides I go on that leave me like that (even with the road bike). But what a good long ride for you in the middle of winter - just what you needed I'm guessing. So glad you're building up courage on the roads with the traffic. Over here drivers are horrible to cyclists especially in the city centre... I see many cyclists riding on footpaths on busy suburban or arterial roads just so they can get away from the four-wheeled bullies. I do hope drivers in Boston are more used to bicycles sharing the road and extend if not courtesy at least acknowledgement and safety.

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  2. The thing is, that there are hills - and then there are hills after hills. I ride the Pashley around my neighborhood in Somerville/Cambridge and don't really mind the hills - because my trips are short and once the hill is over, it's over. But 9 miles of hills on a 50lb 7-speed upright bike? That begins to drain my energy pretty quickly.

    Same with vehicular cycling. I do it every day - but in my own neighborhood, and it's over quickly once I get to my destination. But doing it for miles and miles puts you in a different state of mind. You don't wait for it to be over, but sort of embrace it. Yes, there go the cars. Yes, they are all going 50 mph (over the speed limit of course). And here you are, as well - in it for the long haul. It's hard to explain what I mean, but completely different feeling than going to the grocery store.

    The drivers in Boston are so-so, it depends on the day really. Today it was all good, except for one taxi getting too close to me when we were coming back home through Harvard Square.

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  3. Funnily enough, I made a similar trip about a month ago -- several miles to Harris from the east, on a day when it turned out to be closed.

    I'm not sure which route you've taken, but I don't remember having to deal with 50mph cars. I also ride a 50lb monster (a 3-speed, hah!) but I lean forward and hold the middle of the handlebars when it's really windy. I'm not sure if your basket let's you do that.

    Frankly, I'm surprised that your route was 9 miles AND included 50mph cars. It seems like with that many miles you might be able to pick a slow and scenic route there. On my trip, it took a rather flat and mostly calm route through Waltham and Belmont.

    I also made sure to dress lightly -- this is really important, I think. You shouldn't be sweating in winter! For short routes, I prefer to wear my winter jacket, but this leads to overheating and makes me feel slow on longer routes. So then I just wear a wool sweater over a cotton shirt and I feel terrific.

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  4. Giffen - What was your route? I would love to find a scenic one. We went through Watertown and Newton, which seemed the shortest way. The distance from our place is just under 9 miles. The speed limit in stretches of the Watertown portion is 40mph, but cars often go faster - at least today they did.

    It was mostly not the hills that bothered me (they are not that bad and I've done them before), but the very strong headwind - while going uphill. But I should add that the Co-Habitant found the trip there a lot easier than I did, as he is in better shape.

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  5. Headwind going out. I hope that meant a good tailwind going home. I know I push harder on the busy roads. I think it is psychological because you are still slower than the speeders, and you are harder to pass the faster you go.

    I never thought about the "just stopping" thing before. On the road, I usually stop after a turn on an uphill stretch. No picnic tables along the road, but no Starbucks along the path. You know their free cupped water is triple filtered which is perfect in summer. As I recall, it'll just fill a bike water bottle.

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  6. I'll be the "anyone" who you don't care if I say it...

    Pashleys are GREAT for long rides!

    I took my girlfriend's Princess 22 miles last summer, from Toronto to Aurora, straight up Yonge Street (the longest street in the world).

    She was so happy!

    It's WINTER thats your enemy, and WIND. Try the same route on a June Sunday and you'll see a different Pashley.

    The cold slows down everything, and the wind just... sucks.

    I've made the same run on my Legnano (ten speed) with Nitto Noodle bars - yes, it's faster - but only differently enjoyable, not moreso.

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  7. The ride was very fun. Streets are more empty on Sundays and it's a good way to try out longer routes both downtown and in the suburbs. I also noticed that drivers have more patience on their (hopefully) days off.

    But, yeah, being extremely cold and then sweating to the point of wet clothes in the winter means something is wrong with the dress. We really do need to solve that for longer rides and I am pretty sure it also means you feel less energetic as a result, which contributes to yet more sweating. Fortunately a milder season is coming up and you can try to cycle in a wool sweater and wool tights.

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  8. Mike - I've taken 22 mile rides on the Pashley over the summer as well, longer even. With relatively few hills, no strong wind, and no pressure to keep up a steady speed, mine is great on long rides. But this time around it was just not the right bike for the occasion. It is not so much the limitations in speed that bother me, as how much more difficult it is to climb hills - especially in the wind. I am just not in good enough shape.

    MDI/Giffen - I was wearing 1 layer plus a thin trench coat, so I don't know how much lighter I could have dressed. I was freezing when I wasn't pedaling. Also, MDI: There are many times when we go on rides wearing virtually the same outfit (or at least the same amount and type of clothes), and you feel fine whereas I am too hot or too cold. I simply have bad body temperature regulation.

    Steve - Yes, coming home was a lot easier, though the wind died down somewhat by then so not too much tailwind.

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  9. headwind sucks. It is so much worse than hills for me. I am so ready to cycle in a sundress and sandals and a panama hat.

    Trails make me more nervous, too! I never feel like I am really supposed to be on them and they are always (understandably) riddled with pedestrians, who feel free to abandon all sense because No! Cars! I feel ready for the chaos of Brooklyn streets. I know everyone is going to jaywalk, cross in non crosswalk, just stop and stand in the middle of the street during oncoming traffic, appear on a scooter, cycle the wrong way, drive the wrong way, cut people off, run red lights, yell hey mama, put a stick in your wheel, open a car door into you, appear on skateboard, appear on rollerblades, jog, idle in the bike lane, park in the bike lane, have LUNCH in the bike lane (really) etc. I think it's about what you are used to. I am used to this insanity. It scared the hell out of me when I started to cycle but now it feels normal.

    But the greenways here have this false sense of peace that makes them feel more dangerous to me. I do like them sometimes, for family rides in the summer especially, but they actually make me feel more wary, whereas on the road I can just behave like a car.

    When I used to ride a mountain bike I liked trails more, I think because I could never really see anything on the street.

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  10. velouria, i've nothing to add to this thread, other than i love the pop culture allusions in so many of your post titles...

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  11. Hills and headwinds - yikes - and then the store was not even open. Such is life. Sounds like it was still an enjoyable adventure. Interesting to hear about your preference for riding city streets. I always prefer the trail, maybe because the view is so beautiful and in the city I ride the same few major cycling streets constantly. The sense of freedom is not there.

    Love the picture of the Co-H behind the heart.

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  12. Thanks somervillain, I try to keep myself entertained : )

    Dottie - I do enjoy trails when I want to be in the midst of nature. I just wish there were more of them - or better yet, that I lived in the countryside, where the roads themselves are more nature-y.

    neighbortease - Yes, that is exactly what our local trails are like, especially the River trail. Even in the winter there are joggers and dogwalkers and parents with strollers (stopped and deep in conversation with other parents with strollers) that I must navigate around. Once spring and summer are here, it will be far more crowded still. I do not begrudge pedestrians using the trails. But when I am out there and forced to cycle at 5mph, it is not very fun for me.

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  13. It's discouraging to hear about difficulty riding the Pashley up hills since I'm saving up to buy one this fall and have nothing but hills! I'm hoping that since she'll have 5 speeds, and I will have been riding a 3 speed of similar weight for about a year that I shouldn't have too much trouble. I've only got a 12 mile (round trip) commute and there are some hills that I just have to hop off and walk up no matter what. So I'm looking forward to some posts from you over the summer talking about how much you love riding your Pashley!

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  14. Amy - if you can handle your commute on the 3-speed, you can definitely do it on the Pashley as well. I at no point had to walk the bike, it was just very strenuous on a couple of long hills. The Pashley is my preferred choice for commuting, errands, and long leisurely rides - but not for sporty rides where I want to go fast and uphill and long distance and in a headwind.

    Here are some nice posts about long rides on the Pashley from last summer:

    Minuteman Trail

    Charles River Trail, long version

    Riding Around Town

    Winter Ride

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  15. Hey! So sad I was not hanging around west newton. In fact I thought of you as I was on soilder's field road in the car with my two kids and my friend and her 2 year old to the science museam. I was trying to check out the path while driving thinking of days to come when I can bike it.

    So.... again you freak me out with the hills etc. You still think ANT for hanging around the Newton Hilly hood would work well? From your post we may have similar endurance/ body heat issues. I just took the sorte out ( will write about it soon) and I am still recovering actually. I think the cold takes a lot out of you. I also have a hard time finding a happy medium with hot vs cold. Esp on the Sorte. Cold going down- burning up going up.

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  16. Vee - I've only tried ANT bikes for 5 minutes each in Mike's yard, so can't really say from experience. The Pashley is fine on W Newton's Hills if you're riding around the neighborhood. Just not a 9 mile trip that consists of hill after hill and headwind and you're trying to go fast. If you can ride the Sorte in W Newton, a bike like Pashley or ANT should be much easier. Also, I am pretty sure you are in better shape than I am!

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  17. Vel, you might have a talk with that husband of yours about slowing down some. A guy that tall on a bike like that is hard for most people, nevermind smaller ones, to keep up with. Also, he could help you by letting you "paceline" or draft behind you. This might be "advanced cycling" technique, but I learned it a few years ago in short order. It is best practiced on a flat, long straight run with no traffic - and plenty of patience. To get a real effective draft, follow your leader such that no more than about 8 inches of space remain between your front wheel and their rear wheel. Wind resistance is cut in at least half for the following cyclist! It's such a pleasure. Keep yourself ready to brake at all times, and tell the leader to keep a steady pace and to warn you of changes before they're made.

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  18. Also, now that I think of it, Tara's Pashley has a Nexus 4 speed. When we got the bike, it had EXTREMELY high gearing - good for pedalling DOWN hills at up to 60km/h! (40mph) I was able to switch out the rear sprocket to bring the reduction down to manageable proportions, and of course, hill CLIMBING improved vastly. The Nexus systems come with a very small front ring, but I wouldn't want to change that one. The rear was easy enough to do - just a small clip to undo. Do you find your "high gear" is rarely used, or too high? Could a similar modification help you too?

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  19. Velouria - Thanks so much for the links! Like you said, there shouldn't be a problem since I've been doing this on a 3 speed. I guess that I'm just a little concerned since it is a chunk of change. In any event I'm determined to make it work. I've wanted a Pashley for several years now and I've decided to just bite the bullet and start saving. None of the hills I have to go up are very long, they're just tall. Which, if anything, make for a nice downhill treat after the long walk up. :)

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  20. Winter biking, hills and a headwind. Ouch. Nicely done. This is why I don't have an upright bike yet, much as I love the looks and the comfort. I have too many hills in my routes to have 3-8 gears and still feel like riding is fun. For me, fun is the whole point.

    I do live on/near roads with beautiful scenery, and while that's fun and less crowded than urban areas, to be sure, we still have our share of drivers who don't think bikes should be on roads.

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  21. Velouria

    Good for you getting out and about. In the early'70's I was a runner (including Marathons) in Pittsburgh. But there is a limit to how far you can go. So I got out my old bike and started riding. Amazing how big the circle got on a map. I had to get a bigger map! My first big ride was Pittsburgh to Chicago (500miles) Then in '76 across the US,'77 circled Ireland, '78 Paris to Nice over the Alps.

    Raising a family put the cabosh on this until the past 5 years. My wife and I moved to Taiwan and our bikes were our only wheeled transport. Then we lived in Tokyo. I had been going to Tokyo for over 20 years but traveled by subway and foot. What an amazing revelation to travel by bike and discover how small Tokyo became. No doubt if you now start expanding your range by road you will see how small Boston is as well.

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  22. No-one will be watching us...

    I think this is one of the best arguments for dedicated cycling facilities. Bicycles simply cannot operate like cars all the time, and unless you have worked up to a certain level of skill and stamina, it's really not feasible to ride on some roads with them.

    I feel fortunate that in Portland, it's possible to go pretty much anywhere in the inner city without having to ride on any roads with higher than 25mph speed limits (though you'll definitely have to cross some, without traffic signals, which can be a problem too). But I can go for a casual 10-15 mile bike ride on city streets and not feel like I have to kill myself to keep up with traffic.

    Hills on the other hand, may also pose a problem here, depending on where you go. About a mile North of our apartment is a hill that rises probably a couple hundred feet in two blocks. Definitely a get off the bike and walk hill.

    We recently installed a test cycle track on one of the main streets downtown (with street parking moved out from the curb, and the cycle track between the parking and the sidewalk), which is also up a consistent and sometimes steep hill from North to South across downtown, and I just rode on it this morning. I have to say, it's fantastic to feel like you can take your time and ride at a pace that is comfortable for you, without having to worry about the traffic rushing past you a foot away. I believe a lot more people would ride much more often if they had those kinds of options on high-traffic streets.

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  23. Oh, but the Chelsea buns at the place you went to are worth the trip in any weather!!!

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  24. So is their seriously excellent bread!

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