Friday, April 29, 2011

On Weddings and Bicycles

[image via BEG Bicycles]

We are going to a wedding this weekend, where I don't expect to encounter any bicycles. But increasingly, bicycles and weddings are becoming an iconic combination - seen on wedding photographer and bicycle manufacturer websites alike. What is it about weddings and bicycles? There is, of course, the ever-popular Daisy Bell song, which keeps the association alive. Plus, the start of "cycling season" corresponds with the start of "wedding season." And while I put these in quotation marks, because both getting married and riding a bicycle are things that can be done year-round, any wedding photographer and bicycle shop owner will tell you that they get most of their business in April through October. Spring symbolises renewal, optimism, and a fresh start - which is appealing to cyclists and newlyweds alike. 

[image via Retrovelo and Velorution]

Would you believe that in 2010 I received half a dozen emails from readers asking for bicycle suggestions for their weddings? One couple was looking specifically for a vintage tandem, others were hoping to find matching cruisers, and one inquiry came from a wedding planner who was looking to rent several dozen bicycles, so that the entire wedding party could ride them. A wedding peloton? Would love to see that. I even know of a couple who are planning to purchase a black roadster and a cream lady's roadster from the same manufacturer. They will ride them for the first time at the wedding, then continue to use them for everyday transportation. I think that's an exceptionally cute idea - but then I love "his and hers" bicycles.

Last May, I tried my hand at professional wedding photography. It was a large wedding, but I would be working with two other photographers, so how difficult could it be? Well, oh my goodness! Without exaggeration, I was on my feet from 12:00 noon until 12:00 midnight with a 15 minute break for dinner. By the end, I was dehydrated, delirious, could hardly see straight and nearly sprained my wrists from holding up the heavy camera with enormous telephoto lens and flash unit. Things were spilled on me and my toes were stepped on. I dealt with drunken guests. I dealt with screaming children. I dealt with drunken guests holding screaming children... In short, yikes. The photos came out well, but I learned that I am not a wedding photographer - at least not of the sort of large and tightly choreographed weddings that have been popular in the US over the last couple of decades.

[image via Sheldon Brown]

But an interesting trend I observe, is that over the past years there has been a move away from the exuberant, stressful weddings and toward something simpler, more spontaneous and more tranquil. To some extent, I am sure this is due to the economy. But I also think that the trend reflects a change in priorities: It's the same desire for the simpler, the more natural, and the more genuine that we see across a wide range of lifestyle choices, from food selection, to interior design and home decor, to transportation. This May, an acquaintance of mine will be getting married and I happily agreed to be the photographer. It will be a tiny, unscripted ceremony involving a tandem bicycle, and I can't wait.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Domestic Bike Share

In an unexpected turn of events, the Co-Habitant has hijacked the Urbana bike that's temporarily in my possession. Well, not hijacked exactly. It's more like we now share it. I keep the bike locked up outside, which makes it considerably more convenient to use than my other bikes, and one day it just happened. "Listen," he said, "I don't feel like dragging my Pashley out. Can I take that bike on a quick errand?" Somewhat surprised that he was willing to be seen riding a U-frame, I replied "Sure, just use the quick relea..." But didn't get to finish, as it only took seconds for him to adjust the seatpost.

The Co-Habitant is just over 6' tall, whereas I am 5'7", but making the adjustment back and forth is easy.

I rode a bike with a quick release seatpost in Austria in early 2009, but found the lever to be stiff and difficult to use. My experience with the Brompton quick release was similar. In comparison, the lever on the Urbana bike is smooth and easy to operate.

And so, this is now our shared errand bike - though he rides it a bit differently from the way I ride it. Why do I suspect that this whole "errand" business was just an excuse to practice curb hopping?

It's pretty weird to see pictures of us both riding the same bicycle. I am of course more upright, because the saddle is lower.

Despite the U-frame, I don't think the Urbana looks "feminine." The Co-Habitant says that he does not feel self-conscious riding it, and just sees it as a practical utility bike.

As a result of this experience, I've changed my mind about the usefulness of bicycles with adjustable unisex designs - such as the Workcycles FR8, the Urbana, and similar concepts (fill me in - what are the other popular bikes that allow for this?). I did not think we would have a need for a joint bike and I did not plan to share the Urbana, yet here we are both using it. For us, the aspects of the bike that make sharing it easy are the quick release seatpost, the low stepover U-frame, the ability to carry loads with minimum fuss, and the durability that allows it to be kept outdoors and within easy reach. A domestically shared errand-bike can be a worthwhile addition to any cycling household.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

When Cyclists Complain About Cyclists

Copenhagen - Strandvejen 1955
[image via Copenhagenize]

Spring is here and the number of new cyclists is multiplying rapidly. It's fantastic to see so many people in Cambridge and Somerville going about their day on two wheels, as if this were entirely normal and natural - which of course it is. But with more bicycles on the roads, this is also the time of the year for complaints: motorists complaining about "scofflaw cyclists" and cyclists themselves complaining about "newbies."

While motorist hostility is nothing new or surprising, there is somewhat of a debate in the bicycle blog world as to whether it's right for cyclists themselves to criticise other cyclists' behaviour. On the one hand, when cyclists don't follow traffic laws and behave recklessly, they not only "make all of us look bad," but actually endanger us. The biggest example of this that I experience in Boston, is when I am intentionally riding toward the left of the bike lane in order to avoid the door zone, and a cyclist passes me on the right. I have also had cyclists nearly crash into me as a result of their running a red light: Ironically, those who do so tend to watch out for cars but not for other bicycles. Naturally, I find such actions disconcerting. I feel no common bond with those who jeopardise my safety - regardless of what mode of transportation they are using.

But when cyclists criticise other cyclists, I wonder about its overall effectiveness. Do the scofflaws feel shamed and curb their transgressive behaviour in response to the critical rants of law-abiding cyclists? Or is it more likely that they carry on just as before, and it's the timid, fledgling cyclists who are scared off from even trying to navigate such a treacherous landscape? This is what I was thinking while reading this post on BostonBiker this morning. While I actually agree with most of the points the author made, the tone just seemed so hostile. It also made me uneasy that the author criticised "new cyclists" - while themselves having only begun cycling this past winter. I have been cycling for over two years in Boston, including winters, and still consider myself to be fairly new at it. While I am safe, law-abiding and friendly, I am not perfect and sometimes make mistakes despite my best intentions. Is there a cyclist ranting about me on their blog because I neglected to signal a right turn last Thursday? A depressing thought.

I would not go so far as to suggest that cyclists must not criticise other cyclists, as part of some Velocipedean Brotherhood Code of Honor. But there has to be a way to discuss these issues in a more constructive manner. Do you complain about other cyclists when you think they are behaving recklessly, or do you opt for a united front? Is there an approach that accomplishes both?

Roadie Lads and Lasses: Suggestions for Sunglasses?

Almost as soon as I began cycling long distance, I realised that sunglasses were a must for me - not only to protect against the sun, but also to shield against insects that seemed to be irresistibly drawn to my lashes. When I rode exclusively upright bicycles, I simply wore my regular shades - preferably large ones that covered half of my face. But as I began cycling faster and on roadbikes, those no longer worked so well. Don't know about you, but I find regular sunglasses to be too heavy and also not sufficiently stable when I attempt to wear them on a roadbike. They bounce, slip, and generally feel uncomfortable - even starting to hurt the bridge of my nose and my temples over time.

As someone who is talented at losing sunglasses, I could not imagine buying those expensive ones that bicycle stores sell in glass displays. Instead, I got the cheap ones from the bin at the register (you know the ones, every bike shop has them). These worked somewhat better than regular sunglasses, but they still slipped and felt painful over time. So this summer I think I am ready for the real deal and would appreciate your advice - as I am sure would others seeking this information. I mainly want them to be as lightweight as possible, so that I don't feel them pressing the bridge of my nose and digging into my temples. And, of course, I also want them to be stable while I am cycling fast on a roadbike. There are so many makes and models to choose from - what do the roadcyclists among you wear?

Monday, April 25, 2011

On Living Locally and Seeking Continuity

I was having a political discussion with a friend over email, and in response to something I wrote he replied: "You know, it's really starting to show that you haven't been out of the US in almost a year." Ouch... But the "insult" aside, I realised he was correct: I haven't been out of the country since last July, which is unusual for me. Moreover, we have been without a car since December, making our travel radius limited to cycleable distances. Without explicitly being aware of it, I have transitioned from living "globally" to living "locally," and my friend's insinuation was that this has made me narrow-minded and provincial. Has it? I think not, but I also realise that I don't really care. My quality of life has improved as a result of the changes I've made since last year, and that's difficult to argue with.

We could go on forever debating the "moral" and "social responsibility" implications of living locally vs globally. On the one hand, those who lead lifestyles that rely on air travel are doing a great deal of damage to the environment. On the other hand, one could argue that some international jobs are "important" in their contribution to society, and the scale of this contribution outweighs the degree of environmental damage. But the trouble with these arguments, is that they inevitably lead us to a slippery slope. Who determines what's important? Who has the right to pass that judgment on others, and using what criteria? Are UN workers "good," but fashion reporters "evil"?  Is it "wrong to endanger the environment" by traveling to Shanghai just for fun, or is that outweighed by the positive effect of experiencing another culture, growing more tolerant and open-minded as a result? Impossible to say, without imposing our subjective sense of logic on others' sovereignty, which is not something I wish to do.

But the issue of living locally vs globally has personal, psychological implications as well, and these have been on my mind lately. I have an unusual personal history, and have basically never lived in any one place for more than several years at a time. As a result, my life has been fragmented and unstable, which I do not feel is ultimately good for me. When I remember things from my past, I sometimes get confused about the location of an event, and even about the language that was spoken. With my friends, relatives, experiences and memories scattered all over the world, it is difficult to maintain a sense of continuity and even a coherent sense of self. Forming healthy attachments to new people and places is challenging, and replacing the physical reality of personal interaction with virtual communications is isolating.

As we lose our sense of "continuous living," our notions of contact grow increasingly abstract - and not just contact with other people, but contact with our surroundings. I remember a post by Dottie at Let's Go Ride a Bike some time ago, where she describes the lifestyle of her family in the North Carolina suburbs as "traveling from pod to pod." The home is a pod. The workplace is another pod. The restaurant, also a pod. And because of the vast, highway-navigated distances between each, there is no clear sense of what happens in between; it is kind of a dead space, almost a virtual space. I found this imagery to be both frightening and relatable - a reflection of my own anxieties about what our lifestyles are doing to the way we connect with the physical world.

I thought that I might feel limited and stir-crazy once I stopped traveling abroad, and even more so once we began living without a car. Instead I am feeling as if some long-neglected human aspect of me is waking up. Living locally and all that it entails - seeing the same people, experiencing the change of seasons while staying put, and developing a feel for manageable distances - is giving me a sense of continuity that I have been lacking.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Soma's Fab in 650B! A Test Ride of the Buena Vista Mixte

Last week I had the pleasure to extensively test ride a Soma Buena Vista mixte that our fellow bicycle-obsessionist Somervillain has just built up for his wife. This test ride was a rare opportunity that I gladly seized. First off, Soma only sells frames and not complete bikes, so finding a way to test ride their models is difficult. Moreover, this mixte is an especially rare specimen, as it is built up with 650B wheels. And finally, I was allowed to borrow the bicycle for an entire day - which, of course, was much more informative than a brief test ride. I hope this will be of use to those considering this bicycle.

Soma Fabrications is a small manufacturer of bicycle frames and components based in San Francisco. Their Taiwanese-built frames are steel and more or less classic, with modern elements. The Buena Vista model is a TIG-welded mixte with twin lateral stays, available in four sizes from XS (42cm) to XL (58cm). It is a versatile frame with "sports touring" geometry that can be built up either as a roadbike or as a city bike, either with a derailleur or with an internally geared hub, and either with 700C or with 650B wheels.

Though a 700C build is by far the more typical, Somervillain fitted this bicycle with 650B wheels. The 650B size allows for wider tires - specifically the fantastically cushy Grand Bois Hetres, which make for a very comfortable ride. Soma specifies a maximum 38mm tire width for 650B wheels on the Buena Vista, but their estimate is overly conservative: The 42mm Hetres fit fine, including fenders. That is a useful piece of information for those who like wide tires and are choosing between, say, the Soma Buena Vista and the Rivendell Betty Foy. These two frames allow for the same tire width.

An additional benefit of using 650B wheels on the Soma, is that it is a useful trick to eliminate toe overlap - at least on the 58cm frame. Keep in mind also that when you put 650B wheels on a frame, you can go with a larger size than what you normally ride. While a 58cm frame is usually too big for me, I was able to fit this one because of the 650B wheels.

The Buena Vista is available in white or graphite, and this bicycle is obviously the latter. The graphite is a dark silver colour with some depth to it, not unlike a Tahitian pearl. The Soma headbadge and decals are embellished with splashes of red, which I think complements the frame nicely.

Gray and silver frames can be tricky to accessorise, and personally I prefer them paired with warm tones. This bicycle is fitted with all black accessories, which gives it a sporty/stealthy look. Ultimately, these choices are a matter of personal taste.

The Buena Vista frame is mostly welded, with the exception of the lugged fork crown and a few lugwork-like details - such as the connector between the stays and the seat tube.

The welding is relatively clean, though not quite as clean as on the Surly frames we recently examined. I think that welding marks are more noticeable on a mixte than on a diamond frame, simply because there are more joints to connect.

The horizontal dropouts are what makes the Buena Vista frame compatible with both derailleur and hub gearing. There are braze-ons for both racks and fenders.

The wheelset is from Velo Orange, built around a Shimano Nexus 8-speed hub.

This particular twist shifter is unobtrusive and easy to use.

The Nitto Albatross handlebars are set high with the help of spacers - the stem being threadless. Vintage Shimano levers activate the long-reach caliper brakes.

Close-up of the Velo Orange threadless stem with spacers.

Brooks B17 saddle.

Battery-operated CatEye headlight, attached to the fork blade via a DIY mount.

Spanniga Pixeo tail light, attached to the rear fender.

Brass bell mounted on the unused downtube shifter boss.

Vintage Takagi crankset, chosen for its ability to accommodate a Porteur-style chaincase that this mixte may be fitted with at a later stage.

Pletscher double-legged kickstand.

Burley Moosehead rear rack, necessary for attaching a "trailercycle."

And a set of Axiom panniers, mounted permanently to the rack. Velo Orange fenders and Planet Bike mudflaps finish off the build.The total weight of the bicycle with this build is 28lb not including the rack and panniers, and 35lb including them. The significant difference is due to the hefty nature of the proprietary Burley rack, which was a must as Mrs. Somervillain will often commute with one of the children.

This particular Buena Vista was built up as predominantly a transportation/ utility bicycle, to be ridden mainly within greater Boston - while at the same time offering sufficient versatility to handle longer, recreational rides. Hub gearing was chosen for ease of maintenance and an upright posture was chosen for comfort - with the mixte's roadish geometry still offering sufficient speed and maneuverability.

I was in possession of this bicycle from 8:30am until 5:30pm on a weekday. During this time I rode it for transportation to various destinations, then took it on a 12 mile ride along the Charles River Trail towards West Newton and back. All together, I probably rode the Buena Vista for a total of 17 miles.

Based on Soma's online description, I expected the handling to be aggressive - but it was not. It did not handle like a "converted roadbike" as some mixtes do, but like an actual upright city bike. Given that I had the saddle lower than Mrs. Somervillain, the handlebars were too high for my taste and the front end felt lighter than I like. Still, I felt safe and confident riding this bicycle in traffic right away. The Buena Vista was maneuverable and responsive - but easy to control, and predictable. The frame felt stiff-ish, but the wide Grand Bois Hetre tires took the edge off, making for a comfortable ride on and off road. It must also be noted that this bicycle was put together impeccably - which greatly contributed to my feeling of safety and comfort on it.

As far as speed and hill-climbing go, I must say that I felt somewhat limited by the overly upright posture and the hub gearing. On flat terrain, I had trouble finding a "perfect" gear on the 8-speed hub and kept shifting back and forth. On hills, I thought the bicycle lost its momentum quicker than is typical for a bike with roadish geometry, and I had to downshift sooner and more frequently than I expected. Perhaps I am simply accustomed to mixtes that are set up more aggressively, or perhaps there is something about these multi-speed hubs that I find inefficient in comparison to derailleurs. But given how tamely this bicycle handled, I found myself wishing it were a loop frame - so that it would be more comfortable to mount and dismount. At the same time, given its mixte construction, I found myself wishing it were more aggressive, so that I could cycle faster long distance. In a way, I felt like I was neither here nor there - though I imagine others might describe this very same feeling as "the best of both worlds." Of course, it is entirely possible to fit the Buena Vista frame with a derailleur and to opt for an aggressive handlebar set-up, if that is what the owner prefers.

I have test ridden only two other modern-production mixte bicycles besides the Soma: the Rivendell Betty Foy and the Trek Belleville WSD. The Trek is not even in the same universe, and on just about every level I can think of the Soma is a better bike. The Rivendell, on the other hand, is a more comparable bicycle, and I even test rode the Betty Foy in the same frame size and with the same wheel size as the Buena Vista. Though over all, the Betty Foy is a more comfortable ride, the difference is not as great as I had anticipated. The Buena Vista is a bit harsher on bumps, and the stepover height of the mixte stays is a good inch or two higher than on the Betty Foy of the same size. But otherwise, they did not feel like radically different bicycles.

All in all, I found the Soma Buena Vista to be a solidly constructed, versatile frame with comfortable geometry and all the accommodations necessary to turn it into almost any sort of bike you wish. I like the proportions of the 58cm frame with the 650B wheels, though cannot speak for the other sizes. I like the multitude of braze-ons and the wide clearances that allow for my favourite tires. I like the rich graphite frame colour. On a mixte with such classic lines, I dislike the welding and the threadless stem, and for me personally this is a dealbreaker - but I recognise that this is a matter of taste. The Soma Buena Vista frame can be found starting at $400, and a complete bike with a build equivalent to the one shown here could cost as little as $1,200 (see here for the complete build). While everyone's idea of what constitutes "good value" differs, this could certainly fit the bill. More than anything, I recommend this bicycle for those seeking an economical way to build up a bike with 650B x 42mm tires. In that sense, the Buena Vista is a rare and excellent find.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Every Month Is 'Bike Month'

With so many press releases for "Bike Month" events circulating as May approaches, I am starting to feel like a real grouch deleting them or replying "No thank you." But I have to stand by what I believe, or else where would I be? And I believe the idea of "bike month" to be damaging to the very thing it aims to achieve - which is making cycling accessible to the non-cycling population. It seems to me, that the nature of the event, as well as the tone of the promotional materials that accompany it [note: link added 4.23.2011], reinforce, rather than dispel the notion of cycling as something out of the ordinary - an activity reserved for special occasions and organised events.

Granted, "Bike Month" has a festive ring to it that may increase the immediate visibility of cycling. But, as someone with professional experience in the psychology of marketing, I question whether the results are ultimately positive. After all, how useful is this increase in visibility if all it does is reinforce the "cycling = a once-in-a-while activity" or "cycling = weird fringe subculture" associations that the non-cycling public already holds?

It is my view, that in order for cycling to be accessible to the general population, it needs to be normalised and depoliticised.  "Anybody who wants to ride a bike can do so any time they like," is the only message I see as being productive. You do not need to wear special clothing. You do not need to wait for a special month. You do not need to be "community oriented," athletic, health-minded, or an environmentalist. And you do not need official propaganda to tell you it's "good for you," accompanied by paradoxical instructions that make the whole thing sound complicated and dangerous.

Cycling is not a cult, political group, or evangelical religion that requires recruitment events with free food and trinkets. Every month is 'bike month.'

Thursday, April 21, 2011


There comes a point in every bicycle blog's existence, when the author feels compelled to show off how much stuff they can carry on their bike as part of some errand for which one might normally use a car. If you think about it, it's impressive that I've held off for this long, so do give me some credit. But I am, after all, only human. And so, my time has come for the self-congratularoty "cargo hauling" post. Keep reading or close your browser in disgust, as you please - but yeah, it will be one of those.

First, allow me to acknowledge that my so-called "cargo" pales in comparison to the likes of what some greater, more adventurous cyclists carry on their bikes every day without batting an eye. But I am neurotic and risk-averse, and I never really have all that much to carry. So for me, this was a great feat worthy of glee and merriment. To give you a sense of scale, the larger box with the J. Crew insignia (I re-use old boxes for shipping) originally contained a long winter overcoat and is almost twice the length of the rack supporting it. The box on top of it is shorter, but taller. And each of the bags on the sides contain two heavy, medium-sized boxes.

The trip was necessitated by my needing to mail a number of large packages simultaneously, which has not happened in a while. If confronted with this situation 5 months ago, I would have simply waited until the Co-Habitant was available and we would drive it all to the post office on a Saturday morning in the car. But now we no longer have a car (at least for the time being - it's not permanent, really!), so I could either make multiple trips to the post office or try to fit it all on my bike at the same time. The latter turned out to be surprisingly - almost disappointingly - easy. Within minutes of deciding to try it, the packages were secured to the sturdy backside of the Urbana bike.

I wasn't sure whether my bungee cord would fit around both boxes, and whether it would be sufficient to keep the boxes sturdy. To my delight, it was a "yes" on both accounts. I secured the two bags on the sides using the rack's hook system (see here and here), which was convenient in that I did not need to use dedicated panniers or ropes. The whole set-up literally took 5 minutes, and then I was off: first gingerly, then at a moderate pace. The postoffice is fairly close to my house, so I cannot boast a grueling ride over hills or along dangerous highways. But for what it's worth, it was raining, and the roads in my neightbourhood are riddled with potholes the size of ditches.

The ride was an uneventful success. Still, I cannot say that I enjoyed cycling with six boxes attached to my bike. I was conscious of them the entire time, and kept worrying that something might fall off - not only getting damaged in the process, but also causing me to panic and do something unwise in the midst of traffic. So... while I can do it if necessary, I am just not one to derive pleasure from loading my bike up with a stack of boxes secured to the rear rack with bungee cords.

On the other hand, I do like the independence such hauling capacity offers, as well as the smooth handling of this particular bike despite the load. Richard Masoner of sent me a link to this picture of himself riding an Urbana with an enormous plastic tub bolted to the rear rack, in which he carried 80lb worth of camping gear. Okay, I like it. If this bike were mine, I can see turning it into a dedicated "cargo chariot," with a colour-matched tub permanently attached to the rack. Postoffice run? Toss the packages in the tub. Need to buy furniture or building supplies? Tub! This could seriously eliminate our need for using a car for local errands, without the need for an unwieldy longtail or Bakfiets.

The Co-Habitant cautions against the giant tub idea, pointing out that carrying a heavy load that high is bound to create handling problems. But I wonder whether that applies to all bikes, or whether the Urbana's design accommodates it - after all, the rack is rated for 150lb, and they do not specify that it needs to be carried as low as possible...

So, how about this question: Assuming that (1) one does not plan to transport children, and (2) the rear rack is rated for the weight, what, if anything, is wrong with attaching a Bakfiets-sized container to the rear rack of a hardy transport bike and turning it into a "cargo chariot"? I am not talking milk crate, but a truly enormous tub, as shown here. It seems to me that such a system could really work for a person who cannot deal with (or afford) a longtail or full-on cargobike. It could work for me, for sure.