Thursday, January 31, 2013

Neato! Nice Porter You Got There...

Vermont Fall Classic, Start
For those of us who spend more time reading and communicating about bikes on the internet than in person, sometimes we go years before hearing bike terms uttered out loud. And so we form our own pronunciation, discovering only later that it might not match the way others pronounce the same words. Largely this is because so many bicycle words are foreign in origin. Even if we know the original language, it is not clear whether the common pronunciation matches it or has been distorted.

I remember the first bike word I had to adjust from the way I said it mentally was panniers. When I first started seeing this term I assumed stress on the second syllable (rhymes with veneers) and found the anglified stress on the first syllable jarring (I still can't get over that the English will pronounce ballet as "bally"). But I switched early on, and now PAN-iers sounds perfectly normal - though I still pronounce it the other way when referring to the French skirt hoops.

With other words, I cannot switch over. At some point I realised that many people pronounce porteur as "porter." Porter bike. Porter bars. Porter rack. What? It's porteur, rhymes with connoisseur!

Likewise, I have heard randonneur bikes called random-ners.

And I have heard decalleur pronounced as deCAY-ler.

English speakers generally pronounce mixte as mixtee, not "meext" as in the original French. Although I notice that some - not knowing French but wishing to pronounce it in what they believe to be the correct way - say mix-TAY, as if the French word had an accent aigu at the end (mixté). I have always said it the anglicised way, just because "meext" sounds strange to me as a noun.

Then there are the Japanese manufacturers. In my head, Tange sounded like the first part of the word "tangible," and I was pretty sure I'd heard it said that way. Later I started hearing "tahn-gay."

And I've always mentally pronounced Nitto like "neato," later surprised to hear bike shop mechanics pronouncing it to rhyme with ditto. They in turn found my way amusing. "Really, neato? I guess they are kinda neat-oh components!"

Dia Compe seems to be a free for all. I have heard dee-yah-coump, dee-yah-coum-pay and Diacom.

Of course all of this is more entertaining than anything. Languages get mixed and terminology evolves; there is not necessarily a "correct" way to pronounce any of this stuff. Though I am still not sure about dynamo... Stress on the first syllable or the second?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Can Stop, Will Stop: TRP Mini-V Brakes

Honey Cyclocross, Winter Lilac
I have embarked on a long term test ride of a Honey cyclocross bike, similar to the one I rode in the Kearsarge Klassic last summer. When asked about component preferences on the demo bike, one thing I requested was stronger brakes. I had remarkably poor stopping power with the cantilever brakes on the bike I'd borrowed earlier, and I generally have not had good luck with cantis. I described these problems to Honey and we decided to try v-brakes. They suggested the TRP CX8.4 "mini-vs." 

The TRP CX8.4 linerar pull brakes were designed for maximum stopping power on cyclocross bikes. Unlike full sized v-brakes, they were also designed to work with integrated road levers (this particular model works best with Campagnolo and SRAM) without requiring an adapter - reducing bulk, weight and complexity. These brakes have a number of features to recommend them for cyclocross racing, but having no experience with that side of things I will stick to describing them in the context of "just riding."

Under my weak grip, the TRPs feel reassuringly powerful. Those with strong hands could in fact find this problematic, but for me it is a welcome change from having to worry about stopping a fat-tire roadbike with cantis at the bottom of a hill. This is the first time I have used v-brakes on such a bike, and the quality of the braking does feel different from centerpulls and cantilevers. I have to apply pressure differently to regulate exactly how much I want to brake, but it didn't take long to train my hands to "understand." When attempting to slow down at high speeds, the braking is not harsh or jerky, but it is stronger than typical - so it helps to have a gentle touch, or else to use only one finger on the lever. For harder braking, there is a luxurious, modulation-friendly margin before coming to a full stop that I find especially helpful. In the past, I have had to get creative in order to stop on downhills during unpaved rides, and I've even employed my foot as an auxilliary brake on a couple of occasions. The TRPs are at their best precisely in those situations. 

I have ridden the bike only a couple of times so far, but our winter conditions have allowed me to immediately try it on snow and slush. Getting the rims slushy did reduce braking power, but there was so much of it to begin with that it remained manageable. Basically, with the mini-vs the bike rides with slush-clogged rims like it did with dry rims when it had cantis. 

The Honey cross is set up with a carbon fiber fork, and I have not detected any judder with the TRP CX8.4s. These brakes easily clear the 700Cx35mm tires currently on the bike, and look like they could fit a fender. My understanding is they will not clear a 650B x 42mm tire; for that full sized v-brakes may be required. 

With an MSRP of $149 per set, the TRP CX8.4 brakes seem like an excellent and accessible option for those seeking extra braking power on a roadbike with canti/v bosses. As I get the opportunity to try other brakes worth mentioning, I will continue the "can stop, will stop" series (See also: Paul Racer centerpull brakes).

Monday, January 28, 2013

Positively Biketastic

Mo and Pinky
When I look back at 2012 (I know it's been a while, but I needed time to take it all in!) I remember it as the year when I started to notice a lot of positive changes in the cycling world around me. Positive changes not only in the widening selection of transport bikes available in local shops and not only in the public perception of bicycling, but also in the increasing amount of rapport, cooperation and even overlap between different "camps" of bicyclists. And I think this latter point is just as important as the others. We cyclists can be tribal and divisive; we can be each other's harshest, cruelest critics. But if we insist on identifying within rigid parameters and lashing out against each other's choice of bike, attire, and riding style, how can we hope for positive changes for cyclists as a group? 

When my cycling club, the Ride Studio Cafe, began to blur the lines between the randonneuring and racing cultures, I remember it felt as if a paradigm shift was taking place. They threw a big party, where cyclists of different stripes interacted with each other with a degree of enthusiasm that showed a genuine eagerness. Dynamo lighting, racks, and wool were discussed. Unexpected common interests were found. It was truly an exciting thing to be witnessing. 

At this same party, I finally met Maureen Bruno Roy, a Massachusetts-based professional cyclocross racer. In her off time Mo leads a regular life, and part of that regular life involves riding her pink mixte for transportation. For me, seeing Mo so happy and casual on her city bike was an encouraging moment: I had not encountered an athlete-cyclist outside of Europe before who saw value and usefulness in such bicycles. But to Mo the value is pretty clear, and she credits her attitude to her time racing in Belgium. "There were these Dutch bikes, and I rode them to get around when I wasn't racing; it was great!" 

Around the same time, a local man named Jeff Palter got himself a Brompton folding bike and began commuting on it, posting excitedly on Twitter about how much he enjoyed that. If you're outside New England that name might not mean anything to you, but Mr. Palter happens to be the CEO of the Northeast Velodrome and the owner of Cycle Loft - one of the biggest roadie shops around. CycleLoft is also the main sponsor of the Northeast Bicycle Club - the largest local racing club and the very club that offers the "infamous" paceline rides that so divided my readership two summers ago. Until recently, it would have been difficult to imagine anyone associated with this camp entertaining the idea of riding around on anything but a racing bike with a backpack. I was more than a little surprised when Jeff approached me about sponsorship, explaining that CycleLoft was expanding into the city bike market. 

"Looks like the war is over," said a local cyclist when I shared this news with her. I guess sometimes, with all the insults flung about, it can indeed feel like a war - especially when some are described as "riding tanks" and others as being "weekend warriors." With a chuckle, I pictured an army of speeding Cervelos clashing with an army of menacingly rolling Workcycles (incidentally - a Dutch bike company founded by an American, who got his start at Fat City). 

Some time in December, I was approached by Bicycling Magazine and invited to write a weekly online column about "city bikes and gear." I was initially skeptical about what they had in mind, but it seemed pretty straightforward: They wanted to expand their coverage beyond racing, to encourage people to commute by bike, introducing them to a variety of bikes and accessories for the purpose. I agreed to write the column. It's a short-term contract and I may not be the one doing it in the long run, but I hope to give it a running start. Or rather, a re-start: Historically, such coverage is not new for Bicycling. A 1978 copy I found of the magazine includes articles such as "Choosing a Three-Speed Commuting Bike" and "Road Test: the Bickerton Folding Bicycle." These things are cyclical. Hopefully the current cycle, with its interest in transportation and city bikes, will be around for a while. 

A few days ago I read a story in the New York Times about a man who, a couple of times a week, commutes from the suburbs outside New York City to his office in Manhattan on his racing bike. It's a 40 mile ride and he uses the milage for training. He does it year round, sometimes in snow. I thought it was a cool story, especially after the cyclist himself provided additional details on Velocipede Salon. Then today I read a story in Atlantic Cities in response to it, about ordinary New Yorkers commuting. The author mentions that some readers criticised the NYT piece for "alienating [ordinary people] who might want to ride to work," but I am glad the author herself did not go that route. Instead she gave examples of some interesting New Yorkers who ride and urged cyclists to unite in promoting their shared interests. 

For those of us who have been cycling in major North American cities over the past few years, it is hard not to notice that things are changing. Now more than ever, I feel there is room for everyone who loves to be on a bike to promote their style of riding without criticising others in the process. Whether 4 miles or 40, whether in a business suit or a skin suit, whether on a cheap or expensive bike, bottom line is: It's all positively biketastic. The more we understand that, the better off we will be.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Day in Primary Colours

Red Curtain, Artisan's Asylum
Red curtains. They are there for practical purposes - welding screens to protect the eyes from the intense glare of the arc. Brazing happens on one side of the shop, welding on the other. In the middle is this vinyl semi-transparent barrier. But the red backdrop spreads an aura around the room, bathing it in a mysterious, yet energising light. I see the light flicker dimly behind it, and somehow the universe seems to make sense.

Shop Scenes
Against the vast expanse of red, five adults open long cardboard boxes with the hushed anticipation of polite children on Christmas morning. Inside the boxes are steel tubes wrapped in newspaper. The unraveling is almost formally festive.

Shop Scenes
The blue work shirt. My grandfather worked in a machine shop and wore one well into his old age. In the '90s, the boys I went to high school with wore the same shirts because it was fashionable. They played in garage bands and dressed like mechanics, never having been near a wrench, which used to annoy me. Now some of them wear blue work shirts unironically, having indeed become mechanics or machinists. So it goes.

Shop Scenes
Blue buckets full of gloves, cotton and leather. I burned myself three times building my first frame. Once by picking up a piece of scrap metal after it had just been hole-sawed off. Another time by grabbing the frame too soon after it had been torch-dried post washing. And the third time by accidentally brushing the hop tip of a filler rod against my cheek. Who knows, sometimes the gloves help. Other times they are a hazard and can get stuck in a machine. 

Shop Scenes
Yellow packaging, labels, warning signs, equipment decals. It is noticeable, even in a sea of other colours. See me, read me, peel me.  
Shop Scenes
Yellow booklets, dusty yellow machines. I am too easily enticed to visit the other side of the curtain. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Unsupported Handlebar-Mounted Bags

Redline Conquest
I get a lot of reader questions about front bags, and particularly about whether I've found a good way to carry a bag on the handlebars without using additional support. Short answer: In my experience, it depends on the bike, on how much weight is being carried, and on how the bag is attached to the bars. These factors interact with varied results.

On roadbikes, I have tried carrying unsupported loads on the handlebars using several methods. Bags attached with straps are appealing, because they do not require permanent hardware installation. However, on longer and/or faster rides I find it difficult to keep them from sliding along the handlebars, no matter how tight the straps and how light the load. If the bag slides when I lean on a turn at high speed, it feels distracting and disconcerting, even if it is too light to affect steering. 

A few manufacturers have come up with hardware to address this, including the Nitto Bar Sack Rack, the Brooks Cornwall system, and the Rixen & Kaul KlickFix adapter. The latter I've had a chance to investigate on Pamela Blalock's bikes - who uses it on most of her roadbikes.

The KlickFix adapter is mounted on the handlebars and remains there when the bag is detached. It is compatible with many bags from different manufacturers, the most popular being the waterproof Ortlieb bags, available in a variety of sizes. This is a very stable system for carrying unsupported weight on the handlebars, and it worked for me with light loads: I felt zero movement. However, when I added my DSLR camera (between 2 and 3lb with lens), I found that I had poor control of the steering. I reported this to the bag's owner, who confirmed that she does not carry that much weight in a handlebar bag on this or on any of her other roadbikes; she uses this system to store lightweight items only. 

Of course, it is not clear whether having the weight lower and supported by a rear rack would make any difference on the specific bike I rode. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it very well could. On the other hand, I have seen touring bikes with large, heavily laden bags attached to the bars using this same method, ridden successfully. So the bike does play a role, as, no doubt, does rider sensitivity to high/ unsupported loads.

Po Campo Loop Pannier as Handlebar Bag
With upright city bikes - especially heavily built ones - there is generally more tolerance. I have ridden such bikes with all manner of baskets and bags attached to the handlebars without lower support, and for short distances it's been fine if the weight is only a few pounds. I've even managed to attach my Po Campo pannier to the handebars of a Raleigh DL-1, and ride with this setup with 5lb+ of weight in the bag. The bag does slide side to side and affects steering a bit, but since I am not riding fast or cornering aggressively, it doesn't bother me. The heavier the load, the more likely it is to become problematic. And then again, there are those who simply hang heavy shopping bags off their handlebars and blithely pedal away.

The general consensus is that carrying weight high on the handlebars and without additional lower support is not ideal. A stable system such as the R&K KlickFix adaptor is probably your best bet, but still there are limits to how much weight will feel comfortable. If you have a success story, do share. Personally, in the absence of a front rack, I prefer to carry weight at the rear of the bike.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Salty Roads and Salty Air

Salty Charles River Trail Brompton
The past few days in Boston have been interesting. A snow storm was expected on Tuesday morning, and several towns pre-emptively salted the roads in anticipation. It did snow a bit, but a big storm never came. What did come was a stretch of severely cold, windy days. The resulting landscape has been one of the more bizarre sights I have ever seen along my commutes: white roads, white trails, white mist - all of it very much resembling snow, except that it's salt.

The overzealous road treatment has its benefits. Despite riding in sub-15°F temperatures in the suburbs after a mild snowfall, I never had to worry about sleek road surface conditions. It was wonderful actually: I had lots to do and my mobility was in no way impaired as it sometimes is on days like this. Even the trail along the Charles River was thoroughly ridable, which has been great for avoiding heavy traffic on the roads during rush hour.

Still, the drawbacks are impossible to ignore. The salting has been so extreme, that over the course of two days it's hurt my face, mouth and eyes. It isn't difficult to imagine what corrosive effects it must be having on vehicles, including bikes, and what damage it must be doing to the environment. Many locals have expressed concern over this, succinctly summarised on the Boston Streets website.

Boston Streets refers to the decision to salt roads as the “windshield perspective,” linking it to the assumption that "everyone gets around inside a glass-enclosed, climate-controlled vehicle" and believing that it shows "utter disregard for the pedestrians, bicyclists, dog-walkers, and water-drinkers among us." I am following this debate with interest, eager for an alternative yet effective solution. As a cyclist, I must admit that I have enjoyed the salted roads (and bike lanes and trails) for the increased mobility they have afforded me this winter, so it had not occurred to me to interpret the practice as car-centric. But I am concerned about the environmental and corrosive effects, as well as the possible harm to my health (what else do they mix with the salt, and is it good for me to be swallowing it every day?).

The real issue, as I see it, is that any city trying to make itself over as a "cycling city" - as Boston and other North American cities with harsh winter climates are doing - needs to have a plan not just for the warm months but also for the cold. Unfortunately, we do not. Boston removed the Hubway bike share stations in November, posting a "closed for the season" message on their website. The Charles River Trail is being plowed this winter not due to bike-friendly city policy, but to the sponsorship of New Balance (thanks guy), which is done mainly for the benefit of runners and joggers, not transportation cyclists.

I am conflicted about the salting of roads. I do not like to criticise unless I can offer an alternative solution, which in this case I cannot. Something to think about as I thaw my chapped, salt-burned face after this evening's travels. It's broodle out there.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Snow and Rim Brakes, Derailleurs, Etc.

Snowy Streets, Cambridge MA
There are good reasons to recommend snow-proof bikes for winter cycling: powdercoat, hub brakes, internal gearing, single speed fixed. However, some prefer to stick with a regular bike through the winter, either for speed, economy or other reasons. That is my situation right now, and so far even limited riding in the snow has given me a pretty good showcase of things to watch out for. Here are some of them:

Snow and rim brakes:
This is an important one for safety. If you ride through snow and it builds up on your wheel rim, you can lose braking power on a bike with rim brakes. After riding through snow, I try to remove it from the front rim as soon as I notice any build-up, before it has a chance to freeze. This can be done fairly quickly: First I bounce the front wheel forcefully, then spin it as I wipe the snow off with a gloved hand.

Snow and the derailleur:
If your bike has derailleur gearing and you get the derailleur covered in snow, it can solidify and impair shifting. I was surprised to see how quickly snow can build up and freeze around that area; I guess there are a lot of convenient nooks and crannies for it to get into. To remove it, I shake off the rear wheel and free the derailleur from buildup with gloved fingers. I also try to stay in a low-ish gear in case the shifting goes. I would be reluctant to leave a derailleur-geared bike locked up outdoors in the snow for any length of time without some sort of cover.

Fender clearance:
This is not a popular opinion to have in transportation cycling circles, but fenders can be a pain. Unless there is a generous (as in vintage 3-speed/ Dutch bike type of generous) amount of clearance between the fender and tire, snow can get in there and does not always want to come out. If enough snow builds up, it can slow down the wheel's rotation or even bring it to a halt. I have experienced this on a couple of bikes now (granted, after intentionally riding them through snow for fun), bikes with what is considered good fender clearance for paved and dirt road riding in normal weather. Once snow gets between the tire and fender, it can be fairly difficult to remove on the road in cold temperatures; it doesn't want to be coaxed out. Better to avoid riding through soft snow in the first place.

Salt and rust:
Bicycles that are finished with anything but the hardiest powdercoat are susceptible to rust from the salted winter streets. The damage starts out as cosmetic - which is in itself sad if you have a nice bike -and can grow to become structural over time. I wipe my bike down after every ride on salted roads to avoid this. I would not leave a delicately finished bike outdoors in the winter for any significant length of time.

While not ideal, it is not impossible to ride a liquid painted, derailleur-geared bike with rim brakes and less than generous fender clearances in the snow, if you take care to watch for build-up en route and if you maintain the bike afterward. Storing such a bike outdoors in the snow is more problematic. Your bike parking situation at home and work could be the determining factor in whether going without a winter-proof bike is doable. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Bicycles, Walls and the Passage of Time

Over the holidays I received a DVD of a film diptych that I'd long wanted to watch: Cycling the Frame and The Invisible Frame, directed by Cynthia Beatt.

In 1988, Beatt made the short film Cycling the Frame. Described as a "cine-poem," this 30 minute documentary follows a young British actress (Tilda Swinton) as she cycles along the perimeter of the Berlin Wall in what was then West Berlin. It is a 100 mile journey along mostly abandoned roads and overgrown dirt paths crossing forests and fields. The ever-present wall, with its menacing guard towers, turns the landscape surreal: It severs railroad tracks, creates paths to nowhere, and separates waterfront properties from the bodies of water they front. As Swinton pedals, she vocalises her stream-of-conscience thoughts about the things she sees and how they make her feel. As she grows tired of cycling and overwhelmed with her surroundings, the film begins to resemble a dream sequence. Finally she arrives to her Brandenburg Gate start and concludes that "this place is mad."

More than two decades after the original journey, the director and actress set out again to film the follow up, The Invisible Frame. In 2009, they retrace their route along the now long-absent Berlin Wall. A visibly more mature, sharper dressed Tilda Swinton cycles the perimeter, this time weaving back and forth across the phantom border. There are signs of life now: The roads have bike lanes and motorised traffic. On some of the dirt paths we see joggers, dog walkers, children and other cyclists. But despite an apparent return to normality along these stretches, the majority of the landscape is no less eerie twenty years after the wall's removal. We see abandoned buildings, barren fields, dingy looking lakes, random bits of strangeness. It's as if scarred, dead space remains left where the separation used to be. Disconcerted, Swinton meditates on this as she pedals, concluding that "when one wall comes down others come up."

While these aren't cycling films exactly, the prominent role of the bicycle is impossible to ignore. From a practical standpoint, a bike was necessary to make the films happen. Much of the route along the real/ phantom Wall is not accessible to cars, and traveling 100 miles on foot would not have worked with the scope of the project. The speed of the bicycle matched the speed with which the narrative needed to flow, and even the camera crew traveled via a cargo recumbent. As each film progresses, the bicycle begins to seem increasingly important, merging with Swinton's visceral sense of self. She starts to mention it in her stream-of-conscience utterings, to talk about space in relation to not just her, but to her and the bike, to confuse herself with the bike. While this contributes to the mystical feel of the films, it will also be recognised by cyclists as a completely normal sensation to have during long rides.

It was interesting also that the bicycle seemed well-matched to Swinton's person in each of the films. In the original, the actress's flowing clothing looks worn and a little disheveled; her hair natural and slightly unkempt. The bike she rides is a rickety swoopy mixte with faded paint. In the newer film, Swinton is dressed in a stylized and sophisticated manner. She wears architectural-looking clothing and shoes. There are sharp angles to her haircut, her hair now a platinum blond. The bicycle she rides is angular and modern, its paint metallic. This transformation in personal style and bike echoes the rift I felt between the earlier and the latter films. Cycling the Frame came across as spontaneous and exploratory, whereas The Invisible Frame seemed stiffer and more choreographed. The actress/cyclist is no longer the same person and does not relate to this landscape in the same way. She talks about openness, but speaks in political and philosophical generalities and is seemingly less present in Berlin itself.

Can we ever recreate an experience, or re-visit a place? And can we ever really understand another country, as we tour it on a bike with a foreigner's benign detachment and predatory curiosity? These are the questions these films, with their collective 200 miles of cycling along a real/ unreal wall perimeter, ultimately seem to be asking.

If you are local and would like to borrow my copy, drop me a line. The Invisible Frame can be viewed on netflix, but the original Cycling the Frame was not available online last time I checked.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

At the Asylum: an Account of a None Too Sane Patient

Artisan's Asylum
Some of you might be wondering where I've been over the last couple of days, either concerned or outraged over my lack of regular posts. Well, if you must know I have been up for the past 48 hours, watching a certain Interview on Oprah again and again, then endlessly analysing it with my internet friends on cycling forums ("Did you see his left eyebrow twitch when he said 'absolutely not' for the 8th time?"). 

No, I jest. But speaking of analysing facial expressions, readers might recall that I am a psychologist by training and former profession. And you know us psychologists, we love to experiment (that's professional jargon for "mess with people"). Well, last week my PsyPhone - which had grown dusty from lack of use - suddenly rang again, and I was asked to participate in One Last Assignment. "Come on boys," I groaned, wiping bicycle grease off my hands to the sound of jazz in background, "You know that I'm out of that racket." But they wouldn't have it. They needed me. Reluctantly I agreed. 

The assignment was in the tradition of the Rosenhan experiment. A team of us would infiltrate asylums throughout the country to observe and document their practices - from methods of diagnosis to treatment of inmates. I was assigned to the relatively new Artisan's Asylum in Somerville, Massachusetts. 

Artisan's Asylum
Armed with notebook and camera, I approached the drab concrete exterior. The need for caution was immediately apparent, given this institution's stealth tactics. Tucked away on a side street lined with warehouses, the enormous building was hidden in plain sight in my very own neighbourhood. Thus it had managed to evade my attention despite being operational for an entire year.

I examined the street conditions to gauge inmate demographics. Bicycles of all types were locked up to every available post. It was clear that I too would require a bicycle, so a to appear a convincing inmate candidate. Luckily, I already had one with me. 

Artisan's Asylum
At the front desk, several staff members were in place to scrutinise visitors. According to plan, I walked in presenting with vague symptoms of artisanry. Among these I listed: painting, knitting, sewing, persistent compulsions toward bicycle design, and a one time incident of framebuilding. I did not elaborate, I did not exhibit flamboyantly artisanal behaviours, and my hands and clothing were relatively clean. Yet the staff member required no further evidence to admit me. On a notepad I saw them quickly scribble what looked like psychosis framebuildis, poss. acute. Then another staff member came to escort me.

Paul Carson, Artisan's Asylum
The inmates call him Dr. Carson, but we never see his face. He, as the other senior staff members, wear welding masks at all times. He appears to be legitimate, even if his interaction tactics unconventional.

SCUL's Lair
Another specialist is called Dr. Skunk. He interacts with inmates exclusively from behind a curtain. He too is purportedly legitimate, and even runs his own clinic on the side.  

Artisan's Asylum
Inmates appear well-kempt and not in apparent distress. Possibly they are medicated. Those who have been in the facility long term, enjoy a good degree of freedom. Some rely on two-wheeled devices to assist with mobility around the floor space. 

Polka Dot Mutant Bike, SCUL
However, new inmates are required to wear green polka dotted metal "gowns," so that they are easily identified by members of staff. This contraption severely limited my speed and range of movements, making note taking and photography challenging.

Bikes, Artisan's Asylum
The interior of the Asylum is vast and labyrinthine. Endless hallways connect shared spaces designated for inmate activities such as woodworking and metal working. 

Artisan's Asylum
Private spaces are only partially walled off, allowing staff members to observe inmates.

Framebuilding Space, Artisan's Asylum
Primary colours are commonly used.

Framebuilding Space, Artisan's Asylum
Evidence of traditional (some might say outdated) treatment models, such as brazing activities, abounds.  

Artisan's Asylum
Nutrition available on the premises seems limited to beer and coffee, which the inmates are required to brew themselves.

Artisan's Asylum
They must also make the tools and dispensers necessary for its production and serving.

Mutant Bike Thermos, SCUL
Each inmate receives a thermos in which to store hot liquid meals.

Artisan's Asylum
Yet I also noted sculptural renditions of used dishes piled up in several communal areas,

Artisan's Asylum
which could explain why the premises exhibit signs of insect, rodent, and possibly dragon infestations, in metal and paper form.

SCUL's Lair
A variety of instructional signs guide inmate behaviour. Voluntary compliance rates are considerably higher than I've seen in other institutions.

Bound Barbie, SCUL
While I have not noticed any overt force or violence used on the inmates, some visual displays seemed designed as intimidation tactics to keep them under control. 

Bikes, Artisan's Asylum
After my tour of the premises, I noted the staff members administering a subtle series of tests to confirm my diagnosis. First, I was exposed to a disassembled vintage Bianchi bicycle in the traditional "celeste" colour scheme while a hidden video camera measured my pupil response. 

Tubing, Artisan's Asylum
This procedure was then repeated with tubing, then lugs, then finally some unpainted brazed joints used as stimuli. At the end, Dr. Carson shook his head and jotted down some notes, which I saw to be a confirmation of the initial diagnosis. As far as I can tell, no other steps were taken to probe into my history or consider the appropriateness of my presence at the Asylum. 

SCUL's Lair
Following a brief consultation among staff members, my fate was decided. My condition was serious. I was to stay at the Asylum and undergo intensive treatment. 

Framebuilding Space, Artisan's Asylum
Devises to be used in this course of treatment were shown to me.

Framebuilding Space, Artisan's Asylum
Noticing I appeared to have familiarity with them, only confirmed to the staff members the correctness of their diagnosis.

Framebuilding Space, Artisan's Asylum
"Much of this is our own technology, made inhouse," Dr. Carson said soothingly. "I believe it will be effective in addressing your needs."

Paul Carson, Artisan's Asylum
He then showed me other inmates undergoing similar treatment. How happy they were, how engaged, how productive.

SCUL's Lair
Having witnessed everything I came to witness at the Artisan's Asylum, at this stage I attempted to explain myself and depart. But denial is such a common symptom of the condition I was diagnosed with, that this proved to be challenging. I tried to present evidence contradicting my diagnosis. But the staff members only nodded gently. "The pupil test does not lie," said Dr. Carson. From behind his curtain, Dr. Skunk tapped out in Morse code: "you. must. remain." 

At length I managed to get to a phone and contacted the project leader of my assignment. He listened to my report. A long silence on the other end then followed. "But Dr. [Redacted]..." he finally said, "You have not worked with us for some time. We have no record of such a project as you describe." 

Gathering, Frame 0.5
What can I say, dear readers. Sometimes life takes us to strange places. Places that exist in pocket universes right under our noses. Places that have brazing and welding facilities (and beginners' workshops, for anyone local interested). I still think the diagnosis is inaccurate, and I am still not sure how I got here. But maybe I will stay a while after all. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Winter Cycling Wardrobe: Transport and Sport

I get a lot of requests for a comprehensive winter wardrobe post. Since it snowed again today, this seemed like a good time. I won't call this a "guide" and I don't assume that what works for me will necessarily work for others. But in the midst of Winter 4.0, this is the stuff that keeps me comfortable cycling even on the coldest days in greater Boston. For reference, our temperatures are typically in the 20s-30s F range, although it does occasionally get colder.

A few quick disclaimers: I am dividing this into "transport" and "sport" sections, because for me the two rarely intersect, not because I think others must keep them separate. Also, you will find that some things here are female-biased, because, well I am female. Finally, I linked to some companies and products, because readers tend to ask for specifics. As always, none of the product mentions are endorsements or "monetised" in any way; they are just there for your info.

Winter 4.0 (Transport)
Pictured here is the sort of thing I normally wear when getting around by bike, either for work or errands. I will start from the inside out.

Worn closest to the body, underwear plays a crucial role in temperature regulation. So before I worry about bundling up, I make sure to get this part right. In my experience, underwear made of wool, silk, lycra/spandex and some technical polyester-based fabrics, is generally good at regulating body temperature and wicking moisture. Underwear made of cotton or acrylic is not. Out of the fabrics that work I prefer wool and most of my undergarments are from Ibex: I like their modern and stretchy wool/lycra blend. Icebreaker and Smartwool also offer some good options, as does Winter Silks if you're looking for budget-friendly silk.

Everyday Outfits
My everyday clothing ranges from casual to formal, but, especially in winter, it almost always involves skirts and dresses. This is because I find it easier to add warm layers under a skirt (wool leggings or legwarmers over tights), than to deal with layering under trousers or jeans. Also, if it rains or snows, tights with knee-high boots are a highly effective way to keep dry. After several winters of experimenting, most of my cold-weather outfits are now wool. I knit wool skirts myself in variety of styles. And I wear wool sweaters over wool or silk base layers. 100% merino is harder to find now in mainstream stores than it used to be, but J. Crew remains a good source and they have frequent sales (like right now). I also alternate between several wool dresses, mostly handmade. And I still own a few wool skirt-suits from my suit wearing days. If I want to wear an outfit that is made of a non-temperature regulating fabric, I will wear a wool or silk baselayer under it and it'll be fine. But to me, wooly stuff just feels overall warmer and cozier.

When buying cold-weather tights, I look for wool and nylon/ lycra/ spandex content, and I avoid cotton and acrylic content - because, as with baselayers and underwear, the latter does not wick moisture or regulate temperature well. Smartwool makes decent all-around winter tights (and socks). Falke is a European favourite, but expensive. Another option is to wear dense nylon tights (such as these), with wool leggings or legwarmers over them, which can be later removed indoors.

Both on the bike and off, I am a fan of waterproof boots rated for freezing temperatures. For years, I have been wearing La Canadienne boots that are exactly that. I have a pair of their ankle boots and a pair of knee-high boots that look reasonably professional and feminine, while being absolutely winter-proof. The soles have excellent traction on snow and ice, which is also useful for when my bike pedals turn slippery. With the knee-high boots, the additional benefit is that they keep my legs extra warm, and protected from slushy splash-back.

On the bike, I favour wool 3/4 length coats with an A-line shape, so that the hem does not constrict pedaling. The coat should fit loosely enough to allow layering underneath, and should not in itself be too warm. When I am walking, I will sometimes wear a down-filled coat, but I find it too bulky when cycling. The down-filled coats can also be slippery on the bike saddle, whereas wool coats stay put. My current coat is about 6 years old and I no longer remember where I bought it.

Usually I wear a wool beret or hat that I knit myself. I take care that the stitching is dense enough to be wind-proof, and that the hat covers my ears.

My favourite gloves for cycling are wool and grippy. They are perhaps not the most elegant choice, but their functionality has won me over.

After some experimenting, I have taken to wearing a shawl-like wool scarf which I wrap around my neck once and then tuck the rest into the front of my coat for an extra layer of warmth over the chest. This really helps when cycling against an icy headwind. Beware of long, flowing scarves on the bike, for obvious reasons.

Want more winter wardrobe advice from  genuine cycling fashionistas? Dottie of Let's Go Ride a Bike has excellent tips from snowy Chicago. Here is her latest post on the topic and a more general guide for winter dressing. Also, this excellent Bikeyface post will not disappoint.

Winter 4.0 (Sport)
With roadcycling, I find getting dressed in the winter easier, simply because there is less creativity required. I can wear the same thing over and over! Here is my formula:

Base Layers
I like thin, long sleeve wool base layers. There are many options to choose from now. Rivendell has come out with a nice US-made one recently. I also wear a wool/lycra sportsbra underneath (see "Underwear" earlier).

In winter temperatures, I wear fleece-lined full length tights. I have tried bib tights, but ultimately I find them too fussy to get in and out of. I prefer the padded winter waist-high tights from Capo, and wear a model from a few seasons ago. In addition to being super warm, these are also somewhat water resistant. I have made do without rain or snow pants so far, and have not felt the need for them.

I love the simplicity and longevity of DeFeet wool socks. Of all the wool and wool-blend socks I've tried; they have been the most durable. When it gets particularly cold, I wear two pairs.

Mid Layers
My midlayer is a winter-weight long sleeve cycling jersey. As long as I wear a wool baselayer, it does not matter to me what the midlayer jersey is made of, as long as it insulates. I own a few now, but my favourites have become the wool/poly blends from Rapha and Shutt Velo Rapide. These are wool on the inside, with some high-tech poly coating on the outside. I do not like how they feel against the skin, but as midlayers I find that they offer the best temperature regulation.

Outer Layers
Winter outer layers are tricky. A windbreaker/shell type jacket is not enough. A jacket that's too warm can be even worse. Last winter I bought a Rapha winter jacket on the recommendation of some of the women I rode with, and it is just right, even for the coldest temps around these parts. This is a painfully expensive jacket, but it does go on sale occasionally and stalking it was worth it.

DeFeet Duraglove. I have tried fancier and supposedly more weather-proof gloves, but prefer the DeFeets. Gosh, I hope they never discontinue these.

Neck Warmers
These are called various things, depending on the manufacturer, including neck gaiter and collar. I have a few and find them very useful. For extremely cold rides, I have tried a balaclava, but it is not my cup of tea; I prefer to wear a neck warmer and pull it over my mouth instead.

Hats, Etc.
I wear a tightly knit wool winter cycling caps with brims and ear flaps. I buy these instead of knitting them myself, because I can't get the weave tight enough by hand; it has to be machine-made. Several companies offer these hats now. I have one from Bicycle Fixation and another from Ibex. I usually wear a helmet on my roadbike, and find that this adds to the cap's warmth, while also helping to keep it firmly in place.

I do not own winter cycling shoes at the moment, though I hear there are some wonder-boots from Lake that are pretty good and I might save up for those eventually. I have some overshoes on loan from the Ride Studio Cafe, but I have to admit they scare me, so I have yet to try them. Instead I just wear multiple pairs of socks for now. My toes have only frozen a couple of times so far...

Want winter wardrobe advice from more experienced roadies? The Blayleys have an excellent series of posts on this topic here, here and here. As they probably spend more time on the bike in the winter than off, they are the best source I know.

Keep warm and enjoy yourself on the bike this winter, whether in sport or transport!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Achingly Upright

Chrome Raleigh Lady's Tourist
Longer commutes over the past few months have given me the opportunity to ride a variety of upright bikes over varying distances. And while achieving a particular fit is less important to me on upright bikes than it is on roadbikes, I still have preferences. For instance, my ideal handlebar height is on the low side. I began to notice that fairly early on, lowering the bars on my city bikes further with each passing year. I'd assumed this growing preference had to do with performance: That maybe as I picked up handling skills and began to ride faster, lower handlebars just made more sense. And in part that's probably true. But lately I've realised that it's also a matter of physical comfort.

Riding several bikes with the bars set higher than I prefer, I notice that my back starts to hurt after some miles. It's a distinct kind of dull, gnawing pain, somewhere around the shoulder blade area. On bikes where the bars are set lower, I don't experience the pain. And having moved the handlebars on one of the "painful" bikes down an inch, the pain disappeared. I've tried this a few times now over the past couple of months with the same result: When the bars are too high, my back aches.

The downside to having a city bike set up the way I like, is that other women who try it usually tell me the handlebars feel too low. In the end, it's about finding our personal optimal position. And too upright can be just as achy as too leaned forward.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Tale of a Midtail Cruiser

Josette's Yuba Boda Boda
Traveling through the suburbs last week, I suddenly spotted something green and curvy zipping toward me on the opposite side of the road. It was a Yuba Boda Boda cargo bike - not a common sight around these parts. The woman astride it looked happy and carefree. As we passed each other, both of us waved with the zeal of true bicycle obsessionists, and yelled hello. I then spent the rest of the morning wondering who this mysterious woman was and how I could get a better look at her bike. But I didn't have to wonder long. Having recognised me, she soon got in touch and we arranged to meet up.

Josette's Yuba Boda Boda
Josette is a local cyclist and mother of two boys, ages 6 and 3. She lives in a hilly outer suburb of Boston and works in a neighboring, equally hilly suburb. Her typical daily commute involves taking her younger son to preschool, as well as cycling to and from work, for a total of 13 miles plus errands. Josette got back into cycling as an adult a few years ago, and has since owned a couple of bikes, including a modern hybrid and a vintage English 3-speed. She now wanted a cargo bike that was both easy to ride and could handle two children. She tried several cargo bikes, before settling on the Boda Boda - a new "midtail cruiser" model from the California-based Yuba: The Boda felt easier to manage than full sized longtails, and the handling felt more intuitive than that of the Dutch bakfiets. Josette purchased the bike at Ferris Wheels in Jamaica Plain (Boston) and has been riding it since October. 

Josette's Yuba Boda Boda
Yuba refers to the Boda Boda as a "cargo cruiser." Named after African bicycle taxis, this model was created in response to requests for a shorter wheelbase, lighter weight and lower stepover. On top of that, it promises casual handling combined with the ability to tackle hills. Featuring an aluminum frame, 26" wheels, fat tires, swept-back handlebars and 8-speed derailleur gearing, the Boda weighs 35lbs and is rated to carry over 200lb. There are two versions of this model: the Step-Through, shown here, is smaller in size and features a lower stepover. The base retail price is $999. 

Josette's Yuba Boda Boda
The midtail rear end of the Boda features an integrated rack with a bamboo platform and an optional "Soft Spot" pillow - handy for ensuring passengers have a comfortable ride. Josette personalised hers with a custom crocheted cover, which gives a charming and unique look to the whole setup. 

Josette's Yuba Boda Boda
The platform as shown here can fit both of Josette's children. 

Josette's Yuba Boda Boda
Although I only met her younger son, this picture illustrates how both boys fit on the bike. Josette's blog post on riding with kids provides more details about her experience. 

Josette's Yuba Boda Boda
The "apehanger" style handlebars in the rear were an aftermarket addition, as Yuba's standard "Hold On Bars" did not work here. The main issue was that, given Josette's saddle height and the height of the rear rack, there was no way to install Yuba's standard handlebars so that they'd reach above the rack. In addition, the wider and more swept back apehanger bars make for a more accommodating and comfortable position for Josette's boys. 

Josette's Yuba Boda Boda
The Boda's rear rack height is an interesting topic. You can't quite see this in my pictures because the bags cover it up, but the Boda's rack platform sits unusually high. This is because the e-assist version of the Boda (aka the El Boda), has its battery stored underneath it. Josette's feedback is that the extra height of the rack feels suboptimal, both as far as weight distribution when carrying passengers and cargo upon it, and as far as saddle height adjustment. For example, very short riders may have difficulty moving the saddle all the way down despite the extra seatpost showing, because at some point the saddle will start to interfere with the rack. Also, because the handlebars had to be threaded through the rack, I was not able to raise the saddle to my optimal height when test riding this bike. Despite the quick release skewer, the setup shown here cannot be easily shared between persons of different heights.

This issue aside, the owner is happy with the carry capacity the Boda affords. In addition to allowing her to carry two children on top of the platform, each side of the rack accepts two full-sized panniers, or Yuba's own "Baguette Cargo Bag" (The orange bag pictured is a pannier hybrid bag from Vaya, made in NYC). The front "Bread Basket," rated to carry 50lb of weight, can be purchased for even more carry capacity. 

Josette's Yuba Boda Boda
The Boda Boda comes standard with swept back Dutch stye handlebars, cork grips, city brake levers, and painted bell,

Josette's Yuba Boda Boda
26" wheels and wide, cushy cream tires,

Josette's Yuba Boda Boda
platform pedals,

Josette's Yuba Boda Boda
and a minimalist chainguards. 

Josette's Yuba Boda Boda
Fenders and a double-legged kickstand were added as accessories, as was dynamo lighting front and rear, and the front wheel "Deflopilator" stabiliser. 

Josette's Yuba Boda Boda
I took the Boda Boda out for a quick spin. Though Josette graciously offered to lend me her son, I did not feel comfortable with that plan, and just rode the bike with 3 panniers on the rear. Mostly I was interested in the feel and handling, so I did a short loop that involved a local hill. 

This bike is a little strange to describe. If you've ever ridden a Northern European hybrid circa the mid-2000s (à la this), the position the Boda puts you in is very similar. The closest non-obscure equivalent I can reference is maybe the Breezer Uptown, but it's really closer to the European bikes. Mounting and dismounting, the stepover was indeed very low. There was no toe overlap with the front wheel when turning, although it was surprisingly close; not much clearance. Yuba does not provide geometry charts, but the cockpit area felt extremely compact, and there was something about the position of my butt in relation to the pedals (or saddle in relation to the bottom bracket, if you will) that I associate with a particular type of hybrid or cruiser type bike.  At the same time, I have to admit that the Boda felt light and speedy. And the low gearing allowed me to pedal it up a major hill without having to dismount (Josette tackles that same hill on a daily basis, and only has to dismount when both kids are on the back of the bike). The ride quality over potholes was nice and cushy.

Josette's Yuba Boda Boda
In essence, my first impression is that the Boda Boda is what it claims to be: a cargo cruiser with easy handling that is ridable in hilly areas. 

Considering my recent test rides of the Xtracycle Radish, a comparison of the two is probably in order. The obvious difference is that the Boda is shorter and a bit lighter. This will make it more manageable for those who consider full longtail bikes unwieldy, but at the expense of giving up load capacity. The Boda has a somewhat lower stepover, which makes it easier to mount and dismount. As far as fit and handling, I prefer the Radish, simply because it feels more natural and intuitive for my style of riding. Others might feel differently. 

Josette's Yuba Boda Boda
Having ridden the Boda on a more or less daily basis since October, the owner is pretty well used to it and enjoys the freedom of mobility it's given her. 

Josette's Yuba Boda Boda
With her boys and without, Josette has ridden the Boda in all sorts of weather, though overnight she keeps it in her garage and during the day at the bike parking facility in the basement at her work. The bike has served her well in the course of daily use. Some words of criticism include the rear rack height, the delay with receiving some of the accessories (she is still waiting for the Bread Basket), and the fact that the price of each accessory adds up to make the true price of the bike, once it's fully equipped for commuting, nearly double the stated MSRP. Still, 3 months down the road Josette is pleased with her decision to choose the Boda over other cargo bikes. It suits her riding style and her lifestyle.