Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ways to Stay Prepared in National Preparedness Month

While riding the recumbent the other day, I decided to switch from the small 52 tooth chainring to the larger 60 tooth chainring at the halfway point. Of all the bikes that have come and gone from my shop over the years, this IS the one ring.
However, I should have let Gollum keep it. At first I liked the additional challenge of pedaling, but about a mile and a half from home the chain choked on itself in the derailleur. As I didn't realize at the time, a big chainring means there's less slack in the derailleur and less space for the chain to move around properly.

No problem, I thought. I'll just put the chain back on the 52 tooth ring and use my chain tool to break the chain so I could untangle it. I opened the better bike box...and found that I didn't have my chain tool/minitool combo.

It was a real 'D'oh!' moment (I may have even said it aloud): on the maiden voyage of the Bike Friday on the Boston trip, I took the multitool out of the recumbent's pack and never put it back. Out of options, I walked the bike home.

Now I want to make sure you don't have to ever finish a Bike Ride Story with that sentence: I walked the bike home. I know some of the most memorable rides end like that, but it's always nicer to have everything you need on every ride...and in the car you drive to the trailhead. And seeing that this is National Preparedness Month it's a good time to talk about things we need to stay prepared.

First things first: when I finally got the recumbent home and put it on the workbench, I had a good look at the damage and had a real “well, there's your problem!” moment:

That ever happen to you?

I'm terribly embarrassed at the filthy chain (at ten-and-a-half-feet long, you'd procrastinate cleaning it too) but focus on the quick release link: in case you can't tell, it snapped in half. The recumbent chain has had three of these things functioning reliably for years, so I assumed it was a freak occurrence.

The point is this: even if you're carrying a chain tool, there's no reason you can't carry one of these:

Another way to prepare: carry a first aid kit on your ride with a couple of bandages, aspirin, alcohol wipes and a few other things. You don't have to go all ER; just bring some of the basics. This isn't for you, no, no, no: if you ride safely, you're more likely to use the kit to help someone else you run into on the trail who isn't as prepared as you. In the woods I once ran into a few women in their late forties, one of whom was in pain and bleeding from her arm after a fall. I put on vinyl gloves (yes, I keep a pair in the kit. How else can you hope to stay clean when working on a filthy chain?) and cleaned and bandaged the wound.

"Are you a doctor?" she asked in a voice two teaspoons away from 'dreamily.'

She was surprised when I told her I was not – and looked a little frightened when I told her what I was.

So you have your quick link, your first aid kit and your vinyl gloves. Another way to be prepared is to have a minitool, duct tape, a pump and spare cleat for the bike shoe, wire ties, a patch kit and a tube. And a tiny red blinking light in case you're caught out in the dark.

This is what I carry with the mountain bike. The tube is a 26” one. The recumbent takes a 16” tube for the front and a 27” one for the back, so that kit is different. Rather than moving the other tools around, each bike can have its own kit in its own frame bag that (the Bike Friday debacle aside) should never, under any circumstances, leave the bike. Sure, you can be one of those people that keeps important things in a backpack mingled with stuff like Powerbar wrappers and spent CO2 cartridges and has to dump everything out to find a hardened tube of liquid cement, but if you don't want to forget anything it's much better to keep your gear, Powerbar wrappers, spent CO2 cartridges and hardened liquid cement on the bike.

Another way to stay prepared: when you're mountain biking and have a basic backpack, it's a great idea to carry one of these with you: a Therm-A-Rest Z-seat:

It weighs nothing and when you fold it in half it fits perfectly into most bags. If you carry a lot with you it's easier on your back, and if you're prepared to stop somewhere and sit on a rock to eat lunch, you can pull it out and sit on it.

It goes without saying that a cell phone has to be brought along on your trip, but if you're like me you're not wild about exposing it to trail conditions. I may invest in a Otter box especially built for my phone (or at least put it on my Christmas list) but for now I'm making do with this:

Wait, that's a picture of the spider outside of my front porch. I meant to upload this:

Alright, so what I've done is taken a plastic parts sorter and hollowed it out in the shape of a Droid Incredible by using a utility knife. The phone and headset can sit just inside and you can close the lid over it. It doesn't weigh much, it protects the screen in a crash, and the size makes the phone a lot easier to find in a cluttered backpack.

Another way to stay prepared: If you have a Garmin bike GPS, slap a little piece of orange tape on the back. It'll make it easier to find if it snaps off in a crash. I've never had it snap off in a crash, but the orange tape is like an airbag: you hope you never need it, but it's a comforting thought to know that it's there.

Another way to stay prepared: keeping the right kind of tools in your car. Preferably a Honda Element.

This requires an explanation: the tools in the photo are held in place by a Grid-It board my wife bought me from Levenger. The tools stay in one place and don't rattle around, and as you can see I have another plastic parts sorter in the center with valve covers, more quick links, and other bits. I also have the shock pump my cousin gave me when I bought his used fork, reasoning my Honda Element was the only thing that was going to get me to any trailhead. Also, the crowning touch: a 12v air pump that is plugged into a socket in the back of the Element. Honda engineers were brilliant enough to put a socket in the back, but have made it so you have to have the key turned to accessory for it to function. At either rate, if you suddenly find yourself needing air on the road for your Shrader valves, it beats a mini pump.

Another way to stay prepared: Let's say you're on the road and the bike breaks and you actually need to use some of these tools. You don't always want to carry the Park Tool PCS-9 with you, so if you're a biker on a budget I recommend you get your hands on one of those old-school camera tripods, like this one.

Lower the tripod to its lowest setting and bring it to your drill press. Drill two holes in it about 5 ½ inches apart all the way through.

Next, take some storage hooks (or just the hooks from an old Nashbar Stand by Me, on which this design is based) and bolt them into place. You now have a folding, lightweight stand that will easily fit in the trunk and will hold your bike by the chain stay and the seat stay (semi-precariously) so you'll be prepared to work on it on the road.

Now suppose the power goes out in your house and you really want to go for a ride. How do you charge your Garmin GPS?

I'm sure you've asked yourself that question all the time.

I'm also sure that somewhere in your house is a 2004 Spartan Sports FS-101 electric scooter that you're not using...or some other item that has a 12V sealed lead acid battery that looks something like this.

 If the battery takes a charge, you're in luck, because you can keep it topped off with one of these things that you can either find at a tag sale or buy at most auto parts stores: a solar powered battery maintainer.

If you get the 12V socket at Radio Shack and have a soldering iron and electrical tape, you can make this.

Keep the solar panel in the window with the socket plugged in, and when you have to you can take it out and plug in the 12V auto charger for the GPS or a 12V socket with a USB plug on the back. You can also use this to charge your cell phone in an emergency – I was all ready to do that during Hurricane Irene - but of course the first priority is to know how fast you are riding and how many calories you are burning.

Hope you've enjoyed these contributions to National Preparedness Month. Any other suggestions to stay prepared?

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Riding With The Boneshaker in Mystic, Connecticut

I go to Mystic, Connecticut all the time because my parents live there. Even if your parents do not, it's a place worth going. You've got the New England charm, the New England houses, the New England shoreline on a place that is walkable, has an Amtrak stop, is close to Bluff Point State Park and, of course, the home of the Mystic Cycle Center.

One of the things you have to do in Mystic – whether you bring your own bike or get one from the shop – is ride around the Mystic River. Here's a view of the famous Mystic River Drawbridge if you're at the nearby Mystic River Park.

And here's a much more common view of the Mystic drawbridge; one you usually see if you're trying to move from one side of the river to the other as quickly as possible.

During this season, the bridge goes up every hour during the day in a traffic-snarling spectacle that often makes tourists gawk and residents groan. If you're in a car and the bridge goes up, turn off your engine – and if you're on the right side of the bridge you can briefly abandon your car and get a Kona Coffee ice cream cone at the Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream Shop.

If you're on the non-ice cream shop side of the bridge (as I was when this photo was taken) you can relax a moment and watch the boats pass through. When you finally have the chance to go to the other side, you can head around the Mystic River by first turning right down Gravel Street. Be sure to look to the right through most of this ride since that's where the river is.

Follow Gravel and take a right on Pearl Street (which gives you a nice view of the Mystic Seaport) then take another right on River Road. It's flat, it's peaceful and I have to do this ride at least once every time I'm visiting my folks.

As you pass under the I-95 highway bridge, you come to this sign. One day I want to build a bike that is in the shape of the one represented in the carving.

The information in the sign is accurate, as here you will find a few joggers and cyclists as you circumnavigate the river.

After a short uphill that takes you past a cemetery, you'll soon come to Rt. 27, where you will take another right. It's an occasionally busy road, but motorists to tend to give you a generous amount of space.

If you want another ice cream treat, look for the octopus bearing them as you get closer to town. This is also one of the several ice cream places in town that are accessible by kayak. 

Not far beyond the Sea View Snack Bar is the famous Mystic Seaport. I recommend you visit and become a member, as it's just a great showcase of shoreline history.

The Seaport also hosts events from time to time, and thanks to my alert wife (and later, my alert mother) I knew to be in town the day I took this river ride.

When I returned to my parents house, we all set off for the Seaport to attend Bicycles by the Sea. At the gate, I asked permission to bring the recumbent into the Seaport. I was allowed but was told, not surprisingly, that I couldn't ride it while inside. Still, I was glad to walk it about since I thought the bike, which is normally the oddest thing on two wheels in a ten mile radius, would fit right in.

It did.

This was one of those days when I wished I had visited an ATM machine and prepared a shopping list before my arrival. There were parts everywhere. I ended up buying two old-style headlamps and two generators and reasoned I'd come up with a need for them at a later date.

I had fun walking the recumbent around and meeting some of the vendors (the recumbent - and the cycling Darth Vader T-shirt I got from Pacific Swim Bike Run - are great ice breakers). I also noticed that Mystic Seaport employees appeared exempt from the 'don't ride the bike' rule.

There were lots of bike to see: bikes that looked old, bikes that looked fast, bikes that looked uncomfortable, and bikes that looked both fast and uncomfortable.

Also, it's the Mystic Seaport. You've seen the 'Bicycles' part so let me give you a little bit of the 'by the sea' part:

Not surprisingly, my parents and my wife were not quite as enthused about the event as I was, so I went to join them at a bench which was facing the Mystic River. The Seaport employee on the Boneshaker (I've seen that bike and another riding around on non-Bicycle by the Sea days) kept riding about fairly gracefully, which made me wonder if I'd ever buy or borrow a replica from Worksman.

It was my dad's idea to get me to ride with the Boneshaker guy so he could take a picture with his cannon-sized camera. I wasn't crazy about disobeying the woman behind the ticket counter who told me not to ride or going without my helmet, but it still seemed like a nice idea. I recommend you visit the Mystic Seaport, either just because or during one of the special events. In case you're wondering there is a bike rack right in front of the ticket counter – and I wasn't allowed to ride on the Boneshaker.

Friday, September 16, 2011

In Manhattan for the Metro North Bike Rack Test

Since I had a day off work today, I decided to head to Manhattan and test prototype Metro North M8 railcar bike racks.

Stay with me: this is a lot more interesting than it sounds.

You see, cyclists along the Metro North lines have been asking for bike racks on trains before there were any tracks. Now that racks are set to be installed in some of the new M8 railcars, the east coast will have finally caught up to the west.

The state DOT and Metro North Railroad narrowed the choices down to two styles. They had a two-hour window to test them yesterday in New Haven but it wasn't on my day off. Appropriately, some of the folks who have advocated for bike racks on trains the longest had their chance to try them then. But if I wanted to try out the racks, I'd have to head into Grand Central Terminal.

I briefly thought about throwing the designers of the things off-center by bringing the recumbent, but I realize it wouldn't be the most common bike that would get to go on these racks and I should treat it like a serious test. So I brought my homemade mountain bike, which I had outfitted this morning with its “street package” - two 1.5 inch tires on their own rims. When I brought it onto the 10:14 express train, I did what many cyclists do and wedged it in the vestibule.

This isn't ideal, and the new bike racks were hopefully going to change this nonsense.

My plan was to get to the city, check out the racks, and head straight back so I could join my wife for lunch. Partway down I realized how silly it seemed to head all the way from Stamford to New York City just to hang my bike on a couple of hooks, so I decided to get a short ride out of it by getting off the train at Harlem 125th street. This meant I could ride 82 blocks south to get to Grand Central Terminal on a very beautiful day.

I had one snag: my mountain bike does not appreciate the street wheels. I just sense it would prefer the trails of Mianus River Park or Bluff Point State Park than city streets. For reasons I haven't figured out yet, I kept overshifting and twice on the way down the chain would jam. My homemade mountain bike was behaving like a child who didn't like the shoes he was being forced to wear.

It was still a quick fix, and since I had just cleaned the chain the day before it wasn't too messy. After taking care not to shift into too high a gear, I made it to GCT and had no trouble at all finding the track where the M8 railcar was parked. A friendly Metro North employee greeted me before pointing out where I needed to board in order to test racks 'A' and 'B.' He also asked if I'd take a survey when I was done and I agreed.

I headed into the first car and was shown Rack 'B' which came with detailed instructions.

With MTA employees and other onlookers watching, I hooked up the front wheel and pulled the spring loaded arm into place over the bottom bracket. Just like that, the bike was locked firmly into place. I found the experience easy and I liked it.

Stifle that yawn. That becomes important in a moment.

After talking with some of the Metro North team and other testers for a few minutes, I took the bike down (it was just as easy an experience as putting it up) and headed to the next car where I was shown Rack 'A' which also came with detailed instructions.

Instead of starting by hanging your bike from the hook, the first step, as you can see, is to pull a steel hoop away from the wall and put it near the floor. Then you hang the bike and pull the hoop up over the rear wheel. That's it.

Some of the people there really wanted my opinion on which one I liked better. After so many years of putting the bike in the vestibule I would have been grateful for one of those $0.99 hooks that I use in my basement. I asked whether they've had a chance to test bikes with rear racks on 'A' and they assured me the hoop goes right over it. One of the people there suggested the 'serious riders' preferred rack 'B' since they often had panniers bags to think about.

After chatting with the others for a few more minutes (and briefly talking bikes with the project manager who was there) I decided to give Rack 'B' another shot. By the time I walked my bike there, an attractive cyclist had just finished hanging her bike to Rack 'B' and was looking at it the way a museum goer might gaze at a piece of abstract art. I patiently waited, but a Metro North employee spotted me and beckoned me forward. Just as before, I easily accomplished step one and hung my bike to the rack.

However, because the Attractive Cyclist's Bike was there, hooking up the spring-loaded clamp was more difficult. I had to wedge my torso between the handlebars of both bikes to reach in to grab the clamp. It was then that I realized I liked Rack 'A' better. You can push the hoop to the floor and then pull it back up by using your foot and not have to reach your arm in. That's important because I imagine most of the people using these racks are going to be on their way to work and wouldn't particularly enjoy scuffing up their nice shirts and blouses by having to reach between two bikes to grab a clamp.

I'll take whatever racks we get, but I'm Team Rack 'A.'

After I filled out the survey I took a sheet of paper that showed what trains would have the new racks. At the moment it is, not surprisingly, fewer trains than a lot of people would like. But it is a start.

I returned to the main hall and found the 12:07 express train to Stamford on track 26. Just as before, I boarded the train and wedged the bike in the vestibule before settling down for the 47 minute trip back to Stamford.

On the way back, we stopped at Harlem 125th street, and the doors opened on the left side of the train – which meant my bike was blocking the passengers from boarding. I quickly jumped out of my seat, grabbed the bike, and rapidly (but sheepishly) pulled it out of the way so they could board.

Thanks for letting us test the new racks, Metro North. No matter whether they are 'A' or 'B' they are so desperately needed.