Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Art of Riding in Winter (or Avoiding it Entirely)

Psych yourself up: you can do this.

Yes, it is cold out. Really cold. Thus begins the season where your resolve and commitment to cycling is tested. It's different from the summer, when you'd have to put on exactly four articles of clothing (jersey, bike shorts and one sock per foot) before riding and actually enjoy the nice weather. But now, you have to suit up. Once the autumn months are gone and your Ear Bags are no longer enough, you may have to put on a neoprene face mask, a baselayer, a thick jersey, a thin jacket, a thin vest, cold weather riding gloves, thick pants, a helmet cover and neoprene booties for the bike shoes.

However, I understand if there are days when you don't want to dress like Randy from A Christmas Story to go for a bike ride. You open the door and the cold wind just blows you back inside. If there's snow on the ground and/or ice on the roads you'll want to stay in anyway. But you can still ride indoors provided you have one of these: a trainer. Attach it to the rear wheel and you've got an indoor exercise bike.

This is one of the four trainers I own. I have a tendency to see them at tag sales once a year or so and I'll pick them up whether I need one or not. As it turns out, my buying spree has paid off since one of the trainers I bought just happened to be small enough to fit my wife's Trek. Even then I had to use little bungee cords to bring the roller in the back up to the tire, so if you want a trainer, head to your local bike shop with your bike (or pictures of it) so you can find the trainer that's right for you.

Since tag sales are rather scarce this time of year it's better just to buy new. Some trainers can cost up to (and over) $300 depending on options, like measuring power output or, if you're Ed Begley Jr., if you want to generate electricity to make toast. Mine were likely in the tag sales they were in because someone was wisely upgrading to more modern trainers which have more adjustment settings and easier means of attaching it to the wheel.

Now if you own a gently used trainer, you can obviously throw it in a tag sale. If you don't they can often be recycled (with slight modifications) to use in the workshop: add a wooden platform so it can fit in a workbench clamp and you can put your bike right in there for all kinds of repairs.

If you favor fitness over an innovative workstand, put the trainer on the floor and attach it to your bike according to the manufacturer's directions. With that done, you have to level the front wheel so you don't feel as though you are perpetually riding downhill. To level the bike, I highly recommend using the CycleOps 3-level injection molded Climbing Riser Block. If anyone from the CycleOps marketing department is reading this and in need of a pull quote from me, Mike from DIYBIKING.COM, here it is: “Better than phone books.”

When the bike is level or at an incline, it may be a little harder for you to throw your leg over it. I took some 2X3 lumber and screwed them into a piece of IKEA deck tile to make a little step to make getting on and off the bike a bit easier.

Now if you don't care for attaching and detaching your bike to an apparatus to make it stationary and crave a home workout experience that has more excitement, you can buy rollers. Because the bike stays upright by the motion of the wheels turning alone, you have to pedal at a certain speed. Without phone books or a CycleOps Climbing Riser Block you have to keep the front wheel perfectly straight.

When I bought my rollers, I discovered this was a lot harder than it sounds and I wished I had spent a little more money to buy parabolic rollers, which are somewhat related to the birthday party bumpers you find at bowling alleys. Since I couldn't ride on my rollers for more than a few minutes without falling off, I made a few changes.

As you can see I added training wheels to my rollers; specifically a set of wheels from a single inline skate attached via bolts and chunks of aluminum. It is now much, much harder for me to roll off.

It may look silly, but if I want a fast ride I simply place it on the floor, put the Dahon Matrix on it, and ride off toward the television. I have no idea how fast or how far I go (one of the few drawbacks to the Garmin bike GPS) but I know I'm getting some exercise. So head to your local bike shop for some trainers or rollers, find yourself some worthy television and together we can make it through the winter.

Psych yourself up: you can do this.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The DIYBIKING.COM Essential Guide to Last-Minute Christmas Shopping

So if you've Googled “last minute Christmas shopping ideas” or “I am a tremendous holiday shopping procrastinator and am in desperate need of help” or if you just need some good gift ideas for cyclists in your life, you've come to the right place.

The first thing you have to do is focus on the small, local stores for your efforts. I know you can save a few extra bucks buying most things online, but few like empty storefronts, unemployed neighbors, and living in a state that has a budget deficit because online companies do not collect sales tax. It's okay for the hard-to-find items, but even now, especially so close to Christmas Day, you can also experience nerve-wracking moments when packages don't arrive when promised (and tracking your dad's gift as it tours every Connecticut city but your own only adds to the teeth-gnashing experience).

Also, if you want to avoid the Buying-Snowshovels-The-Day-Before-The-Blizzard atmosphere that comes with the nearby mall this time of year, you can find plenty of alternatives that will do the job and appreciate the business. You also don't have to battle for a parking space or ssssllllowwwwllly drive behind someone overloaded with shopping bags as they walk to their car...only for them to toss their bags in and sympathetically mouth the words “I'm not leaving. Sorry!” as they shuffle back in to retailing's own Death Star.

You don't need either of those things, especially with Christmas and Hanukkah just days away. So head to the small retailers. You'll usually be in and out faster, and when you shop you'll probably see where your money is going. Take Elm Street Books in New Canaan, for example.

This store has a friendly staff, and if you spend a few seconds telling one of them some key details about the person you are shopping for, she'll lead you to the proper aisle and pull out The Book you should buy that person as a gift. Let's say, for the sake of argument, you're interested in gift ideas for cyclists. In that event, you have a few choices.

This is It's All About The Bike by Robert Penn and Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do by Tom Vanderbilt. Penn's book explores his quest to build the perfect bike for himself using components and talent from around the world, while Traffic is pretty self-explanatory. Great gifts, and if you call Elm Street Books, Barrett Bookstore in Darien or any independent bookstore near you they should be able to get it in your hands straight away.

Now the obvious option if you're buying a gift for a cyclist is something from your local bike shop. One of the Three Pillars of Bike Shop Excellence near my house is Pacific Swim Bike Run at 575 Pacific Street in Stamford, Connecticut; a short walk from Fairway and the Stamford railway station. 

If you're on a budget and you're at this shop, there are quite a few things you can get that are less than $50: cycling jerseys, gloves, a hi-vis vest, a carbon fiber bottle cage...the list goes on. And if you like amusing packaging, DZNuts chamois cream would make a good stocking stuffer for the committed roadie. However, I can't visit Pacific Swim Bike Run without mentioning the shirts.

I picked up one of the Darth Vader/Stormtroopers shirts just before Hurricane Irene kicked down New England's door a few months ago. I had never seen that shirt before and haven't since. I literally cannot go a day wearing it without at least two people either complimenting me on my fashion sense or asking where I got it. Well, Guy in Mystic Seaport and Woman at Orlando International Airport: I got it here, so you can call 203-504-8960 to buy one.

Like any good bike store, you can also buy gift certificates for goods or services (or in PSBR's case, gift coupons for classes or a bike fitting). If you go this route, you can't always buy a gift certificate for someone at your local bike shop. You have to buy one at their local bike shop. If the cyclist doesn't live close to you a quick Google search will find a bike shop near them and you can buy a gift certificate over the phone on on their web site. You should do this with enough time for the certificate to be mailed, but even if you don't you've got options. Once, during a friend's birthday, I phoned a distant bookstore and bought a gift certificate for her over the phone. I then instructed the store manager who took the order to call the friend to tell her a short birthday message from me – he would have sung it if I had asked - and that a gift certificate was waiting for her at the store.

Try getting a company that rhymes with 'Hamazon' to do that.

Of course, you can't go Christmas shopping without buying toys. Like the bookstores and bike stores, the small toy shops are worth the effort it may take to find them and more that worth the few extra dollars you may spend to buy your gifts. There are two that come to mind that I visited yesterday: the first is The Toy Chest in New Canaan, Connecticut.

If you bring your bike with you on one of these trips (as I did) just remember to pick out toys that you know will fit in your backpack or panniers bag (if you didn't think to bring your bike trailer). At The Toy Chest I bought a toy I liked for some reason – that would fit in my pack.

Just a few miles to the south is another gem of a toy store, the Darien Toy Box. Tucked on the busy thoroughfare of Route One across from the remarkable Scena Wine Bar & Restaurant, this store carries a slew of toys, games and puzzles you never thought existed.

There are a lot of educational toys that aren't patronizing educational toys – these actually look fun. The only downside is that most of them are too large to fit in my pack, so I left the store after buying a couple of packs of Legos (but if you're you're looking for another gift idea for the cyclist: In the back of the store there is a lovely 500 piece puzzle of an old black bike leaning up against a yellow wall).

Once you have bought all of your last-minute holiday gifts, you have to do two things: wrap them (or ask one of the small retailers named here to do it for you at the register) and deliver them to the proper Christmas tree.

I didn't have to wrap the Legos or the miniature Bike Shop, but I did have to deliver them along with some other toys. I didn't have to go far but I had more to carry than I felt comfortable hauling on my back. So in the spirit of Christmas, I decided to take the ultimate misfit toy:

Readers, I am pleased to report the Budget Supertrike, arguably my worst build of 2011, is now a little less terrible. The chain doesn't fall off anymore – okay, as often – because it's now running through the derailleur, which is giving it some much needed tension. For cargo space I did away with the unwieldy cooler and went with a plastic holiday tote lashed down with mini bungees. 

That makes the whole trike red. Like Santa's sleigh.

So I loaded lots toys and goodies and set off. The chain didn't fall but it produced quite a din as it was rubbing up against something. The handling was as nimble as a rolling suitcase with a wheel missing, but it was still better than all of those cars out there – and more than a few slowed down to stare at it. Presumably, in envy.

Another feature of the Budget Supertrike: When stopped at the traffic light at the corner of Jefferson and Canal, I didn't have to take my feet out of the clips. Even if I wanted to, it would have been difficult (those particular clipless pedals tend to grip my bike shoes with an iron fist. Once, when they were on the Dahon Matrix, I stopped smoothly at an intersection...and slowly toppled over and crashed onto my side like the AT-AT walker in The Empire Strikes Back. I later decided they'd be better on a vehicle that doesn't require balance).

Before long, I made the turn off of Canal Street onto Fairway Market, nearly flipping the trike over on the 1” threshold separating the street from the parking lot. I passed the Christmas trees and made my way to the Design Within Reach building to deliver the toys.

With no handbrake and the stiff wind yesterday, the Supertrike quickly rolled out of the parking space and into the parking lot traffic (which isn't ideal) so I had to move it up against the building.

Once it was parked safely, I brought the toys inside to make a donation for the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation. During this season, I have a tendency to act like a kid on Christmas morning (though if you ask my wife she may say I act like a kid most other days of the year) but I don't want to forget that a lot of kids don't get to feel like kids on Christmas morning. So if you're among the lucky ones who can afford to buy a few extra toys this year, find a location nearest you or stop at the Toys for Tots distribution headquarters across from Fairway to drop off some new, unwrapped toys. You'll be glad you factored this in to your last-minute holiday shopping plans.

After talking with the volunteers for a few minutes about my ride – and answering one question on whether or not it was street legal – I remounted the Budget Supertrike, made as dignified a U-turn as I could manage, and headed home. I made it there in one piece and so did the trike. It was nice to know that no matter what else would happen with the Budget Supertrike this year, it was used for the three mile round trip to deliver toys. I poured a glass of water and smiled up at my wreath. I may not be a tiny tot, but my eyes were all a-glow.

Happy Holidays from DIYBIKING.COM.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"You're not biking there from here, are you?" - The Orlando Trip

People don't tend to associate Orlando, Florida with cycling. That part of the country may be known better for things like theme parks, golf, retiring, and buying a time share. It's never been a cycling destination and you've never, ever heard anyone say: “I just came back from a cycling vacation in Orlando.”


I just came back from a cycling vacation in Orlando. My wife was attending a conference at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes and thought it would be nice if I took a few days of vacation time so I could go with her and share the luxury. I agreed, and decided immediately to take my 1998 Bike Friday New World Tourist (which hasn't flown with me before) to check out the cycling scene in Orlando.

Unable to plan the trip properly, I didn't have a good look at the area until the day before the flight, when I noticed via satellite images that the hotel looked like it was on a highway. The name of the road the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes is on is the 'Central Florida Parkway' which sounds a little more intimidating, perhaps, than 'Maple Street.'

I decided not to let that bother me as we checked in. The lobby, the grounds and the room really packed the 'wow' factor as the place offers levels of luxury and amenities I'm just not used to – but quickly took advantage of.

Mindful of the professionalism of the hotel and the fact I didn't bring clothes that are considered 'resort casual' attire, I thought it would be wise to look my best each morning when I'd walk the bike through the lobby. So I took advantage of the shoe polisher sponge that came with the room. I was pleased with the results and figured I'd blend in with the resort casual crowd nicely.

Before leaving the room with my bike, I first did a little research by asking a friendly concierge what she knew about cycling in Orlando. She gave me an area map showing where some bike lanes were and suggested I should consider riding on the sidewalk when leaving the hotel. The nice woman who sold me my breakfast sandwich and coffee at Cafe Bodega (one of the many restaurants shared by the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton) unintentionally titled this post with her comment after I told her I planned to ride to the town of Winter Park. You see, my wife had coupons from Penzey's Spices that were about to expire, and we didn't have a chance to visit the location in Norwalk, Connecticut to use them. So since I wanted to ride that far north anyway, she gave me the coupons and told me to return to the Ritz-Carlton with spices.

It's as good a reason to ride in central Florida as any. 

As I ate my breakfast on the small balcony overlooking the lake and the golf course, I scoped out on the concierge map where I should ride, reasoning I'd buy a larger map from a gas station while on the road.

I dressed in my cycling clothes and gently walked the Bike Friday out of the hotel. To the credit of the friendly staff at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes, not once did I get a 'oh-no-he's-not-really-keeping-a-bike-in-one-of-our-rooms,-is-he?' look. I always got a smile and “good morning” each day when I set off and at least one “how-was-your-ride?” each time I returned. Polishing my bike shoes must have worked, I thought.

After setting the bike GPS to zero, I set off through the drive of the hotel and quickly discovered the pretty concierge hadn't lied about the sidewalk.

Not very interested in riding on what looked like Interstate 95, I decided to take her advice and ride the sidewalk to the John Young Parkway, where I planned to cut down to Whisper Lakes Boulevard before turning north on South Orange Blossom Trail.

Now most of the roads I used were very wide and highway-like, and typical of many American cities bike lanes would appear and disappear frequently. But because there were usually multiple lanes going in one direction, cars had that much more room to give me when passing. Still, I was glad for my helmet rearview mirror and bright vest as I cut my way through Orlando.

When I turned right on Oak Ridge Road to get to South Orange Avenue, I passed the base camp – which has since moved – belonging to Michelle Parker's family. It's a breathlessly sensationalized missing-pretty-white-woman story everywhere in the country, but it's a local story in Orlando about a real person who vanished without a trace weeks ago – that's causing great pain for her family and friends. After meeting Michelle's mother, I thought about this story differently. And after passing the camp, I began noticing the missing person posters everywhere I went and hoped they were making a difference – and that she'd be found soon.

When I made it to South Orange Avenue, I again turned north passing numerous chain stores and strip malls. Mile after mile of them. There were so many I didn't take nearly as many photos per mile as I usually took on rides. Orlando isn't Lisbon, after all. It's mostly as flat as a billiard table so there were no vistas, but on the plus side I could really turn the cranks and cross off the miles. And when I saw something that was either interesting or was something I'd only see in Florida, I'd stop.

Eventually, I saw a retail establishment I wanted to visit: the Ragin Cajun Bike Shop.

I struck up a conversation with the owner upon noticing some of the most adorable bikes I had ever seen, including a road bike built for a five year old. If I thought I could fit it in my carry-on bag, I would have bought it to give to my cousin's son as a Christmas gift – in 2016.

One of the advantages of a store that carries an assortment of tiny bikes is they carry an assortment of tiny tires, namely 20 inch 100psi road tires - that would fit on the Bike Friday. Happy to run into a store owner that doesn't give me a bewildered look when I ask if they have small road tires in stock, I bought a pair from Ragin Cajun and lashed them to my pack.

I pressed on and eventually saw downtown Orlando on the horizon. Yes, the area is so flat it actually has a horizon.

While passing through town to get to Winter Park, I stopped to buy a map at a former gas station that had been converted into a sort of cigarette shop and garden tractor dealership. I was shown the maps, and I pulled a 'Orlando Cityscape' one off the mostly barren shelf. I held the folded map to my face and blew a thick layer of dust off it. This'll do, I thought.

After I paid for it I found the map was very similar to those cheesy tourist maps you find at motels. Neither the map nor the landmarks were drawn to scale, and I quickly discovered the map didn't have all of the roads listed on it. Still, I was able to find Mills Avenue and make my way north once again toward Winter Park.

When I made it to Park Avenue, I discovered the road was paved with bricks. It's pleasing to the eye, but it isn't what you want to see when you're on a roadbike with no suspension seatpost. There's a fortune – or at least millons of happy cyclists - waiting for the company who can do a fake brick wallpaper equivalent for streets.

Thankfully, the bricks weren't nearly as challenging as the cobblestones of Lisbon or the roads of Manhattan, so I was able to make it the rest of the way to Penzey's in relative comfort and in short order.

I locked the bike and headed inside. The spices I got (a new blend called 'Forward' as well as a pepper and a new cinnamon my wife wanted) mostly came in glass jars, which added more weight to my pack. I reasoned it would be a good time to fuel up for lunch, so I stopped at Pannullo's to eat. It was a sunny Florida day so I could park the bike right at the table where I could eat outside.

After eating a rather fine white bean and sausage soup, salad and fish sandwich, I got back on the bike on continued through Winter Park, which did have a degree of cuteness that I didn't find in Orlando, but since it was mostly populated by chain stores I can find at home I decided to head back.

I used the map to find an alternative route back to the hotel, and in doing so I finally found a vista from which I could take a photograph.

By the time I made it back to the Ritz-Carlton it was almost quarter to five and I had gone 58 miles – the longest ride I had taken in months and the longest ride I had ever taken on a bike that wasn't the recumbent. Too tired to contemplate a second trip to the lobby, I walked the bike right up to the main counter at Norman's to make a dinner reservation for my wife and I that evening before returning to the room.

The next morning, I looked out the window of our hotel room and briefly considered seeing what it would take to borrow a kayak to use on the lake...

...but I decided instead to bike south. Once again, I was presented with some mostly unremarkable landscape, save for Gatorland, which offers a zip line that carries passengers over alligators and crocodiles. I decided to save that for a future visit.

Less than 10 miles after leaving the hotel, I arrived in downtown Kissimmee, which has several independent shops including, but not limited to, Breck's Gourmet Cookies. They make a good oatmeal raisin.

I found it was very easy to leave the small downtown area and find myself near Lakefront Park. Still later, I came across some very interesting – and unafraid – birds.

After a lunch at Taqueria Tres Amigos on Broadway Avenue, I continued my aimless trip around Kissimmee (there's a nice old Dahon at one of the antique stores) before heading back to the hotel in the early afternoon. All told, the second day was about 40 miles.

On day three, I only had a couple of hours before we'd have to check out of our room and I was planning to meet my wife for lunch. Not wanting to head north or south (been there, done that) I ruled out east since I didn't want to go toward Disneyworld or the other theme parks. So I picked west.

It was not the best idea I ever had. About 100 miles I had covered in the Orlando area, but there was only one road where I truly didn't enjoy sharing the road with Sunshine State motorists: this one, Taft-Vineland Road. Peppered with warehouses, the road was narrow and filled with trucks. I didn't realize this until I was on it.

I have never been killed while riding a bike (not even once) and eager to continue my streak, I abandoned Taft-Vineland and found my way back to the Ritz-Carlton after seeing two more fearless birds – or they could have been the same ones – hanging out near Consulate Drive.

I made it back to the hotel with another 15 miles under my belt before hastily showering and packing my things. Thankfully, the tires I bought at Ragin Cajun fit in the bottom of my suitcase.

I checked the Bike Friday and most of the rest of our luggage with the bellman before heading to the pool to wait for my wife's conference to end. All in all, It was a very nice cycling vacation. I admit there's a reason you never hear anyone but me say “I just came back from a cycling vacation in Orlando” but it is flat, it is warm, it's filled with friendly people, and it does have a few inexpensive flights available to get you there. It also helps when you have the right accommodations. Additionally, there are a number of bicycle paths (some of which are rail trails far from the hotel I didn't have a chance to use) and surprisingly courteous drivers. But if you go, bring your helmet rearview mirror and your brightest jersey, don't rule out renting a car to start your ride away from Orlando – and don't forget to polish your bike shoes before leaving the hotel.