Monday, June 25, 2012

Hide Your Derailleurs: We're Going to Brooklyn

Thanks to the Five Boro Bike Tour, I can count on biking in Brooklyn at least once a year. This past Sunday I visited it bikeless, which enabled me to move slowly enough to really see Brooklyn. In all of its Brooklyn.

The people of Brooklyn are usually friendly and have their own style; think Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's crossed with Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. There are many cyclists, but there is nary a spandex-shorts wearing one to be found. From what I could tell by keen observation, there is a bizzare bandit on the loose in Brooklyn – one who only appears to steal front and rear derailleurs – so if you ride there with anything that has shifters, keep a sharp eye.

It was my wife's idea to head to Dekalb Market in Brooklyn, a collection of refurbished shipping containers showcasing the act of retailing and the practice of selling food as an art form. It's on 138 Willoughby Street, a convenient subway ride on the 4 train from Grand Central Terminal. The whole place initially reminded me of Bartertown, except without Thunderdome, Tina Turner, or Master Blaster.

Though the retail shop part of the market isn't open on Mondays, Dekalb is open seven days a week and there is a large open space in the middle for events, such as bike-in movies (don't take the tall bike from Joy Machines). The day I went there I was reminded about just how good Brooklyn can be. Picture a great food truck in your head. Now picture a dozen or so other great food trucks. Take away the trucks and put them all in a row under tents and in shipping containers and you've got Dekalb. Tacos for $3 each was what I went for and they did not disappoint. Neither did the lemonade topped with a scoop of strawberry rhubarb sorbet. Trust me: it is a summer drink for heads of state.

Strolling around the market, one can visit Far Far Away Toys, a fun vintage toy shop containing all of the toys, action figures, lunch boxes, and other childhood goodies that you went-all-'Sid'-from-Toy-Story on more than a quarter of a century ago. There's little to no chance I'll whisper 'Greedo!' as I utter my last breath and drop a Hoth snow globe on the floor, but if you or any of your friends mourns the toys of yesterday and want them back today, that's the place in Brooklyn to go.

Not far from Far Far Away is Love of Pretty (I only went in there to see what was taking my wife so long) which mostly has handmade jewelry, but I still saw something I liked.

And just next door is the famous Eleanor's, which lives up to its mission in providing 'stylish bicycle accessories for ladies.'

The place has a very well edited selection, and it's actually quite nice to visit a bike shop that knows what it is instead of piling random goods everywhere. If you want a basket, a wine rack that attaches to your top tube, or you want to buy a handmade bicycle skirt garter clip so your wife or girlfriend can ride in a skirt with confidence, this is the place to go.

I did not get to visit Velo City (the cool-sounding organization that provides cycling-based urban planning programs for youth) as they are probably attending the Velo City Global 2012 conference in Vancouver this week and didn't bring their container.

So Dekalb Market is a nice way to visit Brooklyn, and if you want to go I suggest you get a move on: the landlord is planning to develop the land and the market, containers and all, will move to a yet-unknown location in a few months. Now, if the mayor of Stamford, Michael Pavia, wants to sew up his reelection right now, he would engineer a way to move Dekalb to Stamford and put it in the huge vacant lot across from the mall, but a small part of me hopes this place will stay a destination in Brooklyn. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Mountain Biking in Manhattan (Yes. That one.)

The whole reason I went mountain biking in Manhattan on Sunday is because my wife wanted to visit an art store in Darien, Connecticut on Saturday. Walking from the art store that afternoon I noticed a barber shop that was still open. Nobody was ahead of me so I got my hair cut for the first time since visiting London. While my wife was waiting for me she became bored and thumbed through Outside magazine, a periodical we don't get at home. A bit about the Highbridge Park Trail System caught her eye, and our Sunday afternoon just fell into place.

This is part of why print needs to last forever: I have nothing against getting your media (like DIYBIKING.COM) on tablets but the experience is so personalized that kind of thing would probably never happen if you're finger-swiping your way through your usual stuff and never have to rely on someone else's magazines.

So on short notice and for the first time since visiting the Cleveland Metroparks, I got my homemade mountain bike together for a quick trip to New York City, which was easily done by taking the Metro North from Stamford to Harlem-125th St. station. When it's a busy Sunday, I keep my bike in the vestibule, and three mini bungee cords will hold it – or any bike - in place: one wrapping the rear tire around the pole and the other two as shown.

When we arrived, my wife headed off to sketch while I biked down 125th street and took a right on Amsterdam Avenue. I could have taken a subway to a trailhead (as suggested by the Outside article) but was feeling limber enough to handle several dozen blocks.

I did okay, but I admit I did miss the polite, non-honking motorists of Cleveland. Also, the bike I built lost a crankarm on the way up (well I didn't lose it; it just came off and since I was clipped in it just clung awkwardly to my left shoe) so I had to stop briefly to wield a minitool in front of a psychic's office – who probably saw that coming.

With no other noticeable, debilitating mechanical defects, I ended up entering the trail at the dirt jump park, which is at the part of Amsterdam Avenue that turns into Fort George Avenue, just past 190th street. Nearby, there's a basketball court, a baseball diamond, and, that day, an ice cream truck that played The Entertainer/theme from the Paul Newman film 'The Sting' as it rolled by the park.

Despite not owning a BMX bike in years, I took a few laps on the Highbridge Mountain Bike Course. After all, I didn't really see how the new bike would do on rough stuff at Cleveland. On these huge but tiny hills, it did great and the suspension is cushy-soft, but if you'll look closely at the picture above you'll see the rear fender is bent around the side of the seat tube like a bad comb-over, so I ended up removing it entirely and stowing it in my backpack.

Then I took a quick look at the trail map and set off. Because of where I was, the 'less difficult' trails were the first ones I hit. Some nice singletrack, but I was distracted by realizing that all this was somehow in New York City. Thanks, New York City Mountain Bike Association.

I did have a couple of reminders that I was, in fact, in NYC. Depending on where you are in the park you can usually hear the traffic on the Harlem River Drive or Fort George Hill – which is actually useful to get your bearings. Also, you can sometimes see evidence that the city makes unwelcome visits to the park and leaves general litter and some teeny-tiny plastic bags (you know, for postage-stamp sized sandwiches). Trails don't maintain themselves, and I can only imagine how much work the New York City Mountain Bike Association and the city's parks department has cut out for them, so before leaving for the day I walked along part of the beginner trail and carefully picked up every large piece of glass I found. I was mainly worried about a flat tire spoiling someone's day. So if you can do it in a safe and non-gross way, it's good to leave any park with more than what you came in there with.

Happily, I suffered no flats as I wound my way through the trees, and the errant empty bottle of wine couldn't block some of the views.

However, I was soon hit with a problem with my old nemesis: the front derailleur. I lost the ability to shift into the lowest gear in the crank and thus began to balk at some of the climbs. I've had trouble adjusting this properly on my Park Tool workstand, a full size set of tools, lemonade and tortilla chips within reach, and Season 10 of Top Gear on the TV so I knew I wouldn't have a chance trying to fix it proper in the urban jungle. So I got along without it, stopping on the steep climbs but flying down the hills. All in all, I was able to do a few miles of mountain biking in Manhattan and feel some good bumps through the suspension that rivaled most of the five borough's potholes.

I had also started the afternoon mostly riding alone, but I met a few people on the trails while I was in and on the way out, I noticed several spectators and riders enjoying the mountain bike course.

I would have watched myself, but I needed to head south to meet my wife at the station. That allowed me to put the mountain bike back in the Big Ring so I could cruise as fast as five blocks per minute at times.

On 125th street, on a Sunday afternoon, it was very busy so I kept a sharp eye on the helmet rearview mirror, inattentive motorists and a lumbering double-decker sightseeing bus. Another peril was the heat, so I stopped and got a drink at a pushcart that happened to be on Lenox Avenue right across from Red Rooster, a great restaurant my wife and I ate at back in March that she sketched.

New Harlem dinner plans would have to wait for another trip, as we were to get on an early train. Still, it was a great day of mountain biking in Manhattan. Remember, if you go: 3 bungee cords, plenty of water, body armor and a full-frontal helmet (if you do the double-black diamond trails), a plastic bag to put litter in, and bike tools. And bring a great bike. Failing that, bring a bike you love. Thanks for reading. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Rolling into Cleveland: Part II

After visiting the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath and part of the Cleveland Metropark system, I moved on to the part of my trip where I'd be staying in downtown Cleveland. With the Element tucked in a parking garage for the balance of the trip, every ride originated with the Bike Friday from the Marriott Residence Inn on Prospect Avenue.

There's no vast lobby here; just a friendly staff and a comfortable room large enough to easily put a bike in (but be very careful not to scratch the nice wooden doors as you walk it in and out of the entrance).

Thanks to a couple of Google searches and a map I found from Positively Cleveland, it didn't take me long to get a lay of the land. The map showed a large number of attractions, entertainment options, sports venues and shopping areas – but there was only one attraction on that map I was interested in finding before the end of my trip. I circled 'The Attraction' with a hotel pen.

A slight complication was that due to a few Grown Up Things that had somehow infected my schedule, I wouldn't have the biggest blocks of time during each day to explore. But I still made the most of it, and found that it isn't difficult to find places to ride in Cleveland when the people are so nice. For instance, on day one I had lunch at The Greenhouse Tavern on Fourth Street, which is full of places to eat with outdoor dining.

What made this place special – other than the good food and the attractive servers - is they had recently partnered with a local bike shop, Blazing Saddle Cycle, for an exhibit, Respect the Bike. Though the event was over, the decorations still remained.

When I told my server why I was in town, I quickly learned she was helpful in addition to being pretty as she brought me a map to Blazing Saddle Cycle and a few other things to help me learn about the cycling scene in Cleveland. I kept everything she gave me, but I knew that the only way to learn about the bike scene in Cleveland was to actually ride in Cleveland, so soon after I paid the bill I set off through town. 

Now if you're from the East Coast: one thing about riding in Cleveland is unsettling: No matter where I went, how fast I'd ride, where I'd lock my bike or what I wore...I was treated politely by motorists. I never heard a car horn, never saw a scowl and never smelled any anger. Nobody blasted by me in the car and everyone gave me space when overtaking the Bike Friday. Some motorists even smiled at me.

It was eerie. But it was also telling: I think Tom Vanderbilt's book Traffic spells this out more thoroughly, but the more people who ride bikes in a city, the more motorists will be aware of them, and the safer (and happier) everyone is. Are you reading this, Stamford-guy-with-the-Ford-Explorer-who-shouted-'Use the sidewalk!' as-you-barreled-by-me-on-Bedford-Street-only-to-watch-me-catch-up-to-you-at-the-next-traffic-light-and-ding-my-bike-bell-in-defiance?

Also, unlike other cities that have a river or two cutting through them (cough, New York, cough) I found it easy to find passage across. My first trip after the visit to The Greenhouse Tavern (to find The Attraction I wanted to find on the Positively Cleveland map) took me on Carnegie Avenue and the bridge that crossed the Cuyahoga River.

This brought me back to the West Side Market, but it also brought me to my first bike shop, Joy Machines on West 25th Street.


As the name implies, I did see a number of bikes that looked as though they would provide joy. They also had several commuter-friendly items I wasn't used to seeing and a few homemade items I liked immediately. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in the shop.

After leaving Joy Machines and searching for The Attraction, I realized I wouldn't get there and back in time for a Grown Up Thing I needed to do back at the hotel, so I recrossed the river and easily made it back to the Residence Inn.

The next day, I tried again, only this time I warmed up riding in the downtown area. Looping by Progressive Field (home of the Cleveland Indians) I came face to face with the city-block sized mural that was once reserved for the Lebron James 'Witnesses' one. It looked as though the city had put this guy behind them and were ready to look forward.

As it just so happened, I was staying in Cleveland the very week the Horseshoe Casino was having its grand opening. I've always had mixed feelings about casinos and constantly wonder what kind of effect-both good and bad-they have in certain areas. As I rode by the Horseshoe, located in the legendary Higbee's department store building, all I could do was hope it would become what the planners were imagining and not like Biff Tannen's Pleasure Paradise.

Evaluating the socioeconomic impact of legalized gambling could wait for another time; I still needed to find The Attraction, but first I wanted to see if I could find Blazing Saddle Cycle. With the map I got from The Greenhouse Tavern, I determined I needed to cross the river again; this time on the Veterans Memorial Bridge. Which has bike...wait for it...lanes.

From there it was a straight shot to Blazing Saddle Cycle, a shop that hasn't even been open for a year but I couldn't imagine Cleveland without it – ever.

This shop had more than its share of interesting bikes, new, used or under construction. Later that day, I would regret not spending the $350 asking price for the folding tandem, which I'm sure I could have found a way to bring it and the Bike Friday back to the hotel and stowing the tandem in the Element. Even with mountain bike 2.0 taking up a lot of space, there would have been room. Probably.

Upon leaving Blazing Saddle Cycle, I once again had to return to the hotel as Grown Up Things were beckoning with an incessant whine. As much as I would have liked exploring Ohio City as long as the muscles in my legs and the sunscreen on my skin would allow, I realized how easy it was to take short and interesting rides in Cleveland.

That theme continued the following morning, when, free from Grown Up Things, I was determined to finally find The Attraction. First, though, I headed down to the shore of Lake Erie to check out the 9th Street Pier, and with it, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a great attraction in Cleveland (and a nice looking building) but it wasn't The Attraction I had set out to find. Before I left though, I did allow myself a brief ride along a nearby stretch of the Cleveland Lakefront Bikeway.

Later I once again pedaled toward Carnegie Avenue so I could cross the bridge into Ohio City. Once again, I not only became lost, I found yet another memorable bike shop: Fridrich Bicycle, Inc. (the side of which contains the mural in the first picture on this post). The business has a long history, having started as a coal and feed store in the 1880s and about 10,000 square feet of retail goodness. I always adore the chance to see things in bike shops I rarely get to see, like a Rhoades Car for example.

 I also saw a few recumbents, which, no matter what anyone says, are cool. I even saw a three-wheel one that made me think of the Budget Supertrike back home.

I bought a couple of things at Fridrich's and asked for help in finding The Attraction. They gave me above-and-beyond assistance, and this time when I set off I was sure I'd find what I was looking for. At times, I was able to ride through areas in the neighborhood of Tremont that had clearly seen more bustling times, but still had a certain indescribable something that made me pull out the camera.

I pedaled on, following the directions given to me by the mechanic at Fridrich's. The sun was bearing down and my water was running low, but after after a few twists and turns in Tremont, I finally found my way to The Attraction. And it was everything I hoped it would be.

I know, I know: it's silly, especially since there are so many things in Cleveland to do and museums to visit, but I wanted to see the house that was used for the exteriors of the cult film, A Christmas Story. The Higbees building, now home to the Horseshoe Casino, was where the Red Ryder BB gun was first seen by Ralphie. And as I'm sure fans of the film will remember, the street in the movie was called 'Cleveland Street.' And, at that moment, it was. I could even see the famous leg lamp (sorry: 'Major Award') in the window.

Unfortunately, I had visited the house during a day when it wasn't open. The museum across the street and the gift shop nearby was also closed (no Major Award was going to be sticking out of my backpack on the ride back) but it was still worth the ride into Tremont, which, if I had a finer sense of direction, would have been a lot shorter than it had been.

With that admittedly demented bucket list item checked off, I was now looking forward to a treat, so I made my way back to downtown and stopped at Colossal Cupcakes, not far from the hotel. I was surprised to learn that it had only been open a short while, but it still felt like it had always been there. And like so many businesses in Cleveland, has a bike rack just outside.

Before long, my visit to Cleveland was over. The city had completely defied my expectations and I couldn't believe it was, on a bike culture and bike facilities basis, so far ahead of so many others I had visited. I didn't even have a chance to check out The Bike Rack, which is a full service bike parking and showers/changing facilities are put in recently to encourage bike commuting. It enough to make person from Stamford weep.

I'll plot a return to Cleveland soon, and I hope you plan your first trip. Thanks for reading.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Rolling into Cleveland: Part I

I recently got talked into driving from Stamford to Cleveland. Ohio. 

I don't want to get into the circumstances, but I will say that life can sometimes throw you one of those math problems you used to get in grade school. For instance: if Jack thinks he needs an hour to get to the airport, an hour to get through security, forty-five minutes to sit at the gate, three hours to sit in a plane, how many other stages of air travel is he going to think about before he decides a nine-hour road trip might be easier?

So that was part of why a five-state blend of bug pizza ended up on the grill and windshield of my Honda Element. I had great company and an excellent iPod playlist (named 'Cleveland?' complete with the question mark, as I knew that's how some of my friends would respond after I had told them where I had been). Thanks to the interior bike rack I built, I brought along homemade mountain bike 2.0 and my Bike Friday New World Tourist.

I must admit I didn't have a very positive impression of Cleveland before I got there. It seemed that the only time I heard of anything from that city was when something bad had happened to it, be it an economic meltdown or a betrayal by a sports figure.

Speaking of which: Art Modell and Lebron James? You're both banned from DIYBIKING.COM. Really. I ban thee.

But soon after I arrived, I realized Cleveland has a lot going for it. For starters, before you begin any cycling adventure, your food options are covered, especially if you go to the West Side Market, which is currently celebrating its centennial and offers some great eats.

The pig was tempting, but I decided to eat a more balanced breakfast at the West Side Market Cafe before I found other treats in the market that caught my eye, like blueberry donuts (two words that have been kept apart for far too long) and fresh chicken jerky. When you leave the market, be sure to walk through the streets behind it and find The Glass Bubble Project to check out the hand-blown glass, great artwork and to meet nice people.

One of the guys running it mentioned the place was imminently moving from this location across the street, but if their style goes with them, I'm sure you won't have trouble finding the place (not far from the famous 'Ohio City' sculpture).

After breakfast and visiting The Glass Bubble Project, one can head to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath trail, which offers over 20 miles of hard-packed dirt trails...and so much more: when you go into the visitors center (either the Boston Store Visitor Center or any of the other ones) and pay for the Towpath Tag, you may acquire a map showing things like the stops on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway, which pepper the trail. If you ride out in one direction and don't feel like riding in the other, you and your bike can take the train back. Brilliant.

On the trail itself, which has just enough dips and curves to make it interesting in its own right, you occassionally see what's left of the canal locks...and can try to imagine what it must have been like having to use a series of locks and a towpath to move things in and out of Cleveland in the 1830s.

The trail is also open 24 hours a day, so if you bring a good light you can ride at night. I opted to use the trail during the day, when Century Cycles' Peninsula location is open. The shop, which does have bike rentals there and a good selection of bells, is close to the Peninsula Depot Visitor Center and a railway station.

On my ride along the towpath, my newly built mountain bike did well. I saw no skinny-tired, Presta valve-using roadbikes on this trail, but most of it was so smooth something with hybrid tires would have done just fine – though I liked the way my knobby tires sounded in the short tunnels.

Along the way, signs on the trail offer some history about the Cuyahoga River. Donate money at the visitor's centers when you go: trails like this need to be maintained.

Sadly, I didn't have time to do the entire length of this trail. Lucky for me though, I wasn't very far into my Cleveland trip and got to visit a different trail the next day. This one was the Rocky River Reservation trail, which is part of the Cleveland Metroparks trail system.

This trail was paved and I switched to the New World Tourist, which could zip on the smooth trails (which didn't have many road crossings or rollerbladers!) over the river and through the woods.

On this trail, I crossed off 23 miles and once again didn't have the time to do the whole thing. But I was still thankful for the time I spent on it and the chance I had afterward to rest at the river.

Inspired by the artists I met at The Glass Bubble Project, my wife, Cleveland, I decided to give sketching a try as I rested.

Let me assure you: I will stick with writing about bikes.

While it felt like time had slowed down, my visit with the great trails of the Cleveland Metroparks and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park were too brief. As I put the bike back in the car, I knew its wheels would touch down in the Metroparks again soon.

But for now, the Bike Friday had a new assignment: downtown Cleveland.

To be continued...