Friday, August 23, 2013

Cycling With Candidates: Part II

Okay: for those of you just tuning in - since I was appointed to the Connecticut Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Board I've been thinking more about making my hometown of Stamford a better place to ride. As I wasn't sure how to do that, I thought I'd take the issue with the three main candidates running for mayor.

As I'm not sure what I'd ask them about specific infrastructure or how to even start the conversation, I instead have asked each the following: Will you take a one-mile bike ride with me through downtown Stamford during rush hour?

Now while trying to get on the calendar with every one of these candidates I've learned something: it's not easy to get on anyone's schedule when you are talking about people who are campaigning in a city this size. Herding cats while wearing a dog costume is probably an exercise in efficiency and craftsmanship next to trying to talk a busy person you've never met into taking a bike ride with someone they've never met. 

But in spite of that difficulty I'm slowing finding islands in the calendar river for the candidates, who are: 

Michael Fedele (Republican)
David Martin (Democrat)
WIlliam Tong (Democrat) 

Just in case you're wondering: Yes, once again none of the three candidates yet have a page on their sites (yet) devoted to views on transportation issues. Also, I have to spell the party names out because putting an 'r' in parentheses turns Michael Fedele, the candidate I rode with last week into a registered trademark. 

Today was a good and long day, which began with a leisure trip on the Bike Friday to New Canaan. Other than the realization the sequester cuts must have reduced the post office's vowel buying budget 40%, it was a fun ride.

Later, in the afternoon, I once again picked up the office bike for my planned ride with William Tong. The meeting place was once again the Bedford Street Diner.

The meeting time was originally going to be 8:00am this past Wednesday but had to be shifted to 4:00pm today. Now for those of you who know how traffic flows in the morning, you have to realize that things are a little different come late afternoon. In the morning you've got volume but people are often sluggish because the coffee hasn't kicked in yet. Late afternoons - and this is a Friday we're talking about here - motorists tend to have more of a 'let's-flee-from-the-Sharknado!' vibe with their driving: the week is over and they want to be home as soon as possible. 

I made it the diner on the early side. No donuts in the case, but it was a hot day and so I enjoyed a soft-serve ice cream cone. Yes, I am mindful of the DIYBIKING.COM rules of summer and I am following them.

Soon after I finished my ice cream (for the life of me I don't understand why they don't give the option of serving ice cream on one of their donuts) Tong arrived, having brought his bike with him in the back of a gray SUV. Having a gray SUV myself, I was curious and peeked in to notice he didn't have an interior bike rack like mine, but the seats were folded to the floor and the only other thing in the cargo area was a child's seat. 

I imagine that between running for mayor and having three kids, all under the age of seven, any kind of riding must be rare, and Tong himself confirmed that while he is a recreational rider he hasn't ridden in a while. Still, the bike he brought was his own nine-year-old eBay purchase and was unremarkable save for the kid's seat bracket on the top tube (for the seats that allow the child to face forward). 

When he was a kid, Tong remembers that his first bike was a red Raleigh his uncle had given him for Christmas one year, and for a time when he lived in Providence Rhode Island he enjoyed feeling the wind and the freedom of cycling there. I personally recommended the Providence to Bristol East Bay Bike Path for him and his entire family, and he said he had ridden it himself long ago, but it didn't extend from Providence to Bristol at the time. 

Following the one-picture-of-candidate-wearing-helmet rule of this ongoing project, I now present Democrat William Tong.

After comparing bikes and talking a little more (as it turned out we were both born in Connecticut and had returned to live in Stamford after a Nutmeg State hiatus; he moved here in 2000, me in 2004) we set off. Dru, the photographer from the Stamford Advocate, did not ride with us so William and myself navigated the streets on our own while she intercepted us with her car. 

As I had done with Michael Fedele, we went up Bedford, took a left on Oak, a left on Summer, and a right on Broad and a left on Washington. 

As expected, the traffic showed a degree of urgency that isn't there in the morning. Save for a rogue green Subaru that we both agreed came excessively close to us we had no real close calls and arrived safely at 888 Washington Boulevard. 

We continued our conversation in front of the building, and I attempted to use words to convey the need for bicycle infrastructure in the city. The ride, of course, had done a lot of the talking. Still, I wished I had told him about my earlier experience this same day when I rode to AutoZone: With no options, I had to lock my bike to one of those three-foot tall plastic ashtrays by threading the cable through the opening the butts go in (hashtag: 'Ewwwwwww'). How do we encourage businesses to get bike racks and put them right in front where people can see them easily? Stamford downtown? Should we do something with an old shipping container like what Cleveland has near Nano Brew?

All complicated questions (save for the last one, which for me would be a 'yes' in all uppercase) that would have to wait for long after our ride. 

Needing to return to his car, it was William's idea to ride through the Mill River Park.  Having ridden through it myself only once I enjoyed the small extension of this worthwhile ride. 

Back at the diner, I thanked William Tong as profusely as I thanked Michael Fedele and we parted ways - only after I shared my vision of how I wanted 'Cycling with Candidates' to evolve: you know how when people are running for president and in Iowa or something they have to eat fried fatty foods? I want this ride to be the fried fatty food of municipal elections: whether you enjoy it or not, you have to be seen taking part - if for no other reason the world needs more pictures of leaders with bicycles.

Also: making it easier for someone to walk or ride in a city is a way to measure a city's progress. Hopefully by the time the 2017 Stamford mayoral election comes up and if my health is still intact, that ride will feel different. Thanks for reading, thanks for riding - and do a lot of both before this summer ends. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Cycling With Candidates

I was recently appointed to the Connecticut Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Board.  As a result, the tone of this blog will become much more serious. Think a cross between a somber PBS news read and an after-school special that involves an overdose.

Or not. 

Being a part of the board, though, has changed my perspective - as a cyclist, an SUV owner and a Stamford resident.  I'm noticing things that I didn't notice before, like that I only get to enjoy a bike lane for a quarter of a mile for my entire 3.5 mile commute from my home to my office. One quarter of one mile. That's all I get for leaving my car at home, and like I've said before: if ten people are driving cars downtown today and just one of them decides to ride a bike tomorrow, traffic will move a little easier for the other nine.

I also began to think about the bicycle-friendly cities around the world I've been fortunate enough to pedal in - Barcelona, Cleveland, London and others - and I realized something: all this time I've thought of Stamford as a bad place to ride, but that's really the wrong way of thinking. It's really a fantastic place to ride. There are beaches, great businesses and restaurants downtown, and the most populated areas of the city are mostly flat. The thing is, to a leisure cyclist or a bicycle commuter, Stamford is the Charlie Brown Christmas tree of cycling cities. It just needs a little love, and no matter who becomes the new mayor later this fall, it would be ideal if some of that love started at the top - and began downtown, because that's where a little bit of cycling infrastructure would go a long way. 

It also occurred to me that Stamford's traffic, or any city traffic, doesn't care what political party you belong to. It just cares about taking up your valuable time. 

I then made it my goal to reach out to all three of the leading candidates running and ask them something. I didn't want to corner them with questions on certain projects, get policy out of them or turn this blog into any kind of campaign vehicle, but instead wanted to ask: will you take a one-mile bike ride with me through downtown Stamford during rush hour?

I wasn't expecting any of them to be transformed by this. At the very least, I simply wanted to do something that could change their perspective on not just how bicycle-unfriendly the city is now, but how good the city could be someday.  

So I reached out to the three candidates, who I will list here in alphabetical order:

Michael Fedele (Republican)
David Martin (Democrat)
William Tong (Democrat)

The thing about all three candidates is that as of this writing none of them have a page on their sites regarding transportation issues in the city. I'm not holding that against any of them. I've volunteered on political campaigns and know how disorganized and chaotic they can sometimes be - especially in an off-year election. When and if they do add pages about transportation issues, I will put up the links. 

I didn't have their direct e-mail addresses, but all three of their web sites featured either a generic 'contact us' page or e-mail address where I introduced myself, told them about the Connecticut Bike & Pedestrian Advisory Board and asked each one if they'd separately take a one-mile bike ride with me from the Bedford Street Diner to 888 Washington Boulevard (where the mayor's office is).

Yes, I was giving them campaign hay. Whether they'd want to reach for their pitchforks and scoop it up or not would be up to them. 

I stressed to the candidates - or, rather, to the campaign worker/volunteer who was going to see the message first - that I wasn't going to make one of them look better than another. I wasn't going to judge any of them on their choice of attire, their choice of equipment, how good their bike was, or their skill level. I told them I was going to write about it and take pictures but I wasn't going to cover how frightened any of them would be at the finish - if applicable. Seriously: if a candidate were to arrive at 888 Washington Boulevard and curl up in a ball and quiver, I wouldn't write about it.

That point is more important than it sounds. I did not want some James Carville/Karl Rove-like campaign manager to tell a candidate to nix the idea for fear a 'Dukakis in a tank' photo would be the legacy of this exercise. 

I also offered up the use of a bike to borrow, if it was necessary. I know that puts a little bit of pressure on my occassionally primitive maintenance and repair skills, but I was trying to make the list of excuses to do this as short as possible. 

So I waited and eventually heard back from all three campaigns. The first candidate I was able to schedule something with was Michael Fedele, and he and I worked out today (Friday, August 16th) at 8:00am to be the time to meet for the ride. The other candidates I am still trying to put on a calendar.

I needed an appropriate bike for the exercise - something that wasn't intimidating but good for city riding, so this is what I brought: my office bike

It hasn't changed much since it was nearly stolen a couple of years ago, and as you can see I even added the ultimate symbol of a non-serious cyclist: a kickstand I had commandeered from a Saved from the Scrapheap bike. 

The night before the ride, I got nervous. I realized I had never done the route myself before (Up Bedford, left on Oak, left on Summer, right on Broad, left on Washington) and I was worried. I didn't know the skill levels of any of the candidates or if they even had experience with city riding.  Were Fedele to get hit by a car it would probably make it more difficult to get the other candidates to ride with me. 

In addition to the other, more serious problem. 

I managed to stow my worries/imagination long enough to ride out to the Bedford Street Diner around quarter past seven in the morning, hoping that one day I'd get to ride on more than just 1/4 of a mile of bike lane on this sort of trip. 

Thanks to hitting most of the traffic lights green, I arrived about a half hour early, which gave me just enough time to ride up Oak and take the left on Summer. It shouldn't be too bad, I thought. 

I arrived early at the Bedford Street Diner. Chaining the bike outside, I wondered if I had arrived in time for the 'donut window.'

The empty display case on the counter gave me my answer, so I enjoyed a cup of coffee instead. A few minutes later, Michael Fedele arrived. And, like me, he was carrying a bike helmet.

As he explained, he was more of a recreational rider and had to borrow a bike from his son in law to do this since he kept his own bike elsewhere. In keeping with my promise to him and the other candidates, I will not put any focus on his skill level or choice of equipment. 

We talked about what he thought about bike lanes and cycling infrastructure in the city, and if and/or when his campaign adds a page that would explain how he'd approach transportation issues, I'll add it here.  

Just as the donuts materialized in the case (I didn't have one this time) Fedele did tell me the longest ride he had been on as a kid: when he was in middle school in the 1960s, he rode from the West Side of Stamford to Turn of River, and marveled that when he would visit Italy (where he was born in 1955) people would ride bikes anywhere and everywhere. 

I met his campaign manager, Patrick, who is nothing like James Carville or Karl Rove. He was not going to ride with us, but Chris, a blogger from Stamford 411 who arrived later would. Patrick said he'd come in a car and would give a ride to someone from, who wanted to film us with her camera. I politely asked her not to pace us too much since I wanted the ride to be as authentic a commuter experience as possible, and she agreed. 

We gathered outside so Patrick and the rest of the group could get ready and take photographs. Each candidate I do this with will get one photograph of themselves on my site wearing a helmet, so here I present Republican candidate, Michael Fedele.

We set off and easily made the right turn onto Bedford and the left down Oak street. Moments later, we saw this, on Summer Street.

Oh, right. Rush hour. 

With the traffic moving at a crawl, we decided to strike out through a gap in front of a stopped truck. Keeping an eye on the candidate in my helmet mounted rearview mirror, we pedaled through the space between the slow moving cars and the parked ones. I commented that a bike lane might make the space more consistent as we negotiated a white minivan that was invading our personal space. 

It wasn't until we had turned right onto Broad Street where we got to truly share the lane with the cars as we were making a left turn. While we did NOT ride side by side for the mile, the red light at Washington Boulevard did give us a chance to talk.

We safely made the left turn and continued down Washington Boulevard, finally ending up at the government center. 

We talked some more and before long, Patrick arrived in the car. Writing this now I realize I could have pointed out to Fedele that the car was a lot slower to cover the mile, but I didn't at the time. I thanked them and after talking a few more minutes, we parted company. 

As I said, I'm refraining from talking too much about his or any other candidates policy positions, and if and when the candidates do put pages on their web sites about transportation issues, I'll put the links here. 

So I succeeded in that I rode with a candidate who did not die and who, at the very least, will return to the campaign trail with hopefully a new sense of perspective on getting around the city.  I sincerely thank Michael Fedele for taking the time this morning to ride with me and I will keep you in the loop as I try to get on the calendars of the other candidates.  And if you want to try your own Cycling with Candidates in your own city, please do so. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding - especially if you're in Stamford. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Folding Bike Week 2013: A Brompton in Edinburgh

The nice part about tacking on a vacation at the end of a business trip is that you can usually get to see places you normally wouldn't without the cost of plane fare. The downside is you have to lug your presentation materials, dress shoes, ties and business suits with you for the balance of the trip. 

It is with that reasoning that my Bike Friday New World Tourist - which did get to visit Barcelona recently - didn't go with me to London a couple of months back. My wife and I indeed had enough luggage to keep track of when we took a train from King's Cross Station.

After an overnight stop in York (where I unfortunately came down with a cold) we continued our journey. We mostly saw fields, sheep, some water, and more sheep.

Yes, we were on our way to Edinburgh, Scotland.

We were only going to be there for two nights but I hatched a plan over a week earlier: I'd rent a bike upon arrival and return it just before we'd have to catch a train back. Sure, I wouldn't be able to use it all the time, but I just wanted the peace of mind that I could use it anytime. 

And it would be a folding bike so I could easily bring it into our room at the Radisson Blu and other places without trouble. 

This would be an unusual trip, for I would be renting not just any bike, but a Brompton; the legendary and out-of-my-price-range folding bike I was fortunate enough to see made in all of its spectacular detail last year at the Brompton factory in London.

This is Biketrax; a shop in Edinburgh I walked to at great speed within minutes of checking into the hotel. As it happened, I was renting the kind of Brompton I had always wanted: one with six speeds, a rear rack and funky handlebars.

I signed a form and the friendly clerk showed me how to fold it…before he unfolded it again. Minutes later I left the shop with a bike that would be mine for less than 48 hours. I didn't ride it much in the first hour since my wife and I were walking together through Edinburgh while she was looking for a good place to sketch, so I was only able to admire how well the bike could be maneuvered on a crowded sidewalk.

Our first stop at the Paper Tiger embarrassed me completely. Not because of the store's content, but because it took me a couple of minutes to fold the Brompton properly.

I hoped beyond hope nobody was on the street taping me. Yes, I had barely paid attention at Biketrax. I actually saw these things being made - I even held the key hinge mechanism in my hand.  I had also stared with awe at enough of them being folded in the wild to know how to fold one properly. 

As it turned out, my wife was in Paper Tiger viewing me through the window with much bafflement. I finally got the bike folded and carried it inside. 

We spoke little of my humiliating display. 

After visiting a couple of other shops, I put on my helmet (I always bring my own wherever I go) and hit the pedals.

I quickly discovered two things: Edinburgh has quite a lot of cyclists and the Brompton is truly in a category by itself. Aside from the short ride I did in Philadelphia, this was the longest ride I had ever been on with a Brompton. It felt solid, nimble and comfortable. The only thing that niggled me was the shifting as I found myself having to push the levers with a lot more force than normal to get the bike to change gears. I wondered if it was a quirk because the bike was new and even worried the shifters would break under the pressure, but they didn't and I was able to join Edingburgh's cycling community with style and without problems.

When I later brought the Brompton to the hotel for the first time (this fold went only two teaspoons easier than the earlier one) I realized that a folding bike is really a good option to rent because absolutely nothing else could possibly fit in the claustrophobia-inducing elevators - and this was one of the larger ones. 

So I had a bike in my room that could fold and unfold easily (by someone more talented than myself) that I could use anytime I wanted. This meant I could take a ride early in the morning, since the view outside of the hotel room window at dawn is quite irresistible.

Although parts of the city put me in touch with my old nemesis (cobblestones), I enjoyed pedaling up to see some of the sights, especially early in the morning when the places were devoid of cars and tour buses.

It was here that I managed to see the whole scope of the city. Turning around I could see some hills off in the distance, which I knew was Holyrood Park. I want to ride there, I thought.

The Brompton worked perfectly through all of this and it was quite nice to see that the dynamo-powered headlamp and taillamp were working well - even though the sun quickly lit up the city and made visibility a whole lot easier.

Since I didn't have a map with me I can't name all the places I went here, but I can tell you the castles do look nice. I just wanted to go to the walls of this one clapping two coconuts together and tell the inhabitants of my search for the Holy Grail.

Before long, I had reached the peaceful streets that would soon be crowded with citizens and tourists in a matter of hours. But for now it was just me, my Brompton, and those dreaded cobblestones.

Back at the hotel, I folded the bike (with a little more grace than the previous attempts) before my wife and I set off on foot to see some of the sights and she could work on a few sketches

After lunch, I had the chance to take the Brompton out once more and decided to head for the hills. 

I easily found Queen's Drive - the road to Holyrood Park - that went up. And up. And up. In the proper gear, my legs burned but I still was glad I was pedaling what I was pedaling. It was also a narrow road (one-way) so I was also thankful of the helmet mounted rearview mirror.

To my surprise, just as this hill was leveling out, I came to a small pond, which simply added to Edinburgh's wonder.

As the road leveled out some more and began to slowly tip downward, I realized that this location would be a fantastic one to watch the sunrise - If I could awaken early enough the next morning.

As the road bent to the right, I was offered views of the city that a lot of people - myself included - stopped to enjoy.

I did stop and dismount the Brompton so I could walk up a rough dirt pedestrian path to get more views. I didn't want to abuse my rental, so I refrained from riding the bike. It did occur to me that if I would ever film a mountain bike commercial, I would do it along this stretch.

When I got the bike back to the tarmac, I was able to open up the throttle. Even though I didn't bring my bike GPS and had no idea how fast I was going, I can tell you that a tuned Brompton does give one a lot of confidence at speed. 

I thought that ride was so nice, I did it twice.

After returning the bike to the room and reuniting with my wife, we wandered around together some more. We discovered two things: it is very difficult to see this city in a bad light, and when a guy in a kilt is playing the theme to 'Star Wars' on his bagpipe, it is pretty awesome.

Very tired by the time we returned to our room, we slept soundly before I woke up in the dark. I wasn't sure what time it was but I knew the sunrise was imminent. Being careful not to wake my spouse I brought the Brompton downstairs and unfolded it with a lot more grace than the previous attempts before hitting the road. Now I was really thankful for the headlamp.

I knew this would be my last ride (not counting the trip I'd have to take to return the Brompton) in Edinburgh, so I wanted to make it count. The bike moved quickly and even the shifting felt easier as I raced toward the entrance to the windy road I had done twice the day before. 


I've confronted no trespassing signs before that have given me pause, but not like this. 

A quick scan of the road didn't put any amphibians in my line of vision, so I rolled the Brompton to the nearby sidewalk and pushed it into the road behind the gate. How nice to be able to ascend this without the threat of cars approaching, I thought.

I didn't have to go far before I began to see the view I wanted to see.

Still no sign of toads on the roads, I finally climbed up to the little pond, which would be my resting place as I'd watch the sun rise in Scotland. 

For several minutes I just stood very still waiting for the sun to come up. There was no cellphone in my pocket that would ring with a notification and no place else I needed to be. I need to remember to put myself in that sort of position more often and I highly recommend it to others. All other times of the year I just seem to try to find ways to make things move faster but there is something to be said for watching things move slow.

It was only when the sun was fully exposed that I turned around and realized I must not have been the only person skeptical about the toad migration thing. This is also a suggestion to those of you with sturdy hiking boots and flashlights if you want higher ground when you visit Edinburgh, for somewhere up those paths is 'Arthur's Seat' which is the highest point of the park. 

After peacefully descending back into town, I returned to the hotel, folding the bike fairly quickly, and carried it back to the room where my wife still slept. After excitedly telling her what I saw and having breakfast, I did what needed to be done: I rode the Brompton back to where I had rented it, stopping to take some final shots of the city on the way back.

At Biketrax, I did something that made me happy and sad at the same time: I folded the Brompton with speed and grace as though I had done it every day of my life. And of course, just when I was getting good at folding and unfolding it, I had to turn it in to Biketrax, who I thanked profusely. I was sure it wouldn't be my last trip to Scotland or my last ride on a Brompton.

It was an unforgettable trip on a true example of how great a folding bike can be. And I realize that the sunrise ride would not have been at all possible on any other bike: renting a folding bike for two days and having the freedom to bring it into the room gave me the chance to ride when and where I wanted - and not be bound by a set couple of hours when a rental shop is open. So if you are lucky enough to visit Scotland, do yourself a favor and rent a Brompton for a period of time much longer than you'll think you need. You will appreciate its presence in your hotel room and enjoy the fact you can take off on a moment's notice. 

I appreciate all Folding Bike Week fans for tuning in this week. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Folding Bike Week 2013: Microbike Rides Again

So after buying a rare Microbike that probably hadn't seen a road since Perot's presidential bid of 1992, I committed myself to getting it working again. It was on flat tires and it appeared the bottom bracket was bent as the chainring (beltring) wobbled when the pedals turned. The first problem was solved with new tubes and 12.5" tires from Danny's Cycles. Now I thought I could solve the second problem by finding the proper bottom bracket tool that fit this particular bottom bracket. I haven't counted them, but I am fairly sure there are approximately 750,000 varieties of bottom bracket at at least that many tools to remove them. 

It's entirely possible bike and bike tool companies do this so we can all have that moment from 'The Goonies' when the hero fits the key over triple stones. "It fits, Mikey! It fits!"

The new, $13 Park Tool removed the bottom bracket easily, and as luck would have it I happened to have one that was about the right length that fit just fine in its place. 

I then set to replace the spider onto the bottom bracket and then mount the ring to the spider. Because I had fitted my little Ryobi TEK4 with the right sized hex tip, this went by quickly. 

Moments later, I learned I had efficiently and effectively done something that was completely unnecessary. 

The chainring still wobbled. Just as bad as it did before.

I then realized that even though I originally gave the spider a clean bill of health, it was actually bent. Badly. The bottom bracket was never the problem. 

So I needed a new spider that was the exact same size as the old one. Not any old crankset would do since the bike was belt drive. 

As it happened, since I had just said farewell to my hipster/single speed lifestyle very recently, I had a crankset that happened to be the perfect size.

I have long ago accepted that some of my bikes are nothing more than piles of parts working together as one until a part is needed by another bike. 

I used crank removal tool No. 452,098 to take the 'new' crank off (which had enjoyed a good ten minutes in the Microbike) and replace it with the one I had just removed and the 'new' bottom bracket tool that I didn't actually need. I didn't mind. I knew I'd use the tool again someday.

Reassembling the bike, I was relieved to discover I didn't always have to use special tools. To paraphrase a classic skit from Bob Newhart, when he wondered what would happen if one coward tried to talk another through defusing a bomb over the phone: the cap must be placed onto the crank arm with an "LT-507 screwdriver with a plastic handle and a demagnetized head. You don't have one of those? Just use a coin then."

Before long, I had a complete bike on the workstand. I spun the wheels and it turned. No ugly wobble and no ugly noise. Once again, I took a long and erratic route of constant misdiagnosis to figure out the problem, but I still had a good time doing it - and this time I ended up with a bike that has the kind of utilitarian geekiness  that any city dweller - or any male member of the cast of The Big Bang Theory - would appreciate. 

Then I folded it, and all six joints worked in concert as one. Not since the A-Bike have I seen a folding bike become so small. I could easily see how it could be brought onto a bus or train.

Tragically, bad weather today kept me from riding the bike to work as I planned. However, I got to take it for a spin in the parking garage and liked it a lot. It's not a high performance machine, but it seems like a pretty good way to connect the dots between home and and mass transit station. I thank Sven and his partner for designing such an interesting ride and hope to see Microbike 2.0 sometime soon.