Wednesday, November 27, 2019

"Because it's there" and Other Good Reasons to Bike in Belgium

I'm on a train on July 25, 2019 - during one of the biggest heatwaves in Europe's history. It's very crowded. My 21 year-old Bike Friday New World Tourist is sitting ten feet away but I can't see it since it is buried under a layer of other people's luggage. The conductor is passing out water due to the near-intolerable heat in the compartment and I keep telling myself this is going to be worth the trouble.

Let me back up a second.

The 'this' I was referring to that day was Belgium. Because of the International Sketching Symposium - an event for sketchers and other artists that takes place in a different country each year - I was on vacation in Amsterdam* which made the Netherlands the 17th country I've ridden a bicycle in.  A day and a half into that adventure I decided I really should should go to another country. Not because I was having a bad time in Amsterdam but I figured Europe's compactness and trains would make a two-country vacation possible and give me an 18th country on my list. 

I looked at a map of Europe and the train lines. I had one day - no overnight - so I needed a country that I had never been to before that I could get into and out of easily, so I landed on Belgium. At first I thought I'd go to Brussels, but when I realized how impractical that would be I settled on a city I knew nothing whatsoever about called Antwerp.

Before riding to the station in Amsterdam at 8:50 in the morning, I determined the train I wanted to take was a Thalys train and would depart at 9:15, which would put me into Antwerp at 10:41 and give me a good several hours before taking the train back. I had to buy both a round-trip ticket and a bike pass for the Bike Friday. 

It started badly. I found I couldn't get on the 9:15 since bikes weren't allowed on the train so I had the choice of either ditching this foolishness in its entirety or paying 99 Euros for a round-trip pass to Antwerp with the outbound train that wouldn't get there until 11:23.

I choose to continue the foolishness.

The platform on the train was intensely crowded with scents ranging from the unpleasant to the hazardous. In the section toward the front of the train there were 8 seats and 14 people - three bikes including mine and a lot of luggage. 

And it was hot. 

The heat made the B.O. stench worse and definitely impacted a few people's moods. One particularly obnoxious man in some kind of sports jersey at the stop in Schippal boarded our section of the train by literally pushing his way past the female conductor, saying something like "My team is on board." His rudeness caused the use of whistles and a lot of yelling - and another delay. 

It was at Breda where the train crew passed out small bottles of water to everyone in our section. I downed it in just about one swallow and waited at least ten more minutes for the train to move again.

The delays put the arrival at quarter to twelve and even then I had to wait for my Bike Friday to be unearthed from the luggage pyramid it was trapped under. Finally free of the train, I headed out into Antwerp station...and the arduous parts of the journey to get there was all but forgotten. 

This is the interior of the station, and no photo I took of it ever did it justice. I found out later this station is widely considered to be the most beautiful in the world and that story checks out. 

I took a mental note of a Belgian waffle stand inside the station and promised myself I'd buy a Belgian waffle. When wheels hit asphalt and Belgium officially became No. 18 I bought a vanilla ice cream cone for 1 Euro and it was the best ice cream I had all summer. 

I didn't have a lot of time so I just rode straight out until I found a path by the water (the signs referred to it as The Ring) so I just picked a direction and rode in it.

Naturally I had to stop and look at the 'bike path' sign - the English Safety Bicycle is a universally understood symbol that is drawn many different ways by transportation departments around the world. Whomever did it in Belgium chose to put fenders on their version.

I didn't have to ride much longer until, on the left side of the trail, I found more artwork.

Because size 451 tubes are hard to find in most bike shops - here and abroad - I carry at least three plus a fresh patch kit every time I take a trip. I also carry an entire spare tire in case of a catastrophic puncture. You can also see a tiny roll of duct tape hanging beneath it (you never know). 
The original plan was to pose with this mural with the bike like I had at the Antwerp Station, but I just couldn't make it to the bike before the timer went off. 

Continuing in the direction I chose, I found a really interesting drawbridge that opened like a sliding van door on rails that were set alongside the road.

As fascinating as it was, I didn't feel like waiting for it to close, so I turned around and opened the throttle on the path churning out miles.

The trail got further from the city and more remote, but I followed a bend and wound up back in Antwerp, where I found a place to have a late lunch.

The outdoor cafe was especially nice because it was shielded from the brutally hot sun - and it faced this.

With temperatures over 100, I headed back to the station the long way back along the path. I made such good time I kept going - past the mural and across the drawbridge that had been opened earlier.

I didn't see any other riders while I was out which didn't surprise me since it was so hot. But there were still people out and about, determined to be outdoors.

After riding several more minutes through a lot of empty fields overlooking windmills, I doubled back toward the city and left the path to roll through Antwerp. I stumbled across a sign that said "Welcome People of Tomorrow!" and the greatest "cars beware" sign I have ever seen.

Finally, I made it back to the train station - not two hours after I had arrived in Antwerp. 

I had ridden in a new country. I ate a great ice cream cone, I had a peaceful lunch. I saw a cool mural. That would have to do.


Just like I rode the Bike Friday from France to Germany to fetch a pretzel, this waffle - which was fantastic - was as good a reason as any to bike to Belgium.

Even though I had my ticket I needed to confirm something about my train, so I got in the information line. It was there that I saw an ad campaign that needs to exist in the United States. 

When I ride and take a train to work on my folding bike, I like to think I am equally handsome.

I boarded the train and sat in the same bike section I had when I was outbound, only this time it was a lot less crowded.

The two bikes on the left belonged to two German women who were on a big road trip together. We talked bikes for a few minutes even though neither spoke English very well. But they understood the hand gestures I made describing how my Bike Friday folds up and liked my high-speed video of the fold I had on my phone.

A guy with a Cortina hybrid boarded at Rotterdam and chatted briefly with the women before silently reading a book. At the Schiphol airport he wordlessly offered me some of his water when he noticed I had run out. At the same stop I helped the German women unload their bikes, and we all wished each other happy travels before the train continued on to Amsterdam. 

I rode a grand total of 15 miles. I could have ridden longer and further if I decided not to go to Belgium but I just couldn't miss the chance even in a heat wave. It's a testament to the power of rail - which I use most of the time for getting to work in San Jose - so consider using one when you want to go a bit further than you normally go. The price of adventure is always worth the ticket. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding. 

*I still need to write about that trip!

Monday, November 18, 2019

World Day of Remembrance for Traffic Victims - San Jose

At the World Day of Remembrance for Traffic Victims - Nov. 17, 2019, San Jose
I watch early morning news programs and I get annoyed at the traffic reporters quite easily. 

There's always a creative little icon to indicate a car crash and a red colored line to indicate...the traffic. 

The delay the crash means to you, the viewer watching. Who just wants to know the fastest way to drive to work - as if that is the most important thing about the report. 

The World Day of Remembrance for Traffic Victims is one of the few times - unless someone you know personally has been killed or permanently maimed in a car crash - when you can look at a single car crash in the proper context. As in: a person who had a life, who had friends, who had hobbies and interests like your and mine, is dead because someone made a bad decision while driving.

I came upon the scene of this crash on a bike a few days ago on Monterey Road in San Jose: one car stopped and others, going too fast, crashed since none could stop in time. Seven cars were involved. 

The #WDoR19 was organized by San Francisco Bay Area Families for Safe Streets, Walk San Jose, California Walks, and The city's Vision Zero team was there, and a representative from Assemblymember Ash Kalra's office was also among the speakers.

The memorial walk had about 100 participants and went from St. James Park to City Hall. For some reason the meeting point where the speeches were took place behind city hall rather than in front (where it would have had more motorists and passers-by to seet it. 

Some family members of victims bravely got in front of the crowd of over 100 to speak. I heard people hold back tears and watched a few turn away to dab their eyes. I saw a little girl holding a sign that read "A Drunk Driver Killed My Big Sister" and saw familiar faces from the #BobbyWouldGo ride I went on last summer to honor Bob Lavin - a man who made it through 43 years of marriage and became a grandfather to three kids only to be the victim of a hit-and-run at age 62.

I learned of a little kid who died in his stroller in a crosswalk because a truck driver wasn't paying attention while turning.  And I learned enough about one of the victims to feel a little bit like Scrooge must have felt when he brushed the snow off the tombstone at the end of 'A Christmas Carol.'

Over 3,200 people are killed in California every year because of car crashes. Here's two. 

The organizers of the event also made these bright yellow signs showing the age and gave some details for the bicycle user or pedestrian who was killed. 

One of the details was the location where the person had been struck. 

Four years of living in San Jose and I recognized all of the street names and even remember some of the exact locations.

I stayed for all of the speeches and didn't feel like making much conversation with some of my friends who were there - mostly because the whole time I felt like I was learning about friends I'd never get to make. 

I rode all the way home from City Hall - taking the long way and topping it out over 13 miles. 

I'm telling you this for two reasons - first off I want you to know that every decision you make while driving matters and secondly I want you to drive slower and tell your friends to do the same. Get in the faces of people who need to know this - and start dreaming up definitive action, legislation and street design to make roads safer. And look at traffic reports differently and drive as though you need to save other people's lives instead of your own personal seconds. Thanks for reading and thanks for driving slow.

Drive slower and less often.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Finding Good Karma and Women's Night in San Jose

November 6, 2015 - the day before Good Karma Bikes moved into their 460 Lincoln Avenue location I biked inside and took this photo. 

It's a bit hard to believe I've lived in San Jose long enough to feel nostalgia over certain things. When I moved from Connecticut to California more than four years ago I had a few freelance clients I was clinging to and quickly began volunteering as a mechanic at Good Karma Bikes as well as do some social media and other communications work.

It wasn't sustainable - freelance work began to dry up and after about nine months volunteering at Good Karma Bikes, I came to the sad realization I needed to work on business development - and search for full-time work - more than I was doing, so I stopped volunteering. It was a feeling akin to breaking up with someone for no other reason than the summer was ending and you were about to go your separate ways.

But I've kept in touch with Good Karma Bikes and still shop there and donate bikes and bike parts to them to this day. In fact, most of the bikes I own - including the serious* road bike I used on the Cycle of Hope ride - have at least a couple of used parts on them from Good Karma Bikes and almost my entire California Cargo Bike was built from bikes and parts I bought from them. 

So it was a great pleasure to go there last week for their quarterly salon and hear a few words from Jim Gardner, the founder, and also Vera, the head mechanic there who is just one of Those People I'm grateful to know. She's the wrench I trust with any problems I have with my builds when I discover - usually when building anything having to do with front derailleurs - that I'm out of my depth.

Vera also leads Good Karma Bikes' Women's Night - a free class "for women and by women" to teach bike repair and other cycling skills. The next one is today: Tuesday, November 12, but check their page for their full schedule so you can go to one.

At the friend-raiser the other night, there were drinks and light snacks served on workbenches with bike parts crammed under them, and Jim began his remarks about twenty minutes in. I got a bit distracted while he was speaking because I was marveling at the highway billboard-sized list of milestones the organization has achieved in its ten year history - the nonprofit got its start in November 2009.

After Jim's remarks and a nice recognition of some of the folks who have been volunteering for Good Karma Bikes, San Jose City Council member Pam Foley spoke and said Good Karma bikes would be getting a commendation by the San Jose city council at the December 10th meeting at San Jose City Hall at 1:00pm. 

Then Vera spoke about Women's Night - and mentioned she'll be teaching Park Tool School with Good Karma Bikes next year - which is great news. If you want to become skilled at being a bike mechanic in the Bay Area I can't think of a better person to learn from.

Vera, the lead mechanic at Good Karma Bikes who runs their Women's Night program. The bike in front of her is a new Univega - a new brand of new bike Good Karma Bikes will start selling soon. 

I'll be sure to post links to the Park Tool School schedule when it's available, but in the meantime please look around your sheds and garages for gently used bikes and bike parts to donate to Good Karma Bikes during their business hours - remember they are still trying to restock their supply of bikes since some recent burglaries. Also check out Women's Night - starting with the one on November. 12. And finally, volunteer. Even if you can't do it forever, you'll remember the experience just as long. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.

Good Karma Bikes, October 2019

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

A Cycle of Hope in the Bay Area

This is where the kid-writing-from-summer-camp "Sorry I haven't written" is supposed to go and I'll do my best writing that bit by saying the three terrible words I've Been Busy.  I really don't have a whole lot of words to add to that - and words have been failing me a lot lately. I've had an unusually large amount of writing - or as it is passionlessly called "content creation" - and that has sapped a lot of strength. I also came to terms with the fact that I couldn't get enough people together to pull of Cranksgiving San Jose this year** which contributed to the relative gloom. So I'll just fall back on the standby line, I've Been Busy, move on, and write about a ride I just did to try to find my footing again.

As I've written about before, there's a big connection between bikes and housing: the more we use the former, the easier it would be to build the latter. Parking minimums cost money and empty cars take up valuable space, and without #SB50 in California, apartment projects can be denied or NIMBYed to death. Also there's the whole cars-are-killing-the-planet thing too.

Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley landed on the idea to use a bike ride to raise funds for their efforts to build affordable housing. Last year was their first one which I did not get to attend. This year, I was keen on the idea, but since I've Been Busy and everything I was working on was shape-shifting mass of timesinks I wasn't sure I'd be able to do the ride - or even if I wanted to: I've been taking fewer rides than I'd like since I've Been Busy and, as shown with my failure to put together Cranksgiving this year, haven't felt connected with the cycling community lately.

But just as my much loved and forever-to-be-remembered ride up to Lick Observatory was born from a crummy mood I figured an organized ride - that had other people and everything - might do me some good. I signed up for the Habitat for Humanity Cycle of Hope ride four days before the event and decided to do the Metric Century - or 62 mile - course. 

I flung the link to the fundraising page on my Twitter and Facebook page like a spaghetti strand to a refrigerator and didn't bother to see if it would stick. I would have written a passionate blog post about it to try to ask for donations but, as I said, I've Been Busy.

I rode home from work several days in a row (about 11 miles each time - often the most biking per week I ever get to do) and used the cargo bike to do Saturday errands. Hoping I was in the right shape, I filled my Camelbak and - after the Expired Kirkland Protein Bar Debacle associated with my Lick Observatory ride - I set the stage for a new debacle by only packing three individually-wrapped waffles about the size of coasters - only crunchier. 

And early on Sunday morning, feeling groggy because of wretched sleep the night before, I drove to Palo Alto, picked up my registration packet - some cool stuff was in there - and  made it to the start line with ten minutes to spare before we were off. 

Even though I brought a serious* road bike with me - one that I made over the Spring but didn't tell you about because I've Been Busy - I wasn't sure how well it or I would do. As you all know, most people ride faster than me and I'm fine with it. I did keep up with most of the group for a while cruising through the streets of Palo Alto.

The ride was well marked thanks to a little company called which has been - and this is from their website - "enhancing the quality of cycling and running events since 2007." If you've been to a cycling or running event over the last decade you've probably seen sticky arrows attached to asphalt. These arrows were color coded because there were routes of different lengths. And I didn't get lost once. Getting lost in a professional cycling event isn't ideal, and not getting lost enhances my cycling experience - so RouteArrows did some outstanding work that day.

And a hat tip to the volunteers who put up the arrows, too. Usually, at just about every intersection there was a turn, there would be a political campaign-style sign, Route Arrows on the pavement, then another political campaign-style sign. If it was a more complicated intersection there were extra Route Arrows to go around or a volunteer with a flag.

I followed the Route Arrows and after going about ten-twelve miles or so we ended up in the Forest Moon of Endor phase. 

At times the roads were uncomfortably narrow in this stretch and at one point I was shocked by a woman driving huge, white Cadillac Escalade. Here's what happened: she came up behind a group of three or four of us, did not use her horn, and hung back. She slowly drove this living room-sized behemoth while following us, and she waited patiently for room to pass. When she got it, she gently accelerated and passed our group with more than 3' to spare.

If you have to drive, please drive like her.

But back to the ride. The Cycle of Hope people were thoughtful enough to share the route map before the ride but that didn't matter to me for the simple reason I didn't read it. If I had, I would have noticed there was about 5,500 feet of elevation gain (about 1,000 fewer feet that riding all the way to Lick Observatory).

The ride also had stations to stop and get water and food. This one came after some climbing - and if I had known there was a lot more climbing to follow I would have eaten more food and listened to the Aloha Ukelele Squad longer. 

I also would have had more of the food at the first couple of rest areas before continuing on. The first one had these little cups of trail mix, and I was so pumped to keep going on the ride I actually pedaled carrying one. A few bumps left a trail of the trail mix behind me...hence the name, I assume.

In the Endor Stage, the trees were beautiful along the switchbacks but for the most part they were blocking my view of anything that would have given me a frame of reference in terms of distance. With Lick Observatory you could actually track your passage up and think "ten miles to go from here, I can do that" or the like...but you'd have to make time to look at a map. I didn't before Cycle of Hope because I've Been Busy so after a while each mile uphill felt like ten. 

To make matters worse, the serious* road bike I made - which has a triple chainring up front - would ignore the tiny 'granny gear' at very random and extremely inconvenient times. I sighed. Ever since building my first mountain bike eight years ago, properly installing a front derailleur has always been my weak spot. 

Before long, nerves in my legs began hitting me with intermittent pain - like each one was being plucked like a guitar string. Even when my bike would get me to the tiny ring, I felt like the essence of my body was sitting in a La-Z-Boy reading a newspaper and would occasionally look over the corner of the page at me with a disapproving expression.

From time to time I was able to take my mind off the pain I was in by taking in a view once one was available.

As with Lick Observatory, I don't mind being passed by faster cyclists since it makes my photos more interesting. 

Even with the stunning view of Silicon Valley I was not doing well until I hit another rest area. This time, I ate food. None of what you see on this table, but I ate the Clif bars and bananas on the other side of the table.

I also refilled my fast-emptying Camelbak with electrolyte water - not in the mood to care about potentially ruining it by filling it with such a concoction - and slowly began to pedal again. The serious* road bike I built never felt heavier. 

But then - a miracle. 

I followed the Route Arrows and suddenly began descending Highway 9 - which felt as though it had been given new pavement the previous afternoon. The serious* bike, which had less than 325 miles on it, came to life - and some of that life came to me in kind. I passed 40 miles an hour at least once as I swooped down the hill and back into the valley. Miles fell. 

As you know from the Lick Observatory ride I did in April, I've begun using Strava - if for no other reason it helps me later remember what hills I was on, which ones were an incredible challenge, and which were a joy to descend - here's an actual screenshot of my ride that day:

After several miles of this bliss, I had to follow the Route Arrows - and a volunteer waving a flag - through yet another beautiful neighborhood with houses few humans can afford. Still, the odometer on my serious* bike told me I had only 16 miles left to go. 

I pedaled as steadily as I could. Back in the populated areas I began stopping and riding beside other cyclists as we were waiting for traffic lights. My legs hurt but it wasn't catastrophic. Simple conversations were struck at red lights. The serious* bike got me a few questions. A drained CamelBak was refilled a third time (even though it is November things are a little hotter in the Bay Area compared to the way it is back east)

Eventually, I rolled back to the starting point and someone on a loudspeaker welcomed me back as "Rider 391!" and I was met with scattered applause...and a medal! I actually got a medal similar to the kind I get when I do the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event in Santana Row. Only there they have a volunteer put the medal on you as you pass through the finishing point. Me, I was so exhausted I misjudged the height and swiftly banged the medal on my nose trying to put it on myself - my only injury besides my tuning-fork legs. 

Moving slowly but with effort, I checked in to say hi to a friend at Cycle California magazine - who was completely understanding as to why I wasn't doing Cranksgiving San Jose this year but he said he wanted to help out next time. And I met the owner - or the new owner, I should say - of Tonik Cycling - a brand of cycling clothes for women. I took a picture to remember the name and I hope you do too, because it has a cool story behind it

Even though I nearly needed a spotter to get the bike back into the car, I decided I was very, very happy I had done the ride. On the drive home I vowed that there would be a next time and began to think being Busy was a state of mind instead of an absolute. There would be more group rides. There would be more meetings with interesting people where plans would form and friendships would be made. I also started to plan ahead for a new year's resolution. In 2019 I gave up French fries, in 2020 I'm going to give up being Busy. Sure, I'll have work to do, errands to run, grown-up stuff to deal with, but I'm not going to say I've been Busy. Time, like a bicycle, is something that can be made - and I'm going to commit to having more of both - if for no other reason it is good for me.

I hope you join me in that commitment - failing that you make a donation to Habitat for Humanity East Bay Silicon Valley - and not to my page, either. We need affordable housing here and we should support the causes and entities that build them. Sorry I haven't written but I'll be writing more. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding. 

*with an asterisk. 

**I strongly encourage anyone reading this to #ChooseYourOwnCranksgiving and ride, volunteer, or find another way to give to worthy causes this season. I'll write about this more soon.  In the meantime the hours of the Second Harvest of Silicon Valley at 750 Curtner Avenue in San Jose) on Saturday, November 16th is 8am to 4pm and on Nov. 23 from 8am to 7pm. If you have a bike and can ride it safely, please ride there with some food and bring friends with you!