Sunday, January 22, 2006

Das Bike

First, an update on yesterday's notes: Aule is up and running, after a slight hitch. For some reason, Linux installation programs seem to be way more finnicky about CD/DVD-ROM drives than anything else. I have three drives and haven't had trouble with any of them in day-to-day use, but whenever I install it's a battle to get the program to run all the way through. I had to use the same drive in both Nessa and Aule to get the Kubuntu disk to run all the way through. It's all in now, though, and later today I'll begin transferring over my old files.

Now, on to the bike: I loved bicycling growing up. Like most of you I started on a tricycle, then went with training wheels, then a "real" bike, and ended up with a mountain bike. I used the mountain bike for probably four years and had a lot of fun with it; it gave me a sense of freedom and possibility beyond any I'd felt before. I could ride it to the playground, to a little convenience store, and, once I was given permission to cross Judicial Avenue (a sleepy four-lane road), even Sunset Pond, which had a great trail around it. I was fascinated by the twenty-one speeds and endlessly experimented with shifting; my goal wasn't to get the easiest ride, so I would practice going uphill in the highest gear, or try to determine whether, when going downhill without pedaling, the gear made any difference. This is supremely ironic in the context of the movie Super Size Me, but I even vividly remember riding to McDonalds to get an extra value meal specifically for the Monopoly game pieces. (For someone with a $5/month allowance, this can fairly be described as a crazy act.)

So I loved riding my bike, and did so regularly, up until the day my family moved to Illinois. Then, it completely stopped. There were a couple of reasons for this: first, our new neighborhood wasn't quite as bike-friendly as the old; we were bordered by two extremely busy streets (Geneva and County Farm), and there wasn't much of interest which was available within the neighborhood. Secondly, I had received my learner's permit shortly before leaving Minnesota, and my first priority was to get in enough driving to get my Illinois license. So the bike stayed in the garage, sadly unloved.

Still, I've retained fond memories of my earlier experiences with bicycling, and when I was working out a lot after graduation I always gravitated towards the stationary bike instead of the treadmill. And bikes have never left my consciousness; for those of you who don't know, my dad is an avid cyclist, and always has some great stories about the rides he's done. Still, I've never been tempted to start riding again, I think because I'm so goal-oriented. I hate exercising for "fitness" or "pleasure"; when I go on a hike, it's almost always to reach some destination (a vista, a rock formation, a grove of trees), and I knew I wouldn't ride a bike unless I had someplace to go. While at Wash U all the destinations on-campus were just a few minutes' walk away, so I didn't see an advantage to riding a bike and worrying about it getting stolen; all the destinations off-campus were much more easily reached by the campus shuttle, which was convenient and direct. In downtown KC I could walk anywhere I needed in a few minutes, and everything else required me to get on the interstate. In outlying KC I was in a neighborhood much like Winfield, with lots of residential roads but no good access to points beyond. And so I was in much greater danger of buying a stationary bike than a "real" bike.

That changed when I moved out here to California. The Bay Area is extremely bike-friendly; over half of the major roads around here have dedicated bike lanes. Riders tend to be courteous and are treated well in return. So I got used to seeing far more bikes than ever before. I think there are several reasons for this. First, the temperate climate here makes it much more feasible to bike year-round. Secondly, the generally liberal and environmentally-minded population will generally support activities that decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. Finally, the area's willingness to fund public works projects has allowed them to build a good system of trails and paths that make biking even more convenient. Of course, once these factors are in place they become self-perpetuating; since more people ride, it becomes easier to justify accomodating them, which encourages still more people to ride, and so the cycle continues.

I didn't immediately think of picking up biking once I moved here. On my first day of work Scott, the Director of Engineering, was giving me a tour, and he pointed out a cube where people stored their bikes. I thought, "Oh, that's cool." Later I learned that Chris, one of my co-workers, had an amazing commute: on most days he takes Caltrain from San Francisco down to San Jose, then cycles from Diridon down to our office. That last part is about a 12 mile ride each direction. I was amazed he could do it but didn't give serious thought to doing it myself.

That changed when one day I was driving to work. I looked out the side of my window, which I hardly ever do, and saw a group of cyclists riding on a path that ran along and a little below the freeway. I was surprised and impressed; I hadn't realized that there was an actual dedicated path that ran that far. I started doing some research and discovered that this was the Los Gatos Creek Trail; it would take me to spots within a few minutes of the office, and I could get on it just a block or so of my apartment. At that point I began to seriously consider getting a bike. Before I had thought about it in terms of a toy or a fitness machine; now I began to consider it as an alternate means of getting to work.

I liked the idea of bicycle commuting for a few reasons. While I don't think of myself as an environmentalist, I am a conservationist, and I liked the idea of helping our nonrenewable energy last just a little longer. While I'm not doing this for fitness, that's a nice benefit; I usually don't get a lot of exercise on workdays, and this would force me to do so. It seemed very feasible to do this, since I'm just about 10 miles from work and with the Los Gatos Creek trail I don't have to cross any major roads. Financial considerations weren't as big a factor; sure, it scared everyone when gas went over $3 a gallon, but I would need to cycle for a LONG time before recouping the initial investment on my bike. (On the other hand, the 30,000 mile service on my Ion cost me about $450; if I can lessen the number of commuting miles I put on that, the car will probably last me longer than it would otherwise.)

I began doing research around September/October of last year. I talked with my dad, of course, to get his opinion. A big part of my problem was that I wasn't sure what kind of riding I wanted to do; commuting would be the major use, obviously, but would I want to use it on mountain paths? Would I ever try to ride it in San Francisco? It took me a while to answer those questions, and I concluded that most likely I would only be using the bike for going to work and, occasionally, runs to the market or library. Therefore it would be entirely pavement riding. The most logical choice was a hybrid bike or a road bike with upright handlebars; road bikes were the best choice because of their speed and efficiency on pavement, but since I would occasionally carry a backpack I wanted a bike that would let me do that comfortable, and the dropped handlebars on standard road bikes would make that awkward.

With that big decision made, I started doing more in-depth online research, checking out different models and accessories and more. I also started looking for a good dealer. Wheelaway Cycles, which is fairly close to my apartment, was one of the highest-rated San Jose/Campbell shops, so I decided to try them.

I first went last Saturday, when there was a light rain falling. I chatted for a while with a salesperson who walked me through the bikes that seemed like the best choice for my needs. Not every shop carries every brand, but they did have some Specialized and Cannondale cycles that were promising. Both brands had two models, one of which was a more traditional hybrid, and another which was closer to a road bike but with the handlebars I wanted. Because of the rain I couldn't take a test ride, but I did spend some time looking at them in the store and looking at what else they had. Wheel Away looks like a good place, with a large showfloor, plenty of accessories and a good service department. I resolved to return and complete the transaction.

I headed out of work early the next Tuesday and went back. There was a different salesman this time; I had him set me up with the Specialized Sirrus and took it for a spin. It's true what they say: you never forget how to ride a bicycle. Not counting the stationary this might have been the first time in almost ten years that I had gotten on a bike, but it was like I'd never left. I took it around the parking lot a few times, getting a feel for it, and liked the experience. It felt responsive, the posture was comfortable, shifting was easy. It helped that the bike looked pretty sweet, too. I'll try to post a picture soon; it's a nice silver metallic color. I tried out another Sirrus with a slightly different geometry and decided on the first one. I went through the store like it was a trip to Albertson's, pulling things off the shelf as my accessories grew. I picked up a bike helmet, powered head and tail lights, a sturdy lock and chain, patch kit, spare tube, hand pump, riding gloves. He rang me up and I was out the door. (Does it seem odd to anyone else that I'm asked to show an ID when buying $20 worth of groceries, but not when spending hundreds of dollars on a new bike?) I shoved it in the Ion and headed home.

Despite my positive experience in the parking lot, I knew I would need to get more practice before trying to do my commute, so the bike sat in my living room for the rest of the week. I planned to take it out Saturday for a nice long ride to get a better feel for it. They had predicted a sunny day, but I woke up to seasonal showers Saturday morning. I busied myself with the Linux installation during the morning. By noon the rain had let up; the roads were still damp, and I knew I should wait until Sunday before riding, but I was impatient and wanted to go immediately. So I took the bike down to the ground floor and headed out.

There are two candidates for getting on the trail from my apartment. Both involve me riding down Stokes to the intersection with Leigh, which is a fairly busy four-lane street. I chose to cross Leigh and get on the trailhead further on Stokes; the alternative is to turn right on Leigh and ride to the trailhead there. The one on Stokes is slightly further away and puts me on the trail at the point farthest from my destination, but Stokes is more pleasant to ride on, and doesn't feel nearly as dangerous as the half-block or so I would need on Leigh. I still haven't worked out how I feel about riding on the sidewalk; I've been avoiding it, but I don't think it's illegal in San Jose (at least, plenty of other people do it), and that would let me get onto the trail without worrying about Leigh at all.

I think I posted about this before, but the Los Gatos Creek Trail is not unfamiliar to me. When I had first considered doing this commute I spent a Saturday and walked the route down to work from my apartment. This time around was a little different. First, most obviously, it went much more quickly; I got down there in under an hour as opposed to the three hours it took me before. Secondly, it was much more tiring. This kind of surprised me, as I think I'm in at least decent shape and never get winded on my hikes, even when tackling challenging terrain. I'm guessing that cycling uses different muscles because only a few minutes in I was already getting tired, and even needed to stop for a short break by Vasona lake. Third, it was more uncomfortable, although this is mainly my fault; I was halfway back home before I realized that I had been sitting on my saddle wrong. Still, these are all things I expect will get easier with more practice, and nothing about the experiment scared me off.

While looking at maps online the day before I realized that I had probably exited the trail prematurely on my earlier walk; that time I had exited near Los Gatos High School and wound my way through some residential streets before approaching Highway 9 from the north. This time I kept going, and initially overshot my exit; I kept going for a good five minutes further south on a portion of the trail that was NOT paved, and in doing so made my bike incredibly muddy. But I realized my error and backtracked, exiting up a steep hill onto the streets of Old Town Los Gatos. I was pleased with the new location; it was less than a block from the Southern Kitchen, where we have our weekly breakfasts on Thursdays, and the road here had a generous bike lane.

The one really scary part of the ride is a few hundred feet: you need to get into the left turn lane to turn from Los Gatos Boulevard onto Highway 9, which doesn't have a bike lane, and then squeeze to the right while traffic picks up speed for merging onto the freeway. It was crazy enough on a Saturday and I don't look forward to trying it during a weekday. Still, it's just one small section, and once you run that gauntlet it's a pleasant ride on Alberto before arriving at Rocket Mobile.

I took a few minutes at the office to catch my breath and drink some water, then turned around and headed back. The way back seemed to go more easily; the route was fresh in my mind, I was getting better at selecting proper gears, and I eventually figured out how to sit properly in the saddle so I wouldn't put as much pressure on my wrist. One snag came as I was riding back past Vasona and heard a distinct clinking noise from the pavement. I slowed down and inspected my bike. Everything seemed to be in order. I retraced my steps and, fortunately, saw what had happened: the portion of my pedal that secures the toe clip had fallen out. It looked like the nuts holding it in had probably gotten loose. I spent a few seconds looking in the grass for the nuts but gave it up as hopeless, pocketed the plastic and tied away the toe clip. Other than that, the return was without incident.

Of course, the sun finally came out a few minutes after I returned home, but that wasn't about to wreck my mood. I was delighted to have ridden for two hours and over fifteen miles without once getting in an accident, and only once falling off my bike (when I attempted to abruptly turn 180 degrees while in a very high gear). This was a dry run; the real deal will probably come Tuesday of next week. Apparently Chris has another exit from the trail, so I'm hoping that will let me cut down on the stress towards the end of my route. At first I'll probably just ride a few days a week, avoiding rainy days, but I'm hopeful that I'll be able to ride regularly once the days start getting longer in the spring. We'll see what happens!


  1. you're too cool

  2. I DID ride my bike--the town's bike--when I first got here, but that was before I started driving. Then I left it for John. Then it got broke and we never bothered to replace it--John said he liked walking anyway. But my sup. asked if I needed anything fixed, so I reported the that the front tire of the bike no longer retains air--that was the problem. Hopefully it'll get repaired by spring. I won't use it when it's cold.

    Biking in my town's taking your life in your hands. There's maybe three feet between the buildings and the street. If you veer at all you die. Tokyo is different, and other cities are better, but here it's just awful. You're basically forcing the cars into oncoming traffic when you bike or even walk in my town. I'm surprised there's not more accidents.

  3. Thank you, thank you. I do give autographs. Justin, wow, that does sound scary. I used to always assume that the smaller the town, the more bike- and pedestrian-friendly it was, but the more I see, it seems like the opposite is generally true.