Friday, August 27, 2010

Cool August Mornings

It's that time of year when I leave for school in the morning just before seven o'clock and the temperature is just a little below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. That temperature is cool enough to warrant a jacket. Yesterday, I thought I might as well start wearing my gloves too. It's just at that temperature when it's too cool to go without a jacket, but one quickly becomes almost too warm from wearing it on a ride.
Of course after school it's around 95 degrees and there's no way I want to wear a jacket. So, I fold it, sort of, and stuff it into my backpack, which I carry in my right side collapsible metal wire basket. I cram it into the same compartment where I keep my rain gear stored. My gloves are unnecessary after school as well, so they go in there as well.
My students have enjoyed diverting me away from the lesson and plans for the day by asking me about cycling and my experiences, equipment, etc. Of course, I'm all too willing to talk about it.
Last night, I returned to school from 6:30-8:30 for our open house. I met many parents and a few of them were curious about what their children had related to them about my commuting by bicycle. One big dad, looked like he might have worked the parts counter at the local implement dealer, he was genuinely curious about the type of bicycle I used. I was impressed that he knew to suggest "Is it like a commuter?" I probably am being unfair to the poor guy for being impressed. But, for the town I live in, I think it's kind of impressive. His build didn't fit that of a cyclist: big, 250 or more pounds, big gut, goatee, camo cap. But, I'll give him credit, he acted like it was the most natural thing in the world to commute by bike.
Another mom commented that not many people in this area ride their bikes to work. Yes, there are more and more riding for recreation, but very few of us are commuting daily to work by bike.
A student had commented he'd ride his bike if I would fix his tires for him. That reminded me of my experience when I first moved here four years ago and began to try commuting by bike. I purchased new tires and tubes from Wal-Mart (unfortunately, this is our local bicycle shop) and I even installed some of that Slime puncture seal product they sell. I had the most difficult time keeping those tires inflated. I was averaging about two (2) flats a week just riding to and from school; a distance of roughly three miles one way, all of it on paved surface. When I didn't have trouble getting punctures, I had trouble with keeping the tire seated on the rim. The tube had a tendency to push its way out between the rim and tire. I was frustrated with a capital F! This went on for a few weeks. Finally, the cheapskate I am took the plunge and ordered some Schwalbe touring tires off the internet. Problem solved. Since that time two years ago, I've had only one flat tire. I repaired it, and have had no trouble since. Now, if you are one to beleive in jinxes, I can expect to go out to the garage to hop on my bike this morning and find a flat tire waiting for me since I spoke so highly of my good fortune with those tires.
If I could recommend something to anyone out there wanting to know how to get started and keep going commuting by bike, my advice would be this: buy a high quality USED bicycle (because it will be less expensive) and make your investment in your tires (spend the good money for the ones customer reviews label as bomb proof). Virtually eliminating the worry of a flat tire will be a liberating experience. That's one big thing I ride unprepared for, is a flat. I don't carry an air pump with me or a patch kit. I don't even carry an adjustable wrench with me to remove the wheels (yes, my bike is old enough it doesn't have quick release wheels).
Anyway, get out there and make it happen. You and I can be the trendsetters and show people it can be done. Have a great weekend and happy riding.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bicycle Education

Yesterday was the first all day class with my students for the 2010-2011 year. I'm teaching all freshman and sophomores this year. Since they were trying to get to know me and I was getting to know them as well, I opened myself up for questions from them. I was pleased when they wanted to know about riding my bike to school, and well, everywhere around town. It gave me the opportunity to encourage them that they too, could do it and save themselves a little bit of money, do something good for their bodies, and have fun and be independent doing it. I modeled my helmet for them, including my rear view mirror. I'm often amazed at how people don't see the value of the rear view mirror when cycling. I guess I didn't either until I obtained one. Now, I don't like to go anywhere on my bike without it. In fact, as a teacher, I've often found myself wishing I could get away with wearing a rear view mirror as I teach class and walk down the hallway.
I didn't go so far as to model my reflective vest and ankle band for them, but I would have had they asked about it. In a typical reaction, a female student was amazed I'd ride for fifteen whole minutes to get to school; around three whole miles!
Most of the students were convinced it wasn't a cool idea, riding a bike that much. Instead, it just reinforced their "herd" mentality of disliking anyone who thinks for themselves and does something which leaves them vulnerable.
I think that was difficult for me to cope with these last three years as I've rode my bike to school more and more, the vulnerability of the cyclist. Not only are we vulnerable to injury from vehicles, but we become vulnerable to people's curiosity. We travel at a slower speed which gives onlookers ample opportunity to stare, look, and point. Inside a vehicle the passengers and driver are protected from the world by steel and glass. It's like they have their own mobile museum partition which travels with them wherever they go. When I'm on the bike I can feel people's stare, I'm going much slower than a vehicle, yet they have the option of slowing to my speed. However, I don't have the option of speeding up to their speed. They can inspect me with ease and comfort and safety behind a pane of glass. Yet, if I wish to escape their glances, there's not a lot of recourse for me to take. I can turn and change my route, which entails lengthening my commute, which I don't desire to do.
Anyway, I shared some of my thoughts and approaches to cycling with my students, because some of them were curious. They were probably not curious about cycling as much as they were curious about this strange guy they would be spending the year with in a teacher-student relationship.
Just like with fashion and nearly all trends and technology, the Midwest will catch on 10 years or so later, maybe even an entire generation later. I feel like I'm starting something in the small Northeast Kansas town where I live, and am serving as an example for the people to see it can be done and that I'm a regular guy.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Last Friday, as per my goal, I rode to school. I left while it was still gray out, enough so that I felt the need to use the front and back flashing lights. Lately I've been choosing to ride on the four lane highway which enters into town near our house. Right where I enter the highway, at the intersection I mean, is the reduced speed from 50 to 40, then along the short stretch I'm traveling, the speed reduces down to 30 mph. Luckily, that stretch is not heavily used at that particular hour, and I'm traveling in the opposite direction of the heavy flow of traffic. It gets busy with all of the commuters leaving town to attend work in Kansas City in the morning and then returning home from work in the evening. But, at both times of day when traffic increases due to these commuters, I'm traveling the opposite schedule. I'm going into town in the morning, and traveling as if to leave town in the afternoon.
I feel safer taking the four lane on the bicycle. Number one, because it is four lanes, that means traffic has an entire lane to pass me. I'm able to ride out in the left third of the lane, where I believe drivers will be looking more for other vehicles. And, because vehicle drivers are traveling in the same direction as me, that is West in the morning and East in the afternoon, they are never going to be looking into sunlight when approaching me.I've found taking the main roads, the state maintained roads, to school is much faster on a bicycle, than taking the "side" roads. They are better maintained and I like the lighted intersections for my protection.
On another note, I rode my bike home last Friday amidst some tumultuous cloud action, increasing heavy winds, and much visible lightning. I wore my bright yellow reflective vest and ankle strap, I also used my front and back flashing lights. I was minutes ahead of the rain. I was a little concerned about the lightning, but I saw many, many other people out walking and mowing in it, so for some reason it made me less apprehensive.
Today I'll be riding in a tie, jacket and dress shoes. I will wear pants and a shirt too, don't worry.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The second day shakedown

There is an overused cliche' attributed to the Chinese or Confucius that says the longest journey begins with a single step. As of yesterday, this blog represents my first step toward some unknown destination. The good news is I've taken that step. The bad news is my destination is unclear.
On the previous post, I mentioned full disclosure about being a teacher. The reason I felt I needed to inform readers of my occupation relates to my goal of riding my bicycle to work everyday for the year. When I say that, I feel a little tinge of guilt about it, because realistically I don't commute to the high school all summer, for an entire week in Spring, an entire week in late December/ early January, and about every holiday that honors an important dead person. So, obviously, for me to achieve a goal of riding my bicycle to work everyday for a year is significantly less of an accomplishment than someone who truly works year round.
Nonetheless, I still feel it will be an accomplishment. Allow me to disclose further. Last school year I did manage to ride my bike every school day except for three. These three days were in early January, the first week back to school after our Christmas/ New year's break. Thick ice coated the roads. I could have gone on and rode. I've pedaled on ice before. However, I began to think about my pride and how it may interfere with my ability to make a good decision. Was I being stubborn and taking a risk which could affect my family? Already I take a risk almost daily by taking the bike instead of my pickup truck. Now, let me say cycling is not dangerous, but everytime there's a bike/vehicle collision the bike loses. EVERYTIME! Add to that the increased risk of a fall on the ice, and I opted to drive my pickup those three days until the road crews were able to make the roads navigable for me. I consoled myself by saying I was demonstrating good decision making for my students.
So, technically, even with all the scheduled days on the calendar when school was not in session, I was unable to ride my bike to school everyday for one full year. But, that doesn't take away from the minor hardships I endured getting to and from school all the other days. It still would have been much easier for me to simply drive instead of biking.
I'm almost out of available time to write this morning, but before I go I wish to relate to the readers all my support and encouragement if they are thinking of undertaking a similar endeavor. Ride your bike to work if it makes sense. If you live over five miles from your workplace, it might not be the best idea. However, you likely are made of sterner stuff than I am and can absolutely do it. I gleaned that five mile figure from the many websites I comb through about bicycles and commuting and running errands, so it's not mine. But, it seems like a good rule of thumb. The biggest factors involved in commuting by bicycle year round, for me, were time and weather preparedness.
Tune in tomorrow, or the next day, for the next entry in The Midwest Bicycle Commuter. Hey, I don't get paid for this, and if I want to skip a day I will! Keep those wheels spinning and enjoy another full day of your life. From Kansas, I'm out.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Virgin Voyage

Remember when you got that new bike and you couldn't wait to get it home to take it out and ride it around on a real ride? Not a test ride when you can hardly enjoy it because the whole time you're thinking "can I afford this?" and you're worried about crashing it and being forced to buy it whether you wish to or not? Well, this blog attempt is somewhat akin to that experience. I've already test rode it and purchased it, and now I've got it home and it's on display in my driveway leaned over on its kickstand at just the right angle to make it look aggressive. I've strapped my helmet to my head and I've filled my stomach with raisin bran. I've planned out a favorite route that combines the best compromise of scenery, safety, and speed. Now it's time to take it out for a spin!

Welcome to The Midwest Bicycle Commuter. This is a blog which recounts the experiences of a middle age guy in the midwest who has made a goal to ride his bicycle to work everyday for a year. It won't be too technical, but instead will provide some perspective on commuting by bicycle in the Midwest as well as relaying a smattering of thoughts, experiences, opinions, and philosophy about it and other random topics.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will let you know up front I'm an English teacher at a high school in a small Kansas town below Kansas City and not too far from the Missouri border. I like to get that part about being a teacher out of the way, because usually it will turn off about half the audience right away. There's something about the teaching profession which makes people react with love or hate. Very seldom is there a non-reaction. People seem to either love or hate teachers.
So, this is the first day of the new blog. It's the second day of commuting to the high school for the year. I have about a fifteen minute ride to get there. The temperature is right at 70 degrees Fahrenheit, it's overcast. I'll be carrying my backpack in one of my collapsible metal wire baskets. Along with pens, pencils, paper, i.d. emergency cold medicine, toothbrush, etc., I'll be carrying along a ten year old set of rain gear.
My hope is that you may be considering riding your bike to work or to run an errand and are looking for a little support and even littler entertainment from me. My goal is to provide that support and entertainment. It's seven o'clock. I had better get going.