Friday, December 9, 2011

The helmet mirror: a lifesaver

I've become so dependent and accustomed to relying upon my helmet mirror while cycling that I often find myself looking up and to the left as I walk down the halls of the school where I teach, attempting to look behind me for who is doing the talking, who is walking behind me (and what are they doing?!) In class, with my back to the general population, while I write on the whiteboard, I find myself looking up and to the right trying to see what the students are up to behind me. If I happen to mount my bicycle without my helmet and mirror I feel like my total vision is impaired and I notice its absence. I don't feel as confident on the bike without my mirror.

Do you think it would be odd for a teacher to wear a cycling helmet and mirror while he attempts to teach class?

Friday, September 16, 2011

The cool weather has arrived. It looks like it will be for a short amount of time, but it's enjoyable nonetheless. I wore a jacket on my bicycle commute to work in the mornings this week. It's no cycle-specific article of clothing, or anything. It's just a Docker's product. The cool weather invigorates me somehow and I seem to make slightly better time.

Last night I had to examine the battery situation in my front led flasher and headlight. The three AAA size batteries had begun to corrode slightly and affect its performance. I cleaned it up a little and installed two new batteries, different brands, and left the best looking one in there. It still helped. The light is brighter now and that was my goal.

A colleague of mine asked if I was still riding my bike. Indeed I am. For now. I have made no goal to ride it every day no matter what, this year. I decided my commuter was not well suited for ice and snow over 1/2", and if those conditions exist, I'll opt to drive our car. Forgive me. I made my goal last year and I choose to ride almost everyday.

This colleague of mine said he was getting ready to buy a brand new bike. At this point I am bursting to tell him my opinion and advice on what he should look for and consider. However, in my experience, when I get started, the listener kind of checks out and an imaginary wall is put up between us and the information I'd like for them to consider is dismissed almost immediately. So, I did tell him I rode a 80's model three speed, which seemed to surprise him. He, like a lot of people are under the impression they must spend upwards of $500-$800 for a brand new bike in order to go for a bike ride.

Commuting by bicycle to work each work day has educated me and left me with a unique perspective. As far as commuting by bicycle to work in the mid-west, on relatively flat paths, where the distance is under five miles, and the priorities are utility, reliability, and durability, I've found the three speed internally geared to be ideal for this situation. A chain-guard keeps the grease and grime from off my dress pants, because I ride in the clothes I work. Fenders keep the wet stuff off my back and legs, mostly. Metal wire baskets carry my stuff. The internal hub allows me to shift gears when I'm stopped at a traffic light or stop sign. Good quality tires give me confidence and many, many miles of flat free commuting. A steel butted frame gives a good ride is strong for a lifetime.

I wanted to tell him all this, but he checked out. Like many others, he won't be satisfied that he has a quality experience unless he spends much more than is necessary. I hope his new bike doesn't become garage decoration and that he has a good experience riding. I wish him well.

I wish all of you well, too. Keep on commuting by bike!


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Another school year, another goal

Hello again everyone. It's been since April since I've updated this blog, and just in case you are unaware of it, today is the first day of September. So, that means it's been like . . . uh . . . since late April since I've updated this blog. Forgive me, but  I'm an English teacher and that pretty much gives me license to avoid mathematical quandaries such as calculating how many days it's been since I last updated this blog.

To let readers know, I did accomplish my goal last school year of commuting by bicycle each day I taught. I didn't teach every day, however. I was absent due to illness a few days, and we had an abundance of snow days which was an easy out for me. These, and the week of spring break, and the two weeks of Christmas break, and the three days off for Thanksgiving break, and  . . . let's see, I'm sure there are many more days we didn't attend school which any devoted business person could easily name off with considerable disgust which now escape me. That being said, each day I taught school I rode my bike.

Actually, I've got to confess the above statement is not true. I walked to school one day because a student at our high school slashed my bicycle tires and I didn't have a back-up bike and/ or tire to ride. I walked that day. But, heck! I thought that was a valid reason for not commuting by bike. I rode through rain (not that big of a deal now), through the cold Kansas winter (again, not as big a deal as I feared), and through the snow and ice (which was the most difficult, due to inappropriate bicycle for that situation).

I don't know yet if I'll make it my goal again, but so far, approaching two full weeks of classes, I've commuted by bicycle to school again. I am confident no student will mess with my bike again. If not, I'll try something different.

That's all for today. Leave a comment below and let me know your commuting stories. And, until your tires get slashed,

Keep on commuting by bike!


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Good weather for two wheels

It's good weather for cycling here in the midwest: sunny, cool and fragrant in the morning; bright and warm in the afternoon; pleasantly blue and purple somehow in the evening. Birds are out and talking to each other and flying about. The only detriment to cycling this time of year is the wind. When the wind blows against me, my progress is at a crawl. It feels as if I'm slow as jogging, at those times. It has caused me to weave all over the road or bike path as I attempt to accusingly observe my rear brake pads for maladjustment. Alas, buddy. The brakes aren't on.

The fun part of the wind for a cyclist is when the wind gives a beneficial push. But, similar to the down side of the hill, the part where the wind helps us along is never as long as the fight against it.

I've yet again broken off the mount I had rigged up for my rear flashing light. Now, I'm down to attaching it to the collapsible metal wire basket. The rear blinking red light has a little clip that relies on gravity to keep it secure. I'm not pleased with the setup. For one thing, I have to have the basket unfolded, as if ready to carry something. I'm unable to attach the blinking light to the folded basket. The other thing is that I generally carry my daily load in the basket on the drive side of the bike. Utilizing this side for my daily backpack full of necessities (my man purse) allows the bike to stand on its kickstand, barely. If the load is off the drive side, the "down" side of the kickstand, it will fall over every time. I would prefer to have the red blinking light on the left side of the bike, the traffic side.

I finally had a flat tire on the touring Schwalbes after about two full years of year round use, on fine chat, and city streets. It was the rear. I repaired the flat using a patch I cut from an old tube. I cleaned it with some of the soap and water I'd used to find the leak; next I roughed up the area with the buffer that came with the patch kit; lastly, I applied a thin coat of regular school use rubber cement to both the patch surface and tube surface, I allowed both surfaces to become tacky and get a white glaze before attaching the patch to the tube. I have a roller tool that's designed to press the bead and screen into a storm window frame which I use to press the patch securely in place. All these are techniques I learned patching vehicle tires as a teenager.

The patch held, but I didn't seat the tire properly on the rim and sometime during the next day as it was parked the tube crept out between the rim and tire and blew out making it unrepairable. I was disappointed, because it was a Shcwalbe tube, and had a nice threaded metal valve stem that came with a little nut for securing the valve stem to the rim. The tube didn't fail, I was hasty in my desire to get the bike back into service and didn't do it correctly. On my commute the next morning, I felt an annoying  hump as I rode, but it didn't register to examine the tire to see what was going on. If I'd have noticed it, I'd have deflated the tube so it wouldn't be ruined.

Instead I had to purchase a new tube from my LBS (local bike store) a.k.a. Wal-Mart. I took my time reseating the tire this time and it's worked flawlessly these past few days, including the weekend. I lost very little air pressure with the Schwalbe tire and tube combination, and I'm anxious to see how the Bell brand tube will perform in maintaining pressure.

I was forced to ride my "other" bike while my three-speed was out of commission. It's a Hawthorne single speed with a single piece crank, 26" wheels, and coaster brake. It's really an inferior bike, but I keep it for sentimental reasons. It has Schwalbe touring tires and tubes on it also and has gone many,  many miles carrying the weight of me and my two kids without failing.

I paid more for the tires and tubes on my three-speed  than I did for the bike itself. Granted, it's a used 70s era three speed, but it has a butted frame, 27" wheels, and sort of a semi three piece crank. The tires are such a good investment, I can't stress their importance enough.

I hope to go another nearly two years without a flat. I don't carry spares or repair gear on my commute. Since I commute in the town I live in, I'll walk if I have a flat. Other bicycle commuters may have too long of a commute to walk if this happens, or don't have another person to bail them out with a ride if they get a tire failure. Those people should carry patches, and pump. My bike doesn't have quick release wheels either, so I['d have to carry the correct size wrench for that, too.  I just would rather rely on the superiority of the tires to see me through.

Keep on commuting by bike!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Back in the saddle again

Well, shouldn't the expression really go, "backside in the saddle again"?  Or, to be even more precise, "backside on the saddle again."

Well, the commuter bicycle is in need of a new saddle methinks. I've started to notice lately that my rear begins hurting, even on my short commute. I also notice the saddle itself looks sort of deformed, like it's flattened out somehow. It's still the stock issue Takara saddle, probably 20 or more years old. I guess it is nearing the end of its life. It's a vinyl thing with the springs on the rear.

That has me thinking about investing in a good saddle. I've been looking online at the Brooks saddles. The $80.-$190 Brooks saddles. I know, right. I only paid $70. for the bike entire. It was used, or euphemistically "previously owned". I already paid more for the Schwalbe touring tires than that. The tires were so worth it. Some people at school like to ask about bicycles or riding or whatever. I invariably give them my unsolicited advice to invest in good tires. They want to argue with me and try to get by on what our LBS (Local Bike Shop: a.k.a. Wal-Mart) sells. I guess they don't trust my judgment on the issue. But, I'd like to point out since I've put them on two years ago, I've had zero problems.

I wonder how the best way to go about trying saddles is. I am against purchasing a new saddle, then trying it out to find out I don't like it. I am especially against it if the saddle costs as much as the Brooks. Plus, since it's a leather product, that would mean additional maintenance and care. I park my bike outside, in the rain and snow and sun. I know how to care for leather boots and shoes. I maintain a couple pairs of boots and a couple belts.

I'm leaning toward trying one of the saddle designs with the spring in front as well as the two in back. I'm a fan of upright riding position, but the website indicates these major comfort ones are for bikes whose handlebars are well above the saddle. I'll have to do some checking to confirm, but I think my handlebars are only slightly above my seat or nearly level with it. But, I'm looking for some comfort as I don't have any suspension on my bike.

Also, I'm thinking of getting a two pedestal kickstand. These kickstands prevent a bike from falling over at all. With my baskets full of backpack and books and whatever else, it makes my bike tend to fall over, even with my good kickstand down. It is a good kickstand as far as kickstands go. But, this one will keep it completely vertical no matter what the load. I found one that looks like a beast. Weighs in at two pounds! As if I need any more weight on that bike.

I'm also considering dropping my insurance and registration on my pickup this year. Perhaps even selling my pickup. If so, I could really use that money to finance some upgrades on my own bike and make some purchases to increase our family cycling experience.

Those are some plans. That's what's on my mind lately. Spring is right around the corner and among my chores I hope to be outside on my bike.

Keep on commuting by bike!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Blue Skies Smiling at Me

Hello there, this is the friendly voice and typing sounds of your mostest favoritest Midwest Bicycle Commuter blogger guy coming at you live, disturbing your peace and asking to borrow your ladder for a stunt I want to try off my roof. It seems like it's been such a  long time since I've sat down and let loose with the observations and complaints, so your "grace" period of MWBC free bliss is officially over! I'll venture to say I've made it through the worst of the riding conditions on my way to accomplish my goal of riding my bike to school each day I teach. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know.  Having a whole slew of snow days, which absolved me of my requirement to attend and therefore teach school, (which is only slightly different than when I am required to attend and yet do not teach, though I am required to, but that's another story) made meeting my goal significantly easier to obtain. I haven't yet actually made my goal because I still have a fourth quarter and a week of riding to class to make it.

However meandering and wayward appears to be my writing on the way to making one, my point is that the really crappy weather for my commute is in the past. I rode through the cold, which wasn't physically difficult as much as mentally challenging. Yes, leaving a warm, cozy house to enter the sharp, black cold of winter mornings with the knowledge I was about to mount a bicycle and be cold for a few minutes until my blood flowed, left me mentally challenged. You heard it here first.

The actual snow was physically challenging for my bike and me. The snow was the easiest. It became quite tough when that snow melted during the day and under traffic, then froze into all manner of dips and valleys which tried to change the direction of my bike against my will. I had to be especially wary and alert of vehicles during these times. I knew their stopping distances increase dramatically and I'd be in danger of vehicles unable to stop for me in time.

Well, this is not really related, but I found this video clip thanks to another blog I read. It has more to do with the attitudes people display toward cyclists on the road. It's sickening, I'll grant you, but you should watch it so you don't kid yourself that we live in some Sesame Street type of environment, where everyone respects each other and is kind, patient, etc. This is reality.

Stay safe out there. Make a goal of your own. Keep on commuting by bike!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Blue skies

I know all my follower (shout out to mom!) are wondering "Where's the midwest bicycle commuter guy gone? I miss his text heavy blog entries!"

Well, I'm okay. I just haven't written here for a while: close to a month. But, I'm still on track for pedaling my bicycle to school each day it's in session and I'm teaching.

I got my family out on the bikes, too. The two boys in the trailer, and my wife on her own bike. It's so good to get them out. It's an inexpensive form of entertainment, and develops strong bonds between us. I seem to never grow tired of it.

I haven't had any close calls lately. Sometime in the interim of not writing, one day, my front brake cable broke and I was fortunate I wasn't in a dangerous traffic situation. I replaced it easily once at home. I also replaced my brake pads with some "fits all" Bell from Wal-Mart. I'm not sure what I need to do with my brakes. They rub just a little bit now. I think I need to true my wheels. I need to learn to do that, and to adjust brakes. I'd like to upgrade my brakes.

Well, I apologize for the personal list feel of this blog. Once I get back into a rhythm, I'll be back blogging again. Take care, and keep on commuting by bicycle.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Roads almost clear

The roads have almost cleared entirely of the snow and ice. Just a few patches near my home remain sketchy, but they're likely to have melted with today's sun while I was in the classroom.

I've been reading many other bicycle commuter blogs and I have it easy compared to some of them. I know I need to wipe my bike down in order to make the most of my awesome reflective tape design job. I will likely wait until slightly warmer weather to do an overhaul on my bike: grease the bottom bracket, true the wheels, de-muck the chain (though it doesn't look too bad), new brake pads, grease/lube cables, etc.

I'm thinking the next things I need to get if I'm to continue riding in among traffic regularly like I've been doing is more reflective bands. I can see their value on my ankles, and possibly near my knees or thighs. The moving parts of my body.

Well, I guess I'm not in the writing mood today, so you all get off lucky. Get out there and put 10 or so miles on your bike this weekend!

Keep on commuting by bike!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Light at the . . start of the day

Things must be looking up. The roads are clear of ice and snow on almost the entire route I ride to school. The worst stretch is on my own street coming out of my driveway. Another promising sign: slight blue/purple light growing in the east when I leave from the house, instead of bitter black dark. Before too long I'll be leaving for school in near full-on sunlight. Of course, I still have the entire month of February to make it through. February can be the worst month for cold temperatures. The cold temperatures have not dissuaded me from riding my bike, though.

I'm fortunate that my route to ride does not take me into isolation. I could see my bicycle commute being a far more dangerous proposition were I required to ride on a two lane county road from the country into town. I know these county roads are not well patrolled and speeding, sometimes exorbitantly above the posted limit, is a common practice among drivers. These county roads often have no shoulder for a cyclist. Very often they are not striped with center or side lines. Often they are quite bumpy and less than ideal driving surfaces.

Speeding drivers are treacherous to cyclists because the speeding driver has less time to react to things they encounter suddenly on the road, like cyclists. A road without centerline stripes or sidelines can be dangerous for a driver as it does not provide easily recognizable boundaries in low light situations. This makes it more difficult for a driver to establish a frame of reference to judge their own position. If two vehicle meet traveling in opposite directions at roughly the same point a cyclist is traveling, the vehicle driver approaching the cyclist from the rear may find more difficulty knowing where he or she is in relation to the head-on approaching vehicle and the slower moving cyclist on the right hand third of the lane. This is especially true if it is a low light situation like a winter morning. Add to that danger the fact that these drivers are probably not expecting to see a cyclist out riding in the dark of a winter morning.

Finally, when low light, no striping, and excessive speeds are combined with rough, bumpy surfaces, this combination produces a very hard to control vehicle. An out of control vehicle is lethal to a cyclist.

As I said, I'm fortunate I don't have this danger on my daily commute. About one third of my commute is on a paved rail trail.  I wonder at how dedicated I'd be to this if I lived five mile out of town on a county road. An easy commute makes it easy to commit to commuting by bike. A "hairy" commute would take considerable more commitment, determination and just plain guts.

I've had only two occasions when my bike has gone out from under me. Both were on ice. Both were fairly slow speed. Neither time did I lose my own footing and fall myself. Both times I was able to land myself from falling, only the bicycle went all the way down. It's during these icy road commutes I consider investing in some appropriate tires. I just can't justify the expense when the need genuinely arises so few times during the year. At any rate, I'm not sure if my fenders and frame would allow for tires any wider than the ones already installed. In that case, I'm faced with getting a dedicated "ice bike". Perhaps I could rethink it and label it my "winter" bike.

On a positive note, many students comment how they see me riding before and after school at various locations. This is good because, for one thing, they SAW me. Visibility is a big concern for me. It's also good because, they SAW me. Being seen riding a bike often works to increase drivers' familiarity and respect for bicycles on the street, and helps to grow acceptance of the bicycle as a viable transportation choice. I like to think of myself as a good role model. If people see me doing it, I'm hopeful they may think to themselves, "Hey, I can do that!"

Keep on commuting by bike!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bike commuter dangers on ice

We who ride our bikes in extreme weather (if you can label northeast Kansas weather in early-mid January "extreme"- extreme might be a liberal term; perhaps "cold and uncomfortable" would be more to the liking of Minnesota folk, and "warm and spring-like" may be more accurate for the resident of Alaska) could be said to take extreme risk(s). Once cold weather and snow arrives around here (in northeast Kansas) the bicycles all but disappear. That means cars aren't expecting bicycles on the road, and if they don't expect a bicycle, they don't look for a bicycle in their vehicle operations. Snow also brings decreased visibility so a cyclists is also more difficult to see, even if the vehicle operator is genuinely watching for bicycles. Snow on the road also spells danger for the cyclists in the form of increased stopping distance, and decreased stopping power for vehicles.

The danger I've been most concerned with over this winter riding season has been ice clods. Roads receive vehicle traffic which shape partially melted snow into different ruts and debris with their passing. Then, temperatures drop and those ruts and splashes of partially melted snow become frozen. This has proven to be the biggest obstacle to my safe riding.

The smooth snow and ice, packed down by traffic, didn't pose much of a problem to me. I seemed to retain my balance pretty well. But, this morning I had difficulty maintaining control on some sections of the road. The rough clods of frozen snow/ice jarred me violently and almost caused me to upset onto the road surface. It was dark out too. I was using my flashing three L.E.D. light up front, but it still was not enough to help me much with seeing a clear pathway. The front flashing light I use is more for vehicles to see me, rather than for me to see where I'm going.

So, be careful out there. Slowing my speed helped a great deal. Searching for clear paths as best as can be managed helps, too. For my own experience, the worst sections were on off streets. The main roads were pretty clear, as they no doubt received more treatment from city crews to keep them clear. My pulse increases just thinking about what it would have been like flying down off a hill in front of traffic and hitting a section of that rough stuff. I certainly would have fallen with the bike shaken out from under me. I learned a lesson this morning: luckily I learned without crashing.

Keep on commuting by bike!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Look alive!

It's Friday! You know what that mean. It means you're thinking about taking that two wheeler off the daily commute path and pedaling it down a rail trail, or to a local pub, or just around the town or neighborhood without any discernible purpose.After all, Saturday comes right after Friday, and Saturday is the weekend when most of us don't report in to our jobs, and instead we ride our bikes for pleasure; another kind of riding that's not considered "commuting".

Well, I don't have much to add except, get out there and do it! Even if pleasure is one of the biggest benefits we enjoy from commuting anyway, it's nice to purposefully seek out some time to spend just pedaling around and looking at what's in peoples' yards, looking in through their house windows as we roll by, looking at the neighborhoods and the people who live in them; that sort of thing.

While you're out there, be sure to ride defensively. Assume cars don't see you. Establish eye contact. Use a rear view mirror. Be predictable and try to communicate your intentions to drivers. Obey the traffic laws. Wear reflective clothing. Enjoy the ride!

Keep on commuting by bike!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Wishing you a new year of safe, joyous rides

My goal when I began this blog a short time ago, was to commute by bicycle everyday to my job as an English teacher at a small town high school in a northeast Kansas town. I concede that for me to commute to work "everyday" is deceiving. As a teacher I enjoy a privileged schedule which includes generous breaks away from the classroom in the winter, spring, and of course the summer; and if you ask my dad, around virtually every corner. So, it could be argued for me to ride my bicycle to work each work day will be a significantly easier task than it might prove to be for someone else who, all other things being equal, is employed in a non-educational capacity.

All "that" being said, I have successfully managed to ride my bicycle to work each day since school began last fall. I am on track, at the halfway point, to accomplishing my goal. Even though my schedule didn't require me to ride several less days than the working world, I still feel proud to have completed the first semester.

I've answered multiple scores of questions from students, teachers, parents, and other adults alike, about riding my bike each day. I'd like to think I'm forcing a little bit of bicycle commuting exposure upon them, without them being aware. I consider a student or adult asking questions about it (even if the questions are clearly intended to ridicule me) to be an opportunity to demonstrate that I'm making a sound decision based upon logic, and that it is a feat which can be accomplished by the majority of the students and adults with which I interact. I feel like when people see me commuting by bicycle, I'm promoting a healthy, smart decision. I'm also trying to show that "normal" people commute by bike, and that commuting by bike can be a "normal" decision.

Here's to a new year of promoting the bicycle.

Now, on to my latest exploits. As you may have noticed, I've not updated this blog in close to three weeks. I found occasion to get out and ride some over my holiday break from school, but it wasn't daily. The trips I took on the bicycle over break though, were generally longer than my commute to school.

While on break, I took advantage of the relaxed wake-up schedule by staying up late. Staying up late, I should clarify, now means past eleven o'clock. I stayed up late one night to watch The Fellowship of the Ring while I applied reflective tape to my commuter bike.

I've become somewhat infatuated with reflective tape. I'm always trying to increase my visibility and I've looked on the internet at a lot of different examples of reflective tape and reflectors on bicycles. I've been somewhat dissatisfied with how the reflective tape is applied to the bicycles. None that I've seen really works to identify that it's a bicycle the observer is looking upon. The tape reflects very well; that's not the issue. The issue is that the random placing of big strips of reflective tape reflect light in such a way that they simply look like rectangle reflectors easily confused with driveway markers, sign posts, etc. They don't immediately say "I'm a bicycle!"

So, in order to attempt a reflective tape design on my commuter bike which does identify itself as a bicycle when reflecting light back to the observer, I chose to take a different approach to applying the reflective tape. Instead of applying big strips of the reflective tape, I cut the tape into eighth inch (or so) strips and placed them along the stays, diamond frame, and fenders. Some of the design was done with the strips placed parallel to the tubing they were applied to; alternating above and below the horizontal centerline of the tubing as the bike sits upright. This effect resembled the black and yellow designs seen on crash tests. In the places where I didn't follow this pattern, I placed the strips perpendicular to the tubing at roughly one inch increments, again alternating above and below the horizontal centerline of the tubing as the bike sits upright. This latter design, I postulate, will increase the surface area of the reflective areas giving more chances for light to bounce off it and back to observers. That's what I postulate anyway.

I chose to use very small bits of the reflective tape on the crank, crank arms, pedals, and some diagonal strips on one half of each wheel. I read somewhere this works to show the observer a flashing "on-off" effect as the bicycle is moving.

My thought process was that very small strips of reflective tape applied all over the bike would make the reflective tape less conspicuous in the daytime, yet more conspicuous in the dark, under lights. I hope with the tape applied all over the bike, when a light source hits it, it will show the easily recognizable shape of a bicycle.

I need to take a picture of it to see how it looks under a flash. I might add also the strips and check pattern I applied to the bike made it look just that much more sporty. I should also add that my commuter bike is an old one and I felt no reservations about placing that much tape on the paint job. Since it's my commuter, it might add to the "anti-theft" system I've got going, which is to make the bicycle look so "uncool" that even a desperate person wouldn't want to be seen on it. If nothing else, the reflective tape gives it character and I've yet to see another one like it.

Thanks for reading. Keep on commuting by bike!