In the Rabbit’s Head

When it comes to looking out for myself, I often think I would do well to think like a rabbit.  I’m specifically thinking about my bicycle trips to and from work.

Yesterday was “bike to work day”.  I had planned to bike to work, but with the rain coming down, I figured I’d skip it.  Then, while eating breakfast early in the morning, I checked my email.  An email from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia notified me that, rain or shine, they would have stations set up in Philadelphia with La Colombe coffee, snacks and other support for the thousands of cyclists that would be biking to work that day.  There would be a special group ride (I assume for people with unfixed work hours) starting at 8:30, and a press conference at 9:00 with civic leaders about making Philadelphia more bike friendly.  My commute is in South Jersey, so no chance of grabbing that cup of coffee, but this gave me the impetus to go ahead and ride, and not worry about the rain.

While I enjoy biking to work, it is far more dangerous than driving.  Adding rain to the ride makes it that much more of a challenge.  We have a few rabbits living in our backyard.  They munch on our grass, look longingly at our fenced-in vegetable garden, but are always on critical alert.  Their long ears stand up, and turn to face the sound of the gate opening.  Their eyes are ever open, and they are ready to move, or bolt, when they sense danger.  I think of the rabbits often as I ride to work.  I’ve gotten to know the route very well.  I know every grate, pot hole, rough spot, crack, traffic light, narrow spot, entering roadway, curve and even where deer sometimes come running across the roadway.  If I leave for work at 6:00 AM, I get passed by only about 20 cars and pickups on my ride, which is about 25 minutes.  If I leave at 6:30, that number about quadruples.  If I leave at 7:00, there is a constant stream of traffic all the way.  I like to imagine that the drivers at 6:00 are less likely to be talking on their cellphones, since there would be fewer people awake with whom to talk.  Most days, I need to be at work by 6:30, so the decision is made, but even when I’m not due in until 8:00, I will leave early to make the ride safer.

I think having a rabbit-like sense of danger is healthy for bike commuters, for we are the small, vulnerable animal on the road.  Keen hearing, sharp eyes, and an ever-present sense of danger are critical elements of the ride.  Why do it, then?  I will list several reasons.

It is a way to work in some physical activities into my day which I would otherwise not be able to do.  Twenty five minutes of riding twice a day adds up when done regularly.  While I can only ride three days a week, I definitely benefit from the exercise.  Not driving the car means less products of combustion ascending skyward.  Less oil consumption.  Granted, it is an infinitesimal subtraction from the total emissions of the day if one looks globally.  But, this brings up a question I’ve considered while riding, which is, what about my CO2 output and my energy consumption.  Is there no consequence of increasing one’s metabolism to ride to work, burning calories and producing CO2?  As it happens, a study has been done.  According to a study done by the European Cycling Commission, the CO2 produced by a cyclist is about 21 gm per kilometer.  For a driver in an efficient car, that amount is 271 gm and for a passenger on a bus, the average is 101 gm.   What about the cost of the fuel to ride my bike?  By that, I mean, the cost of the food I need to eat to cover the energy expenditure of my ride.  One could calculate this in many ways.  But, if I burn about 750 kcals total for the round trip, one can put that in food costs.  If I were to replace that with a muffin from Starbucks, about 380 kcals for a blueberry muffin at about $2.25 each, I would need to eat two to get my calorie needs met.  By eating some rice and beans, the cost would be far less.  Your choice.

I enjoy the sense of freedom I get riding my bike.  Maybe this hearkens back to childhood, when one’s bike was a ticket to adventure.  I also like the camaraderie with fellow cyclists on the road, who, at 6:00 AM, are frequently commuting to work.  On the way to work, the cars pass me.  But, on the way home, with traffic tie-ups, I can frequently breeze by a long line of cars waiting at a traffic light.  Ultimately, they catch and pass me, but it may be several miles down the road.

Yet, the danger is there.  Rain adds another dimension, of slippery roads, decreased visibility both for car drivers and for me, and reckless motorists who don’t think physics applies to them, with decreased tire friction, longer stopping distances, and so on.  I dress in bright yellows and reds, and have my blinking tail light and headlight on.  I put my mind in the head of the rabbit, knowing that those beasts of steel and glass are eying me as a target, keep my ears tuned and eyes open, look for the cues that tell me someone is about to do something evil, keep my hands on the brake levers, have an escape plan, and hopefully, get to work in one piece, refreshed and ready to hit the ground running.

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Set to ride on a cool morning.

The Proper Way to Ride a Bike

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Vermont Challenge, 2012

I came across a cycling article in the newspaper The Guardian, which was titled “No more hippies and explorers: a lament for the changed world of cycling.”  I think it’s worth a read, because the author, one Tom Marriage, writes about how he perceives cycling to have changed.  He sees it as being taken over by Lycra-clad highly competitive sorts, who have ruined cycling for ordinary people.  Here’s how he put it:  Now it’s different. Road cycling has become the orthodoxy. Tedious, competitive, sports cycling has taken over. Cycling has become the new golf. It’s what men of a certain age, men with money and power, chat about after meetings.  He continues with a few other points, how cyclists were once considered a bit quirky and fun loving, adventuresome types, but are now causing the general population to hate cyclists because of their image in their tight clothing, and their behavior on the road.

I think this is on one hand, setting up a paper tiger, and on the other, stating what has been going on for generations.  People go through different stages with their bikes.  Often, a bike is the first mode of transportation allowing a child, too young to drive, a means of traveling far from home without help.  I will never forget my first bike experience, being helped to get started by a neighbor, amazed at how fast I could go, then finally tipping the bike over in the grass not having mastered the art of braking at that point.  I also recall my son’s first successful solo ride.  He was so thrilled, that at the age of six, he started singing out loud James Brown’s song, I Feel Good! while zooming down the street (check out the linked version, a surreal blast).

Cyclists come in all shapes, sizes and goals:

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Here’s a simplified picture of the variety of cyclists

They vary from the plainly absurd:

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Canadians?  I see a maple leaf there.

To the serious professional competitive athlete:

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Tour of Flanders, 2004 (George Hincapie in USPS kit)

In places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, bicycling is part of the culture, and they have separate traffic lanes and traffic lights for cyclists.  Men and women of all ages bike to work, often in inclement weather.  The Danes are particularly conscious of their cycling image as in the blog Cycle Chic.

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Bikes parked on a side street in Amsterdam

I’ve always been a cycling enthusiast, from that first ride and spill into the grass to today.  As a kid in the suburbs of Houston, I rode my 24 inch bike to school and to the swim club, and used it to explore my neighborhood, with interesting destinations including trails along the Brays Bayou.  In high school in San Diego, I was given my first ten-speed bike for my birthday, and enjoyed riding it to school and to wherever I wanted to go.  This was in spite of the fact I had my driver’s license and could have driven.  That bike, an Astra Tour de France, carried me through college at UCSD and beyond.  Today, that same bike is used by my son who lives in South Philly and commutes to work on it.

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Astra Tour de France, made in 1970.  The Peugot fork I put on in college because the original was causing a shimmy when I got up to speed on the downhills.

I have gotten into the road riding and road racing scene.  It started innocently enough.  My friend Dan T. and I started riding together for exercise in the mid 1990’s.  He was on his Nishiki and I on my Trek 200, a heavy steel beast with downtube shifters and a basket on the handlebars which could fit a six pack of beer.  A long ride for us at that time was 15 or 20 miles.  One day, Dan felt the need to upgrade, and bought a Cannondale 300, made of aluminum, and quite a bit faster than my Trek.  That wouldn’t do.  Soon, I bought a Trek 2300, which at that time was part carbon, part steel.  We were back in equilibrium again.  Our rides were getting longer, and faster, too.  It was not unusual to go out on a Saturday or Sunday for a 60 mile ride, sometimes in cold or wet weather.  We had adopted the look of the road cyclist, too, with appropriate shorts, jerseys with various European pro teams names on them, gloves, and of course, click in pedals.  Dan upped the mechanicals again, this time going for a very nice higher-end Colnago, a fine Italian maker of racing bikes used in the Tour de France and other major road races.  The game was on.  In 2001, I ordered a beautiful Pinarello Opera frame through a bike shop in Rome, called Romeo Cycles.  I had it fitted with Campagnolo Record components, a Deda stem and handle bars, and Mavic hand-built wheels at my local bike shop, Bicycle Therapy, in Philly.  Dan T. and I wanted a real cycling adventure, though, and so we found a company in Italy that sounded perfect.  In the summer of 2002, we traveled by way of Paris to Venice, accompanied by another friend, Dan B., and went to the Italian Cycling Center.  Run by a curmudgeonly but wise fellow, George Pohl, located in the Veneto about an hour’s drive north of Venice, we were introduced to northern Italian cycling culture.  Daily, we gathered at breakfast and found out what the ride for the day was.  We would then head out, with the faster, stronger cyclists tackling the big climbs, and the others usually heading for some interesting archeological dig or a museum.

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Passo San Baldo, a long hard climb in the mountains.

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Preparing to climb Passo S. Baldo.  The Italian gentleman on the right in front on the red bike, was 72 years old, and kept with me the whole way up.

That was in 2002.  Since then, I have had many other adventures on my bike.  Since my trip to Italy, I have gone cycling with Ride Noho, a camp modeled after the Italian Cycling Center, located in Northampton Massachusetts, and run by a very congenial (the opposite of a curmudgeon) fellow, Aldo, and his wife Elaine.  The concept is to stay in one place and go out on a different route each day.  I have managed to talk a number of my friends into joining me on these annual trips.  I would say our favorite climb is up Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts.

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Preparing for the Mount Greylock adventure

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At the Greylock Summit

As you can see, Elaine, in the center of the photo, is the only woman in a group of men cyclists.  Why is that?  Do women just generally not enjoy cycling?  Elaine is light, strong, and very tough, and can hold her own in a group of men.  Is that what it takes, or are there other factors involved?  Back to The Guardian again, and an article written by Terry Slavin last year, “If there aren’t as many women cycling as men…you need better infrastructure.”  In it, she points out that cycling, particularly in cities without the infrastructure to protect cyclists from trucks, buses and cars, is dangerous.  As she puts it:  If we have a street environment that’s hostile, that has no facilities, that has fast traffic with heavy lorries thundering past, we will get low numbers of courageous people, mainly men, on racing bikes and pretty well no one else. The article is very well written and researched and I recommend it to anyone interested in the role of cycling in cities.

I’m a cycling commuter.  When conditions allow, I can usually ride my bike three days a week to work from mid March through mid October.  I kind of stand out in this regard, an older guy (one of our “seniors”, as President Bush would say), Surgeon, with a need to get to work sometimes by 6:30.  It takes a real desire to want to do this before any of the other considerations like clothing management, flat tire potential, and traffic.  Our roads are decidedly not bike friendly.  I live in a town in New Jersey with the history of being the first town in New Jersey to ban bicycles (since overruled) a century and a half ago.  Today, one gets ignored, cursed, mocked, and threatened on the road.  Our local bicycle advocacy organization, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, has been at work for years pushing local, regional and federal government to support cycling for all the great advantages it has for the citizens.  Their work has not been in vain.  An accounting of their victories shows that much can be done to encourage cycling.  This is a very political issue.  Money spent on cycling interests is seen as money taken away from other interests.  If the need for more road capacity, or more buses is decreased due to more cyclists on the road, it means fewer jobs in those sectors.  But, if it leads to a more vibrant city in which people enjoy living, the health of the city and the economy grow.

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Preparing to ride to work on a chilly morning in April, 2016.

Back to the start, about the changed world of cycling.  There have been some major changes, but many are not the kind mentioned in the article.  Pro cycling has had its reputation dashed on the rocks because of all the drug enhancement and doping by all the big names in the sport, the most famous of whom is Lance Armstrong.  Bicycles have gotten better over the last several decades, with handle bar index shifting, lighter materials, and many other technological advances.  Helmets have improved.  More bike lanes and more dedicated bike paths have been built.  A huge impact has been bikes for rent, in big cities like Paris, New York and now, Philadelphia.  In fact, Philadelphia was the 74th community in the USA to start a program, and it has been a big success.  Still, from my personal perspective, the prevailing attitude among my fellow Americans is one of dislike, strong dislike, or downright hatred of cyclists on the road.  The reasons are many, but I feel if there is more accommodation to cyclists, and more separation of cyclists from busy roadways, both cyclists and motorists benefit.  It would go far in tempering the legitimate antipathy motorists can have about cyclists and their habits on the road.  Many of my non-cyclist friends get very aggravated by cyclists not stopping at traffic lights, or blocking the flow of traffic.  This, to me, is not a new problem.  I have seen that often, over the decades I have been riding, that cyclists can be arrogant and unwilling to follow the rules of the highway.  As a cyclist, it is not always a simple matter of waiting for the light.  When the drivers hit the gas, it is better not to be clustering in front of them. In several European cities, cyclists are allowed to go through red lights on roads where the speed limit is 30 km/hr, so to keep traffic flowing more smoothly.  The rationale is that injuries to cyclists would decrease, and drivers would be less impeded. As to the Lycra and close-fitting clothing, it is what works for cyclists.  I don’t feel a need to explain wearing the appropriate gear.  For city commuting, though, most any clothes can be, and are worn, and work perfectly well.  Working with cyclists to provide a safe place to keep one’s bike while at work and providing a facility to make quick repairs, or pump up a tire, are ways companies can encourage bike commuting.  And about that quirky, offbeat style of cycling:

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Craziest bike I’ve seen yet.

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Heading up to Northampton, to Ride Noho

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Men and their bikes.

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