Light in a Dark Place

Sometimes God gives us opportunities above and beyond our everyday choices, chances to shine as a bright light in a dark place. Yesterday I took one of those opportunities, and I’m still reeling from it.

Thursday, February 21, we pushed out our first release of 2019 at work. With President’s Day on Monday and all the snow the previous weeks, I didn’t feel as comfortable as usual. Every working day that week I put in 10-hour days and still felt less well prepared than I like. But that evening I left work at about 6:25 PM relieved and ready to enjoy a slow, dry, “warm” bike commute home before really nasty weather pummeled us again.

I almost didn’t ride. I’d ridden Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, including a 50-mile ride on Monday. By Wednesday evening’s commute of misery (a different story) my legs had plenty to say about doing more miles, and I’d nearly decided to take the bus home. But at the last minute I checked the weather and decided to take advantage of the one last nice day, fatigue be darned.

I’d ridden nary 15 minutes, and had just gotten on the bike trail near Gasworks Park, when I noticed several bikes laid on the ground around the sides of the trail. Then I noticed a cluster of people standing around together off to the side, and one person sitting down.

“Are you okay?” I called.

Nobody answered. That’s when I noticed the face of the lady sitting down. Blood streaked all over her nose, cheeks, and chin.

I stopped.

The bloody lady, named Teresa, had collided with another cyclist, Ben. Ben seemed completely unharmed. Teresa, however, looked terrible. The blood stopped me, but then hearing her talking worried me deeply. Her words came slow and confused.

“Has anyone called 911?” I asked.

Nobody answered.

I remembered from my First Aid classes that in emergencies, you need someone to take charge and start making decisions.

So I called. I explained to the dispatcher that two bikes had collided, and she asked if anyone needed to go to the hospital. At first it seemed uncertain, so the dispatcher asked to talk to Teresa.

“What day is it?” the dispatcher asked. Teresa had no idea.

“How old are you?” To this puzzler, Teresa answered, “What year is it?”

The dispatcher sent first responders and an ambulance.

Burke Bike Crash 2

Burke Bike Crash 1
Firefighters evaluating Teresa. Teresa’s bike, visible leaning in the background, had a tacoed front wheel. The other person in the collision is the cyclist in the blue jacket on the left.

While the firefighters evaluated Teresa, I started talking to the other cyclists standing around. A couple had stopped to help, but two of them had actually witnessed the collision, and the other person in the collision had stayed around, too. I gathered up their names and phone numbers so Teresa could decide what to do, once her brain started working better again.

After having talked with Teresa a little bit while we waited for the firefighters and ambulance, I gathered that she’d just moved from Philadelphia to Seattle in January. Her parents lived in California. She had no roommates or significant others with her. She was completely alone except for one cat.

Completely alone except for me.

Teresa couldn’t process anything at that point. She could barely see; she knew who she was, but couldn’t remember anything about the crash, what was going on, where she was, or anything pertaining to the date.

I couldn’t leave her alone to go to Harborview in that condition. You need an advocate in a hospital, someone to make sure you get blankets and water and to help answer questions various doctors have asked a million times before. I didn’t know anything about her, and I couldn’t help with questions about insurance, home address, or family. But I could make sure she didn’t spend the night confused, uncomfortable, and alone in the hospital.

As a parent, I can imagine how it would feel if my child was alone and injured in a strange place. I’d want someone to take care of my child until I arrived.

Honestly, I didn’t even debate what to do. I gave my bike to the firefighters, who housed it and Teresa’s bike until we could reclaim them, and I went in the ambulance with Teresa to Harborview.

Bike Crash 3
In the ambulance, Teresa really wanted reassurance that someone had taken care of her bike. Naturally.

We arrived there at about 7:00 PM, I think. At that point we passed through a portal into Hospital Time, some kind of strange spaghettification zone where everything takes 10 times longer than you ever imagined possible.

Bike Crash 4
Arriving at Harborview.

I’ll summarize about eight hours in the hospital by saying that, after x-rays, a head and neck CAT scan, and a careful evaluation by a oral/maxillofacial specialist, the doctors concluded that Teresa had a concussion, a fractured nose, fractured sinuses, and a really nasty hole in her lip where her teeth had poked all the way through.

The bearded doctor in the picture above sewed Teresa up quite expertly–he turned out to be a facial surgeon who’d also gone to dental school, really the perfect person for the job. He found a piece of Teresa’s tooth in her lip. Ew.

In the infinitely long interludes between doctor visits, Teresa and I chatted. At first she kept forgetting what we’d talked about, but within a few hours, she started getting much more lucid.

After an embarrassingly long time, I remembered I had an entire change of clothes in my bag. I felt much better after I’d changed out of my bike shorts. Then I remembered I also had a sandwich, brought as dinner for the release, but that I didn’t feel like eating before I left. With these two realizations, the stay became so much more bearable for me.

Throughout the night, I made sure Teresa had blankets and, later, water and the painkillers she felt comfortable taking (Tylenol only, please). I advocated for Teresa with the doctors and nurses, asking when the next step would happen and making sure we didn’t get forgotten. I also kept all her belongings with her (except the shirt they had to cut off her — sorry, shirt), facilitated a phone call with her mom in California, and sent messages for her until she recovered enough to use her phone herself.

Her mom bought tickets to fly to Seattle arriving at noon today, and I promised her I’d take care of Teresa until she arrived. I worried that Teresa shouldn’t go home to her empty apartment in Ballard all by herself after Harborview discharged her. Who would get her painkillers and water if she needed them? What if she got worse — who would monitor her?

We brought her home to our house.

Easier said than done, of course; we had a logistical nightmare, arranging for Deborah to come and stay at our house at 2 AM while Ian drove to Seattle to retrieve us. But by the kindness and grace of our family, we did it. At about 3:15 AM I installed Teresa in our guest bedroom with extra pillows (using our oldest pillow cases and a large towel; her facial road rash continued oozing for some time, plus the hospital equipped her with lots of ointment for her face) and Ian and I put ourselves to bed.

I found it hard to sleep, having spent the last 22 hours not only awake, but under extreme pressure. Eventually I must have drifted off, only to awaken again when Benji got up at 5:20 AM to go potty.

In the morning we had a car logistical shuffle; I needed a car to go get my bike from the fire station in Fremont, while Ian and Benji needed to drive to Redmond. Mom and Dad loaned us a car, possible because Dad had gotten a cold and decided to work from home.

During the day I “worked” from home, but “working” on what could only generously be described as two hours of sleep didn’t go real well. Fortunately, my boss understood when I explained the situation. I also rescued my bike from the fire station and made sure Teresa got plenty of water in the times she felt like being up. We chatted a bit more, and I learned more about Teresa. She’s a lovely person, a Christian who’s looking for a church home having just moved here (I recommended Bethany in Ballard) and a postdoc doing chemical engineering research at the UW.

Teresa’s mom arrived from the airport at our house about 1:15 PM and swept Teresa back off to Ballard for some family care.

Teresa and I had a long, sincere hug before she left. She has my phone number, and I’m pretty sure that’s not the last I’ll see of her. You can’t go through this without some connection. I certainly feel like I’ve got a special place in my heart for Teresa, and I know I won’t ever forget the last 24 hours.

Why’d I do it? So many reasons. Jesus calls us to care for the widows and orphans, and until her mom got here, Teresa was basically an orphan. She was my neighbor. She needed that care so desperately, care we could give. Then, too, I mentioned before that I knew she’s someone’s daughter. I wouldn’t want someone to leave my child hurt in that situation, and I couldn’t do that to her, either. And of course there’s the Golden Rule: Next time I could be the one on the pavement having no memory of what just happened. Who would take care of me?

Why’d I spend the night in the hospital and house a total stranger?

‘I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

Matthew 25:36 (MSG)

Why do I share all this? Not to toot my own horn or try to show what a great person I am, but to show that every single one of us has these opportunities. The question is what we do when they arise.

Cold, Dark, and Rainy

At last the weather has entered the classic Washington pattern of short, dim days, heavy cloud cover, and copious rain. Not that I prefer these conditions, but as a Washington native, it doesn’t feel like winter until the rain starts.

Well, yesterday the rain certainly started… And didn’t stop. By the time I got home, nary a square inch of me remained dry. That’s no big deal, but it was also quite windy, which I don’t care for.

Because of the wind, and the difficulty of seeing in dark, rainy conditions, I opted to take the Burke-Gilman Trail home from Seattle, rather than going across the 520 bridge and up through Kirkland. Especially lately, I’ve felt really nervous about riding down Market Street. At every intersection, cars turn right across the bike lane, and they never stop or seem to notice me. It’s very anxiety-inducing.

Plus, riding in the dark with car headlights blazing into my eyes, with raindrops refracting their light, it’s nearly impossible to see what’s ahead of me. I have super-powerful lights, but they don’t help when my vision is obscured.

So I took the Burke.

In the summer I don’t care for the Burke: too many other people, too flat, too boring, and a couple miles longer.

But in these conditions, there aren’t many other people, and flat and boring mean predictable, which is exactly what I want. Plus, with no cars, it not only feels safer, but it’s much easier to see.

When I got home, I realized something else: going across 520, I have 14 stoplights from the time I leave the UW to the time I get home. But riding on the Burke, I have only two stoplights.

Here’s a typical across-the-520-bridge commute:

Here’s the on-the-Burke around the north end route:

As a result, when I checked my times at the end, I had the odd experience of having a longer moving time (1:22 for 21.4 miles, versus 1:16 for 19.5 miles… Don’t judge me! It’s December, it’s dark, wet, windy, and nasty. You try riding faster.) but a shorter overall time (1:23 versus 1:29). I spent almost 15 minutes stopped when I went through Kirkland, compared with only one minute stopped going on the Burke.

So that’s interesting. My take-away: I may mix up my commutes more, especially on those dark, wet days when riding in traffic is extra-dangerous.

A Little Bike Commuting Math

Today, for the first time all week, I didn’t get soaked by rain on my commute home! I’m not complaining about the rain; not really. We’ve had an exceptionally dry November, with an unparalleled number of beautiful Saturdays that let us keep riding our fast bikes far later than usual. I expect to commute home in the rain most days between November and April, so I’ve just enjoyed all these bonus dry days.

Of course, that all changed this week, which we kicked off with 1.4 inches of rain on Monday. I had forgotten how difficult it is to see in the pitch dark in the rain, with raindrops on my glasses and car lights refracting and my glasses fogging up every time I stop.

On rainy days I wear my Gore jacket, which is phenomenal (although I think the colored sleeve patches are soaking through…). But it’s very light, and the directions specifically say “Use with backpack not recommended” — I assume because it wears through too quickly. So on rainy days I take my pannier and go just a little slower. Meh, I’m so slow anyway in these conditions, it honestly doesn’t matter much.

BUT! Today, as aforementioned, it didn’t rain. Plus, I’m working from home tomorrow and have to carry my laptop. For this, I use my Timbuk2 backpack, which has a perfect cozy padded laptop pocket. Okay, honestly I’m not sure if it’s cozy; I’ve never actually cozied up into the pocket, but I imagine my laptop would say it’s cozy, based on how fuzzy and soft it feels inside.

Anyway… I don’t use the backpack most of the time because, frankly, it’s enormous and I don’t need that much volume most of the time. Long story short, today not only did I need to carry my laptop, but I had some extra cargo that required the larger bag.

If only it wasn’t so darn heavy when it’s fully loaded like that. By the time I’m three or four miles from home, my back has started sending out semaphores, flares, etc., to alert me to the level of discomfort I’m feeling. It’s not fun. 

I wondered, as I waited at a stoplight and tried to take the bag weight off my poor, long-suffering shoulders and upper back, how much all this hoo-hah weights. I estimated about 10 lbs for the bag, fully loaded.

One of the things about having my brain is that you immediately decide to quantify stuff if you can. So when I got home, I got out the scale and did some quick measurements. A few little calculations later, and I got my answers:

Fully loaded bag, including laptop: 7.4 lbs
All the gear I’m wearing*: 8.2 lbs
Commuter bike with rack, fenders, pedals, lights, bike computer, the works: 22.4 lbs

By far the most surprising thing to me was the weight of all the clothes and gear. It never occurred to me that I’d be carrying that much extra in layers. Maybe that’s part of why it feels so much harder to ride in inclement weather… And, also, my bike was lighter than I expected: I thought previously it weighed in at 27 lbs. Must’ve lost some water weight since then.

In any case, if I’m looking for reasons I’m so much slower commuting now than in June, I probably need look no farther than these:

  • It’s dark and I slow down for safety.
  • It’s wet and I slow down for safety.
  • I’m carrying a lot of extra weight in winter gear.
  • I’m riding my heavier bike all the time now.
  • I ate some extra donuts once I finished that Gran Fondo.

Cyclists are so good at excuses!

*All the gear I’m wearing includes counts the weight of all the extra wintertime gear: helmet with light, shoes, booties, and jacket. It doesn’t count the regular base layer of shorts, jersey, etc. that I wear all the time. In retrospect I probably shouldn’t have included shoes, since I have to wear those no matter what. Oh well.

Diary of a Commute Bike

This morning started like all normal mornings. The garage door opening let in sunlight — sunlight isn’t the normal part. I mean the garage door opening.

Then my partner, who’s the engine, and I did a short trip to a bus stop. It only takes a couple minutes, but we always have to stop two or three times. I don’t like having to stop so much, and sometimes the engine seems a tad anxious, too–usually when we leave a little later. But we usually make it to the bus stop before the bus.

Diary of a Commute Bike: Bus Stop

We spend a lot of time standing around here. I don’t know why. I’m perfectly capable of doing the whole ride to work, but my engine insists on riding the bus.

Diary of a Commute Bike: On the Bus

I don’t care for riding the bus so much. Bikes are made to have both wheels firmly on the ground, thank you very much.

But once we go across the two bridges and get to the busy noisy place, we get off the bus and my engine and I get rolling again for another short trip with many stops.

There’s a few things I don’t understand about the busy noisy place.

First, we have to stop all the time – six or seven times, maybe more, in less than 10 minutes of travel time. We would get there much faster if the engine wouldn’t stop me so often.

Diary of a Commute Bike: Seattle Stop Light on 7th Ave

Second, sometimes I noticed we get our own special road just for partnerships like us.
Diary of a Commute Bike: 7th Ave Bike Lane
I see lots of us zooming around. The other day we went on one special road for a very short way–about 0.3 miles, the computer told me–short, but super fancy. Later I heard the engine mention that road cost $3.8 million.

What I want to know is: Why’d someone spend all that money for that? My engine and I like our special roads, but just marking it with paint is good enough for us. We didn’t care for the fancy raised up section and the way it feels like we’re on the sidewalk with the intersections with driveways. Sidewalks aren’t for us! Why are they making pretend sidewalks and calling them bike roads?

Anyway, we got to the dark place where I hang out with my friends while the engine does other stuff for a long time.

Diary of a Commute Bike: Hanging Out

As usual, I spent the day there hanging out and shooting the breeze with the other bikes there. I’m meeting lots of unfamiliar bikes who say they only go out when it’s sunny. I say, what’s the point of that? I have fenders, and the engine seems to work okay in the wet, although maybe not as optimally as when it’s sunny. I don’t know why that should matter, but apparently it does.

Eventually, the engine came back and we rode back to the garage home, where we started. I don’t understand why the engine does this most days — not every day, but mostly five days out of seven. Why??

Sometimes she seems to like seeing what’s out there, like on this ride…

Diary of a Commute Bike: Pretty 520 Sky

Diary of a Commute Bike: Pretty Lake Washington

… But other times she hardly looks around at all. What’s the point of that?

Anyway, I’ve noticed there are places — always at the same spots — where the engine pedals slower but breathes a lot louder. She did it again on the way back this time, even though I’m sure I heard her say she was going to not breathe heavy while riding for a while.

Diary of a Commute Bike: Market Street

I’m not sure why we have to slow down so much on those sections, or why she seems to be panting at times, but after those times, I often get to go fast.

I love going fast! It’s my favorite thing!

Except sometimes the engine slows us down for no reason I can see. And sometimes she doesn’t help at all — I have to do all the work. How fair is that?! When it’s up to me, I always make sure we roll along plenty fast.

On the way back, we have an awful lot of times we have to stop. I don’t like that. I want to go faster. We especially already stop at some of those places almost every time.

Diary of a Commute Bike: Eastside Stoplight at Bellevue Way

Diary of a Commute Bike: Kirkland Stoplight at Lake WA Blvd

Diary of a Commute Bike: Stoplight at 132nd and 100th

Maybe the engine likes the view?

Anyways, lately I’ve noticed all this fluffy white snow floating around, except it doesn’t melt and it’s much warmer than regular snow. But just like regular snow, it piles up on the sides of sidewalks and the road.

Diary of a Commute Bike: Cottonwood Fluff

At first I was nervous going over it. Snow is slippery. But this stuff wasn’t slippery at all — just super fluffy. I noticed the engine went with her mouth closed when there was the most fluff, but that seems ridiculous. I bet it tastes like sugar. Yum! If I had a mouth, I’d totally try tasting some.

So then we finished our ride home. I know the route pretty well, except sometimes the engine takes us different ways. Sometimes we just do loops with very slow parts and very fast parts; other times we just go on different roads and I’m not sure why.

Other times we meet up with the engine and bike partnership called “Dad,” and we ride along together. We used to meet up with another partnership called “Michael” quite often, but they moved to Australia and we never see them anyone. I’m sad about that. I miss my friend. I think Australia must be another big noisy place far from here.

When we got home this one day, there were two other engines out playing. My engine spends a lot of time with them. I think they must be extra-special to her.

Diary of a Commute Bike: Home

So that’s what my life is like. Maybe another time I’ll write about the days we don’t commute, and instead go on long rides. But right now I’m out of time. The bus is about to let us off in the big noisy place and we got to roll!

I hope we go fast.

“Be Careful,” He Said

“Be careful”: always good advice. But it’s also rather ironic advice, when it comes from a driver who previously just turned aggressively into the flow of traffic.

Here’s what went down, and why I was left shaking my head at the audacity of that motorist chastising me.

I was riding through downtown Kirkland, like I do most nights (hooray, 520 bridge! You’ve changed my commute forever!). Like most nights, traffic backed up through Kirkland, so as I rode in the bike lane I passed lots of vehicles on the right. It’s the way the bike lane works. I don’t love passing on the right, and when I do I’m always on high alert, looking for vehicles pulling to the right for whatever reason.

Kirkland’s setup is one I particularly don’t love: Sidewalk, then parallel parking lane, then bike lane, then traffic lane. This means cars constantly cross the bike lane to park, but drivers aren’t looking for us, so we have to be extra-cautious. Also, it’s a wonderful recipe for getting doored by drivers who swing their doors wide open without checking for a bike going by. Nevertheless, the world is imperfect, and many streets have that layout.

So I was cruising along, carefully passing vehicles on the right, when I got to downtown Kirkland. The bike lane ends when you get into the little section of road lined with shops and businesses, but there’s enough of a gap between the parallel parking strip and the driving lane that I can get by — again, with heightened caution. I continued passing vehicles, but more slowly because there are also more intersections, and intersections are the really dangerous part of any ride.

And, unsurprisingly, a car turned right just ahead of me. It was coming from a road on the right-hand side and turned onto my road, cutting into the flow of traffic rather aggressively. There wasn’t exactly a gap in traffic where he turned, but in the grand tradition of Masshole drivers (I don’t know if he’s from Massachusetts, but it’s a move I first noticed there), he made a gap. Washington drivers being what they are, the next guy in line just made room for him and let it go. I was approaching that intersection and I slowed down, but wasn’t really impacted.

I did, however, make a mental note to watch that driver. One aggressive move could mean other unpredictable moves.

Maybe a block later, as I was riding along past that very vehicle, the road hits a T and the lanes split into a left-turn lane and a right-turn lane. Very few people turn right; the vast majority–call it 99%–turn left, at least during that time of day.

Of course, there’s always the maverick who’s gotta do something different, and this driver was no exception. Just as I was riding past him on his right, he started moving right to get into the turn lane. I was directly next to him, with nowhere to go. Surprise! Except I wasn’t really surprised, because he just seemed like that kind of guy.

I braked, he saw me and braked, and I rode past out of the way. But as he went by me, he rolled down his window and said, “Be careful,” –not in a mean or angry way, for which I was grateful, but in a chastising way, for which I was not. I immediately shot back, “You too,” and he drove off. I  hope he heard me, because I really feel that was about the best comeback I could’ve offered, barring a whole discussion on bikes in traffic.

“Be careful.” It’s good advice. I ride through hairy messes in downtown Seattle every day, weaving through traffic to take advantage of the fact I’m small and able to squeeze through gaps. But there’s risk, too, and the fact is that it’s easy to become complacent about safety when I ride the same roads every day. The infrastructure isn’t optimized for cycling safety, so it’s up to me to make myself very visible and remain highly alert to any possible hazards.

And hopefully the day won’t come when one of those *&^!#%^&*$#@! Uber drivers on Dexter clobbers me. I have a special place in my heart for Uber drivers. It’s a place a lot like a Sarlac pit, where they’ll be digested for 1,000 years.

Anyway. Time to hit the road!

My Brain on Thankfulness

As you know, Seattle in January isn’t known for its pellucid weather. I’ve gotten in a full quota of rainy day rides already, and we still have months more to go.

One of the more miserable biking experiences is having to change a flat tire. Add in darkness and rain, and you’ve got the perfect mix for the ultimate misery. The only way it gets worse is if it’s sleeting out below freezing.

As you can imagine, every ride I check my tires, and always hope and pray for another flat-free ride. Until Wednesday that prayer had been answered. But, alas, all good things must come to an end, and that includes my months-long run of no flat tires.

I noticed my bike handling in the heart-stinkingly squishy way characteristic of a flat tire near the UW, less than five miles into my ride, but far enough to be a long way from any buses that could bail me out easily.

It wasn’t raining much, just a little sprinkle here and there, and Dad and I had planned to meet up and ride home together. I kept riding a ways, long enough to know for sure I definitely couldn’t deny the truth. I’d have to stop and change the tire.

I ended up finding a place on the 520 bridge to change my flat. It had lots of good lighting, anyway, if everything else about the situation left much to be desired.

I changed the flat. The rain started in earnest. A dozen or more people rode by. None offered to help, which I understand — it was dark, cold, and rainy. Still, it made me wonder if my asking “Are you OK?” when I see a cyclist pulled over is actually that unusual. I have stopped to help on occasion if they say they need it, too, because that’s what I’d want done for me.

It wasn’t the easiest or hardest flat to change, but somewhere in the middle. I only carry a (filthy) hand pump on my commuter bike, and while it worked okay, even my low pressure tires didn’t get very well filled. Thus, I stopped at the bike shop on my way home, and the guys took care of me. They re-changed my flat to make it tidier, put anti-flat goo in the tube, and filled me up to my usual 50 psi. I got home later than usual, but I did get home.

It’s holding fine so far.

So at one point during the evening, I started feeling pretty sorry for myself, and it wasn’t fun. To fight the self-pity quicksand, I started thinking of things I was thankful for about the situation:

  • It was above 40 F. Colder would’ve been a lot worse.
  • I did have good light.
  • I had all the tools and skills I needed to solve the problem, all of which worked!
  • I didn’t get a pinch flat on any of the 1/2″-tall slabs of steel I had to bump-bump over along the 520 bridge on my really low pressure tire.
  • It could’ve been raining a lot harder (and later it did!).
  • The bike shop was open and the guys are super nice, and took pity on me. (I later brought them thank-you cookies.)
  • I have the luxury of owning a nice bike and all the bike gear, and have the time to commute.

And you know what? When I finished thinking of all this stuff, I really did feel much better.

Dumb Trainer, Smart User

Today it was 25° in the morning, sunny and clear. Dad had posted this lovely route, and I initially planned on joining him. The ride started at 11:00 am, late enough to let things warm up, if they were going to. Before then, Benji and I went to the hardware store and bought more chemical toe warmers, an essential component for making these cold-weather rides tolerable, and it brought home to me how downright freezing it was outside. Literally.

When it came right down to it, I thought about my week — four days of wet or subfreezing commuting — and I just couldn’t do another day, even a dry and generally lovely one. It was the thought of putting on all those clothes again; coughing from the remains of my cold objecting to the freezing air; fingers and toes slowly or quickly freezing; –after some agonizing, I opted to ride my trainer. Plus, it gave me time to spend with Benji and my mom, which I don’t get to do as much these days.

I didn’t want to miss Dad’s ride, though, so I decided to give my best shot to approximating the climbs on Dad’s ride while on my trainer. Here’s my methodology:

  • I looked at each of the 13 major climbs on the route and estimated their elevation gain and percent grade. I recorded these.
  • I estimated how long each climb would take, assuming 2 minutes/100′ of elevation gain, although honestly I have no idea how accurate that was. That determined how long I stayed in the gearing determined by the % grade.
  • While on my trainer, I approximated the % grade by shifting up or down. Grades of 10% or more were in the very hardest gear; grades of 5% to 10% were in the second- and third-smallest rings; grades of less than 5% were in the fourth or fifth chainrings.
  • Between hills, I checked the route elevation profile and gave myself 1, 2, or 3 minutes of recovery time depending on approximately how much distance there was between the real hills.

Here’s my setup:
Dumb Trainer Hill Climb Approximation

After each hill I marked it off, because by the time I’d done a half-dozen, I couldn’t remember where I was. I also kept referring to the elevation profile to estimate how steep it would be, and tried to adjust gearing a bit based on that.

Here’s the real route elevation profile compared with my heart rate on the trainer ride, which, since I don’t have a power meter, is my best measure of effort.

Overall, I rode an hour and 45 minutes, a little longer than usual on the trainer, and felt like it was an okay workout. The big weakness was, of course, me. Hills are only as hard as you want them to be, and while I did try to push myself, my heart rate never got anywhere near what it would have been on a group ride.

Which leads me back to the idea of a smart trainer. Wahoo makes one that’s compatible with my Wahoo Elemnt bike computer. In addition to working with programs like Zwift and Sufferfest, which many of my buddies use, the Wahoo Kickr is supposed to be able to approximate any ride or route, changing resistance based on the real ride data. Basically, it does perfectly what I did really awkwardly today.

The question is: Is that worth $1,200? Or, put another way, how many more rides like the one I did today would I have to do to amortize the $1,200 smart trainer price tag? If I keep commuting, how many days will I ride a trainer anyway? Are there other options, like using ANT+ to pair my Surface with my existing bike sensors in combination with some subscription service?

I don’t know. It all comes back to the fundamental question I’ve been struggling with the last couple months: What do I want to get out of biking?

If it’s intense training and increased speed/fitness, then a smart trainer or subscription service might make sense. I’d commute a lot less and ride in the garage a lot more (although where I’d find the time, I can’t imagine). I’d definitely get stronger and faster, but I’d also have to take the bus a lot more, and probably wake up even more painfully early.

If, on the other hand, I’m riding because commuting is a great way to get home and it helps keep me generally healthy, then I don’t need a smart trainer. I may get slower — it’s almost a certainty, because commuting sucks as training — but that won’t matter, because I’m just getting from Point A to Point B in an enjoyable way.

Last year I tried to ride a line between the two, interspersing training in with commuting, but only had mixed success. My legs felt tired all the time, but I remained slower than my bellwether riding buddies. I completed my annual hill rides, but overall went slower than previous years.

Is there some middle road (no pun intended) that I’m missing?