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?

Bike Commute Route Comparison: North End, I-90, and 520

Yesterday, a wonderful thing happened; I’d almost call it a Christmas miracle. The long-awaited, oft-delayed multi-use path across 520 finally opened all the way, connecting the Eastside with Seattle for bikes and pedestrians. Naturally, I immediately seized the opportunity and rode across it the first available opportunity… and the second available opportunity, too. Now I’ve ridden it twice, and I’ve got to say, it’s lovely.

The path itself is wide, smooth (except for a few unavoidable metal plates, a feature of pretty much every bridge I’ve ever ridden over), and well lit. I imagine that in daylight you’d get a lovely view. There’s also a user-counter on the Seattle end of the bridge that informed me that yesterday I was user number 1,965 and today I was user 858, which I think is pretty nifty (if it works; TBD).

I know that for some commuters, this is going to be a complete game-changer. For my part, while it’s going to be super nice to have this option, and I know we’ll use this on bike routes, I don’t think it will change much in terms of how long I take getting home on a day-to-day basis. It’s kind of a hybrid between the North End route I do three times a week and the I-90 route I do once a week — a couple miles less, but not much faster.

Because I spend all day writing technical documents, of course I’m going to make a table outlining the pros and cons of each route. The column headers are links to a representative route.

 Route North End I-90 520
Distance (miles) 21.4 22.1 19.6
Est. Avg. Time¹ (h:m) 1:19² 1:27³ 1:18
Elevation Gain (ft) 550 1300 1000
n Hundreds Dozens 1
Stop Lights After Fremont, very few Many throughout Varies by section
Traffic After Fremont, minimal car traffic Lots throughout Varies by section
Other Factors Pedestrians and other cyclists a hazard between Fremont and UW, but sometimes get to wheelsuck for a faster commute. Goes through downtown Bellevue and Kirkland; crosses Mercer Slough (freezing/icy). Goes through UW (slow pedestrian traffic), goes through downtown Kirkland.

¹ Seasonal differences can result in +/- 15 minutes, depending on temperature, wind, rain, bicycle, amount of cargo and carrying options, and company.

² Varies substantially by season, bicycle, and cargo carrying options. This route is most impacted by all variables.

³ Not as impacted by variables, possibly moderated by inefficiencies of hills and numerous stoplights. I’d hypothesize that the 520 route would be a mix of the two in terms of variation.

Well, that’s all I’ve got so far. After two uses of the bridge and one full 520-route commute, I’m still in evaluation mode. I’ll keep y’all updated.

Bike Commuting Thoughts

Trust in Good from the bottom of you heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own.

Proverbs 3:5

I’m trying to figure out my biking situation still. I’m torn between training hard to get faster and commuting–which, I’ve found, isn’t conducive to getting faster, no matter how good my intentions.

When I started at Tamarac last January, I laid out a training plan for myself that included interval sets doable on the trail and some days with added hills. I was keenly aware that plain old commuting has, in the past, worn me down without any fitness gains. I wanted to avoid that.

Again, good intentions… Following my plan, I felt exhausted on every Saturday ride. My legs had no reserves and every time I tried to work hard, I went straight to lactic acid burning. I did one hill repeat ride in the week that seems to have damaged my left leg for real. Now when I try to ride up a long hill, my left leg gives out and I can’t make it. I also got slower on hills in general because my commute is so flat.

Anyway, I want to rethink my plan for this year. The paradigm of varying my commute days was a good one. I just need to dial in what that variety looks like and how I incorporate more hill work. And I have to find a way to motivate myself to work hard on my bike after a long day at work that used up most of my discipline.

I’m generally not happy with my biking fitness after almost a year of steady commuting. All that means is that it’s time for a change.