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.

Cyclistically Speaking

I haven’t been blogging as much because I’ve been super busy at work, and — this may be shocking, so sit down — after day in front of a computer screen writing I don’t feel much like spending the evening in front of a computer screen writing. But I’m going to break that today, because the Seattle Times published an article that infuriated me so deeply, on so many levels, I have to address it.

The article: “Spokane woman is standing up to cyclist who yelled ‘Hot pizza!’ and then smashed into her on trail

OK, let’s set aside for the moment the fact that The Times used some pretty emotionally charged language in the headline — “smashed” and “standing up to” both carry some notable emotional connotations — and let’s take a look at the article.

It describes this scenario:

A lady and her friend were walking side-by-side down a shared-use path where other people were also out walking, including some moms with strollers and people with dogs. As the lady walked along, a guy riding his bike approached from behind and yelled, “Hot pizza!” Then the cyclist hit the lady, who had kept walking along the same way she’d been going. The cyclist started cursing the lady for not getting out of his way, although there was plenty of room to her left to pass around her. The lady suffered a fractured elbow, and the cyclist re-broke a recently healed broken wrist and broke his nose.

The cyclist apparently yells “Hot pizza!” because people misinterpret “On your left,” the traditional salutation of cyclists passing slower trail users. The cyclist seemed to expect the walking lady to interpret “Hot pizza!” as a request to move out of his way, and he kept riding as if she was already out of the way… and then got angry at her for not moving. Other witnesses affirmed that there was plenty of room on the trail to go around.

The cyclist said he didn’t slow down because he doesn’t like to slow down.

Let’s break this down from a cyclist’s perspective.

First, I wasn’t there, but based on what I read, the cyclist was unequivocally in the wrong. When riding on a trail, cyclists have responsibilities:

  1. Be predictable.
  2. Ride at speeds appropriate for the conditions. If there are lots of other trail users, slow down.
  3. Be prepared to stop at any time.
  4. Yield to ALL other trail users. As the fastest-moving vehicles on the path, we have the greatest responsibility for all users’ common safety.
  5. Pass other trail users with at least a couple feet between. If you’re passing people walking or riding two abreast, wait until the trail is completely clear and then go around after clearly communicating with the other trail users.
  6. Ride single-file. (I appreciate when slower trail users, who hear me call out, move from two abreast to single file, but it’s not necessary.)
  7. Use some kind of auditory signal well in advance of passing slower trail users. Call out with plenty of time for the person you’re passing to figure out what’s going on and respond. If “on your left” doesn’t get a response, try “coming up behind you” or, better yet, ring a bell — you don’t even have to speak English to recognize that sound! It’s the cyclist’s job to communicate clearly, and calling out “Hot pizza” definitely doesn’t communicate clearly.
    NOTE: “On your left” does not mean “Move out of my way,” or “I have the right of way.” It’s a polite notification that you’re going by and a request that the other trail user doesn’t move into the space you’re about to occupy as you pass them. It’s 100% appropriate for slower trail users to just keep going on in a straight line having heard you; it’s extra-courteous if they choose to move right a bit. The only thing they shouldn’t do is dodge to the left unexpectedly.

Second: I know it sounds totally egregious for the cyclist to say “I don’t like slowing down.” Of course, you should slow down to avoid a collision. Keep control of your bike and don’t hit people — seems elementary, but some things need stating explicitly. But honestly, I know that feeling. Momentum is a terrible thing to waste, as they say; when I’ve finally gotten some speed up, I certainly don’t appreciate having to brake for some unpredictable pedestrian or their stupid little rat-dog on an extending leash and then use a bunch of energy to get speeded back up all over again. I much prefer rolling smoothly along with fewer stops. But that’s not how riding on shared-use trails works most of the time.

When I commute on the Burke-Gilman, I ride from Fremont all the way to Bothell, something like 15 miles on the trail, including going right through the heart of the University of Washington and along some very pedestrian-heavy sections near parks. I see everything on the trail — people walking, jogging, strolling, walking their dogs, walking their children in strollers, walking their dogs in strollers, walking their birds, pushing BBQs, you name it; and, more and more, I see lots of people wobbling along on the super-cheap bikeshare bikes (fodder for another post), weaving all over and stopping and dodging unpredictably. Through it all, I remain prepared to slow, stop, or swerve; I ride defensively, predicting collisions and actively avoiding them; and I call out or use my bell continually.

Do I want to slow down for all these people? No. I want to get home. I have 21.4 miles to cover, and I already know it’s going to take at least 75 minutes, possibly more. I want to get rolling and not stop until I get home. Yes, sometimes I get grouchy and don’t want to slow down, because this is the 492nd person who has stepped into my path; but that’s why I have a bell. I ding-ding the heck out of that thing, and everyone knows what I mean and I don’t even sound as grouchy as I actually am. And I slow down, because ultimately I’m responsible for the well-being of everyone slower than me on that path when I’m going by them.

Third: The cyclist in that story said he had something like 25 broken bones from riding. He expected to break bones and get injured while riding. This, more than anything, speaks volumes about his entitled and inappropriate attitude. I’ve ridden 75,850 miles since July, 2008 and in that time, I’ve had two significant crashes, one resulting in a minor concussion, neither resulting in broken bones. One time, I was hit by a car (story here and here); the other my front fork failed as I braked. The latter could, conceivably, have been my fault, for following too close to an unfamiliar cyclist, although the fork shouldn’t have failed like that, either. That was in 2010. I haven’t had a crash of any sort since then — riding in groups and riding alone; riding fast and riding slow; riding pregnant; commuting in the city and in the suburbs and on trails. All without mishap.

In any case, I think it’s a tribute to the efficacy of courteous, defensive riding that in all those miles, I’ve never hit any little old ladies or broken any bones — mine or other people’s. This is what we should expect from all cyclists, and it’s not a hard thing to achieve. But it requires actual teaching of bicycle skills, the same as you learn how to drive a car. Parents teach their kids to pedal and balance bikes, but they don’t teach rules of the road or rights and responsibilities of cyclists.

This is one of the things I really believed in with the Bicycle Alliance of Washington (now Washington Bikes, although apparently pretty much consumed by the vast amoeba that is the Cascade Bicycle Club) and with the League of American Bicyclists, for whom I taught many Bike Ed classes back in the day. I sincerely believe that better education for cyclists — maybe even mandatory education — is crucial to ongoing successful relationships with all the users of our infrastructure.

Okay, it’s implausible to imagine most people getting real, honest-to-goodness bike education. But most cyclists tootle along perfectly safely and courteously, getting from Point A to Point B (or, if it’s a recreational ride, maybe just back to Point A) without hurting anyone.

That’s why I’m irate at this story (not the Seattle Times, just the actual events). That bicyclist is a fluke, the equivalent of the driver with sleep apnea who, several times, killed passers-by while having fallen asleep behind the wheel. Does this mean most drivers are deadly? Or even most drivers with sleep apnea? No; it shows that one guy had colossally bad judgment.

In the same way, this one cyclist doesn’t represent us. He’s a clearly selfish, thoughtless, unskilled rider who’s willing to put himself and others at risk for minimal gain. The way the article is written, though, it almost sounds like he’s speaking on behalf of cyclists. I kept waiting for them to get to a quote from Cascade or some bicycle authority disavowing this behavior, but never found such a thing.

Certainly this will give non-cyclists more fodder for howling about those darn irresponsible dangerous cyclists injuring innocent people. While that’s certainly not behavior to tolerate, the fact is that such collisions comprise such a minute, infinitesimal, microscopic — is there any other way to say “tiny”? — proportion of all bike crashes that any response is going to be way out of proportion with the risk.

So, yes, I’m pissed off. I’m pissed off that an irresponsible jerk has gone and made all of us look bad, and now we’re all going to have to suffer as a result.

Meanwhile, I’m going to keep on riding defensively, courteously, and legally. My goal, since I became a bike instructor, has remained the same: Avoid collisions, and if I can’t avoid a collision, make darned sure it’s not my fault.