Saturday, October 30, 2010

It happened AGAIN.

So, I was having a pretty lazy day at home, having just finished with the busiest part of my season (Writers Festival wrapped up last Wednesday) and it's miserable out there today - hovering a little above zero and drizzling. But I needed to get some groceries, so I gambled that it wasn't really raining that hard and headed out, without my rain pants, which often make it a little hard to shop.

It was cold. Pretty awful, actually, and I don't have gloves yet this year so my hands were freezing. But I bumped into a friend by complete accident, which was cool, and decided on the way home to swing by the LCBO for a bottle of wine. I parked outside, went in, spent a grand total of maybe ten minutes, most of that standing in the Hallowe'en-party lineup.

And when I came out, my headlights were gone. Again. I left the bike for ten minutes, in broad daylight, in the pouring rain, way the hell out on the south end of Bank Street, and someone took my headlights.

Interesting that my reaction was the same as the last time this happened: I went back into the building it happened outside, to tell someone. I don't think I had any idea that anyone would be able to help, or would even care, but I wanted to tell someone, rather than just get on my bike and pedal away from the scene with the headlights gone. And true, no one in the LCBO cared. They told me I couldn't leave my bike in the entranceway and shrugged when I told them what had happened. Which was no help at all.

I used to sometimes just pull the bike up and park it at the rack, without locking it up. (Catch me ever doing that again.) But that I can't leave Mike alone for five minutes without taking the lights off and bringing them in with me? That's so damn depressing.

Who does that? What earthly good could those headlights do them? What makes them walk past a parked bicycle and simply stop, take something off it, and walk away? Who does that?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

All Hail the Goop!

I admit: I was skeptical. I might still be, a little. But when I got my flat tire last weekend, and went out looking for an inner tube on Tuesday - not having time to hit an actual bike shop, I stopped at the Zellers in Billings Bridge Mall - I discovered that the bike 'section' in the Zellers only had one 26" inner tube left, and it was a "Mongoose" self-healing inner tube. Claimed to be puncture proof. Filled with liquid goop that would, if the tube was punctured, seal the hole.

Here's a description of the sort of thing I mean: essentially the tube is filled with a sealant that flows around inside it, until it's exposed to the air because of a puncture. Then it sets and self-creates a patch on the inside of the inner tube.

It sounds like sorcery to me.

But I bought the tube, brought it home, and put it in. Then rode it to work, unfortunately with the nail still in the tire; with the result previously described. And had to leave my bike overnight at work, again, with a sadly deflated tire. So today, I stopped on my way in and bought a new tube, but I did harbour some nagging little hope that maybe, just maybe, the magical and mysterious goop that was supposed to be in the tube I'd already purchased and installed would have done its thing. After all, I did manage to ride my bike to work with a nail through the back tire, without noticing.

And I'm still not sure I believe what happened. I got to work, and started working, so naturally it wasn't until about 1:30 PM that I decided to try pumping up my sad deflated tire. I did, and then left it for a bit to see if it would leak air (and if it did, I was going to have to replace the tube, in time to make it to a poetry show I was covering at 4:00.)

It didn't. In fact, I then rode the bike 5k downtown, parked it outside the show for a couple of hours, then rode it the rest of the way home, with no discernible loss of air. I kept pausing at red lights to look back at my back tire and bounce a little on the seat, trying to see if it had sunk any. It hadn't. So I pulled an inch-long nail out of my tire yesterday, then let it sit, immobile, for nearly 24 hours - not really giving the goop a chance to slosh around in there and find the hole - and then simply inflated it and rode off.

I'm in awe. All hail the goop.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

More lessons

This isn’t so much about biking as it is about me, I suppose. Why is it that whatever lessons I learn, I seem to have to learn them the hard way? Things that, in hindsight, make perfect sense, somehow only occur to me when I’ve come face to face with the cold hard consequence of not thinking of them.

Take, for example, a flat tire. In retrospect, it seems like it should be second nature to check the tire, while replacing the destroyed inner tube with a new one, for whatever object might have caused the flat in the first place. You know, cause it might, like, still be there.

And it might, you know, rip yet another hole in your brand new inner tube, but in such a way as to leak slowly while you're at work, until you discover the damage a couple of blocks after you leave the office. On a day when you need to be somewhere.

At least this way I get to test out whether the inner tube I bought is, in fact, “puncture-proof.” It’s supposed to be full of some kind of liquid that self-seals holes. I’ll find out tomorrow when I try to inflate the tire: I had to hop the bus again tonight, though, because I needed to be at the Mayfair for an event and didn’t have time to repair the flat and get there, especially if I couldn’t be certain the tire would hold.

And yeah, I feel pretty dumb right now.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Lessons (hopefully) learned

One thing about flat tires: they are never convenient. Somehow, they manage to happen when you're as far from home as you can be, when you're as far from a bus route as possible, and if they can contrive to happen so as to derail your evening plans, they'll do that too.

I was leaving the office this evening with every intention of joining some friends for a pint at the Royal Oak on the Canal. I wheeled Mike out of the garage, into the driveway, got on, and actually pedalled out to the street before realizing that something felt funny. Lo and behold, I looked down to see the dreaded floppy back tire. I got off, and the slow realization dawned. This was going to kind of suck.

I work out of a home office in Vanier, and I live in Ottawa South. The nearest bus routes to the office are the #5, #7, and #1. The nearest bike shop is on Saint-Laurent near Hemlock - a bit far to walk a bike that's rolling along on its rim - and it was 5:30 (and most bike shops close up at 6:00.) And - of course - I didn't have my toolkit with me, which still does contain a patch kit.

Lesson one, kids: always pack your toolkit. The day you don't will be the day you need it.

I called my boss (whose house it is) to ask where the nearest bike shop was. He told me. I realized I wouldn't get there in time. I asked if he was likely to be using his bike this weekend (I didn't think it was all that likely) and he said he wasn't, and if I needed to cannibalize it for the inner tube I could. I went back in the garage, pulled off his front wheel (hooray for quick release) and got it out to the driveway, only to wrestle with the beads for a while and realize that without my toolkit, I couldn't get the tire off to extract the inner tube. Dang.

So, I put his wheel back in the garage, put my rear wheel back on, and started wheeling the bike the four or five blocks to the bus stop, in hopes of finding a bus with a bike rack. A couple of blocks down, I gave up on trying to wheel it, worried I was further damaging the tire, and hefted it onto my shoulder (on the wrong side, as it turned out: my jacket now has a large swatch of chain grease smeared on the left flank.) When I got there, I called OC Transpo to ask if the #1 or #7 had bike racks. "Very few," said the guy at OC Transpo. "The next 7 with a bike rack will be passing at 10:30 PM."

It was a bit after 5:30. Yeah. That's a five hour wait.

"What about the #9? I could walk to Crichton," I said.

"The #9.... next one with a bike rack is at 9:40."

I almost said, "You have to be kidding." But I knew he wasn't. So, I realized that if I wanted to get my bike home, to where I have tools and a patch kit, I would either have to wait four hours, or walk it downtown to the Transitway.

Lesson two, kids: the Rack and Roll program is not for use in case of emergency. (Of course, I learned that last year on a cold March evening, when I got a flat on Montreal Road and wound up walking the bike all the way to Bank Street, only to find that the Rack and Roll program hadn't started yet and I couldn't expect racks on any buses.)

Giving up, I walked the bike back to my office, stashed it there, and headed back to the bus stop to ride home without it, hauling my unwieldy pannier with me. I'll have to go back tomorrow with my tools and patch kit to get it back on the road. (And put Sean's front wheel back on properly. I couldn't be arsed at that point.)

Lesson three? Learn that it's okay to leave the bike behind sometimes. I was so determined to bring it home with me. It was like the idea of going somewhere without it was just unimaginable. Which is kind of funny, and kind of cool. Even the idea of taking the bus, with or without the bike, felt like a last resort to me (and it was interesting how foreign the bus felt: they've changed things since I've been on one. Like that automated stop-call system. And the fare, again.)

Oh, yeah, and lesson one, again, just because it seems important - always pack your toolkit.

Bike Boxes in Toronto

My friend Frank just brought this post on BlogTO to my attention: Toronto is giving a new kind of bike infrastructure a try - the bike box.

I saw one of these in Edinburgh when I was there this summer. It was painted red with a white bike icon in the middle, and I didn't know what it was. I asked my sister, who's been living in Scotland for nearly two years, and she explained. I thought it was brilliant (and it went into the mental file of reasons Edinburgh came across to me as a particularly bike-friendly place, along with bike lockers in the parking lots, actual bike lanes - unlike the half-lanes I saw in Aberdeen - and bike parking all over the streets.)

What bike boxes do is provide a clear space for bikes at intersections so they're more visible, and allow them to go first when the light turns green. Bikes stop at the forward stop line, while cars stop about ten feet back at a secondary line. Yeah, this does assume that cars obey stop lines. And if you watch any intersection long enough you'll see cars pulled up across the crosswalk, with the stop line somewhere under their back end: they're one of the least obeyed traffic signals. But assuming the drivers know what the bike box is (which they'll learn, given time and enough exposure) and obey the lines, the system works. Bikes get a little protective air around them to stop, wait, and start again, and the boundaries are that little bit clearer.

This is especially welcome to me in the case of left turns. I do merge across lanes to turn left, when and where I can do it safely, but in some cases it just can't be done and I wind up using the pedestrian crosswalk, which is technically illegal. With a bike box, I could bike up along the right side, cross to the left in the bike box while the light is red, and be all set to make my left turn when the light changes. It also gives bikes a little more space and time to accelerate, which I find a little uncomfortable in traffic at times - on a hill, or when space is tight, it's unnerving. If you're going to wobble at all you're going to do it while starting up and gathering speed.

So far there's only one bike box in Toronto: I think it won't be easy to tell how well they work until more are put in and people learn how to use them. A public information campaign would also be fantastic: but then, I think a public information campaign on cycling and cars in general would be a great idea. And I can think of a few intersections in Ottawa that could really use a bike box: Elgin and Catherine for one. Alta Vista (which is an official bike route) and Heron. That insane intersection just below the war memorial (although, maybe it doesn't need to be any more confusing than it already is.) I'd love to see this tried out here: I'll keep an eye on the Toronto boxes and see how it goes.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

They're talking about me! Or are they?

Somehow, even though I know it's been a growing focus for the local media, I'm still pleasantly surprised when I hear a story on cycling pop up on the radio or in the paper. Hey, I think, they're talking about me! Which is what I thought when I heard Kathleen Petty talking to an urban planning expert from Copenhagen this morning on CBC's Ottawa Morning about bike facilities in the city.

Not that either of them said much that I didn't already know. "Your bike paths are beautiful," said the woman from Copenhagen, "but crossing the Portage Bridge was the scariest thing I've done in my life." There was the usual conversation about how healthy biking is - every dollar spent on cycling infrastructure gains back something like $1.80 in saved health care expenses, or so they claim - and how good for the city, with businesses along bike routes gaining something like 10% profits (tell that to the Somerset Street BIA, who put the kibosh on the proposed test route that would have run east/west along Somerset.)

And there were the usual observations about the state of cycling in Ottawa: which is improving, I have to say, but could still use work compared to some other places (cue the golden light, quick audio clip of a choir, and the word "Copenhagen.") Sure, the infrastructure here is still clunky, since most of our facilities were built for recreation, not for getting around town on errands. And sure, in Copenhagen over a third of the population commutes by bike, while here, apparently, only 2% do. (I'd heard 5% a while back - but the fact that I'm quibbling over 3 percent tells you something.) And that observation came with the refreshing sound of dialogue that did NOT assume that because only 2% of the population uses bike facilities, there's no point in building them. No, instead the underlying assumption of the conversation was that the city needed to figure out how to raise that number; and of course raising that number can only be done by making cycling more convenient, safer, and more comfortable.

All this is stuff I know. So it was kind of gratifying to hear this piece on the radio as I munched my breakfast and got ready to pedal off to work. But in retrospect, maybe they weren't really talking about me. Sometimes these media spots make me wonder if I'm more unusual than I feel I am: they talked about how to change people's perspectives on cycling so that it wasn't assumed to be for "people who already lead a very active lifestyle (i.e., young men in Spandex)," how to get more women on bikes, how to make it easier to get from point A to Point B, with the usual female-cyclist benchmarks of picking up kids and doing the groceries. They talked about how cycling year round was only for "the truly dedicated." 

Sidebar: As I stare down the ugly face of winter, remembering what it's like, feeling that chill in the pit of my stomach, that was a point that particularly drew my attention. But then I thought about it a bit more. Whenever I hear someone say, "Well, in Europe people cycle year-round because in Europe it doesn't snow six months of the year" I get annoyed. It does in Denmark, people. Take a look at the relative latitudes of Ottawa and Copenhagen. And in fact, last year the snow didn't actually stay down, or cause any real biking problems, till December 9th, and I was back on the River Path (which was once again passable) by Saint Patrick's Day. Three months, folks. Three months. But in Denmark, they don't think of biking as a recreational activity: and when people here are talking about cycling, there's usually this underlying assumption that it's "healthier" or "an alternative" or "nice to do when the weather cooperates."

Not an alternative for me, any more... it's just how I get around. And as for the claim that "right now the majority of people cycling are young men in Spandex," I actually have to disagree. Out on the long-haul rec paths, and some of the major streets like the arteries running in from the suburbs, there may be more men. But in the main, the people I see biking around are male, female, young, old, families. I see 50-year-olds on recumbents, parents and children on tandem bikes (those tandem-seat extensions are catching on.) I see, especially downtown, young women in skirts, men in their forties in suits. There's a wide range of people out on bikes. Apparently they're not all carrying a change of clothes and requiring shower facilities at their offices.

Am I - a female cyclist who travels a bit over seven miles to work and bikes year-round, rain or shine, and does it in jeans and a T-shirt - that unusual? I don't think so. That's not to say that I don't agree with what they said in the interview - cycling needs to be made more convenient and more comfortable to get more people doing it. And it seems pretty clear that more people doing it is a good thing, for the city (although it'll clutter up my commute, but sacrifices must, I suppose, be made.) I'm still glad to see cycling issues getting covered, and things have, generally, been getting better around here. But the cycling community is already a lot more diverse than the news pieces will have you think.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Bike Song

My sister sent the link for this video to me today: unfortunately the link didn't work because I'm in Canada and "this video contains content that belongs to Sony Music Entertainment and is not available in your country."

Not one to be discouraged, I went off in search of the video somewhere else. I tried getting to YouTube via, which a friend helpfully pointed out to me as I complained to my sister (on Facebook) that I couldn't see the video. That also got me the same warning (but in German.) So, I Googled the keywords and found the video posted on another site entirely: which, lo and behold, also provided embed code. Take that, YouTube.

And it's true what my sister said, this is bike nerd cuteness. I post it here for the edification of my Canadian readership (who can't get the video on YouTube, probably because someone decided Canadians are pirates.) Here's a happy bike song for a Monday. Enjoy!

The Bike Song
Uploaded by rockohoward. - Watch more music videos, in HD!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Thing of Beauty

I was on my way out of the Royal Oak on the Canal on Friday night with some friends, and saw this beauty parked against the rail of the patio. My friends are, by now, used to me stopping to take pictures of bikes, so they were fairly understanding, but we were also all on our way to another party and they wanted to organize drives and cabs, so I didn't really have time to stop and truly admire. But I did take this picture.

I should have stopped to get detail shots: the tooled leather seat (one of those wide touring seats.) The muted, brown-and-blue biker flames painted on the chain guard, the fenders, and the down tube. The cup holder. Yeah, the cup holder - a plain metal ring, attached to the left handlebar. The chrome front fork. The smooth, 2-inch street tires. This gorgeous creature was like the bicycle equivalent of a Bentley. Sadly, it was dark, and late, and it was hard to get any details in the picture. But I hope this photo at least gives some sense of the lovely lines of this bike. I have no idea what make or model it is. But it's gorgeous.