Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Nutcracker... on Bike Parts

My friend Paul (who sends me awesome bike links) just sent me this, and I had to share. Especially since Mike is a Specialized, and that's who commissioned this little bit of cheerful lunacy: The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies, played entirely on bicycle parts.

Click here for a complete explanation of where this came from and why: San Francisco composer Flip Baber says, of the process: "I recorded hours of bike sounds and edited the best chunks in BIAS Peak. After that, most of the spokes, cables and disc brakes were fed into the EXS24 Sampler within Logic Pro. It was super tricky since most of these metallic sounds have a pretty warped (no pun intended) overtone series. I interpreted the score by ear from a random mp3 I Limewired for reference. From there it was all about re-arranging the score in my head to compensate for the strange overtones. The source sounds were kept pretty raw besides some mild pitch shifting from keymapping & a touch of impulse response reverb to match the acoustical space of the orchestral reference recording. Between the road and mountain bike, there were octaves of difference (maybe I should get my wheels trued?) and they yielded some great sounds, most of which didn’t even get used…although they will end up on something eventually. Other than that, there were some automated volume swells and plenty of panning since you would associate a bike sounds with stereo movement. I hope this exposes my journey from bike to mixdown!"

Sunday, December 27, 2009

I've got my wool to keep me warm...

For Christmas, my parents, who want me to stay warm, gave me a base layer set - an undershirt and leggings - from Icebreaker, a New Zealand company that makes Merino wool clothing. I got the mid-range base layer (200) - which should stand me in good stead through most Ontario winter days, especially if I'm on the move. We'll see: can't wait to test it out on the bike. I've already worn it cross-country skiing and it performed just fine.

Merino's pretty nifty stuff - it insulates, it breathes like crazy, it's super lightweight (you'd never know this stuff was made from wool: it feels almost like cotton, just warmer), and when it does wear out, which won't be for quite some time, you can compost it. This stuff is really thin, and it's surprisingly soft. In our family we listen, every Christmas Eve, to A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, and the narrator talks about "aunts who always wore wool next to the skin" and who give "mustached and rasping vests that made you wonder why the aunts had any skin left at all." This is not that wool. Far from it. I wore it out skiing on Christmas Day and most of the day on Boxing Day. So stretchy, so soft, so warm.

So, I'll have to try it out on the roads, when I get back to Ottawa and Mike. I'm really looking forward to having the leggings to wear under my jeans - what is it that makes denim so very very cold?

I found a tag on the shirt that gave me a unique "BAAcode" that, presumably, allows me to trace the wool in my item to the sheep stations it was grown on in New Zealand. I don't know if I believe that or not, but I did go check it out on their site, entered my code, and found out where my shirt was when it was on the hoof. And then I spent a while just clicking around reading about merino, checking out videos of the station owners, looking at pictures of herds of wooly sheep. Great website design. I was totally sucked in.

Now... I get to find out if a New Zealand sheep can grow wool that can hack an Ottawa winter. Hah!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas from me and Mike

Yes, it's a tire wreath. I found the picture on BikeHacks.com.

Merry Christmas to all.
And to all a good bike.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I'm visiting my family in Fredericton for Christmas: back in the hometown wandering around the same downtown streets doing the last of my Christmas shopping. And this morning I was walking past Savage's Bike Centre and decided to drop in and see what I could expect to pay for studded tires (if anyone in town would be carrying them, I thought, it would be Savage's.) Plus, I really wanted to go in and check out the shop, which has seriously expanded since I was a kid and wheeled my first mountain bike in there for a look at the brakes.

The counter is most of the way toward the front of the shop and a couple of the guys were standing at it and said hi as my friend and I came in. Including Matt Savage, who I went to high school with. Actually, Matt is one-half of a set of identical twins that I went to high school with: I think they're a year older than me. I think Matt was already working at the shop at the time, and maybe his brother was too.

The thing about Savage's that I didn't know until this visit is that it's been there, and in the same family, for more than 110 years. One hundred and thirteen, to be exact. This is the oldest established bike shop in Canada. It was begun here in Fredericton in 1897 and the Savages have been selling and fixing bikes ever since, right down to Matt, who manages the store now. I mean, you think of bike shops as being run by the latest crop of 25-year-olds. Not this one. This one has been selling and repairing bicycles for more than a century, father to son. And in a town that really isn't particularly cyclist-heavy.

So I had to go in and have a look around. I asked about tires - Matt told me he didn't have any studded tires in, and that they sold out fast in the winter. "I wouldn't pay more than eighty or a hundred dollars though," he said. "When you get back to Ottawa." I looked longingly at some of the skater-style helmets they had stacked by the door, walked to the back to check out the bikes (my friend and I both really admired one of the Specialized single-speed city bikes - big thick frame but with those bladelike skinny tires and light enough to pick up easily), chatted to one of the staff in the back about winter biking, and then we headed back out to go on with the Christmas shopping.

I think I'm weirdly proud that Fredericton's greatest bike shop is also the country's oldest. It's a strange thing to be happy about, but I think I am. It's nice to think about that kind of long-term passion, I guess. A hundred years of fixing gears and repairing brakes and straightening handlebars and replacing bike chain.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

You know it's winter when...

Mike has left a possibly-permanent set of salt stains on the carpet outside my apartment, right underneath where the rear tire and the front set of gears are when I stand him in the hallway to thaw after I get in. The one under the derailleur is the worst: chain lube plus salt plus road grime plus slush is not kind to carpet.

Well, I'm not about to bring him in to thaw and drip all over my hardwood floor, right?... I leave him out there for a half hour or so to drip dry, then open the door and allow him in. A little like a dog that's in disgrace.

It's amazing how much snow he brings in with him. The tires throw slush back against the underside of the frame and up into the rear set of gears, where it sticks and clogs around the gearshift cables. It almost feels futile to clear it off, since I'll just get the bike coated again the next time I go out, but I know I should. It's also true that I go through lubricant like a fiend when the weather's bad. Not that you tend to notice a sticky gear or a grinding in the pedals while you're teetering along at three-quarters speed, keeping an eye out for patches of ice or ridges left by the plow, but in the back of my mind I'm always aware that I'm putting the bike through really, really unkind conditions, and if I don't want to replace most of the drive train in the spring I should probably be wiping it down, lubricating absolutely everything, and probably trying to protect the paint job while I'm at it.

I see some debate out there in the blogosphere over using fixed-gear bikes for the winter; the sort of single-speeder that you usually find in either older style bikes, or seriously heavy-duty ones. The idea is that winter is so hard on your gears, and you're so unlikely to be traveling fast or hard enough to need more than one gear, that you're saving yourself a lot of replacement parts and headache by switching to a simpler bike with fewer working parts. The only downside is having to work a lot harder on hills (and you really don't want to stand up on the pedals on a slick, icy hill.) It's a moot point for me: even if I wanted to get a second bike, I don't have anywhere to keep it. As it is, Mike is dripping on the floor inside my apartment because there's no bike parking downstairs.

So, I have to do what I can to protect my bike's delicate bits. MEC (bless their hardcore little hearts) posted a great set of tips for winterizing your bike. New Years Resolution: get that midwinter tuneup, some studded tires, a can of WD-40, and a gallon or so of all-purpose lubricant.

And a rubber mat for the hallway. Sooner or later my landlord's going to complain.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I couldn't resist snapping a shot of this bike, which was sitting on the Transitway bridge this morning at Mackenzie King, just outside the Rideau Centre. Looks like someone locked it up sometime around, oh, last Wednesday when the snow came down, and hasn't come back for it. And I don't think that bike's going anywhere till spring...

It reminds me of another bike - a brown commuter - that I passed every evening on the River Path, just past the bridge to Algonquin College. It was locked to a tree, near a little clearing that led down to the water where people often sit, and it stayed there for at least two months. Every time I passed it I had to wonder how it got there, who locked it up and left it there, and why they never came back to pick it up. As time went on, I also kept wondering why the front tire hadn't been stolen yet.

And then one day the tire was gone. I was surprised it had taken as long as it did: not really the bike-theft capital of anywhere, Ottawa.

Those abandoned bikes, though: every time I see one I have to wonder why and how they got left where they are. If anyone's coming back for them. What the policy is on abandoned bicycles. Does the city have to come and cut the locks when no one comes for them? When do they leave those spots, and how?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Early Riders

I was just skimming around and spotted these: Early Rider balance bikes, for children roughly 2-6 years old. No training wheels. No pedals. Big fatboy back tires. Made out of wood. And utterly cool-looking.

I know a couple of 4-year-olds, and it's nearly Christmas, so this caught my eye, although I think they're only available in the US so far and I don't have $180 to spend on my friends' children. But these are really interesting. I always defaulted to the idea that training wheels were pretty much it as far as interim, "learning" bikes went. (And I admit it: I was jealous of the other kids in my neighbourhood that had training wheels. It didn't make much sense, because I had already learned to ride my bike, but there it is, training wheels, Kangaroo sneakers and Zoodles - all things I mistakenly thought I desperately wanted when I was a kid.)

But it's true that training wheels give you a false sense of balance: once they come off you still have to learn to balance on two wheels - while pedaling. This is cooler. Besides, I've also seen pedalless mountain bikes for adults, and they're totally cool. (If a little limited - you can basically only use them to go very fast down the sides of mountains. Like snowboarding, but on a bike.)

And I do remember learning to ride a bike. I think I was 6 or so, and I got a red bike - I think it was a Schwinn - for my birthday. It was a full-on pedal bike, single-speed, with backpedal brakes. My parents basically showed me the bare-bones method of learning to bike: Start at the top of the back lawn, which ended in a field full of tall grass. Roll down the slope until you smash into the tall grass and tip over. Pick self up, push bike back up to the top of the lawn. Repeat. Which I did.

And I remember getting up really early the next day to go out there and do that some more. Somehow, it seems, I managed to get the hang of the whole balance thing that way. Then I graduated to rolling up and down the driveway. In my memory, at any rate, it really didn't take long to figure the bike thing out. So training wheels? Who needed them?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What the...?

I've just been watching the periphery of this, but this is what I think has been happening in New York. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it.

1. City workers remove a bike lane in Williamsburg after complaints from the Hasidic community living in the area (They object to seeing women in bike shorts.)

2. Get that? The city sandblasts the bike lane off the street because a religious group complains. About what female cyclists are wearing.

3. A group of hipsters put the bike lane back in the middle of the night. (Wicked video, too.)

4. They get stopped by the Shomrim Patrol, a neighbourhood watch group, and eventually two of the activists are arrested.

5. The street is sandblasted clean again.

6. Now Mayor Bloomberg is in Copenhagen, and being confronted by bike activists from Brooklyn about this at the climate change conference.

7. And the activists are having a mock New-Orleans-style funeral for the bike lanes tomorrow.

I say again. What the... ? New York. Removed the bike lane. Because of women in shorts.

Friday, December 11, 2009


"Epic," I'm given to understand, in climber/boarder/general-extreme-sport-enthusiast parlance, means something that's not really a whole hell of a lot of fun (to put it lightly) while you're in it, but which makes a good story afterward, or at least something you can look back on with more... perspective. Usually something that is pretty long and sloggish, with an increasing number of frustrating and "well-at-least-it-can't-get-any-worse; wait-yes-it-can" scenarios along the way.

By those lights my ride home today was pretty epic.

Now, remember, this is the first day that I've biked to work since the snow came down like a greasy, slushy, wet, smooshy hammer on Wednesday. The ride to work this morning was relatively fine. A little slippery, a little slower than usual, but more or less okay. I went straight down Bank Street to downtown, then hopped over the bridge to Vanier. Easy.

And usually, when there's no snow to contend with, I hop on the path at the bridge on the way home, and take the tree-lined, paved, quiet, peaceful bike path as far as Billings Bridge, where I get back on Bank and contend with traffic for less than a mile or so. Easy.

The problem is that between work and home, there's a great bloody highway. The 417, otherwise known as the Queensway, otherwise known as the main freeway running east to west through Ottawa. The bike path passes quietly, almost surreptitiously, underneath it and you barely notice it. But with the bike path gone, whatever I do has to get around the 417. You can't ride on the 417, of course, and you really don't want to be anywhere near the on/off ramps for it either. Around the on/off ramps the sidewalks vanish, the buildings get sparse and hideous, and all human (and cycle) life is dwarfed, diminished, and made to cower before the almighty and all-privileged automobile. There are only so many points, too - passes, fords - where you can get across the freeway conveniently.

So I had to find a way home that got me past the 417 and didn't take me too far out of my way. I pulled up Mapmyride.com at work and looked for a way to avoid the Vanier Parkway/Riverside Drive - a busy artery that parallels the bike path. It's fast and ugly and I didn't want to be there. So, I plotted a route that took me along the much quieter Old River Road, then hopped onto Riverside long enough to go past all the 417 ramps - which I thought would be nasty, but I could take the sidewalks if I had to - and got me to Alta Vista, which I discovered on Tuesday is a fairly nice street, all told. Would have been about 5 3/4 miles. It looked like this:

That was the plan.

I discovered that the sides of Riverside Drive were treacherously thick with slush, so I hopped onto the sidewalk. What the hell, no jury in the world and all that. But then the sidewalk vanished just after Coventry. I know there's a sidewalk there: I've taken it before. But it's not plowed. This makes a major difference.

So I stopped. Pondered. Turned back, went back to Coventry. Thought, briefly, of the moment when I turned onto River Road and thought, 'maybe I should just keep going on Montreal and go through downtown.' Not for the last time.

I vaguely remembered that Coventry and Industrial somehow connected, and that Industrial ends at the intersection where I would normally get on Alta Vista. So, I took Coventry. And wound up in the living hell of Cyrville Industrial Park. I thought it would be quieter, less busy. Somehow I also thought that would mean slower cars and less slush-encroachment into the tiny space afforded me by most drivers.

In brief, the path I wound up taking was more than 2 1/2 miles longer, and looked more like this:

It was, of course, dark at this point, and the wind started up (coming from the west of course) and the windchill took temperatures down to about -18. Every so often I would stop, and look around, and try to locate the apartment buildings that I knew stood near Hurdman. Try to remember the last time I was in the industrial park (this spring, when I got lost there trying to find a quicker route to work one morning.) And try to picture what direction Alta Vista lay in. Oh, and at mile 3, where I backtrack? There were no sidewalks there, either, and I panicked near the train station when I hit a huge patch of two-inch-deep slush and lost control of the bike, then turned around and headed back to Belfast. Which took me to St-Laurent, a nasty long street, but one I'm very familiar with, and which does have paved sidewalks so I didn't have to be in traffic; because at that point I was swearing out loud at all the cars that clipped close to me. But then I spotted Belfast again (the other end of it this time) and recognized it and remembered I could find Alta Vista from Belfast, and I was hell-bent on getting to Alta Vista where there was a bike lane, so I turned onto that.

All of these streets go through long, blank, faceless stretches of road, with big-box stores or trainyards lining them, no real pedestrian space, and drifts sliding into the road. The sidewalks appear and disappear. The snow slumps five feet out into the road in places. And people in cars can gun through them as fast as they like. Sometimes there isn't even a crosswalk, like some kind of crude joke. And the side of the road is slushy and untrustworthy. Where driveways empty onto the street, the plows have left wide trails of snow.

And when I finally made it to Alta Vista, I realized that the bike lane that was there on Tuesday night was occluded by slush. It was still better, though, than the industrial park - more travelled, slower, easier to navigate. And I knew where I was for sure. Which helped, although I had one more scary slide in a patch of slush on Heron before I finally got home, shaken and freezing. But by the time I got home it was already not so bad: I wanted to scream at everything when I had to screech to a halt and try to figure out how to get through the intersection of Belfast and Trainyards ... and almost did ... but by the time I was fumbling my key into the door of my apartment I knew I was home, and it was all a lot easier, all retrospect by now.

I think I still think like a driver sometimes. I think that the shortest distance between two points is actually the shortest distance between two points. It's not. And I keep forgetting that. Next time, I'm heading through downtown. Hell with wayfinding in industrial parks.

One Righteous Man

I was going to be peopling my Wall of Shame today with drivers. I headed out earlier than usual, in actual rush hour traffic (8:00) down Bank Street, because I needed to get downtown to the A Channel studio to sing for the breakfast show with my choir. And it's still pretty icky out there. -16 with the wind chill, and the right-hand side of the road still lying under a couple centimeters of slush.

And the going was rough. It took me nearly an hour to get from my place to the Market, and the first thing to happen to me was having some jerk edge out around me while I was waiting to turn left off my home street - as though he was going to turn right - only to then turn left, cutting me off, on the way through the light. I'm sure that saved him all of a half second.

And there were others: the massive pickup that stopped eight inches off my back tire at a light, the guy in the minivan that edged up behind me as I pulled forward waiting for a green, trying to get a little ahead of him and avoid the slush at the corner, and then gunned it past me with a foot of clearance. The drivers just don't seem to realize how slippery and spooky that layer of slush can be, and how much further into their lane it drives me. I'm sure some of them bitch to themselves about "road warriors" and "menacing cyclists" (I'm quoting real people here) as they honk their horns and squeal past me.

But... I left the A Channel station and headed out through the Market, and across the Saint Patrick bridge toward work. And heading along Beechwood things got a little easier, so I got sloppy, and when I found myself rolling up to a stoplight that had just turned yellow, I hit the brakes. And skidded, and slipped, and the back tire went sideways, and I got a foot down in time to not fall over, but I wound up canted across the right lane. The guy standing at the corner made an "oh!" noise as I pulled the bike over to the side of the lane again. Thank god there wasn't anyone right behind or beside me when I skidded.

And then a guy in a truck pulled up and rolled his window down. "Got a little clogged up there," he said.

"Yeah," I said, "that's what I get for trying to stop at the red light, like a car. Shoulda just gone straight through, it's safer."

"Well, you wouldn't get a ticket," he said.

"Not sure about that, they ticket cyclists now. And they should," I said.

"They'd never give you a ticket." He shook his head. "Not in this weather."

"Maybe not." Then the light turned green and I got ready to head out again.

"I'll let you go ahead," he said, and I called out a thanks and pulled out ahead of him. He waited, then started up, and passed me a couple of seconds later, and I waved at him as he drove off. One nice driver. I was smiling when I got to my coffee shop to pick up a cup for work. All he had to do was roll down the window, and engage a cyclist like a human being. May he be blessed with a non-skid winter.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Bus Strike Retrospective

The 51-day OC Transpo bus strike began a year ago today.

A year ago today a massive snowstorm dumped half a foot of snow overnight, just like today. A year ago today I woke up feeling like I was under house arrest. Listening to the startling silence where there used to be engine roar from the bus stop below my apartment. Isolated off in the South End, an hour's walk from the nearest of my usual activities. Unable to get to work.

At least, I thought so at the time.

This morning I skipped the bike ride to work because there was still a lot of snow in the gutters, and deep slush; I figured I'd take the bus and wait on the city getting the streets cleared. And tomorrow I might be getting a ride with a friend downtown in the morning to sing with my choir on the A Channel, so I may not be riding tomorrow. But I will be riding over the weekend, and I'm going to give it a shot on Monday for sure. That's the difference between last year, and this year. Now, I've discovered I can choose not to use the bus.

It seems a lot of people are: this article from CBC.ca suggests that a year on, ridership is down. No wonder: with routes getting slashed right and left, and fare hikes looming (it's already $3.00 a ride, which is just ridiculous) who wouldn't want to find another way around?

And besides, I took the bus for the first time in a long time yesterday, only to discover that it took nearly two hours for me to get home from the office. Nearly two hours. It's a 40 minute run on the bike. Make that an hour to make up for bad riding conditions.

It's amazing how trapped I felt last year. How un-trapped I feel now. Just for having spent a little under a year riding in all weather, and learning to be comfortable on the streets.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I admit...

... I didn't bike to work this morning.

60km/h winds and driving snow? And beleaguered snow clearance workers? And half the drivers out there having been taken by surprise (again) without snow tires?

Yes, I took the bus.

There are more storm photos here, at the Ottawa Citizen site.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mike Meets Ice

The temperature skidded downward while I was at work. I didn't really realize how much until I got out and onto the path, and didn't realize how treacherous the path was going to be until I started sliding around, and decided now was as good a time as any to figure out alternatives to my usual route.

Plus: not having to wait at a crowded snowy bus stop.
Minus: those first few minutes when your hands get really cold in your gloves.

Plus: the air being cold enough that you don't get slush all over your butt.
Minus: finding out that what was slush this morning is now glare ice.

Plus: discovering whole new routes between work and home.
Minus: having to figure out whole new routes between work and home.

Plus: getting to see your city from a whole bunch of new angles.
Minus: constantly second-guessing where you actually are.

Plus: still being out there in the fresh air.
Minus: shoulder tension from trying to maintain balance on patches of ice.

Plus: your inner superhero factor goes up by a few points.
Minus: your risk of injury also goes up by a few points.

Minus: having to take Alta Vista, which is a couple of miles of uphill grade.
Plus: working up enough of a sweat as a result that your fingers aren't cold anymore.

Plus: zipping past slowed up traffic in the bike lane.
Minus: the bike lane being where the ice lives.

Plus: playing leapfrog with the #8 bus.
Minus: playing leapfrog with the #8 bus.

Minus: not seeing the patches of slush till you hit them.
Plus: seeing your breath when you pull up at a light.


Snow down

Yesterday it snowed most of the day: little flakes. I had to leave Mike at home, though, not because of the snow, but because the day's plans involved me catching a lift to Barrhaven with a friend at the end of the day and I didn't want to have to leave him at the office. So I didn't have to try and navigate the roads with new snow down (and possibly a large number of drivers who didn't have winter tires yet.)

But this morning I woke up to the radio telling me that it was -6 out and there was a predicted low of -8, and the sidewalks were all white. And I discovered: I want some kind of formula to apply so I know what to wear in the morning. Something like this:

Temp > -5: jacket/sweater combination A
Temp > -5(R) where (R) = rain: jacket/sweater combination B (including rain pants);
Temp < -5(S) where (S) = slush ... you get the idea.

As it was, I overdressed, in my puffy winter coat and a sweater, and wound up with an overly warm torso, chilly fingers, and a cold breeze running down my neck. (My new Writers Festival toque does, however, fit under the helmet, so my ears were fine.) But the ride wasn't that bad. And it was bright! The sun on all that snow absolutely lifted my spirits.

Once I got to the pathway I started to realize that I won't be able to take that route much longer. It was white from Hurdman to the Queensway underpass. Then it was clear - someone had actually put salt down - as far as River Road in Overbrook: and then suddenly the path was white again - a thin flat layer of snow. My treads are pretty good, so I had traction, but any deeper and I could have been sliding. And I definitely concentrated more as it was.

I had a momentary fantasy on the way of inventing some kind of trailer I could pull behind me that would spread road salt as I biked, like a sort of vigilante path groomer. Of recruiting the mothers with strollers and the photographers that hang out by the river into a small private army of pathkeepers. I wonder if that's even legal. Are there laws against spreading salt on paths in public parks? Who put the salt down between the Queensway and River Road anyway?