Friday, January 28, 2011

Midnight in the Market

My dad sent me this picture: he took it in Fredericton. Seemed appropriate.

I was out in the Market this evening for Once Upon a Slam, and went out to Zack's afterwards with some friends, leaving Mike locked to a street sign in the snow. When we got back to where I'd parked him - my friends had offered to put him in the trunk of their car and give me a lift home - I had a momentary scare: I didn't see him.

There were a bunch of bikes parked outside the Mercury Lounge, and I walked past one that seemed to have a rear fender (Mike doesn't, which explains the crazy amount of grit splattered over the back of my jacket) and to another streetsign that had three bikes attached to it, locked and tangled. "Wait a sec," I said to the friend I was walking with. "None of those are... Mike's not there..."

I had a terrible sinking moment of fear that the unthinkable had happened, that someone had stolen my bike. And then I walked back over to the one I'd passed, and with relief, realized what I'd seen hadn't been a fender, it was his back rack. It was Mike. As covered in snow as he was, I guess I didn't automatically recognize him.

So, hooray: I unlocked the bike and wheeled him to my friends' car and loaded him in the back, commenting that it was probably a very good thing he hadn't been the bike in the middle of the three attached to the signpost. And then it hit us: as they said on the way to the car, "You know, midnight on Friday night, January 28th, in a snowstorm, and that many bikes parked in the Market... that's pretty good."

Which really struck me. People keep talking about how much Ottawa needs to be made more bike-friendly. But I keep seeing evidence that it already is. It's January. It was a filthy, gritty, slushy day to be out on a bike today. Trust me, I've washed a half cup of road grit and salt off myself and out of my hair today, just from biking across town and back, and down to the Market. It was snowing, at midnight tonight, and about 10 below zero, and yet there were so many bikes parked outside the Mercury Lounge that I had trouble picking mine out of the lineup at first.

Don't try to tell me Ottawa's not a biking town.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Out riding

Picture by Benedict Matthew San Juan: pictured, Eric Wu.
I saw this picture posted in the Facebook group "I am out riding today, Rob Ford," and loved it. Happy winter riding, all! 

There's also a fairly exuberant article here, from Edmonton, about cycling in extreme winter conditions.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Back on the road!

It turns out that there was nothing at all wrong with my derailleur. It was the grip shifter. Who knew?

It's funny, but when Mike cacked out on me a few days ago, and the grip shift suddenly wouldn't turn, I just assumed it was because of the winter conditions. Grit and grease caked up on the gears, corrosion and salt all over the derailleur, a chain stripped of lubrication by the beating the roads have been dishing out to it. Mike certainly looks the part, battered and salt-spattered as he is. And when I went to the shop yesterday, the kid behind the counter tried to twist the shifter, pulled on the cable a little and told me it was a winter bike and 'they get gummed up,' and sent me home to clean it and 'see if that works.' 

After testing out a bunch of great suggestions from folks that comment on this blog (thanks folks) and still not being able to turn the shifter, I wheeled Mike back over to my local bike shop this afternoon, where the guy at the front desk was, for some reason, standing on a stepladder and on the phone. He was an older guy this time. "I'm on the phone, but just take it back to the shop and Hoang'll have a look at it," he said. So I took the bike back to the shop, where Hoang (a seriously tiny Asian dude with flecks of grey in his hair) took the bike frame he was working on off the stand, popped Mike up onto it, and set to work. I hung out to watch: this stuff is fascinating, and I find it's the best way to learn more about exactly how the bike works.

I feel perhaps inordinately gratified that after all my futzing with the back end of the bike and not being able to find anything wrong with it, Hoang spun the wheel, checked the cable, eyed the mechanisms, and told me . . . there was nothing wrong with it. And while I watched in fascination, he told me there had to be something wrong with the shifter itself, and started taking it apart.

He tried whatever he could to get the shifter to work - it had simply broken somewhere inside, and would only turn in one direction. He asked if I wanted to replace it - but only after a solid ten minutes of trying to make it work - and I said of course: this is my transportation. I need it on the road.

So he got a ladder to get down a spare shifter, put it on, rethreaded the cable, made sure it worked, ran the bike through all the gears a few times (and I got to watch the derailleur curl and coil like an articulated limb: it made me feel even more that a bike is an organic sort of creature at times), and then took a wrench to stretch the cable out - running the arm of the wrench down and down and down again putting pressure on the cable - re-tightened the cable, and sent me on my way. But not before also oiling the whole thing, taking a brake pad out to sand it, realigning the brakes, and tightening the seat and tail light. "Back on the road," he said, and walked me up to the cash, where I paid $24.99 for the whole procedure and the new part.

A couple of things occurred to me while I was watching him work. One was, once again, how elegantly simple a bike actually is. Everything makes sense: the Bowden cables are like tendons, pulling things in recognizable arcs and curves. The most complicated and baffling bit of the bike is the derailleur, and that is controlled by one simple thing: a spool that winds or unwinds the cable that then pulls an armature in or out. The brake pads can be refreshed with a good bit of sandpaper, and Hoang didn't use any tool more specialized than a socket wrench. I could master this. I haven't yet, but I could.

Another thing that occurred to me was how much I'd assumed (as I do every winter) that winter is going to kill your bicycle. Yup, it's hard on it. But if it's January, I will automatically leap to the conclusion that what's wrong with my bike is the fault of the weather: when in fact what was wrong with the bike was that the gearshift had worn out. Not a bit of the bike that's even exposed to the grit and slush. Mike's a trooper! Drive train of a bike half his age! Or something like that.

And the third thing that occurred to me had to do with Shelly's comment on my last post. The one about how you can feel, as a woman going into a bike shop. Maybe it's a bit of confirmation bias on my part, but I think this is the second time, with this shop, that this has happened: when I went into the shop a couple of days ago and was sent off to 'clean the bike and see if that helped', everyone in the front of the shop was a young man. I'm not trying to paint all young men with the same brush and all, but... when I went to the shop today, the only people in the place were over forty, and I got treated like someone who had actually come in to get some service on her bike. I didn't feel like I was being dismissed, and frankly, I have felt, at times, in bike shops, that I'm being dismissed because I'm a woman with an uncool clunky mountain bike (who probably doesn't even know how to change a tire.)

Today, though, I got treated like someone who needed to get her bike back on the road. Someone with a legitimate mechanical problem that couldn't be fixed at home with a wrench and a can of WD-40. (Because that's what it was. I'd already tried the wrench and the WD-40.) I got to watch Hoang switch from the gleaming racer he was working on to my grimy and road-weary Mike, brush his hands off, and get in there to keep him running, treating Mike like any hard-working piece of equipment.

So, as I said to a friend later, today I learned that you can't blame winter for everything, and that if you want to get taken seriously, go to the bike shop when the middle-aged dudes are on deck. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011


It's Mike's second winter, and the last one was pretty hard on him: looks like this one is far worse. Or maybe it's just a long slow process of abuse piling on abuse, that's finally come to a head.

On my way home a few days ago, I was climbing the hill between Billings Bridge and Heron and discovered halfway up that I had shifted into the lowest gear (well, the lowest gear of the top set: I just don't really use the left-hand shifter) and couldn't shift back. The grip shift wouldn't turn, no matter what I did. I pulled over to wrestle with it, swore a bit, and wound up biking home relatively slowly, with my feet going roundandroundandround very fast on the pedals. It was unbalancing, and nerve-wracking on the street, so I eventually dove for the safety of the sidewalk.

When I got home I tried to figure out what had happened. The rubber sheath around the shifter had certainly pretty much had it - torn and splitting - but that wasn't the problem. I flipped the bike over and tried to clean it off with a rag and a bucket.

This is where I have to mention that one disadvantage of having a bike in an apartment is that there is no convenient way to, um, wash the bike. I can't take it in the back yard with a hose or anything. I had to go out into the hallway with my bucket when I realized I was going to be sloshing dirty water all over my floor. (The hallway, at least, gets cleaned regularly and has a pretty stain-resistant industrial carpet: my floor is hardwood.)

So I slooshed some water from the rag over the gears and the derailleur, and then turned the pedals. I still didn't like the grinding gritty noise I was getting, but eventually I got it washed up (a bit) and lubricated (a lot). The gears still wouldn't shift. So, I suited up and headed out to my local bike shop.

Wheeled Mike inside and asked the guy behind the counter, who pulled on the cable a little, tried to turn the handle, and told me, nope, it was fine, the derailleur was probably just gummed up. "Winter bikes," he said, slightly dismissively, "they gum up a lot." I said something like "So, I just need to go give it a good cleaning and see if it works?" and he said yeah.

So I wheeled Mike home again, got him into my apartment. And, again - I don't have a back yard or a hose, right? So I did. Really I did. I took his back wheel off, wrestled him through the hallway to my bathroom, and I gave my bicycle a bath.

I won't get into the weird contortions and awkward angles required to get your rear derailleur underneath a bathtub tap. Or the amount of chipping with a wooden skewer I did, while sitting on the rim of the tub, to get the grit out of the back wheel's gears. But I did get him rinsed off (did he ever leave a bathtub ring) and back out to the hallway, where I greased everything back up with my bottle of bike lubricant, and got the wheel back on.

Still no shifting. And then I noticed that the cable really wasn't all right. I'm no expert, but I'd say this ain't what the gearshift cable should look like:

So, it's back to the bike shop and this time insisting that they actually check the bike out rather than give it a cursory eyeballing, plucking the cable a bit, and sending me home. This is, after all, my mode of transportation.

Monday, January 17, 2011

You never want to believe what you hear on the radio...

When I woke up this morning the voices on the radio told me it was around -25, and the windchill was driving it even lower. That's not something you want to hear while you're in a very snuggly bed with a purring cat. But I rolled over, looked at the window, and saw what a bright day it was shaping up to be, and sleepily ran through, in my head, the last place I saw my merino wool tights. By the time I was up and having breakfast, I was actually looking forward to the crunchy-crisp ride across town.

When I got to the office, my friend Leslie looked up and said, "Tell me you didn't ride the bike today." To which I said, "Okay, I'll tell you that, but I'll be lying..."

It was a great ride. Bright and sunny. The snow was dry enough to keep me from sliding around too much, and aside from two moments at which I yelled at passing cars for cutting close and gunning it past me, it was fairly easy. Folks were out skating on the canal as I crunched by on my big tires. The air was super clean. And I was actually almost too warm. Sure, my fingers got painful, and my eyes watered a lot at first, but my body was toasty. I got onto the canal path, got CBC radio going on the headphones, and remembered, once again, that this winter thing is actually pretty awesome, as long as you can get yourself out the door. And the numbers you hear on the radio - you just don't want to pay too much attention to those. Sure, they sound scary. But they're really not so bad.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Sharing (and caring?)

I just saw this commercial for the first time. Looked like your standard car commercial, till the last little bit, when I actually felt my conditioned cyclist-recognition-response kick in. And I think what also wins me about it is that there are two bike lanes on that street. Awwwww.

Okay, I'm sure there's a really cynical position I could take on this ad. But, I think I won't, for the simple reason that it's good to see a message like this - even if it might be ironic or manipulative or whatever - on the airwaves. The vast majority of car commercials show the cars zooming along on completely empty roads, where they never once have to encounter another moving thing. Isn't that going to, subconsciously, give you the idea that anything that causes you to slow down or divert course is some kind of affront? This commercial is like the opposite of that mentality. Bring it on. Bring on more like it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bungees. I need bungees.

I've taken to carrying some things with me all the time. I just leave them in the panniers, and leave the panniers with Mike (even if it is a bit of a pain in the ass to take them off and carry them with me when I park: they're not really designed to be carried, and tend to bang against my leg and get unwieldy. It never used to be a problem, but then I had my headlights stolen, twice in quick succession, so now I take everything removable off, even if I'm only going in for a couple of minutes.)

But this is all beside the point. I take some things with me now. My tool kit, patch kit and tire pump, basically, and a spare inner tube. It's like that tangle of stuff in most people's trunks, where they keep the bottle of wiper fluid, the scraper, the bungee cords and jumper cables. It comes in handy: a few days ago I realized that the screws had loosened that held my tail light up, and it was drooping into my rack, blocking out the light. I dug out the toolkit and straightened it out, in the slush and rain, and was pleased that just this once, I had the tools when I wanted them, and so wasn't stuck bending a key on my keyring trying to make it work as an improvised screwdriver.

And the other day I realized that I really ought to have bungee cords. My parents sent me a package from New Brunswick on the bus (thanks, by the way, guys! And the cookies were a nice touch.) So I had to ride over to the bus station to pick it up. My panniers are pretty huge, but the citrus box they sent turned out not to fit. Luckily, I have a rack! And the box, before being taped, had been tied shut with twine. And, after a bit of possibly dodgy gingeing, involving threading the cable lock through the twine at the back and then up around my seatpost, and then clipping the closures on the panniers through the twine on the sides, I got something that actually did not shift in flight (a good thing, because a snowy South Bank Street is not somewhere you want the unexpected to happen.)

I know that cargo isn't really such a tricky thing, but I was pretty pleased with what I managed to do with what I happened to have on me. Still, I think now it might be useful to carry some bungees around in that bottom-of-the-bag space full of stuff you only ever need sometimes. Cause when that 'sometimes' rolls around, and you actually do have the stuff you need, man, do you ever feel smug.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Elite? Me?

I just came across a blog post by David Reevely at the Citizen, responding to Randall Denley's piece on the perennial conversation about making Ottawa a cycling city, and arguing that decent street design, making cycling safer, is more important than teaching people to cycle properly.

The two pieces are interesting: they illustrate how complicated the question is. If a city wants to get more people cycling, there will probably be a dozen different takes on how to do it. Do you want people who are unused to cycling to feel safer? Do you want to keep bikes off the roads and provide dedicated cycling facilities? Do you want the cyclists to learn and obey the rules of the road? Just how steep should the learning curve be for newbies? Are bike lanes going to cut into the profits of the businesses along the road, or improve them? Who rides anyway? Who will ride once you change things? Can you even predict that?

But what really got my attention was his claim that "conditions for commuter biking in Ottawa are poor, such that most people consider it the province of elite and experienced cyclists who have specialized skills and a lot of courage."

I commute. Not only do I commute about seven and a half miles to work, I do it year round. But none of those adjectives sit right with me. 'Elite?' Hell no. 'Experienced'? Other than the fact that I get on a bike most days of the week and get my ass to work, and have for the last three years or so, I don't think I'd consider myself an 'experienced' cyclist. I certainly don't know how to do anything on a bike that anyone else I know can't, so along with 'experienced' I think I'd rule out 'specialized skills.' And 'courage'? Is this where I admit to the scared yelps that are a routine part of my day?

Basically, I really don't think that conditions, as they stand, are all that poor in Ottawa. I mean, in comparison to what? When I first moved to Ottawa when I was eighteen, I made the jump from recreational cycling on rural roads to making my way around a fairly good-sized city. I managed it. The city's fairly flat, so there isn't that initial barrier of hills to tire a novice out. There are beautiful rec paths. The downtown streets aren't that bad (so there's some nasty pavement, but the side streets are quiet, aesthetically pleasing, and tree-shaded.) Sure, I notice the spots where things are awkward - nothing's perfect, and you might as well fix the stuff that you know needs fixing. But I'm not elite, experienced, particularly skilled or courageous, in my humble opinion, and yet I took to cycling. In fact, I discovered I love it.

Now, about whether you're better off creating safer facilities or teaching cyclists to ride properly: my take on it is that a city can't teach cyclists. How would you do that? Offer lessons - that only some people would take you up on? I certainly wouldn't take time out of my life to take cycling safety lessons. Would you license cyclists? I can only imagine the organizational and bureaucratic nightmare that would be. What a city can do - actually do - is build facilities. So that's what they should spend their time and effort on. Educating people is a lot harder for a municipal government to do. Bike advocacy groups can do that. Bloggers can do it. Journalists can. Bike shops can. The city can create segregated lanes, put up signage, provide information, mark bike routes, make it clear where bike paths will take you, and clear bike lanes and paths of snow. But it can't teach a new cyclist not to be nervous. And that's not its job. It's ours.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Right to turn

Yesterday, twice, I got honked at for doing something that was completely legal (in both cases on left turns: seems when a cyclist decides to obey the laws of the road, there are drivers that don't know that's what bikes are supposed to do. I've had drivers yell "get out of the road!" at me before, while I'm waiting in left-turn lanes, or making turns, even just while riding down the street.)

One of the cases I suppose I can understand. One of the only contra-flow, bike-only lanes in the city is on Cameron, a little one-way street that runs from Brewer Park (that park just across Bronson from Carleton University's Athletics department) to Bank Street in Old Ottawa South. In order to get to Carleton from my place I take Cameron, which involves a left turn off Bank at a stoplight. There are a couple of 'no-entry' signs posted at the entrance to Cameron, with 'except bicycles' tacked on underneath, and the bike lane is separated from the street for about 15 feet or so by a raised curb - after which it's marked off by a painted yellow line and bike-lane logo. Bikes going west are supposed to use the contra-flow lane: bikes coming east ride at the side of the car lane.

I've never understood the point of the 15-foot separated stretch, but as it's one of the only separated bits I know about, I sort of appreciate its fledgling status. It does, I suppose, help to keep bikes from turning left directly into oncoming one-way traffic.

The bike lane, naturally, has not been cleared of snow, forcing me to ride the wrong way in the car lane itself, but that's a whole nother gripe.

I made what, for me, was a particularly bold merge into the left lane to make my turn, got to the light, which was green, and saw that a large and elderly pickup truck was facing me with its turning signal on indicating it was turning left. As the truck started to turn left, so did I. That little do-si-do maneuver any car would have done in my place. But I realized that the truck was blocking my view of what was behind it, including any cars coming south down Bank Street that might choose to swing out around the turning truck and continue through the green light. So I stopped, waiting to get a clear view, halfway through my left turn. Again, what any car would do. Lucky that I did, too, because there was indeed a car coming down Bank. But the truck, instead of finishing its turn and getting out of my way so I could see what was coming, stopped to honk at me for being in the middle of the intersection. I edged forward, saw a clear spot, and rabbited across the street and into the safety of the segregated lane.

But it rankled that the driver had honked. It always does. And it bugged me because I had been making a completely legal move. I'd signalled my merge and I was in the inside lane - okay, in the middle of a left turn on winter roads in traffic, forgive me if while making the actual turn both hands were on the handlebars - and I was turning onto a road that was, for bikes, a two-way street. I wondered if he'd honked because he thought I was heading the wrong way down a one-way street. To be fair, I don't really expect drivers to read or notice the 'bikes excepted' signs that are on quite a few intersections, although it would be nice if they did.

In fact, come to think of it, it seems to me that 'bikes excepted' signs are a BAD idea. Why make bicycles even more unpredictable than they are? That's not going to improve relations, is it? Often when there's an exception for bikes, it means that bikes can turn where cars can't (sometimes into oncoming traffic, as in this case), or run the opposite way down a one-lane street (okay when there's a clearly marked bike lane, not so okay if, as in this case, the bike lane's obliterated by snow and ice.) And in most cases, those signs are pretty hard to see. Nearly as hard to see as the ones downtown telling you what hours of the day certain maneuvers are allowed (Hel-LO, Laurier and Elgin. There's a blinkin' textbook posted over the 'no right turn' sign. And I think there's an exception for bikes in there somewhere too. In an intersection that size? No wonder it's on the top-seven list of most dangerous intersections.)

Basically, as I keep saying, if drivers know what to expect of bikes, and bikes know what to expect of drivers, we're all safer and our blood pressures stay down as an added bonus. But every time I merge left I'm scared that the car behind me just won't know what my signal means, or won't expect me to move out into traffic. Every time I get into an intersection on a left turn, I'm scared a car won't think to look for me, or won't judge my speed properly, or will assume I'm breaking the law and try to scare me into staying on the sidewalks 'where I belong.' And I know that all around me are other cyclists either too reckless - running red lights and heading the wrong way on one-ways, or too cautious - riding along the sidewalks, with no regard for the direction of traffic, and popping out into intersections where cars aren't looking for them. And THEN they add some intersections - not all, but often the weird ones - where the bikes get different rules from the cars? It's not as though you'd put in signs saying "no right turn on red, except hatchbacks."