The Bike Boom Continues

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Westfield, NJ June 2020

Every day my local bike store takes delivery of at least 10 new bikes. Every evening they put out the same number of empty cartons. They’re easily selling 10-15 per day, probably more. Last Fall I bought a new carbon gravel bike that comes with a free tuneup if you take it in within six months. Their repair shop is so busy that the manager extended it to a year and upgraded it to a complete overhaul instead of a safety tuneup. He says their waiting list is currently “at 160 tickets” and extends into August. So in addition to selling at least 10 new bikes a day, they’re repairing 10-15 bikes a day. Those are amazing numbers for one suburban bike shop. All I know is that when the Covid epidemic is over and people can finally go back to the gym, there are going to be a lot of good deals on used bikes on Craigslist.

Will there be a new “bike boom?”

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Westfield, NJ May 2020

Just about the only place I’m seeing long lines in my little corner of the suburban NYC hot zone is my local bike store. It’s easy to see why. All of the gyms are closed, and will be for the foreseeable future, so people are digging up all those old bikes from their basements and getting them repaired.

As Carlton Reid points out in his new book “Bike Boom,” the last time the United States saw a major resurgence of cycling was in the 1970s. Partly because of the 1960s counterculture and partly because of the 1970s oil shocks, everybody started riding bikes.

In Washington DC, there was a young Post staff reporter called Carl Bernstein – later to become half of the Pulitzer Prize-winning pair – known as the “office hippie” and a “long-haired freak who rode a bicycle …”

“Many cyclists harbour fierce antipathy for what they regard as an automobile culture that is choking the nation with fumes, speed, noise and concrete,” he wrote in the Post in 1970. He went on to describe a “growing group of cyclists who regard pedalling as an almost political act and inevitably flash the two-finger peace symbol upon encountering another person on a bike”.

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jun/16/pedal-ins-patchouli-bikeology-americas-forgotten-1970s-cycle-boom

There were also plans in the 1970s to build a cycling infrastructure in the United States that would have rivaled that of Germany or the Netherlands, but sadly it never got off the ground. Like many good ideas that came out of the 1970s energy crisis, the bike boom turned out to be a fad. Perhaps it’s possible now, but I suspect people will go back to the gyms as soon as it gets cold (if they’re open).

The Watchung Mountains on a Brompton

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Nobody would ever mistake the Watchung  Mountains for the Alps or the Himalayas. Nevertheless, they were an obstacle formidable enough in 1781 to guard the Continental Army against the British, who were defeated in the decisive Battle of Springfield when they tried to march on George Washington’s headquarters in Morristown. At almost 1000 feet at their height, they are a nightmare to drive over when the road is covered with ice in the Winter. They are a challenge to ride over on a full sized, 700c road bike. So what is it like riding through the Watchung Mountains on a folding bicycle?

It’s actually much easier than I thought it would be.

Last year, I purchased a Brompton folding bike for the not inconsiderable sum of $1525. It’s by far the most I’ve ever spent for a bike, but that finely designed, hand made British engineering doesn’t come cheap. Spending less on a folding bicycle is not only dangerous but a waste. You’d wind up spending more on repairs anyway. I wouldn’t spend any more than $1525. The more expensive models are pretty much just the base model with a nicer paint job, but $1525 is the folding bike’s equivalent of a $1000 dollar entry level aluminum road bike. In fact, since you get an internally geared hub, it’s probably a bargain. You don’t have to worry about your derailleur getting all gunked up with salt in the Winter.

The Brompton has 16 inch wheels. It’s a bit tricky to fold at first, but you get used to it soon enough, and the base model fits anybody from 4’10” to 5’10”. Technically if you’re over 5’10” you need to buy an extended seat post, but at 5’11” I found that the base seat post fits me just fine, so why spend the money or add the extra weight. The front rack and touring bag are excellent. Unlike a normal touring bike, which locates the extra weight in the back, this distributes it to the front wheel, away from your body weight. The Brompton has 6 gears, ranging from a very forgiving 64mm to a much faster 98mm for going downhill. You can get the gearing adjusted down 18% for steeper hills but I found I didn’t need that either.

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I started off in Unami Park in Cranford, about 3 miles from the entrance to the Watchung Reservation. It’s a pleasant little park set in the middle of gentrified working class suburbia (those little 3 bedroom bungalows built out of the Sears Catalogue now go for $500,000 dollars, but that’s another blog post). I dodged the various Labradoodles, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds out in the park and road through downtown Westfield and across Route 22. I noticed that there’s a deer hunt going on. Hey, if you’re in the area of Mountainside or Berkeley Heights, New Jersey and own a bow and arrows, here’s your chance.

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In any event, the steep hills began just at about this point, and I downshifted into first gear. I began to mentally prepare myself to swallow my pride just in case I’d have to get off and walk. Then I shifted back up into second gear. The approach to the Watchung Mountains, while steep, wasn’t as bad as I thought. I could save the first gear for later. The biggest challenge riding a folding bike with 16-inch wheels isn’t so much the steep hills, but the amount of debris on the road. There was a major rain storm a few days ago, and the road is littered with twigs, acorns and even larger branches that haven’t been cleaned up yet. There’s also the traffic. Not only do drivers seem more openly hostile on a Brompton, as compared to a full size bike, you can’t accelerate quite as fast. On the other hand, my guess is that drivers are just as hostile to cyclists on full-sized bikes, and if you’re noticing their hostility, it means they’re noticing you, which is always good.

Once I hit the serious incline of WR Tracy Road, the hostility ended. Motorists making their way up the 800 foot incline not only seemed to recognize that they need to share a big park like Watchung Reservation with cyclists, but also curious about this man riding a bike with wheels half the size of a normal bike. Cyclists on the way down the hill gave me the thumbs up. A fox and a herd of deer rushed across the street ahead of me across the road. I finally shifted down into first gear. I suddenly regretted eating so much before I left the house, but that was a minor issue. I’m also sick — I have a mild case of bronchitis, a cold, and a toothache — and chronically sleep deprived. I began to sweat. I didn’t really need the Carhartt hoodie the way I did in yesterday’s wind storm. But nothing was decisive. I made it to the top with barely any more effort than I take on my full sized road bike.

I also got a good look at the NYC skyline. If Sarah Palin could see Russia from her house. I can see the Freedom Tower at the midpoint of my normal bike ride.

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I tried to get the Brompton and the Freedom Tower in the same frame but there was too much brush and too many trees. I also road around the (very wealthy neighborhood) to find the right angle. I walked up on a few porches and road up into a few driveways but none of them let me get the perfect shot. I suppose I made the footage on a few security cameras. “Who is this weird looking guy with this weird looking little bike.”

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In any event, the final mileage was about 15 steep miles and it was all pretty easy. If you live in a city like San Francisco or Seattle, a place that has a lot of hills, you can manage it easily on a folding bike. The Brompton is also the perfect bike for touring. Just throw it in the baggage check of a Greyhound or an Amtrak and take public transportation in between rides. It’s not as much fun riding a Brompton as it is riding a full sized 700c road bike with drop bars and clip in pedals, but there’s nothing really stopping you using it as your main or only bike.

I Bought a Jaguar

Actually better. But still British. Over the next two years I’m going to be commuting frequently in and out of Newark, NJ and Manhattan, which means New Jersey Transit. You can bring full-sized bikes on NJ Transit trains but not at peak times. So the solution is a folding bike. This also lets me have my own bike pretty much anywhere I go. I can put it in the overheard luggage compartments on a plain or a Greyhound.

I don’t have a lot of experience cycling in Manhattan but after picking the Brompton up from Brompton Junction in the Village I road up to my old apartment at 106th and Manhattan, then back down to Penn Station. Then I got off the train in Elizabeth instead of my usual stop in Westfield. I knew this was a well-crafted bike but I was surprised at just how fast I can go. It’s almost as quick as a full sized bike but there’s something more. With the smaller wheels, you’re closer to the road, more connected with the experience of cycling. It’s a bit like switching from an SUV with an automatic to a sub compact with a stick.

I’m over 50 and I never plan to buy a car. Hopefully I’ll be cycling well into my 80s.

Like this guy.

Speaking of very old men, Holy Shit, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still alive, old enough to be Bernie Sanders’s father.

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A Brief Meditation on Clipless Pedals

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Last year, while riding in Watchung Reservation, a cyclist passed me on WR Tracy Drive. “On your left,” he shouted as he whizzed by me as if I were standing still. There was no shame in being passed. WR Tracy Drive is a steep incline. The cyclist who passed me was training for hills, and I was just out for a pleasant ride in the park. Nevertheless, as is my habit, whenever someone shouts “on your left” (asshole for “I’m faster than you”) and puts a significant amount of distance between himself and me in a short period of time, I always try to close the gap, or even pass the offending showoff. Usually I have little trouble. I’m a fairly strong cyclist and there are few people I can’t catch if I’m genuinely determined. This guy, however, moved like a grey ghost through the mist. By the time I downshifted and started to pedal in earnest he had already rounded the circle on Summit Lane and was nearly out of sight. Try as I might I couldn’t catch up. I never even came close.

I went home that evening demoralized, feeling weak and old. What was it about the demon cyclist that I lacked? I suppose it could have been age. He appeared to be in his prime cycling years. I’m well into middle age. It could have been conditioning, but it wasn’t being winded that held me back. It was a simple lack of speed. I suppose it could have also been physical strength, but then again, cycling isn’t a sport that involves brute strength. Nobody trains for the Tour de France doing squats. I decided it was form, technique. He was getting more of out his bike than I was. He was younger, stronger, and better conditioned than I was, but he also employed what he had more effectively than I did. I looked down and noticed I was still using my ancient platform pedals with toe clips. I needed something to force me to keep the balls of my feet firmly in the center of the pedal. I also needed to tighten my straps and my toe clips to the point where I’d be using the upward stroke as well as the downward stroke.

I decided it was finally time to switch to clipless pedals.

The term clipless pedals is highly misleading. Even though you literally “clip in” the way you do on a pair of skis, we still use the name invented back in the 1980s to describe pedals without straps or toe clips. They’ve been standard on high end mountain bikes and road bikes for a long time, and they’re starting to trickle down to the masses. The only reason I had put off making the switch for so long was, oddly enough, the Internet. The idea of “clipping into” pedals on crowded suburban roads had always made me nervous. It’s one thing to have your feet bound to your pedals on a group ride out in the countryside. It’s another thing altogether when you have to stop for a red light every few blocks. What’s more, there is a generally accepted truism on the Internet that clipless pedals have a learning curve, that for the first few weeks that you use them you have a tendency to get your feet stuck and fall off your bike. The idea that falling off your bike while learning how to use clipless pedals is so well-accepted on every cycling forum and discussion board and stated with so much confidence I never thought to doubt it. That fall just seemed like something you’d have to go through. It was kind of like losing your virginity, something I didn’t want to experience on a crowded city street.

I’ve never fallen off my bike while using clipless pedals. I’ve never even come close. In fact, they’re so easy to use, I can clip in and clip out so fast, I’m baffled as to where the idea came from. I’ve even tried to get my feel stuck in my Shimano SPD clipless pedals, and take that obligatory fall, but I can’t seem to manage it. My feet always come out effortlessly, and I have a hard time believing that anybody else has had a different experience. So how did it become such a truism on the Internet that getting your feet stuck and falling off your bike is part of the process of learning how to use clipless pedals? I suppose maybe somewhere, sometimes, one person did. Perhaps it was the ghost of Buster Keaton rehearsing for a new silent film somewhere in cinematic heaven. Then he posted it on a cycling forum. Somebody else reposted it, then someone else reposted it again. Eventually it became conventional wisdom. People started to believe it happened to other people even though it never happened to them. Then maybe they made up stories about getting their feet stuck in their clipless pedals (even though they never did) just to feel like part of the crowd.

I’ve away from my ongoing experience with clipless pedals sure of only two things. They work. I’ll never take a long ride without them again. But above all this. People on the Internet are full of shit.

Feeling Anglophilic

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Last year I cycled 500 miles through New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut on my road bike. I traveled as lightly as possible, bringing only a very small backpack and a handlebar bag. On the whole it was a good experience, but there was one thing I couldn’t stand, walking around in cycling shoes (I used clipless pedals).

So I bought a Carradice “College” saddlebag from Carradice of Nelson, handmade (and signed) by a genuine British person named “Emma.” It seems well made and has a ton of room, enough for a heavy texbook, my raingear, and a pair of running shoes. I may regret not buying one of the smaller bags. I only bought the huge one because it was on clearance, 31 pounds plus shipping, about 65 bucks overall, but then again, I probably won’t. My bike is a “large” and fits someone between 6’0″ and 6’3.” So I don’t raise the saddle that high. But the bag still seems to have plenty of clearance. I’m a little surprised at just how well engineered this thing is. I test road carrying at least 10 pounds and barely knew it was there.

So why not just buy a touring bike with a rack? Well, they’re expensive and hard to find, for one. But they’re also heavy and slow. Doing 100 miles a day requires you to travel as light as possible, and what I’ll mostly be taking on long trips are clothes and spare shoes (not particularly heavy). This bag seems to fit the bill.

So why don’t Americans make more stuff like this? Who knows. American bike stores seem mostly interested in selling you carbon road bikes that weigh 12 pounds or full suspension mountain bikes. This saddlebag is a product of an English cycling (and touring) culture that goes back 100 years. Young Franklin Roosevelt probably used something very much like it on his long cycling tour of Germany.

Images of my suburban dreamworld: 10

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This is my 2013 Jamis Commuter 1 propped up on its seat and handlebars for its monthly chain cleaning. Don’t ask my why I love this bike so much. It’s cheap, heavy, slow, and has required a lot of maintenance over the past few years. Nevertheless it gets me 7 miles to work in the morning, and 7 miles back home in the evening. It’s got a rack for panniers and a chain guard so I don’t have to roll my pants up. It’s so cheap I really don’t have to worry about it being stolen. It’s my bad weather bad neighborhood, leave it at the train station all day and ride it through the rain any time I want bike. When it breaks I’ll get a new one.

I sometimes wonder why people buy mountain bikes for commuting, especially full suspension mountain bikes, especially poorly made, and quite frankly dangerous full suspension mountain bikes from department stores. The Jamis Commuter 1 is cheap and heavy but it’s also simple and well-made. Front shocks are meaningless on suburban streets. A rear suspension on a bike that costs under $2000 is absurd. I suppose it’s all about the “cool factor.” Department stores like Walmart sell dangerous, $200 dollar full suspension mountain bikes because kids like to pretend they’re riding state of the art $2000 dollar full suspension mountain bikes. Then these bikes don’t get used and get sold to very poor people for $25 dollars. I’ve seen Hispanic restaurant workers riding $25 dollar used mountain bikes in January through snow packed roads. They put me to shame, but they’re something to aspire to as worthy in their own way as Chris Froome or Peter Sagan.

The Jamis Commuter 1 will get me through snow-packed salt and brine covered roads this Winter.

Going Carless

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Back in 2008, right after the beginning of the “great recession” I moved back into the basement of my childhood home. It was only supposed to be for a few months until I found another apartment in the city, but we all know how that goes. Getting a lease in Michael Bloomberg’s hyper-gentrified New York was much easier said than done. So I stayed in my hometown of Roselle, a suburb of Elizabeth, about fifteen miles from downtown Manhattan. For years, like everybody else in New York City, I had been carless. Why bother finding a place to park when you can just take the subway? New Jersey is another story. Nevertheless, I never bought my own car. Not only did I have access to both my parents’ cars, since my mother and father were declining — they were already in their 30s when I was born — I was expected to do most of the driving. After my father died in 2011 and my mother broke her hip the next year, leaving became out of the question. There was no way she could have done her own grocery shopping or functioned without my help.

I’m still in the same basement. Both my parents are gone. My mother, who broke her hip for the second time this March, died slowly and painfully over the course of the Spring. A second broken hip in less than five years would have been difficult, not only for an 81-year-old woman, but for a 30-year-old woman, but it was much more. After the doctors operated on her hip, she developed intestinal problems so severe that she had to go back to the hospital for a second round of surgery. The second surgery, or, to be more specific, the anesthesia for the second surgery, killed her mind. It was so excruciatingly painful for so long that she spent most of the time calling for painkillers, almost as if she had been a wounded soldier in film about the Second World War. “Medic. Corpsman. Morphine.” Then her lungs went, then her heart. In the final weeks of her life, my mother probably weighed sixty five or seventy pounds. It was painful to look at her. Only later did I realize that she had in fact been close to death for almost a year, her bodily functions carefully regulated by a veritable pharmaceutical company of prescription drugs, her life’s energy slowly but surely draining away.

My brother and I inherited the house, a gigantic, dilapidated old colonial dating from the Nineteenth Century that’s essentially worthless because of the town’s shitty schools and ruinous property taxes. If I wind up pocketing $20,000 dollars, I’ll be happy. I also inherited the two cars, either of which I could have kept, but I decided to sell both. Why? I suppose the most important reason is money. The cars brought in a badly needed $3000 dollars. There was also the cost of insurance, and repair. One car needed a new front windshield. The other needed four new tires. There was the price of gas but none of it was really decisive. I could have probably swung the price of the insurance and the repairs had I really wanted to, but I didn’t want to. I have a shitty menial job in a warehouse six miles away from where I live. Driving to work feels like an embalming process. You shit, shower, shave, put your clothes on, and then get into your 3000 pound metal death box. You turn on the radio and the air-conditioning to separate yourself from the outside world, to give yourself the illusion that you are in control of your environment. You are not. The songs on the radio have been chosen for you by corporate America. As aggressively as you drive, you’re still part of traffic. Weaving from lane to lane will not get you to where you are going any faster. You stop when the traffic lights tell you to stop. You start when they tell you to start. You are, essentially, a piece of a machine.

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Cycling is different. Sure the bike I ride was made in a factory somewhere in Taiwan. I ride on the same roads as I did when I drove my mother’s SUV. I stop for red lights. I resume pedaling at green lights, but I don’t really have to. On a bike, I retain some portion of my individual identity. I’m a statistical error. No cop is going to arrest a cyclist for running a red light, if only because he’d have no idea how to fill out the paperwork. I move with the overall flow of traffic, and yet, I move around inside the overall flow of traffic at my will. Sometimes it’s dangerous. New Jersey is not Amsterdam. There are places on the roads in between my house and my job where a cyclist simply cannot obey the rules of the road without getting killed, where you must, for example, ride in the “right turn only” lane even if you’re going straight. The traffic in the other lanes is too heavy and too fast. At other times its liberating. I’ve never felt so arrogant as I did the week after Hurricane Sandy swerving into the middle of usually busy, now empty roads past long lines of cars waiting in gas lines. Hurricane Sandy had stopped America in its tracks. It hadn’t affected me at all. Most importantly of all, however, riding to and from my job transforms the job itself. It’s no longer a destination. Even though it’s demanding physically, it becomes a rest stop between rides.  I ride the day’s tension off in the evening. I come to work relaxed. That bridge in the woods, I get to see it every day.

There are of course difficulties. There are flats. Two weeks ago, I got two pinch flats in one day. I wound up destroying my spare tube, and walking 3 miles to a bike store in the humid, 98 degree weather. I’m not exactly sure why it’s so easy to fix a flat at home and so tough on the road, but I’m sure other cyclists will agree with me that it’s more than just the relative ease of using a floor pump compared to using a mini-pump. It’s an art, not a science. You need to be able to isolate yourself from the outside world to the point where you feel as if you’re sitting at home in your garage. Getting a flat coming home from work is frustrating. Getting a flat on the way to work might mean being late and getting fired. There’s traffic. Cars are bad enough. But I ride almost a mile through an industrial area of Woodbridge, where I not only have to dodge huge 18-wheelers, I have to dodge huge 18-wheelers driven by trainee drivers. There’s a “Get Your CDL” school not far from where I work. There are gigantic potholes. There’s dirt. There’s debris. There’s inclement weather.

Inclement weather has turned out almost to be a pleasant surprise. In the Spring, I bought a good set of rain gear. Every Friday this Summer, it seems, we get heavy rainfall. Last week it rained so hard it came through my rain jacket and soaked me to the bone. I brought an extra shirt and an extra pair of socks, but not an extra pair of shoes. I was miserable and wet all day. This week I was better prepared. I tied my rain jacket down properly. I brought spare shoes. It didn’t rain as hard. As I road home through the misty drizzle, I began to feel myself getting back in touch with my body after the long, hellish Spring of my mother’s death. The oppressive heat of the previous day had dissipated. The moisture on my cheeks reminded me of my early 20s when I used to hitch hike through northern British Columbia on my way to work in Southeast Alaska. I was young again. I was free again. Death no longer hovered over me like a dark cloud. It was rain, simply rain, nothing more.