Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Pains, Trains, & Bicycles

Whenever I travel by bike over the hill to San Jose, I am reminded of something author James Howard Kunstler once observed about the United States having a railroad system Bulgaria would be ashamed of.

Now, though I can't speak for Bulgaria, I've lived in California my whole life (so far) and can testify that our railroad systems indeed sucks, badly. The fact that most folks aren't aware of this and more than likely don't really care, is yet another testament to how seriously Americans are taking Global Warming and Peak Oil, even on the "eco-groovy" West Coast.

My plans for a day trip up to Berkeley illustrate this point:

Lacking a car, I have two options: From San Jose's Diridon station, take Cal Train up to SF, ride a mile to the nearest BART station (why these two locations aren't connected is a mystery), and BART it to Berkeley...


Take Amtrak directly to the East Bay for $14.00

(This is after I've already spent approximately 15 minutes riding to the local bus station, loading my bike on the Greyhound, and spending another hour going over the hill).

Here's the catch - While Amtrak is a more direct route, albeit a few bucks more expensive than a Cal Train ticket, the Amtrak trains are ill equipped for passengers with bicycles. Unlike Cal Trains, which at least have the occasional "bike" car where you can carry it on, latch it down, and find a seat nearby, Amtrak treats bicycles as cargo, and therefore they must be dismantled and put in a "bike" box.

If you've never seen a "bike" box, you're in for a treat.

For about $10-15, plus an additional $5 "convenience" fee for freight, Amtrak will sell you a large cardboard box and instruct you to remove the front wheel of your bike, turn your handle bars sideways, unscrew/remove the pedals, spread your cheeks and give em' two good coughs. Wrench and pillow for muffling your screams of frustration are not included.

Obviously, the folks who came up with this have never tried to take off bicycle pedals inside a train station with a small wrench. Obviously, making it easier for people without cars to travel is not a high priority for lets face it, a method of transportation that is woefully under funded by the federal government.

This is all to say riding Amtrak from San Jose to Berkeley is out of the question. This leaves riding from San Jose to San Francisco via Cal Trains - Not the worst option but as stated earlier, this would be the 2nd of 3 separate bus/train rides in less than 6.5 hours just to travel approximately 80 miles. In the same amount of time, I can drive to Los Angeles and meet my parents for lunch at our favorite taqueria.

Then it hits me. This entire process of weighing all the variables...the pros and cons - the time to read a book on a train vs. the time to read billboards while sitting in traffic on the 880; waking up at 7:30am on a Saturday to ride a bike to catch a bus vs. leaving the bike at home and waking up at 7:00am on a Saturday to catch an earlier bus to catch an Amtrak train vs. the stress of trusting the trains and buses to actually arrive within 10 minutes of their stated schedules, this whole line of reasoning is fucking ridiculous.

Why? Because creating an itinerary for a simple day trip up to Berkeley shouldn't be this complicated. At least not in a region full of well-to-do tech-savvy people who believe they can solve any problem with technology.

If I do make it up to Berkeley this weekend, I'm staying the night. At this point, I'm considering leaving the bike home and just walking.

Riding In the Rain - Worst Case Scenario

If you take out the screaming cars, riding your bike in the rain really isn't all that bad.

At least, this is what I tell myself during the half hour commute home yesterday. The suiting up of rain pants, jacket, rain slicker, old shoes, gloves, face mask, the plastic bags - I can handle it. The brown crud sputtering the few parts of my body not covered by synthetic fibers - no problemo. The puddles that gush over my feet, infecting me with the dreaded wet sock syndrome (WSS), the pot holes you can't see, the weight of the backpack under my rain jacket clinging to me like a desperate baby koala, it ain't no thang.

But not being 100% sure I put this prized 20 year old Benotto hand-me-down back together properly, that's where I draw the line and start to worry.

I won't bore you with the details on how I came to acquire this sweet vintage racing bike, suffice to say, I only rode it for 6 months before realizing it wasn't a safe ride. The stem (piece that holds the handle bars in place) was too low, making the brakes hard to reach, and with a fast bike like this, brakes are very important. Upon attempting to raise it to a proper height, I broke the rusted quill, which led me to discover the headset itself was also rusted together.

But that was 6 months ago - This past month, I'd finally completed the project as best I could: New paint job, new brake and shifting cables, new housing (tubes that hold the brake cables), new tires, the headset pried loose by a bike mechanic w/ torch - More re-constructive surgery than pimp-my-ride.

Despite these efforts, the Benotto's 2008 maiden voyage didn't go as planned. Two days back on the road and I noticed the cranks (levers that the pedals attach to) were wobbling. Upon taking it in to the Bike Church, I was informed that the non-drive-side ball bearings had most likely gotten loose and that maybe I should go with a closed bottom bracket system (or whatever it's called).

I take their word for it and install one of these doo-hickeys on Monday, escaping with only a flesh wound on my knuckles from removing the cranks. On Tuesday, I ride the Benotto to work for the first time in almost a year. In the afternoon, it starts to rain.

As I ride home, I keep looking down at the bike. Did I inflate the tires properly? Is the closed bottom bracket in tight enough? What if water gets inside it? Damnit, I just cleaned all the scum and crud off this thing!

Cars roar past. It occurs to me that they can see even less of me than they do when it's not raining. I slow down a bit, the bike lane being an 85% safe bet, as it is wedged between parked cars on my right and a long row of cars waiting for the light to turn green on my left. The rain gear doesn't seem to be keeping my crotch from getting wet and since fenders are out of the question for this kind of bike, I'm not positive the bottom of my backback (with its assortment of paperback books) is staying dry either.

As I rush up an incline, to my horror, I notice the handle bars are no longer in line with the front wheel. In fact, they are bending away. The quill is coming loose! My life does not flash before my eyes, though visions of a compound shoulder fracture and broken wrists do. I immediately pull over and examine the bike.

I grasp the handle bars and move them back in line with wheel. Yep, this thing still needs some work. Yep, that was a close one. I begin to walk the bike home. The rain continues to fall without mercy. I must get some fenders.