Friday, February 22, 2008

Fixing Sh*t up

As far as maintenance went, February was turning out to be a shitty month.

All three of the operational bikes I owned had given me problems, some of which weren’t even my fault. True, any regular rider will tell you a certain level of upkeep is necessary for every bike – it just comes with the territory. Still, for all three bikes to require immediate attention practically at the same time…I began to wonder if someone had put water on the Mogwai living in the garage and then fed the clones after 10pm…

Nah, it had to be the weather.

It was in the rain that the Benotto (recently restored) had decided to tell me its' stem was faulty; and it was just beginning to sprinkle when the rusty lavender Schwinn Townie (my “C” bike) dropped a brake pad in the middle of the street leaving me with only my front brakes and feet to stop; and as for the Trek, though not in the rain, it found just the right moment to get a flat one mile from a bus stop I was supposed to catch in ten minutes.

I could also always blame the fact that the motley assortment of bikes I owned had one thing in common – they were all hand-me-downs, all of which, were at least 10 years old.

Nah, I have to be honest here. At least half the problems came back to me.

For instance, I could have predicted that the patched up tube on the Trek was going to go flat again. After all, I’d seen the pinch of tube wedged in between the tire and wheel while re-inflating it, and had done my best to push it back in. This is a common mistake folks make when replacing a tube – If even a small bit of it gets caught between the metal rim and the tire, the pressure when inflated will more than likely cause a flat.

In my case though, the patch was right by the valve, and the valve is the least malleable section of a tube. Instead of pulling the tire off and starting over, which can be a royal pain in the arse, I decided to inflate it fully and see if it lost air over night; if it didn’t, I figured it would be safe to ride. I was wrong.

Replacing the Benotto’s stem was a whole other matter that could be surmised as finding the stem with just the right amount of length and angle, tearing off the handle bar tape, loosening the brake handles, finding out the stem you picked didn’t fit the handle bars already on the bike, dropping screws and bolts here and there, getting another set of handle bars and trying to fit them over the new stem, then realizing the stem you picked wasn’t good for your wrists, dropping more screws and not being sure if you picked up the right ones off the ground, then starting the whole process over while trying not to cry.

With two bikes temporarily down, I was left with the Townie – The bike I felt the least safe riding long distances on.

Why I’d picked this one up off Freecycle in the first place was for precisely the instances already described. If you don’t own a car, and get around mainly via bike, then it never hurts to have more than one. But the Townie was mainly for leisure riding, cruising through the neighborhood, trips to the video store, coffee shops - 2 miles round trip max. The only advantage of taking it through the rain 4.5 miles to work was it had fenders – everything else was suspect. It squeaks, it’s heavy, the gears can barely handle hills. And now, as I’ve learned, its brakes don’t handle much stress either. Luckily, when the brake pad fell off, it was AFTER I’d cruised down a hill and was back on level ground.

How I managed to get home with a bag of groceries on my back in the rain minus a brake pad in the dark down multiple hills is another story. Right now, I need to go change a flat…and kill a few gremlins.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Accidents Will Happen

"But only hit n' run..." - Elvis Costello

"If you ride a bike a lot, you're eventually going to get into one." - Me

My first memory of crashing a bike, appropriately enough, involves me learning how to ride. Though the details are fuzzy, I believe it involved an abandoned parking lot, a black n' gold BMX knock off, my dad, and the removal of training wheels. I'm guessing I was 7 or 8. I remember my dad pushing the seat, me being scared, and the crude pavement full of broken glass and bits of gravel.

My teen years don't have much to report on this matter as I rarely got on a bike. This might have had something to do with the fact that my small East Los Angeles neighborhood was flanked on all sides by steep foothills, large 40-50 mph streets with no bike lanes, trash strewn sidewalks, and general urban nastiness. There was, and is, basically nowhere you could ride or walk to (save the corner liquor stores) without taking considerable risk.

Flash forward to my '20s and things get more interesting. There was that time around Halloween where after consuming mucho cervezas, I joined a group ride, only to be shown the pavement by a rail road track. Did I mention I was wearing a sombrero and poncho at the time? The next day I had a few minor bruises though at the time of the fall, I didn't feel a thing.

Then there's last year's Benotto incident. It was a lovely morning ride over a wooden bridge adjacent to railroad tracks. The air was crisp and the space between two well worn planks towards the end of the bridge just the perfect size for my front wheel to get wedged into. I had gone on the bridge fully aware of this minor obstacle, confident that while my road wheels weren't fat like a cruiser or mountain bike, I'd be able avoid it. Big mistake.

The notch only caught the wheel for a second but that was enough. I lost control of the handle bars and landed on my side gasping for air. I remember being thankful that I hadn't been riding faster as the velocity might have flung me over the railing and into the water 30 feet below. Needless to say, after a few minutes of chilling on the ground, I got back up, called my supe to tell her I'd be a little late, and kept riding. Flesh wound score 3; scarred pride 8.

(There's also a time about 2 years ago while riding "bro" style with a friend in the woods where I received a big welt and a mouth full of dirt while attempting to jump over a log. I wouldn't call that one accidental though, I'd call it stupidity).

But where would this list be without including any encounters with cars? I'm happy to say, I've only hit/been hit twice. Neither story is very interesting but for the record: The first time was due to me merging into the left lane and bonking the rear bumper of a compact that had slowed down while I was looking back. The driver stopped to ask if I was okay, which I was, I asked her the same, and she said yes.

The second time I was slowly walking/riding on the sidewalk (yes, I know we're not suppose to do this) when a car slowly peaked out of a driveway. I thought the driver saw me, she didn't. Luckily, we were both going super slow and she immediately stopped once she realized she was pushing me into the street. She was apologetic as was I, most importantly, the bike wasn't damaged.

There are of course, much more extreme interactions I've bared witness to - The time a redneck in a monster truck gunned the engines over a friend's mountain bike during a Critical Mass; the kid who, during my freshmen year, had to have surgery on his face after an especially bad accident going downhill. Still, if you ask the average bicyclist to recount his/her crash stories, you're more than likely going to get a list of wistful and amusing tales - The question is though, can the same thing be said about cars?

Monday, February 4, 2008

Berkeley Trip Post Script Part II

As leery as I am of the term "social scientist", I'd like to consider this weekend's semi-car-free trip to Berkeley an experiment, in a Fisher Price Ages 3-8 kind of way.

This is because when it comes to traveling without a car in America, the variables one must consider are endless. There are buses, there are trains, there are bicycles that can be placed on both. There's the issue of luggage, schedules, transfers, ticket prices, meals, weather, and bringing some form of boredom repellent.

For me, the last issue is always the easiest to decide as books, pen, and paper are more suitable than Ipods and portable DVD players for the same reasons bicycles and buses are more favorable than cars.

Fittingly, the biggest dilemma of this trip revolved around whether to bring a bicycle at all. If I did, I'd have a handy way of zipping around Berkeley or San Francisco, thereby fulfilling my exercise quota that my body tends to crave if I go too long sitting in one place; I'd also have a bulky piece of metal that would more than likely have to be fitted into a car's trunk or locked up on the street. Lacking a magic 8-Ball to assist me in this momentous decision, I opted for traveling lightly as possible and hoofed it out the front door, down the block, to the street, past a few intersections, to the bus stop.

Arriving at the bus stop 10 minutes early I had just the right amount of time to enjoy the frosty morning and fret over whether I'd made the wisest decision. If the bus ran on time, I'd have a good 20 minute window in downtown to buy some breakfast and get in line for the Greyhound. If the bus was more than 10 minutes late, I'd still have the option of walking back home, jumping on the bike and riding 15 minutes downtown, giving me approximately 5 minutes to buy breakfast and get on the Greyhound.

It occurs to me that my excessive worrying is a combination of my neurotic upbringing and middle class American cultural baggage. The myth that the automobile allows the individual more choice, control, and therefore more freedom on how one gets to a destination is so deeply ingrained in our psyche it can manifest itself even in the dissimilar bicycle. No car/bicycle means no mobility means being stranded. Or to put it another way, the phobia most Americans have of being more than 100 feet away from their individually owned mode of transportation says as much about our concept of private property as it does about our attitudes towards public transportation.

I check the time, the bus should be here by now. Don't worry, you worry too much. With wool gloves on I continue reading my paperback. Damn it's cold. A few minutes go by. Is that it over the horizon? No, it's a planter, I think. Oh no, I have to go to the bathroom. Okay, don't panic, you can still walk home, use the loo, get on your bike and ride downtown. But, then you'd have to either leave the bike downtown over the weekend, or take it on the bus, then train, then friend's carrito...If I wait till' the bus gets here, I'll have to quickly find a place downtown, what's open at this time in the morning?

I check the time again - It's been almost ten minutes. I start to walk back home. As I reach the intersection, I see the bus coming over the horizon. I rush back to the stop. In a few minutes I am downtown, I find a decent restaurant, I catch the Greyhound on time. I catch the Amtrak on time. I arrive in Berkeley a little after 11am, it is raining, I am smiling. Punctual.

Berkeley Trip Post Script Part I

Only a few hours after I put up a post lamenting Amtrak's lack of bicycle accessibility, a fellow bicyclist calmly explains that Amtrak has a special program called "Capitol Corridor" for folks traveling in/around the Bay Area and through Sacramento. These cars are comfortable, clean, and yes, have easy to use bicycle racks. Even more amazingly, they run on time. Let this be a reminder to take everything we read on the internet with a grain of salt, especially this blog.