Monday, October 27, 2014

Bicycle Commuting

My trip from home to work in Indianapolis is a full 1.25 miles and I have walked it daily -- sometimes twice a day -- for 6 1/2 years now.

The commute.
It's been a frustration because while I like the walk, I would really enjoy commuting by bicycle.  Goodness knows I have plenty of bicycles that would work well for the purpose.

The Gunnar.  The first and favorite.
The Neuvation.  Vanity project.
No longer built, but, well, it is still around.
In a box ready for the next trip.
Ready for triathlon season 2015.
New, fast, and fun.

One approach would be to add extraneous miles just to make the ride worth-while.  Another would be to consider the shift to cycling to be more general:  cycling to dinners out with friends, cycling to dr. appointments, even cycling to and from the airport.

Last week I took the plunge.

The setup

I'm riding the Neuvation, which has been sitting around, occasionally on the trainer but mostly leaning against the wall, since I built it.

Neuvation F100, finally in daily service.

I swapped the wheels for my old Ultegra 600 hoops, the pedals for eggbeater semi-platform (Candy Cs) pedals, and added a PBW taillight, a Serfas 500L headlamp, and a seat-stay pump for faster inflation.  The bike looks sweet in shiny black and it rides smooth -- although it is not the snappy performer that the new Focus is.

Over the years I've acquired a good collection of commuting gear.  I've become Showers Pass's dumping ground for clearance outerwear and in the cool fall weather I've been wearing a nice soft-shell with reflective accents on the fold-out tail flap.  When it gets cold I have pants to match. 

And I took the plunge on new shoes -- Giro has a great line of cycling shoes that look not unlike casual wear, including these "Republic Touring Shoes."
Sweet.  Almost hip.
Good for cafe use.  I picked up a cable lock -- good enough for temporary use while getting something to eat but nowhere near enough for overnight use.  Finally, a shoulder bag:  I'm almost ashamed to cop to this one, but it is visible, and I got it on clearance at Rapha.  So here's the collection.


A few rides

Coffee and wrap at Starbucks.
I started with a ride to and from work.  Not, I must say, particularly exciting.  But there's a caveat:  riding in a city is sort of like running on a trail or skiing in a terrain park.  It's an all-senses and all-body experience, what with reacting to real or perceived threats, navigating poor pavement, and spinning up from a start at every stoplight.  And because I was replacing a 25' walk, I could add a few miles, heading south to the edge of town, west across the river, and into work across the campus. I could also stop for coffee and an egg-white wrap.

Riding to Butler U.

My former colleague P__ invited me to a soccer game at Butler, where he now teaches.  I left the condo at 7 pm and rode north on small roads through town, enjoying a rare night-ride when I wasn't already 200+ miles into the day.  It turns out that while the major arteries through town are vaguely unpleasant, the smaller neighborhood roads are downright fun.  It would be annoying if you were trying to get somewhere -- nobody likes cross-streets on a brevet -- but for a 5 mile trip north the jaunt through town was a nice diversion.  Butler tied league rival Depaul, we went out for a beer, and I headed home around 11 pm, confident in the PBW taillight and increasingly so in the Serfas headlamp.

Riding to Carmel, IN.

The dean held a faculty social on Sunday.  He lives in Carmel, 12 miles north up the Monon Trail before heading west for a few miles.  With the cooler weather, I could even dress in khakis and a sweater without concern for unpleasant sweating.  Or at least not that anybody was gauche enough to point out.

One day I decided to explore the extension of the White River bike trail south from town to its end at Harding and Raymond streets.
White River Trail (from

 I had the trail to myself.  It wasn't all perfection; on one stretch you get a strong stench of malts from a nearby brewery.  On a short stretch you are aware that you are about to cross some waste-water effluence -- and a well-timed bunny hop is essential.  But the good outweighed the industrial.  Here was the view through the trees, east toward the river with the sun still low in the morning sky.

Not a good bike commuting route.
After getting in trouble with Eli Lilly security for riding through a Lilly employee park, I turned up Harding Street back toward town -- just a tad too early.  South of Highway 70, Harding Street looks like this:

Note in addition to the three lands of traffic the double-exit lanes and lack of a shoulder.  Remarkably, nobody honked, nobody tailgated, and nobody passed in ostentatious frustration.  A yellow bus of kids comprised the only aggression, and that was aggressive waving. 

After crossing Interstate 70, Harding turns to a quiet street through a run-down industrial hood.  There was something poetic about the scenery.

Cool old brick factory buildings.

Some restaurant.  Wouldn't eat here but in the abstract I'm glad it exists.
Finally, a turn back east toward the law school, crossing the White River on New York Street.  Photography into the sunrise with an iPhone 4 is terribly imperfect, but you get the idea.

The Rapha gentry might -- almost -- accept me.

One last:  back in DC I did a trip around Northwest over an hour or so on Saturday.  Here's the Gunnar at my favorite cupcake-and-espresso store Sweet Teensy.

And with today we're into week 3.  On the way into work I've made a semi-habit of following Washington Street across the White River, rounding the Zoo, and returning back east on New York to the law school; the rides on Washington and New York give me a few miles of high speed riding to get the day going.  On the way home I'm checking out Indianapolis neighborhoods that were too far to walk but too near to drive.  And I've discovered something intriguing.


Indianapolis -- bicycle mecca?
Portland's status as a bike mecca is legendary.  Cities around the country have talked the talk of doing what Portland has done.  To it's massive credit, Indianapolis -- this backwater of a car-crazy, mid-sized midwestern town -- is on its way.  We have bike lanes everywhere.  I've blogged about the silly Pacers bikeshare stands -- but they are getting used. 

Plans to have 35 microbrews?
The town has microbrews coming out its ears:  dozens of small shops selling small batch beer.  Patrons pull up on bikes, fill a few growlers, and pedal away.
There is a huge bike commuting scene.  The Monon Trail brings hundreds of commuters daily from the northern suburbs into downtown, where they park at the Indy Bike Hub, shower, and walk to work.  

Indoor parking, workout facility . . .
And though it's 10 years late, there is a substantial fixie culture of would-be Brooklynites riding up and down my street -- Mass Ave -- at night.

We may be a few years late to be at the leading edge, but I'm a big fan of the Portlandification of Indianapolis.  In contrast, DC is well ahead of that game but is not doing as well, suffering from poor road surfaces, a tad too much crowding, and too high of rents for the ironic crowd to live in town.


A few lessons and ruminations

Khakis or jeans with a gusseted crotch work just fine for riding as far as 30 miles or better.  Roll up the legs and go.  Jeans without a gusseted crotch get uncomfortable -- quickly.

Clip in shoes really are that much better.  I started with loafers or tennies on platform pedals.  Clipped in I rediscovered my track stand and the ability to beat a car off the line.  In short, with clip-ins you are riding, while with platforms you are just commuting.

500L really will light up a dark road.  Wow.  It just won't do so for very long.

I wonder if I look ridiculously old when riding around town -- because it does make me feel young.


The goal

There is none!  I realized one day while sprinting across the White River with the sun at my back and my lungs filled with cold air that I have always loved riding places.  Together with Sam and S__ I grew up riding to school, to work, to swim practice; Sam and I both pulled the lawnmower around the neighborhood for a short-lived business venture behind the red Schwinn World.  In college I rode to class, up, down, and around the obstacles on the Cornell campus, on a steel-framed hard-tail Novara mountain bike -- right up until it got stolen off of a college-town porch.  Even in DC after first building the IRO fixed gear I played faux bike courier, dodging cars and pedestrians through downtown on the way to work or to meet a friend for a beer.

Somehow I lost touch with the sport and when I came back to it, riding was about spending all the daylight hours, and some of those after dark, covering as large a section of the map as I could.  No dig on going long, of course, but when I found myself declining to sit astride a bike unless I could stay on for at least 25 miles I found it increasingly hard to ride at all.

Sam and I had a discussion over the summer about trying to ride daily for a month.  I even targeted August as the month to try.  I did not get even close.  By contrast, I've been riding 6 days/week for the past two weeks and not even feeling like it is hard work.  Total mileage may be on the low end, but I'm pleased at how easy it is to surmount the barrier to entry imposed by getting the bike off the rack and buckling a helmet.


Remaining projects

Google says 15 miles!
I'd like to ride to and from the airport for my weekly commute.  Why not?  I only travel with a shoulder bag anyway and I'd be saving at least $36 in parking every trip home.  It's about 15-20 miles each way and can be traversed on surface streets.  How to lock a bike there is a tad less clear.
I recommended to the Indianapolis airport that it install a safe bike-lock area in the garage and just today received this reply:

$10 says I'm the only person ever to suggest this, so I am not holding my breath.  Mind sending Paul Collier an e-mail to add to the encouragement?

I'd like to increase my sphere of comfortable commuter travel.  If the airport and the dean's house is possible, why not a ride 30 miles to Columbus, Indiana, to see the famous architecture; or 70 miles to Bloomington for a meeting or to catch a performance at the music school; 125 miles to Cincinnati to visit friends; or 180 miles to Chicago for the conference I attend each year in April?

I'd like to sort out the commute-to-nice-events problem.  Will a jacket, tie, and shoes in the satchel do the trick?  Any way to solve the problem of the goat-herd smell?

Grocery shopping?  The obvious answer is a rack and panniers, but that kills the pleasure of riding.  Micro-shopping with the shoulder satchel?

Riding in the dead of winter?  People do it, but usually on fatbikes or cross-bikes with studded tires.  Can I keep riding 25s on the Neuvation?  Taking corners would probably be a slower process.

And once I get these worked out I'd like to see how long I can go without needing the car.  Not planning to sell it any time soon, but think how cool not driving it would be.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Gypsy -- Bianchi Gitane Fixie

Some months ago I blogged that I had received the wheels for a new fixie, custom built by Ron Ruff at White Mountain Wheels.  Sometime after that I blogged that I had destroyed the head-tube on my old aluminum Cervelo when installing the headset.  Since then the fixie has been in a holding pattern while I located an appropriate frameset.

Sometime over the summer I stumbled across Bianchi's extraordinary line-up of steel frames, which include the San Jose and Gitane framesets.  Both of those framesets sport track "drop-outs", road bike geometry, cantilever brake bosses, flattened top-tubes for easy shouldering, and 130 mm rear-hub spacing.  As best as I can tell, the only difference is the paint job.  Both are available for $399 -- frame and fork -- but I could only locate the Gitane in the real world.  I ordered one in black from Bike Attack in Santa Monica, California.

Bianchi?  Is it an Oltre? An Infinito CV?
OMG, it looks . . . metal?

Aha.  Le Gitane.  The gypsy.
 Gitane is a french brand that produced some race cycles between 30 and 50 years ago.  According to Wikipedia, some top riders pedaled Gitane bikes.  Wikipedia also claims imports into the US beginning in the '50s.  Could not have been in much volume -- I've literally never seen the brand painted on a frame until I bought this frameset! 

Of course, mine is not a racing bike, but a Gitane-branded San Jose frameset.  It nonetheless promises to be a beautiful bike.  It is time to build this bike up. 

The tentative plan:
  1. Velo-Orange post and stem.
  2. White Mountain Wheels custom-built wheelset.
  3. Sundry parts from the bin.
Watch this space for Part II!

Crewing the 508

The view for much of the ride.
Crew:  a verb, derived from the noun "crew," conjugated as "I crew, you crew, he/she/it crews, we crew, you (pl.) crew, they crew."  Definition:  to support, feed, dress, entertain, wheedle, cajole, berate, cheer, and all-around serve an athlete who is digging deeper than anybody should ever dig.  [Not to be confused with "rowing," an action performed by a different kind of crew.  (Rowers never crew.  Rowers are a crew.)]

Sam and I flew to Reno to crew for frequent commenter Damon, who competed October 5 and 6 in the Silver State 508 ultra-cycling race.  About 40 solo riders left Reno from the Atlantis Casino at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, October 5 and followed a circuitous route through Reno to Geiger Grade, at which point they began in earnest to race -- not merely to ride -- 508 miles out-and-back to Eureka, Nevada.  Damon was no stranger to riding long, having in the previous 15 months completed 3x24-hour races and 2x1200K rides, as well as attendant shorter preparatory events.  (See for fuller details.)  But his 32:15 on Sunday and Monday, an average of 15.8 mph including all stops, is either a remarkable capstone or an entree to a whole new world of riding fast across mountain and desert, through hot and cold, and digging far deeper than mere ultraraces require.  Damon tells that story well here.

Sam and I were there to help.  As Ashley Hill reported in July, crewing a race like the 508 is not just advanced cheering.  Sam and I were functionally awake for 32:15 straight, in and out of the car approximately every 15 minutes during the light, driving directly behind Damon from 7:45 pm to 7:00 am at a distance of between 15' and 15 yards, mixing and handing off bottles, finding and serving food, performing minor bike maintenance, helping Damon to don and to shed clothes, and even raising our voices when needed to get Damon through the inevitable dark hours.  And things did get dark.

While crewing we had the chance to interact with other crews and cheered for riders across the front end of the field.  We saw one rider -- world-class Slovenian Marko Baloh -- only twice, once at the first stop and once as we neared the turn-around and he was on his trip home.  Nobody was realistically racing against Baloh, so the 508 involved a parade of North American athletes vying for second place.

Those US riders included Crow, Holstein, Rock Rabbit, Spotted Horse, Red-Necked Falcon, Great Basin Ichthyosaurus,  Irish Hare, and Wild Turkey; lest that sound like a late-night hallucination, Race Director Chris Kostman assigns "totems" to each athlete, an animal name the rider keeps for life after finishing the event.  Damon was "Thundercat." 

We hung with that pack for some time, exchanging pleasantries with the other crews, cheering the other riders, and working our way slowly from West to East across Nevada on US Highway 50.  That stretch of road is nick-named "the loneliest highway in the world," which somewhat overstates the remoteness but is nonetheless appropriately evocative.  (Having now driven Highway 50 through Nevada twice, I can say with some confidence the Richardson Highway north of Gakona, Alaska, is emptier.)  On Highway 50 and part of the time on Highway 722, we crossed desert mountains, salt flats, and sage-brush deserts.  One thing we never crossed after reaching about 30 miles from the start is any form of water.

It was never extremely hot -- Damon's Garmin reported 90 degrees at the peak and the car reported a peak of around 85 -- but with the altitude (between 4000 and 7500 feet), an  utter lack of cloud cover or trees, and dry air, we baked, and the riders much more so. 

We were charged with keeping Damon hydrated and satiated, no trivial task when everything seemed to upset his stomach.  At one point bloating led to a roadside purge.  We took to hiding caloric and salt powders in flavored drinks -- Carbo Pro or Skratch Mix with Coke, V8, or coffee.  Food was harder.  We crushed chips to get him simple carbohydrates, fat, and salt.  We handed off nuts.  Where possible, which was not frequently the case, we provided hot food -- convenience store microwave burgers and McDonald's breakfast food. 

One lesson about the Silver State 508:  there is one place meaningfully to refuel, in Fallon, Nevada, which riders encounter at mile 75 and again at 435.  In between, and in particular at night, the pickings are slim to none.  Crews should definitely pack a small assortment of solid foods -- perhaps bagels, cooked pasta, and boiled potatoes -- and hot drinks in thermoses.

Desert sky at moon-set.
I love the American desert.  I particularly love the desert at night.  When the sun went down the sky was phenomenal.  After a marvelous sunset we had a near-full moon and brilliant stars that became all the more remarkable around 4:30 am when the moon set.  When there was some light we could see specters of mountains around us. 

But much of the night we could not enjoy it, worried more about running the rider over than seeing any scenery.  Descending hills at night when providing direct-follow support is particularly fearsome.  The art is trying to maintain the closeness while moving as fast as 45 mph and keeping your light beams in positions to do the rider the most good.  You are painfully aware that a sudden fall will put the rider under your wheels.  It is amusing in retrospect that Sam, who is experienced in the crewing arts, was instructing me in the art of direct-follow support on mountain descents even while I was doing it, weaving back and forth across the road to keep the high beams in front of Damon as he rode.

And desert nights, in particular at altitude, get cold.  Damon rode for scores of miles with temperatures in the 30s; the lowest we saw was 34 degrees. (Again, Damon reports his Garmin went more extreme yet, hitting a low of 28.)  Despite shoe covers, leg warmers, mittens, and double jackets -- for nearly 50 miles he wore my synthetic down parka -- nothing could make our rider warm.  After nearly 24 hours in the saddle, one's body has no fuel left to burn to keep the core warm.  It is a dangerous time, with fears of hypothermia and exhaustion-induced crashes.  As crew we balanced the desire to keep him moving with the fear for his safety.  The right approach was never clear.

The view ahead.  "Just a few hundred yards up!  (Or maybe a few miles.)"
 And during those dark times the field began to move back into us.  With the straight roads and clear air we could see headlights for miles into the distance behind us and tail-lights streaming ahead in front of us.  Our rider was in no position to do anything to react. We cheered other riders as they rode by.  Somewhere during the night Red-Necked Falcon passed us, as did Gibbon, a rider from Oregon who had not previously been in the mix at the front end.  Spotted Horse and Wild Turkey passed, followed by the immensely strong mixed tandem Mute Swan.  The phenomenon was amplified because the relay teams, which started one hour behind, began to catch us.

After a short nap -- Sam enforced the allotted 15' to the second -- Damon began to ride stronger.  We crested the penultimate climb to the route's highest elevation at maybe 5 am and began the miles-long descent to the flatlands leading into Fallon.  The light returned and with it some warmth; by Fallon our rider was stripped back to his skin-suit.  And in the light and on the flats, we moved back into the mix with a couple of the relay teams and with Wild Turkey; we learned in Fallon that Spotted Horse and Red-Necked Falcon were not far ahead.

Deluxe Big Breakfast from McDonalds, advertised at 1400 calories.
We loaded up a feed bag at McDonalds in Fallon, one of those "one of everything, please" orders, and Damon put down eggs, hashbrowns, and pancakes before returning to highway 50. At this point we nearly came to an argument.  27+ hours and 440 miles into a ride, nobody has the same fire in the belly that was there at the start.  I found myself dictating to our rider not to answer his telephone, to get back on the bike, and to make an effort to pass at least two of the competitors that were up ahead. 

Whether it was the hot food, the new day, innate competitiveness, or my exhortation, from Fallon home Damon unleashed some of the fire from the previous day.  He rolled straight through the next time station and closed quickly enough on the riders ahead that we found ourselves playing games, hiding the car from the competitors' crews and never rolling too far ahead where we might be spotted.  Damon finished with the ride's fourth-fastest time for the brutally difficult final segment.

Final grade on Nevada 341 from Virginia City to Geiger Summit
On that segment he caught the relay team and passed riders 6 and 7 on the hellish climb up Six-Mile Canyon before descending Geiger Grade to Reno for a spin through town.  At Geiger Summit our work as crew was functionally done.  We tried to stay nearby in case of emergency, but through town Damon was basically on his own.  He rolled into the finish in 32:15, 6th place overall in the solo division, and the first rider to finish who had not competed in the 508 before.