Thursday, August 23, 2012

How about no helmet?

I just got back from a trip down South which gave me an opportunity to observe biking culture in that part of the country. Despite the horrendous heat in places like Texas I saw a few bikers out there, some hitting it hard, others just out for a ride, and one or two using the bike for transportation. I was a bike jealous seeing people out since I did not bring a bike along. I particularly enjoyed seeing this guy who was riding on a steamy day in Louisiana.

I liked the combination of safety green shirt and bright orange hat but no helmet. Not sure that a helmet would help much at 60 MPH but I usually opt for the brain bucket. By the way, that is sugar cane growing in the background so you can tell I didn't fake this picture here in MN.

A friend recommended this curious video about a helmet-less bike helmet. You can see a video here. They claim this is just as safe as a helmet and the concept is pretty innovative, even it if looks wacky in operation.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Bike touring, RAGBRAI style

I just returned from riding the last two days of RAGBRAI in Iowa. For those of you not familiar, this is the grandaddy of long distance but casual bike rides. In fact, this year was the 40th anniversary of the event and with almost 15,000 riders it has been an amazing success. The route varies year to year but the idea is it goes from the Missouri to the Mississippi, border to border. It takes a week and always occurs in the hottest part of the summer. I got lucky this year since earlier in the week, when I was not riding, temperatures reached into the 100s with high humidity. Imagine thousands of bikers camping in city parks and the like after riding 70 miles in 104 degrees. Not a pretty picture (or odor).

This year I invited our friend Leo from Chile to come along. Leo had been visiting for a wedding and was staying with us for several days. He is usually game to try anything once so I got the winter bike set up for him and we spent some time in Iowa. My wife came up with the great idea to put this little sign on the back of the bike that said Chile.

Since it is a RAGBRAI custom for the locals to shout out and ask where you are from, this fit in perfectly. Leo met more people in 2 days than many meet in years on the ride. 

The first day was a challenge since I brought 'the train' for the kids. Since I like to involve the kids in biking when I can I end up pulling a 5-wheel monster that consists of my bike, a third wheel trailing bike, and a Burley bike trailer.

The six year old's pedaling does help a bit but the Burley more than makes up for it by acting as a parachute. At one point we turned north into a gusty NW wind and I was struggling. It is a bad sign when you are wondering at what speed you will need to put a foot down so you don't tip over! So, I was ready for a break by the next town and as we rolled in, we passed a 'Santa' who had apparently been enjoying some early holiday cheer. We waved and said hi but it took him a few seconds to remember how Santa is supposed to act. He eventually asked if my kids had been good and did manage to avoid tipping out of his lawn chair. Not sure if this was a suit he won in a bet or if he really does this around the holidays.  I was just relieved to not have to explain what was wrong with Santa.

This was kind of a typical RAGBRAI moment. You roast in the heat, roll through some glorious countryside, eat great pie and drink some cheap beer. There are ups and downs but there is often something just around the corner that will amuse, entertain, and, occasionally, enlighten.

Monday, July 16, 2012

One way to beat the heat

I can always tell when I am getting close to home on the evening commute since I start seeing the piles of free stuff people set out. You could call this a type of recycling or just pure laziness on the part of St Paulites who just can't bother to set up a garage sale (or have never heard of Craigslist). Anyway, sometimes you can find some pretty good stuff. I once got a full size ping pong table, including rackets, in one of these alley finds.

It has been hot here lately and I stopped by one house with a sizable pile of treasures and found this small clip-on desk fan. My initial purpose for grabbing this was to set it up at my desk at work both for cooling me down and helping air out the bike gear. Of course once I discovered this clip fit on the handle bars I got a kick out of mounting it on the front of the bike.

The obvious benefit is I always have a breeze to keep me cool even at those intersections with long red lights...

Just to set some context, you can see the temp on the bike computer at the far left of the display. It is tiny but this is one of the only times I recall seeing the readout go to three digits at 102. We will have a winter day when we drop to -20 which makes for a pretty impressive range. But for now, I am finding ways to manage in the heat.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

That's what I call utility biking!

I was recently invited to a bachelor party for a friend who has a wedding coming up this July. Just to set some context, this is a party at my friend's house, it is on a Monday night, and the bride's father is invited. I don't think there will be a knitting contest but clearly this is not at the same level as a trip to Vegas.

Since this friend lives about 2 miles from downtown Minneapolis, where I work, I decided to bike to the party after work. The event is a BYOBBQ so I had to pack some food to grill and beverages. Fortunately, I have an old commuting pannier that did the trick.

I have the food supplies ready to go. This is 1 1/2 pounds of jalapeno peppers, 1 pound of beer brats, buns for said brats, and 3 cans of Great River beer.

What made this arrangement work was the soft-sided cooler that I could stuff into the pannier. I added a few ice packs for the trip to work, zipped it up, and stuffed it into the pannier. I didn't try to cool the beer instead waiting until I could put it in the fridge.

This is my version of a bike mullet: business on the left (work clothes), party on the right. It was a nice change to ride with a balanced load. I don't notice the imbalance riding with one pannier until I change the load and the second bag almost always makes it easier to ride.

The party was good: we gave the groom a good sendoff and there were no arrests or injuries. It was also another chance to prove that a bike is a great vehicle for everyday life and even special events.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Hot storms in the summer time

It has been cooking in Minnesota lately, and I don't mean on the grill. The temperatures have been warm and the air really humid. I need to set some context before I state the actual temperature, however. Minnesotans are known to put on shorts when the temps hit 50F (not pretty, by the way) and start to complain at around 85. We are just not used to hot weather. Still, we have been pushing the upper 90s and may even go over 100 tomorrow. This means the morning bike commute will leave your author a sweaty mess by the time he gets to work.

This morning, there was some additional interest on the bike trail: tree damage from a strong cell of thunderstorms that moved through this morning.

Most of the damage was to small branches. There were a couple of large branches torn down and one or two whole trees. The storm wasn't exceptionally strong so I assume these had weak spots in the wood.

This one was laying across the bike trail on the West River Parkway along the Mississippi. I had a brief bit of panic when I realized the trail was completely covered and I didn't have both hands on the handlebars while I tucked the camera in my back pocket. Some would suggest stopping but there isn't much sport in that. I did manage to get around the tree and just chalked this up to the hazards of working on the blog while out on the road. Oh, and of being impatient.

By the way, the city of Duluth, to the north of us, has had some huge flooding this past week. Doug, at MN Bike Commuter, has pictures of some pretty wicked road washouts from the flood. If you like the topic of winter bike riding, I recommend Doug's blog. He tries it all and posts some great pictures. But for now, it's summer.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Tunnel mystery solved

A few weeks ago I wrote about some mysterious tunnels that were being dug into the cliffs along the Mississippi. I have been watching the crew creating these with some fascination. The machinery, the ventilation systems, the precautions for rock collapse are all neat stuff. Doesn't this seem like an ideal construction site to explore after hours when the crew is gone? How cool to see the ancient limestone, hear the water dripping, and get a little claustrophobic? And of course, what an idea that your author would never, ever endorse.

Of course that doesn't mean a few pictures wouldn't help illustrate. Here is the entrance to one of the two tunnels showing the vent pipes that run down the sides of the tunnel. Each one is terminated with a round fan I suppose to bring in fresh air for the workers and remove exhaust from the machinery.

 Farther in the ground was really mushy and the air smelled of rusty water.The tire tracks are from a bobcat-size machine which gives a good sense for the tunnel dimension. This isn't a claustrophobic space although it gets dark pretty fast.

I learned later that part of the smell was coming from the sewer pipes the crew was repairing. The pipes were over 100 feet into the cliff and the only safe way to access was to bore a hole through the cliff wall. How do I know this? Meet Todd.

I was able to catch Todd while he was unloading his truck and he took a minute to explain the project. Apparently there are ways to access the tunnel from on top of the cliff but given the volume of sewage in the pipes it was not considered safe to send a technician. As Todd explained, if something happened and he got swept down the pipe with the sewage...uh, yeah, you can imagine.

I suppose it would have been even more true to the bike commuter spirit to have actually ridden in the tunnels. I did learn that bike gear, like clip shoes, is not well adapted to the tunnel rat environment. I got to work and the shoes needed some serious TLC. Not sure how the chain would've fared - maybe some day, I'll find out!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Back at it

Today, I was back in the saddle. A lot has happened recently but what prevented me from riding was trillions of foreign organisms invading my body. Even your intrepid bike commuting author can be distracted by this type of thing and has to take some time off. I wasn't hugely sick but it was enough to put me on the bus for a couple of days this week.

The day turned out to be a gorgeous Minnesota summer day: bright, 60s in the morning, 70s in the evening, tons of people out. It is a great time to see how nice summer can be and how desperate we all are to get out of our houses until the next blizzard.