Archive for October, 2009

Map of things past

I took my “winter” route to commute home last night as I described in my last post – a maze of exhilarating singletrack trails between Chapel Hill and Carrboro. And I came across a sign at the trailhead that I hadn’t seen before. It was more than a sign, it was a huge sign case with sliding glass doors and a board to hang notices, just like an official park entrance.

One of the notices was typically laughable, cajoling dog-walkers to pick up dog litter from the woods, since it will run into the creek that runs into Jordan lake that becomes our water supply ta da ta da. I’m all in favor of removing poop from the path so no one steps in it – that’s just gross. But come on, is dog doo doo worse than any other animal’s that lives in the woods – deer, beaver, coyote? Or, worse than all of the cows and horses and goats and sheep and pigs that live up and down stream? I live on the Haw river much farther upstream, the same river that feeds into Jordan, and know for a fact that that river is picking up far worse shit as it courses through the farms and small industry of Alamance County than any dog poop in Chapel Hill. This notice is more part of the brow-beating that dog owners face in safety-hyper Chapel Hill than anything. Chapel Hill is much like a parent that conditions it’s children to cry when they scrape a knee. More on that later.

While this notice was expected, what I didn’t think I’d ever see was this map:
Here we have a cartographic rendering of years of day-dreaming and route-scheming, for me and probably for hundreds of other trail riders and runners. What’s news to me is that this map at the trailhead actually signals a real park entrance, because for all the years I had been tracing these routes in my head, this was just a rambling collection of trails that were either tacitly accepted by the towns and land owners, or else completely clandestine.

After six years of riding these trails and hiking on them with my dog, I left Chapel Hill for Chicago in 2006. I initially had no clue these trails were here. In a few places there were fire road entrances that didn’t alert one to singletrack, and in other places there were faint goat-trails leading onto the singletrack built by and for mountain bikers. Not one to join groups or hang out for longer than necessary at the local bike shops, I stumbled upon these trails on my own through months and years of exploration. I knew someone was doing incredible work for the community, and the community was certainly taking advantage of the resource, but the trails were basically unofficial. I learned these trails by taking new turns, getting lost and finding my way again, and after a while I could concoct any number of loops and passages linking as much as I could fit in a ride. While stewing at my desk in my office job, or while lying in bed I would try to trace the maze of trails in my head and plan my next ride. It was a shock to see these mental figments finally rendered as an official map.

My dog was raised off leash on these trails, and my mountain bike skills were honed to these trails, characterized by tight turns, narrow passages through trees, roots, rock gardens, sudden short climbs and drops. These NC woods are also characterized by constant decay, more so than other forests because of it’s hard clay soil and weak trees that do not have to strengthen under snow and ice: downed logs are a common obstacle to have to ride over. Returning to these trails after three years away, it’s gratifying how much remains emblazoned in my memory – my mind still remembers which turns to make, my body knows how to shift position, I even recognize the same downed logs I have to jump.

I recently found out that the extensive network of biking trails probably began in the late seventies by Chapel Hill high school students building stunts in the woods up off the sewer-line trail that runs along Bolin Creek. These have morphed into a dozen miles of tight singletrack over 30 years. I could tell a lot was being added before I moved to Chicago. Not much has been added in the 3 years that I was away, but the signs at the trailheads signal the biggest change- these trails now have official acceptance by the Towns, UNC, and private landowners.

Continuously used by bikers, hikers, trail runners, dog walkers, nature viewers, the traffic has only increased in recent years. In my opinion this is great, because the popular use of the area is what may have ultimately convinced the Towns and UNC to limit encroaching development on this valuable land and leave it as a recreational resource for the entire community. On my ride after work yesterday, I definitely passed more trail users than in years past, including a whole elementary school grade’s worth of kids on some running/hiking excursion – turn ’em loose and watch them have a great time.

When I left for Chicago, UNC had just released plans to turn most of this land into a new Carolina North Campus, rather than Carolina North Trails. I come back and find that somehow they were swayed to leave it alone. Maybe it has something to do with the community clamoring for natural space. Or perhaps the cost to clean up an old toxic chemical dumping ground was prohibitive to further development, so they’ve agreed to let it sit for another few years or decades before developing. Whatever happened, I’m for it.

What is a little silly is how UNC portrays its involvement in the development of the space as recreation, as read on the Carolina North web page via the UNC Grounds Department. Yes, it’s true that the community has been utilizing the natural space for 30 years, while it seems that Carolina and its Grounds department have only been an active supporter for a couple years now. It’s not really a complaint, as much as to say let’s give credit where it’s due.

The only thing that has seemed to change for the worse is the attitude toward dog owners. Before I even left for Chicago, the writing was on the wall, or at least on signs posted along the main trail of Bolin Creek, and now appear at all trail heads.

To me “Leash your dog,” just means “No dogs.” What kind of a life is it for dogs if there’s no wild place they can go and just be dogs? Times had already changed before I moved to Chicago, and after all those years of letting my dog enjoy life down on those trails, I already knew it wouldn’t be the same when I returned. Even when I first started exploring the trails, they were well used, and conflicts between trail users over dogs happened. But at some point, adjacent property owners started a movement to crack down on unleashed dogs by convincing the mayor it’s a problem, getting the town to post these ordinances, calling the cops, and just generally intimidating anyone that didn’t buy into their propaganda of fear. I’ve never believed that this was motivated by actual problems like people being bitten by out-of-control dogs. It’s an attempt (a successful one) to extend control of their back yards into the public space across the creek from their yuppie two-car garages.

Now that I live out in the real wilds of Alamance County, these Leashists don’t bother me as much. While I do fear for my life while walking along the roadside in Saxapahaw, my dog is free to be a dog. He’s also old enough now that he’d rather not try to keep up during a 10-mile trail ride, and I can enjoy riding without worrying about what he might have found to roll in – probably some other animal’s shit that it didn’t bother to pick up.


A bike for every occasion

It’s been a little while since a blog post, mainly because the bicycle riding, especially the tandem riding, has been a bit sparse lately. The concurrence of rainy weather, illness, odd work hours, and packed weekends has had an adverse affect on the long bike commute and on weekend rides through the countryside. But we’re healthy again, the schedule is clearing up, and we have a century ride booked for this weekend, so it’s time to get back on the bicycle (and back on the blogocycle).

The century ride is Durham’s Habitat for Humanity Halloween benefit ride. One thing that makes this ride special, other than raising money to raise a roof, is that my fiancee/stoker and I did this together last year, and it was then that we realized that we needed to ride together for the rest of our lives. Last year: single bikes, this year: tandem, next year: wedding rings + tandem.

Speaking of weddings, what kept us off the bike and driving in cars all this past weekend was two separate weddings. Weddings give you a chance to have reunions with friends and families, meet new folks, and make a lot of small talk about whatever’s at the tip of your tongue. For me, that means talking a lot about bikes. It also means getting a lot of funny reactions. I’m still surprised at how many people think that lycra cycling shorts are silly, pretentious affectations and don’t realize how functional they are (I can’t tell you how conversation turns to lycra shorts at a wedding, but somehow it does. Thank the open bar, perhaps).

I also forget that for people who don’t own one bike, their eyes will bug out when I casually mention that we have seven bikes between us. This sort of comment usually comes when people ask about where we live and I describe our house as “comfortable old mill house that has just enough room for us and the dog, and all of our bikes.” I don’t think about why I have so many bikes (I am more the culprit than my honey) until I get into these conversations and have to explain.

It just happens that one bike leads to another. I acquire one bike, use it for everything, then acquire another for a slightly more specialized purpose, and never get rid of the old bikes. I don’t feel as though I’m acquisitive, as it’s taken years for me to collect my bikes, but now I seriously do have a bike for every occasion.

For many years, I only had a mountain bike – my trusty steel Stumpjumper that I got in ’94 when I was a junior in high school. I used it for everything: trial riding, daily transportation, long road rides, even raced a triathalon on it with slick tires. Then I got into touring in 2000, which is when I purchased the Co-Motion Americano, which has now taken me cross-country on fully loaded tours a few times, and makes a perfect commuter bike. Then, there’s the Co-Motion Co-pilot which I got when I decided I’d been biking slowly long enough and could reasonably afford a speedy racing bike, and travel enough that I wanted couplers. Oh yeah, and I got the tandem because I’d always wanted one of those, too, and now I have a great partner to ride it with. Spaced out over time, it doesn’t seem like I’ve bought a lot of bikes, but describing the bikes hanging around in various places in my house to people makes it seem like I live in a bike jungle.

I’m still riding that fully-rigid gray-green steel Stumpjumper. Gone are the long worn-out umma-gumma tires (weird) and the matching gray saddle and grips (actually kind of attractive), but it’s been easy to maintain. Never replaced it with an aluminum bike or any sort of suspension or carbon or yadda yadda, though wouldn’t it be nice someday… Once, I was home from college in the summer when this bike was about 4 years old, and I ran into an old classmate of mine on the trails. He was racing mtn bikes at UVM or wherever and was like, “‘sup guy [that’s a Maine thing I guess, calling people ‘guy’], still ridin’ that stumpie? why don’tcha get a new bike already.”

Well, guy, it’s 15 years old now and still does the job. In fact, it might be doing more of the job now, as my 20-mile tandem commute is getting phased out for the winter season by the park-n-ride option: park the car on the outskirts of town, then have a nice 15-minute leg stretcher into the office. Yesterday, I decided to “innovate” this ride usually undertaken on the touring/commuter bike. I chose the old stumpjumper, and followed my typical route through Carrboro’s streets. I realized the stumpjumper would enable me to take a short off-road dirt path to avoid the sketchy part of Estes Dr (a narrow stretch of heavily-traveled road devoid of any bicycle facilities save a flaccid share-the-road sign though it’s the only northern connector between Carrboro and Chapel Hill; and it’s the site of the only place I’ve ever been hit by a car):

Not only did the trail take me off the road, it inspired me to detour fully on trails on the way back to my car after work – a two-hour trail odyssey of some of the finest miles of tight, twisty single track in the southeast. While the 20-mile ride home is a great way to slowly let the stresses of the day fade away as the scenery of cow pastures and corn fields rolled past, the constant attention-demanding trails and psychedelic fall leaf colors in the woods makes work feel like the office never happened. This might have to be my new winter bike route.

Pass the morals, please

The tandem is the perfect solution to one of the trickiest issues for cycling on roadways shared with cars – whether to ride two abreast, or ride in a line. This is a stressful question for me. It’s certainly more enjoyable when riding with others to be able to chat side by side, however the act of being side by side frustrates even the most patient motorists. [This same discussion can be applied to all types of users of recreation paths, too, like the Lake Shore Path in Chicago.]

For much of my cycling life, I’ve simply avoided this issue by choosing to ride alone. The tandem is an even better way to avoid riding two abreast. Now my honey and I can chat and never lose touch throughout the ride. That still doesn’t solve what to do when we want to ride with a great group of friends. Nor does it get at what the politics are of the road that makes this decision so stressful.

In a plainly legal world in which everyone governs their behavior based on what the law allows and what it does not, this would not be an issue. At least in North Carolina, it’s not illegal for cyclists to ride two abreast. In this world, motorists would drive the speed limit, slow down when they see cyclists (riding two abreast or not), wait behind the cyclists until it’s clear to pass, and then pull around the cyclists leaving at least three feet of space, crossing the yellow line as they would to pass any vehicle.

I do this when I drive a car, and frankly don’t see what’s so difficult about it. Cars would have to do this when confronting other cars on the road that they need to wait for in order to pass, like turning traffic. Something other than law is governing our behavior on the road, as is true about the law in all aspects of our lives. Laws of the road are treated as guidelines suggesting better ways for us to keep ourselves safer, and then we decide to what extent we adhere to or stray from them given the present conditions of the road and our state of mind.

There’s something about the size and speed of bicyclists that seems to invite motorists to judge cyclists differently from other road users, though they are classed as eligible vehicles. When drivers see one cyclist riding along the edge of the road, they generally make a calculation that they can keep driving without changing too much – maybe slow down a little bit, don’t have to pull around too far over and cross the yellow line. If there is a car in the on-coming lane, they probably try to squeak by without waiting to pass. This is of course is all wrong, dangerous, and in the end doesn’t save a driver more than 5 seconds.

BUT, if cyclists are riding two abreast, all of a sudden it’s an untenable position these cyclists have taken, even though it’s legal. Now the motorist is really forced to slow down, and wait until it’s safe to pass and pull around crossing the yellow line – all of which they should have done when confronting a single rider or single line of cyclists.

This may be why I witness a number of older, experienced cyclists make the deliberate choice to ride two abreast, as a matter of safety: it’s legal to ride side by side and it forces motorists to slow down and pull around as they would for any other car or truck or tractor or horse-drawn wagon.

I’m not sure that this is the best method to ensure safety. I say this because of the anger it induces among motorists, even good patient ones, even ones that are cyclists. And for that reason, a lot of cyclists are frustrated with the behavior of other cyclists, and why I’ve often avoided group rides. We know that the practice of riding out into the middle of the road angers other people, and that makes it discourteous, raising the ire of drivers against all cyclists. In this sense, it’s a moral issue rather than a legal issue. If we’re demanding this: sign

…then as cyclists we have to think about whether we are sharing the road.

How to communicate this to other cyclists on a group ride is an issue in and of itself. The tendency is to be social and ride two abreast. Another tendency is ride within the rights we are entitled. But, the fact is, it makes a lot of us nervous when some of the group insist on riding out in the middle, because the cars behind often become obviously frustrated. In a sense, we lose our welcome on the road. Even though we are legally entitled to use the road, our safety still at the mercy of the graciousness and attentiveness of the majority of road users who happen to be driving big fast things that can kill us.

Ultimately I side with drivers on this issue, and wish that all cyclists would either ride in line, or else keep an eye out for cars and pull into a line when one approaches. Mainly it’s because I do feel like it is a moral issue. If we expect drivers to make the effort to pass us safely treatment, we should make a similar effort to make their passing easier. Perhaps this behavior in time could change driver behavior to be more welcoming and alert of our presence.

But this shared effort is not a 50-50 deal, in my opinion. Drivers who read this blog (which include all of us cyclists who have not made the decision to go car-free yet, including me) need to know that the greater burden of responsibility for safety lies with them. The fact remains that a car’s speed and size is a deadly weapon, and there’s a legal responsibility to be in control of that speed and size at all time, as a well as a moral responsibility to yield to more vulnerable road users. There’s just a lot more at stake when drivers choose to be nice or not.

This bike is a Quaker rifle

Gun + bike = message for car culture

Gun + bike = message for car culture

I’ve seen this image at a local bike shop. The bike shop itself is an active, community-oriented business offering common-sense repairs, products and support for bicycle lifestyle as a whole. I don’t know what is intended by the bicycle + machine gun image, but I personally associate it with another sticker I’ve seen around that says “This bike is a pipe bomb.” I realize This bike is a pipe bomb is actually a punk band, but as a sticker on a bicycle it can not fail to be a message as well. To me, the message of both is the politically-charged, radicalized version of “One less car.” It’s saying that riding a bike is a subversive act in the charge to abandon car culture, and with each ride the revolution gains momentum.

In a way, I associate the usage of guns on par with the general acceptance of the car as status quo in this country. Car ownership is standard in the U.S., just as gun ownership is not to be questioned by the political mainstream. In another sense, both cars and guns are easy, thoughtless solutions to everyday problems. So easy, in fact, as to be cowardly in certain situations. Need a bag of flour? Jump into the car. Suspicious of your neighbor? Don’t worry, you can have a gun. In terms of intimidation, the use of the bulk and speed of a car to intimidate a cyclist (for example), or the use of a gun to threaten or harm an unarmed person is pure, loathsome cowardice.

I heard an ugly story from one of my favorite places to ride a bike – the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Parkway offers hundreds of breath-taking and thigh-burning miles along the spine of the Appalachians in V.A. and N.C. Heavy vehicles are not allowed, and the speed-limit is slow: therefore you have no reason to fear traffic as you plod at 5mph up a gap, nor is it a problem to take a lane when you descend for 5 miles doing around 40mph. It’s a National Park, so there’s decent camping as well, making it an ideal route for bike touring.

Bear with me, it’s one of those A friend of a friend told me that: a cyclist was riding the Parkway the other weekend on his bicycle, when he was cut-off by a motorist. The cyclist caught up to the motorist at a stop sign. He rode up to the front window of the car to address being cut-off when the driver displayed a firearm. Smartly, the cyclist backed off and the motorist drove off. I was told the cyclist reported this to the police, since it’s still illegal to possess firearms in National Parks. Sadly, that ban – what I consider a safety measure of ALL of us – is about to be overturned.

Of course, those who follow N.C. news and/or those who follow bike blogs will remember the story in the media this past July in which a driver, angered, ostensibly, that a male cyclist was putting his family at risk by leading his wife and child on bikes out on busy roads, actually pulled a gun and shot the man. The bullet was somehow deflected by the cyclist’s helmet (who needs a better reason for wearing a helmet?), sparing the man.

This isn’t to say that the roads are unsafe because aggressive drivers are also packing and ready to use guns. I feel as safe biking as I do in any other aspect of life in this country. It just makes me think of all the times I’ve been threatened, intimidated, or simply mindlessly cut off by motorists, and in response I gesticulated, expectorated, or pontificated toward them to put them on notice. If I’d been a little more assertive, there’s a chance it could turn out much worse.

Where I live in N.C. is historically home to Quaker settlements. You can even see a musical called Sword of Peace about the Quaker’s history at the time of the Revolutionary war produced annually every summer in Snow Camp. For the purposes of this blog entry, what you need to know about Quakers is that they are pacificists in the most strict sense – they won’t condone war, and you can’t have a military wedding in one of their meeting halls. The other day, I had the opportunity to attend a Quaker meeting, and a story from the Revolutionary war was recounted. One of the very last battles of the war was fought just down the road from here – the battle of Lindley’s Mill (we’re still buying flour and grits from Lindley Mill). The pacificist Quakers didn’t condone the taking up of arms on either side, and were faced with the dilemma of what to do when soldiers of either army came through villages and pillaged requisitioned supplies like hunting rifles. The story related in the meeting was about how one man by the name of Osborne stayed true to his Quaker convictions, and bent the barrels of his rifle, rendering them useless for battle.

While I appreciate the notion of the bicycle as revolution, and feel that metaphors of other revolutionary methods – sub-machine guns and pipes bombs for pipe-smoking subcommandants – can be aesthetically and emotionally appealing, it’s not really how I choose to adorn my riding or my advocacy. I can be pretty vocal in traffic about my rights to the road as a cyclist, but faced with a clear deficit in fire- and horsepower and tons of steel, maybe the best thing I can do is assert my position on the road, conduct myself peaceably, and get people used to my presence.

Pipe + Machine Gun = Revolutionary

Pipe + Machine Gun = Revolutionary

On the tandem, my honey and I really do feel like we have magnified presence. We’re bigger, that much more visible, and once drivers see we’re on a bicycle-built-for-two, I like to think that people soften up and treat us sweetly. If consistent visibility (and our cuteness) on the road doesn’t pave the way toward more acceptance of our favored mode of travel, I suppose we always have the option of setting up the tandem to live up to one of the many nicknames of the stoker – the tail-gunner.

Light touch

A few days into my first bike tour, I became aware of one the experiences that are particular to bike touring itself. As I logged miles on the road every day, repetition, patterns, and common sights and themes emerged as I was exposed to the nature of the road intimately on the bicycle. One of those sights was butterflies. I had started on the Oregon coast and was riding up through the Cascade mountains. On the slow, cool climb through Douglas Fir and rhodedendron forests, blue-winged butterflies spiraled in and out of the scattered sun light. What I hadn’t expected to see was that a lot of these butterflies ended up as road-kill, clipped by cars and broken-winged on the pavement. I wouldn’t have noticed this in a car, and I wasn’t contributing to the carnage on my bike.

The opposite of what happens on the windshield of a car.

The opposite of what happens on the windshield of a car.

Road-kill is one of those experiences common to the road, and cyclists get a close-up view. It’s not all carnage. We get to experience a region’s flora and fauna without the separation of speed, sound, or screen. We see it live, in various states of growth, and in death. Or, in harvest – the roads in my area have lately been strewn with the husks of the corn harvest. We also see litter, which alerts us to many indications about a community, e.g. whether they can regularly invest in picking up the side of the road, or whether there’s a Walmart or McDonalds in an approaching town.

Cyclists are swift-moving, passive witnesses – sort of the butterflies of road users.

Open letter to Saxapahaw

Dear Saxapahaw,
You are no longer merely a rural crossroads and a boarded up mill. You have become a desirable residential area. And you are now a regional destination for arts, food, and entertainment. I’ve enjoyed living in your town for four months now, and I intend to stay a while. It’s pretty here.

The view from Saxapahaw.

The view from Saxapahaw.

Your star is rising. People claim to be “saxy” and “saxapahawlics.” There’s even a nascent cycling club that calls itself the “Saxapahawgs.” OK, we love you, now change.

Your roads and intersections are dangerous, and incidences of injury and death are likely to rise if you don’t take planning and re-engineering seriously.

Normally I would be the last person that would want to disrupt the quaintness of an historic place – the old mill on the Haw river sitting atop a Sissipahaw Indian site. We all want to preserve rural heritage and individual character. However, it’s not quaintness and history that is your particular allure. Your historic river mill shut down almost 20 years ago, and the old mill house community has long since changed. It’s time you caught up.

Development thus far seems to have worked for you, at least from my perspective. Local culture and entrepreneurship are thriving and expanding. Your big attractions are the farmers market and live music that run half the year and draw hundreds of people from surrounding regions; the Shell station that is now the Saxapahaw General Store – it still serves as a filling station and convenience store, and is now home to a wildly inventive grill that is cooking some of the best food in the entire region, on par with the finest restaurants in Chapel Hill and Durham; and you are the home of the Southeast’s premiere puppet company, Paperhand Puppet Intervention. The River Mill apartments, resurrected from the ashes of the closed mill, are a bee hive of residential activity.

It’s not just that I’ve lived here for four months: you have been a stop on my cycling routes for 8 years, far enough back that the mill was not renovated and the General Store and its amazing grill really was just a filling station and a place to get cold gatorade. Now I’m happy that all my bike rides end here with you.

The result of your growth, which is not likely to subside soon, is more people on the roads, more modes (driving, walking, biking, young engaged couples on tandems) in use on the roads, and more need for safety and appropriate facilities to accommodate the volume and the modes. Children of all ages reside here, and are now zooming on bikes and skateboards and scooters, and bouncing balls, through roadways not meant to accept simple walking, much less the antics of kids.

The current road situation is an inevitable legacy of the past. Now you have to take account of the present reality, and catch up with the development you’ve made possible. The River Mill and the attractions have concentrated a greater population here.

Here’s my wish list:
1. Sidewalks. Well, there’s one 200 ft. section of sidewalk from the River Mill apartments along the road to the General Store. But no sidewalks connecting any of the other neighborhoods to the center of town.

The right idea.

The right idea.

Let’s have more.
2. Crosswalks. This is especially a problem on Farmers Market/Music events on Saturday evenings when the town becomes a parking lot and neither cars nor pedestrians know how to proceed.
3. Sightlines. There’s no visibility around corners, due to tight corners, overgrown vegetation, and narrow roads.
Turn left here? Look out!

Turn left here? Look out!

No sightline around curve. To make a left turn, you have stare hard through the bush on the right to see cars coming, or drive around the corner to see oncoming traffic and risk traffic running up behind you around the curve. We take a leap of faith every single time we turn here, be it in a car, on bike, or crossing on foot. I walk this narrow, curving hill at night with my dog around this corner to get home and there is no refuge at all. If a sidewalk were here, it would serve dozens of residents (and their pets).

4. Streetlights, particularly at major intersections. Though not in “downtown” Sax, the intersections from the major highways (87, 54, Old Greensboro) need to be lighted to safely guide the increased volumes of traffic turning onto the rural roads that meet in Sax.

5. Improved intersection of Sax-Beth and Swep-Sax.

Intersection of Sax-Beth/Swep-Sax/River Mill.

Intersection of Sax-Beth/Swep-Sax/River Mill.

Hill, curve, no sightlines, signs all over the place indicating nothing, no street light. Recipe for crash.

6. How about a widened road and shoulder (i.e. bike lane) along Sax-Beth road out to Highway 54? How about shoulders everywhere? This could mitigate roads conflicts between bikes and drivers.

7. Enforcement. Regular speed checks would put drivers on notice that they are coming into a pedestrian area and need to slow down.

I’m writing this to you, Saxapahaw, because I feel like I’ve come to know you and we’ve gotten along so far. I don’t have the same rapport with N.C. DOT and Alamance County planning yet. I think you and I should get together and call them sometime and see what we can do. Maybe we can meet at the General Store, order up a kick ass goat burger (you’ve had it, right?), and talk.The parking at the General Store by and large still looks like this:

They know food, and they’ve got the right idea about where this town is headed. This parking lot shows the style of the future:

Bike + ice cream + parking at the General Store = the right idea.

Bike + ice cream + parking at the General Store = the right idea.

Firsts (I)

A weekend trip to the mountains of western North Carolina and Tennessee resulted in a break in the mostly regular blog entries here. Alas no biking, but it was a gorgeous weekend to drive and hike in the Appalachains as the trees are just starting to turn color, the apple orchards are full of fruit, and the cool weather energized my sled-dog of a dog who’s not built for the usual warmth of the Piedmont. We also got to see interesting sights like this:

The Dollar General Lee.

The Dollar General Lee.

I’ve seen plenty of the stars and bars flying around the south – even in a few yards near my cottage in Alamance County – but this is the first time of I’ve seen a proud citizen towing it around in a pickup truck. This person realizes for a me a certain caricature some of us have built up about southerns (full disclosure, I’m from Maine).

There are plenty of other firsts that I’m more interested in experiencing than startling new expressions of inveterate racism. In terms of this blog, I’m excited about a number of firsts that will come with more tandem riding with my honey. In a way, it’s like I get a whole new set of bicycle firsts that I may have already surpassed as a single bicyclist over the years, plus ones I still haven’t foreseen as single- or tandem-rider.

One of my great loves is long-distance, self-supported bicycle touring. That’s a pretty nerdy, earnest title of a vocation. If I were the BikesnobNYC, I’d dub it LDSSBT, and my touring bicycle shown below would be the perfect antithesis of his Ironic Orange Julius city bike – a completely earnest Orange Barrel Monster.

Completely earnest cycle tourist + Orange Barrel Monster bicycle

Completely earnest cycle tourist + Orange Barrel Monster bicycle

We are starting to plan our “honeymoon,” and this hopefully includes tandem touring in exotic lands. Though we both want the same thing – the experience of exploring a fascinating place by bicycle and eating the hell out of incredible food – we still need to do a first tour together to try it out as a tandem couple. My partner has yet to experience this aspect of bicycling, that is touring. And though I think of myself as already having a lot of experience in the pursuit (that is me after all at the top of Independence Pass after 5 weeks of touring, though what you don’t see is that I was wearing every stitch of extra clothing I was carrying since, in all my “wisdom” I’d shipped home all my warmer clothes earlier in the trip when I was hot and too fatigued to lug the extra weight up the steep hills back east when I first started out) I don’t have any experience in bicycle touring as part of a tandem couple, which is surely to throw in new challenges, decisions, and compromises.

Driving around in the mountains this weekend brought back a lot of my favorite memories of past bikes tours. I love riding the mountains. I feel that the burn of long slow miles up grueling grades (especially in Appalachia) is more than rewarded by long views, big sky, sharp air, and electrifying descents. Whereas tandeming perfectly expresses how I feel about bikes socially, riding in the mountains is the full realization of the physical elements of cycling (not to mention it’s the full realization of all 30 gears of my drivetrain).

As I waxed enthusiastic about mountain riding and repeatedly expressed my desire to experience it by tandem, I realized my partner was not whole-heartedly with me. She has not been touring, nor has she been riding in the serious mountains before on a bicycle, much less on a tandem. (Indeed, mountains are “serious”, much like my touring bike is “earnest”). What occurred to me as we were discussing touring and dreaming out loud about future trips and our “honeymoon”, was that what seemed to me like a natural destination for a bicycle trip – the “serious” mountains – was not so welcoming to my honey. In fact, it was a little stressful, and thus not really how one wants to spend a “honeymoon.” I guess if you haven’t ridden through the mountains, they can be intimidating, even forbidding. Furthermore, no matter what kind of assurance I can provide, nor description of the elation and grandeur I feel riding there, can mollify the concerns of someone who hasn’t done it before.

"Serious" mountains.

This brings up a few important points for me. One is that, even if I have ridden through certain places and feel comfortable doing so, I haven’t done so on a tandem. I can tell you that one essential tactic for remaining comfortable on long climbs – standing up on the pedals, i.e. “honking” – will need to be mastered to a much higher degree than we currently have, not to mention other challenges to handling.

Second, I have to force myself to remember that when I first set out to go over my first few mountain passes, I was kept awake the nights before with frets and anxious dreams – heck, that photo of me atop Independence Pass came after years of experience, and that day was my third in a row crossing the Continental Divide, and I still couldn’t sleep the night before. And nothing was more frightening or awkward than attempting to handle descents from tree-line, knitting steep ridges with hairpin switchbacks. (At least with the tandem, I’ll be thankful for the drum brake).

Finally, bicycling, as it is commonly experienced – indeed what seems to make the very basis of how most of us come to know biking – is intimately individual. As with me trying and failing above to convince my partner that riding in the mountains will be “just the most fun ever”, “no problem”, “exhilarating”, and “not any harder going up, just a lot slower”, we as riders will only believe what we’ve experienced and then taken from that experience as individuals. Even, I suspect, if that experience occurs while riding on tandem. True, there may be some skills and techniques unique to tandem riding, but the essential substance of cycling – the plodding, the spinning, the burn in the thigh, the sore from the saddle, the mind-games employed to keep it all going – is personal.

A lot of us ride in groups, maybe train as teams, even the rare few of us ride tandems, but I’m willing to bet that the default condition of cycling is riding alone: just you and the bicycle, there when you want to ride, it’s there as it always has been since you were doing huffy stops in your driveway as a kid, no need for complicated plans with a group. Plus, if most of your riding is done commuting, you’re probably going to your workplace alone, as all those Single-Occupancy-Vehicles cluttering our nation’s roads attest. Even when riding in groups, you alone deal with your personal pain, and push yourself to accomplish individual goals.

Perhaps this perception of individuality is actually magnified by the tandem, and is potentially what gives it the rep as the “divorce machine.” As a partner on a tandem, I have to remind myself that the person I am linked to, and whose experience I am affecting with every exertion and adjustment I make, is personally coming to terms with the conditions of the bike ride in a completely unique way from me – and is acting on my experience, too – even though we are on the very same bike ride.

As we’re stretched across that hard saddle, hunched over the bars, squinting into the wind, we cyclists make realizations about riding, and tend to extrapolate metaphors for life from the exertions we endure. That we as cyclists by and large strike upon the same realizations – the subject of a future blog post – only proves my point that cycling is intensely personal, because we have to find out for ourselves what those realizations are. No one can tell us first.