Archive for November, 2009


The stoker weighs in about dogs:

I am afraid of dogs, even though we have one. I am not exactly sure where this fear comes from. My mother occasionally recalls an experience I can’t remember when I was two and she rescued me from a German shepherd dragging me down the street by my hair. Or, maybe my fear comes from all the stories my grandfather told about his dog encounters. As a child he was bitten a couple of times and from then on went on all walks with a long wood staff. Maybe my fear of dogs has to do with an interview I heard on NPR about a guy getting eaten alive by a bear—it just seems like something that could also happen with a dog.

Getting a road bike provided me with a lot of new reasons to fear dogs. Over the years, some of the more memorable dogs I have encountered on my bike include a chow-cheetah mix that outran our tandem at 26 miles an hour, two chihuahua-pit bull mixes that almost got squashed and wrecked us, the pit bull monster that broke away from his owner and nearly ate us all up, the house of the seven black labs, five snarling curs on a road named “Lamb,” and a great dane whose teeth were as high as my handlebars. Then there have been all the puppies that have chased us along busy roads. I particularly hate going past houses that have life-sized plaster dogs as yard ornaments, because from a distance they look like real dogs poised to get me.

The following video illustrates how we felt today during the one encounter riding home today.

Wolf hunting caribou in BBC's Planet Earth.

See the baby deer – that was us today on our ride.

Cycling on rural roads has taught me some truths about dogs and bikes:
1) Dog owners do not always leash their dogs.
2) Dog owners who live on busy roads do not always leash their dogs.
3) To a dog, there is something irresistible about a human whizzing past a house at about the same speed as a running deer.
4) The best, loveliest rides have the meanest dogs.
5) The worst dogs appear when you are going uphill.
6) Before a bike ride through the country, it is better not to watch that episode of Planet Earth where the wild dogs attack the gazelle.
7) Dogs are less likely to go after groups of riders.

One of my favorite conversations with other cyclists is how to deal with dog encounters. Some of the strategies I have heard include using pepper spray, throwing handfuls of rocks, squirting with the water bottle, shouting “no,” kicking in the face, clubbing with a tire pump, activating dog sonar to hurt their ears, yelling “go faster!” and carrying a gun. While I wouldn’t try all of these, I clearly need a strategy besides yelling “no,” and “go faster!” which didn’t really work today on our ride home from work (I am writing this from the hospital. Just kidding, y’all). On the next ride, I’m going to stuff my jersey pockets with pebbles.

What I really want to know is, does that dog sonar really work? Here’s one of the brands of “sonic” dog repellent:

That’s like Prairie Home Companion’s riff “Duct tape: it’s almost the only thing you need sometimes.”

I have to say that being on a tandem is much better for dog encounters, for a number of reasons. You can go faster and outrun a dog. The stoker, i.e. me, is free to inflict all kinds of self-defense tactics (see above) on canine offenders. You are quieter and sneakier, especially if your tandem is as well-maintained as mine. You can take a picture of the mean dog to display on your tandem blog (one day, folks!) and finally, your hands are free to call the sheriff on the beast’s owners.


Tandem gems from Raleigh

For some reason, it’s not easy for us to get over to Raleigh. On the weekends, it seems we’re either bunkering up in the vicinity of Saxapahaw to enjoy great bike rides, and goat burgers from the General Store, or we’re escaping very far away, like last week’s trip to the Bay area. Raleigh, the dominant city in the region, seems to exist an uninteresting nomansland between near and far. It doesn’t have much to offer that Orange and Alamance Counties don’t already have, so if we’re going to make the effort to get over there, we may as well head straight to RDU and fly away.

Unless we’re talking tandems. There’s no shortage of great bicycle shops and experts in North Carolina – probably a testament to the diverse and extensive conditions for riding across the state – any state that can claim “mountains to the sea” deserves a leg up over the top tube. However, Raleigh seems to be the locus for tandem riding. Raleigh is home to the southern cuisine-themed riding club GRITS (Greater Raleigh Intrepid Tandem Society). The focus for the locus is All Star Bikes at Quail Corners. I’m still re-acquainting myself with my re-adopted state of NC, and while researching dealers to find the kind of high-end tandem we’re looking for for our wedding registry, I found out that All Star Bikes is the closest by a long shot. A trip to Raleigh finally seemed necessary.

The store location in a non-descript suburban strip mall in the uneasy mishmash of business and neighborhood developments of fast-growing north Raleigh is more a comment on the realities of Raleigh city planning than the shop itself. While there, we got to chat with their expert wrench Terry, and long-time sales guys Jeff and Neil. They sell Santana and Co-Motion, which is exactly what you’re hoping for when you’re looking for the highest quality production tandems.

We got to test ride a Co-Motion Speedster, which is only the exact tandem make and model I’ve pinned my dreams on since my first ride on a tandem (a Co-Motion Big Al) back in 2000. The differences between the good ol’ Burley Duet and the Speedster are just about night and day. First the similarities: they’re both steel; both handmade in Eugene, OR; both are tandems. There the similarities basically end. I’ve always enjoyed the functionality, serviceability, and smart details of the Burley. It’s handling is predictable, and even though on the chubby side, I’ve often felt its weight lends it an impressive gravity – when the road starts to point downhill, the momentum it generates makes it feel like a muscular train steaming across the vast expanses of the continent. What I didn’t realize is that I could feel the same confidence in a tandem, and still feel nimbleness similar to a quality single bike.

This is so with the CoMo Speedster. We got to test ride the tandem along residential streets that actually offered a couple of decent hills by which to gain a sense of its climbing prowess and the feel as it picked up speed downhill. We also got the blah attention-demanding surburban experience of dodging cars exiting driveways and sucking exhaust and debris belched from noxious leaf-blowers. The CoMo handled these challenges and grievances as easily as Gatsby navigates a cocktail party. The Speedster seriously is about 15lbs skinnier than the Duet, but gives nothing up in rigidity or surety. The handling is much sportier, turning with the ease of a Panamian drug-running boat, as opposed to a container ship turning miles in advance of an iceberg. Sure, components that are 15 years newer are also a nice upgrade, but the real advancement is the slick handling and smooth riding. A high performance machine, the steel Speedster is also ready for self-supported touring, with all the right rack and fender mounts. Alas, the only thing missing is a pump peg.

Back at the shop, we absorbed some good tips from Neil, a dedicated tandem-rider (owning a carbon Calfee), veteran racer, and salesman for 25 years. Here’s some new things we’re thinking about:
-Cornering technique: the stoker should slightly elevate off the saddle, lean into the turn, and keep weight on the lowered pedal on the outside of the turn (the pedal opposite the turn) to achieve the lowest center of gravity. Our first experience with this is that this move has to be smooth, natural, and unconscious, as the concerted effort by the stoker to force weight down on the pedal is more upsetting than we usually experience.
-Disc brakes versus drum brake on the tandem: disc brakes offer an upgrade in stopping power over rim brakes, but when it comes to long, steep downhills, they’ll fade out. I’m thinking rim brakes are the most sensible to run, adding a drum brake set up to drag with a friction shifter for the rides in the mountains.
-Contrary to popular thought, it doesn’t matter whether the heavier person is in the front (usually considered best practice) or the rear. I was thinking it makes sense to have the heavier person up front since that’s the fulcrum of steering. But our whippy salesperson Neil, who’s “130lbs soaking wet” claimed to have no problem riding with a 300lb stoker. As long as the stoker is a smooth pedaler and leans with the captain, it doesn’t matter at all.
-There’s two ways to start off on a tandem. This is news to me, since I have always done this by having the stoker mount the rear and push off and start pedaling at the same time as me. The other technique, supposedly to be used for less experienced stokers, is to have the stoker sit on the rear with both feet on the pedals while the captain balances the weight up front and pushes off himself when ready to go. Even though the later is supposedly good for inexperienced riders, I can’t imagine doing it like that. Stopping at a stop light and balancing the stoker who doesn’t put a leg down seems unlikely to me. Of course, on tandem, you do just about all you can to avoid ever having to stop and put a leg down.
-Take “butt breaks.” Who doesn’t like the sound of that?
-Cut-up old inner tubes are better than bungees cords.

The field trip to Raleigh was eye-opening for lots of reasons. Not the least of which, of course, is that we have identified the bike dealer for our dreamed-of wedding tandem. We also got some good tips on rides around North Carolina. As great as Saxapahaw is, it’s good to get out from time to time.

Casual escape

Last week’s remnants of Ida brought strong wind and rain enough to keep us from the joys of tandem commuting. Each day we watched the clouds hunker over our office buildings, and in the evenings we listened to the thunderous rush of water rapidly rising over the dam here in Saxapahaw. We could hear the turbines running wide open, electrifying North Carolina as in the heyday of the TVA. We left our windows open to let the whoosh of water put us to sleep. The water rose all week, and we started to bite our nails as the water crept up the banks and poured over the dam:

Haw running wild.

Instead of waiting around to watch the water threaten to carry away our house – my reasoning, which doesn’t hold water, was that what we weren’t watching couldn’t be happening – we headed for the hills. The Oakland hills, to be exact. Thus the silence from this corner of blogland. We were in the Bay Area – the land of trolley cars, progressive politics, and fashionable hats.

Though the literal and spiritual home of Critical Mass, I have to admit that cycling in San Francisco didn’t look too appealing. Busy, one-way, three-lane streets. Speeding cars. Trolley tracks. Mad Hills. And still the cool kids are riding fixies. After a couple days of transit, late night dinners, and yes, fashionable hat shopping in San Francisco, we hopped over the Bay Bridge for Oakland. What we found over there was not what you usually hear about Oakland. When I picture Oakland, from the tales in the media, I see gangs and urban blight.

My experience of Oakland, however, was of 1) a great food scene: Burma Superstar was one of the best dinners I’ve ever had (samusa soup is unreal), and Camino one of the best brunch places:

Take your pick. I choose doughnuts...

2. Great biking and hiking. I was treated to a bike tour of Oakland with a Bay-area transportation planner. After 10 minutes of cycling through city streets striped with bike lanes, we were up in serious hills giving way to breathtaking views of the bay, bridges and Marin headlands (alas no pictures, since I was sadly not on the tandem with my stoker to document the ride), and towered over by magical red wood trees. This all within the city limits of Oakland. It takes just as long to bike out of little Carrboro to be in the rolling hills and cow pastures of the countryside here.

3. Seals. My honey got to kayak on the bay. With seals.

Our host transportation planner also told us of a fascinating “user-generated” solution to commuting on certain highways in the Bay area. I’ll call it “car-commuting 2.0.” My friend calls it glorified hitch-hiking. The official name of this unofficial practice is “Casual Carpool.” There’s even a website (probably a few) – Whatever you call it, the grassroots social practice grew up on its own as a response to the traffic planning measures adopted by the cities. To get across the Bay Bridge from Oakland into San Francisco, you either need to pay a $4 toll and wait in a backed-up line (30-45 minutes at times) just to get through the toll booth. Or, you can cross the bridge for free in an HOV lane for 3+ occupants and not wait at all (as you pass through the entrance, a photo snaps a picture of your car – the fine is hefty if there’s less than 3 in the car). The way casual carpooling works is that a few strategic locations have been identified by a community of commuters where people who drive can pick up people on foot waiting for a ride: the driver gets a free quick ride over the bridge, as do the people getting picked up. The practice has developed its own standards of etiquette (passengers shouldn’t strike up conversations or eat; you can refuse dicey situations), and the fact that a driver is picking up more than one passenger likely makes it safer than regular hitchhiking. Thus between official congestion-planning and -pricing, and unofficial community response, a dent is taken out of the blight of single-occupancy vehicles. It takes that sort of hurdle set up officially to make carpooling – generally an onerous and short-lived endeavor – into an effective and appealing tool. That’s about as harmonious as car commuting can be.

Make way for Iron Mans

This past weekend found us relaxing on unseasonably warm North Carolina shores. Aside from a pretty exciting tandem test ride we took at All Star Bikes in Raleigh (more on this development another day), we left our bikes at home and didn’t exert ourselves, unless you count scrubbing a half a bushel of fresh bay oysters as exertion.

This was the complete opposite experience from a couple friends of ours who happened to be flanking us on the coast. One friend, a fellow Saxapahawg cyclist, was running her first marathon, the Outer Banks Marathon. Another friend was competing in his first Iron Man-length triathlon in Wilmington, the Beach 2 Battleship. They both finished admirably, and I’m very proud of my friends, but I have to admit I’m happy with the way my weekend went – as in, nowhere.

I’m always astounded by the feats that the human body can pull off. I’m comfortable with long distance, self-supported bike tours and century rides like we did last week in Durham. Marathons are another ordinal more strenuous than century rides – 6 hours sitting in the saddle seems like couch potatoeing compared to 3-5 hours running. In fact, judging from this photo we found of ourselves during the Habitat for Humanity Century in Durham, it’s like we’re hardly riding at all:


Just coasting our way to 100.

Furthermore, Iron Mans (I don’t think the plural would be Iron Men since it’s a brand name, right?) – combining three righteous and healthy pursuits at ridiculous lengths (2-mile open water swim, 112-mile bike, then run a marathon) all at once-must actually take a year or two off someone’s life. Who thought that was a good idea?

What’s even more amazing is the media coverage of Beach 2 Beacon Iron Man. By amazing, I mean “amazingly bad, trite, and misguided”, or to put it another way, “typical.” In the luxury of our beach-front, pet friendly motel The Atlantis, we were also enjoying having TV, which is not a current fixture in these Honkers’ household. News coverage of the Iron Man came on, and what “amazed” me was that the focus of the story is to what extent the one-Saturday-out-of-the-entire-freaking-year that the race was held (this being the 2nd such race there ever) was affecting car traffic. Seriously? You have 750 athletes who have been training their bodies for this for months and years, pushing themselves beyond any fathomable understanding, and the media covers people talking about traffic.
Thank you News 14 Carolina for that incisive, human-element reporting.

Stoker’s quiz

The stoker has unleashed a tandem quiz on y’all. Either I must not have been talking enough during our last ride, or she blocked out my blabbering to think this up. Enjoy!

Tandem Quiz: test your knowledge of the sport

1. What is it called when both people stand up on a tandem at the same time?
a) Stretching
b) Honking
c) Snorting
d) Unleavening

2. What public figures were voted “most unlikely to ride a tandem together” in the October 2009 Honker Awards*?
a) Dick Cheney and Noam Chomsky
b) Mike Tyson and Woody Allen
c) Mother Teresa and Michael Jackson
d) Vanilla Ice and Ice Cube
*This is a fictional competition, but the answer, the stoker swears, is still rational.

3. What is a stoker?
a) a reformed pyromaniac who also likes to cycle
b) the unfortunate person who sticks his fingers into the spokes of a wheel.
c) the person on the back of a tandem
d) the most enthusiastic person on the tandem

4. What is the most common misconception about tandems?
a) they are slow
b) the stoker is an opium addict
c) the stoker can take naps
d) they are divorce machines
e) all of the above

5. What is the greatest invention even created for tandem riders?
a) a jersey with a kindle fitted on the back
b) doublemint gum
c) drum brakes
d) water bottles
e) none of the above

6. What does tandem mean in Latin?
a) “progressive politics in sunny climes”
b) “finally”
c) “one after the other”
d) “run wild like ponies”

7. What is the greatest thing about tandem cycling?
a) crushing the competition
b) the stoker is free to text message, make calls, or fax documents
c) all the doughnuts you want
d) cars like you better
e) matching neon jackets
f) all of the above
e) nothing

*Bonus sing-a-long
8. What is the best song tandem song ever?

a) I want to ride my bicycle – Queen

b) Daisy (as performed by Blur)

c) You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore (Neil Diamond + Barbara Streisand)

1) b
2) c
3) b
4) e
5) c
6) b
7) f
8 ) c (this really is a burly Duet!)

Getting (hit) older together

When I met the other tandemists at the Durham Habitat ride, I realized that being a tandem couple automatically places us in a different age class. As with most other tandem pairs I’ve met, these two were probably 20 years our senior. I’m sure there are lots of dedicated tandem riders in their early 30’s like us, but my (admittedly small) sample puts us in the minority. Frankly, I’m happy to be in the company of couples that have years of experience navigating the roads, as well as years of experience navigating life together. Maybe it’ll rub off on us like a chain grease on your calf – or for my lovely stoker, on both calves, from the drive train on the right AND the timing chain on the left.

While I’m excited about growing older together with my betrothed, leaving us years to master honking, we may in fact be growing older together with the entire population of cyclists. I’m not a demographer, not even an amateur one, but a quick look at NHTSA’s recently published traffic safety stats for bicyclists, based on 2008 crash and fatality data, makes it look like cyclists as a population are actually getting older. [BTW, there’s lots of great public crash data available in these annual NHTSA reports]

Here’s the macabre statistics. Steadily since 1998, the average age of cyclists killed in traffic crashes has gone up.

bikes safety facts 2

At this point in my life, perhaps I should be comforted by the fact that I’m still under this average. But we’re gaining fast, unless that age keeps rising. I suppose this chart could indicate that younger cyclists are just becoming more skilled at earlier ages and are better at avoiding accidents. But no, I think these statistics must derive from exposure of all cyclists to traffic.

What this chart really says to me is a number of potential things: 1) people in the U.S. are bicycling longer into older age, 2) more Americans in their “working” years are choosing to commute to work by bicycle, 3) there are more cyclists of all ages riding bicycles now, including older adults (those over 30) riding more and riding into later years, or 4) there are less young people choosing to ride bicycles. I’d like to think that all of these possibilities are actually positive indications, except for the very last one. NHTSA’s Federal Highway Administration should be putting the finishing touches on the National Household Travel Survey, due out in January 2010, which should illuminate these numbers.

Also evident in the 2008 numbers is that fatalities for “pedalcyclists” (that is bicyclists plus other 1- to n-wheeled machines operated under human power) is the only category other than motorcyclists that saw an increase in fatalities. Again, I think this must mean that there are just more people choosing to ride bikes these days. At least more older people, maybe those who ride tandems… (gulp).

Anniversary, Or our first century together

My honey and I celebrated what we consider our one-year anniversary yesterday by participating in the same event we did last year when we got together. We rode the Habitat for Humanity Halloween century ride in Durham. Since it was Halloween, we decided to dress up as nerdy, matching, tandem bicycle riders:


Fantastically gaudy matching jerseys - a must for any tandem couple.

We somehow fit the length of the tandem into the back of my old Honda wagon, tying down the rear hatch. This meant that we were directly inhaling exhaust in the car, a pretty nauseating way to wake up. The air was heavy with mist alternating with rain, but at least it was warm. The mood at Durham Bulls Ballpark where the rode started and finished was upbeat among the couple hundred riders despite the thickening rain. I think people get excited by the upcoming challenge, and by the presence of so many other riders, and probably get off even more on all of the bikes and gear to check out (I get off on sweet bikes as much as the next lycra’d guy, and was pretty excited to see a gorgeous randonnuer-style bike hand-built by a local builder called Coho Bikes). There was even a couple of fun Halloween costumes among the riders – a Calvin and Hobbes pair, and a woman with a pink machine gun who somehow rode atop her clipless road pedals in high-heels.

We identified the two other two tandem pairs before we departed. Among us we had the notable west coast tandem builders covered – Burley (us), Santana, and a lovely Co-Motion Speedster with couplers and disc brakes – just a little drool-inducing. I have to say that, my bike lust notwithstanding, we performed quite well on the old Burley Duet.

I love any reason to ride as long as possible, and an organized century is as good a reason as any – perhaps better, as it has an air of collective excitement. I personally like riding long days like century rides because so much happens over the long expanse of time. It feels like a novel with many chapters, a large cast of characters, recurring themes, highs and lows, many changes of place and scenery. Here’s a few reasons to ride an organized century:

1. Another reason to ride a bike.
2. Explore new roads. Tired of the same old loop? Join a ride and get a map to miles and miles of bike-friendly (one hopes) road you never knew about. This route brought us along quite rural roads northwest of the city of Durham, through Durham, Person and Granville counties, and through hills much more challenging (and therefore in my opinion, more rewarding) than the roads I normally ride in adjacent counties.
3. See other cyclists. Cycling can be a lonely pursuit, as all it really needs is one rider, one bike, and some free time. Seeing hundreds of other cyclists is reassuring to me in that there’s proof that what I choose to do isn’t so unusual and that car-culture isn’t solely dominant.
4. Challenging yourself. Riding 100 miles, or any length much longer than you’re used to, is hard, but then it wouldn’t an accomplishment if it wasn’t hard.
5. Benefit rides raise money for good causes.

Reasons to ride a century on a tandem:
1. Six hours closely connected to your partner. At least, this works out for us, since we still seem to be in that honeymoon phase, and expect it to last long after the actual honeymoon.
2. Share the pain and effort.
3. Sing-alongs make the miles tick off.
4. Tandems are a conversation piece. I have a tandem blog, so I obviously already enjoy talking about tandeming. On a ride with hundreds of other people, I get to talk about it a lot.

I’ve personally done a few organized centuries, and few 100-mile days while touring, but never have I ridden 100 miles on a tandem. I am proud to say that we finished the whole thing together in good spirits, despite the rain of the first 50 miles, and the dubious shape of our legs after a few sparse weeks of biking before the event. I had no doubt that we could do it, but it’s still gratifying to have it behind us, and also to have the memories that accumulated throughout the day. It was my partner’s first century (we did the 60-mile route last year), and thus her first tandem century, too. I’m optimistic that the experience will also elicit her first blog post here on Honking In Traffic.

For now, I’ll leave you with the tandem at rest against the coolest bike rack in Durham: