Archive for the 'Talk of the tandem' Category

Choice-rich riding

Tonight’s bike commute home from Chapel Hill to Saxapahaw was decidedly a perfect summer evening ride, and I found myself prolonging it as long as possible. My bike tires left tracks through the yellow loblolly pine pollen coating the road, sweet wisteria filled the nose, and the growing shadows of evening cooled the air from the afternoon highs of around 90F. It felt so good to be out on a bike, I couldn’t go home slow enough. The area of North Carolina where I live is road-rich: I can take numerous routes of varying length home, and it’s easy to turn down one quiet farm road then another and add on a few more bucolic miles before calling it a day. The farm roads were so empty of car traffic this evening that I barely saw a dozen cars over the course of my last 12 miles. Not long after I got home, the sun set and bats came out to feed on the newly hatched insects over the Haw River.

My tandem partner-cum-bride-to-be had to drive to another city tonight for an evening engagement, leaving me to decide whether to take our other car (which I call the “bachelor wagon” since it’s from the my good old days, and it’s standard transmission makes it undriveable by my fiancee) or whether to ride my bicycle home from work instead. The big decision was which bike to take.

It was wonderful to have the choice to ride my bicycle home tonight – longer days and warmer temps make this a regular part of my life once again. I’m also lucky to have the benefit of so many quiet country roads. North Carolina is known for having just about the highest amount of road miles per capita in the U.S. It helps to know which roads most auto traffic takes, but there are plenty of highways that siffon off most cars, leaving the country roads relatively unmolested, although the lanes on these roads are notoriously narrow at 10ft with no shoulder, and make for a tight squeeze when a couple vehicles need to pass by. In my earlier, more righteous days, I would on occasion take up the cause of anti-road building, and there’s many reasons to follow that discussion. But frankly, as a bicyclist, I’m reaping the benefits of North Carolina’s road building policy: I haven’t researched its history, but what I know is there are vast numbers of short, quiet farm roads lacing the countryside here.

Much is being said in the biking/sustainable living media right now about Americans desiring more options for transportation. The advocacy group Transportation For America released the results of a survey showing a majority of us want to spend less time in cars and want more options for getting around. USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood even seems excited about this, and appears to be driving federal policy away from the traditional exclusive focus on, well, driving.

While this is all good, I have to say that the choice is already there for any of us to make every day. It’s an easier choice for me to make, and if you’re reading this blog, chances are it’s an easier choice for you to make, too. I consciously decided long ago that bicycling would be an integral part of my lifestyle. Experience breeds confidence on the road, mixed with the fitness that regular riding provides makes bicycling not just an easy choice, but a pleasureable, relaxing, and exhilarating one (yes, I think something can be both exhilarating and relaxing at the same time – my ride home tonight was just that). And by now in my early-middle-age/late-adolescence, I have more bicycles to choose from than hours in the day I can ride. But all it takes is one bicycle in the “stable” to have the choice.

Lately, my “steed” of choice has been my 10-year-old indefatigable Co-Motion Americano touring bike. It’s funny what so many options, or choice, can do to how you perceive circumstances and make decisions. In the case of choosing which bicycle to ride, how I view the Americano changed drastically when I acquired my CoMo Espresso, a light, fast racing bike. Where I once had only the Americano as my road bike, and on it I bike-toured across North America fully-loaded a few times – truly, this is a comfortable, capable, do-anything, go-anywhere bicycle, a real road warrior – the Espresso became my default bike for long (unloaded) road rides. The Americano became relegated this past season to my around-town commuter, ferrying me and a pannier full of lunch the three miles from the park-and-ride to my office, and the three miles back. If I was going to take the long ride into town from Saxapahaw, I would automatically choose the Espresso, thinking it to be the more capable long-distance commuter – sportier, faster, more comfortable.

The other week, wanting to ride a bicycle into work the long way but needing to take a bunch of stuff, I grudgingly made the decision to load up the Americano out of necessity and putter my way into town. Grudgingly? Putter? What the hell was I thinking? And, where had all my past experience with the Americano gone when it came to making this decision? Of course the touring bike was more than capable, and probably more comfortable, for the long distance ride. While the Espresso does have sportier handling, and while over many miles I do average slightly higher speeds, it doesn’t really make much difference over 20-25 miles, and is certainly not more comfortable over long distances than the Americano. They’re both undeniably great bikes, and both have unique qualities. Furthermore, their points of difference really only matter to us small minority of people who are bike geeks, own too many bikes (and are willing to pay as much for them as for a good used car), and therefore have to make to make the “tough” decision about which to ride.

My goal this year is to ride as many of my bikes as possible each week. It’s not like I have that many. Naturally, I ride the tandem as often as possible with my honey. I hit the great mountain bike trails in Chapel Hill each week they’re not too muddy to ride. And that leaves me with the awful struggle, the over-privileged decision, I have between two too-sweet road bikes.


Bullet for your thoughts

I found a pretty serious-looking bullet by the gas pumps in Saxapahaw the other day. Serious, in that hand-gun self-protection hollow-point .40 S&W kind of way, rather than the bring home fresh meat to the family sort of way. I can imagine a couple situations. It was during the cold snap last month, so perhaps the gun-toter on their way to the target range, law enforcing, or bank heist was stopping for gas, and the bullet happened to be in a pocket with some change and fell out between fingertips numb from the cold. Or, maybe the 2nd-amendmenter (regardless of their affiliation with a well regulated militia or not) was digging around in the glove compartment for the tire pressure gauge, which happens to be where the handgun, bullets, driver’s manual and aloe-coated flower-print tissues are also kept, when the bullet fell out.

I know handguns are kept in glove compartments because I learned this while on a bike tour across the U.S. I was on the TransAm trail with a group of Brits I’d met along the way, passing through a town in Missouri named after an apple variety that never took hold in the region. We were taking a break at the sole gas station/convenience store/grill and got into conversation with the owner who was also a farmer. He was friendly and loquacious, and shared many great stories. (As this location is on a major mapped cross-country bicycle thoroughfare, perhaps there are a lot of cyclists out there who have met this guy and heard his stories). I’ll save some of his stories for other posts, and stick to my guns here, so to speak. As cars and pickups, mostly pickups, drove by along the road, he motioned toward them and said, “You know, every one of these vehicles passing you on the road is carrying a gun in the glove compartment.” He seemed to take pleasure in telling us this. He said that in these rural counties where law enforcement isn’t too strong, people have to be able to take of care things themselves. I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to be threatened that all these motorists passing us on the road had the option of pulling a gun on us if we somehow offended them by our presence, or whether I was supposed to take comfort that everyone was equipped to regulate if need be, in a peace by mutually assured destruction sort of way. Whichever, the Brits with whom I was riding were a bit incredulous, since possession of firearms isn’t allowed where they’re from.

That wasn’t our first encounter with the gun question however. Earlier along our route, as we passed through the Appalachian region of Kentucky, we happened to camp a night on the lawn of the Knot County historian. He was a gregarious and gracious host, and kept us company through the evening, regaling us with too many stories to recount here, so as before, I’ll stick with the topic at hand. He traded his typical mirthful expression, became very serious for a moment and asked us, “Are y’all carrying a firearm? I mean, ya got a gun with you?” I think this was the first time the Brits had ever been in the position of even considering the possibility of possessing a gun. They laughed. Our host remained serious. He was worried for our safety out on the roads. He didn’t seem to be worried about the threat of intimidating or delinquent motorists. Actually, he was concerned about wild animals. First, he said he was worried about packs of wild dogs, or potentially worse, guard dogs kept unleashed in these rural mountains to protect property since, as in the case above in Missouri, the arm of the law really didn’t extend here. Moreover, our host seemed to be more seriously concerned with copperhead snakes. He said these snakes liked to lie along the cool ditches by the road and would strike at our legs as we pedaled by and startled them. Our defense, he reckoned, was to pack a gun. Our Appalachain guy was swell, a decent host, and good story teller, but we had all we could do to keep from laughing. Before we tucked away to our tents for the night, he warned us not to be alarmed if we heard gun shots in the middle of the night – it would just be him trying to keep the wild dogs away from us while we slept.

While not too concerned about snakes striking from the ditch – that would have to be a million-to-one shot in which case the snake would probably deserve catching a flash of ankle or a thick calve – I do worry about those dogs. Many a time have I let my mind go there after some dog in a driveway has terrorized me, and I daydream over the next couple miles about the satisfaction I might feel if I only had a gun – a pretty atypical thought for me, to say the least. My stoker feels the same as she wrote a while back on this blog. But fantasy aside, how practicable would that be? Even if I could tug some handgun out of its holster or my rear jersey pocket while dodging a dog at my heels, the recoil from firing off a round would certainly cause me to crash – or both of us, if we’re on the tandem. Even if the stoker took the actual role of tail gunner (already she does a lot back there, like unwrap energy bars and take photos), I’m pretty sure her firing a gun would adversely affect my handling. Gun and bikes just don’t mix.

Years earlier, when I announced to my parents that I was going to ride my bike across country from Oregon to Maine, my father and I had “a talk.” We were at a local county fair in western Maine, and ducked out to the parking lot to have a beer in the old family truck. I hadn’t realized until then that my recently unveiled intention to bike across the U.S. was weighing heavily on his mind. I had my concerns for safety, sure. Sharing the road with cars is indeed a serious decision. Even in a car, it’s a responsibility to be taken with gravity – you’re hurtling along in two tons of metal with explosives combusting under the hood, and those painted lines on the road aren’t physically preventing that missile from going off anywhere. But my father was worried about something else – the evil in society. He asked me whether I was planning on carrying a gun with me for protection. Up to then, the thought had never occurred to me. Even after my loving, concerned father said that, it seemed so far outside of my perspective that I struggled to meet the sincerity with which he asked me.

Was is it about our country and guns? Just after I’d found the bullet and was inspired to write about this topic, the public radio show This American Life rebroadcast an older episode they’d entitled just that: “Guns.” Ira Glass, pithy as ever, made the observation that there really are two Americas – the part that gets guns, and the part that simply does not. And the divide is irreconcilable. I’m in that latter category. Because I’m an American, of course I understand that guns – their possession, and the vehement, emotional claim of the righteousness to their possession – are a part of my culture. But personally, I just don’t get it, and I never will. There’s no room in my pannier for a gun, and I think my tail gunner prefers to smile and wave rather than pull a trigger.