Posts Tagged 'Chapel Hill'

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.


Sensory overload

I saw a vexing thing as I rode along the paved Bolin Creek Greenway in Chapel Hill today. What I saw I have ambivalent feelings about – a man who appeared to be blind led by his service dog, with the tell-tale Apple-white cords dangling from his ears.

Most of the greenway users I observe are joggers and walkers, and lots of people walking dogs. And, most of those folks that are out there solo have some sort of device to their ears, like a cell phone or ipods. Since it’s basically a recreational space with a lot of users, I take it easy on the bike rather than treat the path like a closed race course. I came from behind the man with the service dog and slowed to his pace. As I got closer, the man suddenly spooked and pulled at his dog, then settled down. I waited to pass slowly until I could be sure the way around him was clear. That’s when I confirmed that yes, he was blind, and yes, he had ipod buds in his ears.

On the one hand, I have to say that it’s perfectly acceptable that a visually-impaired person would partake of the same pleasures and activities as anyone on the path – in this case a pleasant stroll with his dog along a car-free path by a stream, whilst listening to favorite music, news, or comment.

On the other hand, the more I think about it, the more I’m opposed to blocking out any of my senses – hearing, sight, metal focus – while I’m out there ambulating and locomoting on streets and paths. I wrote about my feelings about using devices like cell phones and ipods while driving and biking a while back. I admitted that I’d tried biking with headphones for a while and realized that was pretty dangerous. And, I confessed to running or dog-walking while listening to music. As I’m exposed to more miles traveled via bike, foot, or car, (and hear about more studies and news stories) I’m convinced that I need all available senses at my disposal.

The winter days and the proximity of a gym have given me a chance to experiment with one alternative to running outside along paths or streets while listening to music – running while listening to music on the treadmill. Treadmills pose their own risks I discovered. If I think about it too hard, staying balanced on the moving walkway seems fairly improbable, but perhaps only as improbable as staying within the lines on the pavement while driving – don’t think about it too much and you’ll be fine.

I found that the danger on the treadmill in fact lies, yes, with the ipod. There I am, clicking through my podcasts, just settling into the comforting nasal tones of Ira Glass’s sensitive observations when the ipod slips from my hand, hits the treadmill track and is shot backward from the apparatus. I flail my arms in an attempt to snatch it back like a jedi, but forget to coordinate the pace of my legs with the pace of the moving belt below me. I jump, pirouette, spin, end up running backwards a few steps while still on the treadmill before I, too, am spewed off the end.

At least all I tumbled onto was a padded mat, rather than into the path of a car. Alas, the treadmill is so boring and running is so painful that I’m still willing to risk the twisted ankle by mixing the personal running device with the personal listening device.

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.