Posts Tagged 'joys of the road'

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.


Snow day in Saxapahaw

The question of riding bicycles out of choice, necessity, or some mixture thereof was solved for this tandem couple this weekend. A friday night storm of snow and ice closed the roads and filled the fields, and persistent freezing temperatures have kept it all in place. We were forced, albeit happily, to hang up the Sidis in favor of the Bean boots and go frolic in the snow.

No biking today, but plenty of fun to come...

The unusually wintry winter we’re experiencing in North Carolina delivered the sort of snowy weekend that exists deep in the collective American sentimental memory of the season – this is real winter. Whether you’re from a serious winter climate (i.e. The North, like this Mainer) or an unserious winter climate (i.e. The South, like my honey), I bet we conjure up a similar vision of the perfect winter day – bright white snow sparkling under the sun after snowing all night, sound softened by the deep snow, meditative crunching of snow under boots, red-faced children on sleds, hot cocoa. This was exactly the scene in Saxapahaw this weekend, a scene that comes around perhaps once every five to ten years.

This being the South, it’s a given they don’t have the equipment to clear and treat the roads – and I’m happy for any reason not to get in the car. However, it also means that when the snow hits, we’re not prepared with the truly essential equipment. What to use for a sled? Luckily we live in a river town, so improvisation was easy. That which floats could also be used to go down a steep slope. We dug out our truck tire inner tub that we use to float on the Haw. It’s old, and had a couple holes. This is where bicycle skills come in handy:

Patch kit and pump, no problem.

My stoker’s enthusiasm for sledding, partly due to her geographic deprivation of snow during her childhood, is unparalleled. Long before I roused myself from bed on Saturday, and then again on Sunday, she had our warm gear pulled out, a lunch packed, and a thermos of hot tea ready for full days out on hills. These were to be epic days for us and our dog who’s built for this weather more than anything.

Recently I’ve been considering why Saxapahaw was a better place for a settlement along the Haw as opposed to any other stretch. It’s been continuously inhabited for centuries, mostly recently by the Sissipahaw Indians, before the Europeans migrated to the area with their mills and churches. Following the closing of the mill in the 90s, Sax has entered its latest state of transition, as the center of a community that is trying to be more inclusive of workers, farmers, foodies and artists regardless of race. Why all of this activity here at this point along the Haw? It has to be the tall hills that rise above the river, which provided enough high ground for housing and a water tower. The major landholders in the town, the Jordans, maintain a huge open field of rolling hills. These hills are of course perfect for sledding.

After a few runs to break trail, we were attaining some long runs and serious speeds.

At either end of the field where the hills were steepest and longest, neighbors gathered with whatever sleds they could find. I’d never met so many Saxapahemians. Even during the summer when the Saturday farmer’s market and live music draws a couple hundred folks, you’re never sure who of them actually live in the area. The snow was an event for the local community itself. It’s a tradition that goes back decades. We sledded with a family for a couple hours who’d been in the area for a few generations, who said they’d all come around to these fields every time there was snow.

A slope behind the mill houses off Hilltop St was by far the most popular. By the time we got there, the slope was completely slick, and jarring moguls had formed. It was teeming with children, and plenty of adults were joining in the fun. The slope went off the back yard of one house whose residents have been there renting for a few months. They had set up a stand of hot cocoa for everyone to enjoy. I said it was cool of them let people play off their back yard. They replied that they didn’t have a choice. This is just where the locals go whenever it snows.

Watching this group from afar, we’d seen some large objects going down the slope. As we approached, we realized we were watching the true merging of the river town with a snowy day. The older kids, by whom I mean the adult men, were running their canoes and kayaks down the slope.

Drag race!

We watched this crew launch downhill, hit a rut on the way down and turn full sideways before righting themselves, and finally flip over. No worries about drowning in that canoe, but bones have something to fear.

Our only lament was that we only had one tube to slide on, and that we didn’t have a sled we could ride on together. We’re a tandem couple, and we needed something like a classic toboggan (for the southerners out there, I mean the multi-person sled, and not a knit hat). On our very last run of the day, we decided to try it anyway – we both loaded onto our tube and set off down the hill. It was the wildest, funnest ride of the day. As a sort of turnabout, my beloved stoker sat up front and could watch the path down the hill and the quickly approaching edge of the woods, while I, typically the captain on the tandem, was on the back, laying back unable to see forward or control our speed or direction in the least. I was literally being being dragged along at epic speed, at the mercy of gravity and whatever control my partner had up front. It was the best run of the weekend.


I was looking forward to moving back to North Carolina from Chicago for many reasons: mainly to begin living with my fiancee, but not the least, I was looking forward to a full 12-month year of bikeable weather. When I originally left NC a few years ago, I rejoiced at returning to the land of four distinct seasons, each resplendent with their respective glories and miseries. In the south, winter seemed to flatten into a continuum between fall and spring, basically stretching the entire period into one long season, that is just kinda nice.

I quickly realized, however, that the previous years in North Carolina and a couple in mild western Oregon, had permanently shaped my expectations. Snowy landscapes are indeed beautiful, and I have a bizarre sort of nostalgia for shoveling the driveway (formerly a bane of my childhood spent in Maine). But I want to stay active year-round in the physical activity I had chosen – that being biking.

Yes, you can bike in Chicago throughout the winter, and I’ve seen a few news articles lately giving tips (here and here), but I’d say that’s mainly for urban commuters who go a few miles at a clip, or for daredevil masochists. I’m talking about getting those long country miles under my wheels without the threat of snow plows and ice hazards.

The short days have obviated the 20-mile bike commute, until the light begins to hold out long enough for safer passage on the rural roads, and I’m left with a 3-mile bike ride from the park-and-ride lot. I also have to admit that the unusually cold days that struck the south the past month did a number on my and my tandem partner’s motivation to take weekend leisure rides (I realize there’s no excuse for this given the above comments about the north).

In any event, despite the colder than normal temps and the short days, we have occasionally gotten out for a tandem ride. And this is what I’ve found out: the less frequent bike rides during this season have given me a new perspective that there is indeed something that is distinct about the southern winter. This season, chilly if not cold, darker and rainier than the others, uncovers an environment that I can’t see during the other seasons. Here, the fall leaves hang on long, and spring bursts forth with an explosion of green come March. But right now, I can actually see the landscape around me that, for the other 9 months of the year, I literally can’t see for the trees.

From our back deck, we have a clear view of the Haw river, and the dam over which the river swollen from repeated heavy rains continues to thunder. And bike rides down roads regularly pedaled throughout the year yield discoveries otherwise invisible to us: junk yards usually hidden in the woods; houses deep into properties we didn’t know where there; farm fields that extend farther and support more livestock than we realized. Basically, more cars, people, and cows surrounding us. On the bike, we pass through these areas, stealthily glancing into back yards, seeing our world more clearly.

One of my early complaints about the piedmont landscape was that the mild hills and dense trees prevented me from ever getting a grasp on what the environment around me was shaped like and what it contained. Winter provides that chance.

And then, when rides become more rare, things happen on usually familiar roads that totally change our ride. E.g.:

bridge out

Uh oh... bridge is out.

Note to local readers: bridge is out on McBane Mill for the foreseeable future.

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!)

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:


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.

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.