Posts Tagged 'Saxapahaw'

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.

Where have all the honkers gone?

If I had any regular readers at all, they may have wondered where these tandem bloggers had gone off to. The short answer is we’ve been no where, and no where near writing a blog post. The loss of internet at our house for the past month has contributed to our silence, but we’ve got that sorted out now. My last posts concerned the freak occurrence of a snow storm here in the peidmont that offered three solid days of sledding, and a fellow bicycle-commuter who rides without choice regardless of weather, temperature or light. What’s changed since then? Not a whole lot yet. Just this week, we had another dusting of snow, morning temps are still below freezing, and Cristobal still looks like he’s hating it as he pedals to work along the highway.

But spring is finally arriving. The daffodils are pushing up through the thawing mud, days are longer, and these honkers have gotten the tandem out over the last couple weekends. Despite last weekend’s harsh wind that gave wind burn as red and raw as any the Windy City dishes out, we joined a group of cyclists on a benefit ride from Carrboro to Saxapahaw, raising money for Haiti relief. The promise of 50-degree temps (that never quite got there) and the chance to do some good got a lot of folks out, and we even greeted another couple on a Co-Motion out on the country lanes.

Sadly, this tandem couple is parted for the week while my fiancee lives it up south of the border for spring break, but it means I have more time on my hands to blog, grease chains and dial in my brakes. There’ll be no honking in traffic this week, but lots of getting ready for it.

A post by the writer the Tandem Geek blog, who is the host of the Tandem Link web site, also wonders where have all the honkers, that is tandem riders, have gone. (If you’re a tandem team reading my blog and aren’t aware of his site, you should probably go over there instead!) In the post, he looks at the decline of tandem riding club membership over the past decade. I’m not much of a club rider one way or the other, so I don’t have an opinion about whether it signifies a decline in tandeming or just in club participation. However, the more my partner and I grow into the sport, I’m starting to get excited about joining up with some of the regional tandem. Tandem Geek also has a 2-part winter survey of tandemists and their gear.

So, the honkers haven’t gone away completely – though I’m solo for a week. We’re just winding up. The miles are starting to accumulate, the long commute from Saxapahaw to Chapel Hill will become regular again, our internet is back, and we finally picked a new camera so this blog may become a bit more visually interesting once the camera, along with my partner, gets back from Mexico.

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.

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.

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:
saxgen2

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.