Monday, September 1, 2014

Cycling… for When You Can't Walk

Post-Hiking Attempt to Cycle
Like some sonorous seafloor-dwelling creature, I slide my way around the house, grabbing onto furniture to support and propel me. And as I squeal pathetically when descending a single stair, I can't believe that a stroll down the rocky hillside of that rainbow-spewing beast had the power to incapacitate me like this. But incapacitate me it did. And now, if I can walk at all, it is with a stiff, clipped gait, heaving my body forward like a pile of broken luggage that won't roll on its own. 

It is in this sorry state that I move, mincingly and with a deranged grimace, toward my bicycle. With a trembling hand, I keep the handlebars steady as I jerkily bring an aching leg across and gracelessly hoist my bottom onto the saddle. I am almost afraid to push off, wincing preemptively in expectation of pain. But instead, I feel the bliss of non-pain. I feel a lovely, liberating weightlessness. By some miracle (okay, science), the muscles that hurt when executing every other movement do not hurt when pedaling. Today the bicycle is my mobility chair. Again!

A funny theme to this summer has been engaging in activities that wreck my legs even more than the bike itself. Running 7 miles on too-soft sand first did this to me, making my calves feel like led injected with fiery poison for days. But that was nothing compared to climbing mountains. I wrote about climbing Croagh Patrick a little while ago. I have since also climbed the steep and pointy Errigal, and, most recently, the near-vertical, flat-top Muckish. 

Now, when it comes to scrambling up a mountain, I absolutely love it. I don't find it particularly effortful to climb, even fairly steep sections, as long as I don't try to go too fast. And I love those moments of looking back over my shoulder and discovering how the views have opened up. Getting off a mountain, however, is a different story! My balance, though greatly improved compared to several years ago, still isn't great, and I seem to lack an intuitive sense of picking a good line. On the way down, I slip, slide, misstep, and stumble a lot. I also feel as if I'm constantly fighting my body's desire to let itself go and tumble down at full speed. By the time I reach the bottom, I am drained of energy and my legs are aching - which is nothing compared to how they feel the next day. The culprit of the pain are those long bands that run along the outer thighs. They aren't just tight; they bind and dig in like a row of steel nails. 

I remembered this pain again as soon as I got off my bike to walk the short distance to the supermarket entrance. I cursed it as I shuffled around the isles feebly. Perhaps it was my lack of confidence when descending responsible for this; no doubt I was over-bracing myself and tensing those muscles too much - the walking equivalent of riding the brake. 

At the till, the checkout girl gave me a once-over and said with a chuckle. "What were you at theday?"

"Mountain," I mumbled, and she laughed and nodded in understanding. Been there, done that.

Well, the pain will go away in a day or two. Until then, at least I got my bike to get around. If only I could ride it indoors!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Transporting Delicate Plants by Bike

Flowers by Bike
Every now and again I am asked which everyday items I find the trickiest to carry by bike. The expectation is for it to be something fragile, like eggs or glassware. But those I've actually found pretty manageable. Eggs do just fine in their cartons. Glassware and picture frames can be wrapped in crumpled paper or bubblewrap. Honestly, I have yet to break an egg or a wine glass on a two wheeled commute, and I'm not even especially careful. But what I do find tricky to transport by bike is plants - in particular, small potted plants with delicate stems and flowers. So easy they are to bruise and snap, that merely placing them at the bottom of a pannier or basket can result in a sad mangled mess by the end of a bumpy ride home. But you can't exactly wrap them in bubblewrap either! So for these dainty, fragrant beauties, I've come up with a system: 

Flowers by Bike
Take, for instance, the lovely little cyclamen. They come in beautiful shapes and colours and are fairly low-maintenance to have around the house. But they don't do so well in transport. The petals bruise easily when they come in contact with pretty much anything, and the flowers have a tendency to snap off at the slightest provocation. The stems go limp and droop from being jostled. 

Flowers by Bike
To keep this from happening, I have taken to constructing a protective collar. It is extremely easy to make: simply take stiff paper or thin cardboard, wrap it around your plant and tape it together. 

Flowers by Bike
The idea is to fit it fairly tightly around the plant and to make it high enough to cover the whole thing. This way, the cardboard collar both contains the stems and protects the petals from contact with other objects - even if the plant should tip over in transit.

Flowers by Bike
But the key to preventing the plant tipping over is creating a stable platform. With the exception of rack-mounted crates, few bicycle baskets and panniers have stable, solid floors. More often the bottom of a bike bag or basket is curved, saggy, or uneven. So if you can find a small crate or box that will fit inside your bag and in which your plants can snuggly sit, this will make their transport a lot less perilous. 

Flowers by Bike
No matter what size you need, finding a suitable crate should not be difficult. Garden centers, flower shops and fruit and vegetable stands all have loads of crates and boxes that they happily give away to customers. 

Flowers by Bike
The crate I am using here is a tangerine crate that fits inside my Brompton "bagsket" snugly, and is extremely lightweight to boot (gotta shave off those grams where you can!).  

Flowers by Bike
To prevent the plants from shifting inside the crate, I stuff crumpled paper (or whatever soft objects are handy) into the gaps. 

Flowers by Bike
And voila, we are ready to ride! To provide some perspective, the places where I get my plants are 7+ miles from my house along bumpy roads. I've also carried my own plants as gifts to friends a similar distance away. And with the help of a stable platform and cardboard collars, they arrive intact. 

Geranium Portage
Of course, not all potted plants require this much fuss. Geraniums, for example, I have found to be surprisingly indestructible and can transport them without the cardboard contraptions. But it's good to be able to carry even the most delicate little blooms by bike if I feel like it, with the help of some simple DIY. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Knowing When to Let Go: Are Old Bikes Always Worth Rescuing?

Bikes of Westport
Sometimes I think I'm a bad influence. Like, when a friend phones last week, excited by her two-wheeled vintage find. "You'll appreciate this - I think it's a mixte!" She texts over a picture. 

"What do you think?"

"Hmmm…" I reply.


" Did you buy it already?"

"Yea… why?"

"Fork's bent."

" :((( "

Now, I've owned a bike with a bent fork before - a beautiful vintage Gazelle. It rode great for the 2 years I had it and continues to ride great for the current owner. But in this case, I could tell from the picture that the fork at the very least would need straightening by someone who knew what they were doing. That, plus a few other problems I could readily see, made me think my friend was not equipped to deal with the work required to bring this bike to ridable condition. Sadly, at this point she was already attached to the idea that this specific bicycle was meant for her. So she shlepped it to a bike shop and asked for an estimate. I suspect the 4-figure quote they gave her was only half-serious and mainly meant to discourage her (a topic for another time, this!). But in any case, that was the end of it. Having paid very little for the bike to begin with my friend counted her losses and donated it to a local co-op. 

But we do not always let go so easily. 

At the moment I myself have two old bikes in the garage that are, quite frankly, probably destined to return from whence they came (the skip!)… But I am not quite ready to admit that yet, instead tinkering with them pathetically and agonising over whether to spend money on replacement parts that will probably do no good. 

Rebecca of velovoice recently documented the saga of her Puch swoopy mixte, which, despite her best efforts could not be made fully road-worthy due to a kinked rear stay. The bike was beautiful and unusual, and everything she had been looking for in a vintage machine, which perhaps made her more optimistic about its viability than she otherwise would have been. But after months of trying, she finally admitted defeat, stripping it for parts and throwing away the frame. Hopefully the parts will find a new home some day.

A former blogger I knew back in Massachusetts bought a sweet-looking vintage 3-speed that seemed to be in perfect condition, only to discover hidden problems that made it unridable. She took it to bike mechanics, and when that did not produce satisfactory results she enrolled in workshops to try and fix it herself. By the time she finally gave up, she was frustrated, exhausted, devastated and disillusioned in vintage bikes as a whole - which was the part I found most disappointing. 

It really is possible to find vintage bikes with few to no problems. And even those that start out worse for wear can be a joy to bring back to life. But a vintage bike can also become a white whale. And so it's important to recognise when to let go - when a restoration project is too much to take on, be it in terms of skills, finances, or even emotional investment. My advice when it comes to buying a vintage bike of unknown provenance? Acknowledge the risk. And don't get attached until you have it assessed. It's no fun to get trapped in an obsessive quest to restore the unrestorable. After all, you could be out riding a functional bike instead! 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dry Cleaning Your Wool… with Fresh Air

Airing Out Wool
One of the much-touted attractions of wool clothing - and the basis on which it is recommended to cyclists - is its supposed odor resistant properties. In fact, it is not uncommon for proponents of the stuff to brag about how infrequently they wash their clothing (once a month! once a year! never!!!) As a wool enthusiast myself I am often asked about my take on this claim. Can wool clothing really be worn endlessly without washing? or - as one friend recently put it - "are woolsters just grungy?..." 

Well, speaking from personal experience I would put it this way: Wool retains odors to a lesser extent than cotton, and to a much lesser extent than synthetics. This is not to say that it does not pick up odors at all; only that it picks them up at a slower rate, and perhaps emanates them more subtly. Still, eventually there will come a time when you will have to clean your wool garment. But cleaning need not mean washing. And one thing I've discovered over the years, is that "dry cleaning" wool with fresh air can be amazingly effective. 

The practice of airing out clothing is of course nothing new. Compulsive laundering after brief periods of wear is a relatively recent trend, and it was once common practice to hang clothes in the window or even on the backs of chairs overnight to keep them fresher, longer. 

But with wool, this method is disproportionally effective. Just as wool is reluctant to retain odors, it's also eager to shed them if given a chance. The back yard clothesline does the trick best, especially on a breezy day. After I hang my wool clothes on the clothesline for half a day, they don't just smell fresh-er; they smell no less clean than had I actually washed them, then hung them out in the garden. They smell like the sun and the wind, that "fresh laundry" scent that detergent manufacturers try so desperately to bottle, but that can't quite compete with the real thing. And if you don't have a yard with a clothesline? Opening the window and hanging the garment off the curtain rod (or a hook) can work too. 

But why bother with this at all, you might ask, when you can just toss the clothes in the washing machine? Well, environmental and financial issues aside, there is incentive to wash wool as infrequently as possible. Wool tends to be more delicate than synthetics and cottons, as well as more prone to losing its shape. And while this is not necessarily true for all wool clothing (anything made of the "indie" fabric from Ibex I've found to be especially resilient), it has been true for enough of it, so that I avoid washing unless I have to.

While it may seem suspiciously simple, I have found that airing out wool works wonders to remove not only body odors, but also ambient smells picked from the environment, including strong food and cigarette smoke odors. Of course, airing out won't get rid of stains. So with a stain, I'll treat then handwash just the area around it - then air-dry. 

The only time I really wash my wool clothing fully and properly, is after I wear it doing something active on a hot day. When fabric becomes salt-encrusted from sweat, there is really no way to deal with it but wash the entire thing. Otherwise, the airing out method keeps my wool's contact with the washing machine at a minimum. Am I grungy or is wool just that cool? Try it out and decide for yourself!

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Summer Lull

After several years of roadcycling, you start to see patterns: strengths and weaknesses, highs and lows, energy surges and dips - the mysterious ebb and flow of the drive and desire to be on a bike. One thing I've noticed in myself - though it took me some time to acknowledge - is the summer lull.

I fought it at first, so counterintuitive of a thing it seemed. After all, summertime is the best time to be on a bike. The long days. The dry weather. The scenery at its lushest. The abundance of group rides, with cycling clubs at their most active and cycling buddies with free time on their hands. In the winter, it feels natural to hibernate and take a break from the bike for a bit. But the summer seems like the time of year to take advantage of and spent every spare moment you have in the saddle.

And yet, quite reliably, there comes a time - typically in July - when something in me snaps and I go from being on my roadbike every single day (and thinking about being on my roadbike when I am off it), to being out only occasionally, if at all. Instead, I start to crave other activities. Swimming in the sea. Forest walks. Lying in the grass with a book. Friends suddenly find that they can easily lure me out to help shop for baby furniture and kitchen appliances. "Out riding much these days?" they ask, already knowing what the answer must be if I'd agreed to do this in my spare time.

Oh I still cycle for transportation of course; every day. But those waves of restless energy that compel me to pedal, hard as I can, over winding country roads till exhaustion for no reason at all except cycling itself? No matter how I spin it, they've abandoned me.

The first summer it happened, I panicked. What was wrong with me, was I sick? Or (worse) was I sick of bikes? Did I try so hard at something I can never be good at anyway, that I simply burned out?  Well, fine then. Maybe I was not meant to do this after all. Maybe utility cycling was enough. Feeling like an outsider to the athletic side of things, this seemed a reasonable conclusion.

But no sooner did I become resigned to this fate, then the summer lull ended. It ended as suddenly as it began. No pep talks were needed, no guilt trips, no encouragement. Those waves of restless energy, that compulsion, that boiling insanity - it was all back. One August morning I simply woke up and got on my roadbike …and practically never got off, till the winter frosts set in.

The following summer, this pattern again caught me by surprise and worried me. Only toward the end of the lull did I remember the same having happened the previous year and relaxed a little. And sure enough, it ended a month later, as before. After that, while I didn't exactly welcome the summer lull, I would expect it and stopped trying to fight it. Last year I hardly touched my roadbike from mid-July till mid-August - a month of rest sandwiched between periods of hyperactivity. This summer, the lull came a bit earlier, so that I already snapped out of it last week.

Why does this happen to me at a time that for many cyclists is their peak riding season? Probably because my body cannot sustain the intensity that begins in late March or April and grows through the early summer months. And as bodies go, mine must be an "all or nothing" kind of customer: Unwilling to simply cut back, it allows me to overexert myself day after day and month after month, then simply gives out - with-holding whatever cocktail of hormones is giving me the drive to ride until it's ready to sustain me through another 4 months of madness till winter.

The summer lull feels not unlike overtraining or bonking, only less intense but deeper-rooted. In one sense I feel more "normal," like cycling is not ruling my life. In another sense, I feel flat, empty, depleted. More disturbingly, the sight an smell of my bike lose their visceral effect on me. But when it returns, it does so with a vengeance. I don't need to wonder when the lull is over; when I'm pulled toward the bike again like a magnet, I know.