Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Take Me to the River!

Just about the only thing saving my sanity during the awful heatwave we are having in Vienna, is the splendid and beautiful Danube. The Danube River and the Danube Canal run through the length of the city, and the bicycle paths along them are extremely useful for travel from one neighborhood to another. The streets of Vienna may be choking with exhaust fumes and the asphalt may be melting from the heat, but the cycle paths by the river are leafy and breezy. And they can take you from the center of town to the serene countryside in as little as 30 minutes!

A couple of days ago, Anna (from Cycling is Good for You) and I escaped Vienna for a trip to the country, swapping bicycles while we were at it. But I will have to postpone writing about that, because I am off to a conference in Romania (which, incidentally, is accessible via the very Danube bicycle path that runs through Vienna). I enjoy knowing that I can get on the river path around the corner from my house, and just keep going for days until I reach either the Black Forest in Germany, or the Black Sea in Romania. And this is the same bike path on which I commute to work! Magical.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Do We Care If They See Our Underwear?

[image via velo-mama]

Ah, the topic of underpant visibility whilst cycling in a skirt! It is truly one of which we lady cyclists never seem to tire. Some enthusiastically discuss methods of tying down the skirt so as to curb its treacherous revelations. Others advocate wearing leggings. But as I cycled to various meetings in different parts of Vienna today in insane mid-day heat, I suddenly simply did not care. And neither, I noticed, did any of the Viennese ladies on bicycles around me. And, more importantly still, neither did the men.

[image via eva-lu]

Noticing this made me think about why it is that we tend to be so concerned about whether our underpants are showing as we cycle. Is it a personal sense of modesty? Or is it because of how men look at us? For me, I have to say it is the latter. In the US, if I am not wearing leggings under a skirt while cycling, it is almost inevitable that a man will shout something at me or meaningfully look at me in a way that I find unpleasant. That is why I wear leggings, and not because I am inherently ashamed to show my underwear. Despite the theoretical progress in gender relations, I think it is unsafe to evoke a curiosity about my anatomy in strange men.

By comparison, in Vienna the men don't seem too interested in examining women cycling in skirts. Perhaps it is a deep-rooted cultural difference when it comes to gender relations, or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that there is a nudist beach just down the river. Whatever the reason, it is a welcome relief. If they don't care, then honestly - I don't either. If only that sense of liberation were enough to deal with this horrible heatwave!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

In Da House

So, apparently even in Vienna I am incapable of riding just one bike. Now I have Jacqueline the lady's Waffenrad and Kurt the trackbike living with me. Jacqueline stays in the courtyard, chained to a pipe. Kurt leads a pampered lifestyle indoors.

Here are his posh private quarters, under the loft stairs and on my housemate's nice rug. Amazingly, she does not object to her new tenant.

I have been riding Kurt every day after work since having gotten him on Monday, but today my legs demanded a break. My "adventures" so far have included getting a flat 5 miles from home and learning why tubular tires outside the track are not a great idea (you can't patch them up). With the rim and tire combination on this bike, it is actually okay to cycle on a flat slowly, and that is how I got home. But my hands were not too happy after the "vibrant" ride of shame. Later, Wolfgang switched out my entire front wheel for another one with an intact tire. I am guessing they don't make tubular tires with kevlar, eh?

Another fun thing that happened, was that the bolt came off one of my rear drop-outs and I did not notice until much later. I am guessing this happened from riding on potholes. Thankfully, the bolt on the other side of the wheel remained securely attached, but it was still scary to see. Today I bought a replacement (good Lord, Campagnolo bolts are expensive!), so all is well. From now on I will inspect the bike carefully before taking it out - which, I am realising, is something one needs to do on a bicycle like this.

I have been delighted to discover that the geometry of this bicycle activates the thigh muscles in a way that after 5 days I can already see a difference in the contours of my legs - very nice. Kurt is welcome in my house any time - I just hope he has the good manners to keep his bolts on and his tires inflated!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Social and Solitary

If you look at most cycling blogs today, the discourse tends to stress the social aspects of riding a bicycle. Cycling is presented as an activity that fosters a sense of community- with an emphasis on interaction with other cyclists, neighborhood initiatives, various workshops and co-ops, group rides, community action programmes, and city or state-wide coalitions.

I find this interesting to observe, because to me the bicycle has always been a symbol of solitude - something that brings complete independence and freedom. When I think of "riding a bicycle," I imagine cycling for miles and miles through changing landscapes, alone with my thoughts and at peace with the world; a meditation of sorts. But I can certainly understand that others imagine group rides, bike workshops, and other social activities - they see the bicycle as a shared interest that makes it easy to connect to others.

Often I am asked why I do not participate in group rides, and the reason is simply that for me socialising and cycling are two distinct activities that are best enjoyed separately. It makes me nervous to chat while trying to navigate traffic, so I fully enjoy neither the discussion nor the ride. I also feel that group rides - even slow ones - are more hazardous than cycling alone, because you have to watch out not only for traffic, but for the wheels of other cyclists; I know probably a half dozen people whose only cycling accidents happened during group rides. I can cycle pretty happily with one person at a time (though it depends on their style), but beyond that it starts to get stressful.

This is not to say that I am "against" the socially-oriented portrayal of cycling. I just don't think that the bicycle = community association is universally applicable. And after all, it is rather fascinating that the bicycle can be a symbol of two diametrically opposite things: the social and the solitary.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Slightly Off Track...

I have mentioned my wistfulness for the velodrome and my attraction to beautiful track bikes before, and, let's face it - we all thought it was pretty funny and ludicrous. But the joke has now become an unexpected reality!

My friend Wolfgang in Vienna suggested that I try a vintage trackbike he happens to own in my size. He transported it to the Velodrome on his cargo bike, and the idea was for me to try riding it on the adjacent paved lot. The Velodrome here is closed for the summer and the abandoned lot makes for a safe practice area. We figured that even if I managed to ride the bike for a couple of yards, it would sort of count as having been on the Velodrome grounds (right?).

This bicycle is pretty special and once belonged to professional Austrian racer Kurt Schneider, but that is a topic for its own post. The size and fit were just right for me, really perfect. Having ridden my Sam Hillborne for a month back home, I was already used to the diamond frame and drop bars. But of course there were the small details of the fixed gear and the lack of brakes.

Well, apparently I survived. And what I thought would be, at best, a careful circling around the Velodrome lot, turned into an ecstatic 7-mile ride on paths and back roads on the outskirts of Vienna. Here are my impressions, from the point of view of someone who has never ridden such a bicycle before:

. The bike felt completely "normal" to ride. I expected to have trouble getting used to the inability to coast, but it did not need getting used to. It was not in any way difficult or strange, just felt natural.

. In general, I feel that the idea of "not being able to coast" is misleading, in that it suggests that the fixed gear cyclist is hard at work the entire time, always pedaling. That is not so, because the time you'd spend coasting on a regular bike, you still spend relaxing your legs on a fixed gear. Effort-wise it is no more strenuous than coasting, only the pedals are rotating your legs for you. Just relax and let it happen.

. I do not yet understand the mechanics of this, but the fixed gear did make me feel far more in control than did any other bike I have ridden. I was able to go through tighter spaces and trickier corners without panicking. To be honest, I have always been somewhat apprehensive of coasting, because it makes me feel as if the bike can be reeling out of control at any moment. By contrast, the fixed gear feels safe and predictable.

. While I do not advocate riding a brakeless trackbike on the street, I found that the stopping power was not much worse than when riding a vintage roadster with rod brakes. You just need to be aware of your speed, your surroundings, and plan your stops accordingly. I went slowly, and did not have trouble stopping when I needed to.

. The stopping process is similar to a coaster brake: just pull backwards with your legs. The bike will keep going for a few revolutions, slowing down more and more with each until it comes to a stop.

. I expected a bike with "track geometry" to be uncomfortable to ride. This bicycle was extremely comfortable, but I am not sure to what extent it is bike-specific - maybe it is just extremely well built. Even the 23mm tubular tires felt fine - including off road!

. The only aspect of the bike that began to bother me after a while, were the handlebars - the track-style drop bars don't have sufficient "shoulders" for me to place my hands the way I like.

I am not sure whether my feedback is typical or not. But that was my experience, and I absolutely loved it. It was especially wonderful to actually go exploring on this bike. I still have a hard time believing I did it.

A big Thank You to Wolfgang again for this experience. (And in case you are wondering, he is riding a Benotto time trial bike.)

I think that the popularity of fixed gear culture today has given us a lot of misconceptions about what riding a track bike is actually like. It was completely different from what I had expected, it wasn't difficult, and most importantly, it was enjoyable. The trackbike now (temporarily) lives with me, and I have been practicing riding it after work on the Danube Canal bike path and in the Prater park.

Could the crazy dream of the velodrome be not so crazy after all?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

All Happy Bicycles Are Alike?...

According to the Anna Karenina principle, it might be said that all happy bicycles are alike and every unhappy bicycle is unhappy in its own way.

Jacqueline - a vintage Steyr Waffenrad that has become my "Austrian bike" - is happy. She has a relationship with a human who loves her. She has an idyllic work commute along the Danube Canal.

She has beautiful heirloom jewelry in silver and gold.

She feels useful and fulfilled, responsible for the safety and well-being of the people in her life.

Back in Boston, Eustacia (my Pashley Princess) has recently reached a similar state of happiness - interestingly, after the addition of some of the same components, such as the rear folding baskets and the speedy cream tires. It seems that bicycle happiness is indeed, at least to some extent, formulaic. When all the factors come together just right, it works. When something is off, it doesn't.

This brings the question of whether happy bicycles inspire being written about. When everything feels just right, there is nothing to say really. The sun is shining, my bicycle is running smoothly, my folding basket fits my briefcase snugly, my shoes don't slip on the pedals, the route to work is safe and beautiful, and it took me less time to arrive at my office than had I taken the subway. That pretty much describes my commute this morning, and it sounds rather uninteresting.

As I said to Anna from Cycling is Good for You the other evening - If I lived in Vienna and had Jacqueline to begin with, I doubt that I would have ever started a cycling blog despite loving bicycles. Maybe an image gallery, but not a blog. There would have been nothing to discuss.

After all, most posts are written about challenges, questions, restorations, the search for new components or better routes, and so on. But is bicycle happiness newsworthy?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bikes You Can't Ride

Last night, Anna (from Cycling Is Good for You) and I went to a party thrown by a local law firm. As a form of entertainment, the party offered its guests a number of exotic bicycles to try, courtesy of our friend and fabled bicycle collector Wolfgang.

Among the more notable was this super-long chopper.

Don't be deceived by the fact that Anna is actually pedaling it in the pictures - these things are incredibly difficult to ride. The freakishly long fork throws the steering completely out of wack requiring extraordinary balancing skills and trust in the universe to control it.

And here is Wolfgang riding a Swing Bike. If it looks like the bicycle is folding in half whilst in motion, that's because it is.

The seat tube is split in such a way, that it pivots and allows independent steering for the front and rear wheel, to the point that the wheels can be almost parallel to one another.

When I first learned about modified bicycles, I assumed the point behind them was eccentricity and creativity. I never realised that often such bikes are intentionally designed to be difficult to ride. By altering the bicycle in a way that disturbs balance, the cyclist is challenged to compensate by improving their own balancing and steering skills. Though I prefer my bicycles ridable, I appreciate the skill it takes to handle these - especially after having tried (and failed) to ride them myself!

Friday, June 18, 2010

My Bike is Not a Vacuum Cleaner! (or, a Little Romance Goes a Long Way)

An object is never just an object: It is a symbol for the experience it enables. It is a catalyst for a series of associations. It is a keeper and evoker of memories. An object can inspire, impress, or depress. An object can leave us cold or it can excite us. All of this depends on how we feel (or don't feel) about the experiences it symbolises.

This is why I cannot get on board with the idea that our relationship to the bicycle ought to be exclusively utilitarian, devoid of romance or sentimentality. In his discussions about developing a successful bicycle culture, the author of Copenhagenize.com likes to compare the Danish attitude towards the bicycle with that to the vacuum cleaner:
"We all have a vacuum cleaner, we've all learned how to use it and we all use it. But we don't go around thinking about our vaccum in the course of a day. Only when the bag is full do we roll our eyes and sigh. Kind of like when our tire is flat/chain is loose and we chuck our bike into the bike shop.

We don't have a 'stable' of vacuum cleaners. We don't ...wave at other 'avid' vacuum cleaning 'enthusiasts' whilst we clean. The relationship to our bicycles is the same as to our vacuum cleaners. They're both merely incredibly effective and useful tools for making our daily lives easier."
While I respect Mr. Colville-Andersen's work and agree with him on many issues, this insistence on stripping the bicycle of emotional and personal value is misguided and philosophically flawed.

Though on some level, both the bicycle and the vacuum cleaner are utilitarian objects, the type of experiences they represent could not be more different. A vacuum cleaner evokes associations with: order, work, domesticity, obligation, enclosed spaces, headache-inducing noise, and boredom. A bicycle evokes associations with: movement, freedom, independence, wind in your hair, the outdoors, and joy. It is only natural the the latter invites emotional connectedness and the former does not. An object is never just an object.

The fact that the bicycle performs the very practical function of transporting us from one place to another need not compete with the fact that it inspires romanticisation; the two things are not at odds. On the contrary: It seems to me that the very reason the bicycle is so appealing, is its potential to transform ordinary acts of everyday travel into magical experiences of beauty, fantasy, joy and freedom. My bike is not a vacuum cleaner, and I do not feel silly for loving it.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Immediate Bike Immersion

For the first time since I've been staying in Vienna, there was a bicycle all my own waiting for me when I arrived. Here is Jacqueline again, courtesy of my friend Wolfgang - famous here not only for his fantastic vintage collection, but also for his bicycle touring and bicycle moving endeavors.

Since our last time together, Jacqueline has been given a leather saddle and is now more beautiful and comfortable than ever. The saddle is a sprung Brooks that appears to be a vintage version of the B66 (the model number is faded and I cannot tell exactly).

It felt so, so wonderful to be greeted by Jackie's "familiar face" and to cycle around the city on my very first day back instead of using public transport and moping. With the memory of my own bikes back home still fresh, I can say this Steyr Waffenrad is a distinctly different ride from my vintage Raleigh Tourist. Riding the Austrian bike feels as if I am sailing on a ship. Not quite sure what this means exactly, but that is what the sensation makes me think of. It is not better or worse than my bicycle at home, just different. Amazing that even among similar bikes, there are such differences in ride quality.

Still trying to adjust to the transition from Bostonian to Viennese cycling, I nearly missed this girl in front of me with a spectacular crocheted dressguard on her bike.

Here is the best close-up I could get. I love these vintage crocheted dressguards, and in Vienna you can actually see them occasionally "in the wild".

Wolfgang also has some nice ones on one of his collector bikes, but that bicycle is too old and valuable to cycle round the city. Crocheted dressguards are a passion that I try to suppress due to how difficult to find they are, but I am always looking. The only place I know of where you can get new ones nowadays is Simeli in the Netherlands, and I hope to review one of those soon. A couple of people have also emailed me about some handmade projects, but I have not had any follow-ups (let me know if you've seen or heard anything on that front).

Being in Vienna again, I have weeks of stressful workdays ahead of me - but having Jacqueline by my side will be a great help. I will see my friend Anna from Cycling is Good for You soon with her gorgeous Retrovelo Paula. And I may try to ride a vintage Austrian track bike, though I am still unsure whether I am brave enough to attempt it! Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Inflight Entertainment

Leaving for Austria again, I bought the new Bike Snob book to read on the plane in hopes of distracting myself from my terror of flying. I like the BikeSnobNYC blog, but what made me buy the book was Grant Petersen's review on Rivendell's website. I have to admit that I am a sucker for Grant Petersen's writing and find myself reading all sorts of things he wrote that I have no interest in, just for the narration. If he wrote a 2-page description of bathroom tiles, I'd probably read it. His enticing endorsement of the book put me over the edge.

And if this isn't proof of the existence of the Collective Unconscious, I don't know what is: No sooner did I stuff Bike Snob into my carry-on, then mention of me appeared on his blog. Scroll down to the bit about the Boston Globe story on sweat stains and fabrics with patterns. Right...

Bike Snob proved useful during my flight, as I was seated between two mothers with babies on their laps. The babies not only wailed for the duration of the flight, but now and again would reach out to pull my hair, poke my eye, or chew on my jacket. Noticing this, the mothers would smile at me generously - as if to say: "As a female of childbearing age, surely you must be delighted at the opportunity to interact with babies!" Trying not to start wailing myself, I took deep breaths and concentrated on Bike Snob.

If I had to use one word to describe the book it would be "heartwarming". It is gently humorous, and reading it feels like wrapping yourself in a warm and fuzzy sweater with cute little patterns of bicycles all over it. Though Bike Snob argues that there is no such thing as "bike culture," he contradicts himself by creating a sense of one - to the extent of even referring to cyclists as a distinct breed of people. He also contradicts himself by railing against the fetishisation of the cycling experience, only to go on and fetishise the heck out of it himself in later chapters. I am pretty certain that these contradictions are intentional, meant to illustrate his own hopeless love for bicycles and to demonstrate that he too is susceptible to the very things he mocks.

As for the contents, they are surprisingly straightforward. The chapters address such topics as bicycle history, bicycle ownership, bicycle maintenance, and road rules. There is also a part on "Velo-Taxonomy" where he categorises cyclists into various types and explains the differences in detail. According to his taxonomy, I would be a hybrid between the "Retrogrouch", the "Lone Wolf", and the "Beautiful Godzilla" (though the only thing in common I have with the latter is the type of bicycle I ride).

The Bike Snob book is generously illustrated, in a manner that evokes Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. The design and layout make the pages almost seem edible. In a way, the presentation can be described as having a pre-packaged "cult status feel." Whether the book will actually attain cult status, only time will determine.

In other velo-news I can report from my travels, I saw these neat bicycles during my layover in Frankfurt Airport. These bikes have fenders, dynamo hub lighting, a the double-legged kickstand, a bell, a Basil front basket, a Pletscher rear rack, Schwalbe tires, and what appear to be license plates. From what I could tell, they are for the airport employees and not for flight passengers. Too bad, I would have liked to ride one around the airport!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Knowing What You Like: Theory and Practice

If you are reading this, chances are you do a great deal of bicycle-related research - from reading blogs, product reviews, articles and DIY tips, to examining endless pictures of other people's bikes. In the absence of direct experience, this sort of research shapes our preferences and informs our decisions about what bicycles to get, as well as how to outfit them. Knowing a lot about something through research can sure make us feel as if we are "experts" at it. But the truth is, that until we try something ourselves, we have no idea what it's actually like. Theory is one thing; practice is another. I will confess some bicycle-related ideas that I loved after reading about them, but did not love so much after actually implementing them.

In theory, I love the look of shellacked cork grips and shellacked cork bartape. In practice, I found that the feel of shellacked cork is too glassy and slippery for my liking. The more layers of shellac, the nicer the cork looks... and the worse it feels to my hands. I really wanted to like it, but it just does not work for me. I prefer un-shellacked cork, shellacked cloth tape, leather grips, and even plastic grips.

Inexpensive cloth tape with just a couple of thin layers of shellac. Not as fancy and shiny, but my hands prefer it.

The "Special" version of Brooks saddles. I love the look of Brooks "Special" saddles with their pretty copper rivets - so much so, that last summer I paid a bit extra for a Flyer Special for my vintage Motobecane mixte, instead of getting the Standard. I have since learned that the Special versions of the saddles are apparently made of a thicker leather. In theory this is a good thing, as the saddles are more durable. In practice, it has proven impossible for me to break in my Flyer Special! A year later, and it still hurts.

The B17 Standard on my Hillborne has less of a "wow" factor, but I don't care: It took me a week to break in this saddle!

Last year, Honjo fluted fenders seemed like such a beautiful choice for Marianne. But while they truly are picture-perfect, they did not stay that way for long once I began riding my bike. The long smooth fluted surfaces of these fenders showcase every micro-scratch, and after a few months mine began to look pretty beat up. By contrast, the Co-Habitant's hammered Honjos disguise scratches and dents, as they are essentially "pre-dented". Though I prefer the look of the fluted model, I regret having bought such expensive fenders only to have them look battered. You live, you learn.

And then of course there is the lovely front wicker basket - that ultimate symbol of civilised, romantic cycling. Alas, it was not meant to be: experience has shown that I prefer the front of my bike to be free of large wicker objects, no matter how beautiful.

Instead, these rear folding baskets have proven to be just the thing for me. Not as cute as a wicker basket in the font, but they suit me better.

In describing my experiences, I by no means suggest that you should stay away from any of the products that did not work for me. My point is simply that you never know whether you will like something until you actually use it - regardless of how stunning it looks in pictures, or even of how obvious its benefits seem in product reviews. There is no way around personal experience, and bicycles are no exception.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Happy Colours, Rainy Touring

I don't have much leeway in choosing when to go on long rides, so lately I've been doing my "tour training rides" in the rain. The first time getting caught in the rain was an accident: the forecast said no rain, but it lied - and 13 miles from home the downpour began, "baptising" my Sam Hillborne and teaching me a thing or two about how to make a rainy tour comfortable. Since then I have not really been resisting rain, but enjoying the empty roads and the fresh air it brings.

My old "lobsterman yellow" waterproof windbreaker. If you are horrified by the neon, I will explain that I see touring in the rain as different from transportation cycling. The latter is a relatively short, urban ride for me on an upright bicycle, and I wear my regular clothing. If it is raining, I wear my trenchcoat and that keeps me dry. I turn on my lights and that keeps me visible. For long-distance rides, I feel that this is not enough - because I cycle through rural areas where my bike and I blend into the landscape much more than in the city. When it is raining, I am practically invisible to cars traveling at high speeds, and in the daytime lights are not always sufficient. So I feel safer wearing brightly coloured clothing in this context.

Having observed the visibility of other cyclists, I would say that bright yellow and red look especially striking against the green-gray backdrop of woodsy and countryside areas. Other popular colours - like purple, turquoise, pink and green - not as much, even if they are neon.

My lobsterman windbreaker is falling apart from old age, so I am looking for a new rain jacket that is specifically designed for long-distance cycling: long in the back and form-fitting around the torso to prevent billowing. And I'd like it to be red. Haven't had any luck so far, and most of the ones I've tried in bike stores seemed ill-fitting. But I will keep looking and welcome any suggestions.