Thursday, June 30, 2011

What Does 'Commuting' Mean to You?

Some of us have conventionally structured jobs, where we ride our bikes to the office, stay there for a given period of time, then ride home. Others might move from site to site throughout the day, or work from home, or go to the office and back several times. I've had lots of conversations with friends in both job categories, and it's clear that there are benefits and drawbacks to each: With a conventional schedule, you get a sense of structure, and once you leave the office you are done. On the down side, sitting in the same building for an entire day can feel constricting. With a non-conventional schedule, there is a greater sense of freedom and you can organise your time to suit your needs. On the down side, it can feel as if the work never really ends and that you are chained to your laptop or phone 24/7.

Most of my jobs have fallen somewhere in the second, unstructured category. Even while working in a university setting - probably my most "normal" employment - it was always a back and forth between different locations on and off campus. Now that I have transitioned entirely to freelance work, it is up to me how to organise my time - which is nice in theory, but can work against me if I am not careful.

Finding it nearly impossible to work from home, I like to leave the house for the day and transition between one setting and another - coffee shop, studio, supply store, meeting, park bench. My laptop perpetually in tow, the nomadism is my means of staying both sane and focused.

Cycling back and forth between these locations and home is my version of commuting - though it is disheartening when those with structured jobs say things like "Oh, but then you don't have to commute, do you." I know what they mean to say: There is no pressure for me to arrive somewhere at exactly 9am every day. While this is mostly true, I do have meetings where I am expected to be on time. I also make more trips per day than they do and don't really have a concept of week-ends. But it is not a competition and I think that whatever one considers to be "commuting" is valid for that person. The term is a strange one for non-English speakers anyhow, as they struggle to understand why a special word is needed for traveling to and from work!

For those who do commute in a nomadic fashion, and do so by bicycle, there are some helpful posts about establishing a mobile office (via Girls and Bicycles) and an outdoor office (via Simply Bike). And for those who work 9-5 jobs, there are some great posts by Dottie from Let's Go Ride a Bike on how to take a refreshing joyride on your lunch hour. Cycling can function both to infuse a conventional job with a sense of freedom and to bring structure into a more chaotic work situation. What does commuting mean to you, and how (if at all) has it been affected by cycling?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Shorter Cranks, Dainty Pedals, and the Ambiguity of Toe Overlap

Last week I was offered the opportunity to trade the Sugino Alpina crankset on my mixte for the exact same model with shorter cranks, and I went for it. The original cranks were 170mm. The ones on it now are 165mm. A 5mm difference is very small, but can be significant. For instance, some say that shorter cranks make for a smoother pedal stroke. But my reason for the change was to reduce toe overlap. I mentioned previously that my mixte has it to a small degree, and that I'd like to get rid of it since I now use this bike mainly for transportation. In theory, that could be done either by converting to 650B or re-raking the fork. But before resorting to such drastic measures, I wanted to try something easier.

In addition to the shorter cranks, I also replaced the MKS Touring pedals with Velo Orange City Pedals. Being smaller, my assumption was that the new pedals would reduce overlap further still - though I am now told this isn't so.

Either way, with the new set-up my toes are about 1/4" further back from the front fender than where they were previously. These are the longest-toed boots I own, and with my foot in its most typical position on the pedal there is no overlap even on the widest turn.

Aerial view.

But the thing about an upright bike that is ridden casually and with no foot retention, is that you can plant your foot on the pedal any which way. Sometimes I am sloppy, and plop it down further forward than typical when starting. In that sense, the toe overlap issue remains ambiguous. I need to ride around with this setup for a few weeks to see whether it still happens on occasion. I am not sure whether I notice any difference between the old cranks and the new ones, but it's possible that my pedaling feels a little "rounder." Or I could be imagining it, because that's what I've been told is supposed to happen. (Crank length placebo effect?)

As for the VO City Pedals, I absolutely love them so far. Ever since having tried them on the Rainbow Bike, I wanted them for myself. They don't stab my bare legs and toes the way MKS Touring pedals do, they are grippy, and they are extremely light (228gr per pair). It also does not hurt that they are pretty - though this, of course, is in the eyes of the beholder.

One caveat though, is that these pedals are very narrow (82mm across) and I have heard from a couple of people who find them uncomfortable for that reason. If you have large feet or tend to wear bulky workboots on your city bike, these are probably not the best choice.

So far I am happy with the changes I've made here, and together with the new basket the mixte has definitely turned into a transportation bike. The toe overlap was minor to begin with, so hopefully this will render it insignificant - but we'll see.

If you've ever played around with crank length on your bikes, did you notice a tangible difference? I have bicycles with cranks ranging from 165mm to 175mm, and they all feel fine, so I tend to use things like bottom bracket height and wheel size to determine what cranks a bike should have. But what do I know! Maybe with time I'll be able to tell the crank length of the bike I am riding just by the way it feels to pedal... though I remain skeptical.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Clipless Ambush: a Tale of Failure

Well, my first encounter with clipless pedals occurred sooner than I anticipated. Last week the Co-Habitant decided to update his pedals, and the new set arrived in the mail today... which meant that he could gift me his old ones. I thought that surely this gifting would take place some time in the future - a distant, abstract future. But no. Cheerfully he attached them to one of our vintage roadbikes right then and there, so that I could give them a try. Don't get me wrong, I myself had expressed interest in this. But... I don't know, I just didn't expect it to happen immediately!

I already owned a pair of compatible shoes, having bought them on clearance last summer "just in case." With apprehension I watched him attach the cleats to the soles, trying to gauge the correct position. I then put them on and dragged the bike over to the kitchen sink, so that I could hold on to the edge with one hand as I tried to figure out how the contraptions worked.

I expected that clipping in would be relatively easy, but clipping out difficult. It was the opposite. At first I could not to clip in. I tried and tried, but my foot stayed on top of the pedal and the mechanism would not engage no matter how hard I pressed. I struggled to figure out what I was doing wrong, but the explanation turned out to be simple: I am a weakling. We had to loosen the tension almost to the max for my foot to engage the mechanism. Even after that, I still had trouble pressing down with enough force and in the exact position necessary for the cleat to catch. Clipping out, on the other hand, was intuitive: the sideways twist of the foot is exactly the same motion required to get out of Power Grips, so I found it natural. Transitioning from the kitchen sink to the trainer, I practiced for some time, clipping in and out successfully. I then decided it was time to go outside. I felt pretty confident at this point. Nothing to this. 

It was around 10 pm and the small side street behind our house was well lit and empty of cars. Confidently, I carried the bike outdoors, swung my leg over the top tube, and clipped in my right foot. Now all I had to do was push off, coast for a bit, then put my left foot back down on the ground. That would be such an easy first step. No different from Power Grips. Just need to do it. Now. Go! But... it was not to be.  Like some malfunctioning marionette, I kept clipping and unclipping my right foot, trying to mentally force myself to push off, but it wasn't working; nothing was happening. The amused Co-Habitant offered to stand at the end of the street and "catch me" if I found myself unable to unclip when I got there. But imagining that just made it worse. It began to feel as if I'd forgotten how to ride a bike entirely. 

There is no redeeming ending to this story. After a good ten minutes I gave up and went back inside, my head hung low in shame. Obviously I am just not ready.

Aside from the tale of failure, I have some observations about the shoe and pedal set-up. I can't find the model name of the shoes, but in retrospect getting clipless shoes with laces was silly. Being stiff and unyielding, they are difficult to put on and tighten, and it's a pain to tuck the laces under the velcro. I am also not sure these pedals are right for me. They are Shimano SPD 520s: mountain bike style, double sided and with a very small surface area. I know that many love this type of pedal, but to me it felt like not enough of my foot was connected. Pedaling on the trainer, I had the sensation that there was too much pressure on the spot where the cleat meets the pedal and that a larger contact area would have been better. Maybe these particular shoes are not stiff enough, or maybe I would do better with a different style of pedals. There seems to be a consensus that the mountain bike clipless system is easier than the road system, but I wonder whether I might prefer the latter. Unfortunately, there is no way to try these things out. 

Navigating the world of clipless shoes and pedals is complicated, and at the moment it seems best to postpone it... at least until I am brave enough to use the ones I have beyond the confines of my kitchen!  

Monday, June 27, 2011

Bikes and Swedish Cinema: Choose Your Favourite Contest Submissions!

The deadline for the Pilen give-away contest was last night, and the entries are in! To recap, readers who fit the height criteria (this is a large bike) were invited to submit an image that depicts a person and a bicycle, and evokes some aspect of Swedish film. The winner will receive the beautiful Pilen Lyx that I am test riding for the distributor, BoxCycles. I received 30 eligible submissions, and most of the pictures were so thoughtfully done, that it seemed only fair to feature them all.

To select the winner, I will first choose five finalists based solely on the pictures. Then I will have a closer look at those entries, read their submissions carefully, and possibly contact them via email with some questions.

If you are up for it, I would love to have your input regarding which images belong among the finalists. I have some tentative favourites in mind, but if popular opinion differs from mine I will reconsider. There are too many entries here to turn this into a poll, but please feel free to let me know in the comments which images appeal to you. Here they all are, numbered 1 through 30:

1. entry from Jenny

2. entry from Marisa

3. entry from Amy

4. entry from Kitty 

5. entry from Amanda

6. entry from Lauren

7. entry from Julie

8. entry from David 

9. entry from Cris

10. entry from Maddie

11. entry from Stephanie

12. entry from Kara

13. entry from Mike White

14. entry from Louisa and Bojana

15. entry from Anders

16. entry from Janice

17. entry from David and Kate

18. entry from Marcella

19. entry from Paris

20. entry from Olivia

21. entry from Brooks and Marya

22. entry from Trevor and Melissa

23. entry from Traci

24. entry from Kate

25. entry from Kimon and Rhonda Haramis

26. entry from Gretchen

27. entry from Audra

28. entry from FieldofBluebells

29. entry from Cate Fitz

30. entry from Riding Pretty

Thank you again for taking the time to create and submit these pictures. Regardless of who wins, this is a visual treat and I hope they were fun to make. Thank you also to BoxCycles for donating the beautiful Pilen! I hope to announce the winner next week.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Basket 2.0

What luck I have. Beset by medical and dental problems simultaneously, the past few days have left me drained. We went for a super slow ride on Saturday, but even that was difficult to manage in my drugged up, diminished lung capacity state. But when we passed Cambridge Bicycle I knew there was one thing that could make me feel better. A basket. Of course. What better cure for life's woes?

I have been eying this particular basket for months, and finally she is mine! It is made by the Peterboro Basket Company in New Hampshire, out of locally harvested White Ash. I think the model is this one. This basket is small, boxy, with a rectangular footprint, and it does not taper from top to bottom - which was exactly the style I wanted for this bicycle.

I refer to this as Basket 2.0, because I did not get along that well with the large wicker basket on my formerly-owned Pashley, and eventually removed it. This time around I looked for attributes that I hope will work for me.

For one thing, the Peterboro basket is fairly small, with a low profile and sides that don't stick out too far. It is also feather-light, made of such thin slivers of Ash that it almost feels like Balsa wood. Finally, we attached it directly to a front rack and not to handlebars, which minimises its impact on steering. Though the basket came with leather straps and metal buckles, we removed these and fastened it to the rack with zip ties. The straps and buckles were heavier than the basket itself, so doing this really made it weightless, as well as eliminated any potential jiggling. Cambridge Bicycle were nice enough to give us a handful of zip ties and some wire cutters, and we installed the basket right outside the shop in a matter of minutes.

When the basket is empty, I cannot feel it on the bike at all. It does not cause the wheel to flop to the side when the bike is parked.

It also leaves the frontmost tip of the tire unobscured, so that I can still see it while cycling. When a huge basket obscures the entire front wheel, I have a harder time feeling connected to the steering, but this is not an issue here.

When the basket is full, the weight feels well distributed and does not interfere with either steering or balance. With dimensions of 10.25" x 7" x 7" it is not meant to carry large objects; I have a rear rack and panniers for that. But the squat, boxy shape allows it to accommodate more stuff than you might think. As pictured above, the basket contains a huge portion of smoked salmon, a bucket of cream cheese, an economy pack of cheese sticks, a blueberry encrusted "goat cheese log," and a flower bouquet. There is room for more.

Since I am now using the mixte predominantly as a transportation bike, I wanted to maximise its utility as such. This basket provides a useful space for a jacket, camera, small handbag, or even a quick grocery store purchase, without impacting handling or (to my eye at least) marring the looks of the bike. The Co-Habitant wasn't too crazy about the look at first, but it grew on him. What do you think? What front-mounted basket systems have you used on your bikes, and have they ultimately worked for you? The difference between this set-up and the large, handlebar-mounted basket I used to have on the Pashley Princess is like night and day.