Tuesday, January 31, 2012

14 Months Without a Car

House of Talents Basket
We have been without a car since last December. The "anniversary" of this date was so unremarkable, that it came and went unnoticed. But I've had some requests to post a 1-year report about what it has been like, which made me realise it's already been longer than that. I want to make it clear that being without a car is not a political statement for us and is not wrapped up in our sense of identity. For that reason I do not use words such as "car-free" or "car-light," or any of the related terminology. We simply do not have a car, for the time being.

Winter in the Neighborhood
Living on the border of Somerville and Cambridge, MA, we are lucky to be in a location that happens to be convenient for getting around the Boston Metro area by bike. Before moving here 4 years ago, we lived in rural Northern New England - where we did a great deal of driving and each had a substantial vehicle with off-road and hauling capacity. As soon as we moved to Boston, we sold the larger of the two, because it was clear that keeping both was impractical. The Co-Habitant's car was sold, and mine was to become the shared car. However, what happened instead is that I simply stopped driving at that point entirely, preferring to get around on foot and via public transportation. When later I started riding a bike, that became my main mode of transport. I have not been behind the wheel of a motor vehicle since late 2007, and I even let my driver's license lapse for some time. But I still co-owned our shared car, and rode in it as passenger.

We used the shared car mainly to travel out of town and for trips that involved transporting or purchasing bulky items. The majority of everyday transportation we did by bike, simply because both of us found it more convenient. When the car broke down in late November 2010, we realised that we did not really feel like getting it fixed and preferred to make do without it instead. So that is what we did.

Snow Bike Launch
The winter of 2010-2011 was a brutal one, and interestingly getting through it was what cemented our decision. It snowed so much and so frequently, that we often relied on resources close to home - which made us realise that it is possible. If there was too much snow on the roads to cycle, there was a grocery store and pharmacy within walking distance. They may not be our preferred grocery store and pharmacy, but nonetheless they are there for us to simply walk to in case we needed milk at 10pm in a snowstorm. Further afield there are coffee shops, restaurants, a post office, and other destinations that could be reached on foot. The Co-Habitant could even walk to work if really necessary, though he had no problem cycling through snow. I could also walk or take public transportation. If anything, we felt that we had it easier that winter than drivers - who constantly complained about having to dig out and defrost their cars, and about the horrible driving conditions. A bike and a pair of winter boots require much less maintenance.

EMS Thunderhead Rain Jacket and Pants
Once that winter was over, everything else was a piece of cake. Owning a car in Boston now seemed like a burden and inconvenience. How did we ever manage with all those fees and maintenance responsibilities? Not owning a car was so much easier, not to mention that we now magically had more money. And that's really all there was to it, as far as everyday stuff was concerned.

Gazelle & Zipcar
That is not to say that we never used a car. We still occasionally needed to travel to remote out of town locations and to transport bulky items. And, ironically, I occasionally had to transport bikes in various states of assembly for Lovely Bicycle related projects. But the key word here is "occasionally." Once we got the hang of zipcar and car rental, using these services in addition to the occasional taxi proved to be sufficient for us to not feel that we needed to actually own a car. The main limitation of zipcar, is that you cannot always get one on the spot, and we tend to do things spontaneously rather than plan everything out carefully. But over time we got better at planning and also became more savvy/psychic about zipcar rental. After a couple of initial glitches, it has mostly been okay. I even moved into my art studio with the help of a zipcar pickup truck, which went very well with fairly minimal planning.

West Newton Commuter Rail Station
Our only frustration so far has been with the public transportation system. Without exaggeration, the T (subway) has gotten stuck between stations most of the times I've taken it over the past year, making me late for appointments. The buses are habitually late by as much as 20 minutes, to the point that the bus timetable is not meaningful. The buses are also very full and taking fragile items on board is not practical. The commuter rail runs infrequently and not at the times we seem to need it, so that going somewhere via commuter rail can mean having to spend an entire day at the destination instead of the 1.5 hours we need to spend there. Also, many of the commuter rail stops are not handicap-accessible - which also means not bike-friendly, since they have these super long and narrow staircases leading down to the platform from overpasses. Whenever I criticise the MBTA, inevitably someone gets angry, as if public transportation is some holy thing no matter how good or bad it is and I should be thankful for it. But with all due respect, having used public transportation successfully in cities where it works, the MBTA is a disgrace in comparison. I cannot pretend to be thankful for the frustration and wasted time it causes me nearly every time I attempt to use it, and I am certain that it is the reason why more people in the greater Boston area do not feel comfortable without a car. 

Bike Travel!
MBTA frustrations aside, we did manage to go on a 2-week vacation via bike plus commuter rail over the summer, and it was a lot more fun than renting a car would have been. No traffic jams, no gas station stops, no looking for parking - just the freedom of bikes. We brought all the stuff we would normally have taken with us too, including two weeks worth of clothing, books, laptops, and basic camera equipment. It's amazing how much you can stuff into heavy-duty bicycle luggage if you try. 

Gazelle & Pashley with Philosophy Panniers
When we first discussed the idea of giving up the car, it was important for both of us not to feel as if being without it would be a struggle, or would limit our freedom. And over a year later, I can say that at no point did we feel that way. At this stage of our lives not having a car gives us more freedom, not less. We do not miss the responsibilities and the spendings that come with owning, parking, fueling and maintaining a vehicle in the Boston Metro area. We also simply never talk about it anymore. We neither lament our carless state, nor do we congratulate ourselves for it; it's just become one less issue to worry about. 

Charles River, Late Autumn
By no means is this narrative intended to be an "if I can do it, you can!" sort of thing. Our circumstances happen to be conducive to getting along without a car, but others' circumstances might not be. There is also no question in my mind that at some point in the future we will have a car again, and I will even drive it - since my ideal place to live is in the countryside in the middle of nowhere. In the end,  it's not about fixating on the car as an object - be it an object of desire or an object of evil - but about deciding what works best for improving your quality of life. Car ownership for its own sake has become such a given, that it may simply not occur to some people that there are circumstances under which they might be better off (i.e. waste less time, be in a better mood, have more disposable income, feel better) without a private vehicle. When I lived in Vienna, I once asked an elderly socialite - the wife of a wealthy politician - whether she and her husband owned a car. She cringed and fanned herself. "Goodness no dear, sitting in traffic is so undignified! I take the trolley and I love to walk. For me, these are life's luxuries." The concept of luxury is, after all, relative.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Taking the Lane with Elly Blue

Following the online presence of Portland-based bike activist Elly Blue over the past year, her perspective seemed so different from mine that it was as if she wrote from another planet. Critical Mass, relentless activism, political organising, and the accompanying stylistic elements - It's not my world and it's not my way of thinking. But when faced with swathes of difference, it often happens that the littlest suggestions of a common thread begin to stand out and attain significance. For me, the first of these was Elly's post My So-Called Out of Control Life - a non-bike-related essay that expressed my own unease with the hyper-confessional style of writing so popular with females of our generation. It was odd to read my own thoughts echoed in this piece, and to recognise our shared cultural references.

Shortly thereafter another common thread emerged: We both decided to quit facebook, independently and at around the same time. But what's more, is that right before I quit I noticed with amazement that Elly Blue appeared to be a "friend" of one of my real-world friends. How could they know each other? My very good friend L. has nothing to do with cycling, activism, or Portland. She does not read bicycle blogs (and, like most of my friends, has no idea that Lovely Bicycle exists). So how were they connected? I didn't feel comfortable asking at the time, but found myself paying closer attention to Elly Blue as a result of this discovery. When she announced the publication of Taking the Lane Volume 5: "Our Bodies Our Bikes," I bought one with intent to review it. She then included a couple of other volumes, so that I could get a better feel for the zine as a whole. I will be distributing those locally once I am done with them.

"A zine is like a small book or a large pamphlet, but with extra magic," explains the editor. And that it is. The compact format and eye-catching cover design make each zine inviting, pick-up-and-readable. My first thought: Is this a subversive tactic? Are these zines essentially vehicles for political agitation, which the attractive exterior and diminutive size are meant to ease the unseasoned reader into? But the Taking the Lane zines (a quarterly publication "about women and bicycling") are not quite that.

If I had to choose two words to describe my impression of the Taking the Lane zine, they would be "feminine" and "folkloric." Feminine because the various pieces of writing come across very strongly as being written by female authors and for a female audience. And folkloric, because the tone of each piece is narrative and subjective. The authors do not attempt to speak for everyone, and they do not attempt to convince; they simply share their own experiences and thoughts - in a manner that is almost alarmingly unguarded in an era of self-conscious and self-defensive blog writing we are all growing increasingly used to. It is essentially lots of stories, told in lots of individual voices. In each zine, a theme emerges - and this emergence is organic, not forced. Reading a zine is like seeing the pattern reveal itself in a woven tapestry or piece of knitting, which comes back to the "feminine" feeling again. While I realise that associating femininity with folklore and traditional craft is loaded, nonetheless it is what went through my mind when reading the zines - I had the sense that I was listening to stories told in a knitting circle of contemporary-minded women.

"Our Bodies Our Bikes" (volume 5) contains snippets of personal experience as diverse as surviving cancer, worrying about body image, and having orgasms while cycling downhill. "Unsung Heros" (volume 3) contains some of the most compelling and disarming descriptions of bicycle activism I have ever read, precisely because it focuses on human experiences and not on the activism itself. "Sexy on the Inside" (volume 4) is an entire issue dedicated to the analysis of the bicycle dance troupe the Sprockettes that goes off on interesting tangents about the history of punk culture and various types of feminism. To explain the content of the zines in any more detail than this seems impossible, because by its very nature the content is resistant to summary. When there is no one succinct point, the writing is unskimmable, and the reader ends up reading everything. The message in Taking the Lane sinks in slowly and stays with you - even if you're not sure what that message is.

Whether these descriptions are making the zine seem good or bad, interesting or dull, I am not sure. It is a unique publication and reactions to it are bound to differ. Most if not all of the contributing writers seem to be from Portland, OR and the surrounding areas, which gives the zine a local feel, and as an East-coast resident I find myself not always sure that I "belong" in the audience. If this is something the editor wishes to change, she could invite writers from other regions to contribute. Based on the subject matter covered and on the glimpses we see of the writers' background, there is also a distinct sense of cycling being portrayed as a fringe subculture, which some readers may find difficult to relate to. As someone who feels passionate about cycling and bicycles, but whose style of dress, social life, and political views do not revolve around cycling, I sense that I am different from the zine's writers and intended audience. If this is not intentional, then perhaps some diversity on that end could be introduced into future issues as well. [Edited to add: East-coasters and non-cycling-subbaculturalists are welcome to email submission inquiries to "elly[at]takingthelane[dot]com"]

Publishing content in the form of a zine in itself signals that the content is of an "alternative" nature, and there are so many ways to play with that idea - which Elly very much does. How she develops the zine in the future depends mainly on what type, and how large of an audience she seeks.

As I read through the volumes of the Taking the Lane, the final question for me was whether these publications "needed" to exist in printed format. Can the same not be said online, in a blog? What would compel the reader to pay $3 per pamphlet when there is so much free content around covering many of the same topics?  In the end my impression is that this writing would not in fact exist in an online format, simply because the internet discourages it. Whereas print was once a means to disseminate information as widely as possible, it can now function as a means of limiting our audience. In that context, the writers feel safe to express themselves in a manner they perhaps would not in a blog post, and the reader benefits from thoughtful, unself-conscious writing offering new perspectives on cycling, women and activism.

When I read Elly Blue's blog and twitter feed I disagree with her as often as I agree, but I am also fascinated with the way she expresses herself. Who knows, maybe one day we will meet and will either get along or not. Until then, I enjoy her writing online and in print.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The 'Psychic Spouse' Fallacy

Charles River Ride, Late Autumn
Talking to people who cycle with their spouse, I consistently discover for how many couples this does not really work. Despite both partners being into cycling, they just can't ride with each other - to the point than they each go off with separate cycling clubs or riding partners. After nearly three years of cycling together, I have to say that the Co-Habitant and I are sort of in that category. We do ride together, and it can be nice. But we seem to have such different approaches and styles, that it can get overwhelming. When two people are compatible as romantic partners, how can it be difficult to ride together?

A fellow cyclist recently voiced a theory that I think may hit the mark. Romantic partners - and particularly those who have been together for a long time - tend to function on the assumption that their spouse is at least somewhat "psychic" when it comes to gauging their intentions and needs. This comes from living together long enough to understand each other without having to explicitly spell everything out. And it then gets falsely transferred to cycling. Whereas with a stranger, we would never assume that they can anticipate a maneuver which we do not signal, or will experience energy bursts at the same time as us, or will know which way to go at an intersection if the route is new to them, with a spouse we sometimes do erroneously assume exactly that, without even realising it. The spouse is sort of like an extension of ourselves, and therefore is expected to "just know" these things... But of course they can't possibly know things like when you intend to turn left, or stop for water, or whether you prefer to weave through traffic vs wait it out, or whether you feel up to climbing that next hill. Is it possible to treat your spouse as you would a stranger when you ride together, without assumptions about them intuitively understanding you? I don't know, but it's an interesting idea. At least it might help to keep in mind that your spouse is not actually psychic.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Bikes, Balance, and Riding No Hands

Test Riding the Paper Bicycle
So, yesterday something monumentally cool happened: I rode no hands for the first time. (Before anyone points out that the picture shows one hand on the bars - this is not captured in the picture!) I was alone with no one to witness my no-hands magnificence but the drivers passing me on the quiet side street. I had both hands off, and not just hovering above the bars, but properly off - dangling at my sides as I sat back on the saddle. I rode that way for an entire block, then put my hands back on the bars when it was time to turn. Then I took them off again and rode that way for another couple of blocks. I would have kept practicing, but it was freezing. 

I was riding the Paper Bicycle, coming home from skating, and somehow the bike seemed to whisper to me "You can take your hands off the bars now, do it..." - so I did. I was absolutely amazed that I could do it, and that it felt relatively safe and intuitive. The front wheel just kept going unwaveringly straight as I pedaled. But having tried the same maneuver on a couple of other bikes (both upright and road), it didn't work and the front end seemed way too unstable with my hands off the handlebars. So this appears to be bike-specific for me. I am wondering what it is that makes some bikes easier to ride no hands than others.  If I practice long enough on the Paper Bicycle, will I eventually feel comfortable riding a "normal bike" no hands as well, or is the skill unlikely to transfer? I will try not to get too excited, but this is making me feel like maybe I am not an entirely hopeless case!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Starship Has Landed

Paper Bicycle with Rack
As some might recall, I've had a Paper Bicycle on loan since November - but haven't been riding it for transportation because it lacked a rear rack. Not only did it lack one, but the unique frame construction made it challenging to install one aftermarket. Clearly a bicycle as distinct as this called for a custom solution. Turns out the manufacturer had been developing a special rack all along, it just wasn't quite ready. He asked me to hold off on the review so that he could send me the latest prototype. And sure enough, shortly after the holidays it arrived: Behold the Paper Bicycle "Starship" rack!

Paper Bicycle Rack
Trying to picture a suitable rack for this bicycle, my imagination was failing me. While I appreciate the unique and contemporary design, I do not understand it sufficiently - either visually or structurally - to conjure up a rack that would integrate flawlessly with the rest of the bike. What form would it take? How would it connect? How could it be made strong enough to support a great deal of weight (after all, this bike is all about utility), but minimalist enough so that it would not overwhelm the frame itself? Seeing the prototype answered all of these questions. The "Starship" rack adds utility without undermining the bike's unique design, and it does so by literally plugging into the frame's integrated chaincase. 

Paper Bicycle Rack
To install the rack, its tubing is simply inserted into the ever so slightly thicker chaincase tubing, using  hammer to really push it in there. The expander screw on the righthand side is then loosened to further secure the connection. The installation is impressively solid, resulting in a rack that looks seamlessly integrated with the frame. Total installation time was maybe 5 minutes. 

Paper Bicycle Rack
While not secured to the fender or any other part of the bike, this does not seem necessary, as there is no side-to-side play. The rack is solid, and, according to the manufacturer, can support the weight of a person. My requirements are more modest:  I just want it to support my panniers and occasionally some packages.

Paper Bicycle Rack
The rack's tubing is very thick and does not in fact support standard pannier quick-release attachment hooks, such as those by Ortlieb, Jand, Basil, and R&K. It will however support the Po Campo system very nicely, and of course the double-panniers that hang over the rack's platform, as well as any pannier that attaches via straps and not quick-release hooks. I do not think that the rack's tubing choice can or should be altered, as the thick tubing is what gives it strength. But the bike's owner will have to choose their pannier system accordingly. The Paper Bicycle has long chainstays, and the rack's stays move it back even further, so that there is no chance of heel strike. 

Paper Bicycle Rack
As far as strapping packages onto the rack, attaching bungee cords can be a bit tricky - and not all bungee hooks will fit securely around the tubing. In the final production iteration of this rack, a special tab for bungee hook attachment would be helpful. 

Paper Bicycle Rack
The Starship rack is not a lightweight rack - a couple of pounds for sure. This makes the bicycle noticeably heavier to lift, but so far I have not felt any effect on handling or speed. Riding the bike for 10 miles around town in the freezing cold and wind this morning, it felt just as zippy and effortless to pedal as I remember it being pre-rack. I will ride the Paper Bicycle some more (hopefully it will snow again, as I've been trying to test it in the snow) and should have a review soon. In the meantime, what do you think of the rack? 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How I Tried to Go Ice Skating

Attempt to Skate Foiled
As part of my commute I often take a shortcut through the back of Harvard Yard, and some time around early December a mysterious construction site appeared there. At first I was annoyed to have to go around it. But as the construction took shape, it began to look suspiciously like... Could it be? Oh my goodness yes, an ice skating rink! One afternoon last week the construction fence was suddenly gone and the rink open. Just like that!

Free Skating at Harvard!
I could hardly pedal fast enough to get close and read the bright crimson sign. And guess what? It is free to skate there, and $5 to rent skates. Technically I still own a pair of skates circa 1995, though sadly I have not been able to find them since we moved to Boston. I can picture these skates vividly in my mind: They were white with jet-black heels and shiny blades, utterly beautiful, and they cost $29.99 at Olympia Sports back when I was in high school. "I will buy them for you, if you really think you can do it this time," my mother had said. And I nodded vigorously.

Skating Closed Due to Good Weather
Perhaps now is a good time to explain that the intensity of my love for skating is matched only by my utter lack of ability. Born to a set of parents who skated as easily as they walked, I stunned them with my clumsiness and lack of coordination.

I remember my first time on ice: It was a crisp winter evening not long before my 4th birthday, and a huge skating rink was set up in the park under garlands of lights. My mother - a slender, elegant beauty in a tailored shearling overcoat - glided across the ice effortlessly with a serene smile on her face... as she dragged her little piggy of a daughter along, who flailed and stumbled and continued to be dragged to the sounds of Tchaikovsky blasting from the park's loudspeaker system. "Don't worry, you'll get it!" my mother would say as she glanced down at me occasionally. But mostly she lost herself in the music and glided, dragging me across the ice regardless of whether I was upright or not.

Skating Closed Due to Good Weather
Attempts to get me to skate continued through that and a couple of subsequent winters, but my skills showed little sign of improvement. The "don't worry, you'll get it!" gave way to "but you're not even trying!" until finally my mother gave up. But my yearning for the ice remained, and every winter I sighed as I watched the figure skaters on television. As a teenager I asked for a pair of skates for my birthday and began to visit a local rink on my own - skating in a slow and duck-like manner close to the guard rail. I was remarkably, impressively terrible, but somehow I still enjoyed it. I took these skates with me to college, grad school, and beyond, visiting local rinks for more of the same. And now I can continue here!

Yesterday I knew that I would finally have an hour gap in my day. Prepared to rent skates and I cycled to Harvard Yard full of anticipation.

Attempt to Skate Foiled
But of course I should have known that it would not be so easy! Just days after the snow storm, the temperature had shot up to nearly 50°F by mid-day and when I arrived the rink was closed "due to weather." So, I have yet to go skating. But at least I tried. And I'll try again as soon as the temperature drops and my schedule allows. 

Cycling past the rink last week, I did notice the skates they were using and was a little disappointed that they were a sort of brownish-beige. I want some white ones like the pair I had before, and am thinking that maybe I should get a new pair of my own. Third time a charm?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Catharsis of Seasonal Change

Purple & White
"It's over. Step away from the roadbike" I said to myself as gently as possible while watching the snow from the window. I was going to publish this over the weekend and title the post "The End." But then I decided that was far too dramatic, and that when titles like this come to mind the prudent thing to do is take a couple of days off from the blog. It's snow for goodness sake, not the end of the world. In fact, it is quite beautiful. And in retrospect I see that it has been cathartic - a resolution to a state of uncertainty. 

Sage Green & White
After a productive and well-organised December I naïvely expected to keep going at the same rate in the new year. But January started out slow and difficult, and only grew more so as the weeks wore on. After the holidays there was suddenly a pile of work due all at once, which is a situation I never handle well. And the move to the new art studio proved more effortful to organise than I anticipated (How did I accumulate so many jars of congealed ...stuff? why do I never throw anything away? and why did I need such enormous canvases, and so many of them??). In the midst of this we had a special occasion to celebrate, and some financial decisions to make. My immune system kept faltering. I felt as if I were moving in slow motion while everything else spun around me faster and faster.

It took me a while to connect this unsettled, disorganised state of mind to a decrease in cycling. Soon after the holidays the roads had turned icy, so I hadn't been riding as much as during the previous month. Of course! I was coming down from a long endorphin high, and not in the midst of an existential crisis. What made it worse, was that since it hadn't started snowing yet, I kept thinking that I could/should be cycling. I kept waiting for the idyl of December to return, not willing to put my bike on the trainer just yet, stuck in limbo. 

Winter Bike Lane
With the snow's arrival, the limbo finally ended and things became more clear-cut: "Right then. Bike on the trainer and you are done for the season. Now stop checking the weather obsessively, ride indoors while watching all the movies you've been meaning to catch up on, and get on with your life!" (Is it a bad sign when the snow speaks to you? No, no, don't answer that...)

Snowy Neighbourhood
This might sound strange coming from someone with a daily blog about bicycles, but I tend to downplay the importance of cycling in my "real" life, particularly roadcycling. It is my anti-athletic, anti-"jock" bias - a holdover from my teenage days as the angsty weird arty girl, for whom jocks were the enemy. Not very open-minded of me to carry that over, but at least I admit it. Cycling, important? Oh no, it means nothing to me compared to things like art and (real, not bloggery) writing. Oh this little blog? It's just some light-hearted stress relief. Hours a day in the saddle? It's just physical activity; it means nothing. But of course it can't possibly mean nothing. I need to admit to myself that cycling is important to me and that it integrates with the rest of my life whether I want to acknowledge it or not. Likewise, when I drastically decrease my time on the bike it will impact other aspects of my life. It will affect my mood, creativity and productivity. I was going through withdrawal, plain and simple.

The human mind is a funny thing, and once I became aware of all this, I felt better. Swiftly, we got me all moved into the new studio - thanks to the Co-Habitant's formidable lifting prowess and a magnificent zipcar pick-up truck. I even got a workout from carrying stuff up and down 3 flights of stairs, as the freight elevator in the building is not operational over the weekend. My calves are still hurting today from all that stair-climbing and it feels kind of nice. Maybe I should do this for fun in addition to walking and riding on the trainer, and all together that might keep me in shape till spring. Of course I could also cycle inside the studio (as demonstrated by the lovely bikeyface). Indoor mini-velodrome à la Interbike 2011

Night, Snow, Paper Bicycle
As I write this, the heaps of snow are already half-gone and temperatures are mild again. It is possible that the roads will clear up completely and we will have a continuation of our mild winter. But I am going to take a break from roadcycling anyhow, because all the back-and-forth and the increasing concerns about icy roads on descents are making me way too neurotic and it's time to stop. Of course, transportation cycling continues as usual. Seasonal change is good, winter is beautiful, and finally I feel that the year is off to a good start. Now, could somebody please tell me what those purple berries are?..

Monday, January 23, 2012

Snow Bike SOS!

Snow Bike
This morning I received an email from a reader - Elise - who left her bike locked up outside a restaurant overnight, to find it covered in snow the next morning. Upon trying to retrieve the bicycle, she discovered that "all the parts were snow-encrusted" and wasn't sure it was safe to ride, so she left it where it was and took the bus to work. Of course it then snowed again, and the bike's condition only got worse. Elise is wondering how to retrieve her bike after it's been in the snow in freezing temperatures for what has now been 2 days. 

Snow Bike
While I don't know what condition Elise's bike is in, I can share what has happened to me in the past as a result of leaving a bike out in the snow for too long, and hope that something here might be applicable: 

"frozen" wheels: Once I found that my bike did not want to roll after being left locked up outside in the snow. The front wheel would not budge, and at first I thought something was seriously wrong. On closer inspection, it turned out there was some frozen snow stuck between the fender and the tire. I cleared it out and "unfroze" the wheel. 

clogged brake calipers: Riding a bike with caliper brakes in winter, I quickly learned that getting clogged up with snow eliminates their stoping power. And since snow does seem to love settling down on brake calipers and then solidifying, it is essential to clear it out of there. Wheel rims can also get iced over and may need to be wiped down. 

icy pedals: A few times my pedals have gotten icy, to the point of making it difficult to ride the bike without my feet slipping off. When this happens I scrape them with the textured sole of my boot to break up the sleek surface, or try to rub some dirt on them. 

"sluggish" drivetrain: In freezing temperatures, it can sometimes feel that my drivetrain is slower, or not as smooth as usual. My understanding is that this is due to whatever lubricants are used on the drivetrain getting gooey from the prolonged cold. It is still okay to ride your bike like that as far as I know, but it might feel a little weird. 

Each of these things has at some point made me panic and feel that a bike was "unridable" after being left out in the snow, but they all proved to be resolvable. 

Snow Bike
Granted, other issues may not be as easy to deal with. I've heard stories of frozen U-locks being impossible to open, and of leather saddles snapping in half if ridden when frozen. And perhaps the most common problem of all is frozen derailleurs, which I have no experience with since I do not ride derailleur-geared bikes in the winter.

Whether it's about components on the bike getting iced over, or the owner feeling that conditions are not safe enough to ride home, bikes get left in the snow - which all too often turns into full on abandonment. Any tips for avoiding this would be much-appreciated. How do you deal with a snow-encrusted bike? 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Van Nicholas: 'Dutch Bike' Redefined

Van Nicholas Amazon Rohloff, Lexington MA
Over the winter holidays I hosted a rather unusual guest from overseas - a titanium Dutch bike. Van Nicholas is a small Netherlands-based manufacturer of titanium road, touring, mountain and cyclocross bicycles. A reader suggested I try a Van Nicholas after I reported enjoying other Ti bikes, and thanks to him a test ride was soon arranged. What made Van Nicholas particularly noteworthy, I was told, is that one of their models - the Amazon - made for a uniquely comfortable transportation bicycle, combining aspects of the workhorse utility bikes Holland is known for with the special properties of titanium. Add to that a couple of fancy features afforded by modern technology (a 14-speed Rohloff hub and a belt drive), and the Van Nicholas Amazon seemed very interesting indeed.

Based on my understanding of the sizing, I asked for a 54cm bike. The bikes are customizable, and so I also asked for it to be fitted with swept back handlebars, a leather saddle and flat pedals. The American distributor (EU Cycling Imports) sent the demo model to the Ride Studio Cafe in Lexington MA, and they put the bicycle together for me. I took it home to test ride and brought it back two weeks later, after which the bike was returned to the distributor. It should be noted that the Ride Studio Cafe carries a certain local brand of titanium bicycles, which is technically a competitor of Van Nicholas. But this did not seem to bother anyone and the RSC displayed the Van Nicholas right on the sales floor along with the Seven bikes for customers to admire. It was a treat to see two different titanium brands side by side.

Van Nicholas Headbadge
Van Nicholas came into existence 12 years ago and was founded as a brand in 2006. The frames are designed in Numansdorp, Netherlands, built in the Far East (I was not told which country), then finished, assembled and tested back in the Netherlands. The titanium tubing differs in thickness and composition based on the frame model and size. The Amazon is made with stout tubing, designed for touring and for supporting heavy loads. The frame is unpainted, with a brushed matte finish. The headbadge is chemically etched into the frame. Components that come standard with the build are high quality. The stem, seatpost and seat collar are also titanium, branded with Van Nicholas insignia.

Van Nicholas Ti Bell
The tiny titanium bell is pretty impressive. I forgot to ask whether they sell some of these Ti parts separately, because I certainly would not mind a titanium seatpost and bell.

Van Nicholas Amazon
The many braze-ons for cable routing keep the cables very neat, which is a good thing because there are lots of them thanks to the Rohloff hub. There are also braze-ons for racks, water bottle cage bosses, and everything else one would expect from a touring frame. 

Van Nicholas Amazon, Carbon Fiber Fork with Canti Mounts
The fork that comes with the bike is carbon fiber, labeled "VNT Elements" - a house brand I think. There are cantilever/v-brake bosses on it, which sort of horrifies me even though I know this is not uncommon nowadays (but how does the carbon fork withstand the force of the mighty v-brake?..).

Van Nicholas Amazon Rohloff, Gates Belt Drive
Special dropouts that can be split apart for the belt drive and also accommodate the massive Rohloff hub, with a built-in mount for the "belt keeper" that prevents the belt from slipping in snowy and muddy conditions.

Van Nicholas Amazon
Brooks Swallow saddle with titanium rails, FSA Metropolis handlebars, Rohloff twist shifter and Brooks leather washer grips. The brown leather accessories warmed up the titanium frame and I found the combination appealing. The handlebars are a modern take on the classic upside down North Roads and this added a touch of an almost vintage look to the whole thing.

Van Nicholas Amazon Rohloff, Lexington MA
When I first saw the bike, more than anything I was overwhelmed by all its bells and whistles. A titanium frame, a carbon fork with canti mounts, a Rohloff hub and a belt drive all on the same bike? It was a lot to wrap my head around. I am glad that at this point I'd ridden several other titanium bikes, and also another bike with a belt drive - so that at least all of these elements were not simultaneously new to me.

Van Nicholas Amazon Rohloff
The Rohloff hub was the one feature I had not tried before. On first impression I immediately disliked it, because it made the bicycle ridiculously rear-heavy. On a lightweight titanium frame this was especially noticeable: I'd pick up the bike by the top tube, and the rear wheel would pull it backward like a ball and chain. I am not a fan of multi-geared hubs, and anything beyond a 3-speed I usually find annoyingly inefficient. I could already anticipate the same happening with the Rohloff: At such a monstrous weight, surely the 14 speeds with the alleged 526% gear range were a gimmick that in practice would not live up to the numbers' promise.

Taking the bike on its maiden test ride, I headed straight for the hills of Lexington MA to test this hypothesis. And my hypothesis proved to be incorrect. I approached a long, unpleasant hill and was able to climb it at a leisurely pace by utilizing the 3rd and 2nd gears. I did not feel the bike's rear-heaviness whilst in motion and spun without getting out of breath or even especially exerting myself. If I lived in a seriously hilly area, I could travel to work like this in ordinary clothing without getting sweaty. Later I rode the bike to my art studio, which is also on top of a steep hill, and in 4th gear I did not feel this hill at all. The Rohloff hub is heavy and that has its drawbacks, but I found the range of gearing it provided to be very satisfactory and on par with my derailleur-geared bikes. I am wondering now to what extent the performance of the hub in this case had to do with its interaction with the titanium frame. On a heavier frame, would it still get me up the same hills? This question remains open, so please keep in mind that my experience with the Rohloff so far is limited to this specific bike.

Rohloff 14 Speed Shifter
The Rohloff shifter took some getting used to, because if you are accustomed to standard twist shifters this one functions in reverse: For a lower gear you twist toward you and for a higher gear you twist away from you. I did not manage to get used to this during my two weeks with the bike and would occasionally shift in the opposite direction than I meant to. I was very glad however that I did not have to constantly switch gears just to ride at the pace I wanted to in the city. The 9th gear was my standard gear, and unless I ventured into hilly terrain I pretty much stayed in it. The bicycle responded very well to my pedaling efforts both uphill and on flats.

It's been explained to me how Rohloff hubs work, and apparently it is like having an internal derailleur with a double crankset. So if I understand this correctly, there is a gear at which point the mechanism automatically switches not just between the internal rear cogs, but also from one internal chainring to another. A couple of owners of older model Rohloff hubs tell me that whatever gear this happens on can be problematic - either sticking or misfiring when one attempts to switch in or out of it. I tried to figure out which gear this was, and judging by the extra grunting/clicking I was hearing, it appeared to be the 6th gear - a gear I only used when going uphill. I made a point to switch in and out of it a few times and did not experience any problems in the course of my test rides. In general, neither the Rohloff hub nor the Gates belt drive gave me any trouble over the 55 miles I spent riding this bike through the hilly countryside and stop-and-go city traffic. The drivetrain was very quiet and sort of faded into the background.

Test Riding Van Nicholas Amazon
While the Amazon comes with braze-ons for racks, the demo model was sent to me without any and initially I fitted the bike with a medium sized saddle bag. There were also no provisions for dynamo lighting, and I used my own battery lights.

Van Nicholas, Art Supplies
Later we installed a Freeload rack on the bike, so that I could transport packages and my laptop pannier. Aside from one ride done for the sole purpose of testing the bike on hills and over longer distances, I mostly rode the Van Nicholas for transportation, since that was the context in which I was testing it. Its proportions work well for this purpose. The long (456mm) chainstays allow for optimal pannier clearance; the relaxed head tube angle and long top tube prevent toe overlap with the front wheel. I wore my chunkiest winter boots to test ride the bike and there was not even a chance of toe overlap, which was great.

Van Nicholas Test Ride
The handlebars, despite being somewhat swept back, are set very low and you can see that my position on the bike is rather aggressively leaned over. Ideally I would prefer handlebars that are not necessarily higher but more swept back. In other ways the bicycle fit me very well and at 5'7" I was happy with the 54cm frame size. The handling felt familiar and predictable. Not like a classic Dutch bike exactly, but like something I've ridden in the past. Maybe like a Ti version of my Rivendell, were it set up as an upright bike. For transportation cycling I like this type of handling very much.   

Van Nicholas Test Ride
But my favourite part of the Van Nicholas ride quality was how it felt over rough roads. If you look at the lower righthand corner of the picture above, you will notice there is a ditch in my line of travel. Unfortunately, many roads in the area where we live look like this, and often I end up riding right over those ditches and potholes, because to avoid them would be to zig-zag incessantly. The Van Nicholas was fine with this type of road surface, despite being fitted with tires only 32mm wide (the frame's maximum tire clearance is 2.35", so it is possible to fit much wider tires). I could ride through a ditch like the one you see here and feel only a distant echo without the bone-shaking feeling. As I've written before, I've noticed this same detached "echo" feeling with several titanium bikes so far, so I don't think it would be out of line to speculate that the titanium plays a role here.

Van Nicholas Test Ride
On a critical note, the v-brakes were insanely strong and difficult to modulate. I was not brave enough to demonstrate this, but here the Co-Habitant shows what happens when squeezing the front brake with moderate force. We would have to mess with the brake to adjust it in a way that would prevent this, but decided to leave it alone and instead I simply used the rear brake only.

Van Nicholas Test Ride
Test riding the bike briefly, the Co-Habitant also noted that he was unable to comfortably ride it hands-free (I would not know, as I do not normally ride hands-free anyhow). The frame was a couple of sizes too small for him, but I doubt this played a role. It could be that the weight of the Rohloff hub and the saddlebag made the front end too light for hands-off riding.

Van Nicholas, Art Supplies
Me, I was very pleased with the handling and the ride quality of the Van Nicholas Amazon and would have been tempted to covet it for my own if it were not for the diamond frame. Try as I might, I am just not comfortable riding diamond frames for transportation in my everyday clothing. Yes I can do it, but I prefer not to. My long coat or skirt inevitably get caught on something as I swing my leg over to mount or dismount the bike, and I am too clumsy to handle this on a regular basis. So despite the great ride quality, the amazingly versatile Rohloffhub gearing, and the silent and maintenance-free belt drive, I ultimately feel more comfortable on my own bike. I should note that Van Nicholas does make a ladies version of the Amazon, but I find the MTB step-through frame design unbearably ugly. Looks are not everything, but the welded titanium and the carbon fork already stretch the limits of my open-mindedness and I am only human. If they managed to make a more attractive step-through or mixte option however (like this please!), I would be in trouble and would desire this bicycle very badly. Offering a dynamo lighting package would also be a huge plus on a bicycle like this - whether it is used for touring or transportation.

Test Riding Van Nicholas Amazon
The Van Nicholas Amazon is a unique bicycle in that it is durable enough for year-round, all-weather transportation and comfortable on bad roads, while also being sufficiently light and versatile to handle serious hill grades over long distances. Something like this cannot be achieved without the Rohloff hub and the lightweight Ti frame, which makes its high cost inevitable. But for those who can afford it and for whom the diamond frame is not an issue, the Amazon is worth looking into.

Van Nicholas bicycles are available with both stock and custom options, and the full specs, geometry and other details of the Amazon are available here. More of my pictures can be viewed here. Many thanks to Van Nicholas and EU Cycling Imports for the opportunity to try this bicycle.