Category Archives: cycling

raising the bar

After three years, not sure why I had not considered it before a couple of days ago.  Living in Upper Jibbip, ROC, I’ve been commuting every day on my 27-speed, all terrain, Merida workhorse.  It’s mounted with saddle bags and gets me everywhere I need to be while lugging paraphernalia of all sorts.

For some reason, all the bicycles sold here are one of three types; 1) road race with thin tires (although I never see them on the road), 2) local upright cruisers 1-3 speeds, or 3) all-terrain with triple front sprockets and large cassette for lots of gear options.  The local cruiser style with the upright riding position would be my preference, but they are not durable enough for daily abuse.  Forget the road racing bikes which are impractical for functional use.  That leaves the all-terrain, except that the landscape here is flat as a pancake, and there is no need for all those gears, the excess metal, and added weight.  But most importantly, the bars are rigged for a heavily tilted riding position.  Bottom line, there are no ideal utility city bikes sold here.

Merida all-terrain workhorse

Merida all-terrain workhorse

In NYC, for example, there are many utility city bike brands, sturdily made, minimal gears, with upright sitting positions.  One of my US bikes, ironically, made in the country where I wish I could find one, is one.  It is a practical city bike, with a single front sprocket, belt drive, internal 8-speed rear hub, and a semi-straight riding position.  But it doesn’t make sense to bring it here as the transport cost would exceed the bike cost.

More often than not, we learn to live with what is available.  Even though my ROC bike has 27 gears, I use only one.  It’s comforting to know, though, that I’ve got 26 others in case mountains suddenly appear between home and work.  Still, the bent over riding position has been slowly nagging at me.  Having ridden enough miles down in the drops of road bikes, the aerodynamic position instills a need for speed.  And sure, riding sitting straight up hands-free is an option, but the erratic traffic and people movements prudently drive the hands to the handlebars much of the time.

So the other morning I pop into the Merida dealer where I bought the bike and did a scan of the showroom for a quick check of possible city-bike newness.  None.

after the bar was raised a

after the bar was raised a “good 3 inches”

After asking what I was looking for, I tell the sales guy that I’m hankering for a straighter riding position.  He immediately goes behind the counter and pulls out a stem extension as an option.  My eyes lite up.  I bought it, he installed it, and five minutes later it was wham bam thank you ma’am, my handlebars were raised a good three inches.

It’s not quite upright like a beach cruiser, but my handlebar position went from 65 deg bent over to about 25 deg.  That’s an improvement to be tickled about.

I road away from the shop somewhat giddy, thinking how the simplest or seemingly smallest actions can make a big difference.  It took me almost three years to raise the bar.  If I’m smart, I won’t wait for another three to do it again.

An aside

A recent conversation between Freddie Spaghetti and occasional Blog Reader:

BR:  Freddie, I enjoy reading your weekly grainy thoughts.
FS: Thanks Blog Reader, much appreciated.  It means a lot.
BR:  What will you write about this week?
FS: I think the topic will be “raising the bar.”
BR:  You mean like raising the level of performance?
FS:  No, I was thinking of my bicycle handlebars.
BR:  But why not raising the bar of what we do in life?
FS: Because, although a cute title, as a metaphor it may not translate.
BR:  Why not?
FS: Actually, it may be more appropriate for many to lower the bar.
BR:  You mean not try to do as much?  Or lower goals?
FS: Precisely.  Not that there is anything wrong with raising the proverbial bar, but many times the net effect is nothing more than a higher bar elevated with unnecessary anxiety.
BR:  Do you think that would be similar to lowering our expectations?
FS:  Possibly even eliminating them and focusing on improving small things, with raising the bar an afterthought.

bicycling in two thai cities

In China, I’m fortunate enough to be able to pedal daily, so it was a nice break while in Bangkok and Chiang Mai to spend the good part of a day in each city on a bicycle.   Following is a short summary of those experiences:

inside of old town

inside of old town

Chiang Mai

Bicycle rentals are plentiful in Chiang Mai.  It would be hard anywhere else in the world to find the cost more reasonable.  The going rental rate is the equivalent of $1.55 usd per day.

The province of Chiang Mai has roughly 1.6 million people, but the city is only about 172,000, making cycling around town an enjoyable activity.

Old Town is a wide and particularly nice area to bike through.  You could, as I did, spend hours roaming around inside the fort-like perimeter where you’ll find lots of temples, restaurants, museums, guesthouses, massage houses, and plenty of character watching. It’s also quite easy to head out of town in any direction without getting (too) lost.

lunch on the way out of town

lunch on the way out of town

I rented a bike late morning and returned it by 5pm and had a leisurely 30 mile day spending several hours in Old Town and the balance riding out of town following the Ping river, up one side and down the other, while stopping for lunch at a local conglomeration of food stands/tables that don’t see many foreigners.

Outside of Chiang Mai, there are tons of areas to do some serious riding.  One day, (while trapped in a car) heading past Mae Rim (outside of CM), I saw a trio of road cyclists, complete with spandex training gear, riding 23 mm tire bikes, and moving at a good clip.  I wanted so much to catch them and talk with them to see what they were up to, where they were going, how far, etc, etc. but….

my rented bike for the day

my rented bike for the day in CM

along the ping river

along the ping river, Chiang Mai

In short, biking either in Chiang Mai or around the area is a big giant plus that I’d heavily recommend.

Bangkok

Bangkok is estimated at about 8.4 million population, which makes it almost the exact same size as New York City.  One significant difference is that NYC has made huge strides in the last few years turning the city in a bicycle friendly direction.  What NYC has done in the last 10 years is remarkable.  Bangkok, on the other hand, not so bike friendly.

There are bikes, and in fact where I stayed I saw several foreigners during this trip who looked to be commuters.  They also looked like they knew which roads to take.  Many of the main roads are “ride at your own risk” as in many cities, but BKK is one of those cities where the risk factor is considerably higher than average.  I was therefore thrilled to receive a recommendation about a bicycle tour of Bangkok, so I immediately signed up.

The last time I had signed up for a bike tour was in Madrid, several years ago, which took our group through key areas of the city, stopping for short explanatory moments, but they managed to keep us peddling most of the day.  It was a city tour well done.

one of the wider alleys

we did not take this alley as it was (evidently) too wide with not enough people and obstacles

The bike tour I took in Bangkok was on of the most difficult times I’ve had — staying awake.  It was soooo sloooow.

The tour was 5 hours, and the cost was equivalent to $50 usd, bike included.  To be fair, the tour company and guides were professional and polite.  They run two 5-hour tours daily, from 7-12 and from 1-6.  There seems to be quite a demand.  If the groups are too large (more than 10), they split them up.  Our group was a total of nine, all of them from Europe except for me, the oddball American.

The tour starts at the company’s headquarters adjacent to Chinatown and proceeds directly into tiny alleys just wide enough for a bicycle.  The riding is slow enough that you can barely get a full peddle stroke in before needing to brake. Most of the ride was: slow single peddle stroke, coast, tap brake; slow single peddle stroke, coast, tap brake….  If you’ve seen one Chinatown alley you’ve seen them all so why the tour needed to zigzagged through so many of them was beyond me.  The riding was slow enough that riders often had to put a foot down for balance.

the part of the bike tour wasn't bad

the part of the bike tour wasn’t bad

Luckily, a large part of the bike tour was taken up cruising through canals on a long-boat, which was refreshing.  There was also a 45 minute lunch stop at 3pm which was not advertised.  Even though I had eaten lunch prior, the break was preferable to falling asleep on the ultra-slow tour.

At the lunch table, the group, mostly from Denmark, spoke their own language.  As they passed the dishes, one of the guys said, “hey, Mr. America, would you like some rice?”  I looked at him with a deadpan stare and said, “no thanks.  And that would be Captain America to you pal.”  The entire table stopped and stared at me, mouths half open.  A few seconds later I smiled to let them know it was humor.  I think they (kind of) got it, but to be safe, I let them eat and went to feed the fish in the canal.

following the tour leader

following the tour leader

After lunch the peddling was equally slow, this time along small canal paths outside of Bangkok.  The scenery was nice as was the lack of city noise, but again, sloooow.  Out of the 19.5 total miles clocked by Strava, by far, most of the distance was covered by boat.  Subtracting boat and lunch time, perhaps a total of two hours riding covered roughly 8 miles, making average speed about 4 miles per hour, or the speed of a brisk walk.  Actually, it would have been an easier walk than ride.

If what you are hankering for is a diversion, not really a bike tour, then this may be just what you are looking for.  But if you are into peddling, get ready to fall asleep. I was, nevertheless, most grateful for the recommendation and the chance to peddle.  It’s an experience I’ll keep safely tucked in my back pocket.

along the river

along the river

feeding the fish during the lunch break

feeding the fish during the lunch break

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tour brochure

tour brochure

peripheral vision

Focus, but don’t crop the periphery.  We see clearly that which our eyeballs are pointed at.  In fact, from everything our vision takes in, our scope of focus is a relatively narrow band.  Outside that center vision is out of focus, but not out of sight.

All of us have varying degrees of periphery we can detect.  For most it’s about 180 deg.  We all have experiences knowing when someone is staring at us by peripheral detection.  To be certain though, we’ve actually got to point our eyes.

Many of us exercise our peripheral vision as we use our mobile devices while walking or driving.  But our eyes can only focus on one thing at a time.  The periphery may be in awareness, but not in focus.

Since living in China, working the peripheral vision has become a necessary exercise.  Whether in a car, on a bicycle, or walking, most people stare in the direction they are heading, regardless of merging or turning into traffic.  No one seems too concerned about being hit, but rather of not hitting someone else.  No doubt, that is where a certain derogatory ethnic driving term came from (in the USA).

For example, in many countries right turns are allowed at intersections where traffic signals are red.  It should not mean that drivers are free from obligation to look or check the periphery before taking that right turn.  Not here.  As long as nothing is in your path at the moment, you go, or keep going.

taking this photo while riding my bike I was almost finishing the intersection when a car blasted its horn,  trumping my ROW.  actually, my peripheral vision saw her coming

taking this photo while riding my bike I was almost through the last section of a long intersection when a car coming from the right blasted its horn, trumping my ROW and forcing me to stop. actually, my peripheral vision saw her coming.

At just about each intersection in the city where I live, there are three types of traffic signals; one for cars, bicycles, and pedestrians.  If you are a cyclist or pedestrian patiently waiting for the signal to change from red to green, you go, but only if there are no cars.  In other words, motorized vehicles trump the right-of-way of peds and cyclists who have the green light.  It’s actually the same in many countries where we’ve built roads for the rights of cars, at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists.  In these countries where rights-of-ways are active non-rights, it pays to exercise peripheral vision if you care about not being hit.

I’ve written a couple of posts about rights-of-way.  It’s not that I’m not hung up on the topic.  It’s just curious when citizens decide on adopting a ROW concept, then indiscriminately or unknowingly take it away.  It says something about a basic courtesy they are willing to extend.

It’s not only motorized vehicles.  Bicycles and pedestrians seem to ride or walk as they drive, crossing paths or streets without actively looking to make sure someone else won’t need to screech to a halt to avoid a collision.  It’s a confounding way to move among fellow citizens.  This don’t-worry-about-being-hit-just-don’t-do-the-hitting ends up being the rule of the road.  So far, I can’t tell if people have excellent peripheral vision or a complete lack of it.  Surprising, there seem to be relatively few accidents.  With cars, bicycles, and pedestrians crisscrossing the same roads at the same time, it’s more like a ‘meld-of-way.’ It’s no wonder why vehicles have extra loud horns and their drivers use them liberally.

There is a certain correlation as we motor through life.  There are no guaranteed rights-of-way.  While we may need to focus on job, family, and health, it pays to exercise our peripheral vision.  Life can throw curves out of the blue.  If we don’t have blinders on, our peripheral sense helps us field those curves.  And while meld-of-way may work as a less stressful way of managing the unexpected, it still helps to use the periphery and rely less on blasting our horns.

I’m slowly getting accustomed to this ‘mobility with blinders’ mode, which is concerning because I’m sure I’ll be the recipient of active horn honking when I get to places where looking before crossing or merging is the norm.  Having spent so much of my life on two wheels, it’s natural to ride with a sense of defense.  For now, even though I’m in the express minority, I practice to look before merging, at least with a focus on peripheral vision.

Tour De Bronx

What do you do when you find a interesting and potentially invigorating Tour that is free and easy?  You might sign up without hesitation.  That’s what I did last Sunday, with the TOUR DE BRONX.

Sponsored by Bronx Tourism Council and Transportation Alternatives (among others), this year’s tour, their 20th annual, attracted more than 6,000 enthusiastic riders.

on the way to the start line

on the way to the start line

Shaking off jet lag, I pumped air in the tires of my steel-framed Schwinn city utility bike which had been ignored for several months and registered for the 42 mile course.

The morning ride to the start point at Lou Gehrig Plaza, up through Manhattan and into the Bronx past Yankee Stadium, was as tranquil as any densely populated city ride could be.

I’ve ridden through the Bronx a few times, (the NYC Century and 5-Boro ride), but never a Tour specific to the Bronx.  What I hadn’t realized is how much greenery the Bronx contains.  It seemed like half the course was through long stretches of parks large enough where you ride for miles without exiting.  The New York City police escorted the front group and helped with most intersections.

sign in at Lou Gehrig Plaza

sign in at Lou Gehrig Plaza

The tour ended at the Bronx Botanical Gardens where riders were treated to pizza and live music.

Anticipating a relaxed ride,  the rolled-up 65 miles (to/from home), combined with the fast pace, high wind conditions, lots of hills, and heavy bike, had me counting the last few miles and half-wishing I would have selected the shorter course.

Still, I’d rank this Bronx tour in the ‘fab’ category, even though the gps app which directed me home had me peddling through areas where I would not have wanted to stop and fix a flat.  The flat tire, fortunately, waited until I was only two miles from home.  By then I was too bushed to do tire surgery so every 10 blocks I stopped to pump the tire with enough air to limp home.

Bottom tour-line, if you like cycling, even a little, NYC provides plenty opportunities throughout the year to discover its parts under your own power.  So if you happen to be in NYC in October, mark your calendar.  The Tour De Bronx is a worthwhile event, but only if you are free and easy.

just about start time

just about start time

1st rest stop with Whitestone Bridge in background

1st rest stop with Whitestone Bridge in background

beaches in the Bronx?  apparently so.

beaches in the Bronx? apparently so.

my city workhorse.  not as light as the road bikes, but to tackle these city streets, its not meant to be

my city workhorse. not as light as the road bikes, but to tackle these city streets, its not meant to be

Huaxi, richest little village in China

That is its claim (without the ‘little’).  Located in Jiangyin, in Jiangsu Province, just a hop, skip and jump from where I’m living, Huaxi was transformed from a dirt-poor farming village in the 1960’s to a model-for-industry, corporation-city worth billions (usd), and listed on the Shenzen stock exchange.

This past Thursday, October 1, began National Holidays in China.  Officially, many take off for one week.  But industries like apparel making can only afford two days of celebration.  Luckily, the weather was good so a small group of us (ex-pats) took a leisurely bicycle trip to Huaxi.

on our way to Huaxi

on our way to Huaxi, courtesy of wide relaxed bike lanes

Home of the 15th tallest building in the world and 7th tallest in China, Huaxi is acknowledged by many as a model socialist village.  The residents are expected to know and understand the value of hard work and contribute to the greater good.  There are roughly 2,000 registered residents, each corporation shareholders.

coming into Huaxi.  they purposely capped the size of China's 7th tallest building out of respect to Beijing's building height.

coming into Huaxi. they purposely capped the size of China’s 7th tallest building out of respect to Beijing’s building height.

Huaxi — the good

All registered residents receive dividends which normally exceed their job earnings.  Every family is given rights to a mini-villa, every adult allotted enough for a luxury car, and all are entitled to free health care, education, and cooking oil.  They have average household incomes of better than 100,000 euros and maintain at least 250,000 euros in their bank accounts.

to remind the residents, and those who visit, the primary state of mind

to remind the residents, and those who visit, what Huaxi is ultimately about

Huaxi — the bad

Most residents are required to work seven days a week.  There are no bars, clubs, or internet cafes for social mingling as residents are expected not to have time for such leisure.  Corporation share prices could dive, reducing primary dividend income.

Huaxi — the ugly

Residents who decide to leave or move elsewhere loose everything. It’s understood that residents are encouraged not to talk with foreigners or the press.

To help power Huaxi’s industrial engine, 10’s of thousands of migrant workers live in surrounding dormitory housing and enjoy none of the local resident benefits.

where the residents live

resident villas

As far as the bicycle trip, what better way to spend an otherwise normal workday afternoon than peddling with a few coworkers, sharing an excuse to roam new roads, knowing we circled through China’s richest little village.

on the way, from left, Shiv, Selva, Karthik, Usman, FS

a hidden temple stop: from left, Shiv, Selva, Karthik, Usman, FS

 

from right: Dheeraj, Shiv, Selva, Karthik, Usman

a short mingle with the field grass, from right: Dheeraj, Shiv, Selva, Karthik, Usman

stopping for a respite by a small stream, heading back home

stopping for a respite by a small stream on the way back home.  From left: Karthik, Selva, Dheeraj, Usman, Shiv

what bike ride would be complete without noodles with peanut sauce and soy beans?

what bike ride would be complete without noodles with peanut sauce and soy beans?

and a few dumplings from a local dumpling shop

and a few dumplings from a local dumpling shop

another Long Island ride

A year ago to the day I wrote a post called a long island ride.  This past weekend I had the good fortune of making it again.  The mouth procedure I’m planning was bumped back by one week giving me the opportunity to sign up for this over-sold ride before the cutoff date.

Although I’ve been commuting to work on a bicycle every day for a few months, that 10-mile round trip did little to prepare me for a long ride.  So this year rather than starting from Penn Station, I elected the shorter 110 mile ride from Babylon to Montauk.  I thought it would be easier.  Last year there was a light tailwind making the lengthily ride somewhat of a breeze.  To change perspective, the weather decided on a non-stop 15 mph headwind as a reminder of who was in ultimate control.  Still, it was sunny, cool, and a beautiful day for a bike ride.

The Babylon route meant turning over the bike in Manhattan so it would be waiting at the start point.  It also meant showing up at the Penn Station train terminal at 4:30 am.  I showed up bushy-tailed, along with hundreds of others.  The train was full.  I sat next to a couple who flew in from Seattle to make the ride.  They peppered me with questions about what they might see.  They were experienced long-haul bikers having traveled up and down the West Coast several times.  After we got off the train, I never saw them again as a thousand or two riders headed off the platform to look for their bikes.

As always for events like this, a pocket full of patience is worth its wait (yes pun).  Because the train was full, there was a wait getting off the platform, a wait getting into where the bikes were staged, a wait to get out with the bike, and a wait to check a bag (unless you want to ride 110 miles loaded down, you check a bag with fresh clothes, towel, and reading material for the return trip).  At the end the waits were in reverse.  Like taking an airline trip, the pleasures of traveling are served with courses of waiting on either end of the trip.

Still, the ride was beautiful and worth the small inconveniences.  What was painfully obvious for señor ego was that riders of all types seemed to push a more robust cadence than my legs were willing to permit.  I had to remind myself it was a ride not a race, even though there were benefits to finishing earlier, like savoring a few minutes before the crowd was too large gobbling down a couple pints of free Blue Point Blueberry Pale Ale before the 3.5 hour train trip back.  After landing at Penn Station at 8:45 pm, I hopped on a Citi Bike and was home by 9 for a well-deserved piece of sauce-ladened lasagne before greeting my bed with open arms.

The bike was patiently waiting for me to pick up the next day, Sunday, at the place where I dropped it off on Friday.  With luck or good fortune, I’ll do the ride again sometime.

kryptonite lock not needed

It’s too bad we’ve got to rob or steal from our fellow humans.  But it’s a fact of life that we need to protect our stuff, in varying degrees, even down to our identities.  The word civil is the root word for citizen, civility, and civilization.  One definition of civil is “courteous” and “polite.”  The French and English came up with that term a few hundred years ago when they were describing the “progress of humanity.”

Whether the theft is a white-collar scam or someone breaking a bicycle lock, the act is the same.  It’s a societal sickness.  Once cockroaches settle in, they are about impossible to exterminate.  You learn to live with them.  It’s why apparel retailers keep anti-theft sensors on every garment and cameras throughout every store (at significant cost to those who purchase).  The percentage of people who steal out of desperation is negligible.  It’s a sickness.

Just consider bicycles.  In New York, if you don’t bolt your bike to something when you are not riding, you might as well kiss it good bye.  Even for a few minutes, if the frame is not secured to a fixed post with a kryptonite lock, it could be gone while your back is turned.  Luckily, I’ve lost only one bike to theft while living in NYC.  The bike was bolted to a scaffolding post with a kryptonite lock with a steel cable intertwined through both wheels. Because the thief couldn’t break the kryptonite lock, he unbolted the scaffolding post, in the middle of the day on a busy sidewalk, and slide the locked bike off the post.

a simple cable lock is (and should be) sufficient

a simple cable lock is (and should be) sufficient

On the sidewalk in front of my apartment last Fall there was a nice looking road bike locked to a post for several days.  It was expertly locked with two kryptonite locks and all components locked to the bike.  Gradually, items went missing.  First the peddles, then the seat, handlebars, wheels, until there was nothing but the frame.  It’s very difficult to cut through high-rated kryptonite locks (there are many versions of kryptonite locks rated by degree of difficulty to cut them off.)

In Colombia, where I’ve ridden quite a bit, I heard stories of solo riders having their bikes stolen while they were riding.  Either gangs or “help me” tricks would get the rider off the bike while an unsuspecting person would grab the bike and run (or ride) away.

The city where I am in (somewhat) northern China is a bike city.  One refreshing aspect is that bike theft is not an issue.

no need to lock the bike to an immovable post.

no need to lock the bike to an immovable post.

Sure, people lock up their bikes, more to prevent someone from riding off on the wrong bike.  And no one locks their bikes to anything.  Most use a simple flimsy lock that could be hacked in a New York minute.  But no one steals here.  Like Japan, where tens of thousands of bikes are parked on sidewalks and streets, a simple lock is enough protection.  The theft sickness in those cultures doesn’t run so deep.  So for now, since a bicycle is my only form of transportation, I’m content not having to lug around a heavy kryptonite lock and locate a fixed post for every errand.