Embrace the Rain

Thunderstorms had been passing through the area on and off most of the day, but I really didn’t begin watching the weather closely until an hour before I was scheduled to leave work. Heavy rains were expected shortly after I was done working, so the weather app on my phone was receiving a lot of attention.

“Did you ride your bike to work today,” a coworker asked just before I was going to leave. I said that I had, and he responded, “Looks like you should be okay.”

When I left home for my bicycle commute that day, I told my wife that I would be riding home that afternoon regardless of the weather. If it was storming, I’d wait it out at work. If the rain wasn’t too heavy, I’d ride in the rain.

I had no choice. My wife needed a car to take her mom to a doctor’s appointment at the same time that I quit work for the day. Our other car had been loaned to friends whose car was in the repair shop. I had no choice but to ride, but on a summer day that’s an easy chore. Even in the rain.

Before riding to work, I made sure that my rain suit was in my panniers. I didn’t need to make any other preparations. The temperature was forecast to be in the upper 70s, so I didn’t need a jacket or any other protective clothes.

Skies were overcast for the morning ride, but the rain held off until after I reached the office. The ride home, light rain began falling about two minutes after I left. No big deal. I was wearing my rain suit, and I rode straight home instead of going for a longer ride as I sometimes do. I kept a nice steady pace, and made it home without problem. The tops of my shoes were wet, but other than that I was dry.

I have learned a bit about riding in the rain over the years, and with some adjustments it can be done pretty easily. My education in riding in the rain is hard-earned. Multiple crashes have helped me to understand that it is important to take it easy. No not rush and do not to lean into turns. I ruined the pants of my first rain suit doing this.

Late to work, I pedaled hard into a right turn. As I leaned into the turn, the rear wheel came out from beneath me. I skidded 30 feet on the asphalt, and a 90-degree hook left me on the ground staring at oncoming traffic. I threw my bike into the parking lane, and scrambled out of the roadway, my right pant leg shredded from hip to knee. I’d like to say that I learned my lesson from the crash, but I can remember at least one other similar incident. Eventually, I did learn.

Lesson One: Ride as upright as possible to prevent the wheels from going out from beneath you. Imagine that your back is a steel rod, and you want to keep it as perpendicular to the road as possible. Most importantly, don’t lean into turns.

Lesson Two: Bike brakes don’t work very well in the rain. Brakes rely on friction to slow the wheels of your bicycle. Slick with rain water, there is little friction between your brake pads and your wheel rims. Because your brakes don’t work well in the rain, don’t ride as fast as you usually do. Also, think ahead and be cautious so that you don’t have to brake suddenly to stop.

Lesson Three: You are going to get wet. There is no way around it. Riding fast doesn’t keep you dry, it just makes it more likely that you will crash. Embrace the rain. Ride slower than usual, and don’t worry about wet clothes. In warm weather, getting wet is not a big deal. In cold rain, think how good it will feel to strip out of your wet clothes.

If you’re riding home, there are towels to dry your body, and a drier or clothes line for your clothes. If you are riding to work or anywhere else, pack dry clothes in plastic bags to change into when you arrive.

So, take it easy in the rain, and you’ll (probably) make it to your destination unscathed.

Sunday in the Park


Silhouettes of bicyclists captured my attention as I entered a wooded area of the Oak Leaf Trail in suburban Milwaukee. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness of the shade, I could see a group of 20 to 30 young men on BMX bikes. As I slowed, I heard a call, “Biker coming through.”
The BMX crowd cleared enough space for me to coast through the gathering in a wide spot along the path, maybe 10 feet of asphalt pavement on either side of the trail. I had slowed almost to a stop when I saw a rider approaching a homemade bar and two standards. As he became airborne, he somehow pulled the bike frame toward his midsection, and amazingly jumped over the bar on his bike.
“What are we at, 36 inches?” a call shot out. “Thirty-five” was the response. I grabbed a spot at the end of the line of riders that hugged the sides of the clearing, and watched as another cyclist rode toward the high jump. With an approach of no more than 30 feet, and without the benefit of a ramp to increase his speed, he cleared the bar without knocking it from the standards.
I grinned and nodded at the riders in line. “Righties, you’re up,” the young man who seemed in charge of the event called out. As the BMX bikes shuffled into position for the next phase of the competition, I pedaled away. There was more to see down the path.
It was Sunday afternoon, and I was exploring the Oak Leaf Trail. The 100-plus mile trail encircles Milwaukee County, and was largely unknown to me until that day. I hooked up with the trail in Greenfield Park and headed southeast toward Hales Corners. It was my first serious ride on the trail.
Construction is closing sections of my usual rides along the Glacial Drumlin Trail and the New Berlin Recreation Trail, so I was searching for new riding experiences. A Friday evening conversation with a friend, spurred my interest in the Oak Leaf Trail. I poked around the trail on Saturday, and was determined to explore it at length on Sunday.
The section of the Oak Leaf Trail that I rode winds along the Root River Parkway, through woods, wetlands, open fields, parks, under freeways, and intersects busy city streets.
I had never traveled more than a couple of miles along the trail, so it was all new to me. Besides the BMX high jump, I also passed by a disc golf course and a group in a park playing Capture the Flag with Nerf guns.
Curious to see what was around the next bend, I rode more than 30 miles that afternoon. When I had crossed enough highways, and passed through enough Y-intersections that I became concerned that I might not be able to find my way back, I turned around to retrace my path and experience the wonder of a newly discovered trail all over again.

After winding my way through Greenfield Park, I was back in familiar territory. The New Berlin Recreation Trail was wider and straighter than much of the path that I had followed earlier, so I was able to ride a bit faster. But it wasn’t nearly as interesting as the new trail. I knew that I’d be back to pick up the path, and it would be soon.



Two Riders, One Bike


Angry shouting broke the quiet of Sunday morning. It was my brother and I blaming each other for crashing the bike that we shared onto a neighbor’s newly seeded front lawn. Our arguing attracted the attention of the homeowner, who shouted, “Get the hell out of my yard!”
We scrambled onto our stingray, and pedaled home at top speed, or at least as fast as two guys sharing a banana seat can ride.
Sometime during grade school, maybe second or third grade, my parents made an offer to me and my brother, who is one year and one day younger than I am. If we came up with $25, they would cover the rest of the cost of a new bicycle, which my brother and I would co-own.
Raking leaves, washing dishes, vacuuming, and returning bottles to the neighborhood grocery store for deposit money, we managed to scrape together $25 toward the purchase of an Executive-brand stingray. We were beside ourselves with joy as my dad assembled the bike. Shortly after that, the trouble began.
Deciding who gets to ride is the stumbling block with bicycle co-ownership, especially when the owners are younger than the age of 10. We both wanted to ride the bike all the time, but never more than when the other owner wanted to ride. With the Executive’s high-rise handlebars and a banana seat, we could both ride at the same time. But it wasn’t easy.
We both fit on the banana seat easily enough. I was taller, so I sat at the back of the seat, with my brother in front of me. His feet were on top of mine on the pedals. We placed our hands side by side on the handlebar grips, and away we’d go. We were a bit shaky at first, but once we found our rhythm, we could really fly. We had two sets of legs pumping the pedals. Imagine a compact, lightweight tandem, but ridden by two brothers who didn’t always get along very well.
We were pretty good going straight, and when we both agreed where we wanted to ride. Intersections were always an adventure, with shouts of “Turn!” and “Go straight!” competing against each other. When we couldn’t agree which way to go, a common experience, it was very easy to lose control of the bike. When one rider wanted to go straight, and the other wanted to turn, the resulting hand-fighting could easily steer the stingray onto a newly seeded lawn.
The all-too-common crashes took their toll on the bike. With its scraped handlebars, scratched paint, and dented pedals, the Executive lost its luster. The shared rides became less frequent and solo rides more common. Also, as we grew it became tougher to physically fit two riders on the stingray.
I don’t think we rode it for more than two or three years. The Executive had a brief second life as a BMX bike several years later. One summer racing up and down the hills and around the sharp curves on the dirt trail that we called Baja, and the Executive was laid to rest in the attic above the garage of our family home.
I haven’t seen the bike since we buried it in the attic of a house that hasn’t been my home for more than 35 years. But every time I see a sprinkler watering a newly seeded front lawn, I remember the scraped knees, busted knuckles, and good times that I had riding with my brother. Long live the Executive!





When to talk, and when to be quiet

IMG_1146Riding west on the Glacial Drumlin Trail, the rising sun warmed my shoulders. It was early, and there were few other riders. Subdivisions and commercial buildings faded the further I rode from Waukesha, and I began to climb the four-mile long hill to Wales.

Pollen from the newly budded trees was thick. Allergies have become a part of my life in the last five years, and I was feeling the affect of the pollen. I wiped the tip of my nose between my right thumb and index finger, and concentrated on my climbing.

The only sounds were the wind knifing through the trees, robins chirping, the trill of red winged blackbirds and the hum of my tires on the asphalt. And my sniffling. I was about to launch a snot rocket, when I caught a flash of yellow out of the corner of my eye. Another rider was passing me on my left, silent as a ghost.

Looking back to be sure no one else was passing, I cleared my sinuses, wiped my face, and cleaned my hand on my shirt tail. I tried to concentrate on my riding, but I kept thinking about how close I had come to making a real mess, and how easily it could have been avoided.

Of course, I should have made sure I was in the clear. But the passing bicyclist should have let me know that he was going by. This is simple, and prevents crashes and other entanglements. “On your left” “Passing on your left” “Good morning” and the ring of a bell all would’ve worked. There are times to speak when riding, and this was one of them.

If a car gets too close or is going to turn in front of me when I’m riding on the street, I’ll yell out “Hey!” or perhaps something stronger if the situation is exceptionally tense. Same thing when deer and other animals wonder onto the trail. When crossing a street and there’s no traffic, it’s helpful to call out, “Clear!” to riders approaching the intersection. You can warn other riders when they’re approaching road hazards like loose gravel or broken glass. Riding in a group, people talk and shout out instructions to work together and keep the group safe.

When someone is riding against traffic on a busy street, I’ll call out, “Wrong way!” to avoid a head-on collision with another bike. It’s too dangerous to keep quiet in that situation. But if someone is walking against bike traffic on a trail, I keep quiet. Same thing with a dog off a leash, a motorized bicycle, teenagers fooling around, and other people whose behavior on a trail riles me but isn’t dangerous.

If I say something because I am perturbed, I know that whatever I say will not be well received. Reprimanding someone when angry doesn’t usually go well. And no one wants to learn a lesson when they are out for a run or a ride. I remember a guy running in the left lane, and yelling, “Always pass on the left!” when I passed on the right to avoid a collision with him. I was too exasperated to speak.

So, I try to keep my mouth shut when another person is doing something that’s not a good idea, but not dangerous. I’m generally pretty quiet when I ride. A lot of people riding are out to escape the pressures of work and family, and simply aren’t in the mood to talk. I respect that. But I also don’t want to launch a snot rocket on another rider, so please say hey when passing on the trail.

Curb Cut In a Nick of Time


My lunch and a pair of sunglasses for later in the day were stashed in my panniers. The day was warm enough to ride without a jacket or sweatshirt, so I brought along neither. Skies were clear, so I left my rain gear hanging in the garage. I was traveling light on my bicycle commute this morning.

I strapped on my helmet and riding gloves, and coasted down my driveway and into the street. I hadn’t traveled more than six houses from my home when a white and tan RV as big as a school bus backed out of a driveway across the street and headed straight for me and my bike. My bright, sunny ride to work had taken an unexpected turn.

The driver’s face was reflected in the RV’s side-view mirror, and I could see that he was concentrating on backing the vehicle straight out of the driveway. And he was doing a good job of it, too. But he didn’t seem to notice me at all. He was looking only at the vehicle’s rear end, and wasn’t aware that I was approaching at 15 mph from his left.

It quickly became apparent that the RV and I were on a collision course. As I was invisible to the RV driver, it seemed that it was up to me to avoid the crash. I didn’t think that I could brake quickly enough to prevent the collision. Suddenly, I was in a real jam.

As I considered putting the bike down to avoid an RV bumper to the face, I glanced sideways and noticed a driveway on my side of the street. Just like that, I rode up the driveway and onto the sidewalk. I stayed on the sidewalk for two houses to be sure that I was out of the RV’s path, then rode down another driveway and back onto the street.

I had learned this trick driving a car the wrong way down a one-way street in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, a number of years ago. The trouble began when I signaled for a left-turn in what I mistakenly thought was a turn lane. A driver in an actual turn lane on the other side of the street honked his horn repeatedly. I didn’t realize the problem until I turned and faced three lanes of cars and trucks driving straight toward me, with no driving lane for my car.

Fortunately, the cars were a couple of blocks away. I had enough time to turn into a driveway, drive along the sidewalk to the next curb cut, and then turn my car around so that I was headed in the right direction. I waited until all the cars had passed, and then proceeded with caution the right way down the one-way street.

When I left my house for my bicycle commute the other day, I wasn’t consciously thinking of how to avoid colliding with an RV, but I was cognizant of where the driveways were located if I should need one. Situational awareness, which is being aware of one’s surroundings and identifying potentially dangerous situations, enabled me to act as quickly as I did.

When riding a bike on a street, I’m always aware of traffic and what I can possibly do to avoid a crash if it becomes necessary. I’m conscious of the distance to the curb, the presence of parked cars, side streets, driveways, and curb cuts in case I need to swerve to prevent a crash.

I’m not exactly planning escape routes, but I am aware that they exist. It is comparable to riding by parked cars. I’m always checking for drivers, and if I spot one I prepare myself for a possible car door swinging open into my path.

In this instance, I couldn’t have told you that a driveway was on my right. But as soon as I realized that I needed to avoid the RV, I knew that it was there. This level of awareness can be the difference between a near miss and a crash.

On this day, I had dodged an accident and no one else noticed. I was the only person aware that a crash had narrowly been avoided. As far as the driver was concerned, he had successfully backed the oversized vehicle out of the driveway and everything was good.

All was good for me too. The sun was shining, my load was light, and the road ahead was clear.


Tale of Two Bicycles

Number Nine


Leaning into a left turn at 19 mph, I was off to a flying start on my first ride of the season on my Trek 1.2 road bike. On the two-block long downhill immediately after the turn, I hit 25 mph. I was heading to the Glacial Drumlin Trail on my fast bike, the one that I ride strictly for fun. And I was having a good time. Sometimes, you just want to go fast. This was one of those days.

The weather in Wisconsin was finally headed toward summer, and it was time to break out my road bike. Until the salt, broken bits of concrete, and other debris are cleared from Waukesha’s winter-ravaged streets, I ride my 18-year-old Trek 7200 hybrid. It is my everyday bike.

It is the bicycle that I ride to work. Weighed down with a carrying rack and panniers to carry my lunch, rain suit, and other commuter gear, the bike is outfitted with upright handlebars and wide tires to maneuver streets littered with debris in the spring and leaves in the fall. It’s sturdy, carries a load, and is always ready to go no matter the weather. And because it is an older bike, mud isn’t a concern.

My road bike, on the other hand, is like a sports car. It’s stripped down, lightweight, and built for speed. It is flat out fun to ride. The bike serves no other purpose, but that is plenty.

Since I was 19 years old, I’ve always owned two or more bikes. Bikes fulfill different functions. Owning more than one bicycle make it easier to ride in varying circumstances. I cut my bicycle fleet from four to two in recent years because I wasn’t riding the other bikes. Two is enough at this point in my life. Of course, that is subject to change. (I’m thinking about a fat tire bike to ride in the winter.)

Like I said, bikes serve different purposes. The road bike is for going fast, so I will generally wear cycling shorts, cleats, and gloves. These protect the contact points (hands, feet and crotch) and help me to stay on the bike for extended periods of time. When it’s cold, I’ll add layers and a pair of tights. When it gets so cold that I need long pants and boots to keep warm, I put away the road bike and use my everyday bike.

The everyday bike requires no special clothing or shoes, which makes it easy to ride. If I want to go for a quick ride to the store, or just for fun, there’s no need to change clothes.

Dual-sided pedals add to the bike’s versatility. A cleat set is mounted on one side of the pedals for the days when I want to clip in and go for a long ride. The other side is a solid platform, which enables me to ride in regular shoes. I can even ride in boots when it is really cold.

I add or subtract gear from my everyday bike as needed. When I want to ride on the weekend, but conditions aren’t right for my road bike, I’ll remove the panniers and add a handlebar bag to hold my phone, wallet and keys. Lights can be added or removed in a few seconds. The bike is versatile, and helps me get out on days when I don’t want to ride my road bike.

Any day that I can get out on the bike is a good day to me. Bikes for different conditions, and pedals that can adapt to the kind of riding that I want to do on a particular day, make it easier for me to get out more often. And that is a good thing.







Continue reading “Tale of Two Bicycles”

Ring the Bell


Riding my bicycle on the Glacial Drumlin Trail west of Waukesha, Wisconsin, I came up fast on a couple walking side-by-side. When I was 20 feet or so behind the pair, my right thumb sounded the bell on my handlebars. At about 10 feet, I did the same thing. Rrrring, rrrring, the bell trilled.

The man’s left hand rose slightly to acknowledge my presence as I whirred by the pair. I had safely passed pedestrians, not always an easy thing on a bicycling/walking path. Trail etiquette dictates that the passing cyclist provide some sort of warning that the rider is about to go by. “On your left” or “Passing on your left” are the standard greetings. A bell is also acceptable, and, to me, preferable.

This is the second season that I’ve used a bell on my everyday bike (a Trek 7200 Hybrid that I use as my commuter bike). I’ve found that a bell is friendlier and more warmly received than a verbal greeting. A bell instantly identifies you as a bicyclist. People recognize the sound. Plenty of people rode bikes, even tricycles, with bells when they were younger, so there’s a bit of nostalgia when adult walkers are greeted by the sound of a bell.

The bell tends to come across as non-threatening. Try as I might to sound friendly, calling out “On your left!” can sometimes come across as kind of harsh. I try to say it as upbeat as I can, and try to follow it up with “Thanks” or “Good Morning” but it still can seem sharp.

One of my children purchased my bell on a visit to Amsterdam at a store devoted solely to the sale of bicycle bells. I’m told there were many styles, and numerous ring tones. I like the tone of my bell, not too sharp.

Because it’s sounded by a dial, rather than a lever, I can control the sound to a certain extent. I can adjust the volume and the number of rings. If it’s getting tense, I can ratchet up the intensity of my ringing. That’s rare. People generally respond to a casual couple of rings.

Greeting pedestrians and other cyclists when passing is a courtesy, and a way to avoid crashing, so I don’t want to be confrontational. The bell accomplishes this quite effectively.

So, the next time you’re riding and hear a bell sound, know that another cyclist is in the vicinity and wants to make you aware of his presence. A friendly wave and “Thanks” is always appreciated. And, if you are so inclined, you may want to fasten a bell to your rig. It might just add a bit of fun to your ride. A trip to Amsterdam to visit a bell shop is optional, but may be a good idea, too.