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.


Sun shines, inspiration strikes

morning light

The sun peeked through plum-colored clouds, creating a rose-hued bit of sky, as I waited on my bicycle for the light to change at the intersection of Arcadian Avenue and Highway 164 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. An island of concrete formed a refuge from the parade of cars and trucks that passed before me, the queue that formed to my left, and a stream of vehicles turning onto the highway on my right.

As I pondered the morning light during the break from my commute, a story lede popped into my head. I had been struggling with the approach to a story for a magazine that I edit, and suddenly the answer surfaced from my subconscious. My brain locked onto this fleeting thought; I was determined to remember it and write it down as soon as I made it to the office

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this event: This was my second moment of inspiration at this intersection in the past three weeks, both while bicycling to work. While the location was unusual, I do some of my best thinking while riding.

There is something about bicycling that clarifies thought. There is a theory that the act of balancing a bike requires the right and left sides of the brain to work together, creating a sort of harmony. It may also be the Zen aspect of cycling. When you are riding, you’re completely in the moment. Concentrating on the minutia of adjustments cycling requires occupies your conscious, freeing subconscious thought.

The ideas and random thoughts that spark the imagination, and are so important to writing, are not the products of conscious thought. They come from the ether, and a receiver who is astute enough to listen.

Then the work begins, the writing and rewriting until the words sing. But, if you are lucky, there is a bit of magic to get you started.

This comes when you are looking out the window, drinking coffee, listening to music, walking, anything but trying to write. And, yes, bicycling is included in this group. At least it is for me. Every topic that I’ve written about in this blog occurred to me while I was riding my bike.

So, I will ponder the sky, and, if I am lucky, a voice will very clearly provide me with the idea for the next post.


Bicycle Versus Truck

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The driver of the pickup truck was waiting for me at the stop sign, and he was angry. He’d already let me know that by leaning on the truck’s horn for a solid three seconds as he passed me on my bike, and that was before I gave him the finger.

Four blocks into my ride to work, I made my first mistake. A block-long stretch of Greenfield Avenue that is part of my commute is so rutted with potholes and failing asphalt patches that I usually ride on the sidewalk. I started doing this after I bottomed out on a four-inch deep crevice and blew out a front tire. But on this day, I chose to ride on the street.

Riding on the sidewalk violates one of the basic tenets of bicycling. The sidewalk is the domain of pedestrians, and riding there creates potential conflict with walkers. It is to be avoided, unless absolutely necessary.

That said, this stretch of street is so rough, that the sidewalk is the best choice. A zigzag route to dodge the ruts in the street is necessary, and that also violates bicycling safety rules. I am in a no-win situation on this stretch of my commute.

Riding to work, I approach the block at its highest point. This provides a clear view of the sidewalk, except for a one-house length where it curves out of sight at the hill’s bottom. I usually scan the block from the summit. If nobody’s walking, I’ll ride on the sidewalk, hands on brakes and eyes peeled for any cars backing out of driveways.

But on this day, I stayed on the street. As I concentrated on avoiding the roughest parts of the pavement, I became aware that a pickup truck was on my tail. I tried to pick a safe route to the side of the road, but wasn’t quick enough for the truck’s driver. He laid on the horn, and continued to blast his warning as he passed. I returned fire with a one-finger salute.

Immediately, I realized that I was in the wrong. The finger is disrespectful, and every person deserves to be treated with respect. And it is never smart for a bicyclist to antagonize the driver of a motor vehicle. The cyclist always loses. You must be bold around cars, every time that you make a left turn you need to take the lane, but you must also be respectful.

Not only was I acting disrespectfully, I had been riding erratically. Drivers hate it when they don’t know what a bicyclist will do next. Pick a line, and stick to it.

Just as I approached the stop sign a block past the crumbling stretch of pavement, I saw that the pickup truck driver was waiting for me. I slowed almost to a stop to think about my next move. I’d been in this spot before, and knew that I was about to receive a lecture, be sworn at, or both. I was in the mood for none of it.

I got up on the pegs and slowly rolled toward the truck, waiting for my opportunity. When I was about 10 feet behind him, I saw the driver open the door and place one foot on the ground. That’s when I made my break. In that position, I knew that he couldn’t drive or confront me on foot. I shot past, veering into the other lane, just out of his reach if he tried to grab me. I blew the stop sign, and sprinted down the street.

It was three blocks to the bike path, and safety. He couldn’t follow me there. At the first side street, I took a quick right, hoping to lose him. I didn’t look back, just rode as hard as I could. I figured that I’d hear him, if he was chasing me.

I made it to the bike path, and let out a sigh of relief. But I was not happy with myself. Reacting with anger to another person’s anger, only escalates the tension. It is not a solution. My erratic riding had gotten me into trouble. Since the incident, I have tried to ride more steadily and comply with traffic rules to avoid further confrontations.

The next day’s commute was a nervous one, looking over my shoulder for the pickup. I haven’t seen him since, but I think about him when I travel that block. And until the road is repaired, I’ll stick to the sidewalk on that stretch of Greenfield Avenue.


Add it Up


For the past eight years, I have been tracking my bicycling. I faithfully record the date, distance, and location of each ride. My friend John suggested this as a way to motivate myself. Good thinking, John!

Writing this blog, I figured out that I have ridden a total of 15,899 miles the past eight years. That is an annual average of 1,987 miles. My first year was my lowest total. The highest was two years ago, and was 1,100 miles greater than my first year. Tracking, and the effect that it has on my behavior, is a big part of this success.

I keep tab on a legal pad. Apps and a spreadsheet are other options.

Keeping the log motivates me to beat my previous records. Each year, my goal is to ride more than the previous year. I’ve accomplished this four times. My other annual goal is to ride 2,000 miles, a number that I have reached three times in the years that I’ve been tracking.

Setting these goals, and logging my rides, gets me out on the bike more than I would if I didn’t do these things. Riding to work helps make these goals achievable. I am fortunate enough to live near two bike trails, and I will often hit one of the trails and ride an hour or so after work. It is a great way to put in a quick 12 to 15 miles.

At the beginning of September, I will work out the monthly totals that I need to hit 2,000 miles and get busy. When Daylight Saving Time ends in November, I will get up early and ride before work so I can reach my goals. I wouldn’t be doing this without tracking.

I also measure my current monthly total against the previous month. If I have ridden less than the previous month, I want to catch up. If I’m ahead, I really want to push it to crush my previous monthly total. These numbers are completely arbitrary and meaningless to anyone other than myself, but they keep me striving to win the mind game that I play against myself.

While I always want to beat my previous marks, I don’t get down on myself when I don’t. These are goals, not requirements. There are many variables that I can’t control — weather, travel for work, family obligations — that I don’t feel bad when I fall short. I start fresh the next month or the next year, and get back to the business of beating my old records.

Watch Your Speed

I also use my bike’s odometer to keep an eye on my speed. No matter how steep the incline, or how tired I may be, I always try to ride at least at 12 miles per hour (mph). No matter what, I know that I can ride at least that fast. When my speed dips below 12 mph, I make an effort to increase my cadence.

At the other end of the spectrum, when I hit 18 mph or higher, I make an effort to stay at that speed as long as I can. The idea is the same as pedaling on a descent ¾ make the momentum work for you.

Watching the odometer has increased my average speed and leveled my riding’s ups and downs. This requires some added effort, but it is mostly about being aware of what I am doing and concentrating This is simple stuff, but that’s the point; a great deal of change isn’t required improve your riding. And it adds to your enjoyment. It is much more fun to ride fast than slow. And fun is what it’s all about.IMG_1057

For the Birds

A pair of Canada geese loudly hissed, then charged at me from the left. I stood up on the pedals of my bike and began to sprint as fast as I could. As the geese became airborne and continued the attack, I swerved to the right to avoid the angry birds.

When I glanced up, I saw another pair charging me from the right. I jerked the handlebars quickly to the left. As I did this, I felt the front wheel just barely slip off the pavement and down two inches to the gravel shoulder. Instantly, the front wheel locked against the pavement’s edge, and I was thrown headfirst over the handlebars.

I landed hard on the asphalt, my head hitting violently enough to crack the protective interior shell of my helmet completely through. I ended up on my back, gasping for air. My bike was 10 feet to the right of the trail, the handlebars twisted at a crazy angle, chain knocked loose, and the leather strap of my right toe clip snapped.

The wind had been knocked out of me, and I gasped for air. I rolled to my side, pulled myself to my knees, and crawled to my bike. I managed to get the bike upright, and used the frame to pull myself to my feet. My breathing was better, and I could move my arms and legs. I seemed okay.

Just then, another cyclist stopped. He straightened out the handlebars, put the chain back on, and made sure that the wheels were okay and the brakes operational. “Do you think you can ride?” he asked.

“I think so,” I responded. “But I need a minute.” I tilted the bike frame, and managed to step over the top tube. With both hands on the handlebars, I put my left foot in the only operational toe clip, and pushed off. I began to pedal, slowly, the five miles home.

Finally, I made it home and very gingerly rolled my bike into the garage. My wife and oldest daughter, who had graduated as a physician assistant from Marquette University two days earlier, were seated at the dinner table. I must have looked as bad as I felt, and my wife asked if I was okay. I told the story, and was promptly put to bed.

My daughter examined me thoroughly, and determined there were no broken bones, I could breathe, and the pain was tolerable. After consulting with several other newly minted physician assistants, my daughter told me that a trip to the emergency room wasn’t necessary, but I did need to see a doctor the next day.

The doctor confirmed my daughter’s diagnosis — I had bruised my ribs and was pretty beat up, but I had not suffered a concussion or broken any bones. I was unable to ride for 12 days. A month passed before the C-shaped bruise on my chest, which I determined was caused when I hit the handlebar extension on my way over the bars, finally faded.

It was my worst bicycling crash, and I learned a couple of things:

• Wear a helmet. I would have been knocked out cold, if I hadn’t been wearing one. For two weeks following the crash, everyone that I talked with told me my injuries would’ve been much worse if I wasn’t wearing a helmet. Message received.

• Steer clear of geese during nesting season. The crash happened in mid-May on a part of the New Berlin Recreation Trail that runs past two small lakes, a stream, and a sod farm. It is thick with birds in spring and early summer, when Canada geese are nesting and extremely protective of their young. I respect their fierce dedication to parenting, and avoid riding the trail when geese begin to crowd the path. Instead, I ride on the Glacial Drumlin Trail, where Red Winged Blackbirds patrol the path. But that is another story.

A New Season Begins


IMG_1027Pedaling down Lincoln Avenue in Waukesha, Wisconsin, just after seven in the morning, I pass a line of truck trailers parked at the back of a vacant lot where an old foundry once stood. Just ahead, a two-block long brick factory dominates one side of the street, on the other is one of the city’s last operating foundries.

The asphalt on which I ride is pocked with patches to repair damage from the 18-wheelers that muscle their way in and out of the docks of the industrial buildings on a street that dead-ends at a bike trail. That’s my destination this early March day on the inaugural ride of my ninth season as a bicycle commuter.

A half-mile ride on the trail, cross a six-lane highway, cut through the lots of two car dealers, cross another six-lane highway, a half-mile ride through an industrial park, and I’m at work.

There are no shoulders on the highway that I take when I drive to work, so this cobbled route is the best that I can do for my bicycle commute.

I have two routes to choose from, depending on the weather and the time of the year. One has a hill that I don’t like to go down in the rain, and the other passes through wetlands that can be blocked by geese in the late spring and early summer. (They are not to be messed with when they are nesting. Believe me.)

I can also choose to add a loop in the morning or a ride on the bike trail after work, if I want to put in some miles. I try to add variety to keep the ride interesting, but even if I fall into a routine, there are certain aspects that I always enjoy ¾ a left turn made at full speed and popping through a curb cut after sprinting across six-lanes of traffic are a couple of favorites.

My bicycle commuting started in the summer of 2010, when my oldest daughter needed a car to drive to her classes at Marquette University. My wife and I owned two cars at the time; she drove one to work and I used the other to get to my job.

With two cars and three drivers, my options were limited. We could spend $5,000 for a car that was only needed for the summer, or I could stop talking about riding to work and actually do it. Family economics made the choice clear — I was a bicycle commuter.

I had planned to ride through the summer, and then I’d be back to four wheels. But something interesting happened; I preferred bicycle commuting to driving. Instead of quitting at the end of summer, I rode into November, when it became too dark and too cold to continue.

The next spring, my daughter was living on campus and didn’t need a car to get to her classes. It didn’t matter. My car stayed in the garage; I was now a bicycle commuter. It’s been that way ever since.

I can honestly say that riding to and from work is the best part of my day. The weather is undependable, and I have tangled with car drivers more than once, but the commute is better on two wheels. So, I ride.