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.

Cut the Cake

 

jeunet

 

Every year, I try to give myself a birthday present that I know I’ll like — a bike ride. My birthday is at the tail end of winter and I live in Wisconsin, so this doesn’t always happen.

The tradition began when I was in seventh grade, and my mother gave me what is still the best birthday gift that I’ve received—a Jeunet Franche-Comte bicycle. This was during the bicycle boom of the mid-1970s, and inexpensive, but well made, French bicycles were flooding the market.

The morning of my birthday, my mom told me that we would visit West Bend Cyclery that afternoon to purchase a new bicycle. I had been riding a Sears-brand stingray, which was seriously undersized, so I was definitely in need of an upgrade.

Rows of gleaming bicycles greeted us in the bike shop. My mom told the shop owner our price range — I told him that I wanted a racing bike — and he showed us the selection of bikes that kind-of matched our description. A shiny, red Jeunet ten-speed with drop down handlebars, chrome forks, and impressive pinstripes captured my attention. It was a bit out of our price range, but on that day mom came through and I had the bike of my dreams.

The owner, who rode a high wheeler in the annual Fourth of July parade and was a well-known figure in West Bend, made sure the bicycle fit me properly and was in good running condition. He then jammed the bike into the trunk of my mom’s Oldsmobile. The front tire had to be removed so it would fit, which would prove problematic when we got home. No matter, I had a new bicycle and couldn’t be happier.

After pulling the Franche-Comte (French Comet, in my unschooled mind) out of the trunk, my education in ten-speed bicycle maintenance began. First lesson, how to attach a quick-release wheel onto a fork. I had been given instructions at the bike shop, of course, but my mind was blank as I forced the wheel through the brake pads, jammed the hub into the fork and spun the quick-release in way too many directions. Finally, I had it, or so I believed.

Unsure if I had properly attached the front wheel to the fork, I walked the bike down the street to my friend John’s house. John knew as much about bikes as anyone that I knew, and I wanted him to make sure that the front wheel was on right. I also wanted to show off my new bike.

John, the owner of a Schwinn ten-speed, was all smiles when he saw my new bike. After he reattached the front wheel, John suggested that we take our bikes for a ride. We raced the mile or so on city streets to Regner Park. We pedaled every inch of sidewalk in the park, and then hit the unpaved trails through the woods. Bouncing over tree roots, rocks, and that winter’s downed branches, the Jeunet was thoroughly broken in by the time John and I returned to our neighborhood.

That gift began my cycling journey, and changed the course of my life. I owned that bike for 40 years, and pedaled it at least 20,000 miles. Thanks, mom!

Every birthday, I remember the thrill of that first ride, and when possible, I am out on my bike.

Keep it Clean

IMG_0981Last summer, a mechanic at the shop where I take my bikes reprimanded me for failing to keep my bicycle clean. My every-day bike, an 18-year-old Trek 7200 Hybrid, had been jumping out of gear when I pushed down really hard on the pedals, like when I was taking off from a stop sign to cross the street. This had to be remedied. I thought maybe I needed a new chain—no big deal. I ride the bike to work daily, and it was pretty dirty, so I grabbed a rag and gave it a quick wipe-down before heading to the shop.

The bike mechanic put the Trek up on the stand, and ran it through its paces as I told him the story. The chain was fine, but the crank and rear derailleur were shot. That’s when the lecture began. The components had worn out not because of the mileage, but from the grit that covered the drive train. For a solid two minutes, I was told that nobody likes to clean a bike, but it must be done. I knew he was right, and vowed that I would do better.

Fast forward to early March of this year. Weather in Wisconsin was improving—slowly. High temperatures were nearing the freezing mark, and I was itching to get my bike out. Winter’s snow, ice, and looming darkness had kept me off the road since early December. Too long—I needed to get back on my bike.

The previous week, a friend told me that she had crashed her bike on the Glacial Drumlin bike trail when she gave into the temptation of late-February bicycling in Wisconsin. She fell twice before she reached the point where the trail was barricaded closed because ice made it unsafe. That’s when she gave up and rode home. It was the type of situation that I was trying to avoid. After skidding on my face for fifty feet in a winter cycling crash five years ago, ice keeps me off the road.

But I was thinking that a solid week of above-freezing temperatures should have just about cleared the trail of ice, and it was time for my first ride of the season. When I pulled my bike from the hooks in my garage where it had been stored since December, I was shocked at its condition. Despite my vow, I had done a terrible job of keeping my bike clean. It was filthy. I hadn’t wiped it down after riding through a late November rainstorm. Mud caked the underside of the frame, and to my disappointment, thick, black gunk coated the pulleys in the back derailleur.

I grabbed a rag from the kitchen, filled a five-gallon bucket with hot soapy water, and got to work trying to redeem myself. A good forty-five minutes later, the water was black as ink and the floral rag was streaked with black and grey and looked like an abstract charcoal drawing.

I put some air in the tires, lubed the chain, made sure the brakes worked and the wheels were secure, tightened a bolt on the carrying rack, and was ready to go. I pushed the bike past the idle snowblower in my garage, and was out the door and on my way to the Glacial Drumlin Trail. The city streets the two miles from my house to the trail were clear and dry, though snow covered all but the edges of the grass between the curb and sidewalks.

As I pedaled west on the trail, the asphalt was clear except for ice patches hiding in shady trail edges. Snow remained in the woods that I rode past and ice clung to stands of cattails alongside the trail. As the woods grew thicker, casting long shadows over the bike trail, snow and ice covered the asphalt except for a thin band along one edge. It was time to turn back home.

The trill of red-winged blackbirds in the trees and the rattle of sandhill cranes in a field beyond the trees let me know that spring was on its way to Wisconsin. Even better, I had started my cycling season properly—with a clean bike.