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November 4, 2002

My Ass vs. The Environment (0-1)

If I sat down and thought about it, I could probably come up with about a dozen different ways that I could produce less garbage, pollution, and greenhouse gases while using less electricity, fuel, toilet paper, and municipally treated potable tap water. Some ideas would be radical and likely very expensive. Others would be reasonable, relatively low-cost, and may only take a trip or two to my local home renovation center. The big question today, boys and girls, is whether yours truly has done anything on that list, other than write about them and come up with more.

Well, when my family expanded my wife and I managed to reduce the number of vehicles we own from two down to one. That's good, right? It would be, if it weren't for the fact that we got rid of two small, highly economical 4-cylinder vehicles in exchange for one two-ton chug-a-lug SUV. Maybe it's a wash, but I don't feel any better about it. We'll call it a draw on this one, and hopefully in the future the guzzler will be ditched for something more efficient.

When it comes to where I live, I think I'm doing fairly well. As we bought brand-new two years ago, our house is very efficient. In fact, it's been tested and has come out as R2000 equivalent. Not bad, huh? To improve things even more, I quickly removed the crappy $5 thermostat that came with the house and replaced it with a nice programmable unit. This alone has probably saved us a lot of money, as well as a lot of natural gas and electrical consumption. I can't really take credit for buying an efficient house, as buying a house in my area almost always means buying a new house - that's just the way the market is. I will take credit for installing the programmable thermostat, but in reality it's really not that big a job.

Have I replaced my water tank and furnace with a hydronic heating system? Not yet, but I have high hopes about that for the upcoming year. Is my lawn pesticide-free? Yes, but only because I'm lucky if I get around to cutting it, let alone care about weeds and bugs. What maintenance is performed on it is not done with a gasoline-powered machine, at least. Do I recycle? Yes - and I'm pretty sticky about it too. Unfortunately, it only applies to solid waste thus far. I have not started composting, or even getting around to installing an in-sink garbage disposal (apparently contrary to by-laws in my area for some reason) to reduce the amount I'm sending to landfill.

I have not purchased solar cells or a wind turbine to generate my own electricity. I still use toilet paper instead of installing bidets in all my bathrooms. I still take luxurious showers, and dawdle too much. Despite my better judgement, I still BBQ small amounts of food. I depend on my clothes dryer instead of air-drying. I have toilets with cheap, crappy mechanisms that leak that I have tried to fix and replace, but I'm sure I'm still wasting water through them. I still use incandescent lightbulbs instead of compact fluorescent or LED clusters. I drive alone in a two-ton vehicle at rates of speed that I know uses more fuel, but I have not slowed down nor have I traded the beast in for something else. Just what the hell HAVE I done??

Well, as of this past Friday, I can say that I'm finally doing something significant. I am sacrificing my ass for the environment. My new place of employment is located approximately 15 kilometers from my home, just within the city. I determined that with careful route planning, I would be a good candidate to become a bicycle commuter. On Friday, that is exactly what I did. Instead of getting up and having a nice long shower before driving to work, I skipped the shower and rode past the SUV on my bike. (Don't worry; I showered at work.)

I don't get a lot of exercise, which is part of my motivation to do this. What better way to ensure I get some exercise than to make it my method of getting to and from work each day? Unfortunately, this means that my body is highly unaccustomed to being put through the wringer like that. I managed a decent speed for about the first third of the ride, the second third was a bit more leisurely, and the last portion of the ride was simply sheer determination: the determination to get off my raw, aching ass.

The bike I have was bought brand-new during university. I brought my old mountain bike to university with me, but after taking a bicycle maintenance course with my friends, in which the instructor also gave us lessons on how to ride properly, I determined that my hunk of iron just wasn't up to the task anymore. I purchased a nice mid-range mountain bike that was on sale, put on the necessary accessories, and enjoyed it throughout my time at school. The only problem I ever had with it was the gel seat being stolen. It was a nice seat, so I replaced it with the exact same kind as I had before. That seat had seen me through my first bicycle commuter period in Calgary for four months without incident or injury, and I quite liked it.

So what the hell happened? Friday morning turned into a nightmare of not wanting to sit down to pedal anymore, and thoughts of getting off and walking the rest of the way surfaced more often the closer I got to work. Suddenly this comfy seat has become quite literally a pain in the ass. Whether my posterior has softened in the years since university due to the low amount of cycling I regularly do, or whether my sedentary job-induced weight gain is to blame, this seat is no longer comfortable for a ride of more than 20 minutes.

There is a slight chance that what I have experienced thus far is psychosomatic. For the longest time I have wished to be able to cycle to work, for both the environmental and health benefits that go along with it. On a related note, over the past two months I became interested in recumbent bicycles as commuting bicycles. For those of you not familiar with what a recumbent bike is, "recumbent" simply means that the rider is sitting upright; legs out front, body upright (or pretty much so) and the rider's behind and back fully supported with a nice big seat. You've probably seen them around before once or twice. They aren't terribly popular yet, but they are increasing in numbers.

The reason recumbents appeal to me as a commuting bicycle is because of the nice big seat. Instead of jamming a piece of thinly padded plastic between your buttocks and hoping for the best, the recumbent supports the full width of both your buttocks and your back, providing a much, much nicer experience. There are other benefits as well; reduced frontal area for better speed, a riding position that allows for better power delivery to the pedals, and the rider is better able to make eye contact with the drivers of other vehicles. (From what I've read, this is key in making other drivers see you.). I'm sure there are others, but those seem to be the key ones.

Back to why my complaining arse is psychosomatic. Having researched recumbents so much over the past weeks, it has been hard to not visualize myself driving one to work. During the times that I found myself thinking about cycling to work, I realized that I was visualizing myself on one of the recumbents that I had been researching, not my regular "diamond" bike (or "wedgie" as the recumbent crowd enjoys calling conventional bikes). My theory is that due to expecting the body-friendly ride of a recumbent bicycle and being so out of practice on my bicycle, my pain is partly real and partly enhanced by my own expectations of a painful ride on my conventional bike.

Thankfully, the weather and my wife conspired to save me from my butt on Friday afternoon. Our first bout of significant winter weather prompted my wife to call and tell me - not ask me, but tell me - that she would come pick me up that afternoon. I didn't complain.

Now the question lingers: what am I going to do Monday morning? I could either take it like a man and suffer to and from work on Monday, and hope that I'll eventually get used to it. Hah! I'm still sore on Saturday evening from Friday morning, and I don't think I'll feel particularly masochistic on Monday. I could just say that my bike is obviously not right for me anymore, so I'll cycle to work when I can afford a recumbent bike. That notion did cross my mind, but due to the fact that recumbents aren't nearly as popular as wedgie bikes are, they don't come cheap. There are two entry-level recumbents currently on the market that start at $550 US, which is still dear for a bike. After prolonged unemployment I'm not really rolling in money, so a new bike won't happen.

What I see are two options that I am going to pursue simultaneously. First, I'm going to build my own recumbent. There are tons of websites out there about homebuilt recumbents, including ones with plans or general directions - even CAD drawings - of how to get started. I have found one such site that shows you how to cannibalize a bike and make it into a recumbent using about $20 of muffler pipe. That's the right price for me! Of course, I'm not about to start chopping up my bike for parts immediately, no matter how motivated my derriere has made me. So I need an interim solution.

What I've decided is that I'm going to take the best part of a recumbent and adapt it to my bike. I'm taking my gel seat and tossing it in favour of a homemade sling-type bike seat. Have you ever seen the camping stools you can purchase at Canadian tire? They're simply two pieces of tubing bent into rectangles with some canvas between them. My new bike seat will be pretty much the same, but adapted for use with a bike seat stem so I can mount it on my bike frame. All I need is some small-diameter steel tubing, a way to bend it into the shape that I want, some strong steel wire for the adaptation to the seat stem, and some kind of durable fabric, mesh, or like material.

As I'm highly motivated, I don't see it taking much longer than a day or two to get the first one made. I say "first one" simply because I have a feeling I'll learn a lot from making and sitting on the first one, and that I'll be able to significantly improve on the design quickly. Either way, I'm hoping I'll be much more comfortable by early next week. Meanwhile, I'm planning for Monday. I know we have some medium-density foam around here somewhere, so I'm going to duct tape a nice big chunk on top of my seat. It may not solve the problem, but as long as it doesn't make it worse it'll do for the next few rides.

Until all this is worked out, I can at least take a bit of pride in what I've accomplished. Not only did I recognize what I could do to contribute less pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, I actually went and did it. I give myself a pat on the back. If anyone asks me what I've done for the environment, I can now honestly say that I chose the environment over my ass. If that's not enough for them, I'll offer to show them the bruises.


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