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November 11, 2002

Thoughts On Riding

Last week, my ass had lost its battle against the environment, and I was launching myself into the obscure minority known as "bicycle commuters". Since my first painful foray out into traffic I've had over a full week of commuting on two human-powered wheels instead of four dead dinosaur-guzzling rubber doughnuts. Thankfully my rump and my bicycle seat have become more civil to each other: they still aren't friends, but I can bike twice a day without having to sit on a bag of ice when I reach my destination.

With a scant week under my belt, one might think that I've barely cracked the surface of bicycle commuting. One would be wrong. Save for different kinds of weather, I can't imagine that I have not learned the lion's share of what there is to know about trying to get to work and home on a bicycle. There are still things to learn, I'm sure, but pedaling right out into traffic for a week straight teaches you very quickly, and I'm going to share what I've learned thus far.

To prepare for my venture into daily cycling I prepared both my bike and I. For my bike I purchased the requisite rear flashing LED light, and a reflective decal kit. As I'll be riding early in the morning and in the evening, I'll mostly be out in low light conditions. I want to ensure that I would be seen. The flashing light makes sure vehicles coming up behind me can see me, and the reflective decals have been placed all over to make sure I'm visible from all sides. As for what I'm wearing, I added a few of the aforementioned decals to my helmet, and already had some reflective pant clips for my ankles.

The reaction of some of the kids I pass on my way to work would make you think I was wearing an inflatable safety vest, full crash helmet, and had festooned my bike with a dozen orange safety flags. While I may have gone slightly overboard with the decals, they match the existing colour scheme on my bike and are not obvious unless you're shining a light towards me. My helmet is colourful, and my pant clips bright, but by no means would I say that I am a Bicycle Safety poster child. All I can conclude is that kids have no respect for the correct gear, no matter what the reasoning behind it, if it at all deviates from the accepted norm of their young lives. Don't worry, they haven't sent me home crying. I value my life and health much more than the respect and acceptance of the local pre-teen crowd.

As you'll remember from last week, I bitched long and loud about the painful beating my ass took on my inaugural drive to work. I blamed my seat and the general layout of conventional bicycles, but the real culprit is much harder to fix. If I had a glass-smooth surface on which to cycle to and from work I could probably quite comfortably sit on a pile of broken glass with nary a complaint. Back in reality, however, I have to contend with about five kilometers of one particular road that has not been maintained since I first came to this city for my university education.

Although this one road is particularly horrific, it is by no means the only problem on my route. Riding a bicycle without any suspension, every morning and evening I become a highly attuned bump, crack, tar strip, and debris detector. The slight bumps that exist around most drainage grates are the worst. First the bike dips, and I fall onto the seat. A half second later I hit the upslope, and the seat is rammed into my posterior. It's a rapid-fire double hit that I have come to loathe. A full suspension bike would certainly go a long way towards taming the dips and bumps, but I'm still convinced a suspensionless recumbent would be more comfortable in the long run. Hopefully I'll find that out soon enough.

Mid-way through last week I had to leave home in the evening to meet some friends. As it turned out, the easiest route to our meeting place took me along the first half of my route to work. Having driven this route six times (three there, three back) on a bike, I now had a much different perspective on this particular stretch of road. The first thing that became blindingly apparent to me was exactly how much effort I was not expending simply driving a vehicle.

Pedaling the combination of my bike and 200 pound frame along this segment took considerable effort, as there is no such thing as a level road in my area. Everything is a gentle uphill, a gentle downhill, or something steeper. As I'm not in top cardiovascular shape yet, the hills slow me down, no matter how gentle they are. (They may be gentle, but they're still long.) Driving along in a 4000-pound truck, however, was obscenely low-effort. While I might be able to break 50 km/h briefly on one of the downhill runs on my bicycle, just the slightest prodding of the accelerator with my toe hurtles my steel brick uphill faster than I'll ever hope to achieve on human-powered wheels. No wonder vehicles are so popular - they are the ultimate paths of least resistance in getting from point A to B. I would love to be in a crowd of bicycle commuters every day, but I have a strong feeling that I'll be battling more traffic instead of fellow cyclists in years to come.

There is an indelicate side to the learning curve that bicycle commuting affords. If frank talk about the body and its functions offends you, I'll thank you for reading this far and recommend you stop now. Two items in particular have come up during my brief time as a bicycle commuter, neither of which I expected. Luckily they aren't deal breakers, merely curiosities.

First you would have to know that by design I'm a pretty gassy guy. My wife still loves me somehow, despite the fact that I can scare the cats and/or clear a room. I try to be somewhat discreet about it, but depending on the previous meals or the phase of the moon, sometimes all I can do is warn her and turn on a fan or two. Just because I hop on a bike for 45 minutes twice a day doesn't mean my sphincter takes a holiday from whistling a merry tune. Not at all.

In fact, I can think of no better time than to clear the pipes than biking in traffic at speed. Nobody will hear me, and I'll always be upwind. Unfortunately my blowhole is firmly planted on a moderately resilient bike seat when I'm riding. This creates backpressure, the likes of which I'm not used to. I either have to stand up a bit to take the pressure off or risk either herniation or blowing mud from overdoing it. It's a small problem, but one that keeps me on my toes - so to speak.

The other curiosity that I was not prepared for manifests itself during my ride, but is only noticed at the end of my journey. This will not be a year-round problem, but with temperatures anywhere between 5C and -5C this past week, the effects are quite dramatic. Have any of you guys out there ever gone swimming in Lake Huron in May, or perhaps either of the oceans in the off-season? Remember how cold it was? Remember what that did to Mr. Happy? That's right, folks. It may only be a cool breeze whistling past my crotch, but it's enough to send Mr. Happy into hiding. I wouldn't mention this if it wasn't an extreme case. Honestly, I've never seen my trouser snake pucker so. Thankfully all it takes is a warm shower and some dry underwear to coax him back out of hiding.

I should probably take this as a warning. This has happened regardless of what I've been wearing for pants. I've worn either insulated snow pants in the colder weather or just regular cycling pants in the warmer weather, and generally my legs have stayed warm enough. Apparently there's enough breeze getting by that makes anything I've tried thus far insufficient. I once read an Ottawa resident's web page about winter cycling that claimed he had a similar experience during winter riding, but it unfortunately ended in his unit getting frostbite! His solution? He now wears three wooly socks instead of just two. Maybe I'll have to find or develop something similar to ensure my continuing ability to pee standing up.


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