Urban trails

Before I moved to Portland, I was fairly meh on bike paths/trails. I have no trouble cycling with car traffic, although on steep or windy roads, it makes me nervous if there is no shoulder or bike lane. Urban bike paths/trails are often poorly designed, especially when they are intended to be replacements for onroad facilities, or crowded with pedestrians when they are shared multi-use paths.

However, after two months here I am beginning to understand the purpose of such trails. It’s not that they don’t have the downsides that I listed above, it’s that they have a previously unforeseen advantage: fewer $#@%*#* stop signs.

If I want to go on a recreational ride out here, my options are different from Menlo Park. Back then, I could climb on my bike, ride less than a mile (encountering only three stop signs), and be on Sand Hill Road, a veritable freeway for bikes, and out into the hills (on shoulder-ful roads!) in less than three miles. What a paradise. And I recognized and fully enjoyed that paradise, knowing this was not the case for others, but not fully appreciating how annoying stop signs every other block (or more) are.

I am still exploring my options here and no doubt will eventually find some that work better for me, but at the moment I have to navigate a maze of stop signs, and then either 1) go straight up (okay, it’s only 6-8% grades, but that’s steep!); 2) (and) share the roads with heavier traffic than I’m used to, or 3) find a trail, which may be crowded, but, as previously noted, has no cars and many fewer $#@%*#* stop signs. And often is pretty as well.

Urban trails, how I have maligned thee, and how I repent, and thank the good works of previous Portland cyclists for the Waterfront, Springwater, Esplanade, and other trails that thread through Portland.

Ride report: Providence Bridge Pedal 2009

Today was the Providence Bridge Pedal.

I signed up not too long after I arrived in Portland, excited about the opportunity to ride so many of the bridges over the Willamette, especially those not ordinarily open or friendly to bike traffic, including the Fremont and Marquam bridges, which are freeways (I-405 and I-5 respectively).

I didn’t realize until much more recently that this is a huge, huge event. There is no cap on registration, and based on the numbers I heard this morning, more than 15,000 people were riding today. With that many people riding, it isn’t just the car-oriented bridges that are barricaded; virtually the entire route features blocked cross streets and at least one lane of traffic, sometimes more, reserved for ride participants.

You can find the route maps at the Bridge Pedal website, although perhaps not permanently. I signed up for the 11-bridge ride, 38 miles long and crossing eight bridges eleven times (crossing the Fremont, Marquam, and Broadway twice, and the St. Johns, Burnside, Ross Island, Hawthorne, and Sellwood bridges once each).

In addition to the 38 miles of the route I biked to the start via the Broadway bridge (so I crossed it three times today), about 3 miles, and home via SW Oak, SW Park, NW Couch, NW 14th, and NW Johnson (1.8 miles from the finish area at SW Ash and Naito Parkway), for a total mileage of 42.8.

Even with a lane or more of traffic blocked off and a staggered start, the ride was extremely crowded and speed was largely determined by the flow of traffic (and one’s skill at passing in crowds). I waited in a big pack to start (around 7:05 or 7:10), and it remained congested for most of the way, except a few times on long flats or downhills where I was able to go my desired pace. Because of the congestion, downhill speeds were generally limited, although I did get to 30 a few times when we had a whole road or freeway available.

The weather was cool and cloudy, which is fine for riding but less exciting for taking pictures. I mostly just rode but did snap a few pictures from the bridges — it was just too trippy to be riding my bike and seeing freeway exit signs, plus there were some nice views and interesting bikes (my favorite a tri-tandem with a child trailer). Even though I’m a little out of shape, the ride was well within my capacity, with only a few substantial climbs on the bridge approaches. I’m a little tired now and my legs and body feel well-used rather than exhausted. I could feel my W2W-acquired endurance kicking in after the first ten miles or so, as usual. I’m pleased my body has learned to respond that way, even though it makes me a little slow to start sometimes.

My favorite bridge was the Sellwood, where the approach went through a long stretch of neighborhood streets that were quiet and pleasant, and the view from the bridge was of the river, with downtown Portland rather far off. After crossing, the road wound through a more wooded area before returning to downtown. I also liked the St. Johns bridge for its attractive architecture, and a section of N Willamette Blvd for the best pavement of the entire ride.

In spite of the crowds, most everyone was careful and courteous, and I didn’t see any actual mishaps, though there were a few careless roadies and clueless slow people. I wish the organizers had done more to emphasize how to ride in large groups (slow to the right, shoulder checks before lateral movement, signaling stops), but aside from the lack of variety in the food and drink, that was really my only complaint.

I’m really glad I took the opportunity to do this even though biking in crowds is really not my thing. It was wonderful to have the chance to explore so much of Portland (even all the way down to Sellwood) without having to worry about car traffic, and fun to ride my bike on the freeway, thinking about how usually it’s so busy with cars. You can fit a lot of bikes on a freeway, is all I’m saying.

Ten is cool, seven is cool

Xtracycle on Twitter today pointed me to a great blog post from Doug about his seven years as a car-free commuter (in Minnesota, no less).

I mentioned to someone recently that it’s been nearly ten years since I owned a car. (Actually, I’m not sure I ever technically owned a car, since the car I drove in high school most likely still belonged to my parents at the time that I was driving it. But I was its primary driver.) I hadn’t realized it had been that long until I thought back over it and remembered that the accident that totaled our 1987 Acura Legend happened in August of 1999, and it’s now August of 2009.

I don’t think my story is as impressive as Doug’s. For most of the time, I haven’t lived anywhere with an icy/snowy winter, and I haven’t bike-commuted to work every day. First I lived on campus at Rice for two years, then rode a mile or two on my bike each day from the Violin House* to campus, then went back to living on campus for a year. One summer I borrowed a friend’s car.**

For the summer after college, I drove the family car when I went to work or out. Then I lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, within 15 minutes walk of the Linguistics building at the university, for two years. Edinburgh has an excellent bus system which I frequently took advantage of, or I walked a lot; I didn’t ride during those years. (Cycle on the left side? No way! :)

When I came back, I drove the family car again for a few months before I moved to the Bay Area. In the Bay Area, I starting cycling again, often to work (and even in winter rains), but I usually took the train part of the way. I frequently rode along with other people in cars to get places that had proven to be annoying or impossible to get to via transit or cycling.

Now, in Portland, I walk and ride the bus a lot as well as cycling, and I (finally) have access to Zipcar. I’m not a frequent user, but it’s nice to know I can haul stuff or drive to remote destinations myself, without depending on the kindness of others. Of course, if I had an Xtracycle I could do more hauling, but I don’t see hauling four kitchen chairs even with an Xtracycle. I love Zipcar for being 90% of what Doug describes a car as:

Even though I didn’t drive much, having a vehicle sitting there, just in case I needed it, provided my mind with a feeling of security. It provided a mode of transportation that was convenient, easy, and available all the time. Peace of mind.

Zipcar claims that each of their cars takes 20 cars off the road (they ask when you sign up if you will be getting rid of your car). Pretty amazing, and a great way forward for letting go of your car without letting go of all that peace of mind.

Even though I’m much more impressed by Doug than I am by myself, I don’t think this is a contest of who’s the most impressive. I certainly don’t do it to prove anything or make milestones, and he clearly doesn’t either. We’re both happier when we’re not behind the steering wheel of a car, and for me that is and will always be the main reason I don’t drive much. I hope in ten years I’ll still be car-free and that even more people will find it a viable option for themselves, and discover their joy in a different kind of freedom from the kind a personal motor vehicle offers.

* The house in West U I lived in during my junior year of college. With a lot of violinists, hence the name.
** Partly as a favor to him so he didn’t have to drive it back to Oregon. And I locked myself out of it once — in the middle of Tropical Storm Allison.

Ride report: Sequoia 50K 2009

Sunday morning was my third, and more than likely last, Sequoia 50K ride.

DST: 34.5
MXS: 34
AVS: ~10mph (overall), 12.5 (moving)
Time: 3:15 (overall)

My stats are a tad muddled because I checked my distance at the finish, but forgot to check my AVS and time, and then I rode home via Foothill. My total distance for the day was 43.4 miles. 1 mile from home to Palo Alto Caltrain, 1 mile from Arastradero and El Camino to the start, and 7 miles home.

I’m proud of myself for getting up and doing this ride — I was out in Oakland Saturday night and lost my phone, and I haven’t been training at all (except in that I’ve gone on a few other rides recently), so I was tired to start out with and not that well-prepared. Also, in the past they’ve had bagels and coffee at the start, so I didn’t eat breakfast, and when the food and drink did not materialize, I only had a few spoonfuls of the nutbutter/honey/chocolate mix I brought to start out on. Fortunately that stuff is awesome.

I still managed to do a respectable job at the climbing. Arastradero kicked my ass, leaving me exhausted and panting as usual, but I was able to do Arastradero, Alpine, and Whiskey Hill without stopping. A peloton passed me going the other way at about 35 mph in the preserve.

The organizers included a new loop on Alpine out past Portola this time, which was more climbing but a nice rural-neighborhoody excursion. The descent back to Portola (on Willowbrook) was nice and I hit 32 on one steep section.

After Whiskey Hill, it was a pretty straight shot down to the rest stop at Burgess Park, near my house. Once again I didn’t succumb to the temptation to go home in the middle, and instead had a lot of food and headed out through Menlo and Palo Alto with some acquired companions.

This part of the ride has never been my favorite. I enjoy the winding trek along Woodland (which I rarely ride even though it’s nearby), but after you pass University the pavement quality goes from fine to terrible (almost nonexistent in places) and you bump along for quite a while before turning onto Newell in Palo Alto and finishing with a trek along Palo Alto’s badly paved but otherwise pleasant streets. One notable, and sad, sight this year was the memorials at E. Meadow and the train tracks, where two Gunn High School students committed suicide in May.

The final route this year went through the neighborhoods between Meadow and Arastradero before getting back on Arastradero, rather than using the Gunn High bike path. This was less confusing and more pleasant, and provided a better view of Juana Briones park between Maybell Ave and Arastradero, although it did mean overlapping the beginning of the route more.

The most fun part of the ride for me was the scenery and the slow lifting of the fog. As I was climbing Alpine, the nearby hills were green and the Skyline ridge hills were fainter and bluish. Along Whiskey Hill, the fog could be seen starting to lift, and the descent down Woodside provided a fantastic view across to the East Bay hills, partly golden and sunny, and partly blueish and dark. Traversing the familiar route was poignant for me because I’ll have only a few more rides before I leave. I’ll miss the unique Peninsula scenery.

Ride report: Spring!!! (first real ride of the season)


DST: 17.5 mi
MXS: 37.1
AVS: 14.2
Time: 1:14

Route: Route: Portola Loop “the easy way” (up Alpine, down Sand Hill).

I went riding last week and did the Sand Hill/Whiskey Hill/Woodside loop, but the weather was iffy and it was sprinkling by the time I got back, so it didn’t really feel like a spring ride. I also felt like I was really struggling with the climbing, while today, despite (or maybe because of) doing a long hike yesterday, I felt strong and steady. I can tell I’ve still got a ways to go to really be in shape again, though!

Today it was sunny, warm in the sun but with a cool (and strong) wind, and everything looked shiny and green and new. I saw swaths of California poppies and other wildflowers, great views of Windy Hill and the East Bay hills, a lizard, a big black beetle, and a deer. It was a really fantastic ride. I took Alpine up because it was windy and Alpine is less exposed and doesn’t have crazy steep parts. At the top I paused to take a picture (may post it later if I remember).

The other interesting thing about the ride was that because of the major tailwind I had on the way back (wind out of the northwest), I exceeded 30mph three times, and hit a max speed of 37.1mph on the steepest downhill section of Sand Hill. I then hit 34 on the approach to the 280 interchange and 31 on the top section of the final descent into Menlo Park. Fun!

Trust Google Maps

[Didn’t post this because I kept thinking I would add pictures, but it might as well be accessible while I fail to do so.]

A few weeks ago after work I was going to Merit Vegetarian Restaurant (548 Lawrence Expwy, Sunnyvale, CA). I asked Google Maps how to get there, since I haven’t been there before and I’m not very familiar with the roads in Sunnyvale south of my office.

It told me to take Maude to Fair Oaks. Maude is okay, but I wanted to take Arques, which is quieter and which I had to be on after Fair Oaks anyway, but Google was (sort of) correct: Arques is apparently not continuous, since two blocks of it serve as an offramp from Central Expwy. Which is, incidentally, a fantastic example of the way our road system is designed to favor cars. Arques would be an excellent through route for cyclists, except that it isn’t through because it’s repurposed as an offramp so that people can get to work faster because their roadway is limited-access. Fantastic.

I took Arques anyway; there’s less traffic than Maude and Fair Oaks. So I detoured by a block, managed to get into the left-turn lane on Fair Oaks to get back on Arques, and all was well. Until I got to Wolfe, crossed over, and discovered that there’s no bike lane on Arques for one block, presumably because of the way the road configuration at the intersection with Wolfe is set up. Fantastic, again.

When I finally got to Lawrence, I made another left turn and then discovered that Lawrence isn’t just an expressway, but a particularly sucky one. Unlike true limited-access, where there are only a few merge lanes at major intersections/exits, Lawrence in that section has a bunch of little roads that intersect it at “quasi-T” intersections: you can get off or on, but not cross the expressway. (Apparently Central in that same area has the same issue. Yuck.)

These are no fun for cyclists, to say the least. But luckily I wasn’t going far. I arrived at Merit with no further aggravations.

Leaving again, after a very good dinner of soup and tea, I recalled the quick search I had done earlier to find out how to get to Lawrence Caltrain (closer to the restaurant than my usual destination of (downtown) Sunnyvale Caltrain). Not surprisingly, Lawrence Caltrain is off of Lawrence, but the directions Google Maps gave me were strange, instructing me to do what looked like: exit right, make a U-turn, and go right back out to the original road. What? But both at the time I looked at it, and the time I left the restaurant, I was in a hurry and thought “Whatever. It can’t be that hard.”

As I left it started to rain, first lightly and then with increasing intensity. I got to the intersection of Lawrence and Kifer, which I recognized as the place to turn, but I saw a sign that I thought said to turn left for the train. That was wrong, it quickly transpired, but by that time I had already wasted precious moments waiting for a light to turn green for me (it didn’t), going down the wrong road, turning around, and coming back, and knew the train would have left without me.

Still, I wanted to find the darn place so that I could regroup and decide how to get home. So I went back the other way. I saw a sign that said “Caltrain Station San Zeno Way” but that didn’t tell me anything because I didn’t know where San Zeno Way was or how to get there. Little did I know that was actually the street that Google wanted me to turn on.

It turns out that what Google indicated in the first place was this:
At Kifer, exit right.
Go to the closest point where you can turn left legally, and make a U-turn.
Turn right on San Zeno Way, just before you arrive again at Lawrence.
Take San Zeno Way to the train tracks (a few blocks), and there you find the station.

Now, as it happens, as a cyclist there is something more clever you can do.
At Kifer, cross the intersection and stop in the pedestrian island.
Dismount your bike, cross the right-turn area, and walk around the little curve in the sidewalk.
Cross the next pedestrian crosswalk to the triangular island. On the other side of the island, get on your bike and start riding, heading in your original direction, but on San Zeno, not Lawrence.

What I ended up doing was giving up, taking Kifer back to Fair Oaks, and then California to downtown Sunnyvale (to get on California I had to run a non-sensored red arrow, so that was an adventure). There, I discovered the public restroom in the parking garage by the train was actually, miraculously, open.

And then, crazy person that I am, I decided to ride all the way home. Even knowing I would be completely soaked when I got back, and probably would only barely beat the next-hour train. Because the cool thing about cycling is that I am basically self-reliant when I do it, even in the dark and rain.

And it was dark and rainy, and people were driving crazily. I had someone turn left in front of me, blatantly, on purpose, when I had the right of way. People were going way too fast for the conditions. I was really glad when I got home. And much more inclined to trust Google Maps rather than my own opinions.

Bikes – 1

I sold my oldest bike today (Minerva, my Trek Navigator 200 city/utility bike), to a friend, which got me thinking about how long I’ve had it.

I’ve owned that bike since summer 2001. With the exception of some of my musical instruments, it’s the high-value possession I’ve owned the longest and used the most. (I’ve owned my flute since 1993 or so.) It cost about $400 new, and I sold it for $100 since I’ve maintained it well and it came with a bunch of accessories that I put on (rack, fenders, headlight, seatbag, lock, etc.). That’s a long time and a lot of use for a relatively small monetary outlay.

I’m really not at all unhappy to sell it on, which I was worried I might be. My friend will get more use out of it than I was getting (since I got Meg almost a year ago, I was riding Minerva only to the farmer’s market and in the crappiest rainy weather); I’ll ride Meg more which I should be anyway; I won’t be taking up space in the carport anymore; I’ll only have two sets of maintenance chores to rotate. I have a bit of extra money, which definitely comes in handy right now.

Besides, now I have room in my stable for a bike of a different function!

Warm advocacy fuzzies

I don’t do a lot of writing about my advocacy stuff on this blog. If you think the bike-riding stuff is boring, imagine what you would think about stuff that doesn’t even involve riding a bike, but instead involves a lot of meetings and emails and often-tedious government agencies and regulations about bikes, and you’ll see why.

But today, I’m getting a lot of warm advocacy fuzzies for once, and I want to share that joy with the world.

For the last two months I’ve been chairing an SVBC “workgroup” (a small committee of members) on the issue of Caltrain bike accommodation. Basically, there are a limited number of spaces for people to take their bikes on the train to do a multi-modal trip with train+bike, and the spaces are running out. And many people who do this really like doing it, and don’t have other good options, and they were being delayed by 10 minutes to an hour or more, unpredictably, by having to wait for the next train with an available slot. For a long time, Caltrain was resistant to adding more spaces, and cyclists were getting angry and frustrated. A cyclist was arrested due to poor management of a conflict over bumping.

Late last fall, everything came to a head and, as a result of pressure from the community and both bike coalitions (SVBC and SFBC), the Caltrain Joint Powers Board asked Caltrain staff to investigate the possibilities for increases in onboard capacity.

Since then, the workgroup has been brainstorming on ways to improve the system and the amount of capacity, taking input from SVBC members and other cyclists, and meeting with Caltrain staff to express our ideas and concerns. The people on the workgroup have been fantastic to work with — thoughtful, concerned, energetic, and determined to make progress in coming up with feasible ideas for near-term improvements to the situation.

Yesterday at the February 5 Joint Powers Board meeting, staff presented their plan and members and representatives of SVBC and SFBC and the community at large spoke in support of capacity and other system improvements. After staff presentation and lively discussion, the result is that Caltrain is going to increase capacity on its newer, more limited 16-space cars by 50%, and on the older cars (which had 32 spaces) by 25% to 40, a total increase over the day from around 4,000 slots to a little over 5,000. They’re also going to take other measures such as gathering more statistics and formalizing bike input to the agency through a Bicycle Advisory Committee. The JPB also asked Caltrain to try to direct extra bike cars (each train is guaranteed to have 1, but some have 2) to the high-demand trains during the commute hours.

This isn’t everything we hoped for (the workgroup’s position includes a number of other items and a slightly greater increase in capacity), but it is branded as an “interim” solution, and will be revisited. The workgroup will continue to meet with Caltrain staff, and to discuss more ideas for improving the system. It’s a lot more than we had the day before yesterday.

The best thing for me has been seeing the results of our work in print and online (Mercury News, San Mateo Daily Journal, SFGate, SF Examiner), and through emails flying back and forth, commending me, the workgroup, and SVBC for our efforts. I’m but a small cog in this big movement, but it’s very nice to get a few warm fuzzies recognizing the time and effort (and many, many emails) that I’ve committed to the project. And equally nice to throw them back to the workgroup, Caltrain staff, SVBC board and staff, and everyone who cared enough to tell Caltrain that they wanted more.

Caltrain and cycling are my main transportation options, and being able to combine them when I need to is personally very important to me. I’m ecstatic that that’s about to get a little easier.

SKS Raceblade fenders

The Terry website, when I bought Meg (and still — also, wow, it costs $750 now?!), said that there is enough wheel/brake clearance to allow the installation of fenders. I’m honestly not sure what Terry was thinking of when they wrote that, because although there is more wheel/brake clearance than a normal road bike, every full fender install set I’ve seen requires quite a bit more clearance than they give. I was skeptical of the claim to begin with since they use dual-pivot caliper brakes instead of cantilever brakes, and they don’t usually have much clearance.

Mike’s Bikes, however, stocks road bike fenders from SKS called “Raceblade” that attach to the rear seat stays and front fork using rubber straps. Unfortunately the kind they stock are too thin for Meg, whose tires are 700x32c (good for commuting), not 700x23c. So I had to special-order them. Most of the websites that come up when you search also only have the smaller ones, except Excel Sports.

But they are totally worth it. I’ve only done one ride with them so far, but they install easily and work well. The rubber straps are easy to put on and adjust, but stay put unless traumatized. The instructions show you how to position the fender correctly heightwise (for enough wheel clearance) and then adjust the metal/plastic holders so that it’s also positioned just behind the brake. The only challenging bit is that sliding the holders along the fender is a bit tough at first until you figure out how it works.

I thought a some grit would still come off because of the clearance between the front of the fender and the brake, but it doesn’t really (although some reviews say it does — maybe it depends on geometry, or maybe my bag is catching the dirt…). The only downside is that the brake gets wet and gritty because it has no protection between it and the wheel, where full-length fender installs protect the brake as well. But…Terry decided not to allow that, so, I’ll do what I can. Poor Meg though…her white frame is very dirty now!

Mt. Tam: cheesy edition

Back in August, training for Waves to Wine, I did a ride with J & C which ended with trip to Berkeley Bowl and the Berkeley Marina.

C & I looked at cheese while we were in Berkeley Bowl and saw Mt. Tam, which was a contestant in the Tomato Nation NCheeseAA (it made it to the final “fourmage”). The contest was the first time I’d heard of it, and Berkeley Bowl was the first place I saw it. It’s like Brie on crack — soft cheese, white rind. Triple cream. Mmmmm.

But it was $20 for a small wheel, so we decided it should be a treat for after W2W. Since then I think C has had it already herself (direct from the Creamery), but I hadn’t. Yesterday I finally picked some up at the Cowgirl Creamery shop in the Ferry Building, and today I ate half of it after getting home from donating blood (along with slices of a green apple).

Uhh….yeah. It’s the Best Cheese Ever. A robust but not overpowering flavor, slightly tangy, soft, rich, organic and vegetarian, and the milk comes from a farm where the cows are treated humanely and attention is given to sustainability and land management. This is a cheese I can get totally behind.*

A 10-oz round cost me $14, which is a hell of a lot for just any cheese, but doesn’t seem like that much for a piece of pure heaven in cheesy form.

*When I first became vegetarian I ate a lot of cheese — I’ve always liked cheese, so it was pretty much last on my list of things I wanted to worry about giving up. But over time I’ve worked on eating less of it because most cheese is produced under similar conditions to most meat, so to be consistent with my reasons for giving up meat, I would need to give up any cheese with similar production methods as well.

I don’t think I’ll ever give up cheese totally except for properly-produced stuff (for me, it’s just too hard), but I’ve greatly reduced my consumption of it and other dairy products, and tend to skew toward small amounts of high-qualty cheese. Finding a cheese that meets my criteria for production, like Mt. Tam, is very exciting. Finding out that it’s heaven on a plate is even more exciting.