Friday, May 28, 2010

Close calls and crashes: Deadly danger at the hands of the Bush twins

I’ve gone to the ground unexpectedly only two or three times in my bicycle commuting career. This is the only occasion that has a decent story to go with it.

One pleasant afternoon in June 2002 I was heading out Pennsylvania Avenue toward Georgetown to connect up with the Capital Crescent Trail and head home. I had just ridden onto Washington Circle near the George Washington University campus and was working my way around it in the empty outermost lane when I was overtaken by a convertible in the middle lane that had entered the circle behind me. As the car came abreast of me, it began to move right, into my lane, forcing me toward the curb.

This pissed me off. The circle was practically empty and I couldn’t imagine how the driver, approaching me from behind in a traffic circle and in an open convertible, could have been looking anywhere but right at me as she prepared to change lanes. I had two choices. I could simply feather my brakes, let the car pass me, and surrender the lane. The other was to take the driver to task for her obliviousness and for threatening to crush me. I chose the latter.

The car was only a couple of inches from my left knee so it was easy to slap the trunk with the flat of my hand. (Experience had taught me that this makes a good bit of noise and gets the driver’s attention, and doesn’t hurt you or the car.) But a problem immediately emerged. I had run out of riding room on the right. Instinct made me steer left to keep from crashing and before I knew it I was leaning hard against the car with only my outstretched arm keeping me from falling onto it entirely. But the car was still moving faster than me, and in an instant it was past me altogether. The moment I lost contact with it I fell into the empty space and thud! was on the pavement. Luckily I landed mostly on the meaty back part of my left leg and even though I’d been going a good 13 or 14 mph, I knew right away that I wasn’t seriously hurt. I picked myself up started to walk the bike (likewise not seriously damaged) to the curb.

The driver was a cute blonde of college age. Her passenger was a matching brunette. The blonde had heard the thump of my hand, looked in her mirror just in time to see me go down, and stopped immediately. (To her credit. She did not, however, bother to get out.) For a moment she thought she’d actually hit me but as I shook myself off, I explained what had happened and admonished her to pay closer attention on the road. She apologized, promised up and down that she would, then sped off. As she pulled away I noticed her Texas license plates and thought, “tourist!”

Only after the adrenaline had worn off did I put it all together. A young blonde and young brunette from Texas, headed into Georgetown at happy hour. And less than a mile from the White House to boot. Who else but Jenna and Barbara? It's true that Secret Service was nowhere to be seen. But Jenna was notorious for ditching her protectors by speeding off in her car. See here. The only thing that has ever caused me to doubt my conclusion is that these two girls were hopelessly self-absorbed, immature and irresponsible; the daughters of a sitting President would certainly have had more dignity and self-possession than that.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

10,000 hours?

Malcolm Gladwell (“Blink”, “Outliers” and other best sellers) says that true, world-class mastery of any discipline – be it athletics or computer programming or musical proficiency – requires at least 10,000 hours of practice. The TimesOnline UK has a nice summary of this 10,000 Hour Rule, if you’re not familiar with it. Link here.

I’ve ridden more than 60,000 miles since I started keeping serious track in 1987. That’s more than 2,600 miles per year, every year, for almost a quarter of a century. A lot of riding, right? Well – it doesn’t even get me close to 10,000 hours. 60,000 miles at an estimated lifetime average of 15 mph is – do the math – 4,000 hours. Not even half.

The upside I suppose is that "expert cyclist" must be a satisfying thing to accomplish when you're 80.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tranquil evening scene

Abner Cloud House, Chesapeake & Ohio Canal near Fletcher's Boathouse, Washington, D.C. Built in 1802 and now the oldest standing structure on the canal. Also visible from the adjacent Capital Crescent Trail.

What sucks?

There are of course drawbacks.

You have to build in transition time at both ends of work – cleaning up / drying off and changing into work clothes when you arrive; and then when it’s time to go home, changing back into bike clothes. It gets old. Some days the simple act of undressing and dressing yet again seems like the hardest part of the whole practice.

You are solely responsible for your safe and efficient progress. You’re the motor, you’re the driver – and you’re vulnerable. You must pay attention – to cars, pedestrians, other bikes, the road surface – so say goodbye to the 40 minutes or hour on your old commute when you’d read the paper or listen to the radio or books on tape. (I do see some riders with iPod buds in their ears but they are idiots.) In the same vein, when something breaks, you have to stop and fix it. This can be particularly unpleasant during dark and cold winter months. (It is a particular disadvantage compared to cars, which today are fantastically reliable, but perhaps not as much vis-à-vis Washington’s increasingly doddery subway service.)

Some days you’re just under the weather and biking is a chore, not enjoyable at all. Actual weather, remarkably enough, is not a downside. It’s just data. I’ve heard it said that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes. It’s true on a bike, where if you’re warm, nothing else matters. After a few weeks of riding you’ll gain an accurate sense for what jersey, jacket, socks or gloves are appropriate to what conditions. (Write down the temperature and what you wore to help you remember.) You’ll know you’re a pro when you realize you’ve become completely indifferent each morning to the quality of weather you’re about to set out in. It won’t take as long as you think!

Eat your vegetables

Over the years I’ve noticed that a lot of bicycle / bicycle commuter advocacy sites try to encourage new bike commuters with a list of virtues, reasons that people should forego their cars in favor of their bikes – it’s “greener”, your carbon footprint is smaller, you save money, it’s “one less car”, and so forth. Here are a couple of examples: Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments; Washington Area Bicyclist Association . These are all indisputably noble and true but probably about as effective in persuading people to ride to work as “it’s full of vitamins” is in getting kids to eat their peas or spinach.

Virtue may be its own reward but it’s even truer of fun. Bike to work if you enjoy it. If for some reason you need to maintain a certain level of social consciousness cred, just pretend that you don’t.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

What's so great about it?

Here are a few fun things about biking to work.

Most obviously, you get to go for a bike ride! And even when you’re crushingly busy at work, you’re outside, in fresh air, for at least the length of your commute. Of course you might not feel like riding every day (some days I dread it), but a lot of those 50/50 or even 20/80 days will tip over to the positive 10 minutes into your ride, and suddenly you'll be grateful to be out on the road again - days that start out bad don't have to stay that way.

You are miraculously able to opt out of the tedious and enervating commute that everyone else, in their cars, buses and subways, must endure. You ride through the chaos, it surrounds you, but you’re not in it any longer. Their problems aren’t your problems. Traffic jams may slow you down but won’t stop you; you can always find a way through or around. Problems on the Red Line? You don’t have to fight for a taxi or stand in line for a bus. Sure, you’ll encounter some new, small and unaccustomed indignities – like, in the rain, you get soaking wet – but you may even come to enjoy the seeming drawbacks (see below).

You’ll almost never be late again because of traffic. Ninety percent of my morning rides take between 21 and 26 minutes. My (longer) return route home requires 38 to 47 minutes. Three or four times a year a Presidential or Vice Presidential motorcade stops all traffic, including me, but bike commuters in other parts of the country can safely discount that risk.

Spontaneity flourishes. Wondering what’s down that side street? Go see. If you ride past something interesting – a new public art installation, or someone’s handing out free samples – you can just pull your bike out of the road and have a look. You won’t slow anyone down and you don’t need to find a parking place.

You’re more aware of, attuned to, the weather. And because you’re regularly out in it, extremes don’t bother you as much. I have come particularly to enjoy summer downpours. “Wet” doesn’t matter if you’re not cold, and it’s a wonderful luxury to be able to enjoy the feel of warm rain on my back and arms while all around me pedestrians are holding newspapers over their heads and scrambling for cover.

And of course, you get exercise – real, every day, aerobic exercise. It clears your mind and dissipates stress; you’ll sleep better, and you know it’s good for you in the long run.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Why bike commute?

In my case it's nothing complicated. It works out well and it suits me.

I lived for 11 years in the Mt. Pleasant area of Washington, DC, where I had a simple and ordinary commute to and from work. A Metrobus picked me up two blocks from home and dropped me off two blocks from my office. The return was just as easy. On crummy days or when the buses were running slow, I’d grab a cab – which under DC’s bizarre taxi zone system, cost just $4.20. Easy peasy.

In 1998 I moved further out into northwest DC. I loved the new house, but it wasn’t near any meaningful mass transit, so my commute came to entail either an unreliable and time-consuming walk-bus-subway combination, or a drive through DC’s dispiriting traffic. I thought I wouldn’t mind the new routine but I did. Then, one cold, snowy day the prospect of waiting at the bus stop seemed particularly grim and I decided, pretty much on a whim, to try riding my bike in. I’d always been a pretty active cyclist, on occasion even venturing out in snow for a change of pace and a challenge. I had a mountain bike in the basement with fat tires and knobby treads, and after throwing on a couple of layers of wool and some long tights, I set out for work.

It was a blast. I wasn’t “commuting” that day; instead I was going for an invigorating bike ride – which, conveniently, left me off at the office where I needed to be! I rode in the next day, and the day after that, and so on until one day the bike simply became the way in which I got to work.

That was 12 years ago. Since that first day I’ve gotten married, moved again and had two kids, but have continued the bicycle commute throughout. I ride year-round and whatever the weather. (Black ice is the one exception, a hard-learned lesson.) My current commute varies from about 6.5 to 10.5 miles, depending on the route, which in turn depends on how late I am to where I need to be. In those 11+ years I’ve logged more than 26,000 commuting miles – those little numbers add up.

Bike commuting suits me because I like to ride bikes and because I live both close enough (and far enough!) from work to make it practicable. And, I have been able to do it so regularly and consistently because it does not interfere materially with work or family obligations. (My wife, realizing that this may be all that stands between me and 270 pounds, is in fact highly supportive.)

These highly favorable circumstances may not hold for everyone who is thinking about commuting by bicycle, but of course there’s nothing wrong with bike commuting three days a week, or “sometimes”, or until the first kid comes along. In the series of entries I’m planning for this site (or “blog”, I’m not sure what it will turn out to be) I hope to make it a bit easier for prospective bike commuters to get underway. I’m also hoping that folks who are already riding to work will stumble across the site and find it enjoyable or useful in some fashion. It's Bike to Work Week right now, and Bike to Work Day is tomorrow - it seems like a good time to get started. Let’s see how it goes.