Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Washington without windshields - guerrilla art

One spring day this sculpture simply appeared in middle of a vacant lot on the southeast corner of Connecticut and Military Avenues, N.W. It was visible from the street but you'd probably never notice it from inside a car. It remained in place for about three weeks whereupon it vanished as quietly as it had arrived.

Equally perplexing was the fellow (visible on the left hand edge of the photo) who had set up a folding chair right next to and above the sidewalk (the lot is elevated by about 4 feet) and was comfortably reading a manuscript of some kind. He denied any connection to the sculpture and then discouraged further conversation, which seemed incongruous from someone who'd taken the trouble to set himself up in such a visible and public place.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Unsolicited advice: Five top tips for getting along with drivers

You’re slower than cars and harder to see. Sometimes you tie up an entire lane even though physically you occupy only a fraction of it. You are going to get in the way of drivers. Here are a few suggestions on how to keep from annoying them at the same time.

The best general advice is, ironically, simply to conduct yourself like a good driver. Try, within your ability, to become part of and remain within the flow of traffic. So, first – you already know this, but it can’t be omitted – ride predictably. Unpredictable riders agitate drivers. (Not to mention that they are more likely to get hit.) In Washington’s miserable commuter traffic, drivers are already burdened with enough anxiety and frustration. Don’t add to it.

Second. Ride confidently and purposefully. A fearful rider is an unpredictable rider, which is bad. (See above.) You have the right to be on the road; ride as though you believe it. And ride purposefully; don’t dither. Nobody likes ditherers.

Third. You are entitled to make drivers to wait for a bit behind you, to slow to let you into space, or to change lanes to pass you – that’s what “sharing the road” means. But never do anything to force a driver into an abrupt change of speed or direction. It’s discourteous and dangerous. When I drove a taxi, I devised a rule for good hacking: Never give your passengers, or other drivers, reason to reflect upon Newton’s Laws of Motion. You haven’t got passengers but the rule’s good for you too.

In addition to doing your best to become part of the flow, be polite. Really polite. Here you have an advantage. The humans beings piloting cars and trucks vanish within their large and impersonal machines. But you on your bike are visibly, perceptibly, a person. Remind drivers of this, in thoughtful and considerate ways, and you’ll defuse a lot of potential resentment. So:

Fourth. When someone gives you a break, acknowledge it. A wave, a nod – something they’ll see. Maybe they gave you a bit of room at a light so you could ease past them on the curb side. Or slowed to let you into their lane so you could ride around a parked car. Or waved you through at a stop sign. Whatever – say thanks and make sure they see it.

Fifth and finally. When you screw up, apologize. Yeah, it’s hard, but suck it up. Be a mensch. Once or twice I’ve actually turned around and chased down a driver whom I’d wronged. In both instances they greeted me ready to continue the fight, but upon hearing me admit that I’d been wrong, quickly calmed down, allowed that everyone makes mistakes, told me to be the hell more careful and wished me well.

This last bit of advice is, I think, pretty idiosyncratic (I’ve never seen anyone else recommend it) and I suppose that it needs to be applied judiciously (a soft answer doesn’t invariably turn away wrath) but apologies are powerful things and I’m willing to bet that both of those drivers went home and told their wives or girlfriends about the remarkable encounter they’d had that day with a bicyclist. It’s a neat trick to use a mistake to make a good impression, and uncommonly satisfying.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dalecarlia Tunnel at 100

Dalecarlia Tunnel, Capital Crescent Trail, Maryland. Completed in 1910. I haven't heard of any commemoration planned, which is a bit surprising given the trail's popularity and the affection people have for it. Maybe I'll swing by Costco, buy a cake and hand out pieces some Saturday.

Here's a great photo of the same spot in 1974.

Monday, June 21, 2010


I’ve never had much patience for helmet scolds – those self-appointed stewards of safety who, e.g., write into newspapers or magazines chastizing them for running a photograph of someone on (or nearby) a bicycle without a helmet; or who fix you with a condemnatory glare if you should venture out for a ride around the neighborhood with a cloth Campagnolo hat on your head. Yes, helmets reduce the risk of head injuries in an accident. A helmet might even save your life. By all means, wear one. I do, (almost) invariably. But spare me the self-righteousness and disapprobation if I choose not to. Bike riding isn’t significantly more dangerous than any number of things we undertake every day without special protection; going without a helmet on a bike is simply not the foolhardy, unthinking act that some would make it out to be. It’s just a choice.

(Seven hundred cycling deaths each year in the U.S. compared to 33,000+ in autos and 4,500+ for pedestrians. Injuries similarly skewed, away from cyclists. I wonder how many lives would be saved every year, or how many closed head injuries mitigated, by helmet use by everyone at all times? As they say - "if it saves one life, it's worth it".)

Helmets may help, but your best insurance against serious injury is unwavering attentiveness, the constant awareness of your surroundings and everything that moves in and out of them. The great majority of bicycle injuries and deaths result from auto collisions, and avoiding those one-sided encounters altogether is a more effective way to stay safe than relying on some thin piece of styrofoam once you’re headed toward the ground. (Which is why I direct my scorn toward cyclists with iPods, who, unlike bareheaded riders, are actually increasing their odds of a crash.)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Off topic

On Monday my brother and I are setting out on a three day ride along the 185-mile length of the C&O Canal towpath, Cumberland, Maryland, back to D.C. I've done this ride a couple of times before, and it's a nice one. There's little or no development in Maryland along this stretch of the Potomac and it's remarkable after a day or two of riding how completely you feel removed from the 21st century.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


. . . are great. But people who listen to them while riding their bikes are idiots.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Weather immunity

Regular bike commuters enjoy a liberating indifference to weather. Take rain. A pedestrian caught without an umbrella is forced to wait out the storm or dash from awning to awning until they reach the protection of the Metro, bus shelter or parking garage. And even with an umbrella, their clothes below the waist are quickly soaked. The cyclist by contrast doesn’t care. There is only one weather metric on a bike: warmth. If you’re warm, you’re fine. And staying warm on a bike is usually pretty easy. (On perhaps the 15 hottest days of the year, the opposite holds – if you’re cool, you’re fine. Those days, drink a lot of water and ride slowly.)

In summer rainstorms, all you get is wet. And you quickly discover that wet, by itself, isn’t unpleasant at all. (One long day in the rain in 1995 revealed this truth to me.) The warm air, plus the heat you generate by riding, are usually enough to keep any chill at bay. In the cooler air of spring and fall, add a rain jacket or perhaps another insulating layer on rainy days. And of course no matter how wet you may get on the bike, when you get where you’re going, you peel off your wet bike clothes and climb into a dry set of duds. (The ordinary commuter by contrast has little choice but to wear the day’s weather until merciful evaporation completes its work.)

Staying warm in winter is largely a matter of the right clothes. With good layering and proper cold weather selections (like special lobster gloves and a balaclava), you can ride for half an hour or 40 minutes in temperatures down to 10-12 degrees Fahrenheit and honestly pronounce the weather merely “chilly”. Snow is not much of a problem because it doesn’t make you wet. The worst days are rainy ones right at or just above freezing, and I confess that I don’t really look forward to them. But even they aren’t that bad, and I ride in them too.

After a while at this you really do begin to believe you possess a special, personal kind of immunity to the weather. A couple of years ago I had to spend eight weeks in Chicago in October and November on business. I couldn’t ride to work so I deliberately chose a hotel about a mile from the office so I could at least get in a little walk each day. I know what Chicago weather is like that time of year but in packing I completely neglected to pack an umbrella, raincoat or hat. Only later did I realize I had come to believe that weather was just not something that I ever needed to worry about in travelling between home and office - having completely lost sight of the fact that this was thanks only to the bicycle and was not some superhuman trait. Luckily, taxis are abundant in Chicago even in the rain; I spent enough time in them that month.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Washington without windshields - Stinky Whore Café

At 15 or 18 miles an hour you notice things that you might well overlook when driving by. And it's easy to stop for a closer look. This is the Café Putain qui Pue, or "Stinky Whore Café", located on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams (actually 9th & Q Streets NW), along with its motto, "Always Closed".

UPDATE: The photo is from 2009. Sadly the Stinky Whore Café is no more. See here.

. . . because all their lives men have been telling them that this – [---------] – is 9 inches!

And so it is in cycling as well - many things are not as substantial as one might imagine or wish them to be. I've already noted how hard it is to achieve 10,000 hours in the saddle, which turns out literally to be a lifetime accomplishment for the non-professional cyclist. Another surprising figure is how little money one actually saves on gasoline by riding instead of driving. At 25 mpg and $3 / gallon, my 2,500 bike commuting miles works out to a gasoline savings of a modest $300 / year. Of course I avoid many other costs (e.g., DC's confiscatory parking lot fees; auto depreciation) which may be even more substantial, and there’s no question that bike commuting is a money saver. But I’m not going to put my kids through college on the difference. Hell, I could save more than I do on gas simply by giving up my second cup of store-bought coffee each day.