In my free time, I like to read whatever scientific treatises I can get my hands on — the longer, more jargony the better.
(OK, in the interest of honesty, I should confess that statement was absolutely false).
Flipping through my most recent copy of Journal of Neuroscience (another lie), I was drawn to a particularly interesting study by the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University. Normally I’m not terribly intrigued by neuroscience because, after all, it’s not exactly brain science (OK, yeah, it’s exactly that), but this particular study tripped my trigger.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging and a bunch of other polysyllabic words, researchers looked at brain activity in 13 healthy volunteers as they listened to 74 sounds. The volunt-ears ranked each sound from most annoying to most pleasant.
Thus, the scientists were able to — drum roll, please — determine the 10 most annoying sounds.
Should anybody like to go the source, I’d be glad to loan out my copy of the Journal of Neuroscience (yeah, another lie), but WebMD dumbed it down for the masses, though it did preserve such cool words as amygdala and auditory cortex. It also provided clickable mp3s of the top-five most-annoying sounds.
They are: 1. Knife on bottle. 2. Fork on a glass. 3. Chalk on a blackboard. 4. Ruler on a bottle. And 5. Nails on a blackboard.
Personally, I can think of a bunch more sounds that make those five seem like heaven’s house band — like the sound of crunching coming from the gaping maw of a cubicle-mate, with whom I’d politely broach the subject, but then that wouldn’t be nearly passive-aggressive enough to suit me, now would it?
In the interest of science, however, I clicked on all five with the volume cranked, and both my kids (and my wife’s cat) confirmed that all five noises were, in fact, annoying.
My son is by far the most annoying Hartsock in the house (yup, another falsehood), and he seemed least perturbed.
My daughter doubled over and held her head in her hands. “Fork on a glass” was particularly distressing to her, though, it should be noted, she can listen to One Direction on a loop with no ill effects, so she’s not exactly a control group.
The cat didn’t last past “knife on a bottle” before lodging his objections by biting my daughter and running away. He never was one to do his part to advance science.
I found “nails on a blackboard” to be especially hair-raising, though I did generate a universal heebie-jeebie (and a withering stare from across the table) when I recreated “fork on a glass” with “fork on dinner plate” at dinner.
Down below “female scream” and “disc grinder” — but ahead of “baby crying” and “electric drill” — on the top-10 list was this gem: “Squealing brakes on a bicycle.”
That’s a good (bad) one, but it’s not the most annoying bike noise, at least to my addled amygdala.
I can’t stand the sound of a rusty, dry chain.
A few years ago, I noticed wherever, whenever I rode, cats would come out from their little hidey holes and make straight for me. It was especially creepy in the dead of night.
I couldn’t figure it out, until I finally noticed the chain on my fixed-gear bike had become a little dry. The sound was barely audible to me, but to Mr. and Mrs. Whiskers, it must have sounded like a giant can opener, so they’d come runnin’, expecting some sort of canned fish treat.
But that’s nothing compared to the awful grinding of dry, rusty chain on dry, rusty cog, over and over.
I’ve often fantasized about riding with a tube of lube, pulling alongside the offending chain-grinders and leaning over to apply oil on the fly.
But it probably wouldn’t be received in the spirit in which it was intended.
Even that sound, however, pales to what I consider to be the most annoying on-bike noise: screeching car tires, from behind.
Fortunately, I hear that sound about as infrequently as the neuroscientists’ top five.
That’s about to change, though, as soon as I figure out how to make them my new ringtones.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a married man in attaining a certain age must be in want of a new, sleeker, sexier something-or-other in his life.
Usually, such mid-life crises result in said semi-old dude’s trading up either his wife or his car.
As I careen headlong into middle-lifery, I’m acutely self-aware of such common urges to “upgrade” and vow not to succumb to them.
And, in all honestly, it shouldn’t be difficult to skirt (see what I did there?) either pitfall because I have no desire to replace my already sleek and sexy spouse (and, yes, she is a regular reader of my blog; why do you ask?), and I have so little emotional attachment to my car I can’t imagine any four-wheeled vehicle could compensate for whatever manhood I’m sure to lose over the next couple of years.
Curiously, though, I’ve seen a bit of anti-mid-life crisis creeping into my bike life. While the stereotypical crisis involves yearning for sexy and sleek, my bike urges suddenly lean toward portly and practical.
Several years ago, after I had been cycling semi-seriously for a while, I had a hankering for a new bike. I roamed the aisle at my favorite downtown bike shop and was promptly greeted by a worker. I explained I had a mountain bike, but that I spent almost all my time on the road. Though I had put on narrow, slick tires and tweaked about everything I could to turn it into a road machine, it was still a burly off-road beast at heart.
The worker chuckled a sympathetic chuckle and said what I was going through was understandable.
He said there’s a normal order for cycling purchases. He said it’s common for someone to start with, say, a mountain bike, then, after a few hundred or thousand miles, to want to get into the roadie scene. After a few more miles, cyclists get a little more purpose-driven: perhaps a cross bike or commuter or vintage steel steed follows. Before long, the car’s on the driveway, and the garage still isn’t big enough to contain the herd.
I haven’t had a hankering for a new ride in a long time, but I have found myself longingly eying two of the most ungainly steeds ever to be shod with two wheels: cargo bikes and fat bikes.
Sometimes I’ll catch myself day dreaming about rolling along astride a longtail cargo bike, bags and parcels and boxes of groceries lashed to her sturdy, chromoly frame, birds chirping, the wind in my hair …
Or I’ll picture myself mounted on a fat bike, she with her huge, low-pressure tires, me wearing a balaclava that can’t begin to hide an ear-to-ear smile. Together we float, float over the foot of snow that covers the path ahead …
And my reverie will be interrupted by the need to drive to the store or to scrap another bike commute because Winter Storm Whatshisface dumped on us yet again.
But a man can still dream, right?
I was driving home from Kansas City the other day, with the cruise control set for a nice-and-legal 69 mph, when my venerable ride began to act a bit — please pardon the technical jargon here — wonky.
My car surged a bit, then slowed. Then, much to my surprise, my speedometer plummeted from 69 to 0 in a split-second. Though my momentum had begun to slow, I was still eating miles at a pace considerably faster than the goose egg my speedo displayed. Not the quickest SUV in the fleet, I finally figured out what had happened. My speedometer (sorry, more jargon) broke.
So I tucked in behind a car I had just passed and finished my drive home at an unknown rate of speed.
It has been nearly a week now, and though I haven’t driven much, I have motored a bit around town, somehow, miraculously, making it to my destination despite never having gone any faster than 0 mph. My odometer hasn’t budged, either. You could say I’m going nowhere fast. Or everywhere slow.
Until I can get it into the shop to make the repairs later this week, I’m rather enjoying my time as a speedless wonder. Though I suppose I could extrapolate my speed based on gearing and engine RPM, I simply make a point not to be the fastest driver on the road. It’s all relative.
The most amusing aspect of my speedlessness is the effect it has on my kids.
I think my daughter, a by-the-book type, is genuinely uncomfortable riding around at mysterious velocities, which is just fine with me. She’s a teenager, after all; it’s her sole mission in life to be uncomfortable.
My son, however, is a bit more of a free spirit, and I think he sees it as a grand adventure.
The other day, we were driving downtown, and he kept bringing up my speed-nometer.
“So, if you got pulled over right now,” he asked, “you’d be in big trouble, right?”
I explained that, no, I might be fined for faulty equipment and ticketed for speeding, but it wasn’t exactly cause for a blindfold and cigarette.
He wouldn’t let it drop, so I launched into a screed about laws and lawlessness.
I explained that though speeding is absolute — 26 mph in a 25 is speeding, period — punishment is somewhat subjective. I explained it’s only speeding if you get caught, and even then is at the discretion of the representative of the law.
I asked him, What if you were on a deserted road, rushing to the hospital for the birth of your first child, and you’re pulled over after having gone a mere 1 mph over the limit? That’s not the same as doing 65 in a school zone at dismissal time.
Taking his silence as mark of his interest, I plowed forward.
I suggested it is that gray area that determines the nature of a society. With apologies to St. Augustine and all those other smart guys, sometimes the justice of a law is only determined by its application.
Hearing what I assumed to be a snore of rapt attention, I continued on.
I told him it’s kind of like the reasoning some cyclists use to justify running red lights or rolling stop signs. Though all vehicles are legally bound to stop, some cyclists think it’s OK to roll on through because their mode of transportation is morally superior. Or because the intent of such laws is not to bring vehicles to a complete standstill but to instill a sense of order for the protection of all, and cyclists can maintain that order while ignoring the laws.
I explained to my son that, as much as I can understand those sentiments, I always stop, not out of morality but practicality. As much as I might want to stick it to The Man by rolling his stop signs, I don’t want to end up as a hood ornament because I did. And I honestly believe if I want to have all the rights of a road user, I have to adhere to all the laws of one.
Now that I’m not bound by some absolute number on my dashboard, I’m not going to go all Speed Racer. I do think some speed limits are a bit arbitrary, but I follow them. And as long as my speedometer is on the fritz, I’m likely to drive even slower than normal to make sure I’m not butting up against the limit — not out of fear of punishment, but because I’m a good law-abider. While I appreciate the right — the need, even — to rebel against unjust laws, I don’t think 25 on the street in front of my house is unjust.
I could all but hear his eyes rolling, or perhaps rolling back in his head, but I think I saw a little glint, too, and I realized too late my mistake.
Rather than instill in my son a sense of righteousness and justice and a quick lesson in civil disobedience, I instead gave him a blueprint for excuses not to clean his room.
Oh, well, I guess our next trip in the car will have to include a little lesson in various forms of government, particularly dictatorships.
A couple of my friends have approached me recently, asking what I make of “this Lance mess.”
I usually reply with, “Well, Arthur’s a sap, but I don’t care how cute Gwen is, you can’t back-stab your bestie like that.”
Yeah, I don’t have a lot of friends.
And while my reply might seem to carry a hint of smart-aleckery, in truth I mean it as a poignant, thoughtful social commentary that lying, cheating Lances go back at least as far as Arthurian times.
In truth, however, I’m worried about the fallout from this century’s Lance malfeasance.
I’m speaking, of course, about former cyclist Lance Armstrong, who appeared on a talk show recently — I believe it was Maury, or perhaps Judge Judy — and admitted to cheating on his taxes, or somesuch. I didn’t really see it, nor did I have any interest in it.
I have about as much interest in professional bike racing as I have skill in it, which is to say, slightly less than none. I recall one year I tuned into several stages of the Tour de France and was rather impressed with the pretty scenery and lovely fans and that funny fat guy who dresses up like a pitchfork-wielding devil and chases cyclists up nearly vertical ascents, but you can only see so many shots of cows in sunflower fields and funny fat guys in devil suits before you feel compelled to surf on over to Maury and his latest episode of, “I’m my baby’s daddy and grandfather. And uncle. And sister.”
Throw in the fact that you have to go back to something like 1492 before you can find a Tour champion who hasn’t had to vacate his championship because of some performance enhancement of some sort, and, well, it becomes wearisome.
Which brings us to the Lance Effect.
Back when Armstrong was pumping his body full of illegal, dangerous drugs to get an unfair advantage over all the other illegally doped-up cyclists in the pro ranks — sorry; I mean, back when he was winning his seven Tour titles — interest in cycling surged nationally. Something like .00000125 percent of the population had heard of him, and at least half that many people admitted to having seen a bike at one point in their lives. This huge surge was referred to as the Lance Effect.
Now that his name has been dragged through the heaps of discarded needles and stadiums have been stripping that name — or that of his cancer-fighting charity, Livestrong — off their marquees and folks have been burning their yellow Livestrong bracelets, and cycling again is being relegated to the fringe (just kidding; it’s never been anywhere but), there’s a new Lance Effect that worries me.
I’m referring, of course, to the insipid way noncyclists — usually upset motorists, or folks hanging out on their front porches — liked to bellow catchy phrases like, “Way to go Lance!” or “Pedal faster, Lance!” or, my personal favorite, “Get out of the #&%ing road, Lance!” at cyclists who bear no resemblance to his Lanceness.
My fear is, what clever sobriquet will take Lance’s place in the noncyclist bellower’s vernacular?
I’d have to guess the second-most-famous American cyclist after Sir Dopesalot would have to be … Pee-wee Herman, who pedaled his way though a movie in search of his beloved stolen bike. Then he got busted in real life for, ahem, indiscretions with himself in an adult theater, and the charm of the childlike actor lost its luster.
But that movie was eons ago, and I’m afraid there’s a whole generation of bike bellowers who have no idea who Pee-wee was.
I guess those who feel the need to address us will have to resort to the tried and true. After Lance, the most popular nicknames for cyclists include various and sundry bodily orifices, several variations — the gerund, and a laundry list of prefixes and suffixes — of the root word for what happens when a man and a woman love each other very, very much, and, for some reason, questions about sexual preferences.
Or maybe they’ll fall back to the first — and, now that Youknowwho has been wiped off the rolls, last — American winner of the Tour.
Maybe next time out I can look forward to hearing, “Get out of the $*%ing road, Greg.”
A bit of winter weather kept me off the bike for a week or so. Instead I lounged around on the sofa eating bonbons and pondering the imponderable.
At some point in said pondering, I puzzled my puzzler over The Weather Channel’s decision to begin naming “noteworthy” winter storms.
It was, I believe, Draco that (who?) dumped on us our first measurable snowfall in over a year, back on Dec. 20ish. The dusting we got just before winter break was unnamed.
Euclid tore up the South around Christmas, spinning up tornadoes.
Freyr — a Norse god associated with fair weather — was powdering the East as recently as Sunday.
Up next: Gandolf. (“NONE SHALL PASS!!!”) (And, yes, I'm aware Gandalf with an A is a Hobbit's best friend, but since this is purely an exercise in phonic fun, I, Ondrew, declare them one in the same.)
The Weather Channel — which should not be confused with a real scientific agency so much as “Entertainment Tonight” with isobars and dry-bulb hygrometers — assures it has begun naming winter storms for all sorts of good reasons.
“Naming a storm raises awareness. Attaching a name makes it much easier to follow a weather system’s progress. A storm with a name takes on a personality all its own, which adds to awareness. In today’s social media world, a name makes it much easier to reference in communication. A named storm is easier to remember and refer to in the future.”
In other words, when Jim Cantore is standing out amid some thunder-snowpocalypse and The Twitter is all abuzz about #winterstormnemo, guess who gets mentioned as much as the storm itself? Yep, The Weather Channel.
It’s like corporate sponsorship, only cheaper.
Remember that when Winter Storm Triton Brought To You By TWC is howling around your door.
I guess I don’t have a problem with it. Truth is, it’s good marketing. Folks love talking about the weather (when it’s bad), and giving every “noteworthy” storm its own hashtag makes conversing about said storms with your thumbs that much easier. And, invariably, somebody is going to ask, “What the heck is a ‘Xerxes,’ or, ‘Since when did they start naming snow storms?’ And, of course, somebody will inform it was the Weather Channel’s idea, starting this year, and … voila: instant pub.
My only beef is the names.
I guess Brutus and Draco and Gandolf (The White, no doubt) and Jove, Saturn and Zeus are awesome enough to send folks into a batten-down-the-hatches-lay-in-the-stores-and-curl-up-with-the-dogs panic (and, coincidentally, drive up the TV ratings), but I’m not in the least bit afraid of Helen, Khan (Kirk totally put him in his place), Luna, Nemo, Q, Ukko, Walda or Yogi.
All of the aforementioned names, by the way, are on TWC’s list of sobriquets for this storm season.
The more that I think about it, however, the more opposed I become to the anthropomorphization of weather systems.
In addition to the ease with which we can dismiss certain names — I can’t help but wonder if Superstorm Sandy had been, say, Superstorm Gozer the Gozerian, maybe folks would have taken it (her?) more seriously — it can give some names a bad, well, name.
Maybe I’m taking it a bit too personally. After all, Andrew was one of the costliest (but not deadliest) hurricanes in the history of weather, and I feel I’m still lumped in with that meteorological bad boy more than two decades later.
I did collect a bunch of headlines — “Andrew bears down on coast” and “Residents flee ahead of Andrew” and “Andrew wreaks havoc” and “Dewey defeats Truman” — until I deemed it a bit morbidly narcissistic.
Maybe that’s why The Weather Channel went with all of the monikers from ancient Greece or Norse or Disney movie mythology.
I can’t imagine there are too many Iagos or Orkos walking the earth just counting the days until their winter-storm namesake makes buses plunge and cripples cities and wraps entire communities in its icy grip just so they can tack some tacky headline on their cubicle wall.
City street crews have been in my ’hood lately, sealing the countless cracks that mar our fair roads, and I have to admit to a little thrill of anxiety whenever they’re around.
I’ve road-geeked out a bit watching them.
As best I can tell, first the fine fix-it folks blast those blasted cracks with high-pressure hoses to clear out the pebbles, glass, organics and, in a few cases, small children and large dogs that have collected. Then they follow up with a super-cool blowtorch, I’m guessing to light the way so they can make sure none of their co-workers accidentally fell into the fell fissure. Then they follow up with a molten lava flow of — pardon the scientific jargon here — black goo that seals the deal, keeping water out and preventing additional water damage until they can return sometime next century to give the road the resurfacing it really needs, by which time, of course, our cars will hover on a cushion of air and roads will be superfluous.
I’m guessing the whole endeavor is more about saving money than suspensions.
Of all the roads I regularly ride on during my commutes by bike, mine seems among the worst, just like it’s always the last one to be cleared of snow (remember that stuff? Yeah, me either). The unmistakable ka-WHOMP, ka-WHOMP of car tires thwacking the cracking pavement rings out every time a car drives by.
On a bike, I find the Grand Canyon-esque “cracks” are a real pain. Literally. Take your eye or mind off the road ahead, and before long you’re guaranteed a real shot to the, um, undercarriage.
The sealing helps a little, but not much. Essentially, it acts kind of like rubber, a pavement prophylactic that provides a bit of cushion, but only a bit. The crack’s still there.
Awhile back, I decided to start a project. I planned to try to find the alphabet spelled out in the creative sealant jobs around town. At first, I was going to try to find the letters in order, but decided before long to find — and photograph — them as I found them. I recall finding E and S and J and L and O and P. I found a smiley face so distinct it had to be intentional. I found various other designs, and then I found my senses. My whole idea was to compile one compilation of road-sealant photo thumbnails, like a poster I saw a few years ago a photographer made by taking pictures of letter patterns on the wings of butterflies. It really was quite pretty. And I finally had to ask myself, Why on earth would anyone want to look at a picture of dried, black goop on dull, grey pavement?
I abandoned that project.
Now, about that anxiety.
I’m sure the sealant is a good thing, but as a cyclist I tend to tread over the street stopgap lightly.
Immediately after the high-pressure-hose portion of the process, the road is filthy. All that crud has to go somewhere, so it collects on the road for an unwitting cyclist to ride through.
I’ve felt the heat of that torch as I’ve ridden by.
But most worrisome of all is the prospect of the sticky, black goo.
I’m always afraid I’ll ride through a fresh batch and coat my tires with it. As I roll, I envision the gummy crud attracting all the left-over gunk on the road, thus my tires gain junk and circumference as I go until they eventually become unable to turn and I ground to a halt.
Or, worse yet, I picture myself riding into a freshly-glopped gap and disappearing, never to be seen again, like a sabre-toothed tiger into a Midwestern La Brea tar pit. Perhaps some future generation will stumble upon my remarkably preserved remains, still perched atop my bike, hose off the goo and puzzle over what a strange being I must have been.
I’ll admit to more than my share of irrational fears off the bike, but I like to think all of my from-the-saddle scares are warranted.
Of course, it could be argued that such rationalization is precisely what makes a fear irrational, but I fear I digress.
Among my most gripping two-wheeled terrors: getting sucked into the vacuum created by the rush of a passing semi; drunk drivers; texters/drivers; oil slicks overlooking rocky, razor-wire protected obsidian precipices (precipi?); clowns in little clown cars.
Lately, though, I’ve been cold-sweating a whole new irrational fear as I pedal merrily along: spheres.
Let me explain.
A couple of weeks back, I was riding home, and a vehicle veered a bit, forcing me toward a curb. Lining said curb were a dozen or so hedge apples. You know, those gnarly, green, goopy softball-sized orbs of evil that fall from osage orange (hedge) trees? I didn’t actually contact an ’apple. In fact, I wasn’t even all that close. But as I pedalled away, a hedge apple lodged in my mind’s eye, and I envisioned myself colliding with one of those awful globes of gloppy gunk.
As I saw it in my worst road nightmare, my skinny tire would meet up with an apple, start to climb, then — SLAM! — down I’d go in a violent heap.
See, round on round isn’t a good pairing. I’m no geometrist (or geometreer, for that matter), but there’s something about the meeting of two unstable surfaces that gives me an unshakable heebie-jeebie.
Hedge apples aren’t the only sinister spheres.
Walnuts can do a real number on a moving bike, though they do make a satisfying pop when they’re crushed under the wheel of a car.
Also along my regular commute is a house rife with sweet-gum trees. These gems produce oodles of sweet-gum balls that aren’t nearly as innocuous as they sound. They resemble old naval mines — round, spiky balls — and, as any sweet-gum-tree owner can attest, they outnumber sweet-gum leaves by about 1,500-to-1. Fortunately, they’re not particularly stout, or they’d be little tree-ninja deathtrap caltrops, dropping cyclists like black ice.
I’ve never pedaled in the tropics, but I imagine a coconut could be absolutely beastly.
I’m also terrified of encountering an in-the-wild, unavoidable smattering of marbles or ball bearings in my path. Because, you know, those darned things are everywhere you look.
I did encounter an odd orb just the other day.
Not far from my home, I looked to the gutter to see, in all its yellow, striped glory, a croquet ball. At first, I thought it might be a bocce ball, but as I drew near I saw the terrifyingly telltale concentric grooves.
I gave that bad ball a wide berth, and as I pedaled away I kept my head on a swivel, frantically searching for croquet’s close summer-fun cousin — which might be the well-meaning cyclist’s worst nightmare: lawn darts.
They’re not spheres, but those things can really do some damage.
The other day, I was driving somewhere with the family and pointed out to my kids a fellow road-user.
A man riding a scooter had caught my eye. He had strapped to his chest what appeared to be either a backward backpack or a baby carrier. Inside said satchel was a small dog.
The kids laughed, and we went on our merry way, but it made me think about the possibility of traveling by bike with the family pet.
I’m not sure when I ever have been or will be in a situation where I have to take ours out for a spin, but I suppose it could happen.
On a couple of occasions, I took my (wife’s) cat for a ride in the car to pick up my son after elementary school. Mr. Kitty (not his real name; it has been changed to protect his sense of haughty, self-righteous aloofness) was a big hit with the preteen set. The kids’ faces lit up when Mr. Meowers pressed his little wet nose to the window as we drove past.
But after a couple of uneventful (for me) trips, Whiskers developed a bit of a sensitive stomach. The next couple of rides were punctuated by the putrid stench of cat puke.
Kitty doesn’t get to ride in the car anymore.
I can’t imagine he’d dig a bike ride more than his car trips.
I sure as heck wouldn’t tote him around in a chest pack. Dude would freak and disembowel me before I made it off the driveway.
I suppose I could wear him like a little kitty ascot — an ascat? — but no way would I want those talons anywhere near my jugular.
To the ’Net I went.
Sure enough, a couple of places market ways to take small pets along for a ride.
Most appear to be variations of the typical Toto basket: a front, open basket to hold a small, well behaved dog.
No way my (wife’s) cat would stand for that.
I did find, however, a couple of covered totes that attach to the handlebars and claim to be the perfect way to haul a cat or small dog on two wheels.
Best of all, they seem to be made of easy-to-clean vinyl. If Cat Masterson can’t stomach a ride in a four-wheeled cage, I can’t imagine he’d be able to contain his Meow Mix while dangling off the front of my bike.
My thousands of bike miles in and around the city have provided me with dozens of tales, from captivating accounts of derring-do (or, in my case, derring-don’t) to location humor (you had to be there) to the kind of stultifying insipidity that, once it spews forth from my mouth, makes my kids — by far my favorite victims, er, audience — roll their eyes back in their heads and take on the appearance of a fine holiday ham, which is to say, glazed.
Recently, I had an unusual run of encounters with, of all things, tails.
It started with a run-in with a fellow wearing a coonskin cap. I guess there’s nothing all that unusual about that … if we’re kicking about a Davy Crockett-era Alamo. I didn’t expect to bump into that particular chapeau in downtown Lawrence circa, well, now, but I did, twice in the span of a couple of days.
Then a few days later, I rolled up on a three-foot dragon tail. At least, I think it was a dragon tail. There was a safety pin attached, so I assume it became detached from a Halloween costume (as an aside, I also happened upon a wicked skull-encrusted scythe thing, a bandana or two and a creepy, intact long fingernail. I have a head start on next year’s costume, should I be inclined to dress as a cowboydragonreaper … with a nasty coke habit).
But my latest tail tale takes the cake.
Riding home from racquetball the other day, I spied something in the middle of the road. As I approached, I realized it was a disembodied squirrel tail, maybe three inches long. It’s previous owner was nowhere in sight.
I could not, for all my pondering, come up with a scenario that would explain how a squirrel’s tail could come to be discarded in the middle of a street. I don’t believe squirrels shed them, and I couldn’t imagine an event so traumatic — a run-in with a car or coyote? — and so violent that a squirrel would be separated from just part of its tail.
Then I remembered, on my way to racquetball, I had marveled at a hawk that swooped low overhead and landed on a tree not far from that perplexing tail. I looked but did not see the bird noshing on a tree rat, or anything else, for that matter, but perhaps the hawk — fittingly, a red-tail — had somehow caused squirrel and tail to forfeit proximity. I guess it’s possible.
Regardless, when I pedaled past several hours later, the tail was gone.
To me, that’s even more mysterious. Now I’ll never know how this tale — or tail — ends.
I was riding home for dinner the other evening, still struggling with the reality that it now gets dark just a couple minutes after noon, and approached the reviled roundabout not far from my house.
As I approached the traffic-calming device from hell, I was surprised to see, to my right, an 18ish-wheeler on the roll.
This is a quiet residential neighborhood, far from any commercial properties, so the semi seemed more than halfway out of place, but there has been a bit of construction in the area, so I guess it made some sense.
Anyway, I made it to the roundabout with the big truck still a couple of blocks away, so there was no conflict, but I didn’t wonder just how he’d manage to navigate the blasted thing.
As I pondered — and it takes great concentration on my part to ponder and pedal simultaneously — I gazed truck-ward and thought it was steaming ahead rather quickly. Coupled with the darkness, an aggressive silhouette and what seemed to be an excessive amount of running lights, the semi suddenly seemed sinister.
Just like that, my steel-trap of a mind churned and groaned and wheezed under an uncharacteristic workload, and I had an epiphany. Suddenly, I found myself living out “Duel,” a dandy television movie almost as old as me.
I stumbled upon “Duel” several years ago, late at night, as I recall. The premise of “Dual (The Driving Force is Fear)” is that a business man traveling through the California desert encounters a slow-moving big rig. The man — actor Dennis Weaver, and his glorious mustache — passes the truck, apparently infuriating the psychotic truck driver and setting off 90 minutes of awesome in which the two play cat-and-mouse at highway speeds. It’s actually quite good and quite suspenseful.
A decade or so later, I learned “Duel” was the movie-length directorial debut of a fella by the name of Steven Spielberg, who was something like 5 at the time (1971), used a tiny budget of $27.50 and shot the whole thing in 13 days. (In the interest of accuracy, I’ll admit here IMDb informs me Spielberg was actually 24 at the time and the budget actually $450,000, but the 13-days thing … true).
So with that connection made in my sick brain, I picked up the pace while glancing furtively over my shoulder to keep an eye on the deathmobile that, somehow, had successfully navigated the roundabout and WAS COMING RIGHT FOR ME!
I pedaled faster; Truck O’ Death kept coming.
I took a quick left; the rig — as in the movie, I never actually saw the driver — went left, too.
Hoping to offset my pedestrian pace with superior maneuverability, I zig-zagged and was relieved to see said sinister semi continue on … but a block later, I saw the wily psycho had simply taken a parallel course and was seemingly matching my pace.
The preternatural Peterbilt stood between me and my house, so I sped up, quickly jumped on the brakes, then cut a sharp right, passing just behind it as I sprinted for the safety of home.
I rolled to a stop in my garage and listened for what I was sure to come: the unmistakable growl of a diesel engine, maybe the eerie howl of an air horn, perhaps the destructive pavement-pounding force of Jake Brakes, but all I heard was the accelerated beating of my heart.
I know he’s still out there.
So if anyone knows of a nearby cliff where I can stage my final, climactic scene, please let me know.
I read with dread the other day the news that the city was contemplating putting in another infernal traffic-calming device.
Commissioners were considering a roundabout at the intersection of Ninth and New Hampshire streets, despite the fact roundabouts seem to be almost universally despised by anyone who has ever encountered one anywhere. Give or take.
First, a disclaimer. I understand how roundabouts are supposed to work. And I understand how to navigate one. It’s not hard, really. Yield to traffic already in the roundabout. That’s it.
Trouble is, not everybody knows or chooses to follow that simple rule, so making it through a roundabout can be dicey.
And that’s when all the people involved are squirreled away in metal cages.
When folks try to get through roundabouts on two wheels or even — gasp! — on foot, things get a little more treacherous.
All things being equal, there seem to be some drivers who are loath to yield to a person on a bike. I’ve been bullied by motor-vehicle operators before. Outweighed by a couple thousand pounds (man and equipment combined, rest assured), I usually yield to such folks. I don’t especially like it, but I do rather enjoy breathing.
Then again, I frequently encounter drivers who go to the other extreme and, despite being in the roundabout already, insist on motioning me ahead of them. Sometimes I protest. Sometimes I don’t. No matter how well-intentioned they might be, these folks nevertheless foul the flow of traffic — contrary to the purpose of the roundabout. As the traffic backs up, I can feel the eyes burning into me and can’t help but feel every driver so inconvenienced must assume the cyclist is to blame.
In my mind, though, the worst roundabout ruffians are the nimrods who, in the interest of shaving a full three-tenths of a second off their commute, will cut the corner on a roundabout. Rather than go all the way around a roundabout to make what would amount to a left turn, if the way appears clear, they’ll go left immediately, driving, if only for a moment, the wrong way in the roundabout.
If the way indeed is clear, no worries.
But if there is, say, a guy on a bike legally navigating the roundabout, he’s bound to become a hood ornament.
And this isn’t purely hypothetical.
There’s a traffic circle, with a lovely view-impeding garden at is center, near my home I ride through just about every day. There’s not a lot of traffic. I’d guess I’ve encountered another vehicle in the circle maybe 50 times over the years. Twice in that span I’ve had to take emergency evasive action to avoid a wrong-way roundabouter. And I’m not talking a gentle squeeze of the brakes; both times it was more like a panicked dive to the curb as I tried to avoid a grille all up in my grill.
If my guesstimate is correct, I’ve had a potentially dangerous encounter at that intersection 4 percent of the time I’ve encountered another vehicle there. Those aren’t good odds.
I read a couple of reports that claim car-cycle accidents can be two to three times more common in roundabouts than at other controlled intersections. But the good news is that traffic tends to be slower.
The takeaway: Cyclists are more likely to get hit, but the collision won't hurt quite as much.
I take that as slight consolation.
As I rode to work the other day, I had a handful of near-death run-ins with squirrels.
The glorified tree rats seem more abundant than usual this year as they scurry about readying for winter. They also seem more ample — big boned? — than usual, like they’ve had more time and favorable conditions to stuff their stupid, reckless cheeks and plump up for the upcoming snowpocalypse. Unfortunately for the city’s cyclists, this glut of tubby nutmongers makes for some dicey commutes.
Already stupid, the unusually fat and plentiful bushy-tailed beasties seem to enjoy playing chicken with passing cyclists. I just know one of these days I’m going tail end over tea kettle because some moronic fuzzball forgets to yield to the plodding cyclist who, despite his pedestrian pace, still manages to win the momentum race by virtue of a far greater mass.
On the way home, I heard a rustling not far off my port side that I assumed to be squirrel activity. Determined not to give the little jerks the satisfaction of paying them any attention, I pedaled on before a flash of white caught my eye, and I realized it was not a squirrel squad but a small fleet of deer high-tailing it, wide-eyed, on a path parallel to and awfully close to mine. It was, in fact, a small herd I’d heard, and as much as I’d prefer to avoid squashing a squirrel, I’m even more cognizant of trying to steer clear of deer.
I’ve had close calls with unruly ungulates before, but in this instance I actually envisioned a scenario in which they spooked and trampled right over me.
They didn’t, but they totally could have.
Also on that same commute, I was cruising along when an unexpected wind gust — weather.com called for them up to 40 mph — caught a wheel and pushed me uncomfortably close to a curb.
All these brushes with death, or at least dismemberment or perhaps simply discomfort, made me realize autumn likely is the most treacherous season for cycling.
Mercurial weather conditions; a blinding setting sun that coincides with a 6-6:30ish commute home; foliage that is so beautiful when attached but camouflage to roadside hazards when fallen; and, of course, the hooved and clawed menaces of hungry-but-sluggish squirrels and horny deer all conspire to make fall a tricky time to get around by pedal power.
But as I dodged these dangers, I thought back to a conversation I recently had with my kids.
The weather had turned legitimately cool, and we were discussing our favorite seasons. The three of us each picked different ones, but we all agreed that each — season, not person — had something to offer and that we were glad to live somewhere we could enjoy four of them.
Then it dawned on me that the reason I had such a difficult time picking a favorite was that, in my mind, the best season isn’t spring, summer, fall or winter but … the next season.
When I’m mired in a numbing winter, spring — with its promise of life, pastels and time outdoors — looms as the best season of the year.
But after a week or two of allergies and rainstorms, I long for the summer and its long days, tall cotton and family vacations.
Before long, though, the swelter gets old and I can’t wait for fall to tumble in, with its refreshing crispness and lovely backdrop.
A few weeks of that crunching underfoot, that maddening span of AC by day/heater by night and pumpkin-flavored everything around every commercial corner, however, and I yearn for sweater season and snowball fights and hot cocoa before I get tired of the constant chill and nonstop, nagging cough before my thoughts turn to spring … and the cycle starts all over again.
So as I slalom among squirrels and dodge their up-sized distant cousins and squint into the sun and lean into the wind and wear three or four different outfits a day to deal with the temperamental temperatures, I take solace in the fact that, before long, we’ll be deep in the throes of winter, and I’ll have a whole new set of challenges to pedal around.
But at least I won’t have to worry about those infernal squirrels.
I’ve had all manner of weird encounters during my bike commutes.
Something about the intersection (see what I did there?) of motorist and cyclist tends to bring out the odd in some folks. From insults and even the occasional compliment to batteries and beverages, I’ve had all sorts of things thrown my way, but one encounter in particular stands out.
I was riding home. A little over a mile from my house, I turned onto a somewhat busy residential side street that’s a popular alternative to Sixth Street for students traveling to and from Free State High.
Not long after making the turn, I was quickly overtaken by a half dozen or so cars that, judging by the type and volume of music wafting from the windows and the baby-faced visages peering over the steering wheels, I assumed to be piloted by the first wave of teens fleeing the end of the school day.
All of the cars passed me unremarkably. Perhaps a few were a hair inside the lawful three-feet-to-pass margin, and maybe a couple were flirting with the high end of the speed limit, but I didn’t really notice anything terribly untoward.
Another car, however, poked along behind me, and its driver made no move to pass.
After trailing me for a couple of blocks, it pulled alongside, and I commenced to fretting. The passenger window went down, and the driver – a woman I estimated to be a few years older than I – leaned over the seat and gestured in my direction. She also attempted to say something, but a combination of road noise and Doppler Effect made it unintelligible.
I gave a little half wave and pedaled along until a car approaching us from up ahead forced the driver to slow and pull in behind me again.
Once the way cleared, she again pulled alongside and continued her gesturing and unintelligible garbling. Again I half waved. She returned the gesture and accelerated.
Much to my surprise, however, she abruptly slowed, then jammed on the brakes as she angled her car toward the curb, essentially forcing me to stop or steer around her.
Wary of a confrontation but eager to see the encounter end, I rolled to a stop and glanced about for a friendly face or at least a witness who would be able to describe my soon-to-be-assailant to the proper authorities.
Seeing none, I quickly devised an exit strategy, leaned over to make eye contact with the driver and braced myself for what I was sure was to be a screed about nuisance cyclists.
“That was pretty dangerous, don’t you think?” the agitated woman asked.
“Dangerous? I’m not sure what you mean.”
“I mean, that was quite dangerous, don’t you think?” she asked again, getting even more worked up. "Back there."
“I don’t know about dangerous, I … “
“Well, I thought it looked awfully dangerous,” said the woman, the one with her car angled against the curb, blocking the lane so she could vent to a hapless cyclist. In the middle of the road.
I was gearing up to assert my right to use the road and suggest perhaps we all could share the roadway peaceably, when the driver surprised me.
“I mean, they were driving too fast. They came so close to you. And their music was sooooo loud! That’s so dangerous …”
Finally, because the only thing slower than me on a bike is a thought in my head, I realized this woman wasn’t ranting about me but about those infernal kids and their rock ’n’ roll music.
“Well,” I said, “they were going a little fast, but … ”
I didn’t get a chance to finish.
The window went up, and just as abruptly as she used her car as a rolling road block, the woman popped a quick three-point turn and drove away, still – as far as I could tell – ranting.
The whole encounter made me a bit uncomfortable. I can’t imagine how I would have felt if her wrath had been directed at me.
The city’s streets usually provide the most mundane vistas.
With limited exception, they stretch horizon to horizon in monotonous monochrome, ranging from uninspiring blacktop to insipid gray concrete, with only an occasional pothole or — if the road user is lucky — maybe a fresh bit of roadkill to break up the boredom.
And that’s a good thing. There’s nothing more distracting than a roadside circus.
But every now and then, I’ll encounter a bit of side-of-the-road detritus that alleviates the tedium and brings a smile to my face.
I was reminded of this over the weekend when I participated with my kids in the Color Run downtown. At four points over the 5K course, volunteers squirt colored cornstarch on participants. By run’s end, everybody was motley and a bit blinded and emphysemic, blinking and hacking and congratulating themselves on a run well done.
I’m still digging colors out of crevices — my left ear, for instance, is a never-ending fount of forest green; my right continues to stain cotton swab after cotton swab a vibrant pink — which makes me awfully glad it’s not the Naked Color Run. It is, after all, a family-friendly event, and I’m convinced, though I admit I’m a fan overall of the human form, that it’s not meant to be viewed, naked, in all its flouncing, running glory.
But I digress …
Predictably, the end result of all that hue-flinging Saturday was a lovely, albeit temporary, paint job on a handful of near-downtown streets Sunday. It’ll be gone before long, but it was striking the day after.
It reminds me of another favorite road-sight I’m familiar with this time of year: the aftermath of the Free State High homecoming parade. For the next couple of weeks, a short stretch of Wakarusa will be stained by the Skittles and Starbursts and Smarties and various other candies thrown from the parade participants as they float past.
Part of me is bothered by the accompanying trash, but the rainbow of man-approximated and -synthesized fruit flavors warms my soul.
Every now and then, I’ll happen upon a spray-painted sign.
Some are intended for road crews: marks to show where the pavement needs fixing, for instance, or signs where future crews are to place road signs. I was so proud of myself to decipher that “RCA” marks the future spot of a “Road Construction Ahead” sign.
Simple minds, I know.
And then there are the spray-painted signs for organized rides and foot races in which I participate or at least with which I am familiar. A recent tour of Civil War sites went not far from my home, and a spray sign pointed the way, with a short note promising it to be the last hill of that day’s ride.
Big downtown events, too, tend to bring out the best — and worst — in roadside distractions. Big celebrations result in broken glass (bad), condom wrappers (really?), human vomit (at least I assume it’s human; you can’t really dust for vomit) and all sorts of stains, pools and puddles that tickle the imagination and offend the senses.
Final Four parties are the best (and worst).
By far, however, there is one downtown event that stands out.
I always rue the first day or two after the annual Old-Fashioned Christmas Parade.
The human onlookers are a generally clean lot, but the main attractions — the horses — tend to leave little presents behind. Though the poop patrol does its best to clean up afterward, and traffic does most of the rest, little pockets of road apples get pushed outside the tire track, right where the responsible as-far-to-the-right-as-practicable cyclist tends to pedal.
I’d rather dodge potholes than horse poop any day … but they both stink.
Recently, I was sitting with the family at our favorite downtown coffee haunt, and my wife nodded over toward my daughter.
“Doesn’t she look cute?” my beaming spouse asked. “She looks so scene.”
My wife tends to speak in italics when she’s using a term either so hip or polysyllabic that there’s no chance in heck I’ll have a clue what she’s talking about. In this case, it was the former.
Regardless, I looked my daughter up and down, and, since her outfit wasn’t that other S-word (you know, the one that ends with L-U-T-T-Y), I nodded sagely in agreement.
“Yes,” I agreed. “Very scene indeed.”
Furtively, I clumsily tapped out a quick Google search on my cellphone under the table and learned “scene” was a fashion trend that … aw, who am I fooling? I stopped reading after “trend.” Or maybe “fashion.”
In the back of my suddenly disinterested mind, however, I seemed to recall stumbling upon an article about another fashion trend that didn’t make my eyes roll back in my head.
And the more I thought about it, the more I recalled other articles and blogs and, especially, PR releases — and what’s not to believe about any of those founts of knowledge? — touting the coming of a full-on avalanche of stylish cycling apparel.
Most bike-specific clothing is not particularly appealing.
It tends to fall in two categories: skinny jeans and flannel shirts for the hipster fixed-gear crowd, or sleek and motley — think garish, multi-hued jerseys and second-skin shorts that make it easy to tell the wearer’s sex and give a hint about his religion — for the racer/wanna-be types.
I generally steer clear of both, though each has its place. Except the skinny jeans.
Anyhoo, if the hype is to be believed, there suddenly are all sorts of options for fashion-conscious cyclists who want appropriate clothes that don’t scream, “YEAH, I RODE MY BIKE HERE!”
I’ve seen pants that look like “normal” jeans but stretch (like those super-hot Pajama Jeans, I guess, for daylight hours) and khakis with roll-up pant legs that feature reflective bits inside the cuffs.
Levis has jumped on the bikewagon with its (curiously named) Commuter line — “Form. Function. Cycling.”
There are shirts — short sleeve, long sleeve, dress, business casual, pearl-button cowboy hipster — that appear to be made of run-of-the-mill cotton but feature reflective threads that light up in the glare of oncoming headlights.
And don’t get me started on the shoes. Bike kicks used to be purpose-built rachet-and-Velcro numbers that, thanks to cleats bolted to the sole, clacked like tap shoes on hard surfaces. Now it’s possible to find killer Italian leather brogues with cleat-compatible carbon-fiber soles.
One company even makes a helmet that looks like a hat! (From what I’ve seen, it’s a rather ugly, unflattering hat, but a hat —and a helmet! In one fabulous headcovering! — nonetheless).
It would appear I could outfit myself head to toe with attractive, stylish apparel that miraculously functions like the finest technical sportswear on the bike.
So though I’ll never make the scene scene, maybe there’s garment hope for me yet.
The other day I was riding to work and was surprised to hear, awfully close, the clattering of another bike’s gears.
Since I’m remarkably unfast on two wheels, it’s not terribly surprising to have been overtaken by another cyclist. However, the proximity was a bit startling.
Assuming I was about to be passed, I slowed (as much as possible, without the danger of toppling) and … nothing.
I pedaled on.
A few blocks farther, again I heard the clattering of gears, glanced back and saw the same cyclist, right behind me. I slowed again and … nothing.
Finally, because the only place I’m slower than on a bike is in the intellectual arena, it dawned on me that I had encountered the dreaded wheel sucker.
Cyclists can conserve energy — or ride faster with the same expenditure — by riding in the draft of another. Wheel suckers like to nestle in the draft of another cyclist (or cyclists) without taking a turn in the front.
It doesn’t make the rider in front work any harder, but it’s somewhat annoying to pull without reaping the benefit of being pulled.
I figured, if the guy was so desperate he needed to suck my wheel, well, may the lord have mercy on his cycling soul.
So I rode on, with Sir Sucksalot in tepid pursuit.
Though drafting can be an integral part of racing or even just riding in a group, there’s a strict code of conduct that goes along with it that, in certain circles, can be enforced rather ruthlessly. There are rules about how close and how long and which direction to “pull off” and rotation through the paceline (or echelon) and how to clear the nasal passages and what direction to flatulate and, in truth, they’re all designed with safety in mind. Except maybe the flatulence one.
The trouble with wheel suckers is, they suck because they don’t give a rip about the etiquette. I don’t mind if somebody wants to ride in my draft, because it probably means I’m a stronger rider, but I don’t want some wobbly newbie to crash us both because he can’t hold a line.
The fella following me the other day overlapped wheels on my right side, then gave a little snort of disapproval when I slid over toward the curb. He yelled when I slid left to avoid a pothole, then bellowed “Watch out!” after I signaled a left turn and had the nerve to … turn left.
If I were riding with somebody, I would have the decency to point out obstacles like potholes and road kill, but I don’t feel obligated to look out for the wheel suckers.
It’s like tailgating in a car: If you don’t like how/how fast I’m driving, pass.
It has been said that inexperienced cyclists are bothered more by wheel suckers than experienced ones, but I think it depends on the situation, and this was one annoying sucker.
The other long-standing bit of advice for dealing with wheel suckers is simply to ride them off your wheel, which is what I eventually did, kicking it up a notch and leaving the wheel sucker sucking wind.
Maybe next time he’ll pick a slower wheel to suck.
If he can find one.
I was riding to work the other day when I encountered a banana peel dead ahead.
I probably could have maneuvered around it, despite my proximity to the curb and the car passing to my left, but I decided just to ride over it.
In one terrible split-second before contact with said fruit wrapper, I had an awful thought.
Well, actually, I had a couple.
The first wasn’t so terrible. I flashed back to a story I’d read about vandals painting Mario Kart symbols on a bike lane in Portland. I recalled there were power-ups and a mushroom and a star and … a banana. I have to admit that though I’m not normally a proponent of defacing public property, I found the paintings quite clever.
My second thought was, What if I hit this peel and — cue the crazy sound effects — go tailend over teakettle, just like in the cartoons?
I didn’t, of course, but I think it speaks volumes that my first thoughts when confronted with discarded fruit were of a video game and a cartoon.
I’m so mature.
Once I passed the Chaquita land mine, I started wondering about other unusual potential roadside threats.
Potholes and roadkill are common.
In keeping with the cartoon thread, I’ve seen a few telltale signs of roadside oil slicks. Normally, there’s a huge puddle, followed by a gradual tapering-off that makes me cringe as I think about the catastrophic fallout of an engine running dry.
Then my poor little brain flashed back to a rash of similar — but markedly different — stains I encountered a few years ago. They were dark like oil and started with a dramatic splat.
But they were noticeably more brown and, if I may be so bold, more delicious-looking.
I saw several over a few weeks before I realized the true makeup of the slick. Sitting in the middle of one particular mess was a smashed, empty Hershey’s chocolate syrup bottle.
It made a perfect, innocuous booby trap. Trailing the initial splat were distinct tire tracks that gradually faded away after half a block or so.
I saw so many chocolate slicks, I assumed there was some sort of serial chocolate bomber around (not to be confused with Chocolate Bombs cereal).
So far, I’ve only recently encountered the one banana peel, so I doubt there’s a serial banana bomber about, too.
If there is, however, perhaps he should get with the chocolate bomber, hook up with an ice cream guy, sprinkle on some nuts and open a roadside banana split stand.
I saw a near-dustup the other day, and while I’ve encountered several such traffic-related, road-ragey altercations (no doubt a result of the weather/economy/whatever is ailing us as a nation these days), this one stuck with me and rattled around a bit in the void between my ears.
I was approaching a downtown Mass. Street intersection and noticed a couple — at least, I assumed they were a couple based on their proximity; perhaps they were brother/sister, or maybe he was interested in her, but she was coming off a tough break-up; or maybe … oh, never mind — scurrying, on the sidewalk running perpendicular to my path, toward the intersection. I assumed they were hurrying to make it to the intersection before the light turned.
Trouble was, traveling along the same path but on Mass. Street was a car, the driver of which also was hurrying to make the light. Its driver was turning right, across the pedestrians’ path.
I wasn’t close enough or alert enough to get the sequence perfectly, but the male pedestrian and the turning car reached the corner about the same time. The man stepped just into the crosswalk and stopped short as the car breezed past. I’m not sure if he didn’t see or didn’t care about the car or, perhaps, just wanted to make a show of what a near-miss it was, but he threw his arms in the air and … flipped the bird.
The light changed almost immediately. The pedestrians continued across the street — against the light, though there was no traffic other than me on my bike — as the car slowed to a stop in the middle of the street. The driver opened his door, and I knew what was coming.
The fella never left his seat, as far as I could tell, but he turned toward the birdman and bellowed what, in a more medical setting, could have been considered a plea for the digit-flipper to perform a cautionary proctological self-exam. However, his message was considerably more concise and vulgar — and he obviously was proud enough of it to repeat it a couple of times.
Mr. Middle Finger chuckled and glared. The driver huffed and puffed.
I’m not sure what came of it — probably just a bunch of antler rattling — because I’d lost interest, but it made me ponder bird-flipping etiquette.
I’ll admit, I’ve been known to fly the finger a time or two. It’s more a startle reflex than anything. (As an aside, how funny would that be if a baby’s startle reflex really were to give ol’ mom a double-barreled bird?)
I’m trying to keep the bird in his cage and just shrug off traffic injustices, whether I’m on two wheels or four.
But, morally, I feel if somebody comes close to harming my person, I reserve the right to give ’em half a peace sign. It only seems fair.
And if I cut somebody off or commit some perceived injustice, I expect to have a bird flipped my way. I might return it if I disagree or I might give a little wave of apology, but I’m not about to let it escalate into a middle-of-a-downtown-street brouhaha.
It’s just business. It’s not personal.
If someone were intentionally trying to run me down, that’s a different story, but I doubt a single, outstretched digit would be an appropriate response.
For all the less serious, unintentional injustices, I say flip and let flip.
I don’t often travel with the 8-to-5 set, but not too terribly long ago, when the Journal-World was still an afternoon newspaper, I often would drive to work with other early-morning commuters.
Though commuting to work inside our city limits is nothing like the longer commute in a big city, I’d still see lots of folks making the most of their relatively short drives by multitasking.
This was before the prevalence of cell phones (yeah, I know, I’m old), so back then, instead of tweeting and texting, passengers and drivers alike would make use of their car time to primp, preen and otherwise prime themselves for the work day.
I’d see lots of people eating; most kept it simple, with single-handed meals like biscuits and fruit and such, but on a few occasions I’d see people spooning into bowls of cereal.
I’d see people reading — the paper, notecards, even books splayed out over the steering wheel.
And, of course, there was a lot of personal grooming on display: women applying makeup, men shaving, fixing of hair, plucking, tweezing, brushing of teeth, etc. I never saw a woman shaving, but I did see a guy dragging a dry razor across his face. Ouch.
Commuting by bike makes all but the simplest of commuting time-killers all but impossible. Read? Not without becoming a hood ornament. Fix your hair? What’s the point? Brush your teeth? Nah, you have to wait until you arrive, just to get the bugs out. Shave? Depends on whether you like your features.
The other day, though, I saw something that made me think I had it all wrong.
During my vacation to cycling-friendly Seattle, I saw a guy riding down the street, shirtless (the guy, not the street), flossing his teeth. Vigorously. With both hands. I’ve seen people riding and eating and drinking and doing all sorts of things, but never before had I witnessed oral hygiene on two wheels. I hoped to follow to see if he’d go through an entire routine — hair, deodorant, clothes — but he shifted in the saddle, made a surprisingly sharp no-handed turn and vanished from sight around a corner.
As much as I’d like to accomplish something besides pedaling during my bike commute to work, I think I’ll save the flossing for home.
Then again, I had to give the guy props. If ever he were to, say, become a road waffle, at least he’d have pearly whites.
I’ve never considered Lawrence or Kansas to be particularly bicycle-unfriendly, in part because, with the exception of the time I saw a hot, grumpy, tired and possibly bonking cyclist taking out his frustrations on a balky derailleur with a tire lever (oh, wait, that was me), I’ve never really witnessed anyone show any emotion at all toward a bike.
So I’ve always been somewhat amused that the League of American Bicyclists (not to be confused with the Extraordinary Gentlemen) honors Bicycle Friendly communities, businesses and universities. According to the League, “The Bicycle Friendly America program provides incentives, hands-on assistance, and award recognition for communities, universities and businesses that actively support bicycling, and ranks states annually based on their level of bike-friendliness.”
The funny part, of course, is that any community, university or business would be friendly toward a bicycle, which would so not appreciate the gesture, when it could make nice with, say, a bicyclist instead.
Anyway, Kansas isn’t particularly kinds to its bikes. The state ranks 34th nationally, with just three Bicycle Friendly Communities (BFCs), three Bicycle Friendly Businesses (BFBs) and zippo Bicycle Friendly Universities (BFUs). BFD.
The communities, you’ll be glad to know, are Shawnee, Manhattan and … Lawrence. All three barely make the list at the “bronze” level.
One of the BFBs is Lawrence’s Anderson Rentals, Inc.
So, yay for us.
All of which, of course, means exactly bupkus when it comes to pedaling the not-so-mean streets.
That said, I just returned from a week in the cycling Nirvana of Seattle (see what I did there? Nirvana? Seattle?).
Washington ranks No. 1 in the country, according to the League, in bicycle-friendliness, and Seattle is a “gold” BFC. Only three cities — Boulder, Colo.; Davis, Calif.; and Portland, Ore. — get the more-precious “platinum” designation.
And after a week in the glorious Pacific Northwest, where the temperature never rose above 62, I can see why Seattle is so highly regarded by the League.
Everywhere I looked there was infrastructure in place to facilitate cycling: multi-use trails, sharrows, signage, bike lanes and bike racks galore.
I’m sure the weather contributes to it, too. Did I mention it never rose above 62? That makes for a much more pleasant ride than the triple-digit swelter with which I was greeted upon my return. I literally stuck to my saddle during my first ride back. Unsee that, if you can.
I noticed one thing in particular. I was only there a week, but in all that time I never once heard a honk directed at a cyclist (or a cycle). It’s not that Seattlers (Seattlans? Seattlinos?) don’t honk. I’d say they’re just as horn-y as any other city dweller, and I heard plenty of horns, but none that I could tell were directed at a cyclist.
It’s not that the cyclists are any better at it. I saw cyclists blow through stop lights and turn without signals and take whole lanes and strangle cute baby koalas and all the other things that so infuriate noncyclists, but maybe the whole hippy-dippy Pacific Northwest vibe just makes it easier to turn the other cheek.
Or maybe it’s the coffee.
You can’t swing a half-caf dry cappuccino without hitting a Starbucks (how, I wondered time and again, can a city the size of Seattle support sometimes three Starbucks PER SQUARE BLOCK?). Intuitively, I’d figure the more caffeinated the driver, the more likely he’d take exception to, well, anybody. But the whole Seattle vibe is mellow, man, not jittery.
It’s a mystery, but any city that likes its bikes and its coffee as much as Seattle is OK by me.
I’m slow on a bike. Like, really slow. In fact, I’m more glacial than slow.
Still, I’m amazed at how quickly I have to make decisions sometimes even though I’m creeping along at a challenged-snail’s pace.
All the time I’m encountering wayward vehicles or run-away pedestrians or even just simple road detritus that threatens my person (and, yes, I do have a person) or bike or simply my state of mind (and, yes, I do have a state of mind, though it’s more Rhode Island than, say, Texas or Alaska).
The other day, I faced the granddaddy of all split-second, do-or-die on-the-bike decisions.
I was inching along on a relatively well trafficked yet still relatively wide minor arterial street. There was plenty of room for me on my bike, the car coming up fast from behind and the truck approaching both of us from up ahead. I could tell all three of us were going to reach the same spot about the same time, but, again, no worries. There was plenty of room for all three of us.
But things got interesting when I noticed a squiggle up ahead, directly in my path. The squiggle was dark, about 10 inches long.
I drew closer; the car and truck were gaining.
The squiggle grew slightly more defined. What was that? A piece of road rubber? A rope? A bungee cord?
The car was getting mighty big in the rearview mirror of my mind, the grill of the truck even bigger in the frontview of my, well, view.
I saw a frightfully large crack in the gutter right next to the squiggle, so I couldn’t evade to the right; to the left would put me in the car’s path.
I slowed and cast a glance over my shoulder. Behind the car were two more; I was running out of options.
Now nearly upon the squiggle, I knew my die was cast, my fate sealed.
I leaned and peered and, sure enough, said squiggle was actually a snake.
Now, I’m no fan of snakes and have run over a few in my day — I envision the segmented Join or Die illustration in my wake — but I’m not a hater. I tend to live and let live whenever I can, but I feared the narrow little tightrope I was going to ride spelled doom for Mr. Snakey. No way I was going to swerve into that gaping maw to my right or into traffic to my left.
Inches away, I had an awful revelation. That snake’s head sure was large and copperish. Holy serpents named after a delicious pale ale! I realized I was about to roll over a poisonous copperhead.
In that split-second, I somehow recalled all I had ever heard about copperheads. I knew their bites are poisonous and painful, their personalities aggressive. I also seemed to recall hearing — perhaps it was only an old tale — that baby copperheads are more poisonous than the big ones. Something about greater potency making up for lesser volume.
I had time to reconsider — one of the benefits of riding at the speed of rock — and flashed to visions of the snake striking at my bare ankle as I rode past. Left ... right ... straight ... snake ... curb ... car ...
Almost without thought, I kicked my left foot out of its constraining pedal, flung my left foot straight out and rolled juuuuuuuust to the right of the serpent’s head, missing it by the width of his forked tongue. I also somehow managed to crack myself up as I thought, in my best Cagney, "You'll never get me, copper!" — all as the oncoming truck and the cars from behind whooshed past.
I’m sure to driver of the lead car, it must have looked like I was trying to kick in his passenger window, but he neither flinched nor jumped on the brakes to demand an explanation.
So, heart pounding, I pedaled on, rather pleased to have escaped such a perilous predicament.
I had nearly forgotten my brush with death when I approached the same spot the next day. To my surprise, the treacherous snake was still there. It appeared it hadn’t moved. This time there were no other vehicles nearby, so I gave it a wide berth. Same thing the next couple of days before I finally screwed up the courage to stop.
Stealthily I sneaked up on said serpent (sibilants silent, certainly). I found a stick and gave it a gentle prod.
It didn’t strike and, instead, jiggled a little. I managed to roll it over and saw through the grime “China” on its rubber belly.
I’m not most talkative of sorts and definitely lean more toward taciturn than glib, whether on two wheels or terra firma.
It’s primarily because I bite my own tongue, but two recent events, coincidentally just a couple of blocks but several weeks apart, while I was riding tied it. My tongue, that is.
The first, which I blogged about last week, was a driver who cut me off, then apologized.
Close to two weeks ago, a different kind of — and considerably more painful — run-in left me at a loss for words.
I was riding to work, relishing a decent tailwind when I saw a boy, I’d say a pre-teen, maybe 10 or 11, on a bike riding my way. He smiled and said hello … but failed to mention he had a buddy several yards back, also on a bike, trying to catch up. He also failed to mention his buddy was riding on a cross street, which was partly obscured by plant life and a parked car or two. And that his buddy was in such a hurry to catch up, he was in no mood to stop before riding right out in front of me.
It’s funny how many thoughts can go through even the emptiest of heads in just a split second. I tried to shout a warning (or at least give the kid an earful), and dozens of salutations pinballed through my head. Most were anatomical structures, mixed in with a couple of colorful gerunds and maybe even a spiritual reference or two, but though I had no time to maneuver, I had time enough to dismiss all the possibilities lest I offend the youngster with a “bad word” or 50.
All I managed was a weak, “Dude …” before T-boning the lad.
I was tooling along close to 20 mph; said ‘Dude’ was probably a little slower. I managed to swerve a bit — I did what I could to keep from hammering him, at my expense — and hit him square on his rear wheel. My bike climbed his back wheel, then slammed to the ground with me on it.
Dude appeared unscathed as I languished in the middle of the street trying to take stock of my aches and pains. The kid came close and asked, “Are you OK? Are you OK? AreyouOKAreyouOKAreyouOKAreyouOK?” over and over before I responded, “Just give me a minute, OK?”
Then he gathered his bike and started to ride off.
Here comes the tongue-tied part: As much as I wanted to tear into him or, at the very least, turn the little incident into a teaching moment, the best I could manage — after I propped myself up — was, “Dude, you gotta watch” to his departing form.
I have no idea what it is about bike-on-bike collisions turns me into a BroDude.
I gathered my bike and the various bits that had come off it, glanced at my abrasions and soon-to-be-swelling body bits … and found my voice.
I rode off in the direction the Dude disappeared and found him half a block away. A woman was walking toward him.
“Are you his mom?” I asked.
Hesitation, then, “Yes.”
“Did you see what happened?”
“I heard it.”
“Well, you need to talk to him.”
“I just talked to him about it.”
“If I had been driving a car, he’d be dead.”
“I mean it. Dead. If I had been a car hitting him as hard as I did, he wouldn’t have stood a chance. Dead.”
“I know. Sorry. Are you OK?”
“I hurt. But I’m more worried about him.”
“Yeah, well, explain it to him. Make sure he understands.”
And I rode off.
I ended up with a nicely skinned (and swollen, tender) elbow, road rash on a hip and more scratches on my right foot. My foot also swelled and, that night, became so sore I couldn’t walk on it. Fortunately, ice and Vitamin I — Ibuprofen — fixed that. The scrapes are mending, too.
As bad as it hurt, I consider myself lucky it wasn’t worse.
For both of us.
I’m not the quickest of wits, and while I have a fondness for words, I sometimes find myself at a loss for them.
Such was the case on two recent rides, coincidentally about two blocks — but several months — apart.
In the first, I was riding home one evening, well before sunset. Pedalling along, I saw a car waiting to turn left onto the street I was on, heading in the same direction, from a commercial driveway. I saw the driver take a quick look to his left (away from me) and, seeing a car approaching, accelerated to turn in front of me. Had I not been paying attention (since he clearly wasn’t), it’s quite likely I would have been hit.
But I knew what was unfolding and slowed enough to avoid a collision. Still, I shrugged my shoulders toward the eyes in the rear-view mirror, just to let their owner know of my presence.
Less than a block away, I rolled to a stop next to the car and saw the passenger window going down.
Ready to stand my ground and open a can of cyclist justice on the miscreant (in other words, I was preparing to drop the bike, squeal like a little girl and run for my life), I clipped out of my pedals and turned toward what I was sure to be a lecture about how I didn’t belong on the road and how I should pay more taxes to get to use the roads and get a job and yadayadayada.
I was surprised when the driver instead leaned over the passenger seat and said, “I’m awfully sorry. I didn’t mean to pull in front of you. I just didn’t see you.”
Several responses flitted through my pea brain, none of which was especially gracious.
I finally settled on, “Well, I think I was plenty visible, but thanks for apologizing.”
The driver gave a friendly wave and, as the light changed, pulled away.
My knee-jerk response was, “Oh, it’s OK,” but I didn’t, and I’m glad, because had I been hit, it certainly would not have been OK. I’m glad the driver felt bad. I watched, and he never looked to his right. I’m sure he was counting on peripheral vision to alert him to the presence of an oncoming vehicle, and my smaller form didn’t register. Thus, he really didn’t see me. Thing is, he never looked.
Then again, I was aware of what was happening and in control of the situation. I made sure I was never really in danger, and there was no real reason to tear into the guy. I spoke my (tiny) mind, pointed out his error and acknowledged his humanity.
He screwed up and knew it. I acknowledged both. End of story.
Then, just a week ago right around the corner, I had another at-a-loss-for-words run-in that ended not quite so painlessly. But that story will have to wait for my next blog …
Today I might be the saddest man on two wheels.
Thursday was the last day of school, the last day my younger child would attend elementary school. He’s off to big, bad middle school, and at some point as we pedaled to class last week it dawned on me our bike-to-school days were numbered.
But as is my wont, I pushed all related thoughts and feelings aside.
Until now, of course, when school won’t roll around and we won’t roll.
I have to admit, it’s been a blast.
Though he balked a time or two — he was too tired, it was too windy/cold/hot, it looked rainy, etc. — he rode without complaint. And except for one memorable ride home into a gusty headwind, when his “stupid bike” just wouldn’t work right, no matter how reluctant he was to start his rides to or from school, he always arrived in a better mood than when he departed.
Along the way, he hollered at squirrels and pointed out treasures in the road and caught bugs in his teeth and generally, somehow, found a way to make my morning and my afternoon better than they started.
Now, though, after what’s sure to be a too-short summer, he’ll be off to middle school. Classes start earlier. The route is farther and more heavily trafficked. Most importantly, as I explained to him, he might not admit it now, but — and I hate to make this a self-fulfilling prophesy, but I’m nothing if not a realist — I have this funny feeling he’s not going to want to be seen riding to school with his dorky dad once he enters the cutthroat world of middle school.
Because of recognition ceremonies and such, we didn’t get to ride much last week. We debated riding on his last day, despite his recognition ceremony, but he uncharacteristically begged off.
“I’m kinda tired,” he said. “And … ”
“Well, you remember the last time we rode?”
“Well, it was nice. We had a tailwind. I didn’t have to stop at the stoplight or anywhere. I tried to do that all year. And I finally did. It was like the perfect ride.”
Perfect, huh? Not a bad way to wrap it up.
Leslie Swearingen, 66, once hiked regularly but hasn’t gotten out much in recent years. Now, the Lawrence resident says she has a number of health problems and doctor’s orders to start exercising again.
“I was thinking I could walk on a trail, and the scenery would be so nice,” Swearingen says. “It wouldn’t be the same as just plodding along the sidewalk.”
However, like many potential trail users tempted by spring weather and fresh air, Swearingen wonders, “How safe is it?”
Part of trail safety involves choosing the right path for your skill level and sureness of foot. Even though crimes are unusual — four have been reported in the past four years, police say — it’s important to follow personal safety guidelines, too.
Lawrence trail users range from strolling families to competitive athletes, and the city has routes to fit them all, says Mark Hecker, assistant director for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. He points out that in Lawrence, plenty of trails worth exploring are only minutes away.
“It’s not like you have to take a four-hour drive in the car to go walk around the woods,” he says. “You just pop over there in an evening and go take a walk.”
Here’s a look at some of the most popular trails for varying abilities.
The best easy trails — popular with senior citizens — are around Prairie Park Nature Center, 2730 Harper St., Hecker says.
Paved trails weave through woods and around Mary’s Lake, with loops ranging in distance from about a quarter-mile to 3 miles. They are fairly flat and easy to access from parking lots.
Lawrence Transit buses even stop at the nature center.
Lawrence Rotary Arboretum, 5100 W. 27th St., is home to a number of other easy, paved trails, including loops around the pond and softball complex.
The South Lawrence Trafficway trail is paved but long, Hecker says, making it popular for bicyclists or runners looking to cover more than a mile or two.
The east access point is at Hollywood Southwind Cinema 12, 3433 Iowa. The trail extends all the way to Interstate 70 at the northwest corner of town, but Hecker says few people travel that far. Patrons also can access the South Lawrence Trafficway trail at the arboretum.
The best are the Thomas-Hunter Walking Trails at Lawrence Nature Park, Hecker said, referencing paths at the 100-acre park on Folks Road, about a mile north of Sixth Street.
It’s an unpaved, natural trail yet well-defined — with lots of ups and downs but nowhere you’d have to clamber over a boulder.
Scenery includes limestone outcroppings and a variety of trees and native grasses.
Other popular unpaved trails include the Riverfront Park trail east of the Kansas River and the half-mile urban trail that runs between Burcham Park, 200 Ind., and Constant Park, 230 W. Sixth St.
When it comes to more difficult trails, perhaps no one knows them better than members of the Lawrence Trail Hawks.
When he’s training for a 100-mile race, Gary Henry, 55, a founding member of the off-road running club, might spend up to 24 hours a week cruising the dirt paths around the Kansas River and Clinton Lake.
The Kansas River trails, with a trailhead at Eighth and Oak streets in North Lawrence, are relatively smooth and flat, Henry says. However, for that reason they also attract a number of inexperienced mountain bikers — who have, on occasion, collided with groups of runners.
“If you’re out there on foot … be careful of bicycle riders, because we share the trails,” Henry says.
The most technical trails are around Clinton Lake. The Trail Hawks use a trailhead near the Corps of Engineers building on North 1402 Road.
“They’re rocky and rooty, and you have to pay attention when you’re out on them,” Henry says, adding that despite trip hazards, “only the most experienced mountain bikers use them, and they know to watch out for walkers and runners.”
SAFETY ON THE TRAILS
Run, walk or bike with a buddy.
“That is the best, number-one thing you can do is have somebody with you,” says Lawrence Police Officer Rob Neff, the department’s Neighborhood Resource Officer. “You’re always safer in pairs or a group.”
Lawrence police do not actively patrol trails, Neff says, although officers on bicycles occasionally ride the paths.
Neff says he’s aware of four crimes on the trails in recent years.
In June 2010, a man brutally beat and stabbed a woman who was bicycling alone between the YSI fields and the Clinton Lake Dam. Two runners interrupted the attack and likely saved the woman’s life, Neff said. William E. Nichols later was sentenced to 14 years in prison for the crime, after pleading guilty to aggravated battery, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated sexual battery.
In August 2009, a naked man tried to pull a teenage girl off her bike near the Eighth Street boat ramp in North Lawrence. The suspect, Gregory Curtis Way, pleaded guilty to one count of sexual battery and was sentenced to probation. Neff says the same man was suspected in two other reports about a naked man on the trails.
Neff says the girl was probably able to pull away from her attacker because she spotted him in time to speed up.
In addition to the buddy system, Neff offered these safety tips:
- Be aware of your surroundings. Being “buried” in emails or text messaging takes your focus away from your surroundings, as do earphones. Take them out.
- Make eye contact. People passing by will know you’re watching them.
- In trailhead parking lots, lock your car and avoid leaving valuables in view. When leaving and approaching your car, keep your head and eyes up. Keep the car locked while you’re sitting in it.
- Carry a cell phone. If a crime does occur on the trails, call 911 immediately to report it.
- If you are attacked, and you choose to fight back, Neff suggests trying SSS — screaming, scratching and stomping. “These are three things you can do without training,” he says, adding that not only does scratching hurt, it can glean DNA evidence that would help charge a suspect.
One of the last threats on the trails — especially wooded ones favored by the Trail Hawks — is wildlife.
In summertime, bug spray will help repel ticks, Henry says.
Trail runners also have encountered copperhead snakes, which are poisonous but not known for being aggressive. Henry says your best bet is to carefully walk around them and continue enjoying your jaunt on the trails.
The buddy system is the best way to stay safe on Lawrence’s trails. Here are some of Lawrence’s organized trail-using groups:
- Lawrence Trail Hawks, lawrencetrailhawks.org. Groups runs on dirt trails, routes range from 5 miles or less to up to 30.
- Run Lawrence, runlawrence.org. Most group runs are on paved roads, distances vary.
- Lawrence Mountain Bike Club, lawrencemountainbikeclub.org. Rides off-road trails.
- Ridelawrence.com. Provides links to other bicycle clubs.
Neither the city nor Douglas County Senior Services Inc. has organized walking groups. The Prairie Park Nature Center has occasional, all-ages outdoor activities. For more information, call 832-7980.
FIND A TRAIL
To find a map of routes mentioned in this story, click here.
I don’t get folks who ride a certain sub-set of motorized two-wheelers.
It’s a generalization, I know, and maybe even a stereotype, but riders of the class of Motorbike Lite seem just a little … off …to me.
Occasionally, I’ll get the secret motorcycle wave (I’d show you, but then I’d have to kill you) from fellows aboard their Harleys and Hondas and Ducatis and such, but, for the most part, bikers ignore cyclists. Hogs blow past without so much as slowing down. Cafe racers nose-wheelie by. Vintage sidecars (with a dog riding shotgun!) sputter past, and the pilots — perhaps preoccupied scanning the road for the evil, dangerous cagers — don’t seem to notice little ol’ me pedaling along.
But the folks astride the next step down on the evolutionary scale are a different story.
I’m talking about the people on scooters and mopeds and even motorized bikes, who, with almost disturbing regularity, seem obligated to pull alongside and engage me in conversation like we’re long-lost besties.
I don’t get it.
Rarely does a motorist drive next to me and start to chat me up. Maybe there’ll be a brief visit at a stoplight, or some particularly witty fella will spout some platitude as he breezes past. Though drivers might be cursing a blue streak inside their plush cabins, infrequently will one actually engage me, especially on the fly.
But all the time the pilot of a scooter or moped will sidle up, match my speed and launch into some lengthy discourse about the weather or road conditions or the quest for spiritual fulfillment.
Just the other morning, 1:30 or so, I was riding home in relative silence. Spinning up a hill not far from my house, I heard the unmistakable whine of a tinny moped motor, then watched as a headlight bounced across a lawn, over a sidewalk, over a curb and into the street where, you guessed it, the handlebar turner pulled next to me, throttled back, then greeted me with a throaty, “HOW’S IT GOIN’, MAN?” I replied, “Fine, thanks,” before he “roared off” into the darkness.
I think perhaps it stems from a lack of identity.
Folks who ride bikes generally are referred to as cyclists, and some get a little uppity when they’re called bikers instead (though, curiously, the off-roaders are mountain bikers, not mountain cyclists). Biker, of course, is reserved for riders of motorcycles.
But what do you call the people who fall in between? Scooterers? Mopedophiles?
It’s hard to pigeonhole folks without an appropriate moniker, so they motor about in some sort of two-wheeled purgatory, not quite as dorky as cyclists and not quite able to hang with the cool kids and their crotch rockets.
Or maybe they’re just happy to find the one class of road-user slower — and more universally reviled — than they are.
One of the best things about being Lawrence’s preeminent, longest-running bike blogger is all the cool schwag that comes my way.
OK, that’s not entirely true.
For one thing, preeminence is subjective, even if, as far as I know, ever since Fat Man Biking hung up his keyboard a couple of years ago, I’m the only regular bike blogger in town. But there must be somebody, because all the schwag — all the promotional doodads and P.R. “samples” and outright bribes — that generally goes to the “working” press hasn’t yet come my way. That’s right: Not a single company, large or small, has attempted to get me to write about its lifesaving new geegaw by trying to buy my blog.
I’ve had a couple of offers to attend Interbike, the huge bicycle trade show, and a few cycling destinations — mountain and road — have invited me to come ride, but only on my dime.
But no freebies have been forthcoming, and I’m not at all happy about it.
However, I must give props to Nutcase Helmets, but not because it has sent me anything yet (I have to admit I’m rather fond of the “diagonal stripe” style in size S-M; just sayin’.)
Nutcase deserves some love because of the way it consistently pings my inbox with regular emails touting its lids (Nutcase Helmets designs and markets fun and funky bike, skate, snow and water sports helmets — and for the little loves in our lives, a special kids’ line — Little Nutty by Nutcase.) Each features a nifty magnetic buckle (each helmet, that is, not each email).
All the emails wish me a “nutty day!” and suggest I reply should I want additional info or samples.
Those Nutcase nutcases outdid themselves about a month or so ago with this gem in the subject line: Protect Mom This Mother’s Day With a New Bike Helmet.
Seems they think a brainbucket (Did I mention the magnetic clasp? The convenient adjustable spin dial?) is the perfect gift for mom.
At first, I thought they were suggesting cyclists should get lids for themselves to put dear ol’ mom’s mind at ease. I know my mother — a professional worrier, bless her heart — probably would feel better if I helmeted up every time I left the house, whether I was cycling or not. Come to think of it, she’d probably prefer I don a full suit of armor.
I read through the Nutcase release as saw that, no, they were suggesting a helmet for mom.
Unfortunately, my mom doesn’t ride.
So if anyone has any ideas for me for Mother’s Day, feel free to PM me. The woman is impossible to shop for and has everything she really needs, including the best son in the world (my brother).
I’m certain, however, she does not need a helmet, no matter how fun or funky. Even if it has a nifty magnetic buckle.
I like to pay particular attention to the Venn diagram intersection of bicycle and art.
I think bikes of all kinds can be artistic in their own right; some are absolutely beautiful.
I have admired pictures and paintings of and with bikes, and even a few by bikes. I recall a Kickstarter project awhile back that outfitted bikes with chalk dispensers. As a cyclist tooled about town, he/she left a colored trail behind. The project’s creators envisioned a large bike ride with each cycle outfitted with such a contraption. The result was to be a lovely kaleidoscope when seen from above.
Recently, I happened upon the work of another artist-cyclist, (http://www.wallygpx.com/), who uses a combination of a GPS unit and map to recreate bike rides. The result is an elaborate bike “drawing,” with earth as canvas.
It made me curious if my regular rides would produce the next American Gothic.
Though most of my rides are basically out-and-backs, I try to include enough variety that maybe, just maybe, an interesting picture might emerge.
I skipped the GPS and simply traced a familiar route on a Google map of Lawrence.
The result stunned me: My regular commute to racquetball became a poignant comment on the nature of man. Breathtaking.
Intrigued, I sketched out my regular work commute, and again was left speechless.
There, in unmistakable black and white, was, to my eye, the most graphic depiction of a soul’s yearning — for love? for understanding? — I’ve seen. I was moved, nearly to tears.
Convinced there must be something to this bike-as-instrument-of-art movement, I tried to recreate all of my local bike rides over the past couple of months. I figured if my short little jaunts could create such beautifully heart-rending images, perhaps a greater sampling would be even more masterful.
So I sketched and sketched and sketched, then I looked. I peered. I squinted, turned the map this way and that.
But, nope, after all that work, as far as I can tell, it all amounted to little more than squiggles.
Lawrence's local Lions Club will be delivering bikes to the Health Care Access Clinic front lawn 10:30 a.m. Saturday morning that are looking for homes. These referbished bikes are free as a way of promoting wellness to clinic patients as well as other less priviledged who could benefit from a bicycle. First come, first serve (330 Maine)!
I was riding back to work after dinner the other night, and up ahead I saw a flash as something darted from between a parked conversion van and pickup truck, right at my eye level.
I quickly deduced it to be a bat, which I see frequently and of which I’m quite fond.
However, it was a rather close call. Ecolocation or not, the beastie came out of nowhere and disappeared. Had I been a split-second earlier — or faster — I wonder if even the ecolocationest bat would have had time to dodge my noggin. I’m convinced I would have had bat in my belfry.
I had another thought, too, which resurfaced just a couple of days later, when I was riding in front of my son’s before-school track club. I lead out the kids — no passing the nice man on the bike — and other parents ride herd to bring up the rear. We had just left school grounds and were tooling along the nearby nature trail when I had to swerve abruptly to miss a tiny snake on the path.
I’m not a big snake guy, but I’ll admit even this one was cute — a bitsy garter snake, maybe 7 inches long and smaller than my little finger. It saw me coming and froze. It remained still as the lead runner came pounding down the path and … just about squashed said serpent. Never saw it. I almost turned around and shooed it into the safety of the nearby grass but didn’t think I’d be able to turn around in time to cut off the next wave.
Besides, once I saw the snake, I immediately channeled my inner Samuel L. Jackson and bellowed, “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! I’VE HAD IT WITH THESE MOTHER* SNAKES ON THIS MOTHER* BIKE!” I glanced back at all those adorable, innocent, suddenly aghast faces and decided to pedal on, hoping the dozens of beating hooves that followed would scare the beast to safety — and that the little darlings in my charge wouldn’t tell mommy and daddy about the new word they learned at track club that morning.
The thought that entered my head in both critter near-misses? Are some animals just … dumb?
I don’t mean all members of a kingdom or phylum or class or order or family or genus or species (wow, that ninth-grade taxonomy sure sticks with a fellow). I think it’s safe to assume a snail, say, isn’t quite as intelligent as a chimp; everybody knows dogs are braniacs compared to stupid kitties; I’ve heard it said cows are smart and horses are D-U-M-B; and octopuses (or -pi, if you please) are bright, while squid are just delicious.
I mean, isn’t it safe to assume that some squirrels are smarter than others? Same for bats and snakes and all other manner of creature?
What if the winged rat I nearly ran into the other night had been too stupid to take evasive maneuvers? Like the snake. It easily could have high-tailed it (Get it? A snake? High-tail?) into the nearby grass, where it would have been close to invisible. Instead, it opted to freeze — a blue-striped, black squiggle standing in stark contrast to the white concrete below.
I’ve had squirrels try to run between my turning wheels (and a surprising number run headlong at my rolling bike). Birds sometimes fly parallel to my path, their beady eyes panic-stricken as they frantically flap faster to escape. Unlike the ground-bound beasties, birds can, of course, fly in any direction, including, oh, I don’t know, up, to escape the more gravity-locked set, yet a few insist upon flying alongside until one of us tires or pulls away (or, presumably, breads and deep-fries the other). Once a deer that had been a good half mile away ran toward me and swam across the small pond that separated us, all the while heading straight for me. It sped up and slowed down to match my attempts to give it safe passage before veering off at the last minute, its eyes bulging in terror, leaping a fence and bolting into the nearby trafficway. Obviously it wasn’t the sharpest ungulate in the herd.
I’m a big fan of natural selection, so I can only assume all the really stupid animals didn’t stick around long enough to pose much of a threat to me or my bike.
But sometimes I wonder.
These are the kinds of thoughts that rattle around my hollow head as I pedal along on my commute. At least, they are until it gets pelted by some moronic bat.
I ride my bike on the ground, I’ve ridden through more rain than I’d like, and, since this is Kansas, I’m always riding in wind; frequently I’m suckin’ it, too.
Thus in terms of the classic elements, I figure I’ve got three of the four whipped (not including aether, whatever the heck that is; I reckon it’s to the elements like umami is to the tastes). Unless I develop a mysterious brain cloud and volunteer to ride my bike into the mouth of an erupting volcano to save the Abe Vigoda-led tropical villagers, I always assumed I’d have to leave fire well enough alone, at least when it comes to my regular commutes.
Until a couple of weeks ago, that is.
I was riding along Clinton Parkway on the multi-use trail on my way to racquetball. Because I was on the MUT and didn’t have to worry about traffic — except where the MUT intersects cross streets, that is — I lost myself in the vast emptiness of my own head.
Stumbling aimlessly through that void — “Heellloooo!!!!! Anyone home????” — I snapped to just in time to see a pickup truck parked on the MUT. I don’t think that’s one of the uses in the MUT’s multi-usedness, so I carefully rode around it and back on the trail.
A little farther, I spied a couple of cones and a two city workers, obviously blocking the trail and captivated by something ahead.
The makeshift road block extended into the street, forcing traffic into the center lane. So I hopped off the curb and into the now-vacant lane adjacent to MUT — right alongside a wall of flame like from the depths of hell itself.
It seems the city was burning off the native prairie grasses that grow along the MUT, and I was a singed eyebrow away from that broiling inferno. I pedaled on as flames leapt and ash and cinder filled the sky. My lungs burned with fiery, acrid smoke; every breath was pure torture. Flames crackled from my drivetrain. The rubber bits — tires, handlebar tape — bubbled. The sky was black as pitch, the air heavy with soot. The wall of flame, whipped by a ravaging wind, curled overhead. It seemed like I was surfing the North Shore — of Hades itself.
Then, as quickly as I happened upon this blazing hellfire, I was past it. I hopped back on the MUT, and went on my way.
(In the interest of interest, I should mention I might have exaggerated my encounter just a tad. But I did feel a slight rise in the ambient air temperature. I swear.)
A couple of years ago, Kansas University’s men’s basketball team won the national title.
I was working that night on the sports desk, as I have for all of the past upteen-or-so-plus KU men’s basketball games over the last couple of decades, and as I hurried back to the J-W newsplex downtown after grabbing a bite for dinner at home, I found myself stranded in a traffic jam on Sixth Street as teeming masses teemed toward downtown in hopes of a massive postgame lovefest on Mass.
Thunderstorms were in the forecast, so though I had planned to ride my bike back to work, I opted to drive instead.
As I inched along Sixth Street, I considered ditching my car on a side street and hoofin’ in the last few blocks so I could make deadline. I didn’t, however, and made it back to work in plenty of time. There was a bit of rain, I recall, but no storms.
I vowed the next time KU played for the title, regardless of the forecast, I was going to ride.
Four years and, this season, many surprising victories later, I found myself making good on my vow. Anticipating more teeming, I rode to work just about every night KU played, but I have to admit my resolve was tested a bit by my 11-year-old son. He surprised me the afternoon of the Kansas-North Carolina game — which KU won to go to the Final Four — when he implored me not to ride.
“I don’t want you to get beat up,” he said.
Perhaps I exaggerated the drunken disorderliness of the last celebration. Though most folks downtown were pretty responsible back in 2008, there was a bit of mayhem, especially in the wee hours.
I explained to my son, however, that no matter how much pillaging and plundering and general debauchery I witnessed, the only actual encounter I had with any of the pillagers, plunderers or debauchers came during my ride home two nights prior to the 2008 championship game. After putting the paper to bed just before bar-closing time, I pedaled toward a close-to-downtown bar, my head on a swivel as I watched hundreds of well lubricated folks still reveling in the victory. As I approached the bar, I saw a man who had been standing outside, beer in one hand, cigarette in another, fling the butt down and sprint right at me. I looked left, then right, plotting my escape. I slowed, hoping to hop on the pedals at the last second and lurch past him and away to safety.
As he drew close, he let out a bellow, extended his left arm … and screamed, “*&%# YEAH, MAN! HIGH FIVE!”
Still leery he might try to knock me off my steed, I gingerly give him a wimpy high-two and pedaled away.
This year, I had even less physical contact.
Despite the thousands (as opposed to maybe dozens I see on a typical night) of folks still milling about, the only person who actually acknowledged my presence was the driver of a car I crossed in front of on Sixth Street the night KU beat Ohio State to advance to the title game.
She honked, and as I braced for what I was sure to be a rant of some sort, she leaned out the window and cooed, “I like your bike,” before disappearing back in the car, behind a wall of giggles from her and her passengers.
Though I escaped injury entirely and detection for the most part, there is a certain sense of vulnerability to riding a bike through such a beer-fueled horde. Cars can provide some sort of protection and a quicker get-away. But as I explained to my son, on a bike I feel more maneuverable. And nobody was going to jump up and down on the hood of my bike.
I guess if I ever feel too threatened by riding through such occasional Final Four celebrations, I could always move somewhere they don’t have to worry about such things.
Like Columbia, Mo.
I’ve never taken so much as one class in meteorology, but thanks to countless hours spent in the Google University classroom and staring at my beloved Weather Channel/weather.com, I consider myself a pretty fair forecaster.
Although, it has dawned on me as unusual that the yahoos who give us their informed best guesses in the guise of weather forecasts refer to themselves as meteorologists, which, in my mind, would be like taking medical issues not to a doctor but to a healthologist. Whatever they call themselves, they’re forecasts are neither very fore or cast.
Then again, I seem to recall a stretch of three recent days which featured wild, windy weather that culminated in a tornado outbreak one day; even warmer, windier weather the next; then a pretty if short-lived snow event on Day Three (and that day, of course, the temperature topped out around 55 degrees). Who could forecast that?
Every Kansan I’ve ever met exaggerates all the time, so it’s no wonder the oft-repeated mantra about Sunflower State weather is similarly hyperbolic: I don’t think I’ve ever had to wait the full five minutes for the weather to change.
Anyway, given the mercurial nature of the mercury around here, it’s always a good idea to keep a close eye on the weather, especially when venturing out on the bike.
I distinctly recall a recreational ride several years ago. I merely glanced at the blue sky and headed out. I made it to Lone Star Lake in record time and was enjoying myself so thoroughly — and was so surprised by how easy a time I was having — I continued on to Globe, then Overbook. I paused for a drink and a snack on the side of the road, swung my bike around for the return ride … and stared into a gray wall of fury. A front had blown in, giving me a lovely tailwind, but it had brought with it a mother of a storm, which made up for lack of lightning (thank goodness) with buckets of water, through which I slogged for a dozen or so miles.
I emerged on the far side where blue skies and chirping birds awaited. As I neared home, I encountered another cyclist just heading out. She gave me a most curious look as I pedaled past, my clothes still plastered to my body, hair soaked and, as far as I know, still dripping water on bone-dry pavement.
Since then, I’ve become quite proficient at reading radar and sonar and NexRad and all manner of meteorological dart-throwing devices.
Truthfully, though, a more esoteric skill is deciphering not the raw data, but the plain-language forecast.
I’ve taken a few such forecasts and translated them into more practical definitions, especially for cyclists.
For instance, when a summer forecast says “warm,” it really means, “blazing, melt-your-teeth hot.”
“Cool,” of course, means “colder than a witch’s zit.”
A few others:
Rainy: cats and dogs.
Breezy: windy as heck.
Windy: breezy as $*&%.
Unseasonably warm: see warm.
Slight chance for storms: unplug your electronics; she’s gonna blow.
Partly cloudy: can’t see your hand in front of your face.
Partly sunny: partly cloudy.
Mostly sunny: not even a hint of the sun.
Mostly cloudy: batten down the hatches.
Gorgeous: are you kiddin’ me? I’m not falling for that. Chances are, we’re in for rain, snow, hail, tornadoes, tsunamis and maybe even tropical frogs falling from the skies.
And then there’s POP, a meteorological term of such insidiousness it has its own acronym. The POP — or probability of precipitation — is especially tricky for cyclists, because it actually has two values depending on whether or not the cyclist has looked at said POP and, based on that figure, has decided whether to ride his/her bike.
I’ve calculated the formula for both and present them here:
If the cyclist did, in fact, go for a ride, the adjusted POP — when he/she is either at the farthest point from home on an out-and-back ride, or precisely midway between points A and B on a destination ride — is (100-POP)+POP. Thus, if the published POP is a mere 20 percent, (100-20)+20=100. Thus, any cyclist foolhardy enough to go for a ride with just a 20 percent chance of rain is 100-percent certain to get drenched.
However, if said cyclist were to keep the bike garaged for fear of rain, the adjusted POP is ((z4)-sin(POP)/y)0, where z and y, of course, don’t matter since, if I’ve counted all my left and right parentheses right, everything is multiplied by zero, guaranteeing that even if the skies are roiling and the wind is howling and lightning is streaking across the sky, if a cyclists chooses to park the bike and drive instead, there’s not a POP in HECK a single drop will fall.
Of course, he or she could always wait a couple of minutes. That’s bound to change.
I was driving — yes, driving — somewhere the other day, and I crested a hill on a lightly traveled road, with a commercial parking lot to my left and a private drive off another parking lot — I think it belonged to a church — on my right.
Just before I reached the driveway, a car rolled through the stop sign to my right, directly in my path. I’d seen the car coming, so it was easy to tap the brakes and avoid a collision, and as I did so, I gave the horn a little honk, not in anger but just to let the offending driver know that I was there and maybe next time she might consider actually stopping before barrelling into traffic. Consider it community service.
The driver seemed surprised as she glanced in her rear-view mirror. Without pause, she raised her right arm to the mirror so it (the arm) would be in plain sight, then slowly, deliberately … flashed a peace sign.
Honestly, it was twice as many fingers as I was expecting.
She smiled with her eyes, let the gesture linger, then turned right at the next intersection; I turned left.
As we parted, I thought, “What a lovely gesture.”
And it was.
I’ll admit I’ve communicated nonverbally several times while I’ve been on my bike, using all manner and number of digits, though I’m a bit ashamed to admit one gesture (and finger) make up the bulk of my sign language. Call it half a peace sign.
In the heat of a moment, it’s too easy to flip the bird. It’s quick and dirty, and it gets the point across. But it also tends to breed a bit of ill-will at least between two people, if not cyclists and drivers in general. I reserve the right to dial up the middle digit to express my displeasure at having my person (and, yes, I do have a person) jeopardized by dolts, especially dolts who are deliberately endangering.
However, I plan to give this peace-sign thing a spin.
The way it was wielded my way the other day bore little resemblance to its hippie-dippy origin. But it spoke volumes. The peace-signee quickly, deftly signalled, “Oops. Sorry. My bad. Please forgive. Have a nice day.” Two fingers, a split-second; ’nuff said.
I feel better already.
Don’t think me a hater, but … I abhor Valentine’s Day. Abohrers gonna abhor.
It’s not a reflection on my sweetie, mind you. I so do not abhor her (abher?). In fact, I’m rather fond of her.
My loathing is directed instead at the holiday itself, a crass, commercialized money-grab that makes all the other crass, commercialized money-grab holidays — Christmas, Grandparent’s Day, Arbor Day — look genuine by comparison. I’m convinced only a slim minority actually enjoys VD. The vast majority agonize over what to do/buy to prove our love; lament that we’re not loved as much as we love; or unnecessarily bemoan our lonely plights.
Meanwhile, the card-makers, jewelers, chocolatiers and florists make out like bandits as everybody else only can hope to, well, just make out.
I consider VD gifts to be something like a Rorschach test, more a reflection of the giver than the givee.
I have to say I’ve given some memorable Valentine’s gifts.
One year, I made a shoe-box mailbox like we used to make in grade school. Then I bought boxes of the cheesiest packaged Valentines I could find — we’re talking dozens, if not hundreds — and on each one wrote a different cheesy VD message: Love you. Stuck on you. Be mine. Holla. Then I stuffed ’em inside the box and put up the flag. I was quite proud, though I recall the reception wasn’t quite as warm as I had hoped.
Recently, I got a bunch of pewter hearts — or maybe they were lead or mercury; nothing says I love you like blood poisoning — and hid them so they’d be discovered throughout the day: by the sink when she was getting ready; at her place where she ate breakfast; in the seat of her car; in her workout clothes so they’d fall out when she changed for her lunchtime workout. At least I got a Facebook shoutout for that one.
But I’ve also had my share of clunkers. Too often I went the flower-and-chocolate route. Other VD gifts were so meh, even I can’t remember what they were.
Thus the Rorschach evaluation of me seems pretty accurate: inconsistent at best.
Which brings me to my wife. She’s thoughtful, practical and deliberate, and her gifts reflect that. (Not to mention loving and beautiful and smart and pretty and … )
This year, for instance, she decided to get me a new remote keypad for our garage-door opener. I know this because I mentioned the other day that I was headed to the hardware store to buy one, and once I chipped enough of the resulting frost off my face to ask why the temperature in our house had dropped about 7,500 degrees Kelvin, she informed me that it was because maybe somebody else — one of the countless many suitors lining up in hopes of being my Valentine — already had decided to get me a new remote keypad for our garage-door opener for Valentine’s Day and, without saying so, suggested that buying one for myself would ruin, well, just about everything.
So I didn’t, and she did, and a couple of days later, there at my place at the dinner table I found — surprise! — a new remote keypad for our garage-door opener.
A lesser woman might have been deterred, scrapping the idea and resorting to Plan B, but not my wife. She realized just how much a new remote keypad for our garage-door opener would mean to me.
Ever since I got the old one, I regretted it. In a word, it sucked. The trouble is, our garage-door opener is so old — I think it originally was powered by a couple of oxen plodding around a pole — there are only a very few remote keypads that can be retrofitted to make it work. The one I bought was a pain to program and fickle to operate. I couldn’t begin to count how many times over the past several years the infernal thing would start to open the door, then stop. I’d push a button, and it would reverse. Push another, it’d start to open again. Then stop. Push. Reverse. Stop. Push. Open. Stop. Or it wouldn’t accept the open code, blinking its little lights so tauntingly I seethed every single one of the 10 seconds I had to wait before I could try to enter the code again.
I’m generally not the type to get angry at inanimate objects, but that thing made me so angry, not a week went by that I didn’t consider ripping the thing from the wall and buying another.
But I never did.
Recently, however, it went belly-up for good, and because all our handheld remotes are in our cars, I had to make sure I had some alternate way into our house whenever I rode my bike anywhere. It was inconvenient, at best, to cram my mess of keys into a jean pocket for my commutes to work, and on more than one occasion I almost forgot. Once I had to throw a log under the closing garage door (I’d press the inside button and race the door whenever I exited; the opener is so old, it doesn’t have electronic sensors to keep it from closing on obstructions) because I remembered just as I hit the driveway.
I feared I’d be locked out of the house at 2 in the morning or, worse yet, in the middle of the day with nobody around to let me in.
I know I could have had a spare house key made, or stuffed a handheld remote in a bike saddle bag, but that would require a calculated purposefulness that’s well beyond me.
So, yeah, in this case, a remote keypad for our garage-door opener was just about the bestest gift anybody could ever give me.
Meanwhile, she’s off the hook for this year, and I’m still wrigglin’ on it.
Back in my younger days, when my legs were bigger and lungs better — or is that, when my legs were better and my lungs bigger? — I used to try to find the biggest hills in town up which to ride my bike.
I’d go miles out of my way to seek the tallest, longest, steepest ups the city had to offer.
From behind the wheel of a car, it’s difficult to appreciate just how vertical some of our city streets really are. When the horsepower is self-generated, it’s easy to realize — and, of course, exaggerate — just how hilly it is around here.
Before and/or after work or just tooling about town, I tackled all the obvious candidates. In the interest of fairness, I went up all the ups on the same bike — my fixed-gear. Some bikes are geared so low you really can climb up a wall. But on a fixie, there’s no hiding from elevation gain.
Several access roads to the Kansas University campus, especially the numbered roads on the east side, are among the obviously notable inclines.
I used to like to test my legs on two pretty good challenges on Ninth Street — westbound, over the few blocks before Iowa, and again farther west on the short-but-oh-so-steep rise between Lawrence Ave. and Crawford Drive — but in the interest of self-preservation, I pretty much skip that route these days. Cresting the Ninth Street hill at Iowa gets a little dicey on the drunk-clogged streets at 2 a.m.
My regular commute offers a choice between two other, drastically different, climbs: the not-so-steep-but-long-slog that is the climb up Lawrence Ave. from Princeton to Trail, and the abrupt rise into Fall Creek Farms west of Kasold, up Tomahawk Drive.
And while none of those molehills compares to, say, the Mount Washington Auto Road — 4,500 feet of ascent over 7.5 miles — or Mauna Kea (13,790 feet of rise over 41.6 miles) … well, they’re the best we’ve got. (And it’s probably appropriate to say here that my ability to climb like a sprinter is a perfect match to my ability to sprint like a climber, which is to say I’m all-around slow under any condition.)
Over the weekend, I stumbled over a new favorite bump.
I don’t know how many times I’ve rolled near it, but I wasn’t exactly sure where it ended up; I figured I’d Google-map it someday to make sure it was, in fact, a through street, but I never did.
Sunday, though, I decided just to ride on up Fifth Street, west of Colorado and South California (behind Carquest and Jayhawk Pawn and Jewelry on Sixth). It’s a quiet little road that seems to end abruptly in the trees at the top of a deceptively steep hill.
From the bottom, it doesn’t look like much, so I approached it casually — just spinnin’ along.
After a few dozen yards, the incline grew. I stood on the pedals. No worries.
It turned up. I bore down.
Still yards from the top, I realized my mistake: The darned thing just gets steeper as it goes along. It’s not a steady hypotenuse; it’s half of a “U” — gradual at the start, closing in on straight up (not really!) at the top.
I approached the peak and saw a woman walking her dog. She smiled and said hello. I tried to return the greeting as nonchalantly as possible as I pumped my bike left and right, bearing down on the pedals.
I swear that grin was the smirk of an insider, her way of saying, “You’re not from around here, are you? Welcome to life on the side of the mountain.”
Eventually — everything was in slow motion — I crested, but not before making my bailout plan. Since I wear clipless pedals that attach my shoes to my cranks, I kept telling myself to make certain I unclipped if my momentum hit zero. If I couldn’t get out of the pedals, I was sure to flip over on my back before log-rolling tail-end-over-teakettle back down.
Maybe it was the effects of the cold/flu/crud that kept me off the bike all of last week that made it seem to steep, but the view from on high convinced me there was some serious steepness to the road behind me. A similarly vertiginous downhill sealed it.
So for now, at least, I consider that stretch to be the steepest incline in city limits, at least that I’ve tackled.
If anybody knows of a steeper stretch, I’d love to see it, so please drop me a line at email@example.com or leave a comment down below.
I’m all the time finding cool stuff during my bike rides through the city.
I never find anything in my car, or anybody else’s, for that matter.
But on a bike, I roll over jewelry, cell phones, tools, pets, money, lost loves … you name it, I find it, and more often than not — pack rat that I am — I’ll bring it home. Well, not the pets. They’re so awfully difficult to carry on a bike.
My theory is simple: If I can carry it, I’ll lug it home and assess it then. Frequently my finds are worthless junk. Sometimes they’re trinkets that would have been worth keeping if only they hadn’t just been run over by a speeding 18-wheeler.
But for every hunk o’ junk I’ve lugged home, I’ve left a couple more roadside, usually in hopes of later retrieval.
Usually it’s matter of delayed recognition.
“Say, wasn’t that sparkle a block or two back coming from a 2-carat bridal set?”
“Why, yes, I do believe it was.”
“Perhaps I should pick that up next time through.”
Frequently, there’s a bit of self-preservation in mind. Generally it’s frowned upon to grab a fistful of brake on a busy thoroughfare, triggering a 10-car pileup, just to pick up a misplaced quarter.
So I’ll make a mental note and hope the astray goody is still there when I return on an off-peak hour.
Curiously, I develop a strangely strong attachment to the left-behind find. I’ll start thinking of it as MY socket set, MY beloved drill bit, MY coveted bungee cord, hoping that — unless it’s the object’s rightful owner reuniting — no other eagle-eyed scrounger comes along to pluck my precious.
I’ve seen cell phones remain untouched on heavily traveled roads for days, while pocket change disappears within minutes from quiet little side roads.
Just the other day, I was headed somewhere and saw a discarded pair of earrings resting in the gutter, still attached to the retail package.
I pedaled on, and as the hours passed before my return, the jewelry’s worth grew enormously … in my mind.
I had seen but a fleeting glimpse, but I thought they were a pair of beautiful, fresh-water pearls. Of course, such valuable baubles would be anchored by 14K posts. What if, I wondered, there were more bejeweled goodies, a regular treasure trove of mislaid booty, languishing in the same gutter?
I was relieved to see, upon my return, that nobody had purloined my wayward prize. I waited for a break in traffic, rolled to a quick stop and palmed the goods for the short ride home.
As soon as I rolled to a stop, I spied my hard-earned reward — a pair of cheap, semi-metallic earrings that had been squashed by traffic. The orbs were misshapen, the posts bent to right angles.
I left ’em at my wife’s place at the dinner table and proudly described them as her Valentine’s bounty, a couple of weeks early.
She was not impressed, but I’m not worried. I think I know where I can pick up a drill bit and maybe even and couple of sockets instead.
My dad has a strange fondness for shoes.
I don’t mean that in a bad way. He’s not, to my knowledge, a podophile or foot fetishist.
He just likes shoes. A lot.
Or, more accurately, he likes buying shoes.
As far back as I can remember, the man was dropping coin on footwear like Imelda Marcos on a bender.
Don’t misunderstand: It’s not a fashion thing. My dad’s so not about fashion. Just one look at his beloved DayGlo attire proves that. The man could go to a luau, and the natives would ask him to turn down his shirt. There’s bright, and there’s self-illuminated, and he leans toward the latter.
In his case, his fondness of footwear is simply practical.
He explained years ago that he’s always had trouble finding shoes to fit. He wears a 13 — a 12 1/2 in some brands, 13 1/2 in others — and back in the dark ages when we actually shopped in, well, shops (you know, the things quaintly referred to as “brick and mortar” today), stores rarely carried anything larger than a 12. He’d have to cram his planks into too-small shoes. So whenever dad (often literally) tripped over a pair of 13s, regardless of the style — sneaker, wing-tip, brogue, boot, flip-flop or even a pair of those gosh-awful tuckus-trimming rocker shoes — well, dad found himself physically unable to pilot his big-ol’ gunboats past without walking away with another pair.
Now, of course, dad can fire up the Interwebs and mouse his way to a pair of size-13s without breaking a sweat.
But old habits die hard.
I have relatively tiny tootsies — 9, 9 1/2 — so I’m never on the prowl.
I was reminded of dad's footwear fondness several weeks ago, before the expected onset of cold weather, which, of course, hasn’t set upon us yet. I stumbled upon a pair of bike gloves online and, despite my trepidation, decided to plunk down a couple of bucks to add them to my pile.
I don’t like buying bike stuff online. I prefer to patronize my local bike shops. And in the case of gloves, I like actually to slip my mitts in said mitts before pulling the trigger.
But the price was right, and I was weak, and the kicker — a tag that described it as the “best glove in the world” — sealed the deal. How could I go wrong with the best glove in the world?
Mind you, I didn’t really need another pair of gloves. I mentally took stock: I have a light pair for cool rides, two pair of liner gloves, a “cold-weather” glove, a “really cold-weather” glove, a waterproof pair, a windproof pair, a leather pair, two or three fingerless pair, a day-glo pair (take that, dad!). I can layer, bringing my total possible combinations to something like 2,457,200. In other words, I already had plenty of gloves.
But just like dear-old dad and his footwear, I couldn’t resist another pair.
I’ve only worn them around the house. It figures the winter I’m actually looking forward to a bit of cold weather, we have record highs, and the “best gloves in the world” sit there, proverbially giving me the finger.
Oh, well. I’m certain I’ll get to try them out soon enough, but not, I’m sure, before dad buys another pair of shoes or two.
I found myself in an unusual predicament the other day.
I rolled up behind a car stopped at a light, and, glancing down, I noticed a pair of scissors sitting on the car’s bumper.
“Bummer,” I thought. “Dude’s about to lose his scissors.”
But then my paranoid-parent brain kicked into hyperdrive.
I blame it on my mom.
I wouldn’t say she’s overprotective, but I distinctly recall a time she called to warn me she had read about people who had pricked their fingers on syringes. It seems shooters-up were throwing ’em away in public bathrooms. Unsuspecting toileteers would do their duty, wash and dry their hands, then dispose of the paper towels in brimming bins. The clean-and-dry-handed ones would mash the refuse down in the bins and —Yowk! — get pricked. I never heard how many thousands of folks were so afflicted, but I’m presuming each and every one — and, no doubt, a few of their close relatives — promptly shriveled up and died horrible, awful, painful deaths.
So my mom called to caution me about overflowing bathroom bins.
I believe I was in my mid-30s.
But I get it.
I have kids, so I can easily imagine the most terrible, horrendous badness spinning off the most pedestrian situations.
Which brings us to the scissors.
I immediately envisioned them becoming dislodged, clattering to the pavement, then being kicked up by another car’s spinning tires and flung into the air, where they’d tumble silently but ominously, handle-over-business end … before burying themselves thumb-hole-deep right into some poor sap’s eye socket.
At the very least, I figured they’d make it to the turnpike, then clatter to the blacktop at mile marker 180, where they’d slice through 17 of a speeding 18-wheeler’s 18 or so wheels, causing the Peterbilt of Death to careen over the center line … and, ultimately, causing a 34-car pileup and heaps of dead and dying good people.
(It’s worth noting these were fine-looking scissors; not the cheap-o flimsy blades, the only kind I can find around the house when I have some scissoring to do. You know, the lousy scissors with the bendy blades, with which you chomp-chomp-chomp at even the flimsiest of mutatables before finally giving up and attacking with a steak knife. No, these were the industrial, triangular-bladed beauties I only seem to find at 3 in the morning when I roll over in bed and awaken with a start, surprised to find my spleen has been lacerated and, despite the early hour, seem to recall that, yes, my son DID just happen to have been working on some craft here earlier in the day, and, by gosh, he sure does have a hard time picking up after himself, doesn't he? The scamp!)
Oh, wait. Where was I …
Oh yes, the intersection. With the scissors.
I reached down, planning to reunite the shears with their sure-to-be-grateful owner, but as I had spent the previous milliseconds envisioning the mass destruction they were sure to wreak, the light was about to change, and the car was edging forward. (I also noticed the driver, who had been eying me warily in the rearview mirror, was looking RIGHT AT ME as I lunged forward. Perhaps I moved a bit too suddenly. Or spastically.)
By that point, the scissors were all but out of reach.
It’s probably for the best. I’m sure, given the timing, if I’d managed to save the blades before the car drove off, I would have had to resort to trying to play catch-up to return them. Surely the sight of a guy pedalling maniacally, waving industrial-strength scissors and bellowing for the car ahead to stop is grounds for arrest.
So I watched as car and slicers pulled away.
I sure hope nobody got killed.
The darnedest thing happened on the way to work the other day.
It was late afternoon. The sky was overcast, the light slowly fading.
I approached a T intersection not far from my home and rolled to a stop. I had a stop sign; cross traffic did not, and this particular intersection was near the top of a hill, making visibility slightly tricky.
As I usually do, I looked left, right, left again. Left, right, left, right, right again, left … you get the idea. Self preservation is strong is this one.
Seeing no immediate threats to my person (and, yes, I do have my own person), I pulled into the intersection and began to turn left, my head on a swivel.
I glanced again to my right and … what’s that? A car? Nah, there’s nothing there. I continued, glanced again … and, sure enough, getting awfully large in my field of view was a — wait for it — camouflage Jeep.
There was no real threat of collision, but it was a closer call than I would have liked.
All the rest of the ride in, I couldn’t help but relish the delicious irony of having a close call with a vehicle meant for stealth.
I’d guess in 99.24 percent of all car-bike collisions, the hitter said of the hittee, “Gee, officer, I never saw him/her!”
As a devotee of the see-and-be-seen school of bike commuting, I stockpile sparkly bits — reflectors, lights, high-vis (yet still stylish!) garb, garish lipstick and other “Oh, pretty!” parts — that might make me stand out from, and not become a part of, the background pavement.
So to get creamed by a vehicle painted in a way that it blends into the background would be the ultimate in ridiculousness. Or ridiculousity.
I understand the driver well could have been on his way to safari and didn’t want to spook the big game, so I’m not about to question his choice. Manufacturers go to great lengths to make their vehicles visible — like daytime-running lights, third brake lights, side-mirror blinkers, etc. — so it’s refreshing to see (or not) a ride designed to disappear (into the bush, at least, if not the suburban jungle).
It did remind me of a running joke I had with my mom when I was younger.
Whenever we’d see someone or something cloaked in camo, we’d joke that it was a good thing he/she/it was moving or else it’d be invisible.
The joke, I’ve learned, hasn’t translated well to current generations.
It’s hard to say who was less amused, my wife and kids or the store employees when we’d go to, say, the Gap when camo made a (thankfully) brief foray into fashion and I’d deliberately run into displays of shirts or shorts or pants.
“You really should put up a sign,” I’d say. “I didn’t even see this display of stylishly camo garb.”
Employees would scramble to clean up my mess; my wife would act like we’d never met (but I’m used to that by now).
I tried again the other day at our local employee-owned grocery store when we encountered two fellows apparently straight from the bush (though thankfully unarmed).
I leaned over to my daughter and whispered, “You see those two guys over there?”
She looked: “Yes.”
“I don’t,” I replied.
She was not amused.
Ah, there’s no shortage of camo humor.
Unless, of course, it’s cloaking a 2,000-pound cage bearing down on you.
I swear, officer, I never saw it coming.
I’ve been waging a war lately with my teenage daughter.
Lovely girl that she is, she tends to overuse the word “amazing.”
She’ll insist she had an amazing hamburger for lunch, which she washed down with an amazing milk. After an amazing time at chorale practice, she’ll log on to the amazing Internet and listen to the latest amazing number from amazing Adele.
I try to convince her that words are precious and that she should save such superlatives for actual superlatives, but she’s amazed I’d even question her word choice. Ah, teenagers.
I guess there are worse words she could be bandying about.
That said, I had a rather amazing experience the other morning.
Riding home after another less-than-amazing night on the sports desk, I was spinning up the one semi-significant hill on my usual commute home, lost in my thoughts and the silence of the early morning. I glanced up at the moon — just a day past full — and was stunned to see it encircled by a halo of light.
The halo was thin, but it sported at least a partial — and faint — Roy G. Biv spectrum of G through V, pale green through barely discernible violet. The halo bisected my favorite constellation (doesn’t everyone have one?), Orion, to the east. Just outside the halo to the west, Jupiter blazed away.
It was, in a word, amazing.
Wanting to share the scene with my kids despite the ungodly hour (at least it was a nonschool night), I picked up the pedalling pace. I’ve seen other celestial wonders from the saddle before, but some can be fleeting. I saw the aurora borealis on one ride home, but the gorgeous curtains of light were too faint to see by the time I made it home.
So I pedalled and craned my neck, pedalled and craned, all the while thinking I finally was witnessing my first moonbow.
It’s worth noting here that my son has a thing for moonbows, ever since I describe the phenomenon to him. I think his first three words, in order, were “mama,” “dada,” and “moonbow.” He desperately wants to see a moonbow, despite their rarity. A couple of months ago, we went outside during a full moon and sprayed water from the hose in an attempt to make a synthetic moonbow at his insistence. Reviews of the man-made moonbow were mixed.
As I pedalled home, all I could think was the joy he’d feel when he finally witnessed his beloved first moonbow.
I made it home, rushed inside, quietly crept upstairs and roused the kids, all the while trying (not so successfully) to keep from disturbing the wife.
I led the kids on the back deck and pointed up. Knuckling their eyes, both let out little gasps (maybe it was the cool night air), and drank in the sight. They admired it for a few minutes, then shuffled back off to bed.
Afterward, I learned it was not, in fact, a moonbow but a more-common 22-degree halo.
Whatever the name, it was nonetheless amazing.
And I’m certain I never would have seen it from behind the wheel of my car.
Whether it’s my inner (OK, mostly outer) child, my inside-and-out hobgoblin or simply my insatiable sweet tooth, I love Halloween.
But I have to admit, riding my bike on All Hallow’s Eve is a bit of a mixed bag.
I’m certain the drunk-to-sober-driver ratio around 2 a.m. is higher on Halloween than just about any other night of the year, except maybe Arbor Day. And there seems to be something about hiding behind a mask that brings out the nasty in lots of folks.
But I love weaving through the cute kids downtown in the early evening and the cute college kids after the witching hour has past. (As an aside, if Oct. 31 is Halloween, aka All Hallow’s Eve, does that make my early-morning commute, technically on Nov. 1, All Hallow’s Morn? Or Halloworn? And what the Hall’s a Hallow?)
Once I had a group of kids throw candy toward me as they sing-songed “Trick or treat, biker dude.” Perhaps I should say they threw candy AT me, for the most part, though I was able to snag a bit for a quick energy boost on the rest of the ride home.
Every year about this time, I ponder my options for on-bike costumes.
I won’t wear a costume at work, nor will I be That Guy who dresses up to A) take his kids trick-or-treating (as if I could catch up to the one who sprints door-to-door, or could dare to dream to be seen with the other, who wants to be in my vicinity in public about as much as a leper) or, worse, B) sit around the house and hand out goodies.
But I do fantasize about dressing up for the ride to and from work, because, really, I think fantasy is the key to a healthy work life.
Lately, I’ve considered a knight in shining armor or, perhaps, Don Quixote. Some fake platemail and a lance protruding from the handlebars should get me a bit of breathing room on the road.
I’ve considered borrowing a cruiser and dressing up as Pee-Wee Herman in his eponymous “Big Adventure,” though I’d steer clear of any movie theaters along the way.
Or maybe slap on some chaps — of course I have several pair just lying around — and a football helmet and go as an “Easy Rider.”
Better still, perhaps I’ll don a red hoodie, lash a milk crate to the ’bars, slap a stuffed animal in it, cover it with a blanket and — presto! — Elliott, from “E.T.”
Then again, if I could swing it, I think nothing would beat borrowing a gorilla suit and wearing that for my commute. I can’t imagine the looks I’d get pulling alongside some drunken car-bound partygoer in the wee hours of Halloworn.
This is a blog about rubber.
You’ll notice there’s no “s” on the end, though I thought it ironic or at least coincidental that the night I sat down to wax eloquent on the topic of rubber I rode to work and rolled over an empty industrial-sized box of condoms. It was in the middle of the street immediately in front of one of the few downtown bars, prompting me to wonder just what, uh, went down inside that would make someone think it prudent to premeditatedly pack prophylactics in such prodigious proportions. (I also wondered why I was thinking so awesomely alliteratively, but that’s another blog.)
I really must get out more.
Anyway … the other day, I was going through some old magazines. I have a tendency to horde them, then just as they pose the most significant fire threat, recycle them in great numbers. As I thumb through my mags, I like to fold over corners of pages that contain things I want to investigate further later on. I was going through the old ones, longingly checking the folded corners for gems I might have overlooked. Most of the magazines were bike-related, and an alarming number of the folded corners were to designate my interest in, of all things, bike tires.
I never really figured myself for a rubber fetishist, but the proof was there.
I thought back to one day a couple of weeks ago when I read every word of a six-page spread of reviews on tires for commuter bikes.
OK, I’m a gear junkie. I like bikes. But commuting is about the dullest form of cycling possible, and tires are about the least interesting part of any bike. Yet I read every word of a six-page spread dedicated to bike-commute rubber. Every word! Couldn’t put it down!
Flipping through one of the soon-to-be-recycled magazines, I happened upon an ad for a new line of Continental bike tires. My eyes were drawn to one in particular, a hot little number with a slick center and pronounced knobbies down the side. And it had puncture protection! I couldn’t help but think, “Man, that’s one sexy tire.”
I think I might need professional help.
Or at least a new set of tires.
I read an interesting article the other day.
A three-year British study found that more people would commute by bike if only it didn’t lead to the dreaded helmet hair. They also cited fear of reporting for duty dripping in sweat and the considerably less specific fear of being considered “weird” or a “bit odd” by co-workers.
But helmet hair, it seems, is the biggest deterrent.
“The helmet is a problem for me, because I just think it would make my hair a little squashed,” said one survey respondent, Lara.
Not to bag on the Brits, but … bloody hell!
These folks are missing the point. Helmet hair isn’t a problem. It’s an opportunity.
First, a disclaimer. I’m not big on what most people call “hair styles.” I haven’t used a blow dryer on my hair since, well, I first sprouted. I don’t use “product,” whatever that is, though I tend to overuse “quotes.” I don’t consider myself an unhygienic slob (and who does, really?). I prefer casually unkempt.
My usual daily grooming routine involves showering just before slapping on my helmet and heading out the door. The still-wet hair gets sucked out the vents in my brainbucket and — voila — stunning helmet hair. I consider it a badge of honor.
In fact, I’m on the lookout for a helmet with a vent down the middle so I can show up at work sporting a wicked fauxhawk. Or interspersed holes so I can pretend to be Pinhead. Gimme a couple of different helmets with different vent patterns, and I can have a ’do a day.
Heck, I figure folks pay lots of money for perms (they still do perms, don’t they?) to get the kind of wave I get just by riding to work a little wet behind the ears.
Embrace the wave, I say. If that makes me a weird or a bit odd, yeah, I can live with that.
I’m going to go ahead and call it: It’s going to be a long, cold winter.
I’m not basing this brash prediction on my intensive study of NexRad Radar or my knowledge of El Niño or La Niña or even my slavish devotion to The Weather Channel. No, I’m calling for a brutal winter because … the squirrels told me so.
OK, they didn’t really tell me. I’ll admit I talk from time to time to the furry tree rats, but they never actually talk back. Well, there was that one time, but I was in college and, um, experimenting, and it wasn’t so much a squirrel that talked to me as my roommate who just so happened to look like a giant squirrel at the time … but I digress.
The squirrels have spoken not through their plaintive barks and cries but through their actions. The furry beasties are thick this fall and as busy as their aquatic, tree-munching cousins.
I can’t swing a dead acorn without nearly hitting a squirrel these days. I know it’s prime time to stock up for winter, but, man, there are rodents everywhere.
They run across the road in front of me. They run BETWEEN my tires. They run alongside me, their little squirrelly claws scraping the blacktop.
And here’s the thing: Nail one in a car, and it makes a satisfying thud; nail one with a skinny bike tire, and YOU make a satisfying thud (and like the commercial a few years ago, I’m sure the rest of the squirrel clan chatters and high-fives in celebration as you scrape yourself off the pavement).
It dawned on me, though, that I’m basing my weather prediction on what has to be one of the stupidest creatures on the planet.
The other day, I was riding along, and a squirrel bolted in front of me. He sprinted ahead, looking over his furry shoulder as I slowed, expecting him to cut left or right at any minute to escape to the relative safety of, oh, I don’t know, a nearby tree, where he’d have a huge natural advantage. Instead, the mental midget kept running straight ahead, like the cartoon character trying to run away from a falling tree. I finally stopped to give the little fella an easy out before he collapsed.
Then a few days later, I approached an intersection where a squirrel was dig-dig-digging close to the curb. He saw me approach, dug some more, looked up, dug … look, dig, look, dig. At the last minute, he bolted — and ran, with a clang, headfirst into a street sign. (As an aside, I don’t know what kind of bling he was wearing to create a clang; I’d think a clunk or chunk or even thump more appropriate, but clang?) That had to hurt.
I swear it’s not just me. My father thinks squirrels are out to get him, but this nut has fallen far from that tree. I don’t think squirrels bear me any ill-will.
I am, however, haunted by one.
On my regular ride to work, there is a dead squirrel lying, face up, in the gutter. There is no apparent sign of foul play. I reckon squirrels occasionally die of natural causes and just … fall … into the street. It seems that’s what happened to this little fella.
For nearly a week, he has languished there, unmolested, his eyes accusingly wide-open and his little squirrelly claws clinched into little squirrelly fists, as if beseeching the heavens (or at least the Goodyear that did him in).
The other day, as I rolled by, I slowed down to give the little cadaver a closer look.
I swear the little bugger was giving me the bird.
I’m all the time inventing cool stuff.
Once, when I was a sophomore in college, I was tossing a football around with a roommate. We took a break so he could smoke a cigarette, and he lamented his nicotine addiction. He explained he wanted to quit, but he couldn’t. He went on a rather lengthy explanation about how tobacco wasn’t terribly bad for a person. It was, he said, the tar and carcinogens ingested from the smoke that did a body bad.
I thought it over and recalled reading about how it was possible to use patches on the skin as a medicine-delivery system.
“What about a nicotine patch?” I asked my Marlboro-Man friend.
He took a drag, considered it ... then insisted there’d be no market for it, because he really smoked because he thought it made him cool (it didn’t; trust me).
Though I had no trouble with the molecular biology that would have gone into such an undertaking and had a handle on the patent law, I didn’t want that to detract from my schooling, so I shelved the idea.
A few years later, a fellow by the name of Murray Jarvik stole the idea and, I’m sure, became a multi-millionaire with my brilliant idea.
It’s not just the nicotine patch.
The Slap-Chop. The Ronco Pocket Fisherman. The incandescent bulb. Yep, all me.
Well, OK, not the Pocket Fisherman, though I coveted that little gem throughout my childhood.
The other day, I was riding my bike after dark and realized I had on a dark shirt. I usually try to dress in light colors at night because, well, I like life.
I pondered as I pedaled.
I remembered seeing a line of bike clothes called Illuminite. This innovative reflective apparel (their words) incorporated tiny disks, like satellite dishes, imbedded in the cloth. The disks reflected light back at the source — think headlights — to illuminate the fellow wearing the threads. I’ve seen photos of this effect, and I have to say, if ever I saw a headless, handless, footless apparition like that gliding down the road, I’d either run like heck to get away, or steer my vehicle toward it in hopes of saving civilization. Visible? Yes. Creepy as heck? Oh, yeah.
What if, I asked myself (as all us truly great inventors tend to do), I could somehow sew a thread of 3M Scotchlight reflective material (and, yes, I do ponder in trademarked terms) into my clothes. In normal light, I’d look my usual stylish self. But on the road in the dark, I’d blaze with the brilliance of a thousand suns.
I don’t know much about textiles — though I did make the valances in my kitchen, but, shhh! Don’t tell, lest I blow my manly cover — but I realized a loose aftermarket thread would snag. It would have to be woven in.
I shelved that idea …until I happened upon a shirt made by The North Face. The Hayes Flare Shirt incorporates 3M Scotchlight reflective nylon yarns (sound familiar?!?) to increase night visibility. By day: fashion plate. By night: Man on Fire.
It’s a subtle effect, sure. In fact, I hadn’t actually seen myself glow until the other day.
I was at church, of all places, and my gaze wandered down. I wasn’t napping. I swear. That’d be sacrilege. I was just … uh … reflecting. Yeah.
The lighting was just right, and a beam came down from above — nothing divine, mind you, just an incandescent bulb; hey, that’s one of mine! — catching my shirt just right. Sure enough, I subtly — but unquestionably — beamed. I’m pretty sure the effect was localized. After all, I’m certain if the speaker at the time had seen someone in his congregation blazing away, he might have invited the bright fellow up on stage to see if maybe he had something to add.
But he didn’t, and I didn’t, but I did bask in the inner glow of knowing just how successful my latest invention proved to be.
You’re welcome, North Face. I suppose my royalties check is in the mail.
For all of about the first dozen hours of my life, I was Brian.
Then my mom changed her mind, my dad returned to work and explained his bouncing baby-boy Brian really was Andrew, the nurses brushed the Wite-Out over my birth certificate, and “Andrew” lasted until it came time to write my name in grade school and, ever the lazy sort, I became “Andy.”
That lasted until high school, when Sophisticated Mature Me thought “Andy” too juvenile, and “Andrew” returned.
So “Andrew” it was until I started working at the Journal-World, and a co-worker declared me “Drew,” and that has stuck the past two-plus decades.
Said co-worker has a real knack for nicknames. Some other gems of his, for folks we encounter in the business: The Mortician. The King. And The Dumb.
One of his other sobriquets for me didn’t stick: Mr. Confrontational.
See, this co-worker is a bit of a shrinking violet. Whenever we were faced with an upset caller or coach or parent, he’d run for cover and make me deal with the issue. I didn’t exactly shy from the showdown, hence Mr. Confrontational.
I thought of that not-so-apt nickname lately as I’ve had some cycling encounters with other road users.
As my son and I rode to his school the other morning, a driver cut me off in a traffic-calming device. Close enough to touch him, had I so chosen, I instead barked out a brusque, “HEY!” The driver hesitated, then mumbled a quick, “Sorry,” before accelerating away.
Earlier, another car passed me on the left, then started to turn right across my path — the dreaded right-hook maneuver — before the driver realized he wouldn’t make it without hitting me. So, of course, he slammed on the brakes so he could come to a complete stop right in front of me. I didn’t have time to do much except snake between his fender and the curb, shoot him a glance and a quick, “Really? Really?!?” He responded with half a peace sign.
And then there was the guy the other night/early morning. His was the second in a line of two cars coming toward me on a narrow road when he decided to pull alongside the front vehicle — in my lane, coming right for me, awfully fast. Hemmed in by a curb and oncoming metal mass, I swerved into the gutter, clobbered the curb and almost went down as he sped past, missing me by inches. I believe my response was biblical/scatological in nature. I realized he was lost, so he thought it prudent to ask directions of the driver of the other vehicle at speed after crossing the center line. Never mind the nice cyclist in his way.
Which brings us to Mr. Confrontational.
I usually let most infractions go, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with calling attention to the most egregious ones.
I have toned down my responses, ever since unleashing a double-barreled bird-flipping, punctuated by an expletive tapestry directed at the driver of a daycare van that nearly clipped me with its rearview mirror. I didn’t realize at the time it was full of cute little wide-eyed tykes.
But I’m not above asking, “I’m sorry, did you not see me?” Or, “Pardon me. Was I going too fast for you?” Or even, “I believe I might possibly have had right-of-way in this particularly instance.”
Mr. Confrontational would be so ashamed.
I tend to do some of my best thinking when I’m mowing the lawn, which, now that I think about it, means I’m exercising my mental midgetry only once every week or so in the growing season, and far less often ever since a long, hot summer made the Sahara look lush by comparison.
But something about the mindlessness of pushing a whirling dervish of a machine lends itself to deep thoughts, until I realize I’ve wandered off as far physically as mentally and my nice, straight mow rows veer and converge as if I took part in my post-mow beers pre-mow.
Anyway, I was mowing over the weekend when I was struck by a disconcerting thought —other than, “Geez, it’s 147 degrees with 214-percent humidity, and I’m mowing brown grass in the heat of the day.” The thought: I’ve barely been cycling with my dad this year.
I’ve spent a lot of saddle time with my parental unit. We participated in the Wheel to Weston charity ride for umpteen years, until organizers woefully moved it from its lovely, scenic route from Kansas City, Mo., to Weston, to … wait for it … Kansas Speedway. Yep, they traded the rolling, tobacco-covered hills for Kansas City, Kan., pavement, so Dad and I politely passed the past couple of years.
We’ve ridden the Kansas River levee trails — on the nice, smooth levee and the mountain-bike trails — and the rail-trail south of Ottawa. We’ve done Octoginta, and the defunct Headquarters ride. We’ve just ridden. We make sort of a cycling Odd Couple, with Dad kicking back on his recumbent and me on my fixie.
This year so far, the only ride we’ve done together was the Lenexa Midnight Bike Ride, and, nice as it was, I had to share Dad with the rest of my family, my brother and niece … and a few hundred other strange folks.
I sorta miss the one-on-one time, and I feel some urgency in riding with pops.
Neither of us is getting younger, though I’m not worried about Dad. I reckon he’ll ride to my funeral — pulling me, if I asked ahead of time, in a casket he carved by hand from a single chunk of wood from a tree he grew from seed, on a trailer he made from ore he dug out of the ground himself, then smelted (and I can recall as a youngster making myself scarce anytime Dad was smelting) and welded into a design of his own engineering.
No, I’m the only one of the two of us who seems to be getting older, and though I’m nearly three decades his junior, I have more gray hair. No fair.
Dad did invite me to partake in the Tour of Shawnee, which was Sunday, but I didn’t look into it soon enough, and I’ve regretted it since.
Oh, well. The weather’s turning, but there’s still plenty of time.
So, what do you say, Dad? Shall we ride?
As a year-round cyclist, I tend to view seasons a bit differently than most folks.
I still acknowledge the recognized four, but I like to break each into smaller sub-seasons.
Invariably, bugs somehow play a part. Early spring is the start of mosquito season. Early summer: lightning-bug season. Mid-summer: keep-your-mouth-closed-lest-you-get-a-gulp-of-unexpected-protein season.
With a pang of sadness, I realized the other night we had all but reached the end of cicada season.
I know they did a Job on that dude in the Bible, and, if I were a farmer facing a plague of ’em flash-mobbing my crop, I might not be so inclined to turn a blind, multi-faceted eye to their destruction, but I really can’t carry a grudge where cicadas are concerned.
I can’t help but feel a bit of nostalgia whenever the vocal beasties crawl out of whatever cocoon keeps them alive every year. I rather enjoy cycling along in the middle of the night with their din as background, and though I do not think they’ll sing to me, I like to imagine they’re lining the road, cheering me up some alpine climb. Their song reminds me of summers past, the carefree days of my youth. Or something.
They do, however, create their own, unique challenges for two-wheeled travelers.
Cicadas are — and I hope not to offend any that might be perusing the Intertubes — rather clumsy. I consider them the dogs of the insect world: bumbling, kinda lovable, mostly harmless. The only difference is, I’ve seen many a good-looking hound, but never a cicada I’d call attractive.
I’ve had several fly up the legs of my shorts, or down my shirt, and it’s quite an experience. Those buggers are LOUD, and it’s less than enjoyable to have one buzzing and rattling around in your drawers.
I also had one get caught in the vents in my helmet, as I cycled down a relatively busy Lawrence thoroughfare.
It’s not an experience I recommend.
That said, I rolled up to an intersection the other night and was drawn to a glimmer of iridescence on the pavement. There I saw a cicada that had been crushed by the wheels of a passing car, and it made me surprisingly sad.
If that’s not a fitting image for the end of summer, I don’t know what is.
I have a bad case of rabies on the brain.
Maybe I should rephrase that. A sentence like that is bound to get me quarantined. But for the past couple of weeks thoughts of the foam-at-the-mouth doggy disease have jumped into my head frequently, and almost always when I’m on my bike.
The other night, I was riding to work after dinner, through an area where I’ve seen lots (gaggles? flocks? vats?) of bats dancing in the sky, and I was surprised to see a mouse-with-wings flying parallel to me. It was beelining right down the middle of the sidewalk.
Now, I’m no expert, but most bats I’ve seen tend to … flit. I don’t recall ever seeing one fly a straight line like this one. And it was zipping along, matching my exact speed, about shoulder height.
I don’t know how well a bat’s echolocation (how do I remember these things?) works to the side, but I figured it was blind to my presence. One quick flit to the left, and bat and boy would meet.
Then it hit me. The thought, that is. Not the bat.
What if said beastie has rabies?
On the same street but the opposite side a few weeks earlier, I was grinding away up a long hill at a speed that best could be described as something between glacial and geological, and I spied a fox crossing the road. Why, I don’t know.
But he disappeared in a yard, and as I approached, I suddenly envisioned Mr. Fox darting out, giving my exposed ankle a nasty nip, then returning to hiding.
Again: What if Foxy had rabies?
And then just the other night, I was a couple of blocks closer to home when a massive coyote crossed my path and gave me a look over its shoulder before bolting away.
Wile E. was big enough — we’re talking timberwolf-massive here — he could have knocked me off the bike and swallowed me whole. Or he could have given me a little chomp and … yep, more rabies.
Then I remembered weeks ago reading a story about a guy who became entangled with a bat while taking out his trash (again, the guy, not the bat). Sure enough, bat was rabid, and the trashman earned a nice, solitary sabbatical and injection regimen.
I read that just before riding home one night, and it must have stuck in my subconscious.
Similarly, a few years back, I read a story about the Smiley Face Killer, a serial killer who allegedly was killing young men. Smiley faces were found near where the victims were thought to have disappeared, and there was some link to a beater white van in each case.
Not long after reading that, I rode home one night and — sure enough — found myself with a white van on my tail. It followed me, slowly, for a couple of blocks, pulled up alongside, then quickly accelerated away.
I thought the behavior odd enough that I made note of the license-plate number and actually put it on a slip of paper in a conspicuous spot at home.
That way, I figured if I disappeared, the cops would come around, see the license-plate number, track the bad guy and, though I’d be dead, at least I could bask in the glow of posthumous vindication.
Similarly, if I start foaming at the mouth, tell the cops to look for a bat that flies straight.