Saturday, August 09, 2014

Miracle of a Proper Bike Fit

What's the best $100 I ever spent? The $100 I paid to have a professional bike fitting. No other investment has made such a positive impact on my ability to ride, without aches, for hours on end. A year and 1000+ miles later I can confirm the benefits.

Life Magazine

Here's what led me to get a fitting in the first place: I'd been riding the same Kona Dew Deluxe hybrid for 5 years. On paper, the bike was the right size, a 56cm frame for my 5' 10" build, and a seating position that allowed me to sit upright enough to easily see the flow of NYC traffic, but not so upright that the bike was sluggish.

Yet I'd always had difficulty maintaining speed as I rode, and I couldn't crank with gusto for long. On rides greater than 10 miles I'd become generally uncomfortable, to the point where I figured I’d grown old or was perpetually out of shape.  My dream had been to ride the New York Century.  I doubted, however, that I'd make 30 miles, let alone 100.  And, strangest of all, I’d run through half a dozen saddles but could never find a seat that fit. The lower edges of my butt would tighten during a ride. The discomfort would persist well after I'd dismounted. 

On a trip to a local bike shop, Bicycle Habitat in Park Slope, Brooklyn, I discussed my saddle woes and riding discontent.  The idea of a fitting was floated and, although I was skeptical, I agreed to make an appointment and the aforementioned $100 commitment. If I didn’t at least try to get the bike to work for me, I’d likely end up selling it.

Two weeks later I met with Emily, a Bicycle Habitat manager, at the shop for the fitting.  By that time I’d reached the end of my patience with the bike, and walked in with a “do with my bike what you will” attitude, which is an unusual state of mind given that I'm normally finicky about bike setup.  Letting someone else mess with my bike required a leap of faith. Or of last ditch desperation.

Emily began by removing the Deluxe’s handlebar stem and bolting on an infinitely adjustable fitting stem in its place.  As she did this, I sat to the side on a cushioned pad that measured the width of my hind quarters.  The result of that test was that my tail was normal, and not somehow predisposed to cycling pain.

Emily removed the front wheel, mounted the bike into a trainer and had me start pedaling. Over the next half hour we worked through a variety of combinations of seat positioning and handlebar height and reach. She pulled out a string with a weight tied to the end and used it to check the alignment of knee over pedal at the front of the pedal stroke, thereby setting my fore/aft placement. 

The big surprise: I’d been sitting too far back on the bike, a position that not only sapped power but also put my knees at risk. My knees, by the way, had previously gone under the knife for patellar cartilage wear, the result of long-ago years of BMX racing on bikes with ridiculously long cranks.  On BMX bikes I’d always gotten way over the back of the bike to kick ass.  As it turned out, that strategy doesn’t translate to full sized adult bikes, where the knee-to-pedal relationship is to be respected.  

1983 GT Pro, prior to cleanup
Emily ultimately switched out the stock Kona seatpost, which had a rearward offset, for a totally straight post. She installed a 100mm long stem to replace the original 90mm component.  Essentially, she shifted my whole body maybe 2/3 inch forward on the bike.  I was now properly oriented over the pedals, and rode slightly more bent forward than before.

Cosmetically the changes were unnoticeable. But I felt as though I were riding a completely different bike with a more athletic character. The Kona now felt much more like a road bike, with sharper handling and immediate power to the back wheel.  Whereas two laps had been the most I'd cared to ride around Brooklyn's 3.5 mile Prospect Park loop before the fitting, soon after the fitting I'd worked up to four laps without any pain in my legs or back.  Even better, I got an immediate ~1 mile per hour speed boost without added effort, and my creaky knees felt great.  And I crushed hills. 

Post transformation: Early morning somewhere in the Berkshires, August 2013
Why does the morning dew turn the Dew's black forks gray?

In September I entered my first New York Century.  I signed up for the 35 mile route, a little worried that I’d be able to make the distance. On the day of the ride I decided to go for it and took the 55 mile option. A missed turn and I found myself on the 75 mile circuit.  I finished the ride with no pain or discomfort. The next morning I got out of bed as if nothing had happened.

Adding to this new found riding joy, I turned my once bummer bike into a fabulous ride with a $100 cash outlay, plus another $50 in new stem and seatpost, so much cheaper than a new bike.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

It’s Cold Outside. Crazy to Ride?

I ride alone in the dark across the Manhattan Bridge at 7:03 AM on Monday morning, the last day of 2012. 

From the frigid, commanding height it seems as though I’m flying in a small plane above the East River rather than pedaling my bike. The city ahead lies in shadows, save for lights from the apartment windows of a few early risers on a day when much of the city won’t be going to work. Below, car lights glide northbound and south along the FDR Drive.

I imagine a driver in one of those cars, huddled in a warm parka, pleading with the heater to heat up, his hands clutching a warm Thermos of coffee. He leans forward to wipe frost from the windshield, which falls in tiny snowflakes upon the dash. As the driver looks through the windscreen he happens to see me, a tiny point on two wheels way up high, moving slowly across the bridge.

“Is that guy freakin’ nuts?” the driver exclaims. “It’s freezing out, and that guy’s out riding his freakin’ bike!”

“Fair question,” I’d reply.

Actually, It’s the question that I’ve been quietly asking myself during the 20 minutes since I left home, during which I’ve seen exactly zero other cyclists (in this city of 8 to 12 million residents). 

So, in an attempt to reassure myself that I am sane, I try to take rational stock of my situation. It’s really cold out, but I’m not cold at all. Maybe, then, this is a dream.

Oh, wait. I AM cold at the fringes. My nose is chilly and my cheeks feel a little stiff when I smile. My fingertips, particularly those of my pinky and ring fingers, are cold but not desperately so. 

I feel cold at the extremities; Therefore I am (really here).

I’ve also had a good ride so far. Little traffic, no noxious clouds of truck exhaust to endure as I rode through downtown Brooklyn. I’ve even had a tailwind and, despite the fact that my body is only now waking up, I’ve been jammin’ a quick pace and enjoying a rare symbiotic groove with my bicycle, carving turns and gliding over the city’s rough and potholed streets like a mountain goat glides over boulders.

And, yes, I got up early. But the fact is one of the kids would have gotten me up soon anyway if I hadn’t escaped from the apartment, so no real opportunity cost there.

Now, back in the present, on the bridge, a Q train clatters by. Inside fellow commuters sit in somnolent trances under way-too-bright-for-this-early-in-the-morning fluorescent bulbs. Many mornings I’m one of them.

But this morning I’m in my Cessna above the city, breathing rare fresh air and catching the sunrise that the driver below is too preoccupied to notice, that the catatonic subway riders likely don’t see, and for sure won’t see once their train disappears into the city’s bowel. My legs are feeling good and no, I’m not cold.

Not crazy.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Right Bike for NYC (and Dreaming of My Next Set of Wheels)

New York is a truly vast city.  The distance from Coney Island, at the southeastern tip of Brooklyn, to the northernmost point of Manhattan at Inwood is more than 25 miles. In between there are 8 million residents and literally thousands of congested roads in all states of repair.

For bicyclists, New York at its best is a welcoming place to ride and, at its worst, life endangering. The city welcomes riders more fully every year as new bike lanes are established, many of which are fully separated from motor traffic and even have their own bicycle traffic lights.  As a result, and due to the pro-cycling advocacy of non-profits such as Transportation Alternatives, the number of New Yorkers who commute by bicycle to and from work has, per my observation, risen dramatically over the decade I’ve lived here.  Where I was once one of a few lonely cycling pioneers on the city’s roads, today I often find myself caught in heavy bicycle traffic during rush hour, frequently becoming part of an ad hoc bicycle convoy as I ride southward on 2nd Avenue toward the Manhattan Bridge and my apartment in Brooklyn.

Commutes in New York can be long, the traffic can be frightening and fierce, and the potholes jarring. For bicyclists, all of this means that the choice of bicycle is very important to making a commute manageable and enjoyable (yes, even in NYC it can be fun to ride a bike – there’s no better way to quickly and intimately take in the city’s diverse neighborhoods, sights and smells than on two wheels).

My ride to work is 8.5 miles each way, or about 45 minutes in the saddle once traffic lights, congestion and detours are factored in. A classic road bike would be best under most circumstances for such a long ride, but not in New York. Here I need to have my environment in clear and easy view, and only an upright bicycle such as a mountain bike or hybrid allows for that.  I ride a 6 year old Kona Dew Deluxe, which has a relaxed road geometry and flat handle bar along with skinny road tires, 24 speeds and disc brakes.  The bike is the best compromise I’ve found for longer urban distances. The road geometry and skinny tires keep weight down, making it easy to maintain speed and keep up with traffic. The short wheelbase allows the bike to turn quickly while the disc brakes help me to stop very quickly and securely when an emergency looms. The brakes are a particular wonder, they have amazing power and are extremely durable. I’m still on my first pair of brake shoes even though I use the brakes heavily, and often.

The tradeoff for quickness and speed is a jarring ride. The skinny tires roll smoothly on the best pavement, but their high pressure tubes transmit jolts from every expansion joint, crack and undulation in the pavement. On certain days, when I’m tired or maybe haven’t spent much time on the bike of late and am a bit out of shape, I feel abused by the bike’s ride harshness. When I’m in my groove, strong and agile, the jolts that are transmitted through handlebar, seat and pedals feel, more positively, like just one more way that New York city is reaching up to challenge me to be faster, tougher and more resilient. On those days I get a rush out of dodging in and out of traffic, and appreciate the easy speed I can maintain while riding along the city’s smoother protected bike lanes. These are the times when I know that I’d never want to navigate the city by mountain bike. Too much work for too little velocity. The classic road racing bike would be too dangerous, I wouldn’t be able to easily look up and around to see what’s coming, at what I have to avoid, and I’d miss many of the sights that make riding through the city such a unique and exciting experience.

Lately, I’ve been contemplating buying a second bike for longer rides. The Kona is great for daily jaunts of up to 10 or 12 miles. But if the ride gets longer, the hybrid setup starts to become more of a burden than an enabler.  It isn’t a bike that I’d be comfortable taking on the New York Century bike ride every September. After 25 miles, the shortest ride available that day, I’d have had enough.

Yesterday I happened by a local bike shop and stopped in for a look around. On the wall there was a Specialized Allez road racing bike, bottom-of-the-line model, for a price that I could conceivably afford. The shop hand said he’d make me a deal (no better time to buy a bike in New York than winter). I’m weighing the purchase. On one hand, with the new bike I’d be able to go for longer rides around Prospect Park and really get a chance to get my legs in shape.  I also imagine taking the bike up to Westchester, or out to Pennsylvania from time to time for a true long distance country ride. Hey, I have a significant birthday coming up, why not live it up.

On the other hand, rational logic tells me that I’m the father of two young boys. When would I have time for said long rides?  I live cramped in a single floor apartment where the entry hall is already clogged by two strollers, a tricycle, multiple mops, buckets, boxes of toys and, yes, the Kona.  Where would I put a second bike?  How would I get that past my wife?  And, hey, shouldn’t I be putting aside my money for a mortgage down payment..... Ahh, oy, aargh.

One thing I do know.  When the slush outside dries up, I’m going to stop by that bike shop for a test ride.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Remember that...Oh yeah! Bike Commuting!

This is my first post in well over a year, and it follows my first couple of bike commutes this spring, and my first bike commute at all in many, many months.  
The winter wasn’t particularly long, but I was occupied with a new child (our second) which largely kept me off my bike. Mornings that I got up early (and there were oh so many during these past months!) and conceivably could have ridden to work…well, I was just too tired.  
But spring has come to New York, bringing along sunlight and a boost of energy that I hadn’t felt much all winter.  The kids are sleeping…better (fingers crossed!), and I’ve realized that getting on the bike in the morning to ride to work may be the ONLY chance I’ll get to ride over the next few years, at least until Juniors are able to ride along. 
I’ve recalled all the good stuff about biking to work. Getting to the office fully awake, alert, with a nice burn in the legs (I’m a little of out of shape), and with the ability to sit calmly in front of my office computer, with heightened concentration.  All that just from getting some energy out.  Beats feeling like a slug...Nice to be back on two wheels.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Keep Riding in the Coldest Weather? No Sweat!

Winter Wardrobe: High visibility wind proof jacket, wind-proof glasses, helmet cover, thin and thick versions of skullcap, gloves.

Winter has descended upon Gotham with an early cold snap.  It's been icy here for the last week - temperatures have been stuck in the 30s - and it's only December.  As a result, many an otherwise rugged New York bike commuter is likely packing his/her bike off to Manhattan Mini Storage, resigned to a long winter of subway confinement and dreaded darkness, culminating in a bad case of sloth and the blahs.

Wait!  Don't give up so fast!  Surviving winter cold and keeping on the bike is easy.  Honest.  Imagine riding a bike throughout the winter, enjoying the same fine neighborhood views, the exhilaration of two-wheeled freedom and overall sense of well being that you get while riding in warmer months.

It can be done as long as you defend yourself from the bitter elements, namely wind, which more than cold itself is the main offender in winter riding.  Dress accordingly and you'll find that you're actually warmer while riding the bike than while walking.  That's because you're doing a lot of work while riding and generating heat that keeps you warm inside your clothing.

(In the ultimate test of this theory, I once rode in 3 degree weather to the local swimming pool for an early morning dip.  I was plenty warm.  And, on many occasions I've commuted from Manhattan to my current Brooklyn home via the Brooklyn Bridge, where the big "Watchtower" thermometer showed temperatures in the mid-20s).

Here's a guide to the clothing you'll need to keep warm in the coldest weather, from head to toe.

HEAD: Helmets suck at keeping a head warm since they're designed to provide airflow on a hot summer ride.  My jaw drops when I see otherwise well-bundled cyclists riding on a winter day with their heads fully exposed under a Bell.  And we all learned in junior-high science class that some 80% of body heat is lost through the head (debunked here, but hey), so cover it up.

On moderately cold days a thin skullcap worn under the helmet serves to keep the wind at bay and all the thermal energy generated by intense thought in.  I use a $20 Pearl Izumi cap, which is good down to the mid-40s.  When it gets colder, I cover up with this thicker polyester cap, which is very warm.

Fleece skullcap fits under helmet

You'll have to adjust your helmet a little to comfortably fit over the thicker skullcap.  If it's freakin' cold a helmet cover will totally eliminate airflow to the head.  If you can leave fashion sense aside choose a bright, optic yellow cover.  It'll give drivers another clue that you're in the neighborhood, increasing visibility and safety which, next to the cold, are the biggest concerns during dark winter commutes home.

Cold weather helmet covers

EYES: On very cold rides my eyes start tearing up and I can't see a thing.  To solve the problem, get a pair of skiing glasses (rather than goggles, which don't work with a helmet) with foam eye cups to keep the wind out.  My Panoptics/7 Eye Diablo glasses have groovy rose-colored prescription lenses that make even New York look peaceful.  The rose lenses aren't dark so they're great for riding on gloomy days.

Glasses with foam eye cups keep wind out
EXTREMITIES: NOSE, FINGERS, TOES: In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll admit that I haven't found the perfect solution to keeping these body parts reliably toasty on brutally cold days, although cyclists are ultimately dealing with the same limitations that skiers have worked around for millenia.

Here are some strategies.  When it gets into the 30s I put a thin coat of Vaseline on my nose and sometimes on my cheeks as well.  Nothing too thick and slimy, but enough to keep the wind off of my skin.  By the time I arrive at my destination the Vaseline has been absorbed leaving my Rudolph-red nose super soft.  If it gets really cold I use a balaclava (without Vaseline).  It can make it a bit tougher to breathe, though I have ridden up the Brooklyn Bridge without too much trouble with a balaclava on.

BODY: Keeping one's body warm is pretty straightforward.  If the temperature drops below freezing I find that a T-shirt, covered by a thermal cotton long sleeve shirt and a then a sweatshirt, and topped by any wind breaking shell does the job.  Another commuter recently told me that she actually puts the windproof shell under a soft outer shirt to keep from overheating.

Wind protected

I used to wear an old rain jacket for the top layer, but a couple of years ago invested in a bright, optic yellow Descente cycling jacket.  It's thin but blocks the wind, and it increases the chance I'll be seen by drivers, who don't expect to see cyclists out after dark on a frigid evening.

On the bottom half, I wear summer cycling shorts covered by old Reebok long nylon sweat pants.  They 100% block the wind (I wore them the first time I went skiing) and that's all that matters.  My legs simply don't get cold.  I also own a pair of fancy winter cycling tights, which are really warm, but find that they're tight over my kneecaps, which were ravaged by years of BMX racing on bikes with cranks that were too long (I've had multiple operations to fix chondromalacia, or wearing out of the padding behind the kneecap - the tights put pressure on them and make 'em ache).   I used to own a pair of Bellwether tights that had accordion knees that relieved the pressure.  They were great, but I haven't been able to find a similar pair since.

GLOVE and SOCKS: When it gets colder I slip on a pair of winter cycling gloves that I found at PerformanceBike for $10 on sale.  They work well to about the high 30s, below that my fingertips can get pretty chilly on a longer ride (i.e. the 45 minute or so commute home from the City).  Miraculously, some days my fingers do fine. I don't know why.  My toes are generally good until the freezing point.

Big-buck ski gloves would probably work better when cold, though it might get tough working the brakes and gears.  If someone has wisdom on fingers and toes please share (there are high end winter cycling gloves such as these, though I haven't tried them).

To be honest, sometimes it's just too damned cold to ride. Or, at least too cold to ride for very long. Everyone has their own threshold.  And, of course, deep snow makes it hard to travel safely or far.  But most of the stuff you need to ride in the winter is likely already in your closet.  The frigid streets of Gotham await.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rally to save New York bike lane draws huge crowd

This morning Prospect Park Neighbors ran a super rally in support of the Prospect Park Bike West bike lane in Brooklyn.  Three hundred people RSVP'd for the event, but many more cyclists and pedestrians turned out to blanket the farmer's market grounds on Grand Army Plaza and chant "We love our safe street!" 

PP Neighbors elicited the help of Transportation Alternatives to organize the rally, which coincided with a small protest against the lane by a group of local residents.  The resident group has been emboldened by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz's opposition to the lane, which was built in June, on the grounds that it makes PPW more dangerous for pedestrians.  Yet initial data compiled separately by Park Slope Neighbors and the Department of Transportation contradict that assertion.  Ultimately, opponents want to see the bike lane erased and the street returned to 100% motor vehicle traffic, and some appear to be distorting the safety issue to further their cause.

As I've written in earlier posts, the PPW bike lane is an essential improvement in bike safety.  Prior to the lane's construction there was no way for cyclists to safely travel from Grand Army Plaza to 15th Street, particularly during rush hours when the prime thoroughfares in the area, PPW, 7th and 8th Avenues turn into virtual NHRA drag strips with drivers speeding to work.  Riding those streets in the morning was suicidal.

The bike lane now provides a safe and dare I say enjoyable way to commute on two wheels.  Extreme speeding, once a regular phenomenon, has noticeably fallen since the road was narrowed to two lanes.

And, per my own informal observation, this morning's safe-cycling turnout dwarfed that of the opponents.  Following 30 minutes of enthusiastic rallying on the plaza cyclists rode calmly along the bike lane, passing the nay-sayers and local news camera crews.

On my way to the event, however, I was yelled at by one opponent of the lane as I rode across a pedestrian crossing - said lady let me know at full voice, while she was apparently being interviewed by a newsman, that I should stop at the crossing.  But the flashing light at the crossing is yellow, not red, and the lady was not crossing but standing fast in the parking median, eyes to the camera.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Urban Bike Commuter Tools Part 2 - Bags

The last post of New York Bike Commuter overviewed racks, an essential tool for commuters who want to haul important stuff like a clean change of clothes, a lock, books, etc with little effort.  Bike racks don't reach their hauling potential, however, without a bag draped over them.  This post gives a quick overview of bags that work best for commuting and running errands.

Bags come in three general categories relevant to urban riders: serious commuting bags for people who've got to bring a nice change of clothes to work, cheapo bags that will wrinkle your stuff but are light and easy to use day-to-day, and big grocery bags.  All hook onto a rear rack.  There are also some detachable baskets on the market, and a milk crate strapped to your rack is a great way to carry a basketball...but I digress.

Serious Commuting Bags: Pricey commuting bags earn their keep by getting fancy clothes to the workplace in fine shape.  Top end models have compartments that keep a suit smoothly folded and are waterproof in everything short of a Brooklyn tornado.  With this sort of bag the excuse "riding a bike means I'll look crappy at work" no longer applies.

6th Ave Brooklyn after last week's tornado
Jaand, Ortlieb and 2WG, among others, make panniers that run from about $100 up.  Many of these bags have compartments for books, a carrying handle and look reasonably briefcase-esque.  Thus, no one will suspect your green inclinations when walking into the office at the oil company.  Usually one bag is enough to carry work stuff: the bags are generally sold individually.  But these bags aren't much for general cargo duty - they tend to be tall and narrow so bulky stuff won't fit (top-of-rack bags are another good option for carrying clothes).

Ortlieb Downtown commuter bike bag

Cheapo Bags: If you don't mind wrinkled clothes, want to use your panniers for multiple purposes (which means keeping them hooked to the rack all the time) or simply don't want to spend much money, there are a zillion inexpensive (under $50) bags on the market.  Check the local bike shop, should have many of these, or online.

I use a $25 (on sale), two-sided Nashbar Daytrekker pannier that allows me to stuff a heavy chain lock and shoes in one side and put work clothes in the other.  The bag also works great for quick trips to the supermarket, a picnic and was even enough, tightly stuffed, for a weekend ride up the Hudson River (sleeping at a B&B).
Nashbar Daytrekker bag

Cheapo bags are likely to rip apart after 2-3 year but that's why they're cheap.  If they get stolen, no biggie.

Grocery Bags: These are big, square, wide open bags that allow serious grocery hauling (see top blog pic).  A pair will easily swallow a gallon of milk, cereal boxes and a six pack with room to spare.  Good grocery panniers should have rugged mounting hardware to ensure they won't fall off the rack, spilling Brooklyn IPA all over the road.  Seams should be rugged and the bag should have a flat plastic bottom to hold things level.

For many years I used a pair of bags from L.L. Bean.  They withstood a lot of abuse (they got sliced up but never ripped apart) although the mounting system could have been a bit more trustworthy.  REI sells Novara's 'Round Town grocery pannier, which looks like a more fashionable version of my old Bean bag.

Finally, a safety warning:  Really heavy loads can affect bike handling, making it harder to turn, or making it easy to fall over when at a stop, particularly if one side of the bike is much more loaded than the other.   Pack evenly (note that clothes bags are often used on one side of the bike only but, since clothes generally don't weigh much, the effect on handling is negligible). Also, use caution when moving from a stop - heavy loads are particularly treacherous at slow speeds: the faster you go, the less you notice the weight, until you have to make a quick turn.

Also, I've completely avoided front fork mounted racks and bags, which weigh down your front wheel and make it harrowing to swerve on a milisecond's notice, an important skill on the streets of NYC.