Car back!

One of the first things I learned on my first group ride was to call “Car back!” if a car approached the group from behind.

The warning served two purposes: to let everybody know a car was around, and to tell everybody to get into single file to let the car pass.

So why is it that more and more, I hear “Car back!” or call it myself, and the group blithely continues along, blocking the car from passing?

If you’re riding in the right lane of a multi-lane road, the call is unnecessary. Cars can pass in the other lane.  But if you’re riding on a two-lane road, it’s a different story.

Make way for the car. It’s bigger than you. In a tangle, it will always win.

And I can think of no quicker way to antagonize drivers than not moving out of the way.

One of the more amusing cases I witnessed was on a club ride, when a big pickup was held up by our group — a couple of riders were riding side-by-side, chatting. The pickup pulled into the oncoming lane to roar past, but the passenger rolled down her window and started shouting the Bicycle section of the Texas Transportation code – the part about riding single file.

Problem was, another big SUV was coming at the pickup, and had to dive for the soft shoulder of the road when the pickup couldn’t get back into its own lane fast enough. Amusing, but dangerous. And even though the pickup was too impatient in that incident, you know those folks are not going to be kind to cyclists when they come across them in the future — even if in single file.

What I’ve noticed is that most of the time, bikers are engaged in a conversation when the “car back” warning comes. It must be a really important conversation to not break it off, get into line, and then resume it when the car passes.

Lots of bikers seem to have an “us versus them” mentality when it comes to cars. Bikes are greener than cars. They take up less space on the road. To heck with them.

I don’t buy it.

Under state laws, bikes are vehicles. We have certain rights when it comes to using the road. We also have certain responsibilities.

The next time you’re with a group and someone calls, “Car back!” do what you’re supposed to do. Cut off the chatter and get into a single line. It won’t hold you up at all, and it will do its small part to ease relations between us and motorists.

Picture from the fine Commute Orlando blog. Lots of good safety information there, although set in a more urban environment than I talk about here.

How Well Do You Communicate?

Lately, I’ve been doing most of my riding alone. I haven’t planned it that way, it just happened because of a combination of my schedule and the weather. It’s been too chilly in the mornings to hit the club ride (tell that to the hardy souls who do show up!), and my work keeps me from getting in an evening ride. So I get out when I can.

But the days are getting longer, and I expect the group rides will resume soon. That reminds me to brush up on my communication skills. Over the weekend, riding with my wife, I made sure to point out road debris, broken glass and the like.

Signaling road debris.

In a group, it’s even more important to relay those signals. Trailing riders might not be able to see around bikes in front of them, and wouldn’t be aware of any upcoming hazards.

A couple of months ago, I was out riding with a friend. We were going single file on a narrow two-lane road. I was in the lead. I must have zoned out, because suddenly a jagged-edged pothole appeared right in front of me.

“Yipes!” I yelled, and yanked the handlebar over to miss it.

It caught my riding friend completely by surprise. “Whoa!” he yelled. He missed it too, but it was a near thing. I felt that I had been negligent by not pointing at the pothole as I skirted it. It was my responsibility, and I blew it.

Signals from the lead rider can help other riders get past the problem area more smoothly, too. All you have to do when someone in front points at a hazard is move your bike in the opposite direction. If there’s broken glass in the gutter, cyclists can get a little farther left to miss it.

While you’re passing along hand signals, verbal warnings are just as important. Riders at the back of the group should certainly call, “Car back!” when a car is approaching from behind, and in enough time to allow riders ahead to pull into single file and let the car pass.

But for me, verbal warnings can be problematic. Sometimes, the wind carries sounds away from you, or noise within the group makes it hard to understand. On my very first club ride more than two years ago, we were at an uncontrolled intersection, waiting for traffic to pass.  I heard what sounded like, “Clear right!” so I pulled out into the intersection. A car hit its brakes while I crossed in front of him. The rider who had shouted the warning quickly caught up to me. “I said ‘Car right!'” he told me. “In this group, there’s no such warning as ‘clear right.'”

In fact, when I reach an intersection now, “clear” is one warning I do not give. I prefer to determine for myself whether the road is clear enough for me to cross, and I hope other cyclists in the group feel the same way. I know they don’t — “clear!” is one of the more common verbal warnings on any group ride.

As a lot of us get ready to take part in large organized rides as part of our charity ride training, it’ll be interesting to see just how many novice cyclists are familiar with hand and verbal signals to communicate with the riders around them.

The Rear-view Mirror Question

I was riding laps around the Veloway a few days ago, when I closed on another cyclist. I was about to call, “On your left,” when he glanced up, and moved over on his own. As I drew even with him, I saw that he had a rear-view mirror mounted on his helmet. He obviously saw me coming, and knew when he would have to make way for me.

My friend Gilbert with a helmet mirror.

I’ve never used a mirror. On a typical group ride, I see only a few. Most appear to be helmet mirrors, but occasionally I see a mirror attached to a bar end.

I wonder — would a mirror make a difference?

I always try to be aware of my surroundings when I ride, and I scan behind me frequently. There’s no doubt in my mind that a mirror would make the scanning a little easier, since I wouldn’t have to worry about keeping the bike on a straight line while looking back. But it’s the looking back that I think keeps me aware and on my guard.

Besides, a helmet mirror looks a bit dorky, doesn’t it?

Bar-end mirror.

The bar end mirrors are less so.

Like most of us, I also drive a lot. I have a rear-view mirror and two side-view mirrors on my car. I use them constantly. I suppose I should consider doing the same when I ride my bike.

I guess the real question I’ve been considering lately is — are mirrors a biking necessity? Should we all be using them?  And if so, what arguments are there in favor of one type over another?

I’d like to hear about your experiences.

The Chamois Cream Showdown

Guest poster Jeff Hemmel compares two major brands of butt lube.

I’m 40 miles into one of my usual rides and there’s a battle raging in my pants.

The combatants? Two chamois creams, each holding onto their own piece of territory. In this corner, weighing in at $19.99 for an 8 oz. jar is Paceline’s Chamois Butt’r, a pretty common cream found in many bike shops. In the opposite corner, weighing in at a daunting $24 for a 4 oz. tube, is dznuts (pronounced DEEZ-nuts), a premier high-end brand.

Which will take the title in the, uh, end? I’ll let you know as soon as my nether regions finish sorting it out.

Go ahead and laugh, but this is serious testing, from a bona fide professional journalist. Before my ride I had carefully measured out equal amounts of both creams (or just grabbed a two-fingered scoop), applied the creams to specific boundaries of my anatomy (or as specific as you can get when you’re messing with an area you can’t really see), and then got on the bike and rode a precisely measured course (I just go up to this sign, which is about 22.5 miles from home…and turn around).

Why? To find out once and for all if one glob of goo can actually be worth more than twice the price of the other. And yes, let’s face it, just to have the opportunity to say something about Dave Zabriskie’s nuts in print.

One difference between the two products is immediately obvious. Dznuts is a thicker viscosity cream with an almost whipped appearance, where Chamois Butt’r is somewhat lighter, with a shiny, almost watery look to the surface. Apply them and both provide a cooling sensation. On the road they maintained that feeling of coolness, but with subtle differences. Chamois Butter’s sensation was slightly more pronounced, dznuts a little less in your face. (No jokes about the butt-face jump in logic here.) Other than that, however, both seemed to do the job. Late in the ride I did feel like dznuts thickness helped it to stay on slightly better, where the less-thick Chamois Butt’r may have been losing a little of the battle to sweat. The cool sensation of the Chamois Butt’r, however, seemed to last slightly longer than the dznuts, perhaps distracting me a little more from how long I had spent in the saddle. At the end of the day both washed away, from me and my chamois, with soap and water.

The Euro Version of Chamois Butt’r contains menthol, witch hazel, and Brazilian peppertree, but contains mineral oil and a few other ingredients that give a natural ingredients proponent pause. Dznuts relies on tea-tree oil as an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, Evodia, a Chinese herb, for wound-healing and anti-inflammatory purposes, and Masterwort for its wound-healing and calming properties. It claims a more organic approach, trying to stay as natural as possible.

Why avoid certain products? It’s up for debate. Mineral oil is petroleum-based, however, and has been blamed for doing everything from promoting acne to messing with cell development. It’s also, however, the basis of many baby oils. You’ll just have to make your own call on this issue.

So back to the original question — is one worth twice the price? Probably not. Both get the job done. A lot of dznuts premium probably goes into its fancier, high-end packaging. I do like that it’s a more natural product, however, and I prefer its texture and consistency.

I said I’d let my nether regions sort things out, and truth be told, my butt has apparently been telling my brain to go for the dznuts, as it’s the cream that’s been seeing the most use since the initial showdown. Once it runs out, however, the butt and the brain will likely have to factor something else into the equation — the wallet — before the next purchase.

Bike Noob Enters the Terrible Twos

The Terrible Twos

It’s hard to believe, but the Bike Noob blog is two years old today. This calls for a celebration. What do you think of the new look?

Not only a new look, but a new address as well. From now on, we’re simply Bikenoob.com. If you’ve bookmarked bikenoob.wordpress.com, that’s fine — you’ll be redirected. But why not enter the new address, and bookmark the site again?

The Bike Noob name has always drawn comment from friends and readers. Usually, it’s something like, “Hey, you’re not a noob anymore. Time to change the name of the blog.”

Believe me, I’ve considered that.

But I’m not going to change.

Bike Noob is my brand. It gets a lot of recognition from bikers locally and from people in some of the oddest places who run across it. I could change the name, but haven’t come up with anything that has the impact of Bike Noob.

However, over the two years I’ve been writing here, the focus of the blog has been evolving.

It started as a personal journal of a new road biker’s introduction to the sport. It chronicled early long training rides, joining a bike club, falling with clipless pedals — in short, the kinds of things other new bikers might be interested in reading about.

But as I’ve gained experience on the bike, I’ve been branching out and writing on other topics, even including some bike advocacy every now and then, more posts about riding safely, and in general, focusing on how to make road biking more enjoyable.

Besides, as the subhead says — I’m always learning something new. It’s not just me — many of us are noobs. This blog has a lot of loyal readers who are experienced cyclists, but come here for a variety of reasons — information, story-telling style, humor, whatever. I’m grateful that you have latched onto the blog and are staying with it.

For me, Bike Noob is an enjoyable hobby. When I started this, I never imagined it would last two years. But I keep going because every once in awhile, a blog post captures the imagination of readers, and triggers a flurry of commenting and emails. What a kick!

I’m also extremely gratified that two professional journalists have joined the Bike Noob fold as guest posters. Both Jeff Hemmel and Don Blount add different voices to the blog, and the information and stories they share have been an important contribution to the blog’s success.

How do I measure success? My page views are up over a year ago, from about 700 per week to 1,700 per week. Readers are sticking around a little longer, and reading more than one post during a visit. I seem to have regular readers in all 50 United States, and in many countries. Among these is a cadre of loyal readers who check in regularly and add their viewpoints in the comments. In turn, I pay attention to a whole raft of other bike blogs, by reading their RSS feeds.

My learning curve on the bike has been smoothed out by the wonderful feedback I get from readers. Many of you have urged me to keep delivering information that newer bikers can use, and I’m pleased that more experienced bikers seem to enjoy adding their knowledge to the conversation via the comments.

So, there you go. I admit it: I’m not a noob anymore. But as long as I keep learning new things about my favorite pastime, I think the Bike Noob moniker is appropriate.

What the Hey, I Added a Pump

Guest poster Don Blount makes what, for him, is a major concession.

I finally settled my personal pump vs CO2 debate.

When I first began riding, I went weeks without carrying anything – a pump, CO2, patches or tire levers. I was just lucky, because I didn’t have a flat during this period. I was dumb too. Now, I wouldn’t go anywhere without the basic tire changing implements.

Shortly after I had those tools, I flatted on a hot summer day. It took me more than 20 minutes to change that flat and get the bike rolling again. On that hot summer day, it seemed like forever.

I have had more than my share of flats since and have become proficient at changing them although I’m not as fast as this guy. It takes me about 10 minutes total time to get the flat changed and the bike rolling again. And note that the guy in the video changes the flat in no time but doesn’t look for the cause of the flat.

CO2 is one of the things that I use when changing flats. I like the speed and also the convenience in part because my many of weekday rides come before work when a flat not only cuts my ride short but also shortens my preparation time to get ready for work or another appointment. The faster I change the tire the more likely I am to get to my next stop on time.

Mishaps are of course nerve wracking.

Last October while my wife was out of town I was returning home from a ride. My plan was get a quick shower and change and pick up my then three-year-old daughter at her preschool. I was on schedule, but about a mile from home I flatted.

Hurricane HPV Dual Mini (this is the old pump)

I changed the tube, took out a CO2 cartridge, pushed the nozzle and pssssst, it was a dud. I had two more cartridges. I kept getting a bubble in the tube and bam! overinflated the tube causing it to pop. I had one more tube and one more cartridge. No pump. I had stopped carrying a pump thinking that the CO2 would replace it. Quite frankly I never liked the pump, the few times I had used it, it didn’t work well, in addition to being bulky I wasn’t able to get much air in the tire.

I was already thinking of how long it would take me to push my bike to my daughter’s school in full riding gear.

I got the second tube inflated, mushy but rideable and picked my daughter up on time.

Common sense should’ve told me to look for another pump. Instead I worked on becoming more proficient at using CO2.

For that matter I didn’t think much about adding a pump until a few months ago when I came across that photo of George Hincapie’s training bike and saw that he was carrying a pump.

If one of the world’s top racers had one on his bike, why wouldn’t a recreational roadie? I’m not racing, I’m not hammering and a few extra grams of weight isn’t going to cost me anything.

Blackburn Airstik 2Stage (this is the new pump)

I decided that I should carry a pump, but it had to be the right one – small, affordable and effective. I ended up buying a Blackburn AirStik 2Stage, the one Hincapie was carrying. It is small enough to fit in a jersey pocket, although I mounted it on my bike. And it can get a tire up to riding pressure in about 200 pumps, that was about 90-100 psi. (I tested it.) And the $22 cost, including shipping, was within my budget.

I still carry CO2 and intend to use it as my primary method of inflating flats, especially when I’m short on time. However, having a pump on board provides me with a backup if there is a problem or as an alternative inflation method for those times when I have time.

SPECS Hurricane Blackburn
Length 267 mm 170 mm
MAX. PSI 100 160
Weight 185 g 84g

Don advises that the Maximum PSI figure for the Blackburn may be a little misleading. It can pump 160 psi “only if you’re Hercules,” he says.

Those Good Rides (Follow-up post)

There was less response to the post about the “big” rides you plan for the coming year than I would have liked, but I’m guessing that’s because most of my readers in North America and Europe are still in the depths of winter and perhaps haven’t given it much thought.

However, there were enough interesting answers that they deserve some notice.

Nolan Kuehn mentioned what I hope will become a favorite of mine: The LBJ 100 in Stonewall, Texas. I say I hope it will become one, because I haven’t ridden it yet. Last year, I was all set to head out there for the ride, when I woke up sick, and I had to skip the ride. It’s at the ranch of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, about 60 miles west of Austin in the Texas Hill Country. The ride starts and ends on the air strip behind the Johnson house, what was the “Western White House” while he was president. Coming at the end of March, the weather can be unpredictable. Last year, the temperature was was 37°F (3°C) at the start, with a brutal wind.

Cliff echoed my choice of the Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred in Wichita Falls, Texas, but it’s not an unmet goal of his — he’s done it 19 times! He still regrets his only DNF in the ride, when he crashed out.

Besides RAGBRAI, another cross-state ride that got a nod is the three-day long Trek Across Maine. Dana McEwan (“Maine Velophile“) is gung-ho for the three-day ride in June that covers 170 miles.

An anonymous reader suggested this doozie: the 2010 Assault on Mt. Mitchell, a 102-miler from Spartanburg,SC to the top of Mt. Mitchell in NC (highest point in the Appalachians), involving over 11,000 feet of cumulative climbing. He says he’s been trying to finish it for the last three years and feels confident that 2010 is going to be his year.

Across the pond, Steven King has an enticing idea: Cycle Cairngorms, a two-day trip around Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park. It covers 170 miles, 50 in one and a deadly 120 on the second! There’s an option to do only the first day, but Steven says, “I survived the first day last year and am gearing up for both this time round.”

Keeping with the Celtic flavor, another anonymous reader voted for the Race Around Ireland. Seven days, circle the entire island counterclockwise. It’s a qualifier for the Race Across America. If you’re interested, you’ve got until September to train for it.

Darryl, who writes the “Loving the Bike” blog, is not so definite about his big ride plans, but he has dreams. He wants to ride across the United States, and also in Italy and France. Dreams are good. This whole idea about what big rides you have in mind started with a dream, and I’m going to keep on dreaming about roads to ride.