Reporting On Cycling

I might have mentioned a time or two before that I am a journalism professor. As such, I see a lot of academic research in that area. In one fairly new venture, the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University sends synopses on research being done on current news topics, with ideas for incorporating that research into news stories.

This morning, I got the latest batch of synopses, and one caught my eye right off the bat. It’s titled, “Ten key issues for covering bicycling and bike infrastructure in your community.” The Center’s newsletter editor suggests that taking a look at these ten issues and related studies can “facilitate deeper coverage of cycling in your town.” Some of these will be old news to seasoned cyclists, but others offer the germ of an idea that just might trigger some more in-depths looks at the role of cycling in a community.

Here are their ten issues:

1. Cycling trends. The Center links to two studies of cyclists, one from big cities, one from smaller towns. “Both include data on trends in the age, gender, incomes and race of cyclists,” the item says. “This background information, much of which comes from Census Data, can help indicate how your state and city are doing relative to others.”

2. Helmets and safety. (Oh oh.- Bike Noob.) The Center cites studies on the effect of helmet laws on children’s cycling injuries, and the health impact of mandatory helmet laws. It also notes that helmet use is less prevalent in Europe than in the U.S.

3. Balancing health benefits and risks of cycling. A British study examined the use of a bike share program in Barcelona, Spain, and found that deaths rose when people used the bike share, but because of increased physical activity, 12 times that many deaths were avoided each year. With any physical activity comes risk, the Center notes.

4. Automotive air pollution and cyclists. A 2011 environmental study found that cyclists who share the road with motorized vehicles have decreased heart rate variability for three hours after being exposed to car exhausts. That is associated with a higher risk of heart attacks.

5. Bike-specific infrastructure and laws. One study looks at cycle tracks, and how they reduce the chance of injury, while another finds that even in a city with a bicycle-friendly attitude, bike infrastructure can be “patchy.”

6. Conflicts between cyclists and cars. One study used helmet cameras to track commuter cyclists, and found that in 90 percent of collisions, it was the motorist at fault. Another found that the three-foot passing law in Baltimore is routinely ignored.

7. Car-free events. You’ve heard of “ciclovias” — when city streets are closed to cars for a day? One study looked at the health benefits of four different ciclovia programs. It found the more often such events are held, the greater the health benefits.

8. Immigrants and cycling. One study showed that immigrants are 41 times more likely to use bikes than to drive cars, while another found that as the number of cycling immigrants goes up, so does the rate of car-bike collisions.

9. Commuting by bike. One study did an overview of the literature on bicycle commuting. It found that the distance of the commute was a factor, but so was bike infrastructure and the availability of such amenities as showers at work.

10. Commuting by car, transit and other modes. Two studies look at the health costs of commuting by car, compared to other means. The numbers are startlingly high: $180 billion/year for traffic crashes, and $50-$80 billion from traffic congestion. Any ideas for a healthier, cleaner and cheaper mode of transportation? (Oh, you mean bikes?)

Most, if not all, of these issues have been touched upon either here or in other popular cycling blogs. Maybe it’s time to revive some of these discussions. I’d be happy to tackle them, using the studies suggested by the Shorenstein Center. What’s your take? Are these ideas worth investigating, or have they been done to death? I’m interested in your reaction.

A Climber’s First Organized Ride

My friend Aaron West, who dazzles us with his exploits climbing tough hills and even mountains on his blog, favors us with a guest post. He wasn’t always a mountain goat, and here,  Aaron recounts what it was like when he joined his first-ever organized ride.

We all start somewhere. My first organized ‘cookie’ ride was ambitious, unflattering and sometimes embarrassing. In reality, I had no idea what I was getting into.

I signed up after hearing about it from the cycling club at work. It was late in the year when I joined, and there were not many events remaining. Rather than wait through the winter, I threw my hat into an autumn mountain ride. The ride was the Tour de Leaves out of Tryon, NC, just across the border from Spartanburg, SC.

Green River Cove, part of the Tour de Leaves route.

Green River Cove, part of the Tour de Leaves route.

I signed up for the shortest route — the ‘Lite’ version. This was 31 miles, and did not go over the toughest climbs. I can handle this, right?

After arriving early, I watched with awe as car after car pulled in. Athletic beasts emerged with their expensive bikes. Many riders were from out of town. I marveled that these weekend warriors probably went from town to town just to ride their bikes.

After fumbling around with my steed, an inexpensive yet robust Specialized Allez, I scooted to the starting line. I was wearing bike shorts, an Under Armor T-shirt, and a brand new pair of arm warmers. No jersey meant no pockets, so my car keys and cell phone went in a big, brown fanny pack. That pack stayed with me for months until enough chiding convinced me to throw it away. I was caught off guard by all the bright colored polyester. It was like being surrounded by a cult or aliens. Who were these people anyway?

The ‘Lite’ riders left together, and this was an easy going group. I rode most of the early going with a trio. We spoke a little, not much. If they snickered at my outfit, I didn’t hear. The course was hilly, but I was able to keep up with these folks.

The organizers had said to follow the fishes to know the route. What in the world? I thought they would be elevated signs at intersections. I kept looking ahead and found no fishes anywhere. If I ended up riding ahead of the group, I had to stop at intersections, bewildered as to where to go. When I was behind them, they turned without hesitation. How in the world did they know where to go?

Eventually, as I expected, I got tired. The hills added up, and I simply wasn’t used to this type of riding. The other riders sped past me. At that point I was worried I would get lost in the North Carolina country. I remember stopping at an intersection, fumbling through the cue sheet to figure out where I was. An older gentleman, who I later learned was over 70, sped on past pointing in the correct direction. How did he know?

I would finally wise up to the fish mystery at the very end of the ride, when I saw three fishes spray painted on the road pointing to the finish line. At first I wondered why someone would draw such a thing on the roads. I considered reporting the vandalism to the police, until finally making the connection. Doh!

At one point we reached a higher elevation. I have no idea how high it was, probably not more than a few hundred feet from the start, but it was enough to see a view of the colorful countryside. Despite being exhausted, at that very moment is when I became hooked. It was baffling that I had climbed to such heights under my own power, and was rewarded with a breathtaking view.

Towards the end of the ride, we went down a steep descent. Now that was awesome! After the road leveled out, there was a marking that said “Steep Grade, Use Lower Gear!”. The road turned up, straight up, and it killed me! Not only did I not have the fitness, I didn’t have the gearing either. I would later learn that this short hill is a 17-18% grade at its steepest. It was too much for my rookie legs. Maybe a quarter way up, I got off my Allez and started walking. That was humiliating, especially as I got passed by other riders who climbed without issue. I looked back and saw my senior citizen friend a few hundred feet back, also walking. At least I wasn’t completely alone.

I learned a few things from watching those other riders climb such a beast of a hill. Gearing was important. It would have been tough to attack that hill even with stronger legs. I also noticed that they got into a comfortable rhythm, and slowly spun their way up the hill. They did not exert themselves too much, just found their pace and stuck to it. When I got back on the bike, I had no choice than to ride hard, which would tire me out and force me to walk again.

I will never forget the Tour de Leaves. It was a great experience, however painful. It motivated me to challenge myself, and learn better how to become a climber. Over time, I worked at improving my cycling fitness. Other hills would fall, and then mountains.

The rest is history.

A long way from the TYour de Leaves.

Aaron West — A long way from the Tour de Leaves.

Road Kill

I’m looking forward to our B ride this Sunday. I’ll be going back to Dripping Springs, one of my favorite places to ride, and a place I haven’t ridden in months — since early fall. We’ll be going up and down some mild hills, riding on lightly-traveled country roads, and we’ll probably see some wildlife.

With luck, that wildlife will be alive. Last Sunday, we got out in the country south of Austin, and we passed not one, but three dead skunks on the roadside. That’s a lot, even for around here.

Of course, we’ve seen all sorts of road kill in the past. Armadillos are common in Texas, and then there was the carcass of a deer, picked nearly clean by the turkey vultures that are as common here as robins in the Midwest.

I’ll spare you the experience of looking at pictures of these remnants of car-animal encounters — even if I take along a camera, that’s not the kind of thing I’m big on photographing.

And it occurs to me that this winter has been a light one for road kill. Before last weekend, I don’t think I’d seen anything for at least a month or so.

Are the roads in your area coated with road kill?

Quality Time on the Bike

Guest poster Don Blount has been working on improving his biking.

BlountOnBiking Time on the bike.

Ask any serious cyclist how to improve and that will likely be the essence of the answer you will receive.

It makes sense, as to improve at anything you have to spend time doing it.

However, I would qualify that statement by saying that to improve as a cyclist you have to spend quality time on the bike.

I worked hard at that last year in my attempt to become a better overall rider and to become a better climber

Now I doubt I will ever be a climber others will look up to, neither my body type nor skill set is made for climbing. (That is a topic for another post.) However, given those limiters, I want to become as proficient as possible.

Although it is early in the year and I only have a bit over 500 miles through mid-February, I am in better shape now than I have been at this point during the past five years I have been riding.

I would attribute that to riding more purposefully both this year and last.

I am not regimentally structured but I make sure to work in a variety of rides – fartlek (random change of pace), intervals, long rides, tempo rides, hills and recovery rides. I even scheduled a late February metric century, something that I would have never considered in the past. But I realize that organized rides are good landmarks and motivators for me as I am less likely to lag through my training when I have a ride scheduled.

In retrospect, I do not think I was solely riding junk miles but I was not working in a manner to help myself improve. And when I saw that if I hurt more during my solo rides that I would hurt less on group rides or in the hills, then follow through became easy.

Does this mean that a rider should go out and beat him or herself up at every opportunity? Of course not. It means look at your goals and then set up your training so that you can reach them. Whether you want to be able to ride 30-flat miles (48 kilometers) in two hours or do100 miles (160 kilometers) with lots of climbing.

As you get stronger, you will enjoy hearing  someone say to you: “Wow, you are sure riding strong today.”


A Bike Noob Milestone

No, I didn’t set a King of the Mountain on Strava. Nor did I do a personal best for mileage in one day. What I did do was survive.

Today is the Fifth Anniversary of the Bike Noob blog.

When  I started the blog, I never thought it would last this long. Instead, I figured I’d lose interest and fold the whole thing within the first year. But, like a bad penny, I keep turning up.

It’s been a labor of love. I look forward every week to Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings, which is when I write the entries. Sometimes, I sit down at the keyboard with nothing to say. I force myself to crank something out, and often, that post generates more page views and comments than others that I thought had more substance. That’s something I haven’t done well here — really understand my audience.

But I know we all share an interest in riding our bikes, so I hope we can keep up this back-and-forth for another full year. Thanks to you all.

And thanks to my guest bloggers, Jeff Hemmel and Don Blount. Each brings a distinctive point of view to their contributions, and Bike Noob is made richer for their work.

To celebrate this anniversary, I’ve decided to perk things up a bit, so I’ve added a new look to this blog. Hope you like it. I’m not a flashy guy, and it’s not a flashy look, but it’s clean and minimalist, and that fits my personality.

And now, after a 38-mile ride in some tough wind, and an emotionally draining season finale to “Downton Abbey,” it’s time to get to bed, so I can do some more riding and writing later this week.

Bikes On Stamps

Last weekend, I was poking around in some closets to find a missing something or other, when I came upon my stamp collection. It’s something I’ve been keeping on and off since my school boy days, but I haven’t looked at it for more than 10 years. Seeing those stamps in the album, and all the stamps lying loose in envelopes, re-triggered my interest. I’ve been slowly organizing my loose ones with an eye to getting them into the album again.

Doing that reminded me that stamp collecting is not necessarily just putting as many stamps as possible from as many countries as possible into the album. Many collectors — maybe most collectors — specialize in one way or another. Topical stamps are a popular target for collectors. Topicals, as their name implies, are stamps with pictures of a common topic, such as animals, or lighthouses…or bicycles.

It turns out a lot of stamp aficionados collect bicycles on stamps. It also turns out that a lot of countries have issued stamps featuring bikes. A few cursory visits to some well-known stamp sites turned up an interesting array of bike stamps.

Kids' bike, touring bike, racing bike, BMX.

Kids’ bike, touring bike, racing bike, BMX.

The United States issued a set of bike stamps just last year. According to the U.S. Postal Service’s blurb that accompanied release of the set,  “increasing numbers of Americans ride bikes to work or use them to run neighborhood errands. Many travel organizations offer cycling tours, from leisurely half-day jaunts to weeks-long excursions. No matter how long the ride, choosing to bike rather than to drive cuts down on traffic congestion, fuel consumption and vehicle emissions, which benefits the environment and helps improve air quality.”

The British 1978 cycling set.

The British 1978 cycling set.

The U.K. has issued its own biking sets. This one from 1978 covers much the same ground as the U.S. issue, with stamps saluting old-style bikes like the penny farthing and 1884 safety bicycle, touring bikes, modern small-wheel bikes, and racing bikes.

China too, promoted cycling on a stamp issued last year. They give a nod to both racing and everyday utility cycling.


And even countries not normally associated with cycling have issued their own cycling-themed stamps. This 1982 version from Mongolia is part of a set of stamps.


But it’s to be expected that countries with rich cycling histories would feature their favorite two-wheeled pastime on stamps. Here’s a set from Belgium with surcharges.


Bike-crazy Italy has issued stamps that honor top road racing cyclists. This Fausto Coppi stamp is from 1999.

coppi stamp

For a deeper look at bikes on stamps, Dan Gindling’s “Bicycle stamps: Bikes and Cycling on the World’s Postage Stamps,” was published in 1997, and is available on Amazon.


But for me, my favorite bike stamp is one I already have in my collection. It’s a Special Delivery stamp from 1902, that was re-issued through World War I — a blue stamp with a bike messenger.


My Northern friends still have some time to go before the weather moderates enough for regular riding. Why not stay in touch with our sport in the meantime, by collecting bicycling stamps.

The Drooping Leg Warmer Syndrome

Not Maggie -- not me -- but you get the idea.

Not Maggie — not me — but you get the idea.

A couple of weekends ago, we were out on our Sunday morning club ride. Maggie, new to the club, was with the B group as we headed southeast to Creedmoor — about 17 miles away from our starting point.

I noticed while riding behind her that the leg warmers she wore were giving her some problems. They drooped. They left a noticeable gap between her riding shorts and the top of the leg warmers.

She did the best she could to yank them into place, which is a pretty neat trick while still riding. But when we got to our turnaround, she tugged harder at them to rearrange them on her thighs.

“I’ve never used leg warmers before,” she said. “I’ve always had tights.”

“Listen,” I said, “That’s happened to me, too.”

“Yeah, but this is only the second time I’ve worn them,” she replied.

Yes, I also have had the drooping leg warmer syndrome. Surprised the heck out of me on a cold January morning. But since then, they haven’t bothered me much. I don’t know if it’s because I take more care to pull them into place when I’m getting dressed — or if my thighs are getting fat enough to hold them in place.

Whatever, it’s worth putting some effort into, because you gotta admit — droopy leg warmers do not an attractive sight make.

With any luck, we’ll have an early spring this year, and I won’t have to worry about them anymore.

Riding When I Want To

Not a great riding weekend. I look forward to the weekends, because lately I have not been able to squeeze in a ride during the week. Late Friday afternoon, then, is something I wait for all week long.

I got out for a 20-miler Friday, and anticipated a longer ride Saturday. But Saturday morning dawned overcast and misty. The roads were wet. I decided to wait until conditions got better.

They never did. In fact, they got worse. It never really rained, but the mist got heavier. I decided to forget about riding, and wait for Sunday.

The Sunday forecast called for rain in the morning, but according to the weather radar, that had passed through the area about an hour before I woke up. Again, the streets gleamed with light reflected from standing water. I decided I wouldn’t be doing the club ride at 8.

It amused me to see how panicked some of my fellow club members got over the weather. The 8 a.m. ride was delayed until 9:30. The Yahoo board lit up with posts from people debating whether to go on the planned ride (about 55 miles into a very hilly suburb to the west) or do something flatter and potentially safer. Then some folks decided to go at 10 instead of 9:30. I leaned back in my easy chair to drink some coffee and read the paper.

I guess everyone got out all right. I rode with my wife at about 2:30 p.m., when the temperature had risen to 67 degrees (19C) and the roads had dried off. Ever notice that 67 in February is much cooler than 67 in June? It’s true. I was underdressed on our ride, and downright chilly pedaling into a light wind from the north. When my wife turned into our neighborhood, instead of peeling off to put in some more miles, I went with her.

So my mileage for the month is way down, what with one-and-a-half rides this weekend. You know what? I don’t care. We enjoy good biking weather here year around, and if this weekend wasn’t so great, I know great ones are just around the corner. From here on out, I’ll take advantage of that, and ride when I feel like riding. That means I’ll skip some days because they’re too cold for me (on that day, anyway), and other times, I’ll be first to show up for a ride in even colder weather. I’ve decided to skip riding during rain, and even in wet conditions after the rain. Call me a wuss, if you like. I enjoy my bike too much to ever feel like I’m forced to ride.

Don’t Turn In Front of Me

It was one of those things that, thankfully, happens only once in a while. On the return leg of our Sunday ride, I was in the bike lane of a four-lane divided suburban arterial, probably moving at 18 mph, gaining speed. A road on the right made a T-intersection with my road. Oncoming traffic on my road could use a left turn lane to make a left. I saw a red pickup truck enter the turn lane.

No problem, I figured. He’ll just wait for me to go by him, then he’d turn.

Yeah, right.

After coming to a complete stop, the pickup truck driver looked as though he was weighing the pros and cons of turning in front of me. Don’t do it, I thought to myself. He did it.

By this time, I had covered enough ground that I was almost to the intersection. I pulled on the brake levers and slowed, just enough to let him turn in front of me.

I’m sure most of us have a had a similar experience while driving our cars. Sometimes, someone will make a left turn across your path, and you have to brake to avoid hitting them. It’s enough to make you grumble, or worse. So why doesn’t that situation apply when you’re making a left turn and it’s a bike in the oncoming lane, not a car?

Maybe some drivers just don’t have a handle on how fast bikes are moving. It’s a bike — I’ve got time to make the turn. Or maybe they figure that the result of a car-bike collision would be a lot less dire than a car-car collision. Specious reasoning, that.

Hey, if you’ve got to think about whether it’s safe to make that turn, you probably shouldn’t make that turn.

I’ve had plenty of drivers turn left across my path. I really don’t mind it, as long as I don’t have to brake. But if I do have to brake to keep from hitting the turning car, the driver of the car has made a bad move.

Unfortunately, this is one of those situations for which I see no solution. Just stay alert, and be ready to react if a driver does something dumb. (Which they do often enough that you should always be alert.)

Sometimes, Everything is Good

Have you ever had a ride where everything — I mean everything — fell into place perfectly? Sunday’s ride was that kind of ride for me.

After going many weeks with no other B riders out for the Sunday club ride, I posted on our club’s Yahoo board that I wanted to get a B ride going. Two others responded: Buddy, who has often ridden with us before, but hasn’t been on the bike regularly lately; and Maggie, who did her first ride with the club last weekend. She found herself with the A’s, and told me she wasn’t sure about coming back this week. But she was ready to try a B-level ride and see how it went.

Maggie arrived at the Starbucks where we start our rides to find that she had forgotten her cycling shoes. “I’m just five minutes away,” she pleaded. “I’ll be right back.”

But 8:15 came and went, and the main ride started to head out. “Are you coming, Ray?” asked one of the riders.

“We’re waiting for Maggie to get back,” I said. “I don’t want her to get here and find there’s no one left.”

“You’re going to go to heaven, Ray,” laughed Laura, who pedaled off after the group.

Maggie arrived within a few more minutes, and the three of us set off for Creedmoor, about 17 miles away.

Weather conditions were great. Temperature about 45 degrees (7C), sunny, and no wind. We chatted while riding along Davis Lane, and I learned that Maggie had done a lot of the routes we do, and was familiar with the one we were taking today. Sometimes she passed me and took the lead for awhile, other times, she dropped back to talk to Buddy, who was deliberately pacing himself after not riding with the club since September.

Our route passes an exotic game ranch near a large landfill. Usually, the animals are far back from the road, but today a mother emu was right up to the fence, with a gaggle of emu chicks. Maggie, who had already pointed out a large hawk perched on a nearby power pole, clucked with joy when she saw the chicks. A few hundred yards farther, several African antelope gathered near the fence. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten as good a look at the animals as today.

I noticed that I was getting stronger, if anything, on this ride. I accelerated from stoplights faster than usual, and I had more reserves of power going up the mild rollers out in the country. I didn’t know why — maybe it was the oatmeal I had for breakfast instead of my usual eggs, or maybe it was the intervals I had done the previous day. I had trouble believing that one interval session would make much difference, but whatever the cause, I was glad for it.

We stopped for a short rest at the convenience store in Creedmoor, then set out on our return leg. Buddy, who has issues with cramping, continued to pace himself, but managed to stay close to us. He said later he had a few twinges near the end of the ride, but nothing he couldn’t handle. We climbed the last major hill about three miles from the finish, and settled in for an easy ride the rest of the way.

Nothing out of the ordinary. No great feats of riding heroism. No Strava KOMs. Just a ride that was just the right distance, the right amount of time in the saddle, the right pace. We all agreed we were up for more like this. We’ll see what the coming weeks bring.