Deer Flies and Fire Ants

If you ride for any length of time, you’re bound to have an encounter with bees. But sometimes, inhabitants of the insect world can be other types — and cause even more discomfort than a bee sting.

While pedaling beside a stormwater runoff basin during the week, I felt a sharp stinging sensation in my right arm — as though a red-hot needle had just pricked the surface of my skin. I couldn’t react right away, because the path took a turn into some woods and I needed to concentrate on my line. But shortly after, I looked down at my arm and saw a deer fly just sitting there. It hadn’t moved, but also didn’t seem to have done any more damage than the initial prick. Good thing about deer flies: They’re not very quick. I stopped the bike and smacked it. It squashed like a rotten tomato.

The bite did no harm. I had no swelling, no inflammation. Maybe I got lucky. The luck didn’t last long.

Saturday evening, I was installing a new garden hose on the side of the house. A few spots on my lawn are starting to brown out, and it was time to wet them down before the once-a-week sprinkling I give the entire lawn (We have an in-ground sprinkler system, but we’re allowed to water by hand whenever we want). I was in my usual Texas summer attire: shorts and old boat shoes with holes in the soles. Nothing unusual.

Until something did feel unusual. Not quite the same sensation as the deer fly bite, but I felt tiny things crawling over my feet and ankles. In the gathering dusk, I had trouble seeing exactly what they were, but I knew. Fire ants. I must have stepped on a hidden ant hill and set them to swarming.

I dropped the hose and dashed into the house. My wife ordered me into the shower to wash down my feet, while she found some hydrocortisone cream. I smeared that all over my feet when I got out of the shower, and found some Benadryl — the strongest antihistamine we have in the house. For the last hour before going to bed, I applied cold compresses to my feet.

Not a pretty sight. Doesn't feel great, either.

Not a pretty sight. Doesn’t feel great, either.

I was doubtful whether I would make the Sunday club ride. That would be disappointing, because we already had some B riders lined up, and it would be nice to ride with other people instead of on my own.

The Benadryl did its job — I slept like the dead until my dogs woke me up around 5 a.m. The first thing I did was assess the damage. It looked pretty much as the picture shows. Some of the bites had already started to rise into small blisters. Those are the ones that dare you to scratch them. But if you do, all manner of bad stuff can happen. I set about getting ready for the ride.

When feet are enclosed in snug cycling shoes, the fire ant bites aren’t noticeable. We did a nice 45-mil ride to Kyle and back, and I was hardly bothered by the bites at all — except for one on the inside of my middle finger. That must have happened when I tried to flick off one of the ants. It just grabbed my finger instead. And it was right at the spot where my finger curls around the handlebar. I constantly had to adjust my grip on the ride, so as not to rub on the bite.

So, two good things out of this adventure: the deer fly bite had no consequences, and you can ride though a dozen or more fire ant bites without them bothering you.

I’ll be sure to let you know if I’m proved wrong on that score the next time I don’t take precautions when working in the yard.


Chip Seal

My wife and I took different routes on our Saturday bike rides, but arrived home within minutes of each other.

“They’ve chip sealed LaCrosse,” I said. “But you already knew that.”

She grimaced. “It was awful,” she said.

“Yeah,” I responded. “I had to use the sidewalk for a few hundred feet, until I got around the truck.”

“Well, my tires are wider than yours, so I could stick it out,” she said. “But it looks like I’ll have to take a different route for awhile.”

Uh oh. Bad news for bikers. Those little things sticking up in the road mark where the road will be striped, once the surface flattens out.

Uh oh. Bad news for bikers. Those little things sticking up in the road mark where the road will be striped, once the surface flattens out.

LaCrosse is an important road for bikers in our area. It’s a main artery through our subdivision, and is several miles long. In the direction we rode, it takes us to a T intersection, where we can choose our turn for different route variations. In the opposite direction, it goes to the Austin Veloway. It gets a lot of use.

The uneven chipped surface is less of a challenge for this mountain biker's wide tires.

The uneven chipped surface is less of a challenge for this mountain biker’s wide tires.

The disappointing thing is, I fail to see the need for resurfacing. The road is smooth. It has a nice marked bike lane. No potholes or gouges in the pavement for its entire length.

I checked part of the road again today, four days after the chip seal was laid down. It looks like they still have some more to do, because it’s not complete for the entire length of the road. But in the meantime, the traffic is having the desired effect. The chip seal has been tamped down, and at least where car wheels go, the road is almost smooth already.

The dreaded chip sealed surface. Loose gravel will cover the road for some time to come.

The dreaded chip sealed surface. Loose gravel will cover the road for some time to come.

But I can’t say the same for the bike lane area. Bikes just don’t have enough weight to flatten the chip seal. In spots, chips pile up in the bike lane, thrown out from under passing tires. It looks like cars will have a decent road to ride on again soon, but bikes will be shuddering over a rough lane for some time to come.

The same thing happened several years ago, when the city chip sealed Escarpment, which intersects LaCrosse. Escarpment has never returned to the same level of smoothness it had before it was treated. Other arterials in the area have had the same treatment since, and they’re not pleasant to ride on.

I can see the economic argument for chip seal. It must be less costly than putting down another layer of smooth asphalt. It’s just that in a part of town where cycling is a popular pastime, one would hope another way would be found to resurface the streets.

Cross-Country Biking in 1975

When you lust over the fancy biking clothes in the catalogs, remember that it wasn’t always this way. I came across a video on You Tube that gives a look at cross-country cycling in 1975. Back then, JC Penney hired 12 college students to bike from New York City to San Francisco. It was called “The Great America Bicycle Tour.” They made stops at shopping malls along the way to perform “safety skits” in front of JC Penney stores.

The bikes were equipped with disc brakes, and were sold at JC Penney, although were originally made by Huffy. The biking outfits — tennis clothes. (!)

An interesting 14-minute look at biking 39 years ago. Some of us well remember those tube socks with the striped tops.

Have You Ever Called Out Another Cyclist?

I made a run for carry-out food this evening, and while driving home, I saw something that teed me off. A cyclist was in the bike lane on the four-lane street I was in, but was riding against traffic.

There are bike lanes on each side of the street. The direction of travel is clearly marked by arrows. The lanes are in generally good condition — not too much grit or gravel — but they’re wide enough for only one bike. And this guy was traveling in the wrong direction.

The bike lane in question, seen in a Google Street View. The cyclist was traveling away from you -- against both bike lane and street traffic.

The bike lane in question, seen in a Google Street View. The cyclist was traveling away from you — against both bike lane and street traffic. An arrow pointing the direction of travel in the bike lane is clearly visible.

He was on a higher-end hybrid bike. Wasn’t in cycling clothes, but normal street clothes, wearing a baseball cap instead of a helmet. That’s fine — he’s perfectly capable of deciding what safety measures are appropriate for him. But in this case, he would have caused problems for any cyclist who rode in the right direction in the bike lane. Or, he would have caused a problem for himself, because if he met another cyclist, he would be the one who would have to leave the bike lane and ride in the traffic lane — against traffic.

And there I was, in my car, windows up, radio blaring. I really wanted to yell, “Wrong way, you idiot!” or something equally derisive. If I had been on my bike, I certainly would have. But this was a missed opportunity.

Now, I’m by nature not a confrontational guy. Rarely do I call out other people’s behavior, and when I do, you know I’ve really been upset. But I’ve ridden with others who aren’t as restrained as I am. They’ll let other riders have it over what I consider minor, forgive and forget, infractions or breaches of etiquette.

Which camp are you in? Do you yell at other bikers when they do something wrong, or stupid, or illegal? Today’s incident gets me wondering if I should become more assertive out there.


Passing Tricia

A group of older cyclists can be found most Friday mornings at Austin’s Veloway, the three-mile track reserved for bikes and inline skaters. They are mostly in their 60s and 70s, but some are quite fast. They sometimes pedal easily around the track, and sometimes put the hammer down.

Starting a Veloway lap. (Not Tricia or the old guys.) (Click to enlarge.)

Starting a Veloway lap. (Not Tricia or the old guys.) (Click to enlarge.)


While some of these riders use Strava, others take a different approach to gauging their rides. You see, an acquaintance of mine — Tricia — likes to ride the Veloway on Friday mornings, too. She’s not in their league. In fact, she rides a mountain bike or a hybrid — not a road bike. But for her, the Veloway is a safe, nearby alternative to dodging traffic on the roads in our neighborhood.


So, as Tricia pedals around the Veloway, she’s likely to be passed by these faster, older riders. Not once, but several times. How do they keep track of segments and KOMs without Strava? By how many times they pass Tricia.


Fun or No Fun

Once again, several of my biking friends from the club were sitting around after a ride comparing their Strava scores, KOMs, segment times, whatever those things show. I let it blow by me, because I have no interest. Time, distance, avg. speed are really the only figures I need.

One of our veteran riders, George, watched the conversation with bemusement, as well. George is well into his 60s, used to race motorcycles, and loves to pull away on steep hills. But on the ride that morning, I noticed he didn’t have a computer on his handlebars.

“I don’t use one,” he said. “Don’t need one.”

“I’m surprised to hear that, since you’re pretty fast,” I said. “You keep up with the A riders just fine.”

“You know how I record my rides?” he asked. “Fun or no fun.”

“Huh?” I said.

“Yeah. Am I having fun? That’s a good ride,” he said. “If I’m having no fun, that’s not such a good ride. Fun – no fun.”

I’m working from home today. When I finish, I’ll head out for a ride. It’s a nice, sunny day. Fun. But it’s quite windy. No fun. Hm. How will I judge it at the end of the ride?

Waiting for the Weekend

The polar vortex has moved on, and Central Texas is enjoying unseasonably mild weather today. I’ve been waiting for this day, because it’s my last one before spring semester begins. Actually, I’m still doing a lot of course prep work, but I’m doing it from home, so it feels like I’m taking the day off — even if I’m not.

It’s been too long since I’ve ridden the bike. I watched the forecast eagerly as our record low temperatures started to climb, and when the forecast high for the weekend was predicted to be 70 degrees (21C), I got almost giddy with anticipation.

But the light rain, drizzle, mist and fog we’ve had for the past few days is continuing. There’s standing water in the street near my house. The ride I’ve been waiting to take all week is being put off again. (Yes, I could go out and ride in the wet, but I don’t do that sort of thing, as readers of this blog are well aware. Besides, we have so much nice biking weather around here that I can easily wait out a dreary one.)

But this won’t be a bike-free day. It’s a great opportunity to do some major bike cleanup, chain lubing, and seat bag checking. I discovered to my chagrin last week that I had not put a good spare tube in my wife’s seat bag. She doesn’t get many flats, but it has happened. A trip to the bike store is in order, because I need to get her a new tire, anyway. (Update: They didn’t have what I was looking for, so I had to backorder it.)

So I’ll putz with the bikes as I think about the good riding to come, all the while hoping that by this afternoon, the gloom clears away and I can get back on the bike for a quick spin.

(Update: It did clear, and I got out for my first ride in seven days. Cut short when I remembered we had an appointment for my beagle at the vet. She’s 12 years old, looks great, but has developed a heart murmur.)

Bicycle Touring, Anyone?

With the deep freeze settling over the country, conditions are not suited for bike riding. Even here in Central Texas, we’ve been waking up to temps down around 19 degrees (-7C), and for awhile it was very windy. Biking was the farthest thing from my mind, as I shrugged on an extra layer of clothing, just to stay warm indoors.

So to pass the time, I sat with my iPad and surfed around some cycling sites. One of my favorites to while away the hours is Crazy Guy on a Bike. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a site for touring cyclists to post accounts of their rides. The site has been online since about 2000, and has amassed an amazing amount of touring cyclist journals, as well as articles, reviews, forums and comments.

Some of the journals recount trips I have trouble even imagining — like going around the world by bike, or just biking through exotic locales on the other side of the globe. Others are more mundane — S24O trips to nearby woods (S24O stands for sub-24-hour overnight. Bike somewhere a few hours away, camp for the night, go home the next day). Of course, I wanted to see what people were doing in Texas, and there are plenty of stories of Southern Tier trips across the U.S. that pass through the Lone Star state, as well as others who go from south to north, or who just spend a few days touring a section of the state.

Stopping for the night at a state park campground.

Stopping for the night at a state park campground. (Click pictures to enlarge.)

The same is true of all states. I grew up in Illinois, lived for a long time in Minnesota, and worked for awhile in Wisconsin. All kinds of adventures take place in those areas. I especially enjoyed reading the journal of a fellow who rode around Lake Superior, then back through Wisconsin to Minnesota — a pedaling duplicate of a car trip I took with my son when he was 11 years old. The cyclist took pretty much the same route, and stayed in several of the same places we did. Now, my appetite is whetted to hit the road myself.

Gazing at bluffs along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin.

Gazing at bluffs along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin.

One thing is holding me back. I don’t have a touring bike. It’s true, you can go cross-country on most anything, but a bike built for the purpose will give the best results. The usual suspects are well-represented in these stories: Surly Long Haul Truckers, Trek 520s, Windsor Tourists — but you’ll also find a lot of hybrid bikes and recumbents. Many of them pull small trailers.

A Surly Long Haul Trucker, fully loaded for a tour.

A Surly Long Haul Trucker, fully loaded for a tour.

I won’t be buying a touring bike any time soon. And frankly, I’ve done my share of camping, and I’m not a fan. But there’s a nice alternative that I might take up without a special bike and a heavy load. It’s called “credit card touring.”

Just hop on your bike, ride to a destination, and instead of camping, stay in a motel. Eat at restaurants, instead of cooking freeze-dried glop over a balky camp stove. The price mounts up fast, but that’s why we create budgets, right?

I don’t know if it will happen. We’re doing a big vacation this summer to celebrate a major anniversary, so all of our discretionary income is spoken for. But toward fall, when things are back to normal, I just might hit the back roads around here, and see sights off the beaten track for a few days.


Cedar Fever

Bike Noob is back from a Christmas hiatus. What, you didn’t notice? That’s okay — readership of this blog always drops way off during the winter months, when people who live in a four seasons climate tend to think less of cycling and more about keeping their walkways clear of snow.

Meanwhile, here in Central Texas we’re not in a biking mood, either. Cedar fever season has hit. The so-called Mountain Cedars (They’re really part of the juniper family) pollenate from mid-December until early March, and they hit their highest levels starting about now. The north wind blows pollen off the trees in clouds, and pollen counts run as much as 40 times higher than what is considered a high level.

Mountain cedar trees with the Austin skyline in the background.

Mountain cedar trees with the Austin skyline in the background.

My wife was the first to sense it. She started sniffling on Christmas Day, then came down with a low-grade headache. My symptoms hit the day after. Our beagle is miserable, spending every waking minute scratching, and sometimes even whimpering in agony. The vet says to give her Benadryl. Doesn’t help.

I was getting antsy after not riding for nine days (first too cold, then family in for Christmas), and I figured things couldn’t get any worse if I rode the bike than if I just stayed indoors, hacking and snorting. I was right. A 15-mile ride through the neighborhood got me reinvigorated, and the only side effect was that I spit more than usual (sorry for the unpleasant image). At least it cleared the sinuses — for about as long as I was on the bike.

Back home, I popped a Zyrtec, as did my wife. Zyrtec helps just a bit. But you’re not supposed to drink any booze with Zyrtec. I think a better course of action for me will be to stop the pill and dip into that bottle of Glenlivet I got for Christmas. It won’t ease the allergy symptoms, but I won’t care.