Cycling Has Made Me a Better Driver

The ride Sunday morning had been an uneventful one. Four of us set off for Creedmoor, southeast of Austin. We found that one of the country roads we take to get there had been partially graded to prepare for resurfacing, and was not in good shape for cycling. If we go that way again, we’ll have to figure out an alternate route. One of the highlights along the way is an exotic game ranch, featuring lots of African deer and antelope, zebras, ostriches and emus, and other critters.

The animals take off when I stop and get out my camera. But the guy on the left shows off his long horns. (Click to enlarge.)

The animals take off when I stop and get out my camera. But the guy on the left shows off his long horns. (Click to enlarge.)

It’s only about 17 miles to Creedmoor, but for some reason, every group I ride with tends to stop there for a long time. We take turns going in to buy fig newtons, top off our water jugs or buy Gatorade, and use the facilities. Finally, I asked everyone if we planned to go home at all today.

Not sure why we spend so much time here -- it's a rather nondescript convenience store stop.

Not sure why we spend so much time here — it’s a rather nondescript convenience store stop.

We take a different road back than out. Thaxton Road takes us past lots of single-wide and double-wide manufactured homes, but also some anomalies.

A fancy ornamental fence in front of a house in the country.

A fancy ornamental fence in front of a house in the country. Picture from Google Earth Street View.

A cute, well-cared for cottage on a stock pond. Picture from Google earth Street View.

A cute, well-cared for cottage on a stock pond. Picture from Google earth Street View.

On the way home, one of the group peeled off to head for his house. The remaining three were spread out, with me bringing up the rear. With just two miles to go, my ride nearly ended. A driver poked his nose from a side street on the right into the bike lane, looking to make a left turn. But for some unfathomable reason, he only looked to his right. I was traveling at about 20 mph, and it looked like he would pull out right into my path. I moved out of the bike lane and into the traffic lane, so his chances of seeing me were better. At the last moment, he looked my way, saw me, and slammed on his brakes.

I passed in front of him, and gave him an appreciative wave, wondering at the same time if he’d ever received any drivers’ ed. I was reminded of a woman on my block who was supervising her grandson while he rode his bike through the neighborhood.

“Left, right, left!” she called as he went by. Meaning, of course, that he should first look to his left, then to his right, and make a final check to the left  before riding through an intersection.

The car driver I encountered could have used a refresher like that.

Then, just a quarter-mile beyond, a pickup truck drew even with me as I came upon another intersection. I knew this wasn’t going to be good. His turn signal was flashing, and he was going to turn right. I don’t trust pickup trucks. I hit my brakes, and eased into the traffic lane behind him. Sure enough, he braked hard and turned right. If I had stayed in the bike lane, it would have been a classic right hook.

Two cases, two times I anticipated what the drivers would do, and saved myself from a potential disaster.

I’m not sure that would have been the case five or six years ago. But since I started riding a bike, I’ve become a better driver.

When I’m on the road, I’m a lot more aware of what’s going on around me than I used to be. I used to be proud that I checked my rear view mirror every 15 seconds; now I do it even more often. And it’s not just the rear view mirror. I’m constantly scanning around me, even the oncoming traffic on the other side of the road divider. You never know when some clown is going to lose control and cross the median into your path.

In Texas, I think there’s something genetic that keeps drivers from signaling their turns. I’ve gotten pretty good at reading minds, and anticipating what drivers around me are going to do. Most often, they pull around to pass me on the right — even if I’m going down the Interstate at 80 mph.

My heightened awareness behind the wheel doesn’t mean I’m a little old octogenarian tootling along well below the speed limit. A good driver won’t hold up traffic, but also won’t dart in and out of lanes, just to wind up only two car lengths ahead by the time we reach our destination 15 minutes down the road. Instead, I’m part of the traffic, trying to be as predictable as possible.

I’m the same way on my bike — predictable. Drivers might not pay the closest attention to me, but once I’m in their sights, they should have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to do. But I never really worried about being predictable in the car until after I’d ridden the bike for awhile. When you ride with heightened awareness, that rubs off onto your driving, too.

Top Gear – and Bicycles

I have a confession to make. I love the British TV show, “Top Gear.”

Yeah, it’s all about cars. Mostly, cars that most of us can only dream about: super fast, super sexy sports cars that can go over 200 mph, or powerful SUVs that gobble up tough off-road terrain like it was smooth asphalt. Fuel economy? Traffic congestion? Road safety? Those things don’t exist for the “Top Gear” crew.

The "Top Gear" crew: Richard Hammond, James May, and Jeremy Clarkson. From Phil Guest, Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Top_Gear_team_Richard_Hammond,_James_May_and_Jeremy_Clarkson_31_October_2008.jpg

The “Top Gear” crew: Richard Hammond, James May, and Jeremy Clarkson. From Phil Guest, Wikimedia Commons.

So I was pleasantly surprised Monday evening while watching the newest episode of the show, to see that it was going to do something on bikes. Specifically, bike safety. The hook for the episode was that hosts Jeremy Clarkson and James May would make a public service announcement about bike safety.

As you can imagine, it didn’t turn out well for cyclists:

A panel of reviewers that included prominent cyclist Chris Boardman, rejected that one. So, Clarkson and May decided to get a first-hand look at the challenges cyclists face. They hopped on bikes — May on a Brompton and Clarkson on a hybrid — and rode in traffic through London’s West End.

Advancing the theme of their failed PSA, Clarkson noted, “The light just went red, so that means go when you’re a cyclist.”

Other observations: Right turns (the equivalent of left turns in the U.S. and Canada) are dangerous — so they picked a route that included only left turns. Buses are the biggest problem, because they do not look out for cyclists. “All bus drivers think they’re Lord God Almighty,” Clarkson complained. If biking could be made more attractive to the public, they’d commute more on bikes, and there wouldn’t be any need for buses, he said. (Public transit is another “Top Gear” no-no.)

They discovered another problem for bikers: sore bottoms. Apparently, chamois cream isn’t what it’s cracked up to be — “Have you ever put toothpaste on your testicles?” Clarkson wailed.

At one point in the ride, Clarkson dropped his chain, and the pedantic May berated him for riding a bike that was obviously not maintained correctly.

And after three hours of riding, they figured they were now fully paid-up members of the cycling community, as they sat outdoors at a coffee shop, drank their lattes, and read the Guardian (probably the last paper Clarkson would be caught reading).

So, they went back for some more tries at bike safety videos.

One of Clarkson’s showed a man returning home after a day on the job. “John works hard,” the announcer said, “which means he can afford to drive a car. That means he gets home to his family safely every night.” The closing shot showed a mangled bike lying in the road.

May had a similar take. His spot featured adults  in a children’s playground. A man rode by on a bike. Voiceover: “You stopped playing with children’s toys when you grew up. So why ride a bicycle? Act your age. Get a car.”

It’s all in fun. But “Top Gear” is a highly-watched program in Great Britain, and is seen in something like 170 countries around the world. Its anti-bike message is not innocuous. It would be nice to see the show recognize that cycling is a legitimate alternative to gas-guzzling motor vehicles.

In fairness, several seasons ago, the crew staged a commuting challenge that pitted a bike against an SUV, a speedboat, and public transportation. The aim was to cross London during morning rush hour. Host Richard Hammond rode the bike. The bike won.

The 15-mile ride

The other day, I was all geared up for a ride. It was a beautiful day in Central Texas, and the road was calling. But my wife had other ideas.

“We need to leave for the tile store at 10 a.m.,” she said. “So I think you should forget about a ride for today.”

“It’s only 8,” I responded. “Tell you what. I’ll go for a ride, but I won’t be gone for more than one hour.”

“See that you’re not,” she replied.

I knew I’d be back on time. I had the route fixed in my head. It’s a nice route through our neighborhood, which means it runs primarily on suburban arterials, which aren’t very busy once morning rush hour is over. I pumped up my tires and headed out.

The first mile runs me down to the Starbucks, where our club rides begin. After sitting through a traffic light and crossing the busy road, I’m on a gentle upslope for about a half mile. Then, it’s a right turn at the top of the hill.

Another mile and a half brings me to another right turn. This road is one that leads out of our subdivision. It’s relatively new, because the houses along this stretch have been built only in the last five years or so. It’s also nice and wide, with a generous bike lane. I have the option to branch off the road onto some residential loops, but passed them up this day.

A little over four miles into the ride, I reach the notorious 1826. It’s a road for bikers to avoid, because it’s twisty, hilly, and narrow, with no bike lane, and traffic that screams along at 65 mph. We often fantasize about what a great biking road it would be, if only we could count on no traffic.

Anyhow, I make a U-turn there, and double back a way. Then, I’m in a different part of the subdivision. With a prevailing wind from the southeast in these parts, I’m pushed along in the high 20′s for awhile. Then, a right turn, and I’m more or less against the wind again.

But now I have a nice downhill. It’s not a big one, but the road here is especially wide, with very little traffic. At the bottom of the hill, I’m often approaching 35 mph as I ease over to the center of the road and hope there will be no cross traffic (and if there is, that it will stop at the stop sign, and let me go by). Once, a couple of years ago, a car decided to pull out in front of me as I approached the intersection. I did my best emergency stop, kept the bike under control, and when the driver saw me bearing down on him, he slammed on his brakes. I got by unscathed.

Now, another jaunt through some routine residential streets. At an elementary school, I take a right turn. Within a half mile, I find myself at Austin’s Veloway. One lap around the three-mile track, and I can head home — another three miles.

I arrived in our driveway in plenty of time, and could shower and change well within the 10 a.m. deadline. The nice part about this ride is that it comes out to almost exactly 15 miles, so if my goal is to complete it in one hour, I have to push a bit in some spots. So in addition to being a nice one-hour ride, it’s also a good workout. I can work intervals or fartlek into the ride with no trouble at all.

Some days, I just don’t want to spend more than an hour in the saddle. When that happens, I know I’ve got just the ride.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Fall — Not the Season

So, just after I posted about picking up my training regimen, Central Texas was treated to a round of cool, wet weather. My Friday afternoon ride had to go by the boards, because I just didn’t want to get out in that drizzle. Saturday didn’t start out well either, with real rain falling for a bit.

Austin has been trying to recover from the severe drought that hit in 2011, so when it rains — even a little bit — it’s cause for rejoicing. But that means the bike routine must be altered, with more rides at different times than one might be accustomed to.

So, at about 3:30 Saturday afternoon, I looked outside, took note of the fact that it had stopped drizzling, and that the streets were starting to dry off.

“I’m going for a ride,” I told my wife.

“Don’t knock yourself out,” she said.

The ride was easy enough. Sure, the streets were wet, but they had no standing water. I cruised up a wide suburban arterial, made a U-turn, and then turned off into a little neighborhood where I like to ride to add a bit of distance to this particular route. (And to gawk at the houses that I will never in my wildest dreams ever be able to afford.)

The neighborhood ends with a cul-de-sac. As I started a wide left turn to head back the way I came, I realized that it was a lot wetter here than it had been other places a long the route. Just as I reached that conclusion, I felt my rear wheel start to slide.

Crap. I’ve been here before. Once the slide starts, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. At least, I’ve never mastered a way to deal with it. That wheel went out from under me, and I hit the asphalt hard.

Now, when you’re falling, you must resist the natural urge to brace yourself or you can hurt your hand and wrist. Knowing you should resist and actually doing it are two different things. My hand went out and probably absorbed some of the impact. But as I lie there on the ground, I could tell that it was sore.

I picked myself up, brushed some water and dirt off my thigh, and did a quick assessment of the bike. Computer knocked askew, but no damage. The bang on my hip didn’t seem too bad — at least I think I’d been hurt worse in some other falls I’ve taken, including one in 2009 that was eerily like this one.

When you fall off a horse, you get back on — and I did. I thought I’d continue the ride, which is about a 20-mile loop on neighborhood streets and the Veloway. But by the time I reached the Veloway, my left hand was really bothering me. The heel of the hand — the fleshy padded part at the bottom — ached against the handlebar. I rode slower than usual, not wanting to test my luck against the Veloway’s still-wet curves. I made it home without further mishap.

Some Arnica rub on the hip, a couple of Ibuprofen, and I’m good to go. Sleep was fitful, since I kept rolling onto the sore hip, which woke me up each time, and I’m not sure about a Sunday ride. If I go, it’ll be short.

And I should probably start drilling myself in bike crash avoidance techniques.

The Month-Ender

Dashed home from work this evening to get in an hour on the bike. After chilly weather over the weekend, it got up to 79 — which means one MUST pedal a bit. The Veloway was loaded with bikers, who all seemed to have the same idea I did: This can’t last much longer, so let’s make the most of it while we can. 

A familiar rider passed me. Our club president, Joe, often does Veloway laps if he wants to work on speed. Tonite it was two minutes all out, followed by two minutes easy. Joe is doing a two-man team time trial this weekend, and he was prepping for it.

“How many laps will you do?” I asked. 

“Until I can’t last the full two minutes anymore,” he said.

He stood up on the pedals and took off. What the heck, I thought. I’ll stick with him.

Yeah, that lasted for about a minute. He disappeared around a bend, and I slowed down to a medium-fast cruise.

I had orders from headquarters to get back for dinner anyway, so I left the Veloway and headed home. The final tally: 15.3 miles at an average speed of16.9. Not bad, considering I wasn’t moving fast on the way over there.

This would also be my last ride of October, and my total for the month was about what I thought it would be: 189 miles. That’s the lowest monthly total I’ve had all year. But that’s okay. I’ll ride more in November. Time to mount the headlight on the bike.

“Hey, Ray!”

Pat and I were out for a short Labor Day ride. The weather was still nice in the morning, with a slight cooling breeze, and lots of cyclists were out and about in our area.

Whenever I encounter cyclists heading in the opposite direction, I give them a wave. Sometimes, they beat me to it. I was doing a lot of waving this morning.

But as two riders passed me heading the other way and I waved, one of them called out, “Hey, Ray!”

Huh? Who was that? I didn’t recognize the jersey. (Ever notice how that’s how you can pick out riders you know — because you know them by their jersey?) It was a black and white jersey. Not familiar to me at all. Of course, that really means nothing. I wear jerseys during the week that never see the weekends, and I’m sure other people have similar jersey-wearing patterns. After all, just a mile later I called back to Pat, “There’s Jerry and Maggie!” I could tell by their matching green jerseys. And their big blue tandem. No mistaking them.

It bothered me though, that I couldn’t recognize the other two guys. And it occurred to me that this kind of thing has been happening more often. Just a couple of weekends ago, I was riding southeast of town by myself when I waved at an oncoming rider. Sure enough, he called “Hey, Ray!” Who was that? Ah, that one I figured out. It was Ralph. He rides with the club occasionally. But by the time I figured out who he was, we were far apart.

I like to think I pay pretty good attention when I’m out riding, but lately it would seem that’s not the case. I mean, if I were paying attention, I would recognize these guys, wouldn’t I? Not necessarily. Mostly, I’m looking straight ahead while I’m riding, and when I wave, I’m not usually looking at the other rider. Maybe I should start. Here’s a new experiment: I’ll eyeball oncoming riders and try to recognize them. That way, maybe I’ll be the guy who’s calling out, “Hey —!”

The Measure Of A Ride

Guest poster Jeff Hemmel finds that sometimes, the ride’s the thing.

On the final Saturday of July, on a day that reversed this summer’s trend toward warm and sunny and threw a curveball of grey skies and the ever-present threat of rain, I competed in my second-ever bicycle race. Longtime readers may remember I did my first-ever bicycle race at this same event one year ago. The fact that I ended up surprisingly vying for that win, while taking my age group title, guaranteed two things. One, that I’d come back for more this year, and two, that I’d probably take things a little more seriously this time around.

No, I didn’t go crazy with some dedicated race program. But I did become a little more serious in my preparation in the weeks leading up to the event. Thanks to input from a racer friend, once casual rides now included sprint intervals. Moments of quad-burning exhaustion were followed by the newfound knowledge that lactic-acid-combating enzymes would now be going to work full bore to ease subsequent efforts. And my climb up the Category 4 hill that leads back to my family’s spot on an Adirondack lake became an obsession not with the scenery, but instead with being a Strava “King of the Mountain.”

The work paid off. I ended up repeating as age-group champion in that race, as well as losing a somewhat heartbreaking sprint for the overall by a mere eight-tenths of a second. I also realized the sprint training and Strava KOM attempts had made me a much stronger overall rider. Average speeds crept up, hills went by quicker, and I just felt stronger.

The catch? Transitioning from that competitive mindset proved a little more difficult than I imagined, especially after a pair of far more serious, competitive types took two of my prized KOMs. Suddenly I viewed my precious last days in the Adirondacks as not opportunities to enjoy the area, but rapidly dwindling time to take back two relatively insignificant titles. I targeted the last day of our stay to go out and take back what was once mine.

But a funny thing happened as I pedaled out on that final ride. While my mind may have been into the task, my heart wasn’t playing along. Riding past lakes and up and down the rolling hills, I found I just wanted to take it all in. I found I wanted to measure my last ride of the season not by statistics, but something far less analytical.

(Click to enlarge.)

So I blazed down winding descents that followed pristine streams, and took note of the purple wildflowers that seem to line so many country roads. I stopped at the waterfall that I passed too many times this season, and noted in disappointment that a limb on a tree, the one that used to have a rope that allowed kids to swing out from the nearby hillside and splash into the waters above the falls, had broken.

I climbed a Category 4 hill to a ski resort and gazed up at the hills where I once honed my snowboarding skills, then sprinted with all I had to escape the menacing Rottweiler who chose that very moment to come hauling after me in stealth mode. I pedaled through endless fields of corn, and wondered if the crops they held were headed for the table or the gas tank, and debated the value of the dairy farms that allowed their cows to roam and graze freely versus the ones who slotted them assembly-line style into pens that passed food past their mouths while simultaneously carrying away the remnants of that feed that dropped out the other end.

I noted the peaceful deer near that watched me intently, and chuckled at the irony of the homeowner who filled his property with signs proclaiming himself to be an angry gun owner who voted, but also saw fit to populate the border of said property with cutesy little statues of bears holding fishing poles.

In short, I simply turned the pedals and enjoyed the sensations and freedom that only a bike can provide.

I can live with the fact that I’ll have to wait a year to take another shot at those KOMs, and I can live with the fact that I braked in that race’s final 90-degree corner and let five more experienced guys catch my wheel.

What I couldn’t have lived with, however, was chasing those titles… and missing out on something that could never be summed up by just a number.

Le Tour de Longneques

I broke away from my usual weekend routine Saturday, by getting up really early and heading west to ride in Le Tour de Longneques. The brainchild of my blogging friend Don Bynum, the Tour started a couple of years ago as an easy 18-mile jaunt between Llano and Castell, Texas.

But each time it’s been run, it has grown in popularity. And as cyclists have gotten better, the Tour was extended. It now starts in Castell, (pop. 72) a hamlet along the Llano River, and goes to Llano (pop. 3,300), the county seat, then back to Castell.

What’s the attraction of Castell? The Castell General Store — one of the funkiest local businesses you’ll ever want to see. It appears ready to fall down in a heap. The grounds are patrolled by a huge rooster — the “mayor” of Castell. The store is a community gathering place, as much a bar as a general mercantile. On the weekends, it adds food to its offerings. Friday is burgers, Saturday barbecue, and for people who want to enjoy an upscale Sunday dinner — steaks.

The store before the ride. (Click pix to embiggen.)

The “mayor” of Castell.

The problem for me is that Castell is more than 90 miles from my home in Austin, and Don made it clear that we would leave at 8 a.m. sharp. That necessitated an early morning wake up. I don’t mind, but my wife sure does. The dog took care of the wake up — an hour earlier than I had set the alarm clock. I hit the road before 6:15, and reached Castell around 7:40 a.m.

A number of riders were already there, in various states of preparation for the trip. When I last rode with Don, I was the youngest person out there. This time, more than half the riders were younger than me, and were more serious riders. Two young women with tri bikes joined us. A couple of recumbents promised to set a fast pace.

Sure, you can pack a road bike in the trunk of a Corvette!

I put my stuff together, mindful of the 8 a.m. start time. But more riders kept dribbling in, and Don would say, “Let’s wait for him to get organized, then we’ll leave.” As soon as that happened, another car toting a bike would turn into the sandy parking area. Then there were two flat tires that had to be fixed (Before a ride?). At 8:30 sharp, Don said, “Let’s take off.”

Don Bynum (left) tells the group we’ll be going soon. Maybe.

I’ve indicated before that I like riding in rural areas on lightly-traveled roads. This trip was a straight shot between the two towns, never leaving Ranch Road 152. But RR 152 wasn’t straight. It dipped and curved and rose again for the whole 18 miles. The chip seal two-lane road wasn’t as rough as some I’ve been on, but it still has a way to go before traffic smooths out the surface. Still, I pedaled at what seemed an effortless pace, and noted that I had a good chance to get to Llano in just an hour.

The Bike Noob (left) climbs another hill. This was one of the only times I rode ahead of 70-year-old Doug Miller (behind me).

I almost made it. My average speed on the outbound leg was 17.4 mph. The picturesque Llano County courthouse made a nice rest stop, because of the generous shade cast by trees surrounding the old building. We even had two sag vehicles along for the trip, driven by the non-biking wives of two riders. They made sure we topped off with water and ice before hitting the road again.

The Llano County courthouse.

Llano still has some buildings that hint at the Old West.

But it turned out that the reason for a smooth ride on the way out was that Llano is about 200 feet lower than Castell, and on the way back, I found myself resorting to some small gears in the small chainring. Those same rolling hills we covered on the way out were long uphills now. It took a lot more effort to get back, and the temperature was steadily climbing.

Hickory Creek, one of several we cross on the ride, shows how dry July has been.

I was glad to see the Lutheran church on the outskirts of Castell. Just a mile left! My average speed on the return leg was a meager 12.4 mph. “You didn’t tell me the trip back was twice as far as the trip out,” I ribbed Don, when he pulled in 10 minutes after I did.

But this ride is not just about the ride. True to its name, many of us grabbed a Lone Star longneck to wind down. Then, another treat — we trooped several hundred yards down to the Llano River, where we soaked in what Don calls its “restorative” waters. After awhile, it was time to head back to the store for a lunch of barbecue with all the trimmings, and another Lone Star. Or two.

Some of the guys (Bike Noob 3rd from right) urge Don to be careful as he gingerly climbs up the slick pink granite after a soak in the Llano River.

This would be a nice ride under any circumstances, but the river, the barbecue, and the social aspects of the ride make it special. Don schedules the Tour whenever he feels like it. “It’s a militantly unorganized ride,” he says. Another installment might be in the works for fall, when we won’t have to start so early, and the river might actually run cool.