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.

Gone Over to the Dark Side?

Last Sunday morning dawned overcast and windy in Austin. It wasn’t the kind of weather to make one enthusiastic about biking.

I stared out the window as I breakfasted on scrambled eggs and coffee, wondering if I would even get up the energy to get out and ride. Heck, it was Sunday morning! If I’m going to ride at all during the week, that is THE day to go out.

I pondered some more.

Then, I got a crazy idea. My mountain bike hangs from the garage ceiling, forlorn and forgotten. What if I took that out, just for the heck of it?

I ride it every once in awhile. Haven’t been on it for months, though. And I was actually a little excited, because I decided I wasn’t going to just ride it on area streets, as I’ve done in the past. No — I was going to hit the trails!

We’ve got a large metropolitan park greenbelt close to my house. It goes on for miles. And criss-crossing that greenbelt is a network of trails. That’s where I was going to go.

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Now, my mountain bike isn’t currently set up as it ought to be for a ride on the trails. Some time ago, I pulled off the knobby tires and replaced them with one-and-a-half inch wide tires with a street-friendly tread. But, what the heck. I made sure they were inflated to about 50 pounds, stuck a water bottle in my jacket pocket (no water bottle cage on the bike), and set out.

The bike rode pretty well, although I hadn’t expected how rocky the trail was, so close to some soccer fields. A couple of times, I stopped and pushed the bike over particularly rough patches. As I got more distance under my wheels, I got more confident about tackling the rougher spots.

I had no idea where the trails led, but since they were in my neighborhood, I was familiar with generally where I was most of the time. It’s interesting how your orientation changes when you can’t see roads any more, and have only a narrow piece of single track going ziggedy-zaggedy through clumps of prickly pear and live oak.

Some crossings at dry creek beds involved a steep descent, then a steep climb on the other side. Sometimes I walked them, others I gritted my teeth and tried to stay in the saddle. At one point, the trail emptied onto a residential street that I din’t recognize. I rode the street for a block until I came to a street sign. Huh! I ride my road bike through here from time to time, but in the opposite direction. No wonder I didn’t recognize it.

Eventually, I doubled back the way I came. The trees kept me sheltered from the brisk north wind that was blowing, and I was quite comfortable. But I was getting tired. I knew I couldn’t have gone all that far, but as I’ve noticed before, riding a mountain bike takes more effort than a road bike.

When I made it home, I found I had been gone about two-and-a-half hours. That’s as far as a typical Sunday ride on my road bike. But since I didn’t have a computer on the mountain bike, I had to draw out my approximate route on Map My Ride. It turns out I rode roughly 13.5 miles. I don’t think I’ve ever been as tired after that same distance or time on my road bike.

So, have I become a convert? Not yet. But I will ride the mountain bike again. Riding single track is fun, and I know there are lots more trails around here to try out. I’ll be digging out the knobby tires and putting them back on, and getting it set up better for more frequent riding. I never thought I’d say this, but — change is good!

 

 

Bicycle R & D

Every year, bicycle companies bring out new models as the result of extensive research and development. Often, the differences from year to year are minuscule, maybe just cosmetic.

But there’s one bike company that really takes R & D seriously. Fairdale Bikes (No, I’ve never heard of them either) does its research on the road, putting its new models through some grueling tests. I thought you might enjoy taking a peek.

Beater Bikes

Earlier this week, a favorite blog of mine, “Lovely Bicycle,” wrote about beater bikes. Velouria’s angle was to spotlight a new line of inexpensive bikes with the brand name, “Beater,” that are designed to fill the same role as a run-of-the-mill beater bike would fill.

And it got me thinking — I don’t really have a beater bike of my own, do I? If I do need a bike I can hop on for a trip to the store, or to run an errand or two, or to serve as transportation in the rain, I don’t really have anything to fill that role, do I?

And then it occurred to me — I do. I’ve got that mountain bike. The one I never ride. The one I put the rear rack on because I was going to make it an errand bike. The one I put narrower, smoother-treaded tires on, because those big knobbies weren’t a lot of fun to ride on on pavement.

But the mountain bike is, above all, a mountain bike, and today I actually rode it for its intended purpose — I took it out and rode some of the bike trails in South Austin. More about that experience in another post. My point today is, if I’m going to use the mountain bike for trail riding, it’s not really a beater, is it? It’s my mountain bike, and I still have to find something to serve as my go-to for everything else bike.

Well, maybe not. The great thing about the mountain bike is that it’s designed to be bashed around. I sure clunked the pedals and chain stays against enough rocks today. There’s no reason I can’t ride it to the store, or on rainy days if I don’t want to ride my road bike then.

All right, then — I do have a beater bike, even if it’s one in pretty good shape. And frankly, given my past record at using the bike as a utility vehicle, I probably won’t do most of those things.

How about you? Do you have bike that is a jack-of-all-trades, that can fill any role that your “main” bike — be it road or mountain — doesn’t fill? What kind is it? How do you use it? Is it a rolling wreck, or is it still a spiffy ride?

Comparing Bikes

A funny thing happened as I was poking around in my blog analytics. I discovered that the readers of this blog really like bikes. Yeah, amazing, isn’t it? Wait a sec — you’ll see just what I’m getting at.

I can take a look at search terms used to find items on this blog, or search terms that will get people to this blog — whether they want to be here or not And over the last year, the item that keeps coming up as the most searched-for term is: bike comparison.

Back in 2011 I did a blog post on a new bike comparison website. There seemed to be enough interest that I put the site’s link on my home page in the “blogroll.” It keeps drawing the traffic.So much so, that when people search for anything remotely resembling “bike comparison,” they get Bike Noob as one of their returns.

Among most popular search terms to get to this blog are: bike comparison, bicycle comparison, compare bikes, compare bicycles, bike comparison site, bike comparison website, compare road bikes, bike comparison tool, mountain bike comparison tool, bike comparisons, bike compare, road bike comparison, bicycle comparison, bicycle comparison site, bike compare site, bicycle comparison sites — well, you get the idea. Over the past year, these terms have been searched from 32 times (bicycle comparison sites) to 667 times (bike comparison). People are interested in bikes.

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Discovering this most searched-for item led me back to the bike comparison tool site, and I’ve been entering various models of bikes, checking out their stats, seeing how they compare to each other. This could be dangerous. I’m pretty happy with the setup I have now, and the last thing I need to be doing is lusting after a new bike. But, like most folks out there, I just can’t resist.

Garage Flats

Boy, I was excited to get out for a rare weekday afternoon ride! I hadn’t been on the bike in several days, and my body was craving for some fresh air and exercise. 

I grabbed the bike and guided it between the garage wall and my car, out to the driveway where I was going to top off the tires with air. But something didn’t quite feel right.

I looked down at the rear tire. It was flat.

That was really odd, because the last time I had been out for a ride, everything was fine. I had no inkling that the tire had been punctured, or even that it was lower at the end of the ride than it was at the start. But there it was.

I took the wheel off the bike, and took it and my flat-fixing gear into the kitchen.

Finding the leak was a problem.  I finally had to submerge the tube in the kitchen sink to discover the telltale trail of bubbles that indicated a tiny hole in the tube.

I patched the tube and got it back on the bike. My afternoon ride had to be cut short — to around only 12 miles. Better than nothing, I suppose.

But if it hadn’t been for the “garage flat,” I could have gotten in something closer to a full hour.

I’m pretty sure the garage didn’t cause the flat. Something punched the tiny hole in the tube out there — on the road. But it was in the chilly air in the garage that the tire deflated, so the garage gets the blame.

I’m hoping that now that spring is just about here, garage flats will disappear until the cold weather returns.

Thinking About Hills

Anyone who has read Bike Noob knows I’m not much of a hill climber. In fact, if anything, my hill-climbing ability has decreased in the past couple of years — I’m getting older, you know. Yeah, that’s it. (All right — I still haven’t managed to get my weight down to that level where hills are doable — but I think I’ll stick with the age angle.)

But it’s spring, believe it or not (It must be — we’re under our second wind advisory in a week! It was tough out there today!), and as we point toward our nice weather riding (It will come again, I promise), a lot of us will add hills to our training regimens.

Yes, even I climb hills in training. But the hills I climb close to home aren’t anything like the really challenging hills we’ll face on some of our targeted rides.

One that I think I’ll try to handle — maybe in the fall, after I’ve had lots of time to train for it — is Fulton Ranch Road. It’s not too far from Austin, and has been part of the 100-mile version of the Livestrong Ride here. It’s got a grade that I think is just within my abilities, but the problem is, it’s a lot longer than most of the hills around here. To whet your appetite for some warm-weather climbing, here’s a YouTube video of the hill.

But Fulton Ranch Road pales in comparison to the real monster. That’s the Westernport Wall in Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. Its 31 percent grade — that’s 31 percent! – is steep enough that the road is closed to motor traffic. But bikers are welcome to take a stab at it. And to make matters worse, the Wall is only part of the story. It comes in the middle of a triathlon! If you can get to the top of the Wall without clipping out and walking, you get a brick with your name incribed added to the rough and uneven surface of the road.

Makes my .4-mile jaunt up Convict Hill look like a walk in the park. Maybe by the end of summer, it will be!