Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The year of circumstances (not being quite right)

I'm trying to do a new year's reflection on all my blogs: a sort of recap and recalibration.

But this year, circumstances have been such that I don't get on the bike as much as I did. I used to have a job five days a week that was about seven or eight miles away depending on the route you took, and I could ride there in the morning and ride home at night, and I spent a lot of time with my legs going and my eyes on the path in front of me, or my head up and my ears tuned for the cars.

This year, though, I've been driving three days a week to a job 40km out along the highway: not something I can bike to. Well, I could. Sure, I could. And would I ever be in amazing shape right now if I did. . . But it's a matter of time. I don't have that kind of time. If cycling was a fitness thing for me, if fitness was a lifestyle for me like it is for some, then sure. I know there are a lot of people that ride that far to and from work. But I just can't take that much time out of my day. (And, leaving that job at 7 or 8 at night would have me riding home in the dark all the time, along back roads in Quebec. No thanks.)

But, one thing I've learned because of that is how much I actually do enjoy riding when I can. I'm no longer just getting up and riding to work in the rain or the snow or the heat because that's how I have to get around: I'm relishing the chance to go downtown now on the bike. No searching for parking. No digging for change to pay for parking. No running out to feed the meter. No stopping for gas, no scraping off ice and brushing off snow and not being sure if the car will start because of the deep cold. The bike starts, no matter how cold. I can store it inside. It costs nothing to park and it never needs gas or wiper fluid.

This winter has been snowy (very snowy!) and cold: not the best conditions. But I still get out on the bike. I still relish the feeling of being one of the (growing number of) cyclists who just bundle up and get out there, and who try to explain to their friends why riding is actually warmer than walking, or taking the bus. And my long term job searching goals now include the nice-to-have of being within biking distance: because I know (for reals) now how important it is to me.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Beautiful icy night

The cold snap has really been amazing this winter. The snow came down and stayed - deep and fluffy - and for the last few days, temperatures have been in the effective -25 to -40C range. In fact, December came hurtling in on a wall of snow and hasn't really shown any signs of letting up on the full-on, good-old-fashioned Canadian weather.

It's great.

I haven't been on the bike nearly enough these last few months. Between a part time contract that's inaccessible by bike, another part time contract that is often more efficient if I do it from home, a bunch of personal commitments and pressure, and weird hours, I've found myself more and more having to use the car. And it's been driving me nuts. Then on some days when I could use the bike, there's been 15 cm of fresh snow down and nothing plowed yet, and I've been off the bike enough lately that I'm uncertain of my snow skills. It's been a pain.

But today I woke up and it was an effective -39C outside. I was supposed to take the car to the shop for some work, but when I tried to start it, it made a wheezing noise and rolled its nonexistent automotive eyes at me, as if to say, "Seriously? NOW?" (13-year-old diesel engines don't take kindly to subzero temperatures.)

So I rescheduled the appointment, called my employer and said I'd work from home, and settled in. But this evening I had a meeting to get to. Knowing the car wouldn't work made it that much easier to decide on the bike. I wheeled it out to the elevator and was surprised to realize I was actually a little excited. This was going to be, believe it or not, my first real snowy ride since the hammer came down at the start of the month. (That's how bad my bikelessness has been.)

The temperatures had soared to a balmy effective -25C. (-18 real temperature and a wind chill of -25.) There was dusty, sparkly snow falling. As I stood in the lobby tying my scarf and pulling on my mittens and turning on all my lights, a guy in his twenties came in the front door, saw me, and said, "Whoa, ride safe!"

"I plan to," I said, and then I got myself bundled up and carried the bike down the steps to the snowy pavement.

And it was probably the best ride I've had in months. It was so cold it was dry, with a thin layer of snow down on the streets that didn't affect traction at all: there was fine snow coming down. The streets were pretty empty, and the drivers that were out were taking it easy and going slowly, having been scared straight by all the black ice this morning, perhaps. They were giving me a wide berth, driving carefully and courteously, partly because with all this snow down I pretty much have to take up most of the right hand lane, and partly because they're aware of the treacherous conditions. I wish they drove like that all the time, it would be fantastic.

One advantage to all the driving I've been doing lately: I know what's going through a driver's mind when they come up behind a cyclist on a snowy night, and I've watched how other drivers act. It made me more certain that they weren't likely to buzz me or drive aggressively. I've watched a lot of my fellow drivers slow down and move into the other lane to pass cyclists in the snow.

And I also knew to have an enormous taillight and a turtle light on my helmet and a big headlight on the handlebars; because I have cursed at a distressingly large number of cyclists this winter who I've come across biking along on a snowy road, unlit and wearing black. Some of them have really scared me. So, I was lit up like a Christmas tree, and feeling pretty safe as a result. (Also, cyclists: please, please, please, my driver side can't stress this enough: get lights.)

I whooshed along to my meeting without a single slip, or slide, or startle, thoroughly enjoying myself with the cold and the snow and the dark and the self-powered swoosh, and realized part way there that I was actually almost too warm (with my merino base layer and my sweater and my Thinsulate mittens). On the way back, it was just as lovely: cars giving me space, the cold air on my face, my tires cutting along through the thin layer of snow on the street.

Why wouldn't you bike in the winter?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Sousveillance nation

Sousveillance (/sˈvləns/ soo-vay-lənsFrench pronunciation: ​[suvɛjɑ̃s]): most commonly defined as the recording of an activity by a participant in the activity typically by way of small wearable or portable personal technologies.

Lately I've started to realize just how many people are riding with cameras on their helmets or handlebars. Yesterday, my Twitter feed blew up over a video on YouTube of a cyclist being ticketed (back in June) for taking up the whole lane at a pinch point. (The #ottbike hashtag went a little nuts with tweets to and from pretty much every officially-tweeting Ottawa Police Service representative.)

The cyclist fought the ticket successfully, I assume because the city's own website says:

Cyclists are required to ride as close as possible to the right curb of the roadway, except when:

  • Travelling at the normal speed of traffic
  • Avoiding hazardous conditions
  • The roadway is too narrow for a bicycle and a motor vehicle to travel safely side-by-side
  • Tiding alongside another cyclist in a manner that does not impede the normal movement of traffic
  • Preparing to make a left turn, passing another vehicle, or using a one-way street (in which case riding alongside the left curb is permitted) 
Well, I'd call that pretty clear. . . the first three are clearly demonstrated in this guy's video. He's going at the speed of traffic; the potholes are terrible; the road's too narrow to share.

Cyclists, increasingly, are getting cameras, and they're doing it to defend themselves, primarily, maybe with a side helping of educating the public. It's a lot like the dash cam situation in Russia, where because of insurance fraud and corrupt police - and because the courts prefer video evidence to eyewitness accounts - a huge number of drivers are recording everything that happens. Having a dash cam can actually lower your insurance premiums in Russia, I understand. (Bonus: you might get some truly crazy footage.)

Cyclists are in much the same position: if  you're nearly right-hooked, or passed too close by a heavy truck or a bus, or when you're given a ticket for taking the lane when there was reason to do so, it's way better to have evidence rather than your subjective opinion. I can't count the number of times someone's done something dangerous around me and it all happened too fast to identify the car or the plate number, and good luck catching up to a car to get that information. Then, if you actually want to make a complaint, you're stuck with how it felt to you, which isn't as concrete as camera footage.

So cyclists start recording. Some cameras record for a set amount of time, then loop, so you can 'set it and forget it,' and only pull the footage if something happens. You're just always recording, every time you roll out there onto the road. Clip on your helmet, kick your leg over, turn on your camera, and step on the pedals. It sounds a little crazy to me, but also like a recognition - that camera's part of your safety system, like your lights and bell and helmet.

YouTube channels like BikeViewCA are full of video clips demonstrating close calls, dangerous stretches of road, and confrontational drivers. (There are also clips showing beautiful days and exhilarating rides, but they're outnumbered.) And it's getting so that non-cyclists know about the cameras, too: there's this angry driver who sees the helmet cam and shouts, "Yeah, I hope you're getting this on camera!" at the cyclist while yelling her (faulty) convictions about the rules of the road.

I've thought about getting one myself. Today, watching the driver of a pickup truck towing a trailer have a complete meltdown because the person in the lane in front of him had stopped, third in line, at a red light, thereby blocking his access to the right turn he clearly desperately needed to make now now now - well, watching that, I thought again about pricing out GoPros. Sure, I want it so I can defend myself. Like the Russian drivers, we cyclists need to be proactive, we need to keep tabs, we (apparently) need to "sousveil."

But I'd also love to be able to share some of the gorgeous rides I've been on (and I admit I would also have fun taking it out rock climbing). I once biked with one hand and filmed a large chunk of my ride home along the Riverside Path with my iPhone, with the intention of someday making it into a video so my parents could see my awesome commute. (Still haven't done that; still might. I have the background tune all picked out.)

It begins. . .

This afternoon was the first actual snow of the season, and as first actual snows go, it was a good one: leaving a fine white layer on the grass and rooftops and leaves, and soaking down the streets. And, naturally, I was downtown at my office when it began, so I got to ride home in it. As I type, I'm thanking Quetzalcoatl for creating hot chocolate - one of the really nice things about the snowy season.

So, here comes the winter. We knew it was coming. I know that by spring I'll be desperate for a chance to ride without my shoulders hunched, my brain on overdrive working on balance and watching for ice. But for now, I don't mind that much that it started snowing today. Here goes: that time of the year when I get to feel really badass because I didn't put away the bike.

I don't mind the cold. You can dress for that. I don't really mind the wet, you can dress for that too, although I wasn't dressed for it today and the inside of the left leg of my jeans got soaked up to about six inches above my knee (the other leg was rolled up to keep it away from the chain).

What gets me is the dirt. The incredible amount of spontaneously emerging fine black grit that appears the moment it's "winter," clings to everything you wear, and finely powders the floor of wherever you keep your bike.

That, and when it's actually, actively, snowing it's much more difficult to see, because you're blinking at a rate of about three times a second.

Oh, yeah, and on the first snow? I really mind not knowing whether the drivers around me were good little Canadians and got their winter tires put on before November kicked in.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A little learning is a dangerous thing

On my street, there's a left turn lane where it intersects with a main, four-lane artery. My street itself is quiet and small. I don't think twice about the left turn: I just slide on over and wait at the light or head on through if it's green.

I was doing that this afternoon. Signalled, merged left, pulled up at the red light in the middle of the lane. Then a silver minivan pulled up beside me, on my right - halfway in the left turn lane, halfway in the right, but angled enough that it looked like he was planning to turn left. "Whoa, whoa, what the fuck, buddy?!?" I shouted, startled.

For once, the driver heard me, and responded. He rolled his window down and said something, I don't remember exactly what, asking why I was upset.

"What are you doing? Are you trying to turn left?" I asked him. (His turning signal was not on.)

"Yeah," he said.

I sensed a "teachable moment" and went for it. "So am I. So you're supposed to pull in behind me and wait there."

"No, I'm not," he said.

"Yeah, you are. You're supposed to wait, and make your turn after me."

"Not according to the Highway Traffic Act," he said.

"Ohhoho, yes according to the Highway Traffic Act," I answered.

(What I didn't say was, "Have you read the HTA? Because I have..." Let's have a look at the Ministry of Transportation's Driver's Handbook page on this rule, shall we?)

He cut me off. "No, I can pull up here because I left you a safe distance," he indicated the three feet of space between his door and my handlebars.

"That's not the point, you can't just..." I said.

"I'm sorry if I scared you, but I did leave a safe distance," he cut me off. He sounded so maddeningly certain.

Then the light turned green, and in a Pavlovian reaction I just started into my turn, out of some kind of dread of being in the intersection having an argument while the light was green. And lo and behold, the minivan driver started into his turn at the same time. I threw my right hand out and shouted, "See, that is NOT SAFE!" and as I dodged the cars coming out of the other side of the intersection and made it safely, and with some relief, to the right-hand side of the street, I really hoped that he'd been smart enough to figure out what was wrong with his logic. Maybe he'd figured out that if I'm moving to the outside of the street, and he's moving to the inside of the street, our paths kind of inevitably cross. Making him, sitting on my right side, nowhere near a safe position for me.

Or maybe he just thought I was a panicky woman on a bike and dismissed the whole thing.

I wish I'd had time, or the self-possession, to stop in the intersection and explain the physics to him. How if he's beside me as we both turn left, he's going to have to either cut me off (dangerous) or complete his turn behind me (which he should have been doing anyway). But I didn't. I hope he came to the realization when he was forced to brake and let me continue my turn in order not to sideswipe me. I appreciate that he actually spoke to me, in fact - it's a rare driver that does.

But I'm also a little disturbed by his quoting the "rules" so wrongly. It's like the recent campaign to get people to adopt the three-foot rule has drowned out all else. Worrying: maybe the city should be spending that public service announcement money on more general bike-literacy for drivers, rather than on one rule to the exclusion of others. Because the only rule this guy knew was that he needed to be three feet from me. Knowing that, he figured he was A-OK to do what he did.

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

- Alexander Pope

Friday, October 11, 2013

Addressing a communication gap

A couple of days ago I realized that there's a big communications gap for cyclists. You can't really use your words with people in cars, and there aren't a whole lot of nonverbal signals you can give, other than turning signals, and the "no, go ahead, go through the intersection, it's your right of way" waving (which in itself is apparently pretty confusing and always looks more annoyed than it should).

You have two other gestures at your disposal, I reflected. One is a cheery wave, from in front of or behind the vehicle that's just done something menschlike. The other is the one I used the other night when a car honked at me for being in front of him in the left turn lane, making a left turn. (Sure, it was a short honk, which could be meant to convey friendliness or "letting me know the car's there," but drivers: just don't honk unless you need the cyclist's attention. It's really hard to be clear that you mean it as a "friendly" honk, and it will just rile, startle, and/or irritate us.)

It's a little gratifying to use the gesture I pulled out on that occasion - and it's pretty much universally recognized and unequivocal, at least in Western countries - but really it's a little aggressive and crude. There's no subtlety. You go straight from "no worries" to "f*ck you, buddy." I started wondering if there was some other way to express "I have every right to be where I am, doing what I'm doing, so don't be a jerk about it." I played with the idea of the "whatever" gesture you do by making a W with your thumbs and index fingers, but discarded it because it takes up both hands, which you can't do on a turn.

But, I've got a one-handed variation worked out, I think. Now I just need to get people using it so it gains the currency of the middle finger. Voilá: the "Whatever, dude, don't be a dick" hand signal. Suitable for use when drivers honk needlessly, misunderstand the rules of the road, buzz too close, or shout incomprehensibly out of the window. Seems like adopting this more nonviolent, more laissez-faire-don't-give-a-care kind of gesture might do a lot toward alleviating road rage. I know I prefer just to shake my head and dismiss the idiots. Better for my blood pressure than steaming up and giving the finger.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A two-block battle

My Twitter feed blew up yesterday. I was only checking in occasionally, but I started reading back through the conversations and gathered that the police - at the request of local residents - were handing out tickets for people not walking their bikes on Argyle Street. The feed was heated, and sometimes quite funny, and generally polite, but the opinions were all decidedly different.

It took a while to figure out that it was about walking bikes on the sidewalk, rather than not riding them at all. The problem is that Argyle is one-way west, and people have been riding east on the sidewalk. And they're doing it because the streets around Argyle are all pretty scary - arterials, with exits and on-ramps to the highway that mean cars are either coming off the highway and adjusting their speed, or speeding up to get on it. And there are one-way streets everywhere, making you go four or five blocks out of your way to get where you're going at times. 

Personally, I stay off the sidewalks, and ride around on the maze of one-way streets, going out of my way a block or two north or south as necessary. 


Sometimes I'm in a hurry. Sometimes I just get sick of it. Sometimes I don't want to ride down Metcalfe or any of the other big, multi-lane, also one-way streets, and sometimes I just get frustrated when I'm heading east on a two-way street that suddenly becomes one-way on the other side of an intersection. It's bad enough having to cross, say, Metcalfe at one of those unsignalled intersections, but then to also realize the street's barred. . . so yeah. Sometimes I ride the wrong way down the street. Or, rarely, on the sidewalk. 

A lot of this would be solved if most of the small, quiet, safer-feeling, one-way side streets downtown had contraflow lanes for bikes. There are already a couple in Ottawa. (Interestingly, I just learned that contra-flow lanes weren't clarified as being legal in the Ontario Highway traffic Act until 2012; while that stopped Toronto planners from installing them it doesn't seem to have stopped Ottawa.) 

I can see a couple of advantages: it would get cyclists off the sidewalks - at least, the ones like me who don't want to be there; it probably won't have much effect on those dedicated sidewalk cyclers. It would give cyclists some options that would get them off the faster, busier streets. And, more people might figure out how to use them. I know I am regularly irritated by the people who bike the wrong way in the contra-flow lane on Cameron Street near Brewer Park. But they can't really be expected to know better when there are so few lanes like it. 

And I know in person how much better Cameron is with the contra-flow lane. I used to ride down it all the time to school when I was going to Carleton. There was no contra-flow lane then, so I rode the wrong way, west, down the street. At the bottom the street made an abrupt turn - a left, for cars coming down Seneca, which turned into Cameron. As I was crossing Cameron, heading for the pedestrian path across Brewer Park, a car came off Seneca. I popped out in front of the car, and got hit. 

I was fine: knocked over, scraped up, a little rattled, as was the couple in the car, but fine. Still: now, there is a contra-flow lane for the cyclists that - face it - were going to ride that way anyway. At the bottom of the street, where Cameron meets Seneca, there is a stop sign for the cars on Seneca. Bikes have right of way across and into the park. And it's all a lot safer. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Sometimes the mousetrap you've got works just fine...

I keep coming across nifty bike inventions and innovations online: they're sent to me by friends or I see them referenced on Twitter or whatever. This latest was posted by a friend to my Facebook wall, and instantly struck me as the sort of overengineering that gets dreamed up by design classes as a midterm project. Flashy, and utterly impractical.

First there was the LightLane (a mashup of sort-of-cool, vaguely-useful, and frankly-geeky), then there was the GPS Citibike-station-finding helmet (which was downright odd). Now, the internet has brought you: Lumigrids.

Seriously, the design people from Tron have so much to answer for. An entire generation of early-adopting computer nerds see a grid like that and it's practically Pavlovian. It must be awesome! Look at those glowing blue lines!

Okay, it's hard not to let the sarcasm hounds off the leash. It's just so overbuilt. The idea here is that a light on the front of your bike projects this grid at the ground in front of you. On a flat road (I'm told there is such a thing) it shows up as a regular grid. If there's a concavity or convexity (as in the picture above) the lines break in a way that, trained by decades of early computer graphics, we're supposed to recognize, interpret, and thus avoid the pothole.
If you're over a certain age, somewhere in your deepest memories an image like this says 'supercomputer' with a side helping of 'Airwolf.' It's sad but true.
But just imagine it's night. You're on your way home down the average North American street. You have a glowing blue grid projected in front of your bike. It doesn't actually illuminate much, and what it does cover is only about six feet in front of you. And because you need to be watching it for changes in the grid, you can't really look away from the space six to eight feet in front of you. So you don't even see the parked car ahead of you until it's too late to slam on the brakes.

Also, I haven't got data to back this up, but it seems to me like your brain probably wouldn't be able to process the grid and changes in its pattern fast enough to be of much use. Look at the first picture again. Quick, quick, where's the bump and where's the hole? And the edges are slanted: where does the slanting start? How high/deep are any of those features? You have a split second to figure that out and decide whether to avoid or take the bump. And there's a car behind you, the speed of which you can't quite gauge by ear.

By the way, you've distracted that driver with the weird-ass glowing grid on the pavement in front of you, which she has never seen before and will undoubtedly do a double-take over.

And to be fair, you've distracted yourself, because as you zip along the street, staring at the blue grid, trying to read it for information as to the pavement in front of you, you're not attending to much else. You've dedicated rather a lot of cognitive resource to reading and interpreting a four-foot-square pattern. 

Not only that, but it looks to me as though the grid lines would be okay at picking out large, fairly regular features (the most encouraging of their demo pictures is the one that shows where a sharp curb is) but I can easily imagine what they'd look like when faced with gravel, a really serious set of potholes, the average uneven and broken-up Ottawa street - I'm thinking of Main Street in particular here - or snow. And that's not even getting into what would happen if it were actually raining or snowing, with your bright blue projection catching every little raindrop or snowflake and making the area immediately in front of you into a disco ball.

Nice try, design folks. But, you see, I could just go get a couple of these for $30. Having used them to ride along the unlit and forested River Path at two in the morning, I can attest they do the job quite adequately.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Vehicular profiling

I admit to a prejudice. I'm prejudiced against black pickup trucks. Particularly the big ones. The bigger, blacker, and shinier your pickup truck is, the more likely I am to expect fear, surprise, and bad citizenship. I've had black pickups pass me on the right when I was in left turn lanes, then cut me off in the middle of the intersection. I've had them blaze past me at high speed without their outside tires so much as brushing the centre line. I've had them charge me as I was walking my bike through pedestrian crosswalks.

And this morning on my way down Bank Street I was sharing a block with three black pickups. One of them with a Harley-Davidson decal on the back windshield. So yeah, I engaged in a little profiling, when one of them crowded me close to the door zone. I even started writing a vague, grumpy blog post in my head about black pickups.

And then I realized that the one behind me - a different black pickup - was staying back to give me room to come into the lane and get out of the door zone on the hill past Hopewell Ave. School. And then as we made our way up to the Lansdowne Bridge (which is currently my least favorite part of the city because of construction) I realized that the truck wasn't passing. It was hanging back, by a couple of car lengths, because there were parked cars and I would have to swing out around them. Normally I have to race cars into the single lane of the construction zone over the bridge, but this driver let me go ahead, and even though there is room for cars to pass, he didn't. I noticed a worker at the top of the bridge with a 'stop' sign, and pulled up to where she was and stopped. As I put a foot on the curb, I looked back. The truck was still keeping a more than safe distance. When the worker turned her sign back to "slow" and stepped back, I presumed the truck would pass me on the downslope of the bridge, but instead, I found myself in a wide open lane, encouraged to take it, and completely unworried about space as I moved into the narrower construction lane past Lansdowne Park, the one where I usually have to summon a little pigheadedness in order to take up my lane.

The truck was still unthreateningly far behind me, and apparently the driver was unconcerned. Touched, I tried to move quickly through the constricted lane, so I could get out of his way faster, wanting to be as courteous to him as he was being to me, and once we were into the Glebe on the other side of the bridge I moved over as much as I could to let him pass, where there were spaces with no parked cars. But he didn't: eventually he put on a left turn signal and turned off the street behind me.

So, AE 37092: Thanks for being a mensch. And sorry for vehicular profiling you.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

London streets, English roads, and cyclists with nerves of titanium

I just spent a couple of weeks in England and Scotland on a climbing trip that took me to London, the Peak District, the Lake District, the Highlands, Aberdeenshire, and eventually Edinburgh. While I didn't do any biking (I was bombing around in an SUV packed with gear and three other climbers for most of the trip), I can't help noticing bikes. And bike infrastructure. This photo was from the train on the way from Aberdeen to Edinburgh: I was sitting in the area where there were bike racks, and I did see one guy get on with his bike, load it onto the rack, and grab a seat.

But mostly things looked kind of terrifying. I can't imagine biking in London. The streets there are fairly chaotic, since everyone has right of way. This means that at intersections the pedestrians do hit the 'request' buttons, but then they walk across the street anyway, as soon as there's an opening. The cyclists are sharing narrow roads with cars, buses, and random pedestrians. Near Hyde Park Corner I watched a woman in a roundabout start to merge right on her bike, swerve a little, nearly get merged into by a car who didn't give way, then hold up a hand in a "hey, wait" sort of gesture, maneuver in front of the cab behind her . . . and then continue up and onto the sidewalk at the crosswalk. The whole thing looked like lunacy to me.

And yet apparently bikes are the most efficient way to get around in London. God help us.

In the Lake District, there were mountain and road bikers everywhere: it's a big mountain-sport area, full of hikers, bikers, fell runners and rock climbers, especially in high summer. But Lake District roads look like this:

Or like this:
Which makes coming upon a cyclist a bit of a hair-raising experience for me (as a passenger: I tensed up and got a bit testy with our driver for getting way too close behind one woman on a road bike, I admit). I can't imagine what it was like for the brave and Spandex-clad souls we came up behind and passed. Speed limits on these roads are 60 mph. But they didn't seem to flinch or falter in their pedaling, even with a large SUV bearing down on them from around a corner with nowhere to go to avoid them.

The road system in the UK is also slightly baffling, although our British friend tried to explain: apparently minor roads can be up- or downgraded from "A" class to "M" class and back, and that means changes in speeds, patrolling, and who's allowed to use them, I guess. I assume cyclists aren't allowed on the "M" class highways, but if that's the case, what about an "A" road that's been redesignated an "M" road? What about those six-exit, three-lane spiraling roundabouts? What about the absolute lack of things like road shoulders (or, for that matter, bike lanes wider than two feet)?

It's all a bit confusing. And I know that I'm seeing all this with North American eyes: coming from a place where we're so used to having space that we complain about three-metre-wide sidewalks - "there's just no space!" In parts of England, the whole road isn't three metres wide. So really, I tell myself, suck it up, buttercup. And I watch in awe as we pass cyclists on tiny, single-lane country roads in the Lake District. Or as they navigate roundabouts in the mid-range highway system.

But the close crush of bikes and cars is definitely unnerving to me as a visitor to a place like London, or Aberdeen, where the official bike route past the docks is a painted line designating a tiny, two-foot-wide chunk of the street as a space you 'might want to consider leaving for bikes' (although to be fair the first 'bike box' I ever saw in situ was in Aberdeen, too.)

And yet, the route I took on the train from Aberdeen to Edinburgh ran, at least for some of the way, along the Fife Coastal Path, which seemed to have space, info and accommodation for bikes - it's a trail I'm very tempted to try someday, if I can find a way to hire a bike in Edinburgh the next time I go to see my sister in Aberdeen.

It would have the advantage of not being on the roads. The tiny, tiny roads.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Another ghost

I rode right past this this afternoon. I was on my way north on Bank; cursing the lousy pavement, the large cargo trucks, the narrowness of the road. As I went across the bridge at Riverside, I remember thinking about the new sharrows that were painted on it just a couple of months ago, and how they completely fail to make me feel any safer when the dump trucks rumble past on their way to the construction site at Lansdowne, a mile down the road.

So I rode right past this. It was on the other side of Bank, at the corner of Riverside where the bike path crosses and then continues along the river. I didn't see it: I was looking ahead for potholes, checking behind for cars. I was feeling jumpier than usual because after a two-week vacation out of the country, I hadn't been on the bike in a while, and it always takes a while to get the courage back up and running.

On the way home, though, I saw it, as I pulled up at the red light. I knew it had to have happened in the last two weeks: I would have heard about a cycling death if I'd been in the city. So I stopped.

As I stopped, so did a few other people. A woman in a motorized wheechair, and a girl on a bike with white tires. "Did someone die?" the girl asked, and the woman nodded, solemnly. I didn't say anything. A couple of other bikes pulled up; they continued on when the light switched to green. I didn't, for a moment. Bikes swung by, crossing Bank on their way along the multi-user path on the river, or continuing with the traffic along Bank. I leaned Mike against the streetlight, walked up to the ghost bike, and read some of the news articles and obituaries tucked into the basket and sheathed in plastic sleeves.

The other cyclists and pedestrians moved on, and eventually so did I: what else was there to do? I kicked my leg back over my bike, and I headed back out into the rush hour traffic heading south on Bank.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Hacks both useful and useless

Not sure what to think about this latest offering from New York City:

While it's certainly geeky - seriously, a hacked GPS helmet? - and I feel like I should think this is cool, all I'm left with is a vague sense of bemusement. How exactly does it direct you? Can it direct you to somewhere else, rather than just the nearest station (it doesn't seem so)? And how distracted are you going to be with lights flashing and glowing just above your eyebrows? I'm distracted enough by the tire lights I bought that glow bright blue when the tires spin: I can't imagine what would happen if I had a bright green light directed straight into my eye from above.

And really, could it do something more useful? Like maybe. . . signal turns? Something like this: now this is a useful hack. (Click the link for the Instructable: I really want to do this.)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

27 miles in the rain

... that's how much I racked up in a day of doing stuff on my bike. Normally, I don't even think about how much ground I cover, but I was curious today, because it was a fairly busy day... so I plugged my route into MapMyRide, and that's what came up: 27 miles, give or take. The distance can really add up when you have a bunch of stuff to do. If I were to set out to do a 27-mile ride, I'd feel like I was taking on something major. But when I left the house this morning, I didn't give it a second thought. (Although I admit that since it was sullenly raining and looked like it would keep raining most of the day, I had fleeting thoughts about taking the car. But no: I had no real reason to take the car, and many reasons to ride.)

Where does all the mileage come from? I wondered... well, that 27 miles included:

1. A run out to Hawthorne (in the hellish wilds of the southern industrial parks) to pick up a package from the CanPar depot, which turned out to be a press release. Really. A press release, and a CD, from TVO (who knew TVO even still existed?) about a new drama series. I mean, who does that? Besides, the run out to Hawthorne is hellish even when it's not raining. I hate industrial parks. Transport and heavy cargo trucks, a highway exit, two main artery roads, magically appearing and disappearing bike lanes, and appalling pavement. I actually just shouted for a couple hundred metres just to get it out of my system on the way down Russell Road (which has a thick edge of asphalt and a broken, gravel shoulder.)
The start of a "bike lane" at the corner of Walkley and Russell. Gah.
2. From Hawthorne, along St Laurent, Smyth and Main, and downtown to meet friends for lunch: a decent spin down Smyth, and then the narrow and pothole-riddled stretch of Main. On the Pretoria Bridge, I encountered a pedestrian who had decided that since the sidewalk had too many people on it, he'd rather walk in the bike lane. I rang my bell continuously, until I had to pull out into the car lane to pass him, and said, "Hey, this is a bike lane," at him as I did. It was strange adjusting to city traffic when I hit Elgin: after an hour and a half on arteries I was in a whole different headspace. (Incidentally, the burgers at Manhattans, in the food court on Slater between Kent & Lyon, are pretty damn tasty. Especially when you're wet, chilly, grimy, and have just spent an hour on a bike in the rain.)

3. A run along side streets (ah, Percy, and Bay) from my office on Gloucester to Carleton U and the CKCU studio for my radio show. Diverted traffic from the Bronson construction has really congested Bay Street at rush hour: but people seem patient enough with it. The puddles really soaked my shoes though. I love the bike lane down Bay that gets you to the Glebe, and the little deke over that takes you the rest of the way to Queen Elizabeth: but riding on Queen Elizabeth is always a little sketchy because you know the canal path is just over there but there's not many obvious ways to get to it.

One is the loneliest number...
4. A chilly but speedy ride along the canal path to 8 Locks' Flat, which is on the canal just by U of O. There had been some talk on Twitter about meeting up for drinks with a bunch of other #ottbike people, and that was the last place I'd heard it was going to be. Not realizing that it was a temporary patio which, um, closes when it rains, I biked there, found the place, and learned my sad lesson (and, apparently, missed the memo on where people were actually meeting. So now I'm the Snuffalupagus of the #ottbike crowd). Anyway, having packed another few miles onto the tally for the day, I turned around and rode back down the canal over to Main Street, and from there back onto Smyth and Alta Vista, and so to my apartment. 

27 miles. A day in the life.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Magic lines

There is something about the lines painted on the road, isn't there? I catch myself doing it about as often as I catch myself being annoyed with someone else for doing it: treating those lines painted on the road like they're magic, inviolable force fields, like the line you drew down the middle of the back seat on long car trips - this is MY side and that's YOUR side, and . . . Moooooooommm!

Take the white line that marks the bike lane off from the rest of the road. I'll be rolling along, and notice a car, maybe thirty feet in front of me, with a wheel just edging over the line as it takes a curve. "Get the heck out of the bike lane," I think grumpily, before remembering that it doesn't matter to me anyway, the car's miles off and not in anyone's way. But my magic white line's been crossed; the bike lane is my safe space, it's not for cars. It's the same when there's debris in the lane or a set of potholes - it actually takes a little extra act of will to cross the line into the car lane.

It must work the other way too, since very often I'll be on a four-lane road and a car will pass me a little closer than I would like, having scootched over enough to give me clearance but apparently unable to cross into the leftmost lane, even when it's wide open. (Being a cyclist means that when I'm driving I actually do move over into that lane to give other cyclists as wide a berth as possible, because I remember the number of times I've grumbled to myself, "you had a whole other lane you could have been in, did you have to pass me so close?"

It's one of the reasons, I think, that I've found it so much more comfortable to take up more of the lane. Once a driver has moved far enough over that the tires cross that magic line, the spell is broken. In for a penny, in for a pound. Often once the line's been breached, it seems to me, drivers don't have as much of a problem moving all the way over. And so when the side of the road is really broken up, or potholed, or the drain covers are really sunken and hard to ride over, I move far enough out that they just can't get past me without crossing the line. And miraculously, cars start changing lanes to pass me instead of trying to squeeze between me and "the magic line that must never ever ever be crossed."

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Capital Velo Fest 2013

I headed to City Hall to catch Capital Vélo Fest on Saturday afternoon. It's the festival's third year, and although I couldn't make it to the Tour La Nuit in the evening (and I'm betting it was rained on rather heavily) the afternoon was fun too. 

On the pavement on the way in someone had drawn a line and written "Do you know how far you should be from parked cars and the curb?" and there was also a car parked on the pavement with the door open and a sign inviting drivers to come in and test their bike-wise-ness. Citizens for Safe Cycling had a space right by the door, there was a helmet-fitting table and a ton of information for cyclists and drivers.

As expected, there were a bunch of cool bikes there, being ridden and on display:

Vintage: dates from 1947. I'm in love.

CKCU-FM was there, playing tunes, and there was a game of bike polo going on, on a temporary playing field:

Not to mention the water-balloon fight that started up with a bunch of kids, the free bike taxis circling the plaza honking their horns, and all the stands set up by sports stores, entrepreneurs, cycling groups, and Ottawa Public Health. I roamed for a bit. At the Citizens for Safe Cycling table I stopped and grabbed a "safe cycling guide" and a copy of their newsletter, and then bumped into Hans Moor, the president, who I know from the online community only. But, seeing a tall guy walk up and hearing a Dutch accent, I said, "You must be Hans," and then added, "I'm Kathryn Hunt, I'm on Twitter and I've got a blog..." He recognized me, and since my dad had let me know that Hans had just done a presentation in Fredericton, we talked for a while about the nascent cycling community in Fredericton and the problems and possibilities there. It was nice to finally have a face to put to the name.

I checked out some of the other tables too: there was a woman named Jenny-Lynn Manzo who makes jewelry out of recycled inner tubes.

I took a better picture of this one, but sadly I deleted it by accident. I thought the patch was a cute touch. 
There was also a young guy with a stand, doing quick tuneups and adjustments for free:

I was checking out a table surrounded by vintage and custom bikes and ran into a guy named Michael who was riding a fat bike he'd built himself out of a $200 Wal-Mart cruiser frame and a pair of absolutely enormous rims he bought/built. The tires were 3.75" in the front and 4" in the back, and super squooshy. He said you could ride over just about anything on them. . . and he let me, and a couple of other people, have a go.

Michael on the right. The big tires attracted attention.
Me taking it out for a spin. It was about the most comfortable ride I've had on a bike. All cushy.
But the real surprise for me was that Governor General David Johnston was there. All set in a Canadian Army Spandex shirt and a pair of shorts, and good-naturedly taking on a couple of events in the "bike rodeo" they had set up.
The goal was to pop the balloons with a stick he's got in his right hand.
He and his wife also headed to the stand where you could blend up your own smoothie (a "SMOOCH") with a bike-powered blender. 

And chatted to a bunch of people afterward. 

As the afternoon wore on, I bought a couple of tire valve lights - blue and purple - that I haven't had a chance to try out yet, because I couldn't be at Tour La Nuit, and found myself standing next to a guy at the table who was asking what was going on. He was up from Georgia on a business trip, saw all the bikes, and decided to check it out. When I left the table he was talking to a couple of the volunteers about the possibility of renting a bike - or checking out a Bixi - so he could come along.

I also got a free T-shirt and a random conversation with a couple of older folks - in their 70s I'd say - who publish a bike touring guide of Ontario and had some great stories about long-distance bike touring through the back roads that got me thinking, again, about taking some time out and going for some really long rides.

All in all - a great afternoon, and a really diverse bunch of people, from bike hackers and mechanics to commuters and road bikers. There was Spandex and blue jeans, young and old, clunkers and $2,000 road bikes. Definitely a "biking is for everyone" vibe. I was glad I made it out.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


It was a gorgeous day to bike downtown to work today. Not even the scary (super-scary) potholes on Heron could dampen my spirits. And because one of my jobs has meant I get to bike to work less (it's 40 km from my place: not really manageable by bike) I treasure the days I get to ride even more.

On my In Town and Out interview this week I talked about commuting by bike, but I never feel like I've really gotten across why it's so darn good. This, though, was posted by a friend on Facebook the day after the interview, and I think it sums things up pretty well:

Giacomo asked me, in the In Town and Out interview, about how I got started riding, and in ten seconds or so I tried to say something about that. But it's hard to be clear when you're thinking on your feet in front of a microphone, and I think it bears saying again that I didn't do it to save the world or to be an athlete. I will admit that a part of my decision to see if I could actually bike to work every day was based on the fact that I had recently gotten back into rock climbing, and thought that pretty much anything that made me stronger, faster, or built up my endurance would be good for my climbing game. But more important was the fact that if I biked the 7 or 8 miles to and from work each day, I didn't have to buy a $90 monthly bus pass. I didn't have a car: it was bus, transit or beg a ride for anything I wanted to go to. And I was broke and trying to save money.

And as I mentioned in the interview, I quickly discovered that what had been an hour and fifteen minute bus ride, on average, was a 35-40 minute bike ride. I started out by telling myself there was no option: ride or nothing. Because it was actually faster to bike, that was easy: if I dawdled in the morning, as I was very likely to do, eventually my only choice would be to ride, because I'd missed the bus I needed. My own habits helped me out, there. After a while, I forgot that bussing - anywhere - was even an option.

And I arrived at work so much more awake and alive. Sure, I might arrive ranting about an idiot who'd cut me off on Montreal Road or blazed past me on Bank, but I had also been able to spend 40 minutes of my morning pedaling along, checking out the sunshine and the wildlife along the Rideau River, getting my pulse up, listening to some tunes in one ear, doing some thinking and organizing and planning in my head, and bringing my heartrate up a little. After a while, I started riding in the rain, too, once I had rain gear. And then after a year or two, I stopped turning in the bike and standing in line for the bus pass in October or November, and started riding through the winter. And discovered how much fun a quiet cold street can be in January when you're the only cyclist you've seen all night. Frozen dry pavement and a scarf covered in built-up frozen breath can be fun too. Even riding back from a night out with friends through a driving ice storm. 

Giacomo asked about people worrying about not looking 'cool' if they don't have all the road-bike gear, and I wish I'd said that most of the time, the coolest I feel is when I come rolling up to my apartment building at the end of the day, swing off, and pick my bike up to carry it up the stairs to the lobby. Sure, Mike's a cheap, second- or third- or maybe fourth-hand beater, but that's actually pretty cool in itself. That's how I roll: on a beat-up old mountain bike. Pretty much every time I pull up at my building and get off, I feel badass. Rain, shine, snow, sleet, good traffic, bad traffic, whatever: when I hit the brakes at the end of my trip, I think, "yeah, that's the establishing shot for the next scene in the movie someone's filming of my life."

And also, everyone has a different sense of "cool." My own sense has changed over the years I've been riding. All sorts of cyclists strike me as "cool" now. This afternoon I cruised through the south end of Centretown behind a girl with short hair, a messenger bag, high handlebars, a straight-backed posture, fully tattooed calves, and a music player mounted on her bike playing "Love Will Tear Us Apart." I had to pull up and hit the brakes behind her for a while because she was slower than me, but I didn't mind one bit. She was cool. 

A little later on, I found myself behind a grey-haired, balding and bearded man with his seat too low, in a suit, on a hybrid, rolling down a main artery. He was cool too. Someone at Billings Bridge had parked a mid-range road bike in black and acid green. That was cool. Someone downtown this morning had a bike with one of those curved metal fenders strapped, for some reason, to the top tube. Also cool. I think freaky cargo bikes are cool, and collapsible folding bikes. I think single-speed cruisers are cool, and trial bikes, and super hardcore mountain bikes, and ultrasleek road bikes. I even think STOOPIDTALL is cool, although it scares the crap out of me. And check this adorable Twitter pic.

So I suppose what I think is cool is that bikes can be an extension of your own style, and an extension of your life. Lots of things about my life have changed because I ride, sure, but  I also feel like the way I ride has developed because of who I am. And sunny early summer days like this one get me kind of effusive about the whole thing.

Friday, May 3, 2013

15 minutes of fame

Just a quick note: I'll be appearing on CBC Radio's In Town and Out tomorrow (Saturday) at 8:15 am, talking about Bike to Work Month with Giacomo Panico, who I'm happy to get to meet IRL (there are so many people I know from the online community that I haven't actually met in the real world.) I'll post the link here when the interview's online sometime tomorrow. For now, In Town and Out's page is here.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Random encounters

I was heading up Bank Street south of Billings Bridge this afternoon on my way home from a meeting. Up ahead of me, on the sidewalk, there was a slightly sketchy-looking guy riding on the sidewalk, on a mountain bike with big fatty tires - more than 2 inches, I'd say. As I stopped at a red light, he stopped at the intersection as well and got off his bike, I assume to walk it across the road, or maybe he was just getting tired of the climb.

Then he called out to me. "You need air in your tire."

I looked up. "I know," I said, and I did; before leaving the house I'd noticed the tires were flabby but was running too late for my meeting to dig out the pump. But after a second I thought that sounded a bit too brusque - the guy was just being helpful. So I added with a laugh, "I can definitely tell when I'm on a hill," and then the light changed and I rolled along on my way.

But it also occurred to me that it's kind of amazing that he'd seen, and noticed, that my tire was a little deflated. From that distance. As I was cranking along on the road. I stopped later to take a picture of my tire, with my weight on the seat. This picture up and to the left is it.

This guy saw that my tire was low on air from a good twenty-five feet away. Now that's a guy with an eye for bikes.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Proper spring

I was out looking for photos for the
Centretown BUZZ. Found this.
Today was probably the first taste of proper spring. It's gritty and wet (my back fender fell off a couple of days ago, because the zip tie holding it on broke: left the house without it today and regretted it within five minutes when I had a soggy, gritty patch on my ass.)

Oh, but, but...Gritty, wet, sure, but it was above freezing. I could wear my helmet without a toque underneath it. There were patches of dirty snow creeping out into and across the bike lanes, but I rode along, way out in the lane to avoid the potholes and puddles, taking up my space like a boss and thinking, "There's hope for the universe yet."

Spring always does that to me. Somehow riding your bike when you're not bundled up, head and torso immobilized by coat and scarf and hat and shoulders hunched up against the chill - riding when you can loosen up and let down the defenses against the elements - the first day you really get to do that in the spring is so liberating. It's like you have so much more room, control, grace, power. You're not carrying around a ton of tension, prepared for black ice, slippery slush, that hidden pothole, the car bearing down from behind, and shrunk into yourself because it's -20 out there beyond your eyelids... nope. Not anymore. Now you're a lane-taking, curb-hopping, pedal-cranking machine, with your head on a swivel just because it finally can be.

Or maybe it's just me.

Long live the first yawns and stretches of spring.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Jaw dropped, for two reasons

Out of the internet ether comes this crazy bike fact: 

There was once a bike that went 127 miles an hour. 

It looked like this:

And it went like snot. It was ridden in 1962, in Germany, by a crazy bastard named José Meiffret. It's worth reading the full story, which I stumbled upon via ThumbShift and Grist.com. Everything about this bike and the ride strikes me as having a sort of inspired, delirious madness about it. 

And while we're marveling at inspired craziness from the past, here's some from the present: I was on the way home tonight when I heard CBC's As It Happens running a story about Boris Johnson's cycling initiatives, announced this morning. Boris Johnson, in case you don't know, is the mayor of London, England. I've posted a video on this blog of him riding a "Boris bike" with Arnold Schwarzenegger when they got instated (incidentally, the Boris bikes are actually the Bixi bikeshare system, bought from Canada). I knew he was a cycling supporter. 

But to the tune of 913 million pounds? That's how much he'll be spending on infrastructure to prioritize bikes, get more people cycling and relieve traffic, according to the Guardian. There will be a 15-mile "crossroad for cyclists" - a fully segregated bike freeway, co-opting parts of existing motorways. There will be three "mini Hollands" in the suburbs - areas where bikes will supplant cars for internal transportation almost entirely.

As Jeff Douglas said on the show, "If you're a regular cyclist in a Canadian city, you might want to plug your ears and hum loudly for the next few minutes. Because this story may make you a tiny bit envious. Or unbelievably, unbearably envious."

Yeah, Jeff. You nailed it. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A bike made of cars

I've stumbled across another cool (if somehow hipstery) video. This is a bike made out of junked cars. There's a lovely sort of metaphor in that. Also, blowtorches are cool.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

It's that magical time...

When potholes spring up out of nowhere! Like daisies! Or possibly fungus!

But to bring a little joy into a pothole-ridden day, I have just discovered a total gem of the Interweb: there is a website called www.pothole.info. There really is. I found it because I wanted to look up something on how potholes form (because it seems to me like they're worse on higher-speed roads and I was looking for some sort of explanation for that). Go. Click it. It's really entertainingly written.

Anyway, the pothole report from here: there are days when I feel, as I turn in to my driveway, that just getting home unharmed was an achievement for the day. And I feel a little badass as I put on the brakes in front of my door and pick the bike up to bring it inside... that's right, I just made it home. UNINJURED. What have you done recently?

I was on the way home today and ran into this nightmare: this is on the way south on Bank, near the intersection with Randall, I think. The problem here is the high snowbanks on the side of the road which eat the bike lane (while it lasts) and then do a quick duck further into traffic where the bike lane ends. By the time you've made it through all that, you're a little sketched about the speeding cars on your left. And you're climbing a hill. Then you encounter this:

Note the snowbank.

Anyway, I started taking pictures.

The thing about potholes of the size and grandeur of Bank and Heron potholes is, at least they push you to take up space. It's scary to get out there into the lane when you can hear the cars coming up behind you, and I have to remind myself over and over that I'm actually safer with my tires a metre or so out from the edge, rather than hugging the side, taking up as little space as possible, the Apologetic Cyclist. "Nuts to that! Take up space!" I tell myself. But it's really hard to actually do. It's so easy to hear the car coming up behind you at speed, and cringe sideways. And every time I do, and the car passes close to me and I flinch, I'm actually madder at myself for cringing than at the car for buzzing me.  . .

Anyway. There are spots on Heron that sort of force you to merge left, or face disaster. Like this:

I mean, it's almost magnificent. Just look at the sheer extent of it! I actually did have to ride (slowly, and standing on the pedals) through that mess on the left, because there was double-barreled traffic coming by and I couldn't swerve into the lane. Slammed on the brakes instead. I'm happy I ride a mountain bike.

There's also this one, just in front of Saint Patrick High School, which has been there a while. It's almost an axle-breaker, and I know that a couple of weeks ago, while I was walking past, I got drenched when a car went over it:

I'm going to have to break out my Pothole Rating System (TM) soon, I think. It's only going to get more interesting.

The thing is, like I just said about them forcing you to take the lane, they do kick your awareness, and your bravery, up a notch. Potholes make you ride more skilfully. In case you're looking for a silver lining to that late-winter-early-spring-riding cloud.

Monday, January 21, 2013


Seriously, how cool is this? Snap-on, instant - even portable - snow tires. Because I've never needed studded tires all winter (and changing my tires frequently is not my idea of a fun time), and it's not really icy often enough to warrant the expense. But if I had these puppies... I would carry them with me just in case of bad weather. I'd probably catch myself watching the sky and hoping for storms, just so I could whip these awesome little gadgets out and be all like, "yeah, that's how I roll."

They're designed by a Dutch guy named Cesar van Rongen. And I want them. Like, a lot.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The 1800s

For quite a while, I've been fascinated with the late-1800s bicycle craze - the huge leaps in technology and attitudes that happened in cycling then, the experimentation with design, the way people thought this - this - was going to be the future of human transportation, the "working man's horse." Bikes symbolized progress, freedom, innovation and a brave new world.

Once people settled on the "safety" as the model for bikes, their basic design never really changed again - those bikes are totally recognizable today. Would be rideable today. But no one really saw cars coming, did they?

Still, the 1880s and 90s were full of pioneering, adventuring cylists (in completely fabulous outfits). Wheelmen and women who would decide to do things like ride a bicycle on some kind of incredible long-distance trek. There was quite a fad for riding around the world on your safety or - in some cases - your ordinary. My personal favorite case was Annie Londonderry (she started out Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, then named herself after a bicycle brand as a marketing move), who was the first woman to circle the world by bicycle and did the whole thing on sponsorships. Lots of these travelers were funded by bicycle, gear, camera and clothing manufacturers, and by newspapers, who would ask them for regular columns.

Anyway, I get a regular email newsletter called The Writer's Almanac, and yesterday there was an entry about one of those world-circlers: apparently January 7th was the anniversary of the first of those journeys - undertaken on a tall wheel of all things. I'll quote it here, because I find this stuff just fascinating.

"On this day in 1887, Thomas Stevens became the first person to circle the world by bicycle. Born to a grocer in the suburbs of London, Stevens convinced his father to let him sail to America, when at 17 he had already saved enough to cover his passage. Once in the States, he found work as a rancher and, later, in a Colorado mine, where he hatched a plan to make a name for himself by being the first man to ever cross the U.S. by bicycle. Seven others had already tried and failed. Stevens managed to stash away enough of his wages for the trip west to San Francisco where he promptly purchased a 41-pound 50-inch Columbia tall wheeler, called the "Ordinary." He had never before set foot on a bicycle and had no idea how to ride it, but after giving himself a crash course around Golden Gate Park, he soon set off toward Boston with a change of socks, a Smith and Wesson revolver, and a thin coat that he also used as a tent.

In 1884, there were no interstate roads or rest stops, and when crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains, Stevens had to push his bicycle across railroad bridges, sometimes hanging his bike over the railing when an unexpected train passed. He scared off a mountain lion, was bitten by a rattlesnake, and was arrested in Chicago for riding on the sidewalk. He rode into Boston 103 days after leaving California, having traveled 3,700 miles.

That winter, he published an account of his trip in Outing magazine. Its publisher, Albert Pope, was also the owner of the country's largest bicycle manufacturer, and he pitched a worldwide tour to the young cyclist, offering to pay his way. Stevens accepted, and the following spring the 30-year-old set out from Liverpool headed east. He crossed through Europe unscathed and into the Ottoman Empire where he was often the first white man and first bicycle that locals had ever seen. Towering nearly four feet above others while on the bike, Stevens drew a lot of attention, and in Turkey he had to fend off would-be robbers at gunpoint. He had planned to travel through Russia, but was refused entrance by the authorities, and was arrested and deported as a spy while trying to work his way around Afghanistan. He doubled back through India and kept heading east through China, where he narrowly missed being stoned to death. Japan was more welcoming, and after pedaling 13,500 miles of since leaving California, Stevens rolled into Yokohama, then took a steamer on to the San Francisco Bay where his trip began.

Stevens published a two-volume account of his adventure, Around the World by Bicycle (1887), which was based on his letters to Harper's Magazine throughout the trip. It became an instant best-seller. He became a sought-after speaker and continued exploring and writing, famously tracking down the missing explorer Henry Morton Stanley in rural Africa, and riding 1,000 miles on horseback through pre-revolutionary Russia, where he interviewed Leo Tolstoy, for his 1891 book, Through Russia on a Mustang."