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Archive for the ‘Commuting’ Category

There are numerous races both large and small that make up the pro cycling season.  However, none get quite the attention of the three grand tours:  the Tour de France, the Giro de Italia (Tour of Italy) and the Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain).  However, this year I’ll also be doing three of my own grand tours:

* My wife Melissa will be with me on these two rides

Wait.  The Tour de Ross’s Commute?  What the heck is that??

For over three years now, I’ve been commuting an average of 3 days a week between my home in Sacramento, CA and my work in Palo Alto.  It is about 125 miles or so by car.  Of course, I don’t do it by car.  However, after a couple of the “Oh – did you ride here from Sacramento” jokes from coworkers as I rolled my bike into the office, I decided to make it so that I could actually answer “Yes!”

That’s right, I’ll be throwing my faith (and bike, and life) into the hands of Google maps and their new bike route mapping to plot my safe path the 139 miles I’ll be riding.

There are some interesting challenges and points of interest in my route:

I don’t fully know what to expect of this ride yet.  That is part of why I am so excited about it!

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Finally. Out of Europe. Video evidence that rush hour traffic can actually be enjoyable! And a little less noisy too.

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If you ride your bike on the public streets, it is inevitable that someone will pull out in front of you.   Sooner or later, you’ll be forced to grab a handful of brake lever (or worse) as someone darts out of their driveway or turns in front of you into a parking lot.

Ever since my previous post on car/cyclist interactions, I’ve been thinking about this more and more.  To be very honest, I ride in the flow of traffic quite a bit, and I’ve never really had any major troubles.  I’ve had a few close calls, but nothing really more significant than the countless close calls I’ve had behind the wheel of a car.  I did get into a tangle with a car that pulled a right turn directly in my path, but neither myself, my bike nor the car was significantly damaged, and the driver was apologetic and basically just made a mistake.  In short – I’m not hostile to cars, nor do I feel particularly threatened while I ride on the roads (perhaps just my naivety.)

However, I had one of these near misses just the other day.  I was traveling along (in a marked bike lane, for the record) when a driver approaching from the other direction turned on her left turn signal.  She stopped, preparing to make her left turn into a parking lot, and clearly looked right at me.  I continued at my current speed (maybe 15-18 MPH)  Then … she turned right in front of me.  It was when her car was completely blocking the bike lane that she again looked out of her passenger window and saw me.  Unfortunately she did the absolute last thing I wanted her to do.  She slammed on her brakes, completely blocking the bike lane I was riding in and stared at me with a completely startled and bewildered expression.

I managed to swerve around the back of her vehicle without incident, but I considered how this may have happened for the rest of the ride home.  Coincidentally this general situation was brought up on episode #158 of The FredCast.  In that podcast, David Bernstein describes “being invisible”, attributing situations like the one I experienced to motorists not even seeing cyclists.

However, I’m not so sure that is always the case.  In my situation, I clearly saw her look right at me.  Is it possible that she looked at me without actually seeing me?  Did she just look right through me as David Bernstein suggests?  Or is there possibly something else going on here.

Obviously we all (all of us that drive cars, that is) make turns in front of other cars.  However, usually we do this in a way that ensures we’ve completed our turn before the other car comes anywhere near us.  In other words, we look at oncoming traffic, judge their speed, and make a decision to proceed if we believe that we can complete our maneuver safely without getting in the way of the other car.  Usually this is done automatically – watching the other car for a period of time long enough for us to determine the relative speed.

I propose that a good deal of these “invisible cyclist” incidents are actually more of a “poorly judged cyclist speed” situation.  And why would drivers be prone to misjudge a cyclist’s speed?  I think it may just be due to assumptions about how fast most folks ride their bikes.  I don’t think that she didn’t see me – but rather she saw that I was on a bike and immediately made the assumption “slow” without taking the time to actually watch me and accurately judge my rate of speed.  Maybe this woman’s only experiences with bikes include spinning along at 5MPH on her beach cruiser, or watching the grandkids riding circles in the driveway.  Perhaps the possibility of a cyclist traveling at 15, 20, 30 or more miles per hour is just not within her realm of expectation.

Interestingly enough, I first came up with this idea not related to cycling – but rather while driving an old 1971 VW Bus.  It seemed that folks tended to pull out in front of me a whole lot more driving that big green bus then they did any of my other cars.  I couldn’t figure out why for the longest time – I mean, it is a lot easier to see a VW Bus that most sedans and sports cars.  However, it occurred to me one day that those Volkswagens just look slow.  They’re boxy and have a reputation for not going very fast.  There are a lot of different inputs that us humans use to judge our environment – and many of them are based on past experiences and memories.  If you are used to riding slowly on a bike, or seeing others ride slowly on a bike, you are more likely to assume that all bikes go slow.

Ultimately it really doesn’t make any difference why someone pulls directly into your path (either on a bicycle or in a classic VW) as the end result is the same – you’ve got to be ready to take some quick evasive actions.  However, if there is any validity to this “y’all just think I’m slower than I am” theory, it can mean that you become more likely to run into these situations as you become a stronger and faster cyclist.

Just something to think about as you’re spinning along our highways and byways.

From http://bicyclesafe.com. Used with permission.

Addendum: Now I’m not so arrogant as to assume I’m the first person to think of this, but it was interesting that almost as soon as I’d saved this post I ran across a mention of a similar idea on http://bicyclesafe.com/ in their description of the “right hook” car/bike accident:

A car passes you and then tries to make a right turn directly in front of you, or right into you. They think you’re not going very fast just because you’re on a bicycle, so it never occurs to them that they can’t pass you in time.


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Wow…  Who’d have thought that me taking a day off of my bike for the daily commute could be such a huge boon to the economies of the areas that I travel through?  The lack of a bicycle, coupled with delays a getting out of the office has pushed my normal transit agency up 100%.

Normally, I use both Amtrak and Capitol Corridor trains – coupled with my bike – to deal with my commute.  Well, technically speaking I think that even both of those two servers are technically Amtrak, but we’ll consider them two for the time being.

Today, however, without the bike I actually used 4 distinct transit agencies.  Here’s the lowdown:

Departure

  • Leave house to bus top.  Unfortunately, at the bus stop I realize that I forgot something and go back to the house, missing the bus.  Beg the wife (who was happily snoozing in bed until my rude interruption) for a ride to the train station instead.
  • Board Amtrak capitol corridor bound for Emeryville
  • Transfer to bus, across the Bay Bridge to the Caltrain station
  • Caltrain to Palo Alto

Going Home (this is where things get more interesting)

  • Meeting at the office runs a little longer than hoped.  Catch a later Caltrain that wanted at Palo Alto
  • Since I won’t make the Amtrak connecting bus leaving Palo Alto at this time, and missing that bus would result in me getting home about 90 minutes or so later, I start to scheme and plan.  I could take a taxi from the Caltrain station to the Ferry building and catch a different Amtrak bus ($10-$12 with tip)  However, I’ve got some Bart tickets in my wallet with balances left on them.  After a whole bunch of time schedule cross-referencing between Caltrain, Bart and Amtrak, I opt to get off of Caltrain at Milbrae and take Bart out to the Richmond Amtrak stop.  Haven’t been on Bart in a while, otta be fun…
  • Get off Bart, stand around for 20 minutes waiting for Amtrak
  • Get off Amtrak in Sacramento, walk 3 blocks to bus stop
  • Take Sacramento RT home

I think I may have been less complicated for me to cross three or four countries in Europe compared to this.  However, I did get to catch up on a bunch of podcasts during my little experiment in mass transit.

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It wasn’t exactly cold, but it was a little chilly.  And there was a constant drizzle that was just on the borderline of being called rain.  The weather report said the gusts were in the 15-20 mph range.  Generally not the ideal riding conditions.

And I was loving every minute of riding in it.

It had been about two full weeks (or is it three now?) since I’d last really ridden my bike on a regular basis.  I was trying really really hard to do the right thing and allow the nagging iliotibial issues I’ve been suffering with heal (I already whined about these in a previous post).  Well, actually, the knee pain wasn’t really the whole story about why I hadn’t been commuting.  I’d also demolished two of the three of my chainrings and was waiting for replacements to arrive at my local Independent Bike Shop.  To make a long story short, it looks like I probably lost one of the 5 bolts that hold the large chainring onto the spider.  This caused the ring to flex, which resulted in in snapping at one point.  Then, at the break, the chain dropped off of the big ring and crammed itself in between the big and middle rings – also bending the middle ring.  Sigh.

City Bicycle Works had the big ring (a 52) in stock, but the middle ring (the 42) had to be ordered.  Well, that came in the day before yesterday, and I stopped in to pick it up yesterday.  That made last night wrenching night.  The new rings were actually an upgrade from the previous.  The new ones are pretty much Shimano 105 stock, while the older ones were Shimano … well, circa 1980 something.  Even upside down on the bench I noticed the shifts were quicker compared to the older (and now demolished) chainrings.

The drive train wasn’t the only thing new.  Those of you following along will recall that my current commuter bike was a recent placement for one that got stolen.  Well, the Cannondale I picked up to replace it made it a little challenging to put a rack on the back to carry my laptop, clothes, etc.   It has no eyelets on the forks, and the only eyelets on the read dropouts were directly under the seat stays – making it tricky to get a rack support bolted on vertically.   There are also no mounting points on the seat stays, so I’d have to work around that too.

After some digging and searching, I got in contact with a guy named Wayne at The Touring Store.  He sells racks made by a German company named Tubus.  Every reference I could find to these racks was positive, and coupled with some good feedback I got about both Tubus and The Touring Store from a coworker I’d already decided to go that route.  After a couple of phone calls with Wayne, and sending a couple of photos of the bike, he recommended a particular rack and some additional fitting hardware to make this all attach snugly and securely to my bike and I was on my way.

So, here’s my Cannondale – complete with shiny new chainrings and a uber-cool rack on the back to hang my bags off of.  My knee was feeling good (i.e. didn’t hurt) and I was up and ready to go.  It was time to get to work the way I like to get to work – on my bike.

That’s a long, forking story that doesn’t do much but illustrate why I can honestly write:  It was rainy and windy – miserable riding conditions – and I loved every minute of it!

Ride Safe!

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Apparently for some simply stealing a guys bike isn’t enough. Instead of stopping there, let’s beat him unconscious too. At least that’s what a SacBee article is reporting.

That actually raises an interesting point that has always bothered me. Historically we’ve had much higher legal penalties for stealing primary transportation – first horses and now cars. These penalties have been (and are) higher than the simple financial value of the stolen property. Why? A big reason is that stealing someone’s primary transportation can leave a person stranded in a way that can potentially be dangerous for them. Well, what about those of us that use bikes as our primary transportation? What happens when I am 30, 40, 50 miles or more from home and get my bike stolen? Where’s my “Grand Theft Bicycle” statute?

All that aside, I wish this cyclist a speedy recovery. I’m still feeling the mental effects of the theft of my bike, and I didn’t have the added insult of a physical assault to go along with it.

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After the recent theft of my bike off of Caltrain, I started thinking a little more about bicycle security on the bike cars.  I come from an InfoSec background, and a large part of being successful in that field involves understanding how “the bad guys” go about their attacks.  I starting thinking about the bike cars with the same frame of mind and started to think about how I would steal a bike from the train if I so desired.  The argument here is that, the more potential theft gambits I know of, the better equipped I will be to defend against those thefts.

Now I know that some of you will be thinking “But Ross – you’re just telling the thieves how to do it!”  It is a common statement, and open to some debate.  On the one side are those that believe that publishing information about how to engage in a particular harmful act (breaking into a computer system, stealing a bike, whatever) only serves to make the criminals more efficient.  On the other side of the argument there are those that maintain that the criminals can come up with this stuff on their own, and our ignorance of these techniques only makes us more likely to be victimized.  Obviously I belong to the second group.

I’ll also offer some of my own suggestions on how to help mitigate the risk of getting your bike stolen from you.

I’ll start off with an examination of how the perpetrator was able to get away with my bike, which was less than 15-20 feet away and in plain sight, without me even being aware it had happened.  This scenario is put together with bits and pieces of information I got from the conductor and other passengers at the time.

The “plenty of time, grab-n-go” theft

The prerequisite for this theft involves a location where the train is sitting idle for long periods of time.  Specifically, this takes place at either San Francisco 4th & King for southbound trains, and San Jose for northbound trains.  Our victim boards and places his bike against one of the racks.  He then goes to his seat – turning his back on the bike by necessity.  Furthermore, most of us will be slightly distracted as we sit down – pulling laptops out of our bags, eating the Subway sandwich you just purchased in the station, whatever.  All of these provide moments of opportunity for our thief to notice your inattention, grab your bike from the rack and head out the door.  As soon as they hit the platform, they can jump on the bike and be out of the station to the street – probably faster than you can even get out of your seat and out the door, alert the conductor, or whatever.  If you happen to be sitting on the top level of one of the older cars, your path out the door after the thief is even further hindered.

The “pretend to be a regular commuter” theft

This method is probably more effective on crowded trains, and again may benefit from being carried out before leaving either the SF or SJ stations.  People standing around, shuffling bikes can often block your view of your bike from your seat, further setting the stage for our thief.  In this situation, our victim is already on the train with their bike in the racks.  Our thief boards with a bike of his own (crappy and disposable, we would assume) and loiters near the doors.  When the thief feels the time is right, she will approach the rack where our victim’s bike is and remove it from the rack – acting as if she is simply putting her bike behind the victim’s.  This is not an unusual occurrence on Caltrain as folks organize the bikes to ensure that those getting off first don’t have to move other bikes out of the way.  But already our thief has the upper hand.  Perhaps she already kn0ws this is your bike and as casually checking to see if you are watching.  Even if not, though, she’s already got the bike in her hands and gained an advantage.  Time this (by fumbling around, whatever) and you can actually spring towards the door as soon as the chime and “Caution, the doors are about to close” announcement comes on.  Our thief is out the door and, even if our victim is fast enough to catch her, the doors are already closed and the train is beginning to move out of the station.  Sorry – you’re bike is gone.

Protecting yourself

Caltrain doesn’t allow you to lock your bikes to the racks – for understandable reasons.  However, there are some things that you can do to help alleviate the threat – most of which result in making your bike appear as a more difficult target:

  • While you can’t lock your bike to the train (or other bikes) you can lock your bike to itself.  Put your UBolt or chain through one or both rims and through the frame.  This eliminates the possibility of a riding getaway, and may actually fool more ignorant or less observant thieves into thinking the bike actually is locked to the rack.
  • Remove the saddle and take it with you.  Or – another approach is to turn the saddle around backwards.  Again – hindering the quick ride away.
  • Place your bike in the racks farthest from the door.  Truth be told, however, mine was in the fourth rack from the door of one of the older style train cars.  Still, bikes close to the door sure feel like easier targets.
  • Watch your bike very very carefully until someone else places there bike on top of yours.  You might want to notice where that “outside” bike is going, too, so that you can pay attention at that stop.
  • Sit as close to your bike as possible.  Hell, maybe just stand next to it depending on the length of your commute.
  • Take removable stuff like cycling computers and lights with you to your seat.  Yes – these can get stolen too, and are a lot harder for you to notice when it is happening.

Basically, though, there is one thing that protects you more than anything else you can do – watch your bike! Certainly no one is going to stare at their bike non-stop through their entire trip.  However, if you are vigilant at all of the station stops you can go a long way towards protecting your bike.  Clearly no one is getting away with your bike on a moving train!

Hope this helps others somehow avoid my fate.  Cheers, happy cycling and may all of your bikes arrive at the station with you!

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