What I Did On My Summer Vacation

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I’ve been fortunate to be traveling around the West since March of this year – sort of a pre-retirement tour of places we already love or have always wanted to visit. Typically, we rent a house or apartment for 4-6 weeks and this gives us a chance to get to know the community. One good way to learn about a town is to volunteer – it’s a great way to meet the locals, learn what is important to them, and understand how they treat others in the community. There are a lot of volunteer opportunities from helping at a food bank to one-on-one literacy tutoring. My favorite volunteer activity has been working at bike co-ops. I enjoy the co-ops because I get to wrench on bikes and directly help people. Plus, I see immediate results from my efforts. I particularly enjoy teaching and helping others learn how to troubleshoot. I’ve worked with 5-year-old kids, families, retirees who use a bike as their primary transport, and a few homeless folks who hardly own more than the bike they rode to the shop.

I’ve helped at bike co-ops in Silver City, New Mexico (Bikeworks), Boise, Idaho (Boise Bicycle Project), and Missoula, Montana (Free Cycles Missoula). All three have distinct personalities that reflect the needs of the community, their funding, and the goals of their employees, founders and boards. You don’t have to know anything about bikes to help in any of these organizations – they will put you to work to the level of your knowledge and train you along the way. Some have structured volunteer programs and some assign you to where you are needed on any particular day. If you don’t have a lot of experience, you might initially be taking pedals off bikes or patching inner tubes.

In a typical day at Free Cycles Missoula, I would show up and start working on bikes they would later sell and also help folks who walked into the shop. In one day, I helped a Mom and her whip-smart 8-year-old daughter fix a flat, an Englishman on a cross-country bike tour, and a Sophomore at the University of Montana who was building a bike for himself in the ‘Build-A-Bike’ program. He was tearing the bike down to the bare frame and had a lot of work to do but was enjoying learning how to do it.

As a kid, I tinkered a lot and learned mechanical skills from my father, friends, and books but I think that in this era of ubiquitous electronic devices many kids don’t get the opportunity to work with their hands. Learning how to build and maintain a bike is empowering and fun for both kids and adults. Boise Bicycle Project has a great program for kids to teach them how to build up their own bike – they tear the bike down to the bearings and know every single part on the bike once they are done. At Freecycles, one 5-year-old boy let me help him build his bike. He was so proud when he jumped on it for a test ride that he giggled as he rode around. With that much pride, you know that he’s not going to leave his bike outside to rust in the rain.

During my time at the Boise Bicycle Project, I still remember what I learned from Charles Mitchell, the shop manager, and this theme is repeated at all 3 co-ops to different degrees; A volunteer or donor may initially see the co-op as a place that helps people fix their bikes, but the mission is grander than that. The mission can be about education in troubleshooting, self-reliance, patience, working with others and giving people control over a part of their lives. I also see that the co-ops can bring a broader cross-section of society together than many endeavors. In my work as an engineer over many years I was mostly around medium to high-income people, whereas at the co-ops I was fortunate to work with and learn from people across a much broader spectrum.

For a bike geek like myself, it’s also a chance to see different bikes from past decades since the co-ops get donations of all sorts of bikes and can be like a mini museum of bike history.

I had never seen this BMX bike with rear suspension but this almost mint example was at Bikeworks

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Every co-op has a large collection of donated bikes and parts and these ‘boneyard’ bikes are an important source of parts for repairs and new bikes

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These also provide an almost endless supply for art projects, parade floats, tall bikes, choppers and the like

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Or this parade float at Free Cycles powered by a side-by-side tandem

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One day in Missoula, I even met Erick, a fellow Tufts graduate, who had just finished his degree and was on his way to Seattle. It was great to help him a bit with his bike and see him get back on the road.

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I have never had a more satisfying volunteer experience and I strongly recommend you check out a bike co-op near you. Every child I’ve ever seen build a bike – it doesn’t matter how old it is, how bad the paint is or if the tires don’t match – EVERY kid has smiled when he or she rode that bike for the first time. I’ve seen down-and-out guys come in with barely functioning bikes and with a little help they walk out proudly knowing they fixed their bike and this means they can get to a job.

So, if you’re looking for a way to give back and at the same time learn more about bikes you can’t do better than to volunteer at a bike co-op. Have you done it? If so, let me know – I would love to hear what you learned.

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Steel Is Real (And Leather, Too)

 

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Having the words ‘Guaranteed World Finest Bicycle Precision Mechanism’ emblazoned proudly on the down tube of my Bridgestone town bike doesn’t mean the brakes work in the rain. The combination of crap side pull brakes, old pads and (the major factor) steel rims means that no amount of brake pumping will work once the rims are wet. It’s bad enough that I recently had to jump off the bike on a gentle downhill and run along it to stop.

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I got a set of the pads shown above after learning about the magic of the leather insert. Of course, my LBS didn’t have these since nobody has needed them since the 70’s. When I placed the order, I imagined some British pensioner getting an urgent call: ‘Nigel – can you make 2 more sets of leather brake pads? We have an order on Amazon and they need to go out tomorrow before tea’. Surprisingly, they arrived in just a couple days. We had a bit of drizzle the other day and I got to test them out – not epic rain, but enough to confirm that braking is better. It’s nice to know that this old bike will work for me a bit longer.

 

 

Self-Driving Cars Will Need A Jackass Setting

google self-driving car

I’m a big believer in the future of self-driving cars. There is clearly a lot of risk turning a complex and unpredictable task over to a computer and all the attendant sensors, but we already accept a huge amount of risk letting easily-distracted and self-centered humans continue to do the damage they do.

So, I have to believe that we will all be safer when computers take over. The occupants of cars are much safer in a crash than they were when I was young, but the safety advances haven’t benefited pedestrians and cyclists. We are just as likely to get hurt when a car hits us as we were 50 years ago. I’m hopeful that autonomous vehicles could be a significant safety advance for those outside the car.

Thus, I look forward to the safety benefits that automated cars should bring. However, I worry about adoption of the new technology. Will a robot car be allowed to speed? Will it be allowed to make unnecessary lane changes to move one car ahead of the ‘dipshit’ ahead of it? What about yellow lights? Can you set it so that it will ignore them? How will the industry get aggressive, type-A drivers to adopt technology that forces their car to drive as if they cared about the safety of those around them more than beating the car next to them to the next traffic light?

The solution is to have at least two control settings; One (of course) would be the ‘law-abiding’ setting and the other would be the ‘Jackass’ setting. Using this setting would allow the computer to take every advantage, no matter how small, that the Type-A driver would take so that the owner felt he was beating the guy next to him. Over many weeks or months, the algorithm could adjust to a safer driving mode until the car was following all the laws and even common sense. This is somewhat analogous to the sales technique supposedly used by successful Chevette salespeople many years ago; the buyers knew the Chevette got good gas mileage – that’s why they were at the dealer. You sold it by accelerating hard and whipping around corners – this answered the buyers unspoken concerns about the performance of the small car.

Don’t sell the robot car based on safety and convenience – sell it based on the advantage it gives the buyer over the schmucks who can’t afford a computer car – this will lead to much quicker adoption.

If Cycling is the New Golf, E-Bikes are the Handicap

shimano-electric-assistImage – Shimano

One of the reasons that golf is so popular in business is that people of different abilities can play together. It’s also a good game for socializing because there is a lot of time to chat during the game. I’m not a golfer so what I’m going to write here may be way off, but the whole idea of the handicap is that you can have people of differing abilities play the same round and then compare scores afterwards. So, for business it’s the great equalizer. Could you imagine people going swimming together? ‘Hey Bill – what do you say we race each other over 400 meters and then talk about the Westco project?’. It’s not going to happen. Or – ‘Steve & Jane – want to play some 2 on 2 hoops?’. Well if the last time Steve and Jane picked up a basketball was at age 13 when they played a game of HORSE, there is no way that 2 on 2 game is going to be any fun for either side if they are playing some ex-college basketball players.

For the brief time that I was in Sales I quickly realized what a disadvantage it was not to be a golfer. If money is the engine of capitalism, golf is clearly the lubricant. A few years ago, the phrase, ‘Cycling is the new golf’ became popular around some corners of Silicon Valley – well not my corner of the stagnant semiconductor capital equipment industry – but certainly among the social media/killer app/Sand Hill crowd. I still never got this because the difference in endurance between someone who rides a bike once a month and someone who rides 2-3 times a week can be quite stark. I just can’t see the casual cyclist (dare I say Fred?) hitting the Portola Loop and climbing Old La Honda with a Cat 3 leg shaver. Fred’s going to get dropped on the first Strava climbing segment that is over 1/10 of a mile.

But the other day it dawned on me – the e-bike is the great equalizer – to use a golfing term – the handicap – that allows people of varying ability to participate in the same event. Now all we need is a good way to express that handicap. Is it the number of watts your e-bike puts out? Maybe you add your bike wattage to your actual wattage? Or take this number and divide by your weight so you could have a power to weight handicap?transformer-electric-bicycle-black-b2-blk-zzzzzby-color-black-e65_grande

Image – Genesis

Still the e-bike analogy seems pretty weak. Even a noob golfer must swing the club (actually a bunch more times than a good golfer), still must walk the whole course (or ride in the same cart) but the e-bike rider can’t feel the same satisfaction as the ‘traditional’ rider, can he? If you keep up with the group on your e-bike it’s not because you earned it, right? You just paid to keep up just like you had called Uber for a lift. Just like anyone, I hate getting dropped but it builds toughness – I don’t know if there is anything more humbling that I experience on a regular basis than getting back to the coffee shop 10 minutes after my buddies.

As humbling as getting dropped can be, it makes me want to work harder and it reminds me that there is ALWAYS someone better out there. Plus, isn’t toughness one of the attributes we want to get out of our athletic pursuits? If that novice golfer had a battery-powered exoskeleton that allowed her to swing more consistently and strike the ball harder would that be allowed on the golf course? Why do we think a motorized bike is OK but not a motor-assist for the folks lifting at the gym?

I don’t have a problem with folks using e-bikes out on the road. If it gets them out there that’s fine. If it allows them to commute, ditch the car and reduce pollution that’s even better. But if you’re in a competitive group ride (whether it’s a loop with your buddies or on a Century) be honest that you are on an e-bike – don’t try to disguise it. If you’re happy that’s great – just be willing to talk about your handicap just like the golfers.

Now that I’ve said all that – don’t even get me started on mountain bikes with electric motors. I don’t care what you call them or what rationalizations you come up with – they are motorized bikes and please keep them off trails that are designated for human power only.

Terrifying Two

I’ve had bike commutes from 6 to 20 miles before moving to Utah – some on narrow mountain roads around Santa Cruz and some on busy Silicon Valley streets both with and without bike lanes. I’ve ridden after dark on narrow 2 lane roads and some of my best memories are the ride back from Watsonville to Santa Cruz at 7 or 8 pm in the Winter with just a few cars on the road and a bit of a chill in the air. Larkin Valley on a crisp winter morning is particularly memorable. Even commuting this narrow road late at night wasn’t scary since the traffic was light and with my bright lights on I was probably more visible than in daylight. Plus I always assume drivers thought I was a bit deranged and gave me just a bit more room.

Larkin Valley serenity

Larkin Valley Morning

I’ve ridden busy Silicon Valley roads mostly with bike lanes but some without. Some drivers seemed unconcerned with my safety and drove too closely or pulled out in front of me but mostly I felt fairly safe. I think the reasonably large number of cyclists was a constant reminder to drivers that we were out there and although they might not have liked us they figured they had to accommodate us.

So I’m fairly comfortable around cars in a variety of conditions. But I still surprise myself with the level of trepidation I feel every time I do my 2 mile commute to work. I finally understand the fear that others feel when riding in an unwelcoming environment. I also realize the importance of numbers – just having more bike riders on the road makes us all more visible and I think drivers pay a bit more attention.

 

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6+ Lanes Crossing under the Interstate

The main road to work is a 6 lane feeder to Interstate 15. There is a bike lane but speeds on the road are 40-50 mph and I’m just one lone kook in the way. In California, I felt like drivers actually acknowledged me and acted with some sense of caution. In suburban SLC, I feel like I’ve gone back 20 years where car drivers have all the rights and cyclists just need to stay out of the way.

Just past the highway overpass shown above is an exit ramp from the Interstate. Those lucky drivers have their own lane coming onto my road but that is right where I have to move right to re-claim my bike lane. I’ll slow down in my lane before getting to the ramp then signal right – sometimes people give me a break and sometimes they don’t. Then the next issue is the disappearing bike lane below (ironically right after the ‘Right Lane, Bikes Only’ sign where my bike lane disappears into a right turn lane right where the right-hand car lane behind me disappears at the same time. I’m not really clear what the message on the sign means since the right turn lane is clearly meant for cars. So I have the occasional idiot using the disappearing lane to pass drivers in the middle lane all the while my bike lane is being consumed by a right turn lane. So I carefully take the lane while signalling and just hoping people look up from their phones long enough to see me. Once I make the right turn I do a quick u-turn so I can use the traffic light to cross my busy road. The thought of using the left turn lane in this direction of travel would be suicide. So then I get to sit at the light for a minute or 2 and count the red light runners – there are always a couple.

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The old disappearing bike lane trick

So that’s it. Literally not even a 2 mile commute but it’s a hairy one.

In defense of Utah government, I do have to say that one of the pleasant surprises moving here is the large number of bike lanes on arterial roads and the seeming willingness to include them on new construction. However, as regular riders everywhere know, we rarely have continuous bike lanes and mixing uses on very busy roads is off-putting to many. A separated bike lane would go a long way towards encouraging others to get on a bike to commute and run errands. As the roads are today, the barrier is pretty high for many people – thus the low participation rates in Utah compared to California.