Wednesday, April 8, 2015

doth they protest too much? on mountain bike trail access in the heart of a city

Over the past several weeks, a controversy has been brewing among mountain bike enthusiasts in Portland. For several years they've been lobbying the Portland City Council and related stakeholders for more and better access to Forest Park, an old-growth forest that sits partly within the city limits and is a popular park with hikers, joggers and nature-lovers; and more recently have been working on continued access for bikes in the River View Nature Area, a popular area for mountain biking in Portland.

About a month ago, the Portland City Council suspended the public process without warning, and summarily ended all discussion on increased mountain bike access to the trails in the River View area. After years of wrangling over trail access in Forest Park and getting nowhere, mountain bike advocates felt screwed, and rightly so; an organization has filed a lawsuit against the City Council saying that they acted in bad faith and possibly broke laws concerning public process.

Meanwhile, mountain bikers didn't take this lying down. Instead, they held a protest ride, illegally riding on trails in Forest Park that had been closed to bicycle access. One woman even boasted about it at her blog. The upshot of this has played out over at, where the mountain bike enthusiasts are loudly bleating their case to anyone who will listen -- and a sympathetic Jonathan Maus (Bikeportland's founder/owner/editor) is giving them all the rope they could want with which to hang themselves.

Wait a minute -- did you read me right? Yes.
I think that filing a lawsuit is an appropriate response to being screwed by the City Council.
Poaching trails in the woods is not.
Especially when you poach trails in the rain.
It's been raining for the past few days here in the Rose City, and all that rain translates to a lot of mud; ride a mountain bike over it too many times and you risk degrading the trail and the vegetation on either side of that trail. None of which in and of itself would be a big deal -- except that Forest Park is a protected natural preserve, home to many native species, and with some very specific rules about where and how the public may access this little gem of wilderness on the edge of the city.

Now, let's be clear. I have ridden a mountain bike off-road. The majority of my mountain biking has been at Portland International Raceway, where for several seasons I raced in the Portland Racing Short-Track Series. The series takes place on and around the motocross track at PIR, an area set aside for such activity and cared for under a public-private partnership between Metro and PIR. It's a controlled, contained environment. I've enjoyed myself heartily at those races. But it has not aroused in me a burning desire to go and ride singletrack wherever I can find it. Call me crazy.

Or call me realistic.

The fact is that my life, set up as it is, is not conducive to traveling all over hither and yon to ride singletrack. The closest spot with really excellent singletrack is probably Sandy Ridge, which requires that you toss your bike on a car and drive up there. Living car-free, that option is not a priority for me. In fact, because all my rides begin and end at my front door, I simply am not part of the car-dependent recreational biking set. I'm not trying to be an elitist. This is simply how I've lived for decades. I don't see it changing anytime soon.

Portland has become, in many ways, like a miniature San Francisco; its particular quirkiness has become a bonafide brand, attracting people with means to move here from everywhere else. Developers with hard cash and buying up properties left and right, effectively shutting out longtime residents who find their rents increasing -- or their rentals being demolished in favor of the chic rowhouses now dotting the landscape and making it difficult for young couples with conventional mortgage and loan products to become first-time homeowners. Low- and lower-middle-income Portlanders are being shuttled further east as property values in the central city are rising through the roof. Many in that demographic will eventually be forced to leave Portland altogether -- it's already beginning to happen -- as Portland becomes a city for People With Money.

Homelessness in our city is on the rise. The Springwater Corridor bike-ped path, once the crown jewel of the 40-Mile Loop, is now home to dozens (maybe more) of people reduced to camping along the parts of the path east of Portland. Granted, Portland has long been a town where it's relatively "easy" to be homeless; our mild climate and multitude of services for homeless people make it so. But the reality is that it's hard for me to be a cheerleader for people clamoring for trail access in a nature preserve when other people are living in a thicket year-round. Many of these same people are angry that a number of those same campers are stealing bikes and selling the parts to survive. The self-righteous bicycle enthusiasts, constituting some odd Greek chorus over at, regularly demand that everyone adhere to the same set of ethics, regardless of their lot in life.

Would you steal to survive if you had no other options? I might, and I admit it.
I think you have the ethics you can afford to have.

But I digress. Maybe.

In the end, Portland may become too expensive for me and Sweetie to remain in, especially since the likelihood of our transitioning to a more "corporate" work-life balance is pretty damned low. We're freelance creatives who are cobbling it together. At some point, it may become so expensive to live in Portland that the creatives who bring this town much of its vibrancy and quirkiness may all have to leave. This cycle is nothing new, and it will happen again and again under our current economic template. Which makes the passionate clamorings of a handful of recreational mountain bikers for trail access seem, well, sort of pathetic.

How does all of this connect to the mountain biking protestors and their right to due process? I won't argue with anyone's right to protest; it's how this nation came to be. But I wonder at the wisdom of this protest, when there are far more pressing issues affecting many more people than a couple of hundred mountain bike enthusiasts. I wish these same bicyclists would turn their energies and passion to sounding the alarm about real livability issues -- like the chasm between rich and poor, the shrinking of a middle class; and the unchecked growth of Portland's population and, by extension, its automotive traffic -- all of which will lead us down a road to a less liveable and less affordable city. In the face of such a dire bigger picture, it's hard for me to take this trail access protest seriously.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

in praise of cheapness: a few recommendations

My Bicycle Quarterly magazine arrived last week. I have enjoyed reading it a little at a time, light bedtime reading. But the more time passes, the less interested I am in buying the most expensive, cool, efficient or whatever-else bike components. If a part works, I am open to using it on one of my bikes.

I think this goes hand in hand with my penchant for what Grant Peterson calls beausage, shorthand for beauty-through-usage. A component or accessory that ages over time and with regular use takes on a patina of fading, scraping, and honest use that has a certain beauty in it.

A part needn't be fancy or expensive to have the potential for attaining beausage.

My Sekai rough-stuff bike has a mish-mash of parts on it, including a rather low-level Shimano rear derailleur that includes its own hanger (because the frame doesn't have a hanger as part of the dropout -- a hallmark of a cheap frame). The derailleur isn't fancy, and I had to bend it back to realign it when I installed it; but it works, reliably and simply. That derailleur probably sold new for less than ten dollars thirty years ago. Today, you might still find one in a bin at a shop that sell used bikes and parts. Mine works with the friction shifters I installed and I am happy.

I've read lots of articles -- particularly in BQ but elsewhere, too -- about how quality tires make the difference. And so far, the only time that has really borne out for me was the time I test-road a vintage road bike with sewups. Okay, yes, riding on sewups was sort of like sex on satin sheets -- smooth and buttery and some kind of heaven in terms of road feel. But sewups are also notorious for getting flats -- lots of them -- and being a bear to replace on the fly, which is why they fell out of favor with the advent of higher quality clincher tires in the 1990s.

For me, a tire that rides well and is flat resistant is a tire I will use on my bike. My current tire of choice is the Rubena Flash. Made in the Czech Republic, they are marketed as an affordable alternative to Schwalbe's Marathon tire. The Marathon is a great tire for commuting but it's heavy and pricey. The Flash rides perfectly fine for a commuting tire, weighs less than the Marathon and costs a little more than half as much. And I've had a total of ONE flat on the rear tire that's been on my bike for the last year.

I also replaced my rear fender-mounted taillight this spring. The PDW Fenderbot was a huge disappointment, not providing nearly enough light for its $26.00 retail price. After checking around, I swapped in the more affordable -- and considerably brighter -- Pixeo tallight by Spaninga. At around $15 retail, the light comes in either a dynamo version or a battery-powered version. The battery-powered version comes either with an automatic mode (where it will turn off after awhile, which tends to be too soon for my commutes), or a manual on-off switch. I bought the latter (the one at far right in this photo) and have been pleased by its brightness and performance so far.

I have enjoyed stripping dead bike frames for useable parts, some of which end up on my nicer bike (which these days remains the All-Rounder). I love installing old, scraped up parts on nicer frames as a contrarian way of insisting on squeezing all the usefulness from a component. My Sekai has recycled bar tape; my All-Rounder has a fender repaired with a piece of plastic from a saddle hang-tag.

I enjoy looking at bikes that show their age, and the miles ridden. Those bikes tell something about where they and their riders have been and there's a kind of beauty in that I find irresistible.

Wherever your bike takes you this spring, may the miles be filled with delight!

Sunday, March 29, 2015


As I struggle with the ups and downs of my new career as a freelancer, there are times I consider the possibility that I will have to return to the bicycle industry to pick up at least some part-time work to pay the bills. And I suppose that reality has been lurking in the back of my mind all along; how else to explain the fact that I've kept up my technical reading and tried to understand how things like disc brakes and shocks work?

Still, it occurs to me that getting back in may be harder than I thought, in part because of those newer technologies.

When I worked at Citybikes, I almost never touched a disc brake and never opened up a shock fork. It was a shop policy that we wouldn't work on shocks, period (and in fact, we'd try and persuade the customers to "upgrade" to rigid forks on any bike used for transportation). And at the time, we didn't have a ton of bikes with disc brakes.

Well, that is changing.

Today the bicycle industry is slapping discs on anything that moves, including mid-level commuter bikes. And in this one instance, Jan Heine (of Bicycle Quarterly) and I are in total agreement: disc brakes for commuting and touring bikes are pretty much pointless. Yes, thee are exceptions, like fatty bikes in the snow and downhill racing bikes; but most people just don't do that kind of riding in everyday life. (Does anyone remember when everyone went out and bought a mountain bike in the early 90s, only to find five years later that they'd put slicks and fenders on it because they never went off-road? This is kinda like that.)

The downside of this is that Jan and I are in a shrinking minority, as more and more folks are drinking the kool-aid and insisting that they need disc brakes on their daily rides.

There's nothing inherently "wrong" with disc brakes. It's just that they are really unnecessary for city bikes, and in certain conditions they actually lag behind rim brakes in efficiency and modulation. They also weigh a lot more, cost more and are fussier by far to maintain and adjust than cantilever rim brakes. And yet, if I work in a shop today, not only will I need to know how to service all sorts of disc brakes, I will have to talk about them like they're the best thing since striped pajamas.


To my thinking, it's just one more vestige of an industry that depends on people buying new stuff every year in order to remain profitable. Only problem is that, in their quest for profits, too many bike and component manufacturers end up looking ridiculous at best and conspiratorial at worst.

So I am handing out my resume at shops where it's less likely that I will be working exclusively on brand-new bikes. The number of shops in that category is shrinking as more of their owners recognize that there's less money in used bikes (unless you're the Community Cycling Center, which has super-low overhead as a non-profit and has jacked up their prices to match those of Citybikes and Better Cycle). But I digress.

In short, the industry marches ever onward, and at some point I will either stop trying to play catch-up or simply get too old to do that sort of work anymore. Either way, it's a cue for me to march ever onward myself, even if it puts my feet on a different -- and admittedly contrarian -- path.

Happy riding!

(Not a disc brake in the bunch.)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

landscaping for cars, not people: exhibit umpteen

A bill in the Oregon state legislature was recently dropped by its sponsor after the statewide bicycle advocacy organization raised an alarm and invited people to contact their elected representatives about the matter:

The bill has since been revised to mandate that all bicycles be requipped with rear lights. (Current law requies either a rear light or rear reflector.)

For my money, this is just another example of how legislators would rather place the responsibility for the damage caused by car-centric planning squarely on the shoulders of those who eschew cars and ride bicycles for transportation. Previous examples of this mindset include mandatory helmet laws (which are proven to reduce bicycle use by as much as 50 % in some cities where they are actively enforced) and the notion of "vehicular cycling," made popular decades ago by John Forester and supported by the more hale and hearty members of the League of American Bicyclists.

Such punitive measures -- and the bicyclist-bashing dialogue that accompanies them -- are easier and cheaper to promote and legislate than having real, meaningful conversations about the subsidies that exist for aumobile owners and manufacturers, and for the petroleum industry. It's cheaper to penalize me for being -- heaven forbid! -- An Adult On A Bicycle than it is to consider that our transportation infrastructure desperately needs redesigning to be human-scale, rather than car-centric. The superhighway-based planning of the 1950's is a dinosaur dying a very slow death at the expense of every bicyclist and pedestrian who is injured or killed because they got hit by a car simply for being there -- in the bike lane, on the sidewalk, at a badly-planned intersection, or anywhere else. It's easier to continue to ridicule adults who eschew car ownership as somehow not fully adult, than to consider that maybe the time has come for another way to look at land use and transportation.

Obviously, I'm dreaming that significant changes in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure -- and greatly increased support for public transit -- will happen in my lifetime. I'm downright delusional if I think that they can and will happen alongside an end to the political machinery that rewards the automobile and petroleum industries with so many breaks and perks (because the machniery depends a great deal upon the support of those same industries for its prosperity, survival and outright relevance).
But a gal can still dream, and I do. Daily.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

portland bike pals - can you help out?

Portland Bikey peeps, especially parts hoarders and /or currently employed shop wrenches: I am looking for dead rear freewheel (NOT cassette) hub shells for an art project. I only need the shells and dustcaps, you can keep the axles and cones. Happy to come by and do the labor if you'd rather not be bothered (root around in your scrap metal bins, cut hubs out of dead wheels; dismantle innards, etc.). Need about five or six pairs and it's a little bit time-sensitive. Spread the word! And PLEASE message me asap if you can help out.
Thank you!

Monday, March 16, 2015

seeking bike info for austin, texas

Hey Bikey Peeps!
I will be in Austin for four days in late June to attend a conference. I've never been to Austin before but I'm told it's a cool city. I've lined up a homestay situation about a mile from the conference venue and maybe two and a half miles from the official hotel (where late-night stuff will happen).
I'd like to see if it's possible to borrow or rent a city bike and kid trailer to tow my guitar back and forth during my visit.
Does anyone among my readership know of possibilities. I will be staying in the Northwest Hills neighborhood (zip code 78731). Leave rental suggestions here in the comments, and thanks!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

nothing lasts forever. sorry.

I posted some stuff for sale on my local craigslist last week, including several random wheels I'd come by which I didn't need.
A fellow contacted me about a front wheel for his bike. It's nothing special; the wheel was a new. never-ridden takeoff from a bike whose owner was switching it over to electric-assist.
I don't run 700c wheels in my stable so I tossed up the two 700c front wheels I had for the very affordable price of $20 each.
The guy wanted to know how durable one of my wheels would be, and if it would fit a 28mm-wide tire.

"I'm a big guy," he said, "and I want something that will hold up for at least a little while."
"How big is big?" I asked him.
"I weigh around two-twenty."

Before I go any further, Let me say a few things based on my experience as a shop rat:

1. Any off-the-shelf bike costing under a thousand bucks is going to be fine for a rider weighing up to around 175, maybe 180 pounds. Anyone bigger than that should be looking at an aluminum frame and hand-built custom wheels with a higher spoke count.

2. The standard wheel of twenty-five years ago had double-walled aluminum rims and 36 spokes; a rear touring wheel would have 40 spokes. More spokes means more metal holding you up and a longer-lasting wheel. The standard wheel today runs no more than 32 spokes front and rear; on most road racing bikes the spoke count drops to 28, and sometimes can go to fewer still.
That is not enough spokes to hold up a 180-pound rider for more than a few months of daily riding.

3. A rider of over 200 pounds on a bike he will ride daily really needs a rear wheel that runs a cassette hub, and should be riding custom-built wheels running 36 spokes each. 40 spokes on the rear wheel would be a good idea.

The buyer wanted to know if my wheel would hold up. I said that, while it's a new wheel, I couldn't offer any sort of guarantee for a rider of his size. I suggested that if he was looking for a really durable wheel, his best bet would be to spend the money on a heavier-duty, custom built wheel set. He understood, but said he was on a tight budget. He said he'd come over to buy my wheel because that was a price he could afford.

(What I thought, but did not say out loud, is that 220 pounds is beyond the pale in terms of what an off-the-shelf bike in the sub-thousand-dollar range can be expected to adequately support; and that a rider this size really has no business running a 28mm tire. In fact, if I could I would coax this guy onto a mountain bike with overbuilt 26" wheels and 2"-wide tires. But I did not say any of that.)

Twenty minutes after we'd agreed on a time, he called back. "Just giving you a courtesy call. Thanks for the help, but my wife convinced me to spring for a new set of wheels on Amazon. At $30 per wheel, it's only a little more and maybe it'll be durable enough to see me through the next year or two." I smiled, thanked him for the call, and hung up. What could I say?
Then, I went to Amazon's web site to see if I could guess which wheelset he was buying.

I am fairly certain that, at that price, he's going to get a very basic factory-built set of wheels with single-walled rims and 36 spokes. The rear will likely have a bolt-on axle (quick release would cost eight dollars more) and take a freewheel, not a cassette, meaning the hub will not be as strong.

When I worked at Citybikes, we bought tons of these wheels, the same brand as the ones I think our guy is going get, and then we paid a mechanic $12 an hour to finish truing them, as they always came from the factory not-quite-true and out of round. The mechanic would also have to readjust the hubs, which usually came from the factory too tight.

(This makes sense when you realize that most of the wheelbuilding in a factory is done by a machine; wheels are loosely-assembled by a human being, then placed on a conveyor which feeds them, one at a time, into a giant machine that trues and tensions them to a predetermined "standard". Another human being sitting at the exit end of the machine would grab every fifth wheel or so, spin it to see if it's reasonably "true", set it back on the conveyor to go to packaging, and pick up his comic book again. I watched this scenario actually happen in a factory so I can attest to its accuracy. The end result was that when we got the wheels, they'd need more work before we could, in good conscience, install them on a bike.)

After the "finishing" work was done by us, we marked up the price to factor in our labor, selling them for $50-60 each. We stocked them because many of our customers were on similarly tight budgets and needed to make do. We always made sure to tell our bigger, heavier customers that these wheels would not see them through multiple seasons of daily riding due to the wheels' entry-level quality and the larger size of the rider. A few of these customers would, not surprisingly, take offense. Depending on the vibe we might take the time to further educate them as to why the trickle-down in bicycle technology flows from racing, where 125-pound climbers help dictate what the next cool gizmo will be.
But often we never got that far in the discussion. The larger rider would either walk out without wheels; or he'd gulp and buy the cheap ones to see him through for maybe another five or six months.

Fact: Bicycle parts wear out. ALL bicycle parts wear out. How quickly or slowly that happens depends on how well they're made, how much metal is used (36 spokes or 28?), the rider's size and how often and how hard s/he rides. That's a lot of variables for determining the durability of any given bicycle component. And as long as technologies are developed based on innovations for racing, rather than for folks who just ride around the neighborhood, riders who weigh over 175 pounds will continue to get screwed by the bike industry. Because the industry mostly innovates for bicycles that weigh well under 25 pounds and which get a tune-up every night by a professional mechanic.
That's not reality.

I feel for the guy, I really do. But he's getting a wheelset online, at the cheapest possible price, that hasn't been touched up by a local shop. You get what you pay for, and I predict that in this case he will end up being disappointed.

In another post I might have something to say about why the industy doesn't give a flying [expletive deleted] about larger riders, and about how much of it has to do with image. But I'll save that for another time. Today, I thanked the guy for his courtesy call, told him no hard feelings, and wished him luck. Because he'll need it.

Happy riding.