Some Thoughts on Biking and Grant Petersen’s Just Ride

January 13th, 2013  |  Published in etc  |  2 Comments

One thing that really excited me about working outside the house again was the opportunity to bike to work.

We live really close to the Springwater Trail, and the Puppet Labs offices aren’t too far away from the west esplanade, so I don’t have to worry about dealing with a lot of traffic: There’s a stretch of street riding going through Sellwood, but there’s very little traffic through there. Once off the esplanade on the other end of the trip, there’s another stretch of about a mile where I have to go down Naito Parkway and take a left turn to get into the Pearl District, but that’s not so bad either: When the cars get on my nerves, I can just dismount at 9th and Naito and walk my bike across the street.

When Al & I lived in Charlottesville, we went without a car for a while and ended up biking almost everywhere. I had a cheap hybrid that I kept until just a few years ago, and I spent a period using GIMP layers to make an overlaid biking map of routes I discovered in C-ville, which wasn’t very bike friendly at the time. Once we moved to Portland, I didn’t bike as much, but there was a period where I used the bike to get Ben back and forth from daycare (four miles round trip) each day, and for a while during my time at PSU I was biking frequently.

So, the shift to bike commuting was a pretty big change: It’s 12 miles each way from my front door to the office, and I started during the winter. I’ve been taking it pretty easy, and it took just a few trips back and forth to start making adjustments.

Gretchin loaned me a copy of Grant Petersen’s Just Ride a few weeks ago, and I’ll spend some of this entry referring to it as I write some notes about my first few experiences as a bike commuter. In the spirit of being wrong in public, I’m expecting that Future Me is going to disagree with Present Me about a few things.

My main goal with this book is to point out what I see as bike racing’s bad influence on bicycles, equipment, and attitudes, and then undo it.

— Grant Petersen, from the introduction to Just Ride

Petersen coins the term “unracing” to describe the sort of bicycling he’s advocating, arguing that bicycling has been made overcomplex by racing enthusiasts and a bicycling industry that pushes needlessly optimized equipment onto people who should be left to more casual riding. I don’t know much about bike racing culture, so I decided to take his word for it and weigh his advice against what I’m for (bicycling being safe, relaxing, enjoyable and optimized around comfort, not speed) rather than deciding I’d found a champion to help slay a dragon I can certainly imagine but am not sure I’ve experienced.

So, on my first few commutes I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of how I’d feel or what sort of gear I might need. I felt a little strange being out on a bike for a protracted period, and I hadn’t spent a lot of time around other bicyclists, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from them.

For my very first ride to work, I got my bike tuned up, packed a clean shirt in my bag, and rode to work. It wasn’t the surest riding in the world: My mirror was loose and kept sliding out of adjustment. The stock plastic pedals on my bike were fine for flat stretches, but my feet would slip off of them on hills if I messed up with my shifting or if it was a little wet. Hills were pretty tiring because I couldn’t find a balance between exerting with my legs (high gears) or exerting with my lungs (low gears).

Still, the first ride in to work wasn’t bad: The hills were pointed down and I’d been careful to plot my route, so there weren’t any surprises for me. It was a daytime ride, so I could see people coming and going well before they were on me. The worst part probably involved crossing the Hawthorne Bridge, because I was really tired by the time I got there. The short push up the ramp and onto the bridge had me panting, then I had to deal with the other bicyclists, getting around pedestrians, and not getting in the way of people who were moving a lot more quickly as I did so.

The ride back that night was pretty bad because I was sore and tired and it was dark, and I had a few hills to climb. On the mixed paths around OMSI, in particular, I had my first run-in with some bicyclists who were a little alarming. There are a lot of narrow spots and blind corners, and I wasn’t very familiar with what was coming up next. Even with a decent light it was hard to make out much. People around me were moving pretty quickly, and some people made it a point to pass me going around some of those tight, narrow corners, which struck me as loony. It just didn’t seem like a place to be cranking past other bicyclists, especially since you get the occasional pedestrian through there. On another ride, a mobile soup kitchen was parked in that area, and it was just nerve wracking watching other riders buzzing past tired street people just trying to balance their food and find somewhere to sit.

Petersen talks about the etiquette of bicyclists blowing past pedestrians, and I was glad to read a book that agreed with my suspicions: It just seems brusque and rude. At the same time, he opens his chapter on that sort of behavior by noting that racers avoid mixed-use paths, and I’m not sure what to make of that: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen racing-influenced behavior on the Springwater (though not as much during commute times as on weekends, when an occasional pack of riders shows up moving pretty quickly). Maybe it’s the sort of thing those people only try once.

Either way, I’ve come to appreciate riders who pass with a friendly “good morning” or a light *ping* of the bell instead of a barked “on your left!” Especially when they make it a point to look over the shoulder before moving back into a lane, instead of slotting back in as tightly as possible. I try to do the same. I like it when other bicyclists are friendly with other people, the same way I like it when people smile at each other on the sidewalk.

Gear

Petersen frames a lot of his book around the idea that much of the bicycling gear being pushed on non-racers is absurdly over-optimized for the task of casual bike riding.

He advocates wearing comfortable street clothes instead of stretchy racing gear and special underwear. Since it’s winter right now, I’ve diverged from that literal advice a little: I know I’m going to be working up a sweat on my 12-mile ride, and I know I’m going to shower once I make it to the office, so I’ve taken to wearing some cold-weather running gear I bought a few winters ago (an UnderArmor Warm top and cold-weather running tights) under a rain jacket and some cargo shorts. That way, I get a warm base layer that dries out before I bike home, or just packs down a bit lighter than a whole second outfit would if I decide to ride home in my street clothes.

In warmer weather, regular clothing and boxer briefs will be fine for the miles I put on in a day’s commuting. I’m looking forward to May, when I won’t have to wear sweaty rain gear, and even more to being able to just wear shorts and Keens to work. A few years in the army gave me a grounding in day-to-day comfort while exerting myself: It’s not really about having special stuff, but knowing how to wear what you’ve got, paying attention to small discomforts so you can learn which ones will blossom into big ones, staying dry, and — if that’s not possible — at least staying warm.

Petersen also advocates against cleats and click-in pedals, somewhat in favor of toe clips and straps (at least for people on fixies). I briefly considered buying click-in pedals, but once I considered the expense of the pedals themselves and the shoes to wear with them, it just seemed like overkill. My big concern was gaining a little efficiency and a lot more stability. It’s hard to judge whether adding clips and straps particularly improved my efficiency because I’m still in a period of steady improvement in terms of muscular endurance and wind. I took five minutes off my ride each way the first day I had my clips and straps installed, but it was also a little warmer that day and I was coming off a break of several days. One thing I do know has improved has been how well my feet stay on the pedals in rainy weather, especially on hills where they sometimes slip off when I push down hard. Now they don’t, which has made my progress up hills feel more smooth, and which has had an extra benefit of not causing as many accidental shifts when I slip off a pedal and adjust my grip. I don’t keep the straps tightened down much, either.

Besides improvising some cold weather gear and adding toe clips and straps, I’ve also added:

  • fenders

  • a rack

  • panniers

  • a light I can charge with a USB cable

  • a flat repair kit with CO2 to fill the tire

  • puncture resistant tires and tubes

Petersen would tell me to get a short air pump instead of the CO2 cartridges, but I’m not sure what to make of that advice. The last time I had a bicycle pump meant to be carried on the bike, it wasn’t very good and took forever to fill a tire. He maintains that such pumps are better, now.

Conditions

I’ve been pretty conservative about the conditions I’ll ride in. I check the weather forecast not only for temperatures (I don’t care to ride if it’s not going to be above freezing by around 7 a.m.) but predicted wind speeds. Portland winters are such that “coast days” can be wet but relatively calm while “gorge days” can be bitter and windy. I avoid riding on days where it’s looking like there will be gusts of 15 mph or more. It’s just not very fun. I’d rather take the Max and read a book on those days. And that’s something pretty cool about my overall commute situation: I haven’t taken a car to work a single day I’ve worked at Puppet Labs, so even on days I decide not to bike, I feel like I’m still ahead. Either way, Max day or bike day, I walk into the office either having biked 12 miles or walked a mile from home to station to station to office, and I feel pretty good.

When I bike, I stick to bike paths and bike lanes as much as I can. According to the route information provided by Google Maps, that decision costs me about ten minutes each way. It also drastically reduces the number of intersections I have to pass through, and reduces the number of potential encounters with motorists.

A friend in my neighborhood who’s also a biking enthusiast told me he didn’t think that sticking to bike trails (or even having bike lanes) was a good policy because, he argued, bicyclists need to assert their equal status with drivers as “real traffic,” and that motorists need to learn that bicyclists are a fact of life they’ll have to deal with sometimes.

I see his point, and I agree with much of it in principle, but I do not care to take routes where there’s a lot of opportunity to interact with motorists. The last stretch of my ride, down Naito, involves getting across a lane and into a turn lane, and just that part of my trip has exposed me to some genuine idiocy and one near miss from a driver trying to turn right on red right in front of me as I took the protected left.

When I take the Springwater and stay off the streets, I lose a little time, but it’s time spent on a safer, more quiet ride where I can relax a little. I’m being most of the change I want to see when I get on a bike and ride it to work instead of driving a car, and that’s good enough for now. Having thought about it a bit more since I started typing, I’m also not sure the change I want to see is completely mixed bicycle and automotive traffic. I think bicycle lanes should be the norm, even if they’re just gentle reminder dotted lines on streets too narrow to accommodate both cars and bikes; and I think a substantial number of streets should be either closed or made inhospitable to automotive traffic in some meaningful way. I don’t know how you enforce that kind of thing in a society built around the idea that cars are a given, but one of my Christmas gifts this year was a membership in the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, so I’m happy to let them reason that out on my behalf for now.

Them and Me

I’ve tried really hard to adjust my language as I write this, as part of a larger program to adjust my thinking. The language I’ve worked hardest on is the language of describing motorists and their cars. A few times I slipped and typed that I wanted to “avoid interactions with cars,” but I’ve tried to look back and correct that to “avoid interactions with motorists.” It’s still imperfect, but it removes a ton of metal and glass from between me and those people.

One of the things that makes car culture toxic is its depersonalization. It’s always strange and stomach turning to look in the rear view mirror and see someone freaking out — pounding the steering wheel, gesticulating, shouting at the air — because I didn’t take that left when they thought I should have. I remember once in Charlottesville when I took a right and the woman waiting to pull out from the street I turned onto leaned out her window and screamed “FUCK YOU!” through my open window. Why? No idea. It’s just the kind of thing being in a car makes permissible. There’s my run-in with an apple that was thrown at me by somebody who didn’t stop to think how badly they were going to hurt me. They were in a car, I was on a bike, that made it o.k. I went to the emergency room, they might have yelled “oh shit!” and laughed when I went down, or they might have just kept driving without comment.

Even with those examples, it’s hard to credit the alienation, paranoia, and casual hostility bred into us by the hyper-individualism of car culture until you read a story about one motorist shooting another in the face through a partially rolled down window because of a confrontation over one cutting the other off.

I’ve had two good scares from motorists in the past month, and it has been very hard to pause inside to let that fear and anger drain out of me. As a matter of simple physics, there’s little a bicyclist can do or say that will be as bad as what a motorist can do by not paying attention. But it’s not all about physics. It’s about what we want.

One thing I want is to not live in the headspace car culture would have me live in, and to not look at other people the way car culture encourages me to look at them. Car culture is part of a broader consumer culture that increases atomization and fine distinctions, designing market identities then selling our selves back to us with the sense that we’re not fully ourselves unless we buy the accompanying accessory pack.

When I read the language of other bicyclists, it’s a little dismaying because it’s also loaded with alienation and atomization. “They” do this to us, or “a car” did that to me. On one level, that kind of talk is a little off because I know few people who are full-time bicyclists. The one person I know who doesn’t even own a car drives a bus for his day job. So, most of us have taken a turn behind the wheel at some point, or continue to do so during the week for whatever reason. Many of us have had a lapse in attention that probably frightened someone else. Some of us have even had such a lapse and realized it.

When you talk about people in us/them and bike/car dualities, you lose your ability to think of them as fellow people, and their concerns and cares matter less to you. Zero-sum language and thinking become easier because they shouldn’t even want what they want. You lose touch with your own fallibility and imperfection, because you contemplate the fallibility and imperfections of those others — “the cars,” “them,” — through the lens of their otherness. So by the time you meet those people, or talk about how to get them to agree to things you want for yourself, they can hear and see your contempt for them, and they’ll take pleasure in thwarting you.

Odds and Ends

All that is most of my biking experience right now. A few more things worth tossing in to complete the picture:

  • Puppet Labs has a room where we can hang our bikes (and sweaty riding gear). It’s really nice to know I don’t have to worry about my bike during the day, or finding somewhere to put my riding clothes to dry.

  • We’ve also got a shower — just one — but I come in relatively early and nobody else is ever in there. Another nice thing to have that beats a quick pit-scrubbing and change of clothes in the employee bathroom.

  • We also get a monthly bike commuter allowance. It’s not a lot of money, but it will certainly cover six-month tuneups.

  • My bike is a four-year-old Trek 7000 (a hybrid). It’s not bad, but I’d like to think about replacing it later this year for something a little more suited to my ride. I used to think twist-style indexed shifters were great, but I’ve had enough accidental shifts and partial shifts with this set to not like them so much. I’m not sure how much sense it makes to keep the frame and just try to change the handlebars and shifters, or if that’s even possible, but I’m going to defer thinking about that for a while.

  • I’m really torn about keeping track of my rides. I’d like to measure the miles I travel, and it’s fun to see where I’ve been on a map, but I have a love/hate relationship with pace and speed information. I’ve got an app for my iPhone that tracks all that stuff, but I’m considering a cheap bicycle computer that’ll just keep a running mileage tally and maybe tell me my current speed. I’ve just definitely got a problem with trying to go fast and shave time and all that, and I think it might be nice to spend my rides thinking about other things.

Just Ride

About Just Ride: I considered doing a long review of just the book, but don’t think I have that in me. Here’s the pocket review:

It’s an enjoyable book that can be read in a short sitting. Most of the advice seems sound and oriented toward ameliorating the status anxiety casual bicyclists might feel when confronted by people kitted out in expensive racing gear. Besides talking about gear, Petersen talks about proper technique, bike fitting, and nutrition, all of it toward the goal of deflating the most extravagant behavior and claims around bicycling.

One thing that makes it seem a little less urgent to me, I suppose, is that most of the bike shops I’ve dealt with have been staffed or run by people who weren’t interested in pushing racing stuff on me. The worst shop I’ve ever been in for that was in Charlottesville, at a Performance Bike where the condescension and snobbery was hard to swallow. In Portland, I’ve always felt like the advice I got at the shops was practical and utilitarian. That’s not to say people haven’t tried to upsell me, but never on the basis of “performance” and always on the basis of simple quality and durability.

Still, I appreciate Petersen’s angle. A few years ago, when Electra was getting attention with the Townie series and Trek was launching the Lime, I appreciated the stated intent of democratizing riding, but thought it was a little weird that democracy needed to arrive in the form of more expensive bicycles with condescending marketing campaigns (Trek). When I talked to bicycle shop employees, I could sense some mixed feelings about the casual revival bikes (some, perhaps, from snobbery; some from discomfort with the marketing push), and picked up a distinctly gendered vibe to the whole thing. Some of the sales people seemed to be operating under the principle that Limes and Townies were for girls, while hybrids were for boys. It wasn’t that way everywhere, but it was that way a few places. I didn’t care for that much, because it smelled like a board room.

Petersen has his own business angle, but the book feels relatively understated for marketing material, meant less to get you onto a particular brand than to get you interested in a certain niche. Just Ride encourages ridership by deemphasizing the need for special gear and elaborate or expensive rigs, which is an oblique enough sort of promotion that I can live with it.

If a recommendation is required, I guess I’ll offer just that I’m interested in getting my own copy now, less as a daily reference and more as a tool to help me consider my bicycling decisions as they come up.

Responses

  1. gl. says:

    January 13th, 2013 at 8:28 pm (#)

    hello, fellow BTA member!

    “…deciding I’d found a champion to help slay a dragon I can certainly imagine but am not sure I’ve experienced.” that’s generally the way i felt, too. otoh, i DID experience that electra-casual bike-gender-snob thing, which is likely related. it’s less so, now, i think, or perhaps i’m just more acclimatized to the culture. but every time i go into the bike shop i feel the way i imagine other people do when talking to IT people. if i didn’t love it so much, i’d probably have stopped going.

    “The last time I had a bicycle pump meant to be carried on the bike, it wasn’t very good and took forever to fill a tire.” yes. a CO2 pump has been awesome, despite the stinkeye. i bought a bunch of cartridges on amazon for $1/ea rather than pay $3-$4 retail. i carry two on the bike at all times.

        coast vs gorge days: nice distinction! i try to game the system by biking downtown on gorge days and taking the max/bus home.
    

    “vehicular cycling” zealots feel like they’re coming from a place that values “survival of the fittest” more than a place that actually enjoys riding bicycles. if it were up to me, every road would have a bike lane and we would have more paths like the springwater criss-crossing through town. neighborhood greenways are a nice concept, i guess, but intersection crossings are still hairy and they take me outside business districts. similarly, bike courtesy on bridges and paths would definitely make the world a better place.

    btw, if you want to keep my copy of just ride, you can have it. :)

  2. m. hall says:

    January 13th, 2013 at 9:47 pm (#)

    I’m right there on the “bike lanes everywhere, Springwater-esque corridors laced throughout” thing. It would be amazing to stand at the top of Mt. Tabor and just see a green path run right through the middle of SE and up to the bridges. More amazing yet to be able to see it from Powell Butte, I suppose. Each quadrant of the city bisected by N/S and E/W mini springwaters with some sort of hub park at the intersection … imagine that.

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