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What I’ve Learned from this Winter

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If you live in the midwest or northeast, you don’t need me to tell you that it’s been a tough winter for biking. Minneapolis saw more than 50 days below zero, with plenty of snow and recently, two solid weeks of the worst roads I’ve ever seen (bumpy sheets of ice sprinkled with loose “brown sugar” snow all over the Twin Cities). Frankly, I’ve found it hard to write about with anything resembling positivity.

BUT, now that winter’s back has finally been broken and the streets are ice-free, I did learn a whole lot of stuff this winter, much of which was related to improvements made to my gear. I figure it’s worth sharing, if only so that it’s available on the internet in time for next winter.

1) Lobster mitts are not for me. When I first started winter biking, I thought I needed lobster mitts to be able to operate my bike properly. This is only necessary with integrated brake and shifter levers. If you’ve got bar-end shifters, grip shifters, downtube shifters or a single-speed, you don’t need Lobster gloves, and you’re losing valuable finger warmth that is possible with mitten technology. Just make sure your mittens are wind proof and aren’t so baggy that they interfere with braking or shifting.

2) Practice makes bike-handling perfect (or at least better). During a brief 40 degree reprieve in January I rode bikes with a friend who’s probably been biking winters in Minneapolis for longer than I’ve been alive. He rolled right over 2-inch deep, rutted, slush-ice death traps, where I slowed, floundered and fought to keep my bike upright (but didn’t crash!) My friend was very kind when I asked if it was me or the bike that was the problem, but the answer, as I figured, was that my winter handling skills needed some work. Two months later, I am happy to report that I have worked them, and they are better. They have also been helped by…

3) TWO studded tires are better than one. I added a studded rear tire this winter. Best decision. Studded front tire = I might fishtail, but I’m not going to die.
Two studded tires = I’m not worried about fishtailing, which lets me relax, which improves my bike handling! Also, I can ride up hills!
There have been several times this winter where I’ve felt the back tire slip on the ice, felt the shuddering as the tread and studs skid over the slippery surface, and felt the bike right itself as the carbide studs grabbed hold and kept everything moving forward. So grateful. Sidenote: 45NRTH no longer makes 26″ studded tires, so I bought a Schwalbe. It’s holding up well, but I wish there was a 26×2.1″ option.

4) Full Fenders are worth it. I initially ordered SKS quick-release fenders for my Long Haul Trucker but they were too fat for the fork. They just barely fit, width-wise, on the Trek 800 that I’ve been using as a winter bike, but still allowed plenty of tire clearance. Such a big improvement over the clip-on style fenders! I joined Grease Rag for their International Women’s Day Ride last week, and we rolled through sand, salt, slush, and puddles that looked bottomless. I wore jeans and stayed dry. Thanks fenders! Everyone riding behind me thanks you, too.

5) I love Toe Warmers. I’ve bought toe warmers and carried them around during previous winters as a just-in-case, but never really used them until this year. Colder-than-normal temps conspired with winter boots whose linings are wearing out and need to be replaced, and I was grateful for my toe warmers on many occasions. The hand warmers are less helpful for biking, because they’re designed to be gripped and lack the adhesive backing that lets toe warmers stay in place. In the future, I will only buy toe warmers, and will use them for my hands if needed. Hot tip: the chemical reaction in these things is air activated. Stick ‘em in a ziplock bag to stop the chemical reaction for a bit and keep them going strong for the ride home.

6) My back rack is not working for my mountain bike. I love panniers and dislike carrying lots of weight on my back, but this bike doesn’t feel the same way. It tackles Minneapolis pot holes no problem, but put 30 pounds of groceries on the back and ask it to traverse an icy bike path, and you’ve got yourself an unpleasant, squirrely ride with unpredictable handling. Lesson learned.

P.S. For a more enthusiastic look at winter-positivity, go read Lowrah’s series on Loving Minnesota Winters on the Grease Rag blog. For more details on my winter bike before this year’s tweaks, read this post from last year.

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More Bike Commuter Pants! Spring 2014 Update

It’s that time of year again – I am scanning the websites of my favorite clothing manufacturers, looking for anything that I would really want to wear in their new spring collections. Over almost three years of dedicated bike commuting, I have had a few tastes of functional clothes that reflect my non-girly persona, and they have left me craving more.

This year’s pants round up (so far):

Giro Mobility Pants

Giro Mobility Pants – $100
The first thing I noticed is that they look like normal pants. Really, like pants I’d hope to find even if I weren’t obsessed with bicycles. They’re not too tight, but they’re slim fit. They have belt loops. And pockets*. The price point is better than many bike pants I’ve seen. *Update: scratch the pockets. I tried these on in-store, and the front pockets are for decoration only. :-(

What’s bike-specific? Not much – and I think that’s OK. There’s reflective trim when you roll up the ankle. Let’s hope the fabric is pretty sweat-wicking (if not, what’s the point?) I am now messaging bike shops in the Twin Cities metro to find out if any of them carry the Mobility Pants.

A2B-Commuter-Pant-Women-s-Denim-Front-ViewArc’teryx A2B Commuter Pants – $139
If Giro took the approach of making as few changes as possible to the Gap chinos model, then Arc’teryx went the opposite route. Water-repellant and quick drying with articulated knees and lots of reflective stuff (cuffs and pocket flaps), these look very functional. The technical details befit Arc’teryx’s reputation for high-performance. Luckily, the price-point is lower than I would expect from this company.

A lot of my friends express frustration at having products dumbed down or flowered up when a women’s size is finally released. Arc’teryx gets points for making these just like the men’s model, just sized differently. Unfortunately, there’s still a double standard in the workplace. There are men who work in my building who could get away with wearing these to the office, but it wouldn’t fly for me. I need something a little more polished.

RYB_denimRYB Denim  Coming soon!
I should have mentioned this start-up company last year. They ran a successful Indiegogo campaign and will hopefully be shipping jeans to funders soon – and then, to the world. A good friend ordered a pair from the Indiegogo campaign. I will beg her to tell me all the details when they’re here!

Read my previous bike pants round up post here, and check out additional posts about REI’s bike jeans and Iladora’s bike pants, which are now available from their new website.

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How to Put Your Bike on Amtrak

Growing up in a rural area not served by train transportation, I never gave Amtrak much thought. I have now taken three different trips via Amtrak this fall, including transporting myself and my bike back to Minneapolis after my trip to Winona.

Here is what Amtrak will tell you about taking your bike on the train. This post details what they don’t tell you, based on my own experience and some tips from friends I gathered in preparation for my own trip.

A few different routes let you bring bikes on board, but most don’t. You’ll probably be putting your bike in a box and checking it as luggage. You will pay for a ticket that allows checked luggage, pay $10 for that luggage to be a bicycle, and most likely pay $15 for a bike box. Boxes don’t come with tape, and the station may or may not have some on hand, so bring your own packing tape.

Apparently the stations are required to keep 5 boxes on hand, but like train schedules, things don’t always go as planned. Once you have your ticket, call your departing station a week in advance to let them know that you’re coming and will need a box. Just in case.

Amtrak bike boxes are not the same as the ones your local bike shop has laying around. Bike manufacturers ship bikes as separate components – frame, wheels, bars, etc. all disassembled – so these boxes are generally much too small for a functional, put-together bike. Amtrak bike boxes are meant to accommodate bikes with much less disassembling. There is a chance that there will be used ones available at the station (you’d need a mini-van to take it with you and most people don’t), in which case Amtrak will give them to you for free! I did not encounter this on my trip.

The bike boxes are fairly tall and wide but very narrow. To get a bike to fit you will take off the pedals and loosen the stem to turn it sideways (independently of the front wheel). If the bike has drop bars, you will also have to loosen the bar end of the stem so that the bars drop down. You need to practice doing this with the tools you intend to use before you go. You should know how long it will take you to get your bike set and tape up the box, then add time to check in and buy a box from customer service and at least 15 minutes for the Amtrak employees to check and load the box before your train departs. The Winona, Minnesota station recommended that I come an hour before my train was scheduled to leave. Feel free to call your individual station to ask about timing.

You will need to remove all other items from your bike before sealing up the box. The Amtrak employee I encountered wanted me to remove my water bottles from their cages but said nothing about the sleeping pad lashed to my back rack. Pedals can go in the box with the bike, but I didn’t like the idea of my pedals banging around in the box with my bike, so I threw them in a plastic bag and carried them on the train (you’ll want the plastic bag and something to wipe your hands on, because the pedals will be greasy).

At this point, you will tape up your box and write your name and phone number and address all over it, because this box has your favorite inanimate object in the whole world inside of it.

Upon arrival, find baggage claim and wait for your bike box. Make sure that it is yours. You will cut open the tape (hope that multi-tool has a blade) and leave the box at the station because unless a moving van is meeting you at the station, there is no other practical way to transport such a thing.

If you have a folding bike, the process should be considerably easier (at least after Elly Blue publicly shamed Amtrak for not knowing their own policies).

To recap, you need:

  • A pedal wrench or whatever tool will remove your pedals (mine use an allen or hex wrench). If you have no idea how to take your pedals off, have a mechanic or a good repair manual show you how. Helpful hint: one of them is probably reverse-threaded.
  • An allen wrench in the correct size to loosen your stem. If you have a quill stem, it helps to have something like a hammer to hit it with. If this sounds scary, have someone show you.
  • An allen wrench in the correct size to loosen your handlebars (the other end of the stem)
  • A grease rag because your hands will get greasy when you take your pedals off (if they don’t, you probably need to do more preventative maintenance).
  • Packing tape and a permanent marker for sealing and marking the box.
  • Something to cut open the box when you get there.

Safe travels!

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Winter Biking Outfit

I think it was 12 degrees Fahrenheit when I left the house yesterday morning. I set off for errands: Midwest Mountaineering, grocery store, bank. All told, I biked and shopped for 2.5 hours and returned home in 15 degree weather. Here’s what I was wearing:

OuterlayerOn my bike: Bern helmet, windproof fleece balaclava, fleece earband under the balaclava (because sometimes my ears need more protection), fleece-lined softshell jacket, merino wool knit gloves under insulated lobster gloves, wool blend pants (brand is Eddie Bauer, they were a thrift-store score) and my heavy-duty winter boots.

ImageIn the store: OK, I didn’t take off my heavy winter boots to shop, I just wore them around the stores. But this is a commuter blog, and if I’d been at the office, some simple black dress shoes would have made this work appropriate.

I’m wearing a midweight merino wool base layer top, a lightweight merino cardigan, the same wool pants, wool long underwear, and Smartwool dress socks.

Was I comfy? Yes, mostly. I was riding my touring bike, not my winter bike, because the roads were dry (my winter bike is much slower and less efficient, so I warm up faster when riding it). The first leg of the trip was about 3.5 miles, and I don’t think my fingers warmed up until mile 3. Subsequent jaunts with the same glove set up were fine because I paused for a few minutes indoors to warm my fingers up inside my gloves before setting out, which makes a difference.

This was my first time trying out these pants in truly cold weather, and I was really happy. They’re not windproof and my legs felt a bit chilly during the first mile, but after that I was perfectly comfortable. They’ll definitely be making it into my winter wardrobe rotation.

This is winter number 3 for doing any winter biking, and winter 2 for biking regularly. I’ve been slowly adding to my bike and wardrobe (as funds permit) and am seeing the payoff in comfort. It’s November 24 and Minneapolis still has dry streets. I’ve got a bike set up and ready to go for when it does get messy out there, but right now I’m enjoying riding in the clear, cold nights.

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New York City: Trying Out Citi Bikes

A bike share station forms part of the barrier in a Manhattan protected bike lane.

A bike share station forms part of the barrier in a Manhattan protected bike lane.

I recently got back from New York City, where I tried bike share bikes for the first time. That’s right, Minneapolis/ StPaul has had them since 2008 and I have managed to never, ever ride one. I love the idea but I have three of my own bikes and have just never gotten around to it.

Subways, buses, and hoofing it have gotten me around NYC pretty well in the past, but with the Citi Bike system finally up and running, I was eager to try out New York’s newest transit option. Most of what I thought about biking in New York City came down to three stereotypes:
1. There is always a truck, cab, etc. in the bike lane
2. Your bike will get stolen. Period.
3. Partly due to the theft threat and partly due to the fact that NYC apartments are often the same size as my Minneapolis kitchen, everyone rides folding bicycles.

I bought my Citi Bike pass and rode several times while in the city, all of them in Manhattan (stations are only located south of 62nd Street in Manhattan and west of Norstrand Avenue in Brooklyn, excluding huge stretches of the city). Here are my now slightly-more-informed stereotypes about biking in New York City, as well as my experiences using the Citi Bikes.

The City
1. Yes, there is generally a vehicle parked in the bike lane. Unless it is a protected bike lane, in which case there will be pedestrians in it. Fortunately, Citi Bikes come equipped with bells.
2. I saw plenty of fairly nice bikes locked up for hours at a time, so I assume that things do not instantly get stolen, which is what I had previously envisioned. I heard various different reports from people who actually live there. One said that it just depends on what part of the city – some are much safer than others – which I am sure is true. Another said that he assumed that his bike eventually would get stolen, but that having wheels or components stolen was a much bigger problem for him.
3. There were certainly people on folding bikes out riding around, but they were still outnumbered by full size bicycles. There were quite a few people riding Citi Bikes, too. I didn’t make a formal survey, but I estimate that I saw the most full-size bikes of all kinds, followed by bike share bikes, followed by folders.

The other stereotype I had about biking in New York City was that it would be a stressful, dangerous, high traffic venture. I’m an experienced cyclist who can hold her own in heavy rush hour traffic, but I really prefer not to. I am one of those people who would rather bike a few blocks out of the way in order to ride in relative calm. I love riding in Minneapolis.

New York was not as bad as I thought it would be. Yes, the bike lanes were narrow and there were cabs relatively close to my elbows, but unlike in Minneapolis, car traffic was so bad that the cars can’t go any faster than 10 mph, either. So instead of the more room but faster cars that I am used to, my experience of riding in crowded areas of Manhattan was not any scarier than Minneapolis. A different kind of threat, but no less threatening. And like any city, even Manhattan has some quiet side street that are downright pleasant to bike on.

NYC has, as many people have pointed out, done a great job of adding bike infrastructure in the past few years. Which doesn’t mean that all the kinks have been ironed out. I generally found things to be easy enough to navigate, with the exception of a left side bike lane that, without warning, turned into sharrows. The cabs passing me up didn’t seem to be very interested in sharing the sharrows.

The Citi Bikes
When I got to the station to buy my pass, the man in front of me was having a difficult time navigating the touch screen interface in German (there are a lot of different language options). After about 5 minutes, he gave up and I stepped up to give it a try. After realizing that I had to jab hard at the screen to get it to work, I managed to operate the system and successfully insert my credit card. I found a bike that looked to be in reasonable shape, adjusted the seat, and set off.

The first thing I noticed was that these bikes handle way differently than anything I was used to riding. I had meant to give myself more time to adjust to the bike, but was running late (and even later after waiting for my turn at the touch screen). I did get used to it as I rode. The second thing I noticed was that the rear break was loose or “mushy” as a mechanic would say. That didn’t inspire a lot of confidence, but it wasn’t so bad that I felt totally unsafe.

Arriving at the destination was easier. I just rolled up, shoved the bike in the station, waited a few seconds for the green light and walked away. My second trip up, I swiped my credit card again (the system remembers that you’ve already paid) and got a new code to punch in, which didn’t work. I tried another bike, and another. Same deal. I called the help line, which was impressively answered right away. The person working told me to swipe my card again and get a new code, which I did, and that one worked. Good customer service, but annoying that I needed it in the first place. Having to get a new code each time is a strong argument for the yearly pass, which gives you a key that you can just swipe and go.

These bikes are tanks, and they are s-l-o-w. I worked up quite a sweat pedaling it about a mile. There’s a lot more resistance here than on anything I ride at home, including my mountain bike.

Another challenge was that there are a ton of apps for finding stations, but my phone is not smart and no one could give me a map of stations (free subway maps, in contrast, abound). Station finders for people without smart phones would be helpful. Maybe I wasn’t looking in the right places. I hope that the system will expand to other parts of the city. Right now it’s pretty focused on wealthier areas, and some of my favorite places in the city aren’t served by city bike.

Despite the hiccups, I will definitely use Citi Bikes the next time I am in NYC. It was nice being able to easily, quickly get to places that might require switching trains, and in the summer it would be great to be out in the sunshine and not in a stuffy subway tunnel. It was nice not having to worry about a bike being stolen, and being able to leave the bike behind and catch a train to another borough when I needed to. I hope to see bike shares expand to other cities and will look into them whenever I’m traveling without my own set of wheels.

 

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The Women’s Bike Pant Saga Continues

This Indiegogo campaign is looking for funding to create “the perfect women’s bike pant.” Worth a look, if you’re like me and have been lamenting the lack of commuter-friendly women’s bike apparel.

A woman rides a bike in the Perfect Bike Pant

These seem pretty cool – although I would quibble with their claim that their product is unique. There are at least two other companies making a similar pant. The main high point for this product right now is the price point: you can pre-order pants for $99, which is billed as a 25% discount. Even if you paid full price, this would still make them about 50% less than Outlier’s option.

Worth mentioning – there’s no fly, and there’s a hidden, magnetic roll-up loop on the right leg. I’m waiting until they’re in production and I can get these into a dressing room, but I’m excited to see women jumping into the market place and making the products that fit our lifestyles.

Also see REI’s new bike jean.

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Presto-Chango Bike Outfits

Dressing for bike commuting is a spectrum. On one side, the commuter wears full race-ready apparel on the ride with a full change upon arrival at work. On the other, the dogmatically street-clothes-wearing cyclist wears full jewelry and any shoes that fit her sense of fashion. Every commute distance/weather/work dress-code is different, so go with whatever works for you. However, most of the people I know fall somewhere in between these poles, sometimes called a hybrid approach. I like to think of my bike style as Presto-Chango.

Case in point: an art opening at the gallery where I work, requiring snazzier-than-normal attire. Fall is definitely here in Minneapolis, with many days still fairly nice but chilly mornings and nights. As I headed to work mid-afternoon for an evening event, I knew that it was warm then and would be hot in the packed gallery, but would be cool when I biked home at night. I tucked my earrings in a bag, along with a few items for the ride home, and headed to work.

ImageAs an experiment, I decided to try biking in my high heels. I nearly sprained my ankle wearing them while carrying my bike down the stairs of my apartment, but luckily cycling in heels is easier than walking in them. Once on the bike, the heels were pretty OK, though they offered slightly reduced contact area (vs. flats) with my Ergon pedals. I noticed pretty quickly how true it is that stiff soles transfer power better. The only real problem was that by mile 3.5 of a 5 mile ride, my toes were going numb. I attribute this to the fact that this pair of shoes is a tiny bit too small for me.

Besides the shoes, I wore black cotton capris and a polyester blouse (doesn’t breathe great, but I’ve worn worse). My favorite turquoise earrings and make-up applied at work completed the party look.

By the time I finished working, the temps had dropped and I was pretty tired of the heels. I slipped them off and dug into my pannier for my presto-chango secrets: knee-high wool socks, tennis shoes, and a windproof jacket. Taking off my dangly earrings, I thought, “chic to bike geek in a minute flat.”

ImageBlack capris are one of my favorite clothing items that does double-duty well. Leather boots and sweat-wicking T-shirts that don’t look sporty are others. I consider my 10-mile round-trip commute to be mid-distance: not so long I need to wear full performance gear but not so short that I don’t have to think about it at all. I generally don’t feel comfortable biking in my full work attire or working in my favorite biking attire, but with a little imagination, I’ve been able to figure out ways to maximize the stuff that does double-duty and minimize the stuff that goes in the bag.

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