I couldn’t have blamed them. After all, compared to many other species, we’re not very strong, fast, agile, flexible or durable.
If they learned how to ride bikes, would goats—or horses, cows or other creatures—beat us in a race? Or ride for longer?
I couldn’t have blamed them. After all, compared to many other species, we’re not very strong, fast, agile, flexible or durable.
If they learned how to ride bikes, would goats—or horses, cows or other creatures—beat us in a race? Or ride for longer?
The other day, I pedaled along the Queens and Brooklyn waterfronts from my apartment to the Williamsburg Bridge. After crossing, I turned onto Clinton Street and crossed the Lower East Side and Chinatown before crossing under the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges.
Then I decided to channel the bike messenger I was many years ago and zig-zag through the narrow steel, granite and concrete canyons of the Financial District. There, I did something that sounds riskier than it actually is (which is the opposite of so many things done in that part of town!): I stopped in the middle of Fulton Street, with a line of cars in front of, and behind, me.
It wasn't so dangerous because the traffic was halted for a bit longer than it normally would stop for a red light. Guys in thick boots and safety vests were doing some sort of construction or destruction, I'm not sure of which. So they, with the help of police, stopped traffic for a few minutes, did whatever they were doing and let the traffic go for another few minutes.
That was good, for me, because there are some things for which one should stop before entering.
I couldn't help but to feel that I was riding into the entrance of a cathedral--of tourism? Of capitalism? Of this city itself?
When the new World Trade Center tower was under construction, about a decade ago, I was prepared to hate it. I never cared much for the old "Twin Towers," but after they were destroyed in the September 11 attacks, I felt that nothing should be built in their place. I thought that the twin rays of blue light that were beamed up from the site for about a year were a fitting tribute to all of the lives lost.
I must say, though, that I like the new tower. Its curves on the outside give it the grace of a dancer rising and arching her arms as she pirouettes. It's as if the feeling of transcendence one feels under the arches of a cathedral were the result of the cathedral itself reaching for something.
I feel the new WTC, in its architecture, honors the people lost in and around the Twin Towers. If only they were here to see it.
An after-work ride took me through some familiar areas of Queens and Brooklyn.
When I say “familiar,” I don’t mean only that I know which streets go where. I’ve seen some of those neighborhoods when you lived in them when you had no other choice—or where the people in them were, well, like me and my family when I was growing up and less like the person I am now. Indeed, I don’t think any of us could have imagined a woman in, ahem, middle age riding a bicycle—and writing a blog about it.
(Of course, we didn’t know about blogs because they didn’t exist!)
Anyway, I can remember when Cobble Hill was an enclave of blue-collar Italian-Americans, like some of my relatives. Court Street was a corridor of stores, cafes and bakeries, some of which served and sold the sorts of things what the proprietors’ families made and ate themselves.
In other words, whether it was American, Italian or Italian-American, it was rich but unpretentious: No one tries to make the pastas, pastries, pizzas and parmigianas (chicken, eggplant or otherwise) seem like anything other than what they were.
So all I could say was, “There went the neighborhood “ when I saw this:
There was an old joke that people like me didn’t know we came from working-class or blue-collar backgrounds until we went to college and encountered those terms in a sociology class—or people who didn’t come from those classes.
Likewise, only people who comes from privilege can go to a place like that because it’s their idea of “blue-collar,” just as they choose to go to “dive bars” (or even call them such) if they have the monetary or social capital to go to a place people are chauffeured into.
I wonder whether those “blue collar” burgers are made from organic New Zealand grass-fed beef—and served on avocado toast and washed down with a triple IPA aged in an oak barrel previously used for a vintage wine or single-malt whiskey.
Some who read yesterday's post might believe that I'm becoming (or already am) a whiny ingrate. But even in a relatively bike-conscious country like the UK, simply building bike lanes--even "hardened" ones--isn't enough to ensure the safety of cyclists.
Last Friday afternoon, Trish Elphinstone was riding on a designated bike path--one that is physically separated from the road it parallels. A driver steered a black sedan across that barrier, clipped Ms. Elphinstone's front wheel and sped away.
|The lane where a driver steered into Trish Elphinstone's wheel. Google image.|
The encounter left her with swelling on her shoulders and knees, in addition to a "face matted with blood" as a result of a cut above her eyebrow. Needless to say, she spent the rest of the afternoon in an emergency room rather than the meeting she was riding to.
She admits that it's "ironic" that the meeting she missed was about road safety. You see, just last month, she was elected from the Labour Party to represent Rose Hill and Littlemore in the Oxfordshire City Council. She narrowly defeated Michael Anthony Evans, an Independent politician whose platform included staunch opposition to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and traffic-calming schemes, which he described as a "blunt instrument that divides neighborhoods."
One might assume that he opposes bike lanes and anything else that might encourage people to cycle for transportation, or at least get out of their cars.
I'm not saying a conspiracy was involved when that car clipped Trish Elphinstone's front wheel--and kept her from a meeting on traffic safety. But...
The Department of Transportation in New York City, my hometown, has announced that we can expect to see ten miles of new "hardened" bike lanes this year, in addition to other ("soft"?) lanes.
So what does the city mean by a "hardened" lane? Apparently, it's one separated from traffic by a concrete or other immovable barrier, in contrast to most lanes, which "protect" cyclists from traffic with flexible bollards or lines of paint.
If a sound like a cynical curmudgeon, well, I won't deny that I am one, at least somewhat. You see, a DOT spokesperson says that building the lanes is, in part, a response to the increasing accident and death rate for cyclists. Now, if I weren't (snark alert) one of those mean, nasty, entitled lycra sausages, I would simper "Oh, how thoughtful of them!"
Now, I am not against "hardened" lanes or even the "soft" ones, at least in principle. What bothers me is planners' misconceptions that are almost inevitably built into bike infrastructure in this city and country.
|Crescent Street bike lane: the one that runs right in front of my apartment. Photo by Edwin de Jesus.|
For one thing, when motorists maim or kill cyclists, sometimes deliberately, they usually get away with little more than a "slap on the wrist." The Police Department seems to give attacks on cyclists the same priority as bike theft--which is to say, no priority, or even less.
To be fair, some motor vehicle-bicycle crashes are caused by miscalculations rather than malfeasance on the part of drivers. If they haven't cycled for transportation rather than just in leisurely social spins in the park, they aren't likely to understand what are truly the safest practices--for cyclists and motorists alike--for proceeding through intersections and other situations in which drivers and cyclists meet.
But what really drives me crazy is how planners seem to give little or no thought to where they place the lanes. Too often, they begin seemingly out of nowhere or end without warning. That is not a mere inconvenience. For one thing, it renders lanes impractical: The only way cycling will ever become a respected part of this city's traffic landscape will be if it becomes a practical means of transportation for people who don't live within a few blocks of their schools or workplaces. For another, bike lanes that don't have clear beginnings and endings, and aren't integrated with each other, put cyclists and motorists alike--and pedestrians--in more danger.
So, while hoping that the new lanes will reflect a more evolved philosophy than previous lanes did, I remain a skeptic.
In the 1960's and 1970's, there was a genre of bikes, at least here in the US, aimed at kids (boys, mainly) by emulating a motorcycle as much as one could without using a motor.
These bikes were often called "muscle bikes" and featured high, wide handlebars, "banana" seats, wide tires and, if they had multiple gears, "stick" controls mounted on the top tube. (I wonder whether the latter accounted for the decrease in birth rates after the 1970s.) Examples of such bikes included the Raleigh "Chopper" and the Schwinn "Krate" and "Sting Ray" bikes.
Even the designers of those bikes, however, did not go as far as whoever modified this one:
Cheaters want to win--and not get caught. So they find ways to conceal the ways in which they cut corners.
I don't cheat. So how can I speak with such authority about cheaters and cheating? Don't ask! 😉
Seriously, though: How many ads have you seen for drugs that can't be detected or teas, potions or other things that will make whatever you drank, ingested or smoked the night before "undetectable?"
Although Jacques Anquetil supposedly said that no one wins the Tour de France on salad and mineral water and the only rider to have won the Tour more often than the "gentle giant" had all of his victories voided because he aimed for "better living through chemistry," taking banned or simply risky or questionable substances is not the only way racers and other athletes have tried to gain unfair advantages.
Over the past few years, riders have been caught with "boosters" concealed in various parts of their bikes. I am not naive enough to think that all of the riders hiding mechanical and electronic "aids" in whichever parts of their bikes--or clothes or bodies--have been detected. And, given a development I've just become aware of, I wouldn't be surprised that more will choose not to play by the rules.
Quella, a British company known for urban single-speed bikes (what some call "cafe racers) has developed a line of such machines that aren't what they seem, at least to the uninitated. At first glance, it might seem like another bike from its flagship Varsity line. (Interesting, isn't it, that it shares a model name with one of the most-maligned and best-selling bikes of all time?) Actually, it is--except for the rear hub, which is larger in diameter than what one normally finds on such a bike. Inside that hub are a battery, torque sensor, GPS, Bluetooth and motor.
Yes, you read that right. That bike has an electric assist, but tries to hide it. Now, of course, I don't think it would get by a race registrar or commissaire but, if someone could figure out a way to fit everything I mentioned into a hub, I am sure that, in time, someone will figure out a way to make such a hub look like the more slender ones we are accustomed to seeing on such bikes. After all, your Android or iPhone has more capacity than the computers that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon and back.
Also, I imagine that the sensors and motor can be made more powerful, and able to go for longer distances and periods of time on a single charge. The current system will only push a rider up to 15 MPH with 40Nm of torque--and has a maximum range of about 40 miles on a single charge. So, this system will only help riders on short rides over flat terrain--which is how such bikes are usually ridden anyway.
But if (or perhaps I should say when) the engineers figure out how to make the assist go faster and further on a single charge, this system could be a temptation or a boon (depending on your point of view) for some racer who needs a little edge and believes he or she won't get caught--or that the rules or their enforcement will change.
Bicycling is commonly seen as an environmentally-friendly form of transportation, recreation and exercise. Some people ride their bikes for exactly that reason. And, for the most part, bicycles are less damaging to the planet than many other things, including motorized vehicles. But there are two bike parts that, too often, end up in landfills.
I am talking about bicycle tires and tubes. Some of us re-use tubes that have been patched one too many times: as tie-downs, for example, or underneath clamps to prevent them from slipping and marring a finish. And, for a time, Pedro's made "Blowout bags" partially from re-cycled inner tubes. Those bags strapped underneath a rider's saddle and were used to--you guessed it--carry a spare inner tube, patch kit, tire levers and maybe a small multi-tool.
The problem with old tires and tubes is that although they crack from drying out (which is how many Blowout bags, including two I used, met their endings), they don't decompose quickly in the way of some other materials.
Since 2002, England and Wales have had a law forbidding the disposal of automotive and agricultural tires in landfills. But, interestingly, bicycle tires and tubes were exempt from the law although, according to chemical engineers, they are nearly identical in composition to car tires.
Five years ago, Russ Taylor founded Velorim to bridge this inequity. He comes from Staffordshire, known for its bull terriers, so it is perhaps not a surprise that he is forward-thinking and ambitious. He realized that all of those tires and tubes that were being sent to landfills--or overseas--for disposal could be put to better use, not only for consumer products, but in public works.
As an example, Velorim has developed a process that is now being used to turn pellets from reclaimed rubber goods into a porous material that can be used to lay cycle paths in urban or rural landscapes. This not only re-uses those old tires and tubes, but also lessens the need to make new asphalt or concrete, both of which involve processes that are harmful to the environment--to say nothing of the fact that asphalt is made from petrochemicals.
So, the tires you now ride could be rolling over...the tires you used to ride. Somehow that's fitting in more ways than one.
As a cyclist, I have an interesting relationship with tunnels. (A Freudian would have a field day with that statement!) I've ridden, probably, my share and some long underpasses that could just as well have been tunnels. (I think of one in particular that dips as it goes under the Long Island Railroad trestle at 130th Street in Queens.) I can't say I seek out those long, enclosed passages, but when I enter them, I experience a mild adrenaline rush: Even if I know what's on either end of it, I like to imagine that I'm going to emerge in a different world from the one where I entered.
That said, one of the most gratifying experiences I've had as a cyclist took me through a tunnel. I detoured from one Alpine road--closed, probably, by an avalanche--to another, only to come to a tunnel in which an electrical outage extinguished the lights.
A driver in a Citroen waved to me. He told me to ride ahead of him, in the wake of his headlights, and the drivers behind him would follow. And they did!
I thought of that day when I came across this news item: A three-kilometer (1.8 mile) tunnel through the base of Lovstakken mountain Bergen, Norway has just opened in Bergen, Norway.
While that, in itself, may not seem so unusual--after all, the Norwegians, French, Italians, Japanese and other people who live in or by mountains have been building them for centuries---the purpose of the tunnel makes it a record-breaker.
|Photo by Ronny Turoy|
The Norwegian under-pasage is the longest such structure built specifically for cyclists and pedestrians. There are separate lanes for each, and motorized vehicles are verboten. (OK, I know that's a German word. I don't know Norwegian!)
Perhaps the most unique and gratifying part of the tunnel, though, is that its designers seemed to do everything they could to make it seem less like a tunnel. The walls are lined with art and other visual delights, and the cave is illuminated with different colors of light in different parts of the tunnel, which helps to give people who pedal, walk and run an idea of how far they've progressed through it. And, in the middle of the tunnel there's a "sundial" in a place where the sun will never shine. It's intended, in part, to further break up the monotony of the tunnel, which is completely straight (which is something I never could claim) except for slight bends at the entrance and exit.
In the Hollywood version of the immigrant's story, a poor young person emerges--his coat, but not his spirit, tattered--from the dark, dank steerage section of a ship to a deck, just as the sun breaks through clouds over the Statue of Liberty.
I can't help but to wonder how many actually had snow swirling around them, or were soaked in a downpour or struck by sleet, as they gazed out onto the harbor. Or, perhaps, their first glimpse of Lady Liberty was shrouded in mist.
For a couple of days, we had an early taste of summer: the temperature reached 33C (91F) in Central Park on Friday. Then the clouds rolled in and and fog enveloped the city--especially the waterfront--late on Saturday and Sunday, interrupted by rain on Sunday morning.
I pedaled through a bunch of Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods, from my western Queens abode to East New York, and zig-zagged along the waterfront. I stopped for a mini-picnic (some pistachios and Lindt's 85 percent dark chocolate) in Red Hook.
I have ridden to the Hook a number of times and still can't get over the irony of my riding--or people from all over the city, and from outside it--to it for pleasure. I mean, what would the relatives of mine who worked on the docks or the nearby factories have thought of people whose "Sunday best" are airbrushed, more expensive versions of the clothes my relatives wore to work. Or of the three young men munching on matching artisan chocolate-coated Key Lime ice cream pops as they sauntered along the pier. Or, for that matter, of the fancy wedding taking place inside a warehouse turned into an "event space."
My relatives walked and took streetcars to those piers and never went anywhere near them after they clocked out, let alone on Sunday. And, of course, the folks who arrived from further away--as my relatives or, at least, their parents--came by boat. What would they have thought of someone like me arriving by bike--Tosca, my Mercian fixed-gear, to be exact--on her day off, just because she could?
Or, for that matter, that I am a she? What could they have seen through the mist?
“What’s the fastest you’ve ever ridden?”
That question invariably comes from non-cyclists. They don’t want to know when I’ve kept pace with, or passed, vehicles or outrun storms. Rather, they want the answer expressed as a number. For them, I offer this:
In the 1980s, two celebrities--Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox--used their own struggles with Parkinson's Disease to raise awareness of the affliction. Moreover, they helped people to realize that Parkinson's wasn't an "old people's disease"--Ali's diagnosis came in his early 40s and Fox's before he turned 30--and that people can live more or less normal lives after a diagnosis and treatment.
Somehow I don't think Brue Closser's life is more or less normal--or less of anything.
The 78-year-old resident of Marquette County, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, has been cycling since the 1970s. There has been one ride on his "bucket list," he says, and it will commence on 5 May. On that day, he plans to get on his bike in Yorktown, Virginia and pedal to Astoria, Oregon--in other words, across the United States, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans.
I give "props" to anyone who undertakes such a ride. But the journey Closser has planned is especially notable for two other reasons. One is that he is riding from east to west: the opposite direction from that taken by most transcontinental cyclists. The reason for that is that while there are local and daily variations, the prevailing wind is from west to east. (That's why a flight from New York to Paris is about an hour shorter than one in the other direction.) But, perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of his trip will be that when he completes it, he will be, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the oldest cyclist to complete such a trip.
But the record isn't the reason he's taking the trip, he says. "I learned a long time ago, don't put off your dreams, because I think I can do it this year, but who knows what next year will bring."
Whatever it brings, I doubt Parkinson's Disease will stop him.
Two and a half years ago, I was "doored" into a potentially-fatal spill. The reason I survived with a gash that required thirty stitches and torn muscles and ligaments is that traffic stopped just behind me, and a bystander took it upon himself to get water and bandages and to call the police and ambulance.
The driver, to her credit, checked to see whether I was OK and offered help. (Between her driver's and my health insurance, thankfully, it cost me very little.) And, a few months later, I was nearly doored again on a Sunday afternoon as I pedaled along Metropolitan Avenue in Middle Village--while wearing a high-visibility jacket. I turned back to yell at the driver, who stated the obvious: "I wasn't paying attention."
Other drivers, though, aren't so willing to own up to what they've done. Even if they open the door as you're next to it, they somehow think it's your responsibility to keep them from dooring you.
Richard Silvester falls somewhere between these two categories of drivers. Last July, the UK resident had been eating a sausage roll in his car when he opened his door to shake off crumbs. (I have been the recipient of such morsels, and of showers from motorist dumping their half-finished cups of coffee and bottles of soda.) Unfortunately for Benjamin Dearman-Baker, Silvester's effort at tidiness sent him tumbling from his bike--which he'd been riding at 20MPH--to the pavement.
Although endangering or injuring someone by opening a car door is a misdemeanor offense in the UK, it's still a more serious charge than in most US jurisdictions. Rarer still is the motorist, like Silvester, actually prosecuted for it.
Silvester claimed to have "looked" before opening his door, but admitted he didn't check the blind spots. He might have seen Dearman-Baker in one of them had he used the "Dutch Reach," which is now mandatory in the UK and other countries--and versions of it may soon be mandated in New York and other places in America.
The "Dutch Reach," invented in a country that has about the same ratio of bicycles to people as the US has guns to people, is simple: The driver uses their "far hand" to open the door. In the UK, where drivers travel on the right side of the road, it is their left hand. In most other countries, a driver would open their portals right-handed. Bending in such a way forces drivers to look in those spots immediately behind them, which is where they, more often than not, "don't see" cyclists.
During the past few years, Massachusetts and Illinois have made the "Dutch Reach" part of their drivers' curriculum. In New York City, where I live, the Department of Transportation is trying to promote it among taxi and service-vehicle drivers as the "New York Twist."
It sounds like a dance. Let's hope it catches on and it isn't just a temporary "craze," like an earlier "twist."
It’s easy to keep #BikeNYC safe! Do the New York Twist: before exiting a vehicle, twist your opposite arm to open the door, then turn your head behind you to watch for oncoming bikers. You twist one way to put on your seat belt, now twist another to save lives. #VisionZero pic.twitter.com/8tqllsp9P9— NYC DOT (@NYC_DOT) April 10, 2023
Oh, and for his part, Richard Silvester has been ordered to pay the costs that result from hitting Benjamin Dearman-Baker when he opened his door to shake off the crumbs from his sausage roll.
My younger self was not only, well, younger, but also stronger, skinnier and perhaps sillier: Even after I’d given up on racing, I prided myself on riding like a racer. Some of that may have had to do with living as male and riding, if not solo, then mostly in the company of male riders who were racers, ex-racers or wannabes.
Now I’m going to make a confession: While I sometimes rode just as hard and fast during my solo rides, on other solo rides—and only on solo rides, I’d stop to look at buildings, trees or flowers.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that few things make me happier, if for a moment, than those pink blooms. (Lilacs, which should be showing up soon, are another.)
It’s not just their prettiness that moves me. I must say that I never understood haiku or Japanese art (or why it so inspired Monet and other Impressionist artists) until I paid attention to cherry blossoms.
You see, haiku isn’t just about the syllable count and Japanese painting isn’t only a style. Both are about experiencing the beauty and intensity of something in a moment but appreciating that moment’s ephemerality. And that, I believe, is the reason why there’s so much respect for elders and ancestors in Japanese culture.
So…while my recent rides have been sensual and aesthetic experiences—which my younger self would have secretly embraced—they have also been lessons which, possibly, my younger self could not’ve understood.
When I was young and thought myself invincible, I would depart for a ride with a full water bottle (or CamelBack, in my mountain biking days) and return home with--a full water bottle. And, no, I hadn't refilled it along the way. Sometimes people, including "tough guy" riding partners, either wondered how I didn't, or implored me to, take at least a few sips. In those days, I just didn't get thirsty very often and didn't realize that even when I wasn't, my body still needed water.
Once, on a ride in Pennsylvania, one of those riding buddies quipped, "This road could be blocked by a fountain and you wouldn't take a drink!"
Perhaps that was true. But what if the bike lane were blocked by a cafe--or a pub?
A few months into the pandemic, New York City allowed restaurant and bar owners to construct kiosks outside their establishments in order to limit crowding inside. Some of those kiosks block bike lanes which, ironically, were built not long before the kiosks. Sometimes I wonder whether those places are trying to drum up business with folks like me--or whether their owners and patrons simply hate us.
The bike lanes in question were all carved out of city streets. There are a few off-road lanes in the city's parks and other areas. A few offer snack, drink and lunch stands along the way but none, to my knowledge, feature a full-on restaurant, cafe, bar--or pub. On the other hand, in at least one part of England, the off-road bike lanes aren't immune to encroachment by eating and drinking establishments.
Roadcc reader "IanMK" encountered this during his Easter Sunday ride in Buckinghamshire. He grumbled but, in the end, he stopped for a pint. I mean, what else could he do, right?
Today is Easter Sunday. It's also the fourth full day of Passover and the eighteenth of Ramadan.
So, to be fair--and because I'm non-religious and love cats--I am posting this springtime image:
|Image by Kilkennycat.|
I ask this question only somewhat rhetorically: How often have you been praised for riding your bike?
If you live in the United States, your answer probably is "not often" or "never." I suspect that is true in other places where cycling is seen as something you do only because, for whatever reasons, you can't drive a car.
But a twelve-year-old boy in Mumbai, India has become something of a Twitter celebrity for traveling with his bicycle on the city's Metro system. In the photo accompanying the now-viral Tweet, he is seen seated with his bicycle next to him on his way to school.
This young boy is a daily traveler in #MumbaiMetro, goes to attend tuition. It was a pleasant site to witness him parking his bicycle easily. He looked very comfortable with the metro services. All the best to him. @MMMOCL_Official @pedalandtring @PMOIndia pic.twitter.com/SkD7NHDHay— rarajeev@Mumbai 2.O (@mumbai_2) April 6, 2023
I have never been to Mumbai but, from what I'm reading and hearing, it has a pretty extensive mass transit system. However, as in most cities public transportation, the longest and most difficult part of a Mumbai commute starts when a passenger disembarks from the train or bus and ends when that passenger arrives at the door of their school, workplace or home. Such scenarios are a major reason why people in outlying neighborhoods of New York, my hometown, drive.
Certainly, I believe the boy should be commended and other kids should be encouraged to do the same. But for some, and many adults, there are other obstacles to overcome if people are going to ride bikes to and from the subway or bus. For one, the trains, station and transit personnel have to be more accomodating to bicycles. For another, there has to be a reasonable assurance that their bikes--whether locked to an outdoor rack or in an indoor facitility--will be there at the end of their day of work, study, shopping or whatever. And, finally, for many, there need to be facilities where people can change clothes--or, in some situations, dress codes could be relaxed.
I am, ahem, a Midlife Cyclist. Still, I hope I live long enough that kids like the one in the photo are praised for riding their bikes to school and that getting to the store, office or other workplace by bike is the norm.
Ask newspaper writers what annoys or frustrates them most, and the answers will include headlines. My newspaper articles certainly weren't masterpieces of literature, but it drove me crazy when it was led off with something illiterate, clumsy or simply inaccurate.
So I felt for Nicole Rosenthal, a staff writer for Patch. Her otherwise-good article began with a title that, while it caught my eye--for a reason I'll mention in a moment--it set a very different tone than, I believe, Ms. Rosenthal intended.
"Aberdeen, Matawan Kids Are Violating Bicycle Laws, Police Say." Matawan is a village in the northern Monmouth County, New Jersey township of Aberdeen. Until 1977, the whole township was known as Matawan. Just one township--which, like Matawan, includes a few villages--stands between Aberdeen and Middletown Township, where I spent my high-school years and first became a dedicated cyclist. In fact, some of my early two-wheel treks outside Middletown took me through Matawan and Aberdeen.
(Snark alert) Li'l Lawbreakers! (Photo by Rachel Sokol)
Then, as now, the township's and village's streets, aside from Routes 34, 35 and 79, are lined with neat homes of people who commute to New York (the railroad station is one of the busiest in New Jersey) and their kids who are like suburban kids in other places--which is to say that if you take away their electronic devices, they're probably not so different from the kids I knew in Middletown.
According to the article, police have received "numerous" complaints about children "disregarding" the state's bicycle safety laws. Well, since most young people don't think very much about the laws are--if, indeed, they even have a vague idea of what they are--I don't think they "disregard" them. Perhaps "violate" is a better word: After all, people violate all sorts of laws and rules they don't realize they're violating.
So what sorts of laws do the youngsters of Matawan-Aberdeen violate? Well, from what the article says, some weren't wearing helmets, which the Garden State requires for riders under 17 years of age. (No such law existed when I was that age; in fact, people would look at you askance if you wore a helmet.) But the majority of complaints were about kids riding in the "middle" of roadways.
Indeed, the law in New Jersey, like its counterparts in most jurisdictions of the United States, says that cyclists have to right as far to the right as possible. (If that's an attempt to influence our politics, it didn't work with me! ;-)) So, I guess some people would define any other part of the road as "the middle." If that's the case, were the kids endangering themselves or holding up traffic--or popping wheelies, as kids have been doing for about as long as they've been riding bicycles?
(If they were riding in the "middle" of the road on Routes 34, 35 or 79, people wouldn't have been filing complaints; they would have been filling out hospital forms or making funeral arrangements!)
Anyway, I saw the headline and wondered whether that town where I rode past other kids like the one I was in Middletown--white, suburban and, if they were anything like me, rather docile even if they were capable of being smart-asses--was suddenly turning out menaces to society.
Sometimes I think the '90's were the end of an era: when you could care about aesthetics and still buy a high-end road racing bicycle.
Today, you can get a beautiful frame from a builder like Mercian or any number of other custom makers. But even though it can be sleek and relatively light, it's likely to be heavier and less aerodynamic than a new racing bike. Those gorgeous frames with their beautiful lugs or filet-brazed joints and lustrous paint jobs are most likely to be steel, whether from Reynolds, Columbus or some other maker, but most racers are now astride frames made of carbon fiber. Although I can appreciate the lightness and stiffness of carbon fiber frames, I know that their lifespan is nowhere near that of most good steel, titanium or aluminum frames. Also, their Darth Vader shapes and surfaces are too often plastered with cartoony or just plain creepy graphics.
But during that last "golden era" for road bikes, two seemingly-disparate groups of cyclists seemed to abandon any sense of velocepedic voluptuousness. According to Eben Weiss' latest article in Outside magazine, those riders were mountain bikers--especially of the downhill variety--and triathlon competitors. As he notes, mountain biking and triathlon racing came into their own as disciplines at roughly the same time, more or less independent of the prevailing cycling cultures (racing, touring, track, club riding). Although many mountain riders came from road riding, they tended to be younger and not as bound to the prevailing traditions and conventions of riding. Then there were those mountain riders who, like most triathloners, had little or no previous experience with cycling and were therefore even less wed to ideas about what bikes should look or ride like.
One result of that disdain for bicycle tradition was modern suspension systems. One irony is that those who developed it for mountain bikes thought they were doing something new and revolutionary when, in fact, bicycle suspension has been around for almost as long as bicycles themselves. The chief question seemed to be whether to suspend the rider or the bike itself: The former would offer more comfort and would, therefore, keep the rider in better control of the bike. The latter, on the other hand, would make the bike itself more stable at high speeds and in rough conditions: what would encounter in a downhill or on technical singletrack.
One of the earliest--and, perhaps, still most widely-used--forms of suspension is the sprung saddle, which would fall into the category of suspending the rider. Later, balloon-tired bikes from Schwinn, Columbia and other American manufacturers came with large bars and springs connected to the handlebars and front forks. How much shock they actually absorbed, I don't know. I get the feeling they were added, like the ones on the "Krate" and "Chopper" bikes of the '60's and '70's, so that kids could pretend that their bikes were scaled-down motorcycles.
Around the same time as those wannabe Harleys were made, Dan Henry's (of the Arrows fame) rigged up a Reynolds 531 fork with springs which, he said, allowed him to ride the lightest rims and tubular tires even in the roughest conditions. But the '70's and '80's saw little, if any, experimentation with, let alone manufacture of, suspended bikes or parts.
That all changed when the first Rock Shox forks and Girvin Flex Stems were introduced in 1989. The latter defied all notions of the graceful "gooseneck" in mirror-polished or milky silver, and Rock Shox looked nothing like those curved or tapered blades seen on classic road bikes. Then, it seemed, all sense of aesthetics went out the window--unless your idea of art is a sex toy or something that would render a man incapable of bringing any new cyclists into this world--with the Softride.
I must admit I never tried Softride: Even though I was leaner and lighter than I am now, I was leery of mounting anything that didn't have support from below. (Read that as you will.) Weiss rode one recently, three decades after its introduction, and found it to be "more subtle" than he expected though, he pointed out, he could have been just as, and more elegantly, cushioned from road and trail shock with a leather saddle or wide tires. Subtract the "diving board" and Girvin Flex stem, he notes, and one is left with a rigid mountain bike like the ones riders had been riding before.
If I had a couple of barns or garages, I'd probably acquire a Soft Ride to complete the collection I'd have. But even if I liked its suspension qualities, I'm not sure how much I'd ride it: I'm still too wedded to my vision of a beautiful bicycle. There are some things I just don't want to be caught dead on.