Keeping Score

I try to subscribe to the philosophy “Don’t Keep Score.” Don’t measure your progress and use the numbers as motivation; instead, be motivated because you enjoy what you’re doing. Depending on the endeavor, this doesn’t work for everyone, or even for me. And sometimes, it’s useful to keep score over the long run, without bothering yourself with the details as you go along.

I don’t use an odometer/speedometer (cyclometer) on my bicycle. I’ve had a number of problems when I tried using them. Sometimes they’d stop working, or measure results incorrectly (as much as I’d like to believe it, I don’t go 65mph down the hill through Schenley golf course). But the bigger problem is, if I have the numbers I do look at them: they motivate me too much. I pay attention to the numbers, instead of to enjoying myself.

I’m a very competitive person, but I am not very good at most sports (generally speaking, the ones with teams or dynamic movements). Combining these factors means that in a team or competition environment involving sports (and generally, keeping score), I often try to compete, but fail. Actually, I often hurt myself or make a fool of myself in the process. So, I generally avoid those situations.

This is one reason I don’t prefer organized group bike rides. I already have a hard time pacing myself, but when there’s someone going faster than me, I almost always feel compelled to try to catch up. (Of course the other reason I don’t prefer group rides is the whole “people” issue, but I’ll save that for another day.)

Although I don’t like numbers while I’m on the bike, I do generally like to get an idea of how far I’m riding in the long term. Some people mount their cyclometer in an inconvenient spot: it allows them to track their mileage, without letting them obsess over their current speed, maximum speed, average speed, cadence, heart rate, and/or power output (to name a few). Other folks prefer the good old fashioned Huret mechanical odometer to track their mileage (approximately) but not their speed.

But I don’t even go as far as tracking my annual mileage. At this point, my goal isn’t to increase my bicycle miles, but to decrease my car miles, and a cyclometer won’t help with that. I do have a general idea: at around 70 miles of commuting per week and additional recreational/errand rides on weekends, that gets me into the 3500-4000 mile per year range. I like to think it’s closer to 4000, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a lot more miles than I drive, and enough that I need to consider regular bike maintenance; but not enough to get rid of my beer belly.

At work, we’re keeping store in a different interesting way: we’re participating in the “10,000 step challenge.” Employees wear pedometers to track their steps throughout the day for a period of 12 weeks, with the ultimate goal of increasing their steps to 10,000 per day (around 5 miles of walking) by the end of the 12 weeks. We’re split into teams, and the team with the most steps will win a massage and a free lunch or something like that.

For cyclists, they let us count steps with the pedometer while we’re on the bike. I seem to get around 500 steps or so per mile on the bike, compared to 2000 for walking. I’ve found a relatively good setup for this, but on occasion I get complete failure: if the pedometer opens itself up or shifts into the wrong place, it stops working. So more often than not, if I’m checking my steps, it’s to make sure the darn thing is working, not to motivate myself. (My current average is around 11,000, up from maybe 8000 the first week. The biggest variable is my weekend step count.)

Last year, for my longer bike rides, I started using a handheld GPS device mounted on the handlebars. I can upload complete topographic/road maps for the area I’m riding in, as well as my planned route. Or, I can just ride wherever I want, and when I’m finished, download the route onto the computer. I’ve found this to be really useful for long rides in unfamiliar territory. It’s a lot better than a map or a cue sheet and cyclometer for finding my way. But it does suffer from the “too much information” syndrome you get with cyclometers, so I tend not to use it regularly.

One of my favorite techniques for tracking shorter rides is to use Bikely. This web site provides a Google Maps based interface for exploring and editing cycling routes. You can draw a route manualy on the map, upload a GPS file, or even download someone else’s route and put it on your GPS to follow it. It can also show elevation maps for all routes, and generate cue sheets if the route maker provides turn information.

Often after taking an unplanned recreational route, I draw my route on Bikely when I get home. This lets me see how far I’ve gone, without keeping score while I’m on the road. For example, Sunday we had beautiful weather, so I rode a 30 mile or so loop around Pittsburgh. Although there were a few nice roads, overall the road choices weren’t that great: I should probably spend more time investigating the hills in Fox Chapel and Sewickley instead.

I think cyclometers can be very useful to motivate cyclists to “keep at it” early on, but it is easy to get sucked in and become a slave to the numbers if you aren’t careful. At some point, everybody’s numbers will stop going up, and you’d better hope you’ve stopped looking at them by then: if increasing numbers work as a motivator, then decreasing numbers may be a demotivator. In this case, it’s better to rely on your enjoyment of the activity as motivation, instead of the numbers.

Use Your Signals

When bicycling, I generally use hand signals to tell drivers when I’m going to turn. For the most part, this is pretty boring and not worth writing about. However, legally required hand signals are not the only useful way to use your body to communicate with drivers while cycling.

But first… I guess I do have a few things to say about hand signals.

  1. Movement is more visible than a static pose. When starting hand signals, I tend to use exaggerated arm movements, sort of a “throwing” motion, to make myself more visible.
  2. The form of your signal can convey additional meaning. When merging into a left lane, I generally point at the ground with my finger, to say “I’m going there.” Seeing someone point naturally draws your eye towards where they’re pointing. My hope is that pointing where I’m going to go will cause drivers to look where I’m going, and thus be more likely to see me. On the other hand, when I am slowing down to turn left, I strech my left arm out with my open palm facing back, to say “slow down” to drivers behind me.

I’ve learned a few other techniques which can be helpful when navigating in traffic. The basic concept is to manage drivers’ perception of your attention. Drivers can’t see your eyes, but they do pay attention to the movement of your head to figure out what you see, and what you intend to do.

I don’t use a mirror, but in normal traffic I can usually hear cars approaching from behind. When I’m being followed by someone who could pass me safely, but who isn’t passing me, usually they decide it’s safe to pass if I turn around and glance backwards at them. Turning my head tells them that I know they’re there. Usually I move into the middle of a lane if it’s not safe to pass me, but a quick glance backwards is often enough to encourage hesitant drivers to pass if I want them to.

Recently I discovered another technique, but it’s a bit trickier to use effectively. In this case, the problem is that when I am stopped at an intersection and traffic crossing my path has the right of way, sometimes drivers stop and wave me across the intersection. Although they mean well, this is dangerous and they should not do it. It’s unsafe for them to stop when other drivers expect them to be moving, and it is unsafe for me to move into the intersection when there may be other drivers who expect me to be stopped.

If you stare expectantly at drivers while waiting to cross traffic, they are more likely to stop for you, thinking you’re a pedestrian. The key to managing this situation safely is to make sure they don’t perceive you as expecting them to stop for you to cross. First, you have to make it obvious that you’re stopped, and won’t be moving into traffic without looking. Put your foot down, maybe even let go of the handlebars. Then, make it obvious you aren’t paying attention to them. A glance at oncoming traffic when it’s farther away may tell them that you see them, but then turn your head away and make it obvious you’re paying attention to something else. Tell them that by stopping, they will only waste their time.

Unfortunately, I recently had another occasion to manage a driver’s perception of my attention. In this case, a big white SUV was behind me on a slow, narrow side street, as I rode in the middle of the lane to prevent unsafe passing. I choose this route because it’s slower than the main street, but occasionally cars use it as a short cut. She gunned her motor, intending to pass me unsafely on the left. By turning around and staring at her, letting her know I was watching her do this, I convinced her to stop.

That may seem dangerous, but I don’t believe it was. Although it’s not illegal to insult people, and might not be illegal to threaten them with physical harm, it is still definitely illegal to run someone over; even a self-righteous cyclist riding in the lane they’re legally entitled to ride in (see also: self righteous, self-referential).

The greatest dangers a cyclist must contend with are not being seen by drivers, and not seeing dangerous situations they may ride into. It’s important to use signals to tell other drivers what you’re doing, but it’s also important to learn drivers’ signals.

For example, when a driver honks their horn at you, it means “I see you, so I won’t hit you.” If they gun their motor, they might pass you, so don’t pull out in front of them; but it is also an indication that they see you, and will make an effort not to hit you. If someone yells “Get off the road” or something else (generally unintelligible) as they pass you, it means they see you. They may try to scare you, but they most likely won’t hit you.

These drivers may be annoying, but they aren’t the drivers you need to worry about, so try not to let them bother you. Of greater concern are the drivers who don’t see you or who drive unsafely and unpredictably.

Dress for Cycling: the 40’s

If you’re male and you wear clothes designed for bicycling, you’re pretty much going to look like a freak to the non-cyclist population. Exactly what kind of freak is up to you.

Here’s an example of how I might dress for a ride to work when it’s in the 40’s. That’s degrees farenheit, not the decade.

It was about 48-50F in the morning when I left dressed as you see here. On bottom, I have wool knickers and long socks that cover my knees. I wear the knickers all summer, but generally not when it’s below the 40F. On top, I wear a cotton T-shirt and wool jersey. I use a helmet with a visor, long fingered gloves, and goggles to keep the wind off my eyes in cold weather.

Women have it easy: capri pants, leggings, and tight fitting shirts are all well within the range of accepted “normal” clothing. Not so much, for boys.

As is usual, layering is the order of the day. The temperature dropped down to around 39F by the time I left work, and I was prepared with an ear warmer head band thing, and a wind proof shell for my top. Everything else was the same. I wear the same windproof shell and wool jersey down to about 20F without problems, but I need more extensive head covering at lower temperatures.

Wool is an excellent fabric for use when bicycling, anywhere from cool and dry weather, to light drizzly rain. It’s warm even when wet, it breathes well, and there’s almost nothing you can do which will make it stop smelling like a sheep. Although all my wool clothes claim they require dry cleaning, we just wash them in the normal washer using Kookaburra Wool Wash, and let them dry in the air instead of the drier. They require washing only very infrequently, even with constant use in sweaty conditions.

It’s best for everyone to discover for themselves what they need to wear at various temperatures on the routes they usually take. Factors such as how windy it is, and how much effort you make when cycling also make a big difference. For example, when it’s colder out than I expect on my way home from work, I’ll often take the “mostly uphill” route home, where I require more effort (and heat myself up more) to go more slowly (with less wind to cool me off).

Commuting by Bicycle

A play in 3 acts

A year or so ago, Kent Petersen asked a question on his blog: Why do you commute by bike? I thought about this, but realized that it wasn’t that simple. Why I commute now is not the same as how I started commuting, or why I didn’t stop.

It’s getting to be bike commuting season for non-crazy cyclists. Maybe this will be inspiring to someone?

Act One: The Beginning

I think it was in the summer of 2005, when I decided I’d take Martine out for a bike ride in her trailer. I wasn’t cycling very much then, but I felt like I should get in better shape so I could be more active with Martine.

In those days we still had a garage. I opened the door, but my bike was gone: it was stolen. Bummer! We had another bike, but the only trailer attachment I had was on the stolen bike. That ruined the afternoon’s plans, and I had to file an insurance claim. (For future reference: before you file an insurance claim, find out what your deductable is, or you may do a lot of work for nothing.)

I really didn’t like the other bike I had. I wanted a new one. But I didn’t ride enough to justify buying a new one. So I decided that to prove I would use a bike enough to make it worth buying one, I’d start riding my bike to work.

So, one weekend shortly after that I rode a test route to work and back. It was horrible in almost every way possible. I rode both ways at once without a break; it was about 14 hilly miles. I chose a bad route, basically the opposite direction from how I go now. Riding across the Swinburne bridge and up the hill, I ended up dry heaving in the Sestili Nursery parking lot from too much effort. I then went onto Boulevard of the Allies, and rode up the hill where the cars speed by very quickly, in 2 lanes with no shoulders.

But, I did it. I learned that I needed to choose a better route, but more importantly, I learned that I could do it.

Riding to and from work was a easier than riding both ways at once, especially when I found better routes, but it was still very challenging. It seemed like every time I rode, it was easier than the last time. This part of the practice/performance curve is the perfect environment for a Jack of All Trades: small investments in time reap large improvements in performance. It’s really fun to get better quickly, but you eventually hit a ceiling, where improvement becomes increasingly difficult.

In the mean time, I researched the kind of bike I wanted to buy. I settled on a touring bike as being the right match for my needs: cargo capacity, sturdy enough to ride on potholes, but optimized for riding on the road and for comfort. I researched the new models I might be interested in, as well as some well-regarded older touring bikes.

Eventually, a 1985 Trek 620 came up on craigslist for $50, and I drove to Ohio in the Insight to snatch it up. It had some original parts, but was also a bit frankensteined for commuting use. I butchered it up a bit more, and started riding it instead of my other bike.

I loved it! I liked riding it, and I liked working on it. I didn’t really want a new bike anymore, after that… but more old ones might not be so bad. The good thing about getting old bikes was that it allowed me to try a lot of things, before deciding what I liked best.

It turns out this wasn’t the best bike for me. It wasn’t really the right fit or geometry, and it was overall quite ugly. I traded the frame and fork for another Trek which I still ride; and some of the other components are still in use on my various bikes. Considering the use I’ve gotten out of its parts, that original Trek was probably one of the most effective $50 I’ve ever spent on bikes.

Act Two: Making Lemonade

I kept on biking to work, but not every day. I didn’t ride in the rain. Or really, I didn’t ride when I thought it was going to rain, which turned out to be a lot more often than when it was actually raining. I stopped riding when the forecast was “too cold,” which might have meant in the 40’s.

At one point, I ran into Daniel on the way home from work. He also works in South Side and lives in the east end. I didn’t know he rode to work. I had a lot of questions, since he seemed a lot more experienced with this whole “bike to work” thing. “Do you ride when it’s cold? Do you ride when it’s wet?” Those things seemed reserved for crazy people. He rode more in the cold than the wet. He was also a lot faster than I was. He was trying to have a conversation with me, while I could only huff and puff in response, if I wanted to keep up. It was quite inspiring.

Around 2006, some pivotal events started shaping my bicycle commuting. They shut down some lanes on the Birmingham Bridge to refurbish it. Then, they started work on the bike/pedestrian span of the Hot Metal Bridge, which required obstructing traffic on the car span. pair Networks, where I work, is situated directly between these two links from South Side to the north side of the river. When one of them was closed, traffic was really screwed up. When both closed, it was pure hell.

By this point, riding to work took a bit of effort, it was harder than driving; but it was really not a challenge anymore. The construction made it so painful to drive that I drove less and less, and rode more and more. Riding became easier and easier, and driving became harder and harder.

I also started to get crazy. I started riding even though it might rain, because usually it didn’t. I bought rain clothes so I wouldn’t get wet even if it did rain. It turns out that if you’re prepared for the weather, it’s really not that difficult or uncomfortable to ride in. I got a headlight to ride after daylight savings time, and fenders to keep myself dry. Little by little, I replaced all those parts we all tore off our bikes when we were kids because they weren’t cool.

Act Three: Deciding Not To Decide

In February of 2007, Marla got in a car accident, and the Honda Insight was totalled. She broke her back, and we didn’t have or need two cars for a while. When it came time to figure out the “car” situation, we weighed our options. At that point, just living with 1 car didn’t seem like a viable option.

We bought another Honda, a used Civic. I enjoyed it even more than the Hyundai we still have. But the traffic was still horrible. I rarely drove to work at this point. I realized I didn’t need to drive to work anymore, and then I decided I wasn’t going to drive to work anymore.

Deciding not to drive gets its own act, because it made a big impact on my riding, and on my frame of mind. By deciding not to drive, I made one decision to ride, instead of making a new decision every morning. Those small decisions waste time and energy thinking about things that are unimportant.

After I decided not to decide, riding became easier. It’s easy to drive to work, if that’s “just what you do.” You don’t think about the alternatives, you just do it and get to work. It’s routine. No problem. The transition between two different routines causes strife: which way do you want to do it today? Once I decided on a new routine and settled into it, things became easy again.

Then, Marla and I started paying attention to how often we used both cars at the same time, and how often we “needed” both cars at the same time. It turned out that even without making an effort to change our behavior, we almost never used two cars. When we did use two cars, it was almost always an unnecessary impulse trip. When we sold the Honda in February 2008, we had put less than a thousand miles on it. We became a single car family, instead of just a single driver family.

We’ve had one car for a bit over a year now, and I have no regrets other than “we should’ve done it sooner,” or “we never should’ve bought the Civic.” I don’t enjoy driving, Marla does almost all the driving even when I’m there.

The cost savings of having only one car is huge. Just the price of auto insurance for a year would buy me a more expensive bike than I’ve ever bought all in one piece (but don’t ask me to add up the price of all those parts). We’ve had other benefits, like not being tempted to go on impulse shopping trips. I suppose it could be considered inconvenient sometimes, but at this point I’m back to being used to having only one car, so it’s just “normal.”


I don’t expect everyone, or really anyone, to do what I’ve done. It’s not my intent to scare people away from commuting by bicycle because they don’t want to do it all the time. The most important point I should make is that I’m sure I never would have commuted by bike if it wasn’t fun.

Don’t feel the need to take every opportunity to ride instead of driving. Instead, remember that any time you can ride a bike instead of driving is a chance to have fun, improve your health, do less damage to the environment, and spend less money.

“Deciding not to decide” doesn’t mean “deciding not to drive.” It means setting clear, measurable criteria, and sticking to them. My rule was “I don’t drive to work.” Someone else might decide “I’ll ride instead of driving if I’m going less than 2 miles and it’s not raining.” Even this small commitment can provide the benefits of “deciding not to decide,” if you stick with it and allow it to become routine.

Have a good ride!

Blingtastic Fenders

I put two pairs of the Velo-Orange fenders in my shopping cart, and realized that they are probably too wide to fit properly in the brakes on my green bike. Unfortunately the VO fenders don’t come narrower than 45mm, and I know my brakes hit the 45mm SKS fenders.

So I looked into new brakes. Maybe some nice centerpulls would work? Velo-Orange has some. Or I could look for a pair of Mafac Racers on ebay.

Luckily, I realized I was being silly. Instead of buying new fenders and new brakes, I ordered the more expensive Honjo fenders in the proper size, instead. These have a polished and hammered finish, which produces an effect similar to a disco ball. They’re very pretty, and fit well with the overall look I’m going for with this bike. They’re also very long, especially in the front. No mudflap will be required, but I’ll have to be careful hopping curbs.

Defendered 2: Electric Boogaloo

“Yep… That went well.”

Same deal, different wheel.

I got another stick stuck while riding home from work through the park, this time in my front wheel. Now I have a pair of broken fenders. I’m going to go order another pair or maybe two, after I’m finished here.

The quick release worked well. The fender stay bent and the fender broke in one place (instead of two), but the quick release released, and it didn’t even really stop me, let alone send me over the handlebars. Apparently I forgot to knock on wood after saying I didn’t want to test the quick release fender stays.

After breaking the rear fender, I realized I need a rear fender, because I need something to keep my leather saddle dry. I transplanted the wider rear fender from my blue bike, cringing the whole time at the mismatched pair, I’m sorry to say. It fit well enough, but it’s completely unsatisfying.

I’m going to get a pair of the Velo-Orange aluminum fenders. Solid aluminum fenders are longer, lighter, and stronger than the “alumiplast” laminated fenders I have. They won’t crumple the way these do, when a stick gets stuck. As an added benefit, the VO fenders are long enough in the front that I can do without a mudflap, and I might even be able to learn Yehuda’s trick.

In the mean time, I hope it doesn’t rain. Wait, isn’t it supposed to rain tomorrow? sigh…


The days are getting longer, so I got out the summer bike. Today was chilly, but a good day for a ride anyway. Daniel and I took an interesting route home, and rode through the park.

We parted ways, and I stayed in the park for a while longer. Going up the last hill towards the old Center for Creative Play, I heard a “Crunch!” and skidded to a stop. It felt like my chain broke or got caught in my spokes or something.

Nope! My rear wheel kicked up a stick, which got caught in my fender. I didn’t even see the stick before I stopped to check it out. The fender basically exploded; there are pieces still sitting on the trail.

So, now I have a bunch of spare fender mounting hardware, but I need a new fender. Unfortunately they only come in pairs. A week or so ago, my blue bike’s front fender cracked off where the mudflap attaches. So I sort of need a new fender there as well. Unfortunately they’re different sizes, and the mismatched pair probably won’t really fit on either bike very well.

In case you’re wondering: the front fender has quick-release attachments for the fender stays, which should let the fender detach before my front wheel locks up and send me head over heels. I’m not very anxious to test that theory, though.

Elitism vs. Progress

I had been thinking lately about the divisiveness I see in the attitude held by some “cool” bicyclists about cars. I don’t like the “us vs. them” (bicyclists vs. cars) mentatlity some cyclists tend to have.

Today, I read a piece by Paul Spinrad which describes my thoughts much more succinctly than I could hope to:

In politics, I think there are two competing motivations for voters to support a cause publicly. One is to influence the majority to agree, to make changes that you believe in, and the other is to distinguish your opinions as superior to most other peoples’. These two motivations generally cause people to act in similar ways, but I’ve found some “tells” that reveal the underlying elitist motivation.
Under a democracy, the elitist motivation is self-defeating: If your true aim is to distinguish yourself from the masses, you really don’t want your side to win– your aim is better served when more people vote the other way, and then you can be disgusted with most peoples’ stupidity and wash your hands of responsibility.

Paul goes on to use this example to criticize anti-religious atheists for their counterproductive, divisive tactics. I think this principle applies much more widely, especially anywhere elitism and the “cool factor” can be found. In order for a movement to be worth joining, it must be worth it for that movement to succeed; anything else is fashion and a waste of time.

Bringing this back to bicycling and bicycle commuting: Some people fear their pastime might become popular or trendy, and believe this will somehow lower its value. I don’t commute by bicycle because I’m cool, or better than other people. I do it because I enjoy it. I want more people to enjoy it.

Mon Wharf Trail

Work is ready to begin on an important section of the Great Allegheny Passage trail.

This section of trail will be in downtown Pittsburgh, and will pass through the current location of the Mon Wharf parking lot. It is intended to connect to the Smithfield Street bridge on one end, and Point State Park on the other. This will connect downtown and the north side trails to the south side trail, and Eliza Furnace trail (Jail Trail).

Although this section of trail won’t be very useful for me, it will encourage at least one of my coworkers to ride his bike to work.

I’ve been extremely happy with the Hot Metal Bridge pedestrian/bike span since it opened a year and a half ago. It has seen constant use year-round, and they’ve even started clearing snow from it.

Anything that gets more people using bicycles as transportation is a good thing, in my mind. More cyclists on the roads make the roads safer for all cyclists.

Bad Bike Racks

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto proposes installing bike racks with advertisements on city parking meters. Since I’m not a city resident, I can’t complain to my Councilman, so I’ll rant here instead.

This arrangement seems to make a lot of sense, from the city’s perspective. We get more bike racks, which was an issue already on the agenda. And, the city doesn’t have to pay for anything. Everyone wins!

However, from a cyclist’s perspective, this makes no sense at all. Cyclists can already lock their bicycles to parking meters, so they do not stand to gain anything through the installation of these racks. In fact, the racks are bolted onto the parking meter poles, and are smaller than a bicycle, which creates a new point of failure that didn’t previously exist.

The racks do provide a small advantage to cyclists who use a cable lock. A cable lock can be slipped over the top of a parking meter, but it can be locked safely to the loop on the auxiliary rack. However, anyone with a cable lock can already attach their bicycle to something larger such as a telephone pole.

These racks provide little benefit to the cyclist, while plastering our urban environment with even more advertisements. I would prefer new bicycle racks in locations where bicycle parking is not already available, instead of this waste of energy and resources for the sole purpose of increasing commercial billboard space.