Road Trip: Washington DC

We’ll be driving up to New Hampshire at the beginning of July, but neither Ezra nor Martine have been on any long car trips in years. We decided it would be a good idea to try a moderately long trip before getting in the car for the week and a half drive up to NH (or, so it would seem). So, this past weekend we went to Washington DC.

The drive down on Friday night was somewhat challenging, complete with the requisite bathroom emergencies. Marla booked a hotel halfway between Dupont Circle and Farragut Square. We arrived long after bedtime, and put the car into valet parking until Sunday. Then, the kids stayed up way too late. Everyone was too excited to sleep, but ended up waking up too early as well.

Saturday, we got one-day Metro passes, and went wherever we wanted. Ezra was free, and Martine enjoyed being able to use her Metro pass herself. It turns out Race for the Cure was going on that morning, but the resulting crowds didn’t pose any problem. There’s something going on every weekend in DC, they pretty much have everything under control.

The plan was to go to Smithsonian museums on Saturday, so we started with the Air and Space museum before lunch. Martine was interested, but too tired to pay much attention. Ezra also liked what he saw, but will probably never remember any of it. Martine enjoyed a ride on the carousel on the Mall, and then everyone else went back to the hotel for a rest/nap time while I went out to Chinatown to find lunch.

The hotel was only a block or so from the National Geographic Explorer’s Hall museum type place, and they were having an exhibit with lion and leopard photography, so we went there first in the afternoon. There were some great photos, as well as the first video evidence ever of a pack of lions trying to take down an elephant. They wounded the elephant but didn’t kill it.

Next was the Museum of Natural History. Martine was a lot better after her food and rest time, and enjoyed the animals and fossils quite a bit. We stayed there for several hours, and of course couldn’t see everything in the time we had.

For dinner, we went to the Brickskeller, an early (ca. 1957) beer bar specializing in having as wide of a selection of good beers as possible. We chose not to stay in the Inn there because the reviews were not very good. The bar/restaurant was adequate, but I’m glad we have the Sharp Edge and D’s in Pittsburgh instead. On the walk back to the hotel we stopped at Tangysweet for frozen yogurt. I enjoyed the green tea flavor.

On Sunday, we settled the bill, got the car, and drove towards the zoo to find breakfast. It turns out we parked for free halfway between the zoo and the nearest metro stop, so we just left the car there and went to the zoo. We had a long, good day at the zoo, and the kids were satisfied enough that we had a good drive home as well.

Judging the weekend as a dry run for a longer car trip, I think it was a success. We have some ideas on how to make the trip to New Hampshire more manageable, and the kids have a bit of practice sitting still for too long.

As a weekend out with the family, it was basically fine, but I think we’d get more out of the experience if the kids were older. There’s far too much to do in a weekend, so it feels like no matter what we picked, there might have been something else better to do instead. But it’s folly to compare our actual experience with what might have happened if we chose to do something else. Instead, we’ll come back again some day.

Some things I’d like to do but didn’t:

(Stop back later for pitctures.)

First Impressions: Kid-backing

On Saturday, five families met outside Hofbräuhaus for a family bike ride on the South Side trail. It was the first “real” ride with Martine and I on the tandem, and it was instructive, if not very strenuous. But first…

The tandem didn’t need much work to make it road worthy. I replaced both seat post clamps, which were cracked. A shorter stem made the front end fit a lot better for me. I rewrapped both handlebars and replaced a few cables and the rear chain. I changed the larger front chainrings from “two adults go fast!” to “one adult needs help carrying a kid.” Finally, I mounted wider tires: Panaracer Paselas, 32mm wide. I might be able to fit fenders above these tires, but probably not (and this might not bother most of you anyway).

Martine and I talked about how riding the tandem together would require cooperation from both of us. After a few laps around the block in the morning, it was clear that we needed to adopt some short, clear signals to aid communication.

We decided that “Coast!” meant either “stop pedalling now” or “I’m about to stop pedalling.” Martine uses this to mean “my foot fell out of the toe clip, please stop whacking it with the pedal.” I most often use it to mean “stop pedalling backwards while we’re stopped, you’re hitting me in the shins,” but I should be telling Martine that I’m about to stop pedalling while we’re riding.

I try to say “shift” when I’m about to ease up on the pedals to change gears, but truthfully I can hardly feel Martine’s pedalling unless she’s trying to backpedal, or standing up to pedal (“Coast!”).

After our test ride around the block, we packed up the car with the tandem and Marla’s bike on the roof, and drove to the Eliza Furnace trail parking lot. We rode over to Hofbräuhaus, and I bought a pair of gloves at REI that didn’t smell like “homeless person.”

Soon, everyone arrived and we set off towards Station Square. It quickly became apparent that we on our tandem, and Daniel and Levi with their trail-a-bike “brought guns to a knife fight.” Martine and Levi were antsy to start riding quickly, but everyone else was sensibly keeping pace with the other young kids who rode their solo bikes.

The ride was uneventful, but Martine wasn’t satisfied going as slow as we were. Next time, she’ll bring her solo bike too, if we can figure out how to get all the bikes onto the car.

At Station Square, we hung out and looked at the fountains, and generally got in the way of racer wannabes barreling through the pedestrian area at unreasonably fast speeds. This is a great place to take a panoramic picture of downtown, and some tourists were happy to do us the favor. (They didn’t even steal the cameras.)

On the way home, Daniel and I decided to leave the rest of the group in order to indulge the kids’ need for speed. We took them across the Smithfield Bridge and up the Eliza Furnace trail, then across the Hot Metal bridge to meet everyone else at Over The Bar (OTB), Pittsburgh’s first bicycle-themed bar.

Martine was clearly in need of food or sleep on the way back. We made it back without any serious incidents, but that portion of the ride taught me she has far more opporuntities for mischief on the tandem than on the trail-a-bike: she can reach my pockets (wallet), my back (poke, poke), and all sorts of things she shouldn’t be fiddling with.

OTB is a nice place, I’ll probably go back. I work only a block away… why didn’t anyone tell me East Carson St. was under major construction? I feel lucky to miss that traffic nightmare two times a day five times a week. Bike parking at is limited to standard on-street parking meters and telephone poles, but at least it’s still easier than parking in a car. This year’s EEBC Keg Ride ended at OTB as well. I have no idea where they parked 400-500 bicycles for that!

At OTB, the food is fine and the beer selection merely adequate, but it has a friendly atmosphere. It seems to be all-inclusive in terms of the type of cyclists it caters to. They serve hamburgers with peanut butter, but also veggie burgers and salads; Pabst Blue Ribbon pounders, but also local micro brews. The meals are all named after stereotypical bicycles, cyclist categories or local outdoors/activist groups. I believe I ordered the Tour de Greece, a somewhat anatopistic meal (don’t worry, I had to look it up too).

After everyone ate, we went back to the fountain at South Side Works to let the kids play and cool down. It was all fun and games until someone found an eye… I mean, until Levi fell and hit his head. No one suffered any permanent damage, as far as I know.

We rode back to the car, and Martine agreed to ride all the way home with me on the tandem. We took one of my normal commutes home from work on the roads, without incident.

Overall, I think the kidback tandem setup presents a greater opportunity for us to go on longer rides together. It is a bit easier to pedal than the trail-a-bike, but the handling is very different than either a solo, or the trail-a-bike. The length of the bike makes me feel like I’m strapped to the front of a locomotive, and it’s extremely front-heavy. I hate to flog this particularly dead horse, but I think the tandem would really benefit from a much lower trail geometry (a greater fork offset). I’m used to low trail on my solo bikes, and even tandems with an adult on the rear are better off with lower trail to compensate for the weighted front end.

Oh yeah: it is possible (but difficult) to get the tandem in and out of the basement. I carry it upstairs nearly vertically with the front seat tube over my right shoulder, and carry it downstairs backwards in the same orientation.

There are a few minor kinks to work out in my front end setup, but I look forward to more rides with Martine this summer.

I Like Hills

Last year, a cyclist from one of the mailing lists I read visited Pittsburgh from somewhere in the midwest*, and we took him on a ride. He explained his experience riding in hills: “I rode the Hilly Hundred.” This was a century (a 100 mile ride) with the route chosen especially to hit as many hills as possible. “It had 2000 feet of elevation gain!”

I nodded and smiled, but didn’t really think that sounded very hilly. Our 20 mile ride that day turned out to have about 1800 feet of elevation gain, without really trying very hard. It wasn’t his fault- there just aren’t very many hills out there.

In the midwest, you need to go out of your way to find any hills at all, but in Pittsburgh it’s difficult to avoid them. You can stick to the river trails and rail trails, or stay in the flats around Oakland and Shadyside. But if you want to bicycle to go somewhere, instead of going somewhere to bicycle, you’ll eventually encounter hills of the “up” variety.

Maybe it’s just Stockholm Syndrome, but I have come to enjoy hills.

Hills are certainly a physical obstacle, but they can be an even greater mental obstacle. In the worst case scenario, you can always walk your bike up any hill you could walk up. But most often, stopping for a rest is all that’s really needed: today’s mountain bike gearing goes almost as low as walking. At that point, it’d be a greater challenge to maintain balance at such a slow speed, than to provide enough power to get up most hills. It seems natural to stop for a rest when you’re walking and become tired. Why not do the same on a bicycle?

For fast riders, wind resistance slows them down more than hills do. This is why racers make a great effort uphill, but coast downhill. If you waste your effort pedalling downhill, everyone else will just get behind you, easily keep up with you, and pass you well-rested at the bottom of the hill.

For the rest of us mere mortals, headwinds can be at least as bad as hills, even when your ground speed is relatively slow. There’s nothing worse than having to pedal down hill to maintain a reasonable speed.

Hills provide several benefits. The most obvious is that without hills, you never get to go down hill either! I like going fast, and “downhill” provides my best opportunity. I’m comfortable descending at speed, especially on hills I’m familiar with. Descending safely but quickly is a skill well worth striving for, and very attainable to anyone with a well-tuned bicycle.

When I first commuted by bicycle to and from work, I chose routes which had long shallow ascents, and relatively steeper descents. These are longer but less steep than the more direct routes. Eventually, I started riding a steeper, more direct route when I needed to get home quickly. Now, the longer, less steep routes don’t provide enough challenge, so I end up searching for longer, steeper routes home. This lets me get in more exercise in a limited time. It doesn’t extend my ride home very much to take a hillier route, but I put in a lot more effort going up steeper hills. On weekend rides, I can stay a lot closer to home with more exercise, if I choose a hilly route.

Hills provide a good way to judge your progress as a cyclist. Riding up a difficult hill is a memorable experience, whether you succeed or fail. The key is to turn your bad memories of the past into success in the future. The first time I rode up Swinburne street, before I started commuting to work, I nearly died in the Sestili nursery parking lot (at least it felt that way). Now, I make it up that hill easily, and it’s not the steepest route home I regularly ride. It is fun to go back to a hill that “beat me” and make it up without stopping for a rest. You can do this even if the hills that beat you now aren’t very steep.

Hilly terrain is a lot more interesting to me, than the “flat, straight” rail trails I’ve ridden in the midwest. We went to Mill Creek Park in Youngstown this weekend, which had some interesting hilly roads. The nearby MetroParks Bikeway, shown here, is considerably less interesting to me, personally (Ezra would’ve been happy to sleep anywhere).

My favorite hills are “rollers” which are matched well with my pace. On rolling hills without stop signs, you can carry most of your downhill speed up the next rise. With a minimum of effort, you can reach the next crest and continue your descent down the next hill. I haven’t encountered many rolling hills around here which match my speed well, but they’re a joy when I find them.

Although Pittsburgh has steep hills (the steepest paved street in the US, in fact) we don’t have many long ascents. I’ve heard stories of the mountains out west, where you can climb for an entire day’s ride, and then go down the other side the next day. That sounds like a good challenge, but not one I’m likely to face any time soon.

I would like to ride up “Mount” Davis some time, though. It’s the highest point in Pennsylvania, but it’s the high point on a ridge and not a true peak. Apparently there’s a long ascent to the top from Confluence, PA. That might make a nice day trip this summer…

* Pittsburgh isn’t in the Midwest
(in the same way that New York is definitely not a part of New England). It may be the “gateway” to the midwest, but it’s at the edge of the East. However, I’m from New Hampshire. So even though Pittsburgh isn’t in the Midwest, it is in the West. Relatively speaking, anyway.

Memorial Day at the Farm

Well, it turns out we’re City Folk. This was a conscious decision, but I don’t always remember until I’m out of the city. I was reminded when the whole family went up to Ross and Brigid’s house on Memorial day. They might not call their place “the farm,” but it is from our perspective.

I rode my bike up, and everyone else went in the car. This avoided any problems with my back seat driving, and I got a nice 19 mile ride in.

But before I even got there, I missed all the fun. One of Brigid’s neighbor’s told them a pair of deer were born that morning, so everyone (except Robin) went out for a visit before they left.

The mother was gone, and the babies weren’t very human-shy yet. Ezra asked, “Pick up deers? Pick up deers?” and they would’ve been small enough to pick up (for an adult). They were only a few hours old. One of them was still wet, but the other one could already stand and walk around.

Later, Marla helped paint the nursery, and I went down to the creek with Brigid, Robin, and the kids. Robin enjoyed a little swim on the hot day, and Brigid and the kids caught some crayfish and minnows.

The real excitement started when Brigid showed us how to make “paint rocks.” With the soft sedimentary stones out here, you can rub two wet stones together to make a paint-like paste. We found a good selection of browns, greys, black, orange, and red, but no blue, green, or white. We probably could’ve found a good match for the new nursery walls. The red doesn’t wash out very easily.

After we got back, the kids played around in the pool and visited the chickens. Ezra reenacted Queen’s Bicycle Race video on his tricycle (no pictures, this is the Internet after all). We ate dinner, and before long it ended up late.

I took a different route home, and Marla left 40-50 minutes later. We got home at about the same time, and as usual, the kids would have preferred to stay up late instead of going to bed.