Planet Bike Does Right

A couple of weeks ago I experienced one of those bad karma days where it seems like the world has it in for you. Okay, the whole day wasn’t like that, just my bike commute into work. In a nutshell: got a flat, pump broke, walked the last mile to work. The pump in question is made by Planet Bike, who manufactures a variety of useful bicycle accessories. They are not only known for their contributions toward bicycle advocacy, but also for their customer service. It seemed to me that my pump should not have failed in the way it did, since I seldom used it. It is three years old, however, and I have no receipt, but I contacted Planet Bike to see what they could do for me. They replied very promptly, and offered to send me a replacement for the broken part of the pump. 
Planet Bike placed my damaged three-year-old pump head, no problem. I had read several times that they stand by their products and their customers, and the same is true in my case. I did have to purchase a new pump to keep me going in the mean time. I stopped at Summit City Bicycles and Fitness in Fort Wayne, and Mason hooked me up. We also discussed my commuting route options, since he is very familiar with Fort Wayne streets. I was most concerned with avoiding roads popular with evening rush hour drivers. He clued me in to ways to bypass traffic, mostly along wider streets, behind shopping centers, and through an industrial park. I followed his route the next day and he was spot-on.

I did receive the replacement part last week, and I have to say my faith in mankind has been restored. Maybe my faith in Planet Bike has been restored, at least. The representative who replied to my complaint thought perhaps the pump lever had a manufacturing defect. He tried to make the same part on another pump fail the way mine did, and could not. Defects happen, in spite of efforts on the part of manufacturers to limit their occurrence. The more complex the machine, the higher probability of defective parts. It’s surprising there aren’t more automotive recalls than there are; then again, not all defects result in a recall. I had a similar experience with Nite Rider, who makes a variety of lighting systems for bikes. They replaced a bracket that broke apart after I hit a nasty pothole. I guess customer service isn’t dead, if you’re dealing with the right company. Smaller companies are more likely to want to please the customer, and local stores depend on repeat business for their livelihood, so they will (in most cases) bend over backward for you. Planet Bike and Nite Rider are two companies who have replaced a damaged product with no questions asked. I need to explore that option more often- if there is a legitimate premature failure, a good company will not risk bad press for the sake of enforcing a warranty. So, if any of the Five of You manufacture consumer goods, remember: if you have a good product and stand behind it, your customers will come back, and tell all five of the people who read their blog to buy your stuff.

Planet Bike from Planet Bike on Vimeo.

Vermont is for …Tornadoes?

Things are getting ugly in the skies over Northeastern Indiana..

Although Indiana did not experience the severity of weather Oklahoma did this week, there were times we thought something was going to hit us hard. I remember my earliest experiences of tornado warnings in the suburbs of Chicago.  Whenever there was a thunderstorm and a greenish tint to the sky, I would hear the tornado sirens going off. The tell-tale sign of an imminent tornado, I thought, was a green-colored sky.

The skies got a little green over Fort Wayne yesterday. What did I do? I ran out into the open to look for a tornado, of course! Thunderstorms always fascinate me, in spite of their inherent danger. I rode my bicycle to work Monday and Tuesday, missing the rain Monday, and getting hammered for seven miles on the way home Tuesday. I opted out yesterday and today, as forecasters warned of continuing severe storms in the area (and they weren’t kidding!). I have ridden in heavy rain with thunder and lightning, and I have since declined to pedal my ass around under those conditions. I’ll pedal to work for the sake of the environment, but not at the expense of my life. Besides, I drowned my iPod during that ride. That was traumatic enough.

The worst of the storms are now making their way up the East Coast, with the possibility of tornadoes in Vermont, of all places. Vermont? This has to be a result of climate change! It never tornados in Vermont! Is the climate changing? I think so. Do humans have something to do with it? There are many of us,  and much of what we have produced on this earth would not have happened naturally. How can we not have some impact? It could be a combination of natural climate change (like the Ice age, or meteors striking the planet, or a combination of both), and all the pollutants we spew. I hope that my bicycle commuting efforts, however small they may be on a planetary scale, influence others to do the same. Support the environment and all that is maple and syrupy-  let’s do our part to save Vermont from tornadoes.

Good-Karma-to-Work Day

Wow, what a contrast to yesterday! A little cool and humid from overnight rain and that pesky Low still hovering over the Southeast, but no rain. Still getting warmer. I would like to give a shout-out to Mason at Summit City Bicycles and Fitness for working out a better (read: safer) commuting route, and for the safe (albeit circuitous) back route to my apartment from the store.
I must say my earlier impression that Fort Wayne wasn’t bicycle-friendly is reversing. There are bike lanes downtown, a burgeoning network of trails along the rivers, and more “Share the Road” signs than I thought. If the Authorities that Be can lay paths along Coldwater and Wallen Roads, and a pedestrian bridge across the interstate, I think Fort Wayne could become one of the most pedestrian friendly cities in the region. And I mean that. I just don’t want to live here, sorry.     

Dam! What a beautiful day!

Maumee River Dam, Fort Wayne, Indiana

Sorry, I couldn’t resist a “dam” joke.

Yesterday was my test commute ride to Navistar in Fort Wayne. This is the first whole weekend day I’ve spent here, so I decided to try out a bike route to work. The weather was truly magnificent; the sun was shining, the birds were singing, it was a beautiful day!

I have been a lump since I stopped riding last October, so this was a good start to my riding season. I do my test rides on the weekend so I don’t have to worry about getting lost and being late for work. I get a chance to see the route first hand, and not from a year (or two) old satellite photo, but I don’t get an idea of how the traffic will be. I would prefer not to have to worry about traffic, but this ain’t Amsterdam.

A designated bike route in Fort Wayne

The possible routes from my apartment on the north side to Navistar on the southeast side are constrained by geographical and infrastructural features that really mess up a nice direct route. Things like rivers and interstates seem to have perplexed the architects of Fort Wayne’s roadways. There is simply no easy way to get to Navistar by bicycle from the north side. that is to say, no car traffic-free way.

To the credit of Fort Wayne, they are making an effort to become more bicycle and pedestrian friendly. They are developing a system of greenways along the three rivers that trisect the city: The St. Marys River, St . Joseph River, and Maumee River. The rivers flow between my apartment and Navistar, so I must find a route that gets me across the rivers without taking me too far out of my way, and the greenways serve that purpose. Getting to the greenways is the problem.

My best route from here to there in Fort Wayne.

The fact remains that if you’re not on one of the greenways, you’re on a road that does little to accommodate bicycles. You can put up all the “share the road” signs you want, but improve the infrastructure to give bicycles a little more margin for safety. A dedicated bike lane would be great, but a wide shoulder does nicely for me.

Today I left work at approximately the time I might leave if I rode my bike, and paid close attention to the traffic on Coldwater Road, the more or less straight North-South top half of the route  (see the map), for which there is no better alternative. It truly made me reconsider bike commuting here. The morning ride would be early enough that traffic is pretty light and I could have a lane to myself. Or, at least the right tire path. Rush hour going back north? Two lanes of solid cars jockeying for position, merging from the interstate, and generally making me feel stressed.

I have learned of the “Bike Fort Wayne Plan,” which is an effort to make a safe and efficient transportation system that “accommodates a range of transportation choices” including bicycles. The map of this plan does not include anything to ease my fears of Coldwater road at rush hour, so I have little hope for the future of bicyclists in Greater Fort Wayne, at least those who live in my apartment complex.

I have, on the other hand, great hope for a bicycle commute to the near future home of my company in Lisle, Illinois, from the (hopefully) future home of my family in Geneva, Illinois. You can count on post about my test ride later this spring.

Reflections on RAGBRAI XXXVII Part II: The Food

Riding a bicycle across an entire state is only one aspect of RAGBRAI. As you can see by last year’s logo, food figures very prominently into the tour. More specifically, pie figures very prominently. The official cycling jersey also lists many kinds of pie you might hope to encounter, and Kelly’s Pies worked hard to provide some delicious fare. More on pies a little later.

We started our culinary experience the day before the ride at the 6th Annual Mid-America Ribfest in Council Bluffs, a separate but conveniently simultaneous event. Growing up outside Chicago, I had exposure to many genres of food, and spareribs and pork chops were certainly part of my mother’s arsenal of supper offerings. This place was an entirely different world. It may look like a “most banners” competition, but pork products were first and foremost. I am partial to pulled pork, and I was not disappointed.

6th Annual Mid-America Ribfest, Council Bluffs, IA

This was my first RAGBRAI, so I relied on the veterans on our team to help me with choosing where to eat along each day’s route. To be honest, as long as you have cash, and depending on how hungry you are, anywhere you stop is a good place to eat: the vendors who follow the tour each day, to the churches, schools, and local organizations of each town we pass through. Come to think of it, every time you stop is a good time to eat. Here I present the more memorable food stops.

Penne Ariabata Pasta with Rosemary Encrusted Salmon

Pastafari's Penne Ariabata Pasta with Rosemary Encrusted Salmon

The regular mobile vendors each had a special appeal, and I was most impressed with Pancake Man’s production line and delivery method. Farm Boys wrapped a nice breakfast burrito which, paired with a bowl of oatmeal, provided more than enough energy (for me, at least) to make it to lunch. Not that there wasn’t a town every ten or fifteen miles, and someone selling food at several places in between. Lunch was the next big meal you ate if you already had breakfast, or if it was noon, or whenever. Mr. Pork Chop is more than a food vendor, it is an experience. Riders are enticed with cries of “Pooooooorrrrrrk Choooooooop!” and there is always a line. A cluster of barbecue grills produces a lingering haze as riders enjoy inch-thick chops served up in a paper towel. Not elegant, but all the hungry, sweaty, Lycra-clad cyclists sing nothing but praises. The school bus decked out like a huge automotive pig is worth a stop in itself.

At the suggestion of our team captain, I stopped at Pastafari one day and shelled out $14 for penne arrabbiata pasta with rosemary-crusted salmon. Pricey (for RAGBRAI) but delicious. The vibe was kind of upper-crusty laid back, and a little contrived. I must admit, I like their logo. Kelly’s Pies falls decidedly in the dessert category, but that didn’t stop us from grabbing some wherever we encountered her stand. I think one pie had seven different berries in it, but all the pies were great.

Pancake Man's Semi-automatic Production Line

Our team developed a routine, at least for the seven days we trekked across Iowa, of visiting one particular vendor each morning. This vendor played an important role in maintaining our good spirits throughout the week, and was definitely a high point of each day. The mission of the Little Farm Fair Trade Coffee folks is to spread the good word about organically grown coffee, family farms, and Fair Trade. We looked forward each morning to delicious all-you-can-drink coffee (for $3.50), intelligent conversation, and live music from a couple who were on their way from Alaska to somewhere South-of-the-border (on bicycles, of course). Although the proprietors hail from Missouri, they had become a recent favorite of RAGBRAI participants. Political shenanigans, however, cast a little bad karma when Little Farm was prevented from selling coffee in Montgomery County because they had not purchased a permit, required by a new ordinance effective the day before through the day after (hmmm…). They let people “steal” what coffee had already been brewed before the sheriff put the kibosh on the operation. We were lucky to get away with some coffee before it ran out and just paid the next day. It all boils down to protecting Iowa-based vendors and organizations from profit-sucking out-of-state sellers. Never mind that Little Farm probably at best broke even after the week. They care more about spreading the word about Fair Trade, anyway. Sadly, Little Farm has opted out of this year’s RAGBRAI due to suspicions of even more ordinance shenanigans and favoritism. We will need a new morning caffeine dealer this year.

Little Farm Fair Trade Coffee

Craig suspects Jim of stealing coffee.

Now, about those local folks- RAGBRAI wants as much of the the profits from selling goods and services as possible to first go back into the state of Iowa, then the counties, and finally the communities participating in the ride. We were often at the mercy of whoever was next up the road when hunger struck, and if it wasn’t a school or church offering fruit or some pork on a stick, it was an Iowa-based company hawking their product. In Henderson, the fire department provided sandwiches and chips, and we all supped at rows of folding tables in the garage, out of the blazing sun. A Stanton bar opened its doors early in the morning, so we could enjoy bloody Marys and observe traditional Swedish folk dancing by local youth. For the best lamb-burger I ever had (okay, the first lamb-burger I ever had), I stopped by the Madison County Sheep Producers food stand when we paused for lunch in Truro.

Madison County Sheep Producers

These guys can cook a mean double lamb burger!

A light rain fell as we arrived in Greenfield, but that did not deter us from dining on gyros on the steps of City Hall in the public square. Following my ride around Rathbun Lake, an optional loop which made the day a century ride, I stopped off at the Landing (a.k.a. Krazy Connie’s) for a pulled-pork burrito and some real beer. Now, I hate to go back to the financial side of RAGBRAI and related political hoo-hah, but there is one aspect I was not particularly fond of: corporate sponsorship. More specifically, sponsorship by the makers of weak American mass-produced “beer”. I was a good sport, and drank Miller with the masses, and did not refuse an Old Style if offered at our charter group’s après ride tent. I was privately overjoyed to hear from a fellow loop-rider that there was good beer up the road following the loop, and I found it at Krazy Connie’s. There I enjoyed both a Goose Island Nut Brown Ale, and a Beach Bum Blonde Ale. Yes, Beach Bum is from Anheuser-Busch, and was certainly the lesser of the two. Still, if given a choice, I would choose it over a Bud every time. But, I digress.

We often joked about the prospects of eating “<insert any meat product here>-on-a-stick,” and we found a school in Pekin serving pigs in a blanket on a stick, which combines one of my favorite breakfasts with, well, a stick. Entertainment was provided by a local high school jazz band. On our last morning, VFW Post 7641 filled our tummies with more pancakes and sausage. Since a big part of RAGBRAI is promoting Iowa and supporting the small towns therein, I was happy to “eat local”.

Team Meeting

Team meeting over a good cup o' joe.

RAGBRAI XXXVIII now looms three days away, and I am thinking of how I want to handle the whole eating thing this time. Last year, we sought out the popular vendors who served up the best whatever (according to those who had previous RAGBRAIs under their saddle), but I want to try to hit the community organizations where possible for meals, especially if I can get breakfast sooner than fifteen or twenty miles out (I could use a good coffee before we even start, for that matter). A Clif bar only takes me so far.

To those teammates who just don’t eat breakfast (shame on you): you go on ahead- I’ll catch up!

Next Installment: Reflections on RAGBRAI XXXVIII

Reflections on RAGBRAI XXXVII

In July of 2009 I rode the farthest I have ever ridden a bicycle in a single week- almost 490 miles across Iowa- during the [Des Moines] Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, known as  “RAGBRAI.”  On May 1st of this year I received a congratulatory email from the RAGBRAI organization, saying I made the cut in the lottery, and will be able to officially participate in RAGBRAI XXXVIII! Hooray! The lottery is held to limit the number of official participants to 10,000, so the small towns along the route are not unduly burdened. Unless Lance Armstrong is also riding , there’s a pretty good chance that anyone who registers will be picked in the lottery. Lance tends to draw crowds, for some reason.

I don’t know exactly when I first heard of RAGBRAI. I may have heard about it while attending the University of Illinois, or maybe I had read about it in Bicycling Magazine. I have always been a bicycling enthusiast; not a racer, but more than just a casual rider. I often imagined what it would be like to ride long distances, at least longer than the occasional 20 or 25 miles I would ride whenever I got the chance. Before RAGBRAI, the longest distance I had ridden was 88 miles from Riverside, Illinois to Twin Lakes, Wisconsin. That was 19 years ago.

1991 ride to Twin Lakes

88 Miles from Riverside, IL to Twin Lakes, WI in 1991

One of my associates at work is an Iowa native and highly recommended the ride, which he called a “Woodstock on Wheels.” I was three years old when Woodstock took place, so I wouldn’t know one way or the other. My friend had never actually participated, so couldn’t tell me what to expect. I looked up all I could online about RAGBRAIs past, especially lists of  tips and “what to bring.” I followed a popular list pretty closely, and added other things for adverse weather, bike failure, social events, or in case I had to “zip tie” something (which I did, several times). Regardless,  I over-packed.

I tried to prepare for every contingency, and most of the things I packed I could reasonably expect to use. However, I can definitely tell everyone what not to bring: traveler’s checks. Tool of a bygone era.  Back in the day, we always got travelers checks for vacations, usually skiing out west. The last time I used them was (coincidentally) 1991, when traveler’s checks were still common. Most people I encountered on RAGBRAI were surprised to see them, one cashier had never even heard of them, and one restaurant manager refused to accept one. This year, cash and a credit/debit card it is! For the general list of what else I am planning on bringing on RAGBRAI XXXVIII, see Johnny B.’s RAGBRAI Packing List.

You can ride as an individual, or as part of a “team.” Teams are non-competititve, and serve simply as an easier way to get picked by the lottery- if one team member gets chosen, the rest of the team is automatically chosen. I joined team West is Best through an acquaintance of a former coworker of a good friend of one of my high school classmates. The name comes from the side of the spectator stands of the University of Illinois’s Memorial Stadium preferred by the team leader. He prefers the west side, apparently. In five years at the same university, I think I went to one game. I sat on the east side, but felt no animosity toward those across from me.

Team West is Best

Members of Team West is Best at the Missouri River the evening before the ride

We had a diverse team, even if three out of seven (or eight?) were lawyers. At least they were different kinds of lawyers. We all got along very well, maybe because we were generally of the same temperament (as long as our respective blood sugar levels were in check). It works best when you don’t expect everyone to stay together for the whole day’s ride. Eventually, you meet up somewhere, if nowhere else except the campsite at the end of the day. People of all abilities and most ages participate; the object is not how long it takes you to ride, but that you ride at all and you enjoy the scenery, the company, and the food.

We enjoyed the food. Very much. There was little need to carry food while riding, because there were numerous vendors parked in and in between towns on the route who were happy to fill our tummies. We were not concerned about calories, since we burned them off by the time we reached the next stop. Little Farm Fair Trade Coffee was our choice for the daily caffeine fix- good coffee and a good cause. There were regular food vendors following the tour across the state, so if you missed Pancake Man or Farm Boys one day, you could catch one of them the next day. There was sure to be a local organization hosting a pancake breakfast for those not bugging out of town too early. For the rest of the day’s meals, there was plenty of pork, corn, pie, smoothies, and arrabiata penne pasta with rosemary-encrusted salmon to satisfy our caloric needs. Dinner was usually what you could find in the overnight town, whether it was one of the food stands in the town square, a small buffet, or a Wendy’s. I will go into more detail in the next installment.

I saw all shapes and sizes of people, riding all kinds of bicycles (and two unicycles). Generally speaking, though, it was a very “white” crowd. I won’t drag this into a discussion about racial demographics, it is simply an observation. Bikes are, after all, one of the things white people like. More than half of the participants were between 40 and 60 years old, which explains the abundance of ’60’s, ’70’s, and ’80’s music blaring from portable sound systems and performed at the concerts at night. Why are so many riders from this age group? They are the ones who are working and can afford to take a week off in the middle of the summer to ride across Iowa. Those who are younger may not have enough vacation time, those older may not be physically up to it. I hope to still be able to ride at all in my eighties, let alone ride 490 miles in a week.

Cornfield Rest Area

Cornfield Rest Area

I must say here that I am forever thankful the Good Lord gave us cornfields and KYBOs. The cornfields were everywhere and provided a secure place to answer the call of nature. KYBO is RAGBRAI slang for a porta-potty. It means “Keep Your Bowels Open”. And I did. Select cornfields were outfitted with a roll of toilet paper and a camp shovel, when there was no nearby KYBO. Yes, I used all three options.

The last day, which was the shortest distance, was also the toughest physically. Maybe my body knew the end was near, and started shutting down early. Burlington, Iowa, the ending town, held one more challenge: Snake Alley, a winding hillside street reminiscent of San Francisco’s Lombard Street. Those up to the challenge were diverted up Snake Alley. I made it through the switchbacks without stopping, but I can see why many did not. The ride finally ended with a ceremonial dipping of the front wheel in the Mississippi River.

Snake Alley

Snake Alley in Burlington, IA, was once named the "Crookedest Street in the World" by Ripley's Believe It or Not

Following the ride, I was pretty pumped up about the whole experience. My wife, who normally wishes I would speak up a little more often, was probably wondering who kidnapped her husband and left this motormouth in his place, and can she keep him. I even picked right up with biking to work the following week. 38 miles in a day was tame compared to the 108 miles I did on the fifth day of RAGBRAI.

What did I take away from the experience? One: Iowa is picturesque, friendly, and totally not flat. If Leland, Michigan is God’s Country, He vacations in Iowa. Two: Lawyers aren’t that bad a lot. Mostly.  Three: I really love bicycling, and it can be more for me than just recreation. I started bicycle commuting nineteen miles to work partly to prepare for RAGBRAI, and I will continue even if I won’t do a RAGBRAI in a particular year.

I will eventually be able to bring one or both of my children along in several years, and maybe even my wife (who is not quite the avid cyclist I am), if I can convince her to ride a tandem. I would feel guilty hogging all the fun.

Next time, more in-depth coverage of food!

And another thing for pedestrians in Michigan…

This sign appeared recently along my bike commuting route on the South side of Franklin, Michigan on Franklin Road.

How about 3' sidewalks? Can we talk?

How about 3' sidewalks? Can we talk?

“No sidewalks” is apparently part of the city charter. I think it’s time for “the City that Time Forgot” to forget their outdated charter and start over.

Update 9/19/09:  They  indeed voted “No”. Maybe it’s a “historic preservation” thing. Certainly not a pedestrian preservation thing. No matter, I still ride in the street where there are sidewalks. Too many pedestrians!

One Month Bike Commuting Anniversary

Yesterday marked the one month anniversary of my return to bike commuting, encompassing five whole commutes (home to work) and one partial (dentist office to work). I am approximately 10 pounds lighter than when I started, and some of my pants are feeling a little looser in the waist (I think the only fat on my body is in my midsection, anyway, so there is where I’m going to lose it). I have not been hit by a vehicle, pedestrian, tree limb, or insect during any ride. Not that there haven’t been a couple of distracted drivers not quite paying attention to the guy in the bright yellow jacket and lit up like a Christmas tree, but most have given me adequate clearance.

Yesterday, Carolyn made a point to mention news of two bicyclists who were killed by hit-and-run drivers last Friday. I understand her concern for me, as I ride among the cars during morning and evening commutes, but I insist that I can take care of myself on the road, that I am acutely, painfully aware of all the cars that approach from whatever direction. The woman killed in Royal Oak and dragged 100 feet was riding down a 6-lane main thoroughfare at 1:30 AM. Was she dressed visibly? Did she have lights? What the hell was she riding on Woodward for in the first place? There are sidewalks there, and probably few pedestrians (not being the bar district). Was the other person killed riding safely? Wearing a helmet? My guess is that these people were riding without regard for cars and without regard for their own safety, like most kids I see. I have seen people riding in the wrong lane against the flow of traffic. I see many without helmets. I see some wearing headphones. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I maintain that I am perfectly safe as long as I follow the traffic laws (as I am required to as a vehicle on the road), keep visible and predictable, and be prepared for drivers to do the wrong thing.

I urge my two girls to weat their helmets (and shoes) whenever they go out riding, even around the block. I am sometimes successful. What was I expecting? I never wore a helmet when I was their age (I’m not sure they even made children’s helmets thirty years ago). I’m sure I rode barefooted, and I don’t remember getting a light until I was a teenager, although they existed (and were required by most municipalities for night riding). I’m older and certainly wiser now, and I don’t really care who thinks I’m a geek as I pedal past with an LED headlamp and a blinking red taillight mounted to my helmet. If they think I’m a geek for wearing fluorescent orange shirts and shorts with reflective trim, then they must have seen me, right? Mission accomplished.

Yep, I’m a bike geek. Just add that to my geek repertoire, alongside engineer, trombone player, photographer, graphic artist, and computer nerd. There’s more where that come from.