Monday, May 09, 2005

When deer are the biggest things on the road: a night ride

2 AM. A spring breeze spills in the window. I'm stuck at the office grading student projects. I still don't have my helmet back, and the prospect of a night ride is a little daunting. The prospect of not getting out into that night air, though, is unbearable. I'm off.

I roll quietly across campus, greeting a few late night studiers and a few early celebrators. I feel stiff from the sitting and am winded by the short climb up the river bridge. A light breeze whips up at me from the river, bringing with it that moist smell that says "river" in every language.

I zip smoothly down the other side, starting to get my wind and legs, until a traffic light with a bad sense of humor changes to red. I stop right on the sensor, wait a full cycle as a couple of cars straggle through from other directions, and then motor on through the red light. The city paid a ridiculous amount for these new buried detector loops that were supposed to pickup bicycles, but many of them still can't detect a Harley. What are the odds of getting 7 odd pounds of alloyed steel noticed?

I head north under the expressway and decide to take it easy up the hill. I notice that, out of habit, I'm hugging the guard rail, even cringing a little as I anticipate a downshifting car to roar past. I laugh at myself, let my shoulders relax, and edge out into the lane.

By the end of the half mile climb, I'm riding mid-lane. Freed from car detection duty, my senses start to focus on the night. The air is still and heavy, not the oppressive weight of a humid summer night, but the comforting heft of a blossoming spring. Even as I speed down the backside of the hill, the air only whispers past. I can hear the low hum of the tires, the steady throb of the chain, and not much else.

The moon lights my way, augmented poorly by a small LED headlamp. I switch the lamp off. This road is one of my favorite night rides, and I've already hit every bump and crack without incident on rides past.

I stop pedaling and let the bike roll as I near the bottom. Just for fun, I stay off the pedals and let the silence close in around me as the bike coasts to a stop. I dismount and marvel at the quiet. If there's a positive to the noise of our modern lives, surely it's our fascination with silence.

Back on the bike, I glide up the long, gradual climb to Strawberry Ridge. Climbing is easier at night. It's harder to judge grades and impossible to see anything imposing up ahead. I think I'd be a better climber if I wore a blindfold. Well, straight climbs, anyway.

I approach a farm that moonlights as a white-tail deer feed lot. Sure enough, a soft clatter of hooves around the corner alerts me to the herd, the most hazardous thing on the road tonight. The deer up here are still wild, farm fed or not, and they will bolt at a dog bark or a person on foot. At my bike, though, they only show an annoyed sort of curiosity. Do they think I'm a deer? Some other odd animal? A harmless fool riding his bicycle in the middle of the night? I often get the feeling it's the latter, and I never abuse the trust. I weave carefully through the snorts and glancing eyes. Incredible, what gifts are held for cyclers!

I climb out of the herd, and they continue feasting on the roadside grasses. Dessert at the farm tonight, I guess. An owl has taken up residence on a higher part of the hill, and he (or she?) almost always seems to detect my presence. I like to think I'm being hooted a hello, anyway.

The night sky opens up to the east, now, and moon and stars are abundant enough to drown out scattered porch lights. To the west, Waterworks hill blocks out the main city, only the soft glow of lights over the ridge reminds of Missoula. Straight ahead used to be nothing. Well, nothing bothersome, just the peaks of the Rattlesnake Wilderness rising up in the dark. Now, seven years since my first ride up here, a few houses have cut their foundations into the hillside. I don't mind them awfully, but I wish they'd not flood their yards with light all night. Off to the right and well below, Rattlesnake Creek is audible. It won't be in a couple of months, once spring run off has ebbed. Hearing a creek I know is always comforting somehow, even when it's hundreds of feet below.

I dismount at the top of the hill and roll the bike through the public access gate. I hike another 200 feet or so up the hill, lie the bike carefully on its side and stretch out in the tall grass to watch the stars a while.

The creeping chill of the air off the ridge behind me finally spurs me to action. I roll the bike back down the hill, through the gate, and remount on the road. I slow down for the deer, but they seem to have moved on toward the farm and the creek, leaving the road entirely to me. I ride the middle of the lane again down the long descent, up the short hill and then down the steep, short hill that spits me out into town again.

Take a late night ride down a familiar road sometime. Especially if life's been hectic, or traffic's been heavy. Take away the noise, and the cars, and all of the smells of a city. I'm not saying they're always bad. But, I will say that the opposite is always good.


Saturday, May 07, 2005

On Losing My Helmet

It's kind of embarrassing to admit, but, I used to be a helmet pusher. I absolutely would not ride without one. I absolutely did not want my wife riding without one. I positively did not want YOU riding without one.

Last fall, my wife Rachel told me that sometimes it just takes the fun out of riding. I didn't admit to anything, but conceded that it would be OK occasionally, for her. Then one day we were riding out by Blue Mountain, on a perfect, warm day, on a perfect, winding road by the river, and I did the unthinkable. I took off my helmet. I rode. I didn't suffer even minor brain damage. A car passed, but I survived. Worse yet, I had the helmet lashed under the saddle, in plain sight! Everyone knows a helmet doesn't do any good unless it's on your head, right? Right?

I was on a slippery slope now. Soon, more often than not, my helmet could be seen dangling from the bars on long climbs. Two days ago, I lost my helmet. I was running a bunch of errands downtown, and I already had a load on the bike. Carrying the helmet from place to place, I must have set it down somewhere, but where? The truth was, I didn't care any more. I haven't even been to look for it.

I LOVE not wearing my helmet. I'm more alert. Everything is quieter. It's cooler (I know what "they" say, but my head knows it's cooler). My neck hurts less. I don't have much hair, but if I did, it would look better. I feel friendlier. Cyclers are friendlier to me. I ride a little slower. I see a little more. If there were any doubt left, serious cyclists know I'm not one of them.

When I teach introductory economics, I tell my students to beware anyone who has a plan that involves only benefits. Everything has a cost. I pushed helmets purely on their benefits, and I still firmly believe those benefits. If your head hits something hard, it will be bad. A helmet makes it less bad.

Helmets have costs, too. For lots of cyclers, they take some of the fun out of it. Easy and nice as they are these days, putting on a helmet and hopping on a bike is not the same as hopping on a bike.

Yesterday, I recreated my "perfect ride" on the roads and trails of the Rattlesnake. I almost fell a time or two. My chances of serious, paralyzing, don't-even-want-to-think-about-it injury were slightly increased. But, it was a warm spring day. The wind was rushing over my head. Pine boughs brushed through my hair instead of clattering over plastic.

I realized that my helmet was the last carryover from days as a "serious" cyclist. It's just one more reason that more adults don't ride for fun. For commuting, most people can get past helmets. They just don't wear one. I don't think, though, that I've ever seen someone riding out of town for fun without a helmet (usually an expensive one) on.

I'll find or replace my helmet soon. I still think they are useful things. But they aren't essential to being a cycler. I realize that now. Sometimes the costs outweigh the benefits. And, sometimes, just maybe, NOT wearing a helmet is essential to the experience. At least for me, at least sometimes, I think it's true.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Jammed Chain and Local Bikes Shops

As I was out for a walk in a pleasant spring shower during my lunch break, I saw a stranger than usual sight in the university district. A middle aged woman on a panniered mountain bike was kicking her way down the street, 4-year old style, pausing in each empty parking space to catch her breath.

I eventually caught up with her (progress was slow). Before she could kick away again, I asked kind of hesitantly if she needed help with "anything."

"The chain jammed a ways back," she said. Which made perfect sense of the strange situation. I wondered just how far she had persistently kicked along.

Closer inspection revealed that the chain had overshifted the smallest cog and wedged forcefully between cog and seatstay. Fortunately, it was a quick release wheel, and I showed her how to loosen the wheel and slide it out to free the chain. I mentioned that she should also have someone adjust the derailler as soon as possible.

Working at a community cycling shop, I've seen many bikes simply retired to the garage for this sort of behavior, and bike commuters become drivers again. Usually, it happens to people who would have no problem paying for repairs. Many bike shops are intimidating, though, that's for sure. They must seem especially intimidating if you have an old MTB commuter with a jammed chain. That's not what an average bike shop wants to see coming through the door. Maybe it should be?

I don't understand much about the bike shop business. As I understand it, most aren't doing very well. If that's the case, why doesn't the model ever seem to change? All I see are lots of highly specialized bikes for competition, few useful accessories, and very little reason for a non-competitive cyclist to come in the door unless their bike's hopelessly broken.

I wonder if commuters/weekend pootlers (hey, I'm one of them!) aren't as well received at some shops because there just isn't much to sell them? The jump from commuting/path riding to a road racing bike is absurd, to be sure. The jump to a current suspended mountain bike isn't far behind on the absurd-o-meter. What makes the current bike shop model unprofitable, and could a better model include a wider audience like commuters, non-competitive enthusiasts, and utility riders?

Is there a market for cyclers? If so, I wish one of our 5 local bike shops would give it a try. As it is, I have a gift certificate to one of them, and I still can't get excited enough to stop by and spend it! I'll probably just buy 20 tubes or something.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

My Perfect Ride

55 degrees, sunny, breezy, threat of rain coming from the west. I'm out the door with my road bike, a couple of fig bars in my pocket, one full water bottle, an extra layer, gloves, and a wool hat in case the storm beats me home.

I glide north through the tree-lined, quiet old streets of the University district. I catch up to a mom with 1 tyke in tow and one on his own recognizance, spinning relentlessly on his tiny bike. I ring my bell, and his head perks up excitedly. I slow as he spins furiously, somehow even faster, on his little 12" wheeled bike. He keeps up for a ways and grins ear to ear. A picture of us from behind (I'm on my 25" Raleigh) would undoubtedly win something.

Still heading north, I approach the bridge over the Clark Fork River that separates me from downtown Missoula. Today the bridge is buzzing with the excitement of a just-completed parade, kicking off the International Wildlife Film Festival. Ahead in the bike lane and almost off the bridge is a downtown fixture. Moving along at twice walking pace is a cargo trike covered with reflectors, hubcaps, bicycle rims, horns, bells, streamers, generator lights, and--the crown jewel--a kite flying behind a tall pole that juts out from the rear. I know the owner from our community cycling shop, where I work one night per week, and I mention it's a nice day for kite flying. He laughs and agrees as I pass by and make a hard right then a left and stop at a light beside a neat orange Surly pulling a trailer. I complement the owner on the bike and its (knock-off) moustache bars. He seems a little surprised, but thanks me and says that they're nice for zipping around town.

We stay together for a couple of blocks and then part ways as I make another hard right onto the street that will take me up into the Rattlesnake. Under the interstate and then up a short, steep hill and my escape is nearly complete. Always quiet up here, and I have the road to myself as it gradually rises toward the snow capped peaks of the Rattlesnake Wildnerness. A bit more climbing, and I hang a right past the community harvest farm and over rushing Rattlesnake Creek via a Bike/Ped bridge that connects the west and east sides of the neighborhood. I pause to look for trout holding in the eddies and pockets edging the main flow but none today.

Now I'm back onto the main road leading toward the recreation area, and a bit of traffic spoils the silence. I continue the gradual climb, and greet mountain bikers heading for the trails of the rec area. I always appreciate seeing cyclers riding to their "real ride," instead of motoring their bikes to trailheads. I'm fortunate to have bikes that make "getting somewhere" to ride unnecessary, and I think about all of the things I would have missed driving up here.

The main road curves right, but I head straight, through a quiet neighborhood and onto a public access trail that leads to the rec area. The trail is why I'm up here today. It's a narrow dirt and gravel path, winding its way along the creek, alternating between dense trees and open grazing land. I hit the first of the steep little hills and accelerate as I shift my weight back to keep the skinny rear tire from slipping. Riding this trail on any bike would be a joy for the senses. On a road bike, though, the riding is challenging, in an exciting-but-not-death-defying way. I pick my way through a narrow wooded stretch of singeltrack as pine branches brush my shoulders and then pick a careful line through one of the few rocky stretches. I'm not the most accomplished trail rider, and I immediately pick the wrong line and hit a half-buried cabbage of a rock sqaure on. The 700x28 tires are just wide and cushy enough to allow me a few mulligans but narrow enough to remind me I blew it!

Some cyclers refer to this sort of riding as "underbiking." Riding a trail like this on a mountain bike would doubtless be boring. It's part of the reason so many current mountain bikers have to motor their bikes to remote trailheads and up ski lifts to experience the joy that comes with a challenge. On my road bike, I navigate a maze of old tree roots, corner and set up for a dry, rocky streambed ("set up" means "hesitate for a moments in panic"). I know from past experience that the apparently easier paths all end at large rocks. I gain momentum and aim for some smaller, manageable rocks. Each one slows me rapidly. I stand and power ("power" means try really hard not to fall over) through as I make the hard left and follow the trail out of the streambed. Hey, I made it! I've never made it through that stretch before without dismounting. I spin merrily through the woods, grinning ear to ear, and munch a fig bar from my pocket.

Before long, I'm in sight of the main road again. I leave the trail and greet some folks unloading their suspended mountain bikes, wide-eyed at the sight of this grinning fool bouncing off the trail on a 20 year old road bike. I swoop down the road, crossing Rattlesnake Creek again, and begin the final climb to Sawmill Gulch. The road narrows to a single lane and climbs about 300 feet over the next mile. The woods close in on either side, and I occasionally catch a glimpse of the little path through the woods that I'll follow back down in a few minutes.

Having reached the top, I pause for a drink and eat another fig bar. I struggle up the steep entrance to the little wooded path and then reach down for the drops to begin my descent. The feeling of banking down the turns of the trail is incomparable. The bike follows every contour. The trail in many places is narrower than my handlebars. I lean and duck and brake and steer and hear nothing but wind rushing past. A couple of trees have fallen across the trail from the spring winds but shouldering the bike over them is a fun change of pace, not a hassle. I surprise a few deer. Finally, the trail widens and makes a final descent to join the main Rattlesnake Trail. Here, I pass at least a dozen mountain bikes heading each direction as I pedal back to the road. I hadn't seen one bike on all of the trails I'd been on to this point.

I opt for the quick and easy paved descent back to town. My ride wasn't epic, or fast, or technical, or serious, or even hard. It was perfect.

[photo: My current Raleigh Road Bike on the bridge over Rattlesnake Creek]