Friday, April 28, 2006

Spring Night

After a long day at work and then a great presentation by Jim Sayer of Adventure Cycling ("How Bicycling Can Help Save the World"), I was itching to get on the bike. I walked home as the sky colored and then quickly faded in the west. A quick change out of work clothes and into a couple of thin layers of wool; pistachios and fig bars in a cotton sack; wool beanie, gloves and a light jacket in the basket, and I was rolling through the neighborhood.

In waning light I headed north and west to climb my hill on the edge of town. The back streets were vacant, and I abandoned the shoulder for the center of the lane. As darkness filled in around me, I transitioned to night mode. Night riding for me is a completely different experience. As my vision switches to subsistence mode, other senses shoulder in. Smells, and, for me at least, sounds make up most of my night ride memory.

Past the railyard, which is bustling at this hour, I hear the clanking of railcars rolling through the yard. One group gets a shove and rolls to a stop down the tracks closest to the road. I'm overwhelmed with the smell of . . . telephone poles. Or, some treated wood very much like them.

Past the cemetary, which sits low and always gives off cool breezes. The air is still and rushes past with little resistance. Through the industrial yards and smells I can't quite identify. Clankings and whirrings. Then the gas stations, and finally the eerie quiet of late night by the interstate interchange.

Underneath, past the the gas stations and hotels, the bright lights are a quick breath that parts the smokey dark. And, now night folds around me again. A swollen creek rushes past on the left. On the right small scurrying things are busy in the brush on the bluff's edge. I turn left, over the bridge and into the hills.

The hill I push up is steep, but my legs have never been as timid as my eyes. Only the patch of my headlight is visible now. Cool drafts swirl down the gully that separates road from hill. I switchback, and again, and now make the final short climb to the old dirt path. Impressive homes snake up nearly to the top, but they've yet to conquer my little grassy knoll. The little track is badly rutted from spring, and I walk the bike up the last bit.

I sit in the thick grass, munch my snacks, and ruminate on the views. To the southeast, the Missoula Valley spirals out in a hundred ribbons of light. The sky is a faded orange. East, directly across the little drainage, only a few lights dot the immense black bluff. If I turn my back on them and the city, there is nothing but stars and layers of mountains.

Eventually, a chill creeps down the hill behind me and nudges me back onto the bike. I descend the rutted track carefully. Then, I'm back on the road, winding down. Descending a dark road at night is the closest I've felt to dreaming awake. The rush of air and the pull of the hill is surreal when my eyes can't detect a slope. The cold air starts to seep into my gloves and through my layers, but it's no longer a winter chill.

Night riding season is here. Find a quiet road, and give it a try. Don't fight for vision. Let it slip off to the wings and ride with your nose and ears for a change.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Festival of Cycles

I just returned from Missoula's Festival of Cycles. The festival is a yearly celebration of cycling in Missoula. It's all-volunteer and all-free, spearheaded by Missoula Freecycles. Folks can build up one of a couple hundred donated bikes with tools and expertise provided by local volunteers. Music, food, and all sorts of fun cyclers and their bikes make for quite a scene in the park.

Hard to explain, really, and maybe it's better you just take a look!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Small town

Who should I run into at the bathroom sinks today but Mayor John himself! Well, it wasn't a total coincidence, since we were both at a town meeting. I told Mayor John I was looking forward to his Carfree Challenge on Monday. He told me he was a little worried. He has a council meeting Monday evening, and if it runs late as usual, he'll miss the last bus home. He had contemplated sharing a ride but worried that might be cheating on his challenge. Mayor John had even contemplated a ride on the University's late night downtown shuttle (unofficially, the "Drunk Bus"). I pointed out he could always borrow a bike. He responded, "That's excatly what I need to do, get a bike!"

All right! If nothing else, it illustrates how much we can learn by stepping outside of our comfort zone. And, how neat to live in a town in which bicycling is considered a viable option, even by a non-cycler Mayor. Good luck to Mayor John and everyone else who takes up the challenge Monday. Towns Missoula's size fight an uphill transportation battle with current development patterns. I really believe that bikes and a little encouragement can help. I fully withdraw any cynicism from the last post.

For those of you thinking of starting your own challenge this spring, Kent P. has a great post today that any bicycle commuter can learn from.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Mayor's carfree challenge

Each year, Missoulians celebrate the end of hibernation with "Bike, Walk, Bus Week." Each day, different events are scheduled, businesses give away goodies to non-drivers, and squeaky-chained bikes are everywhere. This year, the mayor issued the "Try it for just one day challenge:"

"Missoula Mayor John Engen pledges to get everywhere he needs to on this one day without a car, including riding the bus to and from work. Mayor John challenges all Missoulians to do the same, on this one day."

I get a sort of weird vibe from this, but Rachel tells me I'm just paranoid, and she's usually right. Still, why the addendum, "on this one day." Is Mayor John worried that someone might try it on Tuesday, too? Or, Wednesday? Or what if a family went carfree for six months--egads! And, "a challenge" necessarily implies that it is harder than using a car. Mayor Joe would have fashioned it:

"Mayor Joe invites Missoulians to discover how much fun it is to get around without a car. On Monday, let's leave the keys at home and saunter around under our own power. Think how friendly our streets will be! I bet you'll want to go carfree every Monday this year."

I have to admit, though, a mayor who proclaims to love his Mini Cooper but sponsors a carfree day--awesome! Rachel's right, way to go Missoula.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


Most engaged cyclers have heard, seen, or read about the culture of Dutch cyclers. It is a wonderful system, to be sure, but the short trips, slow speeds, and separate bike paths make it easy for naysayers to shrug the Netherlands off with an "It's not like that here."

Enter the Danes. In this 20 minute video, Copenhagen's incredible culture of cyclers is unveiled. One-third of commuting trips are made on bikes here, and planners want to increase that. What struck me most, though, was how much Copenhagen looks like the US. Cyclers ride a mix of mostly modern bikes at a much faster pace than the average Dutch. Commutes are longer. Facilities are complex, but primarily seem to be onstreet.

"Effective Cyclists" should be warned that Copenhagen cyclers would make John Forester cringe at times. Helmets are rare, and bikes obey slightly different rules than motorists (they even have their own miniature traffic signals!). But, I think Forester would agree that Danes seem to have taken the most important step in creating a positive cycling culture. Cycling as transportation in Copenhagen has the respect of motorists, planners, and the population at large. This is in evidence throughout the video and in the cycling budget: a staggering 20-25% of the entire city transportation budget.

Download the video, and when you have 20 minutes to spare, have a look. There is much to be learned here. Tell me what you think.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Spring Suffering

The weather is beautiful. The mountains are still snow capped, but the valleys have the unmistakable scent of spring. A perfect time to put on a light wool shirt, toss jacket and snacks in the basket, and amble around on two wheels. At least, that's the idea spring gives me, and I put it into practice with another 25 mile "grocery run" around the valley.

The weather is beautiful. The mountains are still snow capped, but the valleys have the unmistakable scent of spring. A perfect time to slip on a black skin suit, toss some GU and a CO2 cartridge in the jersey pocket, and suffer while staring at the pavement. At least, that's the idea spring gives cyclists in this valley, and they put it into gut wrenching practice today in record numbers.

I saw a record number of bicycle riders for the season, and only one would have looked out of place having a root canal. Expressions ranged from exhaustion to hostility. No gazes ranged to the mountains. Why is it that the second scenario above wins out 99 times out of 100 with cyclists these days?

The one exception was local triathlete Jeanie. Strecthed out on her aerobars, she flew along smiling at a speed my cycle computer probably doesn't understand. She gave a big "Hi, Joe!" as she whizzed past. Riding hard is Jeanie's thing. I'm pretty sure it isn't the thing for most of us, any more than climbing Everest is the thing for most hikers.

It's my opinion that there will always be a few who are incredible, inspiring, superhuman at any given activity. But, wouldn't the rest of us be better off just enjoying the ride?

Why do I care? Because a humble cycler can get lonely out there. Because I'd love to fall in with someone who's enjoying the day on his or her bike, exchange greetings, and agree that it's a nice day to be enjoying a bike ride.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Grocery Run

Sometimes life just works out. On a beautiful Saturday, I found myself on a grocery run with 2 extra hours to burn. I must have had a hunch, since I had half of a Clif Bar, a bag of GORC (good ol' raisins and cashews), and an extra layer in my pack. A warm tailwind blew me past the grocery store, and blue skies drew me into the South Hills.

For some reason, I had never climbed the steepest route into the hills. It doesn't come with bragging rights, but the first half mile is a sustained 10% grade. I fumbled with the shifters, but they just made the climb longer. I kept rolling forward up the hill, but I think I'm sliding back toward a single gear in my mind.

After winding through the hills, I came to the rapidly spreading edge of developed Missoula. What used to be empty fields that caught light for local painters now looks--in Rachel's words--"just like southern California." Houses sprout mushroom-like from these hills. There is pressure from developers to build a new bridge over the Bitterroot River to provide an outlet. I think only windows will be left to reflect the light if the bridge comes. I enjoy exploring the edges of town, but I wonder if there will come a time when there are no more edges?

I sail down the north side of the hills, descending to the valley, and follow another road up into the next hills south. Here, newly finished luxury homes perch on a once lonely ridge. Across from them, a construction equipment yard provides an eerie foreground to the peaks of the Rattlesnake Wilderness. The hills are for sale.

I finally crest and follow a twisting descent down to a dirt road that stops 50 feet from the river (Private Road. Keep Out!). I stop to watch the river and eat my snacks before the climb back out. Two sets of hills, a dozen miles, and worlds away from the city, this is the paradox of urban sprawl to me. These houses wouldn't be here without the city, but the city would be here without these houses. New development gets the diversity of jobs and services that only a city can provide, but what does the city get from new development?

It's good to have tough questions to ponder on a long climb. My spirits rise with the ascent, and this time I'm able to focus past the foreground and onto the wilderness beyond. Some edges aren't going anywhere, and as long as I can pedal to them, I'll be happy. After all, this was just a trip to the grocery store.