The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Bastard of the Day
I went for a midday bike ride today. Coming south on Gross Point Road in Skokie (or maybe Evanston), I was almost killed by a bastard in a 3/4-ton pick-up truck.

I was about 15 feet from an intersection when a pick-up truck behind me suddenly accelerated hard, swung out to my left (I wasn't quite "taking the lane," but I was well away from the curb) and turned right in front of me. When I was 16, someone did that to me and I ended up with 15 stitches in my knee, so I am hyper-aware of the so-called "right hook." I braked when I saw the truck in my peripheral vision because I sensed what he was about to do. If he had waited just a few seconds, I would have been out of his way. If I hadn't anticipated his actions, I would have plowed into the side of his truck and maybe slid underneath.

The bastard obviously saw me and consciously chose to endanger my life. That wasn't my only close call today, either. What the Hell is wrong with these people?

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Friday, June 20, 2008
Amazing, Terrifying Photo


Thursday, June 12, 2008
Bicycle Funeral
I had a dream last night. My mom took me to a bicyclist's funeral Mass. It wasn't anyone I knew personally, but that didn't matter. Several men in suits wheeled a riderless bike covered with white flowers down the aisle of the church to the altar. The priest gave some sort of blessing over the bicycle and said a few words about the cyclist. Then the men solemnly wheeled the bike back up the aisle and out of the church. I cried through the whole thing.

Afterward, we went back to, um, somewhere -- it wasn't my house, and it wasn't my parents' house. Then Jennifer came over to mourn with me (though we have never met face-to-face). I recounted the Mass I had attended in vivid detail and began sobbing again. By the end of my description, Jennifer was crying with me.

Then Gracie jumped on the bed and barked in my ear, so I woke up.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Oh, Crap! I&M Canal Trail Damage
A visitor to Dave's Bicycling Pages recently asked me for tire advice for Illinois' two historic canal trails, the Hennepin and the Illinois & Michigan. He rode those trails on May 28-29. Although he enjoyed the Hennepin, the I&M was a bit too damp. Worst of all, he encountered this just east of Utica:

With all the flood damage in the region and Illinois short of money, who knows when IDNR will get this repaired? According to their Web site, the Tunnel Hill State Trail still isn't completely open, and that damage dates back to mid-March 2008.


Friday, May 23, 2008
The Value of Visibility
Jennifer wonders what else she can do to make herself more visible to motorists. From the photos I've seen, I think she has done an excellent job of making herself and her bicycles garishly impossible to ignore. She doesn't need most of the following advice, but many others do...

What should a cyclist do to increase visibility? Following the law is a good start:

Every bicycle when in use at nighttime shall be equipped with a lamp on the front which shall emit a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet to the front and with a red reflector on the rear of a type approved by the Department which shall be visible from all distances from 100 feet to 600 feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful lower beams of headlamps on a motor vehicle. A lamp emitting a red light visible from a distance of 500 feet to the rear may be used in addition to the red reflector.
That's Illinois law (Chicago's is similar). Blinking taillights are fairly common in Chicago, but I am amazed how few cyclists use headlights (note above that taillights are optional while headlights are mandatory). My wife is a police officer. When she tells cyclists to get headlights, they actually argue with her. That's pretty nervy considering that she could give them tickets instead of verbal warnings for such equipment violations.

Additional reflectors on pedals and wheels help to draw attention (although the law requires new bikes to be sold with them, it doesn't say bicycles must have them to be operated at night). Light colored clothing, including a white helmet, is good, and reflective clothing is better. You can put reflective stickers all over your bike.

At some point, however, the extra expense isn't worth it. Jennifer's post reminds me of something written by experienced bicycle tourist Peter Saint James on the Touring e-mail list:

When I lived in Colorado, I found an amazingly high number of Front Range motorists doing things like turning in front of me or cutting me off. On occasion I would catch one and confront them with their illegal, dangerous, and impolite act. The answer I always got was, "I didn't see you." I thought about doing things to become more visible until I heard about a woman who crashed into a full-sized, bright yellow, school bus and gave the same excuse. I gave up.
That is not to say that making yourself highly visible is a waste of time and money. But visibility only goes so far, so don't obsess about it. I know of a Chicago cyclist notorious for using multiple headlights and taillights -- proverbially "lit up like a Christmas tree" -- who was critically injured when a car hit him one night.

The most important ways to avoid nighttime accidents are the same as to avoid daytime accidents:

Dress yourself and your bike to be seen, but don't forget that how you ride is more important than how you look.


Sunday, May 11, 2008
70 Years, 70 Miles... And $70,000!
The local cycling scene has been full of bad news, anger, and sadness lately, so here's something good from the Southeast...

I got an e-mail earlier this week from Katherine Jeter of Spartanburg, SC. She had read about my Grand Illinois Trail tour, and she was wondering if I could give her some bike-friendly directions for an upcoming visit to Illinois (thanks, Chris). I don't think she'll mind if I quote her:

Loved reading about your 2000 trip. I am a 69-year-old grandmother, training for a 70 mile bike ride on my 70th birthday, on October 25th, to raise $70,000 for my two favorite charities. We've already surpassed $31,000!
This woman has more ambition at 69 than I had at 19! In another e-mail, she forwarded a newspaper article about her efforts. She is raising money for the Yellow Ribbon Fund, which assists soldiers and their families while the soldiers are receiving medical treatment, and Jack's Place, which provides housing for patients at Shaw Cancer Center in Colorado.

One thing that Jeter liked about my GIT tour was that I did it on a hybrid bike. She said that "bike snobs" give her a hard time, but she loves her Trek hybrid. Although she was probably disappointed to learn that I now ride a touring bike most of the time, I told her I know a Trek hybrid rider who will enjoy hearing her story.

If you want to help Jeter reach her fundraising goal by supporting these worthy causes, scroll down to the bottom of the article and look under "More Information."

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Thursday, May 01, 2008
Bastard of the Day
My life has rarely been enriched by the Chicago Tribune Web site's message boards, but combative commenters have reached a new low arguing about the death of bicyclist and teacher Amanda "Mandy" Annis.

Cyclists and motorists have been duking it out on the Trib's message boards frequently this spring. Every article about bicycling draws hostile responses where each side condemns the behavior of the other. Discussions get especially heated regarding articles about cyclist deaths. Most commenters don't even pay attention to the facts behind each story -- they just trot out a tired litany of reasons the other side must be to blame.

I've grown used to the hatred and ill-formed arguments by now, but the comments about Annis really struck a nerve. For most of the day, the Tribune had a brief article about the incident. Anti-motorist and anti-cyclist commenters faced off in page after page of often mean-spirited messages. Then this afternoon, the Tribune replaced the brief with an in-depth article about Annis -- her kindness, her achievements, and perhaps most heartbreaking, her pending engagement. The Tribune included a photo of the smiling young teacher in her classroom. This was a woman who had already done good things in her 24 years and had an even brighter future.

After the updated story was published, a wave of comments from friends and family remembering Annis appeared on the message boards. Alas, they were interspersed with those of the warring factions who were unable to give up their pointless dispute, people who'd been quarreling all day and probably didn't even know the Tribune had posted a new version of the story. I wish those grieving for her didn't have to plow through such malicious nonsense.

And yet, it got worse. As family and friends wrote of this young life taken too soon, some bastards had the audacity to say, in essence, "Save your remembrances for the obituary. This is a news story, and you can't stop us from fighting about it."

For a sense of the intensity of the debate, look at how many comments were posted and the ID number of the last comment. As of 11:30 PM, there were 255 comments, and the last ID number was 319. That means 64 comments -- 20 percent -- were removed by Tribune editors for crossing the line of decency.

Annis' death is tragic by any measure. Shame on the bickering bastards who can't set aside their conflict for a little compassion.

UPDATE 05/02/2008 - In a Tribune commentary, Kevin Williams offers a suggestion:
...Wheel Freedom Day. No wheels. No skates, bikes, cars or cabs. Everybody's on foot until we all calm down. Because everybody is mad, and nobody is thinking.
Naturally, his commentary has drawn even more argumentative bastards into the fray. Meanwhile, Annis' smiling, young face graces the top of the Tribune's homepage this morning.

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Saturday, March 08, 2008
Illinois Bike Maps = Rare Collectibles?
I made a disturbing discovery on a recent visit to the Illinois Department of Transportation's bicycling pages:
The Map Sales Office is closed and no further information is available at this time. We apologize for the inconvenience
Uh-oh. I contacted the League of Illinois Bicyclists, who in turn contacted their point man at IDOT. He confirmed that IDOT's district bike maps cannot be ordered at this time and said he did not know when they would be available again. In the meantime, he suggested two ways to access the maps online.

The first method, interactive maps by IDOT district, is unwieldy at best. I think it's a lousy interface, and a few instructions would help immensely. The map area on the screen is way too small (not sized to the browser window like Google Maps are), and you pretty much have to know what you're looking for in order to find it. This may be workable for locals but not for touring cyclists.

The second way is to download a PDF for each county. Again, this is easier for locals than for tourists. Someone crossing Illinois north-south may have to print up to 20 county maps. What I don't like about county maps is matching them up with other counties. The way IDOT presents the maps, this is an utter nightmare because each county scales differently for printing. Forget about lining up the roads from one county to the next. Plus, you need a color printer to make the maps readable (maybe I'm the only person still using a black & white HP LaserJet from the last millennium?).

Some visitor centers and bike shops still have IDOT's paper bike maps if you're willing and able to hunt for them. Unfortunately, in my experience, their maps are often one or two editions out of date. I'd hate to plan a long ride through Illinois without paper maps, and I'm very glad I didn't have to settle for the online or PDF maps while writing my book. I never would have found many of the great road rides, especially downstate. This is a huge step backward for Illinois bicycling, so I hope the paper maps will be available again soon.

Other Illinois bicycle maps: For Chicago area cycling, the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation map is much better than IDOT's map of northeastern Illinois and well worth $6.95. The City of Chicago publishes a free map, but bike routes end abruptly at the city limits. DuPage County and Kane County also offer maps, and the new Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission's map wisely overlaps with about six miles of Illinois. The LIB has been working to develop bike maps for smaller cities such as Springfield, Aurora, Rockford, and the Quad Cities area (including Iowa). They also have guidebooks (with maps and cue sheets) for three popular touring routes: the Grand Illinois Trail, the Mississippi River Trail, and the Route 66 Trail (note that these are "trails" in name but include many miles of roads). All of the LIB's maps and guides can be downloaded as PDFs.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008
Green Bicycling Test
I wrote this yesterday afternoon but I was too tired to finish it (I had been up all night sorting out a year of accounting for DJWriter, Inc.). My brother woke me up at 9 PM, and we talked on the phone for eight hours. By then, I was tired again. Anyway, I'm finally awake enough to wrap this up, so here it is...

I'm not sure what I think about this. At first blush, I'd say hardcore environmentalists like the Sierra Club can suck the fun out of anything, even bicycling, with a depressing injection of eco-guilt. Go ahead, take the "How Green Is My Bike Ride?" test. Then come back and we'll talk about the results.

Much to my amazement, I did well:

Your score: 82 out of 100 points.
American Flyer (80-100 points):
You're truly using your bicycle to save the planet. Keep pedaling!
I've never felt like my cycling was saving the planet. In fact, I do some things that are blatantly eco-unfriendly, the cycling equivalent of dumping motor oil in a river. Incredibly, they didn't take off many points for those behaviors, but they docked me harshly for another rather innocuous answer.

My worst answer was clearly #2. I drive to most of my bike rides. Heck, the main reason I chose a hatchback was to cart my bike around (at least we own a compact car). I know that wastes gas, pollutes the atmosphere, etc., but I get little joy from city cycling. Being hyper-alert in the city wears me out. I can ride 20 miles on the North Branch Trail and feel less exhausted than I do riding the six miles from my doorstep to the start of that trail. I also prefer suburban streets -- fewer stop signs and parallel parkers -- so sometimes I drive to road rides, too (my wife is a Chicago police officer so moving out of the city isn't an option). Somehow, the Sierra Club gave me six of ten points for this environmentally irresponsible/unforgivable behavior. Question #6 about my favorite type of riding, which is on a deserted country road, is similar. From my home, it's more than an hour's drive to any country roads, even further to deserted ones. They gave me eight points, but I deserve less. For goodness' sake, I even wrote a book premised on driving someplace to ride (although I try to accommodate everyone).

Instead, my worst score was on #3. When it gets dark, I don't ride my bike. There are rare occasions (once or twice a year) when I use battery-powered lights, but I generally avoid it. For that, the Sierra Club gave me five points out of ten. But there's nothing inherently wrong environmentally with not riding at night. They presume that this restriction limits my cycling and automatically makes me drive more, but it really doesn't. Living the semi-employed freelance lifestyle, I ride as much as I care to during daylight hours. Besides, I'm an old married guy -- where am I going to go at night?

I must be doing something green to score 82/100, though. Each of these practices earned ten points: I patch my tubes, I ride steel frames (generally -- five of seven bikes are steel, and I ride them 95% of the time), I clean my chain with citrus solvent (albeit not much more often than I ride at night), I have racks and fenders on my primary bike (plus rear racks on three others), and I fill my water bottles from the tap (at least when I'm home -- when I travel, I often choose bottled water over awful-tasting motel water).

What have I gained from this test? Not much. I'm already doing some good things, but I am unlikely to change the bad ones. Considering that someone who doesn't own a car only beat me by four points, I think this test is a dubious measure of greenness.

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Friday, February 29, 2008
Those Darn Writers!
Los Angeles is having trouble building a bicycle path thanks to opposition from NBC Universal:
One bike advocate said Universal executives told him they feared that people would use the path to lob unsolicited screenplays onto the studio's nearby production lot -- something that apparently happens at other spots when a Universal film scores big at the box office.
Well, at least I've never heard that excuse before.

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Monday, January 28, 2008
Bastard of the Day
One night in 2004, a driver traveling 100 mph in a 55-mph zone killed a 17-year-old cyclist in Spain. Now Tomas Delgado is suing the victim's family for the damage to his Audi A8. Actually, he wants 20,000 Euros for damage to the car plus 6,000 Euros to cover the rental costs while his car was being repaired. What do the two parties have to say?

Until the lawsuit, the boy’s parents said they had pitied Delgado, feeling sorry for the guilt they assumed he felt over the accident. But Delgado told El Pais [a Spanish newspaper]: "I'm also a victim in all of this, you can't fix the lad's problems, but you can fix mine."

What's the Spanish word for chutzpah? I suppose bastardo will have to do.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007
Seeking Cycling Clothing
My friend Chris works for a charity called World Bicycle Relief that distributes bicycles to countries devastated by poverty or disaster. Chris visited Zambia last month:
Currently, World Bicycle Relief has partnered with a coalition of relief organizations to address the HIV/AIDS crisis in Zambia. We will provide 23,000 bicycles to community home-based care volunteers, disease prevention educators and vulnerable households. We are also training and equipping more than 400 bicycle mechanics in the field. The program will reach more than 500,000 adults, orphans and vulnerable children.
While he was in Zambia, Chris participated in the country's national championship road race. Now he's collecting cycling clothes -- jerseys, shorts, gloves, etc. -- for Zambian riders (this is independent of WBR's work).

Fortunately for the Zambians, Chris kicked off this "kit drive" during a major decluttering project here at DJWriter World HQ. Consequently, last night I stuffed two grocery bags full of unworn and barely-worn clothing to donate. I drew the line optimistically -- I donated everything I never wore and anything I don't want to wear again, but I stopped short of donating anything I hope to wear again, however remote the odds may be (hey, it wouldn't be the first --or second -- time I've yo-yoed back into size medium).

I recommend Chris' blog entries about Zambia which include many photos and a video: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. And if that's not enough, he also writes a blog for WBR -- most of the November 2007 entries are about the trip.

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Sunday, October 07, 2007
Trying to Hit a Moving Target
I drove down to Matteson Friday afternoon to ride the Old Plank Road Trail (OPRT). As I headed south on Cicero Avenue from the Lincoln Highway, however, I felt disoriented. There was a sign for a Target on the east side of the road along with a JC Penney. Hmm, my starting location in Biking Illinois for Ride 32 on the OPRT is the northeast corner of the Target parking lot. And I'm sure Target is on the west side of the road.

Well, it was on the west side of the road. But sometime since July 2005, a bigger Target sprouted up on the east side of the street. Consequently, the Target parking lot where Ride 32 starts is now a big, empty parking lot in front of a vacant building with features reminiscent of a Target. I expected things to change after I wrote my book, but this caught me by surprise. I will add it to the "Book Updates" page soon. The built environment changes so much that writing a guidebook really is like trying to hit a moving Target.

My ride was excellent. For the first time since 2000, I rode west beyond the segment I used for Ride 32 . Needless to say, much has changed as development has run rampant in northern Will County. The OPRT has more street crossings now, and the streets that existed in 2000 are much busier. I continued to the west end of the trail in Joliet and turned around. On the way back, I had time for a couple of detours. First, I pedaled around the north side of the lake in Frankfort Prairie Park. Later I rode up the bike path/sidewalk along Schoolhouse Road to the Hickory Creek Trail. Although it's only three miles long, this is one of my favorite paths. After 43 miles Sunday on the DPRT and 36 miles Friday on the OPRT, I am getting my biking legs back.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Kamikaze Squirrels
Those furry little bastards were out in force on the North Branch Trail this afternoon. I nearly ran over half a dozen, which wouldn't have been good for them or me. But it wouldn't have been as bad as hitting one of the four deer I saw grazing along the path.

I had a good but short ride. Everything that ached after 30 miles on the DPRT Monday felt fine today. The North Branch Trail is still closed for reconstruction between Beckwith Road and Golf Road -- the worst part of the old asphalt with buckles galore from tree roots. A sign said the section from Dempster Street (Linne Woods) to Beckwith was also closed, but I rode through and didn't encounter any construction. When that section is under construction, it will be very easy to bypass via Lehigh Avenue and Beckwith Road. By the way, I've pedaled the newly paved northern section of the trail, and it is sweeeeet.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007
30 Miles on the DPRT
Since I didn't get to ride all weekend (long story), I had to go for a long ride today. I drove up to Old School Forest Preserve near Libertyville to ride the Des Plaines River Trail. After my motorist conflict on the Poplar Creek Trail, I looked forward to a trail with very few street crossings (the DPRT has many underpasses and an overpass or two). I took my mountain bike, which probably was a bad choice. My touring bike can handle crushed limestone just fine (I used it for all the rides in Biking Illinois), and it's much more comfortable than my mountain bike.

This ride reminded me of my first DPRT excursion back in 2000. I'd had my hybrid bike for just a few weeks, but I rode from Half Day Forest Preserve (about six or seven miles south of Old School) all the way up to Russell Road near the Wisconsin border (and a bit further north on a gravel access road, if I remember correctly). Back then, the DPRT wasn't finished, so my route included some unhappy miles on busy IL 21 (Milwaukee Avenue) south of Gurnee. The other problem I remember from that ride was not carrying enough food and water -- and stopping at a convenience story only to discover I didn't have any money. Since then, I make sure to stash a few dollars in the rack pack on every one of my bikes.

This time I was able to ride the trail all the way, which was much more pleasant. I planned to go an hour north and then turn around, but after an hour I felt decent and wanted to explore further. I watched the mile markers count down the distance to the state line. At every marker, I'd think, That mile went well; let's do another. At the 5-mile marker, I had to make a decision. Either I was going to go all the way, or I was going to turn around. Since I had ridden 15 miles and my longest ride this year was about 20, I figured I'd better turn around. I drank a bottle of warm Gatorade and started back toward Old School.

I made the right choice. After just a few miles, my hands were getting pretty sore. Even with bar ends, my mountain bike doesn't provide much variety in hand holds. Also, while my touring bike has the seat level with the bars, my mountain bike has the seat an inch higher than the bars. That means the mountain bike puts much more pressure on my hands. My feet weren't doing so well, either. Lately, I've been wondering whether clipless pedals are all they're made out to be. Aside from my little fallover on the Poplar Creek Trail last week, a number of people on the Touring e-mail list have reverted to toe clips or platform pedals recently.

Once I got south of Independence Grove (a lovely preserve with trails around a man-made lake), the miles passed very slowly. I was really struggling, spinning a low gear up the slightest hills. My feet were hurting, and my hands were somewhere beyond that. They were going numb, and I couldn't find a way to grip the handlebars that didn't hurt. Now I was really glad I hadn't tried to ride to the border and back. That extra ten miles would have darn near killed me today.

I completed the 30-mile roundtrip about 15 minutes short of three hours (that's total time, not "riding time" -- I don't have a cyclometer on my mountain bike), which was significantly longer than I had planned to ride. I paid a price for my enthusiasm, though. Eight hours later, there is still numbness in the heel of my left hand (though not as much as when I finished the ride). The bottoms of my feet are sore, as are my ankles. My ankles would probably be sore regardless of bike choice-- they always hurt when I push my mileage far beyond what I'm accustomed to.

I didn't realize until I got home that this is my longest ride since 2005, when I was in much better shape. Thirty miles is getting up into the range where I'd like to be, so today was very encouraging. I still have delusions of riding an invitational in the waning days of the season, though obviously not a full century (maybe this weekend's Pumpkin Pie Ride?). I won't be doing any long rides on the mountain bike, that's for sure.


Thursday, September 20, 2007
Bastard of the Day
Today it's personal: the SUV-driving asshat who attempted to turn right in front of me as I crossed Route 59 on the Poplar Creek Trail.

I stopped at the busy intersection of Route 59 and Route 58. I waited for the "Walk" sign and pedaled halfway across Route 59. Then several of Mr. SUV-driving asshat's four-wheeled brethren on Route 58 turned right in front of me, never even looking at me in the crosswalk (and trust me, I'm too big to miss these days). I finally saw a gap and tried to finish crossing the highway before the light changed. Then Mr. SUV-driving asshat tried to turn, hesitated as I also hesitated (I err on the side of caution when I think I might be crushed like a cockroach and left to die in rush hour traffic), then finally let me go as he shouted and gestured toward the walk/don't walk light that was now flashing "Don't Walk," as if that meant I should have retreated to the corner I came from and waited for the next cycle of lights to try it again. I clearly had the right of way, but Mr. SUV-driving asshat seemed to think not (perhaps they should install signs reminding motorists turning right to yield to bicyclists and pedestrians). I wish I had read his license plates, but I was too busy watching his gigantic chrome grill creeping toward my Bike Friday.

Aside from that, I had a pretty nice ride. It was only my third visit to the trail -- the first was for Biking Illinois and the second was rained out before it started by a sudden summer thunderstorm. I did the loop in both directions with a little extra, probably 19 miles total (Bike Friday's cyclometer battery bit the dust years ago and I never replaced it). It was a beautiful afternoon. Many wildflowers (a.k.a. weeds) were in bloom, and everything else was green except the corn. I saw a lot of birds, plus a black snake slithering across the asphalt (and another who wasn't quite fast enough). I could swear the trail wasn't as hilly two years ago, but I know it's just that I was in better shape then (I haven't ridden more than 200 miles or so this year). That's okay; my Bike Friday is set up for touring, so it has plenty of low-end gears.

Aside from going anaerobic too many times and nearly being mashed by Mr. SUV-driving asshat, I had one other mishap. I approached an intersection and realized too late that I wasn't going to get across safely before the light changed. I hit the brakes, and my darn right cleat would not release. So I did what I had to do: I fell over on my side and sprang back up as if nothing had happened, cursing under my breath. At least I didn't fall in the street. It wasn't until I crossed the road that I noticed my handlebars had been knocked askew when they hit the ground. I rode a bit further, fueled by the adrenaline rush of my fall, and then it hit me -- this was one of those moments. I pulled off the trail, straightened the bars, and tightened the quick release (remember I was riding a folding bike) so it wouldn't happen again.

Is it just me, or are suburban cyclists less friendly than they were several years ago? It used to be that the biggest difference between city trails and suburban trails was that other riders would acknowledge me with at least a smile or a nod. Most ignored me today, even when I offered a greeting first (come to think of it, I'm friendlier when I'm on my bike than anywhere else by a long shot). Of course, they were still nicer than Mr. SUV-driving asshat.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Another Dumb Death
Remember the other day when I said I was sick of avoidable car-train "accidents" (more correctly, incidents)? Well, I'm sick of bicycle-train incidents, too.

I'm pretty sure it's illegal to wear headphones while cycling on public roads. Regardless of the law, it is a bad idea. You need to be aware of your surroundings. And if you do wear headphones, for goodness' sake don't turn the music up so damn loud you can't even hear a freaking train! In other words, don't be this guy:
A [42-year-old] bicyclist listening to his iPod was unaware of an oncoming train before it struck and killed him at a Kane County railroad crossing Sunday evening, police said... The crossing has a wooden sign marking it, but the crossing does not have an audible signal or gates, police said. "He had the iPod on, so we're going on the assumption with no gate or lights there that he didn't hear or see the train coming," Kane County sheriff's police spokesman Patrick Gengler said. The train conductor saw the bicyclist and tried to brake but was unable to stop before hitting him, Gengler said.
Now that train's engineer has the image permanently etched in his mind of an oblivious guy on a bicycle getting crushed. Can you imagine watching someone about to be killed and being virtually powerless to stop it? That shouldn't be a part of anybody's job description. Please, people, at least turn down those iPods at railroad crossings. Do it for the engineers.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007
First We Take Manhattan...
...then we take Berlin, as the Leonard Cohen song goes. I stumbled across two items related to Berlin and biking today.

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Friday, August 17, 2007
Smart Kid
DELAND, Fla. -- An 8-year-old DeLand girl reported missing was found by police riding her bike as fast as she could to leave the state of Florida, fearing a massive Hurricane Dean was on its way.
The girl's family had just moved to Florida from Columbus, Ohio. She's a smart girl; I wouldn't want to live in Florida either.

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Monday, July 30, 2007
Sobering Word Game
Read this letter to the Tribune from Mark Irving of Wheaton. Then replace "motorcycle" with "bicycle." We two-wheelers have a lot in common.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Bastard of the Day
Okay, you've all been waiting for this... I am today's bastard.

I was sitting in my car at the Brown Line crossing on Rockwell Street waiting for a train. When a westbound train passed, a cyclist on the north side of the tracks pedaled around the still-lowered gates and continued south. And in that instant, I had two thoughts: 1.) a man from Milwaukee died doing the exact same thing in this exact same place last month, and 2.) I hope this guy gets creamed just to teach him a lesson for his stupidity, even though I'd rather not be a witness.

And that's where I crossed the line into bastardhood. My anger toward people who do stupid stuff, particularly on bicycles, has grown so intense that I wish death upon them for their ignorance. In that moment I was rooting for it to happen.

It turned out there was an eastbound train coming, but fortunately for the dumbass bike rider it stopped at the station. Sometimes trains that are "not in service" do pass through without stopping, so he was damn lucky -- there was no way he could have seen whether a train was coming through eastbound until it was too late. Oh well, I hope he made good use of the extra ten seconds he saved by risking his life. That's the kind of shit that gives CTA motormen nightmares.

Speaking of the Rockwell crossing (and other at-grade crossings on the Brown Line), why did the CTA (or the city) replace all the crossing gates a couple years ago without making each long enough to cross the entire street? Since I moved here nine years ago, there have probably been about 10 accidents involving idiots driving (or pedaling) around the gates. Adding ten feet to each gate would be a small price to pay to discourage this reckless behavior. There's nothing like a train crushing a car to screw up everyone's commute.

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Monday, July 16, 2007
Today's Chicago Tribune reports that the Cook County Forest Preserve District is repaving the North Branch Trail! I saw last week that the northeasternmost section of the trail was closed for construction, but I didn't know whether it was just a local repair or part of a larger project. My thought at the time was that there are at least a dozen places that need attention more than the segment that was closed, so I am ecstatic that they are resurfacing the whole trail. The article quotes local cyclist Mike Cobb, but his words could have come from my mouth:
...[I]n recent years, potholes have deepened, ruts have widened and tree-root ridges have grown higher. "I know where most of them are, but every once in a while, you find yourself daydreaming and you hit one and 'whack,'" said Cobb, 60, who lives close to the trail's southern end at Caldwell and Devon Avenues in Chicago. "It's such a nice path, and it has so much potential. It just needs to be fixed up."
Parts of the trail are only 1.5 inches thick instead of the roadbed standard of 3 inches.
Cobb's pet peeve is a stretch between Golf and Beckwith Roads, where tree roots protrude several inches, buckling the asphalt.
Mine, too! The narrow trail is sandwiched between a golf course and horse facilities, and the trees are too close to the trail. I always ride slowly and carefully there, though, so it's usually a stray root elsewhere that catches me by surprise.

When I was working on Biking Illinois, I found that most of the major trails in Cook County had been resurfaced recently. I'm glad they are finally doing the longest (and best) trail. From the language in the article, I think they are completely rebuilding the trail, so there shouldn't be dangerously steep edges like when a new layer of asphalt is added.

The bad news, of course, is that mile-long segments of the trail will be closed for the next three months. Sometimes there are viable alternative routes but sometimes not, so riding the North Branch Trail will be a bit of a crapshoot this summer.

Now if only they would shorten the wait at that Touhy Avenue stoplight...


Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Attention Mayor Daley!

Dear Honorable Richard M. Daley,

As I was bicycling the street route from the North Branch Trail toward the lakefront, I made a shocking discovery. In the Edgebrook neighborhood, I encountered two (2!) intersections with no traffic controls whatsoever. No stoplights, no stop signs, no yield signs, nothing. I trust that this is only a temporary condition and that your "traffic-calming" methods will be implemented soon.

Overall I don't have many complaints about how the city of Chicago is run, but this traffic calming crap has to stop! The idea is that by placing stop signs everywhere (along with occasional speed bumps), drivers will slow down. But it really just frustrates people and encourages them to run stop signs. When there are stop signs at every minor street, people don't recognize which intersections are truly important or dangerous. So they treat them all the same and roll right through.

The mayor wants to encourage people to ride bicycles. I want to obey traffic laws (though I may be in the minority of riders). But when there is a stop sign at every freaking intersection, bicycling becomes a tedious process of braking, downshifting, accelerating, and upshifting with only a few hundred feet at most of real riding in between. City streets are not my favorite cycling environment to begin with, but what little pleasure I find between dodging open car doors and potholes has been sucked away by the proliferation of stop signs in the name of traffic calming.

My nearest bike path is in River Park (part of the North Shore Channel path described in Biking Illinois) only one mile from my home. To get there, I have to negotiate eleven (11!!) stop signs plus one stoplight. At every intersection, traffic in all directions must stop; there are no "two-way" stops. Another favorite example of traffic calming gone wild is Manor Avenue. Though the street is only 0.6 mile long, one encounters eight (8!) stop signs plus a railroad crossing and a speed bump. On top of that, four of those stop signs are placed at intersections with dead-end streets less than a block long. Earlier this year, Eric Zorn ranted about drivers and cyclists ignoring stop signs, but with ridiculous policies like Mayor Daley has implemented, it's hard to obey the law if you ever want to get anywhere.

Mayor Daley paints himself "green" with his rooftop gardens and such, but how much environmental damage is caused by traffic calming? All those stop signs have a significant impact on gasoline consumption and pollution creation. A motor uses much less energy to maintain speed than to accelerate, but drivers on Manor Avenue have to accelerate eight times in one kilometer!

A lot of people drive like idiots in Chicago, and a good number of cyclists are guilty as well. But the solution is to enforce traffic laws, not to make travel on every street painful. Limit the number of stop signs and issue citations for those who run through them. If people are driving too fast, well, that's what those new laser speed guns are for -- if drivers had any fear whatsoever of traffic laws actually being enforced, they wouldn't drive as recklessly as they do. All those stupid stop signs don't help anyone when people habitually run them. Just ask the family of this kid.

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Monday, July 09, 2007
Curse You, Bryn Mawr!
I've never liked Bryn Mawr Avenue in Chicago. Sure, it's a decent street for bicycling compared to the nearby alternatives (Peterson, Foster), but I just can't trust a name with so few vowels. Today I was riding home from the North Branch Trail (actually, I barely rode the trail itself -- the midday heat took a lot out of me by the time I got there, so I just rode a couple miles and came home) on Bryn Mawr, following the signed "North Branch to Lakefront" route. Suddenly, pshhhhh, pshhhhh, pshhhhh, pshhhhh, pshhhh... Darn it, a flat tire! (That really cool but discouraging sound was air leaking from my tire directly into my rear fender as the tire rotated.)

Admittedly, I haven't ridden much in the past two years (less than 1000 miles/year), but the last time I had a flat was April 2005 (I flatted on the Vadalabene River Road Bikeway when I was working on Biking Illinois, but I was able to nurse it the last three miles to the parking lot). The last time I had to fix a flat "on the road" was probably sometime in 2003. Of course, the bad thing about rarely flatting is that one's flat-fixing skills go down the tubes (pun intended). I think it took me about 15 minutes to change the tube, which is half as long as it did one memorably awful time, but still embarrassingly slow. I mean, this guy could probably do it faster in his sleep. Then again, there was no real sense of urgency so why rush?

By the way, I didn't find anything in the tire, but I saw many shards of glass glistening in the sunlight on the road behind me. If you're riding east on Bryn Mawr from the dead-end (where there is a bike trail across the old railroad tracks) toward Pulaski Road, beware!


Thursday, July 05, 2007
Notes from the North Branch
I went for a bike ride Tuesday on the North Branch Trail for the first time this year.

I finally saw our region's famous 17-year cicadas (Brood XIII), and just in time. They won't be around much longer. Unmanly as it sounds, I am not fond of bugs. Frankly, I feel the same way about bugs as Republicans do about minorities -- I'll allow that they serve a purpose, but I would rather they did not live near me. In the media build-up to the day the cicadas were supposed to crawl out of the ground, I feared the worst. But the cicadas never came to Lincoln Square. A handful of sightings were reported, but nothing approaching the predicted carpet of insects. Even in the forest preserves along the North Branch Trail the cicadas were not overwhelming. Only a few groves had the telltale buzzing drone (or is it a droning buzz?) of the males hoping to get lucky in their brief time above ground. Though I am not enamored with these characters, I consider the arrival of the periodical cicadas as a way to mark the passage of one's life, like Halley's Comet but more frequent. It's hard to imagine myself being 54 years old the next time the cicadas come.

Aside from the cicadas, little has changed since I rode the trail last year. I even saw the same characters, including "grim-faced man," a recumbent rider whose stony expression shows no hint of the joy of cycling.

In Biking Illinois, I chose to start Ride 20 (Going to the Garden) from Linne Woods because it's easy to find from I-94 and I-294, but I often second-guess myself. There isn't anything "wrong" with the south end of the trail that I excluded, and I wonder if I should have squeezed in the whole thing (as it was, I reached my word limit for the shortened route). Come to think of it, the North Branch Trail wasn't one of my better write-ups. Maybe my familiarity with the route led to an uninspired description. Oh well, there probably isn't a writer alive who looks back on his or her work as perfect; there's always room for improvement. As long as cyclists don't get lost, I guess my book does its job.

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Sunday, June 25, 2006
Faulty Anti-Helmet Logic
I don't often debate the value of wearing a bicycle helmet, so I was caught off-guard by an argument I heard in Davenport, Iowa earlier this month. Someone said he doesn't wear a helmet because bicycle helmets are only certified for x mph, and he rides faster than that (he stated a number, but the value of x is not really important to this discussion). I was thinking about that statement today, and there are two obvious flaws in this logic:
  1. The assumption that a helmet certified at x mph is completely useless at (x + 1) mph. I don't have data to back this up, but I doubt that a helmet's effectiveness immediately drops to zero at speeds higher than the certification testing speed. One would expect a declining curve of some sort.
  2. The assumption that an accident will occur at cruising speed. Most accidents occur at intersections. If the cyclist is braking as he approaches or accelerating from a stop, he is much more likely to be traveling within the speed range of the helmet's certification. A corollary assumption is that the cyclist will not notice a hazardous situation and slow down before reaching it, which is rather unlikely for an attentive rider.

Helmets are not mandatory for Illinois (or Iowa) bicyclists. Each rider is free to evaluate the benefits and risks, then choose accordingly. But if someone tells you not to bother with a helmet just because you ride faster than the speed for which the helmet was certified, don't accept that faulty logic.


Wednesday, April 12, 2006
It Fits!
Tuesday I took my bike up to the North Branch Trail (Ride 20 from Biking Illinois for those following along at home -- this isn't some sort of book release celebration, though; these are just the trails nearby that I like to ride). It was my first time putting my Co-Motion Americano in the Focus. The main reason I wanted the hatchback was so I could transport my bike without the hassle of a trunk rack. Thank goodness it fit! I would have been pretty irritated if it didn't. There isn't as much room to spare as when I used to put my Raleigh hybrid in my 1993 Probe GT, but I think the Americano is longer and the Focus is shorter. Whatever -- it works, and I can say goodbye to bungee cords and road grime.

The ride itself was good, about 20 miles. My ankles were fine, but my sit bones were a little sore, to my surprise. That's what I get for not riding all winter. I was crushed to see the Happy Hound on Touhy Avenue was closed and for sale. Not only was I especially hungry this afternoon, but their french fries were perfect when I ate there last summer so I was really looking forward to them.

In other news, I did my first interview for the book Tuesday afternoon. I'm starting to feel like a real author!

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Monday, April 10, 2006
Back in the Saddle
I finally went for my first bike ride of the year this afternoon. With clear skies and temps in the upper sixties, I just ran out of excuses. As I said in my upbeat New Year's post, I haven't been on a bike ride since I finished Biking Illinois. And unlike other winters, I didn't ride the trainer in the basement (once for 20 minutes, but that hardly counts). Lack of cycling plus unrestrained eating has made me enormous -- just count the chins on my book's author photo (five? six? seven?). So today I set out to get back into some sort of routine that might keep me alive past age forty.

I chose an old standby, Ride 22 in my book, which is only a few blocks from home. I planned to ride no more than 12-15 miles round trip so I wouldn't be sore afterward. Spring is finally here, and I don't want to waste time whining when I could be riding. As I headed north, I felt pretty good, sometimes cruising around 17 mph on the empty sections of the asphalt path. I knew why, though, so I turned around at 5.8 miles. The return trip was a lot tougher with a headwind! I had forgotten how uncomfortable it is to ride in the drops with a big gut. It was so bad that I had to choose between aerodynamics and breathing. Naturally, breathing was a bit more important, so I cut through the wind like a giant brick.

There are signs posted telling cyclists how to follow the path across the Lincoln Avenue Bridge. I wonder how much those cost in lieu of the fully funded bridge that the alderman decided not to erect (that money was restricted and therefore lost). Cyclists have created a dirt path through the new sod to get to the street bridge since there is no direct trail bridge. On the return trip, I had to squeeze past several other trail users on the narrow sidewalk, dodging light poles and broken concrete. Thanks a lot, Mr. Crusty-Old-Alderman-Who-Should-Have-Retired-Years-Ago.

It wasn't a long ride, but it was enough to get the blood flowing, 11.6 miles in a little less than an hour (I really tanked in that headwind). Considering that I figured out afterward that I had only consumed 200-300 calories all day, it's probably just as well that I didn't go further. My left hand feels okay -- I think I damaged it while riding on the brake hoods last summer, which was one excuse to abstain from riding. The Americano seems fine although I neglected to get an off-season tune-up. My ankles usually hurt after my first few rides, but I won't know until tomorrow morning. The weather should be nice all week, so I hope to get a good start clawing my way back into a less embarrassing level of fitness. I've always been able to ride myself into shape fairly quickly, but I've never been this old or heavy...

Ever since my book came out, I have been afraid someone will invite "Mr. Biking Illinois" on a long ride, and I'll be pathetic. True, the rides in the book are short enough that I could stubbornly slog through most of them regardless, but I sure wouldn't want any witnesses!


Saturday, March 18, 2006
Speedy Delivery!
Whenever I see a bicyclist in an advertisement, it catches my eye. Especially in one of my wife's horse magazines. This ad features a special breed of cyclist, the aerodynamic time trialist. What are they advertising? A container to ship horse semen!

It's a cool photo, but I'm not sure it works here. The ad says "The Leader of the Pack," but time trialists ride alone (except as part of a team in which case it doesn't really matter who is in front among teammates). There is no "pack." A photo of a cyclist leading or breaking away from the peloton would fit the words better. And how would this person carry an Equitainer? It would be funny if they doctored the photo to show an Equitainer strapped to the rider's back. Maybe they should have used a touring bike with a rear rack instead.

Lance Armstrong was one of the best time trialists in the world before he retired. Since there are lots of horses in Texas, semen delivery could be his second career!

UPDATE 03/18/2006 - Somehow I forgot to mention the name of the manufacturer: Hamilton Research, Inc. Coincidentally, Tyler Hamilton is another formidable American time trialist.

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Monday, January 09, 2006
Two Problems with The 40 Year-Old Virgin
Overall, I liked The 40 Year-Old Virgin. I mean, it's from a predictable genre, but it had some good laughs. It was worth seeing once. There were, however, two issues in this movie that really irritated me.

First, some characters in the movie make Andy (Steve Carell) out to be a loser because he doesn't have a car and rides a bike instead. Riding a bike doesn't make you a loser, a failure, or a virgin. Neither does not owning a car. There were years when I had a successful business and a six-figure income, and I didn't own a car. And guess what? I got laid too! Sometimes the auto-centrism of our society gets on my nerves. It's as if you're "nothing" without a car. Hardly.

Second, the movie demonizes pornography. When Andy's girlfriend finds the porn that his friend gave him, she wigs out and asks if he's a freak (or weirdo, whatever) just because he has porn. Sheesh, lady, grow up. It's a $12 billion industry, and there just aren't enough freaks out there to be spending that much. Come on, it wasn't even freaky porn, it was just regular stuff (I'd give examples of freaky, but my mom reads this blog). One more thing: if Andy had been a porn consumer prior to that fateful card game when his inexperience was revealed, he probably would have been able to bluff his way through it instead. Any Penthouse Letters story would have worked in that situation (unless one of the other guys had read that letter before!).

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005
Riding The Wrong Way Can Be Fatal
It seems like every day lately there has been bad news at, but how often does this happen?

A cyclist lost his life in a head-on collision with another cyclist on Sunday, August 14 in Plano, Texas. Michael Mahoney, 52, was riding counter-clockwise on a circuit route near an industrial part of southeast Plano when the accident occurred. He collided with Jordan Muller, 37, who was training clockwise on the parcours used for races on Tuesday nights.

Although both cyclists were wearing helmets, Michael Mahoney's head trauma was too severe and he passed away in the Medical Center of Plano soon after the accident. Jordan Muller was treated in the emergency room and released.

With most races taking place clockwise, race organizer Randy Eller said that most people training on the course were riding in that same direction. Nevertheless, the streets being public, cyclists can ride any direction they choose. While the police did not know at what speed the two cyclists were going when they crashed, the accident apparently happened on a straight stretch of the road.
One critical detail is missing--where in the roadway did this happen? They were on public roads. It wasn't even race night, so the fact that races go clockwise is irrelevant (the article concedes this point). Obviously somebody was in the wrong place (i.e., riding on his left side of the road), or they both were (i.e., riding down the middle). Maybe one guy was riding on the wrong side the whole time. Maybe the other rider had been cutting a corner before the straight. It's sad regardless, and it probably never would have happened if both cyclists had kept right as the law prescribes.

This incident draws attention to my biggest problem with wrong-way cyclists. When you encounter one on the street (all too common in Chicago), on which side do you pass? I keep right, but a wrong-way rider is just as likely to keep to his left and hit me. The Chicago Police Department is planning to start fining cyclists who break traffic laws (finally!), so I hope they crack down hard on these people in particular.

UPDATE 08/18/2005 - According to VeloNews, which has a more detailed report, the riders were both in the middle of the road (hat tip to Team Mack racer Chris Strout, who reads more cycling web sites than I do). And of course, I did not mention the many ways a cyclist riding the wrong way can be killed by a motorist, but that goes beyond the scope of this blog entry.


Thursday, May 19, 2005
North Shore Channel Path Improvements
As I mentioned in my last post, there is a multi-use path along the Chicago River and the North Shore Channel. It runs from Lawrence Avenue (4800N) all the way to the Ladd Arboretum in Evanston, a distance of more than seven miles each way. It begins with parallel asphalt and wood chip trails on the west side of the river from Lawrence to Argyle Street (5000N). A short, paved trail continues north, but one must cross the river on the Argyle bridge to follow the main path on the east side. Just south of Foster Avenue, the river forks off to the west and the North Shore Channel (formerly a sewage canal) continues north. At Lincoln Avenue (6050N), the path crosses over to the west side of the channel.

Yesterday I broke in a new pair of hiking boots by exploring some recent improvements. The city completed underpasses at Peterson Avenue (6000N) and Lincoln this spring. The path runs right beside the channel between them, with trail users protected by a black, wrought iron fence (Mayor Daley's preferred barrier). With lights and a wide, concrete path, the underpasses should be relatively safe. Now there are no at-grade street crossings from Argyle to Lincoln. This may be the longest uninterrupted path in the city aside from the lakefront.

Funding is available for a new pedestrian/bike bridge over the channel north of Lincoln, but word on the street is that Alderman Bernard Stone does not want to build it. This is ridiculous considering that the money will be lost (as opposed to being directed elsewhere in his ward) if the bridge isn't built. Instead, runners and cyclists have to cross on the Lincoln Avenue bridge to continue up the west side of the channel into Skokie and Evanston. Cyclists will have to brave Lincoln's heavy traffic (I'm thinking particularly of the younger ones; it's not a bad street for experienced riders). Runners and walkers will have to use the bridge's north sidewalk, which is more narrow than the path, and dodge the streetlight poles. Local cyclist Bob Kastigar has
photographically documented the problem.

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