Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Lancaster, OH: Musings from the Road

”Musings from the Road” is any post where the content is not constrained by chronology. This gives me more freedom to write about whatever comes to my mind, though the content will almost always be influenced by the tour in some way.

1. The Bike Shop Dilemma

I’ve worked as a bike mechanic before and I totally support bicycle shops, especially non-chain shops, but as a fixer and a tinkerer, I often feel coerced to spend money that I don’t really need to spend.

My bike is about half a size too small. When I bought it, it was just the frame: the Trek 520 frame costs anywhere from $3-700 new, but I found it used for $100. I usually ride a size 58 or 60, and this was a size 59. For $100? Heck yea!

So, I built it up and rode it off. Only, my neck started hurting. The frame was the “right size,” but it didn’t fit. Nuts.

I stopped at a local bike shop (colloquially “LBS”) in Champaign, IL and had an excellent talk with someone who knows more about bike fit than me. I’m a mechanic, but bike fit is a world all of its own. They spent maybe an hour with me, discussing various options from a $65 stem (piece that holds the handlebars on, $65 plus the cost of install) to a new frame at around $600 (they lambasted the cost of moving the parts over from the current frame, not knowing that I could do it myself…) to an entirely new bike at around $1200. If I am going to bike around the world, I want a bike that fits, and $1200 to save myself from a year or more of neck pain is definitely worth it.

And yet…

We mourned the lack of standard sizing in the bicycle world: road bikes use centimeters; mountain bikes use inches; some companies just use small, medium, large; how even between bikes that use the same system, two bikes that are the “same size” (such as 58 cm) might fit entirely differently. This isn’t the shop’s fault, it isn’t my fault. It isn’t anybody’s “fault,” really. It’s the result of some manufacturers thinking their way is better and some not caring enough to get it right and probably some unintentional imperfections. But it’s annoying and it shouldn’t cost $1200 to fix.

So I went on Amazon and bought this for $12 instead:

On the one hand, I am incredibly grateful to this LBS for spending time with me, answering all my questions, and in general giving me great service and being very kind to me.

On the other, my neck doesn’t hurt anymore, and it cost me all of $12, much less $65, much less $1200. Does my bike fit perfectly? No, of course not. If I went in and asked to have it fit as is, would they recommend getting “a bike that fits?” Probably, yea. And to be honest, if I worked there as a mechanic, I would probably say the same thing.

It is a shortcoming of bicycles that finding the right one can often be such an ordeal. When you get in a car and the seat isn’t adjusted properly, the solution is… fiddle with the seat until it’s adjusted properly. Nobody ever gave up cars because they tried one that was uncomfortable. Yet when some people get on a bicycle and it’s the wrong size or not adjusted properly, the sad, too-often solution is that they conclude “bicycles are uncomfortable.”

I don’t know that I have a conclusion to this one -- it’s mostly about sharing the ambiguous feelings I have about spending money and a general wish that fitting bikes was less of a black box. I absolutely think it’s worth it to spend a bit more to shop locally (I could, and probably will at some point, detail why doing otherwise often hurts more than helps your wallet). Support your local bike shop. Get a bike that fits -- buy a fit if you have to. But also, sometimes there are drastically more affordable solutions than the ones suggested by professionals with the best of intentions.

2. One with Nature

It goes without saying that when bicycle touring, you spend a lot of time outside. Yet no matter how far you bike, there is always some way (besides the road itself) that we seem to have polluted nature. There’s almost always power lines obscuring your photos, there’s trash in the most random (and sad) places. The two worst perpetrators, in my opinion, are lawns and noise.

Lawns? Yes. Why do we need so much finely mowed green? Because it looks nice? Seriously? There’s three times as much lawn in the US as corn, making it the most irrigated crop in the country. 9 billion gallons of water per day. PER FREAKING DAY. Not to mention the amount of time and gas we spend mowing. We spend more on lawn care than foreign aid.

Don’t get me wrong. I like having a nice, soft bed of grass to lie on as much as the next guy. Chances are if you’re reading this, I’m not talking about your lawn (but do you really use it enough to warrant spending 90 hours a year maintaining it?). There are some huge freaking lawns out there, and I’m sure all the action they get is the mower. Lawn space is nice. But we need a fraction of what we’ve somehow decided is necessary.

Then, there’s the noise. There’s nothing like escaping the city and highway sounds and just hearing wind and nature around you. This happens rarely -- less than ten times in the two or three weeks I’ve been pedaling. Most of the time I hear the low drone of a highway in the distance, as if mother nature is groaning beneath our weight.

And when you do escape the lawns and the noise (which you almost never do), there’s usually trash somewhere.

Cycle touring is many things. It’s been a great way to meet people, gather stories, and see places I wouldn’t otherwise see. It is also an expose into the omnipresence of humankind and our impact on the world. Often, our reach seems inescapable. We have become one with nature.

3. Horns

On a bike, cars communicate with you in various ways. Most pass you with plenty of space -- four or five feet, much more than the legally required three. Some wait behind you if there is oncoming traffic. That’s awesome!

Some honk.

This musing isn’t to slander people that honk. I think, in fact, that it’s usually well intended: “I’m here!” I really think very few people that honk mean, “Get off the road, asshole!”

The problem is that regardless of the intention, it usually scares the living daylights out of me.

If you want to tell me to “get off the road, asshole,” then just roll down your window and do that. It’s less passive aggressive and less dangerous since you’ve slowed down to 12 mph to say it (I can’t hear you if you’re going faster than me). I’ll probably smile and wave, because I almost guarantee I know the bicycle laws better than you. My life depends on it, so I’ve made a conscious decision to be wherever I am in the road, despite the traffic or the presence of a margin or sidewalk (fun fact: riding a bike in the sidewalk is 25x more dangerous than riding a bike in the road. Visibility and predictability are my bets at why). If I’m in the road instead of on the white line, it’s to make you go around me, instead of thinking, “Hey, I can sneak by…” “Sneaking by” is how accidents happen. It’s annoying for both of us -- I’d rather there be a bike lane too! But for both of our safeties, please wait until there’s space (either in the opposing lane or via the appearance of a margin).

If you want to let me know you’re there… thanks, but no thanks. I probably already know you’re there, unless you’re driving an electric vehicle and snuck up on me at 15 mph. If I need to take the lane, I’ll check for cars first.

So whether you mean it maliciously or politely, please just don’t honk. I don’t know what it means and unless your intention is to scare the crap out of me, there are better ways to do it.

4. Dogs

This musing includes some graphic descriptions. If you’re queasy or would rather not see prose made out of tragedy, you can stop reading -- this is the last musing for this blog post so you won’t miss anything else. In short: I saw a dog get hit by a car.

One of the unfortunate and uncontrollable side effects of riding a bike is that dogs love to chase you. Indiana has been the most dogful state so far -- on one day I had at least ten dogs chase after me. Fortunately, almost all of them were stopped by leashes or invisible fences.

If you’re wondering, the best solution to being chased by dogs is to stop moving. This is the process I follow when I hear barking:
  • Find dog.
  • Assess dog: is he or she interested in and able to chase you? If not, continue biking. Else, continue to 3.
  • Brake and dismount on non-dog side.
  • Keep bike between you and the dog. Stop or walk forward until it’s safe to pedal again.
Almost without exception, once you dismount, the dog will immediately become uninterested. It’s almost like you were never there and they’re playing hide-and-go-seek -- “I’m not here!” They realize you’re just a person, and people are, well… uninteresting. I’ve never had a dog continue to chase me once I dismount. Follow me? Yes. Bark at me? Yes. But chase me, as if trying to catch me? No. If they do, that’s why you put the bike between to two of you -- no dog is going to bite a bike.

Unfortunately, not every dog barks.

It was in Indiana when a dog managed to sneak up on me. They have uncanny senses, dogs -- they’ll bark at you from behind houses, cars, bushes, sometimes from a quarter of a mile away. This dog had seen me from behind a bush and had run across the yard and into the road before I knew it was there. I heard the clack-clack of its claws on the pavement and turned my head to see it. I know what I would have done then: without time to stop, I would have had to lift my leg over my bike as it rolled, balancing my weight on the far side as I slowed down so the dog couldn’t bite my ankle. I didn’t have time to think this, though. Whoosh - thud a car drove by, and suddenly there was red in the air, and the smell of blood. The real irony blood smell, that you only smell when there’s been a deep cut.

I heard a yelp, turned my head again, and saw the dog lying in the road. Thankfully, it got up and limped out of the road, whimpering loudly. Dog alive!

I stopped and waited across the road, seeing if anybody would come out of the house. There were no cars in the driveway. I’m not sure what my obligations were at that point. I was, obviously, a little shaken. The car didn’t stop -- I’m not even sure they knew; they probably didn’t even see the dog as it had only popped out of the bush a split second before. It was, I’m sorry to say, probably better that way. Had the dog startled them, they could have instinctively swerved away from it -- and into me.

I felt bad, but I didn’t know what to do. I hope that dog is okay. And I hope they leash it from now on, or put up a fence. I used to have nightmares about terrible things happening to a dog I had once, who often got distracted by moving objects. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.


  1. Great observations. Admire your frugal solutions because spending more is not necessary. I hope that the dog is okay.

    Love you, Mom

  2. Glad to hear your back is feeling better!!