Monday, August 31, 2009

Bike Lanes? No, Thank You . . .

Shortly after I moved to Houston 15 years ago, a large bike lane program was unveiled. It consisted of bike-only lanes on some major thoroughfares, some less-traveled through streets designated as bike routes, some off-road multi-use paths, and the occasional sharrow.

Ultimately, the Houston Bikeway System (as I recall) was supposed to have over a thousand miles of designated bikeways that would eventually link much of the Houston metro area and Galveston. About 370 miles of those proposed bike lanes/paths/routes are in place now. If you're into keeping track of "bike-friendliness," Houston seems to be making good progress.

Bike lanes/routes/paths have one substantial weakness: They don't always go where some of us bicyclists want, or need, to go. If they do, they don't always provide the most direct route. Case in point: My commute from home to school and back. I have a couple of options for getting between the two.

Option one takes me north to Briar Forest (bike lane), across Highway 6 to Addicks Reservoir and George Bush Park (multi-use path . . . largely bicycles), and then leaves me the option of cycling on Fry Road in Katy or using the constantly curving sidepath beside the road. Round-trip is about 30 miles.

Option two takes me south to Westheimer, across Highway 6 to Westheimer Parkway (which goes over the earthen dam separating Addicks Reservoir and George Bush Park from the city), to Fry Road. Since my bike and I don't trigger the left-turn signal at Fry Road, I ride about a block on the sidepath to the crosswalk, push the signal, cross Fry and Westheimer Parkway as a pedestrian, and hop back on the bike to ride Fry Road to my destination. Round-trip is about 20 miles.

When I ride the bike lane on Briar Forest, cars commonly pass me at about 35 mph (the speed limit) close enough for me to reach out and touch them (if I'm brave). At stop lights, many cars sit straddling the bike lane waiting to make right turns.

When I ride in the center of my lane on Fry Road, Westheimer Parkway, and Westheimer Road, the majority of cars pull into the other lane to pass me. There's between four and five feet between cars and me when they pass.

Does it surprise you that I'm much less of a fan of bike lanes/routes/paths than I used to be?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Olfactory Delights

I don't know if my sense of smell has suddenly heightened, or if the wind out of the north carried smells a little further and more intensely, but my nose was working overtime today during my ride.

Sunday mornings usually consist of a ride into George Bush park. Distances vary depending on how I'm feeling on a given Sunday and what else I have scheduled for the day. Today was an out-and-back 12 mile round trip.

Briar Forest drive is the most convenient artery to the park from my home. Briar Forest also happens to be a part of Houston's bikeway plan; lanes were restriped to provide a narrow bike lane near the curb in both directions.

One of the downsides of bike lanes on major thoroughfares is all of the debris that gets pushed over to the curb by auto traffic and running water (from rainfall). Honestly, the lane is pretty useless, but I ride there (when it's clear and when not approaching a stoplight) because that's where motorists expect to see cyclists.

One of the big things to wind up landing in the gutter is dead animals. Today, there were two squirrels on the westbound bike lane, and both of them were very ripe. The wind carried the smell at least 50 years past the carcasses.

North of the trail, on the north side of the reservoir, there were a couple of cedar chip mountains. I'm not sure if they've always been there, but today is the first day that I could smell them. That odor was in the air for almost the whole length of the reservoir's north side.

Crossing Highway 6 on the return trip, the smell of gasoline permeated the air from the Chevron station on the corner. Since I was riding past the valves where tankers refill the gas station's tanks, I assume that they were recently refilled.

One smell I didn't notice was car exhaust. Traffic seemed relatively light compared to most Sunday mornings. Exhaust generally bothers me more in a car than it does on the bike. In fact, the only time I notice exhaust while riding is when waiting at a light surrounded by cars. Plus, it's usually quite warm or quite humid. Today was rather pleasant . . . a welcome change from our summer-long high heat and humidity.

Respite from the heat seems to have a different effect on me, too. Usually, a bike ride is followed by a recliner ride (even before showering). Today, the bike ride was followed by mowing the front lawn. Could this mean that my conditioning is improving after focusing on endurance this summer?

Or could it be the magical power of the Green Smoothie?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

This Week on Pedalcycling

I had the best of intentions this week . . .

Sunday, I took a short ride to the park. The only memorable part of the ride was the violet wildflowers growing alongside the path.

Monday, I had a great ride into work. You know, every ride into work is usually great. Traffic is light, noise is low, legs are fresh, and temperatures are cool. I love riding in the morning!

Monday afternoon, I was putzing around in my office trying to tie up some loose ends when my colleague, Pam, stuck her head in the door and told me that a storm was approaching and I'd better get to riding.

Thunder rumbled outside. I questioned whether it was wise to ride in what might turn out to be a thundersorm. However, the prospect of staying at work even longer prompted me to take a chance with the elements.

Fifteen minutes into the ride, the rain hit. It started gently, then built quickly into a typical Houston soaker. The road quickly became slippery, and wind gusts made balancing a challenge a couple of times.

Lightning flashed in the distance for a little while. One bolt crashed very close; the flash and sound, which were almost simultaneous, almost knocked me off of my bike.

And, boy, were drivers cranky! One of the things that amazes me in Houston is that almost nobody slows down when there is standing (or running) water on the roadway. This day was no exception. Drivers exceeded the speed limit, almost without exception, in spite of poor visibility and the risk of hydroplaning. My presence was most unwelcome, and a few speeding cars made that known as they roared past.

Soaked, and a little bit shaken, I decided to seek shelter at a restroom facility in the park. Of course, just as I approached the driveway to that building, the rain stopped. The rest of the ride passed without incident.

I suspect that the lower temperature helped me to feel relatively fresh when I arrived at the house. Since I was feeling pretty spry, I decided to go ahead and check tire pressure and fill up tires. When I went to fill the rear tire, I discovered that three spokes were broken on the rear wheel. I had already noticed that it was out of true.

So, the bike rack went on the back of the car, and the bike went to Bike Barn. Since the bike had been tuned a month ago, I had noticed that the chain skipped when on the small chainring, so I told Maxx, the mechanic, about both problems.

I was thinking that I might need to have a new 40-spoke rear wheel built to support my less-than-lithe body. Maxx said that several options came to mind and that he'd look it over, but he felt like there shouldn't be broken spokes so soon after a tune up, and that there would be no charge.

Unfortunately, the bike wouldn't be done until Wednesday evening, so I would miss my Wednesday commute. :-(

When I picked the bike up on Wednesday, Maxx told me that a screw had come loose on the chainring; tightening it stopped the skipping. The rear wheel got re-laced with heavier-gauge spokes. As far as I'm concerned, that's way above and beyond what they needed to do. Guess where I'm going to do almost all of my bicycle shopping from now on?

Bike Barn
12118 Westheimer
Houston, TX 77077

Due to two consecutive days of working at school until 10 p.m., the Friday commute didn't happen, either. Last night, I fell asleep in the recliner at around 7:30, and went to bed at around 9.

This morning, up at 6 and in the mood for coffee, I decided to take a ride. Cool air greeted me as I pedaled toward my favorite Starbucks. The bike rolled like it hasn't for awhile . . . of course, that could be due as much to a summer of almost daily rides as it was to the trued wheel. Yeah, right!

Nothing beats an early morning ride in cool air to enjoy a cup of coffee at sunrise! I hope that's a pleasure I can continue to enjoy for many years to come.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Sunday and Monday were my only riding days last week. Sunday was a coffee run and a cruise through the park. Monday was some of the best commuting ever; the ride home was overcast and cooler than usual, and I was at peace with the other roadway users!

Tomorrow, the students return to school. The last couple of weeks have been dress rehearsal for the real morning routine, which starts tomorrow and lasts until the end of May.

Will I ride every day? No. Commuting by bike three days per week is about all my body will handle right now. As the year goes on, more riding will probably make sense and feel welcome. I hope to end the school year riding at least 100 miles a week between utility and recreational cycling.

This isn't my first attempt at this resolution. Over the years, I've bailed many times. When that has happened, I've reflected some on why it happened. It all boils down to one word . . .


In a perfect world, I'd stay up late enough to watch the evening news and have some time alone with my wife, I'd leap out of bed at five in the morning, I'd do all of my ironing/food preparation/packing when I'm fresh, and I'd average 16 - 18 mph on the ride.

Yeah, that would be the life, wouldn't it?

Welcome to my world, as it really is, instead! Here's what I know I have to do in order to make the morning ride:

  1. Get sufficient sleep. Without at least seven hours of sleep (and I'm inclined to believe that 8 1/2 is my ideal), I'm brainless and tactless . . . two traits unbecoming of a good teacher or a good bicycle commuter!
  2. Fuel up! Being hungry sucks! When it comes to food, I have two rules: (1) I don't eat food that doesn't taste good; (2) I don't do hunger. I can take care of these by loading up at the vending machine between meals, but that gets expensive (not to mention fattening). So, I lay out breakfast the night before (and I eat half before the ride; half after) and make lunch and stash it in the fridge. I'm still getting the hang of planning sufficient snacks and such, but I'm closer now than when I first started my attempts at a bicycle lifestyle. What I eat is probably better detailed in a separate post. By the way, I include filling up my CamelBak as a part of my food preparation.
  3. Pack the night before. I've avoided doing that for any number of reasons ranging from my clothes getting more wrinkled to having to possibly unpack if I oversleep and run late. Since my clothes wrinkle some over the course of the day, I've decided not to worry about it. I'm going to keep a back-up set of work clothes ready for the occasions when I do oversleep; this violates another rule of mine (don't do unnecessary work), but I think that my Eagle Scout roots are going to win on this one, and I'm going to choose to "Be Prepared."
As time goes on, I'll probably expand this list. For now, this should get the job done. Time will tell . . .

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Behind the Wheel

After three days of 20 mile rides in some of the highest heat and humidity of the summer, I needed a little more sleep this morning. Bicycling to work in a timely manner was out of the question.

Today, and the next couple of days, have me moving to multiple locations for inservice training. The organizers probably think that it's really cool that they're offering such a smorgasboard of learning opportunities.

I can't help but wonder if making it so that the majority of participants have no choice but to use motorized transport for the next couple of days is really necessary. But, after all, this is Texas, and driving is what we do . . .

On the way home, a quick glance at the speedometer showed me to be 15 mph over the speed limit. That's what I get for going with the flow of traffic. It also revealed how much less conscious I am as a motor vehicle operator than as a cyclist.

That's more than a little bit scary, don't you think?

Slowing down to the speed limit, I noticed that I was getting passed, a lot, at speeds comparable to what I had been driving. However, I also noticed that drivers pulled into the lane at about the same distance behind me as they did when I was riding my bike. Honestly, I hadn't paid that much attention to that before.

Here's a thought for an experiment: What if I slowed my car down to about 20 mph on my commute home? The three roads have posted speed limits of 35, 40, and 45 mph. I wonder what the reaction of other drivers would be compared to how they react to me as a slow-moving cyclist?

I'll have to try that soon and report back here with the results.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Going Uphill . . . Both Ways!

Today, I had a nice chat with the mother of a student that I tutor. She saw my bike propped up against a wall in my classroom and asked if I was a bike commuter.

"We'll see," I said. "I'm giving it my best shot so far, and it's working."

It turns out that she and her husband are avid cyclists. She started out mountain biking, then switched to road riding on the weekends.

We talked for awhile about the joys and perils of riding, bicycle accidents, and the importance of asserting our rights to the road when riding (because safety is more important than popularity).

After she left, I changed into my cycling gear, packed my bags, and began the 10 mile trip home.

This morning, on Westheimer Parkway, I rode into a headwind as I headed southwest. It probably wasn't much, but since I'm a big fella and my position on the bike is high profile, it felt like a big deal to me.

Turning eastbound onto Westheimer Parkway tonight, I began pedaling at a brisk cadence and was able to spin in a higher gear than I had either yesterday or this morning.

Then, when the road turned a little northeast, I ran smack dab into a headwind again! It lasted until I was descending the east side of the berm that borders the east side of the park.

For some strange reason, I started thinking about the "When I Was Your Age" speech. You know how it goes, don't you?

When I was your age, I didn't have it nearly as easy as you! I had to get up before the sun every morning, do my chores, and get to school.

And I didn't have no fancy school bus, either! I had to walk six miles, barefoot, in the snow, going uphill . . . both ways!
My karma account got a deposit today.

The light at Westheimer and Highway 6 appeared to be malfunctioning. When I first queued up at the light, I was too far back to make it through the intersection during the brief green light. Then, when I was sitting at the head of the line, the lights remained red for a couple of cycles on Westheimer while alternating between northbound and southbound traffic on Highway 6.

I noticed that the button for the pedestrian signal was beside me. So, I moved up onto the curb, dismounted, and pushed the button.

Sure enough, the light changed. I crossed as a pedestrian, walked to the next driveway, remounted my bike, and joined traffic from there.

So, if you were one of the drivers stuck for a few minutes this evening on Westheimer at Highway 6 . . .

You're welcome!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Taking Vehicular Cycling Out for a Test Drive

OK, first of all, is it goofy that I set up a blog, make one post, and then fail to post for four months? I'm thinking so . . .

Today was my first day back at work for the new school year. I've spent the summer riding on the multi-use trail in George Bush park building up my capacity to ride 20 miles a day.

However, I knew that I was going to have to figure out how to deal with traffic on the three busy roadways that provide the most direct route from home to my place of employment in Katy: Westheimer Road (FM 1093), Westheimer Parkway, and Fry Road.

I don't know how I found it, but over the summer I read PM Summer's blog, Cycle Dallas. He espouses the practice of "Vehicular Cycling," a term coined by cyclist author John Forester to describe how bicyclists should behave in traffic. Forester sums up the philosophy behind his approach by stating that, "Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles."

Reading about it is well and good, but when the rubber meets the road (cliche' intended), how do I deal with the prospect that I might get run off of the road. After all, I've been clobbered good by a car at least once in my life . . .

One lazy afternoon, while clicking links on Cycle Dallas, I came across this series of videos intended to demonstate how to ride a bike in Dallas traffic. Seventy minutes later, I saw, for myself, how cyclists could safely (and easily) interact with city traffic without having to rely on low-traffic roads or bike lanes to get around.

Still, I needed to experience it for myself, and I was still a bit scared.

I've ridden this route before; the last time was on "Bike to Work" day in May. My morning ride was consistently enjoyable, even in the dark, due to low traffic. When travelling in the morning, I tended to ride in the middle of the lane so that my reflectors and flashers could be clearly seen by the cars and trucks that shared the road with me (usually travelling at speeds well above the posted limit). However, on the return trip, I tended to hug the right side of the road (there is no shoulder) on the Parkway, and the gutter on Westheimer. I got buzzed a lot at 40 mph or more . . . not to mention a lot of horns and profanities.

Today, I decided on this, my first day of the new school year, that it was time to confront my fear of taking the lane on Westheimer Parkway and Westheimer Road eastbound.

Watching vehicles approach me from behind (I have a rear-view mirror on my helmet) at 50 + mph was unnerving, to say the least. At times, I could see that someone was going to have to wait to pass me because there was a line of cars on the inside lane. Still, every single driver crossed over into the left lane and passed me safely. The longest any driver had to wait was about 30 seconds.

When I stopped at the corner of Westheimer and Eldridge, all four lanes were full behind me. Once I crossed the intersection safely, I pulled into the nearest driveway, waited for that group of cars to clear, and rejoined the flow of traffic. My "delay" was less than a minute, I felt more comfortable, and I'm sure I generated goodwill amongst the automobile drivers that would have been waiting at least that long to pass me had I chosen to continue.

Did I have any negative incidents? Yes, three people laid on their horns (out of at least a couple hundred cars that shared the route with me). In the park, a constable passed me without incident, which validates my choice further.

It's going to take time for me to ride my evening route without anxiety, and I'm especially anxious about doing it in the dark once daylight savings time ends.

Somebody told me once that courage wasn't the absence of fear, it was the willingness to act in spite of it. So, I plan to undertake my own little act of courage again tomorrow.