A Little Less Dogma

When I was riding predominately for sport and fitness, I had the freedom to choose when and where to ride. Consequently, I mostly rode during off-peak times on relatively low travelled roads or bike paths, avoiding those areas I knew to be congested and dangerous.

Now that nearly all of my riding is for transportation, I don’t always have the option to pick and choose my routes, and I often find myself riding during peak hours. This new exposure to intense, and sometimes dangerous traffic has forced a rethinking of my approach to urban/suburban cycling.

For the longest time I was an advocate of John Forester’s “vehicular cycling” principles. Vehicular cycling is described as “the practice of driving bicycles on roads in a manner that is visible, predictable, and in accordance with the principles for driving a vehicle in traffic.” That sounds good and reasonable, and in some situations I still use a vehicular approach. But there are times, while encountering difficult and complex traffic situations, that adherence to strict vehicular cycling techniques no longer works for me.

For example, on some of our 6-lane suburban “parkways”, it is nearly impossible to ride a bicycle in a manner that is “in accordance with the principles for driving a vehicle in traffic.” Cars on these roads travel 3 abreast at 50-60mph; because the speed differential between cars and bicycles is so great, and the distance from the right shoulder to the left turn lane is so far, it’s not realistic to “drive” a bicycle on these roads as a part of the normal flow of traffic.

One alternative in these dangerous conditions is to ride on the sidewalk and behave as a pedestrian at intersections, using crosswalks and pedestrian traffic signals to navigate. A majority of the sidewalks on the major parkways in our area are completely under-used by pedestrians, and are separated from the road by a grass median (see main photo at top). In every way, they closely resemble what other cities might label “separated bikeways”. For the longest time, due to the stigma associated with riding on sidewalks, I avoided these pseudo bikeways, choosing instead to ride out in the traffic lane at all costs. But over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that given the option of a 40mph speed differential with cars, or a 10mph speed differential with pedestrians, the sidewalk option can be a wise choice if the conditions warrant it. (Of course, in a dense urban environment, where sidewalks are full of pedestrians, and business store fronts face the sidewalk, cycling on sidewalks is ill-advised.) This is an example of a change in tactics I should have made sooner, but didn’t, due to my overly strict adherence to a particular school of thought.

As my cycling habits have evolved, so has my overall approach to cycling tactics. Now, whatever the difficult traffic situation, whether it be a 6-lane parkway, a narrow shoulder, a vanishing bike lane, or something else, I try to use a little more pragmatism and little less dogma. This more flexible approach has made my cycling experience safer and more enjoyable.

SCC Folding Bike Subsidy

To help alleviate the bike rack overcrowding that often causes cyclists to be left at bus stops, Santa Cruz County, CA, in conjunction with three area bike shops, is offering up to $200 off on folding bikes for multi-modal commuters (folding bikes are allowed on board all Metro buses, even during peak hours). All Santa Cruz County residents are eligible; the only requirement is attendance at a free, 2-hour bicycle safety training class. Now that’s my kind of subsidy (if only I lived in Santa Cruz)! Visit Ecology Action for more information.

John Pucher: Cycling for Everyone

Dr. John Pucher, Rutgers University Professor of Planning and Public Policy and bicycle advocate extraordinaire, recently gave a presentation at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C. titled, Cycling for Everyone: Lessons for Vancouver from the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany. This is the best presentation I’ve seen on the benefits of increasing cycling in our cities and how to go about doing it. The video is over an hour long, but if you’re at all interested in the subject, it’s a must see.

Click here to view the video.

Further Pucher resources:

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Gallery: Dolan’s Kona Sutra

So far, it’s been a fun ride. The goal was absolute reliability in any weather, as it tends to rain a lot here in Portland and I don’t have time to be adjusting things these days. The Sutra frameset, with it’s faults, ended up being about the best non-custom fit I could find. If I had my choice I probably would have used a Rocky Mountain Sherpa, but that would mean parting out the rest of the bike, paying $1000 or so more up front, and not having adjustable dropouts which help so much with the speedhub. The Cotic Roadrat was another interesting idea, but I’m not sure how well it would handle loaded touring. Routing the fender stays was interesting — I had to bend them by hand around the disc brakes and even so they just barely work. Cable routing was a challenge as well, as you can see in some of the other pictures. But for the most part, things came together pretty well.

As for riding impressions, well, it’s solid, fairly heavy (I’m guessing ~30 lbs), and very very stable. The brakes are just incredible in the wet: strong, silent, and fade-free. The dynohub/light combo is fantastic as well, with the auto-light-sensor doing its thing behind the scenes with no thought from me and putting out plenty of light. Many of the parts (seat, cranks, skewers, rack, etc) I’ve had for a while now so they just feel normal. The speedhub is taking some getting used to. I love the range, and the simplicity, but I don’t love the 7-8 shift, and I really dislike the grinding in the lower range. I’m told this will get better, and I hope it will, but at the end up the day there’s really no competition.

Let me know if you have any questions. For now, this will be my “daily rider” to and from work, and maybe some day (when Lucas is a bit older) I’ll get to test out its loaded touring capabilities.

Finally, thanks goes out to Dean at Clever Cycles for sourcing many of the parts, including the big red thing on the rear.

Just a quick parts list for those interested in such things:

  • 2006 (NOS) 54cm Kona Sutra frameset
  • Rohloff disc QR Speedhub (OEM2) with Monkey Bone
  • Schmidt disc Dynohub and shifter
  • Mavic A719 rims (32h) with brass nipples, DT 14/16/14 spokes
  • Pitlock skewers and ahead cap
  • Schwalbe Marathon Supreme 700x32cm tires
  • Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes
  • Chris King 1 1/8″ NoThreadSet
  • Cane Creek SCR-5 brake levers
  • Salsa short & shallow 44cm bars
  • Ritchey Adjustable stem
  • Brooks B-17 ti saddle, leather handlebar tape
  • Thomson Elite seatpost
  • Tubus Cargo rear rack
  • SKS fenders (hand to bend the stays)
  • B&M Lumotec IQ Fly Senso Plus (whew!) front light, D Toplight XS Plus rear light
  • Phil Wood Ti BB with steel cups
  • Shimano XTR M900 (1st generation) cranks
  • SRAM PC68 chain
  • Shimano A-530 SPD/flat pedals
  • Incredibell



Coasting downhill is the cycling experience that most closely mimics flying. It’s the perfect natural consequence and just reward for the hard work of getting to the top of a hill. There’s nothing quite like finally cresting a hill and feeling the pull of gravity take you down, down, down the other side, while you silently glide and swerve, dodging potholes and weaving between the dotted yellow lines like a hawk floating on an air current.

“Serious” cycling, that being cycling for sport as in road racing, mountain bike racing, time trials and the like, took away from me this most enjoyable aspect of cycling. Serious cycling would have the cyclist pedal all the time at the same cadence; uphill, downhill, into the wind, with the wind, all the while frantically shifting between 27 (or even 30 now) gear combinations, turning the rider into a humanoid Lime drive. Serious cyclists don’t coast.

There’s nothing quite like finally cresting a hill and feeling the pull of gravity take you down, down, down the other side, while you silently glide and swerve, dodging potholes and weaving between the dotted yellow lines like a hawk floating on an air current.

Of course, if a person is racing, there’s good reason to pedal all the time; the object, after all, is to get to the finish line first, and coasting doesn’t contribute to forward momentum. Where it all breaks down though, is when edicts from the Racing Gods trickle down and infect the thinking of average, non-racing schmucks like me. The latest How to Win the TDF manual may suggest that it’s most efficient to keep your cadence high, constant, and within a narrow range, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an appropriate technique for a leisurely ride to the coffee shop. [Note to self: Efficiency has its time-and-place and we do well to recognize when-and-where it is-or-isn’t required.]

It took a decidedly inefficient bike, and the desire to avoid soaking my street clothes, to reintroduce me to the joys of coasting. A 50-pound bike with a 5-speed transmission is not conducive to maintaining a “high and steady” cadence. As a matter of fact, a 50-pound bike with a 5-speed transmission pretty much discourages anything remotely resembling such behavior. A 50-pound bike wants to go at its own pace, not unlike a stubborn mule that knows the route and will take you to your destination at her pace, thank you very much. What you learn, when riding a mule masquerading as a bike, is that working with the bike, not against it, is the only reasonable approach. And you also learn that a mule-bike requires extra effort from the rider to get to the top of the hill, but it doubly rewards the rider by going down the other side like an anvil dropped from a third story window.

Most people don’t consider excess weight to be a desirable quality in a bike. As a matter of fact, many people spend silly amounts of money to shave even sillier amounts of weight from their already silly-light bicycles. Uber-light bikes go uphill like crazy, but they’re no good at all for encouraging a coasting state of mind. They’re the most serious of serious bikes that demand to be pedaled continuously. And while they may be “light as a feather”, without a willing engine they go downhill about as fast as a feather on an updraft. A 50-pound anvil-bike smokes an 18-pound feather-bike in a downhill coast-off.

But I digress. Of course, as a famous cyclist once said, “It’s not about the bike.” Whatever your ride, coasting is actually a state of mind, a desire to experience again the free rides and the long glides of youth, a chance to let go of the trappings of serious cycling and once again fly like an eagle.

Gallery: Surly LHT

The Surly Long Haul Trucker is a popular choice for loaded touring, but it also makes a wonderful commuter, particularly for those that live in hilly terrain and have a need for wide range gearing. This attractive 56cm LHT was just built-up for a customer by my friend Rick Steele at Gold Country Cyclery.

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