Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Bike Lame

Clearly, this is social commentary, but what is it saying? That bikes are lame, they shouldn't be on this road? That bike lanes are lame? That the absence of a bike lane on this road is lame? Who knows? This photo was taken just outside of the town of Point Reyes Station in California.

There is a heated debate within the cycling community about the best infrastructure to support cycling. Some argue for the construction of bike lanes and bike paths, so that we can have a protected space where we can ride without having to contend with automobiles. Others within our community feel this is a tragic mistake; that bike lanes and bike paths actually make us less safe, that we should ride in the same lanes as motor vehicles. What most of us agree on is that where bike lanes do not exist (e.g. most places), bicycles should be free to use the same roads as motorists, and that motorists should behave in ways that are safe and courteous. For example, most of us bemoan the passion with which many motorists feel that they need to immediately pass every cyclist they see; we wish they would show a little patience and to wait to pass until safe. That said, most of us cyclists are also motorists, and thus have the opportunity to see things from the other person's perspective. Thus was our recent experience when vacationing in Point Reyes, California.

Point Reyes is just north of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and what makes it so attractive is that in stark contrast to the teeming megapolis to the south, the Point Reyes area is very quiet and rural. To that end, it would make no sense to shatter it with high speed freeways, and thus the major freeway in the area, Highway 101, lies well to the east. What that means is that Point Reyes can only be accessed via narrow, winding, country roads. Point Reyes is a major tourist destination, encouraged in part by the location therein of Point Reyes National Seashore (a real treat!) On the one hand, it would be a shame if folks did not appreciate and use this beautiful recreation opportunity. On the other, the success of Point Reyes as a tourist destination means that these narrow, winding country roads are heavy with traffic; automobiles, of course, but a plethora of bicycles as well. Because of the circumstances of this visit, I traversed these roads by automobile only. And as much as I wanted to celebrate my fellow cyclists without reservation, I found myself in what seemed to be an insoluble dilemma. It goes like this:

The speed limit on many of these roads is 55 mph. Due to the hilly terrain, the roads go up and down as well as wind around the hills, and as a result, there is no legal place to pass; there are double yellow lines for mile after mile. Many of the roads have no shoulders whatsoever. And, as noted above, they are heavily travelled. So what happened when I encountered a cyclist? In theory, I should slow to the speed of the cyclist and follow them thereafter, for as many miles as necessary. If I had done that, I would have been the only driver to do so and would have, in my opinion, created a very dangerous situation. So, in practice, I did what everyone else did, the cyclists being full participants in this illegal and unsafe ballet. The cyclist would cringe as far to the right on the narrow road as possible. I would slow down as much as possible. I would pass, leaving as much room for the cyclist as I could while trying to cross over the double yellow line as little as possible. Although passing is unsafe and illegal everywhere as indicated by the double yellow lines, I would try to pass at the least unsafe place I could find. Having done all that, I probably passed closer to the cyclist than the law allows and I certainly crossed over the double yellow line in violation of the law. Post all the caustic comments you like, I am 100% convinced I had no other realistic choice, and certainly this is the community standard for these roads, agreed-upon by both the cyclists and the drivers.

Am I saying that cyclists do not belong on these roads? Absolutely not! And even if I did, I would be in conflict with the State of California which posts "share the road" signs on these roads, along with numbered bike route signs. I believe that some of the roads to which I refer are part of Adventure Cycling's routes, and this I find very discouraging. I have a long term dream of taking a tour of the United States using the Adventure Cycling routes, and now having seen what roads these routes use, I would be unwilling to ride on them. What I am saying is that all of us, the State of California, Adventure Cycling, the cyclists, the drivers, need to admit that we have created an impossible situation, and to develop and implement a realistic solution. Of course, this is not just a problem in California. I have cycled on roads here in Texas that have many of the same problems.

So what is the solution? It would be arrogant to think I had the answer, but I do have some thoughts. Being the scientist I am, my first reaction is always to gather more facts. Implicit in everything I have said so far is the assumption that it is dangerous to put bicycles moving at 10 to 20 mph in the same lane with automobiles moving at 55 mph, but is that true? My son, the Google data scientist, was with me on this trip and cited a study showing that when the speed limit on freeways was set too low, the mixture of drivers who drove at a faster but still safe speed with those drivers who felt compelled to follow the speed limit created more accidents than if the speed limit were raised so that everyone drove at the same, fast speed. When I looked into these studies, they were less than ideal. In addition, what may be true for motor vehicles moving at mixed speeds may or may not apply to a mixture of fast motor vehicles and slow bicycles; unbiased, well designed studies are needed, and they need to be extended to study what happens when bicycles and motor vehicles mix. Many related questions can be asked. To what extent does the risk of mixing slow bicycles and fast cars depend on the level of traffic? To what extent is risk reduced by a wide shoulder/bicycle lane? On roads where passing is dangerous, how effective would periodic pullouts be where slow traffic such as bicycles could temporarily pull out of traffic to allow faster vehicles to pass? What would be the optimum spacing of such pullouts? The cost of various options would have to be considered as well.

I follow Houston Critical Mass on Facebook, and there are voices there who believe the answer is to lower the speed limit. To be effective on the roads I am describing, I suspect that the speed limit would have to be lowered from the current 55 mph to something like 25 mph. Thinking about the situation around Point Reyes, this would certainly cause considerable consternation among the locals who have lived and worked in this area their whole lives and whose ability to function would be significantly degraded. But that aside, if this were to work, strict enforcemen would be essential or the new speed limits would be ignored. In anticipation of hard facts, my preferred solution is wide, paved shoulders. Whether these are shoulders or bike lines is to a large extent a matter of signage. Certainly motor vehicles should not drive on these shoulders, they should be reserved for emergencies (e.g. breakdowns) and for unpowered, slower vehicles such as bicycles. My intuition tells me that this would increase safety not only by providing a safe way for motor vehicles to pass bicycles but also providing a way to get broken down vehicles out of the traffic lane. What I do know for certain is that the status quo is unacceptable. What do you think?

Addendum: A few days after I posted this, my son and daughter in law posted about their experiences bicycling in China. One post in particular put the post above into perspective. Everything is relative; as dangerous as I found some of the roads in California, they are safety personified compared to what my son and daughter in law experienced in China.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Good Bye, Dad

Me, receiving the flag that had been covering Dad's casket, from one of the representatives of the United States Navy who honored Dad by participating in his funeral.

A recurring theme of this blog is that life is complicated and sometimes difficult, and that it often gets in the way of cycling. Over the last few years, I have spend a considerable amount of time in California taking care of my parents. Mom died before my first blog post, so her care did not receive much mention here. In contrast, visits to Dad were frequently mentioned1. Sadly, I will never have the privilege of mentioning them again, because Dad died a few weeks ago. We had a lovely funeral service for him, beginning with a military burial at the Sacramento National Cemetery followed by a luncheon where we all shared stories about Dad. One of my stories concerned cycling, and I thought it would be appropriate to share it here.

How Dad Taught Me to Be a Bicycle Racer

My Dad was a gifted athlete. Despite being somewhat short, he was a highly successful basketball player in high school, in college, and in The Navy. That being the case, I always worried that it might have made him sad to have had as a son one of the most untalented athletes on the planet. Eventually, I did find my sport, bicycling, and even got to be rather good at it, but even that began somewhat inauspiciously.

The story starts when I was in elementary school. Most kids, when they get their first bike, ride for a few weeks with training wheels, not really using them, and quickly thereafter, head off down the road on two wheels. Not me. I wore out my training wheels, and when Dad finally had no choice but to take them off, all I could do with my bike was fall over. Dad's solution to that was to start me out at the beginning of our driveway, and to use a piece of chalk to mark the spot where I fell over. Thereafter, my goal became to get past that spot before falling over again, at which point, Dad would move the line and I would now attempt the surpass the new, harder goal. Despite the lack of promise this evidenced, Dad kept at it and eventually taught me to ride a bike.

Fast forward a few years to High School, and I had taken up bicycle racing. Despite the fact that this is perhaps the most boring sport on the planet to watch, Dad was an enthusiastic participant, driving me and the other members of The Modesto Roadmen all over Northern California to race. I remember him telling me "Never play by the other guy's rules." I had no idea what he was talking about at the time, but I now realize that bicycle racing is highly strategic and that the winner of a race is often the guy who makes the other riders ride his race.

If you know anything about bicycle racing, you know that falling off your bike is a big part of it. I remember one race where I was involved in a particularly nasty crash near the finish. Back in those days, we didn't wear the hard, plastic helmets of today, but thin strips of lightly padded leather, so I was pretty shook up and disoriented by the crash. By the time we got home, I had recovered and was able to tell Mom all about it. I regaled her with tales of abrasions and lacerations and finished with "...but after all that, I still would have been able to finish if some fat old man hadn't pulled me off the course!" At this point, Dad cleared his throat and said, with remarkable calm, "I pulled you off the course, David." He had been protecting me from being struck by the riders behind. Dad was not old then, though he eventually got old, and unlike me, Dad never got fat. However, he also never gave a thought to the unpromising material he had to work with, but gave of himself without reserve so that I might develop the love of a sport which I am still enjoying today, sixty years later.


1) Posts mentioning trips to California to care for Dad:

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Billion Kilowatt Dam

Hoover Dam, an hydroelectric dam with a capacity of two billion kilowatts. Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

"High Hopes" is a song first popularized by Frank Sinatra, now a staple of childrens' television, that preaches the power of positive thinking. In the narrative of this song, a ram decides to knock down a hydroelectric dam roughly the size of Hoover Dam. Because he has "high hopes", he succeeds despite the apparent impossibility of the task; in the words of the song, "there goes a billion kilowatt dam." Being the dour and humorless person that I am, my thoughts immediately jump to an astonished and terrified ram in the spit second before he is crushed by the concrete fragments of the ruptured dam, the young children playing downstream from the dam, looking up to see the wall of water about to crush their fragile bodies into lifelessness, and the many lives that would certainly be lost as a consequence of the loss of a billion kilowatts of power from the power grid. I see the ram not as a hero, but as a terrorist.

But perhaps it is I, not the ram, who is the villain of this post. There is exactly zero chance that a ram could contribute to, much less cause, the failure of Hoover Dam; the young children in this post are at no risk from the ram.  On the other hand, they is at real risk of having me ruin a perfectly nice and life-affirming song for them. So what's my problem? It's not that I don't believe that positive thinking is a good thing. As a card carrying member of the medical research community, I am appropriately skeptical and ask for the same carefully controlled clinical trials documenting the power of positive thinking as I would for any prescription. That said, the evidence that people with a positive attitude are healthier than those who have a negative attitude has been pretty convincingly demonstrated. No less an authority than the Mayo Clinic has very specific recommendations for attempting to cultivate a positive mental attitude. Given that, does it make sense for the ram to have a positive attitude ("high hopes") and just go at the dam? And what does any of this have to do with cycling?

Where the life of the fictitious ram and my bicycling intersect is in the confusion I have had about what was realistic for me to accomplish in cycling. When I was in my cycling prime, back in the 1960s, I was not bad as a bicycle racer, but I was nothing special. I had fun, stayed with the pack in a lot of races, occasionally surprised the leaders by winning an intermediate sprint, but never became one of those leaders. I confess I was not all that diligent, however, so I don't really know what my potential was back then. Forty years later was a different story. I read books on training, followed them carefully, and prepared for a career as a randonneur1, but it was not to be. I found I was capable of one 200K brevet a year, but that was about my limit. It wasn't just my age that was holding be back, there are plenty of randonneurs in their 60s and even there 70s. It may not even have anything to do with age; is actually possible that had I attempted randonneuring in my prime I would have discovered the same limitations. What is clearly true is that when I followed training plans that allowed others to complete a 200K, 300K, 400k, 600K brevet series and then complete a 1200K grand randonnée, I would find myself exhausted after the first ride. Can I prove that I could not have done more if I had tried harder? Of course not, that is not the kind of thing that can be proven, practically speaking anyway. Do I believe it with all my heart? I do.

So what is my point? My point is, might it be possible, and if so, might it be useful and/or fun to include in training plans indicators as to what the highest level of performance you can expect in that sport, the facets of that sport in which you might be most successful, and what other sports you might want to try? Not surprisingly, I believe that such indicators are possible, useful, and fun. In fact, I feel like Joe Friel's "Cyclist's Training Bible" has most of the pieces needed to do just that, they only need to be connected. I will discuss the science and practicalities of such indicators in future posts, I wish to reserve this post for a discussion of their desirability.

So, the bottom line is, supposing I am as brevet-challenged as I claim I am. Would I be better off knowing that, and living within my limitations, or would I be better off being like the dam-hating ram, trying and failing to be the brevet rider I never can be, over and over and over again? My gut tells me the former: "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." What do you think?

1) Randonnering is a kind of cycling where completing a distance within a fixed period of time is the challenge. This ranges from completing 200 kilometers (124 miles) in 13.5 miles to completing 1200 kilometers (about 750 miles) in 90 hours, just under 4 days.