Monday, March 23, 2015

To BART and Back

The Pittsburg stop of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. The BART sign (with the "ba" logo) is on the right side of the picture, a train extends from that sign to the left, and the station itself extends from the center of the picture to the left.

Goals are wonderful things, even if they are pointless. They inspire me and give me enthusiasm and energy. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the public transportation system is named BART, an acronym for Bay Area Rapid Transit. My parents' house in Brentwood is at the outer limits of the Bay Area, past the last BART stop. Bicycles are allowed on BART trains, and I had always wondered if it would be practical to bicycle from the last BART station in Pittsburg, California, to my parents' house in Brentwood. Mom is no longer with us and Dad has moved to an assisted living facility, but he still owns the house and that is where I stay when I go to California to help with his care, as I did again last week. I have previously blogged about the Sand Creek Trail and the de Anza trail, and how the closing of a gap in the de Anza trail finally allowed me to bicycle from Brentwood to Pittsburg. The branch of the trail I took did not allow me to make it all the way to the BART station but examination of maps upon my return gave me an idea for a branch that might. Last week, I was able to explore that branch, made it to the Pittsburg BART station, resulting in the 45 mile ride mapped below:

Click on map to see a larger version

So, in theory, I could bring a bicycle on the airplane, reassemble it at the Oakland Airport, take it with me on BART, getting off at the end of the line in Pittsburg, and then bicycle to Dad's house. Demonstrating the feasibility of the last leg of that plan gave me a lot of motivation and a very fun ride but it is not a plan I am likely to execute. And, having had the fun of proving the point, I have to say that the trail through Pittsburg in not very attractive. It is very urban with not much scenery, there is a lot of broken glass on the trail, it has a lot of grade crossings, and the last and probably the least of my objections is that it has a bizarre geography. I guess that part of California is highly gullied and that means that the trail contains a large number of very steep downhills immediately followed by very steep uphills. The total elevation change is not much, maybe 20 or 30 feet, but I cannot overstate the steepness. The change from downhill to uphill at the bottom is so acute that I found it difficult to execute the usual strategy of using the speed gained on the downhill to make it most of the way up the next hill, to do so felt like riding over a rather nasty pothole at the bottom. As a result, I tended to brake on the downhill, leaving me with little momentum and a brief but bitter struggle to get up the other side. Normally, I love hills, but these were no fun at all. Somehow, my photographs do a terrible job of capturing hills, but here is my best effort:

I was feeling strong on this ride, so I kept up a pretty brisk pace. That plus the 45 miles, more than I have been riding recently, left me pretty tired so I took the next day off. Even so, I was looking for a shorter (not to mention a prettier) ride the day after that, so I rode the Marsh Creek and Big Break trails, about 22 miles out and back. As I had remembered, I found it to be a much nicer ride! I did a little exploring and stopped off at Big Break Regional Shoreline, a park I had ridden by many times but never visited, and I was entranced! To quote the park's website, "Big Break Regional Shoreline is a part of the great 1150-square-mile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The water flowing past Big Break through the Sacramento and San Joaquin-the State's two greatest rivers-drains half of California and creates the largest estuarine environment on the Pacific coast." The park gets its name from a break in the levies which occurred in 1928 and which flooded a large asparagus farm, now a permanent bay off the San Joaquin river and site of this park. The nicest thing about the park is that it provides a place to experience the delta, including a pier that can be used both for fishing or for simply soaking in the delta experience:

A particularly nice feature of the park is an interactive map of the delta, made out of concrete and set into the ground. Water can be poured onto the map to show how water flows in the delta. I have added a red arrow to the following picture to indicate the location of the park; San Francisco Bay is off of the lower right corner of this picture:

I am honestly surprised that I ended up writing yet another blog post about trails near my dad's house. Upon reflection, I think the reason I did so is that finding and using these trails was neither easy, obvious, nor quick. Because I learned about these trails over many rides, they featured featured in several blog posts. A summary of what I have learned is that some trails are dramatically nicer than others, these trails can take you to unexpected places, and finding one's way on these trails is not trivial. I am pretty sure that there are people out there who would appreciate the information I have accumulated, but I am also sure that the vast majority of these people will never see this blog. Besides, a blog post is not the best format for sharing this kind of information. My subjective impressions of which trails are nicer or less nice come across fine, but what doesn't fit is a list of confusing intersections, ways around gaps, and a list of trails and where they do (and do not) go. I would have loved to have this information when I started using these trails, and I searched for it diligently but without success. It's not that there is nothing out there, but that nothing out there was quite what I was looking for. I have contributed in a small way to making this situation better by submitting corrections to the bike route information on Google Maps, but I feel like I would like to do more. This is something I plan to think about going forward. If I have any inspirations, I will share them here. Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Bikes I Want

This cartoon, from the bikeretrogrouch blog, illustrates a modern cyclist on the right and a "retrogrouch", a cyclist who prefers older technology, on the left. This conflict between wanting the best that the modern cycling world has to offer on the one hand yet still being in love with the cycling technology of my youth on the other, is one of the themes of this post.

Almost three years ago, I posted a description of every bicycle I have owned. I confess, however, that this is only a small fraction of the bicycles I would like to own, the topic of this post. Here is my wish-list of bikes I would like to acquire:

Trek's $370 entry level mountain bike

A Mountain Bike. So what is the deal with mountain bikes? They had yet to be invented during my first cycling career (1963-1971) so when I rejoined cycling in 2008, I didn't know what to make of them. (Coincidentally, one of the inventors of the mountain bike, Gary Fisher, was a racing companion of mine; little did I know what future lay in store for him.) So one reason I want one is just to try to understand the breed. Another reason is to get away from traffic. Some of my friends from my first cycling career have all but abandoned road biking for mountain biking for just that reason. There is a strong argument that mountain biking is safer than road biking because of the lack of cars. Finally, a "mountain" bike is not just for the mountains (which is a good thing, since there are no mountains anywhere near Houston.) In the first place, they probably should be named "trail" bikes; they are meant for riding on dirt roads and hiking paths, whatever the geography. In the second place, the same features that make mountain bikes good on dirt roads makes them good for deteriorating urban streets; the Houston Bike Club recommends mountain bikes for their urban rides.

Having said all that, it is not clear I would get much use out of a mountain bike. In a recent post, I detailed how I tend to ride the same routes over and over. If I am not interested in getting in my car and driving to more interesting routes on my road bike, what makes me think I would be willing to drive a mountain bike to the trails on which I could use it? Also, it is unclear how much additional functionality a mountain bike would give me. Part of the reason my wife and I chose our Surly Crosscheck's is their versatility; they have wider tires and are generally ruggeder than a typical road bike, making them quite satisfactory for the mean streets of Houston, and even for a good quality dirt road.

Still, maybe if I signed up for mountain biking lessons, that would give me the inspiration I would need to extend my cycling options in fun new directions.

Trek's top of the line Domane Road Bike. This is their "endurance" fast bike, used in races like Paris-Roubaix, where comfort is a factor. This bike sells for $7,600.

A Fast Bike. Isn't my Bianchi Specialissima my fast bike? Not really. It is faster than my Surly, but not as fast as a good, modern road bike. When my Bianchi was manufactured, it was as fast as any bike being ridden in the 1960 Tour de France, but bicycle technology has moved on. That said, I am in a bit of a quandary as to what it is I want to buy. A full-on carbon fiber bike, like a Trek Domane ($7,600) or a Bianchi Infinito ($4,600)? I confess to a prejudice against carbon fiber as a frame or fork material, but perhaps I need to get with the times. Neither Trek nor Bianchi publish bicycle weights so I am going to assume these bikes weigh in at the minimum weight allowed by UCI or USA Cycling, 15 lbs. Obviously, if one considers bicycle + luggage + rider, the bike weight is almost irrelevant, but there is something inspiring about picking up your bike and having it feel light as a feather.

This is Grant Pederson's all steel answer to the bikes like the Trek Domane. When comparably equipped, it sells for about the same amount of money. It weighs a few pounds more. Which of the two bikes is faster is perhaps open to debate, though conventional wisdom would probably bet on the Trek.

If I stay true to my retrogrouch tradition, I might take the advice of Grant Peterson and purchase his 18 lb all-steel Rodeo, Grant's self-titled "answer to speedy carbon road bikes" ($5,400.) Besides being not all that light, Grant has made other design decisions (e.g. fatter tires) that might not be entirely consistent with speed, or at least the perception of speed. Grant is a strong proponent of conservative design and functionality. Normally, I would be full on board with that, but because I am buying this specifically as a fast bike, his philosophy might not, in this case, be as attractive. Surly has an equivalent bike, its Pacer, but it seems that would be even heavier and certainly not any faster. There are other vendors who sell steel-framed road bikes that are so light that they come in below the 15 lb UCI limit. These are based on the latest, extremely light steel tubing, and a custom frame builder, such as Waterford Precision Cycles, can use these to build a truly fast bike with an exceptionally light frame to please even the most grouchy of the retrogrouches. Such bikes do not come cheap, however.

One fast option that used to be available is an aluminum bike. Although it is still possible to purchase fast, light road bikes with aluminum frames, as best I can tell, all now come with a carbon fork, a deal killer unless I overcome my aversion to carbon, at which point, why not go full carbon?

I confess to spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about and researching a "fast bike", but I think the fun may be more in the dreaming than the riding, at least for now. One game I am playing with myself is to say that if I can loose my 40 pounds of extra body weight, then I will reward myself with a new fast, light bike. That might be the best use of such a bike imaginable (inspiration), but will mean that I will not be buying it tomorrow.

Surly's Travelers Check is available only as a frame. I would have West End Cycles, my LBS of choice, build it up as a complete bike. The silver lumps at the top and the bottom of the frame, near the seat tube, are where the bicycle comes apart so that it can be put into a regulation-sized suitcase for air travel.

A Travel Bike. At this point, travel bikes are the most likely next purchases for my wife and I. The motivation to act now is that Surly, after a long lapse, is once again offering the "Travelers Check", a version of our beloved Surly Crosschecks, but with the S&S couplers which allow the bike to be taken apart and put into a regulation-sized suitcase for checking onto an airline flight. Financially, this almost certainly doesn't make sense. In the first place, these new bikes will have substantial overlap in function with our existing bikes. Paying back the full purchase price of these new bikes in bike shipping fees would take many more years than we have left to live. Even if we sold our existing bikes for a good price, the extra cost of the S&S couplers, the special suitcases for packing the bikes, and other necessary paraphernalia would all by itself take many years to recoup in saved shipping fees. The reason we are interested in these bikes has to do with psychological factors. I find the process of shipping a normal bike stressful, and as a result, tend to not travel as much as I would like. In addition, transporting the packed bike to the airport is awkward. I am hoping that if I could pack the bikes up myself in normal sized suitcases, the stress of travel will be less and we will travel and enjoy biking more.

A Tandem. For years, I begged my wife to consider a tandem. For years, she refused to consider it. Lately, however, she is more open to the idea. I originally wanted a tandem just because I thought they were cool, but more recently, it has occurred to both my wife and I that on a tandem, there would be rides we could do together than would not be possible if each of us were on single bikes. The reason is that I am a stronger rider and could "loan" her some of my strength, to go longer distances and to make it up steeper hills. A number of the couples who ride with my bike club, the Houston Randonneurs, ride tandems. On my last brevet, I fell in love with Co-Motion Mocha, available from a local dealer who specializes in tandems, the House of Tandems.

One issue we struggled with in selecting a tandem is how to have it configured. At one extreme, we would purchase it with S&S couplers, an internal hub gear (Rohloff), and belt drive at significantly increased cost or alternatively, a basic tandem for much less money. The advantage of the former is that it makes it possible to take our tandem on trips. The disadvantage is that it makes it much more expensive and possibly more difficult to maintain. Also, when we thought about our one guided bike tour, we realized that a key part of that trip was the ability of the guides to transport bikes on the roof of their van. Would they have been able to transport a tandem?

My wife would have to participate in the purchase of any tandem and she is very busy at work right now, so the purchase of any tandem is probably not imminent.

The picture of this randonneuse is from Chris Richards, linked to from the Boulder Bicycle Shop website

A True Randonneuse. Purchasing a bike specifically designed for randonneuring, a randonneuse, was high on my priority list a couple of years ago. However, with the growing realization of my limitations as a randonneur and with the modifications I have made to my Surly Crosscheck to make it more suitable for randonneuring, my enthusiasm for a dedicated randonneuse is waining. Nonetheless, it is still something I think about.

Picture from

A 1960's Peugeot PX10. Although my Bianchi Specialissima is not my dream fast bike anymore, it still brings back wonderful memories. As I have previously blogged, a Peugeot PX10 was my bike during the peak of by first cycling career, and I miss this bike very much. I am sure my actual bike is long gone, I don't even know if I could identify it if I found it, but a similar bike from about the same era would make me very happy.

Catalogue scan from:

A 1960's Schwinn Varsity. My first 10-speed was a Schwinn Continental, an upgraded version of the iconic Schwinn Varsity. I did not love that bike the way I loved my PX10, but it was an important part of my history. Besides, that era of Schwinn 10 speeds is of great historic significance and employs some very unique (if questionable) technology. In this case, I am less motivated to reclaim the actual bike I had than to own a piece of this history, and the Varsity is a more canonical representative than the Continental. Similarly, I might want to own a Super Sport from that era, a very different kind of technology employed by Schwinn for this line of bikes. (Modern day Schwinn bicycles have no connection whatsoever with the Schwinns described here. They are not even a single brand, the name is licensed by whoever whats to pay for it.)

A Replacement for my 3 Speed. My commuter bike is an old department store three speed a friend gave me when he moved. It is truly awful. The brakes don't work well. The frame is poorly made and out of alignment. The three speed hub is failing. It makes no sense to repair any of this as there is no part of this bike which works correctly. I would love to have a commuter bike that looked cheap, ugly, and useless so it is less likely to be stolen but which rides well. It would also be nice if it wasn't tremendously valuable, so that if it were stolen, it would not break my heart. There are a couple of ways I could go with this. One direction is to use this as an opportunity to add to my bicycle museum; to get something like an old Raleigh 3 speed or an old Schwinn 3 speed. Another way to go is to kill two birds with one stone, to purchase an inexpensive mountain bike which could also double as a commuter.

Picture from Bianchi's website

A Fixie. A few years ago, fixed gear bicycles (which have but a single speed and do not coast, the pedals turn all the time) were all the rage; "fixies" and hipsters went together like peas and carrots. Although this fashion has wained, fixies remain popular among serious cyclists for their many virtues. In fact, fixies are not a new thing. When I was "cycling in the 60's", fixies were recommended as good training bikes which helped improve one's rhythm; they were especially popular among racing cyclists in England. I briefly owned one in college. For all these reasons, I would love to have a fixie in my garage to ride when the mood struck me. An example of such is the Bianchi Pista, still available, still steel, still reasonably priced at $800. An interesting thought: perhaps an $800 fixie could slate my lust for an $8,000 fast bike, at least temporarily. The place I am most likely to want a fast bike is on the Rice Track, and there ain't nothing faster than a fixie on that venue!


The reason I was able to retire at age 62 is that I am frugal by nature. In fact, I am frugal to a fault. I hate to buy things and as a result, I even put off buying things that I really need or that would make me very happy. Thus, I do not anticipate acquiring the bikes describe above very quickly. That said, both the entry level mountain bike and the fixie described above are relatively inexpensive and quite versatile. Maybe I should get outside my comfort zone and give my LBS some business. In any case, it is fun to dream.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Bayou Extensions

A new stretch of trail along Houston's White Oak Bayou, not yet ready for cyclists.
Things are hopping in the world of Houston Cycling. About a year and a half ago, our1 Mayor issued a Complete Streets executive order. This means that when the city plans street upgrades and repairs, the needs of pedestrians and cyclists are taken into account, not just motor vehicle users. Houston has just begun a major revision to its bicycle master plan. Houston's main bicycle advocacy organization, Bike Houston, has new leadership and has become much more active. All of this is not just talk, contruction of new cycling infrastructure is everywhere. In this post, I will discuss progress on construction affecting two of my most frequent rides, Braes Bayou and White Oak Bayou.

Braes Bayou

The third bike ride I did after I restarted cycling in 2008 was on the Braes Bayou Multi-Use trail. Until a few months ago, the trail ended at its West end at Gessner Road. The west end of that trail is now being extended. The extension past Gessner Road is a nice underpass, avoiding the necessity to deal with the heavy traffic on Gessner:

Sadly, a short distance later, there is an unfortunate grade crossing at South Braeswood Boulevard. Traffic is heavy and visibility is less than ideal, leading to a difficult crossing. I have to assume that the City of Houston was simply unable to engineer anything better. I predict that many users of this trail will choose to turn around at this point rather than risk the South Braeswood Crossing. The trail is currently closed at this point, here is a photograph showing both the grade crossing with traffic and the cable blocking further progress down the new trail:

Because I was born to be wild, and because I am curious, I fought the law by riding my bike around the barrier to explore what has been accomplished so far on the new trail. (Tracks in the mud next to the barrier suggest I am not the only Houston cyclist with anarchistic tendencies.) So far, the trail has been extended west by about a mile and a half, with apparently more to come. Among the trail features are one of the attractive, steel bridges that are becoming a common feature of Houston multi-use trails, and side paths into adjacent neighborhoods:

The main trail goes forward on the path to the left, crosses over the dark colored bridge, and continues forward in the same direction. The trails branching off to the left and coming back in the opposite direction on the other side of the bayou to the right represent access trails for the adjacent neighborhoods.

White Oak Bayou

I have previously opined that the extension to the Braes Bayou trail, described above, is a bit underwhelming, in that it adds little other than a few extra miles. The same cannot be said for the latest extension to the White Oak Bayou trail. Usually, I am not a big fan of urban rails to trails projects because they involve a lot of grade crossings, resulting in a rather interrupted riding experience. The current extension to the White Oak Bayou trail is an enormous exception to that generalization. In this case, use of an existing rail route eliminates two of the busiest crossings on the way to the White Oak Bayou trail; Shepard Drive and Durham Drive. Because these roads are so heavily traversed, overpasses were built on these roads over the railroad tracks so that passing trains would not disrupt traffic. Now that this railroad line has been abandoned, these same overpasses mean that the bike trail passes uninterrupted, under these busy streets.

I first explored the potential of this route on a ride organized by the Houston Parks Board back in 2013. At that time, the only way to cross White Oaks Bayou was over an abandon railroad bridge, made unsafe by the ravages of time and vandalism:

Being the timid person I am, I ended up walking my bike over this bridge. After determining that this bridge was unsalvageable, the City of Houston demolished it and replaced it with this attractive, modern bridge:

This trail extension is not yet complete, as noted in the photo at the top of this post. Although the trail extends the existing MKT trail by taking it across the White Oak Bayou thus connecting it to a new set of neighborhoods, it does not yet allow me to get to the current White Oak Bayou trail without crossing Shepard and Durham. The dotted line on the map below shows what remains to be completed to realize the potential of this extension:

The current White Oak Bayou trail starts at the upper left corner of the above map, and continues for a gorgeous 7.5 miles past the edge of the map. Currently, I access this trail via the red route along the top of the map, crossing Shepard and Durham best I can. The new trail extension is shown in red along the bottom of the map. The missing link is the dotted red line weaving more or less parallel to the left side of the map.

Fighting the infamously aggressive Houston drivers is something I find somewhat difficult and that my wife finds extremely difficult, and we very much appreciate being able to bicycle on Houston's traffic free multi-use trails. Thus, we eagerly await each trail extension that lets us ride on more trails and fewer streets. Thanks to the City of Houston for all the progress to date!

1) I actually do not live in the City of Houston. I live in the City of West University Place, a small community completely contained within the City of Houston. However, my opportunities as a cyclist are affected almost entirely by Houston rather than WestU, so on this blog, I write as an Houstonian.