January 2009


This is specific to my life, but in the past week:

car: $400 for oil change, emissions test, safety test, change of brake pads, replace serpentine belt
car: $95 for renewing registration of car (2 yrs)
car: will soon need replacement of front brake rotors, cost will be $250 – $380, depending on whether the place I got the $380 estimate at was taking me for a ride.

bike: $7.50 for adjustment of brakes

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Yes, I will be honest, I had some big hopes when I first started bike commuting that I’d start something…that others would join me.

As the months have gone by and I’ve become increasingly annoyed by the comments from the coworkers (“what are you going to do when it rains?”, “it’s too cold for you to ride”, “be careful!”) I’ve stopped thinking it even remotely possible that any of my coworkers would start bike commuting. My big hope now is that they just keep their comments to themselves.

And yes, even their “you’re a trooper!” comments are better left unsaid.

Especially at oh cranky in the morning.

But today…today seemed different.

I had one coworker start off in the normal way, by expressing his surprise that I rode in today (despite that it was warmer than every morning last week). Yet as we talked about cold weather biking, and I shared the truly revolutionary idea that the way to deal with the cold is to dress appropriately, he seemed to start to understand. The weather outside might be (not really) frightful, but me on my bike, I’m not cold. It was a 1.5 minute conversation, just long enough for me to heat up my morning oatmeal (steel cut with almond milk and agave nectar…yum!), but at the end he said that he admired the fact that I was riding my bike through the winter. Is it true? I’m not just the freak of the office any longer, I’m doing something admirable? Amazing!

Another coworker started off the same way, and I fully admit that I went on auto pilot at that point. Plus I don’t always feel like this particular coworker and I are involved in the same conversation. It is weird, we understand every word that each other says, but sometimes I don’t feel like we were really speaking the same language. You know, there are just some people we are out of sync with, conversationally! He’s one of them for me. So as we talked about biking and how little people walk, how he used to walk all the time, and never does anymore, he related a conversation he’d had with a bike shop owner who doesn’t have a car and also rides a fair distance to and from work. My coworker voiced a vague thought about how he might be able to ride if he parked his car halfway and rode the rest of the way.

At that, when it sunk in, I perked up. I told him how I’d gotten great advice from the local bike advocacy group, that they’d actually given me a good route from my house straight to work. HE perked up at that. I gave him their website address and he emailed it to himself.

Could it be? After six months in the middle of a period where gas is cheaper than it has been in about three years, and right before the first winter storm of the season, do I have a coworker seriously considering biking partway to work?

The past few days it has been a couple degrees warmer where I work than where I live. At other times it has been 10 degrees colder. It is only 14.5 miles apart, but microclimates seem the norm in this area. A 10 degree difference between places that close is common, though not guaranteed.

As I got coffee shortly after I arrived at work, a coworker was insisting that it must be in the low teens outside. I didn’t think so, I thought it was likely in the low 20’s. That’s what it was when I left home, after all, at least that’s what it was AT home when I left. It hadn’t felt significantly colder as I got closer to work, either, especially considering I had the typical layer of damp on the outside of my fleece and the inside of my windbreaker at the end of my ride.

So I was surprised when I looked up the temp an hour or so after I got to work. 12 degrees at work. 12 degrees!

I told my coworker that he was right, that it was in the low teens. He came over to my desk, sat down and asked, “what are you doing riding your bike in 12 degree weather?”

“Sweating,” I replied.

Almost two weeks off the bike meant I had to readjust back to the bike when I got back. It took until the third day before I felt right on the bike again. Each day I’ve felt just a little stronger, despite also feeling the normal progressing tiredness.

Today I was sitting in the sweet spot again, feeling in control of things.

It has been cold – low 20’s and high teens in the mornings, not much above 30 in the afternoons – but my feet have been less cold. While I was gone some vapor barrier socks I’d ordered came in.

Vapor barrier is a weird concept at first. The point isn’t to wick moisture away, as is the case with most “tech” sports wear, rather it is designed to trap the moisture. Ick, right? But not so much. Our skin is a complicated organ, and generally doesn’t produce endless amounts of sweat. The vapor barrier, by keeping the moisture next to the skin, helps to regulate the temp, and the amount of sweat that is produced. It also keeps the insulating layers from getting damp, which is pretty much a good thing. Just like with a wet suit, the layer of water next to the skin acts as an insulator.

And it works…sort of. Or at least, up to a point.

It was under 20, just barely, the past couple mornings. What I found is that my toes didn’t get cold until the last 20 minutes of the ride, instead of the last 40. That’s good. They ended up quite chilled by the time I got to work, but not the kind of blocks of ice that had me worried that I was going to do damage. That’s good too.

But they did still get cold.

I’m closer to my solution, but not quite there yet.

Still, if it gets no colder than this for the winter, I’ve got something that is workable.

But really, I’m hoping that it will warm up. It has been a fun challenge to figure out how to dress for the cold, but it is starting to wear me thin. I’m over winter. It can go away now.

I miss maui. I miss the strangers I was so briefly friends with, I miss the air, the spirit, the way of being there.

It is beautiful, and it is warm, and it is an easy place to love.

Does that create the “aloha spirit”, or is it the people infecting each other?

I don’t know, and I guess it doesn’t matter why so much as that it is.

I tried to bring it back with me, but everything feels sharp and ill-fitting here. Conversations are stilted, people are careful to keep their distance. Drivers show a selfish disregard, an impatience.

I saw only one other biker today, but it was a holiday so that was no surprise. The other biker gave a big acknowledgement across the four lanes of traffic separating us. He carried a couple of extra tires on his bike with him, worn like hula hoops.

My curiosity was aroused. I’d love to know his story. The story of his today.

That’s the piece of aloha spirit I’ve retained. I’ll make the effort to nurture it. What was effortless on maui requires careful attention here. The congested lanes of traffic are too often in the way.

(This was written this morning, a couple hours after I’d gotten to work. The mood dissipated before my Friday appointment, but I found my venting of my mood amusing, so I’m posting it even though it is long gone!)

I am cranky today. Unreservedly cranky. When you feel like what is inside you is going to shiver and jump the boundaries of your skin, that is what life feels like today.

The sound of certain voices of my fellow office inmates is like nails on a chalkboard, nails raking over exposed oversensitive nerves. How long can the nails on chalkboard metaphor retain meaning, I wonder, now that chalkboards are mostly a relic of the past?

I drove today. It is Friday. My Friday appointment constrains and frees me. In some ways it is (or was) a secret relief, to NOT ride my bike on Fridays. Things are quicker. Or maybe it was only a secret relief in the months and weeks when Thursday’s ride wrung out the last drops of get up and go from my muscles. Or felt like it anyway.

I’m not really feeling either of those things anymore. It was with frustrated disappointment that I realized I couldn’t ride my bike to work today. It was with annoyance I found myself part of the apartness that is the metal and glass stream of commuter consciousness.

I’m a nicer less cranky person when I ride. It is for the better for those who share space with me that I ride.

It is time to find a way to end the Friday appointments.

I think I’m ready, on several levels.

Yesterday high winds were predicted. I’d made the effort a few months ago to find out from experienced cyclists what the limits were, in their opinions and experience, to the wind speeds that were generally safe to ride in. The consensus was up to about 30mph winds. Gusts above that have the potential to knock you off your bike, or take control of your bike.

So yesterday, perhaps I should have made a decision to not ride my bike. 30mph and higher were the predicted winds, with gusts of 40-50mph. I looked at the hour-by-hour forecast, and thought I’d likely be okay in the times I’d be riding. I got up in the morning, and it was dead calm. The prediction had been that it would be 15-20mph winds at that point, so I figured if they were off in the morning, they’d be off in the afternoon.

I rode in, and it was a nice pleasant easy ride. A few hours after I was at work, we could hear the wind slamming the building.

My coworkers asserted that I would not be able to ride home, that I’d have to get a ride. (Please note that none of them offered!) The smugness was likely imagined. Or was it? One coworker was driving to New Jersey. He’d recently driven from Canada in such high winds that he and his family had pulled over to the side to try to wait for it to calm down. It didn’t and they managed. But when someone said yesterday that they hoped the winds wouldn’t be too bad on his drive, he said, “Oh, it won’t be a problem. I am driving.”

Pointedly aimed at me?

Maybe I’m just too sensitive.

Maybe I’m DAMN sick of my coworkers and their attitudes.

I was busy at work, trying to get a certain amount done before a self-imposed deadline, so that my coworker and I (that is, the one I actually work with, not the ones I sit near) could get our first build out for the new project we are working on. I was concentrating pretty hard, trying to figure out a pesky issue, and my most annoying podmate started telling me, with his false sympathy, about how he had just been out for a walk and the wind had whipped dirt or something into the eyes of the other coworker he’d been walking with.

I didn’t really respond, because I was doing something tricky, and I didn’t want to screw it up, and it was taking all my concentration to do it.

“Do you have goggles?” he asked?

What the fuck? Goggles?

“I’m not going swimming,” I told him.

I left not long after, all my tasks completed, the code checked in, and my real coworker’s assurances that he was good to go and would put the build out there before he left.

“Good luck!” my coworkers chorused as they turned towards the ticking sound of me wheeling my bike towards the door.

“You too!” I responded, as I always do, no matter their little comments about the amazing feat of bicycling.

The winds were strong, it is true. But so am I. I pushed through the air, the invisible force of it feeling more like water than air. So much of those strong winds were to my head that when the stronger crosswinds came, I was actually protected by the slow speed I was traveling. Turning off the first street, where I was going slow enough to smile and say hello to the people waiting in the wind for the bus, I was suddenly released. The wind, for whatever reason, was mostly absent here. The hills were just as hard as normal, but I was thankful for a few minutes of calm air.

Pedaling in the bike lanes on the next two streets, busy and fast, I realized how little I usually pay attention, and how closely I needed to concentrate on each moment while in this wind. Glancing down at my bike computer, not yet chilled enough to stop working, I saw that I was going 6 mph. On a mostly flat stretch where I normally go at least 14mph.

I thought about a bike blogger I read, and about a recent post she made about challenges. That some people are after speed on the road, others technical skills on the mountain. Her self-challenge isn’t to ride as fast as possible or as long as possible, but as tough as possible. So when she comes across a six foot snow drift in the bike lane, she drags herself and her bike up and over it…and finds herself grinning to herself afterwards.

Granted, this is a woman who not only skied the Alaska Ultrasport (a 350 mile race in one of the harshest parts of Alaska in the winter) last year, but plans to do it again this year.

But I thought about her, and her challenges, and that she looks for tough on her rides.

For all my slight worries about the safety of riding in the winds, and for all the concentration it needed for me to adjust to the sudden shifts in wind that wanted to push me in a new direction, I was exhilarated.

Each major intersection I came to was like a marker, a flag I was planting. “I made it this far, I can make it farther,” was what I knew as I waited in triumph, battered by the winds at the stoplights.

When I made it to the quiet neighborhood that marks an approximate half way point for me, I slowed on my quick downhill when I saw a fellow bike commuter walking his bike up the hill. His face lit up as we exchanged greetings, that thrill of a bicyclist who enjoys being part of the tribe. I slowed to a stop to ask him how the winds were further on. I’m not even sure why I asked – I was heading on regardless, but maybe it was important to me to make that connection with another wind warrior. To find that buffer from the others, someone who I know knows what it feels like to be waiting with dedicated concentration for the next gust of wind that wants to push you towards the cars, the cars who remain ignorant of the danger, and drive just as close and just as (illegally) fast.

And so we talked, we talked about the wind and the places we ride to work. Our commuting distances are similar, his slightly longer. He gave me his advice for riding in the wind, which is the simple truth that makes most all momentum safer – go slower. I’d found this to be true, as I battled the headwinds on my journey. He told me how to make those chemical hand warmers last longer. I don’t plan on using them, though he swore by them, other than for emergencies.

He had an old basic bike. I didn’t think to look closely at it, but I think his was a single speed. For all I know it was a fixie. We didn’t talk about components, though, we talked about riding. Him on his singlespeed and me on my triple ring touring bike, we still had more in common than not.

“The winds are never a problem,” he assured me, “but on freezing days be careful of black ice.”

I didn’t ask how long he’d been bike commuting. I think a long time. We talked for five or ten minutes, until I started to feel chilled.

“I’d better go,” I told him, “I have to warm up again.”

We wished each other a happy new year.

I pushed through the air for my final half of my commute. It was harder sometimes than others, but I felt in control. The chill I’d let arrive during my conversation with my new friend, Dave, dissipated a mile or so down the road.

My legs feel that aching tiredness that I’d forgotten, but which used to be the norm after my rides.

I grow stronger.

I love biking to work.

The challenge met, the conversation with Dave, the aching muscles were both my reward and my celebration.

I couldn’t have had a more fitting bike ride on the last day of the year had I planned it. It was, I decided, all the end of year celebration I needed. I’ve never liked New Year’s Eve parties. Too many expectations, too little fun.

I’m not as good at reflecting and distilling the lessons I’ve learned as Heather is, but I’ve definitely learned a lot about myself this past year. And I’m ever more comfortable with who I am as opposed to who I thought I was or who others think I am.

And so it was with a comfortably typical disregard for the “special” day that I crawled into bed after feasting on chips and salsa, and enjoyed the snuggly warmth easing my muscles. Tempest perched on my chest, and I read about the Monère.

The new year rung itself in, unnoticed.