Bright Lights, Dark City

Spring forward, fall back. When you remembered to turn back your clocks did you remember to clip on your bike lights? Now that we’re back on Standard Time, sunset is just after 5:00 pm and it’s fully dark by 5:30. If you haven’t already turned on your bikes lights for your evening commute you almost certainly will this week.

When I first started bike commuting to work years ago, the end of Daylight Saving Time drove me off the bike, but not anymore. I now have bike lights that keep me visible to others, and keep the trail or street visible to me. Like most things, feeling comfortable and safe was a matter of having the right equipment.

I’ve gathered quite a number of lights over the years and learned through trial and error what works for me, which may not be what’s best for you. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Putting Your Best Light Forward
A white front light keeps you visible to oncoming vehicle and bike traffic as well as to people walking. To ride legally after dark, your front light must be visible from the front and side at 300 feet away, which is about one city block or five houses away. A basic $20-$30 light with fresh batteries will meet this legal standard and is good enough if you’ll be riding on slower-speed city streets with street lights. Most of these lights operate on standard batteries, but some are rechargeable through a USB connection.

If your routes take you on unlit trails or poorly-lit streets you’ll do well to invest in a more powerful light rated at 150 lumens or greater. Pricing for these lights starts at about $60 and virtually all feature rechargeable batteries. You’ll also want a powerful light if you’ll be riding on roads with speed limits of 35 or greater. At higher speeds, drivers need to see you from further away so they have enough time to react to you.

Aimed for Success
Front lights can be mounted on your bike’s helmet, handlebar or front fork. Helmet lights let you see around corners better and let you look down at your bike if something malfunctions. Handlebar or front fork lights work better in fog and don’t add extra weight to your head, which can be an issue for the more powerful lights which have heavier batteries.

In either case, make sure your front light is pointed at the roadway and not blinding oncoming traffic. That’s especially important for helmet lights, which are harder to adjust and mounted higher, and even more important when you’re using powerful lights. Blinding drivers doesn’t make you or anyone else any safer.

Brightening up the Rear
By law, your bike only needs a red reflector visible from 500 feet to the rear, but most riders use red lights, not just reflectors, for higher visibility. Like the front lights, more expensive rear lights are generally brighter, but the range is not as dramatic. Rear lights can be mounted on the bike or clipped to a rider’s backpack or pannier. Common bike mount locations are the seat post, the frame of the bike near the rear wheel (seat stay), or on the back of a rear rack. If you mount it on the bike, make sure any gear you carry or any clothing you wear doesn’t block the view.

To Blink or Not to Blink
Most bike lights offer both steady and blinking options. I set mine to blinking as the sun starts to go down and then switch to steady at dusk. I find a steady front light helps me see the road ahead better so I can avoid potholes and other obstacles. Steady lights also help other road users gauge your distance from them better than flashing lights. Also, super-bright flashing lights can be very distracting to drivers, other bicyclists and people walking. One day a man walking by actually thanked me for not setting my bright front light to flashing.

I do set my lights to flashing after dark in areas with a lot of other lighting distractions or when it’s raining at night. Or sometimes I set a smaller light to flash and my bigger main light to steady.

Looking for the Bright Side
Being visible from the side is often overlooked. The law only requires white reflectors on the wheels or tires with reflective sidewalls. I have both, but also have amber spoke lights for extra visibility. I’m a lot more comfortable approaching or rolling through an intersection knowing I’m visible from all directions, whether or not there’s a headlight hitting my wheels at the right angle.

Back it Up for the Unexpected
Don’t get left in the dark when your front light loses its charge or your rear light falls off your bike mid-ride. It’s worth buying and carrying a second pair of lights. One easy way is to mount an inexpensive “be seen” front light to your helmet and mount a more powerful one on your handlebars. The same works for the rear: mount a more powerful rear light on your bike, but clip an less expensive blinkie to your bag or helmet.

Are you and your bikes ready for this week’s early sunsets? What are your go-to night riding accessories?

Bike Lights Road

Categories: Gear Talk | Leave a comment

What Does 3 Feet for Safety Mean?

Last month Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 1371, a three foot passing bill that requires drivers to pass bikes with three feet or greater clearance. The bill has had some people wondering what it means for them. The good news is that for the overwhelming majority of drivers, this law doesn’t require any changes in their driving behavior.

In my experience riding my bike around Silicon Valley on a daily basis, most drivers pass me safely, giving me more than 3 feet clearance. Safe drivers know that passing anything on the roadway closer than three feet, whether it’s someone standing on the sidewalk, a parked car, or even a lamp post, is risky if their car is moving faster than a crawl. And if what they’re passing is moving too, like another car or someone on a bike, safe drivers allow even more room. Both drivers and bicyclists often make small adjustments to maneuver around potholes, avoid people stepping out of cars, or react to other unexpected road conditions. A bigger buffer keeps everyone safer.

So what exactly are the provisions of the bill? The bill enacts the Three Feet for Safety Act, which prohibits the drivers from passing bicycles moving in the same direction “at a distance of less than 3 feet between any part of the motor vehicle and any part of the bicycle or its operator.” That means three feet between the car’s rear view mirror, not the body of the car, and the bicycle’s handlebars or rider’s elbow.

The act also requires drivers to pass “at a safe distance that does not interfere with the safe operation of the overtaken bicycle, having due regard for the size and speed of the motor vehicle and the bicycle, traffic conditions, weather, and the surface and width of the highway.” In other words, large trucks traveling at high speeds that could create a dangerous draft would be required to give more clearance than a small car at lower speeds that doesn’t create a wind draft.

If three feet clearance is not possible due to traffic or roadway conditions, the act allows the vehicle to pass closer if the driver slows to a speed that is “reasonable and prudent” and doesn’t “endanger the safety of the operator of the bicycle” as described above.

As a driver, how do you know how far three feet is? It’s about how much room you need between parked cars to exit yours without hitting the other car. In other words, roughly a car door’s width.

Another thing the Three Feet for Safety Act does is clarify when a lane is too narrow for a car and a bike to travel safely in the same lane. This is important because bicyclists are not required to ride on the right-hand side of the road when a lane is too narrow, per CVC 20122. If the right lane is “too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane” then people may ride their bikes in the middle of the lane to ensure that drivers change lanes to pass instead of passing too closely in the same lane.

There are streets in Mountain View where there are parked cars on the right and the lane is not wide enough to allow three feet of “door zone” clearance between the parked car and the bicyclist, plus three feet between the bicyclist and a passing vehicle. That’s why you’ll sometimes see people riding in the middle of the lane, especially on the narrow streets downtown. It’s perfectly legal for narrow lanes, and it discourages drivers from unsafely squeezing past.

But once again, the vast majority of drivers pass safely because they know the potential for injury. The Three Feet for Safety Act just spells it out for the dangerous few who don’t.

Will the Three Feet for Safety Act change how you drive or ride a bike? Will it make you feel safer riding a bike? Will it change your behavior when you drive?

Categories: Bike Safety | Leave a comment

Family Bikes: The Minivans of Bicycles

In the morning it’s school or day care drop-off. In the afternoon it’s pick-up then soccer practice, swim lessons or dance class. On the way or in between there’s shopping for groceries or craft supplies for school projects. For most, being a parent means lots of driving around town and waiting in long lines of cars. But in our area more and more parents are hopping on bikes instead of into minivans and SUVs for their “mom’s taxi” trips, especially now that there are more options for carrying kids and gear on bikes.

For the past 30 years, parents have had two basic options: mount a child seat on a rack over their bike’s rear wheel or drag a trailer behind it. More recently, single-wheeled trail-a-bikes that let a school-aged child pedal along have appeared, and now there are small child seats that mount just behind the handlebars too. These are all easy, relatively inexpensive options for converting a standard bike into a kid-hauling machine.

But for more kids and bigger loads, some local families have graduated to bikes that are designed from the wheels up for the job. Cargo and family bikes come in all shapes and sizes, each with advantages and disadvantages. Here are three basic types that local parents are piloting.

Long-Tail Bikes
Cherie lives with her husband and two children in Mountain View’s Jackson Park neighborhood. When her kids were toddlers she hooked a trailer to the back of her mountain bike took them with her on errands and to their favorite playgrounds all over town. But as they kids got heavier, she found it tougher to stay balanced starting and stopping and she didn’t have as much room for gear as she needed. So Cherie bought a long-tail Xtracycle family bike.

Long-tail bikes look like mountain bikes where someone grabbed the rear wheel and stretched the frame back. This longer wheelbase means there’s more space for a longer rear rack and larger panniers (saddle bags). For Cherie, that means room for up to three giggling kids and four oversized bags of groceries. And if her seven-year-old daughter gets too tired to ride her own bike mid-ride, Cherie can secure the front wheel of her daughter’s bike in a pannier and drag the bike behind while her daughter catches a ride on the rear rack.

Bucket Bikes

Even before her son started kindergarten in Dublin in the East Bay, Kristi had heard enough horror stories about long lines at school drop-off to push her to look for better options than driving. Walking the mile to school wasn’t a problem for her, but would have been a challenge for her son and his 2-year-old brother. She considered and rejected pulling a wagon due to the hills, and she didn’t think a stroller was a dignified way for her little man to roll up to school. After searching family bike options, Kristi went with a Madsen bucket bike.

Bucket bikes have longer wheelbases like long-tail bikes, but instead of a rear rack, they have a cargo bucket in the back, usually with a bench seat and room for extra gear. Even though she hadn’t ridden in years, Kristi found the bike comfortable immediately, making it easy to get started. Her sons love being in the fresh air riding in her Madsen, and she loves pedaling straight to the school entrance and skipping the queue of cars, as well as doing errands after work. She recently added an electric-assist motor so she can climb some of the steeper hills easier.

Box Bikes
If you’re in San Carlos and see a mother pedaling two towhead toddlers in a Dutch-style bakfiets, or box bike, it’s probably Tyra. Tyra’s husband was itching to buy this classic cargo bike, but until they moved to London she had no interest. After dragging kids and a stroller on buses and on the underground to get around the city, Tyra decided to give a bakfiets a chance. She loved it so much they shipped it here when they moved back to the US.

Dutch-style box bikes have a distinctive low-riding box in front of the bike rider instead of the rear like the bucket bikes. While there are three-wheeled models available, Tyra chose a classic two-wheeler from because it rides more like a standard bike. She likes having her kids in front where it’s easy to keep an eye on them and to chat. Her also has a rain cover that keeps her kids completely dry and comfortable on wet days. She was the only one who had to brave London’s infamous drizzle.

Replacing a Second Car
Tyra can get almost anywhere within 2-3 miles of her home in downtown San Carlos as easily on the bakfiets as in a car. That means she and her husband are able to share a single family car. Ditto for Cherie and Kristi. Having a family bike saves them the expense of buying and maintaining two cars. It also means they have more space in their garages for more bikes. As Kristi explained, family bikes can become an obsession.

Talk to Other Parents
These three bikes are just a taste of the many family bike options available. You’ll find long-tail bikes at several local shops, and A Street Bike Named Desire in Palo Alto sells European box bikes. But the best way to find one that works for you is to talk to parents, both in person and online, about their experiences. One great opportunity is Kidical Mass, a ride for kids and families on Saturday, October 19 that rolls from Eagle Park in Mountain View at 10am. There will be a wide variety of bikes on hand, and you can get straight advice from parents who use them day in and day out.

Kidical Mass Ride:
Family Bike Photos by Bike Fun:


Categories: Gear Talk | Leave a comment

Dressing Up on the Bike, Halloween Style

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the Mountain View Voice online edition on October 3, 2013.

Growing up, my favorite thing about Halloween wasn’t the candy, it was the costumes. My sisters and I would come up with ideas, then dig into our closets and boxes of craft materials to see what we could fashion into something scary or pretty or goofy. I recall that a lot of Mom’s old dresses, cardboard, glitter, aluminum foil and duct tape were involved.

You’d think I would have outgrown it, but I still love Halloween and plotting my costume each year. As luck would have it, there’s no shortage of costumed bike events in our area. But that adds a whole new dimension: not just what to wear, but what to wear comfortably and safely on the bike.

Here are some things I always consider when working out a bike costume.

Ladies, Think Sexy
Not because looking sexy is required or even appropriate for most places, but because costumes labeled as “sexy” usually have shorter skirts that won’t get caught in your spokes. Most also have full or knit skirts that give you full range of motion for pedaling. As for modesty, that’s what bike shorts, tights and close fitting knit tops are for. Wear them under your costume and even your conservative auntie can’t complain.

Keep Your Head About It
Costumes that rely on hats or wigs to deliver the impact can be problematic, especially with a helmet. If you haven’t noticed, helmets are larger than your head, so you may have to slit that wig or precariously perch that hat on your helmet. I’ve had success attaching smaller items to the helmet, like cat ears, halos and wreaths. I also ripped apart a cheap gladiator helmet and reconstructed it on my helmet. Your best friends for helmet embellishment: zip ties, elastic stretch cord and double sided foam mounting tape.

Stay Grounded
Great costumes are “head to toe”. But if you’re headed to the coast to buy a pumpkin with a local mountain bike club, doing an all-day charity ride, or racing cyclocross at the annual costume race, your costume will likely include cycling shoes. Some commercial costumes, like my Batgirl costume, come with shoe covers that work just fine. If you’re doing a slower-paced urban ride like San Jose Bike Party, there’s more leeway with the shoes, so go ahead with the heavy boots or stilettos.

Accessorize (with care)
If the costume relies on a prop, make sure it works on the bike. The last thing you want is to be taken down by your own sword. While capes were banned for superheroes in The Incredibles, I found they worked ok even for a cyclocross race, so long as I did my running remounts into the wind.

Take One for the Team
If you’re lucky enough to convince a friend or family member to join you in a tandem team costume, make sure the captain’s wings, cape, sword or tail aren’t a slap in the face of the stoker.

Keep Cool, Stay Warm
As with all other outdoor activities, prepare for changes in the weather. Make sure your costume is not a sweat suit and that dressing to stay warm doesn’t ruin the look. How to do this: wicking base layers, bike-specific arm warmers, and leggings over bike shorts work as well for bike costumes just as they do with lycra bike wear.

What tips do you have for others preparing costumes for bike events? What was your a favorite costume?

San Jose Bike Party El Dia de los Muertos Ride Friday October 18, 8:00 pm
Silicon Valley Mountain Bikers Pumpkin Ride Saturday October 26, 10:00 am
Surf City Cyclocross Costume Race Sunday October 27, 11:30 am

Costume Bike

Photo by Jackie Link from Cinderella Century.

Categories: Style & Fashion | Leave a comment

A Couple’s Guide to Pedaling in Tandem

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the Mountain View Voice online edition on September 22, 2013.

You’ve probably seen that unhappy couple on the bike path or on the road. They start off together and within seconds, one partner has zoomed ahead while the other struggles to keep up or gets left far behind. It doesn’t have to be that way. On a two-person tandem bicycle, a couple that rides at different speeds on individual bikes can stay together and chat easily for the whole ride.

Riding a tandem requires teamwork, though. The front rider (captain) does all the steering and braking, which means earning and keeping the trust of the rear rider (stoker). For most tandem bikes, the riders must pedal in synch at the same rate, which means compromise. When teamwork fails, the two-wheeled romance of a tandem can turn sour, earning tandems the harsh nickname “divorce machines.” A popular adage goes “Whichever way your relationship is going, a tandem will get you there faster.” How a couple rides a tandem together both reflects and intensifies their relationship, for better or for worse.

My husband and I bought a tandem as a wedding gift to ourselves. Our plan to ride it away from our wedding was far from unique, although our route for the post-wedding procession was a long twisty descent down Mt Hamilton. An epic windstorm kept us from riding that day, but we do take the big beast out from time to time and have mastered the necessary skills: how to start without wobbling, how to turn at slow speeds, how to stand on the bike to get over a rise, and most importantly, how to communicate and work effectively as a team. Well, 97% of the time anyway.

The usual advice on tandem success tells the stoker to “trust the captain” and tells the captain that “the stoker is always right.” To me, that advice falls short. The truth is that it’s all about consideration. The captain has to earn the confidence of the stoker to be an effective leader, and that only happens when the stoker believes his or her requests will be respected by the captain. Both partners need to be willing to follow.

In short, successful tandem teams are successful partnerships, which is what successful marriages are. I’m not an expert on tandems or marriages or even partnerships, but I’ve done 50+ mile rides in both the captain’s and stoker’s seat. I’ve finished every ride on good terms with my partners and learned a few things in the process.

Here are a few things I’ve learned as a captain:

  • Talk, talk, talk about what you’re about to do, especially with a new stoker. “I’m shifting”, “Coasting now,” “Bump ahead,” “Turning left,” “Standing.”
  • Encourage feedback from your stoker. “Is this gear comfortable?” “Was the speed OK on that downhill?”
  • Apologize if you make a mistake or do something your stoker isn’t comfortable with.
  • The turning radius and stopping distance required are much larger than you might expect.

Here are a few things I’ve learned as a stoker:

  • Be patient when the captain does something you don’t like. He or she wasn’t doing it to make you mad.
  • Be gentle when you ask the captain to do something differently. Lighthearted humor goes a long way.
  • Not having to steer gives you freedom to take photos, eat, stretch, etc. Just don’t wiggle too much.
  • For a quick power boost, you can stand and pedal while the captain stays seated. Just don’t rock the bike.

These tips are just a start. There’s a lot more specific advice on riding a tandem out there, but honestly the best way is to hop on, give it a whirl and work out the rough spots on the road. You’ll definitely learn a thing or two about yourself, your partner and your relationship, for better or for worse. And you can always ditch the bike.

By the way, tandems are not just for couples, they’re also a good option for parents and kids. They allow the parent to maintain safe control of the bike and the kid to still be an active participant. They’re great for school drop-off routes that have more challenging roads along the way, and you won’t need to leave a kid’s bike at school. They make three-person triple tandems too. I spotted a father with two empty seats and two child helmets dangling off the handlebars on Middlefield Road one morning during school drop-off time.

How to Get Started

Rent a Tandem. If you and your partner have never ridden a tandem before, it’s a good idea to try it out before making an expensive commitment. If you can’t borrow one from a friend, you can rent a tandem in San Francisco from most of the bike rental companies catering to tourists. Most offer upright “comfort” tandems. Blazing Saddles also offers light-weight road tandems, a triple tandem and one that puts the child in front.

Wherever you rent the bike, walk the bike to a calm, less congested area before you hop on. You’ll probably be wobbly at first and you don’t want to hurt yourselves or terrorize the people around you. You may find it easier to ride in Golden Gate Park during its Sunday road closures than in the busier Fisherman’s Wharf area.

Buy a Tandem. As a specialty item, only a select few bike shops carry tandems. Walt’s Bicycles in Sunnyvale offers both new and used tandems, including a lovely vintage Schwinn tandem. The Bicycle Outfitter in Los Altos sells more performance-oriented tandems, from road race worthy ones to ones designed for child-sized stokers. Both shops will let you test ride their tandems. The Bicycle Outfitter also offers daily rentals of two of their bikes. Finally, there’s a small but steady market for used tandems. After all, not all tandem bicycle partnerships work out.

Have you ever ridden a tandem? If so, what were the biggest challenges? If not, would you consider it?

Tandem Legs

Categories: Gear Talk | Leave a comment

Adventures in Bay Area Bike Share

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the Mountain View Voice online edition on September 9, 2013.

It’s been just over a week since the Bay Area Bike Share pilot program opened for service in five cities: San Francisco, San Jose, Redwood City, Palo Alto and Mountain View. So far, 3000 people have bought annual, day or three day memberships to ride the bikes (including me) for a variety of reasons. Last week I chatted with people riding bike share bikes around town and asked them what they thought.

Sunday: On my way to Caltrain I met Brett, who was coming back from a ride on the Stevens Creek Trail to Shoreline Park and back. That’s a longer trip than the 30 minute free ride period so he paid $4 for an extra 30 minutes, but he didn’t mind. “I’m not a biker,” he said, “I’m trying this out to see if I like it before I buy a bike.” He was smiling as he docked his bike and headed for the Farmers Market.

Wednesday: On my way to work I ran into Alex and Dennis as they were undocking bikes at San Jose Diridon station. It was Alex’s third day commuting with bike share and she was thrilled. Before bike share, she took Caltrain from San Francisco, either bringing her bike aboard or taking a shuttle for the last mile to the office. With bike share, she won’t risk getting bumped due to overcrowding on the bike car, and she won’t miss the shuttle if her train is late. Like Alex, Dennis lives in San Francisco. He only works at his company’s San Jose office occasionally. Having a regional system that works in both cities is important to him.

Thursday: On my way home from work I met a man near the VTA Light Rail station who was heading home on a bike share bike. “I’m lucky to have a station near my home,” he said. I didn’t have time to ask him which station before he rode away, but he was headed toward either the bike share station at Rengstorff Park or the San Antonio Caltrain Station.

What about me? Unlike Brett, I already have a bike. Unlike Alex and Dennis, I don’t have a bike share station by my office. And unlike the last guy I met, there’s not a station by my home. So when did I use my annual membership? On a trip to San Francisco last weekend with a couple of friends. We had lunch in North Beach, watched a bicycle race at Levi Strauss Plaza and stopped in at the Ferry Building for a little shopping.

We learned that bike share is a great way to get around San Francisco’s downtown and waterfront, but made a few mistakes that show there’s a slight learning curve to using the system. The instructions on the Bay Area Bike Share web site and on the station kiosks are a good start, but to make your first trips more trouble-free than ours, here are a few things you should know.

Undocking the Bike
With my annual pass, checking out a bike is quick and easy. I pushed my key fob into a slot on the bike’s docking station and pulled back firmly on the handlebars to release the bike. Make sure the bike’s kickstand is up first, though. I banged my shin on the kickstand the first time.

A day pass requires using the kiosk at the station, inserting a credit card, giving them your mobile phone number, and going through a lot menus on the screen. In the end they give you a 5-digit code that you punch on the left side of the bike’s dock. For trips later that day, you’ll need to go back to the kiosk and insert your credit card to get a new 5-digit code. My friend Deanna had a few frustrating minutes trying to reuse her original code before realizing she needed to go back to the kiosk to get a new one. At least there are fewer menus to click through on the second trip, though.

Watch the Clock
The thirty minute no-extra-charge period goes by quicker than you think, so don’t play tourist and stop for photos too much along the way. To maximize time, plan your route and where you’ll dock your bike near your destination before you punch in your code or push in your key fob. You may want to adjust the seat height, put your bag in front holder, and put your helmet on before you undock the bike. And don’t forget to note your start time.

Docking the Bike
Docking the bike at a station near your destination sounds simple–you just push the bike into an available dock–but it’s easy to do it wrong. The trick is to line the bike up straight before pushing it in, hold both handlebars and push it in hard. You’ll know you’ve done it right if the dock’s green light turns on. To be sure it’s docked, you can also tug back on the bike to see if it releases. That’s the only way we could tell for sure at a few docks that were facing into the bright sun’s glare.

Dock Surfing
If you realize you may run over the 30 minute time limit, or know you’ll need more than that to get to your destination, try dock surfing. Dock surfing is simply swapping out bikes at an intermediate station along your route. If you’re a nervous Nellie like me and don’t want the stress of rushing, plan for an intermediate stop. With an annual pass, it’s pretty fast to grab a new bike.

Bike Malfunctions
One of the bikes my friend Michelle undocked was stuck in the lowest gear and wouldn’t shift. We returned it to the nearest station, pushed the repair button on the dock, and turned the seat around backwards. So if you see a bike with the seat turned 180 degrees backward, don’t try to undock it.

Download the App
Download the Cycle Finder app on your smart phone before your first trip. It shows station locations and number of available bikes and open docks in real time. It’s pretty basic but useful. If it only integrated recommended bike routes it out be outstanding. I kept finding myself flipping from map to map to navigate to the station in North Beach that was closest to our restaurant.

Security and Theft Prevention
Once you undock a bike you are responsible for the bike until it’s docked again. So don’t leave the bike unattended or locked anywhere other than an official station, and make sure it’s docked correctly. Also, with single and three day passes, don’t let anyone see or hear your code number. If you are slow to type it in and undock a bike someone could use it before you. The same is true of an annual members key fob. Guard it carefully and report it immediately if lost or stolen.

Have you tried the Bay Area Bike Share yet? If so, where did you go? Do you have any advice for other users? If not, where can you see yourself using it?

Bay Area Bike Share web site:
Bike Fun Photos from San Francisco

Deanna Bay Bridge Wide

Categories: Bike Routes, Gear Talk | Leave a comment

Hitting the Dirt on Mountain Bike Trails

This story first appeared in Bike Fun in the online edition of the Mountain View Voice on August 27, 2013.

Did you buy a mountain bike because of the big fat tires and easy riding comfort, but the only times you’ve ridden it off-road were on the levee trails along the bay? That was me, until my friend Steph took me out on some dirt trails at Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto where I put the mountain back into my mountain bike.

To me, mountain biking is a lot like hiking. You get out of the city and feel like you’re far away from it all, even when you’re only a few miles away. I’m always surprised how much wildlife there is so close to town, from deer to wild turkeys to coyotes to gopher snakes. If you’re lucky, you might spot a bobcat or tarantula. I’ve seen all that and more, especially since I cover a lot more distance on a bike than on foot.

If you’ve only ridden on pavement before, there are some things you should know before hitting the dirt that will make your first ride a lot easier. Riding dirt isn’t hard if you make a few simple adjustments.

First, on the trail there are a few new rules of the road. As a mountain biker you need to yield to hikers and horses, as well as uphill riders. In particular, be aware that you and your bike can make horses nervous because you look too much like predator. As you approach horses, slow down to crawl, call out “hello” as soon as you’re within voice range, and ask the horseback riders how to proceed. Sometimes they will want you to stop and let them pass, other times they’d rather pull off the trail and let you pass. It’s all about communication. The same advice works for hikers. Be polite, communicate with them and don’t buzz by.

As for your bike, any bike with knobby tires works and some people can rock the dirt on slick tires too. Having a fork with front suspension smooths out the trail, but isn’t necessary for the moderate trails I’ve listed below. To set up your bike before your first dirt ride, all you’ll probably need to do is pump up the tires and go. But not too much. Lower pressure in your tires gives better traction on loose dirt and gravel. I set mine at 35-40 psi, which is the far low end of what my tires recommend.

If your attitude about shifting gears is “set it and forget it” on the streets, you’ll need to review shifting. Most trails in our area have steep sections so you’ll want to use your gears. In particular, the wide gravel roads that may look easier than the narrow trails also tend to suddenly get steep. Unlike the narrow trails, they were built for farm trucks with engines, not people on foot or on bikes.

After that, it’s all about the ride. Here are some techniques that can help you feel more comfortable and stable riding dirt.

Ready position
The ready position is used when you’re rolling down a trail like my friend Cindy is in the photo above, or rolling over obstacles like ruts or roots. First, put your feet in the pedals level at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions in a wide stance, then lift your rear out of the saddle, bend your elbows wide and look straight ahead down the trail. The goal is to stay balanced as the bike moves underneath you, like an English-style equestrian, where your legs are shock absorbers and you move forward and back and side to side as needed to stay balanced. Put one or two fingers lightly over each brake lever, place your palms lightly on grips and you’re ready to go.

Roots, rocks and ruts
You’ll need the ready position to roll over obstacles like ruts, roots and rocks. The other key is to brake as you approach the obstacle, then let go of the brakes and let your bike roll over the obstacle. For obstacles too big to roll over, look where you want to go to roll around it. Stare at that big rock and you’ll hit it for sure.

Mountain biking gets its name because most trails are hilly, at least in our area. The good news is mountain bikes have lower gears than road bikes. Use them! Downshift to your small chainring (left hand shifter) before the hill and then use the gears in your cassette (right hand shifter) to find the right gear. On really steep hills, the tendency is either for your rear wheel to slide out or your front wheel to pop up. The trick to staying balanced is to stay in saddle, slide forward on the saddle and lower your chest toward the handlebars. And there’s no shame in walking up the hill if it’s too steep.

Descending starts with the ready position described above with your rear out of the saddle. As the trail gets steeper, move your body further back behind the saddle. Moving your body back means you can brake with both your front and rear brakes together without flying over the handlebars.

Tight turning
Tight turns in trails, also known as switchbacks, can be challenging and rewarding when you learn to ride them. The best line to take is to go wide before the turn, look down at the apex to turn sharply and as soon as your front wheel gets close to the apex, look far down the trail. And keep pedaling, especially as you exit the turn when the tendency is to coast. Don’t feel bad if you can’t make the turn. It takes practice and some are hard to clear for experienced riders.

Walking the bike
In mountain biking everyone walks the bike sometimes. The easiest was to push your bike is to stand on left side of it so you can avoid bumping the chainring. Put both hands on the handlebars. If you’re walking the bike downhill, feather the rear brake (right hand) to control your speed. On super steep uphills, you can brake hard and use bike as a cane to help balance as you walk up.

Finally, as trite as it sounds, relax. If the trail feels too intense or you find yourself tensing your body or squeezing the hand grips tight, slow down and or stop for a bit. A stiff body makes everything harder. Take a breath, enjoy the scenery, walk it off if you need to and then roll again.

Here are two of my favorite local parks and trails that are great for first-time mountain bikers.

Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto
Arastradero Preserve offers rolling grassy hills with wide gravel roads and narrower smooth dirt trails very close to town. The park is small, but with proper planning, you can ride a dozen or more miles without too much repeating, and you can reverse direction for a new experience. I’ve marked an easier first-timer’s loop on the map in pink, plus a bonus loop in purple. The blue loop is where my friends and I ride after work, which is a good time to visit since the park has very little shade.

Long Ridge Open Space Preserve on Skyline Boulevard
Long Ridge offers smooth and shady trails along Peter’s Creek and great views from the ridge along Skyline Boulevard. My favorite starting location is Grizzly Flat, which is 3.1 miles south of Page Mill Road or 3.3 miles north of Highway 9. Watch your odometer to find the trailhead at the unmarked roadside parking.

Cindy at Long Ridge Wide

Categories: Bike Routes, Bike Skills | Leave a comment

Ready or Not, Bike Share is Coming

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the online edition of the Mountain View Voice on August 9, 2013.

When I walked out of the Caltrain station in downtown San Jose this morning there it was: a long row of empty bike docking stations for Bay Area Bike Share. The bikes won’t show up until the program’s launch that’s scheduled for later this month, but after hearing about bike share plans for over a year, seeing the equipment on the streets of San Jose made it all very real. Bike share is coming.

Bike share programs are designed for short trips across town, not long commutes or recreation or fitness rides. Members check a bike out from one docking station, ride away, then check the bike into another station near their destination. Stations are located near popular destinations like transit, stores and restaurants, and ideally near offices and homes where many people begin their trips.

Bay Area Bike Share is being launched as a pilot program in five cities along popular Caltrain stops: San Francisco, Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View and San Jose. Membership plans cover all five cities and are available on a 24 hour, 3-day or annual basis ($9, $22, and $88, respectively). Trips shorter than 30 minutes are free; keeping bikes out longer than 30 minutes means stiff additional charges designed to discourage longer trips. Members are also liable for $1200 replacement fee for bikes that are lost or stolen, but once you re-dock the bike your liability ends.

Bike share may be new to the Bay Area, but it’s found in over 500 cities worldwide, most famously in Paris and London, and over a dozen North American cities, including New York City, Montreal, Washington D.C., Minneapolis, Toronto, Denver and Chicago. My niece Alison and her husband use the Capital Bikeshare in Washingon D.C. regularly to go to the grocery, to visit friends, and to go out on dinner dates in the evening. Their small apartment in Capitol Hill doesn’t offer much room for storing bikes so they appreciate having a bike share station a couple of blocks away.

The bikes for the Bay Area will be very similar to the bikes from D.C. and New York City. The biggest difference is that our bikes will have seven gears instead of the three so people can climb San Francisco’s hills more easily, and they’ll be painted seafoam green. For the bike geeks, that’s the classic celeste color of bikes made by Bianchi. Bellísimo!

My friends and I were lucky enough to get a chance to test ride them last week at Thursday Night Live on Castro Street two weeks ago. We’re all daily cyclists, so we can be a fussy group to please. First impressions were that the bikes were comfortable and easy to ride, nimble when turning at slow speeds, and slow relative to our usual bikes. I was impressed with how the bike adjusted to fit everyone from five foot tall Megan to my husband Dick who stands six foot two. The bikes are fully equipped with a covered chain to keep clothing clean, a front rack to carry a purse or grocery bag, a bell for alerting pedestrians, and always-on front and rear lights for safe riding after dark. See the photo link for closeups of the bike’s features.

As a one year pilot, the Bay Area program is starting small with 700 bikes in 70 stations. There will be seven stations in Mountain View near Castro Street, near San Antonio shopping center, and at Rengstorff Park. (See map link in resources below) With additional funding the program may be expanded to more bikes and/or stations in Mountain View and in other cities. I sure hope it is since our home is a mile from the nearest station.

Do you think bike share will be as successful in the Bay Area as in other cities? Why or why not? How and when do you think you’ll use it?

Bay Area Bike Share Information:
Bike Fun Bike Share Photos:

Bay Area Bike Share Wide

Categories: Gear Talk | Leave a comment

A Rolling Art Tour in Palo Alto

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the online edition of the Mountain View Voice on August 2, 2013.

Public art can awe-inspiring, moving, perplexing or shocking, sometimes all at the same time. It can be the pride of a community or a target of scorn from critics. When it’s doing its job right, art provokes a reaction.

Art is best savored at a slower pace, by walking through a gallery or through a sculpture garden. When public art is sprinkled all over town, the whole city becomes an art museum and your bicycle lets you wander from gallery to gallery at a leisurely pace. On a bike, it’s easy pull over, hop off and reflect.

One of my favorite art tours by bicycle rolls all over Palo Alto sampling public art and then heads into Stanford University, home of an extensive Rodin sculpture collection. Below are the highlights, but there’s much more to see. In the resources section at the end you’ll find a link to a Google Map that you can download to your smartphone to navigate on your tour. Click on the pushpins to see photos of the art.

“The Avenue of the Arts” (California Avenue)
The California Avenue business district is only a few blocks long and a few blocks wide, but it packs in 14 pieces of public art in a broad range of styles. Be sure to stop at the award-winning “Sun Flowers”, a sculptural seating on the sidewalk in front of Country Sun Natural Foods. Seven tall bronze California poppies spin slowly in the wind while hidden solar panels harvest the sun’s energy to light up after dark.

Another popular sculpture is “Body of Urban Myth”, a classic nude holding a washing machine that cascades water as the centerpiece fountain of Sheridan Square. The square serves as the patio dining area for Caffe Riace, so unless you’re dining with them, I recommend visiting the sculpture in the off hours.

Rodin Sculpture Garden (Stanford University Campus)
Did you know that the world’s second largest collection of Rodin sculptures is right next door at Stanford University? The Cantor Center for Visual Arts holds over 400 pieces, with 20 large bronzes outside in their sculpture garden, including the massive “The Gates of Hell” that Auguste Rodin spent two decades perfecting. The garden is open all hours, with lighting for viewing after dark and picnic tables overlooking the garden.

If you’re visiting during museum hours, it’s worth locking up your bike and going inside to see his most famous sculpture “The Thinker.” Bike racks are available under the palms trees on Lomita Drive. Admission is free.

Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden (Stanford University Campus)
For a completely different sculptural experience, ride to the other side of Stanford’s quad to the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden. Under the shade trees you’ll find wood and stone carvings of people, animals, and magical beings that a team of master carvers created on-site in the summer of 1994.

Palo Alto Art Center (Embarcadero & Newell Roads)
Home to the Clay & Glass Festival every July, the Palo Alto Art Center has several large sculptures on its grounds, including the impressive “Albuquerque” that’s a highly visible landmark for those traveling down Embarcadero Road. Also at the Palo Alto Art Center is the equally grand in scale, but less permanent, sculpture by Patrick Dougherty. Constructed in January 2011 with the help of local volunteer artists, the work bends and twists saplings into a curious structure that evokes a magical row of houses. The sculpture still stands strong today, albeit with vines sprouting from its north end.

On your way back to Mountain View, a shortcut through Mitchell Park will bring you past two bold art pieces that are surprisingly located in a park more oriented toward more active recreation. Now that I discovered the mighty woman of “Push” I make a special loop through for a quick art fix that makes me smile every time.

Bike Fun Sculpture Tour Map:
More Outdoor Sculpture at Stanford:

Art Tour Profile Pic Adam Wide

Categories: Themed Tours | Leave a comment

Gear Up Your Ride: The Grocery Getter

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the online edition of the Mountain View Voice on July 25, 2013.

When people think of bicycling for practical reasons, bike commuting usually comes to mind first. But since
work commutes are often the longest trips we make all week, it may make more sense to bike around town for short errands at the pharmacy, post office, bank, coffee shop or grocery store instead. While it’s easy enough to slip a bottle of pills into your pocket or a small package to mail into a backpack, for errands like groceries you’ll want a bike that’s set up to carry a load. You need what my friend Katie calls her grocery getter.

My friend Katie works in the bicycle industry, which means she has all the hottest performance-oriented bicycles: sleek road bikes, plush mountain bikes and a custom cyclocross bike so hot it made the rounds as a display bike at trade shows internationally. What she didn’t have was a practical bike for errands.

But she did have an old 1990s mountain bike in the back of her garage. With a little work and the same cost as two trips to the gas pump we gave her old bike a new life as a grocery getter. First, we pumped her tires, checked the brakes, and lubricated the chain (just like I wrote about on May 24th) and wiped the bike down for good measure. Then we replaced her worn saddle with a spare she had on hand, and rode a couple of miles to her local bike shop to get geared up. She chose a rear rack, grocery-specific panniers and a kickstand which we installed ourselves in less than 30 minutes. Total cost was about $120.

We took a quick trip to the grocery store to test out her new set-up and found a new route through the neighborhood on the way back. Katie was thrilled. “I live within 2 mile of all the stores I need: Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, coffee, restaurants, the farmers market, so doing errands by bike makes sense,” she explained. “Panniers rock.”

If you’re thinking of setting your bike up for groceries or errands, here are some gear options to consider:

Rear racks support loads over your bike’s rear wheel, making for a stable ride. Most attach to the frame near the rear wheel axle and to the seat stays, the frame area just below the seat.

Panniers are bike-specific bags that attach to racks. Touring panniers are designed to be more aerodynamic and weather-proof for long trips, while boxy open-topped panniers like Katie chose are convenient for quick stops and shorter trips.

Baskets are usually mounted on the handlebars but can also be attached to a rear rack. Handlebar baskets are great for keeping things close at hand, like purses and small pets. Having weight on the handlebars affects steering more than when the weight is on the back, so be careful with a heavier load.

Elastic straps work well when you have an odd-shaped object or a few too many items to carry. The best ones are flat instead of round with two or three straps emerging from a single hook at each end, but I also keep micro-sized bungees on my bike just in case.

Kickstands are handy for making quick stops on errand runs and almost required when you’re carrying groceries on your bike. It’s a lot easier to load up when you don’t have to balance the bike too.

Bike trailers can carry far bigger loads than a bike alone. I use my cargo trailer when I’m buying the big stuff like 30 rolls of toilet paper at Costco, or when I want to buy more than three bags of groceries in one trip. Note that they’re less stable when empty. I learned the hard way.

More Tips for Selecting Gear
* When you go shopping for bike gear, ride your bike to the shop or otherwise take your bike with you. You want to make sure what you buy will fit your bike.
* Start small like Katie did. You can always add a front basket or buy a trailer.
* Make sure your racks, panniers and baskets don’t block your front or rear lights.

Tips for Shopping by Bike
* If you’re worried about buying more than you can carry, shop with a hand basket instead of a grocery cart. You can also test packing your items in your bags before you check out.
* During grocery checkout, either pack your bags yourself or expect to repack them at your bike. If you’re pinched for space, try removing some unneeded packaging.
* Realize that if you can’t pack it all, you can return items. I’ve had close calls, but I’ve always squeezed it in.
* To keep frozen food from melting, pack the cold items together and put them in a small insulated bag.
* With a heavy load, you may have to shift down a gear and may find can’t sprint for the light as easily.
* If you have multiple shopping stops, you can either bring the bags with you into the second store or take a risk and leave them on the bike, preferably covered. I’ve taken risks and never lost anything.

Is your bike set up for carrying groceries or other loads? What’s the biggest item or load you’ve carried?

Bike Fun Grocery Bike Photos:

Grocery Wide

Categories: Gear Talk | Leave a comment

Blog at