Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Dispatch from Germany

I grew up in small-town Germany. Welzheim, my home town, is a city of 10,000 people. It's on the edges of the Stuttgart metro region (population 2.7 million), about 30 miles from Stuttgart itself. My parents still live in Welzheim, and I visited them for a week this March. And, of course, I rode my bike.

Lovely small roads make for great biking
So as Welzheim is in Europe, there obviously is a lot of bike infrastructure, right? And nobody drives a car. Well, note quite. Germany with good reason is known as a nation of cars (Mercedes Benz and Porsche have their headquarters in Stuttgart). And in a small, rural town like Welzheim, there's actually not much obvious bike infrastructure to speak of. There are zero protected bike lanes, bike parking is pretty mediocre, and even on-street bike lanes don't exist, with the exception of an advisory bike lane on two streets. And yet, the biking experience is much better than you'd expect.

Traffic calming is one big reason for this. On most residential streets, the speed limit is 30 kph (19 mph). More importantly, the streets are built so that people by and large actually drive at that speed. The streets by default are much narrower than a typical US residential street. So when a car is parked on the street, two cars generally can't pass each other, keeping speeds down. Further, intersections are usually unsigned, meaning that the person coming from the right has the right of way. Effectively that means that at each intersection you have to be prepared to stop. Actual stop signs, on the other hand, are so rare that my navigation app actually gave me a voice notification the few times that I did encounter one.

Mail carrier on electric-assist cargo trike
Traffic signals are also much rarer than in the US. The whole town of Welzheim has not one signal. Roundabouts, on the other hand, are plentiful. Starting in the 1980s, new intersections on busier streets often were built as roundabouts, or old ones were retrofitted. On the 8-mile drive from the nearest train station to my parents' house, you will encounter no fewer than 10 roundabouts. Now in the US, among bike advocates and the general population, roundabouts have a bad rap. Much could be said here, but it's important to note that German roundabouts are built smaller than US ones, and multi-lane roundabouts like the one we have on Mineral Point Road in Madison are very, very rare. More narrow lanes means people driving have to slow down more and aren't tempted to pass people on bikes on the roundabout approaches or in the roundabout.

Some residential streets are designates as "traffic-calmed area," a concept similar to the Dutch woonerf. Cars must drive at walking speed, and people walking and biking are entitled to the whole street. Again, those streets are usually built in a way that makes it clear that people must drive slowly.

What about commercial streets? Welzheim's main street looks like this:

The speed limit is 20 kph (12 mph), and as a pedestrian you can easily cross the street wherever you like. Through strategic placement of planters or on-street parking spots, there will be locations where two cars can't pass each other, keeping speeds down.

Going one step further, some cities have pedestrian malls in their city centers. This is Schorndorf:

Biking is sometimes restricted in these areas, either banning bikes at specific times or asking people to bike at walking speed. Deliveries by car or truck are permitted only during a short time window each day.

Bike parking is not that great by Madison standards. If there are bike racks at all, they often default to what Germans call the Felgenbieger (rim bender) style of rack. This is probably one reason that kickstands are very common on bikes, allowing people to just park their bike wherever when they go for a quick trip to a shop.

E-assist bike on a rim bender rack
Note the wheel lock on the bike on the right. Good enough for a quick stop.

At train stations and in larger cities, bike parking facilities tend to be better. For instance, at the Bad Cannstatt train station, there is a "bike station" where you can valet your bike (and also have it repaired while its parked there). With the Judge Doyle Square bike center, Madison is poised to get similar facilities. We'll have to see how well they work without a transit location.

The bike station is run by a charitable enterprise, training and employing people with disabilities or other challenges

Once you get out of town, biking can be really awesome. One feature of the region is a dense network of farm or forestry service roads and tracks. For historical reasons, parcel sizes in this part of Germany are very small. This is an aerial image of Welzheim and its surroundings (Image: Google Maps).

All those little strips of fields that you can see are owned by different farmers (and the same is true for forest parcels). And of course that means that each farmer has to be able to get to his or her field. The service roads to get them are public right-of-way, but motor vehicle access is limited to farm traffic. 
Farm road

Forest service roads are usually unpaved
Navigation on these roads and tracks used to be a challenge. There is no orderly grid system, and it could often be hard to tell where any given road would take you. Fortunately, over the past decade or so, communities have made much progress on signing bike routes that string together little pieces of road to connect villages and cities.
The green signs point show bike bike route destinations and distances; the small square signs underneath them are for touristic bike routes; the yellow sign is for hiking.

I want to be clear that there are some problems with these routes: Welzheim is in a rather hilly area, and the easiest routes up those hills are often taken up by roads. So if you follow a bike route, you should always be prepared for steep climbs. The routes also do not get cleared of snow in the winter. And finally, sometimes the routes are geared more toward recreational biking instead of providing the most direct route. But overall, they provide an amazing low-stress network for people biking, for recreation and transportation alike.

Some snow left on this forest road

Are there any takeaways for bike advocacy in Madison? Obviously some of the things I have described we can't recreate here. The issue of traffic calming may offer some lessons, though. Many advocacy efforts here in the US focus on creating protected bike lanes as a way to enable people of all ages and abilities to bike. And there are good reasons for that. But at the same time we shouldn't lose track of the fact that traffic calming can also create spaces that are great for biking and walking (and have other benefits such as reduced noise). This applies not only to residential streets, but also to commercial corridors. This does require being serious about it, though. Merely slapping a 20 mph speed limit sign on an otherwise unchanged street is not going to be enough. And neither is the occasional speed bump or sporadic enforcement. Diverters that prevent cut-through traffic, reducing the width of a street, creating bump-outs at intersections--these are some measures that may transform a street into one that many people will feel comfortable biking on.

A second takeaway is that good signage can add a lot of value at little cost (financial and political. In a way, the farm roads in Welzheim are similar to, say, the network of multi-use paths in Fitchburg.

Fitchburg path network (Map: OpenStreetMap contributors)

You can get to many destinations on those paths. But unless you're really familiar with the area, navigation is a challenge. Similarly, if you're riding on the Southwest Path or Cap City Trail, knowing where to turn off to get to a destination on Monroe or Willy Street is not obvious. Good signage would help with this. Dane County actually developed a "Bicycle Wayfinding Manual" (warning: big pdf) to address this issue, but implementation has been slow so far.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Tried and Liked 2017

It's tried-and-liked time again! You can find all previous editions here.


Bike blogging

Okay, I gotta say it: Ride or Pie?! has been around since 2009, and despite various threads decrying the "decline of the interesting bike blog," I still enjoy writing and reading about bike stuff in blogs. Instagram et al. are great for what they are, and many once great bike blogs have disappeared. But there are still lots of good ones out there and I have no intention of discontinuing my bloggage.

Collecting Tiles

I'm way too slow to chase KOMs on Strava. I do like bike-related challenges, though, and so I was very excited to discover Veloviewer's tile explorer. It's a little complicated to explain, but basically a map is divided into squares of a certain size, about 1.5 by 1.5 kilometers (0.93 miles). Based on your Strava data, whenever you ride through one tile, it gets added to your collection. You can aim to maximize the overall number of tiles you have collected, or even better you can try to connect the little tiles into an ever larger square of contiguous tiles. Which, of course, gets exponentially more difficult.
Collecting tiles has been a great motivator to a) ride a lot and b) ride on roads that I had never ridden before. Once you have found a good route, it's easy to just keep doing it over and over again, instead of exploring new roads.
I'm currently up to 16x16 squares. Lakes are one big obstacle to expanding your square, and I'm waiting for some larger lakes in Madison to freeze over so that I close some important holes in my collection.

Solo bike touring California

Definitely the highlight of the year! I rode for seven days through Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties. Ride reports here:

Front-load-only touring

Related: I'm convinved now by the concept of only having a front load on a low-trail camping bike. For my California trip, almost all of my luggage was in my handlebar bags and two large panniers attached to a lowrider rack. Worked great!

Occasional single-track mountain biking

I bought my Pugsley fat bike last year first and foremost as a winter bike. But even in Wisconsin, winter only last so long. I've come to enjoy the occasional MTB outing on the local trails. Madison has several trail systems that are within riding distance from my home. I especially like hitting the trails as a short-but-intense riding option on days when I don't really feel like riding on the roads.

Carradice on the fat bike

One problem with my fat bike was that I needed to figure out how to carry things on it. On my regular bike I either have a rear rack for panniers or a randonneur-style handlebar bag. Instead of spending money on a frame bag or similar, I figured I may as well first try what I already had: A Carradice Nelson saddle bag with a Bagman support rack. I was a little skeptical how well the Bagman would hold up on a mountain bike -- even for on-road use, the rails would occasionally slide out of the mounting block. I modded that system a while ago, replacing the tiny grub screws with more meaty regular screws, as well as filing flats onto the rails to give the screw a larger point of contact. All in all this has proven to be strong enough for mountain bike use. The Carradice bag does not noticeably impact the handling of the bike. The only exception is that I can't drop behind the saddle for steep descents. I'm cool with that.

Carradice Nelson on my Pugsie


The cold season was the perfect time to give my Gunnar Roadie a facelift. The notorious quality of Waterford paint jobs of yesteryear had left me with a frame with a lot of spots where the paint had chipped or scratched. Waterford will repaint your bike (and from what I know, their paint quality is much better nowadays), but the price is steep. Based on multiple recommendations from the iBOB list, I decided to have the frame powdercoated by Groody Bros. in Kansas City. I can highly recommend them: Communication was great (all via email), you can choose from any powder color imaginable (you order the powder from any supplier you like and have it shipped to Groody), the price was right, and the quality was excellent. I also used the opportunity to get the chainstays dimpled to improve tire clearance. And having a matching frame, fork, and steam is great. Because I rode the bike so much, including a lot of gravel, I never had the opportunity for a glamour photo shoot. Hopefully next year.

Have I mentioned that I like pink?


My Gunnar wasn't the only bike that got a new color. In fall I used the Spray.Bike paint products to give it an awesome new paint job. Read the full report here.

Pari Moto and Compass tires

I have ridden enough on both 38mm Pari Motos as well as 42mm Compass tires. With some patience, you can pick up a Pari Moto for less than $30 shipped. That's less than half of what Compass tires with regular casing cost, and I don't think that Compass tires last twice as long as the Pari Motos. One day I'll spring for a Compass Extralights, but I just can't get myself to spend that much money on a tire when cheaper options as good as the Pari Moto are available.

Tubus Logo Classic stainless steel rear rack

To repaint my Cross-Check, I needed to strip down the frame. I already knew that the aluminum rear rack was badly rusted in place. But I had at least some hope that I may be able to salvage the rack. Not so much, and so I had the opportunity to upgrade from the unsightly Jandd rack to a Tubus. For a bike that gets ridden year-round, a stainless rack seemed ideal. I opted for the Tubus Logo Classic in stainless steel. Ordering directly from Germany, it wasn't too expensive, and I'm very happy with its looks and functionality. Having the second set of rails to hook up panniers is great.

Antritt podcast

If you understand German, I highly recommend the monthly Antritt podcast. It's the first and only bike podcast that has ever appealed to me. It's professionally produced and has a great mix of topics, ranging from history to policy and bike tech.


Velo Orange cranks

One of the lessons from my California tour was that I needed lower gearing for my SOMA Grand Randonneur. In my search for a cheap sub-compact crank, I was offered an early-generation Velo Orange set. Sadly, I have not been able to make that crank work: After several attempts of buying ever wider bottom brackets, I ended up with a set-up that works, kind of. With a 122mm bottom bracket, the cranks clear the chain stays, but with so little room to spare that they do rub on hard efforts. Filing the ends of the crank made it slightly better, but I can still make them rub. And with a 122mm bottom bracket, the chainline is less than ideal. I'm not sure if the design of my cranks is different from the current generation VO cranks or if it's a quirk of the Grand Randonneur, but I definitely need to come up with a different solution.
Not enough clearance

Brooks Cambium

Many people love their Cambium saddles; I do not. The saddle is okay-but-not-great in terms of comfort for a bike that rarely sees rides longer than 3 hours. But the saddle doesn't age well. In its current state, the top looks ratty. For a saddle with an MSRP of $160, that is not for me.

Panaracer Pasela

The unbelted version of the Pasela is generally well liked as an affordable tire with decent rolling resistance and comfort. A while back I had picked up a pair of NOS Paselas in 32mm width at a garage sale. After my Vittoria Randonneur Hyper had worn through, I finally put the Paselas on—and didn't like them. They felt stiffer than the Vittorias, and the sidewalls showed signs of disintegration quickly. After less than a year on the bike, one of the sidewalls failed. I'm done with Paselas.


Drop bar Bar Mitts

Last year I wrote that I really liked my drop-bar-specific Bar Mitts. Since then I have discovered that they do have one problem: By allowing for only hand position, my hands go numb after about 45 minutes of riding. It's a relatively small trade-off and my hands go back to normal with a brief stop. It's also possible that choosing a different size (I think when I bought mine they only came in one size) or a different handlebar shape would alleviate the issue.

Philips Saferide condensation issues

After singing the praises of the generator-hub-powered Philips Saferide front light last year, I have sad news to report: A few weeks ago I noticed that the light beam looked different. And then the standlight failed as well, with the light turning itself off whenever I stopped. On closer inspection I noticed that moisture has gotten into the light. For now I've replaced the Philips with a BUMM light from one of my other bikes. I'll see if maybe I can get the moisture out of the light, but I'm not very hopeful.

Friday, November 24, 2017

#coffeeneuring, the final ride: Bradbury's Coffee

It was the last day of the coffeeneuring challenge, and I wanted to get one final ride in. On a recommendation from my friend Kevin, I picked Bradbury's Coffee near the State Capitol as my destination. The plan was to have coffee there and then loop around Lake Mendota. Tired legs from the previous day and the bitterly cold wind made me reconsider—and then I also heard back from someone who was selling a tandem on Craigslist. So I hung out at Mother Fools for a while and then checked out the tandem. Sadly, it was sold to someone else in the end.
Pretty ice on the Lakeshore Path
The excellent "featured espresso." Expensive, but worth it.
Bradbury's is a small place, and it was busy on a Sunday

Extreme manspreading: The guy took up three seats and refused to give up any of them

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

#coffeneuring, Bike Bingo, and a side of cyclocross

Coffeeneuring season is over, and I have a few ride reports to catch up on. This one is from late October. Madison Bike Bingo was still going on and so I combined getting a stamp from Manna Cafe with seeing a cyclocross race, and checking out a new-to-me coffee shop, What's Brew'N, in Sun Prairie. I also added a few roads to my collection.

Manna Cafe was very busy on a Sunday morning and it took me a while to get my Bike Bingo stamp

At the race in Sun Prairie. There was a fierce cold wind, which prevented me from staying there very long
The giraffe is always watching
The kids enjoyed throwing balls at riders in the sand pit

What's Brew'N is your typical suburban coffee shop

Inspirational posters and knick-knacks for sale...

...and rather mediocre coffee.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

#coffeneuring 2017: Cranksgiving

Yesterday I had the opportunity to combine a coffeeneuring ride with Cranksgiving. Cranksgiving is a combination of a food drive and an alley cat bike race. You get a manifesto with a number of supermarkets and items that you have to buy at each of them. The event started in 1999 in New York City, and as I learned from Jon Kendziera of Jonny Cycle, a veteran of the Madison bike scene, Madison had a couple Cranksgivings in the early 2000s. After a long hiatus, the event made it back to Madison.

Thanks to one of the sponsors, Cafe Domestique, there was good coffee at the start/finish at Revolution Cycles, allowing me to check off another coffeeneuring ride on the final weekend.

The alley cat was great fun, despite strong winds. My knowledge of the street and path network in Madison paid off and I finished second (in spite of a mishap where I lost my manifest and had to backtrace my route to find it again...). Sorry, not too many pictures, as I was too busy racing :)
A last minute tire change was in order... The Panaracer Paselas have been a real disappointment 

Start/finish at Revolution Cycles

Tasty Intelligentsia coffee, courtesy of Cafe Domestique

Le Mans-style start, with people placing their bikes on a green space and running there from the start location
Awards ceremony (Photo credit: Billy Calkins)

Friday, November 17, 2017

#coffeneuring 2017 #coffeeoutside at Donald County Park

Another gray coffeeneuring trip, this time to Donald County Park near Mount Horeb. With temperatures not much above freezing, #coffeeoutside was a somewhat cold affair. 

Townhall Road is one of my favorite roads around Madison, and it does indeed have a town hall
Military Ridge Trail at Neptune

Donald Rock
Ice Age Trail just outside of Madison

One of my favorite sounds

To combine the pleasurable with the useful, I checked out some new bike infrastructure on the west side and shot video footage for Madison Bikes.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

#coffeeneuring 2017: #coffeeoutside at Lake Kegonsa State Park

It was a dark and stormy night. Okay, it wasn't quite dark yet, and the wind was strong but didn't quite qualify as "stormy." After a slow Sunday I overcame the urge to just spend the rest of the day on the couch and went on another coffeeneuring excursion. My destination was Lake Kegonsa State Park, via Lower Yahara River Trail.

Wingra Park, with lots of geese

We haven't had much sun lately

New bike repair station in McFarland

Cute "Fish Tales" Little Free Library at a boat landing

Much of Lake Kegonsa is surrounded by private property. Public access is rare, and even the state park has little frontage on the water.

Lake Kegonsa State Park

On the menu: Just Coffee Humdinger, ground with a Zassenhaus Santiago and brewed with my Bialetti