27 Mar 2015

Bicycle Commuting Setup

Throughout my life, my bicycle has been an integral part of how I get around. For most of my childhood, I got to and from school by bike. I used my bike to get around in the small-ish town I grew up in. When I moved to Richmond, I used my bike to get to and from work. I had several years where I drove instead, believing that to become a professional meant leaving my bike behind and driving a car.

But over the last couple of years, I have come back to my bicycle as my principle mode of transportation. It has been my main mode of transportation around town, the main focus of my exercise routine, and, since last July, a major component of my commute (you may remember THIS post from last July).

With two small children at home, I am frequently looking for ways to balance the schedule of a busy family with the demands of my career and still finding as much time as possible to ride my bike. Using my bicycle as a part of my commute to and from work helps me achieve that. The bigger challenge will come in the fall when my youngest begins day care - I need to find a way to pick up a one-year-old from day care and a five-year-old from school, all along a 5 km route home. But that's a post for another day. 

I find myself in an endless struggle to get my bicycle to that perfect setup. You know the one - where everything is exactly the way you need it and still looks awesome. I love the style of my bicycle (read about my Norco Threshold HERE) and the clean look. But functionally, I need to have some things on it. I've added the following accessories/components to get the function I need:
  1. Full coverage Axiom fenders - they're black, plastic, and have reflector tape along both edges. Perfect for what I need and they're black so they match my bike. Even though aesthetically I would prefer no fenders at all, with our wet coast weather, these are critical.
  2. MEC Quattro USB white light - fantastic head light I bought a few months ago. Charges conveniently by USB and has a warning light when the battery is low. By getting a USB rechargeable light, it saves my having to constantly buy, replace, and dispose of batteries. This light has a bright flash and a very good throw (distance) on the beam. Has more than enough light to ride on the dyke at night (in near complete darkness). This has to be about the best and brightest light available under $50. In fact, it's better than other lights I have paid well over $100 for. And in black, it matches my bike.
  3. MEC Plasma USB red rear light - similar to my MEC Quattro light above, this one charges by USB and has a warning light when the battery is low. This is a bright rear flashing red. I love it.
My next question is to pannier or not to pannier? I have traditionally hauled everything in a backpack. While I love my backpack, it is often stuffed as full as it will go and I find myself struggling with how to get things to and from the office. Thus, I am currently considering a rear rack and panniers. I currently have my eye on the Timbuk2 Tandem Panniers at MEC, which look like a convenient setup to haul a change of clothes, shoes, and laptop on my bicycle and, subsequently, on foot using the shoulder strap.

So I pose this question now, what is your commuter setup? What components or accessories are important to you?

Update: I ended up going with The Classic 2.0 Garment Pannier from Two Wheel Gear. Read my review of it HERE

23 Feb 2015

Gear: Strava (app)

During the past six months or so, I transitioned from using Endomondo to Strava as my go-to activity tracker. You may have read my previous post about Endomondo (click here to view it). I struggled with the decision for one major reason: I had convinced a lot of my friends to start using Endomondo in the first place, so I didn't want to abandon them. One of the things I liked about Endomondo was the ability to create challenges, which I could make public or private, and invite my friends to join and compete against. It was a good motivator for some healthy competition.

However, I was really interested in some of the work being done with the data logged on Strava. You see, Strava Labs, the company that created Strava, compiles their data, anonymizes it, and uses it to map the frequency that people use different routes on bicycles. This data can be incredibly useful for city planners to use as a guide for planning or for others to use for research. One such example is bikemaps.org which, from what I understand, is a research project by a group of students at UVic (University of Victoria). They use Strava Labs' data, plotted on a map, and overlay it with accidents involving cyclists using publicly available information from ICBC. What you get is an incredibly useful map that shows the routes cyclists use most frequently and where incidents occur. Users also have the option of manually logging hazards, near misses, and accidents not reported to ICBC.  Because I strongly support further development of safe infrastructure for people (pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers), I wanted to contribute to this information. So I decided to give Strava a try.

Before I begin, I should also let you know that I am now using an iPhone rather than an Android. When I started my new job last summer, I was issued an iPhone. So rather than carry two phones, I gave up my personal Android and now use an iPhone exclusively. As such, I am referring to Strava on an iPhone when I complete this review, although I assume the Android version is nearly identical.

Right away, Strava's app is clean. I like the dark grey and orange interface. I like the clean bold numbers on the display. The apps itself is incredible accurate and runs in the background without any issues. As a data logger, it is near flawless.

One thing I like is that Strava has excellent integration with Garmin Connect. When I connect my Garmin Edge 200 to my computer, which now automatically syncs to Garmin Connect through Garmin's redesigned plugin, Strava almost immediately pulls right from Garmin Connect and displays my workout. I only use my Garmin Edge for my longer rides, though; I log the majority of my rides simply using my phone.

Now Strava does not have challenges like Endomondo does. But Strava has Segments. You can create Segments from any of your past rides or runs. Once a Segment is created, Strava shows everyone's time who rides or runs that Segment. There are a number of popular segments in my area and I like to see how my time on that segment compares to others. It's an interesting way to add a bit of incentive when you're out riding or running. One major advantage Strava has is that a huge number of cyclists use it, including a large number of professional athletes. While I loved the social aspect of the way Endomondo is designed, I never felt like there were very many people using it in my area. With Strava, there are a ton of other riders and runners in my area on there.

The Profile screen show my distance for the week. From there I can click into Statistics or Gear. The statistics screen is clean and provides useful information. I can see my distance and time as an average per week, for year-to-date, and all time. All things I like to keep up on.

One of my favourite features though is the ability to track the gear I use. When I complete a bike ride, I tell Strava which bike I rode. Likewise when I run, I select the shoes I used. Strava then shows me how many kilometres I have put on each pair of shoes and on each of my bikes. From Strava's website (not in the mobile app), I can also add components to my bike, such as chain, crankset, wheels, tires, drivetrain, freewheel, and Strava will track how many kilometres I have put on each component. I find this incredibly useful to know how much I have put a component through before paying for a replacement.

Overall, I have been more than impressed with Strava. Both the community aspect of it and the strong user base make compelling cases. I love that Strava Labs makes their data available. After a ride, I love checking which segments I rode through and how I ranked in them. I love that Strava tracks my gear and even individual components.

As a final point, to avoid abandoning those of my friends on Endomondo, I use an online tool called Tapiriik to automatically sync my rides from Strava to Endomondo. That way, I log my activities in Strava and use Strava almost exclusively; however, I can check Endomondo periodically and can still participate in challenges with friends on Endomondo. Temporary measure though, which I'll give when I convince everyone to switch to Strava.

20 Feb 2015

Gear: Norco Threshold A3

For Christmas this year, my wife got me a new bike. And not just any bike; she got me the bike I had been eyeing up and reading about for a while: a Norco Threshold A3.

One of the biggest decisions for me was whether to go with a straight-bar hybrid bike or to move into something with drops bars. My old bike is a Trek 4100 mountain bike that I had hybrid tires on. While not the greatest setup, it worked and it could go anywhere. Also, living in Richmond, BC about three blocks from the dyke, I wanted something that could handle gravel and pavement.

Back in the fall, someone suggested looking into cyclocross style bikes. Once I started looking, I realized that it was basically a road bike with some balls, a road bike that could handle dirt or gravel without a problem, a bike tough enough to handle trails but designed to go fast on pavement. It sounded like exactly what I needed.

I started comparing different bikes, such as the MEC Nineteen Seventy-One. While that is a solid bike as well, which my sister rides as her daily commuter in the summer, I wanted something from a dealer a bit closer to home for me (MEC isn't exactly down the street for me). So I checked out Village Bikes in beautiful Steveston. Because they are my go-to for bike servicing, I wanted to see what they had in stock. They deal largely with Giant and Norco bikes, so I started researching both brands online. The Norco Threshold A3 fit my use case and anticipated budget perfectly.

Now that I've ridden the bike for almost two months and put around 500km on it, I think it was definitely the perfect choice for me. The bike itself is slick. I got the all black, brushed finish version. This bike screams awesome.

I won't get into specs and individual components, you can check Norco's website for that, but I will talk about some of the parts that I like.

First is the brakes. This was my first move to disc brakes and so adjustments have taken me a bit of getting used to. At first, I found them extremely finicky. But after a professional adjustment, care of Village Bikes, the brakes are exactly the way they should be: firm, steady, quiet.

Next is the overall riding position - I love it! I feel very comfortable on this bike. I have a lot more pedaling power, I can go much faster than my old bike (compare average speed of 23km/h on my old bike to around 30km/h on this one), and I love the option of having multiple riding positions using the drops bars. I thought the drop position would take some getting used to, but I was wrong. I love being hunched over and going all out. But I can sit up when I need to.

It has, however, taken me some experimenting to find a way to ride without getting chain grease all over my pants. My old bike had a small lip around the crankset to protect my pants from the chain. This bike does not have one. I use straps to hold my pants snug against my leg, but still find I get grease on them, usually when I'm stopped, have my foot down, and my bike leans. Minor inconvenience of course. Solution: only wear dark pants. Shorts season is just around the corner.

Overall, I love this bike. I would recommend it highly to anyone. It is well made. It's tough and looks awesome. I also love that Norco is a local company and my local bike shop services them. I couldn't be happier.

19 Feb 2015

Blocking Bike Lanes

There is an issue with blocking bike lanes in my home city of Richmond, BC that I want to address.

First, the legalities. It is illegal to stop, block, or park in a bike lane. Further, it is only legal to cross a bike lane when the white line is broken rather than solid. This is common in most cities and not at all unique to Richmond (click here for more information about Richmond's bike lanes). However, the issue I have isn't with the laws; rather, it's with the culture surrounding roads and bike lanes. 

The culture that needs to change is that roads were made for cars. In fact, roads are made for PEOPLE to get where they need to go, whether they are driving in a car, riding a bicycle, taking the bus, or walking. There is an underlying sentiment whenever the topic of bike lanes comes up that roads are for cars and anything that would inconvenience a car is unacceptable. 

I ride my bike in Richmond's bike lanes at least twice a day: once on my ride to work in the morning and once on my ride home. On occasion, I ride again in the evening either for errands or exercise. 

On average, I encounter three or four cars per day blocking the bike lane in front of me. Now, I do not think that each of these drivers needs a ticket, nor do I have the time to report each one. Each individual infraction, on its own, seems like a pretty minor misdemeanour. So I am not trying to run around and slap every driver who blocks a bike lane on the wrist.

But what does need to change is this culture that blocking a bike lane is acceptable. This, however, is so very closely tied into the larger issue of car entitlement on our roads that I'm afraid we can't address the smaller issue until we address the larger one.