The Joy of Socks

Socks are the most mundane part of the cyclist’s outfit.  Only very rarely do they gain any attention, and then only because they’re associated with big-name riders.  For example, in 2005 Lance Armstrong (no doubt in an EPO-induced frenzy which he escaped detection of, just as he had hundreds of times before) switched from white socks to black.  Everybody noticed.  No doubt the USADA will end up introducing this episode as evidence, since they have little else concrete to offer.

But I have worn white cotton socks, totally undetected, every summer since I began cycling.  I did have one other pair, red with Cycle Sport magazine logo, and I kind of liked them.  They were made from “miracle fabric,” the kind that stretches easily, wicks moisture away from the skin, weighs nothing, and feels cool.  But they were only one pair, and the inertia of habit kept me from thinking of new socks when I already had a drawerful.

nes sox

The new, super-comfy Castelli socks. Pure joy.

Then recently I got an email from bicyclinghub.com.  They’re a great outfit for cycling gear; most of my kit comes from them.  This time they were offering a free third pair of Castelli socks free when I bought 2 at regular price.  These socks looked great: they were made of the good stuff, they had classy color schemes, and they came in a range of sizes.  My cotton socks are sized from men’s size 8 to 13.  They really need a stretch to fit my size 13 feet.  There is no bigger size.  The Castellis came in XXL.  It’s their biggest size, and though Italian clothing runs small, I figured they’d be OK.  So I bought three pair.  Plus some cycling shorts, also XXL, that were “practically free” since they got me over the limit to qualify for free shipping.

Good call on my part!  The socks look great, though the coolest part of the design is on top of my instep and thus hidden by my shoes.  They feel light, smooth, and cool.  They don’t bunch up in my shoe; they don’t ride down.  Now my red pair has some company, and my cotton socks are getting a well-deserved rest.

Now that’s real “joy of socks.”

Note:  My next punning post on this title will be about a sports nutrition diet featuring tofu.  It will be called “The Soy of Jocks.”  Only you can prevent this atrocity.  Send your tax-deductible bribe today.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

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Nature Report

Rolling out and heading down Academy Street for my ride today, I spied a coyote on the sidewalk, across the street from our house and just one property down.  He had the brown coat, long legs, and big ears as well as a bushy tail.  He was not especially large, so perhaps a somewhat immature one, but on reflection I don’t think it was a fox, as I first did.  At any rate, he was pretty skinny, and out well after sunrise.  And though he was moving along, he was not spooked by seeing me ride by.  I guess he’s becoming very accustomed to life in suburbia.

Jane and her walking group have seen this guy, and another one who is obviously a red fox, quick and quite robust, so regularly on their morning walks that they have clearly identified each as a separate individual.  I love the idea of having foxes around.  They keep the local squirrel population in check, and they are beautiful animals.  As long as they don’t turn rabid, they can be my neighbors.

About three miles farther on the ride, west of Maple Avenue in Vienna, I was rolling along near Northside and Eudora Parks when a doe and her spotted fawn crossed the trail just ahead.  I checked to see if others were following, so as not to get broadsided, but it was just the two.  “Bambi and his mom,” I thought.  Despite the woodsiness of western Vienna and the surrounding County region, I’ve always been amazed that the significant deer herd that lives in this area has the resources and privacy to keep on expanding their population.

But that population suffers reversals too.  Right beside the asphalt right-of-way between Jackson Parkway and the Trail a few days ago lay a dead doe.  I had just been annoyed at having to do an elaborate loop involving the sidewalk to get on the right-of-way because the curb ramp was being inexplicably blocked by a VDOT pickup truck.  When I spotted the deer I understood that the truck driver was probably responding to a report that somebody phoned in about the carcass.

The deer was lying on its side in the undergrowth of the short wooded stretch between the road and the trail.  Its head was arched way back, just the way deer often lie along the road when they have been hit.  This one had no obvious injury that I noted, though I didn’t dismount to draw a chalk outline and do a forensic exam.  It had been there long enough for flies to find it, but not long enough for a stench to develop.

I wondered how it had died.  Hit by a car on Jackson Parkway?  Hit by a ranger truck on the W&OD?  It was almost equidistant between the two.  Surreptitiously shot with a gun or a bow by some righteously indignant local gardener, tired of seeing the fruits (or vegetables, or flowers) of her labor destroyed by these overpopulated, predator-free vandals?  Astonished and angered by their brazenness and determination?  I think of the one (may this carcass be her!) last summer, who looked up, when I caught her gorging on our nicest hostas, with an expression that said “Do you mind?  I’m busy eating!”  Maybe it just got old.  Maybe it got indigestion from overindulging.  Maybe it had a difficult delivery and got infected.

In any event, when I came back from my ride later that morning, it was still there.  The VDOT guy must have realized he couldn’t handle it alone and left without it.  More flies had found it; the body was getting bloated in the 95˚ heat; a certain stench was discernible.  Next morning, Jane and her walking friends saw the carcass being removed.  It took two men, who were carrying the deer in a bag.  Though they were standing across the street, the walkers gagged at the stench.  The extra whole day in the heat, along with a warm night, had put decomposition into fast forward.  As Hamlet said, the deer had become host  to a “certain convocation of politic worms.”  (Wait—I thought those maggots were going to meet in Tampa in August).  The VDOT guys spread lime generously in the woods.  The stench yet lurks, nevertheless.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

Woodrow Wilson Bridge

A few days ago I abandoned my riding routines, deciding to take a “tourist” ride to a placed I’d never been before on a bike: the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.  This span crosses over the Potomac River on the south side of Washington, making landfall in Virginia at Alexandria, just below Old Town, the colonial part of Alexandria and the missing chunk of what used to be a diamond-shaped DC.  (There are still some old cast iron gutter spouts in Old Town marked “District of Columbia.”)  The Bridge is part of the Beltway, I-95, that carries through traffic around the District to the east, through Maryland.  Landfall on the east end is in Oxon Hill.

The bridge was completely rebuilt and updated over a period of years ending about 2010.

Woodrow Wilson Bridge, with spiral ramp lower right.
(c) Virginia Department of Transportation

During that time there were traffic delays, endless inter-jurisdictional squabbles about funding and policy (e.g. “Right to Work” Virginia didn’t want to hire union members), cost overruns, all par for the course in these parts.  But at the end of the process we got a great bridge, and end to traffic delays, and a first-class pedestrian/bike lane across the river.  It’s almost a mile wide at this point, so row vs. wade are not viable options to get across.

I’ve gone past the old bridge a few times on the Mount Vernon Trail, since Washington’s former residence lies just a few more miles to the south.  So I went that way again, hooking up to it from the W&OD extension that intersects just at the south end of National Airport.  It’s not far to Alexandria, past the big Washington Sailing Marina and Dangerfield Island (it don’t get no respect), across some wooden sections over swampland, then taking the left fork into the City itself.  Through Alexandria the Trail tends to run a block or two away from the waterfront, sometimes along old rail right-of-way and then on South Union Street, mostly residential, punctuated by parks and marinas.  Then looms the Bridge.  For the last three or four years the rider has had to feel the way around the bridge construction, as the Trail is closed where S. Union St. ends.  Heading west and uphill toward Rte. 1, one discovers an awkward detour under the Wilson Bridge that eventually leads back into the Trail.  All this will be easier in a couple of weeks, when Jones Point Park opens at and under the Bridge and the Trail presumably will lead quite smoothly through it.

It's also a drawbridge.

It’s also a drawbridge.
(c) James Thornton, American Bridge Company

When I went, however, the immediate approach was still piecemeal, right up to where the Bridge trail begins.  There’s a long concrete ramp uphill from the Trail detour, and then a big brick plaza inlaid with a circular directional sign, including an arrow to “Maryland.”  I followed that one, and found myself on a gradual uphill trail lane on the north side of the bridge.  It was wide, smooth, and well fenced off both from the Interstate travel lanes and the river.  As I ascended it flashed across my mind that I don’t always do well with heights, but the direction I was headed kept me to the inboard side, and coming back turned out to be equally comfortable, even though then I was next to the fencing at the outer edge.  There were three or four stops along the way where one could appreciate the upriver vistas, watch the planes take off from the airport, or read informative plaques about the history of the bridge and the river.  There were a few expansion joints, a cyclist or two, and a handful of pedestrians, as well as a small service vehicle and two workmen near the Maryland end, busily cleaning the pavement with leaf blowers.  The total trail distance across the bridge is about 1.2 miles.

On the Maryland side the descent off the bridge was more elaborate.  While there’s a “bluff” in Virginia so the bridge can make landfall quickly, in Maryland it’s all flatland, so the bridge and highway have to incline downward gradually.  The trail turns right and overpasses the road immediately after landfall, and descends in a long spiral loop to a continuation of the trail into Maryland, along other highways.  I descended but did not follow the Maryland extension, leaving that for another, perhaps cooler, day.  The trail overpass and spiral descent are wide and gradual, easy to negotiate, and beautifully landscaped.  The feel is of a genuinely first-class effort to make the trail top quality and attractive.

The return trip was uneventful.  I stopped in one of the marina parks in Alexandria to rest, watch boats, rehydrate, and cool off.  I rested again in Falls Church Park, just before I cross Lee Highway, and I was bathed in sweat.  The last few miles of the trip were comfortable enough.  When I got back I discovered I’d ridden about 36 miles, somewhat farther than I’d estimated.  But now I can say that I’ve cycled all the way to Maryland.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

The Oy! of Schlecks

In professional bike racing, this was supposed to be the year of triumph for the Schleck brothers of Luxembourg.  Andy, the younger of the two at 27, has finished second in the Tour de France for the last three years, though he was recently awarded the top spot for 2010, “posthumously” on paper, when Alberto Contador was stripped of the title for doping.  Schleck admitted that winning the Tour means little unless it happens on the road.  This year, when he and his brother Fränk (age 32) ended up on the Radioshack-Nissan-Trek team thanks to a merger, things looked rosy.  The Director Sportif of Radioshack is Johan Bruyneel, who guided Lance Armstrong to seven consecutive Tour victories, and also helped Alberto Contador to one of his legitimate ones.  The merger team is full of strong veteran riders and some good up-and-coming youngsters.

Odds of Andy mounting the podium on the Champs Élysées as a true winner looked pretty good.  He demonstrated in last summer’s Tour that he was capable of a big performance in the mountains when he attacked on the penultimate climb of stage 18, the Col d’Izoard, and rode solo up the Col du Galibier, one of the sternest climbs of any Tour, to take over two minutes out of his chasing rivals.  He cracked Contador for good, and had he been able to put in a strong time trial he would have defeated Cadel Evans for the overall victory.

As a potential on-the-road tour champion, however, Andy’s Achilles’ heel has always been time trialing.   Contador became a championship contender at the Tour when he improved his skills in that discipline under Bruyneel.  Andy’s past efforts to improve his contra-la-montre work were feeble and essentially unsuccessful, but his new team and DS Bruyneel figured to do him a world of good, working on the road and in the wind tunnel to adjust nuances of position and develop specific aerobic and muscular strength to the maximum, as he’d done with Lance.

Not so, however.  Andy’s on-and-off 2012 spring racing, more off than on because of injuries and illnesses, collapsed in a heap at the Critérium du Dauphiné two weeks ago.  In the time trial Andy, using an aero disc on his rear wheel as is fairly common in the ITT, got blown off his bike in a crosswind.  Schleck is light, but it’s not unknown for heavier riders, like the perennially overweight Jan Ullrich, to get blown off bikes.  Nevertheless, the real problem is that Schleck is not a great bike handler, as is shown in his inept descending abilities, not to mention his famous dropped chain in the 2010 Tour.  He just didn’t handle the aero disc very well.  The consequence is that he has a broken pelvis and will not even compete in the Tour, much less win it.

On top of this somewhat self-created bad luck Andy has lacked the toughness and resolve, the passionate determination, of a real champion.  This factor has created real friction with Bruyneel, who got used to seeing the fierce will of Lance Armstrong (check out the training episodes in the DVD The Road to Paris, where Lance refuses to quit a mountain climb until confronted with 6-foot snowdrifts, and then decides he’ll just ride down to the bottom and climb back a second time instead).

And that’s where Fränk comes in.  He has functioned as his brother’s main support rider for several years, but Bruyneel perceived that such a situation had become counterproductive, and split up the brothers for most of the spring schedule.  Thus Fränk was riding the Tour de Suisse instead of the Dauphiné last week.  This tough tour, another stage race tuneup for the Tour de France, finished with two mountaintop stages rather than a ceremonial ride at the end of the week.  Yesterday saw Fränk begin the last stage only 14 seconds behind, having picked up over a minute with a strong attack on the penultimate stage’s final climb.  On the next-to-last climb yesterday he put in another strong attack, and he lengthened it to over a minute lead on the descent.  Then he seemed to run out of both steam and will, almost sitting up to allow the chasing group, including the race leader, to catch him before the final climb.  On that last climb, which finishes with about 2 km of false flat, he did not even try to attack on the steep part and so finished in the leader’s group, still 14 seconds behind.  If Lance Armstrong had a minute gap and the race lead on the road, there would be no way he’d sit up or let anybody catch him.  Lance knew how to go into overdrive, how to punish his body to achieve victory.

Neither of the Schlecks has that fierce resolve, that focused will to triumph, that makes a winner, a “cannibal” like Eddy Merckx, a “badger” like Bernard Hinault.  Frank might finish in the top ten in the Tour, no mean feat.  He’s 31st in the UCI rankings right now, and was 10th at the end of last season.  Andy might do OK in the Olympics if he recovers, though probably not podium-level OK.  But victory?  I think they just don’t want it quite badly enough.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

Apprentice Mechanic

My stepson Andrew was always the master bike mechanic.  He’s the kind of guy who likes to take things apart just to see how they work and if he can reassemble them without

Toe clip shot 1

Toe clip strap incorrectly installed in forward slots of pedal.

having any pieces left over.  He maintained his bikes, he fixed his bikes, he even built his bikes to a greater or lesser degree, including the Bianchi Squadra (“RoseBike”) that I now ride.

Andrew was visiting some time back, and we ended up in the garage talking about the family bike collection.  He took a look at the Trek 2.1 and said, “aren’t those toe clips on wrong”?  I am just a humble apprentice mechanic who tries to maintain my bikes and do minor routine work on them, but I thought I knew how to install toe clips, for crying out loud!  Yet when I looked at them, they obviously were on wrong.  I had never noticed.

Toe clip cages screw on the front face of a pedal with two screws inserted through two slots.  You have to pry off the reflectors to get at them.  The toe clip straps run laterally through slits in the top of the cages and then are threaded through two slots on either side

toe clip 2

Toe clip strap properly installed, keeping foot in place.

of the pedal, near the back.  After you thread the strap through the inside slot you give it a full 360° twist before threading it back out the outside slot, so that it will not slip out of place.  The buckle has to be in just the right place, against the outer side of your shoe.

Somehow or other, on two of my five bikes I had gotten the strap through the forward slots instead of the rear slots of the pedal.  The consequence was that the strap did not hold my foot firmly against the pedal because it was too far forward, not snugly and directly under the ball of my foot on the pedal.  Not only was the foot not held well in place, but also it was harder to flip the pedal over and re-insert my foot when I started up after taking my foot out when I stopped.  I’d always wondered why that maneuver was more difficult on those two bikes.

The situation, once observed, was easily remedied.  But it illustrates why some of us are still lowly apprentice mechanics.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

Bad Attitudes

Two recent Washington Post stories and the reaction to them give me cause to question the possibility of constructive, civil discourse in general, and the ongoing skirmish among drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians in particular.  The first was the narrative of Post Wellness Editor Lenny Bernstein (no, not that Lenny Bernstein) of his experiences in trying to cycle to work in response to last month’s Bike To Work Day.  The second was the report yesterday of a fatal accident on the Four Mile Run bike trail in which a cyclist killed a eighty-year-old pedestrian.  In both cases much of the Post reader response was vituperative, nasty, antagonistic, and lacking in logic, compassion, and respect.

I suppose that tone is to be expected, since it’s been the norm for over ten years on the Internet, harking back to the era of AOL chat rooms.  Still, it seems surprising to hear it so clearly on a topic that really need not be controversial and should be taken seriously in the interest of public safety, namely bicycle use in urban areas.  What the two stories have in common is a focus on using bikes as transportation to and from work, not as recreational or exercise vehicles.

In his story Bernstein, who does not chan smoke and may not even like the symphonies of Mahler, admitted that he made some cycling gaffes, like riding through a tunnel when he could have gone up a ramp and avoided it.  He worried about his change of clothes from trail to office, he wondered about time, he considered options like driving part way, and in general tried to extrapolate from his own experience in going from a suburban home to a city office to assess the broader possibilities of biking to work in this large, complex, traffic-clogged metropolitan region.

He reported a few days later that most of his responses were supportive and collegial, including suggestions of alternate routes, ideas about how to carry the work clothes efficiently, and lists of dos and don’ts from experienced commuter cyclists.  He also, however, apparently got a large number of angry and /or vulgar comments about staying out of the way of drivers, breaking the law, and even just being a novice.

The pedestrian death story concerned a cyclist on Four Mile Run Trail in Arlington, VA who approached an 80-year-old woman pedestrian from behind about 7 a.m. last Monday.  By that hour the sun is well up these days, so visibility was not a problem.  He warned her both by bell and the familiar verbal “to your left” that he was passing her.  Her response was to move to her left, directly into his path, and turn around.  He hit her, she fell to the ground , hit her head, and died.  The cyclist stayed on the scene.

No charges were filed, but the incident was reported in the Crime section of the online Washington Post.  I can only surmise that the Post, having apparently abandoned copy editing some time back, is now moving into sensationalistic yellow journalism, trying to bias the story and create sensationalistic emotions from readers.  They got some in the reader reply section following the story.  The comments ranged from rage about lawless, reckless riders (this one seems to have done everything right, providing both a verbal and a bell warning, calling 911, and staying on the scene), to accusations of excess speed (no evidence of that—it takes very little force to knock down an off-balance 80-year-old), to absurd tangential arguments about what kind of nerd would ride the bike involved (a NEXT Power Climber dual suspension Mountain Bike with a shipping weight of 45 lbs. [that’ll knock you over!] currently on sale at WalMart for $88).  Burning anger, mindless ranting, with the essential facts of the situation forgotten.

I feel for both of these riders, having ridden a few times in swarming traffic, and having many times warned walkers of passing with “on the left” only to have them move in that direction.  Cyclists are accused of not following the rules of the road.  They are said to think the road belongs first and foremost to them.  They appear to think their own path and destination are the most important things.  Now I grant you there’s just a hint of a voice in the back of my head whispering “We don’t have to!  It does!  They are!”  But my Good Angel reminds me that just a bit of humility, caution, deference, and manners, even an occasional yielding of the right-of-way,  would solve most of these conflicts, and create a far more positive public opinion of cyclists.  In a city in which bicycle use is soaring—we don’t look like Amsterdam yet, but the Bikeshare folks can’t keep up with demand—everyone had better begin to think more kindly of others in cars, on bikes, and on foot.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

Back in the Saddle Again

I hadn’t ridden my Jamis Coda Comp hybrid bike more than about three times over the last cycling season, and there it was, still just hanging on the garage wall.  It’s a powerful, fast bike with a 52 tooth chainring, and the combination of steel frame and carbon forks make it very comfortable.  The 28mm tires give it stability and more comfort, too.

So what is the problem with this bike?  For one thing, it’s one of five, and my default go-to bike is the Trek 2.1.  But there’s more to the story.  About a year and a half ago I set up the Comp hybrid to be my winter indoor bike.  In the process, I decided I’d put on my clipless pedals to see if I could get used to them.  I’ve always felt more secure with toe clips, but that has to be just a matter of getting familiar with a different feel; after all, a vast majority of serious riders use the clipless system.

All winter during 2010-2011 I got used to the pedals, and when spring came I vowed to keep trying them out on the road until I got the right feel.  I actually tried them just about three times, though, and never got to the point of being comfortable with putting clipless pedals on the Trek.  The Coda simply languished, as I delayed removing the pedals and rode my other bikes instead.  I figured that this last winter I’d start over and really get used to them for once and for all.

But the winter of 2011-2012 was the warmest on record.  The trail was never inaccessible for more than a day or two.  So I never set up my winter trainer at all; I never got back to trying to accommodate to clipless pedals.

This spring a long-standing detour onto a bridle trail (see previous post) has revivified my interest in riding my hybrid bikes.  Lower tire pressure (6 vs. 7 atmospheres) and wider contact point (28 vs. 23 mm), not to mention the presence of tread, make traction on sand and gravel a little easier (though I saw a rider fall off a fat-tire mountain bike on the detour a couple of days ago).  And for distance riding, a bike of the speed and quality of the Coda has some serious appeal.

So a few days ago I got out the work stand and pedal wrench, took off the Look pedals, and put the toe-clip jobs back on.  I oiled the chain and the cables, adjusted the rear brake, lowered the seat about ¾” to match the distance between pedal and seat of the other bikes, and pumped up the absolutely airless tires.  Then I took it out on the trail and remembered why I liked this bike.  It’s elegant, has a great gear range, rides well, and “feels” fast.  It handled the bridle trail with ease.  It climbed hills more easily than I remembered.  I also remembered that my rear end has to get used to its gel saddle again, and that there is only one hand position on a straight-bar bike.  And it still needs a good washing.  But as Gene Autry used to sing, “I’m back in the saddle again.”

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.