Posts tagged "Biking"

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Source: My sexy new steed, under ideal lighting conditions.

I'm generally not against spending money. I am however generally against buying things. This is a point I've surely beaten well beyond death by now, so I won't belabor it much further. It's just to say that I want to be really sure something makes sense within the larger context of my life before I buy it and have to deal with it forever.

I only mention this because I've been on a bit of a purchasing spree (by my standards) as of late, which is at least part of the reason I've been so quiet on here for the past two months. The other part of the reason is that I'm just generally bad at blogging. Anyway, this post (and the next two), will talk about some of the purchases I've made, mostly over the past few weeks. This first one's not all that contentious, but I promise they'll get more questionable as we go. Okay, on to the post.

I have a fairly limited range of hobbies. I like reading, hiking, writing the occasional blog post , making low-quality gag websites for my own amusement, and last but not least, biking.

My love of biking isn't new, I've definitely mentioned it once or twice. Even though I was a total biking rookie three short years ago, some of my favorite memories since moving out to California have been biking up and down the Bay Trail on my trusty steed, a used Raleigh Misceo I haggled my way into purchasing. Alas, the bike is showing its age and last year was deemed financially unwise to repair.

Nowadays, riding the bike (even at the slowest of speeds on the smoothest and flattest of surfaces) feels like riding an exercise bike covered in molasses, with the resistance cranked up to 11. With my sore, lactic acid-filled quads in mind, I decided that the bike and I would embark on one last hurrah, a figurative ride into the sunset: Bike to Work Day 2018, henceforth just called "BTWD", because bandwidth ain't free. My company is big on BTWD, so I figured I'd Caltrain up to San Francisco and join tons of my SF-based co-workers for the ~42 mile ride to work in the morning.

But alas, it wasn't meant to be.

Tragedy Strikes

The weekend prior to BTWD, my favorite mode of transportation was stolen from me. Err, the front wheel was stolen while the bike was locked up at a Caltrain station. The back wheel of the bike was also removed, but whoever removed it realized that wasn't even worth stealing, and they left it next to the bike. The rear derailleur was also in rough shape from being on the ground; I don't imagine it was placed particularly gingerly.

I feel a bit guilty for this, but I'd semi-secretly been rooting for it to be stolen, and I was almost happy to find the bike in such a sorry state. After all, it gave me an excuse to jump start my search for a new one. In and of itself, that bothered me a little bit. I guess it's just frustrating how something that means so little to me (a bike tire) can mean so much to someone else, to the point they'd take the risk of stealing it. This is probably a good time to plug GiveDirectly and HandUp, organizations that give money directly to people in need. If you've ever felt overwhelmed with how lucky you've gotten in life/how good your life is, they're both wonderful organizations to contribute to.

Brief tangent aside, with BTWD right around the corner, it wasn't a great time to have my bike in an unusable state. Luckily for me, my employer provides a borderline sickening bevy of useful perks, one of which is doling out commuter bikes to anyone who wants one. So I borrowed a beat-up commuter bike, and did the ~42 mile ride.

I hadn't done a long (>20 mile) ride in a while, partly because it had been colder than usual and partly because I'd been lazier than usual, but I got to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride from SF down to South Bay. The weather was gorgeous, the ride was the right amount of challenging, and best of all, I got to stuff my unremitting maw with more food than usual.

Bike 3.0

Still coming down from my BTWD-induced high, I started my search for a new bike almost immediately. My thought was that, with a few years of bike riding experience under my belt, and plans to do a century (100+ mile bike ride) one of these days, I shouldn't be afraid to spend a bit more on a nice road bike that will likely last me a decade or so with proper care. After doing a bit of research, and learning even the most basic of cycling lingo, I eventually settled on the entry-level Specialized Allez, coming in at a pricey, (but not bank-breaking) $750. It's got an aluminum frame, carbon fiber fork, Shimano Claris shifters, and many other fancy-sounding features I can vaguely pronounce and even more vaguely understand.

I tried out some of the more premium bike configurations, even testing out a $2,800 Specialized Roubaix Elite. In the end though, I couldn't really justify a bike that is almost four times the cost and only a few pounds lighter and a few percent faster. I used a corporate discount to get 15% off the bike as store credit, which I used to buy a new lock, seat bag, and replacement tube kit. The seat bag and replacement tube kit were promptly stolen two days later while biking around San Francisco. Such is life.

My sexy steed, sans stolen seat sack, under less-attractive office lighting.


In the context of my life, this purchase probably made sense. Sure, I could have fixed up my old bike, replacing the derailleur and the front tire, but the rest of the bike was in such bad shape that I'd really just have been prolonging its misery, and my own. Through that lens, treating this purchase like an investment in my cycling-heavy future seems like a reasonable bet. The jury is still out on whether that's true for Questionable Purchases™ 2 and 3.

Source: I couldn't think of what image to use for this post, so I made this abomination. Using no image would have been a far better choice, yet here we are.

While it's not an outright lie to say I have a car, it's probably a bit disingenuous. As recently discussed, calling it a two-seater with some generous trunk space is definitely pushing it (but technically correct).

More accurately, I have an eleven-and-a-half foot tall, four-to-five ton, screaming metal death trap on wheels. From that description (and my past ramblings), it's not particularly shocking that I try not to drive it, but there's actually a whole host of reasons I stay away from behind the wheel.

So Many Dead Dinosaurs

1. The thing is an environmental nightmare, a fact I've talked about before. Seriously though, a coral reef dies every time I turn on the ignition. Plus, less driving means I spend less on gas. But even given the utterly dismal ten-mile-per-gallon fuel efficiency, I only ever top the truck off once every three months or so.

Recently, I accidentally killed the battery by sheer force of my own idiocy. After AAA came and jumped it, I had to leave the thing running for a while to make sure the battery was recharged. Watching the monstrous box idle for half an hour was…painful.

Keepin' the Rent Low

2. Not driving it keeps my insurance premiums stupidly low for, you know, basically being my rent. The price has gone up and down over the years for a bunch of different reasons (discounts, speeding tickets, proof of mileage, etc), but for now it's settled at a perfectly palatable $492.88 per six month policy.


3. The less I drive, the more it's worth when I sell it. This isn't a big deal, because with 160,000 miles on it, the additional mileage doesn't really result in much depreciation. I just need to treat it well enough to not cause any major mechanical malfunctions in the mean time.


4. Despite my best attempts to secure stuff, things will move around when I drive. The less I drive, the less reorganizing I have to do. Even with earthquake-proofing straps and stuff, there's no telling what kind of torque I'm putting on random key structural components of the truck, and I'd rather not find out by bending something important and suddenly have it start leaking (again).

So, if I only have one "car", and I do my darnedest to not drive it, how do I get around?

Bikes, Not Boxes

My trusty partner in crime is a fairly modest machine, the same used road bike I haggled into my life nearly two years ago. Reading over that post, it's funny to see just how far we (the bike and I) have come. By my estimates, I've put at least 1,500 miles on it, and likely much more. And if the bike was "hardly used" when I bought it, I'd describe it as "well-worn" nowadays. I've definitely put it through its paces, for everything from the daily trip to work (~1 mile), to the weekend jaunt over to one of my usual cafes (~10 miles), to the excursions up to San Francisco/Sausalito I try to make at least once a month (50+ miles).

The last time I brought it in for a tune-up, the mechanic basically told me to not even bother. He said it'd be marginally more to buy a nice road bike than to fix all the thoroughly worn pieces of my current bike. To really drive home his point, he threw in an overly detailed and itemized list of each repair he recommended to bring my bike to a safe and reasonable condition. The list included pretty much every imaginable bike component except the frame.

Exhibit A

And this was nearly six months ago, it's only downhill from here. Which is terrifying, because the brakes don't work all that well.

With all the above in mind, I'd describe my current plan as "ride it until it literally falls apart from underneath me."

And while I'm fine with that plan, I understand it sounds…not ideal. I swear, it does have a few redeeming qualities though. For one, I've gotten used to how much effort it takes to get my bike moving, and just how few of the gears still work. So as my bike gets harder and harder to ride, it just means I'll be more and more surprised by how awesome my next bike is. Plus, if this bike can still make it to San Francisco, it can't really be that bad, can it?

Other Transportation

But alas, there are times when the bike, try as it may, just doesn't cut it. If I need to show up somewhere not looking like a sweaty, truckly mess, the bike isn't a particularly good candidate. Or if I need to haul stuff around, like picking up a package from my mailbox, the bike is, at best…awkward. Historically, I've filled in these gaps with corporate cars*, the truck, and the occasional rental car, but these cases come up surprisingly infrequently.

Renting Cars

In my past travels, I've always rented cars from the usual suspects, namely National, Enterprise, and Hertz. It makes sense, they're present at all the major airports and I've always gotten generous corporate discounts booking with them, even for personal trips. And while that's all well and good for air travel, I've always been curious if there are better options when I'm just running a lot of errands or doing a semi-local weekend trip. Clearly, I hadn't been curious enough to actually do anything about it, but this past weekend I finally got around to doing a little bit of experimentation.

One of the benefits of living in the Bay Area is that it's a hotbed for random start-ups testing their services out. That may seem like a bit of a non sequitur, but it just so happens that some of these random start-ups operate in the travel/rental car space, like Getaround and Turo. The service they offer is basically like Uber or Lyft, but for crowd-sourced car rentals. People can list their cars at a daily rental rate, and people can go on and rent them.

I had never used either of those services before, but Halloween-related party planning meant I had to do a bit of running around, and the bike wasn't up to task, so I signed up for Turo. There was a bit of a communication/logistics problem with the first car I tried to book, which was unfortunate, but the second one ended up be cheaper, nicer, and closer to where I was, so overall it was definitely a win. And compared with the more traditional options above (even after all my usual discounts), I got a better car, more conveniently, for a better price, meaning these car-sharing apps are definitely going to become a part of my travel playbook.

All of this has gotten me scheming thinking: could I buy a car, and then just list it on one of these sites to make a few bucks on the side? The past two years have shown I only need a car at infrequent and sporadic intervals, so I could heavily subsidize the cost of owning a car (or even profit), with a minimal amount of legwork involved on my end.

I could even take it a step further, and catalog the going rate for rental cars of different makes, models, and years, and compare that to the current cost of buying one of those cars outright. This would tell me which cars would be the most profitable to list on a given platform. Another (related) idea: since these apps allow you to offer car delivery, I could mount a bike rack on the car, drive it to wherever the renter is, and then bike back, and do the same thing in reverse to pick the car up at the end of their rental.

Obviously, I need to look much harder into the details (associated costs, insurance, risks, logistics, etc), but it's certainly an interesting proposition.

*My company has a fleet of cars we can borrow between like 7 am and 8 pm on weekdays, which are useful for errands and meetings on different campuses.

Source: My new used, person-powered transportation machine

I'd like to start with a eulogy.

We're gathered here today to mourn the loss of a close friend. His duration in our lives was swift and fleeting, almost ephemeral. His presence was electric, his absence left a hole in my heart, not to mention a deficit in my transportation abilities. Yes, I'm talking about the passing of our beloved friend, my corporate Specialized Turbo.

Before I say anything else, let me just acknowledge that this was entirely my fault. Okay, so remember that awesome electric bike I got through a company pilot program? It turns out that a big stipulation of the program is that the main usage of the bike has to be commuting. Naturally, living on campus, my "commute" doesn't quite qualify, and so I, with a heavy heart, had to return the bike. In my defense, I was "commuting" to my mailbox (~10 miles away) 3-4 times a week, but that's still not quite in the spirit of the program.

What Now?

I was just starting to explore the immense mobility the bike provided me. It liberated me from two equally-unpleasant travelling options: spend all my time walking or drive my clunky, inefficient house (it's barely a car, as far as I'm concerned) around. I had bought a really nice helmet for use with the electric bike, which I'd hate to see sitting around the truck, going to waste. I knew I couldn't go back to my old life Before Cycling (BC for short). I also knew I wasn't going to spend $3,000+ on a fancy, brand new electric bicycle. My current priorities dictate that I split that money between my remaining student loans and my fancy new investment portfolio (to be detailed in a future post). So I started looking around for gently-worn, non-electric road bikes.

The Haggle Battle

I was raised Jewish, though I haven't regularly attended services in nearly a decade. It follows that, if you believe in stereotypes, I should theoretically be good at haggling. But experience has shown that I'm just not good at it. In fact, I'd go as far as saying I'm flat out bad at it, somehow forking over more cash than if I had said nothing at all.

But Brandon, what does your inconsistent, lackadaisical approach to Judaism have to do with bicycles?

Well impatient reader, allow me to explain. On this past Monday evening, I sauntered into a quaint used bike shop in Palo Alto, and casually laid down my demand.

"I'm looking for a used road bike", I said, "Nothing fancy, just to get around town. My budget is $300." Notice that I didn't say "about $300" or "around $300". This is important because 1) I'm usually a huge, subconscious advocate for that type of imprecise language and 2) it sets the groundwork for what took place next.

The bike shop salesperson grabs two bikes for me to try out outside. The first one is a "vintage" bike, which is just bike-speak for "really old". I get on it and it starts to spasmodically shift gears without any input from me. Assuming demonic possession, I bring that bike inside and grab the next one. This one doesn't appear to need an exorcism, but I'm not particularly wowed either. It's a bit rusty, and I feel like I'm putting in a disproportionate amount of effort for the snails' pace that I'm moving at. Those bikes were $250 and $300 respectively. I go back inside, and the salesperson says to me, "Here, try this one out, I think you might like it." It feels like that scene in Harry Potter where he's picking out his first wand and he finds the perfect match in the pair wand to Voldemort's. I get on and it just feels right. Taking it out for a spin, it's smooth and the gears shift nicely. This is the one, I know it. I bring it back inside, the smile on my face lets the salesperson know I've found my bike.

"This one", he says, "is $400."

My heart sinks a bit: though my $300 limit was arbitrary, he doesn't know that, and I intend to stick with it. I let out a sigh, "that's really unfortunate. I like the bike, but $300 is my limit here."

He furrows his brow a bit, "I can probably do $350".

At this point, I realize that my first successful haggle is underway, and I stand firm, "Sorry man, I set aside $300 to get a bike, I really can't go over that." Sure it's not entirely truthful, but $300 is my target.

"It's only a year old and was hardly used. If it were brand new, this bike would cost…", he pauses for a second to look it up, "over $500. The best I can do is $320." It's pretty close to what I wanted and he seems serious, I should take it. It's a great bike and my past day's research says this is a good deal. But I keep pushing.

"That's too bad, I was hoping to take this bike home today. Do you have any other bikes in my price range I could look at?"

He cracks. "You know what, I'll give it to ya for $300".

I take him up on the offer immediately, and I buy a $50 lock too, because I feel bad for subjecting him to my games and appreciate his flexibility. I also genuinely needed a lock. He throws in a kickstand, and attaches the bike lock for me as well. The total, with tax, comes to ~$390. Not bad, not bad at all.

I load it into the back of the truck, and secure it to the bike rack I had built for the electric bike. Because this bike is so much lighter (20 pounds versus 50 pounds), it feels much more stable.

Quality Time with the Bike

Hagglefest 2015 was last Monday, so I've had almost a week to get familiar with my new fat-powered race car. I didn't do much riding until yesterday, mostly just short trips into town, which the bike complied with handily, without question. Yesterday however, I did something crazy.

The Big Ride

My cardio is generally awful, as I've mentioned before. Jogging a mile requires an act of divine intervention, and I've never cycled more than ~20 miles at once. Even when I did, those 20 mile trips were on the electric bike which, on "full power" mode (the default setting), does most of the work for me. But I'd really been enjoying the bike so far, and I was itching to take it on a real ride. It just so happened that there was a truck-people meetup happening in Oakland on Saturday (which will definitely get its own post). So I resolved to bike to Oakland, a ~50 mile, four hour odyssey from where my box-truck home is parked. I had no idea what I was getting into.

This post is already getting pretty long, so I'll skip most of the tiny, inconsequential details that I love to ramble on about (like how I still had two hours to go when I thought I was "almost there"). The gist is that the ride was punishing, but beautiful. I rode across long swaths of the Bay Trail, crossed over the Dumbarton Bridge, and saw plenty of gorgeous, sprawling land and seascapes. It was well-worth the chapped lips, sweat-soaked clothing, and sore, bruised butt bones (which I now know are called ischial tuberosities). Plus, it's gratifying to know that I biked a distance that's likely distinguishable from space. I still can't feel my legs, but that'll probably get better (right?). I'll definitely do similar rides in the future, once my body forgives me.

One last note that I thought was interesting: If I had still had the electric bike, it's very likely I wouldn't have biked the distance. The battery range is only 25-30 miles, so 60% of the way through my trip, the bike would have died and I'd be left with a 50 pound bike and 20+ miles to go. Not ideal. I would have had to either drive (environmental homicide/generally awful) or Caltrain/BART (lame and inconvenient). So I'm actually getting more use out of a less-fancy bicycle. Life is all about your willingness to make lemonade.

Source: The new rack. Ignore how dungeon-esque this picture looks, I swear it's not nearly this creepy in person.

It's been a while since my last Home Improvement post, which is bad because it means I'm not improving the truck. And trust me, the truck certainly does have areas for improvement. Anyway, I mentioned that I got a new bike recently. This was great but, like every time I get something new, it posed an issue.

The Situation

I'm now in possession of a large, 50 pound hunk of metal and rubber, which I have to store somewhere. It makes sense to keep it with me, because:

  1. It's a $3,000+ piece of equipment
  2. For some reason bikes in the Bay Area are especially prone to being stolen
  3. It just seems silly to keep it anywhere else. If I have to go get it every time I want to use it, doesn't that defeat the purpose? Seriously, who wants to pregame their bike ride with a half-mile walk.Certainly not me

So I made the pretty easy decision to keep the bike safe and sound in the truck when I'm using it. That's all well and good and whatnot, but what happens when I need to drive somewhere? The bike won't stay standing on its own, especially not with my abrupt and punctuated driving style. I'm not just going to lay it down, tie some rope around it, and hope for the best. It has all sorts of fancy parts (derailleur, electric motor, torque sensor, lights, disc brakes, etc), and leaving it to rattle around in the back sounds like a great way to totally and needlessly ruin it. My general strategy for having nice things is to not break them, and I'm going to try my darnedest to keep it up.

Planning It Out

So I did some preliminary research. I'm in the unique position of having to choose between a home bike rack and a car bike rack. In either case, I knew I needed something pretty heavy duty to accommodate the weight of this bike in all of its electric, motored glory. I quickly realized a home rack wouldn't work out well, because those racks aren't expecting a ton of movement, so they don't bother with any shock-resistance, which could potentially warp the frame of the bike or toss it off the rack if I went over a bump hard enough. After a bit of searching, I decided on a Truck Bed Bike Rack. I figured that the box is basically a giant truck bed, and I could probably finagle the clamps on properly…somehow. Plus, the bike being upright but on the ground means that I don't have to worry about it falling, like I would for a ceiling mount or some other fancy wall mount. I placed my order, waited a few days for it to come in, then it was time to get my hands dirty, proverbially speaking.*

Now if you've looked at my past "Home Improvement" posts, there's a pretty consistent theme: I inevitably get something horribly wrong and make my life unnecessarily difficult due to my thorough lack of understanding about how the physical world works. I'm a software engineer: I move electrons and pixels, not wood and metal. Per usual, my problem was that I didn't properly do my research. I was hoping I'd be able to clamp the wooden slats along the sides of the truck in the same way they'd clamp onto the edge of a truck bed. Well, I should have done less hoping, and more measuring, because the wooden slats were ever-so slightly too tall to properly clamp onto, and ever-so slightly too close to the truck wall for the thickness of the clamp.

Screwing Stuff Together

Discouraged, but far from ready to admit defeat, I paced around the back of the truck, at the time parked in a random parking lot. After a short eternity, I realized I could unscrew the wooden slat, place the back half of the clamp against the wall, and then pin it into place by screwing the slat back in. The clamp still didn't fit around the wood correctly, but I figured if I tightened it really, really, really well, I could dig the metal clamp straight into the wood, and hopefully that would be stable enough to keep the bike in place. I executed my new plan, gave a couple tugs on the connecting rod as a test (which elicited a cacophony of creaks), and then put the bike into place, wrapping the clamp around the seatpost.

The end result? So far, good. I drove about a mile with the bike secured in the back and it appeared to survive unscathed, no implosions or loss of life. I'm not yet confident enough to claim that a particularly sharp turn won't just rip the wood slat out of the wall and send the bike crashing to the ground, but I've got my fingers crossed.

*The truck is actually pretty clean, I sweep it at least once a week.

Source: My sexy new ride, picture from ShopAdvisor

I like to think I'm pretty environmentally friendly. I try to minimize my waste, take quick showers, and not run unnecessary appliances, like heating and cooling systems. I'm definitely not a super earthy-crunchy-Hippie-type, but I'm at least vaguely cognizant of the atrocities I commit against Mother Nature. My main sin against the planet, aside from just being American, is the fact that I run errands in an 11,500 pound tank that gets 8 MPG on a good day. That's bad for at least four different reasons, in no particular order:

  1. I weigh ~170 pounds, it's wildly inefficient for me to haul six tons of metal with me to a cafe.
  2. As it turns out, the truck doesn't just fold up and fit in my pocket once I get somewhere. I have to park the stupid thing, and I've noted before how that isn't always easy.
  3. It's also my home. And really, it makes a better home than mode of transportation. Plus, I invariably forget to secure something, and the next time in the box becomes a game of "find and pick up all the stuff that was violently thrown around while you were driving". The joy.
  4. It costs money. I like having money, it's better than not having money because I spent it on 100 million year old plants (read: gasoline) to please my truck-beast.

So, you can imagine my elation when I found out that my company was piloting an electric bicycle program. Looking at the list of Bad ThingsTM above, here's how an electric bike would make my life better:

  1. It weighs like 50 pounds, which is ~99.6% less than the truck. Much more efficient for moving me places.
  2. Parking a bicycle is infinitely easier than a 20-something foot long truck.
  3. Bicycles are made for taking people places. Moving trucks are meant for taking things places. I'm glad to no longer be forcing a square peg into a round hole.
  4. It's free! It's mine to use as long as I stay with my current employer. I can charge it up at work, and it gets 25+ miles on a single charge. That's enough for a trip to my mailbox and a few local errands.

So naturally, I signed up for the program, did the training, and picked up my shiny new toy. The bike is a Specialized Turbo. It's a pedalec, which means that it only helps me move along, it doesn't do all the work like a motorcycle would. It has a torque-sensor, so it puts in effort proportional to my own. This is all great, because frankly my cardio sucks, and I can't be bothered to actively work on it. But when you incorporate it into my daily routine, and also let me do it at almost 30 MPH (I got a motorcycle license just so I could get the faster version), I'm much more inclined to play along. I've only had it for four days, but I've already racked up 50 miles on it. I bought a bike rack for the truck so I can take it places with me, but I haven't installed that yet. I'll save that for a separate "Home Improvement" post.

I'm still working out little details, like where I want to mount the rack in the truck (not that there are a ton of choices), and how to get it in and out of the truck smoothly (it's 50 pounds and awkward to maneuver), but overall it's been a total boon to my routine.


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