Crater lake is the best.

Fixed Gear Riding

Since my last post about biking in a city, a lot of people have asked me why I ride a fixed gear bicycle. Isn’t it more dangerous? Doesn’t it make hills miserable? What’s the deal? Are you a hipster? I’ve been riding mostly fixed gear for about four years (with the exception of bike touring in Italy), and I love it.

You only get to choose one gear ratio for a fixed gear bike, and it’s an important choice. A lot of people aim for a ratio of close to 2 for city riding (twice as many teeth on the chain ring by your feet as on the back wheel hub). This makes going up hills and stopping with just your feet a bit easier, but it means your feet really spin when you’re going fast. I opted for a gear ratio closer to 3, which lets me build up a little bit more speed. It makes some hills devastating, and it means I use my hand brake more often to control my speed. For longer rides, it’s key for getting through long flat stretches.

Anyway, here are the top five reasons I ride a fixie:

1. Control

Riding a fixie gives one a whole different sense of control of the bicycle. The difference between fixed and free wheels is that the fixed wheel has no ratcheting mechanism in the back hub. When you crank the pedals, the back wheel spins proportionally to your pedal stroke. If you pedal slower, the wheel spins slower. If your feet are stationary, the wheel is stopped. You can even pedal backwards if you’re good. With a free wheel, when you stop pedaling, you coast as far as your momentum will take you. The direct control over the back wheel means you can make minor adjustments to your velocity without braking, and you can come to a complete stop relatively quickly without brakes. Maybe I am a control freak? Some riders remove brakes from their bikes completely, but this is a pretty bad idea in general. It works if you live in a kind of flat place, or if you have a poor sense of self-preservation and live somewhere like San Francisco. It basically necessitates using skid stops, which is when you crank hard on the pedals to stop the back wheel despite your forward momentum, causing your back wheel to lock up and skid to a stop.

2. Simplicity

There are two primary forms of simplicity in the fixed gear: simplicity in mechanics, and simplicity in riding. The mechanics are easy to figure out and easy to tune up. It is a bicycle stripped down to its most essential. No derailleurs, and so no alignment issues, very few chain issues, and no shifting cables to worry about. I built my bike up with a friend in Eugene, which was a great way to see how the whole thing works. If you keep it clean and tightened, this bike will stay solid. In terms of riding, you always have one less thing to think about. You never have to worry about gear selection. When you come to a hill, you have to pedal harder. You don’t have to think about what gear ratio is going to get you up the hill with the least amount of effort, and you don’t have to click around through your gears to find it. This may seem like a small thing, but I enjoy the simplicity in it.

Crater lake is the best.

A friend and I rode around Crater Lake in Oregon. Mine is on top.

3. Momentum

When you ride a free wheel bike (one that can coast), there is a dead spot at the top of your pedal stroke. It’s the spot when your foot is at the top of the stroke when you’re transitioning between pulling up and pushing down. With a fixie, your momentum keeps the pedals moving, so you actually get a little push from the bike instead of having a dead spot. The bike always wants to keep moving. It is responsive to your adjustments and provides feedback on how it’s moving directly to your feet. As an added bonus, the fixed gear ratio allows you to calculate statistics about your ride on the fly. One time I went on a 135 mile ride with a friend from Eugene to the ocean and back. On the way, I figured out that the whole ride would entail 34,000 pedal strokes (I was a little bit off because I simplified pi).

4. Exercise

Riding a fixie is better exercise than a regular geared bike. To slow down, you have to resist the pedals turning, so you get resistive force on your legs in addition to explosive. Because I don’t get to gear down for hills, I generally end up riding harder up them. I know if I lose too much momentum I won’t be able to get it back without some serious effort. On the way down the hill, I end up going slower because I have to pedal the whole way. This requires some resistive force to keep from losing control, which makes it a great workout no matter the terrain.

5. Silence

This bike is quiet. Free wheels click as they spin, but a fixed wheel doesn’t have any ratcheting parts, so it is completely silent. Well, at least when it’s well oiled and aligned. My bike has been having some other unhappy sounding clicks and scratches, but that’s just because it’s desperate for a tune up right now. There is something wonderful about sailing down a road, fully engaged with the ground, not making a sound.

Riding a fixie may not be for everyone, but I really enjoy it. If you’ve got some time to burn, check out some Youtube videos of people doing tricks on their fixies. Really impressive, and really crazy. In order to move one step closer to being able to join the circus, I’ve been practicing my no-handed track stands. Once I’m able to play ukulele while I balance on my bike, I think I’ll have a chance.

Doing yoga!

What I Think About When I Do Yoga

It seems like everyone is doing yoga right now, and there are probably just about as many ways to think about yoga practice as there are people doing it. I think it’s great that it’s become a big thing, and it has certainly had a major positive influence on my life. I’ve read a number of pieces on what is going on when you do yoga, and particularly like this one. The NY Times also just presented some reasons not to do yoga, which I thought was a little extreme. I don’t know much about the history or tradition of yoga, but I like doing it and I like thinking about it.

The first time I tried yoga was when I was in kindergarten. I don’t remember much about the year other than that. It was really fun, and my teacher was great. After that I didn’t touch it again until the end of high school, and I didn’t practice regularly until college. From there I took classes occasionally, and mostly did that when I could find a good deal or take it through school. About a year ago I started to listen to podcasts and practice in my room. Now I try to do this about three times a week, and it has been by far the most committed and enjoyable my yoga experience has been.

One of the most cited reasons to do yoga, and one of my biggest drivers, is the confluence of mind, body, and spirit. It’s great to have an activity that covers several different needs simultaneously. It loosens and limbers the body, calms the mind, and engages the spirit. I like the focus on energy and the mindfulness that comes along with it. I also like that it is not actually about the stretching. Going to the gym is a one-purpose activity. There’s not much you can do there beyond strengthening the body. With yoga, the strain on your body is a tool for actively strengthening your mind and expanding your spirit. Putting your body in a stressful position while keeping your mind calm and focused is practice for dealing with real-life stress.

Now that I’ve practiced a good deal on my own, I’ve found that I generally prefer that to a class. Maybe I’m just antisocial, but I like moving at my own pace and being able to focus on how my body and mind feel without the distraction of the people around me. I also like the repetition of doing pretty much the same movements over and over again. It makes it feel more like practice. I do occasionally miss the social atmostphere of a class and the variety and presence a live teacher brings, but usually I prefer to be alone.

And how do I actually feel when I do yoga? It’s hard to describe. The body leads the way for me, bringing my mind to a calmer state, and eventually generating a swell of warmth and contentment. I usually begin slightly stiff and tense from sitting at a desk and looking at a screen for most of the day. As I go through some gentle downward dogs and warrior poses, my muscles slowly start to give. Muscle fibers stretch, and strength and awareness begin to assert themselves in my body.

I find the physical discipline of keeping myself steady and at my edge is what initiates and grows my mental discipline. Through supporting my body’s effort to stay strong and steady, my mind releases its points of tension and pain, smoothes and steadies itself in the process. I find I’m more able to stay buoyant despite difficulties or sluggishness of the day. Some days I’m not able to get there, with my mind so crowded that I have trouble even staying focused through 20 minutes of yoga, let alone an hour and a half.

When I’m having a focused and strong session, though, my sense of body shifts slightly. As I go through more poses, I shed deeper layers of tension. My heels drop closer to the ground and my hips open a bit. I begin to be aware of subtler movement and tension in my joints and tissue. The warmth and energy from these sensations lay the foundation for the spiritual aspect of my practice. Rather than feel like I am straining a muscle, I feel like the muscle is engaging just to the minimum level of effort require to hold a pose steadily. Balance comes from exploring this boundary of effort. Shifting slowly from barely too much to barely too little in decreasing oscillations. Just at the limit, there is a feeling of engagement with one muscle, like the quad, and total relaxation of the opposing muscle, the hamstring.

This is where I begin to feel my breath. I try to maintain the “ugai” breath, but I’ve always had trouble aligning it to my movements. This is something I definitely want to keep working on, as I think it will bring fluidity to the practice. When I’m still, however, I use the breath to deepen a pose, release the tension in my brain, and to invite energy to flow throughout my body. I feel my lungs filling with air to their corners, expanding from my chest to where my body is tight or restricted. Energy draws from limbs, fingers, and toes, and eddies throughout my body. In prayer pose, there is a warmth between my hands which further calms my nervous system and deepens the spiritual aspect of the practice.

As I’ve gained body awareness over time, I’ve found that attention to certain details helps immensely. Slightly adjusting, or even just being aware of the angle and rotation of a bone or limb adds depth to a pose. Especially in the angle of the hipbone, the rotation of thigh bones, and articulation of the shoulders, I find that this can make a routine pose activate fully. Also, engaging a muscle while it’s being stretched and keeping a firm core throughout both build a warmth which spreads through the body. Gaining core strength through rock climbing has definitely improved my awareness and granted access to new levels of sensation and precision in these movements.

I’ve always been glad to have yoga with me through the various places my life has taken me, and I look forward to bringing it with me where I go from here. It is a solid, calming force, and I think it lays a good foundation for my emotional and intellectual well-being. I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the opportunity to do yoga more often than I am now, but it’s definitely something I’m curious about. I think something like a month-long focused practice would help expand my consciousness and mindfulness in a big way.

How do you feel about yoga? I’d love to hear your stories and observations!

Crater lake is the best.

City Biking

Update 2/13/2012: It looks like some folks at the Seattle Times read my blog and put together this article in response. Check it out.

Biking around a city can be a wild thing. It’s usually fun, sometimes a hassle, and occasionally just plain scary. But in Seattle, and I suspect in many other cities, it’s quite often the fastest and best way to get around. From my bike, I definitely feel good knowing that while all the cars around me are spending money on gas, getting stressed out and wasting time looking for parking, I’m just getting exercise. There are some clever signs and T-shirts about biking, my favorite probably being the one with the silhouette of a bicycle and a gas pump, then info mimicking the window plaque on a new car. Highway MPG: ∞, City MPG: ∞. Another good one: “You’re not IN traffic, you ARE traffic.”

I’ve been riding around Seattle consistently for about two years now, and this is the biggest city I’ve ever biked around regularly. It’s a whole different experience than biking around a smaller city or town. It can be stressful at times, but on the whole it’s a fun and rewarding experience. Weaving around busses, poorly parked cars, and bleary eyed pedestrians is exciting – as long as I make it to my destination in one piece. I ride a fixed gear (for those less bike-inclined, this means the pedals are directly linked to the back wheel so you always go exactly the speed you’re pedaling, times the gear ratio. On my bike one full rotation of the pedals creates about 2.93 rotations of the back wheel. To slow down, you pedal slower. You can’t coast, and if you pedal backwards, you actually go backwards. Don’t worry mom, I still keep a front brake, even though some claim it’s superfluous), which makes the riding experience very tactile. I wear a helmet and lights. Biking regularly in a city without them is pretty much a death wish. I have a quick commute to work, but it’s all on busy streets heading into downtown. There are a lot of great bike paths in Seattle, but most of my trips keep me on roads instead.

A problem with biking in a busy place is knowing that you could die at pretty much any time for a variety of reasons, many of which would not be your fault. Rather than become a timid or defensive biker, this that taught me to be aggressive and (perhaps) overly assertive on the road. My number one priority on my bike is to not die, so my theory is that if a driver can see me well enough to get pissed off at me, then they can see me well enough to not kill me. The rational behind this is that it is not going to be some enraged, steam-blowing-out-of-the-ears driver who is going to hit me. It is some unsuspecting, lazy or distracted driver who doesn’t see me. A soccer mom with kids in back, a tipsy twenty-something focusing hard on not swerving or speeding, the guy whose mirror has been broken for a month but he’s been too busy to get it fixed. There are three situations which I consider the MOST dangerous, and which would give me the least time to react:

1. The car door. This is a perpetual fear of mine, and it has most often come the closest to putting me in serious harm. The problem: people don’t check their blind spot before they open their door after parking. Especially when a car is already parked with the lights off, this gives almost no time to react. I think it’s common for people to park, sit in the car for a couple minutes checking their phone, then throw the door open without looking. The solution to this is to ride as far to the left as possible. In tough situations, this means cars won’t be able to pass, and they’ll get upset. Well, let them wait.

2. Turning right without a blinker. A lot of people don’t think they need their blinker when they turn right because it often doesn’t affect the rest of the flow of traffic. Well, especially if you make a fast turn, you might hit the biker you didn’t see. For some reason, this is a lot worse on one way streets with people turning left and the bike lane on the left. It’s a situation nobody is really used to, so they don’t know where to look. I’ve considered wearing a clown wig to increase my visibility.

3. Running a stop sign or light. This is the illegal move that worries me (U-turns are bad too, but give more time to react), mostly because I’ve heard stories; it leads to some of the worst crashes. I definitely cover my brake whenever I’m going through an intersection, and get as much visibility to side streets even when I have the right of way, but there’s only so much you can do.

I haven’t had any accidents in Seattle in my first few hundred miles of biking around the city, and I’m hoping not to anytime soon. I try to anticipate poor driving decisions, and I think riding my fixie makes me more alert (plus I go slower down hills). A lot of my friends have had wrecks, and you definitely can’t anticipate everything. There’s all sorts of questionable and dangerous maneuvers cars make around town, so you’ve got to stay on your toes. To be fair, I suppose I should mention some of the questions things I do that probably upset drivers.

1. Swerve through traffic. This is what makes riding on busy streets fun and fast – ignoring the traffic. I ride between lanes (but try to stay on the right when it’s open), and swerve around cars that pop into the bike lane to turn instead of stopping behind them. This makes biking about twice as fast as taking the bus for most trips. Also, most Seattle drivers are push-overs, so nobody seems to care that I’m in and out of their lanes.

2. Ride in the middle of the lane. As mentioned above, I do this when it’s not safe to be anywhere else. Sometimes it means the cars will have to wait, and sometimes that makes them upset.

3. Mess with aggressive drivers. Ok, I admit to occasionally intentionally making some driver’s day a little bit worse. Biking a lot can cultivate a sense of righteous indignation – you know what you’re doing is better than what those people are doing, and they should know too. So, if someone revs up as they’re speeding past me with <1 ft clearance, or if someone honks (this is the worst. Without the glass and steel cocoon it’s a lot louder than they think), or if someone passes me carelessly only so they can cut me off and get to a line of stopped cars first, sometimes I’ll indulge my momentary road rage. Some of my favorites are pulling in front of someone at a light and leisurely getting my feet to the pedals as the light changes, and riding really close to someone and maybe giving their window a little slap to wake them up. On bad days, after getting cut off for about the fourth or fifth time, I sometimes dream of pulling out my bike lock and seeing how hard I’d have to swing it to break a window, or how deep a dent I could make in a hood. So far, it hasn’t come to that.

Knowing what’s out there and what is dangerous definitely forms a lot of my biking decisions, but there can always be something left unaccounted for, some surprise or freak occurrence. On the whole, Seattle drivers are very accommodating to bikers, and I generally feel safe. There are some jerks and idiots out there, though, and in the dark and rain it can be hard even to see a well-lit bike. Sometimes you just have to hope you make it where you’re going, and when it’s really bad, sometimes you just have to take the bus.