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Riding the new cycle track

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I’m a privileged Baltimore bicycle commuter.

I usually board the MTA light rail with my bike at Mt Washington station and get off at Convention Center station, then ride about a mile to Federal Hill. I can easily bike the entire ten miles into work – mostly downhill – but a few years ago a coworker left a note on my desk complaining that I was too sweaty. And in the winter it is awfully dark before 7 AM. So I ride in and bike home.

About two months ago, the train limped into North Avenue station, and they announced a delay. Sometimes delays are brief, but other times everyone has to get off and wait for another train. So I stepped off and biked a few blocks over to Maryland Avenue, which has always been a good route into the city. I was surprised to find a dedicated 2.6 mile bike lane, what Bikemore is calling the Maryland Avenue Cycle Track. The reported costs were about $700,000.

Cyclists now have two lanes divided by a parking lane from automotive traffic. Flexible polypropylene posts reinforce the painted lane markings. At that time there were a lot of gaps, and some dangerous gratings, but as of 2017, except for sewer construction blocking everything but the sidewalks at Mt Vernon Place, the track is largely complete. There are also several of the twenty Bikeshare stations along the route. In the mornings, I regularly see one guy get off with me at Convention Center station and pick up a bike for the remainder of his commute.

Over the last seven years I have tried a variety of routes to bike home. I’ve ridden up both Park Avenue and Charles Street to Falls Road, Clipper Mill Road and some actual bike trails, but the traffic was daunting in some places. For a long time I rode Martin Luther King Boulevard, Paca Street or Howard Avenue to Eutaw Street to Druid Hill Park to Greenspring Avenue or Reisterstown Road. Some of my coworkers thought that route would bring me through dangerous black neighborhoods, but I surprised more than a few people by saying I felt more threatened by the territorial SUV drivers on Roland Avenue than the more laid back folk on Eutaw Street, who roll with jaywalking en masse and on Reisterstown Road, who deal with unlicensed motorbiking every summer.

So for the last few months I’ve been taking the cycle track through the busiest part of my commute. It isn’t perfect. Most pedestrians are careful, but some saunter up and down like they’ve got a new sidewalk, and others cross without looking. And some auto and delivery truck drivers use the track for short term parking. But in general, if I am careful at intersections, I don’t have to worry about being sideswiped by a car until I get onto Falls Road. So that’s great.

As reported in Racial Bias Shadows Bike Share Program, projects like this cycle track tend to cluster in the more privileged parts of the city:

A series of maps composed by blogger Ellen Worthing show bike rack locations, bike lanes and bike share stations concentrated in the city’s “White L,” the L-shaped area of Baltimore of primarily White neighborhoods such as Hampden, Federal Hill and Locust Point. Melody Hoffman, author of the book “Bike Lanes are White Lanes,” said that this has been the case in major cities all over the country.

“Baltimore just made a nonverbal statement that Bike Share is for tourists and downtown business people,” Hoffman said. “When they try to expand it, they’re going to have a really hard time getting other people on those bikes because it’s going to seem like it’s not for them because it wasn’t for them in the first place.”

In that same article it falls to Liz Cornish, executive director of Bikemore, to respond. She hints that state funding would not have been available for a cycle track outside the White L, but also brings up safety :

“Because biking and walking does make you more vulnerable to the environment where you are, that’s not a choice or a luxury that all of our residents of the city currently have,” Cornish said. “We have to be mindful when we’re saying ‘everybody should bike’ or ‘we should be putting this infrastructure to make sure it goes everywhere.”

That sounds like a coded response meaning, ‘It is too dangerous to bike in some areas’, which unfortunately can be true. No one has bothered me so far, but I’m a fairly big man. On some bike paths, there have been a few cases of several black youths knocking white commuters off their bikes, and last year there was one sad case of a white waiter killed in Waverly while biking home from the Harbor East restaurant where he worked.

But it is also part and parcel of the reality that the best stuff goes to the richest areas.

Update 20170119: Liz Cornish speaks in greater detail in a CityLab article. (That’s a Bikemore photo at the top, too.)

A Bit Sore

On Friday, Baltimore saw afternoon sun instead of the predicted thunderstorm. I biked my usual route up Eutaw Street towards Druid Hill Park. Traffic seemed light. At the end of Eutaw I would have taken the brick sidewalk along the Druid Park Lake Road, but it is being repaved, and is closed. From the sidewalk you can wait for the light, then cross onto Swann Drive, into the park, and on to Greenspring Road. Otherwise you have to mix it up with traffic for a hundred yards on the Lake Road, or cut up Cloverdale, a quiet, narrow brick road which takes you to Madison Avenue, which becomes Swann Drive when you enter the park. While recovering from Deep Venous Thrombosis, I’ve felt less like trying to keep ahead of impatient commuters, so I’ve been choosing Cloverdale.

On Madison one has to drive through one of two monumental brick archways facing the park. For quite a while the closer of of the arches was closed to traffic while they repaved the cobblestones, so I’ve gotten in the habit of looking through it to see if anyone is coming through the next arch. But on Friday, both arches were open again. So just as I biked up a car came charging out of the nearer opening. I said something deeply ironic, like “Aaaah!” and squeezed the brakes, but my front tire hit the guy’s door and I was knocked over.

The driver did stop, but I told him it wasn’t his fault I hadn’t anticipated that the road might be open again. I have a bruised right knee, a puffy left elbow, and a sore lower back. The bike seemed OK during a painful ride home. The back felt better when I was sitting against a bag of ice, and ice packs helped the knee and elbow, too.

I decided to spend Saturday morning in bed. While watching Madison Keys play Garbine Muguruza on the Pietrangeli court in Rome, courtesy of TennisTV, I also watched The Minotaur, originally Minotaur, the Wild Beast of Crete, a dubbed 1960 Italian flick that bears only the faintest resemblance to the Greek myth as transcribed by Edith Hamilton.

Madison and Garbine are lovely young women, even compared to the pinup girl extras in the Minotaur movie. And they both play crunch tennis. A lot of people consider Madison mixed-race because one of her parents is dark-skinned African American and the other is light-skinned German-Irish. But current science believes almost all of us are Sapiens, with smidgens of Neandertal and Denisovan. She says, “I’m just Madison.”

The plot of The Minotaur centered around an ambitious, evil woman using the threat of an even worse monster to control the people. So it was related to current events. Then a hero rode in and both the woman and the beast were slain. We can only hope.

Blood Clots in Fit Legs

In 2011, Serena Williams, one of the greatest athletes in history, suffered a pulmonary embolism, was treated for that, then suffered a hematoma. Soon after winning Wimbledon for the fourth time, Serena cut her foot on a shard of glass, needing eighteen stitches to close the wound. Some combination of her injury and/or her resulting inactivity and/or a long flight from New York to Los Angeles led to a deep venous thrombosis (DVT), and some of the clotting material travelled through her bloodstream to a pulmonary artery, causing an embolism of her lung.

About a year ago, on a very cold morning, I biked down the hill, then tore a big muscle in my left thigh when I stepped up with my bike onto the light rail. My leg healed over the spring, and I commuted by bike almost every day all summer and fall and into the mild winter. It got cold a few weeks before the record setting snow fall, and I decided to begin walking down the hill to the station, walking back up in the evenings. I walk a lot, so I didn’t have any problems at first.

For a few days after the snowfall, I had to walk a lot further because light rail and buses stopped three miles from my office. Descending and climbing the hill was a chore because there was hardly any shoulder left for walking. Over Superbowl weekend, my old thigh injury began to ache. In a few days, my left calf began to feel tight. I assumed I was favoring the upper leg and had overused the calf, so I began taking the bus up and down the hill.

But after a week of limping between bus and light rail, I saw that my left calf was swollen. My right calf is 18 inches around, but the left one had increased to just over 20 inches. My wife reported my symptoms to my local physician, who urged me to get to the emergency room. The PA in the ER didn’t think I fit the profile of DVT, and neither did I, but an ultrasound exam found a clot just below and behind my left knee.

They prescribed the very expensive Xarelto, which wasn’t covered by my insurance plan, and I rested the leg at home for four days. For the last three days I have been driving a rental car to rest the leg as much as possible while still working to afford the bills that will soon be arriving for the ER visit. Next week I am to visit a vascular surgeon who will advise me on whether the clot should be removed surgically.

[Update 20160225: The vascular surgeon recommended that I continue on blood thinner for several months, wear a knee high compression sock during the day, and resume exercising. That’s good news.]

I have found several articles about endurance athletes getting DVT. It isn’t common, but it isn’t as uncommon as one might think, either. In, Hidden danger: DVT in endurance athletes, Active.com advises:

Some people are familiar with the potential for DVT to occur during or after a long airplane flight. This has been referred to “Economy Class Syndrome.”

Did you know that 85% of air travel thrombosis victims are athletic, usually endurance athletes?

Being a cyclist is no guarantee against clotting:

So what does this have to do with riding a bicycle? Bicycle riders typically are in good shape, watch what they eat, and take care of themselves. They are not generally overweight. If they have been riding for some time and cover 300 miles or more a month at a good pace, their resting heart rate is generally lower than the norm for their age.

Lower resting heart rate means slower blood flow throughout the body. This is especially true for those riders who participate in endurance events such as century rides, time trials, and other competitive events.

Slower blood flow — sound familiar?

Unfortunately, that slower blood flow that is great for your heart can work against you if you have mostly sedentary work, as I do. Most days I sit at the computer only getting up to go to the rest room or print room, or chat with a coworker. A little riding in the morning and an hour in the evening is better than nothing, but my life is still fairly sedentary.

Older Bike, Younger Knees

In April I wrote about experiencing more and more knee pain after several years of riding my 2004 Xootr Swift increasingly longer distances, and more frequently, to work. One of the problems was that the clamps holding the saddle weren’t tight enough. Even if I got the saddle at the right height after unfolding, it could slowly slide down while I was riding. Fixing the saddle at the proper height with a clamp, was an improvement – but not enough.

In August, I heard/felt a noise from the rear wheel. I saw that a three inch segment of the Swift’s rear rim was pushing out and grabbing the pad during every rotation. While Light St Cycles was working on that in Baltimore, I had my 1988 Trek 1100, a full size road bike, refurbished at Pedal Power in Altoona. I brought the Trek to Baltimore and started riding it to and from work. The dimensions of the Trek are almost identical to those of my custom-fit Serotta, and I soon noticed that my knees weren’t hurting after commuting on the Trek every day.

A cycling buddy at work advised me that saddle height was important, but so were ‘stack’ and ‘reach’ – which define the distance from the pedal hub to the handlebars. I measured, and the Swift’s reach is much shorter than my other bikes. I could have tried a much longer handlebar stem, but instead I have just continued to ride the Trek.

Fortunately I now ride the light rail early, and there are so few passengers that I no longer need a folding bike in the morning. The Trek is not as compact as a folded Swift, but does fit under my desk. And since I ride home, I don’t have to deal with a crowded train at rush hour.

It has been well over a month since I felt any knee pain at all. I now have the Swift setup with grocery bags for one mile rides to the nearby stores, but ride the old Trek to and from work.

A Near Miss

I got up this first workday morning back on Eastern Standard Time, at the same time by the clock, but an hour later in reality. I biked to the light rail station, and caught the usual train, which was unusually empty. “To work, James,” I said to the empty car.

After getting off at Convention Center, I always pass a dignified woman of a certain age walking the other way, then wait for the train operator to either ring the bell or wave me by the tracks. This morning the train went first. After it passed, the light on Howard changed to red, and I got a crossing signal. It was still dark, and I always wait to see if the drivers are really going to stop. A city bus braked in the lane closest to me, and a car slowed just behind in the third lane away. Usually that would have been good enough for me to start across the six lanes to the Convention Center sidewalk, but for some reason I hesitated.

Several seconds after the light changed a nondescript white sedan shot out from between the stopped bus and the stopped car. I watched it go by and felt very lucky. Even with my three front lights and reflective jacket, the driver would not have seen me around the bus until too late, and would not have had time to stop before broadsiding me in the crossing lane.

Later, Penny told me that a couple riding a tandem on Tobacco Road in Calvert County, at 3 PM, had been struck and killed by a Jeep Cherokee driven by a drunk driver. Link here. She was incensed that the driver was out on bail.

Riding a girl’s bike

My folding Xootr Swift is being serviced, but we’re waiting on some parts, so they gave me a loaner. Light Street Cycles is an A2B dealer, and Penny let me try out a Ferber electric bike for the weekend.

A2B used to be called Ultra Motors, and a few years ago was known for the Metro electric bike, which looks like a tiny motorcycle. That model is now called the Octave, after Octave Chanute, an engineer who pioneered the use of wood preservatives and who, in retirement, contributed wing designs to aviation. Other A2B models have names like Alva, Galvani, Shima and Ferber – all named after experimenters in electricity or transportation. Ferdinand Ferber was also in aviation, Hideo Shima was behind the bullet train, Luigi Galvani explored bioelectricity and Alva is Thomas Edison’s middle name. A2B is now part of India’s Hero Eco.

When I showed the Ferber to my wife, she said, “that looks like a girl’s bike.” Well, yes, or maybe like a skinny scooter. The Ferber is a step-through bike with 26″ wheels, assisted by a 350w motor powered by a 36V 8.8 Ah battery. The Galvani / Male has the same set of components on a retro step-over frame. Even with an open frame the Ferber is 48 lbs to the Galvani’s 50 lbs. Both models are strictly pedal assist (PAS) with no throttle.

I rode the Ferber home and even though the motor stops helping above 20 mph, I was passing all the traditional cyclists while pedaling easily. Once I found the buttons for levels 2 and 3, it became very easy to climb hills, even with only eight gears. The A2B torque sensor is great, but you must be careful to shift down while stopping. The riding position is very upright, and the handle bars have flat, ergonometric rests so that your palms don’t start to feel numb after several miles. At one point I accidentally turned the bike off, but was able to fiddle with the battery button and get it restarted. Apparently you are supposed to turn the battery on, as evidenced by some faint led displays, then push and hold a button on the handlebar. If you hold the battery button too long, you might turn it off again.

I was down to 10% charge, and the recharge took the rest of the evening and a half hour in the morning. According to the manual, charging to 80% is fairly quick, but the last 20% can take some time. Some batteries should not be topped off, but there are no warnings in the manual against doing so.

The Ferber suggests a 40 mile range, but I’m a 250 lb man, and riding the hilly ten miles into Federal Hill on Saturday took the battery from a full charge to 67%. Fortunately the elevator was still on, and since no one was around I parked the Ferber next to my desk. One of the partners showed up, and noticed that the bike seemed a lot bigger than what I usually bring to work. Bill takes spinning classes for the exercise, but had no idea that electric bikes were even a thing.

Someone turned off the elevator, and wrestling the bigger bike down the u-shaped exit stairs was a tight fit. Riding uphill back to Mt Washington (with two icepacks, yogurt and pork chops in an insulated pack) in the afternoon took the battery down to 12%, so my range seems to be about 25 miles. In all fairness, I hardly broke a sweat going either way.

I’ve seen the Ferber priced at about $2,400 and the Galvani at about $2,300, which is very competitive for 350w lithium-ion battery bikes. Add that the bikes already include lights, disc brakes, fenders and a kickstand, and either would be a great deal.

A Case of Real Bad Knees

I’ve been biking and and swimming for as long as I can remember, and running since my twenties, but it has only been in the last few years that I have felt any pain in the knees. Aging may be a contributing factor. Another may be that I essentially stop running when I’m biking a lot. Or it may be the bike.

For the last several years I’ve been riding to and from work – about ten miles each way – several days a week. My early route involved several steep hills. I initially managed with no pain, but after a few years, I was finding it painful to climb the stairs at work after riding.

Last summer I switched to a less hilly, slightly longer route, which helped. I also switched from a single 53-tooth chainring to a 50 and 40 in front, which helped in climbing hills. I’ve also tried to be diligent about not pushing big gears. But I still had some pain.

A lot of articles on knee pain advised that pedaling with your legs too straight or too bent can put too much pressure on the joint. Other articles claimed that cycling itself over-exercised some leg muscles which then overwhelm other leg muscles and hurt the knee. This Active article is typical of those:

The VMO, or vastus medialis oblique, is the teardrop quadriceps muscle that runs along the inside of the thigh down towards the knee. In cycling, the vastus lateralis (quadriceps muscle on the outside of the thigh) often becomes overdeveloped, resulting in a muscular imbalance. The overpowering of the vastus lateralis can make the kneecap track too much towards the outside of the femur during pedaling, which in turn wears away the cartilage and causes pain.

And here’s another from Bike Radar:

Those ‘large muscles of the thigh’ can get very large with regular two-wheeled activity, and this is where problems start.

The normal movements of the knee are finely balanced, and with different muscle groups pulling at the patella from slightly different angles, it doesn’t take much to upset things. Add to this tight muscles restricting normal motion, varying saddle heights and feet firmly planted in angled cleats, and it’s amazing we don’t all cycle with fixed grimaces.

I ride a Xootr Swift in an upright position. It folds by removing the seat post, so there are two quick release clamps on the post. When you unfold the bike you have to estimate the height of the seat post and clamp it. Despite the two clamps, I have often found that the seat slowly drops as I ride. Tightening the quick release only slows it down a bit.

According to a second Bike Radar article, and many others, pain at the front of the knee is usually blamed on a saddle set too low, or long crank arms, or pushing big gears. Pain behind the knee is rarer, and usually blamed on a saddle set too high, or too far back. Because I was stopping several times to raise it, my saddle may have been too high at times, and too low at times. But the pain feels more anterior than posterior, so I suspected pedaling when the saddle was too low was the problem.

A few months ago I measured the saddle position on my Serotta. All Serottas were custom-fit, so I figured that maintaining the same saddle distance from the crank would be ideal. I set the Swift saddle to 31.5″ from the center of the pedal axle, and added a pipe clamp to keep the seat post from dropping. The last few months were challenging due to a snowy winter and a pulled hamstring, but it seemed that my knees were improving over the last three weeks of riding again.

Sunday night I measured and found that the saddle had migrated two inches lower over the last few weeks. So I set it back to 31.5″. Riding on Monday I felt more power in each leg stroke, but also some twinges of pain, particularly in the back of the left knee. I also felt some discomfort climbing the steps at work. Pain in the back of the knee tells you the saddle is too high, so last night I set the saddle down to 31″. We’ll see how it feels tonight.

Update 20150415: Riding was pain-free with the saddle at 31″, and climbing the steps at work is less painful than yesterday.