Sunday, December 15, 2013

My Inner Child Lives

In the past couple of weeks I've been working on my layers.  One day it's near 60 and raining cats and dogs.  A few days later and temperatures can't make it out of the 30's or 20's.  Riding around with neoprene shoe covers, rain pants, a rain cape (which happens to be three sizes too big), a shower cap hidden under my buff and beneath my helmet, and my usual ski goggles wasn't ridiculous enough for me.  I had to top it all off with a Santa hat on my helmet.  Could this be a cry for attention?  Actually, it was just a supreme effort to not end up wet and cold, and it worked.  Instead of riding around feeling miserable and wishing I was somewhere else, I was laughing and thoroughly enjoying the adventure.  Embarrassing?  Sure, I guess... but who cares?  I was out riding.  It really brought home the fact that riding my bike makes me feel (and sometimes act) like a little kid. 

On one ride as we went past our favorite fish pond, we noticed the ice was getting thick.  The pond was frozen completely over except for the small area by the waterfall.  It was a sunny morning and I expected to be a bit chilled until we had ridden a few miles, but in no time at all I felt completely comfortable.  Is it possible that I'm finally getting the hang of this layering thing?  All I know is that I had a great time riding around with the trails almost to ourselves.  

Other than my own very strange get-up, I really haven't encountered a whole lot of "unusual" lately.  I did think this Christmas decoration might qualify.  Pretty clever:

We saw that house on our way out to participate in the Hanukkah Menorah Parade a couple of weeks ago.  A friend of ours from the Bike-Pgh message board really wanted to adds bikes to their holiday car parade, so last year he arranged permission from his rabbi to put out an open invitation (non-demominational) to join them in celebrating the Festival of Lights.  Just the name "Festival of Lights" seems very well suited to those of us who can't get too many blinkies loaded onto our frames/helmets.  We happily joined them for the second year in a row with homemade, battery powered menorahs - but no Santa hats this time.  The theme for this event was blue and white, not red and green.  I revamped my menorah because I wasn't all that happy with last year's effort.

We had a great time in spite of the light rain that fell (for the second year in a row).  Last year the parade was slow, with some police assistance blocking intersections.  This year the group ended up fragmented and we had to be extra careful at the intersections as we had a few youngsters joining us on their bikes.  The really cool thing is that a couple of other cities heard about the Pittsburgh Menorah Parade and decided to have one of their own this year. Our friend Ben is a trendsetter.  Who knew?

On other recent rides I found this during a stop at Thick Bikes:

can not figure out how anyone could even get on it, let alone ride it!

We've done some Soupaneuring.  We stopped at the Smallman St Deli in Squirrel Hill before the menorah parade and I had some chicken soup (which seemed appropriate). Last week we rode along looking for somewhere new to try and discovered pho van on Penn Ave. This was my first ever stop at a Vietnamese restaurant.  I tried the "Pho ga" which was a HUGE bowl of chicken soup with rice noodles.  It's served with a plate of bean sprouts, jalapeno peppers, some variety of basil that smelled a bit like anise, and a lime wedge.  Very interesting:

On another day we discovered some unusual ducks hanging out on the Northshore Trail.

I still haven't been able to identify them.  They seemed to be together so I'm guessing they were a pair.

Recently we climbed up into Spring Hill to find some mosaics and stumbled onto this retaining wall that I remembered from one of Rick Sebak's shows.  I believe it was in the "North Side Story" from his Pittsburgh History Series.  Really cool!!  Dates back to the 1930's:

We also stopped to see the new WWII memorial on the North Shore.  They did an excellent job on this.  I'd recommend checking it out:

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Poignant Moment

Six Million.  Have you ever actually seen 6,000,000 of anything?  Can you wrap your mind around that number?  It's not easy.   17 years ago, Bill Walter, a Pittsburgh teacher, was trying to help his young students to comprehend that number as he taught them about the horrific events of the holocaust.  He came up with the idea of having the students save the tabs from pop cans and collect six million of them.  It took 4.5 years to collect 6,000,000 tabs with the entire school working on the project.  

Today we rode out to Squirrel Hill to see the "Gary and Nancy Tuckfelt Keeping Tabs Holocaust Sculpture".  The 6,000,000 pop tabs (representing the 6,000,000 human beings that died in the holocaust) fill glass blocks arranged in a sculpture in the shape of the Star of David. 

Looking at this memorial was overwhelming.  The simplicity of the design helps to keep the focus on the immense number of people lost in that abomination.   Contemplating all that this sculpture represents was a poignant experience.  The cold afternoon had nothing to do with the chills I felt.

After visiting the memorial we decided to stop at 61C to warm up a bit.  I'm glad that we did.  The hot tea and good company helped to lift my mood.  By the time we were thawed out I was ready to enjoy the brisk ride back.  We rode down through Schenley Park and worked our way to the Jail Trail.  As we approached the Hot Metal Bridge we decided to detour onto it for a better view of the city at night.  It looked great.

We continued on the trail and confirmed that the recently installed reflective stickers were a tremendous help.  I noticed again how well the dark wood planter boxes blended with the shadows at night.  The stickers definitely got our attention.

Toward the end of our ride we stopped several times to appreciate the Christmas tree and decorations at the Point.

My friend is very tolerant of my photo obsessions and seems to have infinite patience while I try again and again to capture the night scenes with a pocket camera and no tripod. 

While it doesn't have the novelty or draw that The Duck had, it sure looks nice there.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Guerrilla Safety in The 'Burg

Independent Safety Advocates

A recent awareness campaign by Bike Pgh attempts to remind drivers that real people - mothers, doctors, local professional athletes, etc - are on those bikes.

We love those ads, but already they're coming down.  The one in the photo above is no longer there.  Yesterday we located a new attempt to humanize cyclists.  Instead of the standard sharrows that silhouette a riderless bicycle, some creative group or individual has put in place something different.  The guys were calling it an "anatomically correct" rider.

While the fact that it shows a ponytail and (dare I say?) breasts seemed to impress the other cyclists that I spoke to, what got my attention was that it showed a rider.  A human being and not just an inanimate object.  Wow.  In fact, if you really look at it you'll see that the bike is more of a suggestion and the image is more about the person. Why hasn't anyone thought of that before?  It's not CARS and BIKES that need to share the road - it's DRIVERS and CYCLISTS.  We should come up with more of these humanizing sharrows depicting the diverse cycling community and try them out.  Maybe someone could do a psychological study to see if they're more effective?

The new sharrows aren't the only guerrilla safety efforts here.  I read a recent message board post that someone had taken it upon himself to put some reflective markers along an unlit section of the Baldwin Borough Trail.  I haven't had a chance to see them yet, but it sounded like a good idea.  Along the same lines, I had mentioned to a friend that on one of our night rides last year I had nearly run into the wooden planters that protrude into the Jail Trail.  There was a bright light in front of me that disrupted my night vision and I almost didn't see the dark wood until I was very close.  This past week he went out and affixed reflective stickers on the corners of those planters.

I, for one, really appreciate that.  After that one close call I've been very aware of those planters, but I still like having them marked.  This trail gets a lot of use and with the short days right now, I'm betting a lot of commuters that use this trail will appreciate those markers.

Roller Skis

The other day on that same trail we came across something we hadn't seen here before.  As I said, this trail gets a lot of use.  Plenty of walkers, joggers, cyclists and the occasional rollerblader, but this was the first time I'd seen someone on Roller Skis.  We turned around and stopped to talk to the lady using them while she was taking a break.

Apparently they're more popular in areas where there are a lot of cross country skiers, as they work your legs in a similar manner and get you ready for ski season.  She pointed out that hers had the dual wheels in the back that increased their stability.  It looked like she was having fun.

Odd Ornamentation

We occasionally find some odd yard and building decorations.  There was the toy chicken in a community garden, or the sequined camel on the side of an art gallery, but recently I noticed that someone had a shark on the side of their house.

We've riden past this home dozens of times and never noticed it before.  You have to wonder about the story behind it.  Pretty sure it didn't come from the Allegheny.  

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Snow is a Four Letter Word

The last couple of coffeeneuring trips have been in pleasantly unseasonal weather.  Last Friday I toyed with having a cold drink instead of the hot beverage that coffeeneuring was founded on because it was just a beautiful, sunny, warm day.  Waking up with temperatures in the 30's this morning, the ground wet and covered with leaves, and an anticipated high in the mid 40's felt much more in tune with the spirit of this adventure.

Once again I've skipped writing up the last few rides because there really wasn't much out of the norm on them.  We came, we rode, we went home.  I suppose some of the folks that attended the October bike party of "Flock Of Cycles" last week would qualify as unusual. We've seen some of these outfits before, but it's hard not to smile when they appear again.

Then again, seeing the Flock moving through the city at night with blinkies-a-plenty is unusual all by itself I suppose.  We certainly had a lot of inquiries from pedestrians on who we were and what we were doing.  I think we should print up flyers to hand out when someone asks, giving them the information so they can join us the next time.

We also witnessed the Duck Death March last Monday, as our beloved giant, rubber ducky departed Point State Park and headed down the Ohio River.

The city looks empty somehow without him.  In a few, short weeks I became very accustomed to seeing him floating by the Point with a constant stream of admirers photographing him from every possible angle.  Yeah, me included.  It was nice to see so many Pittsburghers willing to let their inner child out and enjoy something so simple as an oversized bathtub toy.

The replacement duck isn't quite cutting it.

Back to the Flock ride... I used the night ride opportunity to test out a new lighting option.  I think I like it.  Yes, it's a bit clunky and takes some figuring out to attach it to the bike, but I like the idea of a wider back light on the bike.  

There are different color lenses that I can use and the next time out I think I'll experiment with that.  The yellow lens at least offered a larger, more visible flag announcing my presence on the street.  I'm for anything that helps drivers see me.

So getting back to today, we ventured out in more seasonal weather for coffeeneuring event #5.  I set out on my own a little bit earlier in order to make a run to REI, then circled back to the trailhead to meet the others.  It was a might brisk, but I warmed up on the ride and thought it wouldn't be too bad.  That worked until I returned to the trailhead and stopped riding while I waited for the guys to arrive and unload their bikes.  Brrrr.  I started to cool off fast.  Happy once I got riding again, the only thing really suffering were my toes.  I had resisted the idea of using the toe warmers so early in the year, but that was foolish.  They would have felt so very good when it started to SNOW on the way to Highland Park!  Rats.  I could have been very happy to not see that stuff for another month.  As my one friend reminded me today though: two months to Christmas Eve.  At least it was just a light snow and didn't last long.
We rode out to Taza D'Oro in Highland Park.  I'd never been there before, but it's a very popular coffee shop.  They're very well known for their coffee, and their web site doesn't address non-coffee drinks so I wasn't expecting much choice in tea.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they actually had a decent selection of tea, plus hot chocolate and apple cider available for those of us that don't get coffee's appeal.  I went for the organic citrus green tea and asked for some lemon for it.  Couldn't resist getting an apple dumpling to go with it too.

The guys had come prepared to show me how to use my new chain repair tool.  I replaced my bike multi-tool recently with one that's a little more comprehensive than the simple one that I had started with.  RC brought along an old chain and we proceeded to remove links and reconnect chain until I felt comfortable with the process. Very glad to learn this inside a warm coffee shop and not on the side of the trail in the rain.

We departed Taza D'Oro with a little early Christmas shopping in mind and worked our way first to Pro Bikes in Squirrel Hill (because they carry Specialized) and then to Thick Bikes on the Southside (because they had some very cool looking new socks and because we really like this shop).  

We arrived back at the trailhead just as the sun was setting over the Ohio River and the temperatures were dropping.  Loaded the bikes and started for home and within 5-10 minutes I was in a moderate rain.  For once I was pleased to be off the bike.  That could have been pretty miserable.  Timing is everything.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Can You Hear That Whistle Blow? A RORO Kind of Ride!

An unusual opportunity this morning put me on an Amtrak train for the first time.  I've ridden plenty of trains in Europe, but have never had any reason to try out Amtrak.  This was a great experience.

Amtrak was testing out the possibility of providing Roll On Roll Off (RORO) service for bicycles on the Capitol Limited between Pittsburgh and Washington, DC.  The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) hiking and biking trail connects with the C&O Canal Towpath to offer a 335 mile continuous trail between those same two cities.  Each year this trail ride becomes more and more popular, attracting riders and hikers nationally and internationally.  All along the trail businesses supporting these cyclists and hikers are popping up and growing.  The trail towns are experiencing a much needed shot in the arm economically, and with each new growth spurt and trail improvement, even more people are drawn to the region.  There has been one drawback to this wonderful ride though: the logistics of starting at one end, finishing at the other and then trying to find a way to get yourself and your bike back to the start point.  As it currently stands, you can partially disassemble your bike, box it and ship it via Amtrak, Greyhound or an airline for various fees. Besides being inconvenient (and providing the opportunity for those of us less mechanically inclined to break something on the bike while taking it apart and reassembling it), you cannot remove the bike at an Amtrak station that doesn't have checked baggage service.  So, if you only wanted to ride the GAP - which starts in Cumberland, MD and ends in Pittsburgh, PA - you're out of luck because there is no checked baggage service in Cumberland.  Your other options include pre-positioning a vehicle or renting a car with a one-way drop off fee - both of which cost you significant time and/or money.

Having the RORO service on this line would open up all sorts of possibilities for cyclists.  It would not only be the people visiting the area just to ride this trail that would use and benefit from the service.  Local residents all along the trail could take advantage of it.  Although we may love riding the entire trail length, it's not always feasible and we don't always have enough time.  BUT - if we can board the train somewhere with our bikes and jump off at any station along the way, we can do day trips or weekend trips easily.

This test run offered those of us lucky enough to participate a chance to do one of those day trips.  It.was.a.blast!

Early in the morning, myself plus five other volunteers boarded the Capitol Limited in downtown Pittsburgh with our bikes.  The bikes varied from a large, full touring bike to a small, step through hybrid.  Some had racks and fenders, some were pretty clean.

We had received a diagram showing how the bike racks on the baggage car worked, so we knew that we would have to lift our bike and hook it in vertically ourselves.  I'm a whopping 5'  3.5" (around 112lbs) and I was able to do this.  I did, however, think ahead to remove the water bottles and handlebar bag and store them in a pannier that I took as carry-on luggage.

It took the six of us a bit over three minutes to load all six bikes and head for our seats.  We settled into the observation car, but since it was still before sunrise we didn't get to observe a lot on this ride.

We rode only to the first stop at Connellsville, Pa where we unloaded our bikes and watched six new volunteers board with their bikes.  That entire process - both unloading and loading - also took just over three minutes.  Now that I know how to do it, I'm very sure I could do it faster too.  My friend (that did this with me) suggested to the Amtrak representative that they install a rack in each of the stations so that potential passengers can stop by and learn how to use it ahead of time.  The PAT buses have done this around Pittsburgh - setting up the racks used on the front of the buses in various locations so people can figure it out before they try to board a bus.

The train ride itself was very enjoyable.  A relatively quiet, smooth, quick ride.  They had breakfast service available and several in our group took advantage of it.

Once off the train in Connellsville we began our bike ride back to the 'Burgh.  One of the other volunteers (Stu) was a friend from the Bike-Pgh message board that we've ridden around town on short rides with before.  He had never been on the GAP beyond the Riverton Bridge at McKeesport, so this was a new experience for him.  He rode back with us while the other three volunteers set out on their own.

We made a stop in Connellsville for some breakfast and snacks and then backtracked to the trailhead in order to show Stu the cool piece of public art positioned there.

"From Coke to Spokes" by Jody Best with help from Scott Hostetler, was placed here in 2012.  It connects the past with the present showing how the local economy has transitioned from the old coke ovens (which can still be seen along the GAP) to the new bike trail.  What would be smoke from the old coke ovens is transformed into bike wheels.  Very clever.

On our way out of Connellsville we stopped to admire one of my favorite things along the GAP - the stained glass arch you pass under as you enter the town from the west.

Connellsville has long been big in the stained glass industry.  I've come down here to buy glass for my own stained glass projects in the past.  This archway was done by artist Steve Fiscus in 2008, as part of the "Trail Town Public Art Program" that brought 14 pieces of art to 6 trail towns along the GAP.

We rode along for a while on an absolutely gorgeous, fall day.  It was hard not to love being out there riding along a section of trail that we would normally not see unless we were riding the entire trail to DC.  Sometimes we'll drive down to Connellsville and ride east through Ohiopyle State Park to Confluence and back for the day, but we usually don't ride between Connellsville and West Newton or Boston.

What a magnificent day!  Not much in the way of nice fall foliage, but since we haven't had a hard frost yet I wasn't really expecting a nice year for that.  That's OK.  I'll take riding in 60-70 degrees well into October and enjoy whatever the leaves are doing.

As most know, the GAP is a rails-to-trails project, replacing out-of-use railroad right of ways with recreational trails.  The old railroad lines often ran along industrial routes.  Near the old Pittsburgh & Lake Erie RR Station at Van Meter was the Darr coal mine - the site of one of the worst mining disasters in the world.  This memorial sits beside the trail near that location, remembering the men who died there.

We noticed that two lumps of coal had been left on top of the marker in accordance with a Jewish tradition of leaving a stone on a grave marker to show someone has visited to honor the memory of the dead.

In West Newton - site of THE best trail rest stop BTW - we passed "Rusty" or "Spike" - as this sculpture of a Pioneer made out of old railroad spikes is known - by artist Bill Secunda.  This was another one of the original 14 pieces in the "Trail Town Public Art Project".

After a stop at a nearby store, we went to the West Newton Station trailhead and sat on the front steps with our snacks enjoying the brilliant afternoon.  Temptation to buy another GAP bike jersey was placed in front of me at the gift/information shop there, but since I had not been able to do the "Point Made" ride last June I didn't think I should have the shirt from it.  I was interested in looking through the relatively new "Trail Photography Unlimited" in the old rail car, but unfortunately it was closed.  On such a beautiful day I have to guess that photographer Betsy Haag Mandarino was out taking some new and fabulous trail pictures.  Sorry we missed her.

Well rested and fed, we pressed on toward Pittsburgh.  We passed one of these markers and once again wondered out loud what they meant.

This time we had someone riding with us that actually knew!  Stu informed us that those markers told the engineers when to start blowing the whistle for an upcoming crossing.  TIL (Today I Learned) what the stone W markers were for.

We often encounter dogs on the trail.  Some on leashes, some running loose, some riding in baskets or trailers.  Only one other time have I encountered a cat riding along though.  Today we passed Al and Debbie out riding with their two cats, Lucy and Tommy.

We stopped to talk and they told us that the cats did this often with them.  Sometimes Tommy will ride in the basket, and they've taken them to the beach, to Presque Isle, and to ride in their boat along the Allegheny River.

They get a lot of disbelieving looks, but the cats seemed quite calm and happy to be out getting some fresh air.

We made it back to Pittsburgh to find that since we'd left in the morning, the Rivers Casino had installed their October Breast Cancer Awareness decorations again.

Thousands of brasiers strung together along the fences to call attention to Breast Cancer Awareness month.  We couldn't help but notice that the quality of the merchandise was not as high as it was last year.  Last year I saw a lot of expensive, lace covered, high end bras flapping in the breeze.  This year we looked and thought: "Granny Gear!".  Hmmm.  Maybe 70 miles on the bike was too much?

If you'd like to see this Roll On Roll Off service between Pittsburgh and DC become a reality, start writing letters to your congressmen, senators and Amtrak.  The more interest is expressed in having this service, the more likely we are to get it.  Send your snail mail to:

Amtrak Customer Relations
40 Mass. Ave., NE
Washington, DC 20002

Also, if you would put two additional copies of the letter in that same envelope - for the attention of Harris Cohen and the other for Derrick James - it would be very helpful.