February 14, 2016

How far we've come . . . and how I haven't really followed.

Randonneuring often becomes a hotbed of technological innovation and adaptation, despite being a niche segment of the larger bicycling population.  The distances we ride, the obstacles we face, and the amount of information we sometimes desire about the unknown areas through-which we travel tend to invite the latest, greatest and techi-est of gadgetry... for better or worse.

Yes, in my opinion sometimes for worse... I will not begrudge anyone for exploring the outer limits of what is technologically possible when it comes to bicycling long distances; however, there is something to be said about ye olde printed maps and situational awareness.  The undertone herein should be redundancy, and many folks I ride with already adopt this method.  While GPS is terrific, while generator hubs, power converters and chargers, jump batteries, LTE tower coverage and other niceties have indeed come a LONG way, just in the last three years, always - always - keep a printed copy of a paper map of your route, and a print-out of the cue sheet safe and sealed in a water-tight bag of some kind.  Even if it remains deeply stuffed into a saddle bag or repair kit, never to be seen, you still have it if you need it.

OK,  the above personalised disclaimer aside - I often marvel in amazement (and, yes, frustration about that which I cannot afford at the moment) at the constant flow of technological wizardry thrust forth for cyclists to absorb.  The engineering opportunities to solve specific problems are as old as bicycling itself.  I have been riding long enough to have witnessed the beginnings of what we enjoy today, and it's staggering how quickly some of these marvels have emerged.  Generator lighting, well --- that's been around the block more than a few times.  My father's '68 Schwinn Varsity, with Schwinn-Approved tire-driven generator is testament to that, and any quick web search of 1950's Euro-rando will show earlier iterations... surely, the design goes back even further; and I'm quite certain evidence exists of oil-lanterns affixed to turn-of-the-last-century boneshakers.  Sundown has often been a barrier to adventure, and bicyclists have been lighting their way for the better part of a century, certainly ... but, the efficiency... the power... the last 10 years have seen a watershed movement in LED lighting, generator efficiency, and the harnessing of power.  It's remarkable; almost amazing:  

I pull my father's bicycle down from the rafters, engage the tire roller of the bottle generator, and give the wheel a purposeful spin... and nothing.  Nothing but a quick "whirrr" and the wheel comes to a halt.  Even in a darkened garage, one would swear this 60-year-old relic of filament wire and heavy magnets was long broken, as not even a hint of electricity makes itself seen across the tungsten deep inside the thick glass light bulb.  But, mounting the bicycle and rolling down the street - though one would swear the brakes had been dragging - the eager, yellowish light of the sealed beam arcs to life once enough speed is generated.  Six volts... three watts... but, oh, OH so narrow, dim, and wavering is the beam lighting my way.  At one point, this was the state-of-the-art.   

Returning to the garage, I pull down the Kogswell - the generator hub consequently set into motion simply from the slight rub of tire against ceiling hook as I lower the bicycle to the ground for a comparison.  There's no need.  Just the gentle, 2 or 3 mph equivalent spin of the front wheel as I move it through the air is enough to emit a couple of startling pulses from the LED headlight and taillight.  A gentle spin of the elevated front wheel, and both lights leap into life, illuminating the entire inside of the garage for a few moments in a combination blue-red glow.  Amazing.  The night, for many years now, isn't something for which to be prepared... not something through-which to "survive" until dawn, but instead something to look forward to... a chance to play.  

I've been riding long enough to have witnessed this rapid march forward, to the point where bicycle generators produce power-to-spare at efficiency levels that few cyclists would even register while rolling along the open road.  I've regaled many a-rider with this personal tale, and I'll echo it here, again:   Back in roughly 1999-2000, when I first began actively riding my bicycle to and from work, I didn't use a front light.  For a long time, I didn't bother using a taillight.  At that time, the ubiquitous red LED taillight we all take for granted today was still in its infancy.  Peter White Cycles, my source for the latest and greatest in generator lighting in the US, had only recently emerged on the World Wide Web as a seller of generator systems, but many of the taillights still used halogen bulbs behind red lenses.  The first LED taillights - not even mentioning headlights - were battery hogs & costly.  I once had an early Cateye offering (them, for me, representing the most-trusted name in bicycle electronics) that ran on two AAA batteries, with a run-time of 5 hours... on flashing mode.  I mean, wow

This is a shot of the complete NiteRider Flamethrower HID headlight kit, with the aforementioned water-bottle sized 13v battery.  This boasted a run time of 6 hours... which, is still 4 hours short of the shortest summer night we'd get at my latitude.  That was, of course, provided you didn't hit a bump too hard and destroy the metal-halide capsule.  It retailed, originally, for over $700 and weighed about a kilogram.  You can still get a replacement battery, however.... for $159.99.  Really.  The last handlebar-mounted self-contained LED headlight I bought last year was under $100, runs for 10 hours on its highest setting, and is light enough to sit on a helmet without causing any issues.  We've come a long long way, baby.

Headlights?  Puh-leez.  Unless you were a racer, or just had money to burn, real headlights were out of reach for most folks... at least, the circles I ran in had it seem that way.  Most early efforts were effective, but required heavy batteries that would occupy an entire bottle cage - and would still only run for a few hours at most.  I originally purchased, from Peter White actually, Cateye's Micro Halogen headlight, a small miracle with a very tiny halogen bulb (like the Maglite flashlights used) and a great reflector design.  This little light, which was a great price, small, portable, and ran on normal AA batteries, was a game changer for me.  A lot of rando guys used to run these, even though they only would last for maybe 4 hours on a set of 4 AA cells.... in the days before AA rechargables were really affordable or effective yet.  I know, personally, my short commutes would result in needing a new pack of AAs every week.  

Still, this was a GREAT light... today, with generator hubs and super-efficient bottle generators, lights like this are all but obsolete... despite, honestly, still being effective and producing light you can ride with.

Fast forward to today, LED generator-powered headlights are throwing more light on the road than quality LED battery headlights were capable of only a few years ago.  The technology is advancing so quickly, I'm not even going to put any statistics here in print... they'd be out of date by the time you'd read them.

Why am I going into all this?   Hell, I dunno.

Hey, a radio!

Oh yeah.... THAT'S what I was gonna talk about . . . 

They got it right, kept it right, and we can still buy them!

Nothing, and I'd be willing to debate this, empowered people and nations of people moreso than the transistor radio.  Yes... the newspaper was effectively "first" when it comes to the dissemination of information, but, I would offer that literacy has often been outpaced by the written word, sadly.  While newspapers and such were "the source", it wasn't until the literacy barrier was broken by the return of the spoken word... and, by return think back to your barkers, your town heralds of old, shouting out a King's proclamation, or announcing noteworthy happenings in the town squares of centuries-past.  The RADIO brought this back, and the portable transistor radio brought it out of the living room and onto the streets, and to the masses.  

Now, still, this isn't what I'm on about... not yet... 

Music is not "news"... but, somewhere along the lines, just in the last decade or so, music's portability has taken the place of the radio's portability.  Granted, there is nothing sadder in my opinion as a music lover than the state of modern commercial radio in a post-MP3 world.  THAT aside, the "DJ" (even if it's a big corporate computer on "shuffle") is far better, far more sustainable, far more listenable than one's own collection of digital files on repeat.  Where once we simply turned a knob, and with that satisfying, mechanical "click", a steady stream of continuous music, talk, chat, advert, noise...  well, now, we are reduced to being our own "DJ", curating and collecting our own files and downloading them onto innocuous little MP3 cubes and sticks and gadgets for our entertainment.  Long live the American radio disc jockey, say I.  Radio is not only relevant, still, it's the future.  The concept of "radio" is not only evident on nearly every formerly-music-marketplace-only service like iTunes and Google Play, it's evident across every traditional broadcast's webpage... the streaming option.  Yeah, that's still "broadcasting" in the dictionary sense... but, over-the-airwaves radio?  Yes... it still very much has its place.  The ballgame, the newstalk or call-in radio show... the original "social media".  Long may it reign...   

no, really, are you going to talk about something - or is this post completely random??

Hey, I'll get to it...!

While I do ride with one of those (above) little miracles, with one less earbud attached than shown, ... I've had less and less time to do what the music industry used to do FOR us, and that's come up with interesting playlists that I won't grow tired of during long, long bike rides.  Granted, the last few trips out on the bike, I haven't needed tunes at ALL, which is a good thing -- but, for the mental excuse eliminator, for me, nothing quite tops music when it comes to just keeping the ole negativity at-bay and maintaining a good pedaling cadence.  Sometimes, I need it.  But, do I have to work so hard for it?

Last season, I became enamored with radio once more while riding alongside Steven W. during the Iowa 400k.  The KC Royals were marching onward toward another great season of baseball, and while the sun began to set on a lonely and quiet stretch of highway, Steven's radio was switched on to invite the soothing play-by-play tones of Denny Matthews along for our bike ride.  The hours FLEW past as the Royals played ball, and the trio of me, Steven and Josh ate up the long miles of road back to Liberty, MO.  

Man, why don't I do that more often???

Further, there was nothing to think about, no skip or replay buttons, no decisions to make... just "click"... and boom, radio.  

Simple.  Sustainable.

Hell, even if I couldn't care for the song being played or the topic being discussed, that's what the tuning dial is for, right?  No matter what, it's better - FAR better - than becoming mired in one's own thoughts of dread and "what if" when the ride might enter a dip in emotion.  It happens.  

Roughly twice the height of the average MP3 player, the tiny AM/FM radio is alive and well in the marketplace.  I've opted for the little Sony gem on the left from the shot above, pulled from a backpacking website.  The Sangean has a few more features, like digital tuning and presets, but, the sheer size and simplicity of the Sony proved more attractive to me.  I can't wait to lend an ear to whatever I happen to across the dial when I commute and rando this year.  Running on a single AAA battery, I don't even have to worry about carrying along a charging cable for my MP3 player anymore - nor do I have to spend the random hour here and there updating my playlists... again...  In those two regards, this little radio is already saving me time and hassle.  Just pop it into the rando-bag, and go.  What a concept!

Yeah, this post is pretty darn random, maybe; but, my point is specific.  Keep things SIMPLE, above all else.  GPS, smartphone apps, fancy multi-function watches that are all the rage nowadays; don't get me wrong - I *love* technology.  I love the technology that have some to the bike, but, I caution everyone I talk to on the subject... keep it simple.  There is a time and a place, and sometimes I'm not sure long distance bicycling is "the place" for some of these innovations.  That's probably just me exercising the survivalist rant inside, as many a GPS user I know has enjoyed countless 200 and 300k rides without a single incident.  But, keep that paper map.  Tuck it away.  I know at least one or two riders I frequently join on adventures who do this - and, while I've never had to watch them pull out that map or cue sheet, it's there.  Just in case.  Like those self-adhesive tire boots I bought ten years ago and have never had to use... they're not there to play with, they are there just in case.  Give me a good, solar-powered analog wrist-watch and a printed cue, and I'm good to go, however.  I don't have to upload anything, cross-check anything, wonder, worry, or fuss.  I don't have to charge it up, sync it up, or load it up.  My printed map won't suddenly change from central Missouri, to the central Atlantic Ocean, and paper doesn't ever ever need to reboot.  My little AM/FM wonder, yes, will occasionally need a new battery... after a month or so of sporadic use... but, those batteries are sold ... and dare I use this term... EVERYWHERE.  Granted, there is an AC outlet everywhere, too... but, when my device drops dead, not only is it not a ride-stopper, I don't have to remain lashed to a wall while my power source is replenished.  I pop in a new cell, and leave.  

Feel free to tear these arguments apart when you consider solar trickle chargers, jump-batteries (power banks, whatever you wanna call 'em), and - bada-bing - generator-powered charging systems... which are now widely available for around $75.  Yeah, yeah... I know... my old, knuckle-dragging ways are holding less and less water with each passing month of technological advancement, I'll grant you that.  I'm okay with it, really I am, and - my final assessment is "to each his own".  For me?  It's not about the money, or the perceived hassles (of which there are only a few, honestly).  For me, it's just simpler... like a steel framed bicycle.  Yeah, materials have come a long way, and anything can ride like anything you want it to... even aluminum... but, I just choose cheaper, more honest, simpler materials.  I like it this way.  I have enough gadgets at work... maybe consider, bicycling is my time to get the heck away from that stuff, eh?  When I'm nose-deep in a good, scenic 400km ride, I don't give a rat's backside what "KML" even stands for.    

I want my navigation, my bicycles, my baggage, my electronics, my inner-tubes and my entertainment the same way, thank you.  Thank you very, very much.  

See you out there . . . 

ADDENDUM:  added 2/15/2016

An offline conversation resulted in some valid thoughts and concerns on this subject, so I felt it appropriate to add a few lines here to accompany my original thoughts above:

Music on the bike.... safe?
We started talking about the use of Bluetooth speakers on the handlebars, and generally - open-air speakers versus earbuds, and the safety concerns therein.  So, it must be noted;
Quite often, I use music as a treat for the last ten miles or so on a brevet, and generally that's been the case.  On winter brevets, I've been known to use it after reaching the halfway point.  On longer rides, when traffic dies down and the thoughts wander, I'll pull out the tunes at sundown.  I don't "need" it as often as I used to, that's for sure.  We talked about focusing on other things, too, like finding something interesting to snap in a photograph, focusing on cadence, and other distractions.  Yup, I do that, too.  Sometimes, though, when my mood dips, it's only music that can get me through.  It tends to occupy the part of my brain usually consumed with quitting or complaining, so it defuses a lot of potential problems.  When the dip passes, I usually turn it off and put it away.

In-ear, vs. Speakers:  yeah, I've used both, and I go back to a single earbud in my right ear, every time.  One, it uses less power:  where I usually need to turn an ambient speaker volume pretty high to overcome wind noise and their inherent omni-directional design, I end up creating noise pollution.  I often hear this evidenced on the bike trail, where I can hear an oncoming radio perhaps 30 feet before actually passing the cyclist it belongs to.  I don't feel this is people being obnoxious, I feel this is consequential:  When I turn on my speaker and ride down the road, I have to keep adjusting volume upwards until I can barely hear it... Then I'll stop, dismount, and walk away from the bike... and I can hear the radio sometimes 25 feet away from the speaker itself.  With the single earbud, this doesn't happen.  Since I often like to enjoy the bike trail for the nature sounds and solitude, I can't run an open-air speaker in good conscience because I'm likely ruining it for other trail users.  In the case of the Royals game on the 400k with Steven and Josh, I had to stay pretty close to Steven to hear the radio - but, we were also miles from anyone on a stretch of highway a few dozen miles between towns, so noise pollution isn't as much of a concern when using a speaker.  We probably make more noise just talking and laughing.... and FAR less than any passing cars or trucks.  Regardless, the power requirements to drive a speaker are very high compared to an earbud; I can run a radio for days with an earbud on low volume, but a speaker will only last for a few hours.

Safety?  The single earbud - decidedly NOT the "in-ear" or "plug" design, and no-freaking-way-EVER anything with the term "noise cancelling" in the name - doesn't block any ambient noise, because I keep the volume low enough that I can't hear my music when a car passes me.  The same holds true if I'm riding into a headwind:  I also can't hear the music, by design.  By following those guidelines for volume, my ears maintain focus on my surroundings and the music is where it belongs - in the back drop.  I can hear the music fine when the road is quiet and traffic drops, but, I'm specifically looking for the mental distraction, not a fully immersive audio experience.  If I find myself complaining about not being able to hear my music because there's too much traffic, um...duh, dude, maybe I ought to be paying attention then?!?  I do this on purpose, so I don't get isolated from my surroundings too much, mentally drift too far astray, or miss a car approaching from any direction.  Heck, what if I sail past a turn and my fellow riders are trying to shout at me to get me back on course?  Thus, another good guideline, I need to be able to hold a conversation with my fellow cyclists, while rolling, without needing to pause the music. 

Finally, I take none of this lightly: It took me a LONG time, personally, to be okay with myself "caving in" and allowing an earbud in my ear AT ALL during a bike ride... I felt like it was mentally cheating, somehow impure, and I definitely became even more paranoid.  This is partly why I never agreed with that whole "anti-helmet" notion that helmets actually result in MORE injuries, on the notion that because I'm wearing a helmet I'll suddenly start riding in an UNSAFE manner, because "my helmet will save me."  Baloney.  Normal, thinking individuals simply don't behave this way.  I don't think for a second that wearing an earbud means that I *think* I'm enough of a bad-ass cyclist to get away with it, or that the rules don't apply to me somehow... I take this coffee with a LOT of salt, people.  Ride scared.  If you wear a helmet so you can do stupider stuff, and ride with full, studio-can headphones at full volume, you're not a "cyclist" in my opinion, and Darwin has an award application for you to fill out.

By contrast to my own behavior, I've ridden past cyclists wearing two earbuds with their volume such that *I* can hear elements of *their* music when I pass them on the trail:  that is TOO loud, and situationally dangerous... because they also, consistently, tend to be surprised or startled when I pass them.  The human senses work as a team, and assuming that ones eyes will catch everything one might need to be concerned with while cycling, or jogging, or walking, is a fools game.  I'm not professing anything like "I've got this figured out" or that I'm somehow better than "X"... no.  I'm responsible for me, not you.  Your mileage may vary, and I may get hit by a bus tomorrow.  So be it.  Sometimes I need my tunes.

Stay safe out there, folks - above all else!