Archive for the 'Bikes & Cycling' Category

Mar 14 2017

A Primer on North Declination & Variation by Tamia Nelson

A magnetic compass is a simple instrument. Or so it appears. A needle or card, a graduated housing, maybe a lanyard ring… And that’s that. It doesn’t beep or chirp, it boasts no colorful map display, and it won’t tell you how far it is to your lunch stop. But twist and turn the compass as much as you like, and the needle (or card) continues to point toward the north. Magic? No. Magnetism. And before some physics Ph.D. takes me to task for playing fast and loose with the truth, I should add that the compass needle doesn’t really “point” north. Its orientation is determined by the north-south lines of force established by the earth’s local magnetic field. Still, the result is the same. The needle…er…points north.

What’s that? You’re not impressed? You say your GPS can do this, too, plus show you exactly where you are on the map? Right—though unless your GPS also incorporates a fluxgate (electronic) compass, it will lose track of north just as soon as you stop moving. Nonetheless, by comparison with the all-seeing, all-knowing GPS, the magnetic compass is a one-trick pony.

But what a trick! This simple, trembling needle—a Chinese invention, by the way—gave medieval Europe the key that eventually unlocked all the rooms in Gaia’s great house. That’s no small achievement. And the compass still has a place in paddlers’ packs—or better yet, on their decks and in their hands. A compass is self-powered and self-contained. It doesn’t depend on satellite coverage or batteries, and it’s not subject to sudden, inexplicable crashes. Every electronic device I’ve owned has failed me sooner or later, almost always without warning. No compass has ever let me down.

As simple and straightforward as a compass appears, however, it holds a dark secret. Its north is not the cartographer’s “true” north. Its needle doesn’t point the way to the soon-to-be open waters lapping around the North Pole. And therein lies a story: the story of the other north pole… Read more…

Two Norths

Originally published at on March 14, 2017

Mar 10 2017

Questions Potential Surly Long Haul Trucker Owners Ask: Will Your 42cm LHT Fit Me? by Tamia Nelson

I ride a 2008 42cm Surly Long Haul Trucker, or LHT, bought from stock and modified to suit my body. This is the smallest of the LHT frames Surly makes, and I’ve often written about my bike. As a result, I get a lot of letters from folks who want to know something more of my vital measurements. What’s my height? My standover measure? My reach? All this is in aid of wondering if the 42cm LHT would fit them, or their girlfriend or wife, or boyfriend or husband. So this is for all of you shorter folks who all wonder the same thing. I’ll begin with a photograph of my bike just before a short tour:

42cm Surly LHT Standover Heights

You can open an enlargement in a new window by clicking this link. The top tube of my LHT slopes down from head tube to seat tube, meaning that the standover measure differs along its length. The red line shows the standover height just ahead of the saddle nose, and the blue line shows the height near the head tube.

The photo above also shows the measure between the center of my bike’s seat post to the middle of the clamp on my 42 cm Nitto Noodle handlebars. This magenta line shows the horizontal measure, also called the “reach,” and it’s 20½ inches or 52 cm on my bike. Why show the reach? Because to my mind, finding a good fit depends more on reach than standover height. I’ll quote myself from an earlier article:

My main goal in choosing the size was to get a bike with the reach which would minimize shoulder and neck strain, and reduce the potential for numb, tingling hands. I’ve ridden a 46 cm LHT and can manage, but the top tube (or TT) on the 42 cm frame is shorter, making the reach just right for me. I can stand over both the 42 cm and the 46 cm frames, but don’t care if I have lots of air between the TT and my bod. I wanted comfort over the long haul, and I got it.

Keep in mind that these measures will differ from one 42cm LHT to the next. Different model years, stem angle and length, handlebar design, tire and wheel measures can all change actual measures.

So, will the 42 cm LHT fit you? That depends on any number of factors which I addressed in earlier articles, which are linked below. Of course, it’s best to try before you buy. But many (most?) bike shops stocking Surly LHTs won’t have the shortest (or tallest) models on the showroom floor when you stop by. A quality shop with helpful staff will happily order one without expecting a commitment to buy. Hopefully what I’ve had to say will help you make your bike size decision.

Further Reading


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Mar 09 2017

Portrait of a Winter Beater by Tamia Nelson

Snow and ice, road salt and grit, harsh temperatures and abrasive slush… these add up to rough conditions for riding a bike. Which is why many cyclists switch to a beater bike for winter commuting. The owner of this soft-tail salvaged the bike from the crusher’s jaws. With electrical tape he lashed on a trashed milk crate to carry his returnable bottles and sack of groceries. Tape keeps the torn saddle from disintegrating, too, and it builds up hand grips where there were none. He smiled widely when loading up for the two mile ride home on sloppy streets, uncaring that his bike won’t win any beauty contests. He was riding, after all. And others weren’t. (Including me!)

Winter Beater Bike by Tamia Nelson

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Mar 07 2017

Yes, It’s True: They CAN Shoot You From Shore by Tamia Nelson

Many years ago—William Jefferson Clinton was still living in the White House, and Farwell and I were just starting to write weekly columns for what was then—I was skimming through a not-very-good book on waterfront photography when I came to a chapter titled “You Can Shoot Them From Shore.” The subject was photographing boat races with long lenses, but I couldn’t help thinking that the title hinted at another, darker meaning. And no, I wasn’t being alarmist. I’d already come under fire when I was on the water. (I’d been threatened at gunpoint when hiking in woods, too, but that’s another story.) A young man—the son of a neighbor, as it turned out—decided to amuse himself by sending a few rounds over our heads as we took the canoe out on the ‘Flow for an evening paddle. He’d apparently concluded that he could shoot us from shore with complete impunity. He was right, too. The long arm of the law often proves to be pitifully short in the Adirondack foothills. The “jes’ havin’ a little fun” defense may not figure prominently in the statute books, but it commands respect from many rural cops and courts to this day.

In any event, we escaped unharmed from the shoreline shooter. (It helped to have a bowman with no small experience in assessing—and evading—incoming fire.) Nor did the incident recur. But it served to remind me that paddlers can easily pass for sitting ducks. Deliverance may have been fiction, but almost any one of us could someday share Drew Ballinger’s fate.

I hasten to add that this isn’t very probable … That being said, there’s still a chance that you’ll someday find yourself on the wrong end of a gun. What then?… Read more…

You Don't Want to Confront This

Originally published at on March 7, 2017

Further Reading


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Feb 20 2017

How to Debrief Your Winter Bike After the Ride’s Done by Tamia Nelson

Are you a winter cyclist? Do you commute by bike, or do the weekly grocery run with your trusty steed? I know how that goes. On returning home after a trip, tired, grubby with sweat and coated with road salt — and possibly gritty road splash, too — the first thing I want is a hot shower. But this isn’t the time to turn your back on the bike. Because you know as well as I that once it’s rolled into its home berth, the bike will be forgotten till the next run. By then, the grime that the bike collected on the previous trip will have had enough time to eat away at the drivetrain and any parts that can rust or corrode.

So, tend to your bike before you tend to yourself. First, unload your gear, removing water bottles, bags, and pump. Now clean the bike to get rid of salty slush, mud, and grit. You don’t need any special cleaning agents or equipment, just ordinary dishwashing detergent mixed with warm water and dispensed with a hand-operated pump sprayer—a recycled window spray bottle works just fine—along with a bucket, a sponge or rag, and a stiff brush (for wheels and tires). Be thorough, but don’t spray water directly into the freewheel or bearings. If the bike’s chain is dirty—of course it will be!—clean and lube it as well as the derailleurs, cogs, and chainrings. Inspect the tires and wheels as you clean them, and when necessary, probe cuts (very carefully) with the point of a penknife to dislodge any leftover glass. (WARNING! These tiny, sharp sherds often fly out with surprising force. After one bounced off my nose, I started wearing safety glasses. I’d suggest you do the same. You can’t afford to lose an eye.)

After washing off all the muck, make a note of any chips or dings in the frame’s finish for later retouching. Make any necessary repairs as soon as possible, replacing wearing items—brake blocks, chain, tires—well before they’re dysfunctional. Overhaul all hard-used bearings regularly: pedals every few months, wheels twice a year, bottom bracket and headset when needed. Some of this work is doubtlessly unnecessary, but the effort pays off. On-the-road repairs are no fun, especially in less than optimal conditions.

What’s that? You say you aren’t mechanically inclined? Don’t worry. Bikes are wonderfully easy to work on. Get a good book, a basic tool kit, and a workstand. And begin with easy jobs. Overhauling an old-style cup-and-cone pedal is a great way to learn how bearings go together, for example. Tackle more complicated jobs when you feel ready, buying specialized tools only as you need them. There’s not much point in owning a tool you can’t use, after all.

Does this all sound time-consuming? It can be. But with experience, the jobs will only take a fraction of the time they once did, and a properly maintained bike needs surprisingly little unscheduled repair. In fact, if you do your post-ride debriefing religiously and clean your bike after every trip, you’ll find that your pre-trip checks and post-trip checks take only a few minutes at most—just long enough to top up the tires, check the brakes, and spin the wheels. It’s time well spent. Then go and enjoy that hot shower!

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Feb 06 2017

Love at First Bike by Tamia Nelson

Do you remember how you felt when you got your first bicycle? I do. I was only four years old when I found a bright red bike waiting for me under the tree on Christmas morning. I was overjoyed. The bike had training wheels and balloon tires, and there were multicolored streamers trailing from the ends of the white handlebar grips. It didn’t sport a showpiece marque, however. It was a Hawthorn, the house brand of the then retailing giant Montgomery Ward. But I hadn’t yet learned to be brand conscious. I only knew my new bike was beautiful and that my world had suddenly gotten larger. That was all that mattered.

It still is. I was reminded of this when I found myself in the local Walmart, making my way from pharmacy to food past the bicycle department. I was surprised by the array of bikes and accessories on display. There were even commuter bikes with fitted racks and all-weather tires. I was also impressed by the care that had been taken in assembling the bikes being offered for sale. Wheels were true, brakes worked smoothly, tires were properly inflated, saddles were level… Everything, in short, was in apple-pie order. Yet the bikes were priced low, low enough to be within the reach of families of very modest means.

Were these top-of-the-line wheels? Of course not. But the quality looked good, at least as good as the name-brand bike I’ve ridden for eight years, putting some 20,000 miles on a succession of cyclometers in the process. Of course, the bicycle blogs are full of disparaging references to “bike-shaped objects,” with Walmart bearing the brunt of much of the sniping. That’s unfortunate. While I’ve no love for big-box stores—and I’d be the first to patronize a good bike shop, were there any within reasonable distance of my home—it makes no sense to condemn good-quality bikes out of hand, particularly when those bikes may be the only ones many families can afford.

This point was driven home again, even before I’d left the store. Only a few minutes after I’d moved on from bicycles to electronics for camera batteries, I saw a family coming down the aisle behind me. Dad was pushing the cart, with Mom walking beside him, and in the cart was—you guessed it—a bicycle. It had a garish metal-flake purple finish that only a kid could love, and sure enough, a boy was skipping along beside the cart, holding tight to the bike’s front wheel. The kid can’t have been much older than I was when I got my first bike, and he was grinning from ear to ear. So were Mom and Dad.

Now I was grinning, too. It’s rare to see a kid on a bike in the northern Adirondack foothills these days. Most boys seem to move right from diapers onto the seat of a battery-powered, child-sized ATV, while girls get dolls and diminutive strollers. (By the time they’re sixteen, the boys will have real ATVs; the girls, real babies.) But here was a happy exception. I could see my own remembered joy reflected in the boy’s dancing eyes. And I wished I could have compelled the Web’s legions of naysayers to see it, too.

The Joy of Cycling

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