Category Archives: Outdoors

How to Start Bicycling to Work

Yesterday, I wrote about bicycling to work, pointing out that it’s a safe, inexpensive, way for many people (including office workers without access to showers) to get to work. There were a lot of thoughtful comments there too.

Today I’d like to provide some tips for getting started commuting on a bicycle. As I’m just getting started on this, these are mainly things I’ve learned from poking around online, so I’ll be including lots of links.

The Bicycle

This varies from person to person, but as a general rule: if you have a very short ride — say a mile or less — you can probably just use any old bike and a bicycling helmet. Don’t try to use a motorcycle helmet. It won’t vent your head, so you could overheat. Also, it won’t be comfortable.

Most people will have a longer ride and will want to get a bike that works specifically for them. Each model of bicycle comes in different frame sizes. It’s important to get a bicycle that is the right size for you. Also, you’ll want to get a quality bicycle that will let you be fast and won’t break down along the way.

For all these reasons, I — and every single other person I’ve ever seen talk about this — highly recommend that you buy your bicycle from a bicycle shop. Don’t buy a bicycle from a “big box” store like Walmart or Target. They may be cheaper up front, but you’ll pay for it in the long run because they won’t last as long, won’t fit you as well, and may even be unsafe. Bike shop staff will help you find a bike that fits you, which is important for avoiding aches and pains and even injury. They’ll be able to help you find appropriate accessories for your bike, as well as repair it. Here is a helpful article on this topic, written by a bike shop.

Generally speaking, bike shops can repair bikes bought at any other bike shops. However, they can instantly recognize bikes bought at big box stores. Many will repair those too, but some refuse to work on some of those bikes on the grounds that it is impossible to bring them to the level of service they expect their mechanics to do.

Aches and Pains

With any sport, when you start it, you can expect a little bit of aches and pains at first, as you start using muscles that you may not have really used at first. Bicycling is no exception, but it’s easy to deal with.

Your first stop if you have aches and pains might be the where does it hurt page. It provides detailed, helpful advice. There are also some common things that go wrong for people.

First on the list is wrong size of bike or improper adjustment of your bike. You want a bike frame that is the right size for you, and you want the seat and handlebars adjusted properly for you. A bike shop can help you get this done easily. If your feet can reach the ground while you’re on the seat, you almost certainly have the seat too low, which is a common mistake.

Sometimes the way you position yourself on the bike, or your technique, could be to blame.

Also, clothing can be a problem. A good place to start here is with some cycling shorts. Another common complaint from new cyclists appears to be blisters on the feet. This can be caused by improper positioning on the pedals, or by using the wrong type of sock. Typical socks absorb moisture and trap it next to the skin; bicycling socks will wick it away and let it evaporate. In fact, cycling clothes: socks, shorts, and jerseys (shirts) are all designed to wick moisture away from you and let it evaporate, which keeps you cooler and more comfortable. Bicycling gloves are cheap and can help your hands stay comfortable.


You can easily save thousands of dollars by riding a bicycle instead of driving a car. Bicycles do need periodic maintenance, just like a car. Usually you can do a lot of that yourself. It probably will pay off to take your bike in to the shop for an annual tuneup. If you have no bicycling equipment at all, and buy your equipment at a bike shop new, you can probably get started for around $500. Even that will probably pay for itself in less than a year if you average riding your bike at least a few times a week.


Safety on a bicycle can usually be summed up with three rules: be visible, be predictable, and ride with traffic.

Unless there are dedicated bicycle-only lanes or paths, the safest way (in the United States) to ride your bike is on the road, riding with traffic (acting like a car). Don’t ride on a sidewalk, and never ride against traffic. This may sound counter-intuitive, but it is backed up by solid research. It all has to do with being predictable. Nobody is looking for something the speed of a bicycle to emerge from a sidewalk to cross a road or driveway. Sidewalks often aren’t that visible and frequently don’t provide enough room to pass. Sidewalk-riding cyclists get into accidents all the time with cars backing pulling out of driveways, making turns, or even just driving down a road where the cyclist cuts in front of them to cross a street.

A great book for learning how to ride in traffic can be viewed free online: the Bicycling Street Smarts book. There are also some safety videos online that are helpful.

Staying visible is certainly important. In some places, like cities where cyclists are common, drivers are going to be on the lookout for you already. In my case, I’m riding on rural roads that have some hills, where cyclists are rare, so I’m putting extra effort into this.

Staying visible in the day or at night starts with high-visibility clothing. A “screaming yellow” jersey or an ANSI safety reflective vest (less than $10) are good ways to do that. Several people recommend a Cateye TL-LD1100 flashing tail light for use at night, or even for daytime use when visibility is critical (such as my situation). If you will ever ride at night, laws require you to have the proper reflectors on your bike. And, you must also have a white headlight that does not cover up your front reflector (in some locations, you may also be required to have a red tail light that doesn’t cover up your reflector). Companies like Cateye carry those products as well.

Other tips: avoid drainage covers; they sometimes have slats that a bicycle tire could fall into.


Here are some suggestions you might consider as a commuter.

Start with pannier bags. They mount over your rear tire and are cooler for you than a backpack because your back can still breathe. They’re more aerodynamic than a front basket. You can get bags suitable for carrying papers, laptops, a change of clothes, etc.

Next on your list might be a bicycle lock, to help keep it from being stolen. Your local bike shop can make suggestions here.

You might want to consider a spare inner tube (about $5) and tire-changing tools (also about $5) to carry with you in your bag. You wouldn’t want to have to walk 5 miles if you get a flat.

Along with that goes an air pump. I suggest a frame pump — it’s a small pump that can clip on to your bicycle’s frame, so you always have it handy. Obviously you will need this if you have to change a tube, but it could be handy even if you don’t.

You can find some more suggestions from and from Mike or your local bike shop.

Where to buy

Besides your local bike shop, you can buy a lot of accessories online. I wouldn’t suggest buying a bicycle online, because you really want to get a good fit at a bike shop.

When I asked at, readers suggested three online stores:

You can also find some bicycling accessories at general-purpose stores like Amazon or sporting goods stores like REI. I personally wouldn’t recommend local “big box” sporting goods stores any more than I would Walmart or Target for this stuff, though.

More info

For more information, check out my bicycling links at

Bicycling to Work

We hear a lot these days about the price of gas, energy efficiency, and the like. But, in the United States, outside of a few progressive cities, there aren’t a lot of people that are using the ultimate zero-emissions transportation technology: bicycles.

That’s really too bad, because bicycles are a lot cheaper to operate than cars even before you consider gas prices. They also are great exercise and are probably faster, safer, and more convenient than you think.

I live about 10 miles (16 km) from work, which includes several miles on sand roads. I haven’t bicycled in about 6 years. Last week, I got my bicycle out, touched it up a bit, and started riding. Sunday I rode in to work and back as a test. As soon as I get a bit of gear (hopefully by the middle of next week), I plan to start riding bike to work at least 3 days a week.

I’ve picked up some tips along the way. Let’s talk about a few of them.


Many people think bicycling is dangerous. In fact, bicycling is about as safe as driving an SUV. Not only that, but only 10% of bicycling accidents occur when you are hit from behind (and 90% of those produce only minor injuries). It turns out that the vast majority of bicycling accidents occur because people are not riding on the road with traffic, or are acting unpredictably. Following some basic safety advice can make you safer in a bicycle than an SUV. Oh, and don’t drink and ride; 24% of fatal bicycle accidents involve an intoxicated rider.


Think it’s too far? Think again. It’s fairly easy for an untrained, unfit person to ride a bicycle up to 10 miles without working hard at it. That can probably be done in about an hour. As you get more fit and used to the bike, you may be able to go that distance in half that time. Also, get pannier bags for your bicycle. They attach in back and let you carry work clothes, laptops, etc. without having to use a backpack.


Many people with office jobs are concerned about this. Not everywhere has a convenient shower. Check out these tips from the Tips and Tricks for Biking to Work manual.

I’m excited about it, and will be sure to post more here on how it goes.

A Smart Gas Tax

The recent announcements by McCain and Clinton of their support for a temporary repeal of the Federal gas tax make me sick. More on why later, but first, I want to put forth my idea. I think both Republicans and Democrats would like it — as it’s based on market principles and achieves a reduction in costs to the average household, while simultaneously helping the environment and reducing our dependency on foreign oil. But of course, it’s courageous, and we don’t have many politicians of that type anymore.

What we need is a large, revenue-neutral, gas tax increase. Now, before people go nuts, let’s explore what this means.

Revenue-neutral means that it doesn’t result in a net increase of monies going to the government. The increase in the gas tax rate is offset by a decrease in the income tax, tied to the cost of direct and indirect taxable gasoline each family or business consumes. So on day 1, if you cost of filling up at the tank goes up by $10 in a week, if you are an average family, your total paychecks also go up by $10. Your cost for receiving a package might go up by $1, and your paycheck goes up by the same amount. So you’re no worse off than before — if you’re average.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of this sort of plan:

  • The economic incentive to be efficient consumers of gas is magnified. This will eventually lead to Americans having more money in their pockets, increasing market incentives for fuel efficiency, and a decreasing (or increasing slower) price of oil as demand slows.
  • Economic incentives to use mass transit, live close to urban centers, or drive fuel-efficient vehicles are magnified. Likewise, the economic incentives to invest in mass transit and efficient automobiles are also magnified.
  • As more efficient technologies come on the market, and Americans decide that they’d like to pad their bank accounts by hundreds or thousands of dollars a year, more sustainable and environmentally-friendly development patterns will emerge. Also, the price of oil will be kept low. Of course, people that choose not to change will, on average, be no worse off than before.
  • Alternative choices to the automobile will have a greater incentive to develop. Think the return of a fast, speedy national passenger and freight network, greater mass transit options, etc.
  • The marketplace will drive Detroit to love making fuel-efficient vehicles, because they will be the new profit centers.
  • This sort of thing is known to work well in other countries around the world.

If we think more long-term, we see even more positive effects:

  • The return to local agriculture and manufacturing. Due to lower transportation costs, local farmers and manufacturers will be able to undercut Walmart’s prices due to the larger relative costs of Walmart’s much-vaunted national distribution network. Unless, that is, Walmart starts buying local — which is a good thing too. This is a good thing for American jobs.
  • Keeping all that oil money in the domestic economy is a good thing for American jobs, too.
  • Our businesses will have a jump start on being competitive in the increasingly carbon-regulated global marketplace.

As for the cons:

  • Eventually this will lead to a net reduction in Federal revenues as efficiencies develop in the marketplace and people save money on gas. Corresponding budget cuts will be required. (A good thing, I figure)
  • Implementing this all at once would be a shock to some people living inefficiently now — those that are far above average. It would have to be implemented gradually to avoid being a shock to the economy.

Now, for the McCain/Clinton plan: it’s a farce. Reducing the gas taxes means more efficient gas, which means more consumption of gas, which in turn leads to — yes — higher gas prices. Its real effect will be minimal, and is a terrible long-term policy. It charges tens of billions of dollars to the national credit card (which we, and our children, will have to repay) while achieving almost no benefit now. It’s a gimmick through and through, and something that says loud and clear that neither candidate is on track for the “Straight Talk Express”.

Update 4/29/2008: One potential solution for the problem of declining revenues over time is to periodically re-index the averages to mirror current usage. Assuming this does really lead to the expected drop in consumption, there is no sense in 2020 of paying people for how much gas they would have used in 2008.

Ice Photos

For those of you wanting to see some pictures from the recent ice storm, here you go.

The morning:


This bush sorta got short and flat:


A tree branch:


And another:


Then, at noon:


Then the snow came:


If you have trouble finding the driveway… well, good thing we’ve got reflectors.


The rental generator that kept us warmish:


More snow:


You can also see the whole set on flickr.

A Clarification

You may remember my post Monday in which I told Mother Nature to “bring it on”.

I would like to clarify that remark at this time. I would have preferred Mother Nature to interpret this in the President Bush sense of “please don’t hurt us”, rather than the “let’s just knock out power to the entire plains region”. A nice little romantic power outage Tuesday evening would have been nice.

We lost power at 3:10 on Tuesday according to my workstation’s logs. It’s still out, and our rural electric cooperative is estimating it will be another week until it’s back, though that’s better than the Dec. 22 date the state’s much larger for-profit utility is giving people. We were lucky enough to be able to find a generator to rent on Wednesday morning. $35 a day isn’t cheap. But on the other hand, we don’t have a flooded basement due to not pumping out the sump pump, our food isn’t spoiled, and our pipes aren’t frozen.

At work, our Internet connection went down Tuesday morning. We use a fixed wireless connection, and this was the first time our ISP’s radios have been tested in ice. Some antenna designs performed flawlessly. Then there were the antennas we had. 80% packet loss or worse. It wasn’t safe to get up on the roof to deice them until Wednesday afternoon, and even then we couldn’t get all the ice off. Finally today the connection was back to normal.

That two weeks after someone — yes — dug through Sprint/Embarq’s apparent only fiber-optic link into town. Took down all long-distance calling into or out of the town, most cell towers, as well as all access to 911 (since dispatch is in another town) for about 8 hours. If we had still be using wired T1s, we would have been out of service with Internet as well.

All told, 200,000 households or business customers of the state’s largest utility have been without power. Dozens of other utilities have also had significant outages. Ours alone lost 700 power poles and there are substations in need of repair all over the eastern part of the state. And we weren’t even the hardest hit.

On the generator, we can generally pick any three of refrigerator, server, workstation, or furnace to run. So sometime warm, I’ll upload the pictures I’ve taken so far. We have one nice CFL-powered electric lamp we’re using, flashlights, and a kerosene lamp. It’s amazing how after just a few days of this, we’re starting to want to go to bed earlier. Or perhaps that was because I haven’t had the chance to get a lot of sleep lately…

When we look out the house to the east, we see pitch black. Normally we can see some yard lights in the distance. Not this week. Nothing at all to the east. To the west, we can see yard lights tantalizingly close — only 2 miles away, fed from a different location. Ah, the joys of being at the very end of a utility’s network.

All this despite the fact that this storm wasn’t really all that bad. The roads were never really terrible, and there weren’t as many trees down as there were in the ice storm of 2005.

I heard a comment on the news today from an Iowa Republican who had followed the GOP debate yesterday. She mentioned that Romney made a comment like “Well, guess there’s no global warming in Iowa with an ice storm like this, huh?” She pointed out that if Iowa was still as chilly as it used to, it would have been a snow storm instead of an ice storm. I agree.


One of the things about living in the country is that there isn’t all that much predictability. You can have your water supply disrupted by ants, sewage issues, power supply problems, etc.

But today was a new one that disrupted my morning commute.

It wasn’t mud, or harvest.

No, it was traffic. On our driveway, just a few feet in front of our front door.


Takes only one of those standing on the driveway to make a traffic jam.

Result of that radar image

A couple of days ago, I posted a radar image.

The above photo is the result of that (and a following) storm.

It’s the muddy road at the end of our driveway. Your guess as to which road is the driveway.

Here’s another road near us:


Cliff also has some photos from this same storm system.

CNN arrives in Kansas, survives tornado and prairie fire, and gets out

A CNN crew was apparently in Kansas briefly this week. They seemed surprised to be hit by tornadoes, and then by a 5,000-acre prairie fire.

I started smelling smoke yesterday evening, went outside to investigate. I didn’t see or hear any fire. I figured some grassland must be burning again, and checked on it every couple of hours.

Turns out it was a good 30 miles away.

The funny thing is that CNN doesn’t seem to have ever filed a report from Kansas about this; they just posted a blog story.

It’s finally here

You’re probably wondering what “it” is. Maybe you have a few guesses:

Spring? Nope.

The next version of Debian? Guess again.

Winter? Getting closer.

Yes, it really is here. That season known as the Kansas springtime winter storm blizzard/monsoon season.

Today is the first day of spring. Most of Kansas is seeing its worst winter storm of the season today. Parts of the state are expecting 14″ of snow. Here we just had sleet and steady rain for 2 days.

I’m sure that in a few days, it’ll be dry again. But every so often, once or twice a year, we get one of those days where we have 6″ of rain (or more) in about 12 hours. Then we sit dry for several months.

Kansas weather happens only in extremes, it seems.