August 2009

The lack of recent posts is due to (blamed on) four things. First, I have been very busy at job #1 (research). Second, I have been very busy at job #2 (hardware/software development). Third, job #3 (classes) will begin Monday. And fourth, I have a new hobby: cycling!

As mentioned previously, my bike was stolen some weeks ago. It was a fairly standard hybrid affair, produced by Giant. Such bikes are prime targets for thiefs however; I kept it outside (where it routinely was rained upon) and while it was not directly visible from the street, its theft wouldn’t require ninja skills.

I began to look for a replacement. As I researched more I found myself becoming quite interested in cycling in general. In the past I’ve ridden when it was convenient, but for whatever reason the sudden loss of a bike made me very interested in bikes! I decided that what I wanted was a classic 10-speed racer from the bike boom era, either a post-WWII bike or something from the 60s or 70s.

I found the following bike on Craigslist, being sold by a couple in Gainesville. This is not the bike, this is a catalog picture. It is a 1968 Raleigh Super Course (I determined the year by the shifters and brakes).

Raleigh 1968 Super Course catalog page

Raleigh 1968 Super Course catalog page

It’s a great bike. It has original everything except for tires, and it rides great.

This post isn’t really about the bike though, but about the hobby. When I learn a new skill (and to be sure, despite having ridden bikes for many years, I am still learning to cycle) I like to learn how to do it The Right Way. That means I’m learning proper pedaling form, how to work on my cadence, how and when to change gears, and so on.

I’ve learned a few things so far:

  1. When I have to stop I need to do three things: shift down with my right hand, unstrap my right foot with my right hand, and brake with my left hand. Invariably it is the unstrapping that I neglect, until I find myself at a stand-still on two wheels, strapped into the bicycle. At which I tip over comically, and end up on the ground (still strapped in).
  2. Shifting down is harder than shifting up. To shift up, I simply throw the lever up (these are friction shifters). To shift down I have to pull the lever down until the chain derails, then slide it back up to center the derailer. Too far in either direction and I either shift too many gears or immediately shift back to where I started.
  3. Eating and drinking the proper amounts and types of food makes a marked difference in performance. I’ve been focussing on eating multiple smaller meals (breakfast, snack, sandwich at lunch, snack and sandwich in the evening, dinner at night) which makes sure I have the energy when I head out. When I get back, I try to eat a solid meal within an hour (when the body is about 4 times as efficient at converting carbs to muscle). I keep my water consumption even throughout my rides.
  4. I get exercise headaches. I always have, and it’s pretty annoying because when they occur I’m out of commission for a few hours. Riding over a painted line on the road with an exercise headache throbbing jars my head and spine to the point of tears – and that’s no exaggeration. I’ve found that the best way to avoid these headaches is to ride with my head up for a short time after drinking anything on the bike, and to never drink large amounts or rest for longer than 5-10 minutes.
  5. I hit my stride about 5 miles into a ride. Before that I feel weak, burnt out, as if I’m going slow. I don’t know why this is. After the 5 mile mark, however, I’m feeling better and getting into the rhythm. I stop thinking about my breathing and cadence and just let it happen. At 10 miles I feel like I could go all day (unfortunately most of my rides are at night so 10 miles out, then 10 miles back, is about all I have time for). I think this is because I’m thinking too much during the early part of the ride, but that’s hard to stop doing.

I love the technical aspects though. I love reminding myself not to squeeze the bars too tightly, to adopt the “tipped bowl” position on certain stretches and the areodynamic “humped back” on others. I enjoy practicing judging the proper moment to shift when approaching a hill. I like watching my eyeline, focusing on which muscles I’m using to lift my legs on the back end of a stroke, and all the other technical aspects of cycling. When I catch myself doing one of these things successfully without thinking about it, I’m proud.

I have very weak thighs; Hani (lovingly) compares my legs to that of Big Bird. As a result I much prefer riding on flat roads. The best part of my usual ride is the long flat run of 441 past Paine’s Prairie, especially when I time it so I’m riding back during sunset (the sun sets in front and to the left of me, over the prairie).

One of my goals is to ride the Horse Farm Hundred, a century organized by the Gainesville Cycling Club. Right now I can ride 20 reasonably flat miles without much burden, and don’t have the daylight to try much more. I think I could probably do 30 or 40 without blowing up, but I need a frame pump to bring along before I try. I don’t fancy having to hitchhike back to Gainesville with a busted tube. I’m getting better quickly, however, so with any luck I’ll be up for a century next year.

Ultimately I’m not that great on a bicycle. I can’t sprint, I struggle up hills, and I have an unfortunate tendency to forget I’m strapped in and find myself on the ground looking foolish at a red light (or behind two chatty students on campus who just wouldn’t listen to my requests to step aside). But I enjoy it a lot, and it’s good exercise, and I love learning about and practicing the technical bits.


Yesterday Hani and I were discussing lycra, leg-shaving, and other facets of modern cyclists. I thought I’d follow up with a very quick comparison of the modern look versus what I consider a much more “raw”, more attractive look: bikes and attire from the golden age of bicycling just prior and after World War II.

Lycra may make you more streamlined, but it also makes you look ridiculous. Furthermore it requires that you stay within 5 feet of your bicycle or immediately change clothes; a lycra-clad cyclist without a bicycle is a thing from a bad science-fiction movie.

Lance Armstrong dressed to kill... for a clown convention

Lance Armstrong dressed to kill... for a clown convention

Personally I think the classic short-shorts and jersey is much more “real”. Lycra says “I’ve got a 50 function bike computer, an intimate knowledge of the wind shear forces on this road, and a bottle of liquid designed specifically to my body’s chemistry; I have the technical advantage over you.” The classic attire says “I don’t need gadgetry; I’m going to beat you because I’m just plain better than you.”

Ken Russell doesn't need rainbow-colored clothing vaccuum pumped to his skin  to whip you on a hill.

Ken Russell doesn't need rainbow-colored clothing vaccuum pumped to his skin to whip you on a hill.

(If Lance’s bike gets a scratch his team simply throws him another off the rack. Ken Russell finished second in his first race riding a welded aluminum bike with a cracked fork.)

This follows over into bikes as well. A modern track bike is a carbon-fiber monstrosity. I showed the image below to Hani; she was perplexed how one would ride it. That’s a reasonable response – this thing resembles a bicycle only in silhouette. Sure it looks pretty cool, but there’s something lacking. It doesn’t have that light, wirey feel to it – it resorts to paint to imply speed rather than an airy, raw, powerful frame.

A bicycle purporting to be a carbon-fiber custom-made track bike.  Could also be an alien mothership.

A bicycle purporting to be a carbon-fiber custom-made track bike. Could also be an alien mothership.

Now maybe it’s just me, but that sort of bike wouldn’t intimidate me, where I the sort of person likely to be in a velodrome. The rider is putting a huge amount of money and technology into the bicycle, when in reality I’m not racing the bicycle, I’m racing the rider. I’m sure it is technologically superior than the steel lugged-frame bikes of the 40s and 50s, but be honest: wouldn’t you be more scared to find yourself on a grass path facing someone the bike below?

A sexy bicycle.

A sexy bicycle.

This bike says “don’t worry about the bike. You’ll be looking at the rider’s back for the last 200 meters anyway.” The rider of this bike isn’t going to be dressed like a Christmas tree, weighing the chin-strap on his helmet, or shooting chemical cocktails into his veins, he’s going to beating you.

There’s something to be said (indeed, I’ve said quite a bit!) about the “elemental” approach: metal, rubber, cloth. Forget high-tech gadgetry, artificial elastic jumpsuits, carbon-fiber frames, wind-tunnel tested angles: the classic cyclists didn’t need trickery.

I still haven’t written about the theft of my bike and my glorious replacement. At the rate I write updates it is likely that the bike itself will transform – Optimus Bicyclus – and apply itself to the computer. In fact, I claim that this is the reason for my slow posting schedule; for the majority of the day I hide behind the couch, watching, waiting, for gears to turn, cranks to… crank, and the frame itself to bend into an unspeakable killing machine.

We will see.

I researched locking strategies. Apparently a combination lock can hold a thief back for somewhere between 30 seconds and 5 minutes, depending on whose advice you are taking. The fact that my lock used the combination “1234” and was typically scrambled to “1235” (or, if I was feeling particularly clever, “0234”) probably didn’t help security.

My research indicates that the best strategy involves more than one type of lock, with each wheel locked to the frame and to the rack or permanent structure. I decided on two key locks: one U-lock and one chain-lock. The U-lock locks the rear (more expensive) wheel to the frame and together, to the rack. The chain locks the front wheel to the frame and to the rack.

It is wise to use multiple lock types as the tools needed to break each are different (and bulky).

I leave the U-lock on campus at my typical lockup-location. I make sure to park the bike next to examples of a variety of other locking strategies: a bike locked only to itself with a chain lock, a bike locked via a U-lock on the front wheel only (quick-release, anyone?) and a mountain bike that hasn’t moved in 12 days. I figure any thief could have their pick of more attractive, easier-to-steal bikes, so mine should be fine.

When I’m away from campus I carry only the chain-lock. It is lighter and easier to lock to strangely shaped structures and I don’t leave the bike unnattended for very long.

When I’m at home, I keep the bike indoors. This is good for three reasons: one, it avoids elemental damage (have to watch out for those black puddings); two, it removes the threat of theft; three, it looks cool in my living room.

I read an article on Slashdot today on the subject of passwords. Apparently a secure password is not that important. Wait, I take that back, that was the article from several days ago. Today’s article was that securing your password is very important. Regardless, there were associated comments suggesting alternate approaches: passphrases, biometrics, etc. each with their own disadvantage.

This made me think: shouldn’t a secure authentication system use complementary systems? Like the bike, each is defeated via specific methods which are not applicable to the other. A password can be found in a post-it, guessed, or cracked, but a finger-print requires physical presence or spy-like tactics. A fingerprint can’t be changed to adjust for security lapses, but a password can.

Why not a key and a password? A computer cracker is unlikely to also be an expert in duplicating (or stealing) keys.

How about a passphrase, a combination lock, and a fingerprint? Unless you expect to be attacked by a multi-skilled computer hacker / safe cracker / private detective, you are in good shape. Two of those three can be changed at will (with varying difficulties) and one is person-specific.

Personally, I can’t log into my laptop before entering a short essay on the concepts of “self” and “identity”, freestyle-rapping for between 28 and 33 seconds, submitting to a pelvic CT scan (with contrast), and passing my thumb over a fingerprint scanner… located at the bottom of a 50 foot shark pool.

Friday was a somewhat productive day at school. I’ve completed the majority of the coding and “hard” work for the current paper and now I am in the writing stage. In the early evening I stepped outside to call and wake up Hani (12 hour time difference) and to eat my lunch.

A man approached me while I was eating. He wasn’t unfamiliar; I think I’ve seen him around the electrical engineering buildings before. I was eating the last of my pretzels and admiring a pair of road bikes parked nearby (a post on my bikeless status is forthcoming). The man (quite tall, carrying a closed umbrella) walked past, presumably leaving for the day.

I paced idly, crunching. When I turned around, the man was walking back towards me with that direct-yet-indirect approach one uses when approaching someone who is otherwise engaged. I stopped pacing and he stepped forward and asked, somewhat disjointedly,

Have we talked before? I think I’ve? We’ve met? Before?

I had no idea who he was (besides having possibly seen him “around”) and so responded,

Um.. I.. don’t think so?

He then continued,

I was wondering if I could ask your opinion about something…

What a strange opening! Why ask the opinion of someone that you’re not even certain you’ve met before? He went on,

…about Jesus.

Ah. The “we’ve met before” was, as they say, an angle. This was an unusual confrontation – apparently he was leaving for the day when my presence inspired him to recite his patter. Perhaps I was eating with particular lust; perhaps I was eyeing bikes with envy. Perhaps I was kneeling before a statue of Baal.

We talked briefly.

When he had earned this day his daily bread he made to leave. Before he went on his way and left me to my pretzels he said,

Well, good luck. In life. In everything. We may never meet again.

There is something ominous in those words. Was he implying my demise? Would he be instrumental in it? Was he foretelling his own passing? Would it involve a cross?