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Urban exploration

I stopped along my meandering urban route yesterday to sketch a few non-human-made things. It was a pleasure to discover there are trees, and even large “unimproved” areas of woods sprinkled along the river, between the downtown airport and the North corridor of warehouses.

I wanted to get out and ride fixed wheel, and there’s a 6km circuit around the airport that is relatively flat and attracts a lot of cyclists. It was fun riding light, fast circles on my 1946 Hobbs of Barbican, but after a while circles get a little old. And I’d noticed the underpass, so I figured the opportunity was ripe for a little urban exploration.

This sad little neighborhood seems entirely forgotten. In fact, I had no idea it even existed. I love coming across hidden gems, but frankly there seemed to be no charm whatsoever in Harlem, Missouri, and it took quite some looking to find anything I wanted to draw. Yet, as I mentioned before – there’s still a certain pleasure in the knowledge that amid all of the urbanization a small pocket of trees can exist, albeit situated within a corridor of blight.

Today began with much needed rain, but as the precipitation trickled to a stop and the winds began to kick up, I decided to explore the south side of the river, just opposite Harlem in downtown Kansas City’s River Market. There’s a river front trail that meanders some 15 miles or so, crossing from Missouri into Kansas, and I was interested in discovering what there was to be seen along the way.

Not knowing if the path was gravel or paved (it’s well paved), or if sections of the trail followed city streets (it does), I took my Cycles Toussaint Velo-Routier. The 650b tires are not only a good choice for gravel, they do a nice job absorbing the crappy road conditions in downtown Kansas City, not to mention the urbanized neighborhoods I had to pass through to get from small town Liberty to my city destination.

The trail sounds like it would be fun, if not especially long. But alas! The exploration wasn’t to be. So many roads are under construction in the area, sidewalks and streets completely blocked off, and I could only get so far before finding myself at an impasse. The trail is bisected, and sliced and diced and literally shredded apart: I never found a safe way to cross the midpoint to continue. I wound up riding around on streets familiar to me, pedaling around the farmer’s market, and then taking a slightly circuitous and definitely leisurely route back again.

Tomorrow is, of course, a new day. Maybe I’ll ride out and explore another part of the city after work.



A week ago I went out in search of gravel roads. It’s not something I do a lot of, preferring pavement over rocks, but the past few weeks have been one stress-laden day after another as we’ve executed three large exhibitions within a very short time frame. Maintaining composure and diplomacy has been challenging and I’ve found myself in great need of being someplace that people were not.

Gravel seemed to fit the bill then as it likely will again today.

It’s no secret that I like to carry a few essentials with me during these escapes from humanity. A camera, sketch pad and pen, emergency tools, and maybe a little food. It’s impossible to carry these things in a jersey pocket so most of my bikes are outfitted with some type of luggage. I’ve a saddle bag on my 650B Cycles Toussaint Velo-Routier, and very recently complimented it with a front bag. I like the convenience of front bags and had been mulling over the purchase of another Swift bag like the Ozette I have on my Boulder Brevet. That bag is excellent quality, functions flawlessly, and serves me very well indeed.

On a whim a few months ago I Googled “handlebar bag pattern” and came across a link that intrigued me. The blog If I Had a Bike shared a short piece about a DIY handlebar bag. Helpfully, a link to an actual size pattern in .pdf is included on the blog. Checking things out, I discovered the article had already made the rounds among BOBs and other esoteric cycling enthusiasts, but I couldn’t find anyone who’d actually made the bag aside from the original on which the pattern was based. About the same time one of my art students approached me to see if I had any ideas for a freelance sewing project. The stars seemed aligned, so I proposed she make this bag for me with a couple small revisions to the engineering. The bag was delivered last week in time for my gravel escape. It’s made of light weight cotton duck and stiffened with a plastic corrugate insert. Small enough not to require a decaleur, I’ve drafted out an idea for a quick release system I think will keep the bag firmly attached to the rack.

I’ve added a new tool to my travel sketch kit, a Sakura “water brush” that has a reservoir of fresh water in the handle of the brush. One quick squeeze pushes a droplet out onto the fibers of the brush rather than dipping the brush into a container or cup of water. In theory this sounds very convenient to me so I will be carrying this kit configuration for a while to test.

It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Riding off on a leisurely jaunt, not destination in mind. Stopping here and there, along rural country lanes – now to snap a photograph, now for a snack, now to make a sketch. I find that thirty minutes into a day of riding, all stress seems to have melted away. The cares of the world are left behind and I am left alone with my thoughts.

I find it more and more vital to carve out time for these moments – even if they are only that: just moments. I’m looking forward to a few of those moments today.

Enjoy the ride.

Well, I’m back on two wheels today for the first time in a while. Having blundered into a car – if “blundered” is the right word for cycling head first into a parked vehicle at 25 mph – I’ve been nursing myself back to some semblance of normal health.

I’m a cautious rider, and usually overtly conservative. I’m not a racer and I don’t try to test Chance by zooming through stop lights or running stop signs. But I do confess to having found myself seduced by the challenge of a hill climb that joins the town square to the end of my street. Having recently begun using MapMyRide to track mileage, I noticed that one of the bells and whistles incorporated into the app is a sort of comparison of my own route times to those of other MapMyRide users. One fine day the app notified me that my times on the hill were number two and three overall. “Well that’s interesting,” I thought to myself. “I wonder how far off I am from the number one spot?”

Turns out, not that far. And that bit of arcane knowledge is all it took to tap the evil little competitive streak I try to keep hidden deep inside. I’ve found myself racing up that damn hill over the past couple of weeks, trying to pick up the few “necessary” seconds that would allow me to claim the totally meaningless number one spot. I mean, after all, I had easily swooped into the number two position on a freakin’ three-speed! Surely there’d be no problem shaving a few seconds off that time on one of my derailleur-equipped rides, right? The very thought left me with a malicious glint in my eye as I considered how the knowledge would sit among the carbon fiber crowd. No doubt my victory, when it came, would be fleeting, and a Lycra-clad wonder rider would immediately reclaim the throne from me, a lowly steel-bike cyclist. But what the hell.

These were the stupid thought running through my head as I climbed the hill, straining to get every ounce of speed, to keep my revolutions smooth and uninterrupted by – well, by gravity or weight or just plain 55-year-old-ness. Climb that hill I did (though my time was still short of even breaking my own three-speed mark.) And I found my entire being with a laser-like focus only upon “getting there.” I was in the zone.

Unfortunately, this also meant I was not paying adequate attention to – literally – anything else. Which would include the tiny parked Honda on an otherwise wide and empty street.

Topping the hill and hitting a short straight section of road I shifted into a higher gear, lungs busting but enjoying the surge of power. I spun around the corner, onto my street, figuring to put the hammer down for the last half mile. Head down, I was building up steam when everything came to a sudden and absolutely stunning stop. For the flash of but a fraction of a moment, I remember seeing the back of the car. I thank a lifetime of absolute clumsiness, wherein I’ve never managed to walk through a door without somehow striking the jamb with my shoulder: Somehow, that particular muscle memory kicked in and I rolled with the blow just as I struck the car.

And then I was on the ground, blood oozing from my knee. Within seconds, it had swollen to the size of a grapefruit, my wrist appears unscratched but still hurt, and my right deltoid muscle – which took the brunt of the impact – was enormously swollen due to a deep contusion. It will likely remain a rainbow of ugly colors for quite some time. Immediate impressions: Blood streaming down my right leg, me laying there in a state of confusion, a neighborhood lady pulling up in a station wagon looking generally freaked out, my shaky voice of assurance: “No, I’m just fine.”

It may not sound like it, but I got lucky. I’m going to heal up mostly just fine. But despite the aches and pain, despite the sliced up knee (Chicks dig scars, right?), despite a general belief that I’m indestructible, events could have been very different. I could have been hurt very badly.

Maybe I was just so anxious to be riding again after a period of winter stagnation, but I find myself a bit ashamed for having ignored the very reasons I cycle in the first place: Because it’s fun, because I enjoy it, because my brand of cycling is one of the few aspects of life that isn’t a race or a competition.

Spring has arrived. Be careful out there. Wear a skull lid. Pay attention to what you’re doing and where you’re going.

And enjoy the ride.

Pi Day

It’s Friday the 13th, I’m sitting in the bar of the Hotel Frederik in Boonville, Missouri enjoying a chocolate ale and a dozen excellent oysters on the half shell and waiting on what is purported to be an excellent burger. Friday the 13th, and Spring Break has begun. Friday the 13th and nothing has gone amiss, no black cats have crossed my path, no spilled salt ruining my day. I’m in Boonville, because on the morrow we’ll be leisurely riding a section of the KATY Trail. And tonight, the burger meets all expectations.

The morrow arrives, with a brisk wind coming off the Missouri River, a bit colder than anticipated but showing promise all the same – at least we hope so! As we walk across the road to the Main Street Diner it is abundantly clear that our shorts and t-shirts are enthusiastic, but ambitiously hopeful. Normally I would have brought leg and arm warmers, but in my enthusiasm to get out the door and on the road such things seem to have been overlooked. (Not to mention an extra tube or patch kit…!)

The hotel is a pleasant place; every visit is a step back in time, a stroll into a different and more  civilized age. We’ve enjoyed the hospitality of this place before and will again. It’s tempting to stay in the comfort and warmth of the lobby, but the morning wains. It’s time to mount up, brave the wind, and cross the river.

We head east, toward Rocheport, a small river town with an excellent restaurant. The KATY Trail, normally a hard packed gravel path, is on this morning a road of quite loose sand. Our tires sink into the ground and it’s a lot like the effort of riding upon the beach. That’s OK though, because our journey is purposely slow, and we take many breaks along the way. This section of the trail runs alongside farmland and passes through a couple of conservation areas. At one stop, I pause to explore the masonry of an unusual grain storage structure.

The weather has been spectacular these past several days. Although the cross winds are fierce, the day continues to warm and we find it difficult to believe we have the trail entirely to ourselves. Crossing over Salt Creek  the winds all but disappear as the fields give way to woods; the bluffs are effective wind breakers.

Looking closely among the dry leaves, fresh green is beginning to show.

Just outside Rocheport, the trail passes through a tunnel. At one time the bluffs that line the former railroad bed were adorned with petroglyphs. Further along, some are still visible but many were destroyed in this location when the tunnel was constructed in the early twentieth century.

Rocheport is a tiny hamlet of century-old homes and a block long business district. Abigail’s is one of the five or six places of business (Aside from numerous bed and breakfast operations), and is a favorite of ours. Frankly, I think we’ve probably dined there every time we’ve visited Rocheport. Always funky, and always esoteric, the food is makes these visits something worth looking forward to. The menu is on a single large chalk board, set upon an easel and brought from table to table. Today, our repast consists of an incredible seafood chowder, roasted vegetables and field greens, and hearty baked bread. It’s “Pi Day,” but as wonderful as it sounds we are too full to enjoy a slice of the berry pie.

I’ve brought my 1971 Raleigh International three-speed conversion today. With wider tires, it’s a good choice for the loose pack on the trail today. Recent precipitation has left the path with many ruts, which we are constantly dodging. After lunch, the sun begins to warm nicely. Turtles by the dozen are visible in every brook. Snakes, too, are enjoying the day and are stretched out across the trail. Owls hoot, bullfrogs sing – their noise is deafening in places, cardinals flit back and forth in front of us, and squirrels run beneath our tires in suicidal frenzy.

What a great Pi Day!

March Madness.

The sketch above sums up how I felt last Sunday morning, as well as pretty much every other morning for the past month. Every fiber of my being has been screaming to be outside, “Bring me some Spring-like weather!”

February, shortest month of the year, dragged along forever, freezing my keister day after day after day. March sure didn’t hold much better promise on the first of the month, but here we are just a few short days later and all I see are blue skies, fair winds, and even fairer weather. Ahhh!

Heading out after work yesterday, I decided to get in a 50km route. Despite diligently boring myself to tears on an indoor trainer, I am once again reminded that there is no substitute for riding up and down real hills! Between that reality and the ten pound Christmas donut that has graced my waistline for the past two months, I found myself standing and mashing on hills instead of gracefully spinning up the incline in a comfortably seated riding position. I figure it’s going to take a good few weeks to get my legs back, and a bit more than that, combined with some additional perspiration to dissolve the unwelcome donut.

These are unwelcome realities. But I experience them each and every year, following my month or so of sloth-like behaviors. They come as no surprise. What does bewilder me though, is how quickly drivers forget about cyclists on the road. For the most part motorists in my area are overtly considerate to riders. But throw a few weeks of gray, dreary weather, a bit of cold and snow in their path, and a sort of amnesia tends to settle in. On that first sunny 60 degree day, some drivers appear to be shocked, unsettled, nettled, agitated, and a bit aggressive when confronted with a cyclist in “their” lane.

So it was yesterday. Cars that at any other time of the year would normally give adequate (or better) berth to me sure seemed to be passing nudgingly close. One car, three lanes to my left, leaned on the horn for a good twenty seconds, glaring at me the entire time, and in doing so very nearly rear ended a vehicle in front of him. At least four others felt the need to militantly use their respective horns to warn me I was inconsiderately riding a bicycle upon their road. Two passengers yelled and flipped me the bird. One thoughtless fellow, behind me at a four way stop, not only went out of turn – which befuddled his fellow drivers, stopped and waiting their turn to proceed – but he decided to slog past me, even though I was occupying the majority of the lane, and then turned in front of me just as I was beginning to advance. To their credit, the other drivers looked at him just as incredulously as I did.

I seldom ride with a helmet. Yes, I know that’s stupid – but there you have it: I’m a bit stupid. Don’t follow my example, please. Yesterday I was glad I did decide to don the plastic cranium bucket though. I will likely do so again today and tomorrow. And if I’m smart, I should really consider doing so on a regular basis.

Traffic will get better as the weather continues to follow suit, and as other riders become more prevalent. With a few notable exceptions, the motorists around here aren’t overwhelming hateful of cyclists. But in the meantime, it’s a good idea to acknowledge that drivers have seen a whole lot less of us in the past few months, just as cyclists very likely have had much less interaction with vehicles. For now, it’s March Madness, so be careful out there.