Archive for December, 2009

Happy Christmas or whatever you do or don’t do

My family puts a very eclectic Christmas tree up every year. Each ornament has a story; many of the decorations are as old or older than I am. There are ornaments from each of my parent’s childhoods, ornaments from grandparents that have been passed down over the years, and ornaments that were hand-made by the children when they were kids. Some are raggedy, crappy looking ornaments that aren’t decorative at all, but have symbolic meaning and remind me of other Christmases.

When I was about 9 years old my Dad and I were running some errands around Christmas time. I have many memories of sitting in my Dad’s truck listening to the radio as he drove, singing, from one place to another — from the lumberyard to the hardware store to the grain store (we lived on a farm and my Dad built houses for a living). At any rate, we stopped by some place, probably picking up some gadget or a piece of hardware that he needed to fix something, and at the checkout counter I noticed a Christmas ornament that looked really cool. It was¬† pink poodle built around pipe cleaner wire. It was awesome, ugly and awesome, and my Dad laughed and bought it for me on the spot.

I spent the entire ride home twisting the pink poodle into different configurations. On every Christmas since I’ve done the same — each year, the poodle is made into a different pose, or attached to an accessory. When I discovered IBM compatible computers, the poodle surfed on a floppy disk. In college when I started learning yoga the poodle sat in a half-lotus. The year I graduated from college saw the poodle with a celebratory joint. This year, the first year I rode with SCUL, a coat hanger became a chopper for the poodle to ride:


My Dad died the day before Christmas Eve three years ago. That memory is a hard one. And every time I unpack the pink poodle from my box of ornaments to hang on the tree, I remember him laughing when he bought the poodle, and laughing every year when he saw how much fun I had re-jiggering the poodle into something else. So, thanks, Dad — thanks for the poodle — and for leaving me with something to laugh about when I remember you every year when the tree goes up.

Merry Christmas everyone, and I hope you get to spend it with people you love.

Winter Cycling

Boston Biker has put together an excellent series of articles about winter cycling. I thought I’d supplement these by writing about what works for me.

I’ve been riding through Boston area winters for the last five years, regardless of weather conditions. When my old commuter bike’s aluminum frame cracked in a snowstorm several years ago, I took that opportunity to design a bicycle that would withstand the winter abuse. This is the fourth winter that this bicycle will go through and it’s been working extremely well.


I based this bike around a Surly single speed steel frame. As far as corrosion goes, both aluminum and steel will corrode when exposed to road salt and water. It’s the paint that prevents the metal from corrosion. The Surly frame has a tough paint job that hasn’t chipped or worn through despite several years of daily use. Also, the steel frame is slightly flexible, and dampens normal road vibrations and has more organic, gentler ride characteristics. This helps when riding through the pothole that appeared overnight. This frame has track ends, which were necessary because I wanted to use an internally geared hub. Finally, there are mounts for both disc and rim brakes on this frame. I had originally planned on using disc brakes and it’s nice to have that option.

complete bike

My previous commuter bicycle had derailleaurs. As I’d ride into work, slush would get kicked up and accumulate on the derailleurs. It would then freeze as the bicycle was locked outside while I was at work. I’d ridden home several times with frozen derailleurs, unable to shift, in a really low gear. While gears aren’t strictly necessary, they do help if you’re planning on riding up hills, which do exist where I ride in Somerville, Medford and Belmont. Also, when there is slush, snow and salt, having the ability to drop into a low gear and apply more torque can help. An internally geared hub – in my case, the Shimano Nexus 7 – was the solution to these problems:

internal hub

I used Sheldon Brown’s Online Gear Calculator to determine what size chainring and cog to use with the internal hub. I plugged in the most common chainring and cog sizes I used on my previous bicycle, found the gain ratios, and tweaked the chainring and cog sizes with the internal hub until I found gain ratios that were just a hair tougher than my previous bike. This worked out perfectly; the new bicycle has similar speeds to my old one.

Although I’d originally planned on using disc brakes, I ended up using rim brakes instead, primarily because I was warned that bicycles with disc brakes are more likely to be stolen. Also, I was minimizing costs and trying to re-use components from my old bicycle. In retrospect, I’ve been satisified with the performance of rim brakes, especially since using salmon compound brake pads — these are noticeably better than standard brake pads when the rim is wet:

salmon compound

I thought about clipless pedals, but was concerned about slush freezing in the pedal mechanism, so I opted for pedals with toe clips.

Fenders are absolutely necessary. Slush shot up your backside and into your face and mouth is very unpleasant.

Lights are also extremely important in the winter. It is always dark on my evening commute; riding without lights would be unnecessarily dangerous. I decided to spring for a ridiculously bright headlight so that I’d be seen even in significant snow storms. I have a standard red blinking rear light, a high intensity discharge headlight, and two blue LED strobe light strips that cover both the back and front of my cycling jacket. I would also consider Hokey Spokes or SpokePOV lights to increase¬† visibility. If I’m lit up like a rave, people will see me.

Incidentally, rechargeable batteries are also the way to go. The long term cost savings of rechargeables make up for the initially larger investment in brighter lighting systems.

I switch chain lubricant in the winter. Normally I use Tri-flow, which is a fairly light lubricant. However, to combat salt, I use Phil’s Tenacious Oil, which is a sticky, highly viscous substance:

tenacious oil

If you want to save a few bucks, buy a quart of chainsaw bar oil, it’s the same thing. Keep the chain lubricated, and wipe it down after wet rides! Even with proper lubrication, the chain may need to be replaced after the winter riding season. Replacing the chain is not expensive or difficult. If you have a stainless steel chainring, it probably won’t wear enough to need replacement, and my rear cog hasn’t worn enough to need replacement either.

I also install studded tires when ice starts to form on the road. These tires are too beefy for riding on the road; there are more studs than necessary — and I’ll be replacing them shortly with Nokian Hakkapeliitta tires, which have fewer studs and have less rolling resistance:

studded tires

Winter is harsh on bicycles. Before the winter, any missing paint should be touched up. Cable housing should be inspected for cracks and replaced if necessary. Exposed cables should be lubricated with a light lubricant like WD-40, and kept lubricated through the winter.

The rest of the bicycle is pretty standard; I hadn’t had issues with these parts in the winter so I saw no need to consider using anything different. The bottom bracket is a modern sealed cartridge type. The stem, handlebars and pedals were harvested from my old bicycle. The offset seat post was necessary to get a better fit. The seat is more comfortable than my previous seat, but not specifically designed for winter.


There’s no need to bundle up with many many layers of fleece sweatshirts and a ski parka and other excessive heavy fluffy clothing when cycling in the winter. You’ll generate a lot of body heat moving the bicycle through the slushy crud that these roads turn into. Even on days when my ride starts slightly chilly, I’m comfortable five minutes later. The key is to keep wind and water out, minimize sweating, and wear a thermal base layer when it gets cold.

I wear or pack specific clothing depending on the temperature, wind, and precipitation:


– Cycling jacket: A good cycling jacket will be both windproof and waterproof. It will also have reflective material. I wear a cycling jacket whenever the temperature is less than 50 degrees; my jacket has air flaps that can be unzipped if I start to sweat or get too warm.

Waterproof, insulated cycling pants: I wear these in rain and when I’m expecting lots of slush or puddles.

– A BMX-style helmet: This style of helmet has fewer airholes. As a result, my head is warmer in the winter.

– Thermal base layer: This is really important and can make the difference between a comfortable ride and a miserable, cold and wet one. I’ve tried a lot of different types of thermal fabrics.
— Wool is warm, even when wet, but inflexible and itchy.
— Silk is very warm and lightweight, expensive, and not durable enough — it doesn’t even last a season
— Cotton should be avoided, since it absorbs moisture
— Fleece is very warm but in my experience holds moisture against the skin
— Wicking synthetic fabrics are not cheap, but have worked best for me. Columbia makes a synthetic fabric they call Omni-Dry. It is flexible, warm, lightweight, durable, comfortable and wicks moisture away. I’d anticipate that any wicking synthetic fabric is going to have similar properties.

– Lobster claw gloves: These gloves have two ‘fingers’ and a thumb. This allows me to operate the brakes and keeps my hands warmer than regular gloves. I wear these when the temperature is below 30 degrees.

– Glove liners or lightweight gloves: Lightweight glove liners or gloves are sufficient in temperatures between 30 and 45 degrees.

– Booties: These fit over shoes; I use them in rainy or wet conditions.- thick winter socks: Worn when under 40 degrees.

– balaclava liner: This can be worn under a helmet and keeps my head and face warm. The opening can be stretched to expose your face or pulled closed so that it only exposes the area around your eyes. I wear this in weather under 35 degrees.

– Goggles or protective glasses: I always wear safety glasses; I once spent an afternoon in the ER getting a dirt particle removed from my eye after riding behind a large truck. This was an unpleasant experience and another afternoon like this is easily avoided by wearing some form of eye protection. In the winter, goggles help keep the wind off your eyes and the area around them. Goggles tend to fog up if you’re wearing a balaclava liner and there’s no wind; when this happens I pull the liner down to expose my face. This way, I’m not breathing into the liner and the warm, moist air from my lungs isn’t directed onto the goggles.

Adjusting clothing for weather

It’s important to check the weather in the morning because temperature changes of over 20 degrees by the evening are not uncommon in this area. Comfortable clothing for the morning ride may not be warm enough for the ride home, so pack accordingly.


Cold rain is the absolute worst weather to ride in. The worst part, however, doesn’t need to be the ride — for me it is usually changing out of my wet outerwear and into dry clothes. In these conditions, I wear my cycling jacket, waterproof pants, thermal underwear, booties and glove liners (these get wet but keep my hands warm enough).


Snow is dry. As long as it’s not going to change to rain, there’s no need to waterproof for snow. Expect the roads to be wet, but good water resistant shoes and fenders will keep that water away. If there’s a lot of snowmelt, consider wearing waterproof, insulated pants and booties.


Any decent cycling jacket should be windproof. If there’s a significant headwind, however, I generally wear the next warmer set of clothing, because any exposed skin will be colder due to the wind chill.

Riding Strategy

Winter riding strategy is fundamentally the same as riding any other time — other excellent guides exist that I won’t needlessly rehash. However, there is one factor to be aware of when riding in the winter. Snow tends to build up on the edges of the roads, so cars park further away from the curb. This usually causes the bicycle lane, if there is one, to be blocked by parked cars. Even if the bicycle lane is clear of parked cars, snow, slush and ice often accumulate in the bicycle lane but not in the car lane. When the bicycle lane isn’t safe to use, take the entire car lane! It is a safer way to ride; you are supposed to use it, and you are not in the way — bicycles are also traffic, just like automobiles, so don’t worry if you’re slower than the cars.
If there’s no bike lane, cars are still often parked further from the curb, so the same solution applies — take the car lane, be well lighted and visible, and safe — and ride with confidence! You’re out there in the weather, experiencing it first-hand, riding a bicycle — be proud!

complete outfit

Bicycles and Beer

For whatever reason, most of the cyclists I know have an appreciation for good beer. Granted, there’s a fair amount of PBR and Schlitz consumed among this demographic, but I consider those beers close to water anyway and hydration is important. With that in mind, this blog entry is mostly about beer and not really about bicycles.

At the end of every summer my homebrewing capacity is converted over to wine and cidermaking to coincide with the grape and apple harvest season. The wine ferments to completion and is ready to bottle by the beginning of December, which is when I start homebrewing in earnest, building up beer to have on tap at home, bring to social events or give away. This past weekend marked the first batch of homebrew that I’ve made since early summer. Beer tastes best when it’s fermented in ambient temperatures of 60 degrees or less, so I don’t brew in the heat of the summer, and by this time of year my stock is completely depleted. As you can imagine, it’s exciting for me to start brewing again.

My first batch of beer this year is an American Pale Ale of my own design. I try to keep this particular beer on tap most of the time. This is a relatively low alcohol, easy to drink beer classified as a ‘session’ beer. The recipe is simple, it’s something I’ve made dozens of times and it allows me to get my brewing chops back without needing to pay attention to more complex brewing procedures.

I brew beer in 10 gallon batches using an all-grain process. I start with whole grain malted barley and crush it using a hand-cranked mill:

I had to tweak the grain mill roller’s spacing to get a proper crush; it probably won’t need to be reset for the rest of the brewing season now. I hand-cranked the grain through the mill twice, all 20 pounds of it, into an old Budweiser keg that the grain is steeped in. This is a fitting fate for a Budweiser product — to make beer that is far more flavorful and interesting. Here’s the crushed grain in the old keg:


The next step in this process is to add water that’s been heated to 175 degrees. When this is mixed with the grain, the whole mess cools to about 154 degrees. The process of steeping grain in hot water is called ‘mashing’, and the steeping grain is called ‘mash’. The mash at this specific temperature activates certain enzymes that are in the barley seeds. These enzymes cut apart complex carbohydrates like starch, converting them to simpler sugars that yeast can ferment. Yeast can’t digest complex carbohydrates, so we have to use the enzymes in the barley seeds to start the digestion process.

It takes about 30 minutes for most of the carbohydrates in the barley to be converted. I let this sit for an hour to maximize the conversion, stirred every 20 minutes to redistribute the heat as the mash cools against the outside of the keg:

stirring mash

After an hour of steeping, I drain the barley ‘tea’ (technically called ‘wort’) through a strainer in the bottom of the mash bucket and move it to another converted Budweiser keg to be boiled. I’ll add and then drain more hot water, in batches, to the mash bucket in order to rinse the grain and extract as much sugar and flavor as possible. A total of about 11 gallons of wort are collected from the mash bucket and moved into the boiling bucket.

I use a propane burner in my small back yard to boil the wort for an hour. Hops are added three times during this stage: once at the beginning of the boil, to bitter the beer, once about 20 minutes before the end of the boil, to add hop flavor, and once close to the end of the boil to add aroma.

After the wort has boiled for an hour, it’s cooled using water run through a copper coil submerged in the wort:


Once the wort has cooled to about 60-65 degrees, it’s drained into two glass fermentation containers (called ‘carboys’) and yeast is added:


After the yeast is added to the wort, the wort can now be properly called beer, although at first the beer won’t have any significant amount of alcohol in it. The yeast will ferment this beer for a few weeks, converting the sugars to carbon dioxide and alcohol. After the beer is finished fermenting, I’ll add more hops to it to enhance the aroma; this step is called ‘dry hopping’ and it’s only done when creating a beer with a prominent hop profile.

I also bottled a barleywine — a very big beer, lots of rich and complex flavor and high in alcohol — that I brewed with a friend last spring. Here it is being drained into the bottling bucket; it has a rich, dark brown color:


And here are the bottles in the process of being delabeled and cleaned:


I add a little bit more sugar to the beer, put it in bottles and use a hand-powered capping machine to cap the bottles. The small amount of added sugar will be cause the yeast to produce carbon dioxide inside the bottle, carbonating the beer. It won’t be ready to drink for another month, and I’ll age most of this barleywine for several years. Contrary to what advertisers would have you believe, ‘fresh’ beer is only better when the beer is low in alcohol to begin with. Big, high alcohol beers, like wines, peak in flavor after 2-4 years or more.

This batch will probably be ready right around New Year’s.

My next bicycle project is to take steel rod and tube stock and design braces for the seat tube of the Higgins frame bicycle I’ve been working on for a few months now. This is how I found the deceptively heavy steel stock after it was delivered and y.t. moved it into the apartment: