Preparing for a bike trip — more info soon. Open full-screen map.
Congratulations to Chion Wolf and the Hartford Marathon Foundation for raising the necessary funds and organizing the first official Pedal to the Medal event in the wee hours of Saturday, October 13th, 2018. This experience taught me several lessons, and the most important is: Never underestimate Chion Wolf. Despite people like me who suggested she was crazy to attempt this goal, Chion raised $20,000 in sponsorships during one month, which was necessary in order to pay expenses to support the event. Moreover, 240 equally crazy people registered and paid $55 each to participate in this sold-out fundraising event, with a portion of the proceeds to benefit BiCiCo, Hartford’s community bike shop. Starting at the ridiculously early, dark, and cold hour of 3:30am, cyclists gathered at the State Capitol (many adorned in costumes and bright lights) and joined for a group ride (not a race) along the 26-mile Hartford Marathon route, in order to finish by 6:30am and clear the path for the runners later that morning. Despite my negative predictions, the event was a wildly popular success. Let the record show that I was wrong, and Chion was right.
With my tail between my legs, I signed up to volunteer for Pedal to the Medal. On the online form, I checked the box to serve as “cyclist support,” which I assumed would place me in the middle or back of the pack. But to my surprise, the Hartford Marathon staff emailed me and another rider to co-lead the 240 cyclists, behind some type of lead vehicle. The organizers envisioned all of us riding together in a well-defined “capsule,” with everyone between the lead cyclists (instructed to ride no faster than 10 miles per hour) and the tail (riding no slower than 9 miles per hour). Since roads were not officially closed, the “capsule” concept would allow a handful of police cars to move ahead and block intersections as we biked through them.
Since it wasn’t clear exactly how all of this would work, I studied the official cue sheet of turn-by-turn directions (which differed in two significant ways from the runners’ route) and transformed it into a digital map that would be visible in the dark on the screen of my bike-mounted smartphone. That turned out to be one of my wiser decisions. What follows below are lessons learned from my experience at the front of the pack (or near the front, as it actually turned out), and recommendations for a smoother ride next year.
Lesson 1: Introduce the lead cyclists and lead vehicle driver before the start, because we need to work together. When we lined up for our 3:30am launch, I was pleased to see a motorcycle cop waiting about 100 feet ahead of us. Looking back, I wish that we had talked for even a minute or two before the start, because I quickly discovered the challenge of having a conversation en route, in the dark, above the noise of the motorcycle engine. The motorcycle cop could not easily see which of the many cyclists behind him were supposed to be setting the 10 mph pace, which is a relatively slow speed. So as individual cyclists moved ahead and went a bit faster, especially on the downhills, the cop sped up to 11 or 12 mph to stay ahead of the pack in his rear-view mirror. At one point, the motorcycle cop and cyclists pushing the front of the pack were zipping along at 15 mph, according to my speedometer. So on three occasions during the event, I sped up to the motorcycle cop, explained who I was, and very nicely asked him to slow down the pack to the official 10 mph pace.
But the motorcycle cop soon learned that talking with me also helped him, because I had the route clearly mapped out. At one point, he accidentally missed a turn along Hartford’s Riverfront Path under I-91 to Van Dyke Avenue, which was understandable because it was dark and probably not a familiar route on a motorcycle. He seemed embarrassed because we had to turn all 240 riders around, on a narrow path on a hill, to get back on track. Later in the ride, when the motorcycle cop figured out who I was, he waved me up to talk with him when he needed clarification or confirmation about our exact route. A better solution would have been for the organizers to introduce us and make sure we were communicating clearly before the ride began.
Lesson 2: Create bike-friendly digital maps for more riders to follow the route. When runners do the Hartford Marathon, the roads are closed, signs are posted, and everyone can see where they’re going because it’s daytime and there’s a few thousand people on the course. But our bike ride has different conditions: roads are open, signs are either not up or not easy to see in the dark, and it’s easy for some of the 240 cyclists — spread out over a mile or more — to take a wrong turn, because there may not be anyone immediately in front of them. The organizers sent out a cue sheet (actually 3 pages) of turn-by-turn directions, but very few people have ways to attach them to their bikes, and even if they did, most cannot easily read printed paper in the dark. In fact, during the ride I received a mobile phone call from designated cyclist Tony Cherolis, who explained that our pack was so spread out in East Hartford, and he wasn’t sure which turn they were supposed to follow. When Tony is lost, you definitely have a problem. When you look at the twisty map below, which cuts through highways, side streets, and bike paths — all in the dark — you’ll realize that you’d be likely to get lost, too.
Rather than relying on everyone to play “follow the leader” on a dark 26-mile ride that does not resemble the original “capsule” concept, a better solution would be to provide more cyclists with directions in a more familiar bike-friendly format: a digital GPX file. Some (but not all) cyclists use bike-mounted digital devices or smartphones to display a GPX map while they ride, and some of these units also work in the dark. Understandably, the Hartford Marathon organizers do not normally provide a GPX file on their website, because it’s not something that most runners need during their race. But if more bike riders had access to a digital map — even just 5 percent of us in our stretched-out pack — then more people would have known where to turn.
Below is a smartphone-friendly version of the route that I created before our ride, with an option to download as GPX at the bottom of the screen. Next year, Pedal to the Medal would be welcome to embed this interactive map in its website, and encourage riders to access it via any smartphone web browser with this shortlink (http://bit.ly/pedal2medal, click to open in a full screen), or to download the GPX file to their bike-routing device before the event.
On the eve of the West Hartford “Center Streets” event on Sunday August 27th, organizers scrambled to correct rumors that cast members and fire-breathing dragons from the HBO fantasy television series Game of Thrones would appear at this family-friendly event for cyclists, strollers, and pedestrians.
“It was an honest mistake,” explained Center Streets co-organizer Ethan Frankel to a room full of befuddled reporters from Hollywood and West Hartford media outlets. “When HBO announced that the Game of Thrones season finale would appear at 9 PM on Sunday August 27th, it kind of got mixed up with our Center Streets publicity, which begins at 9 AM.” When reporters questioned Frankel about the cause of AM vs. PM mixup, he asked whether anyone actually reads press releases anymore, and blamed the rumors on a fake photograph created by Otis McCowboy, an overly enthusiastic social media intern for BikeWestHartford.org. McCowboy could not be reached for comment.
Frankel’s colleagues rushed to his defense. “Technically, dragons are not cars,” explained Center Streets co-organizer and scientist Edward Pawlak, “so they would be welcome to participate in our car-free event, if they actually existed.”
But HBO executive Andy Borowitz was not amused by the mixup. “Game of Thrones is not a family-friendly show,” he cautioned, “unlike this car-free event in West Hartford, Connecticut.”
Come join the fun (without dragons) at Center Streets on Sunday August 27th, 2017 from 9am to 1pm in West Hartford Center. Learn more at our public FaceBook Event Page.
Folks of all ages are invited to “take to the streets” for a care-free and car-free summer morning in West Hartford Center on Sunday August 27th, 2017, from 9am to 1 p.m. This second annual family-friendly event expects to surpass last year’s estimated crowd of 2,000 participants, and will feature the West Hartford Police Department hosting a bike rodeo and free bike registration. Learn more at our public FaceBook Event Page.
The town will close traffic on four roads that form a rectangular loop around the central business district: Farmington Avenue, South Main Street, Memorial Road Extension, and LaSalle Road. Ride your bicycle or scooter, or take a stroll down the street, without automobiles. Participating restaurants will offer brunch specials and free surprises, many merchants will feature discounts, and live music will be performed all morning. Children will be able to play hula-hoop, jump rope, and draw with chalk in streets closed to traffic.
“Our first year of Center Streets was beyond amazing,” recalled co-organizer Ethan Frankel. “We were thrilled with the massive turnout and everyone wearing smiles.” He was inspired by car-free summer events that have become increasingly popular in New York City and elsewhere around the globe. Residents tell co-organizer Edward Pawlak that they’re looking forward to this ‘open streets’ festival. “We would love for it to become an annual summer event, with support from the Town of West Hartford.” Center Streets is the signature community initiative of Bike West Hartford, Inc., a non-profit organization that promotes bicycle-friendly policies and programs in town.
Check out this video clip from the first Center Streets event in 2016:
Financial support for Center Streets is being provided by many local business and residents, including Whole Foods (principal sponsor), United Bank, West Hartford Police Officer’s Association, Scott Franklin & Associates, Inc., Farmington Savings Bank, Bloomfield Bike Shop, Filomeno, Thomas Fahy Insurance, Keating Insurance, Berkshire Bank, Simsbury Bank, Connecticut Ecosystems LLC, the MDC Water Wagon, Daniel Johnson, Dan Firestone, and the Frankel Family. Dust off your bikes, scooters, and strollers, and meet up at Center Streets!
Bike West Hartford, Inc. is a not-for-profit corporation promoting the development of bicycle infrastructure and education within West Hartford. http://www.bikewesthartford.org/
This week I finally took a bike trip that has been on my mind for several years: a three-day, 210-mile journey from my hometown of Morrisville NY to West Hartford CT. During the seventeen years that Beth and I have lived in Connecticut, we’ve driven back and forth dozens of times, and on those occasions when we avoided the interstate highways, my mind fixated on finding a bike-friendly route with places to stop along the way. The key was to ride east on US 20 (which now has a bike lane), to NY 145 south through Cobleskill NY (overnight #1), then NY 23 east across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge (with a separate pedestrian path) over the Hudson River, then MA 23 east to Great Barrington MA (overnight #2), then MA/CT 183 south into central Connecticut.
If you don’t mind a few big hills (see the elevation maps below from http://BikeRoll.net), it’s a pretty nice ride, mostly through beautiful farmland, and for me, many familiar towns from my adolescence. Though a lot about how much my 12-year-old self began to see the world, one very small town at a time, by riding the school bus with our high school marching band to county fairs and fireman’s field days. Plus, I was incredibly lucky to have dodged several showers and thunderstorms, and didn’t face a drop of rain during my ride. Got home in time to take a shower before sitting in a dentist’s office for a procedure that I had put off for many months. For me, a good bike ride helps to push those unpleasantries out of one’s mind.
Follow my bike tour around Southern Florida from Dec 30th, 2016 to Jan 3rd, 2017. Click items in the map to view details, or view the full-screen map and photo album. See also my daily journal entries below the map.
Day 1, Dec 30th: Fort Myers Beach to Ochopee, Florida, 71.5 miles — When stopping to visit my friend David in Naples, Florida, he asked, “What do you think about when you’re biking?” One answer that came out is “nothing very interesting, which is why I like it so much.” When I’m bike touring along unfamiliar roads, even somewhat boring ones, my mind is so tuned to the little things, that there’s little room for larger ideas to creep inside. To me, it feels like there’s so much visual and aural stimulation when bike touring that my brain gets filled up simply by processing it while attempting to pedal in a straight line. For most of yesterday’s ride, my mental capacity was consumed by lots of little things: Is that a nail down the roadway in front of me? (Nope, that’s a millipede). How far back is that car coming up behind me? What kind of bird is that to the side? Have I been drinking enough water? How on earth did the 1950s “Jingle Bell Rock” song get stuck in my head, and what tune can I replace it with? Am I staying above my current average speed? How many miles until my legs insist on a short break? Is that another nail in front of me? (Nope, just a random piece of hardware) and so on. Not a lot of deep thinking there, until I rest for the night, the scenery stops changing, and my thoughts catch up with me.
Looking back on yesterday’s travels, here’s a few reflections to share: So far, although my route has taken me along various Florida highways, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the frequency of dedicated bike lanes or sufficiently wide shoulders for bike travel, in most (but not all) places. The Tamiami Trail (route 41) even had a few miles of new off-highway bike trail near Collier-Seminole State Park. Also, my overnight at the Trail Lakes Campground in Ochopee, FL turned out to be a wonderful tent campsite on the grass by a pond, with picnic table and fire pit, and a short walk to a very clean bathroom with a hot shower, for $25, which is the best deal I’ve seen around here. (My friends like Tony probably would prefer “stealth camping,” but that didn’t seem like an option out here in the Everglades, and besides, I prefer a good toilet seat and other people around me.) Last night I met up with Rebel and his dog, Rosco, who built a large bonfire near my campsite, which I definitely appreciated on a chilly Florida night. They travel around building fires for events, and there’s a music festival/drum circle at the camp grounds on New Year’s Eve. I won’t be here, but saw the bonfire preview.
Day 2, Dec 31st: Ochopee to Florida City, 77.5 miles — The last day of the year also was probably the longest one (and hardest) one of this bike tour. Woke up refreshed at the campsite, though a bit chilly (47 degrees) for Florida, so gobbled down oatmeal and hot cocoa to warm up. Hopped aboard the bike and discovered a loud creaky sound in my left pedal, which accompanied me for the entire day, despite my best mechanical efforts (i.e. removing the pedal and banging it on the ground in a futile attempt to dislodge what I presume is a broken bearing). Lots and lots of birds in the Everglades, but my creaky pedal scared them away before I could get close. I knew that this long stretch of the Tamiami Trail had very few places to stop, so I prepared with three cold water bottles. But I didn’t realize how pedaling into a steady eastern wind would slow me down. Despite the flat terrain, my fully-loaded bike and I averaged only 10.5 miles per hour, compared to nearly 14.5 miles per hour the previous day, when I had fresh legs and a strong northern wind at my back.
One enjoyable stop about mid-way through the day was Shark Valley National Park, where my father brought me and my family years ago to go bird watching (and where he spotted former Attorney General Janet Reno). I paid the $8 entrance fee for the privilege of buying ice cream sandwiches for lunch, filling up my water bottles, and watching (perhaps too closely) some sleeping gators. If I had more time and energy, I would have done the 15-mile bike loop through the park, but that simply wasn’t in the cards today.
Back on the bike, the second half of my ride was harder than the first half. East of Shark Valley, the lush forest of birds empties into swampy flatlands, with few barriers to block the wind or sun. Outside of Miami, when turning south off of the Tamiami Trail, I made some poor navigational choices for the last 20 miles into Florida City, though it’s still not clear to me if any good choices were available. Google Maps suggested a route that was clearly a mountain-bike dirt path, so I skipped that choice and tried my luck on Krome Avenue, figuring that I’d find a highway with a rideable shoulder. Big mistake. A length construction project funneled all traffic into a narrowly-divided two lane road, with orange barrels from “Bob’s Barricades” blocking the shoulder. So I pedaled down the still-under-construction highway that paralleled traffic, which sometimes meant new pavement but more often meant dirt path. After what felt like 8 miles with no intersection, I finally reconnected with a network of side roads that took me though a large agricultural district, though paved streets suddenly disappeared and turned into dirt paths, with “no dumping” signs that were clearly ignored. No photos here of the German Shepherd dog that chased me, nor the wild peacocks that dazzled me, because I was tired and the sky was growing dark. Finally, my weary legs and empty water bottles and I arrived at the welcoming Everglades Hostel in Florida City. If anyone knows a better way to bike here from Tamiami Trail, let me know.
Day 3: January 1st, rest day at Everglades Hostel, Florida City — A delightful little oasis in the midst of Florida superhighways and strip malls. I made a batch of pancakes on the communal griddle, walked to the Walmart to buy a new pedal (the only nearby store selling bike parts on New Year’s Day), and wrote up sections of Data Visualization for All while sitting in a peaceful garden. Loaded up on carbs during dinner at Rosita’s Mexican Restaurant. Batteries recharged, and ready to start riding to the Keys early tomorrow morning.
Day 4: January 2nd, Florida City to northern Marathon, FL, 69 miles — When bike touring is good, it’s really good. Today turned into one of those memorable days, but it didn’t start out that way. I woke up early to start pedaling along a desolate stretch of US 1, from Florida City to Key Largo, which was safe, though boring. Yet the creaky sound in my bike mysteriously returned. Apparently the Walmart pedal was not the solution. Fortunately, the New Year’s holiday had ended, and I found an open bike shop, All Keys Cycles in Key Largo. The bike mechanics quickly helped me out by tightening the bottom bracket and crank, which I couldn’t do with my limited travel tools. They also sold me a cold container of orange juice, exactly what my taste buds were craving this morning. This fixed my problems, at least temporarily, and Key Largo also provided off-highway bike paths with partial shade.
Further down the road I met up with Eli and Henry, two bike tourists from Tallahassee, and we rode together for the rest of the day. These two young men are experienced cyclists, who have previously made this journey to Key West, and are very knowledgeable about the local habitat. Also, they ride each day to deliver food for competing sandwich shops, and they’re very active in non-profit community bicycle organizations in Tallahassee, similar to BiCiCo in Hartford. So we found that we had lots to talk about while riding together and taking breaks along the way. Eli also pointed out a pivot bolt near my crank that might be the true cause of the creak problem (which I’ve tightened and will test tomorrow). But best of all, my bike and I were able to keep up a relatively fast pace with these young whippersnappers. That makes me feel young again, perhaps the real reason why I love riding my bike.
While planning this bike tour of the Keys, I read that much of my journey would take place alongside US 1, a busy highway overrun with RVs and SUVs. So I kept my expectations low. But what I didn’t realize until biking here is the absolute beauty of the scenery when you look away from the cars. The best views are from the bridges: either a dedicated bike lane (that’s closer to the water than the cars), or separate bike-pedestrian bridge (where you can stop anywhere, or see what those who are fishing have caught). To the left is the Atlantic Ocean, and to the right is Florida Bay. On a sunny day like today, the shallow waters create shades of blue unlike any body of water I’ve ever seen.
Tonight I’m camping in my tent on a small “island” on the Florida Bay in Marathon, operated by an RV park. (Yes, it’s the only place within several miles where I could make a tent site reservation a month ago. Henry and Eli are trying their luck further down the road, and we’ll compare notes tomorrow night in Key West). There’s a warm breeze gently blowing across the picnic table as I write this before going to bed. My belly is full from eating an entire 14-inch spinach and tomato pizza (my only real meal today) at a diner down the road. They served me root beer in a mason jar, the kind that young hipsters drink from. The weather forecast for the Keys tomorrow is the same as today: sunny skies, with a low in the mid-70s, high in the low-80s. Sure beats the gray skies and icy rain back home in Connecticut. This is one of those bike touring days to live for.
Day 5: January 3rd, northern Marathon to Key West, FL, 59 miles — My last day on the tour took me across the Seven Mile Bridge (named for its length, not height!), several smaller bridges with less memorable names, and some long stretches of delightfully shaded off-highway bike trails, especially during the last 15 miles into Key West. After enjoying a delicious shrimp dinner on Duval Street, and changing out of my sweaty clothes, I completed my Southern Florida loop by taking the 6pm boat back to Fort Myers Beach (and paying an extra $20 to roll on my bike and gear).
But overall, the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail is still a disconnected mix that remains “under development.” Too often, the dedicated bike lane or bike path abruptly ended, and I was confused about whether to continue pedaling south to wait for a dedicated bike lane or off-road bike path to pop up again, or cross traffic on US 1 to look for a bike path on the other side of the highway. At one point, when a bike path on the southern (ocean side) of US 1 suddenly stopped, I looked down and saw unofficially painted instructions to continue riding in the northbound bike lane — against traffic — to reach the next section of off-road bike path. Personally, I felt safe while biking the Keys (which in reality means biking mostly along US 1) because riding alongside high-speed traffic doesn’t bother me as long as the shoulders are relatively wide. But I don’t yet recommend this route to cyclists looking for a tranquil ride. Bonnie Gross accurately described the Heritage Trail as having “safe and scenic sections” in her detailed Florida Rambler blog post, last updated in December 2016. Based on what I’ve read, Florida is slowly improving its Heritage Trail, and with clearer connections, the disparate pieces could be transformed into a wonderful experience for all riders in future years.
Come join us on three friendly bike rides coming up in the Hartford region this fall:
Hartford “Slow Roll” — Sunday Sept 18th meet up at 3pm at 1429 Park Street for a friendly low-speed bike ride around the city, typically about 10 miles
Discover New Britain — Sun Sept 25th meet up at Jack’s house (4 Frederick Road, West Hartford) to depart at 7am sharp (new time!) and ride to New Britain art museum; sign up to ride a 10-25-50 mile route to support BikeWalkCT, which departs at 8:30am (fee required)
Night Fall — Sat Oct 8th meet up at 4:30pm in REI parking lot, West Hartford to ride to the magical Night Fall puppet and light show at Elizabeth Park that evening https://www.facebook.com/events/657177727790214/
On my bike touring adventures, I’ve met many friendly people along the way who shared both food and stories. Yesterday I had an opportunity to return the favor. While taking a short ride down the Cape Cod Rail Trail, I noticed two riders sitting on a bench with fully-loaded Bike Friday New World Tourists, very similar to my own bike. I stopped to chat and soon discovered some common interests with Nathalie (left) and Sylvie (right), who have been riding for about two weeks from Quebec City. They are highly experienced bike tourists who have explored Iceland, New Zealand, and the Western United States, and many more places. We traded stories on the side of the trail, and I shared some cheese that I had just purchased, fondly remembering the many times that people shared what they had with me when I was bike touring. As I prepared to leave, they kindly welcomed me to visit them if my future travels happen to bring me to Quebec City. So I invited them to come visit my family at nearby house we are renting on Cape Cod this week, and was delighted that they accepted the offer, and enjoyed another hour of good food and conversation with Beth and my daughters. Thank you, Nathalie and Sylvie, for making my day and encouraging all of us to meet new people and explore the world on two wheels.
On Saturday I rode south from Hartford to check out a newly-built segment of the East Coast Greenway in Cheshire, CT, and continued on to learn about bicycle history at the Arts and Ideas Festival in New Haven, CT.
The East Coast Greenway is a bike/walk route that stretches from Maine to Florida, and supporters are filling the gaps to convert more to off-road trail. The new segment will add 4 miles of trail through a beautiful wooded portion of Cheshire, CT, and connect to existing trail in the north (Southington) and south (Hamden and New Haven). While not yet finished nor officially open, the new trail is mostly paved and rideable, if you don’t mind a bit of gravel on the bridge aprons, and going around some fences (as hundreds of other riders have already done, judging from the tracks left behind).
I arrived in New Haven in time for a public demonstration by The Wheelmen, a group of antique bicycle collectors who gather to share their knowledge and show how people rode these two-wheeled inventions. (And yes, the group also included some Wheelwomen.) New Haven’s Arts and Ideas Festival coincided with the International Cycling History Conference and a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Pierre Lallement’s invention of the velocipede and his ride on the New Haven Green. While I had read some of this history, and seen a few old bikes on display in museums, this was a treat because never before had I seen so many people in one place, actually riding these bikes. They paraded their cycles in chronological order, and featured several items that were created in the Frog Hollow neighborhood of Hartford, the late 19th-century epicenter of bicycle manufacturing in the United States.