Lessons Learned from Pedal to the Medal 2018

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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.

Co-leader Thien Nguyen and me a few moments before the launch of Pedal to the Medal 2018. (Yes, it’s a crappy selfie photo, but you try taking a good picture of yourself at 3:30 AM!)

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.


“Game of Thrones” Mixup with West Hartford Center Streets

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Contrary to rumors, HBO’s Game of Thrones cast will NOT appear at West Hartford “Center Streets.”

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.


Cycle and Stroll to Car-Free West Hartford “Center Streets” on Sunday Aug 27th

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People of all ages filled the streets at the 2016 inaugural Center Streets event in West Hartford. Photo by Pam Lander.

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/

Three friendly bike rides in Hartford region in Fall 2016

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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/

New Trail in Cheshire, and Bicycle History in New Haven

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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).

New trail at the transition from Southington to Cheshire, CT
New trail at the transition from Southington to Cheshire, CT
Not officially open, but rideable across bridges
Not officially open, but rideable across bridges
Southern entrance to new trail in Cheshire, CT
Southern entrance to new trail in Cheshire, CT

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.

The Hobby Horse from 1819
The Hobby Horse from 1819
The Velocipede from 1869, with pedals on the front wheel
The Velocipede from 1869, with pedals on the front wheel
Another Velocipede, after 1869, I believe
Another Velocipede, after 1869, I believe
The High Wheeler, which came after the Velocipede
The High Wheeler, which came after the Velocipede
Scientific American 1880 on the Weed Sewing Machine Company of Hartford, where Columbia Bicycles were produced.
Columbia bicycle ad featuring a female rider, from Pope Manufacturing in Hartford
Columbia bicycle ad featuring a female rider, from Pope Manufacturing in Hartford

Willimantic: The Cycling Trail Connector

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Click the image to enlarge
Click the image to enlarge and read this historical marker about the Air Line and Hop River trails

To celebrate National Trails Day,  I rode the East Coast Greenway from Hartford to Willimantic, to see the newly-opened connector. In Bolton, I jumped on the Hop River Trail and pedaled southeast along this old railway bed, covered by wonderful shade trees. When this trail ended, I pedaled about a mile on the road west of town, then switched onto the brand-new trail that runs along the Willimantic river. While this new trail is relatively short, it now gives Hop River riders a way to avoid highway traffic into downtown Willimantic, or to cross a bridge to connect to the Air Line south trail to East Hampton. I took both options, first by zipping into town for a late breakfast at the Willimantic Food Co-op, then back across the bridge for a ride on the Air Line south trail, where I encountered dozens of cyclists and hikers enjoying the day as much as I did.

Check out the map above with trails (in green) and street routes (in blue). Click on any route to view its name and mileage. Download any of these files in GPX format: ECG Hop River, Willimantic west, Willimantic trail, Willimantic downtown, Air Line north, and Air Line south.

Update: This post features the easy routes that I would recommend to most riders with suitable tires for crushed stone trails, such as hybrid, touring, or mountain bikes. If you ride a skinny-tire road bike, these trails may not work for you. Also, these routes are ideal for dry weather, as heavy rains can turn sections into mud.

Also, I biked a longer route than shown above. I began in West Hartford and rode the East Coast Greenway through Hartford, East Hartford, and Manchester, and continued on the ECG/Hop River trail as described above. (See East Coast Greenway maps page for details.) When I finished the Air Line south trail in East Hampton, I biked through Glastonbury, crossed on the ferry at Cromwell, then back home through Rocky Hill and Newington. My total was 83 miles.

Download any of the photos below from my Flickr album.

  • Willimantic connector for the Hop River and Air Line trails

  • ECG Willimantic west entrance

  • ECG Hop River trail entrance at Bolton

  • East Hampton Air Line trail sign

Hartford “Slow Roll” and West Hartford “Wheels” Rides

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If you’re looking for friendly, non-racing bike rides with friendly folks this summer, check out two Hartford-area options.

Hartford "Slow Roll" riders at Elizabeth Park in May 2016
Hartford “Slow Roll” riders at Elizabeth Park in May 2016

Join the Hartford “Slow Rolls” for informal rides to explore the city and meet people on selected Sunday afternoons. The pace is usually around 10-12 miles per hour, for about an hour of actual riding, and the direction depends on whatever the group decides (which sometimes changes mid-route). This is not a highly-structured route with cue sheets, but rather a friendly ride with people who enjoy exploring. Although I’ve been riding around the city for fifteen years, I always learn something new, and enjoy meeting folks who come out with us. The organizers usually announce about two rides per month as Facebook events, which are usually shared on the FB sites of BiCiCoHartford or Transport Hartford or Breakfast Lunch & Dinner. Or see this event announcement for the next ride on Sunday June 12th at 3pm, starting at the parking lot on 1429 Park Street in Hartford.

Also, the Bike West Hartford group has announced a series of “Wheels on Wednesdays” rides, beginning on June 8th at 6:30pm in the parking lot behind West Hartford Town Hall, 50 South Main Street. These also are non-competitive friendly rides of about 10 miles or more, with groups for varying paces. The first ride will feature the West Hartford Reservoir. The organizers require you to wear a helmet and sign a liability form. This summer these rides are scheduled for alternate Wednesday evenings: June 8, June 22, July 6, July 20, Aug 3, Aug 17th. Learn more at the link above.

Hartford "Slow Roll" at Charter Oak Landing on Memorial Day Weekend 2016
Hartford “Slow Roll” at Charter Oak Landing on Memorial Day Weekend 2016
Jose made my day by letting me try out his "fat bike" with 4-inch wide tires. Felt like I was pedaling a motorcycle!
Jose made my day by letting me try out his “fat bike” with 4-inch wide tires. Felt like I was pedaling a motorcycle!


Reading Outside Lies Magic

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Stilgoe-outside-lies-magicMy new friend Jeff Allred at Hunter College learned of our shared interest in cycling, and recommended that I read John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. His book reveals what “the explorer,” traveling by foot or bicycle, can discover by looking more closely at ordinary objects that most of us pass by, especially when trapped inside the metal box of a motor car. This wide-ranging set of essays rambles across multiple topics, and many of these resonated with my own memories of what I’ve seen while riding a bike, though Stilgoe has taught me to take a second look. My favorite passage is his observation about fences:

Depending on the spacing of the pickets that seem at first glance to make a solid wall, the bicyclist-explorer can pedal with some magic speed that makes the fence transparent. Usually about 11 miles an hour does the trick. At that speed the explorer can see through the fence almost as though the fence had disappeared. At a speed that runners and pedestrians rarely reach for long and so slow that a few motorists ever attempt it, the explorer rides effortlessly, and secretly, screened from observation by the fences intended to block views, spying on what the fences surround.

Stilgoe also taught me how to look more closely at telephone poles, railroad ties, and rural delivery mailboxes. He also reminds us how bicyclists of the 1900s agitated government to improve roads in ways that benefitted cars, and how the Cold War led to the construction of interstate highways in the 1950s and 60s, which continue to ban walkers and bikers today. The book encourages us to explore the limited access frontage roads and the back parking lots that link together commercial strip malls. He shows us how to look at the fraternal-order signs that welcome visitors into small towns, and the historical relationship between main street businesses, trees, insurance companies, and firehouses.

Overall, it’s a book that I recommend, as have others, such as the Neglected Books site, which notes that this title is no longer in print, though used copies and digital editions are still available for sale. Or check it out from your library, as I did. In any case, it’s the right book to read outside.



Exploring Hartford on the First “Slow Roll” Sunday of 2016

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Today marked the first Hartford “Slow Roll” Sunday bike ride of 2016. These are informal meetups of friendly cyclists who love to explore while riding around the city. Today did a leisurely 6-mile ride and landed at the southern branch of the Park River, where the waterway tunnels under downtown Hartford. I’ve lived here for over fifteen years and it was my first time seeing this. Come and join us on a future ride and go places that you can’t reach by car. Find out about the next Slow Roll by following the Facebook page for BiCiCo, Hartford’s new community-oriented bike shop.

Slow Rollers explore the Park River southern branch tunnel
Slow Rollers explore the Park River southern branch tunnel

Satellite view of the Park River southern branch tunnel from Google Maps

Tony Cherolis launches the Slow Roll with a portable sound system.

Jennifer Yanko and family on today's Slow Roll
Jennifer Yanko and family on today’s Slow Roll
Best of Show at today's Slow Roll. The bike's name is "Warning" because it features a yellow warning label.
Best of Show at today’s Slow Roll. The bike’s name is “Warning,” due to the yellow warning label.