Thursday, November 24, 2016

Coffeeneuring 2016, a summary

A recap, for those unfamiliar with the term: coffeeneuring is a seven-week series of bike rides ostensibly to get a cup of coffee. The term derives from the term randonneuring, taking long bike rides, sometimes very long, dozens or hundreds of miles. Coffeeneuring is intended to be fun, to get you out on the bike, exploring different places, and takes place as the weather is starting to get colder.

A blog post on the topic a few months ago mentioned that the hobby was particularly popular in Pittsburgh, and I'm proud to say that I've participated most years. On that post, I made the comment that it would be a fun project to try to hit seven wholly different destinations in the region. It would be too easy to hit seven coffee shops where it's easy to get to them, such as on or near a flat river trail, but a different game entirely to spread them out. Our hills and the terrain in general are famously difficult to traverse, so let's use that to our advantage, shall we?

My goal, as played out and achieved, went like this:
  • Week #1: South up a hill. I climbed Josephine Street in the South Side and explored Mount Oliver, before heading out Brownsville Road into the neighborhood of Carrick. I saw few cyclists in this part of town, not surprising as this area is all hills.

  • Week #2: North Side, near the river where it's flat. I met up with an old friend who works as a barista in one of the local chains, Crazy Mocha, and caught up on what's new and doing with her.

  • Week #3: Between the rivers. I had been in a crash only a couple days earlier and still quite sore, so kept it simple, another Crazy Mocha that's the café in the main branch of Carnegie Library, just prior to the observance of a ghost bike placement (first anniversary thereof) just a few yards away.

  • Week #4: A distant diagonal. Allegheny County is roughly round, with rivers going off on three diagonals, NW, NE and SE. I rented one of the city's HealthyRide bike-share bikes and rode southeast, out the GAP trail to McKeesport, some 17 miles each way, taking a side trip into Duquesne. The side trip was a little unsettling. While I was tying up the bike at a possible destination, three teenage girls started questioning me about the bike and why I was there. They assumed that I'd stolen the bike, and were incredulous that I'd biked from downtown. Every answer I gave prompted ever more probing, to the point where I started to feel unsafe, and so left. Even at that, I didn't get out of town before being asked by a motorist what sort of bike I was on. Needless to say, here was another town where I didn't see a single other cyclist. Rather disheartening, in fact. They'd never heard of the bike-share system, and couldn't believe people use bikes as transportation. If this was part of the point of coffeeneuring, to get out into the environment we live in and learn about it, it succeeded. I eventually got coffee and dinner in McKeesport, the next town on the trail.

  • Week #5: Northern suburbs. I live north, so needed a destination I was not already familiar with. Because of time, I didn't get started until late afternoon, so opted to replicate my son's commute by bike to his job at a local Panera. I ran video of the trip there and showed it to him later. Apparently I made a wrong turn and ended up in weeds taller than I was, which he found hilarious. Oh well, sense of adventure and all that.

  • Week #6: West. The western part of the city, and its suburbs, are very difficult, even dangerous, to get to. There are only a couple of ways to do it, none of them safe or pleasant. I rode a sidewalk along the one major street, West Carson, where a cyclist was killed only days after the road was reopened after a three-year construction project.

  • Week #7: South, near the river where it's flat. Actually on a Tuesday, since I knew the coming weekend was overbooked. I took in my last trip at a local coffeehouse, Big Dog. I was also looking for a particular church building, part of a game we play in Pittsburgh called Tag-o-Rama. Figure out where someone has taken a picture of their bike -- in this case, in front of an unnamed church -- post the photo, then go somewhere else to take a pic of your bike in some spot that someone else has to figure out where is. So this trip was part of that game, and a reason to go exploring that part of town. I didn't find the tag, but did find some great coffee.

For a couple of these rides, I made use of alternative starting locations and ways of getting there, or home. Three of them, I used the HealthyRide rentals, starting downtown. Two others, I used the bus to get me home afterward because of the amount of stuff I was carrying. Our company moved to a new location during the ride series, and I took the opportunity of being downtown to take bagsful of stuff from my old desk home, rather than try to pack it. For me, much of the difficulty of coffeeneuring is the 10-mile trip each way just to get anywhere that isn't north, and then that again getting back home, probably in the dark. Getting hit within a mile of my house commuting home one night didn't help.

Still, each of these rides was eye opening, getting me to experience new parts of town, or known parts in new ways. And isn't that the point?

Being passed unsafely

Some people should not have driving licenses. A license indicates you have knowledge of the rules of the road, and apply them in the second-by-second navigation of the roadways such that you can get where you are going safely. If you cannot or will not do that, you should have no such license.

Tuesday, 22 Nov 2016, again I did not die at the hands of an idiot motorist, nor did another totally innocent motorist who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was returning home from work, and used the bus to get 90% of the way home. It takes less than four minutes from exiting the bus to standing inside my house. The 0.9-mile trip on Perrymont should be simple, just a short climb then a half-mile downhill. Should. But often isn’t.

There are two blind crests going west off of McKnight, the first at the top of the aforementioned climb, the second a bit later before the big descent. It was at that second one Tuesday night that someone passed me, at speed, at the very top of that crest, and very nearly hit an oncoming car head-on. They were both going 35+, and missed each other by less than 50 feet.

Front video. The incident occurs just after :50, or 20:04:58 on my camera's clock (which was an hour fast).

Rear video. The car at :25 is fine. It's the second one, at :50.

You can see in the rear video that the guy made no attempt to slow down. He just saw me in the lane, changed lanes, passed, and pulled back in. Which would have been fine if there hadn’t been oncoming traffic he could not possibly see.

It's easy enough to figure out what he was thinking. It's a sense of entitlement, a belief that one should and must proceed at least at the speed limit, without ever needing to be delayed for anything. Absent any other traffic, motorized or not, this driver would be going 40 or better, on a road posted 35. I've lived in my house over 25 years. This is simply how people drive, not just here, but everywhere.

But you cannot. If you see an obstruction in the road, be it a cyclist, a garbage can that fell over, a disabled motorist -- whatever -- and cannot see the way clear ahead, you slow down, or stop if necessary, until you can see the way clear. If you will not do this, you should not have a license to drive.

This has nothing to do with a cyclist's right to use the road or where in the lane I happened to be at that moment. This is all on the motorist. The motorist passed me at the very top of a blind hill. Had I been a mere 15 yards farther along, that would have been either a full head-on crash, hood ornament to hood ornament, or an immediate swerve back into his lane, taking out the softer target -- me -- similar to how he might have been trying to avoid a raccoon.

What else could I have done? Even if I had been stopped on the shoulder, he would have moved over the center line at the top of the grade, still colliding head-on but headlight to headlight. So, no, it's not on me to move over or do anything differently. It's for that motorist to lose the sense of entitlement that says, "I shall not be delayed even the slightest."

PA plate ZFY-8649, pickup truck, could not tell make, model or year.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

2016 Coffeeneuring #6 - West

Six hours later than I wanted to get out the door, but here I am in Stowe Twp, adjacent to McKees Rocks, a western trolley suburb. I am seated in 1905 Eatery, a really nice restaurant that's beyond my budget, big time, but it's about the only choice in town that isn't leaning against the wall of a convenience store. I got here right at opening time, 4pm. The featured entrée is a crab cakes special at $28.95. I'm hoping to get out of here for $15. I did look around for alternatives, but there really weren't any. Morning and lunch, there were other choices, but not late afternoon on a Sunday.

On a positive note, though there's not a bike rack in sight, this town is straight out of the 1950s. I found a parking meter solidly rooted in the concrete sidewalk and just as solidly bolted together. Back in the days when a nickel bought something and quarters were serious revenue for a small town, this old meter is the best thing to lock a bike to, and anywhere else, they're becoming as rare as getting a Buffalo nickel in change.

I was their first customer of the night, so they hadn't even put a pot of coffee on yet. Talk about fresh! That, and the little pitcher of creamer contained real half & half. Dinner itself ended up being this yummy eggplant appetizer.

For the trip over here, I chose to go outbound on West Carson Street. For those unaware, this road is a death trap for cyclists. PennDOT rebuilt this road down to bare dirt, a three year project that wrapped up only three months ago. The cycling community objected strenuously to the rebuild design, but they ignored all that and built it their way without substantive deviation from the original plan. Sure enough, only nine days into the road's opening, there was a fatal cycling crash. My plan today was to travel the same way as the cyclist who died, to see if I could discern anything. I ran front and rear video but will comment on that separately. All that matters here is that I used the sidewalk, not the street, to get out here.

The sidewalk is rideable from the West End Bridge to Stanhope Street on the McKees Rocks border, but as with any sidewalk, there are pedestrians, it's too narrow for two bikes to pass side by side easily, knotweed blocks half the available space, and sight lines at the few intersections are almost non-existent. This will not scale, if any significant increase in bike traffic happens. This was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in mid-autumn, but I didn't see a single bicycle between WEB & MR. Any guesses why not? Thanks for nothing, PennDOT.

For most of that distance, there would be plenty of space to add a bike lane, using the suggestions we originally gave them at a December 2011 design meeting. Another thing they should do is use an existing abandoned railroad bridge to get cyclists across West Carson, as part of a larger project to provide a bike route from Rocks into downtown. Instead, they plan to tear down the bridge, even though it's in nobody's way, has plenty of height clearance, and is not in danger of collapse. Again, short-sightedness on PennDOT's part, and precious little else, is behind this logic.

I did keep the final bill to sub-$15, with tip, my upper limit for coffeeneuring runs.

For the trip back, I considered taking the bus, but thought it would be interesting to try the horrid road at night, with cameras rolling. Turned out to be no worse than I am used to dealing with on any other road. I did not take the sidewalk, but used the road itself. Traffic was light, and everyone who passed me gave me the required four feet of space. This is a single 14-foot lane, with a 10-foot center lane that is really a second outbound lane that is totally unnecessary for most of its length. Fourteen feet is wholly unnecessary for a 35 mph road, but it does make it at least possible for light traffic to get by without difficulty. I rode this the entire distance from McKees Rocks to the entrance to the South Side Trail by 1600 West Carson.

From there, I rode Smithfield Street through the city, to 9th Street, to East Street, to Perrysville Avenue, then up Perry Highway to home. Most of this was uneventful, except for the last 100 yards of Perry before the turn onto my street. Only then, literally within sight of my house, I get nearly sideswiped by a white Cadillac whose driver had trouble figuring out how to get into an empty passing lane.

Thus concludes six of my seven coffeeneuring runs around Pittsburgh. Only one left, the South Side Flats.

Monday, November 7, 2016

2016 Coffeeneuring #5 - Northern suburbs

If the Oakland Carnegie Library was my ace, this was playing my next highest card. I live north of the city, so the challenge was to bike to someplace new, or in a new way, north of the city, but not the North Shore, and far enough from the house to qualify.

My choice was the McCandless Panera, if only to replicate my son's commute. He works at this very restaurant (though not the day I went there), and commutes by bike, but I had never traveled there via his route.

The first 3/4 mile is identical to my trip to the bus in the morning, but he makes a left into the nursing home, where he cuts through a parking lot, a fence, and a yard, then down a steep hill, into the parking lot for a new bit of suburban sprawl -- a parking lot for a hotel, a gym, and a restaurant. I almost did this without error, but did not see and so overshot the mowed path, and ended up bushwhacking my way through 30 feet of tall weeds.

Normally I would prefer to avoid national chain restaurants, but I also know how the business works, so the best way I knew to keep my son employed was to give the place some business. Plus, I needed dinner anyway, and it was getting late. I wanted to ride earlier, but the To Do list at home took priority, and further had to hook up my lights to Bike #2. The whole point of having Bike #2 operable is so he or I can hop on it on a moment's notice to make this exact trip. Coffeeneuring simply made the drill a more enjoyable chore.

I don't know where he ties up his bike, but I could not find a single rack in the entire set of restaurants in that little sprawlplaza. The only post that I could fit the U-lock around was a temporary sign I could pick up which weighed less than the bike. I will not lock to trees. I ended up wedging it between a bush and the wall of the building.

[Update: New photo] In my rush to get out the door, I forgot the cell phone. Here is one pic of my meal, a still from my helmet cam.

I also managed to get a video of the ride (here), and this pic of the receipt. The chili and sandwich were decent.
The trip back was uneventful, the biggest concern being that it was now dark. I somehow found my way back up the path through the grass to the nursing home, then it was the usual 3/4 mile on Perrymont I already know pretty well. All told, round trip was about five miles, barely enough to qualify, but certainly with a good deal of exploration and experimentation under my belt.

Only two more rides to go in my Pittsburgh series -- level south-of-the-rivers, and west of town.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

2016 Coffeeneuring #4, McKeesport

This was "distant diagonal" week, and I went southeast, since that's the farthest I can get purely on a trail. McKeesport is the last really big town on the GAP before you head into the boonies of southwest PA on your way to D.C., fully 17 miles from downtown Pittsburgh.

The day got off to a late start, with a trip to Monroeville that should have wrapped up by 2, but I didn't get on the road for there until 2:30. Coin shows are morning events, and sure enough, by the time I got there, dealers were already packing their cases. With my choices of dealers disappearing with each passing minute, I hurriedly decided on purchasing 20 Buffalo nickels for my annual Halloween handout. (As detailed elsewhere, I always give out coins to the kids, not just money, but items of some numismatic value and educational interest, with the hope that it inspires some kids to become collectors someday.)

For that leg of the trip, I was on motorcycle, but like the first week, parked that downtown and rented a HealthyRide bike-share bike. Where to go? I opted to head for the Hot Metal Bridge, and decide then whether to find something on the level South Side, or head way out to do my distant diagonal. Once there, I chose the latter, but what constituted distant enough? I passed the Glenwood Bridge (still in the city), then the Rankin Bridge (barely outside the city). That was distant enough, but my choices once I got up to street level would consist of some fast food about a mile away, near Kennywood, on a road that's notoriously difficult to bike. Nope, better stay on the trail a bit farther.

Next up, Duquesne. There is a strip mall right across from the trailhead, but nothing resembling a restaurant or coffee shop. I headed up the hill, well into the town, seeing a couple of candidates which I thought I would consider on the way back out. None looked all that appealing, but I chose what was billed as a sub and coffee shop. It even had what might once have been some sort of chest-high street light, with a knob that might work for the rental's built-in cable lock. But I never made it in the place. A gaggle of early teen girls started asking questions. They assumed I stole the bike, and every attempt at an explanation begat further questions. I chose not to go inside, fearing too many more people would find the sudden appearance of a strange white guy on a strange bicycle with a strange story (what's coffeeneuring, anyway? heck, I had trouble explaining a bicycle) perhaps a bit too strange. So, back down the hill -- where a woman in a car at a traffic light also inquired about the bike. The concept of rental bikes has not made it to Duquesne, apparently. Actually, I don't think I saw a single other bicycle in the entire town in the 20 or so minutes I was there. That's rather sad, actually. Duquesne seemed rather sad, actually. The buildings and the people all seemed broken. I guess this is part of what coffeeneuring is about: Get out and experience the areas near where you live, so you know about them first-hand.

Farther out I went, the three or so miles to McKeesport. I had only been out here a couple times, ever, on a bike, and not that many more times in a car, either. It was also approaching sunset, so I further knew the entire trip back downtown would be in the dark. I saw one familiar face on the trail, Yale Cohen, going the other way. I'm sure my appearance on a bike that far out of the city that direction was a total surprise to him. Once I got to the last bridge over the river, I took this photo. As I said in my tweet, I suspect these rental bikes are a rare sight in McKeesport.

Now, where to eat? That late on a Saturday, my choices of eateries was shrinking as fast as dealers at a coin show in late afternoon. But then I spied good ol' local chain restaurant, Eat'n Park, which featured a couple of very nice bike racks right in front of the store. I quickly ordered dinner and coffee, keeping it as simple as possible. I further had not had a proper meal all day, so everything looked good.

It was almost 8:30 by the time I got back on the road. Knowing it was close to 20 miles, I only hoped to get back by 10. As it turns out, I got moving pretty quickly on that bike. Duquesne in 15 minutes, six minutes later hearing the screams from one of Kennywood's roller coasters (I thought they closed eight weeks ago?), passing the eagle nest near Hays in about a half hour, and the Hot Metal Bridge before 9:30. I parked the bike in the same rack I pulled it out of at 9:46, only 15 minutes ahead of my expectation. Despite a 20-minute phone call, I was home by about 10:30. The whole travel day was accomplished in eight hours.
Numbers: 34 miles on the bike (map:
Link), about 40 on the motorcycle. One cup of coffee. Twenty Buffalo nickels acquired, one given as an additional tip for the waitress with a nice, explanatory note.

I'd call that a good day.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

2016 Coffeeneuring #3, between the rivers

I had to play my ace early in this game, as it turned out. Last Tuesday, I was hit by a car on my bike while riding home, and while neither I nor the bike were too badly banged up, it was in the shop and I was still pretty sore. What little riding I was capable of, I did mainly with one hand doing anything useful. Squeezing a brake with my left hand is not yet something I can do well.

Friday afternoon was the one-year memorial for Susan Hicks, who lost her life riding home on a bike. I was able to get out of work a bit early and borrow one of the rental bikes to make the three mile ride out to Oakland, and the site of her ghost bike on Forbes Ave across from the dinosaur where so many bike rides begin. Just like last year's memorial, we had a steady rain, but also like last year, we had dozens of people there.

Just prior to this, though, I stopped in at the little coffee nook at Carnegie Library's main branch, right across the street. Like last week's coffeeneuring trip #2, this too was a Crazy Mocha, and for that matter, this was the second CM I'd been in that afternoon. But I wasn't about to be picky. I only had 40 minutes, and knew this was my only chance to make the ride this week. And I love this place. The goat on the wall is wearing librarians' glasses.

My big purchase was a pumpkin flavored coffee and a cookie. Just as I got this to my table, the bike shop called to discuss details of the repair estimate, then I also ran into Scott and Eric from Bike-Pgh. Net effect, I barely had time to gulp it all down before I ran across to the memorial service getting underway. 

But, all is well with the world. Several people had heard about my incident, and were both truly concerned with my condition, and glad to see me getting around, apparently intact. 

Still, three for three. I have yet to do south flat, north hilly, west, and outer east. Next week, I hope, I will be better able to go any distance.

2016 Coffeeneuring #2, north level

A good friend I had not seen in a long time just took a job at the Federal-North Crazy Mocha, and as it happened, I would be in that part of town the day I knew she would be working. I only needed to take care of a couple earlier activities in time to get there before the place closed.

The morning got off to a confusing start, with various family members and I not quite on the same page of who had to go where when. I ended up getting a ride from home to Northview Heights, on the city's North Side, then got the rest of the way to Heinz Field under my own power. This itself was fraught with some irritation, as I got a horn from an ignorant motorist on a 25 mph city street, when I was likely going at least 20. She apparently did not accept that cyclists were allowed to use city streets at all. I chose not to further engage.

The main activity was to assist with the fourth annual 3-2-1 Ride, a charity bike ride to raise funds for pancreatic cancer research. I've helped on this ride each of the four years, and had this on the calendar, in ink, months ago. I wasn't sure where I'd be helping, but it's notable that on a single hour, the arranging of getting me there and in place involved four Sarahs: my wife (Sarah Strickland), the volunteer organizer Sarah Pearman, and two I've worked with on past rides, Sarah Quesen and Sara Walfoort. My life also features about six other Saras or Sarahs on a regular basis, and another half dozen I run into less often. I am awash in Sarahs. Next up, spend an hour or two manning a sticky intersection -- Penn Avenue at Stanwix Street -- where the bike lane ends and riders have to merge into regular traffic. That ended up being a fairly easy problem to manage. I did get asked a dozen or more times which way to go, by those on the ride, and directions in general by random passersby. It felt good, just standing there on a beautifully warm autumn day.

Eventually the cleanup crew came through, so I took off with them to the ride's end, and the promise of some food. I hung out with friends I hadn't seen in a while, nibbled bagels and orange segments, then headed to the next task: work.

Getting downtown was simple enough, with that minor risk of managing not to ride into the river as I biked toward and past PNC Park. As I got to my building, I noticed that Grant Street was shut down entirely for a celebration called Pittsburgh Food Day, an effort of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council. Various booths and small exhibits were set up to explain various aspects of recovering and not wasting food, sustainable community gardens, vegan diets, and other aspects of food production in the city.

I spent about an hour at work, tracking down a couple of problems, and packing up a few more things to take home in preparation for the company's move next week. I returned to the food thing, and got in line for the quick little meal they were serving people. I met a young lady, whom I know only as Kat, who lives in Millvale and knows a lot of the same people I do, since I pass through Millvale almost daily myself.

Next up, bike to the North Side, to run into Amanda at Crazy Mocha, and catch up on things. For living in the same city, I hadn't seen her in years. Got a brownie and a "monkey mocha", a banana-chocolate coffee concoction. Yum!

Lastly, I caught a bus most of the rest of the way home. I had a bagful of junk from my cubicle, it didn't tie to the bike at all, and didn't feel like riding eight miles with a bag in one hand. Sometimes, it's best to take the bus, even on a nice day.

Soon enough, I was home, showered, and got on with the rest of a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Coffeeneuring Week #2 is in the bag!