Friday, October 14, 2011

50 years -- what a difference!

 A dozen reasons that cycling
year-round and cross-country
is better in 2011 than in 1961

In 1961, when I bought my first bike, cycling in Minneapolis/St. Paul was a summertime recreational activity. In 2011, you can see bikes on our streets and paths at all hours, every day of the year.  Biking is better than ever.  Here are my choices for the top 12 changes of the past 50 years:

1.  Practical bikes: my Dunelt 3-speed bike wasn't geared low enough for Minneapolis hills; it lacked a rack; panniers were unheard of. It did have fenders and a chain guard -- features that vanished from popular bikes for many years after that. Now, several manufacturers and importers offer fully-equipped bikes for all-weather cycling.

2.  Luggage options: racks and panniers carry gear and groceries securely. Waterproof bags are easy to find now. Long-tail bikes and gear trailers handle loads that were impossible to deal with even just 30 years ago. 

3.  Effective lighting: less than ten years ago, I would stop commuting at the end of October and not resume until March or April. It was simply too dark, and the available bike lights were faint, expensive, and unreliable.

4.  Safe routes: miles of bike lanes, bike trails, and bike freeways have given cyclists in Minneapolis (and many other cities) safe and fast routes to popular locations.

5.  Bike parking: I remember riding downtown in the 1960's and having absolutely no place to lock up a bike. Now my employer provides a weather-protected, card-access, secure bike cage closer to the door than any of the employee automotive parking spots. Downtown Minneapolis offers a variety of whimsical, practical, sheltered, secured, and just ordinary bike parking facilities. Grocery stores put bike racks next to their front doors.

6.  All-weather clothing: in 1970, I bought a cycling raincoat in Denmark; it was the last one I saw for sale for the next twenty-five years. I still use it occasionally, but the twenty-first century brought a wide range of cycling clothes for every sort of weather.

7.  Weather radar on the Internet: in 1961, dangerous weather came without much warning. The advent of weather radar on television was an improvement, but the biggest change came with animated weather radar on the Internet. Suddenly, it was possible to see when that 50% chance of rain would hit. You could pick your commuting time to coincide with a big gap in a storm. With smart phones, you could even update your information from the seat of your bike.

8.  Google bike routing:  it's still "beta," but bike routing on mapping programs is a terrific way to find a way from A to B that doesn't require "I" for the Interstate.  Just this week, Google plotted me a route across a freeway using a bike bridge that I'd never noticed before.  (That freeway was new in 1961.)

9.  Studded tires / three-wheelers:  if you've been cycling for more than 50 years, you don't want to be falling over on the ice.  Studded tires for bikes have gone from a do-it-yourself project to a whole rack in the local bike shops.  For those of us who want even more security, three-wheelers now come in sporty versions like my Greenspeed Anura or the Hase Kettwiesel -- perfect for a winter commute or a little ice-bike racing.

10.  Internet cyclist-to-cyclist communication:  bike commuters and tourists can find each other now.  Internet forums, specialty magazines and websites, and social networking sites let us share our enthusiasm, ideas, and interests in ways that we couldn't imagine fifty years ago.  When Copenhagen proposes a network of bike freeways, the news travels instantly to blogs around the world, and I can click-and-brag to the Danes about the ones we have in Minneapolis.  Back in 1970, when I landed in Amsterdam and encountered my first bike freeway, it came as a total surprise.  Good cycling ideas can spread around the world faster than ever. 

11.  Cell phones, especially smart phones:  you can go out for a ride, knowing that you can find your ride partner, call for help in case of a mechanical problem, or make, check, or change reservations while on the road.  With a smart phone, your location can even appear on your ride partner's phone -- or on your blog, if you are doing a ride that would interest your "followers."  What a concept!  I was a fan of science fiction in the 1960's, but this was beyond anything I could imagine.

12.  GPS (and waterproof maps):  if you've ever had a map dissolve in the rain at just the wrong time, you know the value of the waterproof map -- and better yet, the GPS device.  Cycling in Copenhagen in 1970 with a paper tourist map offered none of the carefree enjoyment of riding around the city in 2009 with a Garmin.  You can ride confidently far from your own turf, and you can always find your way back. 

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