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September 25, 2014
by James Knox


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Mid-Life Crisis

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Today is my birthday. Big deal. I’m 41. According to USA Cycling, I have been 41 since Jan. 1, so it’s kind of anticlimactic. Everything has hurt all over since I turned 40. Different day, same aches.

Professional racers lasting through the grueling international circuit until their 40s are rare and something to be lauded. Christopher Horner is my age. He was a General Classification favorite in this year’s Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain) and Tour de France.

Jens Voigt just turned 43 and broke the hour record after ending a season of typical aggressive attacking like he’s a hungry U23 trying to break into a pro squad.

Me? I raced 7 or 8 races at the Washington Boulevard Oval. I got as high as 7th place one night.

OK, it’s not even close. They are sponsored pros. I won a T shirt against a bunch of dentists. But the point is, I’m feeling like a young man on a bike. I could be having a mid-life crisis and buying a Corvette and growing a ponytail, but I’m riding my bike. A lot.

So what should I do? Race some more. The next big cycling event for Pittsburgh is the Dirty Dozen. Danny Chew created this monster of a bike race that has achieved a cult status. The pitch: ride a baker’s dozen of Pittsburgh’s toughest hills with 300 of your closest rivals. Sounds fun? I know it’s a painfest. Men from the boys kind of stuff. Most of the 300 don’t finish.

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(Canton Ave.)

The roads are steep here. Last year I photographed the race with Andrew Russell on his motorcycle like real pro cycling photographers. And I thought it might be fun. I’m still looking for an excuse to not do it.

My intrepid buddy Steve and I have been reconnoitering the hills on the list and ticking them off one by one. Go to dannychew.com to see the list. The steepest is Canton Avenue in Beechview. At a 38% grade, it is the steepest hill in the country. Danny Chew would argue that it is the steepest in the world. Some sheep path in New Zealand is allegedly 39%. Whatever. Most of the other streets top out at 28-30% at their steepest. These are the roads that have steps for sidewalks.

You also ride 50 miles just to get to these monsters that take several minutes to climb. This is crazy, right? It definitely sounds like a midlife crisis to me.

Bring it. I’ll grow the ponytail. You bring the cowbell.

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September 13, 2014
by James Knox


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Pro Pittsburgh

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The Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Places conference has inspired me. I have ridden my bike almost every day for the past few weeks. I’ve ridden so much I need a doughnut. The kind you sit on, not the kind you eat.

It might be because of my fondness for riding on the rivet on training rides or just the sheer amount of miles in spandex-enhanced jeans, but I might need a break.

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And what did Gil Penalosa say at his keynote address to the Pro Walk/ Pro Bike/Pro Places conference? He said every trip begins and ends with walking. You walk to your car, walk to the bus, walk to your bike. He has a point. That must be why “walking” is at the front of the long-winded moniker of the international conference that Pittsburgh was privileged to host this past week.

So Friday, I tried walking. What a waste of leg power walking is. You go so slowly. I like to go fast. But I’m in no hurry. It’s a quiet day. No need to hurry. I have some assignments Downtown so I meander to the T across from our building and hitch a ride. Why not? It’s free and I am an intermodal type of guy these days. I shoot my assignments and head out on a feature hunt through Downtown. Slow and low, that is the tempo, the Beastie Boys say. The smells, the sights of a bustling major metro city on the move. My brother, a lawyer in Erie, always is taken aback by the “big city-ness” of Pittsburgh. It does have that big-city feel. But it’s way nicer than NYC. Nobody really honks here. People will say hi if you do. It’s the perfect mix of small and big town.

My town.

It feels good to stretch my legs and get some work done at the same time. Pittsburgh is on the move. I’ve seen some big changes in the past 20-plus years I have called Pittsburgh my home. More and more, my choice has been proven to be a good one.

I guess I am pro-walk, pro-bike and pro-places. As long as the place is Pittsburgh.

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September 11, 2014
by James Knox


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It Only Takes A Spark

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The Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place conference closed out with Gil Penalosa, executive director of 8-80 Cities. He was on fire. The fired-up Colombian crammed a two-hour symposium into a rapid-fire half-hour of entertainment. He outlined the path to making cities more bike-friendly and livable. He was on fire … really. His standing ovation was interrupted by this announcement, “A fire emergency has been reported in the building. Please evacuate the building and the garage by the nearest exit …”

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A thousand or so of us did. As we stood around blinking in the sunlight, the conference director, Mark Plotz from the Project for Public Spaces, was walking around shaking everyone’s hand and saying, “See you in 2016 in Vancouver?” A defeated smile was on his lips.

He was supposed to give the news during his closing remarks following Penalosa’s keynote. Tough break. Most people mingled and hatched plans for lunch.

The fire was actually a cleaning staff member who accidentally hit the fire alarm. But this conference was no mistake. It fired up everyone to make their places more livable and hospitable to people, not just cars.

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As I rolled back to the office via the protected bike lane down Penn Avenue, I thought this conference might just be the spark to get this town on its way to its third renaissance.

I will stop with the fire metaphors now. Just keep pedaling.

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September 10, 2014
by James Knox


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Reality Check

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The news was pretty messed up today.

I had planned on covering my day from two wheels but some dudes with guns had some other ideas.

I got a call to get over to the Allegheny County Jail because some 14-year-old escaped from custody and hid on a hillside; he was recaptured near the Manor Building just before 8 a.m. And me with my bike still on the roof rack.

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Then the call comes in for a shooting in Beltzhoover. I get over there and car windows are blown out and shell casings litter the ground. Turns out a teenager was shot while walking up a hill with another teenager. Another person, coming from the other direction, opened fire on the two and then fled.

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Another shooting in Braddock. This time it was a homicide. The kid was 16.

I need to get on my bike. I roll through Downtown trying to see if any Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Places people are out and about. I ride up through the new bike lane all the way to the end in the Strip. Um, it just kinda stops there. Turned around and headed to Market Square. I can’t get any pictures of people talking at podiums in breakout sessions. One guy from the convention told me he had created the hashtag #plannerspointing.

So I get all my pictures in order and head home.

I put my city bike on its hook in the garage. Pull on my spandex and grab my race bike and head on out. Two and a half hours of cathartic pain.

I love being on the bike. Nothing clears your head as much as lactic acidosis.

It gets me thinking of the city’s 10-year plan. “A cycling Mecca.” That’s what the mayor wants for Pittsburgh. It seems he’s moving fast. Tom Murphy and Luke Ravenstahl do deserve a lot of credit, too. (Only Tommy was an actual cyclist, though.)

Peduto is moving fast. Kind of like me this afternoon. But I wonder if after all the people from the convention leave and they roll up the temporary bike lanes on the bridges, will this town be moving with the kinetic momentum that this event has put in motion?

We’ll see.

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September 9, 2014
by James Knox


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Mayoral Advice

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My day started with the best intentions. Bike mounted on my bumper, I headed into work. I promptly got sent to a truck that spilled joint compound all over the Irwin Interchange of the Turnpike. Oops. Tens of people will have to use toothpaste to fill the little holes in their apartment walls so as not to break the terms of their lease. All kidding aside, I hope the driver is OK. I got a pretty cool photo out of it, at least.

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I parked at the office and rode my bike over to the first full day of the Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Places convention. They really need a better name for this thing. I mean, it’s like a bad URL.

As the sessions let out, I enjoyed a people-watching extravaganza. It was like “Parks and Rec” meets the J.Jill catalog. The Trib’s reporter said that these were the most slender people she had ever seen in one place. It was like Amsterdam in Pittsburgh. Over 1,000 people who I was positive I had something in common with. Skinny jeans!

They were assembling for a panel discussion of four mayors from Memphis, Tenn.; Philadelphia; Morgantown, W.V., and our own mayor, Bill Peduto. It was shaping up to be a weird episode of “The View” when Mayor Peduto mentioned his love of bourbon while lamenting checking his Twitter feed at 10:30 at night for hateful comments from the anti-bike Tweeters.

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The mayors all agreed that making your city a cycling-friendly destination was a hot-button issue. Memphis mayor AC Wharton said that people wondered why he could put paint on the ground but not pull the weeds. Mayor Michael Nutter from Philadelphia said, “(Being a mayor) is tough business. If you want someone to love you every day, go work in a pet store.”

They all expressed their passion for making streets designed centuries ago safe for modern transportation. The goal: to make cities livable again. Wharton talked of putting bike lanes through minority neighborhoods in Memphis to stress that this was for everyone, not just the “spandex crowd.”

Hey, I am a member of the spandex crowd. But, it got me thinking. These bike lanes aren’t for people like me. If everyone felt as confident and at home as I do on a bike, we wouldn’t need dedicated bike lanes. But having 1 percent of your town using bicycles for transportation is unfair. Bring it to the people. Make it safe. You shouldn’t have to put your life in danger to ride your bike. Riding a car is statistically the least safe way to travel anyway. I’ve had several nasty accidents in a car but never had one on a bike. If biking is going to put Pittsburgh back on the map then, I’m all for it.

Let the people bike!

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September 8, 2014
by James Knox


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Growing Pains

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Today is the start of the Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place convention in Pittsburgh. A group of attendees decided to ride from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh (because you can) for the first day. I tagged along.

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There were four riders from Nelson-Nygaard, a heavy-hitter transportation firm with offices all over the country; one from the Boston Metropolitan Planning Council (who rode the trail on a Brompton folding bike!); and two from Adventure Cycling out of Missoula, Mont. A group of about nine rode up from Golden Triangle Cycling and met them at the Pump House along the Greater Allegheny Passage in Homestead. The media (just me) rounded out the peloton.

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We had coffee and Cliff Bars and got under way after a brief bagel-fueled cocktail party without the cocktails. I reunited with Stephen Patchan, Pittsburgh’s former “bike czar” who relocated to Los Angeles doing basically what he did here. A tanned, anti-bureaucrat in Ray-Bans, he was the only one who got the cocktail party memo, I guess.

As we rolled along, I chatted with Zabe Bent from Nelson-Nygaard about the changes Pittsburgh has made to its bike infrastructure, Peduto, the Eagle Cam and why exactly they call it the Hot Metal Bridge. I am an ambassador all of a sudden.


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I broke off from the group and moved my car to the Trib’s office on the North Side, remounted my bike and pedaled to the new bike lanes on Penn Avenue and sat and waited for the group to roll on through.

I sat and watched a protected bike lane in its infancy. There was a cop on a bike rolling through. Cool. I saw a lot of people walking in the lane. Then a fire engine pulled up at Garrison Place and Penn and went in for a medical emergency. It blocked the only open lane for vehicular traffic for about five minutes.

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During that time the group from the ride came down the other way and watched the mayhem. Honking horns and shouting. Buses started to line up and a guy in a BMW pulled into the bike lane and ran an errand. The cyclists didn’t know what to do. The trucks eventually moved out of the way and the traffic lurched forward through a break in the bike lane. Some guy with a 2-foot white beard shouted to no one in particular, “See, I told you so!” or something like that, mingled with some muffled profanities.

Growing pains. We are a city on the move. We are also a city that hates change. Just ask anyone directions in this town to prove my point: “Just turn left where the Syria Mosque used to be.”

These changes are coming faster than they have ever before and this seems to be just the beginning. So brace yourself, yinz!

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September 5, 2014
by James Knox


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Overnight Sensation

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Next week, over 1,000 city planners, transportation engineers, public health advocates, elected officials, community leaders and professional walking and bicycling advocates, movers and shakers will descend on the Burgh for the 18th Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place, held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

The Project for Public Spaces’ website describes it as “the premier conference in North America for walking and bicycling professionals from the public and private sectors.”

What does that mean? The people who make the plans and execute them are getting together here. Pittsburgh’s stock in the cycling world is on the rise, big time. You better believe it.

Bicycling Magazine just released its list of America’s 50 Top Cycling Cities. Pittsburgh was ranked 21st. That’s pretty good, but know that it is based on what went on in the past year. In the past week, Pittsburgh has been transformed by miles of green bike lanes, public art bike racks and a visible surge in people on bikes … everywhere.

In light of all of this sudden attention and praise, Mayor Bill Peduto has said that Pittsburgh is an overnight sensation … 30 years in the making. Well said by a guy who will be on “Meet the Press” this Sunday with some guy named Obama.

Go one block Downtown and tell me how many bikes you see? It used to be how many blocks do you go before you see one. The Pro Walk/Pro Bike convention was secured a while ago, but the planners must have seen the writing on the wall to choose our hometown as the host of this big-time event.

Their website says, “Our conference was founded on the belief that greater access to walking and bicycling will create healthier individuals, cohesive neighborhoods, and vibrant communities.”

This conference is for “professionals” only. The public is, however, invited to a Community Open House at the David Lawrence Convention Center from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday night. You can check their schedule on their website.

I plan on covering the week from two wheels, starting Monday with a celebratory ride into town on the Greater Allegheny Passage, a route that just recently opened up, uninterrupted, all the way from Washington, D.C., with the completion of the new stretch just past Sandcastle.

Get out there and ride. What are you waiting for?

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September 4, 2014
by James Knox


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Customer Service Is NOT Dead

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The one piece of equipment that I always take on a ride but hope I never have to use is my Road ID. This company does not make some highly technical sci-fi bike component. It’s a very un-sexy ID bracelet. But for some reason, they made them cool.

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They also have some of the top endurance athletes out there swearing that they never leave for a run or a bike with out their Road IDs on their wrists. Bob Roll, a former Tour de France bike racer and current TDF commentator, is their lovable spokesdude. They also have “Crowie” — Craig Alexander, the three-time Ironman World Champion. I have one. My wife has one. My kids will be getting theirs when they are able to ride out of the neighborhood alone.

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The company does have a high-tech component in their simple yet ingenious rubber bracelets. It is a link that first responders can check to see a more complete medical alert sheet online in the event you are incapacitated in a crash.

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Worst-case scenario — you crash your bike and are knocked unconscious. How will the EMTs know if you are allergic to penicillin or latex if you are out cold? Well, they read your Road ID, that’s how. Simple yet genius.

As far as customer service goes, this company excels like few others. L.L. Bean, with its 100% guarantee, and Crutchfield are two retailers whose customer service is unrivaled. But I sent an email to the customer service desk at Road ID about a broken pin on my Road ID Elite. I have had the bracelet for a few years and didn’t think they would honor a fix. But a day later I got this email…

Hello,

I apologize to hear that your Elite Clasp broke. That should have never happened. No worries, though. We are a company that stands behind our products 100%. I’d love to send you a replacement right away. The only thing I need from you is a valid shipping address.

If I can be of further assistance, please let me know.

Be safe out there,

Paula McDermott

Customer Service

Team
Road ID

Wow, You guys rock. Don’t you wish everybody responded this way to your requests for customer service? A certain giant chain of grocery stores … do you hear me? I emailed you a few months ago about a problem. I got a big fat goose egg.

Customer service is not dead. You just have to look for it a little bit.

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September 2, 2014
by James Knox


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National Bike Challenge

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The National Bike Challenge has only 29 days left! What is the National Bike Challenge, you ask? Well, Sierra Nevada Beer sponsors it. Need I say more?

OK, I will then. The National Bike Challenge is a contest set up by the League of American Bicyclists to get people, individually and as a community, excited about riding their bikes.

The specific challenge going on here in Pittsburgh is against dreaded Cleveland. It has been aptly titled “The Rust Belt Battle.”

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More than 19 million miles have been logged so far, by more than 45,000 riders. I am one of them, currently ranked 300th in the battle with over 1,200 points. You get more points for riding more days. Even if you only ride a little, you get points for the days as well as the miles. You can even go back and log miles you’ve already done as far back as May 1. The contest ends Sept. 30. You get one challenge point for every mile you ride. But you get 20 challenge points for every day you ride at least 1 mile. Get it? Ride lots.

Let me just say that Pittsburgh is currently ranked #4 in the nation but, more importantly, we are beating Cleveland. The benefits are huge. Riders have saved more than $250,000 in gas money and parking while burning more than 24 million calories.

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So, come on, Pittsburgh — log your miles. There’s still 29 days to go. Let’s keep the trophy in the ‘Burgh. And I’m pretty sure someone mentioned free beers. I’ll look into it.

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August 29, 2014
by James Knox


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Reviewing the DZR Jetlag Pigeons

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Have you ever tried to do two things at once? Say, pat your head and rub your belly, or drive and text? Both pursuits end up suffering.

At DZR Shoes out of San Francisco, they have made a name out of doing two things at once and excelling mightily.

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I got a hold of a pair of their Jetlag/Pigeon SPD shoe ($95 sizes 37-47), a product even they claim it is an anomaly, labeling it a “performance casual shoe.” The slip-on style is made for the “lazy cyclist,” they say. The construction is vegan and sports a cool seat-belt style Velcro closure, much like a pair of triathlon shoes. Easy on, easy off.

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The shoe looks good. It looks like a pair of shoes I would buy even if it didn’t have a built-in SPD clip for my pedals. But they do, and that’s the secret. For those of you who have put off buying SPD-equipped shoes for your commute because riding in to work with flat pedals is much easier, you need to try these. A shoe clipped into a pedal gives you twice the power. It’s addictive. And with these shoes, you don’t need to tote your “good” work shoes in a bag to get that extra power.

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Most shoes made to be sneakers with an SPD clip look like your grandmother’s orthopedic support shoes. They ride fine but walking in them is like wearing snowshoes. The DZR Pigeons were equipped with what they are calling a “VFS system,” or a Variable Flex Shank, for the correct stiffness levels for riding and walking. It’s supposed to be stiffer and thicker where the cleat is installed in the forefoot. This makes them more flexible in the middle through the back to flex while walking.

I put these claims to an extreme test during my week of biking to all my assignments. On paper, this would be my ideal shoe to wear if I did this every week. No one knew it was a cycling shoe until I showed off the bottom. They were even presentable enough to wear them for my ride to church on Sunday. I didn’t realize it wasn’t a cycling-only shoe while I was hammering away at the pedals. The stiff synthetic leather of the toe area was open for toe movement but stiff when pedaling on the upstroke. It was the best of both worlds.

I wore them one day to walk all over downtown for my assignments as well just to test the walking component. They were very easy to walk in — comfortable, even. I might recommend a post-market shoe insert because the footbed pad of the shoe is a little less than squishy for long strolls. The weight is probably my only beef (if I had to find one), but while lugging 30 extra pounds on my bike I didn’t really notice the extra ounces. And it was lighter than having to lug an extra pair of shoes to walk in.

Like jumbo shrimp, Army intelligence and lazy cyclists, the DZR Jetlag/Pigeon is a beautiful contradiction of casual performance that delivers both very well.

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