Alex Bikes

Ottawa bike politics.

Tag Archives: cycling

“Biking in Texas? Why?”

The title of this post is the most common response when I tell people we’re taking a two-week vacation in Texas. Anouk and I struggle to find vacation destinations that feature both good birding and biking. Texas promises to be a new experience. I’m going to bike solo from the north west to the south east for ten days, then meet up with Anouk for a few days of birding, then fly back from Houston.

The route

This is the intended route. Reality will be quite different.

This is the intended route. Reality will be quite different.

It starts in El Paso. Sing it with me:

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl.
Night-time would find me in Rosa’s cantina;
Music would play and Felina would whirl. 

At the end, the protagonist turns into a murderer and is shot, dying in the arms of his love (an illegal immigrant). I’m married to a lovely Dutch woman, so this won’t happen to me. (The Pyrenean tour’s theme was Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé’s Barcelona, which is a bit more of an upper and frankly a better ear worm.)

From there it continues along the border with Mexico, following the Rio Grande.  I’m expecting huge empty stretches of ranches and deserts, with small towns in between. I’ll camp, but I’m not afraid to cheat and take a hotel here or there.

The equipment

Here’s what I’ve packed:

  • camping gear: tent, mat, sleeping bag. No stove or pots.
  • the Surly LHT. I like my bike, but I know it can be replaced. I made that clear to it when the index shifting failed near hilly Renfrew. In the Rockies I met Ryan, who has an image of his Raleigh Sojourn tattooed on his arm. That’s not me.
  • the iPhone: partly because of the shitty selection of paper maps, I’m going to use Galileo’s offline maps. We’ll see how this goes.
  • the usual stuff; clothes, tools etc.

I’ve packed way too much. This always happens…

I’m sure there’s a balance between too heavy and forgetting something crucial, but I have yet to find it.

The worries

All bike tours come with problems. In BC it was being distracted by stunning scenery. Jim and I struggled with forcing poutine and great beer down on La Tour de la Nouvelle France. And the Loire Valley? Hard to find fresh croissants on Monday mornings. Progress was slow in Holland because of the koffie en gebak. These things happen, but you get through.

My early concerns for this trip are:

  • huge stretches with no facilities,. In BC there were a couple of days of 80km, here much of it is 100km+ without water. There may be some wild camping, which is new to me.
  • I have just 10 days to cover 1300km if I’m to meet Anouk on time in McAllen. I’m incredibly out of shape, I’ve covered just 500km in 2014. I haven’t been on my touring bike for 4 months. I am physically not prepared.
  • I’ve flown with my bike maybe a dozen times. I always worry the bike won’t arrive or will be severely damaged. This time I’m testing United Airlines.

Things like fast highways (80mph!), getting lost or running out of food don’t worry me much. I can fix flats, true a wheel or fix a chain if I need to.

More to come?

Maybe I’ll blog more about this, I’m terrible at that. I leave tomorrow.

Biking in and around St. Petersburg, Florida

My wife and I went to St. Petersburg in Florida for a week in late February to get out of the snow, do some bird watching, and visit my parents who spend a month there every year. What’s unusual to others is that we camped. Most people think of Florida as condos, beaches, drunk parties and crappy beach stores. But the state parks’ motto is “The Real Florida” and it fits.

The cheapest bike rental place I could find was Trailsport Bikes; $85 for a road bike for me and $60 for my wife’s hybrid. It was a bit out of the way, but they were really nice. I broke a spoke on my way back to the store, and they were okay with that.  I know it makes me a snob, but I really dislike Sora shifters. They’re clicky and stick easily. Renting something better (with 105s) would have been twice the price.

We stayed at Fort De Soto, a county park 5 miles from St. Petersburg with quiet campgrounds and a few beaches. It feels close to nature and far away from the typical Florida junk. I’d say there was about one bike for every two people in the campground.  It has dozens of miles of fantastic bike trails; perfectly paved and separated from the road.

An example of a pleasant trail in Fort De Soto.

An example of a pleasant trail in Fort De Soto.

The road leading to the park has a route that changes between on-road and off-road surfaces. They’re all quite pleasant. Most novice cyclists would feel comfortable here.

Within the city, the highlight of the area is the Pinellas Trail, which runs some 60 miles from Old Tampa Bay to the Gulf. It is wide, smooth and quite empty. Most of it is 5m wide, so there’s enough room for everyone. It has mile markers, fountains and benches. Houses and stores are normally built so the back faces urban rail lines, so there’s nothing like a cafe or ice cream place facing the trail.


The Pinellas Trail.

The Pinellas Trail.

The trail starts in downtown St. Petersburg and they had to build the trail on a road that might look like a wider Queen St. They chose to build a bi-directional lane on the south side. It works, there’s lots of signs at intersections.

The Pinellas Trail where it starts in downtown St. Petersburg.

The Pinellas Trail where it starts in downtown St. Petersburg.

Intersections are done differently than in Ottawa and quite well. Wherever the Pinellas Trail crosses a road, there’s distinct crossings that are very well marked. One thing they do is put the signal on a post, so you can ride up and hit the button without having to dismount and reach over.  There are always clearly marked intersections, but in some cases there are lights with push-buttons.


A typical crossing of a minor road.

Thank the driver!

Thank the driver!

Florida law also allows cyclists to ride on the sidewalk provided they yield to pedestrians. This is incredibly useful as a cyclist, as you can legally get off the  road to pass on the right, or get off to make room when there’s busy traffic. I can count on one hand the number of people I know who think sidewalk biking should be allowed.

The people I saw biking were noticeably different than what I’ve seen in any other North American city. The types of people were:

  • retired couples going for a leisure ride on beach cruisers
  • students, with headphones and riding rusty bikes
  • spandex-clad racers with $5000 carbon frame bikes, most of whom were actually pretty slow

I didn’t see anyone who was commuting to work or out buying groceries. Women biking by themselves was rare. I didn’t notice any families out with their children.

It looks like St. Petersburg and the neighbouring cities are trying to change. There’s a lot more bike facilities coming in, and they are generally very well built. Most of the routes would be very attractive to novices, we should be envious of how they’re building things. But a lot of the connectors are missing, and it’s difficult to go on a really long ride without dealing with busy roads.

In the 300km I biked, not once did I have an irritated driver or someone who passed me unsafely. (This is quite different than Troy, NY, where I got sworn at four times in the first mile.) Even the drivers of jacked-up pickups with truck-nuts and NRA stickers gave me a tip of the baseball cap.

As an amateur urban planner, I feel compelled to point out the connection between food prices and bad urban planning. The city has incredible sprawl and food prices are very high; the cheapest loaf of bread is around $4. Fast food, however, is very cheap. There is a large divide between the rich and poor. To eat healthily, you need the following:

  • a car, or patience with a mediocre transit system
  • money to buy the food
  • the will to pay more for good food than less for easy food

So what happens? The poor continue to be unhealthy in a society with no public healthcare system.

But as a tourist it’s easy to ignore that kind of depressing truth.