2006/08/13

Bicycling - The Bee's Knees

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In Germany, Opel started building bicycles in 1886.


I make no secret of my disdain for the automobile. Oh, it has its place, but in a much smaller role than it has now in my view and perhaps not even as personally owned transportation, but as another form of public transport or shared in a cooperative arrangement. I can think of no other mode of transporation that has resulted in more negative impacts on society and the planet - injury, death, consumption of precious resources, pollution, disfunctional cities, urban sprawl, and even war. I admit that in earlier years I too was seduced by the "freedom" promised by that machine. It was/is a part of growing up in the USA.

It was a false promise from the beginning that was carefully crafted by the auto manufacturers and the oil companies who, after WWII, bought up the local rail and bus systems and destroyed them, forcing people into their cars. They then lobbied the government under the fiction of the cold war to build an interstate highway system with taxpayer dollars. There are even interstate highways in Hawaii which of course connect to no other state! Can you belive it? All so that they could sell cars (and trucks) and gasoline. If you live near a US city, look at an ad for any car and compare what you see to your commute. Time for a reality check. Yet, people remain mesmorized.


In "Motor Mania" (Disney 1950) Goofy played the mild mannered Mr. Walker who turned into the evil Mr. Wheeler when he got into his car.

The average American works 1 1/2 days of each week just to own a car. If you factor in the number of hours the average person has to work in order to pay for a car (purchase payments or lost interest, depreciation, insurance, maintenance, taxes, etc., and the time spent at stop signs, lights, traffic congestion, waiting for maintenance and repairs, and so on, the average speed of car travel in the US works out to around 5 mph. Really. Do you drive to work, or work to drive? Yet, we have built our lives (and a lot of infrastructure) around this form of transportation and changing the situation will be a difficult, but necessary task. (Peak oil production, global warming).

OK, so you people still attached to your cars will brush this off. Please don't leave your comments whining about "but I love my car" or "it's so practical". We'll see what you think when gasoline costs double or triple what it does now or is rationed or unavailable altogether at times. No, you won't be driving an electric or hydrogen powered car either, but that's a whole different post. Enough ranting about the damned cars, Pandabonium, this is supposed to be about bicycles.

The bicycle was my first love (transportation wise) and I have returned to it in the last few years. I had an electric one on Maui which helped me up the steep hills and would cruise along at about 15 mph with little help from me when I got tired. Bicycles are one of the greatest technological inventions in history - transportation or otherwise - and the most energy efficient way to make any land trip. It is no coincidence that the men who invented the first fully functional, controllable aircraft were bicycle shop owners. You know who they were, Wright? They possessed the required knowledge of lightweight structure and energy efficient design along with practical mechanical engineering and manufacturing skills. The bicycle is the bee's knees of transportation and in a sense aircraft evolved from them. It may surprise you to learn that a new Boeing airliner with a 75% passenger load is more fuel efficient per passenger mile than a car with four people in it. Have you driven a Boeing lately?

Bikes were popular in Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and after WWII. In the 1960's cars became more widely available and salaries high enough to afford them. But bikes have made a comeback in the last fifteen years or so due in part to the economic recession.

Bicycling as a part of commuting is popular in many countries. In England one sees a lot of them on the street. In Denmark some 8% of commuters use bikes in whole or in combination with rail, and cars are banned from downtown areas. In Japan, it is estimated that there are over 3 million bicycles parked at train stations every day as part of a bicycle/train commute. In this neighborhood I see lots of teens going to school by bicycle as well as older folks using them to get around to their farming patches. I'm talking about people in their seventies. I see lots of those folks on the road into town as well, some 12 km away.

So what's with "the Bee's Knees"? Well, aside from it being an early 20th century phrase meaning "the best", one of the things that has bugged (tee hee) me since I arrived in Japan is seeing that the vast majority of people on bicycles around here have their seats improperly adjusted. Mostly, I see seats that are adjusted far too low. This results in additional effort being needed to ride and also contributes to knee injuries over time (not much time for those out of shape).

Most bikes sold in Japan are smaller to begin with, with 26 inch frames being the norm rather than than the 27 inch that fit most people (Japanese people are taller on average than they used to be, but the bikes haven't changed). I was riding 27 inch bikes in Jr. High. In my case, when I bought a bike here I had to buy a longer seat post to get the right height.

So, how do you know your bicycle seat is adjusted properly? Here are some simple tips. If I save just one person from injuring their knees I'll be very happy.

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K on her niece's 3 speed before K got her own bike last year.


Let's start with the tilt of the seat. It should be very slightly upward a the front. Too much and you'll have pressure points (ahem). Tilted too far far forward it will cause you to slide forward as you ride and put excessive pressure on your arms, hands and knees.

To adjust the height, get on the bike and hold yourself up with one hand on a wall or have someone stradle the front wheel and hold you steady. Then put your heels on the pedals and pedal backwards. If your hips rock from side to side then your seat is too high. With your heels on the pedals your legs should be fully extended in the down position. After that adjustment, with the balls of your feet on the pedals (as you would normally ride) you should have a slight bend at the knee at the bottom of the cycle. If you have pain in the front of your knees after riding, your seat is probably too low. If you have pain in the back of the knees, it is probably too high.

Your handle bars should be adjusted to be at the same height as the seat. If you experience pain - back, shoulder, or arm, then you may need to readjust the handle bars.

Another thing I've noticed in Japan is that baskets are typically provided on the front wheel or handle bars of the bike. If you don't use it for much that is OK, but if you carry a load of books or groceries (as I sometimes do), it can be trouble. A front basket will cause the front wheel to want to turn making the bike unstable, and can even cause it to fall over at a stop, or send you head over applecart if you use the front brake too suddenly.

I added a steel strap from the hardware store and moved my rack to the back wheel and bolted a light weight plastic basket (from a stationery store) onto it. It is much more stable and will not tip over even if I park the bike. I have put a small cooler of food and 5-liter water bottle in the basket, and carried a backpack of groceries, and had no trouble at all. When I first got the bike I tried that with the rack on the front and it was nearly disastrous.

Our matching 6-speed bikes - not fancy, but they do the job.

I hope that this helps someone get more enjoyment out their bike. K and I have matching bikes and enjoy riding them together on short trips. We took them to the Bon dance last year (a mile or two from the house) and saved a lot of hassle with traffic and parking. We also took them down to the lake to watch a fireworks and were able to cruise around and find the best spot while people tried to jocky their cars into available spaces. I use mine every day for errands or just an enjoyable ride through the fields or along the lake shore.

I know I don't need to sell my friend Lrong Lim on the idea, he often commutes on his bike. And for a fun website on all kinds of bicycles and biking visit VELORUTION - a website in the UK. And be sure to take a look at the "Japanese Bicycle History Research Club" (In English).

Whether you just get out for fun or use it for daily commuting, give bicycling a try. You'll see and hear things you miss when you travel by car and get some great no-impact exercise. But make sure your bike is adjusted properly for your body and of course, be safe out there and watch out for "Mr. Wheeler".

13 comments:

Las montaƱas said...

At least the climate there lets you do decent biking without sweating buckets and feeling grimy.

Pandabonium said...

Our weather today is almost identical to Singapore's, so it is a hot and humid day to be riding here too.

I know people who bicycle commute all year round - hot summer days and even through snow. They have a place to change at their workplace. I think I'd rather situate myself closer to work or to public transport than do that.

We have been spoiled by cheap energy and transitioning won't be easy for everyone. I admit I enjoy comfort and convenience as much as anyone. But I'd rather look at this time as a challenge and opportunity to create a healthier life and world.

FH2O said...

I love to cycle and as a kid I used to cycle all over town which sadly is something most kids today here would think is crazy.

I was recently fascinated by the folding A-bike invented by Sir Clive Sinclair http://www.a-bike.co.uk/store/home.php and how convenient it would be to bring it along wherever one goes.

Pandabonium said...

FH2O - That's an ingenious folding bike. Looks like it would require pretty smooth surfaces. I would be great for someone in a city though - no leaving the bike at the train station, just carry it with. Cool.

At one time I was considering getting two folding bikes (bigger ones) that would fit in the baggage compartment of my plane. I opted for a 2 man inflatable kayak instead!

The Moody Minstrel said...

I once heard Neil Peart say that peoples' attraction to their cars is almost sexual in nature.

One of the biggest problems with bike riding in Japan is theft. Stealing bikes, or having your bike stolen, is a normal, everyday part of life as far as kids are concerned. I've actually overheard students of mine at the school saying, "Someone stole your bike? No problem. Just go grab someone else's." I've already had two bikes ripped off even though both were pieces of junk, and both were locked. I also know at least one person who had three bikes stolen from his own carport within the space of a month. That's why I finally gave up on owning one.

Yes, a car can be a pain in the butt at times, but at least mine is BLUE!

Pandabonium said...

Bike thieves - the lowest of the low. I'd better take my ferocious guard dog with me when I ride.

BLUE? What a coincidence. I have blue Galoshes!

See Fei said...

Chup chup... very cheung hei entry... will come back to read later the remaining paragraphs LOL

PinkPanther said...

I had my tricycle (baby one) when I was 4. He….he….he….
I learnt how to cycling on a 24” bicycle when I was in Grade 7. The first time I rode for 2 hours long form a village to a town in Mainland China, My Dad led me. That was fun!
Now, seldom to do this in Macao, too dangerous, too much traffic here!

Pandabonium said...

see fei - sorry so long. sort of got on a rant about cars at the start... :^o

PinkPanther - my sisters taught me how to ride a two wheel bike - they put me on one and pushed me down a hill! Nice when communities make paths or lanes for bicycles. We will see more of that in the future.

Robin said...

hmm.. in communist China, people used only bicycle at one time.. and of course u are rite.

No pollution, no accident, no pain, no suffering.

but it is now impossible..

Pandabonium said...

According to my sources, the Chinese government is well aware that oil production is peaking and are now in a bind. They know they must stop increasing demand for oil, yet their internal political stability requires continued economic growth. Perhaps they are wishing they had not banned bike from downtown cities, just as more developed countries were doing the opposite.

Lrong said...

Well said, my friend... now if only we can have more folks commuting on the bike...

Pandabonium said...

Thanks Lrong. I think we will naturally see more bicycling (and use of public transport and van pooling) as the cost of oil keeps going up. It will happen faster if some of us lead the way and that will mean more attention to needed bike lanes, etc. That isn't just and issue of a special interest group wanting something as some will say, it is IMHO part of a needed public shift toward sensible lifestyles that will benefit everyone.