Friday, December 25, 2009

Polo Manual

I think this film nails the beauty of bike polo cultures and polo people.  I had the great pleasure of spending time in London playing polo with many of these fine folks.  Cheers to them! 


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Critical Mass, Melbourne

One of the more interesting parts of my trip has been looking for the ties that bind bicycle cultures.  The differences between bike cultures are often quite clear: the Dutch and Danish often use single speed bikes with 28" wheels, while Australians tend to prefer the more sporty road and mountain bikes.   In Denmark, people follow the traffic rules.  In the Netherlands, they tend to be a bit more lawless.  Australia has bike lanes, Europe has separated bike paths. 

But in all of these places you will find a truly global phenomenon, a piece of cycling culture whose birth is attributed to San Francisco; it's a slice of bicycle life that is almost always sure to raise people's blood pressure...Whether they're arguing its merits or liabilities, Critical Mass is known and practiced in countries around the world.  
In my experience, cyclists tend to love the mass or they hate it.  A generalization?  Sure.  But it's worth taking an informal poll amongst both your cycling and non-cycling friends.  My guess is you probably won't find many people riding the fence.  

What happened in New York in 2004 is helpful in explaining why cyclists are so divided on the Mass.  In August of 2004, New York bicyclists took to the streets on the last Friday of that month--as they had for six years before--but this time the reaction from police was different.  The Republican National Convention was being held in New York over that weekend, and the police were instructed to maintain higher than normal levels of security.  What followed was nothing short of a small riot.

I found a few videos documenting the events of 24 August, 2004.  This first video is a bit slow, but if you scroll to 5 minutes you can see immediately why this particular Mass became critical.    

This second video is a bit intense, but it captures a poignant few minutes of what would prove to be years of drama. 

Finally, a movie was made about the August 2004 mass and the ensuing court battles:

You can watch the whole movie on You Tube.  It lasts about 37 minutes, but you've got to take it 10 minutes at a time.  

Jeff Mapes spends a considerable amount of time talking about New York and it's significance in his book, Pedaling Revolution.  I sent the book back home months ago, so I'll leave it to you, Gentle Reader, to read his interviews with participants and police.  He presents a very balanced perspective on what happened, why it happened, and what it means for riders across the United States.  

My own experiences with the Mass in Memphis included more  police than I cared to meet.  In the summer of 2002, we staged what I think was Memphis' first critical mass ride.  We had roughly 30 riders on the road--one actually had a bike dressed as a dinosaur!--but before we'd been riding half an hour the police had descended upon us.  I, and about a half dozen others, were rounded up and put into squad cars while the officers scanned their law books frantically looking for a charge.  In the end, no charges were filed and we were released on our own recognizance.  That was the last Critical Mass I helped to organize.  

I rode in a couple of mass rides in Memphis in 2008, but they were neither critical nor massive.  The rides topped out at 8 riders.  

So when talk of the Melbourne mass began swirling around in Mid-November, I was intrigued.  I wondered how the mass here might be different than the mass back home.  

In a sort of freak coincidence, I took an unusual route home from downtown (where I had just had a MRI on my hip, no less!) and ran smack into a crew of Critical Mass promoters.  I went along with them as they hung up fliers and scratched advertisements onto the pavement with sidewalk chalk.   


Soon the Mass itself was upon us.  I rolled up to the library to find hundreds and hundreds of people gathered in front of the Melbourne library on a fine spring afternoon.  They were gathering for what would be one of the biggest bicycle rides I would ever be a part of.

We rode through most of the main streets in Melbourne's Central Business District, corking intersections, raising a raucous and thoroughly enjoying ourselves.  


Cyclists were spread out in a long line as far as I could see--both to the front and the back.    

When we got to Flinders St., a main thoroughfare through the heart of downtown, the riders all held their bikes high above their heads and cheered.  It was a glorious moment.  Motorized traffic waited while cyclists had their moment in the sun.  Literally. 

Now, typically the mass doesn't stop for lights.  Bicyclists plug the intersections with their bikes and bodies, blocking all on-coming traffic with nothing but sheer trust and, well, mass.  This mass, however, did stop at a number of lights.  I later found out that a gentleman named Morgan--from San Francisco no less!--took an impromptu leadership role on the ride.  When another rider later asked Morgan why he stopped at the lights, he said "I don't want to piss off motorists.  If we're traffic, we should stop at traffic lights and obey the traffic laws."  Fair enough.  I tend to agree with Morgan.  But is the mass still critical if you're obeying all the laws?  

I soon learned that this mass was no regular monthly meet-up...this was the 14th birthday of the Melbourne mass!  Heaps of riders decorated their bikes with birthday fanfare, some wearing birthday hats on top of their helmets.   

As the sun set, the ride's numbers began to taper off.  We also gained a police escort...which typically does not happen on Critical Mass rides.  My guess is that our complete shutdown of a main intersection on Flinders St. prompted more than one phone call to Johnny law. 

As we took the turn of the mass, back south with the City looming on the horizon, I happened upon a tall bike built for six.  Yup, s-i-x.  The mass is often dubbed "a party on wheels," and I suppose its hard to imagine anything more like a party on wheels than a bike built for six.  It had fun just watching them ride it.  

So what's the verdict?  Is the mass good or bad?  For this blogger, it depends on the city.  Relations between the police and bicyclists ought to be amicable, certainly, and riders should be aware that critical mass is about fun--not advocacy.  The argument has been made that the mass is actually detrimental to the creation of bicycle infrastructure.  It often antagonizes policy makers and the public rather than winning the hearts and minds.  I found this out when a rider forced me into a parked car, where my rubber grip just barely grazed a driver's side door.  "You mut...." was all I heard before we had moved on, but I'm almost certain he was going to use adult language. 
Frankly, I'm not sure everyone appreciates the general feeling of liberation and (sometimes) lawlessness exuded by Critical Massers.   In fact, I think some resent the idea that anyone in society can be allowed to disrupt what appears to be the orderly nature of civic life.  Critical Mass, for Suzie Housecoat, is one step away from total chaos, a world where dogs and cats are sleeping together....

But for others, it's an amazing experience on two wheels, a spontaneous instance of community perhaps un-matched by almost anything else in Modern life.  

What is Critical Mass for you?   

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Bike Nerd

So deep down, I'm really a bike nerd.  

Currently, I'm working with an organization--Bicycle Victoria--that talks about "normalizing" bicycling; BV aspires to make bicycling into a mainstream activity, something we all do because it's just what we do.  When I was in Copenhagen, this mainstream-ization of cycling was apparent everywhere.  People bicycled to work and they rode for fun, never thinking that what they were doing was particularly important, or even particularly unique--at least within their own cultural context.  Creating more Copenhagens, that is increasing the ability of more people to cycle more often, is a wonderful goal.  It is part and parcel of my own personal mission.   I, and others, believe that making the bicycle into something as ordinary as a vacuum cleaner would do a lot of good for humanity.  

But it also tends to make the bike kind of boring.     

When I was in Copenhagen, I was boasting to a friend and fellow blogger about a recently acquired steel road racing frame.  I was glowing as I traced the elegant lugs with my pointer finger, giddy at the prospect of that supple steel frame gliding effortlessly beneath me.  My friend smirked and pointed out that I was a "bicycle fetishist."  I suddenly felt ashamed of my love for these simple machines, bashful about the excitement that buds in my heart when I see that little white dove on the Columbus tubing sticker.  

But the shame was momentary, gone as quickly as it had arrived.  I just love bicycles--all bicycles--and I can't help it.  I love rolling junkers that defy gravity as they're pushed up hill by dedicated riders; I love frankenbikes, cruiser bikes, folding bikes, tandem bikes and polo bikes.  And I love being able to travel across the world and observe the kaleidoscope of cultures that emerge from bicycle use.  

Enter Bicycle Polo.

A warning: proceed through this post with caution, as excessive exposure to the intricacies of mallet making and bicycle construction have been known to produce dizziness and nausea in the completely disinterested.  

I built the two mallets pictured above here in Melbourne.  Our friend Damon has accumulated a number of ski poles over the past year by scouring op-shops (thrift stores) and Savers markets (also thrift stores) in search of abandoned but usable aluminum shafts.   The mallet on the left is the first mallet I built, though it's on it's second head.  

Both mallet-heads have been attached to the shaft with a single screw threaded directly into the ski-pole.  The bolt doesn't come through at all on the opposite side of the mallet, which means the bolt provides minimal interference while handling the ball.   
This blue striped-piping has an inner diameter of 55mm and an outer diameter of 60mm.  It works well for balljointing, if that's your thing, and the bigger the piping the easier it is to actually strike the ball.   

The first head had the exact same tubing, only I had drilled the holes a bit differently.  
You can see that none of the holes are very close to the "business-end" of the mallet (the tip of the mallet used for taking shots and scoring).  I found that when I drilled the 3/4" holes too close to the edge, the mallet-head broke.  Literally, the round end of the mallet used for taking shots just fell apart while playing.      

This incarnation of the mallet also included a cap.  This cap, salvaged from one of Damon's old mallets, has been made from a cutting board.  It's held in place with four small screws--like 30 mm in length--driven on the top, bottom and sides.  I've found that when taking a shot using the 55mm diameter tubing without a cap, the ball tends to raise off the ground a bit.  While this can be an advantage in some situations, it's mostly annoying.  It makes otherwise accurate shots un-predictable.    

This second mallet was constructed at Tuesday night's Mallet Making Workshop.  I'm kicking myself for not bringing my camera along to the workshop, but I saw Damon snap a few photos--so here's hoping he'll post them soon.  

The inner diameter of this tubing is 53mm with an outer diameter of 57mm.  Being slightly smaller than the blue-striped tubing, it's slightly lighter.  This mallet is also capped on one end, but this time the cap is made of some pretty hard but lightweight plastic salvaged from a warehouse rubbish bin.   The plastic was much thicker than the cutting board, instead of four short screws I put in two slightly wider, longer screws.  I found the smaller screws were coming loose after intense play.  Here's hoping the longer screws will stay tighter for longer. 

The left side remains uncapped and, while smaller, it's still capable of ball jointing.  

On the whole, this mallet is lighter than the first.  The biggest difference between this mallet and the first is a lack of handlebar tape underneath the hockey tape used for a grip.  Leaving the HB tape off of this mallet made it heaps lighter--which means it's much easier to swing.    

While the doctor has asked me to hold off on playing any bike polo for awhile, I figured it couldn't hurt to have a bike that was capable of playing polo *if* and *when* the time comes to hit the court again.  The bike pictured above is exactly that bike. 
The bike is set-up like a single speed with a slight modification.  

I took a rear wheel originally used with with a Shimano Uni-glide 7-speed cassette and spaced it out so that it was possible to have two different gears, 21 and 24 tooth sprockets. 

Here, the bike is pictured in the smaller of the two sprockets, meaning the chain would need more tension in this setting than in the larger sprocket.  The wheel is pulled almost all the way back in the dropouts to achieve proper tension, but that leaves plenty of space to slide the wheel forward when utilizing the larger sprocket.  

Thus, we have the commuting gear and the polo gear.  I actually stole this idea from another Melbourne polo freak called Circus Alex.  I thought it was a wonderful idea, something I hadn't yet seen, and I wanted to give it a try.  Turns out it works like a charm.   

The cockpit view.  The handlebars have rise for days, but that's quite nice for polo.  This set-up allows me to stay upright enough to see the court, get a good angle on the ball for shots, and still steal quick glances at the ball as it's pushed down the court.  

The bike is on loan from my friend Mark at Born Again Cycles.  I've been doing a bit of volunteer work with him, and he's been gracious enough to loan me this superb old racer for the duration of my time in Melbourne.  Have a look at his blog here.  His logo looks eerily like the Revolutions logo...but we had it first!  Our lawyers are currently in dialogue.   

Sunday, December 6, 2009

History, Injuries, and Social Diffusion

Utah Philips, a social observer and American Radical, once remarked that history is like a river in which we are all waist deep.  The idea of time (and it's inevitable by-product of history) as a river, the notion that time is a moving and active force that both shapes us and our surroundings, has never been more apparent to me than today.  3 weeks have passed without a blog post!  Yeesh!  Time has simply slipped away from me these past few weeks, or slipped over me as the case may be.  As so many grains of sand through the hour glass that is this year, heaps of new people, new places and new experiences have passed over and beside me.  So many places and smells and people now fading in the rear view mirror attached to my handlebars.      

First, a re-cap.  My time in Melbourne began with three days spent at my friend Kristen Murray's house in Ivanhoe, an outer-city suburb some 30 or so minutes from the Melbourne Central Business District (CBD).  After recovering from a fierce case of trans-continental jet-lag, I set about the work of finding an apartment.  I scoured local bookshop windows, perused the Smith St. Food co-op housing board, and posted requests on every local cycling forum I could find.  I quickly found a posting for a sharehouse in another outer-city suburb called Preston, so after a quick call I arranged a meeting for that night.  I bicycled down High St., a major north south thoroughfare that passes directly through the increasingly hip suburb of Northcote on my borrowed Kona mountain bike thinking, "wow.  This place must be in a pretty good neighborhood."  After 20 more minutes of riding and a substantial change of scenery, I realized I may have judged too soon.

Arriving at the house I met Russel and William, my two soon-to-be housemates.  Within minutes, my landlord Ben arrived.  A mid-twenties man with a slightly awkward countenance, Ben ended all his words with a slightly higher note than the words began.  He offered me a vodka drink with ice and a freshly squeezed lemon.  I accepted, and Russel and I and Ben and William listened to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" while we waited for a couple of Egyptians to arrive.  

I didn't take pictures of the place in Preston largely because it was unremarkable.  I didn't stay there long.  I took the room at the far north end of the house, clearly a later addition to the house that ended up really hot during the day and really cold at night.  Our refrigerator went out within the first week I was there, and we never could seem to make the ice-box not smell like sausages.  Still and all, It wasn't a terrible experience--Russel turned out to be an amazing man with a sordid past that included a bank heist that he got away with.  He later turned himself in.   I also found the plate glass window pictured above just a block or so from my front door.   Love me some Dr. King. 

But when a friend of a friend told me that a share house in Fitzroy North was up for sublet during the time of my stay, I jumped at the chance to move to an inner-city suburb.  My landlord Ben, who was generous with his vodka, gladly paid me back my last two weeks of rent.  I met him at the bakery he manages on Smith St. and he gave me two dozen pear, apple and pineapple pastries along with two fresh loaves of bread.  That on top of the two weeks rent.  He was headed to Mexico and San Francisco the next week and believed in good karma.  I told him I believe in that sort of thing, too.        

A thread of difficulty was woven throughout all of these experiences.  During my first five days in Melbourne, I sustained an injury to my hip.  I was playing polo (surprise!) when I had to put my foot down to keep from crashing into someone who cut me off on the court.  The impact created a tear in the laberum cartilage, that is the cartilage between the hip socket and the femur bone--but I didn't know that for some time.  I was riding roughly 40 kilometers (25 miles) a day into and out of the city whilst still playing polo.  Soon, all this activity conspired to prevent me from walking without pain.  After a week of staying off the bike, I scheduled an appointment with a Physical Therapist, who recommended I see a doctor, who then sent me to a neurologist (where I got an MRI), which finally led to seeing an orthopedic surgeon.  Weeks of doctor's appointments later, the verdict was I could continue on the fellowship without serious injury to myself so long as I hold off on playing the bicycle polo for a couple months.  As I reported all this to a friend some days later, she said "you don't sound so happy about that!"  To which I could only reply, "It's good news, I reckon.  I just really love to play bike polo."   

The injury didn't slow me down too much...It's just there was more and more to do.  I continued to volunteer at the bike shed, but not as much.  I wanted to be there two to three times a week, because as most of you know I love old bikes.  What's more, I love teaching other people how to get old bikes working again.  And this is precisely what the bike shed is all about: teaching others to make broken bikes whole. 
I did make it down to the shed for a sort of commemoration some weeks back.  Earlier this year, the shed lost one of its most avid volunteers, a man named Thomas Orange.  You can read a bit more about Thomas and his contributions here.  The volunteers at the shed created a sort of collage to commemorate both the work of the shed and the central role Thomas assumed in that work.  All of Thomas' family came out for the un-veiling while food and drink and stories were shared for a couple of hours. 

One reason I was unable to go to the shed, and a major contribution to my recent busy-ness was an "internship" I started at Bicycle Victoria.  Internship implies work, though, and my role at BV was almost the opposite of work.  "Voyeur," I think, is a much more appropriate term to describe my role at Bike Vic.  I was assigned to Garry Brennan, an amazing man who works as the Public Affairs officer at Bike Vic.  He also works with the facilities team, a team focused on bicycle policy, bicycle advocacy and the development of bicycle infrastructure.

Mostly, I've observed the ways in which Bike Vic goes about it's work of advocating for increased bicycle infrastructure, the kinds of bike infrastructure it advocates for, and the relationships required to make advocacy effective.  This last point is pretty important--relationships.  Bicycle Victoria has a membership of over 45,000.  I'll type that again--45,000.  That makes them the third largest community based bicycle advocacy group in the world.  That also means they can claim a pretty vast constituency.  But perhaps most importantly, this membership base (and the subsequent volunteer base that emerges) means BV is able to afford to hire staff who are fairly adept at planning bicycle facilities and their implementation.  Bike Vic, then, can boast broad representation and expertise, which leads to the exertion of influence.  It is, of course, arguable (at least here in Melbourne) how expert or representative Bicycle Victoria truly is.  But one thing is in-arguable: they exert an incredible amount of influence over the development of bicycle infrastructure in Victoria.  Stay tuned for more on this idea of representation and power....

One of the better programs overseen and engineered by Bicycle Victoria is the "Ride 2 School" (R2S) program.  R2S is funded by the State of Victoria, but staffed by Bicycle Victoria--a great example of why it pays to have good relations with political authorities.  I had the great pleasure of accompanying BV staffer Robin on a trip to two local schools, one of which had a R2S program and the other of which was interested in starting a R2S program. 
Robin led an assembly at school number one, pictured above, which culminated in the awarding of two bikes to two kids recognized for their commitment to commuting to school each day (awarded by the deputy premiere [or governor] no less!).  The kids were also awarded the bike because they are leaders in their school, both academically and socially.  This kind of positive reinforcement--the affirmation of positive behavior amongst young leaders--is meant to encourage/inspire other students to emulate their peers.  This idea is called "social diffusion," and it is a big piece of the behavior change model utilized by Bicycle Victoria in their efforts to get more people cycling more often.  For more on the behavior change model that Bicycle Victoria uses in their work, see the ideas of Dr. Doug McKenzie Mohr and his Community Based Social Marketing.

The second school--Good Samaritan Catholic--had an enthusiastic principal.  Mr. Bob, as he was known amongst his students, had a passion for cycling and a history with Bicycle Victoria.  Mr. Bob had been on the Great Victorian Bicycle Ride (which I just arrived home from yesterday), he was a Bicycle Victoria member, and he believes in the bicycle's power to positively impact young lives.  He had been at Good Samaritan since its doors were opened some 15 years ago, and he had been eager to begin a concerted effort at increasing the number of students riding to school for years.  So why had he waited so long?

The school is located on the frontier between Melbourne and the encroaching outback/bush, so development and construction has meant that bulldozers and tractors and semi-trucks have been a constant companion in and around the Good Samaritan campus.  He believed these conditions might lead to disaster for commuting students.  Fair enough.

It was these kinds of surprising factors that continued to pop up as I listened to Mr. Bob and Robin talk about creating a Ride 2 School Program.  I took note of the myriad responsibilities and concerns involved in making a strong program happen, and was amazed to see how many factors required tending:  
  • Bicycle Education was required: teaching kids how to ride safely to school was imperative, and you need teachers who are known at the school as well as outside experts to facilitate these classes
  • Starting with the older students, while meaning less numbers, would lead to better long term social diffusion.  It would also make the program initially manageable
  • A great number of new students at Good Samaritan are Iraqi immigrants, and their parents feel a strong sense of protection over their young people (they've arrived from a warzone after all).  This was a potential barrier that Robin and Mr. Bob agreed might take some time to surmount 
  • Bike parking would be a problem once the program took off.  A bike shed for parking would be required before the program started 
  • Parents often require a forum to voice their concerns about a new Ride 2 School program--facilitating this forum and hearing the concerns is critical to long term success 
This is just a sampling of the many common concerns among R2S schools.  In spite of the obstacles, or perhaps because Bicycle Victoria is handling the obstacles effectively, Ride 2 School now includes 250 schools across Australia--most of which are in Victoria.  Amongst reporting schools, over a 50% active travel rate was recorded.  This means that over 50% of students enrolled in Ride 2 School programs are either walking or biking to school.  This is quite impressive, I think.  It's also worth nothing that the State of Victoria requires Bike Vic to work with low-income schools.  Even more impressive.  Have a closer look at the numbers here.

Beyond life at BV, I've been busy with the regular assortment of bicycle subculture activities.  I worked at a checkpoint in an alleycat two weeks ago that was held with a "Bogan" theme.  Bogan, from what I understand, is kind of like redneck in the US--just without the implications of violence.  A little more like "good ole boy," I guess.  Regardless, each checkpoint was themed to be Bogan, which means the local race car track was a must.  Riders were required to do a skid into the pit area before we checked their manifest and sent them on to the next spot.  We left a bit unsure as to whether the field had in fact all come through our checkpoint, so we left them a little note. 

Per usual, the gathering spot was Pony Bikes.  As the riders crowded in, a crew from Brunswick Bikes assembled "roller racing" gear for a night of Gold Sprints.  I left shortly before the Gold Sprints began so I could grab some dinner. 
Unfortunately, I didn't make it back to the shop before the rain started.  I decided I was a fan of the warm, dry chair in my room--especially over and against the cold, wet seat on my bicycle.  As it turns out, the folk gathered in the alley made the rain into a part of the fun.  They frolicked in puddles, rolled around in the flooded alley while attempting to keep their beers upright, and generally embraced the terrible weather with a spirit of good fortune.  Bicycle people are the best.

Indeed....Time as a river.  Like a swift moving stream flowing through the cobbled alley behind the fixed gear bike shop, time has rapidly passed over my fully immersed spirit.  Stay tuned...