First Day of Classes

So today, I rode the upper Grist Mill Trail through Patapsco State Park, took River Rd. to Ellicott City, then rode up Oella Ave. and into Catonsville via the No. 9 Trolley Trail.  No issues at all until I went to turn from Bloomsbury Ave. onto Asylum La. to cut through Spring Grove.  Asylum was blocked by a large fallen tree, and apparently they’re not in a big hurry to clear it out.  No way around it on either side, so I had to drag the bike through a bit of foliage, but it was passable.  There was a small section that looked more beaten-down than the rest, no doubt from other riders doing the same thing, so I did my part and helped tamp it down some more.

Other than the tree, there was not much to report.  There was a big fallen power line on Oella Ave. right near the Oella Mill complex.  I’m guessing some people there are still without power.  River Rd. was clear and dry, with no mud, and only one little area with a bit of runoff.  Lots of friendly riders, walkers and joggers out in the park.

Today is the first day of fall classes at UMBC.  Traditionally during this week, I’ve always come onto campus via Poplar Ave.  However, ever since they started the new zoned parking plan last year, the traffic on Hilltop Circle has increased quite a bit, particularly early in the semester.  Today I decided to try coming in via Walker Ave. instead, and it wasn’t too bad.  There was a bit more traffic on Wilkens Ave. than in the summer, but the traffic light at Wilkens and Valley Rd. does a good job of metering the traffic.  When I come in this way, I don’t have to ride on Hilltop at all.  I just cross it, then take the access road behind the library parking garage, and follow the trail over to the Engineering/Fine Arts building area.  It looks like Walker will be a viable way to come onto campus, so the only route I’ll need to avoid is Hilltop Rd., which I’ve been riding less and less anyway.

Outfitting for Winter

Labor Day is less than a week away, summer is mostly behind us, and thoughts are turning towards the coming fall and winter.  To avoid the rush, I’m getting my shopping done early for the cold-weather biking season.  After a bit too much excitement with icy roads last winter, I took the plunge a few weeks ago and bought a set of studded tires.  After careful consideration, I went with the “Marathon Winter” tire by Schwalbe.  These tires have been well reviewed, and seem to be best suited to the type of riding I’ll be doing:  mainly paved roads, with occasional icy patches.  I got the 26″ size and will put them on my mountain bike.  I plan on putting the tires on in early to mid November, and riding them all winter.  I’ll be sure to post my experiences.  If they work out well, it’d be nice to get a set for my single speed, which should be able to take 700cx32 tires with studs.  However, there wouldn’t be enough room for fenders.

For the past 3 winters, I’ve been using a NiteRider “Sol” headlight.  It’s not super bright, but good enough for commuting.  Unfortunately, the cable that plugs the light into the battery pack died recently.  I can make the light come on if I flex the cable just so, but as soon as I let go, the light goes out.  I’m a bit disappointed that the light didn’t last longer.  I’m now in the market for a new light.  Quality issues notwithstanding, I was thinking about going in a different direction for my next headlight anyhow.  The NiteRider, while functional, isn’t the best for commuting.  It has a proprietary battery pack that’s expensive to replace, and the o-ring handlebar mount is difficult to deal with when you want to move the light from one bike to another.  After 3 years of night commuting, I have a very clear list of things I want in a light:

  • It must use non-proprietary batteries, preferably NiMH rechargeable AA or AAA cells.
  • It should be as bright, or slightly brighter, than the Sol.
  • It should include a daytime flashing mode for visibility, something the Sol lacked (though most of NiteRider’s newer lights include this feature).
  • It should be easy to transfer between multiple bikes.

I researched lights, and quickly turned up the Planet Bike “Blaze”.  On paper, this looks like the headlight of my dreams.  Self contained, takes regular batteries, has a flash mode, has a quick-release mounting bracket, extra brackets available for other bikes, and best of all, ridiculously inexpensive.  I actually ordered 2 of them, a 2-watt and a 1-watt model, plus 2 extra mounting brackets, all for less than I paid for my NiteRider back in 2008.  I’m already a fan of Planet Bike, but I’ll be an even bigger fan if all this gear works out for me this winter.  Stay tuned.

That time of year

So, in the past week, central Maryland has weathered an earthquake and a hurricane.  Now we get to weather the first week of fall classes at UMBC, which is always exciting, and almost never in a good way.  We’ll see what this year has in store for us.

Took my first post-Irene bike ride to work today.  The goal was to scout out Patapsco State Park, to see if there were any downed trees or debris to block my passage.  Today I rode into the park on the Howard County side via River Rd., past the Avalon day use area, out to the swinging bridge, and back via the Grist Mill Trail.  Figuring there’d be lots of debris to negotiate, I took my mountain bike.  This part of the park turned out to be in great shape.  There was definitely evidence of recent trail maintenance, which must have taken place yesterday or Sunday.  There were no fallen trees blocking the road or trail, and no more debris than you’d expect after any average summer storm.  Tomorrow, I’ll ride the upper section of the Grist Mill Trail out to Ilchester Rd., and check out how River Rd. fared in the storm.

Howard County schools are back in session starting today (one day late, again thanks to Irene) which means that for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to avoid riding on Montgomery Rd. in the mornings.  I’ll start my rides by going down Lawyers Hill Rd., and then vary the routes from there.  If I’m feeling adventurous, maybe I’ll even attempt a few climbs up the notorious Ilchester Rd.

It seems like the biggest fallout from Hurricane Irene has been the power outages.  Apparently it’s going to take until the weekend to get power restored to everybody.  Irene’s track was very similar to Hurricane Floyd back in 1999, and I remember Floyd causing a lot of power outages.  It seems worse this time around.  It might just be because the area has gotten so much denser and built out in the 12 years since Floyd.  The more electrical infrastructure you build, the more you have to support, and the more vulnerable it is to storms like Floyd and Irene.


A few weeks ago, Westchester Ave., which runs between Ellicott City, MD, through the town of Oella, and ends in Catonsville, was re-paved.  As recently as a month or so ago, I remember riding my bike up it and being kind of surprised that they hadn’t added speed humps, as they seem to be ubiquitous pretty much everywhere else in the area.  Sure enough, not a week after, zillions of speed humps had magically appeared along Westchester Ave.

Speed humps are a band-aid fix for a larger systemic problem.  People speed on back roads because they’re built too wide.  Roads are built too wide because fire departments require it (Google it if you don’t believe me, or read the excellent book Suburban Nation, by Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck).  Paradoxically, this increases speeds along the roads, which makes them less safe.  Traffic engineers “fix” this problem by building speed humps, which annoy everyone.  It’s suburban planning at its finest.

Catonsville provides an interesting case study for this.  Catonsville has older sections and newer sections.  The older sections have relatively narrow, tree-lined streets with on-street parking.  These are the kind of streets where when two cars approach each other from opposite directions, one has to give way to allow the other room to get by.  Motorists drive slowly and carefully without the need for “traffic calming.”  It’s not uncommon to see kids playing in and around the street.  Contrast that with the newer sections of Catonsville, which have wider streets and fewer trees and other obstacles.  Everyone drives too fast, kids aren’t allowed anywhere near the road, and planners try to fix it with speed humps.  Guess which type of street is statistically safer?  And, as a corollary, guess which is more enjoyable to ride a bike on?

Grout Removal

Nothing much exciting to write about on the biking front lately.  I was off work last week, and didn’t do much biking, but this week I’m back at it again.  August has brought some slightly more pleasant weather so far, but still not much in the way of rain, other than the occasional torrential downpour.  In other words, business as usual for mid-summer in Maryland, more or less.

Been doing a little bit of work in our master bathroom lately.  We decided to re-grout the bath tub and shower area, because a lot of the old grout was either in bad shape or gone altogether.  Also, the shower door, likely a 1950s original, was shot (the rollers at the top were corroded to the point where they wouldn’t turn any more).  The first step to re-grouting is to remove the original grout.  According to everything I read, there’s no getting around this step, if you want the new grout to last.  Problem is, grout removal is a slow, boring, dusty job.  Over the course of the last few months, I’ve spent countless hours with my Dremel and my cartridge respirator, grinding away at the stuff, and I’m still only around 75% done (granted, this is a larger than average job, with 3 full walls and ceiling fully tiled – probably around 100 sq. ft. of tile).  The good news is, I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

This tile was initially challenging to work with.  Dremel sells a specialized grout removal bit and guide, but I couldn’t use their system because my tile was too close together.  I would end up grinding away the edges of the tile along with the grout.  I ended up using the Dremel with a right-angle adapter and a diamond wheel.  It was skinny enough to get into the gaps between the tile, and relatively easy to control, although there have been a few spots where I’ve nicked the tile glazing.  I’ve completely worn through one diamond wheel and am on my second now.  Looks like the entire job is going to cost me two diamond wheels.  Fortunately they’re not all that expensive — around $17.

Once we’ve re-grouted, we’ll replace the faucet handles and trim, the shower head, and the recessed light at the top of the shower, then install the new shower door, which we’ve had since last September.  I think the end result will look pretty nice, but this isn’t a job I would want to do again.  If we ever redo the other bathroom, I’m going to argue in favor of ripping out the (beautiful 1950s retro-pink) tile and re-tiling.