Saturday, March 31, 2018

Bike California, Day 4: Gualala to Healdsburg

Office/breakfast room at the Surf Inn. Grando is packed and ready to roll.

Perfect breakfast view
The fourth day of my tour: From my cue sheet I knew that again there would be tough climbing ahead, as well as the first unpaved section of my tour. This would also be the last day on the coast, and so I made sure to make good use of my ocean-view hotel before getting on the road. The Surf Inn served breakfast, freshly prepared by the owners. I had a nice bowl of oatmeal and fresh fruit. Once again I was the only person sitting outside, taking in the view of the Gualala River estuary and the ocean in the morning sun.

Photos can never capture the steepness of a road...
Rolling, winding road in the soft morning light
Once on the road, the route started with a leg breaker right away: Getting out of Gualala on Pacific Woods Road was straight up. According to Strava, the climb averages 8%, with ramp as steep as 20%. Fortunately the climb was not too long and eventually gave way to a beautifully rolling road. Soon it was time to get off the main route and turn inland. Fish Rock Road started with a screaming descent on rough pavement. I was quite concerned about my rims overheating and decided to stop twice on the way down, just to be safe.

Once at the bottom, the pavement came to an end and the "rough road" climb began. As promised on the cue sheet, Fish Rock Road was a formidable challenge. The steep uphill on gravel pushed both my tires' traction and my muscles' strength to (and occasionally beyond) their limit. Adding to the challenge, the road also had a very pronounced crown. At my low speed and the heavy load all in the front, it was difficult to stay on a straight line and not get pulled toward the edges of the road. I generally don't like walking my bike—not so much a matter of pride but more so because I find walking a bike uncomfortable. So it is telling that several times I had to push up a particularly steep section, or at least stop for a while and let my heart slow down.

Fish Rock Road also was also the most remote-feeling section of my tour. Cars were few and far between, as were other signs of civilization. Once up on the ridge, great vistas popped up between the trees. In the far distance, snow-capped mountains appeared (sadly, my camera's autofocus failed to capture them).

..and gravel sections taking turns
The first part of the way down was not exactly easy either. Sizable rocks were strewn across the gravel road and I took it very slowly to avoid pinch flats. Even then, the bumps were enough to dislodge my third water bottle somewhere along the way. That was not good, as I had consumed much of my two other bottles already, and resupply was nowhere in sight. But there wasn't much to be done about it, and so I pushed on. The road condition improved as I went along, alternating between pavement and gravel sections. After riding through a Redwood nature reserve I eventually reached a main highway.

Here I had to make a decision: Turn left and continue north on the Orr Springs route, or turn right and start making my way back toward San Francisco. Overall my progress had been on the slower side, and for the northern alternative I also didn't have a good plan for where to stay for the night. There were some campgrounds on the map, but I had doubts whether they would be open. Going further north would likely also lead me toward colder temperatures. All in all, going south, toward wine country, sounded like the better option, and that's what I did. Healdsburg was a little under forty miles from here. Still a good ways, but I figured at least it would be relatively flat and a net downhill.

Riding on Highway 128 appeared sketchy at first. While making up my dehydrated mind which way to go, I saw two logging trucks blowing by on the windy, often shoulderless road. The fact that there were signs about it being a "safety corridor" did not further my confidence either. In the end it wasn't too bad. Car and truck traffic were relatively light, and there were enough spots to pull over for a few seconds when I noticed a truck approaching. And it was nice to be back on relatively flat pavement.

I was delighted to see a sign for the "Yorkville Market" after only five miles. In typical California fashion, even a tiny village of 317 people had a market serving gourmet foods and a halfway decent espresso. I took my time to consume espresso, Gatorade, Pepsi, and a bunch of water, which definitely restored some of my physical and mental condition.

...will have a village of 317 have a fancy general store.

Caffeine, sugar, electrolytes

The remainder of the way to Healdsburg was nicer than expected. After some more up and down on winding route 128, I reached the Russian River Valley in Cloverdale, and from there on, it was all flat. With Highway 101 channeling all the through traffic, the parallel route that I was one was mostly devoid of cars and quite scenic. Vineyards all around, trees lining the road, mountains in the distance.

Mount St. Helena behind the Russian River Valley's vineyards

Several years ago the SO and I had been in Healdsburg for a friend's wedding. I had some fond memories of that trip: We rode a tandem together for the first time, and we had good beers at Bear Republic Brewing. In the evening I had the opportunity to relive some of those experiences: The bike shop where we had rented the tandem was right on the way between my motel and the brew pub, where I was headed to for dinner. Unfortunately the food menu at Bear Republic isn't vegan friendly. Between that and probably still being severely dehydrated and generally out of it, instead of eating I consumed several beers in not much time. This didn't help with my indecision, but eventually I managed to leave the pub and pick up food from a Thai restaurant. I didn't hold back with my ordering, but nonetheless on the way home I suddenly started worrying whether I had really acquired enough food—and I stopped at a McDonald's to supplement my dinner with fries. Yeah, I know...

I ended the day exhausted, happy, with a full stomach, and a resolution to take it real easy tomorrow.

Freshly paved path in Healdsburg

In promptu celebration in Healdburg's town square

Bear Republic Brewing

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Dispatch from Germany

I grew up in small-town Germany. Welzheim, my home town, is a city of 10,000 people. It's on the edges of the Stuttgart metro region (population 2.7 million), about 30 miles from Stuttgart itself. My parents still live in Welzheim, and I visited them for a week this March. And, of course, I rode my bike.

Lovely small roads make for great biking
So as Welzheim is in Europe, there obviously is a lot of bike infrastructure, right? And nobody drives a car. Well, note quite. Germany with good reason is known as a nation of cars (Mercedes Benz and Porsche have their headquarters in Stuttgart). And in a small, rural town like Welzheim, there's actually not much obvious bike infrastructure to speak of. There are zero protected bike lanes, bike parking is pretty mediocre, and even on-street bike lanes don't exist, with the exception of an advisory bike lane on two streets. And yet, the biking experience is much better than you'd expect.

Traffic calming is one big reason for this. On most residential streets, the speed limit is 30 kph (19 mph). More importantly, the streets are built so that people by and large actually drive at that speed. The streets by default are much narrower than a typical US residential street. So when a car is parked on the street, two cars generally can't pass each other, keeping speeds down. Further, intersections are usually unsigned, meaning that the person coming from the right has the right of way. Effectively that means that at each intersection you have to be prepared to stop. Actual stop signs, on the other hand, are so rare that my navigation app actually gave me a voice notification the few times that I did encounter one.

Mail carrier on electric-assist cargo trike
Traffic signals are also much rarer than in the US. The whole town of Welzheim has not one signal. Roundabouts, on the other hand, are plentiful. Starting in the 1980s, new intersections on busier streets often were built as roundabouts, or old ones were retrofitted. On the 8-mile drive from the nearest train station to my parents' house, you will encounter no fewer than 10 roundabouts. Now in the US, among bike advocates and the general population, roundabouts have a bad rap. Much could be said here, but it's important to note that German roundabouts are built smaller than US ones, and multi-lane roundabouts like the one we have on Mineral Point Road in Madison are very, very rare. More narrow lanes means people driving have to slow down more and aren't tempted to pass people on bikes on the roundabout approaches or in the roundabout.

Some residential streets are designates as "traffic-calmed area," a concept similar to the Dutch woonerf. Cars must drive at walking speed, and people walking and biking are entitled to the whole street. Again, those streets are usually built in a way that makes it clear that people must drive slowly.

What about commercial streets? Welzheim's main street looks like this:

The speed limit is 20 kph (12 mph), and as a pedestrian you can easily cross the street wherever you like. Through strategic placement of planters or on-street parking spots, there will be locations where two cars can't pass each other, keeping speeds down.

Going one step further, some cities have pedestrian malls in their city centers. This is Schorndorf:

Biking is sometimes restricted in these areas, either banning bikes at specific times or asking people to bike at walking speed. Deliveries by car or truck are permitted only during a short time window each day.

Bike parking is not that great by Madison standards. If there are bike racks at all, they often default to what Germans call the Felgenbieger (rim bender) style of rack. This is probably one reason that kickstands are very common on bikes, allowing people to just park their bike wherever when they go for a quick trip to a shop.

E-assist bike on a rim bender rack
Note the wheel lock on the bike on the right. Good enough for a quick stop.

At train stations and in larger cities, bike parking facilities tend to be better. For instance, at the Bad Cannstatt train station, there is a "bike station" where you can valet your bike (and also have it repaired while its parked there). With the Judge Doyle Square bike center, Madison is poised to get similar facilities. We'll have to see how well they work without a transit location.

The bike station is run by a charitable enterprise, training and employing people with disabilities or other challenges

Once you get out of town, biking can be really awesome. One feature of the region is a dense network of farm or forestry service roads and tracks. For historical reasons, parcel sizes in this part of Germany are very small. This is an aerial image of Welzheim and its surroundings (Image: Google Maps).

All those little strips of fields that you can see are owned by different farmers (and the same is true for forest parcels). And of course that means that each farmer has to be able to get to his or her field. The service roads to get them are public right-of-way, but motor vehicle access is limited to farm traffic. 
Farm road

Forest service roads are usually unpaved
Navigation on these roads and tracks used to be a challenge. There is no orderly grid system, and it could often be hard to tell where any given road would take you. Fortunately, over the past decade or so, communities have made much progress on signing bike routes that string together little pieces of road to connect villages and cities.
The green signs point show bike bike route destinations and distances; the small square signs underneath them are for touristic bike routes; the yellow sign is for hiking.

I want to be clear that there are some problems with these routes: Welzheim is in a rather hilly area, and the easiest routes up those hills are often taken up by roads. So if you follow a bike route, you should always be prepared for steep climbs. The routes also do not get cleared of snow in the winter. And finally, sometimes the routes are geared more toward recreational biking instead of providing the most direct route. But overall, they provide an amazing low-stress network for people biking, for recreation and transportation alike.

Some snow left on this forest road

Are there any takeaways for bike advocacy in Madison? Obviously some of the things I have described we can't recreate here. The issue of traffic calming may offer some lessons, though. Many advocacy efforts here in the US focus on creating protected bike lanes as a way to enable people of all ages and abilities to bike. And there are good reasons for that. But at the same time we shouldn't lose track of the fact that traffic calming can also create spaces that are great for biking and walking (and have other benefits such as reduced noise). This applies not only to residential streets, but also to commercial corridors. This does require being serious about it, though. Merely slapping a 20 mph speed limit sign on an otherwise unchanged street is not going to be enough. And neither is the occasional speed bump or sporadic enforcement. Diverters that prevent cut-through traffic, reducing the width of a street, creating bump-outs at intersections--these are some measures that may transform a street into one that many people will feel comfortable biking on.

A second takeaway is that good signage can add a lot of value at little cost (financial and political. In a way, the farm roads in Welzheim are similar to, say, the network of multi-use paths in Fitchburg.

Fitchburg path network (Map: OpenStreetMap contributors)

You can get to many destinations on those paths. But unless you're really familiar with the area, navigation is a challenge. Similarly, if you're riding on the Southwest Path or Cap City Trail, knowing where to turn off to get to a destination on Monroe or Willy Street is not obvious. Good signage would help with this. Dane County actually developed a "Bicycle Wayfinding Manual" (warning: big pdf) to address this issue, but implementation has been slow so far.