Where To Ride, Pt. 1

The San Francisco Bay Area is enormous and becoming more enormouser every day. The tentacles of growth are slithering in every direction and not just east to the Central Valley where land and housing are cheap(er). Housing development has meant some of our favorite riding areas have changed, usually for the worse. Morgan Hill used to be a farmtown; now it’s a suburb of San Jose, and Gilroy further south is quickly being suburbanized. People who work in San Jose even consider Hollister a reasonable commute. In the north, quiet Sonoma towns such as Sebastopol are no longer sleepy and are putting in higher density housing to meet demand. The SF-Sacramento corridor is turning into one long suburban tract where it all used to be farmland.

As the Bay Area puts more land under development there are fewer and fewer quiet places to ride road bikes. Many places that used to be rural are now surburbs or even bona fide cities with downtowns, witness Walnut Creek. When I was in high school in the late 60s we used to ride to Cupertino and Saratoga—it was all orchards. Today it’s completely built over and Cupertino’s tasty fruit has been superceded by a very different kind of ‘fruit’. When Different Spokes was formed Contra Costa County was mostly ranchland east and south of Lafayette. We used to ride on empty “back” roads such as Sycamore Valley Road or Tassajara, which today are motor-filled boulevards full of commuters. The complete paving of Contra Costa County is taken for granted today despite the rearguard actions of the Greenbelt Alliance.

Nonetheless the forethought put into preserving some open space has saved us some pretty nice areas to ride without having to pile into a car and drive miles and miles to find greenery (or brownery in summer). Most Spokers, when they want to escape city streets, ply west Marin roads precisely because they’re fairly close by and easy to get to by bike from SF. We are fortunate that much of west Marin is an agricultural preserve locked out of development. Did you know that the Marin Headlands between Rodeo and Tennessee Valleys—called Gerbode Valley—was slated for 30,000 residents and even skyscrapers? That idea was quashed and it remains open space today. San Mateo has a similar situation with its coastside where development is tightly constrained preserving beautiful roads such as Stage Road and Tunitas for cyclists to relish. Where I live, the East Bay, has two entities—the East Bay Municipal Utility District and the East Bay Regional Park System—that control significant swaths of land that cannot be developed thus conserving open space and parks. Although these lands don’t have many roads open to road cyclists, the adjacent roads are often pleasant to ride, for example Pinehurst and Redwood roads.

So, where do we ride? If we stay within the confines of the Bay Area we are left with urban and suburban roads. They’re convenient because we can step outside our front doors and go for a ride. With so many of us pressed for time that’s the choice that makes sense. But increasing traffic means increased danger too. Very close to where I live there are several examples of roads that were pleasant to ride on but are now nerve-wracking at certain times of day. I’ve written about Pinehurst before, a very quiet redwood-shaded road up to Skyline. It always has been used as a cut-through to bypass the Caldecott Tunnel. But with Waze and Google it has become much more widely known. Most of the time the car traffic is nonexistent except for locals coming and going to the tiny “town” of Canyon. But during commute hours or whenever the eastbound bores are jammed, cars race down this narrow, curvy road at 30-40 mph to make time. With no shoulder and some terrible sight lines Pinehurst is an anxious place to ride from about 2:30 to 6:30 pm on weekdays. Even with the one-lane Canyon Bridge still in place commuters find this way quicker than sticking to the freeway. Pinehurst is just one example: streets that cars rarely used are becoming commuter roads, forcing cyclists either to put up with the increased danger or discouraging us so much that we search for other roads to enjoy.

How do we respond? One could stop riding outdoors at all—just stay on your trainer! With TrainerRoad, Zwift, or the old Computrainer you can do a faux road ride at home or at the gym. Car drivers would love that: get all the cyclists off the road, period. Another is to give up on road riding and go where cars can’t, i.e. dirt roads by mountain bike or all-road bicycle. But getting to trails and fire roads require that you either drive or…ride your bike on roads to the trailhead. A third way is to drive out of the Bay Area to where the roads are less crowded. That might work occasionally but on a weekday driving out of the Bay Area is easier said than done. Another strategy is time-shifting: ride when fewer cars are around. When I lived in San Francisco and had to work into the evening (sometimes until 10 pm), I would go for a ride at night and there were certainly fewer cars. It was quiet and peaceful! The trade-off is statistically you’re five to seven times more likely to have an accident at night than during the day because car drivers can’t see you (and/or they’re drunk).

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Different Smokes

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The Camp Fire last Thursday

[Thanks to Jerome for the title; I was going to call this “Summer of Smokes” but both last year’s and this year’s gigantic fires actually took place during the fall and early winter. Most of you are probably old enough—although you may not have been living in the Bay Area at the time—to remember the 1991 Oakland Hills fire. Until last year’s Tubbs fire it was the most destructive fire in California history and it also took place in late October during the so-called “Indian” summer that we often get here.]

The current Camp fire near Chico, CA is blanketing the Bay Area and large swaths of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys with massive quantitites of smoke and soot so much so that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has issued alerts and “Spare the Air” days every day since last Thursday (eight days so far). Even San Francisco, which normally has good quality air compared to other Bay Area regions, has been in the “red” zone. The pollutant of concern is PM 2.5, particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter, although the Camp fire is also producing soot in particle sizes much larger than that but those particles don’t travel as far.

BAAQMD issues alerts when a composite index for all six major pollutant categories—PM 2.5, ozone, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, CO, and PM 10—begin to rise. Normally in the Bay Area we are in the “good” (0-50) or “moderate” (50-100) category. But now we are seeing readings that put us in the “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” (101-150) and “Unhealthy” (151-200). Today Oakland hit 217 and SF 221. 200 and above is considered very unhealthy or hazardous; those are the kind of readings one might get in Beijing or New Delhi.

All of these pollutants plus a host of others that aren’t tracked are cause for concern not just because they might make the sky look hazy but because with prolonged exposure and at high enough levels they have noticeable health effects. If you have asthma or another chronic pulmonary condition, you might start to feel the effects of air pollution while everyone else around you seems to go about their daily lives with little or no idea that they’re literally drowning in smog. But eventually even hardier folks feel the minor signs such as coughing, burning eyes, and scratchy throat.

What makes these conditions concerning is that as cyclists we are not only outdoors breathing in smoke from the fires but exercising, which increases our respiration rate,so that we are probably breathing about eight to ten times more air per minute even at a relatively easy cycling speed. That means we are exposed to much higher amount of pollution compared to sitting at a desk indoors.

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Smoke from the Camp Fire Spreads Throughout NoCal

Last October during the Tubbs fire the air quality jumped up and down subject to the whims of the wind, which changed hourly. At times the air was a hazy brown and the smell of smoke was pervasive; the next day it was sunny and clear even though the fires were raging just 40 miles away. I went riding anyway although I did make a concession by riding at an easy pace to reduce the amount of dreck I was inhaling. One day when the BAAQMD said we were in the red zone, I whipped out my Respro cycling mask that I had bought in London years ago for my daily commute to work here in SF. But the air in SF is generally so good especially out by the Pacific where I worked that I didn’t have a use for it. The Respro is a bit confining even though it’s miles better than a N95 mask. The Respro fits tightly—perhaps too tightly (I did buy the right size so they *are* supposed to fit tightly!)—and that’s good for blocking pollutants but bad when the weather is warm, which it was last October. Even though the Respro has exhalation ports that make it much easier to vent your breath, during hard cycling the mask just didn’t breathe well enough to be comfortable on a long ride. For commuting speed it’s mostly fine but I was out for a pleasure ride.

In retrospect it was foolish for me to ride during the fires because even though I had nothing more than an occasional hacking cough and some transient chest tightness, the long term effects of inhaling pollutants being potentially scary. PM 2.5 particles are so small that they can be inhaled deeply into lungs especially when exercising. Those particles not only obstruct the surface area of lungs and interfere with respiration but they also lodge there; very small particles can even pass into your circulatory system and go on to affect other organs. Exposure to pollutants also can set off an inflammatory response that further scars your lung tissue.

This year I didn’t make the same mistake and I’ve cycled only once—last Saturday when the forecast was for moderate pollution (which turned out to be incorrect—it was worse). The pollution is so bad that I doubt a Respro mask is able to cope with it all. We’ve stayed holed up in the house with the HEPA filter running. But we have to go out and run errands and the house is old and hardly sealed up so we are still getting a goodly share of smoke. Both of us are coughing like patients in a sanitarium and albuterol has become our BFF nonetheless.

If you’re young and robust, you’re probably ignoring the warnings and heading out for a good spin despite the smoke. Maybe that’s alright for now but in the long run it can’t be good. Ending up with COPD, lung cancer, or pulmonary fibrosis are not pleasant ways to die.

Well, the fires are just a transient hazard. Next week the high over the Rockies that is causing our offshore prevailing wind will move and we’ll return to our usual onshore flow and maybe even some rain. The smoke will change direction away from the Bay Area, and eventually the Camp fire will be extinguished. But chronic exposure to everyday air pollution is no good thing either and we have plenty of it with the enormous number of cars filing up and down our roads and highways. Diesel engines produce copious soot in the PM 2.5 range and regular gasoline automobiles create ozone both directly and indirectly. Even on days that have “good” air quality, pollution can be much higher in certain locations for example next to freeways. So avoid riding next to freeways or major roads with a lot of car traffic. Even better would be to go mountain biking away from roads, period.

A BAAQMD reading is for an entire day but the pollution changes from hour to hour. Particulate matter tends to be worse in the early mornings because of the night time stagnant air whereas ozone tends to be worse later in the day after tailpipe emissions climb. In addition the commute hours cause big pulses of pollution in the early morning and late afternoon. If you are riding during the week, you have to fit that around your work and home life and that likely means you’re riding early in the morning or after work, right when car pollution is peaking. On top of all that air pollution behaves differently at different times of the year. During summer with increased heat and sunlight we have higher generation of ozone and during winter temperature inversions and wood fireplaces mean higher PM readings in the late evenings, nights and early mornings.

With ozone generally peaking during the afternoon and PM more or less level during the day except at nights and early mornings during the cold months, the best time to exercise is usually going to be in the mid-morning. But another option is to wait until well into the evening when ozone has started to drop. With a good set of lights you’ll be able to enjoy that cleaner air. Years ago I often had to work until 7 in the evening. I’d rush home, change into my cycling clothes and head out over the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands to clear out my head and get in a refreshing ride. With a good set of lights and being alert riding at night can not only be cleaner for your lungs but also safe.

Sign Of The Times: Respro Mask

Respro

If you insist upon riding when the air quality is bad or if you regularly ride next to major roads or freeways, you should consider riding with an anti-pollution mask. During “red” alerts the Bay Area Air Quality Management District suggests that people wear N95 masks. These masks block some of the particulate pollution but they don’t seal against your face and provide little barrier at all if they’re loose. They also have no exhalation ports so you exhale into the mask and rebreathe your breath. Needless to say during exercise they are not comfortable let alone wearing them when you’re walking outside. Their one saving grace is that they’re dirt cheap and can be purchased at any Home Depot or hardware shop.

What you should be wearing is a mask like the Respro Sportsta. Respro has been around for well over a decade but it’s based in the UK and is not well-known here. Respro makes anti-pollution masks for a variety of uses and the Sportsta is their model for cycling. They are made of neoprene and seal tightly against your face with a strap. They have an adjustable nose bridge so that you can fit the upper part of the mask perfectly against your face. They also have exhalation ports that open when you exhale and shut when you don’t. Finally they have replaceable HEPA filters so when your filter gets dirty it is easy to swap it out for a clean one. Unfortunately they’re not cheap: The Respro Sportsta costs about $45 and a two-pack of replacement filters is $25 on Amazon. You also have to size them to your face in order for them to work, so make sure you check the size chart on the Respro website.

I wear a size medium and with the Velcro-like strap I can get a tolerable yet tight fit. That doesn’t mean it’s comfortable—it’s not: wearing an elastric band around your face is never going to be as comfortable as a Wonderbra. But it’s not irritating either. Being able to exhale easily is a plus although in warm weather you are going to feel the extra insulation. If the temps are cooler, as they have been during the Camp Fire, it’s less uncomfortable.

Does it work? Hard to say because I’m coughing regardless right now with the air quality being so bad all day long. If you’re commuting to work, these masks work very well because you’re usually not breathing very hard. For recreational use they’re definitely better if you’re taking it easy, which is what you should be doing anyway with our abyssmal air quality. If you’re going á bloc they’re probably going to be quite uncomfortable as it was for me. But for getting in that not-so-fast recreational ride, the Respro is fine. Remember: these masks aren’t perfect so don’t imagine that you’re safe riding during bad air quality: you’re not. But they will reduce your exposure, you know, like getting less radiation after the H-bomb has been dropped. Hey, but you gotta get in your ride, right?

BART: Promises, Promises

Did you see this article in the SF Chronicle?

BART is behind schedule on rolling out the new Bombardier cars. Are you surprised? No, neither am I. There isn’t a timeline in history that BART hasn’t optimistically projected and missed. We are now looking at 2020 before the Milpitas and Berryessa stations will open—only three years behind schedule—and now BART trots out a “Gee, we’re sorry. Things didn’t go as planned!” for the new cars. BART is “hoping” to have five Bombardier trains (if they’re full trains, that’s 10 x 5 = 50 cars) yet only 35 have been certified for use and only one train is currently in use. So in the next two months the CPUC has to certify at least 15 more cars or else BART will be running short seven car trains. Oh, and that will mean that there won’t be any cars that BART can use to train new operators—unless they remove some of those 35 cars from daily use. Notice that “hope” does not equate with “will”.

BART is supposed to have all 775 Bombardier cars in the system by spring 2022 as well as a new railcar storage facility in Hayward and five new substations to provide power. Yet it’s already behind schedule on installing the new cars because of unforeseen mechanical problems. 

There is also a new super-techy electronic control system planned so they can run more trains. Yet if you recall BART has a sorry history when it comes to control systems. BART has never been able to live up to its initial projections of being able to handle a train every 90 seconds. I believe there have been at least three lawsuits by BART against the companies that provided the control systems. The first one was against the original company, Westinghouse, after it was apparent their system was flawed and could not prevent accidents. The second one I can’t recall the name of the company but I do remember that BART squandered an enormous amount of money in hopes the company could come through and it couldn’t. The third was in 2006 against GE, yet another vendor. In other words in the 46 years that BART has been running trains it has never had an electronic control system that could live up to the 90 seconds per train hype.

Are we to believe that those 775 new cars will be fully deployed by 2022? Get real! BART blows its projections by years. If we have full deployment by 2025 we will be lucky. Those BART press releases are only good for lining bird cages.

So for at least the next four years we will have to live with our ever-increasingly filthy and miserably crowded old BART cars. And don’t forget that important BART rule: you are not allowed to board cars that are crowded with your bike. So guess who’s going to be enjoying sitting around those lovely BART stations waiting for a train that has space? Happy BART riding!

Insurance

Insurance

Many of you may not know that our club has a liability insurance policy. This is an insurance policy to protect the club in case an accident occurs during a club event such as a ride or weekend trip. If one of the participants is involved in an accident, for example colliding with a pedestrian, our insurance would provide provide monetary protection in case of a settlement. Also if a ride participant were injured and wanted to sue the club, the policy would also come into effect. The club’s policy started about a decade ago when the League of American Bicyclists arranged to offer low-cost insurance through a carrier to its affiliate clubs, which we are. Prior to that we, like most bicycle clubs in the US, were coasting on a prayer and wishful thinking. Since clubs are hardly deep-pocket organizations, suing a club is unlikely to lead to a big payout. But litigants can go after individuals in the club, particularly officers, and it might end up being a costly decision. Keep in mind that even if you are a participant on a ride, that someone who is injured might implicate any of the other riders including you. The liability insurance policy is in place to handle those sorts of situations.

If you are a club member, you are covered by our policy on club rides and events. Technically you don’t even have to sign the club’s waiver to receive coverage although signing the waiver provides legal protection if an incident does occur, and of course there are other reasons to require a waiver and to sign it including emergency contact information in case of an accident and contact information of non-members (i.e. prospective members).

Our liability insurance is one of the two major ongoing, annual expenses running about $500 per year for our roughly hundred members and officers. (The other big expense is website hosting and related costs.) Your membership fee of $20 covers these expenses and without fundraisers such as Jock Sunday at the Lookout or donations we just break even (in a good year). One reason why the club doesn’t have to do more fundraisers is because of the incredible generosity of Jerome Thomere, who has been managing our website for 15 (!) years. Without the donation of literally hundreds of hours of his unpaid labor, we would have long ago had to go to a website developer/manager and that would have cost quite a bit more.

There are some things you should know about our insurance. First, it provides $1 million coverage per incident with a cap of $5 million per year. Second, it covers members and first-time participants on rides and events. If you are not a member either because you’ve lapsed or that you’ve never gotten around to joining, then our policy excludes you from coverage. The first time a non-member attends a ride, they are covered but after that they are not. If an incident were to occur, the club would be protected but you would be on your own in case you were named in a suit. Third, our policy also provides up to $10,000 per person per accident medical coverage. This takes effect after other insurance such as your personal health insurance. Fourth, the policy currently only covers road riding but no racing. Mountain biking, or riding on unpaved surfaces, is specifically excluded. By early next year the club will have an additional policy to cover dirt riding but until then we can’t officialy host mountain bike rides without exposure.

If you have been a ride leader or thinking of leading a club ride in the future, you should know about the Incident Report Form. Our insurance requires us to submit an Incident Report Form for accidents involving either bodily injury or property damage (there is a slightly different form for each type). These are currently available at the DSSF Yahoo! group in the Files area in the folder “Incident Report Forms for Insurance”. Ride leaders should download a copy and fill it out in case of an incident, and of course you should notify the Ride Coordinator or other club officer as soon as possible. If you lead a ride that has either a death or major injury, you must report that immediately to the carrier by their toll-free number, which is on the forms. I recommend that ride leaders carry a print copy of forms so that you can fill out the information on the spot rather than trying to remember details later on. At the very least you should access the electronic versions through your mobile phone. In the near future we should have copies up on the club website.

And Another One Bites The Dust!

Redwood Road over near Castro Valley from the Marciel gate to the EBMUD Chabot staging area is now closed to all traffic. Winter storms had led to erosion of the edge of the roadway, which falls precipitously into San Leandro reservoir, but the area was only coned off and the roadway was narrowed to one lane. However last night the road partially collapsed and apparently the undercutting of the roadway is endangering the entire path of travel. You can read about it here.

Roger and I went riding to Castro Valley on Redwood today and noticed the crew erecting K barriers around the collapsed section, which is quite startling. The collapse is at mile marker 7.38, which is about a kilometer after you start the southbound descent. Apparently Alameda County had just begun closing the road as there was no indication when we entered Redwood off of Pinehurst. Only when we arrived at the bottom did we see that there was a closure erected at the EBMUD Chabot staging area. We stopped to talk to the guard and he said they had literally just closed it. Not wanting to be stuck in Castro Valley we immediately turned around and headed back to Orinda. When we got back to the collapsed section we were told that the road would be closed for two months and that it would be a “hard closure.” (My guess is that “two months” is bureaucratese for an indefinite period of time probably a lot longer than two months.) When we arrived at Marciel gate a tractor was now parked across the road blocking all traffic and turning them back. We spoke with the operator and he confirmed that K barriers will be put up across the roadway.

Road closures are a mixed blessing for cyclists. The positive is that cars can’t go there; the negative is that cyclists aren’t supposed to go there either. But unless there is rabid enforcement there is nothing to prevent you from lifting your bike over the barrier and continuing on your merry way. Just know that the roadway could collapse more at any moment and you might die. Apparently Contra Costa Public Works is wise to cyclist shenanigans because the Alhambra closure, which blocks the traditional Three Bears route and also has an indefinite closure period (i.e. “we need to find money before we can do any repair”), is not only blocked by K barriers but has chainlink fence completely across the roadway, from edge to edge, to prevent cyclists or pedestrians from entering. Lord knows if Alameda County will follow suit.

If you’re dead set on getting through Redwood—and I don’t blame you because it’s a major recreational cyclist thoroughfare without an easy alternate—there is a way: if heading southbound, cut through Anthony Chabot Park by means of Marciel Road; Marciel is paved. Take it most of the way down to the day use parking area and then cut off onto the Brandon trail, which is a fire road, and you’ll drop down just behind the Redwood Canyon golf course where you can catch Redwood Road again. Brandon is doable on a road bike and hopefully if the rain has stopped it should be pretty dry soon and less mucky.

Road Closures: Inquiring Minds Would Like to Know

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Our recent historic rains caused a lot of road closures due to debris flow and water damage. Cyclelicio.us has a nice summary of the closures for the South Bay as of the most recent storm. We are bound to have more rain this winter, and to keep up with road closures throughout the Bay Area I’ve aggregated links by county to make it easier for you to ascertain current conditions. There are at least two interactive online maps that display road closures, one at Localconditions.com and the other at 511.org. But these seem to lack some local data. The California Dept. of Transportation also maintains a closure list but these are state roads and highways and not necessarily local byways or even roads we would usually ride due to traffic. Nonetheless it is quite useful if you don’t mind scrolling through a long list of roads by state highway number.

CA DOT list here.

San Francisco: Localconditions.com

San Mateo: Localconditions.com

Alameda

Contra Costa

Napa (this link also has information about the entire state.)

Marin: the Napa map above also covers Marin County

Sonoma and the Napa map above also covers Sonoma County.

Solano: the Napa map above also covers Solano County.

Santa Clara: Unfortunately you have to phone the county (!) at (408) 494-1382

Santa Cruz

Monterey and interactive map of road closures