Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Guest Blog from last month: Cycling Yogi Reports from San Jose

I’m in San Jose this week for an anti-aging conference.   It’s a town with a high cost of living, and I’m grateful to be able to stay with my friend, Dianne, about 10 miles from the Hyatt Regency where the conference takes place.  What a great opportunity to commute by bike!
So I called in advance to ask Dianne if she knew anyone with a bike I could borrow.  No luck, but she suggested the urban bike share program, new to San Jose. Trouble with that solution is that they don’t extend out as far as the Hyatt.  If you keep a bike more than ½ hour, the penalty is prohibitive.
Dianne referred me to a bike rental shop at the other end of town.  The trouble there is that they cater to the high-revenue market of sport enthusiasts, rather than commuters.  They rent bikes by the day, but they’re more expensive than a car rental (which in San Jose is unusually cheap).
So I found a friendly smaller shop near Dianne that specializes in repairs and sales of used bikes. Over the phone, they described for me a vintage 1983 Schwinn World Sport, which Chuck said might be large enough for me.  At $100, it was priced so I could buy it and then either sell it back, or leave it in my mother’s garage, 70 miles down the coast, so I can use it in the future when I visit her.  Chuck reserved it for me on my word, without asking for a credit card.
These classic Schwinns were built to last forever, but not for convenience, not for comfort, and certainly not for light weight.  It’s carbon steel throughout, a quilted plastic seat with springs underneath, no quick release wheels or seat post, requiring crescent wrenches rather than Allen for all adjustments. But a significant advance over the Schwinns of my youth, that had welded steel frames (no lugs) and cranks with cotter pins.
I’m moderately tall, but the place where I have trouble fitting a bike is that all my height is above the waist.  I look for a bike with a long top tube, then use a long stem combined with bar ends to get a comfortable reach.  When I’m buying a new bike, I can always find a good fit, but in the As-Is used bike market, I have to get lucky.
For $100 and my limited needs, I thought it was the appropriate technology.  The top tube and stem were not quite long enough for me, but with a little help from Chuck we devised an innovative modification--no replacement parts--that gave a longer reach.

We rotated the old-style handlebars (designed for sitting comfortably upright) 180 degrees around so they are low and forward.  It’s not ideal. It feels a little unstable, and I have to reach a little for the brake handles, which are on backwards.  The shifters are nowhere near my thumbs, and I just let go of one hand to reach for them.  (Luckily, my route is pretty flat, and I’m not shifting much.)  What I get for these inconveniences is a comfortable and efficient body position, leaning forward in the posture to which I’m accustomed.
My route
California is such a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s a progressive state, full of people who pride themselves in independent thinking, self-sufficiency and fitness.  The dry, mild climate is inviting, and the human ecology is bicycle friendly. But the whole concept of California is inseparable from automobiles. Eastern cities were laid out in the 18th and 19th centuries, when people got around on foot and in horse-drawn carriages.  California cities were planned with car commutation in mind. Everything is designed for ease of auto access.  It’s roughly true that Eastern cities were planned for human-scale transportation, and cars were retrofitted, while Western cities were planned around cars.  And with the explosive growth in popularity of cycle-commuting in the 21st Century, they’re now retro-fitting for bicycles.
San Jose is at least an organic community, settled in the 19th Century, with residential areas and a downtown area.  Santa Clara, where the conference is held, is just a zip code with freeways, malls, and industrial parks.  There are no parks, no sidewalks, and it’s alien territory for a pedestrian.
So I found (Google maps found) two lovely bike paths on my 10-mile commuter route, totaling about ⅔ of the total distance.  This is a picture from the Guadaloupe River Park Bike Path.  I note with amusement that what passes for a “river” in this state is any sandy ecosystem threading through the plain that is wet at the end of a downpour, at least once a year.  In August, the Guadaloupe River is water-free geologic formation.

So I appreciated that this city has built bike paths, but they aren't connected to each other.  What a mess!  There are cyclists risking their lives on roads where cars are whizzing by at 50 MPH just a few feet away.  No sidewalks, and yes!  there are marked bicycle lanes on the shoulders of these boulevards with timed lights where the cars are zipping by, close enough to raise my adrenaline levels and the hairs on my neck.
In the evening, on my way home, the GPS was spotty and I tried to retrace my route from memory.  When I missed a turn, I spent more time on the hiway and less time on the bike path.  I found myself on roads that had no bike lanes and no sidewalks, and other roads that had bike lines but shouldn't have.  
The worst moment was on a road where cars were zipping along at 50 or 60, I was in a nominal bike lane on the right and then the bike lane disappeared, traffic crossed onto a freeway on-ramp, and the bike lane re-appeared 50 yards up ahead.


...which brings me to the anti-aging conference, and what I’m learning that fits on the Biking Yogini page.  
Yogis and Asian sages have a reputation for longevity that goes back thousands of years.  Now there are studies relating meditation to biomarkers of long life.  Gradually, science is validating what ayurvedic medicine has known for centuries.
I learned today that lung elastic fibres are among the few tissues that are never replaced, and must last a lifetime.  And that the small-particle particulate pollution from diesels accelerates brain aging.  A study of heart disease in LA found higher rates in the areas most exposed to smog, and particulate pollution was associated with thicker carotid arteries, a warning sign for heart attacks.
This is a message I have yet to absorb.  I’m accustomed to thinking of bicycling as personally healthy, and not just environmentally responsible.  I don’t want to think that my lifelong habit of cycling in traffic is shortening my life, or rotting my brain and lungs.  Does the benefit of the exercise trump the cost of the pollution?  It may be a difficult question for science to answer, and I don’t want to think about it.

The second day commuting to the conference, I discovered that the Guadaloupe River path goes another 4 miles beyond where it looked like it ended.  Now I don’t have to go out on the hiway, and almost 8 miles of my 10 mile commute are on the path.