Saturday, September 18, 2010

New city, new bike

A few facts. In May, I moved to Seattle. Since May, I have used my bicycle twice. As of this fall, I will be using a bike pretty much every day. Read on for an explanation regarding the last two facts.

Why didn't I ever use my bike during the sunny season in Seattle? Well, I had to commute to Microsoft from Capitol Hill. This is a very inconvenient task regardless of the weather for a number of reasons. There is no direct cycling-only option to get from the north half of Seattle to the SR-520 corridor. The options were as follows:
  1. Bike to the Montlake Flyer Stop, a final eastbound west-side stop for congested bus routes such as the ST 545. From there, ride the bus across the bridge, disembark at the first stop and ride to Microsoft for 20 minutes along the SR-520 corridor multiuse trail. This is a huge pain because you must wait for an empty bike rack on a bus, which could take half an hour or more after 8am.
  2. Bike all the way up the Burke-Gilman trail and then on roads through Kirkland to Redmond. This adds at least 45 minutes to the commute.
  3. Bike south to I-90 and use the bike lane attached to the interstate. This is the nicest way to cross the lake, but it is quite out of the way unless you live in or south of Central District. You also have to deal with the Bellevue's traffic and its general abundance of jerks with cars while going north to Redmond. This detour adds a minimum of 30 minutes to the commute each way.
All of these were way too much hassle for myself, especially considering my tendency to keep long hours at my internship. As I've been too tired/busy to go out on long rides on the weekend, the racing bike has sat on the porch most of the summer. My daily commute was a 20-45 minute one-way exercise in sitting my rear on a nominally soft Sound Transit coach seat.

Now that the internship is done, I feel at liberty to realistically consider commuting by bike to UW* every day, including rainy and dreary days. The main considerations are the different weather conditions (rain, mist, fog, slog, and Seattle's other precipitation variants), a significant hill climb when going back home, and suitability for commuting.

The aforementioned "racing bike" is a Felt Racing 2008 Z80 (sized 54cm, a tad too big for me). I inherited it from Steph ever since she started her romance with her fixed-gear bike. Since it is explicitly a "racing" bike, it does not have clearance for tires much larger than 700x24, and fitting a rack is out of the question. The frame geometry is a bit compact, which isn't great for touring or commuting. It does well on hills with three chainrings (50/39/30) and a Shimano 9-speed cassette (12-25T), but the Shimano Tiagra STI shifters are really not my style. The derailleurs/cogs frequently get confused for no apparent reason, and perform very poorly with chain tension (say, going uphill and gearing down is somewhat risky).

On advice from several other bikers, I started my search for a commuter bike with the Surly Cross Check. It's a steel-frame bike designed for maximum flexibility, and commonly employed as a commuter, cyclocross, touring, and "whatever" bike. I was initially skeptical that it would be much different from the Felt bike, but good geometry and steel can make a world of difference.

Over the past two weeks, I tested a 50cm Cross Check (at REI Seattle), a 52cm Surly Long Haul Trucker, 50cm Aurora, and finally, a 52cm Cross Check. I'm planning to go back and buy it on Monday from Counterbalance U Village, and then take it to FreeRange Cycles in Fremont for some adjustments. The most important adjustment will be the addition of a 3rd chainring. This will enable me to get up hills.. something that is not really possible with the 2 chainrings (36, 48) x 9 (12-25) that come standard on a built up Cross Check.

The next part in getting commute ready will be to shell out for fenders, a rack, and panniers. I'm not completely settled on the brand of panniers that I want, but at the least they have to be waterproof and able to fit a 15" macbook pro inside a case :) I will update with pictures once the goods are purchased come Monday.