Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Car vs Car

Bike contraption next to partial zero emission Subaru wagon

I built a bike car starting last fall, and finished it this January. Where I live, there are quiet, flat streets that lead to a market, a hardware store, bank, and more. An easy thing to bicycle just a few miles, (less than five) and obtain many of the things you need. When it comes to many bags of groceries or icy roads, however, even a dedicated cyclist might pause, thinking that a large load or the risk of falling down on ice is cause to fire up the gasoline engine in the car instead. Perhaps, but this contraption removes some of the need to worry about those things. Plus, it's fun.

Frame construct detail

Center point steering

There is something very pure about a bicycle with only two wheels, an elegant diamond frame, and just the body of a rider propelling themselves in an amazing way along pavement or dirt. The physical arrangement is efficient, balanced, and can be very powerful. In that arrangement the rider outweighs the machine and strength to weight is outstanding.
I think of a jockey and a thoroughbred, harmonious and as fast as the wind.

But with this project, the metaphor of a draft horse is more suitable. Slower, yes. Stronger and more able to carry a load, that was the idea. A strong and steady horse, harnessed to a working mechanical construct. The benefit of a triad of wheels showed its value the first time I glissaded down a snow covered hill. Stable and steady, a fearless way to get around in the winter. (Even with cyclocross experience, there are days when conditions are too hair-raising for two wheels.) There is an open-wheel racing feel to the ride, and being low to the ground amplifies the sensation of putting the miles beneath you--so it isn't necessarily sedate or boring.

I designed the machine myself. It was a process of distilling metrics from the combined need to have good weight distribution while allowing room for cargo (and possibly a future stoker in front), have good ground clearance, and perhaps a canopy for sun and rain at some point. With 30 years of bike mechanic experience I didn't lack for insight and know-how. Yet I was willing to let this be somewhat an experiment, not tied to what others have done. This didn't mean reinventing the wheel, as good foundations are meant to be built upon. But I didn't feel wedded to existing designs. An internal gear rear hub does most of what I need, with eight gears. The possibility to add a front derailleur or even a mid-drivetrain set of auxiliary cogs exists, but I favor simplicity over convoluted chain lines. Time will tell.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Airport Window

I would have taken a photograph, but I was standing in the security line at the airport, with camera buried in bag and sure to look dodgy if I suddenly started photographing seemingly nothing but a window to the tarmac. I wanted those in line around me to see it--it was that arresting-- but wasn't sure they'd appreciate it. So I said nothing while studying its strange beauty.

It was the silhouette of a bird, faint, but unmistakeably that of a bird in flight, with suggested lines impressed on the glass where the bird made what was likely mortal contact. A sudden but fully focused event. I didn't see the impact, only the evidence.

There was no physical matter left, not even a feather, only lines like white and grey pastel rubbings. The grime of jet exhaust and wind blown debris made up a media perfect for capturing a strange avian graffiti. Like a cave painting, or a fingerprint. It was stunningly beautiful, in greyish tones. The wings were spread in full flight; faint tail feathers fanned out broadly. It is the image you would make if you tried to capture winged flight in a plaster cast or an archaeological rubbing.

Apropos at an airport to have an artful representation of flight. But heart-rending, knowing it was a creature's final act. Not checked by a flinch or a dodge, just full-on transfer of live flight into still life on a glass platen. The bird never saw it coming. But I saw where it had been. My clumsy sketch does no justice at all, but I tried to grab the moment.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Building Lifestyle

This is a project I did a while ago, inspired by the idea to mess around on the water in a self propelled craft. After two months in my shop, I was able to take pleasure in outings on mountain lakes here in the Rocky Mountains. Today it is white with snow outside, so naturally I'm provoked to reflect on seasons past and the summer to come. (I do enjoy being outdoors in the snow, as well, but that's another story.)

The idea of a kayak light enough to put on the water by myself grew in appeal with having a family member spending a huge amount of time training and competing in the sport of rowing.  Myself, after over a decade of racing bicycles, well, I wanted no more of the slavish routine of training and racing. That was fun while it lasted but I've moved on from that mode. 

 I've been a woodworker by trade, and have built a couple of other small boats. When I saw Ross Miller's modern skin kayak idea, I knew I would give it a go. (Ross Miller Designs is out of West Mystic, Connecticut.) This is not a kit; I like to build from scratch. But I'm not averse to learning from others, so I bought blueprints for Mr. Miller's "Egret" kayak. The frame would be out of clear pine, douglas fir, and "lauan" mahogany plywood for the bulkheads.

 One compelling thing about this design is its use of modern materials for the skin or hull of the boat. Using Dacron aircraft fabric, a light and very taut skin can be achieved. After building the wood frame on a strongback, this fabric is attached (glued with special adhesive) at key points and then shrunk with carefully applied heat. A drum-tight creation emerges through this process. It makes a very pleasing sound when you tap your fingers on the deck or the hull; yet I was surprised to note that when moving through the water, there doesn't seem to be any extraneous noise or reverberation. The skin is coated with either marine paint, or epoxy, or in this case, special two-part marine urethane over a base of epoxy.

I snuck out to a mountain reservoir for a test paddle before I had finished with all of the scantlings and deck trim. In later photos you can see pin striping and some cherry and    mahogany cockpit trim.    

In building this, I made some modifications to the design. The original calls for a snug Eskimo style coaming that allows for a sealed spray skirt around the paddler in ocean conditions. However one reason I chose this particular design is that I'd read that its shallow vee-hull has pretty decent secondary stability and it actually isn't that easy to roll. Since I wanted the features of a skin design, coupled with the versatility of a more open cockpit, this overall hull seemed ideal for my mostly flat-water paddling intentions. The 17 foot length looked like it would have some speed. But I wanted more room and easy access to gear for photography and quick launching. Knowing that the uncovered canoe-style cockpit would admit water, I built watertight bulkheads amidships between the paddler's seat and at the footwell. Essentially all of the aft and forward portions of the hull are considered flotation chambers. Even with water in the cockpit, the boat will float. These bulkheads also have sealed round hatches that open to small floored areas with bungee straps for minor stowage.

When the frame was finished, it almost seemed a shame to cover it up. I enjoy the sculptural beauty of the frames of buildings, the ribs and stringers of boats, the skeletal foundations of things. The dirigible bones of this boat, covered in varnish, smelled good and pleased the eye. 

I named her, "Hei Matau," which is supposed to mean "safe passage" in Maori.


Last summer, a highlight was paddling in a high mountain lake (10,000 foot elevation) at the foot of impressive mountains that make up the Continental divide of North America. 

Gliding along in my kayak was a thrill. I had a chance encounter with an aspen-towing beaver, who was nibbling on green leaves even as he moved along, headed toward the west inlet to the lake. The quiet hull had allowed me to get near him without immediate notice. I don't like crowding wildlife, and only belatedly saw his wake in the glassy water. I gave way to this superior water denizen, holding my breath. When he did notice me, he gave the classic "slap" of the tail, and submerged. I'd only ever read about this signal that beavers make in the presence of intruders.  I headed further out into the lake, leaving the creature plenty of room.

-all photos by the author.