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In which I stay dry

My first four years at the university, I bought a parking permit.  This always felt like a somewhat pointless purchase.  I used the permit maybe twice a month, usually when it was raining, since door to door, it actually takes me longer to drive to my office than to bike. Biking at a slow-to-moderate pace takes ten minutes, while driving and then walking from the somewhat distant parking lot takes closer to 15. Plus, unlike a pleasant pedal along the greenway, driving and walking feels tedious.  And for twice-monthly usage, the $150/year permit seemed like a bad deal.

At the beginning of the 2010-11 school year, the permit price went up to $180.  For a very occasional permit user, this was the last straw.  I decided I needed to drop the permit, and thus lose the option of driving in bad weather.  I considered alternatives.  I could walk the whole way (~25 minutes), but walking in the rain wouldn’t be all that pleasant, and, more significantly, not being an early riser, I usually don’t have time to spare in the morning.  So, after some consultation, Brian and I devised plans for biking in the rain.  We now have essentially matching setups.  Here’s mine:

My rain gear, which I wear over my normal work clothes, consists of:

  • EMS Deluge Pants made from Gore-Tex Paclite.  Real Gore-Tex is absolutely worth the expense, and Paclite is extremely lightweight and breathable while also impressively water-repellent. These have a full side zipper for easy on and off.
  • A North Face Venture rain jacket made from their Hyvent DT waterproof/breathable fabric.  This jacket works fairly well, but the fabric is far inferior to Gore-Tex and tends towards clamminess. I plan to upgrade to a Gore-Tex rain jacket at some point.  I bike with the hood on when it’s raining.
  • SealLine 40L Widemouth Duffel dry bag. This is the sort of dry bag that one might take on a canoeing trip, and it is 100% waterproof and seals very tightly.  Anything inside it stays dry.  The duffel is large enough to hold my bookbag, lunchbox, and anything else I might want to take with me to work.  It doesn’t fit in my Wald folding baskets (which is where I normally put my bags), so I bungee it onto the rear rack of the bike.

This system isn’t perfect. It’s better in a cold rain, but today was about 80 and quite humid, and I was sweating pretty heavily under all this gear. And getting all the stuff on and the bag strapped down does add a couple of minutes to my commute. Admittedly, I don’t look my best at work on rainy days, though I think I manage to stay presentable.  It’s important to me that I not have to change when I arrive at work; that would add too much time to what is supposed to be a short, easy commute.  I simply take off my rain gear and brush my hair, and I’m good to go.  In really heavy rain, I wear sneakers or Tevas on the bike and then switch to work shoes when I arrive in my office.  Another issue is that this is all black — not so good for visibility in bad weather.  If visibility is poor, I wear my neon yellow construction vest to round out the stylish look of this ensemble.  And I always turn on my headlight and tail light when it’s raining.

Mathematically-minded readers will notice that the cost of this setup was in the vicinity of $275, considerably more than the $180 permit.  So the first year, the permit would have been a better deal.  But we’re now in the second permit-free year, and so I’m starting to save money, and I’m finding that biking in the rain makes me happier than driving and then walking in the rain.  And as an added bonus, the dry bag served us well on a recent canoe trip on the Roanoke River (about which more later).

In which I get a sweater

It’s not just bikes wearing sweaters around here. Fall comes late to Greenville, NC, but we got an early taste of it during an unseasonably cool weekend. It was perfect weather for taking pictures of my newly-finished Cobblestone Pullover:

This pattern is for a man’s sweater, but I downsized it and added some waist shaping so it would fit me. It’s an extremely soft yarn, Madelinetosh Tosh Merino, from my favorite online yarn shop, Eat Sleep Knit. The yarn is likely going to pill like crazy, but I expect this sweater to keep me warm and cozy all winter.  Too bad the temps are already back in the 80s.

One reason I’m really happy with this sweater is that I started it close to two years ago — and I finally picked it up and finished it!  I’m a distractable knitter.  This year I made a BIG resolution: I am not buying any yarn or spinning fiber in 2011.  I have kept it up so far, and not buying has gotten easier as the year progresses. Not having yarn coming in has helped me to focus on older projects, like this sweater. It has also helped me to see the possibilities in my enormous yarn and fiber stash rather than always wanting the newest, shiniest thing. Even when this year is over, I think my shopping habits will be permanently changed.

More details of my sweater are on Ravelry.

Here’s a bike plus sweater bonus pic: girl in a sweater fitting a bike with a sweater!

In which my Breezer gets a sweater

This summer, Brian gave me a very exciting birthday present: a 2007 Breezer Uptown 8.  After we rode Electra Townies in Austin in March and I loved the Nexus 8-speed hub, he started looking around on Craigslist and found this excellent bike in Maryland.  He secretly arranged for my parents to pick it up from the seller, and they stashed it until we got to Maryland in June.  The bike is in excellent, almost-new condition.  We took it to Truro and then to Cambridge, and I happily rode it around Cambridge in July, mostly on my commute from Porter Square to MIT. I love it! Besides the aforementioned hub, it has generator lights that are bright and reliable, fenders, and a chainguard.  It’s a great commuter and has become my everyday, around-town bike.

We noticed, though, that the downtube of the frame was getting a bit scratched up by bike racks, so I decided to knit the bike a protective sweater.

I’m ridiculously pleased by this accessory.  It’s made from yarn I spun myself, and I like how it matches the bike’s frame.  I improvised the pattern. I knit a rectangle with a few ridges of garter stitch on each end and garter stitch edges, with a yo, k2tog buttonhole about every 12 rows. I then picked up three stitches from the top edge and worked i-cord for a holder to go around the headset. I made a button loop with the yarn tail and secured it to a button on the opposite side.

I am hoping this keeps the bike well-protected from menacing racks.

In which we find a kitten

Last June, we got married and immediately set off to Italy, which seemed a rather cliched honeymoon destination, except that it turns out it’s cliched for a reason. So much art!  So many vineyards!  Besides looking at art and drinking wine, we spent a week cycling through Tuscany, unsupported, on a 7-day circuit that began and ended in Florence.  My husband and I are both bicycle commuters, but neither of us has significant road biking experience, and we live in Greenville, North Carolina, which, unlike Tuscany, is not famed for its hills.  But we set out, gamely, on rented hybrid bikes from Florence By Bike.

And it was an amazing trip.  Rolling hills, medieval hill towns, gelato, rented rooms with frescos on the ceiling, rich olive oil.  We learned that there’s nothing better than a Coke or Fanta at 4pm when you’ve been riding all day.  We learned that Italian towns really do shut down for a few hours in the mid-afternoon.  We saw famous tourist towns like San Gimignano and Montalcino and Montepulciano, but we saw some equally wonderful spots where buses never go, like Casole d’Elsa and Castiglione d’Orcia.

By the fifth day of riding, we were becoming, if it’s possible, a little blase about the Tuscan scenery.  Oh, another fabulous walled hill town?  More olive groves and vineyards with roses growing on the ends of the rows?  More sweeping views of valleys?  Ho hum.  Our route that day was scheduled to take us 48 km from Montepulciano, where we’d eaten steak and met some Italian hipsters on vacation, who, recognizing in Brian a kindred spirit, admired his watch and then shared their rosso and biscotti with us, to Asciano.  One unsurpising feature of riding in Tuscany is hill-climbing.  Almost every town is on a hill, so each day of riding involved a lot of up and down, and the feeling of triumph when one reached a walled town on the top of a hill was somewhat tempered, by day 5, by the realization that there were several more towns (climbs) ahead before lunch.   After buying sandwiches inside the gates of Pienza and tucking them into our bags for later, we forged ahead to Castelmuzio (very steep climb and descent).

We then began, almost immediately, the next steep climb to the next town, Montisi.  It was a bit gray and cool, with drizzle threatening in the air but not yet falling.  I am very slow, to the point where sometimes the cycling computer on my handlebars showed zero km/h. One of the advantages of riding bikes, we’ve found, is that you have the time and quiet to notice things around you that you’d never see in a car. To the right of the road was a steep, tall, overgrown bank stretching upwards for a hundred feet.  To the left, several farmhouses spread out along the hill.  We were climbing up the hill at a glacial pace when Brian commented, “Wow, that bird really sounds like a cat.”  I listened, and heard a mewing sound coming from the bank on the right.  It did sound like a cat!  “Are you sure it’s not a cat?” I asked, and just at that moment, a tiny gray kitten tumbled out of the brush!

He wasn’t a bit shy or standoffish.  He came up to us, mewing and rubbing against our legs and against the wheels of our bikes.  We are cat lovers, so this presented a major conundrum.  We couldn’t just leave this little kitten by the side of the road, but what could we do?  We began to consider whether it was possible to transport a kitten inside a bike helmet. But bringing a kitten back to the States, even if we could transport it on the bikes, seemed impossible, and we knew we were being dumb sentimental Americans to even consider “rescuing” a Tuscan cat in this way.  Could we take it to a vet? Montisi didn’t look like a town that would have vets, and our Italian was very limited. Plus, it was the midafternoon, everything-closed time of day. We thought maybe he lived at the top of the bank, so we tried halfheartedly to get him to head back up, but he wouldn’t go.

After some discussion interspersed with kitten-cuddling, we decided to take the kitten to the nearest farmhouse across the road and ask them if they’d lost a kitten.  We worried, though, that kittens are so common on Tuscan farms that no one would care about this little lost kitten. Still, we consulted the Italian dictionary in our iphone and settled on “Ha perso un gattino?”  Carrying the kitten in a helmet and pushing our bikes, we headed across the road to a long driveway down to the farmhouse just as rain started to fall.  When we reached the driveway, we saw a woman, probably in her fifties, coming up the driveway.  “Ha perso un gattino?” Brian asked. Imagine our joy at her response: “Si! Si!” She took the kitten and began hugging and kissing it, and she hugged us as well.  She spoke quickly in Italian, but we gathered that she was missing two kittens, because they had crawled up into the engine of the car and refused to come out, and then had wandered off when no one was looking.  She wanted us to come to the house and meet her husband, and we were happy to get out of the rain, so we followed her down the driveway.

The farmhouse turned out to be a magical place.  The house was sprawling and a bit ramshackle, surrounded by small vineyards and olive trees.  The driveway was full of old cars and scooters and farm implements.  We were met by a very friendly short-legged dog, and then introduced to the mama cat, whose name was Luna, and a kitten who looked just like our found kitten.  The woman was still a bit upset because one kitten was still lost, but she seemed thrilled to reunite our kitten with his mama.  Besides the cats and several dogs, there was a baby deer whom the husband fed from a bottle!  (I don’t have a picture of the deer, because we were trying to be respectful guests and not take a bunch of pictures in their home.)  We felt like we’d stepped into a movie.

Despite the language barrier, which limited us to explaining we were newly married and taking a trip by bici and smiling a lot, they invited us in for espresso.  Their daughter, who lived somewhere else, spoke better English, so they called her and Brian spoke to her on the phone. They were exceptionally welcoming and friendly, and this whole experience was made the more special for in no way being designed for tourists or being on our itinerary.  By the time we finished the coffee, it was pouring, so we rested on their porch with the kittens until a break in the storm let us carry on towards Montisi.

We had huge smiles pasted on our faces for hours, even as we slogged up several more hills through the rain.  Such a happy ending for that lost kitten, and a memorable day for us.  We were tourists, our Italian wasn’t very good, and our interactions with locals were generally very limited, so we were glad that traveling by bike helped us to meet an Italian kitten and visit his sweet family.