Monthly Archives: December 2010

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year from Jim’s Bike Blog to people of all faiths and persuasions.


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Happy Christmas, one and all!

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Sailing across America

“Of all the forces of nature, I should think the wind contains the largest amount of motive power — that is, power to move things.”
Abraham Lincoln, speech during the 1860 presidential campaign

Any cyclist on a long journey will hope for a tailwind from time to time to provide some respite for weary legs. But for John MacTaggart, a steady, reliable wind was essential to the success of his trip.

Pterosail trike

MacTaggart, you see, “sailed” across the United States this past summer aboard a recumbent trike fitted with a sail, to capture the main source of propulsion for his vehicle — the wind.
The trike was made by Pterosail Trike Systems, which has its headquarters in North Liberty, Iowa, about 10 miles northwest of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. MacTaggart, a 26-year-old mechanical engineer, is the company’s CEO.
“Pterosail Trike Systems believes that the best way to showcase our green technology is by doing something truly historic: sailing and cycling across the United States!” the company’s website says. “The dream of using the wind for travel, safely and effectively, has finally come together and become a reality.”
MacTaggart began his “truly historic” journey on June 28 in San Diego, Calif., and finished Aug. 12 in St. Augustine, Fla. He traveled mostly along Adventure Cycling Association’s Southern Tier route, which I followed in the fall of 2009 on my own cross-country bicycle trip.
The idea for the sail-powered trike came from Phil MacTaggart, father of John MacTaggart. Here’s how the eureka moment is described on the company’s website:

MacTaggart's route

“While riding a trike on a windy day in rural Iowa and noticing how the recumbent trike’s low profile kept high winds from slowing it down as it does to a normal bike, Phil MacTaggart had an inspiration: the two front wheels of a trike could support a mast where a sail could be attached. The wind could then be used for propulsion. Phil MacTaggart began putting together the first prototype Pterosail.”
Phil MacTaggart sent an e-mail describing his brainchild to his son, a professional mariner who was working as an engineer aboard the USNS Bruce Heezen, an oceanographic ship charting the ocean floor off the coast of the Philippines. Once his sea tour was completed, John focused on improving and developing the “Pterosail,” named for the pterodactyl, a flying dinosaur, and pronounced “terra-sail,” sailing over land.
The machine that emerged from the brainstorming is a custom-built, street-legal three-wheeler that combines cycling, sailing and solar technologies. “It can even store power generated from the wind into batteries to assist with pedaling when the wind subsides,” the website says.
The electrical energy generated by the wind is stored in two 24-volt marine batteries, which can then be used to power a small electric-assist motor. The trike needs a wind of 8-10 mph to start moving down the road and can reach a speed of about 40 mph.
The video of MacTaggart on his cross-country journey shows the trike galloping along mostly on straight highways with a steady wind providing the power. But I wonder what skills are required to keep the trike on a straight course.
MacTaggart is a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and presumably a pretty good sailor as well as cyclist. But as one who has yet to master the rudiments of sail-trimming, I’d proably be a hazard to myself and others on the road while fussing with the sail in contrary winds.
I also wonder whether the trike would be vulnerable to capsize in the stiff cross winds frequently encountered in wide-open spaces like those in West Texas and whether the sail would be more trouble than it’s worth in climbing mountain passes with multiple switchbacks.
Finally, what if there’s no wind?
Nevertheless, the Pterosail is a very cool machine.


Filed under Americana, Cool stuff, Cycling across America, Journeys, Travels

A heavenly guardian

Judging from mayhem on the roads — in which cyclists are inevitably the losers in encounters with cars and trucks — the two-wheeled brotherhood and sisterhood could use a heavenly guardian.
It turns out, actually, that they have one: Our Lady of Ghisallo.
A chapel to Our Lady of Ghisallo is perched atop a steep hill in the small town of Magréglio, near Lake Como in northern Italy. Cyclists who climb the hill usually stop at the chapel to perhaps offer a prayer to other cyclists in peril on the roads and to visit the chapel’s collection of cycling memorabilia: pennants from cycling clubs around the world, jerseys of cycling champions and a selection of bikes whose riders made history.
According to a legend dating to medieval times, a local nobleman named Count Ghisallo was traveling near the village of Magréglio when he was set upon by highwaymen. He fled to an apparition of the Virgin Mary, pleaded for protection and was miraculously saved, the legend says.
Over the years, the Madonna del Ghisallo became known as the patroness of local travelers. In more recent times, cyclists would often stop to rest at the chapel after the grueling climb.

Inside the shrine

After World War II, the pastor at the chapel, Father Ermelindo Vigano, suggested that it become an Italian shrine for cyclists and that the Madonna be their patroness. Pope Pius XII acceded to the request and on Oct. 13, 1949, designated the Madonna of Ghisallo as the patroness of cyclists. Now, she even has a Facebook page.
An eternal flame at the chapel burns in memory of deceased cyclists, and they are commemorated with services on Christmas Eve and the Feast of All Souls on Nov. 2.
One of the worst examples of carnage on the roads involving cyclists occurred Dec. 5 at the opposite end of Italy from the shrine.
Eight cyclists were killed on a two-lane road near Lamezia Terme, in the Calabria region in the “toe” of Italy.
Police reports said that a speeding car driven by a man whose license had been revoked because of dangerous driving and who had been smoking marijuana plowed head-on into a group of cyclists affiliated with a local gym in Lamezia Terme. Besides the eight killed, four cyclists were injured.
Maybe the Madonna had the day off.

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Times do change. Thank goodness!

One of my most vivid memories of Ronald Reagan is in 1960s black and white.
As a pitchman for a heavy-duty powdered hand soap called Boraxo, Reagan hosted a TV show called Death Valley Days, which purported to tell true stories of the American West, particularly in the Death Valley area of California.

The first U.S. Christmas stamp

The program began with the intro: “As the early morning bugle call of the covered wagon trains fades away among the echoes, another true Death Valley Days is presented by the famous Borax family of products — 20 Mule Team Borax and Boraxo.”
Reagan, a B-movie actor and future president, hosted Death Valley Days in 1965 and 1966. During the show, he would tout the cleansing powers of Boraxo, good not only for cleaning hands, but for removing paint, soil stains, grease, shoe polish or wax.
The show was sponsored by the U.S. Borax Co., whose soap was made with borax, a white powder found in Death Valley. In the 1880s, the stuff was hauled out of the valley in wooden wagons pulled by teams of mules. I even sent away for a plastic model of the 20-mule team borax wagons, in a kit to be assembled and painted.
But all this has been a digression.
Reagan was also a pitchman for Chesterfield cigarettes. And I came across one of his best known magazine ads for Chesterfield while trolling the Internet for Christmas images that might end up on Jim’s Bike Blog.
Magazine ads from the 1950s and 1960s are a glimpse into another world, one in which smoking was a healthful practice recommended by doctors and women were best kept in the kitchen, using Dormeyer appliances. And wearing pearls, of course.
Times do change. Thank goodness!


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A healthcare plan on two wheels

For most employees in this depressed economy, Christmas bonuses are only a distant memory — if they’re remembered at all. At the newspaper where I worked before retiring in 2008, Christmas bonuses were phased out even before the recession, in a climate of industry consolidation, budget cuts, buyouts and layoffs.
But at least one company had a good year in 2010, and all 12,400 of its U.S. employees received a Christmas gift: a silver-colored, unisex, all-terrain bicycle (some assembly required).
The company is IKEA of Älmhult, Sweden, a global retailer of ready-to-assemble furniture and household goods with 37 stores in the United States. The bikes were presented simultaneously at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, just before the stores opened at 10 a.m.

The IKEA Christmas bike

“It’s been a good year for IKEA, so what better way to celebrate our success than to thank our IKEA co-workers who made this happen,” said Mike Ward, president of IKEA’s U.S. operations, based in Conshohocken, Pa., just outside Philadelphia.
“This is our way of saying ‘thanks IKEA co-workers for being strongly committed to working together.’ We hope this bike will be taken in the spirit of the season while supporting a healthy lifestyle and everyday sustainable transport.”
Sort of a healthcare plan on two wheels.
IKEA didn’t disclose the brand of the bike or the cost, but they were made specifically for IKEA employees — presumably at a bulk discount — to thank them for “great results and great team work,” company spokeswoman Mona Liss said in an e-mail. “It has been a good year for IKEA U.S. (and IKEA Global as well).”
The bikes have a white, yellow and blue stripe, colors in the IKEA logo, but not the logo itself.
“We don’t want people to think we manufacture bicycles,” Liss said.
By the way, in case you’ve ever wondered, the letters IKEA are an acronym made up of the initials of Ingvar Kamprad, who founded the company in Sweden in 1943, the farm where he grew up (Elmtaryd), and his home parish (Agunnaryd, in Småland, South Sweden), according to Wikipedia.

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The pull of the river

“To one who resides beside a river, its restless flowing can be as compelling as an eddy is for a piece of driftwood. A moving stream awakens the nomad in us. Its waters flow, as a riverboat captain once said, ‘out of the mystery above, into the mystery below.’ Who can watch the Mississippi without feeling the pull?”
— Norah Deakin Davis, preface to The Father of Waters: A Mississippi River Chronicle, 1982

Gateway Arch

As one who resided beside the Mississippi from birth into early adulthood, I can testify to the powerful allure of the Big River. As a kid, I fantasized about rafting down the river like Huck and Jim. Later, I saw that “strong brown god,” as T.S. Eliot called it, as a magic carpet that could transport a traveler far from my hometown, Alton, Ill., downriver to such exotic places as Memphis and New Orleans, and from there to the ports of all the seven seas.
I still travel frequently to Alton, perched on limestone bluffs a few miles upstream from St. Louis. I’ve bicycled down the river from Minneapolis to St. Louis and have frequented the bike trails along its banks in the Alton-St. Louis area.
But until this fall, I had never ridden a relatively new section of trail that allows a cyclist to travel from Alton to the Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis — a round trip of about 60 miles from my sister’s house in north Alton.
The newest portion of the route is the Riverfront Trail on the Missouri side of the river — 11 miles from the Missouri side of the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge to the waterfront in downtown St. Louis.
Planning for the Riverfront Trail began in 1987 and the first portion opened in 1999. But not until 2005 did the final segment open: the link between the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge and North Riverfront Park.
I had ridden several times from Alton, along trail and levee service road, and crossed the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge into Missouri. But I had turned around and headed back because I would have had to ride along busy Riverfront Boulevard, heavy with truck traffic, to get to downtown St. Louis.
With completion of the Riverfront Trail, you can now ride through a panorama of American history at one of the world’s great crossroads: Just upriver from Alton, at Grafton, the Mississippi is joined by the Illinois River, which brought French explorers to the Mississippi from the Great Lakes. Just downriver, between Alton and St. Louis, is the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri, which opened the Louisiana Purchase to waves of westward migration.
Along a paved trail just downriver from downtown Alton is the National Great Rivers Museum at the Melvin Price Locks and Dam. The museum, like the locks and dam, is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It provides an overview of the lay of the land and water of America’s most important river system, its flora and fauna and the history of human habitation.

Barge traffic on Chain of Rocks Canal

A few miles further down the trail near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri is the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, a fine museum on the Corps of Discovery’s expedition up the Missouri led by Capts. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark; a recreation of Camp DuBois, the fort where the Corps spent the winter of 1803-1804 before embarking May 14, 1804, on their exploration of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory; and the newly opened Confluence Tower, which affords a panoramic view of the meeting of the great rivers from a 150-foot-tall vantage point.
All along the Illinois side of the river, beginning just south of Alton, is a flood plain encompassing about 175 square miles, a region of extremely fertile farmland felicitously called the Great American Bottom.
“This soil cannot be surpassed in fertility by any land upon the globe,” traveler Richard Lee Mason wrote in 1819. “Eighty and one hundred bushels of corn to the acre are common crops without any labor except that which is necessary for planting. This, in truth, is the promised land — the land that flows with milk and honey.”
Still on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, a section of service road atop the levee passes along the Chain of Rocks Canal to the Illinois end of the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, a cycling and pedestrian path across the Mississippi into Missouri.
The Chain of Rocks Canal, excavated by the Army Corps of Engineers and opened Feb. 7, 1953, diverts river traffic around a series of rocky shoals across the Mississippi just upriver from St. Louis. At the southern end of the canal is Lock No. 27, the last of series of locks and dams that maintain a navigational channel at a minimum depth of nine feet from St. Paul, Minn., to St. Louis. Below the Chain of Rocks Canal, the river flows unfettered by locks and dams to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge was once the Mississippi River crossing for old Route 66, which, as the song says, “winds from Chicago to LA, more than 2,000 miles all the way.” Built in 1929 and closed in 1967 to motor traffic, the old Chain of Rocks Bridge is now a span for cyclists and pedestrians.
The bridge, fitted with such Route 66 memorabilia as road and motel signs and a vintage Texaco gas pump, offers a view of turbulent water rushing over the rocky ledges, two castle-like structures in the river just below the bridge that are intake towers for a St. Louis municipal water-treatment plant just downstream and the skyline of the city on the southern horizon.
The remaining 11 miles of the trail, including the newest parts, take a rider along the river through Riverview Park and then along the flood wall — sometimes inside and sometimes on the river side. It passes through the industrial northern edge of downtown, past the clatter and clutter of a scrap metal resalvage yard, rusting, derelict barges moored at bankside and a shantytown of ramshackle dwellings occupied by homeless people. The trail ends at the old Laclede Power Plant, built to supply electricity to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and now set for renovation as offices and as the St. Louis gateway to the trail upriver.
A poem by Jane Ellen Ibur, “Song of the Mississippi,” muralized on the flood wall, well describes this section of the trail: “Recalling time before man, I marvel at my landscape pocked with cement pilings, steel beams, factories belching soot that sinks to silt on my floor, stench of industry, erosion on my banks, tangled iron rods, broken-glass embedded.”
From the Laclede Power Plant, it’s a short ride south on Lewis and Commercial streets, past the old SS Admiral, a five-deck, Art Deco-style excursion steamer in her mid-century heyday, later a casino and now awaiting a new role — or the scrap yard.
Then it’s under the Eads Bridge, completed in 1874 as the city’s first span across the Mississippi, to a 91-acre green swath that’s home to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, otherwise known as the Gateway Arch.
The arch, one of America’s iconic structures like the Washington Monument, Statue of Liberty, Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building, was built in the 1960s to commemorate St. Louis’s role as the gateway of western expansion.
Designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen in 1947 and finished in 1965, the tapered curve of stainless steel soars to a height of 630 feet, the tallest memorial in the United States. At the base, the legs are 54 feet wide, narrowing to 17 feet at the top.
After a lunch of power bars and bananas, as I watched the tourists gaping at this modern American wonder and listened to Dixieland jazz wafting from a loudspeaker for an excursion company along the levee, I hopped back on the bike and headed back up the trail to Alton — a southerly wind at my back.
A long bicycle ride through familiar terrain, whose features and landmarks rekindle memories from childhood and adolsescence, affords ample time to ponder such things as “roots” — the place where you were born and the people you grew up with, a place that you’re continually drawn to even though you’ll probably never live there again.
I have a friend who feels most at home on the treeless plains of West Texas. Others prefer the mountains or a rock-bound sea coast. For me, it’s the Mississippi River, in all it’s moods, as it rolls inexorably to the sea.
Many songs have been written about the Mississippi. But one by Jimmie Rodgers from 1929, “Mississippi River Blues,” sums up pretty well the pull of the river on those who once lived beside it:
Oh you Mississippi River, with waters so deep and wide.
My thoughts of you keep risin’, just like an evening tide.
I’m just like a seagull that’s left the sea
Oh, your muddy waters keep on callin’ me.


Filed under History, Journeys, Literary musings, Travels, Uncle Ray