Cyclocross Chronicles

It’s been a couple of weeks since I decided to play around with my beater bike and try cyclocross. Here’s the scoop.

What I did:

When my knobby 32 mm tires came, I glued them onto the wheels I built last summer.

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Aren’t those gorgeous? Plus, for traction, cyclocross tires use much lower pressures than road tires. Low pressure = comfort. These have 40 psi in them, and that feels perfect for all kinds of terrain.

I removed the water bottle cages.

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The cages would get in the way when you have to put your arm through the frame to carry the bike on steep or unrideably-muddy stretches. Since the longest cyclocross competition lasts about an hour, there is no need for hydration en route.

I switched to a shorter stem and raised the bars a bit from where they were before.

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Because the speeds are so slow compared to road rides, there is no need to maintain a streamlined aerodynamic position. Also, the shorter reach helps to maintain control over rough sections.

Because I had to remove the old handlebar tape to change stems, I replaced it with cotton twill cloth tape.

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Where has this been all my life? Granted, after a half dozen rides it is starting to look dirty, but this is not about style. This tape gives me incredible grip without feeling tacky or spongy like others do. I like the feeling of firmness and control.

I changed the saddle.

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I took this one from an old mountain bike. It’s not leather, but in cyclocross the tires constantly throw mud and water up onto and under the saddle. The synthetic composition of this one will withstand the elements much better. Also, this saddle has a narrower profile than the ones I use for road cycling. This makes things easier when I need to dismount to run or remount after running.

I swapped for the double-sided pedals that had been on my mountain bike.

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Because cyclocross necessitates transition from riding to running and back so often, I thought it was much more important to have these on this bike than on my mountain bike.

I left my gearing alone.

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Combined with a 39-tooth small chainring, this 14-28 five-speed freewheel gives me all the range I need.

I kept the moustache bars.

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These are much wider than those I would use on a road racing bike. but the wide stance gives me lots of control and stability on downhill and technical sections. Also, these bars put your hands in a great position for climbing, much better than drop bars.

So there she is:

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(Gratuitous shot of bike and new-to-me workstand.)

I’m so proud of her. So now that I have a dozen rides under my belt, what are my thoughts on cyclocross so far?

Things I like:

I stay warm. For one thing, he speeds are much slower than those of road rides. There is no easy riding on a cyclocross trail. You’re either riding through grass, thick mud, or snow, and when you can’t ride any more you pick up the bike and run. Also, the trails are generally narrow openings in woods, protected from most of the wind. In all the years I’ve been cycling, I have never found a way to keep my hands and feet warm while riding on the road in cold weather. You name a glove or boot or overshoe that is guaranteed to keep you warm, and I’ve tried it, unsuccessfully. On the other hand, this past weekend I finished a ride having worked up a lather sweating, while wearing normal wool socks and thin running gloves. When I checked the temperature, I was shocked to discover it was 34 Fahrenheit. I never could have lasted if I had been on an open road at 17 or 18 mph.

The rides are shorter. Bicycles are such efficient machines that it normally takes three or four hours to get a worthwhile workout. That’s fine in the summer, but winter evening comes much earlier, and I like to pack in as much activity as I can in a day. Because you work so much harder just to maintain your forward momentum in cyclocross, you can get a decent workout in an hour.  For me, that means being able to go home, clean the bike, shower, read for a while, and still go out with my wife for sushi before it gets too late.

There aren’t the usual road hazards. Whether it’s traffic, glass and other detritus, or red lights and stop signs, there are lots of things that can break up road rides. I’d much rather avoid a tree root that nature put in my way, or stop for a family of ducks to cross my path, than deal with anything man-made.

 

Things I don’t like:

People walking unleashed dogs. In the state where I live, dogs must be on leashes when they are in public. But no matter where I go, there seems to be someone who can’t be bothered to leash his pet. So here I am, trying to maintain control of a skinny, light bike on a technical trail, and along comes Fluffy, running into my path and jumping up on me when I stop so I don’t hit him. Invariably, the owner lollygags around the bend and says, “It’s all right. He’s friendly.” Well, you might be friendly too, but if you jumped on me, that would be assault, pal. I love dogs, but you don’t know that. It takes a really selfish, entitled person to assume someone else doesn’t mind being jumped on by a dog.

That’s it. My dislikes constitute a really short list. Notice, also, that the dislike list has nothing to do with cyclocross itself. Unleashed dogs can ruin any activity I want to keep to myself.

There really is no satisfactory way to avoid the presence of others.

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Sorry I’m Late; I Was Going Even More Retro

I did not post an essay this past Friday because a package arrived via the UPS guy.

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It was 25 inches square and three inches thick. Any guesses? Of course! The new rims to replace my worn-out MA 40.

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They were beautiful.

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(Many thanks to Ben’s Cycle for having these lying around.)

Do you notice something odd about these rims and/or look at the listing? That’s right; I went with tubulars for training.

For those of you who don’t know, tubular tires contain the casing, tread, and inner tube sewn up in a single flexible unit. Off the bike, they look like this:

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and when you’re out riding you carry the whole thing folded up:

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Or if you’re in a time warp back to the early twentieth century, you wear them in some sort of strange fashion statement:

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Tubulars stay in place by a combination of air pressure, when inflated, and a special glue applied to the rims. They have a reputation amongst cyclists these days for being tricky to mount, because of the glue, dangerous, if not glued properly, delicate, because the casing is not as tough and rigid as that on most clincher tires, and expensive, because you cannot simply change inner tubes after getting a flat.

(The tires themselves had arrived the day before from Yellow Jersey in Wisconsin. If you take a look at his site, he has a great deal to say about this type of tire.)

So, why did I choose to build this kind of wheel, if there seem to be so many disadvantages? First, it’s traditional. A vintage bicycle deserves to have the type of components for which it was designed, whenever this is possible.

Second, I think they are easier and quicker to change if you get a flat. Instead of levering the tire off of its mounting bead, removing the damaged inner tube, checking the casing of the tire for the debris that caused the flat (I sliced my finger open quite badly doing this during a ride once), inserting a new inner tube, and coaxing the tire back onto the rim, you simply peel off the old tire and stretch the new one on in its place. Riding the brakes lightly for a few minutes re-melts and activates the dried glue, and you’re off.

Third, tubulars feel good in a way that I cannot quantify. Riding on clinchers feels as though the bicycle will do as much as the effort you put into it, nothing more, nothing less. If the road is rough, you notice the friction. It’s pretty much a zero-sum-game. But when you have tubulars on the bike, there is a sense of riding on a coiled spring. It feels as though there is potential energy stored in the bike/wheel system, and the slightest touch on the pedals unleashes what the bike wants to do: take off. I know that the people who measure these things will say that, “These is no evidence that tubular tires have a lower rolling resistance than high-quality clinchers, blah, blah, blah.” All right, maybe not. But I’m telling you they just feel different. And better different, not just different.

Fourth, and probably best of all, other cyclists have priceless reactions when I mention wanting to ride on tubulars. Before I found the rims on ebay, I was poking around in a shop that specializes in restoring vintage bicycles. When I mentioned that I was looking for tubular rims, he looked at me with incredulity, and just said, “Clinchers!” When I talked to the owner of my local bike shop about my project, he asked if I knew what I was doing, and he did not mean building the wheel to be round, straight, and properly-tensioned. He meant using tubulars. People just cannot get their heads around the idea. Look at this discussion, where an amateur in the United States criticizes European professional cyclists for using tubulars in the twenty-first century. Similar incredulity exists because professionals still use rim brakes and not disk brakes on their road bikes. These guys are the best in the world at what they do, and they make a living by riding bikes. But clearly they are mistaken in their choice of equipment. (Really?) I guess I just cannot understand why anybody gets so worked up about the equipment that someone else uses. If you want to use clinchers, carbon wheels, aerodynamic handlebars, and disk brakes, go ahead. It does not affect me in the slightest. But why do people feel the need to tell me I’m wrong for using what I want to use?

I’m beginning to think that nobody today can think for himself. People look to others to justify their own choices. (Why do people in Massachusetts need to say they want their coffee “regular,” when they mean with cream and sugar? Because that’s the normal, correct way to take it, of course. So cream-only would be “irregular?”) If the social media say that everyone rides a certain kind of tire, then it must be true. There cannot be any deviation. This would make a cyclist unsure as to whether his purchasing decisions were correct. I think that, deep down, there is a fear in anyone who constantly follows trends and upgrades that he might have been duped.

What if a guy on a steel bike rides faster than I do on my carbon fiber bike? What if a guy with rim brakes can stop as well as I can with my disk brakes? What if a guy with a wooden tennis racquet can beat me and my hyper-carbon-oversized-widebody racquet? What if a guy with a telescope made of plumbing parts can find deep-sky objects and see them as well as I can with my GPS-enabled, computerized scope? So many people now equate performance with the purchase of new and “better” equipment that they seem unable to understand the two things are not the same. I cherish upsetting people’s worldview when I show up with my retro anything!

Back to my story. Being the World’s Cheapest Human Being, I switched over the spokes and hubs from my old wheels (don’t worry; my local mechanic assured me they were safe), and carefully and slowly, over the course of last Friday, built my new tubular wheels.

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Did I mention that I am the World’s Cheapest Human Being? I went on to make my own tire savers to flick glass, stones, and thorns out of the tire treads before they cause punctures:

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Over the weekend, I went for a shakedown ride and made some truing adjustments, and the wheels feel great!

I look forward to upsetting cyclists everywhere when they see me using them.

Here’s Another Way to Think About It

The performance of some of the riders in this year’s Tour de France means it’s time once again for the discussion of performance-enhancing drugs.

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In stage 10 on July 14th, last year’s winner, Vincenzo Nibali, lost a great deal of time on the type of mountain stage he dominated last year. “I’m not the same Vincenzo Nibali as last year,” he himself admitted. His team, Astana, have not helped the situation. Cycling’s governing body, the UCI, considered revoking Astana’s racing license after five riders (but not Nibali) were caught doping. Their manager, Alexander Vinokourov, was suspended during his cycling career for improper blood transfusions. Clearly, this raises the question of whether Nibali won last year’s Tour “cleanly.” It would be hardly surprising if we learned that Nibali is avoiding whatever he took last year because of the increased scrutiny of his team. [Update: while I sit writing this, news just broke that Vinokourov has told Nibali to look for a new team next year because of his disappointing performance. Is that the aroma of hypocrisy?]

This year’s current leader, Chris Froome, who is climbing like Nibali did last year, uses an inhaler to treat asthma during races. We all know that there is no possibility he would ever use this to gain an advantage over his opponents when it wasn’t medically necessary. (That level of sarcasm causes physical pain.) Indeed, most everyone remembers the recent high-profile disqualifications of Alberto Contador, Floyd Landis, Lance Armstrong, and the entire Festina team in 1998. Top riders’ use of substances to perform better is inextricably linked to the history of the sport: Pedro Delgado in the ’80s, Eddy Merckx in the ’70s, Tom Simpson in the ’60s, Charly Gaul in the ’50s, Fausto Coppi in the ’40s, and the Pelissier brothers in the ’20s. (That’s a fascinating story. Read about it here.) In fact, I’m surprised when anyone acts surprised each time a new case rears its head.

Baseball has also faced its share of performance-enhancing drug scandals. Steroid use has tainted the achievements of Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Barry Bonds, and Mark McGwire, to name a few. In addition, amphetamine use has historically been common in order to help players gain an energy boost to deal with a long, hot season. This was responsible for the widespread cocaine use among major leaguers in the ’70s and ’80s. (Interestingly, Luca Paolini exited this year’s Tour de France after he tested positive for cocaine. Everything old is new again?)

It seems that we all love to see “cheaters” get what’s coming to them. Fans applaud when Major League Baseball puts an asterisk next to Barry Bonds’ career and single-season home run records. Fans hold up signs saying that Babe Ruth set his records while consuming nothing more than beer and hot dogs, forgetting (or never knowing because they fell asleep in U. S. History class) that beer was ILLEGAL for most of Ruth’s career.

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Fans hope Lance Armstrong loses his sponsorship after winning seven tainted Tours de France. Fans hope Alex Rodriguez never makes the Hall of Fame.

Did you catch what was the same in all of those instances? These sentiments come from fans of sport. Who has not, at one time or another, dreamed of PLAYING a sport for a living? Who does not like to imagine that what our sporting heroes do in the competitive arena is not really that different from what we do, and we all could have been there except for my broken collarbone in 1990 or my parents’ lack of support for anything competitive in my youth? (Wow. My therapist would have a field day with that one.) The unethical things athletes do in order to excel spoil this fantasy for us.

Almost everyone forgets that competing at a sport is a professional athlete’s job. It’s how he pays the bills, feeds the family, and keeps up on the mortgage payments. I’ll bet that when a pro athlete talks about his job over dinner at home, it sounds remarkably similar to when we do it: “I can’t believe my boss [coach]. Do you know what he made me do? File all of the paperwork while his secretary was on vacation [bunt to move the runner over/carry water bottles for the other riders]! Why doesn’t he appreciate me?”

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“But wait,” you say, “they make so much more money than I do that it’s not the same thing!” Oh, but it is. Why did you file the paperwork when you did not want to? Because you knew that there was a job seeker out there who would willingly do the filing, and  for less money than you make. So, clearly, a person who is trying to preserve his job from the intense competition out there will do whatever it takes to keep an edge. Fausto Coppi hit the nail on the head when he stated (in 1949) that a cyclist had to take amphetamines to remain competitive. If the taking of performance-enhancing drugs is rampant, an athlete must do so, just to level the playing field. Regardless of their rate of compensation, if an athlete does not perform, he will be replaced, just like you  (or Nibali).

Still not convinced? In essence, what is a professional athlete? First, he is an entertainer. He only makes more money than you do because you pay to see him do his job. If he doesn’t do what you want to see (go fast, hit far, break records), you’ll stop paying, and he’ll be replaced by someone who does what you want, even with the help of performance-enhancing drugs. Second, he is an advertiser. Companies pay athletes good money to wear logos and endorse products.

(My favorite cycling endorsement this year is a caffeinated shampoo!)

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Will you still be willing to buy the product if the athlete flies out all the time, or finishes at the back of the peloton? No. The sponsors want athletes to do well, regardless of what it takes. It seems the only ones who care about “pure competition,” who are upholding some mythical standard of sports performance, are the customers, and they are the reason athletes “cheat.”

What if we had these expectations for other professionals in our lives? Be honest. Would you ever say: “Well, the vegetables got to my supermarket in time for my week’s grocery shopping, but that’s tainted by the fact that the tractor trailer driver broke speed limits to get here. I won’t buy them?”

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You want the vegetables.

Would you ever say: “My realtor found me my dream house, and she got in touch with me so quickly that I beat out all of the other bidders, but she should not have used her mobile phone while driving. I’ll pass on the house?”

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You’ll take the house.

Would you ever say: “That actress only looks good because she took an illegal and dangerous weight-loss drug. I’m boycotting her movie and pin-up pictures?”

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You’ll do whatever it is you do while watching that movie and looking at those pictures.

Would you ever say: “I’m going to give back all of the money my stock broker made me, because he used some inside information when conducting my trades?”

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You’ll open a Swiss bank account.

So, am I saying that it’s all right that athletes cheat? No way. I hate when anybody breaks rules, including the truck driver, realtor, actress, and stock broker.

I just want you to remember that when professional athletes dope, It’s our fault.

Let Him Without Sin Cast the First Stone

When we were in high school, my friend Wes decided that we should get into competitive cycling. It was a heady time: Alexi Grewal had won the men’s cycling road race at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Greg LeMond was starting to make waves in the European peloton, and bicycles were beautiful.

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(Tell me I’m wrong. I dare you.)

Anyway, I had fun training, but I was hopeless at racing. Since college, I have ridden varying amounts from year to year, and I’ve begun to train more seriously in the last three. It takes some courage and dedication, as cyclists encounter many hazards in the course of a ride. To show you what I mean, I took a gentle sixteen-mile spin on a summer afternoon, and I encountered all of the following.

First, the pavement on the part of the road I use is awful.

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And it continues.

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(What line can I take?)

And, lest you thing this is an isolated area, look at this:

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“That’s not so bad,” you might be saying. But look more closely:

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See that? The town has re-painted the lines over the places where the top layer has chipped away. It considers this normal!

Some of the permanent road fixtures can cause problems, too.

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In order to avoid that grating, I’d need to be in the gravel on the right-hand side or halfway out into the lane of traffic. And here’s how the town alerts drivers to that possibility:

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(That will be hidden by the brush in a matter of weeks.)

There are plenty of hazards if I stay to the right. Some can cause flats and/or crashes:

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sticks,

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bars of sharp, rusty metal,

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elevated drains and protruding barrels,

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objects made for puncturing other things.

But wait, there’s more.

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If the rock doesn’t crash you, the gravel still can.

Here’s an oldie but a goodie:

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(“One third more flats than our regular beer.”)

This looks promising and picturesque:

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But beware! Because here a picture is worth exactly one word:

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(Insert your favorite excremental euphemism.)

The cow sign was a warning, not a promise.

Some thing I see just make me wonder.

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(“Many roadway users ignore the importance of oral hygiene. Imagine trying to avoid oncoming traffic with popcorn husks lodged in your teeth. A recipe for disaster.”)

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At least they’re concerned about skin cancer.

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That must have been an interesting night.

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(“Fore!”)

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I have absolutely no idea.

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Got tired of scrubbing dishes while driving?

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(“Nevermore.”)

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(“Light my fire!”)

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(“Since you’ve already lost your shoe, Junior, there’s no reason to keep your sock on.”)

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Racist.

The detritus by the side of the road can really throw a

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into your ride.

Given the amount of litter that, at best, spoils the scenery, and, at worst, can injure you, it’s not surprising that cyclists often campaign for clean, safe, well-paved roads. That’s why I am so surprised to note a peculiar phenomenon in the past few months.

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What’s that?

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Some CYCLIST, eating a natural source of potassium, just jettisoned the skin into the path of other riders. Just a little way up the road,

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another,

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And another!

This is dangerous. Question: why has the banana peel been a staple of slapstick comedy for a century?

 

If you said “Low coefficient of static friction,” you’re correct! There are enough hazards out there without cyclists themselves creating slipping danger. Plus it’s unsightly. “But,” you’re saying, “a banana is natural! It will just biodegrade.” Well, consider the following peel cluster:

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They dry out and blacken, but they don’t go away. You can still see the sticker on this one:

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This one’s been around so long that it has become part of a litter still-life:

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Here’s what it looks like when a cyclist throws one on someone’s lawn:

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Riders are not only throwing banana peels. They are tossing orange peels

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and even water bottles before climbs.

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(“That’s so pro.”)

I know what you’re thinking now: “How do you know cyclists threw those thing away and not drivers?” I posit that, these days, this

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(“Supersize!”)

is far more likely to have come from an automobile.

So, why are cyclists doing this? Are they trying to look like pros? They still don’t. Are they marking their territory like dogs?

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Disgusting. If we as cyclists want people to be considerate of us and stop littering, we need to lead by example. Bring a plastic sandwich bag and carry your garbage home. Otherwise, all we’ll have is

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‘Murica the Beautiful,

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the land of the free and the home of the bros.

Let’s be better than that.