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Thursday, 6 September 2007
Bike trip, 11 - Do you know the way to Sche-nec-ta-day?
Topic: travel

I spoke too soon (see installment 10). Someone or a force of nature removed my edits from the USMC insignia on the River Trail. So I’m issuing a call to peace vandals. Your help is needed. And your paint.

But enough for now on the fine arts. Let’s transport ourselves to Route 50 between Saratoga Springs and Scotia, a 21-mile stretch that leads to Schenectady’s north portal at the Mohawk River.

To tell the truth, I missed some of the sights along this route, mostly because I was in a hurry to catch a mid-day train in Schenectady. This is a city that use to be a real destination, at least before General Electric pulled its own plug and largely abandoned the area.

Even though two major east-west rail passenger services and a north-south one go through the heart of downtown, Schenectady is still much too quiet. It does have a beautiful historic district, though, with pretty good vital signs. (So why did I have to go there? Basically, the vicissitudes, or follies, of modern American rail travel. I was hoping to board the Amtrak Adirondack at the Fort Edward station, but it turns out that this station doesn’t provide checked baggage service, which is required if you’re going to bring a standard bike aboard. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I’d have to go farther south and catch the Empire or Lake Shore Limited.)

It was my own fault that I had to hurry. If I’d been a responsible bicycle tourist and got up at dawn in my cheap motel room near Saratoga, then passed up my habitual sit-down breakfast with bottomless coffee mug and morning paper, I would have had loads of time to cruise and lollygag the whole way to Schenectady. But no, as usual, I took my sweet time waking up and so had to pump like crazy to get to the station.

Whatever your daily biorhythms, you’ll find that Route 50 has good features. It passes by Saratoga Springs State Park, where woodlands and campgrounds surround the venerable spa where generations came to “take the waters.” And there’s the entrance to the Performing Arts Center, summer home to the Philadelphia Orchestra and New York City Ballet. The orchestra is there only in August, so I came too early to hear a performance. But I thought back to concerts there years – decades – ago, and heard in my kind’s ear snatches of the LPs that were my daily bread when I was a kid, back during the reign of conductor Eugene Ormandy. The Philly had such big, rich sound, just what appealed to a kid who thought music began with Schubert and ended with Brahms.

The musical qualities of Route 50, though, are less appealing. Though the paved shoulder is accommodating, the roadway gets louder and more crowded as you go south, especially once you’ve passed through the charming old-style village of Ballston Spa.

One incident from this leg of the ride stands out in memory. Near Ballston I approached one of those acute-angled intersections that inspire drivers to do jackrabbit starts, and make bicyclists hit the brakes. A young woman in a sporty sedan zipped up to the stop sign, obviously intent on ignoring it; she looked over her left shoulder at me as I neared the intersection doing maybe 25 mph (or faster, since I was on a gentle downhill, and as I said, pressed for time). The two of us made eye contact, but that didn’t stop the woman from gunning it just as I got close. I had to brake really hard - as I hard as I could, given my hand-position on the brake hoods. The woman, of course, blasted down the road with no apparent regrets.

(Let’s pause for a note to all bikers who use classic drop handlebars: If your bars are equipped with “auxiliary brake levers,” an add-on that does have some advantage for kids riding on sidewalks, take them off and throw them away! The auxiliary levers don’t give much braking power, and if you apply them while riding at higher speeds, you may suddenly find yourself thrown over the bars – a classic “header” – because you’re too high in the saddle and thus have too high a center of gravity for your own good. Once you’ve gotten rid of the levers, learn how to hit the brakes from the hoods as well as from the drops, and keep your brakes properly adjusted.)

You may have experienced an intersection of this type. There may or may not be a stop or yield sign on the side road, but no matter: the motorist just floors it and tries to merge with the main flow of traffic without really stopping first, or even looking for oncoming traffic. And of course there’s a larger problem: Even in the best circumstances, too many motorists consider bicycles a marginal presence that should be segregated onto a path way off the pavement, preferably up in the woods or somewhere in the next county and truly invisible.

I am not exaggerating here; the existence of this attitude is one reason some biking advocates, notably the followers of writer-consultant John Forester, oppose the construction of bike lanes and segregated trails. These advocates fear that separate-and-unequal facilities will lead to bicyclists’ being thrown off the public roads altogether. Sometimes I think they’ve got a point.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 23:34 EDT
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