One Bike to Ride Them All

If you read my previous posts you can review the on-going evolution of my hybridized mountain bike. I decided that I want just one bike for local errands and recreation. I live in Seattle and the region has many rail trails and local governments that promote cycling.  So my bike needs to handle city streets and the obstacles as well as asphalt and gravel trails. Comfort, maneuverability, and load-carrying take precedent over speed.
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An Afternoon Bike Ride on Seattle Streets and Rail Trails

I was up for a good urban adventure last Wednesday, so I loaded up the bike and took off for a loop through downtown Seattle using as many rail trails as possible. I live in the northeast quadrant of Seattle and it is about 7 miles to the downtown area by the most direct route, but using rail trails and some connecting streets, I made a trip to the west side of the city, along the waterfront, back through the city center and back home in a 27 mile loop.

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A February Bike Ride on the Cedar River Trail

I gave my wife a ride to a conference in Renton Washington yesterday (2/11/15) and took the bike along. We haven’t traveled any of the rail trails south of Seattle and this was a good opportunity with little extra gas used. I had the southern section of the Interurban Trail in mind, but I checked for other trails in the area and found the Cedar River Trail that started a mile from the conference site.

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Evolution of a Rail Trail Bike

I’ve continued with the evolution and adaptation of a Novara Bonita mountain  bike for use on rail trails and gravel roads.

I started with the bike as found at Goodwill:

  • 16″ 6061 aluminum frame
  • Hayes MX2 disc brakes
  • Manitou Trace Comp 80 fork
  • Shimano Hollowtech crank set
  • Deore/Alivo drivetrain
  • WTB SpeedShe saddle
  • WTB rims and Weirwolf tires
The Novara Bonita bike as it came from the thrift store.
The Novara Bonita bike as it came from the thrift store.

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A ride on the Washington Iron Horse Trail and State Park

We got the thrift store fat tire bikes out last Monday and started September with a ride on the Iron Horse Trail, starting from the Rattlesnake Lake trailhead and turning around at the Alice Creek Campground, for a roughly 20 mile round trip.

The Iron Horse Trail is a Washington State Park, following the Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul-Pacific Railroad. Starting at Cedar Falls near North Bend, Washington, it continues for 110 miles through the Cascade mountains to the Columbia River near Vantage, Washington.

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A panorama from the trestle. I-90 is hidden in the tree below.


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We are standing on one of several trestles on the trail. A courteous passing cyclist offered to take our photo together.
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This is a good example of the trail surface condition and width. The gravel is a bit loose for our 32c commuter tires. It is much more comfortable and stable on the 1.5-1.9 tires on our hybrid fat-tire bikes.
The campground at Alice Creek. There are several of these small campsites along the trail with several tent pads, picnic tables and pit toilet.
The campground at Alice Creek. There are several of these small campsites along the trail with several tent pads, picnic tables and pit toilet.

We averaged 6-7 MPH on the way out. I thought it was just the fat tires and the loose gravel slowing us down, although I did notice the folk headed the other way were passing us at a good clip. It turns out we made quite a climb on the gentle slope of the old rail bed. We covered the return leg in one third the time, sailing along with little effort. We wished for long pants and more insulation– it was a little chilly on the way down.

The Cascade Rail Trail on Thrift Store Bikes

Today we drove to the town of Sedro Wooley, Washington and rode part of the Cascade Trail to the tiny town of Hamilton. We used our thrift store fat tire bikes to manage the flat gravel trail.

In the last couple weeks I found Trek Navigator 50 and Specialized Hardrock bikes, both have step-through frames and were under $40 each. I did some brake repairs on the Trek, upgraded the seat and added some Blackburn Click LED lights. My previous post is on the Hardrock and the upgrades I made on it, with a new seat, rack and lights.

These are not performance bikes by any means, but they are fine for riding like this. Rail trails are usually very flat and could be easily ridden on a single speed bike. The fat tires on these comfort-oriented hybrid bikes add traction and stability on the loose gravel surface and cut down the vibration and smooth out the bumps. I worry much less about having them stolen from the car rack while traveling— yes I do lock them to the rack.

The packs and panniers are all thrift store finds as well: TransIt panniers, a Nashbar trunk bag and a Roswheel handlebar bag.

Thrift store Specialized Hardrock

Thrift store Trek Navigator 50

We had lunch at a viewpoint on the Skagit River with a great view of the valley, surrounded by the peaks of the North Cascades. We parked our bikes and walked up to the riverbank when a great blue heron rose from the water just below and flapped off like a pterodactyl, landing on a far off sandbar.

Views of the Skagit river and the North Cascades
Views of the Skagit river and the North Cascades. The Cascade Trail continues to the east.

We continued to the village of Lyman, Washington with a fantastic old town hall.

Lyman town hall

We made it to Hamilton, Washington, about 12 miles from our starting point, took a quick tour of the town center and head for home.


The trail is a 12; wide flat gravel path reclaimed from the old railway bed. It passes houses, farms and wetlands along the way. Much of it is shaded and a great place to bike on a warm summer afternoon.

Cascade Trail

We saw very few people on the trail— fewer than a dozen over 4 hours. It is a wonderful resource and seemed underutilized on a sunny August Sunday afternoon.


The Snoqualmie Valley Rail Trail

We got out for a ride last week on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, between the towns of Duvall and Carnation, Washington. We got a late start and the weather was cloudy and gray and threatening rain. We had walked a few miles of the southern portion of the trail a month ago and I was curious about this northern section that follows the Snoqualmie River. The banner photo above is from the trail a couple miles south of Rattlesnake Lake at the north end of the trail. This section runs very flat and mostly straight for about 11 miles between McCormick Park in Duvall and Tolt-McDonald Park on edge of Carnation.

We started out about 1 PM on a Wednesday afternoon and found the trail nearly vacant, which is so different form our usual experience on the heavily traveled Burke-Gilman and Sammamish River Trails. We had a leisurely ride out through the pastures, corn fields and wetlands of the valley.

The path surface is mostly 5/8″ minus crushed gravel and packed down well. There is some forest duff or dirt mixed in on some parts. We are both running 32C tires with a touring/randonnuer tread and I didn’t know what to expect. Neither of us have any real experience riding off pavement, so this was a bit of an experiment. I figured we could always turn around if the going got too rough. We did ride the Interurban Trail south of Bellingham, Washington earlier this summer and this is fairly similar– just a bit rougher overall. We did notice that the rougher surface effects speed and coasting power. The only time we felt at all challenged was where loose gravel collected at the ends of the short bridges.

We rode along at 10-12mph and took in the fresh air and views, traveling just 22 miles round trip. It is odd to be on a road that is so straight in this area. With all the hills and waterways, there is no lack of twisting curves. On the path there were sections that you could it going off into infinity for a couple miles.

We like to hike and these more rural rail trails are much more like forest hiking. I have one fat tire bike in the project cue and I’m looking for another. These trips are short enough that we really don’t need expensive technically sophisticated bikes to enjoy them, but a little more traction and cushion from fat tires would be great.


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A typical farm road crossing on the trail
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There are sections that run arrow straight for a couple miles across the countryside. You can almost feel the old trains rumbling along.
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There is a suspension bridge at Tolt-MacDonald park leading to the campground. The bridge is not part of the trail.

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Rail Trail Misadventures

Have you traveled a busy rail trail by bike? I enjoy the exercise, being outdoors and exploring these trails, but they aren’t always a quiet ride in the country. Sunny weekend days can make them very busy and there can be weekday commuter rush hours too.

A first glance the trails seem like a refuge from car traffic and the safe way to travel by your own power, but I’ve witnessed some crazy stunts by trail users that make me pay attention while I’m on the path.

Road bikers: there are lots of road bikes on the metropolitan paths I travel. The smooth pavement and long stretches with no crossings or other complications make a place where the skinny tire crowd can get into the high gears and roll. They are playing in the same place as walkers, runners, skaters, skate boarders and other bikers traveling at much lower speeds. That makes for riders hunched over the handlebars pushing for some personal speed/distance goal or just the thrill of going fast under their own power, zig-zagging through elderly walkers, kids on bikes, baby strollers and folk like me who are riding at 12mph vs the road bikes’ 20+mph clip. Some trails are posted with a 15mph, but that makes no difference.

Passing quagmires: bike paths are generally 12 feet wide and can be narrower. Passing is much like passing in a car, but riders like to cut it close and there seems to be less sense of the danger. When you have walkers and bikes two abreast, a family with a trailer and a wobbly kid on a bike and throw in a bridge or a blind curve, it can get way too interesting and 12 feet gets very small. Add passing bikes in both directions and you have a lovely combination. Try passing in a road crossing with pipes or timbers sticking up to block motor vehicles from the path. It’s like an obstacle in a video game. It’s all a lot like driving in Italy!

There is some reality disconnect when people get on bikes: the laws of physics, traffic laws, common sense and simple courtesy are all suspended. That lovely human trait of self-centeredness comes out with the sunshine I’m afraid. I think that some like to do on bikes what they would do in cars if they could get away with it. Add a big dose of living life in a rush.

As the comedian Ron White has said, “you can’t fix stupid.” I’ve seen too much of that on bikes. There was the fellow I saw riding a bike the wrong way down a one way street with no helmet and smoking. If he wouldn’t smoke, he would make a much better organ donor. And those riders I see with their helmets hanging from their handlebars. What leap of faith and logic is THAT?

Or four people who decide to stop in the middle of the trail for a chat. Not off to the side mind you, but smack dab in the middle, with a front wheel askew and taking up another foot or two. I guess it is THEIR trail and they are just letting the rest of us use it.

Dogs: I like to walk my dog and they need close supervision on a path with bikes. And short leashes. I’ve had a couple dog walkers with retractable leashes strung right across the trail like a clothesline! Another case of it being THEIR trail. Assume nothing when passing a dog and don’t expect good behavior: I’ve seen a couple “lungers” out there.

Every once in a while you will get tight quartered obstacles like the trail going through blind and narrow S-curves under a bridge with fencing, railings or rock walls too. The trail designers thoughtfully add a line down the middle of the trail, but painted lines aren’t very tall and are far more theory than barriers.

Paint! White lines in the rain are infamous for falls, as well as metal grates, manhole covers, and trolley tracks. A couple weeks ago we were riding a detour section of the Burke-Gilman Trail where it passes through the University of Washington campus. The detour has some large bike path symbols painted on the asphalt: 3’x5′ green rectangle with a white outline of a bike. With a little rain and some road grime buildup, a summer rain shower made them deadly slick. I warned my companion and not 30 seconds later, rider behind me initiated a turn right on top of one of those symbols and the bike popped out from under her. She was going slow enough and had the reflexes to actually land on her feet. Amazing! I would have been hamburger for sure.

Last weekend I watched one of a herd of road bikers riding on the “wrong” side straight into a blind S-curve with no escape possible. I have no idea what people are thinking when they do such things. I don’t think they understand how much it will HURT when they have a head-on collision on a bike.

Sunday, I came upon an older road biker laying on his back on the pavement, tangled in his bike and not getting up. There was a fellow with in-line skates bending over him and I assume they had some sort of collision. I got 20 feet past and pulled completely off to the side to see if they needed help and a road biker behind me passed so close that he knocked my pannier off the mount. He skidded past, staying upright and kept right on going— while I brought up the highlights of his family history out loud. The biker on the ground started to move, with a huge bloody scrape on his elbow. With both conscious and moving, I left them to work it out. This was on a straight wide section of trail and I can’t figure out what they did. My guess is a sloppy close quarter pass on the biker’s part.

Traffic lights and crosswalks: people seem to have no sense of left or right if they aren’t in a car. Maybe they don’t in their cars as well! This is well illustrated at trail crosswalks where people charge off like race horses, going every which way with all the walkers and baby strollers leaping into the intersection at the same time. Bikers who were not waiting at the light come roaring up to make the light. Add an impatient right-turning vehicle to finish the salad.

Crossings are all dicey in general. The stop signs on trails are universally ignored and people fail to check for turning cars. There is some confusion by bikers and drivers alike as to who needs to stop when. Some bikers think that always have the right of way and act more like pedestrians. Assuming that a car will stop or even see you is a recipe for broken bones.

I think many riders fail to grasp the effect of a vehicle on a human body. There are no seat belts, no air bags and certainly no cocoon of steel. If a car hits you, it is going to hurt a lot and for a long time— if you survive. As my father says, the graveyards are full of people who had right of way.

Walkers: give them lots of room, for they know not what they do. If you haven’t ridden a bike on the trail, you don’t have the same perspective. Some are very young and not under good supervision. Others don’t seem to sense the danger of the passing traffic and will turn or change direction with no warning.

Likewise inexperienced bikers. They will stop when and where it suits them and no telling what direction they will go when they start peddling again. You can spot them by the bike and their clothes: no jerseys, black stretch shorts, streamlined helmets or wrap sunglasses. More likely some gray hair, extra pounds, upright handlebars, fat tires and a seat the size of a cattle ranch.

I do use a bell and my voice to warn others of my approach and passing. Road bikers are notorious for not warning when passing, or nearly whispering the traditional “on your left.” If the person being passed has the wind in their ears, they may not hear you. What is needed is a good “command voice” announcement—- with enough lead time to react.

Of course everyone needs to slow down, especially when it is congested. It’s no huge effort to back off for 20 seconds to let the people in front of you sort out a bit. Charging up to pass when there are multiple layers of people on the trail is just begging for a collision. Some common sense and courtesy would go a long way. Be aware of other people and your place in the stream of traffic.

So this is the playground! Wear your hemet, be careful, have fun—- and stay out of the ER.