Bike Computers and Party Poopers...

Summer 2004, Valley Sports News & Review

I've got a new toy.

Okay, I admit it -- I'm a sucker for bicycle shops, always window-shopping for the latest shiny new gadgets and gewgaws. (though if my wife asks, tell her I'm doing "research.")

But last month I finally gave in to temptation and actually bought something. Granted, a bike computer isn't some handlebar-mounted laptop that allows you to surf the Internet or anything ­ it's just a high-faluting name for a combination odometer, speedometer and clock. And the SigmaSports 800 model I bought is your basic entry level item, nowhere near the top of the line. Still, it's a far cry from the clunky hard-to-read analog odometer that, clamped against my front wheel, literally clicked off the miles on my first big bike tour through Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island back in the eighties.

Today's bike computer is truly a high-tech wonder to behold. A slick miniature screen offers steady but silent readouts on everything from the most basic time, speed and distance info to instantly calculated mean averages, elapsed times, trip lengths, cumulative totals and more. Not much bigger than a digital watch, it can be mounted in plain view right on your handle bar. A thin wire travels down to a small sensor on your front fork, which lines up with a tiny magnet clipped onto a spoke. Every time the magnet passes by, the data travels along the wire (or is beamed up ­ there are now wireless models) to the unit, which translates the info and displays it. Some bike computers also offer thermometer or stopwatch functions, and some can be programmed to be shared between two bikes with different wheel sizes. Most bike computers are easily detachable, so swapping one between two bikes -- your mountain bike and your road bike, for example ­ is a snap.

Not such a snap, I'm almost embarrassed to admit, was the installation. I always thought I was a fairly capable dude with a screwdriver and a wrench but the promised "easy install" really sandbagged my ego. The instruction booklet offered cryptic directions in a jabbering multitude of languages (English, French, Spanish, Japanese, ancient Sanskrit, Martian, etc.) that were ultimately about as useful as handles on a banana. Fortunately the guys at Gil's in Lancaster soon had me straightened out.

And now that I'm out and about, let me tell you, these things are way cool! Especially if you're into numbers. Bike commuters can compare various routes, times, distances and speeds, and for those in training, they're an easy way to keep track of your progress.

They're also great company on long solo rides, when you want to see how far you've traveled, or what your average pace is, and it's always nice to know what time it is, so you'll know when to turn around and go back. Wouldn't want to miss dinner, after all, right?

Prices for bike computers start at a relatively cheap fifteen dollars and rise according to how many bells and whistles your inner geek desires. Basic entry level models like the SigmaSports 1600 (the latest version of my 800), the Cateye MITY8 (a Bicycling Magazine "Best Buy of 2004") and the Planet Bike Protégé 5.0, all go for under twenty-five George Washingtons or so, and all offer plenty of bang for your buck. Each uses an easily replaceable standard watch battery that generally lasts a year or two, and despite my humbling experience, installation actually is pretty simple, requiring only a few tools (it wasn't that it was difficult to install ­ I just hooked it up wrong). So if you're not sure, ask ­chances are a good bike shop will install it for you.

So now I'm hooked up and in the know, and brother, knowledge is power. Like, the other day when the impatient soccer mom in the souped-up Hummer started honking at me for going too slowly in a residential zone? A quick glance let me know I was in fact going at the legal speed. Oh, that didn't stop Her Highness from performing the Klaxon Serenade, but at least I had a little peace of mind about it.

And naturally I keep dreaming of the fine day one of Palmdale's finest pulls me over because he thinks I'm going too fast and asks me if I know how fast I was going. I'll be able to smile, look down and say with confidence "Sure do, Officer."

Hey, with a good tailwind ­ and Lord knows we get plenty of them here in the AV -- it could happen!

* * * *

Of course, toys are good, but you also need a decent place to play. I wanted to give the Sigma (and myself) a good workout, so I figured the time was right to try out the fabled California Aqueduct Bikeway.

I've stumbled across several references to it on the web and in books ever since I moved here. Just imagine ­ a government-approved bike route that crosses much of the entire state, utilizing the access and service roads that line the Aqueduct from Northern California to the South, and cutting right through much of the Antelope Valley. Miles and miles of pothole-free trails; far from the noise and noxious clouds of infernal combustion engines (what non-cyclist thought the Sierra Highway Bike Path was a good idea, anyway?). A smooth ride along mostly gently rolling hills, one guidebook promised, the only sound the occasional insect and the white-noise buzz of an electrical tower, offering breath-taking views of the Antelope Valley in all its natural and unnatural glory, the dusty ridges and Technicolor suburban sprawl stretching out across the flat brown land like some crazy quilt hemmed in by the San Gabriel Mountains. Sounds good, doesn't it?

I guess I should have checked the publication date of those books and web pages a little more closely, because there is one catch, and it's a doozy. It is totally illegal to ride a bike on The California Aqueduct Bikeway.


Announced with great fanfare several years ago, the Bikeway was to be a cyclists' dream come through, and several sections (mostly in the northern part of the state) have in fact opened to the public to much positive acclaim, and until recently, annual aqueduct bike rides were sponsored by the Antelope Valley Trails and Recreation Council and the California Department of Water Resources. But now there are signs posted everywhere, at every single of the numerous public access points I've visited:

"Walk In. Fishing Only. No Bicycles. No Vehicles."

So what happened? After several thankless rounds of telephone tag, I've discovered there apparently aren't any straight answers from anyone anywhere, which of course has resulted in all sorts of wild speculation, the most prevalent theory among fellow bikers and the overworked secretaries I've talked to being that it possibly has something to do with 9/11, the latest catch-all bugaboo politicians love to trot out whenever they don't want to do something.

But that's a pretty lame excuse, since the Bikeway is still wide open to fishermen and hikers. Or is there some previously unsuspected terrorist/bicyclist link that the CIA hasn't disclosed yet?

My guess is that the powers-that-be aren't afraid of terrorism at all, but the far more likely occurrence of possible lawsuits. The politicos (who are about as likely to be spotted on a bicycle as they are of riding an ostrich) probably dread the day some wingnut accidentally pedals into the aqueduct (a good ten-fifteen foot drive from the path, at least as far as I've seen) and drowns himself, and his family subsequently sues the state.

That seems more likely ­ an issue of litigation paranoia, not homeland security. Or maybe it's just political slackerdom. Cyclists, who come from all walks of life, aren't exactly a massive (and unified) voting block.

But, like so many things these days, 9/11 makes a nice, convenient excuse for politicians not to do anything they don't want to. And not doing anything is always safer than doing something.

Or maybe I'm way off base here. What do you think? Who or what killed the Bikeway? Or is it still alive, and just not moving? Have our politicians, both local and at the state level, done enough for bicyclists? What would you like them to do? And if not the Bikeway, where's your favorite place to ride in the Valley?

Lemme know. Operators are standing by. E-mail me at or snail mail me at Kevin Burton Smith, 3053 Rancho Vista Blvd., Apt. 116, Palmdale, California 93551.

Kevin Burton Smith's first excursion without training wheels landed him in a ditch on the side of the road, but he swears, after almost four decades of cycling, that he's starting to get the hang of it. A transplanted Montrealer, he now lives in the Antelope Valley with local author D.L. Browne. Comments and suggestions for this column are welcome at