Monday, August 18, 2014

Stroming around Wolfe City

In the process of diagnosing the latest Stromer electric bike fiasco, I had to go on extensive test rides.

Poor, deluded souls are invariably impressed with the distinctive-looking machines. When they express this admiration I have no choice in my OCD but to take the time to try to explain all the reasons they should question the substance beneath the eye-catching looks. Or I just grunt, pretend I didn't hear anything or smile wanly and try to get away as quickly as possible. But even if no one says anything I know what many of them are thinking: "Hey, there's anther one of those neat bikes. Maybe I should look into getting one."

Noooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!! I'll wake up one morning and everyone but me will be a pod-person! Actually, POD stands for Power on Demand on the Stromer console. PAS stands for Pedal Assist.

The price tag for a Stromer stops most casual inquiries. But if the unaffordable version sparks sufficient interest, the interested party can find plenty of other offerings at lower price points, and lots of happy people on forums to say how great the machines are and how simple every little process is. You can find answers to just about every question that will come up when you try to reduce your workload by increasing the weight and complexity of your bike with electric motors, batteries and control circuits.

I feel like an idiot riding around on the thing. I know that's my own problem, but since I would not own one and I would not advise anyone to get one, I feel very keenly that I function as an unwitting ambassador for the concept when I'm tooling around out there. Adding to my unease, I know a lot of pedalists who think anyone on an e-bike is a wanker. Please! I'm not one of them! I'm only doing my job!

So there I am, tooling around the steepest nearby hills in Wolfeboro, trying to get the bike to malfunction in the way described by its owner. The bike has an absurdly wide saddle that makes a squeaky, metallic fart noise with every pedal stroke. I can't stop pedaling, because the bike only screws up in pedal assist mode. So I'm grunting up Friend Street, Pleasant Street, Forest Road, and connecting them with bits of Main Street, Sewall Road and short side streets, going squeak-fart, squeak-fart, squeak-fart, over and over around the course, waiting for the pedal assist to quit on me as the owner says it does. I pass walkers and real bicyclists with a pained smile and eyes averted. Squeak-fart, squeak-fart, squeak-fart.

The assist in pedal assist is not a magic effort eliminator. You have to give to get. I topped out on the hills breathing hard and sweating. I simply got there faster than I would under my own power on my own bike. Having a motor allows you to go faster and perhaps work less, but because the assistance comes on and goes off in response to your effort, the drag of the motor cuts in whenever you let up, slowing the bike more than an unassisted bike would slow down from gravity alone when you let up momentarily on the pedals. The bike yaws as the power fluctuates. It's pretty annoying, especially if you're predisposed to be annoyed.

Nothing about the ride made me suddenly feel, "Hey, I want this." I just wanted it to be over.

Because the bike never misbehaved, I could only go on what my research discerned. The lithium-ion battery probably cut out because it had not been charged lately and the long grade the owner was climbing threatened to over-discharge it. Either that or the system was overheating from the long effort and cut out because of that. The battery was pretty low when she brought it in and went flat overnight. But my first test ride on a shorter course with the low battery did not trigger a malfunction. My longer test ride, after fully charging the battery, did not cause any trouble either.

Bikes functioned happily for a century without electrics or hydraulics. Think about that.

Every time I have to wrestle with the problems of someone's ultra-modern marvel, whether it's a high performance carbon road rocket, a kinkily articulated full suspension mountain machine or a three-ton behemoth of battery power I go over and kiss my own bike hanging on its hook. You and me, baby. Simple pleasures.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Most of these tuneups should be overhauls

The Bike Tune Up generally includes the basic adjustments to bearings -- those that might still be adjustable on your modern marvel -- gears and brakes. Customers dutifully bring their bikes in every year or so for the traditional laying on of hands.

A bike that has been well tuned and not abused will still be in adjustment a year later. Brakes might get sloppy from pad wear. Index shifting might slip a bit from housing compression or cable stretch. But a properly adjusted bearing will stay adjusted as long as whatever was provided to lock the adjustment works in the first place and is correctly secured by the mechanic.

Inside that properly clearanced bearing, lubricants break down or get flushed out by various environmental stressors. I can perfectly adjust a bearing that has no grease left in it. It will run a bit roughly, but better than it would with no attention.

Most of the bikes that customers bring in for tuneups should have overhauls instead. The bearings need to be opened up, cleaned out and re-greased, if they're serviceable bearings at all.

Bike shop workloads run on a boom and bust cycle. Bike owners all get the idea around the same time, the Bike Season, and storm the shops for service. If even half of them said to go for the overhaul instead of the less effective tuneup, the wait time would surge into weeks instead of days. Taking someone's bike for that long in the season risks killing their enthusiasm either for riding or for getting their bike serviced. So we do the best we can with the time we have. We're like a battlefield hospital, patching up the wounded as best we can.

Many of our seasonal customers save their bikes for us to fix because they do not feel well served by their local shops. It's flattering and a helpful source of revenue, but all these people arrive with time constraints.

A couple of days ago a father and son came in asking questions about how to perform various procedures and what tools to buy. Refreshingly, they seemed to absorb information readily and had the vital ability to visualize a mechanism and a procedure from a verbal description. I did a little show and tell, but we managed to cover a lot just from discussion. They came back the next day for more little parts and further guidance, but it was building on the previous information, not filling it in again because it had all leaked out of their brains.

That poor kid is at risk of ending up in the bike business. My own slide down the slippery slope began because I wanted to be able to maintain my own bike. Then, hard up for cash in a career slump as a sort of a journalist, I wandered into my local bike shop in search of supplemental income. Turns out bike repair is steadier and more reliable employment than quasi-journalism. I'd been a copy editor, which is basically a word mechanic and someone who repairs press releases, so it's all kind of related. When the newspaper fell on hard times and eliminated my position, the mountain bike boom brought enough money and work into the shop to turn my part time into full time. Not lucrative full time, mind you, but enough to find a survivable balance of income and expenses. I've found that to be more valuable than a feast or famine roller coaster of big money followed by no money. I've seen people ride that one. It's all good fun until the screaming plunge.

The repair load has been inconsistent this season. Right now we're in a big weekend, with two triathlons and the Mount Washington Hill Climb. In addition, certain seasonal visitors we had not seen yet seem to have arrived for their stab at summer. The lulls even on a busy day are still frighteningly quiet and deep, but the surges are almost like the real thing.

Yesterday I had to make a 7-speed cassette out of an 8-speed because a customer needed it and we didn't have a proper 7-speed in stock. It wasn't as simple as just dropping one unwanted cog, either. I had to find a 12-tooth high gear cog to keep the steps reasonable and match the one we were replacing. That meant a treasure hunt in the cog farm. You can find all the 11-tooth cogs you want. Good luck finding just the right 12. I had to change the lock ring to one with a wider flange to secure the best 12 in my bin of spare parts.

In the middle of the onslaught, one of the X Family's Stromers showed up with yet another weird problem. On long, steep climbs, when you would want the pedal assist the most, the motor cuts out completely. This is probably because the no-longer-new lithium-ion battery is protecting itself, but it could be several other things in the system. The worst part for me is having to test ride the thing extensively, because I have to be seen in public on it.

I don't care if people want to own and ride these things. I just don't want to do anything that might convey the impression I endorse them in any way. I may have to sneak back to town at night and work on it then, where the kindly darkness will hide my shame when I have to go road test the latest attempt to iron the kinks out of the infernal machine. Or wear a ski mask.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Cotton Valley Trail bastards

I'm going to go ahead and kick a hornet's nest and throw it into a feces tornado.

If you ride the Cotton Valley Trail in Wolfeboro you are already familiar with the treacherous rail crossings and the dicey two way sections where bikes have to pass each other in the space between the rails. The reason for the rails is rarely evident, but they're there because rail car hobbyists use their little cars on the old line.  They would only permit the trail to exist if they got to keep the rails.

We coexist. They've done a lot of work out there. Some of them are actually cool about it. But a car this morning came straight at me with no intention of slowing, stopping or backing up, even though I was moving fast, down grade, and had both a blinking and a steady high intensity headlight on.

Obviously some of the rail car people consider themselves the primary users out there and they're willing to draw blood to verify that claim. I bailed to avoid the collision while the two dubs in the rail car looked straight out the windshield of their motorized conveyance, sunglasses on, as expressionless as a couple of terminator robots.

So, Wolfe City riders, watch out on the Cotton Valley Trail. The terminators may be out. By their own edict and willingness to inflict harm on non motorized users,  THEY HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY. If these people with their motorized toys are going to pretend they are train traffic on an active rail line, they put every other user at risk when a cyclist or pedestrian gets caught between the rails in one of the long stretches.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Partly sunny with a one percent chance of trickles

After never really starting, summer seems to be winding down already.

Last year, summer was August.  Things just kind of simmered along, with a little surge around the Fourth of July, and then furiously and briefly boiled over in the last full month of the season. The sad little remnant of the official season, in September, is left to the locals to scavenge what they can of boating, swimming and vitamin D without hordes of visitors and temporary residents. But August was pretty hysterical.

This year, a lot of August already looks like September. Not only aren't people coming in to the shop, I can't see them from the windows overlooking the water and other businesses around us. The deli that shares our parking lot has its lunch rushes, but the people who run it tell me the numbers are off in general.

Our uber-rich and their pretty darn rich extended families and associates have done some trickling, especially Mr. X and his contingent, what with the e-bike assemblies and a couple of new bike purchases. But beyond that things are way too flat for summer. I'm not looking at an overflowing repair queue, and I should be. In fact, there's barely anything waiting. This time of year we expect to fall behind, checking in several repairs every time we go out to test ride one we've completed. That's just not happening.

An in-house rep at Specialized, who called to check in yesterday, agreed with me that the industry is in a bit of a slump. Cycling remains highly regionalized, even localized. The United States as a whole still does not embrace bicycle use in any of its forms universally. Recreational path riding probably comes closest to a universal norm, but that depends on the availability of paths and a thriving non-motorized ethic. There's not much to "yee haw" about on a bike path.

We'll be busy around next weekend. The local triathlon coincides with the Mount Washington Hill Climb and the Timberman triathlon in Gilford, which offers a full weekend of events. After that, who knows?

Whatever people are doing, they don't seem to be vacationing. This got me thinking about Mr. X's family fortune, which is based in the hotel industry. No doubt they've diversified now, but the family name still automatically brings the word "hotel" to mind. If fewer and fewer people can afford to travel, and those who can travel cannot afford a nice hotel, isn't that going to shrink the bottom line?

We can't run on trickles, even if they're occasionally fairly copious golden showers. A resort town suffers when people can't or won't play. As a resident of the area I wonder what brings people in the first place. The general answer is "the lake," but what does that really mean? In the 1990s it seemed like the people who visited and the people who lived here shared a general enthusiasm for things on the land as well as the water. Maybe it's as simple as the people who have the money are getting old and tired and the young ones are using their youthful energy simply to survive. Wherever the young ones are, they may very well be on their bikes, but lack the time and inclination to pedal all the way up here.

When I lived car-free in a town, I lived within my cruising radius except for special jaunts, hitch hiking to the mountains for a weekend or borrowing a car for a specific trip. Thumbing didn't appeal to me, especially after a truck driver pulled a gun on me. Without a car to borrow I would have relied entirely on my pedal power and perhaps the bus. I was a millennial decades before the millennium.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Nightmares and dreams come true

 On Friday morning I pulled out of my driveway feeling unambitious. But when I pulled onto Elm Street I fell in behind a mini van stuck behind a road grader. The grader was in transit, not grading anything. As the motor vehicles accelerated into the 20s I tucked in behind the van and drafted along with them.

On the little rise beyond the Pine River Bridge the grader dogged out and the mini van yanked around it. Without thinking, I went with the breakaway and stayed behind the van. Without the grader to restrain it it rapidly dropped me. But now I was in front of the snorting yellow beast. And I was opening a gap, but for how long?

The driver of the grader did not seem inclined to push it, but he wasn't backing down, either. I didn't want to look back, so I just kept pushing. On the level I could hold my gap. On the climbs I could actually gain if I stayed on the edge of anaerobic. On the descents I just had to hope I could stay out enough to regain my lead when terrain worked in my favor.

The whole time I could hear the grumble of the monster chasing me, like something in a nightmare.

I made it to Route 16 and stopped at the gas company to pay my bill. When I came out the grader was just coming down 16. For a moment I considered sprinting out in front of him again, but I was afraid he might not share my sense of humor. I took an extra few seconds fiddling with my toe strap until he went by.

On the way out of Wolfe City on Saturday after work I got to witness a delectable bit of instant karma.

On Bay Street I pulled out to cover the lane because there was  oncoming traffic and I heard a car coming up behind me. The car behind me, a little blue MG B, decided to cram his way through anyway. Pretty ballsy move for a low-riding car with no top, but drivers are not rational. I yelled something about how he should slow down and wait, but he ignored me like a gnat.
I did not try to sprint him down, but I kept my speed up in case I got lucky and caught him.
He was not in sight at the end of Bay Street. I swept the right and grunted to the crest of the downhill. I tucked and let it rip down around the bend. There he was at the intersection. In fact, he was at kind of a weird angle.
His car was stalled dead, right in the middle of the intersection. He had traffic blocked in both directions. As I breezed past him I said, "Wow, doesn't THAT suck!"
Waaaa ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!

A truly noble person would have stopped to help the driver push his derelict car out of the intersection, but I wasn't wearing my car-pushing shoes. Besides, such nobility is really self-aggrandizing anyway. Other motorists were already leaping out of their cars to help clear the street. The best thing I could do was get the heck out of there. I actually held my laughter until I was out of sight and earshot.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

More customer improvisation

Big G got this one on the stand yesterday:

The customer had splinted a broken chainstay.
If you look closely you can see the crack.
Perhaps more disturbing is the splint on the seat stay. The bike shows no signs of impact or hard use. Could the frame have been cut? The same customer brought in a wheel from a different bike with six spokes cut out of it.

The customer made no mention of his frame repair. He just wanted a tune up.

UPDATE: The customer said he was unaware of the attempted frame repair. Apparently he bought the bike this way. I'm tempted to look under there now that the bike has been written off. I want to know what the splints are covering. But my autopsy room is already pretty full.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Thinking for myself

Reader Grego posted a comment with a link to Sheldon Brown's article on squeezing cogs onto freehubs technically too narrow for them. Rather than leave this in the comments I wanted to put it on its own post.

When I wrote the post I was going to say that I was sure greater minds than mine had thought of the idea years ago, but somehow in the press of time I forgot to put it in. Suntour launched the narrow chain movement in the 1970s with Ultra 6 freewheels that put six speeds on bikes that formerly had only five. If anything my post showed how slowly my mental wheels grind, not how rapidly.

I tend to make do with whatever I have. Especially when it comes to complicated devices like brifters and temperamental items like skinny chains I really try to resist the expense and complexity, weighing the advantages against the disadvantages for the self-supported cyclist. So it took me a long time to want that extra cog on the old seven-speed.

Laboring in a cycling backwater, and not addicted to reading about it on the Internet or in books, I receive my information as it drifts in. Presented with a customer problem I will do intense research. Then I go home and think about something else. So in a way, the fact that I independently developed the 8 of 9 concept validates the research of the true pioneers.

Sheldon also thought brifters were nifty. His article tells how to get those infernal mechanisms to work with the improvised cassettes, which is work you can skip if you declare your independence and shift in friction. He also prescribed skinny chains, where I'm running my 8-speed, reserving the option to go to nine if I notice any problems with chain width that did not appear on my test ride.