Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Whose freedom takes precedence?

In rural areas there are no unimportant roads. Some of them may fall into disuse and neglect, but the ones that actually connect are important arteries, regardless of their size. My commute to work uses one of these arteries, Elm Street. In Ossipee it even has a double yellow centerline. No shoulders, and narrow lanes, but a double yellow centerline. The road I live on, without painted lines or a shoulder, is a virtual expressway for the locals. Their speed and aggression often reflect this.

This morning, driving back from taking the cat to the vet, I met a logging truck with multiple wheels on my side of the double yellow line on Elm Street. It was one of a small group of vehicles using the road the way normal people do.

The logging truck driver was taking his half of the road out of the middle. Forget cyclists, a vehicle that size can take out much bigger prey. Not that a truck driver wants to waste time having an accident, but intimidation clears the way for higher speeds. Higher speed means shorter time in transit.

We had an inch of snow yesterday. It's damp and raw today, under a gray sky. At one point in my life I would have gone out to train in this. It was years ago, when the population was lower and the political climate was less harsh. I thought I had nothing better to do than keep myself in top physical condition. Meanwhile, normal people were working themselves sick, as we are told to do. Who wants to be the lone lemming on the cliff top, looking sadly down at the others? Sure, you're alive and healthy, but you're an outcast. People hate you for refusing to join their foolishness, whether it's a lifestyle or a war. And they talk about freedom.

There's strength in numbers. To get the best use out of those numbers, they have to be organized. Military forces are a good example. A thousand angry people might make a mob, but a thousand trained soldiers is a battalion. The mob engages in free expression and unrestrained action. The battalion answers to a chain of command and moves with discipline and purpose. There is no free expression and no unrestrained action. Organization of all group endeavors falls on a continuum from the amorphous mob to the highly disciplined military formation. At each higher level, the individuals in the group give up more and more pure liberty for the benefits of participation.

Traffic is not a fully organized activity. The shape of infrastructure and the laws and customs of its use make up the rules of engagement. It is both a cooperative and a competitive activity. The personalities of individual road users determine the balance.

As the truck came at me, with its unofficial escort of smaller vehicles -- all larger than a bicycle -- I imagined a cyclist in the mix. Every driver would have had to navigate around the rider. The cyclist, with every legal right to be out there, would have curtailed the freedom of the motorists to travel freely in ways that motorists can handle, for the most part. I suppose cyclists can handle them, too. Any vehicle that passes cleanly, no matter how close, was not a problem, right? That which did not kill you did not kill you. The shot of adrenaline might even improve your average speed for the day.

We complain about what might happen. I do it myself, and agree with the principle that drivers shouldn't squeeze cyclists for fear of hitting them. But from an impartial viewpoint the goal is to move users through the system at the best speed. That is often not the highest speed, but generally maintains the flow. As long as the majority is motorized, the needs of cyclists will be minimized, and we will be marginalized. But we continue to be accommodated to some degree. You take what you can get while maneuvering for more. It applies to life and to traffic.

The Onion recently posted a piece with the headline, "Study: 90% Of Bike Accidents Preventable By Buying Car Like A Normal Person." At the bottom of the page is a link to another item poking at people who bring their bikes onto public transit.

With all the reasons to dislike cyclists, I'm surprised we don't get mowed down more often. Every bit of media that reinforces the stigma against weirdos who clot up the motorized world brings us closer to another front in the conflict of various interests that has been created by the convergence of overpopulation and mechanization.

Society expects conformity. Tolerance for nonconformity varies on yet another continuum from most hung up to most anarchistic. The use of the term "normal" to describe motorists alerts us to the baseline of conformity from which pedalers depart. Drivers respond with varying degrees of anxiety or hostility based on how much they feel a cyclist has injured society by using a non-standard vehicle. The Onion sets the acceptable upper age limit for bike riding at 12 years.

Satire is not just a joke. Satire is a pointed effort to portray the ridiculousness of beliefs and behaviors. There's good-natured ribbing, and then there's propaganda. Satire is often intended to be persuasive. This takes it from the category of joshing and turns it into social leverage.

Some platforms, like South Park, collect their audience on the principle that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." They appear to hold no belief or person immune to ridicule. When it's well done, it provokes thought as well as mirth. But when it just looks like a tidal wave of acid rolling across the landscape it becomes depressing. If they're scourging someone you like to see scourged, it's all great. If they're scourging your beliefs, it's unfair and simplistic.

I like the comic strip Pearls Before Swine, but I don't like the character of Jef the Cyclist. Because the strip is read by the general public, and the general public is notoriously prone to generalization, the sole cyclist character being an arrogant snot means that all cyclists are arrogant snots. Do arrogant snots deserve to be accommodated on the public right of way? Only if they express their arrogance in suitably high-powered cars. An arrogant cyclist deserves to be doored or run off the road, because that's how we do things now. Don't suffer fools. Once fools are identified, persecute them until they smarten up.

The properly humble cyclist shuffles and mumbles and nods deferentially. Yes, we are inferior, evolutionary dead ends who will eventually be eradicated. The fact that some of us are overbearing and egotistical stems not from any actual power but from the pathetic posturing of a doomed subculture. You would be more socially acceptable if your human powered commute consisted of climbing tall buildings and then leaping off in a flying squirrel suit to glide to the next and the next, until you reach your destination. If you don't have access to suitably tall structures, too bad.

I have said more than once that bicyclists need to remember that many people will never be able to incorporate any pedaling into their daily routines. A lot of people could start bike commuting or ride bikes on short utilitarian errands, but technology has evolved to make other alternatives necessary. The amount of stuff we move, over the distances that we cross, in the time we have available, make motorized transportation a fact of modern life. Before that it was railroads and boats and big wagons drawn by burly animals. People who pedal have always been a troublesome minority. Even in the various bike booms, the minority became a larger percentage of the population, but never achieved long-lasting respect.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Speaking of darkness...

The big storm that blew through northern New England last weekend took out my power line for five days. I just got electricity and running water back last night. The cable is still down. Where I have time, I have no internet connection. Where I have an internet connection I have no time. The cable company says they’ll see me Tuesday. I’ll relate gripping tales and profound insights after they hook me up the rest of the way to the 21st Century.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Observation from the darkness

A few weeks ago, I observed in a post about aggressive driving in early autumn, that motorists on my route seemed particularly irritable on a small secondary road near or after dark.

Murphy's Law as it relates to motorists passing bicyclists states that the drivers will synchronize their speeds so that the pedaler and the motorists are all squeezing through the same space at the same time. In daylight this is annoying enough. At night, it is particularly hard on drivers, blinded by oncoming headlights, trying to find a safe passage. Those of us who drive, think about how often you maneuver on faith alone, because the glare has eliminated all sight of the roadway at a time when you really can't stop. Now put your pedaling self into the picture.

For the majority of situations, a decent set of lights and some added reflective material will make a cyclist adequately visible. A decent set of lights also provides enough light for the cyclist to see the road ahead. But when the road is narrow, a little hilly, and bendy, a cyclist presents much more of a challenge to drivers.

By the law, cyclists in many jurisdictions have the right to take the lane to prevent passing. This is a good idea a lot of the time anyway. It isn't always a good idea, though. You have to develop your own judgment about when to herd, and when to let 'em run.

Unfortunately, impatient local drivers will perform the most insane maneuvers to pass a cyclist, day or night, on my route. But even the ones who are somewhat more likely to take a moment will seldom take more than a moment before launching themselves around me. This factor more than any other impels me to change to the park and ride when daylight grows short. Faced with the sudden threat of each other, motorists will blame the easier target: the guy on the bike.

Is it a form of surrender, to give up the road because motorists don't have the patience and judgment to behave decently around other road users? Yes. But the death or injury of a cyclist would serve no purpose. It would not advance the point of view that motorists should learn to drive with more generosity. Someone would point that out, but it would join a jumble of other assertions that would leave us all where we started -- except for the poor schmuck who had gotten slammed by an armored vehicle.

Evolution moves slowly, on a broad front. We can each help it along in ways we'd like to see, but ultimately an individual's survival comes down to moment-by-moment combinations of skill and luck. Accumulated skill can enhance luck, but uncontrolled variables will remain. If you want to see what the future turns out to be like, you have to survive to get there.

Monday, October 02, 2017

It's the traffic, stupid

To be more accurate, it's motor vehicles and the people who drive them. The category is, "Things that make people quit cycling on the road."

There is no last word on this topic. It shows no sign of ever going away. Those who choose to pedal must now and forever deal with the challenges of sharing space with large, fast vehicles, mostly piloted by people with minimal training. And professionalism is no help: truck and bus drivers are notoriously hostile to pedalers. Professionalism may make matters worse, because those drivers are on a schedule and are earning their living by driving. The direct monetary connection reinforces their territoriality against not just cyclists but against all amateur road users.

The solution comes not with a single stroke but with a multifaceted response that has to include a lot of infrastructure changes along with behavior modification. Unfortunately, the system we have evolved developed very naturally along the path of least resistance. People were happy to let their communities be designed around motor vehicle flow. Almost no one questioned it. Forget whatever sinister conspiracies underlay specific things like the destruction of streetcars in favor of buses, and other sabotage of public transit. The proliferation of cheap automobiles relative to rising incomes in the mid and late 20th Century guaranteed that they would dominate our lives. The illusion of freedom was easier to sustain when the consequences, both economic and environmental, could be more easily masked.

We all understand the problem, but it seems as difficult to solve as gun violence. Both motorist dominance and gun violence breed fear, which can then be used to control people. In the case of cycling, fear serves to keep riders off the road.

People who used to ride tell me that they can't anymore. Maybe they quit completely. Maybe they switched to separated venues ranging from mountain bike trails to sedate paths. Most of them express their decision as a matter of maturity and wisdom rather than defeat and surrender.

People who haven't ridden on roads much or at all, who take up cycling or continue it in separated venues also assume the mantle of mature wisdom rather than regretful fear.

We all want to feel good about ourselves. Most of us, anyway. The problem is that the ones who have surrendered have surrendered completely. They've put it behind them and will not advocate for road cycling. I have not met a single quitter who said that they would take it up again if they noticed that conditions had improved. It falls to a shrinking group of experienced riders, augmented by younger people who are still in their riding phase, to keep a scrap of territory available to riders willing to face the existing reality and continue to promote proposals for its improvement.

The inexperience of those younger riders hampers their ability to understand the experience of cycling as the body ages. What was good enough for me in my twenties is out of reach to me in my sixties. It takes a bigger and bigger truck, going slower and slower, to get me to sprint it down. The degeneration has been gradual, but, because I have never stopped riding, I have been able to observe and document it. I guess I do all right for my age, but without the explosive power and grinding endurance I enjoyed from age 20 to about 50. And it shouldn't always be about exploring one's physical limits. Transportation and exploratory cycling should seldom be about exploring one's physical limits, or the limits of one's courage. It's okay for daily life to have a certain serenity.

To make this post self-contained, I have to acknowledge that motor vehicles have their uses. Time, distance, payload, and weather can all make a closed, motorized vehicle a better choice than something powered by human muscle. That has to factor into the system. When you need them, you need them. And what Edward Abbey called "motorized wheelchairs" can accommodate anyone who has decided that it's time to settle into their embrace.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Economics of Expertise

In ancient times -- you know, the 1970s and '80s -- bicycle technology was mostly simple and accessible. Beginning with Shimano's introduction of Rapidfire in 1990, the industry has been systematically destroying that, but you can still find it.

Someone who has evolved with the bicycle over the past several decades will understand what the new stuff is trying to do, based on its ancestors. The processes are simple. The new crap just uses more complex internal parts to achieve the same basic objectives.

Most sophisticated modern componentry can't be repaired. And why would you? The stuff you bought this year has already been thrown on the scrap heap by the manufacturer. And yet, people persist in keeping their bike equipment for as long as they can, and trying to get it fixed when it malfunctions.

There are plenty of YouTube videos of people fixing things. Personally, I would rather have an exploded diagram and a brief, written synopsis of what's inside something than watch someone who may or may not know what they're doing demonstrate it in a video, but I'm old, cantankerous, and independent. But I digress...

Through the efforts of intrepid people doing what they've been told they can't, the independent mechanic community has discovered some of the inner mysteries of modern widgets that have accidentally been made accessible enough to open up, explore, and attempt to repair. Sometimes the repair depends on having donor organs available from another specimen that may conveniently have failed in a different way. Other times, the inner mysteries just need a good cleaning.

When bikes were truly simple and accessible, a rider could perform complete disassembly and reassembly in a small room with simple tools. Some of them had to be bike-specific, but they would all fit into a small toolbox. You could fake a work stand and a truing stand in various ways, although those items do make even simple maintenance luxuriously easier. When I was briefly well funded in the late 1990s, I bought shop-quality versions of both of those. But without them I still managed to build wheels and perform complete overhaul after complete overhaul through the years.

I don't say you need to be so ambitious. I only point out that it was possible. My riding buddies and I did invest in a truing stand that we owned communally and passed around so that we could each build wheels for our commuting and racing bikes. It was a beat-up old thing, not a real shiny Park, but it got us started. Other than that, we got by with improvised facilities wherever we lived. Our apartments always had telltale handlebar scuffs on the walls of the sparsely-furnished living room. In one apartment, my crazy friend Mark painted the rear stays of his racing bike fluorescent orange, leaving the outline on the wall. It was a pretty slummy apartment. I'm not sure whether we even lost our security deposit over that. The owner of the building may have thought she owed us some compensation for the cockroaches and the lack of heat.

Fast forward to the present day: I was digging around inside a SRAM Rival brifter that had suddenly stopped responding to commands. SRAM lets you right in there. I've even seen at least one video in which the rogue mechanic shows how easy they are to service. "Easier than Campy," he says. Even now, we still relate high end road stuff to Campagnolo. The thing is, Campagnolo provides parts and service instructions, or at least they did a couple of cogs ago. In the past several seasons, I have not had to delve into anything later than very early 10-speed from the Italians, if anything. I have not bothered to keep up, because I need brain space for more common issues.

SRAM does provide ample access to the interior of their brifters. After that, you're on your own. Since the simple task of changing a shift cable can involve removing the handlebar tape and exercising a large portion of your profanity supply, anything deeper than that will take a lot of time and require that you keep track of a lot of little parts. And therein lies the economic problem.

A shop has overhead. Back in the 1990s, mechanics learned as quickly as they could to fix as many esoteric problems as possible, because an active riding population was constantly challenging us to prove that we knew our stuff. The industry steadily added complexity and buried the mysteries under more layers of concealment, but the changes were incremental enough, and the equipment remained mostly simple enough for a good wrench to maintain some level of stature from season to season. And it made financial sense for the shop to project this image of expertise. Riders would tell their friends where to get the good work. They might buy bikes by price and brand image, but enough people were really riding to understand the value of reliable repairs.

As complexity reached ridiculous levels and the industry had simultaneously managed to wedge rider groups firmly apart, all-around expertise became harder to maintain. Riders, particularly in hard-core mountain and road categories, now want to go where they recognize the nonverbal signs of group allegiance. The divisions were always there. Now they are more starkly prominent. But, beneath it all, certain mechanical concepts still make everything work. So a shop that may not appear obviously in with the in-crowd may still have a person or two on the staff who can get into a mechanism, figure out what ails it, and fix it or definitively declare it dead.

Unlike the hospital, our shop tends not to charge the customer if the patient dies. This means that we have to make our assessment quickly enough that we haven't lost a lot of billable hours. And, if we think it might be repairable by someone more in tune with a particular bike type, we say so. In the case of the SRAM brifter, we ordered and installed a new one. Then I started an autopsy on the old one. The ratchets are not engaging correctly, and probably cannot be stabilized. Donor parts from another unit might work, but the experiment would take hours, at shop rates.

It makes no sense for the customer to invest in that or the shop to spend the time. But a bike owner with mechanical aptitude and spare time might get in there, diagnose the problem, scrounge up the parts, fix the unit, and announce triumphantly that shops are ripping you off when they say your brifter has to be replaced. Total cost in commercial shop hours might have been $300 for a part that retails new for $114, but that part of the calculation is ignored.

What the industry deems unfixable they will make sure really is unfixable. Until some mad scientist develops a little machine for home mechanics to clone repair parts using recycled plastic bottles and metal cans, powered by scampering cockroaches or little solar panels, true repairs will be the exception.

Monday, September 25, 2017

September is Aggressive Driving Month

September Driver Aggression was a little late this year, probably because the protracted summer-like weather made it easy to forget that the month had arrived. It really hit this week, though.

One hallmark of autumnal aggression is impatience after sunset. I always get honked at more when I'm operating with the lights on, and the honks tend to be a little sharp. With the generator head and tail lights, and two additional blinkies to the rear, plus reflector leg bands, I'm not hard to see. But drivers seem pushier when they pass. This continues after September. On my route, it's worse on the secondary road between Route 16 and my home in the woods than it is on the highways or coming out of Wolfeboro.

I have not commuted anywhere but here since the late 1980s, so I don't know what other riders may experience. When I commuted year-round by bike in the Annapolis, Maryland area, between 1979 and 1987, the percentage of jerks seemed pretty stable, day or night, in any season. During my bike commuting period there, it was getting steadily more urbanized and sprawled out. Of course this new growth was designed around motor vehicles exclusively. There might be token signage and a bit of width designated for cyclists in a few places, but the motorists knew that they were the top predators in that food chain. I don't think any of my old racing buddies still ride around there anymore. When I would visit from up here, even though the motoring public actually seemed less aggressive than during the early 1980s, the traffic volume made riding stressful. To be dangerous, drivers don't have to be maliciously aggressive, just self-centered and unaware.

Drivers may think that a cyclist can't see them as well in the dark. The opposite is true: a motor vehicle has powerful floodlights on the front of it, and it still makes as much noise as ever. I hear them and I see them, or at least I see the light thrown by them.

The closer passing and increased tendency to honk make me think that drivers believe that the darkness cloaks their identity. I suppose that is somewhat true, since most people's license plate lights don't work. But I have a terrible time seeing into cars and trucks in daylight, let alone at night, because of the reflections on the glass. In a lot of developed countries, hitting a cyclist day or night is basically a freebie. They don't need to be cloaked. Reasonable doubt shines down on the whole encounter.

Since I've had close encounters in the dark even when the motorist and I were the only vehicles on a stretch of rural road with decent sight lines, I think that the darkness and seclusion might also stimulate predatory instincts in some borderline folks. And I'll bet that a lot of us are closer to that borderline than we will admit even to ourselves. A twitch of the steering wheel is all it takes to assuage a little impulsive blood lust. So a super low traffic volume is not necessarily a selling point.

I've mentioned before that I feel helplessly conspicuous, riding on a trail in the dark, with my bright lights making deep shadows outside their glare. When I don't need to be seen by others, night vision goggles would be the better choice. And here we go with another gear purchase. More likely I rely on statistical probability and just keep on with the visible illumination.

Stuff I like

Our customer building up a fleet of Surly bikes added a Troll to the lineup this summer. Building a Surly is always a welcome relief from the crustaceans of the Carboniferous Period. I could do it all day, every day, with a big smile. So whenever I get to, it's a treat.

What the customer has requested is a more formal and premeditated version of the commuter I built from my old mountain bike. The frame has all the Surly amenities for versatility, but the underlying concept is the same as my conversion.

Our customer is not a large man. He's a good match for a frame designed around 26-inch wheels. As a gentleman tourist, he appreciates the practicality of fenders.

The bikepacking movement has led to some intriguing options in handlebars. I might even try a set of these on my commuter. Maybe after the customer has had a chance to get the tires good and dirty I'll take the bike for a test cruise. The sweep of the bars puts the control setup definitely more in the touring than the sport category.

The color of the Troll reminds me of my first car. It looks sort of brown in some light, and a warm orange when the sun hits it.

For comparison, here's my knocked-together rig, built on an old Gary Fisher Aquila. There are thousands like it on the roads and trails.


For the bikepacking market, the Troll comes with ample braze-ons for accessory attachment. A conscientious assembly includes greasing the threads for all these accessory attachment points. A normal bike will have anywhere from two to maybe 6. The Troll has thirty. Eighteen of them are on the fork.

Here I am, playing a quick 18 holes after lunch:
The Troll has disc brakes, but Surly provides the posts for rim brakes if desired. With dual-cable levers, a rider could run both! And I would be really tempted to have mysterious little electrical connectors dangling off of any accessory bolts I wasn't using for something else.

This customer has only ridden drop-bar bikes. He has not developed techniques and reflexes for a bike based on the traditional mountain bike. In addition to the usual adjustments on a new bike, we'll have to do a little orientation. The sensations of powering and steering a bike in the dirt have become so automatic for me that I don't think about them. But I notice the difference. He'll catch on quickly. I do want to see how different the handling is with those swept bars. Particularly in quick, tight turns -- such as one must do when crossing the rails on the Cotton Valley Trail -- I wonder if the bike won't feel as nimble as mine.

People ride the CVT on all sorts of sluggish junk. I'm just fussy. And this customer does not live very near Wolfeboro, so he will do most of his trail riding on a path that does not have to dance around over active rail lines.