Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Between earwax and shrapnel...

 When Shimano dedicated itself to index-only, ratcheted shifting in 1990, it ushered in a whole new era of problems in bike maintenance and repair. Not even they knew what all could go wrong. It was also the beginning of a more predatory relationship with customers. As technology proliferated through the 1990s, customers became test pilots for complicated mechanisms being rushed to market to secure a competitive sales advantage while consumers were spending indiscriminately. The industry focused its efforts on redirecting the surge of enthusiasm for riding into a surge of enthusiasm for buying things.

Some changes really are improvements, but did we really need "model years" like cars? Hell no. Lots of people would have been happy to buy bikes that looked the same from year to year and were equipped with simple componentry that performed reliably. But as soon as "Rapidfire" was introduced, the concept had to be refined to replace its initial flaws with newer, flashier ones.

Shimano warned us from the beginning to stay out of the mysterious interior of their magical devices. "You can't fix anything in there, so don't even try." At the time, one of the bike mags had a snippet about a couple of intrepid mechanics who disassembled brand new Rapidfire shifters and reassembled them exactly as they came apart, and the shifters failed to work. This implied that we wrench-monkeys couldn't handle the precision mechanism of tiny parts in perfect synchronization inside those sophisticated shifter pods. Having peeked under the hood, we could believe it. "If it quits working, replace it," said Shimano. Now I wonder if the article was disinformation to discourage exploration. 

Years later, out of necessity, we discovered that the most common reason for a Rapidfire shifter to fail is congealed factory grease. Ralph dubbed it earwax because that's what it looked and acted like. Clean out the earwax and most non-functioning Rapidfire shifters of any generation start to work again. You have to be careful to follow up with a light but persistent oil to keep the mechanism from freezing up later either from residual grease drying out or from micro-corrosion because all of those tiny levers and springs are no longer protected by the original petroleum product. Fun fact: before Shimano factory grease turns to earwax it looks a lot like pus.

When the road version hit the scene, it integrated the shifting into the brake levers. Other manufacturers had to follow suit. Asian componentry had always had an edge because it usually cost less -- sometimes a lot less -- than the top European stuff, notably the coveted Campagnolo. Campy's Ergopower shifters had better ergonomics than Shimano, by keeping the brake lever as a brake lever, and using a thumb lever for the upshift. Campy was also completely serviceable. Many parts transferred from one model year to the next. But it's pricey, and other aspects of the gruppo might guide a rider to choose Shimano. Because corporate warfare was in full swing, you had to commit to the whole package. There was little that you could mix and match. Riders suffer so that corporate coffers can benefit. The world becomes a worse place because the parties in power focus on their power rather than promoting the general welfare and ensuring domestic tranquility.

Shimano road brifters get earwax, the same as their country cousins on mountain bikes. They also suffered from another, more frequently fatal flaw: Strands of Death.

Inside a road brifter, the cable has to turn around a tight radius to travel enough to haul the rear derailleur across eight, then nine, then ten, and now 11 and 12 cogs spanning an ever wider range of diameters. The mountain shifter sits parallel to the handlebar. The pod can grow a bit to accommodate a larger wheel around which the cable is pulled. I have never seen a shift cable blow up inside a mountain shifter. But I see it all the time in Shimano road brifters. Because the shifting mechanism sticks out perpendicular to the bar, the diameter has to stay within a reasonable size to fit into a brake hood. You may have noticed how road lever bodies have gotten progressively fatter over the years. This is only partly to provide a more comfortable grip over the long road miles. That's a good cover story for the need to make more room in there for all the little ratchety bits. Even with that, the drum that the cable rides around torques the cable down pretty hard over a small area, fatiguing it in a matter of months to the point of failure.

Actual time to cable failure depends on use hours, of course. Other variables include cable quality, housing drag, gear range, and riding environment. You might go a couple of years. Conversely, if you're training a lot and racing frequently you will stress the cable more quickly.

Because Shimano's STI road units could not be opened, cable failure frequently jammed the mechanism completely. Cables don't break when you're in top gear where the head of the cable lines up conveniently with the hole through which you install and remove it. They break when you're jamming desperately on a shift to low gear under load. Maximum tension, maximum windup: blam. The cable usually blossoms instantly into a bouquet of fishhooks.

Failure usually takes a while. Riders will report that the indexing has gotten unreliable, and maybe the shifter feels crunchy. But the problem can progress rapidly, from early mild symptoms to shifter-jamming catastrophe in a single ride.

Because we had to work blind in many models, digging out the fragments could take a lot of time and fail to get every piece. Then the rider would have a ghost in there, like that floating piece of cartilage in your trick knee, that floats into a bad position and then out again.

When the shift cables came off the outer end of the brifter, the housing was fully exposed and could in most cases be released from its stops without undoing the cable from the anchor bolt on the rear derailleur. Then you could check the cable for failing strands by poking the liberated bit of slack out the other side of the brifter. Once Shimano routed the shift cables under the bar tape that became impossible. But they did start putting little access hatches into the lever bodies so that broken cables would be easier to dig out. As with many of their remedial actions, they did not call attention to the improvement, probably because they did not want to acknowledge any responsibility for the prior problem.

On Saturday, a rider came in with her Trek gravel bike, complaining that she could "only get about two gears." The bike has hydraulic disc brakes, so it has brifters that have a master cylinder taking up a lot of space in the lever body. The shifting mechanism is pushed way out front, from which the cable has to travel a couple of inches just to get to the cable housing under the bar tape.

The problem clearly went all the way through the shifter.

The head of the cable was all the way down at the bottom of the slot, far from the exit hole.

We were now at the mercy of the designer of this technological marvel. I saw some fasteners: the usual tiny Phillips head screws, and a couple of aluminum Torx nuts that turned out to be T9.39857, smaller than T10, but a sloppy fit for T9. And the heads were annoyingly shallow, making it hard to keep the tool in there securely. But at least I could take the covers off to get at the mess.

 See all the broken wires in there? Even with the mechanism fully exposed it took minutes of careful searching to make sure I got all of them.

 The bike had also been equipped with those crappy coated cables that fill the cable housing with lint and dust as the coating flakes off.

Although the cables run inside the bike frame, the rear had continuous housing. I opted not to yank out the 4mm and put in 5mm because the rider was hoping to get the bike back that day, and I didn't want to risk running into a snag if any part of the system was designed to obstruct 5mm housing. Green coated cables are not as bad as the brown ones that generate a lot more lint. I bet that just going down to 1.1mm uncoated cable would free it up inside the smaller housing enough to get by for a few months. Housing change would have required redoing the bar tape, too. This way we got her out for a bit more of the somewhat nice weather we've been having since the real warm spell ended.

Monday, November 09, 2020

People get dressed upside down

 The weather has suddenly turned upside down here in New Hampshire. The temperature has been at or near 70 degrees (F) during the day for a couple of days now, and the trend is supposed to continue. This after some solid wintry chill leading right into it. New England, right?

Summer-like temperatures aside, I have serious trust issues with November, or any warm spell during what are traditionally cold and nasty months.

Yesterday I had to ride 41 miles on an important errand while I am temporarily without a car. Despite a forecast high temperature of 70, I would be out long enough to worry about the late afternoon chill.With the sun poking up less and less as winter approaches, late afternoon comes earlier and earlier. I saw a few other riders, dressed for the balmy day. Within a couple of years up here I had adopted shorts down to about 60 degrees, but other factors would guide my wardrobe on any given day. Commuting, I am usually on the road before the day gets warm, and headed home after it has begun to cool. It can be pretty miserable, riding with inadequate clothing.

The park and ride commute puts me near other riders a lot more than my road route does, because the path is so popular. Cold weather chases away most pedalers, but mild weather brings them back. I don't actually ride the path except for a little bit in the mornings to cut over to a better access to Route 28 than the busy intersection at North Line Road. I park in a trail access parking area because I might take the trail option the way I used to. For now, though, the going is faster on the road, and I get to log a bit more distance. I see other riders going by the parking area as I'm getting ready to launch, and on the short trail section between Fernald and my exit to rejoin the highway at Hersey Point Road. With the path still crowded with COVID escapees, that's as much as I want to see.

Despite some warm afternoons, the mornings are still cool enough that the Italian Cycling Federation circa 1974 would say to cover up. Tights below 70 degrees! And that was when tights were made of knitted wool. It seemed a little crazy to me until I tried it. The reasoning made sense. Leg covering would be the first thing you added when temperatures dipped, not long sleeves. Because jerseys were wool as well, it was easy to add a tee shirt or something to keep the torso a little warmer. But the legs are doing the real work. They need to be protected from wind chill even at temperatures that might not seem chilly until you are descending at 20, 30, or 40 miles per hour. Even cruising on the flats you could be pulling an easy 18-20.

Not so much anymore. It's more like 15-17.

Path riders on the cool mornings sport vests and jackets atop shorts and bare legs. Granted most of them are riding barely faster than a jogger, and working hard to push plump tires over the unpaved surface. Still, I see plenty of road riders with similar disregard for the muscles and joints that make all of this possible. Get dressed from the bottom up.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Lazy bikers

 Cyclists are essentially lazy. If we weren't lazy we'd be runners.

Admit it. Look at us as a whole. What's trending now? Ebikes. It's just the latest in a long timeline of putting humans on wheels. We can't even say "at least we don't have motors" anymore.

I know, I know: lots of us, myself included, refuse to take up power assistance. But plenty of people who feel perfectly pleased with themselves have choked it down and now parade it proudly. And, as I said, it's just the latest variation. From the wheeled "swift runner," down through every innovation in the development of pedals and drive trains, riders have looked to get more for their effort. In racing, every innovation started out as an unfair advantage, rapidly disseminated throughout the field and soon superseded by something even more clever. Performance enhancing drugs were just more of the same.

Just this year, after riding my commuting route from Effingham for 30 years, I finally noticed how the old route of 28 used to veer off before the height of land that it now climbs over, traveling a longer distance, but without the little nuisance knoll that marks the peak of the route. It's been bugging me ever since. The road used to go around a little wetland pond, through what look like picturesque stands of spruce and hardwood. A good chunk of that route is still public right of way. It now leads to a trailhead for Trask Mountain. But the continuation that would connect to the highway on the other side of the pond has been obliterated. Not only is it no longer there for an intrepid bushwhacker to reopen slightly for riders and walkers who might appreciate it, it's been dug away to let the wetland fill in. It was only a little shelf -- hardly a major loss of habitat. Further down the north slope you can see sections of overgrown blacktop. They didn't rip it all out.

The meander near a wetland was probably more prone to frost heaves, and did make the road that little bit longer, which is more to plow. Motorists just push a little harder on the gas pedal to surmount the crest. Cyclists do the equivalent, but we feel it when we dig further into the fuel tank and strain the engine.

Not to take anything away from the masochistic riders who seek out climbs and like to pound themselves to extinction on epic challenges. I've logged plenty of triple-digit rides, trained and raced in the rain, and ridden in the depths of winter, despite being a dilettante. The bike riding population is vast. But I'll bet that the majority prefers downhills to uphills and tailwinds to headwinds. I know my ride home would be vastly more enjoyable if I had the option at least to skip some elevation and cruise a nice woodsy flat stretch.

Now that it's park and ride season, I won't be pedaling that bit of 28 until daylight returns again in late winter or early spring. Weather determines when full commuting season finally starts.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Cosmetic surgeries delayed by COVID-19

 From time to time, someone will ask us to replace every rusted part on their bike, purely for appearance. This might involve just a few bolts or lots of spotted chrome. Or they might ask if we have some miraculous treatment that will make the marks of neglect and/or cheap metal and plating disappear, returning the parts to their original luster.

Usually, once we explain the expense of such a procedure, they sigh and relent. We will do what we can, where we can, but most treatments that don't involve replacing parts require some amount of abrasion which will make the part more susceptible to surface corrosion. We do get the rare individual who declares that they will pay whatever it costs to have their jewel polished to its brightest, even if that means replacing perfectly functional and barely disfigured brake sets, for instance. And this is almost never on a bike of great value or historical significance. It's often on undistinguished, mid-grade bikes somewhere between three and 15 years old.

It's particularly irksome if the bike was kept in an abusive environment and will be returning to the same. One customer said that he'd kept his road bike -- which he snapped up for some great price -- in a damp shed, and now wanted it completely re-sparkled so that he could then clamp it into a trainer and sweat all over it. He had the mistaken impression that indoor riding would baby the bike rather than abusing it structurally and chemically.

If you hadn't gotten the memo: trainer riding is abuse. Bikes are held firmly, unable to flex and move to absorb rider inputs the way they can in regular riding. At the same time, sweat that would blow away in the apparent and actual wind drops straight onto everything, where the salts are left to work relentlessly. What never sleeps?

You can rinse and wipe the bike, but that never gets everything. Trainer duty is often the last stop in a bike's life, for a rider who has newer bikes to take out and show a good time.


For these rusty bits we were authorized to order complete replacement brake sets. As extravagant as that might be at the best of times, now with the Covid parts famine, it's a long wait. And we're less inclined to eat the freight on frivolous purchases, too. The guy did finally set an upper limit on the repair, but the last thing he told us was that he was selling the bike. So does he still care about how shiny everything is?

Other special projects have come in, too. The rider who stomped the ratchet ring out of his Bontrager hub ordered parts to convert the bike to SRAM 12-speed. Intimidated by the 14 bottom bracket standards and numerous crank axle sizes, he handed off to us to select a bottom bracket for him.

Whenever possible I use a Wheels Manufacturing thread-together bottom bracket in press-fit configurations, to avoid as many of the inherent flaws of press fit as possible. A thread-together unit keeps its bearings aligned to each other, so that they don't wear prematurely if the bearing seats in the frame itself were machined inaccurately or if they've gotten buggered from having bearing sets pounded out and pressed in a few times. Sadly for this rider, Proprietary Bullshit Strikes Again! There is no thread-together unit for this 92mm shell from Trek. He's best served to get the SRAM unit and replace it often, as the industry intended. They really delight in humping their faithful customers. But that's just consumer goods marketing in general. Loyal purchasers of "health" insurance see their premiums climb steadily. Loyal customers of wireless phone companies don't get the sweet "switch and save" inducements. Computer purchasers get rewarded with mysterious changes that make the machines slow down steadily after about the first week. I had a wonderful little Samsung tablet that I loved to carry with me to work. It allowed for all sorts of stuff beyond the capability of my phone, without the need for a full computer. Within a year it was a sluggish waste of pack weight. I nursed it along for a while. It helped save me after my computer got stolen in a break-in, but even then I was struggling to get it to do what I needed. That was pretty much its last hurrah. Thank you for your business! Maybe next time we'll use lube!

Three Specialized kids 12-inch bikes have come in without their proprietary training wheels. Loving parents or grandparents use the bikes for several kids in succession, and can't keep track of where they put the training wheels when they take them off. During the Covid famine, we were not able to get the Specialized training wheels, which bolt to a separate point on the frame rather than fitting over the rear axle in the traditional way. I love how that works, but things go wrong. Owners lose the whole wheel set or, more commonly, just lost the threaded knobs that attach the wheels to the bike frame. Knobs not sold separately. A lot of bike parts share thread sizes in common, but not these. I haven't thrown a thread gauge on there to see what it is, because the most recent customer managed to find the wheels (without the knobs), but had stripped out the holes in the frame. I inserted a couple of carriage bolts that matched some knobs we had lying around in a salvage bin, to make the wheel mount an outie rather than an innie. We have little choice: the axles on Specialized kid bike wheels are too short to support a traditional training wheel, and replacement generic kid bike wheels have been out of stock.


A couple brought their cheap smokeless mopeds in for tuneups, particularly the brakes. Their bikes used cable disc brakes, which can be a better choice than hydraulic for many customers, but only if they actually work. These wouldn't even slow the bikes down, even after they had been adjusted. It was a bit of a puzzle to figure out how to get the pads out at all to check them for wear and contamination. The pads resembled the round type used on Avid BB5 brakes, but they're smaller, so BB5 pads will not fit. The only information we could find on line about them was a forum post in which someone said that they bought a complete set of cheap, off-brand calipers with pads in them to replace the original cheap, off brand calipers when the first set of pads wore out. By all means, let's send more crap to the landfill.

I know that auto repair places will use a rebuilt caliper with pads installed as a one-step solution to stuck pistons and scorched pads, as drivers in salty environments know too well. But the stuck calipers get sent back out to a rebuilder to be reconditioned and returned to the general supply of repair parts. No one is doing that in the bike biz that I know of, and it would hardly be worth it on calipers that were cheap crap at the outset.

The two bikes, nominally identical, had minor differences. Maybe one of the bikes was an "upgrade." They both had the same crappy brakes, but for some reason one of them had 8mm socket head crank bolts, while the other one had fake 8mm bolts simulated by a molded plastic cap covering a regular 14mm hex head.


Speaking of cheap bolts, I've been noticing more and more socket head cap screws and bolts that are a sloppy fit on the wrench, and made of soft metal that rounds out immediately under no more than a normal amount of torque for their size.

This has gotten bad enough that I regularly replace things like 4mm stem bolts preventively, because there's no point in even tightening the cheap OEM parts. It's a one-way trip with cheap fasteners. It fits neatly with the dispos-a-bike concept of modern industry ethics. Who's ever gong to undo something once it's assembled, however badly? They got a lot of units at the best possible price for themselves, and shoveled them out the door. Buyer beware. The problem is, you can't just tell consumers to buy something more expensive to avoid the shoddy, because expensive stuff is made to keep addicts hooked until the new and improved version makes them fork out again.

Economically, it makes perfect sense. Thrift doesn't keep money in motion. A long buying cycle leaves factories barely ticking over as they wait for the next surge of demand. Wasteful consumption creates jobs, even as it plunders and pollutes the environment and turns labor into a mere line item. Depressed wages feed demand for cheap products which feed the need for cheap labor which depresses wages... You could go for a bike ride to cheer up, provided that your tubeless tires have remained sealed, your brake fluid is reasonably fresh, your suspension hasn't collapsed, and your shifters don't need new batteries.

We sipped a bit of the Kool Aid and brought in a couple of Fuji smokeless mopeds. They have rear hub motors and downtube-mounted batteries, so they're very heavy in the rear. Under a full charge at maximum assist, I wonder how readily they would pop a wheelie. To keep the weight down, they do come with a carbon fiber chain guard.

Just kidding, it's fake carbon. Nifty print, though.

The owner's manual is a bit intimidating.

Pacific Glory Worldwide. The dragon awakens and claims its own. Nicely grandiose. Largely accurate.

Speaking of things that aren't carbon, a long-time summer customer of legendary frugality asked us to find him a replacement frame for his carbon bike, which had cracked after decades of use. He wants to transplant the entire parts gruppo from  the old bike to a new frame. Carbon? I hear you can get that repaired and it works great. I actually know two riders competing on repaired carbon frames. 

Carbon! It says right on it.

Whoops. Not carbon. That bike only has carbon in the seat stays and fork blades. The rest is good old, perishable aluminum. And it had perished undeniably.


He really should pick out his own frame. He won't find a brand new carbon frame with a standard threaded BB shell, but there are adapters. We also assigned his brother in law to needle him into buying a thoroughly modern marvel like the rest of the roadies in the family have. While we wait to see how that evolves, the bike hangs in our shop, moving from hook to hook as it gets in the way of one thing after another. Almost no one will ever take my advice to turn the calendar back a couple of decades and build a nice steel bike with friction shifting and conventional wheels. Ride more! Tweak less! Too boring.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Not the fire ax

As predicted, the road tubeless tire that I had such fun with last month came back last weekend because the tire had lost pressure. The rider told me that he had been having problems with the tires since he bought the bike. I'm pretty sure he's going back to tubes. I put a tube in the troublesome front tire, no charge.

A rim with a solid floor would eliminate the problem of rim tape, but requires a non-conventional approach to spoke nipples, such as putting them at the hub, which makes a wheel much harder to true, or threading them into the rim from the inner circumference, in the style of Mavic. In that case, you have to have their proprietary nipples to replace any that get damaged, and use a special spoke wrench adapted to them. Mavic has spawned two or three sizes already. Other companies have had to develop their own spline patterns. This is in addition to more traditional shapes with non-traditional sizes.

Because I started out as a self-sufficient home mechanic, I judge things from the perspective of a self-sufficient home mechanic. One of the greatest strengths of the bike as personal transportation that a rider could also use for fun was the relative cheapness and simplicity of the workshop one would need to support the machine or machines. I got drawn into it further than most, but even with the shop-quality workstand and truing stand my investment was far less than the price of a used car, let alone a new one.

There have always been some specialized tools. You can't fake cone wrenches or a headset wrench. You can put a big honkin' adjustable wrench on the top nut of a threaded headset, but you need the flatter wrench to secure the cone beneath it. And some form of fixed cup tool for cup-and-cone bottom brackets really assures that the cup stays fixed. There were few things more annoying than having the drive side bottom bracket cup working its way out of the frame on a long ride.

                                           Cone wrenches   Double-enders were handy for a home mechanic and to take on trips, but single-size shop wrenches with longer handles are more pleasant to work with when you have the luxury of better facilities. I've been spoiled a bit by the professional life. In either single- or double-ended form, the 16mm is the size to remove bottle caps.

                                            Headset wrenches     The upper one has a 15mm jaw on the small end, for pedals. The lower one has pins that would fit Sugino adjustable BB cups, as well as many other brands. You could also get adjustable pin spanners (not shown) just for BB cups, which I eventually did. 

Cranks used to come with a crank puller. They mostly looked similar to this Campagnolo puller that I got as part of a barter deal for some work on a guy's Schwinn Paramount. He had no use for tools he didn't know how to use, so I did the work in exchange for a nice collection.

I soon acquired a Park shop-type crank puller because it was convenient and I had little else to spend money on. Unpublished writers and bike nerds are unencumbered by social life.

You have to keep your crank bolts tight if you want the crank arms to remain obediently attached. First I got the Park multi-size, because common bolt sizes were 14, 15, and 16mm


Then, as part of the trade deal, I got a genuine Campagnolo peanut butter wrench. It was so named because the handle was perfect for spreading that affordable nutrient on your crust of stale bread.

While we're down around your bottom bracket, the official wrench for the most common flattened-oval fixed cups looks like this:

The hooked end fits the notches of the common BB lock ring. The wrench itself could be secured with washers and a crank bolt so that additional force or leverage could be applied to either seat the fixed cup or bust it loose as needed. There are cooler tools specifically for the task, but they've always been a little pricey for the slight advantage. I invested later, when I had a brief period of accidental prosperity. Rather than piss it away on frivolities, I invested in tools. Of course they were tools for tasks that nearly no one needs done anymore... but in the perfect post-apocalyptic, post-consumerist fantasy future, bike design would return to the accessible basics that were hallmarks of the late 1970s and the 1980s, minus the annoying nationalistic variations. Sort of a neo-classical period. Barring that I have a great supply of eccentric paper weights.

The well prepared home mechanic would have a chain tool. These became part of the take-along kit when mountain biking got big, because people were breaking chains right and left. This became especially common after Shimano introduced their "special pin." I developed a whole slew of phrases based on the "friends don't let friends drive drunk" PSAs on TV, starting with "friends don't let friends ride Shimano chains." 

Continuing the process of upgrading tools, I did get the fancy Park one that would handle up to a 10-speed chain.

Now, of course, you need one that will do 11, 12, and 13. I haven't bothered to equip for tinfoil chains, just as I never got sucked into buying new tools every year to keep up with changes in suspension design. I'm still holding out for that return to an ethic of simplicity and durability. Be the change you want to see, even if you know full well that it will never happen and that the world will cheerfully obliterate you and everything that you hold dear.

In the age of thread-on freewheels, you needed the proper tool for any brand that you had. The tools were small and inexpensive.

My brands were Regina and Suntour. Suntour later went to a four-notch freewheel that was not an improvement. The extra dogs on the tool created instability rather than greater engagement. Splined engagement was better, but only if you could get a tool in there without having to remove things from the axle. Phil Wood came up with the thin-walled tool that would remove Regina and Atom freewheels without having to disassemble the axle.

If you got into changing cogs on your freewheel, or messed around with fixed gears, this cog vise was great to have:

You will not find these anywhere now.

A chain whip or two is not only handy for self defense or really hard core S&M, you also need it to disassemble a freewheel or to immobilize a cassette on a freehub so you can remove the lock ring.

  Cable tension is important. Pulling them with pliers or just your fingers can fail to get things as snug as you'd like. Because of that, the Fourth Hand tool seemed like a worthy investment.

It's especially useful in today's world of high-tension shifting systems. It takes some delicacy not to crimp the cable, especially a skinny shift wire, but it's worth mastering. The Park version doesn't have as fine a nose as this specimen, so it's a bit harder to fit into tight spaces, but it has a locking mechanism that can come in handy when it isn't being a pain in the ass by locking when it feels like it.

Another score from the barter deal was this "Campy 5-mil with a growth on it."

The little knurled burl made it easy to twiddle quickly to thread down a 5mm cap screw.

The 8-9-10 Y wrench was another convenient item for the home tool kit or the carry-along set.

You'd still want regular box-open wrenches in those sizes, but the Y wrench was still worth its weight. 

I bought all of my tools from bike shops. Bike shops carried tools. I suppose there were mail order catalogs when I started paying attention to cycling in 1975, but I lived in places that had well-stocked shops. It never occurred to me to go anywhere else. Even my machinist friend moved into a series of shop jobs for quite a few years before she and her husband got away from retail and formed part of the shadowy support world of referral mechanics: people with the skills and tools to do jobs that the retail shops can't or won't. The referral network supports the shops by taking some of the load off, and fixing the problems that would cost too much money and time for a retail store's overhead.
 
Now I would probably buy on the internet, since shops don't tend to stock the more esoteric and serious tools. If I had to operate without a retail front, I would have to get parts somewhere as well. Depending on how far civilization degenerates once we've finished shooting ourselves and each other in every available foot, we may be scrounging in junk yards and landfills to piece together our mad creations.

Friday, October 16, 2020

A cyclist's place is anywhere but here

 Have you ever had someone do something that you did not ask them to do and then expect you to be conspicuously grateful for it afterwards?

In the confined space of the Cotton Valley Trail, user groups come into conflict even more than on a more conventional multi-use path. Because of the poor design, with the rails left in place, walkers, runners, and all the different types of bikes are squeezed into a space less than five feet wide for long stretches. People manage to make it work because the trail route is often attractive and sometimes convenient. It's a nice cross-section of this part of the Lakes Region, and if you happen to live within a few degrees of its course, it can serve as part of a transportation cycling corridor. I use it for a small part of my park and ride option. Before COVID-19 I used more of it.

The tight confines of the path mean that people getting out for some fresh air have to squeeze past each other in clouds of breath that might or might not be a problem in the open setting. During the longer daylight I quit using it entirely, because it was full of other traffic. Some people thought that cyclists were massive germ-foggers. Other quick studies seemed to indicate that speed and turbulence would dissipate infectious clouds. But why put up with reproving looks and a tangle of wide handlebars if you don't have to? I went back to my old, old, pre-path road route to leave Wolfeboro.

At the best of times, a rider would encounter pedestrians who expected more than a pleasant hello from a passing cyclist. One time it was Woman with Fluffy Dog, who saw me coming, reeled in Fluffy's extended leash, and gathered the dog protectively against her legs as she stepped out of the railed section on the causeway and stopped.

"You're welcome!" she shouted at me as I rolled carefully past her.

Another time it was an older couple. They weren't elderly in the sense of wobbling on frail legs, but they were definitely toward the silver end of middle age. They, too, went out of their way to clear much more space than necessary, and sprayed that acidic, "you're welcome!" at me as I rode by. And there have been others.

No pedestrian is ever glad to see a cyclist. Most cyclists aren't too glad to see each other in the miles of jousting required by the narrow path. You never appreciate just how little a whole train sits on until you've tried to manage two-way bike traffic with 31-inch handlebars in 56 inches of trail width.

Yep: 56 inches. Actually 56.5, but you don't notice the half inch when two sets of 31-inch handlebars already add up to 62. Mind you, we don't all have 31-inch bars, but lots of upright bikes have bars that are above 25 inches. Theoretically, a rider can put the tires right along the edge and have almost half the width of the bars hanging out to the right, but the poorly-maintained stone dust surface of the path itself can make the edge much less attractive than the middle. In a railed section, a rider doesn't want to risk catching the rail and getting dumped in places where the landing is often a steep and rocky slope.

Every pedestrian I meet on the path looks unhappy about it. The best of them look fairly neutral and might return a greeting. On average, they all look a little aggrieved. Some really have a chip on their shoulder.

On Wednesday morning, in a narrow, overgrown section outside the rails but still squeezed by the uncontrolled plant growth on the sides, I was headed into town as a runner came toward me outbound. He looked to be in his forties at the latest, fit and strong, with some flashy shoes. The path comes out of one of the few slightly bendy bits and into this straightaway slightly below the level of the rails running beside it. I slowed many yards ahead of where we would pass, decelerating gradually so that the approach would not take an awkwardly long time.

The runner stopped abruptly, turned sharply to his left and mounted the small step up to the tracks. He stopped, turned, and snapped, "You're welcome!"

If I hadn't been hurrying to get to work I would have stopped and asked him if he wanted to pull his shorts down before I kissed his ass, but there was no time for extended conversation. I was quite surprised that this new demographic had been added to the "you're welcome" profile. Youngish fit dudes are usually among the most stoic when it comes to putting up with the annoying presence of cyclists.

The very next day provided the perfect counterpoint to the whiny runner. In exactly the same stretch, in almost exactly the same spot, I came down to meet a middle-aged couple walking the other way. For some reason, the woman was walking up on the tracks. Equally unaccountably, when she saw me coming she left that safe perch to climb down into the trailway to walk behind the man, so that we could all experience the inconvenience. Their looks radiated the usual annoyance and resentment with which pedestrians greet cyclists, but we singled out, we slithered past each other, and no one said anything, because we're goddam adults. We all know that the path has this glaring flaw. The best of us just deal with it.

My handlebars are the width of my shoulders. On the Cross Check I take up no more width than I would on foot. When I do walk on the path, I go outside the rails whenever I can, and always give room to riders without any desire for anyone to make a big time about it. On my mountain bike, the bars are wider, but I put them on well before the 31-inch standard became common. They're maybe 24 inches. The fat tires make the bike a little more secure hugging the edge. I've also hopped the rail on it and ridden the rough sides where I could. At no time do I demand any recognition for handling unplanned encounters in a mature and cooperative fashion.

I've heard the stories about highly unpleasant riders ripping through groups on foot, tossing obscenities in response to complaints. The whiny runner might lump me in that category because the only single word answer I could come up with to his sarcastic, "you're welcome" was "smartass." Even as I said it I knew it was inadequate to convey the full spectrum of issues opened up by his absolutely unnecessary and unrequested sacrifice. A variety of other epithets would have applied, but come no closer to defining the exact emotional blackmail contained in "you're welcome."

On the road, expressions of disapproval or demonstrations of asymmetrical power are more variable, because faces are so often obscured, and the vehicles involved are moving faster. I prefer it that way. Decades ago I abandoned the fallacy that eye contact helps. Too often I saw expressions or invited elaborations from a motorist that I would prefer not know about. Now I let the reflections on window glass hide the human occupants and my own sunglasses and helmet form part of an expressionless wall on my face. The style of a driver's passing says enough. While drivers this season have been mostly very good, I still know that they will invariably squeeze past me at intersections and tend to pass at speed, as soon as they encounter me, rather than wait for a safe break in any oncoming traffic.

A driver yesterday illustrated that some drivers don't understand how an obstruction in their lane is their responsibility. I popped out of the parking lot from work onto Mill Street, behind a small SUV. We both had to slow down because a delivery truck partially blocked our lane. A motorist was coming the other way in the unblocked lane. They were absolutely correct in doing so, but the driver of the SUV in front of me laid on the horn with a long blast because she thought that she should have been allowed to swing out around the delivery truck without having to wait. Motorist entitlement squared. These are the people a rider has to function with, along with the anonymous majority who just get on by and don't make a fuss about it.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Are you prepared for the civil war?

 A teaser for a site called The Washington Examiner said that 61% of Americans believe that we are headed for a civil war, and 52% are preparing.

I wonder how many of the people "preparing" understand that average residential home construction will not stop a high-powered rifle bullet. Are more than half of the people in the country up-armoring their homes, boarding up their windows to rifle slits, stockpiling food and water for a siege, installing fire suppression systems so that they can't be burned out of their refuges, or even installing deep bunkers that can withstand Billy Bob's improvised explosive devices? Or are they just buying a semiautomatic rifle in stylish black or camo, a few hundred rounds of ammo, maybe visiting the range once or twice, and feeling manlier as a result? I know that a depressingly sizable contingent looks forward to gunning down anyone they deem undesirable, but I don't know if that will foam up into the kind of endless bloodbath that most modern civil wars become.

Meanwhile, at my job, I see only people preparing to occupy their little refuges in New England, far from the infectious crowds, and work remotely at their jobs, as they have been doing since March. The backwoods revolutionary crowd does live exactly there around here -- in the back woods -- but around Wolfe City the vibe is distinctly more upscale and insulated by walls of money. They are preparing for safe outdoor activities, seasonally adjusted. Incoming browsers ask about snowshoes and cross-country skis now, more than bikes. At the same time, riders keep riding and breaking things.

One energetic mountain bike rider dropped off his Trek full suspension bike because the freehub had suddenly stopped engaging, so he could not propel the bike forward. When I opened the Bontrager hub, I saw that the pawls had all come out of their little recesses, and two of the three springs had disappeared. That was strange, because the freehub body had not been loose. The tiny springs either managed to escape as I separated the pieces of the hub, or were pulverized in whatever catastrophe had dislodged the pawls in the first place. I did not know whether the failure had been gradual, with the engagement getting progressively less positive, or instantaneous. The rider, spending virtually all of his riding time on rough surfaces that cause plenty of jolts and irregularities in power transfer, might not have noticed among all of those distractions, until the whole thing broke loose.

The teeth of the ratchet ring inside the hub shell looked undamaged. The pawls themselves did not look dulled or fractured. It looked like I could reassemble everything and get it working if I could replace the missing springs.

Searching for spring donors, I finally settled on Schrader valve cores. The springs were the right diameter. I could cut them to length.

They were a little finicky to install because very little holds them in place until the ratchet mechanism is nestled into the ratchet ring.

Feeling hopeful, I rotated and pressed the reassembled mechanism into its seat. Incidentally, the cogs are still in place because they had bitten so deeply into the aluminum freehub body that they would not come off. My attempt to pry them loose had dislodged the whole freehub body in the first place. It's a bad design for mountain bikers, especially large and rambunctious ones, but it's normal for the "quality" that the bike industry offers to its weight-conscious clientele. Ooooh. Aaaaalloy...

It all went together after an initial fumble with a hub seal that knocked things apart on the way in. I reinstalled the wheel and turned the cranks. The whole cassette rotated. I opened things up again to see the pawls out of their seats, clumped together. With the freehub removed again I was able to wedge a screwdriver between the axle and the ratchet ring and move the ring inside the hub. The ring is only a press fit, with no splines or other extra retention devices. I thought about drilling through it in several places to install pins of some kind, but this was turning into too much of a project. The customer decided to take the bike in its current inoperable condition and investigate options through the Trek dealer and internet shopping for replacement parts.

Lighter repair demand gave me a chance to dig into the crashed Pedego that came in a couple of months ago. The owner takes a light touch, which facilitates my total lack of enthusiasm for delving into smokeless mopeds except when courtesy and necessity plant one right in front of me. I finally followed up on the phone numbers he provided. Weirdly, the first one turned out to be some sort of telemarketing scam. It started with automated prompts like your typical phone queue, but every time I pressed the requisite key to get to the next level I got another advertisement asking for personal information. I bailed out of that and tried the other number. That got me right in. After no more than two layers of "press 1 for doodah or 2 for day," I got to a very nice lad named Luke, who was extremely informative. I did not drop the company president's name, but I did use the bike owner's name to help Luke find the service ticket and hook us up magically with credit terms and dealer pricing. Either that or they'll bill the bike's owner directly somehow, but either way he didn't ask me for money. And he did tell me how to get the battery case apart, and extricate it from the rack.

Which wires do I disconnect to get the main cable out of the battery case? If I master this I can apply for the bomb squad.

In the hands of a Pedego dealer with a full staff of trained technicians and a parts department full of, you know, parts, repairing this bike would not have taken more than a day or two. However, just for this one customer alone we would have to have dealer accounts with about half a dozen brands, spanning close to 20 years. He's commendably patient about how long it takes to get sophisticated equipment serviced way out here in the colonies. Then again, it's been his choice all along to embrace rapidly evolving technology and bring it here to the edge of civilization. It takes months to get parts for the African Queen delivered all the way to the Belgian Congo.

Setting aside the Pedego until the parts arrive, I moved on to some basic adjustments on a fairly recent, mid-grade, hard-tail mountain bike. It has SRAM trigger shifters and X-5 front derailleur. The derailleur needed several adjustments: height, angle, and cable tension. Each has to be perfect with this setup to reduce -- not eliminate -- the chain rubbing on the derailleur cage in the middle ring. The best you can hope for is to make it quiet on either the high gear or low gear end of the range. To achieve this, the cable cannot be tight. It has to have the perfect amount of slack. "The right amount of drape," as George used to say. To avoid using up too much of the threaded adjuster on the shifter pod, I like to get the tension -- or lack thereof -- pretty close to perfect at the anchor bolt. The problem is that on this bike you have to take the rear wheel out every time you want to put a wrench on that bolt.

World class, championship quality stupid design. The bike industry has been giving the finger to mechanics since the 1990s, and it continues to get worse. Their motto now is, "If your bike is old enough to have gotten dirt on it, it's obsolete enough to replace."

"My bike needs a tuneup."

"Don't bother! Check out these shiny new ones!"

That ethic is running hard into the shortages caused by the pandemic buying spree. But those shortages also extend to repair parts, so even though we willingly try to keep people's machinery operating, the means to do so have become even more challenging to obtain.

I caught a thing on NPR about how cargo ships are being pulled from service because ports won't let them disembark anyone to make crew changes, and shipping regulations won't let them keep flogging the ones they have. Flogging metaphorically, that is. Crews work far beyond their normal contract tours, until they legally can work no more. It's just one more factor highlighting the vulnerability of dispersed production of consumer goods to outsourced factories in distant lands. Factories may go back into production but if you can't find a ship to carry the stuff it might as well not exist.