Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sheet metal cogs and tinfoil chains

An article on Ars Technica extolling the "improvements" in bike technology since the 1980s has been popping up on social media today to give my ulcer a workout. Observations by technophiles who aren't mechanics help fuel the headlong rush of the bike industry into fragile technology that is a pain in the ass to maintain, and often impossible to fix.

People love gizmos. Bikes started out on the forefront of mechanical innovation in the 19th Century. As they were superseded by the automobile, they languished in neglect, evolving only a little until influxes of cash and public interest in the 1970s and '80s inspired a rising curve of development that really foamed up in the 1990s with the mountain bike boom and the expansion of the aero/tri segment.

The 1990s brought engineers off the sidelines as hobbyist users and shoved them deep into the design process. Much of this was fueled by the demand for mountain bike suspension systems that would work with the heavy and inefficient human engine, but once you get a serious case of engineering it spreads far and fast. A public conditioned to crave expensive new technological things and accept that they are junk within a year or two at most was ripe for such changes in the bike industry.

For the first 100 years or so, bicycles were evolved machines, not designed machines. Even now, the designers have to study what has been working and figure out why it did before they can screw with it. A hundred years of trial and error honed the vehicle in its various forms to meet a variety of needs. A couple of decades of technological promiscuity have led to some genuine improvements and a lot of expensive and unhelpful complications, not to say downright handicaps. People who think in absolute terms will laud the vertical dropout and its offspring, the through-axle. People who, on the other hand, understand the value of a variable rear wheel position will be stockpiling old steel frames with long horizontal dropouts. They're not just for fixies. 

I would go through the article and dismantle it point by point, but if I read it for more than a few seconds my head explodes, so I'm not going to do that. I have to accept that the battle for public perception was lost a long time ago. The best I can do is put better advice out there for the few people  who will still appreciate the versatility and freedom that a simpler bike offers to the average underpaid toiler. As it was in the 1880s, is now and ever shall be, a bike is a good investment for a working stiff, as long as it is well chosen.

A Trek Fuel full suspension mountain bike last week provided a nifty example of how a designed weak link, intended to fail under stress to preserve more important and expensive parts of a system, can be bypassed when those more expensive parts become more fragile in the greedy quest for more "features." The rear derailleur hanger of old steel and aluminum frames used to be part of the dropout on that side. It would occasionally get bent on a road bike, in a crash, or if an improperly adjusted derailleur shifted into the spokes. With the coming of mountain biking, bent hangers became common because riders would pick up sticks or other debris in the chain and drag it into the derailleur as they continued to pedal. Steel frames could be straightened from some pretty alarming looking deviations, but an aluminum dropout was usually ruined. Aluminum frame builders started providing replaceable hangers. The concept spread to become the norm. Derailleur hangers are now one of several jigsaw puzzles that repair facilities have to solve on a regular basis.

Some early replaceable hangers were made of such soft alloy that they actually bent just from the ordinary stress of shifting. The first run of hangers on Specialized Stumpjumpers in the mid 1990s were notorious for this. If they weren't, they should be. The Big S eventually started making hangers out of steel, and has now evolved functional alloy versions, but it actually took them a couple of years to face their blunder. Denial was as big a force as "innovation" in the bike industry in the 1990s.

Having finally hit the right level of fragility in the hanger for the drive trains of the time, the industry looked at it no more. They moved on to adding as many cogs as possible to the rear cassette and making chains as thin as necessary to fit the stack of saw blades that now makes up a modern gear cluster.

One dozen sheet metal cogs, so thin that they have to be pinned together with little rivets to keep the damn things from folding under load

Compare the 8-speed chain (top) with the 12-speed chain (bottom) While either can be bent with sufficient stress, the force required to tweak the tinfoil specimen is far less.

The cassette in the top picture is a 12-speed 10-50 SRAM Eagle. Ten to fifty. The biggest cog is the size of a chainring. It's the thickness of a chainring, too. They can't get away from that. Anything that big has to have the strength to support itself, connecting rivets or not. 

By killing off front derailleurs, the industry avoids the biggest bender of chains, but I have ridden double and triple front chainsets for 43 years and never bent a chain. Meanwhile, to provide some vestige of the former range of available gears, the industry has to cram more cogs in the back, over a range that requires a rear derailleur like a crane to cover the span and manage the chain wrap. That's a long cage, my friends. And a skinny, skinny chain. The chain line sprawls so widely that the chain is vulnerable to bending just from the normal deviation. Add a traumatic factor like a stick in that dangly derailleur cage and you'll be lucky to get away without trashing the chain along with whatever else gets mangled.

In the case of the Trek Fuel, the tech who checked it in saw the twist of the rear derailleur and stated that the bike needed a new derailleur hanger. But when I looked at the hanger it appeared pretty straight. The alignment gauge confirmed this. This is after we had to buy a new alignment gauge, because the old Park DAG-1 doesn't have a long enough nozzle to get into a derailleur hanger buried beneath rear suspension pivots. Our old, old Campy gauge worked, but the DAG series has a more sophisticated system for checking alignment around the circumference of the rim. It's tweakier to use, but gives a more fine-tuned look at any problems. Or, in this case, lack thereof.

The robust replaceable hanger had stood firm. The evolution of the drive train has moved the weakness in the system out to the $125 derailleur instead of the $32 hanger.

Once I replaced the derailleur, the drive train made a very slight clink noise while running the chain on one of the cogs down on the high end of the cluster. Thinking that this may have been the gear in use when the stick jammed, I wondered whether the sheet metal cog had picked up a slight kink. Because cog teeth normally exhibit a cyclic pattern of offset teeth, a slight but larger deviation is hard to assess. Because the clusters are all riveted together, if any single cog had been rendered unusable, the rider would have had to purchase an entire cassette at $215 retail. If it was only the chain, that's a mere $42. But you can see how the cash cost of a minor mishap can add up very quickly. The fail-safe part of the system was the least affected by the accident in which it was intended to take the most damage. That stress was distributed to the rest of the parts. 

The damaged derailleur was bent in the middle, so that the upper and lower pivots were no longer parallel. The rider said he stopped pedaling the instant he realized that the stick was in there, but the derailleur still went into the spokes. With a tubeless tire, spoke repairs can extend to dismounting the tire and possibly having to replace the sealed rim strip. Fortunately, the bends in the spokes did not appear too sharp, which would create a stress riser. I was able the true out the minor deviation in the rim without racking up uneven tension.

An autopsy on the bent derailleur revealed that the four pivot pins of the parallelogram were bent, making the derailleur twist increasingly as the rider shifted toward the larger cogs. You can get some replacement parts for the SRAM Eagle 1x12 derailleur, but not those parts. Removing them is a destructive process, because they are riveted. Rather like SRAM Double Tap road shifters, the part you can get is not in the area that actually breaks.

I'll keep taking the money to work on this crap, but I will never stop pointing out that it's expensive, ephemeral bullshit: the exact antithesis of everything that made bikes a great piece of technology for decades. The mythical free market demonstrates time and again that the consumer's taste for excruciatingly engineered junk sucks all the money away from simple, durable items of lasting quality.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

"Field destroy"

"Just render the frame unusable," said the email from Specialized's warranty department. So we handed it off to our colleague who has an excavator. I have not transferred his photos from the work computer yet, but here is the result:


The warranty department at Specialized was duly impressed.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Wasteful and destructive customer service

Along with so much else in the world, the bike industry is slumping to new lows in waste and destructiveness.

Today's topic: warranty. Back in the 1970s, any bike shop employee could rattle off the phrase, "lifetime warranty on the frame and a year on the parts" with casual assurance. Crash damage wasn't covered. Normal wear and tear were excluded. Not a lot of stuff seemed to come back. A simple warranty like that was a safe bet.

At the dawn of the mountain bike era, the industry held onto the memorized phrase until the strain of explaining the exclusions got to be too much. The 1990s saw a sharp change in the previous open-handed policy. No one was covering crash damage, but companies handed out a lot of freebies as the competition ramped up, just to try to win friends. But the accounting department soon stepped in to preserve profits during the unprecedented surge of business. And rightly so. Conniving riders were constantly scamming to get things covered. Unfortunately, honest claims suffered as well. And warranty terms became a moving target. We had to keep checking to see what current policy was.

Since the bike industry has broken up cycling into very specific categories, warranty has become more generous again, particularly in the less crash-prone sectors. And, with consumer interest far below what it was when everybody wanted a mountain bike, the industry senses a need to try to buy some friendship again.

All this sounds like it might be good. Here's how it isn't:

When bike shops were treated like trusted members of the industry, we were trusted to evaluate claims and submit them. As the 1990s cranked up, manufacturer's representatives would come through to validate our findings and write credit memos, but it was still pretty collegial. That shifted abruptly around the midpoint of the decade. Our shop received fewer and fewer rep visits. Warranty procedures varied from company to company. Response times got longer. Reporting requirements became more stringent. We would usually have to box up an item -- even if it was an entire bike -- and send it to the company to be evaluated.

Shipping is expensive, especially for a large, awkward box with a bike in it. This year, Fuji had us return two or three bikes that arrived damaged in shipment, but they were still basically packed, or easy to repack. Fuji sent a call tag, and off they went. Other than that, we have been successfully discouraged from pursuing much warranty for much of anything smaller than a bike. The process takes time, and time is, as they say, money.

A customer who bought an Orbea somewhere else brought it to us for a shifting problem. In the process of dealing with that, we discovered a crack in one chainstay. The customer did not want to repair the frame, so he contacted Orbea for warranty. Once his new frame arrives, we are supposed to saw the old one into pieces, and send photographic evidence to Orbea. As much as I rag on the carbon crowd, the bike is beautiful. I hate destroying beauty.

The bike hangs on death row in the workshop, while the customer waits for the new one in the color he wants. I wouldn't want to own it, but I can appreciate its appearance. And it's old enough still to have the cables on the outside. The new one won't.

As sad as it is to consider sawing up a carbon road frame that at least got to see several years of riding, the next case really shoves the wasteful consumer side of the bike industry in your face.

A customer bought a Specialized Fuse. He's an athletic adult in his late 40s, I would guess, a firefighter, a family man. What you would call a good and productive citizen, who has gotten into mountain biking. I don't know what his cycling background was before the little local mini-boom in mountain biking inspired him to get this bike. It doesn't matter really. He rides in a sporty but relatively sane fashion. He paid about $1,200 for what he -- and we -- thought was a solid and reliable bike.

A $1,200 bike today is about what a $500 bike was in 1995. Let that sink in a minute. One thousand, two hundred dollars. It used to seem like a lot of money. Now it's barely the threshold of anything built to stand up to the moderate abuse of a mountain biker who doesn't ride with a death wish.

Our buddy went up the the Kingdom Trails in Vermont early in October. The weather was cool, but not cold. The Suntour fork on his bike stiffened up and the controls ceased to function. The preload knob wouldn't turn, the fork would barely react to bumps. He rode it anyway, because it was better than nothing, but he'd only had the bike for about two months. The conditions were not extreme. He had not crashed the bike or abused it. When we examined it, we found no signs that he had pressure-washed it or even hosed it down vigorously, which are two common mistakes. The fork was just foobed.

In the warmest conditions, the fork is almost normal. But this is New England.

A quick web search of "fork sticks in cold weather" or something similar will pull up lots of results that include this fork and most other low-end suspension forks from any manufacturer. We did suggest that the customer upgrade the fork, but the manufacturer still has a responsibility to back up the product.

In answer to the initial message to Specialized, they said to hit Suntour for warranty. It's a Specialized bike and the fork crown has a sticker saying that this particular fork was made to their specifications, but when it's time for warranty it's someone else's problem. Ooooo-kay. Sourcing is complicated these days, when a fork is its own set of complex moving parts.

Suntour responded helpfully enough, but the Fuse comes with a straight steerer on the fork. All the cool forks have tapered steerers. The OEM fork had 120mm of travel and a straight steerer. Suntour only had 100mm forks with straight steerers as replacements. Or they would send an upgrade with 120mm, but the customer would need to get a new headset.

Back I went to Specialized. I explained Suntour's deal, and asked if they would provide the headset necessary to make the change to a tapered fork. The head tube on the frame looks like it will accommodate it. Simple, right? Pretty cheap. Neat. Tidy.

Nope.

Specialized will send the guy a complete bike. That seems awfully generous. Bordering on foolishly generous, actually. And the terms of the deal require us to take the perfectly good frame of his "old" bike and smash it. In fact, if we have to field destroy the whole bike, that includes every component. It's a gross and nauseating waste of resources all the way from here to China. But they don't want to pay the freight to ship the derelict back to them, and we certainly don't. The customer should not be penalized for having trusted their product to perform according to its advertised specifications. The whole thing goes from a fixable glitch to an obscene example of consumerist gluttony. And the new bike will have the same fork, with the same straight steerer, setting up the possibility for the same failure on the next cold ride.

Remember when bikes were about saving resources and having less impact on the planet? Yeah, I barely do. And riders who came in any time after the mid 1990s will never have known anything but this conveyor belt of consumption and obsolescence.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Tech Roundup

Here are a few pictures of modern bike technology at its finest -- which is to say aggressively marketed mediocrity.

The area around an inset headset looks like the  floor under a leaky toilet if the owner hasn't been meticulous about keeping it clean and dry. Hidden bearings seem like they should be better protected, but they really just do a better job of containing contamination and hiding problems while they really fester. The second photo shows a bearing that festered for a couple of years. It used to be a cartridge bearing, but it came out in rusty pieces.

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Disc brakes need to be properly aligned and frequently checked to make sure that they're working correctly. Because the pads are in their little turtle shell, it's easy to forget about them, and hard to really see what's going on in there. An inexperienced mechanic set this caliper up so that the inner side of the caliper functions as the brake pad. Mechanical brakes aren't self-adjusting. If no one thinks to adjust the inner (fixed) pad as it wears, the outer pad eventually just shoves the rotor over against the side of the caliper. It'll be a little noisy, but it will stop you eventually.

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What the hell does this mean?

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This isn't a technological issue. It's just rude. It's equivalent to showing up at your doctor's office with a dingleberry. I get it. You're a mountain biker. I don't need to add your souvenir mud to the mess I already have to clean up in the workshop.

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The latest and greatest!

Bike componentry development reminds me of the joke about the two guys running away from a bear. One guy stops to put on his running shoes. The other guy says, "Why bother? You can't outrun a bear." The other guy says, "I only have to outrun you."

No matter how much money you spend on ultra-fancy bikes and parts, you'll never really be fast. You'll only -- maybe -- be faster than the other pathetic dorks working outrageously hard to go about as fast as a prudent driver in a residential neighborhood.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Land crabs and porcupines

On the ride to work yesterday a motorist came across the centerline toward me on a sweeping curve with good sight lines, on a pretty morning with no fog or other obstructions. I could see his eye line, so I knew he was not distracted. His expression was ambiguous. I responded the way I almost always do to  a motorist encroaching on my space.

I moved toward him.

I've written many times before about body language, cadence, lane position and general affect as ways to communicate with the subconscious of motorists. They can sense fear, and anyone with a personality inclined to enjoy that will increase aggression if they get a fear response. People in general are likely to take whatever they can get, whether they're being careless or purposely pushy. You have to decide what to let them have.

In this instance, the motorist corrected his line and withdrew to his own side of the centerline. It was just another fleeting moment. I can't even know for sure whether he was reacting to my presence during any part of our encounter. I've also written about the near-uselessness of eye contact with a driver, because they can be very good at looking alert and still looking right through you. Or they use it as an opening to share opinions that you'd rather not have known. I try to keep all the communication nonverbal and impersonal, related only to the immediate need to maneuver around each other in the shared space of the roadway. Our long tradition of sealing ourselves into cans and speeding anonymously down the road has bred this isolationist culture in which we respond to each other as little as possible on a human level, and focus instead on ballistics.

After the pass I thought about how I represented no physical threat to the driver. The intent in moving confidently and unyieldingly is to convey the impression that the motor vehicle may be bigger and faster, but you are more dangerous. In cougar country, hikers are advised to make themselves look large, to discourage the predator from bothering with prey that could put up too much of a fight.  This is different from bear protocols, that say to look humble and retreat graciously. On the road you have to be ready to switch between these protocols, as you assess whether the motorist has a cat or a bear personality. For the most part, though, my first move is to look like a spiky mouthful.

The defense mechanisms of vulnerable creatures reminded me of road kill I'd seen in different ecosystems. In south Florida, I used to see land crabs crossing the roads. Their reflex when they see a threat is to brandish their claws. "That's right, f***er! Don't mess with me! I've got these!"

Blat. A car is unimpressed by threat displays, and a driver may have no time to react, not notice the creature, or be a sicko who gets off on killing things. In any case, the massive vehicle has the advantage. Sometimes the heavy shell of a large specimen can actually puncture a tire, but the crab didn't win, and the motorist was only inconvenienced.

Up here in the piney woods, porcupines waddle across the roads. When a vehicle charges down on them, they put up their quills. "Bring it," they say.

Blat again. In this case, the porcupine loses completely. The quills will not damage the vehicle.

Crabs and porcupines have only the one strategy. Crabs will sometimes accelerate their scuttle. Given the chance they will flee. If you go into their habitat you can see them run for cover of vegetation or a burrow. But porcupines simply do not run. They have two speeds: slow and slower. In their ancestral environment, they evolved not to need to retreat hastily.

As vulnerable road users, bicyclists can choose among strategic options based on specific circumstances. No matter what we do, our health and survival depend on not getting hit at all. There is no "next level" in a conflict with another road user. In any of our strategies we simply want to avoid contact with another vehicle piloted by another ostensibly thinking, feeling being.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Fall already

The only thing worse than the inexorable march of time is the people who feel compelled to point it out. As summer fades and fall actually arrives the poets and philosophers wax on about how great the change is, or how it's such a great metaphor for the unstoppable slide into decay and death. Sweaters! Pumpkin spice! Country fairs! You're rocketing into darkness at 67,000 miles per hour! By next spring you'll be that much older and more decrepit! Enjoy the holidays!

I have a theory -- which I have not been able to research yet -- that a person's perception of the seasons is shaped by the season into which they were born. I was born into the longest daylight of summer, not right on the solstice, but about a couple of weeks thereafter. My blurry little infant eyes took in long days of high sun separated by short nights, on the New England coast. When your life span has only been measured in days, each day is a significant percentage of your whole life experience. I imprinted on summer. I feel rightest when it's brightest.

From a primitive standpoint, long daylight provides the most generous free illumination under which to get done whatever you need to get done. Of course it could be too hot. And the light cannot be stored. Even with solar chargers, there is loss. You can't spread your panels to the arctic summer and light the entire arctic winter with the power you collected. Not yet, anyway. So the retreat of the sun represents a genuine loss.

As years pass, a person learns to appreciate all that a year has to offer. I moved back to New England eager for winter to make the mountains more mountainous. Snow and ice were the attraction, not an interruption to be endured. Short days and long nights were not benefits, but they were a necessary part of the overall machinery that produced snow and ice. I became a connoisseur of winter. Now I can tell you what really makes a good winter good, and what the best parts are. From a mountaineering and exploring standpoint, the best of winter is short and delicate. But the season of darkness is never short and its hand can be very heavy.

As my outdoor activity shrunk steadily to just commuting by bike and occasional short hikes, my use for the season of darkness and cold has dwindled. From a bike commuting standpoint, darkness makes it more convenient to stop along the road or trail for a leak, unobserved. That's about the full extent of the benefits.

On the road, evil bastards seem emboldened by the darkness. I get more close passes and angry honks when I'm riding with lights at night. And it's not because I have startled them. The effect has gotten worse as I have added more and better lights. These happen less out on the open highway than on Elm Street. You'd think that side roads would be more serene. You'd be wrong. Most of my ugly incidents happen on Elm Street. It's a redneck expressway. People from all over know that it provides a convenient connector to the Route 16 corridor. It's not exactly heavily traveled, because its convenience depends on where you live at the other end of it, but it's seldom deserted. So the last few miles to my house, and the first few miles when I'm warming up, are the most stressful.

September always brings an increase in driver aggression, even in daylight. It fades a bit as fall advances, but solar glare becomes a bigger problem. You hope for dry but overcast days for safer riding. The sun's backhanded slap, devoid of warmth, isn't worth the trouble. I actually enjoy its low-angled glare when I don't have to ride or drive in it. It fits nicely with the melancholy introspection of the season. But on the road it's just another hazard to work around.

Earth's orbit being Earth's orbit, if you hang on long enough you come around again into the light. Things grow, life emerges. June never gets warm enough fast enough, but don't complain. It will be gone again. The wheel does not spin in place. It rolls us for a distance that we don't get to control. That's why I don't care for the seasonal cheerleaders. Look to this day. Know the parameters that define its light so you can plan accordingly. Know the fruits of the season so that you can enjoy them. Your next breath is not guaranteed to you, let alone the season. With only the most necessary glances at the big picture for orientation, watch this moment and be glad when you make it to the next.