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.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Assembly comedy of errors

Bikes people get somewhere else are one of our main sources of income. Maybe they bought it on line and realized that bikes aren't really that easy to put together. Maybe they got it at a shop that thinks bikes are too easy to put together. It goes like a snap if you leave out a lot of steps. It goes even faster if you don't even know what a problem looks like.

The latest example had something to do with a charity promotion, but when the technician doing the check in asked conversationally, "what charity was that?" the customer replied grumpily, "That's immaterial."

Ooooo-kay.

At a quick glance, the bike looked like a typical low-end facsimile of a hard-tail mountain bike. It had some snazzy cosmetic touches, like a silver and black headset spacer and machined-out highlights on the conical top of the headset itself, and on the top cap.

The dials on the tops of the fork legs looked like a particularly brittle chromed plastic. The oversize frame tubes are faux aluminum: they're steel. But it has disc brakes that actually seem to work.

The rear wheel was the heaviest thing I've hoisted in a long time that did not have an electric motor built into it.

The adjustment process went deceptively smoothly. Then I removed the top cap from the stem, so I could grease the threads on that bolt.

Perched atop that attractive two-tone headset spacer, the stem was halfway off the top of the fork and could not be mounted any lower with that spacer in place.

The star nut itself, which is supposed to be 15mm down in the steerer, was nearly flush with the top of it.

I found spacers to set the stem at the correct height and reset the star nut before putting the whole mess back together. That got me scrutinizing the rest of the parts.

Check out these shifters: Fake Shimano.
ShiMING.

The derailleurs were another inside joke:
Sun Run! A knockoff of Sun Race, a company that began in the 1990s by making good but not fashionably exciting mix-and-match components to repair Shimano drive trains.
The front derailleur is a double knockoff, because Sun Run evokes Sun Race, but SR is an even more venerable company (Sakae Ringyo).

The only brand labeling on the tires was a logo that looks like WD
This might be a swipe at or homage to the old Flying Pigeon brand of bicycles. In this case, WD stands for Wounded Duck.

Nice machining on the pedal threads:


Nothing that should have been greased was greased. A tuneup on a bike like this is basically reassembly.

Bikes like this are one reason that bicycle accident statistics exaggerate the danger of simply riding. If the bike had not had a defective rear inner tube, someone could have ridden it. As long as the chain pulls one gear around, and the wheels don't fall off, some poor idiot could pedal this thing out to the top of Dead Man's Drop and launch it. The stem was one solid pothole away from detaching from the bike. The brake cables were reversed and tangled. The pedals were finger tight in the crank arms. As far as I know, bicycle accident statistics never include in depth analysis of the machine or factor in the bad decisions made by the rider. It's just bike=injury or death.

The cruelest thing about a bike like this is that a kid might think that it's totally cool.We scrape off a lot of crap on kids because, "they're just going to grow out of it," or they're going to get a driver's license in a couple of years. So at an impressionable age we condition them to expect nothing better. This one didn't even have a country of origin sticker. Apparently, not even China wants to claim it.

My bikes when I was a kid were nothing special, but it's a lot easier to make a durable, affordable one-speed with a coaster brake than to pump out cheap, crappy versions of complex mountain bikes. Along with the plethora of downright hazardous bikes, kids have ready access to heavily edited videos of trained (and battle scarred) professionals showing them how to abuse their bikes and themselves.

Progress marches on.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

An Okay Shoe

Time once again for another glowing endorsement of a current cycling product.

Always on the lookout for a non-cleated cycling shoe that will fit into a toeclip, I ordered a pair from Specialized that looked promising.

The model is called Skitch. According to internet search results, skitch means "to hitch a ride by hanging onto a moving vehicle while riding a skateboard or roller skates. There was also reference to doing this in just your shoes while sliding on ice. Neither of these sound like they would last long, which is usually what happens to shoes that fit toeclips, too. The bike industry giveth, and the bike industry taketh away.



The curse of modern shoes is the cupsole. A big, beefy rand is an obvious impediment to riders trying to fit a shoe into the opening of a toe strap. Less obvious are the nearly ubiquitous cupsoles on shoes that in other respects appear tapered and smooth, without aggressive tread, or bulky straps built into the upper.

A veteran toeclip rider gets used to the feeling of the strap contacting the sides of the foot right above the sole of the shoe in just the right spot behind the wide part of the foot. Toe strap is a bit of a misnomer, because you want it well back from your toes. Even a low-profile cupsole interrupts this contact, making the rider -- this rider anyway -- feel isolated from the pedal, and insecure. The strap may indeed be holding the foot in place, but without the feedback of the strap it becomes impossible to judge how firmly the foot is held, and how much one can trust it in a snappy maneuver.

Only a cleat provides maximum power and control. When I'm wearing a touring shoe I have already decided that the versatility of a walkable sole and the less frantic pace of a tour justify the less secure attachment. But I keep the straps for a reason: if I need a little more power or control than a flat pedal would provide, I have it. It's an intermediate step between the total commitment of any cleated system and the complete anarchy of a flat pedal.

As kids we never thought about any of this. All of our bikes had the standard rubber block pedals. When we had to accelerate, we stood up and pumped. When we had to climb a steep hill, we stood up and pumped. When we'd outgrown our bikes and hadn't gotten a new one that fit, we stood up all the time. For that matter, stuck onto a tall, gangly steed that we were supposed to "grow into," we had to stand because we were straddling the bar. The seat was a summit we could not yet reach. But when you know better, you want better.

Nice features of the Skitch include laces, a fairly tapered toe, and a waterproof toe cap which seems like it should also serve as a built-in toe warmer -- you know, those neoprene thingies that you stretch over the toe of a cycling shoe in cool but not super cold weather. It's very comfortable, with a cork insole. Fit is tricky, since a touring shoe should fit a bit more generously than a full-on performance cycling shoe. Here is another place where the cupsole messes up the total effect, by making the front of the shoe about a quarter of a size larger outside than it is inside. You have to stuff that into the clip to get far enough for the strap to go around the sweet zone.

I envision using this shoe for winter commuting. The North Face Snow Sneakers that I've been using are seven years old, and they were never very stiff. My winter commutes tend to be park-and-rides on dirt roads and the local unpaved rail trail. The route is all downhill in the morning, so shoe stiffness isn't too critical, but all uphill at night. Tired already from a day of work, I hate to feel like I'm losing what little power I have to a squishy, bouncy shoe. But the Snow Sneakers aren't too bad. They're definitely nice and warm without being oppressive. And they have excellent off-bike traction without having a super aggressive tread. They are apparently still available. At $110 retail, I would be reluctant to thrash them through slushy trails. Because I work in a shop, I didn't pay retail. Because I've been a low-level wage grunt all my life (oops), I can't imagine having enough income to consider $110 disposable.

At least the new shoes might let me save my nice Diadora touring shoes for fun rides in nicer weather. The Diadoras were marketed as spinning shoes, so they're shaped for athletic use. I trimmed the front strap so it fits into the pedal more easily.



Years ago, my late friend Bill recommended Winwood extra large toe clips as the best at accommodating big shoes. I ordered three sets. I could use a fourth now, and they're no longer made. I've ordered a possible contender made by All City to replace the non-Winwood ones on my off-road commuter.

The problem is not so much clip depth as the amount that it comes back over the instep. It has to reach the sweet range. The new clips accommodate double straps. When I ran double straps for a while in the early 1980s, we took one set out through the holes in the rear plate of the pedal cage and the other set through the normal routing. That really held the foot, but the rear strap could cut in painfully. One strap is enough for most uses, as long as it is in the right place for your particular foot size and shape.

I've only taken one ride on the new shoes. I will post updates if anything about them surprises me.