Sunday, July 22, 2018

Race horse vs. war horse

I could have said pack horse, but I get a feeling of going into battle when I set out on the commute. I know we're not supposed to say that it's a war out there, but a cyclist on the road never knows when hostilities might break out. It's true in motor vehicles, too, but people on bikes feel their exposure more. That sense of exposure to physical harm is probably the biggest deterrent to riding.

I used to ride my road bike to work most of the time. At one time, it was a state of the art racing machine. The state of the art has moved on, but that road bike remains the lightest, swiftest machine in my little fleet. Once in a while I still pump up the tires and take it for a cruise. For the daily grind, however, I mount the sturdy Percheron, mentally armed, if not physically. The lightweight thoroughbred can only try to outrun or outmaneuver anything that threatens us. Darkness falls, we might have a couple of little battery lights if I remembered to bring them. Rain comes down, we get soaked. In cleated shoes, I can't do much walking. On dirt roads, I can get through on the road bike, but it's not at its best. If I modified it to meet more of these challenges, it would no longer be the racy cruiser, and it still wouldn't have the geometry and ruggedness to stand up to long slogs off the pavement, and skirmishes with armored cavalry.

The bike always loses when battle is seriously joined. The metaphor is just that: a state of mental preparedness. The war horse is heavy, slower than the racer, but built to take more of a beating in the feints, retreats, and evasions that make up an average commuting day. Slow to climb, slow to accelerate, it's still pure rolling hell on a downhill with a tailwind. I could ride through a brick wall.

The racer types are on a different trip. Sure, we have our skirmishes when we're riding the fast bike, singly or in a group, but it feels different when you're riding in rush hour -- or whatever passes for it where you live -- than on an elective ride on high performance equipment. The point of commuting and transportational cycling is to get from place to place, on a schedule. The point of recreational riding is to ride.

I've considered changing a few things to make the old racing bike more practical. Interrupter brake levers would be the first thing. They might end up being the only thing. They would improve my riding position for the dirt part of my commute, and in traffic. The lighter bike would certainly improve my average speeds on nice days. I just have to let go of the last vestiges of the racer that I never really was anyway.

Muscle memory matters, too. Because I ride most of the time on a bike set up a certain way, my reflexes are shaped to that. I catch myself reaching for brake levers that aren't there when I'm on the road bike, or test riding repaired bikes that don't have them. I quickly readjust, but if I'm going to do basically the same type of ride day after day, any bike should be configured to it.

The race horse becomes a light cavalry mount. Interrupter levers would make it easier to control the beast while swinging a saber.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Another great used bike

After getting a bunch of sass from hydraulic brakes for a couple of days, I figured I would knock out a quick tuneup on a used Specialized pre-gravel bike that someone found. First I had to extend the seatpost so I could clamp the bike in the repair stand.

Good luck with that. The seatpost was jammed in there like the worst rusted Muffy in the junk pile. Carbon on carbon. It's so tight, you'd think it was manufactured that way.

Here beginneth the floods of light oil and other procedures. The first treatment, plus leverage, only produced the first couple of light cracking noises that tell a mechanic to back off.

The rider would have to change the seat height for proper fit anyway. Or they could toddle around with their knees out, chortling about what a great deal they scored.

This is how hours get wasted in the workshop. A few minutes at a time, to save the rest of a profitable and productive repair job, half a day gets flushed away on one attempt after another.

Now put an electric motor and hydraulic brakes on that thing. And route the cables inside the frame, because everybody needs that shit, too.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Treading water in brake fluid

The repair shop continues to be busy. Nearly every time-sucking repair has involved hydraulic disc brakes. Even now I don't have time to go into detail, because I have to sprint to town to deal with the backlog. I'm trying to finish a bike for a guy who bought it from Bikes Direct to the Repair Shop. It arrived in many more pieces than he expected. After fumbling with it a bit, he brought it to us. He leaves for vacation this afternoon. It all went together routinely except for the rear SRAM Guide R disc brake, which has multiple issues. The symptoms don't make sense.

The work load would not seem heavy at all with two full-time mechanics, but we have been unable to fill the other full time position. Not enough people share the right balance of intelligence and delusion to want to get into the job. And the presence of another full time mechanic would reveal the underlying weakness in the economy. Most of the activity in Wolfe City is coming from millionaires and their minions, here for their summer getaway.

Our local billionaire stopped by to say hello. He wants to know why we aren't selling ebikes yet.

"I've got a whole garage full of them," he said.

I do not know anyone who owns one who has an income less than six figures.

I pointed out to him that for eight months of the year -- and I should have said ten -- there are 7,000 year-round residents sewing patches on their patches. For four months -- and I should have said two -- there are people with disposable income. And they all buy their stuff where they live, not where they spend their long, leisurely holidays.

Sunday, July 08, 2018


When bikes like this Cannondale come in, I feel like a veterinarian in Jurassic Park:
Early versions of a new phase of technology automatically look primitive and weird, like the bones of a giant sloth. As the bike industry moved aggressively toward disc brakes and a full commitment to suspension, each of their experiments looked futuristic for about a week. Once a format settles down, the changes become more subtle. All high end bikes are on a conveyor belt of obsolescence, but the critical differences are easier to overlook until you need to fix something.

Cannondale liked to invent their own stuff. Their technical curiosity is laudable, even if their results might not have been. To boldly go where no one has gone before...except for several other innovators who did it better. But beyond one company's specific early mutations, the products of the entire era are more abandoned than the the more settled technology of 1970s ten-speeds. Companies vied for control of the market with implications of exclusivity. For instance, the Coda brake fluid bottle calls it  a race-proven synthetic blend. They don't say whether it is glycol or mineral oil, implying that it could be some third thing that you can only get from them. Years later, the mechanic trying to decide which juice and bleed kit to use gets no help from the label. Forum posts on line indicate that it's mineral oil. Fortunately, I did not have to bleed them. Chasing air bubbles is a finicky, fiddly, time-eating task.

The rotors are held on the hubs with only four bolts. Good luck finding parts for that.

The crank has an aftermarket bash guard, an accessory that came and went and came again.
Crank manufacturers have embraced the concept now, so they are common. The crank shown here also exhibits the five-bolt, 58-94 BCD that was briefly everywhere, and now is almost nowhere.

This bike was over the threshold of the new age, but only barely. The equipment has evolved as mountain biking has split into subcategories. From a common ancestor, the genus has spawned numerous species. Each one requires habitat in which to flourish, and riders with money on which to feed.

Monday, June 25, 2018

That Windsor

Here are a few pictures of the Windsor mentioned in the previous post.

The brake setup:
The tricky part was snaking the brake cable housings under the Spenco bar pads. The customer didn't insist on keeping those pads, but he had mentioned that they were comfortable. I figured it would only require a little bit of fishing to feed the brake lines to the interrupter levers, and I was right.

This shot of the stem also shows the asymmetrical shifters:

Chrome head lugs:
Lugwork like this was a nice added value on what was a mid-price bike when it was new. The frame itself is rather heavy, but it is neatly put together.

The drive train:
Suntour Cyclone derailleurs and an SR crank

The whole bike:
A full Windsor, you might say

With long, eyeleted dropouts, this bike can be tightened up for snappier handling (within the limits of the front-end geometry, or stretched out for more comfort and better load carrying. This also allowed a rider to shoehorn in some gear options that push the official limits of the rear derailleur. That would be more of an issue with a shorter-cage derailleur than this one.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The things we make and do for each other

In a recent laudatory puff piece on Pinkbike, about his visit to Shimano's factory in Japan, Richard Cunningham used the expression "bowels of the factory." This common metaphor made me laugh out loud. What comes out of bowels, after all?

After decades of cleaning up the wreckage that lies on the shore after a tidal wave of innovation devastates peaceful villages over and over, I have no love for obsessive gear weenies and the corporate behemoths that feed off of them.

Cunningham described and praised the ingenious automated machinery that Shimano designed for themselves, eliminating the human touch from nearly all aspects of their production line. Machines feed material to machines that stamp out parts combined and transported by machines, to be assembled into machines eventually to be ridden by people.

In the article, Cunningham writes, "Keizo said that Shimano realized early on that automation was going to be key to their survival, so they began the learning process by building their own assembly robots – first, developing some of the automation in the machining and forging factory, and culminating with their precision assembly process. Shimano’s experiment grew into a new enterprise and at some point, they were building robots for other industries as well. Connecting the dots, it could not have been a stretch for Shimano to automate a derailleur shifting system after inventing the robots that assembled those components in the first place."

Industrial manufacturing began as a way to speed up individual craft processes and increase their output. It also assured more uniform products that were easier to maintain and repair, that could provide measurably similar performance wherever they were applied. Factory output required fewer people to produce it, compared to individual artisans working start to finish on the same kind of product. Factories could also produce much larger items, through the intermediary of large machinery beyond the means of an individual artisan. Early factories still needed quite a bit of labor, however, to operate and maintain the machinery. Human hands moved a lot of things throughout the increasingly standardized processes. Management and the accounting department have been working steadily to carve down the human element from the beginning.

The relationship between human labor and industrial manufacturing has been dark and complex. The self-appointed emperors of the industrial age viewed the workforce as serfs. Hours were long, management was oppressive and suspicious. The owners wanted to get as much as possible, and pay as little as possible for it, from the contemptible grunts they hired, chewed up, and spat out, in a human reflection of the growing culture of assembly lines. Labor organized. Conditions improved. But labor and management remained opposing camps. Is it any wonder that "Take This Job and Shove It" became a popular anthem right before people started to notice the sudden drain of manufacturing jobs to countries overseas?

Automated manufacturing frees people to take "better" jobs that don't require as much actual laboring. But they remove the human touch, the human soul. Sure, we invented the soul, and can make it obsolete, but an awful lot of our social conventions were based on humans contributing to the common good. What's left when we don't do that anymore?

If mechanized production lines really do a much better job producing reliable parts, riders are safer by that incremental degree. Only time will tell if we have any more massive recalls like Shimano's crank debacle in the mid-1990s, or the Lambert/Viscount fork failures of the 1970s. Those hinged more on design flaws by the supposed better brains in the engineering department than on manufacturing errors by the drones down on the line.

Vestiges of the human touch remain among those of us who try to fix things. Underpaid and still considered overpriced, we alternate between following the manuals when available and improvising when authoritative guidance can't be found. Last week, I did a restomod on a 1970s Windsor that an older gentleman had found at a bargain shop. He loved the classic styling, the chrome lugs, and general elegance of the bike, but wanted the bars a little higher (of course) and the shifting more accessible. I put on a Technomic stem,  aero brake levers with interrupter levers, and stem shifters. He wants the option of the drop position, but neither of us thought he would like barcon shifters. I hoped to find a vintage set of Suntour Power Shifters on a stem clamp, but I had to settle for a recent set of SunRace friction shifters. The right one didn't offer very good leverage for an aging hand, so I substituted a longer lever from our salvage bin on that side. If a set of Power Shifters ever shows up, I'll call him in to make the switch.

At the same time I'm refurbishing something 40 years old, I might have some tweaky marvel from last week on another stand, or next in the queue, needing its internally-routed cables replaced, or some little air ninjas chased out of its hydraulic brakes. And there are always noises to evaluate in bikes with low spoke-count wheels and carbon fiber everything. Fatal or trivial? Quickly now, the guy wants it back for the next hammerhead ride.

Far away, the presses pound in an automated factory, and robot forklifts carry pallets full shiny new possessions toward what they hope is a waiting public.

Friday, June 22, 2018

For Whom the Bell Dings

On the noisy streets, a bicycle bell is just about useless. An air horn and a flamethrower would be good. But on multi-use paths a bicycle bell is apparently an important social convention.

I have ridden sections of the local trail for years, announcing myself to pedestrians simply by speaking to them, or with the routine noises of tires on crushed stone. At my job, I hate being summoned by a bell. It seems so peremptory and condescending. You ring for the servants. You don't ring for a respected professional or craftsperson. I thought people might prefer the human touch. Funny that: I'm not very fond of talking to strangers. And I'm not trying to strike up a  conversation when I make a human sound to warn them of my presence.

The response was almost always faintly or overtly hostile.

So I finally got a bell. I don't like little dingy bells, or cheesy, staccato ringers. Even the one I settled on was ultimately just good enough. I'd prefer something with a deep enough tone that it is more felt than heard, but it would probably have to be made of bronze and weigh a thousand pounds. That's the gong I want at home, too. I want some enormous temple gong that groans out an earth-trembling tone that makes the villagers in the next valley lift their heads.

On the bike, I have something that goes "ding!"

Of Lezyne's offerings, this one had the lowest tone. The least highest, I should say. And it sustains fairly nicely, though not as nicely as the one a customer came in with last week. He said he needed it to ride on a path in Canada, where they are required equipment. His bell had no brand markings at all. Its tone was higher than I want, but it sustains forever. It launched me on the hunt for something with a deeper voice, and similar duration. And by the way, it needs to fit on my already crowded handlebar.

The Lezyne attaches with elastic bands, so I can transfer it from bike to bike easily. As shown here, it is riding on top of a Planet Bike Beamer that I use as a front blinky and supplemental short-range light. It'll do for now.

On the first evening commute with it, I came up behind two people. When I got close enough to figure I could ring and pass in a smooth, concise maneuver, I gave it a ding. The pedestrians leaped aside and stood almost at attention. No dirty looks. No snide or snarly comments. Wow.

A little further out, on a causeway with water on either side, I had the opportunity to ding again. The walkers practically threw themselves into the lake, again without visible irritation.

Talk about conditioning. Ding! Leap! The results have been roughly the same on each ride since the first.

Oncoming pedestrians still look like they consider me a nuisance and an affront. I have not yet tried dinging at them to see if it transforms them abruptly into obedient robots. I don't want power to corrupt me.