Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Alternate routes

Back in 2011, I took advantage of dry summer conditions to explore a discontinued section of road in North Wolfeboro as part of my ride home from work. I kept meaning to get back and do a little pruning to clear the smoothest line on some sections. It's only taken five years.

This summer is even drier than that summer was, but two days of tropical humidity with passing downpours activated some muddy areas and slickened up the slime on mossy rocks.

While much of the route would be no problem with the 700X32 tires on the Cross Check, there are a couple of significant eroded bits that would call for precision bike handling or a portage. It's a short cut that would not be faster.

It doesn't look like much of a road...which is good. Locals have obviously put trucks through it regularly, taking out major obstructions. Blowdowns and other obstacles have been cleared, while side growth encroaches to discourage casual use. But then somebody went through and snipped a clear line through the most bothersome vegetation.

No idea how that happened. I carry an implement in case I'm attacked by pumas, but the pumas were all busy elsewhere.

Past the unassuming entryway, the road line becomes obvious, if not clear.
This is one of the eroded areas, so it's a bit of a dance to get the bike up to the better surfaces further in. I documented the trail pretty thoroughly in the post from July 2011.

Today turned out to be another muggy one. I made a slow trip down from the top of this road, performing botanical sampling. The return trip took less than half the time.

Here's a little rare mud in this droughty summer. Beyond it was a rocky section that would probably call for a dismount on the Cross Check.
As noted in 2011, this old road bypasses both nasty climbs on the maintained roads, Stoddard and Haines Hill. It might make a nice addition to a park-and-ride using the mountain bike, but it doesn't look like a great option for regular use on the full route with the more roadworthy bike.

At least now I know.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Stuff no one needs to know

The bike business isn't a career choice. It's something you get sucked into and trapped in.

Small shops have traditionally been owned and operated by bike enthusiasts who wanted to share what they liked. This is, apparently, a terrible business model if you want to be profitable. The ragtag survivors of the industry press have produced thoughtful articles about how we should all be more businesslike.

As true as that may be, the far reaches of the bicycling universe are still served by small shops staffed by poor idiots who didn't know when to give up and move on. We've stuffed our heads with things no one needs to know.

In the 1990s, our shop's advertising tag line was, "we really ride!" The mountain bike boom had brought a lot of weak players to what looked like a feast of easy money. The happy salesman chatting you up in a big shop might very well have to go find a caustic grouch in the repair shop just to put air in his tires. While some top racers were notoriously mechanically inept, you do much better as a rider if you know something about the machinery, and much better as a problem solver with the equipment if you really ride.

Experience comes with time. It's vital in a repair shop, where the equipment coming in could be weeks or decades old. You can learn a lot from books and videos, but they're not as good as personally witnessing the evolution.

Imagine being a veterinarian and the animals are evolving visibly, drastically, from year to year. The old ones aren't dead yet, but the newer ones have extra eyeballs, or six legs, or you have a dog with gills...

It takes more than intelligence, and lots more than theoretical engineering to keep the nation's bike fleet operating. Newer isn't automatically better. I know, I beat the crap out of that concept relentlessly, but I do it because it is true. It is the most important truth about bikes. Old stuff -- not ridiculously old, but not fresh from the mold -- can keep going for years, and serve you well. You just have to know how it works. And that's where you need that witness to evolution.

My colleague in the repair shop is a fully grown retired engineer. He missed the runaway evolution of bicycles in the 1990s. He's constantly getting ambushed by weird problems with old componentry that can be nearly impossible to diagnose if you didn't go through the maze with it when the industry first inflicted it on the riding public. Some of it never worked and never will, but most of it can be coaxed to function far longer than the manufacturer ever wanted it to.

Just as the dead vastly outnumber the living, so do the old bikes vastly outnumber the new ones. The continued popularity of fixed-gears indicates how the old ways can persist and be built into new machines. If you know where to look, you can find friction shifters. You can assemble your own cassettes, for ultra-personalized gearing, as long as you are willing to forego brifters, and relinquish forever the idea of a manufacturer's technical support. We don't need no stinkin' tech support!

People pay huge money for a 300-year-old violin because the qualities that make that human-powered musical instrument great have been worked out for a long, long time. Machinery like a bicycle cannot age as gracefully as a fine violin, but the qualities that make a well-fitted bicycle the perfect machine to convert human effort into forward motion have been worked out for a long, long time...relatively speaking.

Well below the Stradivarius level, your basic bicycle can provide decades of use with proper care. Perfect for a courtesan or a priest to ride after supper.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Another side to Trump supporters

In this year's dismal race for the presidency of the United States, supporters of Republican nominee Donald Trump have been portrayed as violent, bigoted, ignorant thugs. While he does seem to poll very well with that demographic, that makes my roadside observation all the more thought provoking.

You might expect a violent, bigoted, ignorant thug to drive in violent, bigoted, thuggish ways. But on my bike commute, where I am exposed to every passing vehicle, cars and trucks emblazoned with Trump stickers have been among the most careful and polite on the way by. That's not to say they have been the majority of the careful and polite, only that they have been notably so.

This fact does not shed any kinder light on the rhetoric and leadership potential of Trump, or the greater wisdom of his supporters. If I rode long enough on the right roads, I might well encounter some of the more violent and thuggish ones. But it does indicate that a significant number of the voters who have chosen The Donald in fact possess a level of human sensitivity that gets bleached out in the harsh stereotyping of political propaganda. Not only is this unfair to them, it also oversimplifies the issues any candidate -- and eventual leader -- needs to deal with. It turns diverse humanity into a homogenized lump, to love or loathe, to join or eradicate.

Beware the dehumanizers. Once you put all the bad stuff under a label and apply the label to a bunch of others, you can too easily develop a false sense of immunity to your own evil. You lose the ability to consider all the human psychology that leads to these concentrations of destructive tendencies.

Starting well before the Trump phenomenon, I have noticed exemplary passing behavior from people whose bumper stickers make me despair for the future of the human species. The stickers still make me despair for the future of the human species, because they reflect beliefs that are going to tear civilization apart, but in the meantime the people themselves seem strangely kind.

I don't know what I look like to a motorist. Maybe I'm so obviously a white guy that the bigots figure they'll cut me a break, even though I am clotting up the motorway with my bicycle.

Nearly everyone thinks they're doing the right thing. Maybe some of the more egregious sleazeballs know on a deeper level that they are fooling themselves, but at least they go to the trouble of rationalizing their behavior on a conscious level. The leaders who send their minions to do hideous, hopeless things tell their followers that it serves a greater good. The greater good of an evil cause is still evil, but below the leadership level it can be hard to sort out the level of zealotry in the ranks. The leaders might well be cynical manipulators, using their followers like toilet paper. The toilet paper stays neatly rolled in uniform squares, loyally waiting to be pulled off and expended.

The fact that Trump can appeal to people who are not violent, bigoted, ignorant thugs could help to propel the violent, bigoted, ignorant thugs to publicly visible levels of power, rather than functioning as the dark and deadly undercurrent they've been up to this point. More likely, they will be turned back at the election, and subside into the jagged landscape scarred by philosophical fault lines, to be forgotten until they snap. The fact that they are so numerous today proves that you cannot force people to evolve by mandating certain behaviors. You can stigmatize the behavior so that a wise bigot tries to blend in just to get by. Over time -- a very long time -- the quality of alienation may fade. But humans have many centuries invested in our differences, and really only decades in pursuit of something more inclusive.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Speed at all costs

A triathlete friend of mine is making her final campaign at full Iron Man  distance, in November.

Endurance athletics serve a therapeutic purpose for her. She has also worked as a professional trainer and event organizer, because she wants to share the benefits that her obsession has brought her.

For this last big race, she asked me whether she should invest in a state of the art time trial bike. But the budget she set would not get her a bike at the quality level of her venerable Serotta.

The arms race behind the bike race goes unacknowledged.

A lineup of TT bikes featured on road.cc illustrates the most evolved wind-cheating machines to enable a well-trained rider to go slightly less pathetically slowly compared to any vehicle people are actually impressed with. An absolute nightmare to work on, these ultra-sophisticated machines will set you back thousands of dollars -- in some cases upwards of $10,000 -- to get the full wind tunnel tested package of aerodynamic benefits. And you will still get dropped by a rusted-out Nissan that burns a quart of oil in 50 miles and costs a third as much. Much less than a third if you bought a really expensive bike. Or some twit with an e-bike will come tooling past you, vaping.

When Greg Lemond unleashed the aero on Laurent Fignon in 1989, it made aero bikes socially acceptable. It launched the movement to quit making bikes that looked like they were made by meticulous artisans and more like something engineered by the military-industrial complex.

At first, aero enhancements consisted of streamlined helmets and removable aero handlebars. Bike frames still had round tubes! And lugs! Rider position made a huge difference, established by the clip-on aero bar.

Soon, of course, bars were specifically designed and bikes were specially constructed to adopt each aerodynamic enhancement allowed by the governing authorities. This was also the age of the triathlon, where very little cycling tradition weighed down the innovators, and a free-spending population of willing test pilots purchased the latest implements to gain whatever advantage they could.

In any arms race, whoever develops a weapon first enjoys a clear advantage. Once everyone has the widget, that becomes the new level playing field, forcing further advancements to gain a new technological edge. At the same time, the old ways have been obliterated. When the competition is unlimited and existential, the rising tide of technology represents advancement for the whole species. This is also true in non-military contexts. Take transportation, for instance. Ships evolved sails. Sailing ships evolved through various shapes, swifter or more efficient for their given task, until powered vessels set a new standard in speed and maneuverability. On roads, the bicycle initiated the age of mass-produced personal transportation, but the automobile and its variants soon eclipsed pedal power.

Since we're only racing against each other on our bikes, we could set the standard anywhere we want. Does it really make a difference if average time trial times are a minute or two faster now than they were 20 years ago? It doesn't make the event any more exciting to watch, just more expensive to conduct. When everyone has only the slickest bike they can afford, the margin of victory could be in the wallet, not in the training, skill, and determination of the athletes. Or, if everyone has equally slick bikes, the equipment disappears from the equation. Everyone could be on Raleigh Choppers, or vintage Schwinn Paramounts.

The time trial position is not comfortable. The bikes are not versatile. Some are more aerodynamic than others, in ways that may be hard to tell by looks or price tag. And, as I said, they're absolute nightmares to work on. Humans have their urge to excel. There are worse things to blow money on than the pursuit of a few seconds over 40 kilometers. But if all the expense is just to be equal, the problem is artificially induced.

Economies run on induced problems. And maybe the aero bike of today will lead to the pedal-powered personal aircraft of tomorrow. I doubt if even that would spawn an industry strong enough to shape whole political systems and the course of nations, the way internal combustion has.

For now, my friend has to make the best of the equipment she has, with a snazzier back wheel and a new aero helmet, because she lacks the coin to place a much heftier bet on a bike that will turn heads in the transition area. The spacelanders
 she'll be sharing the course with present an intimidating army. The ones that live up to their advertising will actually confer an advantage upon their well-funded (or tapped out) riders. How much of an advantage is hard to say. And is it worth it? That's even harder to say. Ten grand for the ephemeral satisfaction of standing on a podium that will be gone forever, ten minutes after the award ceremony? Or maybe just to achieve a personal best time, down in the anonymous wad of barely differentiated finishers? Look! Here comes that vaping guy on the e-bike again.

Monday, September 05, 2016

It's hard to ride with turtles between your fingers

A bicyclist gets a good look at all the road kill. Sometimes we get to rescue a small creature before it gets flattened. Once I directed traffic around a beaver that was crossing Route 28. A few times I've snatched a snake or a turtle from the traffic lane. Most of the time I'm too late.

On Saturday, I was in a hurry to get to work before opening time, to lug clothing racks out to a pop-up tent set out to entice holiday weekend shoppers. But then, on 28, I noticed snapping turtle hatchlings doing that flappy-footed baby turtle walk from the roadside into the lane. One had already been flattened. I saw one, two, three more as I scanned the shoulder. There's only about a foot or foot and a half of paved shoulder, and then a guardrail, where the turtles happened to be.

The wetland that probably served as the mother turtle's home is way down a forested slope. Dozens of yards may not seem that far, but when the slope is covered with trees and undergrowth, and you're wearing hard-soled road cycling shoes, it's too far to go. And the baby turtles had been headed the opposite way. I tried to remember what other streams and wet areas lay along that section, perhaps more convenient for all of us.

The babies' instinct to keep moving meant that I could not cup them in one hand. I had to wedge each of them between a pair of digits, with just the right firm but gentle pressure to keep them in place without squishing their soft little shells. All the while, they kept flapping their flippers.

After walking for 30 or 40 yards on the northbound side of the highway, I crossed back to the southbound side. I knew that a stream flowed very close to the road within perhaps an eighth of a mile. It feeds into the wetland where the rest of their family probably lives. I figured if I could get them to water they could work the rest out for themselves.

Still confined by the guardrail, I remounted to ride, turtles in hand. One finally wiggled free just as I stopped. I picked it back up and hoisted a leg over the guard rail. I could hear the stream trickling thinly, even after weeks of drought. I bushwhacked down a short distance and set the turtles as near the stream as the tangled shrubs and weeds allowed.

I had switched on the video camera, or so I thought, as I dismounted, to record the little guys, but I had not pushed the slide far enough. It hits resistance just before it actually switches on, so it can look  and feel like it's on when it isn't yet. I can't always hear the beep when things are noisy, as they are when cars and trucks are hitting the centerline rumble strip. So I got no visual record.

At least when I arrived late at work I had a more interesting story than usual.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

You'd be wise to stay out of the way

This video of a massive icebreaker cruising into Helsinki in the 1920s stirred up all kinds of thoughts and feelings.


The first thought was, "What is wrong with those idiots? Give that thing some room!" How could the crowding spectators know that the ice would not crack laterally, dumping them into the frigid water? How could the ones skipping beneath the bow know that they would not slip or trip and go for an unplanned dive beneath that charging hull? The propellors would not be kind.

It must have been amazing to stand that close to the beast as it cut through the ice. But it's also the stuff of nightmares.

Whoever was conning the ship wasn't wasting a lot of concern on the people clustered in the vessel's path. That kind of mass is not going to stop or swerve sharply. It was up to the crushable, but highly mobile, people on the ice to keep themselves from being crushed. If one or more had failed to evade, no one would have blamed the icebreaker's skipper and crew.

To the non-riding majority, we who ride our bicycles on the street look like the idiots playing chicken with that icebreaker. Whether an onlooker is rooting for us to fail or hoping that we don't, when a rider gets crushed it seems inevitable, unavoidable, and entirely the responsibility of the small person who should have known better than to impede the great machine. The critical differences are lost in the glaring and deceptive similarities. And not all the similarities are deceptive.

Machines like big ships and railroad locomotives don't have the maneuverability and stopping power of even a large tractor-trailer. The people running around that icebreaker knew it would not accelerate sharply or swerve abruptly. They could calculate its speed and direction intuitively. The little people and the big ship's crew seem unconcerned about each other because they can be. The disparity of the relationship imparts its own stability, barring an unfortunate crack in the ice.

Elements of traffic on a street, road, or highway are closer in size and highly variable in speed, mass, and maneuverability. The aquatic analogy is demonstrated on any crowded lake on a summer weekend: swimmers, paddlers, sailboats, and motorized vessels in a range of sizes dart around like water bugs. The biggest vessels move ponderously compared to the smallest, but everything is more fluid, if you will.

This summer, a bicyclist was crushed by a tractor trailer in Conway. The driver left the scene. The story was misleadingly reported in all media. Initially, the cyclist was portrayed as avid and experienced. The vehicle was not described. The stark facts were that a cyclist was run down and it was hit-and-run. As details emerged, the rider emerged as somewhat less than meticulous in his riding tactics. The truck driver may not have been aware that his vehicle hit someone. A cyclist has to know something about the limitations faced by drivers of various-size vehicles and take the initiative to stay out of danger zones as much as possible.

When drivers talk about cyclists on the road, some of them display a blanket prejudice, while a handful of others display an undiscriminating concern. In between are all the ones who sound like someone trying to describe how they're not a racist, but... They have my sympathy, because cyclist behavior plays a huge role in safety. It will not protect you from someone who has decided you deserve to be killed just for being out there, but it will keep you whole in nearly every other circumstance. Riders who do dumb things provide talking points for the haters and huge anxiety for the compassionate.

Dumb things. On one level, it's dumb to be out there at all, just as it was dumb to run right up to a massive icebreaker charging ahead with its bow designed to crush whatever is in its path. Let's assume also that none of those people needed to be out there to use the ice for their own purposes as the ship came through. That's a critical factor.

When we're using the roads we all pay for, we all have a stake in the infrastructure and deserve benefits from it. These are your tax dollars at work. The methods we use to move greater numbers of people and volumes of cargo have led to the different size vehicles using the public right of way, but it is public, and putatively designed for the use of all.

Debate simmers, seethes, and occasionally rages about who should be included in "all." Money drives. It has a disproportionate voice in design discussions. Meanwhile, in the real world, people find very good reasons to use a bicycle or to walk from place to place. Intelligent life is not always displayed by complete embrace of the most elaborate technology. But money talks. Whether we're talking about preserving the environment that supports all life, caring for the sick, or creating safe walking and biking accommodations in our entire transportation network, if you can't show a monetary gain you will not get anywhere. Tell me again about intelligent life?

A rider in traffic, or on a road where traffic could occur, takes a calculated risk. Any traveler takes a risk, but the cyclist or pedestrian is particularly exposed to other people's judgment. On the other hand, we are particularly free to bend and break rules to improve traffic flow and enhance our safety. It's a thoughtful dance at all times. We are also able to bend and break rules selfishly in ways that unnecessarily antagonize other users, whether we're on the street or a separated path. Bicyclists are in the middle, between those on foot and those in motor vehicles. Did you have any idea that something as simple as riding a bike brought such responsibility with it?

Responsibility is optional. Everything in life is optional. You may choose to stop, rot, and die at any time. You may choose to be a flaming asshole and call it a blazing torch of liberty. Responsibility can be ducked. It can be chucked. It can be ignored. We could go out in a blaze of selfish anarchy. The universe doesn't care. Why should you?

That's a question you have to answer for yourself. Evolution will note the results.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

"What's a hacksaw?"

A guy walks into a bike shop and he asks the guy working in the bike shop if they sell kickstands.

The shop mechanic says yes. So the guy asks if they have one to fit an 18 inch bike. The mechanic shows him the Greenfield 285mm generic model with the cutting scale marked right on it.

"See here on the package it tells you how to figure out the length and then cut it with a hacksaw," he tells the guy.

"What's a hacksaw?" the guy says.

I  was not a mechanically inclined child, and I knew what a hacksaw was by the time I was ten years old. I don't think I knew anyone, male, female, or other, who did not know what a hacksaw was. It was just part of the culture passed on without a second thought by adults who either fixed things or at least knew that they should.

Society has failed this man who has reached at least his thirties without knowing what a hacksaw is. I should have figured out a way to run through a short hand tool questionnaire with him to see what other items he's missed. It would tell us a lot about how far we've come from being a hands-on, can-do population to being served at all levels by people we hire to know what was common knowledge 30 years ago.

Granted, when I was a kid, geezers grumbled about skills being lost. It's part of evolution. But degeneration can hide among the thickets in what looks like evolution. No electronic marvel has superseded the hacksaw.

The kickstand is made of aluminum. You could probably shorten it by beating on it for a while with a sharp rock. Kind of funny to direct someone too modern to have heard of a hacksaw to use a stone tool instead. Even better if he worked that out for himself.