Friday, March 16, 2018

There is no cycling anymore

I heard a rumor today that a bike shop in a nearby town, known to specialize in mountain bikes, was planning to relocate to Wolfeboro. The owner of our shop is wondering how that will affect us.

Back in the 1990s, we withstood the attack of relentlessly undercutting competitors. That was when I noticed that competition is not really good for consumers, as we had been taught to believe. Competition weakened all the competitors, so that customers had less selection and less competent help. Our shop survived by preserving margins and performing top quality service. It didn’t hurt that we had a couple of mechanics who were smart enough to figure out how to work on the avalanche of new componentry, but dumb enough to keep trying to live on bike mechanic wages. The riding public in Wolfeboro was very well served in that time, especially when the biggest undercutter put itself out of business, and freed us up to stock more goodies.

At the time, there were mountain bikers and there were roadies, but they weren’t quite poles apart yet. Cross-country mountain bike racers were training on road bikes for aerobic fitness. But the subculture continued to evolve. The industry, fully committed to the drug dealer model of consumer marketing, kept spawning new categories to narrow the segments of the market and deepen the bite that could be taken from each addict’s wallet.

Around the time our latest looming competitor opened up in the next town to the south, the mountain biking subculture had already dismissed us as outsiders. Without even dropping by to see if we could be brought up to speed, our few remaining mountain bike customers went to the new guy.

I’ll admit outright that I had lost interest in mountain biking. None of the new equipment entices me to reconsider. The category concept really crushes small shops, even from the service angle, because customers tend not to trust someone they don’t see participating in their subculture. Also, our own sense of the componentry suffers from our inability to use all of it. Our slogan in the ‘90s was, “We really ride.” Road or mountain, we had put in the hours. Now, with every division a specialty of its own, a small shop faces an insurmountable challenge. You have to choose a specialty.

Sensing this well over a decade ago, I suggested that we stake out the practical tourist and exploratory rider demographic, as well as keeping a stock of path bikes and kid stuff for the casual recreationists and moderate fitness riders. Upper management did not commit to the concept. So here we are.

Word is, the competitor is not hurting for money. It always makes things harder when you’re fighting for your life against someone who is in the game just for a hobby. It’s yet another kick in the nards for the mythical “free market.”

All this takes place at a time when bikes are still being treated as toys and banished to segregated playgrounds. Cycling has not heeded the advice to join or die. Within the ranks of all pedalers, each subculture makes its own separate treaties with government and public opinion. Each pulls separately on the funds and expertise of any business trying to continue in the industry.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The perversion of the fat bike concept

Looking at a fat bike on our sales floor, I compared it to its ancestor, the Surly Pugsley.

The Pugsley was a production version of one-offs built for unsupported exploration on difficult terrain. The same way that original mountain bike builders used existing items and gradually evolved specific variations as the category evolved, so did the Pugsley try to use as much existing technology as possible. The offset fork, for instance, was sized for a standard rear hub, so that an unsupported rider in the wilderness could have a spare rear wheel. The frame was designed around widely available parts except for the rims and the bottom bracket necessary to get the chain past those wide tires. The bike was mildly impractical rather than wildly impractical.

The fat genre mutated rapidly as the industry sensed that it might go mainstream and open up another channel of exploitation. Unfettered fatness has led to the completely specialized components, isolating the genre in its own bubble and eliminating the practicality of its original form.

Surly has moved the original Pugsley to the touring category. They've tweaked the frame a little to make it a better load hauler, but the frame designated as Pugsley is the only one with the offset fork and other expeditionary leanings. The rest of the fat line is in the sport category.

Super fatness may be the wave of the future if the collapse of civilization eliminates most or all paved roads. At the beginning of the 21st Century, it was less than a hundred years since there had been no transcontinental roads in the United States. It was a big deal the first time someone managed to get one of those newfangled automobiles from one coast to the other under its own power, in 1903. Existing infrastructure will crumble quickly once we step back and let it. Look what happens, especially in northern states, in just a year or two.

Of course the riding population may be less thrilled with the modernization of their machines once they can't get parts delivered overnight from Amazon, and watch YouTube videos to learn how to install them. We'll be back to walking in less than a generation. Or we'll return to real horsepower.

Do you know why a draft animal is called a draft animal? Because none of them volunteered. Remember that when you're trying to saddle up Old Bess or learn how to drive a team of oxen on your daily commute.

Assuming for the moment that civilization isn't going to topple any time soon, bicycling remains a recreational diversion for nearly all riders in North America. People's interest may not outlast one set of tires. It seems impossible that a large enough number of people will be able to keep pissing away money like that, but I guess the money's good for now. Since fat bikes were a bit of a circus act to begin with, making them more cartoonish isn't that big a deal.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Coulda used good news. This ain't it.

From the National Weather Service today:


* WHAT...Heavy snow possible. Travel will be very difficult to
  impossible, including during the morning commute on Thursday.
  Total snow accumulations of 6 to 12 inches are possible.

* WHERE...All of New Hampshire and western Maine.

* WHEN...From Wednesday afternoon through Thursday evening.

* ADDITIONAL DETAILS...Snow covered and slippery roads, and
  significant reductions in visibility are possible.

The daytime highs hop right back up to the forties immediately after this bounty of slop. And it falls in many cases on bare, thawed ground. Spring skiing is not done on spring snow.

Astronomical spring, marked by the equinox, is not meteorological spring, measured from the beginning of March. While by one measure we are still in winter's province, the sun grows stronger even before the day lengthens to 12 hours and beyond. Winter-type precipitation is likely from any storm, but it falls into a more hostile setting than it would find under the long nights and brief days of January and early February.

A quick inch last night was just a foretaste, and something to mess up the roads for anyone rashly contemplating a morning wobble on the fixed-gear. I should grab one now, though, as the sun has warmed the roadway sufficiently to clear it. Six to 12 inches will not go as quietly.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Your Personal Relationship with Cog

The departure of winter weather has brought in the first bike repair of the season.

New England has always had five seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter, and "none of the above," but now they're more jumbled up than ever. We're definitely in none of the above right now. It can get as warm as it likes, and we still won't see growing plants for another month and a half. Still, if we don't get appreciable snow in that time, more cyclists will emerge. Or we could get slammed. Water-soaked ground won't refreeze, so a bunch of snow won't reinvigorate winter fun.

Of course this first patient is a dedicated roadie.  He told me he took this bike out for 53 miles a couple of days ago. That right there is a dedicated roadie thing to say. We know how far we went. It's not an approximate 50-55. It's fifty-three. Sometimes it's 53.7 or 52.89.

He told the tech who checked the bike in that the bottom bracket is noisy. Also, as a rider who has experienced fraying shift cables inside a brifter, he wanted those checked as well.

The bottom bracket is fine. He's just ridden the bearings out of his plastic-bodied Look Keo pedals. And his chain was worn out.

How do you know if the chain on your road bike is worn out? Answer a couple of simple questions:

Does your bike have 10 or more cogs in the rear gear set?

Has it been a month since your last new chain?

If you answered yes to those, you need a chain.

The cable for the right shifter had started to break, so I replaced that. The cable for the left shifter had a weird little kink in it, close to the swaged end inside the brifter, so I changed that one, too. We should be good to go, right?

When I ran the bike through the gears, I had to dial in a little more cable tension to get it to carry the chain up cog hill to the lowest gear. This is normal. I'd had the housings out, and they had to reseat. I started shifting back down to the high gears. First click: one cog. Second click: four cogs. Third click: chain chatter and finally a shift. The chain moved reluctantly the rest of the way.

Sometimes the cable has gotten hung up somewhere so it didn't get proper tension. I disconnected it,  checked the lead, and hooked it back up. No improvement. I popped the housings out of their stops to confirm that linear wires weren't pushing through any of the ferrules. With the derailleur disconnected, I held the cable while operating the shifter. The ratchet was definitely releasing too much on a couple of those intermediate clicks.

I flooded the brifter with spray lube and let it sit overnight. This morning it might have been slightly better on the first run through, but not on the second or third or any that followed. I doused it a couple more times. You can't do much else to Shimano brifters.

The maddening part is that he had no complaints about the shifting when he brought the bike in. I didn't do anything to it. You can't really. You might graunch on a shift really hard and jam the unit, but that's more common with certain front shifters than with rear ones.

Earwax -- the congealed factory lube that creates the illusion that a shifter is worn out -- will affect the shifting up and down. Clicks disappear. The lever just whiffs, catching nothing. That isn't the case with this unit. The ratchet engages too positively, and dumps several positions at once before the pawls click into place. I've seen it on other Shimano-equipped bikes. But why did I have to be standing there when it decided to happen to this one?

Because the rider has had more than one frayed cable since he bought the bike, there could be one or more tiny fragments of old wire that have finally migrated into position to jam things up. Or some hair-fine spring or little ratchet tooth could have broken off. The bike dates back to about 2012. In modern bike years, that makes it an old piece of junk.

Sophisticated mechanisms stand between you and your personal experience of riding. Mysterious, unfixable controls make shifting easier until they make it impossible. They act as intermediaries in your personal relationship with cogs. As with so many human complexities, we could choose to refuse, but the majority simply accepts that this is advanced, improved technology. The sleek, the expensive, the excruciatingly engineered, they're here to help us. It's part of the price you pay.

I imagine that riders said grumpy things about the newfangled derailleurs in all their wacky permutations as that technology was emerging. The thing is, all that stuff was outside the bike. There were internally geared hubs. There were hidden mysteries. But anything could be opened with the right tools. Someone could fix it. You yourself might learn. It's not brain surgery. It would deepen your personal experience, if you chose. And most minor malfunctions, such as they were, could be treated by the roadside. Minor. I said minor.

As soon as you have to pay someone to fix your stuff, you have to pay that person enough to stay alive and available. There have been bike shops for years, and those shops have had mechanics. But on simpler machinery, a mechanic could handle more jobs in less time for less money per job, compared to now, when the parts themselves take a good chunk out of the wallet, and the technician might have to deal with internal cable routing, hydraulics, exotic materials, electronics, a new tire size every year, and still shovel through a pile of box-store bikes and path cruisers to clear the repair docket. Parts are more and more expensive for shops to stock. Mechanics need to be smart enough to figure out all the different machinery, dumb enough to work for bike mechanic money, and loyal -- or trapped -- enough to stick around.

The simpler your bike is, the more you can do for yourself, and the less will go wrong in the first place. The friction shifters on my bikes will handle eight or nine speeds. I might even be able to swing ten, but I refuse to start using tinfoil chains. The index-dependent systems lock you into a manufacturer's offerings. Ten speed used to be top shelf. Now it's lower middle class. Parts are wearing out? Buy a new bike. You know you want to.

I can't do it. Forget the money. If I'd scored bestselling novel with movie rights money, I still couldn't do it. It's wasteful and it's enslavement. The personal is political. The personal is commercial. The personal is downright industrial. But you can still limit the intrusion to preserve as much of your direct relationship with the world as possible. The bike was a perfect machine for transforming human effort into forward motion. Backward motion, too, if you're really adept on your fixed-gear. Multiple speeds increased its versatility without terribly degrading its essential simplicity. Only when innovators turned it into a semi-automatic weapon did things start to go wrong.

It's hard to find a high quality bike without complicated shifting. You can still find some with barcons as original equipment. The industry is so committed to other things that no other point of view can get much economic leverage. We're being dragged in another direction: tubeless tires, hydraulics, electrical things,... If you want something different, you have to hunt it down, and maybe build it up yourself.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


Morning low in the mid 20s. Sunday's snow shrunken to a coating where the sun shines strongly through the leafless hardwoods. I considered hiking without the need for snowshoes or skis, but a few deeper areas remain. It's not enough to be worth skiing, and certainly not enough to require snowshoes except in a few spots. Rather than stomp sloppy postholes in it after the day had warmed to the 40s, I pulled the trusty fixed-gear off its hook, and pumped up the tires.

That's the nice thing about the fixie. About all you have to do is pump up the tires. Then I just had to pump myself up to go find out just how much I had deteriorated since my last park 'n' ride commute in early December.

In the theme of reclamation, I talked to my father, age 90, on the phone last night. Last year he got his hip replaced. He receives regular injections in his eyeballs to hold off the effects of macular degeneration. He's determined to keep living as well as he can. He was never a big exerciser just for its own sake. He needed a goal or a standard imposed from outside. But he's joined a 24-hour fitness center. He told me I had been an inspiration to him. So I figured I should start acting like one again. I salute anyone who can consistently go to a fitness center and keep to a routine. But then that's his strength.

High clouds filtered the sun ahead of some unsettled weather drifting toward us for the middle of the week. A little of this, a little of that, none of it supposed to leave piles of anything, it does not alter the trend toward days solidly above freezing. Since the big climate news is open water in the Arctic right now, with temperatures above freezing, our own mild temperatures aren't astounding.

Years ago I learned that New England is at the approximate latitude of the French Riviera. The fact that we had legendary winters at all reinforces the saying that location is everything. Where we sit relative to our continent, the nearest major water body, and the former routine meanderings of the jet stream, combined to make us feel more kinship to the Arctic than to any place famous for rich and famous people in sunglasses. But then we do get a smattering of those, as well. They keep manufacturing new ones... and they have to go somewhere.

Speaking of location, I live near some of the only relatively flat roads in the area. The route I picked took full advantage of that, and the light wind, and generous shoulders on Route 25. I'm not reshaping muscles adapted to vigorous use in cross-country skiing. I got nothin', or nearly nothin'.

Gratifyingly, I seemed to warm up and settle in after 20 minutes of pedaling. I have no depth, but at least I got around the route and finished feeling better than when I started. The twinges of atrophy and anxiety abated. Exercise is good for your mental and emotional health. It also takes longer than drugs or other shortcuts, which explains the continued popularity of those. Quick and easy and back to the rat race. Hell, time budgeting was why I quit working out in the first place. I wanted to work on other things. Something had to go, and work and sleep couldn't be reduced.

The bike commute is based on time budgeting. It provides physical benefits greater than the cost of the extra time in transit. It has more advantages than disadvantages. This would be true for anyone who only needs to transport their own self and some fairly compact cargo. I wouldn't expect someone to throw a $10,000 cello onto a BOB trailer and tool off for a day of teaching. But for a person whose main equipment for a day of work is simply their presence, it offers a lot.

Last year I was starting to lay base miles around this time, and we got shut down in mid March. One never knows. But no two winters seem to be exactly alike, so maybe this underachiever will go ahead and fade away, so we can get on to the next thing.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Evolution of Cross-Training

In ancient times, when I felt free to play, winter was a time to explore as widely as time and money would allow. I did it all -- or mostly all --: I climbed ice, I trudged up above treeline in what you could call mountaineering, I skied cross-country and some Telemark, I hiked. The cross-country skiing was mostly exploratory, on ungroomed terrain, but working in the business put me close to groomed trails. Learning more about the equipment and technique became a professional necessity and an enjoyable addiction for a time.

Mind you, I never intended to get into the gear business or the recreation industry. These happened by accident in search of basic income. Having put my eggs in the "creative" basket, I had little to offer the world of office jobs or practical trades. What I know I have learned by doing. Being a bike mechanic still seems like a worthwhile skill set, made less enjoyable by the consumerist avalanche that buried the industry and the pedaling world in the 1990s. The industry dumps more debris on the pile every year, rather than showing any inclination to dig some away and focus on simple pleasures. So it goes.

Wrenching has not been a gold mine. And the creative eggs are either spoiling in the basket or are easily overlooked in the tall grass and the jumble of other people's more brilliant output. So I guard my resources and spend nothing on journeys long or short that I do not need to take.

Ice climbing was easy to quit. The tools are expensive and the problems don't entice me. As a subset of mountaineering, ice and rock climbing made sense, within my conservative comfort zone. No longer mountaineering, I no longer think much about the supportive skills.

Achievers need mountains to climb. Artists just need mountains to appreciate. I don't need to be clinging to a couple of microscopic rough patches above a deadly drop to have a nice day out on the crags. I'm not keeping a score card of peaks bagged and waiting to be bagged. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's a matter of personality.

Two elderly men I know provide a perfect example of the pros and cons of each approach. The achiever now spends most of his time sitting in a recliner, watching cable news and analyzing situations over which he no longer has much influence. He spent his entire adult life in organizations: government service, sailing clubs, yachting associations. He has plaques, certificates, medals, trophies, attesting to his performance in various hierarchical settings. He has memories of when life was fun, even though his performance focus made it very hard to tell that he was having fun at the time. The artist bought himself a Kevlar solo canoe a couple of years ago, and still goes out paddling, even after a heart attack and the usual pain and stiffness of an aging body. He's in his 80s. He will stop when he is no longer physically capable of going.

Some competitive types manage to remain competitive in their age group until they drop. Some tourist types probably stop and rot sooner than they need to. There are millions of people I've never met, so I can't say for sure. I do observe that the artistic appreciative types, and the achievers with something of the artist about them, seem to remain alive until they're dead, compared to people who need to be at or reaching for the top of a given activity, who stagnate when they realize that big glory is now out of reach.

I'm just trying to stay strong enough to continue my self-propelled lifestyle.

As winter has deteriorated over the years, opportunities to charge right out the door onto usable surfaces have diminished. At the same time, the odds of finding something worth the trip at the end of a self-indulgent drive have diminished as well. I can take a slog in the slush from my own back door more easily that I can take one miles away. From a pure fitness standpoint, the slog from home is more enjoyable than any indoor training, and just as effective as a slog for which I had to burn gasoline.

Winter riding seems less inviting now than it did. Are the roads less clear, or is it just my dwindling testosterone? Can't tell you. I know that the slop storms we get seem to inspire the road crews to slather way more salt than they used to, and the glop impinges on the travel way a lot. Micro-climates also affect riding conditions on most routes around here. Areas that don't get as much sun remain colder, with persistent snowdrifts and ice. Increased population puts more drivers on the roads. Decreased bike use among young people means that more and more of those drivers have not had much -- if any -- experience as riders. Most mean well, but they lack the empathy born of personal knowledge. And some lack empathy entirely.

Then there are simple logistics. In my care-free years, my house was tiny and easy to care for. When it grew into a music school (now closed), the building itself became permanently larger. I would not get a refund if I removed part of the structure. The money is spent. The building is here. And the driveway doesn't clear itself. I gave up on plow guys, because they never live up to the promises. So, every snowstorm, I have to be out there with the snow thrower. You learn a lot you might not already have noticed when you have to move all of your own snow. Moisture, density, depth, can make the difference between a one-hour job and a three-hour job.

At least in this crappy snow year I have not had to go up and shovel the roof. Even though that is the only technical climbing I do anymore, I can live without it. The roof is the quicker part. Moving the avalanche piles afterward is when the real work begins. And none of it was easy.

All that home maintenance stuff does count as exercise. So does splitting and stacking wood. But it's not complete and balanced exercise. For that you need to get out and find something you can do for more than an hour, arms and legs, like cross-country skiing. And not much else is like cross-country skiing, in the way it incorporates the entire body and mind. Metaphorically, things are similar, but they don't provide the conditioning benefits.

In desperation a couple of weeks ago, I dug out the old Nordic Track machine, intending to flog myself through at least a half-hour on it before letting myself have supper. It's not much like actual skiing, but it does use arms and legs in a similar motion. Because you are working hard, but going absolutely nowhere, with no swoop and glide, it is absolutely the most tedious, miserable toil, unrelieved for me by any musical or video distraction. I just want it to be over. As it happened that evening, the cellist called when I was 17 minutes into it. After we finished talking, it was that much later, I was that much hungrier, and I couldn't get myself to start again. And, the next day, I felt like total crap. Joints hurt, I had none of the feeling of cleansing and residual endorphins that usually follow a good workout. So screw that. I'm back to trying to get out and wander around at any opportunity.

Right now I have to go move 3 inches of slush that fell yesterday, in case daytime highs in the 40s to 50 don't get rid of enough of it. Cross training, man. March is a wild card when it comes to winter weather around here. I may be out riding soon, or we might get shut down until mid April. The second half of winter is like another whole season. Animals are fighting it until the end, trying to get to the easier feeding of the growing season. Hut-bound humans atrophy every day, right up to the very day that they manage to break out and start moving around again.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Coming Soon: Moped Monthly Magazine!

Someone dropped off a pile of back issues of Bicycling. One of them included a special section devoted to ebikes.
Check out the Buyer's Guide to Sidewalk Motorcycles, and articles like "Hate to Pedal? Who Doesn't?" Read reviews of selected accessories, like helmets, gloves, and weightlifting belts. Find out why your smokeless moped must have electronic shifting and computer controlled suspension.

I don't mind if people want to invent labor saving devices. But I don't recall the Bicycling Magazine of the 1970s reviewing mopeds. The fact that the power is provided by an electric motor seems to blind people to the fact that this is not a bicycle, except in the sense that the original term for motorcycle was motor-bicycle. Yes, it has pedals and uses a lot of the same componentry. That in itself is a problem, when a 50- to 75-pound vehicle is using a suspension fork and brake system designed for something that weighs 25- to 35 pounds. Wheels and tires are gradually mutating to reflect the actual loads involved. This leads to other problems when the motorcyclesque tire for a given smokeless moped gets dropped from production. I ran into this working on a couple of massively heavy models from A2B. The only tire available to fit the rims is definitely not for a 75-pound behemoth. The rubber will melt away.

The bike industry, desperate for cash after they destroyed the mountain bike boom, is grasping at every straw, including electric wires. I suggest attaching those to the genitals.

You can't stop progress. You also can't stop diarrhea.

Electric vehicles are great. They are a separate thing and need to be considered as such. Quit dumping every whacked piece of crap with pedals onto hardworking little bike shops. Improvement is one thing. Over-sophistication is something else. The minority thrilled by space age, temperamental componentry is vastly outweighed by the people who want a relief from that crap, who were perfectly satisfied with simpler mechanisms, well made, and ask only for safe riding conditions.

It's still winter here, but a pretty crappy winter, so I have too much time to think about the next season and the technological marvels that are imposed on us in a deeper and deeper pile every year. Tool up! Study up! One or two people might need something annoying and expensive worked on! Meanwhile, all the older stuff still needs its routine attention.

The industry's ideal is to make bikes that are addictively attractive, that can't be serviced. Customers will buy them, ride them into the ground, and replace them eagerly, because we all have that kind of money. What happens to the carcasses of the dead? Who cares. Maybe someone will develop a feel-good, token recycling program to salvage the 10 percent of the content that can be. And environmental groups will start reporting on how the remaining detritus has been pulled from the gullets of the last few whales, or something.