Friday, April 03, 2020

Helmets and face masks

In the 1970s, a helmeted rider was a rare sight. Only racers wore helmets. This persisted into the 1980s, fading gradually in the decade after that. Now they have become a normal sight in our culture.

After telling us for months that masks do little or nothing to prevent the spread of disease in the general population, the official position seems to be shifting in favor of masks. At the same time, masks are in short supply for the people who need them most, caring for the sick or for first responders attending to people who might be sick. We're told to improvise. This does open the field to fashion statements and home hobby projects.

One guy in Italy posted a video using a feminine sanitary pad. I don't know if there are any of those hiding in a cabinet around the house, but there may be some leftover tampons I can shove in my nostrils.

I did notice in the grocery store that the empty toilet paper shelves were right next to fully stocked displays of adult diapers. They could be used for really heavy breathing.

A breath helmet would seem to be a minor concern for a cyclist flying free in the open air, six feet or more from anyone else. When traffic thickens up, however, we end up close to the occupants of motor vehicles, who might have the window down, and fellow riders on crowded paths. Air movement should make any contagion highly unlikely in the moving environment of a road, street, or bike path. The slower the speed and the more calm the air, the greater the chance that a cloud may hang. Stopped adjacent to each other, people could exchange sneezes.

Judge the odds for yourself. With incidents of door handle licking and targeted coughing, cyclists might want to take extra precautions because we already suffer the bad jokes and outright malice of motorists who don't think we belong out there. In this area, business traffic has diminished, but with many people released from their workday schedules some of them have nothing better to do than drive around. I haven't launched my commute yet, but I'm hoping to do it soon. Training rides are part of that preparation, so even though I'm not in the workday riding groove I'm still putting myself out there. My favorite training loops go in a fairly serene direction compared to Elm Street and the Route 28 corridor. Drivers are always more aggressive on that trade route to the outside world. I don't look forward to that. But driving sucks.

Back to the subject of PPE, I did not see many mask users in the grocery store yesterday. I had wadded up a couple of bandannas in my pocket, but I wussed out and didn't tie them on. I did bring in my own bottle of alcohol to douse the cart handle and periodically rub on my hands. Reusable gear is only as good as your cleaning procedures. Disposable equipment needs to be replaced regularly. And people being people, they're chucking used gloves wherever they feel like it: leaving them in a cart for the next person to deal with, or overworked and under-protected grocery store personnel to throw away, or just ditching them in the parking lot. Roadside litter and the contents of any trash can are now biohazards.

Stay classy!

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The burden of ownership

Thinking more about why the bike industry needs to have more self respect, reasons for that all stem from the increasing complexity and technological vulnerability of the machines themselves. Bikes not only cost more to buy, they cost more to own. They require more vigilance from their owners. Owners can do their own inspection and maintenance or they can purchase it.

In 1979, when I emerged from years of schooling and started going to various jobs, I used a bicycle for transportation, to keep my overhead costs as low as possible. I became my own mechanic because I had access to good instruction and I could maintain my vehicle easily, even in a rented room or a small apartment. My expansion into racing was a matter of convenience. I owned a sporty bike and was riding a lot. Why not compete a little?

Competing a little soon answered that question. Racing can mess you up and destroy your bike. It's like taking the family station wagon to a "run what you brung" event and wrecking it because you're not as good in the corners as you thought you were. But in the case of bike racing you could end up unemployed for eight or ten weeks because you crumpled more than the bike.

Regardless of the odd mishap, it was very affordable to build a bike, and another bike, and another bike... I only went to a shop to buy parts, tools, and bike-specific clothing and shoes. Required maintenance was fairly quick and easy, even if I had to do a complete overhaul. I soon learned to do the overhauls in stages: hubs one week, bottom bracket another week...

Among the useful changes to componentry in the 1990s, Shimano (yes, that Shimano) provided sealed cartridge bottom brackets that you can basically ignore for years. Of course they've "improved" cranks and bottom brackets since then and made life more expensive and difficult, but you can still get the BB UN56 if you have ancient, contemptible square-taper cranks. If you're not such an animal that you can feel how much power you're losing because you don't have a big, hollow crank axle, you can still have hours of fun for a minimal investment.

Early adopters of the bicycle in the 1890s discovered this concept with the simple machines of the time. Up front cost was a bit steep, but ownership cost was quite low, as long as you didn't hit a pebble and get slammed into the gravel from high atop your wheel. Heck, even then a low-budget rider could crawl off and lick his wounds, healing like an animal, much as the uninsured do today in this great land of ours.

Even a simple bicycle can suffer damage beyond the ability of a home mechanic to repair. I've had several frame repairs done by my friend the torch wizard. Without her skills, I would have had to find someone locally or, more likely, have scrounged a frame and transferred parts to it. You'll find frame builders in surprising places, so it's worth asking around. Steel frames can be brought back from some pretty drastic looking damage. Expect to pay for that. Scrounging is generally cheaper.

Carbon frames can also be repaired. I still don't want to deal with carbon's idiosyncrasies, but at least it isn't the disposable material we were led to believe it was as it was emerging as the dominant choice in high performance bikes.

The more moving parts in a system, the more things there are to wear out. The more proprietary parts, the more you depend on a manufacturer to provide replacements. We don't have the after market parts network that automobiles have. You can't just nip down to the parts store and give them year, make and model.

The more complicated the bike and the more it depends on perfect precision, the harder it is for the home hobbyist to cut out the pros and save money by doing the work themselves. You will need to pay the repair shop and wait for them to get to it. Sometimes it's quick. Often it's not, especially during the season when everyone wants their bikes. For every sophisticated function that you gain, you lose independence. You lose accessibility. You lose the durability that simplicity brings.

Humanity voted with its wallet for this. Increased expense and complexity won the popularity contest. Everything costs more because most people were fine with it. You own it now. Can you afford it?

Monday, March 30, 2020

COVID-19: time trial rules in effect

No drafting. No close passing. That's obvious.

Stay out of snot rocket range. Watch where you spit. What was formerly just a gross breach of etiquette or a grossly humorous mishap could now be fatal to a susceptible rider unfortunate enough to intercept your phlegm projectile. At the very least it would be an inconvenient interruption to someone's training schedule. Of course you're not infected. You're fine! But whoever you landed it on might go through a couple of weeks of anxiety watching you for symptoms. And let's not forget asymptomatic carriers. It also invites retaliation. Who's to say that that other joker is fine?

On the road at any time, cyclists are vulnerable to the bodily fluid assaults of disapproving motorists. Indeed, I once got into a roadside punch-up with a car full of teenagers who had clammed on me as they drove by. That was about 40 years ago, when I could be lured into such a confrontation pretty easily. There have been other spitters since then. It usually just blows back on them because of the wind created by our forward motion. But when you have to worry about micro droplets the risk factor goes up.

For now, our noses run because the weather is cold. About the time the weather warms up, our noses will run because of all the pollen. Always assume your nose is loaded and point it in a safe direction.

Commuters are time trialists more than pack riders. Some of that depends on your area and work schedule. Around here, only a handful of people commute by bike, and that includes every direction leading into town. I almost never see any other riders on my commute. Schedule makes a difference too. The other commuters seem to have to arrive earlier. They're already finished before I come through, and they've headed home before I get out at the end of my shift.

For any part on the rail trail I will encounter other riders, but far fewer of them when I head out in the evening than coming into town in the morning. And there's no way you can stay six feet apart when you're trapped between the rails. Even a lot of the path outside the rails is too narrow to keep a safe distance. That will become a factor as the weather warms up and the trail dries out. Walkers would have to step out and down the crumbling banks of the causeways to keep their proper distance from each other. Riders can't do that. Even the most talented mountain bike trickster would find it slow going to hop along the embankment for yards at a time. It's not a realistic option if you have to be somewhere at a particular time.

What Price Respect?

Google fed me a link to this opinion piece in Cycling Industry News, titled, "It's time for the bike industry to have some self respect." In it, James Stanfill president of the Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association, lays out an excruciatingly detailed case in favor of continuing training and qualification standards.

Stanfill makes some great points about what makes bike shop work a temporary phase for workers who pass through the industry on their way to something that actually pays decently. However, in his call for retailers to reallocate their budgets to cover the frequent training and retraining needed to keep up with modern technology's rapid pace of obsolescence he assumes that a shop has the money to reallocate. He also assumes that consumers will be willing to pay the higher prices that go along with a general rise in overhead. Bike shops don't have CEOs making billions who can give up their bloated compensation to redistribute the wealth to the workers. The industry as a whole will have to figure out how to get customers to respect them, before we can afford to adorn ourselves with our own new self respect.

Key to that "self respect" is Stanfill's assertion that shops need to be able to measure and present their qualifications to assure entities like insurance companies that they are meeting standards of safety and competence when providing highly complex equipment to the public. He also calls on mechanics to seek professional training and certification where available to make themselves more desirable to this new breed of self-respecting shop. Be ready to fork out on your own for a recognized training course because you take that much pride in being a bike mechanic. What was once a pretty good gig for someone with a modicum of mechanical aptitude is attempting to become a career path akin to auto or aircraft mechanics.

In capitalism, if you don't have plenty of money you are a failure and deserve to die. But in the real world, many areas with a small population have been served by small shops that were able to subsist for decades on a pretty slim margin with incremental investments in tools, and an experiential approach to learning about new things.

For a century, bike shops came in all sizes. Frequently they were small places, sometimes ill-lit, and merchandized by people more attuned to wrenches and grease than to point of sale marketing. Experienced mechanics could train new mechanics at the work stand. What mattered was the quality of the merchandise and the mechanical work, not whether they had a stunning atrium, or row on row of fashionable clothing. If you rode a bike a lot, you appreciated the rough practicality of basic black wool shorts.

All things evolve. Changes can bring improvements as well as unhelpful complexities. They are driven by the desires of existing enthusiasts, but also by public interest. When bikes were simple and people were content with it, a rise or fall in demand only meant changing the rate of production. Things would go obsolete as better things replaced them, but within a narrow range of functions. Weird derailleur systems gave way to the parallelogram, and then to the slant parallelogram. Caliper, cantilever, and drum brakes coexisted using the same basic leverage ratio. Every system of a bike was closely enough related to its forebears that you could figure out a lot based on what you already knew.  You could get deeper into it and become an inventive machinist if you wanted to, but you didn't have to.

Mountain biking pushed a lot of improvements in durability and function as bikes were subjected to consistently rough use. Prior to that bikes had received plenty of mistreatment and neglect, but they weren't advertised for the purpose, the way mountain bikes were. The bike industry had to back its claims with machinery that could withstand the kind of boisterousness that the pioneers of clunking had established as the standard. On the road or trail, user groups appeared to have a contentious relationship. In research and development, designers were borrowing from both categories to improve each of them. Versatile riders were doing both on- and off-road riding to improve their abilities.

All analyses lead back to the stresses placed on retailers and repair facilities by relentlessly mutating technology and category specialization. So I won't flog that again. I merely note that your chances of finding a place that can take care of your particular bike needs get slimmer and slimmer in the face of economic reality. Bike shops will become dependent on climate and population density to maintain a large enough size to remain viable in all categories, including smokeless mopeds. In addition, consumer costs will rise to reflect the greater expense the retailer faces. Training and higher wages cost money. That money comes entirely from consumer spending. When consumers can no longer afford to spend in sufficient volume, they will receive less of something in return, whether it's product selection, service quality, service speed, or the convenience of having any kind of shop within 20 miles.

For the moment, such vast numbers of archaic bikes remain in use that a small shop can eke out a living from the customers who need work on those. As they inevitably dwindle away, the next wave of well-used crap that replaces them will have increasingly esoteric needs, more difficult to meet.

Friday, March 27, 2020

We're essential

Bike shops made the list of essential businesses when New Hampshire's governor imposed a stay-at-home order yesterday.

Work trickles in. We're not letting people into the shop, although we might relax that in specific cases. Just don't be offended if we follow you around with a can of disinfectant spray and hose everything down right after you touch it. And if you cough or sneeze in the store, expect to leave in a body bag.

Only kidding. We would have to touch your body to stuff it. We'll just envelop you in a choking fog of Lysol as we whip you toward the exit.

El Queso Grande is working overtime, which for him is working as much as he usually does, to make more of our inventory visible for online browsing. You will still have to pay over the phone and pick up the items outside the shop. He's also looking into connecting to Quality Bicycle Products for their program that allows you to shop their inventory as long as you pay through a retailer. That would be us. In that case, your selections would arrive at your door thanks to the efforts of our friends in the shipping companies, who are keeping what's left of the economy moving from provider to consumer.

The weather continues to tease with alternating days of sunshine and sort of mild temperatures giving way to treats like Monday's seven inches of snow. The early spring sunshine has scorched all of that away, leaving only the tenacious remnants of the winter's feeble snowpack, but it certainly made for a day or two of inferior riding conditions. More common is the "wintry mix" that might bring an inch of wet snow and sleet along with hypothermia-inducing cold rain. That seems to come along about every three days. I have yet to launch the commute, partly because of my lackluster preparations and partly because I still need to be the designated errand runner while the cellist waits for clearance to put weight on her recently fractured leg. She's also working from home, teaching her students via internet during the school shutdown, while I venture out at least four days a week to my now-essential contribution to society.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

You can beat a path to our door. You just can’t come through it.

We’ve gone to a full lockout here at the shop. If you want to drop off a bike for repair, you can make an appointment and leave it at the back door. If you need a product, call to see if we have it. We can take your payment info over the phone and bring the item out to you.

Unfortunately, web commerce has not gone exceptionally well. Over our few years trying to offer most of our inventory to internet shopping, we’ve gotten pounded in shipping charges, and ripped off numerous times. Now we offer only little items from the ski inventory, so the packages are small and the financial risk is low. You can’t browse our store stock and place an order. It will seriously shrink  our cash flow during the current situation, but at least we still can offer mechanical services.

I have to say it’s pretty nice working without interruption. The phone might ring. Someone might arrive for their prearranged drop off or pickup. Those are generally quick and concise. Other than that, I can tend the machinery with few distractions. I mean aside from the distractions that have plagued me for a lifetime.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Some swords make lousy plowshares

Early in the pandemic response in this country, transportation cycling has been held up as an emerging alternative in areas where public transportation was shutting down or scaling back. Since so many news sources are paywalled, I am not including links to footnote my assertions. Considering that gas pump handles have been rated as grossly infectious as the Broad Street community water pump that caused a cholera outbreak in London in 1854, you might want to consider cutting back on trips by car just to reduce your visits to the gas station.

In some places, people are being encouraged to go outside and get sunshine and healthful exercise away from crowds and indoor facilities like gyms and fitness clubs. In other places, the social distancing mandate amounts to virtual house arrest. This complicates your decision to bike or not. Check your local jurisdiction.

Here in New Hampshire, we actually have idiots suing the state because of the ban on large gatherings. Fortunately, the kind of people who would do that are the kind of people I routinely avoid anyway. One can only hope that they fester in their own Petri dish and leave the rest of us alone. Their suit has been dismissed by a Superior Court judge. No word on whether they will push it further. When they filed suit, the number of confirmed cases was 44, with no deaths. They cited this as a reason to carry on as usual, because so many other people had outright died of causes we consider routine, like car crashes, and influenza. Now confirmed cases stand at 78, still with no fatalities. But the day is young. Meanwhile, we are still free to ride or walk recreationally as well as for transportation.

Thinking apocalyptically, like the bullet-hoarders and panic-buyers of guns, I look at the bikes currently in vogue for their usefulness in the event of complete societal collapse. How easy would it be to rack this thing up and use it as your trusty mount through the savage landscape of a ravaged world? How long would it last without access to fresh hydraulic fluid, tire sealant, shock oil, and tinfoil chains?

Early mountain bikes were based on actual bicycles. They evoked the early geometry of safety bicycles from back when few roads were paved. They used the most widely available tire size in the world (26Xdecimal -- eg:1.75, 1.95, 2.1). This is different from 26 fractional (1 3/8, etc.). Until the explosion of suspension technology, the format remained the same even as the frame geometry tightened up to suit a sportier style of riding. Designers discovered that they didn't really need hugely long chainstays and super laid back head angles, although slack head angles have returned in the current era of motorcycle-based designs and long-travel forks.

Any mechanical transportation will eventually die out unless support industries manage to survive or reconstitute themselves. Even a chain for 6-7-8 speed wears out eventually. I wonder how long massively heavy one-inch block chains used to last? That was also before the age of derailleurs. As vigorously as I resist the over-engineered modern marvels of today, I don't pine for some 90-pound wrought iron monster fixed gear to tool around on. But that brings us to the rubber problem.

Early bikes used solid tires. Really early boneshakers used what were basically wagon wheels, with iron bands around a wooden wheel with solid spokes. Real sketchy cornering traction with those bad daddies, but of course no worries about flats. The next big innovation was solid rubber. High wheel "ordinaries" used that. As a friend of mine who rides such things observed, "we laugh at broken glass, but we're all in a dead panic when a squirrel runs out in the road." Hitting a darting rodent can launch a rider on a tall wheel into the dreaded header, a face plant from six feet up.

Scaling back to a partial apocalypse, or simply adopting the income of your ever more numerous working poor, you will be best served by a simple bike with a rigid frame and fork. This is by far the easiest to maintain, providing the most value for the dollar. A cargo bike might be nice for the big loads, but a trailer serves for the temporary need, and you can leave it home for more nimble cruising. Even a good set of racks and some panniers can increase your load carrying capability, as long as your bike will accept them. Anything too sport-oriented will not have the clearances and eyelets for solid rack mounting and stability with a light to moderate load.

Electric bikes will be tempting. They certainly have a place if everything doesn't fall apart. But in a real post-apocalyptic scenario your ebike is only as good as your charging capability. Since solar panels wear out and wind turbine blades fatigue and have to be retired, even "green energy" will become scarce. You really need to plan on muscle power alone. And various equines who might become more common again. But the rise of the bike in the late 19th Century gave people who couldn't afford to feed and house a large animal the chance to extend their cruising radius for little or no money after the initial purchase.

My own fleet has been selected with versatility in mind. While my early mountain bike acquisitions reflected the state of the art circa 1990-91, the bike I built around 1995-'96 already declined aluminum in favor of chromoly, and had a rigid fork because suspension forks were changing rapidly, and were still heavy and wobbly, even at the high end of the price range. The constant change makes any super-technical bike a poor long-term investment. But any manufactured item is only as good as the availability of parts. The industry can kill its ancestors and favor its short-lived children simply by stopping production of anything that fits the old stuff. Ultimately we will all be walking, and making shoes out of whatever we can find.