Thursday, April 23, 2015

Here, have an Audi in the kneecaps

The snarl of a high performance engine with a barely restricted exhaust system announced the explosive arrival of a mostly red Audi coupe ripping around a curve and launching into the passing zone right at me. The low-slung car flashed past my knee as the driver flung it forward in a desperate maneuver to get around the car in front of him and get back into his lane before the oncoming car -- that could actually hurt him -- got too close.

The finger I gave him was reflexive and perfunctory. I would hope he never saw it, since the flame-brained passing job he was doing should have commanded his whole attention. If I registered at all, it was as a peripheral flash of color. Had he for any reason wavered outward I would have been a much bigger splash of a darker color, much more centrally located in his field of view. But hey: no contact, no foul, right?

I'm sure the guy driving toward him had some choice words and a gesture or two as well. It was close.

Just another day on Route 28. No doubt the scene is duplicated on countless other roads. And when I was younger, with a scrotum that weighed heavily on the accelerator pedal, I performed a few similar maneuvers that I'd rather forget. Then again, the remembrance of transgression and the chagrin that goes with it are useful tools to reinforce efforts to improve. This assumes one reaches a level of enlightenment where shame becomes possible. From there it's a short trip to where you can have fun without risking manslaughter.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The art of the worst case scenario

When bikes come in for extensive work, the technician has to think what would be the worst thing that could go wrong. What would make this bike not worth fixing? Find it now, before you've invested a lot of your time to fix all the obvious stuff.

You cannot win them all. A lot of the time, the killer flaw only shows up when you're doing one last value-added thing that might not even have been on the original work request. Sometimes it's curable if you do everything just right. Sometimes it just looks curable long enough to lure you into another expensive round of heroic measures. Or you decide to break even or take a loss just to save the bike and spare the owner, because backing out would mean the shop got nothing and the customer left with a carcass.

Older bikes present the biggest challenge. Really primitive bikes are easy enough to fix, because from the late 1970s through the end of the 1980s, certain basic dimensions were standard enough to allow a lot of flexibility improvising solutions. With the onset of tightly indexed shifting and complex suspension systems, that all changed.

Check the obvious things first: look for cracks in frame, forks, rims and hub flanges. Wheels can be repaired or replaced, so then it depends on whether the customer is willing to invest. But frame cracks are a killer. Fork problems may be.

This week's geriatric bike was a turn of the century Cannondale F600. The owner has had it maintained carefully. It has wear, but no abuse. I've tuned it enough times to make the job almost automatic. Bearings that were properly adjusted at the beginning do not come loose. They call those things on the axles lock nuts for a reason, people. And they work.

The bike needed disc brake pads. It needed a chain and cassette. Those bumped the price up, but they're routine wear items. I did take time fooling around with some ideas for additional in-line brake adjusters, but ultimately went with a standard setup because extra adjusters provided no advantage. Disc brake manufacturers tell you to take up slack with the threaded adjusters so you don't remove brake arm travel on a cable disc brake, but winding out the adjuster removes brake arm travel. So screw it. I just snug it up at the brake arm to get the lever feel I want with new pads. Same diff, honestly. I'll add a little with the adjusters, but I won't wind them way out.

So...everything was done. I know this guy has his own shock pump, but I figured he might assume we had checked and topped things up. While the front wheel was out anyway, I put our shock pump on the Schrader valve under the fork crown on the Super Fatty Ultra fork.

The gauge read about 125. I figured I'd give it a couple of psi more, if only to cover the little "pssht" when I took the pump off. Supposedly the pump has an anti-bleed adapter, but what's a couple of psi among friends? I pushed the plunger of the pump. I heard a sharp hiss and the pump head jerked down on the valve threads. Did I not have it threaded on right? I turned it, felt it start to tighten and then loosen abruptly.

Another couple of test pumps showed that the valve stem would not hold either of our shop pumps. The threads had oxidized over the years and crumbled away enough that the stem was not obviously stripped, but it was skinnier than it used to be.

In bike suspension years, this thing is prehistoric. We're not talking Rockshox RS-1 Precambrian, but solidly Mesozoic. I have some Cannondale Headshok parts and tools from close to that era, but the manuals quite pointedly don't tell you how to jack together a mixed bag of parts from similar assemblies to try to keep a fork working at least ten years after the company wanted you to trade the whole bike in for their new and improved model.

This is the point where you try to back away slowly and try not to rile it up. I looked at a few procedures in case I needed to try grafting in an air cap from a different cartridge, but I really didn't -- and don't -- want to go inside the fork. Especially with obsolete assemblies you can take something that more or less works and turn it into a jumbled mass of oozing junk. Rider has no bike. Shop makes no money. Grief and wailing all around.

With the Cannondale we have a couple of options. The easiest will be to put in adapters and fit up a 1 1/8-inch fork. The customer also said he might just get a new bike. Meanwhile, he still has this one, just about fully functional. His shock pump, less used than ours, stays on the valve stem, he said. And when it no longer does, he's prepared for what he will have to do.

It does not always go this well. I won't bother to share all the death-on-the-operating-table stories I've experienced over the years. The point is that you have to try to think of that one worst thing. And you want to try to do it without becoming cynical. But better to be cynical than to lose the ability to find the flaws before they make themselves obvious catastrophically.

George's rocket

When Big G finished building up his new Specialized Roubaix last week, he put it on the scale in the shop.

Drum roll...

Twenty-two pounds. Carbon fiber and bla de bla,and the friggin' tank weighs twenty-two pounds.

Mind you, 22 pounds is a perfectly respectable weight for a top quality butted steel racing bike from the 1980s. In other words, thanks to tinfoil chains, cog-packed clusters and temperamental, expensive brifters, we have achieved equality with a simpler machine powered by the same engine 30 years ago.

I know: more gears! Convenient shifting! And with the simple investment of at least a thousand more dollars in crank, handlebars, stem and wheels the bike could be an easy two pounds lighter. Still temperamental, but the fancy ones always put you through hell. You have to decide for yourself whether the ride is worth it.

Planning to commute on his new steed, Big G has been checking out all the bag options. Frame packs, enormous, projecting seat packs, anything that doesn't require a rack. He's got a messenger bag on order. That would not be my first choice for a 25-mile open road ride to work. But then this whole acquisition went entirely where I will never go. All this baggage, of course, gets added to the basic curb weight of the bike.

I understand wanting a light bike. Last summer I got a frame pack to increase the cargo capacity of my own road bike. It's a nice break when I know I'm sticking mostly to pavement. But if you only ride a light bike it will eventually feel heavy to you. And when it comes to transportation I really like the secure feeling I get from wider tires, fenders, lights and a good tool kit.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

How cold was it?

You know it's a cold morning when you put a lunch-size container of leftovers from the freezer into your bike bag well before departure -- so you don't forget them-- and they're still frozen when you get to work after an hour on the road.

That was yesterday, when I took a gamble and squeezed in a bike commute ahead of an approaching snow storm. Started the morning ride at 26 degrees. Hardly the bitterest cold, but pretty unwelcome this far into April. The sun was out for a few hours before hazy cirrostratus whited it out. The day never felt mild.

With uncertain weather and the morning chill, I wore liner socks and cut off a couple of bread bags to use as toe covers under my outer socks. Toe covers are great, but the fancy neoprene ones shred in no time, just from unavoidable bits of walking.

For shoes I went with uncleated touring shoes in case the evening snow forced me down en route. When the roadside may be a snow bank or a mud pit, I will sometimes walk the bike to a better site or all the way home if I get a flat. And with a chance of slippery conditions anyway, I wanted to have slightly better traction than cleated shoes provide.

The rest of my clothing was standard winter ensemble. Several fuzzy layers seem to work better for me than lighter insulation with a shell jacket. With the threat of cold rain and snow I brought the shell in my pack. If the evening leg turned into a survival hike I wanted the comfort.

The radar looked ominous from about 3 p.m. A churning blob of precipitation looked like it was already on top of us. The overcast grew thicker, the afternoon darker, but nothing fell from those clouds. Nothing that reached the ground, anyway.

With the cellist working out of state, I have no one to call if I get caught out on one of these foolish ventures. At quitting time I sprinted out into the gray afternoon, hoping I could at least get most of the way home before the weather got me.

Here I was, on about my fourth outdoor ride of the year, trying to crank up the average speed while the power of nature waved its giant hand idly over me, deciding whether to give me that dope slap. My best speed was pretty pathetic. But hey, if it's your best you can't do any better. Keep pushing.

The raw chill dug into me. The temperature was above freezing, though not by a lot. Fifty-four degrees in my basement felt like a big improvement over 34 degrees on the road.

Not a speck of moisture had hit me on the ride. The snow didn't start until at least two hours after I got home. A heavy three inches covered everything this morning. And it's hung around. We made it to about 37 degrees for most of the day, with heavy clouds to hold back the spring sun. The snow isn't deep, but the cover is complete. Snow drizzle -- or, "snizzle" -- fell throughout the day and into this evening. Weird stuff, it melts on contact, even contact with the snow that fell last night.

Change moves in tomorrow. It could even be The Big Change, that ushers in the real shift to the warm season. Or we could flip back and forth a few times. One never knows. I need it to warm up because I've just about run out of things I'm willing to burn to keep warm. I've got about a dozen pieces of hardwood. The standing dead stuff I scavenge to fill in is pretty wet. I bought this big honkin' saw
so I could cut bigger snags and cut stove lengths faster, but the bigger snags turn out to soak up a lot of water while they're standing there. The little 3- and 2-inch stuff ends up working better.  The big saw will still come in handy to clear away blowdowns. The chain saw works fast, but it's complicated. It's heavy, bulky and oily, not to mention noisy and wicked dangerous. Put on the chaps, the helmet, the boots. How old is the fuel? At the moment I know the fuel is ancient. I've managed to avoid chainsawing for several years. So that all needs to be changed, and disposed of properly.

The less internal combustion the better.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Housing crunch

And so my season begins. Local rider brings in the bike he got somewhere else because the shifting went bad on him during his abusive first ride.

Kona Jake the Snake cyclocross bike. New 105 11-speed. "I read that it's hard to adjust," he said. "So I brought it to you."

"I kept twisting the barrel adjusters the whole ride," he went on. "It was never right." He added that the ride group wallowed through a lot of mud and snow.

The way the internal cable routing was done, the shift cables can't be cross routed. That would have helped with the angle up front. Either way, longer housing will feed it more smoothly into the stops. The in-line barrel adjusters need to be moved closer to the handlebars because the housing can't be led to the opposite sides of the head tube. All this could have been done by an imaginative mechanic during assembly. Now it will cost him a couple of shift cables and some new housing. As they're done now, the plastic ferrules on the constrictive 4mm housing are already kinking after about 50 miles.

This kind of rescue operation after some other mechanic's ethical lapse or simple inexperience really makes me tired. I could just dial it in as closely as I can and tell him he'll have to live with it, but I want to see if it can be improved. In terms of ultra modern bike componentry, that means, "be made to work more or less adequately for as much as a couple of months."

I already noticed that the housing for the rear cable disc brake aims upward, where it will surely collect water. So that'll be rusting in within months. But it's got eleven speeds. And carbon forks. Oo, baby. Value added.

Something sounds raspy in the impenetrable interior of the cable path through the frame. The bike came with the same weird, brown cables that Big G's Roubaix had, with some shreddy coating on them. On this bike, wads of scuffed-off coating are wedged like old snake skin at friction points in the system. Who knows how much of that is binding the new cable inside the down tube where no one can get at it.

With new cables and better-aligned housing, the shifting still won't dial in. But as you slog through the mud in your three or four working gears out of 22 (I'm being optimistic), you can rest assured your bike looks really sharp and is aerodynamically its most efficient, thanks to the internal cable routing.

As so often happens, you have to do the job to see if the job can be done. So after the extra rigamarole of a routine internal cable change I'm only a little better off than I was before. I'll know after more fiddling whether I can raise this annoying piece of crap to an acceptable level of function.

A life of sport vs. the sport of life

As money gets tighter for more and more people -- as more and more people keep making more and more and more people -- consumer civilization will not last much longer. There's no way a bloated population can find enough things to do that earn enough money to buy enough things so that the majority of them can enjoy the kind of lifestyle that leads to obesity and the diseases of idleness.

A society where exertion is optional develops sports as ways to entice some people to get out of their recliners for a while and build up a healthy sweat. Recreational athletes go for personal records and measure themselves against their fellow competitors. Some of them spend more money than I make in a year on their gear and trips and entry fees.

Sport is seductive. It is such an accepted element of civilized life that one can dip into it without questioning its value. Obviously, exercise is good. Pick an activity or a set of activities, buy the gear and perform the requisite exercises. As an added bonus, some activities seem to have less environmental impact than others.

Humans seem to decide a lot of things on the basis of lesser harm rather than greater good. "Could be worse! I could drive a bigger SUV." "Could be worse. I could be towing a trailer full of ATVs instead of a trailer full of mountain bikes." All true as far as it goes, but it just delays the reckoning. It does not avoid it.

The mobility afforded by the automobile opened up the the countryside to travelers like nothing before. It became so normal that no one could imagine life any other way. The same mobility that allows someone to drive a 2000-pound tank half a mile to a grocery store for a quart of milk and a loaf of bread also opens up the 100-mile super commute from a distant suburb to a commercial center. But this normalization of speed and cruising radius makes people forget how to live where they live.

I admit I have been part of the problem. Even though my self-propelled recreational activities have all been part of my working life, only a few of them have practical applications. Bicycling and walking head the list. Then, because of my rural environment and seasonal snow cover, cross-country skis figure in the mix because I use them to gather useful items from the winter forest. Take away the snow, I walk. And I still feel it's acceptable to propel yourself on land or water just to groove on the surroundings. No motor, a natural pace. Sometimes these jaunts can have an added purpose, like trying to find a bobcat den or a heron rookery as part of a wildlife survey.

Over the years in the gear business I have made money on peak baggers and braggarts and high-strung athletes whose personal demons prod them to set their bodies on fire with fatigue, over and over in search of some sort of purification. They could change their minds and go outside at a more measured pace and still benefit from my services. I don't need anyone to be a tech-worshipping gear addict. And the tightly-wound types who need constant validation move on sooner or later because I have trouble keeping up the pace, shoveling emotional coal under their never-resting boiler.

Competitive athletes live from finite event to finite event. Competition is an arms race, requiring constant investment. It's a luxury. The sport of life, on the other hand, requires far less investment in equipment and you're on the course all the time. The entry fee is already covered. You're here. It's your choice how much you slave away to participate in the Machine Age. Some is good. Too much will definitely take you down.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Maybe the bike shop can fix it

Anything with spoked wheels or pedals or a chain drive is liable to show up at the repair shop. If any part or parts remind someone of a bicycle, the bike shop must know how to fix it.

Bike mechanics being habitual improvisers, we usually can figure it out. And we tend to work cheap, because our skills are not valued in society.

Most of the people who bring in weird stuff don't buy bikes from bike shops. If they bring us a bike it's something from a department store. But when they have nowhere else to turn, the bike shop seems like the place to find help.

Yesterday, a woman brought in the wheels from her manure cart. They radiate the rich, earthy smell of a livestock barn, from years of steeping in a mixture of animal bowel contents, urine, and soiled bedding. I'm considering removing the old tires with a torch.

At the same time we see the constant inflow of garden cart wheels, mini bike chains and re-purposed cables of all sorts, we also get the sneering inquiries of self-styled aficionados in both road and mountain biking, interviewing us to check our credentials. We have to serve each of the parts of cycling that considers itself the heart of it, in order to support the whole. We have to keep up with the workload of relatively ordinary repairs. And, increasingly, we have to be "nice."

Nice is nice, in moderation, as long as it doesn't come at the expense of honesty and competence. In fact, nice people make me really nervous. I keep waiting for them to crack. Most of them do, eventually, and it's never pretty. I'll take neutrality any day over too much niceness. Kinda sorta friendly works. Even mildly abrasive can have its charms.