Sunday, April 23, 2017

Up One Level

The shop has a new trainee. A highly skilled mountain biker, we used to know him as Jumper Dude when all we saw of him was a flash as he shot through our parking lot and launched off the bank on his nearly daily lunchtime rides around Wolfe City.

His resume is impressive, but he's never worked in a bike shop. He can -- and does -- build professional-quality trails. In addition to work experience completely unrelated to biking, he was a mountain biking instructor at a riding park that took over an old ski area. You can see by his riding skills that he's not a poseur. He has a great personality, which will be a real asset offsetting my crappy one. But can he survive the reality of shop life?

"After a couple of months in the apron, your outlook will change," I told him. I don't mean that he will be shattered and disillusioned, only that the wide horizon of enticing possibilities has to narrow, as probability weeds out the more vulnerable fantasies. He knows a certain clientele very well, but that clientele quit coming to our town long before we quit bothering to try to attract it. As our local group of hard core riders decided on their own to leave the trails and move onto the road, there to be dropped one by one as other aspects of life overcame them, they have not been replaced by an equal or greater number of newcomers in any specific riding genre.

When our weekly mountain bike riding group first started to dwindle at the end of the 1990s, one of them told us, "I just got tired of cleaning and repairing my bike all the time. I realized I could spend a lot more time riding and less time on maintenance if I was on a road bike." And this was before a mountain bike could routinely cost $4000 and have a dozen bearings in the suspension pivots. Someone spending just upwards of a thousand bucks on a mountain bike in the late 1990s had something pretty sweet to ride, although you could easily spend twice that. But in the background still lingers the ghost of mountain bikes past, costing far less and providing hours of laughs.

A younger generation will see the world differently. A teenager looking at mountain biking now will see that the minimum buy-in may look like it's still around $400-$500, but the upper end sits above $6,000, with peaks above $10,000.

A $1,500 bike today was a $500 bike in the 1980s. Because so many things can be mixed and matched, the value and usefulness of a bike can't be compared directly to many other things. For instance, I just did some nice updates on a 1970s Holdsworth road bike, to improve rider comfort without significantly changing the original intent of the bike as a drop-bar tourer. Because the bike was fundamentally sound, it can go on for many more years with minimal investment, if it is well maintained and properly stored. The frame itself could be fitted with completely modern componentry. Its geometry matches that of frames you can buy today.

Bits of history walk in all the time. A mechanic who has co-evolved with the technology has a huge advantage over someone who has only studied it academically, or perhaps never gave it a thought before it appears unannounced. This is true of dusty old gems and crusty old junk. Some of that old junk started its life as new junk. But even then it might have sentimental value to its owner.

Working in a bike shop, you have to deal with forms of the machine that might not interest you. I do disparage technology that I feel makes riding needlessly complicated and expensive. There are things I wish would go away. But until they do, I have to try to fix the broken ones. That doesn't mean I won't laugh derisively at anyone who would fall for that crap. But if I can get it to work for them, I will do so before it leaves my hands.

In the mid 1990s, a previous trainee came back in from test riding a full-suspension Cannondale he had just assembled. "Before I worked here, I would just have thought this thing was totally cool," he said. "Now I look at it and try to figure out where it's going to break." I've never been so proud. He had reached the next level. That's my goal for any trainee. You can like what you like, but love with your eyes open, and don't be afraid to scorn and deride what is badly designed, over-marketed bullshit. You are a mechanic now, the first line of defense between riders and the bike industry.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Four to Two

You'd think that, after 27 years riding the same route, making the transition back to bike commuting in the early spring would be a simple matter of putting on the clothes, pumping up the tires,and pedaling instead of driving. It's not.

The car is a great enabler. You can throw things into the car on the off chance that you might want them. They can rattle around in there for days and weeks, unless you live in a high crime area. You can slouch out there in whatever you're wearing, flop into the driver's seat, and off you go.

My commute, at around 15 miles each way on rural roads and highways, is more of a journey and a real bike ride than someone would face on a shorter, perhaps more urban route. The transition would be easier at distances and on terrain more suited to riding in street clothes. Even so, the car still functions as a big barge full of junk. That can be seriously habit forming.

When I was more of an athlete than anything else, shifting from one mode of transportation to another was less daunting because I was in habitually better shape. But the time allocated to my obsessive fitness routine was time I did not have for anything else. To be ready to bust out of the snowbank and sprint down the road, I had to maintain the training wave all year. A writing teacher of mine, as he faced his own challenges to physical vitality, said to the class, "a man's only got so much juice. He's got to watch where he squeezes it." As with every enigmatic statement of the wise, it could be interpreted in a few ways. I took it as a metaphor for time and energy.

This winter was particularly difficult. The weather kept shifting radically between snow and thaw. If your schedule fit the changing conditions, you might leap back and forth between dry-land modes and  snow-based modes. If not, you would have to resort to indoor machines.

Indoor training is even less convenient than suiting up to go outdoors. You have to get psyched to marinade in your own sweat for as long as you can force yourself to stand it. If you don't go hard enough to get drenched, you did not go hard enough. You might make the case that you want to do some lower-intensity sessions, but then you have to stay on the machine for much longer, because that's how the training wave works. It's really easy to find better ways to spend your time. It's only a day. It's only a couple of days. Hey, it's been a week, but I was in good shape. Holy #%%, how did it get to be April?!

I look out the windows at a landscape still mostly white. It's not frozen, but the slush pile is still more than a foot deep in some places, and much deeper where the snow thrower or the shovel made piles beside areas that I cleared. Outdoor riding conditions were better in late February than they were for all of March. And then we started April with 10 more inches of snow.

To go to work by bike, I have to pare down to the essentials. This means not just the vehicle and its cargo capacity, but the bag I carry, as well. The handy day pack holds impulse items, just as the car does.

Then there's the time in transit. Riding takes just over twice as long as driving. While that's beneficial exercise, it also gets me home half an hour later than when I drive. Evening routines take longer with the addition of a shower. Supper time and bed time move closer together. There's less time for unstructured activity or free-range thought. I want to get back into the routine of self-propulsion, because I know that sitting too much is deadly, but -- after a winter of it -- I'm afraid I might discover that I'm too far gone. Having once had a high standard, how far below it will I find myself?

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Worthless weather went on

The weather's April Fool's Day joke for my area was 10 inches of wet, heavy snow on top of the remnants of the existing snowpack and the exposed mud of dirt roads and driveways. The snow thrower would barely launch it five feet, let alone the 10 to 15 feet that I count on to clear my parking area. Fortunately, the sanity of spring sunshine sizzled the 10 inches down to five or six by the end of the next day, and cooked off even more yesterday.

We were threatened with another three to six inches of glop today, but we've gotten rain, instead. I rejoice. Snow that falls at this point in the season isn't good for anything. It's basically just white mud. It impedes all forms of mobility. Trust me, I've tried a number of them. The only conveyance that could move unhindered would be a hovercraft. While pedal-powered versions have been made, I would not want to take one very far.

With warmth and rain dominating the forecast all week, maybe things will clear out enough to get around.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

And then it snowed

After dwindling away to nearly nothing, winter jumped back into the game with 15-20 inches of snow. Depth varied with your location. I measured about 16 at home. The ski center claimed 18.

Before the snow, I could have launched the commuting season as soon as Daylight Relocating Time moved light to the evening. Yes, I have lights, but I've said numerous times that you could set yourself on fire and some drivers still would not notice you.

In the shop, we had to drag out rental equipment we had started to put into storage. This isn't a real money maker, this late in a mediocre season, but it's our core winter business, so we have to meet whatever demand presents itself. I hate when bike and ski stuff jam together in the workshop, because the substances they use are so incompatible. In that equation, bike lubes are worse for ski bases than ski waxes might be for most surfaces of a bike, but we're still trying to fit awkwardly shaped objects into a shared space without damaging any of them.

Timing of the snow and other items on the schedule meant that I did not shift seamlessly back to an athletic routine of workouts on the snow. Back to? I never established one at all, this winter. Muscling the snow thrower around provided a couple of days of exercise. Later there was some shoveling.

The strengthening sun hasn't made the snow miraculously disappear, but it does modify it much more quickly than the weaker rays of deep winter would. The surface becomes slow and sticky, while the full depth remains fine-grained. Skis pick up moisture on the way through the top layer before dropping down into the powder to clump up and slow down. Or you could go to the groomed trails, if you have time.

If we move relatively steadily into spring conditions, the roads will melt clear, the snowbanks shrivel again, and I'll be able to get out of the car. No doubt there will be a few bad jokes from the weather during the next month and a half. But the darkness and its attendant cold have to follow their fixed schedule. What we get may not be balmy and inviting, but it will probably be doable.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

In memory of Sachs Sedis

Ordering chains the other day, I sifted through the offerings from SRAM, KMC, Shimano, and others. Our default chain has been SRAM, because their chains are descended from the legendary Sedisport, the sleeper deal chain of the 1980s.

Very little can be seen of the original Sedisport in the SRAM chains of today.  The formerly flared inner plates are now straight.

The outer plates are shaped very similarly to Shimano's Hyperglide and Uniglide chains, which the Sedisport once outperformed. The change was gradual, and the chains are still functional and durable. But the reflex to choose them is probably more emotional than anything else.

Vintage Sedisport. Burly side plates, cleverly flared inner plates to facilitate shifting. Born when drive trains were moving to six speeds. My, my. What will be next? Gears that click into place?
Look at the opportunities for advertising, recklessly squandered. The side plates of the chain are completely blank. It's as if they expect their distinctive design to speak for them.

The 1990s saw the introduction of the Sedisport ATB. The links shown here date from after the merger with Sachs, as the stamping on the side plates shows.
The outer plates were straight, with beveled edges. The pins were starting to be riveted in ways that led to the development of closure links. Shimano, of course, had their persnickety special pins. Sachs developed a closure link shortly before they were bought by SRAM.

Ten- and eleven-speed drive trains need straight-sided chains because the spacing of the gears is so tight. Differences, if any, are subtle. Because I don't indulge, I depend on the feedback of those who do to decide what to supply them with. I know what I favor, but that can change every year as the industry removes options.

Chain shopping was tangential to larger games of componentry chess I started last fall, when a couple brought in their Seven touring bikes to be reconfigured with more practical drive trains, and another customer wanted to dress a new frame with an 11-speed racing group. His Specialized Roubaix had cracked, and Specialized had sent a warranty replacement. Same brand, same model name, but of course it had some different specs. That game was more a matter of cost-benefit analysis, working within his budget and a couple of specific requests.

Interesting indoor activities help pass the time as winter reclaims March. This happens every year. We complain that the mild weather won't stick around, but 20 years ago these conditions would have looked like the beginning of April, not the beginning of March.

The hard freezes after springlike warmth have pretty well wrecked the cross-country skiing, even in the nearby woods. This limits alternative training activities to things that are more boring, and therefore less likely. Despite the fact that I can literally feel that sitting on the couch is killing me, I still slouch in front of the computer, teasing my mind with little jabs of electronic stimulation. Old friends, new friends, hopeful signs, terrifying trends, ads for diseases you, too probably have...

Back to the hunt for bike parts. Look at that: Specialized has multiple road models that list for $10,000. Way to grow the sport! When civilization collapses, where will we charge our electronic shifters? I know, I know: personal solar systems will continue to work, as long as you can find a place to soak up some sun in between attacks by various desperadoes unleashed by the apocalypse. And you'll be able to scrounge hydraulic fluid for the brakes for quite a few years before things have reverted to more medieval conditions. Brake pads, on the other hand...

I've gotten out for a few fixed gear rides. The return to cold weather puts me back to scrounging kindling and pine cones to start the evening fires in the wood stoves. Scavenging wood is best done on skis, as long as there is any snow cover. It's not a high-intensity workout, but it combines some basic exercise with a practical need. That's been my guiding principle for my entire adult life.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Bike commuting is to train for

Whenever someone tells me that something basically trivial is "to die for," I am briefly tempted to make them do it. But the vapid assertion provides a take-off point for more substantive ones.

Here it is, the end of February in northern New England. Around my house and in the woods, the snow is anywhere from six to 24 inches deep, except in places where it is deeper because of windblown drifts or created piles. But these are the remains of the much deeper snow we received in two storms very close together just before the middle of the month. That was before the temperature went above 60 degrees for a couple of days, in the middle of a longer period when the nighttime lows hardly got below freezing. The jet stream giveth and the jet stream taketh away. That's not to mention the other factors making New England's typical gyrations even more bizarre.

The thaw has shriveled the snow away from the road edges, clearing the bikeable area. At the same time, it destroyed the groomed trails on which one might have laid down a winter rhythm of alternative training.

While I have not seen riders, some of them have reported to me that they have been out and have seen others out. Calls to the shop for bike tuneups began while the snowbanks still slumped into the lanes. Road salt made those puddles as briny as the ocean. But people fixate on the temperature alone. Warmth is the deciding factor, even when they'd be better served by cold.

We did need the thaw to shrink the snowbanks back. But once the whole travel surface is clear, a freeze keeps things dry. I know a couple of things from years of experience: first, someone who gets their annual tuneup now will need more work by May or June to deal with the effects of salt and wet grit; second, when the weather turns cold again -- and it will -- bikes brought in for early service will be forgotten until June. Most of them will be forgotten in our shop, where we will have to work around them until their owners feel the urge for them again.

Riding in the grit and brine is probably only a little more abusive than pounding on a trainer, with a rain of sweat flowing down over the machinery.

I surveyed the route on my way home from work yesterday. If the roads stay this clear, I have no excuse not to launch the commute as soon as Daylight Relocating Time kicks in. With that in mind, I headed out for some base miles on the fixed-gear today.
The first hundred yards reminded me what a crappy winter this has been for exercise. But then I also did several sets of squats yesterday, in anticipation of the anticipation of the beginning of riding season. So the fried quads owed a little to that, as well as the time spent on the couch in a pile of cats.

I used to dream of glorious endeavors when I trained, especially during the first heroic rides coming out of the winter. Now I dream of surviving and thriving in my commute. The commute was always there, but I took it for granted. It's not good to take anything for granted.

The weather may change again. March can be snowy. Once we pass the equinox, however, the sun really gains the advantage. Even now, it is much stronger than it was a month ago. It quickly attacks late-season snows. And if the pattern remains dry, or the wetness comes on warm air, the road will remain clear.

Freedom isn't free. To be free from the car, I have to be strong enough to claim it. It's to train for.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

I hate sharing the road

Driving season is grinding me down the way it always does. Sitting behind yet another ambling piece of flotsam as I'm trying to get the hell to work on a two-lane highway with lots of curves and steady traffic, I pine for the freedom of bike commuting. The vast physical, emotional, and psychological benefits outweigh the little bit of death fear that always accompanies cycling among motor vehicles.

Every year, I explore the motorist mindset. I absorb and radiate the impatience of the throttle-pusher forced to curtail speed because other legitimate users are on the road. The idiots staring at their phones, who somehow think that their weaving and speed changes aren't totally obvious make me wish I had a device with which to break in and blast them with a loud reminder to pay attention to piloting. One guy was so bad, I flashed my high beams at him repeatedly whenever I saw his face turn downward toward the touch screen. Flashflashflashflashflashflash! It seemed to work. He may have hated me, but at least the finally gave up on his phone until our paths diverged.

Critiquing other road users has become more dangerous this week, since New Hampshire did away with concealed weapon permits, releasing any gun owner to carry a concealed weapon with no restrictions or oversight. Hell, everything became more dangerous. Gun lovers like to say, "an armed society is a polite society," but fear creates reticence. The idea that anyone might be armed means that  speaking up when you see an injustice now calls for a higher level of courage. No one need fear that they will be stopped and questioned because law enforcement caught sight of a corner of a gun butt.

I've considered packing heat in the past. I had a concealed carry permit under the old system, but I did not renew it when it expired. Now I don't have to worry about the permit, but the reasons to forgo armament remain. If you pull it out, not only do you have to be ready to use it, you will have increased the chances that you will have to. Anyone even catching sight of a weapon you are carrying may use it as justification to take preemptive action. And guns weigh a lot. I'll be better served by an extra bottle of water.

Speaking of water, I've been hydrating desperately since the kidney stone. Unable to afford the defective product known as health insurance, I have to treat myself for things as much as possible. When I consulted my primary care provider a couple of weeks after the stone passed, because I still had residual twinges and wanted to get at least a cursory examination, she did not recommend investing in the expensive and inconclusive imaging procedures that might detect remaining stones until I had pursued many weeks of assiduous hydration. I had told her that the twinges were gradually subsiding. They ramp right up when I let myself worry. Those with the most to fear in America's pay-to-play health care business have the most incentive to suppress those fears, so that stress does not trigger the illness that will ruin everything.

The good news is that beer turns out to be a health beverage. Do not exceed the recommended dosage.

Lacking the resolve of my younger years, I find it hard to get my 10,000 steps a day. We're about two weeks away from Daylight Relocating Time. Depending on the weather, that may enhance exercise opportunities attractive enough to overcome my depression. I have to hope that the hits have outweighed the misses in this hit-and-miss winter, when I begin to lay down a more regular rhythm of effort and recovery on the bike.