Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Bike Snob: just another naive nerd

Someone posted a link to this Bike Snob article from November 2018, about how we shouldn't promote bikes as good for the environment.

First of all, no one who should get his message is thinking about riding bikes in November. Dedicated riders, whether they call themselves cyclists or loathe to be called cyclists, are probably still riding in the late fall, but the vast majority of people think of biking as strictly a warm, sunny weather activity.

Also unhelpfully, BS mentions "annoying people in cars" as a benefit of cycling, when we will only grow our numbers by enticing people out of those cars, not just pissing them off. Pissing them off perpetuates the climate of conflict. People on bikes will never win a direct conflict with motorists. If motorists really wanted to eradicate us, they could do it in less than a day by running over us on sight.  "See a cyclist, kill a cyclist," could be their slogan. Any rider not killed in the initial assault would be a fool to go out there again except on a tandem with a tail gunner armed with a machine gun. Even then, it would be a short, glorious defeat. So just shut up about how it's a benefit to annoy the motoring public.

Bike Snob goes on to state the other advantages of bike riding: better health, better fitness, more physical energy, fantastic economic benefits, reduced traffic, easier parking. He's young. Riders like me have been trying to set that example for decades, with little success. Writing about it in Outside Magazine is worth almost nothing in creating real public awareness. I was writing about it in newspaper columns, following on the heels of promoters like John Forester et al., before I had even heard of them.

 A couple of years ago, a friend sent me a book called The Man Who Loved Bicycles, by Daniel Behrman, published in 1973, which proves how long we have been losing this particular losing battle.

Bike Snob is not wrong in his assertions, any more than Behrman was, or I am, or any of the thousands of other unsung advocates have been. We keep trying to set the example and we keep getting ignored. Human history is one long sad tale of the majority rejecting simple things that would make life more pleasant for everyone. Instead, our species chooses things that make life much more comfortable for a ruthless minority, and then aspires to join that club. We also choose labor saving devices even if we'd be better served to keep a little labor in some areas and save more in others.

The fact that I'm just seeing this now, ten months after its publication, because someone else just saw it, similarly belatedly, shows you how the internet grants you instant global access, but that the global population still has to find your work, read it, and bother to share it around. It's a little faster than letting a newspaper loose in a hurricane, but about as haphazard. I'm a poor example, because I'm the furthest thing from an information junkie. The information junkies need to get on some meth and speed up their dissemination if they want to get the word around fast enough and far enough to do any good.

Is the teachable moment at last arriving? Bike nerds have been thinking so since the 1970s. We haven't been right yet. But evolution grinds on. The distress in the United States, bellwether of the consumerist world, may finally rise to the bursting point and drive a significant percentage of the population to look at fundamental lifestyle changes. Odds are against it, if history is any guide, but one can hope.

Friday, September 13, 2019

So many rabbit holes...

A customer brought in her gravel bike, saying that it sometimes locked up when she was on the big chainring, and that the freehub sometimes would not engage right away.

The bike is a Parlee Chebacco. She might have bought it used, but it does not look ill-used. But cleanliness can conceal problems almost as effectively as dirt does, sometimes. A bike that has been hosed regularly may be clean and shiny, but it has been abused. The abuse is disguised as meticulous care. It only appears to the trained eye in the oxidation, the unnatural dryness of certain areas, and rusty bearings in a bike that otherwise looks like it never leaves the house.

This bike had faint indications of hosing. It's not that old, so it can't have been through much, but the chain was already worn out. It wasn't thrashed, but it was due.

Crank jamming sounds like chain suck, but there were no signs of chain suck. The freehub could be the culprit, if the ratchets lock up and then release, giving her other symptom: no resistance to pedaling. The frame showed absolutely no signs of chain suck. The chainrings had no bends, hooks, or burrs as might result from repeated jamming.

The wheel is a DT Swiss, but not a star ratchet.

It has three pawls. The spring encircles them, secured into the freehub body with little bent ends that tuck into  drillings. The mechanism was lubricated with light grease, dirty from use, but not gritty or congealed. The pawls moved freely. The ring that they engage with in the hub body had no worn or broken teeth. There were no little bits of metal or dirt pinballing through the mechanism to cause intermittent jams.

Turning to the omniscient Internet to look for reports, rants, and sophomoric proclamations regarding problems with DT freehubs, I discovered one more thing for neurotics to amp about: Points of Engagement. Abbreviated to POE by the cool kids, it's a characteristic worth a lot of chin stroking pronouncements and passionate denunciations.

I guess I don't ride hard enough. But even when I did, I must have been fortunate never to have a serious failure of the drive mechanism. I had one freehub failure in a nearly new Sachs hub in the mid 1990s, when the freehub body itself cracked, causing the ratchet to jam, which fed chain through the system, yanked the derailleur apart, and made me walk home from that ride. The replacement hub that Sachs provided is still working, more than 20 years later. It has outlived its parent company.

In any pawl ratchet, the massive power of your monster quads is channeled through two or three little chips of metal. Points of engagement: two or three at any given moment. The size of teeth in the outer ring is inversely proportional to the number of them. In a star-ratchet type freehub, there are more POE, but the same proportion applies: more points mean smaller points. The engagement is finer, but shallower. The load is spread over more teeth, but a smaller piece of debris can disrupt it.

A freewheeling mechanism at all is a point of weakness compared to a cog threaded directly to the hub shell. Should you let yourself think about it, or just be glad that you've been lucky and hope your luck holds?

Add the POE rabbit hole to the "I'm worried about my position" rabbit hole, with all of its subsidiary burrows: stem length, bar width, seat height, saddle choice, cleat attachment...Does your crank arm length really suit you?  Then we can get you losing sleep over the shorts you buy. Have you noticed how the thread count of your tires can cost you as much as a tenth of a second in the sprint? And I don't even want to get started on chain lube.

I was unable to duplicate any of her problems or find any hint of a cause. I cleaned and re-lubed the insides of the freehub, checked the bearings, replaced the chain, and test rode the bike around and around, trying to make it malfunction. It should be fine. But some customers have mysterious powers. You learn never to stand back confidently and say that it's cured, especially with certain people who seem to have their own flock of gremlins constantly sabotaging them.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Specialized strong arm

Big Bicycle is always putting the squeeze on independent shops. I don't know how it was in the 1970s boom, but in the 1990s, large brands like Trek, Specialized, and Cannondale put increasing pressure on shops to make large preseason commitments and meet hefty financial thresholds.

Even though technofascism and lack of industry advocacy has fragmented the market, corporate titans are still more interested in their cut from shop income than they are in the realities of daily operations on the frontiers of bike shop territory.

The latest intrusion from Specialized is their insistence that every dealer sign up for automatic bill payment, so that the Big S can suck money directly from the shop account for the full balance due. You get a few days' warning in case you have to ask for some indulgence, but the default is that they get to drain your coffers on their schedule. They feed upstream from every other expense you have, unless some other vendor has sunk a suction line that draws earlier in the month.

The rationale for such things is always the same: If you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear. Of course you will sell through by the deadline. Doesn't Specialized do everything they can to support their dealers and enhance sales?

Everyone knows that the restaurant business is tough. What are people going to feel like eating? Are they going to want to consume all of those perishable items you had to buy, or have you created a walk-in full of expensive compost? Fortunes can change at the speed of a blackening banana in hot weather. You can see the good times melt like ice cream in a power failure. Spoilage in specialty retail takes longer and does not generate as much obvious odor and muck. But we get stranded just the same. What will the fickle public feel like doing this summer? What unrequested innovation will turn expensive leftover floor stock into a clearance item and require that we buy more tools and watch more instructional videos as we record the loss?

Shops that change their focus in the winter face the added challenge of all the winter vendors playing the same financial games.

I know from previous experience that some shops play games with their vendors. Who knows how many of us have been technically bankrupt for years, dodging from debt to debt to keep from facing the fact that we will never break even? I started wondering way back around 1980 how many people called themselves millionaires because a million people owed them a dollar. The job that lured me to New Hampshire was the brain child of a guy who would purchase equipment, get the delivery guys to do a quickie, half-assed setup, and then use the equipment while withholding payment because he never got a proper setup. To this day I don't know if he was a fully calculating con man or just an idiot. Guys like that make suppliers try to secure their receivables. We all pay the price. But there is also legitimately hard luck. The con man/idiot publisher claimed it was all hard luck. That still left everyone queueing up in bankruptcy court to salvage whatever they could.

It's a hard world. Did you know that if your employer writes you a rubber paycheck, your bank will charge you for taking bad paper? Here is your lifeline, your just reward for services rendered, your ticket to be a productive citizen, but you get screwed if the "job creator" who paid you isn't really good for it. That's a sickening thrill. Then the checks you wrote against it start to bounce, and the fees really pile up.

In a diversified small business, we're always trying to balance the costs and rewards of each facet. While cross-country skiing and bicycling are pretty stupid sectors to remain in, they're not entirely dead. Cross-country is on life support worldwide, but bicycles are the transportation of the future, once the greedheads manage to collapse both the economy and the environment. We may have to learn to make our own stuff in a charcoal-heated forge, but pedal power will endure after motors can no longer be maintained. As humans breed and breed, new bike motors are manufactured every second. But, for the moment, bikes are still a luxury item and a toy. The corporations that market them look for customers with disposable income, and shops that know how to harvest a lot of it.


The theme for August was "dereliction of duty." Scheduling needs in my personal life led me to take a week off during the height of August business, and then to take Labor Day Weekend off as well. My mother should have planned her birth better, back in 1929. The situation to which I returned reminded me that people who work in service businesses should have no life outside of work. We should be available at all times to meet the needs of customers.

Customer need can be unpredictable, even if you know what to expect from general seasonal trends. To serve the public the best, have no other demands on your time. The ideal service provider is skilled, intelligent, good natured, adaptable, and a solitary orphan with no outside interests. When a work load suddenly goes from nearly nothing to overload, settle in for late nights and early mornings until the customers are taken care of. People with the budget and leisure time to ride for pleasure have obviously made better life choices, and deserve your immediate and complete obeisance. Worker bees like yourself, who use their bikes for transportation deserve your comradely support. If the work load is light, enjoy the respite, but don't get accustomed to free time. When business vanishes as it always does, you'll need whatever you have managed to save up to keep yourself alive until demand rises again.

I was never good at this. My job was always a way to finance my life. Years ago, the low-level day jobs seemed like a normal part of a writer's life -- and they are. But there are millions of us who never got any further than the life of a grunt with big dreams. They aren't even huge dreams, just comfortable middle class dreams. But the means of obtaining them was more important than the things themselves. With an influx of wealth, I would still live as I do, traveling a bit more, and contributing financially to important and under-funded needs of the ecosystem and society more than I am able to do in my paycheck-to-paycheck existence. I really like just sitting in my clearing in the woods, watching nature be nature. When I do get to go somewhere else, it's mostly to watch nature there. If I had a fortune, I would spend a good bit of it to buy land and leave it alone.

The pile of repair work at the start of September was a little surprising. It shouldn't be. We usually see a flurry of people who waited until they thought the summer rush was over, and then jammed up in the doorway as they all brought their stuff in at once. Add to that some post-season vacationers and one or two local riders in a jam, and you get a daunting tangle of urgent crap requiring skilled labor, stat. On my first day back at work after my last dereliction, I thought that I should probably just sleep at the shop for a few nights, so I could work until I dropped and resume when I crawled back to consciousness. I have plenty of trouble crawling back to consciousness at the best of times. Much as I know I should be fanatically devoted to work, my pace is a dogged plod. When closing time comes, I'm headed for the door, no matter how I might have imagined myself a few hours earlier.

Between my efforts -- less drastic than taking up temporary residency -- and the arrival of reinforcements with the Saturday crew, we managed to push through the bulge and leave the docket manageably light before I took my precious days off. The things I did in August were enjoyable, but not entirely relaxing, and they took me away from routine chores around the homestead as winter clicks inexorably closer.

The dregs of summer are at the same time precious and not worth anything. In this hilly and tree-covered part of New England, a single cloud shadow can change the character of the day. The effect is magnified when viewed through the frame of a window. The sun already has little enthusiasm except at the height of afternoon. Clouds conspire to help it slink away. Morning fog conceals its rise. It seems like hardly any time has passed since we were waiting under May and early June's broadening expanse of daylight for some warmth to go along with it.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Trainee, and memories of Mr. Rat

Days after our summer part-timer departed for his real grown-up job in the far north of New York, a young racer in town was suddenly inspired to apply.

Where the departing rider was the classic 54cm-frame kind of roadie, this kid is more on the lines of Miguel Indurain. He's 6'2" and says he started riding at age 8. This actually gives him two years' head start on Big Mig, whose Wikipedia write-up says he started at 10. Now he's a junior in high school, and has achieved some level of mentorship, if not sponsorship, with actual coaching.

Listening in on his interview with upper management, I gathered that his duties may include inventory stuff on the computer rather than only mechanical work. But he said that he loves cleaning bikes. He will find plenty to do with the cruddy messes that people drag in for our attention. He's the closest thing to a shop rat* to come through here in years. He's more of an enhanced shop rat, but at least he doesn't think he's too good to sweep a floor or empty a garbage can.

This being New England, his other sport is cross-country skiing. If he sticks around, he will spend a lot of time with the waxing iron. With luck, he'll be slinging a lot of rentals, as well.

His first day went well. He put in some time out front with the computer system and in back with the grime. And he actually came back for a second day. Now he's been at it for a couple of weeks.

The fact that the management makes up for the chronic low pay and cruddy work by letting employees buy at wholesale is a powerful attraction for regular riders, especially young racers thrashing their equipment in hope of making a name for themselves while they're still young enough to  matter. His team affiliation does not extend to a gravy train of equipment. He's practically a privateer.

His recent race results have ranged from a first place finish in the A group in the nearby training series -- on a day when the biggest guns were not on hand, but still an A group victory -- to a humbling last place in a stage race in Vermont, where the insanely fit and well supported teams showed up. I'm sure this kid could have dropped me like an empty water bottle even when I was in my prime. But that's the cruel revelation of racing. You meet the people who are impossibly faster than you are. You think you're training to your limit, and you come up against these people from another planet. It literally happened to the best of us when Art the Dart, dominator of the Virginia District of what was then USCF, went to the nationals and was anonymous field fodder. There's always someone to chase, until you get to the very tip of the peloton, where everyone is chasing you.

Mechanically, the trainee is hindered by a teenager's tendency to overlook details, and the unfamiliarity of certain basic tool and mechanical principles. But he's a willing pupil, so he has that in his favor. I was much more of an idiot at that age, and for a depressing number of years thereafter. He has already started to broaden his perception of the universe of bikes by having to put a wrench on stuff that was made before he was born, and on cheap department store crap, not just on the bikes he owns for competition.

*Some might think that the term shop rat is a pejorative, or at least demeaning of the unskilled aspirants who often fill the role. I actually came up with the title when I worked in a shop where the young helper was named Jeff Mraz. He would sign his name in a rapid scrawl, first initial and last name, so that it looked like J. Mr. Rat. I started calling him J Rat. He was a very talented BMX rider, who liked to do tricks on and off the curb edge around the shopping center where our shop was located. He especially liked to do tail whips into trash cans, until we pointed out that he'd bent his frame doing that. Then he took an interest in road racing, built himself a road bike, and competed as a junior a few times. I don't know what he did after that. He was developing mechanical skills, and had an interest in custom auto body work, as I recall. Only later did I notice that the term "shop rat" was already in common usage. Just another example of parallel evolution yielding a widely duplicated result.

All bikes are road bikes

The invention of the wheel led to the invention of the road. The evolution of the wheel led to the bicycle. The evolution of the bicycle hastened the evolution of the road. The invention of the mountain bike led to the term "off-road bicycle." But that term is incorrect. Except for a few natural surfaces, any route passable on wheels has been constructed. Sometimes the engineering and effort are obvious. Other times the enhancements are few and subtle.

Even on the wide open plains of the American west, traversed by wagon trains of settlers, ruts indicated the common path. The early routes may have been called trails more often than roads, but they served the general purpose. Anything that rolled was well advised to stick to the road most traveled.

Every category of modern cycling has its intended road. Some of them may be called paths or trails, but they were all built. Even a skilled technical mountain biker riding a rocky hiking trail is following a line created and enhanced for human travel. Any natural feature that an adventurous cyclist might attempt, like a dry -- or not so dry -- stream bed is imitating the qualities of a roadway sufficient to the passage of the vehicle using it. Or so you hope as you launch down it. Most of the time, riders use constructed facilities.

With construction and maintenance comes cost. Public roads are financed through taxation. Every adult pays something into the collective coffers, regardless of what motorists might think about deadbeat cyclists who clot things up and pay nothing. The costs are hidden in prices we routinely pay, and folded into our total tax burden. This also includes some public cycling infrastructure, as well as unpaved trails in parks and other public lands. Networks not funded publicly have to charge admission or rely on donations, unless they're completely clandestine operations on land where the builders and users hope they will go unnoticed or at least be tolerated.

None of these concepts are new. I was just reminded of them a few days ago when one of the fat bikers from last winter's trail poaching incident greeted me in the hardware store. We said nothing about controversial matters. It just pulled my mind back to the dispute, and the fundamental principle that lies beneath it.

Bike riders always have to defend their access to ridable surfaces. A couple of times during my years in Maryland, some legislator or other would introduce a bill so restrictive that it would have made cycling on the roads nearly impossible. Only the concerted legal efforts of organized cycling clubs managed to beat back those threats. There may have been more since I left. Getting bikes out of the way is a recurring theme in countries dominated by the automobile. When mountain biking surged in popularity, resistance to them surged proportionately. There's even resistance to building recreation paths and converting rail lines to trail corridors, when local land owners fear that these roads for the unmotorized will attract riffraff.

When bike riding is outlawed, only outlaws will ride bikes. But unlike the outlaw with a gun, the rider can't carry concealed and only whip it out as a deadly surprise. When you're riding a bike, you're right out there, balancing on two wheels. Your odds of passing unseen vary depending on the size and popularity of the road you are using. A trail might see so little use that you could come and go with no one to know. The fat bike poachers outed themselves by posting vain selfies on social media. The weather had kept the legitimate users off of the ski trails that day. A skier might have happened by --  the snow conditions were fine -- but it was a stormy day in late winter, both factors that reduce attendance. On a nicer day, there you'd be. And at any time on a trail or road, some other user may come along. Enough people had to be interested in the first place for a road to get built. Then a rider has to consider whether their use is permitted at all, and what their welcome might be like.

The fatter the tire, the less you need a refined surface for it, but any wheel has limits. Most of the time you do need some sort of road. We're all road bikers in some form.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Bike shops are never "raking it in."

El Queso Grande had to solo one day while I was away. A repair and rental load that would have seemed ominously scanty when we had a full staff is more than enough to paralyze the shop with only one or two mechanics available, and only one of them very experienced. With El Queso Grande juggling all the chainsaws by himself, it looked to the untrained eye like a man barely finding time to open the cash register to stash away the shower of doubloons that must be coming from all these customers lined up at every door and counter.

Someone even said, "You must really be raking it in."

Bike shops are never raking it in. One nice young man with money to burn did buy an eleven thousand dollar road bike from us this summer, but that was one guy, one bike, one time. The average bike sells for maybe $400, with a clear profit of less than $100, after you extract overhead expenses. Probably closer to $10. Bigger shops are just making more of those average sales, with correspondingly higher overhead expenses. They might also sell more of the higher end bikes, but probably not a lot of the $11,000 variety. And more expensive bikes require lots more diligence, skill, and experience to assemble correctly and tune precisely enough to satisfy a customer who has dropped anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000 for what is now a mid-range or barely high-end bike. It still seems like a lot of money to most of us, even if the steady march of generational inflation has made it worth less.

Because of our short staff, we have had to turn work away. This is the first time since I started there 30 years ago that I have seen the management say we just couldn't do something. We've always tried to cram it in. Granted, it's partly because they've realized -- belatedly -- that life itself is more valuable than money, and that they have to get out of the shop to enjoy that life, but it's also because business itself is now so scanty that we couldn't afford staff even if we could find any. We have to make do with our own selves, and the couple of welcome fill-in people who will work specific days. And one of them just got a real job, coaching cross-country running and cross-country skiing at Clarkson University. His last day was Sunday.

When the rush of business ends, it dumps us into a weird solitude. The town still looks pretty much the same. The late summer sun spreads its golden light over the waters that are still warm, the green trees abuzz with cicadas. But no one jockeys for parking. No crawling, baking parade of motor vehicles inches through Main Street. No throng of pedestrians spreads out in all directions from the center of town. No money comes into the cash register. Because summer has shrunk to Fourth of July weekend and the first three weeks of August, that's it for major earning potential. Foliage tourism has dwindled significantly since the 1990s. Winter tourism for us depends on good natural conditions, which have become even more unreliable than New England's schizophrenic weather already was.

The changing climate and polluted world have led to such things as algae blooms that will kill your dog if it swims in an infected lake or pond, and a surge in tick-borne illnesses. El Queso Grande got anaplasmosis this summer, on top of his other challenges. In our country's asinine treasure hunt of a medical system, that entailed driving to labs "in his network" that he can also afford. That really cuts into the "raking it in." And that was after his carpal tunnel and cubital tunnel surgery: more overhead expenses related to remaining alive.