Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Ride

On this expedition to visit immediate family and in-lawage extended down the Eastern Seaboard, we stay in Maryland with the proud owner of two Surlies. The Cross Check I helped him with during a visit to New Hampshire. He put together the Pacer on his own in Maryland. He extended the hospitality of the Pacer to me.

I did not expect to ride or exercise in any way on this expedition, so I brought no specific clothing or other equipment. I didn't even have a helmet. But just as humans started as naked, scraggly hominids on ancient savannas, so do cyclists start as sneaker-and-jean-wearing kids. I rode for years as a racer in training wearing my woollies and only a knitted wool hat on my noggin in cold weather and a cotton cap (if that) in summer. Sometimes you just have to say "f*** it. I'm going for a ride."

With a temperature in the mid 30s and a blustery wind, I didn't feel like going far. The bike also had only flat pedals. I always pull my foot off the back at the bottom of the stroke until I adjust for the lack of a secure connection.

It wasn't much of a ride, but it reminded me of riding. Earlier, walking with a young nephew around the field and playground behind the neighborhood school, a couple of pullups on the monkey bars suggested I might try to find time in my schedule for some of that again as well when I get home.

The bike was as much fun as I expected. I had not ridden a Pacer yet. No surprise that it was a sporty but smooth road bike. I even took it off the road a little, where it fared acceptably well. My brother-in-law, our host, had heeded my advice on both his Surlies, using barcon shifters and plain old brake levers rather than brifters. He's a tiny tad shorter in the leg and definitely longer in the torso than I am, so I was reaching just a smidge. Also, I had to deal with ice patches and lumps left over from the big snowstorm that pounded this area just before Christmas. Warm weather and rain had taken away nearly all of it in open areas. Some plow piles remain. Some north slopes and shaded ravines have quite a bit of cover. Not quite enough to ski, sadly. I saw a lot I could have shredded up on my beater skis.

With all the sprawl that has obliterated the town and environs I knew, large tracts remain unbuilt around some preserved watersheds and on acreage that has not yet come under the developer's blade. Economics and energy supply will determine whether it all disappears under pavement and retail space.

The wind is stronger today. The air is colder. Soon we begin the trek north to resume our lives, interrupted at a time when we really could have stayed to tend to them. Family ties with their own time sensitive needs superseded our scheduled events. We must drive carefully back to them.

Annapolis has a lot of bike shops and, apparently, a number of cyclists. Share the Road signs abound. It's still not what I would call a big bike town. It has become an intimidating place to ride. If I lived here I would still do it. I know that traffic looks less hairy when you're in it than when you're looking at it from the sidelines or from inside a car. You fall into the technique automatically. Claim the lane. Join the flow. Step aside momentarily to get the big vehicles past you. Signal some turns. Just make others, quickly and cleanly. On most roads, the motor traffic isn't moving much faster than a cyclist, if at all. When the jam breaks and the big vehicles can haul ass, fade over so they can go ahead and create their next jam. The cyclist's flow changes much less than the motorist's. But these are observations of an experienced cyclist. I gained that experience at the cost of some blood and a lot of determination. More and more people want to ride, even as more an more take up driving because it's the norm.

For the moment I have gotten more time to write than I expected to get, and it is seconds away from running out.

Ciao fer now.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

It's my work space! It's a Dumpster! Wait, it's BOTH!

Sometimes they don't even bother to walk in. Disembodied hands just reach around the corner from the other part of the shop and heave refuse into the workshop. Or someone passing by will throw or boot empty cartons, bags of garbage, or wads of plastic bags over the threshold.

This and the sounds of urination and toilet flushing from the apartment above really help me maintain my professional attitude. Try it: do whatever you do for a living while someone tosses garbage into an unruly pile next to you and someone else pisses in a bucket above your head.

Don't just stay in school, kids. Stay in through graduate school, and make sure it's in something important and lucrative. Or start a waste disposal company, so the trash IS the product. You'll have fewer student loans that way.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Grease Remains a Factor

Despite upper management's wish that the back shop could convert fully to ski mode, the bicycling public continues to seek our aid.

On Friday, an older gentleman who rides his mountain bike relentlessly came in because the freehub ratchet had started catching, causing the rear gears to fix for a moment. This pushes a loop of chain over the top. If the ratchet breaks loose and allows the gear cluster to coast freely, the derailleur spring can take up the slack or the rider can take it up by resuming pedaling. If the rear gears remain fixed, forward motion of the bike pulls more chain until it rips the derailleur apart. This rider's bike was still at the intermittent stage. He noticed only skipping in the gears.

For some reason, we had not needed to replace a freehub body in a long time. We keep a few on hand. With Shimano's bewildering array of variations, we might not have the exact unit, but we can often improvise to get one to work.

In this case we had the exact match. The surgery is messy, but routine. It was trickier than usual this time, because I shared half a narrow bench with the ski waxing operations on the other side. Grease and oil do not go well with ski bases. But nothing went wrong.

While the first bike was still on the stand, another frequent rider came in with her bike. It had the opposite freehub problem: failure to engage. Cold weather makes this problem worse, as dirt or congealed lube keeps ratchet pawls from springing outward so the gears can drive the wheel.

In both cases, the bikes were old enough that I had to do some research in our archive of old Quality catalogs to trace part numbers to our current stock.

I thought I had a matching freehub body for the second bike. I confidently assured the rider I would have it for her the next day. She's a dedicated rider and all-season commuter.

Shimano had other plans for us. This woman's bike had an RM-30 hub. The splined interface with the hub shell differs completely from every other Shimano freehub. I didn't have one and couldn't possibly fake it.

The ratchets had engaged once the bike thawed out. I flooded the freehub body with light lube so that it might work well enough while we wait for replacement parts to arrive. I chilled the bike for half an hour outside before I test rode it. Unfortunately, the temperature had gone up to 34 F, so I don't know how it will fare below freezing. I did not declare it cured, only temporarily in remission while we wait for the new part.

The bench is degreased again. We shall see.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

You try to be environmentally responsible...

The shop where I work is a small business. We try to uphold the image of cycling and X-C skiing as nature -friendly. The management purchased biodegradable shopping bags.

Gues what? Biodegradable means "starting now." Large quantities of them degraded to uselessness before we could sell enough merchandise to hand them out.

We have only a few sizes of surviving bags and no budget to buy a bunch of new ones.

Our research division is working on turning skin flakes and loose hair into a material from which to fashion bags. Anything else seems to cause some sort of environmental or social problem somewhere along the line. Another work group is experimenting with yarn made from discarded socks and underwear, which can be knitted into reusable bags.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Free Steak Knives with Bike Commute (this offer is only for bike commuters)

Yesterday as I rode to work on Route 28 I saw a pair of really nice steak knives just under the guard rail at the edge of the narrow shoulder. Unfortunately, I was running late and didn't want to stop. I would have had to lift my bike over the guard rail and climb over it myself to reduce the risk that a passing vehicle might clip me. So I made a mental note stop for them today, when I had to drive the car.

I had to pull the car onto the shoulder before the guardrail and hike about a quarter of a mile on the sidehill of the roadside banking to where I remembered seeing the cutlery. I went all that way and more, without seeing them. After I got back in my car I drove well below the speed limit, scanning the roadside to see if I had overlooked them. Apparently, someone else had gotten them before I could return. Maybe it was whoever had tossed them out in the first place. Or perhaps another cyclist.

I can't complain. The Roadside Tool and Supply Company has served me well over the years. I've scored socket wrenches, adjustable spanners, a four-pound sledge and even tableware. There will be more. Until then...keep watching the gutter!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

How the Car Killed Main Street

This should be a long academic treatise showing migration patterns out from city centers, with a time line and supporting documentation, but it's really just a thought I had while riding yesterday.

The Holiday Season, as it has come to be known, uses decades of imagery to represent centuries of legend to support an illusion of cheer and generosity centered around warmly lighted windows, often in storybook towns and cities. Carolers stroll the streets. Scrooges endlessly endure annual consciousness-raising. Cratchits show us what it's really all about. So do Whos in Whoville.

By the 1960s, when I started keeping coherent memories (more or less), the Christmas season meant decorated shops and public spaces. It meant music you didn't hear during the rest of the year. It wasn't quite yet a hideous, obnoxious saturation barrage of an ever-increasing playlist of commercial schlock. Downtown areas were hung with garlands. Light poles might turn into candy canes. We shopped, yes, but with a communal feeling, in the commercial and governmental center of our local unit of civilization.

This isn't an essay about the holidays and their meaning, except to the extent that they offer us a picture of how completely our transportation habits have changed our social habits. You can notice it any time of year, through different lenses. But now it's December and I happen to work in retail in a town. That combined in my mind with the irony that the device that made cruising Main Street possible also led directly to Main Street's undoing.

Black Friday found us nearly deserted. Anyone shopping had undertaken the big road trip to the nearest mall complex centered on giant chain stores or big box discount retailers. People choose to shop their town as a sociopolitical statement. They make an extra effort to travel a shorter distance and put up with the limitations of businesses that have been fighting the trend of the migratory shopper for dozens of years. They're settling for less, economically, to make their mark in favor of municipality.

The malls decorate for the holidays the way downtown areas used to. Downtown areas try to put on their finery as well, but for less reason. In Annapolis, even as late as the early 1980s, I would stroll the streets, dropping into various shops and eating establishments. In a good year, when I actually had some money, I could shop for gifts. In a lean year, when everyone was going to get a hug, I could still walk around and soak up the bustle and cheer of humans lighting a candle against the winter solstice darkness. From what I hear, most of Main Street Annapolis is dark and empty now.

On the outskirts of town, the mall complexes have extended pavement across hundreds of acres. When you shave off the trees and plunk down some huge, rectilinear buildings, 100 acres doesn't look like much. Some of it was already developed in the 1960s. Much more was wooded: what developers like to refer to as "wasteland."

"Nobody's using it. We ought to."

The squirrels can just shave their tails and get jobs as rats. Other wildlife can't make as easy a transition. And those humans who were aware that the forest conveyed an inexplicable sense of peace are far outnumbered by the ones who let the building happen and now don't understand why they're just that much crankier and more impatient with each other.

From a motorist standpoint, a shopping center fed by arterial roadways, filled with the full variety of emporia a shopper might desire, makes far more sense than driving into the congested labyrinth of urban streets, seeking a place to safely and legally ditch the car and then walking on outdoor sidewalks to this store or that. Maybe another store you want to visit is in another neighborhood, inconveniently far away. That means more driving, more navigation, hunting for more parking.

Before the mall explosion, these were normal parts of motorized shopping. And a non-motorized shopper would have the same distance to cover. Traditions of centrality, based on population density near the center, dispersing outward, worked when people lived that way.

Increased population works hand-in-hand with convenient personal motor vehicles to encourage dispersed development. The suburban ring expands outward the way mold spreads from a single bluish spot to rot an entire piece of food. The mold is happy. Life is good. We sprawl in fuzzy abandon.

It depends on the motor car. When streetcar lines extended to the edge of town, people lived along them, but such a network was limited by public willingness to invest. Given their own coaches departing and arriving on a personalized schedule, the public was even less willing to invest in something that appears so much less convenient.

Convenience is relative, of course. Try finding a place to park in either a city or a popular shopping complex when the shopping stampede is at its height. Still, the cold logic of economics dictates that towns shall die that suburbs may live.

Ultimately we will see recentralization around the new focal points chosen by society, whether it is revitalized traditional cities and towns or the synthetic towns generated by mall-like complexes. If sustainable fuels become a reality, some form of personal motor vehicle will continue to dominate the design of transportation and civilization. If not, the centers will have to accommodate the people who arrive on foot, by bike and by mass transportation.

Monday, November 30, 2009

My friend is dying, but still he rides

In the mid 1990s, a stranger rode into town. I started seeing this tall, bespectacled man riding his bicycle at a slow but steady pace here and there. His clothes were frayed and worn, but had the air of New England preppy gentility about them. His hair was whitening gray, conventionally cut but often not freshly combed. He looked like a professor or a private school teacher. The latter he actually turned out to have been.

He looked like a run-down version of an extra George Plimtpton, carrying a spare voice module for Garrison Keillor. If I closed my eyes when he spoke, I could sometimes imagine it. He did not have Mr. Keillor's theatrical sense, however. A free-range intellectual, he would quiz me about things, but never in a hard-assed way. Everything was said in that soft voice.

One day, when I called the shop and he happened to be there, he asked to speak to me.

"Spell Poughkeepsie," he said. When I did, he said, "Damn, I should have known you'd be able to." He liked to pull spelling bees on me at odd times.

He had the look of a stray cat that had had a rough life when you got close to him. He had lost a lot of teeth. His shoulders were narrow and uneven, as a beat-up cyclist's will be after sufficient impact with the ground to reduce the collarbone to a formality. And he could get a little drifty at times. He would trail off in conversation or not make absolutely perfect sense.

I'm never one to pry. I wait for someone to tell me what they want me to know, when they're ready.

We established early on that we had almost crossed paths 30 years earlier, when he was a young prep school teacher at Severn School in Maryland in the early 1960s. I would not attend that school until six or seven years after he had left, but my family did live in Annapolis at the time. It wasn't the wildest of coincidences, but it was interesting to share some geography and a near-miss on some shared acquaintances. He had courted the daughter of a boat yard owner in Annapolis until the penniless young teacher was deemed an inadequate match. Or so he told it.

He reminisced from time to time about being a young man just out of college, who liked jazz music, good stereo equipment and expensive Scotch. He also had a passion for sports cars and road racing. At times, bicycling seemed like a poor man's surrogate. But his love for the bicycle became obvious. He studied all aspects of racing, long distance touring and bike construction.

One day he told me that, on the last day of the Tour de France in 1985, he left his house in Milton, NH, to go for a ride because he felt so fired up from following the Tour coverage to its end. He took off on that sunny afternoon and, as he tells it, "woke up weeks later in the hospital. They told me I'd been wandering around the halls for two weeks, pissing on things. I don't remember any of it. I don't even remember crashing. I remember I was going down a long grade, it was fast. That's it. I don't know if someone hit me with their car or if I just went off the road."

He has a handlebar-diameter hole in his skull and permanent neural deficits, as they say. He also has those narrowed shoulders, some spinal injury, this and that. And beat up knees, but he could have been working on those already, from pushing big gears.

In addition to teaching in prep schools in Maryland and the Midwest (that I know of), he recounted working in bike shops and as a dishwasher. This was all pieced together in conversations when he would drop by the shop. We would talk about whatever he felt like talking about. If I didn't know the subject, I would do my best to hang in there. If I did, I could give him a few gems I had mined to add to what he has gleaned. He spent most days in the library, and visiting up and down the business district. He was not homeless or a beggar. He lives with his girlfriend in her house out the north end of town. She's another character. And she protects him fiercely.

My employers, never known for their compassion, and certainly not for their acceptance of people who seem different (I came in under the radar and proved myself too useful to fire, so far) finally found an excuse to banish him forever when he insulted one of their family political saints during one of his neurally-deficited lapses of tact. They didn't know about his injury and probably wouldn't have cared. All they knew was that they finally had a righteously indignant reason to bar him forever. I considered qitting over this piece of cruelty, but I discussed it with Bill and he said not to worry.

"My mouth is always getting me into trouble," he said.

He reached Social Security and Medicare age shortly after he came to town. With normal aging and his accumulated injuries, he mused a lot about how he lived his life.

"You tell yourself that whatever else happens today you will get on the machine," he said.

He rides all year. He rides in all weather. Even if he's just going to town for a newspaper and a cup of coffee, he does that eight or ten miles. He might miss a day. His girlfriend might take him on an outing that requires riding in the car. She also occasionally scooped him up from the far point of a ride outside of town when nightfall overtook him. But for the most part he gets on the machine.

Now he is dying. I'd heard from people who had seen him that he wasn't looking good. Then someone told me for sure that he had cancer. The same person also confirmed something I had just heard a rumor of: Bill is a talented guitarist. His brain injury gave him some odd quirks, but his friends found and refurbished a guitar for him and he played with them for a while. Even as I heard bad news about his health, I was learning more about how he lives.

I hadn't managed to see him for months. We just kept missing each other. He has no telephone. We would simply stop to talk wherever we ran into each other. He's a nicknamer. He didn't like my former coworker Ralph's name, so he would call him Ethan or Elliot. He calls me Mr. Vails, after the 1980s sprinter, Nelson Vails. I'm pleased to be given a nickname that crosses racial lines to follow cycling lines. It's especially sweet considering my employers' bigotry.

So, the other day I was driving home from a dentist appointment when I saw the unmistakable figure of Bill riding toward me. I hastily shoved the car into the ditch and ran across the road to wait for him to get to me.

He is gaunt. His face, never very rounded, is long. The bones of cheek and jaw push against the skin as if the skull demands acknowledgment. He wore a balaclava under his helmet on this raw, damp day. I felt almost ashamed of my newish clothes, my relative youth and the fact that he found me driving. But Bill is not a cycling Puritan.

"Mr. Vails," he saluted me, laughing a little wheezily. "Biggest thighs known to medical science." He grinned. He is too kind. I took in how he no longer fills his clothes. His thighs are just femurs under cloth.

He noticed the car I was driving, a 1991 Toyota Corolla LE. He'd had his eye on it for years, when it belonged to its former owner, the mother of a friend of mine.

"What's that, about a '92...no '91. Is that the LE? If it's the LE it has a red coach line." He knew more about the car's cosmetics than I did, and my wife has been driving it for more than a year. "Yeah, the LE is unusual. You don't see too many of them around here. Beautiful little body."

I also finally got to tell him about the Alex Singer. I'd hoped he would ride by while I had it in the shop. I would have defied the edict and brought him right in to see it. Fortunately, the bike lives in a neighborhood near the house where he lives, and the owner of the Singer had spotted Bill as someone who looked interesting to meet. Having urged her to pursue it, I now urged him.

He said, "I've been diagnosed with colon cancer. I refuse to take the chemotherapy. I figure I'll be in pain either way. I don't expect to make it next year. I don't want to go into the hospital."

There's no way to ease into a subject like that. One minute you haven't said it, the next minute you have. And there it is.

"I don't know what I would do," I said to him. "I tell myself I do, I think I do, but I don't really know. " I do know that I would hate to spend my last days in a hospital, and if I knew for sure that I was going down I would head for the open range as fast as my last strength would carry me. I want to see the sky over me when I go, and I want to be alone.

"I can't complain, really," he said. "I've done about everything I wanted.

"I just don't want to give up the bike," he said. His even tone broke for the first time since I've known him, but it didn't break by much. "I don't want to stop riding. I don't want to be driven around in a car." Was it the raw breeze that made the glistening moisture in his eyes momentarily top the dam and flow toward his cheek? Again, it was only a moment before he regained control, if indeed he had lost it. He took a deep breath.

"I guess I'll go on into town, get a cup of coffee," he said.

We never had a touchy relationship, not even a handshaking one. I'm not much on contact unless I'm reciprocating the contact of someone who prefers to be that way. But as he flipped the toeclip up and resumed his slow trek to the village, I patted his shoulder. Whatever else was happening that day, he had gotten on the machine. He's welcome to whatever energy I can give him.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Close Calls, Politics, Instant Gratification

Sometimes ideas drift in and out of view without forming into solid trains of thought. For instance, on a ride the other day with a less traffic-adjusted rider I noticed that her notion of a close call and mine are somewhat different.

I recalled a time almost 30 years ago when a friend and I ventured onto US 1 South below Alexandria, Virginia. We were trying to put the finishing touches on a hundred-mile ride we had started about ten hours earlier, and we didn't really know the area. We didn't know what we would later know about bypassing the heavily traveled highway on the network of side roads cyclists discover most places. Where such alternatives don't exist, riders make do with the busier routes.

I saw it was a busy highway. I put my head down, stuck my elbow out and aimed to make the best of it. We were only going a few miles, to the next side road we could see on our map.

My friend shouted to me, "This sucks!" over the noise of trucks and the gap I had opened ahead of him. We pulled over to confer. He convinced me to give up on our first plan and ride back up into DC instead. We knew more roads going that way.

A year later he was fully acclimated. That piece of Route 1 wasn't a favorite of local cyclists, but you do what you have to do.

As a champion of cyclists' rights I will join another rider's fight, so I have to remind myself to hold off a second when a traffic novice gets worked up by what looks like a negligent or aggressive driver. From day to day my own comfort zone changes size, too.

Still mulling over the concept of traffic behavior, I was flipping through some old magazines as I cleaned out my office. One of them had an article on the oft-repeated subject of vehicular versus expedient riding styles and the proper way to treat red lights and stop signs.

Again, 30 years ago, when this information was harder to find, even if you were looking, I was making up my own set of traffic-riding principles.

Riding is a political act. That may be the last thing on anyone's mind when they take up the bicycle, but it's true. Especially an adult cyclist takes up political space by choosing to share the public right of way in what has, to some extent, always been an abnormal fashion. Even at the height of various booms in cycling popularity, plenty of people have found the two-wheelers annoying.

We can assert our rights doggedly, but politics ultimately hinges on popularity. Unless you can prove the value of an unpopular stance it will get voted down. An unpopular person will get the boot at the earliest opportunity. Because we not only vote with our wheels, we also ask for the cooperation -- if not support -- of our fellow road users, we are constantly campaigning (or lobbying).

With all that in my busy, under-employed and probably unemployable mind, I cranked doggedly to my various bottom-feeder jobs. I wouldn't take any crap from motorists, but I sensed the value of presenting our struggle on the road as a shared one rather than a battle against each other.

Red lights seemed like a particularly good place to make this point. That's one reason I have tended not to run them. If I could show that I was one with the poor prisoners in their sensory deprivation tanks, held back by Big Brother and his traffic signals, it might make me seem a bit less alien. Yes, indeed, I was a superior being, but I wasn't going to lord it over the lesser folk. Let's face it, superior is not the same as invulnerable. So I would be a sport and play by most of the rules.

Playing by the rules also put me in a better position in case of an accident. That system has worked flawlessly: in each case where I had an accident and suffered injury I did not pay a dime for medical or bike repair expenses. Law enforcement was on my side. One was a bad encounter with a construction site inadequately marked on a dark street. The municipality in question picked up the tab for the emergency room and follow-up care. In the other instance, involving a car, the motorist's insurance covered the injuries their negligence had caused. The insurance company did not balk, faced with a nice, complete report by the officer who covered the scene.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but if I can stack the odds even a little bit in my favor with a simple code of ethics I will do it.

Cyclists are the smallest vehicles in the traffic mix. Pedestrians are the smallest elements in the overall transportation mix, but cyclists mix it up in the traffic flow with the least armor and equipment. Many of us think about traffic volume and vehicle size. Some of us imagine a world with far fewer motor vehicles. But few does not mean none.

I looked out the front windows of the shop on a recent sunny afternoon as two delivery trucks went by on Main Street. Transportation of people and goods has always been a critical part of civilization. From the invention of the wheel and watercraft, machines have evolved with greater speed or cargo capacity, preferably both. Mobile machines served other purposes, such as warfare, but even without armed conflict people want to get themselves and their stuff from place to place as quickly as possible. That crap about enjoying the journey was just a way to get the kids to shut up in the back seat of the covered wagon.

Even if humans suddenly (and without precedent) decided to get sensible, someone would still have to deliver things across great distances. You want railroads again? Say goodbye to all those rail trails built on the abandoned lines. I like rail travel and use it when I can, but it does involve another stage of handling when shipping freight. And eventually that freight hits the streets in some form of truck to reach its ultimate point of interface with the consumer. Sitting in that truck is some poor bastard whose job it is to drive, drive, drive.

In my Utopia, everyone gets free time every day, work weeks are short for individuals, even if businesses operate seven days a week. It's not like we have a shortage of people to work the various shifts. But for such a system to succeed we would have to redesign our payment methods and possibly spend a bit more overall on labor. Improved quality of life comes at a price. But then, so does deteriorated quality of life. Are we going to be grumpy, overworked or unemployed, rushed, hyper-competitive human time bombs or are we going to learn to relax and cut each other some slack? At the moment, we tend more toward the time bomb.

As the Industrial Age progressed, management looked for people who would sell their lives cheaply for the sake of bare subsistence. The accounting department liked that. The negotiation continues to this day. One side or the other enjoys gains or deals with losses, but the vast majority of economic fluctuation stems from this push and pull. The rest comes from suppliers of goods and services arm wrestling over who is going to get to jack their prices how much for a quick surge of profit. While all this macroeconomics goes on, regular bozos are just trying to live their lives.

Some of us ride bikes. It seems so sensible at first: fresh air, exercise, transportation, recreation, all rolled into one activity. I came to the 1970s ten-speed boom a little late. Never the hippest cat on the block, I found most social trends later than my peers. So I figured that what I was realizing about the bicycle must be well known to almost everyone else. Imagine my surprise to discover that so much of it was unknown, unsuspected and unwelcome. But it remains nonetheless true, and since it is true I cannot abandon it. I can only promote it.

For various reasons I cannot use a bike year-round. This helps me retain a realistic perspective on transportation, because there will be motor vehicles as long as humans can figure out a way to propel them, whether it's batteries or bottled farts. It's hard to feel worthy during driving season when I read about my fellow cyclists doing the winter thing. Just remember not everyone can do it, regardless of whether they would. When I could, I did.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

None of the Above

I have previously referred to November and April in New Hampshire as The Fifth Season: None of the Above. Both can be raw, gray, dismal and unsuitable for the signature activities of any of the other, better-known seasons. Either might also lend part of itself to winter, but never high quality winter. In the worst of winters, the gray, unclassifiable season stretches into Novapril, a snowless, sunless void that swallows all memory that the world ever looked any other way.

This November, for the first time in nine long years, I don't have to shift my operations to a seasonal second shop in a town 50 miles to the north. I get to remain in our first (and now only) location, where a greater variety of work can come through the door on any day. In other words, people who ride all year may bring bikes to fix, and other devotees may order bikes for us to build. We also sharpen ice skates and can sharpen edges and wax bases on downhill skis and snowboards.

The Manager wants it to be cross-country ski season. That was his first love and the primary focus of the business. Like the true children of winter, he leans forward into the chilling wind like an eager retriever.

For a time I leaned that way as well. I moved here to be a mountain bum. I climbed rock and ice, hiking or skiing as the weather permitted or required. But I'd grown up in places as diverse as Maine and Florida, with several sojourns in Maryland. My adult love of winter was conditional. When winter proved itself a fickle and unreliable partner, we grew apart. I still like to take advantage of good conditions, but I will easily shift to other things when the many forms of cross country skiing let me down.

I understand that combining a love for Nordic skiing with a business that pays for their necessities and luxuries prevents my employers from being philosophical and versatile. In order to link their business to the many options for winter diversions they would have to have a place the size of LL Bean. They can be philosophical up to a point, but they invest thousands of dollars in inventory, whereas my inventory tends to be mental. I have my skills, which I bring to bear as needed. I have my tools, the value of which comes from what I can do with them, not a timely transfer of ownership to a customer. If I'm not busy doing one thing, I might be doing another or, quite likely, staring out a window, musing. It's called "writing."

At the shop I can't give way to the temptation to sit and think unless I'm thinking about something for the business. A small business is like a lifeboat. Even if you're not the owner, you'd better bail and row unless you see a nice island or a better boat in easy swimming distance. On calm seas I confess I've slacked off a little and worked on my tan. But now the job demands more attention. The economy is tough. The small business owner needs to balance his need for good personnel with his ability to pay them for their time. The responsible rower will want to give a fair return on that investment.

So I start to gear my mind for the business of winter. Meanwhile, riders continue to bring bikes and I continue to snatch what rides I can from the shortening blink of day and the demands of various responsibilities. When I get a moment I look at the side-lit landscape and travel through time.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Last Singer Pics (I promise)

The sun, the Singer and I were finally all in the same place at the same time. I couldn't resist getting some sun on all that polished aluminum.

The blinding glory of the brakes

Seconds ago I loaded the bike into the owner's car. She did share more information about it today. Her husband bought it in Salinas, California, second hand. The frame and many of the parts could date back to the patent year on the Campy derailleur, which was probably late 1960s or early 1970s. But bikes are so rebuildable that parts of any vintage could have been grafted on at any time. The only odd notes in the generally European lineup were the Suntour Cyclone rear derailleur and Dia Compe brake levers.

It's on its way. The owner is pleased. Now I'm trying to reorganize the workshop, but people keep bringing in work. Nothing interferes with productivity like customers.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The SRAM Box Problem

SRAM chains come in these plastic boxes. They're too substantial to throw away, but they don't have an obvious secondary use. I've used some of them to organize small parts. They also make handy trays for cleaning parts in a shallow solvent bath. They accumulate faster than I can find uses for them. Maybe I'll try building a house or at least a small shed when I get enough of them. Nah. I don't have that much ambition. But you could. Or you could seal them and make a bunch of them into a raft.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Singer Ready to Roll

On a day that never got light I reassembled the Singer. Because of the relentless rain I was not able to take it out to an uncluttered background for photos.
If I get a chance I'll take a better shot.

The mid section.

The control room

This is your stem on Simichrome.

The bike was finally all together. I turned the cranks to check the gears. The vintage Sedisport chain ran through the derailleur pulleys. A faint tick caught my ear. When its rhythm became clear I knew the bike was tossing me a final challenge. After careful scrutiny I found the missing roller on one pin of the chain.

I wasn't about to junk a Sedisport chain in good condition. I really miss those chains and the drive trains that could use them. The Sedisport was the greatest cheap chain ever made, and by that I mean it was one of the best in any category. It could shift narrow-spacing or conventionally spaced freewheels smoothly and it never seemed to wear out. It felt like a worn chain when you first poured its sinuous length out of the plain paper package it came in.

Other chains of the era, the Regina Oro for instance, started out very stiff laterally. Their shifting speed came from that tendency for several links to move laterally together when the derailleur pushed or guided them. If you held one up on its side, it would stick out and droop only slightly. The Sedisport looked and felt floppy. But its flared inner plates (as opposed to Shimano's flared outer plates on the Uniglide chain) and beveled outer plates would easily catch the next cog when the snaky chain was pushed over. Lengthwise, it retained its proper pitch for many miles.

Given a Sedisport in workable condition, I wanted to repair the link. But we expended our stash of Sedisport links long ago. We installed so many, back in the day, that I was able to assemble more than one complete chain for my own use from the links removed for sizing new chains to customer bikes. I knew I had some spare links at home. I just wanted to get this job done so the owner can enjoy some of the beautiful weather that lay in the forecast.

I poured out our bucket of extra chain links, hoping an overlooked Sedisport link pair might lie beneath all the SRAM and Shimano dreck. With ever narrower chains needing ever more perfect riveting, chain repairs require more than just a chain tool and a chunk of leftover chain. We can resection them using the new tool-free connecting links. Those are very handy. In fact, just before Sachs-Sedis disappeared into the maw of SRAM, the last of their chains came in with connecting links. The problem now is that links and chains have to be compatible and don't work with chains of older generations.

No archaeological treasures lay beneath the newer pieces. But then I had a thought. Our chain whips are old. Sure enough, the chains on them were Sedisport. I swiped a link pair from one of them and used it to fix the Singer's chain.

I went crazier than usual on this overhaul because of the unique value of the bike. I would ordinarily take off chain rings and grease chainring bolts in an overhaul, but I would not polish chain rings and crank arms. The TA also uses a six-bolt circle to attach the big ring to the crank arm and a five-bolt circle to attach the other two rings to each other and the big ring. Nothing on the chain rings points obviously to the correct orientation of these to each other to allow the easiest possible tool access to all bolt heads. Also, the chain rings are held apart by ten spacers that have to be kept in place while long bolt assemblies are fitted.

The bottom of the head tube did show some wear from its unfortunate experience with the Edco headset. The Edco was not really well designed. If a better French thread headset were to come along I would suggest that the owner replace the remaining Edco portion. The top cone in the head tube has the same short skirt as the lower cup had. It fits snugly, but not very tightly. It only survived because the top end has a lot less leverage exerted against it.

The bottom headset assembly I installed is okay, given what I had to work with. I beefed up the interface with a bedding compound even though the longer skirt did reach a less deformed area of the tube. The head tube itself is not very thick. You make a bike light by using lighter materials or by using less of a heavier one. Each approach can have its pitfalls.

The Mafac brakes took a quick, high shine with just a little polish. Too bad they're the same crap they always were. But what the hell. Bernard Thevenet won the 1975 Tour de France on a Peugeot with those brakes. Gold anodized no less. Perhaps his reluctance to make them squeal in their well-known fashion contributed to his blistering speed up and down the mountain stages. Especially down.

The 700x28 Panaracer Paselas are such a plump 28 that I had to remove the quick release skewer from the rear hub to coax the axle around the end of the dropout. The chainstay bridge is set a bit far behind the bottom bracket. A 700x25 or a slimmer 28 would slide in at the limit. Once the Pasela is in place it has plenty of clearance all around.

I hope the owner likes it, after all this. I'd been a bit vague in the estimate, just telling her it would easily exceed $300. It did. And it stopped short of the next hundred, but barely.

The value of a bike far exceeds its purchase price if the bike was decent to start with. A really cool custom or semi-custom bike like this has some collector value as well as usability value. But any well-designed frame can be fitted with many configurations of parts to meet changing needs through the years. If a rider learns mechanical skills, acquires tools and amasses parts, the cost of all this goes down dramatically. Even if the rider needs to buy some or all of the skilled labor, the result could be better than a new bike bought for the same amount of money.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

More Progress on the Singer

This is the stuff. Cal found some at Sanel Auto Parts.

Here is what it does. The directions on the package say to avoid contact with the skin, but at $12 a tube I would apply the stuff with my tongue sooner than waste any of it on a rag. I did start using a rag, but only after I had spread polish with my fingers. Once a small section of the rag was well charged with polish I used it to spread subsequent applications.

A hubcupine!

Commencing to hook up the spokes.

Wheel builder style: hub label visible through the valve hole. All labels read to the right.

The TA crank, après Simichrome.

The bike is all in pieces at the moment, but those parts are nearly ready to merge back into a whole machine.

Day of the Dirt

There have been rumors of a cougar on the outer reaches of the local bike path. The woods seem wild when you get a couple of miles out of town. I use the path for the park and ride variation of my commute in the season when night comes early. I'm not worried, though. I am far too old to interest a cougar.

The park and ride variation lets me salvage some riding from a day when I need to do something after work that requires the cruising range or cargo capacity of the motor vehicle.

On Wednesday, the theme was "Dirt." About halfway to town in the morning I crossed a road to the next section of trail, going at a brisk pace, only to round a bend and wallow into truckloads of loose fill that had been dumped on the trail in a layer about eight inches deep. It stretched ahead many yards to where a mound of it blocked the path completely. I turned back to the road and took the highway into town.

In the evening the fluffy section had been packed down enough to ride through. I enjoyed the peaceful darkness. The light array on my bike is working well. I have two on the handlebars, one on the fork on an accessory mount designed to hold computers on tri bars, and a Black Diamond Cosmo headlamp strapped on my helmet. The helmet light is handy when oncoming cars don't dim their lights. I can aim it in the windshield to get the message across.

Feeling very relaxed I emerged from the trail onto a quiet road that leads to the wide gravel area where I leave the car, at the intersection with another road. It's not posted with any warning signs. I've used it for several years.

When I arrived there on Wednesday in the deepest dusk, I looked over at where I had parked and could see only an enormous pile of dirt. When I got far enough around I could see that it did not bury my car, but it had been dumped absolutely as close as it could get without burying it. Then the humorists had driven a piece of equipment into the pile from the end next to my car. It was an impressive demonstration of precision and skill. I had to laugh.

For the next two days I rode from home. I'll figure out the parking thing next week when I need it again.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Now we got a problem

When I took the fork out of the Alex Singer to overhaul the headset, I was able to lift the bottom headset cup out of the head tube with my fingertips. To call it finger tight would imply it had any grip at all on the head tube. It was rattling in there.

And I'd thought that the big hassle would be chasing 52 5/32" ball bearings across the floor.

Good luck finding an easy fix for any major problem on a bike that is A) old and B) French. Tubing diameters are different (though bottom bracket shell i.d. is not). Threading can be different (such as right-hand thread bottom bracket fixed cups.) Steerer tubes are skinnier inside and out, as well as having French thread. Crown race seats are quite likely to be 27.0 mm instead of the more common 26.4. While you can get headsets with 27.0 crown races, they aren't the highest quality. None of them have French thread.

The head tube itself seems undistorted. The aluminum headset cup has a very short skirt (oo la la!) so it was able to work in the head tube, wearing away the softer alloy. The play went from bad to worse as the skirt wore down.

Getting the Singer back on the road depended on being able to use all the frame-specific parts. However, headsets act like two separate bearing assemblies. The parts of each assembly have to match each other, but the scheming mechanic can mix upper and lower assemblies as long as the total stack height works with the existing fork. If anything had to go wrong, this was the thing.

To make matters better, high-end French bikes might use the ISO standard 26.4 crown race. This significantly increases the available stock of donor organs. This bike turns out to have a 26.4 crown race. I have some period-appropriate headset parts in my stash. They won't be as weirdly cool as the Edco Competition that was in there, but the top end of the headset will still say Edco. Good thing, too, because that's the French threaded part. Down low I hope to graft in an old Cycle Pro alloy headset. It was a Campy copy in unmarked aluminum.

Here are a few more pictures from the work in progress:

We actually had a TA crank bolt wrench hanging around.

Here's the underside of the BB shell, showing the brazed-on cable guides. That's the Kingsbridge fixed cup tool sticking through. Loose balls in that bottom bracket, by the way.

Here's a cleaner shot of the logo. I still haven't gotten one in focus of the head tube.

The number 1394 is stamped on the fork end and on the left rear dropout.
Regarde.

The bottom bracket is Campagnolo, but the cups don't have that wicked cool reverse thread around the bottom bracket axle. The reverse thread would cause a little bit of grease to extrude during pedaling, helping to keep dirt out.

The owner put some miles on this thing before she took her long hiatus from riding. The current management of Alex Singer hasn't answered an email I sent them (en Anglais, excusez-moi) asking if they had any records of Old 1394. I might take some time to frame the inquiry en Français. At least it will give them something to laugh about.

Rims are on their way. Velo Orange gives their stamp of approval to the Sun CR 18s I had already selected.

I also need to get some Simichrome polish. This bike actually has parts you can polish. I miss that smell.

A bike that remains in active use is as much a part of the present day as it is part of its era of origin. The rear dropouts on the Singer only measure 120 mm wide. The rear hub is about 122 over the locknuts. That would make updating the drive train to current-size cassette hubs difficult. Could the frame be cold set 10 millimeters to 130? I don't know, myself, but I know several torch and tubing types I could ask. I keep meaning to mangle some 8-9-speed hubs to see what I can do to slim them down to meet the older frame half way. It's good to have options.

If the owner of an older bike wants to keep as closely as possible to period-appropriate components, that's a different challenge. At some point the frame or the parts thereon seem like more of a part of our history and heritage than an endlessly mutable machine for immediate wish fulfillment. That was one reason I finally retired my Super Course frame and quit beating the crap out of my Eisentraut. The 'traut only had five out of eight original frame tubes and was on its third fork when I got it back from its last repair. If I felt like having a museum I would build it up with all my 1980s parts...the ones I'm not still using.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Quick and dirty late-day video



Just to see how it would come out, I rode the interesting part of the local path at about half speed, holding the camera in one hand. If I'm going to do more video I'll have to rig a hands-free mount and do some music and editing. Or not...

Friday, October 09, 2009

Hey, an interesting project.

A nice woman asked if we might possibly be interested in working on her "old racing bike." Of course we would. We assured her she should bring it in. She displayed the modesty verging on shame that seems to afflict many owners of older bikes. We are constantly urged to scorn and discard old products in favor of new ones. If we did not succumb to this pressure the economy would grind to a halt. Right?

What she brought was this fascinating Alex Singer Mixte-frame touring bike. The mix of componentry suggested it was made between 1979 and 1982. I'll dig deeper as I go forward with the overhaul and other work.

I grabbed a few quick shots when I checked the bike in. The afternoon darkened rapidly as rain clouds thickened.
Details, details.

The barcon shifters are an excellent choice. This bike would be far less fun to ride with down tube shifters. Notice that this master builder, known for clever innovation, did NOT put the cable stops right at the head tube.


Alex Singer's shop was known for making many parts beyond just the frame and fork. This stem bears his name stamp. I suspect the seatpost is Singer work as well.


Look at those nice long dropouts!
The wheels have Super Champion Arc-en Ciel rims, for sewup tires, laced with 36 stainless spokes to Campagnolo Record hubs. I'm going to rebuild those to nice clincher rims for her, so she can run a little wider tires on the challenging road surfaces she will encounter here.

She said she bought the bike to ride with a racing-oriented club in California in the early 1980s. Her husband picked it out for her. Then they had to move, so she never really rode it as much as she hoped she would. Now she wants that chance.

I had the little front rack that bolts to Mafac brakes, but I gave it to a friend of mine for one of his bikes. He's an eccentric character who is spending his under-funded retirement building and maintaining a small fleet of odd bikes. He's been a lot of things: prep school teacher, dish washer, bike mechanic, coma patient...when I show him this jewel he may decide it needs the rack to complete it. In any case, he'll like it.

Cheap production versions of the standard 1970s mixte bike were a dime a dozen back in the day. Even so, this bike just looks classy, even with its hard grips, center-pull brakes and bland aluminum brake levers. The frame details and componentry give it elegance like the deceptive simplicity of a designer suit.

When the owner asked what it might be worth I sounded like Antiques Roadshow as I explained what I have read about the vagaries of the collector bike market. According to the little I've gleaned so far about this particular brand, the fancy randonnee models with custom racks, fenders and light sets can go for thousands of dollars. The more stripped-down performance models draw less interest. And bike value is very subjective. To many people this would just look like a used "ladies' bike" they wouldn't buy for $20 at a yard sale. "How come the shifting doesn't click?"

It has some paint flaws and pinpoint rust in the chrome on the stem. I hope I can clean most of that off. It's great to have something in very good condition as a starting point. We're not equipped to handle a restoration project.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Inside the brain case

A piece of the skull of this RSX front shifter had fractured and fallen out, revealing a rare glimpse of the brain of a Shimano STI road shifter.  The mountain shifters are fairly easy to open.  The road shifters don't give up their secrets as easily.  My preferred tools have been a large nutcracker, a vise or a four-pound sledge.


Conveniently, I needed to get into this mechanism to remove some especially stubborn earwax.  The congealed grease originally applied in a softer form by the manufacturer had completely prevented the ratchet pawls from operating.  If you zoom in you can see the yellowish glop.  A few minutes picking it out with a sharpened spoke and flushing the shifter with Pro Link returned it to full function.


The second picture shows a flat-bar shifter pod from a fairly recent Specialized Sirrus.  This pod had prematurely earwaxed.  It also contained the carcass of a small insect.  You might be able to make it out at the bottom of the silver disc in the center of the shifter.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Assembly Line

The repair queue has brought in a steady trickle of jobs, most of them somewhat interesting.  After 20 years wrenching in the same place it takes something extraordinary to climb above the "somewhat" interesting category.  At least I got to build a couple of wheels.

More than 50 Fuji bikes arrived, the bulk of them on towering, three-tiered pallets on a big truck.  That's an intimidating stack in shrink wrap.  The driver did a commendable job getting the top level down without dropping a bike.

We're assembling a selection of each model for the unpredictable fall bike business.

The trouble with assembling many bikes of the same type in quick succession is that you can easily forget where you are.

Quality control is irregular in this shipment.  It almost seems like a new batch of workers is learning their trade somewhere in China.  We've seen the learning curve before as companies open up new countries in search of affordable labor.  The first batches show a wide variation of precision.  China's not a new source for the bicycle industry, but the facility making these bikes could be new or have changed a lot of personnel.  Or maybe the trainees get assigned to the line for customers who drive a hard bargain on costs.  I haven't begun to try to find out.

I'm eager to see what's in the boxes that say, "made in Kazakhstan."

I made a test track around the sales floor.  It's pretty tight.  I took out a couple of displays before I got the corners wired.  They were just stacks of cardboard boxes or overflowing bins, not any glass cases or sexually suggestive face plants into mannequins.  Maybe today I'll move some mannequins.  We just don't have any really good ones.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In a Trice

I promised a report on my brief demo ride in my brother's Trice tadpole trike, so here it is.


Pedaling down at hubcap level really changes the balance of power in the car-bike equation.  Anyone riding these on the street has a great big pair in their comfy chair.

I did enjoy playing in the trike.  In a perfect world we would be able to get around in all sorts of human-powered vehicles without having to worry about what behemoth was going to crush us like an unnoticed insect.

On the plus side, you don't have to worry about keeping your balance at stop lights.  Once you reorient your style to accommodate the recumbent position you can work on smooth acceleration through the gears instead of a standing sprint to get clear of the intersection.

I only rode the trike in and around a parking lot.  The rest of the time I rode my conventional bike and observed my brother in various traffic situations.  We never ventured onto a very busy road, but it was late afternoon, so we had some commuter motor traffic working around us.

I kept waiting for a motorist to get angry or impatient.  The trike takes up a lot more lane than an upright bike.  Motorists seemed reluctant to pass even on clear, straight sections where we would prefer they get it over with.  It occurred to me that the trike gives the impression that it might be adaptive equipment for someone with a disability.  As miffed as a driver might be that someone with a disability had chosen to go play in traffic, no one wanted to be such a baby seal clubber as to honk or yell at the poor rider churning doggedly along, belly-up and vulnerable.

In a sense, my brother does have a disability.  He dumped his conventional bike early in the summer (or late in the spring, I forget which) and broke his elbow.  He can manage the recumbent trike long before he would be able to support himself properly on an upright bike. Devoted pedaler that he is, he used this as an excuse to pursue his interest in less commonplace pedal-powered vehicles.

I borrowed my brother's SPD sandals because the crank position on the trike requires secure attachment of the feet.  If you were to drop a foot at speed you would get seriously shredded.  Step-in pedals make more sense than straps alone because your feet are hanging from the elevated crank.  Slotted cleats would work, but I only prefer those for my regular bikes because they allow me to use different shoes I would not wear when riding a recumbent.  Secure foot attachment isn't a problem at stops because you don't need to get a foot out to prop yourself up.

Around 1981 I started sketching a fully-faired recumbent for commuting.  It was going to be a fully-enclosed torpedo,  but with a narrow track.  I was still thinking of the usual bicycle habitat rather than something that would unabashedly take a lane.  Living in Annapolis. Maryland, working for a sail loft, I shifted the design to a boat because I fancied my  chances better on the water than the street.  The project died for lack of funding. I was broke.  It didn't strike me as a business venture that would eventually pay for itself.

Fully enclosed, one of these trikes would make a dandy all-weather commuter.  The bodywork would help with visibility and lane presence.  You would still be vulnerable in a crash, as any small vehicle is, but such a vehicle could make a good car replacement.

The cellist tries the Trice.

Something about scampering around on the trike made me smile.  It may be an ingenious piece of design, but it's also just a little wacky.  With a fixed gear option you could even have reverse gear.  When I bogged down on a hill because I got mixed up with the shifting I used the hill to help me make a three-point turn so I could roll back down to the flats.  Playing the contours of the parking lot I could make other small-radius maneuvers.  I don't know what the traffic mix would be like with large numbers of recumbents thrown in.  Visibility is a huge issue, especially for overtaking vehicles.  On the plus side, if the speeds matched up right you could definitely pass clear beneath a tractor-trailer.

Imagine this scene in a movie: the recumbent rider slides under the big trailer and hooks into some downward-projecting piece of it.  Towed along out of sight, the pedaler is protected from attack.  At the appropriate time the rider releases the hook and slingshots out to A) a massive jump B) a white-knuckle downhill C) a sliding stop while motor vehicles collide in a spectacular fireball D) the possibilities are endless.

I should come up with a screenplay for each of the great scenes I've imagined over the years.  That's the bitch: I only ever imagine a scene or two.  They never go with any of the other scenes.  I guess that doesn't matter in an action film.  Just keep the chases and explosions rolling, with an occasional sex scene to provide a window from which to jump into the next action sequence.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Musical Interlude

A week ago I took a break from the bike scene to go to a music camp.  If I can find a simple enough tune and a large enough group to hide in I will play in public.  The rest of the time I do everyone a favor and keep that noise strictly under wraps.

The cellist had been talked into going to Fiddleheads Acoustic Music Camp by a violinist friend with whom she does gigs.  The violinist, Melissa, had been working some fiddle tunes into the repertoire and wanted to explore the realm of improvisation and playing by ear.  I went along because I heard there would be stuff for beginners.  Since I've only been doing this sporadically for the past nine years or so, it's like my seven years of first-year French.  I have little patches of fluency separated by huge deserts of embarrassing silence or unintelligible gibberish.

My teachers have, for the most part, followed classical tradition to develop sight reading skills.  Reading is a useful skill. I find it one of the hardest things to learn about music.  Mentally, it feels exactly like riding technical singletrack.  When it doesn't work, it feels like messing up on technical singletrack. Off you go into the weeds!

A tight, technical trail can have a rhythm and flow to it.  When I mountain biked frequently I would have days when I had "trail vision."  I could see exactly where to go at the exact moment I needed to go there.  You don't have time to stop and gloat while you're doing it, but at the end of the phrase or section you know you nailed it.

Learning music by ear is a more natural, primitive approach.  Music is made by playing with sound.  The metaphor changes to a group ride, especially on a fast piece.  Certain traditions sprint away as ruthlessly as an aggressive club ride, leaving the stragglers for dead.  As with any group ride, the fastest set the pace, so the rest of the group relates to them.  If they're not that fast, a less trained group might stay together longer.

All the professionals were holding back the pace in the workshops at Fiddleheads.  I was still well off the back most of the time.  Since it was a learning rather than a performing environment, everyone still remained accessible.  This was true from featured expert Darol Anger through the whole teaching staff of professional musicians from around the region and the players of all ability who had come to participate.

The camp lasted from late Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon.  We didn't sleep a lot during that time.  For the next two days, when I was still off from work, I spent most of my time practicing what I had learned. I barely even looked at a bike.

Wednesday I was back in the saddle and had a long zoning board meeting after work.  I didn't start catching up on sleep until Thursday or Friday night.

This coming Tuesday, night begins to grow larger than day in the Northern Hemisphere.  My bikes have sprouted light brackets on the handlebars.  I've tested my Black Diamond Cosmo headlamp as a helmet light.  The commute changes as I start to mix modes by driving part way.  Among other things, this allows me to stash a fiddle in the car, because the route home passes conveniently close to the home and studio of two of my teachers.  We'll see how that goes.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Bags of Bad Brakes Land in My Parts Department

In the mid 1990s, Shimano produced the Altus CT 90 cantilever brake, a masterpiece of flawed design.  Out of the box it worked reasonably well, but the return springs were anchored in plastic collars.  In a fairly short time, the stress of the springs and the deterioration caused by sun and weather weakened the collars so they cracked, rendering the return springs useless. It was part of the component group that included the cranks that snap off.

Shimano never publicly acknowledged their mistake, but they made collars available free of charge to bike shops that bothered to call and ask.

I asked constantly.  I don't believe in looking the other way when riders get stuck with an inferior product.  If the manufacturer will take the hit and provide repair parts free, I will be first in line.  I still spot Cranks of Death.

A few years ago, Shimano stopped offering the collars for free.  I immediately stopped fixing the old CT 90 brakes.  Tektro and Shimano offer a cost-effective replacement brake for little more than a couple of sets of collars.

When the Tektro and Shimano brakes went out of stock at our regular suppliers late in the summer, we picked up a couple of sets by Alhonga. BAD MISTAKE.

Alhonga has cloned the crappy CT 90 brake, complete with the stupid plastic collars!

We used a set on a repair, but only with full disclosure.  I have been advising customers to wait for the return of the good products if they can.

Things took a serious turn for the worse when the parts buyer brought me six bags of the Alhonga pieces of crap.

"We need to have something in stock," he said.

We already had a set of the Alhongas in stock, which was plenty enough to gather dust as far as I was concerned.  I refuse to install these brakes when I know I'm setting the customer up for the same problem caused by the CT 90s.  We're supposed to be CURING the customer's problems, not giving them second helpings.

A certain amount of shit will hit the fan when I have to blatantly refuse to install this ill-chosen crap.  It won't be the first time.

Ultimately it's for the best not to use inferior components to bail yourself out of a jam.  Installing parts you are pretty sure will fail WILL bite you on the ass, AS IT SHOULD.

I'm not looking forward to this discussion.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Confirmed: Punctuality can be hazardous to your health

Answering the call of duty I launched early enough this morning actually to be on time at work.  As always when I do this, I was throwing elbows with an aggressive swarm all the way to town.  From school buses in my neighbirhood to a steady stream northbound on Route 16 when I needed to cross to the southbound lane, all the way down Route 28 and into the approaches to town.

Speaking of swarms, a wasp stung me on the side of the face out on 28.  The venom does interesting things as it spreads.  Pulses of stinging pain blend with a mild numbness over about a three-inch radius from the point of entry.  I'm not allergic, so it's just an unscheduled science experiment.

One dump truck deserves special commendation for an exemplary patient pass in a narrow, twisty bit known for the opposite kind of behavior.  I did not have the pop to sprint into the pocket, though I tried.

In town, an oblivious pedestrian walked straight out in front of me.   He was probably ten times the age at which children are taught to look both ways before crossing the street.  I locked the brakes and wished him a cordial good morning.  Seconds later I held the door for him at the post office.  He might or might not have realized I was the same person.

And so here we are. And the dang coffee shop is closed.  I- I- I'm coming down!  Ack!

Soon I hope to post my brief review of a ride on my brother's Trice.  For one who earns so little I manage to find many things to fill my schedule.  It's cut into my time to do justice to posts on topics that should have good links in them.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Cap and Trade!

I wish I'd had a camera ready on my ride home tonight.  Coming at me in traffic was a Smart Car. Immediately behind it was a Hummer.  Do you suppose the Hummer driver buys credits from the Smart Car driver?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

They Said It Couldn't Be Done

Today, my first day back at work in more than a week, I reconstructed a 7-speed Shimano LX rear Rapidfire Plus shifter pod and got it to work.  Sorry I didn't get any pictures.  I was stacking the parts to see if I could, and they started going together well.  Since the process involves two springs and one ratchet pawl, as well as stepped washers of different thicknesses and a keyed washer that anchors one end of one spring, once I started I had to keep pressure on each layer and move quickly to the next.

The parts had not been completely stripped off the main shaft, but the owner had removed everything that came off easily.  Miraculously, he'd managed to keep all of them.  The trickiest bit was keeping the flat coiled springs in place while I laid on whatever layer went above them.

That was the most interesting part of the day.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Insoluble Conflict

Israelis and Palestinians will live together in perfect harmony long before motorists and bicyclists figure out how to coexist to their mutual satisfaction.

Road sharing is often a classic example of ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag.  When one user group feels it has to give up more than another, resentment builds to the point of an explosion.

Daily the cycling blogosphere and cyclists on social networks share anecdotes and news stories about motorist aggression toward cyclists.  The rants run their course.  Everyone goes about their business until the next one.

Some riding areas are better than others.  Some riders seem to have better luck.  Occasionally, the riding climate improves in an area formerly more hostile.  Then word comes in from a cyclist dealing with daily abuse that would make half of us quit and the other half buy firearms.

People are resilient.  I'm impressed by the riders who cope with abuse by turning the other cheek or giving soft answers.  I always wish I had a flame thrower or a grenade launcher when some pathetic coward in a motor vehicle acts aggressively.

I understand why bicyclists interfere with motorists so much.   We're the wrong size, the wrong speed, even if we're acting like vehicles.  We require motorists to be patient much more than they require it of us. Think of it: unless a motorist is being a jerk, we don't have to accommodate them nearly as much as they accommodate us.  They have to watch how they open doors when they're parallel parked.  They have to slow down, swing wide, wait to pass.  Yes, they have massive horsepower at their disposal, but that just makes it harder.  It's tricky to maneuver the average highway hawg at slow speeds among small, sometimes wobbly other vehicles.

A skilled, strong cyclist can flow pretty well with a lot of urban traffic.  I can bolt out of a track stand at a stoplight faster than most motorists can get out of the hole.  But I'm getting older and my track stand isn't bombproof.  A cyclist with a foot down often doesn't take off as easily as a motorcyclist with a foot down.

All this is made worse by the modern human love of black-and-white conflicts fueled by catchy slogans and intractable philosophies.  The decades since the 1970s have only seen the sides grow more polarized, the rhetoric more inflammatory.  In the 1970s we mostly believed, naively, that the general public would see the fun and logic of what we were doing and join in.  Almost 40 years later, we have at least as many drivers as ever making war on the cyclists they see.

We have to make the case over and over: why should motorists share the road?  Forget what's "right."  People all over the world have to fight ridiculously bloody battles to get to do what should be theirs by right.  Our goal is to make our case without one more ridiculously bloody war.

It's a time-honored human tradition to try to make an adversary pay for his point of view with his blood.  It's supposed to test the depth of your commitment.  The problem is that we don't threaten the motorists.  Unless we start an armed bicyclist insurgency, we just have to take it and take it and take it.  Like passive resisters everywhere, we prove our resolve by our willingness to take casualties until the other side stops out of sheer guilt.  Believe what you will about Gandhi and the American civil rights movement, those tactics only get you so far.  Throw down a black person in front of a mob of white supremacists today or tomorrow and you will not see a twitch of conscience from among them.  They are only prevented from heinous programs of ethnic cleansing by the threat of force against them.  The negatives of human nature are as deeply - or more deeply - entrenched than the learned behaviors of fairness and ethics. Civilization is maintained as much by threat of force and appeals to self interest as it is by any attempt at moral education.

Motorists generally have nothing to fear from cyclists.  That includes any consequences for injuring us.  It's a credit to the general motorist conscience and perhaps to a mistaken perception that they might get into trouble that more of them don't just rub us out.

A general sense of fairness probably encourages cooperative motorists, even if they are not cyclists themselves.  Willingness to accommodate can be eroded by other stressors.  The more solid benefits we can show the non-cyclist to support their willingness to live and let live, the more likely cyclists are to live.

If no replacement for fossil fuel comes along, cycling will rise by default.  If renewable, affordable energy keeps some sort of motor vehicle within reach of the general public, cyclists will continue to battle hostility and indifference from the vast majority who feel they have better ways to expend their energy. Cars get you there faster, much of the time. You don't arrive all sweaty or covered with precipitation.  You can thoughtlessly throw your junk in the car and drive to your destination, sitting in a comfy chair with an entertainment system.  It takes less thought, less planning, less effort.  Only a few weirdos want to do things the hard way.

While we try to win more motorists over to the notion of muscle-powered transportation and recreation, we have to show them why it's a better idea to put up with us than try to get rid of us.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Find Your Solution in a Bottle

Like many creative people, a lot of alcohol goes into my work.  This is particularly true when cleaning rims and brakes.  Many cleaners leave residues that are slippery or cause brakes to squeal. Alcohol makes everything better!

Be sure to use a clean rag.  Find a fresh section of it if the rim has a lot of aluminum oxide and other grime on it.  Otherwise you just smear the dirt around.

Alcohol dries quickly, leaving a clean (and sterile) surface.  It's also good for removing frog guts and drowned worm residue from brake arches.

Rational Cycles

How would one finance a company that offered simple platforms on the basic frame types and wheel sizes to knowledgeable shops where the technical staff could customize them for individual riders' needs?

Would it even be worth it?

In the olden days, the early 1990s, bike companies already offered too many models, but the models they offered were all based on simple and similar configurations.  Road bikes received little attention, but in the mountain and the emerging hybrid category you got a lighter, more precisely made version of the same basic bike as you went up in price point.  A rider could buy in at their chosen price level and have the shop fine-tune the setup from there.  It did not provide instant gratification, but a good shop could make a lot of changes quickly if the rider so desired.

Mountain biking rode the crest of its popularity right then.  It was a bike for the people in an inclusive culture far removed from the perceived snootiness of road riders or the obsessiveness of tri-geeks.  The mountain bike's simplicity and durability made it appealing.

Racing's warlike qualities brought down the inclusive culture along with the simplicity and affordability as hyper-competitive cyclists and sponsors formed a military-industrial complex with the bike industry to push the frontiers of engineering far away from the happy doofuses riding their fat-tired steeds on streets and trails like carefree children.

The industry will argue that the cheap mountain bike of today has many more features than the pig iron of 1990-'92. I have to agree, progress has been made.  But not every sweeping change has been real progress.

I digress, as usual.

To introduce a line of rational bikes, a business would need more buying power than a single shop can muster.  I've tried using Surly frames and bikes, as well as used frames and bikes as a basis for customization with only limited success.  Even with access to wholesale pricing on product, I can't glean enough margin to make a bigger play. Real custom bike customers are looking for more impressive products, as a rule.  The people who could benefit from the gradual enticement of an upgradable bike often can't get their heads around the initial investment.  Surly and similar offerings seem affordable to those of us who have been involved a while, but we're already hooked.

In Resort Town, our year-round cycling community is too small to support much of a shop anyway.  We have our knowledge and tools, but don't generate enough revenue to support a lot of inventory.  Using cross-country skiing as a winter line is just masochistic, given the way the winters and the ski industry have been treating Nordic.  High-zoot Nordic shops get sucked into stone grinding, but how many Nordic skiers really want to pay to have their bases surgically removed and then expensively rewaxed?  Drugs are the best analogy to that kind of commitment to speed, but drugs are more available, less weather dependent and, on the whole, less labor intensive.  That explains the larger number of drug addicts than performance-obsessed Nordic skiers.

Nordic is actually another sport with the fun technologized out of it.  It seemed so timeless and simple in the 1980s...a little wider ski, a little more rugged boot might make my exploring experience more fun.  What's this skating stuff? Hmmm. Wish the trails were wider and more uniformly smooth.

The bike industry has been groping for years for a product that will excite consumer interest as much as the mountain bike did.  We have production versions of all the variations shops used to configure for their customers, as well as motor-driven cycles in various guises for those who don't really want to pedal.  Maybe the thing to do instead is reinvent the mountain bike in its appealing simplicity with only a few genuine improvements, like better brakes, and a return to top-mount shifters.  Maybe all you have to do to get lightning to strike twice is put up the right lightning rod.