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.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Frog Guts and Motor Oil

Hard to believe after a night of downpours that any oil remained on the road surface, but the way my bike started to cross up as I cranked onto Route 16 I could tell the pavement was slick and greasy.

The torrents had also lured many frogs to their doom. Their flattened white belly skin made a pattern of laminated patches where groups of them had been smashed by the fat tires of cars and trucks during the night.

This morning I turned back to save a red eft that had ventured onto the warm blacktop after the wet night. They often don't appear real, these strange little orange crawlers. Lethargic from cold or dehydration, if not outright crushed by a motor vehicle, they look like they're made of gummi candy rather than living flesh. The one this morning was fairly lively when I picked it up, and larger than the ones I usually see.

The red eft is the terrestrial phase of the red spotted newt. They're cute little buggers.

Drivers have seemed just a touch more aggressive as summer winds down. I observe this every year. Maybe it's me, maybe it's a seasonal shift as drivers lose patience with cyclists after the peak of riding season, but they seem to start passing a little closer, a little faster this time of year.

Most motorists probably believe they're doing you a huge favor simply by not crushing you. Any sample of the comments after a news report of a car-bike accident or motorist harassment of a cyclist will include plenty of throttle-monkeys declaring that an injured cyclist only got what they asked for, and that "roads are for cars."

They're not too bad just yet. They get worse in September. Just deal with it.

Maybe the rise in aggression is early because school is starting very early this year. The formal end of summer comes too soon. I always see more broken glass and angry driving at the start of the school year. This year proves the rule. I rode through several minefields around shattered bottles that have blossomed on what had been beautifully pristine new pavement. During the brief summer we can pretend we live in a tropical land where dinner is always grilled and boring or annoying tasks can be put off until manana. The regimentation of school totally blows that.

Mechanical work has tapered off at the shop. It's a good time to seize a week of the actual summer for myself.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Rails Run Parallel and the Parallels are Interesting

Members of the Cotton Valley Rail Trail Club found my post about injuries on the trail and started chewing on me in the comments.

One point in particular stood out. The aggrieved rail car operator pointed out that bicyclists could ride in a great many places, but the rail car drivers can only operate on a couple of lines in the entire region. Enthusiasts drive hundreds of miles with their rigs on trailers to run the Cotton Valley line.

While I'm no fan of recreational burning of fossil fuels, I have an open enough mind to accept that not everyone will see the sense in that point of view. People like what they like. I don't know what went into the negotiations when the trail was conceived, but it seems generous of the rail buffs to try to accommodate other classes of user.

Viewed in this way, one must describe the Cotton Valley Trail as a rail line that pedestrians and bicyclists get to use rather than a bike-ped trail strangely hindered by vestigial rails. It's the rail club's separate but unequal piece of rail because they CAN'T go play on the big-boy tracks with the real trains. They've been run off to a segregated venue where they won't interfere with the real business of transportation.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

There I was with a bike in one hand and a chihuahua in the other...

...and my phone started ringing. Isn't that always how it goes?

I let the call go to voice mail while I finished my business with the chihuahua and the bike. The owner of both had come in to get a basket for the dog to ride in. It was part of a mass-casualty scenario that had overtaken me hours earlier. At the height of it I had three jobs open and checked in two more.

The dog and his charming owner passed the time nicely. Max is a half-grown long-haired chihuahua with a beguilingly shy manner.

A dog should either be small enough to transport easily or big enough to take care of itself. Max fits the pocket-sized niche. We had a nice visit before I returned to the rest of the docket.

The bike on which I did about $500 worth of conversion work for the Mount Washington Hill Climb had come back to be turned back into an ordinary all-Ultegra Trek Madone. That job kept going on and off the stand as the other crises came in. I'll finish it tomorrow when I have someone to intercept many of the interruptions from the floor.

It felt like lunch time early, but didn't really get to be lunch time until late. It was the good kind of busy day. I didn't spend a lot of time spinning my wheels, trying to figure out how to work around the lack of some vital tool or part or waiting for a call back to authorize some major item overlooked when the bike was checked in.

I enjoy the hot summer weather. The temperature this morning was perfect. By mid day I'm sure the heat was brutal. That can be fun in its own way. But on the morning commute it was in the low 70s, perfect for jersey and shorts. A day with a mid-day high like that would start much colder and probably be shorter.

Inside the house right now it is still and steamy. Even with all the windows open, the heat built up through the day takes hours to flow out. Tomorrow begins a series of three fixed-gear days with an increasingly showery forecast.

A couple of good jobs wait in the queue. More will arrive once I call a couple of people to tell them the parts they ordered have come in.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Cyclists Checking Each Other Out

When you meet another cyclist do you automatically look down to check out leg musculature and whether they're shaved?

August 20 Clarification: I posted this in haste during a work day after several riders had walked through the shop in civilian clothes. Their manner revealed that they were familiar with bike equipment and comfortable in a shop. They moved with quiet confidence.

Looking at legs is a racer habit. What might this competitor have under the hood? Because a cyclist is both driver and engine, you can take your best guess based on the parts you can see.

In the lower licensed ranks, hairy-legged riders used to get crap from those who had shaved, even if the shaven ones had to chase down the hairy one to deliver their insults. Add a hard-shell helmet and you could find yourself shoved into a parking meter because the smooth-legged majority assumed you were a dangerous geek. At the very least, as a privateer you would not get anyone to work with you if you didn't look serious.

I make no judgments about a rider based on leg hair and muscle tone. Cycling is much bigger than that. I just thought it was funny that I still had the reflex urge to look.

I am a hairy geek on a heavy bike now. That hasn't kept me from dropping a few riders on titanium or carbon fiber when I meet them on my morning time trial to work. But I have no illusions about where I sit on the scale of absolute speed. And who really gives a rat's chamois anyway?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Without Warning

A rider came in today because "her gears suddenly started skipping."

"It made me swerve so suddenly I veered into traffic. I thought I was going to get hit," she said.

Something was clearly loose in the hub and cassette area. The freehub body had fractured at the lock ring threads, causing the cogs to detach from the splines. The whole mess was afloat. The chain could not possibly stay on one of them when nothing would stay in place.

The wheel was a first-generation Rolf from the mid 1990s. I believe those were Formula hubs. The freehub bodies were supposedly replaceable, although they could be difficult to detach from the hub shell.

I had never seen a freehub body fail in this way. If it happened while sprinting hard a crash would be almost inevitable. Fortunately, this rider was only hopping out of the saddle for a couple of quick pedal strokes to close a gap to her companion close ahead.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Directions for Application (from Action Bicycle Goods cork tape)

I couldn't get a good picture of the instructions on the box

1. Clean Bars thoroughly and mount brake strips.
2. Wrap S.R. Tape from end of bars, while stretching slightly.
3. End with finished Tap.
4. Install the Good Horse Plugs in position.
5. Repeat process on the other end of handlebar.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Interesting Week

This week brought in a higher class of broken bike. Victims included a hill climb conversion on a Trek Madone 5-point-something-or-other and a Klein Carbon something with a frame actually made of aluminum. It's all a blur.

The Madone needed an entire drive train. Because the front derailleur mounts to a bracket at a fixed height, it hangs a couple of centimeters above the requested chain ring. On a test ride it miraculously did not toss the chain off the high side or the low side. That doesn't mean it won't, at a critical time.

The Klein turned out to have a crack in the frame where the brake housing exits near the seat tube. The bike has internally-routed cables. The crack originates in the dent made to accommodate the cable exit. It could have been there from the beginning. The bike lives in California. I had never needed to look into that particular part of its frame on any previous visits.

The $12,000 beater bike
came in, chasing down some front derailleur issues left over from its overhaul last fall. I thought I'd cured it with an old Deore relic, but that wasn't holding up. I'd tried some offbeat cable routing to see if I could conquer the compatibility issues between Shimano road and mountain drive train components. The anchor point that gave the best shifting required wrists of steel when twisting the shift lever on that brifter. A new Tiagra derailleur seems to have taken care of all the problems. Maybe.

Shimano seems to be relegating 9-speed road componentry to middle- and low-end status. Ultegra 9-speed brifters are out of stock and discontinued at Quality. You can still get R600, which by price appears to be Ultegra level, but the trend is clear. Shimano has a way of punishing their regular customers. That attitude infected most of the bike industry in the 1990s.

Continuing the 9-speed theme, another customer dropped in with a bike we'd recently tuned for his son or son-in-law. This rider had no road experience. He was using step-in pedals for the first time. The release was cranked as tight as it would go. He shied away from passing traffic, went off the road and pile drove the shifters into the ditch. He's fine and the bike appeared relatively unhurt, but the right Ultegra 9-speed brifter had apparently taken too hard a shot along with too much sand. The owner of the bike wants the levers to match, so he ordered a complete lever set instead of just a replacement right unit.

More and more customers are listening a moment longer than they used to when I extol the virtues of friction-shifting barcons.

Vacationers bring their urgent deadlines. Today we did a bash-and-tweak on some wheels from bikes that were on the rack when the family SUV got rear-ended in a small pileup on Interstate 93. Let's hear it for disk brakes! The rims just have to be straight enough to fit through the frame. The wheels actually came out better than that. And bash and tweak is such a stress reliever. No one expects perfection, so swing away.

After a week of long days and hard commutes I feel like Indiana Jones when he shot that big guy with the two swords in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I have no finesse left. Just stay out of my way.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Wolfeboro Rail Trail Sends More Victims on Express Train to ER

Over the weekend, Wolfeboro's problematic recreation trail claimed at least two more victims, sending one of them to the emergency room with a broken hip. That rider is one of the leading kidney disease researchers in the United States. The other victim would have gone to the emergency room, but said he was vacationing with a relative who is a doctor, so he would get patched up by her.

Earlier in the week we had repaired a hybrid bike for a rider who said the rear tire jammed in one of the rail crossings while she was towing a trail-a-bike. Apparently the bike sufferd the serious injuries in that case. The rear wheel was ruined.

Dr. Kidney is a very benevolent human being and an experienced road rider. He and his companions usually ride the road when they visit. For some reason he decided to check out the path. We did not know he was headed that way, or we would certainly have warned him about the trail's peculiarities.

I've joked that we should cross-promote with the hospital when we do bike rentals. We could offer a discount coupon or a gift basket of first aid supplies. But Dr. Kidney's injuries are no joke. He has been extremely helpful to people near to me who are in research studies for polycystic kidney disease. He and the other study doctors can't do anything about the fact that we have no health coverage, but it somehow feels a little better just being able to talk to him.

When we heard about the crash a couple of us really felt like heading over to the tracks with sledge hammers. It wouldn't fix the many treacherous spots designed into the trail, but it would help us pound out our frustration at it. It's basically a tantalizing trap, an illusion of a trail. We warn every rental group.

Wolfeboro's trail is certainly one of the best examples of so-called biking infrastructure that is actually harmful. We make do with scraps of money and awkward mergers. In this case it's a rail car club that insisted the rails be left or the trail could not be built at all. Perhaps one or more of their members should be required to pull a shift every day to help evacuate the injured.

Cost of a good time keeps going up

The Mount Washington Hill Climb attracts hundreds of masochists every year to enjoy an hour or two of pain on a time trial up the highest peak in the northeast United States. Many of these riders modify their bikes for the race.

Most commonly over the years, riders who had a mountain bike as well as a road bike would temporarily graft parts of the mountain bike drive train onto the road bike. The crank would be stripped down to just the smallest ring. No need for the bigger rings on eight miles of continuous ascent. Ditch that hefty front derailleur and shifter, too. Likewise set aside one brake. Some riders even had a special wheel set.

To accommodate a wider cassette in the rear, the long-cage derailleur might make its way to the road frame for the day.

In the days of square, tapered bottom bracket axles, the cranks could swap over easily, as long as the granny ring cleared the frame. With a single ring in front, derailleur swing didn't matter. Perfect chain line wasn't a big deal either. After the start the rider would probably be in only a few gears near the inner end of the cassette anyway.

The conversion was cheap if the rider owned all the parts already. But then the process got Shimanoed.

With every added cog, spacing gets tighter. Splined bottom brackets for road didn't match splined BBs for mountain. Then came two-piece cranks with outboard bearings. Road has 10 speeds, mountain has 9. Brifters aren't really compatible with mountain derailleurs. Non-Shimano splined bottom brackets could have any of several spline patterns, because manufacturers did not embrace the ISIS format as the sole alternative to Shimano's proprietary antics. Conversion involves more parts and more shop time.

One conversion I've been working on will cost more than $400 for a one-time event. The owner of the bike needs to buy all the parts because he has no mountain bike to scrounge from. And he made it more complicated by insisting on two gears and a functioning derailleur in front.

It's all the same to me. I get paid by the hour. I'll figure out the details. He just needs to open the wallet.