Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bicycle Hypochondria

Bicycle Hypochondria has crept up to saturatingly high levels among road cyclists.

When I raced in the late 1970s and early 1980s no one had bicycle hypochondria. Racers and the posers who wanted to look like them beat the crap out of their bikes back then, just as they do today. If anyone was feeling neurotic they might go through a bout of position paranoia. That might lead them to fiddle with their seat height or stem length. Anyone with sufficient funds might indulge in a little component envy if they didn't already own the best of the best or they wanted to buy some obscure brand of brake arch or crankset to turn heads at the next race or group ride.

Hypochondria starts with a genuine fear of real illness. Bicycle hypochondria starts with a justified anxiety about real mechanical problems.

I never heard anyone whinge about their shifting when the shift levers were held on with primitive wing nuts. Accurate shifting was one more skill a racer needed to master. Less skilled riders might have whinged in general about how difficult friction shifting was, but they didn't have to worry about whether it would work if they ever managed to develop the dexterity. If you blew a shift it was because you blew a shift, not because your expensive mechanical servant let you down.

The simple equipment put the focus squarely on the rider. No one got ridiculously neurotic about chain noise, shifting systems or whether your bike was as well-dressed as the next guy's. Shift cables did not have to wind their way through a labyrinth of housing.

When everything is working perfectly, modern shifting systems allow a rider to maintain a more constant cadence by facilitating frequent, precise shifts among closely-spaced gears. This creates a dependence on frequent, precise shifts among closely-spaced gears. What was once an indulgence becomes a necessity. The rider now lives in a world of much more precise tolerances. It takes a lot less to disrupt their mood and confidence, whether they realize it or not.

Some riders manage to blunder along happily oblivious to the feedback from their abused machinery. They may be mentally better off than the bicycle hypochondriac but they still fall victim to the genuine needs of the temperamental modern system.

A moderate approach to the vulnerabilities of modern bicycle crap still requires that the victim of modern componentry open the wallet and dump out money as frequently as the finicky bullshit requires it. A wise rider might accept a little more noise or a slightly crunchier shift for the sake of a more durable chain that's easier to service. At the very least the rider who insists on having the quieter tinsel chain with the Magic Pin has to accept frequent expensive replacement as the price of that noise level.

Shifting systems are just the beginning of the bicycle hypochondriac's concerns. Bikes and parts failed in the era of steel and traditionally spoked wheels, but it was less common. Things got gradually more exciting as aluminum became more common. Now in an age when no self-respecting performance rider will be seen on steel, and titanium seems to be a plaything for the rich, carbon fiber has brought the fear of sudden structural collapse to the nervous rider's list of woes. Sure, it's hardly a daily occurrence, but you have to admit you see more outright snapped-off frame and fork parts than you ever saw in the Iron Age. It's in the back of the mind of every rider on a carbon frame. Is that noise serious?

Bottom brackets with bearings pressed into the frame call for more perfect tolerances in the bottom bracket shell. When cups threaded into the frame, the shell could be faced and tapped even if it was itself slightly misaligned with the rest of the frame. Cartridge bottom bracket bearing units maintain their own alignment, so the BB shell does not even have to be faced. Bearings pressed into the shell eat themselves in no time with even a misalignment of a few thousandths of an inch. If the bike doesn't have it when it's new, it can develop it from a few seasons of vigorous riding. A fellow mechanic in Florida is trying to fix a titanium bike that came from the factory with a misaligned BB 30 shell. It eats a set of bearings in about 50 miles. A rider who uses my shop has noticed that his bike has started chewing through BB 30 bearings now that he's had the frame a while. He gets a little further than 50 miles before he notices the play, but compare that to the cartridge BB in my Cross Check, which I've ridden a lot, which is still running smoothly after almost 11 years.

Whether you think the bike industry started complicating the machinery to make life simpler for the dedicated athletes who use it to express the highest level of human achievement or that they did it to suck ever greater amounts of money from as much of the cycling public as they could ensnare, modern riders have to maintain complex, temperamental equipment or pay someone else to do it for them. I see a lot of haunted expressions on the victims of bicycle hypochondria listening tensely to creaks, pops, squeaks, rattles, chatters, sproings, cracks, crunches... you get the idea.


Anonymous said...

I just did a century ride today with 101 other riders. Did it on a 1984 team fuji with friction downtube shifters and an eight speed cassette. Probably had the only non cartridge BB. Only about six other bikes were steel(one was a georgeous mid nintys Pinarello, the girl on it smoked me). Did not have the best time, was 66th to finish at eight hours. But My bike was quiter than many, and I seemed to not have as many shifting issues as some. Still I wonder what my time would have been on some of the cervelos and Looks that I was faster than. I trained for the ride by watching old Merx videos on utube and eating twinkys, so who knows.

cafiend said...

If I won the Powerball I would train consistently and amuse myself by seeing how well I could do on various group rides with my mid-1980s steel road bike.

As a mechanic, riding other people's expensive, temperamental bikes is like a grandparent playing with the grandkids. I can hand them back to the parents when I get tired of them. Even better, when the thing fills its diaper, I get PAID to change it.