Thursday, December 20, 2012

Big Bicycle strong arms little shops

Ever since the mountain bike boom attracted lots of money to the bike industry, big manufacturers have been  squeezing small independent shops. During the 1990s we were threatened by every one of our major brands with the loss of our dealership if we did not increase our preseason commitments and dollar volume in their brand. And they haven't really let up much since the bottom dropped out.

What Big Bicycle does not acknowledge is that the small independent shop in a rural small town is their far-flung outpost, the vital capillary in their great circulatory system. If they want to cut off the blood flow, they'd better expect to lose the limb to gangrene. People will show up on vacation needing a proprietary part and be stuck because Big Bicycle tried to take a greedy grasp of the market.

Cannondale did it to us. We dropped them when consumer demand dwindled to the point where any floor stock from them was dead weight. That left our local, and any visiting, Cannondale owners high and dry if they needed Headshok service or any of Cannondale's other corporately-controlled widgets.

Specialized threatened us with it several times when they started getting big for their britches in the mountain bike boom. Most recently they did it again, and this time the shop took the bait. Our territory rep told us this was it. He couldn't run interference for us on this anymore. He told us we had to place that big bike and parts order or kiss the line goodbye.

Personally I would have said goodbye. I hate to be pushed around. But Specialized is our last large name.

We declined to open with Trek because of their heavy-handed policies. Who do these bike companies think they are? Pharmaceutical manufacturers? They made the mistake a couple of decades ago of thinking they could act like computer companies and get people to junk their barely-used stuff for newer, faster models that did more tricks. The problem is, bicycles don't get faster. The engine has not changed. You can make it lighter (at a cost), but the engine will adapt to the lighter load and simply relax more, thank you very much. Pretty soon the Big Hill feels like a Big Hill again. Headwinds still suck the life out of you. You get wet when it rains and you worry whenever you lock the thing and leave it in a public place.

I'm not sure what we're going to do with a couple of cases of comfort bike 26-inch tires that weigh about 30% more and cost 50% more than our previous offering. If they last 50% longer we will sell fewer of them. If not we will look like scum for selling them.

The helmets look okay. The gloves are fine. But the seat bags, while interestingly designed, look cheap and flimsy. We also had to buy a bunch of wheel sets. Kids! Start jumping your bikes off big drops and slamming into curbs again!

The rep who talked us in to this left the company immediately afterwards, but I bet it wasn't because he flimflammed us into buying bushels of crap we'll have trouble selling. More likely it's because he didn't do it sooner and more often to more accounts. But of course no one will discuss it. Confidentiality and all that.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Time for a career move?

As the shop sinks ever deeper into the pitiless ocean, the owners look for heavy things they can heave over the side. I have not yet been singled out as one of them, but they've been estimating my weight by eye. Last week I almost didn't get paid because my effort to help my colleague George set up a nice display of bikes for someone who had spent nearly $5,000 purchasing them at our shop interfered with our warm welcome for one unannounced teenager from the ski team showing up to wax his skis for free.

Irrational panic has set in. It is aided by a pre-existing tendency to be irrational at the best of times. The employees they need to meet the basic needs of operating a shop with two doors and rooms that can't be surveyed from a single central point seem like dead weight to them when no one comes in. I sympathize, but they have no other options, since one of the two family members young and lucid enough to come in and work as slave labor refuses to spend more than a few hours on two separate days in the shop. That leaves only one overworked owner and a labor pool of three hourly-wage employees to sprinkle over the schedule. Of the three employees, one is a retiree with a sufficient pension, so he takes off when he feels like it. The other one is balancing his need for the income from this job with the other factors in his life that lead him to take some fairly lengthy trips at times. So that leaves me. But I've been told I'm such a liability in the customer service department that the bookkeeper "finds it really hard to write your check."

After 23 years with the company that's pretty hard to hear. But you reap what you sow. Evolution is a cold bitch, and it's about to select against me. Twenty-three years be damned. If I'm not worth paying, I'm not worth paying. The past is dead and gone. The future is a dream.

The late Bill Call, my friend who died of colon cancer a couple of years ago, once told me that being a dishwasher is a pretty good job. Easy to get, easy to leave and it's generally yours as long as you can stand it and you get the dishes clean enough to pass a health inspection. Sure the pay isn't great, but I've lived on that little before. And there's no chance I'll break out and offend customers. I just have to get along with a few coworkers and keep up with the work load. Nothing to make, nothing to fine-tune, just dirty things and clean things.

It helps that I know I have no future. Grunt jobs are harder when you think you're meant for something greater. I've had plenty of time to figure out that I'm not. However many times I've pulled the bike shop's chestnuts out of the fire with an ingenious fix, it's worth nothing now that people aren't spending money on anything we sell or requiring service on things we repair. In a hundred years people might be riding bicycles a lot, and valuing simple ones that last a long time, but I'll be dead by then. Things will get worse before they get better for my kind. Nothing brilliant has flowed from my pen. I have not improved the world because the world cannot be improved, only experienced for as long as you are permitted to live.

According to the Houston Chronicle website, prospects for dishwashers are expected to improve through 2020. There's job security. Of course once the word gets out it will become more competitive. One might need at least two years of college, preferably with a business major, to get the really good positions.

Depending on where I find work in this rural area, bike commuting might be over. The truly efficient grunt does not own a home, so he can migrate to a more conveniently located sleazy rental with each job change.

I don't know what will happen to the bike customers who relied on my expertise whether they knew it or not. Certainly they will be greeted with lavish courtesy by whoever might work at the shop for as long as it stays in business. I understand that's really what matters anyway. Anyone who believes otherwise is awfully hard to pay.

It's not over yet. I am still scheduled to show up and man the pumps for the foreseeable future. I don't know how to sweeten it for them when they have to force their pen across that wretched check I didn't earn, but I'll keep cashing it as long as they keep writing it. And start noticing where all the restaurants are.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Last ride of 2012

Today's 15 mile commute was probably the last bike ride I'll take before 2013. Tomorrow a snowstorm is supposed to move in with some pretty thick stuff before the end of our work day. Next week and through the week of Christmas, holiday needs are going to keep me in the car. By the time it's over I bet my park-and-ride parking space will be a snowbank. I'll need to come up with other ways to reduce my driving and maintain some semblance of fitness.

The night was crisp and cold, 26 degrees at the start. Jupiter and a scattering of stars reflected from the water and fresh ice of the lakes. A thin crescent moon settled toward the western horizon. My headlight flooded the trail with blue-white light.

People on the path have commented on the power of that light since I started using it. Wednesday night, four teenagers in a cloud of cigarette smoke, standing along the trail in town said, "Hey, that's a bright light! It looks like a car or something!" Farther out a miniature schnauzer ran up to me yapping, followed by a bigger, smooth-coated dog. The people with them also remarked on the brightness of the light.

Last week a police car drove up quickly to the crossing at Whitten Neck Road. It pulled in as I approached the crossing, then turned and drove away. I wonder if someone had called me in, thinking a motorcyclist was poaching the path. I love pushing that big light around. At a walking pace it reaches nearly full intensity, but I get to see it burn brighter and whiter as I speed up.

As winter advances I might figure out how to do some ski commuting from a closer parking place to town, provided it's plowed out. Or I might just drive all the way and take a walk. With free use of the groomed trails, one might think I could do that, but the temperature swings we've had in the past several winters make night skiing unrewarding if not outright hazardous. There's no chance I'll get any of the good stuff during the day. So a morning trudge on whatever is on the rail trail sounds like the best bet. The scenery is pretty and most of the dog doo will be frozen.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Lunch Interrupted

In a small retail store lunch is taken when the opportunity presents itself.

The most interesting lunch interruption I ever experienced came after a long series of failed attempts to get some time alone with my sandwich when I worked in a small outdoor outfitter store in Annapolis, Maryland. One after another, annoying people came in with questions that did not lead to sales or to interesting conversations. At last, they seemed to have finished with me. I sat on a stool behind the front counter, my back to the front window and the door and raised the sandwich to my lips. Immediately I heard the clang of the door chime and turned to see a slightly unkempt individual who looked like he could be crazy. He pointed over my shoulder out the window.

"Look, it's the space shuttle," he said.

That's it. He was definitely crazy. Then I turned to look and there was the space shuttle, flying low and slow over the old Parole shopping plaza on the back of its 747 transport plane.

Today's interruption was not that interesting. You can't beat something as weird as the space shuttle, but I have also gotten harder to wow over the years.

We have a pact here at the shop that whoever is eating should have the best chance to finish doing so  before some annoying bumbledub gets to lurch in and demand attention. That being said, a lot of the time I'll be trying to python down my sandwich and everyone out on the sales floor will apparently be abducted by aliens or something. I'll hear the tentative, "hellooooo...!" from the workshop door while I'm sitting a the lunch desk we call the Bayview Cafe.

I'm really good at pretending I can't hear people. It's even better when they can't see me, but not necessary. So when someone came up the back stairs right after I sat down I didn't even twitch when he said loudly, "ANYBODY AROUND IN THE BIKE SHOP?" Let the guy who had just finished lunch take care of it.

He spotted the boss at the front register. The sound of his voice receded. Then the sound of both of them grew louder as they came back.

"...my son is building bamboo frames in the Philippines. I was wondering if your customers would be interested in anything like that," he was saying. He told a little more about the origins of the company and stated that he thought there were only a couple of other players in the business, "one in California that builds them in Africa and another one in the Philippines."

I could think of Calfee and Panda right off the top of my head. I was pretty sure Calfee was the one doing the bit in Africa. I didn't think either one was in the Philippines. A quick Google search on bamboo bicycles yields plenty of leads to follow to other companies well before getting to his son's. But I don't enjoy blowing people out of the water the way I used to. Besides, Bambike seems like a great little company with a nice philosophy.

The frame was surprisingly heavy. Calfee's site said they engineer the frame to rider weight, so perhaps this one was for someone fairly substantial. Bam is a different company, but the same design principle could apply. I don't know if we could move any here, but as interruptions to my lunch go it was a lot better than a stinky pair of hockey skates, even if it wasn't the space shuttle.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Rider in coma, bike basically fine

Today I'm doing a post-crash assessment on a road bike. The rider is out of the hospital now, but the first reports sounded very serious. I hear he looks pretty rough.

We first heard about the accident about a month ago.Maybe it's been longer, but in the autumn, certainly. The rider's wife told us they had been on a ride in Maine. He had crested a hill ahead of her and launched into the descent. When she crossed the summit and started down she saw a group of other riders gathered around the fallen form of someone she did not recognize until she got closer. He was unconscious.

None of the riders saw the crash. No one saw a motor vehicle near the time it happened. As is often the case with head injuries, the rider himself does not remember what happened.

Looking at the bike I can guess, but that's all. Based on the scuff marks I envision an endo after hitting a pothole or other pavement damage. The injuries to the rider combined with the lack of damage to the bike indicate to me that he took the major impact. The saddle is bent but not scuffed, so I think he was still between it and the pavement when it hit. The right brifter was twisted inward. Both brifters had scuff marks on the front of them. The rear derailleur hanger was bent in, but the scuff marks on the derailleur did not show a lot of sliding movement. There was no damage to either pedal. The wheels are barely out of true, although the front tire bead was crawling off the rim in one spot. The rims have no dents or flat spots. The tires look perfectly usable. They're both holding 100+ psi right now. There's no indication of skidding.

I hate not knowing. All any rider can do is pay attention. I've twitched the bike at speed to avoid bad pavement more than once. If I had been distracted I could have joined the ranks of the mystery crashers. But in the end we really don't know how this guy went down.

Let's all be careful out there.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hall decking

"Are you guys all caught up?" Beth asked as she came into the shop on Friday morning. It's the kind of imprecise question that often precedes a job assignment one of us would not have come up with for ourselves. When Beth is making the assignment it often reminds me of a girl interrupting a great greasy game a bunch of boys are playing to get someone to play house.

Big G was safely elbows-deep in a bunch of preseason base waxing for some of the local racer kids, so I got pulled into Beth's project, decorating the shop Christmas tree. I tried to make a stand and say we shouldn't decorate before the Friday after Thanksgiving, but she wouldn't hear it. Besides, no one will come in on Thursday night to do it.

She should know better than to leave me unsupervised. Something about the configuration of one of the ornaments, a snowman holding snowflakes on a black wire in front of himself, suggested something more sinister. I wonder how long it will take anyone to spot it.



It's the little things that help the day go by.

Later I discovered I could record sounds on my phone and use them as my ring tone. For the rest of the day it belched. Now it meows. A whole new world beckons. The problem is that even I don't recognize it as a phone call at first. I also pissed the cats off by following them around all day trying to get the perfect meow. I still haven't gotten the one I want. When they meow they want you to answer, not shove a phone down by them and wait silently for them to do it again.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

I'd rather be drawing (or writing)

Steve A's pensive post on DFW Point to Point this morning got me thinking about all that goes into running a civilized country with a citizen-involved government. Not that it's hard to get me going in that direction. It's been my preoccupation for my entire adult life.

When I'm not a surly bike mechanic and sport shop grunt I draw cartoons. Whatever hopes I had for a livelihood in that realm have largely faded, but many influential creators have lived in relative poverty and obscurity. If you want something drawn or written, you have to sit down and do it. All the rest of the crap, the day job, the chores, are just what you do to clear the path to the desk and buy some time to sit at it.

The bike business lets me work in an area where any gains are good. If everyone rode a bike the world would simply be a better place. That's not to say the bike industry is the best judge of what will promote all the best aspects of the activity. Far from it. But someone has to interpret the crap for customers and help them keep their machines in good working order. I don't mind putting in some time there.

So...social issues.
There's no shortage of them.
He's not getting any better. Should we put on another leech?


I'm sorry, but due to the state of the economy I'm going to have to let you go.
 
And so on.

I post them at The Back of Class. It may go weeks or months without an update. Then I might have a good few days and dump a bunch in all at once.

Chillin' on the bike

An icy wind blew the brown leaves around as I loaded my bike for the morning commute. My tendency to overdress had finally coincided nearly perfectly with the plunging temperature.

It was 27 degrees -- that's -2.7 for you Celsius types.

The dirt road from my parking spot drops almost continuously for a mile. It is now well-packed. At 27 degrees it was also solidly frozen. I've hit 30 mph on that section, but cold air must really be more dense than warm air, because I can't seem to crack 27 mph anymore. I might be sitting up more because my eyes are tearing so badly from the cold air that I can't see where I'm going. Knocking off three miles per hour will definitely soften the blow if I hit a tree, right?

The big difference since last week is the total darkness on the evening ride. The snow held off for me, so I wasn't riding in whiteout squalls, but the north wind still played hard. It gave my clothing another test as the temperature dropped from its afternoon high of around 33 down toward the upper 20s again. The route back out to my car is a long, gradual climb of more than seven miles. The few little declines are offset by the steady grade up the last mile.

Miniature surf crashed on the rocks of the long causeway beside Lake Wentworth. I chased the patch of light from my headlight through the darkness. Leaving the windswept lake I reentered the forest. Leaves swirled in the puffs of wind.

Last week I almost hit a deer on the path during the evening ride. I spotted the one to my right and remembered that they seldom travel alone. I saw the one coming across from my left just in time to lock up the brakes. The deer stared into my headlight.

"Sorry," I called. The deer looked at me strangely, like an apology was the last thing it ever expected to hear from a human being. It ambled on across the path to follow its companion into the darkness.

On another evening, or perhaps the same one, I spotted the mysterious Dusk Walker at the far limit of my headlight. This tall, gaunt man walks on the path in the evenings. He never seems too pleased to be disturbed, even by a polite cyclist who always slows down and says good evening. Now that the darkness has fully settled in my light announces my approach. Its power surprises people. I saw Dusk Walker looking at the growing light around him while he was still 100 feet or more ahead of me.

Once the snow comes I will have to park somewhere else if I can find a place at all from which to launch a ride. More likely I will park closer to town and ski the remaining distance on the days it suits the schedule. It's all the skiing I'm likely to get, but that's absolutely fine. I love it when a mode of transportation that most people consider recreational turns out to be practical. It's a matter of attitude.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Hero Villain Lance

A local athlete came home from some marathon in Colorado with yet another story about what an arrogant, antisocial pud Lance Armstrong is.

The details don't matter. It was something about using his leverage to get into a closed field AND take a preferential starting position. Our local reporter said that the race organizers and other competitors weren't happy about it, but somehow the organizers allowed it. There was grumbling. No one was apparently very disappointed when The Great Man did not hang around to socialize, yet Lance's immediate disappearance after the race offended about as much as his abrupt entry and brusque push to the front row.

One of the hotshots who used to join the Sunday morning riding group a few summers ago, when Lance was still active in or only very recently retired from the pro ranks, would launch into angry tirades about everything that was wrong with Lance any time his name was mentioned.

It occurs to me that the more he's hated, the more prickly and aloof he becomes. As a result he becomes even more hated. Not too many people like to be hated, although some will pretend it's fine with them.

Armstrong began his career with the magic blend of talent and insecurity that breeds greatness. You don't have anything to prove unless you have something to prove. The pursuit of dominance is different from the pursuit of excellence. To be a top athlete you have to win. That means you have to make the rest of the field into losers. Feathers often get ruffled. It's a rare champion who has not pissed somebody off. However, some competitors seem to do that more than others.

Personally I don't care either way. As my brother said, if everyone was doping and Lance still won then he's still the best rider. Among those who have strong opinions, that observation would surely spark a typhoon of excrement. My brother is not a Lance partisan, just a logical observer.

Professional sports are just entertainment. Pro cycling has been oozing with substance abuse since it was invented. If you think about it, the Tour de France was conceived as a publicity stunt to sell newspapers by someone who wasn't going to have to ride it. Tour riders came to hate race founder Henri Desgrange and took every chemical advantage they could get, even if it was the dubious advantages of beer and cigarettes.

Mr. Armstrong is just one among a very large number of people I will never have to deal with personally, about whom I know far more than I need to. I am not excessively aggravated by celebrity news, merely fascinated by the phenomenon. Yes, I would like to receive a little more high-fiber news from my major media outlets. I don't really care about entertainers' meltdowns. Pictures of the Sexiest Woman Alive are equivalent to pictures of the surface of Saturn in terms of the likelihood I will ever land there. But these are people. I have to think that most of them do not deserve the highest adulation or the darkest hatred that they receive because they successfully called attention to themselves. The form of the attention shapes them even if they do have massively dysfunctional personalities and would be jerks even in obscurity.

I reserve judgment because I will never have to deal directly with any of them. Even on the exceedingly rare occasions that one of the local summer celebrities appears in our shop it's very short. They come in, ask for what they want, buy it if we have it and go. It's as if they were normal.

Upright Citizen

This fall I've ridden the mountain bike commuter exclusively for several weeks.
I consider this an upright bike. (stock photo)
With each ride I have discovered more things about the riding position that make me adjust my reflexes to make sure I have my weight in the right place to get the most out of the bike and avoid stuffing it into a tree. 

When I raced my mountain bike it was set up in the fashion of the early and mid 1990s, with a long, low-angle stem and flat bars cut down to 20 inches or less. I had transferred the position from my old Stumpjumper. The Gary Fisher had a longer fork because the builders were not offering suspension on most models but they were compensating for it so a rider could add a suspension fork without changing the geometry of the bike. The higher front end, combined with the longer top tube, made the bike feel a bit sluggish to me after the Stumpjumper, but that bike had been just a hair too small. Because the choice in  the Specialized line was slightly too small and slightly too big, I went to the Gary Fisher because their 16.5-inch frame split the difference. But the long fork made it ride bigger than it looked.

My colleague Ralph, who dominated the Sport class and survived in Expert, encouraged me to modernize my position on the bike with a shorter stem and rise bars. I did this just before I got the Cross Check and basically quit mountain biking completely. So my commuting rides have been my first extensive use of the bike in this form.

In a low position with a long stem I had plenty of weight over the front tire. I've had to learn to put myself forward in my new position to keep adequate weight on the front tire. It was really easy to end up too far back so the front tire didn't bite into the trail.

After a couple of weeks I've gotten really comfortable on the bike. I can definitely fling it around on the trail more confidently than I did with the 'cross bike. No surprise there, given the geometry of the 'cross bike and the fact that I run smooth tires. I push those near their limit on the dirt, but never far enough to wash out. With the aggressive tread on my old mountain biking tires I can lay the bike over much farther. Of course on pavement I feel every knob as a separate bump. You have to choose what you want your bike to do best. I would ride a less aggressive tread, but I already own these tires and they'll just dry rot if I don't use them. The path route involves almost no pavement, so I can enjoy the overkill on the unpaved majority of it.

There's a huge difference between sporty riding and racing. I'm having fun, but I know where I rank against real competitors. But racing is the process of turning something fun into a neurosis. If I tried to race these days I would probably puke up a ventricle.

Preparing for a trip to visit my parents I had to decide which bike to bring, the Cross Check or the MTB commuter. Both have lights, a necessity for this time of year. My brother would be bringing his Dahon folder, with 20-inch wheels and wide, smooth tires, so the upright bike with wide tires would be appropriate. I ended up bringing the Cross Check because most of our potential riding areas would be on pavement and because I had not ridden it in a while. Then we never got a chance to ride, but that's just how it goes. It was hardly the first time I'd taken my bike for a car ride just in case I got to use it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

What you see

Driving out my rural road this morning to go to Portland to pick up a piece of furniture, I slowed suddenly.

Draping down from the trees was a thin black wire hanging in a low loop across the road. It was probably a telephone line or television cable, not a power line, but even so I did not want to snag it. I maneuvered around it.

The cellist used my phone to call the local police department. I keep the numbers for every police department in the area on speed dial in case I need to phone someone in for harassing me on a bike ride.

Further along on our journey, in one of the small towns like Kezar Falls or Cornish, I saw a car in the lane in front of us, waiting to turn left. A gap in traffic should have permitted the driver to go, but the car did not move. The driver had noticed a blind man walking up the sidewalk, swinging his cane, about to step into the driveway.

Both these items were much harder to spot than a bicyclist riding in a sensible lane position in traffic. True, the blind guy was wearing a please-don't-kill-me-yellow vest, but he was on a sidewalk well separated from the street. An eager driver might have launched into the gap without seeing the small, crushable human toddling into range. And the black wire presented a real challenge. In spite of that, before I could no longer see it in the rear view mirror I saw another motorist notice it and avoid it.

That being said, I have caught myself overlooking obvious large objects when I was driving or riding my bike simply because the timing of my glances and their arrival meant that I looked away just as they were coming onto the scope. That meant I did not pick them up until my sequence of glances reached their quadrant again. It's a good argument for taking one last look, and for waiting to launch until after that look is completed.

Riders shouldn't worry the most about being seen by someone in their lane, going their direction. Blinky butt beacons provide a little security for a minor danger compared to the threat of drivers crossing a cyclist's path.

The biggest dangers on the road are the result of peer pressure. People who want  to go fast press other people to go fast. Going fast reduces reaction time and narrows a driver's field of view. People hurrying through their maneuvers are more likely to overlook objects that don't fit their filter size. But it seems to me that "I just didn't see him" should never be an excuse. It may describe circumstances, but not extenuating circumstances. The next question should be "why not?"

Cyclists behaving unpredictably or operating in a consistently unhelpful manner: cutting quickly, riding against traffic, blowing through intersections -- need to be held accountable for their part in causing accidents and ill will. The problem is that the cyclist is more likely to be in no condition to present their side of the story in a serious accident. Given the chance, human nature will make a driver try to find a way to avoid responsibility for a crash. The myth of cyclist invisibility and the image of cyclists as careless or reckless gives them a lot to work with.

It's amazing what we can see when we want to.

In Germany, blinking lights are illegal on bicycles. I believe this is because in Germany bikes on the road are not a crisis to be announced with hazard markers, they are an expected part of the traffic mix. They need to be rationally lighted to see and be seen among road users who accept them as normal. They don't need emergency vehicle lighting because their presence is not an emergency.

We see when we look.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Awkward amounts

More often than not, when people ask me whether it's time to replace a part on their bike they've come in about 379.37259 miles sooner than I would have started thinking about doing it. This seems to be the case with tires, brake pads and chains, the most common replacement items.

As you might expect, people who come in declaring everything is in tip-top shape but they just want the bike looked at have completely toasted every replaceable part. But this isn't about them.

When faced with an almost worn out part I used to tell the rider to take off for a few days or weeks, depending on the amount they ride, and bring the bike back when the last value had been extracted from the part or parts in question. That never worked. Now I just replace things when they are here. Otherwise the timely repair won't happen and more expensive things might get worn out or damaged before the customer finds time in the schedule or is forced by a serious malfunction to bring the bike for service.

Today's subject wanted brake pads. The rear set was pretty low but the front pads are awkward: There's about half a pad left. But when am I going to see the bike again? This guy will definitely ride his carbon fiber Specialized Roubaix with its 700X23 tires down dirt roads and across muddy fields. He himself is rugged and durable. His mind directs his body and the bike gets dragged along for the ride.

Most people wear rear pads faster than front pads. Front brake phobia strikes to varying degrees, from the Grade 4 sufferer who absolutely never squeezes that lever to the Grade 1 type who uses it moderately but assumes that an occasional endo is inevitable punishment for that rashness.

When a bike is checked in for repair I try to inspect as much as possible in front of the customer so I can get a clear decision from them without having to play phone tag. When the customer is in a hurry I have to write down their comments, try to get clearance for probable extras and deal with other things as I discover them.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

It's Wednesday, so it must be rainy

On Thursdays I pay a musician to be my friend. A local musician and teacher holds a weekly string band session. For a mere $10 I can sit in with whoever shows up for an instructional jam. Consequently, during string band season I drive on Thursdays because I have to cover 35 or 40 miles with a musical instrument.

The way I play I should pay everyone in the group. But so far they keep letting me in. Comic relief?

With Thursdays off the bike commuting list, that makes Wednesdays all the more important. The weather has established its own routine, bringing showers or outright rain week after week. If it's too nasty I lose a riding day.

Park-and-ride season puts most of my route away from traffic, but on an unpaved surface. The path may actually be less messy when it's a little wet than when it has been very dry. Path dust is fine, powdery and pervasive. It gets all over our rental bikes, coating every part not covered by the rider. My own bike develops the same gritty coating if I don't do anything about it.  Regular rain keeps the dust down and the surface firm as long as the rain isn't heavy enough to turn the susceptible areas into mud.

Ideally the rain falls at night for just a couple or three hours around midnight. Not on Wednesdays, though.

Days like this are the reason they invented fenders and raincoats.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Cog farming and toolmaking

Late last winter when I converted the mountain bike for commuting I made a note to put some higher gears on it. I'd built it originally for technical riding and then never used it for that. So I slapped on some bigger chain rings. The result was better but not good enough. Then I remembered I'd put a 7-speed 13-30 cassette on the bike.

The steps in a 7-speed 13-30 are 13-15-17-20-23-26-30. Annoyingly, if you go to a stock 8-speed, all you can get is an 11-30. I don't need a stinkin' 11.

The shifters, transferred with all the other parts from my 1991 Stumpjumper when I switched to the Gary Fisher frame, are 7-speed Deore DX thumb shifters. Like most top-mount shifters, they have a friction option. I'd just never taken advantage of it. In friction I can shift whatever rear gears I want to stuff in there.
 The Cog Farm

When I got to work on Wednesday I went to our cog farm to look for a 19 and a 21. I ground the heads of the rivets off the back of the 13-30 so I could take the cluster apart and inserted the 19 and 21 in place of the 20. Now it's an 8-speed: 13-15-17-19-21-23-26-30. The jumps are only two teeth for five shifts, then three and four. So far, at the low low end I haven't been bothered by those intervals. Cruising the path, the mid-section of the cassette offers nice close options for minor changes of grade, surface or wind.

The 24-34-46 chain rings might need a little fine tuning. Maybe the 44 will be fine. I spend almost no time in the 46-13.

During the early weeks of my path commute I run into a lot of other users. As the evening comes earlier, the chill bites harder and the pretty leaves fall away, fewer and fewer people will feel like taking a walk out there. For now I have to be ready for delays and obstacles.

This truck was plugged into the path at Bryant Road on Wednesday morning. Beyond Bryant the trail needs work because of a washout.

Closer to town, where the path goes on the causeways with pretty views of the water, people walk in clumps. A lot of people use the path as a dog-walking area, too. Most of them clean up after the pooch, but not all of them.
This dog-walker with stroller lined up with an oncoming rider for the perfect blockade. Slow down, smile, act like it doesn't matter. It doesn't, really.

*****************

On beautiful days in foliage season we might do a few emergency room repairs for visiting riders who have an unexpected mechanical problem. A big guy asked if we had batteries for Powertap hubs.

"What size are they?" I asked.

He looked at me like I was a pathetic yokel.

"They're for Powertap," he said, looking slightly pained. Then he got an Important Call on his groovy earpiece telephone and gave me the time I needed to jump on the Internet and find out that the hub takes two SR44 button batteries and the computer head takes the ubiquitous 2032. No problem.

"Do you have the Powertap hub tool?" he asked.

I looked at the hub. It had two little wrench flats that looked like a headset spanner would fit. I grunted and took the wheel in the back shop. Of course the fashionably curvaceous hub cap rejected the plebeian wrench. A quick look on line showed me how weird-looking the official tool is. The customer commented that it doesn't work very well.

The service instructions also noted that the O-ring seal of the hub cap makes it resist turning but that the cap is regular right-hand thread with no tricky spring catches or other booby traps. I gave it a surreptitious twist with the full strength of my tire-changing fingers. It seemed to give way slightly, but at a cost that spoke to me of future crippling arthritis. But maybe this miracle of modern technology was no more forbidding than a new jar of pickles.
The Cafiend Powertap cap removal tool

I wrapped an old inner tube around the cap to protect it and muckled on with some big honkin' water pump pliers. The cap came off without a problem.

The customer was actually a nice enough guy. He never did get the hub to communicate with the computer he was using. He'd substituted a Garmin wrist unit for the Cycle Ops computer head. He went on his way to wrangle with recalibrating it after his ride.

The evening was beautiful so I rode beyond my car at the outer end of the commute, up a dirt road I had explored once before. It has a Class VI section (no longer maintained) that follows a very nice grade to Stoddard Road. I was thinking it might add a bit to the ride and shorten the drive for my park-and-ride commutes, but the Class VI is very overgrown. If I had a problem in there, particularly riding alone in the dark, it might inconvenience my wife.

Before the junction with the abandoned part there's a nice wetland.
On this mild fall evening the mist was forming in the center of it, precursor to the morning fog that is a trademark of New England in the autumn. Late-season mosquitoes harassed me.

The overgrown section apparently channeled some runoff during Hurricane Irene last summer. Our area saw none of the damage that hit Vermont and many other states, but we did get some heavy rains along with plenty of other downpours over the past year. The trail surface was rockier and slipperier by far than when I went through on the Cross Check with its fairly smooth 700X32 tires. In gathering darkness I only went a few yards in before returning to the maintained dirt road. It's worth future exploration and some minor clearance at some point.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Carrion on at work

The smell of something rotting has been greeting me at the door of the workshop for days. This happens regularly. For some reason, with all the options available to them in this rambling edifice, mice seem to choose this particular spot in the structure of the building to lay down their mortal bodies. The little corpse is in a wall or under the floor where we can't do anything but endure its slow march of decay.

Of all the smells with which business experts suggest greeting customers, "death" is way down the list. At best it evokes images of tenements redolent of boiling cabbage. Maybe the incoming clientele thinks they've walked into the immediate aftermath of a fart. But when the smell does not dissipate it provides plenty of time for the newcomer to analyze its origin. It's something dead, man.

Given the state of our corporate finances, carrion might not be a bad metaphor. We've compared some of our more ruthless bargain hunters to vultures in the past. They circle and circle, waiting for "clearance" to land. As with real vultures, they're no more than an annoyance to a healthy creature. Get a little weak and dehydrated, however, start to stagger and their wings stiffen as their beady little eyes focus. Weakness! Prepare to FEED!

Our Oktoberfest sale is coming up this weekend. It has never involved beer, seldom included food and generally fails to qualify as a Fest in nearly any category. We gamely go through the motions, though. Back in the 1990s, when we outfitted whole families with mountain bikes and had plenty of closeout merchandise from a cross-country ski industry that was learning its limitations the hard way we could fill a 20 by 30 tent impressively. We even threw out some coffee, cider and doughnuts for the early birds. We would finish the third long day with a pleasantly burnt-out feeling. In these times of small inventories even at the manufacturer level and fragmented consumer interest in anything but handheld electronics, it's hard to get excited ourselves, let alone generate excitement in the buying public.

I've generally preferred to be a calming influence, regardless of what my actual effect has proved to be.

The mouse - to whom nothing matters anymore - withdraws its last influence slowly from our world. Its cheese has been moved for the last time.

We need some fresh-baked cookies.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The World is Plunging into Darkness! Prepare!

Half the world, anyway. It's called fall and winter. Daylight is below 12 hours in the Northern Hemisphere now, and shrinking steadily to the long night of the Winter Solstice. It's time to light up. Try it, you'll like it.


Dynamo lighting completes my mountain bike commuter. It opens up options for dirt road and trail cruising, too.

The rack I scavenged looks like an Axiom. It has a tail light bracket built in. It also has two savage spikes on one of the side supports, perhaps to hold a small tire pump. I've already punctured my hand, pulling the pump hose off the valve stem after inflating my tire. Before I saw those off and then discover I have a use for them I'll try sticking wine corks on them


Right after I took these pictures of the Cross Check I improved the tail light mounting with two old-style reflector brackets in place of the P-clamps I had used in the original setup. The reflector brackets hold the light more correctly perpendicular to the road. The P-clamps had a tendency to creep a little and tuck the light under, aiming it ever so slightly downward. It was visible, but its imperfection nagged at me until I found a better way.

Speaking of better ways, for the most unprotected span of wiring on the mountain bike, under the rack to the tail light, I found some clear plastic tubing to use as a conduit. I did not want to run the wire down the side rail of the rack in case I put panniers on. The top hooks would chew the wire.

Dynamo lighting is really cool. We have an account with Peter White now, so our shop can sell these fun, effective lights to our local clientele, but so far I am our best customer. I would buy at least one more set of the Busch and Muller IQ Cyo R Plus headlight and Toplight Line Plus tail light to mount on one more frame that takes 700c wheels. Then I could transfer the dyno wheel from one bike to another. I already got the spare connectors.

Hey, when the sun goes down at 4 p.m. you can stay out half the night and still get to bed at a decent hour.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Spending a billionaire's money

You might think that working on bikes for a billionaire who happens to have an enthusiastic cycling habit would be like having a press to print your own money. However, you don't get a billion dollars by being a careless spendthrift. He's a business man, not some stumble bum who won the Powerball. Even if he was, I'm too much of an idiot to expend his funds without functional justification. I love having a good opportunity to run through a few grand for him, but only with full knowledge and consent. It does not happen often. Only once so far. But repairs and modifications that run into the hundreds come up somewhat more often.

Most recently he has decided to have me reconfigure his Mount Washington Hill Climb bike into a flat-bar road bike. That looks like it should be easy, simply adding the parts the bike did not need in its original configuration: two more chain rings on the crank, front derailleur, front shifter, and a cassette designed for the open road, not 8-22 percent grade.

When is anything in the bike business ever simple?

Because he needed only a few gears for the hill climb I fitted the bike with a 7-speed shifter. Because the gear range was close, I used a short-cage rear derailleur because it's lighter and shifts more quickly. I custom-built a cassette with several close gears at the low end and a couple of small cogs just to get him from the starting line to the base of the real climb.

The lightest crank that would give the low gear he wanted was a mountain bike crank with a 5-arm spider and 58-94 bolt pattern. Try finding a lot of variety in those rings today. The gear range he has requested calls for chain rings that are not made in 4-bolt, 64-104. I did find the sizes he wants in 58-94. I could also do it in 74-110, but that would mean changing the bottom bracket to put on a different crank. This bike was built when ISIS and Octalink ruled the Earth.

The rings I found were hard to mount on the crank. Original rings would have had a different shape to clear the crank arm, but I only ordered an arm set with no rings for the climbing bike, and a single silver dollar chain ring to go on the 58 circle. The original middle and outer rings on a complete crank would have been smaller than I want, too.

Each hurdle has been surmounted with some hunting and scavenging by me and a launching ramp of money from him. Even so, we're dead in the water for the moment because we can't find the proprietary front derailleur bracket that came with the frame. I removed it as part of the psychological lightening process in which I also removed the water bottle bolts. I plugged the threaded holes in the frame with tiny set screws scavenged from the cleat plates of mountain bike shoes.

I gave all the parts I didn't use on the project in 2004 to the billionaire. He and his biking family members have a collection of bits and pieces from various projects and repairs over the years. Unfortunately, this one crucial piece seems to have slipped into a crevice. I've been given clearance to go to the family compound to look for it, but our staff is too small to spare me from the shop to go out there. I've been too busy on my days off to make a field trip then. So you see there's such a thing as too much downsizing.

Digging through the archive of parts in our shop I found a Cannondale front derailleur bracket I adapted to the Trek frame by using two hemispherical spacers from a set of linear-pull brake pads. The front shifting is not worthy of a bike that cost thousands of dollars and was custom assembled from cherry-picked components. It's really no different from piecing together a junk-box custom beater bike, but the carbon, titanium, and my own sense of craftsmanship seem to call for something more precise. Things can be weird but they have to work.

Our billionaire is small fry in the billionaire world, down below 500 on the Forbes list, but still, a net worth of more than 1.5 billion, and connections to powerful politicians give surreal dimensions to the ordinary tasks one performs for him. It's like bumping into a rock in the fog and when the fog clears you see that it's one corner of an immense pyramid.

I had a similar feeling when a US Forest Service employee handed me a US Government debit card to pay for ski wax. He ran a program called Ski with a Ranger, in which tourists could go for a guided ski tour with him in the White Mountain National Forest. As I processed the transaction I felt my own wallet shrink a tiny bit. After all, as a taxpayer I was buying that wax. I imagined someone else going into Bob's Bombers and plunking down the card for a B1, or Mitch's Missile Mania for some Stingers. Sometimes you get a clear look at how the little things connect to the monumentally huge ones.

The power of money in human societies gives celebrity status to any large amount of it. In many cases, the person standing next to it is merely incidental. We care who won the lottery because they won the lottery. We care who owns Microsoft because Microsoft has brought in billions of dollars. Warren Buffett is interesting because he knows how to amass dump trucks full of money. Many of the immensely wealthy people in this country and the world are not household names to most of us. Once you know who they are, though, you can't forget it. This does not include the ones who want you to know it and bow to it.

It's a pure quirk of fate that anyone of vast financial stature comes into our little bike shop at all. The fact that they are not grossly egotistical has eased our interactions quite a bit over the years. If they were looking for someone to fawn and grovel they would have left long ago. I believe that the kind of person who will pedal a bike long distances on the road develops or already has a sense of the equalizing nature of human physical effort. Your billion dollars will not get you up that hill faster even if it facilitated your entry into the event in the first place. You own the bike. You could afford to buy the Mount Washington Auto Road. You still earn your time.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Any idiot can fix a bike

You don't need special tools. You don't need special knowledge. If you can fix a logging skidder you can fix a bike. Bring that thing over here, son! We don't need to pay those frou frou idiots at the bike shop to chip their nail polish and charge us out the wazoo!

When they finally brought the bike to me because they couldn't get the crank off they had already tried a hammer and a torch. The scorch marks were just amusing, but the bash marks damaged the threads in the crank arm so I could not use a proper puller. I ended up using our "one-way trip" crank puller: a two-pronged chisel that goes behind the crank arm, where it will actually work.

People who find the workings of a bicycle impenetrably mysterious represent one end of a spectrum. The people who sneer at the complexity of anything without a motor are at the other end. The repairs improvised by contemptuous mechanics sometimes exhibit the crude effectiveness of a chunk of stone lashed to a stick with a piece of rawhide, but more often they're just a prelude to a more expensive trip to a real bike mechanic after the dismissive Mr. Fix-it has made the problem worse. You can tell when a tinkerer has made a mistake that will help them do better, more sensitive work in the future and when someone who would rather be doing something else has simply bashed it until it either worked or went away.

I have my days when I would rather be doing something else, but I know enough to try to do good work so when the bike goes away it goes away happy and stays away for longer. I really could spend hours just staring out the window, if I could figure out how to get paid for it.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Inundated with ideas

Several times a day something will happen that would make a great subject for a blog post. Sentences start forming. I might even scribble some of them down on scrap paper along with cartoon ideas. They pile up while I get swept along from event to event, or deposited in the sediment for a while to lie around in a recovering stupor before trudging into the jostling round again.

In my ideal life my thoughts form and gather methodically, compacting into well-defined masses that pass with peristaltic majesty to be introduced to the world. The ideal blog is one that gets updated daily. Those with more frantic fans might be happy to see multiple updates in a day, but certainly one a day rewards the regular reader with a new treat and time to savor it. That has not worked out for me, which is one reason Bike Snob is a hot ticket and I'm not. But it's certainly not the only reason.

As one reader remarked when looking at a pile of Tom Clancy's first or second book on a table at a book signing in Annapolis in the 1980s, "That explains why he was such a lousy insurance agent." Those of us with literary pretensions often consider our day jobs to be the time-wasting black hole in our lives, even if they also provide us with the material that defines us as authors. Clancy did not write about heroic insurance agents defending the free world any more than J.K Rowling penned a memoir about serving in a restaurant. Sometimes a job is just a job. Or the job as inspiration falls victim to the actual need to work there.

Case in point: my lunch break just ended with the arrival of someone who needed to buy a used cardboard box. That's more important than anything I might have been tapping out at my lunch table.

Friday, September 07, 2012

The newspaper: where the real story goes to die

Living in a small town, your chance at fifteen minutes of fame comes up more easily than in a bustling metropolis or the vast anonymous wasteland of suburbia. If you do something long enough, like ride a 30-mile bike commute, someone is bound to notice eventually. You become a local character.

When a local reporter asked about doing a feature on me for the local paper I almost said no. Media portrayals always seem to get things at least a little wrong. When I did agree, it was with the hope that her skill and mine could put together a little dispatch from the foreign land of bike commuting that would present the essence to the reading public, to increase understanding and maybe even spark some interest.

I remember the difficulties of freelance writing. Those frustrations eased my slide into my current greasy trade. It was a challenge to get the story right and another challenge to get paid for it. I would read my own work and cringe at how I had accidentally misrepresented my subject. It was never libelous, just not quite tight enough to satisfy me. What had seemed good enough when I had to get it onto the editor's desk looked a lot worse when it was irretrievably set in ink and distributed far and wide. So I don't blame anyone when the story reads like they got the word processor mixed up with the food processor: Complete sentences, witty quips and wise observations went in, they hit "chop" and dumped the resulting chunks into a bowl. From this wad they fashioned new sentences. My actual words are there, but strangely associated.

It's hard to sum up decades of experience in cycling in a third of a page and a grainy photo. Friends and acquaintances were congratulating me on the article within minutes after the paper hit the news stands, but I can't read it without going, "but wait -- what about -- that's not quite right -- ."

By next week it will all be forgotten. Does that make it better or worse?

Whatever I do, whatever I say, I hope it makes the world a better place to ride a bike. I'll be riding anyway, so my world view has a healthy dose of self interest. Now I have to wait another 25 years for the local media to pay attention again. I can only hope that this week's article will have done some good.


Thursday, September 06, 2012

Anaerobic Spoke Failure?

Another spoke broke on my commute this morning. At the start of commuting season a spoke failed in exactly the same way, breaking at the threads in the nipple, not at the elbow in the hub flange.

As a wheel builder I take spoke breakage personally. I can't do anything about the fatigue failure of heat treated rims or the eventual fatigue failure of really elderly spokes, but spoke quality has improved so much in recent years that reputable builders are actually reusing them when replacing rims. Such a thing was never done a couple of decades ago.

The type of failure made me wonder if the spokes were a tad too short, creating a stress riser in the threaded portion. The rim depth of the Sun CR 18 does not allow for more than a millimeter more length. Then I remembered that stainless steel is prone to anaerobic corrosion in places where moisture can get in and air is excluded. It's a peculiar problem with stainless that can have a serious impact in marine applications.

In areas where roads are salted, the water around spoke nipples can be a tad on the briny side as well, adding electrolytic components to the possible mix. But anaerobic corrosion does not require saltiness.

I don't know for sure whether the spoke failures I suffered stemmed from anaerobic corrosion. Symptomatically it seems quite possible. I'm completely respoking the wheel today so I don't get caught doing the bent-rim samba down the road again.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Jerks on Motorcycles

Laconia, New Hampshire, hosts an enormous motorcycle rally every June. Originally just a weekend, it was expanded to a full week in the mid 1990s to make room for more fun and frolic and extract more money from this enthusiastic demographic.

To the residents of the Lakes Region it's viewed as either a great time had by all or something akin to the invasion of the Mongol horde.

People ask me whether motorcycles bother me. For the most part I welcome them because many of the riders seem to understand what it's like to get around on a small, less-than-four-wheeled vehicle (some of them have trikes) that is often overlooked by the oblivious majority sealed behind glass. But every grouping of people includes jerks.

Because New Hampshire has some fantastic cycling roads and beautiful scenery, motorcyclists like to ride here during all the ice-free months, not just during the big week in June. For a while we had an epidemic of idiotic young men on Jap screamers. They liked to pass extremely loud and incredibly close. I learned to time a good spit to my left so that their unhelmeted face would pass through that air space at the precise instant the phlegm-bomb was hanging at the top of its arc to meet them. At the speed they were traveling they probably took it for just another large bug.

The screamer kids have almost completely disappeared. This could be because they have joined the ranks of the organ donors, had the bike repossessed, lost their license or simply had to give it up because they had another sort of accident that siphons their funds to pay child support rather than motorcycle support.

Another annoying subculture of motorcyclists believes that loud exhaust noise makes them safer. "Loud pipes save lives" proclaims the tee shirt or bumper sticker. Not true, my thundering friends. The noise makes most of us grit our teeth and hope you will be silenced immediately by any means necessary. And because the noise tends to spew out behind you rather than in front, it does nothing to alert drivers in your path. The way the noise echoes around, it's often hard to tell where it's coming from until the source of it actually arrives.

As a pedaler, I hear the pipes a-calling before the bike reaches me, but how much of a threat am I to the safety of the regal Harley? Yes, I could swerve and take the rider out in a probably suicidal moment of carelessness or bitter malice, but I don't think I am the threat the loud riders pretend to have in mind when they justify their breach of the peace.

I've learned to roll my eyes and flip a low bird at the motorcyclists who go by me pretending to pedal. But I can't suppress a seething rage at the ones who rip past my elbow, especially on really loud bikes, when they have room to move away from me or slow down. This weekend I had two of them in quick succession in a group of four or five. They were accelerating away from a stop, so they chose to reach the speed they were going when they blasted by me almost knee to knee. Forget hanging a clam in front of them. I wanted a grenade launcher.

Humans will do annoying things and believe stupid shit as long as there are humans. Indeed, the annoying behavior and stupid beliefs may be what finally ends our reign as top predators and global slobs. So the loud pipes idiots, screamer riders and sweaty jerks in tight shorts blocking traffic will continue to mingle with the the four-or-more-wheeled inmates of rolling sensory deprivation tanks, surviving mostly by luck, regardless of what you believe about your skill or divine favor. The way we race around on our little paved strips is really pretty crazy, but we evolved along with it, so it's "normal."

Have fun out there.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Belt and Suspenders

A customer brought in an old Fuji hybrid he had recently purchased from a yard sale. He wanted only the most basic adjustments, of course.

When I attempted to remove the front wheel I discovered that someone at some time had moved the lock nuts from the inside of the fork -- locking the bearing cones -- to the outside of the fork, acting as axle nuts. Opening the quick release lever did not release the axle, although the misplaced lock nuts did not tighten adequately on the axle threads to secure the wheel without the help of the quick release cam. The creative nut placement also squeezed the fork down from its proper 100 millimeter inside width to about 94 mm. The bearing cones, improperly secured, were ground down tight against the ball bearings so the axle would barely turn. But the wheel was not going to fall out.

Some older or cheaper bikes have used the axle nut as a lock nut for the bearing cone from the outside of the fork, but usually with coarser threads and definitely on a solid axle. It sort of works for them.

Ever the obsessive-compulsive fixer, I put the lock nuts where they belonged and spread the fork to the correct width. Even a piece of crap should be the best piece of crap it can possibly be.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Product Testing

Sometimes I get to test products for a local guy who runs a business torturing gear for companies that hire him to work out the bugs in prototypes or redesigns of existing products. Usually it's footwear.

Last week he gave me a pair of Converse All Stars. Apparently, Converse is changing the sole material in the venerable sneaker. As it happens, I need new shop shoes, so I jumped at the chance to get some for free.

GOD, they're uncomfortable.

This time I guess I'm testing for nothing. I won't use my ticket for free shoes after I turn in my test pair. After a day on my feet in these I'm actually eager to stuff my feet into my cycling shoes. I'll meet my obligation to beat these to death, but it feels like work.

I can't complain. Last year I got a really nice pair of waders. I use them for river testing. I've also gotten a couple of pairs of slip-on indoor-outdoor shoes. And occasionally a prototype fails, like when I stepped on a measly little twig and it pierced right through the sole of a pair of hiking sneakers. Those got called back immediately. Too bad. They were comfortable and good-looking. I never got to see the improved version.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Just a couple of items from the busy week of summer

This summer has not been good enough to come anywhere close to filling the holes from last winter. For the most part we have only seen the kind of people who actually increase their holdings during a tough economy. Bless their little hearts for trickling on us, but it won't keep us well hydrated for more than a few days after they scamper off to their other homes.

Except for a few brief flurries we've seen no real rush periods this summer. With our reduced staff even a small flurry ties us up completely, but we have not been buried in work the way we expect to be in an average year. But this particular week in August always brings a big peak.  This weekend in August always sees the convergence of our local triathlon (the Granite Man), a bigger triathlon across the lake (the Timber Man) and the Mount Washington Hill Climb. We had bikes to convert to hill climbing mode, road bike rentals for the Granite Man, emergency repairs in the day or two prior to all these events, and an influx of vacationers hitting the last week before the early schools start.

Mid-week I was putting some period-appropriate gumwall tires on a Sears Free Spirit three-speed from the early 1970s. It wasn't too crappy for an American department store bike, and it had this classy crest on the chain guard.
I'm not sure what those creatures are supposed to be or why the fleur-de-lys is upside down, but it's more interesting than a lot of the graphics you see these days. At least they're trying to evoke some impression of a pedigree.

Another bike in the queue showed up with this fascinating Suntour grip shifter.
The rest of the bike dates it to no later than the very early 1990s. SRAM's product was just emerging from annoying joke status. I don't think Shimano's Revo was off the drawing board yet.

With the cover off you see a cable from the grip to the roller in the center of the frame. That cable pulls the roller in response to the ratchet in the grip. The actual shift cable is set in the roller and exits through the adjuster barrel. This is strikingly similar to the workings of the Shimano Revo.
I had never seen this shifter before. Suntour made some great stuff and some unworkably weird stuff in their heyday. This shifter works better than SRAM's early models and is easier to service. If they had pushed this instead of XPress they might have stayed in business.

Business may shrivel entirely after this weekend. The summer feels like it never started, and now it's winding down. At least I'll have more time for other projects.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Best. Chainsuck. EVER!

We are frequently asked to put together drive trains that technically should not work. Some of them function smoothly. Others grumble and chatter a bit. Once in a while you get one that rejects the transplant spectacularly. This one pushed the limit on gear range and chain wrap capacity for a Shimano road triple. On the test ride it made this three-ring chain knot when I tried to use the derailleur to pick up a dropped chain while still riding. Still pictures didn't capture the intricacy of the tangle.

With due care the bike will behave well enough to meet the customer's temporary need for lower gears.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The exploding sleepover

The litter along my commuting route has a theme this year.

The diapers have been collected by concerned citizens or shuffled into the undergrowth. Now the places of prominence are held by adult-size undergarments. Including Big G's section of the route there are two brassieres. There's also a sock, a toothbrush and a pair of navy-blue jockey shorts.

At least oral hygiene is important. Or maybe it's not, since the toothbrush has been flung along with the clothes.

The whole thing is backwards. The discarded garments should have hit the ground well ahead of the appearance of the diapers. But maybe they had to get a sitter first. Life is a great circle, after all.

The beer bottles and cans in the normal roadside debris might indicate what fueled the process of disrobing. And there's some Red Bull for energy.

EDIT 8-10: This morning I noticed a razor lying near the toothbrush. Not just a cheapie disposable, this was a black and silver weapon of whisker destruction. I swear it was not there before.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

When come back bring pie!!*

Happy customers sometimes bring gifts. I've been fortunate enough to make this customer very happy for several years. She brought this blueberry pie on Sunday. Big G and I were holding the fort by ourselves. We were tempted to leave an empty plate and a note that said "you shoulda been here!"

At home I got to continue the pie festival with the cellist's pecan cookie crust blueberry pie:

Great for dessert or as breakfast with some Greek yogurt on top, it's a perfect companion for a cup of coffee.

Ride to eat. Eat to ride.

*http://www.weebls-stuff.com/wab/pie/

Odds and ends

One of our seasonal resident customers really loves electric bikes. He's been bringing them in since his buddy Lee Iacocca turned him on to his first one in '99. This is one from his latest fleet, which he brought in for tuneups in the spring.
On another day this oddity came in. It's a Fuji with a 27-inch frame. Fuji and Raleigh offered the largest production frames in the 1970s. Notice the seat height. The rider actually fits this bike. I could not even stand over the top tube.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Exorcism update

On the bike that kills front derailleurs we installed a Shimano Sora 9-speed compact crank. Brand new. Fresh start. The bike now shifts perfectly, according to the owner, who retrieved it and test rode it a few days ago. We're on to new crises now.

Our illustrious leader got his Shimano Ultegra rear derailleur to shift successfully on a SRAM 12-32 cassette, launching us on a little spree, defying compatibility recommendations. A customer venturing into hill climbs from her familiar realm of triathlons got the 12-32 treatment. The Zipp 404 wheel on which we put the cassette functions very well on her Surly Pacer and extremely adequately on her Serotta. Who woulda thunk it?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A true misnomer

One of the annoyingly persistent language errors these days is the use of the word "misnomer" when people actually mean "misconception." It's like, literally going to make my head explode. Really? Literally explode? Let me step well back and put on a rain suit and goggles first.

Working on a 16-inch child-size bike the other day I noticed a true misnomer. The Specialized tires were called "Rhythm Lite." I would think on a bike for young offspring they should be called "Rhythm Failure."

Monday, July 30, 2012

More unholy experimentation

Moving from approved and tested treatments to experimental therapies on the Bike that Kills Front Derailleurs, I wondered if the 9-speed SRAM PC 951 chain might fit just loosely enough on the FSA chainring to get sideways and jam there. The ring was technically only for 10-speed systems, which is a bummer if you're one of the poor saps who bought in when 9-speed was state of the art. Would a 10-speed chain work on the cassette?

Yes it would. The 10-speed Connex chain I slapped on for a test shifted perfectly well on the 9-speed cassette. It also jammed on the chain ring at least as badly as the 9-speed chain I removed.

Okay, let's go the other way. Maybe the floppy, sloppy fit of an 8-speed chain would allow it to slide off the chainring without a hitch. But would it fit the 9-speed cassette?

The 8-speed chain shifted and ran almost perfectly on the cassette, but jammed on the chainring as badly as the other candidates. It was only sluggish shifting between one set of cogs on the cassette, requiring just a little extra nudge at the brifter.

Ten-speed cassettes are probably more finicky about chain width. And of course Shimano now has its asymmetrical chains and drive systems supposedly requiring them, in case you want to give them a tighter grasp on your cogs.

I'm sticking with 8-speed chains and friction shifting.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Sacerdos ab ordinario, rite confessus,...

One of our chronic problem customers has been destroying front derailleurs at a rate of about one a month since April. The first one was simply old. It had been on his bike since about 2005. He rides a lot and, judging by the look of the bike, without finesse. But something more persistent seems to plague him.

This bike was supposed to be his fresh start after he beat his old hybrid into the ground. It's a Fuji Roubaix, a moderately decent road bike. He's had to replace wheels. He trashed a carbon fork. He was plagued by flat tires for the longest time. He's had shifting problems. As annoying as the endless series of mishaps and accelerated wear and tear has been, we could generally find cause for effect. Until the Plague of Front Derailleurs, that is.

By the end of yesterday, an hour after closing time, I had looked up the Rite of Exorcism on line. I'd thrown everything else at the bike. I was ready to dump some major Latin on it. Then I saw it was 15 pages. Fun's fun, but that's a lot of "...aut saltem corde peccata sua detestans, peracto, si commode fieri possit, Sanctissimo Missæ sacrificio, divinoque auxilio piis precibus implorato, superpelliceo et stola violacea indutus, et coram se habens obsessum ligatum, si sit periculum, eum, se et astantes communiat signo crucis, et aspergat aqua benedicta, et genibus flexis, aliis respondentibus, dicat Litanias ordinarias usque ad Preces exclusive..." And so on.

At least we finally got to see what he's doing to mangle his derailleurs in his own unique way. The first one had broken at the front of the cage so it could not push the chain effectively. The second one went the same way, but also had the outer plate of the derailleur cage peculiarly bowed outward. The third and fourth derailleur have also had that peculiar outward bend to the outer cage plate.

The rider had neglected to mention, and the bike had failed to show us on any test ride until yesterday, that the chain was hanging up on the outer chainring when downshifting under load (his standard MO, apparently) and getting dragged up into the derailleur. Each incident progressively spreads the cage more and more until the bike will barely shift.

But here's the kicker. We have now changed absolutely every component involved: front derailleur, chain rings, chain, bottom bracket bearings, everything. All brand new. Chain still jams.

ADJÚRO ergo te, omnis immundíssime spíritus, omne phantásma, omnis incúrsio sátanæ,...

I might just resort to the Holy Sledge Hammer and call it good.



Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Employer's Guilt

The cellist and I are having a little addition put on the house. It's not like we're secret millionaires or just won a lottery. We're blowing our nest egg to do it. It's a simple decision at the end of a complex line of thought. How we got here doesn't really matter. The point is, we're creating jobs.

When you create jobs, people show up for work. They may be people with whom you don't normally spend time. This crew built a previous addition for us in 1999 to prepare for the arrival of the cellist when she came to live here full-time. A friend of mine had worked for them and his brother still does. So they're not total strangers. Two of them have mountain bikes. One still rides fairly regularly. The other rider has been hindered by a bout with lymphoma that left him with nerve pain originating from tumors near his spine.

I ponder my place in the world more than is probably good for me. In terms of my overall contribution to society I often feel I should live in a hovel no matter what I might by chance be able to afford. I'm a bicycle mechanic in a rural resort town. It's not like I get to do heroic deeds in support of transportation cycling in an area where a lot of people can and will take it up. Around here it will always be a challenge of debatable worth. When the bike business had its high points, like the mountain bike craze of the 1990s and the very brief bike commuting surge in 2008 when gasoline first hit $4 a gallon, I felt like what I did mattered. Now, for most customers I service their hobby, their diversion. It's just not important.

I got over any great sense of superiority as a cyclist decades ago. Now I simply try to represent my people in a way that will do them credit. I'm known as that crazy guy who rides his bike from Effingham to Wolfeboro every day. A source of wonder, I am not a role model for more than a minuscule handful of people. They all know better. But if I want to continue to entertain and amaze them with my persistence, that's fine.

The builders could not commute by bike. They are not hostile to the concept. They simply can't do their jobs without trucks. Their work is physically laborious. Their tools and materials are bulky and heavy. And when you need them, you need them.

In the marketplace, people bring their needs and abilities together to make deals. People who spend all their time making money must trade it to people who make things and do things. People who make things and do things for their money still have to get products and services from other providers because of the time and training they have devoted to their particular specialties. Not everyone sweats and strains while making their legitimate contribution to society.

Work that looks like work needs no explanation. You see shovels moving or hear screeching power saws and the bang of nail guns. A building takes shape or changes form. Is a financial manipulator with no conscience really worth 700 times as much as these practical people giving physical form to an idea I sketched and handed to them?

When my money is gone, it's gone. It was a windfall, an utterly unexpected life preserver on the choppy sea of life. In an actual emergency like a serious medical problem it would evaporate faster than spit on a hot griddle. Expanding the shack means we can more comfortably accommodate visiting friends and family. Having lost a few of those in recent years, that seems like a higher value than trying to crouch on top of a little pile of money that wouldn't even make much of a fire.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The witness you carry with you

A friend just sent this link to a New York Times article about cyclists using their wearable video cameras to document attacks by aggressive motorists. I had that exact idea when I started to want a camera, long before I actually got one.

The link arrived a day after all three of us at the shop had incidents on the same day. Compared to getting machine-gunned in a crowded theater our troubles didn't seem like much, so I didn't post anything about them. Motorist nastiness is so routine anyway that it hardly seems worth calling out individual examples unless they do hit you. The problem is that you never know when that might occur.

Yesterday, when we each had our encounters, the driving public seemed inexplicably antsy. I'd had a fairly placid ride in the morning, when my colleagues reported their harassment, but within half a mile of my home on the evening run I had a driver put his car full of people, an oncoming car full of people and me at completely unnecessary risk by forcing past me when I was already covering the lane.

The volatile jerk ruins the effectiveness of a lane-covering cyclist by either mowing you down or simply going even farther into the opposite lane as if it's their indisputable right to pass without slowing and without regard for anyone else who happens to be trying to occupy the same general space at the time.

I was not wearing the camera, after weeks of uninteresting recording. I may put it on again, but I certainly don't relish the idea of sifting through the recording after getting hit.

While all the reports of ugly encounters resonate with all cyclists who have had them, you have to remember that you never hear about the thousands of cyclists who landed safely after an uneventful trip. Our standard of uneventful may have to be a bit flexible, but the fact remains that most trips go smoothly enough.

The sad reminders of human selfishness take their toll subconsciously. I seethe a little when I think about the fact that I might be maimed or die as a result of someone else's mere impatience. If I ever do give up cycling I'm going to drive really slowly down the dead center of the road with signs all over my car that say, "I used to ride a bike. You could pass me easily. How do you like me NOW?"

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fuzzy pictures with a clear message

Last week we had a rash of bikes that had developed mysterious shifting problems. Adjusted derailleurs would creep out of adjustment a little more with every shift.
 The fuzzy photo above illustrates how the inner wires of shift cable housing can punch through the ferrule and burrow into the brains of the shifter. They can also emerge from the other end, through the cable stop on the frame. Any section of housing in the system can do this, but it causes the most potential damage when the wires dig into the shifter.
This fuzzy video shows the actual extraction of exploded housing from a brifter and inspection of the shift cable itself for fraying inside the shifter, which can also have expensive consequences. A piece of the plastic liner of the housing has been shoved all the way through the shifter.

If you keep having to adjust your derailleur cable and take more and more cable through the anchor bolt, undo the cable and pull the housing out of all the stops along its route.

Five millimeter housing with beefy metal end caps is the least likely to fail in this manner. Cheesy OEM 4mm with plastic caps is the most likely. You decide.

"Can you fix my wheel?"

The answer ultimately was, "no."