Sunday, March 25, 2012

It's payback time

What a difference 30 degrees makes.

We spent hours today in the kind of solitude we would consider normal in March in the bike shop, at least in our normal climate. Outside, showers dimpled the surface of puddles reflecting the gray sky. After days pushing 80 the temperature struggled to maintain 50 for a while. I'm not sure it ever made it.

Along with the early bugs and the peep-frogs, the little swarm of buzzing cyclists has vanished.  It's a bit of a good thing, considering how much work we have to get through from the recently-departed pseudo summer. From the look of the forecast, put the shorts away for another month and a half. The weather always makes us pay for its early indulgences.

When I thought we would still be in the last staggering steps of our pathetic winter I made arrangements to get us a Surly Pugsley for the sales floor. As it worked out, winter left in a hurry and the bike was delayed. It's finally together now. We even got lucky and got the Neck Romancer when Surly was unable to provide the basic models originally offered.

 This bike is a real-life cartoon. You cannot take yourself seriously when you're riding this. Everyone's immediate reaction is, "what the [expletive] is THAT?" The choices start at "heck" and go all the places you might guess but the sentiment is identical. Really. What IS that?
 The signature element of the bike is the enormous tires.
 Front and rear treads look like familiar patterns but spread across four inches of surface. At their maximum rated pressure of 30 psi the tires barely distort under my winter flab weight of "169." I have not tried them at the low end of 8 psi, but a rider happened to drop in today who has been riding a winter commute from West Alton to Gilford, on the other side of the lake, on a Pugsley. On the rare few snow days he ran at 10 psi.

 The big tires need a wide rim. The stock Large Marge on the original basic Pugsley is only 65 mm wide. One big plus about the Neck Romancer is that it uses the Moonlander fork, so it will accommodate the 82 mm Rolling Darryl rim for wider tread contact.
 Look at those shifters. Alas, they do not have a friction option, but it's so refreshing to see a top-mount thumb shifter that's well made rather than cheap plastic to be thrown to the poor sufferers at the low end of the price range. They remind me a lot of the last of Suntour's good ones.
The Neck Romancer comes with the Mr. Whirly Offset Double crank to keep the chain clear of the rear tire. The clearance between the front derailleur and the crank arm is insanely close -- like a 1970s racing bike. I knew more than one rider who cleaned the front derailleur cage right off his bike when the outer limit screw was not set just right. Be warned. 

Surly fat bikes have a 100 mm bottom bracket shell requiring a bottom bracket assembly to match.

 At the back end is a track-style dropout with hanger and a normal Shimano Deore derailleur and cassette.

 Brakes front and rear are Avid BB7 cable discs. I like cables because they're stupid simple. I'm starting to get used to hydraulics, but then you get into fluid compatibility with seals and all the joys and delights of air in the system, juice leaking out and accidentally clamping your pads in a death grip on each other because you forgot and squeezed the lever with the wheel out of the dropouts. That and the fact that they make it sound so easy to "push the pistons back into their bores" when changing pads, but it isn't always. Everything has its price.

 The kick stand was Steve's brainstorm when the bike wouldn't fit any hook or display rack in the shop. It's even black, so it matches the stealth color scheme.
 The frame looks tiny but it's nice chromoly. The bike isn't even that heavy. Most of the bulk is full of air, after all. The bikes even float, as shown here.

 The fork has more studs than a punk rocker. I don't even know all the things one is supposed to attach there. Maybe they just slap attachment points on there like a backpack designer adding accessory straps. You'll find a use for them!

While I took advantage of the somewhat drier afternoon to take these pictures I took the bike for another little spin around the parking lot. It is surprisingly agile. It feels, in a word, normal. You can lay it way over on those big, round tires and boof it off of curbs, but you can also just ride it and not think much about it.

 The next thing I rode was about as far in the other direction as you can get. I just about killed myself on this Cannondale Synapse. I almost hooked it into the wall when I got distracted for a moment.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Quality and efficiency

I thought I had upper management in a teachable moment yesterday but I was wrong.

The top banana was checking over a Specialized path bike he had assembled when we noticed a brake pad was crooked. I pointed out that they tighten more smoothly when the threads of the post are greased.

"If you want them greased you can do it in the free tuneup," he said. "We don't have time to do all that when we have so many bikes to assemble."

Nothing he puts on the floor will ever be unsafe. The handlebars are always tight, the pedals are threaded in. The wheels have been trued. The gears will work properly. He's hardly the most hurried and careless assembler out there. Beyond that, though, you're on your own. Factory-assembled hubs are always too tight. Various threads are not greased, so the tightness of fasteners isn't reliable.

He doesn't complain about more meticulous assembly on more expensive bikes. That's good, because I would have to wear ear plugs or headphones every day.

High quality assembly saves a lot of time and some potential embarrassment down the road. Meticulously assembled bikes need almost nothing at the free tuneup. In fact, many of them need almost nothing a year later when the owners come back for routine maintenance. Bikes that are ridden farther or more vigorously will need work, but they also hold up a lot better if they were put together to a high standard in the first place.

Meticulous assembly takes longer than a rush job. It doesn't take a lot longer, especially if you know your system and have refined your technique. The time you spend up front is time you will save many times over at every later stage of the sale and just about every time the bike comes in for service. I do it for myself as much as I do it for the customer. Let's ALL have an easier, more fun time. There's greater profit in doing a good job. Who knew?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

March Madness

The surge of summer heat continued today for what is supposed to be the final day. It's not plunging back to normal, though. It's coasting down over about five days with very little rain in the forecast.

We usually have the month of March to collect our thoughts and assemble new bikes for the sales floor. This year we have a tangle of customer bikes jammed in the waiting area as well as the shipment of more than 30 new ones from Specialized and the first eight from Surly.

Happy cyclists ride too hard in this illusion of summer. The warm air makes it easier. When the chill settles in late next week will they all disappear into spinning classes and private hells of indoor training or will they heroically push the big gears in the raw wind and damn the knee pain?

I'm too old and decrepit to fall for the temptation to push myself. Today was my first ride to work from home. I've ridden further on training rides already, but not on as many hills. I'm not hammering the climbs or sprinting after traffic.

Some drivers did a truly stellar job going by me today. No one was a jerk. So that was nice.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Calendar winter, temperature summer

Yesterday the temperature hit 77 degrees here in central New Hampshire. I rode in shorts and a jersey.

Spring-like weather is nice. In what we would have considered a normal year we don't expect to see much of it until May. Early warm spells on a day or two in April would usually be punished by weeks of retribution. It was all part of New England's famously character-building climate and terrain. So anyone who has lived here for more than a couple of years enjoys the pleasure of nice days with an uneasy eye on the horizon.

Last year the nice weather burst upon us in March as well, but it followed a somewhat normal winter, with feet of snow and a spell of subzero cold. It is a rare spring that progresses so agreeably without some harsh setback. Following a nonexistent winter it feels unearned. On second thought it feels like a justifiable reward precisely because we got no real winter to let us enjoy normal winter activities. Even so, it's hard to set out on even a short ride without the usual layers and spares one carries for cold weather expeditions.

Had I been a devoted indoor trainer I might launch the full commute right now. Instead I let the season  get to me. I'm laying down some base miles before I jump into the whole route.

The second trip down the Cotton Valley Trail found it much better and still far from good.  The ice was more rotten, the dirt still squishy. That was before these days at 70 degrees could work on it. I wallowed to town from my parking area and trudged back out in the evening, diverting again onto pavement for most of the return trip.

Parts are arriving for the generator wheel for the mountain bike commuter. It's good to have options. Effingham and the surrounding area have a lot of dirt roads in rough shape. A mountain bike with night capability could prove interesting beyond the commute.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Yeah, THAT went well

Snow covered the place I usually park when I ride the path as an alternative commuting route. I almost charged the drift with my car because the snow beyond looked like the car could probably manage it, but I went to the further parking area first. It was partially buried in snow. The rest was flooded. I drove back to the first place and shoved the car in the ditch.

I had hoped the trail would be fairly clear.
It wasn't.
Snowmobiles had packed the surface. The snow was deep enough to cover the rails in many places. I rode down whatever line seemed smoothest without worrying about where the official crossings were.

The bike kept slithering and catching as the side lugs of the tread stopped the skid. The snow and ice varied. Maybe a big fat Pugsley tire would have done better, or something with some really savage studs. As it was, I made about 5-7 miles per hour until I got to some open dirt. Where the snow was gone, meltwater usually saturated the dirt, so it wasn't as slithery but the drag kept my pace down.
I needed a break.

By afternoon all the frozen stuff was mushy and wet and most of the dirt was a bog. I took the paved option from Route 109.
Lake Wentworth was dazzling. The world is never brighter than when the strengthening sun can light up the late winter snow pack. There's not much pack this year, but the lake ice preserves it for a while. That and the trail, of course. The annoying part about the trail was that in places I slithered along on wet ice right next to ground that had thawed clear but was too rough or vegetated or swampy to ride on.

The path is obviously not going to cooperate with my scheme to mix base miles with park-and-ride commuting. Several days with highs in the 60s this week will dispose of a lot of snow and ice, but they call the end of winter mud season for good reason.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The beginning of the end of the winter that never was

Daylight relocating time begins tonight.

Bike commuting begins tomorrow.

It's a matter of life and death.

The fat-tire commuter is ready for daylight operations. The shop has not placed a parts order yet, so I have not built the generator wheel that will make the bike ready for night. But daylight will do for now. It's long enough and getting longer. I've been looking out the window, stretching a little, feeling like a fledgling bird flapping on the edge of the nest, waiting to launch.

For a worker barely clinging to the lower end of the middle income bracket, sport for sport's sake is a luxury. For anyone, anything above the needs of subsistence is a luxury, but that's another discussion. In our society we get all we can and make benevolence a hobby. It's a dog-eat-dog rat race out there. But a few of us dog rats have figured out how to sneak in some sporty exercise and save some money at the same time. It's called transportation cycling.

This winter I accidentally conducted an experiment with exercise deprivation. I thought last winter was bad this way, but this winter was a complete disaster.

I got into bike commuting partly because I knew I was not an athletic person. I was not one to exercise just because I should. Bike commuting led me to racing, in which I discovered I was more athletic than I thought, but exercise always had to entertain me. Bicycling, hiking, cross-country skiing, rock and ice climbing are all ways to travel. They present problems to solve, challenges to overcome, and gear and gadgets to play with. To prepare for them I would be able to submit to a small amount of artificial exercise as long as I knew I would get out to play soon. The play connected to work because I seemed to find myself working in outdoor retail a lot.

One by one the less practical exercises have slipped away. Ice climbing fell out of the schedule first, followed quickly by technical rock. Cross-country skiing has suffered paradoxically from the pressures of working for a ski shop and touring center. That and the unreliable winters. I have less excuse for giving up hiking, other than lack of opportunity on a work day and too much to do on a day off.

Bike commuting, for all of its inconveniences here in the country, remains a reliable routine workout. I spent this winter feeling like I was in prison.

Snow fell last night. The trail could be interesting tomorrow morning. The temperature is headed for 50 degrees tomorrow, so whatever fell today will probably disappear completely from ground that had gone from white to mud on two days that flirted with 60.

I don't care. I'm going for a ride.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Snowy day

Squalls of snow blew past the window. The wind stripped the heat from the back of the building, so I put my ski hat on as I sat at the desk, reviewing the Lakes Region Draft Bicycling and Walking Plan. Bike season had seemed close ahead when the ground was mostly bare. Now it receded a week at a time with every hour of snowfall.

The language of official planning documents tends to be dense and fibrous. It takes a lot of mental chewing and a lot of coffee to wash it down. Every specialty develops its own code words. I wrote a page of notes just from a quick skim.

Public input consisted of five meetings and an on-line questionnaire. About 70 people attended the public meetings. That's an average of about 14 people per meeting. The survey was up for six weeks and received 245 responses. I attended a meeting and did the survey. Out of the whole Lakes Region, public opinion was represented by a tiny fraction of the total population, even in the off season. So when the planners did their statistical slice and dice to determine preferences they had only that small cross section of users from which to extrapolate.

Sixty-seven percent of respondents were age 50 or older. Only 11 people under 30 replied.

The survey indicated that 19 percent of  respondents do not ride a bicycle at all. The reasons summarized are:

"Inadequate road shoulders (47.5 percent), concerns about personal safety in traffic (37 percent)
and lack of on-street bike lanes (33.5 percent) are the leading factors preventing people from
biking more or at all. These factors outweigh distance from destinations and weather, unlike

Just under a quarter of respondents reported riding to work or school at least once a week in summer. Just over a quarter of them reported riding for shopping, errands or dining at least once a week in summer. By far the largest group, 68 percent, reported riding for recreation or exercise at least once a week in summer.

Almost 60 percent of respondents wanted 4-foot paved shoulders on busy roads. Just over 53 percent thought on-street bike lanes would enhance their safety and enjoyment. A total of 45.5 percent reported that safer pavement was needed. Off-street paths were the big winner, with 82.3 percent of respondents calling for more of them.

People would rather not be within 50 yards of a car when they're not in a car. What can I say? I hate traffic, too. I hate it no matter how I'm getting around. By some statistical measures, bicycling is safer than driving, but when a collision does take place between a bicyclist and a motor vehicle the bicyclist gets dented much more often than the occupants of the motor vehicle. We're hangin' right out there. People feel exposed because they are exposed.

The draft plan contains lots of ideas for traffic blending and calming, including creative ways to make shoulders without widening roads. You guessed it, it's a trompe l'oeil painting trick. Yep, just move that white line and presto: a two-foot shoulder appears to the right of a ten-foot lane.

A bicyclist and a motorist passing in 12 feet take up the same amount of space regardless of where someone painted a white line. Putting the bicyclist to the right of a white line creates an impression of separateness that could make a motorist more resentful when the cyclist comes over to the left to complete a proper and legal maneuver. The same is true whether the shoulder is two feet wide or four.

I ride well to the right on Route 28. On the long stretches of open road I have to trust that drivers want to get safely past me even if it's just to avoid getting a gooey mess all over their paint job. As soon as things get tight I move into the lane to help people make good decisions. It has worked so far, but I'm losing horsepower while the motor vehicles are as fast as ever. What's going to solve that? A generation of drivers that grows up accepting bicyclists as a normal and respected element of traffic? Build THAT.

My colleague George, who did a lot of riding in the greater Boston area in the 1970s and '80s, said that he routinely disregarded one-way streets. As he explained the process I began to wonder if the problem lies not with the cyclists and drivers who violate one-way streets, but with the concept of one-way streets themselves. For decades I had accepted the traffic engineering that said one-way streets make traffic flow more smoothly. They make some traffic flow more smoothly. But not all travelers need to flow the same distance. The streets are pathways between points. Making some of them one-way to allow motorists to move faster makes everyone who is not a motorist less safe. Riding against that flow is itself not safe and can be highly annoying. Is it just a gateway to riding against traffic on two-way streets?

As George reported it, in communities with narrow streets that carried two-way traffic, drivers managed to flow past each other slowly and carefully. Slow and careful are good things.

Little of this applies to the largely rural spaces between the few urban areas in the Lakes Region and the small towns that dot it. There we deal with narrow highways and wildly fluctuating traffic volumes from place to place and season to season. Solutions have to vary as the difference in speed between types of road user increases.

Hopefully this plan won't just gather dust for a few years until the next time someone thinks it could use an update.