Monday, April 08, 2013

"I'm so glad I don't own one of these."

"I'm so glad I don't own one of these."

At least once a day my colleague George or I will say those words as we minister to the ailments of someone else's bike. It could be a 40-pound piece of cheap junk or a 14-pound marvel of modern technology. It might be an arthropodically-jointed monster that crawls over rough trails and leaps down as big a drop as the rider dares to launch.

Working as a bike mechanic I have to learn about technology I don't want. It's somewhat like a doctor who studies the advance of a disease in order to make the patients who suffer from it as comfortable as possible as it ravages their bodies and their finances. But in the case of bicycling it's more of an addiction than a disease. Through peer pressure or advertising or some other seduction, the sufferers from excessive technology wind up enmeshed in the experiments of the pushers.

It's perilously easy to ignore the technology until I am forced to face it. Most recently I bungled a rear shock replacement because I did not think thoroughly enough about the problem. The work I did was clean, all fastenings properly tightened, but the shock, replacing a model no longer available, was selected incorrectly. Live and learn. I hate making mistakes, so I don't usually make them twice.

The bike companies don't make it easy to get detailed technical information, especially if you are not an "authorized dealer." When the bike is more than a couple of years old the information becomes even more difficult to find.

In the olden days, when there was an east coast bike trade show, we would go to it to collect information on brands we did not sell. We kept files with all the dealer information anyone could pick up from the exhibitors' booths. Not only did it give us wholesale price information so we could compare the deals customers were offered at other shops, it gave us the model-year specs so we could repair almost any bike that came to us with compatible replacement parts, if any still existed.

I suppose we could glean that information now by visiting every manufacturer's consumer website every year and collecting the specs on every model into a database. But the old method meant that we didn't have to look up anything until it was sitting right in front of us.

In most cases it is unnecessary because the answer sits right in front of you. You just have to take the time to examine the right parts so you compare the proper critical factors. We do maintain a library of Quality Bicycle Products catalogs going back to 1998 because we can use it to trace the lineages of componentry, particularly Shimano shifting systems, to see what can be made to work. That has mostly become easier now. When Shimano was experimenting wildly with their shifting systems and using the entire biking public as unpaid test pilots a mechanic really needed to stay current. Now they offer few choices at eight- and seven-speed for flat or upright bars. If you have a road bike with seven or eight speeds and brifters you are far lower than a second-class citizen.

Compatibility still matters on bikes a few years old, especially if they were built using unusual, technically incorrect combinations in the original configuration. The $12,000 Beater Bike had some really strange parts on it that gave me fits. And there have been plenty of others.

As I have said relentlessly and monotonously, it mostly comes down to shifting issues. Insist on convenience shifting and you become the slave of the merchants of obsolescence. When biking was booming in the 1990s the industry fed on a public that would believe anything. They did not plan for the long term, for the inevitable downturn. They cranked up the frenzy. And, as you observe them in the aftermath, they believed their own crap. They're still doing it. Would you like that bike with electric shifting? How about hydraulic? Ten speeds? Get with the program. We go to ELEVEN now.

Join the Chain of the Month Club!

If biking ever does take off again, consumers will consume whatever they are fed, just as they did before. It's human nature. Meanwhile, some are definitely turned off by too much technology, while a much larger number avoids biking because of perceived unpleasant riding conditions in so many places. I wish I had a nickel for every time someone tells me they're afraid to ride in traffic. Hell, I'm afraid to ride in traffic. I don't much care for it, anyway. I know how to take care of myself, but large numbers of passing drivers simply increase the odds that one of them will be completely brain dead or actively psychotic. So I will tell someone that they can get used to it and develop skills to make it more routine and less intimidating, but I can't tell them they're guaranteed to be fine. Ultimately, to keep riding, a rider simply has to love it enough to deal with the challenges. That can't be taught.

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