Friday, July 26, 2013

I hope I quit soon enough

I have known a number of smokers who managed to quit that habit. In every case they hoped they had done it soon enough to avoid things like heart trouble and lung cancer.

Now comes this information about top-caliber endurance athletes. My employer, a cross-country ski racer since the 1970s, has developed some heart rhythm problems. His many friends with similar interests have been sending him information, including this recent study that shows a 30% increase in the incidence of heart problems among the top tier of cross-country ski racers. Other studies have extended the risk pool to include hard-core competitive athletes in other self-propelled sports.

Gosh, I only hope I quit soon enough.

I'm not seriously worried. I did have a bout of premature ventricular contractions (pvc) in the 1980s when I cut back significantly on my training. It was exacerbated by my habitual caffeine overdoses and eventually resolved itself. But the one thing I learned during my competitive years is that I'm not all that competitive. The people who are damaging themselves in pursuit of athletic glory are on a higher level of agony -- and sometimes unsanctioned physiological experimentation -- entirely. So you see, there's a lot to be said for mildly vigorous underachievement.

In honor of that I think I'll take a rest day. The weather is wet and I slept late.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

An immaculately tailored tissue paper suit.

Based on my observation of the mechanical work that comes out of a shop in our region renowned for its bike fitting expertise, I'm starting to believe that the fit guys are like the body shop guys whose cars look stupendous, but run like crap.

Proper fit is important. Whether it is really the millimetric science that some of its practitioners would have us believe is debatable, but I certainly respect the technicians who have invested in equipment and training to be able to set up an athlete on a bicycle with enough precision and confidence to put that worry out of the athlete's mind. Make room for other concerns, like nutrition, training schedule and whether to start doping.

The thing about fitters is that they seem to care only about the position of the rider on the bike, not about the function of the bike itself. For instance, when one of them reconfigured a Surly Pacer I had set up for a customer who wanted a bad-weather version of her triathlon bike, he put a very steep-rise, short stem on it when converting it to the drop-bar road riding position from the aero-bar position I had set up to duplicate her tri bike exactly. I had even used the cast-off bar and stem from her tri bike. I'd made a finely-calculated effort to replicate her riding position and she had been pleased with the result. But then when she wanted to change the bike over to a different use she decided to use some shop credit at Fits R Us. I'm all about saving a buck, but damn. Fits R Us put on a stem that wrecks the handling of the bike. When I test rode it recently after some adjustments it was horribly squirrelly. It may put my friend in the perfect biomechanical position on a trainer, but it really stinks when actually riding.

I haven't told my friend because she doesn't mind it. But if I had been doing the fit I would have used a fork with a longer steerer so I could put the bars higher without using either a steep-rise stem or one of those ugly bolted-on stem risers.

At least the handling of this bike proves my theory about the effect of stem angle on bike handling. The connection points of rider to bike are not just points in space. The shape of the linkages matters.

The problem may not be fitters in general, it may be Fits R Us in particular. I have worked on bikes fitted by other practitioners, but in many cases the riders fall into a size range that requires no radical component choices.

A fitter will adapt a rider's bike to the human form without questioning the materials used in its construction, just as a tailor could fit you to an immaculately fitted tissue paper suit. It would be an ephemeral piece of rubbish, but you would look great in it while it lasted. When it comes to stupid design elements like 4 mm shift housing and head-tube cable stops, the fitters have nothing to say about it. Brifters that choke on a broken shift cable are fine with them, too. They'll make sure that the hard, narrow seat with carbon shell, titanium rails and a covering of endangered condor hide ($589.95 and free freight) is at the perfect height and angle. The carbon-fiber bar and stem, the 17-speed electronic shift controls and hydraulic brake levers will sit in the exact position for ultimate performance.

When faced with anyone who has developed Position Neurosis I send them to a professional fitter. I just don't have the showmanship to sound thoroughly convincing to a rider who needs the perfect combination of medical science and psychobabble to be able to put their fear of bad bike fit behind them. I'm glad someone is willing to exploit this population for profit help these poor people. It saves me a lot of time.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Note to Self

When I leave a bike on the work stand at the end of the day I like to leave myself a note so I remember procedures I still need to complete.
This one had a bent chainring.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Shifting systems

These newfangled gear shifting systems are nothing but trouble. People are so darn lazy they want to switch chainrings just by pulling a lever. Wingnuts on the rear axle aren't good enough for these prima donnas. No stopping by the roadside and lifting the chain by hand. I see nothing but trouble with this complicated mechanism.
Unfortunately, this wonderful large-radius downtube shifter is no longer attached to a matching Simplex rear derailleur. The cable goes to a 1990s-vintage cheesy sheet metal and plastic derailleur. And the freewheel, which looks like it could be original, is threaded onto a replacement wheel that's probably the same age as the rear derailleur. This frame probably had 120 mm rear spacing. Now there's a 130 axle shoehorned into the dropouts.

When it finally reaches the repair stand I can get a few shots of the handlebars and brake levers. They look like vintage. The stem looks like a later addition: too streamlined.
The owner said the bike belonged to his father, who may have bought it used. It's not exquisitely hand crafted, but it's an interesting example of a production road bike from before the 1970s influx of European, and then Japanese, lugged ten speeds that most of us think of as the oldies.

Distracted Driving

When I look at drivers at all, I see far too many of them with their eyes aimed down instead of out toward the road. The more conscientious might be holding their device up on the steering wheel so they can glance up at whatever they are hurtling toward at 50-70 miles per hour. In the case of oncoming motor vehicle traffic those closure speeds would be 100-140. They're still not paying full attention, no matter what they might think.

On Wednesday I posted this idea: To reach distracted drivers, someone needs to invent a device that will broadcast a text alert to any cell phone in active use within 100 yards. Don't bother trying to get idiots to improve their driving habits. Just send them a text of your own. "Cyclist ahead! Eyes on the road, doofus!"

I realize now that a text alert reinforces their idea that their behavior is acceptable. Besides, that message takes too long to read. So the transponder cyclists could carry will interrupt the signal of any phone in the target range and cause it to heat rapidly to 300 degrees.

In the case of hands-free voice-to-text devices, they will simply emit a piercing shriek, or perhaps say, "Pay attention to your driving! Watch where you're going! Slow down! Give that cyclist three feet of passing room!"

Transponder owners could customize their outgoing message. It might say something like, "That rider carries a gun and can shoot the eye out of a flea at 50 yards." Or, more realistically, it could say, "Good luck getting ALL the blood off your car. Better pass with lots of room."

The classic "Hang up and drive" is nice and direct. But it doesn't acknowledge the essential stress and boredom of driving that motivates people to seek distraction in the first place. If driving was as great as the car advertisements portray it, no one would want to dilute the ecstasy with phone calls and text messages.

Summer traffic around here dramatically increases the numbers of the angry and the stupid. It's our little taste of what life is like in Sprawlopolis, the seething, built-out circles of Hell from which these vacationers have briefly escaped. Between the traffic and the parking, it's a great time to be on a bike, slipping through it, instead of in a car, stuck in the middle of it.

If you call me it's going to go to voice mail.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Lighting Priorities

This summer we've been having a lot of this:
With permanently installed lighting I can switch the headlight on when approaching intersections. I do that even in clear weather when approaching a couple of bad ones. My route isn't busy enough to make daytime running lights necessary. The sudden appearance of the light may increase its effect as I enter the maneuvering zone.

Sometimes it's nice to run the light just to add some warmth and brightness to the dreary scene.

On the open highway in fog I appreciate the power of the Superflash blinky taillight. I don't use it in good weather because the sight lines are mostly good and I wear bright (but not harshly bright) clothing. In reduced visibility I want to give overtaking drivers as much time as possible to realize a slower vehicle is there.

To reach distracted drivers, someone needs to invent a device that will broadcast a text alert to any cell phone in active use within 100 yards. Don't bother trying to get idiots to improve their driving habits. Just send them a text of your own. "Cyclist ahead! Eyes on the road, doofus!"

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Precision Engineering

Back in the 1970s, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, we cyclists would save our coins to buy the good stuff, like the racers use, because it was finished to closer tolerances and built to last, with proper maintenance. Some of it was super light and fragile, but a 36-spoke wheel was normal.

Racers did not want to risk a mechanical breakdown. They wanted gear that would stand up to abuse. To insure this, it was mostly a trifle overbuilt for its mission.

Science and engineering march on. Race support hovers closer. Designers work closer to the edge because racing equipment doesn't need to last forever. It only needs to last the day. Overnight the mechanics can put on a new piece. It's all part of the cost of mounting a winning campaign. If some wafty widget made of a proprietary layup of rare spider silk seems to be the best compromise of strength and light weight you keep buying them, because mere money should not stand in the way of victory.

Most riders, even racers, don't really have that kind of budget. Most professional teams would probably prefer not to toast most of their componentry in the course of each day of hard racing. But the change wasn't instantaneous. It's subtle and gradual, like a drug addict's slide to the tipping point.

As the top componentry becomes intensely sophisticated and complex, the mid-range stuff is simply beefed-up or watered-down versions of it. Simple durability dwindles and could vanish entirely. The simple parts are relegated to the bottom of the product range, the realm of stamped sheet metal, rough castings and cheesy plastic.

On the Fourth of July a rider brought his bike in, fresh from his crash out on Route 28. His SRAM Apex brifter was severely dislocated. His holiday weekend had only just begun. He left the bike so we could try to reduce the dislocation and restore some function.

On closer examination, I saw the lever body was fractured. The brake lever hadn't just been popped out of its pivots, the pivot seat had broken off.

We don't stock brifters. We've accidentally accumulated some Shimano singles and pairs, but nothing from SRAM. With no time to order anything, I told the guy I would improvise using a traditional brake lever and a barcon set on friction. When I couldn't find an aero road brake lever in either the shop stash or my personal cache at home, I used a Campy brifter with a worn ratchet as the brake lever. It was a nice Record carbon lever with only a few scuff marks from its own tumultuous past.

Interestingly, the 8-speed barcon I used did not pull enough cable to get all the way to the lowest gear on the Apex cassette. The SRAM derailleur is too much of a cable hog. Still, the rider was young and strong, so he settled for his next-to-lowest gear. I patched up his shredded handlebar tape and off he went for a few days. On Sunday he came back to have the emergency repair removed so he can go home and get the bike properly restored.

Admittedly, crash damage exceeds normal wear and tear. But in one sense it only accelerates the normal process. The rider is faced with all the compatibility issues and expense sooner rather than later.

You want to know what it's like to be a bike racer? Take 5-7 hard spinning sessions a week. Every few weeks have someone take a cheese grater to you while you're wearing your expensive cycling kit. And set fire to several hundred dollars a month. Happy?

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Identify yourself!

In a service business you have to ask for people's names and other information.

For some reason, the question, "what's your name?" has always made me uncomfortable. Maybe it's because I was a rather paranoid child. Why do you want to know my name? What are you going to do with that information?

When a name is not required, I don't ask for it. It feels like prying. I'll be the superhero with the secret identity and you be the anonymous citizen whose bacon I save. We'll share a momentary look of understanding and then I'll mysteriously vanish and you go on with your life.

On repair forms I just hand the customer the clip board and say, "could you just fill out the contact info on the top here while I check a few things on your bike?" This legitimately lets me perform necessary tasks like measuring chain wear and checking tire condition while the customer performs the equally necessary task of giving us a way to get their bike back to them when we've finished with it. We see many people only a few times or for a short period every year, so they might remember a lot about us while we only have a nagging feeling we're supposed to know them. So, big smile, give them the clip board, look busy and they will tell us without having to be asked directly, "who the heck are you, anyway?"

Sales people will ask for a customer's name to try to personalize the process. Really good ones actually do manage to establish a friendly atmosphere. Far too many others just look like they were trained to try to establish a friendly atmosphere. When forced into a selling situation because the shop is busy or shorthanded -- in other words nearly any day -- I will always give the clearest and best information I have. I don't need to know anyone's name. As long as I know what I need to know to fit a person to the product, asking their name just feels like prying or manipulation.

This morning I thought of a new approach to try. Instead of asking, "What's your name?" I'll ask, "What would you like to be called?" That way they can give me their real name or make something up...which they might be doing anyway, but this puts me in the position of opening that door and being super accommodating rather than intrusive and possibly authoritarian ("Show me your papers! What's your business here?") or smarmily friendly. I really don't care who you are. I'm here to do the best job for you that I can. In this context that's all we really need to know about each other.

Over time some relationships deepen. Compatible traits emerge through interaction. Or identity grows from accumulated incidents whether it's friendly or merely cordially businesslike. Because it happens naturally it doesn't have that awkward scripted feeling.

A few of our regular customers are prominent and at least one is an actor with a long resume. Other more transient customers might also work in entertainment. In that case, delivering a line in a stilted fashion feels particularly conspicuous. Better just to smile neutrally and keep everything friendly but impersonal. I did hear that one of them got pestered at the dive shop up the street by people wanting their picture taken. He may even enjoy that. But I would tend to believe that it would be more relaxing to be treated as a person rather than a public facility anyone can go up and jump all over.

So...what would you like to be called?

Monday, July 01, 2013

Lance should race again

Lance Armstrong should not have skulked off in disgrace after it finally came out that he really had been doping all those years. After his recent assertion that no one can win the Tour de France without doping, it occurred to me he should just approach Monsanto about sponsoring a cycling team. They're totally into putting chemicals where they shouldn't be. They could use the whole sport as their publicity campaign.

Too bad no one thought of that while there was still time.