Thursday, October 31, 2013

From the Great Age of Fake

Today's repair subject is a 1995 Specialized Rockhopper. It went into storage after very little use, so it's like an archeological specimen.

The mid-1990s was the Great Age of Fake in the bike industry. New companies were appearing. Old companies were searching for new identities or battling for their lives.

Component manufacturers competed for lucrative OEM contracts with bike companies. Accounting and marketing departments suddenly mattered more than they ever had before.

Accounting departments wanted to see costs kept down as income went up. Make the money. You can always figure out how to hide it. But you're screwed if it isn't coming in. That's where the marketing department shoved its sleeves up and elbowed everyone else aside.

Component makers needed to offer parts that looked good at common -- read "low" -- price points. In the mid 1990s a mid-price mountain bike like a Rockhopper was around $500. That was a comfortable investment for many people who wanted an affordable, sporty bike that would last a while.

When I came back into the bike business in 1989, after nine years away from it, Specialized had established itself as a decent bike line. The model ranges from low to high were Hardrock, Rockhopper and Stumpjumper. At each price point they offered a solid value.

Within three years the explosive growth of mountain biking had begun to erode that from the bottom. Specialized started cheapening the Hardrock even as the price continued to rise. They had made their name. Now they were extracting profit by cutting corners on the product.

Maybe OEM componentry had become ridiculously expensive, so all they could get for lower price points was deceptive garbage. If so, did that bother them at all?

The general devaluation reached the Rockhopper around 1994.
Here is a crank that looks like it has replaceable chainrings in the 58-94 bolt pattern that was coming into common use. Look closely. All three rings are bolted together and attach to the small bolt circle that holds the smallest ring. The rings are Shimano-specific. Of course they were not available for long as replacement parts. About the time people actually wore out any, the replacements were long gone. Lay that one at Shimano's feet with a sizable pile of other bodies.

Interestingly, this crank is from the same year and has basically the same arm profile as the MC 12, M 290 and CT 90 (Alivio, Acera and Altus) cranks Shimano had to recall worldwide because they were snapping off. Somehow the STX model escaped that fate.
These brake levers continue the theme of looks over substance. That's a nice aluminum two-finger lever blade mounted in a cheesy plastic body. The stamped sheet metal clamping band is tightened by a dinky Phillips head screw.
These pedals with a "rugged steel cage" and "space age polymer resin" (plastic) body are still offered as an upgrade from all plastic. However, the metal parts do not want to stay attached to the plastic parts, including the steel axle and bearing cups that will start digging their way out through that plastic pedal body from day one.

The major companies in the industry still play this game even though the market splintered into factions by the beginning of the 21st Century. But smaller companies have sprung up in the niche markets that allow for some creativity and some bikes that might last a while.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


My lair smells like coffee smoke.
I just finished roasting this batch of Kenyan on a grill in the garage. Loving that smell and the coffee chaff on the floor.
My assistant pays close attention as long as I keep finding dog treats in my jacket pocket. He doesn't know I'm trying to train him a little. A little would be a lot more training than he has ever had.
The work stand waits for its next job. I thought someone was dropping off a bike today, but she probably decided to wait until her new rear derailleur arrives.
November's typical cloud cover is being delivered a little early. The sun would break through for seconds or minutes, but wind-driven clouds would snap it off like a switch. The play of light would best be enjoyed with a long view, not in this close forest. Here it's just like some annoying jerk flipping it on and off. Quit it! Jeez!

It's chilly out here. This building would be hard to insulate. I use the full height and store stuff on the rafters. So cold weather work is taxing.  I can't leave any tools or equipment out here that can't withstand potential subzero temperature.

Saturday, October 26, 2013


This morning I left the house with liner gloves and bike gloves. Wearing the liners under the bike gloves has been good enough. But this morning was the coldest yet. I wished I had gone for heavier gloves or brought shell mittens.

Fortunately there were a couple of plastic bags kicking around the car.
The emergency overmitt
One of the bags was only a zippered sandwich bag. Even the other more generous bag made shifting and braking difficult. Before any tricky bits I would yank the bags off and hold them in my teeth.

I guess it's time to carry my real overmitts in the daily kit.

On Wednesday I started testing Cat Ears noise reducers. I had liked the idea when I first heard about them. As I get older I have more trouble sorting out sounds as I ride. Reducing wind noise should help me keep tabs on traffic behind me. Unfortunately, the path commute gives me little opportunity to test the Cat Ears on motor vehicle noise. I do have a better idea how noisy my tires are now.

Thursday morning the cold had really settled in,  so I switched to the ear covers from Cat Ears.  Combined with a polypro beanie and some tape over front helmet vents they kept my ears warmer than my thin earmuffs did. In colder weather I would probably use a heavier (but still thin) hat with some built-in ear coverage. In the coldest conditions I wear that and the earmuffs. The Cat Ears product,  mounted to the helmet straps, seems to provide better protection with a little less bulk. And it's called Cat Ears. 

I need to tape over more vents. My mere cool weather job isn't good enough for freezing and below. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Today's stupid crash brought to you by too much coffee

I am not naturally a morning person. It's even harder this time of year, when morning looks a lot like night until suddenly it's time to hurry out the door.

Yesterday morning I lost half a cup of the morning elixir when I started to pour the potful into the thermal carafe without emptying the warm water out of it first. So last night I made a tad more than usual. It makes no sense. I wasn't going to make the same mistake again. But once I poured the water I went ahead and added grounds to match. When it comes to coffee, if a little is good, more is better.

To combat the diuretic effect of my drug of choice I try to eat something absorbent for breakfast, like a big pile of toast. There are a lot of variables. The system does not always work. So I've located suitable stopping places on my regular routes.

For the park and ride route I recently changed to a spot nearer where I park, so I don't interrupt a nice long downhill. This was probably an old logging access. Now it is guarded by a ditch. And that's where the problem starts.

I have not figured out how to get across that ditch smoothly. It's not very deep, but the far side of it is nearly vertical. Coming in at various speeds and angles I have not managed to cross it stylishly. At least half the time I haven't even managed to stay on the pedals.

Despite more than adequate caffeine, my departure from the house was marked by fumbles and stumbles.  I should have been warned.

Due to the surfeit of coffee, I really needed that stop. I aimed for the ditch with my weight well behind the saddle. The front wheel plugged into the far side of the ditch and stopped dead. I was headed up over the bars without an instant to try to do anything. It happened fast enough to be unstoppable,  but slowly enough to fully experience and enjoy the trip. Up, over...and -- down. Blat!

I was simultaneously glad and sorry that no one was recording my performance on video. I would have liked to see how it looked.

Nothing was bent or broken on me or the bike. So that was good.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Twilight commuting benefits

The big, fat moon was coming up over Lake Wentworth when I got to the causeway. You can't see it, but a loon was swimming around in this postcard landscape.
In the last mile of the ride back to where I park, the moon was just clearing a ridge beyond a grassy wetland. The temperature was nice. Not too cool, not too warm. A night to ride slowly enough to look at things.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Organization is key

Tip of the day: keep small parts together in neat containers with the contents clearly labeled.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The all-seeing, all knowing mechanic

This morning on my path commute I came up behind an older man on a hybrid bike. Usually riders and walkers hear me come up behind them. They generally prefer to pull aside. Not this guy. He entered a long stretch where the path runs between the rails. I would not be able to pass him without making a point of inconveniencing him.

I had to laugh, being stuck like a motorist in traffic, or like a driver behind a cyclist where it isn't safe to pass. I had plenty of time to think about it as he made his leisurely way, apparently unaware I was back there at all. I stayed quiet so he wouldn't feel compelled to make room for me in the narrow confines of the rails.

Long minutes passed. I scrutinized the details of his bike. Why was he in that strange gear, on the small chainring up front and the smallest or next smallest cog in back? Were the shifters acting up? I checked his crank to see if it was a crank of death. Tne brakes indicated it was about a 1998 bike, safely past the Crank of Death era.

The tires looked like about 700X35, with no bald spots. I couldn't guess at chain wear, but it looked like it needed lube.

Finally we moved out from between the rails. I gave what I hoped was a cheery greeting as I passed. As soon as I got ahead of his wife I sprinted away. I was late for work.

At the shop I was chatting with my coworker as I unloaded my bike. Up the stairs came the guy from the bike path. He did not have his bike, but I recognized him.

"I want to get a bike tuned," he said. "And I want to know if it will take wider tires."

"Oh yeah, it looks like it probably will," I said.

He looked at me strangely. "How do you know that?" he asked.

"I was behind you on the path," I said. I wish I could have made it more mysterious. At least I had that one moment where he thought I had psychic powers.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pretty-looking crap

The front derailleur on the cellist's bike suddenly stranded the chain on the big ring and refused to bring it back. It's a problem I've seen several times before with Shimano front derailleurs.

One end of the return spring is held by a tiny aluminum nub. After a while, the aluminum can't hold back the spring steel and simply wipes away. This usually happens when the rider has shifted the derailleur out as far as it will go, putting maximum strain on the return spring against its inadequate stop.

The Sora derailleur I just got to replace the cellist's broken Tiagra has just as tiny a bit of aluminum holding the return spring. It's pretty, but no better than the strength of its designed-in fatal flaw.

Usually I scavenge parts off a broken derailleur and throw the rest in the recycling. But I might try to bend the spring on this latest casualty to see if I can get it to bear on the thickest part of the arm. It could go forever like that. More likely the spring will snap. But there's nothing to lose. It's scrap metal as it stands.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Tablet is a funny word

For easy carrying on bike  commuting days I just got this 7-inch tablet. It seems really good so far. Not being a touch typist I don't mind looking at the virtual keyboard. My fat fingers seem to do reasonably well on the little pictures of keys.

The touch screen is very sensitive. I noticed I left a strange word in a comment on DFW Point to Point this morning. Eternal vigilance is the price of comprehensibility.

The7-inch tablet fits perfectly in the rack pack on either commuting bike. It's nice and light as such things go. It may help  me capture some of the elusive observations I make in the workshop, previously scribbled on scraps of paper for future composition. Most of the time I just end up stuffing them in the woodstove days or weeks later when I find them in a pile somewhere around the house.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

We provide...leverage

Trust the bike industry to create a compatibility issue in something as simple as a front shifter.

A customer had us build a bike for him for the Mount Washington Hill Climb back in 2003. He used it in the race every year until last year, when he asked us to convert it to a flat-bar road bike.

The frame was a Trek 5900 SL. The carbon fiber road frame uses a bracket for the front derailleur rather than a derailleur with its own clamp. This was irrelevant on the original build, because we did not mount a front derailleur. In fact, the frame had no derailleur bracket when he had the bike delivered for its road conversion. Finding a bracket to fit a frame that was nine years old -- prehistoric in current bike industry terms -- was a treasure hunt. It was easily resolved once we found someone who knew the right part number at Trek. So we were all set, right?

Come on. This is the bike industry we're talking about. The business that's been killing the wounded and eating the dead since the 1990s. The group that puts its elderly out on the ice floe to die before they're even out of grade school.

Our customer wanted grip shifters. He also believed that the road conversion would be a simple matter of adding the parts the climbing bike had done without. It's a reasonable assumption if you don't work with this machinery all the time. Even I felt that the front shifting would be the least of our worries once we rounded up a very basic array of parts. A ratcheted front Gripshift is a simple device for pulling cable. A front derailleur is a simple device for pushing a bike chain toward a chainring with which you want it to engage.

Trigger shifters and road brifters only pull a specific amount of cable. A compatibility issue there is no surprise. It's expected. The customer's request for the closest thing to a friction shifter seemed to get us around that. But the shifters we use technically come from the "mountain" category and the only front derailleur that would work with this frame mount and gear range comes from the "road" category.

The shift to the middle ring on the triple crank went well enough, but that last little twist to make the big ring was incredibly stiff. And no matter how much cable tension I put in the system, the arm on the Sora FD-3503 is too short, and angled in such a way, that it barely swings far enough to clear the ring. The shifter never manages to pull it all the way to its limit screw.

With no alternative parts, I had to make these work. Introducing the Cafiend Leverage Enhancer.
The arm of the derailleur is extended with part of an old brake cable adjuster. It's bolted to the arm, where it braces against the cable routing flange to keep it from rotating downward when the cable gets tighter.
At the shifter end, the diameter of the grip seemed a little small too. We've had older riders complain that they have trouble with that. Lacking anything more elegant, I built it up with several layers of inner tube. If he likes that but wants something a little zootier I'll get some of that black foam insulation they use on air conditioning lines, and snug it on there with some super-fat shrink tubing. He won't be back until next summer, so we'll have to wait and see.

The system works. Shifting is easier. I have one more brake adjuster that's a little longer if he wants that, but we start to get a little close to the rear tire then. If the rider wanted to put on something cushier than a 700X23 things could be tight.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Profiting from the government shutdown

This morning a couple of guys who had been furloughed from the Kittery Naval Shipyard (FKA the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard) bought an inner tube before taking advantage of their unscheduled time off on this beautiful, warm , sunny day to get a road ride.

That's one more inner tube than we would have sold if they hadn't found themselves with the day off.

So much for our exciting lives here.