Monday, January 27, 2014

Soldiers wear helmets

On a day of snow squalls I sit in a warm house, perusing the Internet. Lots of signs of progress there, reports of improvements in cycling infrastructure in city after city; studies showing how urban cycling improves the human condition; articles about fashion designers catering to the city rider, and about the fun, genteel experience of urban transportation cycling. Helmets? We don't need or want them They're actually harmful and brand you as a geek. Upright bikes for people, not bent-over torture rigs for racers, are the finest expression of pedal power integrated into normal life.

I see little acknowledgment of the riders who preceded this incipient golden age. With or without helmets we used the streets. We asserted bicyclists' rights. We supported the nascent bike advocacy movement and we kept riding. The heroes of that age might be known and celebrated, names like Forester and Oberstar. Frankly I did not read much about riding. I just rode and developed my own techniques and opinions. Immature and undisciplined (which I remain), I did not get involved in the details of legislation. When I heard of an opportunity to chime in I did. Otherwise I was out on the road.

Over time I developed the habit of wearing a helmet. I've had a thing or two bounced off my head, and many more objects aimed in its direction. The hard hat has deflected the missiles that made it. I know it won't save me in the event of a really hard smash, but the helmets soldiers wear won't stop a bullet, either.  The helmet is a little something you can do. And, in many real-world riding environments it is a realistic response to a riding venue that is anything but genteel.

Days and weeks go by in which nothing disturbs the rhythm of the daily ride. When incidents occur they may be isolated or in a cluster. I live where it would be very complicated and expensive to add a protected cycle way to every right of way. Such places are far more common than the ones now being eyed for or turned into transportation cycling Utopias. Even in Utopia the bliss runs in channels with reefs and schools of sharks in the surrounding waters.

The people who "aren't cyclists" and "just ride their bikes" owe more to the beat-up veterans than they may care to acknowledge. They owe the very fact that there was a nucleus from which to start to the continuing obstinacy of decades of riders who simply did not quit. We go where we want, hoping to blaze trails that many will follow. We endure hostility, indifference, carelessness, simply to keep bicyclists in the public eye, not in the media but through the damn windscreen, day after day. We're here, we pedal, get used to it.

Some of us die out there. It won't be the happy helmetless urbanite on the protected cycle track. And that's fine. But it will be other  riders on other roads to which we all have a right, keeping on in hope that the better world will reach that far some day.

Monday, January 13, 2014

All things to all riders

It's tough to be in the bike biz these days. In order to run an open and accepting congregation where all are welcome and all feel well served you would need a budget in the millions and either a very large facility or a whole bunch of small boutiques dedicated to each specialty.

How about a bike mini-mall? Specialists might all work for one company or be part of a cooperative venture in which all share their resources to serve each category of cyclist and the riders who cross categories.

In Wolfe City we see a little of everything. If we went with the largest common denominator it would be a tricky split between comfort bikes ridden predominantly on the path and performance road bikes. But neither of those categories would carry the place and neither of them represents such a clear majority that we can turn our backs on other types of bike. Mountain bikes used to dominate and still represent a strong third, but that's divided between cheapo hard-tails, a few higher end front-suspension-only models and a sprinkling of full suspension. The 29-inch tire size is becoming dominant, but 26-inch has been around a long time. And then there's 650B. And in the road category it's hard to stock a lot of models because we have to guess whether the incoming customer will want an entry-level bike to take a tentative foray in road riding or something that will make fellow riders in their group drool covetously.

In the summer we've seen variety ranging from a bakfiets to full-on weirded-out tri bikes. Mechanically adept technicians can figure out how to fix anything in the broad "bicycle" category. But the owners of some of these machines, feeling unique and extraordinary, might have trouble believing it.

Mountain bikes provide the most trouble these days. With more joints than a centipede, hydraulic brakes and the commonplace variety of whacky shifting systems, procedures on a maxed-out full suspension mountain bike simply eat a lot of time with all the disassembly and reassembly some repairs require. One of those can fill a work bench in a hurry.

With bicycling so fragmented, a small shop in a small town faces a challenge that a small shop in a populated area does not. With many people to attract, the small shop can focus on one or two market segments and develop a following. In a more rural area, a bike shop run by people genuinely interested in nearly all categories of pedal-powered equipment can't narrow its focus in case the next person through the door needs something we've eliminated from our spectrum. They need the help and we certainly need the money.

I can't work in a place day after day for decades without taking pride in my work. If I could just slouch through the day, squeezing money out of tourists as best I could I might be happier, but only if I could shove an ice pick through not only my conscience but my self respect. That would only work if I could figure out how to get scandalously wealthy doing crap repairs on people's bikes. I could console myself with a lavish lifestyle and the arrogance of the con artist.

That ain't happening on bike shop money. You make that kind of money wrecking people's finances, not fixing their bicycles.

Right now it's the middle of what passes for winter these days, so it's tough to be in the cross-country ski business instead of the bike business. And our short staff just got shorter because one of our guys, an enthusiastic climber, just took a 100-footer down a gully on Mt. Webster. While that reduces payroll expenses for the duration of his absence while he recovers, it means the rest of us have to fill in the schedule. If the snow conditions don't recover we will make no money. If they do, we will be running frantically to cover rentals, lessons, sales and service on the ski side, as well as taking care of whatever winter riders shuffle in with cold, wet, salt-encrusted bikes.

When spring finally arrives we'll continue the salty theme as riders bring in the machines that have been clamped in a trainer all winter under a deluge of sweat.

Oh boy.

Whatever the weather does, spring is far away. When winter skedaddles early I can start regular commuting in March, but even the most disappointing winter often ends with a series of nuisance storms with gloppy snow or ice.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


Rain dots puddles between crumbling sheets of ice on the parking lot.  The temperature has drifted up to 34.5 from 31. Occasional downpours grow more frequent as we work up to this afternoon's flood watch.

It's a good day to look out windows.

After our little piece of the Polar Vortex rolled off of us the prediction of warmer temperature made me keep an eye out for winter cyclists. I don't blame anyone for staying in their burrow when the temperature is 3 and the wind is 30. But the way many riders correlate temperature with their desire to ride means that they come out in the greatest numbers when the roads are the sloppiest with briny silt.

Oh yeah. I want me some of that.

Granted, the greatest numbers are none too large. But still, the majority fixates on warmth rather than the advantages of subfreezing temperatures.

A lot depends on how much water has been around.  Extensive ice will call for studded tires. Most riders don't make that investment.  Most motorists don't even make it. So road crews have good reason to try to eliminate ice from the travel way.

Winter conditions for anything are tricky. This is true of cross-country skiing,  hiking, climbing, walking your dog, taking out the garbage, and anything else that takes you outdoors. That's why the living is easy  enough in summertime to warrant having a song about it.

My favorite winter riding conditions are a sunny day with light winds and a temperature no warmer than the mid 20s. If the sun is strong it may melt some ice and snow,  but not enough to be a total slop fest. You can wear enough layers to be able to vary them as conditions require.

All my physical activities have been imaginary for about a month.  I have no trouble convincing myself I have better things to do than ride a trainer. If I could ride home on a  bus equipped with treadmills that would be perfect. Exercise would be back in "drive time."

I've always liked just looking out windows on a crappy day.

Been thinking as well about one of the schisms in cycling, between the Transportationists and their self perceived antagonists, the contemptible Recreationists. As someone who will do nearly anything on or from a bicycle I hate that riders have to divide into camps. But I understand it as well. My faction is the people without factions. It's fun to ride in many ways.  Just not today.  It's gross out there.