Monday, March 31, 2014

Job security or death knell?

The Internet brings me word of the proliferation of 11-speed drive trains and hydraulic disc brakes for road bikes among the many technological bounties showering from the broken sewer pipe of the bicycle industry and its chief driver of costs and complications, Shimano.

As if ten-speed chains did not wear out fast enough. While I chuckle on my own behalf as I ride my 8-speed steed (24, actually, with its hideously outmoded triple crank), I also tear my hair as I consider that most of my time is spent helping customers who have no intention of replacing their old bikes keep them going.

It's like working in rehab. The poor riders come in addicted to their conveniently-located shifting. It used to be state-of-the-art. Now it's relegated to the cheap models. The bike industry wants these dupes to buy newer bikes with more speeds. But they can't afford the stronger drugs you're peddling. And they don't need them.

If you get tagged by some irritable idiot in a pickup truck, does it matter whether your bike had 11 cogs or eight in the rear? Does it matter whether you had electronic shifting and hydraulic disc brakes or barcons and old cantilevers? Will the new bikes ride any better over potholed road edges than the old ones did?

Component manufacturers shove their innovations down through the price points because they need a lot of suckers to buy in to finance the few people who really benefit even slightly from the capabilities of the new machinery. I guarantee that racers will race on whatever they can get. THEY don't drive the innovation unless you can tell them one of two things: it's an advantage other competitors won't be able to get or it's what everyone else has, so they need it to start from an equal footing. But if everyone has it, everyone has it. That was true when it was toeclips and downtube shifting on steel framed bikes and it's true now with exotic frame materials and far more expensive and temperamental drive trains. No one has the technological edge for long. Meanwhile, the innovations warp values throughout the industry and cycling in general.

Now we need another shelf facing in the parts department for 11-speed chains. We have to stock 11, 10, 9, and 8-7-6-5, as well as a few models of 1/2"X1/8" and a 3/16" for good measure. The poor schmucks who want a nice bike and get stuck buying an 11-speed swell the ranks of the Chain of the Month Club even if they've never heard of it. And most people haven't.

"Got this great new bike! Of course my genitals still get numb on a long ride, I still breathe hard and huck up a lung on steep climbs and angry motorists still try to kill me, but thank heaven I have that one more cog!"

Riders may love cycling and still not want to shell out for a new bike very three years. Even among racers -- a small percentage of the cycling population -- there are many who may lust for the newer stuff but simply can't afford it. They'll get the best they can and thrash it and themselves to death.

Far more numerous than the real racers are the citizen riders with their myriad motivations, who buy the best bike they can, with every intention of using it for many years. The bike industry betrays them with its constant debatable "improvements."

As far as I can see the bike industry divides the customer base into two broad categories: the exploited and the neglected. At this they're no worse than many other industries, but when will that stop being the basis of acceptability?

Where's the big noise about improving riding conditions on every road in the country? Where's the huge investment in public image and education that would really increase consumer demand? Does the bike industry believe that will take care of itself or do they actually believe it's not worth the investment? They'll just keep throwing ideas at different rider groups and aim for the center of the biggest flocks until there are no more. As a rider I don't feel supported by them. As a professional mechanic I don't feel supported by them. As a small retailer I emphatically don't feel supported by them.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Royale with Cheese

Cheesy brifters, that is.
The bike is an SE Royale 16. The parts on it are almost humorously generic.  The brifters say Shimano. The rear derailleur anounces it is a Sora.
The rims, crank, brakes and hubs say nothing. Even the tires have no eye catching labels.

The components seem pretty solid.  You could replace the cheap steel chainrings with aftermarket alloy. Put on real brake levers and some barcon shifters and you'd have a decent basic bike. But of course the bike industry assumes you cheap folks would rather have a crappy knock off of higher end shifters than something simpler and more reliable. The bike industry's secret fear is that consumers will be perfectly happy to buy reliable,  durable products that they can enjoy for many years.

I will confess I do not miss my downtube shifters. If I was racing I would want a precise and convenient shifting system.  When everyone had downtube shifters skills made the difference. Now that expensive technology has removed that particular aspect of competition, you need to buy into it. Then, thanks to industrial ADD and no small measure of avarice, you have to keep buying in even if your current gear still technically functions.  You don't take an old single action Colt revolver out to face a bunch of adversaries toting automatic weapons. In the movie you might win, but it would be a special occasion nonetheless.

Actually this whole post was an excuse to use the phrase, "Royale with cheese." Cultural mildew being what it is,  I always supply the words "with cheese" when I see or hear royale anyway.  It just cracks me up for some reason.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Spring Cleaning

When the natural food store downstairs was sold, the deed showed that we did not have undisputed rights to a lot of space we had been using in the filthy recesses known as The Basement. While we knew that no food store operator would really want the space after they had taken a good look at it, the new owners insisted on possessing what was theirs.

While the reduction in space is inconveniently drastic, it has led to a much-needed purge of the most egregious accumulated crapola. While I would not have volunteered to start this, on some deep level I've been waiting decades for the signal to begin. Big G and I have been redesigning the workshop for the last four years.

In a well-established bike shop one does not follow the oversimplified directive to throw out anything you haven't used in a year. But you do throw out the cheap, the hopelessly battered or rusty or filthy, and those hideous mutants produced by the bike industry that have finally gone to extinction as the next best thing to never having been invented. Some of the weirdest of those we keep for historical value. "See the freaks! Step right up!"

Among the various crap farms we've developed, this bucket of assorted chain links holds the trimmings from every chain we install in case we need to graft a link or a section into a chain on a bike we're repairing. When chains were simpler we could also assemble a salvage chain from sections. I might still be running one of them. In today's haul I found a lot of old Sedis, Sachs and just-post-takeover SRAM sections I have already started assembling to install later.

Your modern riders with finicky index shifting systems can't use salvaged chains. The chains that need special pins or closure links would need one of each at every junction.

The Linkin' Memorial has had a facelift now. I organized the chain sections by brand and number of speeds. No more digging in a 25-pound bucket of mixed scrap metal. Of course in the heat of a busy repair season we're liable to revert to just chucking them in a bucket, but we have a system to organize them when we get the chance.

The reorganization lurches forward with bursts of action broken by long pauses to assess and plan. Our clutter has remained in basically the same configuration for decades. When we finish, the workshop and basement will have a fresh start. We will know what we have for used parts and be able to get at them.

Ironically, we found out yesterday that the food store getting ready to open in the unit downstairs has pulled out. We can have most or all of our disputed spaces back. We've gotten to like the idea of reorganizing, though, so we're not going to slouch back into the grubby depressions left by the removal of the first wave of debris.

If we can just say goodbye to winter and get the rental skis out of the way we can really kick things along. Management appears as eager as we are to push the change of seasons.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

From Bike to Band Wagon: Fat Bikes are the width of fashion

As a small shop, the place where I toil is always trying to find a niche product that fits our expertise and cash flow. So I had been monitoring the development of the fat bike market in our area.

We're located in an outer province of what might be called Snow Country. We did a good business in the mountain bike boom and managed to survive without over-extending or humiliating ourselves. Our weekly mountain bike ride was known as moderately hot -- sporty but not ferocious. We did not follow mountain biking down its intensely technical and increasingly expensive path. But I did try to maintain a good relationship with Surly. We saw the Pugsley come onto the scene. It seemed like an amusing piece of overkill for our locale.

As cross-country ski seasons became more and more unreliable we reexamined the fat bike as a tool less dependent on snow cover. But as cross-country ski seasons became more unreliable our budget diminished.

Thank goodness the fat bike has gone from a subculture to a movement. We no longer need to regret missing the niche because the niche has blown open into a fad. You can get a fat bike from Bikes Direct to the Repair for under $700. Specialized has peeled the Fat Boy name off its old BMX bike and slapped it on a production fat bike. Kona's playing. So is Trek. And that's where I quit looking, because I got the gist.

You can even get one from WalMart. It's only a single speed, but it's only $199!

Are fat bikes going to recreate the mountain bike boom? Don't bet on it. But the surge in popularity takes the pressure off the small shop because now we can have one or two of the beasts around without making a scary commitment to six or eight expensive behemoths. We can mix in a model from a vendor we're already showing rather than trying to do right by a small company that can't offer the same kind of terms. The small companies can maintain their exclusivity and stay the right size. This means Surly won't get blown out into a multinational conglomerate and have no use for the Cross Check anymore.

It will be interesting to see whether Big Bicycle will figure out how to bring fat bikes down to the lower price points they would need to offer to create a boom like the 1990s. When mountain bikes first rose they did it on a fairly broad front. Once the genre was accepted it used many conventional dimensions, so the industry had little trouble producing several generations of bikes before the rampant mutation set in. Not so the fat bike. It is a product of that mutation, an overstatement of the concept of wide tires and sturdy frames. It is a caricature suddenly appreciated as art. And it is art. But a huge boom will require an international roll-out not only of the bikes themselves but of the parts they need to keep them running. It has begun, but can it continue, with an average price over $1000 US on most basic models? Ignoring the Walgoose, that is. The Bikes Direct the Repair Shop $700 price is a limited sale, according to their website.

If I know the bike industry, they will start to get destructively competitive within a year. They always seem to assume ridership and battle each other for market share, oblivious to the way their technical shenanigans burn away participants. But all that lies ahead. For now, fat is beautiful and everyone proudly displays their ample spare tires.

Monday, March 10, 2014

All that stuff is water

Road crews have used heavy equipment to shove back the encroaching snowbanks along some sections of roadway where regular plowing had reached its limit. The towering piles of icy chunks look impressive, as do the dramatic icebergs at the sides of larger parking lots.

Even where the special effects have not enhanced the effect of a big snow year the regular plowed banks run wide and deep.

Another snowstorm is coming on Wednesday.

All that stuff is water. When it thaws rapidly, rivers flood and the land turns into a quagmire. When it thaws slowly, rivers merely rise and the land turns into a slightly shallower quagmire for a longer period of time.

For the bicyclist spring thaw means deep, salty puddles at the base of the snowbanks. It means wet, briny grit spraying up from your tires onto anything not protected by full fenders. It means potholes and pavement cracks. The frost heaves are much less of a problem for bicyclists than motorists because we can maneuver among them. The mostly rounded ones feel like waves. But the fault lines where upthrust has lifted one section of pavement higher than another deliver rim-bending jolts to the inattentive rider.

The rail trail I might use for a few early-season park-and-rides on studded tires will turn into a swamp once its packed covering of ice and snow gives way to warming temperatures. Sections of it drain well and dry readily, but other stretches notoriously do not. And if Wednesday's storm brings glop that never really sets up, the only way to pedal the path will be on a fat bike.

I will speak more of fat bikes in a separate post. I don't have one and can't justify the expenditure to get one, but I like the concept well enough. And even a fat bike will bog down in deep mashed potatoes and applesauce.

Time to head out on the pavement on a fixed gear with fenders. Wear waterproof shoes. Things are going to get messy. But before that we can still use the snow for its various purposes until it undeniably turns into nothing but a sloppy liability.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Commuting Season Fast Approaching

Bike commuting season never ends for some lucky or absurdly dedicated riders, but I would venture to say that the majority of riders in regions where winter conditions bring a halt to the easier riding conditions for at least a short time have to or want to hang up the bike for a while. This winter that would include most of the country.

My own routine purposely included a shift to snow-related activities. It was a relief not only to use my body a little differently but also to get around without the sudden intrusion of someone's hostile opinion. I don't ski on snowmobile trails because I don't want to think about motor vehicles when I don't have to.

As snow-related activities have faced various challenges the routine has taken a beating. But this winter factors combined to bring somewhat regular cross-country skiing back into the mix early in February. It was not quite enough to make up for the loss of bike commuting, but at least it helps lay down a base so I'm not coming straight off the couch and car seat right into 30-mile riding days. And it underscores the effectiveness of moderate aerobic exercise as an antidepressant.

If I could figure out how to commute on cross-country skis I would do it. I've said many times and will repeat it often: exercise in commuting time is the perfect combination. You have to be going to or from work anyway. There's no way to salvage driving time. You shouldn't be doing most of the things people to do to try to combine driving with social or work-related communication. So you might as well be getting that beneficial exercise. Then when you get where you're going, work or home, you're ready to do whatever needs to be done there, whether it's work or fun. But I can't ski from home or from my park-and-ride starting point. So it becomes a bit of a luxury, something to fit in around more pressing responsibilities.

I do recommend cross-country skiing to anyone who can manage to arrange it. It provides the best full-body conditioning, much better than bicycling. Not only will you come out of it with a very usable physique, it also cranks up your metabolism enough to let you turn the thermostat down in your house a bit to save on heating expenses. Try it. You'll be amazed. Any physical activity does that to some extent, but I feel the warmth from skiing for hours.

Winter seems like a massive, unstoppable force this year, but of course it's not. So anyone who likes to use cross-country skiing as a winter program needs alternatives. These include hiking and running -- with or without snowshoes depending on conditions -- indoor spinning, weight training, swimming, running up and down stairwells, various exercise machines, drinking and bitching. Really vigorous bitching, particularly if you get up and pace around, can burn some calories and get your heart rate up more than just sitting around moping. And if you keep your beer in a fridge on a different floor or at least as far as possible from where you consume it you will get some exercise going back for a refill.

Obviously if you are below legal drinking age or otherwise disqualified from participating you will have to work around that. I'm only tossing out suggestions.

Whatever March does, Daylight Relocating Time kicks in this Sunday, shifting usable daylight later in the day. This would allow bike commuting right away. But I want a little saddle time before I charge right into the whole route. And icebergs line the roadway on most of my route, seriously limiting my options when dealing with early-season motorists who have happily forgotten what a cyclist looks like. In the best of years there's always a little friction as I retrain them. I prefer not to be dealing with narrowed, icy roads and my own lack of fitness while smacking down fractious drivers. But we're getting there. Regular riding will return.