Tuesday, August 30, 2016

You'd be wise to stay out of the way

This video of a massive icebreaker cruising into Helsinki in the 1920s stirred up all kinds of thoughts and feelings.

The first thought was, "What is wrong with those idiots? Give that thing some room!" How could the crowding spectators know that the ice would not crack laterally, dumping them into the frigid water? How could the ones skipping beneath the bow know that they would not slip or trip and go for an unplanned dive beneath that charging hull? The propellors would not be kind.

It must have been amazing to stand that close to the beast as it cut through the ice. But it's also the stuff of nightmares.

Whoever was conning the ship wasn't wasting a lot of concern on the people clustered in the vessel's path. That kind of mass is not going to stop or swerve sharply. It was up to the crushable, but highly mobile, people on the ice to keep themselves from being crushed. If one or more had failed to evade, no one would have blamed the icebreaker's skipper and crew.

To the non-riding majority, we who ride our bicycles on the street look like the idiots playing chicken with that icebreaker. Whether an onlooker is rooting for us to fail or hoping that we don't, when a rider gets crushed it seems inevitable, unavoidable, and entirely the responsibility of the small person who should have known better than to impede the great machine. The critical differences are lost in the glaring and deceptive similarities. And not all the similarities are deceptive.

Machines like big ships and railroad locomotives don't have the maneuverability and stopping power of even a large tractor-trailer. The people running around that icebreaker knew it would not accelerate sharply or swerve abruptly. They could calculate its speed and direction intuitively. The little people and the big ship's crew seem unconcerned about each other because they can be. The disparity of the relationship imparts its own stability, barring an unfortunate crack in the ice.

Elements of traffic on a street, road, or highway are closer in size and highly variable in speed, mass, and maneuverability. The aquatic analogy is demonstrated on any crowded lake on a summer weekend: swimmers, paddlers, sailboats, and motorized vessels in a range of sizes dart around like water bugs. The biggest vessels move ponderously compared to the smallest, but everything is more fluid, if you will.

This summer, a bicyclist was crushed by a tractor trailer in Conway. The driver left the scene. The story was misleadingly reported in all media. Initially, the cyclist was portrayed as avid and experienced. The vehicle was not described. The stark facts were that a cyclist was run down and it was hit-and-run. As details emerged, the rider emerged as somewhat less than meticulous in his riding tactics. The truck driver may not have been aware that his vehicle hit someone. A cyclist has to know something about the limitations faced by drivers of various-size vehicles and take the initiative to stay out of danger zones as much as possible.

When drivers talk about cyclists on the road, some of them display a blanket prejudice, while a handful of others display an undiscriminating concern. In between are all the ones who sound like someone trying to describe how they're not a racist, but... They have my sympathy, because cyclist behavior plays a huge role in safety. It will not protect you from someone who has decided you deserve to be killed just for being out there, but it will keep you whole in nearly every other circumstance. Riders who do dumb things provide talking points for the haters and huge anxiety for the compassionate.

Dumb things. On one level, it's dumb to be out there at all, just as it was dumb to run right up to a massive icebreaker charging ahead with its bow designed to crush whatever is in its path. Let's assume also that none of those people needed to be out there to use the ice for their own purposes as the ship came through. That's a critical factor.

When we're using the roads we all pay for, we all have a stake in the infrastructure and deserve benefits from it. These are your tax dollars at work. The methods we use to move greater numbers of people and volumes of cargo have led to the different size vehicles using the public right of way, but it is public, and putatively designed for the use of all.

Debate simmers, seethes, and occasionally rages about who should be included in "all." Money drives. It has a disproportionate voice in design discussions. Meanwhile, in the real world, people find very good reasons to use a bicycle or to walk from place to place. Intelligent life is not always displayed by complete embrace of the most elaborate technology. But money talks. Whether we're talking about preserving the environment that supports all life, caring for the sick, or creating safe walking and biking accommodations in our entire transportation network, if you can't show a monetary gain you will not get anywhere. Tell me again about intelligent life?

A rider in traffic, or on a road where traffic could occur, takes a calculated risk. Any traveler takes a risk, but the cyclist or pedestrian is particularly exposed to other people's judgment. On the other hand, we are particularly free to bend and break rules to improve traffic flow and enhance our safety. It's a thoughtful dance at all times. We are also able to bend and break rules selfishly in ways that unnecessarily antagonize other users, whether we're on the street or a separated path. Bicyclists are in the middle, between those on foot and those in motor vehicles. Did you have any idea that something as simple as riding a bike brought such responsibility with it?

Responsibility is optional. Everything in life is optional. You may choose to stop, rot, and die at any time. You may choose to be a flaming asshole and call it a blazing torch of liberty. Responsibility can be ducked. It can be chucked. It can be ignored. We could go out in a blaze of selfish anarchy. The universe doesn't care. Why should you?

That's a question you have to answer for yourself. Evolution will note the results.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

"What's a hacksaw?"

A guy walks into a bike shop and he asks the guy working in the bike shop if they sell kickstands.

The shop mechanic says yes. So the guy asks if they have one to fit an 18 inch bike. The mechanic shows him the Greenfield 285mm generic model with the cutting scale marked right on it.

"See here on the package it tells you how to figure out the length and then cut it with a hacksaw," he tells the guy.

"What's a hacksaw?" the guy says.

I  was not a mechanically inclined child, and I knew what a hacksaw was by the time I was ten years old. I don't think I knew anyone, male, female, or other, who did not know what a hacksaw was. It was just part of the culture passed on without a second thought by adults who either fixed things or at least knew that they should.

Society has failed this man who has reached at least his thirties without knowing what a hacksaw is. I should have figured out a way to run through a short hand tool questionnaire with him to see what other items he's missed. It would tell us a lot about how far we've come from being a hands-on, can-do population to being served at all levels by people we hire to know what was common knowledge 30 years ago.

Granted, when I was a kid, geezers grumbled about skills being lost. It's part of evolution. But degeneration can hide among the thickets in what looks like evolution. No electronic marvel has superseded the hacksaw.

The kickstand is made of aluminum. You could probably shorten it by beating on it for a while with a sharp rock. Kind of funny to direct someone too modern to have heard of a hacksaw to use a stone tool instead. Even better if he worked that out for himself.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Visibility liability: look-away lighting

On the park and ride commute on Saturday, I was riding on one of the causeways of the Cotton Valley Trail. It's dead straight, dead flat, contained between the rails, and highly popular for the morning exercise of dog walkers, joggers, strollers, and the elderly.

Up ahead, coming slowly toward me, I saw an elderly woman using a walker. We've passed before. She lives around here. She's actually a really good sport about accommodating riders. Depending on the distance between us and options for pulling off, she or I might stop. She moves v-e-r-y slowly, as you might expect.

Beyond Walker Woman my eyes were assaulted by a strobe so bright, with a flashing rate so rapid, it was like being tasered in the retinas. The rider with this light was as far behind Walker Woman as I was in front of her. We were both riding slowly. Walker Woman made the call to pull aside at a bench. I made my way carefully to her and onward toward Taser Strobe Guy. When I reached him, I remarked on how annoying his light was, but I had no time to linger and elaborate. I was on my way to work.

I wanted to ask why he felt he needed such an aggressive and hostile light on a path where he would encounter no motor vehicle traffic. I also question in general the effectiveness of a light so nasty that you want to avoid looking at it and whatever it is attached to.

A study of lighting on snow removal vehicles determined that flashing lights make it harder for an approaching vehicle to judge distance from the vehicle with the flashing light. I've also observed that the fiercely aggressive, bright flashers on emergency vehicles make it very hard to see where to go when passing through an emergency scene, even at a crawling speed. I use my flashing lights very sparingly now, and use steady mode for cruising. To be noticed and dismissed is about like not being noticed at all. A bicyclist should assume they have not been seen and plan accordingly.

If the strobe is a conscious act of aggression, I can understand it even if I condemn it. We all get frustrated at times. Some of us are frustrated at all times. But something that is of dubious value in traffic is of no value whatsoever on a separated path where you are only pissing off fellow non-motorized users.

In an added twist, Taser Strobe Guy came into the shop a couple of hours later to have us check out his rear derailleur. I did not check the bike in, but I did do the repair. I also did not preside when he picked the bike up. He had a scornful attitude toward the skill needed to adjust his shifting. I did overhear that. Maybe he overcompensates for a mechanical inferiority complex by insulting the people on whom he relies to keep his machine working. There's another poor strategy to go with his aggressive overuse of strobes.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Mountain groan coffee

The friend who started me roasting my own coffee beans put together a little group to buy beans in bulk. She lives at the top of a hill with only steep and steeper approaches. When the latest shipment came in, I had to figure out which of these I wanted to take.

The most direct route had always seemed like the steepest, so I had avoided it. But that straight line on the map finally convinced me to tackle it.

Haines Hill Road leaves Route 28 to the right as the highway bends to the left. You turn right by going straight instead of going straight by curving to the left. The climbing begins almost immediately, but not drastically. The forest looks like some place further north and further from civilization, though not uninhabited.

The pavement ends in a couple of miles and the road starts to descend. You think it might not be so bad, even when the unpaved part climbs again. Then you see it.

Beyond the screening trees, pavement angles up like a rocky ledge. In the car it had seemed parabolic, a brutal challenge. I paused to take the picture, hoping to capture the contrast between the approach and the initial slope.

To complicate matters, there is occasionally a psycho dog running loose at the farm at the bottom of the hill. The driveway is on the left. If that monster was out, I would be trying to start this climb with about 90 pounds of furry death snapping at my tendons.

The things we do for coffee.

Head on a swivel, ears straining for the sound of dog claws scrabbling for traction, I rode beneath the concealing foliage to view the whole climb.

It's not that bad. It's steep and continuous, but not as steep as the wall on Stoddard Road that I had done many times, even on a fixed gear. Barring attacks by the psycho dog, this could be the elusive quiet alternative to Route 28 that I've been pining for since about 1990. Funny how an impression can change when you look over the handlebars instead of through a windshield. I'm embarrassed to have waited so long to give it a shot. In my defense, it is a little longer than the Route 28 direct route home.

Bear in mind that I was fresh after two days off the bike. I don't think I would tackle this route every day. On the other hand, if it really has as little traffic as I encountered, it makes up for its gravitational challenges with the peace and quiet.

After a nice visit with my friend, I headed downhill with my seven pounds of coffee beans. The compensation for any of the North Wolfeboro routes is that the rest of my ride home is basically downhill. The few little nuisance climbs are trivial.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Put a fork in it...it's done

A friend had a mid-1990s Iron Horse with a blown-out Marzocchi fork. After brief consideration of rebuilding or replacing the suspension fork, he went for a basic rigid fork.

Step one: prepare the mechanic.

The frame has some classic 1990s bullshit frame details

"Innovation" was the word of the decade. Setting aside the innovations that were actually from the 1890s, there was a lot of weird looking stuff marketed as technical advancement. Before the suspension revolution obliterated the old world, mountain bikes were a lot like any bike. They started out as beater bikes, after all. So the facade of innovation was decorated with tweaks to the traditional diamond frame, some of which did enhance strength and performance. Others either did nothing or were outright wrong turns. In any case, their days were numbered, as the spring-and-linkage crowd worked in their secret labs on the new species that would change the sport forever.

With a fork in it, it's done.

The new mountain bikes can take more pounding and eat up gnarlier terrain, at the cost of more moving parts and more systems to maintain: hydraulic brakes, pivots pivots pivots, shock absorbers, seals seals seals... Yes, the riding experience is either more comfortable or more rad. You also need a heftier budget in both money and time to keep one in top shape...or even just functional. Or you can ride it into the ground, as many people do, and replace it -- or abandon the activity -- when the bike finally fails completely.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Customer Appreciation

Humans are wired to remember the negative more than the positive. This characteristic probably began as a survival-enhancing trait, because our ancestors who catalogued and avoided negative experiences had a better chance of reproducing and bringing their next generation to breeding age.

As the eons have passed, the survival value of a negative focus has diminished, particularly as our technological society puts out crash pads around every sharp object and nurtures helplessness, but it remains vestigially. Any of us can notice things and connect dots to make small or large patterns that alarm, anger, or depress us.

I riff on customer behavior a lot, because I have absorbed so much of it over the decades. We in the theme park/specialty retail business should wear dosimeters to indicate how many assholes have irradiated us in the course of our careers. Given the bias toward retaining negative impressions, the collection of crap rays builds up and hangs around with more force than the accumulation of happy nice rays. I'm not excusing, just explaining.

Some people have higher susceptibility than others. You'll meet career sweeties in service positions. You'll meet people who have enough self control to contain an appropriate but ill advised response to a customer's radiation. You'll meet snarling burnouts who should change jobs, and would if they could. You'll meet people who are learning that they don't have what it takes to put up with the demands of an unfiltered public surging in with their needs, wants, and attitudes.

The seasonal fluctuation in our particular businesses, bike and ski, create high work loads and deep lulls. Each of these brings a specific kind of stress. And the devotees of one season consider the peak of our other season to be down time, so they come in to chisel and waste time when we are most busy with the other half of the clientele.

Specialty retail has its own challenges. We get chiseled during cross country ski season, because cross country skiers are basically cheapskates. I am one of you. Cross country skiing appealed to me because I could use skis for their ancestral purpose, to go from place to place, and because I could ski for free, limited only by available snow and my own skills. So I share the desire to pay less and ski more, compared to lift served skiing. Bicyclists cover a much broader spectrum, because bicycling can be done over a vastly greater range of conditions. But, because machinery is involved along with physical exertion, bicyclists not only encompass pathological bargain hunters, but mechanical and athletic arrogance in the spectrum of behavior. There's a little of that in cross-country skiing, but among skiers the chiseling dominates.

What does all this mean to customers and shop staff? Last week, with a staff chronically one person short for the workload on any given day, we had bored skiers, tired of summer, coming in for the off season deals, deals, deals. This draws a qualified staff member to sell stuff at suicide margins while in-season repair work continues to pile up. We should make them hold a gold-plated chisel as their emblem. At the same time, we got the out-of-town smart shoppers who will loudly tell their friends not to buy anything from us because they know some place down home that is going out of business and is basically throwing stuff out. That guy should wear a headdress made out of a dead vulture, to proclaim his devotion to feeding on the death of others.

I see from the condition of things people finally bring in for repair that they don't care whether it was properly set up the first place. The things they manage to survive make me wonder why I ever cared so darn much about doing a good job myself. Gone are the 1990s, when thousands of people took to the trails and actually tested products and our workmanship.

Weirdly, the current trend to know nothing and shop entirely by price manages to coexist with a culture of helplessness in which customers depend more than ever on products not only meeting but exceeding their specifications. Take that guy who rode the Mount Washington Century on a 23-22-21-20 spoke front wheel and did not end up in some hospital with his spine pinned together and his whole face in a cast.

When the shop fills up with loud, confident, and wrong experts explaining our products to their friends, while I scrub away at some greasy, rusty, neglected and abused piece of disrespected equipment, it can be hard to summon a feeling of noble justification for my occupation. We in the back shop turn to dark comedy. Occasionally we indulge one or two of those appropriate inappropriate responses.

All this is what we have to survive to be there for the truly interested, interesting, and appreciative riders. It's no one's fault that the pleasant lift from them can be eradicated in the next ten minutes by some behavioral fart. It's just people being people. And we are people laughing at people being people. We'd miss the jerks if they went away. It's fun to come up with ways to bitch about them. With negativity bred into us, our choice is to take it too seriously or to mock it.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Day of the Hyenas

For a while this morning, everyone who came in seemed to have a yelping laugh, which they freely shared.

Hyuk hyuk hyuk. Hyuk hyuk hyuk. Hyuk hyuk hyuk.

They get extra points when they shut up and peer owlishly at something we have posted that we think actually is funny.

Other days, the crowd is like a swarm of mosquitoes: a constant, annoying whine, punctuated by occasional pricks.

August has brought the closest thing we've seen to full summer activity.

On Sunday morning, a guy came in singing the praises of his electronic shifting. "You never realize how much time you spend trimming your front derailleur until you have a shifting system that does it for you! Man! I'm never going back!"

At the end of the day, we had the perfect bookend to that:

"The battery died in my shifters and I lost the charger! Do you guys carry the charger for these shifters?"

Alas, we do not. And, of course, the battery is proprietary.

The smokeless moped crowd is here. There's another thing you don't want to be stuck on when the battery dies and you have miles - or even yards - to go.

Here's a question: If you had a front wheel with only 24 spokes, and one broke, would you go ride a century over mountain passes on it because it still seemed true enough? The guy who did this broke more spokes in the course of the Mount Washington Century, before deciding he should get things looked at. Weirdly, he and the wheel survived. I reused the rim and hub when I respoked the wheel today.

It's all here now. There's nowhere near as much of it as there used to be, but there are nowhere near as many of us to deal with it. It takes less water to fill a small boat than a big one, but swamped is swamped.

I need some sleep before I go back to bailing.