Thursday, June 08, 2017

Gravity's Revenge

Mountain biking in the Wolfeboro area has had a tiny little scrap of a hint of a renaissance in the past couple of years. Not to say there have not been a faithful few who dutifully dumped their 26ers for 29ers and abandoned us without a backward look when a cooler shop opened in a nearby town, but those are the kind of people who will give up a marriage before they'll give up adventure recreation. They follow the gear.

Our new mechanic, Jumper Dude, was an instructor at a downhill park. He described the riding style of the 1990s as "roadie." The idea of riding point to point or on large, meandering loops that covered many miles, he said, was a result of roadie influence. As suspension evolved to make downhill riding smoother and huge tricks more feasible, riders gravitated toward that style. "People were just tossing their cross country bikes to get a downhill bike," he said.

We see little business from the resurgent ripple of mountain biking, but we did sell a full-suspension Specialized to a guy who used to ride with our group in the 1990s. He always favored the downhills, though his inherent cheapness kept him from investing in full suspension's early incarnations. He'd just let it rip on his moderately decent hardtail Stumpjumper. While the best climbers in the group would do their best to survive the downhills, the gravity crowd would launch into them, after we let them catch their breath for a few minutes.

Jumper Dude's observation about roadie influence has some merit. When our mountain biking group broke up, it was because the climbers had decided they would rather ride on the road. The downhillers flaked away to things like fly fishing, and paying more attention to their families. Our technical mountain bike business evaporated in the course of a single season.

The road crew has either stuck with the road or developed medical conditions that keep them from riding much at all. Or there's me: I quit the road group because it was cutting into my commuting. I lost interest in mountain biking because it was starting to seem like a good walk spoiled.

Unseen by us, mountain biking was becoming the province of Red Bull athletes and their ilk. The riding style changed from cross country to stunt man. Jumper Dude credits the BMX influence brought in by a wave of riders who entered the bike world through parks and tricks. Add them to a culture that already had a love affair with gravity and you get the bikes and riders of today. None of them will put up with some aerobic monster schooling them on a climb. It's all about the descent and the aerials you can pull off on the way. Ha! Take that, lycra snobs!

Hey, I'm just commuting and exploring here. The hard-core roadie crowd sneers at me just as much as  the technical mountain bike crowd does. I'm fine with that.

I rely on field observers and researchers to keep me up to date on the latest ways to abuse yourself on a bike. JD confirms my own observation that people seem to get into intense forms of cycling only as long as they can sustain that flame. Gear up, go all out, burn out, quit. Logically, lower intensity levels are much easier to sustain. I've seen it in road riders who went mad for the sport and then dropped it. And some of it is driven by the human propensity to blow up any interest into a fad. A fad is just one letter away from a fade.

When it comes to mountain biking, you can fade or you can crater. JD tells some gruesome tales of mutilation when landings did not go well. He describes some riders as "crashing out" of the sport. They took one hit too many and walked -- or in some cases wheelchaired -- away. They're as bashed up as NFL veterans. Gravity giveth and gravity taketh away. Or sometimes a regard for personal safety and a new awareness of a dwindling bank account inspires a more orderly retreat. In either case, cycling loses a rider. Maybe they'll sidle back in later and take up a different form, but the most intense participants seem to disappear pretty completely, except for the ones who get into course design, or some other supporting role.

For me in my greasy lair, age guarantees that I will never establish credibility with the "intense" crowd. When I could drag them out and put a hurt on them, riding up the many nasty climbs around here, they would overlook my caution coming down the other side. If the climbers had treated the rides as a race, we would have rolled over the summit without a pause, and made the downhillers chase us.

I rode two long mountain bike races in the late 1990s. One was 35 miles. The balance of climbing and descending was such that I could stay ahead of riders I caught on the climbs, and make it to a third-place finish in my category. In the Vermont 50, however, the descents were long enough to let the downhillers either latch back on or pass me outright. Course configuration makes a big difference. The riders who were fit enough not to blow up completely on the climbs, and skillful and daring enough to capitalize on the gift of gravity could have their revenge. I finished somewhere deep in the anonymous rabble that arrives late to the barbecue and makes do with stale rolls and dried-up hot dogs.

Mountain biking has broken into categories as badly as every other sector of the pedaling market, so the compleat mountain biker will need the downhill bike, the enduro bike, the trail bike, the dirt jumping bike, and a couple of different tire sizes for optimal performance in varying conditions in each discipline. Just as gravity took its revenge on the climbers who rode high in the 1990s, so has the industry taken its revenge on everyone's wallet. We have seen the future, and it is "categories." Of course the rank and file will not invest in several bikes.

Gravity's ultimate revenge is a bike with a 25-pound motor and a 10-pound battery attached to it. We've already been informed by a member of the Millionaire Motorbike Club that he will be dropping off his smokeless mopeds on a specific date and that we will have them tuned and ready for him by the next day. Summer's heat (if it ever gets here) brings with it the usual trickle. It runs downhill, getting licked by countless parched tongues as it passes.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The gift of car trouble

Just as some customers drive a considerable distance to have me work on their bikes, I drive a considerable distance to have a particular mechanic work on my car. He's been worth the trip since 1988.

The route to his shop is a long and challenging bike ride. Any route from my place in Effingham to his shop in Gilford has to get past a mountain range and a big lake. Winnipesaukee is actually known as "The Big Lake" in New Hampshire, because it is the state's largest. The mountain range, the Ossipees, is roadless. It's an ancient volcanic ring dike, nearly circular.

When I have to deliver and pick up by myself, I ride a bike rather than bother anyone to drive more than 80 miles to indulge my customer loyalty. Every route has some terrifying nasty sections. The one with the fewest of them runs along the south shore of the big lake, down around the pointy end of Alton Bay. Going up the other side, a rider can use back roads to reduce the time spent on Route 28. The shortest version is 42 miles.

Because I now know someone who works near the mechanic's place in Gilford, I can sometimes hitch a lift to pick up the car. If that doesn't work out, I'm back to my own resources.

When I was young and immune to fatigue, I would hit the road at 5 a.m. and ride all the way to Gilford to get the car before work. When daylight gets a little shorter, an early start means riding in the dark. It works out better to ride to work, work the day, and crank out the last 27 miles after quitting time. Since my mechanic is self-employed and basically nocturnal, he'll still be there at 7 p.m. or later. Don't look for him early in the morning, however.

A Gilford run by bike is an expedition. I only plan on a couple a year for specific things in spring and summer. The distance isn't so bad, but the narrow parts are very stressful and there are a couple of nasty climbs.

This spring, after getting almost no exercise all winter, I had to pull off a Gilford run with less than 200 miles on me. The muffler fell off the car. The stub of the exhaust was up under the car, gassing me at every stop. So off I went, at a steady plod.


Two weeks later, I rode it again, when the rear brakes jammed up. The car is 14 years old and has spent the last 8 or 9 years dealing with New Hampshire road salt.

Okay, we're good to go now, right?

No.

Last Thursday, the front brakes got jealous and seized up hard. On Friday I limped the car to Wolfe City because the weather was nasty and I hoped to avoid riding. By the time I got there I knew I wasn't going to take the vehicle home. As luck would have it, the boss had his truck in Laconia, next town over from Gilford, and agreed to take his loaner back over during the afternoon, so I could drop my smoking hulk and hitch back to Wolfeboro with him.

Halfway to Gilford, my car blew a radiator hose, so I left it for AAA to drag the rest of the way. So now I have to retrieve it. Meanwhile, I went into Memorial Day weekend without a motor vehicle. Sweet!

I love getting in and out of Wolfeboro without a car, especially in summer. Motor vehicle traffic typically backs up for a couple of miles on any road through town. Then you have to find a place to park. As the middle class dwindles and no one has as much disposable income as they used to, the traffic and parking jams don't last all day, every day, from May to September the way they used to, but the busy parts are as busy as ever. And I've always gotten a strange good feeling from getting around without a car. So when circumstances "force" me to rely on pedal power, it's more like extra permission than an extra burden.

On Sunday, I hit the grocery store for a few necessities before heading home by a quiet route avoiding the highway most of the way.
Stoddard Road has some well-established colonies of lady's slipper orchids.

It's easy to stay home when I am home. Evening will come and I will realize that I have not gone outside for more than a few minutes, and I might not have spoken to another human being. While I don't prefer it that way, I've ended up that way. The cats are happy to have me around.  I get to observe the life of the woods.

Phoebes are nesting on a shelf on the side of the house.

Hummingbirds nest in the dense pine forest. That's a phoebe sitting on the hook above the hummingbird feeder. Phoebes are flycatchers, constantly snatching insects wherever they spot them.

Today I wanted to get some produce I had not found in Wolfe City, so I took the fixed gear out to the grocery store nearest to my house, about 3.5 miles away.
Hannaford has added this official bike rack as part of their renovation over the past year. It's even under cover, which was nice when the drizzle started up while I was in the store.

Exercise is not only an effective antidepressant, it may be the only truly effective antidepressant. Despite two gray days and a moroseness that has only increased since the turn of the century, a stupid little errand by bike felt really good. I have a huge amount of difficulty getting myself to exercise as a separate activity, so whenever I can work it into the practical needs of life it is all the more gratifying.

I need the car, as any rural resident does. But being without it can be a real gift.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The magic number is 300

When I dabbled in bicycle racing, the training manual we passed around recommended laying down about 300 miles of low-gear base mileage before beginning differentiated training. This was in a climate zone that did not offer a strong alternative training activity like cross-country skiing on a regular enough basis to count as a real routine. Even if a rider took up speed skating, which was available and had a small following, the change in muscle use at the beginning of regular riding season required some adaptation.

In a climate that shuts down outdoor riding pretty completely, base mileage is vital. I don't do any competitive sport riding, but any open-road commuting is part criterium, part time trial. Lacking the discipline to ride a trainer with the religious devotion necessary to provide a real fitness base, I need to get those base miles before launching the commuting season. Alternative outdoor activities have nearly vanished in the changing climate, so I'm coming off the couch with only good intentions.

Last week I hit the 300-mile mark and noticed an immediate improvement. I'd been trying to go easy, but you can't hold back when you're sharing the road with motor vehicles. If a traffic situation demands a quick sprint or a longer interval, you do your best.

Even before the 300-mile mark, I noticed that my whole body worked better now that I was using it as it was meant to be used. We're built to propel ourselves. Obviously, walking and running are our natural forms of locomotion, but the genius of the bicycle was that it adapted those motions to the circular pedal stroke. The bicycling position has evolved so that it places some potentially destructive demands on the upper body, but the general concept remains completely benign. If you ride a lot in a forward-leaning position, you will want to do some stretching and strengthening exercises to prevent neck and shoulder pain. And a little core work is never a bad idea.

I wonder who first came up with the idea of strength and flexibility training. There we were, scruffy hominids scrounging in the landscape for things to eat, devising tools of various kinds. Life was an endless camping trip. We walked, we ran, we climbed. We picked things up. We figured out how to build things. It was all based on walking, running, and moving things into useful configurations. Some people were stronger than other people. Who first figured out that strength and physical efficiency could be enhanced with specific exercises?

It doesn't matter. We know it now. Ignoring the whole noisy industry and marketing campaigns promoting specific programs and products that will make YOU, yes YOU, STRONGER, HAPPIER, SEXIER, AND MELT AWAY EXCESS POUNDS LIKE MAGIC, we know that using your own power to get from place to place will make your body work better. Rest is a vital part of the training cycle, but you can actually be too rested. Crawling toward this year's bike commuting season, I wondered if my accidentally sedentary winter might actually have shortened my life. In a country that considers health care a luxury, who can really afford to live an unhealthy lifestyle?

People who try to live gently, self-propelled and modestly housed, end up looking like parasites in a consumer-driven, wealth-obsessed economy. We slip through the small spaces, gleaning our sustenance like mice. We don't have much of a wallet with which to vote. It makes us an easy target for the contempt of the worshippers of hard work and self advancement. No one is questioning those sacred precepts. Hard work in the service of destruction is not a virtue. But voices of reason are drowned by the noise of traffic, industry, and broadcast media.

Many hands make light work. We could be taking turns doing short stints at the destructive labors that need to be done, rather than trapping some people in those destructive endeavors until they are crushed, and letting others evade that contribution to the general welfare. Like any simple solution, it's too complicated to arrange, so we will continue to live haphazardly and let evolution take its course. I just thought I would throw the idea out there. We could have arranged things in that way and coasted our population gently down to a sustainable level. Instead we live by instinct, as always. The result will reflect our true nature and potential, as will be evident from the ruins we leave behind.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Tool in Tamworth

Big G has retired from the bike game. Working in the business was interfering with his riding. He also has a private pilot's license, and the demands of shop life were really cutting into his time for that.

He put the knobbies back on his Cross Check so he could explore the many unpaved roads around here. Today he instigated a trip in Tamworth, starting at Chocorua Lake, just off of Route 16.

Mount Chocorua is a beautiful, craggy peak, frequently photographed from the shore of Chocorua Lake.

Chocorua Lake Road used to be called Fowler's Mill Road all the way from Route 16 to Route 113A. Now it's Chocorua Lake Road from the Route 16 end and Fowler's Mill Road from the other end. Must be a 911 thing. It's dirt, and some of it is not maintained in winter, which can mean it's pretty rough. We're a couple of months out of winter now. Everything was pretty firm.

My own Cross Check is set up for commuting. I didn't want to risk slicing a tire on a sharp stone when I have to ride it to work the next day, so I brought the trusty mountain bike. It has commuting conversions as well, but it also has some nice old gnarly Continental mountain bike tires.

Almost the entire route was unpaved, so I figured I wouldn't get dropped. Besides, we were out to enjoy the nice weather and spring scenery.

Fowler's Mill/Chocorua Lake Road climbs steadily, and then steeply, to a plateau with enhanced views where land has been cleared.

You get another angle on Chocorua, across this field full of big, honkin' rocks.

Looking down the road, you can see Whiteface and Passaconaway, two more peaks in the Eastern Sandwich Range. Those are both on the 4000-footer list, for you peak baggers. Poor little Chocorua isn't even on the Hundred Highest list.

What goes up gets to come down. Continuing westward, the road dropped off the plateau and we dropped off with it. Where it levels out, the road to the Liberty Trail parking cuts off to the northward. This also provides access to the Brook Trail, another route up the mountain, and the Bolles Trail, which ascends to a saddle west of Chocorua, and descends to the Kancamagus Highway.

After a side jaunt to check out the trail head we resumed our meander on Fowler's Mill Road. That brought us to Route 113A for a few yards to pick up the Old Mail Road.

Old Mail Road to Gardner Hill Road. Gardner Hill Road to Route 113 (as distinct from 113A). Route 113 to Philbrook Neighborhood Road (depicted simply as Philbrick Road on this map). Then we were supposed to take Loring Road, but we stayed on Philbrook all the way back to Fowler's Mill Road instead.

Down near Chocorua Lake are some classic New England summer homes. Tucked among large trees, they evoke the era when families with the means to do so would go to their summer retreat, to rough it, canoeing and hiking in the wholesome atmosphere of the mountains. Generations carried on the tradition, but I wonder now how many can maintain a place, or would be satisfied with such simple pleasures. I know the practice is dwindling, just as the real rural life of year-round inhabitants has mutated with time, technology, population pressures, and the rolling waves of the economy.

It's a relief to disappear on a back road and think about geological time, surrounded by surviving scenes of slower times.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Murphy in the Workshop

Saturday was a busy day, by current standards. As we relish our last couple of Sundays with the shop closed, we also face the mounting pressure of repair work without that extra day to do it. I hate that part. When we go back to full weeks, my life goes on fast forward until I flop out into September with another summer torched to a cinder. Days shorten and chill. Winter's uncertainties, always seeming more dire than those under generous sunlight, gather their forces.

With that in mind, I was preparing to stay late to finish two jobs that customers had hoped to get back before the end of the weekend.

The first was a road bike that needed some straightforward things like shift cables and housings, straightening up the handlebar angle, and a set of front brake pads. Oh, and by the way, the cable adjusters on the down tube have gotten mangled, so please replace the damaged adjusters with new ones.

The mangled adjusters were broken off. This is not unusual. I cleared away the loose parts as I removed the cables I was replacing anyway. But the stubs proved to be so severely corroded into the mounts on the frame that I was unable to spin them out by any of my normal methods. I flooded them with penetrating oil and left a message on the customer's phone to let him know that this job was now a couple of days out.

The next job was a wheel rebuild for a guy's fat bike. He brought it in because the alloy spoke nipples were all crumbling.

I hate alloy spoke nipples. I will tell you this plainly and repeat it as often as anyone brings the subject up: Do not use alloy spoke nipples. Do not let anyone try to convince you that they are an upgrade. They are a disposable item of crap componentry providing a dubious advantage of minuscule weight savings. And this was a fat bike! It was built for rough use in abusive conditions.

Here's where everything that could go wrong really started to pile up. Removing the cassette, I got the lock ring and the detached cogs off, but the block of riveted cogs had burrowed deeply in the aluminum freehub body. I've encountered this a lot. I can usually jostle the cogs loose with a couple of chain whips or a well-aimed tap here or there. So I tried one thing and another, finally snaking a long screwdriver through from the other side so I could give it a little nudge with the rubber hammer. Boink! The whole freehub body popped off, cogs still firmly embedded in it. Well, no harm, really. The axle cap just presses on anyway, and the pawls came out intact. The axle itself remained in the hub, so it would provide the correct spacing in the truing stand. I removed the brake rotor from the other side, so I could install the new spokes to go with the full set of brass nipples.

Back when the Surly Pugsley first came out, we got some adapters for our truing stand, to accommodate the unusual wheels that bike required. The original Pug was designed to use existing componentry in a non-standard way, specifically to allow a rider to use a rear hub on the front wheel. This was so that a rider on an unsupported expedition, far from tech support, could have a spare rear wheel. It was a limited use, esoteric option that made perfect sense in many ways: pure Surly.

As the industry has tried to make fat bikes a rage, the original practicality has disappeared under megatons of image. If fat is good, fatter is better. A mere 135mm rear hub long ago ceased to be good enough.

Because fat bikes really aren't a rage, shouldn't be, and probably won't be, we looked away for a bit, and failed to catch the truly ridiculous dimensions of things like...rear hubs, for instance.

There was absolutely no way that the hub on this wheel -- which was also filthy, by the way -- was going to fit into our truing stand.

I forgot to mention that this poor slave to modernity is also running a tubeless tire, which, of course, had to be removed to get all the way down to the spoke bed of the rim. So this wheel is in just about as many pieces as it can possibly be, and there's no way I can put it back together right away.

We priced the new truing stand that will accommodate hubs up to 215mm. It seems to list pretty consistently around $372 retail. Our price would be less, of course, but it's still another poke in the eye from the bike industry to small shops everywhere.

It's getting to the point where the bike biz is perhaps like the airplane biz. The guy who can do an annual on your Piper Cherokee might not be set up to work on F-18s or an Airbus. Hey, they're all aircraft, what's your problem? There was a brief period when the universe of available bikes could conceivably find succor under the roof of a small shop with a good staff and decent basic tools. And I ask you: is per capita bike use significantly higher now that we have all these increasingly sophisticated and disparate options? Or are we just collectively the victims of technological masturbation?

In the very beginning of the bicycle era, each brand was the product of a different shop, exploring uncharted areas in design and manufacturing with their own proprietary approaches. Standardization across brand lines occurred gradually. Bicycles paved the way, quite literally, for the mass-produced wheeled vehicles that followed. As those other technologies took over to drive innovation to greater complexity, bicycles languished, perfecting the artistry of the machine rather than breaking a whole lot of new ground in the use and processing of materials. Then, in the late 1970s, technological backfill began with test pieces like the Teledyne Titan and the Graftek. Those were merely modest precursors to the avalanche of engineering getting ready to thunder down on us when mountain biking exploded.

After mountain biking established the standard of having few standards, and adopted the shifting sands/seething lava pool technological landscape of virtually every other technology popular at the time, every form of biking felt the full brunt of technological attention, as a desperate industry continued to try to throw equipment at social problems.

A cutting edge is an instrument of pain. It is a surgical tool, amputating riders whose commitment is not strong enough to make them want to fork out the dinero to fund their addiction. If your needs and wants are modest, the industry has decreed that you don't deserve their best. With every cog they add, your old stuff drops a whole step lower when you go looking for replacement bits and pieces.

None of this will matter once civilization collapses to the point where the road system degenerates once more into wagon ruts, and we're lucky if we can rebuild the rail network for rapid transportation between major hubs. Sure, the bicycle was born in that environment, but it served a human race that had never known anything better. Riding a tall wheel with solid tires down a muddy track between farms was a new and desirable experience, face plants and all. But there's a good reason that the next phase of two-wheeled evolution was called "the safety bicycle." Who knows where we'll be able to land, once our obstinacy and superstition have assured that we can no longer maintain what we have. Maybe we'll all be walking, and eating "paleo."

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Immune to Utopia

In 1979, I emerged from the 16 years of schooling considered normal for middle class young people, and started trying to make my way as an adult in what we referred to as The Real World.

For practical reasons, I chose to use a bicycle for transportation, and to shape my life around that, rather than automatically assume that I needed a motor vehicle, and all the expenses that go with it. At the time, you could actually come through a basic college education without debt, but I knew I could not guarantee my income in an uncertain job market. Why load myself down with living expenses?

The 1970s bike boom was nearing its end, but I didn't know it. In Gainesville, home of the University of Florida, bikes had been a dominant mode of transportation when I arrived at school in the mid '70s, and were still going strong when I left there in the early spring of '79 to journey north.

I hit the streets of Annapolis, Maryland, and firmly believed that I was better off on the bike than in a car. My friends and I took a lot of risks, but we got away with it long enough to refine our skills and develop better judgment.

The motoring public could be quite hostile. Occasionally the encounters would escalate from verbal (or salivary) to actual physical combat. Being young and idealistic, I could not understand why the vast majority of people was so blind to the Utopia in which we could all be living if more people took up bike pedals instead of the gas pedal.

The bike represented strength and freedom, but it also represented mutual trust. Strength meant personal physical energy, built and maintained by an activity I found entirely fun and beneficial. Freedom meant freedom from the massive expense and logistical hassle of owning a motor vehicle. Trust was a key element because the bicyclist is balanced on those two wheels, vulnerable to the accidental or purposeful incursions of nearly everyone else. A motor vehicle of any size can crush you, but even another cyclist can take you out. For that matter, a pedestrian could do it, too. A well-timed shove, a quick thrust with an umbrella or a stick, and the bicyclist goes sprawling, to the amusement of onlookers.

At the very end of the 1970s, widespread mutual trust still looked like a societal goal, nationally and globally. Sure, there were international tensions and we could be taken out by a nuclear holocaust at any moment, but most people seemed inclined to avoid it, not solicit it. We were getting better. Weren't we? Meanwhile, I was going to keep showing how it could be done, making the bike transportation thing work, and living a comfortable life on modest means. When I look at my tax returns from the period, I'm pretty horrified at my casual acceptance of a cockroach existence, but such is the nature of idealism. I was not wrong, but I was in the minority.

In the minority I may have been, but I was not alone. Baltimore and Washington had a lot of bike commuters, messengers, and recreational riders. Advocacy groups managed to keep us on the road against various legislative challenges. Of course we still fight the same battle over and over, because the motorist mentality has such a firm grip on all aspects of life and infrastructure, but progress inches forward. It would do more than inch, if people felt more welcome on bikes in the transportation system, but that goes back to the curious resistance to Utopia. Concerning bicycling and nearly everything else, people seem suspicious of happiness and of each other.

I'm the last person to want to be all huggy touchy feely, swaying in unison and singing some stirring anthem of universal siblinghood. You be you, I'll be me, hopefully we'll each find some people to hang with. But I sense and absorb the increasing general paranoia that has grown out of decades of alienation, as we drive like hell on our vital errands of personal advancement.

Many institutions seek to divide us. Certain devotees of certain religions eagerly try to connect the dots of prophecy to bring about the final bloody battle between their version of good and their version of evil. To the dividers and the faithfully divided, there are no innocent bystanders. If you are not with them, you are against them, or at least disposable. If you have not chosen the right path, you shall be cast down, and rightly so. It isn't rational, but rationality itself is prideful and a sin. Add in greed and a whole smorgasbord of bigotry and phobias, and you have a species running in all directions to find some sense of security.

By the late 1960s, it was commonly accepted that we were moving toward a more inclusive and tolerant humanity. Obviously that was a misconception, and the resistance to that point of view has been virulent. As with other virulent things, it may only resolve through a high fever and convulsions which could prove fatal. There's a chance that other treatments will reduce the inflammation, but it's really in the hands of evolution now. It would be funny if our evolution was violently ended by people who don't believe in evolution, but who would be left to laugh about it?

Riding a bike really does symbolize the benefits to be gained from finding your own balance and not interfering with the balance of others. It is among the best of human inventions.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Scavenger hunts

In the struggle to survive, our shop still clings to its precarious holds above the bottomless pit. Since the turn of the century, customer count has dwindled. The whole bike industry has felt the effects of numerous pressures. Meanwhile, customers who do come in still expect the same basic goods and services.

Service especially sets the independent bike shop apart from other sources of merchandise. You don't see people shipping their bike off to an internet merchant to get a tuneup or an overhaul. Customers look for a bike shop when they need someone to do actual wrenching.

Because cross-country skiing is also stagnant or in decline, our winter revenues have fallen quite a bit as well. This leads to the springtime scavenger hunts, as we try to meet the surge of demand for bike repairs when we don't have sufficient cash flow or reserves to buy parts as needed.

You might think we could make a big preseason order of things we know we will need, like cables, brake pads, inner tubes, and chains. But chains include one-speed, 6-7-8 speed, 9-speed, 10-speed, and 11-speed, with 12-speed up and coming. Tire and tube sizes include 10, 12, 16, 20, 24, 26 fractional, 26 decimal (in a couple of widths), 26 fat bike, 650C, 650B, 700C and 29. The 29 and 650B include at least a couple of widths as well. Who will come in when, with what level of urgency? Roll the dice.

In the brake pad department we need to stock cheapo caliper brake pads, nice caliper pads for road bikes, post-type cantilever pads, threaded cantilever pads, linear-pull brake pads, and a speculative selection of disc brake pads.

This was the selection in disc pads as of 2014:
While we're on the subject of disc brakes, we'd better have mineral oil and DOT fluid for the hydraulic ones. Make sure the bleed kits are up to date.

Of course some parts carry over from year to year. Those are usually the ones you won't need. That's why they're still here. We still have to remember where we put them.

Along with the riders who have been using their bikes regularly, year after year, we get the ones I call van Winkles: they've awakened after years of slumber and want to start riding their bike again. The period of dormancy could range from a couple of years to a couple of decades. The oldest bikes can be the easiest to accommodate, because the best of them completely predate the index shifting era. The recent Holdsworth project is a perfect example. The poor bastards who have drive train issues  on a bike that used to be cutting edge and is now abandoned by the manufacturers will often drag the carcass away and give up the idea of starting to ride again because they can't afford the repairs to get the old bike going or the purchase price of a comparable new bike. I always feel bad when they get talked into buying a new bike that is considerably cheesier than the one they don't want to fix, just for the sake of having something "new."

Many repairs, even in the best of times, have sent me on a scavenger hunt to find what I can use among what we have in stock. The back shop is cluttered with improvised tools made out of scrap metal or old spokes. I mine the basement for hulks I can strip for useful bits.

A rival shop went out of business shortly before I started here in 1989. Last year, someone brought in cases of old parts and accessories from that shop, in case we could use any of the stuff. A lot of it is too old or weird, but you never know. The bulging, half-rotted cardboard boxes join the rest of the cache in the basement. It has already saved us several times. Don't let anyone tell you that you should throw out anything that you have not used in a year. Not if you run a bike repair facility, anyway.

Any repair or maintenance beyond routine adjustments will lead to some level of scavenging, because the industry changes so many things with little warning or publicity. If you are not obsessively hooked to the information pipeline, it's easy to miss an important announcement. Then you go looking for parts, only to discover that you've been abandoned. People don't want to live like this. They don't look forward to it when they buy a bike. They look forward to years of happy riding. A cutting edge is an instrument of pain, an implement of destruction. It is a surgical tool, amputating riders whose commitment is not strong enough to make them want to fork out the dinero to fund their addiction.

I keep recommending the freedom and reliability of primitive equipment. What's primitive now was better than I could afford when I was racing, because I had my flirtation with abrasion back when step-in pedals and aero brake levers were just appearing. When I ducked out, friction shifters on the down tube were the mark of an expert. I don't miss shifters on the down tube, but I still don't index, because I don't need to. The drive trains on all my bikes are mixed and matched from nicely made parts collected over the years. My interest is in riding, not shopping, or ministering to the infirmities of super-sophisticated componentry.

The bike industry in general and independent bike shops in particular could survive and thrive without the embrace of industrial enslavement and technological complexity. Good luck convincing them of that. But it's true. People who really want to ride will ride. And the goal should be to get people to ride and keep riding, not to spend and keep spending. The orgy of consumerism that propelled the mountain bike boom will never be repeated, because its fundamentals were destructive and unsustainable. It was an affliction of the entire industrialized world, for which we are still paying. The United States was the superpower of self indulgence, so we guzzled the most and faced the biggest crash. A healthy cycling culture could help us roll out of it, rather than crawling forward on bloody knees until we can drag ourselves into the seat of a motor vehicle to perpetuate the madness. Again, good luck convincing enough people of that. We're all about making money, not about making the world a better place.

I know no better than to keep doing what I do. It might catch on some day.

Monday, April 24, 2017

That nice Holdsworth

A woman brought in her late 1970s Holdsworth touring bike to be renovated for another few decades of fun, reliable riding.
It dates from the early Japanese era. The frame is British steel, but the only European components are the Campagnolo Record high-flange hubs, the Brooks Professional saddle, and the Sedisport chain.

She loves her Brooks Pro. It came in looking a little dry after years of storage, but it was not warped from neglect and abuse.
I polished its copper rivets with some Simichrome. Later in the process I hit the leather itself with some Proofide.


I adopt improvements as they come along, so I recommended aero brake levers and interrupter levers to provide a more upright control position in traffic or on a rough road. Other than that, it was a straightforward overhaul and new tires.

Campy front and rear hubs. Suntour Winner six-speed freewheel.

Reynolds 531, of course.

"Holdsworthy."

Modest but reliable derailleurs were made entirely of metal, back in primitive times.

Nice lugwork on a production frame.

Ready for the next adventure.

The geometry of the bike is very similar to my Cross Check. There's no secret wizardry to frame angles, fork rake, and stay lengths. A frame designer will consider details of rider size and the intended use of the bike. Criteria for these are well established. A bike like this one will carry a moderate load and provide a comfortable ride, without being too sluggish. Short of racing, this is a good all-around road design.

Skinny steel tubing makes it easier to compare frames side by side. And because steel fabrication was -- and is -- economical to set up, we could be enjoying a bounty of adaptable designs in steel for many applications. You can still find them if you know where to look. But of course the cutting edge competitor will need the latest weapon for the bloody and expensive conflict represented by racing. And the misplaced notion that racing represents the highest form of technique and technology will lead to non-racing bicycles executed in more exotic materials than mere steel. Even aluminum has gone seriously down-market since the turn of the century. Metal in general has a quaint image as a holdover or a throwback. But it holds its own among serious tourists and utility riders of all sorts.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Up One Level

The shop has a new trainee. A highly skilled mountain biker, we used to know him as Jumper Dude when all we saw of him was a flash as he shot through our parking lot and launched off the bank on his nearly daily lunchtime rides around Wolfe City.

His resume is impressive, but he's never worked in a bike shop. He can -- and does -- build professional-quality trails. In addition to work experience completely unrelated to biking, he was a mountain biking instructor at a riding park that took over an old ski area. You can see by his riding skills that he's not a poseur. He has a great personality, which will be a real asset offsetting my crappy one. But can he survive the reality of shop life?

"After a couple of months in the apron, your outlook will change," I told him. I don't mean that he will be shattered and disillusioned, only that the wide horizon of enticing possibilities has to narrow, as probability weeds out the more vulnerable fantasies. He knows a certain clientele very well, but that clientele quit coming to our town long before we quit bothering to try to attract it. As our local group of hard core riders decided on their own to leave the trails and move onto the road, there to be dropped one by one as other aspects of life overcame them, they have not been replaced by an equal or greater number of newcomers in any specific riding genre.

When our weekly mountain bike riding group first started to dwindle at the end of the 1990s, one of them told us, "I just got tired of cleaning and repairing my bike all the time. I realized I could spend a lot more time riding and less time on maintenance if I was on a road bike." And this was before a mountain bike could routinely cost $4000 and have a dozen bearings in the suspension pivots. Someone spending just upwards of a thousand bucks on a mountain bike in the late 1990s had something pretty sweet to ride, although you could easily spend twice that. But in the background still lingers the ghost of mountain bikes past, costing far less and providing hours of laughs.

A younger generation will see the world differently. A teenager looking at mountain biking now will see that the minimum buy-in may look like it's still around $400-$500, but the upper end sits above $6,000, with peaks above $10,000.

A $1,500 bike today was a $500 bike in the 1980s. Because so many things can be mixed and matched, the value and usefulness of a bike can't be compared directly to many other things. For instance, I just did some nice updates on a 1970s Holdsworth road bike, to improve rider comfort without significantly changing the original intent of the bike as a drop-bar tourer. Because the bike was fundamentally sound, it can go on for many more years with minimal investment, if it is well maintained and properly stored. The frame itself could be fitted with completely modern componentry. Its geometry matches that of frames you can buy today.

Bits of history walk in all the time. A mechanic who has co-evolved with the technology has a huge advantage over someone who has only studied it academically, or perhaps never gave it a thought before it appears unannounced. This is true of dusty old gems and crusty old junk. Some of that old junk started its life as new junk. But even then it might have sentimental value to its owner.

Working in a bike shop, you have to deal with forms of the machine that might not interest you. I do disparage technology that I feel makes riding needlessly complicated and expensive. There are things I wish would go away. But until they do, I have to try to fix the broken ones. That doesn't mean I won't laugh derisively at anyone who would fall for that crap. But if I can get it to work for them, I will do so before it leaves my hands.

In the mid 1990s, a previous trainee came back in from test riding a full-suspension Cannondale he had just assembled. "Before I worked here, I would just have thought this thing was totally cool," he said. "Now I look at it and try to figure out where it's going to break." I've never been so proud. He had reached the next level. That's my goal for any trainee. You can like what you like, but love with your eyes open, and don't be afraid to scorn and deride what is badly designed, over-marketed bullshit. You are a mechanic now, the first line of defense between riders and the bike industry.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Four to Two

You'd think that, after 27 years riding the same route, making the transition back to bike commuting in the early spring would be a simple matter of putting on the clothes, pumping up the tires,and pedaling instead of driving. It's not.

The car is a great enabler. You can throw things into the car on the off chance that you might want them. They can rattle around in there for days and weeks, unless you live in a high crime area. You can slouch out there in whatever you're wearing, flop into the driver's seat, and off you go.

My commute, at around 15 miles each way on rural roads and highways, is more of a journey and a real bike ride than someone would face on a shorter, perhaps more urban route. The transition would be easier at distances and on terrain more suited to riding in street clothes. Even so, the car still functions as a big barge full of junk. That can be seriously habit forming.

When I was more of an athlete than anything else, shifting from one mode of transportation to another was less daunting because I was in habitually better shape. But the time allocated to my obsessive fitness routine was time I did not have for anything else. To be ready to bust out of the snowbank and sprint down the road, I had to maintain the training wave all year. A writing teacher of mine, as he faced his own challenges to physical vitality, said to the class, "a man's only got so much juice. He's got to watch where he squeezes it." As with every enigmatic statement of the wise, it could be interpreted in a few ways. I took it as a metaphor for time and energy.

This winter was particularly difficult. The weather kept shifting radically between snow and thaw. If your schedule fit the changing conditions, you might leap back and forth between dry-land modes and  snow-based modes. If not, you would have to resort to indoor machines.

Indoor training is even less convenient than suiting up to go outdoors. You have to get psyched to marinade in your own sweat for as long as you can force yourself to stand it. If you don't go hard enough to get drenched, you did not go hard enough. You might make the case that you want to do some lower-intensity sessions, but then you have to stay on the machine for much longer, because that's how the training wave works. It's really easy to find better ways to spend your time. It's only a day. It's only a couple of days. Hey, it's been a week, but I was in good shape. Holy #%%, how did it get to be April?!

I look out the windows at a landscape still mostly white. It's not frozen, but the slush pile is still more than a foot deep in some places, and much deeper where the snow thrower or the shovel made piles beside areas that I cleared. Outdoor riding conditions were better in late February than they were for all of March. And then we started April with 10 more inches of snow.

To go to work by bike, I have to pare down to the essentials. This means not just the vehicle and its cargo capacity, but the bag I carry, as well. The handy day pack holds impulse items, just as the car does.

Then there's the time in transit. Riding takes just over twice as long as driving. While that's beneficial exercise, it also gets me home half an hour later than when I drive. Evening routines take longer with the addition of a shower. Supper time and bed time move closer together. There's less time for unstructured activity or free-range thought. I want to get back into the routine of self-propulsion, because I know that sitting too much is deadly, but -- after a winter of it -- I'm afraid I might discover that I'm too far gone. Having once had a high standard, how far below it will I find myself?

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Worthless weather went on



The weather's April Fool's Day joke for my area was 10 inches of wet, heavy snow on top of the remnants of the existing snowpack and the exposed mud of dirt roads and driveways. The snow thrower would barely launch it five feet, let alone the 10 to 15 feet that I count on to clear my parking area. Fortunately, the sanity of spring sunshine sizzled the 10 inches down to five or six by the end of the next day, and cooked off even more yesterday.

We were threatened with another three to six inches of glop today, but we've gotten rain, instead. I rejoice. Snow that falls at this point in the season isn't good for anything. It's basically just white mud. It impedes all forms of mobility. Trust me, I've tried a number of them. The only conveyance that could move unhindered would be a hovercraft. While pedal-powered versions have been made, I would not want to take one very far.

With warmth and rain dominating the forecast all week, maybe things will clear out enough to get around.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

And then it snowed

After dwindling away to nearly nothing, winter jumped back into the game with 15-20 inches of snow. Depth varied with your location. I measured about 16 at home. The ski center claimed 18.

Before the snow, I could have launched the commuting season as soon as Daylight Relocating Time moved light to the evening. Yes, I have lights, but I've said numerous times that you could set yourself on fire and some drivers still would not notice you.

In the shop, we had to drag out rental equipment we had started to put into storage. This isn't a real money maker, this late in a mediocre season, but it's our core winter business, so we have to meet whatever demand presents itself. I hate when bike and ski stuff jam together in the workshop, because the substances they use are so incompatible. In that equation, bike lubes are worse for ski bases than ski waxes might be for most surfaces of a bike, but we're still trying to fit awkwardly shaped objects into a shared space without damaging any of them.

Timing of the snow and other items on the schedule meant that I did not shift seamlessly back to an athletic routine of workouts on the snow. Back to? I never established one at all, this winter. Muscling the snow thrower around provided a couple of days of exercise. Later there was some shoveling.

The strengthening sun hasn't made the snow miraculously disappear, but it does modify it much more quickly than the weaker rays of deep winter would. The surface becomes slow and sticky, while the full depth remains fine-grained. Skis pick up moisture on the way through the top layer before dropping down into the powder to clump up and slow down. Or you could go to the groomed trails, if you have time.

If we move relatively steadily into spring conditions, the roads will melt clear, the snowbanks shrivel again, and I'll be able to get out of the car. No doubt there will be a few bad jokes from the weather during the next month and a half. But the darkness and its attendant cold have to follow their fixed schedule. What we get may not be balmy and inviting, but it will probably be doable.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

In memory of Sachs Sedis

Ordering chains the other day, I sifted through the offerings from SRAM, KMC, Shimano, and others. Our default chain has been SRAM, because their chains are descended from the legendary Sedisport, the sleeper deal chain of the 1980s.

Very little can be seen of the original Sedisport in the SRAM chains of today.  The formerly flared inner plates are now straight.

The outer plates are shaped very similarly to Shimano's Hyperglide and Uniglide chains, which the Sedisport once outperformed. The change was gradual, and the chains are still functional and durable. But the reflex to choose them is probably more emotional than anything else.

Vintage Sedisport. Burly side plates, cleverly flared inner plates to facilitate shifting. Born when drive trains were moving to six speeds. My, my. What will be next? Gears that click into place?
Look at the opportunities for advertising, recklessly squandered. The side plates of the chain are completely blank. It's as if they expect their distinctive design to speak for them.

The 1990s saw the introduction of the Sedisport ATB. The links shown here date from after the merger with Sachs, as the stamping on the side plates shows.
The outer plates were straight, with beveled edges. The pins were starting to be riveted in ways that led to the development of closure links. Shimano, of course, had their persnickety special pins. Sachs developed a closure link shortly before they were bought by SRAM.

Ten- and eleven-speed drive trains need straight-sided chains because the spacing of the gears is so tight. Differences, if any, are subtle. Because I don't indulge, I depend on the feedback of those who do to decide what to supply them with. I know what I favor, but that can change every year as the industry removes options.

Chain shopping was tangential to larger games of componentry chess I started last fall, when a couple brought in their Seven touring bikes to be reconfigured with more practical drive trains, and another customer wanted to dress a new frame with an 11-speed racing group. His Specialized Roubaix had cracked, and Specialized had sent a warranty replacement. Same brand, same model name, but of course it had some different specs. That game was more a matter of cost-benefit analysis, working within his budget and a couple of specific requests.

Interesting indoor activities help pass the time as winter reclaims March. This happens every year. We complain that the mild weather won't stick around, but 20 years ago these conditions would have looked like the beginning of April, not the beginning of March.

The hard freezes after springlike warmth have pretty well wrecked the cross-country skiing, even in the nearby woods. This limits alternative training activities to things that are more boring, and therefore less likely. Despite the fact that I can literally feel that sitting on the couch is killing me, I still slouch in front of the computer, teasing my mind with little jabs of electronic stimulation. Old friends, new friends, hopeful signs, terrifying trends, ads for diseases you, yes you, probably have...

Back to the hunt for bike parts. Look at that: Specialized has multiple road models that list for $10,000. Way to grow the sport! When civilization collapses, where will we charge our electronic shifters? I know, I know: personal solar systems will continue to work, as long as you can find a place to soak up some sun in between attacks by various desperadoes unleashed by the apocalypse. And you'll be able to scrounge hydraulic fluid for the brakes for quite a few years before things have reverted to more medieval conditions. Brake pads, on the other hand...

I've gotten out for a few fixed gear rides. The return to cold weather puts me back to scrounging kindling and pine cones to start the evening fires in the wood stoves. Scavenging wood is best done on skis, as long as there is any snow cover. It's not a high-intensity workout, but it combines some basic exercise with a practical need. That's been my guiding principle for my entire adult life.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Bike commuting is to train for

Whenever someone tells me that something basically trivial is "to die for," I am briefly tempted to make them do it. But the vapid assertion provides a take-off point for more substantive ones.

Here it is, the end of February in northern New England. Around my house and in the woods, the snow is anywhere from six to 24 inches deep, except in places where it is deeper because of windblown drifts or created piles. But these are the remains of the much deeper snow we received in two storms very close together just before the middle of the month. That was before the temperature went above 60 degrees for a couple of days, in the middle of a longer period when the nighttime lows hardly got below freezing. The jet stream giveth and the jet stream taketh away. That's not to mention the other factors making New England's typical gyrations even more bizarre.

The thaw has shriveled the snow away from the road edges, clearing the bikeable area. At the same time, it destroyed the groomed trails on which one might have laid down a winter rhythm of alternative training.

While I have not seen riders, some of them have reported to me that they have been out and have seen others out. Calls to the shop for bike tuneups began while the snowbanks still slumped into the lanes. Road salt made those puddles as briny as the ocean. But people fixate on the temperature alone. Warmth is the deciding factor, even when they'd be better served by cold.

We did need the thaw to shrink the snowbanks back. But once the whole travel surface is clear, a freeze keeps things dry. I know a couple of things from years of experience: first, someone who gets their annual tuneup now will need more work by May or June to deal with the effects of salt and wet grit; second, when the weather turns cold again -- and it will -- bikes brought in for early service will be forgotten until June. Most of them will be forgotten in our shop, where we will have to work around them until their owners feel the urge for them again.

Riding in the grit and brine is probably only a little more abusive than pounding on a trainer, with a rain of sweat flowing down over the machinery.

I surveyed the route on my way home from work yesterday. If the roads stay this clear, I have no excuse not to launch the commute as soon as Daylight Relocating Time kicks in. With that in mind, I headed out for some base miles on the fixed-gear today.
The first hundred yards reminded me what a crappy winter this has been for exercise. But then I also did several sets of squats yesterday, in anticipation of the anticipation of the beginning of riding season. So the fried quads owed a little to that, as well as the time spent on the couch in a pile of cats.

I used to dream of glorious endeavors when I trained, especially during the first heroic rides coming out of the winter. Now I dream of surviving and thriving in my commute. The commute was always there, but I took it for granted. It's not good to take anything for granted.

The weather may change again. March can be snowy. Once we pass the equinox, however, the sun really gains the advantage. Even now, it is much stronger than it was a month ago. It quickly attacks late-season snows. And if the pattern remains dry, or the wetness comes on warm air, the road will remain clear.

Freedom isn't free. To be free from the car, I have to be strong enough to claim it. It's to train for.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

I hate sharing the road

Driving season is grinding me down the way it always does. Sitting behind yet another ambling piece of flotsam as I'm trying to get the hell to work on a two-lane highway with lots of curves and steady traffic, I pine for the freedom of bike commuting. The vast physical, emotional, and psychological benefits outweigh the little bit of death fear that always accompanies cycling among motor vehicles.

Every year, I explore the motorist mindset. I absorb and radiate the impatience of the throttle-pusher forced to curtail speed because other legitimate users are on the road. The idiots staring at their phones, who somehow think that their weaving and speed changes aren't totally obvious make me wish I had a device with which to break in and blast them with a loud reminder to pay attention to piloting. One guy was so bad, I flashed my high beams at him repeatedly whenever I saw his face turn downward toward the touch screen. Flashflashflashflashflashflash! It seemed to work. He may have hated me, but at least the finally gave up on his phone until our paths diverged.

Critiquing other road users has become more dangerous this week, since New Hampshire did away with concealed weapon permits, releasing any gun owner to carry a concealed weapon with no restrictions or oversight. Hell, everything became more dangerous. Gun lovers like to say, "an armed society is a polite society," but fear creates reticence. The idea that anyone might be armed means that  speaking up when you see an injustice now calls for a higher level of courage. No one need fear that they will be stopped and questioned because law enforcement caught sight of a corner of a gun butt.

I've considered packing heat in the past. I had a concealed carry permit under the old system, but I did not renew it when it expired. Now I don't have to worry about the permit, but the reasons to forgo armament remain. If you pull it out, not only do you have to be ready to use it, you will have increased the chances that you will have to. Anyone even catching sight of a weapon you are carrying may use it as justification to take preemptive action. And guns weigh a lot. I'll be better served by an extra bottle of water.

Speaking of water, I've been hydrating desperately since the kidney stone. Unable to afford the defective product known as health insurance, I have to treat myself for things as much as possible. When I consulted my primary care provider a couple of weeks after the stone passed, because I still had residual twinges and wanted to get at least a cursory examination, she did not recommend investing in the expensive and inconclusive imaging procedures that might detect remaining stones until I had pursued many weeks of assiduous hydration. I had told her that the twinges were gradually subsiding. They ramp right up when I let myself worry. Those with the most to fear in America's pay-to-play health care business have the most incentive to suppress those fears, so that stress does not trigger the illness that will ruin everything.

The good news is that beer turns out to be a health beverage. Do not exceed the recommended dosage.

Lacking the resolve of my younger years, I find it hard to get my 10,000 steps a day. We're about two weeks away from Daylight Relocating Time. Depending on the weather, that may enhance exercise opportunities attractive enough to overcome my depression. I have to hope that the hits have outweighed the misses in this hit-and-miss winter, when I begin to lay down a more regular rhythm of effort and recovery on the bike.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Commuting like your life depended on it

As a person ages, regular exercise becomes more important to keep the body moving and the mind engaged. Well before you reach the point where someone is holding your elbow and guiding you gently across the carpeted floor of the nice facility in which you spend your last days, you'll get around better if you do as much as you can under your own power.

Wolfeboro is full of old people. The median age in New Hampshire is rising in general, but certain towns attract retirees, meaning that the population is not only aging in place, it's recruiting people who have left the work force. This provides a lot of subjects to observe.

As I watch the retirees through the years, I see that the active ones  -- not surprisingly -- do better than the inactive ones. The local working-age commuters also enjoy an automatically better fitness base. Because of my foolish life choices, I'll be in the work force until they dump my body in an unmarked grave. So it's vitally important to me to stay in shape and save money. Transportation cycling, even for half the year, makes a critical difference.

The bike path system in town draws the largest percentage of locals who pedal. Anyone not fortunate enough to live within a half-mile or less of an access point is very likely to drive to the trail, unload the bikes, perform their obligatory exercise, and drive off to whatever is next. This is also true of many riders who are not yet retired, especially in tourist season. The Cotton Valley Trail is about to be completed all the way from Wolfeboro to Wakefield, fulfilling a plan published back in the 1990s. This makes it a destination journey for people who like to drive around, sampling different paths and trails.

The trails also attract walkers, some with dogs, some with strollers. During peak usage periods, riders have to negotiate this crowd, and the non-riders have to put up with the cyclists.

Walking is actually the best way to get around the tight center of Wolfeboro. I use the bike to get to town, but for any errands right in downtown I will walk, making better time than anyone on wheels when the traffic is at its height. Even when traffic is sparse, a cyclist will have to negotiate left turns and hills, and then find a secure place to park. If the distance is a half-mile or less, hoof it.

On trails or on the road, the vast majority of riding is done for recreation and exercise, separate from the utilitarian needs of daily life. A tiny handful of people use bikes for transportation. Most of them have an athletic background of some kind. We slip through Wolfeboro's legendary summer traffic with ease, but the prisoners of internal combustion all have their reasons to stay sealed in the can, barely moving on a really bad day. They're right: the blockage only lasts for a little over two miles at its worst. Then they can rip along, formation flying with their fellow motorists, far faster than some sweaty idiot pushing on bike pedals.

In the winter, I do not push bike pedals. With access to the cross-country ski trails, and a love of winter hiking and mountaineering, I have always set aside the bike when icy roads and encroaching snowbanks made it an unfair imposition on the road users who really truly can't get around any other way. Loggers and tradesmen need trucks. People who have to cover a lot of distance need to go faster than 15-20 miles per hour. We're all in this together. Yes, many road users could benefit physically and economically if they left the car home and pedaled on the errands on which you see them out there, but a lot needs to be done to make that easy and inviting. Right now it intimidates them.

In winters with little or no snow, the roads are as clear as in summer. Then I will ride, because I am not fenced in by a snowbank.

At some point, even a fit and healthy person starts to get physical problems. A slowing metabolism means that the pounds pile on much more quickly when the exercising stops. If people have walkable and bikeable routes to routine destinations, they have the option to leave the armored wheelchair in the garage, and get a little more conditioning without having to think about it. They'll never believe that they could change the traffic mix in their favor if they all just went for it. They stay in their vehicles, scaring themselves and each other so that only a few at a time ever give it a shot. And then it scares them, so they go back into the car.

Some people love their cars and would never consider getting around by bike. And they don't automatically rot away after age 70 as a stark warning of the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. Some people manage to live long lives of happy smoking. There's no guaranteed formula. But the odds favor someone who remains active. I feel decrepitude eagerly hook its claws into me when I'm forced to be inactive. Even though the commute sometimes just feels like a treadmill grinding me toward my anonymous death, I know that it is helping me.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Lighter bikes mean weaker riders

When you get a lighter bike, it feels unbelievably agile and quick. For weeks, you feel like a superhero. For months you smile at the sight of that exceptional new extension of your personal power.

Then you get used to it.

If your goal is to hang with and beat out a peloton of racers or serious pretenders, and if your budget extends to regular upgrades, you can get the genuine advantage of lighter and lighter equipment as it hits the market. But most of us have to stick with a bike for a long time, and may prefer that.

I don't suggest that riders should seek out the clunkiest chunk of gas pipe to push around. I do suggest that weight weenies are deep in addiction. I'm also waiting for a bike so light that the rider has to be on it just to keep it on the ground. You have to tie it down when you park it. I mean something less bulky than what Albert Santos-Dumont already made. Looks like he's pedaling it, right?
He famously tooled around the skies of Paris, visiting friends while avoiding traffic congestion and on-street parking issues. Thinking of an e-bike? Consider a personal dirigible instead. Talk about flying up the hills!

Unfortunately, history bursts my balloon on this one. All accounts I can find say that the airships were propelled by small engines of some kind. I feel quite deflated. But modern inventors have taken up the cause.

Parking over public transportation might get very interesting.

Headwinds would be a new kind of hell when you could actually get blown backwards for miles.

Meanwhile, here on the ground, I look at the industry's annual offerings, and the adoring press that lauds latest and lightest and then return affectionately to my longtime companions, grateful for their simple needs and rewarding company.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Agony and endorphins

Since my last post, I have started a couple of entries, only to be dragged away for long enough to lose the thread of them.

As this strange winter began, we seemed to be getting a reasonable amount of snow for cross-country skiing. Way back in 1980, when I was dedicated to training, I heard about cross-country skiing as a winter sport that integrated well with competitive cycling. I now know more about how that works -- and doesn't work -- but that isn't the topic today. The point is, I've valued snow and the things you can do on it for many years, rather than wishing it away or going out pedaling in it when there are far older and better established ways to use it as a transportation and recreation medium.

Then the weather broke. I don't mean the weather broke in the classic sense of a sustained period of one type giving way to another. I mean it really seems to have broken into chunks of April and January, shaken together and dumped out in a cycle of warm wet followed by cold dry.

The transformed snow pack, combined with a few scheduling issues, threw me from the regular rhythm of the bike commute into a relatively sedentary lifestyle. Drive. Work. Drive. Do domestic tasks. When I did manage to get out to poke around the woods for anything, it was at very low intensity.

The deeply cold air is very dry. Heat that air inside a house and it becomes even more dry. I wake up in the middle of the night with absolutely no moisture in my mouth, even if I was not sprawled on my back, snoring. I keep a bottle of water by the bed, and drink most of it by morning. Even so, dehydration sneaks in, because I seldom sense thirst. And so, for the first time in my life, I had to pass a kidney stone.

Dietary factors contributed, I'm sure, even though I try to eat a fairly plant-based menu. I like meals that are made from scratch but easy to prepare. Ideally, they spin off leftovers I can carry for grab-and-go lunches. As I writhed in agony on the couch on Friday night, I researched factors that contribute to kidney stone production, and found a few of my regular items on the suspect list: nuts, green leafy vegetables, wheat bran…any and all of these, combined with inadequate hydration and sedentariness, could have played a part in the waves of pain that ramped up steadily as my little rock made its way through the ureter.

Worse than the pain is the unknown, especially for someone with no health insurance.  Even though health insurance is a deceptive product that is actually one of the reasons all medical things are ridiculously expensive in the United States, it is the accepted norm when you present yourself for care. And it was Friday night going into a holiday weekend. Not only would I be unable to get anything but emergency care, I had to be at work the next day, and the next day, and the holiday Monday.

If all I had to face was the mind-blowing agony of the stone's passage, I could deal with it. I thought I was going to puke or pass out or both, as it reached its crescendo, but then it was over, and the aftermath was bliss. But if I had an infection or had developed some weird chronic condition in which this was the new normal, I would have to consider suicide, because I am too poor to indulge in long-term illness and decline. As soon as I can no longer take care of myself, I have to go. And I don't want to go. But the reality of a market-based approach to human value is that you have no value when you are not creating cash flow.

The middle of a winter night, racked with pain, is a perfect time to swirl down a dark whirlpool of mortal anxiety.

This time, I got through the pain and a day of fasting and water, facing a light tourist load because they all thought the weather had ruined the skiing. I have no signs of infection, and will return to the forest to forage until some other crisis comes along. Whatever I can do with diet and exercise, I will do. When the thing comes along that is finally too serious for that…I'm not looking forward to it, but there's no good alternative. Something takes you out eventually. It irks me to know that I could easily go down from something that would have been treatable, but since we ration care on the basis of ability to pay, someone has to be left out.

The bliss that followed the pain reminded me of the same peace that follows a good workout or a serious bike crash. That's how it ties to the theme of this blog. And the blog is about the life of a person, not about obsessive compulsive cycling.