Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Fixing the unfixable

As I was picking congealed grease out of a Shimano Rapidfire shifter pod dating from about 1991,
I actually appreciated how solidly it was made, and how reliably it worked compared to its temperamental descendants. Early versions of a product, even one with lots of conceptual flaws, will be made much better than later versions, because the promoter doesn't want it to self destruct before establishing itself among the uninformed as a solid product. Only then do the manufacturers start watering it down to increase profits.

I hated the underlying concept, and still do. Shimano announced Rapidfire in a triumphant video that they sent out to shops before the 1990 season. We watched our copy in horror, anticipating in full detail the hell that it would unleash on mechanics and riders. We could do nothing to stop it, despite my best subversive efforts. It included the admonition that there was nothing we could fix inside these pods, so don't even try. Word in the cycling press was that intrepid mechanics had disassembled brand new units and reassembled them exactly as they had been, and they mysteriously failed to function. Whether this was true or was disinformation planted by Shimano I never found out. It implied that there was some magic Shinto pixie dust inside these units that would fall out if barbarians profaned the interior.

I plastered these cartoons all over Interbike's Philadelphia show for a couple of years:

It was, of course, to no avail. The technofascists won, leading the technolemmings off of cliff after cliff. But I digress.

The 1991 pod clicks solidly into gear as soon as you flush out the pus that they used for grease. It congeals into a substance we call earwax. My colleague Ralph came up with that one. He was an excellent wrench who was smart enough to get out of the business. It's been bad for his waistline, but probably good for his bottom line, to pursue his interest in computers instead of the 19th Century technology of the bicycle, dolled up with 21st Century materials as it is today.

When hackers and their malware finally make the Internet untenable, bicycles will be waiting to receive the refugees of the Digital Age.

Back to the pod from '91: it felt weird to have so few clicks. I've had to clean out many later versions, chasing more gears, so an original six-speed feels very short. But the wider spacing with fewer stops provides more margin for error. Cable tension has to be relatively accurate, but not neurosurgically precise.

Within a couple of years, the Japanese Buggernaut had enclosed the pods more completely and nearly doubled the number of parts inside. This made them less vulnerable to invading grit and mud, and generally more reliable. It also concealed the insidious activities of earwax under a Darth Vader-like black mask.

In the 1990s, the bike industry, led by Shimano, used the customers mercilessly as test pilots. You might expect such shenanigans from small companies making boutique componentry, but you saw more of it from the big players with lots of leverage. You see it today as manufacturers hump their customers in vulnerable "enthusiast" categories with model year changes intended to make addicts want another hit. There are no white hats in the big componentry business. With the coming of the Electrical Age, batteries are all the rage in everything one might electrify.

Honestly, how did any of us survive the 1970s and '80s on the paleolithic crap we had to ride? In his book, Four Against the Arctic, author David Roberts told the story of four Russian hunters in the 18th Century who survived on an island near Svalbard for six years before being rescued. He and other members of his research team observed that people from a later time, less inured to routine hardship, probably would not have survived. Indeed, look how many perished on Arctic exploration trips when their technological cocoon ripped, dumping them into the elements where Inuit survived and thrived.

We're not Arctic explorers, but we are certainly allowing ourselves to be increasingly isolated and softened by accepting more and more technological intermediaries between us and the realities of the tasks we choose to tackle. Some of these can enhance safety and functionality, but an awful lot, particularly in cycling, pander to riders in search of marginal gains at more than marginal increases in cost, and drive perfectly functional older stuff underground.

Would I miss my outlaw bravado if the stuff I use was totally mainstream? Against what would I rebel in Biketopia, with beautiful routes and intermodal interfaces everywhere? Why don't we build it and find out?


mike w. said...

Your Shimano - themed cartoons nailed it. As a bike mech i'd given up on Shimano before the 70's were out.

RANTWICK said...

I'm with you, man. Let's build it and find out; I suspect you would be just fine.

Steve A said...

Carburetor cleaner - the duct tape equivalent of something that gets rid of congealed old stuff. Afterward, simply put a bit of light machine oil to replace the old guck. If you're daring, try using one of those chain lubes that evaporate except for some residual wax or heavy oil.

cafiend said...

We use Pro Gold Pro Link for in-depth procedures, if a blast of PG2000 from outside doesn't do the trick. Earwax isn't like varnish. It's just stiff enough to keep the hair-fine springs on the tiny pawls from fully engaging the ratchets.

greatpumpkin said...

I've always loved the Lego blocks cartoon.

Unknown said...


cafiend said...

"dear-bike-industry-i-am-sorry-for-whatever-we-did-to-deserve-press-fit-" I loved that for the title alone.