Friday, March 23, 2018

The misunderstanders write the history books

Dredging around on the interwebs for a certain specific mutant mountain bike from the 1990s, I found a site depicting bikes of that period, viewed through the perception of young modernists. Discussing the flat, narrow handlebars we ran back then, these analysts said that we did it to reduce weight. This is entirely inaccurate.

The mountain bikes of the early ‘90s had short top tubes and long stems. We cut the bars down for better clearance on narrow trails, and to reduce unnecessary steering leverage. No one today understands bar ends, either. I don’t miss bar ends, because I bought a late ‘90s frame with a longer top tube, and put wider bars with more sweep on it, but I also don’t ride off-road in the 1990s cruising style anymore. Back then our rides were little journeys, not a series of linked stunts. We actually chose to challenge ourselves with long climbs, and liked riding cross-country.

The inheritors of mountain biking, the children of parks, ramps, moto-style courses and highly evolved suspension, have come up with their own narrative about a world they never knew. It doesn’t matter. Mountain bikers can pick and choose which antecedents to honor. It’s a young person’s game, so it will always exist in the present and recent past. The machines of history will be judged by the standards of modern riders who have not had to fumble through the period of discovery and refinement.

The older I get, the younger I realize the ages are that I once thought of as old. But if your sport is highly likely to tax your body’s ability to heal quickly, it is a young person’s game.

Back when cycling was just cycling, riders pedaled as best they could over whatever surfaces they had. The first bike ride across the United States predated the first official transcontinental road by about 30 years. And that was on a bike with skinny tires and no suspension. Really differentiated speciation didn't afflict us until the late 20th Century.

Granted, bicycling innovators experimented relentlessly, and forms of suspension can be seen from the beginning. At the start, roads themselves were often little more than trails in some places, or a set of ruts that would be dusty or muddy depending on the season.

The first mountain bikes continued that time line of branching but still related lines. The basic objective was the same: get from point A to point B over a given type of terrain. Riders in different regions, with different backgrounds, took the basic form and mutated it to suit their local conditions and tastes. Are your trees close together? Cut your bars down.

Commuting in the city, I had 38cm drop bars on my fixed gear so that I could slip through skinny gaps. On my open-road bike I had 44cm drop bars. When I started commuting over longer distances of open road, and didn't need to thread the needle in a tight cityscape with close traffic and parked cars, I put wider bars on all my bikes. It's called adaptation. Riders who adopted the mountain bike as an urban platform also modified their bars based on those considerations. Riders who visited our rugged, forested part of New England from the wide-open spaces of the golden West often had bikes adapted to plush singletrack through open range and meadows. But even they exhibited slightly narrower bars than the current norm, because of the top-tube-to-stem ratio I already cited.

Different brands adopted the longer cockpit gradually, taking a couple or three years to shift every company's offerings to the format now viewed as normal. Stems shortened. Bars widened. Riders wanted to sit up a little higher for better weight distribution and a better view down the trail. With suspension, you don't want to risk being way out over the front end of the bike. With full suspension, you can  and should stay more neutral on the bike anyway. And of course suspension has bred its own nuances of kinetics to propel the bike. Once you embrace the expense and complexity of a fully modern mountain bike, you might as well take advantage of everything it has to offer in return for its need for maintenance.

The website also dismissed threaded headsets as a misguided carryover from road biking. The article states that the pounding of mountain biking would make the locknut and top cone loosen up. If the headset had been properly adjusted and secured, it would not loosen. The major problem is that the explosion of bike business led to an explosion of shops, and a need to hire lots of "mechanics" while still trying to pay them dirt. Legions of inexperienced people came in who had no idea how a locknut works, and no patience. And why should they, when they just took the job to get the employee discount on schwag, and their employer was trying to nickel and dime them?

I ran threaded headsets without a problem until the turn of the century, when you could hardly find good quality product in quill stems and threaded headsets. The threadless headset is very convenient to work on, but it makes adjustment of bar height an awkward yank a lot of the time. Young riders on their stunt machines don't mind being locked in at an aggressive angle. Riders looking for a little more relaxation end up with a stack of spacers or a stem with a dorky rise that makes the bike steer funny.

Their picture shows someone adjusting the threaded headset without a stem in place, which will result in a headset that binds once the stem is installed and tightened. That kind of makes my point that the vast majority of people getting into the game in the 1990s knew the latest thing, but they didn't know everything. And now the current archaeologists look back from what they know and guess about what they see.

Friday, March 16, 2018

There is no cycling anymore

I heard a rumor today that a bike shop in a nearby town, known to specialize in mountain bikes, was planning to relocate to Wolfeboro. The owner of our shop is wondering how that will affect us.

Back in the 1990s, we withstood the attack of relentlessly undercutting competitors. That was when I noticed that competition is not really good for consumers, as we had been taught to believe. Competition weakened all the competitors, so that customers had less selection and less competent help. Our shop survived by preserving margins and performing top quality service. It didn’t hurt that we had a couple of mechanics who were smart enough to figure out how to work on the avalanche of new componentry, but dumb enough to keep trying to live on bike mechanic wages. The riding public in Wolfeboro was very well served in that time, especially when the biggest undercutter put itself out of business, and freed us up to stock more goodies.

At the time, there were mountain bikers and there were roadies, but they weren’t quite poles apart yet. Cross-country mountain bike racers were training on road bikes for aerobic fitness. But the subculture continued to evolve. The industry, fully committed to the drug dealer model of consumer marketing, kept spawning new categories to narrow the segments of the market and deepen the bite that could be taken from each addict’s wallet.

Around the time our latest looming competitor opened up in the next town to the south, the mountain biking subculture had already dismissed us as outsiders. Without even dropping by to see if we could be brought up to speed, our few remaining mountain bike customers went to the new guy.

I’ll admit outright that I had lost interest in mountain biking. None of the new equipment entices me to reconsider. The category concept really crushes small shops, even from the service angle, because customers tend not to trust someone they don’t see participating in their subculture. Also, our own sense of the componentry suffers from our inability to use all of it. Our slogan in the ‘90s was, “We really ride.” Road or mountain, we had put in the hours. Now, with every division a specialty of its own, a small shop faces an insurmountable challenge. You have to choose a specialty.

Sensing this well over a decade ago, I suggested that we stake out the practical tourist and exploratory rider demographic, as well as keeping a stock of path bikes and kid stuff for the casual recreationists and moderate fitness riders. Upper management did not commit to the concept. So here we are.

Word is, the competitor is not hurting for money. It always makes things harder when you’re fighting for your life against someone who is in the game just for a hobby. It’s yet another kick in the nards for the mythical “free market.”

All this takes place at a time when bikes are still being treated as toys and banished to segregated playgrounds. Cycling has not heeded the advice to join or die. Within the ranks of all pedalers, each subculture makes its own separate treaties with government and public opinion. Each pulls separately on the funds and expertise of any business trying to continue in the industry.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The perversion of the fat bike concept

Looking at a fat bike on our sales floor, I compared it to its ancestor, the Surly Pugsley.

The Pugsley was a production version of one-offs built for unsupported exploration on difficult terrain. The same way that original mountain bike builders used existing items and gradually evolved specific variations as the category evolved, so did the Pugsley try to use as much existing technology as possible. The offset fork, for instance, was sized for a standard rear hub, so that an unsupported rider in the wilderness could have a spare rear wheel. The frame was designed around widely available parts except for the rims and the bottom bracket necessary to get the chain past those wide tires. The bike was mildly impractical rather than wildly impractical.

The fat genre mutated rapidly as the industry sensed that it might go mainstream and open up another channel of exploitation. Unfettered fatness has led to the completely specialized components, isolating the genre in its own bubble and eliminating the practicality of its original form.

Surly has moved the original Pugsley to the touring category. They've tweaked the frame a little to make it a better load hauler, but the frame designated as Pugsley is the only one with the offset fork and other expeditionary leanings. The rest of the fat line is in the sport category.

Super fatness may be the wave of the future if the collapse of civilization eliminates most or all paved roads. At the beginning of the 21st Century, it was less than a hundred years since there had been no transcontinental roads in the United States. It was a big deal the first time someone managed to get one of those newfangled automobiles from one coast to the other under its own power, in 1903. Existing infrastructure will crumble quickly once we step back and let it. Look what happens, especially in northern states, in just a year or two.

Of course the riding population may be less thrilled with the modernization of their machines once they can't get parts delivered overnight from Amazon, and watch YouTube videos to learn how to install them. We'll be back to walking in less than a generation. Or we'll return to real horsepower.

Do you know why a draft animal is called a draft animal? Because none of them volunteered. Remember that when you're trying to saddle up Old Bess or learn how to drive a team of oxen on your daily commute.

Assuming for the moment that civilization isn't going to topple any time soon, bicycling remains a recreational diversion for nearly all riders in North America. People's interest may not outlast one set of tires. It seems impossible that a large enough number of people will be able to keep pissing away money like that, but I guess the money's good for now. Since fat bikes were a bit of a circus act to begin with, making them more cartoonish isn't that big a deal.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Coulda used good news. This ain't it.

From the National Weather Service today:


* WHAT...Heavy snow possible. Travel will be very difficult to
  impossible, including during the morning commute on Thursday.
  Total snow accumulations of 6 to 12 inches are possible.

* WHERE...All of New Hampshire and western Maine.

* WHEN...From Wednesday afternoon through Thursday evening.

* ADDITIONAL DETAILS...Snow covered and slippery roads, and
  significant reductions in visibility are possible.

The daytime highs hop right back up to the forties immediately after this bounty of slop. And it falls in many cases on bare, thawed ground. Spring skiing is not done on spring snow.

Astronomical spring, marked by the equinox, is not meteorological spring, measured from the beginning of March. While by one measure we are still in winter's province, the sun grows stronger even before the day lengthens to 12 hours and beyond. Winter-type precipitation is likely from any storm, but it falls into a more hostile setting than it would find under the long nights and brief days of January and early February.

A quick inch last night was just a foretaste, and something to mess up the roads for anyone rashly contemplating a morning wobble on the fixed-gear. I should grab one now, though, as the sun has warmed the roadway sufficiently to clear it. Six to 12 inches will not go as quietly.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Your Personal Relationship with Cog

The departure of winter weather has brought in the first bike repair of the season.

New England has always had five seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter, and "none of the above," but now they're more jumbled up than ever. We're definitely in none of the above right now. It can get as warm as it likes, and we still won't see growing plants for another month and a half. Still, if we don't get appreciable snow in that time, more cyclists will emerge. Or we could get slammed. Water-soaked ground won't refreeze, so a bunch of snow won't reinvigorate winter fun.

Of course this first patient is a dedicated roadie.  He told me he took this bike out for 53 miles a couple of days ago. That right there is a dedicated roadie thing to say. We know how far we went. It's not an approximate 50-55. It's fifty-three. Sometimes it's 53.7 or 52.89.

He told the tech who checked the bike in that the bottom bracket is noisy. Also, as a rider who has experienced fraying shift cables inside a brifter, he wanted those checked as well.

The bottom bracket is fine. He's just ridden the bearings out of his plastic-bodied Look Keo pedals. And his chain was worn out.

How do you know if the chain on your road bike is worn out? Answer a couple of simple questions:

Does your bike have 10 or more cogs in the rear gear set?

Has it been a month since your last new chain?

If you answered yes to those, you need a chain.

The cable for the right shifter had started to break, so I replaced that. The cable for the left shifter had a weird little kink in it, close to the swaged end inside the brifter, so I changed that one, too. We should be good to go, right?

When I ran the bike through the gears, I had to dial in a little more cable tension to get it to carry the chain up cog hill to the lowest gear. This is normal. I'd had the housings out, and they had to reseat. I started shifting back down to the high gears. First click: one cog. Second click: four cogs. Third click: chain chatter and finally a shift. The chain moved reluctantly the rest of the way.

Sometimes the cable has gotten hung up somewhere so it didn't get proper tension. I disconnected it,  checked the lead, and hooked it back up. No improvement. I popped the housings out of their stops to confirm that linear wires weren't pushing through any of the ferrules. With the derailleur disconnected, I held the cable while operating the shifter. The ratchet was definitely releasing too much on a couple of those intermediate clicks.

I flooded the brifter with spray lube and let it sit overnight. This morning it might have been slightly better on the first run through, but not on the second or third or any that followed. I doused it a couple more times. You can't do much else to Shimano brifters.

The maddening part is that he had no complaints about the shifting when he brought the bike in. I didn't do anything to it. You can't really. You might graunch on a shift really hard and jam the unit, but that's more common with certain front shifters than with rear ones.

Earwax -- the congealed factory lube that creates the illusion that a shifter is worn out -- will affect the shifting up and down. Clicks disappear. The lever just whiffs, catching nothing. That isn't the case with this unit. The ratchet engages too positively, and dumps several positions at once before the pawls click into place. I've seen it on other Shimano-equipped bikes. But why did I have to be standing there when it decided to happen to this one?

Because the rider has had more than one frayed cable since he bought the bike, there could be one or more tiny fragments of old wire that have finally migrated into position to jam things up. Or some hair-fine spring or little ratchet tooth could have broken off. The bike dates back to about 2012. In modern bike years, that makes it an old piece of junk.

Sophisticated mechanisms stand between you and your personal experience of riding. Mysterious, unfixable controls make shifting easier until they make it impossible. They act as intermediaries in your personal relationship with cogs. As with so many human complexities, we could choose to refuse, but the majority simply accepts that this is advanced, improved technology. The sleek, the expensive, the excruciatingly engineered, they're here to help us. It's part of the price you pay.

I imagine that riders said grumpy things about the newfangled derailleurs in all their wacky permutations as that technology was emerging. The thing is, all that stuff was outside the bike. There were internally geared hubs. There were hidden mysteries. But anything could be opened with the right tools. Someone could fix it. You yourself might learn. It's not brain surgery. It would deepen your personal experience, if you chose. And most minor malfunctions, such as they were, could be treated by the roadside. Minor. I said minor.

As soon as you have to pay someone to fix your stuff, you have to pay that person enough to stay alive and available. There have been bike shops for years, and those shops have had mechanics. But on simpler machinery, a mechanic could handle more jobs in less time for less money per job, compared to now, when the parts themselves take a good chunk out of the wallet, and the technician might have to deal with internal cable routing, hydraulics, exotic materials, electronics, a new tire size every year, and still shovel through a pile of box-store bikes and path cruisers to clear the repair docket. Parts are more and more expensive for shops to stock. Mechanics need to be smart enough to figure out all the different machinery, dumb enough to work for bike mechanic money, and loyal -- or trapped -- enough to stick around.

The simpler your bike is, the more you can do for yourself, and the less will go wrong in the first place. The friction shifters on my bikes will handle eight or nine speeds. I might even be able to swing ten, but I refuse to start using tinfoil chains. The index-dependent systems lock you into a manufacturer's offerings. Ten speed used to be top shelf. Now it's lower middle class. Parts are wearing out? Buy a new bike. You know you want to.

I can't do it. Forget the money. If I'd scored bestselling novel with movie rights money, I still couldn't do it. It's wasteful and it's enslavement. The personal is political. The personal is commercial. The personal is downright industrial. But you can still limit the intrusion to preserve as much of your direct relationship with the world as possible. The bike was a perfect machine for transforming human effort into forward motion. Backward motion, too, if you're really adept on your fixed-gear. Multiple speeds increased its versatility without terribly degrading its essential simplicity. Only when innovators turned it into a semi-automatic weapon did things start to go wrong.

It's hard to find a high quality bike without complicated shifting. You can still find some with barcons as original equipment. The industry is so committed to other things that no other point of view can get much economic leverage. We're being dragged in another direction: tubeless tires, hydraulics, electrical things,... If you want something different, you have to hunt it down, and maybe build it up yourself.