Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Do not resuscitate?

Triage has been in the news a lot lately, with the harsh measures in Idaho in response to overloaded hospitals. 

Last week I posted some pictures of one of life's little victories, a time-consuming but inescapable process to save a bike frame that was otherwise seriously limited, if not outright useless. The comments all questioned whether I had wasted my time.

Bike repair shops have seen crisis levels of repair volume since last year, when people who couldn't go to work or socialize in groups discovered outdoor activities. Because new bikes have been almost impossible to get, people repaired a lot of things that they would have discarded in the convenience-oriented consumerist fashion we've been encouraged -- if not forced -- to adopt increasingly since the 1960s.

Growing up, my family wasn't poor, but my parents both were born just before the Great Depression, and were raised in and immediately after it. Their values were shaped by the idea that money can be hard to get and harder to keep, and that you take care of your stuff because you might not be able to replace it.

The bike boom of the 1970s and the cross-country ski boom that overlapped it might have been fueled in large part by the other kids who were raised in similar households. The major expense of either of those activities was the initial purchase of the bike or ski set. After that, participation was cheap or "free." Bikes needed maintenance, and you might decide to upgrade to something lighter or more shaped to a style you liked -- racing versus touring, for instance -- but you could have bought a nice mid-grade bike with sort of middling frame geometry, and ridden it for years, needing only tires, brake pads, chain lube, and other minor consumables. As for skis, your "skinny skier" hoped to find usable snow in parks, golf courses, and other public spaces, or perhaps would shell out the couple of dollars that a proper touring center charged for what passed for grooming at the time.

Subsequent generations have not received the same indoctrination. But for many, money is still hard to get and harder to keep. I ended up living where I live partly because working people couldn't afford housing where I used to live. I had several different full-time jobs and could barely afford to share a grubby apartment, let alone have one to myself. And roommate roulette is a risky game. By the time I fetched up here, chasing a job that disappeared within a few months, I couldn't afford to move again. All this reinforced my reflex to fix what can be fixed.

An affable guy who seems to work in the restaurant business brought us his dilapidated Fuji hybrid. We did a few necessary things to keep it running over the summer, but he needed more in-depth drive train work as soon as he could spare the bike and the cash. It needed chainrings -- or a crank -- a chain, cassette, both derailleurs, and some shift cables. With chainrings unavailable for his existing crank, we had to spec a replacement of lesser quality, but at least it was new. Because the industry has been playing with crank arm profiles as well as the plethora of bottom bracket standards, the bike needed a new, longer BB to match the profile of the crank. All of this was going to run him a bit over $200. With incidentals and a bit of a cushion, the estimate was $275.

In the process of stripping the bike down I noticed that the cable adjusters in the downtube cable stops were run out far enough to get bent, and that they were severely rusted. I dropped penetrating oil on them and let it soak for a day or two. When I tried to turn the one on the right, it twisted off and broke at the frame stop. I knew immediately that this was going to take a lot of work, if I could extract the stub at all. If I couldn't, the remaining piece would prevent me from fitting any other kind of ferrule there to use as a fixed stop. I had to win or the bike was dead. The owner would have no bike and we would get no money whatsoever for the time I had put in.

The busted adjuster
 The repair queue has lightened up a little from the crisis level of summer, but the complete hiatus that followed Labor Day quickly ended in a mini-surge that pushed us out to a week or more. It seems like more than half of these jobs are grimy slogs, too. But you do what you have to do. For decades I have imagined the life of someone in what we used to call the Third World, then the undeveloped world, and now the over-exploited world, working in a mud-brick stall with improvised tools to keep simple machinery operating for people who will never see our privileged lifestyle. This is the neighborhood that privileged nations -- and the consumers living in them -- roll up the windows to drive through, while simultaneously appropriating the tastier and livelier aspects of culture that might appeal to us.

Since the 1990s our shop has faced the need to salvage our investment of time and parts countless times when a stupid little detail threatens to send a repair job off the rails. Sometimes the fault lies with us, too quickly and superficially diagnosing a problem at check-in. Other times it's a serious but small thing, like a stress crack, or these rusted adjusters. It's especially tricky when someone who works very hard for their money has trusted us to help them and agreed not to bitch about the price. They're not rich whiners, chiseling for the sport of it.

No drill would line up correctly with the frame stop. Two kinds of screw extractor failed to budge the rusted remnant. Floods of penetrating oil, followed by torch flame, did not break the bond of corrosion. 

Thinking I might break the piece loose by threading a coarse screw into it and torquing on that, I found a self-tapper with an 8mm head and cranked it in, careful not to twist too exuberantly and wring that off in there.

Very slowly, the coarse screw extracted pieces of the rusted-in adjuster.

The curly piece came out initially, sparking hopes of a quick victory, but the reality is shown by the collection of filings in the threads of the screw. Working from one side and then the other of the adjuster, I cranked the screw in and backed it out, extracting tiny loads of metal filings. Eventually, the screw was able to pass all the way though.

Following that, I could get the Dremel tool to line up a little better than the big cordless drill, to cut away material that the coarse screw had left. At best I hoped to be able to set a smooth ferrule into the frame stop, leaving me with the adjusters on the shifters and rear derailleur to dial in the gears.

I'd already done some grinding with the big drill, limited severely by the angle as the chuck came up against the frame. And I broke a bit that way. The Dremel didn't line up perfectly, but the largest bit it held was small enough to pass all the way through without deviating the bore too severely. But the bits aren't designed for battles with recalcitrant metal, so it wasn't worth persisting too long with that tool.

I had a broken-off chainsaw file that fit the hole, and a pick that continued the dentist vibe generated by the sound of the Dremel.

The picking and scraping reminded my of the piece I wrote about bike mechanics and dentistry over the winter.

I noticed what looked like some of the original threads emerging as I picked out more and more of the adjuster debris. I found a bolt that looked like it might be made of some good old hard steel, and threaded it into the frame stop. Working very gradually, I used it to dress the threads and push out remaining pieces that I had not been able to dislodge with the pick. I was winning, although it was like digging your way out of a prison cell using a teaspoon. I'd tried a proper tap, but they're brittle, and don't offer a good purchase for a leverage tool in a tight space like that frame stop.

The salvage bin of derailleur parts held an adjuster that I was able to thread into the newly-cleaned frame stop.

We can win this thing. But I still had to do the left side. It had been soaking in penetrating oil for days now. Would the old adjuster cooperate and back out?

No. It wrung off without hesitation, with only minor torque. I began my now official procedure, moving from one phase to the next. It still wasn't fast, but it wasn't as slow as when I was still figuring it out.

Within a couple of hours, the left adjuster nestled in its spot and I could stomp through the rest of the assembly to swap out the drive train parts. There was only one minor glitch when I inflated the rear tire and discovered that it's too wide to fit the frame, even though it's nominally the same width as the front tire of a different brand. I swiftly dished the rear wheel slightly to gain sufficient clearance.

Based on our shop hourly rate, I should have charged about $375 just for the rusted adjuster portion of our festivities, bringing the total close to $600 for a job with an estimate of $275, max. In happier times, when we had used and new bikes more readily available, we would probably have suggested redirecting his investment toward one of them. But these are not those times. Instead we find ourselves more and more often like Charlie Allnut and Rose Sayer, repairing the propeller of the African Queen alongside a jungle river.

A lot of times, a problem I solve may not be a big money maker at the time, but provides the basis for other solutions later, that might get us out of a jam or factor into a more lucrative job. Knowing something can be done, I can streamline the procedure as much as possible and add it to the menu of offerings to keep bikes on the road and out of the landfill. Or maybe I learn that it's such a time-sucking loser that we learn to screen for it rigorously at check-in, to avoid the pitfall in the future. Either way it's a gain.


Rob in VA said...

Parts shortages have become a familiar challenge to me, as I continue trying to keep the stable of 6 bikes that my wife and I own in perfect - or at least serviceable - condition. This evening I spent half an hour searching for a 126mm 32h rear hub that would fulfill specific objectives for a swap I would like to do on my wife's 35-year old roadie. Ebay and other sites did not yield the results hoped for.

This type of frustration extends well beyond my bike wrenching. Last week the auger on the agitator of our washing machine, which is half the age of my wife's road bike, failed. It sat lethargically in one position while the connected driveshaft rotated dutifully back and forth. A search of a dozen or so online parts suppliers all indicated "no longer available", and even Ebay had neither used or new ones. Unlike most agitator augers, this one was never designed with replaceable pawls. With no alternative short of tossing the whole machine and buying a new one (which would no doubt have an even shorter half-life), I carefully incised the auger's hermetically sealed plastic housing, dissected the innards, and corrected the causal design flaws with a self-fabricate sleeve, 4 aluminum rivets, and other miscellany.

Our society's infatuation with wifi-connected appliances, self-parking cars, and similar perceived "conveniences" will increasingly burden owners with machines that are both costlier and less reliable than they need to be.

"Things are in the saddle / and ride mankind" -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

cafiend said...

Right on the money, Rob. All consumer goods follow the business model of drug dealing. Get consumers hooked on a transitory high and keep milking them until they die or quit you and go into rehab. If that happens, rest assured that the marketing department is lining up more suckers to take their place.

The evils of burgeoning complexity have spawned a hard-core "simplicity" movement that's no more attractive to a regular person looking for an economically and environmentally tenable path to a maintainable civilized world.