Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Your safety is assured because I hate your bike

 Some customers have expressed gratitude over the years for my vigilance in finding things like frame and component cracks that could have led to catastrophic failures. These include cracks in suspension forks and other linkages, failing handlebars, and cracking rims.

The dark truth is, I take delight in finding fault in ultramodern tech weenie bikes and parts. The customer's safety just comes along for the ride. I would scrutinize their bikes in any case, looking for the satisfaction of a structural or functional failure that I know will be there. It's a wonderful affirmation. I don't mind benefiting humanity, but my real aim is to compile such a huge dossier of evidence against the overwhelming mass of stupid design and cynical gouging that has overtaken the bike industry since the 1990s that it finally creates a customer backlash that returns us to an ethic of durability. That would be the real service to humanity. Because that is doomed to failure, I'll take the small victories of one or two riders at a time preserved from disaster, or perhaps even converted to the path of durability and simplicity. It has happened, a rare few times, that riders have abandoned the NEW! and IMPROVED! offerings of the industry and returned to a saner form of the machine.

Older stuff fails, too. It always did. Some changes are actually improvements. We have to be patient with some evolution as an idea gets refined. For example, the threadless headset started as a way to get around the problem that the influx of new mechanics in the explosive rise of the mountain bike boom couldn't understand how a locknut works. They couldn't adjust hubs and they couldn't get headsets to stay tight. You could overlook the hubs until they got really bad, but the clunky loose headsets were right there in front of you. So someone came up with a fancy-sounding reason to clamp the stem around the steerer tube and set the bearing adjustment with a cap screw. Then they just had to teach the ham-fisted apprentices not to graunch down so hard on that top screw that they broke the bottom out of the plastic top cap. On the first models, the top cap was designed to fail like that so that the enthusiastic wrench grunt wouldn't crush the actual bearings when they overtightened the headset. Within a couple of years, this had changed and metal top caps became the norm. They were slimmer and stood up better to abuse. They looked sleeker, and could be printed or engraved with logos. 

One nice thing about the threadless headset for the self-propelled traveler was that you didn't need a big headset spanner to adjust or disassemble the headset. That meant one less large tool for the fully equipped tourist to carry in the bottom of a pannier, hoping not to need it. But threadless headsets created real difficulties changing the height of the bars. The devices developed to deal with that can be very clunky and inelegant.

Cassette hubs went through a period where they were a real improvement, too. During the brief time when you could get replacement cogs in any size, and the cogs were separate across the entire gear range, you could customize or repair a cassette at home or in a tent with only hand tools. And the freehub design does put the support bearings for the axle in a better position to support the drive side. Beyond that, though, the design of cassettes now has turned into another facet of technological enslavement. One article I read while researching bike gearbox transmissions in mountain bikes said, "External drivetrain owners who ride often might replace their chain, cables, and housing three or four times per year, and the chainring and cassette once annually. As those components wear and their precise angles begin to dull, performance suffers. The chain is pulled laterally across the cog teeth under heavy loads, and as dirt and debris are introduced the metal is essentially sanded away."

Great, more stuff sent to the landfill by a once ecologically supportive industry. And a 12-speed cassette sells for an average retail price of close to $100.

Customers I deal with are not expecting to replace their chain, cables, and housing three or four times a year, although they might choke down replacing the cassette and chainring annually. With internal cable routing and full-length housing, replacing those parts can add up to a hefty service bill just to have the fussy shifting mechanism returned to its original state of acceptable mediocrity passing for precision. They certainly won't believe me if I share this information with them, even though I would rather do something else with a couple of irreplaceable hours of my life than ferret out cables and housing from the mysterious interior of their overpriced toy.

Because bikes are toys, they're designed for people who can afford to play games. It's not about finding enjoyment and fulfillment in the necessary labors of transporting yourself. It's merely discretionary recreation. The players might wish that their toys held up better, but they always have the option to quit. In the meantime, companies that make stuff want to find ways to get people to buy it. Once someone is recruited from the sidelines, how do you get them to part with more and more coin to keep the company in business?

The more complicated things get, the more details can get overlooked. Even my own urge to scrutinize is overwhelmed by the volume of work and the external complications required to hunt down solutions to the problems we can readily identify. I also have to fight through an initial thick fog of disinterest, because I find nothing desirable about the bikes brought before me.

My scrutiny is more appreciative on designs I like. I want to preserve and protect a bike I respect. Since those are almost invariably older, they may have seen more miles. But because the designs are simpler they could be built a little stronger, because the weight budget didn't get spent on bulky index shifter mechanisms, disc brake calipers, suspension forks, and rear suspension assemblies. Road bikes of today don't delve too deeply into suspension, but they do have the weight of disc brakes and bulky shifters. The weight budget for those comes from the lighter frame and rim weight, but those definitely come at a cost. Not every piece of racing technology should trickle -- or deluge -- down upon the citizen rider just looking for a bit of sporty transportational fun.

When the oppression of proprietary shifting systems first descended on the biking world disguised as a great new convenience and a boon to all humanity, I treated their ills as any physician would when faced with a new disease. I wondered, as any plague doctor would, how long the scourge would last, and how many casualties it would take. It would have required a widespread customer revolt to stop the spread of it. We've all seen how unbelievably hard it is to get the vast majority of people to band together to take simple actions to stop a plague. Lots of people either don't think it's serious or see some advantage in it for themselves.

Unlike the current actual plague afflicting our species these days, the plague of proprietary bike systems really was manufactured by known entities intending to profit heavily from their scheme.

One company in particular seemed to lead the way, but the other big players, including at least one new entity whose product was originally derisively called "gripshit," followed along behind the marketing juggernaut that was convincing a large pool of new customers that they needed innovation.

Some changes were improvements, even some changes that I derided at the time, before I studied them more closely and the changes themselves evolved into something more standardized and less "Shimano-y." Like linear pull brakes.

Original V-brakes were complicated and notoriously noisy, with Shimano's "parallel push" linkage. The idea was well meant, but in typical fashion it was overkill for the actual problem of brake pad alignment at the rim on cantilever brakes. 

Parallel Push disappeared after a couple of years, and now linear pull brakes themselves have been scrapped in favor of the even more complicated and annoying disc brakes. 

Disc brakes are a good idea on mountain bikes, because they take vulnerable, bendable rims out of the braking system, but they generate their own complications because you have to keep the fluid where you want it and rigorously guard against getting it where you don't. Rotors bend easily. There are two types of fluid. Know yours and keep it faithfully, for I thy brake fluid am a jealous brake fluid. Or you can have cables for slightly less hassle, and much easier servicing, at the cost of some braking power and modulation.

When I rode the Vermont 50 in about 1998, on my fully rigid Gary Fisher with friction shifting (my choice), old-style cantilever brakes, triple crank, and a low gear of 24-28, I did not finish DFL. My lower mid field finishing position had nothing to do with my lack of a suspension fork and up-to-the-minute shifting, and everything to do with my sense of self preservation on the descents. I also lost precious time helping some idiot with a flat tire, because my buddy Ralph had busted my balls for being unsympathetic to someone who broke a Shimano chain in the Hillsboro Classic earlier in the year. And I blew time at the feed stops, admiring the views. Vermont is wicked scenic. But that was the olden days. Courses now are not designed around primitive bikes like my mutant Aquila. The mountain bikers of today are the ones we dropped on all the climbs back in the 1990s, or their philosophical descendants.  And descend they do.

In summary, my critical attitude -- to put it mildly -- toward most modern innovations serves the customer just as well as a deep affection for the same abusive partner we all have in the bike industry. You may be deep in the clutches of that abusive relationship, Stockholm-syndromed to the max, fully convinced that you're hooked into something you can't live without, and I will still do my best to protect you from the worst consequences of your addiction. Because this is capitalism, that comes at a price. You need to know the true cost of chasing down all the flaws behind the facade presented by the marketing department, because you pay in some way, sooner or later. Taking care of this crap is neither simple nor easy, despite what disparagement you may read about bike shops in online forums. It's a daily struggle to keep abreast of all the changes we never needed in the first place, while trying to maintain what was genuinely good in the face of industry neglect.

1 comment:

mike w. said...