Friday, July 21, 2017

Focus on the essentials

To get through the average work day, I break it down into the high points and whatever I have to slog through to get from one to the next.

The high points are: the morning ride, mid morning snack, lunch, mid afternoon snack, and the ride home.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

New England, where trends go to die

Fads and fashions in the rest of the country tend to take a while to reach northern New England. By the time they're hip and hot here, they're on the way out everywhere else. So here it is, 2017, and some idiot in a truck finally tried to roll coal on me as I rode to work on Sunday.

Rolling coal is the practice of setting up your diesel truck to spew out copious quantities of thick, black smoke in defiance of the prissy wussies who give a shit about clean air. It is childish, vindictive, and one of the clearest indications that the human species might as well kill itself off now as later.

After laying down a rather thin smokescreen, the brave road warrior appeared to try to tail-whip his truck at me, but he was too far past. Off he went in triumph, having put me in my place. I rode in the fumes for a half-mile or so before the air cleared or I got used to the higher pollution level.

I have to remind myself that evolution is a long-term thing, and that I have no control whatsoever over the outcome. A human lifespan is too short for the big trends to matter, unless your span happens to line up with a sudden accumulation of the consequences of a few generations of ignorance and greed. Even then, you can't do anything about it. If massed ignorance and greed wants to keep going, thoughtful people can do nothing but endure the spectacle of destruction that so many people seem to embrace and enjoy. As much as I feel a surge of rage at the antics of destructive idiots, I have to remember that human existence is itself pointless, and that life has been fairly cushy in spite of the looming collapse of a nation that has chosen to live up to its potential to be a nest of spoiled brats rather than the thoughtful, diverse and interesting culture that the advertising led us to believe was possible.

I can only hope that the arrival of coal-rolling in northern New England signals its rapid decline elsewhere, and that the trend here falters and dies out in the face of ingrained cheapness and practicality. When it comes to flamboyantly destroying motor vehicles, however, the famous New England frugality goes right in the crapper. The American love affair with smoke, flames, and loud noises overcomes any restraining convention in this age when restraint is scorned. And the belief that the best expression of freedom is to offend as many people as possible guarantees that offensive behavior will enjoy rampant popularity.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Man on vacation buys fried dough

New Hampshire's only television station devoted about 30 seconds to tell the viewing public that comedian Jimmy Fallon had ventured down the lake from Wolfeboro to Weirs Beach, where he purchased fried dough. The hardworking Mr. Fallon has had to singlehandedly support the Lakes Region's summer celebrity needs for the past several years. Everyone has to work harder and take shorter vacations these days.

After 20 years in Wolfeboro, former Massachusetts governor, and unsuccessful Presidential candidate Mitt Romney finally found his way into our shop this week, to have a flat tire repaired. The day before that, the shop owner had found himself behind Mr. Romney in the line at the Rite Aid pharmacy. He said that Romney looked comfortable and relaxed, dressed for lakeside recreation, and casually groomed. He did not think it was funny when I suggested that one could say, "Eye witness reports unshaven and disheveled Mitt Romney seen buying drugs!"

When Romney dropped the bike off, I was talking to another customer about building up some wheels. I was all too happy to let upper management handle that check-in. At first glance -- as so often happens -- I wasn't even sure the man was actually The Man. I just thought, "hey, that skinny guy looks kind of like Mitt Romney."

The next morning, Jumper Dude fixed Romney's flat tire and did a few other adjustments before leaving to work on the mountain bike trail he's building on Wolfeboro Conservation Commission land adjacent to the Cotton Valley Trail. He reported that, late in the afternoon, he met Romney on the Cotton Valley Trail. I guess that's that for another 20 years.

I had been totally unaware of the Wolfeboro mystique before I accidentally ended up here in 1988. You really never know who might drift through. Sometimes they do it in groups or close enough succession to make it seem like a regular thing. So it becomes part of the economy, while still not solidly reliable enough to lead to motor coach tours and paparazzi. People walk around with one eye out for possible sightings.

Celebrities have a big responsibility to venture into unlikely places to give as many people as possible the chance to act unimpressed by their presence.

Because so few of the A, B, C, D, E and F lists ride bicycles, my reflexes go mostly untested. And I always wonder whether a public figure is relieved or disappointed when they get treated like anyone else in line. I'm sure it varies from figure to figure and day to day. If they catch me at the right point in the afternoon I'm grumpy and semi-dormant anyway.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

It's showtime

Wolfeboro's Hollywood heyday is long gone, and the rockin' party of the 1980s and '90s has dispersed. But any summer resort has to put on its act when the season arrives.

The bike shop is a lot like a Disney attraction based on a movie most people have forgotten. When I worked at Walt Disney World in 1977, I was assigned to the Enchanted Tiki Room. The audience consisted of people who didn't know what else to do with a D ticket, grandparents, and couples looking for a dark, air-conditioned place to make out. It was also  -- based on analysis of the evidence left behind -- a pretty good place to change the baby's diaper and leave the turd burrito for the servants to pick up. The bike shop, while we have adapted, has a similar feeling of being left behind in a dusty past.

I will admit that segments of the bicycling economy do seem to be proliferating in their separate subcultures. Instead of a single invasion riding on hundreds of muddy beasts, riders arrive on a weird array of machines related only by having pedals attached to a crank. The general configuration is still based on the "safety bicycle" of the 1890s, but from there it can go anywhere. Since Friday we've had a gravel bike with electronic shifting, two smokeless mopeds that crashed on the rail trail, one while-you-wait hydraulic caliper overhaul, and close to 20 rentals. It is still far below the flat-out pace of the 1990s, but on most days we only have two people on duty.

Our new trainee seems to be more of a body shop guy than a mechanic. You know body shop guys, whose cars look stunning and run like shit. He did a restoration-quality cleanup job on an old Schwein, but can't seem to get the hang of basic adjustments to shifting, or the plodding attention to details like tight stem bolts. And he has two or three other endeavors in full swing, so he keeps having to go to another job. Mechanical skill is part nature, part nurture. His nature is hard to assess when his nurture keeps getting interrupted.

The summer to this point has been mediocre. The town seems busy for the Fourth of July weekend. No telling where it will go from there. Wolfeboro's slogan, "The Oldest Summer Resort in America," used to refer to its historical roots as a summer retreat for a colonial governor. Now it aptly describes the graying demographic as the town becomes a big retirement community. Tourists come and do whatever it is that tourists do. We put on our outfits and play our roles, happy that anyone shows up at all.

Places, everyone!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Pretty, messed up

A few days ago a rider brought in a beautiful Peter Mooney road bike with a broken rear shift cable.  Because it was a brifter, it was at risk for "strands of death." It was the second one we'd treated that day.
Because the cables inside brifters always break under tension, the stub remains inside the mechanism. The frayed ends can snag and prevent the shifter from returning to the position where everything lines up for removal and installation. Depending on the model of brifter, you may be able to dissect it somewhat to manipulate the broken strands, but any broken cable inside a brifter, particularly a Shimano brifter, could turn into an expensive problem.

This one's life was spared. I could get at the stub and coax it around as I shifted the mechanism to line everything up.

The bike was beautifully made, but flawed.

It was built when people who should have known better were slapping cable stops on the head tube. Crap like this shows you that the spirit of trial and error is still very much alive in bicycle design, especially the error part. Cable stops at the head tube were never a good idea, never would have worked, didn't need to be done, and could have been avoided after a few obscure experiments proved that point. However, they swept the industry, leading to exquisite custom frames from high-end builders with incurable cable problems due to beautifully crafted stupid design.

I can see how they thought it might work, but how many times do you have to hit yourself with a hammer to prove that it hurts?

The frame details are really impressive. 
Check out this groovy pump nubbin. It's not really a pump peg, being a round ball and all. Beautifully worked into  the seat lug, isn't it?

Head lug

Fork end

Bottom bracket shell

Most overrated headset.

Aaaand the world's most annoying bicycle computer.

I realized after the rider left that I had not taken a picture of the complete bike.

In a perfectly timed example of the advantages of primitive componentry, on my ride home, I grabbed a fistful of shifter and heard the telltale snap of cable strands breaking. I was near a spot where I planned to stop anyway, so I performed a routine roadside repair on my nice, simple barcon shifter:
No need to dig in a panic for Strands of Death. I carry spare cables because they usually break in the middle of a ride.

Time to write has been hard to find. I have to scamper off to work now, to fix a couple of smokeless mopeds that the Millionaire Motorbike Club crashed on the rail trail. I wondered when the smokeless moped crowd would start to banzai down that path. It's congested enough with dog walkers, baby strollers, people fishing, and cruisers and mountain bikes with absurdly wide handlebars. Now we have to deal with the 20 mph crowd, trying to maneuver through the tight rail crossings on sluggish, 50-pound bikes that surge forward with electrical assistance whenever you poke at the pedals.

This should be interesting.

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.