Saturday, October 22, 2016

Tubes of Mystery, 2016

Every bike season, we accumulate a bunch of tubes that won't stay inflated in a tire, but remain pumped up for months after we remove them. We are never able to detect a puncture in any of them.

This season brought us relatively few of them. The bike biz wasn't exactly bustling around here, in sales or service.

I added 2016's haul to our weird collection in the basement, still holding air after a couple of years.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

No regrets

As I cleaned up tops and slash on Sunday, I kept waiting for Ed Begley Jr. to fly over in a solar powered plane and shit on my head. But I stand by my reasoning in cutting at all, and then in cutting so much. Since the very best thing you can do for the environment is kill yourself, most of us settle for second and third best and call it exemplary.

Around 2002, this is how it looked. As of last Wednesday morning, it looked pretty similar, except that we built a sunroom/music studio off the front of the house in 2012 in a final effort to give the cellist's teaching program a base of operations.
This is the music room when it was brand new. Note the shadows. This darkness bracketed the day, day after day. I would look at the aerial photo of the place on Google Maps and realize what a tiny slice of sky we had.

The trees won't protect you from the government satellites and the black helicopters. They've got thermal imaging and all kinds of weird heinous classified stuff we can barely imagine.
By the end of Thursday, this had happened. Ain't no point in buyer's remorse now. It's barely an eighth of an acre, if that, but it's still a hell of a jolt after 27 years in the shade of forest giants.

White pines are a very assertive species. They thrive where the cycle of fire has been interrupted, overspreading the pitch and red pines that need fire to propagate. I've been tempted to torch a few yards of another part of the property to give those other pines a new generation. In the meantime, taking out this stand seems to have excited a lot of the bird life. Insects, too: because we have not had a real frost yet this fall, dragonflies were patrolling today, and cicadas buzzed in the remaining treetops. But for the sun angle and the color of the leaves, it could have been a summer afternoon. It isn't right, but it's how things are.

Pushing the edge as far back as I did, I can put in a margin of spruce to create thick, low screening from the neighbors, whose logging activities precipitated this whole upheaval. The property line shaves surprisingly closely, within the margin of the trees that are still standing. I want to make damn sure we are not looking at each other's stuff when this is all over. I did not move to a place like this just to stare into my neighbor's back yard. If I could put up with that, I could do it someplace that actually has an economy.

Living in a place like this and caring enough about a bunch of stupid trees to shed a tear over them relates directly to my bicycling activities. I hoped to inspire interest in non-motorized transportation and recreation, starting way back in the 1980s, when you actually had to get your stuff printed on paper and physically distributed to readers. The sprawled-on world I left behind has continued to fester, spawning more and more land rape as the human population burgeons. Even here, things are way more built up than they were when I moved into the little shack from which this house has grown. Fortunately, we have few resources for outside interests to extract, and we're not near enough to anywhere for industry to locate here. Unfortunately, we have to trade on our illusion of wildness, combined with our convenient proximity to the northern margins of sprawl. It's a constant battle between commercial interests that want to rape a little more and a little more to bring in more chumps, and the good stewards who have to remind residents over and over that we lose it all a little at a time.

New Hampshire is among the most forested states in the country. However, the reversion of farmland to forest has been offset by heavy development in the more urbanized southern part of the state. When it comes to wildlife management, clearings and fields have an important role alongside forest stands in various stages of succession. It's all part of the big mosaic. The hard part is waiting for stuff to grow, which it won't start to do until next April.

It would be ironic if Hurricane Matthew blasted in here in a few days and took out a bunch of trees. On the plus side, fewer of them are located within falling distance of the house. If the wind diminishes, we could definitely use the rain. But it would wipe out a holiday weekend's tourist influx.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Oops! I forgot my pants!

Once in a while, on a summer day, with a pair of shorts that is near the end of its useful life, I'll have a momentary stab of anxiety a few seconds after I start to ride, because I can't really feel my shorts and have no distinct memory of putting them on. We do so much by reflex, without focused attention, that I wonder if the right distraction could lead me to forget them.

If it ever did happen, they would send large people with big nets to whisk me away to a nice facility, where I would not disturb the public.

I was distracted this week, because I actually brought one of my own nightmares to life. Ever since I moved to my little shack in the woods, I have had regular nightmares about neighbors doing destructive things that spill over onto my land. These dreams often involve bulldozers, skidders, chainsaws, excavation, deforestation, and utter disdain for property lines.

About three weeks ago, whoever now owns the little cabin next door turned loose a logger on a lot that has been peacefully forested since before I moved here 27 years ago. I heard the chainsaws,  the skidders. I ran out several times to check the property lines. They were unviolated.

A little over a week ago, I got a note. The logger working the neighboring land was someone I had talked to about removing some trees that threatened the house and garage. The Eastern White Pine is the tree most likely to drop something on you. With a height of 80 feet easily in reach, these lovely forest monarchs  are basically a time bomb near your house. I had two actually leaning toward the house from about 20 feet away. They'd been good -- more or less -- since I'd lived there, but one of them had shed a couple of major limbs during snowstorms.

Pine trees can develop majestic structures when they have plenty of space around them. When they don't, they form an interdependent grove. The two leaners near the house were the outliers of a group of four. Cut two and you'd be well advised to cut them all.

I started scrutinizing all the trees in that area and realized that one was falling to pieces, and another pair were immensely tall. Not record setting, mind you, but the taller of the two would easily hit the house from more than 50 feet away. Even if it didn't, it could drop a major chunk on things that would suffer for the impact, such as the leach field.

In a natural forest, clearings occur by cataclysm: fire, hurricane, tornado, major ice storm. These are notoriously hard to schedule and direct. Trained people do controlled burns in managed forests, but not when the stand of trees comes within twenty feet of a house. And the burns are to control undergrowth, not remove full-sized trees.

I realized as I surveyed the grove that I had managed this area like a timber stand, not a yard. When I moved here, I quickly developed a New Englander's clinical practicality. When I had to clear a bit of space for various things over the years, I thinned the stand to favor larger trees. Ultimately, those have to be removed before they start to age and really fall apart.

If I had it to do over, I would have cut more 20 years ago, and started managing it for hardwood trees that hold together better and don't get as tall. It would have made the change less wrenching.

Somehow in the years after 1999, I lost more and more of the hard practicality that survival in northern New England requires. The big pines became familiar. I knew they could literally break bad on me at any time, but they were also soaring and majestic and made that beautiful sighing sound in the wind. That's why I wished I had dealt with them decades back, when I was more human.

On the eve of the logging, I cried. I sat in my dark house and felt waves of loss. I had unleashed the Death Star. Each of these trees is a natural community. I've seen the interdependent plants, birds, and animals that work with the tree throughout its lifespan. Who was I, an ephemeral creature that would be lucky to surpass a century on this Earth to kill off something that could live four times that long? If I truly love nature, I should burn down my own house and live in a little hut of cast-off branches.

True as that may be, I remain too much of a child of civilization to take that drastic a step.

Twenty-seven years ago some of the trees were already quite large. Others gained in stature, subtly enlarging until I looked up in astonishment last week at the potential energy hanging over me. They were the scenery to all that was good and bad in my life here. Even though the practical New Englander in me knew not only that they had to be pushed back but that the space could be managed to nature's advantage as well as my own, the actual destruction filled me with an ache that replaced my appetite and my ability to sleep for several days. I replayed the reasoning over and over.

The logger had said it would only take a day. It took three. He may have done this on purpose. He'd told me that he had stopped short on the neighbor's land, so that the guy could see it and call a halt or permit it to continue. His first break point let me see the grove half cut. I could see that my reasoning had been sound. Saving the remaining trees would not leave a strong stand, nor would it allow light in to promote successional growth. We had to continue.

It was the morning of the third day when I forgot my pants. The clearing that had been a tall forest was a raw cut, sweet with the smell of pitch and scarred by the passage of skidders. This was a logging operation, not the surgical ministrations of an arborist. And the trickiest cuts were yet to come. Trees, commercial size trees, next to and behind a building and overhanging a power line still had to be cut. This was the ultimate trust.

I had been getting up around 5 a.m. and bolting out of the house as close to 7:00 or 7:30 as I could manage. With the shortening days and the fact that I didn't want the loggers dropping a tree on my car, I've been doing park and ride commutes. That meant loading the bike and driving away.

For a normal park and ride, I'll wear my bike clothes to drive to where I park. Even the shoes, uncleated, are fine for driving. But there's no one to see me on a normal day.

I'm a reasonably secure person, but I just couldn't bring myself to wear lycra in front of a bunch of loggers. So I would put cargo pants over my shorts, stuffing the other bike clothes in the car to put on when I parked to begin the ride.

By day three, jangled by all the stresses, my system broke down just enough for me to forget the tights on the coldest morning of the week. I had the shorts, just not the warm tights to put over the shorts.

I briefly considered wearing the rugged cargo pants for the ride, but I knew the climb back up from Wolfe City in the evening would be a chore. I went ahead and chilled my kneecaps, and picked up a new pair of tights when I got to work. There was no exciting indecent exposure.

I got home to find that the precision cutting had turned out perfectly. Precision with chainsaws, skidders, and trees that probably weigh couple of tons apiece still leaves a pile of debris, but that was never in doubt. This happens when you hire someone to be a tornado for you.

The vast majority of the 13 acres under my control will remain undisturbed -- at least by me. Natural cataclysms are nature's business. In the new clearing, we hope to encourage some berry bushes of various types that had been working the margins. And the sky is a welcome sight.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Alternate routes

Back in 2011, I took advantage of dry summer conditions to explore a discontinued section of road in North Wolfeboro as part of my ride home from work. I kept meaning to get back and do a little pruning to clear the smoothest line on some sections. It's only taken five years.

This summer is even drier than that summer was, but two days of tropical humidity with passing downpours activated some muddy areas and slickened up the slime on mossy rocks.

While much of the route would be no problem with the 700X32 tires on the Cross Check, there are a couple of significant eroded bits that would call for precision bike handling or a portage. It's a short cut that would not be faster.

It doesn't look like much of a road...which is good. Locals have obviously put trucks through it regularly, taking out major obstructions. Blowdowns and other obstacles have been cleared, while side growth encroaches to discourage casual use. But then somebody went through and snipped a clear line through the most bothersome vegetation.

No idea how that happened. I carry an implement in case I'm attacked by pumas, but the pumas were all busy elsewhere.

Past the unassuming entryway, the road line becomes obvious, if not clear.
This is one of the eroded areas, so it's a bit of a dance to get the bike up to the better surfaces further in. I documented the trail pretty thoroughly in the post from July 2011.

Today turned out to be another muggy one. I made a slow trip down from the top of this road, performing botanical sampling. The return trip took less than half the time.

Here's a little rare mud in this droughty summer. Beyond it was a rocky section that would probably call for a dismount on the Cross Check.
As noted in 2011, this old road bypasses both nasty climbs on the maintained roads, Stoddard and Haines Hill. It might make a nice addition to a park-and-ride using the mountain bike, but it doesn't look like a great option for regular use on the full route with the more roadworthy bike.

At least now I know.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Stuff no one needs to know

The bike business isn't a career choice. It's something you get sucked into and trapped in.

Small shops have traditionally been owned and operated by bike enthusiasts who wanted to share what they liked. This is, apparently, a terrible business model if you want to be profitable. The ragtag survivors of the industry press have produced thoughtful articles about how we should all be more businesslike.

As true as that may be, the far reaches of the bicycling universe are still served by small shops staffed by poor idiots who didn't know when to give up and move on. We've stuffed our heads with things no one needs to know.

In the 1990s, our shop's advertising tag line was, "we really ride!" The mountain bike boom had brought a lot of weak players to what looked like a feast of easy money. The happy salesman chatting you up in a big shop might very well have to go find a caustic grouch in the repair shop just to put air in his tires. While some top racers were notoriously mechanically inept, you do much better as a rider if you know something about the machinery, and much better as a problem solver with the equipment if you really ride.

Experience comes with time. It's vital in a repair shop, where the equipment coming in could be weeks or decades old. You can learn a lot from books and videos, but they're not as good as personally witnessing the evolution.

Imagine being a veterinarian and the animals are evolving visibly, drastically, from year to year. The old ones aren't dead yet, but the newer ones have extra eyeballs, or six legs, or you have a dog with gills...

It takes more than intelligence, and lots more than theoretical engineering to keep the nation's bike fleet operating. Newer isn't automatically better. I know, I beat the crap out of that concept relentlessly, but I do it because it is true. It is the most important truth about bikes. Old stuff -- not ridiculously old, but not fresh from the mold -- can keep going for years, and serve you well. You just have to know how it works. And that's where you need that witness to evolution.

My colleague in the repair shop is a fully grown retired engineer. He missed the runaway evolution of bicycles in the 1990s. He's constantly getting ambushed by weird problems with old componentry that can be nearly impossible to diagnose if you didn't go through the maze with it when the industry first inflicted it on the riding public. Some of it never worked and never will, but most of it can be coaxed to function far longer than the manufacturer ever wanted it to.

Just as the dead vastly outnumber the living, so do the old bikes vastly outnumber the new ones. The continued popularity of fixed-gears indicates how the old ways can persist and be built into new machines. If you know where to look, you can find friction shifters. You can assemble your own cassettes, for ultra-personalized gearing, as long as you are willing to forego brifters, and relinquish forever the idea of a manufacturer's technical support. We don't need no stinkin' tech support!

People pay huge money for a 300-year-old violin because the qualities that make that human-powered musical instrument great have been worked out for a long, long time. Machinery like a bicycle cannot age as gracefully as a fine violin, but the qualities that make a well-fitted bicycle the perfect machine to convert human effort into forward motion have been worked out for a long, long time...relatively speaking.

Well below the Stradivarius level, your basic bicycle can provide decades of use with proper care. Perfect for a courtesan or a priest to ride after supper.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Another side to Trump supporters

In this year's dismal race for the presidency of the United States, supporters of Republican nominee Donald Trump have been portrayed as violent, bigoted, ignorant thugs. While he does seem to poll very well with that demographic, that makes my roadside observation all the more thought provoking.

You might expect a violent, bigoted, ignorant thug to drive in violent, bigoted, thuggish ways. But on my bike commute, where I am exposed to every passing vehicle, cars and trucks emblazoned with Trump stickers have been among the most careful and polite on the way by. That's not to say they have been the majority of the careful and polite, only that they have been notably so.

This fact does not shed any kinder light on the rhetoric and leadership potential of Trump, or the greater wisdom of his supporters. If I rode long enough on the right roads, I might well encounter some of the more violent and thuggish ones. But it does indicate that a significant number of the voters who have chosen The Donald in fact possess a level of human sensitivity that gets bleached out in the harsh stereotyping of political propaganda. Not only is this unfair to them, it also oversimplifies the issues any candidate -- and eventual leader -- needs to deal with. It turns diverse humanity into a homogenized lump, to love or loathe, to join or eradicate.

Beware the dehumanizers. Once you put all the bad stuff under a label and apply the label to a bunch of others, you can too easily develop a false sense of immunity to your own evil. You lose the ability to consider all the human psychology that leads to these concentrations of destructive tendencies.

Starting well before the Trump phenomenon, I have noticed exemplary passing behavior from people whose bumper stickers make me despair for the future of the human species. The stickers still make me despair for the future of the human species, because they reflect beliefs that are going to tear civilization apart, but in the meantime the people themselves seem strangely kind.

I don't know what I look like to a motorist. Maybe I'm so obviously a white guy that the bigots figure they'll cut me a break, even though I am clotting up the motorway with my bicycle.

Nearly everyone thinks they're doing the right thing. Maybe some of the more egregious sleazeballs know on a deeper level that they are fooling themselves, but at least they go to the trouble of rationalizing their behavior on a conscious level. The leaders who send their minions to do hideous, hopeless things tell their followers that it serves a greater good. The greater good of an evil cause is still evil, but below the leadership level it can be hard to sort out the level of zealotry in the ranks. The leaders might well be cynical manipulators, using their followers like toilet paper. The toilet paper stays neatly rolled in uniform squares, loyally waiting to be pulled off and expended.

The fact that Trump can appeal to people who are not violent, bigoted, ignorant thugs could help to propel the violent, bigoted, ignorant thugs to publicly visible levels of power, rather than functioning as the dark and deadly undercurrent they've been up to this point. More likely, they will be turned back at the election, and subside into the jagged landscape scarred by philosophical fault lines, to be forgotten until they snap. The fact that they are so numerous today proves that you cannot force people to evolve by mandating certain behaviors. You can stigmatize the behavior so that a wise bigot tries to blend in just to get by. Over time -- a very long time -- the quality of alienation may fade. But humans have many centuries invested in our differences, and really only decades in pursuit of something more inclusive.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Speed at all costs

A triathlete friend of mine is making her final campaign at full Iron Man  distance, in November.

Endurance athletics serve a therapeutic purpose for her. She has also worked as a professional trainer and event organizer, because she wants to share the benefits that her obsession has brought her.

For this last big race, she asked me whether she should invest in a state of the art time trial bike. But the budget she set would not get her a bike at the quality level of her venerable Serotta.

The arms race behind the bike race goes unacknowledged.

A lineup of TT bikes featured on illustrates the most evolved wind-cheating machines to enable a well-trained rider to go slightly less pathetically slowly compared to any vehicle people are actually impressed with. An absolute nightmare to work on, these ultra-sophisticated machines will set you back thousands of dollars -- in some cases upwards of $10,000 -- to get the full wind tunnel tested package of aerodynamic benefits. And you will still get dropped by a rusted-out Nissan that burns a quart of oil in 50 miles and costs a third as much. Much less than a third if you bought a really expensive bike. Or some twit with an e-bike will come tooling past you, vaping.

When Greg Lemond unleashed the aero on Laurent Fignon in 1989, it made aero bikes socially acceptable. It launched the movement to quit making bikes that looked like they were made by meticulous artisans and more like something engineered by the military-industrial complex.

At first, aero enhancements consisted of streamlined helmets and removable aero handlebars. Bike frames still had round tubes! And lugs! Rider position made a huge difference, established by the clip-on aero bar.

Soon, of course, bars were specifically designed and bikes were specially constructed to adopt each aerodynamic enhancement allowed by the governing authorities. This was also the age of the triathlon, where very little cycling tradition weighed down the innovators, and a free-spending population of willing test pilots purchased the latest implements to gain whatever advantage they could.

In any arms race, whoever develops a weapon first enjoys a clear advantage. Once everyone has the widget, that becomes the new level playing field, forcing further advancements to gain a new technological edge. At the same time, the old ways have been obliterated. When the competition is unlimited and existential, the rising tide of technology represents advancement for the whole species. This is also true in non-military contexts. Take transportation, for instance. Ships evolved sails. Sailing ships evolved through various shapes, swifter or more efficient for their given task, until powered vessels set a new standard in speed and maneuverability. On roads, the bicycle initiated the age of mass-produced personal transportation, but the automobile and its variants soon eclipsed pedal power.

Since we're only racing against each other on our bikes, we could set the standard anywhere we want. Does it really make a difference if average time trial times are a minute or two faster now than they were 20 years ago? It doesn't make the event any more exciting to watch, just more expensive to conduct. When everyone has only the slickest bike they can afford, the margin of victory could be in the wallet, not in the training, skill, and determination of the athletes. Or, if everyone has equally slick bikes, the equipment disappears from the equation. Everyone could be on Raleigh Choppers, or vintage Schwinn Paramounts.

The time trial position is not comfortable. The bikes are not versatile. Some are more aerodynamic than others, in ways that may be hard to tell by looks or price tag. And, as I said, they're absolute nightmares to work on. Humans have their urge to excel. There are worse things to blow money on than the pursuit of a few seconds over 40 kilometers. But if all the expense is just to be equal, the problem is artificially induced.

Economies run on induced problems. And maybe the aero bike of today will lead to the pedal-powered personal aircraft of tomorrow. I doubt if even that would spawn an industry strong enough to shape whole political systems and the course of nations, the way internal combustion has.

For now, my friend has to make the best of the equipment she has, with a snazzier back wheel and a new aero helmet, because she lacks the coin to place a much heftier bet on a bike that will turn heads in the transition area. The spacelanders
 she'll be sharing the course with present an intimidating army. The ones that live up to their advertising will actually confer an advantage upon their well-funded (or tapped out) riders. How much of an advantage is hard to say. And is it worth it? That's even harder to say. Ten grand for the ephemeral satisfaction of standing on a podium that will be gone forever, ten minutes after the award ceremony? Or maybe just to achieve a personal best time, down in the anonymous wad of barely differentiated finishers? Look! Here comes that vaping guy on the e-bike again.