Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Musing about wheeled pedestrians

The wheeled pedestrian definition of a cyclist is as an exclusively recreational rider. I get the sense this is viewed with contempt and perhaps even alarm as the recreational cyclists generate all the negative effects suffered by bike riders, while the virtuous, hard-working non-cyclist riders toil in obscurity, waiting for the motoring public to be see that there has never been anything to fear.

The term "wheeled pedestrian" must be a calculated contradiction to the concept of vehicular cyclist. But for me it conjures up uncomfortable visions of riders on sidewalks, threading among the real pedestrians like a motorcycle on a bike path. Can you imagine if frightened motorcyclists lobbied successfully to be allowed to ride on bike paths because they were afraid to mix it up with the other vehicle traffic on the street?

Many times over the years in print columns and on line I have made the point that a bicyclist is NOT a pedestrian on wheels. A rider on the sidewalk demonstrates contempt for the people walking there. A rider going against the flow of vehicular traffic, as a pedestrian is required to do, shows contempt for the lawful road users and puts them all at risk. Ride at a walking pace if you like. It's great. But you're not a pedestrian. You're a bike rider. You're riding a bike. You might hop on it in a fashionable outfit that blends perfectly with everyone else's everyday clothes. You might stop frequently to run errands or simply to enjoy the space through which you are passing. But you rode a bike to get there. You are not a pedestrian. Maybe, just maybe, if you take the pedals off and scooter that thing along like a Laufmaschine you can lay partial claim to being a wheeled pedestrian. Even then you will be taking up more space among the actual pedestrians and inconveniencing them at least as much as they inconvenience you.

I like segregated bike routes as long as they go where I need to go. It's nice to get away from motor vehicles for a while. The Cotton Valley Trail is a multi use path that the rail car people think of as a rail line, the walkers think of as a walking path and the bicyclists call a bike path. You can see the territorial emanations from each kind of user when different user types meet. The rail cars are worse than motor vehicles on the road, because they can't deviate from their course. The bike riders have to ride responsibly around the pedestrians, though some riders seem to blast past as callously as heedless motorists blast past cyclists out in traffic. Not too many bike riders on the path would consider themselves wheeled pedestrians, and certainly the pedestrians would not acknowledge them as such.

You want to be a pedestrian? Walk.

I actually prefer to walk rather than ride a bike in some places. Even if the distance would go more quickly on a bike, other conditions might override mere speed and ease. Just as short trips in a car become a yank with starting, stopping, traffic and parking, so are some trips not worth doing by bike.

As for the garb, when I ride out to the nearest grocery store it's a seven-mile round trip. I finally got some regular clothing that fits well for that kind of ride, so I can show up looking pretty normal. I still haven't kicked the helmet habit, but once I hang that on the bike and walk into the store no one would know I'm a freak unless they took a close look at my Diadora touring shoes. Those are a model no longer made, with a nice stiff sole for pedaling, but no aggressive tread or wide rand to snag going in and out of toeclips. I have nothing against street clothes. When my commutes were short enough I wore whatever I was going to wear to work. When I refused to give up bike commuting no matter how far I ended up living from work, I had to adapt to a commute that was more of a bike ride.

I am a bicycle rider. I am not a wheeled pedestrian. I dress and ride appropriately for whatever conditions I need to face. I'm not averse to cutting across a lawn or through a field, down an alley or along a path. I'll even make a quick, stealthy connection on a short stretch of sidewalk (sshhhhh!). At all those times, if I'm on a bike I am a cyclist, with all the rights and responsibilities thereto appertaining.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Should I feel guilty?

Yet again I see an article drawing the distinction between "cycling" and "riding a bike." As advocates of everyday bike use try to attract participants by differentiating between cyclists and bike riders I get more than a little sense that those of us who wear the shorts, the shoes, the helmets and even moderate, solid-colored jersies because they are more efficient for our particular route and conditions are somehow part of the problem rather than contributing to the solution of putting bike riding into the main stream of transportation (yes, and recreation) options.

Let the thought process run its course. Rhetoric needs to be developed. The whole subject needs to be explored by many minds. And one day in the distant future, if our species has not managed to prevent itself from having a distant future, all pedalers might get along without judging each other or feeling judged, whether justifiably or not. But for now subcultures appear to be trying to define themselves. Or perhaps it is just the one subculture, attempting to become simply culture, that feels the need to distance itself from the despised minorities of snotty roadies and daredevil urban kamikazes.

No one cares what the mountain bikers do as long as they don't spook the horses or run down any hikers. They're not clotting up the streets and highways with their kooky antics. But anyone who gets on those streets and highways will be criticized.

For the sake of inclusion in the transportation mix, the self-proclaimed non-recreational "wheeled pedestrians" make sure that anyone who will read or listen knows that they stand for normal clothes, upright handlebars, dry skin and normal respiration. They ride to get from place to place over rational distances, content to go faster than a walk but slower than a "racer." They don't sweat and you don't have to, either.

If I lived somewhere with distances, terrain and infrastructure that supported casual riding at a sedate pace I would do so. But I've never lived in such a place. From the mid-1970s when I started paying attention to road conditions as an adult rather than bebopping around as a kid, every place I've ridden has had an element of combat. It might not happen every day, but it could happen any day. It could happen on a neighborhood street or one of the major thoroughfares. It could happen on a cross-town commute or a long training ride when I took long training rides. It shaped my riding style to be more aggressive and agile, to wear stiff shoes, even cleats, so I could sprint out of a bind if I needed to.

Interestingly, I did not go quickly to helmet use. I seriously debated the merits of protection against the fact that it made me look like a dork. Whatever the anti-helmet crowd says in its supposedly fact-laced campaign against the brain bucket, looking like a dork is still a major factor. I also liked wearing my wool hat in the winter, rather than the helmet and various liners depending on the temperature.

I find competitive riders pretty annoying. I was not that annoying when I competed, but that may explain why I wasn't too successful at it. While not every top-level rider needs to be abrasive, any intense competitive activity attracts people who like making others uncomfortable. You can't underestimate the psychological warfare. Also, some competitive people tend to be insecure already, which is what drives them to achieve things and stuff it in your face. So I'll grant that the flashy Lycra crowd may not be our best ambassadors, much of the time. But some of them ride other bikes in other ways as well as just the road machine in pursuit of glory.

I suppose a nuanced, inclusive view does not compress easily into short recruiting messages aimed at the general public, a.k.a. non-riders. Indeed, one major factor that propelled the popularity of mountain bikes in the rise of that boom was the idea that you could sit up straighter, wear normal shoes and ride like a kid again. Then the industry and the competitive types managed to technologize all the simple fun out of it. Now they wonder where everybody went, and "wheeled pedestrian" advocates try to drum up the interest without a poster-bike on which to hang the dream.

Pedal Assist

Sunday was the fifth day of bike commuting for the week. It happened to follow a short night's sleep, and not the first such night this week.

Shop hours start later on Sundays. I like to take a longer, more peaceful ride in the extra time. But every alternate route involves steeper, taller hills. Time for some pedal assistance: drugs.

A couple of ibuprofen took the edge off.

No rail cars were out on the trail. Recreational traffic was light. It grew a bit heavier closer to town. About 30 teenage girls in running shorts and sports bras came trotting out in two closely-separated groups. I wondered what school they represented, but I wasn't going to interrupt my flow or theirs to ask a question I really didn't need answered. They were not wearing uniform colors, so no hint there.

Approaching the crossing at Center Street I was pleased to see a couple of human shields approaching the crosswalk in time to stop traffic for me so I could slip out onto the street while they went on over into the even greater path congestion on the final, and most popular, mile into the center of town. The human shields, two women in please-don't-kill-me-yellow tee shirts, were dismounting from their bikes as I rolled up into a near track stand behind them. Traffic stopped headed out of town, from our left. The car approaching from the right, inbound, also stopped. We on the path were on the verge of making our moves when we noticed the jeep approaching from the right at full speed, oblivious to the car stopped right in front of it. Impact seemed inevitable.

The low shriek of wide tires locked up on dry pavement set the sound track for the jeep's panicked slide. The driver steered to the right, missing the stopped car at the crosswalk. The jeep stopped next to the other car. The white-knuckled driver, no doubt with jelly legs and possibly unusable underwear, put his head in his hands.

"Well done, lad!" I sang out cheerfully. You can take that as sarcasm or commendation. Both are valid. The women in front of me started across the street and I swung left to join the vehicular flow on my usual route through town. A car passed me, but the jeep never did. I wonder how long it took that guy to get his legs to work again.

After a fairly uneventful day I dropped a couple more ibbies for the ride home. I'd promised the cats we would hang out together in the Cat Lounge when I got home, but I didn't feel like trudging out the highway like I always do.
Working in The Cat Lounge

With the pain reliever coursing through me and some good coffee, not to mention the fact that we close an hour and a half earlier on Sundays, I felt pretty good as long as I didn't try to hammer too hard. One thing I learned in years of more extensive ibuprofen use is that control of the pain does not replace strength lost when a muscle group is simply fried from days of hard riding. The feeling of painless powerlessness is remarkable. You should try it once, and then not do it again. It can't be good for you.

Out the path I meandered, up the pavement of Bryant Road when I got there, and onto Stoddard, reversing my route from the morning. I'd come within .01 mph of hitting 41 on the way down the steep hill on Stoddard. Now I had to climb it. It's a familiar challenge. I'm not too proud to put the bike in low low and weave. It's actually a nice rhythm that allows good views into the woods. For a good chunk of the road there are no houses.

In this undeveloped section I was puffing along when I suddenly inhaled a cloud of unnatural perfume and chemical odor. I could not tell if it was fabric softener, bug repellent, ill-chosen cologne or what. I also spotted no source whatsoever for it in the forest and undergrowth along the road. Whatever it was, it coated my sinuses and the back of my throat so I tasted it almost all the way home. Was someone hiding in the weeds with a sprayer, spritzing unsuspecting passersby? Or was it wafting down from some distant dwelling, tendrils of chemical reek wending unseen among the tree trunks? I had no ill effects beyond the annoying, persistent taste. A good hoppy beer got rid of the last of that. It's kind of creepy though.

The rest of the ride was uneventful. The cats and I had a nice late afternoon and evening until the late summer crop of small and aggressive mosquitoes gathered as the air cooled to suit them.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Confusing Font

Doesn't this look like it says "Jack you?"

I'm pretty sure it's supposed to say Tachyon, but it doesn't really work.

"Ride the new GT Jack you! The ride sticks with you!" 

I don't know what that means,  really. Just throwing stuff out. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Stroming around Wolfe City

In the process of diagnosing the latest Stromer electric bike fiasco, I had to go on extensive test rides.

Poor, deluded souls are invariably impressed with the distinctive-looking machines. When they express this admiration I have no choice in my OCD but to take the time to try to explain all the reasons they should question the substance beneath the eye-catching looks. Or I just grunt, pretend I didn't hear anything or smile wanly and try to get away as quickly as possible. But even if no one says anything I know what many of them are thinking: "Hey, there's anther one of those neat bikes. Maybe I should look into getting one."

Noooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!! I'll wake up one morning and everyone but me will be a pod-person! Actually, POD stands for Power on Demand on the Stromer console. PAS stands for Pedal Assist.

The price tag for a Stromer stops most casual inquiries. But if the unaffordable version sparks sufficient interest, the interested party can find plenty of other offerings at lower price points, and lots of happy people on forums to say how great the machines are and how simple every little process is. You can find answers to just about every question that will come up when you try to reduce your workload by increasing the weight and complexity of your bike with electric motors, batteries and control circuits.

I feel like an idiot riding around on the thing. I know that's my own problem, but since I would not own one and I would not advise anyone to get one, I feel very keenly that I function as an unwitting ambassador for the concept when I'm tooling around out there. Adding to my unease, I know a lot of pedalists who think anyone on an e-bike is a wanker. Please! I'm not one of them! I'm only doing my job!

So there I am, tooling around the steepest nearby hills in Wolfeboro, trying to get the bike to malfunction in the way described by its owner. The bike has an absurdly wide saddle that makes a squeaky, metallic fart noise with every pedal stroke. I can't stop pedaling, because the bike only screws up in pedal assist mode. So I'm grunting up Friend Street, Pleasant Street, Forest Road, and connecting them with bits of Main Street, Sewall Road and short side streets, going squeak-fart, squeak-fart, squeak-fart, over and over around the course, waiting for the pedal assist to quit on me as the owner says it does. I pass walkers and real bicyclists with a pained smile and eyes averted. Squeak-fart, squeak-fart, squeak-fart.

The assist in pedal assist is not a magic effort eliminator. You have to give to get. I topped out on the hills breathing hard and sweating. I simply got there faster than I would under my own power on my own bike. Having a motor allows you to go faster and perhaps work less, but because the assistance comes on and goes off in response to your effort, the drag of the motor cuts in whenever you let up, slowing the bike more than an unassisted bike would slow down from gravity alone when you let up momentarily on the pedals. The bike yaws as the power fluctuates. It's pretty annoying, especially if you're predisposed to be annoyed.

Nothing about the ride made me suddenly feel, "Hey, I want this." I just wanted it to be over.

Because the bike never misbehaved, I could only go on what my research discerned. The lithium-ion battery probably cut out because it had not been charged lately and the long grade the owner was climbing threatened to over-discharge it. Either that or the system was overheating from the long effort and cut out because of that. The battery was pretty low when she brought it in and went flat overnight. But my first test ride on a shorter course with the low battery did not trigger a malfunction. My longer test ride, after fully charging the battery, did not cause any trouble either.

Bikes functioned happily for a century without electrics or hydraulics. Think about that.

Every time I have to wrestle with the problems of someone's ultra-modern marvel, whether it's a high performance carbon road rocket, a kinkily articulated full suspension mountain machine or a three-ton behemoth of battery power I go over and kiss my own bike hanging on its hook. You and me, baby. Simple pleasures.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Most of these tuneups should be overhauls

The Bike Tune Up generally includes the basic adjustments to bearings -- those that might still be adjustable on your modern marvel -- gears and brakes. Customers dutifully bring their bikes in every year or so for the traditional laying on of hands.

A bike that has been well tuned and not abused will still be in adjustment a year later. Brakes might get sloppy from pad wear. Index shifting might slip a bit from housing compression or cable stretch. But a properly adjusted bearing will stay adjusted as long as whatever was provided to lock the adjustment works in the first place and is correctly secured by the mechanic.

Inside that properly clearanced bearing, lubricants break down or get flushed out by various environmental stressors. I can perfectly adjust a bearing that has no grease left in it. It will run a bit roughly, but better than it would with no attention.

Most of the bikes that customers bring in for tuneups should have overhauls instead. The bearings need to be opened up, cleaned out and re-greased, if they're serviceable bearings at all.

Bike shop workloads run on a boom and bust cycle. Bike owners all get the idea around the same time, the Bike Season, and storm the shops for service. If even half of them said to go for the overhaul instead of the less effective tuneup, the wait time would surge into weeks instead of days. Taking someone's bike for that long in the season risks killing their enthusiasm either for riding or for getting their bike serviced. So we do the best we can with the time we have. We're like a battlefield hospital, patching up the wounded as best we can.

Many of our seasonal customers save their bikes for us to fix because they do not feel well served by their local shops. It's flattering and a helpful source of revenue, but all these people arrive with time constraints.

A couple of days ago a father and son came in asking questions about how to perform various procedures and what tools to buy. Refreshingly, they seemed to absorb information readily and had the vital ability to visualize a mechanism and a procedure from a verbal description. I did a little show and tell, but we managed to cover a lot just from discussion. They came back the next day for more little parts and further guidance, but it was building on the previous information, not filling it in again because it had all leaked out of their brains.

That poor kid is at risk of ending up in the bike business. My own slide down the slippery slope began because I wanted to be able to maintain my own bike. Then, hard up for cash in a career slump as a sort of a journalist, I wandered into my local bike shop in search of supplemental income. Turns out bike repair is steadier and more reliable employment than quasi-journalism. I'd been a copy editor, which is basically a word mechanic and someone who repairs press releases, so it's all kind of related. When the newspaper fell on hard times and eliminated my position, the mountain bike boom brought enough money and work into the shop to turn my part time into full time. Not lucrative full time, mind you, but enough to find a survivable balance of income and expenses. I've found that to be more valuable than a feast or famine roller coaster of big money followed by no money. I've seen people ride that one. It's all good fun until the screaming plunge.

The repair load has been inconsistent this season. Right now we're in a big weekend, with two triathlons and the Mount Washington Hill Climb. In addition, certain seasonal visitors we had not seen yet seem to have arrived for their stab at summer. The lulls even on a busy day are still frighteningly quiet and deep, but the surges are almost like the real thing.

Yesterday I had to make a 7-speed cassette out of an 8-speed because a customer needed it and we didn't have a proper 7-speed in stock. It wasn't as simple as just dropping one unwanted cog, either. I had to find a 12-tooth high gear cog to keep the steps reasonable and match the one we were replacing. That meant a treasure hunt in the cog farm. You can find all the 11-tooth cogs you want. Good luck finding just the right 12. I had to change the lock ring to one with a wider flange to secure the best 12 in my bin of spare parts.

In the middle of the onslaught, one of the X Family's Stromers showed up with yet another weird problem. On long, steep climbs, when you would want the pedal assist the most, the motor cuts out completely. This is probably because the no-longer-new lithium-ion battery is protecting itself, but it could be several other things in the system. The worst part for me is having to test ride the thing extensively, because I have to be seen in public on it.

I don't care if people want to own and ride these things. I just don't want to do anything that might convey the impression I endorse them in any way. I may have to sneak back to town at night and work on it then, where the kindly darkness will hide my shame when I have to go road test the latest attempt to iron the kinks out of the infernal machine. Or wear a ski mask.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Cotton Valley Trail bastards

I'm going to go ahead and kick a hornet's nest and throw it into a feces tornado.

If you ride the Cotton Valley Trail in Wolfeboro you are already familiar with the treacherous rail crossings and the dicey two way sections where bikes have to pass each other in the space between the rails. The reason for the rails is rarely evident, but they're there because rail car hobbyists use their little cars on the old line.  They would only permit the trail to exist if they got to keep the rails.

We coexist. They've done a lot of work out there. Some of them are actually cool about it. But a car this morning came straight at me with no intention of slowing, stopping or backing up, even though I was moving fast, down grade, and had both a blinking and a steady high intensity headlight on.

Obviously some of the rail car people consider themselves the primary users out there and they're willing to draw blood to verify that claim. I bailed to avoid the collision while the two dubs in the rail car looked straight out the windshield of their motorized conveyance, sunglasses on, as expressionless as a couple of terminator robots.

So, Wolfe City riders, watch out on the Cotton Valley Trail. The terminators may be out. By their own edict and willingness to inflict harm on non motorized users,  THEY HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY. If these people with their motorized toys are going to pretend they are train traffic on an active rail line, they put every other user at risk when a cyclist or pedestrian gets caught between the rails in one of the long stretches.