Monday, February 23, 2015

Fat Bikes: from obscure to annoying in 24 months

Fat bikes started out as sort of a secret society. Now they're incredibly hip. Maybe that's the secret to success in America: Get fatter. The original mountain bikes were fat-tired, fun-loving and durable. Then they became tweaky and expensive. But once you go fat you can never come back. So only a fatter bike can capture the public's affection. And with popularity comes misunderstanding and come-lately "expertise."

As the fat bike bus gets larger and picks up more idlers from the sidewalk, the cacophonous chatter of misinformation rises in the background. And news of misbehavior filters in, like the report brought to us by a fat bike rider from Barnstable, Massachusetts, that fat bike tracks across fragile dunes in the Cape Cod National Seashore have brought unwelcome scrutiny from law enforcement. When popularity surges, idiocy increases.

A bike shop in the 1990s needed good answers to semi-informed questions from newly-minted experts who got their opinions from the plethora of magazines that blossomed to provide them. Now a bike shop needs to deal with another crop of enthusiasts who want to see fat bikes and hear about fat bikes even if they have no intention of buying anything. A shop's credibility rests entirely on having the latest cool thing.

I wonder how many people who are getting fat bikes now will use them enough ever to replace a set of tires. From an industry standpoint, who cares whether a customer actually uses anything, as long as they buy it? From a human standpoint, I just see more waste.

The fat bike in winter takes advantage of the snow-packing efforts of others. Some intrepid souls may pack down their riding trails by tromping on them in snowshoes first, but the majority of snow preparation is done with grooming equipment, unless the snow type and temperature swings have led to a naturally condensed and firm trail surface. Many miles of trail are prepared for snow machines and other motorized vehicles. The trails and logging roads provide access for human and animal travelers. These trailways were the fat bike's initial habitat. Only recently have the rising number of riders in a coincidentally difficult economy opened the dialog and debate between riders and cross-country ski areas.

The common characteristic in all these potential fat bike venues is packed snow. It's the winter equivalent of a paved road. Thus the fat bike is doing what the automobile did in the early 20th Century, taking advantage of road surfaces improved through the lobbying efforts of bicyclist organizations to take over those roads with heavier wheeled vehicles that would eventually try to make the bicycle extinct.

A fat bike would be good winter transportation if the roads were safe to share, but they're not. So fat bikes become another indulgence for a toy-crazed culture. If you happen to live where bike routes actually go to practical destinations, and someone makes the effort to keep them passable by plowing, snow blowing or grooming, bike on. But around here we're lucky if there's room for two motor vehicles to squeeze past each other in some of the snowier places, let alone maneuver past a cyclist none of them are happy to encounter.

IF humans in general -- and industrialized-nation humans in particular -- suddenly changed their transportation mindset and started providing for winter bikeways and other winter transportation options that did not require bare pavement, winter-adapted bikes would not just be toys. Unlikely as that is, it's not impossible. I like to imagine packed-snow travel ways on which someone could commute by ski or fat bike. I would pay tax dollars for that. Take it out of the road salt budget. Economically, it might make more sense for people in snowy regions to put the car up on blocks in the winter and use tracked vehicles rather than bathe the automobile in brine for six months. But then the tourists wouldn't be able to get around up here to shed money on us. Damn. It's always something.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Fat Bike Ethics

When an activity based on self-reliance becomes popular, self-reliance is one of the first casualties. It happened with backpacking, cross-country skiing, winter hiking, mountain biking, kayaking...people are attracted by some element of the sizzle, but still expect someone else to cook and cut the meat. Where a few people would come in, seeking to learn the skills and master the craft, the masses come in looking to own the gear, get the tee shirt and project the image.

Fat biking is taking its turn in the spotlight now. It's still a narrow spot, but interest is on the rise. And the most frequently asked question is, "where can I go ride this thing?"

Operators of cross-country ski areas have to tell fat bike owners whether their machines are allowed on touring center trails. The bike advocates consider this a reasonable question. Some of them get a little snivelly when the answer is not an immediate and emphatic yes.

The fat bike of today started out a decade ago as an expedition bike. It was a go-anywhere machine for someone who might want to ride through the interior of Alaska, or across a desert, or some other place where a rugged machine with ample traction could make its methodical way from place to place. But, like so many other pieces of expedition and exploring equipment, the bikes proved fun or useful in less drastic situations. The subculture took hold.

Fat bikers: ski touring centers owe you nothing. Fat biking evolved in the wild, away from groomed skiing areas, and it flourished there for a decade before the public began to take notice. A fat bike was a tool for riding in venues that already existed, not a novel toy based on a mere idea, which then had to find a place in the real world. Fat biking venues already existed and continue to exist.

The wide tires may make little or no impression in some trail conditions, but in others they gouge up the trails so that re-grooming would be needed to make the trails usable again for the skiers for whom they were built. In some conditions, even normal skier use hacks things up pretty well. But tire tracks create a new pattern of disruption that can seriously impact trail conditions.

If a touring center allows limited fat bike use, someone has to patrol to make sure those limits are respected. Fat bike riders will need to pay fees sufficient to offset the expenses generated by their presence. But it doesn't end with the exchange of funds. The ski area has to patrol the trails, assess conditions and repair them as necessary, in addition to the normal maintenance and grooming schedule familiar from ski operations.

Many ski areas are making some effort to accommodate --or even attract -- fat bikers as another source of income. With natural snow becoming unreliable, cross-country areas have to figure out how to monetize what they've got, or put in costly snowmaking systems that still rely on sustained temperatures below freezing. So fat bikers look like a viable cash cow. But there's no escape from the logistical realities of trail maintenance when snow brings skiers and current fashion brings fat bikers at the same time.

In our area, uncommonly sustained low temperatures have brought deep powder this year. This is snow that does not pack readily to a firm surface for skate skiers, let alone solidify enough to allow fat bikes to pass without digging deep into the corduroy. It make not look like much damage to a non-skiing bike enthusiast, but it might as well be a ploughed field for someone rocketing along on skinny skis.

In other years, or even the later part of this one, conditions could change to favor the fat bikers. Whatever happens, those who take up the super wide tire need to remember that their machine started out as another way to travel freely, not another way to depend on the continuing efforts of trail groomers who work for someone else. Sure, the bikes require a somewhat compacted surface. Such a surface can occur naturally or artificially. But just because someone is creating such a surface doesn't mean they'd be tickled to have you on it. Nor are they a bunch of killjoy old fuds if they seem reluctant to fling wide the gates.

When winter collapses and takes the ski industry with it, within a decade or so, fatties can rule the Earth. Bide your time. Be kind and polite to the cross-country skiers as they enjoy their declining years.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

My turn for The Chimp Report

Big G!

Don't know if you'll see this tonight, but it's too funny to risk forgetting.

The chimps were particularly bangy today. Plus they had something that made a piercing, metallic whine like a Dremel tool working on thin metal or ceramic or somebody's skull. I spent a lot of time with my ear plugs in. But they did not take the edge off the shockwave slams of whatever they would drop or throw at irregular intervals. After lunch I started banging back with an old rack bar. They had quieted down somewhat, so hopefully it startled them as I did it at irregular intervals.

Minutes after Esteban took off for practice, leaving me with the Commander, I was brushing out those hotbox skis when a voice said, "hey there! I have a delivery for you."

Twenty-two Specialized bikes. I went out into the snowy parking lot, leaving the Commander on the bridge. Of course the shop filled up. He sold hats for cash at discount prices to apologize for his ignorance of the computer system. The couple who wanted to rent he turned away. What could I do? Truck dude would have gotten impatient and dumped the remaining bikes in the street.

On one of my trips out from the basement I smelled cigarette smoke. I glanced over to see a grumpy young chimp at the tailgate of a pickup truck. He had a freshly lit cancer stick. Since he'd been sent outside to do a chore, he must have figured it was a great opportunity. The chore? Refueling their space heater. Yes, young Einstein was pouring what smelled like kerosene from a fuel can into their jet-engine heater. I started laughing and pointed him out to the truck driver, who also started laughing. The grumpy kid looked over like, "What?! What's so funny?" Then he LEANED DOWN CLOSER TO SEE HOW FULL THE TANK WAS.

Why did he not erupt into a human torch? Now he's convinced all this bullshit about not smoking while you handle fuel is just more sissy nonsense from people who don't like smoking. Well, the little Bic flicker survived...this time. He walked a lap or two around the building to finish the butt before going back in. Might have been dicey if he'd lit himself on fire, panicked and run around, lit the pickup truck and maybe careened into something else he could ignite.

Ah well...there's always tomorrow. Pleasant dreams!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Exercise is a drug

This is not news to a lot of you: exercise acts like an antidepressant and stress reliever. Those of us who have experimented with a variety of forms of self medication will have figured out that exercise needs to be managed like a drug.

Setting aside the addictive substances famous for monopolizing users' lives, your lifestyle enhancers, legal and illegal, all create a cushion effect in which the user requires more of whatever it is to reach the desired level of whatever you're going for, whether it's mellow relaxation or euphoric energy.

Coincidentally, exercise can provide both of those, whereas most mere substances specialize in one part of the energy spectrum. But I digress.

The experienced user will know that occasional periods of abstinence improve the effect of "the stuff" when its use is resumed. In training we call these abstinence periods "rest days." Yep. You're just managing your habit so you get more high on less stuff. At the same time, hard-core exercisers may be using other substances to improve their performance, particularly if they've been sucked into the competitive side. That complicates their equation, but it need not complicate yours. Racing is the best way to turn any fun activity into a neurosis. A little is educational. A lot can make you delusional.

When I first took up the 30-mile commuting day I would ride 50-80 at least one day a week and try to mix up the pace a bit on other days to make 30 seem shorter. I don't remember when I ate and slept. I know I did. I had been a racer, so devotion to distance seemed normal. If you want to ride more, ride more.

When long and longer rides don't fit the schedule, you have to shorten some days. The Schedule has a way of eating away riding time. As long as the habitual exerciser maintains the basal level necessary to function, the mind and body absorb the fluctuations. And when circumstances taper riding down to zero, the gradual process takes care of detox and withdrawal. Or so it seems.

Schedule and circumstances brought me to zero a month and a half ago. Once you reach zero it's really easy to go a day at a time through weeks and weeks. The thing that got me into transportation cycling in the first place was the knowledge that if you don't put exertion right in front of yourself, between you and whatever you want next, you'll probably walk past it. Or more likely drive past it.

Have you ever been so completely exhausted that you could feel the energy you get from every breath and feel it leave you with every exhalation? You will only reach that point if you have to stay awake for some compelling reason. In my case it was usually a road trip. Back when gas was cheap and hotel rooms were dear, and I had no money anyway, I would drive straight through to wherever I was going, whether it was four hours away or 24. If I absolutely couldn't go on I would pull off and sleep in the car for a while.

Hotel rooms are still expensive. I hate shelling out for what's basically just a bed and a bathroom I'll use for eight hours or less. I can sleep as well in my car as I can in some overpriced roadside fleabag. At least in my car I know who raised the fleas. But I digress again.

A body habituated to exercise, that has been deprived of it to where real deterioration has set in, will react to the faintest breath of it they way that exhausted driver does, rousing on the inhale and nodding off again on the exhale.

My ordinary activities do require a certain amount of exertion in the winter. I have to split some firewood nearly every day, and carry loads of it twice a day. When snow falls I have to shovel, sweep and snowblow it from the area around the house and garage. But that never creates the sustained rhythm that generates the surge of well-being you get from regular riding, running, walking or cross-country skiing.

On Thursday I had a Dutch three-speed on the stand. I was running the Sachs Torpedo hub through its gears and laughing over the name "Sachs Torpedo." Wanna see my Sachs Torpedo? It does not provide a handy adjustment window like a Sturmey Archer or Shimano hub. You have to go by more subtle indicators. Sheldon Brown and Sutherland's were my guide.

Because the parking lot was finally clear and the weather was reasonably mild, I could take the bike out for a test ride. When I muckled onto it to left it down from the stand, the erector muscles on either side of my spine clamped down in a spasm. The wages of inactivity. I set the bike down without dropping it and dropped into a couple of stretches to relax the knots. Once the pain settled down to a dull ache and spread across my whole back I carried the bike down to do the test ride. When I came back in I ran through the warmup exercises from a tai chi class I took years ago. I don't remember anything else, but the warmup set loosens up arms, back and shoulders really well.

At home that night I lay on the living room floor to do some deeper stretches. I used to stretch a lot. While no one would be impressed with my contortions compared to a real professional human pretzel, I did have pretty good flexibility. Not anymore. But I did manage to roll and unroll my spine a few times and then run through another set of tai chi warmups. The feeling afterward compared closely to the way I would feel after a much more vigorous workout and longer stretching session back when I did those several times a week instead of a few times a year.

A body that had never exercised, or never been pushed to the high-intensity dilettante level that I used to maintain would not have gotten the same bounce. One thing you learn about getting high is to recognize the symptoms of being high.

A little does not go a long way. The lift is palpable, but brief, barely longer than the lift of a single breath in that deep exhaustion I talked about. If I don't get some sort of routine going I will fall further and further into the pit of lard, lethargy and despair that is modern industrialized life. Enough time passes and even the hack athlete forgets what power lies within. Even longer and the power itself is essentially gone. We all lose it eventually, but you can give it up much sooner.

Friday, January 02, 2015

More from the menu of fat.

The fat bikes we ordered from SE last spring finally arrived. At  $899 they stretch the definition of affordable a bit, but they offer a lot for the money. These are 2014 models. The 2015s list for  $1089. Once they pass the  $1,000 mark they need to stand up to other strong, established models in the fat genre. But at $899 they can still play on price.

First of all, congrats on concise naming. F@. Get it?

Componentry is impressive out of the box: triple crank, hydraulic disc brakes, two water bottle mounts, burly rack bosses, double wall rims, outboard BB bearings and real replaceable chainrings. Also, before you install the stupid wheel reflectors the wheels themselves are very musical. Ting that brake rotor and the whole thing rings like a gong. I tried to record it with my phone, but its microphone did not capture the depth and complexity of the sound.

So far we have built up a Surly Moonlander, a regular Surly Pugsley or two, the Framed Minnesota 1.0 and two of these SE F@ bikes. My impression after test riding was that the Surly models rode surprisingly normally. The Framed bike felt kind of sluggish. The SE feels quite agile around the indoor test track. This is not just a joke. To clear the corners without knocking over a ski rack, a row of comfort bikes or a display of assorted sports paraphernalia, a bike has to be stable but responsive.

I still can't justify the acquisition. But if someone else wants to, here's a good option.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Training to be "not a cyclist"

Those of us who can't just light up a cigarette, push up the kickstand with our fashionably booted foot and zip off on our latest short-hop errand in all seasons have to keep our engines in shape even if we don't nurture competitive urges. We have to train.

Even an inanimate engine holds up better when it gets run occasionally. And when the engine is muscle it really deteriorates if it sits idle. When the riding season is limited and the distances are long, you have to tune the engine somehow.

The cellist has been home for the holidays. As soon as she got over highway fatigue she dug out her fixed-gear and suited up for a spin on one of the mild days we've been having. When I got a couple of days off we went out together. The days are their shortest, but just barely beginning to lengthen.

These outings used to feel heroic. Since I gave up on my legend it's harder to feel justified going out on a bike ride to nowhere in particular just for the exercise. But I know I'll wish I had.

Yesterday I shot a video on one of the climbs, illustrating two techniques, Stitch and Grunt.
I'm Stitching. The cellist is Grunting. The Stitcher has to keep an eye and ear out for traffic, but the rhythm appeals to me. I'm basically indolent, and stitching is less work than grunting. I grunt on the last bit because it's too close to the blind hill crest to keep crossing the lanes.

A little farther along we got to a nice fast stretch.
The fixed gears make you pedal the whole way. The single gear limits your speed, which is good for controlling wind chill as much as you can. You get a lot of value for your time. This is important when the weather is uncomfortable or dangerous.

Today the temperature was in the teens in the morning. It was still around 20 when I headed out alone. The cellist has a lot to do to prepare for her return to Maryland.

About three miles down the road I saw a small sedan stopped in the oncoming lane. In front of it was what looked like a lump of dirty snow. It was a small cat that had been tagged by a car, which had sped on. The occupants of the sedan had stopped and called the police. I stopped, called the cellist for a cat carrier and blankets and then called our vet. But it turned out that the police were going to take the kitty to the same vet, and have the advantage of police markings and flashing lights. We wrapped the cat in a blanket and placed it carefully in the warm back seat of the police SUV.

I held out some hope for the animal because it was sitting up, meowing, rather than lying there with insides hanging out. There was blood, but not a lot of it, and its limbs felt intact when I lifted it in its swaddling. I had petted it while we waited, slowly moving a warm hand down its back. I could feel it purring, which they do to soothe themselves when sick or injured. It was still engaged in being a cat.

I rode back to intercept the cellist and tell her how things had worked out. She had gotten out of the house too quickly for me to get her by phone as the whole thing was evolving. I thought about just going home, but I went on instead. These were going to be my last miles of 2014, for whatever that's worth.

It was definitely more like winter out there. I had gotten a little chilled while attending to the wounded. I rode hard to generate heat. At least the wind had gone down. I tooled dutifully through my old faithful 15-mile loop and home to a warm shower and some food.

Hard to say what happens next in the training department. I'll do a lot, including just say screw it and drink beer, to avoid spending too much time on a stationary trainer. The Wolfeboro Cross-Country Ski Association is making snow on a two-kilometer loop. I might just have to take my headlamp off the bike helmet and put it back on its headband for some laps of night skiing. We only just got the cold weather, so that won't be ready for a few days.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The strangest debris

The weirdest stuff to tumble out of the insulation in the workshop ceiling during the recent deluge has been these pasta wheels.
I keep finding them, one or two at a time. Right after I picked these off the floor I found another one.

We're guessing mice had concealed them in nests up there. I don't think any of the holes in the floor would have allowed them to pass from the many digestive disturbances we had to hear over the years. Or, for that matter, the ones we would not have heard because they occurred outside business hours.

Best not to think about it.