Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Old reliable no more

Shifting problems barely existed before the invention of indexed shifting. Now they're a regular annoyance for riders in all categories.

In my private war to eliminate 4-millimeter shift housing, inline cable adjusters have been a reliable ally. But the bike industry has finally figured out how to mess that up.

For years, 4mm housing used thick-walled ferrules that made the ends fit into the 5mm cable stops commonly in use. Because of this, it was easy to substitute 5mm housing to reduce friction in a system that was getting erratic.

Because mechanical indexed shifting relies on perfect cable tension, shifting systems included fine tuners in the form of barrel adjusters somewhere in the cable run for all rear -- and most front -- derailleurs. Lately, barrel adjusters have become a necessity for front shifting because the indexing requires higher tension than you can get just by pulling on the cable as hard as you can when you hook it up.

At the same time as shifting systems have evolved a need for super high tension, the trend to run all the cables inside the frame has led to systems that can only use 4mm housing, because the cable stops are holes built into the frame and do not accommodate -- or need -- a ferrule. However, with inline adjusters I could reduce the 4mm section to the bare minimum needed to enter the frame, and put 5mm from the shifter to the adjuster. With ferrules on the housing, 4mm could go in one end, and 5mm in the other. So the bike industry introduced 4mm adjusters that take naked housing with no ferrule. But they still made the 5mm adjusters as they did before. I could sub in a whole new adjuster.

Not anymore. The last 5mm adjusters I ordered in blissful confidence were sized for 5mm housing without ferrules.

Linear-wire shift housing has always needed a strong ferrule on each end to keep the stiff wires from poking through under the pressure of the shift cable tightening. We used to see ferrule failure a lot in the cheesy plastic ferrules on 4mm housing. The extruding wires would burrow into the shifter, making shifting maddeningly inconsistent, and sometimes even damaging the mechanism. That has gradually faded away as we see more metal 4mm ferrules and perhaps some reformulated plastic that is less prone to punch through. But that does not do away with the problem of drag from the skinny housing. The skinny housing is often applied over thicker cables with coatings that are supposed to make them slide better, but usually end up turning into lint in there.

The answer has always been 5mm housing and a 1.1mm stainless slick shift wire with no coatings of any kind. That's it. No secret formulas, no chemical agents, just the largest available housing with the skinniest available cable. And now you can't have it. As cassettes get more crowded and spacing between cogs gets smaller, smaller deviations make a noticeable difference. The bike industry once again makes riding less convenient and more expensive.

Monday, August 03, 2020

The road less traveled, more traveled

The work crew on the Elm Street bridge shows up earlier now, but not consistently. Wednesday I got through, but they were on site on Thursday morning, so I sprinted on toward the Pine River State Forest without hesitation.

This was only my second time through since the end of the 1990s, but it already felt familiar again. Still under-gunned on the spindly bike, I was making the best of it when a voice behind me startled me. A mountain biker on modern equipment announced that he was passing. We exchanged pleasant greetings as I pulled aside to let him go. He vanished quickly.

On the other side of the bridge, I took the low road and geared down early. The trail hit its first steep climb and I didn't even try to stay on. It leveled out a bit above that before hitting the real climb. Ahead of me on that, I saw the mountain biker on foot, pushing his own bike. I was actually gaining on him. But he hit the crest first. He was long gone by the time I reached the top about 30 seconds later. Mountain bike plus gravity equals speed.
The enemy of traction

A Long Haul Trucker might handle the trail better, particularly in the 54cm that I would ride, with its 26-inch wheels. The Trucker has a more laid-back head angle and no toe overlap, so it's less easily disrupted by the uneven surface. It's funny how small a rock can create a big jolt, like when you're digging a hole in the glacial soil around here and the shovel clanks with a wrist-numbing impact against what has to be a huge ledge, only to disclose a rock smaller than a lime. But I've said before that the Cross Check is very good at a lot of things, and was never meant for rough trails. It gets by.

These forest excursions are putting a hurt on my Diadoras. My regular kicks are fairly smooth soled, meant for the finer things in life. With this in mind, for Friday morning I put an old pair of mountain bike shoes in the woodshed. Because it would take only a minute or two to check the bridge, I figured I could start in my Diadoras and nip back for the more rugged footwear if the news was bad. And it was.

These date from the twilight of the toeclip era, so they have a tapered toe and a streamlined sole without a bulky rand. They don't protect as well from lateral rock strikes, but they slip into the strap easily and feel more secure when snugged in.

The sole has outlined areas to cut out for an SPD-style cleat. I never cut them out, but one broke loose and fell out on its own. I had to replace it with the screw-in cover that came on later models much more adapted to step-in pedals, assuming that the rider would go that route.
The plate protrudes slightly. It's a little bit slick to walk on, and pushes my toe uncomfortably into the clip after a while. But the shoes are a better choice than beating up the Diadoras, and they were surprisingly satisfactory on the road portion. Without that unfortunate damage to the sole I would have used them more consistently. Good luck finding anything well adapted to toeclip use anymore.

I've written before about the advantages of the humble and discarded toeclip. To recap briefly: clips and straps allow a rider to be connected with varying degrees of firmness. Fully tightened, straps transmit the most power. Straps loosened still provide some security and power transfer while permitting easier escape. A clip and strap system accommodates a variety of footwear. It is less convenient to get in and out of than flats or a step-in system, but neither of those provides the intermediate levels of connection, and step-ins only work well with their intended shoes.

The road less traveled is becoming a trade route. But in the evenings I still get to breeze through Elm Street, more or less.

Where they've dug out the rusted expansion joint, the trench is so deep and wide that you have to climb down through it. The surface with the rebar sticking up provides sketchy footing. But who's complaining, when no one is supposed to be going through there anyway? It's on me to leave no trace.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Another day, another bike I'd never heard of

It was too new for Classic Rendezvous, but still from the "screwed and glued" aluminum era. Its worn decals seemed to say Prism, but a web search on Prism bikes, bicycles, cycles turned up nothing that resembled it.

Little letters on the frame and fork said SR Litage. That seeming subtitle brought up the bike and its kin from the late 1980s.

 Componentry said early 1990s to me. Later the owner told me she got this one in 1993. That headset looks particularly annoying to adjust and keep set. Crap like that is a large part of what made threadless headsets seem like a good idea. I was glad that the bike wasn't in for a full tune. It only had a shifter problem with the 8-speed Campagnolo Ergopower brifters. They were jammed.

The bike had a weird mix of parts: Campy drive train and rear hub, Shimano Ultegra brakes from back when they still said "600," and that Mavic headset. ITM bars. The rear brake cable enters the frame, but the housing is continuous. Shift cables are external. Shift housing stops are mounted to downtube shifter bosses.

I figured that the shifters had jammed because the index springs had broken and fragments had wedged in the ratchet rings. I detached the cables from the derailleurs to see if I could free anything up. The shifters then pulled the cable perfectly well, with no crunching or excessive play. Maybe the derailleurs themselves were stuck.

Nope. I could move them easily by hand.

I reconnected the cables and everything worked perfectly. So I test rode the bike. It didn't want to shift to the big ring. Then it dropped the chain inside, where it stuck behind the tabs on the inner ring. I carried the bike back inside to pull the crank and extricate the chain. This led me to discover that the bottom bracket was unscrewing itself. An early cartridge model, as it migrated to the right it pulled the left side in after it. The cartridge never felt loose as the crank migrated sideways away from the front derailleur.
It hadn't gone far enough inside to pull the left crank arm against the chainstay on the way around.

An exploded view in one of our old Campy parts catalogs showed the Athena bottom bracket with what look like serrated washers that are supposed to go in the cups on either side. I would presume that these are supposed to enhance the grip of these unflanged cups against the cartridge with the bearings in it so that they can be securely torqued into the bottom bracket shell. The axle also measured shorter than the triple crank supposedly requires, but the chain line was almost too far out, even with the BB restored to its proper position. I torqued it as securely as I could. The only way to get those missing washers would be with a time machine.

In eternity, all nows are equal. Every moment exists and could be reached if we were not stuck experiencing time in a linear flow. I think of this every time I look through our old Quality catalogs at all the componentry I wish I'd stocked up on.

If I had needed to open up the shifters I would have removed them from their clamps and worked on them off the bike rather than unwrap the bars and lose the vintage Celeste green cork wrap. Even if it didn't have aggressive adhesive backing, so I could get it off without shredding it, it never lines up exactly the same. The shifters seemed miraculously cured, as if they were only trying to get the rider to bring the bike in to have the bottom bracket apprehended before it escaped completely. If they malfunction again, we do keep index springs on hand. Campy being Campy, they still use the same springs in the same basic design.

Monday, July 27, 2020

The cyclist advantage, sort of

The Elm Street bridge project has developed complications.
The Little Dig is going to last longer than expected. No word yet on whether it will also go way over budget. As a taxpayer in a poor rural town I certainly hope we're getting the bulk of the money from a federal program that spreads the load over millions of people across the country, any one of whom would be grateful to find a passable bridge should they ever drive through here.

The bridge remains usable for a cyclist, as long as you can get yourself over the gap.
Try that with your 70-pound ebike.

I was in a bit of a panic because the news of the delay came a day or two after I informed the Board of Selectmen and the state department of environmental services that the work crew appeared to be doing little to control debris. The shore beneath the bridge was covered with concrete dust and chunks of broken concrete, some of them fairly large. As I said in my notes to the town government and the state agency, I don't know whether this is considered an official problem. I just wanted to know, as a resident and a member of the town's conservation commission, whether the job was meeting applicable regulations to protect the river. The work site is also immediately above where I test the river every two weeks for a local environmental organization. If I had done anything to delay the reopening of the bridge, I could be sure that my house would be set on fire within a day or two. Imagine my relief when I found out that the problem was in the bridge, not from some frog-kissing do-gooder making a fuss about some artificial rocks landing among the wildflowers.

I did not have that assurance when I set out on Friday morning and discovered that the work crew had started much earlier than they've been showing up. On Thursday I had driven the dirt route through the Pine River State Forest to Granite, just to check it out. It's 17.7 miles as opposed to the usual 14 and change. It also includes a couple of stiff climbs on soft dirt and gravel, well rumpled by speeding motorists who have been using it during the bridge closure. It was still a shorter and better option than the Big Zig. Metaphorically I turned up my collar and slunk past Elm Street, hoping that no one noticed me.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there's another option in the PRSF as well: a snow machine trail. Because the junction is probably less than a mile into the dirt section, I figured it would save me some time even if I had to walk for half of it. Because there was still a gate and a trail sign, I figured it was okay that I hadn't brought my machete.
The road to Granite
The trail to adventure
The trail started out promisingly enough. The Cross Check isn't a great technical trail bike, being a tad steep and short for the real rough stuff, but that's not its main mission. It's a bike that will get you through a short stretch of the rough to connect to faster traveling surfaces.

Because I would only have to do this route on the morning half of a commute, most of it is downhill anyway. The surface is packed sand, held in place by some hardy grass -- except where it isn't. The ruts on the flatter bits and mild slopes were soft enough to make the bike wallow a little. On steeper slopes, the glacial till emerged: various-sized rocks, mostly rounded. Some larger embedded boulders or bits of ledge would have been no challenge for a mountain bike, even one from ancient times, with a rigid frame and fork and 26X2-ish tires. And, with gravity on my side, I just had to find the sweet speed to flow through it with only a few sudden swerves and dabs when the front tire dropped into a soft spot.

The river looked cool and peaceful.

On the other side of the river, the trail split. I remembered the old route that climbed up onto the esker behind the gravel pit there. I could hear the machinery of the pit. The trail had been rerouted along the base of the esker. Bearing in mind that I was already running behind schedule, I debated whether to take the easier new route. Snow machine riders are just out to have fun. They aren't on a schedule to get to a specific destination. This new section could meander all over the place, and maybe never emerge where the old route did. I needed to come out where the trail used to come out, so I could get onto Duncan Lake Road and out to Route 16 near Route 28. As bad as the old trail looked -- and it looked really bad -- I had to go that way.

The grade was a lot steeper and longer than I remembered. But then I remembered that I had almost always ridden the trail the other way, so I was descending this hell run. I do not know anyone who could have -- or would have -- ridden this climb. I dismounted and trudged over the washed out mess of rocks, overhung with tree branches. Even the fairly level top of the esker was hard to ride because of fallen trees and limbs, and slick rocks from the previous day's rain showers and the unending humidity of this summer.

The new route rejoined at the descent. The trail wasn't much better than the abandoned route, because the till underlies everything and emerges wherever the surface is disturbed.
At the bottom of this descent the trail joins a dirt road. On a mountain bike, take a left to stay on the technical trail. On the adventure commute, take a right to get to Duncan Lake Road.

 Back on the regular route it was the usual hammer to get to work. The total was just over 16 miles, and did cut out the unnecessary elevation gain going up to Granite and coming back down again, so it saved more than a mile and a half, and probably at least 15 minutes.

Elapsed time depends on how the motor is feeling that day. You don't use a bike for transportation in a rural area unless you really like riding. I love not having a car in Wolfeboro, but I work harder than the average person to get there. It certainly won't work for everyone. But as long as it works for me I'm saving a parking space for someone who needs it.

Monday, July 20, 2020


One morning a while back, I was just entering the bendy bit on Route 28, between the boat museum and Birch Hill Estates Road on my way to work when I heard a large truck behind me. I don't mean tractor trailer size, but certainly a heavy-duty pickup. I was cookin' along pretty well, but the road rises as it enters a right bend. I tried to keep cooking, but I'm old and tired. At the crest, I coasted to let the truck go by. It had done an exemplary job of waiting. I wasn't even closing the lane. Then it did an exemplary job of passing: nice and wide, quickly but not ripping.

The vehicle looked like one that would not exhibit such tolerance and coexistence. It was a supersize pickup with dual rear wheels and an exhaust pipe you could fit your head in. It was LOUD. But the driver did not accentuate the loudness or blow smoke.

The back window was full of stickers I knew I didn't want to read. This keeps happening: they're destroying the country, but being nice to a bike rider. The majority of such vehicles behave inexplicably decently around me. But not all.

More recently, as I rode in a part of Center Street where the storm drains had all been dug out prior to some repaving that never seemed to happen, I was covering the lane so that I wouldn't get herded into one of those pit traps. A pickup truck forced its way past me, playing chicken with oncoming vehicles as large as his own. The centerpiece of his window sticker collection was a nearly life size white silhouette of a militarily-styled semi-automatic rifle. It was surrounded by the usual gallery of rattlesnakes on a yellow background and other proclamations of warlike proclivity. My tires passed an inch from the dropoff into a particularly nasty and intrusive drain pit, while the side of his truck nearly brushed my shoulder. He behaved exactly as appearances would suggest.

That which does not kill me can be drafted, at least briefly. On that day I couldn't take full advantage because the pavement ahead had been grooved and the features formerly known as manholes were now sticking up in a random pattern over the next eighth of a mile or so. Sometimes I can work my way through the side streets to come out on Main Street ahead of hotheads like that, but not this time. Either he went south or we missed connections some other way. It's just as well.

Vehicles overtaking are a surprise package. Even with a mirror you can't tell much. You don't really know what you're going to get until you're getting it. Most of the time it's pretty routine, especially once you get used to formation flying with them. We really depend on our faith that today is not the day. Better times and places may be coming, but in the meantime we still have to get where we're going now.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Internal cable routing is better

Bike frames are built to withstand pedaling forces, cornering forces, and road shock. These all impact the structure in sort of broad, general ways. Cable forces put point loads on very small areas of the frame. They're not huge forces, but the strength required to hold up to them is quite different from the more distributed stress of being a bicycle. 

Internal cable routing may seem like a needlessly complicated answer to a relatively trivial problem of air drag -- because it is -- but it also strikes me as a better way to load the carbon fiber frame, compared to attaching external cable stops. Because I don't build my life around the latest technology, I may have missed a memo on this. I focus on the annoyance of working on things that I can't see and can't reach. Belatedly I realized that it's probably easier and stronger to make reinforced entry and exit holes than it is so attach external anchor points.

A few years ago, Specialized road bikes even came with instructions not to pull on the external cables to seat the housings as we would with metal frames with welded cable stops. The stops on these carbon frames could pop off if pulled outward. External stops on all carbon bikes displayed various ways to reinforce the bond, including little pop rivets.

It's still a pain in the ass. If it went away I would not miss it.

On metal frames, holes may be a liability. Back in the 1990s I found cracks in an aluminum Klein frame at the entry hole for an internally routed brake cable. Aluminum being aluminum, this represented a potentially terminal condition. There seemed to be no good way to stop the crack from spreading in the thin metal, at least not with the skills and equipment available in our shop. The owner seemed angry at us for finding it. But to know is to be responsible. We couldn't just let him ride on it without knowing his risk.

Not every shop agrees. A customer brought in a Dahon folding bike to get a flat tire fixed. He complained that he had taken the bike to a shop where he lives, to get tuned up and have the tubes replaced. The shop did the tuneup, but didn't do the tires. As he went on at some length, he mentioned that the other shop had told him there was a hairline crack in the head tube. Without explaining the dangers of abrupt catastrophic failure in aluminum, they took his money for the tuneup and told him to "keep an eye on it."

The bike had been fitted with a very tall stem riser, atop a very short head tube.
Leverage is an amazing thing. The "hairline" crack was not hard to find.
We refused to work on his bike and advised him to junk it. Considering that we left him with the flat tire, he wasn't likely to jump on it soon.

Next up was a brake bleed on a mountain bike. There are two kinds of bleed: the classic removal of air from the line, and the more medieval leeching of excess fluid when someone filled the system without resetting the pistons first, leading to hot-weather lockups. This bike only needed the latter, which was nice. But some idiot somewhere had cut the rear brake line so short that I don't know why the rider hasn't torn it loose just making a tight turn, or in a mild crash that yanks the bars around.

I could go on, but the morning is evaporating quickly, and a long queue of repairs is still piled up at work.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

I haven't sold a bike since 1992

The fun started to go out of the bike business with the arrival of index-only shifting systems in 1990. For a couple of years we could get top-mount shifters with friction option for mountain bikes. We took pride and pleasure in converting bikes back to the versatility and true freedom of friction shifting. But then supplies ran out, and all we could do was sort through the proprietary horseshit being dumped on us to find the least worst. I quit selling bikes and started just letting people buy them. I wanted no part in describing much of what we were forced to offer as "improvements."

Proprietary shifting systems were just the first wedge. Even before index-only systems, Shimano and Suntour used slightly different cog spacing, and other factors to enforce customer loyalty/entrapment. However, you could sometimes fudge something together using a merger of parts that worked well enough. And the friction option eliminated all issues except chain width. Chain width became a non-issue if you used a Sedisport chain, which you would want to do anyway. This was true until the advent of 9-speed, anyway. Manufacturers shifted their competitive aggression to other factors.

I thought about this yesterday as it took me hours to replace cables and housings on a Specialized Roubaix. All cables run internally. The customer wanted everything changed. To change shift cables, you have to run a sleeve over the old cable before unthreading it, to guide the new cable properly through the inaccessible interior of the frame. Because the rider wanted new housing, I had to untape the handlebar. Because he wisely heeded our advice to upgrade to 5mm housing, I had to change the in-line tension adjuster on the front derailleur cable, which is made to fit only 4mm.

Four millimeter shift housing is like deliberately constricting your tendons.

The brake housing was continuous, meaning that the housing itself disappears into the frame and emerges all the way back on the chainstay next to the rear disc brake caliper. The segment is so short and the bend so tight that I had to remove the caliper from the frame to get the housing out of it. This was partly because the ferrule was corroded into the cable adjuster, but also because the emergent section was so short. The section also aims upward, inviting water to wick its way into the housing. The cable I removed was rusty in that area.

To feed new housing, you first want to feed a new cable, and then extract the housing, so that you can feed the new housing up the new cable. Using the old cable you run the risk that the cable will fray as you feed the housing up it, snarling everything in the inaccessible darkness.

This is complete bullshit. The supposed advantages of internal cable routing are utterly meaningless to the average rider, even the average racer. How many non-professional, casual participants have ever lost a crit -- or even a road race -- because of the air drag on their externally-routed shift and brake wires? For that matter, in most amateur time trials, you'll have the Richie Riches who own dedicated TT bikes and then you'll have everyone else doing their best on whatever they have.

Racers will race on whatever they can get. When a competition involves a machine, a competitor will want the best machine, hopefully better than anyone else's machine, to get an unfair advantage. This drives technological innovation, leading to ever-evolving rules about what's allowed. A new advantage rapidly becomes the new norm. All it does, most of the time, is make the machines more expensive and harder to work on.

The Roubaix had looked pretty new when I started on it, but I soon realized that it was merely suspiciously clean. I suspected that the owner is a hoser. This turned out to be the case. The corroded bits were not from exposure to the weather, they were from exposure to misguided care. Do not clean your bike with flowing water. This is especially true with internal cable routing and other modern stylistic embellishments that look protective but aren't.

The bike has Specialized's Future Shock suspension. The rider had thought that the headset needed adjustment, but he was feeling crunchiness in the shock absorber mounted in the steerer tube. When I disassembled that collection of nesting parts held together with small bolts, I found rust in the parts that seemed well protected inside the frame. The shock uses a design similar to Cannondale's Headshok, with needle bearings riding on flat strips of metal. It's protected from above by a rubber boot, but water can seep in below the plastic cover that sits like a little rain hat over the frame at the head tube.
The boot only seals the top, but water comes from all directions. Put this bike on a roof rack and drive 60 miles per hour in a rainstorm. Clean it with a hose, high pressure or not. Water finds a way. I opened up the mechanism enough to get some oil into the needle bearings. That smoothed things out a bit.

On the other end of the shop, Torin was working on two obsolete Cannondale mountain bikes, one with a Lefty fork, and one with a Fox F100 fork fit with a reducing headset into the oversize Cannondale head tube. Both bikes were old enough to have 26-inch wheels.

The F100 fork has a leaky seal. It dates from the period in which we were seeing no mountain bike customers, so were paying little attention to the state of the art.  Our most active riders were all into road bikes at the time, and our most numerous customers were looking for hybrids and comfort bikes for the expanding system of recreation paths in the area. Finding parts looks like yet another treasure hunt. We'll pass on that. The suspension guru from a shop that enthusiastically served mountain bikers in Alton is now working at a shop in Concord. I have no problem handing off a problem to an expert in the field. As for the Lefty, only a Cannondale dealer can service that. We've been able to get some parts from Cannondale Experts, but we don't have the latest tools and factory support.

I said I haven't sold a bike since 1992, but that's not strictly true. Whenever possible I have sold bikes that combine some genuine improvements with the traditional simplicity and longevity of bikes from the mid and late 20th Century. They don't have complicated and inconvenient convenience features, or bulbous, modernistic frames. They're too sensible to be popular. Mostly they come from Surly, but there are other sources, like Rivendell.

Whenever someone says to me that their bike is 20 or 30 years old and they feel like they should get rid of it and get a nice new one, I tell them to let me have a look at it first. If it's a nice old bike in good shape, I tell them to invest in a few modern touches that improve on the simplicity rather than a whole new bike that obliterates it.

If someone wants a technical mountain bike or anything else excruciatingly "categorized" I nudge them toward their own research and let them pick their own poison. I'll assemble it, maintain it (for a price), and repair it to the best of my ability and the industry's indulgence, but I won't recommend anything.