Monday, October 25, 2021

What if your wheel collapsed?

 Back around 1980, a once-promising racer in the Maryland scene supposedly had lost a lot of his nerve when his low spoke count front wheel folded up in a sprint, sending him down from 30 to zero in the length of his own body. For you metric users, that's 48 to zero in less than two meters. When the front wheel disappears, the glide path is pretty abrupt.

Back then, low spoke count could mean 28, or maybe 24, and lightweight spokes were called "piano wires." I wasn't around before this rider had that crash, so I never knew him at his best. He was still plenty strong and skillful, but pretty good is not good enough for national-level competition. In a strong district, it isn't even good enough for regional prominence. You have to be willing to ride to die. On top of that, you need the genetics and the training to have the motor just to stay with a field of top riders. Anything that makes you the least bit hesitant is going to cripple you.

Nasty crashes can happen to anyone, for a wide variety of reasons. Equipment failure is not limited to high performance equipment built to thin margins of safety. On the plus side, incipient equipment failures can be detected by inspecting a bike regularly. Sometimes these failures make themselves obvious, as with previous cases of spontaneous spoke or nipple failure I've reported here.

The worst case scenario is that someone hops on their recreational bike that's been sitting in storage and pedals away without noticing that a couple of spokes have failed, and manages to get up to a moderate speed -- down a hill for instance -- before the wheel folds up. Of the two, a rear wheel is only slightly preferable, since it's not going to lead directly to a face plant. You'll still hit the ground abruptly and hard. Fortunately, most of the time, other issues will prompt a person to bring their bike in for a check up before they go out, or will stop them early in their shakedown cruise, as rusted chain links or some other drive train interference make the bike to hard to ride.

One case of spoke failure this summer showed up on a Schwinn recreational bike with an internally-geared hub. It had a couple of broken spokes. This can happen in storage if something gets shoved into the bike, or it can happen when several bikes are stacked on a rack on a car, or in a crowded parking situation, or a crash.

Closer examination revealed that the spokes had simply come apart. Every spoke in the wheel was banded with rings of rust that had eaten most of the way through them, except for the ones that had already disintegrated.

If you look closely, you can see a piece of spoke at an angle, impersonating a normal bend. You could crumble these spokes in your hand, into little fragments. They had no tensile strength at all.

With the current problems getting parts, my only choice was to respoke the wheel with a different cross pattern to match the lengths of spokes available. It went from three-cross to four-cross, which will just provide a cushier ride. I built my first touring wheels four-cross because it was supposed to be better for long hauls at moderate speeds, with a load. It was all right. I've had to depart from basic three-cross on other occasions as well. It's all legit. I generally don't go below three-cross except by customer request.

Stripped down, the hub felt like something you could use to train for the shot put. It weighs 4 1/2 pounds.

My wife, who competed in the shot put as part of her track and field career in school, informed me that the women's shot is almost nine pounds, and the men's is 16. But we could have a "hub put" category added to the Huffy Toss if we ever have a bike shop field day. Regulation weight could be whatever we say. This hub was still a hefty handful. Holding it up to load the spokes, my arm started to get pumped.

Within a day or two, another wheel job came in and I reflexively wrote it up for respoking, even though we could have replaced the wheel with a complete pre-built wheel. This is another example of how cheap labor has led to replacing rather than rebuilding something because parts and labor cost more than a new unit of low to modest quality.  In the wheel department, this is nothing new. My friend in Florida worked as a contract wheel builder in the 1970s, paid by the piece. I don't know if any US supplier uses American workers for that sort of thing anymore. She also wasn't trying to support herself on the income. It was supplemental in a variety of gig jobs, in a duo with her talented and enterprising husband before he finished his aircraft mechanic certifications.

The wheel I built was better than mass-produced, and it saved a complete wheel for someone who might need it more. It's good to stay in practice. I'd observed early in the season that people don't have much use for wheel builders anymore, and promptly started getting wheel repairs and complete builds.

A conventional build doesn't take too long, which might make it seem cheap and easy, but you do need to know how to make it efficient as well as quick. Proper tensioning takes most of the building and truing time. That's the part that takes experience. It's easy to get into trouble by rushing the tensioning phase. 

Novice builders will make two common mistakes: go for lateral trueness before roundness, and stop with too little tension once the wheel is as close to perfectly true as they can get it. After they've had a few of their creations develop the wobblies because of inadequate tension, they might move on to the intermediate mistake of too much tension. You can buy a tensiometer to check whether tension is sufficient and even, but after a while you will develop a feel for it by squeezing and by how the spoke wrench feels when you turn it. Check your calibration with the tensiometer occasionally.

A big part of the cost of custom wheel building is that we only get parts at wholesale, whereas most mass-production builders get a price that is at least one tier lower, and probably even better than that. They can take a margin on parts and labor that compensates them well, and still undercut us for the same parts on the same build pattern. When we have unrestricted access to supplies, we will often spec a pre-built wheel that matches what we would have done anyway. Reputable production suppliers have become pretty good at spitting out consistently acceptable wheels. And if you want something tweaky and modern, super light and fashionable, you will have to buy complete wheels. If you want something a little more tailored, based on rim width or a preferred brand, then you have to find someone to put that together for you.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Keep your fingers out of your hole

 Whatever else might be dictated by manufacturers, like shifting systems, bottom brackets, and suspension, the human butt remains stubbornly immune to standardization. The saddle section of the parts catalog has as much -- or more -- variety as ever. Wide ones, skinny ones, hard ones, squishy ones... I mean the saddles, not the tushies.

And of course it goes beyond the buns. There's all that tender stuff that t'ain't going quietly if the saddle is a bad fit.

Saddles with "relief" have been around as long as saddles. That feature has almost become automatic in modern saddles, made of mostly synthetic materials that deteriorate in a matter of months to a few years, depending on initial quality, exposure to the weather, and intensity of use.

You do your best to find what fits your particular specifications. In my case, it was the Avocet Racing II in 1980, which was basically the same as the Selle Italia Turbo. Avocet went away, but Selle Italia remained. But the Turbo faded out, replaced by lighter models that I never developed a relationship with. About the time I couldn't scrounge new old stock Turbos, the model was reintroduced as a retro thing. I snapped one up as soon as I saw it. It turned out to be made of flimsier materials than the original, and I was already able to wear out originals.

Along came the Brooks Colt. The Colt in 2013 was a re-issue of the original that Brooks had offered in the era of the Avocet II and the Turbo, as a similar shape with the legendary durability of real leather. I noted in the months that followed that the saddle did develop indentations where my weight was heaviest on it, which led to a central ridge. Strategic softening of the leather and adjustment of the angle made it manageable, but it was not exactly comfortable a lot of the time. During this summer, I decided it was time to try a relieved saddle.

Brooks offers the B-17 with a cutout, so I got one. The basic B-17 is wider than I have liked, but I could get it for wholesale. And with current shortages of all sorts of components, I felt fortunate to be able to get anything.

It did not feel too wide when I first sat on it. Other saddles, no wider, but shaped differently, have felt totally wrong. The racier saddles can be uncomfortable when I ride at slower speeds, because they don't provide as much support when I'm riding more upright.

When you ride a saddle that is too wide for your bone structure, you get squeezed forward onto the narrower part of the saddle. The bun dents on the Colt indicated a good fit on the wide part of it.

I may put it back on, or move it to another bike after I reform it and condition the leather so that it's soft where I want it to be, but still maintains its shape.

For the first ride with the B-17, I rode to the CSA pickup with the BOB trailer. 

Might as well knock off two objectives at once. And pulling the load meant some heavier exertion on climbs, but also low-speed cruising in a more upright position.

For the CSA runs, I put a pair of black nylon cargo shorts over my tight bike shorts, just to look a little more normal among the other patrons loading their shopping bags with their shares of the produce. Because of the padding in the bike shorts and the extra layer of the outer shorts, I couldn't be quite sure where I was on the saddle relative to that cutout. Coasting along on a bit of an easy grade, I tried to reach in under the saddle to feel up through the cutout to figure out whether it was actually under the trouble zone. That's when my fingers got stuck between the seat rails where they narrowed toward the front of the saddle. I had a tense few moments as I extricated my digits. I laughed at the image of myself in a crumpled heap in the ditch, with my broken fingers jammed in the seat rails under my crotch. Explain that at the emergency room.

I had also wondered about what might get caught from above in the various slots or holes in relieved saddles. I grew up in small sailboats, where we used these things called "jam cleats." Jam cleats have v-shaped slots in them, in which one jams a dangling rope end to secure it. There are other forms with spring-loaded cams, but the simple basic type with no moving parts is a common fixture. I could imagine the notched or cutout seat acting as a jam cleat for anything that might chance to dangle. And, at the end of my ride, back at home with the loaded trailer, my overshorts did jam momentarily in the cutout as I tried to dismount.

Having logged a  bunch of commutes on the B-17, I do notice the width of it on the downstroke. So far, it does not seem to be pushing me forward, which would alter my position over the pedals and also push me forward of the cutout, negating its usefulness. Brooks does make a relieved version of the B-17 Narrow, but I couldn't get that one for wholesale. But the top on the Narrow saddle is flatter than the Colt was, which might make the uncarved version break in without forming a ridge.

Brooks makes molded-shell versions in their "all-weather" line, but then you're back in the realm of laminated materials that wear away.

Sunday, October 03, 2021

Bikes are like cars now

 Our energetic trail builder has been forging alliances all around the region for the ambitious vision of turning Wolfeboro into a unique destination for mountain biking. He recently met the owner of a prominent shop in neighboring Maine, who told him that the pandemic had provided a great opportunity to start nudging service prices up to "where they should be."

This shop owner starts from the laudable goal of paying his staff a good, livable wage. To earn this, the technicians are certified to do suspension work, provide full service to electric bicycles, and any other credentials that will look good in a simple black frame on the waiting room wall. He described it as similar to taking your car to an auto service center, where the people all wear neat jump suits and have documented training. "And you pay for that," my friend said.

And you pay for that. Thing is, the best car service I have ever gotten has been from a hard-drinking, independent genius whose shop uniform may start the day clean, but ends up fully grimed by the time he knocks off somewhere between 8 p.m. and 1:00 the next morning. You'll never find him there before noon. He's semi-nocturnal, because it suits his biorhythms and he finally gets some uninterrupted hours when the phone doesn't ring and people don't drop in on him. He has some certificates hanging crooked on the grubby walls of his waiting area, which is mostly a place for his dog to lounge. The fancy service place isn't just charging for competence and your best interests. They're charging for the jump suits and the spiffy building and the cheerful person who checks your vehicle in, and the ones who answer the phone.

I can see both sides. I hate having to interrupt a tricky bit of mechanical work to answer an insistently ringing phone or launch a party of bike renters or just answer casual questions from someone who hopes to impersonate a customer long enough to be able to ask to use our restroom. I would love to make more money and achieve respect for my knowledge and ability. But I also remember when bikes were a vehicle of true independence. If you want to invest in more and more expensive tools, and learn how to service the more and more temperamental and complicated mechanisms of the modern super bike, you may still achieve a measure of independence. But because of the complexity, and the perfect precision with which all the pieces have to work together, your freedom only lasts as long as someone can make you the parts that fit your particular marvel of modern engineering. It misses the point of the bicycle entirely.

We've gotten used to the idea that a car is old when it's been on the road for three years. People do hold onto them for longer than that, or buy them used from the first owner who loses patience, interest, or trust after three years. The used car owner then holds onto it for another three years before handing it on to the next level of owner, who can't afford to buy anything fresher, and puts up with the increasing eccentricities of an aging vehicle. Eventually the car is too degenerated to function anymore, and gets scrapped. But the system has evolved around motor vehicles to provide the parts it needs at all of these stages. My used car is a 2003. When I got it I felt warm and happy because it wasn't too old and hadn't been driven hard. But the years sneak by, and suddenly it's 17 or 18 years old, and it's been driven by me. But I can still get it fixed. Something will finally break that dooms it. Maybe by then I'll be working for The Dream Shop in Wolfeboro, earning a livable wage, so I can buy a newer old piece of junk to pilot through my declining years.

This is the vision of the crowd that wants riders to pay like drivers. There's already a bit of a used bike progression, but because parts support isn't there for obsolete high-tech bikes, the used buyer of a formerly cutting-edge bike depends a lot more on luck to get any use out of the investment before something breaks that dooms it.

Your odds are better buying a 30-year-old bike than a 10-year-old bike, or even a five-year-old bike. They're even better buying a 40-year-old bike. For instance, I just changed the gearing on this 40-year-old Motobecane road bike, to give the rider the lower gearing of a compact crank and a wider range freewheel.

I'd done the rear derailleur and freewheel earlier in the year. The other parts weren't available yet. The crank is a 74-110 arm set offered by Quality Bike Products under their Dimension house label. The rings -- bought separately -- happen to be ramped and pinned for easier shifting, but the rider is used to flat rings, and shifts in friction, so there are no clicks to coordinate. The inner ring says "for ten speed only," meaning the current version, with a skinny chain and ten cogs in the back. I had to use spacers on the chainwheel bolts to set the ring over properly for the 6-speed chain. If or when he replaces the ring later, maybe we can get a thicker one and ditch the spacers. The whole job took a fraction of the time needed to rebuild the brake lever and caliper on a mountain bike, or replace suspension pivots, or chase down electrical gremlins.

The down side to simple bikes is that the work still takes skill and art, but the machines are so starkly simple that customers don't respect the people who work on them for a living. They don't want to do the work themselves, but they assume any idiot can do it. Therefore, you must be an idiot. Many days, I agree with them. I didn't get into bikes because I wanted to work on bikes. I got into bikes because anyone could learn, and bikes offered a great alternative for a world already getting smothered in asphalt and choking on fumes 50 years ago. Emission standards improved the fume situation somewhat, but the proliferation of pavement and the culture of haste have only gotten worse. And the emissions ignored by the standards are destroying the climate itself. Widespread adoption of the bicycle by those who could, aided by a societal resolve to support that alternative, would have bought us more time to work on the traffic systems and polluting output of the motor vehicles we still legitimately needed. I would much rather sell tools and parts, and share knowledge, than clean up someone's crappy, abused piece of junk or touch my cap and bob my head respectfully to the squire when he brings his immaculate machine for me to fine tune and polish.

People can break their bikes in more profound ways than the local auto service center will see in the cars that people bring to them. Because the whole mechanism is exposed, it's all vulnerable. I don't see how a flat rate book can account for stuff like the twisted wad of this derailleur:

This rider didn't just shove it in or pedal hard enough to yank it up in the back. He rode it all the way around the dropout, making a full wrap with the chain and cable.

With the trail system and the Dream Shop fantasy, its supporters believe that if you build it, riders will come, and bring business with them. But that also assumes that the consumerist, privileged lifestyle of expensive toys ridden by highly paid people with both the leisure time and the temperament to play that way will survive much longer in the economic and social adjustments being forced on us by our decades of unwillingness to enact incremental changes to head off the problems that are now boiling over. In my research on some other service topic I found a guy's blog post from the beginning of the pandemic shutdown, about trying to make an "apocalypse-proof bike." If it has suspension and a complicated shifting system, it ain't apocalypse-proof. You want a real apocalypse-resistant bike, build yourself a fixed-gear. Find a frame with long horizontal dropouts so you can stack cogs that will allow you to get off and shift manually among a small selection of maybe four gears, tops. You'll need a two-sided hub.

The trail builder wants to build a little Bentonville North, with trails for all abilities, including completely non-technical path riders. It still ignores the real-world transportation cyclist. We have to dream our own dreams and live in the real world, negotiating our way among the indifferent majority. I guess their nod to the transportation cyclist on the open streets is the e-bike section of the service department, because the only way bikes are going to become popular is if they are actually motor vehicles. And you'll pay for that.

Friday, October 01, 2021

I'm not a doctor...

Stock photo: syringe shown is for mineral oil. Organic cotton mask by Graf Lantz. Not surgically approved.
Before I had to work with hydraulic brakes a lot, I didn't really know how to get the air out of a syringe correctly. When I would get an injection from a doctor, I didn't watch the procedure closely. Never stop learning! I'm not a doctor, but I play one in the workshop.

Yesterday's hydraulic fluid surgery had me rebuilding the lever and caliper of a SRAM Guide RS brake. Not only was the lever piston stuck in the characteristic way, but the caliper pistons were stuck. Water gets into the brake system in various ways. Oxidation and corrosion can follow. The glycol-based fluid SRAM uses absorbs water, so it is distributed evenly throughout the system. That reduces the effects of undiluted water pooling in a low spot, but does decrease braking power steadily, as the percentage of water increases and the boiling point of the fluid gets lower.

At least it was a front brake.

On the Lefty fork, you have to remove the brake caliper to unbolt the wheel from the axle. You should remove the wheel when working with brake fluid, to avoid contaminating the rotor. I was removing the whole brake anyway, because it had to be taken apart.

You can't start a job until the parts arrive, so that put me a bit behind schedule. The customer had hoped for the bike that day. It had been hanging in the shop for about a week, but we needed to get parts. They're lucky that the parts were available. Then nothing went according to the basic printed instructions or cheerful YouTube video tutorials, because every piston that needed to come out was jammed tightly in. I had to reassemble the caliper and put a spacer in, wrap the whole thing in a thick cushion of rags, and blast it with compressed air. That brought out three of the four pistons with varying degrees of willingness, but left one of them stubbornly buried. I had to reconfigure the spacer to hold the other pistons back a bit and leave space for the one holdout to expand into when it was finally willing. This took several tries.

The lever piston was also not responding. Compressed air doesn't help there, because the pressure vents into the upper reservoir of the lever rather than going full force against the recalcitrant piston. In that case, you can just clamp an old spoke in the vise, pointing straight up, insert it into the little hole where the brake line was connected, and tap the lever body down with a rubber mallet to dislodge the old piston. Feel free to damage that. It's not going back in. Just don't hit the lever body very hard with anything, and certainly not a metal hammer. Also be careful not to score the inside of the cylinder with the spoke end. It's pretty well guided by the size of the hole it's fed through, but if you get angry or frisky when hammering it could bend and give you worse problems than you already had. A scored cylinder will not seal, even if it just looks like a scratch. Hydraulic systems are very unforgiving.

After the tedious process of disassembly, the caliper halves and lever body need to be cleaned and inspected. Then all the new parts need to be installed cleanly and without excessive force. With the caliper pistons in particular, you're working blind once you go to shove the piston in, so you take it on faith that the seal stayed in place. There's quite a bit of resistance, because the seals have to hold sufficient pressure to stop a rider and bike going hell-bent down a rough slope. They're squared off and fit into a squared-off recess in the caliper half, but in a worst case you might fold one over partway. Once it's mangled, it's done.

The component on the bench never seems to look exactly like the examples in the manual. You have to determine whether the difference makes a difference. Are these the right instructions for this version of a component that may have been manufactured for a couple of years with the same model name and superficial appearance, but actually have critical differences inside that are not made obvious by any marking you can readily see? In that case, you may have ordered the wrong parts kit as well. The differences this time were not enough to stop the job.

Once the caliper was back together I had to assemble the lever. The current parts kit includes things that this old lever didn't use, but they were trivial. Still, getting a lively new piston in was fiddlier than getting the stuck old one out. The return spring on it fought hard against the insertion of a washer and spring clip that hold it in its proper position so that the little push rod on the cam that the lever actuates can do its thing, and all the magic juice stays in. You're working in the narrow interior of the lever body, to try to cram the spring clip at least far enough that you can coax it the rest of the way by pressing it with some object that gets it to snap into its little recess and properly engage. Except that it doesn't really snap, it just sort of stops and you have to keep peering in there with a light that you keep blocking with your own face as you try to align the light beam and your sight line to sort of confirm that you're pretty sure you've got it. That sums up almost all work on the most modern bike crap.

After successfully reassembling the whole brake, line and all, it was time to fill and bleed it. That's another fussy procedure that drips caustic brake fluid all over the place. Because it was a complete fill, there was a lot of air to chase out. The first go-round did not end with a firm lever feel. Because it always feels good on the bleed block you use to hold the caliper pistons back, you have to completely reinstall everything and test it with pads on the rotor to see if you've really got it. If not, the wheel comes out, the pads come out, the bleed block goes back in, you refill the syringes, hook everything up, perform the ritual again, and then reassemble to check, cleaning carefully as you go so that the brake fluid doesn't eat the paint on the bike or ruin the pads.

SRAM's instructions say to be sure to clean the brake fluid off of the lever and caliper, in part because the fluid's tendency to eat paint will remove the snazzy logos. Seriously? You guys have been working with this fluid -- by choice -- for how many years and you haven't come up with a way to apply the logos that's immune to it? Way to innovate.

It was well after official closing time when I left. It's bad luck to put any of the tools away when you're doing a brake bleed or a tubeless tire job until you're absolutely sure that it's a winner. I left the bike on the stand and the bleed kit strewn across the bench until I return today and make sure that no little air ninjas sneaked out of a crevice in the caliper.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Your safety is assured because I hate your bike

 Some customers have expressed gratitude over the years for my vigilance in finding things like frame and component cracks that could have led to catastrophic failures. These include cracks in suspension forks and other linkages, failing handlebars, and cracking rims.

The dark truth is, I take delight in finding fault in ultramodern tech weenie bikes and parts. The customer's safety just comes along for the ride. I would scrutinize their bikes in any case, looking for the satisfaction of a structural or functional failure that I know will be there. It's a wonderful affirmation. I don't mind benefiting humanity, but my real aim is to compile such a huge dossier of evidence against the overwhelming mass of stupid design and cynical gouging that has overtaken the bike industry since the 1990s that it finally creates a customer backlash that returns us to an ethic of durability. That would be the real service to humanity. Because that is doomed to failure, I'll take the small victories of one or two riders at a time preserved from disaster, or perhaps even converted to the path of durability and simplicity. It has happened, a rare few times, that riders have abandoned the NEW! and IMPROVED! offerings of the industry and returned to a saner form of the machine.

Older stuff fails, too. It always did. Some changes are actually improvements. We have to be patient with some evolution as an idea gets refined. For example, the threadless headset started as a way to get around the problem that the influx of new mechanics in the explosive rise of the mountain bike boom couldn't understand how a locknut works. They couldn't adjust hubs and they couldn't get headsets to stay tight. You could overlook the hubs until they got really bad, but the clunky loose headsets were right there in front of you. So someone came up with a fancy-sounding reason to clamp the stem around the steerer tube and set the bearing adjustment with a cap screw. Then they just had to teach the ham-fisted apprentices not to graunch down so hard on that top screw that they broke the bottom out of the plastic top cap. On the first models, the top cap was designed to fail like that so that the enthusiastic wrench grunt wouldn't crush the actual bearings when they overtightened the headset. Within a couple of years, this had changed and metal top caps became the norm. They were slimmer and stood up better to abuse. They looked sleeker, and could be printed or engraved with logos. 

One nice thing about the threadless headset for the self-propelled traveler was that you didn't need a big headset spanner to adjust or disassemble the headset. That meant one less large tool for the fully equipped tourist to carry in the bottom of a pannier, hoping not to need it. But threadless headsets created real difficulties changing the height of the bars. The devices developed to deal with that can be very clunky and inelegant.

Cassette hubs went through a period where they were a real improvement, too. During the brief time when you could get replacement cogs in any size, and the cogs were separate across the entire gear range, you could customize or repair a cassette at home or in a tent with only hand tools. And the freehub design does put the support bearings for the axle in a better position to support the drive side. Beyond that, though, the design of cassettes now has turned into another facet of technological enslavement. One article I read while researching bike gearbox transmissions in mountain bikes said, "External drivetrain owners who ride often might replace their chain, cables, and housing three or four times per year, and the chainring and cassette once annually. As those components wear and their precise angles begin to dull, performance suffers. The chain is pulled laterally across the cog teeth under heavy loads, and as dirt and debris are introduced the metal is essentially sanded away."

Great, more stuff sent to the landfill by a once ecologically supportive industry. And a 12-speed cassette sells for an average retail price of close to $100.

Customers I deal with are not expecting to replace their chain, cables, and housing three or four times a year, although they might choke down replacing the cassette and chainring annually. With internal cable routing and full-length housing, replacing those parts can add up to a hefty service bill just to have the fussy shifting mechanism returned to its original state of acceptable mediocrity passing for precision. They certainly won't believe me if I share this information with them, even though I would rather do something else with a couple of irreplaceable hours of my life than ferret out cables and housing from the mysterious interior of their overpriced toy.

Because bikes are toys, they're designed for people who can afford to play games. It's not about finding enjoyment and fulfillment in the necessary labors of transporting yourself. It's merely discretionary recreation. The players might wish that their toys held up better, but they always have the option to quit. In the meantime, companies that make stuff want to find ways to get people to buy it. Once someone is recruited from the sidelines, how do you get them to part with more and more coin to keep the company in business?

The more complicated things get, the more details can get overlooked. Even my own urge to scrutinize is overwhelmed by the volume of work and the external complications required to hunt down solutions to the problems we can readily identify. I also have to fight through an initial thick fog of disinterest, because I find nothing desirable about the bikes brought before me.

My scrutiny is more appreciative on designs I like. I want to preserve and protect a bike I respect. Since those are almost invariably older, they may have seen more miles. But because the designs are simpler they could be built a little stronger, because the weight budget didn't get spent on bulky index shifter mechanisms, disc brake calipers, suspension forks, and rear suspension assemblies. Road bikes of today don't delve too deeply into suspension, but they do have the weight of disc brakes and bulky shifters. The weight budget for those comes from the lighter frame and rim weight, but those definitely come at a cost. Not every piece of racing technology should trickle -- or deluge -- down upon the citizen rider just looking for a bit of sporty transportational fun.

When the oppression of proprietary shifting systems first descended on the biking world disguised as a great new convenience and a boon to all humanity, I treated their ills as any physician would when faced with a new disease. I wondered, as any plague doctor would, how long the scourge would last, and how many casualties it would take. It would have required a widespread customer revolt to stop the spread of it. We've all seen how unbelievably hard it is to get the vast majority of people to band together to take simple actions to stop a plague. Lots of people either don't think it's serious or see some advantage in it for themselves.

Unlike the current actual plague afflicting our species these days, the plague of proprietary bike systems really was manufactured by known entities intending to profit heavily from their scheme.

One company in particular seemed to lead the way, but the other big players, including at least one new entity whose product was originally derisively called "gripshit," followed along behind the marketing juggernaut that was convincing a large pool of new customers that they needed innovation.

Some changes were improvements, even some changes that I derided at the time, before I studied them more closely and the changes themselves evolved into something more standardized and less "Shimano-y." Like linear pull brakes.

Original V-brakes were complicated and notoriously noisy, with Shimano's "parallel push" linkage. The idea was well meant, but in typical fashion it was overkill for the actual problem of brake pad alignment at the rim on cantilever brakes. 

Parallel Push disappeared after a couple of years, and now linear pull brakes themselves have been scrapped in favor of the even more complicated and annoying disc brakes. 

Disc brakes are a good idea on mountain bikes, because they take vulnerable, bendable rims out of the braking system, but they generate their own complications because you have to keep the fluid where you want it and rigorously guard against getting it where you don't. Rotors bend easily. There are two types of fluid. Know yours and keep it faithfully, for I thy brake fluid am a jealous brake fluid. Or you can have cables for slightly less hassle, and much easier servicing, at the cost of some braking power and modulation.

When I rode the Vermont 50 in about 1998, on my fully rigid Gary Fisher with friction shifting (my choice), old-style cantilever brakes, triple crank, and a low gear of 24-28, I did not finish DFL. My lower mid field finishing position had nothing to do with my lack of a suspension fork and up-to-the-minute shifting, and everything to do with my sense of self preservation on the descents. I also lost precious time helping some idiot with a flat tire, because my buddy Ralph had busted my balls for being unsympathetic to someone who broke a Shimano chain in the Hillsboro Classic earlier in the year. And I blew time at the feed stops, admiring the views. Vermont is wicked scenic. But that was the olden days. Courses now are not designed around primitive bikes like my mutant Aquila. The mountain bikers of today are the ones we dropped on all the climbs back in the 1990s, or their philosophical descendants.  And descend they do.

In summary, my critical attitude -- to put it mildly -- toward most modern innovations serves the customer just as well as a deep affection for the same abusive partner we all have in the bike industry. You may be deep in the clutches of that abusive relationship, Stockholm-syndromed to the max, fully convinced that you're hooked into something you can't live without, and I will still do my best to protect you from the worst consequences of your addiction. Because this is capitalism, that comes at a price. You need to know the true cost of chasing down all the flaws behind the facade presented by the marketing department, because you pay in some way, sooner or later. Taking care of this crap is neither simple nor easy, despite what disparagement you may read about bike shops in online forums. It's a daily struggle to keep abreast of all the changes we never needed in the first place, while trying to maintain what was genuinely good in the face of industry neglect.

Monday, September 27, 2021

The only thing we have to fear is each other

 As the season of darkness settles on us in the northern hemisphere, bike commuters have to decide whether to continue or suspend their activities until the sun returns again. The biggest danger in night riding is the same as the biggest danger in daylight: motor vehicles.

Cycling is scary enough in full daylight. We hear all the time about riders injured or killed, often by drivers who evade prosecution by leaving the scene. Even if the offender is tracked down, the penalties for ending a cyclist or pedestrian's life are usually laughably mild. If you want to be reminded over and over again how cheap life is, just try to get around without an armored vehicle.

Just recently, a rider here in New Hampshire was killed by a hit-and-run driver. She was a retired police officer training for a benefit ride. As luck would have it, there was enough information from the scene for police to track down the driver and start putting together a case against him. The assault occurred around 10:30 in the morning. That should be prime time for drivers to be awake, aware, and observant. Last I saw, the maximum time he could serve in prison for killing someone in this way was seven years for negligent homicide. And who ever gets the maximum sentence? Maybe a cop killer will, but it still seems like way too little. And if she'd lived, paralyzed and incapacitated, the penalty would be less, because "thank God no one was killed."

Crashes occur. For the most part, operator error is to blame. Even if the cause is defective equipment, it's probably because someone wasn't maintaining the vehicle properly. Look at you own life and think about how many risks you have gotten away with over the years. I most definitely include myself. You get going, driven by a real or imagined sense of urgency, and your visual field narrows as your speed increases. We are remarkably good at making quick ballistic calculations on the fly, but when it fails it can fail spectacularly, as the accumulated risks all converge at once. The unintended consequence could be as mild as a bent fender or as grotesque as a pile of crushed and shattered vehicles, with brains and entrails splashed across the highway. Oopsie.

A bicyclist has no shell of metal, plastic, and glass to take the impact. Any contact tends to be a serious one for the cyclist, simply because of the size and mass of the vehicles involved. Even when cyclists hit each other, the ground is the next stop. There have been fatal crashes where only cyclists and their surrounding environment were involved. Cyclists have struck and killed pedestrians. On popular paths, conflicts are common, because the bicyclists and pedestrians directed there are not a placid herd of grateful plodders. They exhibit the full range of personalities, including the aggressive and the oblivious.

When I lived in a more urban environment, 1979 to 1987, I commuted by bike exclusively, because I did not have a car. The season of darkness is not as long and deep in Annapolis, Maryland, as it is in central New Hampshire, but I did have to ride in the dark a lot. I equipped the bike with the best lights I could get at the time, and I had no problems. But the built environment has a lot more ambient light at night. My commuting route changed as my residence and workplace shifted to different cross-sections of the general area, so sometimes I had short stretches of unlighted road, but they were also not busy at the time. Now all the roads are busy down there, and what were dark and empty stretches are obliterated by lighted sprawl.

Up here, my route is much longer and follows roads that are almost entirely unlighted. The longest part is on a two-lane rural highway with a narrow shoulder. Where it enters Wolfeboro it is narrower, with more bends, and no shoulder. I'm fortunate to live north of town. The route in and out of Wolfe City from the south is much nastier.

Coming out of town, when I will be in the dark in the fall and winter, I could use the Cotton Valley Trail for part of it, and I did, for several years. Before that was an option, and recently, since the pandemic made the trail crowded, I have ridden an indirect but safer route out of town, that bypasses the bendy bit of Center Street. Inbound on Center Street, drivers are compressing and slowing, which makes them more attentive to obstructions like a bike rider. Headed out of town, they're decompressing, speeding up, and have far less patience with some sweaty idiot interrupting their flow. Yes, they need some character education, but since it's unlikely to work, I choose not to do it with my flesh. I evade. However, I have to rejoin the route out where Route 28 assumes its highway configuration, with longer sight lines and a bit of shoulder. The only way I can completely evade the motoring public is to quit riding.

Park and ride options are contrived, because the only places to hang a car are off my direct route. Competition for parking increased when the pandemic sparked the boom in outdoor activities like biking and walking. And as winter deepens the parking places are not plowed out.  That may change as winter activities on the trail system developing around the Cotton Valley Trail expand, but then competition for parking increases even more. And an unattended vehicle may invite theft.

If the only challenges were weather and darkness, I would not hesitate to ride the whole route through much of the winter. Snow and ice make wheels impractical, but most winters are not completely snow covered from end to end, especially in recent years. I have studded tires for one of the bikes rigged for commuting. Without motorists, would there be any incentive to keep the roads clear? Maybe if bike transportation was the norm, or at least much more common, some sort of taxation method would fund road maintenance. Extra points if it didn't involve tons of corrosive substances to melt the ice. Cyclists already pay taxes, but if we were more major beneficiaries of the road network it would be reasonable to make sure that we paid an amount that addressed our actual strain on resources. And just rolling the snow to a firm, frozen surface would give non-fat studded tires a good enough grip. If it's softer than that I'd ski to work.

I've noted before that drivers seem to become more aggressive when cloaked by darkness. It didn't seem that way in Maryland, but it certainly seems that way here. The highway stretch is actually not as scary as Elm Street, which has some tight turns and undulating hills. Traversing the glacial plains, the topography isn't rugged, but it's not flat, either. The road makes a convenient connection to Route 16, so it funnels traffic from as far away as Maine. It's not bumper to bumper busy except on holiday weekends, when it seems to have become a popular bypass for drivers trying to get around backups on Route 16 southbound. Then they all jam up trying to get back out of Elm Street into the crawling southbound flow. At the hours that I use it, I only have the normal local traffic to deal with. But the sparse traffic contributes to the problem of motorist impatience.

In the darkness, motorists are blinding each other with their headlights as they charge toward each other in the narrow space. If it's only a couple of vehicles in each direction, they will endure a moment of tension as they try to negotiate the gap in the radiance of their dueling floodlights. Add a bike rider, and it's just too much to ask of poor drivers who have to put up with so much frustration in their lives.

Day or night, my riding style is heavily influenced by the competition for space on the road. I have never ridden in a place where motorists would peacefully accept a cyclist claiming lane space at a comfortable, relaxed pace. Years of riding will make you smoother, more efficient, and generally faster, but age takes its toll. In nature, you'd be the gazelle that gets dropped by the herd and provides dinner for the lions. Until that time, you develop your own style to keep friction at a manageable level. Riders who are scrappy and enjoy friction will ride in a way that they know will antagonize the motoring public. Or they might ride without regard to laws and conventions because they consider it a right of sorts, and accept the friction as part of the cost. I prefer to try to facilitate everyone's flow as much as I can without subordinating myself -- or cyclists in general -- to the motoring majority. There's a certain bending of the law that helps everyone to keep moving. It's not a zero-sum game. It's a negotiation.

Not everyone deals reasonably. The motorists hold the upper hand in a contest of force. A cyclist has no defense against someone unreasonable. Every driver around you has a personal set of rules that they're applying to you. It seems to me that one limit that some of them set is sunset. When I was much younger and faster, I would routinely ride the commute into October, with only marginal lights. I detected few hassles beyond the normal ones that come with riding on the roads. I carried less back then, and rode a lighter bike. But even then I shut the game down before mid October. I would push it until I could no longer pretend that I'd made it home before dark. Now, with really functional lights, but an older engine and a heavier bike, I would ride happily in the darkness, but it puts me into forbidden territory with these few but regular fellow road users on my route who have decided that I don't belong there after sundown. No alternate route avoids the worst part without a long detour. Is the living free worth the increased risk of dying? Any road cyclist who tells you that they don't think about the possibility of getting maimed or killed every time they go out is either lying or has no imagination at all.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Can't operate without the computer

 Modern fighter jets are designed for such extreme maneuverability that they are actually unstable in regular flight. It's an exaggerated example of the difference between a tight, steep racing road bike and a touring bike, but it's a similar principle. The machine designed for competitive -- or combative -- responsiveness isn't made for inattentive cruising. The pilot or rider provide the skill necessary to operate. And, in the case of the modern warbird, the pilot gets vital assistance from onboard computer systems that coordinate the constant stream of variables challenging smooth flight. That's starting to creep into the bike world as well, with computerized shifting helping to manage infuriatingly temperamental drive trains with 12 or 13 cogs squeezed together, pulled by a chain that has side plates as skinny as razor blades.

In the workshop we depend increasingly on the computer to keep track of the deluge of information about all the parts of all the different categories of bikes across decades. I spend hours a day looking up specs and procedures for suspension, shifting, and brake systems as they have evolved since the 1990s. The bike industry may have torn the rear view mirror off and nailed the throttle to the floorboard as they stare fixedly forward and roar into a sun-blinded futurescape, but here in the present, people are dragging in all sorts of things from the near and distant past, expecting that an expert in a professional bike shop will know how to bring them back to full functionality.

We try, because we know no better. And we succeed a good bit, because we have many allies. The trick is to find the true information in the uncurated jumble of anecdote and hearsay, to learn something you didn't know before, or refresh your memory about something that got buried under a couple of tons of newer crap.

I resent it. Knowledge used to flow at a human pace. The industry might have seemed to plod, but it suited the pace of human propulsion. Technolemmings will disagree, of course, but no one can deny that we all still push the pedals with the same power that we always have. Some super-trainers and the pharmaceutically enhanced can push harder for a time. Some riders have paid for electrical assistance. Strip away those props and you're left with the same old sweaty grunt grinding away at the cranks.

Information is not knowledge. No one can possibly have experience with all of the things we're expected to know about as lowly bike technicians. Anyone who rides enough in all categories to have a depth of relevant experience in all of them won't have time to have a job, especially a job like fixing bikes. And someone who earns a living fixing bikes won't be able to afford decent bikes in all categories. And so we turn to that flaming dumpster of all human knowledge, the Internet, to hunt down enough verifiable information to keep treading water in the flood of products.

For many years, I could analyze a system by looking at it. Now that is no longer true, particularly with shifting systems. The stupid idea that all the gears should be in the back, and that the cassette should span from 10 or 11 to 50 or 52 teeth has led to mutant derailleurs sensitive to angle adjustment errors of a millimeter or two. There is no fudge factor and there is no ability to improvise. Cassettes don't come apart to allow custom gearing or individual cog replacement. The industry inexorably blocks off every avenue except the One True Path of their proprietary products.

 I do believe that the future of mountain bike gearing lies in enclosed gearboxes, like motorcycles have. Derailleur systems are wonderfully simple and durable for people who want to ride a bicycle in a traditional way, even if they venture onto some unpaved roads and mild trails. But mountain biking in its current style, as a ride to nowhere, looking for entertaining features like a cross between motocross, parkour, and miniature golf, is too rough on a derailleur system. So far, the gearbox designers have not come up with a generic shape that will fit any frame, so mountain biking gets even closer to motorcycling in the sense that bikes will be more completely committed to manufacturer support. It's a step backward to very early times, when bikes were made in little factories all over the place, by machinists who made every part in house and advertised the virtues of their specific approach. The idea of cross-brand interchangeability evolved later. It broadened the appeal and versatility of the bicycle to allow a rider to venture far from the source and still have a chance to find service and repair parts. But it also hampered designers who wanted to start from a basic set of needs or desires and design to meet them, independent of existing constraints.

Gearbox transmissions highlight the difference between a human engine and a mechanical one. The "clutch" is provided by the human rider letting up on the pedals to allow the gears to complete a shift. Test riders have complained that this interrupts their rhythm and can break momentum unacceptably on steep climbs or in technical passages. So for now we're stuck with the weird derailleur systems that will shift under load and are lighter in weight, and throw money and time at them to keep them operating in the hamster wheel of modern mountain biking.

Meanwhile, it gets harder and harder to maintain a good old derailleur-geared bike with a double or a triple crank, adult-sized chainrings, and a cassette that doesn't have a low-gear cog the size of a manhole cover and a high gear cog the size of a nickel. We go to the computer again for that, even if only to compare our different vendors to see who has what, and compare prices, like the $40 (retail) 74X28 chainring versus the same size ring from another vendor, that would retail for half of that. We're headed toward scrounging the scrap heap for nearly everything, on top of the amount of salvage that has already become the norm. Recycling is good; it always was. But now we're into post-apocalyptic territory to keep what used to be normal bikes running as cobbled-together mutants in a world too modern for its own good.