Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Winter Solstice

Happy New Year.

As of 0742 this morning, the sun is on its way back north. We won't notice much of a difference until about January 10, but the corner has been turned.

At the risk of making the years seem short and devaluing the seasons, spring will be here in no time. Maybe the weather won't get warm where you live until May or June, but the days get long enough for some riding outside even before the Spring Equinox in March.

If you like some winter sports, as I do, carry on. May the winter bring you the conditions you desire. But this is a good time to do bike overhauls. It's easy to forget until you want to take that first nice ride on an early warm day. Next thing you know, you're flogging those gritty hubs through July.

It's also hard to remember to start shaping the body to the new season even as the old one is ending. I pick up about two pounds of upper body muscle through cross-country skiing. I base this on the changing scale readings from one season to the other. It's not all Christmas cookies. Come spring, that extra chunk around the shoulders and arms is just sitting there, weighing down the handlebars when I try to climb hills. I cursed the lack of it as I tried to ski up hills in late December. In March I curse its presence.

If you're a pure cyclist, this is trainer season. I did that for a couple of years in Maryland before I developed strong winter interests. It has a single-minded purity to it. There is cycling and there is wishing you could be cycling. While you wish, ride the trainer and the free-standing rollers. Do cycling-specific weights. Weights and trainer build strength and maintain aerobic fitness. The rollers teach pure technique.

The sun is returning. Go out to meet it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Mass Production

Every outdoor activity has its industry to provide gear. Mass production is what makes products affordable, because some company makes them in quantity.

Mass production giveth, but it also taketh away. Once a company is devoted to large production runs, perhaps from a factory in a distant land, it has a strong interest in moving a large quantity of those products at regular intervals.

Frugality does not help the economy. Money that stays in your pocket is not the circulating blood of healthy commerce. So how does one separate the wise from their money?

Outdoor explorers are frequently independent-minded people who value other things besides money and the mere ownership of objects. This makes them lousy consumers. But in order to thrive, a mass-producing industry needs consumers to buy things.

Unfortunately, the mass-producing industry responds more and more to its own needs, trying
to detect and fulfill consumer wants, but still having to empty the warehouse of masses of produced products regardless of their actual effectiveness. The marketing department becomes more important than the design department. Make it look good. Make it sound good. Make it sell. Empty that warehouse.

Customers providing their own muscle to move their toys want some credit for their efforts. That drives the demand for lower prices, putting pressure on suppliers to keep production costs low enough to preserve profits.

The industry is not a cynical creation of evil geniuses, although I have my questions about certain bike companies. The industry is a creation of all economic forces. So I don’t suggest a particular remedy at this point. This overview just collects my observations for further study.

Personal adventure brings the irreconcilable difference between durability and rapid consumption into direct conflict. Stuff that holds up doesn’t turn inventory very fast. People who don’t live to shop don’t shop often. But gear that doesn’t perform can actually kill people, and too much planned obsolescence can drive people away from an activity.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Night Riding

When the sun sets, dusk begins. Dusk may be worse than darkness for a cyclist. Reflectors only work if a light hits them, so drivers who wait to turn on their lights will not activate the reflectors, if any, on your bike.

Reflectors are nearly useless for visibility anyway. The most effective ones are on the pedals, where their motion attracts the motorist’s eye. Because these reflectors often get broken or obscured, replace them with reflective leg bands you can carry in your pocket or seat pack until you need them.

A solid tail reflector can be mistaken for someone’s driveway marker. A white one on the front will similarly get lost in the clutter of many roadside backgrounds. Wheel reflectors can only be seen from the side. If you’re crossing a motorist so closely that you need him to slow down to avoid hitting you, you’ve made a hideous mistake. At night, never, ever, ever believe that someone sees you. Make sure you have lots of room to maneuver.

Dusk even swallows the power of car headlights. Your best defense is to use blinking lights to attract attention.

With a good blinking tail light or two you can be fairly safe from drivers approaching from behind. A little blinking tail light fits handily in pocket or pack along with the reflector leg bands.

Not much will help you with oncoming traffic. A headlight bright enough to command respect would require a battery weighing about 50 pounds. The best accessory for safe night riding is to have a Humvee escort in front and behind.

Darkness ends my commute long before the weather would. It has nothing to do with seeing the road. Rechargeable lights give plenty of light for that. I just can’t count on being seen by motorists.

When I had no car and commuted in a more urban environment I did ride all year, at any hour. I also had a commuting bike permanently equipped with generator and battery lights. The terrain was fairly flat, the distances 12 miles or less. I was younger. There were fewer drivers. There had been fewer movies glorifying sociopathic driving habits. There were no cell phones. The average age was a lot younger. You decide if it's worth it.

Night riding can be fun if you don’t have to get anywhere on a schedule. I will occasionally take a night ride with no tail light and no reflectors, on very quiet roads. As soon as I detect the faintest glimmer of an approaching headlight or sound of an engine I dive off the road, douse the headlight and freeze.

A loop that might take just under an hour in daylight may take 15 or 20 minutes longer because I ride a slower pace and have to stop. I can’t recommend anyone do anything remotely dangerous, so don’t try this yourself. But if you do try it, keep scanning the roadside for places to bail if you detect a car. You may have to do it at an instant’s notice.

Commando night riding will make you aware of how many cars really go by you in an hour. A road that seems quiet in daylight may bring you a car every five or 10 minutes. That’s too many interruptions for commando-style riding. You’ll lose at least a minute every five, and that’s only if you can find a place to pull over when you need it.

Mountain bikers have ridden the trails at night for years. No worries about traffic there, though you may have to ride road segments to connect the whole loop. Night trail riders need powerful lights with good batteries to light the way over irregular ground. Prices range from around $60 for a basic rechargeable to more than $300 for the most powerful lighting. The little clamp-on lights that use ordinary batteries lose power too quickly. The same goes for headlamps. The rechargeable systems offer both handlebar and helmet mounting for the lights. Serious night riders will have both.

A light on the bike always points where the bike points. This is important.

A light on the helmet points where the rider looks. This is also important. The rider may be looking where to point the bike next, or may be looking for whatever’s making that crackling noise in the woods off to the side. It’s best to be able to light both choices.

If I can only have one light, I’ll have it on the bike. I’ve tried it with just a helmet mount, and it’s too easy to turn my head slightly away from where I need the light. The inexpensive combination uses the big, fancy light on the handlebars and an affordable headlamp on the helmet. You might not even have the headlamp on all the time. Save it for roadside or trailside repairs or desperately peering into the undergrowth looking for the Blair Witch.

Monday, December 06, 2004

A Bike for Mr. X

Although some details still must remain classified, the story can now be told.

In the early fall of 2003, Mister X approached us with a proposal to build him a secret weapon. He hoped we could build him a bike that weighed 12 pounds for the Mount Washington Hill Climb.

Some riders have always stripped their bikes down to the essentials for the hill climb, typically leaving only the front brake, a single chain ring in the front and maybe even reducing the number of cogs on the rear gear cluster. By removing things like the rear brake, brake lever and cable, front derailleur, front shifter, and any unused chain rings a rider might strip a pound or so off an already lightweight racing machine. Some went so far as to install cut-down handlebars and other temporary modifications that placed lightness over comfort.

Mister X’s specifications included a certain gear that restricted our choice of cranks and a seat he swore was the only one that treated his anatomy with due respect. Neither piece of componentry would be the lightest such item available.

I’ll be the first to admit that our shop is not a top-echelon road bike fancier’s boutique. We have to serve a wide array of customers in a town with a year-round population of about 7000, but a summer population supposedly numbering in the tens of thousands. We see a little of everything and can’t pick and choose the caviar and champagne at the expense of the other food groups. But this challenge was intriguing.

Although Mr. X’s budget for this was practically unlimited, his few specific requirements automatically eliminated the most exotic equipment we might have found hard to get.

With a website called “Weightweenies” as our guide we entered the shadowy world of gram geeks. We had many months to build the bike, but that could melt away in a hurry if we absolutely needed to track down some esoteric part. If we could work with our established suppliers it would go more smoothly.

X’s target weight was 5376 grams. As I trolled through Weightweenies and our supply catalogs I started building up sample groups on a couple of different frames I was also trying to arrange to buy. We established near the beginning that none of our regular road lines offered a light enough platform for a bike as light as X was seeking.

Like Gary Sinise in “Apollo 13", in the simulator trying to figure out how to fire up the command module with the least amount of juice, I kept adding component weights to frame weights and I kept exceeding the limit. There were too many variables, too many unknowns.

Frame choice came down to the only company that responded to my email. Fortunately, it was also the top choice, given the information I had. Naturally, in the months that followed, other contenders emerged, but at some point you have to quit crunching numbers and start ordering.

We obtained a Trek 5900 SL, 58 centimeter, frame only. We couldn’t hop on the phone and order one, but through contacts and field operatives, the frame was procured.

For the wheels, the very lightest did not seem adequate for the potential conditions. Mr. X has financial resources, but he does not ride with a tech support team following him, as do the racers one sees on television, whose bikes have to be specially weighted to bring them up to the required limit. We were not going to put him on sew up tires and all-carbon rims and then just kick him out into the world to fend for himself.

American Classic offered a fairly traditionally built wheel set that weighed in around 1362 grams. Mr. X could ride them for some training. The alloy rims could withstand normal brakes.

The bike was taking shape, at least on paper. There was only one choice for the crank. The Race Face Next LP arm set weighed in around 400 grams. It was the lightest that would take a 20-tooth chain ring.

None of this had been assembled by late spring. Even though we ordered the frame in February it was not delivered until almost July. Parts piled up in secure corners while we waited. The wheels arrived. We lifted them delicately from their boxes, dangled them from our fingers to feel their barely perceptible weight and put them away again until we could attach them to the bike. It was the same with each shipment of parts.

The only item made to order was a titanium seatpost from Bold Precision. Albert Bold, machinist, is based in Pennsylvania now, but told us he had lived in Center Harbor for years. He has also built himself a Mt. Washington bike that weighs twelve and a half pounds.

Mr. X was unwilling to have major parts custom machined. While that would have given him a very expensive and personalized bike, it would have made the bike harder for others to duplicate. As it was, he commissioned a bike any consumer with about $4000 could have a shop build for them.

We missed the 12-pound mark. The bike weighed about 14 pounds at the first weigh-in, and gained a little after that with some changes and additions. Much of that was in the crank and the saddle.

To make custom gearing we took the bolts out of a Shimano LX-level gear cluster, because all the cogs and spacers are separate. By doing that we could assemble a “climber’s straight block” with one- or two-tooth jumps between gears so Mr. X could shift smoothly on the climb to find his most comfortable speed. He only needed one fairly small cog for the few yards from the starting line to the beginning of the real climbing. He took the rest of the cogs from the two or three cassettes we had cannibalized so he could fine tune the gearing after he had trained on the bike for a while.

More expensive cassettes have groups of cogs held together on alloy carriers that prevent selecting cogs individually. While lighter overall, they can’t be as easily adapted to special needs.

We designed the bike to favor durability over absolute lightest weight.

The Cane Creek BRS 200 brake is about the lightest available. We matched it up with a lever originally designed as an auxiliary lever, which we retrofitted to work as a primary. It weighed less than the lever we originally specified, and worked better. In addition, these levers have a hinged clamp, so Mr. X could slap on a rear brake for training and easily remove it, lever and all, for the race.

Only after he picked up the bike did Mr. X mention that he’d forgotten to register for the race. But the covert operations associated with this project weren’t over.

The Mount Washington Hill Climb is absurdly popular for something that inflicts terrible pain on each and every participant for a minimum of one hour and probably much longer. Registration fills up rapidly. It costs $300 to register early (February) and $200 if you take your chances and try to save a little by registering a month later. And yet it fills up. So in July Mr. X should have been shut out.

Ah, but “we have ways...” Mr. X came in a few days later to report that he had somehow managed to get into the closed field. We don’t even want to know how. On a very wet day in August he got to ride to the summit with 537 other sufferers. It wasn’t a personal record time, but wait ‘til next year.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Surly=Lasting Value

If I could only have one bike, it would be a Surly Cross-Check.

I didn’t really want cantilever brakes when I bought the frame to build my commuter-explorer, but the rest of the package was too good to refuse. Since I got mine in 2000, they’ve made it a little better by including rack bosses on the seat stays.

You could build a Cross-Check frame into almost anything. The geometry provides secure handling on dirt, but sporty enough performance on pavement. I wouldn’t want to chase a froggy bunch of roadies on it, but it does well in the daily traffic criterium.

The long dropouts in the rear allow you to use it as a single-speed and to adapt some combinations of derailleur and cluster God never intended. I wish more frames in the Surly line had those dropouts, but they’ve fallen into the VD epidemic that swept cycling in the 1980s.

The whole Surly line reflects a fine balance of performance and durability. If you had the tools and knowledge you could build a small fleet of Surly custom bikes for the price of one high-end bike, mountain or road.

Since I built up the Cross-Check I have taken it into places where I welcome the cantilever brakes. I recently built a second wheel set so I can have my skinnyish commuting tires for the daily grind and a set of fatties for exploring the dotted lines on the map.

The Pacer road frame and Steamroller fixed gear also tempt me, although the top tube is a little short for me on the Steamroller, and the Pacer has VD. Still, for a dedicated road bike I guess VD are okay. I could still mix and match drive train parts, because I don’t care about index shifting.

Other makers offer one or two models that match Surly versatility, but you have to know what you’re looking for. Rivendell takes the high-end hand built approach to versatile bikes. But Surly provides it for the working class.

Vote with your wallets for the guys who provide lasting value. Don’t get suckered into buying a dispos-a-bike dripping with trendoid componentry.

The Bike Industry

The bike industry is one of cycling's biggest problems.

The threat became clear during the mountain bike boom. I said I blame Shimano, but they were just the leaders of a movement most other suppliers were all too ready to join. All of a sudden there was money to be made in the bike business. The battle for shares was fierce and continuous.

Many bike industry companies were run by cyclists. They carried the competition from the roads and trails to their corporate strategies. The free market is supposed to thrive on competition, right?

Things got out of hand. Shimano seized control of the drive train market with products that weren't always the best, but were good enough to avoid a bad reputation most of the time. They took a hit during the great Cranks of Death recall in the mid 1990s, but by then they had crushed most other competitors. How? Why? Many customers coming into the shop where I work found the new shifters confusing. The fact that Shimano changed them every year or two only made matters worse.

Competitive cyclists might replace equipment often enough that the product changes didn't bother them. But ordinary riders, who might keep a bike longer than two years or refurbish an old one suddenly found out how miserable the manufacturers' technical support really was.

It comes back to the cocaine analogy. If you're really hooked you will pay what it costs to get your high. But that is not a sustainable lifestyle.

The bike industry sells products, not an activity. It feeds off the activity. It manipulates availability of products to suit its desire for cash flow. The smart money ran like hell from the bike business by 1998. By 2000, mountain biking was solidly a niche sport again. Other forms of bike have grown, but the glory days were over, crushed by the technofascist juggernaut.

Bikes launched the age of mass-produced transportation. In many ways they are the grandparents of everything that rolls or flies today. They were high technology in their day. I don't want to ride a 90-pound hunk of iron-mongery. But watch out lest the slogan "Innovate or Die" becomes "Innovated to Death."

Joke's on you

Regardless of who really built them, the first mountain bikes were clunkers made from junk.

"Oh man, I crashed and bent my frame!"

"Oh well. The bike only cost you $50 to build."

That was then. Today the conversation goes like this:

"Oh, man, I crashed and smashed my suspension!"

"Oh well. The bike only cost you $2000."

Joke's on you.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

R U Shimano's Bitch?

According to a news story I read the other day, single-speed bikes represent the new wave sweeping the biking world.

As usual, those of us who have kept the faith in the dark ages will be swept aside and forgotten if a fashionable tidal wave rolls in. A spokesperson like Sheldon Brown will pop up and become the new messiah and the rest of us who held onto simple cycles will be indistinguishable from the other wannabes except by our gray hair and scarred shins.

In the 1990s, when Shimano introduced their under-bar shifting in answer to a nonexistent problem, they simply continued a tendency they’d shown since at least the beginning of the 1980s. Their indexed shifting gave them an edge with the gearing-impaired, but the so-called Rapidfire system and the road STI that followed it were a bold move to hijack cycling.

Once gear systems became proprietary, bikes became much more expensive to repair. Since the technology came from Shimano, planned obsolescence was guaranteed.

I blame Shimano’s aggressive business tactics for the collapse of the mountain bike boom. Shimano made sure no one else’s parts worked with theirs, in an effort to corner the bike componentry market. It worked. They’re just about the only game in town. But they turned off most of the cyclists in the process.

Plenty of the remaining riders swear their devotion to Shimano’s products. But plenty of cocaine addicts swear their allegiance to that product as well. In fact, drug dealing may be the perfect model for consumer goods marketing in general. Shimano exemplifies the technique.

It’s pointless to recommend that, if you have shifting at all, it should be friction shifting. It’s true, but too many riders justify the expense and dependency of indexed, convenient shifting systems provided at the whim and indulgence of one corporation.

If you use STI, repeat this mantra: STI am Shimano’s bitch. STI am Shimano’s bitch.