Sunday, September 25, 2005

Into the Night

In my rural area I tend to give up the bike commute when I can no longer complete the route in daylight. I've pushed it a few times, but it was easy enough to slip into the car, riding dawn patrols for exercise on the bike before driving to town for work.

With gasoline prices charging upward, and my paycheck still crawling in the weeds, riding in the dark looks a lot more attractive. I have lights, including at least four flashing rear beacons. The Planet Bike Beamer headlight is a remarkably effective small light. The whole array is readily transferrable from Cross Check to fixed gear to road bike as the need arises. It's not like my old generator light, which remained permanently bolted to the bike I used for commuting at the time.

Last Friday morning I got up just after 4 a.m. to get ready to ride 41 miles to get a car back from the mechanic. I've developed the habit of riding from Effingham to Gilford to get the car before work when I need to fetch it, which means I have to leave by 5:30 to complete the route in time.

It's still dark at 5:30 now. I piled on the lights, the bright vest, the reflector leg bands, and headed out into the murk on the fixed gear. The forecast was for showers, so I had a rain jacket, and had clipped the fenders onto their brackets.

The pre-dawn motorist crowd seemed pretty kind and accommodating. It encourages me to try the commute in darkness again. Too soon I'll have to travel 70 miles a day commuting, and that's just not practical for an old dog, day or night. I'll be stuck in the car then.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

You Cyclist

A road cyclist in the USA gets a taste of what it's like to be in a minority. And if you happen to be in an actual officially-recognized minority on top of being a cyclist, I really salute your courage.

We find, on the road, that some people are sympathetic, many are tolerant --though not necessarily pleased with us-- a fair number are contemptuous, and a few are down and out cross-burning, lynching bigots.

I stress that the most virulent are rare. The contemptuous are less rare. Much of what gets thrown at cyclists, verbal or actual, is just heckling from people who consider themselves better than the idiot out there pedaling. The hecklers don't usually go the next step, though some do, thinking the sight of a cyclist sprawling in the gravel is as thigh-slapping as an episode of The Three Stooges.

It's easy to get caught up with worst-case scenarios and forget that most rides are peaceful. Your results may vary, depending on local custom, but most of the time we get where we're going with few, if any, ugly incidents. It's just that the ugly ones point out uncomfortably ugly truths about human nature. Those people need to ride a bike. If it didn't open their eyes, it might at least numb their genitals and keep them from reproducing.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Machinist Advantage

Bicycle manufacturing launched the modern era of mass-produced transportation, but because bicyles were relatively small they could be produced in small facilities.

Modern industrial economics moved the Bike Industry into gigantic (not to say Giant) facilities, but small operators still produce bikes. Some are status symbols from exclusive builders, others are obscure for various reasons. More people know about Richard Sachs than about Victory Bicycles, but Victory's immaculate reproduction Ordinaries are status symbols among their devotees. But I'll bet few people reading this have heard of Dennis McKinnon, Paul Carpentier, Albert Bold, or Brian McCall.

My machinist friend Diane, a partner in Victory Bicycles, grew up in a machine shop and then built another one with her late husband. At home they built bike frames, restored airplanes and motorcycles and generally built any sort of mechanical toy they wanted. In the 1980s, before the aero bike craze, they had already built themselves a pair of time trial bikes using aircraft strut tubing, aerodynamically shaped. They had to make all sorts of odd-shaped parts and adapters to get the componentry to fit the bikes.

Working for their own amusement, they never publicized any of what they did beyond the word of mouth they generated in the Orlando area and wherever else they might go.

Diane built her own 20-inch wheel adult bike to take in their Cessna. She figured out the gearing and geometry so she could sit at the height of a conventional bike and join group rides wherever she happened to find one. The bike disturbed some of the other riders because it looked so weird, but apparently it rode like a normal-sized one. Bike Friday makes the same claim. People I know who own them can't say enough good things about them.

I'm happy to be able to do as much as I do. Some people even consider me a good, experienced mechanic and a creative problem solver. But I tell you it's hard to compete with someone who not only miters their own tubing and builds the frame from scratch, but actually manufactures the rims, shapes the tubing, cuts and threads every spoke and practically raises the cows that produce the leather from which the saddles are made.

Every machinist I know has the same casual attitude toward building or rebuilding things most of us would simply replace. But they also have several thousand dollars' worth of serious stationary tools somewhere around the house or barn. Most of them do not earn their primary living from bike work. Even the Wright Brothers had to branch out. There's a perfect example of machinists who wouldn't say they couldn't.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Some Commuter Math

If I drove every day, my car would probably consume roughly ten gallons of gasoline a week. Commuting by bike for 20 weeks, that's 200 gallons of gas I don't consume. I generally manage to commute uninterrupted for about 26 weeks before short daylight and the need to carry bulkier equipment forces me into the car.

By cycling instead of driving, I make available 150 to 180 parking spaces in the course of a season.

When I lived where I could commute by bicycle all year, the rest of the motoring public got to enjoy that much more of the gasoline and parking I wasn't using up. But now that area has turned into a megalopolitan meat grinder of hustling traffic honking past "Share the Road" signs.

Biketopian Notion

In Biketopia there are transportation centers near concentrations of workplaces, industrial or office complexes, downtown areas and shopping districts. These centers provide safe parking for bikes, locker rooms, showers and transfer to mass transit if that's available in a given area. They might even provide work areas and small parts like cables and tubes (for a fee), or have commercial concessions selling parts and service. The centers would at least create an area nearby, where commercial service providers could prosper in a location convenient to the people who need them the most.

I wonder if any bike shops are offering safe, secure parking to local commuters, perhaps with a service deal thrown in. A business would need to realize income from the square footage in order to continue to afford it. A public facility could spread the cost over a wider base and use it to encourage more healthy behavior among citizens who might be more likely to ride if they knew they had a nice place to work from, once they got to town.

The first concern of any rider is safety on the road. The second is secure parking. Will the bike be there, rideable, when I get back?

Protected facilities extend the range of rideable weather. If the bike itself will be protected, and the rider can freshen up before reentering society, no one need fear a little rain, chilly weather or breaking a sweat on the way to work.

So YouThink You Can Drive?

We need to build race tracks in every community. These would not be real sporting tracks. They would be proving grounds for all those people who consider themselves great drivers.

Anyone could drop in at any time to run a quick heat against whoever else was around. They would get no guidance and no training, just a starting flag and a finish line.

At regular intervals, crews would remove the wreckage.

In a closed environment, dangerous idiots would finally be a danger only to each other. Concentrated in that way, they would be more likely to take each other out.

Traffic would be two-way, to simulate the environment in which these self-perceived experts usually operate. To goad them further into doing something homicidally or suicidally impatient, we could insert remote-controlled slower vehicles.

Drivers would pay no entry fee. In addition, anyone convicted of a traffic offense would be sentenced to run a certain number of laps, increasing with the severity of the offense.

All participants would be encouraged to sign up as organ donors.

Spectators would pay huge admission fees. The money would go toward highway safety programs and improvements in bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Accidental Mechanic

I never considered myself mechanically inclined. I took devices as I found them. Growing up, I did as little as possible to any of my bikes, and never dug into the mysteries of mechanisms, as my older brother did.

By the time I got into college, I had started to do a few minor things to whatever car I happened to own, though nothing major. Then my mechanically-inclined brother sparked my interest enough to get me to buy a bent used Peugeot ten-speed.

Under his instruction, soon reinforced by a classmate who had been a year behind me in high school, I found myself ripping bearings apart. The classmate, a girl named Diane, had grown up in a machine shop, so she wasn't afraid of anything. She went on to become an expert wheel builder, then a torch goddess, and now practically starts by mining her own iron ore when she wants to build something.

I stopped short of that, but the simplicity of the bicycle showed me I could have transportation independence very cheaply. I couldn't afford a good work space and all the heavy tools to keep a car going through all the things that might go wrong with it, but I could completely overhaul my bike in my apartment. If I laid down some old newspapers, I wouldn't even be a landlord's nightmare. It could be socially responsible, yet revolutionary.

Even the heavy tools, like a shop-quality workstand and truing stand, fit in an average room. A dedicated workshop is nice if you're going to start lathering solvents around, but you can do a decent overhaul at your kitchen table if you're neat and patient about it.

I guess maybe I am a little more mechanically inclined than I thought. The number of people I meet who find the inner workings of a bicycle mysterious still surprises me. Or maybe it's too trivial to be worth their attention. Being good at bicycle mechanics often seems about as respected as being good at armpit farts.

In need of a day job, I got sucked back into the bike industry in 1989, and have remained the itching powder in its bike shorts ever since. I won't leave, because I like getting parts and tools at cost, but I won't play along with the dispos-a-bike trend in sophisticated, temperamental componentry. I still want to be able to fix it at my kitchen table, or in a camp site somewhere. At heart I remain sympathetic to the consumer. That will put you on the outside of most industry trade groups.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

In the Car

I decided to drive to work today, because the forecast called for showers and downpours. The day began with a thunderstorm at 4 a.m., though the rain had diminished to drizzle by 6:30 and humid haze by 8:00.

As I sat in the driver's seat, I felt the stupor of driving overtake me. It seeped up from the upholstery, turning my entire body and brain into one giant, untoned gluteus maximus.

It'd better pour this afternoon.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Good and the Great

A good bike shop keeps all -- or almost all -- of its old parts. These can be used for the "wizard jobs" in which experienced, talented mechanics can improvise, substitute or re-engineer components to fix them quickly, without having to expend the time and money to order complete new assemblies.

A great bike shop actually sorts and catalogs the old parts. Perhaps they even offer them for sale, along with new old stock and other stashes of retro treasure. See Harris Cyclery for an example. And we did it at the first shop I worked for. In the slow months of late fall and winter, we had time to dig in the crypts of the shop basement and set up the used parts area. One of us also reconditioned a number of used bikes with those parts, to use for rentals.

Fixing bikes is a lot like the cable television show Junkyard Wars, in which teams compete to make usable mechanisms out of whatever they find lying around. Depending on how well equipped the shop is, the bike mechanic starts with some advantage, knowing certain items will be there. But with all the variety in bike parts over the years, we often come up against a challenge that calls for more ingenuity than simply going to the pristine parts shelf and picking out the exact item in a sealed package.

State of the Art

When I started as a cyclist, I never demanded that my componentry be the most modern. I didn't think of things in those terms, and still don't. Whatever I didn't know yet was new to me. I wanted it to work, that's all. I had as much to learn about history as to discover about the future.

The higher priced componentry was usually lighter and always had a nicer finish. But often a lower model would function as well, look almost as good and cost a lot less. That was how the Japanese companies got their foothold, by making nicely-finished parts at a lower price than the best Italian stuff. It was a mark of experience and distinction to know what less expensive or more obscure parts you could buy and still have agood bike.

Because the best European components looked kind of old fashioned, cycling seemed more rooted in tradition than dragged by a rocket of modern technology. The chain drive had been around for almost a century at that point, and the engine hadn't changed in thousands of years.

The most modern stuff today is still just a refinement of those old concepts. Frame materials are more exotic, but the basic geometry remains the same as it was in the latter part of the last century. There are more gears, shifted with more precision when the mechanism is painstakingly adjusted properly, but you still push pedals to pull a chain around. It's a more fragile chain, that wears out faster, but it's still a chain.

Dump the chain drive and develop a different transmission, you'll still have a sweaty grunt pushing something like pedals to make it go forward.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Stephanie's New Bike

Stephanie just picked up her new bike, and she's HAPPY. She's laughing, asking good questions. She's delighted, eager to get out onto the road.

We've told her about shifting, braking, how to operate the quick release wheels. We've set up her riding position, told her about how she might feel, getting used to the bike.

She's really happy. Did I mention that?

We haven't mentioned hostile bastards who may try to run her off the road, like the prick in a pickup truck who played chicken with Laurie and me just a couple of miles from home the other day. Unlike most such cowards, he actually stopped when we waved our arms and yelled, but he said it was because he thought he knew me. This is how he treats his friends? He seemed contemptuously amused by my concern.

When a child learns to ride a two-wheeler, it's a moment of liberation. A wider world opens up. It's a less common ritual nowadays, since we've turned most roads in to race tracks. No parent wants to encourage the young explorer on two wheels to venture into curb-lined canyons full of impatient drivers.

Children of my generation rode their bikes to school, the library, friends' houses, sports practice. A child who rode a bike took pressure off of parents to provide transportation everywhere. Now the parents have to drive the taxi until the child is old enough to get a driver's license.

Adults who continue to ride have to make a very sober choice to expose themselves to the unjust persecution of a very few dangerous individuals who try to discourage road cycling by intimidation and assault. It's the last thing anyone wants to talk about on the sales floor of a bike shop, but it's the big elephant in the room. It's not a bicycling problem. It's a social problem. It's a fundamental philosophical issue with the abuse of power, in this case horsepower and the mass and hardness of a vehicle set against the inoffensive enjoyment of a healthy and economical activity by a brave individual.

Thrown Objects

The best thing a motorist ever threw at me was a piece of breakfast pastry. It looked like a cinnamon roll. I don't think he'd even taken a bite of it. Unfortunately, the throw went wide. I had to watch it hit the dirt beyond me. The five-second rule did not apply.

The worst thing anyone ever threw at me was a 1978 Camaro with an unsecured child in the front passenger seat. The driver of the car had erupted in rage when he was unable to pass me and another cyclist in a short stretch of narrow road. When he finally blasted through, he then launched into a game of fender-tag, swerving, jamming the brakes, punching the gas, as my friend and I twitched our bikes back and forth to avoid him. We were in our 20s then, and raced criteriums, so our reflexes were at their best. The driver was too shaky with his temper tantrum to calculate a good shot at us.

We weren't toying with him, just trying to stay upright. When we saw the boy slamming around the front footwell we asked him if he was concerned about the child's welfare.

"Shut up! He's my kid!" the man snarled, along with a thick stew of obscenities. He finally laid down a stinking patch of smoking rubber and roared away.

I don't count as an officially thrown object the 18-wheeler that lunged at me in a serpentine swerve like a Chinese dragon, coming the opposite direction on a wide two-lane highway in Maryland. He was far enough away for the maneuver to have been a coincidence. Maybe he'd just poured hot coffee in his lap.

Many cyclists report bottles, cans, rocks and baseball bats flying through the air toward them. One rider, a Navy pilot then based in Pensacola, Florida, said someone in a passing pickup truck actually launched a framing hammer at him. Seems like a waste of a tool, but fun ideas often overcome common sense.

"Damn, I lost my hammer, but it woulda been some funny to see it split that faggot's skull, huh."

Personal Security

Every year around this time I consider getting a good handgun and renewing my concealed weapon permit. But the doctrine of preemptive war does not apply to cyclists who feel threatened by malicious or negligent drivers in huge vehicles. Replying to a close pass or an aggressive swerve with hot lead would not be considered self defense. It would only make matters worse. By the time you could be sure that deadly force was justified, it would be too late to use it.

Since armed resistance would not improve the riding environment for any cyclist, the artillery is not worth the weight and bulk. If anything it would justify a driver's more deadly actions. They could claim to have been threatened first.

After September 11, 2001, all Americans felt what it was like to fear an unprovoked deadly attack punishing them for actions they considered harmelss lifestyle choices. Bicyclists on the road have felt that for years.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Last Heat

A strange madness comes over the motoring public this time of year. They seem as angry as late-season yellowjackets, whose days are numbered as pickings grow slim.

It seemed early and worse this year. In the week after Nathan Williams' death, half the motorists seemed unusually solicitous, waiting to pass and passing wide. But the other half acted like sharks who smell blood in the water. They passed close and fast, as if anticipating the taste of my flesh when the frenzy finally starts.

I couldn't believe how much aggressive motorist behavior I saw during that week. It really was as if the motorists who hate cyclists consider killing one to be just a good start. I even got the double down-your-throat pass, as a Cadillac Escalade and a pickup truck barrelled out from behind another SUV to blast past me a few inches off my elbow as they hammered by in the opposite direction. I wished my middle finger was the size of a baseball bat. I wished my middle finger could shoot a death ray.

I always attributed the jump in aggression and the little flurry of broken glass to the end of summer and the resumption of people's humdrum, busy lives. But around here we also deal with heavy tourist traffic all summer. When that leaves, the locals see clear running room.

It's already started to calm down again. A potentially worse problem replaces it as people slow down mentally with the shortening days. Careless driving replaces reckless driving. They need some fresh air and exercise.