Monday, December 17, 2007

Beaten to death with a vibraphone

With no time to go outside, despite the sunny day and fresh powder snow, I cut 40 minutes into the schedule to ride the rollers again.

Balancing as if magically, a ride on rollers has the element of the unexpected to help defeat the monotony of mere trainer riding. While it would not have been my first choice for a day like today, it was better than nothing to try to stimulate blood flow to the brain.

My cassette collection dwindles as the dried-out tapes disintegrate in various ways, so I have fewer options to stick in the old Walkman hanging above the rollers in the basement. I chose a selection from Tim Weisberg.

Scornfully dismissed as "dentist office music" by one young listener, this album does sound light, fluffy and unchallenging. However, when you try to pedal at its speed you find that the heartless bastards are affably dragging you up to 150 rpm or more with their mellow jazz combo.

Judging by the photos on the jacket and liner of "Night Rider" and "Listen to the City," Weisberg was a cyclist in the 1970s. Wasn't everyone?

Time to dredge out some old vinyl and remake my best riding tapes, as well as collecting good cadences from all eras in whatever media I find them. I'd rather play outside, but it's nice to have options for when I can't.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Call me Crazy

I actually enjoy riding rollers. With familiar music piped directly into my brain I can ride the tempos it provides to get a well-planned workout. With less familiar music I can feel around for the right cadence. All the while the precarious balance forces me to spin smoothly.

Today I used the rollers to loosen up my legs after the first two days of Nordic skiing. Whatever you do to train before snow arrives, real skiing is different. Even on roller skis you don't steer your feet and balance quite the same way. Wheels on pavement track like wheels on pavement, without the constant minor (and sometimes major) wiggles and wobbles made by two sticks sliding over snow.

Steering and balancing muscles burn out quickly. My legs were thrashed after the first day and worse after the second. But nothing compares to the peace that saturates me after cross-country skiing. Every system of the body has had a beneficial workout. The specialized muscles will remember their roles soon enough. Meanwhile, the stiffness gives me a good reason to hop on the rollers.

The best roller music offers layered tempos in which a good riding cadence may not immediately be obvious. Heavily accented beats aren't good, because you want to pedal evenly. Flowing tunes make it easier to keep time only from the hips down. You don't want to be throwing your head and shoulders around or shaking your booty, unless you want to waggle and get launched (" 'scuse me while I kiss the wall...").

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Update: Another Casualty (from November 27)

On Tuesday, November 27, I reported sketchy details of a cyclist-motorist collision which left the cyclist with unknown injuries. I finally had a chance to talk to him and find out how it all went down.

Peter was riding down a hill with traffic when a gold Lexus SUV tried to yank a left in a small gap between the oncoming cars, ignoring the cyclist. Peter T-boned the SUV. His bike was destroyed, but he got away with a broken collarbone.

Yes, this was in eastern Massachusetts.

"I scratched the SUV," he said. He also wrenched some muscles around his rib cage on the left side. The collarbone is broken at the medial end, not out nearer the shoulder. As often happens with sudden impact crashes, he had almost no road rash.

"At least I was on my city bike, not my Litespeed," he said.

I did not ask him whether he knows and practices Pilot Fish Technique, by any name or no name at all.

Pilot Fish Technique borrows an idea from the fish of the same name, widely known for consorting with sharks. The stripy little guys ride the pressure waves around the big predator, in effect drafting it. As other fish give the shark a wide berth, they create a safety zone for the little pilot fish. Within a certain speed range, cyclists can use the same methods to gain safety from large, dangerous motor vehicles. It requires absolutely no cooperation from the motorist, just as the pilot fish demands no special accommodation from the shark. The rider just has to stay within the area around the motor vehicle, so that when other motor vehicles avoid it, they accidentally avoid the cyclist as well.

Like drafting, it has its hazards. You can't space out and daydream the way motorists do when you're manipulating them for your own gain. It is your responsibility to avoid getting killed by your protector. You are more agile and have better contact with the surrounding environment. The motorist is half blind and almost entirely deaf to the outside world. It's kind of like following a near-sighted elephant.

Sometimes you find yourself in danger and can't do much except hope or pray. That may have happened to Peter. I didn't have time to get into that much depth. At certain speeds, the motor vehicles are moving too fast for a cyclist to stay close, but the cyclist is moving too fast to stop or swerve quickly to avoid collisions with oblivious bison who blunder into their path. At that point it takes more wisdom and self control than many of us possess to slow down more than the terrain demands, for the sake of preserving maneuverability in case an inconsiderate or unobservant driver shoots for an empty space that actually contains us. You just have to try to develop a fine-tuned paranoia that alerts you to situations like that. Or you can go for it and take your chances.

With snow here for a while I will be posting on Explore Cross-Country. Check it out.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Among the Motorists

Motorists prefer not to have cyclists on the road with them, because cyclists interrupt the vegetative state in which so many people drive.

Passing a cyclist demands too much attention. It interrupts the uniform flow of uniformly-sized objects in fluid motion like mindless particles in a scientific demonstration.

The motorist trance happens by itself as a result of the repetitive, boring nature of the activity and the system set up to direct it. It is not a character flaw. In fact, it is a major contributing factor in collisions between motor vehicles. Drivers are simply "in the zone" and space out because that's what curious creatures like humans do when faced with a stressful but tedious environment. Driving, even without cyclists on the road, demands attention, but it demands the same attention over and over. It presents multiple variables, but repeats so many of them from a limited list that the driver is ill-prepared for ones that come up less frequently, like emergency vehicles or accidents. A visual target as small as a cyclist really gets lost in that mental clutter.

Small wonder that motorists seek distractions, such as a telephone conversation with a friend or business associate. Or maybe they're looking a a map or GPS readout, listening to talk radio or drifting off into a pleasant memory. What if the driver suddenly wonders whether that thing they definitely need today is not in that pile of stuff they dumped in the passengers' seat first thing this morning? What if the kids start acting up?

Those who like pat answers will now start to snap them out, if they haven't already.

"Bike paths!"

"Bright clothing"

"Get off the road!"

"Death to motorists!"

Most motorists are aware of cyclists in a general sense. The problem is keeping cyclists in each driver's mind, minute by minute, mile by mile. In a good way.

If you want to make headway with the motoring public, you have to show them what's in it for them. Your own rights as a two-wheeled weirdo come a distant second. It isn't right, but it's how the human mind works. Most of them don't want to commit vehicular manslaughter (though some undeniably do) but many of them wonder why they have to slow down to wait behind us or deviate from their path. How do we fit into the whole ecosystem? Why do we merit protection as an endangered species?

We have to sell ourselves.

Two arguments carry some weight: 1) A cyclist does not tie up traffic as much as another car in an overloaded system. 2) A cyclist does not take up a parking space some desperate motorist needs in order to ditch the barge and proceed on foot. In an area where space can be wasted, such as a big box store or a sprawling shopping mall complex in what used to be food-producing agricultural land or pleasant countryside, parking lots can be vast, only filling up (or nearly so) during the Christmas consuming frenzy. But in an urban setting the parking argument has some real weight, as does the one about congestion. But motorists need to be reminded. Here is a good topic for targeted generic advertising.

On the flip side, bicyclists could use secure, covered parking. That takes up space, but not as much as a parking garage for cars and SUVs.

In suburbia, small towns and more dispersed developed areas, both the congestion and parking angles fall far short. But in those areas there is often enough elbow room in the public right-of-way to allow for some infrastructure tweaks to reduce friction between user groups.

It's true, motorists should respect the rights of all travelers, be they cyclists in the lane with them or pedestrians on the sidewalks and in the crosswalks. But first you have to break their trance.

Monday, December 03, 2007

CWX + 3SP = 4M

As the weather grew colder, my CW-X Pro Tights weren't warm enough. I'd grown quite fond of the support they provide, especially on the fixed gear, so I added some Sport Hill tights over them as the mercury dropped through the 30s.

At 29 F I had reached the lower limit with the average polyester tight as the outer layer. I didn't know this until I rode at 21 degrees and felt the chill bite through. So the next day, at 16 degrees, I put my Sport Hill 3SP XC Pants over the CW-X inner layer.

The 3SP fabric is a woven polypropylene. The tight weave of the outer surface deflects a surprising amount of wind. The inside is brushed to a fleecy nap that makes them a good single-layer choice for Nordic skiing down to the low 20s, or even colder on days without too much wind. Polypropylene rejects water, making the fabric more moisture resistant than a fleecier fabric would be.

Cyclists generate their own wind chill, so the cold cuts through at a higher ambient temperature for them than for skiers and runners. But for winter adventurers who might be out on snowshoes, skis or wheels, the XC pants are a convenient, versatile item.

On cold rides, CW-X plus 3SP equals mmmm....warmth.

Today we got a dump of snow, maybe as much as eight inches in my neighborhood, with snow showers and cold temperatures to follow, so I won't be out on the bike for a while. Between the schedule, short daylight and rapidly changing conditions, December is always a tough month for outdoor activity.

Come January we'll get into some sort of rhythm.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Typical Bike Industry

Skimming through the November 1 issue of Bicycle Retailer, I saw a picture of the Specialized entourage riding to Interbike from their corporate headquarters. The caption said that, as a statement about global warming and cycling, they decided to travel that way, taking five days.

Not one bike had panniers. All their gear was carried in an SUV driving sag behind them.

Come on.

When I pointed this out to a friend of mine, he said, "all those guys wouldn't have fit in that one SUV, so they saved something."

True, but they also took five days to make a trip that by commercial carriers would have taken a matter of hours.

Cycling isn't the most practical mode for most long hauls. Yet people trying to "make a statement" make their play for attention by taking long trips. The act draws publicity, but the excuse not to emulate it is built into it by its own grandiose nature. Most people can't break away for five days to ride a trip that would take hours by commonly accessible means. And most people don't have a vehicle and driver available to carry all their crap for them.

"Sorry," says the observing public. "Keep up the good work, but cycling just won't work for me."

No big deal. Just another meaningless gesture. But at least they got a ride out of it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Another Casualty

I recently learned that one of the cross-country ski instructors in Jackson, a man who had lived the car-free lifestyle for many years, was run down while cycling a couple of months ago in Massachusetts, where he summers. He has been in physical therapy for weeks and has not appeared in Jackson as he usually does in advance of the winter.

In the winter, he teaches both downhill and Nordic skiing with exquisite technique. He skis from place to place in the village when conditions allow, riding his trusty Litespeed when he needs to go somewhere by road. That was before this accident. I have not learned whether he will be able to resume this lifestyle.

This summer and fall's casualties underscore that bicyclists don't have fender-benders. Our bodies are our bodywork, so the dents go in us.

Cyclists, like pilots, climbers and mariners, always want to know all the details about a crash, so we can check our own procedures, to make sure we're doing all we can to avoid going down ourselves. In its harshest form, there's a definite tendency to try to blame the victim. Pilots I know will get curiously detached describing the catastrophes of even people they know. Climbers are much the same. It isn't a lack of compassion, just a defense mechanism to help us assure ourselves we are less likely than these other poor boobs to suffer the same fate. Otherwise it can be pretty hard to get yourself to go out or up again.

In heavy traffic the cyclist faces the harshest environment. Whenever you ride beside a motor vehicle you are in the greatest danger from it. That's why I cringe when I see someone splitting lanes at full speed between slow or stopped cars. It may feel like a great power trip to show those idiots how much better you have it, but remember that they're idiots at best and homicidal at worst.

Those big vehicles are bloated creatures with their piggy little eyes mounted way up front. Their view to the rear is limited to what they bother to notice in their mirrors. Their view to the side is subject only to the whims of chance. If they see you, will they register you? If they register you, will they consider you worthy of consideration? Will they judge your speed and distance correctly, even if they do pick you up on their sensors?

The next big danger comes from vehicles turning across your path from the opposite direction. Bike equals toy equals slow. Sure, they can make that hole shot. And if they don't, YOU"RE not going to hurt THEM.

Finally we have traffic entering from side streets. All factors come into play there, especially in a chaotic mess like the eastern Massachusetts road system. All those roads basically started out as goat paths. Look at how they wander and intersect, widened and paved, repaved and widened more to try to accommodate the burgeoning population of motorists over the years. They were never really designed. They just grew.

The Boston driving style is world famous. Aim for the gap and punch the gas. It's your only chance to crack into that endless flow of steel, glass and plastic. This method applies throughout the greater Boston area, which is effectively the entire eastern half of the state.

Despite these dangers, many people choose to ride bikes there, as they do in many congested urban areas. The freedom of cycling outweighs the danger of an accident. One does not set out expecting an accident, but the drawbacks of being a motorist don't discourage people from exposing themselves to a certain degree of hazard for the sake of cycling. Freedom, as is often said, is not free.

Monday, November 26, 2007


After five days off the bike, I finally managed to put together a couple of days of riding. In temperatures from the mid twenties (F) to today's balmy upper thirties, the fixed gear has pulled me back from the brink of utter separation from the comforts of human existence. Tomorrow looks good for one more before weather and scheduling thrust me into another flooded tunnel through which to swim toward the dim oval of what could be light.

I hate the feeling of a freewheel bike in cold weather. Direct drive keeps my muscles working and my speed in check. That keeps the wind chill as controllable as possible while generating heat both uphill and down.

And let's take a moment to salute the inventor of wind-block underwear.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Damned if I do and damned if I don't, so I did.

Once practical cycling becomes impractical, rides get harder to justify. In a civilization where physical exertion is almost entirely unnecessary, it becomes a luxury for those not shackled to it as part of a strenuous, physically destructive job.

When I worked more physically demanding jobs, I went at them like an athlete. I lifted weights, and walked and cycled for transportation so I could stand up to more of the strains of physical work. But most physical jobs aren't designed to preserve the body. People working in construction and other occupations that require physical exertion often have to operate in spaces that don't allow for careful alignment and judicious application of force.

I was fortunate enough to find steady employment in less rigorous occupations, though I have had to be frugal to maintain a comfortable standard of living on the income thus provided. Destructive labor or completely sedentary work might have paid a little better in money. I just couldn't hack the costs.

So here we are in November. If I get a ride, I have a better day than if I don't. Stealing riding time from other activities sets me apart from most other people. Sometimes I get a little crap for my scheduling priorities. That's the damned if I do part. But if I don't ride, I'm left to fashion a mood out of tiny, fragile bubbles of euphoria adrift on a vast sea of anhedonia.

If we get a ski season, cross-country skiing will provide its usual unmatched body and mind renewal. None of the dry land surrogates for Nordic skiing do as good a job as the real thing. So if the snow doesn't come, no matter what else I do to fill in the gaps in the exercise schedule, winter rides will still give me the most satisfaction. They connect to the greater whole of my practical riding and all the journeys I've taken in that way.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Need a Ride, Not Getting a Ride

Not posted when I wrote it. Here it is now.

Two mornings of pouring rain have kept me from riding. Yesterday the rain lasted all day. Today it is supposed to clear once I am at work.

Rejoining the motoring public for the dark, miserable winter, I observe that the section of Route 28 on my shorter drive to Wolfe City is much more thickly populated with sociopathic assholes than the longer drive up to Jackson. When I go by bike, these people rumble by me without a sideways glance. They only extend their aggression to motorists in their path. Stuck in a car, I have to put up with more of their antics.

Based on transportation principles alone, I should find other work. Maybe I should even move to another area entirely, where I can forgo the car. But life is not that simple. In order to support things I support here, I have to accept the need to carry large items quickly across longer distances than would be practical by human power alone. In the country, things are farther apart. In the city, things are too crowded and overbuilt. Take your pick.

Suddenly turned into a normal motorist blob by the seasonal changes of my job, I have to fit exercise into a schedule already crammed with other aims and interests. I have always understood how easy it is just to give it up. Color your view of the prisoners of indoor life with compassion, not contempt. It's hard to find time for everything, and we're conditioned to avoid exertion. Small wonder it gets discarded first.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Senseless Brutality

Random violence has to be the scariest creation of humanity.

In nature, violence has a purpose, usually related to feeding or mating. Only human beings practice injurious or lethal ambush as sport or even casual diversion.

Read this account of a commuting cyclist shot in the lung and heart near his home in Seattle. The weapon was apparently a bb shot from a .22 caliber gun. With a larger charge behind it than typically provided by an air gun, the projectiles actually penetrated his chest, puncturing one lung and hitting his aorta.

Motorists shoot each other, so this isn't just a hazard of cycling. It's a sad truth about human beings. Some of us are stupid or callous enough to consider violence to be comical. The comment thread after the cyclist's blog post includes other people's accounts of assault with various things ranging from the usual rocks and bottles to food.

Cyclists make a tempting target because we're out there in view, unshelled. The kind of people who like to pick on someone they perceive as weaker see our slower pace and lack of armor as an invitation. We can't wear a Kevlar vest all the time, in case one of these reprehensible morons comes along. We can't quit cycling. That would be like quitting driving because some day or night a drunk driver might come across the centerline at you, or some enraged driver might shoot you. Yes they might. If they have no conscience or the one they have loses its battle against their darker impulses, you could come out the worse for it.

This is the world we live in. As unfair as it is, these are the people we could die of. No war except the personal war against one's own impulses to lash out will ever change that. Punishment may do no more than breed a greater resentment. Whatever satisfaction one may get from hunting down a specific perpetrator and penalizing them, it does little to change the kind of mentality that would do such a thing in the first place.

You might as well ride.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Boxed In

If I hibernated, it would be this time of year. Minutes bleed from every day, dripping into the pool of darkness that will spread to its largest more than a month from now. The intrusion of a work day tears the bright heart out of the daylight hours. Sleeping in, so natural in a time of slowing metabolism and inward thoughts, is the unforgivable sin, punished by loss of the day.

For most of three seasons, a person has a little time to think, to plan, to improvise, and still go out with few special preparations. Then comes the darkness.

Today, the sun came out of the thick clouds just in time to set. All day, rain showers alternated with light drizzle. I considered a masochistic fixed-gear ride, but I really have too much to try to do. I need to prepare work for an art and crafts sale at the end of the month. My stuff did really well there last year. I need to package and send submissions to markets that might actually pay something. They get bombarded with a thousand submissions a day, but they do buy something. Why not mine? If it never arrives in their office, of course it never gets picked.

For years I've been "more of an athlete than a (fill in the blank) [cartoonist] [artist] [writer] [music student]" Only in the last year have I consciously forced myself to allocate my time differently. The net result has not been massive amounts of creativity, just a lot less exercise.

On a day when I don't have to go anywhere, it's hard to justify a ride, unless I can guarantee that the energizing effects will make me more productive. But if I can't hop out of bed and knock it out first thing, it's quite likely not to get done at all.

When other substances or activities provided that steady undercurrent of hopeful energy, a rainy day was a gift. Nothing was any better than sitting in a warm, well-lighted room, doodling and looking out at the weather. But back then I held the problems of the world and a human in it at a long arm's length. The price of engagement has been the time I spend grappling with the forces of existence. The return has been a more informed view of the world in which we all struggle.

The winter holds no promise anymore. We get what we get and do what we can with it. All I can do now is try to get past that time of year we call "the Holidays" with some shred of sanity intact, and look toward the rising sun of midwinter.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

A Good Review

The owner of the Fuji Cross Comp for whom I installed a complete custom drive train came in a couple of days ago just to say how great the bike was now.

"I can go up all the hills like a jackrabbit," he said. Or he might have said rocket. Something fast, anyway. The bike finally would do exactly what he wanted it to do.

The future of the independent bike shop lies not in sales volume of new bikes but in repairs and adaptations like this. Major bike manufacturers don't see it this way. They think the sport of cycling is the sport of buying bikes. Economic realities will catch up with them. Meanwhile, active cyclists ride ten-year-old mountain bikes on perfectly enjoyable adventures.

Last week I installed a new suspension fork, threadless headset, stem and rise bars on a customer's older mountain bike. He did end up dropping a chunk of change on that, because the rear rim turned out to have collapsed from brake pad wear. Building up a new wheel tossed about another $100 onto the bill. But it kept a bike in service. A comparable new bike would have cost almost twice what he put into the work on this one.

All my major jobs this fall have been adaptations of older bikes. I still have to finish the stem update on a Litespeed road bike for a customer who wanted to bring the bars up and closer. That one is old enough to have a one-inch quill stem. Nitto Technomic saves the day again.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Economic Indicators

Sometimes when we advertise for shop help, no one responds. If two or three people respond, we think it's a big deal. So when we advertised this fall and at least half a dozen applicants gathered almost immediately, we knew something was up. And more call in every day.

How bad must the economy be for so many people even to consider working as a sport shop grunt? The real proof that things are on shaky ground came in the form of strong-handed men, smelling faintly of sawdust, telling us that they've been working construction for the past several years, but "people are cutting back. There just aren't as many jobs."

I can't say how much these guys might actually want the job with us. They may just have to apply for a certain number of jobs a week while they're on unemployment, and we are one of the few businesses advertising a position. But that in itself tells you something.

Prosperity based on constant construction feeds on humanity's metastatic growth. It isn't sustainable. But the change may be hard, because we have been able to rely on that model for so long. We are now finding the limits, as science and economics start to be able to tell us how much growth we can get away with. We can say with confidence how much area certain animal species need to survive, but shy away from facing hard numbers about ourselves. We count on our own ingenuity to come up with ways to have our cake and eat it. So far, it seems to me, the bulk of the cake goes to people who are willing to have that status supported by debt and slavery. But that's "big picture" bullshit. Construction workers are out of work now because fewer people are building things. If that turned around and money started flowing again, few people would complain. Those who did would be branded with the usual labels and shouted down.

I'm in the bike business because, in good times and bad, it gives me nothing to feel guilty or uneasy about, except to wonder what bone-headed technological decisions the industry might make next. The basic concept of cycling is and always will be good.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Simple Wheels

The first thing you need to know about wheel building is that you don't need to know everything about wheel building. If you want to lace up a crow's foot pattern or tie and solder, if you want to argue the merits of paired spokes, bladed spokes and ridiculously small numbers of spokes, be my guest. But to build yourself a reliable wheel just remember three cross, inside spokes pulling and 14 gauge.

Build it round. Tension it adequately. Don't use thread locker on the spokes.

Make sure you use the right length spokes so that when you thread the nipples down to the bottom of the threads you have the same amount of tension on each spoke. If you've mixed lengths, the wheel will wobble where the spokes are too long or short.

Most spoke calculators will give you the right offset lengths for drive and non-drive spokes in the rear.

If you think of it, you might want to run outside spokes pulling on the rotor side of a disk-brake wheel.

Don't be afraid of 36, 40 or 48 spokes for heavy-use wheels. Thirty-two is good for all-around sporty wheels.

In wheels, there's nothing wrong with normal. Don't let a fashion trend for weird, disposable wheels cut you off from a very helpful and accessible skill for the self-sufficient rider.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Garb

Bike clothing sets us apart from normal people. It may be something as simple as a helmet on top of an otherwise inconspicuous ensemble or a full-on pro cycling outfit.

As both engine and driver, a bicyclist has to accommodate a variety of needs. Our clothing has to protect against the weather, provide visibility and allow the engine to work efficiently.

When I commuted in a town over distances of less than five miles, I wore my work clothes, usually jeans or painter pants, a tee shirt or a flannel shirt, and appropriate jackets or vests in season. I couldn't get myself to forgo cleated shoes, though. I kept a pair of sneakers at the workplace, wherever that might be, so I didn't have to lug a bulky pair of shoes for no good reason.

When I moved out of town and rode six or eight miles each way, over rolling terrain and more open roads, I started wearing shorts or tights as the weather dictated. Having done that it was an easy step to jerseys and cycling jackets. It was more of a ride than bopping through the city had seemed to be.

Now my commute is a genuine ride through the countryside. Bike clothing may not be a necessity, but I certainly prefer the freedom of movement, comfort and protection. But I look like a freak when I get off the bike.

People are getting used to seeing cyclists, so it's not a big deal. But the pants in particular can look a little more revealing than I prefer. Tights may be worse than shorts. To the average onlooker, I have chosen to wear the shrink wrap when I could have worn jeans. Freak!

No trousers in the wardrobe of a normal person provide the free leg movement but trim fit at the ankle desired by cyclists. Okay, women and sufficiently qualified men might wear capris, but for guys they still qualify as a social statement at this time.

For the grocery run today I just wore jeans. It was fun. With the loaded BOB, I wasn't sprinting or cornering hard. I wore a please-don't-kill-me-yellow vest and put the yellow dry bag in the trailer to enhance visibility. That way, when I went into the store nothing betrayed my oddity.

Self-conscious people may be encouraged to see that one does not need to dress up too flamboyantly to take advantage of practical cycling.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

New Link in the Sidebar

As someone who has commuted by bike for more than 20 (closing in on 30) years, I have picked up knowledge and information from the street. But Commute by Bike is a fantastically informative website for commuting riders who don't want to wait for trial and error.

One thing struck me right away. When I left racing behind I took that intensity into transportation. I felt my money and energy were better spent in something that helped me physically and economically, as well as helping the environment and urban congestion, for all that congested urbanites did not seem to appreciate it. That reasoning and that spirit are strong at Commute by Bike. One commenter said that he got as excited over lighting systems and other practical componentry as he had over go-fast racing equipment. It's true.

Go check out Commute by Bike. Just don't forget to swing by here, too.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Innovation? Oh, please.

Here's what I want:

Make a good product.

Make a name for it.

Make a lot of it.

Keep making it.

Any questions?

Inside the Mechanics' Studio

If James Lipton was going to ask me what my favorite curse word is, he would have to do it early in the program. The next 15 or 20 minutes would be one long bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.

I'm doing a conversion to linear pull brakes on a customer's nice 1988 Rockhopper. He's finally getting rid of those Exage cantilevers that used those fat, chunky brake pads that bolted in from the back. The way the pads flared, they would either cut into the tire or develop a lip below the rim before half the pad's volume had been worn away. If the frame builder had been a little careless aligning the brake bosses, the curved washers on the pad did not provide anywhere near enough range of adjustment to correct the discrepancy. No one mourned the passing of these brakes. Their only virtue, which turns out to be a curse, is that they take forever to wear out to the point where a frugal rider can justify replacing them.

The ones on this bike had finally developed enough of a problem for me to suggest it was a good opportunity to hop into a more modern system.

But I've been Shimanoed. I failed to notice (or remember) that this Rockhopper came with integrated shifter mounts. The shifters are above the bar, where they sensibly should have remained in a perfect world, but they don't have their own separate bar clamps. Instead, the brake lever body has a tab sticking off it and the shifter mount bolts to that. In an earlier repair we had sawed the tab off for the rear shifter and installed one on a separate clamp. Seeing that helped me overlook the way the front shifter was still attached until I was disassembling the brake system.


And so on.

I'm ripping the shop apart, looking for what I know I will not find: a decent quality, top-mount thumb shifter for the front derailleur. I may have something at home in my personal stash, which I am loath to relinquish. To help a bro' out, I might do it. It could be something from the Golden Age of Suntour, or a nice Deore DX. But meanwhile I've got this guy's bike ripped apart and only Shitno to blame for this predicament.

1988, people. I've been grappling with these arbitrary bastards and their weird aesthetics for a LONG time.



All Hail Patent Infringement! I dug up a cheesy friction shifter that had a surprisingly decent clamp. The four locating holes for the shifter unit matched the four pegs on the bottom of the original Mountain LX shifter itself. I am able to transfer it to this separate clamp. We're movin' ahead!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Shooting the Moon

Riding out the local rail trail after work last night, I caught this shot of the rising moon, one night short of full. The Olympus Stylus 720SW doesn't officially have as bright a lens as the C 3040, but it always brightens my low light shots to an almost embarrassing degree. I shut it down two full stops with the exposure control to make try to make the moon appear at least somewhat like a disk. It sort of worked.
After leaving the lake, the trail bends eastward through the woods. The moon was so bright it killed my night vision. It hadn't come up far enough to help illuminate my way. I actually had to shade my eyes with my hand. I wished I had a helmet visor.

With leaves down all over it, the path disappears even without another challenge to vision. The route goes between the rails and then beside them, crossing numerous times. An entertaining grope on any evening, it was even more so last night.

Emergent Cable Routing

Bar-top intermediate brake levers present a challenge when wrapping the bars. Depending on your level of fussiness, you may want to get a little fancy wrapping the bars up to the lever clamp.
I like to do it this way. It keeps the bar wrap snug around the bar, rather than stretching it around the housing where it enters the back of the lever. It takes a little stuffing, but it looks neater.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Afternoon Training Hazard

Maybe this was only a Maryland thing. It hasn't happened up here. But I don't go out to train at the time school buses are carrying pent-up kids home from their daily incarceration anymore.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Crash Reports

One friend's father was hit in a traffic circle in Massachusetts. He was placed in a medically-induced coma and did not look like he would make it. As it happens, he is now on the way to nearly full recovery. A family member says he may have some "minor neurological deficits," but, "if you didn't know him you might not even notice."

Good news of a sort.

Apparently, he got right-hooked by a woman who was trying to exit the traffic circle from a line inside his. A witness said he went flying over the hood. Without knowing more about how the situation came together, we can only speculate about what he could have done and just exactly how negligent the driver was. Cyclists have to be supremely vigilant, especially in roundabouts, where nobody knows who is really supposed to do what anyway.

In other news, another friend's son (or son-in-law) got trapped between a motor home and a guardrail. By incredible good fortune, he was not ground to a pulp or sliced into gruesome ribbons. Merely scuffed, and with a fairly trashed bike, he is now in negotiations with the motor homer's insurance company about the extent of the settlement he WILL receive.

Product Review: Aztec Hideous Crap

Actually, the product is called "Vibe" handlebar padding. I just had to remove some to do a stem change on a bike old enough to have a one-bolt stem clamp. What a hideous process that was. I had to use a heat gun on the high setting for long enough to turn the red padding a sinister, pre-ignition brown. As it bubbled and peeled back like a movie demon being vanquished, it out-gassed noxious odors that have no doubt started numerous tumors throughout my body and brain.

This product may help protect your hands from road shock, but be warned. Applying it is a one-way trip. There was even some double-stick tape in this whole agglomeration that kept me from unwinding the ordinary-looking black padded over-wrap until I'd played the searing blast of the heat gun over it to summon its toxic imps from their lairs.

The bars are still completely coated with leftover adhesive.

Thumbs down on the Aztec Vibe handlebar padding.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

More Componentry Chess

Or: Why Does the Bike Industry Make Life HARDER for Customers?

One recent purchaser of a Fuji Cross Comp cyclocross bike found the gearing a little stiff for the hill he lives on. It is one of the most notorious walls in the area. He asked if we could fit him out with a triple.

After exploring several options, he finally agreed to go to 9-speed on the bike and use barcon shifters. I could get him a 9-speed brifter, but he asked me what I would use and I told him. I even offered to let him ride my bike so he could try out the shifter position, but he said he could get used to anything if it was really mechanically better.

A couple of old stand-bys were out of stock at QBP, but lo and behold, obsolescence's little helpers at Far East had the barcons when QBP didn't. They don't even acknowledge the existence of 28.6 front derailleur clamps anymore, and had no Tiagra 9-speed triple front derailleurs anyway. But the Shimano R453 in stock at Quality will probably work just fine.

For a crank, I was going to get the LX 9-speed triple that comes with outboard bearing BB and 26-36-48 rings, but the 64-104, 4-bolt circle would cut him off from anything bigger than a 48 and would limit his options for other sizes in smaller rings. So it's back to the primitive but reliable Sugino XD600 (74-110), for which a vast array of ring sizes can be found.

To get him a 9-speed cassette that isn't either road-racing tight or suitable for climbing mountain trails in the mud, I got a Miche 13-26. I'll drop out the 14 and stick a 29 at the low gear end to give him a 13-29 with no jump larger than 3 teeth between gears.

It'll work this time, but the industry keeps closing off options. The next big sport will be walking barefoot if they don't start to wise up.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

New from Surly!

The blog at Surly Bikes recently announced several new products or updates on the status of some that had passed several release dates. Among these is the Traveler's Check, a Cross Check frame with S&S couplings. (Scroll down to the October 9 entry.)

Two years ago I wished I had a fixed gear frame with these couplings, which allow a traveler to break a bike frame down into small enough pieces to check as normal baggage, avoiding the punishing fees most airlines charge to carry bicycles.

I would use a fixed gear as a travel bike because it has the fewest parts to be damaged in transit and would be the easiest to slap into riding condition in an airport. The Cross Check has rack bosses, making it a better travel choice with any number of speeds. I was becoming more and more convinced my next fixed gear would be built on the Cross Check platform. This just about nails it. The only problem is that I was going to move my 2000 Cross Check to fixed gear status so I could build my tourer/commuter/explorer on the new Cross Check frame, which takes a 4-point rear rack.

The other problem with buying something new and lovable for a fixed gear is that it robs the bike of one of its invulnerabilities. When I built fixed gears originally, it was from found materials and less than top quality frames, so that theft would be an annoyance, not a heartbreak. I didn't want to give to the thieving community anything really desirable.

Time turns Trashimos into classics. I managed to hold onto the Super Course long enough to develop a relationship with it. If it had gone in the first year or five, I would have been pissed, but I would have simply gone to the scrap heap and gotten a new frame.

I do have a stockpile of frames with long dropouts in my basement. They're mostly a tad on the small side or distinctly on the big side. They're all old, possibly rusty inside, and I detect that last summer's visiting cat left his mark on them.

The stockpile

Scuzzy frames are fine for the urban scene. If the frame fails, take public transportation or walk. But here, where I have to ride a good ways just to get to the nearest town, I need something a little more reliable and comfortable for the longer haul.

Effective Advocacy (letter I just sent to Bicycle Retailer)

Bicycling advocates and industry representatives say they want to get more Americans on bicycles. The industry throws wave after wave of products at consumers, hoping that will excite them. The advocates pursue various forms of government support and attempts at public education that can often be about as exciting as a bowl of plain oatmeal. Maybe educating kids in school about the pleasures of cycling will plant an idea in their minds that will survive after they get their driver's license. Maybe not.
The last bike boom, centered on mountain bikes, brought an avalanche of money into the bike business and a wave of enthusiasm for cycling to the general public, without any real push from the industry or advocacy groups, some of which did not even exist then. The public brought their interest to the bike shops. They saw the simple, versatile, durable mountain bike and everybody wanted one.
After the industry technologized all the simple fun out of it, the mountain bike boom died, never to be reborn. Yes, we have all sorts of great niche bikes suited to every type of rider, but how do you promote that to a public that thrives on simple messages?
The answer: generic advertising. In mass media, in the public's face, relentlessly, figure out some way to make cycling look fun. Make it look cool. Place it in movies. Come up with some cycling lifestyle flicks, like the ones that came out in the 1980s only better, that insert it into the public consciousness. Make people want to bike. Then build the bikes they ask for, when they ask for them, rather than thinking you know what they'll ask for and committing to warehouses full of them, that you then have to get rid of by any means necessary.
Advocacy becomes easier when a lot of people are asking for facilities and consideration as a user group. You can't possibly build enough infrastructure for people just to stumble on and start wanting to use. You need to inspire people first, and then the money and the infrastructure will follow. Otherwise it's just a constant uphill battle to partially fund a fraction of what's already needed to provide for the riders we already have.
Send the call out now to all creative types who love cycling to produce whatever they produce: music, films, writing, photography, comic strips, promoting positive messages about cycling in all its wonderful forms. Talk it up in positive, non-confrontational ways. Cycling is all kinds of fun. All kinds of creators and communicators need to keep it in view. Don't be tiresome. Don't nag. Don't instruct. Show the fun.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Action Figures

A member of the local riding group just competed in his first mass-start race. With a body builder's massive chest and arms, he's not built like a bike racer, but he has a lot of heart, both figuratively and physically.

The local group rides are the typical collection of town-line sprints, conversational stretches and half-breathless jams that don't build real racing strength. An inexperienced rider can come out of this and his own collection of solo hammerfests thinking he has trained. If the first race doesn't shatter this illusion, the one after it certainly will. The small group can't provide important shoulder-to-shoulder cornering experience, either.

As we talked about his performance, I laid out a basic training schedule with its rhythmic changes of intensity. I suggested practice methods for cornering, just simple ways to get more out of the riding he's already doing. It doesn't need to be painfully scientific. He just wants to get more out of the races at his level. A family man in his 30s, he's not looking to have a career. This is especially true if he's going to retain that huge torso and his brawny arms.

I don't want to race anymore, but I really enjoyed being able to pass on what I learned to someone who will get some use out of it. As I did so, I realized how coaching is like playing with action figures.

"Here, do this. Now do this." Look at him go!

At the really ambitious levels it gets really complicated, scientifically and morally. But down here near the bottom it's just for fun. I can't wait to hear whether he did any of what I said, and how it worked.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Try Half-Carpooling

When my wife and I have to go to town at different times but will finish up there at the same time, we will "half-carpool." Obviously we can also travel in together and leave separately, with one of us biking the segment we travel separately. Thus at least one of us gets half the daily distance and we expend only one car's worth of gasoline.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Gear Indicator

In the days of downtube friction shifters and their relatives, the stem shifter, the barcon and the original mountain bike top-mount shifters, the shifter itself changed position for every gear. Thus it became the gear indicator.

Like another lost art, semaphore, the progressive shifter sent its message by gesture. It could be read by those who knew the code. Because the message was extremely simple, even an inexperienced reader could get the general idea that a certain position indicated harder or easier gears.

Late models of mountain bike shifter had little hash marks on the top to indicate with more precision where the indexed shifter had placed the gear. Downtube, stem and barcon models don't offer themselves to the eye as readily, so visual indicators do no good there. In those cases, a rider would become familiar with the angle of the lever in hand to get an idea of the gear selected.

With shifters that return to original position between shifts, gear indicators appeared. Some of them worked. But confusion reigns among the inexperienced. The technician has to explain to the new bike purchaser how four levers now do the work once done by two. If the system has no indicator, the novice rider goes off for that first critical test ride trying to remember which lever does what when why and how. Bikes often return to me in small-small or big-big cog and chainring combinations.

More than one customer has brought a new bike back because "it ran out of gears." The rider had shifted all the way to the end of one lever's range and didn't remember that there was another lever there to bring the chain back.

The rider isn't the problem. The plethora of unnecessary complications is the problem.

An industrial corporation wants to be able to tool up for large production runs. So Shimano and the companies forced to chase after Shimano's marketing machine promote the use of shifting systems grossly more sophisticated than many riders need. Marketing tries to convince them they want it, but OEM spec simply crams it down their throats. Then the backlash hits and we get things like
Auto Bike, Land Rider and Lime. Dumb it all the way down.

The industry has not taken all alternatives away. Down tube and barcon shifters are still available after market. But putting them on a bike represents extra trouble and expense. And top-mount shifters for a flat bar are either cheap friction models or the expensive (though clever) Paul Thumbies.

Manufacturers of complete products (like complete bikes) want to sell complete products. They don't see any advantage for themselves in offering something versatile, durable and repairable if they can convince enough consumers to drain the warehouses of another whole model-year's worth of new bike inventory. But that can't continue to work (if it ever did). It isn't sustainable without a return leg carrying the carcasses of the discarded bikes back into the cycle in some form.

As bicycling recognizes its many niches and each sub-category grows as the population grows, masses of mass production will fail to serve the needs of the biking public and the industry itself. The giant corporate approach will have to break up into either smaller divisions within the overall corporation or smaller, more nimble companies devoted to their niches. To some extent, that is happening, but component spec lags behind. That's why the most creative growth seems to be occurring in single speeds, fixed gears and BMX. These are the least dependent on integrated technologies, and therefore offer the companies and their customers the greatest opportunity for individual creative expression.

Component companies need to think beyond the brifter. They need to quit dictating which category of rider gets to use what width chain and range of gearing. A large portion of bicycling doesn't fall into a category. The bike is a starting point. The harder and more expensive the industry makes it to get from that point to other points, the more they make bicycling seem like a big yank and just another excuse for companies to suck money out of consumers' pockets.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Inconvenience of Convenience

A happy customer rode away yesterday on his new Fuji Cross Comp cyclocross bike. It seemed to be the answer to his dreams. But he lives near the top of one of the area's most notorious walls. He's been riding a mountain bike, so he's used to the triple crank and low gearing.

I told him the roadier geometry and lightness of the cyclocross bike might make it climb more easily than the gearing would suggest, but he found that the wall stalled him. He asked if we could put on a triple.

"No prob," I assured him. We can figure out how to do anything. Bikies developed powered aircraft and laid the foundation for the auto industry that seeks to kill them off. We can do anything.

The difficult we do at once. The impossible takes a little longer.

Try fitting up a triple with a reasonable selection of gears to a bike with ten-speed STI shifters. It can be done, but it takes a lot of page-flipping and Internet searching to come to the conclusion that you can try mad science with a 74-110 arm set or suck it up and try the Deore LX model that comes with 26-36-48 rings in 64-104, four-bolt configuration. These are listed as "9-speed," but the chain will fit the teeth. I checked. The only question is whether it will drop on top of the middle and inner rings when shifting down, instead of engaging them properly.

I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing to have so few options. We may find we have no options at all, if both those possibilities still don't shift cleanly with the dinky ten-speed chain. And who pays for the experimental surgeries? What works on one bike can mysteriously fail to work on another. Barnett would say that's because I am a primitive rock-banger instead of a steely-eyed Engineer about all this, but Barnett can take a hike. I know what I have experienced over the years. Some things are hard enough to measure and predict to be considered functionally unpredictable. Then you just have to fall back on whatever the Art of Tweaking can do for you.

If we'd had a Surly Cross-Check to sell the guy right off the floor we wouldn't be going through this. I'd do the standard conversion to 118 BB, granny ring, Tiagra triple front derailleur and 12-27 cassette. He'd be back out the door in a couple of hours at the most.

Multiple gears are only a convenience, not a necessity. Same goes for clicky-click shifting. As bikes evolved, shifting systems improved, but indexed shifting creates the compatibility headaches we have today. I'd settle for a reliable seven or eight. that work in many configurations instead of nine or ten that require perfection to work at all.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


I saw a commuter all last winter with these cool lighted chainstays. No one knew who it was or what they were. They were from these people.

They just popped up in a Google ad on an email I received.

$99. Hmm.

So wrong, but so easy to get used to

Global warming rapidly becomes habit forming. Here it is October, and I'm getting ready to ride to work in summer garb.

With no real winter it will be hard to earn a living here in northern New England. We can only hope that a few die-hards will ride their bikes, as they did during El Nino years in the 1990s. That was during the height of the mountain bike boom, when studded tires became popular and true believers sought out mud wallows. Since that fashion has dwindled, a warm winter may just leave us twiddling our thumbs in a darkened shop while we wait for spring.

As one who had to clean many encrusted bikes in the 1990s, I don't miss mud as a fashion statement. In the competitive economic climate of the times we couldn't charge for the amount of time it took to chisel away all that adobe. Don't you people ever wash anything? It made me damn glad I wasn't their proctologist.

We still get the occasional mud puppy. They usually present the opportunity to fold some cleaning charges into the labor portion of the bill.

By summer standards, the sun says it's now around 6:30 a.m., but it's really after 7:30. Time to head out.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Hey! Interbike just ended!


Back in the 1990s, bicycle retail was a nasty, competitive business. Mountain biking had brought a lot of new players to the game. A lot more money was coming into the bike industry than the bike industry was used to. It went straight to their heads.

At the retail level, every sporting goods store wanted some of that easy bike money. They're only bikes. How complicated can they be? Anything without a motor is automatically stupidly easy, right?

Established bikes shops that had coasted along in their comfortable niches suddenly found themselves competing with retailers and brands they'd never known existed. Advertising quickly turned to propaganda. It was dirtier than recent elections and it never stopped.

Through the doors trooped a steady stream of wise-ass kids who knew all about the latest thing. It was great fun to show them how eerily similar the latest ground-breaking design was to patent drawings and advertising pictures of bike products from the late 1800s. Harder to fight were the price wars that went on between shops 50 miles or more from each other, let alone the cut throat and back stab methods used by invading retailers just a couple of blocks away.

Interbike was our intelligence-gathering foray. With a show conveniently located in Philadelphia, we could drive down and spend three days picking up all the information we wanted about the lines we didn't carry. In one trip we could get complete specs and wholesale price information, so when Willie Wiseass told us the great deal he'd been offered by the shop up the street, we had a rough idea how closely they were cutting their Marins -- I mean, margins.

Once the local competition put itself out of business by trying to run at a loss for three or four years, and the bike industry put itself out of business with expensive, complicated, ever-changing bullshit, we had less reason to run off to the trade show. With bicycling a sport of many bikes now, we simply have to decide which of the types will sell the best in our area. No one from outside can tell us that. We know cycling and we know our area. No longer is the customer driven by a frantic marketing machine. Most of the general public no longer cares about cycling. If they do want anything, they will go to their nearest shop and start asking questions.

As a drool fest and an excuse to party with other cyclists, a trade show is probably fine for those who can afford the trip. But since gushing innovation probably does more harm than good, advocacy for good riding conditions, and lifestyle advertising to promote the idea of pedaling in general will do us all more good than tweaking high-tech materials into exquisitely expensive mobile sculptures for the body-sculpted elite to pilot at speeds that still make the average fat motorist snort with disdain.

Put Interbike wherever you like. And call me if anything really interesting happens.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Preparing for the Night

Your possessions own you. Nothing makes this more evident than electronic equipment.

The batteries in my marine VHF radios had always been a little finnicky, but when trips to the salty sea gave way to a long hiatus of inland navigation (if any) the radios and their batteries sat forgotten for...a long time, let's leave it at that. Similarly, after an active few years of mountain biking in which the group pushed the season well into November, we rode entire rides with lights, not just the last bit coming home after sundown. Then as we all drifted toward different forms of cycling, my battery light only got used for Nordic skiing at night. That meant long periods of storage, often with a longer period of uncertainty beforehand when I wasn't sure if I'd be topping up the charge any day.

A responsible battery owner tries to choose the least toxic options and recycle the dead ones, of course, but there's much more to the care and feeding of the rechargeable battery. I've discarded them for cycling, since my night missions are on roads at moderate commuting speeds and LED lights have improved so much. But I still have one light and two marine radios, none of which work at anywhere near full capacity.

In the case of all my rechargeable battery devices, I tried to remember to hit them with a housekeeping charge every so often, but it's easy to get knocked out of the rhythm. Also, with any nickel-based battery, memory can be a problem as well as self-discharge. They need to be run down and recharged. Battery University has some great articles on the subject. But lacking the tools to figure out why the batteries won't take or hold a charge when I tried to be meticulous about avoiding memory when I used them actively, I don't know what to do with my current pile of toxic waste.

I hate to chuck anything that works, but I'm a grunt when it comes to electricity. To do this thing right you need a battery analyzer and a scheduled program of maintenance. Even in storage the batteries perish from various causes. And the manufacturers cease to support them. Then you have a techie-looking, grossly expensive paperweight instead of a radio or a light. That's what I have now.

For cycling I have my array of Planet Bike Beamers. They take AA batteries, for which I can use rechargeable NiMH or alkaline. I'd like to avoid proprietary batteries completely in future devices. In fact, I'm starting to think fondly about oil or carbide lamps for the old bicyclette.

Friday, September 28, 2007

A Rash of Cross Bikes

Lately we've had a little surge of interest in cyclocross bikes. The local clientèle suddenly woke up to the versatility of 'cross bikes and a few riders have scraped up the coin to get them.

Try as I might to promote interest in the ultra-versatile Surly Cross Check, I admit that not every rider needs that level of adaptability. So I don't mind that the latest three cyclocross bikes off our assembly line have been Fujis. The riders who are getting them won't notice the limitations of VD and brifters. They're used to those features. If you never push against a wall you don't see, you can believe it isn't there. If it doesn't matter to you, does it matter at all?

'Cross bikes are cool. When people buy interesting bikes it puts the fun back in the job. I can imagine these riders taking their varied adventure rides.

Since the collapse of the mountain bike boom at the end of the last century, cycling has broken up into subcultures. Some riders maintain bikes to participate in more than one. Others have their one favorite. The cyclocross category provides many good examples of an "all-around" road bike for the one-bike rider who likes faster surfaces and a light-footed steed. It doesn't need to be paved, but it should be well-defined. Many places have paved and unpaved public roads that would be boring on a mountain bike but offer great opportunities for transportation and exploration on a rugged road bike.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


Some people are really put off by tattoos.

Body art and flesh-installed jewelry do make a bold statement. I always wonder how it will all look in twenty or thirty years.

For myself, I have never found an image I liked well enough to have permanently applied to my skin. This isn't just a bumper sticker.

I'm sure someone's done this, but how about having cooking and serving instructions written somewhere?

Boiled, broiled, baked or fried?

You could end up with a whole cookbook.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Last Will and Testament

I'm thinking of getting a tattoo that would say, "In the event of an accident, please take all usable organs and then compost the rest. My wife gets first dibs on my kidneys, but the rest is up for grabs." This would go on my abdomen, as this is unlikey to get hashed up in the most likely fatal motor vehicle-bicycle crash scenarios.

The thing is, I'm not totally sure about the distribution of things. Wife gets the kidneys, that's certain, unless her brother needs one, too. They can sort that out. But maybe I'd like the useless leftovers turned into cat food instead of compost. I like little kitties. The main thing is to recycle.

Not that I'm in any hurry. Plan A is to crawl off into a vast wilderness when I'm really old and know for certain that I'm through having fun. Of course with the Arctic melting down, large trackless wildernesses will be hard to maintain. There will be oil derricks all over everything. In that case, maybe I'll just set myself on fire and stumble into an oil pumping station. Talk about the last laugh! Watching those petro-slaves scatter in all directions as a flaming senior citizen does the Frankenstein walk into their flammable facility...

As I said, NO HURRY. But it's good to have plans. And in the event I get shortstopped by some catastrophe, remember the organ thing. Don't go pissing away money on some ridiculous funeral, or wasting land on graves and monuments.

In 1979-80, I said I wanted to be left to rot on the roadside if I happened to go down as road kill. Make the motoring public look upon their handiwork for as long as it took me to rot fully away. Of course I was told this was unsanitary and illegal. No one would do it for me. But the organ donation/compost/cat food thing shouldn't be a problem.

I keep forgetting to register as an official donor. Maybe this blog will serve as notice. I find it hard to get too seriously organized about my own demise. Too busy living. Anyway, you kidney recipients know who you are. Just don't get grabby.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Morning Fog and 40s

As the earth gives up its heat to the longer, cooler nights, fog forms in the low areas. A body of water provides even more moisture for the atmosphere.

I have to escape from the Pine River valley every morning. In the middle of summer it may only be pleasantly cool, but right now the first three miles of the ride to work have been shrouded in murk. A please-don't-kill-me-yellow vest seems like a good idea, unless the morning is cold enough for me to wear the nicer yellow Sugoi Stealth windbreaker.

Days are short enough and my commute is long enough for me to bring lights for the ride home. On a clear evening I don't really need them unless I stay late at work, but each day the sun sets a little earlier, while home gets no closer. And a few clouds can bring dusk even more quickly.

I warm up more slowly in the mornings and ride more deliberately in dusk, so the trip takes a little longer at both ends of the day. It's all part of the natural arc of the commuting season.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Threat Level: Sunny

Recent reports of cycling accidents remind us that autumn brings low sun angles and greater glare to make good drivers untrustworthy and bad drivers worse.

I can't say for sure whether glare really played a role in an accident reported by a cycling blogger in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but the driver said it did, and it may actually have. Likewise I do not know whether it was a factor in a more recent accident causing life-threatening injuries to a cyclist in Massachusetts. That rider is still in a medically-induced coma.

Usually when a cyclist gets hit really hard, it is because the driver pulled a full-speed maneuver without seeing him, or was gunning for him. Wishing to assume better motives for people, what might make a driver aim for a cyclist as if the cyclist was not there?

Consider the less obvious factors when scanning for dangers as you ride. A driver with the sun behind them may still be blinded by glare reflected from the rear-view mirrors or from some other object. A cyclist is small and often has to operate outside the tunnel-vision field that a rushing motorist sees. Shine a bright light in that motorist's eyes and the situation just got even worse.

Cyclists are not usually hit by cars overtaking. The nastiest accidents happen when a motor vehicle turns across the path of the cyclist. Vehicles approaching from the opposite direction present the greatest threat because they may believe they can easily beat the cyclist, and they probably want to get across the oncoming lane as quickly as possible anyway. Motorists typically underestimate the speed of a cyclist. If for any reason they don't even see the rider, they can turn at the worst possible time.

A comment on the Halifax blog mentioned that "drivers all seemed to be in a hurry that day." That brings up The Autumn Madness. As summer turns to fall, the motoring public does seem to get a little pushy and aggressive. Maybe the diminishing light stimulates a sense of urgency similar to what makes the squirrels scurry so furiously in search of nuts and seeds to stuff into hollow trees and bury in caches against future cold and desolation. Whatever the reason, it makes motorists impatient. Cyclists are the losers.

We deal with enough at the best of times to maintain our claim to a little strip of the roadway. Make the extra effort to be more vigilant now. Drivers won't do it for you. Most of them think they'd prefer it if you weren't there at all. They can't imagine each cyclist as another motorist, clogging the lanes and competing for parking spaces. If they see us at all, it is only as something in their way.

Monday, September 17, 2007

It's About the Bike

David Clay said... I know this is bad form to hijack a comment on old topic, but I had a question about converting a 70s vintage Raleigh Grand Prix to fixed gear. I came across your post earlier in the year on this topic. What kind of hub do you recommend for this (am I correct that the spacing is 120mm?) Also, what do you recommend for a SS crank? Were you able to change out the cranks only, or did you have to change out the entire BB?

No worries, David, changes of subject move conversations forward.

In the 1970s, when frame spacing was 120, available hubs were as well. Using a road hub and a BB lock ring, a mechanic could affix a cog to the wheel the Raleigh originally had. I've mentioned before that one might flip the axle around and re-dish the wheel to provide a straighter chain line, but I rode my early versions before I knew that trick.

A current track hub, one- or two-sided, will have 120mm spacing. You may choose, as I do, to put in a quick-release axle. That complicates things ever so slightly, because you have to obtain or modify a q/r axle to work in 120 spacing.

Old steel frames are very accommodating. A 120 stretches easily to 126. Many 120 frames made that transition accidentally. With a bit more care one could probably even sprawl it out to 130, but that's not necessary for single speeds.

The very first Raleigh GP fixie I rode may well have had the original cottered crank. A chain doesn't care if the chainrings are narrow, only if they are too wide. Running an eighth-inch chain you could use anything.

Later fixed gears I built used various cotterless cranks I had lying around. A road crank offers the choice of mounting chain rings in the inner or outer position to further adjust chain line. With Surly's Dingle Cog you can run two chain rings to give two gears to match the Dingle's two cogs. They recommend a 9-speed chain, but if you're not shoving it through a front derailleur it shouldn't perish too quickly.

I prefer to use a two-sided hub with one cog on each side, and continue to use chunky eighth-inch chains.

Road cranks with 130 bolt circles give you the full range of chain ring sizes from 38 to ungodly big. Single speed cranks may have 110, 135 or 144 bolt circles. Take note of the bolt circle on whatever you choose. Remember that no component choice has to be permanent.

I don't recall now whether the BB shell of the old Grand Prix was an odd width by current standards. My 1978 Super Course takes a 68mm Shimano BB-UN 52 (which is now a UN 54). I have an old Dura Ace or pre-Ultegra 600 crank on there at the moment. Cotterless cranks give you the best chance of finding replacement rings, unless you happen to get something weird like an old Stronglight or Miche.

Square tapered BB axles open up the largest selection of salvaged cranks. You don't have to use a sealed cartridge unit, but they're widely available, cheap and basically maintenance free until they completely croak.

Hope this helps. Have fun out there!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Mitt and Helmets

It only occurred to me quite recently that Mitt's inclination to bike without a helmet may stem from fear of The Dukakis Effect. Everyone looks like an idiot in an oversized helmet. A political candidate can't afford to be photographed looking like an idiot. Notice that in Romney's ad centering on his athletic vitality, he's running. Running is a more macho activity than cycling and avoids the helmet question entirely.

Maybe those of you who aren't in early-primary states haven't seen Mitt's ads yet. You'll get your chance.

The dork factor still plagues bike helmet wearers. I may use one, but I will be the first to admit that no one looks punk or tough or cool with a salad bowl on their head. One customer complained that the pointy back end of the average helmet "made him look like a woodpecker." It also seems like tremendous overkill when running short errands. But accidents are by nature unpredictable. Your odds may improve in some ways if you are not exposed to a situation for as long, but the other risk factors still apply. Gravity is as strong. Other road users are as unpredictable.

I miss the care-free days of cotton caps in summer and woolen beanies in winter. I still have my cool-looking Italian wool winter hat. And I don't miss the hot, heavy, clunky-looking Bell Biker. I switched to the somewhat more acceptable (but probably less effective) Brancale for the last couple of years of my licensed "career." In 1988, Tim Blumenthal called it a "Fred Hat." Soon after that I was sucked back into the bike business and could start buying more up-to-date brain covers.

I used the Brancale for whitewater and climbing. Climbing and paddling helmets accept the dork factor without putting up even a token resistance.

Those who would lead this land of the free end up being some of the least free. They have to worry at all times what the public will think of them, regardless of whether it is fair. The rest of us can look like whatever kind of idiot we choose.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Pilot Fish on a Whale Shark

On the way to work on Friday, outside of downtown, but in far enough for the road to be more like a street than a highway, I heard a tractor-trailer behind me. For those who know the 'boro, it was on Center Street inbound, by the intersection with Whitten Neck Road.

I'd much rather have a tractor-trailer in front of me than behind me. As a motorist I would feel just the opposite, but I can use that behemoth when I'm cycling.

The heavy diesel rumble stayed steady, indicating this nice guy would stay back if I held him back. I looked back several times, holding the look. Up ahead was a short section of wider shoulder. I pulled into it and slowed. The trick was to encourage him to pass quickly enough for me to use the little down slope to jet out of my safe haven in time to catch the pocket behind the trailer.

The wide place wasn't quite long enough, so I had to slide out next to the last double set of wheels. As soon as it passed, I exploded in a sprint to catch the draft. The slope helped me, but it also helped the loaded truck. I had to wind out the 48-13 at screaming dive-bomber rpms to gain the suction of the truck's air column. But I made it. As soon as the pocket sucked me toward the trailer I could coast and feather the brakes to maintain position.

The trailer was loaded with heavy pallets of building materials, so I knew the truck would make a slow, wide right turn pretty soon at Route 109A to go to Winnipesaukee Lumber. It's like transferring to a different bus. Meanwhile, the ride was comfortable. I mentally reviewed the condition of the pavement ahead. Drafting the truck I was on a different line from my usual. Any raised or sunken utility lids? Killer potholes? Large longitudinal cracks? Nope.

Traffic management depends on opportunities like this. I always use larger vehicles the way a pilot fish uses a shark, but sometimes it's hard to catch a good shark. This monster was a whale shark: a big, harmless plankton eater that would not attack.

When the truck jammed the whole intersection with 109A, I slithered around the left corner of the trailer and slid back into my usual groove. All the motor vehicles I'd been traveling with had been trapped behind the truck as it wedged itself around the tight right turn. Some came along shortly to provide extra lift going into the nice right onto Lehner Street.

I had to go to the bank, so I went past the shop, dropped into Mill Street and picked up another small shark to keep people from pulling out on me as I flew down into the sweeping left by Hampshire Pewter.

As I left the bike-through at the bank, a dump truck was just pulling out, so I got another truck draft to the shop. Drafty morning.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Let's Have Some Fun

Getting the hell away from the politics, philosophy and religion of helmet use, I've spent a whirlwind 24 hours putting together the specs for another custom-built Surly Cross-Check. A young guy (younger than I am, anyway) had come looking specifically for a Cross Check on a day I was out. Following up, we talked on the phone and then he came in.

Complete bikes are out of stock. And he's going to use it for touring, so he would have had to make a lot of modifications from the basic bike anyway.

I like building bikes, especially when the workshop is slow in the fall. But first we had to hike through the bewildering landscape of all the available options. That means balancing available funds, intended use and personal preferences to come up with a final configuration that can have a fixed price tag.

After an hour and a half with the customer in the shop, I still took the spec sheet home to run numbers for another hour or two in the comfort of my living room. Then this morning I had to tidy up a couple of last details before bouncing it off the customer and putting together the major order.

The real kicker is that this guy wants to take off on a transcon bike tour October 1. So I really didn't have time to hunt around for things.

For the index-dependent majority, the biggest choke point is the drive train. If a rider shifts in friction, number of speeds is irrelevant. Buy whatever is available and stick it together. Chain width has to match cog width and spacing, but that's about it. Most cranks can manage 8 or 9, although you have to watch too skinny a chain on widely-spaced chain rings. Even then, an experienced friction shifter can throw it where it needs to go, at least long enough to get back to the lab and engineer a more satisfactory solution.

We spec'd 9 speeds to start. Then as the price mounted I thought I saw a way out through 8 speeds. But no one makes good wide-range 8-speeds. So I had to go back to the simulator to try to land the 9 within the budget.

Another expense comes from the wheels. I keep having to build them because I can't find a pre-built wheel I like. Don't tell anyone how much I'm discounting some of the parts and labor in order to try to keep this affordable. On the plus side, I can now build a standard wheel in my sleep. But it still costs more than a pre-built wheel. I could have sworn Quality offered a nice one with the Salsa Delgado rim, but not anymore. For loaded touring we're going with 36 spokes when the industry standard has become 32.

The order is on its way. The parts we already had are in a box, waiting for their friends. Then they all get to go out and play.

Building bikes for other people helps me resist building too many for myself. It's even better when the customer accepts a design I like.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Helmets: Are they BS?

A recent comment seemed to criticize me for using a certain pro-helmet argument in a segue.

I said: It is said that a rider who doesn't protect his brain with a helmet has nothing to protect anyway.

Fritz said...

The tendency of helmet advocates to fall back to -- nay -- start with empty but insulting ad hominem says something about the emptiness of their efficacy claims. IMO.

This would seem to imply that the commenter does not believe helmets are effective. Yet the argument that non-users have not thought about the problem thoroughly seems like a valid one, if one believes that helmets have a beneficial effect.

Interestingly, in almost all of my serious crashes I was not wearing a helmet, and it didndidndidndidn hurt me none. I'm perfectly fine AND WHERE DID THOSE BATS COME FROM?!?!?!?! GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!

Seriously, though, I have hit the ground hard a number of times without benefit of brain bucket and come out of it no more addled than I went in. Which isn't necessarily saying much, but I have not displayed any strong indications of permanent damage. Honest. I was this flaky before.

But wait: my most serious crash ever occurred before I went into third grade. I felt a little under-motivated in second grade, but I actually hit the pavement hard enough to be knocked unconscious in the big crash, and had trouble paying attention in school (or much of anywhere else, truth be known) ever afterwards. Hard sayin' at this point, but maybe a crash hat would have taken the edge off and put me into Phi Beta Kappa later on.

I made somewhat of a career of smashing into things throughout my childhood. Through cycling I was able to carry this pastime on into adulthood. Except for crashes in races, where helmets were required, I always went down bare-skulled. In more than one instance I felt my noggin bounce off the tarmac.

I started wearing a helmet somewhat regularly when I commuted on a busy four-lane road. On quieter streets I had talked myself out of the geek dome, but my new wife put pressure on me to wear it. That and the mechanized meat grinder nudged me over the line. I became a helmet guy.

I did lapse. I wasn't wearing it when a passenger in a car stopped in traffic threw a car door into my left leg as I rode by at 20 in a marked bike lane to the right of where her chariot stood in line with a hundred others in a traffic jam. The edge of the door drove into the muscle of my thigh, bringing me to a rapid halt. But most of the time I felt naked without it, as if this might be the day my luck finally ran out.

One time when I crashed in a race, tee-boning a rider who had rolled a tire in front of me, I flipped over and landed head first on the frontal area of an old Bell Biker. That impact probably would have been a skull-crusher. It was a tight field and I don't recall being able to get my hands out of the drops before going over the falls. I was not able to assume the perfect tuck-and-roll position in the time and distance available.

I do feel safer in traffic than in any race field of low-level licensed riders. Even at high levels, tight fields and hot sprints can lead to some chaotic situations. Cars are usually easier to evade. But people throw things out of them, pedestrians dart out from behind obstructions, front wheels get knocked around by a variety of things. Would you go to sea on a ship with no life boats?

One customer complained that if he wore a helmet he would linger in a coma, whereas without it he would die cleanly. If only you could count on things to work out that tidily. But you don't really know. Others say they don't need a helmet because they ride slowly. Yet at slow speeds you are more likely to fall straight down instead of sliding in. And slow riders who may be timid may be more likely to fall, and fall stiffly.

Our local bike path offers many opportunities for unsteady riders to bite it. The rails are still there on this rail trail, because a rail car club uses it from time to time. The path runs between the rails in some areas, and beside them in others. That means riders have to cross the rails many times. The crossings get scuffed out. The rails are fiendishly slippery when wet. The path surface is not uniformly firm, so a bike's tires suddenly wallow into unconsolidated sand. Many other sketchily paved or totally unpaved venues present opportunities for less experienced riders to go down.

Sure, many generations did very well with no head protection at all. Maybe I picked up my initial prejudices from some experienced riders I respected a great deal. Why worry? Something gets you eventually.

My employers can get pretty pushy about the helmet thing. Mostly they're afraid of getting sued. So whenever a renter turns down the helmet there's a lot of clucking for some time afterwards. Likewise with helmetless Mitt, who has been a mobile tourist attraction around town for several years.

Incidentally, I didn't seriously think Romney's choice in this matter made much of a difference. He has other positions with which I disagree. I just thought it was funny two helmet objectors would turn out to be his staffers.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Somewhere in the world it's quitting time

The CEO took off to go yachting about two hours ago. The rest of us drift in the doldrums, hoping to reach the lush shores of freedom before we die of boredom.

Sure, there are things to do. But not all work is satisfying work. Desperate ennui can share space with several other emotions and intellectual occupations. And it frequently does around here.

The hour and a half to quitting time drags past like the torment of being slowly roasted over a medium-sized fire when the same hour and a half before work jets by like a hummingbird on Mountain Dew.

Enervated by the exhausting crawl through the desert to reach the end of the work day, I then have to find the energy to ride aggressively out of the city limits to reach roads open enough to let me warm up gradually. It's upside-down and backwards compared to how a ride should evolve.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Decision 2008

Here's an odd bit of trivia for you to consider when sifting through the field of presidential candidates for the upcoming primaries: Mitt Romney has been seen repeatedly around Wolfeboro, riding his bike without a helmet. We laugh at this quirk, but today two people claiming to be Romney campaign workers came in to rent bikes at separate times and both refused helmets even though we offer them free with the rental. Aparently it's a campaign trademark.

It is said that a rider who doesn't protect his brain with a helmet has nothing to protect anyway. Mitt seems like the Warren Harding type, if you know what I mean. The fine-lookin' purebred dog with a ball of rubber cement between his ears...

Great Moments in Traffic

Heading to work on Monday, approaching the end of Elm Street, I sprinted into the pocket behind a big pickup truck that had passed me in the last curves. At Route 16 we all stopped because traffic flowed south in a continuous, bumper-to-bumper stream at about 40-45 miles per hour.

The northbound lane was absolutely clear.

A motorcyclist pulled up next to me.

"Wanna race?" he asked, grinning.

"Nah, just a draft," I said. I floated forward to scan the traffic for signs of a usable gap. Two trucks headed the line waiting to get out of Elm Street, followed by the motorcyclist, and another motorcyclist, and a car or two that drifted in to join the queue. No one was going anywhere.

Except me.

I turned northward to get away from the anxious motorists stewing at the stop sign. Southbound traffic slowed to about 20 as the light down at Route 28 went through its cycle. As soon as that happened I was able to sprint up to speed southbound in the unused northbound lane and merge through the southbound flow to get to right shoulder. The southbound motor vehicles never stopped or formed enough of a gap to let any of the motorists escape from Elm Street. They were all still there as I tooled south to 28 unimpeded.

Poor bastards.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Dust on my rims. All I need is dust on my rims.

At the end of the day yesterday I remembered that I needed to lube my chain and derailleur after getting caught in the rain the day before. The lights were out. Everyone else had left. The commute home is a race against sunset if I ride the longer, more peaceful route. So I slopped on the Pro Link without any delicacy.

I hurriedly wiped the over-splash off the rear rim and clacked down the stairs in my cleated shoes.

Of course the brake squealed embarrassingly. But I knew what to do.

With only a trace of residue on the rim, I could cure the problem with an abundant and available substance. I headed for the local bike path to ride in its clouds of dust. After a sufficient amount had settled on the rims I used the brake to sweep it away with the lingering lube. The brakes became quiet. Shortly thereafter they regained full effectiveness as well.

"Dust in the Wind" kept playing in my mind. Good tune for the end of the summer anyway.

Chaos and Tedium

Saturday of Labor Day Weekend brought moments of frenzy interrupting a generally tedious plod toward quitting time. Renters would arrive at exactly the same time as repair check-ins and groups of shoppers. All would leave at once. In the quiet times we could grind away at the uninspiring mechanical work as we watched the beautiful day slip past the windows that separated us from it.

I wore something festive to mark the last big driving holiday of summer.

The same work load spread out evenly would barely have taxed our skeleton crew. The three of us ran around trying to look like five or six during the chaos. But a full staff might simply have annoyed each other during the lulls. We covered the store while a delegation from our management manned a booth at a local promotional event inconveniently scheduled on the big holiday weekend.

Monday should be interesting, beginning at 5:30 with river testing before I sprint to work. It requires such an early start that I might as well stay up all night if I don't get to bed early enough tonight.

In our business we have the opposite of holidays.

Any eloquent pieces of writing that occur to me during the day have shriveled into mummified remains by the time I get time to try to capture their full youth and vibrancy.

Time to hit the road.