Monday, January 29, 2007

Reason #9,567 Why Bikes are Better than Cars

No body work.

The hood latch on my present car had been sticky since I got it. I'd been able to get by, as long as I remembered to forcibly push the release handle back in after pulling it out to pop the hood.

The situation came to a crisis a couple of months ago when I took the car for an oil change. The latch stuck open and would not snap shut for anything. I had forgotten to push the handle in. When I did, it did not take up the slack.

Quick lube places lose patience in a hurry when a customer can't pull out as quickly as they pulled in. The money is made on volume. Actually, the place I use is so cheap I wonder if it isn't a front for something else, but as long as they do a good oil change for a really good price I'm not launching any investigations.

After several minutes with a cluster of frustrated oil-change technicians firing spray lube into the mechanism and prying it with screw drivers, the latch suddenly gripped the hood as it was meant to do. I drove away.

Something always comes up on my days off, so I hadn't delved into the problem. But now the car is due for another oil change. To prepare, I dared to open the hood, to make sure I could close it again at the lube place.

About 90 minutes later, after I'd given up a couple of times and then gone back out to the snow-covered driveway, and placed a call to my trustworthy mechanic, I went back out with some advice and reassurance from him. Eventually I broke enough parts off it to get it to latch. Whether I'll get it open without a crowbar is anyone's guess. But it's shut now. I can drive on the highway. Of course I have to limit my mileage, because it still needs the oil change, and I don't dare clot up the quick lube place with it. I have to replace that latch assembly or have it done by someone else.

The greasy, frustrating project completely gutted my afternoon. Now I will be later than usual for everything that follows, because I still have to do everything else on my list for this afternoon. I couldn't bypass the stupid car issue because I need the car to do some of the stuff on the list.

My four bikes together cost less than one semi-reliable used car. If one of them turns out to be completely crippled, any of the others can be ready to go in minutes. If one breaks down out along the road, I can knock it down to a small enough package to be able to get it home in almost any vehicle that might come along. Or I can walk along pushing it.

Stupid cars.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Skiing for a while

We got a little snow, so I've managed to get out on the Nordic trails. I've even gotten out enough times to get past the dauntingly awkward first few times.

Although the shift to usable winter was sudden, the season feels long. The whiteness on the ground looks right with the angle of the sun and the bite of cold in the air.

If it all ends again in a couple of weeks, we'll be back to rides in the raw wind, looking for the lasting warmth that never seems to come. I'd rather be skiing.

When the riding begins I'll start asking myself again whether it's time to get a Steamroller, and if I ought to stockpile a spare Cross-Check frame or two. For now I'm just concerned with the wax of the day and whether I'll get to use it.

Friday, January 12, 2007

I Was Saving Carbon Before it was Cool

The new commisioner of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, Tom Burack, was on a radio call-in show this morning on New Hampshire Public Radio. He was saying a lot of good things about how we live in an interconnected world. Everything affects everything else.

It all comes together in the environment. When he mentioned carbon emissions, he suggested that people should look for more fuel efficient vehicles, since carbon emissions are based on gallons burned, not just hours of operation. "And you'll save money," he said.

No one talked about carbon emissions when I started using a bike for transportation in the late 1970s. But the idea of saving money really appealed to me. I had no idea at the time how many years I would spend shampooing and conditioning the hairs on the underbelly of the economy. I just knew finances would be tight until my brilliance was recognized and a flood of money started flowing toward me by itself.

Still waiting, by the way.

During those long years I had my brief fling in racing. While there I decided that I didn't really like throwing elbows with a bunch of hyper-competitive people, but I certainly liked riding my bike efficiently. I could take what I learned from racing and apply it to transportation.

A lot of criterium mentality applies very well to riding in traffic. You often have to throw your elbow in there and claim a place, sprint for a gap or lay into a corner. Okay, maybe you don't have to. But it opens up new areas for you if you are willing and able to do it.

The decision to use my fitness and energy for something practical and environmentally helpful was absolutely conscious and purposeful. If I was going to be riding anyway, why not use it to get around?

In terms of fuel, if I was going to be eating anyway, why not use it to get around? With a sedentary lifestyle, it's easy to eat too much food. Food is around. You don't have to be making much money at all to have access to too much of the wrong sort. Don't deny yourself both food and the pleasure of riding. Enjoy both. Food is fuel.

I harp on this a lot, but it can't be said enough. Before too long, I hope more people will join me out there instead of staying sealed in their sensory deprivation tanks, hating me and people like me.

We're not IN the way. We ARE the way.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Down, and Give Me 20!

With dry roads and some sun between jostling clouds, I seized the moment and hopped out for 20 miles on the fixed gear.

I really need to put the shorter stem back on that puppy. There's nothing like a few weeks off it to point out its peculiarities.

The route took advantage of the west wind. I got out to Route 25 and headed east for several miles, spun out at a comfortable 20.

Twenty. There's a recurring number. But the average wouldn't hold up, even though I can tack on the upwind leg, riding diagonal roads that cross the face of the relentless wind.

A ride always helps. The benefit might not kick in right away, but it always kicks in eventually. Sure, this is not really the beginning of the daily rhythm of regular rides, but it breaks the lethargy.

Perhaps anyone reading this has never suffered from the lethargy. Perhaps you are all so driven, dedicated and energetic that you never get knocked off the bike by the needs of daily life. You never get held back for long enough to lose your momentum. But in case you do, and you can use a reminder to kick yourself in the seat of the pants, here it is. Sometimes you haven't managed to stay on your feet. So get back on your feet. Against all the cobwebs that turn to cables holding you back, against the indefinable reluctance that may seep into your mind, pump up the tires, put on the clothes and get out.

You can't permit yourself to settle for the alternative. The only reason you need for a ride is that you need a ride.

Warmth Alone Does Not Make Spring

Even with a day or two on which local riders went out in shorts, the bizarre warmth and lack of snow gets us no closer to the real easy-living weather of true springtime.

In what we had called normal seasons, we would slide out of the melting glacier in early or mid-April. More intrepid riders would have taken any opportunity that came up during the entire winter. We might have been keeping a somewhat regular schedule since late March. But the last blows of winter would assure that we had to go back indoors or switch back to our favorite cold-weather pursuits several times before we could go out for our spring classics and hypothermic epics on the sandy roads of April.

The biggest swarms of riders wouldn't hit the roads until the much warmer weather arrived in late May. They come out with the bugs.

In early April, the trees still stand bare. Close inspection shows the buds are swelling, but from a distance the forest looks gray and desolate. It's nice, if you happen to like gray desolation. But it gets old.

Cold winds sweep down from the mountains. The snow retreats up them. The heights go from white to dappled. Squalls of mixed rain, sleet and snow challenge the early-season rider. We dress in layers and dream of shorts, short-sleeved jerseys and sunny days. It gets us through the month or six weeks of grinding through the grayness.

Warm winter makes the gray grind longer. Daylight is short. Drivers are sealed in their sensory deprivation tanks, unprepared to deal with us.

After a few more years of this we will get used to it. It just seems weird now.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The End of the World as We Know It

Driving north to my lonely vigil at the cross-country ski shop, I could still appreciate the beauty of the wraiths of fog twirling up from a lake I passed, as the ice sublimated directly into the rain-filled atmosphere.

The last time this happened this completely was in January 1995. Global warming wasn't a household topic back then, but a few of us had been aware of it for years. Looking up at the Presidential Range, drab and gray as in early November, I hoped I would not have to see it happen again, but I knew I might. Now I have.

In the 1990s, mountain biking bailed us out. But the technofascists ruined that. Or maybe just people's taste for artery spackle and an easy ride took us down. I think the bewildering array of choices and expensive, complicated machinery helped discourage people.

People want simplicity. When they could go into a bike shop and see long rows of bikes that looked essentially alike, they could buy up or down the price range, knowing what they were getting on a single continuum.

Other bike types existed for the few who looked for them. You could pick up some incredible deals on a used road bike, too. But, for the bulk of consumers, it was the Age of the Mountain Bike.

If someone wanted a comfort bike, shops could build it by converting a mountain bike. If someone wanted an urban assault bike, shops could build it by converting a mountain bike. They would only have to order numbers of bikes by price point. If all sold in original knobby form, fine. If a certain percentage sold as conversions, that was fine, too.

Pre-built niche bikes seem convenient, but the shop needs to tie up more purchasing power and winds up with smaller selections within each type. You have to guess correctly about the proportion of each type you will sell. Meanwhile, because of the confusion and market fragmentation, customers may simply turn to something else. Shops have to invest more while return on investment goes down.

Bike manufacturers might have seen an initial increase in sales as shops had to buy a little more inventory than they did when mountain bikes were simple. But sales fall off as shops get stuck with inventory they haven't unloaded.

Consumers are less intrepid than they were in the early mountain bike era. They're far more likely to get excited over electronics they can enjoy in a comfy chair or a powerful motor vehicle they can operate from a comfy chair than they are about anything requiring the faintest degree of athleticism. So maybe my theory is all wet. But what if the bewildering surge of complicated, expensive bicycle technology actually helped propel the population toward sedentariness? Bikes weren't simple, cheap and fun anymore. They were seriously engineered machines for serious people.

I'm not just sucking my gums and pining for the good old days here. If the bike industry decided to reinvent simplicity, most consumers would not notice that the other stuff had disappeared.

In order to match customers to the bike that will work for them, we have to ask qualifying questions.

"Where do you like to ride?" we ask the customer.

Many of them probably never thought about it.

"How do you like to ride?" we ask.

Many of them probably never thought about it. Forcing them to think about it automatically makes the sale process more of a bother.

"I just like to ride," many of them say. We can't assume we know what that means.

I guarantee most people were fine with thumb shifters mounted on top of the handlebars. Push it one way for easier, the other way for harder. You can tell at a glance where you are in the gear range without a complicated indicator. Most people didn't ride hard enough to want the shifter under the bar. They'll be perfectly safe sticking a thumb up there for a second to make the shift.

Saddles and suspension have been a sore point since the 19th Century. Maybe the complexity of suspension had to be addressed. But just as suspension designs came and went more than 100 years ago, eventually leaving us with bikes that had none, so might we discover that a lightweight, simple steed ends up being more comfortable and efficient in the long run than one with a lot of specialized parts that change design with annoying frequency.

While single speeds will do very well for short hops in many parts of the world, we don't need to be fixed-gear fundamentalists in the search for simplicity. But I will continue to assert that much of the complexity with which we've stuck ourselves limits rather than broadens our appeal and our overall usefulness. It even eats into the pleasure. One little maintenance problem piles on another until the whole multilink, indexed, integrated blob is a useless pile waiting to be ignited with a fistful of money.

We need to make it fun again. Do that and people will come back. Maybe we'll survive the summer after this pathetic excuse for a winter.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Slow-cadence Woman

The lackluster winter has kept a number of riders out there on the roads. I've been seeing the one I call Slow-cadence Woman many mornings as I drive to work.

She turns the pedals at about 50 rpm. She has some sort of spiffy Cannondale racing bike. She has the clothes. This morning she was out there at about 27 degrees, turning her 50 rpm along Route 302, same as ever.

Does she ever spin it up? I have no idea. She doesn't seem to be grinding hard on a big gear. She just floats along at that 50 rpm in a mid-range gear, day after day.

Hey, she's out there and I'm not. I'm not criticizing, just observing. Fifty rpm.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Year Zero

With the start of the new year, my mileage stands at zero.

The road out front is covered with slowly drying brine. Scant snow with a glistening crust presses in from the edges.

I celebrated the arrival of 1981 by riding around in a snowstorm at midnight with two good friends in Alexandria, Virginia, on our beater fixed gears. The old year ended with a ride that crossed over into the new. Midnight was a barline on a piece of music, a division that passed without a pause.

My beater fixed gear has survived enough years to become a classic, so I don't dash out and laugh as I pilot it through the corrosive soup. I need to build a new beater. The problem is, I don't beat. I respect my equipment. If I build something I dislike enough to abuse, I won't like it enough to use it at all.

Life is too short to ride crappy bikes. They can be cheap and eccentric, home built and hacked together, but if they don't have good ride qualities, forget it. The world has enough boat anchors with pedals. I don't need to be on one.

For short hops in the city a rust-and-black Muffy with bent steel rims and no brakes has a certain humorous appeal. Where the roads are prettier, I want to have a riding experience at least as pretty.

The wheels take the worst punishment from the salt. They're right down in it, every spoke end swishing through the salty stew countless times. The salt water works into the junction of the spoke nipple through the rim and the threaded joint between the nipple and the spoke itself.

The current fixed gear has survived more than two decades of winter use. The wheels have been through more than that. I built them in 1979 for a commuting bike on the Super Course frame now built as the fixie. It was a five-speed until I flipped over the back of a Mazda I was passing on the right when he turned right. The rim got tacoed in the crash. The friend I was chasing came back to find me surveying the damage. He stomped the rim basically flat. At home I tensioned the spokes and stripped the bike down to a single cog and no rear brake.

To be honest, I did replace the stomp-and-tweaked rim a couple of years later. Other than that, the wheelset is original. Oh, wait, then I replaced the rear hub twice. The first time I laced in a flip-flop Atom. When I rode the bearing cups right out of that I laced in a flip-flop Suzue. It's like the story of the best axe I ever owned. Replaced the head three times and the handle six. Same damn axe.

Come to think of it, the low-flange Atom front hub croaked, too. I rebuilt the front wheel with a high-flange Campy Tipo hub, 1970s vintage. I ponder the fatigue life of aluminum sometimes, when I'm all spun out on a bumpy downhill.

Today I think I'll do some weights and rollers. I'd let the weight workouts slide. Then on Sunday I was finally ski skating, when I hooked an outside edge, crossed up and ploughed in on top of my right arm, yanking at the old shoulder separation. It's definitely a little looser than it was. Time to bear down on those supporting muscles again.

Ah, healthy exercise. It'll kill you in the end.