Thursday, March 29, 2007

Dry Cleaning

Years of working without a parts washer have led me to develop some effective dry techniques. They help reduce the use of potentially harmful solvents, as well as working around the lack of wet cleaning facilities.

An apartment dweller or home mechanic might have subsisted with basic dry cleaning for years. You can clean a lot with rags, paper towels and cotton swabs. But a shop mechanic generally has the advantage of compressed air.

When repair season brings me an endless parade of merchandise from Bent, Bashed and Beyond, I need to be able to process the victims quickly and effectively in a workshop that used to be the cocktail lounge of a seedy inn. I'm not kidding. My work stand is on the grimy remains of a hardwood dance floor. The management only removed the tattered border of carpeting a couple of years ago. We will never have a real parts washer in there, or any truly functional substitute.

Working into old bike boxes, which we often fill with rubbish anyway, I can soften the adobe encrusted on abused bikes, with a little citrus degreaser, Bike Wash or plain water. After the grime has soaked for a couple of minutes, I can use the squirt nozzle on the compressor hose to blow most of the dirt down into a box placed under the bike on the work stand.

Air works really well to dislodge stubborn dirt in crevices behind brake arms or down around the front dérailleur and crank. Just watch where you're blowing that little tornado of grit and crud. Hold a rag as a backstop or place cardboard to keep from scattering greasy grit everywhere.

A hard jet of air will dislodge greasy dirt as well as leftover dried mud. You can blow the last gunk from between freewheel or cassette cogs after flossing them, and scour out all kinds of reclusive leftovers in the hidden folds of drive train and brakes.

Speaking of freewheel floss, cardboard strips work well there. Pizza boxes seem to have just the right thickness and strength to scrub the whole space between cogs without jamming or collapsing. Order a pie, then clean your gears.

Beer makes lousy degreaser. Don't waste any on the experiment, even if what you already drank makes you think it might be worth a try.

Never aim the air at your face or blast into your unprotected skin. I hope I didn't need to say that, but I said it anyway.

If you don't have a real compressor, little electric models will provide some of the punch in a smaller package. I haven't tried using my home model, since I can do most of my industrial cleaning at work.

Next time you want to buy something for the home, think about a compressor instead of a DVD player or new vacuum cleaner.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Cycling in the Media

Reader Nathan had this comment in the exchange that followed my post on his first comment:

My beef may come from a larger concern about activism. Sometimes I feel like the desire to realize an ideal about how the world works causes one to be rigid about that ideal. The long and short of it is I agree with your point: the video should not be taken as an "instructional video," but I think there is room to also admire this guy who had the thought and took the time to film himself riding to work, set it to music and put it up on YouTube. I think this moves in the right direction vis-a-vis making bicycle commuting more visible and more a part of our cultural expectations.

It got me thinking about media portrayals of cycling, warped as they are by the needs of a cinematic script (Breaking Away, Quicksilver, American Flyers, Key Exchange) or commercial sports television (The Tours de Lance and other treats dished up by cable sports networks)

Nathan is right that this personal micro-documentary can help raise awareness and interest. I really wanted to see the videographer's ride, because I'd seen his still photos on the ORG. I was distracted by what my experience told me were bad choices in traffic, but if I'd been on that ride I would probably have been arrested for drafting the big, fat, square police van in the left lane.

Cycling really can be all things to all cyclists. I don't want to huck big drops on a mountain bike or play on ramps and jumps with a BMX, but I don't care if you do. I learned the hard way, long ago, the difference between calculated risks and blind-luck hole shots in traffic. I'll grant you this: it isn't obvious. But I don't want to be told my bike is a toy and relegated to some side path to nowhere. When street cycling is outlawed, only outlaws will ride the street. And I'll be there.

If you want to make an exciting video, hop the back of a dump truck and draft it at 50 miles per hour for six or eight miles (I wasn't late to work that day). Lay into some corners. We all just choose our risks. Mine tend to go the same direction as traffic and don't fall prey as easily to swerves and errant car doors.

We're limited by single-camera, rider point of view videos. Has anyone made a multi-rider film, so the "crew" remains highly mobile, but we get some other views? Probably.

Of course we're competing for viewership with parkour.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

S-s-something long from the comments

Reader Nathan posted this extensive comment, which deserves to be a post in its own right, due to length.
Hey cafiend, it's lne_n8.

I ran into this blog via Ze's forum a while back. Then I just caught it again. I was meaning to make a comment.

When I was involved in the biking community in Boston, this sort of thing came up all the time. I'll admit that when I first started bike commuting in the city, I was young and probably much too reckless. I definitely had some close calls that were a result of my speed and style (but the one time I was broadsided by--thank God--a Honda Civic which totalled my bike, it was entirely the driver's inattention that was at fault and he paid plenty for the bike).

As far as the posted commute is concerned. This guy is riding a fixed gear which behaves a little differently than other bicycles. One thing is that you have to maintain momentum because it is more difficult to stop and start. I would wager that this is the principle reason for running the red lights, etc. Also the maneuver of getting in the oncoming lane of traffic before making a left turn is a classic move that, in my opinion, is sometimes safer and always faster than using the left turn lane.

The thing is that there is a delicate balance, I think, between simply getting more bikers out on the street (which is the only way to make a real impact) and trying to teach those bikers to behave responsibly. What I mean is that sometimes even (friendly) chastising is a real downer to someone who's just enjoying the thrill of riding. In my own experience, there is a kind of tough-guy mindset that kept me riding through Boston winters. And I must say that part of it was the sheer aggression of fighting traffic.

While there are hundreds of little technical arguments one could get into about what riding is unsafe and what riding isn't, the main thing is to get more bikes on the streets and force drivers to recognize bicyclists as valid users of the road. The problem I see too often is that road construction and driver habits serve to marginalize the cyclist in addition to inclimate(sic) weather, potholes and all the other things you have to deal with on a typical ride. So the cyclist has to, in effect, fight back. I've banged on hundreds of car hoods and windows to alert rude and unaware drivers of the fact that their large metal machines were putting me in danger.

Again there is a delicate balance between aggravating drivers and educating them. The thing I don't want to do is discourage riders from bicycle commuting by imposing more rules and restrictions on their behavior. What may appear dangerous and unsafe to one person may feel perfectly within the bounds of control for another. And the appeal to traffic laws is pretty weak because there are in fact no traffic laws specifically tailored to bicycles. In general, the law says: stay in a bike lane when there is one, stay off interstate highways and in every other circumstance behave like a car. Keep in mind that this is someone's (presumably daily) commute. He probably knows these intersections like the back of his hand. I'll bet he knows where he can cut corners and where he has to stop and wait.

Where do I start? First off, I have been riding fixed gears since 1975, so I know how the gear works. For city riding I recommend you choose a lowish gear so you can sprint away from stops and maintain a track stand without undue effort. If you can't stop and start easily, maybe you should choose a bike you have truly mastered. See post regarding ethics here.

Second, remember that drivers are in sensory deprivation tanks, while the cyclist has almost infinitely better field of view and maneuverability. You have a responsibility to drive very defensively, the same way a smaller vessel, even a sailing vessel, has some duty to avoid larger vessels, less maneuverable than themselves, when said larger vessels have to operate in a limited fairway.

Third, I understand the warrior mentality. Anyone who wants to launch into the swift waters of traffic riding needs a certain amount of testosterone. Look it up, women have it too, and it does the same thing for them, making any human more intrepid. We need to look beyond the warfare to create a climate in which less intrepid riders can function as well.

Lastly, I do avidly discourage riders from getting into this if their behavior will both get them killed and antagonize an already unsupportive motoring public. Ask most motorists in complete privacy if they'd like to see bicyclists disappear from the roads and a depressingly large majority would say yes. Turning culture around takes a many-pronged effort. And we can't please everyone, especially someone implacably hostile to our kind. But think, think, think how you look. We must, regrettably, consider public relations as well as our own opinions of what is practical and should be permissible.

Be strong, be brave, keep riding and keep thinking.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Pondering Ethics

For most of my cycling life I have considered the responsibilities of cyclists as well as their rights. Because our contributions to environmental and social health are not recognized, motorists believe we have made a lifestyle choice that has a direct effect on the motorist lifestyle. They have to maneuver around us. We have voluntarily inconvenienced them.

Unquestionably, widespread use of bicycles could improve public health. Car-free inner cities would automatically create a more humane landscape and reduce the sense of personal isolation you get when you seal people in glass jars. But it ain't happening soon. So, wherever we ride, we're out there with the flow of larger, faster, more powerful vehicles filled with harried, over-scheduled people.

All our communication tools and transportation options have allowed us to jam our lives with whatever seems important. If relaxed contemplation is the casualty I guess that's tough. Courtesy seems to have gone down along with it, but who has time for that, either?

I want a jersey and a sign for the back window of my car, both of which say, "It's not my fault you're late."

With all this in mind, I was in a hurry yesterday, thinking, "I'm glad it's winter. I won't have to slow down for any cyclists." I would certainly slow down. And I refuse to tailgate when I drive, no matter what kind of hurry I'm in. But it made me consider how much leeway we need to give the over-scheduled, over-stressed majority.

Just because it's normal doesn't make it right. If everyone chain-smoked, it would still be deadly. So in one sense I feel cyclists set a good example by choosing a healthier option in the face of mass opinion to the contrary. Americans notoriously resist nearly everything that is good for them. They quickly flock to slogans praising the "freedom" they express by obstinately laying waste to themselves and their environment. But some people really do have to drive somewhere, and we can't be sure, in many cases, whether the person coming up behind us is one of the destroyers of society or just some poor schlump on a reasonably tight schedule.

A cyclist is a lot easier to pass than a loaded truck, a school bus or a piece of heavy equipment. A broken-down bike doesn't block a whole lane of traffic during rush hour. Cyclists who ride like jerks gum up the works, but Darwin has a way of dealing with them. Too bad they color the opinion of all other road users. All we can do there is try to ride better and distance ourselves from the anarchists who lack the maturity to see how the better world can be built to accommodate a wide range of needs.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Not the limbo where you shimmy under a bar while Caribbean music plays. The one where you are suspended between two states of being.

The forecast for this week is ambiguous. Warm days, colder nights and a chance of "rain or snow" give no clear idea whether we will be serving skiers or cyclists by next Saturday.

The early change to Daylight Relocating Time has given a springlike look to the evenings, but the weather still does what it would have done. Let's get really funny and spring ahead another hour in about a month. Make the sun set at midnight. Why not? We made up the numbers in the first place.

What's left of the natural world still gets along without clocks. While taking advantage of civilization's many conveniences, try to separate yourself from its pretensions enough to see the underlying reality. We came from a simpler past. That much is undeniable, even if you debate how long the past lasted and how simple were its origins. At the start of it all are bare feet standing on the soil. From that came all of this.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Not an Instructional Video

A rider posted this video of his commuting ride, on YouTube and Ze Frank's ORG.

He seems like a good dude, but the video shows some of the kind of cyclist arrogance that makes motorists dislike us.

Maybe the wide angle lens makes him appear to be riding way too close to the parked cars. I'll grant that. But he splits lanes at speed between stopped cars, shoots really dicey gaps, also at speed, and runs several red lights. Then he rides against the legal direction of traffic flow on an empty street.

I will sometimes run red lights or stop signs when I see a clear passage, to get me away from the intersection so the wad of impatient motorists can do whatever they want when they get the green without using me as a pinball. The limited field of the video kept me from seeing what I would have wanted to see before heading across an intersection in violation of the law.

The thing is, if you get hit running a red light, no one owes you a thing. You were wrong. Traffic laws are not unjust tyranny. They're just a way to regulate the flow. If your violation of the law facilitates the flow by getting you out of there, good. But don't expect sympathy if you misjudge and get crushed. If you step outside the law, you are outside its protection as well as its restriction.

Riding against traffic just pisses me off. If a vehicle, even another cyclist, comes to an intersection on that one way street, you'll be popping up like a kamikaze plane coming out of the sun. It makes me want to reach for the 40 mm Bofors and blow your ass away. Sorry, but you're not helping anyone with self-centered, scofflaw antics.

When I was in college, most cars were forbidden to enter the university campus. Everyone biked like Beijing in the good old days. The cyclists who did not respect some sort of orderly flow in that Biketopia caused accidents. No one liked them. When I centerpunched one who yanked a hard left in front of me, I came out with a bent fork, a tacoed wheel and some scrapes. I don't know what he got. I stared at him with The Gaze of Death until he crawled out of my sight. Only later did I assess how my own carelessness contributed. Sorry Dude.

Over many years of traffic riding, I have learned how to press my advantage and how not to. Hopefully this young videographer will survive the learning curve he does not seem to realize he's on.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Hmmm. Dry Roads

Aside from the fact that it's still one degree below zero at 0852, I could go for a ride. Snow banks line the roads. Icicles dangle like threatening swords from the eaves of the house. But the pavement is dry.

I have too much to do today. Winter still rules. Jackson bustles with collegiate racers, their coaches, fans and support staff. I have to go back to that tomorrow, after two days filled with other occupations.

The rising sun and the gray pavement forecast the change. Driving season will end in time.