Sunday, April 29, 2007

On and Off Commuting

After several days of pure bike transportation, I gave Thursday to my wife, even though it was the last sunny day in the forecast for a while. She mentioned that if I drove to town, she could ride in later. We had to go somewhere later in the car together. I took one for the team.

After a disgustingly wet Friday (and a late night Thursday night) I was off the bike until Saturday's commute. Then it was a fixed gear day, after a rainy night, with more rain coming in for the afternoon.

Plagued with mysterious pains, I accept with gratitude and wonder whenever I am able to complete the day's athletic challenges more or less in one piece. Even if I had the money for medical attention, the process of testing to eliminate possible causes takes time and patience. When do those medical buggers ever really figure out what ails you anyway? Being half a century old, with numerous hard impacts in my resume, I'm surprised more things don't hurt. But I've been nursing a funky left leg since last summer. I can't gleefully hammer after every passing car anymore.

Given all that, Saturday's ride went pretty well. I have yet to rack up 300 miles, which I considered to be the minimum threshold for any kind of differentiated training, so I'm just bopping along in whatever gear feels good.

The weather stayed dry for the morning ride. The day even got a little sunny and warm in the middle. Then, right on schedule, the clouds thickened and darkened as I prepared to ride home.

The lightest light mist fell on me for most of the route. I stopped at the high point on Route 28 to flip the wheel to high gear. As I did that, a silver SUV with an unoccupied bike rack pulled up. A bikey-looking dude leaned out.

"Everything okay?" he asked.

"Just shifting gears," I said, pointing to the rear hub.

"All right! No worries," he said.

"Thanks for checking," I said.

He turned the vehicle around and resumed his journey south. It's nice that anyone noticed, let alone someone who seemed to understand what I was doing.

As I rumbled down the grade at 20-25 mph, the rain gradually increased. Fortunately I can stay in the high gear the rest of the way home. The leg behaved itself well enough, and the fixed gear was earning its keep.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

One Less Day to Fester

Covering some vacationing staff, I went in a day earlier than usual.

Typically, once the repair season hits, the shop looks like something that starts with "cluster" or ends with "house." I use both terms liberally, especially when doing triage after an absence. Today the mess had had one less day to fester, but the dear departed had gone down battling some of the finest forces the bike industry can throw at us.

I'm convinced that bontrager is a German word meaning "bad design." It has a second meaning, "inflated reputation," but the first one means the most to people trying to fix things that bear the label.

To be fair, a lot of recent product could have names synonymous with bad design. But, disemboweled on the workbench, lay a Bontrager hub laced into the rear wheel from a Gary Fisher Paragon. The bike hung forlornly on the stand, covered with adobe its attentive owner had left to harden after the last outing before its mechanical complaints finally got too bad to ignore.

Taped to the wheel were largely incomprehensible notes, written in LARGE LETTERS to convey their urgency. The repair tag, even less informative, had also been filled out in LARGE LETTERS. Whoever had done it also had not opened it up, so the INSTRUCTIONS (such as they were) had bled through the copy paper to appear backwards on the hard copy. Prominent were the letters ASAP or PASA, depending on which side you were looking at.

I love ASAP. It's so open ended. It's really ASAIGATI (As soon as I get around to it), isn't it?

A quick phone call satisfied my need for actual information. I figured out how to dismember the hub far enough to perform what should be a simple adjustment . All I had to do was pop out the dust cap over the left-side bearing cup, then drive out the bearing cup itself, send someone to purchase an 11-millimeter hex key and apply said hex key to the mounting bolt holding the cassette body in place. Twist, tweak, the freehub body was now tight and I could press the bearing cup back in, pack it with grease, lay the ball bearings in, press the dust cap back on and insert the axle.

Now try to adjust this magnificently bontragered apparatus so that the bearing runs smoothly with the tiny hint of play that will be pressed out by closing the quick release cam to hold the wheel in the frame. It has these groovy rubber seals that create all kinds of drag and obscure the wrench flats.

Fortunately, our new mechanic learns fast and works hard. He managed to make steady headway, even as more repairs came in and we sold a bike or two.

My next patient was a custom touring bike a long-time customer had purchased from one of America's surviving frame builders a few years ago. In addition to the basic adjustments of a tune-up, I had to troubleshoot the fender-mounting job a couple of years too late. The rear tire has already rubbed almost all the way through the fender in one spot. The fender stays are already cut, so I have little leeway to try to coax it into a fair curve. It had been zip-tied to the chainstay bridge at the bottom.

Zip tying is right down there with duct tape as a mechanical solution that begs more questions than it answers. Zip and hope. Zip and hope.

Hope died. So did the zip ties. I fabricated a padded metal bracket to bolt the bottom end of the fender to a bridge that had no hole drilled in it.

Another masterpiece of design, the touring bike has brakes that don't open wide enough to pass actual touring tires through them, and a front wheel offset three millimeters to the left, apparently to make up for the alignment of the fork. It also has only 17-inch chain stays, and short horizontal dropouts, so it has to feel pretty sketchy with much of a load on the back. Short horizontal dropouts are such a cop out. The threaded adjuster takes up most of the adjustment range. Why not go with VD if you're not going to put on a dropout long enough to allow for some mad science back there?

I dutifully swabbed the encrustation of spilled energy drink off everything south of the bottle cages, and chiseled the dried remains of some unfortunate worm off the bottom bracket shell. At least I want to think it was a worm.

When I reinflated the rear tire after sliding it through the brakes, I heard the unmistakable hiss of a leak. Since by then it was quitting time, I wrote myself some NOTES so I know where to pick up in the morning.

All this had been interrupted by phone calls, live customers, and more repair check-ins. Sunny, dry weather signals tree buds to swell to bursting and bicyclists to dig out their machines in whatever condition they left them, usually not good. And someone had made a last-minute decision to have a bunch of accessories added to his new carbon fiber road bike. That was leaning up where we could all trip over it, so we expected the customer at any moment. It was still there when I snapped off the last lights and locked up, half an hour after closing time. I'd had to grab a new computer when the first one I tried to program kept reverting to German.

"You vill measure your ride in kilometers!"

Just another day.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Average bike price $4,010

In the workshop yesterday, I had a Cervelo on the stand with a price we estimated at around $8,000 with the 10-speed compatible SRM crank for Dura Ace. On the other stand, my colleague had an early-1960s Huffy worth about $20. Add that together and divide by two, you get $4,010.

Numbers are funny, aren't they?

The Cervelo had spontaneously broken a spoke in the rear wheel. The nipple is now permanently trapped inside the deep rim, because there's no hole big enough for it to escape except by the wildest luck. Regardless of what the engineers say about the strength of a 24-spoke wheel for the normal stresses put on it, pounding over the frost heaves and pot holes of the real world will take its toll on a spoke with only 23 companions as opposed to 31 or 35. And the clearances on this Cervelo are so tight that the slightest deviation causes the tire to jam in the frame.

The rider said it happened on a precipitous descent.

I cut and threaded a spoke the proper length for a 24-hole 2-cross, inserted a new nipple and tightened things back up. This was after a period of fruitless shaking and tipping to try to get the old nipple and the stub of spoke it contained to appear at any opening in the rim. A stainless spoke in a brass or alloy nipple is immune to magnetism. We'll have to shrink a tiny team of people to salvage it, or build little robots to recover these inconvenient bits of debris. How about trained ants?

Labor Rates

Hourly Rates

First hour 9-10 a.m.: $10/hr

After the coffee kicks in...
Any hour 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.:$30/hr.

3-5:30 p.m.: $100/hr., because the time passes sooo slowly and the work feels much harder.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Perfectly Lovely

Snap! A sunny, dry day with a mid-day high just above 60.

It felt goooood to get on the bike. Good thing, too, because I had no choice.

I kind of like having no choice.

What didn't feel as good was riding the whole route at commuter pace with no base mileage to speak of. By this time last year I must have had 500 miles on me, if not more. In a normal year I'll have a couple hundred, in a pretty consistent series of rides. This year I had 100-120. This "ride one day, rest four" is no help. A little roller riding doesn't make up the difference.

The time I save when I commute by car does not add up to time I can put into good training. I might save 20 or 30 minutes morning and evening, but with transition time to get ready to train and tidy up afterwards it's a net loss. It's too easy to put it off for one more day, until several days have gone by.

This is why I got into commuting in the first place. If you put that ride squarely in your way, you have to get it done to get to work and get home for supper.

The weather looks decent for a few days. I just have to remember to take it easy until I have more base mileage.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Perfect Storm

What's a cyclist to do when nasty weather won't quit?

Resigning myself to drive was bad enough. But now one of the cars needs work again. Ordinarily at this time of year we would simply send it to the mechanic for as long as it takes. I don't need no stinkin' car. But with snow still on the menu, the bike is not the best option.

Fortunately, the pattern seems to have shifted enough just to drench me with an endless hypothermic downpour. No problem. I've even commuted in a wetsuit.

It's hard to get excited about buying a new car when much better technology could be coming soon. We'd throw down for a Prius, but what if something more like the ever-useful small station wagon comes out soon after we enslave ourselves to a car payment?

An automobile is the most expensive piece of disposable crap we have to buy to function in American civilization. No one can deny that the ability to transport ourselves and some equipment fairly quickly across moderately long distances proves extremely useful. Cars filled a niche that had already been created by our use of space as the country developed. In a way, we inherited an existing mode of life from the natives, although we moved on a different schedule and used the land more harshly while we remained on it.

Mobile society lays nomadic wandering on top of a private-property grid in an uneasy merger with an Old World-style division of city states, aristocratic holdings and small farms. Europe had done away with most of its migrants and nomads by the time the first waves of settlement headed for the New World. The wanderers who came over wanted to establish their own land holdings. But with a large land area to settle in a short time, swift mobility remained as important as personal ownership of real estate. It was the dawning of the age of wish fulfillment for the common man. That was not immediately clear, but look at it from our perspective now.

The automobile is all about wish fulfillment. The advertisements are full of fantasies of speed and maneuverability. Go wherever you want, whenever you want, for work or play.

As with any set of wishes, unintended consequences abound. So here we are, in a time when a working class income puts you in a slum if you live in a city large enough to have public transportation, and behind the wheel of a decaying crap-box if you live in a more dispersed community.

Or riding a bike in the rain, if you have chosen to try it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Snatching Commutes

Winter finally managed to get in the groove, delivering a hefty snowstorm each week. Too bad it's April.

With one nice day forecast for my work week, I'm off on the bike today. The next big storm is lining up to arrive tomorrow, with six inches of snow. And the weather man used the N word in the long range forecast. That's right, he said "nor'easter." Nor'easters can bring rain instead of snow, but he did say this one could become powerful and bring several days of foul weather.


Sunday, April 08, 2007

One cm over the line sweet Jesus, one cm over the line

Most beginning cyclists and recreational riders who don't even think of themselves as cyclists consider standover height to be the most critical dimension. Don't want to imperil the tender parts. And insecure cyclists want to be sure they can put the landing gear down instantly in an emergency.

More experienced cyclists, especially riding hard and racing, realize that the length of the bike from seat to handlebars is more critical than the height of the top tube above the ground.

Workable cockpit length can vary over about two centimeters. Because humans are made of squishy and elastic materials, they will fidget and shift anyway, making the idea of some millimetrically precise perfect length laughable. However, go one centimeter beyond the range either way and you'll suddenly feel all the distance from the middle of it. The bike won't just feel a hair short or long.

Bike fit is made up of numerous factors. Ideal fit will be different depending on the use of the bike. This is obvious to most experienced riders, but not to casual cyclists, even if they feel its effects. A good fitter will figure out how to set up a bike without requiring the rider to know much about it. The more serious a rider plans to be, the more the fitter will need them to participate. It's not an exact science, but it is a developed art.

I just put a shorter stem back on my fixed gear. The cockpit had felt a little short, but when I went the extra centimeter it felt way too long except when I rode with my hands on the bar tops. I kept it that way because I commute a long distance on open roads by myself, so I spend a lot of time on the center of the bar tops compared to more urban commuting with traffic.

Only having one brake, I don't have the extended riding position on top of the lever hoods, as I do on the 'cross bike and the road bike. With the long stem, the turn of the bars on the fixed gear fell close to the hood position on my freewheel bikes. But the long stem made the drops too far away. When I went down and forward I lost power because I got pulled too far forward of the cranks. My back hurt because I kept trying to grow an extra vertebra to make up the difference.

I could put an aero lever on for the one brake and a dummy hood on the other side, but I like the clean look without it. My brake lever is a vintage Campy Record with the cable coming out the top. It's attached to a drilled out "Weinmagnolo" my machinist friend doctored up for me in 1975. The stiff Campy lever gives the modest old Weinmann center-pull a little more authority than it got from the Weinmann lever I had on there originally.

We just need to get this snow out of here. I'll start riding anyway, but it seems more abusive when it looks like February.

Friday, April 06, 2007

April Showers

When April showers come your way

They bring the snow you'll see 'til May.

We got a solid twelve inches of April showers Wednesday into Thursday. Then the temperature dropped into the twenties overnight, so the snowbanks stayed in the road and black and gray ice made the lanes more treacherous. I could try to ride in that, but I didn't.

Tonight is even colder, but we did have a little thawing today. If I feel bold, I might give it a shot tomorrow. The forecast holds no really warm weather for the next week.

The refreeze set up the crust, and the old snow had mostly melted away, so it does not open up back-country ski possibilities, either. It just delays the next season's fun.

I could scrape the storage wax off my skate skis...

Tonight I rode my new Minoura rollers for the first time. I retired the rusty Roll Tracs. They sagged. At speed they vibrated so badly they threw the drive belt off. But the new ones intimidated me for the first few minutes. I don't know if the actual roller drums are narrower, but the frame around them is, making it look like I have much less margin for error. The drums roll smoothly, which should be better, but they seemed to magnify my own errors until I'd stayed on long enough to get my chops back.

Rollers have apparently become hip again. I've seen two models with added stability enhancers that claim to let you relax and ride in a more "natural" (read "sloppy") fashion.

Yes, at high cadences you can bounce and wobble. That's the point. Learn not to bounce and wobble on the rollers and you will gain incredible balance and confidence on the road. You can learn not to bounce or wobble on rollers with stabilizers, but then you won't need the stabilizers. Why not work on smooth form from the start? Push your cadence up until you get rough, then back off.

Place the rollers next to a solid piece of furniture so you have something to grab. It's also a handy place to set water, a towel, and other items.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Freedom of Religion

Cycling, like religion, is something anyone can pick up and interpret for themselves. You can join a group that cycles according to your beliefs, or you can have a personal relationship with bike, which might converge with other interpretations, but is not bound by them.

Some cyclists interpret their faith militantly, pursuing a cycling insurgency in theaters of urban warfare.

Some cyclists like a big congregation with lots of good works like benefit rides. Others use cycling to express the pursuit of human excellence in competition.

Many ordinary people ride bikes without thinking about what philosophy they may be supporting.

The problem with cycling or religion is that its public image is defined by those who care enough to create one, regardless of whether it truly represents the majority view. If the majority really is silent, only an observant statistician will be able to document and report the real trends. The flamboyant practitioners have more impact in the news and on public opinion.

When you wear a bike in public, it is much more obvious than any cross, crescent or star of David. And people will judge you by it based in large measure on the prejudices they have built up for or against other bike wearers.

This Always Happens

April arrives, and with it a forecast of snow.

One good thing about the early imposition of Daylight Saving Time is that I got to ride a couple of commutes before the traditional April glop shuts things down. In previous years I would be all ready to ditch the car and ride the whole route in the conveniently relocated daylight hours, only to face a last hosing from winter.

The end of March always seems nicer than the beginning of April. Maybe I just have higher hopes for April, so disappointments seem worse. April seems more like it should belong fully to riding season, while any rides in March are stolen from under the nose of winter.

It's April. We should be able to thumb our noses at winter. But even in its weakened state, winter still calls the shots in northern New England.