Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Working the Bugs Out

Summer brings warm days, even in the early morning. As the mercury rises, the jersey zipper goes down.

Over the years I have encountered a whole spectrum of biting and stinging insects, and spiky-footed beetles. I've had the yellowjacket up the shorts, bees, wasps and hornets down the shirt, and various mites, midges and helicopters down the windpipe.

Generally when this happens I must grab the lower edge of my jersey or tee shirt and shake it to coax the miserable insect to the exit. In extreme cases I might have to execute an angry hornet that won't let bygones be bygones. Those will keep stinging in anger rather than try to escape. One way or another, I get them out eventually.

Commuting, I wear a bum bag strapped around my waist. This complicates the bug situation, because the route to freedom assisted by gravity no longer works. It's led to some funny scenes in which I clench my fist around an angry hornet while yanking upward on my shirt with the other hand, sometimes at 30 or 40 miles per hour on a descent.

This year seems especially buggy. I just zip the jersey and forgo the ventilation when the barrage gets too constant.

A wasp in the helmet vents can be pretty bad, too. Fortunately, the bandanna I wear is just enough to keep stingers from getting through all the way. The flow of air through the helmet vents guides the attacker to freedom soon enough. So far, anyway.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Blossoms, Balsam and Birdsong

Thursday's commute was the opposite of Wednesday's. High clouds had blocked the sun on Wednesday morning, keeping the air uncomfortably chilly for the whole ride. Thursday's morning fog burned away before I hit the road, so the sun warmed me as soon as I escaped from the cold air in the river valley.

Everything is blooming now. As I rode the highway shoulder, passed by few cars, all polite, the scent of flowers surrounded me. Birds sang in the woods on either side. Up on the higher land beyond the Col du Porc, the air smelled like one of those souvenir pillows stuffed with balsam.

Down in town, a school bus pulled out on me as I set up for the good corner, but it was the short bus, so I found a line behind it. I guess they take turns driving themselves.

Late in the day I was getting ready to leave when a commuter who rides the opposite direction on my route every day called in to say he had developed a shifting problem on his new Cannondale. This rider has his own style. Rather than quit riding altogether when he developed a back problem and some other issues, he adopted a ladies' frame hybrid so he could sit upright and would not have to swing his leg over the seat to mount. I have to respect that kind of confidence and drive. He put a baby seat on the rear rack, and carries his pack in it. Motorists don't know he doesn't have Junior back there, so they give him extra room. Pretty shrewd, if you don't mind the way the loaded seat kills the handling. Of course on a comfort-configured hybrid there was noting to kill in the first place.

Somehow no one had conveyed to me that this bike also had one of those rear wheels on which all the spokes spontaneously loosen. It was a floppy mess. To get him on the road for today's commute, I wound everything back down, but until I loosen them all back up, lube the spoke threads and tighten them again, it will probably get floppy once more. I told him to bring it back when he could leave it for the weekend.

Grease and proper tension are better than threadlockers to keep spokes tight and wheels straight. Not everyone agrees, but I know what has worked for me. Any wheel, even a threadlocked wheel, can develop deviations. A threadlocked wheel will be harder to true.

The shifting problem stemmed from your friend and mine, four millimeter shift housing with plastic ferrules. Even though the bike had recently come off the showroom floor, the linear wires inside the housing from the right shifter where burrowing through the cracked ferrule in a jagged pattern. The housing changed length erratically as the rider tried to shift.

After junking the 4 mil (which is junk by definition) and putting on 5 mil with metal, the bike shifted smoothly. SRAM derailleurs seem quite sensitive to minuscule misadjustments.

Even with a late start I chose the long, scenic route home, to stay off the highway. It was a nice evening just to breathe.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Think-Fast Commute

In a break from humdrum routine, the motoring public tossed me a few challenges, starting just yards from my driveway.

A white Subaru wagon with Maine plates came up at a reasonable speed, but waited to pass me until we were entering the blind curve from which Elm Street leaves Green Mountain Road. The driver gave me a nice margin. It showed a little poor judgment, but that was mostly between him (or her, I didn't look) and whoever might come winging around that curve the opposite way. I figured the driver would complete the turn somewhat close in front of me, but that I could preserve my momentum and he could go on his way.

But no.

The driver abruptly slowed almost to a stop and swung wide to the left as he entered the turn.

Excuse me, but I am NOT going to dive inside a motorist in a turn. But I was still clipping right along, so I swung left, figuring the driver would hit the gas and get out of my life.

No, the motorist stopped dead in the middle of the road, forcing me into the oncoming lane to finish my turn in a wide, inefficient line. I gestured to the driver with a brushing motion widely recognized to mean "run along, run along," but they just sat there. So I had to sprint in front of them and settle back to the right so they could chug along behind me across the bridge. They couldn't pass because traffic really was coming.

I didn't ever look over at them. Just didn't want to get into it.

Most of the long stretch of highway passed without much excitement. Then, coming into the outskirts of Wolfeboro, I was rolling down the hill to the intersection with 109 East, a four-way crossroads where I (and all the other traffic on Route 28) have the right of way, when a bonehead in front of me stopped dead to wave someone through a left turn, against all legality and good sense. I was doing 30-plus. Fortunately the big standoff, with vehicles coming from all four directions and out of the convenience store, managed to break up enough to give me a clear shot without having to lock 'em up and lay it down.

The big dump truck that sounded like it would give me a comfy draft the rest of the away into town pulled off at a side road before it got to me. Damn. I was tired this morning.

After a quick adrenaline shot wondering if the blue-haired lady in another Subaru was going to pull out of a side street into me, it was "down the chute" on Center Street. I picked up a nice boost from an Electric Department boom truck, so I had nice speed coming into the only really good corner on the whole route. Ah, but the motoring public needed that space, too. A red car pulled partway out of the gas station occupying the inside of that corner, leaving me three choices: shoot in front in a wide slow line, stop completely and wait for the cars to clear the intersection, or dive into the little gap behind the car in a tight line and launch it off the sidewalk into the street beyond.

I'll take number 3 please. Remember, 51 is just 15 spelled backwards. To add interest, the guy in the red car appeared to put it in reverse as I shot into the gap, but I was committed by then. Speed up and jump.

It was kind of disappointing. The curb is low and I didn't get any air to speak of. But I kept my momentum. That means a lot at 51-15. The mind is immature, but the body has wear and tear.

On Main Street, opening car doors alternated with cars pulling out of parking spaces so repetitively that I had to laugh.

For the most part, I was better off than a motorcyclist would be. I could shoot little gaps and hop curbs with a lot less blowback than a motorized cyclist would inspire for those antics, and I didn't have to go at traffic speed.

I would never plan to shoot crazy holes and jump curbs. That's asking for trouble. But when trouble finds me, and the way out is through a rapidly-closing hole or over a manageable edge, I'll go that way and enjoy it.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The N Stands for Nasty

Most bikes are built for one purpose: to get through the manufacturer's warranty period without completely folding up.

Okay, that's a little bit of an overstatement. But some original equipment choices might make you wonder.

When a relatively new bike comes in with one or more broken spokes, I look at the remaining spoke heads for the telltale N. In a total of 45 minutes of internet research and years of idle curiosity I have never been able to discover what the N stands for. N-noyingly brittle, I guess.

It's a trademark of some sort. DT spokes have a little DT stamped on them. Wheelsmith spokes have a W. Some brands have had one or more stars, a crescent, a U (for Union). CTJ (Cheap Taiwan Junk) spokes have nothing at all.

Ralph built a wheel a few years ago with a Sun CRE 16 rim, a used Shi-no RSX hub and a fistful of salvaged N spokes. One day I got to work and discovered I'd ridden the spoke eyelets out of a similar wheel I'd built with DT spokes for my Cross-Check and pounded over rough dirt for several seasons. As a quick fix, I slid the N-spoked wheel onto my bike so I could get home. Within days, the N spokes started to pop. After five had gone in two or three days, I pulled out the Felcos and euthanized the rest of them. After respoking with DTs the wheel has been happily taking the abuse I dish out.

I've only seen N spokes as original equipment on new bikes. Because wheels are vulnerable anyway, you will rarely get warranty coverage for a rim or spoke problem. This may seem unfair, but a rider can do hideous things to any wheel, well-built or not. Run your tire pressure too low, hop curbs, catch a pedal in a corner and get jacked sideways -- any of these will taco the finest wheel or dent the best rim.

Experienced cyclists advise new bike purchasers to buy a bike with a good frame and upgrade componentry. Better wheels will make the most improvement. So if you get a bike with suspect spokes, go ahead and beat the stew out of those wheels and buy some better ones. And remember: original equipment spec is NOT your local bike shop's fault. The manufacturers do NOT listen to us.

Most of the big bike companies treat the small shops they way they treat consumers. It's worse, in a way, because they want our loyalty in spite of whatever crap we might have to answer for as a result of money-driven manufacturing decisions. So don't go into the shop with guns blazing, literally or figuratively. Chances are, the shop is going to lose money making you happy, because the manufacturers are big enough to stonewall them when it comes real compensation for the time and effort shops put into the average warranty claim.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Force of Habit

Yesterday I had an appointment in Wolfe City with my wife. Afterwards, she had to head off to more activities in another town, while I needed to head back home. It was a perfect opportunity to use the bike rather than two cars.

Not for the first time, I noticed how strange it is to ride part of my normal commuting route at an abnormal time, from an abnormal point along it. Riding the same route at the same time every day has turned the whole experience into a very standardized ritual.

Usually I arrive in town with about 14 miles on me, during the last bit of the morning rush hour. Okay, it isn't rush hour the way cities have it, but it's a bunch of people driving to work, all at the same time. When I leave town, I've had the morning ride and a work day. I may be tired, but at least I'm loosened up.

Aggressive driving isn't just an urban problem. I have to be on my game in Duckburg just as much as in Baltimore, Philly, DC or Naptown. I don't have to put up with it for as long, but it only takes one asshole to put you out of action. So I hate diving into it cold. It's harder as I get older. I can't just hop on, sprint in and start throwing elbows.

Feeling really out of phase, I dropped through the familiar corners between my wife's studio and the bike shop. From there it was on to the bank to go through the bike-through and out of town by the scenic route. I just felt choppy and over-caffeinated. Only out on the peaceful dirt of Stoddard Road did I finally start to settle down.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Patient, a male in his early 40s, presented with numbness in the toes of the left foot, knotted muscles in the upper left quadrant of the back, and related stiffness in the neck. Patient also reported constant urge to push back on the bike saddle. He now questioned his entire position on his bike.

Since he showed an initial interest in a new saddle, we began there. I'd already asked whether he was aware of any alignment problems because of the way the symptoms built in the course of 20 to 30 miles. He said he did not feel any unbalanced tension. His symptoms said otherwise.

His old saddle, an old version of the Flite Trans Am, turned out to have a crack in the shell reinforcement in the back. The padding in the center was broken down, so he would tend to sag into that divide while riding. It looked level, but it would ride as if it were nose down. In addition, the edges of the cutout are narrow enough to increase pressure on the nerves down the inside of the leg instead of relieve it.

The new saddle has wider margins around the central cutout and firmer shell and padding. With the saddle placed in exactly the same position as the old one the rider reported significant improvement in all symptoms.

I'm joking around with the pseudo-medical lingo, but the problem and the solution are real. We're not finished yet, but the major issue seems to have been the saddle. Neck pain and foot numbness stemmed from the minor misalignment caused by the deficiencies of the old, worn-out seat.

Older riders will be more vulnerable to position problems a younger rider might not even notice. Look at the whole picture before zeroing in on specific changes directed at each affected area.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Meet Your New Neighbors

Out for a quick sprint on a warm, sunny evening, I had just left my driveway headed for a pleasant fifteen-mile loop.

As I approached the next driveway down from mine, a fat man with a shaved head stepped to the roadside. He looked to be in his thirties, with an early-season sunburn and the red flushed face of a drunk.

"How's the bikin'?" he asked.

"So far, so good," I said with a grin. I thought he might have seen that I had just come out of a driveway a hundred yards away.

"Mafagaffa," he said as I continued on. I mean I couldn't make out what he said. But since he seemed to be staying in the house that used to belong to my neighbor Whitey, and I was pretty sure Whitey is now deceased, I looped back to see what else he had to say.

"I gotta get me some of them shorts," he said. "Wear 'em at the beach with a little titty top."

Ah. A humorist.

"You related to Whitey?" I asked. Time to go on the offensive a little.


"The guy who used to own that camp," I said.

"No. My name's Bean." He held a bill aloft. "Got a hundred dollar bill here. Goin' to Abbott's to get some beer."

A truck appeared down by the distant bend in the road.

"Watch this," said Bean. "Set this behind my foot like this." He concealed his beer can behind his boot. "Now I hitch."

It didn't work. The truck passed me without him in the passenger's seat or the bed, after I had left him to continue my ride. I contemplated my wonderful luck.

I made it all three miles and then some to Abbott's without another car passing me. Bean was walking thirsty as far as I knew. Or he'd given up.

The rest of the ride was as pleasant as I had hoped. I had the tailwind outbound, but the way the route turns on the way back I never had to pound straight into the headwind. On Loon Lake Road I rescued a baby snake. It could have been any of your gray and brown patterned snakes, but it actually hung onto my glove when it struck aggressively at my hand. I took my sunglasses off and pushed it to the roadside with them. It didn't seem to mind that, even though it struck at my empty hand every time I extended it.

Coming in on final approach to my house, I had to pass Bean's driveway again. I noted that the house now sports a "Beware of Dog" sign in the window and a dirt bike in the driveway. So far they've been fairly quiet, but maybe the gunfire I attributed to the people in the next house over was really from these new people. We have a number of hot lead hobbyists in the neighborhood now.

We shall see.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Miracle Pants

Pain will drive a person to desperation. It drove me to try on some weird-looking tights from CW-X.

The CW-X line of athletic wear is built with reinforcing panels that supposedly support the working muscles the way trainers support already-injured muscles. The reasoning is that reinforcement now will prevent injury.

It seems to work. My left hamstring complex has hurt for almost a year now. At times it acted like sciatica. At other times it acted like a pulled muscle. I was holding out for sciatica, because I could rehabilitate that actively. A pulled muscle would require complete rest. I know I would come out of complete rest looking like a manatee -- an impoverished manatee, after having to fill the gas tank for several weeks of unwanted motor commuting.

Miracle Pants seem to have put off the need for drastic rest. If the pain responds to a placebo effect, I was not injured in the first place. If the tights really support the injury in such a way that I can function without pain, they work as advertised. Either way, problem solved. The money was well spent.

The pain did not miraculously disappear completely. In fact, after the first ride I thought I was not impressed. But after I got home I noticed that things did not hurt as much as usual. More rides yielded the same result. Overall, pain is decreasing gradually. For now, I will say these things work.

Now I hope the weather stays somewhat cool for a while. CW-X doesn't make bike shorts. We have some bib shorts with a bike pad, but I don't care for bibs. I'm also not sure the support web will work on a short pant leg.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


So a guy brings in his nice old Dean, with a right-side Campy Centaur Ergopower ten-speed shifter that's gone stupid.

I don't have the absolute latest tech bulletins and manuals from Campagnolo, but I'm not worried. By printing out just the parts diagram from a PDF on Campy's website and using old manuals in our file, I can get into the shifter. Campy is built to be repaired, remember?

Dissecting my way down through a simple stack of few parts, I find that a ratchet spring has fatigued and broken. It's the most common breakdown. Years ago, we ordered a bag of Ergopower springs for our summer customers who might drop in with a problem while touring around the lake.

The date on the bags says "Model year 1998-99." Are we doomed? Stuck? Stymied?

It's Campy, remember? The springs still work in the new levers.

Hah! Stick THAT in your sake cup and choke on it!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Tale of Two Chain Lubes

For riders who use their bikes regularly, Pro Link works very well. People racking up steady mileage tend to pay more attention to regular maintenance, whether they plan for it or have it forced on them by the wear and tear of regular riding. If they don't lube their own chain, I will probably see their bike often enough to take care of it for them.

To do a good Pro Link application, a new chain should be cleaned with citrus solvent to remove factory grease. I dry the chain and hang it so I can drip Pro Link on one end. While I go on with other repairs on the bike, the lube has a chance to spread down the length of the chain with much less waste than if I dripped it onto the chain already installed on the bike.

Repairing a bike with a usable chain still on it, I might get lucky and find it has a quick-disconnect link. This will allow me to pop the chain off for cleaning and lube. Otherwise I can just drip it on the regular way.

I have developed another system for riders who neglect their bikes. If I see the bike has been left to rust, I know Pro Link's light consistency won't hang around long enough to stave off rust for all the months the bike will sit out in the weather.

Lubing for neglect, I leave the factory grease on, and cover it with a heavy application of Pedro's Syn Lube or similar heavy oil. I will still hang the chain and drip-feed it from the top. I will not remove excess oil from the chain when I install it. The chain may turn into a black mess over the ensuing months, but at least it will continue to flow through the drive train.

I prefer clean lubes, but they require more attention from the rider. Neglect a chain with too little lube on it and it will turn into re-bar. If you want it clean, remember to check and renew the lube as often as it needs it. If you give it to me all squeaky and orange, you'll get gooberlubed.