Friday, June 29, 2007

Unimportant Detail?

Most bikes come with threaded holes in the frame where water bottle cages can be mounted. From the factory, bikes have bolts already threaded into these holes.

These bolt threads are dry.

Most bike shops do not grease those bolt threads. If you're lucky, the mechanic will grease them when they mount a water bottle cage you purchased, but otherwise they are left to corrode in place or fall out and leave you with an open hole into the inside of your frame tubes.

These mounts, still sometimes called braze-ons for they way they used to be attached to the frame, also take brackets for mini-pumps and light batteries.

On aluminum and other exotic frames, these mounts are usually Rivnuts. These are pressed into the frame. If you try to break loose a bolt that corroded into one, you could tear the whole thing out of the frame tube. On an aluminum bike, you can probably press in a new one, if the hole isn't too distorted. With carbon, you could have a bigger problem.

Since Rivnut installation doesn't require flame, and torch skills, you will see them on some steel frames as well.

A few minutes and a dab of grease seems like a small price to pay to avoid damage like that.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Personalized Cogs

After riding and thinking for a few days, and getting really annoyed at that 11-tooth cog taking up space, I finally found the time to dig up an old but virgin 30-tooth cog from a seven-speed cassette we'd dismembered several years ago.

I like the steps in my 13-28. It made more sense to add the 30 to give me a 30-30 low on the granny ring and let me ride the 48-28 in the next-to-Ned.

The next-to-Ned is the gear just below the Ned gear. The Ned gear is the full-cross, big chainring-biggest cog combo. Most bike shops advise new riders to avoid full crossover gears, big to big or small to small, for a variety of good reasons. Mountain biking legend Ned Overend stated, in a magazine article some years ago, that he loves that gear and uses it often. If you read carefully, you found out he doesn't cruise in it, he just uses it for short stretches when he knows he'll be shifting back down into less forbidden gears from the big ring. Using the Ned gear often avoids having to make two double shifts to find the approved mid-range gear and then return to the big ring.

I could never get over my guilt in the Ned gear. I was raised a Puritan, when freewheels had five cogs and you never rode crossovers.

All this moving of cogs has messed with my muscle memory a little. Shifting in friction, you get used to feeling the lever at a certain angle for a certain gear. When you move the cogs, the shifter has to stop in a different place. It's like re-tuning a fretless instrument. The familiar finger position won't produce the same tone. But I'm getting used to it.

The last step, from 28 to 30, is a bit weird, since the cogs go 21-24-28-30. The jumps go 3-4-2. At some point I might dredge up a 32. But 30 is low enough, so it would just be to satisfy some mathematical neurosis.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Would it kill you to be on time?

Would it kill you to be on time?

It might.

When I go in on time, I'm in what passes for rush hour around here. Toy Town rush hour is nothing compared to the real urban meat grinder, but especially in the summer things can get pretty aggressive. If I run my typical five-to-twenty minutes late the roads are remarkably more peaceful.

The other day, on track to arrive slightly early, I rode in the narrow, curb-lined canyon of Center Street. Rain had become moderate to heavy, so I was glad I'd chosen the fixed gear. I rode slightly in the lane, but was not blocking completely, because no traffic was coming the other way.

A tractor-trailer came up behind me. I held my line, preserving a little escape space to my right, but allowed him to start past. Just as his cab came even with me we both saw another tractor-trailer coming toward us, loaded with tree trunks. We were all going to pass at once in the narrow street unless the trucker next to me thought to put the binders on and back out.

Of course he did not. Like a big, wet, stupid dog, he sidled up next to me and drove ever so slowly by. A wall of whirling truck tires spun by my shoulder, inches away. He seemed to be trying to hold his own line, giving me a few inches of pavement so I wouldn't slam through the deep-set storm drains next to the curbing, but the further back I got the more I knew he could forget me as I disappeared into his blind spot. The last set of wheels is the most dangerous.

The rain made my brake useless. I didn't want to use resistance-pedaling, because it would make me sway slightly and I didn't have room. If the downrushing tire cleats caught any part of me I would be sucked into the crusher.

This happens about once a year, maybe a bit less often. It only happens when I let it happen.

You get one chance to snap the whip on the nose of the advancing beast. You get one chance to claim the lane and force the driver behind you to choose. By placing yourself in the field of view and making your claim to road space obvious, you say the them, "now it's premeditated, not merely negligent."

Once the nose of the vehicle comes up to you, you have lost control. That's why you need to keep tabs on what's going on in front and behind. If you look ahead and see traffic coming that might scare vehicles overtaking you to pass you with too little margin, shut that gate. If you think the overtaking vehicles will pass you widely and shove oncoming traffic into the ditch, shut that gate. Everybody already thinks you're an asshole just for being out there on a bike. You might as well be the asshole in charge. It's fun to be in charge.

In heavy traffic you neither can nor should try to hold them all back. They are bigger and demonstrably stupider. On a bike you must constantly watch the situation and plan your tactics. Sometimes you just pull your shoulders in and hope for the best. Look for a bailout as soon as possible, but never look like you're bailing out. You're in control, remember? Even when you aren't.

Image really does matter when you're interacting based entirely on the impression you create by your driving behavior and body language. Never let them know you are scared. Be scared. Sometimes it's scary. But that can be true of anything worth doing. Good fear will keep you alert and alive. Look alert. Look a little predatory if you can, like you'd stop and eat someone's liver if you weren't late for an appointment.

You get one chance to snap the whip on the nose of the advancing beast. Don't hesitate to do it.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Problems in Diagnosis

A good diagnostician may be helped by a poor work ethic.

The other day, a mechanic with an excellent work ethic missed critical factors when diagnosing a front shifting problem.

Did I mention he has an excellent work ethic? Both techs on duty that day hate to be idle. They want to move work through the shop on a conveyor belt, and they don't want to sit and muse.

Unfortunately, time and money get wasted by this seemingly productive style when overlooked details render the whole repair useless.

I love to ponder. I'll be the first to admit that I don't know everything. I'm happy to let the modern wonders of bike componentry sicken and die in massive numbers until they evolve into something truly sustainable. I hate hydraulics. Full suspension mountain bikes strike me as an expensive and complex way to spoil what was once a pleasant, challenging hike. So at times I have to force myself to care.

I may rapidly conclude that what really ails a bike was built into it at the factory. But against that limitation I will still try to get it working as well as it can.

All this involves a lot of sitting and staring, coffee-drinking and doodling, or rummaging around among the nuts and bolts. It requires looking at the bike from many angles. Did I mention coffee drinking? I will flip through back issues of the Quality Bicycle Products catalog to trace the lineage of drive train parts. At some point I can find where one branch split from another, to see if they can be grafted back together. I have to correlate all kinds of dimensions, availability and prices.

It doesn't look like work. But we're not just shoveling sand here. I think a lot of engineers in the bike industry can go pound sand, but that's another matter entirely.

At day's end I hop on the fixed gear or one of two road bike variants with friction shifting and ride peacefully home. People have to discover true value and happiness for themselves.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Wet Socks

The last couple of miles vindicated my choice of the fixed gear. Mist thickened to downpour. My socks were soaked.

Sock-soaker is Grade Two on the rain scale.

Arriving considerably early, I still had not had time to change from riding clothes when the first customers walked in on the heels of the upper management. I handled the first two crises without even removing my cleated shoes. When the next one looked like it might drag on, I took a second to throw my shop shoes on over my wet socks. Next chance, I would put on my dry spare pair.

That was about nine hours ago. Time to suit back up in the wet cleats, because I never had time to hang them up to dry properly either. They'll dry on the way home. The evening is sunny.

The parts arrived for the day's rush jobs after 2 p.m. It might have been after 3. I'm not sure. I was dealing as gently as I could with someone who had purchased LandRider auto-shifting bikes because his wife is shifter-phobic. All you can do in a case like that is listen and nod, while they take their own time figuring out that the product will never get past its design flaws. In due course they will relegate it to the back of their garage or send it back to join the fleet of "reconditioned" bikes LandRider offers on their own website.

Rushing into the rushiest rush job I discovered that a crank and bottom bracket had been ordered to cure a front derailleur problem. Ignoring the new parts, I got the shifting working by tightening the two loose bolts on the front derailleur and lubricating the derailleur pivots. It would shift even better with new chain rings. New chain rings had been tried and dismissed in the initial diagnosis. Popping on the new crank and BB would install new rings by default and be quicker. Done and done.

The crank is a Shimano with sheet metal chain rings designed to make the rider soon want to upgrade to a more expensive drive train, but for the moment they are shiny and work crisply. The whole crank costs less than a stack of three good alloy replacement rings for the original Sugino. If that's being chucked, I'll short-stop it on the way to the dumpster. Even though the 130-74 bolt circles close off most good gear options for touring, you can always mount it on a shorter BB without the granny ring.

That's enough. I'm going home.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Fixed Gear Primer

Every so often, it's good to go over the basics once more.

A single-cog fixed gear offers four speeds to the rider: sitting, standing, weaving and walking. This applies most significantly to climbing, though sitting and standing apply to flat and rolling terrain as well.

Going down hill, riders can turn like a skier to help check speed. If you don't want to give up and use the brake, try cutting back and forth, if road width and traffic allow. So now you have both sitting and weaving available during descent.

Officially, most two-sided hubs have track threading on one side and freewheel threading on the other. Some riders choose to have a single-speed freewheel on one side of the hub. The technical term for these riders is "wussies."

Only kidding! But a freewheel does call for a brake or brakes.

I use a front brake on my fixed gear, just to have a little extra stopping power, and the ability to pull the front end down while braking into a corner. Without suspension, this effect is minuscule, but try grabbing a front brake alone, and grabbing a rear brake alone, to feel the difference for yourself. If you are an idiot, you will launch yourself over the bars when you grab the front brake alone, but let's assume you've learned enough by now to control the bike better than that.

If you slow by resistance-pedaling alone, the effect is not as smooth going into a corner. However, you can use well-timed resistance-pedaling to pop the bike up straighter for an instant at the apex of a turn. Fool around with it. You have nothing to lose but skin.

Round, smooth lines tend to work best, but you can have fun with some kinkier ones, too.

Returning to hub threading, a bottom bracket lock ring will thread onto most freewheel-diameter hub threads to hold a fixed cog in place on a road hub or the "wrong" side of a two-sided hub. Bottom bracket lock rings have just about gone with slotted cleats into the mists of oblivion, but cheap bikes still use them, and many are gathering on scrap piles. Millions must have been produced in the golden age of cup-and-cone. They come in different thicknesses, so you can find one to fit the space you need to fill. Using a BB lock ring I have fixed cogs on both sides of the rear wheel.

When I navigated urban streets I used narrow, 38 centimeter drop bars so I could shoot the gap between right-lane traffic and parked cars on skinny streets. Riding mostly on open roads now, I switched to 42-cm bars for more comfortable cruising.

Track bikes traditionally use nutted axles, but Tullio Campagnolo gave us the quick release axle for quicker wheel-flips during road races with fixed gears. It's perfectly legitimate, and highly convenient if you swap that wheel around much.

The Raleigh Grand Prix of the 1970s made a great basis for a fixed gear. For that matter, almost any modest road bike of the period had long dropouts and could be stripped down to a 20-ish-pound bike with little difficulty. With a bit more time and trouble you could refine the product even more. For instance, you should respace the rear axle and redish the wheel to straighten out the chain line. You might also invest in a track crank, though road cranks can fit a wider range of chain ring sizes. Choose your gears based on your riding area, and your own pedaling style.

The current VD epidemic in road bikes has limited their potential for conversion, but you can still find usable frames. And several manufacturers cater to the current fad for fixed gears by offering track bikes in their lineup. See Surly, Fuji and Soma for a start. For a year or two, everyone will be in on the act, until enough posers bust expensive dental work and the craze dies off. Gather ye componentry while ye may. Surly and Fuji seem truly committed to it. And look for sweet deals to come, when the riders who got bucked off dump their stash on eBay and craigslist.

Whenever a craze ends, as mountain biking did and fixed-gear riding inevitably will, it leaves a higher total number of riders than there were. So this moment of popularity will leave the fixed gear culture a little stronger. Fixed gear riders by definition ask little in the way of outside coddling and affirmation. Real cyclists are a self-reliant bunch, and career fixed-gear riders may be the crustiest of the lot.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

What is it with fixed gears?

A reader asks, "Question. What is the point of fixed gear bikes? I'd think that they would be kind of a bummer. I had a fixed gear as a kid, and remember alot of walking up hills and out of control downhill chaos. For me, the gears were a lovely perk of being a grownup. "

Fixed gears are about purity, simplicity and noble suffering. Like stanky cheese, dark beer, sea urchin and sadomasochism, they're not for everyone. But if you discover they're for you, nothing else will do.

I do like my bikes with "speeds." But a well-geared fixie can feel lighter and more agile than you would expect it to be. Take a bunch of parts off of even a cheap bike and it suddenly weighs a whole lot less than it used to. Strip down something that was light to start with and you have a personal rocket that responds to your leg muscles' every twitch.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Bikers are Here

It's Motorcycle Weekend, the climax of Motorcycle Week here in New Hampshire.

When I moved here at the end of the 1980s, it was still just a weekend, and it was moving beyond the glory days of its legendary rowdiness. There were still "show us your tits" zones along the roads nearest the center of the activity, around Laconia, The Weirs, and Loudon Speedway, but brawls and beatings seemed to be on the wane.

Most people say they hate the motorcyclists. It's a rotten time to drive anything with four or more wheels. So I have no problem.

People are always telling me, "be careful out there with those motorcycles." Or they'll ask if I feel threatened.

Nope. The bikers may treat me like a retarded cousin, but at least I'm one of the family. They know what it's like to get around on two wheels. Some of them even reminisce about when they used to have the stamina to pedal. We both know that the real enemy is enclosed vehicles, sensory deprivation tanks filled with oblivious drones who don't realize how cut off they are from their world until they run over a piece of it that they had completely overlooked.

Some biker perv might take my tight shorts to be an invitation and drag me off into the woods some day, but at least that has the personal touch. It's not like being squashed by some Escalade with a boat trailer and hearing the nozzle who was driving it say, "Jeez, I just didn't see that idiot."

Not that I'm looking forward to either one.

For the week now drawing to a close, restaurants, motels, convenience stores and tourist traps all have signs out saying "bikers welcome." I know they're not talking to me, but it's still nice to see. I can pretend. Many of these businesses will leave the signs out for the rest of the summer. The state has a lot of nice touring.

People who have already opened their wallets to the oil companies, their motor vehicle dealer and the various licensing agencies are more willing to keep pouring out that cash than those of us who make the major investment up front in the bike itself and then propel ourselves around. We'll buy food, but not a lot of trinkets, booze and hotel rooms. No wonder we're not popular.

On my one long tour, I bought beer. We even paid for a motel once or twice. But I have to admit, I lived almost as frugally as a homeless person. Officially, I was a homeless person. My girlfriend had a college dorm room waiting for her, but I had nothing. Whatever I got I had to put there. It turned the tour into a much more significant journey than any vacation.

Now every day is a tour. And I get paid.

Try it. It's habit forming.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Day I Shop at Wal-Mart

I decided today I might consider shopping at Wal-Mart if they institute secure bicycle parking for shoppers at all locations. Since they could not exist without our gas-guzzling mobile society in which people willingly drive a dozen miles or more to a gigantic box store, they owe it to humanity at large to try to mitigate some of that harm. If someone wants to haul the BOB or ride the Big Dummy or the Xtracycle, or even just hang the panniers and go for it, they should find a warm welcome at the World's Largest Retailer.

World domination has responsibilities attached.

I'm waiting for the rise of Wal-Mart mini stores and specialty boutiques, reinventing Main Street under the banner of the Big Smilie. It's a natural progression. They'd all better have covered bike racks.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Heavy Metal

After two days on the road bike I was sick of the highway and ready to get back on the Cross-Check. I'd needed to ride rapid transit Wednesday because I had to get to a Zoning Board meeting (stupid civic involvement) and again on Thursday so I could put the supper casserole in the oven at a reasonable hour.

My road bike weighs about 21 pounds. That's incredibly portly by modern standards, but back when I started anything below 25 was decent. The Cross-Check weighs about 26-28. Actually, it's probably nudging 30 with the commuting load. So the tight, 21-pound road bike feels downright skittish by comparison.

After 17 years on the same commuting route, I have every line dialed. It even occurred to me that when I ride the fixed gear I probably make very nearly the exact same number of pedal strokes every time I ride the route. Start with the right pedal up, ride the exact line the exact distance...weird.

On the light bike I notice quicker acceleration and easier climbing. The low gear is 39-26, compared to the average low of 36-28 on the Surly, with a bailout to 30-28 on the walls. I never ride the 30 on the straight route into town, but I do use it on the nasty climbs in North Wolfeboro on the way home.

The Cross-Check is tight enough to sprint and corner well, but has long enough chainstays and slack enough angles to take the harshness out of it. And there's the weight.

In the corners, I can crawl from one end of it to the other without it changing its line. I just pour it into the groove and hang on. Not that I can't change lines if I need to. It just feels more like that big racing motorcycle with the rider hanging off the inside of it in the corner, compared to the twisted torso of a rider carving a line on a light road bike. I can carve with it, too. It just flows more than it snaps.

On the descents, I like to feel that mass run away with me. Gravity grabs us by the shirt-tails on the next climb, though. Shift smoothly through the gears as the bike slows rather than leap up and stomp yourself to exhaustion trying to preserve speed for another few yards.

I draw the line at the extravagant tonnage of bikes that revel in their girthiness. Too old, I guess. I've had my hernias, my creaky knees. But just as there's such a thing as too much weight, I swear there's such a thing as too little.

Modern Marvels

Frustrating week in the old repair shop so far.

A customer has been having shifting problems with his fancy carbon road bike. This is not uncommon. Cram ten gears in the space formerly occupied by eight and fractions of a millimeter make a difference more than ever before. Thin out the side plates of a chain by a few more thousandths and you get links that twist when you look at them.

The bike industry continues to nurse the illusion that technology will rekindle customer interest. Safe and enjoyable places to ride will rekindle customer interest. That is all. People flocked to mountain bikes because they could be ridden on rougher trails well away from motor traffic. The few hard-core riders who were beating the shit out of themselves and their equipment might have wanted clicky-click shifting and expensive, complex suspension, but the rest of the riding public just had it crammed down their throat along with step-in pedals and shoes that will only work with step-in pedals.

But I digress.

As a mechanic I get to reap what the industry sows. This week it was Shifters That Do You Wrong and the Industry that Loves Them. Two separate bikes had 105 STI front shifters that would for no obvious reason just lock up and leave the chain on the big ring. These are brand-new levers on brand-new bikes. The clicks feel just subliminally mushy. Disconnect the derailleur and pull the cable with all your strength and the shifter functions. Hook it to a front derailleur and it might work or it might not.

The rider bent his chain when it high-sided off the outside of the big chainring. I replaced the original equipment KMC with a Dura Ace. Since this was before his front shifting problem became really apparent, we sent him off to play. He came back reporting that the chain would drop onto the top of the inner chainring and ride over the teeth instead of falling all the way down and engaging them.

We've seen this problem before. It used to happen when replacing mountain bike chainrings, especially granny rings, and middle rings on Shimano cranks that required the use of annoying thin spacers to make up for someone's lack of engineering skill in designing the crankset in the first place. Often one could eliminate the annoying spacers by installing after-market rings. Get the spacing a little wide and the chain might not fall correctly.

With more and more cogs, narrower chains and a complete reliance on index-only systems that make rider skill completely irrelevant, we all depend on the machinery to function perfectly. Students of Japanese military history know that we may well owe our victory in the Pacific in World War II to this dependence on perfection. That and the fact that Shimano was making the guns, so every six months they needed a completely different size ammunition.

Yeah, this stuff works great until it doesn't work at all.

The Dura Ace chain is two tenths of a millimeter wider than the KMC. You'd think this would make it less prone to hang up, but no. Swapping parts back and forth to test every possible combination, we discovered that the KMC hung up much less than the Shimano on the bad crank.

The crank, an FSA, is the same brand that gave us similar fits last year on another rider's brand-new bike. It really only takes a tenth of a millimeter to make something go wrong like this when the difference between a nine-speed chain and a ten-speed is only half a millimeter. You might have a couple of tenths to play with, but when you get to the limit you get an error that acts like the whole difference, not just the last fraction.

We had to cannibalize two new bikes from the sales floor to get our customer's bike working again. And the manufacturers always act like they've never heard of such a thing when we report this stuff from the field.

I'm pleased to say that history generally vindicates us greasy grunts in the end. No shit. It really didn't work and it really was a design or manufacturing flaw. We don't usually get the satisfaction of a confession, but we get to see the change in the next production run.

While we wait for replacement parts for the bikes we plundered to keep our customer happy, I continued to play the Compatibility Follies on a mountain bike a long-time customer had brought in for service a week ago. It's a 1995-ish Cannondale front-suspension mountain bike, ridden hard but not abusively. We've replaced parts as expected over the years. This year it was time for major drive train work.

The bike had one of Shimano's grand illusion cranks from that era. At first glance it looks like it has replaceable chainrings. Yeah? Just try to replace them. If you were so fortunate as to bend or wear out one or more within a couple of years of buying the bike, you might have found the proprietary middle ring as a replacement part. Fat chance now. Fortunately, there's a nice replacement crank with genuinely replaceable rings, for less than the cost of a complete ring set. Unfortunately, it takes a different length bottom bracket spindle. His original UN-51 BB has seen a lot of water, so a new BB couldn't hurt. But the spindle that supposedly goes with that crank put the chain set a hair too far out. This wasn't clear on the stand or test riding on smooth terrain. Since the customer had come from another town and was waiting, I gave it a quick spin and sent him off.

He returned the bike yesterday, reporting that it spits the chain off both ends. Hmm. Chain line problem. No problem, really, we can just tuck it in a little closer with a 115 instead of 118, and tweak the limit screws on the rear derailleur to account for the bushing slop that allows the chain to hop off the inside on the back end.

Good so far, but the twelve- or fourteen-year-old front derailleur is too sloppy to shift cleanly to the granny, especially with the chain set tucked that extra couple of millimeters closer to the seat tube.

It's okay, I have a Deore LX front derailleur.

No it's not okay, this is a nine-speed derailleur. Its narrow and deep cage absolutely will not shift on a seven- or eight-speed crank.

I wanted to get drunk. Very, very drunk. I just didn't want to remain that way for the full duration of an actual drunk.

Stuff like this is why I drink too much coffee. I can slug that stuff with far fewer adverse consequences than guzzling scotch or rum when the frustrating stupidity of modern engineering and marketing drives me to distraction. Why should I have to keep apologizing for the bike industry? Frankly, I don't. My boss hates it, but I refuse to stand out there and act like something's great when it's poorly-thought-out bullshit.

I started the morning by fixing my own bike so I could ride to work. Turns out the busted nipple wasn't the only problem with my everyday wheel. When I put it in the truing stand to touch it up after replacing the nipple, I discovered a big split in another section of the rim. I've put it through hell, I can't complain. But I didn't want to ride to work with my 11-30 touring and exploring block on the back. I hate the steps in that cluster. I'm going to assemble my own, probably using separate Miche cogs, but that's another project (and blog) for another day.

For this morning, I put a new 7-speed 13-28 on my 8-speed rear hub, and slapped the 11 from the 11-30 on to fill up the space. So now I had an 11-28 eight-speed. No one on Earth needs to ride an 11 for the big meat, but better to have a gear I will barely use than a spacer that gives me nothing. When I build my fantasy cluster I'll have a first-position 13 and tighten up some of the steps in the middle on the way to the 30 or 32 at the top of the eight. I just haven't decided where to put my extra close step.

Never more than eight speeds. Always friction shifting. There go 90 percent of your compatibility problems.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Four Wheels, 400 Miles

When I put gas in the car late on Saturday night as I started out to drive to Connecticut, it was the first time I had filled tank since the end of April. Between having a car that gets more than 30 miles per gallon and hardly driving it, twelve gallons of gasoline can last a long time.

As I drive a long road trip I often try to imagine what the trip would have been like 200 years ago. Even 50 years ago the roads were a lot sketchier than they are now. The one I live on and the one connecting it to the man highway weren't paved. The highways themselves were narrower, twistier and hillier. But go back to when the railroads hadn't even made it very far up here, and people traveled on foot, horseback or by wagon, coach and carriage. The road went right through the yard of those farmhouses that now seem so ridiculously close to it. In most cases, the modern highway has been moved well away from the dooryard. Back when the farm doubled as an inn and inns didn't need big parking lots, having the road come by the door was simply convenient.

People stopped for the night because the beasts that carried them needed rest. They stopped because the slow modes of transport wore them out with long days, even as passengers. Those who couldn't afford to ride put in an even tougher day.

In the present day, on paved roads, I could probably make the trip on a bike in two long days of 100 miles each. I've done 200 miles in a day, but I don't take it lightly. After the visit, I would have to ride the 200 home again.

If American society really supported intermodal transportation, I could ride to the bus station in Dover or the train station wherever I could connect with the Amtrak Downeaster and buy a lift to the station nearest my parents' house. It would probably take the better part of a day, but that's half the time to ride back-to-back centuries down and repeat the feat on the return leg.

As it was, I took the convenient automobile. I just try never to take it for granted.

In the middle of the night, in the middle of Interstate 395, it still had to give me a scare. I'd pulled into the left lane at 70 to let a Jeep SUV merge. The Jeep came on in the right lane and just hung there, overlapped with my rear wheel. I nudged the cruise control a bit to speed up. The asshole in the Jeep sped up, too, but just enough to stay in the blind spot. I nudged it a little more. So did he. Then my car started making a weird slapping, rattling noise, like I might be getting a flat tire or a CV joint might be getting ready to fly apart. Or it could just be some loose piece of cosmetic crap flapping in the gale at 75. I punched out of cruise and let the Jeep jerk go. I didn't care to race, I just wanted a little elbow room. Slowing down was fine, too.

The noise ceased below about 54 mph. Now it was after 1 a.m., and I'd been up since about 6:30 the previous morning. I'd ridden a 30-mile fixed gear commute and worked a full day at work before coming home, packing up, eating supper and heading out. I probably didn't have the reaction speed to drive 70-75, but 50-54 was a miserable crawl. At an earlier hour, with normal traffic, I would have gotten trampled to death. But every time I tried to push it the noise would come back.

Nothing is more useless and awkward than a broken car. Nothing puts you more at the mercy of the local sharks than a broken car along a road far from home. You can't fix a modern car with hand tools, wire and cleverness. The tool kit becomes a cell phone and a Triple A card.

I pulled off at the first lighted rest area. Crawling under the car where God knows who had pissed, puked or dumped cups of unwanted liquids, I saw that a piece of shrouding had come loose. Flapping it against the frame I got it to make a noise that could have been what I heard. I shoved it up until it snapped into place behind some metal. It kept things reasonably quiet for the rest of the trip.

After I'd wired the flappy piece more securely the next day, I still wondered whether I was in the clear. I'd seen a bit of automatic transmission fluid sprayed around under there. Lines from the tranny go to an oil cooler below the radiator. I'd had the lines replaced late last summer when they decided to let go in the very same driveway and empty the transmission as I was getting ready to drive home from another visit to the parental homestead. But auto mechanics can be as literal as computers sometimes, and cars themselves seem to have an evil genius for blowing something major whenever they feel like it. The service guys could have put new lines to a cancer-eaten cooler, or New Hampshire's road-brine could have eaten more of the mechanism over the winter.

Luck was with me this time. The service guys at Plaza Ford (unpaid testimonial) road tested the car and secured additional loose pieces in the wheel well where the cheesy crap fasteners used to hold modern car body work together had disintegrated, letting things rattle alarmingly when I reached the Massachusetts average highway speed. They charged nothing for this little boost to my peace of mind. It totally challenged my phobia of dealership service departments. Too bad I don't have the research budget to want to try further tests.

This afternoon, my wife wanted to get out on the bikes between last night's rain showers and today's thunderstorms. A mile and a half from the driveway we both jumped at the snap of a breaking spoke in my rear wheel. I stopped, disconnected the rear brake, and we tiptoed back to the house. There it was a quick, simple matter to slap the spare wheel in, thread down the brake cable adjuster I had installed for just this purpose and resume the ride. On a tour I would have had spare spokes and nipples and fixed it along the road. Some things are a lot easier on a vehicle you can carry with one hand.