Sunday, July 29, 2007

Not Your Typical Crash

Last Sunday, the unflappable Marine mentioned that, on the morning ride, "Steve ran over a dead porcupine on Route 28 and went off the road. He decided to drop out of the ride and go home."

This is a rough year for porcupines. Their defenses don't work well against hurtling tons of inanimate metal, unfeeling cyborg composites of vestigial human consciousness merged with powerful machines that thunder down the darkened highway crushing anything small enough to fall below bumper height. You don't turn a charge like that by turning your back and erecting your quills.

Porcupine corpses litter the side of Route 28. I've been watching them go from black, quilly corpse to gut-pile to darkened leather, one every couple of miles, since early June. I didn't happen to see the one Steve hit. It's on the northbound side of a section I usually miss, because I turn off to my alternate route before I get there.

Steve's account is much more colorful and gripping. He was at the back of a pace line, pushing fairly hard up this grade at about 12-15 miles per hour, when he heard someone say "oh shit" or something, and riders started swerving. When he could see the road kill, he found himself set up to pass to the right of it, on the side with the gut-splatter. Others had gone around the head end.

"I couldn't believe how slippery it turned out to be," said Steve. "I thought I would just cut through it, but the front end washed out immediately. I was going down."

Remember that Steve crashed 14 months ago, broke two ribs, collapsed a lung and fractured his scapula. He's a little sensitive.

"The front tire slid sideways on the guts. The bike was laid right over," said Steve.

"Suddenly the tire went off the pavement onto the dirt. The bike stood right up. I figured I was going over the bars then, but instead it suddenly flipped about a hundred and eighty degrees and I headed down the ditch.

"I never noticed how deep that ditch was along there. I figured I'd flip when I hit the bottom of it, maybe even fold up the fork. But the bike made it through the compression at the bottom and rolled up the other side. It just came quietly to a stop.

"My bike and my legs were covered with porcupine intestines. I emptied both my bottles trying to wash it off."

Thus ended Mr. Steve's Wild Ride.

Everyone who rode around the head had no problems. Porcupines have a lot of guts and very little brain. We all know someone like that.

Steve didn't just limp away home. He went off by himself and found a nasty puking hill to charge up "to calm down." Then he went home to clean himself and his bike thoroughly.

Some things you just can't practice for.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Summer Downpours

Summers around here seem to have changed. We used to be busy for about three to four months of steady activity. Now it seems to come in short, torrential downpours, like the new style of our spring and summer rains.

Yesterday, while Steve and I were already buried in the workshop, a woman stepped onto the sales floor. Steve had barely managed to say quietly to me, "I hope she's just here to buy clothes."

"I'd like to buy three women's bikes and a baby seat," the woman announced.

She ended up buying four bikes, adding a men's hybrid to the two Fuji Odessa mountain bikes and the Fuji Crosstown hybrid. The men's hybrid got a rack to match the one that comes with the baby seat we had to mount to one of the Odessas.

At times like this you really appreciate that a bike was meticulously assembled. If it was, the final check takes a couple of minutes, mostly just checking air pressure.

These weren't.

When an assembler pays sketchy attention to detail, the person checking the bike has to go meticulously from one end to the other to see what was hit and what was missed. This takes time a busy shop can ill afford when the customers are there in the store, wondering what's taking so long.

I have never succeeded in convincing people we should do every assembly to the highest standard. Then we all suffer when the "it's good enough" mentality runs into a busy sales day.

"It's good enough" isn't even really profitable, unless you sell in an area that brings you a steady flow of new customers to replace the ones who left because it wasn't. It takes more time to redo work, sometimes several times, than to do it right in the first place. Somewhere in the process of making "good enough" actually good, the shop will lose money.

We're not here to lose money.

It's really easy to lose your life in a job like this. Actually it's easy in most of the jobs we do. One day you realize most of your years are behind you and you've spent the prettiest part of every season shoveling someone else's shit.

I don't have a quick answer to that, certainly not when I have to run like hell out of here, because a summer Saturday looms ahead.

Downpours are forecast.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Send in the Marines

Our durable Marine is a credit to himself and the Corps. He digs into the pile of work as soon as he arrives and keeps at it until closing time. While he doesn't have Ralph's experience and affinity for the present, past and future of bike technology, he does have aptitude and a serious work ethic. So the workshop's summer crisis could be much worse.

I had the rare pleasure to join up with another rider on the way to work this morning. Out on the highway I had seen a rider coming the opposite way as I started into a steep descent. I took an extra split-second to wave before tucking tight behind the handlebars to ride gravity to the bottom of the dip.

More than a mile farther on, the rider came up beside me.

"You're hard to catch," he said.

"I'm late to work," I said. It's my standard excuse, to let other riders know I'm not just a hyper-competitive hammerhead. And it's true.

"I'm a little lost," said the other rider. "I was going to go out to 171, but it seemed like I'd gone a long way. I didn't want to be gone three hours. I only have one bottle."

"We have a great map at the shop," I said. "Come on."

He asked and I explained where I worked and how I rode there almost every day.

"I should pull you," he said, moving ahead of me on his carbon Trek. But on the next descent his light bike didn't plummet as fast as my heavy one, and then he didn't contest when I stayed ahead to intimidate the traffic at the next intersection.

"This is the daily grind," I said, when he caught back up. "I know every inch."

"That you do," he said.

I wouldn't have minded taking the draft, but I do know every inch, and I was fresh after a rest day yesterday. He couldn't stay ahead of me for long, because I know how to carry my momentum through the hills, the corners and the morning traffic situations. On open road he could probably eat my lunch, but this was traffic jamming on a route I've done for decades.

Okay, not quite two decades. But a lot of times.

First at the shop, I got moral high ground for the day, and sold the visiting rider, Dave, the excellent map we carry. Off he went to enjoy his adventures, while I went to the workshop to assess the casualties.

I've seen worse. Nothing smelled like crap, anyway. And Jim was already tackling his first repair.

This is July. I'm in peak form, rumbling along like an avalanche on the bike. It's like that every July. Don't worry, I start to fall apart in August. By the end of September I wonder where the hell all that July shit came from. But it's here now. Ride a lot, form builds. Ride carefully and you can maintain it, even recover it. There's glory in sport, but there's nobility in day-to-day athleticism. Choose to move yourself, regardless of cheers, medals, prizes and acclaim.

A simple life of self-propulsion can make you appreciate what a gift 20 miles per hour can be, and what a blissful indulgence an ordinary hot shower is.

We're spoiled in our cars. They're made to fly at the speed airplanes aspired to achieve in the early years of powered flight. You're not meant to see well out of them or drive them at sane speeds for small streets and the presence of unarmored human bodies. They are inhuman. We become inhuman in them. They feel awkward at 20 miles per hour or less. They wobble and weave, and want to lunge ahead. We should keep them outside our population centers, at something like an airport. We should enter them at these ports when we intend to drive at aeronautical speeds on limited-access motorways to the next port, where we leave them to take humane transport among humans once again.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The jab of frayed wire into my fingers reminded me that I had forgotten to replace my own rear shift cable before setting out for home an hour after closing time.

Having taken Saturday off to try to sell some cartoon work at the town's summer celebration and craft sale, I'd missed a day on which no repair work got done, and more was checked in.

Wednesday, the other mechanic didn't show up at all, because he'd stuffed it on his mountain bike the evening before, dislocating his shoulder and bruising a kidney so badly he was passing blood. We only found this out late in the afternoon when he finally called in after he got out of the hospital.

Health care in America: He went to the local hospital, blocks from his home, when he woke up at 4:30 a.m., racked with pain and painting the toilet red. Because he gets his care through the Veterans' Administration, the locals couldn't treat him. He had to drive two hours to Manchester. Good thing Marines are tough.

He was back at work on Sunday. But that left me digging out from the pile of rush jobs, starting with the Sewer Bike.

Racer X and the Sewer Bike

Racer X, well over six feet tall and 200 pounds, had crushed the down tube on his Jamis Dakar in a crash within days, maybe hours, of having some urgent work done last weekend. The cracked bike, half-stripped, hung waiting for me beside the Specialized Epic frame shipped in overnight to receive whatever organs could be transplanted. And hurry! Racer X leaves for the next Big Event tomorrow morning.

A new front derailleur hung on it, because the seat tube is a different diameter. But no one had noticed that the Jamis had an integrated headset and the new Specialized took a conventional one.

Pretty funny how the technoweenies have decided to stick the headset bearings inside the frame and move the crank bearings outside. How did we ever ride before?

I was able to appropriate a headset from a slightly less rushy job and order a new one, fast freight, to replace it.

When I pried the bottom bracket out of the old frame, the inside of the BB shell looked like a sewer pipe. A medium-sized turd's worth of brown glop flowed sluggishly out when I extracted the bearing unit. The smell that followed made me wonder what sort of sewage plant enduro this guy had been riding. We joke about bikes made of drain pipe, but we mean new pipe, not used.

Maybe he rides like crap. Or maybe, in the extreme of athletic agony, he...

I was glad to leave the old frame to dry, its stench dwindling as the brown faded to an ambiguous tan.

Fortunately, I was able to transfer the hydraulic disc brakes over without opening the brake lines.

I did take a 45-minute break to go get a crown put on one of molars. Then I went back to work until almost 7 p.m. I set out on the fixed gear in drizzle and premature dusk after discovering that the front derailleur ordered for the bike wouldn't work because it's that idiotic top-swing design. The clamp sat too low to clear the weld for the rear swingarm. I had to scavenge a traditional-swing derailleur off a bike on the sales floor.

I was back in the shop just after 07:00 on Thursday. I'd hitched a lift with my wife, who had to be at the dentist at 7, oddly enough. I rode from his office down to the shop to start in on Racer X's bike again. I had it ready just after 9.

I was supposed to ride 25 miles to Gilford after work, to retrieve the Ford from the mechanic, but the rain had intensified rather than moving out, so I let myself be talked into taking the trip in the car instead. Funny how I feel like less of a man when I don't ride, but the motoring public thinks I'm less of one because I do. No matter. I choked down the humiliation in the interest of efficiency and the pleasure of my wife's company.

I still haven't assembled my new BOB trailer. No time. It's been at the shop for more than a week.

Friday was another fixed gear day. Saturday I only rode from the car park to my craft sale tent and back. So Sunday morning I set out on the Surly again and first felt the sting of fraying cable.

Sunday evening, Monday morning, still I nursed that cable as the schedule kept me moving. I rode the bike to a conservation commission work session, shifting gingerly. I carry a cable with me. I've changed it along the roadside before. The press of business just jostled me along relentlessly.

I'd rather change a cable than fix a flat.

It's all ready to go, now. And I heard about an hour ago that the repair shop is completely in the weeds.

I miss Ralph.

Friday, July 20, 2007

They Hate Freedom

They hate us because we are free. They hate us because we question the beliefs they hold so fervently. They hate us because they think we don't belong in their country.

Assuming that their way of life is the one true path, they deem us infidels, lesser beings who deserve to be destroyed.

They can't stand freedom. Having given it up themselves, it irks them to see anyone else have it and use it. They create a whole value system based on the necessity to be like them and deprive ourselves as they do.

They don't really want to see anyone reduce their dependence on foreign oil. Real freedom is too much work. Slaving like a dog to pay car payments, insurance, upkeep and fuel costs is deemed freedom, worth the price of lives lost at home and abroad. Putting forth one's own wholesome effort to get from place to place is subversive, annoying, despicable self-indulgence.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Half Right

Certain riding seasons seem to have a signature move that motorists perform over and over, as if competing with each other for style and effectiveness.

This year I call the move the "Half Right." They push past me, set up for a right turn and then stop dead in the middle of the lane, inviting me to shoot through the death hole on their right. Then they act surprised, even offended, when I decline to do so.

Today it was the Short Bus again. They choked the lane completely, bringing me to a halt before they finally lurched into their turn and went away. I extended my right hand, palm up, but with all the fingers out. It was sort of like the finger, but with the finger's friends in the gang with it.

Earlier, out the highway, some jerk in a Jeep had passed a whole string of motorists on a blind rise, honking his horn in annoyance. I enjoyed the spectacle of unabashed assholishness from the safety of my bike on the shoulder. It would have been gruesome to see the multi-car smash if someone had come over the rise as The Lord of the Highway claimed his share of their lane. In a car I'd have to be in there among 'em.

More than forty thousand direct fatalities a year, people. That's just deaths as a direct result of motor vehicle accidents. That doesn't include maiming, deaths due to pollution or sedentary life style or wars for oil. I rechecked my statistics from this earlier post.

Zoom zoom zoom.

On the plus side, I caught two drafts, one from a dump truck, the other from a box truck, that helped get me to work only a few minutes late.
In a comment on my earlier post, "Driver Education," crazy inlaw said...

"I believe the use of the middle finger in these situation is as very important to test the sanity of the offender . I also like to sacrifice a water bottle to the windshield gods when the balance of power is in my favor."

The finger is a gesture of futility. I use it as part of a whole arsenal of vulgar gestures I hope will anger my antagonist enough to get them to return and settle the matter with manly fisticuffs. It never works and it never satisfies my need to express myself. I prefer to win on the merits of the case. I certainly did that in my encounter with the man in the silver VW Cabrio. We both knew I won. And I had class. That made me an even bigger winner.

I seldom have that kind of luck, timing and self control.

My "Cars R Coffins" tee shirt has been getting some good comments. I wear it at least one day a week at the bike shop. With my shop apron in summer position, the design shows all day, not just when I remove the apron for a coffee run or brief interludes on the sales floor.

Cars R Sensory Deprivation Tanks doesn't have the same blunt force. Cars Make You Stupid also lacks dramatic impact. I realize that modern civilization needs to make use of some sort of powered vehicles. But as a conversation starter, Cars R Coffins throws up an undeniable challenge.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Driver Education

The pace of life is so much more relaxed in a small town. Riding in more of a city, people would nearly kill me every day and we'd barely have time to flip each other off. Here in Small Town America we have time to chat about it.

This morning on the ride to work, I was approaching an intersection from one direction, preparing to turn right, as a white-haired gent in a small silver car approached it from the opposite direction, preparing to turn left into the same street.

Left turns yield to oncoming traffic, right?

I knew damn well he wouldn't, but I had good speed and I know the corner. I had just enough of an edge to claim the turn as the law ordains. It's part of a nice right-left descending combination that leads down onto a level street with parking on both sides. After the swooping descent I will generally float along at a prudent speed, approaching Main Street by the Post Office.

As I floated at my prudent speed, the little silver car pushed past me to stop in a short line waiting at Main Street. I floated up to join them. The driver called out sternly, "You ought to pay more attention to the rules of the road!"

"Really," I said. "According to the rules of the road, left turns yield to right turns. Look it up."

"Well you need to slow down," he snapped, and pulled out onto Main Street.

I floated out with him, pacing the traffic without the slightest strain or danger to myself or others. He, meanwhile, almost clipped a truck backing out of a parking space, and blew through a crosswalk.

"What are you, RECKLESS?" I yelled. And then I laughed and laughed and laughed.

He kept looking back as he drove on up the street, held in check by all the other motor vehicles in his way. I wasn't about to try to pass that psycho. It was more fun to ride sedately behind him to my next turn. It gave me lots of time to memorize his license plate.

If he screws with me again I'll go by his house and stick a driver's handbook under his windshield wiper blade.

Jersey Design Idea

Bright, light color with contrasting print that says


or how about just:



The question isn't whether to ride, it's how the ride will fit the day.

For most of us, a broken car complicates life. The more broken it is, the greater the complication. While most people could walk or bike a lot more than they do, it would be hard for massive numbers to go car-free unless our entire approach to transportation changed.

Yesterday I had to deliver a broken car to our trusted mechanic. He's worth the trip, around 40 miles each way, if the car can possibly be coaxed to get there.

Cars suck money like nothing else. They lose value from the minute you buy them. They consume increasingly expensive and ethically questionable fuel. You have to insure them, maintain them, house them, park them and avoid other people driving them. They kill more than 36,000 people a year, more than the US casualties in the September 11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. On top of that, you can get royally reamed by the people who repair them.

Auto mechanics don't have to be dishonest. They can simply be unimaginative to waste your money.

The guy who fixes my car is eccentric. He battles various personal problems. He's also a brilliant diagnostician. He would never thrive in a big shop. He's got his one-man hole in the wall and an endless work load, with customers who come to him from as far away as Vermont and Pennsylvania. He also has a loyal following among people lucky enough to have him right in the neighborhood. If I liked his neighborhood better, I would seriously consider moving there.

To get the ailing car to him, I could have driven it to town, worked all day, and then driven the rest of the way to Gilford with my wife following in the other car. We would have driven two cars close to 90 miles each and I would not have had a bike ride.

Screw that. I got up at 4:45 when my wife did, for her grossly early shift at her summer job, poured two and a half quarts of oil into the Toyota, loaded the bike and drove off shortly after 6. After a stop in town to drop my lunch and other items at my place of employment, I delivered the Toyota with a key and a note, and hammered the 27 miles back to Wolfe City to arrive fashionably late for work.

Boring things like a day at work go a little more quickly if you knock a few minutes off the front end. And don't blame the bike. I'm late when I drive, too. This is your life, people. Don't just punch a clock. Get out and live.

I did carpool home with my beloved at the end of the day, because we were both finished at the same time, and it was a way to be together. Other times I've finished the 40-50 miles by riding the rest of the way home. Whatever suits the needs of the day.

I owe a large amount of my deceptively comfortable lifestyle to the bicycle. I have saved vast amounts of money and stayed in decent shape. If I'd managed to connect with a better income, I'd be sitting pretty. Instead I have to settle for good times now and retirement in a large cardboard box in a vacant lot until I'm ready to wander off into the nearest available large tract of wilderness to take care of funeral arrangements. And things could take a turn for the better. I can't see doing things I dislike for years and years in the hope that I might get to have a little fun late in life. That's the kind of attitude that's gotten us to the tangle of highways and jangle of neuroses we call our modern life.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

There, that's done

This minor pre-holiday grocery load included a bundle of broccoli, a head of lettuce (red leaf), a 12-pack of cat food pouches, a box of graham crackers, a package of flour tortillas, a block of Vermont cheddar, a box of laundry soap powder, a bag of coffee beans (fair trade, organic), two 6-packs of beer (two varieties), four peaches and a dozen eggs.

The S.S. Hernia about to set sail. I don't even want to think about the loading on that rear wheel. I never plan to load the Cross-Check heavily, so I haven't fitted a front rack. I could have used it today. I stuck myself out over the front wheel and pedaled really delicately. Everything made it home intact. The tires are mix-match, 700x35 rear, 700x32 front, because I pressed my exploring/touring rear wheel into daily service last month and I haven't done anything with the tires. The matching 700x35 is on the front wheel of the fatty set. I should put it on. I'm just too impressed with the longevity of the 1980s Mavic MA2 rim that's on the front now. Front wheels generally last forever, barring severe trauma.

Shoulda bought that BOB

Dammit, I waited. All set to buy a bike trailer, then I looked at the Surly Big Dummy as a better alternative. They won't be available until later this year. So I put it off.

Now I have to buy cat litter, beer, laundry soap and other hefty items with only panniers to haul them.

Use a car? One has mysteriously lost most of its engine oil. We discovered this after getting its flat tire fixed. The other leaves daily at 0530 because someone needs to be at work at 0600 and isn't ready to hammer the bike commute in one hour or less. It's harsh for a night-oriented musician type to have to jump up at 4 a.m. to leave on a commuter time trial well before the sun comes up. It would be hard on almost anyone except your chirpy, self-righteous early-riser types.

Cars are such expensive crap. They're convenient and all, but break one and see how convenient it is when it's a huge chunk of greasy metal and plastic that won't move from wherever it happened to die. A buffalo will be consumed by vultures and other creatures. It will cook down fairly quickly. A motor vehicle the same size just sits there. It settles gradually, but it does not return to the Earth.

We'll give the ailing one a transfusion and get it over to our chosen shaman to find out where the lube went, and why. He keeps his fees as reasonable as possible, but sometimes you just have to pay. And as soon as he finishes that, we have to tag the other one in for its annual inspection. Cha ching.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Attack in the Feed Zone

The race metaphor doesn't hold up perfectly, because nothing at work causes the leg-burning, lung-searing agony that bike racing can. If someone forced you to do anything that made you feel as bad as jamming on a bike does, you would consider yourself abused.

Still, some images from racing apply. Customers always attack at the feed zone. Think things have quieted down? Pull out that sandwich. You might even get to sit down and take a breath. Next thing you know you're either tossing it aside to meet the next trampling horde of bike renters and rack pickers, or trying to swallow it whole, like a snake engulfing its prey.

The Pace Picks Up

You're riding along in a big field, more than 100 riders. It's going to be a long race, so you're in the front quarter of the pack, sitting in. A minor rider, you have no team to help you or order you around. You're just a privateer, continuing what passes for a racing career one race at a time. See how it goes.

Subtly the pace jumps. It's faster than gradual, but not an exciting explosion of sprints. Click down a couple of gears. Push them harder. You've run out of cogs back there. It's hard to stay on top of the gear. The field in front of you is splintering. Gaps are opening. Chase, chase. Focus on controlled breathing. You have to put out everything, but you can't blow up. The result will be exhaustion, you just have to squeeze the fire in legs and lungs into a jet driving you forward, not a fireball consuming you as you cartwheel down in flaming chunks.

Welcome to summer in the workshop. From the time trial to work among angry vacationers in absurd vehicles to the constant demands of repairs and questions, to the long, quiet route home avoiding the busy highway, it's a stage race.

Today's starting gun is about to go off.