Friday, September 28, 2007

A Rash of Cross Bikes

Lately we've had a little surge of interest in cyclocross bikes. The local clientèle suddenly woke up to the versatility of 'cross bikes and a few riders have scraped up the coin to get them.

Try as I might to promote interest in the ultra-versatile Surly Cross Check, I admit that not every rider needs that level of adaptability. So I don't mind that the latest three cyclocross bikes off our assembly line have been Fujis. The riders who are getting them won't notice the limitations of VD and brifters. They're used to those features. If you never push against a wall you don't see, you can believe it isn't there. If it doesn't matter to you, does it matter at all?

'Cross bikes are cool. When people buy interesting bikes it puts the fun back in the job. I can imagine these riders taking their varied adventure rides.

Since the collapse of the mountain bike boom at the end of the last century, cycling has broken up into subcultures. Some riders maintain bikes to participate in more than one. Others have their one favorite. The cyclocross category provides many good examples of an "all-around" road bike for the one-bike rider who likes faster surfaces and a light-footed steed. It doesn't need to be paved, but it should be well-defined. Many places have paved and unpaved public roads that would be boring on a mountain bike but offer great opportunities for transportation and exploration on a rugged road bike.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


Some people are really put off by tattoos.

Body art and flesh-installed jewelry do make a bold statement. I always wonder how it will all look in twenty or thirty years.

For myself, I have never found an image I liked well enough to have permanently applied to my skin. This isn't just a bumper sticker.

I'm sure someone's done this, but how about having cooking and serving instructions written somewhere?

Boiled, broiled, baked or fried?

You could end up with a whole cookbook.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Last Will and Testament

I'm thinking of getting a tattoo that would say, "In the event of an accident, please take all usable organs and then compost the rest. My wife gets first dibs on my kidneys, but the rest is up for grabs." This would go on my abdomen, as this is unlikey to get hashed up in the most likely fatal motor vehicle-bicycle crash scenarios.

The thing is, I'm not totally sure about the distribution of things. Wife gets the kidneys, that's certain, unless her brother needs one, too. They can sort that out. But maybe I'd like the useless leftovers turned into cat food instead of compost. I like little kitties. The main thing is to recycle.

Not that I'm in any hurry. Plan A is to crawl off into a vast wilderness when I'm really old and know for certain that I'm through having fun. Of course with the Arctic melting down, large trackless wildernesses will be hard to maintain. There will be oil derricks all over everything. In that case, maybe I'll just set myself on fire and stumble into an oil pumping station. Talk about the last laugh! Watching those petro-slaves scatter in all directions as a flaming senior citizen does the Frankenstein walk into their flammable facility...

As I said, NO HURRY. But it's good to have plans. And in the event I get shortstopped by some catastrophe, remember the organ thing. Don't go pissing away money on some ridiculous funeral, or wasting land on graves and monuments.

In 1979-80, I said I wanted to be left to rot on the roadside if I happened to go down as road kill. Make the motoring public look upon their handiwork for as long as it took me to rot fully away. Of course I was told this was unsanitary and illegal. No one would do it for me. But the organ donation/compost/cat food thing shouldn't be a problem.

I keep forgetting to register as an official donor. Maybe this blog will serve as notice. I find it hard to get too seriously organized about my own demise. Too busy living. Anyway, you kidney recipients know who you are. Just don't get grabby.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Morning Fog and 40s

As the earth gives up its heat to the longer, cooler nights, fog forms in the low areas. A body of water provides even more moisture for the atmosphere.

I have to escape from the Pine River valley every morning. In the middle of summer it may only be pleasantly cool, but right now the first three miles of the ride to work have been shrouded in murk. A please-don't-kill-me-yellow vest seems like a good idea, unless the morning is cold enough for me to wear the nicer yellow Sugoi Stealth windbreaker.

Days are short enough and my commute is long enough for me to bring lights for the ride home. On a clear evening I don't really need them unless I stay late at work, but each day the sun sets a little earlier, while home gets no closer. And a few clouds can bring dusk even more quickly.

I warm up more slowly in the mornings and ride more deliberately in dusk, so the trip takes a little longer at both ends of the day. It's all part of the natural arc of the commuting season.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Threat Level: Sunny

Recent reports of cycling accidents remind us that autumn brings low sun angles and greater glare to make good drivers untrustworthy and bad drivers worse.

I can't say for sure whether glare really played a role in an accident reported by a cycling blogger in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but the driver said it did, and it may actually have. Likewise I do not know whether it was a factor in a more recent accident causing life-threatening injuries to a cyclist in Massachusetts. That rider is still in a medically-induced coma.

Usually when a cyclist gets hit really hard, it is because the driver pulled a full-speed maneuver without seeing him, or was gunning for him. Wishing to assume better motives for people, what might make a driver aim for a cyclist as if the cyclist was not there?

Consider the less obvious factors when scanning for dangers as you ride. A driver with the sun behind them may still be blinded by glare reflected from the rear-view mirrors or from some other object. A cyclist is small and often has to operate outside the tunnel-vision field that a rushing motorist sees. Shine a bright light in that motorist's eyes and the situation just got even worse.

Cyclists are not usually hit by cars overtaking. The nastiest accidents happen when a motor vehicle turns across the path of the cyclist. Vehicles approaching from the opposite direction present the greatest threat because they may believe they can easily beat the cyclist, and they probably want to get across the oncoming lane as quickly as possible anyway. Motorists typically underestimate the speed of a cyclist. If for any reason they don't even see the rider, they can turn at the worst possible time.

A comment on the Halifax blog mentioned that "drivers all seemed to be in a hurry that day." That brings up The Autumn Madness. As summer turns to fall, the motoring public does seem to get a little pushy and aggressive. Maybe the diminishing light stimulates a sense of urgency similar to what makes the squirrels scurry so furiously in search of nuts and seeds to stuff into hollow trees and bury in caches against future cold and desolation. Whatever the reason, it makes motorists impatient. Cyclists are the losers.

We deal with enough at the best of times to maintain our claim to a little strip of the roadway. Make the extra effort to be more vigilant now. Drivers won't do it for you. Most of them think they'd prefer it if you weren't there at all. They can't imagine each cyclist as another motorist, clogging the lanes and competing for parking spaces. If they see us at all, it is only as something in their way.

Monday, September 17, 2007

It's About the Bike

David Clay said... I know this is bad form to hijack a comment on old topic, but I had a question about converting a 70s vintage Raleigh Grand Prix to fixed gear. I came across your post earlier in the year on this topic. What kind of hub do you recommend for this (am I correct that the spacing is 120mm?) Also, what do you recommend for a SS crank? Were you able to change out the cranks only, or did you have to change out the entire BB?

No worries, David, changes of subject move conversations forward.

In the 1970s, when frame spacing was 120, available hubs were as well. Using a road hub and a BB lock ring, a mechanic could affix a cog to the wheel the Raleigh originally had. I've mentioned before that one might flip the axle around and re-dish the wheel to provide a straighter chain line, but I rode my early versions before I knew that trick.

A current track hub, one- or two-sided, will have 120mm spacing. You may choose, as I do, to put in a quick-release axle. That complicates things ever so slightly, because you have to obtain or modify a q/r axle to work in 120 spacing.

Old steel frames are very accommodating. A 120 stretches easily to 126. Many 120 frames made that transition accidentally. With a bit more care one could probably even sprawl it out to 130, but that's not necessary for single speeds.

The very first Raleigh GP fixie I rode may well have had the original cottered crank. A chain doesn't care if the chainrings are narrow, only if they are too wide. Running an eighth-inch chain you could use anything.

Later fixed gears I built used various cotterless cranks I had lying around. A road crank offers the choice of mounting chain rings in the inner or outer position to further adjust chain line. With Surly's Dingle Cog you can run two chain rings to give two gears to match the Dingle's two cogs. They recommend a 9-speed chain, but if you're not shoving it through a front derailleur it shouldn't perish too quickly.

I prefer to use a two-sided hub with one cog on each side, and continue to use chunky eighth-inch chains.

Road cranks with 130 bolt circles give you the full range of chain ring sizes from 38 to ungodly big. Single speed cranks may have 110, 135 or 144 bolt circles. Take note of the bolt circle on whatever you choose. Remember that no component choice has to be permanent.

I don't recall now whether the BB shell of the old Grand Prix was an odd width by current standards. My 1978 Super Course takes a 68mm Shimano BB-UN 52 (which is now a UN 54). I have an old Dura Ace or pre-Ultegra 600 crank on there at the moment. Cotterless cranks give you the best chance of finding replacement rings, unless you happen to get something weird like an old Stronglight or Miche.

Square tapered BB axles open up the largest selection of salvaged cranks. You don't have to use a sealed cartridge unit, but they're widely available, cheap and basically maintenance free until they completely croak.

Hope this helps. Have fun out there!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Mitt and Helmets

It only occurred to me quite recently that Mitt's inclination to bike without a helmet may stem from fear of The Dukakis Effect. Everyone looks like an idiot in an oversized helmet. A political candidate can't afford to be photographed looking like an idiot. Notice that in Romney's ad centering on his athletic vitality, he's running. Running is a more macho activity than cycling and avoids the helmet question entirely.

Maybe those of you who aren't in early-primary states haven't seen Mitt's ads yet. You'll get your chance.

The dork factor still plagues bike helmet wearers. I may use one, but I will be the first to admit that no one looks punk or tough or cool with a salad bowl on their head. One customer complained that the pointy back end of the average helmet "made him look like a woodpecker." It also seems like tremendous overkill when running short errands. But accidents are by nature unpredictable. Your odds may improve in some ways if you are not exposed to a situation for as long, but the other risk factors still apply. Gravity is as strong. Other road users are as unpredictable.

I miss the care-free days of cotton caps in summer and woolen beanies in winter. I still have my cool-looking Italian wool winter hat. And I don't miss the hot, heavy, clunky-looking Bell Biker. I switched to the somewhat more acceptable (but probably less effective) Brancale for the last couple of years of my licensed "career." In 1988, Tim Blumenthal called it a "Fred Hat." Soon after that I was sucked back into the bike business and could start buying more up-to-date brain covers.

I used the Brancale for whitewater and climbing. Climbing and paddling helmets accept the dork factor without putting up even a token resistance.

Those who would lead this land of the free end up being some of the least free. They have to worry at all times what the public will think of them, regardless of whether it is fair. The rest of us can look like whatever kind of idiot we choose.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Pilot Fish on a Whale Shark

On the way to work on Friday, outside of downtown, but in far enough for the road to be more like a street than a highway, I heard a tractor-trailer behind me. For those who know the 'boro, it was on Center Street inbound, by the intersection with Whitten Neck Road.

I'd much rather have a tractor-trailer in front of me than behind me. As a motorist I would feel just the opposite, but I can use that behemoth when I'm cycling.

The heavy diesel rumble stayed steady, indicating this nice guy would stay back if I held him back. I looked back several times, holding the look. Up ahead was a short section of wider shoulder. I pulled into it and slowed. The trick was to encourage him to pass quickly enough for me to use the little down slope to jet out of my safe haven in time to catch the pocket behind the trailer.

The wide place wasn't quite long enough, so I had to slide out next to the last double set of wheels. As soon as it passed, I exploded in a sprint to catch the draft. The slope helped me, but it also helped the loaded truck. I had to wind out the 48-13 at screaming dive-bomber rpms to gain the suction of the truck's air column. But I made it. As soon as the pocket sucked me toward the trailer I could coast and feather the brakes to maintain position.

The trailer was loaded with heavy pallets of building materials, so I knew the truck would make a slow, wide right turn pretty soon at Route 109A to go to Winnipesaukee Lumber. It's like transferring to a different bus. Meanwhile, the ride was comfortable. I mentally reviewed the condition of the pavement ahead. Drafting the truck I was on a different line from my usual. Any raised or sunken utility lids? Killer potholes? Large longitudinal cracks? Nope.

Traffic management depends on opportunities like this. I always use larger vehicles the way a pilot fish uses a shark, but sometimes it's hard to catch a good shark. This monster was a whale shark: a big, harmless plankton eater that would not attack.

When the truck jammed the whole intersection with 109A, I slithered around the left corner of the trailer and slid back into my usual groove. All the motor vehicles I'd been traveling with had been trapped behind the truck as it wedged itself around the tight right turn. Some came along shortly to provide extra lift going into the nice right onto Lehner Street.

I had to go to the bank, so I went past the shop, dropped into Mill Street and picked up another small shark to keep people from pulling out on me as I flew down into the sweeping left by Hampshire Pewter.

As I left the bike-through at the bank, a dump truck was just pulling out, so I got another truck draft to the shop. Drafty morning.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Let's Have Some Fun

Getting the hell away from the politics, philosophy and religion of helmet use, I've spent a whirlwind 24 hours putting together the specs for another custom-built Surly Cross-Check. A young guy (younger than I am, anyway) had come looking specifically for a Cross Check on a day I was out. Following up, we talked on the phone and then he came in.

Complete bikes are out of stock. And he's going to use it for touring, so he would have had to make a lot of modifications from the basic bike anyway.

I like building bikes, especially when the workshop is slow in the fall. But first we had to hike through the bewildering landscape of all the available options. That means balancing available funds, intended use and personal preferences to come up with a final configuration that can have a fixed price tag.

After an hour and a half with the customer in the shop, I still took the spec sheet home to run numbers for another hour or two in the comfort of my living room. Then this morning I had to tidy up a couple of last details before bouncing it off the customer and putting together the major order.

The real kicker is that this guy wants to take off on a transcon bike tour October 1. So I really didn't have time to hunt around for things.

For the index-dependent majority, the biggest choke point is the drive train. If a rider shifts in friction, number of speeds is irrelevant. Buy whatever is available and stick it together. Chain width has to match cog width and spacing, but that's about it. Most cranks can manage 8 or 9, although you have to watch too skinny a chain on widely-spaced chain rings. Even then, an experienced friction shifter can throw it where it needs to go, at least long enough to get back to the lab and engineer a more satisfactory solution.

We spec'd 9 speeds to start. Then as the price mounted I thought I saw a way out through 8 speeds. But no one makes good wide-range 8-speeds. So I had to go back to the simulator to try to land the 9 within the budget.

Another expense comes from the wheels. I keep having to build them because I can't find a pre-built wheel I like. Don't tell anyone how much I'm discounting some of the parts and labor in order to try to keep this affordable. On the plus side, I can now build a standard wheel in my sleep. But it still costs more than a pre-built wheel. I could have sworn Quality offered a nice one with the Salsa Delgado rim, but not anymore. For loaded touring we're going with 36 spokes when the industry standard has become 32.

The order is on its way. The parts we already had are in a box, waiting for their friends. Then they all get to go out and play.

Building bikes for other people helps me resist building too many for myself. It's even better when the customer accepts a design I like.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Helmets: Are they BS?

A recent comment seemed to criticize me for using a certain pro-helmet argument in a segue.

I said: It is said that a rider who doesn't protect his brain with a helmet has nothing to protect anyway.

Fritz said...

The tendency of helmet advocates to fall back to -- nay -- start with empty but insulting ad hominem says something about the emptiness of their efficacy claims. IMO.

This would seem to imply that the commenter does not believe helmets are effective. Yet the argument that non-users have not thought about the problem thoroughly seems like a valid one, if one believes that helmets have a beneficial effect.

Interestingly, in almost all of my serious crashes I was not wearing a helmet, and it didndidndidndidn hurt me none. I'm perfectly fine AND WHERE DID THOSE BATS COME FROM?!?!?!?! GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!

Seriously, though, I have hit the ground hard a number of times without benefit of brain bucket and come out of it no more addled than I went in. Which isn't necessarily saying much, but I have not displayed any strong indications of permanent damage. Honest. I was this flaky before.

But wait: my most serious crash ever occurred before I went into third grade. I felt a little under-motivated in second grade, but I actually hit the pavement hard enough to be knocked unconscious in the big crash, and had trouble paying attention in school (or much of anywhere else, truth be known) ever afterwards. Hard sayin' at this point, but maybe a crash hat would have taken the edge off and put me into Phi Beta Kappa later on.

I made somewhat of a career of smashing into things throughout my childhood. Through cycling I was able to carry this pastime on into adulthood. Except for crashes in races, where helmets were required, I always went down bare-skulled. In more than one instance I felt my noggin bounce off the tarmac.

I started wearing a helmet somewhat regularly when I commuted on a busy four-lane road. On quieter streets I had talked myself out of the geek dome, but my new wife put pressure on me to wear it. That and the mechanized meat grinder nudged me over the line. I became a helmet guy.

I did lapse. I wasn't wearing it when a passenger in a car stopped in traffic threw a car door into my left leg as I rode by at 20 in a marked bike lane to the right of where her chariot stood in line with a hundred others in a traffic jam. The edge of the door drove into the muscle of my thigh, bringing me to a rapid halt. But most of the time I felt naked without it, as if this might be the day my luck finally ran out.

One time when I crashed in a race, tee-boning a rider who had rolled a tire in front of me, I flipped over and landed head first on the frontal area of an old Bell Biker. That impact probably would have been a skull-crusher. It was a tight field and I don't recall being able to get my hands out of the drops before going over the falls. I was not able to assume the perfect tuck-and-roll position in the time and distance available.

I do feel safer in traffic than in any race field of low-level licensed riders. Even at high levels, tight fields and hot sprints can lead to some chaotic situations. Cars are usually easier to evade. But people throw things out of them, pedestrians dart out from behind obstructions, front wheels get knocked around by a variety of things. Would you go to sea on a ship with no life boats?

One customer complained that if he wore a helmet he would linger in a coma, whereas without it he would die cleanly. If only you could count on things to work out that tidily. But you don't really know. Others say they don't need a helmet because they ride slowly. Yet at slow speeds you are more likely to fall straight down instead of sliding in. And slow riders who may be timid may be more likely to fall, and fall stiffly.

Our local bike path offers many opportunities for unsteady riders to bite it. The rails are still there on this rail trail, because a rail car club uses it from time to time. The path runs between the rails in some areas, and beside them in others. That means riders have to cross the rails many times. The crossings get scuffed out. The rails are fiendishly slippery when wet. The path surface is not uniformly firm, so a bike's tires suddenly wallow into unconsolidated sand. Many other sketchily paved or totally unpaved venues present opportunities for less experienced riders to go down.

Sure, many generations did very well with no head protection at all. Maybe I picked up my initial prejudices from some experienced riders I respected a great deal. Why worry? Something gets you eventually.

My employers can get pretty pushy about the helmet thing. Mostly they're afraid of getting sued. So whenever a renter turns down the helmet there's a lot of clucking for some time afterwards. Likewise with helmetless Mitt, who has been a mobile tourist attraction around town for several years.

Incidentally, I didn't seriously think Romney's choice in this matter made much of a difference. He has other positions with which I disagree. I just thought it was funny two helmet objectors would turn out to be his staffers.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Somewhere in the world it's quitting time

The CEO took off to go yachting about two hours ago. The rest of us drift in the doldrums, hoping to reach the lush shores of freedom before we die of boredom.

Sure, there are things to do. But not all work is satisfying work. Desperate ennui can share space with several other emotions and intellectual occupations. And it frequently does around here.

The hour and a half to quitting time drags past like the torment of being slowly roasted over a medium-sized fire when the same hour and a half before work jets by like a hummingbird on Mountain Dew.

Enervated by the exhausting crawl through the desert to reach the end of the work day, I then have to find the energy to ride aggressively out of the city limits to reach roads open enough to let me warm up gradually. It's upside-down and backwards compared to how a ride should evolve.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Decision 2008

Here's an odd bit of trivia for you to consider when sifting through the field of presidential candidates for the upcoming primaries: Mitt Romney has been seen repeatedly around Wolfeboro, riding his bike without a helmet. We laugh at this quirk, but today two people claiming to be Romney campaign workers came in to rent bikes at separate times and both refused helmets even though we offer them free with the rental. Aparently it's a campaign trademark.

It is said that a rider who doesn't protect his brain with a helmet has nothing to protect anyway. Mitt seems like the Warren Harding type, if you know what I mean. The fine-lookin' purebred dog with a ball of rubber cement between his ears...

Great Moments in Traffic

Heading to work on Monday, approaching the end of Elm Street, I sprinted into the pocket behind a big pickup truck that had passed me in the last curves. At Route 16 we all stopped because traffic flowed south in a continuous, bumper-to-bumper stream at about 40-45 miles per hour.

The northbound lane was absolutely clear.

A motorcyclist pulled up next to me.

"Wanna race?" he asked, grinning.

"Nah, just a draft," I said. I floated forward to scan the traffic for signs of a usable gap. Two trucks headed the line waiting to get out of Elm Street, followed by the motorcyclist, and another motorcyclist, and a car or two that drifted in to join the queue. No one was going anywhere.

Except me.

I turned northward to get away from the anxious motorists stewing at the stop sign. Southbound traffic slowed to about 20 as the light down at Route 28 went through its cycle. As soon as that happened I was able to sprint up to speed southbound in the unused northbound lane and merge through the southbound flow to get to right shoulder. The southbound motor vehicles never stopped or formed enough of a gap to let any of the motorists escape from Elm Street. They were all still there as I tooled south to 28 unimpeded.

Poor bastards.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Dust on my rims. All I need is dust on my rims.

At the end of the day yesterday I remembered that I needed to lube my chain and derailleur after getting caught in the rain the day before. The lights were out. Everyone else had left. The commute home is a race against sunset if I ride the longer, more peaceful route. So I slopped on the Pro Link without any delicacy.

I hurriedly wiped the over-splash off the rear rim and clacked down the stairs in my cleated shoes.

Of course the brake squealed embarrassingly. But I knew what to do.

With only a trace of residue on the rim, I could cure the problem with an abundant and available substance. I headed for the local bike path to ride in its clouds of dust. After a sufficient amount had settled on the rims I used the brake to sweep it away with the lingering lube. The brakes became quiet. Shortly thereafter they regained full effectiveness as well.

"Dust in the Wind" kept playing in my mind. Good tune for the end of the summer anyway.

Chaos and Tedium

Saturday of Labor Day Weekend brought moments of frenzy interrupting a generally tedious plod toward quitting time. Renters would arrive at exactly the same time as repair check-ins and groups of shoppers. All would leave at once. In the quiet times we could grind away at the uninspiring mechanical work as we watched the beautiful day slip past the windows that separated us from it.

I wore something festive to mark the last big driving holiday of summer.

The same work load spread out evenly would barely have taxed our skeleton crew. The three of us ran around trying to look like five or six during the chaos. But a full staff might simply have annoyed each other during the lulls. We covered the store while a delegation from our management manned a booth at a local promotional event inconveniently scheduled on the big holiday weekend.

Monday should be interesting, beginning at 5:30 with river testing before I sprint to work. It requires such an early start that I might as well stay up all night if I don't get to bed early enough tonight.

In our business we have the opposite of holidays.

Any eloquent pieces of writing that occur to me during the day have shriveled into mummified remains by the time I get time to try to capture their full youth and vibrancy.

Time to hit the road.