Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Local Journalist Moves Up

Early this month I started to write about the possibilities of the Surly Travelers Check and pecked out a whimsical post about modular frames and componentry choices. It caught the eye and drew a comment from Steve Frothingham, formerly of Wolfeboro, now in Boulder, CO, as web editor for VeloNews.

It was strange to be addressed by name in the comment. I don't cloak myself in heavy veils of anonymity, but I don't post under my given name, either.

I didn't even know Steve had left town. Working at the outpost all winter, I don't get most of the news about local comings and goings. I got filled in, though. Seems like Steve is on a great adventure in career enjoyment.

I really admire genuine journalists. Imagine having the interest, literacy and guts to go out asking questions of strangers and writing about it. It's hard enough when they might want to share their story, but highly intimidating when they don't. There's great satisfaction in getting the truth into print, whenever that's possible within the constraints of the deadline and the size of the news hole.

Introverted doodlers and greasy wrench turners can only gawk. We might speculate, but we don't go dig out the story.

We'll miss Steve around the 'boro. Any riding community needs all the good riders it can get. But he's having fun and getting paid for it and giving his family a change of scene from the well-worn paths of New Hampshire.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Talking mostly to myself

Maybe my grim view of Megalopolitan cycling was colored by my low energy at the time. I had a cold and have less than 200 miles on the road so far this season.

Every year I lose a little more of the combative mentality so helpful when cycling in traffic. Bear in mind that you don't want to feel idiotically aggressive. You just want to adopt the belief that "it's a good day to die." The way we have developed our transportation system, you need that mentality when you go out in a motor vehicle as well. It just seems more obvious when you venture forth protected only by clothing, agility and your attitude rather than metal and airbags.

On the one ride I took down there, on the last day of the trip, drivers were eerily cooperative. My host had told me they would be, but the experience was unnerving. If drivers were that way everywhere I could really get used to it. Knowing they are not, I hate to let myself get spoiled or teased by a short exposure to it.

Check this out: we signaled to move left AND DRIVERS LET US DO IT. We waited at stop lights AND DRIVERS LEFT US ROOM. We occupied part of a lane AND DRIVERS GAVE US THAT SPACE.

It just felt so wrong. Where was the neglect, the contempt, the hostility?

I knew it would be different just a few miles away. On the way to dinner one evening, someone I know, who knows me, with me in the back seat, started to pull a left turn in front of an oncoming cyclist who had the right of way. The driver stopped when someone pointed out the cyclist, but said, "He needs to learn who always loses these arguments." In other words, might makes right, and the big, hard automobile naturally holds power over the squishy, breakable cyclist.

Was the comment meant to instruct me in some way? Because I would have come into that intersection taking my right of way as surely as that cyclist did. Any traveler exposed on two wheels, whether powered by muscle or engine, would be equally vulnerable to an arrogant or unobservant driver. I guess we should all be in armored vehicles so we can carom off each other with relative impunity.

Back in my own neighborhood, I resumed the commute in familiar surroundings. Drivers had been benign for the first few outings. Then I had my first yellers, their Dopplered commentary undecipherable as they sped past. Was it praise or insult? I also had a supportive honk from someone who beeped lightly, just enough beside me to avoid tripping my hostility, and then made eye contact and gave thumbs up while passing at a gentle speed. Obviously this person does not realize that the horn sets cyclists on edge, but the other elements of the encounter neutralized the horn's brazen assault.

The weather is as the weather is: we had summer temperatures for a few days, before they settled back to the mediocre chill for which spring is known here. It's too cold for shorts, but varies too much through a range of chill for any outfit to feel just right for long. I commute in morning and evening, when temperatures are changing with the sun's rise and set. But this is northern New England, famous for "wait a minute" weather anyway.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Omnifuels Dilemma

People took up bicycling for transportation in the United States in the 1970s when motor fuel prices first started to move upwards from their artificially-maintained lows. As it happened, a large wad of Baby Boomers had reached young adulthood better nourished and better educated than any previous generation. They felt energetic, entitled, and willing to consider unconventional solutions.

By the 1980s we had adjusted to fuel prices and chosen consumerism and financial manipulation over self reliance and sound economy. Bicycles remained only for very light recreation, very hard competition or very disadvantaged people.

As the sickness of our road system has worsened, cycling for transportation has become more and more dangerous in many venues. As the other sicknesses of our social, economic and environmental systems also worsened, people have glanced back toward the bicycle as part of the solution. But they mostly want to get rid of expensive fuels we have to get from unstable nations, and the pollutants spewed out by internal combustion. Truly clean and cheap cars would signal the death of cycling.

I contemplated the roads around central Megalopolis with a mixture of depression and fear. No one wants a cyclist out there mucking things up. If I drove all the time, I wouldn't ether. Moving at car speed in car scale, it's awkward to accommodate some sweaty grunt obstinately muscling his (or her) way around. We would need to establish a whole new standard to integrate motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians. With foreign oil and pollution out of the equation, laziness might easily fill the void. People who wanted exercise would make the adjustments necessary to get to an exercise facility. People who didn't would continue to live as they do now, getting carried from place to place by various beasts of burden. They would no longer acknowledge bicyclists as fellow strivers for a healthier planet, because cars would no longer be unhealthy for the planet.

Of course car manufacture demands more resources than bike manufacture. All aspects of car culture take more out of the planet than bike culture does. But many avid cyclists use cars as well. Even someone like me, who uses a bike for everything when time and conditions permit, keeps a car around for conditions that call for it.

Even conquering the problems of pollution and foreign oil will leave other problems -- beside those of freak cyclists and pedestrians -- particularly that of parking. That never gets enough attention. What's the big question when driving anywhere? Is there enough parking? What do we do? Build more and larger parking structures?

If we put green roofs on all our giant parking structures and all other large buildings and join them to each other, we can create a whole new surface for our planet, hundreds of feet above the original one. The underworld can be climate controlled and artificially lighted, full of scuttling high-tech vehicles like robot cockroaches. You could put your bike and pedestrian Utopia out on the green layer. Ride to the rabbit hole that goes down to your destination. Drop down, do your errand, take the elevator (or the stairs) back up and ride to the next site.

Some areas will never be densely settled and built up enough to go under the green layer. For many environmentally sound reasons they could remain at their original elevation. But building a green roof over all the densely built-out areas would be cheaper and easier than trying to dig all our cities down under the natural surface to achieve the same uncluttered look and functioning ecosystem the green roof would provide.

It would all be fabulously expensive and complicated compared to not mucking everything up in the first place, but we seem to be speeding past that exit. Most people seem to prefer fabulously expensive and complicated solutions built by "experts" after the mess is made.

Went Retail

Ordered the FSA Orbit UF headset from the lowest-price online source. After due consideration of finances and available successors to it, decided it was still the best buy. Then emailed FSA to ask whether it is being discontinued entirely. If so I should try to get one or two more. Mrs. Umm's Surly still has the stock headset.

Maybe something like it will return in a few years when the industry "discovers" that concept again. New! Improved!

Of course I'm still waiting for top-mount MTB thumb shifters to make a comeback, but all we're getting is MTB brifters. But something will trigger retrovation.

Retrovation is the process of reinventing something tried and true under the guise of innovation. Think non-round chain rings and some of the weird frames of the early 1990s mountain bike boom, just to name a couple. Straight-pull spokes are on that list, too.

Monday, April 21, 2008

TC Planning

If I had my Traveler's Check on this trip, (and I wasn't sick and the weather was nicer) I might have tried to hook up with some riding buddies. But I wouldn't want to chase them around on their racing bikes, with me on a fixie. Our rhythms would be too different.

While I eschew axle nuts on my fixed gears, I do prefer eighth-inch chains. However, with the modular nature of the Traveler's Check, I might do 3/32-inch instead. That way I could throw in a few sections of chain with connecting links so could bum parts on site to add derailleurs if I wanted to ride with people who shift and coast. I could borrow a rear wheel and even derailleurs. A pair of friction barcons could ride in the bike case all the time.

Most of my friends do have surplus parts lying around. It's not entirely unrealistic.

Bear in mind that I am on the road, basically bikeless and bored, and still a little disoriented with this headcold. What seems sensible in this condition could well fail a more logical analysis in a few days.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Fixed Gear with Quick Release Hub

I know hard-core fixed-gear riders like to be known by their nuts, but from a practical standpoint the quick release makes great sense for those of us frequently shifting gears in hilly or mountainous terrain.

I keep getting told by members of the modern fixed gear crowd that quick release hubs aren't a good idea for fixed gear bikes. In contrast I place almost 30 years on fixed gears with only quick release hubs. I may have pulled the rear wheel crooked once or twice, but I did that with my road bike as well.

Similarly, holding fixed cogs on old-school freewheel-threaded hubs using a bottom bracket lock ring may have been less than ideal, but I only spun the cog loose once or twice in nearly three decades. I do prefer to have proper stepped threads, but straight freewheel threads allowed me to stack a couple of cogs many years before Surly's Dingle Cog came out. Yes, you shouldn't backpedal against the outer one, but it was there for forward locomotion. I wouldn't do it any more, but for a while the wild and free fixed-gear devotee had to scrounge. The subculture was so very sub as hardly to be visible.

The free-range fixed gear is a different animal from the creature of the velodrome. We make all kinds of mutations, some successful, some less so. Unrestricted by the rules, distinct stresses and closed environment of the track, we venture into all sorts of territory.

Tell me how it's gone for you, skewered or nutted.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Wouldn't you know

We planned in February to go away at this time in April. So now the repair shop is undergoing its busiest April since the beginning of the 21st Century.

We have a couple of good trainees, one in particular with the time and inclination to show up regularly, but it was looking like they'd have to fly solo way too soon.

Fortunately, a former star of the workshop has agreed to make a guest appearance while I'm gone. The shop's alpha couple is also going away next week, so Alpha Male made the plea. So the trainee will be in excellent hands. Guest Star just returned from a year engagement at the illustrious Harris Cyclery. A bike he built there was purchased recently by Grant Petersen of Rivendell. It uses a fascinating two-gear system called retro-direct. Like a bizarre magic trick, pedaling forward gets you one gear and pedaling backward gets you another one.

Guest Star has become like so many area celebrities, spotted by others and seen only briefly by me. He'll be working because I'm not there, so I don't get to work with him. But at least I'll know he's there spreading the good training to the student mechanic.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Christmas was spoiled

The Traveler's Check showed up a day early today. This might have given me time to slap together a kit to bring it along on the plane this weekend. But somewhere along its long journey from the factory to Minneapolis and on to New England, the right rear dropout got crushed.

The box didn't look bad from the outside. The opposite end had been dented, where the fork would be if it was in the frame, but the fork was in a separate box. But when I pulled the main frame up I saw right away that there was no bracing block in the rear dropouts. It was loose in the plastic bag that covered the frame.

On the plus side, after a quick exchange of phone calls, a call tag for the old frame and a replacement frame had both been dispatched from Surly. Thanks, Aaron! Too bad the new frame won't get here before I leave.

The new frame has some great improvements over the one I got in 2000. The long dropouts are even longer and have double eyelets. The seat stays have rack bosses on them. And the frame comes with the awesome new Surly stainless steel rear brake cable hanger. The hanger is extra long for smoother cable routing, and has a threaded adjuster so it's easier to substitute wheels with different-width rims.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Benefit of Wrenching

Other people's full suspension bikes are like other people's kids. If they're behaving well it's fun to play with them, but it's great to give them back and let someone else worry about all the boring and annoying details of their lives.

As a mechanic, I get to test ride almost every bike that comes through. After working on someone's dualie I can bounce it around the back parking lot or shoot a few laps around my little obstacle course, and that's enough for me.

I didn't quit mountain biking because I didn't like my mountain bike. I quit mountain biking because I don't really like mountain biking. A little goes a long way anymore. But someone else's modern technological marvel is fun for a brief diversion. Sometimes very fun.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Rubber Meets the Road

First commute today. Along parts of the route near my home, snowbanks encrusted with frozen dirt still crowd the road, but they've melted back from all the rest of it.

Ordered the Traveler's Check today. I will need to get a few parts to set up the first kit for it, but they're mostly standard. I wanted to be sure I got the frame in case they run out. I'll change out the axle in a two-sided hub to have 130 mm spacing and a quick-release on its fixed gear wheel. Any front wheel will do.

A time trial bar will pack nicely in the case and provide all the positions I would use in traffic. But of course with removable face-plate stems you can slap in any bar that fits the clamp.

Possibilities. It's all about possibilities.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Where have all the headsets gone? And other musings.

Wish-book spec'ing my Traveler's Check, I discovered that my favorite headset, the FSA Orbit UF, has disappeared from the Quality catalog. Far East doesn't carry it, either, which didn't surprise me.

Full Speed Ahead still shows it in their lineup on the company website. I haven't launched a wider search for a distributor because we're not open with any of them. For one or two headsets I would scout around for a discount source, probably online. But I haven't given up on finding a good source not only for me but for customers for whom I frequently prescribed the headsets.

Needle bearing headsets seem to have gone completely out of fashion in favor of various kinds of balls. Is that because they never wear out, so companies realized they needed to kill off the product before it killed them?

Neither the Quality nor the Far East catalog show any needle bearing headsets. And a reader has reported to me that he managed to find a Stronglight one for his bike, but was told they're running out and no more will be available.

I haven't picked a second choice yet. I'm not on the Chris King band wagon. I have always liked finding the "just right" component for a mid-range price rather than just plunking down the biggest bucks and assuming I'm getting the best. It's like finding that undiscovered cheap wine that confounds the experts. The price may be in the upper mid range, but it's still not in the queue with the high-end lemmings jumping off a particular brand name cliff. That's why the FSA Orbit UF was so attractive. Great product, great price and no one looked twice at it. It just sat there doing its job. Oh well.

I guess some kind of cartridge bearing is next. That way I can pop out the whole bearing unit when it dies the ball-bearing's inevitable death in headset applications. We used to run caged bearings until the first set of pits in the lower race, then loose balls to add bearings and load more and different areas of the race until the final death knell. With cartridge bearings you get to toss the whole thing, balls, races and all. The cups are just seats. So you dispose of more metal with each major service, but you start completely fresh. If you're confident you can get the old metal into a reliable recycling stream it isn't quite so spendthrift with the Earth's resources.

The other musings will have to wait. I need to go to the dentist, then drop by work on my day off, then do my taxes. I don't think I'll even have a chance to ride today, unless it's on the rollers. Oh, and I have a meeting tonight, so there goes evening training time. Fun day, huh?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

So True, So True

The truth about commuter racing, from a racing commuter.

Leaning toward a Traveler's Check

As my fixed gear frame hits 30 years old, I start to think about replacing it. The Surly Cross Check has very similar geometry to the old Super Course, but with a higher bottom bracket and perhaps slightly sportier rear stays. The frames in the basement would do for a knock-together beater for pure urban assault, but I put in longer miles on open roads up here.

The Traveler's Check offers at least two bikes in one, since I could build it with gears or without, depending on the destination. For instance, for a quick plane trip to many urban -- or even rural -- locales, I could configure it as a fixie for simple assembly and disassembly. For an air leg en route to a more major tour, it could have the full treatment with gears and more rackage. If the area offered longer road rides or terrain that might be too much work with a fixed gear, build it up with a few gears and minimal cargo capacity.

Ah the joys of friction shifting.

The next step beyond mere S and S disassembly would be mix and match front and rear frame sections. Reconfigure the frame geometry for different venues! Snap in the rear section with long stays for loaded touring, mid-length for general riding and short and snappy for agility.

Yes, I'm getting crazy here. Front end treatments have to be compatible with the ride feel of the back end, so you probably end up with just a collection of coupled frames in your desired types. But starting from the basic Cross Check geometry and dimensions, you could make minor tweaks to fine tune the platform even more to different missions. You can see how I might start down that path.

As the Next Frame to Buy, the Traveler's Check takes the adaptable Cross Check to new heights. That much is enough for now.