Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Ride

On this expedition to visit immediate family and in-lawage extended down the Eastern Seaboard, we stay in Maryland with the proud owner of two Surlies. The Cross Check I helped him with during a visit to New Hampshire. He put together the Pacer on his own in Maryland. He extended the hospitality of the Pacer to me.

I did not expect to ride or exercise in any way on this expedition, so I brought no specific clothing or other equipment. I didn't even have a helmet. But just as humans started as naked, scraggly hominids on ancient savannas, so do cyclists start as sneaker-and-jean-wearing kids. I rode for years as a racer in training wearing my woollies and only a knitted wool hat on my noggin in cold weather and a cotton cap (if that) in summer. Sometimes you just have to say "f*** it. I'm going for a ride."

With a temperature in the mid 30s and a blustery wind, I didn't feel like going far. The bike also had only flat pedals. I always pull my foot off the back at the bottom of the stroke until I adjust for the lack of a secure connection.

It wasn't much of a ride, but it reminded me of riding. Earlier, walking with a young nephew around the field and playground behind the neighborhood school, a couple of pullups on the monkey bars suggested I might try to find time in my schedule for some of that again as well when I get home.

The bike was as much fun as I expected. I had not ridden a Pacer yet. No surprise that it was a sporty but smooth road bike. I even took it off the road a little, where it fared acceptably well. My brother-in-law, our host, had heeded my advice on both his Surlies, using barcon shifters and plain old brake levers rather than brifters. He's a tiny tad shorter in the leg and definitely longer in the torso than I am, so I was reaching just a smidge. Also, I had to deal with ice patches and lumps left over from the big snowstorm that pounded this area just before Christmas. Warm weather and rain had taken away nearly all of it in open areas. Some plow piles remain. Some north slopes and shaded ravines have quite a bit of cover. Not quite enough to ski, sadly. I saw a lot I could have shredded up on my beater skis.

With all the sprawl that has obliterated the town and environs I knew, large tracts remain unbuilt around some preserved watersheds and on acreage that has not yet come under the developer's blade. Economics and energy supply will determine whether it all disappears under pavement and retail space.

The wind is stronger today. The air is colder. Soon we begin the trek north to resume our lives, interrupted at a time when we really could have stayed to tend to them. Family ties with their own time sensitive needs superseded our scheduled events. We must drive carefully back to them.

Annapolis has a lot of bike shops and, apparently, a number of cyclists. Share the Road signs abound. It's still not what I would call a big bike town. It has become an intimidating place to ride. If I lived here I would still do it. I know that traffic looks less hairy when you're in it than when you're looking at it from the sidelines or from inside a car. You fall into the technique automatically. Claim the lane. Join the flow. Step aside momentarily to get the big vehicles past you. Signal some turns. Just make others, quickly and cleanly. On most roads, the motor traffic isn't moving much faster than a cyclist, if at all. When the jam breaks and the big vehicles can haul ass, fade over so they can go ahead and create their next jam. The cyclist's flow changes much less than the motorist's. But these are observations of an experienced cyclist. I gained that experience at the cost of some blood and a lot of determination. More and more people want to ride, even as more an more take up driving because it's the norm.

For the moment I have gotten more time to write than I expected to get, and it is seconds away from running out.

Ciao fer now.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

It's my work space! It's a Dumpster! Wait, it's BOTH!

Sometimes they don't even bother to walk in. Disembodied hands just reach around the corner from the other part of the shop and heave refuse into the workshop. Or someone passing by will throw or boot empty cartons, bags of garbage, or wads of plastic bags over the threshold.

This and the sounds of urination and toilet flushing from the apartment above really help me maintain my professional attitude. Try it: do whatever you do for a living while someone tosses garbage into an unruly pile next to you and someone else pisses in a bucket above your head.

Don't just stay in school, kids. Stay in through graduate school, and make sure it's in something important and lucrative. Or start a waste disposal company, so the trash IS the product. You'll have fewer student loans that way.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Grease Remains a Factor

Despite upper management's wish that the back shop could convert fully to ski mode, the bicycling public continues to seek our aid.

On Friday, an older gentleman who rides his mountain bike relentlessly came in because the freehub ratchet had started catching, causing the rear gears to fix for a moment. This pushes a loop of chain over the top. If the ratchet breaks loose and allows the gear cluster to coast freely, the derailleur spring can take up the slack or the rider can take it up by resuming pedaling. If the rear gears remain fixed, forward motion of the bike pulls more chain until it rips the derailleur apart. This rider's bike was still at the intermittent stage. He noticed only skipping in the gears.

For some reason, we had not needed to replace a freehub body in a long time. We keep a few on hand. With Shimano's bewildering array of variations, we might not have the exact unit, but we can often improvise to get one to work.

In this case we had the exact match. The surgery is messy, but routine. It was trickier than usual this time, because I shared half a narrow bench with the ski waxing operations on the other side. Grease and oil do not go well with ski bases. But nothing went wrong.

While the first bike was still on the stand, another frequent rider came in with her bike. It had the opposite freehub problem: failure to engage. Cold weather makes this problem worse, as dirt or congealed lube keeps ratchet pawls from springing outward so the gears can drive the wheel.

In both cases, the bikes were old enough that I had to do some research in our archive of old Quality catalogs to trace part numbers to our current stock.

I thought I had a matching freehub body for the second bike. I confidently assured the rider I would have it for her the next day. She's a dedicated rider and all-season commuter.

Shimano had other plans for us. This woman's bike had an RM-30 hub. The splined interface with the hub shell differs completely from every other Shimano freehub. I didn't have one and couldn't possibly fake it.

The ratchets had engaged once the bike thawed out. I flooded the freehub body with light lube so that it might work well enough while we wait for replacement parts to arrive. I chilled the bike for half an hour outside before I test rode it. Unfortunately, the temperature had gone up to 34 F, so I don't know how it will fare below freezing. I did not declare it cured, only temporarily in remission while we wait for the new part.

The bench is degreased again. We shall see.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

You try to be environmentally responsible...

The shop where I work is a small business. We try to uphold the image of cycling and X-C skiing as nature -friendly. The management purchased biodegradable shopping bags.

Gues what? Biodegradable means "starting now." Large quantities of them degraded to uselessness before we could sell enough merchandise to hand them out.

We have only a few sizes of surviving bags and no budget to buy a bunch of new ones.

Our research division is working on turning skin flakes and loose hair into a material from which to fashion bags. Anything else seems to cause some sort of environmental or social problem somewhere along the line. Another work group is experimenting with yarn made from discarded socks and underwear, which can be knitted into reusable bags.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Free Steak Knives with Bike Commute (this offer is only for bike commuters)

Yesterday as I rode to work on Route 28 I saw a pair of really nice steak knives just under the guard rail at the edge of the narrow shoulder. Unfortunately, I was running late and didn't want to stop. I would have had to lift my bike over the guard rail and climb over it myself to reduce the risk that a passing vehicle might clip me. So I made a mental note stop for them today, when I had to drive the car.

I had to pull the car onto the shoulder before the guardrail and hike about a quarter of a mile on the sidehill of the roadside banking to where I remembered seeing the cutlery. I went all that way and more, without seeing them. After I got back in my car I drove well below the speed limit, scanning the roadside to see if I had overlooked them. Apparently, someone else had gotten them before I could return. Maybe it was whoever had tossed them out in the first place. Or perhaps another cyclist.

I can't complain. The Roadside Tool and Supply Company has served me well over the years. I've scored socket wrenches, adjustable spanners, a four-pound sledge and even tableware. There will be more. Until then...keep watching the gutter!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

How the Car Killed Main Street

This should be a long academic treatise showing migration patterns out from city centers, with a time line and supporting documentation, but it's really just a thought I had while riding yesterday.

The Holiday Season, as it has come to be known, uses decades of imagery to represent centuries of legend to support an illusion of cheer and generosity centered around warmly lighted windows, often in storybook towns and cities. Carolers stroll the streets. Scrooges endlessly endure annual consciousness-raising. Cratchits show us what it's really all about. So do Whos in Whoville.

By the 1960s, when I started keeping coherent memories (more or less), the Christmas season meant decorated shops and public spaces. It meant music you didn't hear during the rest of the year. It wasn't quite yet a hideous, obnoxious saturation barrage of an ever-increasing playlist of commercial schlock. Downtown areas were hung with garlands. Light poles might turn into candy canes. We shopped, yes, but with a communal feeling, in the commercial and governmental center of our local unit of civilization.

This isn't an essay about the holidays and their meaning, except to the extent that they offer us a picture of how completely our transportation habits have changed our social habits. You can notice it any time of year, through different lenses. But now it's December and I happen to work in retail in a town. That combined in my mind with the irony that the device that made cruising Main Street possible also led directly to Main Street's undoing.

Black Friday found us nearly deserted. Anyone shopping had undertaken the big road trip to the nearest mall complex centered on giant chain stores or big box discount retailers. People choose to shop their town as a sociopolitical statement. They make an extra effort to travel a shorter distance and put up with the limitations of businesses that have been fighting the trend of the migratory shopper for dozens of years. They're settling for less, economically, to make their mark in favor of municipality.

The malls decorate for the holidays the way downtown areas used to. Downtown areas try to put on their finery as well, but for less reason. In Annapolis, even as late as the early 1980s, I would stroll the streets, dropping into various shops and eating establishments. In a good year, when I actually had some money, I could shop for gifts. In a lean year, when everyone was going to get a hug, I could still walk around and soak up the bustle and cheer of humans lighting a candle against the winter solstice darkness. From what I hear, most of Main Street Annapolis is dark and empty now.

On the outskirts of town, the mall complexes have extended pavement across hundreds of acres. When you shave off the trees and plunk down some huge, rectilinear buildings, 100 acres doesn't look like much. Some of it was already developed in the 1960s. Much more was wooded: what developers like to refer to as "wasteland."

"Nobody's using it. We ought to."

The squirrels can just shave their tails and get jobs as rats. Other wildlife can't make as easy a transition. And those humans who were aware that the forest conveyed an inexplicable sense of peace are far outnumbered by the ones who let the building happen and now don't understand why they're just that much crankier and more impatient with each other.

From a motorist standpoint, a shopping center fed by arterial roadways, filled with the full variety of emporia a shopper might desire, makes far more sense than driving into the congested labyrinth of urban streets, seeking a place to safely and legally ditch the car and then walking on outdoor sidewalks to this store or that. Maybe another store you want to visit is in another neighborhood, inconveniently far away. That means more driving, more navigation, hunting for more parking.

Before the mall explosion, these were normal parts of motorized shopping. And a non-motorized shopper would have the same distance to cover. Traditions of centrality, based on population density near the center, dispersing outward, worked when people lived that way.

Increased population works hand-in-hand with convenient personal motor vehicles to encourage dispersed development. The suburban ring expands outward the way mold spreads from a single bluish spot to rot an entire piece of food. The mold is happy. Life is good. We sprawl in fuzzy abandon.

It depends on the motor car. When streetcar lines extended to the edge of town, people lived along them, but such a network was limited by public willingness to invest. Given their own coaches departing and arriving on a personalized schedule, the public was even less willing to invest in something that appears so much less convenient.

Convenience is relative, of course. Try finding a place to park in either a city or a popular shopping complex when the shopping stampede is at its height. Still, the cold logic of economics dictates that towns shall die that suburbs may live.

Ultimately we will see recentralization around the new focal points chosen by society, whether it is revitalized traditional cities and towns or the synthetic towns generated by mall-like complexes. If sustainable fuels become a reality, some form of personal motor vehicle will continue to dominate the design of transportation and civilization. If not, the centers will have to accommodate the people who arrive on foot, by bike and by mass transportation.