Thursday, April 29, 2010

Slotted Cleats!

Twenty years ago, road cycling shoes still came with a set of slotted cleats. During the 1990s, shoe companies dropped this practice, because no one who mattered was using old-style road pedals and toe straps. A dark age began for the toeclip user. But the sun may be rising again.

Thank the retro cyclists, be they true geezers or fashionable posers. Thank the fixie hipsters with their double toestraps. Most of all, thank Yellow Jersey, Ltd., of Madison, Wisconsin, because they have gone back into the slotted cleat business.

My co-mechanic, George, has been exploring his interest in cycling after a busy life pursuing other endeavors, including a career as an engineer. He liked the idea of slotted cleats and toe straps, for the many advantages they offer over step-in pedals. He was even starting to plan how he might make us some cleats. Today, however, I did one of my occasional searches and found Yellow Jersey's offering. They're ridiculously pricey for something so simple, but no one else is doing it (that I can find). The price is not quite ridiculous enough for me to call it exorbitant. The fact that they care at all, combined with their small market in the face of so much propaganda supporting step-ins, makes them a worthy underdog in my book -- or blog. I'm still farming my old stash of Sidis, bought for a song from City Cycle in San Francisco, but I might buy a set of Yellow Jersey's just to support them.

Now that I know there's a source, I will step up my own advocacy for clips, straps and slotted cleats.

Here's how it works: with a nice old-style road pedal you can use a non-cleated shoe for short errands or leisurely tours and a stiff-soled, cleated shoe for rides where you want more performance and don't care about walking. The toe strap lets you get some connection to the pedal even in your non-cleated shoe. You would not have that with a step-in, even if it had a platform around the binding or a flat side and a step-in side.

You do have to flip up a toeclip pedal to insert your foot. If you don't have a reliable track stand, this can complicate starts at intersections. In the olden days cyclists might take a few strokes before attempting the flip. The toe clip would scrape on the pavement. Riders who scraped the clips a lot would wear through them. Nothing's perfect. With a flat pedal you lose a lot of power. If your riding venue involves more stop-and-go than steady riding, a flat pedal may be a good choice. Even a step-in requires you to find the interface and snap into it.

A track stand will serve you well. Not only do you get to jump away from the intersection faster than anyone will believe, you hypnotize potentially critical motorists by your miraculous ability to stay upright without moving forward.

They do laugh when you blow it. C'est la vie.

Racers used to complain that they signaled their attacks to other riders by reaching down to tighten their toe straps. Now they do it by reaching down to tighten their shoe straps. Step-ins are easier to engage in the slow-rolling cluster-hump of a mass start race. If I had a dedicated race bike and I was actually racing it I would probably have step-ins. I might even have to get brifters. But how many of us are really racing? There's a huge fun zone in which you can do plenty of sporty riding using the "outmoded" pedal and shoe technology.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

From Proflat to Proflex

Here's a side of elastomer suspension I'd never seen. This Proflex came in with the elastomers squished and stiffened. I'd seen elastomers harden so they no longer provide springiness. I'd never seen them deflate like this.

I dug up some elastomers that didn't have a lot of bounce, but would at least hold up the rear triangle. The owner understands that this bike can't be ridden like a new one.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How to be forgotten and invisible

On Facebook, I follow Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's posts in addition to other cycling and alternative transportation contributors. The comments always reflect the cycling philosophy of the writer. They provide glimpses into other cyclists' worlds.

One comment reminded me of my own car-free years. The writer said his "social life is non-existent" because of physiological limitations on his cruising range as a cyclist and a lack of public transportation.

For about ten months I lived in a shabby apartment with no telephone. If I wanted to get in touch with anyone, I had to go to a pay phone, write a letter or pay a visit. I might as well have been dead.

In a related incident, I was staying in my parents' home right after I graduated from college. I was alone in the house when an upholsterer who was doing work for my parents stopped by. There were no cars in the driveway. Before I could get to the door, the visitor assumed no one was home and left. As I recall, he didn't even bother to knock.

As a cyclist who works weekends I am cut off from a lot of normal society even now. Over rural distances it takes me longer to get anywhere by bike than by car. I don't always arrive in the best shape, if the weather is really hot or wet. To be honest, I take advantage of my car when it will get me and my stuff around more efficiently. Commuting by bike saves me a lot of money and excess body fat, so I'm not about to turn into a full-time motorist. It's just not always the best answer.

If there were no cars we would all view distance and use land differently. If no fuel can replace the convenience of petroleum, we will face that in less than a century.

Convenience is a funny adjective for a substance we go through so much trouble to pump out of the ground and transport around the world. The oil companies and the governments they finance do their best to put gasoline in the pumps without calling attention to the wars, explosions, fire, death and environmental destruction that go on behind the scenes, as it were. From the consumer's standpoint, it is convenient.

In the early 20th century, the business wasn't exactly innocent, but it was less mature. World War I was actually the first war for oil as that fuel rapidly came to power military and civilian activities in proud and imperialistic nations. The politics of Europe made it ripe for a conflict anyway. Oil emerged as an issue as a matter of simple logistics. Technology was shifting to an oil-powered basis. If you wanted to have a strong nation and a successful war machine, you needed petroleum.

Wild, isn't it? Nineteen-freaking-fourteen and the British Empire had its sights on oil in Persia and Iraq. And here we are today.

Between the dawn of the automobile era and its sunset we have enjoyed personal transportation unequaled in any other period of human history. The bicycle was described as the poor man's horse even though the purchase price was relatively steep in the late 19th and early 20th century, because the cost of operating and caring for the bike was minuscule compared to housing and feeding a horse. But there was no national network of highways. Roads were unpaved. Activist cyclists agitated for better roads, while inventors and industrialists like Albert Pope and numerous others perfected their manufacturing techniques in the bicycle business before moving on to motorized transportation.

For bicycling, the best years lie ahead. The cars of the future, powered by steam heated by fires of dried feces, probably will have neither the performance nor the sex appeal of the current product. The fuel will be cheap and widely available. Fiber-fed cyclists can probably make some pocket money by selling raw material to the fuel companies.

I can't tell you how I got from a reminiscence of phoneless, carless isolation to the 2035 Stinky Steamer, but some days are like that.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I felt like a real mechanic

Today I had to call a guy and tell him, "you need pads and rotors."

"There's a grinding noise in the rear brakes" the customer told me when he dropped the bike off. I guess there is. Somehow, the retraction spring that holds the pads apart had gotten sucked in between the pads and rotor. It had been ground into the mechanism, scoring the disc. Then the rotor had rusted.

Disc brakes bring yet another jigsaw puzzle to the world of bikes. Rim brake pads are all made on a few basic formats. Not so, the proprietary disc pads. We had several types of pad in stock. We just didn't have the right pad. Only replaceable derailleur hangers have as much pointless variety.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Will Build to Suit

On a dark, rainy day I finished this Surly Pacer for a triathlete who wanted a bad weather training bike so she won't keep beating up her expensive racing rocket. We duplicated her position to make the transition from one bike to the other as smooth as possible. That's why it has aero bars and fenders.

Many of the parts came off a 650c Litespeed Blade she had been riding before she got her custom Serotta. Even though the Blade was a small-wheel bike with a small frame, it was too long for her in ways that couldn't be cured with componentry choices. It's a great frame if you fit it, and it's available, with a Zipp wheel set.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Routine Commuting

Just another day. Pedaling along in sunshine, fog, rain or snow, the commute is just a matter of getting from here to there.

No day is exactly the same as another, of course. A couple of weeks ago I stopped to do traffic control for a confused, angry beaver that had decided to try to cross Route 28 during the morning commute. That was a cloudy morning, so there were no tree shadows. On a sunny day the animal would have been almost impossible to see in the black and bright stripes cast over that section of road by the rising sun.

Spring marks the beginning of road kill season. Animals that have been asleep or much less active during the winter come out and travel around. At first you see mammal carcasses. On warmer rainy nights, frogs start to take risks, too. Later come the turtles, snakes and salamanders. I like having a chance to help one succeed for a change.

I paid some dues to the flat tire gods on a rainy evening last week (or was it the week before?). I'd hit a stone on a fast descent out on Route 28.

"That can't turn out well," I thought, but the bike continued to feel normal. I didn't get that sinking feeling. Not right away, anyway. I was about a mile into Elm Street, twisty two-lane country road, when I felt the telltale bump bump bump of the valve stem hitting the pavement. I hate that feeling. Does anyone love it?

I found a place to pull safely clear of any passing vehicles. The repair presented no problems until the pressure I was putting into the tube started blowing back into my old Silca frame pump. I never ever had that problem until someone else told me he'd had it. I couldn't get more than about 20 psi into the tire. I had to ride home leaning way over the front of the bike to take as much weight as possible off the rear tire. Dusk had gotten deep, so I had all my lights on. The blinky tail lights acted like four-way flashers as I limped home at a humble pace.

A lot of people are finding sharp debris in the sand and detritus left from winter.

My ski-season colleague, George, has become the new mechanic trainee. We built him a Cross Check last summer. He lives farther from work than I do, but he's trying to work the bike into the commute. Last Saturday he started out on the homeward leg with me, but discovered a soft tire. Because the sun was getting low, he opted to call for the choppers rather than put in a tube and definitely finish the ride in the dark. Night riding on a hilly rural highway with no shoulders isn't for everyone.

I continued on alone. A couple of miles from home, the zipper slider on my faithful Sugoi Stealth jacket exploded, so I don't have that until I can get a new slider and graft it on.

This morning I was enjoying the last nice day we're supposed to have before a three-day storm moves in. I had just noticed that I was hammering along like July in the peloton. Storming down a grade, in good shape to arrive at work on time for a change, I suddenly heard an alarming metallic whacking noise. A piece of debris I hadn't noticed had gotten entangled in my rear wheel in a way I had yet to determine. First I had to stop from 30+ miles per hour before whatever it was started carrying away important parts of the drive train.

I got the bike stopped and tossed it and myself over the guard rail from the narrow shoulder. I would never choose to stop here under normal circumstances. I could not see what was making the noise. By this I knew it had to be stuck in my tire, not just tangled in the spokes. But the offending item was up inside the fender. I had to turn the wheel to bring it out.

A piece of wire about the size of a 15-gauge spoke was stuck to the tread face of my tire by the short spike that had been sticking up vertically from the rest of its few inches of curving length. It was perfectly designed to pierce a tire. I knew as soon as I pulled it out the air would quickly follow. And it did.

Across the road I saw a nice sunny driveway where I could make repairs. The cell phone signal was lousy, so I didn't manage to get through to my employers. It was funny. When I called him, I could hear him but he couldn't hear me. When he called me, I couldn't hear him. I hoped he'd guess from the caller ID who it was and generally what it must be about.

I got the tube in and pumped it up to thumb pressure. It didn't feel too squishy. I just wanted to get the rest of the way to work.

When I got to the shop, I was only about as late as I usually am. The power had been out for half an hour anyway, so we couldn't really do business. The power remained out for another two hours. I made sure my bike was ready for the evening commute and then groped around on customer repairs until the lights came back. I did pretty well by feel.

So that's it. Just another day, day after day. Each one is unique in its own way, even if it's just a little twist on the same old same old. And it's usually weirder than that.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Epics of Perceived Necessity

Yesterday I needed to retrieve a car from the Gilford Guru, the mechanic so good I've been traveling more than 40 miles each way to take my cars to him for the past 21 years.

Whenever possible I use a bike for part of the drop-off or pickup procedure. Rich's shop isn't on the way to any place the cellist or I normally go.

The trip presents a number of possibilities. I've driven over and ridden home. I've ridden over and driven home. The route over the top of the lake is shorter, but uses really nasty sections of Route 25. Note to anyone who wants to ride around Lake Winnipesaukee: The section from the Weirs through Moultonboro has many areas of narrow highway filled with cars, trucks, SUVs, boat trailers, you name it. Route 25 is the principal route across the state from the I-93 corridor to Route 16 above The Big Lake.

New Hampshire is full of interesting geographical features. You're always bending around a big wet spot or a big lump. On the route north of the lake you have to decide which way to go past the Ossipee Mountains, a circular range of volcanic rock. The roads have been widened where geology and funding have coincided to make it possible. Where they haven't, it's Live Free or Die driving or cycling.

The route from home is roughly 44 miles. From Wolfe City it's about 27. So, for instance, I've driven down at 6 in the morning, left the car with a note and ridden to work. Then I might ride the rest of the way home or hitch a lift with the cellist if she's headed that way at the right time. Spending time with her is more important than cycling purity or overall mileage accumulation.

As I rode along Chestnut Cove Road in Alton yesterday, I had plenty of time to observe how little spring has really touched the forest here. In what used to be a normal year, we might still have quite a bit of snow. I would not have several hundred miles on me already.

I always loved the early season. I loved getting back out onto the training roads after a winter of only commuting when I lived and raced in Maryland. Later, up here in New Hampshire, I often started the season with a goal, like a big ride or a series of them.

Training rides can be epic, but I never fooled myself that they were necessary. I had chosen to race. Sometimes a necessary epic would combine conveniently with the training schedule, like the time I went down one early April weekend in my girlfriend's car to meet her parents in southern Maryland. She wasn't going to make me stay longer than overnight, but I had to make my own way home. I needed long mileage for my training program, so I took off happily on the 75-mile trek back to Naptown. The only hitch was that I had forgotten my bike shorts. I had to ride several hours through redneck country with only my wool tights between me and...whatever.

When I worked for the newspaper in Wolfeboro, I would sometimes ride into Center Ossipee to pick up the payroll checks to deliver to Wolfeboro. That detour made my 29-mile day a 48-mile day. It was all for a good cause, though. If only the little (in all respects) paychecks needed to be transferred to Wolfe City, it wasted time and fuel for someone from either office to drive the route. Send the bike messenger! He's a useful idiot!

Yesterday, gray clouds and showers emphasized the bare trees over brown ground and gray rock. Light showers had darkened the roads to a dull sheen as I left Wolfeboro. It wasn't quite enough to raise a ridge of water on the tires. I hoped it wouldn't get to that point, because I had not fitted the front fender.

On South Main Street I herded traffic up the gradual but relentless grade. At one point as I moved to shut the gate because a big truck was coming the other way, I heard the driver behind me stomp down on the gas pedal to push into the gap. I kept my responding middle digit down over the handlebars as the dilapidated mini van wedged its way past me.

The ride from Wolfeboro starts with climbs. After the grade up past the high school the road drops down to a 90-degree bend in South Wolfeboro, goes down a little further and then tackles the wall up to where the highway widens with a lane-width shoulder. The shoulder has no rumble strip. It functions very well for cycling. The climbs to get there are a harsh warmup.

Twenty-seven miles hardly constitutes an epic ride. What gave this its epic quality was the time of year and the way it fit into a day more scheduled than my average work day. I have more respect for 27 hilly miles than I used to have. I also did it on minimal food. I'm trying to burn through some winter blubber, so I brought the lightest of snacks. Hunger creates a timeless feeling. This was also the longest continuous ride I've managed so far this season. It felt good to stop.

It can be hard to explain to someone who has not experienced it how it feels better to do something strenuous and finish it than it does to go without it at all.

The drive home isn't short. I was hungry and a little sore, though not tired. I went to the grocery store on the way home. Even shopping hungry I bought only what was on the list. When I got home the momentum carried me into household chores and dinner preparation. Despite my best intentions to make a late lunch, I drank a lot of water and ate little food until supper. I'm as surprised by that as anyone.

Using the bike meant that I didn't need to inconvenience anyone else to do what I had to do. Transit might have taken me longer, but it cost less and gained more in all respects.

It Ain't Necessarily Safer

Looking at materials from the U.S. Bicycle Route System I noticed one comment about a deteriorated section of side path beside what I take from the context to be a busy road. The commenter suggested shifting the route to a regular road with lower traffic volume because the bike path never gets repaired. A road would.

Lower traffic volume does not always equal more safety. In many cases the drivers who use it are doing an end-run around congestion elsewhere. They may be zooming because they can, or to make up for the extra distance they might have to travel to use the less congested road.

On a beautiful little road in Hiram, Maine one day, I saw one car in probably six or eight miles. It was literally airborne off a small rise. This small, sporty VW product was doing about 80 on a road the driver obviously knew well and used frequently. The next time I rode the road, at roughly the same mid-day hour, I saw the same car driven the same way. Perhaps the driver goes to the same place for lunch every day.

The small road section of my commute, between my house and the state highway, can be some of the most nerve wracking. In the morning I'm warming up. In the evening I'm tired. It's a bendy, hilly three miles. Some of the locals drive it like a race course. Nearly everyone speeds, cell phone or beverage in hand.

When devising routes we can only do our best. Lower volume is generally better unless the choice is between enough motor vehicles to clot them up or just enough less traffic to let the meat grinder run at high rpm. And there's no accounting for the random missiles on roads where vehicles are downright sparse.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Workshop Tip of the Day, April 1 (No Foolin')

I just used shampoo to clean the grease off my hands. I always use a hand brush to scrub out the stains, but most cleaning agents always left a little something behind.

The shampoo not only cleaned my hands, it left my knuckle hairs shiny and manageable.