Friday, May 28, 2010

Legality Meets Reality

Construction has stopped until June 21 on Route 28. I have that long to work out a construction zone action plan.

Technically, the traffic control people should hold the lane open for me as they would for any other vehicle. On certain sections this is not a problem. If the grade runs in my favor I can get to the end of a short enough zone to beat the sign holder with an itchy hand. If I am a few feet away they have always held up a second or two so I could get through. So far, anyway. If I fall behind that, they release the traffic on me. I'm left to figure out what to do.

One time I had to stop in about two feet of space next to a guardrail and chuck my bike over it as I leaped to follow. Now that I know a cyclist is disposable in these situations I make sure I don't get wedged in like that.

I understand the traffic controllers' problem. Motorists bottled up behind a barrier turn quickly into an angry mob. They'll put up with the wait as long as they see what looks like a fair and sensible system. Make them wait as much as minutes after the last motor vehicle for some sweaty idiot pushing pedals to wobble through and they'll blow a gasket.

Part of the problem is that the sign reading "Slow" only means "Relatively Slow." Ripping through the chute, drafting a large vehicle, I regularly register a speed in the 40s. If I was a construction worker I wouldn't feel really safe with cars and trucks roaring past the emergent cleft of my buttocks at 40+ miles per hour, but I guess it's better than the typical 65 that most drivers try to maintain on the 55 mile-per-hour roads around here. Many of them try to maintain it on all the roads around here. Going 42 through a narrow lane between cones feels crawlingly slow.

Even if the motorists go 25, which really feels like creeping to them, I will get dropped fairly quickly. I'm a tired old man on a heavy bike. On a light bike I would still be a tired old man.

During this recent construction I've only caught a large enough draft to get me through it once in four or five commutes on days they were working. Clearly I can't depend on that. And that's a dangerous option. I have to ride tight to the tailgate of my pacer. I will have to do a mix of alternate routes, riding in the actual construction area and maybe some short bushwhacks through the tick-infested grass on the other side of the guard rail, depending on what happens where.

We become cyclists because we are willing to take care of ourselves. This is just more of that.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Traffic Control/Pest Control

This morning in the construction zone on Route 28 I almost made it to the end before the traffic controller turned her sign and sent two logging trucks and a string of smaller vehicles thundering down on me. I swerved into the lane we weren't supposed to be using, which fortunately was not full of snorting, cavorting heavy equipment.

When I reached the controller I said to her, "Just for the record, I was still in there." I thumbed at the lane I had been stampeded out of.

"Good," she said, and turned away.

Cyclists are apparently a nuisance varmint. Road kill is just a normal hazard for creatures without the good sense to stay out of the way.

To add to the joy, someone told me the construction crew is supposed to finish by applying chip seal to the highway surface. Nothing like an ineffective goo treatment to improve the riding and driving experience. We'll see if it turns out to be true.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Pursuit Begins with P

Saturday morning I did not eat enough absorbent food with breakfast, so I had to drop off at a convenient patch of woods on the ride to work. George rode on, because we needed to get at least one of us there somewhere in the vicinity of opening time.

Based on the time I spent off the bike, I guessed he had about a mile lead with about seven or eight miles to go. I hadn't planned to ride hard, but I have trouble resisting a chase. I wondered if I could reel him in before we got to work, without beating too hard on my tired legs.

I didn't expect to see George for a while. For a couple of miles the road has curves and hills that prevent a long look ahead. When I did reach the first straighter parts, George was still around the next bend. When I finally did sight him I still had to ride patiently. He stayed out ahead for another mile or two.

We came into the tighter curves riding together. George was pushing the pace. He's enjoying the results of a steady riding schedule. He's never trained for cycling before. He's not doing it with a racer's dedication and focus even now, but he's observing general principles that make his relatively long commute easier. He also sees the value of speed and maneuverability in traffic. But he's not as fast as I am. Not yet, anyway. I get nervous riding in traffic with slower people. I have my own sense of what is an appropriate speed. George almost reaches it, but I keep expecting motorist trouble when we hit the worst section together. I ride faster and more aggressively among the hurrying motorists, so they are less likely to dismiss me as just another piece of debris swirling in the road wind.

Summer brings a more aggressive breed of driver to our area. The morning commute is already getting more dynamic, and real summer hasn't arrived yet.

It may seem cold, but if George and I can't coordinate our speed in the nasty bits I will recommend we ride it well separated. The motoring public will have an easier time passing us singly than if we have to guide and control them past us as a more bulky duo. Besides, as he trains more it may be me dangling off the back. My recommendation remains the same. There's safety in singleness.

These are decisions riders have to make constantly when negotiating narrow roads with moderate to high traffic volumes. If that's all the road you have, you have to learn to operate in it.

I would bypass the most dangerous section by taking the Disappointing Excuse for a Rail Trail (DERT), but that chokes easily with only a few users. Pedestrians, dog walkers and recreational riders fill it on summer days. A transportation cyclist can't count on maintaining a steady pace. Then a rider has to make a left turn to re-enter the traffic flow on the streets, or take the subservient route in the crosswalk at Center Street. I avoid using a crosswalk with my bike because it reinforces the view of cyclists as inferior to motorists. Even if I'm going to take the path on the other side of the crosswalk, I will leave it at the closest street access before the crosswalk and rejoin it from the street rather than have the cars stop for "the biker" who appears to them as just a pedestrian on wheels.

One problem with the path is that it is so relaxing. I fall easily into a tourist mode, only to have to go to battle stations instantly when I emerge into the streets again. As much as possible, I will remain in the vehicular flow for my whole route.

Heading out of town the contrast is not as jarring. Traffic disperses as the speed limit goes up and the road widens. The path lies to the right of the direction of travel, so entry and exit are easier. Then the only issues are other path users and the poor design of the path itself.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Race Pace Pilot Fish

New England has two seasons: winter and road construction. Winter is clearly over. A lighted sign announces that construction has begun on Route 28.

Over the years I have negotiated many construction zones. In 1995, almost my entire route was dirt for many weeks while two massive paving projects ran their course. That was easy. I just rode a mountain bike until the glorious day when my whole route was transformed into pristine pavement, including a hellish mile and a half that had been dirt for the first six years I rode that commute.

When a zone is short, I ride it with the motorists. When a zone is long, invariably the traffic control people send oncoming traffic down my throat as soon as the last MOTORIST in my queue passes them. This has led to some interesting maneuvers depending on what is happening in the lane from which we are barred.

The zone on 28 this week is long. When I reached it this morning I scanned the line of waiting vehicles to see which of them I might use. A travel trailer was about fifth in line, but the real prize was a tractor-trailer sand truck at the very front of the line. The traffic controller had just turned the sign from "stop" to "slow."

I sprinted up the death alley on the right to reach the pocket behind the big truck before it could accelerate away from me. Based on its rate of acceleration I guessed it was empty, or at least not as full as it could be. I was able to hang with it, but I had to wind out my top gear to get into the sweet spot near the tailgate, where the swirls of turbulence would push me forward.

The truck and I rumbled up to 42 miles per hour for a couple of miles. Sand and dust swirled around me, but it was not hard to maintain position. As always, I was more concerned that the truck might run over something that would take me down than about much of anything else. In the tight confines of a restricted lane, I figured the truck driver would probably tip me off by jamming the brakes if anything too exciting fell into the lane in front of him. I feathered the brakes to maintain my position in the ideal draft.

Once we cleared the single lane of the construction zone I faded to the right and let my whale shark go. The rest of the vehicles had kept a respectful following distance. No telling what they were thinking as they left me behind.

I can't count on having that kind of help every day. It was good today, though. I was all hopped up on diesel fumes and sand when I got to work.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Right of Way

Traffic feeds us driving quizzes all the time.

On Friday I had to whap the dog on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper (figuratively speaking) when the usual pushy idiot in a car was forcing himself past George and me at the intersection of Elm Street and Route 16. We had arrived long before said idiot and were hovering to watch for a good gap in traffic. With typical moto-centric conceit, the driver assumed that cars belong in front of bikes whenever and wherever the encounter takes place. I was doing a track stand in the center of the right lane, so motor-boy went into the left lane, where anyone leaving Route 16 would hit him head on. The resulting collision would be the cyclist's fault for obstructing traffic, "forcing" motorists to do illegal and dangerous things to pass the "obstacle."

I spotted a gap. George and I shot into it. We were a quarter of a mile down the road before the pushy motorist was actually able to pull out. So who would have held up whom?

Unfortunately I tweaked my back with my aggressive sprint from a track-standing start. I had to deal with the muscle spasm for the next couple of days.

The next test came yesterday when the cellist and I took a fitness and pleasure cruise that included a couple of sections of Route 25. That highway has a lane-width shoulder. It attracts some fast drivers because it is mostly flat with long straight or gently curving stretches. I do not take the lane because the motorists have enough trouble avoiding each other, let alone smartening up enough to spot a cyclist. Coming west, preparing to turn left onto Green Mountain Road, I only pull left and turn left when NO ONE is around. In any other circumstance I ride past the turn and double back when I get a gap, because people crossing from Route 153 or Green Mountain Road are likely to disregard a cyclist maneuvering at that particular junction. When I want to cross from 153 to Green Mountain Road I will often go right on 25 to clear the intersection and, again, double back when I get a gap.

With only themselves to deal with at that intersection, motorists are just as likely to kill or maim each other. It has been the scene of many accidents.

Coming to 153 yesterday, I was going to lead us through the intersection because there was a lot of cross traffic. Plan B would be to drop a right into 153, loop back clear of the intersection, and then either cross to Green Mountain Road (if clear) or go right and loop back again. It seems roundabout and needlessly complex to the purists of bicycle right of way, but it flows better, so I prefer it.

The situation suddenly got more complicated when a regiment of sporty, quasi-racing-configured motorcycles rushed up on us from behind and flowed past us in that faintly harassing way they have. Do you really need to be that close to my handlebars? Am I supposed to be impressed, perhaps feel a subservient sense of camaraderie and honor that you chose to almost clip me? This phalanx flowed past endlessly as the intersection grew nearer by the pedal stroke. A decision would be required soon.

I briefly considered the options and almost chose to turn right with the motorcyclists. However, the way they were slamming the door at the apex of the turn I could not be sure the line would be safe.

I couldn't take the lane because the continuous flow of closely-spaced bikes walled us off from it.

Cross traffic waiting was frozen by the spectacle of the thundering herd. I decided to go straight through the intersection, cutting off whatever remaining motorcycles I had to when I claimed the lane.

This maneuver elicited an angry honk from the last cycle in line. I gave him the Big Annoyed Shrug, universal symbol of "WTF, Dude? Wait your ^%#^%$ turn!" The cellist actually flipped him off, but he had cut closer to her as she followed me.

We cleared the intersection, waited for all motorists to do whatever made them happy and then looped back to turn onto Green Mountain Road. The sound of any motorcycle coming up behind us made us wonder for a time whether the aggrieved rider might be coming back to discuss the finer points of traffic safety, but that group fortunately had better things to do, as did we.

Had I claimed the lane on 25 well before the crossroads, the aggressive motorcyclists might well have behaved even more like cavalry charging through infantry. I'm sure we push-bikers were supposed to stop dead before the intersection while the people with real vehicles did exactly what they wanted, when they wanted, with their road. By pedaling we give some people the impression that our schedule and destination do not matter. As inferiors in horsepower, acceleration and top speed we must defer at all times and in all ways.

I'm afraid I disagree.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Critical Mass of Three

Co-mechanic George has been riding my morning commute with me on days we both work. That's been weird enough, maneuvering two people through traffic when I have spent so many years riding solo. George is a grownup, fully capable of looking out for himself, but he doesn't have my decades of traffic interaction and inch by inch familiarity with my inbound route.

When coaching a student rider in traffic, you can't always provide timely instructions. A situation can burst into existence, demanding reflex reaction. In that case the lead rider should just do what needs to be done and break it down later in the classroom session.

Every rider needs to remember that his or her personal condition guides many choices whether you are conscious of it or not. General principles may apply, but personal execution depends on strength and temperament. But incompatible traffic styles are incompatible traffic styles. If you find that you can't adapt to a rider you are with, you need to open up the formation so that each of your styles will work separately.

George and I have been doing fine. He's a little less aggressive than I am, but we make it through the tight spots anyway. He's getting more assertive.

This morning we were joined by a third rider, Jim, who will be riding around Lake Winnipesaukee with George on Sunday. I had suggested they ride together at least once before they get themselves stuck on the other side of the lake and discover they can't function as a strong unit in the inescapable tight sections of the route.

Jim rides a lighter, tighter bike than George and I use for the commute. He was also unencumbered by things like lunch and clothing, because he was not riding as a commuter. We had to pay attention to keep our group together on the open road.

For my short stretch of traffic, the last two or three miles in town, I tend to push my anaerobic threshold when I'm herding vehicles in the narrow roads and streets. That's my style. I'm uncomfortable doing it another way. The psychology of my particular population of drivers seems to respond to a high energy level better than a low one. I get shoved aside if I slow down too much. And there's nowhere to be shoved. If I really don't feel up to cracking the whip on them, I make sure I'm somewhere else entirely, on a roundabout route of quieter roads or on the separate path. The most fun part of that path happens to bypass the most hectic section of busy road. It has other disadvantages, so I usually opt to herd the big beasts instead of surrendering the road to them more or less permanently. I'm not ready to give up yet.

Because George does not maintain my pace in traffic, I put him out front so I could cover the lane from the back of the line. Jim rode close on George's wheel. Three riders made a more substantial plug in the lane than a single rider does. We had no choice but to ride as a unit. We aren't blocking traffic. We are traffic.

The vehicular powers that be cooperated by putting a couple of construction zones in our path. Those slowed the cars so that we could easily maintain a place in line. George was even tempted to slide by on the right until I said, "Just be careful in the death hole, George." He rejoined us as we ambled along at the speed of the impeded autos. When the flow accelerated, we accelerated safely and smoothly with it.

Some riders routinely pass right or left to flow through slower vehicular traffic. I don't remember exactly when I stopped doing it, or at least doing it so much. It stopped seeming like a good idea. If I do want to move faster than the larger vehicles, I don't do it as fast as I can possibly go. I don't find it worth the risk. Your results may vary.

Working with occasionally high traffic volumes in narrow New England roads I can't take the lane as a blanket policy. Nor can I give way as a blanket policy. On my familiar routes I know exactly where I need to prevent anyone passing me and where I can scrape a few of them off with a quick fade to the right. The drivers seem to appreciate the rationality and fairness. Give them a chance to go away before they're completely steamed and most of them will take it rather than waste time hassling you. Sit on their face just because you can and you will get bitten in the ass. Hug the gutter all the time and you will get fed a storm drain. So you have to observe and assess the situation all the time.

Sight reading an unfamiliar route you can still learn to spot useful features and traffic patterns similar to what you find on your familiar routes. The game changes as the road changes. Narrow road strategies don't work on wider roads and vice versa. Other riders change it, too. There isn't necessarily safety in numbers unless you ride in the center of a large enough group to absorb a vehicular impact before it reaches you. Short of that you have to be agile and adaptable.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Bad Design Not Covered by Warranty

Bad design is not a defect in material or workmanship. If it leads to an actual failure within the warranty period you may qualify for compensation, but if it manages to limp along past that to an annoyingly premature death just outside the official coverage period you just have to eat it.

Shimano's plastic-collared Altus brakes from the mid 1990s are a prime example of this.

I spent about five hours fixing the cable guide problem on that Specialized Roubaix this week. The rest of the tune up took about 45 minutes.

To release the frozen bolt and broken piece of the BB shell, I had to cut and pry the cable guide away. That allowed me to push the broken bit up into the shell. I hoped to grip it with locking pliers or something, but the curve of the shell prevented it. Instead, I was able to wedge it with an improvised pick I made by grinding the elbow of a broken spoke. I felt like a dentist as I juggled instruments in the open mouth of the frame. It was all the fun with none of the disgusting saliva, blood and food particles.

Once I had jammed the broken piece I was able to unscrew the bolt from it. This left a slightly ragged hole in the aluminum BB liner and a metal-lined hole that may be the remains of a Riv-nut in the outer carbon shell. There is also an unexplained pinhole in the carbon off to one side.

The bolt and insert

There is an air space between the carbon and the aluminum. I can see loose carbon fibers sticking into the hole where the cable guide was mounted. I would feel better if the bike had an inert layer filling that space, especially as the pinhole implies that moisture (and perhaps even liquid) could get in, creating a conductive environment that could lead to some sort of electrolytic interaction between the carbon shell and the alloy liner. The bottom of the shell is not as highly stressed as the top, but it is hardly unimportant. Also, could that unsupported air gap have led to the failure of the threaded insert spanning it?

I would have to grind away gel coat to inspect the site thoroughly to determine if that really was a Riv-nut. Is it important?

The new guide, with shim for added thickness

The front derailleur cable goes through the frame. To prevent abrasion of the frame material, the cable guide needs a tube that lines the cable passage. The only guide I had with the required tube was another thin one like the one that had not provided adequate protection originally. I shimmed it with a sizing sleeve from a handlebar-mounted mirror. The bolt threads into a t-back I found in one of our miscellaneous hardware drawers, that happens to fit the hole, more or less.

I don't know if I should worry about the long term integrity of the frame. If water gets into the layers of the bottom bracket shell it could freeze if the bike is stored in an unheated space during the winter. I have seen freeze damage to steel and aluminum frames when ice expanded inside small spaces like the outer ends of chainstays. In any case, what happened is not normal wear and tear. We'll see what Specialized has to say.

Friday, May 07, 2010

"My right shifter is noisy."

Customer presented us with a Specialized Roubaix Elite, about two years old. I didn't do the check in. On the tag it said the bike needed a tune up and the right shifter is noisy.

The owner of the bike is a competitive Nordic skier, although a health problem has limited her competitive activities for a while.

I've noticed something about skiers, whether cross-country or downhill. They tend to beat their bikes to death. They spend so much time on equipment with almost no moving parts that they forget to do any maintenance. At first glance this seemed to be the typically under-lubricated, road grimy bike, sticky with spilled energy drink. But the shifter noise was atypical and intriguing. It was a sort of grindy squeak.

On closer inspection I discovered that the shift cables had worn into the bottom bracket cable guide deeply enough to allow the cables to begin to saw into the fat down tube. They hadn't gone too far. I could easily fix it by pulling off the BB cable guide and replacing it with a thicker one. It's just held on with a single screw or bolt.

I worked slack into the cables and unscrewed the cable guide. The screw turned stiffly but never withdrew. I tried coaxing it out with a little cautious prying as I turned the screwdriver. That did no good. Clearly I would have to remove the crank and bottom bracket bearings to see what the other end of the screw or bolt looked like, rather than continue to pry or twist.

Getting the FSA SL-K crank off was another treat. The left crank arm is held on with an alloy bolt torqued to 36 foot-pounds. You're just as likely to strip out the hole in it as you are to break it loose after it has been sealed in with thread locker and then ridden in all weather. I got it out mostly intact. I may not put the same bolt back.

Inside the BB shell I saw that the cable guide is held with a bolt into a threaded insert in the BB shell. This insert has broken loose. The bolt can't be removed BECAUSE THE THREADS WERE NOT GREASED WHEN THE BIKE WAS ASSEMBLED.

There are no unimportant parts. I get a certain amount of crap for my meticulous assembly procedures, but then something like this proves my point. It's not even a rare occurrence.

I won't know until I get further into it tomorrow what I will have to do to graft on the new cable guide. Without it the cables will cut deeper and deeper into the carbon fiber, ultimately leading to failure.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Lying Low

Life is a series of interruptions. I have a few ideas rattling in the junk drawer, but no time to bolt them together into anything resembling a usable form. Nothing terribly exciting keeps me from writing. Events merely jostle my elbow when I try to settle for long enough to form long, coherent thoughts.

I have a tendency to exist at several points in time at any given moment. Not all of them are pleasant, but all of them are true, to the best of my knowledge. The ones we call the past cannot be altered, but can be perceived differently as our own experience grows. The present becomes like a hand of cards from a constantly-shuffled pack. Only the top card is now, but the others affect the value one gives to the whole hand which is the experience of now.

At times, the shuffling is so rapid, the rise of the black cards so frequent, that I do not try to finish more than what is set in front of me. Quiet functionality will suffice.