Sunday, December 26, 2010

Happy New Year, by the way

Although the calendar doesn't change for another few days, I think of the new year beginning at the moment the Earth passes the point at which sunlight begins its long crawl back toward the northern hemisphere. From the winter solstice onward, those who variously like or seriously crave daylight get a little more each day.

The change is imperceptible at first. By the second week of January the change is obvious. As much as short little February seems to stretch eternally, followed by about 40 days of March, the lengthening days of winter hold quite a bit of hope and energy.

This year I had a very sluggish late fall. Every year I want to sit quietly and think during the ultimate slowing of the year, but this year I really crunched to a halt, mentally and physically. All my plans for creative activity by lamp light came to nothing. Based on conversations with people I know, I was not the only one.

One friend of mine, a sort of Episco-Buddhist-Zen-Wiccan, told me she was unbelievably torpid this year. But, she said, on the next day after the winter solstice, she suddenly felt a return of energy. She acknowledges the many reasons she could feel this way. Knowing that the corner has been turned heads the list. But she and I had both experienced the phenomenon with a more rounded bottom curve in most years. I, too, felt unaccountably perky the day after the solstice.

Mind you, it's no miracle cure. It's far from complete. But for the first time in weeks, on December 23 I actually felt like moving my body in a more constructive way than simply dragging it from bed to coffee pot, coffee pot to work, work to home and flopping into bed for an unsatisfying doze ending in joint pain and another crawl toward caffeine. Perhaps soon I will follow the transitory feeling with action.

Big snow is apparently on its way, to open the ski trails and stimulate some needed cash flow into the company coffers. Whether winter will truly build and maintain usable ski conditions remains to be seen. Somehow, no matter what the winter does these days, it's still easier to scrape up a sense of purpose once December is piled by the curb.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

You're never alone in your car

Most people need a little time to themselves.

The bike commute serves that vital function for me. It combines transportation to work with healthful exercise and energized thinking. The mind works differently when the body is working too, as opposed to just sitting.

When you're driving, you're never alone, even if you're alone in your car. Everyone is in their tin cans, buzzing along nose to tail, often pissed off at each other for miles of forced company. Whatever they think of me on my bike, the encounter doesn't last long. Mostly they ignore me. Except when I have to control the traffic, I get them past me as quickly as possible. That's a lot harder to do when I'm driving the same size vehicle they are, at roughly the same speed.

For the next couple of months I will not have a fraction of the exercise or the justifiable separate but equal use of the public right of way that make life much more endurable in bike season. Even on a back road I could see the unwelcome glare of lights coming up fast behind me. On the major roads I can count on getting embedded in crazy trains of drivers who learn more from watching close tactics in NASCAR races than from the wisdom of following distance when driving in the real world.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Division of labor

More years ago than I like to count, when I was just starting at this temporary job, the manager came into the back shop to find me reading the Quality catalog or some other technically rich publication.

"I don't mind you educating yourself," he said. "But my mother and father don't understand why you're back here reading a magazine."

This was on a day during the busy 1990s, when innovation swept the bike industry like projectile vomiting and diarrhea through a cruise ship. I wasn't just wasting time with a romance novel. I was reloading with vital ammunition for both the sales and service departments.

During that era, the manager raced road bikes fairly regularly and mountain bikes very casually. A skier by preference, he had taken to cycling as off-season training with a little more dedication than many skiers show, but he cared little more for the technicalities than I did, and I didn't care too deeply. We soon acquired a younger mechanic who was a much more active mountain bike racer who helped his two geezer shop mates keep in touch with trends. I, in turn, helped him put his mania for new technology in perspective, with the help of a lot of that very same technology.

One day in or around 1995 he was just finishing the assembly of a Cannondale full suspension bike.

"A year ago I would have thought this bike was just totally cool. I would have wanted one," he said. "Now I just look at it and wonder where it's going to break."

I've never been so proud.

In the passing years, the management grew accustomed to my apparent lack of industriousness when it kept paying off. When people came in looking for answers, I could provide them. It may not have been what they wanted to hear, but I did my best to be sure it was well thought out, solid and consistent.

Meanwhile, the shop has to run. The manager withdrew more from the wrenching side of the business as the business side took more attention. He also enjoys the sales floor more than I do. Despite the fact that he's been through three carbon frames and a trip to the ICU in the past five years, he's still fully confident in the material. He's down to earth enough to have avoided getting caught up in the tubular tire craze, but he has no complaints about brifters and skinny, expensive chains made out of tinsel. He finds the bright side of the products the industry insists on producing rather than wasting his time on resistance and subversion.

Each of us has a full-time job keeping this battered lifeboat afloat. Aside from the manager's parents, the other staff members also have vital tasks, but they haven't been in skiing, cycling or the related industries long enough to have the fluency that comes from a lifetime thoroughly squandered in self-propelled travel sports. If I'd known this was all I was going to amount to, I would have paid more attention. It was, after all, just a temporary job for rent and beer money while I got ready for much cooler things to happen to me. Even so, rolling along like a ball of rubber cement, a lot of stuff has stuck to me. Maybe feeling like an outsider all this time has given me the perspective to stay out of the industry's seductive web of addictive doodads and obsessively narrow focus.

The manager now piles up publications for us all to read. There's more to work than just looking like you're working.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

We learn from our customers

I'm not a gear addict. During the innovation avalanches of the 1990s I just waited for the rubble to settle and then learned how to fix all the crap that landed on the pile. I let customer inquiries guide my research. It still seems like the best approach. Whatever someone brings to my attention I judge by the same basic principles.

I really appreciate the enthusiasts who bring us the news. They help gather and filter more results than we could on our own. The ones who actually buy things from us also help us decide what to keep in stock.

In the 1990s the interaction was more hostile. The challenging customer would come in with an attitude, to see if we were hip enough to deserve his business. We still get a little of that, but not for long, because we rapdly fail the hipness test and see them no more. Competition between shops was harsh. Customers played shops against each other. Gossip was rampant. We still gathered intelligence using field operatives and informants, both willing and unwitting. It was simply more defensive. I don't miss that.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Driven to Distraction

My last ride was November 23. It seems longer ago than that.

We went to visit my wife's foodie relatives in Vermont for Thanksgiving. That involved a lot of fine food and drink and no major exertion at all. I'm not complaining. They don't trust us with the really good wine, but they didn't hold back on a highly satisfactory single malt scotch. The turkey was locally raised and very fresh. Their palates wouldn't let them serve utter swill for table wine, even though they didn't present the pride of their cellars.

Speaking of utter swill, I've decided to order the SRAM iLight generator hub. Using the wine analogy, in order to discover for yourself that great $2 bottle, you risk drinking a lot of swill. The only information I've been able to dig up on the iLight has indicated it might be a really good value. The only way to know for sure is to build up a wheel and put it to the test.

Other factors than my aversion to swallowing the Shimano Kool Aid went into this decision. Of the three major contenders for my hub dollar, Schmidt, Shimano and SRAM, only Schmidt and SRAM offered a rim-brake hub with 36 holes. Overkill? Perhaps. But what if I move the rig to a loaded tourer? It might still be overkill, given that front wheels just seem to go forever. I still want to support the vanishing 36-hole species.

I got additional support for the beefier wheel when I stepped onto the scale at my doctor's office yesterday and faced the effects of the decadent living in Vermont and my own reduced riding and depressive snacking. Even though I don't get caught up in a lot of holiday madness, I seem to lose my whole routine during the time between mid November and the beginning of January. It must be endemic to the winter solstice. If I lived on a tropical island with no calendar, I wonder if I would be able to float along in a steady routine without these unrequested fluctuations.

I actually enjoy a little hibernation. It's unnatural to be buffed and aggressive all year. Nothing like the end of November and most of December to provoke quiet contemplation. And comfort eating.

I've been on the rollers a couple of times. No doubt I'll figure out what to do as the winter evolves. If the roads stay clear enough I'll get out on the faithful fixed gear as well.