Saturday, August 27, 2011

Before the Storm

The shop is closed tomorrow. I thought the sign on the door should say, "If you're reading this you are an idiot. Go home!" The management opted for something else.

Yesterday was stunningly beautiful. The sun shone down from a cloudless sky. The air was warm but not hot. The Chamber of Commerce had decreed Sidewalk Sale Days, so we had a couple of pop-up tents over some racks of clothes and a couple of tables of sandals and other odds and ends to whet the appetite of a surprising crowd of shoppers for so late in August.

One of our tent minders passed a few boring hours by counting cars passing on Main Street. He came up with an average of more than 560 per hour for about seven hours. He did not figure out how many might have been the same car over again. In terms of traffic volume it doesn't matter whether there are 560 different cars in every hour. If you're out there with them you still have to negotiate with 560 of them.

During my short stint out there I watched cyclists doing what they thought was right. A posse of about ten teenage girls rode on the sidewalk up the opposite side of the street, against the flow of vehicle traffic but separated from it. They were all duly helmeted, on bike shop bikes. The way they rode the sidewalk showed that they were familiar with it and completely comfortable, utterly unencumbered by any doubt or guilt. They rode into crosswalks at intersections at the same slow but steady pace they exhibited on the sidewalk itself. They obviously felt they were where they belonged.

A short time later a man in his fifties or early sixties rode by on a Rolling Rock beer promotional cruiser bike. It was really cool, with a top-tube tank and full fenders, a real 1950s - early '60's retro ride. He rode down the sidewalk in front of the shop, apparently oblivious to the critical commentary several of us exchanged as we watched him ride by. He passed again on the sidewalk on the other side of the street in just a couple of minutes.

I could not imagine any of these riders holding their own in the actual traffic flow. They just didn't have the temperament to take a place in the lane. I could imagine them as drivers encountering vehicular cyclists, wondering why any rider would subject themselves to the abuse, and why any rider would victimize the motoring public by getting out there IN THE WAY.

I've been watching raw video for the bike piece I've been working on. Despite my hope that I could enlist some other riders to take part, so far all the riding footage is of me. I look very efficient. In fact, I look fast. This is funny, because I don't feel fast, but I guess I only know that because I've been around riders who really are fast, so I know the difference. I do know that my view of the road is shaped by decades of riding and a period of racer-like training. I did race for a time. After a few seasons I decided I could put that energy to better use as a transportation cyclist. Transportation cycling is safer than racing and makes better use of resources than a recreational quest for ephemeral glory. I basically just wanted to be able to snack freely as well as saving money and having a lighter environmental impact. But over the years I became an efficient partner with my machine in ways many less experienced cyclists might view as beyond them. Or maybe a lot of them just don't think it's worth it. Who am I to choose their values? All I can do is share what I have learned with anyone who wants to know it.

Learning can be an endless process if you keep yourself open to it. So I watch other riders wherever I see them. I think some of them really do belong on the sidewalk. They'll never be up to the rigors of vehicular cycling. Of course that does make them the terrorists of the sidewalk the way motor vehicles are the terrorists of the roadway. Perhaps most of them will not consciously ride in a malicious fashion, enjoying their dominion over mere pedestrians, but they still beg the indulgence of the walkers for whom the sidewalk is constructed. Why should the pedestrians have to accommodate them any more than cyclists should have to step aside every time someone wants to shove a motor vehicle past them?

The bike industry is happy to sell anyone a bike. You want to hang it on your car rack and let it bake in the sun? You want to ride on the sidewalk? You want to dedicate yourself fully to mountain biking and run roadies into the ditch with your SUV when you see them? No problem. At least you bought a bike. Business is business. Advocating too forcefully for "correct" cycling would probably reduce bike sales. You're telling me I can't ride on the sidewalk? Fine, I quit. I'll get a Segway or an electric scooter. You can't order me to get out there and block traffic like some selfish idiot.

Another rider, a man in his 30s, rode his hybrid in the lane with traffic until he came to the corner. He cut deep inside to turn left, yanking his bike quickly across in front of some oncoming traffic to cut into the cross street on the wrong side of the road. If a car had been coming up to the stop sign it would have peened him. But there was no car and he was not peened and so he will recall that the maneuver worked. He was not close enough to the oncoming drivers on Main Street to make them slow down, swerve or honk. But does he think about how he rides? Does he critique his tactics, acknowledge his luck? Or does he just run like a squirrel until his luck runs out?

Today the clouds built up steadily in advance of Hurricane Irene, or whatever will be left of it by the time it gets here. People still came to shop. Since most of them come from places the hurricane is supposed to hit harder than us, they might as well stay here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Repair Classes

Customers frequently ask if we have repair classes. What most of them don't realize is that they really don't want to take a repair class, they just want to know how to do repairs. They hope that the instructor can sum up two or three decades of experience in one very short presentation which will magically download to their brain all the nuances of procedure we have developed over an entire career devoted to the trivial pursuit of bicycle maintenance and repair.

True, I learned the essentials in a lot less than twenty or thirty years. As with any discipline, you do a lot better with the new stuff if you know something about the old stuff. When I got into bikes, technology had been relatively stable for many years. A lock nut was a lock nut, ball bearings were ball bearings, freewheel ratchets were freewheel ratchets and so forth. I had ample time to master the basics of bearing adjustment and wheel building before the obsessive-compulsive innovators took over in the late 1980s. Thus if I want to teach someone how to work on things now I have to go through some of the simple concepts from back then. Most of these concepts still apply, but they are often deeply buried or thoroughly camouflaged. The novice mechanic will do better knowing they are there and how they work rather than simply working with the new surface.

"Just because you know the latest thing doesn't mean you know everything," as I used to say to smartass punks in the 1990s when they tried to bury me under a pile of articles and hip jargon from bike magazines.

Wow. Magazines. There's a dated reference.

Nothing makes people's eyes glaze faster than a full explanation of how even a simple mechanical thing like a bicycle goes together and works. So where I used to try to rise to the occasion and actually answer people's questions now I grunt and change the subject. Or I give the short, misleading answer instead of the convoluted and boring one because, let's face it, the person who asked wasn't planning on listening to either one.

Most of my bike clientele is glad I know what I know even if they don't want to hear it. They want to see the result in high quality service and good advice. If they wanted to know the details they would have studied them already. Upon occasion a true student arrives. I am ready to respond. But such a student never asks for a repair class. They usually come in with a specific issue because their curiosity and aptitude have already led them into it.

Classes are a symptom of the human tendency to want to fix it and forget it. A bike repair class is like a climbing class or a kayaking class or any of a host of specific activity-related short courses. The participant wants to pay the fee, go in a novice and come out an intermediate, properly instructed.

Almost all school is set up the same way. Kids go in one end. Educated near-adults are supposed to come out the other, equipped with specific knowledge and a standardized version of the facts of life and certain historical events, officially prepared for the next phase of life. Some are, some aren't. Certainly a canned preparation received from an accredited institution is liable to make you think that certain social and national goals are good ideas when in fact they may not be. Because it all happens on a conveyor belt, even if the student tries to jazz it up with some well-thought-out questions and a bit of independent research, they'd better do it within the time allotted -- or faster -- in order to keep up with the rest of their cohort. Otherwise there will be a lot less left on your generation's buffet of opportunities by the time you find your way to it. And these tables have less and less for more and more people as it is.

Actually, those of us who live somewhat outside the norms have certain advantages. We learn skills and live according to our values while avoiding the worst mass hysterics based on unquestioned pre-packaged norms and values. The norm may crush us physically, but we hold sole title to our spirit.

Personally I don't like to talk about nothing but bikes. Much of the time I'd like to talk about anything but bikes. I love to use bikes to get around. I've had some great little adventures on bikes. Riding one adds a lot of good elements to my daily life. But life is life. It's packed with all kinds of things to learn and do. Bikes are part of my Utopian fantasy, but so is personal creativity and a moderate, sustainable lifestyle including local agriculture and a reverence for the local environment wherever you live, not just in the spectacular places or those deemed absolutely necessary to preserve a meager supply of fresh water for a paved-over Hell of Megalopolis.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Forget the helmet cam

I'm giving up on the helmet cam for now. No computer I own can be coaxed into showing the bulky videos at anything like a reasonable speed. You can't edit what you can't see.

I did shoot some stuff for the local TV guy who is working on the bike safety video project I instigated last summer. I'm supposed to be working on the script at this very moment. It all seems pretty disjointed.

It's hard to get a camera to see what the cyclist sees or what you want the motorist to see. It's very difficult to set up single-camera shots that show traffic behavior when the camera vehicle takes up the space you want the other drivers to use.

It's hard to come up with an interesting voice-over when all you really want to say to drivers is "just give me space." All you want to say to other cyclists is, "Don't ride on the sidewalk, idiot! Don't ride against traffic!"

On Saturday I rode on the sidewalk for about ten feet to zip behind a pedestrian who had just committed to the crosswalk as I came blasting down a hill at an inconvenient speed. I twitched the bike to the right into a driveway, slipped behind the walker and shot back out through the handicapped ramp of the crosswalk to regain the street. It was one of those battlefield decisions you can't teach anyone or advise that they do. Sort of like the time I snapped the old Triumph Spitfire into a near death-roll, yanking it into a very fortunately placed side street as the gap I had merged into suddenly started to disappear. On the bike I had more options. The only thing I couldn't have done in the time available was stop short of the crosswalk like a good do-bee.

Anyway, the camera. I guess I thought with so much amateur video out there the technology would be as user friendly as digital still photography and music have been. I had not considered that wearable camcorders come to us from the world of Professional Videographers. The early adopters had professional backgrounds or hefty budgets and sophisticated amateur setups. This is in stark contrast to the fact that the first digital still cameras most of us knew about were very crude point-and-shoots. Home computers and digital cameras have co-evolved for well over a decade now. Meanwhile, little video cameras deliver either a jumpy, grainy image due to the limitations of the camera or a halting high-definition slide show on any but the very latest and greatest home computers. Minimum processor speed 3.2 GHz? Three gigs of RAM?

The first company that invents a competitively sized camera that will not only shoot HD but will also play nicely with elderly computers deserves all the business anyone can send them. I don't foresee being able to afford major computer upgrades anytime soon. By the time I do this video camera format will probably have been abandoned.

So much for video vanity.