Thursday, September 27, 2012

Any idiot can fix a bike

You don't need special tools. You don't need special knowledge. If you can fix a logging skidder you can fix a bike. Bring that thing over here, son! We don't need to pay those frou frou idiots at the bike shop to chip their nail polish and charge us out the wazoo!

When they finally brought the bike to me because they couldn't get the crank off they had already tried a hammer and a torch. The scorch marks were just amusing, but the bash marks damaged the threads in the crank arm so I could not use a proper puller. I ended up using our "one-way trip" crank puller: a two-pronged chisel that goes behind the crank arm, where it will actually work.

People who find the workings of a bicycle impenetrably mysterious represent one end of a spectrum. The people who sneer at the complexity of anything without a motor are at the other end. The repairs improvised by contemptuous mechanics sometimes exhibit the crude effectiveness of a chunk of stone lashed to a stick with a piece of rawhide, but more often they're just a prelude to a more expensive trip to a real bike mechanic after the dismissive Mr. Fix-it has made the problem worse. You can tell when a tinkerer has made a mistake that will help them do better, more sensitive work in the future and when someone who would rather be doing something else has simply bashed it until it either worked or went away.

I have my days when I would rather be doing something else, but I know enough to try to do good work so when the bike goes away it goes away happy and stays away for longer. I really could spend hours just staring out the window, if I could figure out how to get paid for it.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Inundated with ideas

Several times a day something will happen that would make a great subject for a blog post. Sentences start forming. I might even scribble some of them down on scrap paper along with cartoon ideas. They pile up while I get swept along from event to event, or deposited in the sediment for a while to lie around in a recovering stupor before trudging into the jostling round again.

In my ideal life my thoughts form and gather methodically, compacting into well-defined masses that pass with peristaltic majesty to be introduced to the world. The ideal blog is one that gets updated daily. Those with more frantic fans might be happy to see multiple updates in a day, but certainly one a day rewards the regular reader with a new treat and time to savor it. That has not worked out for me, which is one reason Bike Snob is a hot ticket and I'm not. But it's certainly not the only reason.

As one reader remarked when looking at a pile of Tom Clancy's first or second book on a table at a book signing in Annapolis in the 1980s, "That explains why he was such a lousy insurance agent." Those of us with literary pretensions often consider our day jobs to be the time-wasting black hole in our lives, even if they also provide us with the material that defines us as authors. Clancy did not write about heroic insurance agents defending the free world any more than J.K Rowling penned a memoir about serving in a restaurant. Sometimes a job is just a job. Or the job as inspiration falls victim to the actual need to work there.

Case in point: my lunch break just ended with the arrival of someone who needed to buy a used cardboard box. That's more important than anything I might have been tapping out at my lunch table.

Friday, September 07, 2012

The newspaper: where the real story goes to die

Living in a small town, your chance at fifteen minutes of fame comes up more easily than in a bustling metropolis or the vast anonymous wasteland of suburbia. If you do something long enough, like ride a 30-mile bike commute, someone is bound to notice eventually. You become a local character.

When a local reporter asked about doing a feature on me for the local paper I almost said no. Media portrayals always seem to get things at least a little wrong. When I did agree, it was with the hope that her skill and mine could put together a little dispatch from the foreign land of bike commuting that would present the essence to the reading public, to increase understanding and maybe even spark some interest.

I remember the difficulties of freelance writing. Those frustrations eased my slide into my current greasy trade. It was a challenge to get the story right and another challenge to get paid for it. I would read my own work and cringe at how I had accidentally misrepresented my subject. It was never libelous, just not quite tight enough to satisfy me. What had seemed good enough when I had to get it onto the editor's desk looked a lot worse when it was irretrievably set in ink and distributed far and wide. So I don't blame anyone when the story reads like they got the word processor mixed up with the food processor: Complete sentences, witty quips and wise observations went in, they hit "chop" and dumped the resulting chunks into a bowl. From this wad they fashioned new sentences. My actual words are there, but strangely associated.

It's hard to sum up decades of experience in cycling in a third of a page and a grainy photo. Friends and acquaintances were congratulating me on the article within minutes after the paper hit the news stands, but I can't read it without going, "but wait -- what about -- that's not quite right -- ."

By next week it will all be forgotten. Does that make it better or worse?

Whatever I do, whatever I say, I hope it makes the world a better place to ride a bike. I'll be riding anyway, so my world view has a healthy dose of self interest. Now I have to wait another 25 years for the local media to pay attention again. I can only hope that this week's article will have done some good.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Anaerobic Spoke Failure?

Another spoke broke on my commute this morning. At the start of commuting season a spoke failed in exactly the same way, breaking at the threads in the nipple, not at the elbow in the hub flange.

As a wheel builder I take spoke breakage personally. I can't do anything about the fatigue failure of heat treated rims or the eventual fatigue failure of really elderly spokes, but spoke quality has improved so much in recent years that reputable builders are actually reusing them when replacing rims. Such a thing was never done a couple of decades ago.

The type of failure made me wonder if the spokes were a tad too short, creating a stress riser in the threaded portion. The rim depth of the Sun CR 18 does not allow for more than a millimeter more length. Then I remembered that stainless steel is prone to anaerobic corrosion in places where moisture can get in and air is excluded. It's a peculiar problem with stainless that can have a serious impact in marine applications.

In areas where roads are salted, the water around spoke nipples can be a tad on the briny side as well, adding electrolytic components to the possible mix. But anaerobic corrosion does not require saltiness.

I don't know for sure whether the spoke failures I suffered stemmed from anaerobic corrosion. Symptomatically it seems quite possible. I'm completely respoking the wheel today so I don't get caught doing the bent-rim samba down the road again.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Jerks on Motorcycles

Laconia, New Hampshire, hosts an enormous motorcycle rally every June. Originally just a weekend, it was expanded to a full week in the mid 1990s to make room for more fun and frolic and extract more money from this enthusiastic demographic.

To the residents of the Lakes Region it's viewed as either a great time had by all or something akin to the invasion of the Mongol horde.

People ask me whether motorcycles bother me. For the most part I welcome them because many of the riders seem to understand what it's like to get around on a small, less-than-four-wheeled vehicle (some of them have trikes) that is often overlooked by the oblivious majority sealed behind glass. But every grouping of people includes jerks.

Because New Hampshire has some fantastic cycling roads and beautiful scenery, motorcyclists like to ride here during all the ice-free months, not just during the big week in June. For a while we had an epidemic of idiotic young men on Jap screamers. They liked to pass extremely loud and incredibly close. I learned to time a good spit to my left so that their unhelmeted face would pass through that air space at the precise instant the phlegm-bomb was hanging at the top of its arc to meet them. At the speed they were traveling they probably took it for just another large bug.

The screamer kids have almost completely disappeared. This could be because they have joined the ranks of the organ donors, had the bike repossessed, lost their license or simply had to give it up because they had another sort of accident that siphons their funds to pay child support rather than motorcycle support.

Another annoying subculture of motorcyclists believes that loud exhaust noise makes them safer. "Loud pipes save lives" proclaims the tee shirt or bumper sticker. Not true, my thundering friends. The noise makes most of us grit our teeth and hope you will be silenced immediately by any means necessary. And because the noise tends to spew out behind you rather than in front, it does nothing to alert drivers in your path. The way the noise echoes around, it's often hard to tell where it's coming from until the source of it actually arrives.

As a pedaler, I hear the pipes a-calling before the bike reaches me, but how much of a threat am I to the safety of the regal Harley? Yes, I could swerve and take the rider out in a probably suicidal moment of carelessness or bitter malice, but I don't think I am the threat the loud riders pretend to have in mind when they justify their breach of the peace.

I've learned to roll my eyes and flip a low bird at the motorcyclists who go by me pretending to pedal. But I can't suppress a seething rage at the ones who rip past my elbow, especially on really loud bikes, when they have room to move away from me or slow down. This weekend I had two of them in quick succession in a group of four or five. They were accelerating away from a stop, so they chose to reach the speed they were going when they blasted by me almost knee to knee. Forget hanging a clam in front of them. I wanted a grenade launcher.

Humans will do annoying things and believe stupid shit as long as there are humans. Indeed, the annoying behavior and stupid beliefs may be what finally ends our reign as top predators and global slobs. So the loud pipes idiots, screamer riders and sweaty jerks in tight shorts blocking traffic will continue to mingle with the the four-or-more-wheeled inmates of rolling sensory deprivation tanks, surviving mostly by luck, regardless of what you believe about your skill or divine favor. The way we race around on our little paved strips is really pretty crazy, but we evolved along with it, so it's "normal."

Have fun out there.