Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Hero Villain Lance

A local athlete came home from some marathon in Colorado with yet another story about what an arrogant, antisocial pud Lance Armstrong is.

The details don't matter. It was something about using his leverage to get into a closed field AND take a preferential starting position. Our local reporter said that the race organizers and other competitors weren't happy about it, but somehow the organizers allowed it. There was grumbling. No one was apparently very disappointed when The Great Man did not hang around to socialize, yet Lance's immediate disappearance after the race offended about as much as his abrupt entry and brusque push to the front row.

One of the hotshots who used to join the Sunday morning riding group a few summers ago, when Lance was still active in or only very recently retired from the pro ranks, would launch into angry tirades about everything that was wrong with Lance any time his name was mentioned.

It occurs to me that the more he's hated, the more prickly and aloof he becomes. As a result he becomes even more hated. Not too many people like to be hated, although some will pretend it's fine with them.

Armstrong began his career with the magic blend of talent and insecurity that breeds greatness. You don't have anything to prove unless you have something to prove. The pursuit of dominance is different from the pursuit of excellence. To be a top athlete you have to win. That means you have to make the rest of the field into losers. Feathers often get ruffled. It's a rare champion who has not pissed somebody off. However, some competitors seem to do that more than others.

Personally I don't care either way. As my brother said, if everyone was doping and Lance still won then he's still the best rider. Among those who have strong opinions, that observation would surely spark a typhoon of excrement. My brother is not a Lance partisan, just a logical observer.

Professional sports are just entertainment. Pro cycling has been oozing with substance abuse since it was invented. If you think about it, the Tour de France was conceived as a publicity stunt to sell newspapers by someone who wasn't going to have to ride it. Tour riders came to hate race founder Henri Desgrange and took every chemical advantage they could get, even if it was the dubious advantages of beer and cigarettes.

Mr. Armstrong is just one among a very large number of people I will never have to deal with personally, about whom I know far more than I need to. I am not excessively aggravated by celebrity news, merely fascinated by the phenomenon. Yes, I would like to receive a little more high-fiber news from my major media outlets. I don't really care about entertainers' meltdowns. Pictures of the Sexiest Woman Alive are equivalent to pictures of the surface of Saturn in terms of the likelihood I will ever land there. But these are people. I have to think that most of them do not deserve the highest adulation or the darkest hatred that they receive because they successfully called attention to themselves. The form of the attention shapes them even if they do have massively dysfunctional personalities and would be jerks even in obscurity.

I reserve judgment because I will never have to deal directly with any of them. Even on the exceedingly rare occasions that one of the local summer celebrities appears in our shop it's very short. They come in, ask for what they want, buy it if we have it and go. It's as if they were normal.

Upright Citizen

This fall I've ridden the mountain bike commuter exclusively for several weeks.
I consider this an upright bike. (stock photo)
With each ride I have discovered more things about the riding position that make me adjust my reflexes to make sure I have my weight in the right place to get the most out of the bike and avoid stuffing it into a tree. 

When I raced my mountain bike it was set up in the fashion of the early and mid 1990s, with a long, low-angle stem and flat bars cut down to 20 inches or less. I had transferred the position from my old Stumpjumper. The Gary Fisher had a longer fork because the builders were not offering suspension on most models but they were compensating for it so a rider could add a suspension fork without changing the geometry of the bike. The higher front end, combined with the longer top tube, made the bike feel a bit sluggish to me after the Stumpjumper, but that bike had been just a hair too small. Because the choice in  the Specialized line was slightly too small and slightly too big, I went to the Gary Fisher because their 16.5-inch frame split the difference. But the long fork made it ride bigger than it looked.

My colleague Ralph, who dominated the Sport class and survived in Expert, encouraged me to modernize my position on the bike with a shorter stem and rise bars. I did this just before I got the Cross Check and basically quit mountain biking completely. So my commuting rides have been my first extensive use of the bike in this form.

In a low position with a long stem I had plenty of weight over the front tire. I've had to learn to put myself forward in my new position to keep adequate weight on the front tire. It was really easy to end up too far back so the front tire didn't bite into the trail.

After a couple of weeks I've gotten really comfortable on the bike. I can definitely fling it around on the trail more confidently than I did with the 'cross bike. No surprise there, given the geometry of the 'cross bike and the fact that I run smooth tires. I push those near their limit on the dirt, but never far enough to wash out. With the aggressive tread on my old mountain biking tires I can lay the bike over much farther. Of course on pavement I feel every knob as a separate bump. You have to choose what you want your bike to do best. I would ride a less aggressive tread, but I already own these tires and they'll just dry rot if I don't use them. The path route involves almost no pavement, so I can enjoy the overkill on the unpaved majority of it.

There's a huge difference between sporty riding and racing. I'm having fun, but I know where I rank against real competitors. But racing is the process of turning something fun into a neurosis. If I tried to race these days I would probably puke up a ventricle.

Preparing for a trip to visit my parents I had to decide which bike to bring, the Cross Check or the MTB commuter. Both have lights, a necessity for this time of year. My brother would be bringing his Dahon folder, with 20-inch wheels and wide, smooth tires, so the upright bike with wide tires would be appropriate. I ended up bringing the Cross Check because most of our potential riding areas would be on pavement and because I had not ridden it in a while. Then we never got a chance to ride, but that's just how it goes. It was hardly the first time I'd taken my bike for a car ride just in case I got to use it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

What you see

Driving out my rural road this morning to go to Portland to pick up a piece of furniture, I slowed suddenly.

Draping down from the trees was a thin black wire hanging in a low loop across the road. It was probably a telephone line or television cable, not a power line, but even so I did not want to snag it. I maneuvered around it.

The cellist used my phone to call the local police department. I keep the numbers for every police department in the area on speed dial in case I need to phone someone in for harassing me on a bike ride.

Further along on our journey, in one of the small towns like Kezar Falls or Cornish, I saw a car in the lane in front of us, waiting to turn left. A gap in traffic should have permitted the driver to go, but the car did not move. The driver had noticed a blind man walking up the sidewalk, swinging his cane, about to step into the driveway.

Both these items were much harder to spot than a bicyclist riding in a sensible lane position in traffic. True, the blind guy was wearing a please-don't-kill-me-yellow vest, but he was on a sidewalk well separated from the street. An eager driver might have launched into the gap without seeing the small, crushable human toddling into range. And the black wire presented a real challenge. In spite of that, before I could no longer see it in the rear view mirror I saw another motorist notice it and avoid it.

That being said, I have caught myself overlooking obvious large objects when I was driving or riding my bike simply because the timing of my glances and their arrival meant that I looked away just as they were coming onto the scope. That meant I did not pick them up until my sequence of glances reached their quadrant again. It's a good argument for taking one last look, and for waiting to launch until after that look is completed.

Riders shouldn't worry the most about being seen by someone in their lane, going their direction. Blinky butt beacons provide a little security for a minor danger compared to the threat of drivers crossing a cyclist's path.

The biggest dangers on the road are the result of peer pressure. People who want  to go fast press other people to go fast. Going fast reduces reaction time and narrows a driver's field of view. People hurrying through their maneuvers are more likely to overlook objects that don't fit their filter size. But it seems to me that "I just didn't see him" should never be an excuse. It may describe circumstances, but not extenuating circumstances. The next question should be "why not?"

Cyclists behaving unpredictably or operating in a consistently unhelpful manner: cutting quickly, riding against traffic, blowing through intersections -- need to be held accountable for their part in causing accidents and ill will. The problem is that the cyclist is more likely to be in no condition to present their side of the story in a serious accident. Given the chance, human nature will make a driver try to find a way to avoid responsibility for a crash. The myth of cyclist invisibility and the image of cyclists as careless or reckless gives them a lot to work with.

It's amazing what we can see when we want to.

In Germany, blinking lights are illegal on bicycles. I believe this is because in Germany bikes on the road are not a crisis to be announced with hazard markers, they are an expected part of the traffic mix. They need to be rationally lighted to see and be seen among road users who accept them as normal. They don't need emergency vehicle lighting because their presence is not an emergency.

We see when we look.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Awkward amounts

More often than not, when people ask me whether it's time to replace a part on their bike they've come in about 379.37259 miles sooner than I would have started thinking about doing it. This seems to be the case with tires, brake pads and chains, the most common replacement items.

As you might expect, people who come in declaring everything is in tip-top shape but they just want the bike looked at have completely toasted every replaceable part. But this isn't about them.

When faced with an almost worn out part I used to tell the rider to take off for a few days or weeks, depending on the amount they ride, and bring the bike back when the last value had been extracted from the part or parts in question. That never worked. Now I just replace things when they are here. Otherwise the timely repair won't happen and more expensive things might get worn out or damaged before the customer finds time in the schedule or is forced by a serious malfunction to bring the bike for service.

Today's subject wanted brake pads. The rear set was pretty low but the front pads are awkward: There's about half a pad left. But when am I going to see the bike again? This guy will definitely ride his carbon fiber Specialized Roubaix with its 700X23 tires down dirt roads and across muddy fields. He himself is rugged and durable. His mind directs his body and the bike gets dragged along for the ride.

Most people wear rear pads faster than front pads. Front brake phobia strikes to varying degrees, from the Grade 4 sufferer who absolutely never squeezes that lever to the Grade 1 type who uses it moderately but assumes that an occasional endo is inevitable punishment for that rashness.

When a bike is checked in for repair I try to inspect as much as possible in front of the customer so I can get a clear decision from them without having to play phone tag. When the customer is in a hurry I have to write down their comments, try to get clearance for probable extras and deal with other things as I discover them.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

It's Wednesday, so it must be rainy

On Thursdays I pay a musician to be my friend. A local musician and teacher holds a weekly string band session. For a mere $10 I can sit in with whoever shows up for an instructional jam. Consequently, during string band season I drive on Thursdays because I have to cover 35 or 40 miles with a musical instrument.

The way I play I should pay everyone in the group. But so far they keep letting me in. Comic relief?

With Thursdays off the bike commuting list, that makes Wednesdays all the more important. The weather has established its own routine, bringing showers or outright rain week after week. If it's too nasty I lose a riding day.

Park-and-ride season puts most of my route away from traffic, but on an unpaved surface. The path may actually be less messy when it's a little wet than when it has been very dry. Path dust is fine, powdery and pervasive. It gets all over our rental bikes, coating every part not covered by the rider. My own bike develops the same gritty coating if I don't do anything about it.  Regular rain keeps the dust down and the surface firm as long as the rain isn't heavy enough to turn the susceptible areas into mud.

Ideally the rain falls at night for just a couple or three hours around midnight. Not on Wednesdays, though.

Days like this are the reason they invented fenders and raincoats.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Cog farming and toolmaking

Late last winter when I converted the mountain bike for commuting I made a note to put some higher gears on it. I'd built it originally for technical riding and then never used it for that. So I slapped on some bigger chain rings. The result was better but not good enough. Then I remembered I'd put a 7-speed 13-30 cassette on the bike.

The steps in a 7-speed 13-30 are 13-15-17-20-23-26-30. Annoyingly, if you go to a stock 8-speed, all you can get is an 11-30. I don't need a stinkin' 11.

The shifters, transferred with all the other parts from my 1991 Stumpjumper when I switched to the Gary Fisher frame, are 7-speed Deore DX thumb shifters. Like most top-mount shifters, they have a friction option. I'd just never taken advantage of it. In friction I can shift whatever rear gears I want to stuff in there.
 The Cog Farm

When I got to work on Wednesday I went to our cog farm to look for a 19 and a 21. I ground the heads of the rivets off the back of the 13-30 so I could take the cluster apart and inserted the 19 and 21 in place of the 20. Now it's an 8-speed: 13-15-17-19-21-23-26-30. The jumps are only two teeth for five shifts, then three and four. So far, at the low low end I haven't been bothered by those intervals. Cruising the path, the mid-section of the cassette offers nice close options for minor changes of grade, surface or wind.

The 24-34-46 chain rings might need a little fine tuning. Maybe the 44 will be fine. I spend almost no time in the 46-13.

During the early weeks of my path commute I run into a lot of other users. As the evening comes earlier, the chill bites harder and the pretty leaves fall away, fewer and fewer people will feel like taking a walk out there. For now I have to be ready for delays and obstacles.

This truck was plugged into the path at Bryant Road on Wednesday morning. Beyond Bryant the trail needs work because of a washout.

Closer to town, where the path goes on the causeways with pretty views of the water, people walk in clumps. A lot of people use the path as a dog-walking area, too. Most of them clean up after the pooch, but not all of them.
This dog-walker with stroller lined up with an oncoming rider for the perfect blockade. Slow down, smile, act like it doesn't matter. It doesn't, really.


On beautiful days in foliage season we might do a few emergency room repairs for visiting riders who have an unexpected mechanical problem. A big guy asked if we had batteries for Powertap hubs.

"What size are they?" I asked.

He looked at me like I was a pathetic yokel.

"They're for Powertap," he said, looking slightly pained. Then he got an Important Call on his groovy earpiece telephone and gave me the time I needed to jump on the Internet and find out that the hub takes two SR44 button batteries and the computer head takes the ubiquitous 2032. No problem.

"Do you have the Powertap hub tool?" he asked.

I looked at the hub. It had two little wrench flats that looked like a headset spanner would fit. I grunted and took the wheel in the back shop. Of course the fashionably curvaceous hub cap rejected the plebeian wrench. A quick look on line showed me how weird-looking the official tool is. The customer commented that it doesn't work very well.

The service instructions also noted that the O-ring seal of the hub cap makes it resist turning but that the cap is regular right-hand thread with no tricky spring catches or other booby traps. I gave it a surreptitious twist with the full strength of my tire-changing fingers. It seemed to give way slightly, but at a cost that spoke to me of future crippling arthritis. But maybe this miracle of modern technology was no more forbidding than a new jar of pickles.
The Cafiend Powertap cap removal tool

I wrapped an old inner tube around the cap to protect it and muckled on with some big honkin' water pump pliers. The cap came off without a problem.

The customer was actually a nice enough guy. He never did get the hub to communicate with the computer he was using. He'd substituted a Garmin wrist unit for the Cycle Ops computer head. He went on his way to wrangle with recalibrating it after his ride.

The evening was beautiful so I rode beyond my car at the outer end of the commute, up a dirt road I had explored once before. It has a Class VI section (no longer maintained) that follows a very nice grade to Stoddard Road. I was thinking it might add a bit to the ride and shorten the drive for my park-and-ride commutes, but the Class VI is very overgrown. If I had a problem in there, particularly riding alone in the dark, it might inconvenience my wife.

Before the junction with the abandoned part there's a nice wetland.
On this mild fall evening the mist was forming in the center of it, precursor to the morning fog that is a trademark of New England in the autumn. Late-season mosquitoes harassed me.

The overgrown section apparently channeled some runoff during Hurricane Irene last summer. Our area saw none of the damage that hit Vermont and many other states, but we did get some heavy rains along with plenty of other downpours over the past year. The trail surface was rockier and slipperier by far than when I went through on the Cross Check with its fairly smooth 700X32 tires. In gathering darkness I only went a few yards in before returning to the maintained dirt road. It's worth future exploration and some minor clearance at some point.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Carrion on at work

The smell of something rotting has been greeting me at the door of the workshop for days. This happens regularly. For some reason, with all the options available to them in this rambling edifice, mice seem to choose this particular spot in the structure of the building to lay down their mortal bodies. The little corpse is in a wall or under the floor where we can't do anything but endure its slow march of decay.

Of all the smells with which business experts suggest greeting customers, "death" is way down the list. At best it evokes images of tenements redolent of boiling cabbage. Maybe the incoming clientele thinks they've walked into the immediate aftermath of a fart. But when the smell does not dissipate it provides plenty of time for the newcomer to analyze its origin. It's something dead, man.

Given the state of our corporate finances, carrion might not be a bad metaphor. We've compared some of our more ruthless bargain hunters to vultures in the past. They circle and circle, waiting for "clearance" to land. As with real vultures, they're no more than an annoyance to a healthy creature. Get a little weak and dehydrated, however, start to stagger and their wings stiffen as their beady little eyes focus. Weakness! Prepare to FEED!

Our Oktoberfest sale is coming up this weekend. It has never involved beer, seldom included food and generally fails to qualify as a Fest in nearly any category. We gamely go through the motions, though. Back in the 1990s, when we outfitted whole families with mountain bikes and had plenty of closeout merchandise from a cross-country ski industry that was learning its limitations the hard way we could fill a 20 by 30 tent impressively. We even threw out some coffee, cider and doughnuts for the early birds. We would finish the third long day with a pleasantly burnt-out feeling. In these times of small inventories even at the manufacturer level and fragmented consumer interest in anything but handheld electronics, it's hard to get excited ourselves, let alone generate excitement in the buying public.

I've generally preferred to be a calming influence, regardless of what my actual effect has proved to be.

The mouse - to whom nothing matters anymore - withdraws its last influence slowly from our world. Its cheese has been moved for the last time.

We need some fresh-baked cookies.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The World is Plunging into Darkness! Prepare!

Half the world, anyway. It's called fall and winter. Daylight is below 12 hours in the Northern Hemisphere now, and shrinking steadily to the long night of the Winter Solstice. It's time to light up. Try it, you'll like it.

Dynamo lighting completes my mountain bike commuter. It opens up options for dirt road and trail cruising, too.

The rack I scavenged looks like an Axiom. It has a tail light bracket built in. It also has two savage spikes on one of the side supports, perhaps to hold a small tire pump. I've already punctured my hand, pulling the pump hose off the valve stem after inflating my tire. Before I saw those off and then discover I have a use for them I'll try sticking wine corks on them

Right after I took these pictures of the Cross Check I improved the tail light mounting with two old-style reflector brackets in place of the P-clamps I had used in the original setup. The reflector brackets hold the light more correctly perpendicular to the road. The P-clamps had a tendency to creep a little and tuck the light under, aiming it ever so slightly downward. It was visible, but its imperfection nagged at me until I found a better way.

Speaking of better ways, for the most unprotected span of wiring on the mountain bike, under the rack to the tail light, I found some clear plastic tubing to use as a conduit. I did not want to run the wire down the side rail of the rack in case I put panniers on. The top hooks would chew the wire.

Dynamo lighting is really cool. We have an account with Peter White now, so our shop can sell these fun, effective lights to our local clientele, but so far I am our best customer. I would buy at least one more set of the Busch and Muller IQ Cyo R Plus headlight and Toplight Line Plus tail light to mount on one more frame that takes 700c wheels. Then I could transfer the dyno wheel from one bike to another. I already got the spare connectors.

Hey, when the sun goes down at 4 p.m. you can stay out half the night and still get to bed at a decent hour.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Spending a billionaire's money

You might think that working on bikes for a billionaire who happens to have an enthusiastic cycling habit would be like having a press to print your own money. However, you don't get a billion dollars by being a careless spendthrift. He's a business man, not some stumble bum who won the Powerball. Even if he was, I'm too much of an idiot to expend his funds without functional justification. I love having a good opportunity to run through a few grand for him, but only with full knowledge and consent. It does not happen often. Only once so far. But repairs and modifications that run into the hundreds come up somewhat more often.

Most recently he has decided to have me reconfigure his Mount Washington Hill Climb bike into a flat-bar road bike. That looks like it should be easy, simply adding the parts the bike did not need in its original configuration: two more chain rings on the crank, front derailleur, front shifter, and a cassette designed for the open road, not 8-22 percent grade.

When is anything in the bike business ever simple?

Because he needed only a few gears for the hill climb I fitted the bike with a 7-speed shifter. Because the gear range was close, I used a short-cage rear derailleur because it's lighter and shifts more quickly. I custom-built a cassette with several close gears at the low end and a couple of small cogs just to get him from the starting line to the base of the real climb.

The lightest crank that would give the low gear he wanted was a mountain bike crank with a 5-arm spider and 58-94 bolt pattern. Try finding a lot of variety in those rings today. The gear range he has requested calls for chain rings that are not made in 4-bolt, 64-104. I did find the sizes he wants in 58-94. I could also do it in 74-110, but that would mean changing the bottom bracket to put on a different crank. This bike was built when ISIS and Octalink ruled the Earth.

The rings I found were hard to mount on the crank. Original rings would have had a different shape to clear the crank arm, but I only ordered an arm set with no rings for the climbing bike, and a single silver dollar chain ring to go on the 58 circle. The original middle and outer rings on a complete crank would have been smaller than I want, too.

Each hurdle has been surmounted with some hunting and scavenging by me and a launching ramp of money from him. Even so, we're dead in the water for the moment because we can't find the proprietary front derailleur bracket that came with the frame. I removed it as part of the psychological lightening process in which I also removed the water bottle bolts. I plugged the threaded holes in the frame with tiny set screws scavenged from the cleat plates of mountain bike shoes.

I gave all the parts I didn't use on the project in 2004 to the billionaire. He and his biking family members have a collection of bits and pieces from various projects and repairs over the years. Unfortunately, this one crucial piece seems to have slipped into a crevice. I've been given clearance to go to the family compound to look for it, but our staff is too small to spare me from the shop to go out there. I've been too busy on my days off to make a field trip then. So you see there's such a thing as too much downsizing.

Digging through the archive of parts in our shop I found a Cannondale front derailleur bracket I adapted to the Trek frame by using two hemispherical spacers from a set of linear-pull brake pads. The front shifting is not worthy of a bike that cost thousands of dollars and was custom assembled from cherry-picked components. It's really no different from piecing together a junk-box custom beater bike, but the carbon, titanium, and my own sense of craftsmanship seem to call for something more precise. Things can be weird but they have to work.

Our billionaire is small fry in the billionaire world, down below 500 on the Forbes list, but still, a net worth of more than 1.5 billion, and connections to powerful politicians give surreal dimensions to the ordinary tasks one performs for him. It's like bumping into a rock in the fog and when the fog clears you see that it's one corner of an immense pyramid.

I had a similar feeling when a US Forest Service employee handed me a US Government debit card to pay for ski wax. He ran a program called Ski with a Ranger, in which tourists could go for a guided ski tour with him in the White Mountain National Forest. As I processed the transaction I felt my own wallet shrink a tiny bit. After all, as a taxpayer I was buying that wax. I imagined someone else going into Bob's Bombers and plunking down the card for a B1, or Mitch's Missile Mania for some Stingers. Sometimes you get a clear look at how the little things connect to the monumentally huge ones.

The power of money in human societies gives celebrity status to any large amount of it. In many cases, the person standing next to it is merely incidental. We care who won the lottery because they won the lottery. We care who owns Microsoft because Microsoft has brought in billions of dollars. Warren Buffett is interesting because he knows how to amass dump trucks full of money. Many of the immensely wealthy people in this country and the world are not household names to most of us. Once you know who they are, though, you can't forget it. This does not include the ones who want you to know it and bow to it.

It's a pure quirk of fate that anyone of vast financial stature comes into our little bike shop at all. The fact that they are not grossly egotistical has eased our interactions quite a bit over the years. If they were looking for someone to fawn and grovel they would have left long ago. I believe that the kind of person who will pedal a bike long distances on the road develops or already has a sense of the equalizing nature of human physical effort. Your billion dollars will not get you up that hill faster even if it facilitated your entry into the event in the first place. You own the bike. You could afford to buy the Mount Washington Auto Road. You still earn your time.