Saturday, December 28, 2013


Long before the recent news blip about Chicago's proposed bike tax I was already thinking about how America would react to a surge in transportation cycling. We would be monetized, of course.

The concept of cyclists as freeloaders is a major rallying point for the champions of motoring. You can explain about how taxation really works and the relative burden non-motorized users place on infrastructure until you run out of breath. A large percentage of the opponents of cycling simply will not believe you. Cyclists are parasites. Every improvement made for our benefit adds to our perceived debt.

I am willing to look at a full and honest audit to see whether cyclists are holding up their end. But a bicycle can be ridden in so many places and different ways that it would be hard to draw a firm line around the bicyclists who owe society and the ones who may safely and freely play in their designated areas where they don't bother the grownups.

Every form of mobility except bicycling and walking has a price tag attached to it. And, if you walk to the bus or the light rail, even if you don't get a seat you pay a fare. Wherever people gather you end up forking out to hang around. So, inevitably, bicyclists come under pressure to dig in the pocket lint for their contribution. The more successful we become, the more people will want a piece of the action. It's the American way.

Is there any chance we'll discuss the issues rationally, as cooperating adults? Not if our entire political history is any indication. But one can hope. Everything has a true cost. It needs to be fairly divided once we know what it is. Then we know what's reasonable and what's excessive.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

What a grunt

The studded snow tires turned out not to be the best tool for the snowy path yesterday. Even though there was no more than a couple of inches of snow in the deepest areas, cold temperatures had kept it dry and unconsolidated.

The ride started promisingly enough on a well-packed dirt road. The bike slithered a little, but the tread or the studs caught quickly as the surface varied between loose and frozen. But on the trail nothing had packed the snow. Foot traffic had made the texture irregular, but nothing was firm. The bike fishtailed and jerked. The soft surface ate all my energy, like running in loose sand. With a temperature in the teens I was soon soaked with sweat from the effort needed to keep the bike moving and maintain course.

This went on for the better part of six miles at an average speed 50 percent slower than when the trail is firm and fast.

I planned to offer to buy my coworker Jim the craft brewed beer of his choice from Beveridge's, a craft beer (and soap) shop in our building, if he would drive me back to my car at the end of the day. There was nothing fun about the ride. I mean the weather was nice, the sun was out, but the relentless labor to gain every yard when the route was essentially downhill all the way to town indicated that the return trip, uphill, on conditions unlikely to have improved, would probably be much slower. I'd been pushing it, leaving the dog home by himself for the normal length of my bike-commuting day. Now that day looked like it could be at least an hour longer.

Unfortunately, Jim had walked to work. To make the situation worse, late customers kept us more than half an hour after our normal closing time. I would have to get myself back up that hill.

Somehow, heavy foot traffic on the inner portion of the path had managed to pack it somewhat better, though it was still irregular, requiring constant steering. I was tired from the morning grunt and the long day at work, so the improved surface only provided a temporary advantage. I was soon sweaty again, even with fewer layers on than in the morning.

With steady effort I reached the car after almost an hour. I tossed the bike in and hurried on home. The dog had endured eleven hours of confinement without springing a leak. He was the hero of the day. He got pets and treats until bedtime.

A day like that emphasizes the "do or die" aspect of rural bike commuting. With basically no transportation alternatives that don't involve inconveniencing another person, the rural commuter has to choose a mode and make it work. I could have whined to people until I finally got someone to give me a lift, but it might not have gotten me there any sooner. And I saved the beer money I would have used to bribe Jim so I can spend it on myself. So many beers. So little time.

A fat bike might have handled the soft stuff. I don't have one to try, so I don't know if the rolling resistance of a four-inch tire would cancel out the flotation in the bothersome fluff. And I know from interviewing a fat bike rider who was doing winter commutes that the fat tire does nothing for you on ice. Then you need fat studded tires, which can retail for more than $200 each.

A woman on cross-country skis was not going faster than I was, but she wasn't working nearly as hard, either. Who would have thought that a scant inch or two of snow would yield a skiable surface? And the cold is preserving it amazingly. It's kind of the perfect setup: not enough snow to close out the parking at various trail access points, but enough to slide on if you have some beater skis. If I can get myself going early enough tomorrow I'll give it a shot.

A weekend storm may bring a real accumulation. Then, ironically, I won't be able to ski anymore because I won't have a place to dump the car. And until the snowmobiles pack the rail trail I won't be able to bike it with my merely normal-width studded tires.

Nature always has another trick.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Kickin' back under the stars

Riding out the path on Saturday night through frosty air, between frozen lakes, with a sky full of glittering stars, I kept thinking this would be the time to ride a recumbent. It's not my preference in most cases, but sometimes it would be nice to pedal a lawn chair. Recumbent trikes are particularly suitable for sky gazing because you don't have to worry about balancing.

When the weather is bad, with rain, sleet and wet snow I wouldn't want to lie there, supine, letting it all just pool in my lap. In conditions like that it's nice to lean forward and let it roll off my back. And a little of that is plenty anyway. I'll take it for a short commute. For a long ride, stormy weather would make a velomobile seem like a great idea.

The variations of human powered vehicle are numerous. This might actually discourage some people who want to pick the "best" bike when there is no best bike. Certainly the configuration we've come to recognize as "normal" is the basis for the most versatile form of the machine, but even there we see great diversity for different habits and habitats. Best is often a compromise. How much better it is than worse or worst may be a slim margin in some cases.

For those of us addicted to using the human engine the temptation to acquire a fleet of vehicles is strong. I'll go further and say that it's a guilt-free indulgence compared to a fleet of vehicles that require fossil fuels, spew crap into the atmosphere and have a lengthy death toll associated with them. Indeed, those other vehicles present the biggest obstacle to people who might want to push the limits of their pedal-powered vehicles into winter conditions and darkness. It's bad enough with ample daylight and warm weather.

Motorized vehicles and equipment could have a place in Biketopia, constructing our travel routes and keeping them passable. And of course a well-developed rail network would serve a large network of communities for when quicker travel in spiffier attire was required. But then, humans set the standard for required spiffiness of attire. Maybe we should just get used to seeing each other in more casual clothing better suited to self-transportation.

The human powered vehicle industry could take up where the auto industry leaves off after the transition to healthy and sustainable personal transportation. Imagine Detroit and the Rust Belt coming back as the pedal-powered powerhouse of industrial renaissance. Imagine the road network of the United States devoted mostly to pedalers, with a few token "car lanes" stuck on the sides of some of them. Ha!

I never forget that I have financial advantages that many  people in the world do not. I'm relatively poor by American standards, but those standards are pretty warped. If I had to limit myself to one bike I could. I have it all picked out. But I would still make seasonal changes to broaden its capability.

Transportation costs money, even if you're just buying a pair of shoes. The economy adjusts to people's purchasing habits as people's purchasing habits adjust to the economy. If human powered vehicles dominated the transportation mix, they would pick up peripheral expenses from all the entities that make it their business to add peripheral expenses. Governments would require registration. Somehow the insurance industry would manage to get a hook in. Bike parking garages would have a regular fee schedule. All sorts of shady repair facilities would spring up. And the bike industry would continue to add dubious innovations that make repair more complicated and ownership more expensive, just as they are doing now with hydraulics, electronics, shifting systems and exotic materials. In absolute dollar amounts it could never rival the expenses and collateral costs of relying on motor vehicles, but in an adjusted economy the relative expense per person could rise to a comparable level. We could live on less money, but a similar proportion of it would be sucked out of us by the associated economic factors.

Some associated expenses are legitimate. Losing the revenue from motor vehicle registrations and other taxes and fees coughed up by the motoring public, governments would need to make up some of it to maintain the transportation routes formerly dominated by the smoking jalopies of a bygone era. Human-powered vehicles would damage the surface less, but weather still takes its toll. And human-powered travelers would benefit from facilities and amenities not yet constructed, or carried over in a modified form from the motor era. And without a doubt we would see increased enforcement of traffic laws related to human powered vehicles. Ever see those speed limit signs on bike paths? Ever whiz by the 15 mph sign at 20 or more and laugh about it? Now imagine some cop on an e-bike hiding in the bushes just beyond it. Yep. It could happen. It would happen.

Traffic laws could become more enlightened regarding rolling stops at stop signs, but cyclists need regulated intersections as much as motorists do. Imagine the carnage if everyone just blasted into intersections at whatever speed they could manage and tried to intimidate their way through. There would have to be some basic principles and someone would have to act as the referees.

I doubt if we have to worry about it any time soon. But it wouldn't be a bad worry to have. I would love to undertake the challenge of making a mostly human-powered transportation culture work. But it can't be achieved with an unwilling majority. Coercion is tyranny even if the end result appears beneficial. Process is important too. Process is vital. Consensus is indispensable. So that's the first challenge.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Separate but better

I've been stuck in the car this week because of evening meetings and sketchy weather. It reminds me how much I hate being stuck in the car.

On the bike I use the rail trail to get out of town. For the dark season park-and-ride I use about six miles of the trail. Slouching along in the darkness can be a trifle lonely, but the kind of peer pressure you get when you're in a car among other motorists is not company.

The trail route takes me to quiet roads, mostly dirt, to where I park the car. Then the first part of the drive continues on dirt and minor paved roads, limiting my exposure to the people who always stick to the roads with the highest speed limits. You will get the occasional flaming jerk on a back road, but it's a lot easier to pull off and let them blaze on when you're not flying between the guardrails at 60. If I'm on the fast road it's because I need to go fast anyway, like in the morning when I'm invariably late to work.

If I have to drive the whole commute I will use the highway to go home simply to get the unpleasant task of driving finished as quickly as possible. Sometimes I'll divert to a dirt route, but since driving itself is not all that enjoyable I have to balance the peace of the circuitous route with the extra butt time in the driver's seat. I keep wishing I was on the bike.

If tonight's snowstorm stays well south I should salvage one bike commute out of the week. The night meetings are over for another month, except for music on Thursdays. It all comes down to the weather.

Once my park-and-ride gets shut down I have to figure out how to fit a ride into each driving day. With the great lights and studded tires on my path bike I can ride after dark. We'll see how that goes. It's pretty tempting just to go home and drink beer.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Dreams deferred

I was going to say my bike had been across the country more times than I had, but that's not true. However, it did make one transcontinental journey unaccompanied. And in its four crossings (two round trips) I was not propelling it. It traveled by airplane, bus and freight truck.

Back in 1979, my best buddy and I were planning our transcon bike tour. The idea was still fairly novel, only three years after Bikecentennial. Prior to 1976, modern bike boomers were already knocking off The Big One, but it was still considered a pretty cool thing.

By the summer of 1979 in Annapolis I was acquiring the bike, some of the parts and saving some money at a menial job that would be easy to leave. My friend, who lived in Alexandria, Virginia, was doing the same. We had found the frames for our bikes in the shop in Alexandria where we would both later work another menial job that would be easy to leave. We set our sights on the following summer.

Late in the fall my buddy developed a sudden, inconvenient interest in higher education. He had busted out of the school system in his early teens to pursue his wide-ranging curiosity in the real world. His temperament did not mesh well with institutions. But now he felt the powerful need to go back and finish up with some institutional credentials.

I had a bachelors degree and had been unimpressed with its performance as an income enhancer but I couldn't talk him out of it.

The girlfriend I stumbled into in January of 1980 was a bike tourist, but she was also still entangled in the university system. The best we could manage was a 700-mile jaunt from San Francisco to Eugene, Oregon in September that year. So my bike flew to the west coast and rode the bus back east from Eugene when we kinda sorta broke up a little. We'd had a good trip, but she needed to get through the rest of college unburdened by a serious relationship. We maintained the fiction of connection, and that led to my bike's second west coast visit in April 1981. I was going to go out for a little early season training and some lovey dovin'. I'd sent the bike by UPS and was about to purchase the ticket when I got The Call, late at night Eastern Standard Time, that our lovey dovin' was over.

"Send my bike when it arrives," I requested. Then I hopped in the tub to shave my legs. I would train on my old bike until the well-traveled Eisentraut returned.

My best buddy, meanwhile, was still battling with the demons of community college. I started planning for a solo trip. Then I developed knee trouble from misaligned cleats I'd been using on my cyclocross-configured spare bike, so there went 1981. I also wanted to save more money, so I got another menial job that would be easy to leave, and looked toward 1982.

Racing had been good training in 1980 for the west coast tour. The 1982 season started out particularly well, since I was feeling suicidally bold. Then I got seriously smashed up in July. There went 1982. And July would have been late to start anyway.

One rational, sensible decision at a time the window closed for youthful quests like a transcon bike tour. To do it right I would want to take no less than two months, preferably closer to three. Why ride it like a record attempt? Take some time, see some stuff. You can't have the fetters of responsible adulthood on you for that.

In the fall of 1980, when my buddy and I were working in that bike shop in Alexandria, a family came in. Mom, Dad and lad had ridden from Oregon all together, taking the kid out of school for the year so they could have an unbeatable family bonding experience. That's one way to take the fetters with you. I forget what they'd done with their home base in Oregon, but they'd made arrangements. However, it took commitment by all of them. And with the best of intentions not everyone can make a commitment like that. Nor should they be scorned for a decision to forgo it.

Best buddy completed his education and started on a career of non-menial jobs he did not want to leave. Or when he did it was for another non-menial job. He married. They reproduced. They divorced. He followed various dreams and adventures, none of them pedal-powered.

A time or two since the early 1980s he has mentioned the transcon. I had one window in the mid 1990s when it could have gone well. I don't recall exactly where he was at the time, but I had no super incentive to chuck everything and go a-wandering by myself. I simply could have, with the right inducement. And then the window slid shut.

So here it is, the waning days of 2013 and best buddy sends me a message saying he's looking at 2014 to do the transcon. I inferred he would welcome my participation, but he did not say it directly. He has occasionally communicated to report things he was enjoying that I was obviously in no position to share, usually because I was hundreds of miles away. But assuming for the sake of argument that he was implicitly recruiting me, it has a piquant irony.

The cellist is a bike tourist, but her job and the commute to reach it preclude a lot of serious training. Also, her release and return dates from school bracket the touring season pretty tightly. So if I went I would be going separately. Do I really want to spend a couple of months away from home during the season she has the most time available? No.

The money. I have enough saved to do the trip in a style that would have been luxurious when I was in my 20s and was going to get on my bike at my doorstep on the east coast, ride to the west coast and probably ride back. When I was in my 20s I was nearly homeless already, although I could avoid seeming like a total vagrant by listing my parents' address as my home of record. I was also not above sleeping in a culvert or a cleft in a cliff. Nowadays I would pass on the culvert, although the cliff cleft is still a viable option. But I own a home, and it needs me when it needs me. As my colleague George -- a world traveler -- pointed out, whatever might be thinking about breaking will do so when you're a thousand miles away. He took his own major journeys when he and his wife were both unencumbered enough to take a motorcycle around Europe for a couple of months and other such getaways.

When you're getting away from it all you have to calculate how much "it all" you have and how far you want to get away from it. It's a whole lot easier when the answer to the first part is "not much" and to the second part is "it doesn't matter."

Initially intrigued by my buddy's idea, when I started putting practical logistics around the mid-trip fantasy scenarios it started getting unacceptably cumbersome.

When riding across the United States was going to be the first of many epic journeys it had practical aspects for all of its blatant impracticality. If I was really going to take wild trips and share them with a reading public, a transcon was a fine launching pad. But bad strategic decisions thwarted the vaguely-visualized plan to be such a traveler, aided in large part by the fact that I'm a wussy sociophobe who would have trouble asking for a tourniquet if I'd just severed an artery. At least I was. My imaginary cojones were always greater than my actual ones, as was my imaginary wit. After receiving a few gory gashes in public places I have learned to speak up quickly when first aid was slow or incompetent. But I still prefer to avoid people for the most part.

Actually, cojonically speaking, I do take risks. I even get back on the horse, so to speak, after a risk doesn't work out. Sometimes it takes longer than others. But it takes a lot to get me to talk to strangers outside of a known context like selling outdoor equipment or explaining myself to the arresting officer. And come to think of it, selling things and getting pulled over can both be uncomfortable contexts.

By the time I was 30 I could have traveled alone, and I've only gotten more comfortable alone since then. But by then it was too late. Or so it seemed, but belief makes it so. Everything has its price. This price needs to be fully calculated, not just approximated. What could possibly go wrong? And how would you feel if it did?

I do not say I'll get to it some day. I do not say I will never get to it. But I don't think 2014 is the year.

Mind you, best buddy has dangled the transcon carrot a time or two in the years  since the early 1980s and then tossed away, so I wait to see what transpires anyway. I've been putting together the kit to gear up the Traveler's Check for loaded touring already. I have only to accelerate the process a little. Initially I was going to transfer the multi-gear parts from the Cross Check, but now I think I would only transfer the dynamo front wheel. So the TC needs a front rack, a light set and that's about it. I have a crank, derailleurs and a rear brake and fenders. I need primary brake levers and I wouldn't mind getting a full set of Ortlieb paniers for front and rear. Odds and ends, really. Without the lights I could get it into a rideable configuration now. I might even have primary brake levers kicking around the bins somewhere.

I don't plan to go nowhere. I just don't know where.

Friday, November 29, 2013

I don't really think of myself as a stud

Back around 1990-91 we had a winter with early ice and late snow. Even though we would all prefer to go cross-country skiing, we studded up our mountain bike tires and had a few laughs on the frozen lakes and trails. It was fun, but I felt it was more of a novelty than a policy. I sold my studded tires to an ice boater who would stake his DN out in the bay and ride ashore on his bike.

Now it's 2013.  Winter has become unreliable. After four winters without consistent exercise I'm going to try dashing out for a nooner on the mountain bike with studded tires rather than cling to any illusion that I might ski.

On the bike I'll be getting a workout right from the shop door. I can buzz over to the rail trail for a quick one even if the snowmobiles have packed it to concrete.

I lose my park and ride parking place as soon as my friend's driveway needs to be plowed.  They don't clear the non essential spaces. And the town lets all the other potential spots fill in,  too. So I would be driving to work as usual in ski season.  I would just be giving up the skiing in favor of something easier to arrange.

I still have a few commutes left, and maybe more than a few. Then when the snow closes in I can mount the toothy tires for my midday escapes.

Speaking of winter, on the path last week, on a morning that seemed cold at the time, on my way in I met two riders outbound with sled dogs towing their bikes. I'd seen other training rigs on the path, but this was the first time I had seen the mushers using mountain bikes. And it occurred to me that here was a much cooler pedal assist than an electric motor. Talk about renewable energy. Sled dogs love to run. A couple of dogs with nice personalities might even increase the cyclist's appeal to other road users.

I did wonder what it was like to be dragged into a rail crossing by a couple of boisterous dogs. I didn't get to see that maneuver.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Beyond statistics

A comment on this thread at People for Bikes stated that overtaking motorists strike cyclists in only about 10 percent of recorded collisions. The debate was about protected bike lanes. Should they be called that? Are they really protected? Are they really desirable? Every rider has an opinion.

Statistics provide no comfort on a real street. Overtaking crashes may be rare, but harsh and threatening expressions of opinion from overtaking motorists are all too common. They may be verbal or nonverbal. Nonverbal threats other than the car horn include close passing, extended objects, thrown objects, even car doors opened on moving vehicles, depending on local fashion. Also, seeing a motorist make a dangerous pass, crossing into oncoming traffic because they didn't want to wait, is an additional source of stress. Even a veteran traffic-herder loses control of the mob from time to time.

The worst case scenario in any human interaction is simply a bloodbath. We've proven time and again how bad we can get. So you can only plan for an expected statistical average of bad behavior and operator error. You hope you're somewhere else the day the dookie really hits the propeller. For many riders and potential riders that "somewhere else" is a path or lane designated as their sanctuary.

I can't find the other thought-provoking comment I read on a cycling site in which the commenter stated that bicyclists "aren't taken seriously" as part of the traffic mix. This was cited as a reason infractions against cyclists are not prosecuted vigorously in most cases, if they're prosecuted at all.

The debate over what to call a protected bike lane and the lack of support from law enforcement both stem from the vague legal status of bicycle riders. And that stems from the fact that people can start riding bikes shortly after they're old enough to walk and continue to do so until they are old and feeble.

I was riding my bicycle on the streets, transporting myself to school and friends' houses, from about age 7. I rode with the traffic flow. Within a few years I learned how to make the proper hand signals, although some of them felt dorky to me. But because the bike could go places cars couldn't I felt fully justified in riding through those spaces as well. Sometimes it included the sidewalk, though I never felt right there. And riding the wrong way on a one-way street just felt like asking for trouble. But cutting through a field, a park, a yard or parking lot, or riding down a path or alley just made sense. And it didn't just make sense to me. Adults did not usually raise a fuss unless they saw child riders too close to dangerous equipment or in areas posted as hazardous. Good thing no one saw me the day I discovered I could fit underneath the tractor-trailer parked behind the IGA in Thomaston, Maine.

Moving forward to the surge of bicycling in the 1970s, the Baby Boomers brought their youthful habits into their teens and early twenties. We rode across school and college campuses, down streets and alleys much as we did in grade school. Even though awareness was growing of the bicycle's potential for adventure travel and competitive recreation, the majority of riders just rode.

As the Baby Boom set precedents in everything else, so it was with traffic cycling. It had been a long time since that many people wanted to ride bikes as adults on the public rights of way in this country. It might even have been since the 19th Century, when bicyclists got the hoop rolling to have more roads paved to a decent standard at all.

In Europe and Great Britain bicycles had persisted as transportation. For a long time they were naturally incorporated into the heterogeneous flow. The devastation of the Second World War probably helped keep the bicycle a viable option because for many in the aftermath it was considered a step up even to have that. The United States, its prosperity virtually unchecked by the war, hit the gas and rolled onto highways increasingly tailored to motor vehicle needs.

Bicycling was what children did until they could get a license and a car. So the progression of Baby Boomer bicyclists from schoolkids to young adult cycle tourists, commuters and racers did not figure in transportation planning any more than long hair and bell bottoms did. I'm sure a lot of transportation authorities hoped it was all just a phase, like rebellion and pot smoking and that awful music. No need to plan for the future of something that has no future. Just wait for it to go away.

In other words, bicyclists weren't taken seriously. That has been the basis of bike-related policy ever since. Sure, things are changing now, but from a mindset that views the adult cyclist as frivolous, voluntarily choosing a more vulnerable, less practical (in their view) mode of transportation. Even the tourist and racer must figure into the transportation mix just as much as the motorhome, the boat trailer, the motorcycle and any other vehicle whose trip is not directly related to earning income or moving products.

What sets the cyclist apart from the other non-essential road users is the neglect under which we operate. Crackdowns by law enforcement on illegal and dangerous cycling behavior are rare enough to draw the attention of bloggers and cycling journalists. They are often motivated by retribution for large numbers of complaints lodged by motorists, alleging multiple infractions by the annoying pedalers, rather than by any institutional desire to see cycling go better for both cyclists and non-cyclists alike. The rest of the time a rider can do practically anything in front of law enforcement and barely elicit a yawn. We're just not worth the trouble. We're not serious.

Riders operate in such a gray area even their supporters don't know what to call it. Bike lane? Bike path? Cycle track? Separated? Protected? Protected how? And what do we do at intersections?

As a rural cyclist I see all the attention lavished on urban and suburban areas and wonder what anyone will do about us hicks in the sticks. Do you know how many lane miles of shoulderless, hilly, curvy, narrow roads there are in this country? They're all some of us have. Having seen the behavior of some drivers "from away" when they encounter a local rider, and dealt with the indigenous rednecks who cherish and refine their predatory instincts and have no patience with some idiot who chooses to wobble along on some bicycle, I wonder how much thought (and expense) anyone will have left to clean up our gray area after making the cities and towns safe for the short-haul riders.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A little laughter, a few moments of terror...

Actually, the terror was a couple of days before the laugh.

On Wednesday I rode the park and ride commute on the Cotton Valley Trail for the first time in a week. A digestive complaint had kept me from eating or sleeping well for several days, so I ventured back out cautiously. The morning ride put me in a good mood for the day. I looked forward to the return trip in the dark.

Still unable to pound down my normal quantities of food and not entirely sure I was completely clear of the intestinal ninjas that had been ambushing me, I rode conservatively, but some sections encourage a little friskiness. There's one bit where the trail crosses a road, goes a few yards level, then hops up and over a small knoll. Coming down the back side of the knoll I always enjoy the acceleration and the way the generator light burns bright white.

The path runs outside the tracks here. Outbound, the tracks are  to the left. Just across them are a couple of houses on wooded lots. I could see lights inside and out on the house that sits closer to the tracks. I heard barking.

No big deal. I hear barking from houses along the trail all the time. This time, the barking went from a questioning woof to deep, aggressive, rapid barking. Crashing sounds in the undergrowth indicated that a large dog was charging me from the blackness to my left.

"Hey, dog," I said in a loud but friendly tone. Then "Hey! HEY! HEYYYYYY!!! GET YER DOG!"

As I bellowed for the dog's owner I was sprinting forward. Outside the light from my headlight all was blackness. Even with a good helmet light anything outside its beam would be in black shadow. I couldn't waste time or attention trying to see the beast that was thrashing after me. All I could do was crank as hard as I could and hope the stupid dog didn't crash into me or chomp down on any part it could grab.

In several years of incorporating that section of path into commutes in all seasons I have never had a problem there. Yesterday and today's rides followed the placid pattern I had come to expect. But now I have to be a little more alert in case the mysterious hound returns.

One day on, one day off: On Thursday I drove to work because that's the day I pay a musician to be my friend. I don't have time to do the bike commute in any of its forms and still get to the string band's meeting place on time.

Yesterday the weather was showery. The morning sleet almost convinced me to skip the ride, but I went for it instead. The dirt road and path were still frozen from the previous cold weather. On the evening ride the top layer had thawed, so it was like riding on flypaper. The tires didn't sink into glop but they stuck stuck stuck, demanding a full grunt from every pedal stroke. It was a real thigh burner.

And so we come to this morning. Things had frozen up again. My digestive system was still behaving itself. I was doing okay on time. The sun was out. Great.

As I started down from my parking point I did not seem to be getting as much speed out of the descent as I usually do. Maybe the road was still a little fly papery. Maybe my first cup of coffee in four or five days was making me tach up a little. I kept pushing, down and down until I got to the path.

Maybe my seat was too low. It felt a little low. It had felt a little high when I started using the mountain bike commuter this fall. Maybe I raised it last winter when I started wearing the Snow Sneakers and needed to raise it again now that I had gone back to them. I pulled one foot out of the toestrap so I could put my heel on the pedal to check leg extension. It seemed okay.

As I brought my foot back around to slip into the toeclip again I heard a weird metallic click as my shoe caught on something projecting from the bike. I discovered that one brake spring had popped out from my rear brake, probably from shoving the bike in the car and dragging it out again in a bit of a rush. A brake pad had been rubbing the rim since I started.

Wow, was I fast after that! At least until I hit the blasting headwind on the causeways where the path goes along the lakes. But headwinds in the morning are often tailwinds on the way home. And so it was.

The evening commute gained a whole lot of atmosphere when a thick snow squall moved in as I was starting from the shop. It was a snow shower at first, steady but light. It thickened after I got out of the downtown area and headed into the darkness. But that wind was behind me. The snowflakes flared in the headlight beam. Occasional big ones in just the right spot flashed brilliantly for an instant. The cone of floodlit snow streamed toward me as the dusting whitened the path. A wild evening.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Impossible perfection

Do people really learn from their mistakes? Do they avoid making the same one more than once?

It depends entirely on how much fun they had making them the first time.

I quit making mistakes I enjoyed enough to repeat more than 30 years ago. Now I really try to use them to keep from stepping in the same pile again.

Unfortunately, in the service business a customer will run into people who either don't or can't avoid the pile. Some businesses posing as service providers even make the pile so they can clean it up. So mistakes can create bad impressions in suspicious minds. All you can do is work tighter and tighter -- while remaining coolly relaxed, of course.

At a time of year when business is slow anyway, which happens to coincide with a time when The Business already has been crawling on its bloody knees from day to day, you notice the ones who used to come around who gave up after that one screwup. Forget the complete refund they got, still bleeding red ink onto the company ledgers. Forget that there was no attempt to evade or deny. I am now branded as incompetent.

A shop's business is only as good as its credibility. How many customers disappear because one rider had a problem and blackballed us to the whole club? How many people decide we acted out of incorrigible dishonesty or ineptitude?

I don't always radiate a lot of warmth. I'll admit that. Maybe that's the mistake I like to make too much to avoid repeating. But I guarantee I will make every effort to avoid screwing up the work I do for customers and friends depending on me. And whenever I fail, rest assured that it will bug me forever. I wish that kept me from making new mistakes, but that's just the dang human condition.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Fun with an old axle

I needed a hole punch for some shim material, so I ground down an old axle.

Later I realized I could try it as part of a noodle bender to create a better shifter noodle using parts at hand.

It's not working all that well, but it's a first attempt. Working with noodle tubing without a noodle nozzle I will be able to use two axles to support the tubing at various points as necessary. I found a nozzle-less noodle in a parts bin.

Tinkering marches on.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A further delay

The rear hub of the Serotta felt gummy. The freehub was dragging. Inside I found this worn, cracked bushing.
Of course it's specific to Mavic.  Of course they don't sell it separately. Some guy on eBay offers them. I haven't pursued it yet. Frankly, I'm surprised to see a Mavic rear wheel this old that doesn't have an exploded rim. This rider is quite light, for all her ferocious power. I wish the rim had failed. Then we could walk away from the whole mess.

This Mavic wheel is so old it has 5mm socket flats in both ends of the axle. The newer ones have 10mm on one end.

Test riding the new shifter noodle arrangement will have to wait while we round up an interim wheel.

A Ridiculous Struggle

The next version of shifter noodles is ready to be tested.

A 4mm ferrule does fit over the metal pipe of a brake noodle. I replaced the junction ferrule with the 4mm ferrule and placed a Jagwire in-line adjuster over that. I shortened the housings leading into the adjuster from the handlebar and hooked the cables back up. Could it be that easy?

Millimeters matter. The shifter noodles did not swing smoothly with the adjusters on them. The front brake came up against the shift cable going into the stop on the left side of the head tube. The rear shifting was still unreliable.

After a few hours in a cold garage, trying different possibilities I almost gave up and stuck it together with doomed housing going straight into the head tube stops. But I hate to let go of a good idea, and shifter noodles are a good idea on bikes with these infuriating defects on the head tube.

I tried using a short section of flexible brake housing on the front shifter cable, since it doesn't require perfect indexing. The springy shift housing pulled the flexible housing out at an awkward angle. The part that leads into the cable stop has to be rigid to feed the cable around the tight curve at the head tube.

In the end I had to grind off a couple of millimeters from the cable stop on the left side to make just enough space for the bars to swing unimpeded. The computer wire had to be led straight up the front of the brake cable to preserve the clearance.

Here's a crude video overview:
Shifter noodles designed for the purpose could be shorter, with a tighter bend. It would be tricky to re-bend a brake noodle without crimping it, but I guess that's the next phase of the experiment.

The real cure on any of the afflicted bikes would be to saw off the stupid head tube cable stops and put on a set of stops where they will actually work. But the industry wants to move into electrical shifting anyway. Batteries not included, of course.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The wrong way to put on a Cannondale Headshok boot

While I was replacing the air spring O-rings in a customer's early-21st Century Cannondale F600 I noticed that the fork boot had a rip in it. The Headshok has many fine qualities, but it all goes to hell if the boot does not remain sealed against contamination. The needle bearings on which the fork slides so smoothly get all gritty and crunchy. Then you have to rebuild the fork. That will force you to face some of the more vexing idiosyncrasies of the design.

I had not done a boot replacement in years. The last Headshok that needed a boot was on a bike already so beat that my field-hospital repair was good enough. I cut a section of inner tube and slid it down to cover the tender parts. But a little research found a source for real pleated shock boots with nice little clamps, at a place that styles itself as "The Cannondale Experts."

When the boot arrived yesterday I knocked the fork out of the frame and started trying to work the boot down over the large diameter outer tube of the shock to reach the skinnier part it is supposed to protect. The boot has a large end and a small end. Unfortunately, the small end is supposed to go on the bottom, making the boot basically impossible to stretch over the larger diameter seat at the bottom of the upper tube, where the larger opening gets fastened when the boot is in place. Lubing it and working gently with various blunt objects was getting nowhere.

Not to be defeated, I turned the boot inside out so I could lead with the large opening. Once I had it down on the skinnier part of the shock I was able to roll it back right side out with the help of one more blunt object. Ta daah!

I looked on line today and all the advice I saw said you have to tear down the fork to change the boot. But in case you don't want to bother, do it the wrong way. It worked for me.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Shifter Noodle Update

The Serotta tri bike on which I installed the shifter noodles  in April came back for some adjustments, including shifting problems. The junction ferrules I installed did not stand up to the twisting of the housing, so the linear wires of the housing were starting to push through. When that happens the shifting will not stay adjusted. The tension keeps easing as the housing collapses.

The rider also wanted to replace the old Deore XT derailleur I put on there to handle her wide-range gears with a newer model that might work more precisely on her 10-speed cassette.

Ten-speed is about to get shoved way down-market, along with derailleurs mechanically operated with cables. Did you spend thousands of dollars on a bike with a ten-speed cassette and mechanical shifters? Sucker.

The next stage after SIS (Shimano Index Shifting) and STI (Shimano Total Integration) is SMEGMA: Shimano Mechanical-Electrical Gear Manipulation Apparatus.

Until SMEGMA gets applied to every bike and imitated throughout the industry, we in the mechanical trade still have to keep people's old garbage more or less working. So I'll be upgrading the shifter noodles to try to make them as close to trouble free as anything can be.

The New XT derailleur has no cable adjuster on it. The system has no other adjuster, so an in-line adjuster may help as I try to replace the failed ferrules with something more robust. Lots of ideas jostle in my brain like clowns in a tiny car right now. We'll see who gets out the door first.

The solution may include 4 mm housing. A 4 mm ferrule might fit inside the junction ferrule of a standard brake noodle. Or I might try flat-wound housing, used on brake cables, because the progressive, bar-con shifters are not quite as fussy as brifters. And I will need to incorporate an in-line adjuster on the right side, at least, because adjusting the rear shifting without a fine-tuner is a huge pain.

Tomorrow I'll start collecting potentially useful bits for the next phase of experimentation.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

From the Great Age of Fake

Today's repair subject is a 1995 Specialized Rockhopper. It went into storage after very little use, so it's like an archeological specimen.

The mid-1990s was the Great Age of Fake in the bike industry. New companies were appearing. Old companies were searching for new identities or battling for their lives.

Component manufacturers competed for lucrative OEM contracts with bike companies. Accounting and marketing departments suddenly mattered more than they ever had before.

Accounting departments wanted to see costs kept down as income went up. Make the money. You can always figure out how to hide it. But you're screwed if it isn't coming in. That's where the marketing department shoved its sleeves up and elbowed everyone else aside.

Component makers needed to offer parts that looked good at common -- read "low" -- price points. In the mid 1990s a mid-price mountain bike like a Rockhopper was around $500. That was a comfortable investment for many people who wanted an affordable, sporty bike that would last a while.

When I came back into the bike business in 1989, after nine years away from it, Specialized had established itself as a decent bike line. The model ranges from low to high were Hardrock, Rockhopper and Stumpjumper. At each price point they offered a solid value.

Within three years the explosive growth of mountain biking had begun to erode that from the bottom. Specialized started cheapening the Hardrock even as the price continued to rise. They had made their name. Now they were extracting profit by cutting corners on the product.

Maybe OEM componentry had become ridiculously expensive, so all they could get for lower price points was deceptive garbage. If so, did that bother them at all?

The general devaluation reached the Rockhopper around 1994.
Here is a crank that looks like it has replaceable chainrings in the 58-94 bolt pattern that was coming into common use. Look closely. All three rings are bolted together and attach to the small bolt circle that holds the smallest ring. The rings are Shimano-specific. Of course they were not available for long as replacement parts. About the time people actually wore out any, the replacements were long gone. Lay that one at Shimano's feet with a sizable pile of other bodies.

Interestingly, this crank is from the same year and has basically the same arm profile as the MC 12, M 290 and CT 90 (Alivio, Acera and Altus) cranks Shimano had to recall worldwide because they were snapping off. Somehow the STX model escaped that fate.
These brake levers continue the theme of looks over substance. That's a nice aluminum two-finger lever blade mounted in a cheesy plastic body. The stamped sheet metal clamping band is tightened by a dinky Phillips head screw.
These pedals with a "rugged steel cage" and "space age polymer resin" (plastic) body are still offered as an upgrade from all plastic. However, the metal parts do not want to stay attached to the plastic parts, including the steel axle and bearing cups that will start digging their way out through that plastic pedal body from day one.

The major companies in the industry still play this game even though the market splintered into factions by the beginning of the 21st Century. But smaller companies have sprung up in the niche markets that allow for some creativity and some bikes that might last a while.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


My lair smells like coffee smoke.
I just finished roasting this batch of Kenyan on a grill in the garage. Loving that smell and the coffee chaff on the floor.
My assistant pays close attention as long as I keep finding dog treats in my jacket pocket. He doesn't know I'm trying to train him a little. A little would be a lot more training than he has ever had.
The work stand waits for its next job. I thought someone was dropping off a bike today, but she probably decided to wait until her new rear derailleur arrives.
November's typical cloud cover is being delivered a little early. The sun would break through for seconds or minutes, but wind-driven clouds would snap it off like a switch. The play of light would best be enjoyed with a long view, not in this close forest. Here it's just like some annoying jerk flipping it on and off. Quit it! Jeez!

It's chilly out here. This building would be hard to insulate. I use the full height and store stuff on the rafters. So cold weather work is taxing.  I can't leave any tools or equipment out here that can't withstand potential subzero temperature.

Saturday, October 26, 2013


This morning I left the house with liner gloves and bike gloves. Wearing the liners under the bike gloves has been good enough. But this morning was the coldest yet. I wished I had gone for heavier gloves or brought shell mittens.

Fortunately there were a couple of plastic bags kicking around the car.
The emergency overmitt
One of the bags was only a zippered sandwich bag. Even the other more generous bag made shifting and braking difficult. Before any tricky bits I would yank the bags off and hold them in my teeth.

I guess it's time to carry my real overmitts in the daily kit.

On Wednesday I started testing Cat Ears noise reducers. I had liked the idea when I first heard about them. As I get older I have more trouble sorting out sounds as I ride. Reducing wind noise should help me keep tabs on traffic behind me. Unfortunately, the path commute gives me little opportunity to test the Cat Ears on motor vehicle noise. I do have a better idea how noisy my tires are now.

Thursday morning the cold had really settled in,  so I switched to the ear covers from Cat Ears.  Combined with a polypro beanie and some tape over front helmet vents they kept my ears warmer than my thin earmuffs did. In colder weather I would probably use a heavier (but still thin) hat with some built-in ear coverage. In the coldest conditions I wear that and the earmuffs. The Cat Ears product,  mounted to the helmet straps, seems to provide better protection with a little less bulk. And it's called Cat Ears. 

I need to tape over more vents. My mere cool weather job isn't good enough for freezing and below. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Today's stupid crash brought to you by too much coffee

I am not naturally a morning person. It's even harder this time of year, when morning looks a lot like night until suddenly it's time to hurry out the door.

Yesterday morning I lost half a cup of the morning elixir when I started to pour the potful into the thermal carafe without emptying the warm water out of it first. So last night I made a tad more than usual. It makes no sense. I wasn't going to make the same mistake again. But once I poured the water I went ahead and added grounds to match. When it comes to coffee, if a little is good, more is better.

To combat the diuretic effect of my drug of choice I try to eat something absorbent for breakfast, like a big pile of toast. There are a lot of variables. The system does not always work. So I've located suitable stopping places on my regular routes.

For the park and ride route I recently changed to a spot nearer where I park, so I don't interrupt a nice long downhill. This was probably an old logging access. Now it is guarded by a ditch. And that's where the problem starts.

I have not figured out how to get across that ditch smoothly. It's not very deep, but the far side of it is nearly vertical. Coming in at various speeds and angles I have not managed to cross it stylishly. At least half the time I haven't even managed to stay on the pedals.

Despite more than adequate caffeine, my departure from the house was marked by fumbles and stumbles.  I should have been warned.

Due to the surfeit of coffee, I really needed that stop. I aimed for the ditch with my weight well behind the saddle. The front wheel plugged into the far side of the ditch and stopped dead. I was headed up over the bars without an instant to try to do anything. It happened fast enough to be unstoppable,  but slowly enough to fully experience and enjoy the trip. Up, over...and -- down. Blat!

I was simultaneously glad and sorry that no one was recording my performance on video. I would have liked to see how it looked.

Nothing was bent or broken on me or the bike. So that was good.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Twilight commuting benefits

The big, fat moon was coming up over Lake Wentworth when I got to the causeway. You can't see it, but a loon was swimming around in this postcard landscape.
In the last mile of the ride back to where I park, the moon was just clearing a ridge beyond a grassy wetland. The temperature was nice. Not too cool, not too warm. A night to ride slowly enough to look at things.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Organization is key

Tip of the day: keep small parts together in neat containers with the contents clearly labeled.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The all-seeing, all knowing mechanic

This morning on my path commute I came up behind an older man on a hybrid bike. Usually riders and walkers hear me come up behind them. They generally prefer to pull aside. Not this guy. He entered a long stretch where the path runs between the rails. I would not be able to pass him without making a point of inconveniencing him.

I had to laugh, being stuck like a motorist in traffic, or like a driver behind a cyclist where it isn't safe to pass. I had plenty of time to think about it as he made his leisurely way, apparently unaware I was back there at all. I stayed quiet so he wouldn't feel compelled to make room for me in the narrow confines of the rails.

Long minutes passed. I scrutinized the details of his bike. Why was he in that strange gear, on the small chainring up front and the smallest or next smallest cog in back? Were the shifters acting up? I checked his crank to see if it was a crank of death. Tne brakes indicated it was about a 1998 bike, safely past the Crank of Death era.

The tires looked like about 700X35, with no bald spots. I couldn't guess at chain wear, but it looked like it needed lube.

Finally we moved out from between the rails. I gave what I hoped was a cheery greeting as I passed. As soon as I got ahead of his wife I sprinted away. I was late for work.

At the shop I was chatting with my coworker as I unloaded my bike. Up the stairs came the guy from the bike path. He did not have his bike, but I recognized him.

"I want to get a bike tuned," he said. "And I want to know if it will take wider tires."

"Oh yeah, it looks like it probably will," I said.

He looked at me strangely. "How do you know that?" he asked.

"I was behind you on the path," I said. I wish I could have made it more mysterious. At least I had that one moment where he thought I had psychic powers.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pretty-looking crap

The front derailleur on the cellist's bike suddenly stranded the chain on the big ring and refused to bring it back. It's a problem I've seen several times before with Shimano front derailleurs.

One end of the return spring is held by a tiny aluminum nub. After a while, the aluminum can't hold back the spring steel and simply wipes away. This usually happens when the rider has shifted the derailleur out as far as it will go, putting maximum strain on the return spring against its inadequate stop.

The Sora derailleur I just got to replace the cellist's broken Tiagra has just as tiny a bit of aluminum holding the return spring. It's pretty, but no better than the strength of its designed-in fatal flaw.

Usually I scavenge parts off a broken derailleur and throw the rest in the recycling. But I might try to bend the spring on this latest casualty to see if I can get it to bear on the thickest part of the arm. It could go forever like that. More likely the spring will snap. But there's nothing to lose. It's scrap metal as it stands.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Tablet is a funny word

For easy carrying on bike  commuting days I just got this 7-inch tablet. It seems really good so far. Not being a touch typist I don't mind looking at the virtual keyboard. My fat fingers seem to do reasonably well on the little pictures of keys.

The touch screen is very sensitive. I noticed I left a strange word in a comment on DFW Point to Point this morning. Eternal vigilance is the price of comprehensibility.

The7-inch tablet fits perfectly in the rack pack on either commuting bike. It's nice and light as such things go. It may help  me capture some of the elusive observations I make in the workshop, previously scribbled on scraps of paper for future composition. Most of the time I just end up stuffing them in the woodstove days or weeks later when I find them in a pile somewhere around the house.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

We provide...leverage

Trust the bike industry to create a compatibility issue in something as simple as a front shifter.

A customer had us build a bike for him for the Mount Washington Hill Climb back in 2003. He used it in the race every year until last year, when he asked us to convert it to a flat-bar road bike.

The frame was a Trek 5900 SL. The carbon fiber road frame uses a bracket for the front derailleur rather than a derailleur with its own clamp. This was irrelevant on the original build, because we did not mount a front derailleur. In fact, the frame had no derailleur bracket when he had the bike delivered for its road conversion. Finding a bracket to fit a frame that was nine years old -- prehistoric in current bike industry terms -- was a treasure hunt. It was easily resolved once we found someone who knew the right part number at Trek. So we were all set, right?

Come on. This is the bike industry we're talking about. The business that's been killing the wounded and eating the dead since the 1990s. The group that puts its elderly out on the ice floe to die before they're even out of grade school.

Our customer wanted grip shifters. He also believed that the road conversion would be a simple matter of adding the parts the climbing bike had done without. It's a reasonable assumption if you don't work with this machinery all the time. Even I felt that the front shifting would be the least of our worries once we rounded up a very basic array of parts. A ratcheted front Gripshift is a simple device for pulling cable. A front derailleur is a simple device for pushing a bike chain toward a chainring with which you want it to engage.

Trigger shifters and road brifters only pull a specific amount of cable. A compatibility issue there is no surprise. It's expected. The customer's request for the closest thing to a friction shifter seemed to get us around that. But the shifters we use technically come from the "mountain" category and the only front derailleur that would work with this frame mount and gear range comes from the "road" category.

The shift to the middle ring on the triple crank went well enough, but that last little twist to make the big ring was incredibly stiff. And no matter how much cable tension I put in the system, the arm on the Sora FD-3503 is too short, and angled in such a way, that it barely swings far enough to clear the ring. The shifter never manages to pull it all the way to its limit screw.

With no alternative parts, I had to make these work. Introducing the Cafiend Leverage Enhancer.
The arm of the derailleur is extended with part of an old brake cable adjuster. It's bolted to the arm, where it braces against the cable routing flange to keep it from rotating downward when the cable gets tighter.
At the shifter end, the diameter of the grip seemed a little small too. We've had older riders complain that they have trouble with that. Lacking anything more elegant, I built it up with several layers of inner tube. If he likes that but wants something a little zootier I'll get some of that black foam insulation they use on air conditioning lines, and snug it on there with some super-fat shrink tubing. He won't be back until next summer, so we'll have to wait and see.

The system works. Shifting is easier. I have one more brake adjuster that's a little longer if he wants that, but we start to get a little close to the rear tire then. If the rider wanted to put on something cushier than a 700X23 things could be tight.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Profiting from the government shutdown

This morning a couple of guys who had been furloughed from the Kittery Naval Shipyard (FKA the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard) bought an inner tube before taking advantage of their unscheduled time off on this beautiful, warm , sunny day to get a road ride.

That's one more inner tube than we would have sold if they hadn't found themselves with the day off.

So much for our exciting lives here.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The off season

In our area there are really two off seasons, although the demise of winter is blending everything from Labor Day to Memorial Day into one long off season. For the moment, enough people still want to believe in the coming of ski season to keep it gleaming somewhere below the horizon, a mythical land of promise.

We get our odd jobs this time of year. What they are and when they'll arrive is completely unpredictable. This year it's been a handful of repairs, some rentals to people who specialize in vacationing when other people don't, and assembly of three weird tandems for an adaptive sports program.

I get an extra day off during this period, because the shop closes on Sundays. While I love the extra time for my own use it actually crowds the work week when someone does need service. They see how quiet things are and nudge for quick completion, but I have one less day to get parts I need for them and complete their job. It's better than sitting around with nothing to do but sweep the dirt from one side of the floor to the other and try to figure out why our air compressor acts so weird. It's just funny how it's all or nothing.

I made the transition to the park and ride commute a little earlier this year. Things I had to do on various evenings made the full distance inconvenient. Shortening daylight makes me a little concerned riding the highway, even with my great light system. So I've retired to the forest. I'll have to dust off the old helmet cam and take a few videos of the rides as the foliage gets brighter. The file videos I tried to post from last November didn't work for some reason.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Musing on a quiet day

The nice thing about working with a guy who has traveled to many distant countries with sketchy sanitation is that you can produce the worst fart in the eastern North America and he doesn't even bat an eye. He's hard of hearing, not hard of smelling. But experience has brought him worse olfactory experiences.

I would worry about offending customers, but there are no customers. The day turned sunny, but no one has even rented a bike. We've done about $2.50 in business. Okay, maybe more than that. But dayamn is it slow today.

I'm waiting for a tool to arrive from Stromer for an electric bike I've been working on since August 29. Two of the e-bikes arrived that day in boxes for assembly. One was good.The other was cursed. They both seemed ready to go by Friday that week, but the cursed one barely got a couple of miles (if that) before it went dead. The two sisters who had ridden out on the bikes walked back.

Thus began a long diagnostic process. I had already replaced a main power cable in a bike of the same brand for another member of the Seasonal Resident E-bike Society. He used to be number 368 on the Forbes list of richest people in America, although I did not see him on the list last I checked. Suffice to say he has the funds and corporate clout to get results. We get parts shipped overnight-Saturday delivery for e-bikes belonging to the S.R.E.S. I say this not to brag, merely to marvel at the level of attention enjoyed by the rich and powerful. It's not US they're shipping the parts to. It's the agents of the former #368, who just happen to be us. Us be them. Take that, grammar!

For some reason we don't seem to get real overbearing wealthy snobs in here. The rich we do get, while prone to occasional outbreaks of unbecoming chiseling, have largely learned that we don't respond well to that, and we do provide competent, conscientious service. The ones who just want to sling their money around never bother to come in here. What do they need from a bike shop anyway?

There are some riders in town who simply must own better bikes than we sell. We are but yokels after all. Some of those riders we only see when we chance to look out the window at the precise moment they ride by. Others of them might come to us to get a shift cable or have a flat fixed.

I've learned one thing about e-bikes from my encounters with them over the years: Every part of them is heavy. And you will have to lift the heaviest parts over and over in the process of figuring out what's wrong and fixing it. The Stromer rear wheel, with the motor in the hub, weighs 23 pounds. I know that because I just installed the new one Stromer sent after we isolated the problem that kept the bike from working at all. It had other problems we fixed en route, but that hub motor had definitely stiffened right up. I had not been looking forward to muscling that thing around, but you do what you have to do.

Now I'm waiting for the special freewheel tool required to change the gear clusters, because the replacement wheel came with a 9-speed and the shifter on the bike only goes to 8. We didn't have an appropriate 9-speed shifter hanging around, and it should really be on Stromer's dime, not the customer's, so I called the hot line one more time. The tool is on its way. At least I hope so. I'm looking forward to taking this hot rod for a derby once it's fully functional.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Congratulations on your purchase

You've just bought an expensive, high-tech bicycle component. Thanks for your business. Now here are all the ways YOU COULD DIE!!

Packaged with the handlebar stem for the recent bar-and-stem change I did on a customer's titanium Serotta was a thick, black booklet with the word "WARNING" in distinctly unfriendly letters on the cover. When I photographed it I noticed that camera motion had given the images a nice jangly, alarming look, so I made a collage of a sequence of them.

Inside the black cover was the same information in about 27 languages. There was about a page and a half of fine print covering all the ways you could mangle or kill yourself, and about three-quarters of a page of warranty information.

The makers of the carbon fiber handlebar took a more low-key, upbeat approach. You had to pay attention to see them tell you that the bars you just paid $250 (US) for should be replaced every three years. If you race a full season on them, they should be replaced after one year.

To be fair, even in the days of aluminum alloy the manufacturers recommended replacement every three years. After about 17 years I started to wonder about my old Cinellis when they started to creak a tiny bit, so I swapped them out for a new pair. I've been running those for probably a dozen years now.

No manufacturer wants to take a chance and recommend a customer grind their product down to a nub. They'll gladly use the story of such long-term endurance in their advertising, but it's never official policy.

When you're talking about a material like carbon fiber, known to fail abruptly when it finally goes, you may want to abide more closely by the manufacturer's recommendation.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Feelin' No Pain

The rider who brought this bike in has added not one but TWO gel seat pads to the original saddle on her Schwein.
And I didn't even know that La-Z-Boy made bike seat pads. If they're in the bike biz, where's the adjustable recliner recumbent? I would totally ride one of those, especially on the way home from work.

Hamfisted stupidity or crash damage?

A customer requested new "wing" bars for his trusty Serotta road bike because the top section is more comfortable on long rides. When I unwrapped his old handlebars I discovered that either some muscle-headed idiot had graunched down so hard on the anchor bolts that he'd cracked the lever bodies or the levers had been damaged in some kind of crash. I would hate to have been on the bike in an endo that would damage the levers like that. Maybe it was a roof rack crash into a low overhang.

The levers are nine-speed Dura Ace. Ancient history. You won't find a nine-speed road brifter of equivalent quality.

I hate waste. I also hate the expensive scavenger hunt to put together a working drive train after the untimely death of one crucial component. This bike could have continued to work for many more seasons with proper care. The owner is meticulous. That made this hidden damage more of a surprise.

The owner decided to go with Ultegra 10-speed. I thought at first I could make it work using his existing rear derailleur, but now I'm afraid I won't really be able to get it to work around the 12-30 cassette. We didn't discuss gear range, but I liked the idea of getting a little lower low for the hills around here. His other bike is a very recent Felt, which probably has a compact crank. It would have a 34 inner ring, automatically providing a lower low gear than his current 39-27, even if the Felt has a low cog of 25.

There is apparently only one Ultegra 10-speed rear derailleur in the entire eastern United States. I may or may not have successfully ordered it.

We may have another compatibility issue with the crank. The narrower 10-speed chain might wedge between the rings on the 9-speed crank. I thought I had a perfect work-around there with a discarded Dura Ace crank from another customer's bike, but it would mean replacing a 172.5 with a 170. My other candidate, an FSA similar to the older model on there, has 175mm arms. To do better than that I would have to order a crank from one of our suppliers.

The cost mounts. The customer can afford it, but that's not the point. I did not go straight to a worst-case estimate when I laid out the problem for him. Because I've had some success getting Shimano crap of different generations to play nicely together I gave way to foolish optimism. I should have known that the Big S almost always wins. And the rider's wallet loses.

I'll never convince the cycling population to refuse complex technology and stick to what works, year after year, mile after mile. And that disturbs my peace of mind if I let myself think about it. So I try not to. I just keep doing my best to keep the tricky crap running, while the industry feverishly produces trickier and crappier crap.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Are group rides bad for cycling?

A lot of cyclists seem to enjoy riding in large groups for fun and to support good causes. It seems only benign. If one cyclists is a step in the right direction, a large number should be a huge leap that way, right?

Critical Mass took the concept much farther to demonstrate the numbers of cyclists and their power to take over the streets. CM is overtly political, so controversy arising from it is not surprising. But every large gathering of cyclists spawns complaints and conflicts.

I'm sure this has been exhaustively discussed by the Experts in Cycling. I was simply inspired by  a piece I read this morning about a petition in England to shut down a ride due to the objections of residents and businesses along the route. It reminded me of what a Gilford, NH, resident told me about how the residents along a certain stretch of road feel when they're penned up in their neighborhoods during the weekend of an annual triathlon. He actually found this picture amusing.

 He  said it's what he felt like doing during the time he lived in the area affected by the race.

Motorists might agree in theory that bicyclists have a right to use the roads, but they would all prefer if we could do it without actually seeming to be there at all. An individual cyclist can maneuver freely to try to manage the traffic flow as necessary, whereas a group of riders may have trouble getting drivers to pass in a timely fashion when it's safe. And those places of safety need to be longer and clearer to get motorists past a string of riders on a constricted road. Most of the time, riders and drivers take their chances and hope they get away with it.

When motorists gather in large numbers they create congestion as well. But "group drives" seem a lot less common than group rides. If it's an event like New Hampshire's Motorcycle Week, the sheer excess does lead to friction, frayed tempers and many accidents. But the motorized cycles can travel at traffic speed (when they're not blatantly exceeding it), so they increase volume and may cause decreased speeds, but only in places where any large number of vehicles would slow things down. The upper limit of the speed range requires no accommodation from other motorists. Bicyclists can't claim that. Our cruising speed only fits with motorist speeds where the motorists are held back by imposed limitations.

I like to imagine what popular perception of other sports would be like if they were conducted on the roadway. "Oh no! Another goddam football game! I won't get out of here until half time!" "Augh! I hate basketball! All those idiots dribbling frantically down the street, chasing a hoop hung off the back of a truck!" "Oh for ---! Not Centerline Tennis again!"

I know. It's absurd. But what other sport besides competitive cycling holds its official events out in the road? What began before the dawn of the motoring era as crazy challenges to human strength and endurance have evolved to the modern sport on roadways vastly more crowded with other people living their routine lives. Cycling fans love the spectacle. People who are not cycling fans have to wonder how the road to work, school and the grocery store became a sports arena.

Non-competitive rides can generate more congestion than races. They can also generate a lot of business along the route. What seems to happen a lot of the time is that the complainers complain, the defenders defend and the event goes on. So what's the harm?

Institutionally the harm might settle in the minds of decision makers who individually don't care for cyclists on the road. If enough of them collect in one place they may start to change the rules. In the general population, drivers who dislike cyclists will collect their grudges generated by frustrating encounters with groups and take it out on lone cyclists they see as targets of opportunity on unwitnessed stretches of highway.

Technically we have as much right to hold a group ride as the motorists do to hold a poker run, a rally, a scavenger hunt or just take out their favorite machines on a group joyride. Only the difference in horsepower calls our right into question. But it's a critical question. Not only must we continually explain ourselves to the lawmakers and regulators, we have to deal with the emotional issues of throttle-pushers who won't give us a fraction of a second to explain anything when they finally decide they've had enough.

If humans were truly a violent species there would be a lot fewer of us and I doubt anyone would travel on a two-wheeled vehicle of any kind. We would probably all drive real tanks on the rare occasions we left our fortress homes. I guess in some parts of the world it's more than a bit like that. But I like to think that the momentum is on the side of peaceful pedalers.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Cars are people too

Owning and traveling in a car have become prerequisites to full citizenship in this country. Anyone who walks, rides a bike or uses public transit is viewed as transportationally impaired rather than drivers being viewed as transportationally privileged.

I've seen nothing in the media about this phenomenon. It's at least as burdensome as the cost of a college education -- if not more so -- because every working stiff needs wheels to get to the job, no matter what the job pays or what education was needed to secure it. Owning a car has become the norm. Therefore, anyone who does not go by car is subnormal.

Plenty of people go to their jobs without using an automobile. In cities the carless don't stand out as conspicuously, although the bicyclists among the carless do.  Bicyclists always stand out, except when someone doesn't see one before, during or after a collision.

With the least bit of open driving room, motorist domination takes full effect. The road is almost a sacred space, consecrated to their unimpeded speed. Many of them do accommodate cyclists, but in many places it takes a special effort to do so. If there were no cyclists, motorists would not miss them or invent a substitute.

If we had gone straight from four legs (equine) to four wheels (automotive), the evolution would have been methodical and complete. In rural areas one might have to drive past someone riding a horse, but equestrians are rare on the public right-of-way. The old way would have been neatly eradicated by the new. The bicycle screwed everything up. It was much cheaper to have and to house than a horse. It proliferated before the automobile did, and has refused to disappear. It has many practical and fun applications. And it's far less expensive to have and to house than an automobile.

I admit that sitting on my ass in a car and hopping out at my destination in normal clothing can be seductively convenient. When I took to the bicycle I lived in a town and had no money. I needed to travel cheaply and I could ride my short hops in regular clothing. Only when I moved to the boonies did my commute turn into a longish open-road ride. Bike clothing is important for comfort and efficiency.

Anyone who has not gotten hooked on cycling can't possibly understand how compelling it is. Normal people, normal drivers and the young tads who yearn to become drivers, find us incomprehensibly stubborn and willfully stupid to forgo the vast benefits of motorized transportation.

As summer ended I noticed the seasonal uptick in motorist aggression that comes every year. SADS, September Asshole Driver Syndrome, occurs as everyone gets back to the humdrum grind of school and work. A cyclist seems to mock these toilers. They can't understand how anyone gets to go play around in the street, blocking traffic on a wobbly two-wheeler, when everyone else is getting back to virtuous labor.

Even those who get paid to enforce the law don't really understand the ones that pertain to cyclists. One of Wolfeboro's finest actually hit the lights and yelled at a cyclist to "use the crosswalk" after the rider legally entered traffic from a side street onto Main Street. Down in Rye, the police chief raced out to stop a group ride on Route 1A, an immensely popular cycling route, because motorists had phoned in to complain that the bike riders were impeding traffic by not riding single file to the far right. The RSA he cited is only a fraction of the laws relating to cyclists, but it's the little piece of scripture he held firmly to support his point of view. The cars must get through.

We all need to get along. The public right-of-way and the transportation system in total need to work for all modes of human transportation. The system needs to be adaptable enough to accommodate shifts in usage, too. If a whole lot of people suddenly decided to ride a bike or walk, they should be able to do so. At the same time, those who really must drive -- and even those who merely choose to -- should not be grossly restricted in their ability to take advantage of the capabilities of their machinery. Maybe the answer is to adjust the capability of the motorized machinery to restrict it to cooperative sizes, speeds and maneuverability.

I would be willing and happy to put my car on a train for the long cross-country hauls, rather than put up with the hours of driving required to travel faster than the speed of enjoyment across hundreds of miles. I would be equally happy -- more happy, in fact -- to be able to roll onto a train with my bike when time does not permit me to pedal a long distance to a place where I might like to have my independent wheels when I get there.

I realize that surrendering the speed and the schedule to a mass transit system makes it harder to peel off at that enticing exit to see something that catches your eye. This is more a concern for the motorist than the cyclist. If we had roll-on access to all passenger rail systems a cyclist could ride the rails for only the selected portion of any normal rail route and hop off to explore various destinations. An auto-train would be much more expensive and restrictive because of the size of cars. Those trips would need to be much more fully planned. A car-train would have to maintain speed and limit stops in order to get antsy drivers across the wide-open spaces at a speed as good as, or better than, they could make by themselves.

Meanwhile, I have to go annoy people by pedaling to work. I'm late as usual.