Monday, June 30, 2014

Analysis of a right hook

Approaching my turn off of Route 16 on my way home one evening last week, a small silver sedan came up gradually on my left. I was pushing along at somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 miles per hour with a bit of help from the airflow of passing vehicles. The silver car drifted up beside me. As it pulled forward a bit more I saw the right turn signal. Sure enough, it got just past me and yanked into the turn onto Elm Street.

Because I was turning at Elm Street I simply turned in tight formation with them. I gave a laconic middle finger just because I was sure they had no idea things would work out so well, but I didn't thrust it up and out and wave it around. It was more of a grumble than a shout. Sometimes people I know do stupid things, and I don't always recognize them in their cars, so I didn't want to go full napalm on whoever this idiot was.

Thinking about it further, I wondered if it might have been a fellow cyclist I know, who knew that I was going to turn there and realized it was really the safest place to pass me for the next quarter mile. Truly, it was. After the turn, Elm Street makes a series of blind bends, so a truly judicious motorist would have to stay back for quite a while. The vast majority of drivers are not so patient.

Even if it wasn't a fellow cyclist making a calculated move, because there was no contact and no disruption to the traffic flow in any way it really was a perfect pass. If I had been proceeding straight in Route 16 I would have had to make a quick yank to the left to evade the corner of the turning car, but I wasn't, so I didn't. No harm, no foul is an overused expression, but it applies here. It reminded me of a basic principle of criterium riding: keep your skin thick and keep it on you. Don't be overly sensitive to the encroachments of others. Learn to require only a small comfort zone. Defend your zone, of course, but don't be a weenie.

Racing experience shaped my approach to commuting by bike. Riding knuckle to knuckle with aggressive young men who all think they're better riders, you develop a certain level of comfort in close quarters and somewhat quicker precise reactions than riders who have not put themselves under the pressure of riding in a competitive group. I did not race long or well, but I trained and raced enough to refine my normal irritability into a more coherent force.

As a young territorial male I had a quick middle finger for any motorist I felt was impinging on my space. It had more to do with principle than a sense of actual danger. I, personally, was indestructible, of course. If I remembered that traffic riding is a criterium I cared less when motor vehicles passed tightly. As long as they pass without contact, we're both fine.

If I sense that a motorist is passing tightly to make some kind of statement it pisses me off, but what can I do? I can control the lane to prevent a pass, but only if I get out there ahead of it. I have had motorists squeeze me because I was closing the lane to them. On the troublesome parts of my normal commuting route, drivers give me as as much -- or more -- room when I ride the white line as when I control the lane. The ones who are going to pass no matter what will drive oncoming traffic into the ditch and blame me anyway if I'm so far out in the lane that they "have to" play chicken with the other motorists to pass me without delay.

I ran the experiment for several seasons. I got right out there and took the lane where it was not technically safe to allow motorists to hammer through. Before and after the experimental period I have ridden to the far right in that section. Traffic has flowed better with me farther right, and the mood of motorists has been considerably better.

Farther in on the route I still take the lane on a straight section with a curb and storm drains to the right. When the traffic is heavy it inhibits pushy passing. When it's light the pushy passers have room to get by even when I'm out in the lane away from the storm drains. I defend my zone where I have to and cede the lane where I can.

Not everyone can ride this way. Older riders, particularly those who have taken up the bicycle late in life, lack the fitness base and saddle time to have the kind of automatic reflexes a rider gains from decades of experience. Even if an older rider was a strong athlete in another sport, such as running, the act of riding demands more than just strength. I know a guy who was on the US cross-country ski team in the 1980s and who is still a formidable competitor in age-group cross-country ski racing, who just can't get used to the traffic going by him when he goes out on a road ride. He built up an errand bike to ride on service calls around town for his business, so maybe he's developing more of a tolerance, but it's coming slowly compared to his extremely high fitness level overall.

Riders who do not have a lifelong fitness base face even more intimidation. Where developing culture and infrastructure support it, cyclists can take a lane or find a path with more social support for their developing interest and ability. Such amenities don't exist here where roads are shaped by equally unforgiving geology and economy. When I get angry at drivers it's more in the persona of one of these more timid riders than on my own behalf. I'm slowing down as I age, so I wonder when I might be driven off, but I also see that many people never start riding because they've already imagined how bad it must be. And I can't say it would improve things to throw a bunch of these wobblers out there in the meat grinder, forcing drivers to accommodate them without offering anything in return. More people could ride bikes than do, but someone is always going to have to drive. The system needs to work for everyone.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The 1990s called. They need their bikes tuned up.

In the past couple of weeks I've looked at more first and second generation linear pull brakes and just post Cranks of Death drive trains than I have since they were new. This reinforces my point about how many bikes get put aside for long periods even if they were bought with the best of intentions.

The mix does include older and newer specimens. It's just funny how a big wave will come in from a certain era. A few years ago it was a batch of mountain bikes from the early 1990s whose owners had finished college and were looking for a little nostalgic fun from their teen years. A few of them actually got back into mountain biking that way.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

I predict

With disc brakes being shoved onto more and more bikes in all categories, repair shops will see the first ripples of a rising wave of rusted rotors and frozen calipers on bikes laid up by riders who had to address other priorities and found themselves storing the bike for months or years.

In some climates the damage can occur in weeks.

Your alloy rims and rubber brake pads won't do that to you.

A customer looking at road bikes the other day asked our sales person why road bikes are coming with disc brakes now. I did not pop out of my lair and say it's because the bike industry thinks anything worth doing is worth overdoing and recount their long history of shoving technology down consumers' throats. I'm not mellowing in my old age, I'm just giving up.

The sales person would not speak ill of any product a customer could be induced to order. And if the customer shows clear enthusiasm for a product, mechanical advice be damned. So I'm assembling the disc brake Roubaix today.

Disc brakes have their place. Their spread to many other places is like the escape of an invasive plant. Those are often impulsively imported from Asia, too.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Aggravated battery

Got a call from a wealthy summer resident last month asking if our shop would receive and assemble three or four Stromer electric bikes for him. He's been a dedicated pedaler for many years, but those years have a way of adding up. Mr. X gave up riding the Mount Washington hill climb a year or two ago.

One of his friends is executive chairman of a corporation known for battery powered tools. The chairman has been into e-bikes since Lee Iacocca had his fling with them in the 1990s. We've gotten to see the evolution of the type as he has brought in various broken ones from his fleet. Apparently he is an energetic advocate. Since he took up the Stromer brand he has hooked up several of his friends.

One of those friends brought in two older Stromers. They've lost the keys to the battery compartments. The customer service guy at Stromer told me they can't replace those.  They're apparently not cross referenced to the serial number. Both bikes also have an intermittent electrical problem causing the pedal assist to cut out randomly. Intermittent problems are always great fun to track down. The manual says to check the right brake sensor. Just for grins I checked both of them.  To do that I had to make a test lamp because I don't keep any kind of electronic diagnostic equipment here. The sensor is just a push button anyway. I needed to see how sensitive it was so I could determine whether a rider who rests a hand on the lever could cut the motor out with only a slight twitch.

To get the sensors out I had to remove the lever blades. Electric bikes are bulky, heavy and complicated. Some combination of those factors -- weight, size and complexity -- makes even a simple job take a lot longer.

The Stromers weigh at least 60 pounds. About 25 pounds of that is the rear wheel. The wiring for the motor connects back there. The rear axle is keyed so it goes in the right way. So any job that involves removing the rear wheel means you have to juggle this heavy wheel as you guide it into its nest of cables, past the rear derailleur, sliding the brake rotor back into the caliper, with the axle oriented the only way it will go in.

The older Stromers have Avid cable disc brakes. The levers used on electric bikes have to be set up to accommodate the brake sensors. These levers predate the introduction of cable disc brakes, so their leverage is set up for traditional cantilevers. This means when you pay upwards of two grand for a fancy electric bike with cable disc brakes they feel mushy. Admittedly I've only seen the e-bikes that have wandered into my shop, but every one of them across the price range has had the same lame brake levers hooked up to mushy cable disc brakes. You'd think the e-bike industry would have caught up with the times by retooling to make a sensor-equipped lever with the right pivot distance for the brakes they're actually operating, but that kind of organized thinking seems alien to the battery brigade.

The new Stromers I assembled have Magura MT 2 hydraulic disc brakes. There's only a sensor in the right lever, so you could ride the front brake while still powering the motor, but how many people use the front brake by itself? I do, but I'm a deviant.

The rear brake on one bike went really mushy without making a puddle of fluid to indicate a leak. There was a little fluid around the caliper, but nothing to indicate exactly where it came from or when it got there.

To bleed the brake the bike needs to be oriented so the hydraulic lines run upward to the lever. Stromer puts the rear brake down on the chainstay. Magura says to remove the pads and push the pistons back all the way before bleeding the system. So that means the 25-pound wheel needs to come out and the bike needs to be held in the work stand with the front end pointing at the ceiling.

My bleed kit was improvised late in the last century. After two rounds of bleeding -- completely reassembling the bike to check each time -- the brakes were better, but still not great. Interestingly, there were two black bikes in this shipment and the brakes felt a bit mushy on both of them. The brakes on the red men's bike and the white step-through felt much firmer.  The color is coincidental, but perhaps it indicates production runs with different personnel or even different factories.

A new bleed kit is on order. Friggin' hydraulics.

If you're thinking of getting an electric bike, don't. Just go the whole Hog, as it were, and buy the new electric Harley Davidson. The pedal assist thing is novel, but when it quits on you you're left with a bike that handles like a truck. Imagine pedaling a truck. A two-wheeled truck with sluggish steering. The heck with that.

The older Stromers I've worked on have twist throttles you can use when the control unit is set in the proper mode so you can just twist its ear and feel it leap forward. It takes more out of the battery than any other mode, but it cuts right to the best part of having a motor: putting out no effort to fly through space. Pedal assist not only requires that the pedals be moving, you also have to put at least some pressure on them. That sounds exhausting. And because the power comes on in spurts based on your own output it can make the bike surge a bit erratically. I suppose you adapt after riding electric bikes long enough. I only get to play with them for a few minutes at a time.

In the repair shop the bikes take up a lot of room, especially when you start taking them apart. Information about their innards is hard to get, even from the manufacturer. Manufacturers seem much more interested in pumping more products into the market than in helping existing customers keep existing bikes running smoothly. It seems to be part of the inherent nature of electronics that things work perfectly until they don't work at all, whereupon you junk the whole rig and start over. But some of these characteristics apply to all modern manufacturing and many modern products. Shimano shifters, for instance. And all manner of consumer electronics.

If I did not have an immensely wealthy person's name to drop, I wonder if I would get the level of service I've received so far. Even with the magic name the quality of service has diminished. I think the Stromerians may have crunched the numbers and decided they don't need to be quite so responsive to get their trickle from the trickle-down. No sense wasting deference when profit remains the same. Even a high profile customer is just another existing customer. In modern business ethics, existing customers get taken for granted while the energy goes to snaring new customers. Customer loyalty does not engender manufacturer loyalty, it breeds contempt. That attitude has afflicted the bike industry since the 1990s. No one can tell them how foolish and shortsighted it is. They'll have to learn the hard way, if consumers ever wake up and decide they're sick enough of it to support a different model. A whole lot of shit will have to hit a whole lot of fans for that to happen. So maybe the contemptuous manufacturers are right not to worry.

Mixed in with the electric shenanigans were plenty of brain teasers involving conventional bikes. Repair season is upon us, though business seems to diminish every year. It's not going to competing shops...much. People just don't seem to be around, let alone spending money.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Stupid Design: Specialized Stout Wheel

Routine tune up. Inflating the rear tire. FSSSSSSSSHHHHHH! The tube fails.  Okay, this happens. Let's go in there and see what happened.

The hole in the tube was opposite the valve on the inner surface, toward the rim, not the road. The rim strip had slipped aside because of the stupid shape of the rim floor.
Note how it has the pointless and always destructive channel within a channel design that serves no structural purpose and always leads to tube problems. In this case, the machining for the spoke holes creates a sharp edge that slices the tube when the rim strip inevitably slides to one side because the secondary channel does not provide a stable surface to hold it where you want it. 

Way to innovate. "Innovate or Die," their tough guy slogan says. So what's their excuse for crap like this? Closer examination shows the rim was made for Specialized by Alex. So, way to subcontract, guys. 

Now I have to figure out how to shim that space. The filler we use on the much worse Alex RP 15 rims is a little too chunky for this space. The RP 15 rims cause internal blowouts because their channel is so deep. These Specialized Alex disc brake rims present a slightly different problem with their built in tube slicers. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Crud corral

My colleague has a strange fondness for bench crud. He just loves the sight of piles of clutter on there. All sorts of broken parts from various repairs will remain for weeks. Since our shop reorganization I've tried to maintain the rudimentary order we had established. So I set up a little sanctuary for the fascinating detritus.
It's filling up fast.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

It's not the rider, it's the bike

Day after day I ride the trusty Cross Check to work and play. It's a great bike. I could get along with it and nothing more. But I used to race and train. I have a sportier bike. I've even dialed in the components to suit my current riding style.

I used to commute on the road bike. I stuffed everything into a bum bag. I had a selection of different sizes to hold the changing loads as a typical season developed. When I started to dislike the increased saddle pressure of a body load I built a dedicated touring commuter with a rack.

The Cross Check has gained weight as I've added useful features. My average speed slips a little lower, but the goal of the bike is not absolute top speed.

Missing the speed and handling of the road bike on pretty summer days when I'm feeling frisky, I kept considering my options to add a rack. I didn't want to use P clamps. I could use a rack that mounts to the brake center bolt and attach the lower end of the legs with some old Blackburn custom eyelets. You can also fake those with faucet washers. But I'm reluctant to turn every bike into slightly different versions of the same thing.

Then I spotted a nice frame pack by Banjo Brothers in the QBP catalog. I love bags and packs. So I got one.
Between the frame pack and the expander seat bag I could carry all the essentials for a sunny, warm day with only a little overflow into the bum bag I still use for a few items and as a light bar for red blinkies. On the way home, with lunch eaten, the load will be that much smaller.

The road bike launched me to an average speed two miles per hour faster with no additional effort. It's the bike, not the rider. The frame pack needs a few tweaks, but the basic concept is very satisfactory.