Friday, November 21, 2014

Fighting for your life in the fun business

A friend and customer is in the fitness business. She's ferociously active, and energetically generous about sharing her knowledge and support with the people who come to her for training.

In a small town the ugly aspects of business competition come to the surface the way rocks gash the hulls of smooth-sailing boats in shallow water. The fitness industry is a busy one. Lots of people try to find an angle and work it. Businesses that attract enough clientele to meet their overhead will survive. In that arena, business owners will pursue any advantage, including propaganda, disinformation and the weaponization of zoning regulations to take down a competitor.

My friend managed to set herself up in a niche with a clientele that seems to like her methods. But it's yet another plucky little crew that can't spare too many members before the implacable forces of finance make survival mathematically impossible.

It's made my friend a little crazy. She goes into a bit of a spiral whenever one of her clients does what customers so often do: they go shop around.

In the bike shop we've been through these waves many times. Each time you wonder if the receding tide will leave you high and dry  forever, your bones to bleach on the parched sea bed. And I watched the cellist go through it with her 15-year effort to establish a steady flow of students through her music studio.

Each business, the fitness center, bike shop and music studio, is offering something that has practical benefits, but which is more publicly categorized as merely fun. The people who work in those businesses depend on them for the practical necessities of life. But in each case the business and the activity it represents competes against many other activities that provide the same benefits in different ways. They also compete against activities that offer completely different attractions.

People will only do things that seem like fun as long as they seem like fun. If it's something clearly not fun, like emptying the garbage, cleaning the cat box, or going through chemotherapy, there's still a perceived benefit. But when the benefit includes fun, you'd better be fun.

There are ways to get away with being a bit of a grouch, but you'd better remain a lovable grouch. Most people don't want to be dragged through the rough by a stern taskmaster for something they consider optional. So whatever frustrations you may feel, you must project a positive outlook. At least be entertaining.

If you have a large population to draw from you might have better luck finding "your people" to join you and support your endeavor. In a small town that number might be too small to sustain life.

From the consumer's point of view it can be as bad. What if the surviving provider of whatever it is you want strikes you as an a-hole? Maybe the locals don't care or a lot of them are a-holes too. In that case you get in and get out as quickly as you can. If an alternative comes up, you check it out.

Even if the local (insert business here) isn't run by jerks, even if you actually like them, an inquiring consumer, advancing in knowlewdge and experience, is liable to explore anyway. They should. And when times are good, even the small business owner will have a bit more equanimity about these walkabouts. In the end, a business can only keep doing what it does best, to the best of the collective ability of its staff.

The game changes. In the 1990s our shop fought it out with competitors here in town as well as shops many miles away. The Internet hadn't brought point and click shopping, but people were willing to travel a long way to check out trails. Going a long way to check out a shop came naturally. In that regard we made out well a lot of the time. Customers might come to us from shops that did not have the advantage of trails right nearby on which to train the sales and repair staff.

Now that mountain biking has shrunk to a small and dedicated subculture, we don't even get the chance to audition. The cool kids, some of whom we used to cheerfully trounce on group rides, mostly go to one shop in a nearby town where the owner represents the religion more to their liking. From his end, he needs the few devotees who are willing to keep investing the money and time to have relatively contemporary mountain bikes in order to meet his survival expenses. It's a good thing he likes to work at his business, because he needs to till that patch for all it's worth. We miss our old clients, but the heart wants what the heart wants.

It's easy to be a motivational speaker and tell people to adapt and change. Motivational speakers have been drawing from the same basic repertoire of bullshit for thousands of years. Of course they're always happy and upbeat. They've figured out how to get by without needing an actual job. That never changes.

Small operators in the fun business usually get into it because they like or love the activity in question. If it's love, and it's unquenchable, you can only follow it and hope it does not lead to misery and ruin. Misery and ruin seem especially cruel if you'd had a good thing going for a while. And they're particularly inconvenient when they're setting in just as you think about kicking back a little, perhaps easing into something resembling retirement.

Love or not, your willing shift to another livelihood may face steep obstacles if you're a little on the old side or lack the funds to pay for retraining.

For now my friend gets by. The shop survives. The cellist, my beloved, is a disembodied voice on the telephone, calling from where she found a toehold on the inhospitable cliff of her profession.

We fight for our lives in the fun business. To all of you out there like us, as alone as you are, you are not alone. We can't really do much for each other except commiserate. But that's something.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Antiques Trainer Show

This portion of a 1970s Peugeot PX 10 came in a couple of days ago. It was repainted in an anonymous version of period colors --or lack thereof --so its identity can't be verified. The lug work is a trifle crude. The tubing sounds more like gas pipe than Reynolds 531 when you ting it. But it does have a forged alloy Stronglight crank. More on that in a moment.

The owner bought it used for  $170. After a couple of years he had to store it in a bad location, so it rusted. It also suffered from the attention of a mechanic who did not understand crank tapers or chain line. 

Wisely, the owner now uses it only on a trainer. He brought it in because the upper derailleur pulley had broken. Given the rust I can see under the spray-can paint job I'd say it's not worth investing in much more than the absolute minimum to get it back to basic functionality. It's a shame, because the frame represents that rare breed, the sporty general purpose road bike.

Exhibit A: the long horizontal dropout. Remove the positioner that holds the wheel forward in "sporty" position and you can grow a longer chainstay for lightly loaded touring, or move the wheel just a little way back to take a bit of the slap out of rough roads. You can also make a single speed or fixed gear on a road frame with long dropouts.

On the left is the bearing from the broken derailleur pulley. On the right is a current bushing-type pulley to show you how large that bearing assembly is. And it's really smooth. Too bad the plastic ring with the teeth on it broke away. Those are serviceable bearings.

Here is the plastic Simplex derailleur. This is the good one, vernacularly known as "Simplex silver," to distinguish it from the derailleur ordinaire Simplex red. I replaced the broken original pulley with a non-serviceable ball bearing pulley I had kicking around in the bins.

Here's the crank Velo Orange has knocked off as the Rando. Their version has JIS tapers, so it matches currently available bottom brackets. The original here has been stuffed onto a JIS axle - nutted, no less - that's wildly too long. The straight chain line runs between the small ring and the 14-tooth hardest cog on the five-speed freewheel. 

Here you can see the nutted spindle sticking way too far through the crank arm. The tapers don't match the shape of the crank arm closely enough. And nutted spindles simply should never have happened. Sheldon Brown says French cranks can go on JIS spindles no problem. But Sheldon walked on water. Something clearly isn't right with the setup on this bike.

Other period details include the nadcatcher stem,

Plastic brake lever bodies on narrow bars,

And the notoriously squealy Mafac  Racer  brakes.

It's always fun to look at a bike from the era of white frames with black lugs. It was a thing. And as much as I bitch about compatibility issues these days, the ones between the various European countries and companies were definitely more esoteric than the straightforward corporate warfare of today.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fool the eye

Yesterday's rides featured visual phenomena.

It was the first day of the regular firearms deer hunting season. Pickup trucks were stuffed off the sides of the road everywhere. It's not a day to wear your brown coat and white mittens and prance around flapping your hands. I wore my usual school bus yellow jacket and added a blaze orange flag to my trunk pack. Nothing on my usual ensemble suggests the color of a deer, but a bit of orange helps seal the deal.

Nothing you can do about a stray shot. But that's true in any season.

A few hundred yards down rail from where I enter the path I saw a couple of runners ahead of me, out at the limit of sight. They both seemed to be sporting please-don't-kill-me-yellow vests. A wise precaution.

In due course I caught up to them. I discovered that only one of them wore PDKMY. The other one's jacket was merely a light color in the yellowish greenish whitish family. My brain had assigned the same intensity as the other runner's much brighter clothing when I saw them from the farthest distance. The illusion persisted until I was just a few yards behind them. Then the duller jacket suddenly faded, like a wet gleaming gem turning into a plain dry pebble.

If you aren't wearing real high viz, apparently you can stay near someone who is. Or perhaps the duller jacket was from Chameleon Wear, Inc., a company about to launch its line world wide. It would be nice if the eye-insulting PDKMY would moderate to a gentle hue when you got close to it.

The evening's optical trickery was less benign. I don't think I broke any ribs, but one arm was under me when I hit, concentrating the force and creating bruising that makes every breath painful.

It was one of those crashes where you get up giggling like an idiot afterwards. Sure it hurts, but it was also too stupid to take seriously. Here I am, well up in my 50s, stuffing it in a corner in the dark.

The only real turns on the Cotton Valley Trail are in the vicinity of the Allen A Beach. The path leaves the rail line to go over to the beach parking area, parallels the parking lot and then winds its way back to the railroad corridor. I guess I don't know those turns as well as I thought I did.

The powerful lights on my night-equipped bikes throw enough illumination to provide more context than the average battery-powered groper. The lighted area goes far enough ahead and spreads to the side enough to alleviate the illusion of being stationary in the dark behind a patch of light with things suddenly appearing in it. But in the Allen A turns the trees are close. The variegated brown leaves now covering the ground break up the light, reducing its power to provide a readily interpretable image. They camouflage the outline of the trail. Suddenly, in one of the bendier bits, I was headed for the weeds.

The trail is not wide. In the instant that I recognized the problem and tried to snap back into the proper line I was only able to avoid riding off down the little dropoff into the rough and land my crash on the smooth -- but hardened -- trail surface. After the initial impact on my arm and chest I somehow ended up on my back. I felt the bruising of my chest, but I knew I wasn't going to see any bones sticking out through my flesh or anything. The laughing set in as I checked over the bike and my small cargo before resuming my journey. Ouch! Ha ha ha ha! Ow! Snort!

I don't know why it seems so funny, but I continued to stab myself in the chest with mirth for the rest of the evening whenever I thought about it. There's something peculiarly funny about certain ways of biffing.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Snippets of Effingham

On my days off I can spend the whole time hanging around my house if I don't make a point to get out. The cats need to go out and come in, laundry needs doing, little and large chores beckon. And a certain amount of time simply goes to sloth.

On Monday I used a trip to the post office as the basis for a ride. Yesterday I had to tell myself the ride itself was important.

The day was mild. I won't call it unseasonable, because I have hiked shirtless in November, and climbed ice two weeks later. It's just New England.

I threw on the helmet cam just for grins.

A lot of town looks like this. 
This part goes across the tornado swath from 2008.
Here's a nice fast bit down to Route 153
Bustling downtown Center Effingham - also known as  Lord's  Hill  -  boasts the bandstand, the meeting house and several other historic structures. 
The payoff for grinding your way up to Lord's  Hill from the south is that you get to scream down this descent. 
Not my personal best for this descent, but zippy.  I know I should be more conservative, but once you hit a certain speed you might as well let it rip. A crash would already hurt a lot. So tuck and fly. 
Route 153 levels right out after that. You pass through the Farm by the River. Say hi to the sheep.
And then you reach the river the farm is by: Ossipee  River. I've watched the retaining wall along the road get lower and lower over the years. 

After that it was just a short bumpy ride on the chip seal of Route 25 to get back to Green Mountain  Road. 

There was still time to let the cats play some more. Missions accomplished. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Just a few miles to Freedom

Because the cellist went back to Maryland in search of career survival I have been doing a lot of mailing.

Frank Zappa tried to warn people what would happen if they chose a career in music. FZ was referring to popular music, but the general idea that it will lead to mental, emotional and financial ruin holds true no matter what. I don't know any musicians who aren't working hard for slim margins, "successful" or not.

Recorded music and a lack of widespread, ongoing music education in schools have led to a culture constantly immersed in music, yet utterly taking it for granted. It comes out when you throw a switch, like turning a tap for the water we also take for granted. It seems simultaneously too hard for the average person to learn and yet so ubiquitous as to have no value. The professionals make it look easy and sound slick. Of course they do. If you can, you should. But if only the aspiring professional ever takes it up, only they will understand what's involved. And besides, making music is fun even if you aren't a professional. It does something for you that the often less than polished sound will not convey.

The few stars who do bring in mega bucks as musicians are the exception. And they're not responsible for more than a bit of the immense amount of music that takes place every day.

But I digress.

Where I live, no post office is convenient. The one that serves my actual zip code is the farthest away of the four I would consider local, at about 8 miles. The closest one is about 4 miles, but it's not a super nice ride. The nicest ride goes to the post office in Freedom, NH. The route I like runs 15 miles round trip.

Freedom is not named for freedom from Great Britain or the general quality so dear to Americans. It's named for freedom from Effingham. In the beginning, Freedom was North Effingham. Apparently, the powers that were in Effingham were such a-holes that their northern suburb broke away, using the Ossipee River as a natural boundary and moat. Either that or the Effinghamians were such coarse louts that the refined Freedomites simply couldn't bear to associate with them. I have not read up on it.

My route goes into Freedom on Loon Lake Road, past a tree I used to try to catch at peak foliage for Rantwick's foliage contest.
HEY, RANTWICK! Who would've thought that any tree would still have this much pizzazz this late in November?

The route also includes one of my favorite places to conduct a "forestry inspection" when the need arises. In the following clip I go from trail to highway to dirt road in two minutes:
Following the post office stop I headed out a different road to complete the loop. This took me west, into the sun. Sunshine in November and December is basically pointless. It's barely here anyway and it's mostly just blinding.
Sunshine in November is so pointless.
Sunshine in my eyeballs makes me blind.
All I see is spots in front of my face
And they make my way home hard to find...

Shine. Don't shine. Whatever. Come back and see me in late January. Then things really start ramping back up again.

Clear nights, on the other hand, are awesome. Bring on the stars, the moon and the aurora borealis. In the season of long nights the sky has full value when the sun is down, whereas in daylight you can see you're getting remainders of someone else's sunlight.

The route looks like this:

It's a great little ride with few hills for around here.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Less rich fat

As fat spreads across the country, it oozes into more approachable price points. This Framed Minnesota 1.0 goes for  $799. You can get an optional 29er wheel set with street tires to expand its capability. That's one thing about fat bike clearances and disc brakes: you can run two different rim sizes without a problem.

Original 26-inch mountain bikes were able to spread virally because they exploited an existing tire and rim size. Tire designs proliferated once the category took off, but there was rubber available even before the beginning. Fat bikes do not enjoy the same advantage. But offering  mid-priced bikes like this one will encourage more people to consider adding one to the stable or even choosing it as a primary mount.

Tires may still be an issue. Generic fatties are showing up for around  $60. I haven't searched extensively to see if anyone is offering anything for much less. How cheap a tire can you afford to trust?

You can also shell out  $250 per tire for high-end studs.

I rode this bike around the indoor track at the shop. Gotta keep it clean for its eventual purchaser. 

The fat genre has a long way to go to establish global dominance. They can go anywhere but it will take you a long time to get there. But you could throw on a set of disc brake road wheels with 700x28 tires and have a faster, albeit absurd looking,  ride.

Aero bars, anyone? 

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Dog crap and dirt bikes

The Cotton Valley Trail has become outlaw country. Tracks reveal that dirt bikes -- the motorized kind -- have been cruising it regularly now that the permitted users have thinned out to nearly none.

The dog walkers have quit picking up after their pets. The way a knobby tire flings the feces must be rough on the dirt bikers. It explains why the tracks show them riding side by side rather than one following directly behind the other.

I'm grateful for my fenders. However, I did grab a big handful of dog dookie that was stuck to the down tube when I hoisted my bike onto its hook at work.

Dog crap is much more of a path problem than a road problem. Dogs seldom stop for a squat on a road. They might hit the gutter or the sidewalk, but not usually the travel lane. But I constantly encounter dog crap on the fat tires of people's path bikes. It's an occupational hazard. And when I ride the path I'm in the same minefield.

Today I saw something else to think about.

This morning, about a hundred yards out from the first bridge I cross on the trail, I spotted a dark-clad figure on it. It was suddenly joined by another, and another, the way a flock of wild turkeys will file out of the woods. As I got closer I could see three cheap bikes and assess the attire of the bearded young men. They looked like they might be living under that bridge. Homelessness looks different in a rural area, where the dispossessed can disperse to many more unobserved campsites than in an urban setting. Or they could have been a few dudes out groovin' on the woods on the only bikes they can afford.

If people are living under that bridge it could make the ride in the dark a little creepier. I have sympathy for the down and out, since I fully expect to end my days among them. But I also don't like to meet new people by headlamp on a dark trail by myself.

Guess I'll find out tonight.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Sudden Realization, decades late

We could get some serious corporate clout behind improvements in cycling infrastructure and support if we could get management to realize that workers would live much more happily on a lot less money if they could get around without cars.

If American industry had not been dominated by the automobile industry for so long, some bright bean counter might have noticed already. And now that the American automotive industry is facing serious challenges they might figure out how to make the transition to a broader-based transportation system. They might even get into the bike business, where many of their great-great-grand daddies started, and show the current bike industry a thing or two about mass production and promotion. Can you imagine bike parts stores all over the place like NAPA and VIP and the other chains? Hell, bring on the disc brakes. I don't mind technology as long as you can get the parts.

Most of my objections to the bike industry's attention deficit disorder are based on the way they throw customers and their equipment aside, leaving all their older product, good or bad, to rot, rust or otherwise gather dust. Because bicycling remains a minority activity, even when parts are available you may have trouble getting them because they aren't available near you. Imagine going into any parts store and giving year, make and model, and having the guy go in the back and return with what you need.

Customers already come into the bike shop and give us year, make and model, as if there were comprehensive reference sources we could consult. The bike companies don't make copious amounts of technical information available for current product. You're mostly out of luck trying to find information on anything old. You can, and we do, but it's always a bit of a treasure hunt. We used to save old catalogs and tech manuals, but they started to take up most of the space in the shop.

On a bicycle we have the advantage because we can make a lot of substitutions. That can get expensive, depending on what you're trying to substitute. Downgrades are the cheapest, of course, but sometimes just trying to maintain your quality level can be prohibitively expensive.

People tend to trade in their cars more often than their bikes. How much of that is motivated by the fear of being stranded somewhere with some massive pile of useless automobile that has suddenly decided to quit on you? If the bike breaks you can probably hitch a lift or, at worst, wheel the machine along until you get to some kind of refuge. There are exceptions, of course, but for the run of the mill breakdown the consequences don't have to be as expensive and inconvenient as a lot of automobile scenarios.

We really need to promote the idea that cycling makes happier poor people if the people who run the economy insist on making so many of us. It will be so much cheaper in the long run than having big goon squads to slap us back into line, and bulging prisons overflowing with the uncooperative. Build us Biketopia and all that expensive repression becomes unnecessary.