Thursday, September 24, 2015

I'm getting too old for this

The bike business does not respect age. Not surprising when you consider that a young adult can propel and maneuver the vehicle to its greatest potential. Not too young; the best riders need seasoned muscles and honed skills. But at a certain point a rider can no longer keep up.

Bicycling in general encompasses an array of machinery and techniques suitable for all ages. Bikes for children are mostly toys, or perhaps prepare them for what they might some day achieve in bicycling's real theater. Bikes for older riders reflect what people past their prime can still manage to be.

Certain elders achieve the status of wise men. Owners of companies, famous innovators, retired racers all can manage to make the young pups shut up for at least a minute. But put one of these silver-tops in a greasy apron in a little shop in some nowhere town and the young guns would not know to be impressed. And if the greasy old geezer turning wrenches has never been one of those luminaries in the first place, the world really passes them by.

In what passed for the glory days, my physical prime happened to coincide with the mountain bike boom and my skills and style happened to be slightly better than average. This is no modest understatement. My edge was very slim. Mechanical skills and analytical ability made up the rest of my powers, but these were certainly enhanced by the number of people I could leave puking behind me on a long climb. The fact that I was puking to stay in front of them, and chasing faster riders, was excused by the fact that nearly all of us were chasing someone faster. If I could stay ahead of two thirds or three quarters of a ride group, that was solid enough. I knew that all the riders ahead of me were puking to stay out there.

There's a lot of puking, actual or metaphorical, in the prime of cycling. And a lot of acid reflux in your declining years.

Briefly, the local mountain bike crowd shifted to road riding before succumbing to the various ailments of aging athletes. Mountain biking itself went off a cliff, literally. Even if I was in my prime, I would not want to ride in the modern style, on the modern arthropod.

The fragmented bike market does not need hard-driving, monomaniacal riders as much as it needs experienced observers and interpreters. But some of its segments still feed on the intensity of the competitor. Lots of riders claim to understand their lower place in the hierarchy, but when they ride you know they're listening to the narration of their private video, or at least feeling the savage satisfaction of chasing down their quarry, real or imagined. An awful lot of people who come into a shop look at the people who work there and mentally assess whether they would be the chasers or the chased.

Actually, an awful lot of people don't come into bike shops anymore. Not in Resort Town, anyway. Even when there was money to be made, it was not easy because it attracted a lot of competition. We left all of them in the dust eventually, but now the dust settles on us, on a course nearly deserted. The segmented market seeks asylum in enclaves of its own disciples. You're either a big shop or a specialty shop.

We're an outpost, in Resort Town. We're that palisade far from civilization where a traveler hopes the blacksmith can knock together something to keep the wagon going long enough to get them home. We'll never be a big shop, because we've chosen to live beyond the edge of big civilization. The place is hardly remote. The lifestyle has evolved from north country lite to rural suburban. But the rough and rocky land refuses to support much of an economy. When people no longer come from away, the locals can only do so much to keep each other afloat.

The model for New England -- particularly northern New England -- is the subsistence farm. Now that the party is over for cycling, our shop is a subsistence farm. The woods are full of the weathered stone foundations of subsistence farms. The inhabitants of them gleaned whatever sustenance they could before they gave up and moved on, or simply dropped.

In the bustle of civilization, life is less of a struggle against indifferent nature and more of a brawl. There may be more activity in the lands of urbanization and sprawl, but it's no less strenuous. The specialty shop is only as good as its reputation. The big shop has to find the right size for its economy, and maintain a staff that will help it flourish, or at least not embarrass it too badly. If a specialty wanes, the little boutique must shift its focus or wither. The big shop or small chain can grow or shrink categories as long as the staff can keep up with the technology.

Technology is driven by desire. Perceived necessity is the mother of invention. Desire breeds an image. An image is an emotional construct. Emotion responds to first impressions. First impressions can be shaped by prejudicial beliefs. We look for what we hope to see, and often see what we have told ourselves to expect. Does this slightly limping, unkempt mumbler really know what he's doing? Why is someone that age still doing this job?

Because I can. Because the craft needs people who respect the craft. Why waste all that experience?

Like any writer, I console myself with the idea that I may yet figure out how to produce and sell something popular, or at least be discovered after my death and become influential then. Beyond that it's probably better not to pick at things too much. You can't do much more than what seems like a good idea at the time, whatever you're into. Good luck out there. If you need your bike worked on, you know where to find me.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Bike that Never Was

A woman in town wanted a road bike to leave at a place she regularly visits in Maine, so she wouldn't have to transport her regular bike back and forth.

A good used bike is like a glass slipper: it's no use if it doesn't fit. We don't see the flood of trade-ins we used to get in the 1990s, when everyone was dumping their road bikes to get mountain bikes. Some places probably do a brisk trade in used bikes, but few of them make it all the way to our backwater anymore.

I had a couple of frames hanging around. If one of them fit her, I said I would try to scrape up the parts turn it into a bike.

The frame that fit had a bent fork. But I had a fork that would probably work. The frame had a crank, derailleurs, a headset and seatpost.

We got pretty lucky with wheels and brake levers. I kept running into blockades and then surmounting them somehow. The only things we had to buy new were the handlebars and interrupter brake levers. Oh, and a chain and cables. And she wanted a good women's saddle. That was the most expensive item.

On second look, my replacement fork didn't look all that great. I remembered I'd bought the Park Big Honkin' Pry Bar, so I figured I would take a shot at straightening the fork that was on there.

The Park BHPB-1
Lacking a fork jig, the straightening process was an art project. The first time through it looked pretty good until I put a wheel in it. Even then it wasn't too bad...until I tried to make it better. The quest for near perfection, as always, was a trapdoor into Hell. I tried to quit at least a half a dozen times before it somehow ended up better than some 1970s production bikes were when new.

The bike isn't ready to roll out yet, but we're down to the rigging and details.

I don't even remember where I got the frame. As I worked on it I noticed things that make me think it had been improvised by Bill, a mysterious man who had been the team mechanic for cantankerous old geezers around town until his death from cancer several years ago. The frame before me might have been ridden by Crazy George. Crazy George's riding habits did not kill him. He was run over walking in a crosswalk one early winter night, going from the library to the church across the street. A van hit and dragged him. He lingered for weeks at Maine Medical Center before finally succumbing. This is how it is to be elderly and non-motorized.

Crazy George would have ridden the bike with its bent fork, helmetless and headlong. Bill would have kept it running as best he could with parts he scrounged. I am only doing the same thing, with better parts and tools. The improvisations I have upgraded were all cleverly done. They showed knowledge of how a bike should be, not just superficial applications of whatever hardware-store bolt will sort of fit the hole in need of filling.

Because a bicycle is a collection of parts, I can keep an eye out for a better frame and fork while my client rides this one. Nearly every part will transfer to any decent frame that comes along.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Bye bye to Summer

I don't know what these plants are, but I love how they look like a forest of upraised middle fingers by this point in the summer. Long years in the service economy will do that to you.

Actually, I encounter many people who present baffling and sometimes unpleasant challenges, but few I would wave off with an aggressive digital salute. I still love these flowers, though.

A few more days remain before the northern hemisphere officially goes to the dark side. Already I have to hurry on the way home. I don't really have to hurry. I have great lights. But months in lavish daylight lend urgency to the last little portion of it. Mornings are cool and foggy.

By November, the ends of the day will touch each other. Late fall and winter days have no middle. Early comes late and late comes early. Right now we still get a middle.

I was contemplating the tedious task of relocating merchandise for the seasonal changeover, because there was nothing else to do. Then this happened:

The owner of this bakfiets had developed gear trouble. She had ridden in from a neighboring town to take one of her kids to a sports practice. She had observed the exploding cable housing at the shifter. She hoped I could repair it in time for her to ride home after practice. We had about an hour and a half left to closing time. 

The vehicle uses a Shimano Nexus 8-speed internal hub with their Revo shifter. This made life more complicated at both ends of the cable.

I hoped to be able to change the cable without replacing the full-length housing. Only the cheesy plastic ferrule at the shifter had actually failed. The housing itself remained salvageable. 

As usual, yanking stuff apart was easy enough, even though you have to take the cover of the shifter apart to get at the cable. 

I used a metal ferrule in place of the crappy plastic one. I had dialed up a PDF service guide so I could keep checking on the anatomy of this beast as I went along. This proved very useful as the process slowly spun out of control.

The cable needs to be exactly the right length to work with the limited length of the threaded adjuster on the shifter. In a classic Shimanoism, their PDF specified that the distance from the end of the cable housing to the center of the anchor bolt must be 101 millimeters. Not "about a hundred." A hundred and one.
Anyone else out there remember the cigarette jingle, "a silly millimeter longer, 101?"

At first I hooked the cable up and adjusted it as simply as I'd hoped I could. But as I ran it back and forth to seat the cable and confirm the adjustment, it kept wandering. The oscillation increased.

I checked the hub. Things were all afloat. With a roller brake as well as the internal gears, removing this rear wheel wasn't a trivial prospect, especially as the time seemed to race toward closing.

I kept checking the PDF. As usual with these documents, they left a few questions unanswered. That delayed things further with experimentation.

I had to reattach the "cassette joint pulley" and the "cassette joint bracket" with their sketchy plastic lock ring. That meant dropping the wheel out of a vehicle that probably weighs more than 100 pounds. It has a pedal-assist motor and battery, in addition to its considerable size just by itself. I hoisted it with a cord system hung from the arm of the work stand.

The rider showed up at closing time. She said she could call for a lift home and leave the beast so I could do a few more odds and ends in the morning.

The few repairs that do come in all seem to be weird in some way. Guy came in for a flat tire repair. Said nothing about the right crank arm falling off. Another rider wanted the rear (and only) brake bled on his Trek mountain bike, set up for jumping. He also casually mentioned we might throw pads in it while we had it.

His old pads turned out to have a paper-thin layer of lining left on them. New ones are almost $50. He's cool with that.

To allow for bar spins, the bike had an extra loop of brake line wrapped around the stem. The line went down to the chain stay, creating numerous bends in which air bubbles could lodge permanently. I ended up taking the lever off the handlebar and stretching the line out. I clamped an old handlebar in the adjacent work stand and mounted the lever to that. I also had to detach the line from the frame to pull it into a gradually rising path. Merely elevating the front of the bike did not eliminate the air trap caused by the loop around the stem.

The Monday crew got to program a Shimano electronic road shifter. Because, yeah, you have to program your shifters. That bike also had wheels with some weird nipples buried in the rim, and piano wire spokes. I know the cool-kid shops in the big market areas are doing a lot more of this. I still think it's absurd. We've let the complicated bullshit creep in and creep in as an accepted norm. Almost no one (mostly just me) fought back against it in the early 1990s when it really started to foam up like a runaway science experiment.

I know bicycles have always been popular with experimenters. From the 1990s onward, the industry has been completely devoted to pickier equipment for dubious advantages. I'm not even sure it makes racing better. That's usually the excuse, that the new gear gives a competitive advantage or supports athletes better, leading to higher levels of achievement. But competitors would compete on Draisines, if that's all they had. Competitors compete. And when they're finished competing, they quit and don't look back. Why should the rest of us, devoted to pedaling for life, have to put up with the debris left behind by a bunch of egotists into it for short-term glory?

Then there's mountain biking. The quest for a light weight, sturdy, but basically traditional bicycle gave way to hulking crustaceans optimized for bashing. They're really good at what they do. What excuse does anyone have for clotting up the roads when you can get a wonderfully sophisticated machine for going out into the woods, where you bother no one? Be sure you keep up your maintenance schedule.

I enjoy the challenges of trying to fix this crap. Sometimes it's a pain, but for the most part I can just laugh at the folly and try to keep it working. Once in a while, something really cool comes in. As long as people pay their bills, it's an okay way to contribute to society.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Life's Little Victories

Trying to fit a snazzy new front derailleur to a customer's 2012 Specialized Stumpjumper FSR full suspension bike, we had discovered that the attachment bolts matched no pattern currently offered. After a lot of research and treasure hunting, we finally reached the right level at Specialized to get an adapter they no longer make. From the traces of dirt on it, I'd say it was salvaged off someone else's bike.

It arrived with a packing slip designating it an "obsolete accessory item." Yep. A 2012 bike, purchased in 2013 as a closeout, and already dogged by unavailable spares by 2015. The message is clear: either take such great care of your stuff that you never need to replace anything, or beat it to death completely so you can buy a whole new bike.

The customer had been in an unrelated accident after we replaced other parts of the drive train on his bike. A pickup truck left-crossed him as he was riding to work. He received a spectacular gash in the gut. Like a real unsponsored rider, he took the worst hit and spared the bike, for the most part. His seat and the clamp of the seatpost were smashed because of the way his body had been driven into it, but the rest of the bike came out looking remarkably unscathed. Total damage added up to a few hundred dollars, but it was all in easily replaceable parts. The little victory there is that local law enforcement is citing the driver who failed to yield before making the left turn across the path of the cyclist. Even though it is legal and correct, it's still unusual for a cyclist to receive the full measure of respect due to an equal user of the road.

With the rider sidelined by injuries, we had a few more days to track down the magic piece to make his new front derailleur work. He's surprisingly durable and irrepressible. I never knew how many things he'd smashed into, on how many different modes of transportation, until he was relating his current injuries to his impressive catalog of pre-existing scars.

Monday, September 07, 2015

September Driver Aggression

Big G sent me an email last week to alert me to a bully in a pickup truck on a road we both use for the morning commute. The driver had apparently pulled up beside George and matched his speed, squeezing over to the right even though there was no oncoming traffic.

Every year I report on September's increase in motorist meanness. I'd noticed precursors in late August, but only increasing speed and slightly closer passing. As with the retraining period every March or April, you just have to get through it. Late September and October bring early dusk, with its own set of hazards, whereas the spring session usually gives way to the broader minds and expansive daylight of the warm season.

Duly warned, I put the camera on my helmet for my first commute of the week. I shot a bunch of completely unremarkable videos I erased when I got home. Each day I mounted the camera and captured nothing exciting. I'm not disappointed. Yes, drivers seemed to go faster and pass tighter, but not in a way that had much visual impact.

Earlier this summer I did get brushed back by a hearse. I wondered if he was trying to drum up business. Or maybe the refrigeration had gone out at the funeral home and they really wanted to get that corpse out of their car and into the ground.

I hear a lot of revving around the neighborhood. In the twilight of internal combustion, hot rodding has lost none of its popularity. The local rods seem to know me. I do my thing, they do theirs. I continue to believe that the world would be a better place if more people did my thing and fewer people did theirs, but I gave up on changing the course of history a long time ago. Whatever's going to happen happens. Evolution observes.

Big G claimed another prize observation on his next ride to work. He came around a bend to find himself face to face with a runner proceeding lawfully and correctly against the flow of vehicle traffic. But the runner was being overtaken by a bicycle rider also proceeding against the flow of vehicle traffic. As George pulled out to avoid the oncoming pedestrian and wheeled pedestrian, he heard a clashing downshift and roaring engine as a woman in a BMW convertible punched her way through. Everyone was lined up at once, basically filling the roadway from ditch to ditch. Fortunately, no motorist appeared from the opposite direction.