Friday, October 30, 2015

Fat bikes on the cross-country ski trails

'Tis the season for winter event planning, so the fat bike impresarios have started trying to line up venues. They'll be the first little wave of fat tire enthusiasts who will ask cross-country ski trail operators why riders can't roll where the skiers slide.

These requests inspired a post last February about fat bike ethics. Since then, more inquiries and reports from ski centers that have experimented with the mix bring more information.

First of all, fat bikers need to remember that cross-country ski areas owe them nothing. Fat biking started as a way for self-reliant pedalers to take a slow but capable bike across terrain where a conventional mountain bike could not go. They were conceived as earth-crawlers, expedition bikes for riding in areas without trails or on surfaces that required as much flotation and traction as a rider could push. Of course this got them onto snow. But they went there on surfaces that formed up naturally or were packed by fairly imprecise methods for users whose enjoyment did not depend on a very smooth surface.

No tire has yet been fat enough to distribute human and bike weight as well as a pair of skis will do. Skis and snowshoes are still the more versatile tools for getting around on varied snow conditions. Yes, some skis are adapted to firmer or softer conditions, but in the middle lies a general shape and size that really can handle anything. When it comes to snow, no bike can say the same.

Even within the range of marginally to perfectly usable conditions, bike tires will leave bigger marks, and different marks, than skis. Size matters, but difference matters more.

The second factor after trail damage is user rhythm. Along with this comes user speed and things that happen in a crash. People on skis move with different rhythms than people on bikes. The speed range is different when the two users are on the same terrain feature, and the methods used to move over those features will cause interference. How wide a highway would a ski center need to groom so that several skate skiers and several fat bikers could tackle a steep climb at the same time?

Going down, skiers or bike riders may be faster depending on snow conditions and the headlong craziness of the people involved. But imagine being a skier in a downhill turn when the rider on a 30-pound bike with sharp chainrings and spiky pedals wipes out next to you and takes your legs out from under you.

Even on mild, rolling or flat terrain, skiers and riders move so differently that they eat up a lot of trail width under the best of conditions. Say it's a hard, fast day, so fat tires are not gouging deep ruts. That still means that riders will be passing -- or passed by -- skate skiers in their wide V. Cross country trails needed to be widened drastically in the 1990s as ski centers adapted to the influx of skate skiers. That width would probably have to double to accommodate a large influx of fat bikers. Not only does this beg for a cost-benefit analysis for the ski center operators, it massively changes the aesthetics of the experience. Imagine going for a nice country drive on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Classic skiers complained about the loss of an intimate and woodsy feeling when elbow-width trails were blown out to 12 feet wide so that skate skiers -- and the big groomers they require -- could fit on them. Now double it.

To someone who is not a skier, it all seems so simple. There's a trail. You're grooming it anyway. Why can't we have our fun, too? Maybe it's just a one-day event. Even so, the costs and complications are far greater than you might imagine. And, by inviting fat bikers onto the system even for one day, the trail operator creates an impression that it would be okay.

Fat bikers who still cleave to the ethic of self reliance cut and pack their own trails or use durable venues that are already more of a free-for-all, like logging roads, snow machine trails and frozen lakes. Maybe they find a sympathetic ski center with the time, personnel and budget to accommodate them on a temporary basis. But the skiers and riders themselves will have to work out all their issues on the trails. If riders pay, they will demand their due. If they don't pay, skiers will rightly be resentful. So you see, it isn't simple at all.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The walking dead? Or raccoons?

Riding through the woods this time of year, it's easy to understand how this part of the fall got to be associated with ghosts and the restless dead. The sun rises late and sets early, but the trees still have most of their leaves until late in October. The darkness in the forest is more absolute than at the middle of winter.

As darkness deepens, the landscape dies more and more. Skeletal tree crowns rise above obscuring foliage on lower branches and smaller saplings. The leaves come off from the top down, giving the smaller plants some bonus photosynthesis time. Everything doesn't just blaze up and fall off in a day or two. Meanwhile, animals are still foraging. You will hear all sorts of footfalls in the dry leaves below the trunks and branches beginning to show like the bones of a decomposing body.

Imagine going through this time of year with no artificial light except a burning branch or a flickering candle. It's weird enough with a powerful LED headlight. Whatever your light source, it is only a patch in front of you. If you are walking, your own footsteps make other sounds harder to hear. Riding, you have the crunch of leaves beneath your tires and wind noise over your ears. Other sounds filter through. Or did you imagine them?

Last year, a bit later than this, I had stopped to attend to something, and heard a pack of coyotes start howling back and forth. They weren't really close, but they were close enough to suggest that they could come sniffing around pretty easily if I hung around too long.

I'm in more danger from skunks than zombies. I have also almost run into deer crossing the path. The modern mind can dismiss the myths and legends of phantoms and monsters. But the creepy feeling doesn't give up easily. You can substitute serial killers, rabid animals or hungry predators, any of which could take advantage of the privacy of the autumn night. Popular entertainment and gruesome news provide plenty of inspiration.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Ruth doesn't want to quit

Ruth is 92 years old. Her husband and two of her sons are dead. She lives in a cottage her family built in the 1930s -- if not earlier -- on the shore of Lake Wentworth. She stacks her own firewood and shovels her own roof. All the way through her 70s, if you saw her from behind, walking down the sidewalk in her tennis dress, you'd take a minute to admire the view.

Great laugh seeing young strangers in town speed up a bit to pass her and see her face. She does not pretend to be young, beyond an excusable use of hair coloring. Wrinkles to the contrary, she has somehow managed to make that work.

At 92 she shows the miles now. She's fought off Lyme disease, cancer, and been treated for rabies after an animal bite. I joke that other people say, "oh no, I got an illness!" Illness says, "Oh no! I got Ruth!"

She's not one of those annoying sunshine-pumpers who are just so dang positive about everything that you need a nice salty shot of tequila after being around them. She just doesn't want to quit. She gets out and about. And, until some more medical challenges got in the way, she rode her bike nearly every day.

When she tried to resume riding, she discovered she could no longer lift her leg high enough to get over the dropped bar of her 1995 Univega step-through hybrid. She had had her bike rack modified several times as she had more and more difficulty lifting the bike onto it to drive to safe venues for an older rider, but now she couldn't get on the bike, even though she could still get the bike on the car.

She started getting depressed. She grumbled about her physical infirmities. We were used to hearing about her various mishaps, but now she talked of little else.

We hunted around for quite a while to find a new, deep step-through model that weighed no more than her old bike. Then we did, so she was ready to go again.

But she wasn't. The position on casual bikes these days is way more upright than on her old bike. We had to figure out one problem after another. Each time we though we had it nailed, she came back again looking sad.

With every setback she seemed more discouraged. She talked about how old she is and how many friends she's outlived and all the things that are wrong with her, not in a raspy, carping way, but in a weary litany of hopelessness.

We changed the stem to get the bars lower and closer to her. We cut the seat post so she could get the seat lower until she got used to things. Then the seat itself had such a wide and sudden flare that it shoved her forward of the pedals. I switched her old seat over to the new bike. And we had to modify her car rack some more to fit the new frame.

I forget the last rabbit I pulled out of the hat, but she came back from that test ride with a tentative smile. Twice more she went out to test further adjustments, each time returning with a bigger smile and more of the old Ruthie vigor.

The bicycle is a machine for rejuvenation. The change in her as she realized she could ride again was astonishing, even as it confirmed my belief. Old Bill, cancer stricken and knowing he was dying, had said, "whatever else happens that day, you get on the machine." No one knows how long Ruth will last. All we know is that the time has been made brighter by getting back on her bike.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Do you carry electric bicycles?

"Do you carry electric bicycles?"

"Are you nuts? I can barely lift one."

A customer called to see if we had, or could get, 20X3-inch tires for a couple of electric bikes someone had given him. Scraped off on him would be a better term, but we didn't know the full extent of the annoyance for many weeks.

Just finding 20X3-inch tires that matched the ones on his bikes was a treasure hunt.
These things look like motorcycle tires. No one had them in stock on this side of the Atlantic. Maybe they didn't have them in the UK either. We didn't bother to follow up with those vendors. NYCewheels in NYC listed them, but told us they were unavailable indefinitely. They offered a substitution. Hey, whatever gets this guy's rims off the ground and his three-ton pieces of crap out of our basement.

These Ultramotor A2B bikes are the heaviest smokeless mopeds it has ever been my misfortune to try to lug around. Getting them into the shop from our basement storage area was easy enough: just wheel them around to the main door and through the shop with only a few stairs to negotiate. The main drawback to that approach is being seen in public with the thing as I walk around the building. I avoid eye contact and move as quickly as my shreds of dignity allow.

Getting the cursed hunks of scrap metal onto the work stand is another matter. Previous electric bikes, while grossly heavy and poorly balanced, have still been light enough for me to grunt them into position with a solid stance and a little luck. Bikes of a convenient height allow me to put one end on a footstool so I can pivot the other end up and clamp the seat post.

The A2B monstrosities defied such simple steps. I scanned the overhead for some place to rig some sort of cord system to lift them. In our old and heavily mutilated building, I did not see anything overhead that I would trust with the dangling weight of this ridiculous contraption.

Eventually I settled on using the stand itself, tying the lower end of the rig to a low point on the bike to try to get the seatpost up to the height of the clamp. But how to increase my mechanical advantage, which was the whole point of rigging a hoist?

Thanks to my father's taste in nautical widgetry, I had a fully functional Harken dinghy block on my key ring. I could have used a couple more, but it gave me something along with the high-friction upper end going over the work stand arm. I could at least lift the behemoth.

It was still an awkward wrestling match until Beth came through in the middle of it and brought the stability of a woman's touch.

"This must weigh a hundred pounds!" she said. "Why is it so heavy?"

In typical electric bike fashion, even a simple thing like a tire change turns into a twiddly fiddle with bullcrap. I had to trace the motor wiring back to detachable connectors, one of which had been heavily mummified with electrical tape, and then drop out the rear wheel, which weighs 19 pounds. The front wheel is pretty simple, with a normal hub and disc brakes. It still managed to hang up in the forks for no obvious reason. Maybe it just didn't want the rear wheel to get all the attention.

I disassembled the lifting tackle before I went home. The bike is still in the stand. I have more Harken blocks and other handy bits at home to make a smoother-running purchase for lowering this bike and lifting the other one.

I'm debating whether to leave a tackle system at the shop all the time, carry the pieces with me when I commute, or bring the parts each time the need arises. The shop should probably have a lift on hand in case some e-bike victim comes in for emergency repairs during the more active cycling season. As Baby Boomers age and younger generations who think electric things are cool come along, we will probably see more hefty two-wheelers on which the pedals are more decorative than useful.

The industry already offers lifts for heavy loads like this. They're not cheap, of course. If I can set a good anchor overhead, it will be cheaper and almost as easy to keep lifting tackle on hand, rather than lay out the coin for a fancy new work stand. There's added satisfaction in hoisting someone's electric monster like a dead animal carcass rather than investing in a fancy, high-tech lift that exalts it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Rushin' dressing

Things were kind of busy last week. Nothing too weird, but I had to coordinate some variables outside of the usual rut. It ramped up through Saturday, which has been the last day of my work week lately.

For the park and ride commute, I wear Diadora touring shoes with a smooth rubber outsole that goes easily into a pedal with a toe clip. I bought them years ago. I forget how many. Because I can walk and drive in them, I can put them on at home and have one less thing to worry about when I get to the parking spot.

When I'm in a hurry, I sometimes tie my shoes too tight or unevenly. I hate that.

On Saturday, I left the house in some haste and disarray. I got to the parking spot, made final adjustments to the load on the bike, and launched down the dirt road. It's basically a continuous descent for more than a mile, with some entertaining roughness and a bend or two.

I noticed that my right foot felt funny in the pedal. Like all walkable bike shoes since the late 1990s, these can be converted to use with SPD cleats, by cutting out a defined patch on the sole. A previous pair of wonderful shoes from Specialized became much less wonderful after the SPD patch on one of them spontaneously detached. I really hoped the Diadoras hadn't just gone the same way.

I had to check. Something was definitely sticking down off the right shoe.

It was the cleat. I had put on my right road shoe and my left touring shoe. I had bought them at the same time and they have nearly identical uppers. I had grabbed the  mismatched pair out of the milk crate where I keep my riding shoes, and hadn't noticed.

I don't know how I managed to load the car, drive several miles, get the bike out of the car, make final preparations, and take off without realizing something was up. That's the power of a full and jumbled mind.

The worst part was having to ride out in the same mismatched footwear that night. The cleat doesn't fit that pedal very well. At least I did have a pair of beater sneakers in the car so I didn't have to drive with the cleat on.

Mildly amusing, no?

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Dogs in the morning, bears in the afternoon

On the way to work this morning, on a dirt road in North Wolfeboro, I had to get past these dogs. I almost always hear barking when I ride by this particular little farm. Occasionally, I have been chased. Today, two dogs I had never seen here before were already out in the road, long before I got there.
I talked to them until I got a clear shot at the downhill to escape.

I didn't remember turning the camera on. I was surprised to see that I had. I noticed it when I got down to College Road.

After a pretty placid day, we knocked off at 4. Back out in North Wolfeboro, nearing the top of Bryant Road, I spotted bear cubs trotting out into the road. I stopped to let them go on through, figuring the mother was somewhere nearby. That's assuming some intrepid gunner didn't blast her over a pile of old doughnuts last month, or chase her down with baying hounds after baiting season ended.
This time of year, one hears the truckloads of howling bear dogs passing on the road, usually very early in the morning. Being intrusive seems like it might be part of the appeal for bear hunters. It does help me get the cats back indoors so I can have them safely contained before I leave for work.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Nothing new about driving

As we roll into the part of the year where I have to do more driving, I see all the usual things.

A trip that takes less time feels more tedious.

Driving may be faster, but it isn't instantaneous.

Being in the lane with other motor vehicles is way more stressful than being able to let them go by or thread their tangles on a small two-wheeler. When you're driving, you might go for miles on a bendy two-lane road with some impatient jackass six inches behind you because you're speeding, but not speeding enough. You may impede the progress of some superhero who can see in the dark, or through fog, and wonders why you can't.

You might be on a straight road and still end up tightly followed by some lonely person who wants to be close to you.

Then there's the other side of the relationship: the driver in front of you who does 45 miles per hour for the whole stretch in which 60-plus would be totally fine. This is usually the same driver who continues at 45 once you get into town and the speed limit drops to 30. It's not a good idea, so you can't say it averages out unless you have terrible judgment.

The best driving in driving season is during a big snowstorm. Little snowstorms are dangerous. Big snowstorms are just a pile of fun, especially if the snowbanks have lined the road with frozen guardrails. I don't mean one should let it rip with no sense of responsibility or personal safety. But big storms finally reduce motorist numbers, provide an entertainingly slithery surface and attractive visual effects. It's really peaceful, wallowing along by yourself.

I'm not impatient for snow. It comes when it comes. Sometimes it doesn't come at all. Other times we get more than we need, and at totally inconvenient times, too. Last winter, for instance, our customer base was too buried to leave home, and each major earning period was either wiped out by warm weather (Christmas Week) or buried by a blizzard (every other holiday period).

The car creates a false sense of security along with very real creature comfort that can be downright tranquilizing. I'm glad I don't drive too many places. There are compensations to relative poverty. One of them is fuel rationing. If I don't have to go somewhere, for work or a utilitarian errand, I don't go.

After a couple of months I'll be a pretty typical Type A asshole behind the wheel. I control it, but I can't deny it. That's always been a big reason I keep going by bicycle. I can let out pent-up emotions to the limits placed by my physical condition. When I can get out to flail around the ski trails, that serves the same function. I've even observed that I act like the worst kind of Boston driver sometimes out there on the trails. Pass left, pass right, follow too closely until I get to pass... total jerk.

Knowledge is power. Once the realization dawns I know I have a responsibility to control myself. The metaphor of driving helps there. Be cool, be cool. You gain nothing worth having by acting like a jerk.

The bridge periods are the hardest. I treat the need to flail with bad fiddling and whatever scraps of my old conditioning program I can force myself to perform.

Monday, October 05, 2015

An update on my crotch

A leather saddle is a long-term relationship. Most people seem concerned about the initial break-in period, but my experience with the Brooks Colt on my Cross Check started deceptively comfortably. I did not have discomfort until early this season.

Sometimes, patience pays off. I rubbed in some extra Proofide in the trouble area and kept riding. The saddle seems to be altering further to reduce the pressure down the center, which has given bike seats in general a very bad reputation among riders and non-riders alike. The narrow saddle is one of the first things a new bike purchaser wants to change without even getting on it.

I picked up a B-17 Narrow in case the Colt did not improve. Now I'm not sure what to do. Put the B-17 on the Cross Check and move the Colt to my road bike? Hold it in reserve for a bike yet to be named? The B-17 has a flatter top profile than the Colt. The Colt was more like the Turbo I was replacing. The difference is the all-leather construction of the Colt versus the plastic shell with dense foam and thin leather cover of the Turbo. A modern saddle wears out. A leather saddle wears in.

I hope things continue to go well. The Brooks saddle wasn't cheap, and it isn't going to wear out anytime soon. I'm prepared to work at this marriage.


The Bike That Never Was rides again.  Handlebar tape was the last detail.

Wind the spiral inward so when you reach the brake lever your figure 8 wrap will give you a straight piece up the outside.
The V on the inside is usually shallow enough to be covered by the brake hood. You never need those short pieces wrapped around the back of the lever clamp. Just always remember to spiral the correct way on each side.

The bike has interrupter levers, so I finished with the housing emerging a couple of turns before the end of the tape. 
Yellow tape shows this nicely.

The owner arrived to get the seat put on and do a basic fitting. I forgot to get a picture of the finished bike. Despite its age and some incipient rust issues, the frame is basically pretty sporty. The parts make a good basis for another bike should this frame fail. Primitive stuff lives on and on.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The life of my tire for the life of a snake

South Effingham has some beautiful, rugged terrain. I used to ride it on my mountain bike, but I got out of the habit. Every time some business takes me through there in my car I make a note to go back on a bike.

The last glacial period left its indelible mark on the terrain. The route I planned starts on the valley floor, undulating glacial till covered by mixed pine and hardwood forest, and wetlands. It then climbs through wild ravines covered with dark conifers.

I looked forward to taking the trusty Cross Check on a little more dirt than usual.

These 700X32 Panaracer T-Serv tires have handled a lot of unpaved surfaces. I tried running some 38s early on, but they felt really bulky.

My phone is earnest, but not smart. The signal can be pretty sketchy in the boonies as well. So I carry a paper map to refresh my memory at intersections that often turn out to be unmarked.

After a couple of miles on pavement I got onto Wilkinson Swamp Road. Nice afternoon. Dry, cool air. Sunshine.

They call these glacial erratics, but I've always found them to be steady as a rock.

Things usually get a little rougher when you pass a sign that says this
Things apparently got rough here at some point in a different way. Larger caliber bullets than usual were used on this mailbox.

Beyond the bullet-riddled mailbox the road descends a series of gentle grades, eventually reaching Wilkinson Brook. Wilkinson Brook follows an almost circular route from its origin on the slopes of the Green Mountain massif down to its confluence with the Pine River. The wetland around most of its length was described as "primordial" by the wetland scientist who traversed it as part of a research project several years ago. The road is rustic, but hardly primordial.

Coming down the last little grade before the brook, I heard the sharp hiss of a large and drastic sliced tire. I pulled off at what turned out to be the scene of someone's luau.
All that remains are discarded Tiki torches. They did not help me fashion a backwoods work stand. None of the trees had projecting branches at a good working height, either.

I had known by the sound that the news would not be good. The tire had a slice up the sidewall as fine as a knife cut. I wondered what I could have hit. This would need a reinforcing boot to keep the tube from bulging through the slash. I knew I had brought my wallet for some better reason than mere identification.

There's something bitterly appropriate about stuffing actual money into a nearly-new tire you know has been ruined.

My plans to spend a couple of hours riding the less-traveled roads bled into the sand as I fit the tire, laboriously inflated it, saw that I needed to re-position the the folded dollar bill inside it, deflated it, worked one bead off, corrected the problem with the boot and laboriously re-inflated the tire. Even if I could have gotten it to full pressure before nightfall, the deformation of the casing showed that this would not be a good idea. The idea of riding even farther from home and having another flat seemed like an even worse idea.

Feeling silly and defeated, I trudged up the little grade where the puncture had occurred, hoping to see a jagged fragment of broken bottle, or twisted sheet metal. Instead, all I found were some pieces of blue stone with sharp edges that still did not seem capable of the blade-thin slice in the tire.

In all the times I've banzaied down a gravel road, using exactly the same type of tires, I have never had tire damage like this. But maybe Effingham bought singularly vicious gravel. Stone age people fashioned cutting blades from rocks of the right composition. Seems like a stupid choice for a road surface, even for car tires. Must have been a good price.

I needed to get home so I could fix the tire properly. I hopped on the bike and pedaled slowly, savoring the forest. I had reached the section where houses and cabins appear again, when I spotted a garter snake stretched out straight in the dirt and gravel. It was so sluggish when I poked it the first couple of times, I thought I might be too late. I almost always am. But it came abruptly to life when I picked it up.

It was hard to photograph, because it wiggled so adamantly. I warmed it in my hands for a couple of minutes before carrying it to a sunny rock away from the road, in the yard of an unoccupied camp.
The rare Northeastern Pretzel Snake
If I had not turned back because of my tire, I would not have happened upon that snake. Since I usually arrive too late to save any of the small creatures whose bodies I see along the road, I felt slightly compensated for my loss and inconvenience. I'm still pissed about the waste of a good tire, but it's not the first time and probably not the last. And the stupid snake might crawl back onto the road today, or tomorrow, or next week. I'm not going to argue with the momentary happiness of saving a creature who probably found the whole encounter very disturbing and feels no gratitude. For some reason I like animals.

Hands black with tire grime and smelling of snake urine, I wended my way back out to the paved road, and onward to home base. After washing up and having a bit of food, I pulled out a new new tire I had not expected to need until some time next year. I always try to have one around.

The damaged tire had a version of the classic Titanic Puncture. The true Titanic Puncture is a sidewall gash you get in a brand new tire on its first ride. This tire wasn't on its maiden voyage, but it hadn't been on the bike for more than a few weeks at most.
First step: asset recovery
The gash crossed enough sidewall cords to ruin the casing. The slice is three times as long as the part that actually cut all the way through. It cut through the tread almost to the crown of the tire. I don't want to be ripping down some steep descent or drafting a truck on that. I see trucks I want to draft a lot less often than I used to, but what if? I tested it with more air pressure after I got home and saw the slice spread wider, showing the folded bill. The tube would stay in, but the tire itself can't be counted on to be stable when I need it the most.

The Titanic Punctures I've gotten in the past were all on the road and came from pieces of metal I was able to find, even though I had not spotted them soon enough to avoid them. The somewhat mysterious origin of this one makes it more disturbing. I've ridden that bike through that road a number of times.

If it had just been a snakebite I would not have had to turn back. So I'd get the bite and the snake would die.

Life is weird.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Another "Valley of Death" rim

This is a Bontrager AT550 hybrid rim, 622X20 mm. It has the troublesome Valley of Death, where inner tubes meet a premature end. The skinny rubber rim strip can slip aside, uncovering a tiny fang on a spoke nipple. The inflated tube distends down into that deep channel, stretching unevenly. Sometimes tubes fail just from that. In other cases, the thinned part in the channel is more vulnerable to chafe.

Throw in the life line!

Ordinary clothesline fills the ditch. You have to allow for the valve hole.

Then top it with rim tape.
This cumbersome process brought to you by The Bike Industry and the fine re-labelers at Trek.