Monday, December 18, 2017

The new winter

Looking at long range forecasts as autumn arrived, I saw what had become a familiar profile for northern New England: above average temperatures, with an equal chance of above average, normal, or below average precipitation.

Precipitation is the hardest to nail down, followed by specific temperature. Everyone laughs at the weather forecaster, or complains about inaccurate information. A lot of variables influence the amount and type of precipitation. This is much more true when the temperature fluctuates above and below freezing. Long term averages behave more tractably. All you need is the trend.

As the actual season grew nearer, the shorter long term projections turned colder and wetter. This seemed to track with the La Nina situation in the Pacific, and the injection of volcanic dust into the upper atmosphere. Those had been ingredients for serious cold in the past. Now, superimposed on the overall warming trend, their influences seem restrained. The cold has not been as deep, for as long, and precipitation type covers a range that includes rain much more of the time. Even when storms stay all snow, it is wet, clumpy snow.

The phenomenon popularly called the Polar Vortex has become unstable, shifting so that bitter cold can drop in and hang around, particularly late in the winter when people might be looking forward to busting out into the growing sunshine. This is especially true of cyclists who may have some serious trainer fatigue, or be looking forward to using the car less, and the bike more. Completely car-free citizens will really welcome more benign conditions.

A rider who has taken advantage of winter conditions that allow for cross-training may have trouble finding them. Cross-country skiing doesn't require deep snow if there's smooth ground to hold a few inches on which to slither. Then you just have to find the time to get there on a regular basis. Runners adapt in various ways, to continue their program through snow and ice. At shallow snow depths, these user groups may be sharing space.

One winter, when I still lived in Maryland, I went out on a fresh snowfall of about five inches. You could enter the Naval Academy grounds quite freely then, so I skied from my neighborhood to the Academy, where they have a lot of well-mowed grassy fields and lawns. As I slid across one smooth, white parade ground, I noticed a runner high-stepping through the white stuff on a roughly parallel course. Without directly acknowledging each other, we each tried to make sure that we did not look like the silly one. I came out the winner by a slim margin.

Proper ski conditions were rare in tidewater Maryland. In New England I expected that they would occur more regularly. That was somewhat true. It's significant that the indigenous people of North America invented the frame-and-lacing snowshoe rather than the sliding boards devised by the natives of Asia and northern Europe. Terrain and snow type here initially favored the snowshoe. Skis immigrated here with Europeans and have needed help to assimilate. The most popular form requires constructed facilities and uses machine power to carry sliders to the top of a hill. Cross-country skiing  became a sideshow.

When I started working in the ski and bike business, it was a good way to be a professional athlete of sorts. It enhanced the business if I rode a lot and skied a lot. I was never the kind of uber-consumer that industries love, so I always had a frugal angle, but as gear improved I could help customers justify the purchase of it, and help them keep it operating, because I had tried it out myself. The conveyor belts got out of control in both ski and bike industries as the century turned. It's gotten harder to find good long-term investments in equipment, but it's not impossible. The growing trend toward a less throwaway society helps. We'll see how long it takes industry to notice and accept it rather than try to undermine it.

Because the basis of my riding was commuting and transportation, I look for ways to escape from the constant financial drain represented by car culture and consumerist entertainment. The lifeblood of an economy is cash flow, but you can't flow what you don't have.

Tuning and maintaining the human engine calls for balanced use. Pure cycling does not provide that. In pure bike commuting season I miss regular opportunities to walk. My commute is long enough to take up all the slack time in my day and then some. I used to change to a mix of activities in the fall and winter, but those have gotten harder to piece together as I have less energy overall. Opportunities to ski on workdays have vanished. At either end of the work day, conditions are often unsatisfactory or even downright dangerous, as temperatures rise above freezing during the day and set up hard at sunset. Indoor training seems convenient, but you have to set up, suit up, and clean up, turning a scanty half-hour workout into a full hour project. Subtract that hour from the necessary routines of meal preparation, housekeeping, and transportation. And you still need to stretch. Every option costs money and time.

Back in 1979, I set out to see how good a life a person could have on a modest income. This meant eating well, getting beneficial exercise, and enjoying some sort of intellectual stimulation and creative outlet. Eating well does not mean gorging on rich food It means being tastily but properly nourished based on whatever you can learn about what those terms mean. My financial status, tenuous and doomed as it is, is still better than it was when I started. In 1979, I would have been jacked to get $5 an hour, and could barely imagine the wealth of $10. I nursed the fantasy that I would produce creative works that would earn me more money to finance some travel and greater adventures, but the quest was never a straight-up pursuit of money for the sake of money. It was about a balanced life that anyone could achieve.

Of course anyone can live a balanced life, if one accepts an early death. Old age is expensive. But what do you do if you fail to kill yourself in pursuit of your dreams? Then you have to choose a voluntary death based on your principles and your taste. With a normal human predilection to survive, it's hard to kill yourself outright, even if you know it's the best thing for the species and the economy. And a lot of the shortcuts, like cancer and other diseases, are painful and creepy and sad, as you feel your body rot out from within while parts of it are still vibrant and viable. How do you know when you've had the last piece of fun you will ever have, and that this is the perfect time to leave?

Thoughts like this make hitting the weight bench and jumping on the treadmill seem pretty pointless and stupid. We're constantly shown propaganda that makes us question whether we deserve to live. If you're not working three jobs and filling every day with either billable hours or transit time from one job to the next, you're a slacker and a drain on society. In the anthill or the beehive, you work until you die. They don't have weekends and vacation. They have jobs. Even cartoonists brag about their workaholic habits. Partly they make a virtue of necessity, constantly producing work and sending it around because the returns tend to be small compared to the time invested. Take a vacation and some other scribbler will get one of the dwindling number of paying gigs.

The arts in general work on slim margins. Musicians have to practice to remain good. Visual artists have to make the art. Writers spend hours alone, going nuts in ways that they hope readers will enjoy. Performers need something to perform, an audience, and a venue. When work is commissioned, you have a payoff to look forward to...or an advance you've already spent. Otherwise, it's all on spec.

It's snowing steadily right now. I have go out and get a few thousand steps while I can. It's medicine.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Industry icon advances service boutique concept

At the beginning of the week, my employer directed my attention to an opinion piece in Bicycle Retailer, written by Onza founder Dan Sotelo. In it, Sotelo described the end of the independent bicycle dealer and suggested that service take the forefront for brick and mortar establishments. This includes assisted on-line shopping. He described the service boutique concept I had been thinking about for about ten years. It included in-store terminals so that we could help our customers choose compatible, high-quality parts and bikes.

The germ of my assisted online shopping concept started at the end of the age of mail order, when the 1 1/8" threadless headset became the most common standard, and suspension forks were evolving year by year. Someone with a four-year-old fork with blown-out seals could get a newer model on closeout from a mail order source and have us plug it into the bike for only a little more than a full rebuild would cost on a fork that had seen hard use and might have more issues than just seals and bushings. Yeah, it's parts replacement instead of mechanics, but it was also more cost effective and got the customer into something newer that might be supported by the manufacturer for a bit longer.

For as long as there have been internet sources, our shop has welcomed the purchasers of those bikes and parts to get the service they will so desperately need to turn their on-line deal into something reliably usable. We also service big-box boat anchors, with the caveat that something made to low standards will never achieve high standards.

Something assembled far away, by technicians working for low wages, will not provide years of reliable service right out of the box. You may be able to slap the pedals and handlebars on it and ride it, like the advertising says, but it will have been built to industry standards, not to the higher standard that really confers some longevity in the real world.

Last week, a guy brought in a fixed-gear winter trainer I'd built for him in about 1997. All the bearings were still in adjustment. Granted it isn't his primary ride, but it has to have seen some mileage in 20 years. His road bike of about the same vintage was similarly in adjustment, with more use. It had also needed a few tuneups through the years, because of the temperamental nature of brifters, but the structural fundamentals -- any bearing that could be adjusted and needed to be properly secured -- had remained where they were properly assembled.

Because so many people are either bored or intimidated by the inner workings of their simple machinery, they will flock in even for mediocre service by technicians barely worthy of the name. I'd been thinking about a piece titled "Their bikes are beneath them" to explore the concept. The less discerning will take any work that doesn't obviously fail, just for the sake of having someone else do it. Real riders who, for some reason, have not learned how to maintain their own steeds will look for a higher level of precision.

I decided years ago that my standard was, "best possible outcome for this particular bike." The big-box boat anchor will always be horrible at best. If I can bring it up to horrible from abysmal, that's the goal. If a bike has been abused or neglected, it cannot be perfected. But it can usually be better. I try to discuss the customer's goals when the bike is checked in, but I don't always do the check in, or the bikes come in during a rush of business in which we have no time to make a detailed inspection. And sometimes I just feel solitary and uncommunicative. Sorry, folks. Workin' on that. "Grumpiness of mechanic does not reflect quality of work." In fact, the inverse may be true, but that's another whole essay.

Low quality and high technology both work against the mechanic in search of the closest thing to perfection. While the purchasers of low-end bikes tend to acknowledge the notorious crude workmanship and shoddy materials found at that price point, some of them have to be coaxed through a short learning curve to get there. Much of an independent bike shop's customer contact falls into the category of counseling. Owners of expensive bikes can present much greater challenges, because they feel that purchase price should confer some immunity to malfunction. That was actually true, about 30-40 years ago. Well, mostly true. The equipment was all made to the same pattern. Expensive equipment was made much more precisely, out of better materials. Maynard Hershon decried "a 21st Century shifter held in place by a 19th Century wingnut," but the wingnut worked. When it loosened, a quick twist snugged it up again. On a high-end bike, you got a high-end wingnut. And the matching faces of the shifter held together by that nut -- actually a machine screw -- were more precisely matched. I don't miss down tube shifters, but I also don't scorn the wingnut purely on the basis of its ancient origins. Your 21st Century bike is propelled by a human built on a very ancient design.

For a small shop in a rural town, providing assisted internet shopping may not pay for the computer terminal necessary to give the customer a place from which to browse. Even in a more populated area, customers who like internet shopping because it is convenient as well as cheap will not make a special trip to the bike shop when they don't suffer that much from the inconvenience of selecting the wrong thing. They're already accustomed to shipping things back and forth a few times, or just making the best of it when something arrives that isn't quite right. Internet shopping puts a lot of product in circulation, and eventually leads a customer in desperation to seek out the nearest surviving bike shop to try to put things right. That may be the best we can hope for.

Promoting service likewise calls for a gamble by the shop that a certain clientele will flock to the dinner bell if a certain service is offered. Suspension service on mountain bikes springs immediately to mind, because that was one of the major dividing points when the stunt man style of riding took mountain biking down a carefully constructed course of obstacles and jumps, away from the main stream of general pedaling. Suspension and hydraulics require clean work spaces, dedicated to that work if possible. It's harder and more time consuming to try to do decent service on something that requires clean oil and grit-free seals, when you're working in a small clearing on a bench that sees regular invasions of grimy junk. So you need infrastructure. Then you need tools.

Tools are a profit center for specialty parts manufacturers. They don't do shops any favors on price. Maybe if a shop is part of a well-funded chain it can get a better deal, but that's a world apart from mine. The true disciples will tithe as necessary to remain in good standing with the faith. The world of esoteric bike parts is minuscule in the global economy, so the price of specialty tools also reflects their relative rarity in the ocean of cash flow. But it's still major coin for subsistence farms like our little outpost.

When bikes were simpler and the range of diversity was narrower, we could benefit from the summer influx of cyclists of all sorts. We would stock some things that were too rich for the local market, like internal parts for Campy Ergopower brifters, just to rescue the vacations of unfortunate riders who happened to be here when the little ratchet spring failed, rather than at home. A little bouquet of them gathers dust even now, on a hook above one of the work benches.

With both electric bikes and electronic shifting gaining market share, we're faced with more expensive investments in tools and parts to prepare for technology we do not endorse, which seldom drops in. Living as we do on a slim margin, we are canaries in the coal mine of bike industry economics. No one pays attention to the dead canaries anymore, except to sweep up the carcasses before rolling out a red carpet for the next wave of expensive bullshit. Maybe some day the electronic technology will settle down to the ageless reliability of a 19th Century wingnut. Until then, it's just a magnet for foolish money buying into a conveyor belt of obsolescence.

Since the 1990s, the bike industry has used customers as test pilots. They do not call attention to this, so customers think they're buying something that not only represents the state of the art, but also durability. I suppose as younger generations grow up without the memory of a 24-inch single speed that lasted for all the decades that seemed to pass between age 8 and 14, the idea that a bike is durable will fade from human expectation. But it seems remarkably persistent for now.

In the 1880s, the newborn bike industry was surprised by how many working-class people shelled out what was a hefty amount of money to buy a penny-farthing ordinary bike. They had not realized how many potential customers would recognize the value of such simple personal transportation. But that was when the purchase price was by far the biggest financial hurdle to ownership. The value continued with the advent of the safety bicycle, and even persisted well past the middle of the 20th Century. Minor increases in complexity did not lead to precipitous drops in reliability. An earnestly striving human could enjoy a nicer lifestyle that rewarded both frugality and personal effort. Because it was hard to exploit monetarily, it has been hammered relentlessly by the modern world. I don't see a business model that can overcome that philosophical divide. Meanwhile, for all you strivers out there, I'll do my best to help you keep your bike going.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Evolved from its environment

As winter comes closer, bicyclists are like birds: a few still flit around, but most have vanished until spring.

The shop where I have spent the last 28 years started out as a cross-country ski shop in 1972, as that sport began a phenomenal boom across the entire country. Throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, skinny skis showed up anywhere a heavy frost might occur. People discovered as a result how short and warm the winters really were, in most places, so the sport receded again to what we believed were the more reliably snowy areas.

Many ski shops in snow country developed other business for the snowless seasons. Bikes were a common choice. In the 1970s, the "ten-speed boom" provided a summer counterpart to the cross-country ski boom. As the ten-speed boom mutated into the triathlon boom and the rising tide of mountain biking, some form of bicycle continued to bring in decent money in what ski shops had considered the off season.

Other economic forces in New Hampshire helped to create a year-round local economy for a while. People actually lived here and had disposable income. They raised families and bought equipment for them. It was never sustainable, based as it was on the illusion of prosperity created in the 1980s by ignoring the environmental and social consequences of overpopulation and predatory economic practices. But enough people had what appeared to be a good life that they spent freely on lighthearted recreation. On the fringes of that, a few cranks like me advocated for generally non-motorized lifestyles while deriving our sustenance from the more frivolous majority. We could keep harping on the more practical, larger applications and hope that the message got through. We were all lulled by the sense that things would somehow be okay. Improvement is only gradual at the best of times, because people have to figure things out for themselves. If our species collectively makes the worse choice, we're all goin' down, and there's really nothing you can do about it. It's exactly like being in an airliner that some crazy bastards have decided to fly into the World Trade Center. You may disagree, but the whack jobs at the controls have decided that we gonna die.

Cross-country skis have not been a gold mine for quite a while now. And fragmentation of bicycling into what are essentially warring religions has broken up that revenue stream. It has also made the service side harder. Not only are the machines more complex, the riders in their factions want to go where they hear the familiar liturgy of their respective faith. This is clearest in the road/mountain divide. Look at comment threads on the problems of road cycling and you will see mountain bikers asserting that no one should ride on the road anyway. The smart kids are all hurtling down the trail on hefty beasts, safely away from traffic. It's a strange combination of bravado and fear.

The rivalry between road and mountain bikes was largely made up during the early years of the mountain bike. But it became more real as the technology diverged more and more. Many factors can be manipulated to drive the rider groups further apart. Course design pre-selects for a riding style that will prevail. Cost of the machine makes people choose one or the other. Lack of vigorous industry support for better road conditions leaves road cyclists exposed to a hostile environment while the debate about infrastructure rages. Mountain biking, meanwhile, takes place in constructed environments rather than found environments. Off-road cyclists don't look for trails in their area that they think they can ride. They look for constructed facilities that favor the trick and gravity riding style that makes good videos.

Pure bike shops promote winter service as a way to bring in money and take the edge off of the spring avalanche of service demand. As a ski shop, we can't do that. As long as we cling to the remnants of cross-country skiing, we must convert to cold-weather activities in the hope that the weather and the economy bring us some income.

Even converting to a pure cycling focus would require a lot of advertising and promotion. In the 1990s, when cross-country skiing started to decline, mountain bikers were exploring winter trails. This happened mostly when we didn't have a lot of snow. It was the beginning of the studded tire movement, using existing trails, and frozen lakes. The return of deeper snow would shift the majority back to skiing. As shops dropped out of the cross-country ski business, our shop grew because we had established ourselves in the sport and were too dumb to quit. We drew from a wider and wider geographical area.

Now that winter is much less reliable, cross-country skiing is barely clinging to life, and shoppers can get what little gear they need from internet merchants, we can no longer afford to stock in depth and variety that serves the whole spectrum of the cross-country ski experience. As with bicycling, the different forms have diverged so widely that they are practically different sports entirely. Telemark is just another way to preen on the slopes. Touring can mean anything from a casual trudge around a local golf course to a multi-day trek across the tundra. Performance skiing requires excellent grooming on carefully constructed trails. And the whole thing depends on the arrival of natural snow. The cross-country areas that make snow can only do so on small, closed courses, so only the most dedicated addicts will accept its limitations for the sake of the workout. Racing gear may be expensive, but you don't make a lot of money off of racers.

My last experience in a year-round bike shop was my first experience working in a bike shop at all. Winters in Alexandria, Virginia, were short enough that we did not make a huge effort to solicit winter business. The gap between Christmas sales and the onset of spring was barely three months. That period was hardly dead. The DC area in 1980-'81 had a thriving commuter culture. This new thing called The Ironman brought in runners who suddenly wanted to learn about racing bikes. And new bike inventory had to be assembled well before the fair-weather riders came looking. When I left in May 1981, my job choices took me away from cycling until the spring of 1989, hundreds of miles to the north.

The idea of spending a winter with less direct customer contact and a steady flow of unhurried mechanical work sounds pretty pleasant. But maybe a steady, unhurried flow is not enough to pay the bills. When I left the first bike shop in 1981, I went to a sail loft that made most of its money on winter service. I started in May of '81. Summer business seemed pretty steady to me. But right after the beginning of January the floodgates opened. We were on overtime, 50-60 hours a week with only one day off, until some time in March. If it hadn't been that intense, we would not have had the money to get through the rest of the year. I hadn't thought about the fact that people don't want to give up their sails until the boat's laid up. On top of that we would get orders for racing yachts going south. The first winter was insane. The second winter was not so bad...and half the production staff got laid off by July.

It all depends on your overhead. The owner of the loft had a lifestyle to maintain. It's a luxury business. There's not a lot of transportational sailing in this country. And we did not do small boat sails. The whole production line was geared to large pieces of fabric. Once in a while, as a favor, the owner would take an order for dinghy sails and they would jam things up unbelievably. Dinky sails is more like it. But then a big genoa for a 58-footer would totally blanket a loft built around dinghy sails.

As weird as bikes get, they have not approached the size range of boats and the things that you attach to boats. About the most awkward thing we get in the bike shop is the occasional tandem. Even e-bikes, despite their incredible mass, are not much larger in volume than the biggest upright cruiser.

For this winter, we are working our usual routine. That's the plan, anyway. Because prosperity has been based on flawed concepts for hundreds -- if not thousands -- of years, the cracks run deep. At some point we may have to face the truth, that a civilization in which you need to make a special effort to get healthful exercise in your leisure time is itself so unnatural that it must be dismantled before it destroys everything else. At that point, efficient human-powered transportation will be an asset, combined with public transit and vehicles that derive motive power from external renewable energy sources. But I don't think that will happen in the next few months. We'll spend the winter pretending that weekend recreation and vacation travel are still viable with a shriveling middle class stretching static incomes across widening gaps in their budget.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Whose freedom takes precedence?

In rural areas there are no unimportant roads. Some of them may fall into disuse and neglect, but the ones that actually connect are important arteries, regardless of their size. My commute to work uses one of these arteries, Elm Street. In Ossipee it even has a double yellow centerline. No shoulders, and narrow lanes, but a double yellow centerline. The road I live on, without painted lines or a shoulder, is a virtual expressway for the locals. Their speed and aggression often reflect this.

This morning, driving back from taking the cat to the vet, I met a logging truck with multiple wheels on my side of the double yellow line on Elm Street. It was one of a small group of vehicles using the road the way normal people do.

The logging truck driver was taking his half of the road out of the middle. Forget cyclists, a vehicle that size can take out much bigger prey. Not that a truck driver wants to waste time having an accident, but intimidation clears the way for higher speeds. Higher speed means shorter time in transit.

We had an inch of snow yesterday. It's damp and raw today, under a gray sky. At one point in my life I would have gone out to train in this. It was years ago, when the population was lower and the political climate was less harsh. I thought I had nothing better to do than keep myself in top physical condition. Meanwhile, normal people were working themselves sick, as we are told to do. Who wants to be the lone lemming on the cliff top, looking sadly down at the others? Sure, you're alive and healthy, but you're an outcast. People hate you for refusing to join their foolishness, whether it's a lifestyle or a war. And they talk about freedom.

There's strength in numbers. To get the best use out of those numbers, they have to be organized. Military forces are a good example. A thousand angry people might make a mob, but a thousand trained soldiers is a battalion. The mob engages in free expression and unrestrained action. The battalion answers to a chain of command and moves with discipline and purpose. There is no free expression and no unrestrained action. Organization of all group endeavors falls on a continuum from the amorphous mob to the highly disciplined military formation. At each higher level, the individuals in the group give up more and more pure liberty for the benefits of participation.

Traffic is not a fully organized activity. The shape of infrastructure and the laws and customs of its use make up the rules of engagement. It is both a cooperative and a competitive activity. The personalities of individual road users determine the balance.

As the truck came at me, with its unofficial escort of smaller vehicles -- all larger than a bicycle -- I imagined a cyclist in the mix. Every driver would have had to navigate around the rider. The cyclist, with every legal right to be out there, would have curtailed the freedom of the motorists to travel freely in ways that motorists can handle, for the most part. I suppose cyclists can handle them, too. Any vehicle that passes cleanly, no matter how close, was not a problem, right? That which did not kill you did not kill you. The shot of adrenaline might even improve your average speed for the day.

We complain about what might happen. I do it myself, and agree with the principle that drivers shouldn't squeeze cyclists for fear of hitting them. But from an impartial viewpoint the goal is to move users through the system at the best speed. That is often not the highest speed, but generally maintains the flow. As long as the majority is motorized, the needs of cyclists will be minimized, and we will be marginalized. But we continue to be accommodated to some degree. You take what you can get while maneuvering for more. It applies to life and to traffic.

The Onion recently posted a piece with the headline, "Study: 90% Of Bike Accidents Preventable By Buying Car Like A Normal Person." At the bottom of the page is a link to another item poking at people who bring their bikes onto public transit.

With all the reasons to dislike cyclists, I'm surprised we don't get mowed down more often. Every bit of media that reinforces the stigma against weirdos who clot up the motorized world brings us closer to another front in the conflict of various interests that has been created by the convergence of overpopulation and mechanization.

Society expects conformity. Tolerance for nonconformity varies on yet another continuum from most hung up to most anarchistic. The use of the term "normal" to describe motorists alerts us to the baseline of conformity from which pedalers depart. Drivers respond with varying degrees of anxiety or hostility based on how much they feel a cyclist has injured society by using a non-standard vehicle. The Onion sets the acceptable upper age limit for bike riding at 12 years.

Satire is not just a joke. Satire is a pointed effort to portray the ridiculousness of beliefs and behaviors. There's good-natured ribbing, and then there's propaganda. Satire is often intended to be persuasive. This takes it from the category of joshing and turns it into social leverage.

Some platforms, like South Park, collect their audience on the principle that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." They appear to hold no belief or person immune to ridicule. When it's well done, it provokes thought as well as mirth. But when it just looks like a tidal wave of acid rolling across the landscape it becomes depressing. If they're scourging someone you like to see scourged, it's all great. If they're scourging your beliefs, it's unfair and simplistic.

I like the comic strip Pearls Before Swine, but I don't like the character of Jef the Cyclist. Because the strip is read by the general public, and the general public is notoriously prone to generalization, the sole cyclist character being an arrogant snot means that all cyclists are arrogant snots. Do arrogant snots deserve to be accommodated on the public right of way? Only if they express their arrogance in suitably high-powered cars. An arrogant cyclist deserves to be doored or run off the road, because that's how we do things now. Don't suffer fools. Once fools are identified, persecute them until they smarten up.

The properly humble cyclist shuffles and mumbles and nods deferentially. Yes, we are inferior, evolutionary dead ends who will eventually be eradicated. The fact that some of us are overbearing and egotistical stems not from any actual power but from the pathetic posturing of a doomed subculture. You would be more socially acceptable if your human powered commute consisted of climbing tall buildings and then leaping off in a flying squirrel suit to glide to the next and the next, until you reach your destination. If you don't have access to suitably tall structures, too bad.

I have said more than once that bicyclists need to remember that many people will never be able to incorporate any pedaling into their daily routines. A lot of people could start bike commuting or ride bikes on short utilitarian errands, but technology has evolved to make other alternatives necessary. The amount of stuff we move, over the distances that we cross, in the time we have available, make motorized transportation a fact of modern life. Before that it was railroads and boats and big wagons drawn by burly animals. People who pedal have always been a troublesome minority. Even in the various bike booms, the minority became a larger percentage of the population, but never achieved long-lasting respect.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Speaking of darkness...

The big storm that blew through northern New England last weekend took out my power line for five days. I just got electricity and running water back last night. The cable is still down. Where I have time, I have no internet connection. Where I have an internet connection I have no time. The cable company says they’ll see me Tuesday. I’ll relate gripping tales and profound insights after they hook me up the rest of the way to the 21st Century.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Observation from the darkness

A few weeks ago, I observed in a post about aggressive driving in early autumn, that motorists on my route seemed particularly irritable on a small secondary road near or after dark.

Murphy's Law as it relates to motorists passing bicyclists states that the drivers will synchronize their speeds so that the pedaler and the motorists are all squeezing through the same space at the same time. In daylight this is annoying enough. At night, it is particularly hard on drivers, blinded by oncoming headlights, trying to find a safe passage. Those of us who drive, think about how often you maneuver on faith alone, because the glare has eliminated all sight of the roadway at a time when you really can't stop. Now put your pedaling self into the picture.

For the majority of situations, a decent set of lights and some added reflective material will make a cyclist adequately visible. A decent set of lights also provides enough light for the cyclist to see the road ahead. But when the road is narrow, a little hilly, and bendy, a cyclist presents much more of a challenge to drivers.

By the law, cyclists in many jurisdictions have the right to take the lane to prevent passing. This is a good idea a lot of the time anyway. It isn't always a good idea, though. You have to develop your own judgment about when to herd, and when to let 'em run.

Unfortunately, impatient local drivers will perform the most insane maneuvers to pass a cyclist, day or night, on my route. But even the ones who are somewhat more likely to take a moment will seldom take more than a moment before launching themselves around me. This factor more than any other impels me to change to the park and ride when daylight grows short. Faced with the sudden threat of each other, motorists will blame the easier target: the guy on the bike.

Is it a form of surrender, to give up the road because motorists don't have the patience and judgment to behave decently around other road users? Yes. But the death or injury of a cyclist would serve no purpose. It would not advance the point of view that motorists should learn to drive with more generosity. Someone would point that out, but it would join a jumble of other assertions that would leave us all where we started -- except for the poor schmuck who had gotten slammed by an armored vehicle.

Evolution moves slowly, on a broad front. We can each help it along in ways we'd like to see, but ultimately an individual's survival comes down to moment-by-moment combinations of skill and luck. Accumulated skill can enhance luck, but uncontrolled variables will remain. If you want to see what the future turns out to be like, you have to survive to get there.

Monday, October 02, 2017

It's the traffic, stupid

To be more accurate, it's motor vehicles and the people who drive them. The category is, "Things that make people quit cycling on the road."

There is no last word on this topic. It shows no sign of ever going away. Those who choose to pedal must now and forever deal with the challenges of sharing space with large, fast vehicles, mostly piloted by people with minimal training. And professionalism is no help: truck and bus drivers are notoriously hostile to pedalers. Professionalism may make matters worse, because those drivers are on a schedule and are earning their living by driving. The direct monetary connection reinforces their territoriality against not just cyclists but against all amateur road users.

The solution comes not with a single stroke but with a multifaceted response that has to include a lot of infrastructure changes along with behavior modification. Unfortunately, the system we have evolved developed very naturally along the path of least resistance. People were happy to let their communities be designed around motor vehicle flow. Almost no one questioned it. Forget whatever sinister conspiracies underlay specific things like the destruction of streetcars in favor of buses, and other sabotage of public transit. The proliferation of cheap automobiles relative to rising incomes in the mid and late 20th Century guaranteed that they would dominate our lives. The illusion of freedom was easier to sustain when the consequences, both economic and environmental, could be more easily masked.

We all understand the problem, but it seems as difficult to solve as gun violence. Both motorist dominance and gun violence breed fear, which can then be used to control people. In the case of cycling, fear serves to keep riders off the road.

People who used to ride tell me that they can't anymore. Maybe they quit completely. Maybe they switched to separated venues ranging from mountain bike trails to sedate paths. Most of them express their decision as a matter of maturity and wisdom rather than defeat and surrender.

People who haven't ridden on roads much or at all, who take up cycling or continue it in separated venues also assume the mantle of mature wisdom rather than regretful fear.

We all want to feel good about ourselves. Most of us, anyway. The problem is that the ones who have surrendered have surrendered completely. They've put it behind them and will not advocate for road cycling. I have not met a single quitter who said that they would take it up again if they noticed that conditions had improved. It falls to a shrinking group of experienced riders, augmented by younger people who are still in their riding phase, to keep a scrap of territory available to riders willing to face the existing reality and continue to promote proposals for its improvement.

The inexperience of those younger riders hampers their ability to understand the experience of cycling as the body ages. What was good enough for me in my twenties is out of reach to me in my sixties. It takes a bigger and bigger truck, going slower and slower, to get me to sprint it down. The degeneration has been gradual, but, because I have never stopped riding, I have been able to observe and document it. I guess I do all right for my age, but without the explosive power and grinding endurance I enjoyed from age 20 to about 50. And it shouldn't always be about exploring one's physical limits. Transportation and exploratory cycling should seldom be about exploring one's physical limits, or the limits of one's courage. It's okay for daily life to have a certain serenity.

To make this post self-contained, I have to acknowledge that motor vehicles have their uses. Time, distance, payload, and weather can all make a closed, motorized vehicle a better choice than something powered by human muscle. That has to factor into the system. When you need them, you need them. And what Edward Abbey called "motorized wheelchairs" can accommodate anyone who has decided that it's time to settle into their embrace.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Economics of Expertise

In ancient times -- you know, the 1970s and '80s -- bicycle technology was mostly simple and accessible. Beginning with Shimano's introduction of Rapidfire in 1990, the industry has been systematically destroying that, but you can still find it.

Someone who has evolved with the bicycle over the past several decades will understand what the new stuff is trying to do, based on its ancestors. The processes are simple. The new crap just uses more complex internal parts to achieve the same basic objectives.

Most sophisticated modern componentry can't be repaired. And why would you? The stuff you bought this year has already been thrown on the scrap heap by the manufacturer. And yet, people persist in keeping their bike equipment for as long as they can, and trying to get it fixed when it malfunctions.

There are plenty of YouTube videos of people fixing things. Personally, I would rather have an exploded diagram and a brief, written synopsis of what's inside something than watch someone who may or may not know what they're doing demonstrate it in a video, but I'm old, cantankerous, and independent. But I digress...

Through the efforts of intrepid people doing what they've been told they can't, the independent mechanic community has discovered some of the inner mysteries of modern widgets that have accidentally been made accessible enough to open up, explore, and attempt to repair. Sometimes the repair depends on having donor organs available from another specimen that may conveniently have failed in a different way. Other times, the inner mysteries just need a good cleaning.

When bikes were truly simple and accessible, a rider could perform complete disassembly and reassembly in a small room with simple tools. Some of them had to be bike-specific, but they would all fit into a small toolbox. You could fake a work stand and a truing stand in various ways, although those items do make even simple maintenance luxuriously easier. When I was briefly well funded in the late 1990s, I bought shop-quality versions of both of those. But without them I still managed to build wheels and perform complete overhaul after complete overhaul through the years.

I don't say you need to be so ambitious. I only point out that it was possible. My riding buddies and I did invest in a truing stand that we owned communally and passed around so that we could each build wheels for our commuting and racing bikes. It was a beat-up old thing, not a real shiny Park, but it got us started. Other than that, we got by with improvised facilities wherever we lived. Our apartments always had telltale handlebar scuffs on the walls of the sparsely-furnished living room. In one apartment, my crazy friend Mark painted the rear stays of his racing bike fluorescent orange, leaving the outline on the wall. It was a pretty slummy apartment. I'm not sure whether we even lost our security deposit over that. The owner of the building may have thought she owed us some compensation for the cockroaches and the lack of heat.

Fast forward to the present day: I was digging around inside a SRAM Rival brifter that had suddenly stopped responding to commands. SRAM lets you right in there. I've even seen at least one video in which the rogue mechanic shows how easy they are to service. "Easier than Campy," he says. Even now, we still relate high end road stuff to Campagnolo. The thing is, Campagnolo provides parts and service instructions, or at least they did a couple of cogs ago. In the past several seasons, I have not had to delve into anything later than very early 10-speed from the Italians, if anything. I have not bothered to keep up, because I need brain space for more common issues.

SRAM does provide ample access to the interior of their brifters. After that, you're on your own. Since the simple task of changing a shift cable can involve removing the handlebar tape and exercising a large portion of your profanity supply, anything deeper than that will take a lot of time and require that you keep track of a lot of little parts. And therein lies the economic problem.

A shop has overhead. Back in the 1990s, mechanics learned as quickly as they could to fix as many esoteric problems as possible, because an active riding population was constantly challenging us to prove that we knew our stuff. The industry steadily added complexity and buried the mysteries under more layers of concealment, but the changes were incremental enough, and the equipment remained mostly simple enough for a good wrench to maintain some level of stature from season to season. And it made financial sense for the shop to project this image of expertise. Riders would tell their friends where to get the good work. They might buy bikes by price and brand image, but enough people were really riding to understand the value of reliable repairs.

As complexity reached ridiculous levels and the industry had simultaneously managed to wedge rider groups firmly apart, all-around expertise became harder to maintain. Riders, particularly in hard-core mountain and road categories, now want to go where they recognize the nonverbal signs of group allegiance. The divisions were always there. Now they are more starkly prominent. But, beneath it all, certain mechanical concepts still make everything work. So a shop that may not appear obviously in with the in-crowd may still have a person or two on the staff who can get into a mechanism, figure out what ails it, and fix it or definitively declare it dead.

Unlike the hospital, our shop tends not to charge the customer if the patient dies. This means that we have to make our assessment quickly enough that we haven't lost a lot of billable hours. And, if we think it might be repairable by someone more in tune with a particular bike type, we say so. In the case of the SRAM brifter, we ordered and installed a new one. Then I started an autopsy on the old one. The ratchets are not engaging correctly, and probably cannot be stabilized. Donor parts from another unit might work, but the experiment would take hours, at shop rates.

It makes no sense for the customer to invest in that or the shop to spend the time. But a bike owner with mechanical aptitude and spare time might get in there, diagnose the problem, scrounge up the parts, fix the unit, and announce triumphantly that shops are ripping you off when they say your brifter has to be replaced. Total cost in commercial shop hours might have been $300 for a part that retails new for $114, but that part of the calculation is ignored.

What the industry deems unfixable they will make sure really is unfixable. Until some mad scientist develops a little machine for home mechanics to clone repair parts using recycled plastic bottles and metal cans, powered by scampering cockroaches or little solar panels, true repairs will be the exception.

Monday, September 25, 2017

September is Aggressive Driving Month

September Driver Aggression was a little late this year, probably because the protracted summer-like weather made it easy to forget that the month had arrived. It really hit this week, though.

One hallmark of autumnal aggression is impatience after sunset. I always get honked at more when I'm operating with the lights on, and the honks tend to be a little sharp. With the generator head and tail lights, and two additional blinkies to the rear, plus reflector leg bands, I'm not hard to see. But drivers seem pushier when they pass. This continues after September. On my route, it's worse on the secondary road between Route 16 and my home in the woods than it is on the highways or coming out of Wolfeboro.

I have not commuted anywhere but here since the late 1980s, so I don't know what other riders may experience. When I commuted year-round by bike in the Annapolis, Maryland area, between 1979 and 1987, the percentage of jerks seemed pretty stable, day or night, in any season. During my bike commuting period there, it was getting steadily more urbanized and sprawled out. Of course this new growth was designed around motor vehicles exclusively. There might be token signage and a bit of width designated for cyclists in a few places, but the motorists knew that they were the top predators in that food chain. I don't think any of my old racing buddies still ride around there anymore. When I would visit from up here, even though the motoring public actually seemed less aggressive than during the early 1980s, the traffic volume made riding stressful. To be dangerous, drivers don't have to be maliciously aggressive, just self-centered and unaware.

Drivers may think that a cyclist can't see them as well in the dark. The opposite is true: a motor vehicle has powerful floodlights on the front of it, and it still makes as much noise as ever. I hear them and I see them, or at least I see the light thrown by them.

The closer passing and increased tendency to honk make me think that drivers believe that the darkness cloaks their identity. I suppose that is somewhat true, since most people's license plate lights don't work. But I have a terrible time seeing into cars and trucks in daylight, let alone at night, because of the reflections on the glass. In a lot of developed countries, hitting a cyclist day or night is basically a freebie. They don't need to be cloaked. Reasonable doubt shines down on the whole encounter.

Since I've had close encounters in the dark even when the motorist and I were the only vehicles on a stretch of rural road with decent sight lines, I think that the darkness and seclusion might also stimulate predatory instincts in some borderline folks. And I'll bet that a lot of us are closer to that borderline than we will admit even to ourselves. A twitch of the steering wheel is all it takes to assuage a little impulsive blood lust. So a super low traffic volume is not necessarily a selling point.

I've mentioned before that I feel helplessly conspicuous, riding on a trail in the dark, with my bright lights making deep shadows outside their glare. When I don't need to be seen by others, night vision goggles would be the better choice. And here we go with another gear purchase. More likely I rely on statistical probability and just keep on with the visible illumination.

Stuff I like

Our customer building up a fleet of Surly bikes added a Troll to the lineup this summer. Building a Surly is always a welcome relief from the crustaceans of the Carboniferous Period. I could do it all day, every day, with a big smile. So whenever I get to, it's a treat.

What the customer has requested is a more formal and premeditated version of the commuter I built from my old mountain bike. The frame has all the Surly amenities for versatility, but the underlying concept is the same as my conversion.

Our customer is not a large man. He's a good match for a frame designed around 26-inch wheels. As a gentleman tourist, he appreciates the practicality of fenders.

The bikepacking movement has led to some intriguing options in handlebars. I might even try a set of these on my commuter. Maybe after the customer has had a chance to get the tires good and dirty I'll take the bike for a test cruise. The sweep of the bars puts the control setup definitely more in the touring than the sport category.

The color of the Troll reminds me of my first car. It looks sort of brown in some light, and a warm orange when the sun hits it.

For comparison, here's my knocked-together rig, built on an old Gary Fisher Aquila. There are thousands like it on the roads and trails.

For the bikepacking market, the Troll comes with ample braze-ons for accessory attachment. A conscientious assembly includes greasing the threads for all these accessory attachment points. A normal bike will have anywhere from two to maybe 6. The Troll has thirty. Eighteen of them are on the fork.

Here I am, playing a quick 18 holes after lunch:
The Troll has disc brakes, but Surly provides the posts for rim brakes if desired. With dual-cable levers, a rider could run both! And I would be really tempted to have mysterious little electrical connectors dangling off of any accessory bolts I wasn't using for something else.

This customer has only ridden drop-bar bikes. He has not developed techniques and reflexes for a bike based on the traditional mountain bike. In addition to the usual adjustments on a new bike, we'll have to do a little orientation. The sensations of powering and steering a bike in the dirt have become so automatic for me that I don't think about them. But I notice the difference. He'll catch on quickly. I do want to see how different the handling is with those swept bars. Particularly in quick, tight turns -- such as one must do when crossing the rails on the Cotton Valley Trail -- I wonder if the bike won't feel as nimble as mine.

People ride the CVT on all sorts of sluggish junk. I'm just fussy. And this customer does not live very near Wolfeboro, so he will do most of his trail riding on a path that does not have to dance around over active rail lines.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Assembly comedy of errors

Bikes people get somewhere else are one of our main sources of income. Maybe they bought it on line and realized that bikes aren't really that easy to put together. Maybe they got it at a shop that thinks bikes are too easy to put together. It goes like a snap if you leave out a lot of steps. It goes even faster if you don't even know what a problem looks like.

The latest example had something to do with a charity promotion, but when the technician doing the check in asked conversationally, "what charity was that?" the customer replied grumpily, "That's immaterial."


At a quick glance, the bike looked like a typical low-end facsimile of a hard-tail mountain bike. It had some snazzy cosmetic touches, like a silver and black headset spacer and machined-out highlights on the conical top of the headset itself, and on the top cap.

The dials on the tops of the fork legs looked like a particularly brittle chromed plastic. The oversize frame tubes are faux aluminum: they're steel. But it has disc brakes that actually seem to work.

The rear wheel was the heaviest thing I've hoisted in a long time that did not have an electric motor built into it.

The adjustment process went deceptively smoothly. Then I removed the top cap from the stem, so I could grease the threads on that bolt.

Perched atop that attractive two-tone headset spacer, the stem was halfway off the top of the fork and could not be mounted any lower with that spacer in place.

The star nut itself, which is supposed to be 15mm down in the steerer, was nearly flush with the top of it.

I found spacers to set the stem at the correct height and reset the star nut before putting the whole mess back together. That got me scrutinizing the rest of the parts.

Check out these shifters: Fake Shimano.

The derailleurs were another inside joke:
Sun Run! A knockoff of Sun Race, a company that began in the 1990s by making good but not fashionably exciting mix-and-match components to repair Shimano drive trains.
The front derailleur is a double knockoff, because Sun Run evokes Sun Race, but SR is an even more venerable company (Sakae Ringyo).

The only brand labeling on the tires was a logo that looks like WD
This might be a swipe at or homage to the old Flying Pigeon brand of bicycles. In this case, WD stands for Wounded Duck.

Nice machining on the pedal threads:

Nothing that should have been greased was greased. A tuneup on a bike like this is basically reassembly.

Bikes like this are one reason that bicycle accident statistics exaggerate the danger of simply riding. If the bike had not had a defective rear inner tube, someone could have ridden it. As long as the chain pulls one gear around, and the wheels don't fall off, some poor idiot could pedal this thing out to the top of Dead Man's Drop and launch it. The stem was one solid pothole away from detaching from the bike. The brake cables were reversed and tangled. The pedals were finger tight in the crank arms. As far as I know, bicycle accident statistics never include in depth analysis of the machine or factor in the bad decisions made by the rider. It's just bike=injury or death.

The cruelest thing about a bike like this is that a kid might think that it's totally cool.We scrape off a lot of crap on kids because, "they're just going to grow out of it," or they're going to get a driver's license in a couple of years. So at an impressionable age we condition them to expect nothing better. This one didn't even have a country of origin sticker. Apparently, not even China wants to claim it.

My bikes when I was a kid were nothing special, but it's a lot easier to make a durable, affordable one-speed with a coaster brake than to pump out cheap, crappy versions of complex mountain bikes. Along with the plethora of downright hazardous bikes, kids have ready access to heavily edited videos of trained (and battle scarred) professionals showing them how to abuse their bikes and themselves.

Progress marches on.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

An Okay Shoe

Time once again for another glowing endorsement of a current cycling product.

Always on the lookout for a non-cleated cycling shoe that will fit into a toeclip, I ordered a pair from Specialized that looked promising.

The model is called Skitch. According to internet search results, skitch means "to hitch a ride by hanging onto a moving vehicle while riding a skateboard or roller skates. There was also reference to doing this in just your shoes while sliding on ice. Neither of these sound like they would last long, which is usually what happens to shoes that fit toeclips, too. The bike industry giveth, and the bike industry taketh away.

The curse of modern shoes is the cupsole. A big, beefy rand is an obvious impediment to riders trying to fit a shoe into the opening of a toe strap. Less obvious are the nearly ubiquitous cupsoles on shoes that in other respects appear tapered and smooth, without aggressive tread, or bulky straps built into the upper.

A veteran toeclip rider gets used to the feeling of the strap contacting the sides of the foot right above the sole of the shoe in just the right spot behind the wide part of the foot. Toe strap is a bit of a misnomer, because you want it well back from your toes. Even a low-profile cupsole interrupts this contact, making the rider -- this rider anyway -- feel isolated from the pedal, and insecure. The strap may indeed be holding the foot in place, but without the feedback of the strap it becomes impossible to judge how firmly the foot is held, and how much one can trust it in a snappy maneuver.

Only a cleat provides maximum power and control. When I'm wearing a touring shoe I have already decided that the versatility of a walkable sole and the less frantic pace of a tour justify the less secure attachment. But I keep the straps for a reason: if I need a little more power or control than a flat pedal would provide, I have it. It's an intermediate step between the total commitment of any cleated system and the complete anarchy of a flat pedal.

As kids we never thought about any of this. All of our bikes had the standard rubber block pedals. When we had to accelerate, we stood up and pumped. When we had to climb a steep hill, we stood up and pumped. When we'd outgrown our bikes and hadn't gotten a new one that fit, we stood up all the time. For that matter, stuck onto a tall, gangly steed that we were supposed to "grow into," we had to stand because we were straddling the bar. The seat was a summit we could not yet reach. But when you know better, you want better.

Nice features of the Skitch include laces, a fairly tapered toe, and a waterproof toe cap which seems like it should also serve as a built-in toe warmer -- you know, those neoprene thingies that you stretch over the toe of a cycling shoe in cool but not super cold weather. It's very comfortable, with a cork insole. Fit is tricky, since a touring shoe should fit a bit more generously than a full-on performance cycling shoe. Here is another place where the cupsole messes up the total effect, by making the front of the shoe about a quarter of a size larger outside than it is inside. You have to stuff that into the clip to get far enough for the strap to go around the sweet zone.

I envision using this shoe for winter commuting. The North Face Snow Sneakers that I've been using are seven years old, and they were never very stiff. My winter commutes tend to be park-and-rides on dirt roads and the local unpaved rail trail. The route is all downhill in the morning, so shoe stiffness isn't too critical, but all uphill at night. Tired already from a day of work, I hate to feel like I'm losing what little power I have to a squishy, bouncy shoe. But the Snow Sneakers aren't too bad. They're definitely nice and warm without being oppressive. And they have excellent off-bike traction without having a super aggressive tread. They are apparently still available. At $110 retail, I would be reluctant to thrash them through slushy trails. Because I work in a shop, I didn't pay retail. Because I've been a low-level wage grunt all my life (oops), I can't imagine having enough income to consider $110 disposable.

At least the new shoes might let me save my nice Diadora touring shoes for fun rides in nicer weather. The Diadoras were marketed as spinning shoes, so they're shaped for athletic use. I trimmed the front strap so it fits into the pedal more easily.

Years ago, my late friend Bill recommended Winwood extra large toe clips as the best at accommodating big shoes. I ordered three sets. I could use a fourth now, and they're no longer made. I've ordered a possible contender made by All City to replace the non-Winwood ones on my off-road commuter.

The problem is not so much clip depth as the amount that it comes back over the instep. It has to reach the sweet range. The new clips accommodate double straps. When I ran double straps for a while in the early 1980s, we took one set out through the holes in the rear plate of the pedal cage and the other set through the normal routing. That really held the foot, but the rear strap could cut in painfully. One strap is enough for most uses, as long as it is in the right place for your particular foot size and shape.

I've only taken one ride on the new shoes. I will post updates if anything about them surprises me.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Fixing the unfixable

As I was picking congealed grease out of a Shimano Rapidfire shifter pod dating from about 1991,
I actually appreciated how solidly it was made, and how reliably it worked compared to its temperamental descendants. Early versions of a product, even one with lots of conceptual flaws, will be made much better than later versions, because the promoter doesn't want it to self destruct before establishing itself among the uninformed as a solid product. Only then do the manufacturers start watering it down to increase profits.

I hated the underlying concept, and still do. Shimano announced Rapidfire in a triumphant video that they sent out to shops before the 1990 season. We watched our copy in horror, anticipating in full detail the hell that it would unleash on mechanics and riders. We could do nothing to stop it, despite my best subversive efforts. It included the admonition that there was nothing we could fix inside these pods, so don't even try. Word in the cycling press was that intrepid mechanics had disassembled brand new units and reassembled them exactly as they had been, and they mysteriously failed to function. Whether this was true or was disinformation planted by Shimano I never found out. It implied that there was some magic Shinto pixie dust inside these units that would fall out if barbarians profaned the interior.

I plastered these cartoons all over Interbike's Philadelphia show for a couple of years:

It was, of course, to no avail. The technofascists won, leading the technolemmings off of cliff after cliff. But I digress.

The 1991 pod clicks solidly into gear as soon as you flush out the pus that they used for grease. It congeals into a substance we call earwax. My colleague Ralph came up with that one. He was an excellent wrench who was smart enough to get out of the business. It's been bad for his waistline, but probably good for his bottom line, to pursue his interest in computers instead of the 19th Century technology of the bicycle, dolled up with 21st Century materials as it is today.

When hackers and their malware finally make the Internet untenable, bicycles will be waiting to receive the refugees of the Digital Age.

Back to the pod from '91: it felt weird to have so few clicks. I've had to clean out many later versions, chasing more gears, so an original six-speed feels very short. But the wider spacing with fewer stops provides more margin for error. Cable tension has to be relatively accurate, but not neurosurgically precise.

Within a couple of years, the Japanese Buggernaut had enclosed the pods more completely and nearly doubled the number of parts inside. This made them less vulnerable to invading grit and mud, and generally more reliable. It also concealed the insidious activities of earwax under a Darth Vader-like black mask.

In the 1990s, the bike industry, led by Shimano, used the customers mercilessly as test pilots. You might expect such shenanigans from small companies making boutique componentry, but you saw more of it from the big players with lots of leverage. You see it today as manufacturers hump their customers in vulnerable "enthusiast" categories with model year changes intended to make addicts want another hit. There are no white hats in the big componentry business. With the coming of the Electrical Age, batteries are all the rage in everything one might electrify.

Honestly, how did any of us survive the 1970s and '80s on the paleolithic crap we had to ride? In his book, Four Against the Arctic, author David Roberts told the story of four Russian hunters in the 18th Century who survived on an island near Svalbard for six years before being rescued. He and other members of his research team observed that people from a later time, less inured to routine hardship, probably would not have survived. Indeed, look how many perished on Arctic exploration trips when their technological cocoon ripped, dumping them into the elements where Inuit survived and thrived.

We're not Arctic explorers, but we are certainly allowing ourselves to be increasingly isolated and softened by accepting more and more technological intermediaries between us and the realities of the tasks we choose to tackle. Some of these can enhance safety and functionality, but an awful lot, particularly in cycling, pander to riders in search of marginal gains at more than marginal increases in cost, and drive perfectly functional older stuff underground.

Would I miss my outlaw bravado if the stuff I use was totally mainstream? Against what would I rebel in Biketopia, with beautiful routes and intermodal interfaces everywhere? Why don't we build it and find out?

Monday, September 04, 2017

Can you afford to be a technolemming?

In the 1990s I coined the term "technofascist" to describe the forces in the bike industry and their propagandists in the cycling press that insisted on ramming their innovations down everyone's throats. Recently I came up with "technolemming" to describe the consumers who self destructively run off the cliff en masse when the industry tells them that the newest great thing is just beyond the edge of it. There are more good reasons to avoid electronic shifting than to embrace it.

About once a week during the height of summer, someone comes into the shop where I work in a resort town because their electronic shifting has developed a mental issue. Among year-round residents, almost no riders own it. The ones who do are wealthy. In spite of this, the cheerleaders of over-sophisticated technology tout its reliability. Like many people in an abusive relationship, even the ones who are being kicked around by their temperamental lover swear that they still think it's worth it.

A misleading promo for SRAM eTap made it sound like they had developed electronic brakes. I had a good laugh over that for a few days until I double-checked before citing it in this blog. SRAM just has hydraulic disc brakes to go with their wireless electronic shifting. I had to perform therapy on an eTap shifter this summer. There's nothing intuitive about it. You have to learn and remember procedures, and be prepared to have nothing anyway if the batteries die or it develops any number of mysterious ailments of tiny circuitry. But its proponents fall back on statistics. More of it works than doesn't, and that should be good enough to get you to part with the coin.

I've also unstuck a few hydraulic calipers each season. Sure, brake cables can rust on a neglected bike, but sophisticated stuff rots and binds up in so many more and intricate ways. It's all great fun for the short-term addict, but it's an expensive relationship if you try to stay in it for the long haul. Crap that breaks and wears out in a few seasons may be good for the economy, but it is bad for our species and our planet. We've got to get into the habit of owning things for longer and spending whatever we spend on them to fix them, and to buy the time to use them. A bicycle used to be an elegantly simple escape from tweaky technology. The industry couldn't throw that away fast enough when the easy money hit in the 1990s. That's become the minority view of retro-geezers and weirdos. Even your stalwart "bikepackers" embrace hydraulics and suspension, judging by the photos. And those are still consumer activities that waste a person's energy on going away from their productive lives, rather than integrating their exertion into their productive lives.

Still without a car, due to a rather humorous setback suffered by my mechanic*, I rode my 29 commuting miles yesterday under threatening skies in the morning, and under the delivery of that threat in the afternoon. Given the wetness, I rode the old silver fixed gear, for ultimate simplicity. It had been perhaps a couple of years since I used it for a commute. Coming at the end of a week of full-distance commutes, it was kind of grueling. The temperature was in the 50s, with increasing rain for my whole ride home. People travel to distant lands to be this uncomfortable climbing mountains, or trekking across wildernesses, when they can be cold, wet, miserable, and totally thrashed just getting home to supper. I would not trade it.

I've had a lot of purely recreational adventures, all non-motorized. But the baseline through the decades has been bike commuting. Particularly once I moved to a rural area, I have not been able to live entirely car-free, but I will inject transportational cycling wherever I can.

Under the heading of adventure commuting, I did do park-and-paddle commutes in which I used my kayak to cross about four miles of lake and connecting channel, ending with a walk across town to work. Those were great fun, and did save some car use, but took about twice as long as a bike ride all the way from home. I did like the challenge of facing whatever the weather was dishing out: wind, rain, sleet, snow, fog, or placid beauty. Because lake traffic basically vanishes at the end of summer, I would push the season into darkness. Yeah, I might die out there, but you could have a car accident, too.

I would ski to work if there was enough graded width outside the travel lanes on the most direct line to town. Unfortunately, it would be a long, rugged bushwhack with the terrain as it is.

It is more beneficial, physically, economically, and environmentally, to use non-motorized ways to go places you have to go anyway. It is your physiology, your economy, and the environment in which you live that all improve as a result. And yet, because there are considerable social benefits, it's not just self indulgent. Traffic is eased, parking pressure is alleviated, and more people are in better shape.

A shift to durability and more physical engagement with our lives would require a period of adjustment. I don't bother to make a lot of noise about it, aside from my incessant personal whining, because so many people have so many valid excuses born of the technology, infrastructure, and attitudes we have evolved. If you're in a hurry -- and who isn't -- you get in the motor vehicle and mash the throttle. If you want to get a lot done with an awkward load of equipment across a wide geographical area, you use a motor vehicle. I have to borrow one tomorrow to take two cats for their routine vet checkups, because my car is still in the shop.

*The setback my mechanic had fits the theme of over-sophistication: He'd been stacking cars in his shop when he leaves at the end of his day, one on each lift, and another one parked below. My car was in the upper berth above a Mercedes. The Mercedes developed an electrical problem that made it immovable for about 3 hours while the mechanic sorted out its electrical issue (or dragged it away with a chain. He didn't say).

In many ways, I consider my life to be a series of carefully thought out mistakes, interspersed with impulsive blunders. I got here by a series of things that seemed like good ideas at the time. If I'd known how a lot of them were going to play out, I might have narrowed my focus earlier and lived an even less acquisitive life. But you can't change one thing without changing everything. Whatever alternate universes exist, this is the one in which I appear to be. In another one, my parents never met.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A (blank) is a hole in the (blank) into which you pour money

The phrase is applied to boats (a hole in the water into which you pour money), aircraft (a hole in the sky into which you pour money), horses (a hole in the field into which you pour money), and pretty much anything else you can think of.

This week, for me, a car is a hole in the road into which you pour money. My mechanic had already told me we should schedule a timing belt pretty soon, and there was a little piece of exhaust system basically right off the manifold that hadn't gotten changed during the last exhaust system project in the spring, when the older exhaust system had failed prematurely and been replaced under warranty. The car was sounding sportier and sportier as I tried to find time to schedule the repairs.

Thursday night, on the way home from music class, I was buzzing up Route 16 at the mode average speed of 60+ when the car suddenly got much louder. Beneath the roar of the engine was another component that I couldn't identify.

I had to stop for a few groceries, so I slowed when I got to the shopping center. At that point I could hear that the undertone was scraping metal. The exhaust pipe was dragging on the road. One big plus: people don't tend to tailgate you when you have a fountain of sparks billowing out from under the rear of the car. Big minus: you have a fountain of sparks billowing out from under the rear of the car. Actually, I don't know how showy it might have been. I saw nothing in my mirrors to tip me off.

I scraped my way to a parking spot and peered beneath the car. Then I called my mechanic. That's the advantage of going to a guy who is basically nocturnal. I can call him from a supermarket parking lot at 8 p.m. to discuss the situation. Of course I am totally out of luck if I have a problem before lunch time...

On the drive from the supermarket to the house, I discovered that the Ossipee road crew had spent the day dumping tons of chip stone on Elm Street. It looked like a gravel road. I had to assume there was some sort of tar sealant under several inches of loose rock, but you couldn't detect it. I crawled along, listening to the loose pipe bounce around, hitting various things on the undercarriage. I waited for it to take out a tire, a brake line, or the gas tank. With both a bike and my fiddle in the car, I would have had to move fast if the vehicle burst into flames. But it didn't.

I pulled into the driveway in an arc, so that I could pull out again without backing up, but I wasn't about to take the car back out on the road without securing or removing the dangling 4 feet of muffler pipe. It had detached just ahead of the muffler.

The next evening after work I devised a rig with a pipe and wire, some toe straps and duct tape, to hold the loose section up while I piloted the car to Gilford. Then I went to bed early so I could get up and out of the house by 6:30 in the morning. That was the plan, anyway.

The jury rig on the exhaust pipe held up perfectly. Traffic was a little slow in a couple of critical places. I got to Gilford knowing I couldn't sprint the 27 miles to Wolfe City by 9 a.m., but at least the car was there for the mechanic to examine as soon as he got the chance. I don't really need it until September 6, but it might come in handy before then. The mechanic works alone, and he was buried in big jobs that had come in ahead of mine.

I slammed my remaining 12 ounces of morning coffee and started down the road. After a hundred yards or so , I realized that I'd locked the car with the spare keys inside it, so I whipped around to unlock it with the key fob on my own set. I heard the locks click open, and started off again. I'd forgotten that the doors would automatically re-lock if I didn't open one of them within about 30 seconds. I was well out of earshot when the car made that noise.

For some weird reason, I felt really strong and did not have to stop for a whiz every four miles. I'd worried about that when I guzzled the coffee, but it was a good cup. Now I was finding out how good. On my hefty Surly, with lights, fenders, and the day's supplies of clothing and food, I was pushing 19-20 mph quite a bit of the time. Purely unintentional I assure you. I let any climb slow me down as much as it wanted.

Despite a pretty sporty performance for an old fart on a heavy bike, my average was not good enough to get me to work anywhere near on time. But my shame-fueled efforts on arrival were good enough to mollify the high command, after a bit of scratchiness.

The mechanic called around 1 p.m. to ask where I'd left the key, because the car was locked. I cursed the automatic security feature, but I appreciated the sitcom aspect. The audience would have gotten to see and hear the car re-lock itself after I rode away. I asked if he needed me to call AAA.

"No," he said. "I can get in."

"With a brick?" I asked. He knew I was kidding. I was ready to wing a brick at the car just for that automatic locking trick.

"No, I have a real lock-out kit." He also told me where he stashes the key on cars of this type, to avoid such problems in the future.

The riding season began with a couple of periods of forced carlessness. Now another one puts a closing bracket around at least the summer. As usual, I will keep riding as long as I can into the cold and darkness.

The chip-stone on Elm Street improved only gradually over the next couple of days. I rode out on Monday on a fixed gear with panniers to get more grocery items. Drifts of stone at the right edges made it dicey when traffic forced me over there. I've mostly quit trying to herd them. The ones who will be safe will be safe, and the ones who will be assholes turn into even bigger assholes when you try to force them to be safe.

On the way home from the grocery store I saw the Ossipee road crew with a street sweeper and a couple of dump trucks, trying to tame the mess a bit. I'm sure residents along the road have been screaming. Parked cars are covered with an inch of dust. The clouds of grit have settled on lawns, shrubbery, and buildings close to the road.

The horseless carriage was an improvement over the horse because it was durable, repairable, and did not need to be fed while it was idle. But cars now are not durable or repairable, and they rot and harbor vermin when they're left idle for very long. We shell out thousands of dollars every few years to buy new ones, and spend millions on roads and shelters for them. The horse starts to make economical sense again.

The bicycle is what really makes sense. Called "the poor man's horse" in the late 19th Century, when sales of the relatively expensive machines were surprisingly strong among people below the luxury class, bicycles represented transportation independence and increased cruising range that made them worth the investment. They were simple, durable, easily repairable, and did not eat when idle. They could fit in a shelter much smaller than a barn.

We can't have the lower classes living well on modest incomes, now can we? Goodness knows it's hard enough to get the lazy sluggards to put in an honest day's work for their pittance, and keep striving for more. Who knows what mischief they'll get up to if they aren't constantly toiling to purchase expensive necessities from companies owned by their employers and social superiors? We can't do company towns and stores anymore, at least not overtly, but we can certainly build infrastructure that serves only a certain size and speed of vehicle really well.

This trap was not planned. It grew from the prosperity of industrial societies. The fact that this prosperity was digging industrial society into a hole was talked about very little as life just seemed to be getting better and better among the demographic sectors attractive to advertisers. Screw the rest of the world. Right here in Happyville, things are going great, and they're only getting better.

Holes seem to be a theme here. Consumer society is a hole in the planet that you pour money into. Unfortunately, it grows from natural instincts to devour, trample, shit, and walk away. Because our salvation depends on being smarter and better than that, what we will get instead is a Malthusian collapse, and a species reduced in numbers and destructive powers, but probably no wiser. We can and will rebuild our numbers and destructive powers. It's what we do.

I can imagine instead a rational civilization in which motor vehicle use is limited to necessities like maintenance of the non-motorized transportation system, emergency vehicles, and not much else. Hell, I can imagine a lot of nice things. And I like to. I just know better than to hope or expect. I'll keep the idea alive for whoever might find it before the beacon goes out.