Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The gift of car trouble

Just as some customers drive a considerable distance to have me work on their bikes, I drive a considerable distance to have a particular mechanic work on my car. He's been worth the trip since 1988.

The route to his shop is a long and challenging bike ride. Any route from my place in Effingham to his shop in Gilford has to get past a mountain range and a big lake. Winnipesaukee is actually known as "The Big Lake" in New Hampshire, because it is the state's largest. The mountain range, the Ossipees, is roadless. It's an ancient volcanic ring dike, nearly circular.

When I have to deliver and pick up by myself, I ride a bike rather than bother anyone to drive more than 80 miles to indulge my customer loyalty. Every route has some terrifying nasty sections. The one with the fewest of them runs along the south shore of the big lake, down around the pointy end of Alton Bay. Going up the other side, a rider can use back roads to reduce the time spent on Route 28. The shortest version is 42 miles.

Because I now know someone who works near the mechanic's place in Gilford, I can sometimes hitch a lift to pick up the car. If that doesn't work out, I'm back to my own resources.

When I was young and immune to fatigue, I would hit the road at 5 a.m. and ride all the way to Gilford to get the car before work. When daylight gets a little shorter, an early start means riding in the dark. It works out better to ride to work, work the day, and crank out the last 27 miles after quitting time. Since my mechanic is self-employed and basically nocturnal, he'll still be there at 7 p.m. or later. Don't look for him early in the morning, however.

A Gilford run by bike is an expedition. I only plan on a couple a year for specific things in spring and summer. The distance isn't so bad, but the narrow parts are very stressful and there are a couple of nasty climbs.

This spring, after getting almost no exercise all winter, I had to pull off a Gilford run with less than 200 miles on me. The muffler fell off the car. The stub of the exhaust was up under the car, gassing me at every stop. So off I went, at a steady plod.

Two weeks later, I rode it again, when the rear brakes jammed up. The car is 14 years old and has spent the last 8 or 9 years dealing with New Hampshire road salt.

Okay, we're good to go now, right?


Last Thursday, the front brakes got jealous and seized up hard. On Friday I limped the car to Wolfe City because the weather was nasty and I hoped to avoid riding. By the time I got there I knew I wasn't going to take the vehicle home. As luck would have it, the boss had his truck in Laconia, next town over from Gilford, and agreed to take his loaner back over during the afternoon, so I could drop my smoking hulk and hitch back to Wolfeboro with him.

Halfway to Gilford, my car blew a radiator hose, so I left it for AAA to drag the rest of the way. So now I have to retrieve it. Meanwhile, I went into Memorial Day weekend without a motor vehicle. Sweet!

I love getting in and out of Wolfeboro without a car, especially in summer. Motor vehicle traffic typically backs up for a couple of miles on any road through town. Then you have to find a place to park. As the middle class dwindles and no one has as much disposable income as they used to, the traffic and parking jams don't last all day, every day, from May to September the way they used to, but the busy parts are as busy as ever. And I've always gotten a strange good feeling from getting around without a car. So when circumstances "force" me to rely on pedal power, it's more like extra permission than an extra burden.

On Sunday, I hit the grocery store for a few necessities before heading home by a quiet route avoiding the highway most of the way.
Stoddard Road has some well-established colonies of lady's slipper orchids.

It's easy to stay home when I am home. Evening will come and I will realize that I have not gone outside for more than a few minutes, and I might not have spoken to another human being. While I don't prefer it that way, I've ended up that way. The cats are happy to have me around.  I get to observe the life of the woods.

Phoebes are nesting on a shelf on the side of the house.

Hummingbirds nest in the dense pine forest. That's a phoebe sitting on the hook above the hummingbird feeder. Phoebes are flycatchers, constantly snatching insects wherever they spot them.

Today I wanted to get some produce I had not found in Wolfe City, so I took the fixed gear out to the grocery store nearest to my house, about 3.5 miles away.
Hannaford has added this official bike rack as part of their renovation over the past year. It's even under cover, which was nice when the drizzle started up while I was in the store.

Exercise is not only an effective antidepressant, it may be the only truly effective antidepressant. Despite two gray days and a moroseness that has only increased since the turn of the century, a stupid little errand by bike felt really good. I have a huge amount of difficulty getting myself to exercise as a separate activity, so whenever I can work it into the practical needs of life it is all the more gratifying.

I need the car, as any rural resident does. But being without it can be a real gift.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The magic number is 300

When I dabbled in bicycle racing, the training manual we passed around recommended laying down about 300 miles of low-gear base mileage before beginning differentiated training. This was in a climate zone that did not offer a strong alternative training activity like cross-country skiing on a regular enough basis to count as a real routine. Even if a rider took up speed skating, which was available and had a small following, the change in muscle use at the beginning of regular riding season required some adaptation.

In a climate that shuts down outdoor riding pretty completely, base mileage is vital. I don't do any competitive sport riding, but any open-road commuting is part criterium, part time trial. Lacking the discipline to ride a trainer with the religious devotion necessary to provide a real fitness base, I need to get those base miles before launching the commuting season. Alternative outdoor activities have nearly vanished in the changing climate, so I'm coming off the couch with only good intentions.

Last week I hit the 300-mile mark and noticed an immediate improvement. I'd been trying to go easy, but you can't hold back when you're sharing the road with motor vehicles. If a traffic situation demands a quick sprint or a longer interval, you do your best.

Even before the 300-mile mark, I noticed that my whole body worked better now that I was using it as it was meant to be used. We're built to propel ourselves. Obviously, walking and running are our natural forms of locomotion, but the genius of the bicycle was that it adapted those motions to the circular pedal stroke. The bicycling position has evolved so that it places some potentially destructive demands on the upper body, but the general concept remains completely benign. If you ride a lot in a forward-leaning position, you will want to do some stretching and strengthening exercises to prevent neck and shoulder pain. And a little core work is never a bad idea.

I wonder who first came up with the idea of strength and flexibility training. There we were, scruffy hominids scrounging in the landscape for things to eat, devising tools of various kinds. Life was an endless camping trip. We walked, we ran, we climbed. We picked things up. We figured out how to build things. It was all based on walking, running, and moving things into useful configurations. Some people were stronger than other people. Who first figured out that strength and physical efficiency could be enhanced with specific exercises?

It doesn't matter. We know it now. Ignoring the whole noisy industry and marketing campaigns promoting specific programs and products that will make YOU, yes YOU, STRONGER, HAPPIER, SEXIER, AND MELT AWAY EXCESS POUNDS LIKE MAGIC, we know that using your own power to get from place to place will make your body work better. Rest is a vital part of the training cycle, but you can actually be too rested. Crawling toward this year's bike commuting season, I wondered if my accidentally sedentary winter might actually have shortened my life. In a country that considers health care a luxury, who can really afford to live an unhealthy lifestyle?

People who try to live gently, self-propelled and modestly housed, end up looking like parasites in a consumer-driven, wealth-obsessed economy. We slip through the small spaces, gleaning our sustenance like mice. We don't have much of a wallet with which to vote. It makes us an easy target for the contempt of the worshippers of hard work and self advancement. No one is questioning those sacred precepts. Hard work in the service of destruction is not a virtue. But voices of reason are drowned by the noise of traffic, industry, and broadcast media.

Many hands make light work. We could be taking turns doing short stints at the destructive labors that need to be done, rather than trapping some people in those destructive endeavors until they are crushed, and letting others evade that contribution to the general welfare. Like any simple solution, it's too complicated to arrange, so we will continue to live haphazardly and let evolution take its course. I just thought I would throw the idea out there. We could have arranged things in that way and coasted our population gently down to a sustainable level. Instead we live by instinct, as always. The result will reflect our true nature and potential, as will be evident from the ruins we leave behind.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Tool in Tamworth

Big G has retired from the bike game. Working in the business was interfering with his riding. He also has a private pilot's license, and the demands of shop life were really cutting into his time for that.

He put the knobbies back on his Cross Check so he could explore the many unpaved roads around here. Today he instigated a trip in Tamworth, starting at Chocorua Lake, just off of Route 16.

Mount Chocorua is a beautiful, craggy peak, frequently photographed from the shore of Chocorua Lake.

Chocorua Lake Road used to be called Fowler's Mill Road all the way from Route 16 to Route 113A. Now it's Chocorua Lake Road from the Route 16 end and Fowler's Mill Road from the other end. Must be a 911 thing. It's dirt, and some of it is not maintained in winter, which can mean it's pretty rough. We're a couple of months out of winter now. Everything was pretty firm.

My own Cross Check is set up for commuting. I didn't want to risk slicing a tire on a sharp stone when I have to ride it to work the next day, so I brought the trusty mountain bike. It has commuting conversions as well, but it also has some nice old gnarly Continental mountain bike tires.

Almost the entire route was unpaved, so I figured I wouldn't get dropped. Besides, we were out to enjoy the nice weather and spring scenery.

Fowler's Mill/Chocorua Lake Road climbs steadily, and then steeply, to a plateau with enhanced views where land has been cleared.

You get another angle on Chocorua, across this field full of big, honkin' rocks.

Looking down the road, you can see Whiteface and Passaconaway, two more peaks in the Eastern Sandwich Range. Those are both on the 4000-footer list, for you peak baggers. Poor little Chocorua isn't even on the Hundred Highest list.

What goes up gets to come down. Continuing westward, the road dropped off the plateau and we dropped off with it. Where it levels out, the road to the Liberty Trail parking cuts off to the northward. This also provides access to the Brook Trail, another route up the mountain, and the Bolles Trail, which ascends to a saddle west of Chocorua, and descends to the Kancamagus Highway.

After a side jaunt to check out the trail head we resumed our meander on Fowler's Mill Road. That brought us to Route 113A for a few yards to pick up the Old Mail Road.

Old Mail Road to Gardner Hill Road. Gardner Hill Road to Route 113 (as distinct from 113A). Route 113 to Philbrook Neighborhood Road (depicted simply as Philbrick Road on this map). Then we were supposed to take Loring Road, but we stayed on Philbrook all the way back to Fowler's Mill Road instead.

Down near Chocorua Lake are some classic New England summer homes. Tucked among large trees, they evoke the era when families with the means to do so would go to their summer retreat, to rough it, canoeing and hiking in the wholesome atmosphere of the mountains. Generations carried on the tradition, but I wonder now how many can maintain a place, or would be satisfied with such simple pleasures. I know the practice is dwindling, just as the real rural life of year-round inhabitants has mutated with time, technology, population pressures, and the rolling waves of the economy.

It's a relief to disappear on a back road and think about geological time, surrounded by surviving scenes of slower times.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Murphy in the Workshop

Saturday was a busy day, by current standards. As we relish our last couple of Sundays with the shop closed, we also face the mounting pressure of repair work without that extra day to do it. I hate that part. When we go back to full weeks, my life goes on fast forward until I flop out into September with another summer torched to a cinder. Days shorten and chill. Winter's uncertainties, always seeming more dire than those under generous sunlight, gather their forces.

With that in mind, I was preparing to stay late to finish two jobs that customers had hoped to get back before the end of the weekend.

The first was a road bike that needed some straightforward things like shift cables and housings, straightening up the handlebar angle, and a set of front brake pads. Oh, and by the way, the cable adjusters on the down tube have gotten mangled, so please replace the damaged adjusters with new ones.

The mangled adjusters were broken off. This is not unusual. I cleared away the loose parts as I removed the cables I was replacing anyway. But the stubs proved to be so severely corroded into the mounts on the frame that I was unable to spin them out by any of my normal methods. I flooded them with penetrating oil and left a message on the customer's phone to let him know that this job was now a couple of days out.

The next job was a wheel rebuild for a guy's fat bike. He brought it in because the alloy spoke nipples were all crumbling.

I hate alloy spoke nipples. I will tell you this plainly and repeat it as often as anyone brings the subject up: Do not use alloy spoke nipples. Do not let anyone try to convince you that they are an upgrade. They are a disposable item of crap componentry providing a dubious advantage of minuscule weight savings. And this was a fat bike! It was built for rough use in abusive conditions.

Here's where everything that could go wrong really started to pile up. Removing the cassette, I got the lock ring and the detached cogs off, but the block of riveted cogs had burrowed deeply in the aluminum freehub body. I've encountered this a lot. I can usually jostle the cogs loose with a couple of chain whips or a well-aimed tap here or there. So I tried one thing and another, finally snaking a long screwdriver through from the other side so I could give it a little nudge with the rubber hammer. Boink! The whole freehub body popped off, cogs still firmly embedded in it. Well, no harm, really. The axle cap just presses on anyway, and the pawls came out intact. The axle itself remained in the hub, so it would provide the correct spacing in the truing stand. I removed the brake rotor from the other side, so I could install the new spokes to go with the full set of brass nipples.

Back when the Surly Pugsley first came out, we got some adapters for our truing stand, to accommodate the unusual wheels that bike required. The original Pug was designed to use existing componentry in a non-standard way, specifically to allow a rider to use a rear hub on the front wheel. This was so that a rider on an unsupported expedition, far from tech support, could have a spare rear wheel. It was a limited use, esoteric option that made perfect sense in many ways: pure Surly.

As the industry has tried to make fat bikes a rage, the original practicality has disappeared under megatons of image. If fat is good, fatter is better. A mere 135mm rear hub long ago ceased to be good enough.

Because fat bikes really aren't a rage, shouldn't be, and probably won't be, we looked away for a bit, and failed to catch the truly ridiculous dimensions of things like...rear hubs, for instance.

There was absolutely no way that the hub on this wheel -- which was also filthy, by the way -- was going to fit into our truing stand.

I forgot to mention that this poor slave to modernity is also running a tubeless tire, which, of course, had to be removed to get all the way down to the spoke bed of the rim. So this wheel is in just about as many pieces as it can possibly be, and there's no way I can put it back together right away.

We priced the new truing stand that will accommodate hubs up to 215mm. It seems to list pretty consistently around $372 retail. Our price would be less, of course, but it's still another poke in the eye from the bike industry to small shops everywhere.

It's getting to the point where the bike biz is perhaps like the airplane biz. The guy who can do an annual on your Piper Cherokee might not be set up to work on F-18s or an Airbus. Hey, they're all aircraft, what's your problem? There was a brief period when the universe of available bikes could conceivably find succor under the roof of a small shop with a good staff and decent basic tools. And I ask you: is per capita bike use significantly higher now that we have all these increasingly sophisticated and disparate options? Or are we just collectively the victims of technological masturbation?

In the very beginning of the bicycle era, each brand was the product of a different shop, exploring uncharted areas in design and manufacturing with their own proprietary approaches. Standardization across brand lines occurred gradually. Bicycles paved the way, quite literally, for the mass-produced wheeled vehicles that followed. As those other technologies took over to drive innovation to greater complexity, bicycles languished, perfecting the artistry of the machine rather than breaking a whole lot of new ground in the use and processing of materials. Then, in the late 1970s, technological backfill began with test pieces like the Teledyne Titan and the Graftek. Those were merely modest precursors to the avalanche of engineering getting ready to thunder down on us when mountain biking exploded.

After mountain biking established the standard of having few standards, and adopted the shifting sands/seething lava pool technological landscape of virtually every other technology popular at the time, every form of biking felt the full brunt of technological attention, as a desperate industry continued to try to throw equipment at social problems.

A cutting edge is an instrument of pain. It is a surgical tool, amputating riders whose commitment is not strong enough to make them want to fork out the dinero to fund their addiction. If your needs and wants are modest, the industry has decreed that you don't deserve their best. With every cog they add, your old stuff drops a whole step lower when you go looking for replacement bits and pieces.

None of this will matter once civilization collapses to the point where the road system degenerates once more into wagon ruts, and we're lucky if we can rebuild the rail network for rapid transportation between major hubs. Sure, the bicycle was born in that environment, but it served a human race that had never known anything better. Riding a tall wheel with solid tires down a muddy track between farms was a new and desirable experience, face plants and all. But there's a good reason that the next phase of two-wheeled evolution was called "the safety bicycle." Who knows where we'll be able to land, once our obstinacy and superstition have assured that we can no longer maintain what we have. Maybe we'll all be walking, and eating "paleo."

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Immune to Utopia

In 1979, I emerged from the 16 years of schooling considered normal for middle class young people, and started trying to make my way as an adult in what we referred to as The Real World.

For practical reasons, I chose to use a bicycle for transportation, and to shape my life around that, rather than automatically assume that I needed a motor vehicle, and all the expenses that go with it. At the time, you could actually come through a basic college education without debt, but I knew I could not guarantee my income in an uncertain job market. Why load myself down with living expenses?

The 1970s bike boom was nearing its end, but I didn't know it. In Gainesville, home of the University of Florida, bikes had been a dominant mode of transportation when I arrived at school in the mid '70s, and were still going strong when I left there in the early spring of '79 to journey north.

I hit the streets of Annapolis, Maryland, and firmly believed that I was better off on the bike than in a car. My friends and I took a lot of risks, but we got away with it long enough to refine our skills and develop better judgment.

The motoring public could be quite hostile. Occasionally the encounters would escalate from verbal (or salivary) to actual physical combat. Being young and idealistic, I could not understand why the vast majority of people was so blind to the Utopia in which we could all be living if more people took up bike pedals instead of the gas pedal.

The bike represented strength and freedom, but it also represented mutual trust. Strength meant personal physical energy, built and maintained by an activity I found entirely fun and beneficial. Freedom meant freedom from the massive expense and logistical hassle of owning a motor vehicle. Trust was a key element because the bicyclist is balanced on those two wheels, vulnerable to the accidental or purposeful incursions of nearly everyone else. A motor vehicle of any size can crush you, but even another cyclist can take you out. For that matter, a pedestrian could do it, too. A well-timed shove, a quick thrust with an umbrella or a stick, and the bicyclist goes sprawling, to the amusement of onlookers.

At the very end of the 1970s, widespread mutual trust still looked like a societal goal, nationally and globally. Sure, there were international tensions and we could be taken out by a nuclear holocaust at any moment, but most people seemed inclined to avoid it, not solicit it. We were getting better. Weren't we? Meanwhile, I was going to keep showing how it could be done, making the bike transportation thing work, and living a comfortable life on modest means. When I look at my tax returns from the period, I'm pretty horrified at my casual acceptance of a cockroach existence, but such is the nature of idealism. I was not wrong, but I was in the minority.

In the minority I may have been, but I was not alone. Baltimore and Washington had a lot of bike commuters, messengers, and recreational riders. Advocacy groups managed to keep us on the road against various legislative challenges. Of course we still fight the same battle over and over, because the motorist mentality has such a firm grip on all aspects of life and infrastructure, but progress inches forward. It would do more than inch, if people felt more welcome on bikes in the transportation system, but that goes back to the curious resistance to Utopia. Concerning bicycling and nearly everything else, people seem suspicious of happiness and of each other.

I'm the last person to want to be all huggy touchy feely, swaying in unison and singing some stirring anthem of universal siblinghood. You be you, I'll be me, hopefully we'll each find some people to hang with. But I sense and absorb the increasing general paranoia that has grown out of decades of alienation, as we drive like hell on our vital errands of personal advancement.

Many institutions seek to divide us. Certain devotees of certain religions eagerly try to connect the dots of prophecy to bring about the final bloody battle between their version of good and their version of evil. To the dividers and the faithfully divided, there are no innocent bystanders. If you are not with them, you are against them, or at least disposable. If you have not chosen the right path, you shall be cast down, and rightly so. It isn't rational, but rationality itself is prideful and a sin. Add in greed and a whole smorgasbord of bigotry and phobias, and you have a species running in all directions to find some sense of security.

By the late 1960s, it was commonly accepted that we were moving toward a more inclusive and tolerant humanity. Obviously that was a misconception, and the resistance to that point of view has been virulent. As with other virulent things, it may only resolve through a high fever and convulsions which could prove fatal. There's a chance that other treatments will reduce the inflammation, but it's really in the hands of evolution now. It would be funny if our evolution was violently ended by people who don't believe in evolution, but who would be left to laugh about it?

Riding a bike really does symbolize the benefits to be gained from finding your own balance and not interfering with the balance of others. It is among the best of human inventions.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Scavenger hunts

In the struggle to survive, our shop still clings to its precarious holds above the bottomless pit. Since the turn of the century, customer count has dwindled. The whole bike industry has felt the effects of numerous pressures. Meanwhile, customers who do come in still expect the same basic goods and services.

Service especially sets the independent bike shop apart from other sources of merchandise. You don't see people shipping their bike off to an internet merchant to get a tuneup or an overhaul. Customers look for a bike shop when they need someone to do actual wrenching.

Because cross-country skiing is also stagnant or in decline, our winter revenues have fallen quite a bit as well. This leads to the springtime scavenger hunts, as we try to meet the surge of demand for bike repairs when we don't have sufficient cash flow or reserves to buy parts as needed.

You might think we could make a big preseason order of things we know we will need, like cables, brake pads, inner tubes, and chains. But chains include one-speed, 6-7-8 speed, 9-speed, 10-speed, and 11-speed, with 12-speed up and coming. Tire and tube sizes include 10, 12, 16, 20, 24, 26 fractional, 26 decimal (in a couple of widths), 26 fat bike, 650C, 650B, 700C and 29. The 29 and 650B include at least a couple of widths as well. Who will come in when, with what level of urgency? Roll the dice.

In the brake pad department we need to stock cheapo caliper brake pads, nice caliper pads for road bikes, post-type cantilever pads, threaded cantilever pads, linear-pull brake pads, and a speculative selection of disc brake pads.

This was the selection in disc pads as of 2014:
While we're on the subject of disc brakes, we'd better have mineral oil and DOT fluid for the hydraulic ones. Make sure the bleed kits are up to date.

Of course some parts carry over from year to year. Those are usually the ones you won't need. That's why they're still here. We still have to remember where we put them.

Along with the riders who have been using their bikes regularly, year after year, we get the ones I call van Winkles: they've awakened after years of slumber and want to start riding their bike again. The period of dormancy could range from a couple of years to a couple of decades. The oldest bikes can be the easiest to accommodate, because the best of them completely predate the index shifting era. The recent Holdsworth project is a perfect example. The poor bastards who have drive train issues  on a bike that used to be cutting edge and is now abandoned by the manufacturers will often drag the carcass away and give up the idea of starting to ride again because they can't afford the repairs to get the old bike going or the purchase price of a comparable new bike. I always feel bad when they get talked into buying a new bike that is considerably cheesier than the one they don't want to fix, just for the sake of having something "new."

Many repairs, even in the best of times, have sent me on a scavenger hunt to find what I can use among what we have in stock. The back shop is cluttered with improvised tools made out of scrap metal or old spokes. I mine the basement for hulks I can strip for useful bits.

A rival shop went out of business shortly before I started here in 1989. Last year, someone brought in cases of old parts and accessories from that shop, in case we could use any of the stuff. A lot of it is too old or weird, but you never know. The bulging, half-rotted cardboard boxes join the rest of the cache in the basement. It has already saved us several times. Don't let anyone tell you that you should throw out anything that you have not used in a year. Not if you run a bike repair facility, anyway.

Any repair or maintenance beyond routine adjustments will lead to some level of scavenging, because the industry changes so many things with little warning or publicity. If you are not obsessively hooked to the information pipeline, it's easy to miss an important announcement. Then you go looking for parts, only to discover that you've been abandoned. People don't want to live like this. They don't look forward to it when they buy a bike. They look forward to years of happy riding. A cutting edge is an instrument of pain, an implement of destruction. It is a surgical tool, amputating riders whose commitment is not strong enough to make them want to fork out the dinero to fund their addiction.

I keep recommending the freedom and reliability of primitive equipment. What's primitive now was better than I could afford when I was racing, because I had my flirtation with abrasion back when step-in pedals and aero brake levers were just appearing. When I ducked out, friction shifters on the down tube were the mark of an expert. I don't miss shifters on the down tube, but I still don't index, because I don't need to. The drive trains on all my bikes are mixed and matched from nicely made parts collected over the years. My interest is in riding, not shopping, or ministering to the infirmities of super-sophisticated componentry.

The bike industry in general and independent bike shops in particular could survive and thrive without the embrace of industrial enslavement and technological complexity. Good luck convincing them of that. But it's true. People who really want to ride will ride. And the goal should be to get people to ride and keep riding, not to spend and keep spending. The orgy of consumerism that propelled the mountain bike boom will never be repeated, because its fundamentals were destructive and unsustainable. It was an affliction of the entire industrialized world, for which we are still paying. The United States was the superpower of self indulgence, so we guzzled the most and faced the biggest crash. A healthy cycling culture could help us roll out of it, rather than crawling forward on bloody knees until we can drag ourselves into the seat of a motor vehicle to perpetuate the madness. Again, good luck convincing enough people of that. We're all about making money, not about making the world a better place.

I know no better than to keep doing what I do. It might catch on some day.