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.