Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Dinky little lights

The early onset of snow and ice forced me into the car more than a month sooner than in past years. This has given me a lot of time to look at fellow road users through the windshield, the way the vast majority of road users view those of us who aren't in a motor vehicle.

I've seen the whole range, from people with no lights to people with conspicuous outfits combining illuminated and reflective elements. The more brightly lighted are certainly more noticeable, but even the most conspicuous is hard to see.

I've discussed the drawbacks of aggressively conspicuous lighting before. That's a different problem. What I noticed most recently is the way night lighting and reflectivity for non-motorized users fails to define them even if it makes them quite noticeable.

Starting at the dark end of the spectrum, pedestrians and cyclists start right out with different minimum recommended lighting. Way back when I was a kid, my father said we should carry a flashlight when walking the dog at night, so that drivers could see us when cars came by. Flashlights are a lot better now, and pedestrians are a lot rarer. I appreciate it when I'm in my car or on the bike and people on foot have a light. But from the car it still doesn't provide instant and definite positioning. The same goes for cyclists with the minimum required lighting, or even a notch better. Any oncoming motor vehicle blasts out the smaller lights of the non-motorized travelers and narrows the space in which to pass safely. More than once I have pulled over and stopped completely rather than go forward into the visual field of blaze and blackness. Any normal driver will just bull through and hope for the best.

More powerful lighting definitely improves the situation for a bicyclist at night. The most powerful head and tail lights define you as a vehicle better than in daylight. But the sheer size of the headlight is never as large and definitive as the lights on a car or truck. If you're on a road where it's inadvisable to take the full lane, you're off to the side a bit, ambiguously lighted and generally moving more slowly than the large, motorized sensory deprivation tanks in which most teens and adults spend most of their lives in developed countries.

The lights on motor vehicles are designed not only to allow drivers to see where they are going in the absence of other light. They also define the shape and size of the vehicle. They are a symbolic language and an aid to navigation. At a glance, a driver can identify the other vehicles by their lights, determine their direction of travel and approximate their speed. Non-standard lighting causes immediate confusion. You will notice this at accident scenes where emergency vehicles are in unusual positions and emergency responders with reflective vests and lights are moving around a scene, particularly early in the response, when drivers are still flowing through the area. You'll see it at construction zones. You'll see it when a motor vehicle is escorting people on foot who might for some reason be using the public right of way for something like a long-distance charity relay or similar event. I have been unable to dig up a link to a story about it, but I recall years ago -- pre-internet -- that a mixed group of fraternity and sorority students were doing a charity run, escorted by a truck with floodlights on the back of it. They were in the right lane of a four-lane, divided highway when a driver ploughed into the runners, killing several. The white floods on the back of the escort truck made it visible, but not identifiable.

At highway speeds -- and even at the lower speeds -- drivers need automatic cues that trigger automatic responses, because they are so conditioned to business as usual. Are they wrong? Of course they're wrong. Drivers should be on the alert at all times for unusual circumstances that require them actually to pilot their craft. Wrong they may be, but they are also normal. The vast majority of the time, they only encounter each other, normally lighted and operating within a fairly narrow range of deviations. Even the speed changes and weaving of a texting idiot fall closer to the norm than the dinky little lights of a bike or pedestrian, or the bright but unfamiliar look of a motor vehicle engaged in non-standard activity.

Take your super-equipped rider with fully reflective garments and lots of lights. You will trigger reports of space aliens, but you still don't give drivers a quickly assimilated spatial reference that they can use to set up a seamless pass. You're just weird looking. I don't say that you shouldn't do it. Just don't be surprised when it fails to provide anything close to perfect safety and confidence. On the approach, even that display can be obliterated by the lights of oncoming traffic. And it didn't really claim your space in the first place. The illuminated human outline of a full reflective suit does reinforce that you are at least humanoid. But that very spectacle might lead to target fixation, as the driver gravitates toward you, gaping in fascination at this apparition floating through the darkness. You're little better off than the rider with just a really decent head and tail light, reflector leg bands and an odd couple of blinkies.

Are there statistics on this? Probably not. Someone would have to care, and get the funding for the study, tabulate and publish the results. I base my conclusions on my own observations as a prisoner in my car, going off to grub for my pittance each day.

Out of the car, we riders and walkers have adapted to the night. It's easy to forget how invisible you are under even the best of circumstances. That's why I don't feel like a pampered pet of the machine age, wallowing in my privilege as I loll in the recliner and pilot my chariot. I feel like I'm making a sacrifice for the team, performing anthropological and sociological research by spending time as a motorist, and studying its effects both physical and psychological. I would prefer to spend more of the time as a brave outrider, facing the elements and making the world a better place one pedal stroke at a time. But the world isn't there yet. Someone has to guide the transition.

Autonomous elements in a semi-autonomous vehicle would improve the passing situation independent of lighting at night. If motor vehicles had sensor systems that could identify the size, speed, and direction of any object in their space, both oncoming and overtaking vehicles could take over from their meat pilots to slow down and make space for a bicyclist or pedestrian. With the push for fully autonomous vehicles, and new models advertising range-finding features, this could be a reality fairly soon. Meanwhile, most of us poor schmucks have to drive vehicles from the current fleet of rust buckets, and depend on our own poor senses to get us safely around.

Evolution could be hastened -- albeit harshly -- by equipping the newer vehicles with weapon systems that would identify and destroy older motor vehicles and their occupants, thus reinforcing the de facto minimum financial threshold for full participation in society and making the roads and highways safer at the same time. I'm not saying this is a good idea. But I guarantee that someone, somewhere, has been thinking it, along with plenty of other judgmental prescriptions for "improving" our species. Real classic antique cars would have to be equipped with transponders to mark them as better than old junkers driven by low-income dregs.

Of course in America the powers that be would rather keep requiring low income people to dig up some kind of personal transportation, preferably a junky car, than expend public monies on public transportation or alternative transportation infrastructure. There's no profit in that stuff, and profit is God.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Evolution is a popularity contest

When you walk into a store or other public place that has music playing over a sound system, you have to listen to it. You may be distracted enough not to notice it consciously, or you may find it inescapably intrusive. Or you might even enjoy it. And it changes you. Like it or not, because the popular hits soundtrack is so ubiquitous, you will have songs that autoplay in your head when you hear the first three notes. Regardless, you have to go through the experience with everyone else in that environment, because someone, somewhere, determined that music in public places was the more popular choice.

Think of the mass of humanity's environmental and social choices the same way. If everyone else set themselves on fire, would you set yourself on fire? You might prefer not to, but you will still have to breathe in the stench of charring flesh. And one or more of the happy incendiaries might careen into you and set you ablaze against your wishes.

In the USA, some percentage of people are unquestionably law abiding, and another percentage are automatically resistant to, and defiant of, any authority. In between lies the greatest number, fluctuating between the poles of obedience and defiance as they analyze each situation they happen to notice. A lot of us are oblivious to larger implications most of the time. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when we should have been paying attention to the first bits of debris leading up to the avalanche of deferred consequences our species now faces, the Baby Boomers were focused instead on the basics of life: finding paying work, establishing homes, reproducing. Even the politically savvy tended mostly to view it from a personal perspective, multiplied through an uncounted legion of their theoretical allies who would all benefit if a particular policy made things better for one of them. It's hard to imagine a life very different from one's own. You really have to go try it out. Even the most detailed book or movie can't drag you right in and trap you in it. Interactive video games may come close. I don't know, because I have never tried one. As detailed as they may be, every single thing that happens in one was created by the mind of someone else and is known to them.

Believers in an almighty deity say that the simulation we think of as real life is also the product of a creator to whom everything is known. That really takes the fun out of it. I see how the notion can be comforting, but it's also limiting in more ways than moral strictures and mandatory rituals.

Now that the Teachable Moment has come, environmentally, we find that a substantial portion of the class wants to act up. Look at the scorn and ridicule that greeted California's plastic straw ban. Read the back -- and sometimes all sides -- of a truck or van belonging to a really jacked-up paranoid who sees threats to sacred liberty in every admonition to throttle back and lighten up. You won't have to wait long to see some sentiment that will make you want to retire to a cave and live with the few surviving animals.

In the 1980s I had the same vision that I have today: we could use the grid for good as much as ill. Convenience is not a sin. But conveniences required adjustment to keep them from becoming the engines of global destruction that they eventually did. And eventually was pretty rapidly, because moderation was scorned and ridiculed.

The slogan in the 1980s was "Whoever dies with the most toys wins." It was the golden age of the loaded roof rack, when Yakima and Thule products on the roof of your increasingly large vehicle needed to be locked securely. More than once we heard from friends who had made a day or evening jaunt into a city, only to find their roof rack stripped of every unlocked accessory. We were Recreation Nation, and anything related to the popular activities had really good street value. My attempt to steer that behemoth hinged on trying, through my published writings and in my day jobs, at least to get more people thinking about doing it without internal combustion. Try to get an appreciation of nature to sneak up on them, because Americans -- and probably most humans -- are very resistant to confrontational change. We love confrontation, but only to demonstrate how we can stick to our original position until it kills us. Think of the Confederacy.

I'm approaching a deadline for my quarterly environmental cartoon. The cartoon has been increasingly hard to draw because so many great causes make poor subjects for a single panel image. And I have realized the uselessness of mockery. Humor will only work on someone already inclined to agree with it. The inclination may be deeply buried, unknown to its owner, but it has to be there. Are the few who seem to be awakened worth the stiffened resolve of the outraged opposition?

I don't mind preaching to the choir. It keeps morale up. But nothing seems funny. The extent of the problems that begin with simple individual choices and multiply instantly to a global epidemic, like air pollution or the proliferation of plastic is better served by animation and real video, compressing the sequence of events into a much more visceral revelation of the ugly truth.

One of the hardest things to get used to when you're out there riding a bike and trying to live a low impact life is finding out how many people hate you for it and think you should die. It doesn't have to be the majority. You only have to encounter one homicidal jerk. That's true whether you get tagged by a hit and run driver or you happen to be at the mall the day one of them shows up and opens fire.

Less dramatic and more deadly is the steady accumulation of pollution and degradation by one individual at a time, repeated across a global population in the billions. The system that has evolved funnels gains to a small number of dominant apes, requiring that the lesser apes -- regardless of good intentions -- play some form of the game just to survive. The lifestyle is as inescapable as the music in a department store. It touches every place on this small planet. "Pristine" places are not pure because they are out of reach. We could strip mine the Himalaya, and eventually we probably will.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Information junkies

Remember those quaint days of yesteryear, when you could go to an annual trade show and be pretty well caught up for the coming year? When monthly or biweekly publications provided what seemed like a more than ample flood of information?

As the whole mess foamed up in the 1990s, we got the latest knowledge from the riders with the time and disposable income to pursue it, and our context from our own riding. Because the categories consisted broadly of road and mountain, it was fairly easy to retain mastery just by doing what we wanted to do anyway: riding. True believers in either camp might try to stump us, but experience usually gave us good answers. Sutherland's Handbook and other collected literature filled out the technical side.

Now that the two broad categories have spawned distinct, large subcategories, each with their own true believers, mastery is nearly impossible. The best informed riders seem to spend most of their time staring into their phones, sucking up information. Information. Information. A lot of it is unreviewed. Some of it is physically impossible. Fewer and fewer people can ride enough hours in enough categories to test the available information for validity. And even what’s trustworthy is too plentiful to absorb and retain. The internet has become our collective memory.

As fall and winter merge, I have a bike on one side of the work bench and skis on the other. It's not a happy merger, because grease is not good for skis. But people want what they want when they want it, and we make our meager pittance by providing what we can. The bikes in the queue include a 2018 Stumpjumper getting some wheel bearings, a first-generation Pugsley getting a drive train update and a 1995-ish Cannondale hybrid looking for long-delayed maintenance and some easier gearing. This is when you find out how much that was familiar has been dumped and buried by the current trends.

The Stumpy is still okay: parts readily available.

The Pugsley is too old for 11-speed, so its new owner has to settle for whatever we can assemble in a 1X10. Gotta be a 1X, of course, because who in their right mind wants one of those horrible front derailleurs on their bike? No mountain bike worth a second look has a rear hub as narrow as 135mm, or fewer than 10 cogs on the back, if that's what you have to settle for.

The Cannondale has a crank with a 130 BCD. There are very few chainrings, especially for a triple crank, in 5-bolt 130. They simply went away. All the cool kids have two-piece cranks and smaller bolt patterns, both in number and diameter. And forget finding a 7-speed, 13-32 cassette. The rear derailleur won't handle anything bigger than a 32. According to the specs I could dig up, it isn't even supposed to be able to handle the chain wrap of the gearing it has now. So if I drop the granny ring down from 30 teeth I need to be able to pull the other rings down to keep everything in reach. That's probably fine with the rider, but not with the industry. I'm actually comparing the cost of replacing the crank entirely. This bike should never have come with a 130-74 crank in the first place. But hybrids at the time fell into two subcategories: road based and mountain based. This one leaned toward the road.

Come to think of it, hybrids still do exhibit that division.

It's hard to keep all of the information straight.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Robbed of the last of autumn

After a genuine winter-style snowstorm late night Thursday through a good bit of Friday, the roads cleared enough for me to snatch a ride before the next set of snowstorms. The snow has trashed the trail conditions, so my park and rides have become inconvenient. The next stage is to park and walk, which requires a longer drive to get within efficient walking distance. And I'll be walking back out in the dark. I would be riding in the dark anyway.

Some people just submit to the inevitable and ride the trainer in these conditions. I'm not sure what would give me sufficient incentive to ride the trainer or rollers on a regular basis. I would always prefer to be doing something real, outdoors. Not to disrespect the trainer riders. I salute them. The poor bastards.

Just over a month ago it was nice enough to stop for photo ops along Lake Wentworth.

New England says, "You knew what I was like when you moved in with me." It's true. And for the most part I just roll with it. Only after the park and ride became a realistic option did I get used to it and come to rely on it. And, every year, the park and ride season gets interrupted by some amount of snow. Early snow has tended to go away quickly enough to let the season continue, but the current storm pattern may blow that average.

Winter riding is best when conditions are "freeze dried." Dirt roads are firm and fast. The brine stays locked in the roadside snowbanks. It evaporates on the pavement to leave the classic white dust.

We're looking at a high of 19 and single-digit lows on Thursday. This follows snow chances starting tonight and running through Wednesday. With the sun approaching its lowest angle, it has no strength to attack even a small accumulation, and it's not up for very long anyway.

This time of year reminds me of my early years out of college, training and commuting in all weather in Maryland and northern Virginia. The winters are milder down there, but it's all relative: I was reacclimatizing after eight years in Florida. Beyond mere meteorological reminiscence, I can also tap into the blend of hope and desolation that permeated the period. There were roads, but no clear path. I was gathering information, while others in my peer group charged forward with learned certainties. The system works for those who do not question its validity.

That's not necessarily a good thing.

A raven spread its wings and wheeled above Route 25 as I rode toward the Ossipee River. A mountain rose to my right. Woods and fields dominate the scenery there. The cadence connected to every spin through every cold landscape in the same gear, year after year.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

E-bikes and the illusion of something for nothing

A recent convert to the smokeless moped posted this graphic showing their growth in Europe.
It's from this article on a site called Explain That Stuff.

Electric bicycles entice the consumer with the lure of smokeless, relatively silent assistance when the going gets tough. When the flesh is weak, your personal assistant will kick in to carry you through.

A tandem weighs less and provides the chance for pleasant conversation. But a second person does weigh more than a battery pack, and doubles the chances of farts. And maybe the conversation grows wearisome.

An under-performing stoker and a dead battery both still weigh the same as their energized counterparts, but you can ditch the stoker at a coffee stop and try to recruit fresh talent. I suppose you could also scrounge up a fresh battery somewhere. As the smokeless moped expands to become a common appliance, facilities might offer battery swaps along popular routes. Maybe they do already. But with the rate of obsolescence in new technology, what are the odds that such a service could remain current -- so to speak -- with all the proliferating options? You may be stuck with the dead hulk of your 60-pound slug of a bike, even when you're left alone to do all the work.

I wonder if anyone has collected statistics on how many dead ebikes have already ended up chucked in canals.

The ebike relies on the illusion of something for nothing. But aside from the up front cost of purchase and the ongoing cost of charging, you face maintenance and repair of its electrical parts, and eventual decommissioning of the dead battery. You also have to horse the thing around when you're not riding it: transporting it to riding venues if you drive to ride, lugging it in and out of wherever you store it...

As you use your magic moped, you rapidly deplete its reserves of pixie dust. Energy has to go into the equation in the form of your pedaling and the all-important battery charging. Pedal-assist devotees point out that they can choose how much assistance to request, and extend their cruising range. It is still more finite than the muscle power of an acclimated rider. I don't say trained, because that carries connotations of athleticism and competition that many riders pride themselves on avoiding. But anyone who rides frequently is trained. Strength, power, and efficiency all improve with use.

The smokeless moped requires an extra type of training to learn how to interact with the power assistance. To get that go when you want it, you have to use a setting that produces a very noticeable result when you push hard on the pedals. The rider learns quickly how to feather the power to avoid wobbling -- or even getting thrown -- but it does take at least a minimal period of adaptation. My own experience comes from test riding a variety of specimens brought in for repair, and from observing new owners, or novice riders on borrowed equipment.

The bike shapes the rider. You learn how to get along with your equipment. Happy moped riders fall into the comfort zone of the machinery. I suppose someone, somewhere, has tried electric bikes and rejected them. And others push the limits of the medium and lead the charge for expanded capability. (see what I did there? I'm on fire today! Oh wait, that's just the battery overheating...).

Joking aside, compare the cost and benefit of a heavy bike dependent on outside power to make it functional versus your primitive old push bike powered by meat alone. My rationale for transportation cycling, from back in the late 1970s, still applies. I will be eating anyway. I do need physical activity to maintain my body's fitness and health. I will have a basic metabolism even at idle. The energy in my body already can be applied through the supremely efficient bicycle to move my individual self to a lot of places I need or want to go. The up front cost is the bicycle itself, and an evolved set of accessories. Most of those cost nothing to own after the initial purchase. Some are consumable at varying rates. Clothing wears out. Bike parts wear out. But by learning to use tools, and sticking to open source componentry I can maintain a bike almost indefinitely. Frames and parts can be combined in different ways to produce desired riding effects. Pump up the tires. Lube the chain. Go.

Your body is the battery. Your body is the engine. Your body is the beneficiary.

The smokeless moped does have a place in the transportation mix. As an urban commuter it offers partial exercise benefits to riders who can't get sweaty on their way to a job that might require them to look spiffy as soon as they hit the deck there. The energy required to charge them is certainly less than the amount consumed by a full-size car or truck transporting a single occupant. Electric assistance is also good for anyone weakened by age, injury, or illness. But stop calling it a bicycle with a motor when it is really more of a motor vehicle with pedals. The motorized aspect is so embedded in its nature that it can't be separated.

The motor of this specimen drives the chain from the pulling end. This avoids the problem of 20-pound wheels with a motor in the hub, and heavy electric lines that have to be detached every time you need to fix a flat, but it also gives the bike a complicated gear box and does little to reduce the chronic weight problem that afflicts all battery-powered vehicles.

Electric bikes have spawned a whole segment of componentry to meet their specific needs for tires and other parts that can stand up to their weight and the increased wear as a result of power assistance. This is better for the breed than early models that used standard bike components, but it increases yet again the number of products a shop needs to carry to be ready to serve all potential customer needs. Even if shops practice "on-time ordering" someone has to have the crap in stock.

Open source componentry means that a rider can live off the land more easily. The recent Ars Technica article cited in an earlier post sneered at rim brakes and praised disc brakes, but I can find a functional set of rim brake pads almost anywhere.  Even in a local setting, can your local service source get the parts you need for your specific vehicle? How long will it take? I'll be in and out of the shop with a set of brake pads or a chain, or a chainring, or a crank arm, or tires and tubes, or pretty much anything in about five minutes. Installation takes longer, but acquisition is a snap.

My commuting costs when I lived in a town were under $100 a year. They were probably well under $100 a year. And I didn't have to remember to plug my bike in. Even in a rural area, riding a minimum of about 30 miles commuting per day, I only have to keep up with tires, chains, and some chain lube. Because I might choose to ride more than the basic distance, I use up consumable items more quickly. But the rate of consumption is still really low unless you're racing, with its risk of crash damage, or mountain biking, for the same reasons. The harder you ride, the faster you wear everything out, including yourself. Find a balance that suits your personality.

The smokeless moped rider will not notice paying much more on a day to day basis, but the up front cost tends to be higher, and the replacement cost will mount. Given the way electronic things go, replacement will also be more frequent. Batteries die of neglect just as much as from frequent recharging. The more complex the vehicle, the more delicate are its storage needs.

Something for nothing turns out to be more costly than you think.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

In a perfect world...

Fresh out of college, with fantasies of creative success and a very realistic view of my financial position, I built my lifestyle around transportation cycling and small, sparsely furnished dwellings.

That was the plan, anyway.

Artists are always looking for ways to balance the basic needs of survival with the need to create. You have to be as persistent as a cockroach, and as adept at survival. Unfortunately, you will find yourself often about as welcome.

A brightly lit and prosperous world hung temptingly near in the 1980s. I kept letting myself get dragged into various safe harbors, more stray cat than cockroach. It exposed me to normal people, none of whom fell for my bicycling evangelism and suggestions that one could do a lot with a little, and still leave plenty for others to do the same.

A harsh wind blasts the landscape today. When the bike commute was a fairly short hop across a small and pleasant town, I would have done it without hesitation. In the original plan, I would travel from the town by bike or public transportation -- or even walk -- on journeys limited only by the funds I had accumulated to buy time and supplies. In the beginning, I had congenial friends who avidly joined in the imaginary voyages. Invariably, they fell away well short of actually launching any. As far as I know, nearly everyone with whom I rode in the 1980s rarely rides anymore. A good percentage don't ride at all. They outgrew it.

The potbound plant that is human civilization has outgrown a lot of things that might have saved it from the death by strangulation that its growth has set in motion.

Even here, in the rural North, I have made some heroic commutes by bike. But the darkest dark and iciest, snowiest snow encouraged me to take advantage of my foothold in normality to resort to the car. Bike commuting became seasonal, because I could. But in the perfect world, I never did.

In 1980, envisioning a system that would work for me, I had no urge to live in the country. I liked the country, but I know that it ceases to be rural when it fills up with people who want to be in it. My later move to the woods followed a logical series of steps -- half normal and half half-baked -- in which I rationalized that I could live in an existing building in a mostly undeveloped area, and help to preserve its environment while the rest of the world caught on to the need to do so on a large scale. But the simple bikey life was lost.

A perfect world, in which the residents live in small but comfortable spaces, in compactly developed centers surrounded by large tracts of natural environment, depends on good soundproofing. It depends on a lot of other things that are never going to happen, either. But soundproofing is vital. We can't cheap out on construction.

A perfect world also depends on a stable population. Because humans are like most species, designed to replicate freely and lose a lot to famine, disease, and predation, we will not achieve a stable population by peaceful, pleasant, and well-planned means. So again, the dream shimmers and fades. We are too smart and not smart enough.

We don't live in the perfect world. Things happen in the imperfect world that earn our love. There is no exit ramp to the alternate universe that doesn't require jettisoning things that have become dear. And there's really no such thing as a nice little town. Every Bedford Falls has a Potter. And the soundproofing is woefully inadequate. We don't live in the perfect world. But ideas from it could make this one better. Bike and walk. Adjust development strategies to make best use of existing terrain. The map is flat, but the land is not. We're running out of time anyway, so why not spend it on this?

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sheet metal cogs and tinfoil chains

An article on Ars Technica extolling the "improvements" in bike technology since the 1980s has been popping up on social media today to give my ulcer a workout. Observations by technophiles who aren't mechanics help fuel the headlong rush of the bike industry into fragile technology that is a pain in the ass to maintain, and often impossible to fix.

People love gizmos. Bikes started out on the forefront of mechanical innovation in the 19th Century. As they were superseded by the automobile, they languished in neglect, evolving only a little until influxes of cash and public interest in the 1970s and '80s inspired a rising curve of development that really foamed up in the 1990s with the mountain bike boom and the expansion of the aero/tri segment.

The 1990s brought engineers off the sidelines as hobbyist users and shoved them deep into the design process. Much of this was fueled by the demand for mountain bike suspension systems that would work with the heavy and inefficient human engine, but once you get a serious case of engineering it spreads far and fast. A public conditioned to crave expensive new technological things and accept that they are junk within a year or two at most was ripe for such changes in the bike industry.

For the first 100 years or so, bicycles were evolved machines, not designed machines. Even now, the designers have to study what has been working and figure out why it did before they can screw with it. A hundred years of trial and error honed the vehicle in its various forms to meet a variety of needs. A couple of decades of technological promiscuity have led to some genuine improvements and a lot of expensive and unhelpful complications, not to say downright handicaps. People who think in absolute terms will laud the vertical dropout and its offspring, the through-axle. People who, on the other hand, understand the value of a variable rear wheel position will be stockpiling old steel frames with long horizontal dropouts. They're not just for fixies. 

I would go through the article and dismantle it point by point, but if I read it for more than a few seconds my head explodes, so I'm not going to do that. I have to accept that the battle for public perception was lost a long time ago. The best I can do is put better advice out there for the few people  who will still appreciate the versatility and freedom that a simpler bike offers to the average underpaid toiler. As it was in the 1880s, is now and ever shall be, a bike is a good investment for a working stiff, as long as it is well chosen.

A Trek Fuel full suspension mountain bike last week provided a nifty example of how a designed weak link, intended to fail under stress to preserve more important and expensive parts of a system, can be bypassed when those more expensive parts become more fragile in the greedy quest for more "features." The rear derailleur hanger of old steel and aluminum frames used to be part of the dropout on that side. It would occasionally get bent on a road bike, in a crash, or if an improperly adjusted derailleur shifted into the spokes. With the coming of mountain biking, bent hangers became common because riders would pick up sticks or other debris in the chain and drag it into the derailleur as they continued to pedal. Steel frames could be straightened from some pretty alarming looking deviations, but an aluminum dropout was usually ruined. Aluminum frame builders started providing replaceable hangers. The concept spread to become the norm. Derailleur hangers are now one of several jigsaw puzzles that repair facilities have to solve on a regular basis.

Some early replaceable hangers were made of such soft alloy that they actually bent just from the ordinary stress of shifting. The first run of hangers on Specialized Stumpjumpers in the mid 1990s were notorious for this. If they weren't, they should be. The Big S eventually started making hangers out of steel, and has now evolved functional alloy versions, but it actually took them a couple of years to face their blunder. Denial was as big a force as "innovation" in the bike industry in the 1990s.

Having finally hit the right level of fragility in the hanger for the drive trains of the time, the industry looked at it no more. They moved on to adding as many cogs as possible to the rear cassette and making chains as thin as necessary to fit the stack of saw blades that now makes up a modern gear cluster.

One dozen sheet metal cogs, so thin that they have to be pinned together with little rivets to keep the damn things from folding under load

Compare the 8-speed chain (top) with the 12-speed chain (bottom) While either can be bent with sufficient stress, the force required to tweak the tinfoil specimen is far less.

The cassette in the top picture is a 12-speed 10-50 SRAM Eagle. Ten to fifty. The biggest cog is the size of a chainring. It's the thickness of a chainring, too. They can't get away from that. Anything that big has to have the strength to support itself, connecting rivets or not. 

By killing off front derailleurs, the industry avoids the biggest bender of chains, but I have ridden double and triple front chainsets for 43 years and never bent a chain. Meanwhile, to provide some vestige of the former range of available gears, the industry has to cram more cogs in the back, over a range that requires a rear derailleur like a crane to cover the span and manage the chain wrap. That's a long cage, my friends. And a skinny, skinny chain. The chain line sprawls so widely that the chain is vulnerable to bending just from the normal deviation. Add a traumatic factor like a stick in that dangly derailleur cage and you'll be lucky to get away without trashing the chain along with whatever else gets mangled.

In the case of the Trek Fuel, the tech who checked it in saw the twist of the rear derailleur and stated that the bike needed a new derailleur hanger. But when I looked at the hanger it appeared pretty straight. The alignment gauge confirmed this. This is after we had to buy a new alignment gauge, because the old Park DAG-1 doesn't have a long enough nozzle to get into a derailleur hanger buried beneath rear suspension pivots. Our old, old Campy gauge worked, but the DAG series has a more sophisticated system for checking alignment around the circumference of the rim. It's tweakier to use, but gives a more fine-tuned look at any problems. Or, in this case, lack thereof.

The robust replaceable hanger had stood firm. The evolution of the drive train has moved the weakness in the system out to the $125 derailleur instead of the $32 hanger.

Once I replaced the derailleur, the drive train made a very slight clink noise while running the chain on one of the cogs down on the high end of the cluster. Thinking that this may have been the gear in use when the stick jammed, I wondered whether the sheet metal cog had picked up a slight kink. Because cog teeth normally exhibit a cyclic pattern of offset teeth, a slight but larger deviation is hard to assess. Because the clusters are all riveted together, if any single cog had been rendered unusable, the rider would have had to purchase an entire cassette at $215 retail. If it was only the chain, that's a mere $42. But you can see how the cash cost of a minor mishap can add up very quickly. The fail-safe part of the system was the least affected by the accident in which it was intended to take the most damage. That stress was distributed to the rest of the parts. 

The damaged derailleur was bent in the middle, so that the upper and lower pivots were no longer parallel. The rider said he stopped pedaling the instant he realized that the stick was in there, but the derailleur still went into the spokes. With a tubeless tire, spoke repairs can extend to dismounting the tire and possibly having to replace the sealed rim strip. Fortunately, the bends in the spokes did not appear too sharp, which would create a stress riser. I was able the true out the minor deviation in the rim without racking up uneven tension.

An autopsy on the bent derailleur revealed that the four pivot pins of the parallelogram were bent, making the derailleur twist increasingly as the rider shifted toward the larger cogs. You can get some replacement parts for the SRAM Eagle 1x12 derailleur, but not those parts. Removing them is a destructive process, because they are riveted. Just like SRAM Double Tap road shifters, the part you can get is not in the area that actually breaks.

I'll keep taking the money to work on this crap, but I will never stop pointing out that it's expensive, ephemeral bullshit: the exact antithesis of everything that made bikes a great piece of technology for decades. The mythical free market demonstrates time and again that the consumer's taste for excruciatingly engineered junk sucks all the money away from simple, durable items of lasting quality.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

"Field destroy"

"Just render the frame unusable," said the email from Specialized's warranty department. So we handed it off to our colleague who has an excavator. I have not transferred his photos from the work computer yet, but here is the result:

The warranty department at Specialized was duly impressed.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Wasteful and destructive customer service

Along with so much else in the world, the bike industry is slumping to new lows in waste and destructiveness.

Today's topic: warranty. Back in the 1970s, any bike shop employee could rattle off the phrase, "lifetime warranty on the frame and a year on the parts" with casual assurance. Crash damage wasn't covered. Normal wear and tear were excluded. Not a lot of stuff seemed to come back. A simple warranty like that was a safe bet.

At the dawn of the mountain bike era, the industry held onto the memorized phrase until the strain of explaining the exclusions got to be too much. The 1990s saw a sharp change in the previous open-handed policy. No one was covering crash damage, but companies handed out a lot of freebies as the competition ramped up, just to try to win friends. But the accounting department soon stepped in to preserve profits during the unprecedented surge of business. And rightly so. Conniving riders were constantly scamming to get things covered. Unfortunately, honest claims suffered as well. And warranty terms became a moving target. We had to keep checking to see what current policy was.

Since the bike industry has broken up cycling into very specific categories, warranty has become more generous again, particularly in the less crash-prone sectors. And, with consumer interest far below what it was when everybody wanted a mountain bike, the industry senses a need to try to buy some friendship again.

All this sounds like it might be good. Here's how it isn't:

When bike shops were treated like trusted members of the industry, we were trusted to evaluate claims and submit them. As the 1990s cranked up, manufacturer's representatives would come through to validate our findings and write credit memos, but it was still pretty collegial. That shifted abruptly around the midpoint of the decade. Our shop received fewer and fewer rep visits. Warranty procedures varied from company to company. Response times got longer. Reporting requirements became more stringent. We would usually have to box up an item -- even if it was an entire bike -- and send it to the company to be evaluated.

Shipping is expensive, especially for a large, awkward box with a bike in it. This year, Fuji had us return two or three bikes that arrived damaged in shipment, but they were still basically packed, or easy to repack. Fuji sent a call tag, and off they went. Other than that, we have been successfully discouraged from pursuing much warranty for much of anything smaller than a bike. The process takes time, and time is, as they say, money.

A customer who bought an Orbea somewhere else brought it to us for a shifting problem. In the process of dealing with that, we discovered a crack in one chainstay. The customer did not want to repair the frame, so he contacted Orbea for warranty. Once his new frame arrives, we are supposed to saw the old one into pieces, and send photographic evidence to Orbea. As much as I rag on the carbon crowd, the bike is beautiful. I hate destroying beauty.

The bike hangs on death row in the workshop, while the customer waits for the new one in the color he wants. I wouldn't want to own it, but I can appreciate its appearance. And it's old enough still to have the cables on the outside. The new one won't.

As sad as it is to consider sawing up a carbon road frame that at least got to see several years of riding, the next case really shoves the wasteful consumer side of the bike industry in your face.

A customer bought a Specialized Fuse. He's an athletic adult in his late 40s, I would guess, a firefighter, a family man. What you would call a good and productive citizen, who has gotten into mountain biking. I don't know what his cycling background was before the little local mini-boom in mountain biking inspired him to get this bike. It doesn't matter really. He rides in a sporty but relatively sane fashion. He paid about $1,200 for what he -- and we -- thought was a solid and reliable bike.

A $1,200 bike today is about what a $500 bike was in 1995. Let that sink in a minute. One thousand, two hundred dollars. It used to seem like a lot of money. Now it's barely the threshold of anything built to stand up to the moderate abuse of a mountain biker who doesn't ride with a death wish.

Our buddy went up to the Kingdom Trails in Vermont early in October. The weather was cool, but not cold. The Suntour fork on his bike stiffened up and the controls ceased to function. The preload knob wouldn't turn, and the fork would barely react to bumps. He rode it anyway, because it was better than nothing, but he'd only had the bike for about two months. The conditions were not extreme. He had not crashed the bike or abused it. When we examined it, we found no signs that he had pressure-washed it or even hosed it down vigorously, which are two common mistakes. The fork was just foobed.

In the warmest conditions, the fork is almost normal. But this is New England.

A quick web search of "fork sticks in cold weather" or something similar will pull up lots of results that include this fork and most other low-end suspension forks from any manufacturer. We did suggest that the customer upgrade the fork, but the manufacturer still has a responsibility to back up the product.

In answer to the initial message to Specialized, they said to hit Suntour for warranty. It's a Specialized bike and the fork crown has a sticker saying that this particular fork was made to their specifications, but when it's time for warranty it's someone else's problem. Ooooo-kay. Sourcing is complicated these days, when a fork is its own set of complex moving parts.

Suntour responded helpfully enough, but the Fuse comes with a straight steerer on the fork. All the cool forks have tapered steerers. The OEM fork had 120mm of travel and a straight steerer. Suntour only had 100mm forks with straight steerers as replacements. Or they would send an upgrade with 120mm, but the customer would need to get a new headset.

Back I went to Specialized. I explained Suntour's deal, and asked if they would provide the headset necessary to make the change to a tapered fork. The head tube on the frame looks like it will accommodate it. Simple, right? Pretty cheap. Neat. Tidy.


Specialized will send the guy a complete bike. That seems awfully generous. Bordering on foolishly generous, actually. And the terms of the deal require us to take the perfectly good frame of his "old" bike and smash it. In fact, if we have to field destroy the whole bike, that includes every component. It's a gross and nauseating waste of resources all the way from here to China. But they don't want to pay the freight to ship the derelict back to them, and we certainly don't. The customer should not be penalized for having trusted their product to perform according to its advertised specifications. The whole thing goes from a fixable glitch to an obscene example of consumerist gluttony. And the new bike will have the same fork, with the same straight steerer, setting up the possibility for the same failure on the next cold ride.

Remember when bikes were about saving resources and having less impact on the planet? Yeah, I barely do. And riders who came in any time after the mid 1990s will never have known anything but this conveyor belt of consumption and obsolescence.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Tech Roundup

Here are a few pictures of modern bike technology at its finest -- which is to say aggressively marketed mediocrity.

The area around an inset headset looks like the  floor under a leaky toilet if the owner hasn't been meticulous about keeping it clean and dry. Hidden bearings seem like they should be better protected, but they really just do a better job of containing contamination and hiding problems while they really fester. The second photo shows a bearing that festered for a couple of years. It used to be a cartridge bearing, but it came out in rusty pieces.


Disc brakes need to be properly aligned and frequently checked to make sure that they're working correctly. Because the pads are in their little turtle shell, it's easy to forget about them, and hard to really see what's going on in there. An inexperienced mechanic set this caliper up so that the inner side of the caliper functions as the brake pad. Mechanical brakes aren't self-adjusting. If no one thinks to adjust the inner (fixed) pad as it wears, the outer pad eventually just shoves the rotor over against the side of the caliper. It'll be a little noisy, but it will stop you eventually.


What the hell does this mean?


This isn't a technological issue. It's just rude. It's equivalent to showing up at your doctor's office with a dingleberry. I get it. You're a mountain biker. I don't need to add your souvenir mud to the mess I already have to clean up in the workshop.


The latest and greatest!

Bike componentry development reminds me of the joke about the two guys running away from a bear. One guy stops to put on his running shoes. The other guy says, "Why bother? You can't outrun a bear." The other guy says, "I only have to outrun you."

No matter how much money you spend on ultra-fancy bikes and parts, you'll never really be fast. You'll only -- maybe -- be faster than the other pathetic dorks working outrageously hard to go about as fast as a prudent driver in a residential neighborhood.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Land crabs and porcupines

On the ride to work yesterday a motorist came across the centerline toward me on a sweeping curve with good sight lines, on a pretty morning with no fog or other obstructions. I could see his eye line, so I knew he was not distracted. His expression was ambiguous. I responded the way I almost always do to  a motorist encroaching on my space.

I moved toward him.

I've written many times before about body language, cadence, lane position and general affect as ways to communicate with the subconscious of motorists. They can sense fear, and anyone with a personality inclined to enjoy that will increase aggression if they get a fear response. People in general are likely to take whatever they can get, whether they're being careless or purposely pushy. You have to decide what to let them have.

In this instance, the motorist corrected his line and withdrew to his own side of the centerline. It was just another fleeting moment. I can't even know for sure whether he was reacting to my presence during any part of our encounter. I've also written about the near-uselessness of eye contact with a driver, because they can be very good at looking alert and still looking right through you. Or they use it as an opening to share opinions that you'd rather not have known. I try to keep all the communication nonverbal and impersonal, related only to the immediate need to maneuver around each other in the shared space of the roadway. Our long tradition of sealing ourselves into cans and speeding anonymously down the road has bred this isolationist culture in which we respond to each other as little as possible on a human level, and focus instead on ballistics.

After the pass I thought about how I represented no physical threat to the driver. The intent in moving confidently and unyieldingly is to convey the impression that the motor vehicle may be bigger and faster, but you are more dangerous. In cougar country, hikers are advised to make themselves look large, to discourage the predator from bothering with prey that could put up too much of a fight.  This is different from bear protocols, that say to look humble and retreat graciously. On the road you have to be ready to switch between these protocols, as you assess whether the motorist has a cat or a bear personality. For the most part, though, my first move is to look like a spiky mouthful.

The defense mechanisms of vulnerable creatures reminded me of road kill I'd seen in different ecosystems. In south Florida, I used to see land crabs crossing the roads. Their reflex when they see a threat is to brandish their claws. "That's right, f***er! Don't mess with me! I've got these!"

Blat. A car is unimpressed by threat displays, and a driver may have no time to react, not notice the creature, or be a sicko who gets off on killing things. In any case, the massive vehicle has the advantage. Sometimes the heavy shell of a large specimen can actually puncture a tire, but the crab didn't win, and the motorist was only inconvenienced.

Up here in the piney woods, porcupines waddle across the roads. When a vehicle charges down on them, they put up their quills. "Bring it," they say.

Blat again. In this case, the porcupine loses completely. The quills will not damage the vehicle.

Crabs and porcupines have only the one strategy. Crabs will sometimes accelerate their scuttle. Given the chance they will flee. If you go into their habitat you can see them run for cover of vegetation or a burrow. But porcupines simply do not run. They have two speeds: slow and slower. In their ancestral environment, they evolved not to need to retreat hastily.

As vulnerable road users, bicyclists can choose among strategic options based on specific circumstances. No matter what we do, our health and survival depend on not getting hit at all. There is no "next level" in a conflict with another road user. In any of our strategies we simply want to avoid contact with another vehicle piloted by another ostensibly thinking, feeling being.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Fall already

The only thing worse than the inexorable march of time is the people who feel compelled to point it out. As summer fades and fall actually arrives the poets and philosophers wax on about how great the change is, or how it's such a great metaphor for the unstoppable slide into decay and death. Sweaters! Pumpkin spice! Country fairs! You're rocketing into darkness at 67,000 miles per hour! By next spring you'll be that much older and more decrepit! Enjoy the holidays!

I have a theory -- which I have not been able to research yet -- that a person's perception of the seasons is shaped by the season into which they were born. I was born into the longest daylight of summer, not right on the solstice, but about a couple of weeks thereafter. My blurry little infant eyes took in long days of high sun separated by short nights, on the New England coast. When your life span has only been measured in days, each day is a significant percentage of your whole life experience. I imprinted on summer. I feel rightest when it's brightest.

From a primitive standpoint, long daylight provides the most generous free illumination under which to get done whatever you need to get done. Of course it could be too hot. And the light cannot be stored. Even with solar chargers, there is loss. You can't spread your panels to the arctic summer and light the entire arctic winter with the power you collected. Not yet, anyway. So the retreat of the sun represents a genuine loss.

As years pass, a person learns to appreciate all that a year has to offer. I moved back to New England eager for winter to make the mountains more mountainous. Snow and ice were the attraction, not an interruption to be endured. Short days and long nights were not benefits, but they were a necessary part of the overall machinery that produced snow and ice. I became a connoisseur of winter. Now I can tell you what really makes a good winter good, and what the best parts are. From a mountaineering and exploring standpoint, the best of winter is short and delicate. But the season of darkness is never short and its hand can be very heavy.

As my outdoor activity shrunk steadily to just commuting by bike and occasional short hikes, my use for the season of darkness and cold has dwindled. From a bike commuting standpoint, darkness makes it more convenient to stop along the road or trail for a leak, unobserved. That's about the full extent of the benefits.

On the road, evil bastards seem emboldened by the darkness. I get more close passes and angry honks when I'm riding with lights at night. And it's not because I have startled them. The effect has gotten worse as I have added more and better lights. These happen less out on the open highway than on Elm Street. You'd think that side roads would be more serene. You'd be wrong. Most of my ugly incidents happen on Elm Street. It's a redneck expressway. People from all over know that it provides a convenient connector to the Route 16 corridor. It's not exactly heavily traveled, because its convenience depends on where you live at the other end of it, but it's seldom deserted. So the last few miles to my house, and the first few miles when I'm warming up, are the most stressful.

September always brings an increase in driver aggression, even in daylight. It fades a bit as fall advances, but solar glare becomes a bigger problem. You hope for dry but overcast days for safer riding. The sun's backhanded slap, devoid of warmth, isn't worth the trouble. I actually enjoy its low-angled glare when I don't have to ride or drive in it. It fits nicely with the melancholy introspection of the season. But on the road it's just another hazard to work around.

Earth's orbit being Earth's orbit, if you hang on long enough you come around again into the light. Things grow, life emerges. June never gets warm enough fast enough, but don't complain. It will be gone again. The wheel does not spin in place. It rolls us for a distance that we don't get to control. That's why I don't care for the seasonal cheerleaders. Look to this day. Know the parameters that define its light so you can plan accordingly. Know the fruits of the season so that you can enjoy them. Your next breath is not guaranteed to you, let alone the season. With only the most necessary glances at the big picture for orientation, watch this moment and be glad when you make it to the next.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Guns and Bicycles

After years of mental drought and increasing depression, I suddenly received a request for some cartoons to be used in political advertising by a local group. They wanted clear, simple cartoons to illustrate various current political issues.

The first one was easy. It supports environmental science in governmental policy. I was able to spruce up a piece I'd sent them as a sample and submit it as the pay copy. But the second assignment supports gun control. I wrote about this dilemma on Brain Lynt today, so I won't repeat the whole essay here.

I researched hunting rifles so that I could try to present a nuanced situation as fairly as possible in a literally black and white graphic. The political group takes a firm position, but the case is far from simple. The two sides throw statistics and Constitutional interpretations at each other, and neither side is convinced. One single sentence in our constitution has made the country a great place to be a homicidal paranoid. The group that has hired me supports the "assault weapon" ban, and other measures to restrict firing rate and magazine capacity. Those seem sensible, so I wanted to see what the counter-arguments were.

Being a peace and love hippie type, I never got into guns and gun culture. I've shot guns, and had them pointed at me, but I wasn't turned on by the hardware or the activity. I have a couple at home for defensive purposes, but there again I'm more likely to grab something else when I hear a noise at night. Maybe I'll regret my life choices when civilization collapses next month and we're all suddenly living in the wild west again, but I do hear that it's easy to get a gun whenever you want one. That's one of the primary arguments against gun control. Apparently, you can go to just about any shopping center parking lot and find an arms dealer peddling Glocks out of his trunk. Maybe. Probably not.

As I read through various lists of "best deer rifles" I saw how the reviewers included something for everybody. Militarily-styled rifles were on every list, but they were never the first choice. The reviewers included them for people who were already inclined that way.

Outsiders come at the gun control debate viewing gun owners and users as a monolithic block, the way outsiders come at debates over cycling viewing all riders as a monolithic block. As soon as you look a little more closely you find gun owners who support various controls, based on their own point of view, just as you find riders who support specific types of riding. You can find regular users in either general category -- gun owners or bike owners -- who will support points of view held by outsiders who are partly or entirely unfamiliar with the details of either activity. Because ownership of either guns or bicycles encompasses such a huge cross-section of the population, there are few broad-brush proposals that don't severely inhibit the freedom of some users. When you're dealing with an activity protected in the Bill of Rights, you can't just brush it off unless you want to consider letting some other constitutionally-protected things get brushed off.

Not every gun user likes all guns. Not every gun user uses them for their lethal potential. All guns do basically the same thing, go bang and make a little projectile come flying out of the tube, but the power and destination of that little projectile can differ widely. Bicycles all appear to work basically the same way and do basically the same thing, until you look more closely at where they're ridden and how.

Guns still kill more people than bicycles do. Even if a gun owner doesn't use it for its lethal potential, guns weren't invented just for perforating paper or plinking cans. The desire to control their use is understandable. I support the concept. But the solution will not be something simple enough to depict in a single panel cartoon. As long as they're considered a legitimate part of daily life, and possession is enshrined as a right, any limitation on them risks impinging on what would be a justifiable use. Even militarily-styled weapons apparently have non-homicidal uses for lead-heads who want to deliver a lot of rounds in a hurry. If you're hunting something with no bag limit, that moves fast, you might want that quick-firing, shorter weapon. While I am not into killing for fun, and I wish no one else was either, that's a philosophical debate that can go on for several more centuries. In the meantime, it's legal in a lot of places.

Friday, September 14, 2018

More anti-cyclist infrastructure on the Cotton Valley Trail

As if riders didn't have enough to handle at the rail crossings, now they've added these slalom gates. Gossip says that the intent is to guide riders to the exact crossing point. The goofy yellow paint and the "no shit Sherlock" arrows are more unhelpful attempts to deflect liability by belaboring the obvious.

I will say that I have observed riders winging through the crossings at stupidly oblique angles and foolishly high speeds. The ones I saw managed to pull it off, but they obviously had no idea how lucky they were. So the gates prevent a rider from slicing off the corner. But they constrict traffic during heavy use periods, when the path can be a log jam of pedestrians and riders. And any minor error in alignment -- that you might have been able to correct -- risks catching a pedal on those orange posts. They're springy, to reduce the chances of impalement, but not so floppy that you could hook a pedal and just ride through it.

At least one crossing also has the heavy wooden sign post inconveniently -- not to say dangerously -- close to the crossing itself. Cyclists dismount indeed. That crossing is further out, closer to Bryant Road.

The intent is always to get riders to dismount. A rider who isn't riding isn't bothering anyone. That's true on roads or paths. But it isn't really true when a knot of pedestrians and riders tangles up in the confined space of a crossing that was already too small before the addition of the slalom gates.

The drive-to-ride crowd can drive somewhere else. Mountain biking has become entirely drive-to-ride. As dedicated trail networks proliferate for purely recreational forms of cycling, large blocs of the pedaling population are neatly removed from the traffic mix and feel less need to advocate for the freedom to ride everywhere.

Long distance transportation cycling isn't highly practical for the vast majority of people, but infrastructure should still be built to accommodate riders no matter what. A rider might make short hops on a long road, and long distance riders have rights, too. Most attention gets paid to built-up areas with denser populations. This compartmentalized approach is as wrong as wildlife management plans that focus only on one species, or too small a piece of habitat. Any trail that connects two relatively major points of interest needs to be considered from the transportation as well as recreation angle. Any trail that can be connected to the rest of the transportation network is part of that network.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

This could be yours

This stem, custom made in the early 1990s for a guy who is about 6-foot-14 1/2 inches tall, has been abandoned by its owner as part of a weird mutant bike built at the family compound on an old Sterling frame. He scraped off a bunch of the family's old junk on us, most of it early '80s road bikes with enormous frames.

They're a tall bunch.

The whole bike isn't worth much, but it has a couple of parts that could be useful for a home mechanic who wants some solid components from before The Great Cheapening. For instance, it has a forged crank, 74-110 BCD. Probably 175mm crank arms, so it's too long for me. And the derailleurs  are made of actual metal. It has top-mount, indexed thumb shifters with friction option. Early production mountain bikes were practical. They had indexing for convenience, but could be switched to friction if the indexing went out for any of a number of very possible reasons. The earliest models didn't even have indexing, because the first crack of dawn of the mountain bike era arrived just as index shifting was starting to make its way onto road bikes.

Plenty of room to mount your electronics on that long stem. Hell, sling a hammock.

They had this first-generation Rock Shox hanging around. A full inch and a half of travel! Ooooooh! Pump it up to about 12 psi. The first shock pumps used plastic syringes. The air valve was a rubber plug like you'd find on a basketball. And shock forks had to have a stop for the bridge wire of cantilever brakes. Check those crown bolts before every ride! You don't want the fork legs falling off, or the fork suddenly shortening so the tire hits the fork crown.

This bike has to handle very weirdly. That stem is totally crazy. I had a 150 on one bike, during the long stem era. Lots of mountain bikes had short top tubes, long stems, and narrow bars. Frame design evolved in the mid '90s, to longer top tubes and shorter stems. As evolution continued, stems got even shorter as bars got wider. I just packed a Karate Monkey for a guy who had sold it to someone on the west coast. Its handlebars are 31 inches wide. That's just ridiculous.
Too bad they're 31.8s. They would make a great combination with the crazy long stem.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Sensitivity Training

Still mulling over last Saturday's slapstick comedy in the parking lot.

Because human evolution has been physically invisible for longer than we've even had a name for it, we have to think about what we're doing and why we're doing it instead of just doing it. Not only do we have lots of instinctual behavior, we have philosophies attached to it and reflexive behavior taught to us to further complicate the candor of our reactions. And we haven't even figured out where our instinctive promptings reside. Some of us have mental and emotional images that don't match their physical bodies. Even the big fat blob in the middle of most bell curves has its own curves that make up that very average average. How much of what feels instinctive now is attached to physical brain and neural structures, and genetic coding, that could in time disappear? I don't mean a lifetime. I mean thousands of years, if we don't manage to annihilate our species well before then.

Say, on the other hand, that we have stalled physically, and all further evolution will have to continue to be philosophical. That makes all of it optional, especially as it pertains to personal freedom and interpersonal respect.

For behavior to be deemed improper, society must have standards of propriety. As we fumble our way toward a genuine respect for women, we come up against instinctive promptings that are a source of both outrage and comedy. We could always laugh at our instincts. The outrage is much newer, even if it is long, long overdue. Right now we've begun overthinking it as we begin to compensate for thousands of years of underthinking it.

"Trust your instincts" is some of the worst advice imaginable.

Question normality. You may affirm it, but make it justify itself. To tangle you up even more, never forget that it's your own brain analyzing your own brain. It's enough to make you say "screw it," and do what feels like it comes naturally. Let the audience decide.

While I joke that my recoil was prompted by the admonition to avoid uninvited physical contact with someone of the opposite sex, I also don't particularly like to grab onto people at all. I'll take it from my huggy friends, but it's not my first impulse. And I'm so accustomed to falling in various contexts without anyone there to catch me or help squeegee me up afterwards, I actually forget what it's like to be in a mutually dependent group. I vaguely recall that it could be nice. But it went away. It's too easy to fall into habits of isolation. Even when I'm with people I have this weird sense of looking at them from a distance, or through a screen. Oh wait, this is real? Oops.

Even at work, I spend most of my time working individually on the gratuitous complexities of machines that their own inventors don't even seem to understand. The longest conversations I have except on the day when I have another mechanic in the backshop are with my cats. It has its good points, but certainly a down side as well.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

You train yourself

You train yourself all the time, whether you are purposely practicing a discipline you want to perfect or just thinking about concepts you want to incorporate into your behavior.

As long as I have been in the bike business, articles in the trade publications have talked about making shops more welcoming to all sorts of riders. Female riders in particular criticized the elitist and sexist characters they met in some shops.

Because I learned most of my basic mechanical techniques and riding skills from a woman, I never thought that "girls" were inferior or did not belong in the pure realm of cycling. But just being your  average horny idiot is a gateway to inadvertent acts that could be construed as creepy by someone particularly sensitive. And any time you find yourself even temporarily being an above average horny idiot you can be sure that you've already made a pile and skidded through it. The job offers many opportunities to stand too close, or talk about personal things, or even lay a hand on someone under the pretext of biomechanics or bike fit.

The more attractive you find a person, the more you need to focus on the professional necessities of the encounter. It's fine to be friendly, but remember why the person came to the shop in the first place.

The recent surge of awareness of the constant barrage of unwanted male attention faced by so many women highlights the need to maintain a certain distance and reserve. Almost 30 years ago, I wouldn't hesitate to flirt with a customer I found attractive. I figured I was a good looking guy with a bright future, what's not to like? History has proven otherwise, but that shouldn't be the only reason I take a much more reserved approach. I figure that women need a break from even the hint of lust. The deeply buried horny center of my brain still tries to get my attention, but now I enjoy thwarting it while I laugh at its promptings.

Last week, a very attractive and friendly woman came into the shop on a ride with a male companion. They seemed like a couple, but not a gooey cooey kind of couple. They were on interesting bikes. Hers was an old Trek 520 touring bike. His was a Bridgestone XO. She asked questions about how riding position might relate to some calf pain she was having. She's a yoga instructor, and they both seem to work in fields where anatomy is important. They could name muscles that I used to be able to locate, but now the names are more like people I used to party with that I haven't seen in years. Soleus? Oh yeah, we used to hang out together. And gastrocnemius. I could tell you stories about gastrocnemius, oh yeah. I've had to cram my head with so much bike anatomy that my knowledge of human anatomy has faded like a fax in the sun.

The woman was riding in running shoes. I suggested that the pain started because she was trying to ride some stiff climbs in floppy shoes. Because she was using calf muscle to stiffen and stabilize her foot as well as provide power in the pedal stroke, it was shortening and tightening the muscles. We turned out not to have bike shoes to fit her, but while she was sitting to try on what we did have, she spotted a road bike hanging on a display hook. She ended up test riding the bike and putting it on hold.

Today they came to pick up her new road bike. She had new shoes that she'd picked up during the week, so she bought pedals to match. She'd never ridden clipless before. I gave her the usual instructions and warnings before we went down to the back parking lot to check her position on the bike.

"Remember that you have to twist your foot outwards," I said. "And release both feet when you're getting ready to stop, in case the bike happens to tip the opposite way from the one you'd expected."

She circled and landed successfully once. Because she was also practicing getting into the cleats, stopping and starting as we dialed in her riding position gave her a good opportunity for repetition. Around she came for another landing. She unclipped a foot...and it was the wrong one. Over she came, toward me.

"Never touch a woman without her consent," was the first message to my brain in the split second as she toppled toward me.

Yeah, so she hit the parking lot. She might have bounced off of me a little bit, but I had it so engrained in me to keep my hands to myself that it never occurred to me to grab her. I wasn't even sure if I should help her up. She's an athlete and a yoga instructor after all. And in the scrabble to regain dignity after suffering the newbie cleat fall, isn't it more empowering to let her take control as quickly as possible? Yeah, that's it: it was empowering. Empowering is good, right?

R-e-s-p-e-c-t. Yeah, buddy.

Fortunately, she was only a little scuffed up, and the bike was barely scratched. Scratched is even too strong a word. There was a bit of grit on it. I brought her some hydrogen peroxide to wash out the minor scrapes while we joked about how I had totally blown the trust fall.

Talking about it with my coworker afterward, he said, "So you weren't a creep, but you weren't a hero either."

The couple left on their shakedown cruise. They reported back just before closing time. It went well. So that's good. The goal is to put people happily on bikes.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Is the sad truth unavoidable?

A cartoonist and art teacher whose work I admire recently posted a piece in which he reveals that making art -- even making funny art -- for a living turns into as much of a boring grind as any job.

When I got to work last Wednesday, I thought, "There's nowhere else I'd rather be right now, and that makes me sad as hell, because I damn sure don't want to be here."

In all my years of incarceration in search of income, I either found things to like about what I was doing or could easily imagine what I would prefer to be doing as soon as I got the chance. When neither of those is true, what's left is bleak. I'm slogging forward out of nothing more than force of habit and the unfounded optimism of living things.

A few years out of college, I wrote to my independent study professor to suggest that the creative writing department include a course called The Day Job. While he responded to various other communications over the years, he never responded to that one. By basically drifting downstream rather than knowing where I was going and how to paddle effectively, I had ended up majoring in poetry rather than fiction. The professor, a poet, said that he'd been having to do a lot of academic writing and found that it drained his poetic energy as well. So even though his day job was closely related to his chosen creative path, it ended up as an obstacle to the kind of creativity he had expected to pursue.

The unfounded optimism of living things. Depression is manageable as long as the endless dull ache of an unidentifiable longing is preferable to the finality of nonexistence.

I believe that burnout is a function of temperament. Some people in nearly any profession you can name remain energetic and happy. It's probably another bell curve, with a blob in the middle experiencing fluctuating satisfaction, while each end reflects either a hum of happiness or unrelieved gloom.

As my work week began I felt like I was washed up and hadn't ever been much at best. I will still acknowledge that this might be true, but by the end of the week I felt like I regained some ground in my accidental profession. Modern bike componentry is a disease more than a cure, but I can bring myself to study it and treat it, because the sufferers still need succor. Because the symptoms are mental as well as physical, most of the sufferers don't know that they've been afflicted with an industrial disease. They think that they've purchased state of the art marvels that will serve them well for years, the way bikes always used to. Or they don't care if it lasts, because their interest won't either.

As recently as about 27 years ago, you really could spend top dollar on a bike -- particularly a road bike -- and have something that would give you pleasure for the rest of your life. Then came STI and the steady addition of cog after cog.

Consider the violin: Certain violins and other stringed instruments in the violin family from the 17th and 18th Century can command staggering prices not just because they are pretty pieces of cabinetry, but because they have all the audible and operational qualities that make a musical instrument desirable. Violins much younger can perform just as well, but they do so by adhering to qualities established centuries ago. You can also buy various mutants that make interesting and enjoyable noises, but the basic pattern remains so desirable that its extinction does not appear imminent. You can play all genres of music on it if you know the technique. You want to select one in your price range with the best playability and tone you can get. Then you meet its simplicity with your own willingness to practice.

The road bicycle frame was perfected before the middle of the 20th Century. All the strange looking frames you see today are still putting all of the critical contact points in the same position relative to the rider and the riding surface. But I've ridden that Draisine to death.

Mountain bikers face a bleaker future when it comes to technological enslavement. They're not going to be able to ride the way they want to ride without all those pivots, shock absorbers, and shifting and braking systems. All of those require maintenance or replacement at frequent intervals. Your hydraulic fluid goes bad even when the bike is stored. At least the DOT stuff does. It goes bad in the container and in your bike. If you've ever had brake fade, you created gas in the system that supposedly reabsorbs when the fluid cools, but never completely. And the absorbed water that made the brakes more prone to fade is still there, getting reinforcements by the day.

Shock seals dry out and pivot bearings rust, even in storage. You will pay in money and time to keep up with all of this relentless deterioration.

I, on the other hand, take my trusty road bike off the hook, pump up the tires, double check the chain lube, and go for a ride. The Cross Check even sees quite a bit of unpaved road and trail, and still gives very little trouble. I just replaced its original bottom bracket, installed in 2001, probably about 18,000 miles ago. I vaguely recall putting another one in there, but I don't seem to have written it down, and the one I took out is the right vintage to be 2001. But I could have stockpiled it. So maybe I only had 9,000 or 10,000 hard miles on the BB. Still pretty good, though.

The day job still eats my creative time and energy. When I could get by on less sleep, I could at least try to scratch out a drawing or a piece of writing in the scraps of time before or after work. I still held out the hope that I could produce something of publication quality in either genre. But now I find that a real professional is someone who has done so much for so long that it's less enjoyable than the morning bowel movement. It's more like just scooping the mental litter box for hours. I missed my opportunity to burn out on being a creative professional.

On the other hand, I entered the Union of Concerned Scientists cartoon contest four times and made the calendar three. I have actually gotten paid for some cartoon work, and for some writing. It was never enough to qualify as my living for tax purposes, but not because I was trying to pull a fast one. I just kept getting blown out of the groove.

Robert Pirsig is famous for basically one book. So is Harper Lee. So even if you don't manage to reach saturation and feel imprisoned by your former passion, you can still contribute works of value to humanity as a whole.

The basic problem facing cartoonists is the crappy pay scale. A few -- very few -- might manage to hit syndication and licensing deals, as well as crossover productions, that bring them financial comfort and actual fame. If a cartoonist springs to your mind, and you're not a fan and student of the art, you are probably naming one of these few. There's not much middle class in the cartooning world. Even when there was, the ink-stained wretches did have to slave at the drawing board for workday hours. It was their job, just like the steel mill or the garment factory or the offices of IBM. So the whole free expression part of it was always a bit elusive. A cartoonist for a big newspaper or commercial art house lived as a king's favorite, with the threat of beheading always in the background.

My friend suffers from the additional burden of artistic standards. He has a masters degree in fine arts. He composes his panels with all of those principles in mind. His draftsmanship is depressingly precise and clean. He has mastered not only the traditional techniques of ink and paper, but the digital techniques now de rigeur in graphic design. That means investing in hardware and software and spending time to learn how to use it.

Digital art and art editing make a piece of line art multiply useful because the digitized image can be copied and toned and colored in multiple different ways without having to be redrawn. The original can then be finished using traditional techniques and be available for gallery viewing or sale. I have not mastered any digital techniques. My old scanner might still work. The computer to which I had it hooked up is an old XP machine that I don't let out to play on the Internet anymore. My tentative attempts to use some software that a friend gave me didn't go well. And then concerns of daily life dragged me out of the studio because it wasn't my livelihood, so I couldn't shut the door and insist on finishing projects that never really coalesced anyway.

I used to really love sitting in a pool of light, working on a drawing with the smell of coffee and India ink mingling around me. I was dragged away from it so many times that being interrupted became the habit. Interruption is the enemy of flow. That's true no matter what you're doing. In every draft of my never-finished novel I would come back from any interruption with a disruptively different view of everything, whether the interruption was a single shift at the day job or months in the service of other people's needs. Eventually starting over becomes too painful because interruption seems inevitable. Why bother when the world has plenty of great creative stuff already made by people who managed to fight their way through the crap or got lucky and found a tunnel underneath it?

Writing does seem to survive interruption more easily than quality artistic rendering does. I don't find drawing easy, which is obvious from the stiff and overworked, yet still crude, look of my finished work. But thoughts in words can be scribbled and then typed, connected and reconnected like mechanical parts to make little vehicles for the mind. Readers can hop on or in them. Maybe when time permits, more elaborate, rooted edifices can be built: mind palaces rather than bikes and scooters and little camper trailers.

I will never give up the hope of enjoying what I do for a living. If it does not reward you in some way other than financially, it probably isn't a very good thing to be doing in the first place.