Tuesday, February 27, 2018


Morning low in the mid 20s. Sunday's snow shrunken to a coating where the sun shines strongly through the leafless hardwoods. I considered hiking without the need for snowshoes or skis, but a few deeper areas remain. It's not enough to be worth skiing, and certainly not enough to require snowshoes except in a few spots. Rather than stomp sloppy postholes in it after the day had warmed to the 40s, I pulled the trusty fixed-gear off its hook, and pumped up the tires.

That's the nice thing about the fixie. About all you have to do is pump up the tires. Then I just had to pump myself up to go find out just how much I had deteriorated since my last park 'n' ride commute in early December.

In the theme of reclamation, I talked to my father, age 90, on the phone last night. Last year he got his hip replaced. He receives regular injections in his eyeballs to hold off the effects of macular degeneration. He's determined to keep living as well as he can. He was never a big exerciser just for its own sake. He needed a goal or a standard imposed from outside. But he's joined a 24-hour fitness center. He told me I had been an inspiration to him. So I figured I should start acting like one again. I salute anyone who can consistently go to a fitness center and keep to a routine. But then that's his strength.

High clouds filtered the sun ahead of some unsettled weather drifting toward us for the middle of the week. A little of this, a little of that, none of it supposed to leave piles of anything, it does not alter the trend toward days solidly above freezing. Since the big climate news is open water in the Arctic right now, with temperatures above freezing, our own mild temperatures aren't astounding.

Years ago I learned that New England is at the approximate latitude of the French Riviera. The fact that we had legendary winters at all reinforces the saying that location is everything. Where we sit relative to our continent, the nearest major water body, and the former routine meanderings of the jet stream, combined to make us feel more kinship to the Arctic than to any place famous for rich and famous people in sunglasses. But then we do get a smattering of those, as well. They keep manufacturing new ones... and they have to go somewhere.

Speaking of location, I live near some of the only relatively flat roads in the area. The route I picked took full advantage of that, and the light wind, and generous shoulders on Route 25. I'm not reshaping muscles adapted to vigorous use in cross-country skiing. I got nothin', or nearly nothin'.

Gratifyingly, I seemed to warm up and settle in after 20 minutes of pedaling. I have no depth, but at least I got around the route and finished feeling better than when I started. The twinges of atrophy and anxiety abated. Exercise is good for your mental and emotional health. It also takes longer than drugs or other shortcuts, which explains the continued popularity of those. Quick and easy and back to the rat race. Hell, time budgeting was why I quit working out in the first place. I wanted to work on other things. Something had to go, and work and sleep couldn't be reduced.

The bike commute is based on time budgeting. It provides physical benefits greater than the cost of the extra time in transit. It has more advantages than disadvantages. This would be true for anyone who only needs to transport their own self and some fairly compact cargo. I wouldn't expect someone to throw a $10,000 cello onto a BOB trailer and tool off for a day of teaching. But for a person whose main equipment for a day of work is simply their presence, it offers a lot.

Last year I was starting to lay base miles around this time, and we got shut down in mid March. One never knows. But no two winters seem to be exactly alike, so maybe this underachiever will go ahead and fade away, so we can get on to the next thing.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Evolution of Cross-Training

In ancient times, when I felt free to play, winter was a time to explore as widely as time and money would allow. I did it all -- or mostly all --: I climbed ice, I trudged up above treeline in what you could call mountaineering, I skied cross-country and some Telemark, I hiked. The cross-country skiing was mostly exploratory, on ungroomed terrain, but working in the business put me close to groomed trails. Learning more about the equipment and technique became a professional necessity and an enjoyable addiction for a time.

Mind you, I never intended to get into the gear business or the recreation industry. These happened by accident in search of basic income. Having put my eggs in the "creative" basket, I had little to offer the world of office jobs or practical trades. What I know I have learned by doing. Being a bike mechanic still seems like a worthwhile skill set, made less enjoyable by the consumerist avalanche that buried the industry and the pedaling world in the 1990s. The industry dumps more debris on the pile every year, rather than showing any inclination to dig some away and focus on simple pleasures. So it goes.

Wrenching has not been a gold mine. And the creative eggs are either spoiling in the basket or are easily overlooked in the tall grass and the jumble of other people's more brilliant output. So I guard my resources and spend nothing on journeys long or short that I do not need to take.

Ice climbing was easy to quit. The tools are expensive and the problems don't entice me. As a subset of mountaineering, ice and rock climbing made sense, within my conservative comfort zone. No longer mountaineering, I no longer think much about the supportive skills.

Achievers need mountains to climb. Artists just need mountains to appreciate. I don't need to be clinging to a couple of microscopic rough patches above a deadly drop to have a nice day out on the crags. I'm not keeping a score card of peaks bagged and waiting to be bagged. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's a matter of personality.

Two elderly men I know provide a perfect example of the pros and cons of each approach. The achiever now spends most of his time sitting in a recliner, watching cable news and analyzing situations over which he no longer has much influence. He spent his entire adult life in organizations: government service, sailing clubs, yachting associations. He has plaques, certificates, medals, trophies, attesting to his performance in various hierarchical settings. He has memories of when life was fun, even though his performance focus made it very hard to tell that he was having fun at the time. The artist bought himself a Kevlar solo canoe a couple of years ago, and still goes out paddling, even after a heart attack and the usual pain and stiffness of an aging body. He's in his 80s. He will stop when he is no longer physically capable of going.

Some competitive types manage to remain competitive in their age group until they drop. Some tourist types probably stop and rot sooner than they need to. There are millions of people I've never met, so I can't say for sure. I do observe that the artistic appreciative types, and the achievers with something of the artist about them, seem to remain alive until they're dead, compared to people who need to be at or reaching for the top of a given activity, who stagnate when they realize that big glory is now out of reach.

I'm just trying to stay strong enough to continue my self-propelled lifestyle.

As winter has deteriorated over the years, opportunities to charge right out the door onto usable surfaces have diminished. At the same time, the odds of finding something worth the trip at the end of a self-indulgent drive have diminished as well. I can take a slog in the slush from my own back door more easily that I can take one miles away. From a pure fitness standpoint, the slog from home is more enjoyable than any indoor training, and just as effective as a slog for which I had to burn gasoline.

Winter riding seems less inviting now than it did. Are the roads less clear, or is it just my dwindling testosterone? Can't tell you. I know that the slop storms we get seem to inspire the road crews to slather way more salt than they used to, and the glop impinges on the travel way a lot. Micro-climates also affect riding conditions on most routes around here. Areas that don't get as much sun remain colder, with persistent snowdrifts and ice. Increased population puts more drivers on the roads. Decreased bike use among young people means that more and more of those drivers have not had much -- if any -- experience as riders. Most mean well, but they lack the empathy born of personal knowledge. And some lack empathy entirely.

Then there are simple logistics. In my care-free years, my house was tiny and easy to care for. When it grew into a music school (now closed), the building itself became permanently larger. I would not get a refund if I removed part of the structure. The money is spent. The building is here. And the driveway doesn't clear itself. I gave up on plow guys, because they never live up to the promises. So, every snowstorm, I have to be out there with the snow thrower. You learn a lot you might not already have noticed when you have to move all of your own snow. Moisture, density, depth, can make the difference between a one-hour job and a three-hour job.

At least in this crappy snow year I have not had to go up and shovel the roof. Even though that is the only technical climbing I do anymore, I can live without it. The roof is the quicker part. Moving the avalanche piles afterward is when the real work begins. And none of it was easy.

All that home maintenance stuff does count as exercise. So does splitting and stacking wood. But it's not complete and balanced exercise. For that you need to get out and find something you can do for more than an hour, arms and legs, like cross-country skiing. And not much else is like cross-country skiing, in the way it incorporates the entire body and mind. Metaphorically, things are similar, but they don't provide the conditioning benefits.

In desperation a couple of weeks ago, I dug out the old Nordic Track machine, intending to flog myself through at least a half-hour on it before letting myself have supper. It's not much like actual skiing, but it does use arms and legs in a similar motion. Because you are working hard, but going absolutely nowhere, with no swoop and glide, it is absolutely the most tedious, miserable toil, unrelieved for me by any musical or video distraction. I just want it to be over. As it happened that evening, the cellist called when I was 17 minutes into it. After we finished talking, it was that much later, I was that much hungrier, and I couldn't get myself to start again. And, the next day, I felt like total crap. Joints hurt, I had none of the feeling of cleansing and residual endorphins that usually follow a good workout. So screw that. I'm back to trying to get out and wander around at any opportunity.

Right now I have to go move 3 inches of slush that fell yesterday, in case daytime highs in the 40s to 50 don't get rid of enough of it. Cross training, man. March is a wild card when it comes to winter weather around here. I may be out riding soon, or we might get shut down until mid April. The second half of winter is like another whole season. Animals are fighting it until the end, trying to get to the easier feeding of the growing season. Hut-bound humans atrophy every day, right up to the very day that they manage to break out and start moving around again.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Coming Soon: Moped Monthly Magazine!

Someone dropped off a pile of back issues of Bicycling. One of them included a special section devoted to ebikes.
Check out the Buyer's Guide to Sidewalk Motorcycles, and articles like "Hate to Pedal? Who Doesn't?" Read reviews of selected accessories, like helmets, gloves, and weightlifting belts. Find out why your smokeless moped must have electronic shifting and computer controlled suspension.

I don't mind if people want to invent labor saving devices. But I don't recall the Bicycling Magazine of the 1970s reviewing mopeds. The fact that the power is provided by an electric motor seems to blind people to the fact that this is not a bicycle, except in the sense that the original term for motorcycle was motor-bicycle. Yes, it has pedals and uses a lot of the same componentry. That in itself is a problem, when a 50- to 75-pound vehicle is using a suspension fork and brake system designed for something that weighs 25- to 35 pounds. Wheels and tires are gradually mutating to reflect the actual loads involved. This leads to other problems when the motorcyclesque tire for a given smokeless moped gets dropped from production. I ran into this working on a couple of massively heavy models from A2B. The only tire available to fit the rims is definitely not for a 75-pound behemoth. The rubber will melt away.

The bike industry, desperate for cash after they destroyed the mountain bike boom, is grasping at every straw, including electric wires. I suggest attaching those to the genitals.

You can't stop progress. You also can't stop diarrhea.

Electric vehicles are great. They are a separate thing and need to be considered as such. Quit dumping every whacked piece of crap with pedals onto hardworking little bike shops. Improvement is one thing. Over-sophistication is something else. The minority thrilled by space age, temperamental componentry is vastly outweighed by the people who want a relief from that crap, who were perfectly satisfied with simpler mechanisms, well made, and ask only for safe riding conditions.

It's still winter here, but a pretty crappy winter, so I have too much time to think about the next season and the technological marvels that are imposed on us in a deeper and deeper pile every year. Tool up! Study up! One or two people might need something annoying and expensive worked on! Meanwhile, all the older stuff still needs its routine attention.

The industry's ideal is to make bikes that are addictively attractive, that can't be serviced. Customers will buy them, ride them into the ground, and replace them eagerly, because we all have that kind of money. What happens to the carcasses of the dead? Who cares? Maybe someone will develop a feel-good, token recycling program to salvage the 10 percent of the content that can be. And environmental groups will start reporting on how the remaining detritus has been pulled from the gullets of the last few whales, or something.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

There was fun to be had

At the end of the 1970s, the threats to human existence were clearly caused by humans themselves. War and pollution headed the list. To a peaceful person who had embraced the bicycle for transportation, the remedy seemed clear. Ratchet down the aggression. Slow down on the industrialized consumption. Use technology to improve life worldwide. Walk and ride.

Too simple, I know. Relaxation cannot be imposed, and will not be accepted. We have come too far on human sacrifice and grinding toil. It's the prison we know, into which we bear our children. It's normal.

As a hopeful idiot commuting by bike, I thought people would see me threading traffic and having a good time and say, "Hey! I could do that!" Instead, as we all have experienced, they say, "I hate that guy! What a slacker!" I acknowledge that many people will not be able to use human powered vehicles to do things that would remain necessary even in a world devoted to human happiness. But a society truly devoted to human happiness would make sure that everyone got a chance to relax and get outside. And our transportation systems would allow those who could use human power to be able to do so, for the good of everyone.

There was fun to be had. But we're suspicious of fun. It has to be wrong.

It may change some day. Right now we are clearly headed in the opposite direction, cranking up the hatred and arguing about whether people need lethal weapons in hand at all times. On the road, motorists threaten cyclists with injury or death as a matter of routine. Cyclists learn to deal with it in the criterium of life, or they give up and let the terrorists win.

What was true in the 1970s is still true. Ratchet down the aggression. Slow down on the industrialized consumption. Use technology to improve life worldwide. Walk and ride. Be more appreciative of simple comforts we take for granted. There is fun to be had, and it is not at the expense of others. 

I know better than to keep believing it will happen. But I still believe in the principle. I will never stop believing in the principle.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The metaphorically dead, the nearly dead, and the actually dead

The crappy snow conditions have killed most of the shop's income. The days are "dead" in the sense that hours can pass between customers and mere lookers popping in. Thus, financially, the business itself is on that crumbling edge so sadly familiar to brick and mortar retail in general, and small retail in particular.

With plenty of time on my hands, when the boss said he wanted some piled-up repair records filed away, I decided to revamp the filing system completely.

Back in the 1990s, we started keeping detailed records of all the work we did, because the mountain bike boom was exposing us to lots of warranty claims and attempts to get something for nothing. A customer would come in saying, "You just worked on my bike and then (insert catastrophe here) happened." Because of the huge repair volume in general, and the fact that we had as many as five people doing mechanical work during peak periods, we might remember someone's face, but not the details of our previous service to them. Even if we did remember, a written record is much more convincing in the quasi-courtroom atmosphere that often developed just outside the workshop doorway.

"You just worked on my bike and then my shifting went out!"

"Yes, well, according to our records here, we fixed a flat tire for you, and you specifically told us to do nothing else."

"Oh. Can you fix my gears?"


These documents pile up. We cull them every ten years or so, saving only the most interesting. For instance, back in the mid 1990s, we did some work for Roff Smith before his tour around Australia in 1996. His parents lived in Tamworth, NH, at the time, so we got to see him both before and after that epic journey. And I like to keep the records from any interesting bike I build.

Typically, we would file the records alphabetically, but boxed together in one- or two-year groupings. This can be a pain in the ass when a customer has a question about prior work -- reproducing componentry spec on a bike no longer with us, for instance, or checking on the full history of a subsystem -- because none of us might remember for sure when the work took place. For years I had wanted to file alphabetically only, with each customer's records chronologically arranged within their section.

I've made it to the letter P in just over a week.

After 28 years in the same shop, I see pieces of life stories, and even know how some of them have ended. Several have fallen to the terrifying, implacable scourge of cancer, which Americans face alone, battling not only the disease, but also the profit-driven corporations that control both treatment and access to treatment. And the names include two murdered women, written in their own handwriting, in each case a year or less from the date of those still-unsolved murders. Both were divorced. One was shot execution-style on Halloween, in 2010, in the home she had recently purchased in another town. The other was brutally butchered with a knife on Mothers Day, 2009. As usual with violence against women, the problem is not too few suspects, but too many.

I try to remember their faces, bits of conversation we might have had. No one deserves to die that way. The rage and contempt indicate murderers who felt entitled. There have been no remorseful suicides in the suspect pool. As far as we can tell, the killers are happily getting away with it.

The living go on living. Those of us inclined to fix things try to keep things running. The forces of destruction oppose us. The record will be alphabetized until someone knocks over the boxes.