Friday, March 02, 2018

Your Personal Relationship with Cog

The departure of winter weather has brought in the first bike repair of the season.

New England has always had five seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter, and "none of the above," but now they're more jumbled up than ever. We're definitely in none of the above right now. It can get as warm as it likes, and we still won't see growing plants for another month and a half. Still, if we don't get appreciable snow in that time, more cyclists will emerge. Or we could get slammed. Water-soaked ground won't refreeze, so a bunch of snow won't reinvigorate winter fun.

Of course this first patient is a dedicated roadie.  He told me he took this bike out for 53 miles a couple of days ago. That right there is a dedicated roadie thing to say. We know how far we went. It's not an approximate 50-55. It's fifty-three. Sometimes it's 53.7 or 52.89.

He told the tech who checked the bike in that the bottom bracket is noisy. Also, as a rider who has experienced fraying shift cables inside a brifter, he wanted those checked as well.

The bottom bracket is fine. He's just ridden the bearings out of his plastic-bodied Look Keo pedals. And his chain was worn out.

How do you know if the chain on your road bike is worn out? Answer a couple of simple questions:

Does your bike have 10 or more cogs in the rear gear set?

Has it been a month since your last new chain?

If you answered yes to those, you need a chain.

The cable for the right shifter had started to break, so I replaced that. The cable for the left shifter had a weird little kink in it, close to the swaged end inside the brifter, so I changed that one, too. We should be good to go, right?

When I ran the bike through the gears, I had to dial in a little more cable tension to get it to carry the chain up cog hill to the lowest gear. This is normal. I'd had the housings out, and they had to reseat. I started shifting back down to the high gears. First click: one cog. Second click: four cogs. Third click: chain chatter and finally a shift. The chain moved reluctantly the rest of the way.

Sometimes the cable has gotten hung up somewhere so it didn't get proper tension. I disconnected it,  checked the lead, and hooked it back up. No improvement. I popped the housings out of their stops to confirm that linear wires weren't pushing through any of the ferrules. With the derailleur disconnected, I held the cable while operating the shifter. The ratchet was definitely releasing too much on a couple of those intermediate clicks.

I flooded the brifter with spray lube and let it sit overnight. This morning it might have been slightly better on the first run through, but not on the second or third or any that followed. I doused it a couple more times. You can't do much else to Shimano brifters.

The maddening part is that he had no complaints about the shifting when he brought the bike in. I didn't do anything to it. You can't really. You might graunch on a shift really hard and jam the unit, but that's more common with certain front shifters than with rear ones.

Earwax -- the congealed factory lube that creates the illusion that a shifter is worn out -- will affect the shifting up and down. Clicks disappear. The lever just whiffs, catching nothing. That isn't the case with this unit. The ratchet engages too positively, and dumps several positions at once before the pawls click into place. I've seen it on other Shimano-equipped bikes. But why did I have to be standing there when it decided to happen to this one?

Because the rider has had more than one frayed cable since he bought the bike, there could be one or more tiny fragments of old wire that have finally migrated into position to jam things up. Or some hair-fine spring or little ratchet tooth could have broken off. The bike dates back to about 2012. In modern bike years, that makes it an old piece of junk.

Sophisticated mechanisms stand between you and your personal experience of riding. Mysterious, unfixable controls make shifting easier until they make it impossible. They act as intermediaries in your personal relationship with cogs. As with so many human complexities, we could choose to refuse, but the majority simply accepts that this is advanced, improved technology. The sleek, the expensive, the excruciatingly engineered, they're here to help us. It's part of the price you pay.

I imagine that riders said grumpy things about the newfangled derailleurs in all their wacky permutations as that technology was emerging. The thing is, all that stuff was outside the bike. There were internally geared hubs. There were hidden mysteries. But anything could be opened with the right tools. Someone could fix it. You yourself might learn. It's not brain surgery. It would deepen your personal experience, if you chose. And most minor malfunctions, such as they were, could be treated by the roadside. Minor. I said minor.

As soon as you have to pay someone to fix your stuff, you have to pay that person enough to stay alive and available. There have been bike shops for years, and those shops have had mechanics. But on simpler machinery, a mechanic could handle more jobs in less time for less money per job, compared to now, when the parts themselves take a good chunk out of the wallet, and the technician might have to deal with internal cable routing, hydraulics, exotic materials, electronics, a new tire size every year, and still shovel through a pile of box-store bikes and path cruisers to clear the repair docket. Parts are more and more expensive for shops to stock. Mechanics need to be smart enough to figure out all the different machinery, dumb enough to work for bike mechanic money, and loyal -- or trapped -- enough to stick around.

The simpler your bike is, the more you can do for yourself, and the less will go wrong in the first place. The friction shifters on my bikes will handle eight or nine speeds. I might even be able to swing ten, but I refuse to start using tinfoil chains. The index-dependent systems lock you into a manufacturer's offerings. Ten speed used to be top shelf. Now it's lower middle class. Parts are wearing out? Buy a new bike. You know you want to.

I can't do it. Forget the money. If I'd scored bestselling novel with movie rights money, I still couldn't do it. It's wasteful and it's enslavement. The personal is political. The personal is commercial. The personal is downright industrial. But you can still limit the intrusion to preserve as much of your direct relationship with the world as possible. The bike was a perfect machine for transforming human effort into forward motion. Backward motion, too, if you're really adept on your fixed-gear. Multiple speeds increased its versatility without terribly degrading its essential simplicity. Only when innovators turned it into a semi-automatic weapon did things start to go wrong.

It's hard to find a high quality bike without complicated shifting. You can still find some with barcons as original equipment. The industry is so committed to other things that no other point of view can get much economic leverage. We're being dragged in another direction: tubeless tires, hydraulics, electrical things,... If you want something different, you have to hunt it down, and maybe build it up yourself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So did you have to replace the brifter?

Apparently there is someone who fixes Shimano brifters. Possibly a retired watchmaker.

I've not had much trouble with my 10-speed equipment. Nothing that couldn't be blamed on abuse, at least. I'm not fond of 105, despite it having many fans. I'd rather shift Tiagra (better cable runs, too). I've got barcons on two bikes, and "Thumbies" on another. They work - although Dura-Ace barcons tend to fall apart eventually. Never got on with downtube shifters - too far away for me.

I had a related experience this week when my lightly used eight-year-old dishwasher konked out. It's not critical, but I hate having stuff that doesn't work, so I disassembled it. It would appear the main "brain" module is the culprit, but can't be 100% sure. The part alone is $150. A new dishwasher is $350. Not a good bet, so another pile of junk in the landfill