Monday, June 25, 2018

That Windsor

Here are a few pictures of the Windsor mentioned in the previous post.

The brake setup:
The tricky part was snaking the brake cable housings under the Spenco bar pads. The customer didn't insist on keeping those pads, but he had mentioned that they were comfortable. I figured it would only require a little bit of fishing to feed the brake lines to the interrupter levers, and I was right.

This shot of the stem also shows the asymmetrical shifters:

Chrome head lugs:
Lugwork like this was a nice added value on what was a mid-price bike when it was new. The frame itself is rather heavy, but it is neatly put together.

The drive train:
Suntour Cyclone derailleurs and an SR crank

The whole bike:
A full Windsor, you might say

With long, eyeleted dropouts, this bike can be tightened up for snappier handling (within the limits of the front-end geometry, or stretched out for more comfort and better load carrying. This also allowed a rider to shoehorn in some gear options that push the official limits of the rear derailleur. That would be more of an issue with a shorter-cage derailleur than this one.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The things we make and do for each other

In a recent laudatory puff piece on Pinkbike, about his visit to Shimano's factory in Japan, Richard Cunningham used the expression "bowels of the factory." This common metaphor made me laugh out loud. What comes out of bowels, after all?

After decades of cleaning up the wreckage that lies on the shore after a tidal wave of innovation devastates peaceful villages over and over, I have no love for obsessive gear weenies and the corporate behemoths that feed off of them.

Cunningham described and praised the ingenious automated machinery that Shimano designed for themselves, eliminating the human touch from nearly all aspects of their production line. Machines feed material to machines that stamp out parts combined and transported by machines, to be assembled into machines eventually to be ridden by people.

In the article, Cunningham writes, "Keizo said that Shimano realized early on that automation was going to be key to their survival, so they began the learning process by building their own assembly robots – first, developing some of the automation in the machining and forging factory, and culminating with their precision assembly process. Shimano’s experiment grew into a new enterprise and at some point, they were building robots for other industries as well. Connecting the dots, it could not have been a stretch for Shimano to automate a derailleur shifting system after inventing the robots that assembled those components in the first place."

Industrial manufacturing began as a way to speed up individual craft processes and increase their output. It also assured more uniform products that were easier to maintain and repair, that could provide measurably similar performance wherever they were applied. Factory output required fewer people to produce it, compared to individual artisans working start to finish on the same kind of product. Factories could also produce much larger items, through the intermediary of large machinery beyond the means of an individual artisan. Early factories still needed quite a bit of labor, however, to operate and maintain the machinery. Human hands moved a lot of things throughout the increasingly standardized processes. Management and the accounting department have been working steadily to carve down the human element from the beginning.

The relationship between human labor and industrial manufacturing has been dark and complex. The self-appointed emperors of the industrial age viewed the workforce as serfs. Hours were long, management was oppressive and suspicious. The owners wanted to get as much as possible, and pay as little as possible for it, from the contemptible grunts they hired, chewed up, and spat out, in a human reflection of the growing culture of assembly lines. Labor organized. Conditions improved. But labor and management remained opposing camps. Is it any wonder that "Take This Job and Shove It" became a popular anthem right before people started to notice the sudden drain of manufacturing jobs to countries overseas?

Automated manufacturing frees people to take "better" jobs that don't require as much actual laboring. But they remove the human touch, the human soul. Sure, we invented the soul, and can make it obsolete, but an awful lot of our social conventions were based on humans contributing to the common good. What's left when we don't do that anymore?

If mechanized production lines really do a much better job producing reliable parts, riders are safer by that incremental degree. Only time will tell if we have any more massive recalls like Shimano's crank debacle in the mid-1990s, or the Lambert/Viscount fork failures of the 1970s. Those hinged more on design flaws by the supposed better brains in the engineering department than on manufacturing errors by the drones down on the line.

Vestiges of the human touch remain among those of us who try to fix things. Underpaid and still considered overpriced, we alternate between following the manuals when available and improvising when authoritative guidance can't be found. Last week, I did a restomod on a 1970s Windsor that an older gentleman had found at a bargain shop. He loved the classic styling, the chrome lugs, and general elegance of the bike, but wanted the bars a little higher (of course) and the shifting more accessible. I put on a Technomic stem,  aero brake levers with interrupter levers, and stem shifters. He wants the option of the drop position, but neither of us thought he would like barcon shifters. I hoped to find a vintage set of Suntour Power Shifters on a stem clamp, but I had to settle for a recent set of SunRace friction shifters. The right one didn't offer very good leverage for an aging hand, so I substituted a longer lever from our salvage bin on that side. If a set of Power Shifters ever shows up, I'll call him in to make the switch.

At the same time I'm refurbishing something 40 years old, I might have some tweaky marvel from last week on another stand, or next in the queue, needing its internally-routed cables replaced, or some little air ninjas chased out of its hydraulic brakes. And there are always noises to evaluate in bikes with low spoke-count wheels and carbon fiber everything. Fatal or trivial? Quickly now, the guy wants it back for the next hammerhead ride.

Far away, the presses pound in an automated factory, and robot forklifts carry pallets full shiny new possessions toward what they hope is a waiting public.

Friday, June 22, 2018

For Whom the Bell Dings

On the noisy streets, a bicycle bell is just about useless. An air horn and a flamethrower would be good. But on multi-use paths a bicycle bell is apparently an important social convention.

I have ridden sections of the local trail for years, announcing myself to pedestrians simply by speaking to them, or with the routine noises of tires on crushed stone. At my job, I hate being summoned by a bell. It seems so peremptory and condescending. You ring for the servants. You don't ring for a respected professional or craftsperson. I thought people might prefer the human touch. Funny that: I'm not very fond of talking to strangers. And I'm not trying to strike up a  conversation when I make a human sound to warn them of my presence.

The response was almost always faintly or overtly hostile.

So I finally got a bell. I don't like little dingy bells, or cheesy, staccato ringers. Even the one I settled on was ultimately just good enough. I'd prefer something with a deep enough tone that it is more felt than heard, but it would probably have to be made of bronze and weigh a thousand pounds. That's the gong I want at home, too. I want some enormous temple gong that groans out an earth-trembling tone that makes the villagers in the next valley lift their heads.

On the bike, I have something that goes "ding!"

Of Lezyne's offerings, this one had the lowest tone. The least highest, I should say. And it sustains fairly nicely, though not as nicely as the one a customer came in with last week. He said he needed it to ride on a path in Canada, where they are required equipment. His bell had no brand markings at all. Its tone was higher than I want, but it sustains forever. It launched me on the hunt for something with a deeper voice, and similar duration. And by the way, it needs to fit on my already crowded handlebar.

The Lezyne attaches with elastic bands, so I can transfer it from bike to bike easily. As shown here, it is riding on top of a Planet Bike Beamer that I use as a front blinky and supplemental short-range light. It'll do for now.

On the first evening commute with it, I came up behind two people. When I got close enough to figure I could ring and pass in a smooth, concise maneuver, I gave it a ding. The pedestrians leaped aside and stood almost at attention. No dirty looks. No snide or snarly comments. Wow.

A little further out, on a causeway with water on either side, I had the opportunity to ding again. The walkers practically threw themselves into the lake, again without visible irritation.

Talk about conditioning. Ding! Leap! The results have been roughly the same on each ride since the first.

Oncoming pedestrians still look like they consider me a nuisance and an affront. I have not yet tried dinging at them to see if it transforms them abruptly into obedient robots. I don't want power to corrupt me.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Subsidized complexity

The stereotype of the Amish is that they opted out of any technology later than the 19th Century. The truth is more nuanced and intelligent. But the basis for their very measured acceptance of any new technology depends on whether the new thing will help the cohesiveness of their community or harm it.

The evolved division of bicycling in more and more distinct categories reflects the fragmentation of society in general in narrower and narrower interest groups that still try to claim larger allegiances, to a religion in general or to a national identity. There is no single Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, to name the three with which I have even passing familiarity. And the full menu of world religions is much, much longer than even the sects of those three. In bicycling terms, a "bike shop" is expected to know about "bikes" and be able to service most of them.

In biological terms, a bike shop is more like a veterinarian than a physician for humans. Under the broad heading of animals, a vet might have to treat anything from a gerbil to a horse, and more. Under the broad heading of bicycles, a bike shop -- regardless of size -- may have to minister to a downhill mountain bike, touring bike, hybrid, recumbent, e-bike, BMX bike, enduro bike, road bike, cable systems, electronic systems, hydraulic systems, suspension, steel, aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, and more. Way more.

The swirl of complexity pleases many customers who find just the gimmick they're looking for in that infinite variety. At the center of the vortex sits the bike shop. Onto the shop the cyclone drops different pieces of debris.

I refer often to the 1990s, because it was the Big Bang of the current universe of technological ostentation. At that time, our shop tried to update tools and parts to be able to service the rapidly evolving suspension systems. A couple of years into that, we realized that the expense of new tools would not pay for itself when a two-year-old fork had already been supplanted by a newer model that worked better. A three-year-old fork could be replaced with a closeout model of a new fork from a year or two ago for only a little more money, and a lot less trouble, than tearing down the thrashed old fork and trying to rejuvenate it. Threadless headsets made it easy. The 1 1/8-inch standard used a standard size crown race. A new fork could be cut to whatever length the rider desired. It was actually a bit of a golden age for customizing that part of a mountain bike.

All good things must end. If the bike industry has anything to say about it, they can't end soon enough. The arrival of dual suspension and the emergence of disc brakes threw us into another chaotic tumble down a slope of loose rock.

A small shop has to do a constant cost-benefit analysis. Because send-away suspension service centers had taken a lot of the burden of that off of us, we could solidify our policy and tell people what it would cost and approximately how long it would take. If they opted to replace a part rather than repair it, we could order and install whatever they needed -- provided its manufacturer still supported it. In the case of something like a rear shock, an exact match isn't always necessary, as long as the overall dimensions and travel will fit.

When it comes to details, some of them quite subtle, we have less to offer. I don't burden myself with overly complex bikes, and I don't recommend that anyone else do so either, but my reasoning is philosophical more than technical. Anyone who wants to ride a mountain bike in the modern style will need a modern mountain bike. Anyone who wants to race on the road will need a bike that matches the average modern road bike. Those who can afford to pay more will get more.

The shop owner has bought a 2018 full-suspension mountain bike. It's already old. The 2019s are out. A customer just bought the 2019 version of the same bike, so we could compare the differences and try to guess where it will break. El Queso Grande has gone on a group ride or two on the fluorescent green rocket. He's picked up a little lingo, but at age 62, with a heart condition, he has not developed any stature in the off-road riding community. We used to dominate not only through our power as riders, but through our unassailable knowledge. The bikes of the 1990s still owed more to pedal bikes from 100 years ago than to motorcycles from 10 years ago. That's no longer true. So our heritage and knowledge is just historical trivia to the few among modern riders who might be curious. The only way we could win their love now would be to buy it with killer deals. You know who gets killed with killer deals? The shop that gives them. If all your deals are made at margins you can't live on, you cease to live. It's that simple.

Hampered by economic setbacks and the caution born of experience, we have invested only reluctantly in new tools. Last year we bought a new truing stand to rebuild a fat bike wheel for a guy who had been going to the cool kids' shop in Alton. The cool guy at the cool shop had built his wheel with alloy nipples. Alloy spoke nipples should always come with a big warning label that your wheel will have a definite limited lifespan. On top of crumbling aluminum releasing his spokes without warning, he'd also bashed up the rim pretty well just from slam-banging around on the singletrack with the currently fashionable .75 psi in his tire. I actually put in a few shorter spokes to accommodate the low spots, so that protruding spoke ends wouldn't pierce the seal of his rim strip. The customer bubbled enthusiastically about how we were his new best friends and that he and all his buddies would flock to us.

We haven't seen him since.

As El Queso Grande curses and grapples with the complexities of this year's crop of technology, it rapidly becomes the old stuff and falls to me to be repaired. A Cannondale, roughly circa 2011, had a sticky caliper on a brake no longer enthusiastically embraced by its maker. We recommended an update rather than a rebuild, given the condition of the whole mechanism. But the new caliper mounts to the posts on the fork without room for the intermediary of the centering washers that were fashionable when the original brake was installed. This made it obvious that the brake posts had never been faced. The tool for that costs more than $250. In the case of this bike, I was able to hand file the posts to get the caliper to sit squarely enough.

All the modern tweaky bullshit eats a lot of shop time. This means that all repairs cost more, because we can do fewer of them in a day. Our daily overhead remains the same, so prices have to go up. The rank and file, with simpler bikes, end up subsidizing the owners of the complicated modern marvels. The riders of these marvels often have no idea how much more of a hassle their equipment presents, because they have such a cushier ride as users of it. They push a button, the gears shift. They push a pedal, the obedient servant provides a power assist. They squeeze a lever, the overpowered hydraulic system clamps the pads against the rotor. It's all perfect until it doesn't work at all. What a perfect metaphor for industrialized, consumer civilization. Here we are with flush toilets, motorized transportation, pretty widespread access to clean water, wondering what the heck is making so much of the rest of the world mad at us. Our biggest problems are traffic jams and finding a parking space for the land yacht. And why are these protesters blocking a road? They should be killed for that.

If every rider owned complicated modern bicycles, service would still be expensive, or it would vanish completely, as the industry got its wish and everyone just bought a new bike every two years. The old stuff just goes on the growing mountains of industrial debris forming a forbidding range between humanity and a world that they could have inhabited pretty happily for an almost indefinite period.