Monday, February 25, 2019


Driving season always gets me thinking about Time In Transit. I've written about it a number of times before, but a new entry puts it back on top of the pile.

The recent vacation week marathon required that I not only arrive on time, but early, to prepare the rental area for the coming day. A lot cannot be done the night before, because rental gear is being returned wet right up to closing time. The boots in particular have to be laid out with air space around them, so they can dry, before being tucked back into the close confines of the boot shelves. This could be a few pairs or 30. Or more, if we had a phenomenally big day. Thus, I am shooting to arrive a half-hour early to brush off the dried mud and rack the boots. After the boots I hang the ski poles. They are hung on pegs close set to fit as many as possible into the rack. I try to rotate them so that the same few aren't always going out. Then there might be snowshoes to brush off and hang, as well.

On a good day I can drive to town from home in 20 minutes. On a really good day, I might shave that down with a bit of sociopathic speeding on the highway stretch. That in itself demonstrates the creeping sociopathy bred by driving all the time. I will ask myself whether I am behaving like someone I would want to share the road with on my bike. The answer is a conditional yes. If there are cyclists, I amend my driving to cooperative mode. But absent any fellow pedalers I am easily lured into speeding, and playing the entire paved surface for cornering lines. I drive the way I ride.

On a bad day -- the more typical circumstance -- I get behind someone driving slowly, perhaps erratically, and the oncoming traffic eliminates any chance to pass legally and safely. I do not pass illegally and unsafely, though I do admit to the temptation. The highway department has eliminated two or three passing zones, all of which I had used over the years. I miss them.

The difference in transit time is considerable when I get behind someone pokey. If you take 20 minutes as the benchmark average for an unobstructed run, 30 minutes is 50% slower. I always have trouble with calculations like this, because 10 minutes is 33.33333% of 30 minutes. And 30 minutes is not an unreasonable transit time. When cycling, I prefer to be passed by someone going for 30 minutes rather than 20. On the other hand, if the road is clear enough for a clean 20-minute trip, the faster driver has plenty of room to give me space, and most of them do. It only gets ugly when traffic is tight and a speeder is still trying to push it. That's when people pull out to pass coming right at me, or try to pass in gaps that they should have declined. I will say that such shenanigans are fairly rare.

So there I am in bike season, riding along the highway at a steady speed. My time in transit varies very little. A major delay, like a flat tire, will blow the average completely, but if all goes well I can count on completing the inbound run in less than an hour. Even a ten-minute variation from a 55-minute average TiT is only about 18%. Most of the time, my longer times in transit are from route variations.

Weather can make a difference to drive time. This has been a somewhat snowy winter for commuting. But the difference still hinges more on traffic than on absolute driving conditions.
With a decent set of snow tires and years of experience, a driver can move along pretty well with no one else on the road. It's definitely below the dry pavement average, but still satisfactory. I've pushed through some pretty deep unplowed fluff with only front wheel drive, given a decent set of tires. But get behind someone handicapped by bad rubber and anxiety, and the drive turns into a slog. And not all snow is created equal. When the plow trucks have been on it, they may leave behind a fairly well scraped surface with exposed pavement or they may pack it into a skating rink worse than it was before they attended to it.

Winter conditions would have a big effect on bike time in transit. In years past I have made a few winter commutes, when the weather was not snowy, so the only obstacles were cold and darkness. You can dress for cold and light for night. I would also only ride on work days when my schedule allowed me to complete the whole route before nightfall. My interpretation of "nightfall" was loose enough to put me into dangerous dusk, but I was inexperienced and thoughtless enough to go for it. But the game changes when you add snow, ice, slush, and wide, deep puddles of brine. Whatever your legal rights to the road may be, when you force the interaction between motor vehicles and bicycles you will arouse feelings not easily addressed in the time you will have available to debate them with a steamed motorist.

Pushing the beginning of the season, I have set out in adequate conditions from home, only to find the highway coated with ice on the height of land on Route 28 coming into North Wolfeboro. Even worse, the shoulder might be coated, but the travel lane clear, forcing me to squeeze in with the flow of commuters driving to work, or risk falling beneath their wheels if I stay to the right. There's no good place to be in a situation like that. I reiterate that in some circumstances the assertion of legal rights will create more ill will than acceptance among the motoring public.

Studded tires are a limited answer. The metal provides sketchy traction on pavement, and wears down, so you might not have as much of it as you would like when you finally get to ice. The tires are heavy because of all the metal, and they're not cheap. And if you've ever had to fix a flat tire that's stiff, cold, wet, and studded with metal spikes, while hunkered down in a snow drift, as passing motor vehicles spray you with salty splather, you're not eager to repeat the experience. All the while, the clock ticks on your time in transit to work.

I've used studs on my park-n-ride path commute, but in virtually every year the snow has arrived deep and soft, and hung around until mud season. And the "park" portion becomes very difficult because many path entry points are not plowed out.

In full-on bike season, I run into traffic delays when I use the rail trail inbound. I run into some delays outbound as well, but I'm not shooting for a fixed arrival time. Because the path is very badly designed, improvised around the strictures of an active rail line, all users are crammed between the rails for much of its length. I have written a lot about its disappointing shortcomings, to no avail. The rail car club has disproportionate leverage, and bikes are at the bottom of everyone's priority list. Inbound on the path I can be forced to a walking pace as I accommodate pedestrians who all give me the stink eye anyway.

On wider paths, a rider can still encounter pedestrian volumes that fill the available space, as well as slower riders. Is the answer more lanes?

In urban and suburban areas where the majority of people drive to work, commuters allow for traffic by leaving earlier. More traffic? Leave even earlier. Super commuters living more than an hour by car from their place of employment have to pad their expected time in transit to allow for the time they know they will spend at a steaming standstill in normal morning gridlock. If by chance they get all the breaks and arrive at work early, congratulations! They've just flushed that free time down the toilet of gainful employment. I speak from the point of view of someone who wanted to have a life, not just a job and possessions. So time means different things to me than it might mean to them. From a purely biological standpoint, we all need only to reach maturity, find a mate, reproduce ourselves, and die. That makes everything else a luxury. It sounds pretty grim, though. If we're going to be that simple, I say we just go all the way back to photosynthesis. It's self-contained and solar powered. We wouldn't be bothering anyone. Make the world safe for stromatolites again.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Last Marathoner

Today marks the close of what we in the winter tourism business in New Hampshire call Massachusetts Vacation Week. All of the New England states take a week of vacation in February, but they don't all take the same week. Typically, Massachusetts takes the week that begins with President's Day weekend, and New Hampshire takes the following week. For the ski industry up here,  vacation weeks are the peak earning period of the winter.

Big operations might take on extra help, or routinely handle such a high volume that the vacation week onslaught just makes the normal shifts a little busier. In our little shop and touring center it's more like the Alamo. Everyone is on the parapet firing or behind some cover reloading. All leave was cancelled. We would work through our days off in a 12-day marathon. The shop is open seven days a week in the peak of winter or summer. Only in the past few years have we taken to closing on Sundays in the spring and fall. So each person's schedule overlaps, covering days off. Eliminate the days off from a week, and each schedule nets out to 12 in a row. I've written about the disorientation that develops during this period. That piece was written when we had the retail concession at Jackson Ski Touring, where we had a much heavier onslaught with a much lower common denominator. But we did the marathon before we had the Jackson gig, and we have continued since then.

Up until a couple of years ago, the Wolfeboro shop had two full-time backshop operatives. Then Big G decided to cut the wire and tunnel to freedom. For the past two winters we have only had part-timers in addition to me. So no one else goes through the 12-day grinder. El Queso Grande works seven days a week all the time, but the shop is his life's work. Despite the wretched financial state we all share, he does have the cachet of ownership, and justifiable pride at the considerable contribution his family has made to the community over the decades since they stepped into the tar pit of small business ownership. He appears to have nothing else he'd rather be doing, especially since various medical problems cut off his career as an aging athlete. If he felt better, he would want to ride his bike and ski more. But he doesn't have an unwritten novel or endless cartoon ideas hammering in his brain to make him constantly question his life choices. The two phases of his life are working and resting up to work some more. This is not said in disrespect. His life is hard and he works hard at it.

I am the last marathoner. Gone is the camaraderie and esprit de corps of the tourist wranglers. We'd be burnt out, irritable, zonked with fatigue, but we would have each other. I am the last.

Once the marathon ends, the season winds down very quickly, regardless of the amount of snow or the enthusiasm of the dedicated skiers. We can't reconfigure the shop to bike work for at least another month, but the general public is mostly finished with winter after their February gorge on it. If the weather enables it, we will have some busy weekends. For me, the easing of the schedule means that I might have the chance to dig through the scraps of paper with scribbled notes on them and develop the ideas captured there.

Monday, February 11, 2019

LOL! Biopace is back!

It starts with a spot of good news for a change: a driver in Oregon, who killed a bicyclist in a drug-fueled road rage incident, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison. What a refreshing far cry from the usual slap on the wrist, or even complete acquittal, that usually follows the killing of a cyclist by a motorist.

As I was reading the article, I noticed the ads on the site announcing Shitno's latest marvel: Oval chainrings! Proven effective, once again, after a nice long sleep of decades since the last time they were discredited and discarded. If anything indicates the health of the road cycling market and the corresponding gullibility of the well-heeled but casual participants who will believe anything, it is the reintroduction of this tired old concept yet again.

Oval chainrings have been cropping up for about as long as there have been chainrings. They appear, they kill the cadence of an entire generation, and they submerge again. No less a luminary than the great Sheldon Brown thought that they were the cat's ass, thus proving that even the wisest have their susceptibilities. You can read his articles, conduct your own experiments, and decide for yourself. Thanks to Shimano's fundamental philosophy that no bad idea should ever die out, you will now get a new issue of parts to work with before the tide turns again. And maybe it never will, seeing that every activity has broken into smaller and smaller fragments of specialization, and manufacturers can apparently produce surgically small production runs to exploit ignorant enthusiasm generated by the marketing department.

You can tell I'm excited, can't you? Just turning friggin' cartwheels of joy that we're going to trundle out another raft of bullshit to dump on the bike market. Elliptical chainrings might actually be an excellent asset when trying to pedal your electric behemoth with a dead battery. So there's that. And now that we've killed the front derailleur you don't have to worry about the documented tendency of oval chainrings to cut chains during a hard front shift. Mountain bikes with Biopace rings were the original chain choppers in the early 1990s. The temperamental connecting pins of Shimano Hyperglide chains helped significantly with the spread of this problem.

Sheldon Brown's article on Biopace documents Shimano's wooing of the triathlon, mountain, and recreational road market segments with high-cam Biopace, followed by their carefully choreographed walkback through Biopace HP (low cam), and the triumphant announcement in the early 1990s of Superglide!!! Not only did this boast "new" chain tooth profiles -- reminiscent of their "W-Cut" chainrings circa 1980 for those who had been paying attention -- but they also utilized the latest computer-designed engineering breakthrough: Constant Radius. In other words, ROUND. The entire process took roughly a decade and contributed to Shimano's market dominance during the twilight of the road bike boom, the rise of triathlon, and the first surge of production mountain bikes. If you ever wanted proof that marketing trumps genuine product quality and support, Shimano provides a textbook example. It is but one among many from the tumultuous 1980s down to the present day, because their tactics have become the norm. Make something work well enough, hype the crap out of it, and abandon it as quickly as possible so that no one really gets a fix on it. Always claim that product changes are "for improvement."

With a modicum of engineering, ample capital, and a complete dearth of conscience, wealth can be yours.

As Sheldon pointed out, the concept works for riders who don't need a high cadence, or smooth, fast acceleration. He even claimed that they worked well for him on his fixed-gears, but John Allen, who now tends Sheldon's sites, reports the opposite. I side with Mr. Allen. My fixed gears have always exhibited enough change in chain tension just from irregularities in the round rings and cogs I already use. I never wanted to risk throwing a chain at high revs because I was using a non-round ring.

No doubt these turkeys will make their way onto new mountain bikes, since mountain bikers are one of the few market segments throwing down serious coin these days. But how much longer can that last anyway? The fundamentals of the entire industrialized economy are going to have to be overhauled pronto if we're not going to bake the atmosphere right off of this little muddy rock we call home. Disposable income might become an unsupportable luxury. If your pedal-powered machine isn't practical transportation at that point, you'd better be one of the few, the filthy rich, to keep playing at all.

Oval chainrings would serve on a cargo bike or other transportational machine, especially among riders who are adamantly opposed to looking the slightest bit racy. Nothing says "not a racer" quite like a good 60 rpm cadence. Then again, decades ago a top-caliber rider I had the good fortune to ride with said that top time trialists of the day (early 1980s) were running about 75 rpm in monster gears, because that netted out faster than spinning higher rpms in a gear low enough to spin at higher rpms. Hence the success of marketing original Biopace to triathletes, time trialists, and early mountain bikers, all of whom had more reasons to spin slowly than to rev up in the round.

Back when I first got lured back into the bike game, in 1989, Biopace was already fading. I did my best to help it on its way, recommending conversion to round chainrings for any rider willing to listen. I'm ready to do that again, but riders are all less willing to listen to real people in shops, now that they have YouTube and forums full of experienced misinformation. So I can also just clean things off, patch them together, and let riders find their own way through the welter of marketing blather. I know what I like, and what I will keep looking for, as long as I can find it.