Thursday, April 18, 2019

Thrill seekers and thrill avoiders

Yet another former road rider came in yesterday, looking for a bike to use on dirt roads and mild trails. She doesn't want a sit-up-and-beg path bike, with high handlebars and a bar stool seat, but she doesn't want the current version of a mountain bike, with high-volume, low-pressure tires and lots of suspension travel. She also explicitly said that the "gravel grinder" category hadn't attracted her. We discussed some options and she went off to do more research. What she ends up riding is not as relevant as her motives for buying it. She is surrendering, retreating, and regrouping away from the battle zone that the roads have become. She makes an interesting comparison to a rider who came in about a week ago.

A pleasant, friendly, lean and muscular tattooed dude came in to check the shop out. He asked about trails in the area. I gave him the rundown on local attractions, from the rake-and-ride stuff in Sewall Woods and Abenaki to the professionally built course on Wolfeboro conservation land off the Cotton Valley Trail just beyond Fernald Station. He asked about "features." I directed him to the Wolfeboro Singletrack Alliance website, where he found pictures. He summed up the riders in the photos as "kind of lycraed-out, but okay." He liked what he saw of the features. The designer and builder of the trails has ascended to trail builder heaven in Bentonville, Arkansas, which gives you some idea of his capability.

We moved over to the sales floor. He looked at our modest selection of mountain bikes, priced at only a little over a thousand dollars, and slightly higher. For all of its reputation as a money town, most of the year-round residents in Wolfe City are scraping by like everybody else. Somehow we've all let ourselves grow accustomed to the shrinking dollar, so a thousand dollars doesn't raise an eyebrow the way it used to. Forget whether it should. It doesn't. We do have less expensive bikes, but they wouldn't hold up to much really sporty technical riding. Thanks, bike industry!

As we talked about the bikes on the floor and riding in general, he seemed to be trying to appreciate our similarities more than focus on our differences. He talked about the rush of surviving scary maneuvers on the trail. I talked about holding my line on the commute with a tractor trailer inches from my shoulder. He equated the adrenaline rushes, but he seeks his, whereas I am just as happy not to have any. I've never been much of a thrill seeker, even when I was taking risks. I deal with them when they're sent my way, but I don't miss them when they aren't. If he sees a commonality, it does improve relations. It does no good to belabor the wasteful extravagance of purely recreational riding -- no matter how ballsy -- on a trail to nowhere.

Am I judging? A little bit. But I remind myself that human existence is entirely pointless, so how individuals spend their brief span is up to them. I happen to ask myself what the social costs are, whenever I do anything. That does not mean that I am able to eliminate them from my own activities, merely that I note them and try to balance my personal gratifications with a nebulous concept of the greater good. I've noted before that we tend to compare our pastimes to the whole menu of available gratifications, and find our place based on how bad they are for the public more than how much actual benefit they provide. The recreational riders support their position by saying that they offer more potential bait to get a sedentary species out of its chair and into some physical activity. To that extent they are doing good. I look beyond that, though, to the ghettoization of cycling, chasing us off of the public right of way and onto closed playgrounds, where we can be a good little special interest, rather than a tool of general well-being and the humanization of the developed landscape.

On my initial road rides this season, drivers have been totally mellow. But I have not gone on the worse roads yet.

Years ago I made the choice to expend my aggression and fitness on transportation cycling, regardless of where life took me. It was pretty easy in a small city with commuting distances under eight miles one-way -- sometimes well under. In many ways, my best apartment was the grubby, unheated slum I lived in for a year, less than a mile from where I worked, with no hills in between. I could do my time in the salt mine and then sprint home to eat my unimaginative meals and forage in my imagination for what I hoped would be popular ideas. Now the riding distance is much longer, the terrain vastly more challenging, the meals slightly more sophisticated, and the ideas still elusive. Transportation cycling provided a baseline of riding even if I didn't have time to train for racing or take a tour. I didn't have to make time for a separate activity. I merely got to expand my riding when time and finances allowed.

Road cycling should not be a separate thing. Rider accommodations should be fundamental to road design and driver education. We've let the roads turn into motor speedways. I understand the addictive appeal of driving like an asshole. I don't have to drive for very long to turn into a complete asshole. Mind you I probably have more of a pre-existing tendency that way, but I can tell from the behavior of other drivers that I am not a rare case. It's so easy to punch the throttle. Peer pressure joins the weight of your foot, easing the gas pedal down harder. Time is short, risk is cumulative. Go faster just one more time to get where you need to go. Everyone else is doing it. You have no choice unless you insist on it.

As someone naturally combative -- regardless of whether I am good at it -- I tend to persist. Stick an elbow out. If someone passes you closely, lean in to block the next one. But it's not a war. The car has the clear advantage in actual combat. It's a contest of wills. And it shouldn't even be that.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Not many people could do my job. But who would want to?

On the Facebook page of a sort-of-young mountain bike rider, he made reference to the three whole weeks he spent working for a bike shop. He dismissed most of the bikes he had to work on as “shit.” It was a classic example of the arrogance of a category-specific rider who ranks the whole world based on his personal choices in technology and obsession.

The arrogant cyclist in any category is a common enough character to have become the stereotype of all bike riders as viewed by our hostile audience. Almost any reviews of a bike shop will mention one or more examples of dismissive conceit. And wherever non riders encounter riders, someone’s feathers will be ruffled. Disregarding the small percentage of hardcore non cyclists who will always find a reason to hate, we cyclists have to admit that a sizable percentage of us do ride in stupid and offensive ways. It is certainly not the majority, but it’s hardly rare. Riders who are impressed with themselves will expect everyone else to be equally impressed.

I love pulling off a good maneuver just as much as anyone. And when I ride the multi-use path I try to maintain my flow and give the pedestrians only as much as I have to for safety and basic courtesy. Based on the expressions on most of them, it’s never enough.

As for shit bikes, most people have the bike they feel they can afford. In 1980 I tried to work the sales floor at the shop where I worked at the time, to see if I could get more people to buy better bikes. Once in a while, it worked. But most people’s eyes would  glaze when I tried to get them to buy up from nutted axles, steel rims, and vinyl vasectomy seats. That was when we sold mostly just ten-speeds and three-speeds for adults, and coaster brakes and BMX bikes for kids. When I reentered the bike business in 1989, I had more success convincing customers to aim a little higher. Even during the recession of 1988-‘92, people seemed to be able to scrape up the money for a mountain bike. But that boom is long gone, along with solidly built bikes that cost $600.

Some shops are lucky enough to be able to specialize in one or two categories they particularly like. To do that, you either need a source of independent wealth, or a strong customer base in your favorite market segment. In a rural town, you need to attract a lot of people from outside the area to finance your dream shop. Otherwise, you will have to make your living by servicing the bikes you call shit.

Youth makes a mechanic arrogant in two ways. On a basic level, young adults are automatically susceptible to arrogance as a matter of simple biology. It’s the time of life when animals try to establish breeding territory and compete for mates. Humans are complex creatures. We filter our simple urges through our technology and experience to form our self image and world view. I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of bike shop snots are males between age 20 and 40.

Anyone stupid or trapped enough to have stayed in the bike business for more than two decades has probably had all the arrogance crushed out of them. We can despise WalMart bikes because they are truly a ripoff and a danger to the people who get stuck with them. But there’s a whole world of bikes that would bore and annoy a young firebrand or a bike snob, that still have value and deserve a measure of consideration.

My opinions on bikes are shaped more by economics than by the cutting edge sophistication of their technology. I definitely prefer working on some things more than others. The tweaky new stuff is stupidly expensive and kind of a pain in the ass. Really cheap stuff presents its own challenge. Working on something twenty years old can be a relief. The people who taught me about bikes instilled a respect for the craft. It's a point of self respect to be able to work on whatever anyone throws at you, and to know something of the history and evolution of our machines.

Young riders and mechanics are handicapped by what they’ve never seen. The world begins for them at the point where they began to pay attention. Every generation goes through the same thing. A set of assumptions is provided. Only a minority will look beyond that. Even then, their analysis has to work with their grasp of basic principles. The basics for a bike nerd starting out in the mid 1970s are all cup and cone bearings and things that secure with lock nuts. Someone joining up in the 21st Century may have had some cheap equipment with cup and cone hubs and a fake sealed bottom bracket, but they surely aspire to something with all cartridge bearings, hydraulics, and electronics. Road, mountain, or other, sophistication afflicts all categories. A fashionable conceit can afflict each of them as well.

Modern riders are resigned to the idea that the components they buy and the tools they buy to work on them are all going on the junk pile in a couple of years, to be replaced by the compete set of new stuff they buy, for as long as they can afford to buy. Addicts spend money on their habit. Dealers keep feeding them stronger and stronger doses. If your riding style involves frequent crashes on rough surfaces, nothing will last long anyway. Some burn hot and short. Some endure.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Just ask the right person

Intrepid and rebellious mechanics have always looked for ways to keep machinery running after manufacturers wanted you to discard it and get something new. While it’s important to know the official procedures and understand the limits of compatibility issues, it’s also very satisfying to beat the system.

I have no problem conducting my own  experiments, but if someone else has already solved the problem well, I don’t need to waste time seeking false glory by “discovering” something already documented.

For the recent CODA brake issue, I fired off a query to The Cannondale Experts. They’ve helped us out a couple of times before, and now they’re doing it again. An email from Brad laid out a way to make the existing rotors probably work with new brakes. A usable bike stays in service without being extensively — and expensively — rebuilt.

My own inquisitiveness is stunted by my resentment of the unnecessary complexity dumped onto cycling, but as I keep slogging along I go ahead and focus more closely on the relationships of all the assemblies, sub-assemblies, and individual parts, just to keep defying the force feeding of new new new to a riding public that already shows the strain. Because the industry pays far less attention to continuing use than it does to new unit sales, most riders become invisible to them as soon as they leave the showroom.

We who work in the shops have to maintain the long term relationships that put us squarely between the industry’s push to make us move product and the customers’ desire to get a decent return on their investment. Everyone who buys a bike has spent as much as they can afford, no matter where that falls in the price range. And a lot of people seem to like their bike to become an old friend.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Time sneaks by

From 1989 to 1999, bikes evolved rapidly, but stuff from the 1970s and '80s wasn't impossibly obsolete. Some frame dimensions had changed, but a steel frame from the early '80s could be cold set to the new rear hub width fairly easily. A rider could make a few upgrades without having to invest completely in a new bike. Mountain bikes -- being a newer category -- were evolving more dramatically, but a rider could still keep a bike going for quite a few years with decent care and a few spot improvements.

Shifting systems and full suspension brought an end to this. Shifter compatibility was already making life difficult from the first introduction of Shimano's Rapidfire and road STI products. Competing companies each had different standards, all vying for market control. The retro-grouch mechanic can only do so much to throw a wrench into the bike industry's plans. And the emergence of full suspension really put the pressure on everyone's wallets trying to keep up with the state of the art.

As the 21st Century dawned, riders who had dropped out for various reasons would return, from school, or military service, or family commitments, or busy work schedules, looking to get back into some of the fun they remembered.  I call these people Van Winkles, after the Washington Irving character who slept for 20 years. They are always astounded by how much technology has changed and prices have gone up since the last time they looked at a bike. A few of them embrace the new and shell out for the new stuff. A good percentage of them just junk the bike and find something else to do for fun. Or they buy lower-quality stuff because it's "new," so it must be better than fixing something old.

This season has already brought several Van Winkles out of the forest. It's interesting to look at the old equipment and compare it to what it evolved into.

This 1995-ish Rockshox Quadra fork was made during the transition from forks that could be fully disassembled to forks with one-piece crown and stanchions and one-piece lower tube assemblies. The crown and stanchions on this generation of Rockshox are bonded, but the lower legs are not only removable, but interchangeable right and left, so you didn't have to keep track of that during service. The innards are identical in both sides.
Because the legs are interchangeable, the fork ends have dual "lawyer's lips" to retain the wheel if the quick release skewer falls open. Not only that, the inner set will help retain the wheel if a skewer outright fails. You could view this as an evolutionary step toward the through-axle.

Another Van Winkle brought in a Cannondale F900 with a Lefty fork, from the early 21st Century. The fork appears to be functioning okay, but it has a brake problem.

The early disc brake era was marked by the same kind of experimentation as the early suspension era. And Cannondale was notorious for trying to design their own shit from the ground up. Anyone remember their motorcycle? Don't feel bad if you don't. The unfortunate experiment was very brief. According to what I've read, it wasn't brief enough. So this fairly okay hard tail mountain bike with its weird, one-legged fork and the proprietary hub that goes with it has CODA disc brakes. I think you can actually find pads for them, but not much else. They made a huge secret of their brake fluid formulation (mineral oil). Their literature at the time said it was "designed by NASA!"

The front brake on this F900 has lost its will to live. We should be able to find a brake that will mount to the tabs on the fork, but Cannondale decided to use a 171mm rotor. What the hell kind of size is that? The rear is 151. And they mount with four bolts. So changing out the front brake will mean changing out the front wheel. You can get 6-bolt Lefty hubs. You can get carbon fiber Lefty forks that get great reviews. So this machine can be recovered...for a price.

Here's where my Van Winkleism comes into play. Once we stopped selling Cannondale, I stopped paying attention to all their weird bullshit. I worked a little with the early CODA brakes and Lefty forks. But when we dropped the line I was happy not to have to explain and apologize for a lot of their spec choices. The Headshok design was very smooth, but too limited in its travel to appeal to the emerging class of rider that would settle for nothing less than 100mm of travel, preferably 120. The Lefty was a way to move the mechanism out of the head tube, where it could stretch its legs -- er, leg -- a bit more.

Even though the Lefty is still in production, forget the 26-inch wheels. Looks like the hubs you can get and that stub axle are still compatible, though. I can build this guy a wheel on a six-bolt hub. It all comes down to money. Does he want to do the rear wheel at the same time, to get ahead of the inevitable failure down the road? That has a 151mm rotor, also mounted with four bolts, so it would require another wheel replacement. Or maybe we can get someone to machine some 160 rotors to fit that four-bolt mounting. That sounds practical, doesn't it?

The rider fits the classic profile of a person who invested in something state of the art, intending to enjoy it for a long time, and then got diverted by life and never got to use it much. The bike has storage dust on it, but no trail dirt. The rear cassette is shiny and clean. So he wants to get something out of his investment now. It will be the usual treasure hunt. I'll gather information and lay out his options.

A lot of mountain bike riders around here had not been cyclists before the mountain bike craze, and a large percentage of them did not become the kind of addicts that the industry mistakenly identifies as its best bet for high-volume sales. Did the heads of the bike companies want to shrink it back to aficionados with whom they could identify, and chase the rabble out? Or did they really believe that their expensive and excruciatingly sophisticated products were so beguiling that the briefest exposure would trigger an irresistible craving?

Civilians believe that they will find expertise in the shops, and that a high price always indicates a worthwhile investment. Through the 1980s, especially in road bikes, that was largely true. I have a couple of frames, and a lot of componentry, that dates from later than the '80s, but it's all pretty retro stuff. My current road bike frame was built in the 1980s. This is the perception that most non-cyclists have of bicycles: simple, lovable machines that they can own for years and keep in shape with minimal maintenance. Even riders who bought into the mountain bike boom in the 1990s didn't think about how all of those moving parts and sub-assemblies in the suspension, and the fidgety-widgety disc brakes brought with them perishable substances like shock oil, brake fluid, and elastomers. They didn't spend enough time with the bike industry to realize how they were being herded and fleeced.

In defense of the bike industry, they're only partly soulless bean counters. They're also smitten with their technology, and love to solve the problems that the most obsessed and hard-driving riders are encountering. I remember an article in either a consumer publication or Bicycle Retailer back in the mid '90s, complaining that the industry was focusing too hard on racers and not enough on the people who were just out for a good time on a mix of technical trails and milder paths and roads. Riders wanted to be able to mix it up. Early mountain bikes would do that a lot better than the technical marvels of today. Nowadays, if you want a go-anywhere off-road bike you have to know that you're probably looking for a "bikepacking" model rather than the catch-all "mountain bike" that no longer exists. And your bikepacker model will have more piercings than a goth teen with a big allowance. They're keeping the braze-on industry in business.

In another archaeological moment, El Queso Grande dug up this publication from 1990, laying out the perilous predicament of mountain biking in the USA (mostly the western USA) as a result of rude and reckless riding by those hooligans on fat tires.
Because I was on the East Coast and completely out of touch with the industry from 1981 to 1989, I knew very little about how mountain biking was evolving. I had a racing bike, a touring bike, and a commuter fixed gear. I knew mountain bikes existed, but I hadn't been close to many of them.

The fixed gear was my path and trail bike, to the extent that I found anything like that in Annapolis, Maryland. One of my commute options bushwhacked from a dead-end street onto the grounds of some Navy housing, but it wasn't as much fun as threading the corners on the regular streets, and not much shorter, either. I didn't look for trails as such until the cyclocross series started around 1986, and we all built ourselves some form of 'cross bike. Even then I could take it or leave it. Only moving to actual mountains made an actual mountain bike interesting.

Here in New Hampshire, there was a little bit of friction from a few landowners, but we had no shortage of places to ride. Event promoters ran into snags when they tried to direct large numbers of participants onto a course and discovered who actually owned what, and how they felt about a thundering herd rather than a trickle of riders. The same thing happened when riders would try to produce a guidebook for their area. Other than that, the problems were generally limited to riders trying to use designated wilderness areas in the National Forest, and the first few unsanctioned singletrack builders here and there. I was interested to see how early mountain bikers managed to offend existing trail users the way the invasive fat bikers have been riding over the toes of cross-country skiers in a microcosm of the first wave of mountain biking many decades ago. Everything is smaller than it used to be, except for the bikes themselves.

The answer for three-season off-road riders has been to acquire land or use rights, and build their own closed courses. Fat bikers are following suit, either by using existing connections to the three-season rider category or by developing their own landowner relations. Before you can have a trail, you need a place to put it. That's why you can't really afford to piss anyone off. A strong arm only gets you as far as your arm will reach, for as long as your strength lasts. The promoters today are stressing the economic benefits of attracting people who have already been willing to shell out at least a thousand bucks for their ride, and are eager to find places to use it. And a thousand bucks is the ante. The real players are plunking down twice that much, and more. Lots of people have that kind of coin, right?

Fewer and fewer every year. But don't believe the dying canary on the floor of the mine. It just has a negative attitude.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Breaking the ice

With the temperature barely 40 degrees (F) and the wind gusting to 30 mph, the day was hardly more inviting than the previous week. But you have to start somewhere. So I did.

Base miles used to be a token thing. We had to remind ourselves not to push big gears before we'd spun the legs for a few hundred miles, one short ride at a time. Short is relative, too. Fifteen or 20 was   nothing. But that's the point of base miles. They were the nothing that adds up to something; the body's reminder of the shape and rhythm of the pedal stroke.

Speaking of the pedal stroke, apparently a recent study has made a high pedaling cadence obsolete. The article I read described the study and did indicate that more work is needed to see how the new information fits in with decades of practice by millions of riders. As usual, a search for answers has turned up more questions. Meanwhile, we all have to live in the real world. I'm going to maintain the cadences that have served me well throughout my cycling career.

Every rider learns the activity from the practices of the riders they know. You learn from your friends.   Maybe you learn from educational programs like Cycling Savvy, Smart Cycling, or a book like Effective Cycling. Most people just start with an interest, buy a bike, and start riding. There are also plenty of magazines and websites. Lots of people who ride and write and need money are happy to find an outlet. There's no shortage of talent.

Anyone who has forgotten to be obsessive about fitness over a long winter will need to take the base mileage phase of the bike season more seriously. I'm physically incapable of going too hard, so that's not a temptation. It's a true rebuilding process.

When I started riding with more than the attention of a child, the people guiding me shared what they knew, including the use of fixed-gear bikes as part of developing a smooth pedal stroke across a wide range of cadence. We didn't focus on that point. The initial challenge was to ride the fixed gear after growing up with bikes that would coast, especially as those bikes offered more gear options as well. The fixed gear seemed like a humorous challenge. It also shaped us as riders without making us think about it. Only after a while did someone more experienced point out the built-in benefit.

A generally human-powered lifestyle will provide a fitness base in that same unconscious way. The fact that I got drawn into the outdoor recreation industry meant that I was doing professionally what people outside the industry have to pay to do. The fact that the outdoor recreation industry pays poverty wages meant that I would never be able to afford the activities any other way. If I wasn't selling the gear and teaching what I knew of the skills, I would not have been there at all.

My mentors in bicycle mechanics were the kind of people who learn how the machinery works and use that knowledge to fund their participation. As skillful tool users, they managed to do a lot of things because they could refurbish old equipment and build some new things with the tools and knowledge they had acquired. They didn't have to follow the more conventional route of making as much money as possible in some unrelated but sufficiently lucrative field and then spending the money on equipment they didn't know much about, to enjoy an activity that they had to fight to find time for. Their interests went well beyond bicycles, and included boats, motorcycles, and airplanes.

The mushrooming crises caused by the consumerist lifestyle make all recreation look extravagant. But at the heart of any human powered recreational activity is the concept of human power. If you are accustomed to getting around on your own feet, or powered by your own exertion in or on a vehicle made for that, you'll be more ready to slide into a more human-powered existence in general.

The separation of human exertion into categories of beneficial exercise, destructive overexertion, and sedentary occupations has led to a general physical decline in which we have some phenomenal athletes, a percentage of fitness hobbyists who are fairly well toned, and a large percentage of people who are so entrapped in the machine age that they have lost most desire and ability to function without a cocoon of mechanical assistance. Labor-saving machines have become barriers to activity. People given leisure face financial demands that make leisure a burden. Free time is just another word for unemployment. Leisure is for the leisure class.

I have always welcomed time to think and to appreciate the beauty that I see around me. But I have had to acknowledge that I pay for this with my precarious financial state, and the likelihood of an impoverished old age, should I live to be old. Perhaps this is the real deal that we should all have been acknowledging. It seemed like we could do better for everyone with our technology, had we been able to convince ourselves to give up the winner-take-all mentality that we had been led to believe was best for us. I've been observing competition for more than 60 years now. I can tell you that it improves nothing but itself. It's a good thing to push your own capabilities. It is not a good thing to build your life around beating other people. It may be natural. It may be the inescapable seed of our destruction. But it ain't good.

In our bloody past it was normal to torture captives and criminals, and to enslave the vanquished. Peel back the technology of weapons until you get to spears, clubs, arrows, and crude blades. At that point, competition for resources makes sense, because hostilities can be contained to more or less natural methods on a short-range battlefield, protecting territories defended by slow-moving ground forces. Border skirmishes keep everyone honest. Start adding alliances and evolving better weapons, communication, and transportation and you reach the point where we perch today, teetering over two or three precipices.

What does it mean to all of you out there? It means that there's a better reason to go for a bike ride than not to.