Sunday, May 26, 2019

Nothing is normal in the bike shop

The repair lineup so far includes a 70-pound smokeless moped,
A recumbent trike,
and a tall bike:
This is after the previously mentioned modern marvels with press fit bottom brackets, and shares the jumble in the storage area with bikes ranging widely in price, quality, and age.

You never know who will need a bike fixed:
We've also worked on bikes for a guy named Bill Murray, who is just Bill Murray, not Bill Murray.

Behind the tall bike in the photo above you can see a Rocky Mountain full suspension bike with XTR from back when eight-speed was the top of the line. The disc brakes on it sounded like a couple of truck horns.

I revamped the repair queue. It used to have dividers for the days of the week, but no subdivision to tell us whether one tag stuffed into a particular day slot was more or less urgent than another. After years of dealing with a bushy mess, I finally yanked out the day dividers and made two category columns:
The "Regular" side is straight first-come-first-served. The "Hot" side is for people who have stated an urgent need. During triage, when we ask the customer about their timing, some of them will say that they definitely won't be back for days or weeks, so we can fit them in down the line. The days of the week were meaningless, which is how the days of the week feel anyway when we're buried in work.

Now that Memorial Day Weekend is here, the next thing we know it will be Labor Day and we'll be going back into grayness. Foliage tourism has dwindled even more than summer tourism, so what little we see tends not to amount to much in work load or cash flow. Maybe we should be in the ATV and oversized truck business, so we could make some money off of the final destruction of our planetary ecosystem. We could import some elephant ivory while we're at it, and host weekly cookouts of giraffe steaks.

The thing is, you don't have to be busy for the best of life to evaporate. You just have to be at work. Mere incarceration is enough.

This story about two bike shop employees who burned down their shop as they were trying to cremate a mouse reminded me of the first shop I worked in. A regular customer of ours used to say that he liked coming in because there was no adult supervision. Our antics never extended to pyromania except perhaps a little bit outside in the back parking lot, but the spirit of unfettered experimentation runs strongly in all the bike people I know. The tall bike is an example of that sort of thing. My bike guru in Florida, who grew up in her father's machine shop and went on to have one of her own, has built a tall bike. She and her husband built aero road frames in the 1980s, using aircraft strut tubing. They also built and repaired more conventional frames. Not all of us are skilled enough to get beyond the nuts and bolts level of improvisation, but that still opens up a lot of territory. A bike -- or other pedal-powered machine -- is the sum of its parts. The industry makes it harder and harder to mix and match, but if you look around you can still find stuff to work with.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The wheel, the lever, and the inclined plane...and press fit

The wheel, the lever, and the inclined plane represent fundamental principles that underlie many more complex tools and machines. They're building blocks of more advanced technology that took us out of the stone age.

Threads use the principle of the inclined plane, to create a secure joint that can be incrementally tightened to a desired firmness (torque) at a desired rate (thread pitch)

Then came press fit. It's the equivalent of pounding it in with a rock. Sure, you are better off to squeeze it in with a controlled press -- utilizing threads on the tool -- but you're basically just shoving it in there and hoping it stays securely and functions quietly.

Yesterday was press fit day in the workshop. One bike was a carbon Salsa full suspension mountain bike that the owner cleans with a hose, "but only carefully." It had noises in the bottom bracket and headset. Videos I watched to learn more about the inner mysteries stated that press fit BBs are simple and easy to work on, but noted that you should only remove one when you are planning to install a new one. What the assembler hath pounded in there, thou shalt not pound out. And pound them out you do.

One tool, from Enduro, used gentle methods of persuasion, but all of the others called for an assistant and a hammer.

The second patient was an Orbea road bike that we've been trying to get dialed in for about a month. The parts on it were transferred from an older Orbea that had cracked. It has a mystery noise that sounded like creaky bottom bracket, but may prove to be a drive train noise amplified by the large, resonant carbon fiber frame. Fiddling with that is time consuming, and time is money. If you're getting compensated for the time, it's a win. It's unclear at this time how fully we will be compensated. When a job drags on with mysterious afflictions the billable hours get blurry.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Revenge of the nerds

I've had a to do a lot of counseling in the past week or so, helping customers who had state-of-the-art ten speed drive trains and now find themselves relegated to the mediocre masses when they need parts. As I explained how the bike industry is not their friend it struck me how the tone changed during the 1990s from its earlier cheerful bike nerd persona at the end of the '80s.

As I have posted previously, promotional literature for the early mass-produced mountain bikes actually suggested that the owner of one of these affordable fun machines might start "riding more and driving less." But as the market exploded, bringing in unprecedented amounts of cash and public interest, the tone shifted quickly to technological hype. The 1990s brought the No Fear craze, and the rise of the badass image. Mountain biking events still presented themselves as welcoming to all abilities, but the range of abilities was rapidly widening, with those on the crumbling ridge crest of the leading edge getting the most publicity.

Early mountain bike evolution refined the parameters of a rigid frame, retreating steadily from the relatively slack geometry of early models to something with snappier handling. Roomy rear triangles shrank to only sufficient clearance for the tires of the time, to make the bikes stronger climbers. Head angles north of 70 degrees were the norm. Some might sneer at this as "roadie influence." I never tire of pointing out that the originators of mountain biking were roadies, and all-around bike nerds. The exclusive category specialists came in once things were rolling, to beef up the BMX influence and feed off of the anti-roadie sentiment that is always too ready to spring up. In any case, race courses shaped the bikes and the bikes shaped the race courses. The tighter, steeper frames also worked better for mixed-media riding. That made sense because so many people were using the bike for all their riding needs. People were dumping nice road bikes for cheap, cheap money as a down payment on a mountain bike. Other people, who had not owned a bike in years, were buying in and finding that they liked riding more than just trails. The bike nerds almost got their wish. But category fracturing had already taken hold.

Even as suspension was in its infancy, the sponsored riders and ambitious racers were pushing for bikes to meet their specific desires. The downhill crowd had the most stringent need for ballistic missiles that they could control at the greatest possible speed. But effective suspension had a strong appeal for everyone on rough surfaces. And before that, Shimano had been pushing the Shifter Wars, and dominating OEM spec until the SRAM lawsuit in 1990 threw a speed bump in front of them. The industry borrowed from the computer industry and drug dealers for its business model. Both of these models consume the consumer. They are hostile to longevity of both products and users. Was this in part motivated by bitterness that the peace and freedom of the original simple bike had been cast aside for gizmos and bravado? Or was it purely motivated by simple greed?

Looking back over the history of human inventiveness in general, humans invented items that made their lives easier. A stick, a rock, a vine, these mutated into levers, spears, arrows, hammers, axes, string, rope, and so on. A tool would be made to perform a function. A better tool would displace the earlier version. Before industrialization, mass production called for numerous artisans performing similar tasks or coordinating their efforts, but the goal was to make life easier. If a job could be done in less time, that meant you could do more jobs or have more of your irreplaceable time to spend on other things. Even well into the age of industrialization, things were built to last, even if that was just accidental. I was born in time to experience the end of the Era of Durability. It really did happen, although little sign of it remains today.

On the consumer side, you didn't want to waste your time and resources on an item that didn't hold up. There was no Amazon to deliver new crap by drone to whatever GPS coordinates you provide. There wasn't a Dollar Store or a big box retailer every 15 miles. A time will come when that is true again. We may be back to sticks and rocks and vines by then, or we may simply rediscover the concepts of durability and longevity.

The current waves of obsolescence may be the revenge of the nerds. Even if they didn't intend it that way, it's working out that way. Before 12-speed has fully penetrated the market, here comes 13-speed. Shimano had patent drawings for 14 back in the 1990s. Tinfoil chains indeed. Prepare to be penetrated, market, over and over. The fact that it's asinine and destructive and wasteful has never mattered. What matters is giving the tech-obsessed market segments one fix after another until they die or go into rehab.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Lean in until your face hits the ground

In the early 1980s, I worked for a sail loft. Every winter, at the beginning of January, we went on overtime, six days a week, ten hours a day. As a sailor, I thought of the sailing season as the busy season. It hadn't occurred to me that people would get more work done on vital equipment like the sails themselves when the boat was laid up for the winter. As soon as it was dumped on me, it seemed obvious. For many weeks during winter service, the loft crew worked like zombies, wending our way through towering piles of Dacron. The ceiling in our building was low, which made the mountains of varying whiteness seem even more immense. New cloth was dazzling under the glare of fluorescent lights. Old sails looked like old snow, in varying shades of gray.

In the short daylight of winter, with years of life ahead of me, I could burrow into the tunnel of work without too many distractions. The glaciers of sailcloth ground slowly across the landscape until the meltdown in early spring. As the days lengthened and outdoor life beckoned, work receded to grant more time.

This spring at the shop, the repair load has been a little heavier than in recent years, and we're down to one and a half mechanics. El Queso Grande has recovered enough from surgery to be able to wrench carefully, but he also still has to run the business. And with only two of us on duty on any given day, any influx of customers brings service work to a halt. It has created a mini version of the winter service overload. The difference is that it is hitting during the rise of daylight, when life outside the building calls strongly. I'm also decades older. "Life gets mighty precious when there's less of it to waste," as the song goes. Life outside that particular building always calls strongly. It was different when we were the bartenders at the months-long party that was bike season. Now we're just aging servants for competing aristocracies.

I got talked into giving up one of my days off last week, to try to get ahead a little on the repair load. Not only did it barely make a dent in the waiting pile, it completely screwed me up for the rest of the week. I slid into quitting time on the last day basically face down. As much as I sense that I am supposed to be ashamed for taking time off, we're talking about irreplaceable life here.

El Queso Grande refers to my days off as "vacation." A good servant of the cult of the workaholic, he has absorbed the philosophy that if work is good, overwork is better. If he'd lucked into something more lucrative than the cross-country ski and bike industries he might actually take time off himself, and delegate more of the mucking out to the flunkies. But the country as a whole suffers from the perception that we should all be working harder and longer, rather than figuring out how we can all be helping each other to work less. Many hands make light work, says the proverb, but in the world we have created, many hands make depressed wages and high unemployment.

I look out the shop window at drivers coming and going from the deli out back, or poaching our parking lot to go to other businesses nearby. The trucks are big and loud, with large-bore exhaust pipes belching fumes as the vehicles are left idling. I get to read the stickers on people's vehicles, waving fists of defiance against any calls for restraint. I watch us lose the long, slow-motion war into which my generation was born, to which most of my peers surrendered. Their children and their children's children show increasing conflict, not increasing convergence, but they all drive. Drive, drive, drive. Does it matter whether the driver that runs you into the ditch was distracted or hostile? Just going to work, by any mode, is stressful and depressing. And then I'm at work, solving problems that are sometimes interesting, but that add up to a big fat zero -- as far as I can tell -- in the conflict of values playing out nationally and globally.

Based on the entirety of human history, this can't end well, and will probably end soon. Wealth has always been concentrated, so any attempt to spread it around always has to assure the holders of it that it will always technically be theirs. And any attempt to improve the quality of life in general has to be framed around profitability. Forget that profit has no basis in nature, where breaking even is the ideal. Humans can imagine times of shortage and compete for things that haven't happened yet. Humans can create shortage to manipulate markets, and exploit misfortunes both accidental and manufactured.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

The casual relationship of cyclists and underwear

Bike shorts are designed to be worn without anything underneath them. They became popular in the 1970s when the legions of new riders in their cutoff jeans were finding out what happens when you spend long hours in the saddle, grinding the seams of your pants into your tender anatomy.

Without posting links that include lots of pictures of dudes in jockstraps, take my word for it that the support garment was invented in the late 19th Century for bike riders. A key feature was that it had no structure in the contact zones, being designed to hold the floppy parts without creating friction between rider and saddle. Moving forward in history, the ubiquitous black wool bike shorts looked like something out of the 1890s as well. But why mess with something that works? Wool is a versatile fabric. The original liners were made of chamois, a soft suede, to combat chafing, not provide padding. Chamois requires some special handling to keep it nice, so synthetic chamois was developed to make care easier. Then came Lycra, and the image of road cyclists was forever damaged.

Lycra shorts have a couple of advantages over wool. In hot weather they can be a lot more comfortable. They dry quickly after washing or a summer rain shower. They're more streamlined, so the wind -- and adjacent riders -- have less to grab. But I've never liked the shrink-wrap look. Modern baggy shorts go too far the other way, of course. Modern humans are all about extremes instead of sensible navigation of a range of options.

The one common characteristic is the lack of underwear.

In the summer of 1975, when I was working in Miami, more or less living in my car, but spending most of my time on my bike or at a friend's machine shop, I spent a lot of time in bike shorts. I used my underwear to wash my car, because I didn't have any other rags, and the dirt was mostly water soluble. After laundering, the old tighty whiteys were kinda gray, but sanitized. What did I care? No one was going to see them unless they watched me washing my car. Some people I stayed with for a while seemed offended that I didn't respect my skivvies more. I figured that everything had to earn its place.

Over the decades, the life cycle of undershorts has led inevitably to the rag bag. While I do my best not to show them when they are in their active duty phase as actual underwear, once they've moved down to rag status I forget about their former role. Usually I rip the elastic waistbands off of them, but sometimes I forget.

This specimen got pretty oily when I was lubing several bike chains after winter storage. Not wanting to leave it in the house, I put it out in the woodshed and forgot about it. It was lying there when several deliveries were made. Only after several days did I think about how it might have looked. "That's that guy who leaves his underwear lying around." Add it to the list of my other eccentricities.


Like the arrival of the black flies, bike repairs start with one or two that suddenly turn into a swarm.

Dressed in surgical grubs

The brake replacement on that Cannondale F900 went very smoothly. The calipers practically hopped onto the mounting tabs by themselves.

The bolts in the spacer kit were too long, but the hardware store is a short walk down the sidewalk. This was just part of the test fitting.

To bleed the brakes after trimming the lines, I removed the rear caliper from the frame and fastened it to a fixture I made years ago for bleeding the rear brakes on some e-bikes.
I had to redirect the line slightly to get a continuous rising path for the air bubbles.

The next bike in the queue was not as lucky. The bike had SRAM Guide RS brakes that had been silently recalled several years ago by SRAM. The master cylinder pistons stick, preventing the brakes from retracting properly. He's actually arranged to get them fixed for free where he bought the bike, so that's working out nicely.

SRAM brake guy had initially asked us to reseal his tubeless tires. They had the usual giant scab of dried snot in the bottom of each tire, along with a peeling crust around the inside of the casings. I cleaned things out, poured in ample doses of Finish Line tire sealant, and inflated the tires to installation pressure. The customer has had to travel a lot, so he hasn't needed his bike for a couple of weeks. This is good, because the tires are not sealing quickly. The sidewalls are very porous. Each time I repressurize them they seal a little more, but it's taking time and a lot of follow-up rotating and flipping to make sure that sealant gets distributed evenly and stays in place long enough to flow into all the little holes.
I use a lot of medical metaphors in the backshop, but now we actually have tires that need post-op care and physical therapy. We need nursing staff to handle of all of this follow-up care.

Another bike came in to have tires sealed. These Maxxis tires are definitely tubeless ready. Seating them was pretty quick and easy.

Next on the stand after the $4,000 Kona was this Columbia boat anchor.
Just another tuneup. It isn't even old enough to be a real classic, so they had to label it as a classic:

After threading internal cables on this fancy road frame, I'm ready to try building a ship in a bottle:

I'm starting to enjoy working on all this shit that I would never want to own. Working in the bike shop used to be like working in the candy store. I saw lots of stuff that I might like to have. That took a real nose dive in the rise of technofascism in the 1990s. I fought the fascists for as long as I could, but they know how to appeal to the technolemmings. Now I just keep my own simple stuff running as best I can and take the money from the lemmings as they queue up and troop dutifully over cliff after cliff. The rise of acceptable complexity was subtle. Each new generation of riders knows only what they find when they take up riding. That's their base line. The industry keeps trying to entice with technology when what the bike business really needs is 90 percent advocacy and education, and 10 percent technical refinement.

With the proliferation of tire sizes, not even bike hooks are simple anymore:
We had to take time to substitute a selection of new hook sizes in both the sales and repair areas to accommodate the range of wheel sizes.

It's been a crappy spring for training. Here's my trusty fixed gear being held up by nature's kickstand a few weeks ago on a side trip into the woods:
It hardly seems believable, but the snow is gone now, replaced by repeated storms of raw rain and cold.

In the triage of repair jobs, I will often take one or more out of sequence because they seem straightforward. It makes sense to cut the queue down as quickly as possible. But these are often the jobs that turn into total tar pits.
This cheap mountain bike was in for a tune up. It had a very loose bottom bracket. Because cheap bikes often have cup and cone bottom brackets made to look like sealed cartridge units, I had to pull the crank arms off to do anything. Fake sealed bottom brackets don't have wrench flats or pin holes, so you have to pull the crank to adjust them.

Because the bike frame was full of water, everything was corroded in place. It wasn't obvious, dark rust, just a binding roughness of initial oxidation. It still required extra leverage. The bearings were a cheap cartridge unit. But we didn't have the size (73x113) in stock. The cheapness of it actually offered a slim chance at repair. You can knock the cheap units apart to separate the bearings. But we didn't have those in stock, either. Because the bearings are designed to fit inside the cartridge that fits inside the bottom bracket shell, they're smaller than any of the bearings normally used in bike repairs. I could order them from a bearing supply company, but that defeated the purpose of battlefield surgery. We can -- and did -- order a new complete unit. The only reason I went into it was that the repair tag had an expedited deadline written on it.

When we get slammed, we tell people that we are backed up at least a week to ten days. Some customers are fine with that and more. But then we get in-fill, with people who come later and need it sooner. Because some customers are fine with the long wait, we can slot these other jobs into the spaces. But the spaces don't really exist, because the long wait was based on the time needed for one overloaded tech to dig through the pile. I could pour a couple of months of my life down the mineshaft of other people's wants, but I have had a lifelong addiction to my own time. The job I took for supplemental income 30 years ago has turned out to be my primary income. I'm still at it because not too many people want to do what I do. But I have become no more valuable for my rarity. It's hard enough to be there for the length of time that I am, let alone flushing away more irreplaceable time on a job that almost no one respects, for a class of vehicle that most other road users despise.

The majority of riders now have no intention of ever riding on the public right of way. Bicycles used to be vehicles of freedom. The original mountain bikes were appealing not just because a rider could go on trails, but because a rider could now go anywhere. The first waves rode like kids again, down the street, across the park, into the woods, over and through anything they could. But after a while it evolved into a way to make bicycles go away. And that's where it's headed today. As more attention is paid to transportation design in built up areas where "the bicycle makes sense," anything outside that evolving norm becomes a bike-free zone in popular perception. Bicycles are being put in their place. Anything out of place is fair game. It's early in the process, but bike advocates need to pay attention to where it's headed.

The repair queue keeps growing. It ranges from a cruddy Columbia to an $11,000 Specialized Tarmac. El Queso Grande had surgery on his wrist and arm, so he's not turning any wrenches. And he has to do everything else to run his business. A shop that can barely function with three people, preferably four, keeps slogging along most days with only two.