Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Just a technicality, followed by another technicality, followed by...

Shimano's latest mechanical shifting systems seem designed to make you hate mechanical shifting systems. Weird cable routing in the frames already made mechanical derailleurs an increasing nuisance. This style of front derailleur cable attachment puts another few solid spikes into the coffin lid. And it gives double value to current technofascist fashion, because it's not just an annoying cable, it's an annoying front derailleur cable. Front derailleurs? Why did we ever think those were cool?

The instructions for this style of derailleur are an 8-page PDF. That's simple and straightforward compared to the treasure hunt I went through later in the week looking for information about electronic shifting and hydraulic road disc brakes on a bike I was assembling. Bikes like that used to come with a few helpful hints and diagrams to help with componentry that is less and less intuitive all the time. Now most of the printed matter is just legal disclaimers and directions to "visit our website."

The front derailleur on this bike led me upstream to the R7000 front shifter. In yet another silent recall situation, these marvelously redesigned shifters are apparently hanging up, jamming intermittently on bikes that are new or nearly new. 

I poked around looking for clues, but found nothing that I could tweak to make the ratchet behave consistently. I found a video by some guy that supposedly showed how to fix the problem with a little piece of plastic and some double stick tape, but further investigation revealed that whatever "cured" the problem was purely coincidental. The comments include testimonials from people who followed his instructions and achieved satisfactory results, but my explorations in the interior revealed an oily place where double-stick tape would have a very short service life. And why should someone have to fiddle around with their new shifters because Shimano screwed up again?

After I poked at things for quite a while, the shifter worked consistently without malfunctioning, even when I tried to make it misbehave. That doesn't mean I cured it. It just means that the clever bastard decided to go underground until the heat is off. I advised the rider to go to the shop where she bought the bike and ask them for warranty support, rather than pay us to dig around in it any further. The problem is similar to the old 105 ST-5600 almost-recall a few years ago. It's become common in the industry for a big component manufacturer to hand out free replacements to anyone who asks, while doing nothing to publicize the problem or take direct responsibility for it, which would cost them a lot more money. If you haven't ridden your bike enough develop the problem, why should they spend their money to give you something that actually works?

The current fashion for cable routing under the bar wrap requires some ingenuity in feeding the cables so that they don't get a kink in them at any of the tight changes of direction needed to make their way into the cable housing.
This little screwdriver with a notch filed in the tip had been kicking around the workshop for years after whatever job had led to its creation. It has now become a crucial tool for guiding a new cable into the exit from a Shimano brifter.
You have to push the end of the cable into the exit groove without extracting a lot of cable behind it. The little notched screwdriver is perfect for this.

Another bike with the annoying front derailleurs was a gravel bike with through-axles front and rear. The rear wheel shows how designers have realized that long horizontal dropouts really did serve a purpose back in the dark ages:
Whoever assembled this bike was not familiar with horizontal dropouts. The wheel was crooked in the frame. With an old style dropout, you'd just undo the quick release, straighten the wheel, and tighten the quick release again. With a nutted axle, loosen the nuts, straighten, tighten the nuts. In the through-axle version, you have to loosen the through-axle attachment, loosen the two 20mm nuts, turn the threaded adjusters to straighten the wheel, re-torque the 20mm nuts to 200 in.-lbs, and re-tighten the through-axle itself. The nuts are alloy, thick enough to make a cone wrench an inadequate fit, but not thick enough to fit a regular off-the-rack spanner.

In the middle of one morning, in came a regular customer who never buys a bike from us, but comes in for service when he's at his spare home up here. He said he was just starting out on a road ride with  his daughter, when the bottom bracket made a "snap" noise, and the crank got really loose.

The left crank bearing (press fit) had blown apart. Most of it was now cozied up against the right side bearing. The rest of it was greasy fragments inside the bottom bracket shell. He borrowed a rental bike to nip home and get his gravel bike, so that he and the offspring could continue their ride. We didn't have the bearings in stock, so we ordered him a nice mid-price set. No need for hundreds of dollars in ceramic bearings, but nothing too cheesy, either.

On the lower end of the price range, someone checked this thing in, with a couple of squirrel tails woven into the cables at the handlebar.
I don't know how. I don't know why. I don't think I want to know.

Sometimes, a rider will get the rear derailleur caught in the spokes or jammed with a stick. The pieces will be dangling or twisted up around the dropout. But this guy set a new high mark, sucking the derailleur cage all the way through the rear gears:

Moving back up the price range, it was time to assemble a special order bike for another summer customer. 

This Specialized Tarmac does away with cable-actuated anything. Specialized had previously sent rather detailed instructions with their technological marvels, given that the consequences of error are potentially worse than embarrassing for all concerned. Not this time, though. The most detailed instruction sheets were for parts that were already fully installed. The hydraulic brake lines were not connected, and electronic shifting reveals nothing to the external observer. The enclosed sheets from Shimano contained only the vaguest generic information in one or two sentences buried in paragraphs of even less useful verbiage. Their website was even less help. After studying it from all angles and trying to piece together clues from all of the fragmentary or obsolete sources I could find, it was time to poke and hope.

The brakes have "easy connect" brakes lines that aren't really. There was nothing magical about them. Fluid did get lost. Air did get in. I did have to do a short bleed of the top end of the system. It was better than a complete fill and bleed, but not significantly easier than any other pre-filled system on which I've had to trim the lines for size and replace lost juice.

The electronic shifting either works or it doesn't. At least the wires had already been run, but I did have to stuff the battery into the seat post. The non-round seatpost on this bike holds the battery more conveniently than the round post on a previous bike I wrestled with last summer. But I didn't want to mess up its brain by fumbling something in the initial startup, if such a thing is possible.

The charger that came with the bike only had a USB plug, so we had to plug the bike into the shop computer to top up the battery. The system was set in manual shifting mode. The customer can decide if he wants to use either of the synchro modes. The rear derailleur clicks or clunks into gear depending on how many cogs you've asked it to cross at one time. The front derailleur makes an officious, annoyed whine when it shifts. Back when Shimano first pushed index shifting on the road biking world in the mid 1980s, riders joked about how you knew someone was attacking when you heard their shifters click. On large-diameter frames like Cannondales, the snap was amplified. But it wasn't enough of a problem to keep indexing from becoming the norm, paving the way for STI and the rest of the Super Highly Integrated Technology we deal with today.

Look Ma! No cables! Just Shimano Mechanical-Electrical Gear Manipulation Apparatus.

The customer will have to synchronize his own personal electronics with the crank. Your riding style will determine the kind of targeted ads you see on the internet after every ride. And if you complain about hunger, muscle aches, or saddle pain, those remarks are recorded and uploaded to your profile to help refine your personalized marketing even more.

There it is, in serious black. Not only does it look badass, the manufacturer saved lots of money on paint. And the naked frame is easier to inspect for damage that could "lead to serious injury or death."

Monday, June 17, 2019

Transportation is cycling's highest purpose

The first two-wheeled vehicles were made for transportation. They did not inspire a direct and continuous line of evolution to the bicycle of today, but the first pedal-powered two-wheeled machines were basically the old swift walkers with a set of pedals attached to the front wheel, like a kid's tricycle.

While all the attention gets paid to the great races, these were proofs of concept. They were demonstrations of what a human can do with the assistance of the simple machine. Just as musical audiences in the days before cheap and abundant recordings probably had taken some lessons and played an instrument, so did a great many more people in the peak of the bicycle era have personal experience riding their own bikes as part of the practical daily routine. It gave them a greater appreciation of the effort and skill involved in the extremes of competition. I suppose the same could be said of transportation motorists watching auto racing, but when you are both driver and engine you have a lot better idea how you would fare in a race.

The motorized world would bury us if it could. It might have limited patience with big races that are just show biz, because they are contained within a highly motorized caravan, and restricted to a specific place and time. Professional events featuring known stars and their teams manage to hold their place, while amateur competitions attract hostility and derision from the disinterested public inconvenienced by the event.

More than one motorist has described to me encountering a kitted-out cyclist while driving their car or truck. Even years after Lance Armstrong's fall from grace, he's still the insult of choice for contemptuous motorists. "Look at this asshole. Thinks he's Lance Armstrong or something." I was hearing it during the height of the Lance years, and I'm still hearing it, because he was the one racing bicyclist that Americans could identify, and every other cyclist was a pathetic wannabe who should smarten up and get out of the way.

Lance himself reported getting knocked down all the time by rednecks in his home state of Texas. They didn't give a shit who he was. He was just out there on a bike, making himself available to their criticism. What did they say? "Look at that guy, thinking he's Lance Armstrong!" Hey! I think that was Lance Armstrong! Hell sheeyoot! I bagged a celebrity!"

The image of the racer colors the view of non-cyclists looking at riders equipped to ride in a sporty manner. The simple annoyance of having to accommodate a slower road user colors their view of tourists, commuters, and anyone else slowing down traffic on the public street.

Every rider reaches a point where they have to overcome some discouraging factor to continue to ride. If competition is your motivation, you will face the hostile world in order to train. If you have decided to surrender the road and ride trails instead, you will have eliminated traffic hassles and accepted exile. Transportation cycling seems like the least ballsy and noble endeavor, and yet, as the fundamental form of riding it has the longest lineage and the most to offer to the individual and collective civilization. Ten thousand bike commuters will do more good than a hundred professional racers or a dozen fearless stunt riders gyrating through the air. Transportation cycling is much more accessible than sport and competition riding.

When I was attempting to race, commuting was part of my mileage. Whatever else happened on a given day, I knew I was going to ride to work. Since I didn't have a car during most of those years, I knew I was going to ride wherever I went, unless I walked. And I did walk a lot. The town was big enough to be interesting, but small enough to cover quite a bit of it on foot.

Fifty years ago, kids rode their bikes to go places. While transportation design is responsible for some of the decline in transportation cycling among the young, sheer numbers are as much to blame. Roads were not designed with bike riders in mind when I was a kid any more than they are now. You learned how to ride, and motorists almost universally treated you well enough. No one ever passed me uncomfortably closely, even when I was riding on some fairly busy roads. No one ever got ugly with me just for riding a bike until the 1970s. The ten speed boom may have overloaded the system, but so did the surge in motorist numbers as the bulk of the Baby Boomer bike riders got licenses and became drivers. It's only gotten more crowded from there.

One problem in the US is that transportation cycling from just before the mid Twentieth Century was only associated with childhood. It was one of the many things you were expected to outgrow. So when the Baby Boomers took up the ten-speed and pushed the average age into adulthood, the country had no collective memory of large numbers of adults riding on routine daily errands.

Maybe the ability to balance on two wheels is not as universal as I  -- and other cycling devotees -- believe. It seemed like every kid had a bike when I was a kid, but maybe that was because I was immersed in the minority that did. I wasn't observing statistically in those years. No one was. Maybe some group has sales figures or other statistics that might give a fuzzy picture, but bikes have tended to be ubiquitous and overlooked until an individual rider draws attention in some specific way, like needing an ambulance. That might explain the deep hostility a lot of people seem to feel toward riders and bike accommodations.

You don't have to give up the automobile, or some other form of easier transportation, to embrace transportation cycling. Just start fitting it in where you can. You will notice immediate improvement in your sleep, your appetite, how you feel, and how much money you spend on fuel. I enjoyed my car-free years, but during them I borrowed cars from time to time, to make trips that I couldn't have done efficiently on a bike. When I moved to rural New England, being car-free was not an option. But I still save a noticeable amount of money by using the bike as much as I can. If I still lived down south, I might have been able to avoid getting a car at all. It's a decision you have to make for yourself.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Doctor, is this normal?

The bicycle is an extension of the rider's body. Because of this, when we try to diagnose a problem on  a bike, we're like doctors who can put on the patient's body. But we can't put on the patient's mind. Customers describe symptoms. We try to reproduce those symptoms so we can trace their source. But we don't have the patient's perceptions.

Many noises and disturbances are obvious. Squeaky brakes, skipping chains; much of the time there is no mystery. But when it comes to some of the more subjective thumps and bumps we're forced to figure out whether the bike's regular rider has detected something that our jaded senses overlook, or if they're inexperienced or neurotic.

A customer who had bought a mountain bike in the late 1980s or very early 1990s brought it back about ten years later because he had finally noticed that the chainrings weren't round, and wondered how they'd gotten that way. When you finally notice something that was there all along, it's still new to you. The same goes for a rim seam that makes a bump in the brake track, or wheel reflectors that make the bike feel funny when they get perfectly synchronized on a downhill. Maybe you just never noticed. When you do, it's a minor crisis.

Whenever something doesn't feel right, a rider who can't diagnose the problem should seek out someone who can. Thumps and hops and wobbles can be the warning signs of a tire about to fail, a cracked frame, worn suspension pivots, or incipient wheel failure. Or maybe you just need air in your tires.

The problems get more complicated all the time, with the addition of hydraulic fluids, suspension, and the creeping march of electronics. Much of the new stuff is just new ways of doing stuff we were already doing: shifting gears, stopping the bike. Suspension has evolved immensely into its own category, but those bikes still have drive trains and brakes. The drive trains mostly use derailleurs. As the industry adds cog after cog, the derailleurs are more and more excruciatingly engineered to move precisely the exact iota needed to reach the adjacent cog. How soon will bikes become like musical instruments, going out of tune with every change of temperature or humidity?

Two customers this week are getting wide range gears put on their bikes. One is a road bike. The other is a mountain bike. Each will take advantage of devices made by Wolf Tooth Components to get their monster cogs to function. Where we used to improvise in our individual bike shops to make things work that we were told would not, now we have to patronize companies who have the tools and knowledge to bend the rules that govern the industry's proprietary systems. It's a constantly moving target.

As long as I can scrounge up friction shifters, I will be free. But because bicycles are mass produced objects  -- even the handmade ones use mass produced components -- the industry can eliminate the outlaws by changing critical dimensions, like bottom bracket width and diameter, or rear hub spacing.  They can decree that only the latest complicated marvels will be made to the highest standards. You can buy the nicest bike you want, confident in the knowledge that within two years you will no longer be able to get repair parts of the same quality as what it came with.

Because a bike is an extension of your body, junking an old one for a shiny new one is like growing a new limb. But that sort of procedure doesn't come cheap. If you need that organ, and you can't afford that organ, you have to live without that organ.

No one needs a bike. In our modern industrial society you can make a better case for "needing" a car than for needing a bike. People do use bikes for transportation, but the unwritten rule is that no one should be able to tell that you arrived by bike. If you commute, don't stink. Don't arrive sweat-soaked. Don't wear weird clothes. If your ride is challenging, maybe you should give it up. Your transit time and condition on arrival will always be judged against someone who arrived in a car. So if obsolescence forces you out of riding, it wasn't fatal.

If you really want to be independent, walk.