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.

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