Tuesday, July 30, 2019

This was a hate crime

Former Bicycling Magazine editor Andrew Bernstein was struck by a hit-and-run driver on Saturday, July 27, as he rode home from a velodrome near Boulder, Colorado. The ER doctor described it as "a high-energy impact," based on Bernstein's injuries.

The only evidence from the crash is a piece of turn signal lens. Investigators have said that they think it might be from a 2000 Dodge Ram van -- a touch of dark irony -- but it's not certain, and anyone could pick up a front end ding. These cases go unsolved more often than not. A teenage girl jogging along a road in Washington, Maine, was left for dead by a hit-and-run driver last week. Remorse is in short supply out there.

I say that Andrew Bernstein's injuries were the result of a hate crime because cyclists are all too familiar with the kinds of things that motorists post in comment threads after a crash involving a motor vehicle and a cyclist. We're all too familiar with the intimidating behavior that some drivers exhibit in the presence of witnesses, let alone when a hostile driver encounters a rider on a lonely road.

Drivers who mow down cyclists are cowards. Drivers who mow down cyclists from behind are the same kind of cowards who would shoot someone in the back and then brag about beating them to the draw. Violence against cyclists stems from the same assumption of superiority that inspires racist, religious, and sexist violence. Violent people are the minority, but you only have to meet one psychopath at the wrong time to wind up dead.

In the 1960s, civil rights activists went down to the part of the country where racist murders were not only not prosecuted, they were encouraged. I draw the parallel not to put cyclists on an equal footing with the people who risked lynching in order to advance racial equality, but to point out that the white supremacists act from the same sense of entitlement and cowardly overkill that motorists exhibit when passing inches away from your handlebar, or blatantly hitting someone just for riding a bike. And road cyclists need to find the same courage and resolve to keep going out there without knowing when or if an attack will come. Most of the time, it doesn't. That does not mean that it won't.

On Wednesday, some worthless piece of human refuse thought it would be funny to squeeze me against the guardrail on Route 28. He was in a string of traffic, so he could't take time to nail me right into it, but his intention was obvious. He suddenly appeared, nearly touching my elbow, and then pulled slowly and deliberately back into the lane after he had passed. It looked like a white Chevy Blazer with a Fox Racing sticker in the upper right corner of the back window. It was just the fox head outline, no words. On another day, a tractor trailer slid his big tires right past me on Center Street. That seemed more indifferent than aggressive. If I died, I died. He would not face charges, or even much disapproval. It was a safe bet for him.

Nothing good is freely given. No one in their right mind would have climbed out of a landing craft onto the beaches of Normandy, or any of the Pacific islands wrested back from the Japanese. The battlefields of the American Revolution were great places to get hurt. It completely sucks that merely riding a bike turns into an act of defiance and an invitation to assault and murder, but that's the kind of species we are.

The thing about homicidal cowards is that they don't care how contemptible they are. They derive their self worth from their machinery, whether it's a car, a truck, or an assault rifle. They feel pride in their willingness to hurt people that they deem inferior. The fact that their targets can't retaliate only provides further proof to them of their superiority. And yet most of them would be rather unhappy if every trip on the roads and streets turned into a tank battle between them and their armored adversaries. Think of it: "Honey, I'm going out for milk, eggs, and toilet paper! My will is in the top dresser drawer! Kids? Who wants to be my turret gunner today? Remember, only the strong survive!"
They're not looking for a good fight. They're just bullies. It's easy to act tough when you expect your adversary to back down.

Most riders prefer quiet roads. Light traffic or almost no traffic seems less threatening. It's easier to relax a little. But long gaps with no other witnesses present drivers with the best opportunity for a quick act of malice or an easy escape from a moment of carelessness. "Oops! I think I hit that biker! Oh well. I promise to feel sorry about it and try not to do it again. They knew the risks."

Cycling has become a form of passive resistance. It can't be active resistance, because the context is not a declared war. Motorists are armed with deadly battering rams and can kill or maim us with a twitch of the steering wheel. We have nothing.

Many riders have abandoned the field. They're like people who might support the troops but would never enlist. They're the ones who call it wisdom when they chuckle patronizingly and say that they have the sense to take up mountain biking or ride only on separated paths. They are motorists with a cycling hobby.

White supremacists argue that white people ended up on top because they won evolution. In the kill or be killed worldview, the people with the best weapons and the willingness to use them conquered the planet, except for the extensive parts that they didn't. Motor supremacists argue that motor vehicles won the right to dominate the road by technological superiority. Might makes right. In both cases, the technology and philosophy provide temporary dominance at the cost of ultimate destruction.

Is it worth fighting a losing battle? More people reach driving age every day. If the economy doesn't completely collapse, these people will get some form of motor vehicle to carry them between the multiple jobs they will need to earn enough money to pay for necessities like food, shelter, clothing, and that crap-box car. They'll call it normal, and resent anyone they see on a bike, who is obviously a less useful citizen. If you have time to waste on a bike, you have time to work more. Put some normal clothes on and get a car like a normal person. Abnormal is inferior. Inferior is weak. Weakness should be destroyed. See the logic?

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Thank you, your lordship

The Walton Family Foundation has established a utopia for bike enthusiasts -- primarily of the off-road persuasion -- around the company town of Bentonville, Arkansas. Because I know someone on the inside, I get to hear about the great work they are doing in their own fiefdom, as well as in other places through generous grants. How fortunate for cyclists that someone in the family is interested in cycling.

Initiatives like the Waltons' promotion of cycling infrastructure, the Gates Foundation's worldwide efforts in aid of global well-being, and billionaire Hansjorg Wyss aiming to buy up 30 percent of the remaining relatively wild land in order to retain a barely sustainable planetary ecosystem put a golden light on a small percentage of the super-rich who happen to like things that are good for rest of us. But it all exists at the whim of the aristocracy.

We're in the mess we're in because the majority of the money has favored destruction. Walmart is regularly criticized for devastating small town business districts and paying its staff so poorly that they need taxpayer assistance to survive. Wyss sold his medical device manufacturing company to Johnson and Johnson, an even bigger corporation fully vested in America's profit-driven, patient-consuming health care racket. He still holds stock in medical research companies equally enmeshed in the current system of medicine for profit. That philanthropic money doesn't grow on trees.

The problem of philanthropists digging one hole to fill another goes back at least to the 19th Century. The great union-fighting titans of the gilded age established our standard of opulence and laid the groundwork for targeted philanthropy in the modern era. But it's all a variation on the whims of the nobility. You know the Golden Rule: Whoever has the gold makes the rules.

I have wondered whether a more even distribution of wealth would just lead to more people owning destructive toys and chopping up ecosystems into mini-estates. The current crop of oligarchs sets the tone, because they're really just normal folks like you and me, only unbelievably richer. Mitt Romney -- really just upper middle class with a net worth of merely $250 million -- had a lively conversation with El Queso Grande about all the different machines a person could use to burn gasoline and churn up the lake in pursuit of fun. One of the Walton boys has his own Bell UH-1 "Huey" helicopter he likes to play in. And when I lived on Tuftonboro Neck, some rednecks rode their dirt bikes around a pretty little grassy field, gouging down to subsoil and shredding the air with the rasp of engines, where I had previously seen deer and foxes enjoying peaceful evenings. Only they weren't your average kickers, they were from a famous hotel family that owns an increasing percentage of shorefront along that section of the lake. Normal people. Who wouldn't, if they could afford the equipment?

Left to pure democracy, the planet's survival would probably face no better prospects than it does now. People tend to look at what's right in front of them at any given moment. They'll vote up or down on individual issues without connecting them to each other. We like to keep things simple. I'm no different. But everything is connected, and not in some touchy feely way -- although that is also true. It's all physically tangled together. Cut the tangle and you might sever the expensive and irreplaceable power cord to your favorite piece of electronic equipment along with the that wad of half-worn shoelaces someone threw in the drawer with it. The poor aspire to prosperity as demonstrated by the already prosperous. Normal people want to move up the pyramid, and not to undermine its foundation in case they do get to rise through the tapering layers to its pointy peak.

We thank the nobility for their charity. We ask them for grants and use the facilities they are so kind as to provide. We accept that this is their world because they bought it when the rest of us couldn't. So we can only hope that enough of them want to take good care of it.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Motorists are like diarrhea

For a cyclist, motorists are like diarrhea: You can only hold them back for so long. You'd prefer not to have them at all. When you do have them, you'd like to get them out of your system as quickly as possible. You try to hurry to get to a more convenient place to eliminate them. Sometimes you don't make it.

The roads and streets are just a big, irritable bowel. We keep cramping each other's style.

Yesterday, I was a bit of a shit. I think in a past life I was a car-chasing dog. I'm addicted to drafting large vehicles. On the last couple of miles of my commute, I heard a tractor-trailer rig behind me on a narrow, bendy section. I stayed to the right to encourage him to go around, but he had no good opportunity, and was too conscientious to take a bad one. I dropped into a side street, hard right, left, onto a converging straightaway that rejoins the main road at a yield sign. That let the truck get by. It was a big heavy equipment flatbed, empty, doing about 30 mph. At a comfortable distance behind it was a string of passenger vehicles. I launched for that big gap, but I'm too tired and too old. I didn't get to top speed in top gear quickly enough to get into the pocket. The long, low, empty trailer didn't pull enough air to pick me up easily. I managed to get to about 27 mph when I maxed out. Horns broke out behind me.

On a normal day, I ride a line just outside the storm drains, at a speed comparable to what I was doing after the unsuccessful chase. Drunk with adrenaline and incipient tachycardia, I resented the horny driver behind me, and signaled my displeasure with a low, dismissive finger. This elicited a further burst of honking. I made a slightly more graphic gestured suggestion involving my buttocks. The honker passed, at a safe and legal distance, but the next vehicle administered a punishment pass. I shut the gate behind that one, holding back the rest of the motorists for a few more yards until I could dive onto the path.

Sometimes, when a motorist makes a big time about how I'm slowing them down and blows by me, I get to pull out onto Main Street in front of them, because their fellow motorists en masse have slowed them down much more. Not this time. I didn't care either way. I was just hammering to work, same as any morning. Only after I got to the shop and got my heart rate down did I reflect on my own contribution to the tension. I should have been the grownup, says the guy in short pants, riding a bike.

The descent into sin is often a simple thing, a single act that is the trapdoor. In this case, it was running the yield sign like a Boston driver when I didn't have the horsepower to pull it off. I plead the temporary insanity of my drafting addiction, aggravated by the persistent memory of when I could rely on my sprint. As recently as a couple of days earlier, I had managed to slingshot a box truck on the same stretch and tuck right in behind it for a sweet pull to my next exit. But that hadn't involved an intersection violation. To be fair to the honkers, I really had strained their congeniality and relied on their mercy.

The only way to get past a mistake is to take responsibility for it. Learn as much as you can. Look at all of its facets, even when they reflect you clownishly. The fact that it was an anonymous encounter with strangers means that I will never have a chance to acknowledge that they had a point. This makes it all the more important to ride in ways that don't take the low road. If I'd blasted out of that side street into the draft and been whisked away at an effortless 30-plus, they could all admire my shiny lycra ass, because I wouldn't be taking up any more room than they were already leaving behind that big rig. But because I blew the sprint I was now a double failure.

You have to take risks in life. But make sure they're worth it. Often, people interpret this to mean deadly consequences, but more often all manner of less dire consequences are at stake. In this case, it's a black mark on cyclists that one aging hammerhead failed to pull off his rude and dangerous maneuver in morning rush hour. I looked like a rude asshole and affirmed the image of rude assholes on bikes. I'll defend my territory vigorously out there. But now I've been reminded that the line is easy to cross in the intoxication of speed.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Celebrities, Networking and Trickle-Down Economics

Summer brings to Wolfeboro cars that cost more than your house, and people who can afford several of them. It also brings the brief visit of a television personality who has developed a strong affection for the place.

I used to check out the Forbes 400 every year, to see how our "locals" were doing, but I haven't checked the scores yet this year. The billionaires list is updated to 2019, but the latest 400 I can find is from 2018. No matter. It's just like bird watching. "Oh look, there's a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker. And there's a Market Manipulating Cash Amasser." You don't really need to know. It's just a hobby.

Earlier this week, a woman from one of the lakefront houses called to ask if we sell electric bicycles. I explained why we don't, and mentioned a couple of people in the Millionaire Motorbike Club that I thought she could call for more information. I assumed that they already knew each other, because, over the years, I have found out that most of the super rich in the summer population go to the same church. Indeed, the founder of the MMC has been an evangelist for e-bikes, and has gradually converted nearly everyone in the congregation who used to get around by muscle power alone. I figured this latest inquiry was inspired by his efforts.

As it happened, the founder of the MMC showed up to have flat tires on a jogging stroller repaired. I asked casually if he had heard from Mrs. E-curious. Turned out he didn't know her. She hadn't told me this when I had suggested that she call him. I always imagined that the Sewall Road crowd and the wider circle of financial heavyweights along the lake must get together for regular summer socials, to talk about how to keep the help docile, and what each of them is paying for congressmen these days. I guess not.

Jimmy Fallon sightings were reported before the Fourth of July. We haven't had a visit from him in more than ten years. His wife has bought socks from us. The bike shop holds no attraction to the celebrity set. So we listen to the rumors and see the selfies posted by businesses that sell coffee, food, and beer. Again, more bird watching. I joke that the closest we come to a celebrity encounter is when Mitt Romney has another flat tire.

Late yesterday afternoon, in comes Mitt Romney with a flat tire. So that box is checked for the summer. He did look at bikes with El Queso Grande while I was knocking out the flat tire repair. So there may be more trickling. Meanwhile, I have to get to work for just another summer day.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Serious Injury or Death

Danger is all around us. An almost infinite number of things could go wrong at any moment. Some computer program might be able to measure the probabilities in something close to real time, but most of us just have to live on our luck. By and large that luck is surprisingly good, considering the massive risks people take all the time and get away with it.

Bicycles are seen as safe, stupid little machines. Bike mechanics aren't considered "real" mechanics, because we don't have to deal with powerful engines. Bike riders are contemptible, wobbling along slowly. Adults on bikes need to "grow up." Bikes are toys. Bike crashes are slapstick comedy, unless it's you, skimming along the tarmac, feeling skin burn away, or feeling the snap of bone and ligament from a more vertical landing.

Bikes are also seen as terribly dangerous, the act of balancing on two wheels an affront to the laws of nature. A bike rider is a daredevil, especially riding on the road. And there are the obvious daredevils on mountain bikes, launching sick tricks off of every available drop.

Bikes themselves might as well be made out of stone, the way most people treat them. They leave them out in the weather, neglect maintenance, and basically treat them they way they treat cars. But a car has its house with it all the time, like a turtle has its shell. And the mechanical parts of a motor vehicle can be made more robustly, because even a small car has power to spare, compared to the .25 hp of a human engine pushing the pedals.

Serious component failures are rare. The massive crank recall of 1997, when Shimano had to replace millions of cranks on bikes sold worldwide, was the last -- and the first -- really enormous safety crisis, created by Shimano's design aesthetic favoring skinnier and skinnier alloy crank arms. But cracking cranks have always been a problem. My first experience with them was back in the early 1980s, when Campagnolo Super Record cranks were cracking, as were any other brands trying to make their cranks look like Campy's. Stress concentrates at the spider, where too thin a web of aluminum between the crank arm and the spider can start to crack in non-structural metal. If you spot the nascent crack soon enough, you can file away the material with the crack in it, and prevent it from traveling into the load-bearing metal. If you know the problem could occur, you can file away the web before a crack even starts, rounding out the radius to remove the stress riser. Wait too long, and the crack gets into real meat. Then the crank is doomed.

Here is an example of a web crack that got away:
You have to look really closely to spot them. That's where you benefit from the vigilant eye of an experienced not-a-real-mechanic who has seen quite a few of these over the years of a misspent life. This particular crank, a Sugino made for Specialized, could never have been saved, because of the shape of the back side of the crank arm. It's hollowed out back there, and has casting residues that create permanent stress risers immune to filing. Too bad, too. It's a pretty crank. The cracks only revealed themselves by the pattern of the oily grime that had adhered to them, hidden in the rest of the oily grime that had accumulated on the surface of the crank.

We play the game "Scratch or Crack?" a lot in the workshop. For instance, here is a Shimano Ultegra Hollowtech crank belonging to a rider who should be concerned about the load-bearing capability of his components:
Rubbing against a badly adjusted front derailleur cage, the arm has been scored, but hasn't cracked...yet. Hollowtech cranks are breaking, but Shimano has yet to acknowledge it with an official bulletin or recall. It's just street knowledge among not-real-mechanics.

Any lightweight component subjected to vigorous riding can eventually fail. As manufacturers try to make parts as light as possible, they will shave down the margin of safety, slap on warning labels, and call it good. You, the consumer, have the ultimate responsibility to accept or reject their creation. It gets much harder when the manufacturers stop making anything nicely finished but a bit more robust, and you have to keep up with the latest number of cogs in order to buy top of the line parts. We have some poor bastard who wants to put Di2 shifting on his "old" bike with mechanical 10-speed Dura Ace. Haaaa! You're what... five years too late? Three years? I don't keep up with the ephemeral crap the way I should, because we don't sell much of it in our market area, and I keep hoping that it will just go away. And it does go away, but only to be replaced by worse ephemeral crap.

Here is another entry in Scratch or Crack:
This one was just a scratch. But you have to take every one seriously.

Rims are another common site for cracks. But you can't ignore hub flanges, handlebars, stems...you can't ignore anything, really. I've found frame cracks and fork cracks as well. I spotted cracks in the crown of a guy's Cannondale Lefty fork that would have led to a nasty face plant. Aluminum and carbon fiber each fail more quickly and more abruptly than steel or titanium, so spotting cracks becomes more urgent with these inescapably common materials. Carbon in particular will just disappear when it reaches its load limit. It doesn't bend. It breaks. Properly designed and manufactured, it will function perfectly well for an almost indefinite period. Parts that can be made more ruggedly, like crank arms and stems, can hide a little reserve strength under a negligible bit of extra weight. Frames present greater design challenges, because a shape and wall thickness amply strong to stand up to the normal loads of hard riding will still be vulnerable to highly probable mishaps like collisions or simply having the bike fall over against something with a hard corner to it. Sure, a nice metal frame might dent in a case like that, but small dents are only a cosmetic problem. It takes a pretty deep dent to render the bike unridable.

Any time you are dependent on a machine, you could end up stranded. The simpler the machine, the better the odds that it will continue to function, provided it was well enough designed and built in the first place. But it has to do what you want it to do, which invites complexity. And even a fixed gear has plenty of parts that can break. Whatever you ride just remember to take a close look at it from time to time. Good luck out there.