Friday, September 27, 2019

Greta Thunberg versus monster trucks

The surge of support inspired by Greta Thunberg has been heartening to idiots like me who have been thinking in global environmental terms since the 1970s. Some of the expressions of official agreement might even lead to actual action. It shows movement in a positive direction that is long overdue.

Given the sudden interest in young activists, the news media have obligingly discovered a number of others who are Greta’s allies in the work that needs to be done. A whole generation is being identified as concerned, informed, and ready to get busy ushering in the lifestyle changes needed to secure humanity’s long-term prospects.

And then there are the monster trucks. I see them everywhere: rusty or shiny, accessorized or plain. Most of them are a little loud. The drivers are predominantly male, predominantly young. Some of them look like they bought their vehicle with their father’s money. Others look like they worked for the money and know how to work on the truck. Any stickers on the truck tend to celebrate the virtues of carrying guns and not paying taxes. Maybe there’s a dirt bike or an ATV in the back.

The dirt bikes and ATVs are like little environmental rape shuttle craft that can be launched by the mother ship to perform more thorough shredding of the planet’s surface while simultaneously murdering the silence and gratuitously polluting the air. A friend of mine summed up motorized recreation as “morally bankrupt.” Paying for motor vehicles that you don’t need is certainly masochistic as well as increasingly indefensible in light of what we know about the effect of human activity on the natural systems that support all life.

I’m sure that plenty of participants try to behave responsibly, hoping that such a thing is possible. But a good number appears happy to be contemptuous and defiant. And many of them are young.

Greta’s generation is at war with itself, just as my generation was. In my generation, the voices of inquiry and restraint were overwhelmed by the greater number of people who either didn’t care or didn’t bother to wonder if they should care. We were assured by a popular beer commercial that, “ohhh yes! You can have it all!”

Those of us who heeded Rachel Carson and other pioneers of environmental awareness saw things start to get better for a while, but the overall trend was clearly to ignore the underlying issues as much as possible. Developed countries were already yipping about obesity and poor diet by the late 1970s, while doing everything they could to make automobile travel the mandatory norm.

I was no activist. I’m still not a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. It seemed to me that a person could make a lot of beneficial changes without becoming a total homesteader. Transportation cycling was and is a fantastic tool to improve conditions both physiological and environmental. Of course now the bike has to have a motor. But even a smokeless moped is better than a gas-engined anything. I would rather share the road with them than with monster trucks.

Humans never take care of problems in a timely fashion. Greta and her adherents have the crisis on their side. But even so they are up against people who have openly declared that they look forward to settling disputes at gun point. That’s how deep the stupidity runs in our  species.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Amtrak update

Last Friday I reported that a young man had been escorted off of Amtrak’s Downeaster for trying to travel with his bike. It turns out that he was able to board a later train, but only because he had a secret weapon: a family member works for the company and generated some heat on his behalf. He got a one-time ride to Dover. So things have hardly improved since 1980. If he hadn’t had someone on the inside, he would have been out of luck.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Vulture overhead

As I rode to work on Saturday, a vulture took off from below the guard rail to my right as I pedaled steadily up the long north slope of Route 28. With heavy wing beats it gained altitude gradually. Thus, it remained close above and in front of me for what seemed like a very long time.

"Don't shit. Don't shit. Don't shit," I muttered as I held my own pace. It finally got up enough to bank away and climb above the trees.

Closer to town I saw a bedraggled bouquet of flowers, still in its plastic sleeve from the store. It had been lying there a while. I wondered if the purchaser had forgotten it on the roof of the vehicle, or if it was evidence that the love offering had been rebuffed.

As days shorten I have been using my lights during the last part of the evening run. I noticed that the standlight on my tail light had stopped working, so I ordered a new one of those. The standlight comes on when the bike slows below the speed at which the dynamo hub can produce enough juice to  power the lights. These rigs used to involve bulky battery packs. Now they work off of a little capacitor inside the light itself. You wouldn't even know it's there. It's a crucial safety feature. The old light had seen eight hard years of use.

A customer talking to me about riding in traffic assumed that I always rode with a blinky tail light, day and night. I explained to him that I had stopped running it in daylight, because motorists seemed to have gotten numb to them. He observed that on bendy roads with alternating open areas and tree cover they were still useful to catch the eye of a driver going from glare into shade. That seemed like a really good point, so I have resumed flashing when I'm riding in a situation like that. Outside of that, though, the novelty seems to have worn off. And it creates another opportunity to blame the victim if someone does get hit and didn't have a blinky operating at the time. The same goes for please-don't-kill-me-yellow. We have to dress up like a clown piloting a UFO just to try to catch the attention of the zombies behind windshields.

Overall, drivers haven't been too bad. But you never know if you're experiencing a temporary, favorable anomaly or if it's really the beginning of a large scale trend of improvement.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Brifters are the low flow toilets of gear shifting

Riders frequently complain to me that they "push the shift lever and nothing happens." While there are multiple potential causes for this symptom, the inherent design of index-only shifters leads less experienced riders to suspect a malfunction.

Index shifters were designed by people who know very well how derailleurs work, to make shifting easy for people who don't know how derailleurs work. The plan went wrong because a rider benefits a great deal from knowing what the shifter is supposed to accomplish, and now whole generations of riders have never experienced friction shifting or lever-type shifting of any kind. They just learn how to push things to make the bike pedal easier or harder. It's magic. Don't ask. When it doesn't work, they ask a friend, or look at a YouTube video, or, as a total last resort, go to an actual bike shop to speak to someone they hope will know. Some of us do. Most of the time, these efforts lead eventually to a working bike, but probably not to an understanding of what it was trying to do in the first place.

Once cable-operated derailleurs were common, and the general configuration was basically standardized, there followed a couple of decades in which the derailleur-gear rider would haul back or push forward on a lever held in place by a set screw, to make the derailleur -- front or rear -- move laterally to place the chain in line with the desired gear combination. Even the most casual rider would figure out eventually that the lever pulled the cable and the cable pulled the doohickey that made the chain move. They might ride with the chain rubbing on the front derailleur cage until it wore through, but they could at least shift well enough to get around. If it didn't shift, pull farther and harder. There was an obvious correlation between lever movement and derailleur movement.

Given that not everyone has a good innate sense of spatial relations, companies did try to simplify the biomechanics. An example would be Suntour's notorious backwards-acting front derailleurs of the 1970s. Presaging Shimano's horrible Rapid Rise rear derailleurs, Suntour applied the principle to front derailleurs, so that the rider would push or pull the shift levers in the same direction, rather than opposite directions. The resulting devices not only shifted like crap, they engendered even more confusion in a world where the majority of derailleurs did not operate that way. Suntour also had a set of downtube shifters that bolted to a special mount. It slid up or down as the rear shifter was moved, to automatically trim the front derailleur. I missed Suntour when they went under in the 1990s, but remembering stuff like this makes me wonder why I did. I focused on the nice things they made. The Japanese component companies were always masters of the mixed blessing.

With any return-to-center shifting system, whether it's under-bar or brifter or barcon, the shifting movement has to include the degree of overshift any derailleur system needs in order to move the chain to the next cog or chainring. The derailleur has to travel a little "too far" and then settle back, to displace the chain from the gear it's on and climb or drop to the new selection. This is particularly true when moving the chain from a smaller diameter cog or ring to a larger diameter cog or ring. You have to push the chain up and make sure it gets a grip. Dropping the chain to a smaller diameter takes little or no overshift, because gravity is helping you. If you're unfortunate enough to have Shimano's Rapid Rise, then very little helps you, either way. Get rid of it as soon as you can, and avoid it like norovirus in the future.

When everything in a drive train is new, the system usually functions unobtrusively if it was properly set up and adjusted. But the more cogs you cram into the cassette, the more sensitive the shifting systems become. It all depends on the balance between cable tension and the power of the derailleur return springs. When things get dirty and worn, that balance gets harder to maintain. Buy a new bike! (A public service announcement from The Bike Industry). This is when you get the low-flow toilet syndrome.

You've probably become familiar with low flow toilets, given their proliferation. In the olden days, when toilets sent enough water down to flush a dead guinea pig with one pull, you could push the lever and walk away, confident in most cases that no leering zombie of a turd would be lying in wait when you opened the lid again. And no bloated, floating carcass of a guinea pig, for that matter. With a low flow toilet, you have to push and hold the lever until all the flushing noises have completed their cycle if you want to be somewhat sure that  everything has left the bowl. And forget entirely about guinea pigs, or even smaller rodents. 

With index-only systems, riders accustomed to other push-button devices in their lives just push to the click and expect the device to do the rest.  This isn’t even entirely true of electronic shifting systems, let alone cable-operated systems.

For a cable system to operate with click-and-forget precision on the trip from smaller diameter to larger diameter, cable tension has to be high.  If it’s too high, the derailleurs won’t want to move far enough the other way. Some systems currently in use already require ridiculously high tension. At their showroom best they might shift with something close to click-and-forget precision. Gradually, that will erode. A rider usually evolves with it, learning to push the lever fully past the click, and stay on it a little longer and a little longer.  Eventually, the lag becomes too obvious to ignore.

Actual malfunctions will also show up as slow shifting in their early stages. These malfunctions include cables fraying inside the brifter and fraying inside the frame, if you have internal cable routing. Good luck finding a high end bike these days that doesn’t have internal cable routing. Of course you want it! Housing failure will also cause sluggish shifts. If the linear wires are failing at the end that plugs into the brifter, they can also burrow into the brains of the shift mechanism and cause damage.

Fully enclosed cables, with a continuous piece of housing from the shifter to the derailleur, will require a whole new length of housing  just to cure a bit of fraying at the end, unless the housing was cut a bit long to begin with. Using a junction ferrule, you can sometimes add in a section, but every joint is a potential source of slop that can cause inaccurate shifting. You have to have room to make the connection and still get a smooth line for the cable to flow more or less unimpeded. Of course the currently fashionable and largely mandatory 4mm housing is a built-in impediment, but that’s just more value added by  the bike industry.

Friday, September 20, 2019

We don't serve your kind here

Late this afternoon, a kid was thrown off of Amtrak's Downeaster and marooned in Boston for trying to travel with his bike.

Our young trainee David had told me that a riding buddy of his was going to ride the commuter rail from somewhere south of Boston to pick up the Downeaster and continue to Dover, NH, where David would pick him up and bring him the rest of the way to Wolfe City for a weekend of training rides. Then, sometime after 4 p.m., the friend called from North Station to say that he had been removed from the train in what sounded like a rather underhanded way.

The cyclist had been told by one train official that it was okay. He had boarded and was settling in, when another train official came and told him, "bring your bike and your bags and come with me." The lad complied, and was led off the train. The doors shut, and the train left. No warning, no explanation, no appeal. No one bothered to find out whether the kid was okay being dumped in Boston's North End on the verge of evening, when he was in the middle of a journey northward. They just knew that they had to get him and his bike off of that train.

David immediately set about figuring out how to rescue his friend. The obvious and unpalatable answer would be to drive more than two hours each way to retrieve him from North Station. Maybe the cyclist could cut a deal with the bus company to take him to Dover. Whatever they did, they were having to improvise it as nightfall marched steadily closer.

You could say, as Amtrak no doubt will, that the boy should have done his homework. I say it's long past time to give cyclists roll-on access to every train at every stop on every line, and make intermodal transportation a reality instead of a novelty. This incident is strikingly similar to the way I was treated almost 40 years ago when I traveled from the New Carrollton Amtrak station to New Brunswick, NJ, in the spring of 1980. In that journey, I was allowed to board in New Carrollton because a sympathetic conductor recognized me from the regular trips I'd been making along that route in pursuit of something that felt like love. But he could only get me as far as Philadelphia. There, he said, I could get on a train with a baggage car, scheduled to be leaving at a convenient time.

When I went to the train in Philly, the conductor told me that they don't open the baggage car there, and to get lost. Philly is such a minor city that they don't open the baggage car there? What if someone has baggage? Surely someone has the key.

I did not say any of this. Instead I negotiated a little, and he finally told me that I could ride between two cars, boarding just before the train pulled out. "I can get you to Trenton," he said. "Then you have to find a commuter train. They let bikes on."

"Get on here," he said, pointing to the door. I did as he said, and wedged myself into the wiggling space where the car platforms scissored back and forth with every undulation of the rails. About halfway to Trenton, I heard an altercation break out in the bar car, which was the leading car of my little duplex. The car door popped open, and the conductor, a burly man now red-faced with irritation, shoved a smaller man into the space. The smaller man, who appeared to be an Amtrak employee riding for free, made the mistake of taking a swing at the conductor. The conductor knocked him down. When the big man pulled his foot back to kick, I gave him the eyeball. He withdrew, grumbling.

Now sharing the tiny space with the smaller man, I had no ideas for conversation. He didn't seem to feel too chatty either. We leaned in our respective corners, lurching back and forth with the movement of the train. I was holding my bike on its rear wheel, pressed against the side of the compartment.

When the doors opened in Trenton, I squirted out and headed down the platform as police officers closed in.

I got aboard a commuter train. A guy in a uniform told me it was okay and pointed me toward a car. I leaned my bike up and sat down. A lady in a nearby seat started chatting me up. She was convinced that I must be some experienced world traveler. She refused to believe me when I told her that this was my first attempt at such a trip, and that I had started from home at 0500 when I rode to New Carrollton from Annapolis. Our conversation came to an abrupt end when the train official came back to throw me off before the train departed. I was now stranded in Trenton.

My grandfather had his optometric practice in Trenton. I rode over to his house. He was quite surprised to see me. I explained my predicament. We had a nice lunch together, and then he gave me a lift to the edge of town, so I didn't have to battle traffic making my way to the nice two-lane road through Princeton. I broke a spoke outside of Princeton, but found a bike shop (gotta love college towns) and replaced the spoke on the steps in front of it.

In the last few hundred yards of the ride, in New Brunswick, I flatted and dumped the bike in an intersection. Traffic was light. I dragged myself to the sidewalk and trudged the last bit to reach my love interest.

The return trip was less harrowing, but still relied on special circumstances, not on any kind of bike-friendly policies from Amtrak. We went down to the station, bought my ticket, walked out onto the platform, and lined up to board. There was my bike, shiny and obvious. The conductor came over shaking his head. My love interest burst into tears, explaining that I just had to make this train. She didn't even dress it up with any bullshit about my humanitarian mission or the transplant organs I was transporting. The basic version was good enough to get me onto one direct train all the way to New Carrollton.

You can't count on having an effective performer to deliver a literal sob story every time you need one. Amtrak has made a big deal about every grudging concession to cyclists, every individual station slowly added to a limited network of trains. Meanwhile, if I could roll on in Dover and roll off in New London or Old Saybrook, I might never use my car to visit my parents again. I could even go to Baltimore and get myself to and from the stations. I really like trains. It costs more money to take the train than to drive, but it's so great to be without a car.

That's so un-American. "Great to be without a car." What are you? Weird?

Demonstrably so.

Anyway, it's been 40 years since my hopscotch adventure, and about the same length of time since I got thrown off of the DC Metro for having a disassembled bike in two bags, and things don't seem to have improved a hell of a lot. I look forward to hearing how David and his riding buddy solved their transportation problem, but I hate that they had to.

All public transportation needs to embrace human powered transportation and make it easy to change modes. No requirement for folding bikes. No limitations. Roll on, roll off, every train, every line, every station stop.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

A world of squish

Once again I spend a couple of hours chasing down weird issues in disc brakes.

The customer came in with his Giant Revolt gravel bike. He said that the brakes needed bleeding, especially the rear, because the lever was pulling right to the bar.

I squeezed it. It was pulling right down. But at the end it didn’t have the telltale squishy feeling of air in the system. It came to a sort of firm stop, as hydraulics go. I told him I thought that it probably just needed new pads.

When I pulled the old pads out, they were only about one-third gone. Because the bike uses Giant’s cable actuated master cylinder, to work with normal brifters, I thought maybe I could snug up the cable part of the system.

No such luck.

I had to root around on the internet for a real service manual. There are little screws all over this unit, so I wanted at least a sketch map to confirm where to attach the syringes full of mineral oil.

As always the configuration of the rear brake line makes it impossible to get a clean, rising line from caliper to master cylinder. I had already taken the bars out of the stem to get access to the cable anchor screws. That made it easy to turn them 90 degrees to the ground to orient the bleed port upwards. But the brake line itself serpentines down and under and around in ways that make the rising line approximate. I hoped it was good enough. Sometimes it is.

After doing the bleed two complete times, the lever feel was still no better. Screw it. I threw a set of pads in, and bingo.

Well, bingo-ish, anyway.  Because I never got to feel this bike in the flower of its youth, I have no way to know how it felt at its showroom best. I can tell you this much: almost every set of hydraulic brakes I have operated has felt squishy, even when the rider was perfectly happy with it. A mountain biker passing through this spring laughed when he felt a set of brakes that a noob complained were too soft. “They all feel like that!” he said. “Get used to it.”

The only hydraulic disc brakes that haven’t felt squishy have been overfilled and rock-like. They’ve needed to be bled down to get the pads to retract at all.

I’m really starting to hate them.

I’m also starting to hate Outside Magazine. Always the rag of egotistical vacationers, their increasing attempts to represent cycling expertise are oriented toward the hobbyist with disposable income and no resistance to technofascist propaganda. Because of all my searching for info on disc brakes, Google fed me this article on “Why you should throw your rim brakes in the trash.”  Hobbyist McMoneybags says that when he’s riding down a mountain pass in the rain, rim brakes don’t work at all on his carbon rims. Dude! I’ve found your problem! Use disc brakes on your tech-weenie wanker hoops. Preach to your well funded hobbyist buddies about what they really must have. But save your pronouncements about what should be the future of a once simple, durable, and highly user serviceable technology.

Rage against the dying of the light

My father is dying. He's not going in any immediate way, but he is 92, and his poor life choices are catching up with him. He is that bizarre anomaly, a healthy fat man. He's not as healthy as he would have been if he had prevented himself from getting fat, but he's not your stereotypical mess of clogged arteries. He could go for at least several more years. And they're already not fun years. He knows too well what is happening to him, and how he made it worse.

His parents both lived well up into their nineties. But when his mother died in the mid 1980s, she had been a vegetable from an acquired -- not genetic -- debilitating illness since the late 1940s. His father was somewhere between 96 and 98 when he died, blind and infirm, in veterans' home in Indiana. My father knew he had the potential to live a long time, if his job or some other intervening catastrophe didn't take him out first.

A diligent survivor, he had dipped briefly into poverty and uncertainty after the disintegration of his family around 1943. He enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1944 after flunking out of MIT. He qualified for the Coast Guard Academy, and emerged as an officer in 1951. He served with distinction until his retirement in 1979. He survived storms at sea, and the Arctic night, and his propensity to drive long distances without stopping. He has even survived a classic American diet of meat and starch. He quit smoking in time to avoid cancer and heart disease. In an alternate universe, he kept smoking and survived anyway. We'll never know. But he has lost a lot in the last few years, making his present existence pretty miserable.

He's a fighter, literally. Although sailing was his passion, he also boxed in college. He learned how to make his characteristics work for him against fighters who were larger and faster. Manly anger was a power source. He's far from a one-dimensional character, but that inner fire was his emergency battery. A man of reason, he would tap into a furnace of accumulated rage when he needed to make a special physical effort.

The inner fire and his oddly durable genetics allowed him to get away with very haphazard exercise all the way to his eighties. You might think that's pretty good, but when it's no longer good enough the endgame isn't pretty. His fat is a hard, firm fat. He cannot bend to tie his shoes. He can't even pull on his socks. Crippled with pain from a degenerated hip, he got himself a new one just a couple of years ago, and has recovered pretty well, but he still resorts to a walker for a lot of maneuvers in his home, which can be disastrously awkward when he has a digestive emergency occasioned by the years of poor diet.

To stave off the macular degeneration that blinded his father, he gets a hypodermic needle in his eyeballs every couple of weeks. Sometimes he goes a month. An avid reader, he now finds it extremely cumbersome, because the degeneration was not caught quickly enough to preserve perfect acuity.

His tendency to default to a chair, to reject walking and jogging because he didn't want to look funny out there, is calling in its debt.

Contrast this to my mother's father. Longevity also runs on my mother's side. An optometrist in private practice until he was in his early eighties, Earl made a point to take a walk every day. As a younger man he had been a vigorous tennis player. He was always lean, aided perhaps by some food allergies that kept him from pigging out, but also by a work ethic that included conscious physicality. His mind grew more vague as he went through his last decade. I carried on a correspondence with him as long as I could, but my last letter to him was answered by my uncle, explaining that Earl couldn't continue the exchange. My grandfather's last act was to get up from his seat in the living room and walk to the bedroom, where he dropped dead from a stroke at age 98. I know from our late communications that he did not like the dimming of his mind. As he went into that tunnel, he knew he was going into it. It wasn't classic dementia as such, but he had taken pride in his intellect and was sad to see his sharpness fade. He was heard to long for death quite a while before he reached it. But at least he could tie his shoes.

My father is no fan of either elderly decrepitude or death. He adopted a more physical lifestyle just a few years ago, but it still wasn't a full-bore campaign of daily walks. The phrase "too little, too late" springs to mind. He still defaulted to his chair in front of the television, where he trolled through the full array of news programs, and processed what he saw through a mind trained by decades of administration and policy analysis in Washington. His body fits most naturally into the shape of an armchair, and yet he loathes the stiffness and slow shuffle of his gait when he rises from it. This is what happens when you know better, but you don't do better. He rages against the dying of the light, but his body cannot function solely on that emotional fire. He did not build the machine to carry out his will. He dwelt too much in the mind, aided by a body that produced surprising results for too long, lulling him into a sense that it would always be thus.

The young cadet went aloft in square riggers, and climbed the forestay of one of them hand over hand, just to show that he could. The officer advancing up the chain of command retreated to the dignity becoming his rank, and the less physical duties required of him. He complained of his expanding waistline for years. After he retired from the Coast Guard he had complete control over his time, but spent none of it trying to recapture any of his youthful physicality. As he advanced through middle age, he excused his portly physique by saying that the men in his family all aged that way. He viewed it as inevitable. Genetics are not like a box of chocolates. If you know the traits of your lineage, you have a pretty good idea what you're going to get. But you don't have to merely ride that train to the last stop, taking whatever your DNA dishes out. Start raging early, and don't stop.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Bike Snob: just another naive nerd

Someone posted a link to this Bike Snob article from November 2018, about how we shouldn't promote bikes as good for the environment.

First of all, no one who should get his message is thinking about riding bikes in November. Dedicated riders, whether they call themselves cyclists or loathe to be called cyclists, are probably still riding in the late fall, but the vast majority of people think of biking as strictly a warm, sunny weather activity.

Also unhelpfully, BS mentions "annoying people in cars" as a benefit of cycling, when we will only grow our numbers by enticing people out of those cars, not just pissing them off. Pissing them off perpetuates the climate of conflict. People on bikes will never win a direct conflict with motorists. If motorists really wanted to eradicate us, they could do it in less than a day by running over us on sight.  "See a cyclist, kill a cyclist," could be their slogan. Any rider not killed in the initial assault would be a fool to go out there again except on a tandem with a tail gunner armed with a machine gun. Even then, it would be a short, glorious defeat. So just shut up about how it's a benefit to annoy the motoring public.

Bike Snob goes on to state the other advantages of bike riding: better health, better fitness, more physical energy, fantastic economic benefits, reduced traffic, easier parking. He's young. Riders like me have been trying to set that example for decades, with little success. Writing about it in Outside Magazine is worth almost nothing in creating real public awareness. I was writing about it in newspaper columns, following on the heels of promoters like John Forester et al., before I had even heard of them.

 A couple of years ago, a friend sent me a book called The Man Who Loved Bicycles, by Daniel Behrman, published in 1973, which proves how long we have been losing this particular losing battle.

Bike Snob is not wrong in his assertions, any more than Behrman was, or I am, or any of the thousands of other unsung advocates have been. We keep trying to set the example and we keep getting ignored. Human history is one long sad tale of the majority rejecting simple things that would make life more pleasant for everyone. Instead, our species chooses things that make life much more comfortable for a ruthless minority, and then aspires to join that club. We also choose labor saving devices even if we'd be better served to keep a little labor in some areas and save more in others.

The fact that I'm just seeing this now, ten months after its publication, because someone else just saw it, similarly belatedly, shows you how the internet grants you instant global access, but that the global population still has to find your work, read it, and bother to share it around. It's a little faster than letting a newspaper loose in a hurricane, but about as haphazard. I'm a poor example, because I'm the furthest thing from an information junkie. The information junkies need to get on some meth and speed up their dissemination if they want to get the word around fast enough and far enough to do any good.

Is the teachable moment at last arriving? Bike nerds have been thinking so since the 1970s. We haven't been right yet. But evolution grinds on. The distress in the United States, bellwether of the consumerist world, may finally rise to the bursting point and drive a significant percentage of the population to look at fundamental lifestyle changes. Odds are against it, if history is any guide, but one can hope.

Friday, September 13, 2019

So many rabbit holes...

A customer brought in her gravel bike, saying that it sometimes locked up when she was on the big chainring, and that the freehub sometimes would not engage right away.

The bike is a Parlee Chebacco. She might have bought it used, but it does not look ill-used. But cleanliness can conceal problems almost as effectively as dirt does, sometimes. A bike that has been hosed regularly may be clean and shiny, but it has been abused. The abuse is disguised as meticulous care. It only appears to the trained eye in the oxidation, the unnatural dryness of certain areas, and rusty bearings in a bike that otherwise looks like it never leaves the house.

This bike had faint indications of hosing. It's not that old, so it can't have been through much, but the chain was already worn out. It wasn't thrashed, but it was due.

Crank jamming sounds like chain suck, but there were no signs of chain suck. The freehub could be the culprit, if the ratchets lock up and then release, giving her other symptom: no resistance to pedaling. The frame showed absolutely no signs of chain suck. The chainrings had no bends, hooks, or burrs as might result from repeated jamming.

The wheel is a DT Swiss, but not a star ratchet.

It has three pawls. The spring encircles them, secured into the freehub body with little bent ends that tuck into  drillings. The mechanism was lubricated with light grease, dirty from use, but not gritty or congealed. The pawls moved freely. The ring that they engage with in the hub body had no worn or broken teeth. There were no little bits of metal or dirt pinballing through the mechanism to cause intermittent jams.

Turning to the omniscient Internet to look for reports, rants, and sophomoric proclamations regarding problems with DT freehubs, I discovered one more thing for neurotics to amp about: Points of Engagement. Abbreviated to POE by the cool kids, it's a characteristic worth a lot of chin stroking pronouncements and passionate denunciations.

I guess I don't ride hard enough. But even when I did, I must have been fortunate never to have a serious failure of the drive mechanism. I had one freehub failure in a nearly new Sachs hub in the mid 1990s, when the freehub body itself cracked, causing the ratchet to jam, which fed chain through the system, yanked the derailleur apart, and made me walk home from that ride. The replacement hub that Sachs provided is still working, more than 20 years later. It has outlived its parent company.

In any pawl ratchet, the massive power of your monster quads is channeled through two or three little chips of metal. Points of engagement: two or three at any given moment. The size of teeth in the outer ring is inversely proportional to the number of them. In a star-ratchet type freehub, there are more POE, but the same proportion applies: more points mean smaller points. The engagement is finer, but shallower. The load is spread over more teeth, but a smaller piece of debris can disrupt it.

A freewheeling mechanism at all is a point of weakness compared to a cog threaded directly to the hub shell. Should you let yourself think about it, or just be glad that you've been lucky and hope your luck holds?

Add the POE rabbit hole to the "I'm worried about my position" rabbit hole, with all of its subsidiary burrows: stem length, bar width, seat height, saddle choice, cleat attachment...Does your crank arm length really suit you?  Then we can get you losing sleep over the shorts you buy. Have you noticed how the thread count of your tires can cost you as much as a tenth of a second in the sprint? And I don't even want to get started on chain lube.

I was unable to duplicate any of her problems or find any hint of a cause. I cleaned and re-lubed the insides of the freehub, checked the bearings, replaced the chain, and test rode the bike around and around, trying to make it malfunction. It should be fine. But some customers have mysterious powers. You learn never to stand back confidently and say that it's cured, especially with certain people who seem to have their own flock of gremlins constantly sabotaging them.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Specialized strong arm

Big Bicycle is always putting the squeeze on independent shops. I don't know how it was in the 1970s boom, but in the 1990s, large brands like Trek, Specialized, and Cannondale put increasing pressure on shops to make large preseason commitments and meet hefty financial thresholds.

Even though technofascism and lack of industry advocacy has fragmented the market, corporate titans are still more interested in their cut from shop income than they are in the realities of daily operations on the frontiers of bike shop territory.

The latest intrusion from Specialized is their insistence that every dealer sign up for automatic bill payment, so that the Big S can suck money directly from the shop account for the full balance due. You get a few days' warning in case you have to ask for some indulgence, but the default is that they get to drain your coffers on their schedule. They feed upstream from every other expense you have, unless some other vendor has sunk a suction line that draws earlier in the month.

The rationale for such things is always the same: If you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear. Of course you will sell through by the deadline. Doesn't Specialized do everything they can to support their dealers and enhance sales?

Everyone knows that the restaurant business is tough. What are people going to feel like eating? Are they going to want to consume all of those perishable items you had to buy, or have you created a walk-in full of expensive compost? Fortunes can change at the speed of a blackening banana in hot weather. You can see the good times melt like ice cream in a power failure. Spoilage in specialty retail takes longer and does not generate as much obvious odor and muck. But we get stranded just the same. What will the fickle public feel like doing this summer? What unrequested innovation will turn expensive leftover floor stock into a clearance item and require that we buy more tools and watch more instructional videos as we record the loss?

Shops that change their focus in the winter face the added challenge of all the winter vendors playing the same financial games.

I know from previous experience that some shops play games with their vendors. Who knows how many of us have been technically bankrupt for years, dodging from debt to debt to keep from facing the fact that we will never break even? I started wondering way back around 1980 how many people called themselves millionaires because a million people owed them a dollar. The job that lured me to New Hampshire was the brain child of a guy who would purchase equipment, get the delivery guys to do a quickie, half-assed setup, and then use the equipment while withholding payment because he never got a proper setup. To this day I don't know if he was a fully calculating con man or just an idiot. Guys like that make suppliers try to secure their receivables. We all pay the price. But there is also legitimately hard luck. The con man/idiot publisher claimed it was all hard luck. That still left everyone queueing up in bankruptcy court to salvage whatever they could.

It's a hard world. Did you know that if your employer writes you a rubber paycheck, your bank will charge you for taking bad paper? Here is your lifeline, your just reward for services rendered, your ticket to be a productive citizen, but you get screwed if the "job creator" who paid you isn't really good for it. That's a sickening thrill. Then the checks you wrote against it start to bounce, and the fees really pile up.

In a diversified small business, we're always trying to balance the costs and rewards of each facet. While cross-country skiing and bicycling are pretty stupid sectors to remain in, they're not entirely dead. Cross-country is on life support worldwide, but bicycles are the transportation of the future, once the greedheads manage to collapse both the economy and the environment. We may have to learn to make our own stuff in a charcoal-heated forge, but pedal power will endure after motors can no longer be maintained. As humans breed and breed, new bike motors are manufactured every second. But, for the moment, bikes are still a luxury item and a toy. The corporations that market them look for customers with disposable income, and shops that know how to harvest a lot of it.


The theme for August was "dereliction of duty." Scheduling needs in my personal life led me to take a week off during the height of August business, and then to take Labor Day Weekend off as well. My mother should have planned her birth better, back in 1929. The situation to which I returned reminded me that people who work in service businesses should have no life outside of work. We should be available at all times to meet the needs of customers.

Customer need can be unpredictable, even if you know what to expect from general seasonal trends. To serve the public the best, have no other demands on your time. The ideal service provider is skilled, intelligent, good natured, adaptable, and a solitary orphan with no outside interests. When a work load suddenly goes from nearly nothing to overload, settle in for late nights and early mornings until the customers are taken care of. People with the budget and leisure time to ride for pleasure have obviously made better life choices, and deserve your immediate and complete obeisance. Worker bees like yourself, who use their bikes for transportation deserve your comradely support. If the work load is light, enjoy the respite, but don't get accustomed to free time. When business vanishes as it always does, you'll need whatever you have managed to save up to keep yourself alive until demand rises again.

I was never good at this. My job was always a way to finance my life. Years ago, the low-level day jobs seemed like a normal part of a writer's life -- and they are. But there are millions of us who never got any further than the life of a grunt with big dreams. They aren't even huge dreams, just comfortable middle class dreams. But the means of obtaining them was more important than the things themselves. With an influx of wealth, I would still live as I do, traveling a bit more, and contributing financially to important and under-funded needs of the ecosystem and society more than I am able to do in my paycheck-to-paycheck existence. I really like just sitting in my clearing in the woods, watching nature be nature. When I do get to go somewhere else, it's mostly to watch nature there. If I had a fortune, I would spend a good bit of it to buy land and leave it alone.

The pile of repair work at the start of September was a little surprising. It shouldn't be. We usually see a flurry of people who waited until they thought the summer rush was over, and then jammed up in the doorway as they all brought their stuff in at once. Add to that some post-season vacationers and one or two local riders in a jam, and you get a daunting tangle of urgent crap requiring skilled labor, stat. On my first day back at work after my last dereliction, I thought that I should probably just sleep at the shop for a few nights, so I could work until I dropped and resume when I crawled back to consciousness. I have plenty of trouble crawling back to consciousness at the best of times. Much as I know I should be fanatically devoted to work, my pace is a dogged plod. When closing time comes, I'm headed for the door, no matter how I might have imagined myself a few hours earlier.

Between my efforts -- less drastic than taking up temporary residency -- and the arrival of reinforcements with the Saturday crew, we managed to push through the bulge and leave the docket manageably light before I took my precious days off. The things I did in August were enjoyable, but not entirely relaxing, and they took me away from routine chores around the homestead as winter clicks inexorably closer.

The dregs of summer are at the same time precious and not worth anything. In this hilly and tree-covered part of New England, a single cloud shadow can change the character of the day. The effect is magnified when viewed through the frame of a window. The sun already has little enthusiasm except at the height of afternoon. Clouds conspire to help it slink away. Morning fog conceals its rise. It seems like hardly any time has passed since we were waiting under May and early June's broadening expanse of daylight for some warmth to go along with it.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Trainee, and memories of Mr. Rat

Days after our summer part-timer departed for his real grown-up job in the far north of New York, a young racer in town was suddenly inspired to apply.

Where the departing rider was the classic 54cm-frame kind of roadie, this kid is more on the lines of Miguel Indurain. He's 6'2" and says he started riding at age 8. This actually gives him two years' head start on Big Mig, whose Wikipedia write-up says he started at 10. Now he's a junior in high school, and has achieved some level of mentorship, if not sponsorship, with actual coaching.

Listening in on his interview with upper management, I gathered that his duties may include inventory stuff on the computer rather than only mechanical work. But he said that he loves cleaning bikes. He will find plenty to do with the cruddy messes that people drag in for our attention. He's the closest thing to a shop rat* to come through here in years. He's more of an enhanced shop rat, but at least he doesn't think he's too good to sweep a floor or empty a garbage can.

This being New England, his other sport is cross-country skiing. If he sticks around, he will spend a lot of time with the waxing iron. With luck, he'll be slinging a lot of rentals, as well.

His first day went well. He put in some time out front with the computer system and in back with the grime. And he actually came back for a second day. Now he's been at it for a couple of weeks.

The fact that the management makes up for the chronic low pay and cruddy work by letting employees buy at wholesale is a powerful attraction for regular riders, especially young racers thrashing their equipment in hope of making a name for themselves while they're still young enough to  matter. His team affiliation does not extend to a gravy train of equipment. He's practically a privateer.

His recent race results have ranged from a first place finish in the A group in the nearby training series -- on a day when the biggest guns were not on hand, but still an A group victory -- to a humbling last place in a stage race in Vermont, where the insanely fit and well supported teams showed up. I'm sure this kid could have dropped me like an empty water bottle even when I was in my prime. But that's the cruel revelation of racing. You meet the people who are impossibly faster than you are. You think you're training to your limit, and you come up against these people from another planet. It literally happened to the best of us when Art the Dart, dominator of the Virginia District of what was then USCF, went to the nationals and was anonymous field fodder. There's always someone to chase, until you get to the very tip of the peloton, where everyone is chasing you.

Mechanically, the trainee is hindered by a teenager's tendency to overlook details, and the unfamiliarity of certain basic tool and mechanical principles. But he's a willing pupil, so he has that in his favor. I was much more of an idiot at that age, and for a depressing number of years thereafter. He has already started to broaden his perception of the universe of bikes by having to put a wrench on stuff that was made before he was born, and on cheap department store crap, not just on the bikes he owns for competition.

*Some might think that the term shop rat is a pejorative, or at least demeaning of the unskilled aspirants who often fill the role. I actually came up with the title when I worked in a shop where the young helper was named Jeff Mraz. He would sign his name in a rapid scrawl, first initial and last name, so that it looked like J. Mr. Rat. I started calling him J Rat. He was a very talented BMX rider, who liked to do tricks on and off the curb edge around the shopping center where our shop was located. He especially liked to do tail whips into trash cans, until we pointed out that he'd bent his frame doing that. Then he took an interest in road racing, built himself a road bike, and competed as a junior a few times. I don't know what he did after that. He was developing mechanical skills, and had an interest in custom auto body work, as I recall. Only later did I notice that the term "shop rat" was already in common usage. Just another example of parallel evolution yielding a widely duplicated result.

All bikes are road bikes

The invention of the wheel led to the invention of the road. The evolution of the wheel led to the bicycle. The evolution of the bicycle hastened the evolution of the road. The invention of the mountain bike led to the term "off-road bicycle." But that term is incorrect. Except for a few natural surfaces, any route passable on wheels has been constructed. Sometimes the engineering and effort are obvious. Other times the enhancements are few and subtle.

Even on the wide open plains of the American west, traversed by wagon trains of settlers, ruts indicated the common path. The early routes may have been called trails more often than roads, but they served the general purpose. Anything that rolled was well advised to stick to the road most traveled.

Every category of modern cycling has its intended road. Some of them may be called paths or trails, but they were all built. Even a skilled technical mountain biker riding a rocky hiking trail is following a line created and enhanced for human travel. Any natural feature that an adventurous cyclist might attempt, like a dry -- or not so dry -- stream bed is imitating the qualities of a roadway sufficient to the passage of the vehicle using it. Or so you hope as you launch down it. Most of the time, riders use constructed facilities.

With construction and maintenance comes cost. Public roads are financed through taxation. Every adult pays something into the collective coffers, regardless of what motorists might think about deadbeat cyclists who clot things up and pay nothing. The costs are hidden in prices we routinely pay, and folded into our total tax burden. This also includes some public cycling infrastructure, as well as unpaved trails in parks and other public lands. Networks not funded publicly have to charge admission or rely on donations, unless they're completely clandestine operations on land where the builders and users hope they will go unnoticed or at least be tolerated.

None of these concepts are new. I was just reminded of them a few days ago when one of the fat bikers from last winter's trail poaching incident greeted me in the hardware store. We said nothing about controversial matters. It just pulled my mind back to the dispute, and the fundamental principle that lies beneath it.

Bike riders always have to defend their access to ridable surfaces. A couple of times during my years in Maryland, some legislator or other would introduce a bill so restrictive that it would have made cycling on the roads nearly impossible. Only the concerted legal efforts of organized cycling clubs managed to beat back those threats. There may have been more since I left. Getting bikes out of the way is a recurring theme in countries dominated by the automobile. When mountain biking surged in popularity, resistance to them surged proportionately. There's even resistance to building recreation paths and converting rail lines to trail corridors, when local land owners fear that these roads for the unmotorized will attract riffraff.

When bike riding is outlawed, only outlaws will ride bikes. But unlike the outlaw with a gun, the rider can't carry concealed and only whip it out as a deadly surprise. When you're riding a bike, you're right out there, balancing on two wheels. Your odds of passing unseen vary depending on the size and popularity of the road you are using. A trail might see so little use that you could come and go with no one to know. The fat bike poachers outed themselves by posting vain selfies on social media. The weather had kept the legitimate users off of the ski trails that day. A skier might have happened by --  the snow conditions were fine -- but it was a stormy day in late winter, both factors that reduce attendance. On a nicer day, there you'd be. And at any time on a trail or road, some other user may come along. Enough people had to be interested in the first place for a road to get built. Then a rider has to consider whether their use is permitted at all, and what their welcome might be like.

The fatter the tire, the less you need a refined surface for it, but any wheel has limits. Most of the time you do need some sort of road. We're all road bikers in some form.