Saturday, February 29, 2020

Time for black pants

For the coming week, spring is running early previews. As stated previously, any kind of work could come in here, but the management has decided to ring the dinner bell for bike service. That means no more light colors in the wardrobe.

How many people will actually bring bikes? Early warm spells have always roused a few riders, but it usually takes warmer weather a little bit further into actual springtime to inspire much of an influx. Almost always, these early rushes fizzle quickly when the weather turns a bit chillier again. We don't get the money for our efforts until the riders finally return to pick up their machines.

I'm always happiest when we can go ahead and put away the rental ski equipment. Until we do, it crowds the work stand and takes up space we really need to set up the flow of bikes from the waiting area, through the repair stand, and back to hooks to await pickup.

Today and tomorrow are seasonably wintry. They would be good days for speedy hiking on well-frozen trails. Just remember your Microspikes -- or similar product -- for the icy surface. Or you can roll out on the studded tires of your choice if you prefer to pedal. I advocate mixed activities and weight-bearing exercise, but it's your call.

Because the hard-core riding crowd is no longer impressed with us, any of them who are not already doing their own work will probably go someplace where they feel that the mechanics really know what they're doing.  The members of a subculture look for people who share their identity. Back when the subculture was "biking," bike mechanics competed on a more equal footing among different types of rider. Under the influence of categorization, biking has been broken up into insular smaller subcultures under the tattered umbrella of the former larger subculture. Even a generalist mechanic has to devote many more hours of precious life to learning about the latest and the later latest, and the soon-to-be-released.

Way back in the early mid 1990s, a small group of us was discussing the rise of expensive, proprietary shifting on road bikes.

"If you really love riding, you'll spend whatever it takes to have the latest and greatest stuff," said one rider.

"If you really love riding, you don't need all that shit," another one replied. That's the dichotomy right there. Either you accept new technology only after it has proven its worth as a genuine improvement of lasting value, or you chase the leading edge, which will always be a step ahead of you, pulling you by your wallet.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Omnivorous Shop

As our meager snow cover takes a pounding from heavy rain, I wonder what kind of work is likely to come through the door. Thoughts turn toward the coming bike season, such as it may be, but we could as easily see someone with a snowboard or alpine skis to wax, or skates to sharpen. Or, as happens too often, no one at all.

This shop has had to piece together many products to pull in enough money to get by. While cross-country skiing and bicycling remain the principal endeavors, we've also sold ice skates, downhill ski clothing and accessories, some hockey and lacrosse gear, field hockey, tennis balls and inexpensive racquets, badminton, ping pong balls, day packs, hiking accessories... The hockey and lacrosse clientele quickly became too serious about themselves to come to a little omni-shop like this, so we no longer stock more than tape and mouth guards, and a few cheap sticks.

One thing unified our clientele during the last of the 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Back when mountain biking was really big, the vast majority of our riders did at least one of the other sporty activities. Most of them were in the youth hockey program that was expanding rapidly, but some raced downhill on the school ski team. A few raced on the cross-country ski team. Among the adult riders were lift-served and cross-country skiers, and adult hockey players. Almost no one stuck to pedaling something all year round. There were non-competitive skiers as well, and outdoor generalists who might do a bit of climbing and hiking.

Both the bike and cross-country ski industries have done a lot in the last few years to make those lines more complicated and less profitable. The bike business has been at it since at least 1990. Cross-country skis were actually a welcome refuge until about 2005 or '06, when they really started to screw with things. We'd always had to put up with Fischer's weird ideas, but then Salomon started messing with their solid and successful binding line to see if they could sabotage it, and they did a great job. Meanwhile, Rottefella was pursuing the Shimano strategy of flooding the market with inferior stuff that was made widely available, shortstopping a lot of money before consumers knew what their options were. The better marketed product will always defeat the better made product. It's about convincing consumers. As long as the idea sounds good enough and works well enough to get past the warranty period, you can convince people to "upgrade" to your next piece of crap when the old tinsel falls apart.

The first waves of technofascism seemed to enhance the experience for riders inclined to push the limits or try to compete. Only one or two overactive sentinels like me pointed out that proprietary enslavement was going to end up costing us more than it gives back.

Addicted riders today, in any category, think they're in a glorious age. As long as you can afford to keep up, sure. Keep that needle in there until they find you dead with it, or you finally hit rock bottom and go into rehab. Meanwhile, my low-tech persistence is probably comparable to drinking Sterno and huffing aerosols out of a plastic bag, with only affordability in its favor. I beg to differ, but I know it's open to argument.

Back when a casual participant could enjoy mountain biking to its fullest extent, riding was popular. But the imposition of "improved" shifting systems and the rapid evolution of suspension ambushed many riders who had to take more than a year off and then wanted to pick up where they left off. The only way to keep up would have been to stay on the bike and evolve with the equipment more gradually.

Proponents of engineered trails and over-engineered bikes have suggested that a fancy trail network will attract "younger people with disposable income." They seem not to have noticed that what the area has already attracts retirees with disposable income, because that's the age group that has the money right now. The mountain bike demographic in this area is a few aging young adults whose kids are finally moving out, people in midlife crisis, and athletic retirees who go out whenever their internal organs want to behave for long enough. It's not a place for people on the rise, it's a place for people doing their best to arrest their decline. And some individuals have already expressed their intention to pull up stakes and go someplace warm to live and ride before too many more years pass.

I've lived in a lot of places. When I was a kid we moved so often that I'm not even from where I was born. I never had a home town, or even a town to call home for more than four years, max. Usually it was more like two. But we moved because we had to, not because we wanted to. So when I settled here, it was as much because I had had enough of moving as because this area is any kind of perfect.

Perfect places don't exist.

The bike industry let the demands of the hard-core ruin the experience for everyone else. I don't know how to reconcile the advancement of technology for the gear weenies and stunt riders with the needs of the many, except to say that excruciatingly technical bikes should cost even more than their already inflated price tags and be made in small enough numbers to reflect how many people are actually using them as intended, while the happy masses deserve to get solid, simple, reliable machinery that they can enjoy for many years with minimal mechanical intervention. It doesn't have to be internally-geared hubs. It does have to be more durable than the plastic and sheet metal crap we've been seeing more and more of.

That being said, I acknowledge that shifting derailleur gears seemed to mystify the majority of people who owned them. Indexing started to give them the firm stops they were looking for. One thing led to another, and here we are. But back on the junk heap of history lie simpler machines that allowed for simpler fun that many more people could take up and set aside repeatedly over the course of years. Now if it's been a year you have to wonder whether your brake fluid is still up to its job, and worry whether your shock is holding pressure, and renew the sealant in your tires. Or you could just wing it. That's what most people do.

Bike work would be the most difficult to perform up to in-season standards right now, with our lone work stand half buried in the rental ski rack, and the bike tools pushed safely aside to keep the bench clean for ski wax. The few jobs in waiting are not a rush. The owners of the bikes wanted them stored somewhere out of their way until bike season is undeniably here.

Gale force winds sweep heavy showers against the windows. Notifications on my phone tell me that the power is out at my house. I look forward to an evening by candlelight, trying to drag a cartoon out of myself for my last remaining print outlet. And maybe I'll see if I can make chocolate chip cookies in a cast iron frying pan.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Winter to the end

The two toughest months of winter around here are March and April.

No matter how substandard the principal months of winter may have been, nothing is going to get warm and nice until well into May. Maybe July. Although astronomical spring doesn't officially start until the equinox in late March, meteorologists consider March to be a spring month. With the change of daylight in the second week of the month, the mornings will look like January, but the afternoons will look like April. There will still be nothing to look at, but you'll be able to see it.

There have been exceptions, but the only ones I can think of were 1988 and '89. And I was a lot younger then, spending most of my spare time in winter hanging out in harsh mountain environments until the season shifted enough for me to get back into bike commuting and a bit of sport riding. My sense of what was cold and nasty was probably considerably influenced by that.

In 1990, I began riding the commuting route between my little spot in Effingham, and my jobs in Wolfeboro. In 1992, jobs became job, but the schedule was still usually at least five days a week. Because the roads around here are not well suited to bicycling in winter weather, I did not push my luck in snow, ice, and darkness. Even with improved lights and studded tires, the danger in the dark and frozen months is much greater as roads are narrowed and drivers are less patient. And they weren't all that patient to begin with.

My precarious economy depends on the money I save by using my bike to commute in the nicer months. I will get out there before the weather is very inviting, because it's the best way to get in shape while reducing car use. It also means that I have more of the rest of my time to devote to other things I think are important. But the best of it is definitely high summer, when I don't have to deal with layer upon layer of snug-fitting clothing for the ride at either end of the day.

Commuting takes place in the margins of the day. One of the cruelest things about early season commuting is that the middle of the day might be stunning, but the morning is frozen and the evening is raw.

Park and ride commutes salvage some riding when I might need a car for other things at either end of the day.

Trail-dependent riders have to deal with difficult or impossible riding conditions as whatever we got for winter melts away. As mountain bikers have to invest more and more money in engineered trails, they're actually voluntarily staying off of their own riding surfaces when heavy use would rut them up horribly. Meanwhile, the road is just the road. Frost heaves are much less of a problem on my bike than in my car. Potholes are a problem for everyone. Even there, I manage to skinny past most of them with only minor course corrections. Stay alert!

Back in the olden days, when we just went out and rode our mountain bikes on whatever we found, other users were doing way more damage than we were. The only limit on our willingness to ride in slush, ice, and mud was our willingness to clean our bikes and ourselves afterward. Indeed, one of our local riders who slunk off from the mountain group in the late 1990s said that he "just got tired of cleaning (his) bike all the time." I was already starting to think of mountain biking as a bit of a good walk spoiled, so I was fine with the group's focus shifting back to the road.

After a couple of seasons making the effort to join the Sunday road rides, I flaked off from them because it was interfering with my commute. My life's work turns out to have been riding to work.

I have chosen employment based on whether I could ride to it. I was so committed to the concept that I would actually show up for job interviews on my bike. Later on I drove like a normal person. That alone did not seem to enhance my success. I got some, didn't get others. I have ridden my bike at least a few times to every job I have ever held. The better world for which I strive is one in which bikes are fully legitimate, accommodated users of the public infrastructure. You should be able to pedal to virtually all locations that you can reach by other individualized transportation, without fearing for your life from the negligent and hostile acts of other road users.

Yeah, I know: people are shit, and you will always be in some peril because of this. But there could damn sure be less of it. It dulls my joyous anticipation of commuting season, but just one drive to work behind some idiot drifting down Route 28 like they're piloting a hot air balloon reminds me of how completely unimpeded I am on the bike. The drifting idiot at 43 miles per hour isn't slowing me down when I'm giving it all I've got to maintain 17. More likely 15.

All that lies far ahead, beyond the laborious crawl through whatever late efforts winter throws at us, just to reach the drab gray weeks that follow. Hey, if it was nice here it would be crowded.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Winter Frustration

On Wednesday I arrived to begin my work week and found a road bike clamped in the work stand. With the persistent lack of snow, its owner had decided to begin riding outdoors. His timing wasn't very good. Late Wednesday night, snow began. It changed to sleet and freezing mist not long after sunrise. This transitioned to more significant icing after nightfall on Thursday. But he's ready if winter falters again.

Winter has mostly faltered this year. It has managed to dish up a tasting menu of wintry tidbits, including some skating and ice boating, but not a lot of any one winter pleasure. The snow last year, though below average, was dense and durable. The cold, though not bitter, was persistent enough to put together longer stretches of wild skating, and keep the ski trails just holding on. For your cross-training outdoor athletes of any level it provided a seasonally-appropriate selection much of the time. This year has been much more frustrating.

I used to switch readily to riding when I was already doing more consistent training of all kinds. Since I am the absolute worst at indoor exercise, I hardly did any, but I could always find something to do outside. However, as I've gotten older, I really notice how cycling alone does not provide complete enough exercise. It actually hurts you if all you do is pedal. It neglects too many other muscle groups and does nothing for bone density, flexibility, and core strength. A false start on riding season just makes me repeat saddle toughening multiple times before the real season sets in.

Road riding has one massive advantage: convenience. There's a road right at the end of your driveway. If you happen to live where there's a trail -- bike, hike, ski, or what have you -- right outside your door, that's great. But most of us don't have that. Okay, I do, but I know that it's not the norm in most places. But a road rider on any form of the machine can walk out, hop on, and pedal away. My winter choice is the fixed gear, but you have to develop a taste for that. The guy who brought his road bike in this week has a fixed-gear that I built for him, but he doesn't automatically think to go that way. He used to compete in triathlon at a high level, so his introduction to cycling was on sophisticated, multi-geared machines. He seemed to enjoy the fixie when we rode together a time or two, but it didn't win him over.

When riding season actually gets close I will start the routines of riding and supporting exercises. But riding has always fit my schedule best when I use it to commute to work, so that it eats less time out of the rest of my day. The supporting exercises are fairly minimal. When I can get on top of my seasonal depression, I do them even when I'm not riding. But if I can ski regularly it takes care of everything I need until early spring.

Cross-country skiing is the ultimate one-stop shopping for general fitness. It goes beyond the obvious cardiovascular benefits. Classical skiing especially works the limbs through a nice, full range of motion, while the core is exercised symmetrically in support of the stride. Skating is less satisfactory, but still better than anything else outside of a planned and varied program in a gym, using specific exercises to isolate muscle groups and boring the shit out of you until you quit. But you can't get up and go on your skis if the trails are brown, or if thin cover leaves subsurface obstacles that could dump you on your face.

Just trudging around on cross-country skis provides a muted level of the muscular benefits, but less of the cardiovascular aspect, unless you really go out and bulldoze on your heavier boards. You will get your heart rate up, but I find it hard to persist at that level when I'm not making much headway through the landscape. Also, groomed trails get chewed down to nothing when they're not refreshed with new snow at regular intervals, so your trudging is likely to be done off-trail. Mature hardwood forests offer many passable spaces. But it's now more of a hike than a swooping flight in pursuit of a sleek physique.

Even the trudging had started to suffer from the lack of a consistent surface. On a recent bushwhack up the mountain behind my house, I rediscovered the sensation of actually walking, when the steeper slopes turned out to have melted off. It was downright pleasant. The snow that fell Wednesday night won't improve the skiing enough up there, and it will make the walking harder. But that's New England. It might freshen up the smoothest of the groomable Nordic trails for a low-grade version of  the high-grade experience. And I might even get a shot at it before it turns into some other weird, half-frozen thing.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

When things go boom

When I stumbled back into the bike business in 1989, the shop was selling a mix of road and mountain bikes. There was a citizen road racing series around New Hampshire and nearby Maine. Mountain bikes were a strong and rapidly rising category. Local riders seemed to be open to both. The last fade of the 1970s bike boom was dwindling away, while the roar of the onrushing mountain bike boom was winding up like a big jet on the runway.

By the early mid 1990s, the citizen road series was basically defunct. Customers would take ridiculously low trade-ins for the road bikes they were dumping. Mountain bike sales amounted to a feeding frenzy. Not everyone dumped their road bike. Some of them just gathered dust in basements, garages, and sheds until their time might come again.

The shift away from mountain biking locally followed a similar pattern approaching the turn of the century. Our local mountain biking ride group had shrunk to about three people. One of our former riders finally sheepishly admitted that he had been riding on the road.

"I just got tired of cleaning my bike all the time," he said. He liked riding on the road, and was afraid that we would harass him because we were all dedicated mountain bikers. We assured him that we loved road riding, and started a weekly road ride. One rider did try to keep the weekly mountain ride going for a couple of seasons, but it ultimately petered out. It recurred in irregular flickers, like a loose wire sparking, until the last year or so, when a mountain bike resurgence of sorts attracted a fairly regular group again.

From the end of the 1990s until the second decade of this century, the mix of bikes on the floor shifted almost completely to road bikes. A sale of a high end mountain bike became rare. But sales volume also fell, year after year. We were having a little road bike boom, as the nation experienced a similar blip. The average price per bike went up, because there was -- and is -- no real low end in road bikes. The real low end still belonged to wide, knobby tires.

Mountain biking didn't die, of course. It has never come back to its former commercial glory, but its devotees will never abandon it.

Bike sales figures overall have been steadily declining from the high marks of the late mountain bike boom. Categorization offers lots of choices, but deprives the industry of high volume in any category. This means that they can't offer as much price range and variety to customers. The number of units sold is down, while the average price goes up.

Electric bikes spark a lot of consumer interest, but their lowest unit price is at or near four figures, and it goes up quickly from there. Worldwide they are viewed as a strong growth category because so many of them are suitable as a car replacement.

When average price goes up it automatically erects a barrier. There will always be a market for used bikes, but the used bike shopper is limited to bikes that someone else already was willing to buy new. And in most places you can't just walk into the used bike store and browse the racks. There's always eBay and Craigslist, but many of us aren't comfortable with that style of commerce. Hunters and gatherers are different from traders. All three qualities might occur in an individual, but it's not a given.

In a bike boom, people buy machines that they have only considered superficially. They're met by bike enthusiasts who have been thinking about little else for years. Some of those enthusiasts are lifers. They got into it young and never left. Others are well-informed, but just passing through. They'll outgrow it and move on to either real adult motor vehicles or completely different interests. Among the incoming wave in any boom, some will get hooked and stick around. Others will become well-informed during their era, but lose interest by the time their first bike wears out. Or maybe their second.

When booms occur now they're more like pops, or premonitory rumbles that go nowhere. There are too many choices, and most of them cost too much. Among the local fat bikers, for instance, perhaps as many as half of them bought their bikes used from someone else who had forked out the coin for it new. This appears to be somewhat less true for three-season mountain bikes. The road category is virtually dead again.

All riders agree that the roads are not much fun to ride anymore. Even in the 1970s it could be intimidating. Now there are about 100 million more drivers on the roads, in actual trucks, or vehicles built on a truck chassis. People are more distracted, more irritable, and generally more hopeless. The lure of separated bike infrastructure of all kinds is strong. But you won't do much riding if you insist on riding only where it's "safe." The answer to that is, "Okay, I won't ride."

The bike industry is not cycling. What's good for the bike business in any given year may be a bad sign for biking overall. The bike industry is perfectly satisfied if you buy a bike, hang it up and never use it. They do like to see actual participation, because it means that people are wearing things out and breaking them, but just from a bean counter perspective, sales are all that matter. Use drives sales, but sales don't drive use. So when new bike sales drop it only means that people aren't buying new bikes right then. You have to dig deeper to find out why. That opens up a whole world of variables. It sounds expensive and open-ended. In the meantime, a bike economist can only look at category sales and extrapolate consumer interest based on who is opening the wallet for what.

Actual census data would be hard to collect. You would have to send a big team to observe every conceivable cycling venue to count users by type. Almost no one cares anyway.

Individual riders might wonder who their allies are, and where they are. For instance, around here I doubt if there are a dozen dedicated bike commuters, especially over longer distances and open roads like the route I run in commuting season. I didn't choose the route, I simply adopted it as the shortest distance between me and a paycheck where I happened to be employed. For many reasons, I would have been better off to buy a house in a different town, closer to where I work. But most of life is improvised. All this simply means that improvements in riding conditions in one area do almost nothing to make riding better in another area, except perhaps to raise public awareness overall.

Anyone in the middle of their bubble will believe that they're in the middle of a boom. People in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont probably feel like the world is being overrun with off-road riders, because their area is being overrun with off-road riders. But by creating a magnet for a certain user group, the popular area draws riders from far, far away. Those riders may travel through long stretches of country where their kind is little known, and not missed.

Certain categories of enthusiast have to be very enthusiastic indeed to keep up with the related expenses of participation. Cycling is at its most affordable when you can throw a leg over the machine outside your own domicile and start pedaling right from there. I kept waiting through all the long years for more people to catch on to the many benefits of that kind of riding, but it seems to have the least appeal. As a result, conditions have deteriorated because too few people have demanded that they improve.

Our accumulated bad decisions will soon force change upon us. The big question now is whether our species is basically terminally ill -- and therefore might as well just focus on pleasure in our swift decline, or whether we are treatable if we accept a stricter regimen than several generations have so far been willing to adopt. In other words, is it worth bothering to try to create that better world?