Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The burden of ownership

Thinking more about why the bike industry needs to have more self respect, reasons for that all stem from the increasing complexity and technological vulnerability of the machines themselves. Bikes not only cost more to buy, they cost more to own. They require more vigilance from their owners. Owners can do their own inspection and maintenance or they can purchase it.

In 1979, when I emerged from years of schooling and started going to various jobs, I used a bicycle for transportation, to keep my overhead costs as low as possible. I became my own mechanic because I had access to good instruction and I could maintain my vehicle easily, even in a rented room or a small apartment. My expansion into racing was a matter of convenience. I owned a sporty bike and was riding a lot. Why not compete a little?

Competing a little soon answered that question. Racing can mess you up and destroy your bike. It's like taking the family station wagon to a "run what you brung" event and wrecking it because you're not as good in the corners as you thought you were. But in the case of bike racing you could end up unemployed for eight or ten weeks because you crumpled more than the bike.

Regardless of the odd mishap, it was very affordable to build a bike, and another bike, and another bike... I only went to a shop to buy parts, tools, and bike-specific clothing and shoes. Required maintenance was fairly quick and easy, even if I had to do a complete overhaul. I soon learned to do the overhauls in stages: hubs one week, bottom bracket another week...

Among the useful changes to componentry in the 1990s, Shimano (yes, that Shimano) provided sealed cartridge bottom brackets that you can basically ignore for years. Of course they've "improved" cranks and bottom brackets since then and made life more expensive and difficult, but you can still get the BB UN55 if you have ancient, contemptible square-taper cranks. If you're not such an animal that you can feel how much power you're losing because you don't have a big, hollow crank axle, you can still have hours of fun for a minimal investment.

Early adopters of the bicycle in the 1890s discovered this concept with the simple machines of the time. Up front cost was a bit steep, but ownership cost was quite low, as long as you didn't hit a pebble and get slammed into the gravel from high atop your wheel. Heck, even then a low-budget rider could crawl off and lick his wounds, healing like an animal, much as the uninsured do today in this great land of ours.

Even a simple bicycle can suffer damage beyond the ability of a home mechanic to repair. I've had several frame repairs done by my friend the torch wizard. Without her skills, I would have had to find someone locally or, more likely, have scrounged a frame and transferred parts to it. You'll find frame builders in surprising places, so it's worth asking around. Steel frames can be brought back from some pretty drastic looking damage. Expect to pay for that. Scrounging is generally cheaper.

Carbon frames can also be repaired. I still don't want to deal with carbon's idiosyncrasies, but at least it isn't the disposable material we were led to believe it was as it was emerging as the dominant choice in high performance bikes.

The more moving parts in a system, the more things there are to wear out. The more proprietary parts, the more you depend on a manufacturer to provide replacements. We don't have the after market parts network that automobiles have. You can't just nip down to the parts store and give them year, make and model.

The more complicated the bike and the more it depends on perfect precision, the harder it is for the home hobbyist to cut out the pros and save money by doing the work themselves. You will need to pay the repair shop and wait for them to get to it. Sometimes it's quick. Often it's not, especially during the season when everyone wants their bikes. For every sophisticated function that you gain, you lose independence. You lose accessibility. You lose the durability that simplicity brings.

Humanity voted with its wallet for this. Increased expense and complexity won the popularity contest. Everything costs more because most people were fine with it. You own it now. Can you afford it?

Monday, March 30, 2020

COVID-19: time trial rules in effect

No drafting. No close passing. That's obvious.

Stay out of snot rocket range. Watch where you spit. What was formerly just a gross breach of etiquette or a grossly humorous mishap could now be fatal to a susceptible rider unfortunate enough to intercept your phlegm projectile. At the very least it would be an inconvenient interruption to someone's training schedule. Of course you're not infected. You're fine! But whoever you landed it on might go through a couple of weeks of anxiety watching you for symptoms. And let's not forget asymptomatic carriers. It also invites retaliation. Who's to say that that other joker is fine?

On the road at any time, cyclists are vulnerable to the bodily fluid assaults of disapproving motorists. Indeed, I once got into a roadside punch-up with a car full of teenagers who had clammed on me as they drove by. That was about 40 years ago, when I could be lured into such a confrontation pretty easily. There have been other spitters since then. It usually just blows back on them because of the wind created by our forward motion. But when you have to worry about micro droplets the risk factor goes up.

For now, our noses run because the weather is cold. About the time the weather warms up, our noses will run because of all the pollen. Always assume your nose is loaded and point it in a safe direction.

Commuters are time trialists more than pack riders. Some of that depends on your area and work schedule. Around here, only a handful of people commute by bike, and that includes every direction leading into town. I almost never see any other riders on my commute. Schedule makes a difference too. The other commuters seem to have to arrive earlier. They're already finished before I come through, and they've headed home before I get out at the end of my shift.

For any part on the rail trail I will encounter other riders, but far fewer of them when I head out in the evening than coming into town in the morning. And there's no way you can stay six feet apart when you're trapped between the rails. Even a lot of the path outside the rails is too narrow to keep a safe distance. That will become a factor as the weather warms up and the trail dries out. Walkers would have to step out and down the crumbling banks of the causeways to keep their proper distance from each other. Riders can't do that. Even the most talented mountain bike trickster would find it slow going to hop along the embankment for yards at a time. It's not a realistic option if you have to be somewhere at a particular time.

What Price Respect?

Google fed me a link to this opinion piece in Cycling Industry News, titled, "It's time for the bike industry to have some self respect." In it, James Stanfill president of the Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association, lays out an excruciatingly detailed case in favor of continuing training and qualification standards.

Stanfill makes some great points about what makes bike shop work a temporary phase for workers who pass through the industry on their way to something that actually pays decently. However, in his call for retailers to reallocate their budgets to cover the frequent training and retraining needed to keep up with modern technology's rapid pace of obsolescence he assumes that a shop has the money to reallocate. He also assumes that consumers will be willing to pay the higher prices that go along with a general rise in overhead. Bike shops don't have CEOs making billions who can give up their bloated compensation to redistribute the wealth to the workers. The industry as a whole will have to figure out how to get customers to respect them, before we can afford to adorn ourselves with our own new self respect.

Key to that "self respect" is Stanfill's assertion that shops need to be able to measure and present their qualifications to assure entities like insurance companies that they are meeting standards of safety and competence when providing highly complex equipment to the public. He also calls on mechanics to seek professional training and certification where available to make themselves more desirable to this new breed of self-respecting shop. Be ready to fork out on your own for a recognized training course because you take that much pride in being a bike mechanic. What was once a pretty good gig for someone with a modicum of mechanical aptitude is attempting to become a career path akin to auto or aircraft mechanics.

In capitalism, if you don't have plenty of money you are a failure and deserve to die. But in the real world, many areas with a small population have been served by small shops that were able to subsist for decades on a pretty slim margin with incremental investments in tools, and an experiential approach to learning about new things.

For a century, bike shops came in all sizes. Frequently they were small places, sometimes ill-lit, and merchandized by people more attuned to wrenches and grease than to point of sale marketing. Experienced mechanics could train new mechanics at the work stand. What mattered was the quality of the merchandise and the mechanical work, not whether they had a stunning atrium, or row on row of fashionable clothing. If you rode a bike a lot, you appreciated the rough practicality of basic black wool shorts.

All things evolve. Changes can bring improvements as well as unhelpful complexities. They are driven by the desires of existing enthusiasts, but also by public interest. When bikes were simple and people were content with it, a rise or fall in demand only meant changing the rate of production. Things would go obsolete as better things replaced them, but within a narrow range of functions. Weird derailleur systems gave way to the parallelogram, and then to the slant parallelogram. Caliper, cantilever, and drum brakes coexisted using the same basic leverage ratio. Every system of a bike was closely enough related to its forebears that you could figure out a lot based on what you already knew.  You could get deeper into it and become an inventive machinist if you wanted to, but you didn't have to.

Mountain biking pushed a lot of improvements in durability and function as bikes were subjected to consistently rough use. Prior to that bikes had received plenty of mistreatment and neglect, but they weren't advertised for the purpose, the way mountain bikes were. The bike industry had to back its claims with machinery that could withstand the kind of boisterousness that the pioneers of clunking had established as the standard. On the road or trail, user groups appeared to have a contentious relationship. In research and development, designers were borrowing from both categories to improve each of them. Versatile riders were doing both on- and off-road riding to improve their abilities.

All analyses lead back to the stresses placed on retailers and repair facilities by relentlessly mutating technology and category specialization. So I won't flog that again. I merely note that your chances of finding a place that can take care of your particular bike needs get slimmer and slimmer in the face of economic reality. Bike shops will become dependent on climate and population density to maintain a large enough size to remain viable in all categories, including smokeless mopeds. In addition, consumer costs will rise to reflect the greater expense the retailer faces. Training and higher wages cost money. That money comes entirely from consumer spending. When consumers can no longer afford to spend in sufficient volume, they will receive less of something in return, whether it's product selection, service quality, service speed, or the convenience of having any kind of shop within 20 miles.

For the moment, such vast numbers of archaic bikes remain in use that a small shop can eke out a living from the customers who need work on those. As they inevitably dwindle away, the next wave of well-used crap that replaces them will have increasingly esoteric needs, more difficult to meet.

Friday, March 27, 2020

We're essential

Bike shops made the list of essential businesses when New Hampshire's governor imposed a stay-at-home order yesterday.

Work trickles in. We're not letting people into the shop, although we might relax that in specific cases. Just don't be offended if we follow you around with a can of disinfectant spray and hose everything down right after you touch it. And if you cough or sneeze in the store, expect to leave in a body bag.

Only kidding. We would have to touch your body to stuff it. We'll just envelop you in a choking fog of Lysol as we whip you toward the exit.

El Queso Grande is working overtime, which for him is working as much as he usually does, to make more of our inventory visible for online browsing. You will still have to pay over the phone and pick up the items outside the shop. He's also looking into connecting to Quality Bicycle Products for their program that allows you to shop their inventory as long as you pay through a retailer. That would be us. In that case, your selections would arrive at your door thanks to the efforts of our friends in the shipping companies, who are keeping what's left of the economy moving from provider to consumer.

The weather continues to tease with alternating days of sunshine and sort of mild temperatures giving way to treats like Monday's seven inches of snow. The early spring sunshine has scorched all of that away, leaving only the tenacious remnants of the winter's feeble snowpack, but it certainly made for a day or two of inferior riding conditions. More common is the "wintry mix" that might bring an inch of wet snow and sleet along with hypothermia-inducing cold rain. That seems to come along about every three days. I have yet to launch the commute, partly because of my lackluster preparations and partly because I still need to be the designated errand runner while the cellist waits for clearance to put weight on her recently fractured leg. She's also working from home, teaching her students via internet during the school shutdown, while I venture out at least four days a week to my now-essential contribution to society.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

You can beat a path to our door. You just can’t come through it.

We’ve gone to a full lockout here at the shop. If you want to drop off a bike for repair, you can make an appointment and leave it at the back door. If you need a product, call to see if we have it. We can take your payment info over the phone and bring the item out to you.

Unfortunately, web commerce has not gone exceptionally well. Over our few years trying to offer most of our inventory to internet shopping, we’ve gotten pounded in shipping charges, and ripped off numerous times. Now we offer only little items from the ski inventory, so the packages are small and the financial risk is low. You can’t browse our store stock and place an order. It will seriously shrink  our cash flow during the current situation, but at least we still can offer mechanical services.

I have to say it’s pretty nice working without interruption. The phone might ring. Someone might arrive for their prearranged drop off or pickup. Those are generally quick and concise. Other than that, I can tend the machinery with few distractions. I mean aside from the distractions that have plagued me for a lifetime.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Some swords make lousy plowshares

Early in the pandemic response in this country, transportation cycling has been held up as an emerging alternative in areas where public transportation was shutting down or scaling back. Since so many news sources are paywalled, I am not including links to footnote my assertions. Considering that gas pump handles have been rated as grossly infectious as the Broad Street community water pump that caused a cholera outbreak in London in 1854, you might want to consider cutting back on trips by car just to reduce your visits to the gas station.

In some places, people are being encouraged to go outside and get sunshine and healthful exercise away from crowds and indoor facilities like gyms and fitness clubs. In other places, the social distancing mandate amounts to virtual house arrest. This complicates your decision to bike or not. Check your local jurisdiction.

Here in New Hampshire, we actually have idiots suing the state because of the ban on large gatherings. Fortunately, the kind of people who would do that are the kind of people I routinely avoid anyway. One can only hope that they fester in their own Petri dish and leave the rest of us alone. Their suit has been dismissed by a Superior Court judge. No word on whether they will push it further. When they filed suit, the number of confirmed cases was 44, with no deaths. They cited this as a reason to carry on as usual, because so many other people had outright died of causes we consider routine, like car crashes, and influenza. Now confirmed cases stand at 78, still with no fatalities. But the day is young. Meanwhile, we are still free to ride or walk recreationally as well as for transportation.

Thinking apocalyptically, like the bullet-hoarders and panic-buyers of guns, I look at the bikes currently in vogue for their usefulness in the event of complete societal collapse. How easy would it be to rack this thing up and use it as your trusty mount through the savage landscape of a ravaged world? How long would it last without access to fresh hydraulic fluid, tire sealant, shock oil, and tinfoil chains?

Early mountain bikes were based on actual bicycles. They evoked the early geometry of safety bicycles from back when few roads were paved. They used the most widely available tire size in the world (26Xdecimal -- eg:1.75, 1.95, 2.1). This is different from 26 fractional (1 3/8, etc.). Until the explosion of suspension technology, the format remained the same even as the frame geometry tightened up to suit a sportier style of riding. Designers discovered that they didn't really need hugely long chainstays and super laid back head angles, although slack head angles have returned in the current era of motorcycle-based designs and long-travel forks.

Any mechanical transportation will eventually die out unless support industries manage to survive or reconstitute themselves. Even a chain for 6-7-8 speed wears out eventually. I wonder how long massively heavy one-inch block chains used to last? That was also before the age of derailleurs. As vigorously as I resist the over-engineered modern marvels of today, I don't pine for some 90-pound wrought iron monster fixed gear to tool around on. But that brings us to the rubber problem.

Early bikes used solid tires. Really early boneshakers used what were basically wagon wheels, with iron bands around a wooden wheel with solid spokes. Real sketchy cornering traction with those bad daddies, but of course no worries about flats. The next big innovation was solid rubber. High wheel "ordinaries" used that. As a friend of mine who rides such things observed, "we laugh at broken glass, but we're all in a dead panic when a squirrel runs out in the road." Hitting a darting rodent can launch a rider on a tall wheel into the dreaded header, a face plant from six feet up.

Scaling back to a partial apocalypse, or simply adopting the income of your ever more numerous working poor, you will be best served by a simple bike with a rigid frame and fork. This is by far the easiest to maintain, providing the most value for the dollar. A cargo bike might be nice for the big loads, but a trailer serves for the temporary need, and you can leave it home for more nimble cruising. Even a good set of racks and some panniers can increase your load carrying capability, as long as your bike will accept them. Anything too sport-oriented will not have the clearances and eyelets for solid rack mounting and stability with a light to moderate load.

Electric bikes will be tempting. They certainly have a place if everything doesn't fall apart. But in a real post-apocalyptic scenario your ebike is only as good as your charging capability. Since solar panels wear out and wind turbine blades fatigue and have to be retired, even "green energy" will become scarce. You really need to plan on muscle power alone. And various equines who might become more common again. But the rise of the bike in the late 19th Century gave people who couldn't afford to feed and house a large animal the chance to extend their cruising radius for little or no money after the initial purchase.

My own fleet has been selected with versatility in mind. While my early mountain bike acquisitions reflected the state of the art circa 1990-91, the bike I built around 1995-'96 already declined aluminum in favor of chromoly, and had a rigid fork because suspension forks were changing rapidly, and were still heavy and wobbly, even at the high end of the price range. The constant change makes any super-technical bike a poor long-term investment. But any manufactured item is only as good as the availability of parts. The industry can kill its ancestors and favor its short-lived children simply by stopping production of anything that fits the old stuff. Ultimately we will all be walking, and making shoes out of whatever we can find.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Your free tuneup

The token work can’t be very important. If it’s free, it must be worthless, right?


Shut in with the few repair bikes that made their way in before everyone headed for shelter, I see the familiar toll of neglect. The guy who brought in one batch of three, none of them a recent purchase, said that he didn’t think they had gotten their free tuneups. He wasn’t angling for the freebie the way chiselers do, which was refreshing. He was just adding some details to the obvious list of what was bent, torn off, falling out, mysteriously severed, and generally shit-covered and corroded.

This brings us to The Free Tuneup Hoarder.  The hoarder holds onto the token up to — or well past — its expiration date, in order to get what seems like the maximum value out of it. What often happens instead is that things that would have been minor if we’d gotten to see them within a couple of weeks are now seriously mangled, like a crank arm that could have been tightened, but is now distorted and impossible to keep secured.

When I assemble a bike, I start by taking it apart. Technically, they’re supposed to come from the factory ready just to have the unattached parts attached and go out on the sales floor. I like to think that almost no bike shops trust that bullshit. Most of them will true at least the front wheel before installing it, and maybe adjust gear cables properly at the anchor bolts instead of using up lots of threaded adjuster. But it’s the next level or two that make the real difference.

If the assembler basically does a full tuneup on the bike as it is being assembled, every operation afterwards takes a lot less time and attention. Take off the cassette or freewheel. Properly secure the cones and locknuts to make sure that the hub bearings are adjusted and stay adjusted. Properly secure the front hub adjustment as well. Then true the wheels.

If the bike has rim brakes, undo the pad mounting hardware completely and grease the threads. This will make the pad alignment easier to adjust, and help you tighten the pads securely.

Generally greasing threads anywhere you find them goes a long way to make proper tightening easier.

All this meticulousness takes slightly longer than a slapdash assembly, but it pays off big time down the road or trail. I can’t say that everyone here does that thorough a job, but anyone I have trained has been taught that it should be the minimum standard. Less meticulous work will usually come back to bite you.

Desperate times lead to desperate measures, so our primary assembler will feel besieged. Stuff is going to hit the floor that didn’t hit all the bases first. We deal with that as we can. It’s all safely tightened. It just might not stay that way after bouncing over a bunch of rocks and logs, or potholes, or rail crossings. So don’t blow off the free tuneup, or try to stretch it out to get the most for your zero dollars. It could end up costing you a chunk.

Friday, March 20, 2020

We’ll last until the disinfectant runs out.

As the pandemic clamps down harder on the world, we adapt as best we can in our small corner of it. No one considers a rural bike shop to be an essential business, because only the desperate and the stupid use bikes for transportation in a country setting. Bike commuters are either worker bees who  need to stretch their meager income, or fitness freaks who wobble along getting in everyone’s way. Some of us fall into both categories. But, essential or not, we can function as long as the disinfectant spray holds out. That and the money. It may be close.

We probably have more disinfectant than money. But even if I hadn’t scorched off so many people by being a caustic asshole about the equipment that the bike industry has conned everyone into having to embrace, there’s no guarantee that the absent would have required any more from us than they have demanded wherever they have demanded it.

We’re considering locking down. Bikes could be dropped off by appointment only. Payment would only be accepted over the phone. We haven’t gone there yet, but some shops in urban areas have. Their own personnel maintain the six-foot separation recommended by the CDC. Every bike for service gets sprayed down at check in, before the work is done, and after the work is completed.

El Queso Grande wondered whether we would see a surge in undesirable side effects a few months from now, after the constant exposure to all the cleaners and disinfectants.

We’ve cut the staff to two of us. Trainee David is reducing his exposure. One problem is that everyone in northern New England has sniffles and a cough this time of year, so you have no idea if it’s the usual snot fest or the new plague.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Paradoxes of Pandemic Preparation and Protection

"Stock up and stay home."
  -- Go out every day or two, to see if the stores have managed to replenish necessities cleaned out by panic buying and hoarding.

"Wash your hands as often as possible."
  -- Sign in the drug store: "Restrooms closed for the duration of the epidemic." Also, hand sanitizer not available until further notice. If you're not carrying your own, you are S.O.L.

The grocery store still has a dispenser of sanitizing wipes where the shopping carts are parked. No one has yanked them all out and run away with them.

At the bike shop, it's hardly business as usual, because very little is as usual right now. The winter never really happened, so it's looking like early bike season a month earlier than early used to be. In previous weak winters, sometimes people would show up with their bikes, but more often they don't. This year, we've had a small early surge. It's too small even to be a surge, but more than a blip. One customer who dropped her bike for an early tuneup is a Massachusetts refugee who was told to work from home and decided to come up to Wolfe City and work out of her second home rather than stay down in plague-ridden Massachusetts.

The bike business was already hampered by tariffs and by the massive disruption of Chinese manufacturing as the new coronavirus erupted over there. But the shop owner had to get bikes in, so we're waiting for a few dozen to show up. They will all need to be assembled in case we get a season instead of a nationwide total shutdown.

The schools are closed for three weeks. That means our trainee is available for more hours, although he still has to keep up his assigned schoolwork. We haven't had a lot of customers come in and hang around, so the social distancing thing sort of works. Trainee is a bike racer, so he's already averse to getting sick. The rest of us live in the animal fashion of the working poor. We know instinctively that we cannot get sick or injured. If we don't get any business because there's a nationwide shutdown, or we can't work because too many of us are sick, we know that it's the end for us. There is no national support system, and little hope that this crisis will change that.

Americans have long prided themselves on doing as little as possible for each other. I don't know where that E Pluribus Unum bullshit came from. The obvious operating principle throughout my working life has been Every Man for Himself. We are free to associate, and many do, but those associations have clearly delineated membership. Many of them make no secret that their perimeter is fortified and their members are armed. Others are more benevolent. I suppose we're lucky that the hard-core authoritarians have not quite managed to seize control of national policy, since the benevolent ones have failed utterly to inspire national acceptance.

If we should have to shut down, or I have to be quarantined, I could work from home. I have almost all of the basic tools for a commercial bike repair shop. I can't work on hydraulics at home, and I have not kept up with the 15 or 20 different bottom bracket tools you need to service all comers, but I could get a lot of routine crap done. Somehow the bikes would need to get to me. Either the customers would have to truck them out here, or the shop would have to bring them. They could also provide any special tools a particular repair required, and douse everything with the appropriate chemicals to purify it after it came back from the leper colony. Let's hope it doesn't come to that. It would be cumbersome. More likely nobody would bother.

For now, we sanitize obsessively and wash our hands until they're scaly. We'd been doing gloves for a few years already, just to keep some of the grease, lubes, and solvents off of our skin. We have not adopted masks yet, except for the procedures that made them advisable already. But now you look at every incoming person as a potential suspect.

The cellist arrived at Portland Jetport at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday night. Because she fell while hiking a couple of weeks ago, she's been on crutches, and applied for a wheelchair to get through the airport. That meant that I was standing in the greeting area while everyone else got off of two flights that had arrived at about the same time. I watched them stream in and come down a stairway and an escalator to reach the lower level where the baggage claim and the street exits are. A few wore masks. One or two wore gloves. No one made much effort to stand apart, because the system is not set up for it. We arranged ourselves around the conveyor belts in the baggage claim area like bears waiting along a river bank for salmon. When the right one comes along, dart a paw in and snatch it out. The cellist's wheelchair driver waited patiently. He was a quiet, tall young man, probably part of the refugee community that has settled in urban Maine. His presence was calming.

The cellist and I have barely touched since she got here. She extended her stay when the governor of Maryland shut the schools, so she'll be here longer than the two-week quarantine period required for people coming from known hot zones, like Italy. Meanwhile, I'm still potentially exposed every day that I go to work or make a quick sweep through the grocery store because we still can. We don't want to dig into our stash of isolation foods until we know that we have no choice. Otherwise, we might have too little at the point that everything shuts down for real. If one of us gets sick, the other one is almost certain to. But she couldn't stay where she was, because her living arrangements are pretty marginal down there. Her chances of exposure were much greater. That thing that Kurt Vonnegut supposedly wrote, about going into the arts? Yeah, that's bullshit.  Go into fucking finance, people. Become a corporate lawyer. Just go ahead and rape the planet and fleece the chumps for your own fat gains, because it's all for nothing anyway. We can't vote away the Apocalypse any more than someone can pray away the gay.

The internet has developed its own familiar symptoms of proud ignorance, conspiracy theories, doomsayers, spiritual advisers, real scientific medical information, pseudoscientific crapola, and malware. It's a perfect laboratory demonstration of every debate about social, political, and environmental issues. It's like watching a Petri dish getting obliterated under a slimy, furry culture going out of control.

Good luck, everybody.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Bike Commuting Study Confirms the Obvious

A study in the UK of injury rates for different commuting modes revealed that bike commuters run a higher risk of injuries requiring hospitalization, compared to driving and walking. This information popped up in my Google News feed this morning. I couldn't resist checking it out.

When I was a kid, every kid tried to learn to ride a bike, and virtually all of them succeeded. Whether they liked it much, or kept it up, learning to ride a two-wheeler was a rite, just like losing your baby teeth, which it occasionally contributed to. Along with it came skinned knees, road-rashed elbows, and occasional broken bones. Abrasions were far more common than fractures, concussions, or internal injuries. And that's before anyone knew what a bike helmet was.

The first time I went to the ER with bike-related injuries, I was about eight years old. I burned in hard on a steep descent in Newport, RI. I was knocked unconscious and spent the following week or ten days as The Amazing Human Scab, from all of the scuff marks, but I was recuperating at home.  I've been in the ER twice more from bike crashes, once in 1982, and again in 1987.  Oh, and there was that one time in the 1990s when I stuffed it mountain biking and broke my wrist. Only the crash in 1987 involved anyone in a car. None of them required an overnight or extended stay.

Balancing on two wheels can be precarious. The whole concept seems ridiculous: it's half of a vehicle. But it works. Once you can do it, it can be addictive. You get more comfortable at it, but you are still very vulnerable. In addition to the big crashes, any rider experiences plenty of other incidents. You're mounted on something that does not stand up by itself. Gravity never quits. The math is easy.

The study report did go on to state that the overall health benefits of bike commuting are vast. The consensus is still that infrastructure, education, and legal policies that encourage cycling are of far more benefit than simply writing it off as too dangerous.

Monday, March 09, 2020

The temptations of Marpril

Today's high temperature was about 62 degrees at my house. In a forecast discussion one day last week on the  National Weather Service site, a meteorologist had written that the pattern looked more like April than March. It's true. The high temperatures have been consistently well above freezing, tagging the 50s on occasion. But 62 -- that's the territory of May.

Freakishly warm days can hit at any time. I've seen it hit 60 in January, and turn warm and wet enough to melt off the snow cover all the way to the highest summits. That was 1995. But the odd warm day or two can pop in and out in any month of winter, with less dramatic consequences. Still, the closer you get to the real end of winter, the more these benedictions make you yearn for more like them.

I yielded to it today. I overdressed, of course, but not so much that I was gasping for breath and pouring with sweat. My route passes through one well-known micro-climate where I was glad of every layer I had on, for the seven seconds that I was in that shaded hollow full of snow and spruce trees.

The temperature drops back to more Aprilish conditions starting tomorrow. Tomorrow's 50s with clouds and developing showers mimics the latter half of next month, while the progressively lower temperature waves take us closer to the beginning of it as the week goes on.

The early meltdown has drawn a few riders out. On Sunday, a woman brought in her thoroughly modern gravel bike to investigate a flat tubeless tire. David diagnosed it as just a dislodged bead due to low air pressure. The rider had been told to run 'em soft because it's faster, and it absorbs shock. Because she works out of town, she goes to an excellent shop in Concord. She described her mechanic there as "hard core." Based on his equipment recommendations, I would add "trendoid." But looking back over my life I realize that I have lost every war I was ever in. The industry sold its soul to planned obsolescence in the 1990s, and the addicts who depend on it live in a world viewed through their perceived need.

You don't have to be hard core to be dedicated.

Clearly almost no one respects my opinion about the technology. I do enjoy riding my archaic shit. I love how it works. I do not yearn for anything more sophisticated. All the gimmicky bullshit has not bought us any more respect on the roads, or recruited sedentary legions from the sidelines. The only technological innovation that has stirred much interest is the addition of an electric motor.

How many times over the years did some smartass look at the price of a high-end bike and say, "For that kind of money, I want a motor!" Well, here you go: put up or shut up, asshole.

You can get hassled or run down just as easily on an e-bike as on one powered by meat alone. Think that a motor enhances safety? Ask a motorcyclist about that.

For today, I made it around a nice little 15-mile route on a fixed gear with no parts on it newer than the late 20th Century, except for the tires. They're more recent, but they may not even be from this decade. Oh, and the chain was new within the last couple of years. I could tell I had no strength, but I had enough. A utility rider doesn't need to maintain 20+ miles per hour for hours. You don't need to be first up the hill. You just need to get up the hill.

One ride leads to another, or so you hope. And so begins a season.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

The fine old tradition of sneering at people

The weather has been unusually mild for the time of year. Mild is a misleading term; the nights have gone well below freezing for the most part, and the days have been warmer than winter, but hardly balmy. In sum, they act more like early spring than late winter.

People who hate winter are always ready to dance on its grave. Even people who enjoy some winter activities are ready to see the end of a disappointing one. If winter won't be winter, we're ready for it to change. We all want to believe. Anyone who has lived in northern New England for a long time knows better than to rely on the change, even into April, but it's okay to know what you'd prefer.

Killjoys  -- like a guy who came into the shop yesterday -- like to snow and sleet on that parade by calling the early thaw "fool's spring." Fool's spring. You are all fools. I am the wise one. I need to make sure that you realize that, when or if the weather shifts back to something wintry, you were a fool to have enjoyed the fantasy that the pattern might instead have marched steadily toward the usable conditions of warmer seasons with the briefest possible period of mud and slush. He'd been reminded of the term that day by some TV meteorologist, but it has the ring of old New England about it. They could simply call it "false spring," but that's no fun, because it doesn't insult anyone.

You can't do anything about the weather except dress for it. As a bike rider, you can prepare your bike of any type for the riding surfaces you hope to use. The end of winter makes soft trail surfaces vulnerable to ruts. Wet, rotting ice can be mildly or majorly hazardous, as one gravel rider learned the hard way in a previous early spring. He was charging down a descent when the tires broke through, sending him down hard enough to bang him up pretty well. I don't remember the full catalog of his injuries, but I think they did delay his further training for a while. Pushing the season can ruin your season. But also: speed kills.

My commute route options use varying amounts of the unpaved rail trail. I don't have the funds or inclination to invest in a fat bike, so I do my best to maneuver through whatever combination of ice and mud I find. I have the option of a long route out of town that uses all paved roads. Before the trail existed, that was the standard route. Since I already own more bikes than the average person, I should be able to figure something out.

If the weather does hold its current trend and proceed more or less steadily to true springtime, I'm sure the wise ones will come up with some other reason that they were not fools for doubting it. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice and I'll never admit it.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

The convenience of Daylight Relocating Time

Daylight Relocating Time arrives this coming Sunday in the states that observe it. Let the whinging begin!

I get that it's disruptive. It may get worse as we age. But throughout my childhood I looked forward to the later daylight. As an adult racing cyclist, I found it very useful as well, for training rides after work. Even without training in the mix, it extends the safe(r) period of riding on the road by putting daylight where a lot of us have to use it, in that span between quittin' time and supper time.

If anyone with the power to set policy is listening, if you decide to stop playing with the clocks, please leave them in the DST position, for this late daylight. I have had to ride in the predawn darkness at times, but riding toward and into the coming day is still better than having to deal with early sunset. Or we could adopt Universal Time overlaid with local time, so that things that need to be scheduled will all be on the same clock (see you at "14:00" for that morning meeting!), but each locality has the option of responding to its own photoperiod and sun angle in a more natural way. Sounds like a mess, but at least it would be a novel mess. And whatever number we set on our alarm clocks, we wouldn't have to shove it one way and then the other twice a year.

I think about this today, because it's totally beautiful outside, and I was considering a bike ride. The weather looks conducive for the coming week, and the long range forecasts indicate that the pattern may have shifted for good. Even more importantly, a man at the conservation commission meeting last night, whose family has been here for generations, wished us all a "good mud season" as we adjourned, meaning that, in his experienced observation, this winter has run its course. That means that any saddle toughening I go through now will probably be good for the rest of the season, unlike years when I make false start after false start and go through that "kicked in the ass" feeling multiple times.

The hitch today was that I was up late last night after the meeting, so I got a slow start this morning. And the best of the day came after the sun got up far enough to put out real warmth. There's no point in going out when it's still in the 30s when the middle of the day will be so much nicer. But it's also my last day off before the work week resumes, so I have a list of things that need to get done, plus some residual paperwork from last night's meeting. I calculated the time needed to gear up, get out, and put everything away again, and substituted some ski-trudging as the quicker and easier activity to launch.

On the subject of freezing and thawing, I might actually plan to ride when the temperature is below freezing, if my route includes dirt roads. We're entering the notorious mud season. Even though the scant snow cover means that the mud season will be short and mild, dirt roads will still be better for riding when an overnight freeze paves them for a few hours.

Daylight Relocating Time would have allowed me to knock off a bloc of time-sensitive chores and still have enough light for a worthwhile ride before sunset. We're not quiiiiiiiiite there yet. It's close, but DRT would make it a very comfortable margin.

The frost heaved roads don't present much of a problem to me actually piloting my bike, but they do make drivers even more erratic as they bob and weave through the hummocks and holes. That occupies more of their attention than the unexpected sight of some bike rider's lights in the dusk. All through the winter I have seen pedestrians in the dusk and darkness, while I was driving, presenting what they think are adequate lights. In every case the display has been more confusing than anything else, even if it was bright. None of them were bright enough to stand out against the glare of oncoming vehicle headlights blasting me at the same time I was trying to keep track of the flickering fireflies of foot traffic.

I know my bike lights are bright enough to gain me a measure of respect on the road, but they're still a lot smaller than car and truck lights, especially some of these new trucks that have four low beams blazing at all times. Whoever is responsible for designing those should be strapped in a chair with his head in a clamp and his eyelids held open with alligator clips, and be forced to stare into that sociopathic wall of light until his eyeballs turn into raisins. Right next to him should be whoever is responsible for the shitty light dispersal pattern of LED headlights in general, staring into a bank of those. They just made a bad situation worse.

Monday, March 02, 2020

Beautiful day for a hit-and-run

Monday, February 24th was a dazzling foretaste of spring. The sun was bright, the sky clear, and the temperature surged up to the low 50s (F). In April and May, 50 degrees feels like a punishment, but in February it calls to the prisoners of indoor training and the cross-trainers starting to remember their road bikes.

I had almost gone out on my own bike that day, but decided that it was too early to commit. I went trudging up the mountain out back instead on my 30-year-old chore skis. Still, the road and the commute begin to beckon. Daylight relocating time begins this Sunday, putting the return leg of the commute into usable light. Motorists will be able to see me.

Yesterday, I soloed at the shop. El Queso Grande had been away since Friday, getting his heart worked on. I spent much of the day alone. The ski trails are all ice and dirt after more than an inch of rain on Thursday. Then the temperature dove back down to seasonable winter cold. That turned what could have been busy ski rental days into long vigils broken by brief visits by one or two people at a time, checking out the bargains among the remnants of our winter stock. No one was available from our rotating cast of fill-in employees to work on Sunday, but it didn't really matter.

The door alarm beeped. A single customer came up the back stairs. It was a  local road rider. He's a tall guy, a physician, very active, so in good shape. He does a lot of his own work on his Campy-equipped carbon road bike. I don't remember what brand it was, but it turns out that no longer matters. We exchanged greetings, and he said he was looking for a small item of apparel for his son. Then he said, "Hey, I was hit by a car the other day." It was that beautiful Monday.

He described the incident. For anyone who knows the area, or wants to look it up on their favorite map app, he came out of Dame Road and turned south on Ledge Hill Road, toward Tuftonboro Elementary School. There was no one else on the road. With no warning, blam! He was hit from behind.

"The next thing I knew, I came to in the ditch with some guy saying, 'don't try to get up.'"

The person who found him had been driving northbound on Ledge Hill and had seen a dirty white or tan SUV with the bumper torn loose on the right side. Then, just a bit further on, there was the unconscious rider and his crushed bike.

The rider was miraculously intact for having been mowed down by more than a ton of metal and glass, piloted by a few pounds of idiot. He showed me the massive bruising on his legs, and said that he had some broken ribs. Seeing as he was unconscious for a bit, he has had a mild concussion as well. But until he told me that he was only six days out from such a serious crash I would not have spotted him as injured. He moved okay. Only after he told me the story did I see a bit of caution in his gait, particularly when he headed back down the stairs to the back parking lot on his way out. He will also find that he has the inescapable touch of PTSD. He can't get right back on the bike, because the bike was destroyed, and his next scheduled activities are more winter appropriate. It will be interesting to see how his mental and emotional state evolve when riding season does get here and he gets a new bike.

Mountain bikers and path riders are all nodding sagely at this point, and congratulating themselves on their wisdom in abandoning the road to the potentially lethal motoring majority. Gravel riders are wrapping themselves in their false sense of security because they ride on roads that they perceive as having little traffic. But the doctor was on a quiet rural road, and the vehicle that hit him was the only other user. There are certain gravel roads around here that I avoid because the motorists who do use them typically drive like they've got a trunk full of moonshine and a revenuer on their tail. Other gravel roads are as placid as you might expect. You have to know your area.

The driver of the hit-and-run vehicle, now thought to be a white SUV with Florida plates, did exactly the right thing to make this a perfect crime. The one witness, the approaching driver who got a glimpse before coming around the bend and finding the victim, was unable to provide enough information to proceed with much of an investigation. Get that bumper fixed, or just tear it the rest of the way off, let a few weeks pass, and plausible deniability will take care of the rest. Or just leave the area and you'll blend in with all the other down-and-outers driving dinged-up vehicles, with no one to wonder how it got that way. Add to this the fact that law enforcement seldom has the time or interest to investigate these things fully enough to conclude them. The doctor didn't die. Even if he had, it would have been just another unfortunate loss because he didn't have the sense to quit riding his darn fool bike around like some kid.

Kids don't ride anymore. In rural areas, they probably never did, although I remember in my two years in mid-coast Maine that we fourth and fifth graders would ride well outside the village limits to get to friends who lived on farms in the surrounding countryside. Then we would play in haylofts and abandoned quarries until it was time to ride home again for supper. But you certainly see almost none of it now.

Because the driver ran away, we don't know if they were malicious or negligent. Are they celebrating their coup, cherishing the memory, or are they horrified that the phone in their hand had distracted them, and deeply relieved that the rider lived, so no harm done?

As the years have passed, and drivers have become far more numerous, with more distractions and no reduction in hostility, I look forward less and less to the start of bike commuting season. But I depend on it for its economic and physical benefits when it's not interrupted by mayhem and assault. Most of the time, the worst that happens is an unprovoked honk, a close pass, a few Dopplered obscenities, perhaps a wildly inaccurate thrown object. The fear, of course comes from the ambush hunter who will strike from behind. While drivers crossing, entering, or turning too close present the greater hazards, the rear end collision is the hardest to defend against. I can't afford a fancy camera. A mirror only works when you're looking in it, not looking at the road in front of you. The swerve could happen between mirror checks. As for video, it seems remarkably ineffective as evidence in a prosecution. The authorities have to care enough to pursue it. And that's only after an incident has taken place. Close calls get you nothing but a range of advice that boils down mostly to, "quit riding your bike, you idiot." Or cover yourself with garish colors and flashing lights, which will do absolutely nothing to deter a malicious attack.

The videos that cyclists post to elicit outrage and sympathy for their cause elicit just as much reluctance on the part of non-riders to begin riding, and lots of pushback from drivers who hate cyclists, whose blood lust is heightened when they see how easy it is to engage in some wish fulfillment. Sadly, the best response is to keep riding as if nothing had happened, happy if you are undamaged. We can't win, because the opposition is too pervasive. Only the idea can win, if in some fantasy future enough people simply don't want to drive anymore, and don't want to act like assholes on the road in or on whatever vehicles they choose.

A troll on a comment thread a few days ago told me that I am a guest on the roads entirely paid for and owned by motorists. He told me to behave myself with appropriate gratitude and stay out of the way. He responded predictably badly to rational counterpoints. His rants attracted sympathizers, even though the overall majority in the comment thread were supportive of cyclists and seconded the rational counterpoints. The anti-cyclists soon resorted to all caps. I was long gone by then, knowing better than to continue down the gas-lit path to the Troll Kingdom. But that's who is out there, throwing their weight around, emboldened by their armored vehicles. You can't think about them. Your only sure defense is abstinence. They are simply one of the many modern hazards, like mass shootings, that might or might not impact your life directly, but constantly weigh on you. Freedom isn't free. But "defense" of it is never as straightforwardly confrontational as the usual users of that slogan would have you believe. Most of the time it's done by setting an example and proceeding with courage in things that should never have been burdened with such significance.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

The 24th Century Bike Shop

It's a sunny day in early March. The entry alarm beeps as two people walk through the front door of a little, independent bike and ski shop in a small town in northern New England.

One of them, a tall, robustly built man, says, "I'm interested in looking at what you have for bikes." He looks puzzled as he scans the floor for rows and rows of them.

The shop attendant leads the customer down to a corner of the sales floor, where eight or ten bikes are clustered together. "These are the dribs and drabs left over from last year. None of our best sellers are here because they...sold."

"I was hoping to replace my old bike with something that would be good for riding on the rail trail and places like that. Looks like you don't have much."

"At one time, that would have been a problem," says the shop attendant. "Not now, though. Computer! Recreational path bikes size extra large!"

The replicator hums and growls. The portal opens and disgorges a row of hybrids and comfort bikes. The customer walks up and down the row. He selects a couple to test ride.The replicator swallows the others and dissolves them into their constituent particles.  After test riding and summoning a few accessories from the replicator to add to his purchase, the remaining reject bike is reabsorbed as well, to await the next curious customer.

Of course you don't need to be told that this is not the 24th Century. We don't have a replicator. We do have a crowded corner stuffed with the remnants of last year's stock. All of our best sellers sold through before the end of September. Our stock wasn't too deep even at the start of the season, because that's the reality of a small independent shop in a frequently intemperate part of the Temperate Zone.

The apparent death of winter this year has brought out three seekers so far, all of them in the core demographic for this area: older adult path riders. Like most customers in any category, they are profoundly surprised that a shop would not have full stock at the moment they're looking for it, whether they've been anticipating it since last fall or the inspiration just struck them as they sat at a sunny window table in the nearby coffee shop. But the customer before them was equally disappointed that we did not have full stock in snowshoes this late in that season. Virtually all customers are understanding when you explain all the factors that lead to the unfortunate necessity of low stock levels, but I do have to wonder if, inside, they're not grumbling about a bunch of bullshit excuses.

Regardless of when winter ends, bike manufacturers don't offer long enough dating on early season purchases for a small shop in an uncooperative weather pattern sell enough bikes fast enough to pay invoices on time. Ninety days on a shipment received at the beginning of March would be due at the end of May. Briefly in the 1990s our selling season might have been active enough to meet a deadline like that. Now there doesn't seem to be anyone around until about the Fourth of July, and they've pretty well petered out by late August. In any recent year we've had to try to keep people patient until late April no matter what a winter looks like at the end. We're aided in that when the weather reverts to cold and nasty for a while, even though it complicates life in general to deal with late season snow.

This year is more complicated, because tariffs have driven up prices on products sourced in China, and there's that new disease keeping factories idle. How much was already manufactured and on the water before that? Will we be able to get bikes when we're finally able to order them? Will we even be able to get repair parts and accessories?

I guess while it's quiet I'll work on developing the replicator. It can't just be some plastic 3D printed bullshit. It has to be full quality at any price point. This may take a few weeks.