Friday, May 22, 2020

Life will keep trying to knock you off your bike

As an adult cyclist, you are a member of a minority group. It's a voluntary minority, like a religion, rather than one with inescapable physical characteristics, but we still wear varying degrees of identifying garb, and place ourselves in the public eye by propelling ourselves around on our machines.

Road cyclists inspire the most adverse pressure, followed by riders on multi-use paths. Within riding categories, different degrees of orthodoxy breed conflict and contempt among the riders themselves.

Cyclists have the advantage in places where distances and terrain favor our size and maneuverability. But when you leave the bike to proceed on foot, you always run some degree of risk that it won't be there when you get back. And every ride carries some risk of falling. In traffic, you might be brushed or hit hard by a motor vehicle, or be herded into a collision with a solid object. While the vast majority of riders reach their destinations without injury, you can't deny that gravity can be used against you in numerous ways.

For a commuter or a person living car-free, the longer the ride, the more you have to adapt your lifestyle to it. You will find that proper cycling clothes make longer rides more comfortable. A more aerodynamic position makes riding more efficient. You either have to dress and equip more like a racing or touring road rider, or budget even more time in transit to make up for the inefficiency of riding in an upright position.

If you think recumbents are the answer, bear in mind that the trikes tend to sit very low compared to the tall vehicles dominating the roadways, and that their width is at ground level, making them awkward on narrower paths. Recumbent bikes can be very tricky stopping and starting. And even though you are no longer holding your head up the way a cyclist on a road bike has to do, you have to hold it up the other way, like lounging in a chair watching TV. A head rest is only partial help, because you have to keep looking around. Nothing is perfect.

Busy people have to fit their schedules together into complex mosaics of admirable responsibility and social engagement. In my case, with a commute that hovers around 30 miles a day, my time in transit doubles when I ride the bike compared to using a car. I've never been a model of admirable responsibility and social engagement, but connections have accumulated. As soon as you have another person in our life you probably have someone who will put pressure on you to quit riding, or at least skip a day, and maybe another day, and do you really have to do that today, and are you riding again? Add in a few voluntary obligations and the number of normal people looking sideways at you because you insist on pedaling steadily increases. This is more prevalent in a rural area, where nothing is close enough together to give a cyclist a time advantage getting from place to place. You're just a weirdo at that point.

If I was a real responsible individual, I would be driving to work every day now, because so many people want their bikes fixed. I would be working extra days and longer hours so that other people could think about using bikes that they obviously have not paid much attention to in years. Instead, I'm the same selfish jerk I've always been, riding an awkward distance because I was once married to someone who wouldn't be happy until we owned a house, and we ended up buying this one. Then she wasn't happy anyway, and off she went. If I'd been a good normal guy, I would've had a job that paid better, that I drove to, and been more amenable to the desires of the majority.

People can change, but usually they are developing a potential that was always within them. You may now spin off into philosophical musings about how the potential to be absolutely anything lies within each of us. True as that may be, you can look at trends in a person's life and take a reasonable guess. When it comes to riding, every one of us is a potential quitter. That's the handle that life will use to make you think that riding is just too much trouble.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Why you can't make an appointment for service

We get asked fairly often if a customer can make an appointment for service, to guarantee same-day turnaround, like they do with their cars.

Cars are complicated, with a lot of systems that have to work together, but they have to be pretty well foobed not to work at all. The odds are good that a mechanic can do what you ask for and turn you loose until the next thing goes sproing. A mechanic might spot something crucial, if anything is crucial at that moment, but most of the time it's a matter of doing set procedures by the book. When those are standard maintenance procedures, it's really a matter of rote. Even if a less-routine repair is scheduled, a dealer or independent professional can have parts in the pipeline to cover predictable complications.

There are exceptions, of course.

Bike repair is all exceptions. The systems of a bicycle are much more lightly built, reflecting the abysmal power to weight ratio of the human engine, and they are much more interdependent. With rim brakes -- still the most common type -- a wheel out of true risks not only inadequate braking, but also a flat tire if the wheel wobbles enough to allow the tire to rub on the brake pads. Loose hub? Could be a bent or broken axle, not just loose bearings. Loose crank arm? It is quite likely to need replacement with an arm that is the same length, the right profile, and that attaches to the axle the same way as your old one. Your shifting out of adjustment could require complete replacement of the cables and housing, as well as internal procedures to clean out old factory grease. The factory lube in Shimano shifters is the leading cause of malfunction in older units. They want you to buy a new one. But because the bike industry keeps making things rapidly obsolete, finding a replacement part can be a treasure hunt in itself. Cruelly, this seems to happen to the expensive stuff more than the cheap stuff.

Nine is the loneliest number. For a brief time, nine-speed was the top of the line. Once it was supplanted by ten-speed cassettes, the industry stepped away from it completely, keeping eight, seven and some six as OEM spec, but abandoning nine altogether. Weird, huh? You can get some nine-speed parts, but they are the orphan step child of drive trains. The good news is that you can always convert to friction shifting, which allows you to run whatever you can cram in there. I cannot recommend it enough.

We might be able to set up for a same-day repair if we did a thorough examination of your bike on a previous day, but the time we would spend on that is time taken away from every other repair in the queue. It takes experience and knowledge to diagnose accurately. And a lot of the time you need to dig into it to see what it really needs and whether it can be done at all. Sometimes, disassembling a malfunctioning bike is a one-way trip, requiring that the repair be completed just to hand it back in a rideable condition.

We regularly do less than a bike should have, because it's all the customer is willing or able to spend. However, that is never done at the expense of safety. I hesitate to say this, but a lot of stuff gets done pro bono and unrecorded, just to safeguard the rider and to preserve some shred of profit from repairs that develop complications.

At the peak of mountain bike madness, we stocked a lot of parts. Riders were breaking a lot of things, and also looking for upgrades, back when you could still do that somewhat cost effectively. Eight speed was the top of the line, meaning that only two cogs separated the aristocrats from the lowest of the lowly rabble. Nowadays, the top stuff has 12 cogs, the average low end stuff has eight, but you'll still see some new stuff with seven. Super cheap bikes might have six. So that's four cogs between average low end and average high end, each with its own needs for chains, shifters, and derailleurs. Oh, and SRAM and Shimano use different actuation ratios on the shifters, so make sure that all parts that need to match are properly matched. This is true whether the bike is low end or high end.

Auto repair shops have either the resources of the dealership behind them or the highly developed network of auto parts stores for on-demand ordering and rapid delivery. Bike shops don't have that. We have a supplier one day away, and two suppliers two days away, with minimum order requirements and freight charges on every order. The supplier one day away has always been one of the weakest contenders on selection, and they seem to be vying to become more lame rather than less. Add to this the fact that most bike parts come from Asia. Between the trade war and the pandemic, it's surprising that supplies aren't more disrupted than they are.

On Saturday, the owner of an auto body and repair shop in town told me that her business is having trouble getting motor vehicle components because of the pandemic. She didn't say whether it was because of shutdowns in US factories or overseas sources. Maybe both. So for a while even the auto repair business can't necessarily oblige your need for convenient scheduling.

Any repair will take time. Someone somewhere might have written a rate book for standard bike repair procedures, but it should be shelved in the section marked "Humor." The lowly tuneup might take half an hour on a bike that was well assembled or at one time properly tuned, but more often blows out to consume more than an hour -- sometimes a lot more. Once we're in there, we can't just walk away. And we can't usually backtrack to the original crappy configuration of the bike when it came in. Even that would take time. We're better off, once we're going through hell, to keep going. See earlier reference to salvaging some profit from repairs that get complicated. Much of the time, you have to do the repair to determine whether you will be able to do the repair. Diagnosis and treatment become simultaneous, but that doesn't mean that either one was quick.

All these factors have led to the widespread practice in bike shops, that you drop your bike off one day and live without it as long as you have to, until the poor greasy bastards finally get it done and call you. As we shuffle the queue, we can often juggle the small jobs among the large ones, but any interruption will break the flow. If we have to play phone tag because we discovered expensive complications, we can't proceed until we hear back from the customer. If we keep having to stop and restart a job, that means taking the bike off the stand and setting it aside, or hanging it up, substituting another job in the interim, perhaps several times in the course of a repair, as little urgencies pop up during the day.

Some jobs are just a long slog. Suspension pivots, for instance. Every one has to be disassembled, the bearing extracted, new bearings inserted, with care and precision. That's going to tie up a technician and a stand for a long time. Once you've got that thing in several pieces, you don't want to yank it out of the stand. And our work stands are all optimized to the height of the mechanic who regularly uses it. Changing stands slows you down, because the working height is different, and the tools are all in a different place. It seems like a little thing, but you get used to flowing through a work station with familiar movements.

"How backed up are you on repairs?" someone might ask. The answer these days is about two weeks. We may do better, but we're not going to promise it.

"When will you not be so busy?" is the next question. When I say "September," they think I'm being funny or nasty. This year, of course, we can't really say. In recent years, a lot of the repair business has come from second-home residents and long-term vacationers. Who knows how much we'll see of them this summer. Camps have almost all shut down. But the customers are coming from somewhere. A lot of them are locals digging out bikes because they have the time. Once more people start going back to work -- for better or for worse -- they will be riding less. The whole thing could pinch off in an instant. We could be back to solitary contemplation of our debatable life choices. But that goes on in the background all the time anyway. Nothing really changes, you just get more or less of it at a given time.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Bike boom flash mob

The pandemic has sparked a nationwide -- and possibly wider -- explosion of interest in biking. I should take time to research this thoroughly, but I've been too busy dealing with the influx of repair work.

The abrupt rogue wave of biking interest threatens to swamp the bike industry, which had been declining steadily for years, fed only by interest in limited sectors like smokeless mopeds. Smokeless mopeds reflect the general trend toward lower numbers of unit sales and higher individual unit costs. The demands that new technology places on shops hit small, independent shops particularly hard.

A recent article in Forbes Magazine drew parallels between the 1970s boom and the present one. We must be in a boom if mainstream business magazines think it's worth filling column inches with it. But the author, Carlton Reid, is actually a bike person masquerading as a general transportation writer.

Reid blamed the failure of the 1970s boom in part on "cheap imports." Cheap imports? Can you say WalMart? For that matter, scan the floor on any bike shop today and you will see almost nothing but imports, cheap and otherwise. Even the boutique American bike builders rely on imported components, even if the brand name on them is technically American. In the end, the article does correctly state that the 1970s boom fizzled out because Americans simply lost interest. It tracks nicely on the way we lost interest in ethics and an inclusive society a few years later.

The bike business used to be an outpost of freedom. The machines were simple enough that shops could sell and service a lot of them with fairly low overhead costs, and individual owners could easily master the care and repair of their machines, if they were so inclined. The 1970s bike boom relied heavily on the public's interest in reducing petroleum use, and the sense of freedom that bikes represented. The fact that the Baby Boom was bringing the biggest surge of youth and optimism in human history didn't hurt sales, either. A lot of people were feeling frisky. Small shops were easy to start and could expand as needed to serve local interest.

The arc of the mountain bike boom reflected a similar pattern, but with the fatal flaw of rapidly mutating technology. In the 1970s boom, buyers were advised to buy a bike with the best frame they could afford, on which they could hang nicer and nicer componentry as their budget allowed. There was even a progression of upgrades: do the wheels first, then the brakes, then the drive train. Change the saddle to one that suits you. Dial in the stem length and bar width. Maybe you'd prefer to do derailleur and crank upgrades before brakes, because "brakes are just for stopping." Owners were encouraged to think of their bikes as just a starting point for improvement and personalization. When the mountain bike boom took off with the advent of integrated shifting systems and experiments in suspension, the things an owner could change incrementally dropped rapidly to nearly nothing.

The 1970s bike boom coincided with a recession. So did the late 1980s to mid 1990s of the mountain bike boom. This could have contributed to public interest in recreational transportation that didn't require the expense of fuel, licensing, insurance, and vehicle registration. As the economy took off in the later 1990s, complexity and expense of the bikes was also rising. And then in about 2000 the public wandered away again.

Expensive gasoline in 2008 almost brought us back. We saw a huge increase in bike commuting for about a month and a half. Our floor stock had already shifted mostly to path bikes, some road bikes, and a handful of low end mountain bikes, reflecting the kinds of inquiries we were getting from our clientele. Anyone who had kept mountain biking after the boom busted wasn't even asking us anymore. We didn't see those customers until the last couple of years when they suddenly re-emerged, expecting us to have carried a torch for them during their long absence. And they hardly constituted boom numbers at best.

If you take a starving person and stuff them with food, they will probably die. If you take a hypothermic person and suddenly rewarm them they will probably die. If you take a moribund industry and suddenly slam it with consumer demand, it may not die, but it won't be able to sustain a boom. Add the fact that production and distribution were already disrupted by the coronavirus and the boom falls off a cliff as soon as stock on hand sells through.

On the repair side, we are inundated, and none of the repairs are cheap and quick. It's a classic example of how you can be working your ass off and still lose money. We don't outright lose money on each individual repair, but the time it takes to make it reduces the margin we can devote to overhead expenses and necessary re-supply. Many of these bikes look like they were buried in someone's back yard for several years and were dug up only because a quarantined person was rototilling for a garden and hit them. Or they were under an inch of greasy dust in the back of a garage. Or hung under a dripping plumbing pipe in the basement. Mixed with these are the beloved steeds of regular riders who want them back as quickly as possible.

In our first few days of contact commerce after weeks of locking people out I can confirm that customers are a great way not to get any work done. Yesterday was our first Saturday with the doors open. We sold almost all of our remaining assembled floor stock of bikes, which meant that no one was doing any actual wrenching a lot of the time. Customer interaction is made more cumbersome by the need to mask up, sanitize, and maintain distance, but without the precautions brought on by the disease we would have more people in the store, and added demands like rentals. And a few people have been fractious or irate about the precautions. That hasn't blown up into a full-fledged incident yet, but we're only talking about a few days so far.

The fact that we are busy gives some people the mistaken impression that we're making bank. Far from it. We haven't been able to fill stock on bikes, clothing, and other categories that help support the needs of the store. We haven't sold anything but the few bikes we managed to get from the incomplete fulfillment of our preseason orders. Repairs have required special ordering a lot of parts, which means we get pounded on shipping. You may get free freight on your consumer internet purchases, but businesses have to fork out. We are probably subsidizing all that free freight for the retailers who are destroying brick and mortar commerce.

Summer income will be diminished by the sensible restriction of travel and interaction. Then comes the usual doldrums of autumn, followed by a winter seriously in doubt. Our winter business relies entirely on human contact: ski sales, ski rentals, lessons, and ski services for people going to areas where people gather in crowds to use their skis. Winter tourism relies on lodging, dining out, and squeezing into buildings when not out in the cold air. As badly as we are hurt by fickle weather, if people can't even show up it won't matter how good the trail conditions are.

If the ski business is a complete bust, I would push heavily to get people to bring their bikes in for real in-depth service when we have time to dig into it and they don't have the urgent desire to get out on them. Complete overhauls are not cheap, but I can assure you that an annual "tune up" is not adequate to take care of the inner workings of most bikes. This would also be the time to get your suspension pivots rebuilt, and all the other time-sucking minutiae of modern bike ownership. It's all part of the cost of ownership. Would such an appeal work? I don't know if we'll even get to make it. And if we get a ski season, winter is the worst time to bring bikes to us.

For now, we just have to get through the current wave of demand.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Cleaning up the greasy buildup

The repair queue continues to serve up the usual variety of brain teasers and mind-numbing tar pits, often in the same bike.

One customer was willing to sink $500 - $700 into an old Schwein mountain bike  -- really just a frame with some parts hanging on it, as a better alternative than buying the kind of new bike you can get for $500 these days. She wasn't exactly wrong, although the platform she was working from wasn't exactly a piece of buried treasure. I gave her numerous opportunities to bail before either of us committed precious life and resources to the project, but she was determined. The total was $700, not $500, but she was pleased that it was in the range she had estimated. And it's not too bad, even if the frame is scratched and rusty, and it's not the finest example of the components of its day.

Before the coronavirus broke out around here, I had already had to troubleshoot someone's modern marvel of a 'cross bike, which he had fitted with a Wolf Tooth Tan Pan adapter to make a Shimano mountain derailleur work with a Shimano road brifter.

Back in the olden days, if a person wanted a mountain derailleur on their road bike, we hung a mountain derailleur on their road bike. But we're talking really olden days, before the shifting was a system, excruciatingly designed to function only under perfect compatibility with every other piece. Life is much better now for riders, because everything is just so precise and responsive and user friendly. (I think I just threw up a little).

Almost nothing comes with handy printed instructions anymore. You get a little card saying "visit our website for complete instructions." If you're really lucky you get a document with diagrams, that you can read, re-read, skim, and contemplate. If not, you get some spiffy guy in a clean apron performing the simplest form of the procedure on the newest, cleanest example of the product in a video that you have to watch over and over.

Techie troubleshooting like this shares workstand time with greasy junk that looks like its owner lubes it by dropping it into oil rig blowouts.

(Post interrupted by the need to go to work.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Shoppers may safely graze

New Hampshire edges cautiously toward contact commerce. Our shop prepares for limited shopping of our store stock. Shields are up.

My weekly trip to the grocery store was uneventful. I wouldn't have worried much if I hadn't learned from local law enforcement last week that my adversary in the snack aisle incident is a local career criminal considered dangerous. I stepped up my precautions accordingly, as much as one can, short of digging a hole and refusing to come out. Given his CV, I can only hope that his attention span is short. But I do know how energizing a good grievance can be. I've arranged a daily check-in with the cat sitter to make sure that my dependents are cared for in case I don't make it home.

Occasionally I revisit the question of whether to pack some heat when I go out on the bike -- or any other time, for that matter. The answer keeps being the same: by the time you know it would be justified, it will be too late. And it would be useless against 90 percent, or more, of the perils that beset us as riders. As emotionally satisfying as it might be to face down a charging SUV with a barrage of lead, that has way more wrong than right with it. Besides, they seldom come straight at you like that. Those situations evolve rapidly and chaotically. As for career criminals with a history of assault, I readily admit that his skills are probably more honed than mine when it comes to a dust-up. If he were to appear with a gun, the most effective response would be a more dramatic weapon, like a flamethrower.

Other retailers have experienced violent assaults here and there around the country as self-styled freedom fighters literally fight back against the strong request to wear masks and respect distances as the coronavirus romps unchecked. I doubt if anyone who shops at our little outpost would make that much of a fuss. We'll probably just get some pitying looks and snarky remarks from the free and the brave among our clientele. Or they won't show up, knowing that we're wussies, and needing nothing from us anyway.

The people who do need us continue to bring in broken things. Last week it was a suspension rebuild on a full suspension mountain bike and brain surgery on an old Campy Ergopower shifter along with the usual degreasing and reanimation of the dead. This week? Who knows? I have to get in there and see. The queue probably has not shrunk much while I was out. I keep meaning to do a wrap-up of all the curve balls that make up yet another normal week, but the pile of supporting photos has become daunting. I'm at least two weeks behind already.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Angels of Death at the grocery store

This morning I went to get a few grocery items that hadn't made the last list. As a considerate person, I wore a mask. I kind of like it behind the fabric. Once my glasses quit fogging up, it's cozy in there.

Mask use was widespread. This was the first time I'd seen the majority of people covering up. But there were the inevitable few naked faces, mostly adorned with contemptuous smirks. They still kept their distances, so I was content to swing wide and keep shopping. But then I turned down the snack aisle and saw a man and a woman who looked to be in their late 30s or early 40s, fake coughing and sneezing on a masked woman trying to get past them. "If God wants you he's gonna get you," they yelled after her.

I lost it.

"You don't have to be an asshole about it," I said. It degenerated from there. The male charged at me. He was pretty scrawny, but the enemy is not misguided rednecks, it's microbes. He was spewing a bunch of mostly disorganized threatening words, and kept telling me who he was and where he lived, probably to demonstrate that he was not afraid of me.  But he did stop and back up when I thrust a hand out and said, "Back. The fuck. Up." He continued to rant from three or four feet away while I snagged a couple of chocolate bars and retreated out the aisle. We exchanged loud ill wishes as we parted.

A couple of minutes later I ran into a store employee and told him about the situation. I was able to point out the couple to him. Whatever action was taken, I don't know, but a couple of minutes after that the scrawny guy came up six feet away from me, still unmasked, and proceeded to tell me that he was ready any time to have me over to his house for...what, I don't know. I was seriously ignoring him as long as he stayed six feet away.

I'm going to start carrying a boar spear when I have to go out. The crossbar keeps the charging beast from sliding up the shaft and getting too close.

Really, what an unpleasant thought. I gave up bloodthirstiness not long after I got out of my 20s. You don't have to think about it for very long to realize that it's not such a great idea. But our history is built on a pile of not so great ideas, ennobled and mythologized for centuries. The better ideas usually involve not having deadly confrontations, but the people who like deadly confrontations go ahead and start them, and then have to be answered in kind because we do not yet have the ability simply to immobilize them and set them aside while they consider the error of their ways. And you know that the power to immobilize would be abused early and often.

Reminders of the ignorance and malice of people make me want to stay either in the house or deep in the woods where there is no trail. That's not a great option with the ticks coming out heavily. It preys on my mind when I set out on the bike to go to work. I've only done a little so far, due to various schedule conflicts, but I was planning to make it a more regular thing. There's more room and air circulation than on a trail, even if it's exposed to traffic and the vagaries of public opinion.

Tight passing clearances present a challenge to my preferred commuting options. The full route only uses some of the Cotton Valley Trail on the route out of Wolfeboro at the end of the day, but park and ride options use a lot more. There are road alternatives, but they involve left turns at awkward intersections onto high speed roads. The actual speed limit isn't too high, but the herd average certainly is. And commuting time is when impatient motorists are most numerous. Having the right to use the road does not mean that you can assert it without exposure to other people's bad judgment.

If the idiot in the grocery store really gave me the location of his house, all the properties along there are listed to owners with Massachusetts addresses. That would mean that he's not even from around here. And his assertion about a god means that he is inflicting his values on passersby with typical arrogance. The righteous can do no wrong, right? He had quite the potty mouth for a man of god, though. Onward foulmouthed Christian soldiers.

I make no pretense of godliness. My profanity is utterly sincere. I only know that I support my fellow humans in our attempt to prevent the coronavirus from rampaging unopposed. Even the quarantine protesters put on their full tactical costumes and pick up their shootin' irons before going out to make their statement. They dress for the threat they want to face. They lack the true faith and commitment that civil rights protesters had in the 1960s, who went unarmed even though they knew that they would be beaten and teargassed, and dragged across the pavement when arrested. I don't think I could do that. The first thing I felt when that scrawny asshole in the grocery store came at me was the desire to obliterate him physically. What replaced it was a cool calculation, not a godly surge of peaceful acceptance. I don't want to give an unworthy opponent even temporary satisfaction. But that's when I do have to rise to the level of acceptance, that the things I have wanted for the world are uncommon and unlikely, and now their perpetuation is the task of another completely different generation of people. They are free to decide that they don't want them. Ultimately, all I can hope is that things don't get too shitty before I'm tired enough of living to stop doing it, or am forcibly removed.