Tuesday, June 30, 2020

More service activity

By the end of the week, it's all a blur.

A road bike customer asked whether we could get him short cranks because he's got some sort of calcified tendon problem, and can't bend his knee far enough to get around a pedal stroke on 170mm crank arms.

A quick dip into internet research brought me immediately to Bikesmith Design, a machinist who specializes in exactly what our customer needs. In fact, our customer's brother or brother-in-law or friend or something went to an event in Minneapolis years ago for HPVs and met the machinist, who was already working on shorter cranks because HPVs need them to fit into the confined spaces within fairings on recumbent human-powered speed vehicles.

I got the machinist and the customer talking directly to each other so I could get on with other items in the deluge. Eventually, a couple of sets of little cranks arrived, with detailed instructions for our customer to follow as he explored the limits of his bad leg. One set was 85mm long. Mark, the machinist, suggested that the customer use the 85s on a trainer, because they weren't strong enough for real rides on hilly roads. There was a detailed process to determine what the final crank length should be, as well as a set of 100mm cranks that were fully cleared for road riding. The customer opted instead to have us mount the 100s right away, so he could go try them on the road.

Short cranks don't just lower the top of the stroke, they bring the bottom right up close, too. I raised the seat as much as I could, but the post wasn't long enough to cover 70mm. I sent the customer away with a longer post so he could make the swap after feeling out the new riding position. His fork is cut really short, so the best I could do to bring the bars up was flip the stem. If he reconfigures the bike permanently he will need to replace the fork to get a longer steerer. I don't recommend steep rise stems, and I definitely wouldn't put a big clunky stem raiser on the carbon steerer of the existing fork.

The owner of the Specialized Turbo Como 3.0 ebike we recently assembled came by a few days later and said that she'd had a problem with it not running right. "I just turned it off and back on again," she said. "Then it was fine." Hilarious. The bikes are so computerized that now you can use the classic advice: "Hello, IT department, have you tried turning it off and back on again?"

We assembled another $10,000 mountain bike. This one was shipped here by its owner so he could ride with his buddy, for whom we had built up the new one a couple of weeks ago. Here was a bike that he had owned and ridden for a while, and it shifted like crap. These wide-range drive trains with the 42- or 50-tooth large cogs make all kinds of noises and move really stiffly anyway, but this one looked like it had never been adjusted properly. Nothing was bent, but it threw the chain right over into the spokes without hesitation.

When the owner picked that bike up, he spent the entire time with his phone up to his ear as he monitored an important call.

The heavy hitters are here. One guy called asking for "several road bikes." I was stunned into silence. The pandemic bike frenzy has been big enough to get a few minutes of national news acknowledgement, as well as lots of coverage in the cycling media. But the caller might have been spending a few weeks or months on a private tropical island, having a cleanse and a digital fast. I gathered my wits. They may be few, but they scatter far when I drop them.

"You said 'several road bikes.' Is that to rent or to buy?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah, sorry. To buy. All of my kids are big enough now that I wanted to get them nice road bikes that they won't grow out of."

I explained about the current shortage. Because I believe in providing as complete a picture as possible, I always start by explaining that the bike industry has been in decline for close to 20 years. Next I point out that the coronavirus broke out first where everything gets manufactured these days, torpedoing production before interfering with shipping and distribution as it swept around the globe. Thus, already small planned inventories were reduced even further because factories couldn't meet production targets, just as the public suddenly decided to rediscover bike riding after a long period of neglect. And they all got here a couple of months before you did, my unfortunate friend.

That may seem like a lot of unnecessary detail, but anything less makes the bike industry look sloppy and negligent, and retailers look like slackers. The bike industry is tech-obsessed and self-sabotaging, but they're not sloppy or negligent about it. It isn't even entirely their fault that the public lost interest at the end of the 20th Century. The mountain bike boom had already lasted almost twice as long as the 1970s ten speed boom did. The true believers in the surviving form of mountain biking were always a minority, but they were firmly enough addicted to form the nucleus of the addict pool that the industry farms today. The general population changed hobbies the way they always do.

Now they're back. We'll see where it goes. I doubt if it will last a year, let alone ten or fifteen. Meanwhile, our particular shop operates in an area where most of the categories have attracted a handful of adherents who come in on a regular basis to keep our brain cells challenged.

The owner of a Yamaha smokeless moped that he bought last year from somewhere else had had it shipped to us to assemble. This year, he brought it in because "it's making a grinding noise when I pedal hard." This is the same guy who didn't notice that he had Biopace chainrings for the first ten years that he owned his mountain bike, and then brought it in one day concerned because the chainrings had somehow turned oval. It was conceivable that he had only just now noticed that a mid-motor ebike makes noises when the motor engages. However, grinding might be a sign of something actually amiss. He mentioned that he'd read things on line from owners of the same brand who complained of grinding noises.

The Yamaha is light enough that I can actually lift it into the work stand without my little block and tackle rig, as long as it's early in my work week, and I got almost a good night's sleep the night before.

There was play in the bottom bracket. Or was it the bottom bracket? The crank axle disappears into the motor housing, engaging who knows what in there. I could see the face of a sealed bearing on each side. The play wasn't in those bearings. The motor itself was shifting. Under hard pedaling, this could cause gears to engage improperly. The owner said that he had tightened the mounting bolts and the noise had become worse.

I put a wrench on the bolts. They did not want to turn. They seemed bottomed right out. So I undid them, greased the dry threads, and reinstalled them. They torqued down properly instead of binding up. The motor no longer wiggled. There was a faint trace of play in the bottom bracket bearings themselves, but I couldn't do much about that. It was almost imaginary.

The bike made no alarming noises on a test ride. I called the customer to report that we had finished with it, and suggested that he should start a warranty claim with the original dealer if it made any further noises. I had also changed the chain, which was worn almost to the end of the gauge, and absolutely black with grimy lube.

The rate of repair check-ins seems to have slowed. In any normal season we would get these pauses, sometimes long enough to be alarming, but this is not a normal season. There's a blend of exuberant wealth, sober caution, and reckless, pent-up sociability. The people with money seem very happy. The reckless are ready to run out and embrace life, which sounds great until you consider how they are also exporting death and expecting everyone to be okay with that. Color me cautious, but I'm not going to bother to confront anyone outside of my job, because I don't need to get coughed on by some psychopath.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Pushing through headwinds of contempt and hostility

As a commuting cyclist who rides close to 30 miles on the basic route to work and back, I have spent years in the public eye. Even though the vast majority of drivers make at least some effort to accommodate bike riders, there will generally be at least one a day, on average, somewhere along the route, who will emanate some kind of negativity. It might be as mild as squeezing past at an intersection or as blatant as an actual assault. The worst infractions are quite rare, but you never know when one will come, so you ride in a constant state of tension. Anyone passing could have a bad attitude and the means to inflict it on you.

Pandemic precautions have created another way in which we can judge each other. Any venture out in public now puts you on display, subject to public comment and reaction for your clothing, equipment, and behavior.

At work, we continue to follow protective measures, and continue to take some degree of crap for it every single day. I am fortunate that the management takes the situation seriously, so we're all in the fight together. Any time I have to go to any other business I have to wonder what sort of yahoos will be there, as patrons or staff. The grocery store I use most often is doing the best it can, but the high number of selfish idiots is overwhelming. Basically, I don't go anywhere. I hardly did before, but I miss having the option.

On Sunday I drove because of the forecast for severe thunderstorms by the time I would be trying to ride home. This meant that I came in the back way, on Mill Street, past a church a couple of hundred yards from our parking lot. It's a repurposed building, not a classic New England white church with a steeple. The parking lot was full. A dense crowd of people sprawled over the grounds around a large tent in which a stage had been set up with sound equipment for a band. Almost no one wore masks or stayed very far apart. I wouldn't have gotten as good a look if I had ridden, because I would have come in on Main Street and turned down Mill Street from the top.

I got to the shop, parked, put my mask on, and went inside. Because two of our staff had unavoidable matters to attend to, only El Queso Grande and I were available to work.

Repairs continue to come in at least as fast as they go out. Parts may not be available for various reasons. Customers know now that they can't expect a quick turnaround, but that doesn't mean that we can float through in slow motion. And we still get people who -- for various reasons -- want our attention more urgently.

About an hour into the day, a local dentist showed up with his kid, with some sort of mechanical problem with Junior's mountain bike. They picked up masks from our display in the  entryway, but Baldy took no more than a half a dozen steps into the shop and pulled his mask down, first exposing his nose, and then his whole germ-hole. El Queso Grande asked him to pull it back up. Baldy said, "I wear an N95 all day at work. I know about this stuff."

Yes. And? What does that have to do with wearing this mask, now, incorrectly, when you are in a high risk profession that increases the chance that you may have been exposed? Is the N95 just marketing theater so your patients won't know that you cough all over the place between appointments? Why don't you just wipe off the dental tools in your armpit? Disclaimer: I do not know or guess that he does such a thing. But if he's so blase about precautions in other people's businesses, how serious is he about people's safety in his own?

Think of yourself as a gun. Your breath is your ammunition. If you are not sick, you're loaded with blanks. If you are sick -- even without symptoms -- you're loaded with live rounds. You can injure or mortally wound anyone you hit. Unless you live under very strict isolation, you don't know whether you're dangerous. In any firearm safety class, you learn to treat every gun as if it's loaded. That's one of the touchstones of gun reverence: every "good" gun owner observes that fundamental safety principle. It's a myth, of course. Gun handlers relax that perpetual vigilance and get away with it, until they don't. No one can be perfectly careful all the time. We're only human.

Once asked, the dentist kept his mask in place for the rest of the service visit, including outdoors. But we shouldn't have to keep slapping people straight on this. It's like something out of a movie. We're inside our building, looking out at the pod people milling around waiting to assimilate us.

The repairs continue to inspire improvisation. A local camp brought in a mountain bike from their program, with a freehub body that wouldn't freewheel. With extreme force I could get it to shift slightly back and forth. I could hear the collapsed pawls crunching over ratchet teeth, and something else that I couldn't identify.

The hub was tastefully anodized red to match the bike. It had no brand markings at all. The bike was a KHS. The hub could be made by any number of companies that provide house-brand OEM parts. I had to figure out if the freehub body was removable, and if so, how. Some have a bolt that goes in from the drive side. Some have a bolt that goes in through the non-drive side. Some have the freehub body riveted on, in which case the whole hub would be junk. We had no new replacement wheels in stock, and our one salvaged wheel was dirty, but actually a little too sophisticated to waste on this bike. 

After I removed the axle, I found the wrench flats on the bolt, accessed through the non-drive side. I put the long end of a 12mm hex key into the buried bolt, with a 12mm box wrench around the hex key to provide sufficient leverage (with a cheater pipe) to break the bolt loose. Once I had the body out I could compare it to various pictures on supplier websites to see if I could order a whole new body.

No I could not. So then I had to disassemble the body to see if I could fix the pawls.

The interior was a fairly standard configuration, with three pawls held in place with a circular spring. The spring had broken, allowing the pawls to shift out of position. This, combined with the broken fragments of the spring itself, had jammed the mechanism. The pawls and their recesses had not fractured, so if I could replace the spring I could reassemble the freehub body. The 50 tiny ball bearings in two sets of 25 were actually held in such a way that putting them back in place would be much easier than on a Shimano freehub of similar design.

Freehub ratchet springs aren't standardized. We don't have a drawer full of them. They're not a common salvage item when we part out a wreck. I'll tell you what though: they're going to be. This time I scoured the shop and racked my brain for something I could use. Ultimately I thought to dig in our bin of salvaged shifter parts, where I found a circular spring from a SRAM trigger shifter we'd parted out several years ago. We'd gone this long without needing it for a shifter. I snagged it to modify for the freehub. The shifter spring had two loops of slightly heavier gauge than the single loop of hair-fine pawl spring. But the diameter was perfect. I cut a section and test-fitted it. It was beefier, as expected, but I could turn the freehub ratchet without clenching my fist and gritting my teeth. I would have to reassemble the whole thing to know for sure.

The reassembled freehub had a stiff, expensive feel, and sounded like a star ratchet. The stiffer spring really snapped the pawls out. It only pushed the chain very slightly in the highest gears. Maybe it'll wear in. Their other choice would have been to wait for parts that may not be available for months. We might even start a little side business making faux star ratchets for people who want to boost their image in the riding group.

A mountain bike with shifting problems turned out to have, among other things, a tiny rock jammed in the pivots of the rear derailleur.
The penny is there to show scale.
The rock was inside the parallelogram as indicated by the arrow.

Fancy wheels on a road bike I assembled had very important information printed on both sides of the rim at the valve, in print so tiny you would need a microscope to read it.

Another customer had brought in an early 1970s Raleigh Super Course that he found in the house he's renting. He said he had always ridden mountain bikes, and wanted to try road riding. We discussed his options to get the old classic in rideable shape.

Check it out: ten speeds. And it has a cycle computer:
The geometry is a lot like the Cross Check. The frame has middling long chain stays and long dropouts. There's room for fenders above somewhat plump tires. The Cross Check has more modern hub spacing and room for wider tires, as well as canti bosses for powerful rim brakes, but its ancestor here has the general configurations to be able to ride a lot of what would be considered "gravel" today, as well as getting around more than adequately on pavement. This specimen is heftier than later versions because it's old enough to have the steel Stronglight crank.
In the late afternoon on Sunday, a couple brought in a Peugeot that had probably come from the European market in the early 1970s. It looked like your basic UO8 at first glance, but it had 700c wheels and an alloy crank. It still had the steel death rims with the totally useless pattern that's supposed to improve braking, but only makes it a little noisier. At least they appreciated its classic appeal. It's just a loaner while they're visiting family.

I come out of the work week totally thrashed. Days off melt away as I try to do all the things I don't have time and energy for in the margins of each work day. This morning I lay in bed feeling like I'd been poured into a mold and set up there. Bike commuting does take some of my energy, but even when I drive I seem to hit the ground running when I get home and fall into bed around midnight, with nothing to show for it. It's more of a determined stumble than  a run.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Meanwhile, in the repair shop

"Loose bottom bracket."

I guess so:
It looked like a culvert.

Interesting contrast with the Specialized Como ebike I assembled after that. We'd been resisting smokeless mopeds, but a longtime customer wanted to order one to have here so she wouldn't have to transport her other one from her winter home. We'd assembled other smokeless mopeds for summer customers. It had been pretty straightforward. We didn't have to mess with the brains, just the bikier parts.

Not this time. A large yellow sheet of paper and several stickers warned us to UPDATE FIRMWARE. Just follow this simple flow chart:
Torin volunteered his computer to communicate with the mother ship at Specialized. The update process was simple enough. A couple of cables, a few minutes. A little technology break. If we were going to make it a regular thing, the shop would have to buy its own laptop, but we'll take that as it comes. All of that offsets the slim margins on those bikes. The small profit is camouflaged by the almost $3,000 price tag. And that's just a fairly basic model.

As we consider easing into it, I remember how the evolution of suspension technology increased our costs for offering that service until we discontinued it because it was too costly to keep up with the constant changes requiring new tools. To break even on the investment we would have had to draw service business from a wide area and dedicate permanent space to it. Will the same be true with the changes to electric bikes? It seems likely. So far, we have been able to take it case by case.

I'm sick of wearing a mask, too...

Saturday morning started on an up note when a guy who prunes trees for a living and took a biology class 20 years ago told us authoritatively that masks do nothing and that global pandemics are an inescapable hundred-year phenomenon. Any glance out the back window confirmed that the vacationing public agrees with him and is ready to let nature take its course. We face a high barrier in attempting to inspire widespread respect for the disease and for each other.

It's not just vacationers. The local mason who rebuilt the top of the older chimney at my house stated his own belief that H1N1 was worse and that Covid-19 is just like the flu. He is one of many who doubt the seriousness of the current disease, or who embrace the death toll as beneficial culling. It's all blown out of proportion by The Media.

The broadcast media have done their best to carry on the traditions of yellow journalism since the beginning of the Age of Infotainment began in the 1980s. I suppose it really goes back to the 1970s and the rise of morning news programs like Good Morning America. I'm old enough to remember black and white television and newscasters who sat there wearing a gray suit and a black tie and just presented the news. My father would get home from his government job and watch the six o'clock news before supper. It fit the mood of a world constantly on the brink of nuclear destruction. Simpler times. Now everything is elaborately produced and set to dramatic music. Half the people are sucked in by the effects and the other half are dangerously skeptical of absolutely everything they see. This does not produce a functional balance of points of view. It just rips us apart along yet another line of perforation.

Our shop will continue to observe precautions and endure being labeled as foolish cowards. Fine with me. We have a long way to go before we find out who was right. Even if there's a huge death toll, the survivors will still argue about whether that's such a bad thing. That debate has already begun.

Decades ago, in the 1970s, I was considering how I wanted to live in an overpopulated and polluted world. If we all did nothing, catastrophic events would probably take care of the problem. If, instead, we slowed our reproductive rate and simplified our lives a little, we could let less drastic attrition ease the numbers down. We could avoid the need for mass casualties. I didn't want to be one of them, therefore I should not ask anyone else to be one of them. It seems pretty simple.

That's not how it went.

The American experiment is more than just a political exercise to determine whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal can long endure. It's a complete submission to the forces of evolution. The complete dissolution of the republic is the natural conclusion of an obsession with personal freedom and the pursuit of pleasure. Some people will want a cohesive and supportive social system. Other people with legally equally valid opinions will want chaos. Opinion covers the whole spectrum between authoritarian monoculture and total disintegration. Mix it all together and see what comes out.

The mask debate makes life more difficult than it already was. Any venture out in public not only involves the basic risks of human contact, but the added risks of emotional reactions inspired by the mask itself. I'm really tired of wearing one, but it still seems like a partial defense. A partial defense is better than no defense. The latest hopeful drug, for instance, only reduces mortality by maybe 20 percent in the patients already sick enough to need respiratory support. That's hardly a magic bullet, but it indicates a possible line of weakness in the virus that researchers can follow further. There's even a story going around that COVID19 is weakening and will die out on its own. Is this information helpful when we have no idea yet why that would be happening and whether purposeful interventions have played any part? Someone who skims the headlines will see only that the already over-hyped disease really is just fading out by itself. Take that stupid mask off! Be a man!

The problem with a disease, especially one with a pretty long incubation period, is that you don't feel anything right away. Food poisoning hits you within hours. Someone sneezes on you and you feel yourself getting a cold within a day or two. A gunshot hits you right away. Same with a punch in the face. We can understand direct cause and effect perils much better than the invisible progression of a microbial invasion. We grow up learning about the dangers of fire, and falling off of things, and having things fall onto us, and drowning, and interpersonal violence. We can connect the dots when we see them. Micro-droplets of breath moisture that may or may not be infected don't seem real enough to excuse a change in behavior.

Summer has brought an increase in customers even as the bike industry remains unable to provide product. This means more people through the doors, and more arguments about the need for precautions. We've seen people come up the walk, look at our sign requiring masks, and walk away again without coming in. We've had the people with the mask under their nose, and even under their chin. We started renting bikes again, and have to recite our list of rules and procedures to everyone who inquires. Then we have to follow those procedures after decades of muscle memory based on the earlier, more casual process we used to follow. All the while, we do our best to give each other space during the long work day. We spend most of the time masked, and will continue to do so. It really cuts into my compulsive snacking, as well as the excessive hydration necessary to keep the kidney stones at bay. My nose is getting mashed down. And that's just in the sympathetic environment of the shop. I'm really tired of it, but that's not a good reason to give up.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Appointments that aren't appointments

El Queso Grande came up with a smart way to deal with requests for service by appointment. He puts a dated note into the queue, and calls the customer when the note nears the top. It's like a virtual waiting area. All warnings apply: the repair may not be done on the same day. It depends on the actual condition of the bike when it arrives. It does little more than leave the bike in the customer's hands rather than hanging on a hook in our shop, but it lets them ride the bike if it's still rideable.

We've already had one customer ignore the call to come in, and another tell me that she should have just left it in the queue two weeks ago. But the others who have taken the option seem to like it. The shop is stuffed with repair bikes taking the place of the new inventory we can't get, so the virtual queue is a win for everyone.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Fat tip or the price of my soul?

I spent the first couple of days last week putting together a $10,000 mountain bike for a young man who wanted to have one here where he summers rather than transport the one he has already where he spends the rest of the year.

Let that sink in.

Among his few and mild requests, he wanted it set up with the tubeless tire option. It comes with the stems and other widgets, and the tires are designed to work that way. It requires a bit of extra labor to remove the casings, take out the tubes installed at the factory, and install the special spoke hole plugs and tubeless valve stem. Oh, and there's this rim strip that you might or might not need. The instructions are ambiguous on that point, and the internet is full of completely contradictory advice.

Being a belt and suspenders kind of guy, I went for the option that uses plugs and rim strip. After the usual wrestling match to get the tires back on, all I had to do was pour in the sealant, pop on the last bit of bead, and blast the tires into place with the compressor. On every setup I've done with all new components, this has been a quick and simple matter. Move deliberately so as not to dump sealant all over the place, and it should go smoothly.

This time, the beads just did not want to catch. When I finally got that sorted, there was a lot of leakage. It wasn't seeping from any of the usual suspects. The valve stems weren't seating properly.

When trying to make a rim and tire combination airtight without an airtight inner tube to bear that burden, the numerous holes that naturally plague a bicycle wheel all need to be blocked somehow. Standard methods evolved using rim tape, and valve stems with o-rings, but good enough is never good enough for the pathologically innovative. When your company slogan is Innovate to Death, you are obligated to mess with things, even when the previous system was completely satisfactory.

A $10,000 mountain bike symbolizes the decadence of the bike industry. To be fair, the base price was only $9,920.00, but the customer decided to put on $180 pedals in place of the cheapo plastic ones that come standard with most bikes. Because a rider still has multiple options for pedals, most manufacturers (maybe all, I haven't checked) put on something that costs them pennies, rather than try to anoint a winner by installing a specific brand and type that would require a specific proprietary cleat.

Ten thousand dollars. Carbon fiber frame. Full suspension, of course, with sophisticated embellishments requiring extra tubing and pressure chambers just waiting for future failure and servicing.

A bike like this is designed to provide a few seasons of hardcore fun and then be cast aside for the next marvel. If you're in the $10,000 mountain bike bracket, that makes perfect sense. You do the same thing with your $80,000 (or more) car, and any other up-to-the-minute devices that you basically lease from the purveyors of such trinkets. You run a revolving account with the faceless, blameless conveyor belt of obsolescence, to keep getting what you deserve as a power player in the economy.

The customer himself was extremely affable, charming, and at times quite funny. I wonder how he is when things aren't going his way. I suppose it depends on who is giving him the turbulence. If it's a superior in the economic hierarchy, he has to suck it up. This time, his money flowed toward us and he received a product and service in return. He expressed his appreciation numerous times, and even said he owed me a generous tip for my extra labors getting the tires to behave. He said that when I was still working on them.  He wouldn't be getting the bike for another 24 hours. I smiled and said something generally pleasant and gave it no further thought.

The tires finally held pressure the next morning, so I let him know he could take the bike and start shaking it down. Sometimes a build is good for months of use right off the stand with only the most minor of follow-up, like crank arm bolts and maybe a tweak to a cable or two. A mountain bike usually faces a rougher inauguration than a road or path bike, so it might need more attention. On the plus side, this particular customer is willing and able to dial in his own suspension preferences and other personalization without professional help.

The launch of this bike fits interestingly with the services I recently performed for another customer on similar expensive full suspension bikes from about 2012 and 2016. The earlier bike had a leaky fork that had been abandoned by its manufacturer, so the customer had to buy a whole new fork. His final tally for all services on that bike was about $1,200. The newer bike only needed suspension pivots rebuilt, and some attention to the headset, for a total just north of $300. The manufacturers aren't just giving away those bolt and bearing kits. Actual removal and installation takes hours. How many hours depends on how tenaciously some of the bearings might be rusted into place. As I assembled the $10,000 mountain bike I imagined its future needs. Would its owner bother to have it rebuilt like that, or would he unload it and trade up? How different might our world be by the time the bike needs that kind of service? This year we're seeing how rapidly everyone's lives can change.

Are you still thinking about the tip mentioned in the title? I wasn't. I'm always a little on edge around wealthy customers, because they have expectations based on their power, but those expectations vary, and are frequently not expressed directly. We're left to guess who really wants to be treated like just another regular person and who wants some degree of fawning and groveling.

I'm really bad at fawning and groveling. I don't get all rebellious and defiant, I just totally forget to fawn and grovel. All jobs are equal on the workstand. The bikes aren't equal. Some of them are pretty horrendous. But once the machine is clamped in the stand it becomes the focus of attention until it is working as well as time, budget, and its original condition allow. And then it's off. Next!

I forget what I was buried in when $10,000 mountain bike guy came to pick it up. I turned my attention to him to run through what I had done to get the tires to behave, and make sure that he was all set to take on the next phase. He was profuse in his thanks, and proffered a folded banknote. I took it, but did not scrutinize it except to note that it was fairly colorful. I mentally reviewed American currency designs. It was definitely bigger than a ten. Tipping is fairly rare in the bike business, and the denominations tend to be small, in the realm of a bit of coffee money. Meanwhile, we were still running through what he was going to do next and whether he needed any parts or tools he had not already purchased. I forgot about the folded bill until the end of the day when I was packing up to head home.

It was a hundred.

My first feeling was uneasiness. The biggest cash tip I'd ever received here was a twenty. Usually it's a five or a ten if anything. Sometimes a gift card to the coffee shop. Staring at a Benjamin, I wondered what was now expected in return. Instant top priority? Step aside, peasants! Or was it truly just a casual gift of gratitude from someone whose personal economy considers a hundred dollars to be merely a nice gesture?

One hundred dollars is only one percent of the price of the bike as delivered. If the ten grand had been a restaurant tab, the tip would have been at least $1,500, and the purchased meal would turn into a bowel movement within 24 hours. But a server at table provides much more continuous personal service. The server at a high end eating establishment is a performer, enhancing the experience.

I'm not going to complain about an unexpected $100 dropping on me. The septic system at my house is pretty ancient, I'm having the top of the older chimney replaced because its crumbling masonry is letting water in, three cords of firewood will soon arrive in my driveway, the property taxes are due, the car needs registration, inspection, and probably other work, and the "tax cuts" have left my household facing another chunky federal income tax bill despite increasing our withholding to try to avoid the same circumstance that blindsided so many people last year at tax time. El Queso Grande said I should spend it on something fun, but where's the fun in letting debt accrue and your house rot? Not much seems fun to me anyway. The things that still raise a flicker of enjoyment either use things I already own or would require a great deal more than $100 and the time I have available. Groceries alone cost a lot more than they used to.

The other thing that occurred to me immediately was to donate the $100 in various size allotments to several worthy causes.

Are there shops where a $100 tip is not unusual? In places more heavily populated with people in the $10,000 bike bracket, is $100 the new $20? I mean, $50 seems so half-assed.

The whole concept of tipping is kind of weird. We're accustomed to it in certain service settings, most notably restaurants and other food and beverage venues. We tip hair stylists, housekeepers, bartenders, cab drivers, some delivery people. As a bike mechanic, I consider myself skilled and professional. You don't see people tipping their doctor, do you? "Great job on the appendix, Doc! Here, have a car!"

Many professionals  -- like plumbers -- charge so much that no one would consider laying an additional cash bonus on them. Perhaps bike mechanics invite the largesse because we're so obviously clinging to the tattered bottom fringe of the middle class. Either that or stretching our arms upward from the sucking mud of the working poor. Our profession has never reached the stature of auto repair, in which every poor striver with a crapbox car still has to find and pay a well-equipped professional to keep that junker on the road. Maybe the auto mechanic isn't doing any better financially, because the overhead for tools and facilities eats up a lot of the gross receipts, but how often do you walk away from a car repair paying less than an amount that would send your average bike repair customer into screaming fits? In addition, because we don't look like skilled workers -- it's just a bicycle -- no one risks insulting our professionalism by offering the very occasional gratuity. It puts us on a par with the people who change the sheets and clean the toilets and carry trays of food to tables more plain than fancy.

Am I expected to touch my forelock and know my place? Will the relationship be defined by whether a particular benefactor wants to cultivate the common touch or make the stratification more obvious? They depend on us, but do they value us?

Sometimes we have to bid against each other to earn the trade. For instance, when there was another shop in town, a notorious low bidder, we never saw a certain well-known wealthy businessman with a career in politics. He went to the low bidder until the low bidder went under. Now he comes to us. When he does, he's kind of a regular guy. He's just a regular guy with hundreds of millions of dollars, who appears in the news as a major elected official. If another low bidder opened up, would he vanish again? The only factor in our favor is that you would have to be a complete delusional idiot to go into the bike business these days, COVID-19 bike boom notwithstanding. But the news of the surge in bike business has created the mistaken impression in the viewing public that bike shops are raking in the coin. Might someone with a small bankroll and grand dreams think that this is the time to jump in? Stupider things have happened.

Unless you happen to be among the powerful, success depends on negotiating a balance between the service you offer and the attitude you can get away with. That's life for the vast majority of us whether we realize it or not.

Monday, June 08, 2020

All ignored problems are in crisis

The repairs in the queue at the shop are a metaphor for neglected problems. The pandemic bike boom has inspired millions of people across the country to dig out machines that they have ignored for years. It won't last, but for right now it devours time and resources. People are awakening to a need they didn't know they had. After a while, the furor will die down. Gas is really cheap right now, and businesses are reopening. Cycling will be forgotten again until the inevitable resurgence of infection leads to a new round of precautions. But by then we'll be going into winter, so commercial interest will swing to indoor diversions. By next spring we will be living in a very different world, though still beset by the same ancient human failings.

Before COVID-19 took over the headlines we were talking about the crisis in the environment. Then came the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd, and the country erupted in protest over the festering problem of racism and police brutality. Protests on that have flared up every time there is a high-profile case, but nothing gets fixed. This time, many good proposals are circulating to change the oppositional model of policing that combines lethally with underlying bias.

Change requires more than protest. It requires continuous and sometimes tedious contact with decision makers at all levels of government to keep them focused on more than just well-crafted words of inspiration for public display. But protest comes first to underscore the urgent need to fix this problem now. Consider how many times huge numbers of citizens have had to take to the streets just since the beginning of 2017. Every time they have been correct. Those issues remain acute. All problems ignored since the end of the 1960s are coming to a crisis at once.

I don't know what to do about the fact that some people are just assholes. We've all met them: the people who are looking for trouble. They are the result of many influences, susceptible to no single remedy. It's a human problem. In the idealized notion of a police force, our protectors in uniform are there to provide the muscle for citizens who are victimized by people who came to them looking for trouble. I have been grateful for sympathetic police officers a few times when they happened to be nearby in a confrontation with bullies in motor vehicles while I was riding my bike. I have also been stopped and ordered off of a highway by an officer who did not know -- and was in no mood to hear -- the actual laws regarding cycling on Maryland roadways at that time. As abuses of power go, it was nothing. I just had to wait for him to speed away and I could pull back onto the pavement and continue as I had been. It was 1982. The officer was black. We weren't hearing about police murdering people of color, or white people having any particular advantage in an arrest situation.

In my life I have been harassed by far more white people than Black people. This includes every event that crossed the line from unpleasant expressions of free speech to actual assault. If you say the word "criminal" to me, I imagine someone who looks like a redneck, or an untouchable dude in a suit. The vast majority of the people who have gone out of their way to be assholes to me have been "my own people." I would venture to say that "my own people" take the greatest pride in being assholes to other people. Is that what makes us "the master race?" Great.

It really hits home for bike riders when a racist, fascist asshole in full bike garb decides to be the terror of the bike path and brings national attention to himself as "a cyclist." All the news stories feature "cyclist" in the headline. Way to represent, dickhead.

While the protests and discussion center on the latest manifestations of the four centuries of white supremacy that have gone into the creation of our republic, our country's reprehensible approach to health care continues to burden all of us with higher costs and greater inconveniences as the novel coronavirus continues to spread. The systems of both personal and public health display more defects than competency. These defects, coincidentally, affect people of color more than white people. And the trouble and expense are just beginning, especially as Americans tire of the restrictions recommended to reduce the spread of the disease. They run out to mingle, feeling like they've paid their dues and deserve to get away with yet another indulgence. A young twerp came into the shop yesterday without a mask.  He insisted that he was fine because he "hadn't been sick with anything in over a year." He went on to say that we were "backward" up here for continuing to observe precautions when the rest of the country is opening right up. He did stand six feet away after moving outdoors at the shop owner's request, but he wouldn't don the free mask we provided to remain indoors to complete his business.

As racism and police brutality overshadow COVID-19, COVID-19 overshadowed climate change and all other attention to environmental rape and pillage. Atmospheric CO2 just hit a new record level, and this May was the warmest on record. Interwoven with all of this is income inequality and the injustices perpetrated by concentrated wealth. If individual citizens are to be allowed unlimited wealth, government by the people demands corresponding leverage by the government to rein in the excesses of the wealthy. Is that going to happen? If so, how? Money is the real power. Citizens who vote to give a government responsibility must also vote to fund the government to execute those responsibilities. Otherwise, power rests solely in the hands of those who can pay for it. That's un-American even by the original white male supremacist standards of the US Constitution. The dreamers who framed that document imagined a nation of free people who prized education and had a sense of moral decency. I don't mean morals in the prissy sense of sexual repression and self righteous piety. I mean genuine identification with the challenges that we all face as human beings. James Madison's expectation that the wealthy would appreciate the contributions and indispensable value of the less well-off was practically communistic. It was certainly naive.

The saying "what goes around comes around" is not true. If you are in the privileged class and wealthy enough, you can dish out far more than you ever take in return. If you bought the police force, you can reasonably expect to be treated as a preferred customer. If you have no empathy, no compassion, and no moral compass, you're nothing but a menace to society. This can be expressed through direct personal violence, but is often expressed far more subtly by the ways in which income is gained and funds are bestowed. You can look like a good citizen and a pillar of the community. You can look like a harmless, fun loving, downright liberal kind of person.

A lot of us harmless, fun loving, downright liberal people were somewhat blindsided by the resurgent power of open racism since the public gains of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Once the firehoses were put away and the dogs were kenneled and the police forces started to be integrated ("They call me Mr. Tibbs"), virulent racism seemed to be defanged. There were still jokes, but they seemed more like jokes on the racists themselves, until you tuned in closely. Or maybe we knew some people who just wouldn't be cured, but we perceived them as powerless vestiges of a dying system. Martin Luther King Jr. himself had believed that the arc of history bends toward justice. You wouldn't think so now. Or at least you'd have to admit that many more hands than we realized are holding its metal and doing their best to bend it toward segregation and social stratification.

All problems intersect. Industrialized resource exploitation leads to environmental degradation and warfare. Warfare and environmental degradation lead to displaced populations. Displaced populations make their way to safer places, bringing cultures into conflict. Colonizers export their beliefs to the lands they enter, bringing cultures into conflict. And some cultures are pretty unlikable if you envision a world where we can all be harmless, fun loving and downright liberal. Colonizers using kidnapped labor set up centuries of conflict in the lands to which they imported that labor. Consumerism leads to resource depletion. Consumers judge their consumption based solely on whether they can afford it monetarily, rather than analyzing its wider social and environmental impacts. What example do they have, after all? The wealthy have forever taken the best that they could afford because they could afford it. Only the exceptional few make prodigious efforts to give a lot back, and that's only after they've profited massively from business as usual. Those few do a service to their lesser-known economic peers who put out a lot less, because they create an image of wealthy generosity, and bring up the averages for the whole bracket.

Underlying nearly every other problem is the idea that it's a good thing to want to have as much as you can get, and to keep trying to get more. We have pity and contempt for people who can't stop drinking, or can't control their sexual urges, or who can't stop themselves from pilfering things in stores, or a host of other compulsions, but we make heroes and role models of the people who seize control of as much of the money supply as possible and then dribble it out to the rest of us at their whim.The best salaries go to the people who support that system. The common good is judged by what's good for the people who already have it good.

There's a deep fear that if we make life too enjoyable for too many people they'll just lie around and breed like rodents. They'll gnaw and burrow and proliferate out of control. The benefits of civilization have to be earned by virtuous toil at prices often set by investors looking to profit personally, not divide the spoils among all the working participants. This can be less true among genuine small businesses whose gross revenues don't allow for a lot of profiteering from the top. The basic cost of even a poorly paid employee takes a big bite out of a small operation's income. And a poorly paid employee might not be the best expenditure compared to hiring someone with actual skill and trying to retain them. This describes a challenge facing small bike shops as equipment gets more and more complicated, but revenues are stagnant or declining.