Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Between earwax and shrapnel...

 When Shimano dedicated itself to index-only, ratcheted shifting in 1990, it ushered in a whole new era of problems in bike maintenance and repair. Not even they knew what all could go wrong. It was also the beginning of a more predatory relationship with customers. As technology proliferated through the 1990s, customers became test pilots for complicated mechanisms being rushed to market to secure a competitive sales advantage while consumers were spending indiscriminately. The industry focused its efforts on redirecting the surge of enthusiasm for riding into a surge of enthusiasm for buying things.

Some changes really are improvements, but did we really need "model years" like cars? Hell no. Lots of people would have been happy to buy bikes that looked the same from year to year and were equipped with simple componentry that performed reliably. But as soon as "Rapidfire" was introduced, the concept had to be refined to replace its initial flaws with newer, flashier ones.

Shimano warned us from the beginning to stay out of the mysterious interior of their magical devices. "You can't fix anything in there, so don't even try." At the time, one of the bike mags had a snippet about a couple of intrepid mechanics who disassembled brand new Rapidfire shifters and reassembled them exactly as they came apart, and the shifters failed to work. This implied that we wrench-monkeys couldn't handle the precision mechanism of tiny parts in perfect synchronization inside those sophisticated shifter pods. Having peeked under the hood, we could believe it. "If it quits working, replace it," said Shimano. Now I wonder if the article was disinformation to discourage exploration. 

Years later, out of necessity, we discovered that the most common reason for a Rapidfire shifter to fail is congealed factory grease. Ralph dubbed it earwax because that's what it looked and acted like. Clean out the earwax and most non-functioning Rapidfire shifters of any generation start to work again. You have to be careful to follow up with a light but persistent oil to keep the mechanism from freezing up later either from residual grease drying out or from micro-corrosion because all of those tiny levers and springs are no longer protected by the original petroleum product. Fun fact: before Shimano factory grease turns to earwax it looks a lot like pus.

When the road version hit the scene, it integrated the shifting into the brake levers. Other manufacturers had to follow suit. Asian componentry had always had an edge because it usually cost less -- sometimes a lot less -- than the top European stuff, notably the coveted Campagnolo. Campy's Ergopower shifters had better ergonomics than Shimano, by keeping the brake lever as a brake lever, and using a thumb lever for the upshift. Campy was also completely serviceable. Many parts transferred from one model year to the next. But it's pricey, and other aspects of the gruppo might guide a rider to choose Shimano. Because corporate warfare was in full swing, you had to commit to the whole package. There was little that you could mix and match. Riders suffer so that corporate coffers can benefit. The world becomes a worse place because the parties in power focus on their power rather than promoting the general welfare and ensuring domestic tranquility.

Shimano road brifters get earwax, the same as their country cousins on mountain bikes. They also suffered from another, more frequently fatal flaw: Strands of Death.

Inside a road brifter, the cable has to turn around a tight radius to travel enough to haul the rear derailleur across eight, then nine, then ten, and now 11 and 12 cogs spanning an ever wider range of diameters. The mountain shifter sits parallel to the handlebar. The pod can grow a bit to accommodate a larger wheel around which the cable is pulled. I have never seen a shift cable blow up inside a mountain shifter. But I see it all the time in Shimano road brifters. Because the shifting mechanism sticks out perpendicular to the bar, the diameter has to stay within a reasonable size to fit into a brake hood. You may have noticed how road lever bodies have gotten progressively fatter over the years. This is only partly to provide a more comfortable grip over the long road miles. That's a good cover story for the need to make more room in there for all the little ratchety bits. Even with that, the drum that the cable rides around torques the cable down pretty hard over a small area, fatiguing it in a matter of months to the point of failure.

Actual time to cable failure depends on use hours, of course. Other variables include cable quality, housing drag, gear range, and riding environment. You might go a couple of years. Conversely, if you're training a lot and racing frequently you will stress the cable more quickly.

Because Shimano's STI road units could not be opened, cable failure frequently jammed the mechanism completely. Cables don't break when you're in top gear where the head of the cable lines up conveniently with the hole through which you install and remove it. They break when you're jamming desperately on a shift to low gear under load. Maximum tension, maximum windup: blam. The cable usually blossoms instantly into a bouquet of fishhooks.

Failure usually takes a while. Riders will report that the indexing has gotten unreliable, and maybe the shifter feels crunchy. But the problem can progress rapidly, from early mild symptoms to shifter-jamming catastrophe in a single ride.

Because we had to work blind in many models, digging out the fragments could take a lot of time and fail to get every piece. Then the rider would have a ghost in there, like that floating piece of cartilage in your trick knee, that floats into a bad position and then out again.

When the shift cables came off the outer end of the brifter, the housing was fully exposed and could in most cases be released from its stops without undoing the cable from the anchor bolt on the rear derailleur. Then you could check the cable for failing strands by poking the liberated bit of slack out the other side of the brifter. Once Shimano routed the shift cables under the bar tape that became impossible. But they did start putting little access hatches into the lever bodies so that broken cables would be easier to dig out. As with many of their remedial actions, they did not call attention to the improvement, probably because they did not want to acknowledge any responsibility for the prior problem.

On Saturday, a rider came in with her Trek gravel bike, complaining that she could "only get about two gears." The bike has hydraulic disc brakes, so it has brifters that have a master cylinder taking up a lot of space in the lever body. The shifting mechanism is pushed way out front, from which the cable has to travel a couple of inches just to get to the cable housing under the bar tape.

The problem clearly went all the way through the shifter.

The head of the cable was all the way down at the bottom of the slot, far from the exit hole.

We were now at the mercy of the designer of this technological marvel. I saw some fasteners: the usual tiny Phillips head screws, and a couple of aluminum Torx nuts that turned out to be T9.39857, smaller than T10, but a sloppy fit for T9. And the heads were annoyingly shallow, making it hard to keep the tool in there securely. But at least I could take the covers off to get at the mess.

 See all the broken wires in there? Even with the mechanism fully exposed it took minutes of careful searching to make sure I got all of them.

 The bike had also been equipped with those crappy coated cables that fill the cable housing with lint and dust as the coating flakes off.

Although the cables run inside the bike frame, the rear had continuous housing. I opted not to yank out the 4mm and put in 5mm because the rider was hoping to get the bike back that day, and I didn't want to risk running into a snag if any part of the system was designed to obstruct 5mm housing. Green coated cables are not as bad as the brown ones that generate a lot more lint. I bet that just going down to 1.1mm uncoated cable would free it up inside the smaller housing enough to get by for a few months. Housing change would have required redoing the bar tape, too. This way we got her out for a bit more of the somewhat nice weather we've been having since the real warm spell ended.

Monday, November 09, 2020

People get dressed upside down

 The weather has suddenly turned upside down here in New Hampshire. The temperature has been at or near 70 degrees (F) during the day for a couple of days now, and the trend is supposed to continue. This after some solid wintry chill leading right into it. New England, right?

Summer-like temperatures aside, I have serious trust issues with November, or any warm spell during what are traditionally cold and nasty months.

Yesterday I had to ride 41 miles on an important errand while I am temporarily without a car. Despite a forecast high temperature of 70, I would be out long enough to worry about the late afternoon chill.With the sun poking up less and less as winter approaches, late afternoon comes earlier and earlier. I saw a few other riders, dressed for the balmy day. Within a couple of years up here I had adopted shorts down to about 60 degrees, but other factors would guide my wardrobe on any given day. Commuting, I am usually on the road before the day gets warm, and headed home after it has begun to cool. It can be pretty miserable, riding with inadequate clothing.

The park and ride commute puts me near other riders a lot more than my road route does, because the path is so popular. Cold weather chases away most pedalers, but mild weather brings them back. I don't actually ride the path except for a little bit in the mornings to cut over to a better access to Route 28 than the busy intersection at North Line Road. I park in a trail access parking area because I might take the trail option the way I used to. For now, though, the going is faster on the road, and I get to log a bit more distance. I see other riders going by the parking area as I'm getting ready to launch, and on the short trail section between Fernald and my exit to rejoin the highway at Hersey Point Road. With the path still crowded with COVID escapees, that's as much as I want to see.

Despite some warm afternoons, the mornings are still cool enough that the Italian Cycling Federation circa 1974 would say to cover up. Tights below 70 degrees! And that was when tights were made of knitted wool. It seemed a little crazy to me until I tried it. The reasoning made sense. Leg covering would be the first thing you added when temperatures dipped, not long sleeves. Because jerseys were wool as well, it was easy to add a tee shirt or something to keep the torso a little warmer. But the legs are doing the real work. They need to be protected from wind chill even at temperatures that might not seem chilly until you are descending at 20, 30, or 40 miles per hour. Even cruising on the flats you could be pulling an easy 18-20.

Not so much anymore. It's more like 15-17.

Path riders on the cool mornings sport vests and jackets atop shorts and bare legs. Granted most of them are riding barely faster than a jogger, and working hard to push plump tires over the unpaved surface. Still, I see plenty of road riders with similar disregard for the muscles and joints that make all of this possible. Get dressed from the bottom up.