Monday, November 15, 2021

Bike season without end

The total avalanche of repair demand has ceased, but repairs still come in. They're jamming up with the demands for ski services. I may be in grease one minute, and Norway the next.

Not just a ski service but a really traditional ski service: this pair of wooden skis needed the bases coated with pine tar. The really good pine tar is hard to get. You can find stuff intended for horses' hooves, but it doesn't act the same way under the torch, and it definitely doesn't smell as nice. The smell of pine tar is like the sound of bagpipes: people are either attracted or repelled. At our Jackson shop, which was located in the base lodge, lots of skiers would walk into the cloud and express their opinions freely. Everything was a public performance in a theme park. The guests felt very entitled to critique the performance, as if every action was staged for their entertainment.

The model name of the skis was an added benefit. I can say I have actually cleaned Tur-Letts for a living.

The repair queue never ceases to present comparisons of old and new. A local enthusiast brought in a ProFlex I would date to about 1994. 

In the background you can see a 2021 specimen.

The owner of the ProFlex wanted it totally done up, modernized enough to improve its function, but only to make it better at what it was in the beginning: the first stages of full suspension for the masses. ProFlex tried to make serviceable and affordable full suspension. Their vision was aided by how little we knew about suspension and the determination of riders to destroy things. But this one already had important early conversions to improve strength. The coil springs were much stronger than the original design with elastomers on a center rod. The elastomer rear suspension tended to fold up if a kid rode a long wheelie. Ask me how I know that.

Routing the cable for the rear linear pull brake was actually a little tricky, since the bike was designed for center-pull cantilevers. On the fork it was simple enough, but the rear cable was routed through the seat tube. That made a very awkward bend to connect to the side-pull linear pull brake, if I went through the designed pathway. Leading the cable around the outside, it could easily get snagged on the crank arm unless secured to the frame. I hate depending on zip ties, but linear pull brakes are superior to cantilevers for mountain bikes, and I don't like to mix brake types by having linear pull on one end and center-pull canti on the other. Brake action should be symmetrical.

Mixed in with the full-suspension timeline was this Specialized exhibiting many of the modern characteristics of carbon frames, but with the last of the 135mm rear hub spacing, 26-inch wheels, and a fixed-length seatpost. Like finding a stone ax with a carbon fiber handle.

Speaking of seatposts, dropper and suspension posts mostly have a threaded collar securing the fixed and movable portions of the post. I almost invariably find these collars loose, often very loose.

The continuing march of smokeless mopeds included this clunky monstrosity still waiting for parts a couple of months later:

That's a funny way to spell "anchor."

This Schwinn smokeless moped was actually a solid, decent product as smokeless mopeds go:

Even if the wheels turn out to have mysteriously exploding spokes, because the bike is a mid-drive, the wheels are just conventional disc-brake wheels, easily replaced or rebuilt. A solid conservative entry in the marketplace.

Many of the bikes that come in for service are covered with greasy crud. We've tried all sorts of cleaning products and methods to work around our lack of a real parts washer and dedicated bike-only workshop space. When I saw a product called Speed Degreaser on the QBP website, I picked up a can to test it out.

It really does blast away many forms of chain crud and accumulated greasy dirt, although I did find its limits in some of the baked-on grime that has come along during my test period. And it's about like huffing ether. So, as a nuclear option it has a place, but regular use probably indicates a growing chemical dependency.

Accessory companies are always offering smaller and lighter minimalist tool kits for a rider to bring along and not really be able to fix anything because they have no leverage. Here is my entry in the nanotool category, the absolute smallest 5mm hex key you can get:

That's actually the stub of a 5mm hex key that I was cutting down to use in a very restricted space on the ProFlex restomod. Back when we sold ProFlex, Ralph and I made low-clearance 5mm wrenches, but I couldn't find any of them, so I had to make a new one. It provided a nice visual for a cartoon I was going to do anyway, about nanotools.

With so many customers forced to shop online to find bikes for themselves and their offspring, we're picking up a lot of service work on the products that actually get through to them. One little BMX bike made me aware of a trend that had developed in headset design, particularly in that category of bike.

For decades, forks had threads on the outside. The fork was held into the frame with a headset that fastened with a top cone and locknut that threaded down the outside of the fork, essentially fastening the fork into the frame like a big bolt. 

In the 1990s, faced with a huge wave of abusive riders and inexperienced mechanics, the industry came up with a headset that required a fork with no threads.

This rapidly became the norm, spawning its own set of complications and drawbacks. Be that as it may, at least you knew what to expect. But now a category of headset that looks like the threadless type has developed threads on the inside of the steerer tube.

To adjust this correctly, you need a threaded top cap that goes directly into the fork, rather than being secured with a bolt that goes down through it into some sort of anchored nut pressed into the inside of the steerer tube. The bike shown here had defectively-machined threads, so the top cap can't go in far enough to secure the mechanism. There is no tap available to tidy up the threads. The way products are made and distributed these days, the company can't even send the guy a fork. There is an alternative fastening system that they are sending, that goes in from the bottom of the fork, because the typical threadless anchor system is not designed to fasten securely inside an internally-threaded steerer.

We get a lot of garden cart wheels in need of tires. On this one, the wheels were rusted onto the axle, so the customer dropped the whole axle and brought it in.

Two wheels is two wheels. I clamped the axle in the work stand and changed the tires with it hanging there.

I rag on the weird mutant stuff we see these days, but every so often something comes in from the Pleistocene Era of mountain bikes to remind me of the mutants I didn't have to deal with too much, because I was out of the bike business during the mid and late 1980s while a lot of crazy things seemed like good ideas to product designers.


I spent my last couple of days off getting my car worked on. I had the good fortune 32 years ago to find the best mechanic anywhere. He wasn't very near where I lived at the time, and then I moved further away, but he has never been wrong and has never wasted my money. Poor people have to consider quality over convenience. But it's a bigger undertaking to come off of my wretchedly degenerated riding schedule since the end of regular commuting, and crack off back-to-back 40-mile days over hilly terrain. Fortunately, the weather was nice, but 40 felt like the new 100 for me, especially the second day.

The new Brooks seat with the cutout is great for drying small laundry at rest stops:

My liner gloves had gotten sweaty by the time I stopped for snacks and water. I'd left home in the morning chill, and now the day was getting up around 60F (15.5C to the rest of the world).

To make the last of the route I resorted to the old Superman juice: cognac and coffee. Back when bike racing was an art, not a science, a guy who was racing at a much higher level told us about that concoction as the secret potion for long races. I'd used it for events over 100 miles. Combined with a strategic dose of ibuprofen, it got me through this grind in good shape.

The proportions are critical. Too heavy on the coffee and you just get an acid stomach and jagged energy with nothing behind it. Too much cognac and you don't care if you get there or not. Done right it is truly remarkable. I could feel it kick in and wear off. You only get a couple of rounds out of it at most before your body calls bullshit and declares that it is really, truly fried.

I say every winter that I will be more dedicated to maintaining fitness like I used to. Hey, it could happen.

It's tough getting old:

Monday, November 08, 2021

Bitch bitch bitch about the time change

Social media is full of the semiannual carping about all aspects of moving the clocks. Lots of people have no idea which is Daylight Saving Time and which is Standard Time, they just know that it's stupid and they hate it.

I never gave much thought to Daylight Relocating Time until I started riding a bike a lot. When I was training to race, I had to calculate whether I had enough daylight for a training ride after work. When I was commuting -- and I still do -- I have to decide whether to risk riding in dusk and darkness. The jet lag aspect didn't "dawn" on me until I was over 50.

Human time is an artificial grid laid over natural time. Plants and animals respond to light and darkness. Humans do too, which causes most of the friction between metered time in general, and mandated displacements of the schedule in particular. Since humans already have the constant stress of accommodating artificial time, which goes unnoticed because it has been normalized for generations, the extra squeeze of switching the clocks provokes whines and squeals. Especially now that the Internet can broadcast and magnify such things, it has become a spring and fall bitchfest that has even led to legislative proposals to stay sprung forward or hold back and make Standard Time the unalterable standard.

With so-called Standard Time only in effect from the first Sunday in November to the second week of March, the so-called Daylight Time has become the de facto standard, because it occupies more of the year. If we were to stay one way or the other, I would prefer the later sunset, although I have a lot of trouble waking up when it's still dark out. Who invented that anyway? And who was the sadistic bastard who came up with the alarm clock, to yank a person from blissful slumber when they are clearly not ready?

No doubt, hunters and gatherers who woke up and got themselves into position before the morning light were more successful than the ones who strolled out after brunch to see what might be available. This transferred to agricultural societies, and then to industrial ones. But there's no avoiding the change in daylight from winter to summer solstices. When we lived according to the daylight alone, how far you pushed into the darkness at either end was somewhat up to you. Now that we have to punch a clock, the discrepancies have more of an impact.

If we did not change to Daylight Relocating Time, first light in the peak of day length would begin at about 3 a.m., and sunrise would follow at about 4 a.m. in northern locations in the Lower 48 of the USA. Your local time depends on where you are in your time zone. The western edge can differ significantly from the eastern edge. The sunlight moves smoothly across the chunked-up human boundaries in which we try to corral time and domesticate it. Thing is, we can tag it with a number, but it always manages to escape.

If we stay on Daylight Relocating Time, sunrise in the dark months of November, December, and January would be pushing 9 a.m. in some places that are northerly and westerly in their zones, like Seattle. It would be solidly after 8 a.m. most places.

When the Bush administration pushed the start of Daylight Relocating Time well into March, I was initially lured into the general griping, because sunrise was finally coming early enough to bring a hopeful feeling of spring to the mornings. The clock change two weeks into March knocked our sunrise back to January, while turning the afternoons into detached pieces of April, brightly lit but still cold. It increased opportunities to exercise outdoors after work, but March being March the conditions out there weren't always very inviting. But as the winters have rapidly weakened overall, it's starting to turn into bike season. Just remember that cold weather can return, and big dumps of dense, clumpy snow can ruin everything. March snow, except at what passes for high elevations in New England, can be too sticky to ski on, but too persistent to ignore when trying to get out on the roads.

Even when the time change waited until April the saying was that there wasn't much to look at, but plenty of light to see it by.

Whatever the clock says, it's hard to see the light go, and a welcome sight when it returns. Most people can agree on that.

Monday, November 01, 2021

Trailbuilding as commercial art

 Our energetic trail builder has a creative past, with forays into music and design. His other traits, which sustained him through a hitch in the Coast Guard and other adventurous occupations, also include considerable organizational ability if the subject interests him in some way. Thus his career has included a lot that was not overtly artistic. But an artistic sensibility shapes his actions rather than mere soulless athleticism or mercenary pursuit of maximum monetary gain.

While the trails are built to technical standards using proven designs, lines have to be chosen based on observation of the local terrain. Mountain biking is unnatural, and a consumerist activity, but its environmental impact is low because the features have to coexist with the natural forces at work on them. And animals like finding easy passageways through the vegetation, as any trail builder soon sees. Ancestral routes often used game trails, as humans evolved from slightly removed to dangerously removed from the natural order of things. Game uses human corridors now, as well as their own herd paths. Nature just keeps going on as best it can, in spite of or in step with human activities.

Art, in cultures that don't make it central and therefore don't understand it, is presented as touchy-feely, and the province of flakes, charlatans, and generally impractical people. This is a disservice both to art and to the generations of young people who eschew practicality if they feel an attraction to their imagined world of art. Art needs to be presented as a practical subject and used not just to develop powers of observation, but to address in the same way that reading, writing, and arithmetic are addressed, the basic skills of construction that go into creating a work of art. Don't wait for expressed interest. Just put it out there and see who runs with it.

Maybe they're doing that now, but they weren't doing it when I was a kid. Art classes dealt with important things like perspective and composition, but didn't get into the actual handling of the tools. And art was an elective, so you had to decide -- before you were old enough to know how much it might matter to you -- to ask for it.

One book I read around 1979-1980, as I was first trying to launch a career drawing pictures and writing stories, stressed the fact that an artist can benefit significantly from being businesslike, and that artists through history had done so, although exceptions abound among the famous names whose birth and death dates turn out to be depressingly close together. A lot depends on luck. I don't mean the luck of finding work and getting compensated for it. I mean the luck of having innate personality traits that aid a person's curiosity in finding the right questions to ask. Nature and nurture come together to shape a young person.

The trail builder's crew commands a decent price, but it's not going to propel any of them to fortunes. They take pride in their skill and in their product, born largely of experience as riders, even if some of them have aged out of the most risky maneuvers. It's art, but commercial art. It's a kinetic sculpture that the viewer enters and forms a part of. It's more than that, of  course. But it's all inspired by creativity and expression through movement.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Collected oddities 10/26/21

I keep grabbing pictures of bikes that illustrate some point or other, and then getting swept months past the moment to frame a post around them. The pictures sit on my desktop, cluttering things up, because they still illustrate a point. 

During what was either the twilight of steel frames or their first renaissance in the late 1990s, Big Bicycle was adding its offerings, with some classic geometries and deceptively classic looking details. Take "braze-ons" for instance. The term applied to any little widgets attached to the frame in addition to the basic construction of the frame joints themselves. You can do that with steel, even years after the original manufacture of the frame. You'll need to repaint after heating the tubing with the torch, but you can do it. It's one of the benefits of the material, compared to aluminum, which was starting to be the most common choice if you weren't in the carbon fiber or titanium price brackets.

Cable stops could be welded onto an aluminum frame during the building process, apparently, but water bottle mounts and rack bosses (if any) were commonly provided using rivet nuts. A hole is drilled in the tubing, and the threaded insert is crimped in there using a tool that expands it to grip tightly in the frame without the use of heat. It's a faster, cheaper process that's not just as good, but good enough for the bike industry. If it's good enough for aluminum, it's good enough for steel, right? The public's love for steel won't last long enough for the shortcoming to be obvious: the seam where the riv-nut joins the frame is a perfect starting point for rust. No matter how well you care for the frame, this area will always be more vulnerable than a proper braze-on. 

Carbon fiber has completely displaced steel among the performance-riding set. The Iron Age has become prehistory. But that doesn't mean we can't have some fun with the bikes while they're in our temporary possession. Check out what you can do to some Specialized graphics with a bit of strategically-applied tape:

From this
to this!

Whatever your bike is made of, keep it clean and safe.

The month of July was extremely wet. There has been enough rain since then to keep the trails silty. Little of it is actual mud. It's more a wet fine sand that does what you see here.

Speaking of safety, always make sure that your handlebar stem is no higher than the recommended safe height. For stems that insert into the fork, inside a threaded headset, the amount in the fork is intended to reinforce the threaded section so that the steerer tube does not crack at the stress riser where the threads begin. In other words, riding with the stem too high could cause the fork or the stem to break. Nevertheless, about once a week we will see a bike with the stem barely hanging in the top of the fork.

The black line shows the position of the max line engraved on the stem. The greasy part shows how little this person decided they needed to maintain control of their bike. Hot tip: if you're ever on a group ride, don't just inspect your own bike. Try to take a look at the bikes you might be drafting, or riding beside on a bumpy descent.

Beginning in the early teens of this century, you started seeing the phrase, "Biking is the new golf." You were just as likely to see, quite soon after that assertion first started making the rounds, that it most definitely wasn't the new golf, but the truism was out there already.

Seems like there's some connection, anyway.
Some things are just weird in their own right. This inner tube tied itself into a knot when I shook it up in the talc bag and then put a bit of air in it to install it in a tire. It reminded me of certain people who could eat the maraschino cherry out of their drink and tie the stem in a knot with their tongue before removing it from their mouth.

We find other entanglements, too. The double helix of DNA has nothing on the quadruple helix of WTF.

Sometimes, twists like this can happen because someone took their handlebars out of the stem clamp and flipped them over a time or two before putting them back. But this spiral was more complicated than that. I wondered if it was someone's innovation to keep the cables under control when turning the bars. I did not try to undo it, because it didn't seem to be hurting anything, and its creator might be fond of it.
The bike business is full of diabolical influences these days. Disc brakes are right up there.

They're not even trying to hide it anymore.

Speaking of diabolical, Shimano is now securing some of their shifter pods with 5-pointed Torx Plus fasteners, which originated as a security feature. What if the bolt is loose, as it was on a bike we were assembling the other day? No one in town seems to have the requisite tools for us to buy. Why, after all these decades, is Shimano suddenly obsessed with the security of its low-end shifter pods?

Another nice find on a new bike assembly is this "tubeless-ready" rim tape that's not even ready to retain a tube.

But according to the printing on the bike box, all you need to assemble a bike is "+ and - screwdrivers" (make up your mind, do we need screwdrivers or not?), water pump pliers, two sizes of hex key, and an adjustable spanner.

This fork might be a plug for responsible citizens to participate in public health measures:

Quick credit where it's due: I've ragged on a number of products sporting this logo, but I have to say that their road handlebar plugs fit very well. This is actually rare among the plastic push-in type usually included with bar wrap.

 When it comes to things for the handlebars, these grips almost rival white handlebar tape for silliness. Clear grips? What do you want to admire under there?

Another entry in the WTF category:

Most chains these days use a closure link to connect the ends, rather than pressing rivets as we used to do. The rivet press chain tool is only used to remove the unneeded links from a new chain to set it to the length required by a particular bike. In the old pressed rivet days, I would collect the orphan bits and eventually be able to assemble myself a chain. But the lower profile and reinforced shaping of the rivet heads on modern chains make the rivets unsafe to reuse. They damage the side plates when they're pressed out. The closure link snaps together without deforming the plates of the links they join.

Yeah, but why does this bike have four of them?

On some bikes I have grafted in a section of chain with a closure link at each end. Usually this is because the rider uses two different cassettes at different times, and shortens or lengthens the chain as needed, using the handy links. On most chains for ten speeds or more, you can't reuse the links, so antics like this are either expensive or dangerous, depending on whether the rider actually heeds manufacturer instructions and uses a fresh link every time, or reuses the links, risking a chain failure that could prove very painful and costly in its own way. The grafts I did were on 9-speeds and lower. I've also had to do them on bikes with absurdly long chainstays, like some comfort bikes and pedal-forward cruisers. Mountain bikes with the current bizarre mutant drive trains with huge cassettes, often on full suspension bikes, need such long chains that now the manufacturers are offering chains with up to 144 links as opposed to the old traditional 112 or 114.

If I have to lengthen a chain for a repair, I try to avoid putting closure links right next to each other. I know that technically they're supposed to be full strength. After all, pro racers are launching their heroic sprints at rocket speeds on these chains. But they still make me a little nervous. Like, we get away with one, but are we pushing our luck to stack them up? Chains do fail. The failures I've seen have been as often at one of the regular links as at a closure link, but still... early versions you could snap apart with just the right squeeze and pinch, like some 1950s Joe Cool snapping open a brassiere. Hardware and morals have evolved across the board since then.

Here's a forthright statement about how the bike industry views its customers:

And in the "weird branding" section, one can guess at what this saddle is supposed to say, but it's not stated clearly:

"Racerlike?" At least it's a Rgstyrd Trdmrk.

Last among the unexpected details, an early 1980s (maybe late 1970s) road bike needed -- among other things -- new tires. I had a nice pair of 700X28s. On closer inspection, one wheel was a 27-inch. Fortunately, I had a 27X1 1/8 (630-28) to match up with the 700X28 (622-28).

What if your wheel collapsed?

 Back around 1980, a once-promising racer in the Maryland scene supposedly had lost a lot of his nerve when his low spoke count front wheel folded up in a sprint, sending him down from 30 to zero in the length of his own body. For you metric users, that's 48 to zero in less than two meters. When the front wheel disappears, the glide path is pretty abrupt.

Back then, low spoke count could mean 28, or maybe 24, and lightweight spokes were called "piano wires." I wasn't around before this rider had that crash, so I never knew him at his best. He was still plenty strong and skillful, but pretty good is not good enough for national-level competition. In a strong district, it isn't even good enough for regional prominence. You have to be willing to ride to die. On top of that, you need the genetics and the training to have the motor just to stay with a field of top riders. Anything that makes you the least bit hesitant is going to cripple you.

Nasty crashes can happen to anyone, for a wide variety of reasons. Equipment failure is not limited to high performance equipment built to thin margins of safety. On the plus side, incipient equipment failures can be detected by inspecting a bike regularly. Sometimes these failures make themselves obvious, as with previous cases of spontaneous spoke or nipple failure I've reported here.

The worst case scenario is that someone hops on their recreational bike that's been sitting in storage and pedals away without noticing that a couple of spokes have failed, and manages to get up to a moderate speed -- down a hill for instance -- before the wheel folds up. Of the two, a rear wheel is only slightly preferable, since it's not going to lead directly to a face plant. You'll still hit the ground abruptly and hard. Fortunately, most of the time, other issues will prompt a person to bring their bike in for a check up before they go out, or will stop them early in their shakedown cruise, as rusted chain links or some other drive train interference make the bike too hard to ride.

One case of spoke failure this summer showed up on a Schwinn recreational bike with an internally-geared hub. It had a couple of broken spokes. This can happen in storage if something gets shoved into the bike, or it can happen when several bikes are stacked on a rack on a car, or in a crowded parking situation, or a crash.

Closer examination revealed that the spokes had simply come apart. Every spoke in the wheel was banded with rings of rust that had eaten most of the way through them, except for the ones that had already disintegrated.

If you look closely, you can see a piece of spoke at an angle, impersonating a normal bend. You could crumble these spokes in your hand, into little fragments. They had no tensile strength at all.

With the current problems getting parts, my only choice was to respoke the wheel with a different cross pattern to match the lengths of spokes available. It went from three-cross to four-cross, which will just provide a cushier ride. I built my first touring wheels four-cross because it was supposed to be better for long hauls at moderate speeds, with a load. It was all right. I've had to depart from basic three-cross on other occasions as well. It's all legit. I generally don't go below three-cross except by customer request.

Stripped down, the hub felt like something you could use to train for the shot put. It weighs 4 1/2 pounds.

My wife, who competed in the shot put as part of her track and field career in school, informed me that the women's shot is almost nine pounds, and the men's is 16. But we could have a "hub put" category added to the Huffy Toss if we ever have a bike shop field day. Regulation weight could be whatever we say. This hub was still a hefty handful. Holding it up to load the spokes, my arm started to get pumped.

Within a day or two, another wheel job came in and I reflexively wrote it up for respoking, even though we could have replaced the wheel with a complete pre-built wheel. This is another example of how cheap labor has led to replacing rather than rebuilding something because parts and labor cost more than a new unit of low to modest quality.  In the wheel department, this is nothing new. My friend in Florida worked as a contract wheel builder in the 1970s, paid by the piece. I don't know if any US supplier uses American workers for that sort of thing anymore. She also wasn't trying to support herself on the income. It was supplemental in a variety of gig jobs, in a duo with her talented and enterprising husband before he finished his aircraft mechanic certifications.

The wheel I built was better than mass-produced, and it saved a complete wheel for someone who might need it more. It's good to stay in practice. I'd observed early in the season that people don't have much use for wheel builders anymore, and promptly started getting wheel repairs and complete builds.

A conventional build doesn't take too long, which might make it seem cheap and easy, but you do need to know how to make it efficient as well as quick. Proper tensioning takes most of the building and truing time. That's the part that takes experience. It's easy to get into trouble by rushing the tensioning phase. 

Novice builders will make two common mistakes: go for lateral trueness before roundness, and stop with too little tension once the wheel is as close to perfectly true as they can get it. After they've had a few of their creations develop the wobblies because of inadequate tension, they might move on to the intermediate mistake of too much tension. You can buy a tensiometer to check whether tension is sufficient and even, but after a while you will develop a feel for it by squeezing and by how the spoke wrench feels when you turn it. Check your calibration with the tensiometer occasionally.

A big part of the cost of custom wheel building is that we only get parts at wholesale, whereas most mass-production builders get a price that is at least one tier lower, and probably even better than that. They can take a margin on parts and labor that compensates them well, and still undercut us for the same parts on the same build pattern. When we have unrestricted access to supplies, we will often spec a pre-built wheel that matches what we would have done anyway. Reputable production suppliers have become pretty good at spitting out consistently acceptable wheels. And if you want something tweaky and modern, super light and fashionable, you will have to buy complete wheels. If you want something a little more tailored, based on rim width or a preferred brand, then you have to find someone to put that together for you.