Sunday, March 28, 2021

Betrayed and abandoned

 In yet another harsh lesson in corporate business methods -- and ethics -- a small but determined Specialized dealer since at least the 1980s finally heard directly from the Big S that our preseason order will not be delivered. They'll "see what they can do" to deliver three paid-in-full special orders for ebikes. No promises. This is after they jacked the price on those prepaid orders by about a thousand bucks a bike, after the fully paid order had been in their hands for months already.

Our shop is not alone. Contacts at a Trek dealer across the lake report that their somewhat larger shop than ours is getting the same treatment from their Big Bike supplier. The big companies are sending all of their available product to the biggest shops in the most heavily populated areas.

The Specialized rep suggested that we look into several smaller brands that have traditionally worked more cooperatively with small shops. Not surprisingly, these brands are already overwhelmed. We will probably have to figure out how to operate as a bikeless bike shop this summer.

The Covid-19 bike boom continues, but the potential customers have now become picky. They really really want a bike, but it's more likely to be a specific bike, rather than anything they can get their hands on. We're hearing from people who have driven 50 or 100 miles to find a shop that has bikes at all. It's reminiscent of the 1990s mountain bike boom, pre-Internet, when people would shop over a huge geographical area to find what they wanted and to save a token amount of money. They'd already spent more just driving around, but they still congratulated themselves on getting a deal. Now the successful treasure hunters are driving until they find a shop big enough to be favored by the big suppliers or lucky enough to have gotten a shipment from one of the smaller ones.

Our service department is already buried. Apparently, no one wants to become a professional bike mechanic anymore. Can you blame them? All you need to keep your own bike running are YouTube videos and tools and parts that you can buy online. It's just a bicycle. It's not like it has a motor -- oh, wait. But even in the smokeless moped culture, intrepid tinkerers are figuring out how to service their own habit.

I feel safe in saying that most riders do not want to be their own mechanic. They will come to us when things go out of whack or ignore problems until the bike completely fails. But no one is showing up to learn the craft. There's a lot to learn, and more is added every year.

Parts are still hard to get. Things really haven't improved much from last year. We're getting pounded on freight charges because we have to buy stuff as soon as it's available, rather than waiting to build up a larger order. If you see it, buy it. Prices are going up. They have to. Every overhead cost except our paychecks is climbing.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Shit, Garbage, and Old People

The three recession-proof economic sectors are sewage, refuse, and the elderly. The fourth is sick people, but rhetorical units of three are more powerful than four. And the sick and the elderly form a collective bloc that is exploited in basically the same way, by a unified industry.

You'd think that food would be recession-proof, because everyone needs to eat, but food production and distribution are vulnerable to too many variables. Once the food gets eaten, however, it becomes a much more uniform product. It all runs downhill. The money is in directing the flow and processing the effluent. It's going to happen. I used to see that on a bumper sticker.

Trash in the industrial age became a trickier problem than it was when everything was more readily biodegradable, and there were fewer people chucking it. Even in areas that don't go in for a lot of fancy attempts at recycling, someone needs to dig a hole, transport unwanted items to the hole, and dump them into it. Strip away the illusions from a lot of our waste management programs and you eventually come to a hole anyway. Trucks full of rubbish drive up, unload, and trundle back out again for another load, because we keep unwrapping things. Even when it seems like no one can afford to buy anything, trash keeps spontaneously generating. Most of the products we buy are just trash in waiting.

In this intricately connected world, almost everything seems to pass through the bike shop eventually. In our own little refuge we get money that came from trash and money that came from sick and old people. The shit business is a bit more compartmentalized, because sewage treatment facilities are usually overseen by government entities at some level, even if the design, building, and operation are done by contractors. However, in an area with a lot of septic tanks, a go-getter can buy the right kind of truck and build up a client list. And then there's the portable toilet business. "Your 'business' is our business."

Sick and old people are just another waste product of society. Depending on the age and the severity of the illness, a sick person might be returned to functionality as a tool or a cog in the machinery of society. As for the rest of them, we care for them out of what? Compassion? Superstition? Empathy? All the above. Imagine yourself in need of care or at least of comfort as you fade out. We hang onto people for a number of reasons. While they're in need, a good businessman can rake in a bundle from whoever pays their bills. At the end, a funeral industry takes care of the body. Somehow it doesn't seem quite as lucrative as the big three, but it's kin to both shit and garbage.

With this in mind, we the living take the cash that flows and feed the system with ourselves. If someone comes in dripping money, is it wise to question where it came from?

No one looking at my life choices would ever accuse me of being wise.

Bike infrastructure in a certain self-absorbed lakeside village just got a serious shot in the arm from a "health care" executive who has blithely pledged a half a million dollars for an ambitious construction program centered entirely on mountain biking, with a few enhancements for path riding, mostly to help connect the mountain bike facilities. So far it seems to do diddly crap for road users. It's hard to help road riders. Real transportation infrastructure is a vast circulatory system with many user groups vying for priority consideration of their wants. But if the grand plan for youth opportunity relies on kids being able to ride their bikes to the various places to practice their skills, they're going to need safe ways to get there. Who knows? Some of the little whippers might also discover that they'd like a bike that doesn't feel like such a pig on the pavement. More likely they just hang tough until they get their driver's licenses, so they can buy a truck and haul their toys to various venues near and far.

The trail and parks plan will improve the fortunes of a friend of mine in the business of designing and building such things. He gave up the road a long time ago, probably back at the end of his paper route years. An intrepid adventurer and energetic worker, he knows what he likes, and participates in trickle-down economics with few qualms about the ethics of the funding. Does it matter that you're not making the world as a whole a better place as long as you're making your own neighborhood more fun for yourself and your own kind? "People" to most people usually means "people like me."

The funding will get filtered through a 501(c)(3) non-profit, so that the benevolence is tax-deductible. Being nice should always make business sense. Big philanthropy is just tax evasion with good PR.

When it comes to funding, I started asking way too early in life, "Whose blood is this?" I couldn't always trace it very far, and you have to get money from somewhere. My jobs grew out of my interests and knowledge. In the yacht business and related industries you're in a world completely dependent on disposable income, but growing up in the culture made it seem normal. Lots of worker bees toiled away in the industry and supporting institutions. I was one of them for a few years, before my interest in human powered exploration drew me away from the shore.

If you're not prepared to bite the hand that feeds you, you are not free. That being said, wolves, coyotes, and feral dogs live hard lives and get shot at, while lap dogs and useful breeds get vet care and comfy beds. If Wolfeboro turns into a mountain biking destination, it may improve the shop business, or it may just draw competitors more cynical and less concerned, to finish trampling our aging bodies into the dirt. The overall family behind this current benefactor is already well on the way to turning the town into their own little theme park as it is. On the one hand, we're all a bit grateful to them for subsidizing local landmarks that were no longer able to survive as independent entities in today's economy. On the other hand, it brings us inexorably closer to being members of their household staff, at least indirectly.

Little towns live on their looks these days. Just in this area you can see the ones favored by their bone structure and complexion enjoying the attentions of sugar daddies, while the ones less blessed have to make do with the more frequently abusive relationships offered by rougher companions. There hasn't been much of a real economy in rural New England in decades. As the big forest products industries pulled out and abandoned their extensive timberlands, recreational uses have struggled to pick up the slack. The forest survived as a cash crop. The long harvesting cycle allowed people to play on quite a bit of it between cuts. As that stability has dwindled, the locals figure out ways to pimp out the local attractions to transients who will pay to use them.

In towns that had long ago abandoned resource extraction, where small industry had faded out, the economy has depended on attracting people with money who just like it there. Since the alternative is complete collapse, judgement is suspended. Only a rare idiot will look beyond and wonder what would keep us all afloat on a longer term basis if the current system of enabling the wealthy and tickling them for a trickle eventually runs out of fuel.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Hot air balloons and X-wing fighters

Commuting by car sucks. Riding a bike may have its hazards, but getting stuck in traffic is not one of them.

Driving to work in the icy months, I may have a sweet, fast run or I might get stuck behind a hot air balloon.

Hot air balloons are vehicles floating down the road unhurried, like colorful canopies blocking sight and passage, drifting at the whim of the wind while their contented occupants survey the scenery. Ranging anywhere from five to 25 miles per hour below the speed limit, this puts them well below the customary average speed for people who need to actually get somewhere. I make a special effort not to fall into the trap of impatience. Tailgating never made anyone speed up, ever. All it does is raise the blood pressure of the tailgater. Sometimes it also raises the ire of the tailgatee, but this seldom leads to the desired increase in speed. More likely it leads to an exchange of gestures, profanity, or lead. I might follow a bit snugly as we approach the better of the two surviving passing zones. If the zone is clear, I launch the pass. If not, I settle back. There's a third zone, but if you've been held back that long, don't bother, because just over the rise, the hot air balloon will miraculously transform into an X-wing fighter attacking the Death Star.

At the point where I think about throttling back because the road is narrowing and structures sit closer and closer, not to mention that small animals and people might pop up, the X-wings tighten their formation and scream into the canyon at a speed that was too slow for the highway and is murderously too fast for the tight confines of Center Street. They always drop me. Then they probably pat themselves on the back because they made good time.

On my bike, I don't care how someone is driving on the highway, as long as they give me an adequate amount of room and pass without comment. When we get into Center Street, the X-wings have to slow down for me, because hitting me would make them late for work or their hair appointment or shopping or wherever they're going. Scrubbing a little speed and giving anywhere from four to 18 inches of passing clearance gets them by without too much interruption. Think of me as flak from the Death Star's cannons. Just dodge the burst and keep flying.

As I've noted before, my time in transit by bike is much more consistent than when I drive. The road feels long sometimes, and sometimes hostile, but I feel more grateful to be alive, even when I'm tired and hungry. Daylight Relocating Time arrives this Sunday. Winter seems to be in decline. It's getting to be time to get reacquainted with the bike seat.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Follow the bouncing temperature

 March came in like a nasty day in April, but immediately shifted to a harsh hit of January. The forecast as of Sunday afternoon showed the temperature dipping to a single-digit night on Monday, a frigid Tuesday, but then daytime highs well above freezing on the ensuing days, alternating with hard freezes at night. That has now shifted to a single bounce to the upper 30s on Wednesday, followed by a solid few days at or below freezing before the next wave of sustained thawing, but it still shows vestiges of the volatility that has become common.

With cross-country ski season in the immediate vicinity apparently tapering off, bike repairs have already stacked up. We've had three of them hanging around from the end of last season, held up by unavailable parts, and then suspended while the workshop shifted to things that don't mix well with grease. Then five more piled in, for people who are traveling south in the next couple of weeks.

Trainee Dave and I have been missing our bikes. He said that he wished it was bike season, so I set him onto what seemed like straightforward tuneups on a family fleet of four, preparing for a trip to Florida. The first one he picked was a Specialized Chisel 29er in a large frame size that looked like it might fit him. Go for the fun one first. He gave it minor cleaning, but it wasn't even very dirty.

A clean bike can be very bad news. Is it clean because it's had light use, or is it clean because it's been hosed? Based on chain wear, we both thought that this bike looked lightly used. Everything seemed pretty straight. The brake pads weren't very worn... Then Dave tried to run it through the gears.

Mountain biking has embraced the 1X concept because front derailleurs and ham fists don't mix. Riders who might have unbelievable finesse when airborne and rotating in balletic maneuvers off a jump put nowhere near the same delicacy into coaxing a chain between rings on a crankset. Road riders are similarly afflicted; front shifts are the biggest contributors to chain failure.

The chain takes abuse shifting up or down. Going up, the rider mashes the lever and forces the chain over against the side of the larger chainring, hoping that the specially engineered pins and ramps do their thing and slurp the chain over without hesitation. That might happen half the time. The rest of the time, a certain amount of chewing takes place. Going the other way, the return spring of the front derailleur gets its one chance when the shifter releases cable tension abruptly. The derailleur cage snaps over, hopefully dislodging the chain from the larger ring and depositing it onto the smaller one. It's like having someone direct you right or left by punching you in the face. If the chain goes out over the high side or drops to the inside, a rider can sometimes ride it back onto the chainrings by shifting the opposite way and continuing to pedal. If that maneuver doesn't work, it graunches the chain even more. We still try it.

With a single ring, front derailleur problems vanish completely. However, you now have to provide the whole gear range with the rear cassette. This led to low gear cogs of 36, then 40, then 42, and now 50 teeth. The rear derailleurs have had to evolve longer and longer cages to handle the chain, and still try to manage a reasonable gap between the upper pulley and the cogs on everything from an 11 (or the even more ridiculous 10) up to the 40, 42, or 50.

All the wide range systems that I have worked on have obvious trouble managing this range, particularly getting onto and off of that huge low gear. The bike that Dave was working on had a basic SRAM SX derailleur. We have no idea if it ever worked any better than  it does now, because the owner dropped it off with the usual statement, "It has no real problems, I just want to get it tuned up." He said the same thing about all the bikes, including one kid's 20-inch that was missing the axle nut on one side of the front wheel.

SRAM has spawned at least two different "B-gap adjustment tools" that are supposed to help a mechanic set the angle of the parallelogram to achieve optimal clearance between the upper pulley and the immense cog. However, this derailleur does not want to shift away from that gear once you're in it, no matter what the B-gap is. You take the cable completely off and shove it over there by hand and it settles in like it wants to live there forever, a tree-climbing single-speed.

Hosing could have led to corrosion and silt in the pivots. This would resist the return spring starting the derailleur back toward its released position. Under full cable tension, the parallelogram is folded quite tightly. If little detents had developed from wear, when it's all folded up it might stick. Clearly something is making it stick. I just have to figure out what. But right now, with ski season still nominally underway, it's hard to concentrate on all the variables of temperamental machinery.

I had one bike on my stand for several weeks. First we were waiting for parts. Then ski season got busy again after a lull while we had no snow. I was so far out of the flow of the repair that I couldn't say for sure that I had addressed all of its unique needs. The rider is not abusive, but he's relentless, and has already ridden three bikes into the ground. Indeed, when they dropped this one off the rider's father said, "Let us know if it's time to buy a new one again." And it's only been a couple of years, but between this rider's perpetual motion, and the industry's embrace of disposability, it's not ridiculous to consider having to replace your mid-price bike every two or three years. Well it is ridiculous, but it's become plausible enough to be accepted. I was going to say acceptable, but it should never be -- or have been -- acceptable. But a consumer public well trained by the ephemeral quality of everything else that they fork out good coin for is not surprised when their bike is made to the same exploitive standard.

With this foretaste of the mind-numbing and soul-destroying realities of servicing modern bikes, we both agreed that what we missed was riding our bikes. As much as commuting stresses me because I have to do my daily miles in what passes for rush hour, I have reached the point in driving season where I've turned into a complete asshole behind the wheel. I always hit a peak some time in February and shock myself into mellowing out a bit until I can get the hell out of the car and return to the more satisfying flow of biking.

In February I have to get to work earlier to rack the rental boots that had to sit out overnight to dry, and perhaps take the bandages off of elderly rental skis that I had to glue after the previous day because the bases were starting to delaminate. All of this has to be completed before opening the doors to the day's flood of renters, who will keep us in continuous motion until late afternoon. We're masked, they're masked, we're trying to keep everyone somewhat separated, and the whole slam dance usually obliterates a lunch break. Sometimes it ends with more OT doing service work like mounting bindings or waxing skis, that we couldn't do while immediate demands from the rental and sales counters called for all hands on deck. It no longer energizes me the way it did a couple of decades ago. Now it's just something to get through.

If the day isn't busy, it drags, because we can't get too deep into anything else in case it does get busy. Even if we know it's going to be quiet, because we're getting rain or something, converting the main workshop to bike work involves moving a lot of stuff that doesn't get along with grease, and cleaning the bench completely before moving it back again for the next wave of seasonally appropriate business.

If we had a bike-only shop, I would solicit winter overhauls and custom builds. But even those are less fun now that traditional skills have less value. It's only a rare old codger who wants me to build a set of wheels. I used to like the alternative activities. I still believe in using the season for what it offers, rather than fighting it. It's still reasonable to look forward -- as much as I look forward to anything these days -- to the more consistent rhythm of riding season, now that I can no longer count on a consistent rhythm of winter activities.