Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The difference between culture and subculture

 When mountain biking boomed and took the bike industry with it, to levels of social popularity really never seen in the industry's entire history, it made biking -- particularly on mountain bikes -- part of the general culture of the country for almost a decade. Mountain biking was accessible, affordable, and widely appealing.

As the activity evolved, its tributaries exerted their influence and ultimately narrowed its focus, turning mountain biking into a subculture.

Culture is inclusive. It draws from social connections outside of itself to weave a discrete activity like riding what was then considered an off-road bike into the general lifestyle of a majority of people. Only a minority of participants actually spent a lot of time on technical trails, but the bikes were affordable and fun to ride, with a popular configuration. They were simple enough to modify readily to suit an individual rider's preferences. The bikes were everywhere, along with a general sense of belonging at least to some degree to a vast and accessible community.

Subculture is exclusive. It develops its own language and customs, designed to exclude the masses in favor of the qualified. Anybody with the money can buy the equipment, but it takes knowledge and experience to become a recognized member of the group.

Fragmentation is inevitable as personal styles gravitate to each other. Tribal affiliations form around specific types of riding. Within these tribes, hierarchies develop. In mountain biking, rank depends on exposure to personal injury. Whether it's overuse injury or crash injury, the group is isolated from the main stream of society by its adherence to technical off-road riding, and further narrowed by its adulation for participants with no sense of personal safety. The biggest risk takers are the most admired. Below them are the riders of lesser skill and daring, who may be completely content at their level. Some of them may pose or aspire to higher status, but many of them just enjoy their personal best and are happy to be part of the scene. It's safer than riding the road, while at the same time perceived as ballsier because of the public spectacle of stunt riders performing sick tricks and even releasing the videos of their spectacular failures. How else will the audience appreciate the extreme risk involved in being a true master of this thing that doesn't need to be done?

Not every category of biking forms a subculture. Mountain biking and BMX are strongly subcultural. Recreational path riding isn't subcultural at all, except to the extent that not everyone in our general culture rides a bike at all. But path riders and urban transportation cyclists don't have the special clothing and conscious pursuit of fitness and technique that other disciplines of riding have. Any category that uses special shoes and pants is a subculture at this point. At the height of mountain biking's cultural saturation, bike shorts and shoes were darn near mainstream, but they aren't now. Whether you wear tight, shiny shorts with a chamois or proudly display your disdain for aerodynamics and crotch padding with your off-road attire, it's generally tailored to riding. And flat shoes for shin-gouging flat pedals are still "biking shoes" just as much as pointy little hard-soled things with a cleat on the bottom.

Mountain biking now depends on constructed courses. The better ones offer trails with varying degrees of difficulty, in order to attract and maintain the interest of riders who will inject money into the subculture's economic sector to help support the interests to the minority of elite performers. This is much more vulnerable to economic fluctuations than the old exploratory style of off-road and dirt road riding that we pursued in the early years. We had to worry somewhat about land closure, but one's vulnerability was directly proportional to one's addiction to a certain kind of terrain.

When I gave up mountain biking near the turn of the century, it was to build a bike that would get me through just about any public right of way depicted on a map, before anyone had decided that "gravel" was a category and tried to exploit it as a profit center for the struggling bike industry in the wake of mountain biking's collapse. I'm still riding the same bike more than 20 years later, on the same type of publicly accessible right of way. Some of them are too deteriorated for regular practical passage, but most are useful connectors, and I don't concern myself with whether they are paved or not. I also don't have to worry about whether they will be too muddy. Most of them are kept clear and passable at least half the year by some government entity at the state or local level.

The Surly Cross Check was eminently practical. Naturally, it generated very little interest. In that way it was similar to the Pugsley -- ancestor of the fat bike movement -- in the way that it languished for many years, developing a slowly growing following before hitting a critical mass and contributing to the birth of a category that the industry could claim suddenly to have invented. I wouldn't ride it slam-bang down rough trails, but it gets me around on a lot of interesting roads less traveled. It used parts that could be mixed, matched, and substituted, for ease of maintenance and better odds of repair if you happened to need it somewhere far from home. It would fit nicely into culture, if culture should embrace simple bikes again.

Monday, June 14, 2021

I'm gearin' down, down, down down...

 One morning this past week, a dump truck and I crested the same hill from opposite directions and shifted up simultaneously, from the crawling grind of climbing to the gravitational release of the descent. I've shared the road rhythms of dump trucks a lot over the years. Even a racing cyclist has more in common with them than with sports cars. A commuter or a tourist on a loaded bike is definitely close kin, at least when the truck is loaded as well.

On the long grade climbing the north slope of Route 28, the slow grind of dump trucks has allowed me to tuck in behind them and draft at 50 mph for the rest of the way to town, once we passed the height of land. It's deadly dangerous if anything goes wrong. If there's a dropped piece of firewood or other debris in the roadway, the truck will clear it, but if the cyclist t-bones it you'll do the human crayon in a big red smear. It's a stupid habit, but that's true of many addictions and labor-saving actions. As long as you get away with it, it's useful as well as fun. As soon as you don't, you have no one to blame but yourself for whatever condition you end up in after impact. Fortunately, age has slowed me to the point where I can seldom make the jump even into the wake of a big, slow truck on the highway. I still use the draft of large vehicles and the safety zone they create in town traffic whenever possible.

Because heavy trucks and bicycle riders share similar challenges of power to weight ratio, we settle into similar shifting patterns responding to terrain. The big motor vehicles perform over a much wider span of speed in most situations, but on mountainous roads I have passed them on descents where I was better able to handle the curves. Just don't be in the way when the road straightens out, because big brother truck is going to take full advantage of gravity then. They'll mow you down in your car, let alone on a bicycle. You're probably better off on a bicycle, because it's easier to squeeze out of the way and let the monsters run.

It was strangely companionable to share that simultaneous shift. I'm sure that the truck driver didn't notice me at all. There was no need to.


And then there's this: I don't know if it should have been the lead item or a subhed, but trainee Dave was a bit under the weather last week. We haven't seen him at all except when he came in to work on his race bike because he wanted to drop in at the local training race series that night. Other than that he's been too busy or too sick or too well-paid humping brush for a tree service to bother with our paltry needs. He had called in sick every day we needed him, so we asked him what he'd had. He said that, based on his symptoms, he figured he'd had a breakthrough case of Covid, rendered merely uncomfortable because he is fully vaccinated. His unvaccinated girlfriend, whose anti-vax family had all been slammed with it months ago, got slammed again by whatever Dave had. If it was Covid, her immunity from having had it didn't hold up worth a crap. But because we really don't do medical research as thoroughly as we could in this country, there is no comprehensive testing program to determine who had what when. We lose a crap ton of data every day on every medical subject just because we don't scrub personal identifiers off of patient reports and then mine them for very useful case study information.


I happened on an item reporting that the legendary Harris Cyclery, long the headquarters for retro ingenuity, and all things Sheldon Brown, was closing. I was heretical enough to disagree with Sheldon on a few things, but no one could deny that his work represented an invaluable resource to anyone interested in the minutiae and healthy functioning of 20th Century bicycles. He did last into the 21st, but was gone before the flood tide of expensive disposability rendered a great deal of his research obsolete. I have not seen how or if his website will be maintained or his Library of Alexandria might be saved from destruction. Even after his death, Harris maintained one of the best cog-farming operations in the business for creative cassettes, and preserved the ethic of long-term ownership and investment-quality goods. No wonder they couldn't keep it up.

Monday, June 07, 2021

Some dildo on a road bike, and other workshop trivia

 I had not yet had occasion to unwrap a set of these bars. Be the "envy" of your ride group. This manufacturer has an eccentric way of securing the bar tape at the end of the drops.

The mushroom cap is permanently affixed. After you make the first wrap at the end of the bar on your way to spiral up to the tops, the flexible cap flips down into the position you see here. Below shows the cap in the open position as I prepared to remove the old bar wrap.

In no particular order, here are other observations and problems solved:
Short rider with small frame complained about her basket dragging on the tire. I remembered that we'd salvaged this little front rack that attaches to the cantilever brake bosses. It actually fit without interference from some other component. Always nice when something works as intended. Advantage to rim brakes.

Here's a rarity: Back when Shimano first entered the rotating shifter market, they actually made changing a cable easy. They soon spotted their error, and the later models are almost impossible to open at all. They love to make puzzle boxes out of their shifters.

And now a reminder of why I hated crank arm dust caps. They almost invariably ended up bonded to the crank arm so thoroughly that they needed to be chiseled out. Or, if you were lucky, one or both of them fell out and disappeared. Good riddance. Especially in the early mountain bike era, anything that stood between you and checking your crank arm bolts was a bad idea. From the late 1980s through much of the 1990s, we replaced an uncounted multitude of left crank arms for riders who hadn't kept up with that vital bit of regular maintenance. The coming of socket-head crank bolts with no dust cap significantly reduced the problem, which freed up the bike industry to devote more attention to creating many other problems for their addicts loyal customers.

While we're in the neighborhood of the crank, this Shimano replacement crank displays a copious application of the pus-like grease that congeals into earwax in early versions of their under-bar pod shifters for mountain bikes.

A little grease on the threads of a crank bolt and under the flange of the head of it is a good idea to help torque it down. But this much grease is way too much. It will get onto the flats of the square tapered bottom bracket axle, compromising the security of the crank arm. Shimano started advising techs to grease the drive side flats of their cartridge BBs in the 1990s during The Great Cheapening, because over-tightening the crank arm against the face of the BB bearings  -- while bad for the crank arm and less secure overall -- helped hold the basically defective design of the bearings in place. While the design of the cartridge BBs has been quietly improved without acknowledging fault, the practice of over-greasing right crank arms remains. Left crank arms -- the ones that fall off more often if bolts aren't properly torqued -- remain completely neglected by them. It falls to individual mechanics to clean up after them and install things correctly to survive for as long as possible in a throwaway society. Do not grease the flats of square tapered bottom bracket axles. Do grease the threads of crank arm bolts. That is all.

A customer attempting to keep a used bike in service brought in his $25 great thrift store find. It was a Schwein mountain bike from the last few moments when Schwinn almost pulled back from the brink of collapse with some decent and well-reviewed machines. The bike he bought was one of the lower-end models, but still a decent platform to fix up and use for a bit of fun cruising and retro trail riding. There was just this mysterious bit of duct tape wrapped around one fork leg...

You may have spotted the guilty secret concealed in a sliver-gray wrapper, but below it is shown fully revealed:

 The fork leg was completely broken. All that held things together was the tape around the outside and the internal parts of the cheap suspension. Silver tape. What can't it do? 

Specialized was kind enough to send us one of the three ebikes we had ordered prepaid back in January. 

What do you think? Do they want me to update the firmware? They have a groovy website where we're supposed to connect with all of the electronic brain stuff. After we updated that interface as directed, the screens we got in the firmware updating process didn't look like the examples in their help and guidance area, and it was never clear whether we had actually succeeded, or if the bike didn't really need it after the hysterical admonitions of the included printed material. 

To compound the annoyance, this expensive machine came in a smudge-attracting matte mint green. Matte finishes are stupid. Light-colored matte finishes are downright sadistic.

The workshop continues to be buried in repairs. El Queso Grande declares that he's never seen anything like it in his almost 50 years in the business. I still wonder if it only seems worse because we can't fill our staffing needs. Leafing through a journal from 2005, when we still had Ralph, I found an entry referring to how buried the workshop was during the early summer rush. EQG likes to go on short conservative rants about the corrosive effects of government generosity and the shabby work ethic of teenagers, but the reason that we can't hire people right now is that they think the work is dirty, complicated, and boring. And they're right. Any youngster thrilled by the new stuff will have no patience for the old stuff. Anyone not thrilled by some aspects of bikes or the bike business won't be lured in by the awesome salary, high prestige, and sex appeal.


EQG is undefinably agitated by the incentives some employers are offering to entice people to sign on with them. He mentions seeing reports on the news of college tuition incentives, bonuses, and prizes. He rightly asserts that a little place like ours can't compete with inducements like that. But once the novelty of the perqs wears off, you're still left having to do the actual job. And I don't think anyone in our immediate area is offering anything like that anyway.

The young whiz kids are great and all, but a fully functioning bike shop still needs some poor old gray-haired bastard who's pissed away his life at this, and has simply seen a lot of stuff. Or the bike business in general has to cut its ties to its past and leave the maintenance of the derelict hulks still in service to the back street and home garage outfits where someone has the tools and knowledge and can be bothered to use them.

The good news, if you could call it that, is that the pandemic bike boom is already winding down. The lack of bikes to buy has now become widely known, so anyone whose interest was marginal already will be looking for something else to do. Anyone who remains interested still faces a treasure hunt that could yield nothing. No bike means no new participant. It may not be the bike industry's fault exactly, but it's still their loss. Also, with the reopening of many activities and venues that had been unavailable during the height of pandemic restrictions, people are returning to their established preferences as much as possible. Those preferences had verifiably not included biking. With the exception of ebikes, which are really a low level of motor vehicle, the bike industry was not growing, regardless of what the evangelists of mountain biking will tell you.

A low-end ebike will provide more satisfactory performance to a budget-minded customer than a low-end mountain bike will. Neither is a particularly good investment, but the low-end mountain bike is pretty well guaranteed to be beaten into junk within a couple of months of vigorous trail riding. A cheap ebike, with care, might last for years. Thus the two categories belong pretty exclusively to the higher income brackets. It remains to be seen how long higher income brackets will remain viable in the face of all the balancing factors that are increasingly hard to hold back. These include both natural and social forces.

An article I read recently about the social, economic, and environmental impact of mountain biking referred to riders coming not only from the traditional high earning professions, but also from workers in occupations like construction and landscaping. Participation in an expensive activity lasts as long as you are willing to devote your funds to it. The fact that no one disses you for being a dirt worker as long as you can hold your own on the trail does not make the activity egalitarian. Anything with a buy-in of thousands of dollars up front, followed by ongoing consumption costs is not open to all. One section referred to a study that showed that 2/3 of mountain biking tourists in a particular area had annual incomes of $70,000 or greater. Another reference listed average household income as $100,000. You gotta bang a lot of nails and mow a lot of lawns to play in that league. You also can't afford it if you make your living fixing bikes. Not for long, anyway.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

The Toilet Paper Gallery

 When the shop prepared to deal with ski renters last winter, we hired a professional cleaner to keep the bathroom hygienic for the public and ourselves. The work is done by a friend of the business, who works for a company that mostly takes care of rich people's houses. Rich people like the little touches. She would always tidy up the toilet paper roll with a nice little hotel-style point fold.

This was followed by a slightly embellished, but still minimalist variation of the point.


After a while, she raised the bar with a mysteriously pressed design.

Some of you may know the trade secret of this, but we didn't. We were content to be fascinated by it. 

Next she progressed to something even more artistic:

Now none of us wanted to be the one to despoil the origami, so anyone who needed paper would use the backup roll sitting on the tank lid. It shows more luxuriously when the roll is smaller.

This past week she set a new standard in ornate TP presentation.

We had formerly purchased only non-flowering hybrids of toilet paper. But June is certainly a time of blossoming. It has survived for days, as we use the backup rolls, paper towels, shop rags, or our own socks first.

While we won't hold her to an ever escalating scale of grandeur, we will enjoy whatever she is able to share with us. Little touches of art belong in ordinary life.