Friday, December 16, 2022

Sliding into Winter

 One job is two jobs when you work for a shop with dual specialties. The cross-country ski business has been doomed in the Lower 48 states of the USA for decades, but a few of us keep on out of force of habit and our loyalty to our aging customer base. A trickle of younger participants comes in, but never in great enough numbers to bring us younger coworkers.

As with cycling, cross-country ski racers are somehow viewed as elite even though they will never be enough to support an industry and an economic sector. They are the most impressive athletic specimens, but their competition requires a level of commitment to physical abuse that is beyond healthy.

 Racing makes a beneficial activity pathological. That being said, racing equipment can be very fun to operate at a more survivable level of exertion. This may be more true of ski equipment, because there's less mechanical complexity to suck money out of you in repetitive repair and maintenance costs. And a full-on racing bike feels the most nimble and effective when the rider is in a position that is frankly painful over the long haul. The fact that racers grow accustomed to it does not make it less damaging to a rider who hasn't agreed to trade the physical abuse for the glory of victory, or even the mere consolation of participation. "Comfortable" is relative.

Transportation cycling offers plenty of opportunity for lung-hucking sprints and death-defying maneuvers in a tight field of ruthless adversaries. And you get to save lots of money and eat whatever you like. You don't have to drive yourself to a race venue and pay club memberships and entry fees. Just hop on outside your home and slide into the nonstop Madison flowing past on the streets.

The arrival of snow brings other options. When I lived in Annapolis, Maryland, snowstorms would bring the city to a halt. Cross-country skiers would appear among the other pedestrians enjoying the forced break from the daily churn. For a couple of days the city might be bright and friendly before plows and salt trucks turned the streets into rivers of grimy brine that splattered onto the neglected sidewalks as the citizenry climbed back into their capsules to pass each other with the usual indifference verging into hostility. Up here in New Hampshire, the scene is the same, only there's a snow-based tourist industry operating alongside the imperative to have the streets cleared for normal motor traffic. Cross-country skiers seldom get a chance to slide along unplowed streets, because the snow removal is so well organized and prompt. Residents on side and back roads roll their eyes a bit at this, but everyone gets cleared out within a couple of days.

Roads cleared for motor travel are not necessarily in the best shape for a cyclist. In a dry or warm winter, the edges might thaw back far enough to expose the shoulder, but in a normal or colder year the snowbanks narrow the road and cut off emergency bailouts. I'd rather use the snow for snow activities than fight it to remain on two wheels. Even in a bad snow year, lack of daylight combines with the winter stupor that afflicts many drivers, to limit riding opportunities.

Bad snow years have become the rule more than the exception in New England. The terrain creates variation across the region, so maybe the far north or the western half lie in the snow zone, while to the south and east we forget what winter ever looked like. It's easy to forget that about half of the United States lies to the south of most of Europe. Our north seems so far north to us and Canada is just three blocks south of the tundra.

The last ice age did tilt oddly toward northeastern North America. Weather and climate don't uniformly march across lines of latitude. Without human interference, the glaciers would have sent their ghostly reminders year after year to the areas once buried beneath thousands of feet of compacted snow and ice. Not so much anymore, though. Increasingly, we have to figure out what to do with months of slush, ice, and mud.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Miles per gallon

 As someone with a conflicted relationship with motor vehicles, I have tried to spend as little as possible to buy one. But I need one because of the distances I have to cover in challenging conditions, so they can't just be thrashed pieces of junk.

For the past several cars, I've picked up ones that various members of my family were discarding as they contributed to the used car market by buying new ones. It was an agreeable parade of small Ford station wagons, which mostly succumbed to the long months sitting in the dirt driveway while I'm using the bike for transportation, and the inexorable rust that consumes all New England vehicles that face the tide of brine flooding our roads every winter. The price tended to be pretty affordable, which suited my underlying reluctance to chip in much of anything to the moto-centric culture and polluting, speeding, jostling, sprawling environmental disaster that is transportation in America.

The latest -- and last -- of this line sits in the driveway now. It's far more car than I would ever buy, but the gas mileage is as good as the last Ford Focus that finally rotted out underneath the bodywork. Behold The Shuttlecraft:

"Nice car," a friend and colleague said as we headed out after the last zoning board meeting.

"Thanks. I had to kill my father to get it," I said. Dad was a Ford man. He died at the end of May. My mother is 93, and has decided to quit driving because, as she says, "I'm 93 years old. If anything happens, it will be my fault even if it isn't my fault." My sister is on hand to drive the two of them around. So this car, this space craft full of electronics and automated features, was available for ...really cheap... just as my mechanic was telling me that he couldn't sticker my old car anymore because the frame was almost gone.

There's a lot to get used to.  The speedo and tach are analog, but all other data comes at the driver through two screens. One is a small one centered above the steering wheel. The other is the now ubiquitous touch screen in the middle of the dash.

In the cellist's Honda CR-V, she can punch up a readout that tells her about fuel consumption: miles remaining at current rate, and miles per gallon. She has to ask for it. In The Shuttlecraft, that display is constant. I suppose I could turn it off, but I find it fascinating.

Miles per gallon tells you about the energy required to accelerate a mass against the force of gravity and the other factors that inhibit forward motion. As a cyclist, you have an intuitive -- and very tactile -- awareness of the toll that hills and headwinds demand. Through the readout in The Shuttlecraft, I can see the dramatic difference between uphill and down, and any acceleration. Going down a hill, the mpg readout will max out at 99.9. Woo hoo! Going up a hill it drops to lows like 11, 9, 7, or sometimes 3. It just drains. And any short hops or stop and go driving drops the total from a creditable 30-31 down into the "sorta might be okay" upper 20s. The Focus was surprisingly no better, especially with snow tires, but the Shuttlecraft is undeniably more of a bourgeois armored personnel carrier. It's really hard to find a nice small station wagon these days but I still wish Dad had had a bit more varied taste in cars. A nice Passat wagon logging 40 mpg, perhaps.

Well, po' folks can't be choosers. In an alternate timeline, I stayed in a more built-up area and never bought a car at all. But then I'd have to live in a more built up area. Nature called.

Around here, I've fallen in with the tree huggers to try to defend a natural environment where there still is one. When I moved here, it was the country. Now, 35 years later, it's more like heavily wooded suburbia. That makes our efforts all the more important, because the economy depends increasingly on subdividing large parcels of land and increasing population density. More roads aren't being built, but the ones we have are getting a lot busier all year. Residential development is piecemeal for the most part, a house here and a house there, but larger tracts are proposed as the state grapples with a lack of "workforce housing." Workforce housing is a nice way of saying shacks for the scantily paid grunts who perform the essential but disregarded tasks of actually making civilization and the economy run. If it had existed in Annapolis in the 1980s, I might never have moved away. But Annapolis was obliterated by explosive, poorly planned development. I saw it coming and ran for the hills, literally.

Ironically, the tree huggers do a lot of driving. It's the norm. In rural areas, the distances demand it. In winter country, however degraded the winter might be, the weather favors a heated, enclosed vehicle, too. Some of the environmental folk have electric or hybrid vehicles, but most of us drive used, internal combustion vehicles. Their designs reflect the American norm. Mine is hardly the largest. You can only be so much of the change you want to see before you are so far beyond the leading edge of societal evolution that you're just a freak out there, with no infrastructure and no momentum of social change behind you. So for now, the environmentalists drive to work and drive to public hearings and educational presentations and off to their environmentally appreciative recreational activities.

When I get out of the car every spring, I immediately have less time for other things. Commuting takes at least twice as long. It provides beneficial exercise, but cycling is not complete exercise. A bike rider needs to do weight bearing, stretching, and resistance exercise to preserve bone density and avoid muscle imbalance. And the route takes me longer and leaves me more tired than it did when I was in my 30s and 40s, or even early 50s. Freedom isn't free. It's an investment decision no matter what type of freedom you choose.

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Cause of death: snake bite. Or was it?

 A regular customer brought his bike in to be checked after he’d had a flat tire out on the road. He’d put in his spare tube and pumped it up to full pressure at a nearby friend’s house before he made his way home, but wanted a professional eye to make sure that he hadn’t missed anything.

By his account, he’d done all the right things. But the holes in his punctured inner tube were a classic snake bite, when he is conscientious about proper tire pressure, and did not recall hitting anything like a stone or a pothole.

It was the rear tire, as usual. I pulled the wheel out and examined it carefully. He had not perfectly noted which way the tube was oriented, so I had to look in both directions from the valve stem. There was a faint scratch on one end of the arc and an almost imaginary ding at the other end, corroborating a snake bite either way.

No debris showed on the outside of the tire. The twin holes that we’d all seen would have needed a thin but long object, like a finishing nail, to have gone and and fallen out again before he stopped. Yep. This had to be the snake bite that it appeared to be.

A responsible mechanic always checks the casing, regardless of the cause of the flat. It takes maybe an extra minute. I was perfunctorily sweeping my fingers through the tire when I felt like telltale poke of sharp debris. Wire? Thorn? I had to pull it down through the casing because absolutely nothing stood up above the tread. It was pointy, dark, and ferrous. Not the usual skinny wire fragment, but possibly thicker wire in its youth.

Because the rider had traveled 13 miles home after fixing the flat, he could have picked up this little ninja on that part of his ride, and just been lucky that he didn’t flat again.

Feeling like a crime scene investigator, I clamped the snake bite holes in his old tube and pumped it up. After a careful search, feeling for the faintest breath of escaping air, I found the tiny pinhole of the initial puncture that started his misadventure. It was like one of those crime shows where the cops find a victim with obvious wounds and build a scenario based only on those and then the smarty pants detective finds the other thing that reveals the true perpetrator.

My theory is that the rider hit the poky debris without realizing it. Air very gradually escaped until pressure was low enough to get the obvious and faster-acting snake bite from a surface hazard that might not have imperiled a fully inflated tire.

It’s only trivial bullshit, but it provided a bit more entertainment than your average flat tire.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Don't confuse your shark

 A rider in traffic can use motor vehicles the way the pilot fish uses a shark. We can hover near the larger beast and let it make holes for us that we would have trouble making for ourselves. It's a way to improve our flow through the system, which helps everyone, whether they realize it or not.

Most of the time, the motorized shark doesn't notice the pedaled escort fish. It's vital to remember this. The big vehicle helps you the most when it maneuvers without worrying about you. As long as you remember this, the technique is as safe as any traffic riding, and actually safer than squeezing along in the door zone out of the way of the motorists.

In faster traffic, in high density and moderately high speed flow, pilot fish technique is no longer reliable. One recently reported accident involved a cyclist maintaining traffic speed in the lane who was right-hooked catastrophically by a vehicle that passed anyway. You must use your judgement at all times. I almost had a bad encounter this summer when I was rolling in on Center Street at traffic speed, and laid into the corner onto Lehner Street just as a local tourist trolley decided to push out into the lane from the gas station on the corner to force an entry into a line of stopped traffic at the stop sign on Lehner to enter Center Street. I had the right of way, and momentum, but the driver still yelled that I was a "fuckin' idiot," because I was on a bike and should have been able to stop in an instant to let his barge pull out and cut me off. We are the lowest on the traffic totem pole.

Downtown Wolfeboro in the summer is mostly perfect for pilot fish technique. But sometimes the sharks are too aware. Last week, for example, I was coming down into the area near the train station building that marks the start of the Bridge-Falls Path/Cotton Valley Trail, as a huge, shiny, black Suburban came around the end of the block from Railroad Avenue to loop around and head out the short but grandly named Central Avenue past the Post Office to Main Street. Whenever a motor vehicle comes through there as I am coming down to make my left, I maintain speed, but swing right to get them to complete their turn, so I can then loop back to the left to settle in behind them. Whether I wait behind them or filter through to get onto Main Street ahead of them depends on how choked up the intersection is at Main Street.

The driver of the SUV did not look over at me as she came around and into Central Avenue. But I had a front blinky light still operating from the trip down Center Street. Also, as I assessed the clot at the intersection ahead, I slid up on the right before drifting back to let her take the lead onto Main Street. Main Street was backed up, and drivers there were not consistent about letting side traffic join them.

Once on Main Street, we accelerated nicely to a quick but accessible pace. We slowed at the crosswalks, but did not have to stop. Approaching Mill Street, the shark put on its right turn signal. No problem, I was turning right, too. But the confused shark, aware of my presence but oblivious to my hand signal for the right turn, stopped short and offered me the Death Hole on the right. All she had to do was drive up to the corner and turn it, and whether I was going straight or right it was up to me to keep myself out from under her wheels. But she might have thought that I had been trying to get past her, rather than scavenge a bit of draft. With the best of intentions, she was trying to avoid hooking me. I stopped short in a track stand until she made the turn and I could follow her. She went on down Mill Street while I kept swinging right to enter the parking lot behind the shop.

Sometimes a shark will be vindictive, brake checking or making other moves to kill the pilot fish in its buffer zone. You have to learn to read the body language of the vehicle. For most drivers, the vehicle is an extension of their body and personal space. This ability is what allows us safely to pilot our large machines, but it also extends the area of sensitivity for operators who are protective of their personal bubble. Remember that the vast majority of drivers don't want to hurt you, even though absolutely none of them would be sorry to see cyclists banished completely from the public roads. This doesn't protect you from the careless or distracted driver, but it's some tiny consolation.

Meanwhile, in the "I mountain bike because it's safer" crowd, the casualty list includes one separated shoulder, one busted collarbone, and one rider who fractured two vertebrae and busted the top off of his femur.  And the Cotton Valley Trail continues to claim numerous victims with its numerous rail crossings. Wherever you ride, your own judgement is always your most important defense.

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

Corporate greed further impacts the freedom of bicycling

 As the big two companies, Specialized and Trek, continue to pull in large independents and chain shops in major market areas, the black hole of corporate accounting continues to pull away chunks of what had been a workable system of distribution at all levels of population density. The latest casualty is Quality Bicycle Products, which recently announced layoffs even as it expanded its warehouse locations, and has now begun to offer some of its house brand products direct to consumer.

Currently, the QBP plan will share profits with dealers enrolled in their Dealer's Choice program, but it indicates that QBP's status as the top distributor of parts and accessories has suffered inroads from the vertical integration pursued by Spec and Trek, pushing their own lines of parts and accessories through their controlled network to consumers with less and less choice.

You don't have to build a better mousetrap. You just have to market yours more effectively, or otherwise gain control of the market so that no other mousetrap gets enough visibility to compete. Consumers can only vote with their wallets a limited number of times. Usually, once we own a product, we have to put up with it because that portion of our budget has been expended.

The bike industry faces a peculiar challenge because of the strange niche bikes occupy. From their first emergence they have been controversial. Their haters hate them and their lovers love them passionately. The great neutral middle blobs toward use and neglect in response to forces as hard to calculate as the actual parameters that make bikes work at all. So when money started pouring in during the mountain bike boom of the 1990s, no one in the business knew how to keep it going. The power players only knew that they were finally earning like real capitalists, so they'd better start acting like it. Partly due to their own technological and financial decisions, and partly due to the inevitable public swing away from any boom activity, the wave broke by the turn of the century, leaving the industry leaders trying to figure out how to hold onto what they'd gained.

Small brands have vanished, folded outright, or folded into a larger consolidation, and perhaps sold online, "ready to ride out of the box." Small shops have gone under. And now, the major supplier to the independents dips a toe into direct consumer sales. They're strong enough to become a dominant force in direct consumer sales. One hopes that they will continue to supply the kind of durable, simple stuff that allows a truly independent rider-mechanic to build and maintain the kind of bikes we used to have in the second half of the last century. In any case, it's always a good idea to stockpile parts if you can. I'd rather be on foot than ride some gimcrack marvel of flashy technofashion.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

A bike on demand

This was a test of the Emergency Beater Bike System.

The cellist wanted me to have a bike in Delaware, so that we could ride when I visit her during the school year. Each of the bikes I already built has a specific profile. Even if I haven’t used a particular one in a while, I might. And the least used is the hardest to replace. I needed another bike, and quickly. We were heading south in about a week.

Any good bike mechanic has a bike’s worth of pieces around. This is true whether you’re a professional or just an enthusiast. If you’ve gotten very far into doing your own work, you’ve collected parts, and perhaps frames, and wheels.

The first frame I pulled out was a sporty little Univega road bike from the early 1980s. I’d used it in 1994-‘95 when my primary road frame needed repairs. I inventoried parts on hand and brought home the ones I needed. But at the beginning of assembly I discovered that the 700x28 tires would never fit. The 28s were barely wide enough for an urban exploration bike. I needed a different frame.

Fortunately, someone had abandoned an intact Raleigh Grand Prix from about 1972 and I’d brought it home as a fixed gear prospect. Between what it already had and my archive of parts dating back to the mid 1970s, it should go together as fast as I could slap the parts on. Right?

Of course not. Maybe building a complete gruppo on a perfect new frame designed for it, but not in the gritty world of junk-box custom. 

The frame was designed for 27-inch wheels. I had a set left over from a touring build in 1980, complete with 6-speed 13-28 freewheel. The drop bars were coming off, in favor of flat bars. Drop bars are better for longer distance, but then I’d need primary and interrupter brake levers, and lots of other refinements that would take too much time. I was retaining a lot of things on the bike that I would have discarded for a fixed gear build. A fixed gear conversion is more of an unbuild.

Accepting the 42-52 steel cottered crank, the low gear is 42-28. Delaware is flat, right? I should be able to run those chainrings with a 13-18 corncob. But that’s poor gearing for leisurely exploring.

Wilmington is in the mountains of northern Delaware. That 42-28 is none too low.

Thinking I was home free, I put 1 1/8 tires on the wheels and slapped them in. That’s when I discovered that the fork was a little bent, and the front brake for some reason didn’t quite reach the rim. I was out of time, so I needed to solve this with parts on hand.

I had a long reach side pull brake, but it had a rear center bolt. However, center bolts are easy to swap on center pull brakes, so I moved the original rear center pull to the front and put the side pull on the rear. I’d straightened the fork ends adequately, so the wheel sat straight. The bike was ready to ride with 18 hours before we hit the road.

This Simplex front derailleur was one of the first upgrades I ever bought for my first road bike in 1975.

This slightly worn and probably slightly bent 1990s derailleur is totally fine to shift in friction.
The whole mess is controlled from this circa 1991 mountain bike dashboard.

The bike will return to the lab in the winter for refinements and upgrades, but nothing too fancy. Meanwhile, it met the urgent need.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Wood and oil: Things you purchase, just to burn

The first installment of firewood arrived at the end of May. My fun day off activities centered around getting it stacked in shelter so that I can call for the next load as soon as possible, before the price goes up again. It's a tedious chore, but it's part of the price of freedom from fossil fuel dependency.

This year, the direct link between fossil fuel prices and firewood prices has been highlighted. My wood supplier called to say that she had some stuff I could get now that was already expensive, but that any later loads would be subject to price increases because of the soaring cost of the petroleum distillates used in the trucks, heavy equipment, and chainsaws of the cutters and transporters of the "renewable resource" from the forest. This first batch reflected a 20 percent jump in the per-cord price over what I'd been paying for the past three years. The greener wood to follow will be worse.

This house started out as something not as rustic as a cabin, as quaint as a cottage, or as rudimentary as a hut. It was a square little box with walls a little too thin for the climate, but an interior volume about like a large packing crate, so it heated readily from a wood stove plunked in the center of its large open space that was kitchen at one end and living room at the other. We later moved the hot iron box to the basement, after we added a proper chimney and cut a hatch to make a ladder to that lower level.

The basic shelter evolved into something much larger. The newer parts are better insulated, but taller, so they're nowhere near as easy to heat. I spend a lot of time colder, wearing more layers indoors, than I did when I lived in the little box. The little old place didn't have enough room for studio space and an occasional guest. The bigger house evolved to make room for a cohabitant and a music school.

Way back in the mid 1970s I looked to a future of scarce and expensive petroleum and decided to limit my dependence as much as I could. I believed -- and still do -- that we can find a balance between the convenience and economic advantages of some degree of mass production and a cooperative energy grid, and a well-protected environment doing its job to support all life. So I didn't become a full homesteading hermit.

Back when gasoline and heating oil seemed like the primary expenses and pollutants that consumers had any choice about, riding a bike and heating with wood seemed like good strategies. And the bike remains unassailably virtuous. Any number really can play, and the world only gets better as the number of riders -- particularly transportational riders -- increases. The wood stove not so much. This adds to the toil of stacking the expensive chunks of tree, as I think about the evils of my carbon emissions and contributions to atmospheric particulates. I'll have to be even colder and wear more layers through the long gray months.

The design of the house lends itself to a seasonal division. I could shut off the tall back part, and barely heat it, only enough to keep the plumbing from freezing, or even drain that section, and live only in the low part. The tall part is actually helpful in the summer, because I can send heat up and out through the upper windows, drawing in cool air when it's available through the lower ones. It justifies its continued existence.

I'd go solar if I could, but I can't afford the initial investment. So I have to rely on small fires and heavy sweaters. I've been incredibly and undeservedly lucky in sidestepping some expenses for a number of years, but now some older bits of infrastructure look like they're crumbling. And the car is succumbing to its 19 years of New England road salt. So now I have to find something less decrepit, when we should all be weaning ourselves off of our default vehicles. It's hard to get enthused about going into debt for the rest of my life to pay for a vehicle that should have been phased out decades ago. Everyone has been focused on the price of gasoline and paid no attention to the cost of it.

Faced with winters that could bring only cold darkness or could bury us in feet of snow, I can't live without a motor vehicle as long as I live here. I'd be willing to try, but my winter job depends on our mobile society as it exists. I need other people to be able to drive to get here. Without winter tourism, I don't know what would keep the economy going until spring. Locals have a long history of catering to visitors and travelers to bring in extra cash. By the late 20th Century it was a primary source of income for a lot of them.

Loggers do a lot of work in winter, when wet areas are frozen solid, but there's only so many trees at any given time. Cut 'em all down now and you have to find something else to do for 30-50 years while you build up a new crop.

Back when New England was nearly deforested, more people farmed, but the soil was full of rocks, and the growing season was short. The soil is still full of rocks, and the growing season is still short. The air may warm, but the sun only shines for the same length of time that it always did. In mountainous terrain, cold dark hollows are cold dark hollows. Removal of trees only mildly enhances the exposure to sunlight. And the soil will still be uncooperative.

In my own little clearing, the sandy soil makes its way to the top, displacing organic matter. Some areas seem to grow grass and plants better than others, but those are mostly places I would prefer less lush, like the driveway. We've experimented with gardens a few times, but we'd need to push the trees back much further, and work constantly to maintain a good growing medium. It's made more sense to support local farms than to try to establish our own.

When the propane company finally sent out its budget plan for the coming season, the price of that had jumped 50 percent. Fifty percent. Half again as much every month to fill the tank. I've tended to reduce my usage year by year, but the cobbled-together heating system in the house depends on the propane heater to maintain a baseline. That baseline just dropped by about eight degrees. It's going to be a cold, dark winter.

What the hey. I moved here because I liked winter camping. Then I hardly camped because I didn't really have to, once I lived within easy day-trip range of all the fun stuff. And that's when I thought I could afford to do things for fun. Looks like I'll be living in a winter hut by default. On the plus side, the cellist will be safely lodged at her school-year job well south of here, except for her brief visits home.

The wood dealer hasn't come through with a price for the second installment of firewood. If the price stays high, I may be back to scavenging dead stuff from the forest and picking up scraps that fall along the roads. That was the basis for the humorous name for "the estate" when it was a tiny box in a patch of forest: Scavengewood. Now it's more like the drafty castle of broke nobility once the sun slides southward and leaves the northern hemisphere to pay is orbital dues to the implacable cold of the universe.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

The weather was all somewhere else

With summer-like weather predicted, this was a good week to live without the car while it got some long-overdue service. As of last Tuesday, the days looked increasingly warm, and free of rain, through Saturday.

Naturally this didn't hold up.

I never know for sure how long it will take my mechanic to finish servicing the car. Sometimes he turns it right around within a day or two. Other times I have to get along for close to a week, depending on how busy he is with other jobs, and what complications he finds with mine. I am unusually well situated to live without a motor vehicle in the milder seasons with longer daylight, because I have been stubbornly focused on it at the expense of some other things. Most people order their lives differently.

On Tuesday I made the long ride home from Gilford after dropping the car at his shop. The least worst bike route goes through Wolfeboro, so I often split the trip around a work day on one end or the other. This works best for the pickup after it's fixed, although it means the longer segment with almost 1,000 feet of climbing after a full day at work. There are also unavoidable narrow sections of road. These include the two worst climbs. The 1,000 feet is distributed over quite a few hills, but the one out of South Wolfeboro is the longest and steepest, with basically no shoulder. On the other side of the lake, in the section I call "White-knuckle Shores," Route 11 runs right along the edge of the lake. After Ames Farm, the road climbs one last grunter.

Wednesday was warm and dry. I felt pretty good after the 43 miles on Tuesday. I carried everything I might need in case I got the call to head over to Gilford after work, but the call never came. Same for Thursday, only even warmer and nicer. By Friday, the commutes were starting to wear me down a bit on their own, without the extra distance and hills. Later on Friday evening he called. So Saturday was the day.

Saturday shop hours start an hour earlier, but end a half-hour earlier right now. So add short sleep to the challenges facing an aging idiot flogging himself across miles of New Hampshire hills. And the forecast had gotten interesting: 20-30 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms. Thunderstorms could produce gusty winds and small hail. The high temperature had been at or near 90 F by mid afternoon, and hadn't dropped much by the time I set out with complex cloud formations arranging themselves around the sky.

The route out of town starts with a long grind up South Main Street, on a narrow, busy road. Traffic speeds aren't too bad, since the road goes right past the police station, but drivers are getting impatient because they've already had to endure the congestion of the town center, no matter where they entered it. By the time they're heading out South Main Street they've had all they can take.

From the crest of South Main Street by the high school, you lose almost all of what you laboriously gained, on a slightly shorter, slightly steeper descent to the corner of Middleton Road, and the fun 90-degree bend into more descending to the bottom of the wall I call Alpe de Suez, for the restaurant East of Suez near the top of it.

The route goes southeast, then southwest, then south, before heading generally northwest along the lake for about 15 miles. As my direction changed, the aspect of the sky also changed. Hills and tree cover also limit the sky view. One window might show a dark mass of slaty gray, followed minutes later by a light overcast. Once over the Alpe de Suez, the road widens to a 55-mph highway with full-width shoulders. While the elbow room is nice, it can be more of a grind to do your best next to motor vehicles effortlessly ripping by at 60. It's a relief to exit onto Chestnut Cove Road for a few minutes respite from the stress of passing motorists.

The weather radar had showed blobs of convective action blossoming all around the area, rather than a well-defined front. I hadn't had time to study it for long enough to discern an overall direction to the storm cells. I had no choice in any case. I'd brought an extra vest in case the rain found me. I hoped not to need it.

Once the route turns the bottom of Alton Bay and heads up along the southern shore of Lake Winnipesaukee, long views are more frequent. And at that point the wind was mostly in my favor. But would it push the storms out of my way? At each overlook I could see the deep blue-gray clouds trailing curtains of rain, occasionally lit by pink-white flashes of lightning. Beneath them, the mountains showed as dark silhouettes, Thunder followed across miles of open space. Was it from the distant storms, or from one closer, and threatening, obscured by the overhanging trees and rising hills on my left? The air was still comfortably warm, and the sky above me only cloudy. All the drama and discomfort was far away, happening to someone else, like a war in another country, or oppression of a minority that you're not part of. Those storms seem to be someone else's problem, too, until you realize that the winds can change and put you in the path of trouble.

My mileage for the week is laughable: 174 miles over five days. The longest was 43 miles, followed by three days of 30-mile commuting days, ending with 41 miles to fetch the car. Setting aside that I'm 65 years old, with multiple stressors in my life, I wonder if the rides would take less out of me if the routes themselves were more serene. They're not as bad as in really built-up urban and suburban hells, but traffic is traffic. It always carries emotional weight. However, bike-only routes are almost never designed to support the full speed potential of habitual cyclists trying to cover distance on a schedule. If the choice is a 12 mph plod on a path versus a higher average on a shared route with motor vehicles, I still tend to take the road that allows me to push it where I can. Coming down the Alpe de Suez northbound into Wolfeboro, I routinely hit 40-45 mph on the descent. I exceed 35 mph on the descents on every commute.

Full-size streets let me come off of a motor vehicle draft at 25 mph and lay into a corner to carry momentum into a side street that climbs slightly. Toddling into an intersection like that at 12 mph would give me nothing going into the grade. But would I miss it if I wasn't also having to manage motorists? Every ride is a race in places where a rider needs a bit of snap to hold a place where oblivious or malevolent drivers might clot things up by pushing past when they should wait.

I have no idea why I can still chase cars as strongly as I do. It's certainly not as strongly as I used to. But in my weakened state it's even more important to be able to take advantage of every benefit that gravity and wind will bestow. These are benefits that every rider should have access to. A path built for the maximum possible number of riders will be the size of a real road, to accommodate the potential numbers of riders and their full range of potential speeds. Or we figure out how to accommodate pedalers on the transportation routes we already have in place, while minimizing the conflicts with motorized users to increase cyclist safety.

Almost no one passed me in a very unsafe or threatening manner on my ride. Incidents have become quite rare in what most people think of as bike season. The problem for sensitive riders is that a bad crash can come at any moment when motor vehicles are around. Decades of trouble-free riding count for nothing at the moment of impact. This knowledge rides along with everyone who still pedals on the road we all own. It adds at least an extra gear's worth of fatigue in upper body tension, and heightened vigilance.

Friday, April 22, 2022


 "I don't feel safe out there."

"The roads are so narrow."

"People are all on their phones."

"Someone I know was killed."

These are just a few of the lines I hear from the quitters: the people who are getting rid of their road bikes because they don't enjoy being out there on the travel ways that we all pay for with our taxes and have every right to use. If they're in the shop, these quitters aren't quitting cycling outright. They're just being intimidated into leaving the public right of way to go play on various closed courses, or highly limited corridors like what passes for a rail trail around here.

Most of the time, I overhear the conversation between the quitter and a salesperson on the retail floor while I toil away in the repair shop. It makes a weary day wearier.

To be fair, if I lived in Wolfeboro I would probably come to dislike road riding, too. Every time I think about moving closer to work I think about the severe limitations on riding, imposed by the hills and water bodies that have shaped the road system since colonial times. The typical New England road has a white line and a ditch. Combining that with resort-area traffic in the summer makes road riding increasingly stressful as what used to be a rural area gets overrun by creeping suburbia. We're not seeing too many cookie-cutter housing tracts yet, but the attitude of drivers, and their numbers, make the roads busier in all seasons, compared to how they were in the end of the 20th Century.

Creeping suburbia extends to my area as well, but the terrain of the glacial plains allows for longer sight lines and some degree of wider roads, and the lack of particular geographical attractions, like top-tier lakes or brag-worthy mountains means that most people on the roads are just passing through. But we do have our dinky rush hours. And GPS has turned the road in front of my house into some kind of "secret" escape route for southbound motorists when Route 16 is choked with traffic.

One quitter this week said that a friend of hers "passed away while riding on the road." Passing away is something you do in your sleep. Even if you die from natural causes rather than the smashing trauma of a motor vehicle impact, if you're mounted on a bike when you have your stroke or heart attack you're going to hit the ground hard. People are funny about death. If your friend's terminal experience was horrendous enough to get you to give up a form of cycling that you say you loved, say "killed." Give it the full horror and outrage that it deserves. Highlight this side effect of humanity's bad decision to prioritize the passage of motor vehicles over the health and safety of nearly everyone and everything else.

Other riders quit the road because of physical limitations that accumulate with age and injury. Some retreat gradually through upright bikes that replace their drop-bar models. Some go straight to the e-bike. Some try mountain biking. Some head straight for the path.

There are very few transportation cyclists around here. I'm pretty sure I'm one of the most persistent, and I ain't shit compared to real dedicated car-free people in areas and occupations more conducive to it. My occupation has been quite supportive of my cycling fixation. It just pays so horribly that I can't recommend it to anyone as a long-term program. But other people, better people, in generally more populated places, manage the synergy of a decent-paying career and a bike for transportation, to demonstrate how the world could be a better place for productive citizens, not just dilettante fuckoffs with silly dreams.

Transportation cyclists seem less inclined to quit than recreational riders. When you just do something for fun, you stop as soon as it is no longer fun. There are days when transporting myself across the necessary miles isn't a lot of fun. A couple of days ago as I rode down Route 28 I tried to estimate how many miles I've logged on just this route. I'm sure it's more than 40,000, possibly as high as 60,000. That may seem like a lot, but it's over 32 years. My average annual mileage wouldn't even make the charts among real year-round transporters, long-distance tourists, or anyone training to race. It's just the result of stubborn, stupid persistence. My total mileage in that time is far higher. I used to ride more for fun. And I didn't include the training miles I log to get ready for the commute or to stay in some kind of shape transitioning into winter. The 40-60 figure was just on the principal commuting route. 

I don't push myself as hard as I used to. When I pushed myself harder, it didn't feel as hard. I was younger. The key to longevity as a road cyclist -- aside from not getting crushed by a motor vehicle -- is avoiding debilitating injury. Especially with a somewhat long route, a dedicated bike commuter is an athlete with more than just the riding career depending on completing the course, day after day. So I go ahead and take the car on the grossest days. Recovery is key, and an aging body doesn't recover as well over a single night, especially if the aging rider has gotten too frisky the day before. Commuting turns into a time trial. Oops! How did it get to be so late?! Oh well. I'll sprint this one as hard as I can and promise to do better tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow, stomps in this hectic pace to the last syllable of yet another work week.

The rides are frantic, sandwiched around days so incredibly tedious for the most part. But you go from moment to moment of reward, finding something of value in the neck-deep mud of your own created predicament. And be glad because the mud so far remains below your face. If I could have imagined anything else in sufficient detail, while there was still time to implement it, I would have done it. So without real complaint -- just a continuous profane grumbling and self reproach -- I get on the bike for another day.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Cold, Clear Water, Thawing Manure

 Here in the southern part of northern New England, April weather notoriously bounces between occasional pleasant days and raw, wet ones that can bring rain or snow. This gradually transitions to the somewhat milder promise of May, before giving way to the tepid disappointment we call June.

Yesterday was one of the mild ones. The wind was light, the sky was clear. I needed a ride to continue my recovery program from a sedentary winter. The commute doesn't feel any longer than it used to, but it takes a little longer, and I feel its effects longer afterward.

During my first spring in New Hampshire, in 1988, I was training for an epic ride that I hoped would form the basis for one or more magazine articles. Starting in March, I went out on a set of training routes through the rural landscape just to the south of the eastern Sandwich Range. I watched the snow recede, the brooks and wetlands fill to flood, the brown and tan dead vegetation pressed flat by the weight of winter slowly rebound, pushed up by the green growth seeking the sun. It was a time of creativity and hope.

Every spring has its version of this, enriching spring training rides with actual and remembered rejuvenation. Where I live now, I pass several places where they keep livestock. First is the draft horses, less than a mile down the road. Their manure pile is well thawed now. On the opposite side of the road, a brook rushes with clear, cold runoff, that started as snow melt from our meager winter, and now conveys the rains that follow. Wood frogs and peepers have begun to sound, when the air is warm enough.

A cold snap shuts them up. I imagine their annoyance.

Around the route I pass several other places where the smell of animal dung dominates the atmosphere. It reminds me of a race I used to do in Carlisle, PA, when I lived in Maryland. It was a 50-mile race in April. For some reason I believed that the other competitors would be in a similar state of early season development as I was. I thought I trained over the winters: commuting, riding rollers, sneaking in a road ride or some fixed-gear training as it fit with weather, daylight, and a full-time -- albeit low-paying -- job. Hey, it's April. We should be easing into our season. Right?

Invariably, I ended up chasing the breakaways from somewhere in a splintering field torn apart by the riders who had gone south for their early miles, or perhaps for the entire winter, or who had pounded their bodies with high-intensity alternative training during what passed for winter in the Mid Atlantic coastal and Piedmont region. Any longer race -- more than 30 miles -- was open to Cat. 2,3, and maybe 4, in the years before Cat. 5 was anything but a joke we would make about novice riders. The difference between the categories is not subtle, it's exponential. The top category sets the tone, chased by the most ambitious of the category below them.

Once the field breaks up, you may find yourself alone or with a group of riders sizable enough to create the illusion that it's the main field or a significant chase group. Thus I would hammer through the early spring landscape of central Pennsylvania, sucking in oxygen with whatever other freight it carried. A lot of that air smelled like a large farm, because a lot of large farms lined the 50-mile loop of the Tour of Cumberland Valley. Except for the part of the course that crossed the Appalachian Trail, we rode through a landscape dominated by agriculture.

Regardless of the annual rebuke the race always provided, it still felt good in its weird way to be out there, immersed in the almost inescapable hopefulness of spring.

Every brook and stream, every vernal pool, marsh, and wetland is about as full as it's going to get, unless we have a summer of floods. Yesterday's route was calculated to mix steady cruising with some climbing. The fixed-gear forces continual effort and smoothness. Every pedal stroke moves you the exact same distance forward, regardless of the slope or wind. Slope and wind determine the effort demanded from the rider. Grunt harder or spin faster. Look to the scenery for distraction and inspiration, or just to enjoy it. Each year adds to the fund of similar memories to deepen the connection to grateful observance.

Sunday, April 03, 2022

Big Dealerships take over bike retail

 As part of the bike industry's damage control response to the Covid-19 bike boom, major players like Specialized and Trek have cut loose dozens (at least) of small shops in what they consider minor market areas. At the same time, they have started offering online direct sales, and bought up larger independent retailers to establish concept shops for their own brand where population is more concentrated and disposable income theoretically more common.

In 2021 we managed to wrangle several Specialized ebikes for wealthy customers who ordered them fully prepaid in the fall of 2020. First the orders were delayed by the supply issues that racked every industry, but hit the bike business particularly hard. Then the Big S jacked the price on them even though they were fully paid at the original price, requiring the customer to fork out hundreds more dollars per bike. Then Specialized told us that they didn't think they could deliver the bikes, which would have required us to refund all that money. The full order arrived eventually, a bike at a time over months. We ordered electronic diagnostic equipment to communicate properly with the brains of these technological marvels. Then Specialized terminated our dealership, leaving the people who bought their bikes in good faith with no reliable product support. 

Schwinn used the dealership strategy to build and hold market share for decades. Capitalizing on the dealership concept accepted without question in automobile sales, Schwinn had its shops, where a customer could be assured that all the parts were "Schwinn Approved," and would definitely fit. They had their own size of 26X1 3/8-inch tire, so that a generic 26-inch wouldn't fit the rims on Schwinn bikes. Their shop manuals standardized procedures for their mechanics. The bikes were mostly notoriously heavy, but undeniably durable. The business model weathered competition in the 1970s bike boom, but fell apart in the mountain bike boom that followed, although a lot of that could have to do with mismanagement by the inheritors of the company, who considered the family fortune to be as indestructible as the bikes themselves.

In Concord, NH, Trek has gone into direct competition with one of its own established and popular dealers. Trek bought the Goodale's chain of shops and converted them to Trek concept shops. This included the Concord location. Sorry, S&W. You're just collateral damage.

To the bean counters, a shop network that only follows the money is a good thing. The accountants don't care if riders find themselves in a town or village many miles from an authorized service center and suddenly need a proprietary part, or "dealer-only" service on an electrical component. While I have no sympathy for riders who shackle themselves to proprietary parts and electrical components, I acknowledge that new riders don't think about those issues when they buy their great new bike. Even a lot of riders who have been doing this for years never thought to worry about the trend. The onus is on them for enabling and encouraging the bike industry to do this to us all. Only a few relentlessly annoying voices spoke out against it.

Interesting footnote: I found some ridiculously expensive rigid mountain bike forks on the QBP site the other day when I was looking for rigid 26-inch forks to retrofit customers' bikes that have cheap suspension. This indicates to me that a cult of rigid mountain bikes may be taking hold. While they still embrace the ridiculous drivetrains currently fashionable, the new converts to rigid bikes are seeking refuge from the ongoing costs of maintaining suspension, and the generally poor function and heftiness of cheap and mid-price suspension parts. By making some crazy expensive forks of space-age materials, the industry helps the convert to rigidity show the world that it's a step up, not a step back. See the price tag? For that kind of money, it's got to be good.

The big dealer concept is going to hurt Big Bicycle eventually, if not sooner. In the meantime, my advice is what it always was: buy simple, durable stuff whenever you can. Hold on for its eventual return. There may always be people who will pay too much to have a very limited and expensive experience like technical mountain biking, but I wonder how long that sort of indulgence will survive the kind of economic and social reckoning that is being forced on us by consumer society's willful neglect of the consequences of its appetites since the mid 20th Century.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Train like a pro

 In 1980 I was somewhat sketchily employed and had a chance to ride regularly with a sponsored "amateur" bike racer. While he did not receive a direct salary for riding, he had reached a high enough level that he was able to ride as if it was his job.

During the spring and summer he was often around Annapolis. He welcomed company on his long, easy days, and on many of his interval training days, the pattern of effort and recovery allowed a few riders far below his level to play along anyway. When he had something really serious to do, he generally did it somewhere else, with riders in his category.

Because he had to ride, but he had complete control over his schedule, he mostly rode in the nicest part of every day, if the day actually had a nice part. I did go with him on one rainy day, for hours, getting steadily more soaked and gritty, but for the most part we went when the air was mild, and the gentle sun shone just enough through perfect puffy clouds -- or so it seems in memory. He did say that he preferred to train during his highest energy level, which was the heart of the day. It was a pretty seductive life. Eat well, sleep well, ride a lot, tune your bike...

He did have an obligation to perform in return for this indulgence. I got a small closeup of it one day when the group wanted to go long and mellow, but he needed to do a time trial effort to prepare for a race. I went with him when he peeled off to do this on the way back to Annapolis from south of town. We were on Route 2, for anyone who remembers what that was like in 1980, with the classic Chesapeake southerly wind behind us. He accelerated steadily to top gear as I stayed an inch off his wheel, as he had taught us. Then he pulled left so that I could ride through on the inside to take a turn at the front.

I felt like a flag in a gale. I clawed my way past him, with a bit of shelter as he dropped back. He looked down at my bike.

"You've got two bigger gears," he said.

I knew that, but I was finding out that they were mostly decorative. I shifted into them and promptly roasted my legs. I lasted about seven seconds out there before he pulled through. We tried to switch off a couple of times after that before he just told me to stay back and hang on.

There's a reason that the time trial is called "The Race of Truth."

That day offered a rare chance to see a tougher part of the process. When I was in an actual race with him, the district road championships, I saw him depart on his breakaway with a couple of other riders, and saw him no more until we were back at the parking lot when it was over. He had a job to do. I was just playing.

I think of those days now as I try to train up for commuting season more than 500 miles north of central Maryland. I try to ride in the nicest part of the day, but with a regular job, and with early season niceness often less nice, for shorter periods, I'm out there with a cold wind leaning on me on the few days when I have the option to ride when it suits me. Even so, I find it easier to dress for a slog in the frigid gale than for stationary riding in a room that is too warm and too cold at the same time.

After a lackluster winter, we're told to expect a cold spring. Once I get into the commute, the ride time is set and the weather just comes along with it. The nicest part of the day often takes place outside the shop windows in the middle of the work day and is gone by the time I head out into the chilling evening.

Bike riding is seen as a hobby and an indulgence in this country, but for me it has been a vital part of a life less reliant on fossil fuels, and more conducive to physical fitness -- not for vanity, but for the ability to live more economically within humanity's global family budget. It has also helped me to survive on really pathetic paychecks by reducing my transportation expenses. If I could go back to living without a car, I would. However, by the time our urban areas are redesigned actually to support the workforce, I will be a very old man, or the decomposing remains of one. So for now I indulge myself in rural surroundings, and push my rusty old car through the seasons when transportation cycling is not practical in this climate.

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

Train your customers to reject simplicity

 Another breathless article about the "advanced" features that some bike brand or other might be slopping over onto more and more models illustrates the evolution of bicycles from vehicles of personal independence into vehicles of technological dependence.

A certain percentage of bike users will learn to work on them, regardless of how complicated and temperamental the mechanisms get. These riders will feel independent for as long as they can maintain their investment in tools and time. But it reminds me of people I know who work on their own cars, but who don't own a real auto garage with lifts and compressed air, and some level of machining capability. Those drivers have to make arrangements of various kinds to use a shared facility that they have to go to at the available time. The less of a workshop a given rider has, the more that rider will need to pay for a facility in which to work or someone to do the work.

The latest article on "improvements" in bike spec reported on the steady retreat of rim brakes in favor of disc brakes. This goes along with the overall weight gain among certain categories, as electric motors are added. Motor vehicles need more powerful brakes that impart the braking force more centrally, but that comes with several costs. A brake light enough to be carried on a chronically under-powered vehicle (even with electric assistance) will have relatively small brake pads that have to be replaced frequently, if you can find them in stock. Brake rotors are more prone to deteriorate when the bike sits idle, compared to your aluminum rim. Disc brake calipers are full of little crevices in which water and dirt can brew up mischief. Hydraulics complicate disassembly.

I could go on, and I have been known to. Suffice to say that bike maintenance is ever more the province of a professional mechanic with a lifestyle to maintain, as well as his or her shop full of expensive tools that have to be constantly updated, because manufacturers like to squeeze money out of them, too. To the consumer, that means steadily rising prices and a hunt for really good mechanics, akin to what we have gone through for years trying to keep cars on the road.

Key to this progression has been the ongoing campaign by the bike industry to get customers to scorn simplicity and embrace complexity in the name of performance. Niche riders are most susceptible to this. Triathletes want the most sinuous steeds that slice the wind. Mountain bikers want bikes that serve their specific interest, which seldom means pedaling up a hill. Just as alpine skiers don't ski up the Alps, mountain bikers aren't interested in climbing for its own sake. To be fair, how many of us who pedal are truly interested in climbing for its own sake? But still, it used to be a respected skill for a complete rider. But beyond the allergy to strenuous aerobic efforts, the mountain biking community also has come to depend on the suspension technologies that allow them to bomb down their trails without picking their way among obstacles that can't simply be launched over.

The varieties of unpaved trail surfaces and degrees of slope have led to very specific subsets of mountain bikes, each more than $1,000 (at least) to purchase, and costing hundreds of dollars a year to maintain properly. Or you do what most riders do, and ignore problems until the machine simply won't go anymore, and then either dig into it yourself or dump it on your chosen expert.

A thousand bucks ain't what it used to be. I've had a theory since the 1970s that the real driver of all economic fluctuations is the price of gas. By gas I include diesel. Motor vehicle fuel, anyway. The basis of all currency is the petrodollar. Right now, for instance, Americans are all freaked out that gasoline is over $4 a gallon. Back when I started driving, and gasoline was 28 cents a gallon, I had to endure the horrifying spectacle of it doubling in price within a couple of years. By the end of the 1970s it had topped one dollar! Eek! So either gas prices drift down again or everyone gets used to it as all other pricing adjusts to make it normal. Workers' wages will still lag. The rich will get richer. The international situation will be desperate as usual.

The fact that a widespread adoption of simple bikes for transportation would have headed all this off in the 1970s isn't even worthy of academic consideration. The "ten-speed boom" started a little social movement, and the mountain bike boom drove it off the road. It turned cycling back into a consumerist hobby.

As factors combine to give transportation cycling and other riding on the public streets some leverage, it also depends on the expense and complexity of electric assistance to exert that leverage. All of these technologies have their place, but it's in addition to older, simpler machines, not instead of them. Soon, very soon, I will pump up the tires on the old fixed-gear and start riding again. It's that simple. Each bike in turn as I need it comes down off its hook, gets dusted off, tires checked, and off I go. There's not much to go wrong with a simple machine. It won't suck money out of you relentlessly.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Good for nothing weather


 Wow! It's porn outside!

 Rain drummed on the roof. I heard the ice on the steep part shift as it moved closer to the edge. The temperature was 50 degrees (F), as it had been all night and for much of the previous day. The splashes in the driveway burst up almost on top of each other. What had been an almost unbroken layer of ice and compacted snow had turned to mud, except where it hadn't. As the temperature falls today, the remaining ice will set back up for the weekend. Within an hour, the sun had started to come out, but the air was still warm, and water flowed steadily from the roof.

This is Presidents' Day Weekend, the opening weekend of Massachusetts school vacation week. This is traditionally the biggest moneymaking period for New England ski areas if they didn't have a big Christmas week. Cross-country ski areas can't count on a big Christmas week the way downhill areas that have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars -- or millions -- on snowmaking can. Our overhead is much lower, but we're at the mercy of the weather. In the past couple of decades, that weather has been increasingly merciless.

It all freezes up again this afternoon, but the damage is done. The trail system has been cut in too many places. The sections with usable snow are cut off by either bare ground or plates of ice that the tiller on the grooming machine can't reconstitute.

The fat bikers always pipe up about now to try to tell us that they are the answer. I will wearily dismantle that claim again as necessary. For instance: we might rent 30 or 40 sets of skis on a busy day. There is no way we could keep a fleet of 30 or 40 fat bikes. And our ski rental fleet is much larger than 30-40 sets. We have more than twice that many. The estimate of 30-40 pairs is a bit conservative. On a really crazy day we'll clear the rack and re-rent stuff wet to latecomers who are remarkably willing to put on boots that literally just came off of some stranger's sweaty feet.

The trail system can absorb far more skiers than bikers, as well. Skiers are much better equipped to slither past each other in a congested area, compared to rigid bicycles with 31-inch handlebars. So even if we flung the gates open wide and invited the bulbous crowd to cavort, it could look like the stampede scene from some movie about a cattle drive of longhorns.

Then there's cost: fat bikers who own their own will have shelled out somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,000 to $2,000 for their mounts, assuming that about half of them picked up a used one from some other rider who realized that it was more of an encumbrance than an asset and cut their losses. You can pay a lot more. In contrast, a new ski touring outfit costs about $400.You'll pay $400 just for studded tires for your fat bike. Used stuff is almost as hard to find as new stuff with the ongoing pandemic disruptions, but if you do find something it could be quite cheap. And skis just lean quietly in a corner when you're not getting to use them. They take up little more room than a furled umbrella.

Snowshoeing remains an option, but the popular perception of snowshoeing is weird. A snowshoe is just a boat to float you on the snow. The size is calculated to keep you from slogging in your bare boots, anywhere from knee deep to waist deep. The addition of traction devices to the bottom is more recent, to make traversing hard frozen sections safer and more convenient. But once "snowshoeing" became a discrete activity performed for its own sake, rather than as part of the general category of winter hiking, people started using them on shallow snow and firm frozen trails that most of us with experience in winter hiking would see as just good footing without the encumbrance of snowshoes. Lots of rock and ice, and irregular ground, takes a toll on snowshoes. They're designed to be supported by a fairly uniform resistance from the snow beneath them.

In the "anything for a buck" mentality of winter rental, upper management will still say, "well, you can snowshoe," but anyone experienced already knows better. You will be better served to use Microspikes or a similar device. We don't rent those. Maybe we should.

Just on the basis of canceled reservations, we've lost hundreds of dollars. That may not seem like much in a world that considers an operation with 500 employees to be a "small business." but in the realm of really small businesses like ours, it's somebody's paycheck for a week. Along with that go retail sales we might have made from the group when they visited the shop to get their rentals or drop them off, and losses to other businesses in town if most of the prospective visitors decide not to come here at all. And we lose the walk-ins and same-day last minute reservation calls we typically get on a Saturday or Sunday morning. There aren't enough fat bikers in the world to equal that head count.

Indoor trainers laugh indulgently. They may not even look out a window from November to March. The super cool computerized systems feed them the virtual experience at whatever level they can afford to simulate. But indoor training depends on fantasy life. If you're like me, and have no fantasy life anymore, indoor training is just torment. All that ever propelled me through periods of indoor training were bright daydreams of the myriad ways I was going to use that fitness on pleasurable challenges.

I do look forward to commuting season. Driving sucks. But it's hard to maintain a lot of trainer enthusiasm just based on that. I can nip out for a few base mile rides when actual commuting season seems imminent, and be good to go. Maybe I'll get on the rollers a couple or three times for old times' sake before that.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The rantings of an irrelevant old man

 My frank appraisal of the backroom bike operation in town caused considerable angst in the upper management, who fears malicious reprisals of some sort. He grew up in this town. He has long experience with the kind of vindictiveness and long-held grudges that shape so much small-town life. I moved so constantly and lived in communities of such different sizes that I got used to being anonymous and quickly forgotten. I relate to ideas much better than I relate to people. I tried to assure him that the people involved in the subculture in question quit caring what I think shortly after the fat bike flap of several years ago. They've comfortably written me off as a decrepit old fart who is no use to them in any capacity. Why should they feel the slightest distress? I'm irrelevant.

Mountain biking went from a way to expand bikeable territory to a way to limit it when the machines evolved to the point where they function best on contrived courses, many of which are very expensively built. A highly advanced trail network was being built in town last fall, thanks to a deep-pocketed donor who expected to benefit directly from it. Construction ceased with the onset of winter, and other issues. I don't know if there are plans to resume. Other than that, trail support groups have joined the long lineup of nonprofits constantly fundraising to do what we used to do for free. We just happened to do it on the existing unpaved roads and trails that were already out there. Some of those fell under the protection of snowmobile clubs, to which a fair-minded rider might contribute with money and labor, but other lines sprawling over miles of countryside were old Class 6 roads and logging roads. These included public rights-of-way and private corridors that the landowner left open to public access. The more adventurous and skilled rode on hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty.

The bootleg trail movement in these parts started with pockets of activity in the White Mountain National Forest and other tracts where the builders felt they could get away with it. Some of these evolved into legitimate cooperative ventures with the Forest Service or whatever entity was in charge of the land in question. And specialized trail builders and administrators began the laborious process of putting together a road system for the off-road rider. Even on existing trails, the needs of the wheeled are quite specific, and differ widely depending on whether the rider is headed uphill or down.

The riding that we did for free is not the riding that is favored today. Today's riders need those trails and need those bikes and need to pay whatever it costs to have both. We used to say of our recreational athletic habits that they're "cheaper than drugs." I'm not so sure anymore.

It's significant that the hot shop for technical mountain bike service is also a hot shop for technical downhill ski service. Mountain biking and downhill skiing are both heavily dependent on areas specifically built for them. Downhill ski lift ticket prices have gotten pretty staggering. I don't know how much it costs to ride a mountain bike at a pay-to-play venue, but the costs of buying and maintaining a mountain bike have certainly dug into users' wallets. And you need to be able to transport yourself and your large bicycle to the playgrounds you want to visit.

Original recipe mountain biking was for the masses. Mountain biking today is for the financially superior. Sure, you'll find devotees who build simple lives around it...for a while. But they might have to finance their habit by working in the industry in some way. It becomes more and more insular. The working-class hangers-on may have to be mechanics skilled in the style of machine that the majority favors, or trail builders, or become instructors, like the golf pros, tennis instructors, personal trainers, yacht captains and crews, personal chefs, personal assistants and other support staff in the service economy.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

The Competition

 Two local beer joints are run by mountain bikers. Both of them have toyed with the idea of starting a shop to cater to their specialty here, but only one of them has actually done anything.

The backroom shop started as a service facility, but recent social media posts indicate that the proprietors might be selling new bikes on a limited basis.

I absolutely love this. They will find out the difference between beer customers and gear customers. If somebody drinks until they puke, they don't come asking for a refund or warranty. "Hey, that last beer was only in my stomach for about ten minutes! You should at least comp me my next one!" However, a person with a history of fraudulent warranty claims on bike frames is still a rider in town. Maybe it will never be a problem. Maybe they'll stonewall anyone who tries it. They're in a good position to take a hard line, because they're just playing store. They won't live and die by their reputation. They'll play at this as long as it's fun, and then quit. Maybe that's how all specialty bike shops should be, since the equipment is ephemeral, and there are lots of ways to quit riding.

The hobbyist shop or the cutting edge techno hangout may turn the bike shop business into something like the restaurant business. A shop will start up with no clear long-term plan, just serving its specialties until their quality slips or the economics catch up with them or they just get tired of it. It'll be the hot place for a few years at best, and then vanish. Another one will already be taking its place.

When we first heard about their operation, it was based on sending the technical repairs to a guy up north a ways, who does earn his living as a bike mechanic, doing a lot of boutique work for the disposable income crowd. The shop puts technology front and center and passes no judgment on expense and complexity, and the relentless march of obsolescence. He's staked out the technological territory.

There are two ways to ride out a period of technological ferment: Replace your bike frequently, or pull way back to solid simplicity for a few decades to see where it all goes. It depends on your goals for riding. I'd decided more than two decades ago that mountain biking was a nice hike spoiled. But someone into the modern style of mountain biking will be enslaved to the technology, because you definitely can't ride that way on the kind of old, simple bikes I own, any more than you could be competitive in road racing with a vintage steel bike with friction shifting.

I can think of a lot of ways that the backroom bike shop could operate, but with no reliable intel from the inside, I will probably never know. For instance, they could piggyback on a real shop's wholesale supply orders to get parts. But then do they take a markup, or bro deal their friends, undercutting every legitimate shop in the area? Or do they make their customers dig up the parts, and only supply the labor and whatever know-how they have, as well as the work space?

The great part is, I don't need to know. All I have to do is deal with whatever comes through my door on a given day, and keep my own simple fleet running for as long as I have the energy to ride it. What happens next door stays next door...except for what gets trumpeted on social media, but you know that's always buffed up to look great, regardless of what's really going on. Time will tell. It always does.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

If you can't think of others, at least think of yourself

 (Partial cross post from Explore Cross-Country)

Ski season began with a little storm in mid December that got the trails operating. Warmer weather and wet precipitation ended that, icing up the trails. Like magic, someone brought in a fat bike for service. With thin cover now, I never know which apron I will need.

The bike apron weighs 2 1/2 pounds. The ski service apron weighs eight ounces. Ski service has dominated, despite the meager amount of trail we have to offer, but it's all subject to the whims of the public. We're ready either way. But dealing with the public's other whims has made the job much more stressful.

 In one significant way, the winter of 2020-2021 was much better than the one we're in now. We had stringent pandemic precautions in place, and people abided by them or they didn't get to come in. We had enough people on staff to deal with the huge volume of rental business. The snow cover wasn't great, which is a new trend in the changing climate, but it was good enough for us to operate. The main issue was crowd control, and we had that well organized.

Last winter, there was no vaccine yet. The consequences of infection could be severe enough that we could make a case and make it stick. No doubt we lost some business, and invited some ridicule, but we're all still here. 

Over the summer, we relaxed our protocols as everyone else did. For a few months we even went maskless, until the Delta surge. When I had a close call with exposure through my position on the zoning board I serve on, we all started covering up again. We didn't go to the full system of baffles we'd used during the uncontrolled phase of the illness. We did not re-institute our mask mandate for incoming customers. But I really appreciated any customers who wore one anyway, and I appreciate them vastly more now.

The omicron variant has created a new realm of anxiety, aggravated by the fact that we now have fewer employees to run the business. Ideally, the staff should be no less than three. Most days we only have two. Because of that, I can't do service work as efficiently during business hours, because I have to drop it to deal with direct customer service needs on the retail floor and in rental, as well as covering the front while the other guy tries to shove down some food.

The other guy -- who actually owns the place -- is also the groomer. Get him sick, and we not only have to close the shop, you also don't get any groomed trails until he's off the disabled list. So, even if you aren't afraid of the illness, think it's trivial, and believe that we should all just snuffle each other's snot and get it over with, remember that your good time at our ski area depends on us being there to serve you. If you get us sick, we may not be dead or dying, but we're not at work.

 Mask up, keep your distance, and don't be a jerk. It's called enlightened self interest.