Thursday, November 16, 2023

Single gear seeks partner for committed relationship


The simplest form of the modern safety bicycle is the trusty fixed gear. On the velodrome, the bikes are pared down to the absolute essentials: no brakes, no amenities. Out in the wild, a wise rider chooses lower gearing, a front brake for a little extra security, and fenders for the crappy wet weather in which the simple vehicle excels. I also recommend a two-sided rear hub, to allow for at least two gear options. Your choices are limited by how many cogs you might securely stack on either side of the hub, and by the length of the dropout to accommodate the difference in chain length.

I see people referring to any single-speed bike as a fixed gear. A fixed gear is a single speed (even with multiple cogs you can't switch quickly), but not every single speed is a fixed gear. It's only fixed if it threads directly to the hub with no ratcheting freewheel mechanism. The difference is critical, because a single-speed freewheel is the worst of both worlds. You only have one gear, but you lose critical advantages of a fixed gear.

With a fixed gear, you can't stop pedaling. This commitment scares some riders. You can get thrown if you forget and stop your feet when you have reached a good cruising speed or you're wailing down a hill. You can get launched if you dive into a corner too tightly and really dig a pedal in. One time on a rainy training ride I had a good line in the corner, but didn't know that the puddle I was aiming to ride through had a pothole under it that was about six inches deep. The front tire dropped into that as the crank came around, driving the pedal into the chunked-up pavement. I hit the road several feet from the bike. I pulled my face up from another puddle in time to watch the rear tire crawl off of the tacoed rim, allowing the tube to bulge out and explode. Lesson learned: never dive into water if you don't know how deep it is and what might be under the surface. Swimmin' hole 101 applies to bike riding too.

That crash was before the Maryland/Delaware district championships that year. The time trial that nasty summer was run in 50-degree weather and a stiff wind, with light to moderate rain. Real nice. The 108-mile road race a week later started under cloudy skies that eventually gave way to another saturating downpour. My elbow was still bandaged from the pothole encounter. And I flatted out of the road race with a couple of laps left.

A couple of weeks after that I slammed an obstacle while bombing around on a warm July night and was out of work for 10 weeks. How does that relate? I actually tried riding on the fixed gear while my right arm was strapped to hold my collarbone onto the top of my shoulder joint and my left hand was in a cast, because I was an idiot who couldn't be inactive. I reasoned -- if you could call it that -- that I didn't need to be able to grab the brake strongly because I could control speed through the pedals. True as it was, I did start to feel like I might dump it and slow my recovery even further. I was also unable to bathe myself because of the combination of medical devices attached to my broken parts, so I didn't want to have to wear congealed sweat for another couple of months. No one available to give me a sponge bath fit the fantasies one might have of such ministrations.

Once I was cleared to return to training -- I mean work -- in September, the fixed gear provided steady pedaling to rehab the lungs and legs. The atrophied, twiglike arms required more carefully selected weights and exercises.

Another nice thing about the fixed gear was that the rear rim didn't have to be dead straight for a good braking surface. I just stomped it basically flat and re-tightened the spokes. I don't remember when I finally got around to rebuilding it, but it was probably years later.

Now here, 41 years after all that, my present fixed gear is not the same bike, but it has some of the same parts. From late 1979, I always had a fixed gear for commuting and bad weather training. Here in New Hampshire, winter and its fringes last longer than in Maryland. If the winter isn't snowy, that means I get out on the bike during those months as well as in late autumn and early spring. With short daylight and cold air, the fixed gear provides continuous pedaling, which helps you stay as warm as you can when you're generating your own 10-20 mph wind chill. Winter riding is one of the trickiest activities to dress for because of that wind chill aspect. I much prefer cross-country skiing for a fitness activity. I would use it for winter transportation if I could.

This fall has presented many obstacles to regular riding. The darkness and winding roads stop my commuting among bulky vehicles that blind each other with their ridiculous headlights, so I have to carve out time from my days off work, when I'm doing every other thing I can't do on a workday. At best I get three consecutive days of riding. Staving off the muscle loss of age, I have to watch how hard I push, but also how much I slack off in between. It seems like there's about a two-day window between good rest and the onset of incurable sloth. A few weeks ago, I blasted out on the fixed gear for twentyish miles, feeling pretty good. The next day I felt a little worn down, so I chose a multi-gear bike. It was the heavy commuter, but it felt heavier than usual. The next day was cold and showery, so I reverted to the fixed gear, expecting to feel even more sluggish. Instead, the direct drive and considerably lighter weight combined to help me drive the bike and the bike to drive me. And there is a critical advantage of the fixed gear: the bike drives the rider. On a freewheel bike, you have to push the crank around. Sure, one crank arm brings the other crank arm around, but only your legs are doing the work. On the fixed gear, the motion of the bike itself keeps the chain moving. The wheel brings the crank around even if the crank isn't bringing the wheel around.

I know the effect well. I wasn't being reminded of its existence when I enjoyed its effects that day. I was only reminded to share it again for anyone who hasn't experienced it. Even my lightweight road bike is more fatiguing to ride than a fixed gear when I'm already tired. If I can ride downhill with a tailwind, or on a route with no climbs and no adverse winds, the road bike is great because I don't have to pedal at all where the going is good. But wherever I have to put forth effort, particularly on a climb, the fixed gear can feel better because of the free lift that my off leg gets on its way back to the top of the pedal stroke.

Coasting on the fixed gear consists of loosening up the legs while maintaining a smooth, precise pedaling circle. You get smooth or you don't last. For a sustained descent, I will stop and flip the wheel to the high gear side. I also have the brake to help, although resistance pedaling and turning like a skier can help scrub speed while maintaining flow. You can't do skier turns with motorists or other riders around, but on an empty road it's a great way to control momentum while keeping a smooth pedaling rhythm. Riding the bike on freestanding rollers will teach you smoothness in a hurry. Just don't try to practice your turns there. If you even imagine turning while you're riding rollers you will end up on the floor.

Twenty (or so) years ago, after my younger colleague Ralph had been fixed gear riding for a while, he applied his analytical mind to it and reported his findings. I had said that you have four speeds: Sitting, standing, weaving, and walking. He observed that pushing back on the saddle and grinding at a low cadence could be a more effective way of climbing than standing on the pedals. While this technically falls under the category of sitting, it's different enough from staying in a more neutral saddle position and trying to keep a higher cadence that it qualifies as its own thing. And you can combine some of these, sitting and weaving, for instance, or even standing and weaving, to surmount steeper grades. As long as you can get the pedals around you're still moving forward. So fixed gear riding expands your power range, making you (possibly) less dependent on shifting as frequently on your multi-geared bike. This applies particularly to grunting in a low gear more than ultra-spin. Diving down a steep descent with a freewheeling system, just coast. 

Decades of riding take their toll. Cycling of any kind is not complete exercise. It does not build bone density, and it uses your legs in one plane and a limited range, regardless of the gear. I notice now as I get closer to 70 than 60, that my hips don't like too much high intensity cycling without mixing it up or at least taking more rest days to break up long stretches of riding. Way back in my 40s I noticed that the end of the commuting week left me feeling a bit ragged. And the arc of the whole season built nicely to a peak in July that felt like it would never end, but in late September I felt like a dragonfly, still fierce but now tattered from the constant flight. This effect has only become more pronounced with age. The continuous pedaling on the fixed gear allows no rest en route except for "fixed-gear coasting": relaxing the legs and letting the bike drive. That still requires a little input to keep everything aligned and smooth, compared to freewheel coasting, where you can actually backpedal a half revolution to drop your heel on one side and then the other, stretching the back of the leg.

Sometimes you just have to hop off and admire the view. Savor each ride.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Microshops and Major Chains: Economies of Scale in the Bike Industry

 If anyone really gave a crap, that could be the title of a doctoral thesis or seminal study of the current state of bike retail economics. However, just as bicycles themselves are everywhere you look and yet often never seen until after the moment of impact, so does the sprawling global bicycle economy never outshine the public's concern with the global petroleum economy. I'm in the business, and even I can't be bothered to dig up statistics, if there are any, to support my observations.

Occasionally I will do a web search to see what bike shops are operating in a 50- to 100-mile radius, more or less. Who is still open? Who is new on the scene? From one search to the next, which of the new startups kept going? For most of the current century, I noticed small, very focused shops starting up in small towns that weren't always on major through roads. Some had luxurious looking websites while others were distinctly more quirky. At the same time, the consolidation trend among the major players had been driving big shops into more concentrated population areas. Most of the big shops are bike-only, but some multi-sport shops have managed to retain their accounts with Specialized or Trek, at least for now. With those two, you're only as good as your last quarterly sales figures. If you can keep up your representation while still selling downhill skis and hockey equipment, great.

Support from suppliers turned into demands for fealty way back in the 1990s. It wasn't complete and abrupt, so some of us managed to drag out the divorce, but seeing the end of the relationship as it played out in 2021, the path becomes clear. In the current climate, some small manufacturers have considerable prestige in their categories, but boutique builders are usually not for the poor and middle class. The major chain brands offer a full spectrum from the staggeringly expensive down to the pricey-but-approachable and cheesily equipped low end bikes. The microshop end of the retail spectrum may not be cheap, either, although their low overhead can allow for some very competitive prices if the sole proprietor can get by without hiring expensive help.

All help is expensive. As soon as a small shop needs a staff of more than one, overhead ratchets up. Each employee adds at least their payroll costs. On top of that, they cost money to train, and every staff member represents another chance that someone will make an expensive mistake, too. These days, with so many generations of parts and so much need for systems to be perfectly coordinated, it's really easy to order something that doesn't match, if you're in a hurry and trying to juggle too many responsibilities at once.

Because I wasn't a bike nerd from early in life, and I'm not much of one now, I learn new history every day from bike nerd social media. Often it's historical tidbits about small bike brands from back in the last century. Some were very small, artisan outfits. Others were small factory operations. From the late 19th Century into the early 20th, bikes played a solid role in European colonialism. Motorized vehicles weren't ubiquitous, so the force-multiplying capability of the bicycle made it a legitimate and respected tool. Bikes held a big role in citizen transportation in Europe and the UK through the end of the Second World War. Throughout the period, with the primary material being steel, production of bikes was highly scalable from a local builder up through big factory operations like Raleigh. Even in the US, before the explosion of affordable automobiles, bikes played utilitarian roles in areas where the distances covered and loads carried fit their small size and low horsepower.

Bikes illustrate the problem common to all human powered vehicles: the vehicles change shape depending on their intended use. You wouldn't take your $14,000 S-Works Tarmac to the downhill mountain bike course any more than you would show up at the nearest criterium on your $9,000 Trek Rail. And I just noticed: Mountain biking is still cheap fun! Only $9,000 as opposed to $14,000. That's a whopping five grand in your pocket to spend on beer or put toward a tricked-out van to drive to trail systems around the country. Those examples are less than a sliver of the variety of shapes and sizes of machine that can be called a bicycle. They do represent the challenge facing a shop because their support needs are quite different. You will spend a lot more money over the brief, tumultuous lifespan of your mountain bike than you will on the road bike in the same amount of time. Whoever does your maintenance and repairs has to be ready for you. Trash a rim so that the tubeless tires no longer seat? Thrash your rear suspension pivot bearings? Blow up a shock? Snap a derailleur hanger and bend a $750 rear derailleur? Gotcha covered! Maybe.

Granted, most riders don't fall into that price range, but occasionally someone will treat themselves to a really nice bike without considering the downstream -- or downhill -- costs of ownership. Even the mid range will take a bite out of your paycheck. And it all has to work pretty near perfectly, or it doesn't work at all. What you'll limp out of the woods on is one thing. What you'll put up with day after day in your chosen form of active leisure is something else entirely. That POS needs to shift cleanly. The dropper post needs go up and down like an elevator in a classy hotel. The rear suspension linkage can't be sloppy. All of the bike's joints need to move as smoothly as a leaping gazelle in the prime of life, before it becomes creaky lion bait. Someone has to keep that mechanism in satisfactory condition so that you can take it out in the dirt and pound on it again. Maybe that's you. Maybe that's someone else. Whoever it is needs tools, parts, and work space.

Forty-four years ago, when I got out of college and based my personal economy on using a bike for transportation, I realized that I couldn't count on a shop for repairs, because I had to leave for work before they were open and didn't get back from work until they had closed. Already steeped in a self-reliant philosophy from my early mentors, I invested in tools, and tried to keep commonly needed parts on hand. I wasn't likely to break anything unusual on my commutes, so I only needed inner tubes, maybe a tire, and cables. Racing, I might break something more unusual, but more likely it just picked up another battle scar and kept going. It wasn't until I rode in the local cyclocross series that I tore off a derailleur and learned about that little peril of trail riding.

I couldn't afford to ride mountain bikes these days. Not the way they're being ridden now, anyway. Biking was great for a working class person when the equipment was solid and simple, because the biggest expense really was the purchase of the bike itself. Learn to maintain it, and decades of fun stretched before you. When it moved off road, potential damage increased in frequency and expense, but a smooth rider might still enjoy many trail miles without having to fuss too much over maintenance or replace an expensive part. You had to work within the limitations of the simple equipment. More demanding riders pushed for better adaptive equipment to meet their needs, driving the costs up for everyone, and flushing casual participants out, or relegating them to crappy, cheap versions of the state of the art. Now your routine expenses include renewing your brake fluid and rebuilding hydraulics as necessary, replacing your tubeless tire sealant at the recommended intervals (LOL), and rebuilding your shocks at the appropriate times, on top of gear adjustments, chain lube. Fine if you're into that, but added costs that the ancestral bike never had.

All of these factors are widening that gap between the small specialist and the corporate cornucopia. In an area like ours, no longer truly rural, but still with a much smaller year-round population than summer population, survival depends on being able to exploit different revenue sources. Some of our winter customers are also summer customers, whether their primary residence is here or not, but a good percentage seems to come only for one season or the other. We couldn't survive as a bike-only shop, let alone as a narrowly focused category shop. In bike season we still have customers who need service in several bike categories, but we only have the same space and limited personnel to meet those needs when demand is at its highest. In bike stuff demand tends to go from nil to highest overnight some time in the spring, and remain near peak until late summer or early fall. I wouldn't have time to rebuild your entire suspension in peak season even if we did have the parts, tools, and dedicated work space. And in what you consider the off season, we're servicing a completely different set of customers with completely different workshop needs. So the fickle and needy bike customer looks elsewhere for quicker gratification.

In the outdoor outfitter store where I worked for a few years in the 1980s, we had some climbing hardware, an ice axe, and a few pairs of top-of-the-line full-shank leather boots. We almost never sold any of it, but customers looked for things like that as proof of our worthiness to sell them fabric-and-leather lightweight hikers, day packs, synthetic-fill sleeping bags, and cheap tents. It enhanced their shopping experience, and didn't cost us too much, because the equipment was changing fairly slowly at the time. Once in a while we would sell a pair of the heavy boots to someone who couldn't be talked out of them, even though they would have been better served to get a mid-weight, even if it was full leather, but that was very rare. Otherwise, they just stood proudly at the top of the boot display, showing that we really spoke mountaineering here.

In the bike business, browsers will judge the worthiness of a shop by what bikes and accessories are on display. Because the up front cost is much higher, and bikes are made obsolete every year by their manufacturers, we can no longer keep what we called drool bikes in stock to impress the tourists. If your drool bike is out of date, it makes you look as bad as if you didn't have it at all. I've had strangers greet me perfunctorily, cruise the lineup, and walk out with a smug smile. They don't want to engage until they've judged us by appearance. If we don't display whatever the secret token is, we're not worth their time. I'm not much of a people person, so I don't mind when someone doesn't want to talk, but as a clinical thinker, it provides me with information about the impression we create. Is it worth what we would have to pay to set a more attractive tableau for these browsers? The calculation never ceases, but so far the answer is no. We continue to hang on in the precarious gap, neither micro nor major, pulling in bare sustenance.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Cycling's Inferiority Complex

 Way back in 1980 at my first shop job I learned very quickly that I had no skills with customers. A couple of people brought in a very rusty old bike and asked for an estimate. I started going through all of the things that it needed to be in its best possible shape. Their brows furrowed. Chins might have quivered. They wavered between crushing disappointment and rising outrage. The manager, a bike shop veteran for many years, stepped in and provided the lowball, bare minimum estimate to get the bike functional but still decrepit. They were immediately charmed. I shriveled away like a vanquished demon.

The manager operated under the principle that some money was better than no money. Not every bike can be saved from abuse and neglect. I was always trying to get people to love their bikes and get hooked on the good stuff. Every person who worked at the shop was doing it at least in part for the discounts. On the retail side, a quick discount could turn a browser into a buyer, or a buyer into a loyal customer.

Avid bicyclists are always trying to get friends into it. Worse yet, we try to get romantic partners into it. That works about 0.0000312 percent of the time. The fact that it works at all, however rarely, keeps poor idiots trying, year after year. In a broader sense, the bike industry, bike retailers, and cycling organizations are all trying to win friends. C'mon! Try it! We know you'll love it, no matter how much you hated it the first (dozen) times you tried it!

In the 1970s, the bike shops I frequented all seemed to have the same welcoming attitude. Paradoxically, shops have developed the image of being snotty and condescending just because of the inescapable technical complexity of the deceptively simple machines, and the fact that we do try to establish dominance over anyone who appears to be challenging us. But our public image always fights against the perception that our machines must be stupidly simple because they don't have motors.

As I think of it, some bike people can be really caustic bastards. But even that stems from the inferiority complex. Genuinely strong and secure people don't have to be assholes. That doesn't mean that every insecure person is an asshole, only that the truly great are always truly good. Some insecure people are sycophantic grovelers or codependent people pleasers.

Then there's financial insecurity. I returned to the bike business just before the market exploded in the feeding frenzy of the 1990s. Money was pouring into the industry, but individual shops had to battle furiously to make sure that enough of it came to them. Lots of players went into the retail side. Price competition was brutal. One chain in Connecticut put all of its competitors out of business by price matching and giving free service for life. We pored over their ads and press releases, trying to find how they were faking it, but they weren't. Supposedly, they also paid their mechanics fairly well, as bike shop wages go. I don't know if it was a calculated strategy of long-term loss or if they had income that wasn't obvious, but they did prevail in the long run.

"We'll pay you to be our friend" has worked in many forms in the bike business for many years. I can't count all the times I totaled up a repair bill, realized that it would lead to a lot of nasty words, and planed off what I could to avoid the hassle. A classic case occurred this week, when I redid work on a bike that the other technician had misdiagnosed, and altered the bill to reflect what the customer had asked for and what was actually done. I removed parts that had been installed in error, but performed adjustments that had been left undone, so the total bill was slightly higher than it had been with the unnecessary parts. I noticed later that the shop owner had written a completely new ticket, discounting my labor to get the price below a maximum that had not been included on the original ticket. If I'd known that the customer had an upper limit, I would have done the discount myself. It's not only an example of how bike shops have to eat sh** just because customers don't value either their bikes or our services, but also of poor internal communication in the shop itself. You get used to being insulted in this business.

I might be able to recall every one of the few times that I've held the line on a big bill and had to deal with an ugly scene. Some people specialize in ugly scenes just to get that discount. When we identify those customers, we give them a farewell party at which we actually get paid one time for the work we put in. Then we stand in the flames of their wrath as they pay that final bill and darken our door no more. It's happy-sad. It's a shame to think about how they're going to badmouth us afterwards, but a great relief to have one less thing feeding our ulcers.

Over time, the constant need to overcome the lowball image leads to feelings of guilt over legitimate prices. I know that even the simple old equipment can't endure ignorant and uncaring technicians. You pick up all kinds of little details over years of doing the work. I also know that I wasted my earning life in a stupid job that would never in any market area pay any sensible adult enough to justify spending those years. I'm a special kind of idiot. The fact that I'm not living in a single grubby room or squatting in a tent on the back of somebody's woodlot is due entirely to luck. My life is a series of accidents. I still assert that a mere bike mechanic is worthy of respect and a comfortably livable rate of pay. Take a break here to explore for yourself the wildly divergent economies in different regions of the country and parts of the globe... I have imagined myself squatting in front of a shelter made of scrap wood and tin roofing, facing onto an unpaved street in a crowded city in the Global South.

A precarious existence in a privileged society can look very cushy compared to one where everything is more obviously subject to capricious destructive forces. Our shop here in Resort Town is heated in winter, cooled in summer, has indoor plumbing, and everyone old enough to drive has managed to obtain and support an automobile. But income depends on the public's recreational interests from year to year, in activities that have seen mostly downward trends. Those trends were interrupted during Covid, when the public suddenly had time and interest, and the business had nothing to sell them. The slump resumed as the economy recovered.

Participants in any sector of the bike world can't believe that the outlook overall is weak, because they are immersed in their chosen aspect of it. The mountain bikers are convinced that the boom is still booming. E-bike riders see plenty of their own kind, especially in more densely populated areas where support is more available.

DIY videos and helpful friends with a workshop in the back of their saloon take the place of the rival shops that forced each other to live on suicide margins and give more for less. The technolemmings who buy into the notion that every change is progress have no patience with another point of view. We're free to have the point of view. They just won't be around to listen to it. When anyone does bring in their mountain bike these days, I wonder why. Gone are the days when I was the go-to problem solver in this town. The industry has specialized in producing problems faster than I can keep up with them. Mountain bikes have replaced one set of vulnerabilities with another, much more frustrating set. Parts and labor cost more, but the potential unreliability in the outcome makes me nervous about charging what we should. But that's just when dealing with the already addicted. The general public has the same dismissive view of bikes and biking that they've had since at least the 1950s. Muscle cars would always be way cooler than muscle-powered vehicles. Loud noise! Cloud of smoke! Flashy paint job! Back seat you can get laid in! We were never going to beat that.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Competition and Monopoly

 Capitalism always trends toward monopoly. Competition only seeks to increase market share. Once market domination is achieved, the "winners" become very hard to dislodge. In general consumer markets, the appearance of many companies often masks the fact that most of them are owned by a larger corporation that says it operates them independently, but still uses its mass to control pricing to its own advantage. 

Competition still appears to exist in the bike industry, because bikes are parity products, and there's never been enough money in them to attract major corporate consolidators. The competition is an illusion, because bikes for each purpose use parts from the same menu of suppliers, which is itself pretty small. Some might be slightly better made or better equipped within a price range, but you still have several relatively balanced companies milking the dying market at pretty equal rates. It isn't really competition as such, because they're just divvying up the customers over cosmetic details or accidents of proximity. Trek or Specialized? Who cares? Which shop is closest and maybe offering a little promo?

Competition did exist in the 1990s, and it was brutal. The losers were the riders and the many small shops, as well as small builders who had to find the right size to survive. Some sold out to a bigger player, notably Bontrager, Gary Fisher, and Klein. None of those are sold under their own name anymore, if at all. 

It took a while for the collapse of small shops to spread. It lasted into the 2020 pandemic. It was a steady rolling wave, as technological complication made the service side more and more expensive for retailers already struggling with the tightened margins that came out of the cutthroat warfare of the 1990s. Riders suffered because all of that technology has made what passes for a quality bike much more expensive and made mid- and low-price bikes trashy knockoffs of the expensive ones.

In the mid 1990s, Specialized went through The Great Cheapening, during which they seriously downgraded the spec on the Hardrock series, and even the Rockhoppers. These two models had been great buys from the end of the 1980s, building a name for Specialized quality and durability. They started gutting the Hardrock as early as 1991 or '92, largely due to the cheesy quality of Shimano's low-end Rapidfire shifters. The frames were still decent chromoly, but gone were the replaceable chainrings and solidly built derailleurs. Those were disappearing from the whole industry as the manufacturers scrambled to make bigger profits off of the influx of inexperienced buyers that they cynically assumed would never figure it out anyway.

The real Great Cheapening hit with the adoption of aluminum as the frame material of choice. The reputations of the model categories were well established, so customers would come in with an existing good opinion of the bike they'd generally already decided that they wanted. It was around this time that I started avoiding the sales floor more and more, because I couldn't do anything to stop the general rot in the industry. We needed to sell what we had, but I couldn't stand in front of it with a big smile and say it was a great buy. You could still make a case for some of the bikes on the basis of the serviceable features they still had, like replaceable chainrings and halfway decent derailleurs at price points that still didn't scare off buyers. Specialized snapped out of it when Raleigh re-entered the market with absolutely sweetheart spec at all price points and bought a lot of friends in a short time. Specialized went back to providing solid spec (within the choices available), leaving Cannondale as the perennial high-priced bike with embarrassing components.

Cannondale's excuse was that you should be happy to pay for their excellent US-made aluminum frame, the costs of which prevented them from dressing their bikes with the same level of parts you'd get from those "offshore" bikes. Cannondale subsequently changed hands a couple of times, nearly went under, and are now just another "offshore" brand.

As for consolidation, Trek and Specialized are now trying to control huge swaths, but they're hampered by the ubiquity and disrespect of bikes in the developed world. There are a lot of bikes out there, and only a tiny minority of riders who will pay for the good stuff. Among those, there are good little technolemmings who will queue up for the industry's latest marvel, but also grouches like me, who will own a simple bike for decades and do our best to duplicate it pretty exactly if we ever want to supplement or replace it. The industry could make money off of us if they were willing to keep selling the stuff that appeals to us, but the industry chose to emulate drugs and electronics instead. They foster addiction to passing highs and offer replacements frequently to anyone who can still afford to play.

Then there are e-bikes. While the major bike companies are trying to claim market share, the electric bike has too many variations that serve their users well, but are almost nothing like a conventional bicycle except for the coincidental use of pedals. They are much more like the true mopeds of old: a motor vehicle using bike parts to sidestep regulation. The category includes some very bulky vehicles that do useful jobs. Meanwhile, the traditional bike industry can offer the sexy e-road, e-mountain, and e-gravel bikes that just add a little zing to existing bike categories without inviting competition from a newer e-bike specialist with no heritage in that area or interest in farming that minuscule market.

Before long, e-bike competition will settle on a few strong players, like the car business. Cars are another parity product in which the major differences end up mostly being who has produced the most glaring manufacturing defects in a given model year. The stage from genuine evolutionary improvement to flashy gimmicks takes place sooner and sooner in this electronic age. On the other hand, small companies may hang in there just because everything comes out of enormous factories in Asia, even the frames that are painted and labeled to match whatever brand ordered the batch. This will always come at a cost to the consumer. That unbelievably affordable e-bike might have no-name brakes you can't get pads for, or proprietary parts that you can't replace because the company either dissolved after it sold through the first load of crap or changed the spec and don't stock the old version. It's annoying enough when it happens with a bolt or something that a good mechanic can devise a substitute for, but I've also encountered it with control units and wiring harnesses that are more difficult, if not impossible, to fake.

I guess when it comes to consumer goods you have to choose your poison: a small company that will jerk you around because it doesn't have the finances to establish a rock-solid customer service department, or a large corporation that feels it's big enough to ignore the faint whining sounds of aggrieved customers. Look at how long it took Shimano to acknowledge their latest iteration of exploding cranks. Classic example of arrogant, monopolistic corporate behavior.

Friday, October 06, 2023

Beautifully crafted, reliable mediocrity

 Like finding an old friend's obituary on the internet when I'm looking for something else, I noticed posts reporting that Surly had discontinued the Cross Check. I knew it was on the way out when they discontinued the complete bike. You could still buy the frame, and I considered trying to stock up, but I have two already. Don't be a neurotic hoarder. But now they're gone. The ones in the wild will quickly command collector prices. 

The end of the era got me thinking about how misguided popular perception eventually destroys everything simple and true and good. I don't worship everything done the old way. I don't miss road brake levers with the cables coming out of the top. I don't miss downtube shifters. Compared to the targeted perfection that consumers are fed today, older bike technology is horribly primitive, and an actual impediment. Only in the long view does its superiority emerge. But who bothers with a long view anymore?

Riders decide what is superior for their purposes. Some will purchase their bike without thinking about how to care for it beyond a place to park it. Others will budget some amount of money to pay a technician to maintain and repair it, the way they would with a car. A few will work on their own machines with varying degrees of success. Or maybe they have a friend who can help them, who will actually take on the more intimidating tasks in their back room or basement work area.

As far as I'm concerned, hydraulic brakes, finicky shifting systems, tubeless tires, and suspension do not add enough value to make up for the increased upkeep. Someone in love with those things will put up with their many flaws for the beautiful moments they spend together. Someone brainwashed by marketing into thinking that those elements represent laudable progress will endure the troubles for as long as they want to bother playing with bikes at all. In the meantime, like some unconquered tribe that has evaded assimilation for generations, we who ride The Old Shit, keep pedaling through the background, patching and replacing inner tubes as necessary, changing cables when they fray, feeling for the chain to engage correctly on the next cog, mile after mile of pleasurable utility interrupted by simple tasks to keep the machine going and going and going.

Love is work. Love is compromise. What feels like love can be temporary. The end of a relationship depends on the type of relationship. When it's with a bicycle, it's not consensual between parties with equal freedom. It's more like a pet, only this pet can be rejuvenated many times, especially if it's an old, steel-framed pet with rim brakes and friction shifting. You have to decide whether to give it the lethal injection, or abandon it on a country road, or turn it in to a shelter, or take advantage of the bike's near immortality to rebuild it. You can even modify it, which was one of the Cross Check's greatest strengths. One of mine has been a fixed gear since I put it together. The older one has been a commuting, exploring, and light touring bike with 24 speeds (initially 21), for 23 years. It has evolved more and more practical features. And I plan to put a multi-gear setup on the fixed gear 'Check as soon as I get around to it.

With long horizontal dropouts, the Cross Check offered not only an easy setup for single speed and fixed gear riding, but an adjustable rear wheel position to change the ride and load handling, as well as accommodating some cassette and derailleur combinations that should not officially work. But versatility requires thought, and any option has its drawbacks as well as advantages. The bike industry wants you to buy multiple individual bikes perfectly set up for their latest version of each particular riding style. They'll abandon you next year, but don't think about that right now. Your bike will probably last two or three before you have enough problems to need expensive work...unless you're a mountain biker, in which case you might have stuffed it in the first three days and need a $300 derailleur. In any case, the industry hopes that you will weigh the cost of service on something they've already forgotten the spec on, versus buying the Shiny New Thing, and pick the latter.

I always approached gear purchases like they were the last one I was ever going to buy, in a life with no end in sight. Now I'm closer to the statistically likely end than the beginning, so I see the changes in the bike scene more in the context of the era that will die with my generation. I can feel sorry for the young ones who have never known the self sufficiency and reliability of simple componentry that is well made, but I can't say I'll be there to help any of them who might seek to reinstate it. There's a subculture of old steel bikes, but less and less coming into the field unless it's expensively hand built by dedicated fabricators. And even in the practical steel bike subculture there are devotees of disc brakes, and probably poor bastards beguiled by tubeless tires as well. I don't want to ask for details, because knowing would only annoy me.

For the riders who demand the ephemeral performance of the latest technology, it is vital. They could not ride in the style they have chosen if they didn't have the technological support of those machines. It's a devil's bargain that would not concern me if it hadn't invaded my profession by forcing me to decide whether to keep toiling to help them pursue their bad decisions or look for some other line of work in which I have no experience. So far, I just do the best I can to make bad designs work as well as they can, and enjoy the schadenfreude when they fail anyway due to inherent flaws. It's nowhere near as fun as fixing something that can actually be fixed and sending that rider happily back out for more pleasant adventures, but stuff like that is increasingly going the way of the Cross Check: withdrawn by the manufacturer due to decreased demand.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Challenges to transportation cycling

 Yesterday I had an appointment to drop my car off for service. The mechanic I'd been going to for more than 30 years has been facing the same challenges in his line of work that I face in mine: keeping up with the expense of buying tools makes his life harder and more expensive, even as he watches the overall quality of vehicles get worse and worse. Disposable transportation afflicts almost every mode. When he told me that he couldn't fix an air conditioning problem because of the newest refrigerant, he also scouted around his area to find someone whose ethics he respected, who could do it.

For a person of limited means, every choice is critical. I don't have money to waste on either a sleaze or a well-meaning fumbler. So Rich's endorsement carried a lot of weight. In about 34 years, he's never diagnosed my vehicle's problems incorrectly or wasted my money on a repair that didn't work. Hence my willingness to drag my aging body across 40 miles of New Hampshire hills to leave the car with him when it needs service.

On the plus side, the mechanic who could do the AC was in Alton, less than half the distance to Gilford. However, Alton's terrain is a challenge to a bicyclist, even fit and young. I am fairly fit, but only for someone who is no longer young. Route 28 goes over a series of large rolling hills south of where I usually leave it. Those features stood between me and my objective going either direction.

If I was going to Gilford, I would ride on Route 28A and Chestnut Cove Road to avoid as much of Route 28 as possible. But Google Maps showed the bike route from the mechanic in Alton should follow Old Wolfeboro Road to avoid Route 28 on the other side, away from the lake shore. Sometimes the old roads avoid terrain that the new route tackles. Sometimes they're worse.

Heading from Alton to Wolfeboro in the morning, after I had left the car, I faced more than a mile and a half of steady climbing, some of it rather steep for an old fart on a heavy bike, laden with lunch and water and the other items I carry on a routine ride to work. Almost no cars passed me, which was nice, but I climbed higher than I would have on the highway. I appreciated the quiet, and the fact that I held the elevation rather than plunging down and climbing again, the way Route 28 does. However, the quiet road dumped me back onto 28 about a mile sooner than Chestnut Cove Road does. The highway isn't bad from there, but it's more tedious on a wide road with flying motor vehicles to remind me of my plodding speed.

During the day at work I tweaked something in my right pectoral muscle that I had previously injured the week before. That escalated gradually through the day until I could not draw a deep breath without pain. This would be a problem when I had to ride back out of Wolfeboro to the south, up a notorious wall.

I kept looking at Google Maps recommendations for the route back to Alton. They mostly favored a very direct route, using even more highway than their recommended route in the morning. But I also saw, grayed out to the side, Chestnut Cove Road and Route 28A. The route was less than a mile longer and completely avoided the unnecessary climb and descent of those nasty rollers. It was by far the better route for a rider. The only possible problem was a sign I'd seen in the morning as I passed the intersection of 28 and 28A, that said "Road Closed September 20." I looked up the actual work on the Alton Public Works Facebook page and saw that it was just one culvert repair, way down near the end, about two miles from my destination. I wasn't leaving until 5 p.m. They would probably have knocked off by then. Even if motor traffic was barricaded, I could probably slip through with the bike.

The ride out of Wolfeboro was absolutely as painful as I expected, with rush hour drivers at my elbow, because South Main Street so completely sucks for road cyclists. Most of them were as kind as they know how to be, so of course there were a lot of close passes, but nothing malicious. Once I hit the wall climbing out of South Wolfeboro, a pickup truck that had been stuck behind me as I wailed through the corners and descent leading into it made a big time about revving noisily on the way past me, but the driver left plenty of room. I was too busy trying to get enough oxygen past the stabbing pain in my chest to worry about macho posturing.

Once at the top of the wall, I knew I faced no more serious climbs. That was nice, although the pain continued not only from breathing but from how I held myself. There seems to be nerve involvement. Something pops occasionally, and the pain fluctuates, sometimes going away completely for a few minutes before I piss it off again somehow. It gave me something to think about as the sun fed the metaphor by sinking toward the mountains to the west. 

Chestnut Cove Road had been chip sealed, but it had settled nicely. It starts with a ripping little descent, which is nice. Then it climbs and drops a little, basically descending all the way to 28A.

The intersection with 28A had no signs forbidding passage. I turned right and continued to descend. Again there are climbs, but the trend is generally downward toward lake level. Eventually I came to the sign saying "Road Closed. Local Traffic Only." Cool, cool. I'm local. Don't mind me.

Next came a sign that just said "Closed." It adorned a more comprehensive barricade. Yeah, fine, but I'm on a bike here. I only need a few inches of space according to most highway planners. But then...

The crew was still at work after 6 p.m. A friendly workman said, "Not quite yet."

"I thought you guys might've knocked off at 5," I said.

"We would, but we're really trying to get this finished," he said. It was a cheerful exchange. I knew that they'd been working on this road since flash flooding ripped it to pieces in July. I said I totally understood, and settled in to wait. I could spend the time working on my breathing and trying to figure out what exactly was tangled up in the muscles and cartilage of my ribs there. The sun continued to sink. The excavators continued to dig and swing. The skill of the operators was impressive. Our machines become extensions of our bodies.

The light lost its last gold and turned silver. I dug out and put on my reflector ankle bands, preparing for the dusk. Finally, the work crew waved me through. I had just two miles left to cover. I put on the lights and pedaled away. It was still more light than dark out. I was still glad that I had chosen this route rather than the nasty climbs with the shorter mileage. Once I had committed to the route, I wasn't going to make the long detour to ride harder terrain in the dark anyway. You make your choice and you make it work.

Monday, September 18, 2023

What the Ruck?

 Scrolling through the teasers on my Google feed, I paused over the CNN headline, "Rucking is an easy way to fitness." I knew what I would find, but I had to see for myself.

Rucking is, as the name implies, the practice of walking for fitness with a pack on your back, containing an appropriate amount of weight for your current physical level and your training goals. The first expert cited in the article was at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, which lit warm fires of recollection because of how much time I spent propelling myself around that city under my own power. 

Annapolis at the end of the 1970s was a perfect car-free town. Two bike racing buddies and I lived and worked there without the expense and encumbrance of motor vehicles for several years. One guy was a naval architect, earning engineer money. His rental was the nicest, though still modest. The other guy was working as a painter, but moved over into carpentry before starting his own contracting business. Both of them gave up transportation cycling for the sake of financial success, but their time as non-motorized workers helped both of them to amass more money than they could hope to have done if they had been feeding and housing cars as well as paying Annapolis's exorbitant rents.

When we weren't riding to get around, we were walking. Even if we had been carousing on a weekend, we never drank and drove, because we never drove. I mean, we did drive, if we needed to bum a car to go to a race or use a company vehicle, but the rest of the time it was pedals or plain old shoes. And if you needed to carry something, it went in a pack.

See where I'm going here? A walkable community would make "rucking" a daily experience. If I couldn't ride my bike to work on a given day, I would walk, and I still needed to carry some things. A day pack was part of the ensemble no matter what. Because my bike distance was short for the first few years, I would ride in street clothes and carry items in a day pack. Only when the daily bike distance pushed solidly beyond 10 miles did I start wearing riding clothes and putting more of the gear onto the bike itself. Those distances also eliminated walking as an efficient mode, but I still walked by preference when operating within a compact area.

America is gradually "discovering" walkability as a means of addressing multiple issues that some of us started paying attention to decades ago, when the problems would have been much easier to head off. So now we move at a panicked crawl in the general direction of community design and redesign that support simpler and lower impact means of transportation.

I have to wonder how many people load their fitness pack with some sort of neutral weight and drive to a pleasant venue in which to ruck, while doing nothing to improve the infrastructure and societal norms to help walkers and riders use their exertions as part of their daily life, folding it into the necessary trips they would be making anyway. It does require more conscious planning and preparation to walk or ride to work. It takes more time and exposes the commuter to the weather, cold or hot, wet or desiccatingly dry, whereas an optional fitness activity can be skipped, squeezed out of the schedule. The article talks about people throwing canned food or dumbbells in their pack and suggests using "specially made fitness sandbags" instead. Ooh, and you can get packs specifically designed for rucking, rather than a readily available multi-use hiking pack. You're rucking kidding me...

The Navy rucking coach is dealing with a student population with very scheduled lives, a dress code, and rules of conduct when they're out and about. Their options are limited for free-range urban hiking. This illustrates that the people who defend freedom are some of the least free, and explains why so many of them lean conservative. They color inside the g-dd-mn lines, why can't you?

Some people might not feel safe walking in their neighborhoods, or venturing from their safe zones far enough to get all of their errands done. Annapolis from 1979 to 1987 was safe and compact, so that a single person could obtain anything they needed without making a major trip to a shopping destination. I don't know if it's still true. Development has pretty well mutilated the area outside of downtown. No one I know lives car-free there, and most have occupations that require motor vehicle use.

Ironically, living in a rural area where I am surrounded by hiking opportunities, I can't do a lot of walking for transportation. I could, but the motorized majority drives to suit themselves on roads with no accommodation for anyone on foot. Only a few people walk except in villages and towns. Outside of that, they're mostly on roads where they have at least a slim chance to stay off to the side. The choice in that slot is to stick an elbow into the lane or wade into the tick-infested grasses.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Gravel Riding

 Searching for the Promised Land, riders fleeing persecution on the pavement disperse to safer-seeming venues like mountain bike trails, separated paths, and gravel roads.

Along with people asking where to ride their mountain bikes around here, we also hear from riders lamenting that they can't find good gravel. 

When people ask for gravel, this is what they envision

This part of New Hampshire and nearby Maine has a lot of unpaved roads. Back before the bike industry had decreed that Gravel was a category, you could buy a Surly Cross-Check frame and build a go-anywhere bike, or just update the components on a classic 1970s to '80s touring bike and ride a wide variety of paved and unpaved public rights of way. I did it to increase my commuting options without beating up my trusty road bike. One might also do a drop bar conversion on a mountain bike, to skew the capability more toward rougher terrain at the expense of sluggish handling on pavement.

The Cross Check opened up almost any route depicted on your average road map. It was never meant to handle technical trails, large loose rocks, or deep mud. Routes on a road map -- and now Google Maps and other online sources -- take in Class 5 and 6 roads, which are still public. Class 6 around here is not maintained for winter travel, and may not be graded at all. If the route is popular enough with intrepid motorists, it gets some maintenance just from the passage of vehicles. Depending on the soil type and composition, it could be pretty smooth and firm, or it could degenerate into something that would beat the crap out of any bike and rider. Maybe you ride it once and know better than to ride it again.

Jeep-width snow machine trail

These are Class 6

From 1989 to the summer of 1995, a mile and a half of my daily commuting route was unpaved and heavily traveled. It illustrated perfectly the increased stress of riding gravel as opposed to pavement. When the road had not been graded in a while, the surface was generally packed hard in most places, but potholed and rutted. It was very damaging to motor vehicles, which still did nothing to discourage speeding. When it was freshly graded, the mix they used was all fluff and golf balls: fine sand mixed with awkward-size rocks. This also did nothing to discourage speeding, which rapidly transformed it to long sections of washboard. The awkward-size rocks became the dominant surface as long as the weather remained dry. Wheel tracks got packed down fairly firmly, but the edges of the road, where a cyclist would be shoved aside by hurtling rednecks, filled with treacherous loose sand and stones. It was the worst section of my commute, which I would traverse outbound when I was barely warmed up and inbound when I was tired at the end of the day.

A lot of the border country between Maine and New Hampshire north of the seacoast region is crisscrossed with dirt roads, but even there you'd have trouble putting together a route that was entirely gravel. And bear in mind that no one builds a road that they don't intend to use. If you go on Class 6 -- not maintained year round -- some of these are practically abandoned, and their condition reflects that. If it sees any regular use you may encounter a driver who considers it a familiar racetrack. Or you might get lucky and encounter no one. This is true of all back roads, paved or not.

All of the dirt roads I have ridden show the same patterns of use and maintenance. The unpaved sections vary depending on how recently they were graded and how they were used thereafter. A road gets graded regularly because it gets driven regularly. And motorists are absolutely no kinder or more indulgent to cyclists they meet on a dirt road as opposed to a paved one. If you're in their way, you're in the wrong. They won't consider that your traction and handling might suffer because you've been pushed into the loose stuff off to the side.

On the flip side, sometimes you will be making better headway than the motorists. This happened to me one time in April, when I was riding in the Pine River State Forest and came upon a Jeep club having a hard time in the mud. I could stay up on the firm ridges where they were bottoming out because the width of their vehicles kept them in the ruts and bogs. I had to be careful passing these unfortunates, because they were still concerned only with their own progress. Once ahead of them, I had to make sure that I stayed ahead of them. That turned out to be easy, but it isn't always. It happened again more recently on Elm Street, because the town is finally repaving it, starting by unpaving multiple sections. I had a car hovering annoyingly behind me as I negotiated these. Finally, I pulled aside to force them to pass. It was a low-slung little sporty car that didn't want to go fast through the dirt and gravel. I had to be careful not to run up on them after I let them get in front. However, as soon as they got clear of the last rough patch, they jetted away.

When I first started exploring the dirt roads in and around Effingham (NH), I was using my mountain bike. If a driver came up behind me while I was laboring up a hard climb, I could easily fade to the side, even bushwhacking a bit in the places that offer a bailout. At the very least, the bike was well configured in case I had to dismount. On a descent, I could let it rip, because its geometry and tire size made it quite secure. But on pavement it was a slug. Now, with mountain bike geometry, gearing, and suspension optimized to handle super rough surfaces, the slug factor on pavement is astronomical.

You have to decide what you want your bike to be best at, and what you'll put up with in the passages between those best places. The gravel bike -- like my Cross-Check -- represented a moderate approach that accepts its limitations for the sake of a generally good average for the mix of surfaces a rider will encounter on readily accessible routes of all lengths around here. The old steel bike does it cheaper and is easier to maintain and repair, but that's a separate issue. There is no car-free Utopia for cyclists, because you're either driving to your trails with your bike of choice on your vehicle, or riding on publicly accessible roads that you will end up having to share with your fellow taxpayers. Eventually we will have to address the underlying problems of culture and education that will make cycling better for all riders, instead of trying to invent new pedal powered vehicles on which to make our escape to a mythical place in another dimension.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Ignorance is Economical

 When I returned to the bike business in 1989, the mountain bike boom was still billowing upward into the mushroom cloud that peaked in the 1990s before collapsing on itself to leave the toxic landscape of mutants in which we live today. My scavenging style of low-budget problem solving was a perfect fit for the mechanical challenges of the day. I thought about this during a repair this summer as I pieced together a couple of ferrules and some cable housing to fix a cheap pod shifter on a bike, rather than throw away a mechanism that still had some life in it.

Years ago I developed the method of salvaging shifters that had broken housings, but functioning inner workings. It started with one goofy kid who would beat the absolute crap out of his bike about once a week. We tried to keep a full selection of replacement parts on hand, but the industry was shifting rapidly to the dispos-a-bike concept, starting with the continuous mutation of things like shifting systems. Also, I could slap together one of these improvised cable nozzles in a few minutes, saving the customer a welcome couple of bucks on a bill that regularly exceeded $100.

Replacement shifters are now more available, but my reflex to fix what can be fixed kicks in first. Changing the shifter pod completely might take a little less time, but it wastes the life left in the old shifter, sending it to the landfill. Some other customer might really need that complete replacement shifter later.

In a shop more devoted to serving obsolescence than resisting it, the well trained technician will spec the new shifter. A shop like that might also turn away a lot of the ancient and weird things that we take in. 

Because time is money, and some old shifters never quite come back, even after a deep cleaning, we keep pods on hand. The industry is pulling up the lifeline, however. They're steadily reducing the options for index shifters for six and seven speeds. The key to future proofing lies in the past: switch to friction shifting and you can keep a bike going indefinitely.

We're rapidly running out of mechanics who remember any portion of the bike world in the 1970s and '80s. Most people who work in the business only do so for a few years at most before they have the sense to move on to something that actually pays a living wage. I hear that some technicians can command princely sums to work on the latest technological marvels, but each of those marvels only exists for a couple of years at most before it is tossed aside for the more and more marvelous offerings desperately pimped by an industry still wondering how to bring back the feeding frenzy of the 1990s at the price points of the maturing 21st Century.

The elders of the younger generation came in with index-only shifting and ubiquitous suspension as the baseline norm. Fortunately, an archive is being created for mechanics who witnessed little or nothing of simple bikes firsthand, in places like Sheldon Brown's website and elsewhere, and in early editions of bike repair manuals floating around. Still, it's not the same as living with it all as the state of the art and standard model. I will assess an innovation compared to its simple ancestor, and decide whether it really meets the need better, or just more expensively. I also disagreed with Sheldon on some points, which a student might not know how to do without their own life experience.

Speaking of need, the bike industry begs the consumer to accept that something is a need, like disc brakes, inset headsets, and press fit bottom brackets. And don't even get me started on tubeless tires. I need to scrape up the coin to stockpile non-tubeless rims while I can still get them, so that when the industry finally discontinues them I can at least keep building and rebuilding my wheels until I am too old to use them.

Everything that the bike industry has done during the last 20 years has only made bikes more expensive to buy and maintain. The price hides within the general inflation that has afflicted the capitalist consumer economy throughout my lifetime. Inflation is built into the business model in the form of profit. There's overhead, and there's a little something extra to cover unexpected challenges or to fund genuine innovation that leads to better products. But there's always an extra gouge, and that gouge drives inflation. Also, a steadily increasing population makes a dollar smaller so that a specific number of them can be given to new players joining the game, masking the fact that the finite pie really is being cut into smaller and smaller pieces. We have no handy messiah making five loaves and two fishes feed the assembled multitude. We have only economic sleight of hand, and theft of resources from future generations. It's way bigger than the bike industry, although the bike industry embraced it in a big way when easy money poured in during the 1990s.

Bikes made since the early 2000s defy attempts to improvise repairs and modifications as freely as we did as the 20th Century drew to a close. You can do it, but it either takes tools and facilities well beyond the average home mechanic or it exposes the rider to considerable risk of catastrophic failures.

When things get better, they only get relatively less worse and it feels like a relief. Bikes really could be part of the solution, but only if they're durable and fixable, simple to work on. Future prosperity can't be based on anything close to the current level of consumer spending, let alone ramping it up. And the industry had better get busy promoting that while there are still a few fools left with hands-on knowledge to share with a rising generation finally interested in learning it.

Friday, July 07, 2023

E-bikes aren't bikes

 What has two wheels, handlebars, a crankset with pedals, and weighs fifty pounds? The answer could have been one of the first "safety bicycles," but these days it's a smokeless moped, aka an electric bicycle.

The first e-bikes we saw in our shop had throttles. I don't recall that they had pedal assist. Pedal assist required more sophisticated electronics than anyone had been bothered to design. Just as with a gas powered moped, the pedals were a technicality, and largely decorative. On the original moped, you needed them to spin up the engine to start it. On the smokeless version, you didn't even need to do that. Theoretically, a rider might pedal the hefty beast on the flats and down hill, using the throttle for quick acceleration and hill climbing. In reality, the pedals were used as foot rests as the riders buzzed around on battery power alone. 

The machine evolved. Now all of the classes have pedal assist, and the lowest category has no throttle override.

The first e-bikes we saw did not look like conventional bikes. The designers made no attempt to mask its difference. Later, Tidal Force came out with a line that was much more based on standard bike configuration, using a lot of available parts. If nothing else, it proved that most of those parts were completely inadequate on a vehicle that weighed about twice as much as a meat-powered bike. Brakes and suspension forks in particular flexed alarmingly. Engineers learn through failure. Tidal Force soon sank.

Motorized bicycles have a place in the transportation mix. But for bike shops they represent a trap. A big shop, perhaps controlled by a big company, can support that company's offerings as well as the parent corporation is willing to provide, but that is only a tiny fraction of the wide selection seeking to attract consumers. The different brands use a lot of parts in common, but a bike shop will need to gear up with a complete electrical department to be able to service them. In the meantime, all of the different shapes and sizes of e-bike demand a huge investment and vast floor space to present them to potential customers. 

Two smokeless mopeds I worked on yesterday had stickers from Electric Bikes of New England on them. I have not been there, but I've known about them for years. Places like that represent the best retail channel for consumers who want to buy in person, rather than roll the dice to buy online and have the bike shipped to them. These things arrive now almost fully assembled, along with instructions that have the words "Don't Panic" in large, friendly letters on the cover. Well, maybe not those exact words, but written to coax the reader through the remaining simple processes to put their vehicle on the road. We get to assemble a lot of those for people who still could not be convinced to take up the tools provided and follow the steps in the manual or the assembly video that a QR code links to.

We work on just about anything vaguely resembling a bike that someone brings us. This has included pedal-powered outboard motors, scooters, and actual bikes covering a span of more than 70 years. But we can no longer sell a decent representation of everything that falls under the general heading of bicycles. The categorization of purely pedal powered bikes already exceeded the capacity of any small shop. E-bikes represent another whole division, not just a category. They have to be designed around their motorized nature, not just modified from the roughly 150-year-old pattern of the evolved bike frame. All that remains is the basic premise of a two-wheeled vehicle straddled by a rider. The parts are connected in the same orientation as on a conventional bicycle, but the frame they're hung on is more of a fuselage. The form has evolved to the needs of the actual vehicle.

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Poodles, canaries, and cows

 A few years back, a local farmer referred to a local veterinarian as, "a poodle and canary vet." He needed someone who was trained, equipped, and inclined to put her arm into the back end of a cow up to the shoulder, and otherwise take on the heavy lifting and industrial-size details of large animal practice.

In a similar vein, the expanding popularity of smokeless mopeds has turned us into large animal vets in our line of work. We're not real mechanics in the eyes of the internally combusted, particularly four-wheeled and up, but the gross vehicle weight and motors of the new favorite "bike" have pushed us to grapple with larger beasts with more complex anatomy.

In predictable irony, we were asked almost daily if we carried ebikes and now that the answer is "yes," the comeback is "Oh, not those ebikes!" However, we did have one for a local man who had decided that he wasn't satisfied with the support for the ebike he had bought online. He wanted to buy locally. He made a point to ask whether we would service the bike, unlike the online source that wanted him to send things back and pay upwards of $100 just to have it diagnosed, because they have no dealer or service network. Incidentally, no ebike specialist in our region would work on his bike either, so apparently the owners of these vehicles are being abandoned in the wilderness. I've seen online forums in which tinkerers and whiz kids are getting right into the deep details of their sparky steeds, but it's only simple to the adept. 

I told him that we would open up the hub motor on his bike and learn as we go, but it wouldn't be quick, it probably wouldn't be cheap, and it might not work at all. We're still buried in repairs to conventional bikes, and the electric motor would take up a lot of bench space while we dissected it.

This particular customer elicits a higher level of concern from us because of a gruesome family tragedy a few years ago. It has long since dropped from the news cycle, but I doubt if it's ever far from his mind. Therefore, we can't let it slip ours when we deal with him. He's always easygoing and pleasant, but his nightmares must be brutal. For him I will make an extra effort to learn about something that in most other respects doesn't interest me that much.

On the plus side, I don't think that the evolution of the ebike has spawned as much variety in tools as the suspension sector, as much ridiculous speciation as bottom brackets, or the tweaky sensitivities of drivetrains. Fingers crossed, but I think that when we tool up we won't have to turn right around and tool up again in a year or two and every couple of years thereafter. We can concentrate on concepts instead of hardware. In the end, it will probably come in handy to know.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Overhead Paradox

Customers will say that a high repair estimate is more than they paid for their bike. This implies that the bike is not worth fixing. But if you bought a good bike and took good care of it, it should last you fifteen, twenty years or more. If you have been paying someone else to work on it, of course you will end up paying more in service than you paid for the bike originally. But, given the general deterioration in quality and a rate of price inflation that has been romping merrily past the general consumer inflation rate since long before it was fashionable to bitch about it, the bike you buy for the same number of now-inflated dollars will be absolute trash compared to your old bike.

The exception, of course, is if your old bike was trash in the first place. The real trash tends to take itself out of the running just by wearing out completely, or dying of exposure as it's dumped out in the weather. But even a modest bike is worth fixing if you like it and it meets your needs.

Our first impulse at the shop is to figure out how to fix whatever anyone brings in. We've learned over the years to identify the few that can't be made good because they never were good, but anything with a shred of quality triggers the impulse to bring it back. Unfortunately, the shop itself costs a certain amount to run. I guarantee you that I see a tiny fraction of our hourly labor charge, but the rest of it goes to the keep the whole business solvent. More or less solvent, anyway. We have overhead. This leads to the paradox. A well established bike shop provides a meager living to a technician smart enough to do the work and stupid enough to keep doing it for a long time. Experience lives here. We've accumulated tools and parts so that we can work on anything back to about the 1950s, but we're still in the game, so we have co-evolved to deal with the whole time line through the decades to the ridiculously over-engineered bullshit of today. 

The ideal bike mechanic is also a highly skilled machinist, like my friend and mentor in Florida. She grew up in a machine shop and did time in retail bike shops in the Orlando area. She and her late husband set up a machine shop at their own home and withdrew from the retail scene. This meant that they could offer all kinds of specialty services without the overhead of a store front. Shops in the area still use her as a resource for the jobs that would tie up a work stand for too long and call for skills that the average transitory young bike mechanic will never even have known about.

I am not a skilled machinist. I grew up moving constantly, reading books and wondering what it would be like to live in one place long enough to have roots. We were not going to have a Bridgeport, a band saw, lathes, and other heavy, stationary tools in the garage. And my father was an officer, the military equivalent of white collar management. We were herded toward careers with cleaner fingernails. I was not a tinkerer. We engaged in some tool use, but only to repair or refurbish something we owned, not just for the sake of working on it. This mostly meant paint and planking on a wooden sailing dinghy more than working with metal and grease and oil. My gateway to mechanics was the used 10-speed I bought in 1975. It held no secrets, wearing its drive train on the outside.

I like classic bikes because they don't require a lot of work. The type evolved through the 1990s, gaining some actual improvements even as the technofascist complexities came to dominate. If I think about it long enough I can pinpoint the last change that really was an improvement. Probably interrupter brake levers. Just about everything since the early years of the 21st Century has been mostly either to make a previous bad decision work a little less badly or a classic example of "just because you can doesn't mean you should."

The overhead paradox mostly affects owners of older bikes and cheaper bikes. I've had customers go ahead with an expensive repair even after I told them it was a poor investment, because they had some attachment to the bike. I've had customers abandon a decent candidate for repair because they didn't want to spend the money on it, preferring in some cases to buy a new bike of lower quality just because it was new.

Most new bikes today have some form of the same features at every price point. Cheap bikes have flimsy derailleurs, stamped sheet metal chain rings, way off brand cable disc brakes, and heavy, floppy suspension. Bikes that still have rim brakes might have stamped sheet metal brake arms that shouldn't even be legal. To get reasonably robust examples of the modern idea of componentry, count on spending more than $1,000.00. If you're really going to try to ride like you see in the videos, spend more than twice that. Working on any of that will take time and require treasure hunts for parts, but less of the old-school skills that will die with my generation. And how much does it really matter when civilization itself may coincidentally die about the time my generation does anyway? The Baby Boomers lived as if they would be the last generation to need the Earth's resources, and it's looking like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sure, other generations have followed and reproduced copiously, while guzzling a large share of what's left, but the Boomers set the tone in the 1980s. The values have been passed down long after they should have been replaced with more thoughtful progress.

Meanwhile, we're still here, and riders are bringing in beloved old steeds in need. One rider brought in his old Puch road bike from the 1970s.

                                                     It was 100 years 50 years ago
He's been riding it more or less like a "gravel bike." It will do it, because the roadier end of gravel bike geometry is basically like a general purpose touring bike from the 1970s: a little slack, a little long, with room for a somewhat plump tire. Of course the modern form has evolved into more specific geometry suited to loose surfaces, allowing for wider tires, and designed around the current ridiculous 1X drivetrains. But his old rod would do what he wanted for far, far less than a new bike with modern problems. I put on interrupter brake levers and aero primary levers, along with 27X1 3/8 knobby tires. Off he went, happy with the improvements.

On Sunday, I volunteered at the Makers Mill, a community "makerspace" that hopes eventually to offer a work space for community members to make and repair things. They offer classes in various skills ranging from textiles to woodworking to welding to jewelry making, as well as art classes. I helped them a little with their initial planning for the bike work area. With all of the YouTube experts in town who smugly avoid our shop, I figured that there was a deep pool of expertise waiting to bury them in helpful mechanics. Turns out that those people are apparently too busy elsewhere.

The problem with something that inexperienced people think is really simple is that they meet someone who knows a little about it and they assume that's all there is to know. Thus the person who knows a little must know more than enough. Volunteer organizations are staffed by whoever is willing to show up on a regular basis. Who has the time and the desire? That's who will be there. I am not the one with the most time. But I have been there enough to rip the lid off of the crypt of horrors that is the true depth of arcane bike knowledge. And they have hardly seen any of the really demonic new crap.

Late in the afternoon on Sunday, the owner of the Puch arrived at the Mill, hoping that we could snug up his brakes (I had had to fabricate cable knarps to make new bridge wires for his vintage Weinmann center-pulls)

The brake adjustment was simple enough. And oh, by the way, his seatpost seemed to be kind of stuck.

I had not messed with his seat position when I worked on the bike before. I clamped it in the work stand around the seat tube of the frame itself, suspecting that the OEM seatpost was probably too short to extend far enough to hold the work stand clamp anyway. I had not determined that the post was rusted into the frame, but the news did not surprise me. I might even have dripped a little penetrating oil down along it so that he could try to dislodge it later. 

Later had now arrived. I had advised him to go after the seatpost with a pipe wrench and not worry about destroying it. He'd chewed into it, but had not moved it. These struggles don't usually end well for the seatpost. We crushed this one in a big vise as we tried to twist it loose. Then we sawed off the protruding part before attacking what remained in the seat tube.

Stuck seatpost removal is always like trying to dig your way out of a jail cell with the handle of a spoon you stole from the dining hall. It's a grim, long process of scraping. We enlisted the Mill's machinist, but he's not a bike guy. I provided some guardrails to protect vulnerable parts of the bike while he addressed the generic problem of an aluminum tube stuck inside a steel tube, cemented by rust. We were hampered by the fact that the machine shop there has mostly a motley assortment of donated tools with lots of duplications of things that were not the right size for the job at hand. We managed to cut down and chisel away some of it, but more remained beyond the reach of the tools we had. The machinist took the frame to his home lair where he will work on it with his more extensive resources.

Because the Sunday event was free, the owner of the bike was not paying for the two or three people working for almost two hours on his soluble but time-consuming problem. Thus we sidestepped the overhead paradox. The cost was borne by the volunteers working for free. I did get some food and social credit for it, and I was happy to help keep a worthy old bike on the road, but I would starve to death if I did it all the time.

Used bikes can be great if you know what you're looking at. Prices fluctuate depending on demand. A seller who knows what they have, dealing with a buyer who accurately assesses the bike's value, are liable to settle on a higher price than if a generic scavenger just sells it as "a bike" to some random rube. But even then, the buyer might be a hard chiseler who doesn't know the value, but is determined to hold down the price, or a knowledgeable enthusiast who is also determined to hold down the price. Or the generic scavenger might have an inflated idea of the price, aided by a time in which used bike prices are running high, like in the demand surge of 2020.

The overhead paradox affects modern stuff as well. We had a jammed 11-speed pod shifter that I might have unjammed, given enough time, but a new pod cost less than my time. New shifter pods for seven speeds and up cost about as much as we charge to open up an old pod and clean out the congealed grease, which is usually all that is wrong with them. But the procedure takes longer than yanking the old pod off and slapping in a new one, so when the shop is buried it's a better option if we have the part in stock. The unfortunate consequence is that a fixable shifter pod goes to the landfill. The small businesses at the bottom of the economy end up bearing the major responsibility for stemming the avalanche of waste getting dumped into the environment. The bicycle industry doesn't support the activity of bicycling, it supports itself. Bicycling is just a side effect.

For the moment, we're too dumb to quit trying to fix things that people want fixed, but upper management can no longer ignore the mounting costs. We have no handy off-site magician like my friend in Orlando, but we can't afford to be that magician as much as we used to. I have a lot of tools at my own secret headquarters, but the shop still has a few more tricks that I haven't invested in, and I don't want to burn too many of my days off doing what I do on my days on. I would much rather teach skills (and a jaundiced attitude toward tech-weenie bullshit) than be a servant to the willfully ignorant. The owner of the bike should make at least part of the journey with me. At the end of it, they should come out more independent than when they started. If I can learn this crap, anyone can, but knowing it does make you more valuable. No, any idiot can't just do it, but any regular person can learn it if they can bring themselves to focus on it. The citizen rider becomes the citizen mechanic and a freer person as a result.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Bikes are everywhere. Bike parts aren’t.

Ever have one of those days where you’re occupied for hours getting nothing done? That’s most days in bike repair.

Diagnosing a bike repair requires multiple steps. What system is malfunctioning? Can it be adjusted, or is something outright broken? If something is broken, can it be fixed? If not, can it be replaced exactly? If not, can some other part fit? Is the exact part or the substitute part actually available? How long will it take to get here? What will it cost? Can I fake it with salvaged parts or widgets in the various boxes and bins we've accumulated?

Multiply the process by the number of broken parts on the bike. Add one more repetition for every additional part that turns up while you’re working on what you already identified.

A large shop, perhaps part of a chain of shops, in a heavily populated market area might manage to have a phenomenally well-stocked parts department. If a rider never leaves such an area, or only does so briefly -- and is ridiculously lucky -- they might not run into a problem with parts availability. But lots of riders live in smaller population centers or travel outside of the zone that Big Bicycle considers worthy of their attention. There are no parts stores, like NAPA, O'Reilly, VIP, for bicycles.

Mountain bikes often show up encased in dried mud. Their riders tend to delay maintenance and repair until the bike is completely unrideable. I had one this week that looked like it had been buried in a salt marsh for a couple of years. These modern marvels of trail mastery have lots more moving parts than their ancestors did in the 1990s, mostly so that their riders can propel them with less caution at higher speeds under the influence of gravity.

Road riders don't tend to bash their bikes as hard and frequently. Their bikes show up with overuse injuries because they don't take hard hits that show dramatic symptoms instantly. Shift cables quietly fray under housings and bar tape. Chains wear. A broken shift cable can jam an entire shifter. Worn chains wear rear cogs too badly to accept a new chain. Gravel bikes borrow from both road and mountain categories.

Even casual recreational bikes can be disasters. People bring in a bike they bought in 1998 and say that it's only 15 years old, and that we just worked on it recently. A check of our extensive records might show that "recently" was three years ago, and the problem it had then was completely unrelated to the one it has now. Bikes are taken for granted until they fail too completely to ignore. Sort of like cars, only without the built-in weather protection of body work.

Bicycles have always challenged mechanics with different dimensions and standards applied to overall mechanisms that operated the same way. Into the beginning of the 1980s, these were mostly nationalistic variations in thread pitch and some tubing diameters. From the late 1980s onward, these differences were mostly corporate-driven, related to indexed shifting systems. These affected whole drive trains, as companies messed with cog spacing to match proprietary click shifters.

Initially, the click systems used modified progressive levers. The lever would stop in a different, distinct position for each gear. This meant that the rider usually had the option to switch to friction shifting if the synchronization went out. So the companies had to mess with cog spacing to make the stops adapt only to their patented parts. By the time SRAM beat Shimano in an unfair trade practices lawsuit, Shimano's unfair trade practices had already given it market dominance, so cog spacing became more or less standardized on their pattern. The other format was Campagnolo's, but Campy has always been a luxury brand.

Index-only shifters make perfect adjustment and synchronization essential. A bike that was high end when new from the late 1990s through today might have eight, nine, ten, eleven, or twelve (sometimes 13) cogs on the rear hub. Drive trains have to match all the way through by brand on the more recent bikes, as SRAM and Shimano have kept the Shifter Wars raging. As with every war, the civilian population suffers much more than the actual combatants. Do you have three, two, or one chainring? By extension, front derailleur or no front derailleur? Well into the 21st Century, the sheer number of speeds was a selling point. Three in the front and nine in the rear makes 27. Three in the front and ten in the rear makes 30. But as chains got skinnier and shifting systems had to handle more chain angle, the industry singled out the front derailleur as the source of all evil. Your high end bike now will have only 12 speeds and damn proud of it. In other words, we're back to the same gear range we had in 1980 with two in the front and six in the back, only it all costs at least three times as much and is far more failure prone. Progress!

Riders mostly don't pay attention to any of this. They buy a new bike and treat it they way they have always treated a bike, expecting the same longevity and reliability. A younger rider who has only ever known finicky index-only shifting will have worse "good old days" to look back on compared to an old geezer who remembers friction shifting and well crafted simplicity, but they both can share the realization that things have gotten steadily more costly and fall apart sooner.

We haven't even talked about suspension, disc brakes, or tubeless tires yet. A guy came in with a sheared off alloy spoke nipple on his mountain bike wheel. With a tube-type tire, it's a quick and simple fix. With a tubeless tire, its a time-consuming, messy, costly process that involves completely redoing the rim tape. An air-tight seal is absolutely essential to tubeless tires. You can't maintain that if you peel back a section of rim tape to drop in a replacement spoke nipple. The guy bought a handful of brass nipples and went off to try his own luck with it. He is free to try cutting a hole and patching it afterward, and then dealing with the almost inevitable failure of that patch, leading him eventually to redo the tape completely. That requires completely cleaning and drying the rim before meticulously applying your tape of choice and remounting the old tire or replacing it because you discover that the sidewalls are too broken down to reseal. Even applying a patch won't work unless the work area is perfectly clean and dry. 

An inner tube will press a rim tape repair into place, while also not depending on it. A tubeless tire does not have that advantage. Air pressure alone will not press the patch more firmly where you want it. Air pressure alone will work its way into any area of weakness and turn it into a leak.

Every customer who comes in interrupts the flow of work already in progress -- or the treasure hunt for needed parts so that work can continue. It's not their fault, it's just how things go. Their questions need answers. Their bike or bike part needs preliminary diagnosis. It's important to share information and knowledge, but in the meantime the bike on the stand is just sitting there. And the new work probably triggers more treasure hunting for some part we either hadn't bothered to stock or just ran out of.