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.