Friday, September 4, 2015

Disc Brake Failure

I recently read this pretty scary story on BikeRadar:

Apparently, one of their test riders was testing a Specialized Tarmac Pro with Shimano R785 hydraulic disc brakes on a long ride into Rocky Mountain National Park, with some major climbs and descents -- with elevations between 5,300 and 12,000 feet. On a descent down Trail Ridge (reportedly the highest continuous highway in the U.S.) the rider felt his rear brake get spongy for a few seconds -- then nothing. The brake lever bottomed out at the handlebar, and the rear brake was completely dead. His front brake was not affected, so luckily he was able to stop without further incident. A cursory roadside check found oil on the chainstay below the caliper.

The cause of the brake failure was that the brake fluid leaked out of the caliper. According to the article, Shimano collected the brake caliper, hydraulic lines, and the rotor to investigate the incident. Their finding was a cracked ceramic piston inside the caliper, which then let the brake fluid escape. Under such circumstances, each pull on the brake lever would just pump the fluid out of the caliper until it was gone.

Shimano concluded that it was unlikely that heat buildup under braking caused the piston to crack, as they didn't see any other signs on the pads or rotors to indicate excessive heat. But then, it still leaves the question unanswered why did it crack? One also has to wonder if this was an isolated incident, or have there been others?

Shimano issued a response to BikeRadar, which can be read in full HERE. I enjoyed the following excerpts, though:

"We are very sorry for the oil leak and trouble it caused on your ride." Yeah - "trouble." That's an understatement.

After explaining about the cracked piston (without being able to explain why), it concludes:

"Again, we are sorry for the trouble you experienced with this brake caliper. This is a rare occurrence for us, we will continue to study for further refinement and improvement.

"We always recommend that you inspect your braking system prior to riding. Disc brake system trouble may start to appear as a spongy feeling at the brake lever. A visual check of pad wear, contact of the pad to the rotor, and motion of the piston are all recommended. If you experience any problems we recommend you seek professional service at a bike dealer."

Of course, when the spongy feeling presents itself suddenly mid-descent (followed by total braking loss), doing the visual checks and seeking professional service at a bike dealer are kind of precluded by first being able to stop without getting killed.

Such an incident shouldn't necessarily be seen as a wholesale indictment against disc brakes on bicycles, but to my view it does highlight a certain problem with the brakes, as well as a lot of the new technology we're seeing on today's wünderbikes. On traditional cable-operated rim brakes, everything is pretty well out in the open, easy to see, easy to understand -- just as with most traditional bicycle components. On a hydraulic disc brake, a lot of the critical componentry is hidden inside. One can't visually inspect the caliper for a cracked piston the way they can spot a frayed cable. A faulty master cylinder can look no different than a good one. If there's something wrong, it can be harder to detect before it fails -- and if failure does occur, the results can be dire. Not only that, but diagnosing or repairing the problem can be much more difficult.

Somebody is bound to point out that we use hydraulic disc brakes in our cars without incident, and we put complete faith in them. But it's also worth noting that all the brake components in a car are much larger, and much more robust than those on a bike. In order to bring the weight down to a level that a cyclist can tolerate, the discs, the calipers, master cylinders -- everything -- has to be pared down to tiny scale, making them more prone (it seems to me) for failure.

Not that I needed another reason to stay happy with my traditional rim brakes, but something like this should still keep people alert to the potential downsides of the latest tech.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Oval Chainrings Again

Oval or elliptical chainrings seem to be back with a vengeance, don't they?

I remember seeing ads in old issues of Bicycling magazine from the '70s for the Durham elliptical chainrings, though they were hardly the first of their type (such things were described at least as early as 1896). And they wouldn't be the last.

From a 1974 issue of Bicycling. I imagine that using a front derailleur would be impossible with such an ellipse, which might be why I've never seen these in anything but a single chainring version. Durham would also go on to market Bullseye sealed bearing derailleur pulleys and hubs.

In the smaller sizes, BioPace rings
got pretty weird-looking.
Remember Shimano BioPace? Heck, even people who didn't ride in the '80s remember BioPace. The shape was more complex than the simple ellipse of earlier attempts at un-round chainrings, but the promises were similar. Shimano pushed those things hard -- especially for mountain bikes and touring, and later even for racing bikes (with a less-radical -- that is, more round -- silhouette). And they had a lot of proponents. Lon Haldeman used them. Even Sheldon Brown seemed convinced they were worthwhile.

Other companies, like SR and Sugino, made their own versions of them. But in the end, despite all their market-dominating power, even Shimano could not make BioPace last beyond the decade. Now they're viewed like other 80s fads - like Rubik's Cubes, and Flock of Seagulls haircuts: the punchline to some age-based joke.
The less said about this the better.
In the last couple of years, though, it seems that oval, or elliptical, or whatever marketing name people come up with for un-round chainrings (BioPace was technically called a "point symmetric egg curve") -- whatever people are calling them, they're baaack.

speaking of the '80s . . .

Different proprietary shapes -- but all basically making the same claims. Eliminate the "dead spots" in the pedal stroke. Increase power. Push a bigger gear. Reduce leg fatigue. Go faster.

Look at some of the current brands:

Osymetric calls their design a "twin cam" and has what is probably the most radical silhouette of the current crop of un-round chainrings. Ridden to TdF wins by Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. Wiggins eventually went back to round rings. Make of that what you will.

Rotor Q-rings, from the same company that just introduced us to hydraulic shifting.

Absolute Black rings remind me the most of the BioPace in their particular un-round contours - though the company insists they are totally different.

Absolute Black recently put out a video to explain why their un-round rings are so effective, and how they are not the same as BioPace.

The video is approximately 18 minutes of this guy sitting at his desk . . .

. . . explaining to us why Absolute Black oval chainrings are NOT the same as BioPace.

He asks a lot of questions. "Why are we so excited by oval chainrings?" "Why ovals?" "Why ovals now?" "Why are we so confident in the ovals?" "Why do we promote ovals so badly?" (as opposed to promoting them goodly?).

You could attempt to sit through the entire 18-minute video, but if you'd like the quick and dirty summary, it goes something like this:

- These are not BioPace chainrings.
- BioPace rings weren't "correct."
- Our oval rings are "correct."
- With oval chainrings, you'll pedal "rounder" than on round chainrings.
- After 5 minutes of riding ovals, you'll feel the difference.
- If you don't feel the difference, keep riding them anyhow, and you'll notice the difference when you switch back to round chainrings.
- BioPace rings didn't work. Ours do.

And if you still are unclear, just remember, these are different from BioPace chainrings. Just look for yourself:
"As you can see, this is the difference."
There. Got it?

Now, if you're hoping for some computer-modelled comparisons to demonstrate their effectiveness, or some measurable data, or anything even remotely provable, well, you might be disappointed. Just keep in mind that there don't seem to be any independent studies that can say conclusively that un-round chainrings make any real difference. By most measurable data, they come out pretty much the same. Keep in mind that a 42 x 16 gear combination gives a person about a 70-inch gear (it will vary a little with tire size, etc.) whether the chainring is round or oval. In other words, one crank revolution will propel the bike forward the same distance. From most of what I've read (like THIS, or THIS, or THIS) even power meter data on the subject can be inconclusive.

On the other hand, it's worth pointing out that the "placebo effect" is a scientifically accepted phenomenon. I'm inclined to think that any difference felt between round and un-round chainrings is more psychological than anything else. If one could somehow come up with a way to do a double-blind test, to configure a modern road bike with a completely hidden crank -- like with some kind of fully-enclosed chain case -- and study people's perceptions, I fully imagine that most riders would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. If the test subjects believe that the rings make a difference, and if they believe they're riding a bike with the rings, then many of them will believe they can feel the difference even if it turns out that they're actually riding on normal round chainrings. It's just a hunch, but if anyone actually conducts such a study (or if one has already been done), I'd love to see the results.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Making the Headbadge Collage

In the recent post about this blog's 2nd anniversary, I mentioned the head badge collage that makes up the blog's background "wallpaper" image. Here it is:

I know that some people might be interested in how something like that is done, so let me devote a post to the process I used.

I suppose that a photo editing program like Photoshop would be a good choice for a project like this, but to be honest, I've never really gotten the hang of Photoshop, and it isn't necessarily a program that a lot of people would have unless they had a specific need for it. But Microsoft PowerPoint, which comes as part of MS Office, is a pretty common program, is easy to use, and has some capabilities that casual users might not be aware of.

My screenshot images below mostly come from the Mac version of PowerPoint, though I've used both Mac and PC versions. They look a little different - slightly different layout, etc. - but most of the basic commands and tools are the same (even if you might find them in a different part of the screen).

Step One - Insert a Photo:

You can take photos yourself, or download them off the internet. In this case with the head badges, a general Google search can turn up lots of examples. Searching for head badges for sale on eBay can turn up lots, too. If you're using downloaded images, save them to your hard drive so you can use them in PowerPoint.
The first step in creating a collage is to find the "Insert" tab, then select "Picture." That will bring up your browser, where you can select the photo you want to use. 

In the PC version of PowerPoint, the tools for inserting pictures are in a different location. You'll use the same basic procedure, though. As another option, whether you are using the Mac or PC version, you can also find "Insert" on the menu bar at the top of the screen. Click on it, and scroll down the menu for "Insert Picture."

Here's the first picture I'm going to insert in my sample project:

A photo with a clean, plain or neutral background like this one is ideal. If the picture has a "busy" background with colors or patterns, or if there isn't a lot of contrast between the background and the edges of your main object, the next step will become a little more complicated (but not impossible).

Step Two - Remove Background:

Here, my first photo is inserted. When you double-click on the photo, you will bring up some picture formatting tools on the toolbar. For this step we want "Remove Background."

On the PC, the tools for Background Removal are in almost the same place. Again, the actual process is pretty similar.

When you select "Remove Background" you'll get this box around your photo. Adjust the box around the part of the photo you want to keep. The parts highlighted in purple will be removed.

Because the background on this photo was so neutral, and the contrast was so good, the background was eliminated very cleanly, with no adjusting necessary.

Step Three - Rotate and Re-Size:

Now is a good time to re-size, rotate, and position the first picture. Click on the photo so you can see the box around it, and the little "drag" handles. Dragging the little green handle at the top allows you to rotate the picture to a different angle. Dragging one of the corner handles re-sizes the picture without altering its basic proportions. Avoid the handles on the straight parts of the box -- those will "stretch" your photo and alter the proportions.

Step Four - Add Another Picture:

Using the same process as above, I've inserted another picture. I'll have to go through the same processes as shown previously to remove the background.
The background on this head badge photo will be a little trickier to remove. The background is red, but there are also red details in the badge. I'll have to tell PowerPoint what to keep and what to remove, as it may try to remove too much.

When the "Remove Background" tool is selected, you can go in with the point of the cursor and fine-tune what parts get removed, and which parts are kept. In this case, the program was having a hard time distinguishing between the red background, and the red details in the head badge that I wanted to keep. The little "plus signs" are where I had to tell PowerPoint to keep those details that it was trying to remove. It can get a little painstaking. Zooming in can help you pick out the details.

Step Five - Position the New Photo:

The background has been successfully removed from the Fuso head badge photo. Now I can position it where I want it in my collage.
Just like before, I can re-size and rotate my next head badge photo. Now that I have two photos, I can also play around with the overlapping. The default is that the last-added photo will appear on top, but I can change that if I want to. Right-click on the photo you want to re-position, which brings up a menu. Find "Arrange" then select "Bring to Front" or "Send to Back."
From this point, you can follow the same procedures to add more pictures, adjust them, position them, and keep going until you get the collage you want.

Final Step - Save Your Picture:

As long as you want to keep adding photos, and making adjustments to your work, just keep saving the PowerPoint presentation as you normally would. But when it's completely done, you'll want to save it differently than the default setting. You want a picture file - not a presentation/slide-show.

When your collage is finished, and you want to save it as a picture, pull up the "Save As" option under the "File" menu, click on the "Format" window and scroll down through the options. You can select .JPEG, or .GIF or some other picture file-type.

There we go - the finished product.
I've used the same basic procedures outlined above to make other "composite" pictures for the blog. Here are a couple others:

This was used in an article about my first set of hand-built wheels:
A Bike Geek's Dream.
This over-the-top-ridiculous composite was made for an article about spontaneously combusting bicycles. Caution: This Bike May Self Destruct. I used parts of about four separate photos.

It's also worth noting that I added arrows and text to my instructional screenshots above using the same basic tools in PowerPoint, then saved them as .JPEGs.

Okay - not exactly a typical Retrogrouch post, but it may prove useful. Thanks for indulging me.

Monday, August 31, 2015

What The What? Brooks Goes Carbon?!

Crazy things are happening over at Brooks Saddles.

At Eurobike last week, the 100+ year-old maker of classic, handmade leather saddles unveiled a new saddle with carbon fiber rails. Carbon fiber rails?!

Someone must have spiked their tea.

Learn a little more about the Brooks C-13 at BikeRumor.
A couple of years ago, the British saddle maker introduced their new Cambium line of non-leather saddles - or "vegan" as some have dubbed them -- which have a natural rubber top fused with a canvas-like material for comfort and durability. For the most part, the response has been pretty good. I had requested to be one of the people to test out the new saddles at that time, but they rejected my request. (What Gives?! Did it not matter to them that I have at least a dozen Brooks leather saddles?)

Recently, Brooks has teased that they were preparing to release a new saddle in the Cambium range -- a new, lighter C-13. It was expected that it would be a narrow racing saddle, and the lightest Brooks yet, possibly with hollow rails. Not too many people were expecting to see a carbon-fiber Brooks at Eurobike, though.

It's a surprising development, but maybe it shouldn't be. Think about it, there was a time when Brooks leather saddles were all over the professional racing peloton. Amateurs, too. The Brooks B-17, and later the Professional and Team Professional were the saddles of choice for many racers, at least up into the 1970s when plastic saddles started making serious inroads. By the 1980s, the only bicycle race where one could still routinely see Brooks saddles was the Race Across America, or RAAM. Three-time winner Lon Haldeman was famous for his Brooks saddles, and I remember reading much about his method for breaking them in.

With a claimed weight of 259 grams, the new saddle would actually be reasonably competitive among the weight watching racers again. Would Brooks be sponsoring a team in the future? Who knows.

On the Brooks website (where actual details about the new saddle are still scarce), the slogan is #backontherivet, which seems appropriate if they are, in fact, going after the serious racing crowd again. The expression "on the rivet" is an old one for racers going "all out" -- sliding forward on their saddles until they were perched on the rivet at the nose. People still use the expression (or at least Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin still do) for that all-out effort, even though no racers in a couple of generations have used a saddle with rivets.

I have no fears that my favorite all-leather saddles are in danger of going away any time soon - but a carbon fiber Brooks was something I never thought I'd live to see.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Hydraulic Shifting? Why?

Cables are too simple for some people. Light. Simple. Easy to understand. Easy to fix. Replacing a damaged cable, whether for brakes or shifters, is an easy job even for an inexperienced home mechanic.

Can't have that, can we?

Even now, as hypesters are trying to convince us all that the future is electronic shifting (and that future is NOW!), oval chainring maker ROTOR Bike Components is releasing a new different technology -- hydraulic action shifting, to complement hydraulic brakes.

"Hydraulic systems are already something we use everyday without thinking twice," said Carlos Cartón, the lead engineer, "in car brakes, construction equipment, and airplanes. So it made sense to apply this proven technology to bicycle transmission, where the advantages are really clear."

Well - yeah. Hydraulic systems on cars and airplanes -- given their size, complexity, power, etc. -- are clearly superior to cable-actuated systems. But bikes aren't cars, or airplanes. Bikes are small, light, and simple. Cables work fine, and I fail to see how the "advantages are clear."

Dubbed "Uno," the system uses hydraulics to work both of the derailleurs as well as the brakes. Their brake technology was developed with help from Magura, but the derailleurs are unique tech. The company claims that hydraulic actuation will bring "increased precision" over cable-actuated systems, without the "disadvantages . . . like friction, devolving inconsistent force over time, and other inconveniences."

I don't know -- the "disadvantages" of a cable system, to my mind, are well offset by the simplicity. And cables themselves have actually improved to the point that the old notion of cable stretch is practically a non-issue. In fact, it was never considered a problem until the advent of indexed shifting -- in the days of friction-only shifting, who even noticed that the cables stretched over time?

But the folks at Bicycling tout the system's possible benefits: "less maintenance and better precision - at a lighter weight and with less complexity."

Hydraulic pistons, rack and pinion mechanisms, hydraulic lines, master cylinders and slave cylinders. . . Yeah, that looks a lot less complex.
Lighter weight? Lighter than an electronic system with its batteries, etc., but I have a hard time believing that it saves any weight over a traditional cable system.

Less maintenance? Maybe so. But then again, have you ever bled a hydraulic system? I've done it on both cars and motorcycles, and it's a P-I-T-A. Messy. Finicky. And I admit that I don't know for sure what kind of hydraulic fluid they'd be using, but most types of hydraulic brake fluids have a limited shelf life once they've been opened. And for home mechanics who would only be doing such work occasionally, that means waste. Not to mention that old brake fluid is a contaminant that really shouldn't be disposed of by pouring it down the drain -- it needs to be recycled properly.

A unique aspect to the Uno derailleurs is that, unlike indexing systems from Shimano, Campagnolo, and SRAM, the indexing mechanism is built into the derailleur instead of the lever. That kind of reminds me of the old Shimano Positron system, or even Huret Commander -- both of which had the indexing in the derailleur. Neither was very successful. It's possible that having such a system actuated by hydraulics instead of cables would work better than on those early indexing shifters, but I'm not going to be putting that to the test.

More info will come about the Uno hydraulic shifting system soon, since Eurobike is currently underway.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Two Years

This morning I remembered that I first posted The Retrogrouch two years ago today - Aug. 27, 2013. I don't think too many people noticed when it first went up. Only 267 people visited the site by the end of that first month (though, to be fair, it was only 5 days). Since then, readership has grown steadily, but even now, bike blogs like BikeSnobNYC and LovelyBicycle probably get more hits in a day than The Retrogrouch sees in a month. That's OK. We'll just call it "exclusive."

There are currently 350 posts on the blog, including this one. Of those, there are at least 8 dealing specifically with disc brakes. About a half-a-dozen are about press-fit bottom brackets and the creaking that plagues them. There are about 10 dealing with carbon fiber frames and forks. Electronic "integration" and "connectivity" on bicycles gets covered at least half-a-dozen times, as does the subject of overpriced bicycles and components. Perhaps refreshingly, I could only find about 3 posts that deal primarily with helmets (but they tend to get the most comments - maybe not surprisingly).

Perhaps the most unintentionally creepy film ever made for
kids: the bike safety film One Got Fat, from the Bike
Safety 101
Although they tend to get the fewest "hits," the 9 posts about vintage safety films (Bike Safety 101) may be among my personal favorites, as they combine my love of anything bicycle-related, as well as my love of movie history. But by far, the topic that gets written about more than any other is subject of "dumb innovations." There are probably 30 posts or more that fit that subject -- or more if you count articles that touch on it tangentally.

Looking at the Blogspot statistics, I found that the article that has, by far, the most hits is the one about Tange and Ishiwata frame tubing. Why that one? I can only guess that it's been linked to from some of the bicycle forums -- either that, or there are a lot of people googling for info about Tange or Ishiwata. Second to that is the one about Bike Fit Then and Now. Strange thing about that one is that it went unnoticed for a long time, then suddenly the hits on it shot through the roof. Apparently a couple of people posted links to it on the bike forums, and also Facebook it would appear.

Something that I've found I get a lot of comments about (typically off the blog, sent to my personal email) is the look of the blog -- particularly the background image. The image is a collage of vintage bicycle head badges, which I think represent in a very grand way one of the differences between bikes "then and now." Yes, there are a lot of bikes today that still use head badges. But to my mind, they are something that recalls the glory of bicycles from an earlier era. Since much of the collage is obscured by the actual writing on the blog, here it is out in the open:

Some people have wondered if these are my own collection of head badges, but they are not. In fact, only a handful of the badges are actually on bikes I own (or once owned). Some of them are images I've found through searches of head badges for sale on eBay, or through general image searches. In case you're wondering how I made it, I'll try and explain it in some detail in a future post -- who knows? It could prove useful.

Lastly, if you've noticed that posts haven't been quite as frequent lately as they had been - it's because I'm back at work (regular readers probably already know I'm a full-time teacher) and I'm trying to get used to a new, different schedule that's making blog updates a bit difficult for the time being. Hopefully I'll figure out a good rhythm and there'll be fewer delays.

It hardly seems like two years have gone by. Thanks for reading!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Recon Jet Glasses - Who Needs Vision When You've Got Data?

Back in December I wrote about the Recon Jet "smart glasses" which were billed as a "wearable computer" -- not unlike the much-hyped and really-stupid Google Glasses, only for athletes. At the time, I suggested that they reminded me of Geordi La Forge from Star Trek Next Generation, and referred to them as a good case of unnecessary data overload.

Since that time, the Recon company has been purchased by Intel, and the glasses are on the market, ready for purchase by performance addicts and tech geeks everywhere. I suppose the purchase by Intel means that if it's possible that there is actually a market for wearable computers, then the Recon Jets probably have as good a chance for survival as any. It's still a big "If," though.

A writer for CyclingTips managed to get a pair of Recon Jet glasses to test out. They didn't sound like anything I'd be willing to shell out $699 for.

For one thing - and it's a "huge" thing - is that basically they are a pair of goggles that also incorporate a computer, a tiny projector, and a battery pack -- all perched delicately on one's nose.

Then there's this:

and this:

But who needs peripheral vision when they're riding a bike, right? We're talking about the future. PERIPHERAL VISION is for RETROGROUCHES!

Then again, how could anybody react to an SUV coming at them from their periphery when they're trying to decipher all this data being projected at them by the little projector that covers approximately 1/3 of the right-side lens?

Okay - let's say I'm a tech geek and a performance addict who thinks peripheral vision is overrated and has no issue with carrying bulky objects on his face. I just have to have the Recon Jet glasses. Still a problem. Because I'm a far-sighted astigmatic who can't see a damn thing without bifocals. Sorry - no prescription users at this time. At some point, they're sure to create a prescription-ready insert (their website says "coming soon") which will most likely clip inside - behind the main wrap-around lens. So that's another thing to add some bulk and complexity (by the way, I've used those kinds of clip-in prescription inserts that come with one-piece goggle-type glasses -- sweat runs down in-between the inner and outer lenses, making a blurry mess of vision).

The CyclingTips review concluded:

If you were hoping for an actual review of the Recon Jet glasses from someone who's actually tried them, you'll have to go with that review, or look elsewhere, as I won't be (and can't be) trying them out anytime soon.

Damn. I'll try to contain my disappointment.