Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Merry Christmas Happy Holidays Merry Jingles and All That

It's Christmas day, 30 degrees, and partly sunny in Akron, Ohio. Good day (if a bit chilly) for the annual Christmas bike ride.

We have the in-laws coming over for my beloved pot roast today, so I didn't have time to go far. Just about 15 miles into the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and back. On my ride, I only saw one other cyclist (and not many more cars, now that I think about it). But I was bundled up well, and if anything, maybe a bit too warm by the time I was riding back home.

There hasn't been much on the blog lately. Partly because I just haven't had a lot of time for writing. Partly because I haven't had a lot of inspiration. Maybe things will change a bit in the coming months. I do have a couple of bike projects in the works - not for me, but for the Retro Kids, who are nearly ready for their first "adult" bikes. Believe me, they'll have some nice ones when I'm done. And I'll be sure to get something here on the blog about them.

I continued to bike to work right up to the winter break again this year, but my numbers are way down compared to last year. Some of that's due to weather (we had a lot of rain, sleet, and ice in the last couple of months), and some of that's due to after-school commitments with the kids. In any case, my average for the last 4-5 months was just below 50% - for the first time in about four years. Nothing to brag about. I don't know if it will get better this spring, either. Some months back I took a spill and suspect I may have torn the rotator cuff in my shoulder. It doesn't hurt when I ride, but I can't raise my right arm above my shoulder, and can't do anything that requires rotating the shoulder. I say, I suspect it's torn, but I won't know until I get an MRI which won't be until after the holidays. If I have to get surgery, that will probably stop my riding for a few months. If that turns out to be the case, I am NOT looking forward to that.

But enough of that for now. However you spend these next few days and coming weeks, I hope it is full of happiness.

Friday, October 19, 2018

A Trailer Project

Wow - it's been a while. Sorry about that, folks.

Not that this comes close to explaining the long gap in posts, but I recently picked up a bike-related project that readers might find reasonably interesting: converting a Burley trailer into a flatbed cargo hauler.

When my kids were small, I had a pretty nice Burley trailer that we got a lot of enjoyment from. When the kids outgrew it, I sold it to clear some space in my garage. Some time later, I found myself regretting that decision. Even though I wasn't using it for the kids any longer, it occurred to me that I could have used it for other purposes, like carrying groceries, etc. I like to run errands by bicycle whenever possible, including grocery shopping - but I'd find that there were limits to how much I could carry on the bike conveniently and easily. I often take big water jugs to our market to refill with filtered drinking water - and those really just can't be carried easily on a bike. A trailer would be great for that kind of thing.

To that end, I had been searching around for another trailer that I could hopefully get for minimum investment. I suppose it didn't necessarily have to be a Burley, but I've found that they are built well and last a good, long time, and I generally like the hitch design which is quite secure but also easy to attach to almost any bike (as long as it doesn't have disc brakes). The problem (at least for bargain hunters) is that they also hold their value better than most other trailer brands. Checking garage and estate sales turned up lots of cheap knockoffs from big department stores like Target and Walmart that I wasn't particularly interested in. Checking eBay and Craigslist often turned up used Burleys selling for $150 - $200 - way more than I wanted for this project.

Eventually I found one for sale locally on Craigslist for $50. It looked pretty well trashed, but given my intentions, I thought it was worth a closer look. It turned out that the frame, hitch, and wheels were actually in fine shape, but the fabric covering it all was a horrible wreck. Apparently it spent a lot of time in a barn where mice had taken residence in it. It was filthy and stank, the fabric was chewed and stained, and it was so badly aged that one could poke their finger right through it and it would just tear. For what I was after, though, it was just the ticket. I offered the guy $40 and he accepted.

When I got it home, the first thing I did was to attack the fabric - cutting it all away from the aluminum frame. All of it went straight into the trash before I'd even consider bringing the rest of the trailer into my basement.

Here you can get a pretty clear view of just how horrible the fabric covering on this thing had gotten. It was totally unsalvageable.
Here's the frame minus its fabric coverings. 
This particular model of Burley trailer was an older one - definitely an earlier-generation design from the one that I had for my kids. The guy I bought it from told me that his youngest kid is now a young man in his 20s which gives a little clue to the age. But I think that the particular design was ideally suited to my plan - to turn the trailer into a flatbed cargo hauler.

With the fabric removed, my next step was removing the upright brackets of the framework - that is, all the parts that form the "canopy" of the carriage. I could have just unbolted the upper rails from the plastic brackets, but that would still have left the brackets jutting upward, getting in the way and looking out of place. Although it would make my conversion impossible to undo, I took my reciprocating saw (aka "Sawzall" - I just love that name. Classic American advertising kitsch. "It saws all"). I had some shortly-lived qualms about making such drastic changes, but I had to remind myself that there was no way that I or anybody else was going to attempt to undo what I'd done. With the fabric covering left unsalvageable, finding (much less installing) replacement coverings would have been expensive and pointless.
With the brackets cut nearly flush, I now have a relatively flat surface onto which I can attach my flatbed. 
At this point with the wheels off and the canopy sections removed, it's pretty clear what kind of form the finished project will take. Next step is to remove the bolts that are holding the remnants of fabric and straps.
I had considered getting some slats of nice weather-resistant wood to make my flatbed. It would look great and still be practical. I still may do that at some point - but I happened to have a couple sheets of 1/2" plywood on hand, so for now I decided just to use that and keep my investment low.

The plywood top looks decent enough - and utilitarian. I attached it from below using the same types of strap brackets that hold electrical conduit to wall studs. I used my router to remove a bit of material under the top to clear the plastic brackets that I had cut off earlier so the top fits down flush onto the frame.
I put some D-ring hooks on the top for attaching bungee cords. I like the soda crate - I think I need to find another, as the flatbed is easily large enough to hold two. I attached it with a couple of carriage bolts and wing nuts so it can go on or off without tools and in minutes.
I figure there's some real versatility here. Wooden crates can go on/off in minutes. Large, irregular-shaped loads can be bungeed down. I'll have to find a bungee net, too.
There it is, all hooked up. $40 for the trailer, another $7 (or so) worth of random hardware, and a couple pieces of re-cycled plywood - and we're ready to haul.

Friday, August 31, 2018

An Anniversary

It occurred to me today that I just about missed an anniversary.

The Retrogrouch Blog first went online five years ago, in the last week of August 2013. I wasn't sure at the time how much I'd be able to write, or how long I could keep it going. I suppose it's lasted longer than some blogs out there. And there are others that were blogging about bikes long before I started that are still going.

Some of the blogs I was following before I started this one were BikeSnobNYC, Lovely Bicycle, and Midlife Cycling. Velouria, over at LB, has gone pretty quiet in the last year or so. BikeSnob is still going, though it seems more and more that his posts are going up on Outside Online rather than the BSNYC blog site. Justine, of Midlife Cycling, just amazes me - she's been going for more than eight years, having started in mid 2010 - and she's still posting almost every darn day. As for myself, it gets difficult to find time to write posts as often as I had earlier on - or to come up with something new to say about topics that I have probably beaten to death.

In any case, I went back and looked at that first post. It was a short one - mostly just saying "here I am, world" and a few sentences about what the aim of the Retrogrouch would be.

Here's an excerpt:

"Bikes should be simple, reliable, and beautiful. I believe people should be able to work on their own bikes, because repairing and maintaining your own bike is not just a right of passage, but it also makes one a better cyclist. I believe the importance of weight in bicycles is overestimated . . . I believe that when it comes to bicycle weight, there is "light" and there is "stupid light." Too many bikes and components today are "stupid light." I like new stuff, but only when it makes sense and really makes things better. New for the sake of new doesn't make sense. And New is not always Improved."

It's kind of funny, but there are some lines there that are very familiar and have been stated again and again over the past five years. Some of those words are practically a mantra. I feel pretty good to be able to say that I've been consistent.

Readership of the blog was pretty tiny in that first year or so. Readership has grown, but is still pretty small on the whole. On average, about 1100 people visit the site each day -- barely a blip in the big scheme of the internet. I mean, BSNYC probably gets more traffic in a day than I get in a week. Approximately two years ago, in October 2016, the blog hit the milestone of a million visits. It's closing in on 2 million, but that magic number probably won't be hit before the end of 2018 (it'll be close, but I expect it probably won't hit until January).

Over the years, the most consistently popular posts have been the one about "Bike Fit Then and Now" and one about Tange and Ishiwata tubing. In terms of "hits" or "visits," those two are far and away the most-read articles I've written - and they date back to that first year of this blog's existence. It's kind of funny that nothing I've written since even comes close. Oh well. If I have any favorites (regardless of popularity) I'd probably say it would be the article on the history of the Mercian Cycles company, or maybe the series on the decline of US bicycle manufacturing.

I had actually pitched the idea for a book on Mercian history to some publishers, with the plan that it would be ready for release for their 75th anniversary. I pictured it as history of the brand, with interviews and perspectives from fans and owners (including a few celebrities), and lots of pictures of nice Mercian bicycles from various decades. Unfortunately, books like that are expensive to produce, and none of the publishers I found were willing to make the investment and take the risk considering that it isn't that well-known of a brand. Too bad, really. Believe me, it would have been worthy of your coffee tables.

Well folks, that's all for now. Got to start looking for ideas for the next year.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

A Bit of Photo Editing Fun

I was recently fooling around a bit with some photo editing software and came up with a set of fun images to share. Regular readers of the blog have probably noticed that I often create composite images and photo collages for my articles by using a combination of Photoshop and Microsoft PowerPoint. My skills with Photoshop are only so-so -- mostly I just use it to clean up images. MS PowerPoint, on the other hand, is in some ways easier for me, and is surprisingly useful when it comes to combining images. Even the headbadge collage that makes up the background of the whole blog was created using PowerPoint (I had a whole step-by-step article on that process about three years ago).

During the Victorian era, when both photography and bicycles were the latest thing, and when people probably first started becoming obsessed with their pets as little miniature humans (an obsession that totally continues through today), it was really common to see people photographed with their bicycles, or to get their pets photographed dressed up and posed like humans. On a whim, I started creating pictures that combined all these notions -- people, animals, and bikes.

I've got my finished results below, along with the original images that I started with - take a look and (maybe?) have a chuckle.

For this one, I combined this advertising image of a bicyclist with the little playing card image of "Mr Fox." Part of what made it work was that both pictures had a similar artistic style and color palette. The colors in the fox image are a little brighter, but it would work. You'll notice I had to flip the fox image and alter the angle a little to get it to match up - but the end result is pretty convincing. By the way, I did flip the fox image, but I did not flip or alter the bicyclist - the original artist put the drivetrain on the wrong side of the bike! I toyed a bit with the idea of putting the cyclist's cap on the fox, but in the end decided it looked better without.

The attitude of the dog in the top hat seemed like a natural fit for this fellow posing with his prized penny farthing. Again, I had to flip the image of the dog to get him facing the right direction - and in the cropping his pipe became a cigar, but it still works. The tint of the two photos was slightly different (the dog photo originally had a bit more of a brown tint) - but that was pretty easily altered.

The little terrier with the cap seemed like a perfect fit for this Belgian racer. Again, the tint was slightly different, but easily fixed.

The fox on the left seemed to be in the perfect pose to match up with this early 20th century track racer. The tint was a good match too.

Both images here were engravings as opposed to photos - but the style was close enough that they'd match up well. The dog, apparently, was one of Queen Victoria's pets. I had to work on the tinting but it worked in the end. I did a version where I put the cyclist's wide-brimmed hat on the dog, but didn't like it as well - he seemed to lose something when you couldn't see his perky ears.

Hope you enjoyed!

Friday, August 10, 2018

More Warnings About Carbon Fiber Bikes

I recently came across an article in Outside online that rings more alarm bells about carbon fiber bikes and components - though it's all well-trodden ground on this blog. There's not much in the article that hasn't been raised plenty of times already in The Retrogrouch - it's just that I don't often see these concerns raised by more mainstream publications.

One of the more interesting things the article talks about is how, if someone has a carbon fiber bike and it fails, it can be difficult to get anyone to take responsibility. For example, a person may own a CF bike made by a huge well-known Taiwanese manufacturer (they're almost all made in either Taiwan or China) - but the bikes are actually distributed by another huge company (probably an independent subsidiary with the same name) based in the U.S. Now, let's say that customer's bike fails and they get injured. They sue the manufacturer in Taiwan - who claims that they can't be sued because they don't actually do business in the U.S. - if you want to sue someone, sue the U.S.-based distributing company. The customer tries that, but the U.S. company claims they can't be sued because they aren't the ones who actually made the bike. The difficulties can keep a consumer tied up in courts for a long time. Isn't that nice? According to the article, recent court decisions may make it a little easier for such lawsuits to move forward - but things are still in a state of flux.

Other more well-trodden points look at how manufacturing defects that can lead to failure may be hidden and very difficult to detect. Or how damage can come from an accident of some kind - but be unseen until it eventually fails - maybe long after the accident is long forgotten. Both are points I've raised plenty here over the years. If the manufacturer can point to an installation or maintenance issue or an accident (no matter how minor/insignificant it may have been) as the cause of failure, then there is no warranty coverage when the bike or component breaks.

Something I found odd in the article, though, was that it opened with a story that I'd hardly consider an exemplary case. Here's the opening:

Janet Kowal had a personal connection to the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). Even though she’s now living outside Chicago, working for the Village of Burr Ridge town hall, Kowal has Iowa in her blood. The 2013 route would take her through her hometown of Des Moines and skirt the University of Iowa, where she graduated in 1987. Kowal bought a new-to-her 2007 Giant OCR C1 road bike for the event and, to be cautious, took it to her local bike shop for a full-service tune-up.

Not long into the ride, however, Kowal’s bike shattered beneath her. For no apparent reason—she’d neither hit an obstacle nor encountered a pothole—the front fork snapped in half as if it had exploded from within. Kowal was sent crashing into the pavement, helmet first. She fractured her spine and clavicle, suffered a concussion, and tore ligaments in her left thumb.

Okay - anybody else think it's weird that they focused on a 2013 incident involving a used bike that was already 5 or 6 years old when the woman purchased it? If the main point is that it really isn't a good idea to buy used carbon fiber bikes (or components), then point taken. But it seems to me that the intended point is broader than that. I mean, pursuing compensation when a used bike fails is complicated regardless of what material the bike is made from. Manufacturer's warranties almost never cover anyone beyond the original owner - and (as already mentioned) they are almost never held responsible if they can make the case that an accident or some user-error caused the failure.

One never knows what kind of accidents, abuse, or neglect a bike may have suffered under a previous owner, and with carbon fiber, the damage may be almost impossible to detect. At least with a steel bike, such problems can often be seen if someone knows what to look for. Steel wears its damage on its sleeve. The fork may be bent. There may be a ripple or a small crack developing somewhere. Paint could be bubbled or cracked.

A head-on collision will often leave tell-tale signs on a steel bike that even a new coat of paint may not hide. That little ripple behind the head tube is one. A bent fork is another. It's pretty subtle, but that fork on the right is almost certainly damaged.
I have no doubt that carbon fiber bikes today are better than those made ten year ago - and further improvements will be made. But it's all still developing technology. It begs the question how long will such bikes last? I have no qualms about riding a 40 or 50 year old steel bike. But where will today's carbon bikes be in 50 years?

Anyhow - it's worth clicking on over to Outside to read the article, but if you've been reading this blog for a while, there probably won't be much there to surprise you.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

A Visit To Maine

If the blog has seemed quiet for a little while, it's because I've spent the past week on a family vacation in Maine with little/no internet and fairly limited cell-phone coverage. That can be relaxing, but also a little frustrating at times. We've come to rely on our digitized world so much that it can be really hard sometimes to let go. It's funny that it wasn't really that long ago that the internet was little more than an interesting curiosity, and a phone was nothing more than a means to talk to someone - just talk - while tethered to a cord on the wall. My kids have never known the world to be different than it is today, but for me (and most people reading this blog), it's probably a bit staggering to think how much technology has come to run our lives.

A quiet spot beside Sebago Lake at sunrise.
My family and I have been staying in a cabin by a nice lake in the southern part of Maine. Actually, there are a lot of lakes in the vicinity - large and small - enough that apparently the area is known as the Lake Region. I brought my Rivendell along on the trip so I could do some riding.

Though I keep my bikes computer-free, technology or the lack thereof did enter into the riding experience a little - at least at first. Being totally unfamiliar with the area, getting out for a ride without knowing where I was or where I was going seemed a bit daunting. I tried using my phone's map functions to figure out some routes, but poor signal coverage made that sporadic and a little frustrating. I did locate a bike shop in the area so I paid them a visit and asked if they had any maps of the lakes and the roads surrounding them. That seems to me like one of those things a good bike shop should keep around, right? Well, no, they didn't have any maps. "Why don't you just use Strava like everyone else?" Ummm - because my phone barely works out here. I did eventually get to a café where I could get some internet access, find some maps, and copy them down onto paper for some riding routes/maps that would get me around even without technology.

One route I found was a loop around Sebago Lake, which was the lake on which our cabin was located. The loop around the lake was a little over 40 miles. I also worked out a shorter loop around one of the smaller lakes nearby, and there was a decent out-and-back ride to a neighboring town and a quiet road through the nearby state park. All told, I put in a lot of miles during the week and found some good photo-opportunities.
Boulders are a major part of Maine's landscape.
I found this old Grange hall tucked away on one of the rural routes.
On the roads along the lake, one finds lots of little markets that cater to the campers and boaters visiting the area. Groceries, beverages, dry firewood bundles, and bait. This one had fish trophies hanging everywhere so I had to get a picture.
I'd been looking for this my whole life.
I spotted this old Ford in a field not far from the state park. Notice that it has tracks in place of wheels on the back. I couldn't say for certain, but I wouldn't be surprised if this was once used for winter mail delivery in this area known for its harsh winters.
On one of my rides I found a little roadside stand selling just-picked blueberries. I stopped and bought a pint for a nice treat. Only $3 a pint, and worth it. Plenty for a snack on my ride, and lots left for breakfast the next morning.

The drive out to Maine took us through Vermont and New Hampshire. I have to say that I'd love to come back out with my bike for an extended riding tour through those states. The roads through the Green Mountains in Vermont were absolutely gorgeous. Throughout our New England drive, we chose to stay off the interstates and instead drove the two lane highways that took us through all manner of little towns - some quaint, some forgotten, some just barely hanging on. Though it takes a little extra traveling time, it makes for a much more interesting drive.

A classic little rail car diner on Hwy 9 near Brattleboro, Vermont.
Brattleboro is one of those picturesque little towns tucked in among the hills. Lots of cool shops, cafés, brew pubs, and not one but two bike shops. While there, I had to get a picture of this:

As I stood there getting a photo, I was getting weird looks from some people standing nearby. Actual conversation:
"I want to get a picture because that's my name up there."
"What - Brooks? or Hotel?"
"Both - my parents had a weird sense of humor."
In the little town of Bennington, Vermont, we entered the town's oldest cemetery - and found Robert Frost's grave. The English teacher in me had to document that.
"I had a lover's quarrel with the world."
I love these old New England headstones. This one dates to 1787 - but it isn't even the oldest one in the cemetery.
While in Bennington getting coffee at a homey little café I met a fellow with a fully loaded Surly Long Haul Trucker who was on his way north to Montreal. Kind of sorry I didn't get a picture of him and his bike - but mostly I was a little envious. Definitely something I'll have to do some day.

That's all for this vacation - I'll be back at work all too soon.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Will We Ever Be Ready For "Pump Action" Cycling?

It is with a heavy heart that I report that the cycling world is likely to be denied the greatest technology breakthrough that we have seen since the invention of the safety bicycle. Funding for RRAD Pump Action Cycling on Kickstarter was a failure. They only raised about $9000 out of a goal of $100,000 for their device that would convert your "inefficient" rotating crank-driven bike into . . . THIS:
With Pump Action, your legs are always in the "power zone."
The RRAD Cycle was developed by "accomplished inventor" Roy Rosser - who notes with pride in the Kickstarter ad that when he was in graduate school in London in the 1980s, "he bicycled to university through the London traffic - and survived!" 

That's certainly an accomplishment. And on the inventing front, his notable accomplishment is that he helped develop the virtual first down line that has become an indispensable part of broadcast football.

And of course, those accomplishments made him the perfect person to tackle the terrible inefficiencies of rotating cranks.

From the Kickstarter ad: "You come to a hill. Time to change gears. Time to take a deep breath. Time to feel a burning sensation and the sweat drip down your neck. So much for a nice ride to work! Your inefficient bike is tiring you out, even though it was so easy to bike on flat ground."

That's right - Using some kind of "magnetically sprung clutch," the RRAD technology replaces the rotating motion of a traditional crank with an up-and-down motion that makes riding up hills no different at all from riding on flat ground. Or so they claim.

What could be better?! Why do we dogmatically insist on hanging on to our antiquated crank technology? When will the world be ready for "pump action" cycling?

Ummm. . . maybe never?

Of course, such ideas are nothing new. In the case of the RRAD bike, what makes it different is that it is designed to be retro-fit to standard bicycles, but the "pedaling" motion and supposed benefits are pretty much the same as on this thing:

1980s Alenax treadle-drive bicycle.
Which itself was yet another version of an idea that gets resurrected every few years by tinkerers with no sense of history. Treadle driven bikes actually pre-date the "safety bicycle":

1880s American Star bicycle - sold as a safer alternative to the penny farthing - which I suppose it was, but it never really caught on.
In fact, some of the very first pedal-powered bicycles - even preceding penny farthings - used treadle drive systems - going back to Scottish blacksmith Kirkpatrick Macmillan, who may or may not have been the first to build a pedal-powered machine.
Really, when you come to think of it - we have rotating cranks today because they worked better - more efficiently - than the alternatives.

Tinkerers keep referring back to the "dead spots" in a crank's rotation - at the very top and bottom of the pedaling stroke - as the reason treadles are better. The problem is, in actual use there are still dead spots with a treadle drive, and the movement to the leg muscles is less natural, while the conversion of leg motion to forward motion is less efficient than with a rotating crank.

I've quoted him before on this point, but I can't do better than to refer to the patron saint of retrogrouches, Jobst Brandt.

Specifically writing about the Alenax (shown above), but applicable to any treadle-drive machine, Brandt wrote that such machines are "a great example of an outsider inventing a solution to a perceived problem, creating something that is useless for the intended user."

"The main problem is that the invention is based on constant-velocity lever pedals, instead of circular cranks on which the rotating foot presents no inertial problems and on which the leg moves in sinusoidal motion. The Alenax requires the foot to reach full speed from a stop before it catches up to the load it is trying to propel, after which it must stop suddenly from full speed at the bottom of the stroke. . . Summing it up, I think the inventor (and investors) did not realize that converting reciprocating motion into circular motion is best done by a rotary crank rather than a reciprocating lever, and above all, they weren't bicyclists."

Oh well. Farewell, RRAD Cycle. The loss is surely our own.