Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Major Taylor - What's Your Wild Rabbit?

At the end of the 19th Century, bicycle racing was arguably the most popular sport in America, and without a doubt, the greatest athlete of the day was Marshall "Major" Taylor - a man who battled against the odds to become a multi-record holder and World Champion. Most recently, Major Taylor has become the subject of a really cool advertisement for Hennessy, the latest installment in what has become known as their "Wild Rabbit" campaign series featuring the slogan "Never Stop. Never Settle."

At the start of the 20th century, he may have been the most famous athlete in the world.
Earlier installments in the ad campaign have featured race car driver Malcolm Campbell, who broke numerous land speed records in the 1920s and '30s, boxer Manny Pacquaio, and the Piccard's - father Auguste (first person to reach the stratosphere) and son Jacques (first to reach the deepest depths of the ocean).

The latest spot, which seems almost more like a mini movie than a commercial, features Major Taylor who had attained such a level of prowess that one could argue that his toughest competition was himself.

The ad opens with a race in a packed velodrome where we see Taylor destroying the competition. The pace is exciting, and the filming puts us right into the mix.


Then, as Taylor makes it to the front of the pack, he finds himself alone . . .


The velodrome and the cheering crowds fade away. . .


Then the scene alters and he's transported into an increasingly dark and ominous dream sequence.



By the end of the spot, Taylor is brought back into reality, but I won't reveal the cool twist - you'll just have to watch it for yourself.

There are three versions of the commercial - at 30 sec., 60 sec., and 90 sec. I have the full 90-sec version linked below. In addition, there is an interesting little "making of" (Making Major) video that might be worth watching.

It's a beautifully shot and executed piece of commercial cinema - Enjoy!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

12 Speeds - You Know Where This Is Going

Well, they did it. Your "Goes to 11" drivetrain is now obsolete, as Campagnolo this week has introduced the first 12-speed drivetrain for road bikes. We knew it was going to happen eventually, right? I mean, it's been a whole ten years since they introduced the Nigel Tufnel-pleasing 11-speed system, which was about eight years after the introduction of 10-sp. And 9-speeds had been introduced by Shimano just four years prior to that. (Shimano had arguably kicked off this arms race by getting us into 8 speeds in 1988).


Okay, if you're like me (and if you're reading this, there's a good chance you are) you probably don't have an 11-speed setup. You may not even have progressed past 8 or 9, and you probably aren't feeling a major lack in your life as a result. Also if you're like me, you probably wonder about the benefit of cramming more and more cogs into the limited real estate between a bike's rear dropouts. Whether it makes sense or not, 12s are here, and there's no question that Shimano will have to respond in kind with their own 12-speed system within the next year or so. SRAM is practically already there, having recently introduced a 12-speed MTB system designed for use with single-chainring cranks.

12 speeds. Go ahead and count 'em. You know you want to.

In a short 1986 film about the Taylor Brothers, the builders of some truly fine British bicycles through the second half of the last century, Jack Taylor can be seen lamenting the state of racing bikes of the mid-80s with their 7-speed freewheels, saying that in his day they only rode 4s, and that 5s were already too many because it put the chain too much out of alignment. Just too many gears, he said, "you don't know which one you're in." I think a lot of us who cut our teeth on 5s and 6s would argue there's nothing excessive about them, and that 7s are probably just about perfect. But at some point, adding more gears just becomes gratuitous.

I have several bikes in my collection that have only 5-speed freewheels (and only 120 mm between the dropouts) and a couple with 6 or 7. The non-retrogrouchy commuter I've been using has an almost anachronistic-seeming 8-speed cassette, the Rivendell has 9, and I'm almost embarrassed to admit I have a retro-modern Mercian with 10 (but no 11s). To my mind, the main difference between all of them is that with more speeds, I find myself doing more shifting, but of course I don't go any faster. With 5 or 6, I get myself in a gear that feels right for the general terrain and just ride the damn bike without worrying about it. I've read where the late great Jobst Brandt did the same. It does not distract nor detract in any way from my rides.

In an old Rivendell Reader interview (R.R. 6), Brandt said, "I use down tube shifters and use a 6-speed freewheel because 5-speeds are dead. . . I'm not preoccupied with always being in the right gear or following some unwritten precepts on cadence and the like. I ride a gear that's about right and leave it at that. . . The range of gears hasn't changed much in the last 50 years, only the number of gears in that range. I don't believe they are useful, necessary, or any good for the design of the rear wheel. Five or six is plenty, nine is gratuitous hardware and multiple redundancy."

With each additional cog, the chain, spacers and cogs keep getting thinner. As a result, they've managed to fit these extra gears in with only a small increase in cassette width. But even that small increase has also meant an increase in the dish of the wheels, which is generally not a good thing for wheel strength. Not only that, but now that so many new bikes and wheelsets are made for disc brakes, the spacing has grown on both sides. If I'm not mistaken, many road bikes today are pushing 135 mm between the dropouts. This can create issues with crank width or Q-factor -- as the chainstays have to flare out farther and farther to accommodate the growing hub width, unless there is some radical re-shaping of the stays, Q-factor has to grow to keep the cranks from hitting them.

Another issue is that as cogs, spacers, and chains continue to get thinner, they become more prone to wear, and much more sensitive to derailleur alignment issues. If someone is using the latest electronic shifting, supposedly those systems keep themselves adjusted, but that's a high cost of admission for new technology that just solves the problems created by other new technology.

So, why the push to add more cogs? As usual, the claim is that you can get a broader gear range while still keeping the ratios close from one cog to the next. Campy's new 12s cassettes are available in 11-29 and 11-32, and there are single-tooth jumps for the first seven cogs. The last five cogs have jumps from two to four teeth. Clearly, they could make a straight-block "corncob" racing cassette that would go from 11-22, but they currently don't, and I have no idea if they have plans for such a thing, or if anyone is even calling for it. But proponents are already saying that the extra cog has a "substantial effect on smoothing the gear ratio spread" -- as if it's a huge and worthwhile improvement over 11s, which itself was hailed as such a huge improvement over 10s for the very same reason, and so on, and so on.

The thing is, the very same arguments for bumping us up to 12-speeds are likely to lead us to 13 before too long. I mean - you still have cogs with two or even four-tooth jumps between them (as if that's a bad thing), and at some point somebody is going to say you can reduce that further by adding another cog. Since they've so clearly embraced the philosophy of planned obsolescence, the only logical result is that they continue adding another cog every few years. One could argue that at some point they'd stop because you'd eventually get to where adding more cogs just starts getting ridiculous. 

The thing is, some of us think we passed that point a long time ago. 

Friday, March 30, 2018

RIP Jon Williams - Drillium Revival


Photo from the Biciak blog. There's a nice article
there about Jon and his work.
The vintage and classic bicycle world lost a good friend this week. Jon Williams, whom some may know through his Drillium Revival work, died suddenly of a heart attack while riding his bike Wednesday. I don't know exactly how old Jon was, but he was young enough that his sudden death comes as a real shock. Jon had really built a name for himself with the vintage cycling crowd for his creativity and taste in modifying bicycle components.

I won't go into a lot of clichés about how a man's death reminds us to live every day like it could be our last. And I can't give a lot of biographical info about Jon. He was a friend and regular contributor to the discussions on the Classic Rendezvous group, and I have exchanged a few emails with him over the years, but we never actually met face to face, and I can't say that I really knew him personally. But like a lot of people, I did admire his work and had thought about having him drill and modify some components for my Mercian 753 Special - of all the bikes I own, that one seemed like it would have been the one for which some tastefully lightened parts would have been the most appropriate. Now I really wish I'd gotten that done.

I mentioned Jon's work a few years ago in an article about drillium, and he had a lot of pictures of his work on Flickr. I don't know how long that account will remain available - but I'd like share a few of my favorites:

Really nicely drilled Campagnolo Record crank. Notice that the spider arms are slotted all the way through.
This Nuovo Record derailleur almost looks like it was made of lace. This would pair up nicely with the crank shown above.
Another angle. Like I said - like lace.


I'm pretty conservative when it comes to modifying something like a stem, where breakage would be exceptionally bad for one's teeth - but the milling on this Cinelli is tasteful and not too excessive.

Jon didn't just modify vintage components - he would sometimes modify current production pieces as well, like this more modern Campagnolo Athena crank. . .
. . . or this Compass Bicycles Rene Herse style crank. This one was only minimally modified as a special touch for a Peter Weigle-built bike that competed in the Concours de Machines Technical Trials in France. You can see the bike at Jan Heine's blog.

For those lucky enough to have examples of his work, Jon's artistry will be a lasting reminder of the talent that was lost this week.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Self Driving Car Death

It was just last month I wrote about the potential problems that surround driverless cars. Even as automakers and tech companies are racing forward on the technology, they admit that they still have a long way to go to make sure that driverless cars are as safe as promised. That doesn't seem to be slowing them down any, however. One of the biggest problems these autonomous cars have is recognizing and properly reacting to pedestrians and cyclists.

As it happens, Sunday night, a woman in Tempe, Arizona became the first pedestrian to be killed by a self-driving car. It was one of the self-driving cars being tested by Uber, and according to a police statement, it was in full-autonomous mode with a vehicle operator behind the wheel. Neither the car nor the human operator reacted to avoid the woman, 49-yr-old Elaine Herzberg, who later died at the hospital from her injuries.

The first reports to go out after the incident claimed that the woman was on a bicycle, and the photos showed a damaged bicycle in a heap on the side of the road. That was not quite accurate, however, as it was later reported that while she was a cyclist, she was walking across the road and pushing the bicycle at the moment she was struck by the car. Ultimately, though, a woman is dead and it's a pretty minor distinction.

Police have said that the car was going about 40 mph at the time of the collision, and there was no indication that either the car or the driver attempted to slow down before the woman was hit. Reports are also saying that the driver showed no signs of impairment, and that prosecutors will review the case for possible charges.

Immediately after the crash, Uber suspended all of its self-driving car operations. Until this announcement, the service was running self-driving test operations in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, and Toronto.

I have no doubt that the Uber suspension will only be temporary, and that the other tech companies and the auto companies will continue their own testing and operations in the meantime. I hope that this death underscores to them all how important it is that they get this stuff right before unleashing it on the public. Consider that all of this technology is still in the experimental phase - but they're currently using our public streets as their laboratory. I wouldn't be disappointed if this incident slowed things down a little.

There are thousands of pedestrians and cyclists killed each year by living, breathing humans. The promise of self-driving cars is that, unlike so many cell-phone-addled drivers, they don't get distracted so they'll ultimately be safer. But this death is a stark reminder that we aren't there yet.

I don't think there's any question that self-driving cars are still coming. Despite this woman's death, the companies will keep pushing it. However, my fear is (and I hope I'm wrong) that we will likely see others get killed or maimed before they truly get it right.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Bikes and Guns

No mistake about it, the Retrogrouch blog is about bicycles. Any grouching and occasional ranting that happen here mostly center on debates about older bicycles vs. new. "Old school" vs. "new school." I have some pretty strong opinions on bikes, and this blog is a good outlet for them.

I have some pretty strong opinions about other topics, too - but as they don't usually have anything to do with bikes, this blog generally isn't where they get vented. That makes it the unfortunate role of my friends and family to have to put up with them. Retrogrouch readers, consider yourselves lucky!

Guns wouldn't seem to have anything to do with this blog, so that is a subject of which I usually steer clear. But in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting, there have been some interesting facts and ethical issues that have come to light - and they could have an impact on cyclists.

Some of the Vista Outdoor brands.
(graphic from Boulder Cycle Sport)
Before I get into that, I'm going to state something for the record and get it out of the way: I don't own guns, and have no desire to own them - but I do have friends who own guns. They're good folks, and there's no reason to judge. I believe in the 2nd Amendment -- but unlike some of the more vocal proponents of the 2nd, I don't ignore its first clause -- you know the one, the one that says "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state. . ." I believe it is dogmatic to claim that regulations on gun sales and ownership (such as universal background checks, mandatory registration, gun databases, and even restrictions or bans on certain types of guns and ammo) are somehow a violation of the 2nd Amendment. People may endlessly debate the point about exactly what does or does not constitute a "militia" - but the words "well regulated" make it pretty hard to argue that the government has no right to impose restrictions on guns.

OK, now that you know that, you can decide whether or not that colors your opinion about the rest of what I'm writing about here.

So back to bikes. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, advocates for more gun control have been promoting a new strategy - to use boycotts to push for change. And in that interest, news has recently surfaced that a number of products and brands used by many of us cyclists have connections to the gun industry, and this has come as a surprise. Notably, that Vista Outdoor, a conglomerate corporation which owns one of the US's largest gun and ammo manufacturers also owns such bicycle-related brands as Bell and Giro, Blackburn, Camelbak, and CoPilot. The revelation originally came from Aaron Naparstek, a bicycle advocate who founded the website Streetsblog.

The day after the Florida shooting, Naparstek tweeted out, "The same company that manufactures your CoPilot rear-rack child bicycle safety seat also produces the SavageArms MSR Patrol assault rifle." Another tweet: "It's just jarring to me that when I bought @GiroCyclingUK, @BellBikeHelmets, @CamelBak and CoPilot products, I put money in the pockets of a domestic arms dealer."

According to the BikeBiz website, Vista purchased Bell, Giro, and Blackburn in 2016. They've owned Camelbak since 2015. The company has a PAC that funds the NRA and politicians who promote the NRA agenda.

Naparstek has called for a consumer boycott of all Vista's bicycle-industry brands, and word has been spreading. Some bicycle shops and chains have announced that they will stop carrying the brands.

From Outside Online.
Now, rather than start preaching that everyone should support such a boycott - I'll just say people should really consider such an issue carefully and make their own choice in the matter. To that end, there was an interesting article on the Outside website that looked at the pros and cons of such a boycott, and the ethics associated with it. The Outside article contained opinions from several business and ethics professors, and there was not unanimous agreement on the subject. I recommend reading the article, and I won't re-cover the whole thing here, but I will touch on a couple of points brought up.


Here was one thought: should a person who buys a Camelbak or a Giro helmet feel in any way responsible for the actions of Vista's guns or ammo businesses - or violent actions that happen with their products? No - of course not. The fact is, that whether someone buys Vista's bicycle accessories or not, the manufacture and sale of firearms will continue. But if one is against guns, or supports gun control measures, and they can buy a helmet or a new tire pump without supporting the gun industry and its lobbyists, it may be worthwhile to choose a different brand because dollars can make a difference. One of the ethicists in the Outside article, Sarah-Vaughan Brakman of Villanova University, states: "If we believe something is wrong, and if together our purchasing power can significantly change the bottom line, then consumers should change their habits."

Although two of the ethicists in the article seemed to support the idea that a consumer boycott can be effective in producing change, one seemed to see the issue as a little more complicated. Jason Brennan, of Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, said, "Boycotts attempt to impose a cost on the corporation. But a corporation is not a person--it has no body to kick or soul to damn. It's extremely difficult to impose a cost in such a way that the cost falls on the CEO rather than some janitor working at the firm."

Brennan added that things get even more complicated when the boycott targets a company that is merely a subsidiary company of a larger conglomerate, as is the case here. "Targeting one subsidiary company with the goal of hurting another is roughly on par with beating up someone because you dislike his or her cousin," said Brennan. "It's highly unlikely you'll end up hurting the other subsidiary you actually despise." Ultimately, Brennan stated, if people really want to see changes, they should push for change through legislation. That would include voting for people who support the changes you want, and applying pressure to lawmakers to see it through.

So - support the boycott or not? My own feeling on it is that I don't support the NRA, and I don't want to support, either directly or indirectly, the gun industry -- they get plenty of money without my help. Knowing that a portion of what I spend on a new bicycle helmet or some other accessory for my bike goes to support a gun company that lobbies against meaningful gun control, and promotes a stance on guns that I don't agree with is problematic to me. When it comes to helmets, I've long been a fan of Giro helmets -- they seem to combine the look and fit that I'm usually after. And I have other gear from the company, which also markets shoes and other clothing that I tend to like, so I'm a bit disappointed. I'm not an "active" boycott supporter, but the next time I'm looking at helmets or accessories, I think it would be hard for me to ignore the gun-industry connection, and that might cause me to look a little more closely at alternatives from other brands. As to whether other people support a boycott, or even wear a helmet at all - well, that's up to them. No, it's not a really strong stance - but it seems to me that the issue is just muddy enough to make it hard to get overly strident about.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Ethical Conundrums in Driverless Cars

Driverless cars used to be the stuff of science fiction. But more and more it seems they are becoming the reality of today. Most major car manufacturers are working on the technology, as are tech companies such as Google. Several luxury car companies already have early generations of self-driving tech in the showrooms. For example, Tesla currently offers an "Autopilot" feature that is supposed to offer limited self-driving capability, and is said to enhance safety even when the human driver is supposed to be in control. Likewise, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Audi, and Cadillac all offer systems with similar capabilities. Many car companies are currently selling somewhat more limited versions of the technology, including automated emergency braking, or even automatic parallel parking capability. It almost seems that the manufacturers and developers are barrelling forward - "pedal to the floor" - towards their fully-automatic goal, citing claims about the potential of greater safety of these systems. Given that studies show that the vast majority of crashes are caused by human error (94%, according to NHTSA), safety is an admirable goal. While the goal of this push toward fully-automatic driving is to reduce the "human error" factor, there are still a lot of unanswered questions and serious reliability (and liability) issues that have yet to be addressed.

As cyclists, we have very good reasons to be skeptical.

Joshua Brown was killed when he handed over the control of his
Tesla to the Autopilot system. The system was unable to detect a
 tractor trailer that was crossing the roadway.
First off, how reliable is the technology? So far, not reliable enough to put our full faith in it. A well-publicized incident in 2016 centered on the driver of a Tesla Model S who was killed when he drove straight through a tractor trailer while he was using their Autopilot system. It is believed that the car's sensors were not able to detect the truck's trailer which may have blended in somehow with the color and/or brightness of the sky. In Tesla's defence, the driver of the car, Joshua Brown, was not using the system as it was designed to be used - that is to say, the intent of the system is that it should assist the driver during momentary lapses in attention - not that it would completely take over for a driver who fully relinquishes control of the car for an extended period. Though Brown's family and lawyers have disputed it, some of the first people on the scene after the crash reported that he had been watching a movie when the incident occurred. A National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) study into the crash determined that the driver was essentially misusing the Autopilot system by over-relying on it (NTSB found that he only had his hands on the wheel for about 25 seconds out of a 39-minute period of driving).

But what is there to keep other drivers from doing the same thing? Consider how many people without autonomous technology think nothing of taking their eyes off the road for extended moments to send/read text messages,etc., it should not be surprising that those with such technology would be even more inclined to put their faith in the autonomous driving functions for even longer periods.

Another incident, this time non-fatal, happened just last month when another Tesla Model S slammed into the back of a stopped fire truck. It couldn't see a big red fire truck in its path? Seriously?

Yet Tesla's owners manual even acknowledges that this exact situation can be a problem for the automatic driving system. It states: Traffic-Aware Cruise Control cannot detect all objects and may not brake/decelerate for stationary vehicles, especially in situations when you are driving over 50 mph (80 km/h) and a vehicle you are following moves out of your driving path and a stationary vehicle or object is in front of you instead.” Basically, the system gets confused by a changing and unpredictable traffic situation.

When these systems, which rely on a combination of radar, lidar, electric eye sensors, and GPS (and many gigabytes of computer microprocessing), can become "confused" by large, solid, and relatively predictable vehicles - what chance do we as cyclists have?

All the developers of automatic "driverless" technology admit that recognizing bicycles is a particularly difficult challenge. Bicycles are small. It can be difficult for computers to tell what direction they're heading. They tend to (though not always) move slower than surrounding traffic, but they can change direction very quickly. All the things that make cyclists "consternating" to human drivers make us a total puzzle for computers. These issues are exacerbated by the fact that many cyclists simply don't follow traditional traffic rules.

The tech-meets-transportation company Uber is another company that has been developing self-driving technology, and they revealed last year that their self-driving cars seemed unable to distinguish bike lanes from car lanes, and as a result, had difficulty spotting cyclists, and potentially worse, keeping the cars from driving in the bike lanes. Uber is still doing small-scale, localized testing of their tech, so it's unlikely that we'll be run down by a self-driving Uber (unless you live in Pittsburgh) - at least for now. And hopefully they'll figure out that hurdle before they go nationwide with it.

Some developers, acknowledging the weaknesses in their systems, seem to be trying to "share" the responsibility of safety by putting compatible technology onto bicycles, or onto the cyclists themselves, to help the cars' systems "see" them better. These solutions include putting chips or transmitters into helmets, or embedded into bikes, or creating special apps for the riders' cell phones. All of that sounds great for those cyclists who can afford (and desire) to equip themselves with the latest "smart" technology that will help keep them from being run down by self-driving cars. But it leaves a huge segment of cyclists on the road completely vulnerable. Are these riders expendable? I mean, living in an urban area I regularly see riders who are poorer, and riding beat up old bikes because they can't afford better, and they are on bikes in the first place because they can't afford cars. Cheap bikes are their sole source of transportation. What are the car and tech companies doing for them? These cyclist-centered solutions seem to me to place the burden on cyclists, rather than on the drivers and the companies pushing the technology. It's like saying, "You don't want our automated cars to hit you? Then you need to wear this special 'smart suit' or 'smart helmet,' ride a special 'smart bike,' or strap on some other kind of 'smart sensors' every time you ride. Oh yeah, and it's up to you to pay for it all."

Being the somewhat cynical and pessimistic person I am, I wouldn't dismiss the possibility that the automakers and tech companies could get together and pressure lawmakers to legally put the burden on the cyclists in the form of some kind of mandate. As this technology becomes more popular and profitable, if they can't figure out a way to make the systems more reliable as far as recognizing and reacting to cyclists, they could lobby to mandate that all cyclists strap on some variation of "smart" devices before taking to the roads, or else be held responsible for their own injuries when they get hit. Don't think that's likely? It's happened before - remember that the concept of "jaywalking" wasn't even a thing until the auto interests came up with it and got it written into the law books.

Another issue that comes up relates to a type of moral or ethical dilemma, sometimes referred to as the Trolley Problem, wherein a person must choose between two potentially deadly outcomes. In this case, the question is if an automated car has to make a choice between hitting another car or hitting a cyclist or a pedestrian, which course will it take? It isn't difficult to imagine a scenario where this could present itself. Picture an automated car overtaking a cyclist when an oncoming car suddenly moves left-of-center. Does the automated car remain in its determined path and take a head-on collision with the other car? Or does it swerve right to avoid the car, but hit the cyclist?

Shockingly (or perhaps not-so-shockingly, depending on your level of cynicism) one car company has already made that determination, and it doesn't bode well for cyclists. According to an article in Car and Driver, Mercedes-Benz has already decided to program its next-level autonomous cars to prioritize the protection of the people inside the car -- you know, the very people who shelled out big bucks for the self-driving technology with the expectation that it would keep them safer. Obviously, M-B wants to make sure their drivers live to buy another M-B. According to Christoph von Hugo, M-B's manager of driver assistance systems, "If you know you can save at least one person, save the one in the car. If all you know for sure is that one death can be prevented, then that's your first priority."

Apparently, Mercedes has decided that if the car kills a cyclist or pedestrian, that victim's family will sue them. And if their car takes an action that "saves" the cyclist, but results in the death of the Mercedes driver or other occupants in the car, then they will still get sued. I suppose they figure that if they're going to get sued either way, they're better off protecting the M-B owners (who can probably afford better lawyers). The only possible bright side is that ultimately, the goal of the developers of self-driving cars is to program these systems not to get into situations where they have to make a "trolley problem" choice in the first place. Is that possible? Or practical? I don't have that answer. There are so many potential variables in a typical driving scenario, I wonder if it would be possible to calculate them all.

The legal questions of regulation and liability are still totally up in the air, both in the U.S. and abroad. Here in the U.S., congress has only just begun to look at the issues of autonomous cars. Different states are looking at the issues separately, which could lead to a totally disconnected patchwork of laws nationwide. But in some states, it seems that legislators are willing to go full-throttle with robots in the driver's seat. Just this week, California lawmakers eliminated a requirement that autonomous vehicles must have a person in the driver's seat to take over in case of emergency. The new law also grants 50 companies a license to test self-driving cars in that state.

Is there a good side to all this? It's hard to say.

Currently, I believe one of the biggest threats to cyclists is probably the distracted driver, which I believe becomes a greater problem every year and with every new app or gadget. I'm still convinced that the "smarter" our phones get, the "dumber" the people get. Add that to a natural tendency towards self-indulgence and self-centered behavior that the phones seem to exacerbate, and the sense of anonymity, power, and entitlement that seem to infect many drivers anyhow, and you have a recipe that can be deadly for cyclists and pedestrians. Unfortunately, legislators seem almost as reluctant to cross the telecom industry as they are to cross the gun and auto industries - so real and effective bans on phone use while driving are few and far between. The development of autonomous vehicles almost seems to say "we can't (or won't) put a stop to it, so let's just enable it. If people won't put their phones away, let's find a way that they'll never have to."

Ultimately, I suppose it would be fair to ask the question: If I'm cycling home from work, would I rather the car behind me be driven by a texting teenager, or by a computer? And honestly, I just don't know the answer. On one hand, the noble idea of the autonomous car is that it doesn't get distracted. That sounds great. On the other hand, so far the technology seems to leave a lot to be desired. It would be difficult for me to put my faith in the robots until I get some reassurance that they can actually see me, and respond appropriately, and that they not be predisposed to sacrifice my life in exchange for the car's occupants. I might feel better if our laws would favor the more vulnerable road users over the industries' interests. So far, none of that seems truly certain.

I also wonder why should it seem like the only choice is between distracted drivers and robot cars? I mean, if I actually had a choice in the matter, I think I'd choose a human driver who's actually paying attention. Shouldn't we be able to reasonably expect that drivers not be distracted? Now I guess that would truly be the stuff of science fiction.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Presidents Day

It's Presidents Day, and like most government employees I'm off work. That means I'm spending the day with the retro-kids, but I have a few minutes for a quick post.

In honor of the holiday, I've gathered some pictures of presidents on bikes. Not surprisingly, some presidents are easier to find on a bike than others:

There aren't many photos of Nixon on a bike. This one, taken when he was still a young congressman, is the only one I could find.
Gerald Ford, who was the only president nobody ever voted for (for either the President or Vice President), apparently wasn't much of a cyclist, either. Searching "Gerald Ford on a bike," this was the only picture that came up. Sad.
Jimmy Carter not only enjoyed riding his bike, but he had good taste in them, too. Here, he and Rosalynn are getting a nice pair of Rivendells.
And there's the former president and Nobel Prize winner out for a spin.
Ronald Reagan was famously partial to horses, but there are a couple of photos of him on bikes - all of them look old enough to have been when he was still a Democrat.
There aren't many photos of George H.W. Bush on a bike. This one, and a publicity shot from a trip to China are about it. Safe to say that this was probably not his bike.
Bill and Hillary cruising the beach at Martha's Vineyard. Nevertheless I don't think Bill was an avid rider.
On the other hand, George W. Bush was an avid cyclist. Search for pictures of him with bikes, and there are many to choose from.
President Obama enjoyed bike rides with his family. And the conservative media loved to make fun of him for it.
Obama totally embraced his "dad mode" on his bike - in this case, pulling one of the kids on a tagalong trailer.
I searched for pictures of Trump on a bike, but came up mostly empty. Considering that he once (briefly) slapped his name on a professional bike race, that's somewhat surprising. I found lots of crude photoshop mockeries with Trump's face slapped onto other pictures of riders (including one of Pee Wee Herman) but I'm starting to believe he's never actually been photographed on a bike. Interestingly, the only "real" photos that came up in my search for "Trump on a bike" were many many copies of this:
Cyclist Juli Briskman got fired when her employer found out she was the person photographed flipping the bird to the president's motorcade. Don't feel too bad for her, though. A fan of the photo started a GoFundMe account for her and raised well over $100,000 to help her through her unemployment.
Just for the record, I also searched for Lyndon Johnson (nothing came up) and JFK. The only pictures of JFK I could find appeared to have been photoshopped fakes, so I didn't bother with them. JFK Jr., however, was well known as a cycling commuter in NYC, so there were lots of pictures of him on a bike.

That's all I've got time for. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Vintage Greats: Eileen Sheridan

Recently on the Classic Rendezvous group there was quite a nice run of posts about a great racer from the past, Eileen Sheridan. In the 1940s and '50s Sheridan was a time-trialing powerhouse who not only was one of the best female cyclists in the sport, but also gave a lot of men a real run for the money too. With all the posts and photos being shared by the CR friends, I couldn't help but feel inspired to gather more about her and share it here on the Retrogrouch.

At just 4' 11", Sheridan was dubbed "The Mighty
Atom" by the newspapers.
Born in 1923, Sheridan joined the Coventry Cycling Club when she was still in her teens. Her main interest was originally just riding with the club and cyclotouring, which was a very popular pastime during the war - but after entering a club time trial, she found she had a natural talent for the competition. Throughout the '40s and '50s, time-trialing was the main form of racing in Britain, as Continental-style mass-start racing was essentially banned by the sport's main governing body, the National Cyclists' Union (NCU), and participation in mass-start races would get a rider banned from any NCU sanctioned events. Though she did also compete in some track racing, road time trials and timed point-to-point rides became her specialty.

Sheridan's official start in racing was in 1945 and she won her first National Championship in the 25-mile time trial that year. In 1947 she would set the record in the women's 50-mile, and improve her 25-mile record. By 1950, she would be the National Champion in the 50 and 100-mile races, and was breaking records in all the distances she raced. In her 1949 12-hour record, Sheridan rode 237.62 miles - which actually put her within only a handful of miles from the top-ranked men of the day. In subsequent years, she would improve on that one, too.

The Hercules Cycle Company hired Sheridan in 1950 as a professional rider, and her appointed mission was to break distance records (that, and sell lots of Hercules bicycles). Over the next three years, she would break the 12-hour record (250.5 miles), the 24-hour record (446.5 miles), and the London-Edinburgh record. In 1954 she broke the record for Land's End-to-John O'Groats, which famously traverses the entire island of Great Britain from end-to-end, which she completed in 2 days, 11 hours, 7 minutes. After arriving in John O'Groats, despite being terribly sleep-deprived and near complete exhaustion, she continued riding on to also break the 1000 mile record. By her third mostly sleepless night on the bike, she reported that she was at times weaving along the road, barely able to stay upright, and having hallucinations, but she finished the ride in 3 days, 1 hour - a record that stood for 48 years. Not only that, but she was only 2 hours, 20 minutes off the men's record at the time. All told, between 1945 and 1955, she broke 21 women's long distance and place-to-place records. Many of these stood for decades, some through the end of the century, and a few of them, such as her London-Liverpool and London-Edinburgh runs, still stand today.


Prior to her Hercules sponsorship, Sheridan rode a few different bikes. I saw an interview on CyclingUK where she mentioned and old BSA that she started out with, and a Claude Butler that her husband bought for her when she first began racing. And searching the internet, I spotted a couple of photos of her racing on a bike built by Mercian. But she's mainly remembered for her Hercules deal.

Eileen's Mercian, which she used for several National Championships and record-breaking runs as an amateur. At different times the bike was equipped with a Sturmey-Archer multi-speed hub (like it is here), and in some instances, she used it as a fixed gear single-speed.

The Hercules model most often associated with Eileen was their "Maestro" - though it's generally known that she was not actually racing on any off-the-rack production line bike. The more common practice was that something was built special for her, and painted/labeled with the company name.

One of Eileen's bikes is on display at the Coventry Transport Museum. Though hard to see in this photo, the lugs on the frame definitely mark it as something other than a regular production Hercules Maestro. I'm quite certain a production Maestro would also weigh a good bit more, too. One can see how she used bars with an extremely deep drop. She was very proud of her position on the bike, with her back low and flat, just like the best time-trialists of today.

Female athletes have long had to battle with indifference and sexism, and it was certainly no different in Sheridan's day. The thing is, Eileen Sheridan, and many women like her, really deserves tremendous credit considering that, unlike most male athletes, she really was expected to balance her dedication to her sport with the "duties" of a wife and mother. Sheridan gave birth to a son in 1946, right after her first season as an amateur racer. Within months, she was back on the bike to pick up where she'd left off. Her second child, a daughter, was born in 1955, right at the end of her contract with Hercules, and at that point, having broken all the records that were available to be broken, she decided against renewing it. Difficulty in regaining her earlier form was also a factor in the decision.

On YouTube, you can find a brief clip from an old British Pathé newsreel about Eileen, "The Housewife Cyclist." The sexist and patronizing tone is kind of hard to stomach, but gives a good idea of the attitudes that female athletes like Eileen probably had to fight every day. The newsreel clip opens with a shot of Eileen feeding her new baby daughter . . .


Then goes on to show her training in her garage gymnasium . . .

The narrator says: "Some men believe a woman's place is in the home. But Eileen's husband likes to get her out of the house, even if it's only into the garage. For in this home-made gymnasium, he supervises the exacting training that has brought her eleven championship medals and twenty three national place-to-place records. . . . No wonder she wins races. She has to, to get back in time to catch up with her housework."
Sheridan has said in interviews that she would have loved to have been able to compete in the Olympics. The indifference that female athletes faced (and still face) meant that there was no women's cycling in the Olympics until 1984. And even now, the UCI has limits on their support of women's racing, and indifference by advertisers means a lack of coverage of it on television.

After her amazing John O'Groats ride, and while pregnant with her second child, Sheridan wrote her autobiography, Wonder Wheels. It was released in 1956. I believe the book is no longer in print, but it was re-issued briefly about 10 years ago. Used copies seem to be available if one knows where to look.

There's a very nicely done short documentary about Eileen called Come On, Eileen, directed by Anthony Collins in 2014. It seems that I am unable to embed the video right here, but it can be found on the Vimeo site, and here's a link: https://vimeo.com/98539448. The film combines archive footage, photos, interviews, and some dramatic re-enactments to tell Eileen's story. It's only about 20 minutes long, and well worth watching.

Eileen in her 90s, with a bike built to replicate one she might have raced on.

There's Eileen in recent years - a screenshot from the short documentary Come On, Eileen.

As I understand, at 94 Eileen still remains at least somewhat active in the cycling community - attending special events when she can, and she was for many years the president of the Coventry Cycling Club. She provides inspiration for a lot of female cyclists, particularly those who are now breaking (or at least attempting to break) some of her great records.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Cycle Cinema: Quicksilver

Sometimes a person can't help but find himself (or herself) in an ironic/nostalgic mood where they feel compelled to wallow in a cheesy '80s pop music video masquerading as a gritty drama about plucky street-smart bike messengers making their way through the big, dangerous city. And when that ironic/nostalgic mood strikes, there aren't a lot of 80s pop music videos masquerading as gritty dramas about plucky street-smart bike messengers out there to choose from, but Quicksilver (1986) is one of them.
Olympian (and former bike messenger) Nelson Vails' opening cameo as "Messenger in Maroon Beret" is probably the highlight of the film. 
Fresh off of Footloose Kevin Bacon, who can be linked to nearly every actor in Hollywood by fewer than six steps (see Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon - yes, it's actually a thing) plays Jack Casey, a hot shot stock trader ("one of the best" supposedly) who, in the first five minutes of the film, loses everything in a single risky gamble.


Stock trader Bacon has what must be the douchiest little mustache in Hollywood film history.
And of course he also blew his father's whole retirement savings in the same inexplicable gamble. The scene where he breaks the news to his dad is one of the few moments with any emotional heft in the film.
"Sorry dad, I blew your entire life's savings on a single risky trade - you know, 'cuz I'm a really gifted stockbroker."

So rather than picking himself up and trying to rebuild himself (like his stock trading partners all seemed to have been able to do), he spends a lot of time aimlessly walking the city's crowded streets and growing out his hair. . .




Until he has an epiphany in front of a second-hand store:

Cue the angelic chorus.
It's redemption by bike, which I guess a lot of us can kinda' relate to.
And before you know it, Jack's making a living at his new dream job - mixing it up with traffic, and wearing Vails's old maroon beret.
Because it's an '80s movie, we have to have a whole lot of dance sequences to go with the high energy pop soundtrack.

Like Flashdance, but with a bike. I think there was some requirement back then that all post-industrial loft dwellers be aspiring dancers.

And of course all the bike messengers routinely take time out of their busy day to jam to some tunes on their boombox and start break-dancing (or at least, bike-dancing) in the middle of the street. You know, 'cuz it's the '80s.

Most of the film was shot in San Francisco, though I understand a few bits were shot in LA and NYC -- to give the film sort of a generic un-specified urban setting. One of the few scenes that makes the location obvious is the mano a mano messenger race between Kevin Bacon's Jack Casey vs. Laurence Fishburne's shady badass "Voodoo."

Catchin' some air. If they didn't get stunt-riders for that jump, I'm going to say that's actually pretty impressive.




There's a whole sub-plot in the film where messengers like Voodoo get caught up running drugs for "Gypsy," the local bad-guy drug dealer (who is almost never seen outside of his POS Ford sedan), and of course that doesn't work out well for any streetwise messenger who goes in for earning the fast easy money.
Bad-guy drug dealer.
Nooooooooo!
Dead bike messenger.
There's a whole cast of lovable oddball characters, mostly with clever nicknames. Like Franz -- aka "Tour de Franz," "Apache," "Voodoo," "Airborne," and "Teddy Bear." Except for Jack, who is just, well, "Jack."
Paul Rodriquez plays Hector Rodriquez (clever!) - whose dream of moving up in life is to earn enough as a bike messenger to buy a hot dog cart. Hey, a guy's got to dream.

Comedian Louis Anderson makes an appearance as either "Tiny" or "PeeWee" (get it? 'cause he's fat) depending on whether you go by what people call him in the film, or how he's listed in the final credits. He's probably the film's least convincing bike messenger - but then, this one shot from the opening credits is the closest he's shown in proximity to a bicycle in the whole thing.
We have culturally sensitive nicknames, like Apache and Voodoo.
And then there's the new girl, Terri - played by Jamie Gertz. Throughout the film, Terri makes up increasingly outlandish stories about her family to cover up the fact that she doesn't have one. She also takes a job as a bike messenger, despite not having a bike and not knowing particularly well how to ride one.
Bacon's Jack Casey has a lot of angst about his stockbroker past, and tries to keep an air of mystery about his background with the other messengers, except when trying to help them occasionally with sound financial advice. But stockbroker-to-bicycle-messenger isn't the typical "American Dream" career trajectory, so of course he frequently finds himself at odds with people's expectations.

Uptight parents . . . they just don't understand.
Uptight stockbroker friends . . . they just don't understand.
Uptight dancer girlfriends . . . they just don't understand.
But when Jack learns that his friend Hector might make a big dangerous mistake to get the money for his hotdog cart, he decides to drop in on the Stock Exchange for some redemption. Before you know it, he's in there mixing it up with the hotshot stock traders again . . .

"Numbers numbers numbers BUY! Numbers numbers more numbers SELL!"
And that's all it takes to get other stock brokers to start acting like sheep. Pretty soon all the traders are following his lead, bleating the same thing . . .

"Numbers numbers numbers. BUY! Numbers BUY! BUY!" Looks like Hector's getting his hotdog cart after all.
While he's at it, Jack also manages to make enough to rescue his father's retirement fund, too. Oh yes - getting rich at the stock market never looked easier!

But that's not enough of a climax for the film, because Gypsy, the bad-guy drug dealer, is after Terri now, which leads to a final showdown.

Street-smart bike messengers stick together . . .
. . . bad-guy drug dealer destroys their source of income.
So now Jack leads the bad-guy on a car vs. bike chase.

Oddly enough, it's like the middle of the night and really dark when the chase scene begins . . .
. . . then suddenly it's daylight. How long was this chase supposed to be going on?
The whole chase scene ends about as well as it can for a guy who intentionally runs over a bunch of bicycles with his POS Ford.

Somehow Jack fools the bad guy into driving off an incomplete bridge.
Oddly enough, after spending an entire film being encouraged that being a bike messenger is a great job for independent mavericks, in the end, all three of the main characters are found doing something else. Jack's got a "couple of real good offers" (in what, he doesn't say), and Terri's going to be a paramedic. And then they run across another old friend. . .
"Should we have pizza or Chinese, or what?"
"Definitely pizza"
"I was thinking Chinese would be good."
"But I really wanted pizza."
"Wait, wait, I know the perfect place . . ."
Quicksilver is loaded with technical goofs and continuity errors. The sudden onset of daylight in the final chase is just one. Here are some more:

In the opening sequence where Nelson Vails is racing Jack's taxi cab, we see a closeup of Vails shifting gears. He pushes the lever forward all the way, and we then see his derailleur moving up to his lowest gear. Ahhhh . . . no.

In a scene where Jack is tailing Gypsy, Jack's outfit completely changes. One moment he's wearing a light gray top with a vest (a remnant from his 3-piece suit stockbroker days), and then the next shot he's wearing a knit sweater without the vest, then back again. Likewise, the length of Jack's hair seems to change from moment to moment throughout the film.

Early in the film, we see Jack slam into the back of a taxi. His front wheel is visibly damaged. Harder to tell for sure, but it's likely his fork is probably bent, or the frame buckled from the impact. Moments later, he pulls up to the messenger "headquarters" with a completely undamaged bike. I will give some credit that Bacon does a pretty nice "off the back" dismount.
The configuration of Jack's bike changes throughout the film - sometimes even at different moments in the same scene. In the "dancing" scene, the bike is noticeably equipped for trick riding - the fork is completely straight, with no rake whatsoever, and the chainring is really small - no bigger than the rear cog. There are also foot pegs on the front and rear axles. Most of the time the bike has a normal road fork and chainring. Also in the dancing scene, though the bike very noticeably has a fixed gear, some sound engineer added in the "click click click" sound effect of a spinning freewheel. In the race with Voodoo, the bike switches from one moment to the next from fixed gear to freewheeling single-speed.

Speaking of the bikes, Raleigh USA, which was actually American Huffy with a British name placed on bikes made in Japan and Taiwan, must have put up some money and/or other support for the film. Most of the bikes used in the film (or at least the ones that can be seen with any clarity) are Raleigh USA models from about '84 - '85.

I understand that Nelson Vails (who was sponsored by Raleigh USA at one point) did offer some technical advice for the film, and provided some insight on the life of bike messengers. Also, Kevin Bacon spent about four months prior to filming training on a fixed gear track bike - some of it riding with a former messenger (who was also one of the screenwriters) in NYC - to get ready for the role. I give him credit because there are several scenes in the film where he performs some tricks or stunts on the bike, and it's clearly Bacon and not a stunt double.

When Quicksilver came out in 1986, it opened to mostly lackluster or downright negative reviews.

Roger Ebert wrote: "Quicksilver is a collision between realism and gloss, between a story that demands to be told at street-level and a style that looks inspired by music videos. The movie has moments when it comes to life, when it threatens to tell a story about interesting people, and then it wanders off into inane scenes designed only to sell records."

Walter Goodman of the New York Times wrote: "As long as the characters are doing stunts or whizzing impossibly through city traffic to a strong rock beat, there's something to watch. For the rest of the time, Quicksilver is as much fun as a slow leak."

And currently, the movie rating website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 13% on their Tomatometer. By comparison, Bacon's 1990 film Tremors, which I believe was intended to be an ironically bad tongue-in-cheek sendup of 1950s B-movie monster flicks has a score of 85%. Kevin Bacon himself is reported to have called Quicksilver one of the lowest points in his career.

I was a student at Kent State when the film came out, and I remember our university bike club hosted a screening of the film. We actually enjoyed it - or rather, we enjoyed ourselves mostly poking fun of it. But fun is fun.

Needless to say, Quicksilver is hardly a must-see movie. But sometimes cheesy bad can still be fun. And if you're looking to satisfy that itch where nothing but an 80s pop music video masquerading as gritty drama about plucky street-smart bike messengers will do, what else are you gonna watch?