Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top Innovations of 2014?

On this, the last day of 2014, I thought it might be fun to look at some of the top "innovations" from the past year -- and where better to find them than to search Gizmag site, where there is never a shortage of questionable concept bikes and accessories posing as real breakthroughs. According to Gizmag, these are "examples of what happens when people dare to try something different . . . and that sort of spirit is the reason why we're not still all riding penny farthings." Unfortunately, real improvements are hard to come by, which is why a lot of this stuff is probably already DOA.

First of all, there's nothing more innovative than digging up an idea that's been resurrected several times since it first saw the light of day in the 1880s -- the lever-drive, or "treadle" mechanism. Here we see it as the Hank Direct Bike from the Korean company Bygen. In addition to its lever-drive system, it also features a telescoping frame that allows it to be packed away more compactly for storage -- which is good, because that's likely where the bike would spend most of its time.

An American Star Bicycle (photo
from Wikipedia)
The lever-drive bicycle goes back at least to the American Star bicycle, which was an early alternative to the penny farthing. Needless to say, it didn't catch on. The most recent retread of the idea to gain much attention was the Alenax bicycle of the 1980s, but it too went nowhere. There is a bit of info about the Alenax on (Saint) Sheldon Brown's site, where Jobst Brandt called it "a great example of an outsider inventing a solution to a perceived problem, creating something that is useless for the intended user." I don't see the Hank Direct Bike as being any better.

Next comes the Nuseti sealed drivetrain mountain bike. According to Gizmag, "there's no denying that belt drives are quieter and less grimy than chains" (though for some reason that doesn't stop me from questioning their superiority). But the makers of the Nuseti still believe that chains are the "sturdier, more efficient way to go." So then they go and make a chain-drive bicycle, but do everything they can to reduce that efficiency. First, they seal the chain inside the frame and have it in an oil bath (so if one ever does need to repair or replace the chain, it'll be a nice simple project). Then they run it through a bottom-bracket-mounted planetary gearbox. Oddly enough, the planetary gearbox inside the bottom bracket is another idea that goes back a century or so, and never really caught on -- mainly because they don't match the efficiency of the chain and derailleur systems that have become the de-facto standard for multi-speed bicycles. That's not to say that internal-geared systems (like hub gears) don't have their proponents even today, but even the best of them have comparatively reduced efficiency. The Nuseti is unlikely to see production, as their Kickstarter campaign failed to meet funding goals.

Then there is the SoftWheel Fluent suspension wheel. I've never been convinced that suspension for bicycles is all it's cracked up to be, and this doesn't change my mind. The Fluent suspension system is different from most in that it puts the shock absorption into the wheel itself instead of the frame. This takes the lightweight, simple, beautiful, and structurally marvelous bicycle wheel and makes it a heavy, complicated mess that might work OK when new, but is likely to develop all kinds of problems with extended use. Not only that, but it the wheels sell for about $2000 a pair!

The smart lock for smart bikes and smart phones. All to
make up for the fact that many people just aren't that smart

"Smart" bikes that integrate with smart phones are all the rage apparently -- and how better to lock up those bikes than with Skylock solar-powered bicycle lock? That's right, key-operated mechanical locks are now Retrogrouch technology. The Skylock works with the user's smartphone to unlock at the touch of an on-screen button on the phone, or even when the user gets within close proximity to the lock. And yes, it's battery powered, but don't worry about dead batteries leaving you stranded, because the solar panel on the lock will keep it charged up. The lock also detects crashes and theft attempts and sends a signal to the user's phone. Brilliant!

Combine unrecognized hand signals with feeble flashing
lights to confuse drivers more than they already are.
For those who fear that hand signals just aren't effective enough for alerting drivers to our intentions, the Zackees turn signal gloves will give drivers another feeble little flashing light to confuse them further. Even in the photo that supposedly shows how effective the turn signal gloves are, I have a hard time distinguishing between the turn signal and the other lights that are in the distance ahead of the rider. Not only that, but what hand signal is that rider using, with her right hand out and her elbow at 45 degrees? Also, if this rider is concerned about visibility, why is she wearing dark blue clothing while out riding at dusk? Sorry -- more gimmick than innovation.

Some "honorable mentions" for top innovations include the Maynooth Bike, which has a bizarre "linear drive" mechanism with pedals that move up and down the front forks, and the MC2, which is basically a mini penny farthing with internal hub gears and disc brakes.

The Maynooth has chopper-like forks with a bizarre "linear drive."
Push those pedals up and down the forks.

This is "what happens when people dare to try something different. . . and that sort of spirit is the reason why we're not still all riding penny farthings."  Er, um. . .

Well, there you have it. Some of the top innovations of 2014. Can't wait to see what 2015 has in store for us. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Will There Be Justice For Tom Palermo?

Stories like this really get me upset.

Baltimore area framebuilder Tom Palermo, aged 41, was struck and killed by a car Saturday while he was riding his bicycle. Tom was a husband and father of young children. I've seen some of Tom's beautiful bicycle framebuilding work, though I'd never met him personally -- but from everything I've heard from those who knew him, it sounds like he was a really great guy. Dale Brown, of the Classic Rendezvous group, called Tom "truly one of the nicest guys in cycling."

Tom with his daughter. (Photo from the Bikemore blog)
The driver of the vehicle that struck Tom, an Episcopalian Bishop named Heather Cook, initially fled the scene, leaving him to die in the street. After being pursued by other cyclists who were able to get at least a partial ID of the car and license plate, she did eventually return to the scene. The incident is still being investigated, and at this point it hasn't been revealed whether or not alcohol was involved, but some of the media reports indicate that Cook has a record of DUI in the past. The Baltimore Sun reported that "police would confer with prosecutors about whether charges would be filed."

Unfortunately, a terrible truth for all of us cyclists is that there is far too often an "accidents will happen" mindset in our justice system, so the drivers who maim and kill cyclists rarely see any kind of criminal charges, or those charges are so watered down as to be rendered meaningless. Police, prosecutors, and grand juries, being primarily motorists themselves, are much more likely to identify with the drivers in these incidents -- and thereby take the attitude that the cyclists took their lives into their own hands simply by riding in the streets.

And yet the driver left the scene.
Even such extenuating factors as distracted driving, excessive speed, driving under the influence, or even fleeing the scene of the crime (sorry, but once the driver flees, I refuse to call it an "accident") rarely seem to count against the drivers who kill cyclists. In this case, with the driver being a notable bishop (the No. 2 official in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland), it seems unlikely to me that serious charges would be raised against her, regardless of the other circumstances of the case that may come to light. Maybe I'll be proven wrong. Who knows?

There is currently an effort from friends, family, and other cyclists to encourage the prosecutors on the case to pursue homicide charges against Cook. You find some info about that on Facebook. There are some nice photos of Tom with his family on the site.

More info about the incident can be found HERE and HERE.

Tom Palermo got his start building bicycles with the Proteus Bike Shop in College Park, Maryland, which is where a number of other builders got started. Some of Tom's framebuilding work can be seen at his website. He was a talented guy. But the real tragedy of this story is that his young children have lost their father -- and nothing can change that.

Will there be justice for Tom?

Friday, December 26, 2014

Boxing Day Ride

While much of the country was out returning gifts and taking advantage of big sales on this day after Christmas (known as Boxing Day to those in the U.K., Australia, Canada, and a few other former British colonies) I was out for a good bike ride -- something that has become a bit of a tradition with me for the past 30 years or so. I don't get to do it every year, since it's a very weather-dependant tradition, but I manage it more often than one might expect considering that I live in Northeast Ohio. We frequently get a brief warming trend right around Christmas that lets me get out for a ride. Today the temperatures were in the upper 40s, and the sun was shining bright, making for a nearly ideal Boxing Day ride.

Fans of the blues-rock duo The Black Keys might recognize
this little gas station which served as the backdrop for some
of the band's album art photos.
Heading north from Akron, I rode down the roads that skirt alongside the banks of the Cuyahoga River and pass through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park -- which is kind of a NE Ohio bicycling Mecca. As nice as it was, I was surprised not to see many other cyclists on the road. There wasn't a lot of car traffic, either, which made the ride even better.

I took my Rivendell Long-Low for this ride since it seemed like the perfect riding partner for today. We had quite a bit of rain the last couple of days, so I figured a bike with fenders would be a good choice (I was right). I also didn't need to carry much with me, and the Riv is currently unencumbered with racks or bags apart from a little "banana bag" seat-pack. The bike has such a nice comfortable ride, and I'd describe the handling as light and sprightly. I have bikes that weigh a good bit less than the Rivendell, but on the road the bike feels lighter than it is.

The Black Keys made the little
garage something of an icon.
At my half-way point, I was in the town of Boston, in the heart of the CVNP. The town is one of the oldest in Summit County, but barely exists anymore as anything more than a rest stop for bicyclists and pedestrians on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath. I snapped a couple photos of my bike in front of an old gas station that hasn't operated for years, but is kept preserved as much for its picturesque qualities as anything else. Fun fact about the station is that the blues-rock duo The Black Keys used it as the backdrop for some album art photos some years back. The band used to call Akron their home until a few years ago when both members moved to be closer to the centers of the music industry.

This old gas station has been closed for quite a while. How long?
The price on the old pumps is listed in "cents per gallon"
and can't go above 99.9 cents. It's Pure Pep!
After that brief photo opportunity, I found my way to a rest area for the Towpath Trail. Again, I took another picture in front of an old general store that now serves as a visitor center. For the next two or three miles, I followed the Towpath to the little village of Peninsula. I was glad to have the fenders on my bike since parts of the path were a mucky, muddy mess after the recent rains. Once I got to Peninsula, I returned to the roads. Compared to Boston, Peninsula is practically a thriving metropolis, with not one but two open restaurants and a good bike shop.

As I exited the Towpath in Peninsula, I encountered another rider who had been on the path, covered in mud, and with that signature wet muddy stripe up his back. Once again, I was glad for fenders.

An old general store, now a visitor center for the Towpath.
Though I didn't ride particularly far -- only about 26 miles -- by the time I got home, the shadows were lengthening and the sun was starting to get low and in my eyes. The winter solstice was just this past Sunday, so obviously the days are still about as short as they get. Arriving home, a hot shower felt good.

The ride today reminded me a little of one of my first after-Christmas rides about 30 years ago. On that day, temperatures got up into the upper 50s (at least) despite the fact that we had gotten quite a bit of snow during the days before Christmas. It was such an anomaly to be dressed for spring-like weather when the ground all around was still covered in snow, and icicles hung from rooftops. On that ride, I'll never forget how I had found a package on the side of the road, neatly wrapped in foil and lovingly tied with a Christmassy ribbon and bow -- I could only assume it had been unceremoniously pitched out the window of a passing car the night before. I opened up the package and discovered that it was a fruit cake. Still makes me laugh. Christmas season rides have become a regular occurrence for me ever since, and I still keep my eyes peeled for discarded fruit cake.

So, why is it called Boxing Day? Traditionally in Britain, the day after Christmas was when people would give a gift or gratuity, often called a "Christmas Box" to various types of servants, such as postmen, errand boys, and people in certain other sorts of service trades. I suppose in today's society, it would be the traditional time to give a gift to your mail man. Here in the U.S. where the day after Christmas is another big shopping day, perhaps second only to "Black Friday," I imagine a lot of people assume that "Boxing Day" means boxing up the gifts we don't want and returning them to the mall to get something we really want.

I like my tradition better.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Holidays

What was the best Christmas present you ever received? Cast your memory back to all those Christmas trees, stretching back through your childhood, and think of the presents wrapped underneath. Which gifts were the most exciting? What stands out above the rest?

A Ghost of Christmas Past.
If you're anything like me, and even if you're not so much like me, chances are, one of the most memorable was a bicycle. In that classic Christmas film, A Christmas Story, little Ralphie wished desperately for a Red Rider BB Gun. But I think for a lot of kids, over a lot of generations, a new bike was the ultimate Christmas present. Shiny new paint. Gleaming chrome. Carefully wrapped, or maybe just decked with a few eye-catching ribbons and bows, the sight of a brand new bicycle beside the tree was guaranteed excitement. It was like a gift of freedom and mobility in a beautiful, two-wheeled package. What kid didn't put a bicycle on the top of their Christmas list at least once in their lifetime? For some Retrogrouch readers, I'll bet a brand new, gleaming bicycle would still be a wish-list topper, and the source of a lot of excitement if one actually showed up under the tree.

Even for people who haven't ridden a bike since getting their first driver's license (however many years or decades may have passed since then) I think it's pretty significant that even many of them once experienced that kind of joy and excitement for a new bike at Christmas. If only there were some way to remind them of that. It says a lot about the bicycle that it is held (or at least was) in such high regard by so many people that it was once the stuff of their dreams.

I wonder if kids today hold a bicycle to that same level of enthusiasm? Or do they now just wish for battery-powered, drivable little SUVs? New smart phones and video game systems? I wonder.

Whether you get a new bike for Christmas this year, or just wish for one while you lavish attention on the bike (or bikes) you have, I hope you have a Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Bike Safety 101: Bicycle Today, Automobile Tomorrow

I don't think any movie title could sum up American attitudes towards the role of bicycles better than Sid Davis's 1969 bike safety film, Bicycle Today, Automobile Tomorrow. Though not nearly as scolding in its tone as Davis's The Bicycle Clown of 1958, it still reflects plenty on the ultra-conformist mindset of its creator (who was probably far more comfortable with his world in 1958 than he was in 1969), while underscoring the idea that a bicycle is nothing more than a stepping stone to automobile ownership.

In the opening sequence of the film, we see a helicopter preparing for takeoff, while a motorcycle officer pulls up to the scene with a kid on a bicycle following close behind. The boy and the officer wave to the pilot and watch him lift off. The actual point of the scene isn't particularly clear (after all, the film's title is Bicycle Today, Automobile Tomorrow -- not Helicopter), until the mono-tonal narrator asks rhetorically, "What do the helicopter pilot, the motorcycle rider, and the bicycle rider have in common?" Though it sounds like the setup of a bad joke and we almost expect an equally bad punch line, the narrator quickly tells us, "The answer is quite simple. They have two main responsibilities. First, they must make sure their machines are in perfect mechanical condition at all times." Oddly enough, that was not the answer I was waiting for. Then again, the same could be said of almost anything involving equipment that can impact our health or safety. Try it. Automobile driver. Scuba diver. Sky diver. Power boater. Surgeon. Lathe operator. Miner. . .

Regardless of the opening message, the next scene of the film gives the most incomplete history of the bicycle ever set down in film, ultimately rendering it as even more irrelevant than the opening sequence:

"The bicycle is about 150 years old today. Its ancestor, the hobby horse, was propelled by kicking the ground with both feet." 
That's it. That's the end of the history lesson. First there was a thing called a hobby horse. Now you have a bike. That's all you need to know, because when you turn 16, you'll get your driver's license and never look back again.

The next sequence takes us back to that statement about making sure our equipment is in good mechanical condition. The film shows the boy going over his bike, making adjustments and performing basic maintenance. It's mostly pretty basic stuff. Make sure your saddle is adjusted correctly and tightened. Make sure handlebars are positioned well and tightened securely. Horn or bell should be audible from at least 100 feet. A headlight is needed for night-time riding, and should be visible from at least 500 feet in the dark. "Remember, a well-kept bicycle is a safe bicycle."

"One of the most important things to check is your brake, whether it is a hand-brake or a coaster brake. Always make sure it is properly adjusted." 
"Your chain is your power transmission. Keep it clean by washing it with kerosene. Oil the links frequently. And keep it at the right tension. Not too tight. Just enough to keep it from jumping off the sprockets. A slipping chain can easily cause injury to the rider."
"Be sure all the spokes of the wheel are tight. And replace broken ones at once. Missing or loose spokes can cause damage to the rim and be dangerous." There's no mention about keeping spoke tension even, so I'd expect lots of well-meaning kids to end up with out-of-true, out-of-round wheels after watching this film. 
Well, that pretty well covers the first thing the helicopter pilot, the motorcycle rider, and the bicycle rider have in common -- safety and maintenance. What's the second thing?

"The second thing common to the motorcycle rider and the bicycle rider is that they should know the rules and traffic laws that must be followed before riding on the streets." Notice that the helicopter from the opening scene was so irrelevant to the rest of the film that even the director already forgot about it. Of course, helicopters don't operate on the streets -- which is yet another reason why the first scene was irrelevant. I'm almost convinced that Davis just had some footage of a helicopter taking off and figured it would be a waste not to use it.

From here, we see the kid on the bike following the motorcycle officer all over town like some kind of hero-worshiper or puppy. First, to watch the police motorcycle brigades practice riding in formation. Once again, basically irrelevant -- but Davis never missed an opportunity to showcase the police looking their best.

Next comes a litany of safety advice for riding. When it comes to riding on the streets and sharing them with car traffic, I have some mixed feelings about the advice given in the film. Some of the advice reflects the time period when the film was made and therefore seems less-than-ideal today. Some of the advice would be unnecessarily tedious in practice -- and some would probably make a person more likely to get hurt or even killed.
Before going into a review of the basic hand-signals used in traffic (all done with the left hand -- car-style -- though that was common advice back then), a group of kids are shown "properly" riding to the far right side of the road, ducking all the way to the curb edge between parked cars then coming back out into the traffic lane to get around the cars. Bad idea. 
"If it is necessary to make a left turn at a busy intersection, get off your bike and wait for a green light. Look to the left, and to the right, and to the rear, before walking your bicycle across the street, and wait there to cross to the left side." OK advice for young kids, I suppose, but awfully tedious.
"If there are cars parked on the street on which you are riding, always watch for car doors being opened, or automobiles pulling out into traffic." Good advice, for sure -- but notice that there is no mention about riding a little further to the left, keeping out of the "door zone" altogether. Of course, the idea that bicycles should "take the lane" for their safety was still a few years off at this point. Bikes belong as far to the right as possible -- out of the way of the car drivers. 
"Cross street-car tracks with caution, and at an angle so as not to catch your wheels in the ruts." A good bit of advice, so no complaints from me here.
"This is where the police department keeps the bicycles that are lost. But there's an easy way for you to keep your bicycle from ending up here should it ever be lost or stolen.  You can license and register your bicycle, just like the licensing of an automobile."
"A license is cheap insurance, and helps the police to find and return lost or stolen bicycles." Yeah, sure -- just keep believing in that.
"When you leave your bicycle parked anywhere, be sure you have a lock on it." We then see probably the lightest duty chain and combination lock possible -- wrapped through the back wheel and rear triangle, but not actually locked to anything. Was it naivete, or just a happier, simpler time? 
And here we have it -- the money shot. If you ask me, the whole film builds up to this heavily symbolic moment as a bicycle is crushed under the wheels of a car. "Always park your bicycle in a safe place. Never leave it in a driveway, or you may not be able to enjoy your bicycle for long!" That's right. Driveways are only for cars -- and one can't expect drivers to actually look where they're going when backing up. 

In the end, as the motorcycle officer leads the kid to the end of their tour, Davis summarizes the points of his film, and it's here where his typical judgmental tone comes forward:
"The good bike rider is easy to recognize. He makes sure his bicycle is always in perfect mechanical condition. He learns how to ride and knows all the bicycle rules and traffic laws before riding on the streets. He rides on the right side of the street and doesn't speed, or stunt, or take foolish chances. He shows extra care in traffic, especially at busy intersections. He is considerate of pedestrians. And he always locks his bicycle. Keep in mind what you have learned here with the motorcycle officer about bicycles. Try to reflect credit on yourself, your parents, your school, and your community. Remember, the bicycle rider of today is the automobile driver of tomorrow."
That's right kids -- how you ride your bike is a reflection on your parents, school, and community. Hell, why stop there? Why not add God, Country, Democracy, and Capitalism while we're at it?

For a Sid Davis film, this one is not as dark, nor quite as overbearing as the films he is so well-known for. Nobody gets killed, maimed, or permanently disabled for being a "wise guy." But the message is pretty clear that riding a bike is really just a trial run at eventual automobile ownership, and the undercurrent of conformity is still there, especially in the film's closing words.

You can watch Bicycle Today, Automobile Tomorrow right here. Enjoy!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Solid Tires Try Again (and again)

In the late 1880s, shortly after the invention of the bicycle as we know it, with its chain drive and wheels of roughly equal size, John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tire -- which (Saint) Sheldon Brown once referred to as "probably the most revolutionary and important invention to come out of the bicycle industry." Ever since then, for the past 125 years or so, solid or airless tires for bicycles, motorcycles, cars, and more, have essentially been rendered obsolete. That doesn't stop people from trying to revive them every couple of decades, though.

Right now, we seem to be in another one of those periods where a flurry of startups and "innovators" are convinced they have finally found the ultimate improvement on the pneumatic tire -- and they'd like to convince us, too.

A couple of years ago, the well-known Hutchinson brand came out with its Serenity line of airless tires. These are actually a relatively normal tough-casing "urban" clincher tire with a closed-cell "foam" rubber insert that replaces the typical inner tube. The tire is claimed to offer a ride similar to that of a "normal" tire inflated to about 60psi (more or less, depending on which sources one believes). The company also claims a life expectancy of about 8000 miles, which makes me wonder what kind of tread compound and thickness they're using, but that's neither here nor there. I find it more notable that the tires are significantly heavier than comparable pneumatic versions, and while I haven't seen any specific test results on their rolling resistance, I've read several "first impressions" that speak of them as feeling more sluggish than "normal" tires. Jan Heine, when are you going to do a head-to-head comparison between these new solid tires and your old-fashioned, retro-grouchy pneumatic tires?

The Serenity tires spawned a Kickstarter campaign back in the spring, too, as the @cme Flat Free Wheels. The idea came about because the airless tires are so notoriously difficult to install, that @cme's founder, Steve Boehmke, decided to offer the tires pre-mounted to wheelsets that people could buy, ready-to-ride. I pointed out in an April Retrogrouch post that I thought it was a little disingenuous that the @cme Kickstarter promotion made it sound almost as though they had invented the airless tires, rather than just mounting them to pre-built wheels, which is something any decent bike shop should be able to do for a person.

The Tannus Tires come in "various funky colors."
Another, more recent entry to the solid tire fray comes from Tannus Tires of Korea. Rather than being a foam insert like the Hutchinson Serenity, the Tannus tires are fully molded polymer foam tires that the company claims will "compete with" regular pneumatic tires. Tannus also offers their airless tires in "various funky colors" (that's right off their website, They come in "soft" and "hard" formulations, to imitate pneumatic tire pressures of roughly 90 psi and 110 psi respectively. They have recently been introduced in the U.K., though I'm still waiting (nahhh, not really) to see if they're coming to the U.S.A. Tannus has big plans for them, hoping to eventually get their tires into the Tour de France. Yeah, that's likely to happen.

The obligatory "sharp objects" photo.
In order to keep the molded tires from rolling off the rim, the company has devised a mounting system that utilizes little plastic pins placed every couple of inches around the tire's "bead." Those pins snap into place under the hook edges of the clincher rim. Having exactly the right rim dimensions is important. Tannus has videos on their site showing how "easy" installation and removal are supposed to be. How easy? So easy that they have the following disclaimer: "It is not recommended for consumers to mount them by themselves. Please inquire your local retail store for installation."

Removal looks even easier. . .

Not exactly "normal" tire tools, are they?
Pry the tire back with the pliers, then dig around with the heavy-duty shop snippers to cut the pins.
Thankfully, one shouldn't need to do this on the road. Sheeesh.

There was another flurry of activity in airless tires back in the early 80s. I dug out the old magazine archives and found an article in the June 1983 Bicycling about a bunch of airless tires and tubes that were making the same kinds of claims being made today by these newer entries. The products tested included airless tubes with names like No-Mor Flats, and the Eliminator. No-Mor Flats was like an extra-thick-walled inner tube (not pressurized, however) with a hollow core. The Eliminator was a stiff, hollow core elastomer. Testers found them difficult to install, requiring extra levers and plenty of strength. No-Mor Flats was several times heavier than a normal tire, while the Eliminator was "only" a little more than double the weight. There were also airless tubes and tires from Zeus LCM that sounded pretty similar to the Hutchinson and Tannus tire systems of today, with their closed-cell polyurethane foam construction. Again, testers found them to be heavy and a pain to install.
One of the 80s versions of the airless tube, the Eliminator.

Worse than weight and installation difficulties, these airless tubes and tires had a much harsher ride, and considerably more rolling resistance than pneumatic tires. While I mentioned that I haven't seen any detailed comparisons with the latest market entries, the Bicycling tests in 1983 showed that the "best" of the airless systems at the time, the Zeus airless tire, only rolled about 60% as far as a comparable inflatable tire. The worst of the systems only rolled about 30% as far as the comparable pneumatic tire. Considering that the newer systems don't seem to be significantly different from the early 80s offerings, I have a hard time imagining that any of these new offerings today would be serious improvements.

Again, I turn to Sheldon Brown: "Airless tires have been obsolete for over a century, but crackpot 'inventors' keep trying to bring them back. They are heavy, slow, and give a harsh ride. They are also likely to cause wheel damage due to their poor cushioning ability. A pneumatic tire uses all of the air in the whole tube as a shock absorber, while foam-type 'airless' tires/tubes only use the air in the immediate area of impact. . . My advice is to avoid this long-obsolete system."  Brown wrote that at least fifteen years ago, but I am certain it is no less true today.

Although the makers of some of these new airless tires would like us to think they've created the breakthrough that will make traditional pneumatic tires obsolete, I doubt they will be any more successful than previous attempts. Don't expect to be getting rid of your tire pumps any time soon.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Data Overload: Recon Jet Heads-Up Display Goggles

Last week I looked at the COBI "connected" bike system, which is supposed to integrate your whole ride experience through your smart phone, making all your rides so much more rewarding and enjoyable. Of course, we all know how hard it is to enjoy a ride without obsessing over data, or being able to share it immediately on social media. But having to read all that data on the small screen of a smart phone (which I've always found impossible to see in bright daylight, anyhow) is so hopelessly retro, and not in the cool, ironic way. Fear not. Now you can go the full Geordi La Forge and get the Recon Jet heads-up display goggles:

The future is now.

Taking the concept of the Google glasses and applying it to cycling eyewear, the Recon Jet glasses connect wirelessly to all your bike's various sensors, and projects a display image in front of the rider's eyes with all the data anyone could ever desire (in other words, far more data than anyone really needs).
George Hincapie is plugging them. 
Recon Instruments touts the Jet glasses as "the world's most advanced wearable computer." The on-board computer boasts a dual core CPU as well as GPS with built-in gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, altimeter, and thermometer. The goggles also incorporate WiFi, Bluetooth, and Ant+ connectivity for smartphones, heart rate monitors, power meters, and all the other crap people feel compelled to strap onto their bodies and bikes. On top of it all, they of course have a built in HD camera with microphone so that people can capture every moment of their ride to be shared instantly on social media.

Don't let me forget the most important feature of all, which is the heads-up display, which projects a virtual image in front of the rider's eyes. Recon claims that the image appears virtually as a wide screen 30-in. HD display at 7 feet.

All that data just has to make you faster, doesn't it? I mean, if you're not tracking every watt of power, every minuscule change in heart rate and VO2, or everything else the sensors are supposed to measure for you, then you're not making the most of your ride -- and then what's the point? You're just riding your bike, and what good is that? Seriously, I think that's the message here. So naturally, the Recon Jet glasses are hyped as the "secret weapon" that will turn everyone into a winner.
Track more data -- and you're practically guaranteed to be a winner.
One thing I can't help but wonder is how many cyclists scrolling through all their sensor readouts and data -- whether it's displayed on a bar-mounted smartphone, or if it's projected in front of their eyes with these virtual reality goggles -- are increasing their likelihood of being creamed by an SUV (whose driver is probably also scanning a smartphone) because it's taking their attention away from their actual surroundings. I'm sure the makers of Recon Jet will say their heads-up display is safer because the image is projected out in front of the rider, keeping his/her eyes in front. But my well-educated hunch is that it isn't really a question of where the rider's eyes are pointed, but more a question of what his/her brain is focused on.

Studies on cell phone use while driving have shown that there is very little difference between using a handheld cell phone and a hands free version. The problem with distracted driving isn't the type of device a person is using, but rather it is an issue of the brain's ability to focus. A person talking on the phone, regardless of the type of device, suffers from something researchers have dubbed "inattention blindness." What it means is that a person focusing on a call can be looking right at something -- brake lights, pedestrians, or cyclists -- and not see them. I'm not aware of studies that specifically explore this question of heads-up displays, but it seems to me that the existing studies on cell phones and driving have a good deal of relevance to the matter. It doesn't seem like a stretch to assume that focusing the brain's attention on all that data, and reading any kind of digital display, affects a person's reactions to the rapidly developing dangers that crop up while we're on the roads -- whether commuting, training, or just out for an enjoyable ride.

Once again, it's another example of information overload. Do we really need all that data to ride a bike? Does it really make a ride more enjoyable? More rewarding?

In my work as a teacher, the biggest change I've seen in the past 20+ years has nothing to do with the subject matter, or teaching techniques and strategies, or even in the laws that govern education -- but rather in the push for more data. We are now asked relentlessly, "Where's your data?" "How are you measuring student growth?" Keep in mind that we're being asked to measure things that aren't easily defined, much less measured. Ultimately the "best" teachers today are not necessarily the best at imparting knowledge, or reaching students, or inspiring them, but rather, by who is best at producing data. Seriously, I get enough of it at work -- the last thing I want to do is plug in and ruin my bike rides. I haven't even used the most basic bike computer, like one that simply measures speed and distance, in about 10 years. Yeah, sometimes, after exploring a new route, I'll find myself wondering how far I've gone -- though not enough to bother hooking up another computer.

I know I'm repeating myself here, but I'll say it again. Unplug once in a while. Just ride the damn bike.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Walmart Fat Bikes - And the Perils of Being a Part-Time Blogger

So I was in the process of putting together a Retro-grouchy article on Walmart Fat Bikes when, taking a break to see what else is going on in the cycling blogosphere, I checked out today's BikeSnobNYC. Of course, BikeSnob is ripping Walmart Fat Bikes, and probably better than I would. Being routinely "scooped" by Froot-Loops-eating full-time bloggers with helper-monkeys and interns is one of the hazards of being only a part-time blogger who spends the rest of his time teaching high school English students to hate Beowulf and Macbeth a little less, while competing with their cell phones for their limited attention.

Since most Retrogrouch readers probably stop off at BSNYC before coming here, you've probably already seen it. If not, it's HERE.

and the fat bike in question:

Kinda takes away what little thunder my words were likely to have, but I had already begun, so with a half-hearted sigh, allow me to continue.

In one of my communications classes recently, I was talking about slang expressions, catch phrases, etc., and how these things, like any fashion or trend, have a finite life cycle. As popular as any catch phrase might be, I told them, at some point that phrase will fade away, never to be heard again except possibly in some ironic context, or perhaps a parody. Remember these? "Don't have a cow, man!" "Where's the beef?" or "Whazzzuuup?" One thing I mentioned as a pretty good gauge of an expression's life span is to note when it finds its way onto a T-shirt at Walmart or any other cheap department store. Once you start seeing the trendy catchphrase on T-shirts, that's a pretty good sign that the thing has peaked and is on its way down (this coming from a guy who once owned a "Frankie Say RELAX" T-shirt). In no time at all, the T-shirts will be in the bargain bin at Goodwill, and using the expression will mark someone as hopelessly out of touch.

I think a similar measuring stick can be used with the fat bike trend. It seems like every brand out there now offers a fat bike. And the marketing cry of "You Need a Fat Bike!" is practically unavoidable now -- just like we need a gravel bike, and a cyclocross bike, and an urban fixie, a 29er, and a 27.5. Unfortunately, I don't really think I need a fat bike. People tell me "But you can ride on the beach! And over the snow!" Yeah. But I've never looked at a beach and thought to myself, "all I need now is a bike that I can ride over all this sand." And snow? Meh. I'm not saying it wouldn't be fun once in a long while -- but I've managed pretty well so far without one. Even here in Northeast Ohio, I think the real usefulness of the thing is pretty limited.
Spotted at Eurobike '14

Nevertheless, the trend -- the fad -- continues. But now that they're available at Walmart, with a 7-speed model for about $230, I think it's a pretty good sign that the fad has peaked. It's all downhill from here.

As another sign that some people out there have entirely too much money to spend is the fact that they now have fat bikes for kids. A 20" version is available from Walmart for $190. Specialized sells another version for about $1000. Give a Walmart fat bike to a kid and turn him (or her) off of cycling for good. That's just what a little beginner needs is a heavy, slow, slug of a bike to sap all the fun out of a ride. And $1000 for a kid's bike? Is Specialized (or their buyers) aware that most kids outgrow bikes before they even wear the little molding nubs off the tires? Seriously. Finding virtually unridden kids bikes on the used market is a breeze because kids outgrow their bikes so quickly. So a $1000 fat bike for a kid is sure to be money well spent.

Anyhow (despite the fact that my heart's not really in this post anymore), the way I see it, it's just another must-have trend designed to get existing bike owners to buy another bike, but now that the things are at Walmart, it might be a sign that fat bikes have "jumped the shark." Before long, riding one might be the bicycle equivalent of wearing that "Frankie Say RELAX" T-shirt.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Michele Ferrari: No Credibility

Why are we still hearing and reading the name of Dr. Michele Ferrari? And how on Earth does this guy still get to call himself "Doctor"?

"I feel obliged to once again deny the latest MEDIA
BULL$#!T with regards to my presence at the Astana team
training camp in Montecatini."
 Yeah - Whatever.
Ferrari's name is once again coming up in the latest news from bicycle racing, this time in association with a new Italian doping investigation that involves several European racers and teams -- including the Astana team (big surprise) which unfortunately is the team of the 2014 Tour de France Champion Vincenzo Nibali. Thankfully, Nibali is not among those individuals being investigated, but so far he's downplaying the reports of his team's association with Ferrari, and his statements to the press so far are that he's sticking with the team. To be honest, I don't know how much freedom a rider has to search elsewhere when he's under contract with another team -- but if he's smart, he'll put as much distance as possible between himself and anyone who's ever done so much as greet Ferrari with a casual "hello."

That teams and individuals are still meeting with Ferrari as recently as this past year (despite his worldwide lifetime ban from sports) really shouldn't come as a surprise  -- even though the UCI would like us to believe that doping somehow began and ended with Lance Armstrong. There must still be plenty out there who believe the rewards are worth the risks. But associating with Ferrari? The guy has no business dealing with athletes, and should be treated as nothing less than toxic and deadly. He's Ebola.

(and don't misunderstand me -- I do not mean he's like a patient with Ebola. Those poor souls deserve all the care and compassion possible. NO. I mean, he's the actual disease. He's the VIRUS, and should be treated as such).

For his part, Ferrari denies the claims, referring to them as "media bull$#!t" but the fact is that this guy has absolutely no credibility. Widely known for his work with Lance Armstrong, Ferrari continued to deny (actually, he still denies) that he did anything to help Armstrong dope. Even after Armstrong finally admitted doping, he continued to suggest that Armstrong's racing results came from good ol' fashioned training and hard work.

More credibility issues.
As for the Astana team, their history is checkered going all the way back to the team's origins. The team was founded by some Kazakhstan businessmen to be the vehicle for noted Kazakh racer Alexandre Vinokourov. They took over the sponsorship of what had previously been the Liberty Seguros team from Spain, which was implicated in the Operation Puerto doping investigation in 2006. In the 2007 Tour de France, Vinokourov won a couple of stages, but then it was shown that he'd been transfusing someone else's blood. The result was that he and the entire team were ejected from the race. In 2008, team management was taken over by Johan Bruyneel, who has credibility issues himself, considering his associations with Ferrari and Armstrong. Bruyneel claimed to have cleaned things up at Astana, but the team was banned from the '08 Tour de France nevertheless. In 2010, Alberto Contador, riding with Astana, won the TdF, but was later stripped of his title when it was revealed that he'd tested positive for Clenbuterol.

Just after the conclusion of the 2014 TdF, in which Vincenzo Nibali seemed to dominate the competition, I wrote: "It's a shame that, in the 'Post Armstrong' era, people will question (are questioning) if Nibali raced clean. . . We've all seen the fairy tales, and we've seen how too many of them turned out. I want to believe it was a clean victory, but part of me waits for the other shoe to drop." Is the Padua investigation, in which it is alleged that Ferrari was working with as many as 17 members of the Astana team, the other shoe dropping?

In the latest developments, the UCI has decided to grant the Astana team its WorldTour license for 2015, though UCI President Brian Cookson said that pending the results of the Padua investigation, "they are very much under probation and scrutiny, and they won't be given another chance." How many chances have there been already? Way to get tough.

Until men like Michele Ferrari and the people who associate with him are truly treated like the viruses they are, professional bicycle racing is always going to have serious credibility problems.

Sorry to end the week on a bitter note.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Classic Toys: Die-Cast Cycling Figures

As I was searching around for interesting, or unusual gift ideas for bicyclists, I happened upon something that I had assumed had disappeared a long time ago: die-cast miniature cyclists. Kids in an earlier era would collect the figures, stage miniature races, or even use them in bicycle-themed board games. Surprisingly, the little cast zinc figurines are still available, and still made by the same foundry in France where they have been made since the 1950s. It doesn't look like they've changed any since then either -- as the little riders all wear caps and no helmets.

Set up a miniature peloton.
The company that makes the little figures, Fonderie Roger, has been making die-cast lead, and later zinc (which the company calls "zamak") soldiers since the 1930s, later making little cowboys and Indians, and then in the 1950s, the bicycling figures. There used to be several foundries that made such toys around Europe, but Fonderie Roger is one of the last still making them.

Several poses are available.
Some are cast all in metal, while other versions have metal bicycles with plastic riders. The models are then hand painted -- and they look it. With little imperfections and little variations, each one looks slightly different from every other. And they are tiny -- each model measures typically no more than 5 cm. They come painted with Tour de France colors, like the mountain climber's polka-dot jersey, the sprinter's green jersey, and a yellow jersey. Also, there are national colors and world champion stripes.

The cycling figures are not cheap. Prices that I can find are typically listed in pounds or euros, but it seems to me that building a little mini-peloton would easily set a person back somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred and fifty dollars or more!

The versions from Miniature Cyclists in Belgium appear to
be painted with a little more care and detail. They're a bit
pricier, too.
Cycling Souvenirs, which appears to be U.K.-based, sells the little figures for about £12 each. I've read that the figures come packed in a box marked "Little Cyclist. Handmade in France." Cycling Souvenirs sells lots of other cycling-themed gifts as well, including mini Tour de France road markers, team logo coffee cups, and more.

Another company, Miniature Cyclists in Belgium, sells the same Fonderie Roger figures, but they apparently purchase them unpainted from the foundry, then hand paint them in-house, with a bit more care and detail. Prices range from about €12 to €45 ($15 - $56!).

For more info about Fonderie Roger, check out their website which has a complete history of the family-owned company.