Friday, January 29, 2016

Good Reads: The Horton Collection's Shoulder To Shoulder

I just got the chance to read the latest book from the Horton Collection, Shoulder to Shoulder: Bicycle Racing in the Age of Anquetil (VeloPress, 2015). The book is a fantastic collection of photos from the hip and swinging decade of the '60s, when the changes that were sweeping almost every other aspect of culture--from music, art, fashion, politics, and even social norms--also altered the world of bicycle racing. And, as the title suggests, nobody seemed to epitomize the decade more than Jacques Anquetil. In many ways, Anquetil's style and panache were the perfect transition from an older "golden" age, to a modern era dominated by television and full-color magazines that made sports athletes into larger-than-life heroes.

"With a comb in his pocket, his glamorous blonde wife by his side, and an unyielding will backed by blazing speed, Jacques Anquetil became cycling's leading ambassador as the sport left behind the post-war era of Fausto Coppi to embrace the promise of the freewheeling sixties," says VeloPress in their notes on the book.

Shoulder to Shoulder shares a similar look and format with the previous Horton Collection volume I reviewed, Goggles and Dust, which was a wonderful collection of racing photos from the '20s and '30s. However, where Goggles and Dust was overwhelmingly a photo album with very little in the way of captions or commentary, Shoulder to Shoulder includes a bit more text to accompany its fabulous photos, including a full index of notes at the back of the book.

Lest anyone think the book is solely about Anquetil, let me make clear right away that the book also includes many photos of other great riders from the era - including Rik van Looy, Raymond Poulidor, Tom Simpson, and many others. And like Goggles and Dust, they are beautifully restored photos, and many of them very rare.

Rudi Altig and Jo de Roo raiding a fruit market during
the '64 Tour de France.
The wonderful black and white images capture many action-packed race scenes, scenes of suffering, and scenes of celebration. There are lots of bloodied faces and riders slogging over mountain passes completely awash in mud and slush. There are also many candid moments, some of which are downright whimsical--Tom Simpson playing the bagpipes, for example, or Anquetil autographing a female fan's leg. Shots of cyclists raiding local fruit markets and cafes to grab a bite to eat during a race stage are a fun reminder that professional bike racing wasn't quite yet the polished, organized affair it would later become.

Probably the most iconic image in the collection.
Anquetil watches the clock during a time trial
stage in the '62 Tour de France.
As if to underscore that eras in bicycle racing are typically defined by a single notable, dominant racer, the book begins and ends with photos that can be seen almost as "passing the torch" from one era to the next. One of the first photos in the book depicts a handshake between Fausto Coppi and a still-teenaged Anquetil in 1953. At the end of the book, a similar photo depicts Anquetil with Eddy Merckx in 1969 -- Anquetil's last year as a professional racer, and the year that Merckx effectively stamped his name on the sport's next era. It's worth noting that all three men held the Hour Record in their own careers, with Anquetil beating Coppi's 1942 record in 1956. And of course Merckx took the title in 1972, as well as being the first racer to match Anquetil's record of five Tour de France wins.

Shoulder to Shoulder is a beautiful collection that any serious cycling fan should check out. Brett and Shelly Horton should really be thanked for preserving so many rare and iconic images and artifacts from cycling's past, and putting them so lovingly into the hands of bicycle racing fans across multiple generations.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What's In The Bag?

I was reading a memoir post on the blog Mid-Life Cycling about a beloved old messenger bag. The blogger, Justine, wrote about her days as a bike messenger in New York, and her "Original Globe Canvas" messenger bag, purchased from the maker in Chinatown where all knowledgeable messengers bought their bags.

Reading that brought back some memories for me about my own messenger bag, which in all likelihood was very similar - and except for the color, maybe even the same.

No, I never worked as a bike messenger.

Growing up in Northeast Ohio, that wasn't a job that many of us even knew existed. But I quickly learned to appreciate the classic messenger bag as a wonderful and versatile item, especially in the days before I learned to appreciate large saddlebags and panniers that were to be carried directly on the bike. Hey - in those days, it was all about racing bikes with me, and the lighter the better. Bikes with racks, fenders, and all that baggage were strictly for old guys. Now I'm one of those old guys.

When I was a college student at Kent State, I had a friend who was from Brooklyn who had spent some time as a bike messenger in NYC (Did any kid with a bike in New York NOT spend some time as a bike messenger?). Leo was a real character, and he rode all over Kent on his track bike - a Japanese Lotus brand machine with a pink pearl paint job - and his well-used taxi-yellow messenger bag. Oh, and I shouldn't leave out the omnipresent grimy cycling cap. He quickly became something like a legend around Kent, especially with our group of bike nuts.

Being that there probably hadn't been a velodrome anywhere near Cleveland, Akron, or Kent since well before WWII, track bikes like Leo's were a rare sight in our area. It didn't take long before a bunch of guys in our group caught the bug and started searching high and low to find some classic track iron - or failing that, converting an old bike-boom 10 speed to a fixie. Remember that this was probably 1985, so it wasn't yet exactly "the-thing-to-do" that it would later become.

At that time, as much as I'd wanted one, a track bike or fixie wasn't something I could afford. But there was one other thing of Leo's that I knew I'd have to find: The messenger bag. Thick, heavy canvas, fully lined inside with vinyl - it could hold so much, and keep it dry even in a downpour. Nowadays, messenger bags like that are practically a fashion accessory, and the internet has made them incredibly easy to come by. But back then, such bags were as rare in our area as fixed-gear track bikes were. I remember that year when the fall semester was wrapping up, and everyone was getting ready to head home for the winter break, I gave Leo some money and asked if he could find me a bag like his while he was back home. Any color as long as it wasn't yellow (I didn't want people to think we were trying to be twins or something).

When we got back to school in January, Leo brought me my bag. Purple canvas, with yellow vinyl inside. The label read "Globe Canvas Products - New York." Leo told me it came from a cramped little shop in Chinatown, and the place where most messengers got their bags. The bags came in different sizes, I was told, and mine was the biggest they had. It was perfect.

I didn't have a car back then, so I rode my bike for most of my basic transportation in and around the college. I used that bag a lot. Of course I used it to carry books and such for my classes - but it proved far more useful than that. For one thing, it was huge. Big enough to carry 2 medium-sized bags of groceries, so I used it for my runs to the grocery store. It could hold a good-sized load of laundry, too, so I'd fill it up and ride to the laundromat. Any time I'd go somewhere for an overnight stay, or even visiting home on a weekend, my purple messenger bag also became my main piece of soft-sided luggage.

Actually, as a piece of luggage, I still use it today. Any time we fly somewhere, the purple messenger bag ends up being my carry-on bag. I can throw it over my shoulder, keeping one or both hands free to carry other things, and making it easy to get through the airport. It's plenty big enough to carry my laptop, some books or magazines, snacks, other essentials for traveling. Plus, I can access the contents easily without removing the bag from my shoulder, and the big pocket inside is a great place to keep passports and boarding passes. Lastly, no matter how much I might stuff into it, the bag can still be stowed under the seat on any airline.

When I ride to work, I usually use my bike with racks and panniers (and fenders, and lights, etc. . . ) but now and then, when the weather is warm and dry, and the mornings are lighter, and I don't have to carry as much with me, I will choose to ride one of my un-laden, racier bikes for a fun change of pace. When I do that, I use my messenger bag to carry what few essentials I need for the day. And when my daughters and I make our weekly trip to the library, we load all our books into the bag, sling it over my shoulder, and off we ride together.

I've had this bag for about 30 years now, and apart from a few stains here and there, it's held up remarkably well. The purple messenger bag has always carried a lot of stuff, and after 30 years, it also carries a lot of memories.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Sweet Old Pedals From Specialized

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the really nice old Specialized "flag icon" triple cranks that were available in the 1980s. I've heard from a lot of people who liked those as much as I did. In that article I also mentioned some of the other components that Specialized offered in that decade -- many of which were equally nice designs, and made to some fantastic quality standards.

One of the components that they had back then -- and it's a shame nobody makes anything like them today -- was the pedals. Specialized had touring and racing versions, but I'm focusing mainly on the touring pedals today. I figure I'm pretty lucky in that I have two sets of these which I picked up pretty cheap in good used condition. One set is a little "cosmetically challenged," with scuffed up and faded cages, but functionally they are as good as any. The other pair, shown here, looks and functions awfully nice for their age.

These special touring pedals were manufactured for Specialized by MKS in Japan. With their extra-wide platform base, they were compatible with all manner of flat-soled touring shoes, or with slotted-cleats. 
Like the cranks, the pedals were also designed by Portland, Oregon framebuilder Jim Merz. Jim was an avid touring rider back in the days when touring bikes had to be assembled piecemeal with whatever parts one could find that were up to the task, which meant sourcing components from a wide variety of manufacturers and even countries. Putting together a good touring bike in those days was something that took a lot more knowledge and insight than putting together a racing bike. Building a top-level racing bike back then usually meant knowing only a couple of names: Campagnolo and Cinelli. Touring bikes were a different story.

As just a brief side note, Jim rode from Portland to Panama in 1972. His bike on that journey was a Raleigh Professional, which was not really intended as a touring bike, though he fitted it with racks, fenders, and other touring equipment. I saw an interview once where he said that he took a lot of what he learned from that experience and put it into his touring bike designs. Jim's touring bikes were notable for having quicker handling than most at that time, and equipped with his own custom-made integrated racks. Although he built some excellent road and track racing bikes, including a bike for George Mount, (1976 Olympian, and one of the first Americans to ride as a professional in Europe) Jim's touring bikes were what really stood out.

I assume that Jim also applied his touring bike experience - both riding and building - in the design of components like these pedals. They have a nice wide platform to suit a lot of footwear choices. They are made with forged bodies and replaceable aluminum cages, and fully serviceable bearings.

This scan from the '84 Specialized catalog shoes the racing and touring pedals. The racing pedals came in steel and titanium-axled versions and have a short cage, making them good for track racing as well as road. The closest thing one could probably find to those today would be the MKS Custom Nuevo or RX-1 models, which feature the company's best bearings and materials. Remember that MKS made the Specialized pedals, so they're probably pretty similar - though not exactly the same. On the other hand, NOBODY seems to make anything like these touring pedals anymore.
According to Jim, Specialized owned the tooling on their components, so even though their components were manufactured by various specialists like MKS, Sugino, Tange-Sekei, and others - the parts were unique, and nobody else was able to offer them.

The pedals feature normal ball and cone bearing assemblies that can be easily serviced or rebuilt. Although the bearings felt very smooth on this pair when I got them, I assumed (correctly, I believe) that they hadn't been opened since 1984 and could probably use some fresh grease. I disassembled this pair and took care of that. It was a quick, easy project on a too-cold-to-ride winter day.
As mentioned, the cages are also replaceable. Would you think a person could still find replacement cages for 30-year-old pedals that were only sold for a couple of years? Believe it or not, I spotted a full set of NOS cages for about $20 so I snapped them up. Between having two complete pairs of pedals and a full set of replacement cages, I should be able to keep these going and looking good for a long time.
The Specialized touring pedals were only available for a short time before disappearing. I couldn't say why exactly, other than the fact that in the mid-'80s mountain bikes were supplanting touring bikes in the marketplace, and their deeply grooved or jagged "bear-trap" cages became more popular. At the same time, clipless pedals were also sweeping the market for those who continued to ride on the road. Clean used versions of these sometimes pop up on places like eBay for not too much money. As I'm writing this, there's a brand new pair listed for $149, still in the box. Very tempting, but I'll pass, though they really are a pretty terrific blast from the past.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Non-Politics of Riding a Bike

On Monday I posted a photo of MLK Jr. on a bicycle. Wednesday I had some photos of presidents and world leaders on bicycles - along with some commentary on how partisan political pundits try to bring the bicycle, or the act of riding one, into their political attacks. Today, I thought it might be nice to just share some pictures of other famous people enjoying their bicycles.

Pop almost any name into the Google search box and add something like "on a bicycle" and see what comes up.

I'm sure everyone has seen this very famous photo of Albert Einstein taking a spin. It's often accompanied by the quote "Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving."
Ernest Hemingway in WWI (notice the rifle hanging from the top tube). He famously wrote, "It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle." Nevertheless, it's hard to find many photos of Hemingway with a bike.
Reader "Unclemiltie" reminded me that America's first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller, loved to ride his bike, and was still riding in his 80s. It's a little bit ironic that he made his fortune at the helm of what was then the world's biggest oil company, which greatly enabled America's love affair with the automobile. This Library of Congress photo shows him posing with his shaft-drive Columbia bicycle.
I managed to find a bunch of photos from the world of pop and rock music.

The Beatles in the Bahamas from the filming of their movie Help
"As a kid I had a dream. I wanted to own my own bicycle. When I got the bike, I must have been the happiest boy in Liverpool -- maybe the world. I lived for that bike. Most kids left their bike in the backyard at night. Not me. I insisted on taking mine indoors, and the first night I even kept it in my bed." -- John Lennon
Some kids never grow up. Lennon and Yoko Ono in Amsterdam, just tryin' to get some peace.
Mick Jagger on what looks to be a pretty nice Condor.
As long as we're on a roll with British rockers, here's one of Eric Clapton with one of his many Cinellis. I had a whole article about Clapton and bandmate Ginger Baker almost a year ago.
Can't leave out the King. Paramount studios gave Elvis this personalized Schwinn Racer, "Hound Dog," when he was filming one of his movies, Loving You
Many movie stars used bikes as an easy way to get around the expansive studio lots, so it isn't hard to find publicity shots of them on their bicycles.
Humphrey Bogart, making it look good.
Glen Ford and Rita Hayworth on a tandem - probably about the time they were filming the classic movie Gilda. Ever seen it? If you've seen the film Shawshank Redemption, there's a scene where the inmates are all watching a movie, and up on the screen we see Rita Hayworth do this amazing flip with her hair and the whole crowd explodes into whistles and catcalls. Morgan Freeman's character, Red, says "This is what I really like - when she does that shit with her hair." That's Gilda.
There's another one of Rita.
Marilyn Monroe, out for what looks like a pleasant ride with playwright and then-husband Arthur Miller.
Audrey Hepburn was well-acquainted with bicycles. Born in Belgium, she also spent much of her youth in the Netherlands. Many claim she spent the German occupation as a courier for the Dutch resistance, though that could be disputed -- after all, she was only 11 when the occupation began. True or not, she was a natural on a bike.
Great shot from a great movie. Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy. "Rain drops keep fallin' on my head. . ."
And there's the Sundance Kid himself, Robert Redford, out-of-the-saddle on a Schwinn (can't tell for sure, but it looks to be a Paramount).
Sidney Poitier, and director Sydney Pollack. Poitier is the definition of smooth.
Speaking of smooth: Sean Connery, probably on the set of one of the Bond films.
. . . Still looking good decades later.
Ewan McGregor at speed on a fixed-gear. McGregor has a number of bikes, including some pretty sweet custom rides from British builders Mercian and Bob Jackson. That fixed-gear machine in the photo is from the company GOrilla.
If I'm including "Obi Wan Kenobi" Ewan McGregor, I should maybe end with "Queen Amidala" Natalie Portman. Somewhere else on the net I spotted this photo misidentified as Audrey Hepburn. I suppose there is a certain resemblance. A younger generation may well remember her the way previous generations remember Hepburn.
Yes, the pictures could go on and on, but that's all for now. Hope you enjoyed it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Politics of Riding a Bike

On Monday, I had featured a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. on a bicycle. Until I got it in my head to search for a photo of MLK on a bike (basic Google image search, by the way), I had no idea such a photo even existed. I'd never seen one before, but it turned out to be a good hunch -- there were multiple copies/examples to be had.

Since then, I got to thinking about other important people, world leaders, etc., and bicycling. And in searching for pictures, I was surprised - yet not so surprised - at the interjection of politics into the discussions that accompanied them.

Take this photo of President Obama on his bike:

I saw this picture, along with several others like it, showing Obama out for a ride with his wife and kids. I was immediately struck with thoughts of how much I love my rides with my own daughters. What could possibly be a better depiction of the notion of "family values" than a family riding together?

So how did the President's vocal opponents portray the images?

"Many Americans, including myself, are humiliated today," said T.V. and talk radio host Sean Hannity back in 2014. "Take a look at the photo comparison of our commander-in-chief. There he is juxtaposed with Vladimir Putin [describes a photo of Putin swimming in frigid waters] . . . so you got a picture of that juxtaposed next to Obama on a bicycle in Martha's Vineyard with a goofy helmet riding his bike."

Hannity added, "For the first time in my adult life, I am humiliated for my country."

I guess Hannity never saw this photo, or the dozens more just like it:

G.W. Bush loved to ride his mountain bike, and almost always wore a helmet. And can you imagine the outcry from the all the pro-helmet evangelists (especially those who don't even ride bikes!) if a sitting American president were shown riding a bike without one? Actually, I have a hunch that if Obama were shown riding without a helmet, Hannity and his ilk would have pounced on that very issue. "What kind of example is he setting for American kids?" they'd cry.
Then again, Hannity may have unwittingly given us all an air-tight excuse for his asinine criticism as he continued in his rant.

"Look, I'm going to be honest. As a parent, did I make my kids wear that goofy helmet while they were learning to ride a bike and wear that goofy helmet? Yeah. But when I grew up all I did was ride my bike. I never wore a helmet. Not once, not one time. And guess what? I had newspapers and guess what? I went over the handlebars, and my friends pushed me into cars. We pushed each other into cars. We survived. I mean, it's embarrassing."

So if I interpret that correctly, Hannity is admitting to brain damage from crashing a lot without a helmet. It explains a lot.

Speaking of Putin, the Russian president doesn't just swim in frigid waters and pose for staged shirtless horseback rides (or photo-ops, if you prefer):

According to Sean Hannity (who I swear has a serious man-crush on Putin) real men don't wear helmets. They also ride with their saddles too low, apparently.

I wonder what Hannity thought about former French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- who also rides without a helmet, but then again, few Europeans wear helmets unless it's required of them.

Then there's this guy, Secretary of State John Kerry:

Kerry is a long-time cyclist who, from all reports, can really hammer on a bike, despite his septuagenarian status. In a Wall Street Journal article last May, Jonathan Vaughters said of the Secretary of State, "Kerry is the real deal--fit, fast, confident. If he raced in his age category, he'd be one of the top riders in the U.S."

Anyhow, after crashing on his bike and breaking his leg last year, there was this response from presidential candidate Donald Trump:

"I will stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. And we won't be using a man like Secretary Kerry that has absolutely no concept of negotiation, who's making a horrible and laughable deal, who's just being tapped along as they make weapons right now, and then goes into a bicycle race at 72 years old, and falls and breaks his leg. I won't be doing that. And I promise I will never be in a bicycle race. That I can tell you."

OK - never mind that (not surprisingly) Trump was playing a bit loose with the facts. Kerry was just out for a ride, not racing. And President Bush notably suffered a couple of crashes while out on his bike rides (2004, crashed while riding around his ranch, and 2005, crashed into a British police officer during the G8 summit) but I don't recall anybody suggesting that his bike riding (and crashing) somehow made him unfit for international negotiations.

I'm really trying not to let a political bias dominate this piece. Yes, I'm definitely biased - but the only bias I want to show here is a Pro-Bike bias, not a political one. Obviously, people of any political stripe can enjoy a bike ride. It's true that as a Democrat, I was never a fan of President Bush, but I absolutely love the fact that he could often be seen enjoying a bike ride. But for some reason, when politics enters into a discussion on bikes and bicycling, it seems that the anti-bike bashing overwhelmingly gets directed from the right to the left.

One can find lots of pictures of Reagan on a bike.
Most of them were probably taken back when
he was still a Democrat, though.
I mentioned in a post a couple years ago (Bicycles: Public Enemy?) that we have somehow become a target in a Red-State/Blue-State culture war. Bicyclists get portrayed by some (very vocal) opponents as "elitist." People who advocate for bicycle infrastructure get dismissed as starry-eyed, immature hippies. Arguing for more bicycle commuting accommodations will quickly get a person labeled as some kind of Socialist. Meanwhile, flag-waving American "patriots" can profess their love for a scary totalitarian Russian president who poses shirtless on horseback, while they ridicule a bicycle-riding (and helmet-wearing) moderate Democrat president and his secretary of state. And when you can demonstrate that a conservative president also enjoyed his bike and always wore a helmet, the point would almost certainly be met with dumbfounded silence. "What's your point," would likely be the response.

Then there are those who almost seem to transcend the political quagmire. Consider somebody like Jimmy Carter, who as president was ridiculed by conservatives for actually suggesting that Americans practice conservation. But in the years since leaving the White House, the man has taken on a much greater status in people's eyes regardless of political affiliations. Building houses for the poor. Negotiating peace between historic enemies. Working hard to eradicate diseases in Africa. Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, and when he's gone, his legacy will almost ignore the fact that he was once an American President, focusing mainly on everything he did afterwards. Seriously -- I can imagine eulogies for Carter someday that leave people with the impression that he went directly from farming peanuts in Georgia to eradicating guinea worm in Africa, without mentioning the White House once.

And how cool is it that he rides a Rivendell? Fantastic!

By the way -- Carter, Obama, and Martin Luther King have something else in common, besides appearing in this blog on bicycles. All three have Nobel Peace Prizes. How many of the critics can make that claim?

Monday, January 18, 2016

MLK: Need I Say More?

Sometimes a picture just says it all:

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Here We Go Again: Freewheeling Cranks

Does anybody out there remember freewheeling cranks? Shimano introduced such a system in the late 1970s that they called Shimano FFS - for "Front Freewheel System." It had a freewheeling device built into the crank-bottom bracket interface. Combined with an extra stiff rear freewheel (Shimano called it a "friction freewheel") the system was designed so that the chainrings and chain would continue to move when coasting, thereby allowing the user to shift gears while coasting. The late great Sheldon Brown referred to it as "a solution in search of a problem."

Show of hands. Who's too dense to figure out shifting? WE ARE!

Apparently some beginning cyclists couldn't get the concept of shifting their new 10-speed derailleur bikes only while pedaling.

I can just picture them bringing their "defective" bikes back to the shop.

Customer: "There's something wrong with my new bike."
Bike Shop Manager: "Tell me about the problem."
Customer: "This thing won't shift when I'm coasting."
BSM: "That's not how it's supposed to work. You have to be pedaling when shifting."
Customer: "But why doesn't it work when I'm coasting?"
BSM: "That's not how it's designed. The chain has to be moving to get from one cog to the other. The chain doesn't move when you're coasting"
Customer: "So what are you saying? You can't fix it? I want a refund!"
BSM: . . . . (grrrrrrrrrr) . . .

Marketed along with Positron, Shimano's early attempt at indexed shifting, it seemed that the company was convinced that beginning cyclists were incapable of learning new skills - and the thing that kept so many American adults from riding bikes was basic incompetance.

By the way, the FF System utilized the "friction freewheel" on the rear hub as a safety measure. The rear freewheel was much stiffer than the front one, so the chain would continue to move when coasting - but the chain could still be stopped if something got caught in it, such as clothing, or a shoe, or someone's hand, etc.

FFS was made available on some models by Schwinn (the Suburban comes to mind, but there were others), and some department-store bicycles. The system was dropped in the early '80s because it was a bust - heavy, complicated, and ultimately unnecessary. And of course, repair/replacement parts were only available for a couple of years afterwards. I knew a guy who had a FFS-equipped Schwinn that totally seized up and I remember how dismayed he was when he was told it couldn't be fixed -- the only repair was to replace the entire crank, bottom bracket, and rear freewheel with "normal" parts.

Big surprise - but freewheeling cranks are BACK!

The French company HxR has just introduced a new product they call Easy Shift.

The Easy Shift crank is made for the latest 1x11 "Enduro" MTB drivetrains. Like the old Shimano FFS, it has a freewheeling mechanism built into the crank, but it is paired up with a true fixed-gear 11-speed rear hub. No "friction freewheel" here - so don't get anything caught in the chain, 'cause you'll lose it. Granted, that's the case with any fixed-gear drivetrain, but just sayin'.

Instead of being marketed for incompetent neophytes, the Easy Shift is claimed to be great for "technical" MTB conditions. But it's unclear just how much abuse the system can take. It's apparently necessary to pair the Easy Shift crank with a combination "bash guard" and "chain guide" -- to protect it from impacts below, and to keep the always-moving chain from derailing off the chainring.

I still question whether such a thing is necessary, but if anyone out there decides they can't live without it, being able to shift when coasting doesn't come cheap. The Easy Shift crank and bottom bracket alone are listed at about 450. Adding a chainring, the fixed-gear 11-speed hub, and the bash-guard/chain-guide takes the price up to 995. Based on current exchange rates, that's probably about $490 - $1090. Phew!

Don't be surprised if Shimano gets the last laugh by re-introducing their own FFS. I can see the ad tagline now:

See? We Told You So!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Data Glasses Again - A New Player In Town

Remember those Recon Jet goggles that are essentially a computer you wear on your face? The ones with microprocessor and sensor-loaded pods and battery packs that block peripheral vision, and a miniature monitor to take up about 1/3 of your forward vision?

Who needs to see where they're going when there's so much data to digest?  (Recon Jet)
Well, they're not the only game in town anymore. Lots of tech and performance junkies are now declaring the new Garmin Varia Vision as the "heads up display cyclists have been waiting for." By leaving out some of the microprocessing power and built-in sensors, Varia Vision instead syncs with a rider's other devices, such as their smartphone, their Garmin GPS-enabled ride computer and the new Garmin Varia rear-view radar system.

The Garmin Varia Vision is designed to attach to the user's own choice of riding glasses.
By "outsourcing" a lot of the sensors and power to the rider's other devices, Garmin's heads-up display is a bit more compact, uses smaller batteries, and offers longer run-time than the more self-contained Recon Jet glasses. The Garmin unit is also designed to be attached to the user's own choice of eyewear. All of these differences mean that the Garmin costs "only" $400 -- at least $100 less than the Recon wearable computer.

Garmin has a video to extol the virtues of Varia Vision display. In it, there are images that are supposed to give us an idea of what the rider would see with the device:

Dear God! I hope it doesn't actually look like this! Did we just get sucked into a video game? 

Are these Tron-like images supposed to make people want Varia Vision? Sorry, but it has the opposite effect on me.

Look familiar?
Check out the video here:

And it's not just for performance junkies, but Garmin also makes the claim that their "In-sight Display" is a great tool for commuters:

"I have this vision of keeping my focus forward," reads one quote from the video. "I have this vision of fewer close calls on my commute," reads another.

Want to keep your focus forward? Want fewer "close calls" on your commute? Then keep your focus on the road and your surroundings -- not on a computer display, whether mounted to your handlebars or right in front of your eyes. How important is it to get performance data on commute to work when you're sharing the road with over-caffeinated cell-phone-addled drivers? Do you need the In-sight display to tell you when you have an incoming call? Do you really need GPS directions to tell you how to get to work?

Even when all this info is being projected onto a tiny "heads-up" display on your glasses, just trying to process it mentally takes your focus off the road, and the possible dangers that can crop up in a split second. As far as I'm concerned, that's what leads to more close calls.

There is such a thing as data overload. When I'm riding -- especially in traffic -- the best computer I have available to me takes no batteries:

The rest is just a distraction.

Monday, January 11, 2016

New is Old Again: Expanding Chainring Cranks

You know what's wrong with front derailleurs? They're light, simple, and they work. Yes, it's true that if they're badly out of adjustment, you can drop the chain when shifting. But on the whole, they haven't changed much since the 1960s because they haven't really needed to.

People are always trying to find a better way, though, aren't they?

I saw a video for a new gear-changing innovation called Wavetrans Bicycle Transmission. "A new kind of bicycle transmission which uses a revolutionary logic," the website claims.

What is it, exactly? Wavetrans is essentially a crank with an expanding chainwheel. It has about 6 chainring "segments" which can expand or contract at the push of a button. Its inventor is trying to get backers for their concept, but you can see a working prototype on their website:

The company claims many "advatages" (sic) "compared to old gear shifter systems (Derailleur for example)." It can be shifted uphill, under load, the chain never comes off, and (my favorite) "no crunchy noises." Unless you're a dedicated granola-muncher. Then there's still lots of crunching.

Here you see the crank in its lowest gear. The prototype uses a pretty huge '80s-looking computer to control the unit and to shift gears. The FAQ page asks if users would be able to shift gears using their smartphone. "Yes, I'm sure there will be an option for that." Yes, I'm sure too.
Here, the chainring segments are expanded to the highest gear. 
You know what else is cool about Wavetrans? It's "something . . . that you have never seen before."

. . . Unless you actually know something about bicycle history, that is. In which case you know that these things go back almost to the beginning of the safety bicycle.

According to several sources, including Frank Berto's history The Dancing Chain, and Tony Hadland's Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History, there have been a number of expanding chain wheel systems, some dating back to the Victorian age -- most of them just variations on the same idea.

Here are a few:

1896 - Linley & Biggs Protean Gear. It used two half-chainwheels that could then be expanded by up to 4 teeth, though it took on an oval shape as it expanded.

1903 - Paradox expanding chainwheel. "Incorporated a complex mechanism to achieve a circular expandable chainwheel." (Hadland) It expanded in one-tooth increments up through 7 teeth.

1903 - Mitchell Any-Speed. "Rotated the chainwheel off-center. The eccentricity changed the effective diameter, giving infinitely variable gears." (Berto)

Searching on my own through some "expandable chainwheel" patents, I also found some of these diagrams:

One patent is for W.A. Leggo Jr. in 1894, and the other is for J.M. Cleland in 1898. I don't know if these ever made it onto the market.

None of the systems listed above lasted for more than a year or two. Development of such systems on the whole disappeared for a few decades as derailleurs and even internal hub gear systems proved to be simpler and reliable. But then, in the 1970s for some reason, they came back as more inventors once again looked to expanding chainwheels as the answer to a question nobody was asking.

Here are some of the more modern systems:

1974 - Hagen All-Speed Expanding Chainwheel. This had 6 smaller sprockets that moved outward as an inner spiral-plate turned. The gear range was 2.85 to 1, or 285%.
This Hagen All-Speed crank was up for sale on eBay last year. Top photo shows it in "low gear" position, and the bottom photo is "high gear." And it was infinitely variable in-between. At least one of the ads described it as having "a jillion speeds."

1983 - The Deal Drive had 16 speeds and a 2-to-1 range. It used 6 spring-loaded expanding segments. Pedal forces compressed the springs, retracting the chainwheel segments, thereby lowering the gear. An adjustment lever on the crank arm let users adjust the spring loading tension. Frank Berto described it as "well built and reliable. However it was heavy, expensive, and it had a limited gear range." Expired after 2 years.

A prototype of the Deal Drive. What must this thing have weighed? And how could anybody think that this was somehow preferable to a derailleur? (photo from Commutercycling)

1983 - Excel Cambiogear. Oddly enough, Excel was a division of Beatrice Foods, which tried to break into the bicycle business in the early 80s. The Cambiogear had 16 speeds, and a 3-to-1 range. Made of graphite-reinforced-plastic. It lasted 1 year.

The Excel Cambiogear, front, and backside. Made of graphite-reinforced plastic, it had small chainring "segments" that expanded or contracted on these spiral-like grooves, not terribly different from the Hagen All-Speed.
Here you can see one of the chainring segments.

The photos above are screenshots from an explanatory video of the Excel Cambiogear I found on YouTube. You can watch it here:

Clearly, this idea has been tried (and abandoned) numerous times in over a century. And the Wavetrans isn't even the only expanding chainwheel crank startup today. Another startup - the VECTr Variably Expanding Chain Tranmission - apparently applied for a patent last fall on their own version of this old idea.

Here's a prototype of the VECTr, which uses a heavily modified Deore crank. It looks like the little toothed chainring segments have 5 distinct positions, giving the user 5 gear selections ranging from 24 to 44 tooth equivalent.
So, about the only thing I can see that sets the Wavetrans apart from all these other systems is that it's electronically operated. Push-button electronic shifting chainrings, without a derailleur. Well, that's something we've never seen before.

Oh, wait. . .
Scan from a 1987 issue of Cyclist. The Browning Automatic Transmission used hinged (not expanding) chainrings, and an electronic control box to change gears. Early tests by a lot of the bike magazines of the time declared it an unqualified success. It was later put into full mass production by SunTour (called "The Beast") and suffered from reliability problems. Many were recalled. Then SunTour went out of business. Browning tried to keep the design going for a few years on their own, but never found a market for a shifting system that cost about twice as much as a Shimano derailleur-based drivetrain.

Something tells me that people today are no more likely to adopt a transmission that's heavier, more expensive, and more complicated than a derailleur system than they were 20, 30 or even 100 years ago. I just don't see the Wavetrans (or the VECTr, or any other similar ideas that might be brewing out there today) having any more success than their Victorian-era counterparts, or any of the revivals from the '70s and '80s.