Thursday, September 29, 2016

Rolling Coal - Has It Happened To You Yet?

They call it "Rolling Coal," and it's the latest salvo in the war on the environment and anyone who even appears to care about it. These jackasses modify their diesel pickup trucks to dump huge plumes of thick, black (and poisonous) smoke - then use it to annoy or intimidate the rest of us. Cyclists are reportedly a popular target, as are Prius drivers. There was a pretty good article in the NYTimes this month about it. It happened to me once. Has it happened to you? Leave a comment - share your tale.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Bicycle Pumps Have Gone High Zoot

Is it just me, or are bicycle pumps getting the full zoot treatment lately?

It seems to me that the trend started about two years ago when the newly reorganized Silca released their Super Pista Ultimate, which sells for roughly $450. Boasting the best materials and manufacturing methods - CNC'd aluminum base, high-precision barrel and plunger, lots of stainless steel, and beautiful carved rosewood - the "ultimate inflation tool" brings the simple action of inflating bicycle tires to levels of luxury that mere mortals can only dream of. Very quickly, other companies started offering pumps that would imitate some of the look of the exclusive Silca, if not all the slick tech, in a somewhat more affordable package.

The Lezyne Alloy Floor Drive echoes some of the Ultimate Inflation Tool vibe at a fraction of the price - about $85. Less fancy steel barreled versions are available for a bit less - and lots of replacement parts are shown on the website.

The latest of these comes from Arundel, the company that up to now has been primarily known for some pretty fancy carbon fiber bottle cages and bike bells. It looks like they now have a premium floor pump in the works.

The new Arundel pump has a large, wide, forged base for good stability - along with a fairly large 3" dial pressure gauge that reads up to 160 psi. Like the Super Pista Ultimate, it has a sleek-looking barrel, and a wide solid wood handle. I've seen two different versions of the handle pictured, but the pump is apparently not in full production yet (it isn't listed on their website store, or listed for sale anywhere yet), so I don't really know which one buyers should expect to see.

I saw this slightly fancier version of the pump handle on BikeRumor. That site describes the pump as a prototype, so I don't know which one will see final production.
Going with some kind of fairy tale theme, there are different pump heads available from Arundel - the Hansel (left) with a thumb lever, and the Gretel (right) which has a screw-fit head. There is also a Woodsman version which is a press-on head. They look like nice quality pieces and will be available separately.
On the Arundel website, they say that the new pump will be fully serviceable, and replacement parts will be available to keep the pump working well for a good long time. One important detail that does not seem to be available at this time is a price. I do expect it will be quite a bit more affordable than the Silca Ultimate though.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The First American to Win the Tour de France

Who was the first American to win the Tour de France? Everybody knows that one: Greg LeMond in 1986 - right? The first (and officially the only) American to do so.

Well, not exactly.

Though largely forgotten or even ignored by most of the American public, including many cyclists, the first American to win the Tour de France was a woman - Marianne Martin - who won the first edition of the Tour de France Féminine in 1984.

Born in Michigan in 1957, Martin started cycling competitively in the early '80s while she was a college student in Boulder, Colorado -- a great place to catch the cycling bug. Martin showed great promise as a racer early on, and quickly got her license and joined a team in Boulder.

The Harvest/Mercian team of the early '80s was fielded by The Spoke bike shop in Boulder, sponsored by the Harvest grocery store and Mercian Cycles. This photo appears on the Mercian Cycles website, but the caption there fails to mention that the auburn-haired woman in the front row, center, is none other than Marianne Martin (thanks to Classic Rendezvous friend Peter B. for identifying her!)
After fighting anemia in the early part of 1984, Marianne failed to qualify for the '84 Olympic team, which would prove to be huge for American cycling - particularly for the women. Recall the Gold and Silver one-two by Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg at the Los Angeles games.

But 1984 would be big for women's cycling for another reason. That was the year that TdF organizer Felix Levitan would introduce the Tour de France Féminine - to run concurrently with that year's Tour, over nearly the same routes as the men's race. The women's route's were shorter -- with much of the distance taken off the front end, but including most of the same climbs, and ending at the same finish line as the men, about a half hour or so before the men's race would finish, and guaranteeing big crowds. That inaugural year, because of UCI restrictions, the Tour Féminine was limited to 18 stages, compared to the men's race with 23.

A recent article from The Guardian described the skepticism among the French press and public about whether women should, or even could, complete a stage race as big as the Tour. French TdF champion Laurent Fignon ('83 and '84) was famously quoted "I like women, but I prefer to see them doing something else."

Having missed out on the Olympic team, Martin learned that there was still one more spot for the team headed to France. With some encouragement from racer Steve Tilford, she approached national coach Eddie Borysewicz, or "Eddie B," and convinced him to let her take the last spot. It turned out to be a good decision.

Martin put in a strong performance right from the opening stage, surprising not only the European teams, but her fellow Americans as well. The race really took a turn when it hit the Alps. In the 12th stage with two major climbs, Martin, who was a natural climber, powered away from the rest of the field. She won that stage, moved into second place overall, and pulled on the climber's Polka Dot jersey.

In the 14th stage with more climbing, she took the leader's Yellow Jersey and held it until the final stage on the Champs Élysées. There in Paris, standing on the same podium that would hold the champion Laurent Fignon (along with Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond), Marianne Martin was crowned the first women's champion, and the first American winner as well. Standing on the podium in 3rd place overall was another American, Deborah Shumway. It was a stunning achievement for the U.S. and women's cycling both. And contrary to the predictions by the press, all but one of the women in the race completed the entire Tour.

"I like women, but I prefer to see them doing something else." I wonder if Marianne Martin made Laurent Fignon eat those words?
Reflecting the biases that hobble almost all of women's sports, even 30 years later, coverage of this incredible success was practically nonexistent. Even here in the U.S., few in the public would ever hear about the success of the American women in Paris. Add to that the difficulty in finding sponsors for the women's race, and it gradually shrank in scope and size. There was a huge gap in prize money as well. Quoted in the Guardian article, Martin says her prize was the winner's cup and about $1000, which was split among all the women on team. In the end, it actually cost her and her teammates money to compete.

The Tour Féminine, while "shrinking" in size, continued to be run alongside the Tour de France through 1989, dominated by Maria Canins of Italy, and Jeannie Longo of France, who traded 1st and 2nd place for five years. American Inga Thompson would finish 3rd in '86 and again in '89. Then the race disappeared for two years. When it was reintroduced, it was smaller still. Then another insult/injury came when the Société du Tour de France claimed that the race name was an infringement of their trademark and ordered them to change. It was renamed the Grande Boucle Féminine ("the Great Loop," which was/is a common nickname for the TdF). It ended in 2009.

There was a small amount of attention paid in the last couple of years about a new women's race in Paris, coinciding with the Tour - La Course by Le Tour de France - but it's really nothing like the true stage race won by Marianne Martin in 1984. La Course is more like a one-day criterium on the Champs Élysées, that just happens to be held on the final day of the Tour.

In 2012, Marianne Martin was inducted into the Boulder Sports Hall of Fame, but so far has not been recognized by the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame. Don't ask me why. No, she doesn't have as many major victories and national championships as women like Carpenter, Twigg, or Inga Thompson (all of whom are in the USBHoF) - but it's hard to argue that winning the first (and probably the toughest) Tour Féminine wasn't an accomplishment worthy of the same level of recognition.

Health issues eventually forced Marianne Martin to give up bicycle racing, but I've found several references that say she still resides in Boulder where she works as a photographer. I understand that she still rides occasionally for enjoyment.

It's a shame that there isn't more support for women's cycling. The '80s and '90s saw a number of high-level races for women: The Coors Classic, The Tour Féminine, and The Ore-Ida Challenge to name a few. The lack of sponsors is usually cited as the reason, but there's still a healthy dose of plain old-fashioned sexism behind it. The UCI has long taken stands that have helped hobble women's cycling, arguing that big stage races like the ones I've just mentioned are too difficult for women, and thereby withholding sanctioning of such events. Women have proven again and again that they are up to the challenge.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Another "Ultimate Commuter"

I'm always reading and hearing about bikes that tech junkies have christened "the Ultimate Commuter" -- the very claim itself inevitably makes me skeptical. Combining lots high tech computing power and smartphone connectivity into a flashy package of aluminum and carbon fiber, the bikes typically seem to me more like accessories for a certain kind of high-end "lifestyle" than real commuting tools.

The latest "Ultimate Commuter" comes from Volata Cycles of San Francisco. Like previous "Ultimate Commuters" their bike is billed as the "first of its kind," and is equipped with an app-based computer embedded "seamlessly" into its handlebar stem for performance data, weather forecasts, turn-by-turn navigation, heart rate monitoring, and smartphone connectivity. The bike also has a built-in horn, built-in lights, and a GPS-based anti-theft tracking system. It's all battery powered, but there is a front hub dynamo to keep the bike's internal batteries charged -- so users have "the luxury of never worrying about recharging."

Aluminum frame, carbon fork, belt drive, internal hub
gearing, and disc brakes - and lots of electronic geegaws.
"Luxury" is a good word in this case, since the Volata has a planned retail price of $3,499, which includes a $299 deposit/reservation fee, with the remainder due when the bikes are delivered, hopefully beginning in July 2017.

From the press release:

"The bicycle is the most efficient means of human transport ever invented . . . The problem is, the bicycle industry didn't evolve on the tech side, and did not improve the bicycle with native digital features whose goal is improving the riding experience and safety . . . As cars have evolved, also bikes need to evolve."

I'll say it again - bikes aren't cars. In many ways they're better. In comparing bikes to cars, a person might as well argue "Bikes are OK, but they'll never really improve until they weigh about 3,000 lbs and burn gasoline."

Regular readers already know how I feel about most claims that digital features "improve the riding experience." I'll admit that having built-in lights could be a nice thing, particularly if the lights are of high quality. However, if they are just of the variety that help the rider to be seen, but don't provide enough light to ride by on dark, unlit roads, then they don't exactly eliminate the need to have more "add-on" lights attached to the bike. In this particular case, the Volata's built-in taillight (consisting of 6 LEDs) is probably sufficient for most people. The unique twin headlights which are built into the fork are listed at 150 lumens. Having not ridden the bike, I couldn't say if they are sufficient for lighting the road ahead - but with headlights, it's often not just a question of light power, but also the quality and focus of the beam provided. Let's just say, I wouldn't be shocked if a lot of users found the need to mount some extra lighting for serious night-time or pre-dawn riding.

The Volata has an aluminum frame with a carbon fiber fork, belt drive, Shimano Alfine Di2 electronic internal-hub gearing, and disc brakes. Styling-wise, it has that modern look with its steeply sloping top tube, with a stem that seems to blend right into the unusually notched head-tube/top-tube junction. The bike is offered in four frame sizes, S, M, L, XL.

Among the stylistic touches that I find questionable would be this head-tube/top-tube/stem junction. The angle of the stem is designed to match the angle of the top tube, and the stem nestles into an unusual notch (stress riser?), much the same way I've seen on a few hyper-expensive carbon fiber race bikes. Volata claims that the proprietary stem with its integrated computer screen is available in two lengths and two angles. Hopefully one of them lets users find the right position. But if someone chooses a different angle, I don't know how that meshes with the whole design theme. On the whole, the design puts a gimmicky aesthetic ahead of function and fit -- rarely a good trade-off in my opinion.
I continue to hear mostly good things about Gates belt drive, and it seems a natural pairing with an internal-gear hub. However, they do seem to be particularly sensitive to small changes in belt tension and "chain line" (or more appropriately, "belt alignment") that don't even present themselves as issues on a typical chain-drive setup ("fixies" notwithstanding). I'm also skeptical of anything claimed to be "zero maintenance."
If I were to consider what makes a bike a good commuter (much less the Ultimate Commuter), I think I'd put load carrying and easy fender-mounting high on the list of necessities. The Volata currently has neither, though the website claims that some integrated "bike extensions" (they explicitly don't like the word "accessories") are in the works. Based on some sketches on the site, these extensions may include some type of seatpost-mounted "pod" and a "fender" that BSNYC would describe as a "filth prophylactic" - which is a far cry from full-coverage fenders.

Before I move on, let's take a look back at some previous "Ultimate Commuters" that I've mentioned here on the Retrogrouch Blog:

The Vanhawks Valour featured lots of smartphone connectivity - but no accommodation for racks or fenders. No brakes either.
The Vanmoof S-series had fenders, brakes, and built-in lights. BBC Autos called it one of the "10 most beautiful bicycles." Errr . . . ahh . . . um . . . ?
The B'Twin had a super-racy aero position, integrated lights, and could carry a Macbook laptop, but not much else. No room for fenders, either. To be fair to the Volata, the B'Twin is really just a concept - not likely to see production within the next year.

Obviously I'm skeptical, and maybe even a bit cynical. But it seems to me that the ultimate commuter shouldn't cost thousands of dollars, or have anything on it that would make a person weep uncontrollably if it were stolen by someone with a set of allen keys and a cable cutter. Unless a person can count on having a safe, secure place indoors to keep their bike, that often means going the low profile route, which is why a lot of hard-core commuters go with some kind of "beater" bike for commuting. Keep it simple. Keep it cheap. Ugly is OK since it provides a certain element of stealth. Splurge on good tires. Keep the cables, chain and sprockets clean and lubed. Slap some fenders and a rack on there so you can stay reasonably clean and carry stuff easily. For urban commuters, this can all be had for a few hundred bucks.

I saw this on the Chicago Magazine site: Anatomy of a $162 Beater Bike. 
I'm lucky for my own commuting that I can take my bike indoors with me, and keep it right in my classroom - nice and safe. So that, plus the fact that I'm a sucker for vintage classic bikes, and a bit of a snob, my main commuting bike cost a lot more than a person needs to spend to get a perfectly suitable bike - but still only about 1/3 the cost of something like the Volata. If I had to leave it outdoors, and if I were concerned about security, I'd have been able to easily get something that functions just as well for a lot less.

What really is the Ultimate Commuter? The bike that gets a person to and from work swiftly, cheaply, and reliably. Bikes with built-in digital gimmicks and a $3000+ price tag are for meeting people at coffee shops - not for serious commuters.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Case for the Battery-Free Bicycle

Batteries are all around us - and our reliance on them is constantly growing. Think of all the objects in our daily lives that now use them. Our computers, cell phones, and watches, of course. Some of our small appliances in the kitchen, and power tools for the home workshop or lawn and garden. The list goes on and on. In some cases, the batteries have allowed us to unplug from the wall, at least temporarily, giving us more mobility with our electronics. In other cases, we have battery power taking the place of some task that used to be performed manually (I think the silliest of these might be the so-called "cordless screwdriver" -- I mean, aren't all screwdrivers "cordless"?).

One of the biggest areas for growth in batteries is in the growing market for electric and hybrid vehicles. More and more there is a push for electric vehicles as the answer to both energy and environmental concerns - and the cost of the battery packs for these vehicles keeps decreasing, even as the power and range of those batteries improves.

The same trends of lower battery cost and greater efficiency mean that we're seeing increasing battery use now on the most-efficient of vehicles: our bicycles. Electric bikes are a rapidly growing market, but even on non-electric bikes (or should I just say "bikes") we're starting to see more reliance on batteries. It is now possible to buy a bike that is propelled (or at least assisted) with electric power, shifted electronically, with rechargeable battery lights, computer-controlled suspension settings, as well as built-in power meters, integrated computer readouts, GPS navigation, and full smart-phone integration. Some might even have such "necessities" as electronically operated "dropper" seat-posts, and might be locked up with electronic "smart" locks. I figure that electronically controlled brakes are likely just around the corner. That's a lot of batteries for something that has, for all intents and purposes, worked quite exceptionally for well over a century with no power source apart from the human pedalling it.

The arguments for electric cars (whether full-electric, or gas/electric hybrid) are at least valid, even if the support for those arguments is debateable. There's no question that fossil-fuel-powered cars are inefficient and a major source of greenhouse gasses, and our dependence on their fuel keeps us subject to the whims of foreign governments in parts of the world that may or may not be hostile towards us. Today's electric cars require little or no gasoline, and have minimal or even zero tailpipe emissions -- so they're a total win-win, right?

Not so fast. In a lot of ways, the change from gas to electric is not so much an improvement as it is just a shift from one kind of bad to a different kind of bad.

Most of us have probably heard the argument that, even though an electric car doesn't burn fuel itself, the electricity that recharges the batteries comes from a power plant somewhere -- a power plant that could very likely be burning coal. There are enough variables at play that it can be difficult to get an accurate figure on exactly how much carbon is used or saved between a gasoline-powered car vs. an electric car, and because the whole issue can be politically charged (there are lots of profits at stake on either side), the comparisons one does find are sometimes subject to biases. When it comes to the basic question of fueling/powering a vehicle, I think it's safe to say that the electric vehicle might have a slight environmental edge, but not as much as proponents might like to argue. Perhaps if we could generate more of our electricity with wind or solar power, that could improve.

Aerial view of a lithium mining operation. Lithium brine is
pumped to the surface and put into huge settling ponds before
going through further separation and production steps.
But that's only a small part of the story. It's important to also look at the cost of producing the batteries that power these electric cars, as well as e-bikes, laptops, cell phones, and all the other electronics we're using today. From several perspectives, those costs can be equally as bad as the production and burning of fossil fuels. The currently favored batteries for electric vehicles and so many other electronics are Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) batteries, which are relatively light, powerful, and great for applications where frequent recharging is needed. But the lithium, cobalt, and other rare metals used in the batteries come with major health consequences, and have to be mined in operations that can have a huge environmental impact. Just like fracking for oil and gas, these metal mining operations essentially trade fresh water for energy. The mining process uses millions of gallons of fresh water, creating a highly-toxic slurry which goes through various processes to separate the desired metals, and putting them through various acid baths, with the end results then cooked in high-temperature kilns. Each step of the process requires huge amounts of energy and releases more carbon into the atmosphere -- easily rivaling anything in the fossil fuels industries. And the kicker is that the desired metals make up less than 1% of what is mined, so more than 99% of what is mined from the ground ends up as toxic waste.

Overwhelmingly, these mining operations are in faraway parts of the world, so they go unseen and undiscussed by the consumers using most of these new generation batteries. As far as environmental concerns go, there is still a ton of damage being done, but it's shifted from "here" to "way over there." But there could be geo-political issues, too. A lot of the major deposits for lithium are in places like China, Bolivia, Argentina, and even Afghanistan. As our dependence grows for better and cheaper batteries, we could simply see a shift of power from oil-producers to lithium-producers. I wouldn't get optimistic that the possible future political and/or military ramifications would be any better.

Whatever the environmental impact of
batteries might be, they're still way
better than this kind of garbage. Not
better than a bicycle, though. 
So am I saying I'm against electric cars? Or that I'm pro-petroleum, or some other nonsense? Of course not. When looking at all these downsides of battery production, energy consumption, and carbon emissions, it's important to consider the status quo - which is millions of gas-guzzling cars, trucks, and SUVs, most of which rarely carry more than one or two humans - spewing smog into the atmosphere. Compared to that, electric and hybrid cars represent an improvement, however small it might be - and further advances in the technology, along with recycling of the old batteries, could make things even better in the long run.

But that's all in comparison to cars. What about bicycles?

Obviously, the status quo on bicycles is that they are already zero-emissions and the most efficient vehicles available. Even the production of a bicycle, and any energy used in its production, is a fraction of that which goes into building a car. Adding electronic doo-dads, motors, and batteries is a big step backwards for a bicycle. All the environmental issues I've already mentioned about batteries -- from mining to production, to using them, recharging them, and eventually disposing of them, I believe, are compounded by the fact that they take something clean, green, and efficient - and reverse it, making bicycles more like . . . cars.

Electronic, battery-powered shifting, computing, power-metering, navigation, and the rest do little to improve a ride - nothing to improve a bicycle - and are demonstrably unnecessary. And I'd argue that the minor convenience that some of these things might possibly add is more than offset by the bigger picture of their impact - most of which is invisible to the consumer.

These are big-picture arguments. The smaller scale arguments are in things that I've mentioned numerous times in previous posts. The need to charge (or replace) batteries before riding a bicycle seems almost oxymoronic (spell-check is telling me that word doesn't exist, but it works so I'm sticking with it). The fact that a dead battery could potentially end a bike ride is likewise ludicrous. Power metering and similar performance data tracking might be acceptable for someone who is paid to race a bicycle - but those things really have nothing to do with bicycling. GPS and turn-by-turn navigation might be useful on a cross-country tour, though how many people actually do that? (and again, if the batteries die, you'll still need a good ol' fashioned map to find your way). When electronic shifting and other accessories work, they might seem like a great advancement to their fans - but when something goes wrong (and eventually, even the best of things break down) often the only solution is complete replacement. Finally, if the last few years have taught us anything about electronic goods, it is that even if they don't break down, they are often rendered obsolete within a few years. If those electronic goodies are fully integrated into a bicycle, as they increasingly are, then the lack of compatibility between old and new can render the whole bicycle itself just another disposable object.

Bicycles are at their best when they are simple, reliable, and beautiful. They aren't improved by batteries and electronics. They aren't cars. In fact, they're better.

Unplug. Ditch the batteries. Keep it simple. Enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

More Wireless - This Time From FSA

There's another new entry in the electronic shifting sweepstakes - this time, a wireless group from FSA: the K-Force WE, which I assume stands for "wireless electronic." It is the company's first full road component group.

Nowadays, the challenge of introducing a new drivetrain component group isn't in designing a system that shifts quickly and precisely (that's been pretty well nailed since about 1986), but rather, in how to come up with a new design without infringing somebody else's patents. With a front and rear derailleur to operate, and a pair of control levers on the handlebars, how many different ways are there, in practicality, to activate the shifts? I guess FSA managed to come up with something that works enough like Shimano, Campagnolo, and SRAM to be familiar to users, but different enough to avoid patent infringement. That in itself is probably the single most noteworthy achievement of the group.

The brake/shift controller is available in two sizes for smaller or larger hands (Retrogrouch admits it's a nice touch). The shifting is controlled by a pair of buttons on the side of each lever - upper and lower. The buttons are fully programmable for upshifts or downshifts - user's choice. It can all be set up with an app on the user's smartphone. The derailleur is flat-black and includes lots of molded carbon/plastic. In style, it reminds me a little of the old SunTour Superbe Tech, but thicker, chunkier, and rendered in ugly black plastic instead of lovely buffed and polished aluminum.
The rear derailleur operates differently than most in that it doesn't actually use a typical parallelogram mechanism for movement. Instead, it is all gear driven.

The front derailleur is also gear-driven, using a rack-and-pinion mechanism. That giant tumor sprouting from the top of it is the brain for the entire system. Wireless signals for the shifting commands go through the front unit, and are then transferred to the rear. It uses ANT and ANT+ protocols.

In order to centrally manage power usage, the entire system utilizes a single 7.4 Li-ion battery that is supposed to be installed inside the seat post. There are light-up indicators on the front derailleur unit to display how much juice is left, or one can check with the smartphone app. The company claims a range of 5000km for the main battery. The shift levers have their own separate batteries - one coin-type battery each, which FSA says should be replaced about once per year regardless of miles.

The brakes are a pretty complicated-looking dual-pivot design, but they do have the advantage (compared to a lot of other high-end road brakes) of having a 50mm reach, so 28mm tires might actually fit under them, assuming such "huge" tires fit within the bike's frame, which is not guaranteed. No, I'm not actually impressed. I'm being nice.
The hollow-arm carbon crank has a lot of that Japanese Manga/Animé styling that's so common in bike components today, and it takes some cues from Shimano and Campagnolo with its 4-bolt chainring design. I doubt the chainrings are interchangeable with anybody else's, though, because chainring compatibility is a thing of the past.

Having yet another electronic component group makes it more and more likely that that days of traditional cable-operated systems are numbered. How long before battery-free bikes are relegated only to the bottom rungs of any company's lineup? A few years? A decade?

I guess the best thing about a traditional battery-free system is that they'll work reliably for years and years, which is great for retrogrouches like us. I mean - once you reach a certain level of "obsolescence" you become unaffected by obsolescence. Inoculated resistance, in other words. When cyclists stop feeling compelled to keep chasing the latest and greatest - constantly upgrading for miniscule "improvements" and planned obsolescence, we reach a point where we just ride the bike in peace. It's almost like obtaining a state of cycling zen.