Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas From The Grouch

Our weather isn't permitting me to go for my traditional "Christmas Day Bike Ride" this year - unless I can put some chains on my tires.

If you're cold, they're cold. . . Bring them inside!
So I'm reflecting a bit on Ghosts of Christmas Past as I sip some coffee and watch the retro-kids enjoy their new presents. It won't be long before I'll be busy preparing for visiting in-laws, so I'm making the most of the quiet.

There were no bicycles under the tree this year, though to my mind, a bicycle has always been the ultimate Christmas present. Little Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB gun notwithstanding, I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way. Remember ads like this?
Merry Christmas from Schwinn - 1972.
It's been a long, long time since I've found a bicycle under the tree, unless I put it there for someone else. I think the last time I got one was about the same time that little kid in the Schwinn ad was pouncing on his new Sting-Ray. Even though I'm long past getting bikes for Christmas, my "second favorite" present these days is a gift card from the bike shop.
Always the right size and the right color.
And I don't think it was meant as a joke.
There seems to be bit of a stigma among some people about gift cards as being "impersonal." That attitude might be changing, but to my mind, whether a gift card is a thoughtful gift or a thoughtless one depends on one simple and obvious distinction: did the giver actually think about what they were giving? I mean, isn't that true of any gift? Seriously, I could fill a couple of closets with all the useless "thoughtful" gifts I've gotten over the years -- perhaps the epitome of which would be the fish broiler basket for the grill, made particularly useless by the fact that it's no secret that I absolutely hate fish. Believe it or not, I've actually gotten two of those.

Sure, gift cards can be impersonal or thoughtless. It isn't uncommon for me to clean out a drawer and find old unused gift cards that I've totally forgotten about. Cards for restaurants that I hate, or that don't have a location anywhere near my home. Or for stores that I never visit. But a card from the bike shop? I'll always find a good use for that. New gloves, tires, or tools -- there's always something I'll find that I need and will use.

It's not quite as exciting as finding a beautiful gleaming bike beside the tree - but in practicality, it's pretty close.

Wherever you are, I'm wishing you the best that the holiday season can bring you!

Friday, December 15, 2017

New Record Commuting Numbers

Well, I'm just days from wrapping up a semester at work, and I'm pleased to say that I've racked up a new personal record for bike commuting. With just three days left until Winter Break and the end of our semester, I have logged 68 days on my tally. Up until last week, I had been maintaining a bike-to-work average of 90%.

Then the snow came.

With the snow we had this past week, riding a bike would have been ill-advised, and it's a bit unclear what the next week will have in store for us. If I'm lucky, I could possibly pick up another day or two before the break, but even if I don't, 68 days would let me finish 2017 with an average of about 83%. My previous record was 63 days and 75% (two years ago), and last year I "only" had 58 days or just shy of 70%.

1,917 miles. That's how many miles I've managed between mid-August and now, riding back and forth to work. I figure that probably works out to around 63 gallons of fuel that I didn't put into my car, or somewhere in the neighborhood of $140 - $150 in fuel costs. For the full calendar year 2017, I had 118 days of bike commuting for a total of 3327 miles. Also a new personal record.

In the past year, my best month was without a doubt September. I drove only one day the entire month and had a month-long average of 95%. And I'm still really bugged about the one day I drove. I remember it because that morning looked like it would be a good one for riding, but the weather forecast was calling for an 80-90% chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon - likely to start just about the time I'd be heading home. The way I see it, rain isn't much fun to ride in, but thunderstorms are definitely a bad idea on a bicycle. It's like having a lightning rod between your legs. As it turned out, not only did we NOT get any thunderstorm that afternoon, but it didn't even rain. Nothing. Nada. Zip. So I ended up driving for no good reason on a perfectly good riding day, and the only thing I can say in defense is that if I had ridden, we would almost certainly have gotten that thunderstorm.

A handful of things helped me maintain such good numbers. One was weather. Generally our weather during the fall was pretty good this year. We've had some really cold mornings in recent weeks, but until the snow hit this week, it was always manageable.

Another thing was a slightly different attitude towards rain. I still really don't like riding in rain, and up until this year I'd been making a pretty concerted effort to avoid it. That included driving on days when the forecast called for a strong likelihood of rain in the afternoon (for me, that usually meant more than 50% chance). So, about that day I already mentioned when I drove to avoid the thunderstorm that never happened? Most previous years I'd have a lot of days like that one. What I've often found is that when I'd drive, the rain wouldn't come - or at least, it wouldn't come until I would have made it home on my bike. The thing is, I've got a bunch of rain gear packed into my saddlebag. Jacket, pants, and shoe covers. And I would end up driving because I was worried it might rain in the afternoon? This year, apart from that day calling for thunderstorms, I decided to take the risk a lot more often than not. Guess what? I got rained on a bunch. Turns out, there are lots of times when they say it's likely to rain in the afternoon, and it actually rains. Though I'm still enough of a believer in Murphy's Law to be convinced that had I driven on those days, it probably wouldn't have rained.

A third thing was using a bike that I don't have an emotional attachment to. Beautiful vintage steel bike with a leather saddle in a rainstorm? Makes my stomach churn just thinking about it. The non-retrogrouchy bike I've been commuting on most of this year? Meh. Rain, slush, road salt - I just don't care. I still have a comfortable Brooks saddle on it, but in this case it's one of the new-generation C-17 models with a rubber top. Promises to be more weather resistant than traditional leather. And while I'm still convinced that disc brakes offer little-to-no advantage on a road bike in good weather, I have had to admit that their effectiveness in the rain is quite reassuring.

No telling how well I'll be able to keep it up through the winter. We've had two unusually mild winters in a row, so I expect we're due for a bad one this year. But I've got good numbers going into it, and am well-equipped for winter riding so we'll just have to see.

UPDATED 12/20/2017: The snow and ice we got last week started melting over the weekend, revealing our roads again, and making it possible for me to add a few more days to my commuting totals. New Record: 71 days, 2002 miles. Bike-to-work average from August through December, 86.5%

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Lake MXZ 303 Winter Boots

If you are a winter rider, you know it can be hard to keep your toes warm when temps get below freezing. Over the years, I've mostly relied on my traditional leather riding shoes with wool socks, and covering the whole package with insulated "overshoes" or "booties." As a commuter, I still think there's something to be said for that approach - particularly on those days when the morning is cold, but the afternoon warms up to the point where the extra warmth and bulk aren't needed. In November, for example, it isn't unusual to have a morning around 30°, with afternoon temperatures rising to 50° - in which case, it's an easy thing to stow the booties into a pannier or seatpack for the ride home. But when it's really cold, and expected to stay that way throughout the day, having some serious dedicated winter footwear can be a welcome luxury.

For my birthday this year, the retro-wife really came through, and I got a pair of Lake MXZ303 winter riding boots. I've had the chance to wear them on some awfully cold commutes in the past month, and so far have found them to live up to the billing. My coldest morning in this time was 20°, with a wind chill making it feel closer to 10° and my feet never felt a chill, even after an hour of riding. I feel pretty confident they'd be good for even a little colder, though to be honest, I don't see myself riding below 10 - 15°, so they'll definitely meet my needs.

For sizing, I've seen a number of reviews that recommend going up a size from your normal cycling shoe size, and I agree with that. In most cycling shoes I wear a 44, and in these I got a 45. Don't ask me what that is in US sizes, because the conversion charts seem out of whack to me. Most charts I've seen say that Euro 44 is equivalent to a US 11, and yet I've never been able to wear anything larger than a US 10 in my life. Go figure. Anyhow, with a 45, I can wear these with extra thick wool socks without feeling constricted in any way. For those who have wider feet, or who maybe want to double up on socks, Lake also makes these in a "Wide" version, that I understand adds quite a bit of room in the toe-box. Mine are the "regular" and fit me fine.

The sole is thick with large lugs for sure footing when it's slick. I have found them to be decent for walking at least for short distances.

You'll notice that the Lakes have a very modern non-retrogrouchy "BOA" closure system. That seems to be the latest thing in cycling footwear. I've found that it works well, though I've yet to see any problem with traditional laces. Seriously - what's the hangup with normal laces on cycling shoes today? I suppose one doesn't need to worry about laces getting caught in the chain. OK, score one for BOA. But I do wonder what happens if that BOA thing eventually breaks. Can it be replaced easily? I don't know the answer. If any readers have some experience with that, leave a comment.

Regular readers know that I still have a preference for traditional toe-clip and strap pedals. One thing about the Lake boots is that they don't really lend themselves to use with a traditional pedal. The thickness of the toe-box and the lugged sole make getting into a toe-clip pedal difficult and awkward. I tried (briefly) switching my pedals to a pair of flat/platform pedals for winter riding, but I find that I don't really like using those on my commute. I don't mind flat pedals when riding around the neighborhood, shopping, or with my kids when the pace is kept casual. But on longer rides, especially if there are some hills, I just really prefer to have a better "connection" to the pedals. I don't need to be "locked in," but even with toe straps, I generally keep them just tight enough to keep my feet from coming off the pedals inadvertently, without being so tight that I can't get a foot out quickly if need be.

The Lake boots are designed for an SPD-type 2-bolt cleat. I know there are lots of choices in compatible cleats and pedals out there, but I found these Crank Brothers pedals on clearance for only $29 from Nashbar that seemed like they'd be a worthwhile choice as a winter pedal - and cheap enough that it would be hard to go too wrong. They have the easy-to-engage "egg beater" system on one side, and a basic flat platform on the other. I've found that in traffic, if for some reason I have trouble "clicking in" on the first try, the full platform still makes it easy enough to get pedaling from a stoplight. They seem to be working out well with the winter boots, and come spring, I can easily switch pedals if I wish.

In case anyone's wondering about what socks I'm using this winter, I'll mention that I'm a big fan of the socks from SmartWool. Though not actually marketed for cycling, SmartWool's Slopestyle PhD skiing socks are awfully nice on those extra-cold mornings. Being extra tall (they come up almost to the knee) they keep the lower legs warm and keep the cold winds out even if one's tights or riding pants leave a gap above the ankles. And they are extra thick, including at the toe and on the bottom of the sole. That last detail is good because I frequently hear people say that cold sometimes seeps in through the soles of some winter cycling shoes/boots (the cleat interface is often cited as a trouble spot). As thick as they are, they still fit into my boots comfortably (remember - up one size). Like a lot of SmartWool socks, these come in some pretty outrageous colors and patterns - but I believe they also come in plain black. I don't mind the patterns. Shop around, but the going rate seems to be in the $15 - 17 range, which I think is quite reasonable.

Back to the boots - of course there are plenty of options out there today. I've also heard good things about the boots from 45NRTH. I couldn't possibly give a functional comparison between them (unless they'd like to send me a pair to try out). The 45NRTH Japanther boots, which seem to have a slightly milder mission to these Lakes, have a listed temperature range of 25 - 45° with online prices ranging from about $195 - $225. The 45NRTH Wolvhammers, which seem a bit bigger and bulkier, have a listed range of 0 - 25° and sell for $325 or more. I cannot find a claimed temperature range for the Lake MXZ303 boots, but as I've already pointed out, they have worked well for me at 20° and I suspect they'd be good safely down to 15°. Prices online seem to range between $175 - $250.

I don't know if expensive 1-season boots are the thing for everyone out there - but for my needs, I'm feeling good about them.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Nothing Black About This Friday

It's been a while since I've been able to post here - Sorry about that, folks. Since August, I've been teaching a couple of college-prep writing classes, and it seems that all my time is spent grading essays. And if I'm not grading essays, then I'm feeling guilty about not grading essays because I'm up to my knees in them.

Anyhow, today is "Black Friday" but instead of going shopping and fighting the crowds at the mall and the big box stores, I got out for a bike ride with an old friend.
Hello, old friend.
I didn't have time to ride very far, as I had to bake bread for the Thanksgiving sequel - Thanksgiving II: The In-Laws. But in Akron this morning we were greeted by stunningly clear skies, and I figured I could get out for an hour or so without messing up any plans. It was chilly in the upper 30s when I headed out, but temps had risen up into the low 40s by the time I was pointed toward home. A thick wool jersey over a wool undershirt, some fleecy tights, and a wool cap under my helmet were sufficient for a comfortable ride. I felt the chill at the beginning, especially on the long fast descent into the Cuyahoga Valley, but I warmed up as I continued on.

Since August I've put in a lot of cycling miles (about 1600!), but almost all of them have been commuting miles to and from work, on a totally non-retrogrouchy bike completely decked out for utilitarian duties: racks, fenders, lights, and an assortment of bags. That bike is pushing roughly 40 pounds fully equipped for commuting. Getting on the green Mercian felt so different, and not just because it's roughly 18 pounds lighter. It's got much more "aggressive" geometry and handles so nimbly. I've written lots over the years about how weight doesn't make that much difference on a bike - and if you're only talking about a couple of pounds, I still stand by that. But 18 pounds is pretty significant, and when accelerating from a stop, or hammering up over a small rise, the Mercian just feels so alive.
Campagnolo actually called their mechanism "Doppler" action.
It very closely mimicked the feel of the wonderful Simplex
Retrofriction, but didn't copy the inner workings.

The shifting is another thing that I have to comment on. The bike I've been commuting on has Shimano STI controls, and I've gotten so acclimated to using them almost exclusively for the past few months that I had one (very brief) brain lapse where I felt the need to shift and actually reached for a nonexistent paddle behind the brake lever. DOH! Apart from that (really, very brief) moment, I really am happy to say how much I appreciate the Campagnolo retrofriction levers on the downtube. No, they are not as "convenient" for shifting as the modern integrated brake/shift controls. But the feel of these downtube levers, and the action of the old-school, non-indexing derailleurs is just so nice. There's such a tactile connection from the lever, through the cable, to the derailleur, and you can feel the shifts happening - feel the derailleur moving the chain across the cogs or the chainrings. That feedback is largely missing from today's integrated controls. This is especially true for front shifting, and I would even go so far as to say that Campy's '70s and '80s era front derailleurs shift better than front derailleurs from any brand made today. I really feel like the front shifting with Shimano STI is particularly abysmal, especially when shifting from the big chainring to the smaller one. Know what I'm talking about? You push the shift paddle until it gives a very distinct KERCHUNK, then the derailleur's return spring takes over and slams the chain down to the smaller ring. Campy's Ergo controls feel better to me in that regard, but I still enjoy the feel of a nice pair of downtube levers. I have no interest in electronic shifting.

Anyhow - I'll just wrap this up by saying what a pleasure it was to get out on this day-after-Thanksgiving on such a sweet-riding, nimble bike, and I hope some of you were able to enjoy a good holiday ride as well.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Suicide Components: Death By Bicycle

Spend enough time talking with vintage bike nuts, and you'll start to think that cyclists are a morbid lot. It's not that bicycling is an especially dangerous activity (car-centric folks would disagree, but it's really no more dangerous than many other physical activities - skiing anyone?). Listening to us talk about bikes and components, you'll find a lot of parts that have been dubbed "death" this and "suicide" that.

It's kind of a fun topic, and probably worth a look at the parts and how they got their reputations.

Suicide Shifters: Sometimes parts take on these morbid nicknames because they are risky to use, maybe because they have developed a reputation for breaking at inopportune moments. That is NOT true of these, however. There's really nothing suicidal about "suicide shifters," and as I understand it, it's really only in the U.S. that they have the name. Suicide shifters are derailleurs (usually front units, though not always) that are operated by a relatively large/long lever that is often located between the rider's legs, or anywhere vaguely in that general vicinity.

Simplex "suicide shifter" on an old Falcon (found on the CABE).
Retired framebuilder Dave Moulton had an interesting article about them on his blog some years ago that is worth a read.

There are a few brands and varieties of these front derailleurs - many of them French, and many of them made or used through the '50s and '60s. Some worked by twisting the handle on the lever, or by pushing it forward/back, or in/out. There's not really anything particularly dangerous about them (certainly no more dangerous than the big saw-toothed chainring within inches of one's calves and ankles), but perhaps American men are/were more paranoid about reaching between their legs to shift than their European counterparts?

"Suicide Shifter" on an old Indian.
Actually, I'd say it's likely that the origin of the name comes from vintage motorcycles. It was not uncommon for old Harley-Davidson, Indian, and other similar American bikes to have a big shift lever next to the gas tank, with the shift knob located somewhere between the rider's knees -- though again, there was nothing inherently dangerous about that, either. I assume there were probably a few jokes about potentially being impaled, or maybe castrated by the shifter in the event of a crash, and riders dubbed them "suicide shifters" as a result (though I suppose they could just as easily have called them "castration levers"?) and bicyclists probably saw the similarity and took the name.

People of my generation probably have fond memories of this old beauty:

1968 Schwinn Orange Krate
As a kid in the early '70s, I and all my friends lusted after the Schwinn "Krate" bikes with their big Stik Shift on the top tube. That was where I first heard the expression "suicide shifter" because everyone talked or joked about the possibility of losing our future manhood on the stick. The industry safety forces must have taken it seriously, because they eventually got rid of the big shifters. When Schwinn re-issued the Krate bikes in the 1990s, one detail they conspicuously omitted was the Stik Shift. No doubt the CPSC would never approve of that component today.

Cinelli "death pedals" (photo from Velobase)
Death Pedals: Usually refers to Cinelli M-71 clipless pedals. Again, the nickname of this item is pretty misleading, as I highly doubt anybody ever died using these. Introduced in either 1970 or '71 (the model name "M-71" would seem to indicate the latter), these were one of the first clipless pedals on the market. Unlike the LOOK pedals of the mid '80s (and later Time, Shimano SPD, and many others) with their hands-free engagement and release, the Cinelli pedals had a sliding lever that had to be activated to get out of the pedals.

To get into them, the rider would line up the cleat and slide it between the channels on the sides of the pedal, then move the lever which would pop up a pin that would lock the cleat securely in place. I'm sure the perception was that once locked in, there wasn't any easy getting out of the pedals in an emergency. I guess one could say they "hung on like death"? Understand, however, that at this same time, many riders were strapping in with leather straps cinched tight over slotted cleats, and it wasn't so easy to get out of those in a hurry, either. Both systems still required that the rider reach down and either loosen the strap or slide the lever to get out.

It's also worth noting that (as far as I know) the Cinelli pedals were really intended for track use, not road, which is a very different kind of riding environment. I mean, it's not as if one should need to disengage from these pedals in a hurry to avoid being nailed by a taxi.

Lambert Death Fork: Here's an item that did actually get its nickname because of a bad reputation for breaking (though again, I'm not sure anyone ever actually died as a direct result). The Lambert bicycles from England in the early '70s were an interesting attempt to offer high-performance bikes at a reasonable price. Besides having a lot of unique brand-specific components, the bikes were notable for having a high-tech weight-saving aluminum fork.

The Lambert "death fork" (photo from ClassicRendezvous)
The problem was that the fork was poorly engineered. It had a one-piece aluminum crown and legs attached to a steel steerer, held together by a couple of hollow pins and some well-meaning prayers. After some reports of breaking, the company slightly redesigned the attachment point (with one pin instead of two?), which wasn't enough to solve the issue. Financial problems at the corporate level didn't help any, and with new backers the company became Viscount, which also ran into financial difficulties and was purchased by Yamaha (maker of musical instruments and motorcycles), which conducted a full recall of the forks. I understand they were replaced by a better-engineered aluminum fork that featured a threaded and bonded joint between the crown and the steerer.

I've read that the number of broken forks was only about 1% of about 30,000 bikes equipped with them, which doesn't sound so bad -- though if I had one, I'd still be extra cautious. I mean, Lambert/Viscount is long gone, and I assume Yamaha long ago washed their hands of the whole thing, so if you get hurt, who are you going to sue?

Death Stems: There are a few old stems that fit this description, but the most well-known are the AVA stems like the one shown here.

The AVA "death stem" (photo from VeloBase)
These stems, often found on bikes in the '60s and early '70s, had the look of being "lugged and brazed" construction, but were made from cast aluminum. A place where they often broke was on the lower part of the quill, just above the cone-type expansion wedge. If you look at the top of the expansion slot, you'll see that it is just a sharp-edged cut, with no stress relief there to prevent cracking. Not only that, but there were two such slots, one on each side of the stem - so a crack could just work its way right around the whole thing, and the stem could suddenly snap right off. I've also heard of these cracking at the bar clamp area. On the whole, these were made very light, but didn't have enough metal in key stress areas to be durable. As mentioned, I believe that these were cast aluminum, as opposed to forged - but forging would have proven to be stronger as well.

It's important to note that not all models of AVA stems were prone to failure, and that they weren't the only ones. There were some similar-looking stems made by Atax and Pivo that could also break in much the same way. By the way, I don't want to get bunches of emails asking "is my stem safe to use?" There's no way I can tell everything about every brand and model to say which ones are OK and which ones aren't. Remember, we're talking about components that are 50 years old.

I will say that some of these lugged-style aluminum stems are a little more robust than others, and if they have a regular wedge as opposed to the cone-type, they might be a little more reliable. Also, if there is only one expansion slot instead of two, that is a good sign. If I had one of the type with a single expansion slot and really wanted to use it, I'd probably drill a little hole right at the top of the slot and file it so there was a nice, smooth, stress-relieving transition. But again, there can still be risks. These old stems are really cool looking, but on my vintage bikes (which I actually ride), I don't hesitate to install a more modern, reliable, cold-forged stem.

Style only takes a person so far, and I'd really like to keep all my teeth.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

An Unexpected Moment of Humanity

I've written plenty on this blog about dealing with traffic -- on being a cyclist in a car-eats-bike world. Whether it's angry drivers who insist on blasting their horn as they pass, or impatient drivers who think nothing of putting cyclists at risk to save a few seconds, or simply arguing with idiots who've convinced themselves that it's cyclists who are the problem, "sharing the road" has been the subject of a lot of posts.

Anybody who rides on the roads as much as I do (and probably most Retrogrouch readers) can probably tell "war stories" all day long. Ken Burns should do a documentary. Whether it's due to driver inattention/distraction, ignorance, "cluelessness," impatience, or even sadistic malice, I've had plenty of close calls with drivers (and been hit once).

I never had one of these close calls when I've been the driver of a car, but if I did ever somehow put a cyclist at serious risk, I'd like to think that I'd feel pretty bad about it. I mean, wouldn't that be a natural reaction? When faced with the fact that we may have come very close to injuring someone with our car, particularly if it was through our own negligence or fault, wouldn't one expect any humane person to feel at the very least embarrassed, if not horrified? In my experience as a cyclist, that is not the reaction I usually see from drivers.

Instead, my experience usually goes something like this: A driver makes some bone-headed move that puts me in danger. For example, a driver fails to stop for a stop sign -- they approach the road I'm on from a side street or a parking lot, they take a cursory look down the road for cars but look right past me, the cyclist (despite my lights and fluorescent clothing, etc.), and they blow right through the stop sign without stopping. As the cyclist who is a split second from being turned into a hood ornament, I'll scream out "STOP" or "HEY! WATCH IT!" or something similar, and yes they'll slam on the brakes. Now, it's obvious that this was the driver's fault. I was the through-traffic, and they were blowing off a stop sign to save themselves a couple of seconds, which could easily have resulted in death or serious injury to me as the cyclist. So, do they continue on their way in silent shame? Offer a meek apology? Or even just an insincere "Sorry - My Bad"?

Hell no.

Usually, just the fact that I reacted to them by yelling out (even if it's just yelling to save my skin), a lot of the drivers I encounter go into full-out road rage mode. Some will lay on the horn and give me "the finger." Others will scream out some profanities. The real psychos will threaten to "finish the job" next time they see me. Remember the bastard I wrote about in my last post about traffic roundabouts? "YOU GODD*MNED A**HOLE. I SHOULD'VE F**ING KILLED YOU!" is something I've heard more often than anyone should.

All this makes what happened to me yesterday so much more unexpected.

I was riding home from work along a 2-lane backroad, keeping up a pretty good pace of around 20 mph. Coming up on my left was a side street where I saw a car wanting to make a left turn. Just as I got to the intersection, the guy pulled out and was heading right for me. It was pretty obvious he didn't see me, and he was essentially planning on moving right into the physical space I was occupying. Of course I was slowing and getting over to the right as far as I could go while at the same time I was screaming at the driver "HEY! WATCH WHERE YOU'RE GOING!!"

I was still intact, but mad as hell and I yelled some things at the back of his car as he drove off. Before I knew it, I saw the guy pulling over, and I immediately thought, "Oh great - here we go again." I was fully expecting the driver to start screaming threats and insults or something. Maybe he was going to try to start a fistfight (yes, that has happened).

What happened next shocked the hell out of me.

When I got up to where the driver had stopped, and he was getting out of his car, I could see that he was looking pretty sheepish as he stepped in my direction.

"Hey man - I'm really sorry about that back there. You OK?"

. . . (shock and disbelief) . . .

"Yeah - I'm fine. I'll get over it. Thanks."

Normally after I have one of these near misses, and the drivers act like complete @$$holes, I end up fuming all the rest of my ride. Not this time, though. It's amazing how somebody simply acknowledging that they screwed up and saying "Sorry" (and actually meaning it) can make such a difference. Too bad it's such a rare thing.

Anyhow - as if to prove that the balance of the car-bike universe hasn't shifted in some truly positive way, just this morning I had an oncoming car make a left turn directly in front of me. His car literally passed about three feet off my front wheel. In shock and surprise, I yelled out "HEY!" (just "HEY" - nothing more). The driver, whose window was open, yelled back "WATCH WHERE YOU'RE GOING @$$HOLE!"

All is right with the world.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

New Traffic Circle - Lovin' It

About a year-and-a-half ago, I had an article about navigating roundabouts. My observation was (and is) that on the whole, the benefits of roundabouts seem to be more geared for drivers (typical of most road projects, cyclists are kind of an afterthought, or even an "after-afterthought"), and they can sometimes cause some consternation for cyclists, but with a bit of knowledge they can often be a pretty good thing. My general advice for cyclists in the roundabouts can be summarized briefly: Be Assertive. Take the Lane. Signal Your Intent.

We just got a new roundabout in my area that I have to say as a cyclist is truly a welcome improvement. In the last mile of my morning commute, and the first mile of my afternoon commute, I end up riding on a fairly busy 2-lane state highway (the school where I teach is located on this route, and there's really no alternative). In the morning, I usually hit that last mile early enough that I can just beat the swell of traffic that comes soon after. But in the afternoon, the road is often busier and can be a challenge.

Heading home at the end of the day, I would ride this fairly busy state road for about a mile (as already mentioned), then I'd need to make a left turn onto a less-busy rural route. Cars and trucks on the main road are often traveling near 50 mph, and making a left turn there could be really stressful sometimes. I'd look back to check traffic approaching from behind, make my signal, and move out into the lane - at the same time I'd be watching forward for oncoming traffic. If there were cars coming towards me, I'd have to slow or even stop -- which then would have me really worried about cars coming from behind. Would they slow or stop for me? Would they even see me?

On more than one occasion, when the road ahead was clear, I'd look back, make my signal and move into the lane - then just before initiating the actual turn I would take one more look back only to find the car behind me crossing the centerline of the road, trying to PASS ME ON THE LEFT! It happened several times, and each time I could see that the driver was a teenager, and I strongly suspect that they have no clue what a standard "left turn" hand signal means. Do they even teach hand signals in drivers' education classes anymore? They clearly saw me but were clueless as to why I'd have my left arm out, and why I'd be in the left half of the lane. I learned quickly to never start my turn without one last look back.

Before the roundabout - it could be a hair-raiser.
The final straw for me was the day I got to the intersection and went through the usual preparations for the left turn. The oncoming lane was clear, and I had no traffic behind, so it should have been no problem. The only driver to contend with was the guy to my left on the rural route that I was preparing to turn onto. He was stopped at the stop sign and waiting to turn left onto the main road. I put my arm out to signal my turn, moved into the left side of the lane, and just as I was initiating the turn, the driver hit the gas and pulled out right in front of me, crossing my path, cutting me off, and it was only through my grabbing the brakes and making a mid-turn swerve that I didn't end up hitting (or being hit by) him. And just to make it obvious that it was no mistake -- no case of "I didn't see him" or "the biker came out of nowhere" -- this guy was giving me "the finger" as he was cutting me off. The whole thing was blatant and deliberate.

"MOTHERF***ER!" I yelled, mid-swerve.

The bastard heard me. He suddenly skidded to a stop (in the intersection!) and jumped out of his car. Standing there in the road, he was screaming at me a stream of profanity that went something like "WHO THE F**K ARE YOU CALLING A MOTHERF***ER, YOU GODD***ED A**HOLE. I SHOULD'VE F**ING KILLED YOU!"

I was fuming angry, but wholly intact and hoping to keep it that way, so I didn't engage him or his rant. I didn't respond except to continue on my way, somewhat shaken.

After that incident, I decided I had to find a different way to get home. As I mentioned, I really have no choice but to take this busy state route at least for a certain distance - but I had to find a way to avoid making that left turn. My alternative was to leave work going the opposite direction and head to a different rural route where I could make a right turn instead of left, then follow some of those backroads around to my intended route home. It added to the distance of my afternoon commute, but it was slightly less fraught with peril. I say "slightly less fraught" because I now had to make a left turn out of the parking lot at work onto the same busy road, but that generally wasn't quite as nerve-wracking. That's where things have been for the past couple of years.

I've never been more pleased with a road project.
Throughout the past summer, that intersection was closed and traffic re-routed while crews constructed the new traffic roundabout. The new intersection opened about a month ago - and what a difference it makes.

I now feel much more confident and much less vulnerable since the regular left turn has been eliminated. On the approach to the circle, there are long "splitter islands" to separate the traffic entering and exiting the roundabout, but also the road has been widened quite a bit from its previous dimensions. As it was before, the lanes were fairly narrow (for a major state route, anyhow) with no paved shoulder whatsoever. Now there is a reasonably wide paved shoulder on the stretch that leads up to the splitter islands. When riding, as I start getting closer to the roundabout, I can look back and check for traffic coming up behind. If need be, or just as a courtesy, I can move to the shoulder to give drivers one last chance to pass safely before we get to the divider islands (Hey - I'm a firm believer in "taking the lane" - but when traffic is closing in behind you going 45 mph, sometimes it's easier just to move over and let them pass) -- but once I get into that divided stretch (which I call "the chute"), it's really a no-passing zone, and I treat it as such. I'll take one more look back as I get into that final stretch, make sure I have an opening, then move in to take the lane around the circle.

There are still dangers from cars when circling any roundabout - mainly one has to watch cars entering the circle and make sure they will yield as they're supposed to (I suggest being alert to "escape routes" and ready for "evasive maneuvers" if need be). But the main thing is that it forces traffic to slow in the intersection - and the speed difference between cyclists and cars is reduced significantly. On this particular roundabout, that alone makes a huge difference.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Token Attractive Woman

Well, once again it seems that the reputation of the cycling world has taken another hit. On one hand, it seems like there's a concerted effort to get more women interested in riding - which, let's face it, would be a good thing for the industry (more people buying bikes) and the sport (more fans, more sponsors). But for every voice out there saying "let's get more women into cycling," there's some dumbass who makes some stupid move like this:

Yep - Cycling Weekly magazine last week published an article about the Hinckley Cycle Racing Club in Leicestershire as part of their "We Ride With . . ." feature. And there among the photos from the ride, they included this picture with the caption "Token attractive woman."
CW blamed the mistake on a "subeditor" who added the caption, which was not caught by other staffers before the magazine went to print. Was it "not caught," or was it simply overlooked by others who failed to recognize what lousy judgement it was?

Yes, the staff at Cycling Weekly issued an apology . . .

At least they called it "idiotic."
. . . which may be heartfelt and sincere and all, but wouldn't it just be great if the industry, and the sport, and the culture in general could get through a season without having to apologize to women everywhere because of this kind of idiocy?

About two years ago, it was this stupid tweet from the folks at Colnago:

"Ready for the weekend ride?" the tweet asks.
Actually, no, she's not -- bike's too big, and she's not even wearing shoes. 
And there is always the divisive issue with the "podium girls" (euphemistically called "hostesses") -- Like this recent story about AG2R rider Jan Bakelants:

In a pre-Tour de France interview, Bakelants joked about the difficulty in going three weeks without sex during the Tour, and when asked what he would pack in his luggage, replied "Definitely a packet of condoms. You never know where those podium hostesses are hanging out." Jerk.


Of course, we can't forget this gem from 2015:

Which seemed to be right on the heels of this one:

Getting back to the latest gaffe, the cyclist in the CW photo, a woman identified as Hannah Noel, posted on Facebook: "I made it into Cycling Weekly, it seems not for my ability as a female cyclist but as a 'token attractive woman' -- I'm absolutely gutted and disappointed in the magazine."

I read in some other commentary on the incident (I don't recall where) that Noel is a very tough and dedicated cyclist. I'm sure that the stupid comment from CW won't deter her, or at least I hope it doesn't - but sexist stupidity like that, and the other examples here, certainly don't encourage women to get involved with cycling - and probably does a lot to keep them away.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Revisiting Halo Bikes

It's been a while since I've looked into the ridiculous upper stratosphere of bikes for the ultra rich -- the top 1% of the über elites who both move and shake simultaneously.

Who can forget such lofty wünderbikes as the Lamborghini Aventador BMC Impec: a bike whose name alone works out to about $8000 per word.

That's about $32,000 folks.
Or the Aston Martin One-77 (made by Factor bicycles). I think they charge a person just to ask the price, but I hear it starts around $39,000.

That's a year's salary for a lot of Americans.
Both of those were "collabos" between bicycle companies and automotive marques. And the same is true of this outrageously priced machine:

The Bugatti by PG Bikes is said to list for $39,000. They call it "The Unrivaled Urban Bike."
The PG Bugatti is claimed to be 95% carbon fiber, and features an unusual asymmetrical seat-stay chain-stay design. That is, it has one seat-stay (on the left) and one chain-stay (on the right). It also utilizes belt drive, and has a single front brake that is somehow hidden or "faired-in" behind the front fork, and activated by an impossibly delicate-looking brake lever.

The company makes a point of trying to connect this outrageously impractical "urban bike" with the equally outrageous Bugatti Chiron hypermobile.
For reasons I can't quite figure out, the website for the bike lists fuel economy and CO2 emissions figures for the car, but nothing comparable for the bicycle:

My math is terrible - and my understanding of European "efficiency class" standards is minimal. But I think that the fuel consumption on the Chiron works out to something like 10 miles per gallon in "combined" driving (or around 6 mpg city). And efficiency class G is about the worst rating given. Basically, the car is like a big, conspicuous raised middle finger to the world. I guess if someone spends $2.7 million to buy the car, they might feel compelled to spend another $39,000 on a bicycle that lets them kid themselves that they're "doing something for the environment." More likely, though, it would just be another obnoxious trophy to crass consumerism.
As if I needed to add anything else to make my point that the $39,000 Unrivaled Urban Bike is a complete crock, I spotted this little detail on the website:

"The special bike is a piece of sports equipment which is not intended to be used on public roads."
What else do you need to know?
I'm thinking "UnRIDEable Urban Bike" might be a more appropriate name.

Not a car-company collaboration - but perhaps no less ridiculous because of that, there is the Ventum One Signature Edition.
The Ventum One is a triathlon-specific design, which includes a specially designed integral water bottle, and a swoopy seat-stay-less frame not terribly unlike such aero-design time trial and/or pursuit bikes as the '96 U.S. Olympic "Superbike" or mid-'90s Pinarello Espada. The signature edition is said to be custom fitted for the buyer, and includes unique custom paint and a matching helmet "that reflects your personal style."

The regular Ventum One (the non-signature one) starts at $6875 -- I could be wrong but the website leads me to believe that it has the same basic frame, minus the custom paint scheme (and matching helmet), less expensive wheels, and Shimano Ultegra components. So what makes the Signature Edition worth another $25 grand?

It's the buying "experience."
The buying "experience" includes a professional photo shoot.

From their website: "Fly first-class from your home to Scottsdale, Arizona where you will join us at the Faster Wind tunnel — the same facility where we developed the Ventum One. You’ll spend two days and nights in Scottsdale at a five-star resort, including a full day with engineers and fit specialists from Ventum and Faster. We will optimize every aspect of your new bike and riding position in the wind tunnel. You will then get out on the road to make sure you’re completely dialed in. Your Ventum Signature Experience concludes with a professional photo shoot on your new bike with the stunning Arizona scenery as the backdrop."

Bikes like the Bugatti, the Ventum, and the others almost (I repeat, almost) make these other machines seem like bargains. Don't kid yourself. They're not.
Cervélo's RCA is $10,000 just for the frame.
The folks at Cervélo must love the fact that bikes like the Ventum exist if for no other reason than that they can make a claim like "all the performance at half the price" or some such thing.

The Cervélo P5X eTAP triathlon bike is a cool $15,000. Less than half the price of the Ventum One Signature - but don't get smug about it.
Still outrageous, but compared to the other car-company collaborations, the Specialized McLaren Roubaix comes in at an almost reasonable $11,500. Their previous collabo, the McLaren S-Works Tarmac, was about $20,000.

Dammit! See what I just did there? They've even got me doing it now. It's like a contagious disease!
Specialized McLaren S-Works Roubaix Dura Ace Di2 - at "only" $11,500
When things get to the point where $11 grand starts sounding reasonable, I need to get back to huffing tins of Brooks Proofide like an asthma inhaler, and get out for a ride on a classic steel bike.

Steel frame, friction shifting, 2x5 "10 speed" drivetrain. Kinda' helps get the priorities straight.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Rims Vs. Discs

Since I started this blog, I've written about the disc brake vs. rim brake arguments a bunch of times, but it's been awhile, and think of how much has changed on the subject just in the last couple of years. In 2013, disc brakes were rapidly taking over on mountain bikes, but on road bikes, discs were still in their infancy. Today, it's beginning to look more and more like the days for rim brakes are numbered, including for road bikes. Even Campagnolo recently launched their own disc brake system. The professional teams are still debating whether or not to make the switch, but they're still doing "trials," enduring some protests, and going through a few growing pains. But on road bikes for the non-professionals, we're starting to see discs gain the upper hand, and I figure it's only a matter of time before discs supplant rim brakes on road and racing bikes entirely. I'm still not convinced that's a good thing, but I believe it's inevitable.

I saw a post on the Velo-Orange Blog a couple of months ago about The Great Brake Debate. I'm a fan of V-O as being a good source for practical and proven components and gear for non-racers - and I'll bet a lot of Retrogouch readers are probably in the same camp. Well, V-O now offers a couple of their very practical frames with accommodations for disc brakes. The "Debate" post was a brief look at some advantages of the two systems and didn't really pick sides - but there are a few dozen comments on the post where people weigh in on the systems. Opinions seemed pretty divided.

Okay - now here's a shocker. I've recently been trying out a decidedly non-retrogrouchy bike equipped with disc brakes -- kind of a long-term trial (long story - don't ask for details, 'cause it really doesn't matter). I'm trying to decide if it's going to become a permanent part of the fleet. I had rented bikes with disc brakes a couple of times in the past and been underwhelmed, but now I've had a chance to get some more meaningful experience with them. For the record, I currently have bikes in my stable with vintage (70s - 80s era) single-pivot sidepulls, modern dual-pivot sidepulls, vintage centerpulls, traditional wide-profile cantilevers, low-profile cantilevers, U-brakes (basically a type of brazed-on centerpull -- as mounted on my tandem) and V-brakes (aka direct-pull cantilevers). That means I get to use and compare pretty much every type of brake that's been used on bikes over the past 50 years or more right out of my own garage. I should note that any vintage brakes I use have been updated with modern brake pads, which is something I highly recommend.

I still don't have a final verdict on discs - but so far I haven't found anything to really change my mind. Here are some observations:

Wide profile cantis.
Wet weather: Without a doubt, the main advantage of discs comes with wet road conditions. That's not really a surprise. With rim brakes in the rain, there can sometimes be a brief sense of panic when you pull the brake lever and there's a moment where it seems like nothing is happening. I'm sure we've all been there. It lasts roughly the distance it takes for the wheels to make a full revolution - or about the circumference of the wheel, but it can feel like forever. The brake pads essentially have to "squeegee" the rim before they can really get a grip. The phenomenon is much improved with good aluminum rims compared to old chrome-plated steel rims of the past - but it can still be a little scary sometimes. Discs obviously aren't affected by rain as much since the disc brake surface isn't sloshing through the puddles, and the pads can clear water off the disc much more quickly than with rim brakes. Score one for discs.

Dry weather: I honestly don't really sense a big difference in braking when it's dry. It's really hard for a lone person to measure things like stopping distances precisely and do side-by-side comparisons, but it really feels to me like any difference in stopping distance is small enough to make no appreciable difference at all. If you never ride in the rain (or at least, never intentionally) then it still seems to me that disc brakes don't really have an advantage here.

Stopping power: That's something that gets thrown around A LOT by disc brake cheerleaders -- that disc brakes have "so much more" stopping power. "Superior stopping power." "Incredible power." "It's an indisputable fact," they say. People make the claim and repeat the claim so much that it seems to be accepted without any proof (or perhaps even despite proof). It's a "begging the question" fallacy. The fact is, today's rim brakes - whether we're talking about side-pulls, center-pulls, cantilevers, or V-brakes - all have the power to lock up a wheel easily. The braking is probably affected more by the type of rim and the brake pad than by the particular brake design. That is, chrome-steel rims are pretty lousy brake surfaces (but then again, they're also really rare nowadays) and every report I've seen on carbon fiber rims says that they're not a whole lot better. But with aluminum rims and decent brake pads, even inexpensive brakes can lock up a wheel. It's a basic fact that once a brake locks up, it has met and exceeded the maximum braking power possible. You can't exceed "locked up."

So what the hell are all these disc cheerleaders talking about? I think what a lot of people describe as "superior braking power" is a misinterpretation of the sensation between the input or force they apply to the brake lever, and the perceived stopping action they get from the brakes. Disc brakes seem to be able to apply a lot of stopping power with little effort or force on the brake lever. It's not really that there's more stopping power (there can't be), but rather, that one can get that power with less effort. I suppose this would be a good advantage for someone who has smaller hands, or whose hands aren't as strong.

These old Campy brakes will lock up
the wheel, but it takes some effort to do it.
The thing is, however, that this isn't just a "rim vs. discs" phenomenon. One can experience the same kind of difference between different types of rim brakes. For example, the old single-pivot sidepulls I have on some of my vintage bikes can still stop the bike perfectly well and in a hurry if necessary. But most of them tend to require more force on the levers than the modern dual-pivots. The modern dual-pivot sidepull brakes can stop the bike with a lot less effort - even with hands on the tops of the levers. V-brakes have so much mechanical advantage that most of them require special brake levers (they have to match the amount of cable pull, or else the lever can bottom out against the bar before the brake pads hit the rim!). If I had to rank the brakes in my stable from "hardest" to "easiest" in terms of effort, I'd say that the old Campagnolo side pulls take the most effort, while the V-brakes and the disc brakes are the easiest. I've seen where Rivendell's Grant Petersen even puts V-brakes ahead of discs in that regard, but to me (at least with the examples I've tried) it's kind of a toss-up. The modern dual-pivot side pulls are close behind those, and the various cantilevers are somewhere in the middle.

Another thing I notice is that centerpulls and cantis can offer good power and modulation - but there are some factors in setup that can affect it. Centerpulls, especially long-reach ones that mount with a center bolt above the wheel, can flex quite a bit. U-brakes, or brazed-on centerpulls, will flex less, wasting less energy. But with both of those, as well as with cantilevers, flex can still crop up either through the extra cable used (the yoke and straddle cables, for instance) or even at the cable stop (some cable stops are pretty wimpy, whereas a thick forged one can firm up braking a lot). That flex can make the brakes feel a little bit spongy under hard braking -- but again, they still offer all the stopping power necessary.

Adjustability and Maintenance: This is one area that doesn't get talked about as much - but from a retro-grouchy perspective, I think it's huge. Disc brakes are much more "finicky" about adjustment and maintenance than most rim brakes. In getting rim brakes set up, one needs to get the pads installed so that they line up on the rim properly - which is quite easy to do, and once set, shouldn't really change much through the life of the pads. Second, one needs to set the brake arms so that the pads are the proper distance from the rim. Too close and they'll rub, too far apart and they might not be able to reach the rim before the brake lever runs out of travel. In-between those two extremes of "too close" and "too far" is a "just right" sweet spot, and yet there is a pretty wide tolerable range that will still work fine. As the pads wear down, the distance to the rim increases, and it is necessary to re-adjust them which takes only seconds and usually requires no tools. Just turn the little barrel adjuster a bit every couple of months. But even if a person is terribly lax in that little bit of maintenance, it can still take quite a while before it gets to be a serious problem. In that way, rim brakes can be very forgiving of indifferent maintenance.

Disc brakes are harder to adjust, and less tolerant of neglect. Disc brake pads are by design set much closer to the brake disc, and there's a very small margin for variance. It's not unusual for the brake pads to drag slightly on the disc, even when the brakes are released. I've encountered plenty of people who say that the little bit of drag is just something you get used to with disc brakes. Try to adjust them so they don't drag, and they can be too far apart for secure stopping - and if a person can find the "sweet spot" it doesn't last long because the pads (which are typically a lot thinner than rim brake pads) wear down quickly and need to be re-adjusted or replaced more often. If neglected, it doesn't take long before the brakes can become totally ineffective. This is one point where hydraulic brakes may be better than mechanical ones (the hydraulic system is supposed to self-adjust as the pads wear) - but the pads still wear more quickly than rim brakes and they don't tolerate neglect.

It ain't all that pretty, but it's still very functional -
and easy to keep it that way
For people who keep on top of maintenance, these may not seem like problems - but consider how many people these days are either inept or simply indifferent about maintenance. I don't just mean people who ride rusted second-hand clunkers because they can't afford anything else. There are a lot of people out there riding $10,000 bikes who can't even change a flat tire! Now just try to imagine today's state-of-the-art bike as tomorrow's second-hand clunker. That old rusty mountain bike locked to the parking meter might not be pretty, but its cantilever brakes will work a long time without maintenance. Will the same be true of disc brake equipped bikes in 10 or 20 years? Will the correct parts even still be available?

And that gets me to the next thing. Rim brakes are well established, mature technology. Compatibility for parts is wide ranging. If a bike is equipped for cantilever brakes, then pretty much any brand of cantis and V-brakes will work as well as any other. If a bike is built for caliper brakes, pretty much any brand of sidepull or centerpull will work. Brakes from different brands are overall pretty similar to one another in design and function. In other words, most sidepull brakes all work pretty similarly regardless of brand. Most brands' V-brakes are functionally similar to the other brands. There aren't a lot of proprietary designs and unique standards. There are only a couple of different "standards" for brake pads, so as long as someone knows if they need "threaded" or "smooth" posts, compatibility shouldn't be much of an issue.
There are 25 unique styles of pads in this one picture alone.
Good luck figuring out which one you need. And don't get mad
if the local shop only stocks a few of them.

Like so much of the latest technology for bikes, disc brakes make the idea of "standards" something of a joke. There are several different mounting styles, and numerous adaptors that may or may not make one compatible with the other. There is a plethora of different styles, sizes, and shapes of pads - some being proprietary to a particular brand or even to a particular model of brake. It's not even enough to say "I need pads for Shimano disc brakes" because different models in the Shimano lineup might use completely different pads. Same goes for most of the other brands, too. How many unique types of disc brake pads is a local bike shop likely to keep in stock?

Wrapping this up, it goes without saying that disc brakes are obviously taking over. The time will come when only the cheapest bikes -- maybe some childrens' bikes perhaps - will come with traditional rim brakes. Keep in mind that disc brakes are even being featured on bikes at Walmart selling for barely more than $100. Whatever kind of disc brakes are on bikes like that cannot possibly be an improvement, or worth the hassles they will likely lead to over time.

I have no doubt that the technology will continue to improve. Maybe they will get to where there's some semblance of common standards. For example, maybe they'll get the number of different pad designs down to an even ten. Of course, such changes would automatically make a huge percentage of the disc brakes and some of the complete bikes on the road today obsolete, but until these things happen and the technology matures, I'm still hesitant to give them a big endorsement.

I'm still trying the bike with discs. They may be a benefit this winter when the roads turn wet and slushy. But apart from that, I'm just not that convinced.