Friday, August 31, 2018

An Anniversary

It occurred to me today that I just about missed an anniversary.

The Retrogrouch Blog first went online five years ago, in the last week of August 2013. I wasn't sure at the time how much I'd be able to write, or how long I could keep it going. I suppose it's lasted longer than some blogs out there. And there are others that were blogging about bikes long before I started that are still going.

Some of the blogs I was following before I started this one were BikeSnobNYC, Lovely Bicycle, and Midlife Cycling. Velouria, over at LB, has gone pretty quiet in the last year or so. BikeSnob is still going, though it seems more and more that his posts are going up on Outside Online rather than the BSNYC blog site. Justine, of Midlife Cycling, just amazes me - she's been going for more than eight years, having started in mid 2010 - and she's still posting almost every darn day. As for myself, it gets difficult to find time to write posts as often as I had earlier on - or to come up with something new to say about topics that I have probably beaten to death.

In any case, I went back and looked at that first post. It was a short one - mostly just saying "here I am, world" and a few sentences about what the aim of the Retrogrouch would be.

Here's an excerpt:

"Bikes should be simple, reliable, and beautiful. I believe people should be able to work on their own bikes, because repairing and maintaining your own bike is not just a right of passage, but it also makes one a better cyclist. I believe the importance of weight in bicycles is overestimated . . . I believe that when it comes to bicycle weight, there is "light" and there is "stupid light." Too many bikes and components today are "stupid light." I like new stuff, but only when it makes sense and really makes things better. New for the sake of new doesn't make sense. And New is not always Improved."

It's kind of funny, but there are some lines there that are very familiar and have been stated again and again over the past five years. Some of those words are practically a mantra. I feel pretty good to be able to say that I've been consistent.

Readership of the blog was pretty tiny in that first year or so. Readership has grown, but is still pretty small on the whole. On average, about 1100 people visit the site each day -- barely a blip in the big scheme of the internet. I mean, BSNYC probably gets more traffic in a day than I get in a week. Approximately two years ago, in October 2016, the blog hit the milestone of a million visits. It's closing in on 2 million, but that magic number probably won't be hit before the end of 2018 (it'll be close, but I expect it probably won't hit until January).

Over the years, the most consistently popular posts have been the one about "Bike Fit Then and Now" and one about Tange and Ishiwata tubing. In terms of "hits" or "visits," those two are far and away the most-read articles I've written - and they date back to that first year of this blog's existence. It's kind of funny that nothing I've written since even comes close. Oh well. If I have any favorites (regardless of popularity) I'd probably say it would be the article on the history of the Mercian Cycles company, or maybe the series on the decline of US bicycle manufacturing.

I had actually pitched the idea for a book on Mercian history to some publishers, with the plan that it would be ready for release for their 75th anniversary. I pictured it as history of the brand, with interviews and perspectives from fans and owners (including a few celebrities), and lots of pictures of nice Mercian bicycles from various decades. Unfortunately, books like that are expensive to produce, and none of the publishers I found were willing to make the investment and take the risk considering that it isn't that well-known of a brand. Too bad, really. Believe me, it would have been worthy of your coffee tables.

Well folks, that's all for now. Got to start looking for ideas for the next year.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

A Bit of Photo Editing Fun

I was recently fooling around a bit with some photo editing software and came up with a set of fun images to share. Regular readers of the blog have probably noticed that I often create composite images and photo collages for my articles by using a combination of Photoshop and Microsoft PowerPoint. My skills with Photoshop are only so-so -- mostly I just use it to clean up images. MS PowerPoint, on the other hand, is in some ways easier for me, and is surprisingly useful when it comes to combining images. Even the headbadge collage that makes up the background of the whole blog was created using PowerPoint (I had a whole step-by-step article on that process about three years ago).

During the Victorian era, when both photography and bicycles were the latest thing, and when people probably first started becoming obsessed with their pets as little miniature humans (an obsession that totally continues through today), it was really common to see people photographed with their bicycles, or to get their pets photographed dressed up and posed like humans. On a whim, I started creating pictures that combined all these notions -- people, animals, and bikes.

I've got my finished results below, along with the original images that I started with - take a look and (maybe?) have a chuckle.

For this one, I combined this advertising image of a bicyclist with the little playing card image of "Mr Fox." Part of what made it work was that both pictures had a similar artistic style and color palette. The colors in the fox image are a little brighter, but it would work. You'll notice I had to flip the fox image and alter the angle a little to get it to match up - but the end result is pretty convincing. By the way, I did flip the fox image, but I did not flip or alter the bicyclist - the original artist put the drivetrain on the wrong side of the bike! I toyed a bit with the idea of putting the cyclist's cap on the fox, but in the end decided it looked better without.

The attitude of the dog in the top hat seemed like a natural fit for this fellow posing with his prized penny farthing. Again, I had to flip the image of the dog to get him facing the right direction - and in the cropping his pipe became a cigar, but it still works. The tint of the two photos was slightly different (the dog photo originally had a bit more of a brown tint) - but that was pretty easily altered.

The little terrier with the cap seemed like a perfect fit for this Belgian racer. Again, the tint was slightly different, but easily fixed.

The fox on the left seemed to be in the perfect pose to match up with this early 20th century track racer. The tint was a good match too.

Both images here were engravings as opposed to photos - but the style was close enough that they'd match up well. The dog, apparently, was one of Queen Victoria's pets. I had to work on the tinting but it worked in the end. I did a version where I put the cyclist's wide-brimmed hat on the dog, but didn't like it as well - he seemed to lose something when you couldn't see his perky ears.

Hope you enjoyed!

Friday, August 10, 2018

More Warnings About Carbon Fiber Bikes

I recently came across an article in Outside online that rings more alarm bells about carbon fiber bikes and components - though it's all well-trodden ground on this blog. There's not much in the article that hasn't been raised plenty of times already in The Retrogrouch - it's just that I don't often see these concerns raised by more mainstream publications.

One of the more interesting things the article talks about is how, if someone has a carbon fiber bike and it fails, it can be difficult to get anyone to take responsibility. For example, a person may own a CF bike made by a huge well-known Taiwanese manufacturer (they're almost all made in either Taiwan or China) - but the bikes are actually distributed by another huge company (probably an independent subsidiary with the same name) based in the U.S. Now, let's say that customer's bike fails and they get injured. They sue the manufacturer in Taiwan - who claims that they can't be sued because they don't actually do business in the U.S. - if you want to sue someone, sue the U.S.-based distributing company. The customer tries that, but the U.S. company claims they can't be sued because they aren't the ones who actually made the bike. The difficulties can keep a consumer tied up in courts for a long time. Isn't that nice? According to the article, recent court decisions may make it a little easier for such lawsuits to move forward - but things are still in a state of flux.

Other more well-trodden points look at how manufacturing defects that can lead to failure may be hidden and very difficult to detect. Or how damage can come from an accident of some kind - but be unseen until it eventually fails - maybe long after the accident is long forgotten. Both are points I've raised plenty here over the years. If the manufacturer can point to an installation or maintenance issue or an accident (no matter how minor/insignificant it may have been) as the cause of failure, then there is no warranty coverage when the bike or component breaks.

Something I found odd in the article, though, was that it opened with a story that I'd hardly consider an exemplary case. Here's the opening:

Janet Kowal had a personal connection to the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). Even though she’s now living outside Chicago, working for the Village of Burr Ridge town hall, Kowal has Iowa in her blood. The 2013 route would take her through her hometown of Des Moines and skirt the University of Iowa, where she graduated in 1987. Kowal bought a new-to-her 2007 Giant OCR C1 road bike for the event and, to be cautious, took it to her local bike shop for a full-service tune-up.

Not long into the ride, however, Kowal’s bike shattered beneath her. For no apparent reason—she’d neither hit an obstacle nor encountered a pothole—the front fork snapped in half as if it had exploded from within. Kowal was sent crashing into the pavement, helmet first. She fractured her spine and clavicle, suffered a concussion, and tore ligaments in her left thumb.

Okay - anybody else think it's weird that they focused on a 2013 incident involving a used bike that was already 5 or 6 years old when the woman purchased it? If the main point is that it really isn't a good idea to buy used carbon fiber bikes (or components), then point taken. But it seems to me that the intended point is broader than that. I mean, pursuing compensation when a used bike fails is complicated regardless of what material the bike is made from. Manufacturer's warranties almost never cover anyone beyond the original owner - and (as already mentioned) they are almost never held responsible if they can make the case that an accident or some user-error caused the failure.

One never knows what kind of accidents, abuse, or neglect a bike may have suffered under a previous owner, and with carbon fiber, the damage may be almost impossible to detect. At least with a steel bike, such problems can often be seen if someone knows what to look for. Steel wears its damage on its sleeve. The fork may be bent. There may be a ripple or a small crack developing somewhere. Paint could be bubbled or cracked.

A head-on collision will often leave tell-tale signs on a steel bike that even a new coat of paint may not hide. That little ripple behind the head tube is one. A bent fork is another. It's pretty subtle, but that fork on the right is almost certainly damaged.
I have no doubt that carbon fiber bikes today are better than those made ten year ago - and further improvements will be made. But it's all still developing technology. It begs the question how long will such bikes last? I have no qualms about riding a 40 or 50 year old steel bike. But where will today's carbon bikes be in 50 years?

Anyhow - it's worth clicking on over to Outside to read the article, but if you've been reading this blog for a while, there probably won't be much there to surprise you.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

A Visit To Maine

If the blog has seemed quiet for a little while, it's because I've spent the past week on a family vacation in Maine with little/no internet and fairly limited cell-phone coverage. That can be relaxing, but also a little frustrating at times. We've come to rely on our digitized world so much that it can be really hard sometimes to let go. It's funny that it wasn't really that long ago that the internet was little more than an interesting curiosity, and a phone was nothing more than a means to talk to someone - just talk - while tethered to a cord on the wall. My kids have never known the world to be different than it is today, but for me (and most people reading this blog), it's probably a bit staggering to think how much technology has come to run our lives.

A quiet spot beside Sebago Lake at sunrise.
My family and I have been staying in a cabin by a nice lake in the southern part of Maine. Actually, there are a lot of lakes in the vicinity - large and small - enough that apparently the area is known as the Lake Region. I brought my Rivendell along on the trip so I could do some riding.

Though I keep my bikes computer-free, technology or the lack thereof did enter into the riding experience a little - at least at first. Being totally unfamiliar with the area, getting out for a ride without knowing where I was or where I was going seemed a bit daunting. I tried using my phone's map functions to figure out some routes, but poor signal coverage made that sporadic and a little frustrating. I did locate a bike shop in the area so I paid them a visit and asked if they had any maps of the lakes and the roads surrounding them. That seems to me like one of those things a good bike shop should keep around, right? Well, no, they didn't have any maps. "Why don't you just use Strava like everyone else?" Ummm - because my phone barely works out here. I did eventually get to a café where I could get some internet access, find some maps, and copy them down onto paper for some riding routes/maps that would get me around even without technology.

One route I found was a loop around Sebago Lake, which was the lake on which our cabin was located. The loop around the lake was a little over 40 miles. I also worked out a shorter loop around one of the smaller lakes nearby, and there was a decent out-and-back ride to a neighboring town and a quiet road through the nearby state park. All told, I put in a lot of miles during the week and found some good photo-opportunities.
Boulders are a major part of Maine's landscape.
I found this old Grange hall tucked away on one of the rural routes.
On the roads along the lake, one finds lots of little markets that cater to the campers and boaters visiting the area. Groceries, beverages, dry firewood bundles, and bait. This one had fish trophies hanging everywhere so I had to get a picture.
I'd been looking for this my whole life.
I spotted this old Ford in a field not far from the state park. Notice that it has tracks in place of wheels on the back. I couldn't say for certain, but I wouldn't be surprised if this was once used for winter mail delivery in this area known for its harsh winters.
On one of my rides I found a little roadside stand selling just-picked blueberries. I stopped and bought a pint for a nice treat. Only $3 a pint, and worth it. Plenty for a snack on my ride, and lots left for breakfast the next morning.

The drive out to Maine took us through Vermont and New Hampshire. I have to say that I'd love to come back out with my bike for an extended riding tour through those states. The roads through the Green Mountains in Vermont were absolutely gorgeous. Throughout our New England drive, we chose to stay off the interstates and instead drove the two lane highways that took us through all manner of little towns - some quaint, some forgotten, some just barely hanging on. Though it takes a little extra traveling time, it makes for a much more interesting drive.

A classic little rail car diner on Hwy 9 near Brattleboro, Vermont.
Brattleboro is one of those picturesque little towns tucked in among the hills. Lots of cool shops, cafés, brew pubs, and not one but two bike shops. While there, I had to get a picture of this:

As I stood there getting a photo, I was getting weird looks from some people standing nearby. Actual conversation:
"I want to get a picture because that's my name up there."
"What - Brooks? or Hotel?"
"Both - my parents had a weird sense of humor."
In the little town of Bennington, Vermont, we entered the town's oldest cemetery - and found Robert Frost's grave. The English teacher in me had to document that.
"I had a lover's quarrel with the world."
I love these old New England headstones. This one dates to 1787 - but it isn't even the oldest one in the cemetery.
While in Bennington getting coffee at a homey little café I met a fellow with a fully loaded Surly Long Haul Trucker who was on his way north to Montreal. Kind of sorry I didn't get a picture of him and his bike - but mostly I was a little envious. Definitely something I'll have to do some day.

That's all for this vacation - I'll be back at work all too soon.