Sunday, May 17, 2015

New (20-Year-Old) Toy!

Oh, Craigslist, why must you tempt me so?

Meet the latest arrival in the garage, tastefully photographed against said garage per the Society of Terrible Amateur Bicycle Photographers Official Rulebook. That's a 1995 Specialized Rockhopper, steel, 20.5" frame, with no squishy bits save the tires. When I saw it listed on the local List of Craig for a song, I decided it simply had to be mine.

It wins nostalgia points because this is the same exact model (and color, even, though a different frame size) that I sold to my Dad back in 1995 during the shop gig where I actually got semi-good at mechanicking. He was recovering from a near-death cardiac "incident", and that Rockhopper was going to be his comeback bike. Eventually, he decided that he still liked his Cannondale road bike more, "incident" or not, so the Rocky was briefly loaned to my then-girlfriend who became my then-financee who is currently serving time as my now-and-future wife. Once I ponied up to buy her a bike of her own, the Rocky went to my sister, where it remains to this day.

Even putting aside nostalgia, though, I think these bikes were (and are) the bee's knees, cat's pajamas, and dog's bollocks. In the mid-to-late 90s, the steel hardtail was still trying (gamely) to compete with cheap aluminum as a viable race weapon, and the result was some pretty light and lively frames, even at midrange price points -- a far cry from today's tank-like steel off-road frames that emphasize bike-polo durability over ride quality. Trek had their 900 series, Gary Fisher had the Hoo Koo E Koo, GT had the Karakoram, and Specialized had this Rockhopper. Geometries had coalesced around a pretty quick-handling standard (with minor variations) thanks to the iconic Bridgestone MB series, though Bridgestone USA was defunct by the time this Rocky hit the sales floor. That bike layout became so standardized that it was just known as "NORBA geometry" for its ubiquity on the professional race circuit. It felt great on dirt and -- though this falls in the category of Unintended Side Effects -- it didn't feel like a chopper on pavement (pretty easy to do when the longest suspension fork on the market has maybe 70mm of travel). Most of these bikes had a full complement of braze-ons if you wanted to add fenders and racks to make them solid utility bikes. In short, they were simple, fun, versatile bikes.

When I take off my rose-colored riding glasses, however, I know darn well that this example is pretty rough. The paint is battered, which isn't unusual for the matte finishes on these frames. The low-end Shimano and Grip Shift parts left a lot to be desired when brand new, and they have not aged well in the last 20 years. But with a bit of adjustment, the bike still runs, and I've now commuted on it enough to confirm that it's worth a few well-chosen upgrades from the parts stash. Even with pretty abused wheels, horrible tires, and a Slime tube in back, it has that lively feel I remember. I'm going to swap the Alivio crank (which Shimano eventually recalled due to breakages) for a Sugino XD, dump the worn-out Grip Shifts and rear derailleur for nicer ones I got from reader Steve K (thanks, Steve!), and hopefully find a good deal on some 26" non-disc-brake wheels (which modern bikery thinks is an obsolete format). With those changes and fresh consumables (rubber, brake pads, cables), I'll have a mechanically good-as-new MTB for chump change.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

"Pro" Tip: Tektro RL520 Brake Levers

The "pro" is in quotes because I don't know what kind of professional I purport to be. Professional unpaid writer? Professional home hack mechanic? But if you use Tektro's road brake lever for v-brakes, I'm a proponent of this trick, which I'm giving you pro bono.

For whatever reason, the angle that the cable housing exits these levers is incredibly awkward on pretty much every bar I've ever installed them. Case in point:

See how the cable comes out pretty much perpendicular to the lever body, then has to make a sharp turn upward to follow the curve of the bar? It's subtle, but it's there -- and it's just enough of a kink to make the action of the cable rough. It works, but it just feels cheap and unpleasant.

The fix for this is really simple: Take a file to the lever body and remove a bit of the upper corner where the cable housing exits, allowing the cable to come off the lever at a more natural angle:

That little corner of the lever body serves no structural purpose that I can determine, and knocking it off lets the cable follow the bar in a smoother arc, resulting in a much better lever feel. Here's the modified lever all cabled up:

Very, very subtle to the eye (heck, I'm not even 100% sure I got my before and after pictures in the right spots), but a night-and-day difference in the hand, especially when I'm dealing with the long cable runs and resulting potential for increased friction on our tandem. Not bad for just a few swipes with a file. 

(Disclaimer: I am not a professional engineer, this is not a manufacturer's recommended hack, my suspicion is that any warranties these levers might have is null and void after the application of a file, and you are taking responsibility for any chance -- however remote -- of lever failure that may result from this modification. Not valid in all states, selection varies by store, yadda yadda yadda trailing off into fine print...)

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Somebody Went to NAHBS...

... and all I got was this link to an amazing photo album.

Seriously, roving reporter and frequent commenter Steve K. made the road trip to Louisville for the North American Handmade Bicycle Show a few weeks ago and has compiled one of the most encyclopedic (and well-photographed) collections of images I've seen on the inter-tubes. Seriously. The coverage from the "real" bike magazines pales in comparison.

I had the crazy idea that I was going to link to (and comment on) specific photos, but there's just too much goodness going on. Even skimming them gave me a head rush. Seriously. Just go there and let it wash over you. I'll still be here once you recover.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Shady Business

As regular readers know, one of my minor obsessions is bicycle lighting and the many ways (in my curmudgeonly opinion) it could be improved. As a result, I was recently contacted by the inventor of the Sombra, dubbed "the world's first tail light diffuser."

If you're scratching your head over what a "tail light diffuser" might be, think of it as the bike equivalent of turning this:

... into this:

If you're looking at those photos and thinking, "But the first one is so much brighter! It has to be better!", then you haven't been paying attention and need to re-read the chapter on frickin' laser beams. I happen to be a firm believer that making lights brighter and tinier is not the be-all, end-all that the light makers would like you to think. My feeling (backed up by absolutely ZERO research) is that I'd rather have a lot of surface area lit up, and if I have to lose some retina-searing power to get there, I'm OK with that.

The Sombra is just that: More surface area for the light you already have. It's a very simple design, a translucent plastic shade that mounts over your existing taillight to give those around you more to see. I was given a review sample by the kind folk(s) at Sombra (BLOGGER FREE SCHWAG DISCLOSURE!), so I gave it a go on my daily driver.

Here's the titanium test-bed from the side with its normal rear illumination, a Planet Bike SuperFlash:

Same thing, with the Sombra installed:


The Sombra folks intend for it to be mounted on the seatpost binder bolt, wrapping over a seatpost-mounted light. However, since my light rides on the seatstay under my saddlebag, I improvised with my rack mounting points instead. The result's pretty much the same. As you can see, the side view doesn't give up much in the way of light intensity, but there's a lot more illuminated area to be seen. Major, major improvement.

So far, I'm on board. But I wish the Sombra folks had gone all-in and figured out a design that has the same effect on the rear view as well. Here's a look at the back of the bike sans Sombra:

And here it is with the Sombra installed:

Not a lot of difference, right? In fact, you have to look pretty closely to know that it's there.

I rode my normal commute with the Sombra installed for several weeks, but I can't say if drivers noticed me any more or less. Honestly, the drivers around here are (knock wood) pretty polite folks who don't give me a lot of reason to complain, so it wasn't much of a test. I did find it a bit more challenging to turn my light on and off with the Sombra installed while wearing bulky winter gloves, but not annoyingly so. If any of my regular readers have a commute situation where they think a Sombra might make a bigger difference, I'd be glad to send you the prototype to try in your urban jungle if you promise to report back.

If anything, one of the Sombra's biggest strengths is paradoxically one of its biggest weak points. The thing is so simple, if you have the slightest DIY inclination, you're going to look at it and think, "I'll bet I could make that!" As soon as I started pondering ways to possibly reshape it to improve rear visibility, I realized that with a couple bucks' worth of plastic file folder and some scissors, I could probably hack any number of diffusers in whatever shape or size my twisted little mind could devise. Granted, the same response applies here as to the armchair modern art critic who says "my kid could paint that": Yes, but your kid didn't. The Sombra folks came up with this idea, did the hacking, worked the iterations, and deserve kudos for pushing the bike lighting business in the right direction. If they succeed -- or if the idea catches on -- we'll all be a little safer for it.

So, the verdict, in terrible bicycle magazine bullet point style...

  • Definitely improves side visibility.
  • Easy to install.
  • Shouldn't be very expensive (final pricing isn't set yet).   

  • Doesn't improve rear visibility.
  • Can make it harder to turn your light on and off, depending on the light.
  • Almost too simple for its own good.