Saturday, October 23, 2021

Ready for my closeup.

I bought one of those cheap “ring lights” in a vain (in more ways than one) attempt to look less homely on video calls for work. Of course, it failed miserably at that task - a few bucks worth of plastic and LEDs can’t work miracles - but as I studied the mounting clip, I was struck by an idea:

Voila! Basket-mounted, USB-rechargeable bike headlight!

No clue how well the clip will hold up over bumps, how many lumens this bad boy puts out, or how long it will last on a full charge, but I figure it adds some visibility to my basketed steed as a supplement to my “real” light, and what else was I going to do with it? 

For the beam nerds, here’s what it looks like lit up in my garage:

I was never destined for YouTube stardom anyway…

Monday, October 18, 2021

Overcoming some deep-seated snobbery.

The first bike shop I worked in was just a corner of a hardware store. Our clientele wasn't particularly interested in the minutiae of tubing butt profiles, chromoly versus aluminum, Shimano's complex and arcane product hierarchy, and the like. So I learned quickly to point out visible differences between different bike models that would justify the difference in price from one to the next.

One easy marker (at least in the late 1980s) was wheel retention: the cheapest bikes had bolt-on wheels front and rear. Spend a little more, and you'd get a quick-release front wheel - which could be sold as "easy to remove so you can fit the bike in your car." Another rung up the price ladder got you quick-releases front and rear, which made flat repair so much easier - a dubious value proposition when most people brought their bikes to us to fix their flats, but at least it was a visible thing I could point to.

For those who weren't impressed with wheel retention, I'd turn to pedals. The cheapest bikes had all-plastic pedals. Further up the line, you'd get plastic bodies with metal cages. And the good bikes would have pedals with both metal bodies and metal cages. Now that we're in an era where all bikes either come without pedals (under the assumption that the buyer will add their own favorite model of clipless pedal) or come with those cheap, all-plastic pedals as test ride placeholders, it's hard to believe that pedals could actually be a selling point, but there you have it.

That formative experience has left me as a bit of a metal-pedal snob, though. So it's a bit surprising that my main steed is now wearing these:

What can I say? The supply chains are weird these days, I'm a cheapskate, and I wanted something big, thin, light, and concave, so I put aside my anti-plastic bias and gave these Tioga Surefoot Slims a shot since they seemed to tick all the right boxes on paper. Too soon to give a full, definitive review, but I like them after a few rides. We'll see how they hold up after a few months under my paddle-feet.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

The best Shimano cantilever brake that Shimano never made.

I know that declaring the "best cantilever brake" in 2021 is not unlike announcing the best dirigible (insert "oh, the humanity!" joke here, unless 84 years later is still "too soon" for that), but I'm going to yet again make a bold-yet-outdated pronouncement and call this the BEST CANTILEVER BRAKE EVER:

What you're seeing is a Shimano BR-M550 (a.k.a. Deore LX) brake (or more accurately, half of it) from the early 1990s, brought out of the Age of Grunge with some modern brake pads (the modern-ish straddle hanger is just there because I was too lazy to put something else in its place). So what makes this thing so great, you ask? (Humor me and ask, or I'll just pretend you did.)

  1. Medium-profile geometry. If you want to go deep down the cantilever brake theory rabbit hole (hey, I don't judge), there still isn't anyone who's done it better than the late, great Sheldon Brown. But for those who just want to finish reading this list and get back to their corn flakes, a medium-profile brake is easy to set up while offering scads of power and modulation from both flat-bar and drop-bar brake levers.
  2. That little pad upgrade. Shimano was SO close to perfection with these back in the early 90s, except that they hadn't figured out the now-ubiquitous threaded-post brake shoe hardware (that would come with V-brakes around 1995). Instead, the brakes came with these comically fat pads (seriously, they're like a caricature of a brake pad) with awkward and insufficient toe-in adjustment (as an annoying bonus, the choice of pad and hardware also made these brakes somewhat intolerant of little details like varying rim width or cantilever post spacing, likely because this was when Shimano thought it could bend the entire industry to its will and mandate such dimensions). Dump those, throw in some modern pad holders (I'm using Tektro holders and Kool Stop inserts), and you've made a brake that was already easy to set up laughably easy.
  3. Shimano's good stuff. These babies were made in Japan when the Japanese bike parts makers were absolutely at the top of their game, and it shows. I do have a soft spot for modern Tektro cantilevers, but you can install one brand-new from the box that has more play in it than this 30-year-old LX. Is it a little heavier than it absolutely needs to be? Maybe. But when you pair the brick-shitehouse construction with the precise tolerances, all your squeeze goes into stopping rather than flexing or squealing. That's worth a few grams in my book.
  4. No respect. I don’t remember anyone being enamored with these back in the day (likely due to the foibles mentioned above), and they haven’t seen a huge growth in popularity since (though I’m sure this post will cause a run on them). The vanishingly small subset of people who convert vintage touring bikes from 27” wheels to 700c report that they work great with the narrow post spacing on some of those bikes, but otherwise, these are seen as parts box detritus - which means you can snap them up on the cheap.
  5. Not-stupid design. Why for the love of all that is good and decent do so many modern cantilever and V-brakes not open up all the way when you undo the straddle? Is it that hard to design a brake that lets the pad clear the fork blades and seatstays? What's the point of a brake that clears a super-fat tire if you can't get that super-fat tire past the brake pads without deflating it when you try to take the wheel off the bike? Do I have any more rhetorical questions? Could I possibly just illustrate this point with a photo instead?

Shimano has tried to recapture and improve upon the 550 magic a few times in the three decades hence, most recently with a couple (now discontinued) CX-series models, although those used yet another oddball style of pad mounting hardware. So if you want the good stuff, head (safely, please) down to the local bike co-op and dig through the boxes for some crusty cantilevers of yesteryear.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

This again?

Yep, back like a bad check. Because nothing's more timely and cutting-edge in 2021 than... a blog. (I considered TikTok, but if you've seen me dance, you know that's a terrible idea.)

Rather than offer a tiresome explanation of where I've been and what I've been up to (because I think we can all agree that nobody needs a rehash of the last few years), I'm just going to try to pick up where I left off, boring all six of you with my increasingly outdated and curmudgeonly look at obscure bits of bike stuff. In short, I'll be writing about things that entertain me, and if I happen to entertain or inform you along the way, well, that's just grand.

All good? Then buckle up, because it's going to be a yawn-inducing ride.