Saturday, February 28, 2009

Retro Raliegh Update: Weight Weenie Bug Strikes

Just as my own weight balloons up to a whopping [REDACTED], I'm getting uncontrollable weight weenie urges on the new/old Raleigh International hanging from the workstand.
Regular readers may recall my initial intention to do a path racer build with a flip-flop drivetrain, two brakes, luggage, and steel fenders. I started down that path, but made the mistake of taking it down out of the stand to torque the crank bolts when it was a chain short of being completely built. Dang, that thing felt light! Then I recalled the International owned by the late, great Sheldon Brown (similar vintage, same size, and even the same color) that he'd once built into a fixed gear described as, "well under 20 lbs."

At that point, the hook was set. I stripped the rear brake and freewheel off, cast aside thoughts of big bags and chromed steel fenders, and started thinking light. I know, I'm hopelessly behind the times -- in the age of "sub-15" road racers, "sub-20" seems to be a descriptor saved for mountain bikes. But I've never owned a sub-20 bike of any sort, and only ridden them on brief test spins in my shop days. The thought of attacking (as much as my corpulent arse can attack anything) a hill on a fixie that feels like I could pick it up with my pinkie? Too good to pass up.

I'm still keeping it built smart, with the Redline's old 36/36 wheelset and (folding) 700x35 tires, but it won't feature any luxury items -- the Gordon can keep all the cupholders, seat heaters, map lights, and OnStar. And I'm not pursuing weight weeniedom to the depths of titanium toeclip bolts or Swiss-cheesed components. I'm not actively trying to make it light -- I'm just not actively trying to make it heavy, either.

The build is almost done -- with a chain, I could ride it today, but my guess is that it wouldn't be terribly comfortable. I took some measurements and realized that my stubby T-rex arms probably won't make it to the bars without a stem that has less extension and more quill. I'm pretty accustomed to that... everything else in the stable has an upjutting 8 cm stem, so why would this be any different? I'm also undecided on bars/brake levers, but I have enough spare parts in the pile to experiment.

Of course, the weather taunted me with a dusting of fresh snow yesterday, and I'm sure we'll get the traditional state basketball tournament blizzard in March, so this fair-weather bike is still something of an academic exercise.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Tiny Picture Of A Tiny Dude

Meet Jackson Todd, micro-nephew extraordinaire. He's now breathing regular old room air without a respirator like a champ. Plus, he likes to chug a bottle then nap for the rest of the day -- just like his uncle!

I'm hoping to see him (and elder brother Wilson, of course) in person in a couple weeks. Fingers crossed that he'll be home by then...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bursting The Bubble

Local news reports that the Iowa legislature is trying to make our streets safer for bicycles with a "five foot bubble" law. In short, motorists would be forced to give cyclists a five foot berth when passing or face a "misdemeanor fine of up to $35" which would "grow to $1,000 if the driver kills someone."

Huh. I feel safer already. Up to $35 for a brush-back, and a whopping four figures if I'm actually snuffed out. I'm sure my widow will applaud the courage of the Iowa legislature for that one.

And assuming this genius piece of legislation gets signed, does anyone really expect a police officer to actually pull someone over and levy that "up to $35" fine when someone penetrates my five foot bubble? I would need my own police escort through downtown to pull over... well, just about every car in sight.

I credit our lawmakers for having their hearts in the right place, but the bubble concept just seems misguided. Here's my proposal instead: Enforce the laws that already exist. The vehicular code says I'm just that -- a vehicle, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. Force car drivers to treat me as such, and fine them when they don't. Get too close? Knock me over because you're too busy text messaging? That's not an "oopsie." That's reckless driving. And -- heaven forbid -- if you kill me, that's vehicular manslaughter, plain and simple.

If I wanted to be in a bubble, I'd drive a car.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Mission: Make Nephew A Bike Mechanic

This is, at its core, a self-serving mission, as I just want someone in the family who can get me parts at cost in my old age. I don't miss the wages of bike shop work, but man, how I do miss thumbing through that Quality Bicycle Parts catalog (the "behind the counter" copy with wholesale pricing in it) to see just how much I could buy if I had actual wages.

(Secretly, I hope that by the time young Wilson can take up the wrench, our dependence on the car will have finally imploded, the bicycle will be seen as a viable -- nay, vital -- mode of transportation, and a good bike mechanic will be respected and paid like a surgeon... or at least a plumber. Uh huh. Right.)

But Grandma Nancy tells me stories of the little dude that make me think he has the soul of a mechanic, even before he's cracked the ripe old age of two. For example:

  • His favorite sentence is, "What's that?" A thirst for new information? Check!
  • Much to Grandma Nancy's chagrin (because she saw these often-maddening tendencies some 30-plus years ago in yours truly), he likes to take things apart and (usually) put them back together. Heck, I watched him learn how to deal with Legos in nothing flat. Mechanical aptitude? Check!
  • Another sentence in his limited verbal arsenal is, "Is this it?" As in, he tries to put something together, holds up the attempt to a nearby tall person, and asks, "Is this it?" If the answer's no, he tries again. Willingness to learn and persistence? Check!
(He's also quite good with the word "hot" -- so maybe he'll be a framebuilder too, since he already understands the key feature of a welding torch.)

I have to confess, I wasn't the first person to come up with this idea. Local pal Tom A. (who's going into my blogroll ASAP) has already started turning his twin girls into a two-headed mechanical juggernaut. But I may be the first to apply the "Chinese gymnast" approach and start a training regime on a toddler. Hey, mechanics are going to be in demand in my delusional utopia, so there's no time to waste.

Friday, February 20, 2009

I'm An Uncle... Again!

This just in... at approximately midnight, my sis brought new nephew Jackson Todd into the world. Mom, infink, Dad, and bro Wilson are all well. No word on the condition of dog Molly, though I suspect it's "spastic as always." Also no report on Grandma Nancy, but my guess is "gushing."

Thus, Aunt Carla and I go from having the World's Coolest Nephew to having the World's Coolest Nephew
S. We are greatly psyched.

(I'm also way touched that sis E.B. referred to the new guy as "little J.T." since I'm Jason Taft, i.e. "big J.T." He's clearly vying for Favored Nephew Status already, although I adamantly refuse to play favorites.)

Monday, February 16, 2009

It's Not Business, It's Personal

When I hit The Cycle this morning (because, as I always say, somebody has to read this stuff), my Google-spam was one giant ad from a department store chain with stores in Iowa (I tell you this because I don't know if everyone sees the same ads or if they're hunting me off my IP address).

Funny thing is, I used to work for that department store. In fact, it was my first "grown-up" job, the one that brought me back to Iowa. I wrote ad copy for them -- or more accurately, transcribed sale prices into shouting newspaper ads -- but it was the first time someone actually exchanged money for my ability to put words in order, so it was a pretty heady rush. At the time, it was an Iowa company, headquartered in downtown Des Moines (although it was owned by a bigger company elsewhere) with its corporate offices sitting on top of an actual retail store. It had been there since the dawn of time, and -- the old-timers assured the punk kids -- it would provide us with jobs for as long as we wanted them.

Anyone living in today's economy is already hearing the hoofbeats of the horsemen on the horizon, right? Because one fateful day, the entire corporate office was called in to the TEAM Room (Together Everyone Achieves More -- gag, right?) for a meeting. And in that meeting, the president of our little company let us all know that our corporate overlords had decided to fold our office into another chain, closing us down and laying off all 250 of us. Even said president was going to have to clean his desk after he dropped the bomb.

Years later, with a new job I like much more than that silly copywriting gig, I've since gotten over my bitterness, that sense of being just a number on a balance sheet, an expendable expense, a drag on the stock price. But I can't help feeling deja vu as I watch people around me -- good people, talented people, smart people, people who have given up nights and weekends for their corporate overlords -- being "displaced." That's the euphemism. Displaced. So gentle, so kind. Totally hides the fact that a real flesh-and-blood person is now on the outside looking in, wondering just how to make that next mortgage payment.

My last bike shop gig was in a small family-run Schwinn shop -- my boss sold bikes out of one end of the building while his dad sold mowers and chainsaws out of the other end, and his mom did the books for both. We did a brisk business through December, since a lot of bikes went under Christmas trees. But come January and February, things got brutally slow. We ran a pool on how many people would set off the door buzzer on any given eight-hour shift, and some days, the winning number could be counted on one hand. Without the occasional sale of a Schwinn Airdyne (and the "house calls" doing repairs on same for the local health clubs), the cash register wouldn't have made a peep.

Through all that, Bill kept me on. I couldn't have been generating enough income to justify my salary, but he kept paying it, and told me many times that he wished he could pay me more. We played darts, made mountain bike obstacle courses around the shop, plotted dream bike builds, read from his collection of old catalogs, shot the breeze, and some days I just watched the place while he bowhunted deer from his tree stand out back. I even asked him point-blank why he kept me around during the slow months, but he always brushed it off with the same old joke: "Know how to make a million bucks in the bike business? Start with two million."

I wish I could deliver the happy ending here, but that shop is long gone now, out of business, and last I heard, Bill had a desk job for a corporate overlord of his own. Meanwhile, the guys who created our current economic mess will hang on to their jobs, and maybe if they can "displace" a few more thousand salaries from the balance sheet, they might take home an obscene bonus along the way. If there's a happy ending there, I'm not seeing it.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

How Shall I Build Thee? Let Me Count The Parts

As an unabashed bike-parts-minutiae nerd, this is my absolute favorite part of a new bike, and one of many reasons I never buy a new bike box-stock off the floor. I love plotting a build. It's like when I was a kid and I popped the latches on the giant hard-side suitcase that held all my Legos (yes, I know, it's a brand and therefore an adjective not a noun, but I figure I'm among friends.)

The concept for the International build right now is a semi-modern take on the lightweight but versatile British "path racer" -- the closest current-production equivalent would probably be the Pashley Guv'nor. Basically it's a do-it-all singlespeed: puffy tires for all-surface rides, light "day-trip" luggage, simple fixed (or flip-flop) drivetrain, moderate all-day gearing, and a full complement of brakes. If I'm really thinking about doing more distance riding on a fixed gear (whaddya say, Fuller, still in for a fixie century?), my fun-but-a-jackhammer Redline is not going to cut it.

So, here's how I'm piecing it together in my head...

'71 Raleigh International frame/fork (duh) with original (I think -- Steve K?) Campy headset. Don't mess with perfection here.

The 36-spoke flip-flop wheelset from the Redline has proven to be smooth and tough, even through some pretty rugged winter riding. Plus, since it's all silver and easy on the logos, it looks classic enough to grace an older frame. 17t fixed cog (got it), 18t freewheel (need it), and the NOS 700x35 Michelin Hi-Lite Tour folding tires I've been hoarding for just this opportunity will finish off the rolling stock.

Waffling here. I certainly don't want to put the ugly-but-functional black crankset from the Redline on a classic. Maybe it wouldn't look so bad on the Bruce Gordon, which would free up the Gordon's silver Sugino for the Raleigh. Either way, I have a 42t ring that will yield 67" on the fixed side, 63" free. Pedals are a further waffle... I really like my BMX platforms, but they would look just too wrong, and probably get me laughed off the iBOB list. MKS Touring Pedals would look OK, but I don't like their lack of grip. I'm also intrigued by the Velo Orange touring pedal -- it looks like it might split the difference between a BMX pedal's grip and the classic look of the MKS. Or maybe a modern knock-off of Suntour beartraps would hit that balance between new and old. Or maybe I'll dust off the SPDs and revel in the anachronism.

And speaking of anachronism, I think the original non-aero brake levers will have to be relegated to the parts bin of history. My hands have never met a non-aero lever they liked, and -- call me a punk kid -- but big loops of brake cable flopping in the breeze bug me. Cane Creek does a gum hood for their Campy-shaped aero lever, which might provide a nice classic/modern blend. I'll either stick with the original Weinman centerpulls or dump the cable hanger excess and go with extra-long-reach Tektro dual pivots. Regardless of caliper choice, it will be the incomparable Kool Stop salmon pads providing the stopping oomph.

Bars will most likely be some flavor of drops (since I have them), although I'm also intrigued by the "scorcher" look that Todd over at The 6-Miler has created using Wald 8095 bars -- and regular readers already know about my Wald fetish. I still need a silver 27.2mm seatpost -- how is it possible that I don't have the most common seatpost size ever in my ridiculously overgrown parts stash? I feel like I'm stuck in a bike version of the Monty Python "Cheese Shop" sketch: "It's the SINGLE MOST POPULAR SEATPOST SIZE IN THE WORLD!" And finally, on top of that seatpost, I'll need a saddle. Could this be my excuse to experience the joy of a Brooks leather saddle? Devoted users seem to have a relationship with their Brookses that make me want to say, "Dude, do you and your saddle need some time alone?" Who wouldn't want to experience that kind of pleasure from a bike saddle?

The frame has no water bottle brazeons, although I have one bar-mounted cage. Throw a stainless steel bottle in there, and you're talking serious nuovo-retro style points. I'll need some kind of saddlebag (Carradice would be oh-so-nice, but I'll probably just make do with something I have), and (of course), I'll need another set of those fancy Wald fenders to bling it out.

Whew! I'm spent. Whaddya think?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

New (Old) Bike: A Word-Encrusted Photo Essay

Looks like I can check one thing off my 2009 To-Do List, as I am now the proud owner of a bike that's older than me thanks to Peoria Pal Steve K.
Part one: The box. I kind of scampered around this monolith like a monkey from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course, I normally act like a hairy primate (hey, I yam what I yam), so this wasn't terribly unusual.
Luckily, this particular primate can use rudimentary tools. I kept to the theme and cued up Also Sprach Zarathustra on the stereo, struggling mightily during the tympani player's moment of glory (ever try opening a box sealed by an engineer?), and finally raising the mummified frame in triumph just as the signature power chords came crashing down.
Did I mention that Pal Steve is an engineer? This thing would have survived a mission to the moon with nary a scratch. For my younger readers, that substance wrapped around the frame is called "newspaper." It's where news came from before The Daily Show. Imagine a cross between the internet and toilet paper, and you sort of have the idea.
Happy, happy monkey. That's a remarkably well-preserved (considering its age) 1971 Raleigh International frame in the foreground: Reynolds 531 tubes, Nervex lugs, long horizontal Campy dropouts, and scads of shiny chrome. Fork's not shown, but it too has a nifty chrome crown, 531 blades, and chromed tips that are raked out to next week. (In the background is a not-so-well-preserved lug made in 1972.)

In keeping with the British theme, Pal Steve also included a stack of Cycling Plus magazines that he'd finished. For my American readers, Cycling Plus is a glossy color magazine that's actually about bicycles -- unlike our own Bicycling, which uses tiny chunks of advertiser-stroking copy as a binding agent to hold together all the full-page SUV ads.
Okay, you got me. This is just another gratuitous shot of the frame, this time clutched by a headless oaf. I'm only including it in the hopes that someone will recognize my 1999 Smicksburg (PA) Century t-shirt and congratulate me on completing that particular wheeled death march without vomiting (much). Shout out to the former Laurel Highlands Schwinn team from Latrobe, the cycling scourges of western Pennsylvania! Bill, Chadolini, Hutch and Tinky, how are yunz doing?

I'm going to be on a little riding sabbatical for the next couple weeks, but believe me, I'll be plotting the build of this retro beauty while I'm out of the saddle. It will probably suck up plenty of blog bandwidth as it comes together, too. I have some ideas about how I'd like to set it up, but if you want to play along with me and offer suggestions, I'm all ears.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Fascinated By Shiny Things

This just in -- the 89-26 "lightweight" fender set from those artists of chromed steel at Wald will fit on a 700c touring/cross bike with room to spare, despite being advertised as a fender for 26" wheels.

As proof, I submit my much-loved Bruce Gordon, freshy gussied up with twenty bucks (seriously!) of Kentucky chrome. Your bike may vary, but my only modification from stock was to drill a second hole in the front fender stays and lop off the original hole that was intended for the front axle. This allowed me to bolt the stay to my fender eyelets and maintain a good fender line. The rear mounted up with the original, factory drilled hole once I added some big washers (since, again, the hole was intended for an axle, not a small bolt running to an eyelet.)

My set didn't come with all the hardware I needed -- there wasn't an L-bracket to bolt the front fender to the fork crown or a bracket to attach the rear fender to the brake bridge. It seems those are sold separately, at astoundingly reasonable Wald prices -- about two bucks for a set with everything you need. I had spares in the garage from old fenders, so I just used those instead.

I haven't test-ridden the setup yet (note the computer mount dangling in the front wheel that needs to be addressed first), but the fenders look like they'll provide more coverage (and definitely more toughness) than the Planet Bikes they replaced. I'm kind of stunned that you can get such a nice looking metal fender with rolled edges for so darn cheap. I would wonder if there's a catch in terms of rust or long-term reliability, but I know my grandparents' Schwinn DeLuxe Twinn tandem sported a pair of Wald fenders from the day it was purchased in 1967, and those fenders still looked (and performed) great when they finally sold the bike in 1998.

I confess, I also took perverse delight in mounting $20 Wald fenders on a Bruce Gordon with an XT/XTR drivetrain. Take that, snobs!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Another Job I Want

Some may recall my public plea to Wald to hire me as a writer. So far, that attempt at career development has fallen on deaf ears (Wald people, I'm serious, let's talk), but in the meantime, I've found something else I'd like to be when I grow up.

On my commute home today, I noticed some kind of crane/construction thing parked on one of the bridges in downtown Des Moines with its boom swung out over the river. At the end of that boom hung a wrecking ball. And the operator of said machine was using the wrecking ball to smash up ice jams under the bridge, picking it up and slamming it down again and again on the floes of ice clogging the river below. Wham! Wham!

Talk about appealing to my inner five-year-old. City of Des Moines, the next time you're hiring ice-breaker-uppers, I'm in.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

OCD At The Bike Shop

It occurs to me that I've never actually fessed up on-blog about my sordid past in the bicycle business. I've done time with a wrench in five bike shops (in four states), starting when I was a mere towheaded tyke of 18. Three of those shops are now out of business -- and I'll leave it to the reader to draw your own conclusions about that little factoid.

The shop that probably had the most influence on me as a bike guy was a small-but-busy bike, racquet and ski place (name withheld to protect the innocent and the guilty, though it's one of the two in five that survived me) where I put in a blissful bumming-around year after collecting my first useless degree. The bulk of what we sold was remarkably dull, as this was the mid-90s era of the ubiquitous $250-$400 rigid/hardtail mountain bike. If pressed, I can probably still fake my way through a spiel about the miniscule differences between the Specialized Hardrock and GT Outpost circa 1995, since I sold about a warehouse and a half of those things to college students packing parental cash.

What I did learn from that shop, however, was an obsessive, relentless, dictatorial, damn near insane attention to detail that I've never been able to shake since. My first new-bike assembly took me all of twenty minutes... on my first attempt. By the time the manager got through ripping me open in front of my new shop-mates and showing me (step by excruciating step) how to do it right, we'd spent most of a day. There was a 25-point
checklist, for Pete's sake! Torque values! Shop-standard angles for brake levers! All seat tubes had to be flex-honed so they wouldn't leave zig-zags on the seatpost. And woe unto the rookie who didn't pull the cables out of their housings so said housings could be cut down to the proper length before the cables were greased, reinstalled, pre-stretched, and readjusted. Leave those big, floppy loops of factory-installed housing out in the breeze and you'd catch grief for a week. It wasn't enough that the pre-V-brake, pain-in-the-ass cantilevers stopped the bike; they had to do it with perfect bilateral symmetry, their pads square with the rims and toed in just so. Oh, and don't forget to wipe up any grease splooge (because you'd greased damn near everything) and polish the frame to get your fingerprints off. Then, take it for a test ride to make sure you didn't miss anything, sign that checklist and hang it from the bars with the owner's manual so everyone knows it's one of yours... and so the guy next to you knows who to ream if he finds a mistake on the floor that slows him down and costs him a sale. The head mechanic actually had a unique way of crimping on aluminum cable ends so he could recognize his own assemblies when they came back for 30-day checkups or future repairs.

Over the top? Probably. But I can't walk into a shop today without judging everything I see by those same insane standards. If I feel a loose headset, see a sagging tire, or notice a row of bikes with their brake levers all akimbo, my gut says, "Sloppy work done by people who don't care about bikes. Take your money somewhere else." Now before the wrenches of today start piling on, trying to tell me how fast they have to crank out assemblies just to keep up, let me don my Grumpy Old Mechanic apron: We did it in a college town shop. You think you have to move a lot of bikes? Try it on a campus of 20,000 during the first week of classes. And every bike that crossed the threshold from workshop to sales floor -- from the cheapest Hardrock to the most expensive team bike replica -- had to get that same obsessive attention to detail.

If you can't hack that, just sell it to me in the box. I'll do it myself.

Monday, February 2, 2009

What I've Learned In Minnesota

One: When a GPS says "recalculating" (in its mechanical-yet-alluring Australian accent), it's really saying, "Hey, idiot, you missed the turn even though I've been telling you about it for two miles. Give me a second and I'll save your pathetic carbon-based butt again." It's like getting a passive-aggressive dressing down by the Jetsons' robot Rosie as played by Nicole Kidman in a live-action remake. (Note to Hollywood producers: You know the idea's brilliant. Call me.)

Two: Heated seats were made for February in Minnesota. My tushie like rental car lots.

Good grief, I am tired. Say goodnight, Jason.

("Goodnight, Jason.")

Sunday, February 1, 2009

"Subsistence Commuting"

I'd love to take credit for that phrase, but it comes from pal Tarik, spinning blog gold (as usual) over at Moscaline. Observant readers may have noticed that when I futzed with my blogroll this month, Moscaline went on a brief and unintentional hiatus from The Cycle. Dear reader, if you missed anything, get over there now and catch up. And sincere apologies to he of the mighty moustache for the temporary service interruption.

Tarik just tossed off the idea of "subsistence commuting" during his year-end motion update, but the concept stuck in my head. It pretty much describes the only motion I'm getting these days -- about thirty minutes per day of miserable fixed-gear slogging through slushy, cold crap. The distance I cover each day barely counts as riding, but something about gearing up and getting in the saddle resets my brain, tells me I'm still a biker, there's still hope.

No subsistence today, though -- still on the clock. And
The Cycle will be on the road tomorrow and Tuesday, visiting the land of long-O sounds and hot dishes to the north, don'tcha know. I'll be bikeless (and wouldn't have time to ride if I had one) up there, but I'll probably spin some blog pyrite (that's "fool's gold" for those who weren't paying attention in science class) from The Cities.