Friday, April 30, 2010

Grabbing The Third Rail With Both Hands

Once again, The Cycle dares to go where others fear to tread. It's the topic that proves (and proves, and proves) Godwin's Law all over the cycle-net. More controversial than doping. More polarizing that Jobst Brandt. More frightening than Jobst Brandt on dope.

You guessed it: Helmets. Some folks say you should always wear them. Some say you should be free to choose for yourself. Some won't ride with helmetless riders. Others suspect that the helmet gives a false sense of security which leads to risk-taking, crashes and injury. Some sleep with their helmet like it's a styrofoam wubbie.

Battles rage across the interwebs. Friend against friend. Brother against brother. Mortal combat wrought in binary flame. The topic is even banned from some online discussion groups. But here at The Cycle, we fear no controversy. And so, with no hedging, whining, backtracking, or other weasel-speak, I present to you, dear reader, something I believe with absolute conviction when it comes to helmets:


Of course, like most good snarkiness, there's a touch of self-loathing in here somewhere. See, I owned (and wore with pride!) a Toilet... er, TourLite back in the day, just like the one modeled by the dapper gent in the snazzy rainbow jersey. I can only assume he's just won the coveted CLWC: Cylon Lookalike World Championships -- and I'm talking 80s Cylons, not the cool kind.

(Seriously now, folks at Bell: I kid because I care. Over the years, Bell helmets have valiantly thrown themselves between my thick skull and big rocks, trees, pavement, errant squirrels, and the occasional head-butt of a dumb friend more times than I'd like to count. And it's not like I was a style maven in 1984 either...)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Part 2 of our Blast from the Past series (featuring the June 1984 premier edition of Cyclist magazine, remember) is this half of the full-page Avocet spread featured inside the front cover.

I find this amusing/interesting from a 2010 perspective only because it gives us a glimpse of Round One of the Great Fabric Wars. Reading the copy, it would seem that in 1984 the world of cycling fashion was being crushed under the dirty hoof of Big Wool. Meanwhile, mad scientists in tiny labs (with beakers, flasks, and oddly colored liquids) were crafting spunky little synthetic fabrics in the vain hope of taking a tiny mutton-flavored bite out of the Sheep Syndicate.

Of course, here in 2010, we know that the plasti-fabrics won that round and have since rewritten the history books to make wool the itchy, moth-bitten loser. These days, it's the wool folks bleating quietly in their tiny pastures, desperate to convince a plastic world to go merino. As Smartwool, Icebreaker, Woolistic, Kucharik, Wabi Woolens, and countless other shepherds gain momentum, will we look back on the late aughts as the next turning point in the sheep vs. science battle?

Aside to my younger readers: You probably don't know who Avocet is, but in my day, they OWNED the saddle world. Their touring models were some of the first (I hesitate to say THE first, since some snarky weasel like me will undoubtedly quote chapter, verse and Daniel Rebour scan from The Data Book to prove me wrong) to feature anatomic bumps under your rump. In the 80s, I convinced myself that I would ride NOTHING but their Gelflex models, the ones with some kind of magic snot under scary-slick Lycra covers and plastic bumpers on the corners. Brilliant engineering there... the bumpers were always placed right next to the spot where your saddle would actually get torn, so you'd give them credit for trying as you bought yet another new saddle.

Avocet also made tires... in two models: with tread and without (don't let the seemingly live site fool you -- they're gone, gone gone). And the dang things worked. But this "sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't" marketing approach -- without 87 different SKUs to encompass a dizzying array of colors, rubber compounds and tread patterns for every condition ("bummer, dude, I've got my 'wet dirt' tires on, but this trail looks like mud") -- obviously meant that they couldn't survive.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Blast From The Past, Part 1

Proving that NOBODY (yep, NOBODY) has a better research staff than we do here at The Cycle (we're like the love child of Indiana Jones and a naughty librarian), I'm pleased to present Part 1 of what I hope will become an ongoing series of unearthed treasures of cycle-historical literature.

Today's entry is the premier issue of Cyclist magazine, published in June of 1984 when your humble narrator was a mere towheaded tyke of 12. Dang, what was I riding in '84? I'm going to guess that I on Cousin Dale's two-ton, hand-me-down, baby-blue Schwinn Continental. 

(Damn you, Billy Joel! now THAT'S stuck in my head! If you aren't in a quiet place, you can turn up your cheap pair of speakers and suffer with me.)

Anway, our dedicated researchers unearthed a pristine copy of this new-to-me publication at a local used book sale, immediately donned white cotton gloves so as not to sully it with the oils from their skin, purchased it for the princely sum of 50 cents, and slapped it on the scanner before putting it to rest in the climate-controlled vault. I'm still studying the resulting scans and extracting the finest nuggets of blog gold*, but in the meantime, here's a cover shot to whet your appetite:

Hairnets, baby! And fast bikes under $400! Heck, you can't even buy a fast bike's rear derailleur for a quartet of Benjamins these days!

*"Blog gold" appears without permission** of Mr. T. Saleh and Moscaline, Incorporated, but we think he's a cool enough dude to let it slide. Though what he's doing associating with hacks like that Nunemaker fella on Veloquent is beyond us... 

**Scratch that, "blog gold" now appears with limited permission -- see comments. And for the record, my mom is NOT a naughty librarian. Although that would make my dad a swashbuckling adventurer rather than a mild-mannered grade school principal who looked kinda dorky in hats, so maybe the extension of the metaphor ain't so bad after all.***

***And in case you're wondering, I went to a lecture/reading about David Foster Wallace last night, hence the obsession with footnotes. It will pass.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

We Interrupt This Broadcast...

... for a musical interlude.

A friend just loaned me Them Crooked Vultures. 

A supergroup that includes one former member of Led Zeppelin and one former member of Nirvana? Even in my wildest musical fantasies, I never would have thought of that.

Evil genius who devised this tool of blissful eardrum damage, I thank you. Profoundly.

Spotting An Old Shop Mechanic In The Wild

I've been swapping pedals on the bike quite a bit lately, since I find myself in the exceedingly odd (and hopefully temporary) position of having one (gulp) bike. So I often need to ride that bike in fancy click-in biker shoes one day, regular-dude shoes the next.

As I spun off the flats for clipless yet again yesterday, I realized that pedal installation style is one sure-fire way to tell if you're watching an old (um, vintage?) shop mechanic at work. Here's how we did it in ye olden days:
  • Rub pedal threads on the edge of the (always-open) grease tub.* This gets enough lube on the threads to keep the pedals from sticking later, but doesn't add so much that you end up with grease boogers to clean up.
  • Finger-start the pedal in the crank by a turn or so.
  • Place pedal wrench on the pedal.
  • Use the pedal wrench to spin the cranks backwards like a maniac until you hit the end of the threads.
  • Grab the opposite crankarm with your other hand and give a final snugging on the pedal wrench. Done.
*The open grease tub is for pedal threads and seatposts. Bearing overhauls get the good -- and clean -- stuff from the sealed tube. And no, I don't do enough of either to warrant a dual-grease system in the home shop... but I sure miss the smell of that open tub sometimes.

Now, none of that is particularly unique. The Park Tool website will pretty much give you the same deal in much more detail. But it's that "spin the cranks backwards like a maniac" that separates the shopfolk from the occasional wrenchers. Only years and years of repetition, assembling hundreds of bikes, will ingrain the technique in your head to the point where you just slap on the wrench and spin. Even the most experienced non-pros will have that brief double-take of "which pedal is rightsy-tightsy and which one is weird?"... and real newbies can be flummoxed by this for days.

If you're really good, you can spin pedals off the same way, just by reversing your maniacal spin and turning the cranks forward. The hard part is knowing just when the pedal is going to release from the crankarm so you can twist your wrist at the last second to catch it in the wrench and set it gently on the bench. Miss that in a shop setting and you're going to bounce a pedal off the massive steel-plate base of your PRS shop stand. Man, I miss those stands too, though I don't miss that clanging sound -- or the taunts of "ROOKIE!" that always followed it.

Okay, geezer mechanic lesson over for the day. Hopefully, the Secret Society of Greasy People won't send a "re-educator" to punish me for giving away our secrets. You do not want to know what those guys can do to a "misguided former member of the Order" with one of these things.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Nebbish In Nebraska

Our intrepid staff here at The Cycle headed west last weekend for a visit to Council Bluffs, IA and a cross-border excursion into Omaha, NE. Since I'm incapable of visiting a new place without skulking around its purveyors of bicycle (and coffee) products, here's my quickie rundown of the LBS (and LCS) situation in the land of our nearest Cornhusker neighbors.

First rule: If you're planning a group ride with me, DO NOT LET ME PREPARE THE ROUTE. I hit the streets with a sheaf of Google Maps printouts (I call it "GPS 1.0"), promptly ran into an unforeseen detour, got totally screwed up, and wound up starting at my furthest west destination working back east instead of the planned east-to-west approach. 

Stops 1 and 2 on my new west-to-east route took me to Bike Rack Cycling & Fitness and Trek Bicycle Store of Omaha. I'll admit, both stores were impressive in their size and scope -- Bike Rack was particularly disorientating in its hugeness. But they both reminded me of a trend I've seen in bike shops over the last decade or so... I call it the McDonaldsization (or Wal-Martization if you prefer) of the business. Sure, these big "factory stores" have brought a professional veneer to bike stores that had been lacking. Salespeople in matching polo shirts, clean, well-lit displays, non-surly staff... a far cry from back in the day. Heck, I think the mechanics even shower, if you can believe that. But there's a sameness to these stores that gets boring. I can see the same row of Madones, the same Shimano sandals, the same carbon bling under glass, and even the same "hey, look at this weird, unique city bike thingie!" right here in Des Moines. Or in Kansas City. Or in Minneapolis. Or in Topeka. Or in pretty much any town big enough to get the attention of one of the big brands.

Next stop was Blue Line Coffee, where I reset my inner GPS (and inner cynicism settings) with a delicious cuppa cold press. If you'd told me a decade ago that I should try cold coffee in warm weather, I would have thrown a cup of Folgers in your face (I always keep some around so I can make dramatic gestures without wasting real coffee). But there is just nothing like kicking back on a hot day with real cold-brewed bean. Blue Line did not disappoint there. There was even a vintage Bridgestone mountain bike parked outside, which I took as a good omen.

Okay, more bikes. I pressed on to the hard-to-find (for me, admittedly) Olympia Cycle. Now THAT is my kinda bike store. Dark. Labyrinthine. A bizarre violation of time and space that makes it look tiny outside and massive inside. Old wooden/glass cabinets. A freewheel cog board on the wall (probably unused in decades, but there nonetheless). Boxes of random decades-old detrius with "$5" or "$10" signs (did some spelunking in those puppies, believe me). And a staff that knew to say "hi" and get the heck out of the way. Note to a lot of shop folks... I came here to fondle stuff, not chat. Olympia took me back to the OLD location (not that silly new thing) of Russell's Cycling & Fitness in Washington, IL -- a favorite childhood pilgrimage for me and my dad. Russell's used to store rows and rows of used bikes in old, rusty tractor trailers outside their cramped little excuse for a main building. Friggin' bike-nerd Mecca, I kid thee not. Olympia isn't quite there, but it's as close as I've been since I was a goggle-eyed pubescent.

Okay, final stop: Greenstreet Cycles. Weird, weird vibe. Combine the shiny newness of one of those mega-Trek-marts with the too-cool-for-school bearded hipster zeitgeist I've only seen in Portland and Seattle and you've got Greenstreet. The place is pretty new, so maybe they're still getting it to the right level of scruffy (try harder guys... the Trek store, home of shiny lycra Lance worship, is out-scruffing you right now). All the crisp Chrome stuff and shiny ready-made fashion fixies just made me feel a little icky... like seeing a Gap mannequin in khakis and a Kurt Cobain t-shirt. Maybe I'm just a geezer, though.

So that's OMA NE as I saw it. Thanks to the friends (both virtual and corporeal) who suggested stops on my whirlwind tour. You're welcome to come over and make fun of our bike shops any time. I'll even get you lost if you buy the coffee.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mayor's Annual Ride For FAIL

Copilot C and I should be maneuvering our tandem through the wobbly early-season crowds on the Des Moines Mayor's Annual Ride for Trails right now. 

Should be. We sent in our forms on March 31, getting in well under the deadline for "$20 per person" registration. But when I stopped at City Hall yesterday to get our packets, we weren't on the list, and the bank says our check never cleared. So we had two choices: Pay again (at the procrastinator's "$25 per person" rate) or show up really early this morning to fight the crowds and find the one person who might know if our check actually arrived, since the location where checks were mailed is different from the packet pickup location and seemed to involve an entirely different staff than the people at packet pickup (it would also appear that the one person with all the answers has no phone, or the packet pickup people don't know that number). Of course, if we found that person only to get the same "dog comprehending long division" look we were getting at City Hall, then we're back to $25 a head with no guarantee that they'll have any t-shirts left, since in the eyes of the ride "organizers", we were just another pair of procrastinating schlubs who should have sent in a check on, say, March 31.

We chose Option 3: Blow off the whole mess. See, we have a long and sordid history of failure with this particular (dis)organized ride. A few years ago, we used their Paypal option to sign up, only to find that they let our credit card get hacked in the process. $400 worth of World of Warcraft gold later (and lengthy chats with both our credit card company and Paypal -- ever try to prove that you didn't purchase virtual goods in an online game you don't even play?), we swore off that particular mode of payment. With this new and exciting failure, I think we're just swearing off the ride as a whole.

For the record: We both support the City of Des Moines. We've lived, worked and paid taxes within its borders for ten years now. We support Des Moines trails, having ridden on them (and enjoyed them, save for that one pesky little femur-breaking crash) for just as long. I'm the most rabid non-native supporter of the 515 you'll ever find. Heck, I even like the new design of the Mayor's Ride t-shirts, and they offered it in gray this year, my favorite t-shirt color ever. But I think we're just not meant to go on this particular "organized" ride. Ever.

Okay, steam blown off, now it's time for a real ride.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Rainy Day Hydration Review

I'm supposed to be riding tonight, but that streak of rainbow radar hues across the state has me feeling timid. So, with moisture on the brain, I thought I'd crank out a review of something I recently purchased for the test fleet here at The Cycle:

That's a TwoFish Quick Cage gracing the rear admiral's command center on our tandem (and a Super Grover keeping an eye on things down in the engine room). Carla got used to extremely handy hydration on our old Bike Friday tandem since its cages lived on top of the top tube, but the C'dale's cages are a little tougher to reach. You can see the "convenient" (scare quotes intentional) one down there where her ankles would be, and the awkward one is down almost as far AND too far forward to even smile for this picture.

We had a Generation 1 Quick Cage before, which functioned but left the captain/head mechanic barely whelmed by its construction. G1 had a plastic cage that liked to eject bottles at the least opportune moment (I had to rig an old metal cage in its place) and a bizarre "sandwich of plastic bits" installation that eventually failed. I gave it a resounding "meh."

G2, on the other hand, uses a simpler all-rubber-block mounting arrangement. The Velcro strap may eventually fail from UV exposure (our G1 suffered that fate as well) but the rest of the attachment is simple and solid. And the cage itself is stainless steel -- not the lightest or most elegantly welded stainless steel I've ever lifted or laid eyes upon, but it holds a bottle like nobody's business.

(On the subject of bottles, my Amazon linkage doesn't show a "with bottle" version, but ours -- from local shop Barr Bike & Fitness -- included a nice TwoFish-labeled Specialized bottle for just a couple bucks more than the Amazon price. G1 had a nice-but-not-Specialized bottle, so it was a double bonus to see G2 upgraded to the only plastic water bottle worth diddly squat.)

Carla's review? "It works!"

'Nuff said.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Kids Are Alright

C and I spent last Friday in Iowa City, the place where we once collected diplomas (liberal arts degrees -- the white "participant" ribbon of higher education -- so don't be too impressed.)

Once I got done regaling the kids about how it was in the olden days ("The year was 1992... we'd never heard of the Y2K bug, we listened to grunge music on CD, and our modems made that cool noise like in War Games."), I took a look around at -- what else? -- the bike racks.

For as much as I like to lob good-natured fun at the whippersnappers and their too-cool-for-school urban-hipster-wannabe bikes, I have to admit that things are better in the racks today than they were in my day. Y'see, in my day, those racks were chockablock full of brand-new $250-$300 mountain bikes. That was great for me at the time because I was raking in the princely sum of $6 an hour to assemble those things as fast as I could sell them -- and I made a commission on top of that for every one I sold. Ka-ching!

The racks I saw on Friday were full of something else, though. Hipster fixie conversions (in all their stubby-barred, top-tube-padded glory), sure, but also lots and lots of old, unmolested ten-speeds. Schwinn Suburbans. Classic Fujis. Vintage three-speeds. Basketed cruisers. And my favorite? A fake-fixie tourer with chop-and-flop bullhorn bars and a three-speed coaster brake hub... all that fixie minimalism with some function!

Most of what I saw in the racks and rollilng around town was stuff that we wouldn't have even looked at twice back in the halcyon days of the early 90s because a) it was old, and b) the tires weren't fat and knobby. I saw kids who had obviously scavenged the garage (or thrift shop, or junkyard) for Mom and Dad's old bikes rather than scavenging Mom and Dad's wallet for a shiny new one. I saw ingenuity, frugality, creative solutions, and an amazing collection of mongrels with the fingerprints of their owners all over them.

Maybe it's not helping the shops or contributing to the beer funds (er, "higher education expenses") of punk mechanics/liberal artists/future snarky bloggers (though I guess brake cables and tubes have to come from somewhere), but it put a smile on the face of this crusty geezer. Now if I could just get them to turn off that crap they call music, get a haircut, get off my yard, and bring me some batteries for my Discman...

(This blog post has been annotated for those younger than dirt. If you're old enough to know the all the references already, I can also provide it in a LARGE PRINT format.)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Prince And The Pea

At the risk of beating a long-dead horse, how about one more spring tuneup post?

My old cassette: eight speeds, 11-28. My new cassette: eight speeds, 11-30. 

No big deal, right? Just a slightly lower stump-puller. Nothing wrong with that.

But look closer. Old cassette: 11-12-14-16-18-21-24-28. New cassette: 11-13-15-17-20-23-26-30. 

But again, no big deal, right? Just a one-tooth difference per cog across the meat of the order. Odds instead of evens. Who cares?

Um, me. Over the last couple days, it's seemed like every gear was just in the wrong place. I was either spinning like a maniac or grinding my kneecaps -- and with my mom recovering from double knee replacement this week (hi, Mom! get well soon!) I do not want to put any undue strain on my hinges.

So, being compulsive, I went to the gear chart (my favorite was created by the late, great Sheldon Brown) and found that a 44-tooth ring would shift those odds back to almost-perfection... but that ring would be uncomfortably close to my chainstay (even the 42 is pushing it).

Grinding the gears in my head, it dawned on me... the tandem has an 11-32 eight on it. That's 11-12-14-16-18-21-26-32. Evens instead of odds. The lower six an exact match for my old 11-28. And lookee there, an even lower 32-tooth stump-puller. Cool! The test fitting in the stand was a success: my mid-cage rear derailleur handles the 32, and my chain is just barely long enough (I don't mind pushing that, since a short chain helps prevent dropsies on a one-ring setup). I'm taking it on a test ride as soon as I hit "publish" to see how it performs in reality.

(Before anyone accuses me of robbing the tandem to pay the single, the 11-30 immediately went on the two-seater. I always feel like I'm in the wrong gear on that bike anyway, so maybe this will help. And losing a 32-tooth low to a 30 isn't such a big deal when you can bail to a tiny little granny ring.)

Test ride time. Wish me luck!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Spring Tuneup Followup: Noob Mistake

A tip for you, dear reader.

Chains and cassettes wear together. Let a chain go too far, and your cogs will wear to match it. Then, a new chain will skip on the worn cogs -- and you have to replace the cassette too. (In my experience, chainrings are a little more forgiving.) 

More experienced mechanics are shouting "duh!" at me right now, but it's a basic rule that bears repeating. I learned it today when my sparkly new chain absolutely refused to hold the most-used cogs of my old cassette. 

Luckily, I figured it out before I did any out-of-the-saddle efforts, or my dangly bits might have become acquainted with my stem in a soprano-singing sort of way. Ouch.

New cassette from the depths of the parts box: Check! Now we're good to go again.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Hiatus Ends With Spring Cleaning/Tuneup

Yes, yes, yes, I'm a blog slacker. Get over it. You payin' for this drivel? Other than the time you'll never get back, of course.

I completed my Iowa Spring Jinx today by finally fixing up the Bruce Gordon after a long, ugly winter. No photos, but here was my approach:

First, I popped off the wheels and de-accessoried, top to bottom. All bags, lights, pump, computer, bottle cages, etc. found themselves in a pile on the bench. With the wheels clear of the bike, I gave them a good cleaning. You'd think this would take chemicals (even just good ol' dihdrogen oxide), but a dry brush and rag did the trick. The brush was for the cassette (if you scrub it back and forth, it will ratchet around, allowing you to hit the whole thing) while the rag took care of the rest. I did find a nasty groove in the rear rim (stupid cheap brake pads) that will probably strand me sometime this season, but I'm going to wait it out. The hubs felt good and the wheels were true, so that's all I needed to do with my rolling stock.

Next up, I pulled off the old chain and those aforementioned crappy brake pads and chucked 'em. I always start the year with fresh chain and pads, ride them all season, sacrifice them to the winter, and replace them again in the spring. A Powerlink from SRAM and brakes with cartridge pads make that really easy. Then, I got jiggy on the rest of the bike with the brush (for the rear derailleur and chainring) and the rag (for everything else). Once all was shiny, I installed new brake pads (Kool Stops
this time), put in the rear wheel, put on the new chain, and adjusted the rear brake/drivetrain before moving on to the front end of the bike. I gave the BB a "feel check" as I was cleaning the chainring -- it still felt smooth, so no work needed there. Huzzah for good, XT-/Ultegra-level Shimano cartridge BBs -- this one's now 12 years old and still spins like new.

(Aside: The "back to front" attack is one way a working mechanic will tackle a tuneup. Others take the "systems" approach: wheels, drivetrain, brakes, steering. Whatever your approach, if you use it consistently -- or go seriously compulsive with a written checklist -- you're less likely to forget something.)

I knew the front end was going to be no fun -- my headset's been notchy, so I needed to get it opened up amidst a tangle of cables. It took a few "stop and think" moments of spatial reasoning, but I managed to get access to the bearings. One thing I'd forgotten about tuning "working" bikes? You get to discover all sorts of (ahem) "unique" smells. Imagine if you held your arm at your side for a few months and then took a whiff of that armpit. That's about what the inside of a neglected frame smells like. Nasty.

Anyway, by cleaning the cartridge bearings, shoving fresh grease under their seals, and flipping them top to bottom, I managed to de-notch the heasdset, at least for the time being. That last "flip" part probably did nothing, but it felt like it should do something, so I ran with it.

Front wheel in, front brake adjusted, all accessories re-installed, short test ride, and bazinga -- it's like a new bike for about $30 in parts and a half day of labor. Not as speedy as my shop days since I'm about a decade out of practice, but not bad.

I'm sure it will make me faster, too. And thinner. And more attractive. Right.