Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lights Out, Wax On

I've actually started to bore myself with all the light reviews, so I thought I'd move on to something even more dull-yet-contentious: chain maintenance. One of the older ways to clean and lube a chain is by dipping it in melted paraffin wax. Now, there's all sorts of back-and-forth in the Interwebs jabber-space about the effectiveness of wax as a lube, and I do not want to go too far down that path. I'm just presenting this as a "how to" in case anyone wants to give it a whirl and see if it works for them.

The first thing you need is a dirty chain and the mechanical aptitude to get it off your bike:

Next post: How to clean a filthy bike, apparently.

 Easy enough, right? You probably have one of those in your possession already, or else you would have moved on to another blog by now. Note that mine has a shiny SRAM Powerlink in it that lets me take the chain off by hand -- a nicety but not a necessity. Just get that chain off of there however you need to.

The next thing you'll need is a slow-cooker (more common branded moniker: Crock Pot) and some paraffin wax:
I'm melting! Melting... melting...  

I would strongly, strongly suggest that your cooker be 100% dedicated to chain maintenance and not (repeat, NOT) reused for foodstuffs. If the crust of dirty wax blobs on mine doesn't convince you of that, I'm not sure what will. You don't need a huge one -- 1 quart is plenty, and those tend to go on sale cheap around back-to-college time (I think I got mine for $10). They're also plentiful at thrift stores. If you research chain waxing (because if you've read this far, I suspect you're a big nerd like me), you'll hear all about double boilers, cans you melt on the stove, yadda yadda yadda. Don't bother. Why risk waxing your stove, setting your kitchen on fire, making a mess, or enraging someone who lives with you? Just get a cheap slow cooker and be done with it.

As for wax, I get mine at the local grocery store (in the canning section) for around $3 a pound. Not bad compared to the nutty prices those little 4 oz. bottles of magic chain goo cost at the bike shop, right? Paraffin is also available at beauty supply stores (apparently, people dunk their hands in it), but you pay a premium for the same stuff.

So, you have your pot, you have your wax, you have your dirty chain. You'll also want some stirring/grabbing gear -- I use an old spoke and a pair of Vice Grips that can be set to gingerly hold the chain without squeezing or marring it. You'll also want a bit of safety gear... at least little eye protection and a pair of work gloves. Call me cautious, but being scalded and/or blinded by hot wax isn't my idea of a good time.

Now, let's wax! Step 1, throw wax in pot as shown above. Step 2, turn pot on HIGH. Step 3, put chain in pot:
Chain chain chain, chain of fools...

I've let the wax get completely melted before dunking the chain, but it's not necessary to wait. I've also threaded my old spoke through the side plates and roller of one of the opened chain links (the spoke head won't pull through)  so it will be easier to fish the chain out later. Step 4 is to wait for the wax to melt and let the chain soak.

Exciting stuff, huh?

Having fun yet?

You can go stir it around with the spoke if you want.

Thrilling, I know.

Look at the bright side: You now have a new simile for boredom to go along with "like watching paint dry" and "like watching grass grow."

Okay, so once your wax is completely melted and covering the whole chain, leave it in there for a while to cook all the gunk out of the nooks and crannies. Stir every once in a while if you're the sort of person who feels like you need to participate. I usually leave mine in for 30 minutes to an hour.

Next, the delicate extraction operation. Got your gloves and eye protection on? Good.
The clock radio doesn't lie: Time stops while waxing. 

Carefully lift the chain out with a combination of your old spoke and some sort of mechanical grabbing device (pliers, tongs, whatever) letting the excess wax drip back into the pot (or if you're a slob like me, all over the sides of the pot and the workbench). Let it cool until you can just touch it without going "OW OW OW OW OW" and reinstall it on the bike. If you let it get really cool, the wax hardens and makes the chain tough to thread through the derailleur. Spin the cranks a few times, wipe off any excess drips/flakes with a rag, and you've done Mr. Miyagi proud:
You'd think someone could have cleaned the bike 
while waiting for the wax to melt... 

Turn off your pot and call it good. Once the wax re-hardens, you can pop it out of the pot and scrape the gunky layer off the bottom of the wax cake if you want. I find that it doesn't tend to re-deposit on subsequent waxings (you can use the same pot of wax again and again and again), so I don't usually bother. At some point, I intend to get fancy and add a mesh screen/basket to my pot so the chain isn't sitting in that settled gunk, but I haven't been that motivated yet.

Some notes on wax as a lubricant, since I'm sure I'll hear about it:
  • It's lousy in wet conditions. Washes off quick and provides no rust protection. I generally switch to something wetter (and dirtier, unfortunately) in the winter.
  • Your chain will probably get noiser faster. A couple hundred miles is when mine starts to sound bad. The wax still seems to be working, it's just not damping chain noise the way a gooey lube would.
  • There is nothing cleaner than a waxed chain. Nothing. I don't care what the magic chain goo salesmen tell you. A chain that's seen only wax can be grabbed bare-handed without leaving a mark. This is great for bikes that get thrown into cars or live inside apartments/houses, especially if those cars/apartments/houses don't belong to you.
And finally, a chain waxing haiku, just because I wanted to use the pun "waxing poetic":

Melted paraffin
swirls in waxy rivulets
cleansing my chain links. 

You're welcome.   :-)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Lighting Up The Phone Lines

The flood of responses (both on-blog and off) to my last post would seem to indicate that a) more people read this thing than just my wife, and b) those people are more interested in bike lights than my wife is. So, I'll pander one more time at the risk of boring my better half. Sorry, honey!

Several people mentioned that either they don't have a Costco near them or their Costco doesn't have the light that received such high praise. I don't see it on the Costco website either, but a helpful reader from the Internet BOB list found what appears to be the same light with slightly different cosmetics. I can't say for sure if it's the same, and I can't vouch for the site, but there you have it. And, to sprinkle some link juice on that helpful reader, he's the brains behind the Bicycle Geometry Project, a database of road bike geometries over the years. Had a bike you loved and want to compare it to a different bike? The BGP might be able to help. Just want to geek out on bike geometries? The BGP can definitely help.

It seems like everyone has a favorite light, and as the suggestions rolled in, it dawned on me that I hadn't really put down my criteria for these tests before I started. So in no particular order, here's what I find important in a light:
  • Self-containment: I've done the "lamp on bars, long wire to separate battery pack the size of a cinderblock" thing. Not going back to that.
  • Replaceable batteries: No rechargeable battery lasts forever. When it's finally used up its charge cycles, I want to be able to buy a replacement at a regular old store and pop it in there without firing up the soldering iron.
  • Common battery size: This goes along with "regular old store" above. No weird cell sizes, please. If the corner convenience store doesn't have it, I don't want it in my light (a lesson I recently re-learned... more later).
  • As long as I'm griping about batteries, use an even number please: So many lights use three cells (usually AAAs). It's not a deal-breaker, but my charger holds four. Add in two for my tail light, and I have to run two cycles to get everything juiced up. It's why I keep trying to love the 2 AA-powered offerings from Planet Bike.
  • Less than $100... much less, if possible: The emitters in these things seem to be leapfrogging each other in output every few years. Unless you're going to offer me an LED upgrade at a reduced price (and I know some companies do), I don't want to drop large coin on almost certain obsolescence. Even my test lights have to be cheap since I'm buying them with my own bucks (though any manufacturer who wants to ship a megabuck, megalumen kit my way for a test is more than welcome).
  • Reliability: No connections that jiggle loose, switches that fail, mounting brackets that crack, seals that let in water and short-circuit the electronics, etc. A metal case  is preferred, since I ride in temps that aren't always plastic-friendly. Bottom line, I want to know that as long as I have juice, I have light.
  • Decent run time: I don't ride all night, and I don't intend to start. Just give me a few predictable days of commuting (2-3 hours of darkness) at full oomph and we'll do fine.
Having said all that, here's an update on the winner from my last post. With universe-defying casual hubris, I said, "The Achilles' heel on this may be run time... I haven't used it for enough consecutive days to know for sure." I can now say that yes, run time is something to be aware of with the Formerly Perfect 2 for $20 Light (FP2F20L) -- not a tragic flaw, mind you, just something to keep in mind. Yesterday morning, about 15 minutes into my commute, the low-battery light started flashing. "No worries," I thought. "I'll just switch to low power to save what I have left." About thirty seconds later, I was in total "who flipped the switch?" darkness. "No worries," I thought. "The moon is out, so I can still see the trail... the trail that suddenly feels very soft under my tires... I wonder why the surface would have changed like... OH CRAP! I'M NOT ON THE TRAIL! I'M IN THE VERY DARK WOODS! AND I KNOW THERE'S A CREEK AROUND HERE SOMEWHERE!"

I did manage to bring the vehicle to a stop without becoming an unintentional duathlete, and I was able to ride very gingerly to a convenience store just a couple blocks off the trail for some fresh AAAs (see "common battery size" above) -- and in the light's defense, those rechargeables had been running on high for just under two hours total when they gave out. Still, the "low battery light" that I was so happy to have? Not much of a feature, really. It would be like a low fuel light in your car that came on right when the engine started to sputter on fumes.

This little hiccup gave me pause, but it hasn't changed my overall assessment of the FP2F20L all that much. It still beats all challengers in my stash for brightness and beam pattern. It would be nice to get more time on a charge, and I'd rather run 2 AAs instead of 3 AAAs, but I'll manage... and not just because I don't want to futz with those hose clamps again.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Dark Horse In My Light Comparison

I forgot that I have one more small LED headlight kicking around my garage that wasn't included in the last test, so here's one more installment in the Great Lumen Shootout. After this one, I have to stop, since I'm boring my wife (a.k.a. 33-50% of my readership).

This isn't a bike-specific light; it's actually a Cree LED flashlight I got at Costco -- a store that turns me immediately into Navin Johnson of The Jerk: "And that's the only thing I need is this. I don't need this or this. Just this ashtray... and this paddle game. The ashtray and the paddle game and that's all I need... and this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that's all I need..."

Okay, where was I? Oh yeah, lights. So in a Navin-esque fit, I got a two-pack of these things at Costco (batteries included!) for something like twenty bucks. The cases are aluminum (unlike the plastic cases on most bike-specific lights), and the electronics provide two light levels plus a strobe. The button on the back of the case also doubles as a low-battery light, flashing red when power drops, a feature that none of my bike-specific LEDs share. Here are the low and high beams using the same test protocol as my last light showdown for quasi-consistency:

Low beam: Everybody's got a little light under the sun...

High beam: Under the sun... under the sun... under the sun

As you can see, we're still looking at a pretty focused spot beam, but the useful corona on this thing absolutely destroys even the high-setting 2w Planet Bike Blaze. See that "ring of Saturn" outside the main spot? That's at about the 1/3 point of the total diameter of the beam (which I couldn't capture because I couldn't back up far enough in our test lab without running into a wall), and while the perimeter obviously doesn't have the intensity of the inner blast, it's more than enough to light the sides of a trail, a tough corner, or an upcoming street sign.

Out on the commute, this light has come as close as anything I've seen in the self-contained, battery-powered LED space (short of some of Steve K's homebrewed retina-blasters) to a true "see and be seen" headlight. While the symmetrical, round beam probably wastes a lot of light, that LED/reflector combination is still putting out more than enough to ride my usual curvy trail at daylight speeds. At $20 for TWO of them (compared to $60 for one Planet Bike 2w Blaze), I am impressed bordering on stunned.

Of course, there are a couple downsides. First, it takes three AAA batteries. Ugh. Odd number, and a slightly less-ubiquitious size. Second is the big issue that all non-bike-specific lights share: How do you attach it to a bike? I started with a TwoFish flashlight holder but found that it let the light jiggle way too much on bumpy roads. The slighly-less-elegant-but-perfectly-functional solution? Two stainless steel hose clamps linked together at 90 degrees with some rubber shims for padding. One goes around the handlebar, the other goes around the headlight, and voila. Rock solid, albeit another bodged-together homage to my (ahem) "frugal" Mennonite heritage.

The Achilles' heel on this may be run time... I haven't used it for enough consecutive days to know for sure. I'll know soon enough, though, since the days keep getting shorter but don't seem to be getting all that much colder. 

THIS JUST IN: Don't miss my follow-up post where I learn the answer to that "run time" question (cue dramatic soap opera organ music...)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Beam (Pattern) Me Up, Scotty

I got my warranty-replacement 2-watt Blaze headlight back from Planet Bike (the one mentioned in my previous quasi-aborted review), so with the days getting shorter, here's my take on all the Planet Bike LEDs in my collection. Note that while I have an embarrassing pile of stuff from Planet Bike, The Cycle has no connection to the PB folks -- I just happen to like their stuff most of the time.

First, let's address that warranty issue. The case on my original 2w Blaze didn't lock together very well, causing it to jiggle open on my bumpy commute. The replacement light? Same issue. I tried putting in a fatter rubber o-ring from the hardware store, no dice. So, in keeping with my Mennonite heritage (who separated from the Amish when they were told that duct tape was too flashy), I just ran a stripe of black electrical tape around the case:

It prevents the jiggle issue, probably seals the case against water a little better, covers the silver ring (giving the whole thing a stealthy Darth Vader-esque vibe), doesn't inhibit the button at all, and only provides a mild nuisance when swapping batteries. Problem solved.

On to the review! I know that the money shot for light fetishists (and you know who you are) is the "beam pattern in a dark room." So in the interest of science, I set up my 1/2-watt Blaze, my 1-watt Super Spot, and my 2-watt Blaze in the Lighting Test Lab (a.k.a. "a bathroom with the lights off") here at The Cycle World Headquarters and snapped the following photos using my phone-cam (since I'm not smart enough to turn off the flash on my real camera). All lights were sitting on the same spot on the counter aimed at the white plastic shower wall approx. 6' away, and all batteries were fresh Sanyo Eneloop rechargeables. I'm also not smart enough to do any Photoshoppery on these, so what you're seeing is raw from the camera.

Planet Bike 1/2-Watt Blaze

The half-watt is definitely a "be-seener." Very tight, round spot, not much spillover, and the tint is a little more bluish than the photo would indicate. It'll get you home in a pinch, but you can outrrun it without much effort.

Planet Bike 1-Watt SuperSpot

This is one of Planet Bike's older LEDs (based on one of their halogen models) and it shows in the beam -- lots of striped spill to the sides, definitely brighter spot (albeit more diffused) than the 1/2-watt Blaze, but probably still in the "be-seen" category. I've relied on one of these for years, though. I'm convinced the scatter is more likely to catch the attention of motorists coming at you from an angle. It runs on four AAs (instead of two for the Blaze series) which is sort of a nuisance. Weird quibble, I have no idea why this is called the "SuperSpot" when it has the least spot-like beam of all the PB lights I've tried. Planet Bike, I suggest you fire the copywriter (and hire me instead!)

Planet Bike 2-Watt Blaze, Low Setting

The 2-watt Blaze on low definitely outshines (literally!) the two lower-powered lights. We're back to the intense, round spot beam of the 1/2-watt Blaze, but it does spill over a little bit more (not to the extent of the SuperSpot, though).

 Planet Bike 2-Watt Blaze, High Setting

The difference between the 2-watt on low versus high is pretty subtle -- same beam (obviously), and it does kick up the lumens a notch, but if you're outrunning the low setting, the high isn't going to make much difference.

In general, I think the battery-powered "be-seen" LED lights are advancing nicely, but they're still not up to the task of fast, curvy trails in the dark -- not that many lights are. It's a tough balancing act with all of these to aim them in such a way that you get a good beam spread at the right distance in front of your wheel without shooting a lot of lumens up into space. One trick is to mount them low on a fork blade (tips on that in a later post). I'll leave it to smarter folks (Steve K?) to explain why this helps. I just know that in my experience, the low lights provide better contrast for my lousy eyes.

By the way, Planet Bike also has a light comparison tool on their site, although it doesn't include the (presumably discontinued) 1-watt SuperSpot or a high-versus-low on the 2-watt Blaze. Their shot of the 1/2-watt Blaze looks more true- and blue-to-life than my bathroom wall photo, though.

So there you have it. Feeling enlightened?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Bike Lane Stays In The Picture!

Okay, so I don't have an actual picture since it's dark (and if I did, it would be lousy anyway), but take off your Literal Hat for a minute and stay with me.

Per today's Des Moines Register ("Lining Iowa Birdcages Since 1915"), the Ingersoll bike lanes are staying put. For those who aren't stalking me, Ingersoll and its wonderful bike lanes pass directly in front of The Cycle World Headquarters. Huzzah!

You may recall that not too long ago, I (selectively) encouraged my reader(s) to participate in a poll about the bike lanes. I can only assume that the groundswell of support that poured in from this very blog led to their preservation. So thank you, thank you all! (And note that in honor of World Standards Day, I am using the widely accepted definition of a groundswell: four click-throughs.)

Who says that expressing anonymous, possibly unfounded, and obviously self-serving opinions on the Internet can't make a difference?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Book Reports

Stupid reading, getting in the way of my writing.

Since I last posted, I've been devouring books. While I was waiting for my copy of David Herlihy's Lost Cyclist to show up, I knocked off Earth, the latest from Jon Stewart and the rest of the crew at The Daily Show (not on-topic for this blog, but snorting-milk-out-the-nose hilarious nonetheless). Then that magic smiling box from the overlords of online reading material retail showed up.

As expected, I hit David Herlihy's book fast and I hit it hard. It's an absolutely fascinating read for biker and non-biker alike. Don't get me wrong -- there are plenty of tidbits for the wheeled nerd crowd, but pretty much anyone who likes a good adventure will eat this one up. I especially enjoyed how Herlihy wove together the stories of Frank Lenz (the lost cyclist of the title) and the equally intrepid William Sachtleben who went off in search of Lenz after his disappearance. There's history here, but it's in the service of an engrossing story -- think Jon Krakauer on wheels with an old-timey moustache.

In the hopes of horking free shipping from the smiling book giant, I also tossed Bike Snob: Systematically and Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling into my wobbly-wheeled virtual shopping cart:

Perchance you know the Bike Snob from his anonymous/eponymous blog (also conveniently linked over there to the right). If you're put off by his snark (I'm not), don't let that scare you away from his book -- although if you are a fan of the blog, the book actually features (spoiler alert!) photos of the mythical Ironic Orange Julius Bike. There's still plenty of snark to go around, but the blog's vitriol is definitely toned down on the page. What's left is a collection of hilariously skewed insights from a writer with a sharp eye and unique voice who just happens to be absolutely nuts about riding bikes. Bike Snob has rocketed to the top of my "recommended reads for new cyclists" list, right alongside Paul Fournel's Need for the Bike and Robert Hurst's Art of Urban Cycling. Heck, I'd recommend this book just for the description of triathletes as "the turduckens of the cycling world" -- which inspired me to christen my decal-free touring bike the Tourducken for its versatility and/or inability to decide on a real purpose in life.

Oh, and if you want to read even more good stuff for free, note that I just added the ever-entertaining fivetoedsloth (from iBOB pal Scott Loveless) to my blogroll after being treated to a couple of his posts via The Facebooks (yeah, the last holdout is finally on there -- don't ask).

Okay, enough improving my mind with good writing. Time to get back to ruining your mind with my writing.