Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Adjustable Wrench Incident: A Defense, Of Sorts

I'm feeling the scorn from afar after admitting to a "rag on a wrench" repair in my last post. Don't deny it! You're scorning me! You think I can't sense that? 

Here's the story: I crashed and broke my leg a few years ago. Serious wishbone-style split up most of the length of my right femur. Surgically fixed with a titanium rod, long recovery, the works. Ouch, right? The bike fared much better, with only some mangled handlebar tape, a paint scrape, and a bent derailleur hanger to show for it.

But here's the problem: I'm more than a little OCD. The thought of that bike sitting in the garage with a bent derailleur hanger while I laid around in bed got on my nerves. Maybe (armchair psychology) I needed to fix it since I couldn't fix myself. Or maybe I'm just a freak. Either way, once I was up on crutches, that stinking derailleur hanger became my mental White Whale. 

So one night, with my better half (and dedicated caregiver) out of the house for a rare night of not-dealing-with-a-whiny-200-pound-baby fun, I propped myself up and made my way gingerly to the garage. I have no idea how I got the bike off the hooks and up on the workstand, though I'm sure it was ugly. Took off the rear derailleur, wrapped a rag around the hanger, snugged the adjustable wrench over that, and gave a bit of gentle cold-setting -- that's mechanic talk for "I bent it." With no real gauge, I just eyeballed off the dropout and cogs and trusted the floating pulley in my derailleur to make up for the lack of laser-like precision.

At some point in the process, I remember then-neighbor Steve F. sticking his head out his back door, taking one look, and saying, "You're sick!" He was right, but the bike has shifted great ever since, and I slept very well that night. Of course, I was on Vicodin at the time...

Required disclaimer: We're talking about a STEEL bike with a STEEL derailleur hanger here. Steel is a remarkably forgiving material in this situation (though I still wouldn't bend it back and forth a lot). If you have an aluminum hanger, you should hope that it's one of those replaceable bolt-on jobs (though -- whispering -- I've "cold-set" those in my day too). If you have a titanium or carbon hanger, shoot, I don't know what to tell you, other than "if you can afford those, you can afford the right tool for the job and/or a trained professional to use it."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Flip-Flops On Shops

The comments of virtual pal bikelovejones (of the eponymous blog) on my last post got me thinking, as usual. I've visited the shop where BLJ turns a wrench, and if it weren't in a different time zone, it would be my bike shop. Sadly, until they open a Citybikes Way-East, I'm out of luck.

Still, even if you can fix your own stuff and you aren't riding the latest carbon fiber zillion-speed, there are plenty of good reasons to cross the threshold of the local bike shop. Here are mine, in no particular order: 

SOME FIXES ARE BEYOND MERE HOME-WRENCHING MORTALS: I don't have bottom bracket taps. There, I said it. Nor do I have dropout alignment tools. Derailleur hanger alignment tool? Um, does an adjustable wrench with a rag over the jaws (guilty) count? I don't have a headset cup press. Would I like one? Sure. But a $150 tool (because I'm way too snobby for the $70 "home mechanic" model, much less the homebrewed "five bucks at the hardware store" variety) that I'll use once every other year just doesn't make sense. So on the rare occasion that I need more tool than I've got in my personal stash, sure, I'll hand my baby over to the folks who have the correct widgets (though I'm still annoyed at the shop monkey who once mangled the cups on my otherwise perfectly good Dura Ace headset...) 

I CAN'T BUILD WHEELS: Jeez, it's Lame Ex-Mechanic Confessional Night here at The Cycle. Okay, I've read the late, great Sheldon Brown. I've even read The Bible According To Jobst "I'm Much, Much Smarter Than You" Brandt. And with the help of my friend/ex-boss Bill (an outstanding wheelbuilder), I've laced up a few hoops in my day and done fine. Still, I've never had to build with enough frequency that I'd consider myself even average. Being a snob (again) and somewhat paranoid about the mechanical condition of my stuff, that's not good enough -- so I put the spoke wrench down and let the pros lace up my rolling stock when it has to be built from scratch. 

I HAVE WEIRD FEET AND A WEIRD HEAD: Okay, let's not turn this into THAT kind of blog. Suffice to say, mail order shoes or helmets would have to be crazy-arse-cheap before I'd even consider taking the risk (my current mail-order-catalog-house-brand wide shoes being the notable exception that proves the rule). And folks, trying on a pair of shoes or a helmet at the shop just to get the size so you can order them online? Way lame. May karma smite you with a recurring flat. 

SHIPPING SUNDRIES IS SILLY: Bar tape. Brake cables. Lube and other cycle-unguents. Tubes, for Pete's sake (though I'll continue to make an exception for brake pads, at least until someone local comes to their senses and stocks a lot of Kool Stop). Maybe I'll throw some rim tape on top of an online order just to get over a free shipping hump, but bypassing a shop for this kind of thing on a regular basis makes no sense. How much can you really save on a $3 cable, anyway? And unless the pricing models have changed since I was a shop lackey, the shop makes the best markup on these dinky little things too, so you're helping them out at the same time. 

NEW BIKE STUFF IS JUST COOL: Wow, yet another confession from the retro-grouch on the steel bike heavy enough to have its own gravitational field. But yes, I like fondling the carbon fiber zillion-speeds. I won't ever subject one to my carbon-splintering girth, but who doesn't love the "gee whiz" factor of a bike you can pick up with your pinkie? In my shop days, I used to show those bikes to EVERYONE (even the "just looking" crowd) so I could share that "I KNOW! RIGHT?" moment when they almost tossed the bike in the air expecting it to be heavier. Awesome.

So, there you have it, bikelovejones and my other loyal reader(s). Even the worst bike shop (and there are some pretty lame ones out there) still gets a little pre-Thanksgiving love from the Head Turkey here at The Cycle.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Bike Shop And The Bell Curve

The travesty of my last post is finally fixed -- a shiny new bar-end shifter now graces the right end of my bars. On a 1x8 setup, the slight asymmetry is admittedly a little weird, but it sure beats that Dremeled debacle I was sporting before. Plus, there's just nothing quite like the snick-snick-snick of an upper-tier Shimano index shifter/derailleur combo hooked up with a new, lubed cable. Heaven.

The process of acquiring this shifter has me thinking about the state of bike shops today, though. I wanted to buy the thing locally just to make my life easier: drive to the shop, pick it up, slap it on and go. Problem is, 8-speeds (and bar-end shifters, for that matter) are all but defunct on new-from-the-box bikes... and the bread-and-butter of most local shops seems to be new-from-the-box bikes and the stuff to make them go. There just isn't a compelling reason to waste inventory on stuff that the "cutting edge today, obsolete next week" bike industry has cast aside.

I called and/or stopped in to a few of the closest locals, but no luck. To their credit, they all offered to order the shifters, but having been in the business, I know that we're in the off-season, which means that the orders don't actually get called in to the distributor until the shop accumulates enough backlog to make it worthwhile. If you're lucky, you get your part in a week, assuming the shop remembers to call you (yeah, I screwed that up a few times in my shop days) or hasn't lost the scrap of paper with your number on it (ditto). Plus, the price I was quoted was on the high end of the MSRP, probably reflecting the nuisance factor of a special order part in the off-season (and rightfully so, I should add).

I went home and did some browsing on this magic tube-based technology thing called The Internets (it's apparently new). I found my ridiculously archaic 8-speed shifters in a matter of seconds, placed my order, and had them in hand just over 24 hours later... for LESS than the shop special order would have cost, even taking into account the shipping costs. Bike shops, I love ya, but I don't know how you're going to compete with that.

So is the bike shop just reserved for the fat part of the bell curve these days? The shopper who just wants what's new and would rather junk an old bike than fix it? What becomes of the rest of us, the "shadow bike world" of retro-grouches, duct-tapers, and people who keep getting by on stuff from last season (or in my case, the last century)?

I guess I should be glad that we have this magic tube-interwebs thing, but every once in a while, I think (okay, whine) to myself, "Where's MY bike shop?"

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Winning Ugly

I'm not proud of this hack. In fact, I'm only documenting it here in the hopes that going public will shame me into never trying such a thing again.

The 12-year-old bar-end shifter on my main ride finally crapped out. Wouldn't shift worth a darn. And before the chorus of Rivendellian Luddites (Luggites?) chimes in with, "Just switch it to friction mode," that wasn't working either. Each shift wavered between pure indexing, pure friction, and some mutant hybrid of both. I couldn't find a gear to save my life. The thing had done its time and was telling me to let go.

Now, your average biker-guy will either a) use that as an excuse to buy a new bike, or b) purchase/order the correct replacement part and move on with life. I chose neither.

NO, because ordering the CORRECT replacement part is too EASY. Instead, I picked up a 3x8 set of RapidFire Plus shifters (because I'm still in the dark ages of 8-speed rear cassettes... pity me) from a bike shop clearance pile and figured, "I'll make THESE work instead!" Besides, they were so cheap, it was like buying the cables in the kit and getting the shifters for free. How could I go wrong?

Time to go into Sheldon Brown mode (may he ride in peace). Handlebars have a few different diameters. Your standard road bar is going to be 23.8mm diameter at the ends and either 25.4mm, 26.0mm or (heaven forfend) 31.8mm in the center. Your standard flat bar is going to be 22.2mm at the ends and 25.4mm or (again with the fatties?) 31.8mm in the center. So something designed for a flat bar (like, say, for instance, a RapidFire Plus shifter) will fit a 22.2mm diameter. And yet I left the store with every intention of jamming said 22.2mm diameter shifter onto a 23.8mm diameter road bar. In my defense, I was an English major.

My (soon to be proven faulty) hypothesis was that the clamp seemed to have enough material to do a bit of low-budget Dremel machine work, thus giving me the World's Only Drop-Bar Bike With RapidFire Plus (WODBBWRFP). So when I got home, I fired up said Dremel and set to work hogging out some aluminum. And it WORKED! Until I tried to tighten the now-23.8mm clamp over the 23.8mm bars and snapped it like the pop-can-thin aluminum that it was. Ugh. Good thing I got those cables in the kit, because this cheap shifter just became an expensive paperweight.

But, being unable to accept failure (and with the Dremel still warm), I had a bit of a break from reality. Next thing you know, most of the clamp had been "machined" away (along with the gear indicator), and I was digging through the parts boxes, cackling like a maniac. A few bolts, a rubber shim, and an old reflector bracket later, and voila!

Do not try this at home. No, really. 

That's right, baby. You're seeing the WODBBWRFP in its natural habitat! You can identify the beast by the following distinctive characteristics:
  • It's ugly as sin.
  • The shifter isn't particularly stable on the bars.
  • The guts of the shifter are probably doomed to premature failure since a major chunk of the dustcover had to be surgically removed.
  • Honestly, the shifter was pretty much crap to begin with since Shimano has knocked 8-speeds down into their lowest component castes*.
But dammit, the thing shifts for now. And can you say you've ever seen anything like it? Here, take in the glory of the WODBBWRFP from the front:

The horror... the horror...

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to order some bar-end shifters. Fast.

*That would be Shimano Altus, which -- in a bizarre alternative universe where advertising couldn't lie -- would be marketed with one of the following slogans:
  • Altus: Disappointing Cheapskates On Mountain-Bike-Shaped Objects (MBSOs) Since the Early 90s.
  • Altus: Just Like Tourney, Except You Can't Buy It At Wal-Mart. 
  • Altus: If This Were A Road Group, It Would Just Get A Number Instead Of A Made-Up Name. 
  • Altus: Because Alivio Sounds Vaguely Dirty.