Thursday, April 21, 2011

Happy Endings

I had an angry post sitting in the on-deck circle thanks to this recent bike (er, trike) theft story from local CBS affiliate KCCI about a man with multiple sclerosis whose recumbent trike was stolen off his porch.

Then I watched the news last night and had to delete that pissed-off post, because Joe already has his replacement trike. 

Now, it's easy to play the old "we Midwesterners are just so gosh darn nice" card. I'm not going to do that. I know we have jerks here who rival the jerkiness of any jerk from anywhere -- if we didn't, Joe's trike never would have been stolen in the first place. But sometimes we live up to our stereotypes in the best possible way.

Thank you, Iowa folks, for the donations that put Joe's wife on a new trike. Thank you, Barr Bike, for serving as the conduit between the community and someone who needed a hand. And special thanks to you, Connie Hewitt. Having lost my father (an avid cyclist) at a too-young age, I understand the strength and kindness it took to give up a cherished reminder of your loved one. If I see Joe and his new red trike out on the trails -- and I hope I do -- I'll think of you, of your husband, and of my Dad. And I'll smile.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Weird Science

Multimedia day here at The Cycle... install your pocket protectors and check out this video on bicycle handling from NPR's Science Friday:

(Can't see it? You can get to a non-Flash version on the Science Friday site.)

Now, the true geeks of bicycle design are all atwitter (probably even on The Twitters) about this one. Me, not so much. For as much as I get excited about the dullest minutiae of bicycles, front-end geometry leaves me cold. I geek out on many things, but as long as a bike goes in a straight line when I want it to and turns when I want it to, I'm happy. Everything in my stable does that a little differently, but that's all part of the fun.

My favorite takeaway from the video, however, is that the various "inventors" of the bicycle have brought us (through years of trial and error) to something pretty darn wonderful, even if science doesn't know exactly how or why it works. I'm probably taking this way too far, but I see a weird analogue to spiritual faith in that. The bike does what it's supposed to do. We can't explain how. It just does. My usual geeky insistence on knowing the "why" of everything should hate that, but for whatever reason, I find it comforting.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On Caffeine, Cycles, And Complexity

While my blurb over there to the right cites my crippling addiction to coffee, it's not often that my sickness makes its way over here to the meat of the page. However, this recent addition to the test kitchen here at The Cycle has me pondering:
That, dear readers, is a coffee cup which (thanks to the little spinner thing in the bottom driven by a motor and a couple batteries in the base) actually stirs your coffee for you at the push of a button. Yes, you heard that right. And if you order today, you get a second Ronco Self-Stirring Mug FREE! Just send $19.95 plus shipping and handling to...

Sorry, got off track there. I'm happy to say that we did not actually PURCHASE this device for the test kitchen -- dear spouse/Genius of All Things Graphically Designed got it as work-schwag. And while I'm usually a sucker for all things gadget-y and coffee-related, this one leaves me as cold as an iced latte. Here's why:
  • Was stirring a cup of coffee that big of a challenge in the first place? I mean, stick something in the cup (spoon, stick, pinky) and swirl it around. Task accomplished.
  • In exchange for the magic of self-stirring, I get one more thing in my house that needs batteries. Awesome.
  • Thanks to the batteries and the motor, this thing has to be hand-washed, which -- if the other hand-wash-only items in the test kitchen are any indication -- means it will get used once and sit dirty in the sink for several weeks until someone gets annoyed enough to wash it.

The two people who come here for bike-related ranting have probably dozed off by now, but I do actually have a bikey point to make with all this. I see this slightly-silly coffee indulgence device as a metaphor for some of the more annoying tendencies of the bike business these days. The cheap and easy target, of course, is electronic shifting (which I have never used, but hey, when has that stopped me from spouting off?)

The supposed perks of electronic shifting include:
  • No more cables to stretch, break, or get gunked up.
  • Improved ergonomics, since you can stick a shift button just about anywhere. 
  • Quicker and easier shifts since the button is easier to reach and doesn't require you to push against the derailleur springs.
  • Uh, what else? Anybody?

To the first point -- I'll grant that the mechanical cable system has its drawbacks. Still, a good cable will work through all its stretch in the first few shifts. Tweak that once with the barrel adjuster and you're good for years. The ergonomic possibilities are interesting, only insofar as they would address my clamp diameter rant. Quicker shifting? Red herring. Your fancy electronic system still has to move a mechanical derailleur that has to move a chain across cogs, so how much quicker can it be? And when I'm too tired to push a mechanical shifter with my finger, well, it's time for me to pull over and take a nap.

In exchange for these snazzy features, you get the added complexity of an electrical system overlaid on the mechanical one... and if electrical systems were 100% foolproof, pal Steve K. would be out of a job. Plus, just like the coffee cup, you get one more thing in your house that needs a battery, and one more battery that can fail on you, leaving you with either a) unstirred coffee, or b) a singlespeed-by-default. If my coffee cup fails, I can stick my finger in there and get the job done. Not so sure with an electronic shifter.

I'm not so Luddite as to suggest that all advances in shifting technology are stupid and -- like stirring coffee -- you can get by with your finger or a stick (I'll leave finger/stick shifting to Grant Petersen). I like indexing, for example. And cogs/chains shaped to help shifts. But at what point does a convenience become an inconvenience? When does the system get too complex for its own good? If my mechanical shifter fails, I can get it going again with some basic knowledge and a couple cheap parts. If my electronic shifter failed, it would probably languish in the garage for a few weeks (like a hand-wash coffee cup) until I got annoyed and took it to a factory-trained technician. And where's the enjoyment in that?

Friday, April 15, 2011

This One's For You, Kent

One more poster? Sure, why not? As a reminder, this image appears courtesy of Green Patriot Posters. Of the ones I was sent, this is my favorite. I am loving the retro vibe.
I can't see this without thinking of my pal Kent P. who makes blog over at the creatively named Kent's Bike Blog. Read some of Kent's writing and I think you'll get what I mean. Just don't hold it against him that he was one of the inspirations for the drivel you see on this site.

In honor of this poster and Kent (and because I was looking for an excuse to futz around in the garage), I just put the finishing touches on my Simple Swift... the folder is now a plain-Jane singlespeed with flat bars and flat pedals. Okay, so it has some quasi-essential toys (basic lighting, fenders, a bottle cage, and a bare-bones tool kit), but the whole point was to put together a "just get on and ride somewhere" bike, sort of like Kent's tiny Dahon. (I just noticed that Kent mentioned li'l ol' me in the linked post. I haven't been this excited since the day the new phone books arrived and I learned I was somebody.)

If I start feeling extra-fancy (because this student of the Tao of Kent still has much to learn), I might make it a dinglespeed. The current setup is 52x16 (not nearly as manly as it sounds thanks to the 20" wheels) for about a 61" gear -- a good street cruising ratio. Adding a 48x20 (four less in the front, four more in the back, so chain length doesn't change -- see how that works?) would make for a nice off-road/snowbike gear of 45".

Or, I might just Be The Kent and ride the darn thing.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Oh, Canada!

More spy-shots from the Skunk Works shop here at The Cycle (or at least that's my excuse for the lousy photo quality):
  My photo wouldn't be so blurry if the darn pannier would sit still.

That, dear reader, is NAFTA at work. One Jandd Mini Mountain pannier, proudly made in the Yoo Ess of Ay (and discussed ad nauseum in one of my many bike bag reviews), to which I have grafted to an Arkel Cam-Lock hook kit made by our friendly, maple-leafy neighbors to the north. There's a twin to this bag with the same mutation, but you get the idea.

My one knock on the Jandds has always been their touring-biased hardware. The OEM parts required you to get a hand in behind the bag (between your rack and wheel) to snug up a fixing strap. Once snug, it would take a small nuclear device to knock them off (hence, awesome for a touring kit that stays on the bike for months at a time), but that snugging and un-snugging process made the bags a real hassle for daily commuting.

Our bilingual buddies above the border have fixed all that, though. The Arkel retrofit kit replaces the original hardware with cams that retract when you pull up on the pannier handle. No fiddling, no futzing... on the rack, they grip like an angry Rottweiler on a cyclist's calf, but when you get to your destination, just pull the handles and go. Double bonus, the Arkel hooks are plastic-lined aluminum, so they're tough without chewing up the finish on your racks. If only Rottweilers had quick-release handles and non-marking jaws...

Downsides are minor, but they do exist:
  • This is not an inexpensive kit. $48 'murican dollars could buy you a cheap set of panniers instead of just pannier hardware. But you're talking about astonishingly well-made stuff from the Polite Provinces here, not sweatshop junque from over the ocean. If my experience with a previous generation of Arkel bag/hardware (see that old bag review again) is any indication, these hooks will likely outlast the panniers I've grafted them on, at which point I'll just graft them to something else.
  • The fairly specific mounting points on the aluminum tracks may require you to drill extra holes in the backing plates on your panniers and poke extra holes in the pannier fabric -- they wouldn't line up exactly on my bag's original holes. That can leave behind a lot of (ahem) "pannier ventilation" (a gentle way of saying, "great, now my underwear's going to get wet when I commute in the rain.") Some high-test black duct tape (visible in the upper left corner on the photo) seems to be doing the trick for now, but not everyone aspires to such heights of style.
  • The hooks have to be positioned carefully on the tracks so the cams can go through their full range of motion. If a cam hits a vertical rack strut before it reaches the rack's top rail, it's effectively being held in the open position by the rack -- something you might not notice until the first pothole. The hooks are incredibly easy to move with just a small hex wrench, so no biggie here.
  • If your pannier already has handles, the new kit makes them redundant. Nothing a pair of scissors can't fix, though (NOTE! Cut the OLD HANDLES on your BAG, not the NEW HANDLES on the HOOK KIT, lest you render the hook kit useless. You've been warned.) And those seemingly-handy D-rings for shoulder straps that are integrated into the Arkel hardware? Mine rattle on the rails of my rack. Haven't taken the scissors to them yet, but I'm thinking about it. 

I will continue to abuse these Bags of Two Nations (humming "It's A Small World After All" the entire time) with my daily commute load and report back on any other quibbles. On first impressions, though, they get a "Things That Don't Suck" rating -- high praise considering the normal levels of cynicism and snark around these parts.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

I'm A Real Blogger Now!

How do I know? Because I have my first upset reader!

"Disappointed in PA" writes:
It's taken me a while to write, but I have to tell you how disappointed I am with your Feb. 10th article titled "The Compulsive Mechanic's Best Friend". Back in PA, the attached picture was your best friend. I didn't think becoming a big-time blogger would change you, but I guess I was wrong.

(Worst eBay auction EVER.)

 Now, for those of you who aren't well-versed in the ways of homemade tools, what "Disappointed" is holding there (in a hand that looks suspiciously like it belongs to my friend Bill) is my old poker-scraper, and no self-respecting bike mechanic should be without one. It's made by taking an old spoke (I used straight-gauge here, disregarding the advice of Jobst "I'm Smarter Than You, And Taller Too" Brandt), twisting a loop in the middle for pegboard hanging, grinding one end to a sharp point, and pounding the other end flat.

So what the heck does one do with a poker-scraper? Glad you asked. The flat end is great for scraping gunk out of small crevices and picking stuff out from between cassette cogs. It can double as a tiny flat-blade screwdriver in a pinch, too. The pointy end is perfect for opening up the smooshed liner of brake and derailleur cable housing after it's been cut. It's also useful for poking other mechanics in the shop -- not that I would ever do such a thing, of course.

Now, I don't want to pull a Gary Fisher here... I did NOT (repeat NOT) "invent" the poker-scraper. I was first introduced to the idea by head mechanic Paul at the shop where I worked in Iowa City. So Park Tools, if you're just salivating at the thought of slapping a blue handle on this puppy and making tens -- nay, dozens -- of dollars, write the royalty checks to Paul, not me.

Of course, "Disappointed" is right that becoming a big-time blogger has changed me since the days when I wielded this humble homemade poker-scraper. Now, I have a team of interns dedicated to flossing my cassettes clean, hand-filing the cut ends of my cable housings, and poking anyone I deem poke-worthy. Still, I like to keep a poker-scraper around for old times' sake. You never know when you might need to poke and/or scrape something.

So, Bill... er, "Disappointed in PA", sorry I disappointed yunz. Next time I'm out that way, I owe you a round of Yuenglings (wow, that sounds vaguely dirty now that I read it back...)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Amateur Art Critic Returns

With the U.S. government shutdown narrowly averted, let's try this poster on for size. And as a reminder, this comes from the Green Patriot Posters project that I talk more about in Part 1 of my poster prattle series.

For some reason, I read this one as French. Sure, I know the stripes are red, white and blue while the French flag goes bleu, blanc, rouge (that plus merde, mon dieu, Des Moines and soup du jour is about the sum total of my French), but there's just something Euro about it. Maybe I just have a hard time putting together the phrase "bike-friendly U.S. cities" in my mind. The aforementioned Des Moines (French for "The Moines") does pretty well, I'd say. We're no Portland, but I've biked in plenty of places that were much, much worse (cough cough, Columbus Ohio, cough cough).

I'm coming up on my favorite poster in the series, so stay tuned...

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

How A Tandem Captain Says "I Love You"

Goodbye, cheap OEM "suspension" seatpost (quotes intentional, as the only thing it was suspending -- and just barely at that -- was disbelief), hello Buster of Thuds:
Costs a little more, sure, but a stoker with a happy butt? Priceless.

And no, that's not a terrible, blurry, amateur photo... the all-black tandem with all-black components actually uses stealth technology, so it's quite difficult to capture on film.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Poster-palooza, Part 2

Ooh, getting a little more political today...
As a copywriter, I find this poster to be one of the more succinct arguments for steel bikes yet. After all, "possibly delaminating from ultraviolet exposure and/or becoming susceptible to catastrophic cracks due to unseen stress risers in your garage" just isn't as tight. Neil Young knows best... lots of things never sleep, but at least rust has the decency to scan well while doing it.

What's the deal with the posters, you ask? I guess you weren't paying attention to yesterday's post. I'll let it slide this time.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

I Don't Know Art, But...

One of the nice things about writing an obscure blog about an obscure obsession for a (relatively) obscure subject is that other people with similar obsessions are often kind enough to drop subject material into your lap. The folks at The Canary Project recently did just that, calling my attention to their new project called Green Patriot Posters.

Regular readers (or even the slightly irregular ones) may know that I have some mixed feelings about "bike advocacy" in general. However, I am a major sucker for a) books about bikes, and b) art incorporating bikes. So, seeing as how I've been suffering Blogger's Block as of late, I'm more than happy to use my whiny pulpit to showcase some of the (very nifty) work being done as part of this project. To whit:
Very cool, no?

I don't know if I have any readers in New York City (shoot, some days I don't even know if I have any readers outside my immediate family), but if for some reason you find yourself there (in NYC, not outside my immediate family) on April 26, there's an AIGA panel discussion on "designing activism" featuring Michael Bierut. I don't know what half the words in that sentence mean, but our Creative Director/Spouse here at The Cycle (who happens to be an AIGA member) informs me that the presence of Mr. Bierut is, in fact, a Big, Fat, Hairy Deal. 

DISCLAIMER: I have asked the publisher for a copy of the Green Patriot Posters book in exchange for space in this rarely-coveted tube of the Internets, but -- showing a remarkable lack of business acumen -- I'll show and talk about the posters whether I get one or not because I think they're snazzy. And if I don't get a freebie book, I'll probably buy one. Can you tell I got an MFA instead of an MBA?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Great Bicycle Moments In Film

Watched the criminally-unknown Bill Murray/Geena Davis/Randy Quaid comedy Quick Change the other night, and was reminded of this snippet of bicycle cinema:

"It's just a couple guys sorting out some things."