Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Angel In The Details

The shop where I got really good (if I do say so myself) at bike mechanicking had a zillion-or-so point checklist for each new bike assembly. Each time you grabbed a boxed bike out of the back, you also grabbed a copy of the checklist, checked off every item as it was completed, signed it (signed it, for Pete's sake!), wrote the bike's serial number on it, and slipped it into the owner's manual, which was then hung from the handlebars on the sales floor. In a test of my almost-40 memory, I'm going to see if I can recall everything on the list, in no particular order:
  • Hubs adjusted
  • Wheels trued, rounded, and dished (tires had to come off)
  • Tires/tubes installed and inflated to recommended pressure
  • Cassette lockring tightened (if applicable)
  • Excess cable housing trimmed (yeah, seriously... we pulled all the cables out and cut the housing to just what was needed to let the bars turn)
  • Cables lubricated and pre-stretched
  • Derailleurs adjusted (and you better not be caught using the barrel adjusters -- "barrel adjusters are for customers")
  • Brakes adjusted (ditto on the barrel adjusters, and woe upon the mechanic who didn't have his pads striking his perfectly trued rim square, centered, very close, and with just a whisper of toe-in)
  • Cables ends trimmed and capped
  • Bottom bracket checked (these were the days of the ubiquitous cartridge BB, so no adjustment required -- just make sure it's not defective or poorly installed)
  • Crank bolts torqued to manufacturer's recommended spec (yup, a torque wrench had to touch every bike at least once)
  • Seat tube reamed (okay, so we didn't ream them, just gently flex-honed every one -- no seatpost zig-zags allowed)
  • Seat post greased and installed
  • Stem quill greased and installed (yes, quill stems -- I'm old, okay?)
  • Saddle installed (level with the ground and centered on the rails)
  • Pedal threads greased, pedals installed
  • Headset adjusted (you had to drop it out of the workstand for the "bounce test")
  • Handlebar clamp area greased, bar installed and set at an appropriate angle.
  • Brake and shift levers set at an appropriate angle (I believe we shot for 45 degrees on the then-ubiquitous MTB controls, though the checklist wasn't anal enough to specify)
  • Quick release skewers greased and properly installed
  • All factory reflectors installed (fronts and rears had to be perpendicular to the ground)
  • Test ride (yes, you had to ride everything you built)
  • Bike cleaned (no grimy mechanic fingerprints after all that)

Whew! I'm sure I've forgotten something, but there you have it. And once you got a system going, you could pop one of these out in 30 minutes, easy, even with this level of detail and care. We used to say, "Some shops build bikes, and some just put them together." (Dumb and pretentious, I know, since we weren't really "building" them, but it shows you that our shared compulsion was a point of perverse pride.)

Okay, so the point of all this? I finally got around to taking the cosmic ray deflector off my snazzy new Raleigh Clubman the other day. Now, I'd noticed right away when I got the bike that the hubs were dead-on perfectly adjusted -- none of that too-tight factory adjustment notchiness that some shops let slide. But it wasn't until I pulled the wheels off and took out the rear skewer to get at the cassette that I saw it: the telltale cylinder of grease hanging off the threaded end of the QR skewer. They don't come from the factory that way. Somebody at Skunk River Cycles (credit where credit is due, I say) dipped those skewers in goo when they assembled the bike.

Do "lubed skewers" (hey now, this is a family blog!) mean that the bike was lovingly assembled from top to bottom? I don't know, and I won't until I get the bike out on the road for an extended torture test. The cable housings are a little long for my taste (he said, knowing just how nuts it made him sound). But the fact that somebody paid close enough attention to dab a bit of grease on those skewers makes me think that maybe this bike was built, not just put together.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sympathy For The Mechanically Inept

I confess, as a fairly skilled bike mechanic, I can sometimes be a bit of a snob when it comes to folks who don't know the grabby end of a screwdriver from the pointy end. It's a psychology that's trained into shop mechanics over the years. Sure, we'll talk nice to you in the front of the shop: "Oh, don't worry about it... most people don't know that the brake lever is the thing that makes you stop." That's how we get paid. But in the back of the shop, it's probably a different story. "Sheesh, I had a guy today who didn't even know how to face his own bottom bracket shell. (snort of disdain)"

If you're now seething just a bit at my pretentiousness (or the pretentiousness of some other shop monkey who snorted at you because you couldn't change a flat, true a wheel, align a dropout, or -- the hat trick -- all three at once), here's your chance for a nice tasty bite of schadenfreude (Holy crap, did I really just spell that correctly on the first try? Thank you, useless liberal arts education!)

See, as my irregular readers know, I've recently tried to resurrect my interest in making musical noise. Since I played from age 10 through college, he making of noise (some musical, some not so much) isn't really that tough: just build the calluses and practice enough to reconnect those old synapses. Where I get into trouble is the mechanics of my instrument. I have a long history of musical mechanical incompetence going all the way back to the very first bass guitar my parents bought me, somewhere around age 13. It was a fun toy for a while, and I played the ever-lovin' snot out of it, but at some point, curiosity got the best of me. I had to get inside and see how the thing worked. I'm not entirely sure what I did, but when I finally confessed to my dad and we took the pile of parts to the music store, even their heroic measures couldn't save it. I ended up with a new bass, a none-too-pleased father, and an edict that I was NOT to touch any tools without supervision.

Fast-forward to ought-twelve, and almost-40 me isn't much different than almost-13 me. I got my new bass, played around with it, enjoyed it immensely, then promptly decided that I had to make it better. So I ordered some flatwound strings to replace the stock roundwounds. Nice, except now the action felt kind of wonky... but hey, the action adjustment at the bridge uses metric Allen wrenches! I have those, and I know how to use them! Awesome! Except now, the notes are fretting sharp. Gosh, I should be able to fix that. After all, 13-year-old me didn't have the INTERNET to help him out! The INTERNET knows everything! And all you need to adjust intonation is a screwdriver! I have those, and I even know the grabby end from the pointy end! Except now I'm paranoid that maybe I did something to the adjustment of the truss rod, or maybe the winter weather has tweaked the neck a little...

Thankfully, the shop where I bought my bass offers free adjustments, and almost-40 me has gained a little bit of wisdom in the last 27 years. I'm still not smart enough to stop the madness before it starts, but at least I know when to cut my losses, take my (thanfully still functional) instrument to the professionals, and -- tail between my legs -- say, "Fix this, please."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Real Cycling Hero

I am a product of a very cynical age.

There was a time I had professional cycling idols. Heck, like many of a certain age, I got into this sport in the first place because of Greg LeMond. That momentum carried into the Lance years, where I went through my yellow-bracelet groupie phase like everyone else. 

But anymore, as the sport degenerates into a contest of who can piss the cleanest B-sample, I've given up on looking up to people who pedal for pay. That is, until I read this article about Gino Bartali. 

Now, I'm not dumb enough to deify the greats of another age as some kind of pure expression of sport. For all I know, Gino's B-sample may have made Floyd Landis look like a Mormon missionary. But using a 380 kilometer (sheesh, that's 236 miles!) "training ride" to deliver counterfeit papers (stuffed inside your bike) to Jewish refugees during World War II? Knowing every time that being discovered with those papers could get you shot on the spot? Being credited for saving 800 lives? That's hero-worship worthy.

"Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket." Thanks, Gino. And shalom.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Shoe Shootout Hits a Shnag

Pesky day job.

Here I was, working on a critically unknown series of casual shoe reviews, and my Great Quasi-Benevolent Corporate Overlord went and switched bosses on me, replacing one who managed from afar with one who actually saw what we wore every day. Thus, no more jeans, no more sneakers, and no more sneaker reviews. I may have to switch to reviewing -- shudder -- "business casual" footwear.

I do have one last pair of sneaks going through their paces as we speak. Don't want to reveal them yet, but I bottom-fed them for all of ten bucks on clearance, and they bear the brand of a famous redhead whose last initial is W and who is known for participating in "extreme" sports. 

That's right, you guessed it:
Now THAT is some mad air.

Okay, busted. It's actually this guy:
I hear he casts a gnarly Patronus. 

At first glance, they tick all the boxes:
  • Cheap
  • Wide
  • Grippy sole
  • Not ugly
It is mildly humiliating to wear a constant reminder of just how old I am (duuuuuude!) but since they don't shout their skatepark origins (the only external branding is a little W on the heels), I think I'm OK. At least it's not the cruel irony of another halfpipe legend turned clothing brand -- i.e., if you are Tony Hawk's age, you're too old to wear Tony Hawk's clothes.

So, assuming I can shake this pesky grownup dress code and reopen the daily on-bike torture lab, I'll have one last review in my series before I declare the winner and new world champion. You may now start waiting with baited breath.