Monday, December 31, 2012

Tried And Liked, 2012 Edition: The Stuff

Now, for those who are huge geeks for product reviews, here are the new gidgets and widgets I slapped on a cycle in 2012 that earned their place in my pantheon of Things That Don't Suck: 

POLAR BOTTLES: A brutal heat wave inspired me to test a couple insulated bottles this summer. While I found Camelbak's attempt somewhere between "meh" and "blech" (usually hanging around the "feh" part of that continuum), Polar was a winner -- once I figured out that what I thought was leakage was actually the result of sloppy filling, a.k.a. operator error. I can't count the number of times that bottle's been through the dishwasher since my initial review, and it still looks and works like new. Even disregarding the insulation (which is nice, don't get me wrong), this is a better bottle than any of its plastic competitors on basic bottle function -- even the mighty and ubiquitous Specialized bottle.

CRANK BROTHERS CANDY PEDALS: Originally purchased as a stopgap while I hunted for new ATACs, my low-budget Candy 1s are still mounted up and going strong. My only real complaint so far is with cleat durability -- even mounted in recessed-sole MTB shoes, those suckers wear down pretty quick compared to (steel) SPD cleats or (also brass, I think) ATAC. Still, gosh, these are some nice click-in pedals for the price. 

STI: This one completely spit in my inner-Luddite's eye, having been a bar-end-shifter guy for the better part of 15 years. Still, I greatly enjoyed the Tiagra brifters on my Raleigh Clubman. I can still see the benefits of old-school, non-integrated shifting, but I have to admit that the newfangled stuff works and the ergonomics are delightful (for my chubby paws, at least). If they blow out on me, I might consider going back to a retro option, but until then, I'm going to keep on brifterin'. 

COMPACT CRANKS: This was less of a stretch for my inner Luddite since I've been a proponent of smaller-diameter bolt circles (and their resulting lower gears for years. However, 2012 was the first time that I tried Shimano's take on what we retro-dorks have always known. The 50/34 combo has its challenges (there can be a bit of a clunky double-shift in the sequence), but for this flatlander, it's a great compromise between the dork factor (yeah, I'm that vain) of a triple and the "who's got quads to push that?" feeling of a racerdude double. 

THE HORRIBLY NAMED BUT NICE SHIMANO TIAGRA GROUP: Other than crummy bottom bracket bearings, I was duly impressed by the whole Tiagra kit on my Clubman this year. Sure, it sounds like an (ahem) "male enhancement" pill, but the 9-speed version of the T-group has impressed me as solid, effective stuff that isn't awful to look at. If you're a fan of esoteric midrange Shimano road groups of the mid-90s (and really, who isn't?), I'd liken this group to the RX100 of yore... sitting right under 105, mostly forgotten, basic silver, and good to go. 

V-BRAKES AND DROP BARS: 2012 was the year that I finally worked out the kinks which were keeping me from converting my Swift folder to drop bars, including the whole "how to pull a V-brake with a drop-bar lever" conundrum. I'd tried (briefly) the Tektro RL520 before, but had them on a flared drop bar that was not to my liking and ended up throwing out both baby and bath water. Once I mated them to a more traditional bar, perfection. Solid and powerful braking, good (for me) ergonomics, not fiddly at all (I installed inline cable adjusters but haven't touched them in months), no complaints.

Okay, 2012, that's a wrap. Here's to many happy miles in 2013!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tried And Liked, 2012 Edition: The Generalities

It is a long-standing tradition in one of the many online forums (fora?) where I prowl to compile annual lists of things that were tried each year and found to be acceptable -- nay, even likable. While these lists often focus on stuff (and I have a list of just stuff forthcoming) there's room for ideas, experiences, and whatnot. So, without further ado, here -- in no particular order -- is my compilation of general things that made me smile in 2012. 

OWNING A GO-FAST BIKE: I actually took possession of my Raleigh Clubman late in 2011, but she didn't see real riding until 2012, so I'm counting it. After several years of fat-tired all-rounders (pshawing and harumphing all the while at those "one-trick-pony" road bikes), I finally put skinny tires under my wide arse again. And it was good. Sure, 700x28 with fenders isn't exactly cutting edge racer stuff, but still. Felt nice. And fast. And not uncomfortable or one-trick-ponyish at all. (Disclaimer: Calling anything pedaled by me a "go-fast" bike is probably grounds for pants on fire.) 

TANDEM HAMMERING: The tandem (and tandeming in general) was nothing new, but my stoker lost a jaw-dropping 50-plus pounds in the last year or so. The result? The tandem got a massive upgrade in power/weight ratio with no extra effort from me. We did long rides, we did fast rides, we did long fast rides. From the captain's chair, it felt like astronaut training... I swore my face-skin was being pushed to the back of my head. If I ever drop the 25 pounds of bonus features I'm carrying, we may have to put bigger gears on that thing. 

QUASI-MODERN BIKE TECHNOLOGY: With the new go-fast(er) bike came an influx of non-retro parts... threadless headset, STI, external-bearing bottom bracket, modern crankset, blah blah blah. While my decidedly Luddite internal monologue again wanted to pshaw and harumph these supposed advancements, I have to say that (with the exception of a quickly-toasted Tiagra BB), they have all performed admirably so far. It's also nice to be able to walk into a bike shop and get a replacement part that isn't a freaky "do they even make that any more?" special order -- though given the speed of planned obsolescence in the bike industry, that should last for about two more months. (Aside: The fact that I'm calling threadless headsets and STI -- two  breakthroughs from the grunge era -- "modern" should tell you just how far behind the curve I am.) 

MAKING VAGUELY MUSICAL NOISE: All the bikers in the house are shouting "digression!" at me, but one of the things that made me happy in 2012 was the time I spent rebuilding my bass-player calluses. I haven't actually shared this "gift" with anyone (save my long-suffering spouse) or attempted to perform with anyone else, but it felt good to knock the dust off a few musical synapses that hadn't fired since the last century. 

THE DREADED LYCRA: I've been a baggy-shorts guy pretty much since I became a chubby desk jockey. However, with the purchase of the go-slightly-faster bike (see above), I figured it might be time to pull the old sausage casings out of storage, at least for the occasional longer ride (alone, in complete darkness, where there's no chance of anyone seeing the abomination of me in Lycra). It didn't take long to remember why I used to wear that stuff. I'm still a baggy-shorts guy for most of my riding, but if I know I'm going to put in a long and slightly faster day in the saddle, I reach for the girdle. If I ever become that guy who clomps around the farmer's market on his cleat covers in full kit with his RAGBRAI jersey stretched over his beer belly, take me out back and shoot me.

Next up, the bike-related products that I added to my quiver (and found good) in 2012.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Huh? What? Did Somebody Say Challenge?

Fearless Leader Tarik, grand pooh-bah of the Tarik Saleh Bike Club, and miner of blog gold over at Moscaline, has announced his Tarik Saleh Bike Club 100 Challenge... and, as early-joiner (perhaps a charter member?) of TSBC, I have dutifully made myself aware that a challenge is taking place.

In case you're too lazy to follow that link and read the challenge rules, here they be, quoth Tarik: 
  1. Just ride your bike 100 miles from 12/24-12/31/12 and you have achieved the challenge.
  2. Or just ride your bike every day from 12/24-12/31 and you also have achieved the challenge.
  3. Or just try to ride your bike just a bit more than you might have otherwise and you have achieved it. 
Progress to date: I was working for The Man on 12/24, and thus did a very cold 2-mile round trip commute on studded tires. 12/25 is a holy day of Chinese food and cinema for my people, so I was forbidden by rabbinical edict to do more than hamster-spin in the garage (total distance traveled: 0 miles, natch). 12/26: Another cold 2 miles. 12/27: Another cold 2 miles. I will predict yet another cold 2 miles for 12/28. On 12/29, I'll be visiting a very sick girl in the hospital for zero miles (though I assume it qualifies for the club rule of trying not to be an ass). 

So, that's going to leave me 12/30 and 12/31 to either a) ride 92 miles, or b) ride more than I might have otherwise. I don't see the first happening, so we'll have to see on the second.

(This just in: You're saying, "But Jason, you dolt, it's already 12/27... how can I be expected to complete a challenge that started on 12/24?" Great Leader has amended the original challenge to allow for pro-rated/post-dated challenging.)

Friday, December 21, 2012

One Is The Loneliest Number

Poor little guy... had to leave his warm garage and slog through the snow, then none of his buddies showed up to keep him company in the rack.

Now, I should note that this photo was taken on December 21, 2012, so maybe all the other commuters (and their bikes, I hope) got raptured.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

I Come To Bury Square Tapers, Not To Praise Them

By now, it's probably pretty clear that I'm a cantankerous old bastard. I don't trust anything new, anything fangled, and you can bet your sweet bippy I don't trust anything new-fangled. (And don't get me started on threadless headsets, what with their star-fangled nuts...)

However, I'm coming around in the realm of the bottom bracket, having now installed two Shimano external-bearing BBs (one for a friend, one for myself) versus literally hundreds of square-taper BBs. Tonight's adventure was replacing the crunchy Tiagra BB on my Clubman with a new Ultegra (I tend to demolish inexpensive BBs, so the extra couple bucks seemed worth it). Here's a bit more crankiness in the realm of environmental package design, though. This is the "disassembly sequence" I had to go through just to get to the new BB:

Box #1
Box #2, which was inside Box #1, apparently so the instructions had a place to sublet.

Two (count 'em, TWO) separate plastic bags inside Box #2, which, as you'll recall, was inside Box #1 
Now, I don't wear hemp undies or compost my unused compost, but really? It takes that much cardboard and plastic to hold two bearing cups and a plastic tube that weigh all of 95 grams? Uh, OK. So score one for the old-school square taper bottom bracket, at least, since those came in one box with no plastic and the instructions tucked in with the BB. So the instructions got a little greasy... you planning to keep them in archival sleeves and put 'em on eBay? Harumph, harumph, harumph.

(Update: Reader Jeremy tells me that new square taper BBs are just as overpackaged. Thus, I strike my comment... except for the harumphs.)

But, grumpy man, get to the point and replace your bottom bracket. Here are the tools needed:

One Park BBT-9, and one regular old 5mm hex wrench. Simple. So simple, in fact, that I will endeavor to describe the entire removal process without taking a breath: Loosen the two hex bolts on the non-drive-side crankarm, remove the plastic cap on the non-drive side of the BB with the plastic end of the BBT-9, pull the non-drive-side crank off by hand, pull the drive-side crank out, and unscrew the BB cups using the metal end of the BBT-9. Whew!

Having done that, I was left with one toasted Tiagra:

The bearing on the non-drive side still feels good, but the drive side is crunchy. If I feel really bored and/or advanced, I'll try to replace the bearings someday. The rusty gunk on the central sleeve concerns me a little, though not enough that I'm going to go to the trouble to strip down the frame and shoot anti-rust goo in it. Yes, Neil Young says rust never sleeps, but there are so many other things to get uptight about. If the world doesn't end when the Mayan calendar runs out, I'll consider it.

It wasn't until I saw an external BB sitting like this that I had my forehead-slapping moment: It looks like a little headset! In fact, that's pretty much what it is, turned 90 degrees and with cups that screw in instead of press in. At that point, these things stopped being all scary and new to me. You think it's a coincidence that Chris King (maker of maybe the bestest headsets ever) didn't dip a toe into bottom brackets until external bearings became the norm? Did you just slap your forehead too?

So having already extracted my shiny new Ultegra from its labyrinthine packaging, I just had to screw the sucker in (using the metal end of the BBT-9 again):

Did you forget that the drive-side cup is left-hand threaded... unless your frame is Italian... or French... or Swiss? Hell, I don't remember. No wonder all the even-newer bottom bracket standards just use press-in bearings. All the mechanics who could keep track of the different threadings are gone (rest and wrench in peace, Sheldon).

Put the cranks back on by hand, use the plastic end of the BBT-9 to screw the non-drive-side plastic cap back on, tighten the hex bolts on the non-drive crank, and you're good to go. It's simple enough that I'm very tempted to swap the square-taper on my folding bike to newfangled, just so I can get the cranks off with only a 5mm hex wrench and the plastic doohickey from the end of the BBT-9 (it looks removable to me). That could be suitcase-packing nirvana.

Now here's why my once-passionate devotion to the square-taper bottom bracket (even the un-killable Shimano UN-72 cartridge) runs dry. To accomplish the same thing in a square-taper world, you need these tools:

An 8mm hex wrench (middle) to get the crank bolts off, a crank puller (lower left) and BFW (Big, Forceful -- hey, it's a family blog -- Wrench, right) to get the crank arms off, and a bottom bracket tool (upper left) with the BFW to get the cartridge out. All this so you can have a press-fit crank interface with much rounding-out potential and smaller bearings (albeit ones that are protected inside the frame). Meh. I certainly can't describe the process in one breath, though I've packed an impressive number of expletives into one breath when I accidentally left a washer in a crankarm before applying the crank puller and BFW, thus extracting only the crank's threads.

Now, granted, if you're a REAL bodger, the square-taper BB comes in a zillion lengths, which allows you to customize your chainline with dang near every square-taper crank ever made. And yes, most cranks made for the square taper are prettier than the newfangled stuff (Shimano's new elephant proboscis drive-side crank is pretty awful). But man, that install was a piece of cake. The only thing that might sway me back to ye olde times is if this Ultegra BB proves to have short bearing life like its Tiagra cousin... but then again, there's always Chris King...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Close Encounters Of The Brompton Kind

I met another local folding bike enthusiast at a neighbor's party last weekend and -- finally -- got to put my paws on an oh-so-British Brompton origami cycle.

First impression? WOW, that is one compact fold. In its fully-folded state, the thing looks like a bicycle that's been squashed in a trash compactor. It's just a little rectangular block of twisty metal with the occasionally recognizable bike part showing through. But in a few simple motions, the owner turned that little block into an actual bicycle. And, zip zip zip, just as quickly, he had it back in "cube" mode. Even better, the rear rack (which ends up on the bottom when the bike is folded) is equipped with wheels so the package can be rolled around instead of carried. So elegant.

Even more impressive, he was able to teach me the folding sequence -- despite the fact that at that point in the party, neither one of us was in any condition to operate machinery of any sort (lest there be any concern for our safety/responsibility, I walked home while he and the bike got a ride from a designated driver). Once I'd mastered the fold, we had to head over to my garage so he could geek out on my Swift and my wife's Raleigh 20.

I obviously have no ride report, considering my state at the time, but we did promise to get together again under less festive circumstances and play Musical Folding Bikes. I'm crazy excited about this prospect, as the Brompton has always fascinated me. My only fear is that I'll feel the need to own one after riding it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Off-Season Hacks And Follies

I am an absolute pansy when it comes to winter riding.

Sure, I commute by bike year-round, but c'mon. My commute is one stinkin' mile each way. If the weather's bad enough that I can't ride a bike one mile, I shouldn't be going to work. Heck, if it's too bad to actually pedal, I can always just lower the saddle and Fred Flinstone the mile to work like I'm on a gigantic scooter.

When it comes to "fun" (non-commuting) rides, my good bike goes up on the hamster wheel pretty early in the winter... which inspires the eternal indoor cyclist's quest: How not to bore oneself to death upon the off-season torture device? Enter those wacky newfangled "smart" phones: music, TV, the Internets, games, all in the palm of your hand. With the increased popularity of GPS and bike computer apps, there are even a bunch of doo-dads designed specifically to hold a phone on your bars within view.

But me, I'm cheap, and I often see ready-made solutions as an affront to my bodging tendencies. So when I wanted to prop my pocket internets on the handlebars of my indoor suffering machine, I got some of these:

Basically, big ol' hunks of wire dipped in very thick, grippy textured rubber. Bend them, shape them, any way you want them, as long as you love them, it's all right. I crafted one into this:


Don't get it yet? Imagine that this plastic small-parts box is some sort of electronic entertainment device:

I tried putting my phone in there and using a mirror so it could take a self-portrait, but the thing took one look at itself, developed self-awareness, and now it refuses to open the pod bay doors.

The resulting mount has a tiny bit of jiggle, but it works great. I can adjust the angle with a bit of bending, and the phone shows no sign of ejecting. And since the giant twisty-tie things come in a two-pack, I have one more to play with -- it certainly looks like it has potential for many more interesting hacks, from accessory installation to the world's wackiest chainstay protector.

HUGE, MASSIVE, PLEASE-READ-THIS DISCLAIMER: This may not be a recommended use of this particular product. Please do not hold me or the folks at Nite-Ize responsible if your phone leaps to its death on a concrete floor. And I would NOT even THINK of using this on a real-world outdoor ride, both because I don't look at screens during real-world rides and because I can almost guarantee that use on an actual road would result in phone suicide.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Prozac For The Ex-Mechanic

A while back, fellow blogger/virtual pal bikelovejones posted a very poignant (at least for this ex-wrench) discussion of how it feels to leave the bike-fixing business. Maybe if you've never turned a wrench for a living, it won't make a dent, but it warmed at least one cockle of my otherwise cold, dead heart.

I'm nowhere near the mechanic that blj is -- my tenure was only six years, intermittently spread among four shops -- but I still feel that pang. I can dribble a wheel,too, and my favorite shop apron (a long denim one with Schwinn embroidery) still hangs in the garage near my Park stand, crusted with the same nostalgic stains and smells blj describes. Mine was sent to me as a gift (along with some other shop memorabilia, including the annoying disco CD we used to play all the time) by my boss after he decided to close the last shop where I'd worked, and when I pulled it from the box, I was overcome by the same sadness. I'd long since become a "grown up" with a "real job" (whatever those things mean), but I missed being a mechanic. And now, 12 years later, some part of me still does.

Still, I've moved on for the most part (only took 12 years!), so in the spirit of helping blj do the same, here's my Advice for Former Grease Monkeys:
  • GET GOOD TOOLS: If you're still a cyclist (and good luck getting THAT monkey off your back), then you're still going to have bikes to fix, and you should stock your workshop right. You may think that a cheap pedal wrench is "good enough for a home shop" and that the heft of a real PW-3 is overkill that will only make you sad. Wrong. Having the right tool in your hand will put you in mechanic autopilot mode where the tool is just an extension of your hand, while having a flimsy piece of crap will only remind you that you aren't a "real" mechanic any more.
  •  THAT MEANS A WORKSTAND, TOO: This is a corollary to the previous point, but it's worth a stand-alone (no pun intended). If you've never known any better, you can get away with shelf brackets, hooks slung from the rafters, or any number of other mono-buttocked wrenching solutions. But if you've done time on a real stand with a real clamp, there's no going back. Maybe you don't need a stand on a 120-pound steel base, but find something that will give you that "shop experience" while you work.
  • GIVE YOUR BIKES A BREAK: At some point, you will find yourself swapping shifters, brakes, cranks, bar tape, spoke nipples, and pretty much everything else on your own bike because a) you're bored, and b) you have the parts. Fight the urge. Your own bikes will eventually bore you. The fun of shop wrenching is the variety of things you get to work on. Endless mechanical onanism won't scratch that itch. When you find yourself saying, "I could equalize the wear on my pedal bearings if I rebuilt the left pedal with the balls from the right pedal and vice versa," put the wrenches down and go for a walk.
  • BECOME THE NEIGHBORHOOD BIKE FIXER: This is how you scratch that "variety" itch. Get known among friends and neighbors as the person who can fix bikes. You'll have a great time, your friends will have happy bikes, everybody wins. I have a hard time convincing my friends that they don't have to pay me to work on their bikes -- I really, honestly, no-foolin' LOVE to do it. An evening in the garage, chatting with pals, getting greasy, perhaps consuming an adult beverage or two... what's better than that? If people insist on paying you back, bike-fixer-uppering is a great skill to barter. I can go through most of the Spring without paying for coffee or those adult beverages mentioned above thanks to preseason tune-ups.
If you've never wrenched for a living, you probably find this mildly ridiculous. It's just a job, right? But it's also a hard habit to break. So if there's an ex-mechanic in your life, find out what sort of beverages they prefer (adult or otherwise), and give that person an excuse to keep their tetanus shots up to date. You won't regret it.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Even Bloggers Have An Off-Season

Mine appears to be October and November.

Sure, I could have built up a knobby-tired blog and participated in the increasingly popular sport of blogocross, but then I'd need to invest in a second pit blog and a bunch of spare keyboards for muddy blog posts, dry-conditions blog posts, etc. Plus, it's hard to think of something to write with all those people ringing cowbells in your ears and handing you beers after every paragraph.

So, I napped out November, completely neglecting to immortalize my 40th (eh, what's that, sonny?) birthday on the 8th, which came and went with the "meh" it deserved. My inability/unwillingness to compulsively log miles this year prevents me from knowing if I reached my '40,000 lifetime miles by 40" goal (if I had to guess, I'd say "not even close"). But hey, it's all good.

The main reason I shut down in November is that this is the time of year I start to bore myself, never mind my reader(s). Other than my thrill-free commute and hamster-wheel torture in the garage, I really haven't been riding. Equipment-wise, this is the time of year I start to get whiny and unsatisfied with the stuff that was perfectly fine last month, and who wants to read about that?

I do have a bit of a mechanical challenge in the queue, however -- a problematic clunk in the bottom bracket area of my Raleigh Clubman. I've whittled down the variables (with thanks to some even more mechanically minded pals) to the bottom bracket itself, and have a replacement en route. Once that arrives, I'll do a how-to on newfangled Shimano external BB installation for my retro-grouchy readership. Plus, if I can find a cheap source for the (relatively common) cartridge bearings in said bottom brackets, I'll try to resurrect the old one with punches and hammers and brute force.

Thanks again for your patience. Your next bill will be pro-rated to reflect the interruption in service.