Sunday, March 31, 2013

Tandem Timing Toestrap Tips

Before I wander away from the subject of tandem maintenance (which, admittedly, is interesting to about 3% of my readership, a.k.a. 0.1 people), I thought I'd share one more trick that until recently had me stumped.

Last season, I was tweaking the tension on our 'dale's timing chain and accidentally derailed the thing. And, no matter how hard I tried, I could NOT get that stupid thing back on with the cranks in phase. I'd seat it on the front timing ring, align the cranks, and somehow get 1-2 teeth off as I seated it on the rear timing ring. I must have fought that stupid thing for hours, finally accepting a "two teeth out of phase" setting and searching the interweb tandem forums for a way to justify it.

(Aside: You wanna start a holy war? Wander into a tandem forum and argue for ANY kind of crank phase... in-phase, 90 degrees out of phase, 180 degrees out of phase. It doesn't matter. Whatever you pick, there's a faction that will agree with you with religious fervor, and an equally-devout faction that will question your sanity. It's one of the many reasons -- not to mention the propensity for matching jerseys -- that I stay away from tandemers in groups, whether in person or in the virtual world.)

This season, I knew I was going to have to tackle the timing chain beast again, since curing the Cannondale Creak was going to require pulling both bottom brackets. But this time, a light bulb went off: When I was ready to reinstall the chain, I found two toestraps (fun fact: auto-correct calls them "toast wraps") and used them to snug both drive-side crankarms (thus, opposite the timing chainrings) parallel to the seat tubes. Installed the chain, took off the toast wraps, and voila! Perfectly in-phase. (If your particular tandem jihad worships an out-of-phase setting, you'll have to figure out how to modify this technique accordingly).

Maybe this trick is painfully obvious to those who haunt the tandem forums and tandem shops (and I'm sure Santana's Bill McCready -- the Gary Fisher of tandems -- invented it), but it was new to me (and saved me from pulling out what little hair I have left), so I thought I'd share.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Curing The Cannondale Creak

Does your oversized aluminum frame make horrific creaking noises that seem to come from the bottom bracket area? The fix is easier than you think, assuming you have the tools and confidence/know-how to pull and reinstall a bottom bracket, plus a couple bucks to spend at the hardware store. 

NOTE: See how I listed "confidence" and "know-how" as key must-haves for this job? This isn't a task for an amateur shade-tree mechanic with a crescent wrench and a big hammer. Do it wrong, and you can strip the bottom bracket threads right out of your frame, thus ruining it (and good luck making a warranty claim for "unskilled, overzealous home mechanic"). So it goes without saying that you should proceed at your own risk, and if things go wrong, you've learned a valuable lesson in not taking advice from the Interwebs.

With all those necessary disclaimers disclaimed, here's what to do:
  1. Remove the bottom bracket: As this is a senior-level course, I'll assume that you know to pull the cranks first, and that you have whatever tool your particular bottom bracket requires.
  2. Thoroughly clean the threads on the BB and frame. Get all the old gunk and grease out of there. It doesn't have to be operating-room clean, but the less mess in the interface, the better the chances of success.
  3. Wrap the BB threads with Teflon tape. It's the white, slippery (and thus, non-adhesive, duh) stuff commonly used by plumbers on threaded fittings. About two bucks should buy you a lifetime-supply roll from any decent hardware store.
  4. Reinstall the BB. And the cranks after that, duh again.
A few caveats, primarily focused on that reinstallation step -- and further proof that this is not a freshman bike repair survey course.
  • Don't lose the threads: The tape can make it tough to discern where the threads are when you're making those first crucial turns into the frame, and the added thickness creates enough resistance to make it hard to tell "going in straight" from "cross-threaded." Proceed with caution.
  • Remember your rightsy-tightsies and leftsy-loosies: When you're wrapping the Teflon tape, make sure you're winding it in the correct direction so it doesn't unwrap as you install the BB. The degree of difficulty goes up since the non-drive cup has right-hand threads and the drive-side cup has left-hand threads. Even I have to stand there with the cup in my hand, miming the installation and imagining which way the tape will twist, and I've done about a zillion of these things.
  • It won't feel right. If you know how a bottom bracket is supposed to feel going in (and if you've made it past all the warnings so far, I hope you do), the extra resistance is nerve-wracking. Plus, you'll probably push some extra "strings" of tape out of the threads which can look disconcertingly like ribbbons of stripped metal. Do not panic.This is normal.
If all goes according to plan, you should now have a blissfully silent bottom bracket (assuming the BB/frame interface was the actual source of your creak, that is).

Why not just use grease? Well, you can, and it will work for a while, but grease doesn't seem to stay in place quite as well, so the creak comes back sooner. Something about the Teflon tape fills the gaps with a bit more permanence, and seems to provide a little more noise dampening at the same time. 

So why do I call this the Cannondale Creak? Well, having worked for three different Cannondale dealers (and having owned four Cannondales of my own) over the years, I learned that if someone brought in a (relatively new) 'dale complaining of a creak, this was the fix 99 out of 100 times. I'm sure it afflicts plenty of other frames, but I'll always associate it (fair or not) with beer-can bikes from Bedford. Those gigantic aluminum downtubes are like megaphones, amplifying even the smallest (and most likely harmless) sounds. It's certainly not a value/quality judgement on a particular brand -- after all, the only reason this fix is fresh in my mind is because I just did it on the two (count 'em, TWO) bottom brackets on our Cannondale tandem, a bike that gets the "pry it from my cold, dead hands" seal of approval from captain and stoker alike.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Schrödinger's Seatpost

It is just as I feared.

I have owned a vernier caliper for less than 48 hours, and already, it is making me insufferable.

Okay, more insufferable.

Case in point: My Raleigh go-sorta-fast bike is spec'ed for a 27.2mm seatpost. The seatpost it came with is clearly engraved 27.2mm. Yet in both the Raleigh's seat tube and in other seat tubes that are supposedly a 27.2mm spec, the seatpost requires excessive tightening of the seatpost binder bolt and still creeps down into the frame under my (ahem) substantial mass.

Thus, the paradox I'm calling Schrödinger's Seatpost: A post which (like its namesake both-dead-and-alive cat) is simultaneously 27.2 millimeters in diameter and NOT 27.2 millimeters in diameter.

Whoa. I just blew your mind a little, didn't I? You can admit it.

But with a vernier caliper, I can open the box and see how the cat's doing. And I'm here to tell you that my seatpost is -- without question -- NOT 27.2 millimeters in diameter. Heck, it's barely 27.0, which explains the need for a carefully crafted aluminum can shim to keep me at the proper altitude.

I would say that the caliper has just paid for itself, but in reality, it probably made itself more expensive, since now that I know my seatpost is undersized, I want to replace it -- even though the aluminum can shim is perfectly functional and practically invisible. I think I may have opened Pandora's box here, not Schrödinger's.

It was fun using all those umlauts, though.

Monday, March 18, 2013

You Say Vernier, I Say Vern-Yay!

Pardon the geek-out, but I'm just a little bit too excited about the latest addition to my tool kit:

That, for those not in the know, is a vernier caliper, which (if you aren't in the mood to read the whole wiki) is used to measure stuff. More precisely, it's used to measure stuff more precisely. I don't know how I've called myself a mechanic for this long without owning one. Not sure if the clamp diameter of your handlebars is 25.4mm or 26.0mm? Bust out the vernier caliper. Trolling seatposts at a swap meet and find one without a diameter marking? It's vernier time, baby. Hang around with the sort of people who simply MUST know the actual, inflated width of Brand X, Model Y tire? The guy with the vernier caliper is the life of that party -- though, as you might imagine, it's a pretty lame party.

At my first serious shop gig, our head mechanic had his own personal (and very pricy) vernier caliper, purchased with his own money, that no one else was allowed to touch. I think he even took it home every night (there was speculation amongst the more junior staff that he couldn't sleep if it wasn't on his bedside table). But if you needed something measured -- and I mean you really needed it measured right, you took it to him. He'd pull that gleaming, polished steel from its leather case (seriously, it came with a leather case), close it gently around the part in question, squint at the tiny increments like a Talmudic scholar poring over a particularly thorny text, and proclaim The Measurement to more decimal places than you probably needed or even imagined possible. It was glorious.

Mine's an el cheapo, thirteen U.S. dollars worth of pretty rough looking metal (couldn't bring myself to pop for one of those high-precision Excalibur numbers with the leather case), but I'm still in full nerd mode. In fact, I'd write more, but there's a whole house full of stuff just waiting to be measured.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Post About... Well, a Post

I try not to devolve into pure, uncut snark (some of my readers may not be of the generation known as "X" and thus can't take the straight stuff), but once I saw the Biker's Rest, I simply couldn't help myself.

So lemme get this straight... it's a hunk of pipe (with a hand and foot rest, mind you) to be installed on and/or near a roadway so that nonplussed hipster-bikers have a place to lean without putting their fashionable sneakers on the ground.

No offense meant to the designer, but I can come up with two even more elegant designs right off the top of my head that will accomplish the same purpose -- and said head has all the design sense of Comic Sans on a pixellated low-resolution photo.

One: If you really have to keep your fashionable sneakers off the ground, learn to trackstand. All the cool kids are doing it.

Two: Just put your friggin' foot down. I can only assume you have to get off your bike and sully your sneaks on terra firma eventually. Use stoplights as an opportunity to practice.

Do not misunderstand me... if I'm riding through the urban quasi-jungle of Des Moines (slogan: "Our mean streets are real cities' nice streets.") and happen to encounter a conveniently placed signpost, light pole, or other phallic bit of streetscape while stopping, I'll happily reach out and lean on said roadway appendage. But I certainly don't need posts installed specifically for the purpose of leaning. I'll probably end up running into them anyway. 

Back in my mountain biking youth, we used to compete to see who could ride through the gnarliest loops without dabbing. And the rule we applied to trees back then still applies to this glorified pole today: If you're leaning, you're dabbing. No cool points have been salvaged.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Revenge Of The Wax

Okay, I've moped enough. Time to get back to the minutiae that's so adored by what our pals over the pond would call bike anoraks. Note to my wife (a.k.a. half my readership): yes, dear, this is one of those posts that will bore you.

Today, I'm taking great glee at the aftermath of a recent VeloNews test on the efficiency of chain lubes. Of course, being teases (and wanting you to buy the archaic dead-tree version of their rag), the VN folks didn't publish the results of this testing on the Internets. You can, however, glean a key takeaway from Lennard Zinn's follow-up FAQ, namely that cheap, humble, not-a-supporter-of-magazines-through-advertising-dollars paraffin wax proved to be the most efficient lube (quoth Zinn: "I never would have guessed that paraffin would outperform everything.")

Why does this give me such glee? Well, first of all, it's not often that I get to say The Cycle scooped VeloNews by several years. And -- being the grouchiest of retro-grouches -- it's also not often that I get to watch as something from olden times soundly thrashes the supposedly-latest-and-greatest. Just the title of Zinn's FAQ ("Wax chain lube, really? What now?") gives me shudders of schadenfreude. You can almost hear the disillusionment in each question mark.

Granted, the testing in question was looking at only one aspect of lubrication (efficiency) in a very controlled laboratory setting, so extrapolating this result to the real world is a risky business. And I'd be flat-out lying if I claimed that I knew (or cared) that wax was more efficient. I just use it because it's cheap, clean, and seemingly effective. But man, getting a little vindication after years of mainstream snickering? I'll take it. In fact, I think this calls for another chain wax haiku, so I can (again) claim to be waxing poetic:

VeloNews tested,
and humble paraffin won.
Take that, pricy lubes.

(Aside: Does Lennard Zinn really wipe down and lube his chain with ProLink after almost EVERY ride as he claims -- something he describes as being akin to taking a post-ride shower? That's a man who doesn't pay for his own chain lube and/or has way too much free time. I'm just sayin'.) 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Happy Birthday, Old Man

My dad would have turned 68 today.

He was a founding member of the Grumpy Old Bastards Bike Club (peak membership: 3), and a staunch proponent of the widest tires he could get his hands on -- "fat-tired bikes for fat, tired guys" is how he described it.

We used to ride together in the evenings, after dinner -- he had a theory (the "Seven o'Clock Calm") that the wind would always die down around seven. It didn't always pan out, but now, whenever I hear cicadas, I remember rides with my dad.

At 45, he had his first heart attack. He barely survived a second at 50, and was taken by the third one at 55. A life of smoking and obesity was just too much for his cycling habit to overcome.

One of the last places we went together (though I didn't know it at the time, obviously) was a bike shop.

I miss him every day.

Tailwinds, old man.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Bikes In My Head, Part 1: Nuovo-Retro MTB

One of the ways I drag my way through the long, cold drudgery of a Midwestern winter is to come up with bikes that I would build and own if I didn't have a full garage and empty wallet. Normally, I leave these things in my head (they keep the voices company), but with this winter packing extra drudgitude, I thought I'd spit out a few for your (questionable) entertainment. If you're looking for someone to blame, that would be Pal Scott of fivetoedsloth fame, whose recent Reality Bites revamp of the One Bike concept got me thinking about stuff that would be fun to build.

The first project for my garage-without-limits would be a classic fully rigid mountain bike (like the ones we rode "back in the day"), only built entirely from stuff available off the shelf here in ought-thirteen. Why? Well, because. It's a thought exercise -- logic need not apply.

The core of the beast would be a 26"-wheeled Surly Long Haul Trucker frame/fork. Sure, Surly makes actual MTB frames for 26" wheels, but they're modern MTBs with suspension-adjusted geometry, super-low top tubes, and (shudder) disc tabs. To get the true old-school feel, you need a low bottom bracket, long chainstays, and cantilevers. The Trucker has all that. My first concession to ought-thirteen will be the threadless steerer, only because one of the things I hated back in the day was a threaded headset rattling itself loose, and having to finger-tighten that locknut in the field every five minutes because I wasn't packing a headset wrench.

So let's hang some parts on this bad boy:
  • Bottom Bracket: Shimano square taper. Looks like the XT-level UN72 no longer exists, so I'll settle for UN54.
  • Cranks: Sugino XD. Pretty classic-looking 110/74 triple. 24-36-46 rings.
  • Derailleurs: This is tough, since 2013 derailleurs are so dang ugly. If silver Deore is still around, I'll take those -- nice workhorse parts. Otherwise, it looks like there's an LX "trekking" group in silver that could do the trick. Tie 'em together with a SRAM chain since it's the direct descendant of Sachs.
  • Wheels: Sun CR-18 rims, silver, 36 spokes, laced to some flavor of silver Shimano cassette hubs. This is my second concession to modernity, since I was a serious axle-bender back in the day. Put a 9-speed 11-34 Shimano cassette on there, for reasons to be explained later.
  • Rubber: Ohmygawd, Panaracer still makes the Smoke and Dart in 26 inch. That was easy. (Runner-up would be the Specialized Ground Control, though they seem to have modernized that one. Alas, Onza Porcupines are vaporware.)
  • Pedals: Flat, obviously. Generic brand Dimension has a "Pro" model that looks like a faithful copy of the old SR Lowfat. Two-prong Zefal nylon toeclips (and toestraps, obviously) are still available, too.
  • Brakes: Tektro wide-profile cantilevers, silver. Because real men had calf scars from rear brakes that stuck out, dangit.
  • Seating: Silver post of some sort, matters not. The WTB SST isn't quite as classic as the rest of my build, but my tushie likes it. And it is a relatively old design. If you really need to avoid anachronism, Selle San Marco still makes the Rolls and Regal, and it looks like Selle Italia has a reissued Turbo.
  • Controls: IRD thumbshifters, 9-speed indexed (which explains the 9-speed cassette). Not totally old-school, but my '87 MTB had click-shifters, so I'm allowing it. Shimano still makes a silver brake lever for cantis, so that's in. Flat bar, natch. Grips? ODI still makes the MTB version of their Mushrooms, or there's the tried-and-true Grab-on foam. I'm disqualifying Ourys because the fixie kids have taken them over.
So there you go: One late-80s mountain bike, built entirely of 2013 parts. What would I do with such a thing? I'd like to say that I'd school the full-suspension kids on the local trails, showing them how we did it in preshistoric times. It's more likely, however, that I'd endo almost immediately, blow out a shoulder, and my much-wiser, loving spouse would sell the bike while I was still addled by painkillers to prevent me from doing any more damage.