Thursday, August 29, 2013

Little Wheels Keep On Turnin'

For fans of our Tiny-Wheel Weird Bikes Series, Pal Steve from Peoria called my wandering attention to this:

(Those spin and zoom buttons don't do anything, by the way -- they were just stowaways in my screen capture. But if you want to look real close and/or make the bike dance for you, just go to the original page on the Raleigh UK site.)

It looks -- to my inexpert eye -- like Raleigh UK brought back the design of the non-folding version of the Raleigh Twenty, gave it modern alloy wheels, and added cantilever/V-brake posts. Having tried to stop my wife's Twenty with the stock long-reach calipers and chromed steel rims, I can say with some authority that this is a much-needed and much appreciated upgrade.

I'm guessing but can't confirm that they also ditched the weird bottom bracket threading of the original Twenty and put a real headset in there -- two things that have always been the bane of Twenty hot-rodders. Props for the properly-placed pump behind the seat tube, too. And c'mon, is there anything cooler than handlebar streamers? Raleigh USA, the gauntlet is down -- where are our modernized Twenties with stars and streamers? Why does the home team get all the fun stuff?

Of course, I have no clue what Red or Dead is, because I'm an old, out-of-touch fogey. Maybe it's a British thing.

(Aside to my Peoria readership from the Friday Night Ride: Yes, he really is THAT Steve. But don't make him all self-conscious about his fame. No autographs! Tee hee...)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

If I Had A Hammer... I'd Have A Chain Tool

File under "low-budget shade tree mechanicking..."

Remember how I was about to install a new chain on the green machine? And how I was lauding the magical no-tools-needed master link that so many modern chains now include, save for stupid Shimano? Well, the new chain is on, and I discovered yet another reason that master links rock.

When you use master links, the only time you need an olde fashioned chain toole is when you have to shorten a new chain to the correct length. That's it. So I measured up my new chain against the old one, pulled my trusty Park CT-5 Mini Chain Brute (which is now going on probably 20 years old), and discovered -- DOH! -- that the pin was bent. Some clumsy, ham-fisted gorilla (a.k.a. me) must have wrecked it and stuck it back in my toolkit without mentioning anything to the shop purchasing manager (a.k.a. me). I searched for a replacement pin, but no dice. Tried to bend it back, but hardened steel doesn't really like to bend multiple times, so it snapped. And thus, I was screwed. Up the creek without a chain tool.

In times like these, I ask myself WWSD -- What would Sheldon (a.k.a. the late, great Sheldon Brown, patron saint of bicycle mechanics) do? The bike shops were closed, so I couldn't just buy a new pin and be done with it. Sure, I could put out a call on the social mediums for a local pal who'd loan me a chain tool if I put down a bubbly malt beverage as collateral. But instead, I pondered the problem at hand, hoping that my innate stubbornness (let's just call it "ingenuity" instead) could somehow win out.

All I needed was to drive a pin out of the chain at the correct location without damaging the portion of the chain I hoped to use on the bike. And what's good for driving things? A hammer, of course! So I put the chain in my vice, closing the jaws on the outer plates of the stub of chain I hoped to remove, and laid the "good" end of the chain on the bench to keep it from falling on the floor if this hack succeeded. Found a nail that was just slightly smaller than a chain pin, placed it on the pin I needed to remove, and pounded away. And it worked! The long end of the chain was freed with no damage, and I was ready to install it on the bike with the master link as planned.

I went out and bought replacement pins the following day, so now my CT-5 is as good as new (the pins come in a two-pack, so I even taped the spare to the tool just in case). But it's good to know that in a pinch, a bit of brute force applied strategically can get the job done.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Recumbent Riders: The Happiest Cyclists?

On a tandem ride the other day, my astute stoker pointed out that of all the other bikers we encounter, it seems like recumbent riders always look the happiest. We have other theories about the mental state of our fellow trail users (most notably that runners seem to be in a constant state of searing pain, just based on their expressions), but this was the first time one of us had observed a tribal mindset within our own wheeled brethren.

My flip answer was, "You know that pain you're feeling in your ass right now? Recumbent riders don't have that." Doesn't seem like an awful theory, really. Even the most comfortable upright bike is going to eventually do a number on your contact points. Take away that pain (even if it's just a small, nagging one) and you're much more likely to smile.

But on further reflection, I think there's more to it than just pain relief. As any recumbent zealot will remind you, sit-down bikes were banned from competition by the UCI in 1934, and have been riding around on the fringes of the sport ever since. That means everyone you see on a recumbent today has at some point walked into a bike shop, taken a look at the rows of "normal" upright bikes that everyone else rides, and said, "Nope, not interested. I want that weird one over there." Maybe it's just for the comfort, maybe they can't ride an upright any more, or maybe it's an innate desire to be different. Who knows? But that person made a choice to get outside the mainstream, judgment be damned. That has to be pretty liberating, don't you think? Suddenly, the "rules" of the "regular biking world" don't apply. Maybe that's why so many of them have those orange flags -- it's the recumbent rider letting his or her freak flag fly.

I know I have a couple Steves among my regular readers who have 'bents in their fleets, so I'm hoping they can enlighten me on this one -- or tell me I'm full of hot air. Maybe they can also explain why recumbent riders are required to grow beards.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Princess And The Pea Credentials: Revoked

After many, many years of riding and many, many hours of constant, relentless -- nay, obsessive -- futzing with my bikes, I like to think that I'm pretty sensitive to bike setup. You scoot my saddle forward a few millimeters, I'm gonna know it. Drop my handlebars by the width of one skinny spacer, I'll figure it out. I'm the Rain Man of contact points: "Yeah, this is definitely not my saddle height. Definitely. K-Mart bikes suck." 

Or at least I thought so. See, the two-seater in our fleet has been suffering some bottom bracket maladies lately, so I needed to pull the crankarms to get an accurate spindle length measurement for a replacement. In doing so, I also wanted to check the model number on the crankarm to make sure I was getting the right bottom bracket (it's the now-obsolete Octalink, and those came in two flavors). But what's this? A 170mm non-drive/timing side arm on the front end and a 175mm in the back? Cue confused Scooby Doo noise.

So I checked the drive side: 175mm on the front end, 170 on the back. In other words, the timing cranks had been mixed up. Now in all the times I've pulled the cranks on this bike, I've left the pedals on, and my stoker rides toeclips while I ride clipless -- which is to say that the chances are slim-to-none that I was the one who swapped the arms. I'm guessing it came straight from the Cannondale factory that way. Or maybe it was put together at the shop that way -- I don't know how much assembly was done at the factory and how much was left for the dealer on tandems. Either way, big oops.

That means that for almost ten years and countless thousands of miles, I've been riding a 175 on my right side and a 170 on my left, while Carla's been turning a 170 on the right and a 175 on the left. Never noticed. Neither of us suspected a thing. And now that I've swapped them back to their rightful locations? Can't tell the difference. Not even a placebo effect.

If there's a moral to this story, I don't know what it is. But I can tell you that the next time I feel the urge to stop mid-ride and move my saddle up or down a fraction of a millimeter, I think I'll just tell myself to get over it.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Working On The Chain Gang

I promised that I wouldn't review a chain, and I'm keeping that promise -- there's a lower limit of "boring" that even I won't cross. But with a chain on the way out and another one on the way in, I thought it might be a nice time to review the basics of chain replacement.

First, a pet peeve from years in ye olde bike shoppe. Chains do not stretch. They get longer, yes, but that increase in length is not "stretch" caused by the massive power output of your trunk-like thighs -- unless you were sent here from Krypton by your father Jor-El. So if that isn't "stretch", how is it getting longer? Remember that each connection between those hundred-and-some links is a mechanical one, two metal surfaces rotating against each other. Unless you have a full chaincase, those mechanical connections are exposed to dirt, sand, grit, sweat, rain, and any number of other gross things. Grit plus moisture equals grinding paste, wearing away the tiniest amount of metal with each rotation. On one link, it doesn't make much difference, but over 100-plus links and some time, it adds up.

So now you have a chain that has just a little too much space between its pins. Run that over your cogs and chainrings long enough (adding some more of that gritty paste) and pretty soon, those parts start to wear to match the new spacing of the chain. The worst part? You might not notice. Since they're all wearing together, those parts can continue to work in harmony long after they've passed their expiration date. Only when you think, "I'm too lazy to clean that chain, so I'll just replace it," does the awful truth reveal itself. Your new chain has factory-spec spacing between the pins, but your cogs and chainrings are expecting their old buddy, Worn-Out Chain. Your drivetrain's now on a ride to Skip City, and your bike shop just made some money on your new cassette and chainrings to go with that new chain. That was, hands-down, my LEAST favorite conversation to have with a customer back when I was a shop wrench -- it always sounded like one of those "bad mechanic" horror stories: "So I buy this $15 chain, and the guy tries to tell me it won't work without buying $75 worth of new parts! Can you believe it?"

Fear not, though! All these woes are preventable, and they shouldn't cost you one cent (assuming you aren't already in the express lane headed toward Skip City). How? Grab a ruler that you don't mind getting dirty. Measure 12 links of your chain under a little tension. If the pin on that 12th link lands smack on the inch line, your chain is new, so why are you measuring it? If it's past the inch but not to the 1/16th mark, you're still okay. At an inch and 1/16th, get a new chain, but the rest of your drivetrain should still be fine. Out around an inch and 1/8th? Uh, sorry dude. There's a great coffee shop in Skip City, though. 

(Note that, like most things bicycle, the late, great Sheldon Brown does a better job explaining much of this -- with great photos, no less -- in his article on chain maintenance. I learned it in the trenches, but if you don't have a few years to kill and a penchant for greasy aprons, you could do a lot worse than to study the Gospel According to Sheldon.)

If you don't have a ruler, hate fractions, or just feel an uncontrollable urge to own more bike tools, there are lots of nifty gadgets to accomplish the same thing. I use the basic Park model for its stupid-simplicity: If only one side fits, I order a new chain. If both sides fit, I curse my inability to take my own advice. The old shop model I used in the 90s was even stupid-simpler: Stick it on the chain and turn a dial. If you see green, all's good. If you see red, you're screwed (the new fancy model expects mechanics to read numbers, which not all of us can do).

Final chain rant, then I hope I've sufficiently cured your insomnia: Whatever brand of chain you like, and however many speeds you spin, I can't say enough nice things about modern master links. I've dealt with SRAM, KMC, and Wipperman, and I like 'em all. I still carry a chain tool as a security blanket (you can't shorten a chain to make an emergency singlespeed without one), but (knock wood) I can't remember the last time I used it. A pox on Shimano and their stupid one-use-only, can't-be-installed-without-a-tool pins! I stopped using their chains specifically because of those things, and if I had to use one again as part of some lucrative sponsorship deal for fat commuters, I'd conveniently "lose" the pin and rejoin the chain with someone else's master link.

Everyone paranoid and looking for a ruler now? Then my work here is done.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Gone Gravellin'

I did some gravel exploring on the route suggested by Trans-Iowa Steve last weekend, and it was a hoot. Photographic evidence:

Anyone who tells you that Iowa isn't scenic either hasn't been here, or has pants aflame due to the falsehoods they speak. The sort of view pictured above is what I missed most when we lived in Pennsylvania. Not saying Pennsylvania isn't a beautiful state, mind you. The terrain (at least on the western side of the state where we lived) just doesn't provide these massive spans of horizon. If you grew up on the plains like I did, anything else feels a little claustrophobic.

I was surprised to find some stretches that were not quite so vast and had a bit of tree cover. The spot shown above looked like an ideal area to camp out on an overnighter tour. Not sure how the owner (or any territorial dogs he/she might have) would feel about that, though.

Finally, just to ensure that I was getting the full gravel experience, I ventured down what the Iowa DOT calls a "minimum maintenance road", commonly called a "B-road". They aren't technically gravel, just packed dirt. This one was hillier than it looked in the photo, but nothing I couldn't grunt out in a 34x26. Since we're in the midst of a drought, the surface was perfectly acceptable (nay, even enjoyable) on 700x32 road rubber. Put a little moisture on this thing and things would get dicey fast. I'm now kicking myself for all the times I've taken those "enter at your own risk" signs seriously and bypassed these fun little dirt sections.

So, after a couple experiments in gravel, do I see myself becoming a full-on zealot? Probably not. I'm just lazy enough to still enjoy going fast on a smooth surface with minimal resistance. But now that I know my bike and my body can take whatever Iowa can dish out (at least if conditions are dry), my world has opened up a little bit. From now on, when I see dirty diversions like the ones shown above, I'll definitely give them a try.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Cycle Takes Requests?

Oh, sure, why not? Pal Scott (a.k.a. the fivetoedsloth) wanted to see a full shot of the ol' Clubman with its new fenders installed, so I ended tonight's commute with a long-standing Craigslist tradition: cell-phone photography of a bike leaned against a garage door.

There you go, Scott. Just don't tell my mom that I've become one of those people who takes pictures requested by random men on the Internet.

For the rest of youse, I cashed in my ill-gotten Amazon gains on a new chain (which I will not be reviewing, because, c'mon, how do you review a chain?) and BikeSnobNYC's latest book (which I will be reviewing). Just waiting on Brown Truck Santa.