Monday, March 24, 2014

Breaking Stuff

I was due for a new melon-protector this year (more on that later), so I decided to take the opportunity to do some decidedly non-scientific destructive testing on the old one. I always make sure to badly damage my old helmets before throwing them out (assuming they haven't been badly damaged in a crash) just to discourage someone from digging one out of the trash and using it when it might not be safe. This time around, I figured I'd document the destruction for my own entertainment and (maybe) yours. 

DISCLAIMER: Nothing you are about to see should be taken as a legitimate safety test, an endorsement or anti-endorsement of any particular helmet, or even an endorsement or anti-endorsement of helmets in general. Do not try this at home with a real head. And no, I do not want to argue the pros and cons of helmets with you. 

First, the substitute head -- a cement block of unknown weight. Maybe 10 pounds? A perfect stand-in for yours truly, as I'm something of a blockhead:

The test consisted of placing said block into the aged helmet, holding the helmet/block combo at approximately head height (six feet or so) helmet-side-down, and dropping the whole mess repeatedly onto a concrete floor. Again, no science is implied here, just an immature desire to bust things.

It took about three drops before real damage started to appear in the helmet's guts. Note the major crack in the center of the photo, and another forming up and to the right of that one:

After a couple more drops, a crack formed in the outer shell:

A couple more drops, and things are really starting to look ugly on the inside. The retention loop that goes around the back of the head is detached at this point. This is why I don't use my own head for testing:

Finally, after maybe ten drops total, the back end started to separate from the rest of the helmet, which was its eventual failure mode -- the whole rear/lower section unhinged from the front like a snake swallowing an egg.

 Some observations:
  • The impact (though it made no attempt to simulate anything remotely real) was quite violent and noisy. Sobering stuff.
  • Given the violence of the bang, I was shocked at how "normal" the helmet looked after the first drop. If I didn't know it had been damaged, I never would have noticed anything amiss.
  • Thanks to the first two bullet points, I now understand (viscerally) that the manufacturer's recommendation to replace a helmet after one impact is not just "we want to sell you another helmet" hooey. These things are designed to give their lives for yours.
  • With all that being said, I was impressed at how much integrity the helmet maintained after repeated hits. We're talking a lid that's many years old and pretty crusty, yet it kept its shape through more impacts than I would have expected.
  • I probably would have kept going, but there was a point where the Beavis and Butthead element of it wore off and I started thinking about the times I've actually put helmet to pavement (or tree, or rock) with my head inside. That's when it got creepy and I had to stop.

In fact, I just re-creeped myself out enough that I'm going to repeat my disclaimer: Nothing you just saw should be taken as a legitimate safety test, an endorsement or anti-endorsement of any particular helmet, or even an endorsement or anti-endorsement of helmets in general. Do not try this at home with a real head. And no, I do not want to argue the pros and cons of helmets with you. 

Let's be careful out there.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Cheap Retro Shifter Workstand Test: Meh

Speed review for y'all: I recently ordered some SunRace 9-speed downtube shifters that were intended for the workhorse Raleigh Clubman, whose STIs have been getting a little finicky lately. Once you read the review, you'll see why I'm not even bothering to provide a link to them.

First, the mounting bolts were a bit long for my downtube bosses, so I couldn't get the shifters 100% tight against the frame before the bolts bottomed out. The mechanical bits were solid, but the cosmetic outer parts were loose enough to rattle. To be fair, that may just be an issue with the bosses on my frame, and had I decided to stick with the shifters, it would have been no big deal to cut the bolts down a touch.

I found the rear shifting action to be the weirdest combination of "too stiff" and "too easy" I've experienced in a shifter. The force required to get the lever moving was enough that once I did make it move, I'd get three or four of its not-terribly-well-defined clicks before I could stop it. Compare that to a Shimano bar-end shifter, which (admittedly) takes some force to move (more so than an STI, to be sure) but is consistent from click to click. You have to keep applying that force if you want more than one click -- which, for this ham-fist, is much preferred. I didn't even bother putting on the front shifter.

Cosmetically, the finish on the SunRaces is kind of cheap-shiny (pretty much what you'd expect for the price), and the shifters feature D-rings that serve no purpose I could discern other than looking retro and rattling. If they'd worked well, I wouldn't have given a fig about the looks... but they didn't, so there you have it. 

Bottom line: If you want to shift a 9-speed indexed drivetrain like an old man, save your pennies (lots and lots of pennies, unfortunately) and pop for Dura Ace instead:

(Oh, and as usual, if you follow that link and spend your pennies at Amazon, I get a kickback. Full disclosure and whatnot.)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Old Man And The See

It's been a troubling year here at The Cycle World Headquarters in the "Coming to Grips With Geezerhood" category. Your humble narrator has owned a pair of no-line bifocals ("progressive lenses" is the euphemism for those who can't stomach the B-word) for years, but I've treated them as very expensive reading glasses, something I need for looking at words on screens and paper, nothing more.

This year, I can no longer deny that those "progressive lenses" are needed beyond the screen. The ol' eyeballs have been triggering more migraines than they should, all because I've been too proud to just put on my damn glasses (truth be told, pride has nothing to do with it -- I'm just a creature of habit, and "putting on my glasses" isn't one of my habits).

How does this intersect with a blog that's (arguably) about biking? Well, I also decided that it's time to bite the (potentially very expensive) bullet and pop for some prescription sunglasses. Since I have very odd eyeballs and a well-established relationship with my local eye-checking professional (Dr. Jason "Excellent First Name and Last Initial" Nesheim at Eye Care of Iowa, just to sneak in a gratuitous plug for the local audience), I limited myself to the "sporty" specs they carry, which means -- for better or worse -- Oakley.

I have a long and checkered past with the Big O, dating back to the halcyon days of the 1980s when I was a mere youth trying (in vain) to avoid being uncool, whatever that meant. And if you remember coolness in the 1980s, you probably remember Oakleys, from the Ray-Ban ripoff Frogskins to the ski-goggle-lite Eyeshades. All the cool kids had Oakleys. Even if your parents wouldn't buy you Oakley sunglasses, you could spend $4 for a 3x5" sticker to prove that you were in the know (and remember, minimum wage was $3.40 per hour at the time -- good grief, I'm old -- so $4 was kinda steep for a friggin' sticker). 

Being a bike nerd even then, I made sad eyes at my parents until they bought me an absolutely ridiculous looking pair of Eyeshades with vented, rainbow-mirrored lenses, because Greg LeMond wore them. And since we live in the age of the internets, evidence of these glasses' stupidity is just a click away. Everybody remembers this shot, right?

Well, those abominations were too subtle for teenage me, so I went with this instead:

It hurts me to even admit how much time those things spent on my face. Guess that explains my lack of dates in high school.

These days, I gotta pay for my own specs, and let's just say that Oakleys still ain't cheap (once you get those "progressive" lenses in there, the price will damn near stop your heart). Plus, I'm a little nonplussed about how Oakley the Brand dealt with (or didn't deal with) the stink around their cash cow Lance. But those bastards keep making glasses that fit my fat head beautifully, and my trusted eye doc carries them, so I now own a pair of Twenty frames (apparently, a discontinued model -- perhaps because the logos were too small?) with old-man lenses. Too soon to review them, but once I have a few more miles behind those old-man lenses, I'll report back.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Guitar Techs And BMX Bikes

I wasted some time at the music store the other day, making low-frequency noise on basses I can't possibly afford or justify given my lack of talent. As I plunked away, it seemed like every instrument I picked up just felt wrong, despite being some pretty amazing pro-level stuff.

The issue? When I played enough to be a snob, I would have called it "guitar player setup": super-low string action resulting from a tech who's used to six tiny strings instead of four big fat ones. Like most generalizations, this one isn't fair -- plenty of bass players like low action, and plenty of guitar players can set up whatever action you like. But when you come over to electric from upright (which generally has action high enough to drive a truck under), that "just buzzing the frets" feel will drive you nuts. And -- right or wrong -- your first thought will be, "This place has no idea what they're doing."

If (unlike my wife) you're still reading, you're probably wondering just what the heck all of this has to do with bikes. Simple: When you look for a mechanic, find one that rides what you ride. An example: At the first shop where I worked, we sold entry-level BMX bikes by the truckload, as fast as I could put them together. I never rode BMX as a kid (much to my chagrin, my parents bought me a banana seat bike instead) but I figured it was no big deal to set them up. One speed, a couple brakes, easy peasy.

As business picked up, we needed to hire another mechanic, and a lanky, long-haired dude named Ryan applied. He was an MTB noob, but had actual BMX skills, which he once demonstrated by bunnyhopping his vintage GT Performer into the bed of my pickup truck. The first time Ryan saw me putting a BMX bike together, you'd think he'd witnessed me taking a magic marker to the Mona Lisa. If someone really wanted to ride that bike the way it was intended, he assured me, pretty much everything I was doing -- from brake lever angle to chain tension -- was wrong. He quickly undid my assembly, and walked me very slowly (as if explaining to a three-year-old) through the proper setup, explaining why each adjustment needed to be just so.

So the next time you're at the shop, check out the employee bike rack (if the employees don't bike to work, just turn around and leave). Do you see bikes that look kind of like yours, or kind of like the bike you think you want to buy? I'm not talking about those little personal quirks that are unique to each person's bike. But if your thing is road bikes and all you see in the rack and/or on the sales floor are full-suspension MTBs, you might be in the wrong shop. Sure, a great mechanic keeps his or her skills up to date on everything, but there's nothing like the knowledge that comes from actually riding the equipment you sell and fix.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Great Moments in Obscure, Cheap Parts: Shimano Exage Brake Levers

Sometimes, the folks who make bike bits get something so right, but the world doesn't notice. Exhibit A? The aero brake lever from Shimano's cheap/entry-level road group of the late 80s/early 90s, Exage:

(Image horked from Pedal Pedlar, a UK site where -- apparently --
you can still buy these things. Who knew?)

Part of the reason this lever didn't get much play is because it came out in the height of the mountain bike boomlet, and there was also an Exage mountain bike group known mainly for truly awful hubs that vomited impossible-to-clean grease gunk in the short time before their cones became too pitted to turn. Even yours truly, master of really obscure 90s bike minutiae that makes others yawn, doesn't remember much else from the Exage road group. But those levers, oh, those levers. What made them so great?

  • They shared the almost ridiculously ergonomic shape of Shimano's more expensive brake levers, a shape that lives on in today's Tiagra and Dura Ace levers (levers that are, as far as I can tell, identical save for some cosmetic bits). Hands love 'em.
  • They had all of Shimano's SLR (Shimano Linear Response) braking features -- smooth action, just the right amount of return spring... heavenly.
  • They were all metal, and thus tough as nails. Even the current Dura Ace lever is a plasticky modern mess compared to old Exage. They even lacked the weird plastic internal bit shared by both modern Tiagra and Dura Ace (the only non-STI road brake levers left in the Shimano line) whose only purpose (it seems) is to rattle, at least until you pry it out with a screwdriver.
  • The levers had a little texture/racing stripe pattern cast into them, for a bit of extra grip and style. Heck, the hoods even had little golf-ball dimples for extra grip and style.

If those four bullet points were all the Exage lever had going for it, well, OK. A good part. But what truly escalated them to greatness was that little protruding triangle on the inside. That's a quick release. See, the matching Exage brake caliper was a truly low-rent single-pivot sidepull with zero capability to open up and allow the tire to clear the brake pads when dropping out a wheel. Shimano got around that by making a sprung "stop" in the lever, that triangular button. Push that in, and the lever could open past its normal position, opening the caliper to clear the tire.

Big deal, right? Campy does that, and Tektro's copied it from Campy. But Shimano outdid Campy in this humble little Exage lever. Being sprung, the Exage release button popped back into place as soon as you squeezed the lever, returning the brake to normal operation with nary a second thought. Elegant. Pair that with a non-cheap brake caliper with its own quick release and you could open up to clear a MASSIVE tire.

Alas, brake levers without integrated shifters are a niche thing now, and Shimano decided long ago that there wasn't enough space in the niche for the Exage design, so it is no more. But for a brief, shining moment, it was pretty darn great.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Opportunity: Missed

Yet another entry in the "bikes that got away" catalog.

The bike from Pee Wee Herman's Big Adventure -- perhaps one of the greatest cycling movies of all time -- was auctioned on eBay this week. And while I had $37,000 just burning a hole in my pocket (what can I say? this amateur blogging thing is a lucrative business), I didn't put in a bid.

Maybe it's the fact that the seller described it as "in pieces" -- though I'm sure Dotty at Chuck's Bikes could take care of that. Or maybe I feared the condition it might be in after all those years stored in the basement of the Alamo. Or maybe I'm just disillusioned. After all, I always believed that bike was NOT for sale, Francis.

My secret hope is that as the new owner was just about to take possession, Paul Reubens showed up disguised as a nun, grabbed the bike, and took off on a madcap chase through a Godzilla movie set and a Twisted Sister music video. But maybe that's just me.

Silly? I know you are. But what am I?