Sunday, March 29, 2015


As I struggle with the ups and downs of my new career as a freelancer, there are times I consider the possibility that I will have to return to the bicycle industry to pick up at least some part-time work to pay the bills. And I suppose that reality has been lurking in the back of my mind all along; how else to explain the fact that I've kept up my technical reading and tried to understand how things like disc brakes and shocks work?

Still, it occurs to me that getting back in may be harder than I thought, in part because of those newer technologies.

When I worked at Citybikes, I almost never touched a disc brake and never opened up a shock fork. It was a shop policy that we wouldn't work on shocks, period (and in fact, we'd try and persuade the customers to "upgrade" to rigid forks on any bike used for transportation). And at the time, we didn't have a ton of bikes with disc brakes.

Well, that is changing.

Today the bicycle industry is slapping discs on anything that moves, including mid-level commuter bikes. And in this one instance, Jan Heine (of Bicycle Quarterly) and I are in total agreement: disc brakes for commuting and touring bikes are pretty much pointless. Yes, thee are exceptions, like fatty bikes in the snow and downhill racing bikes; but most people just don't do that kind of riding in everyday life. (Does anyone remember when everyone went out and bought a mountain bike in the early 90s, only to find five years later that they'd put slicks and fenders on it because they never went off-road? This is kinda like that.)

The downside of this is that Jan and I are in a shrinking minority, as more and more folks are drinking the kool-aid and insisting that they need disc brakes on their daily rides.

There's nothing inherently "wrong" with disc brakes. It's just that they are really unnecessary for city bikes, and in certain conditions they actually lag behind rim brakes in efficiency and modulation. They also weigh a lot more, cost more and are fussier by far to maintain and adjust than cantilever rim brakes. And yet, if I work in a shop today, not only will I need to know how to service all sorts of disc brakes, I will have to talk about them like they're the best thing since striped pajamas.


To my thinking, it's just one more vestige of an industry that depends on people buying new stuff every year in order to remain profitable. Only problem is that, in their quest for profits, too many bike and component manufacturers end up looking ridiculous at best and conspiratorial at worst.

So I am handing out my resume at shops where it's less likely that I will be working exclusively on brand-new bikes. The number of shops in that category is shrinking as more of their owners recognize that there's less money in used bikes (unless you're the Community Cycling Center, which has super-low overhead as a non-profit and has jacked up their prices to match those of Citybikes and Better Cycle). But I digress.

In short, the industry marches ever onward, and at some point I will either stop trying to play catch-up or simply get too old to do that sort of work anymore. Either way, it's a cue for me to march ever onward myself, even if it puts my feet on a different -- and admittedly contrarian -- path.

Happy riding!

(Not a disc brake in the bunch.)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

landscaping for cars, not people: exhibit umpteen

A bill in the Oregon state legislature was recently dropped by its sponsor after the statewide bicycle advocacy organization raised an alarm and invited people to contact their elected representatives about the matter:

The bill has since been revised to mandate that all bicycles be requipped with rear lights. (Current law requies either a rear light or rear reflector.)

For my money, this is just another example of how legislators would rather place the responsibility for the damage caused by car-centric planning squarely on the shoulders of those who eschew cars and ride bicycles for transportation. Previous examples of this mindset include mandatory helmet laws (which are proven to reduce bicycle use by as much as 50 % in some cities where they are actively enforced) and the notion of "vehicular cycling," made popular decades ago by John Forester and supported by the more hale and hearty members of the League of American Bicyclists.

Such punitive measures -- and the bicyclist-bashing dialogue that accompanies them -- are easier and cheaper to promote and legislate than having real, meaningful conversations about the subsidies that exist for aumobile owners and manufacturers, and for the petroleum industry. It's cheaper to penalize me for being -- heaven forbid! -- An Adult On A Bicycle than it is to consider that our transportation infrastructure desperately needs redesigning to be human-scale, rather than car-centric. The superhighway-based planning of the 1950's is a dinosaur dying a very slow death at the expense of every bicyclist and pedestrian who is injured or killed because they got hit by a car simply for being there -- in the bike lane, on the sidewalk, at a badly-planned intersection, or anywhere else. It's easier to continue to ridicule adults who eschew car ownership as somehow not fully adult, than to consider that maybe the time has come for another way to look at land use and transportation.

Obviously, I'm dreaming that significant changes in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure -- and greatly increased support for public transit -- will happen in my lifetime. I'm downright delusional if I think that they can and will happen alongside an end to the political machinery that rewards the automobile and petroleum industries with so many breaks and perks (because the machniery depends a great deal upon the support of those same industries for its prosperity, survival and outright relevance).
But a gal can still dream, and I do. Daily.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

portland bike pals - can you help out?

Portland Bikey peeps, especially parts hoarders and /or currently employed shop wrenches: I am looking for dead rear freewheel (NOT cassette) hub shells for an art project. I only need the shells and dustcaps, you can keep the axles and cones. Happy to come by and do the labor if you'd rather not be bothered (root around in your scrap metal bins, cut hubs out of dead wheels; dismantle innards, etc.). Need about five or six pairs and it's a little bit time-sensitive. Spread the word! And PLEASE message me asap if you can help out.
Thank you!

Monday, March 16, 2015

seeking bike info for austin, texas

Hey Bikey Peeps!
I will be in Austin for four days in late June to attend a conference. I've never been to Austin before but I'm told it's a cool city. I've lined up a homestay situation about a mile from the conference venue and maybe two and a half miles from the official hotel (where late-night stuff will happen).
I'd like to see if it's possible to borrow or rent a city bike and kid trailer to tow my guitar back and forth during my visit.
Does anyone among my readership know of possibilities. I will be staying in the Northwest Hills neighborhood (zip code 78731). Leave rental suggestions here in the comments, and thanks!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

nothing lasts forever. sorry.

I posted some stuff for sale on my local craigslist last week, including several random wheels I'd come by which I didn't need.
A fellow contacted me about a front wheel for his bike. It's nothing special; the wheel was a new. never-ridden takeoff from a bike whose owner was switching it over to electric-assist.
I don't run 700c wheels in my stable so I tossed up the two 700c front wheels I had for the very affordable price of $20 each.
The guy wanted to know how durable one of my wheels would be, and if it would fit a 28mm-wide tire.

"I'm a big guy," he said, "and I want something that will hold up for at least a little while."
"How big is big?" I asked him.
"I weigh around two-twenty."

Before I go any further, Let me say a few things based on my experience as a shop rat:

1. Any off-the-shelf bike costing under a thousand bucks is going to be fine for a rider weighing up to around 175, maybe 180 pounds. Anyone bigger than that should be looking at an aluminum frame and hand-built custom wheels with a higher spoke count.

2. The standard wheel of twenty-five years ago had double-walled aluminum rims and 36 spokes; a rear touring wheel would have 40 spokes. More spokes means more metal holding you up and a longer-lasting wheel. The standard wheel today runs no more than 32 spokes front and rear; on most road racing bikes the spoke count drops to 28, and sometimes can go to fewer still.
That is not enough spokes to hold up a 180-pound rider for more than a few months of daily riding.

3. A rider of over 200 pounds on a bike he will ride daily really needs a rear wheel that runs a cassette hub, and should be riding custom-built wheels running 36 spokes each. 40 spokes on the rear wheel would be a good idea.

The buyer wanted to know if my wheel would hold up. I said that, while it's a new wheel, I couldn't offer any sort of guarantee for a rider of his size. I suggested that if he was looking for a really durable wheel, his best bet would be to spend the money on a heavier-duty, custom built wheel set. He understood, but said he was on a tight budget. He said he'd come over to buy my wheel because that was a price he could afford.

(What I thought, but did not say out loud, is that 220 pounds is beyond the pale in terms of what an off-the-shelf bike in the sub-thousand-dollar range can be expected to adequately support; and that a rider this size really has no business running a 28mm tire. In fact, if I could I would coax this guy onto a mountain bike with overbuilt 26" wheels and 2"-wide tires. But I did not say any of that.)

Twenty minutes after we'd agreed on a time, he called back. "Just giving you a courtesy call. Thanks for the help, but my wife convinced me to spring for a new set of wheels on Amazon. At $30 per wheel, it's only a little more and maybe it'll be durable enough to see me through the next year or two." I smiled, thanked him for the call, and hung up. What could I say?
Then, I went to Amazon's web site to see if I could guess which wheelset he was buying.

I am fairly certain that, at that price, he's going to get a very basic factory-built set of wheels with single-walled rims and 36 spokes. The rear will likely have a bolt-on axle (quick release would cost eight dollars more) and take a freewheel, not a cassette, meaning the hub will not be as strong.

When I worked at Citybikes, we bought tons of these wheels, the same brand as the ones I think our guy is going get, and then we paid a mechanic $12 an hour to finish truing them, as they always came from the factory not-quite-true and out of round. The mechanic would also have to readjust the hubs, which usually came from the factory too tight.

(This makes sense when you realize that most of the wheelbuilding in a factory is done by a machine; wheels are loosely-assembled by a human being, then placed on a conveyor which feeds them, one at a time, into a giant machine that trues and tensions them to a predetermined "standard". Another human being sitting at the exit end of the machine would grab every fifth wheel or so, spin it to see if it's reasonably "true", set it back on the conveyor to go to packaging, and pick up his comic book again. I watched this scenario actually happen in a factory so I can attest to its accuracy. The end result was that when we got the wheels, they'd need more work before we could, in good conscience, install them on a bike.)

After the "finishing" work was done by us, we marked up the price to factor in our labor, selling them for $50-60 each. We stocked them because many of our customers were on similarly tight budgets and needed to make do. We always made sure to tell our bigger, heavier customers that these wheels would not see them through multiple seasons of daily riding due to the wheels' entry-level quality and the larger size of the rider. A few of these customers would, not surprisingly, take offense. Depending on the vibe we might take the time to further educate them as to why the trickle-down in bicycle technology flows from racing, where 125-pound climbers help dictate what the next cool gizmo will be.
But often we never got that far in the discussion. The larger rider would either walk out without wheels; or he'd gulp and buy the cheap ones to see him through for maybe another five or six months.

Fact: Bicycle parts wear out. ALL bicycle parts wear out. How quickly or slowly that happens depends on how well they're made, how much metal is used (36 spokes or 28?), the rider's size and how often and how hard s/he rides. That's a lot of variables for determining the durability of any given bicycle component. And as long as technologies are developed based on innovations for racing, rather than for folks who just ride around the neighborhood, riders who weigh over 175 pounds will continue to get screwed by the bike industry. Because the industry mostly innovates for bicycles that weigh well under 25 pounds and which get a tune-up every night by a professional mechanic.
That's not reality.

I feel for the guy, I really do. But he's getting a wheelset online, at the cheapest possible price, that hasn't been touched up by a local shop. You get what you pay for, and I predict that in this case he will end up being disappointed.

In another post I might have something to say about why the industy doesn't give a flying [expletive deleted] about larger riders, and about how much of it has to do with image. But I'll save that for another time. Today, I thanked the guy for his courtesy call, told him no hard feelings, and wished him luck. Because he'll need it.

Happy riding.

Friday, March 13, 2015

the bicycle industry hates me: shrinking the mountain o' things

As my career transition has progressed, there have been, of course, fits and starts -- enough of them that I have submitted my bicycle resume to two shops in Portland and may offer it up to a third if I cannot land any musical work beyond June.

In the meantime, I have been inning the pile of stuff that I've accumulated over twenty years in the industry and am slowly selling it off (or, as my partner likes to say, "schnorring" for money). And as I've been going throu all this stuff and assessing each piece for its potential usefulness in my life, I am amazed to find that I really don't need most of it anymore.

Sure, I need my tools as long as I fix bikes for others, and I need to keep a supply of frreewheels on hand to ensure that my bikes will have parts for some time to come. But specialty bicycle clothing? Not so much. I will be selling off the last of my lycra this spring, because I simply never wear it anymore. Same with the cycling shoes; if I ride with flat pedals I don't need anything more ambitious than sneakers. Right now, I go back and forth between just two bikes. When I need to haul stuff, I have an old beat-up trailer that folds flat for storing. I can carry most smaller things in a transverse saddlebag, so away go the panniers. In short, I have been in a process of letting go of bicycle fantasies that carry less and less potential of coming true -- and I find that I am okay with letting them go. The fact that I won't ever do the solo cross-country tour I'd dreamed of since I was a teenager no longer saddens me. If time and finances allow, I'll take a fully-supported B & B tour with others, and enjoy it. For now, my music career means that most of my rides are very local, and I have learned to enjoy the ride for itself, rather than to lament that my ambition is somehow out of sync with my life. Because these days, that seems to be less so.

One of the nice by-products of coming to these conclusions is that I no longer feel a need to buy anything new and "up-to-date" for my bicycles, both of which were cobbled together from spare parts and which run friction shifting and 5- or 6-speed freewheels. So I'm confident that the people who run the bicycle industry are no fans of mine.


I'll be tossing more of my unneeded bicycle bits up on ebay and craigslist very soon. Today, I'm going to ride my bicycle and enjoy the new spring flowers blooming along Dekum Street.
Happy riding!