Thursday, January 25, 2018

on value (real and perceived)

The latest round of donor bikes for my refugee resettlement project includes some older mountain bikes that, while not top-drawer, were still quite fine in their day.

When I get a nicer bike as a donation, I have two and a half choices:
1. I tune up the bike as it is, slap some stickers on the logos, add the accessories and send it out;
2. Remove the most desirable/high-end parts, swap in perfectly functional cheaper parts, finish the tune up, et al, and send it along;
3. Strip the bike down completely.

Option #1 is the easiest and most direct. It's what I do to 98% of all the bikes I get.
But most of those bikes are very basic, entry-level, department store bikes that, once tuned, will be perfectly okay as daily transportation.

Option # 2 is a little more involved. It's much more of a judgment call as to which parts need to come off. The decision-making process is determined by two things:
First, I cannot afford to pay totally out-of-pocket for the accessories I think ought to go with each bike (rackm fenders, lights, decent lock, etc). Selling off the higher-end parts separately helps to fund the cost of the accessories.
Second, most of the bikes are being handed off to families who will end up living in low-rent housing and in less-safe neighborhoods, where bikes get stolen every hour or two. Bike thieves have gotten much more savvy about what vintage parts are worth, and act accordingly. So if I can remove some of the bling before the bike goes out, it may stay in the recipient's hands longer.
That's why I cover up logos with stickers and take off the super-fancy bits that occasionally come with a donated bike.

Case in point: Right now, I have a mountain bike in the workstand that's a little over twenty years old. It wasn't high-end to begin with, and it's pretty worn. And I probably won't swap anything else in unless it's to replace a non-functioning part. But because it's a vintage mountain bike I will go ahead and cover up all the logos with hard-to-remove stickers and reflective tape.

(The bike, with logos obscured and cheaper crankset swapped in. The better crankset was sold on Craigslist and paid for some used fenders, replacement inner tubes and a rear rack.)

Why go to all this trouble?

Why not just fix up the bike as it is, leave the cosmetics alone, and send it out into the world?
Why buy into the hype about "value"?

Well, I didn't invent this system. Even if I wanted to pretend it doesn't affect me, and you, and every person in a modernized country that rides a bike, it mostly does on some level. Because, try as we might to pretend that a bike is a bike is a bike, whether the downtube says Magna or Nishiki or Rivendell, what it says on the downtube actually matters out there in the world. That's why carbon-fiber racing bikes end up under guys who are wearing filthy, tattered clothes and who are wobbling back and forth on the bike because they're way too short for it. That's why thirty-year-old mountain bike parts that show signs of rust and dirt from use end up on eBay priced at twice what they sold for new. And that is why, although I don't really have to, I outfit every bike with as good a lock as I can afford for it.

Because value is a weird thing when it comes to bikes.
In a developing country, a bike that works perfectly is incredibly valuable.
Because in a remote place with no running water or reliable electricity, getting somewhere on foot takes forever and getting there on a bike could literally save someone's life.
But in the United States, a new department store bike can be had for a hundred bucks. A used department store bike can be had for twenty-five.
If you ride under the bridges in downtown Portland and along the East Bank, you'll find any number of bicycle "chop shops" where bikes are dismantled and parts are sold back and forth by homeless men (often the same ones who stole the bikes). Look more closely, if you can get that close without arousing suspicion, and you might notice that quite a few of those bikes and parts are fairly high-end.
Because here in the US, "value" makes some of us silly, or stupid, or mean.

And as long as I'm trying to do this on my own, as a hobby, as my own personal mitzvah project, I have to buy into the whole, overblown concept of "value" so I can help fund these bikes for people who really, really need them. I stopped beating myself up about this disconnect awhile ago. Because the idea that I'm giving someone a free bike so they can go out and get a job working for someone else and helping the capitalist wheel spin around and around would make me crazy if I let it.
So I simply tell myself that, on some level, perhaps giving bikes away for free to those who need them most -- regardless of perceived "value" -- is my little way of swatting back at unchecked capitalism. And I leave it at that.

So if you're reading this and live in the Portland area, I can always use more U-locks (with working keys, please, no combo locks), rear racks and lights. If you've got any to spare -- or if you work in a shop and they'd like to help out with a donation -- please hit me up.

Happy riding.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

i took a break. i may take more. but for now, i'm still loving my bicycle life.

But for now, Here I am.

I made a few calls, reached out and asked for help, sought resources to help me make my next steps.
It really helped, and although I am still tired, I feel better.
So today, after a leisurely morning with Sweetie, I decided that, while it was too cold and I felt too tired to ride my bike, sitting on a stool and doing some light puttering would be a good thing to do.
So I went out to the Bicycle Brain Trust and straightened up a bit. Then I grabbed a pair of old mountain bike wheels I'd gotten as a donation, and took a closer look at them.

Single-walled rims, stainless spokes, high-flange hubs. These were original on some bike from the 1980's -- nothing spectacular, but nothing super awful either. The front wheel looked like it would be fine with just some lube and a light touch in the truing stand, but the rear wheel's hub bearings felt horrible and I knew I'd need to open it up to inspect further.

Turns out that the wheel had been outfitted with cheap raced bearings.
I took the hub apart, and saw that the races (the metal hoops that hold the bearings in place) were a mess and that some bearings had either disintegrated or fallen out completely from years of inattention. The bearing grease had turned to a hard sludge that required a small screwdriver to scrape out before fresh grease could be applied.

On the drive side of the hub, the dustcap was so malformed that it was basically useless for retaining bearings, and I had to replace it with a used one from my drawer of bits.

Looking closely at the bearing races, the drive side race was empty of its bearings -- I assumed they'd all fallen out -- while the non-drive side race still had some left. I removed both races and tossed them into the recycling bin.

When I was learning how to fix bikes years ago, the shop I worked at was guided by a strong re-use/recycle ethos, meaning that if anything could be repaired and reused, that was usually preferable to simply slapping on new part every time. That ethos continues to guide my work as a bicycle hobbyist and volunteer today. I clean, sort and save old parts with the hope of reusing them on another bike down the road. That includes bearings, which I would rescue from the trap in the bottom of the shop's parts washer. When I had enough to fill a small coffee can, I'd toss them in pour some solvent over them, and swicsh them around for several minutes to get rid of the worst of the sludge that still clung to them.
Then, I'd transfer them to an old mesh noddle strainer and swirl them around for a few minutes more. Finally I'd put them into small bottles, take them home and label them as recycled. I've collected quite a supply of these old bearings, mostly 1/4" for use in rear hubs and bottom brackets. When a job calls for an overhaul but the hub or bottom bracket shows wear,and the bike is either a donation or a repair job for someone with limited funds, I'll use my recycled bearings and some thick red grease to get the bike back on the road.

I would never do this in a shop.

But then, repairing bikes in a shop has changed so much in just the last decade that most shop mechanics would rather replace an entire wheel than overhaulthe existing hub, especially if the rim shows wear as well.  Most shops today won't even take in certain old bikes for repair at all, knowing that a full overhaul on something so old will be a money-loser (based on the shop's hourly labor rates). It's simply easier -- and cheaper, for a shop -- to replace rather than repair.

This is why today's mechanics aren't being taught how to overhaul internally-geared hubs (today's hubs aren't designed to be overhauled, anyway) or take apart and replace individual cassette or freewheel cogs (again, it's cheap and faster to replace the whole thing -- and new bikes don't come with freewheels anyway).

After I finished overhauling the hub, I considered my options for procuring a rim strip -- so I could mount a tire and tube. Single-walled rims generally do well with a simply rubber rim strip, available at any shop. But they don't last, and unless they're in really good shape when they get to me, I don't save them. It's not ideal to use thicker cloth tape in a single-walled rim (the tube will malfom and if the cloth tape comes loose it can actually cause pinch flats).
So in the end, I added a couple layers of electrical tape. it's cheap, plentiful and lasts longer than a rubber strip anyway.

When I was done, I checked it in the truing stand and discovered that the wheels was basically straight and pretty consistently tension all around. I installed a used tire and tube and called it good.

I examined the front wheel of the pair, discovered that the bearings felt good and just needed a spot of lube, and took care of that. When I go up to the CCC tomorrow for Scrap Sunday, I'll check the bin for a free tire I can use on my front wheel and then I'll have a set of wheels ready to install on a refugee bike.

My love of repurposing, recycling and scavenging is a big part of why I much prefer being a hobbyist and volunteer mechanic today. After all my years in the industry, I got really disheartened by all the waste I saw, and vowed that if I ever set up a workshop of my own I'd dedicate some space to rescued, repaired parts. Although my space is quite limited, I've regretted that decision.
Now I just need to wait for a mountain bike frame to be donated that I can use these wheels on.

Nap time.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

taking a break

Portland has been graced with a few really nice, unseasonably warm days this month. So I got out and rode my bike.

Lately it doesn't feel like enough.

The world is a mess, I'm struggling with depression and -- to be frank -- something akin to poverty (we're not hopeless, we still live in a house, but we are really broke and barely have the ability to pay our bills and I can't seem to find work).
So far most of the last six months, when I go coffeeneuring I take coffee I made at home, sneak it in, grab a table and try to look like a customer.
Today I couldn't do it. I couldn't pretend to be middle class or anything remotely close to it.
So today I stayed home. Without a regular job, there's nowhere for me to really ride to -- especially when most of my local friends all work and have jobs with regular hours and I'd ride alone.
So yeah, that's what depression and being poor look like.

I am seriously considering selling off the nice bikes and riding a piece of crap that's less likely to attract thieves.

because if they want your bike, they will take it.

Below: A bike rack outside The Fresh Pot last summer, where someone with a Sawz-All tried to but through a rack. I assume that if they hadn't attracted attention or something, they would've stayed long enough to finish the job.

I am struggling with depression, lack of employment and frankly, a lack of interest. On my good days, I can do things and feel pretty good. When I'm done, I feel tired from the effort.
On my bad days I feel like crap (physically and emotionally), and I can't do much of anything useful and I feel like just giving up.

The freelancing thing is exhausting and stressful, so stressful that I haven't had enough energy to actually create new music in awhile because I'm using all my available energy to find ways to make money so we can pay our bills.

So that's what it's like to be me these days.
Which is why I think I'm going to stop posting her, at least for awhile.
It takes energy to curate the few good experiences I DO have, and I really need that energy for other things right now. I feel, in fact, a lot like that bike rack looks. Not entirely broken, but pretty raw and vulnerable and really beat.
So I'm taking a break.
Ride safely, please.

Friday, January 5, 2018

off-season coffeeneuring 2018: #3

A lovely loop today, on a sunny afternoon between rainy fronts.
Along the way I got some supplies at Harbor Freight (what would any of us tinkerers do without Harbor Freight?), grabbed some coffee and a peanut-chocolate krispy bar at New Seasons, and enjoyed the sunbreaks through the clouds as I pedaled. I could feel my mood lighten, proof again that riding a bike is usually a good idea.
(It also helped that the temps were warmer today, with highs near 50F.)
It's hard sometimes to describe what riding feels like, especially to friends who don't ride.
I'm slower these days, but when I turn the cranks my form still feels as smooth and easy as when I raced. And the form feels good enough to more than make up for my lack of speed. Riding up and down the back alleys was nice in the late afternoon sun as I rolled over gravel and potholes and grassy stubs.
It just felt really nice to get out and ride. I'll do some more tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

really, no big deal here.

This week, while I fight sleep deprivation due to caring for a family member, and try to book more gigs, and hope to get in a bike ride or three, I get this weather report:

Before my non-Portland readers get wigged out, you should know that this is fairly typical winter weather here. When it rains, the temps hover in the low to mid 40sF. When it's dry, the lows drop down to freezing or a little below.
Extremes like cold snaps in the teens, or snow and ice, are not a frequent occurrence here. Yes, we'll see that sometimes, but not cnsistently throughout the winter. Most of the time, it sort of looks like this.
Relax. If I manage to find the energy to ride, I'll have full fenders, raingear and woolies. And I won't drown. Really, our weather is no big deal here.
So give a little love to Florida, where they are seeing lows below freezing and have every reason to freak out. Their oranges -- OUR oranges, really -- are dying from the frost. And Floridians generally do not own whole trunkloads of winter wear (unless they ski in Vail every year, but why would you live in Florida if you love to ski? Moce to Colorado and be done with it).
Perhaps a wool sock drive for South Miami is in order.

Meanwhile, here in Portland, I'll put on a heavy sweater and snuggle on the couch with the cat.
Winter is a great time to be a cat, or anything else completely covered in fur.
Stay warm, and happy riding!