Friday, May 25, 2018

the week in bikeyness

It's been a bikey time here at Rancho Beth.
Even as I now prepare for what will likely be my last year of that month-long teaching residency in Kansas, my mind is filled with thoughts about the shape of the planet, and the shape of my Self. I want to stay connected to the things that matter, like living lightly and leaving a smaller footprint. My muisic career has too often NOT been about that, and I've longed to find a better balance between that and the things that really espouse my environmental values.

Last week, I begin working half-shifts at Bikes For Humanity PDX, a non-profit enterprise based in Southeast Portland (basically, across town from where I live).
They'd placed a job listing with and, being short of money and having no gigs lined up for July or August, I answered it.
They called me in for a lovely interview, and offered me a part-time seasonal position as a mechanic -- paying me slightly more per hour than my final wage at Citybikes six years ago. Happily, they understand that this is a second job and they are quite willing to work around both my music gigs and my Shabbat observance.

They're lovely folks, especially my boss Andrew, the Program manager.
Here are some shots from the last couple weeks of turning a wrench regularly again.

(below: don't laugh. After some lube and adjusting, it still works just fine. In a non-profit shop you don't fix what's not broken.)

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 (below: a combination of over-tightening, riding it hard and probably leaving it out in the rain. Both cranks looked like this, and don't ask me about that bottom bracket. Tragic.)

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 My boss' bike, a vintage Bianchi city roadster complete with -- OMG! -- that chain guard!

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 So sexy. The very definition of bike porn.

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 B4HPDX is a donation-based non-profit that gathers bikes, refurbishes them and send them out into the world through sales, earn-a-bike programs for adults, and grants to clients of social service agencies. In addition to their Portland shop, they run a seasonal satellite location in downtown Gresham and repair booths at every Sunday Parkways. Nice buncha folks. And they really like having a pro mechanic on hand to crank out refurbished bikes for their programs. I've been averaging two a day in a 3.5-hour shift. It feels good to be useful.

And now the truth: There is no way I could do this work full-time anymore. My hands could not take 10-hour days at a repair stand, four or five days a week. So while I'm glad to be making a little money doing something I know how to do, I also know that it's not a forever thing. I'm glad to do it part-time. I'm promised more shifts when I come back in July, and perhaps I'll wrench for them into early September until about a week before High Holy Days. After that, I hope to have more music work again to get me through the winter.
But for now, it's a really nice thing all around.

Portland peeps!
If you have bikes and parts to spare, why not drop them off this summer at B4HPDX?
I'm suspending my refugee bike efforts for the summer, because I haven't gotten many bikes and, well, I need to earn a living. 
I'm inviting folks to donate to B4H
They'll do good stuff with your donations.
Thanks, and happy riding!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

back in the saddle, at least a little bit

I was offered a very part-time job cranking out donated bikes for resale at Bikes For Humanity PDX, a small non-profit that empowers low-income people through fixing and riding bicycles. It's part-time and seasonal, and mostly I'd be coming in off-hours to overhaul/tune up used bikes. Occasionally I'd also help teach volunteers how to do simple repairs.
it's a little money in my pocket, which I sorely need in the absence of any music gigs in July or August. And it's a way to keep my hand in it without having to deal with the high pressure of wrenching in a full-service shop.

Today was my first day. I felt welcomed and appreciated and it was lovely.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

the case for schrader valves

Let's just say that, for the time being, cars have won here in America. Gas stations dot the landscape; the truck transport lobby leans hard on state legislatures and often wins; freeways expand and on and on. This may change in the future when we actually, really run out of fossil fuels; but for now, this is how it is, okay?

Which leads me to when it makes sense to fight, and when it makes sense to adapt.

Let's start small.

Presta valves (L) are found exclusively on higher-end bicycle tires.
Schrader valves (R) are found on automotive tires and on many lower-end bicycle tires.

(Brooks valves? Move to Europe. Nothing to see here.)

Schrader valves can be filled with a floor pump, a frame pump or the air pump at the gas station.

Presta valves can be filled with a floor pump or a frame pump.

If you get a flat on the road and you're near a gas station, you can use their pump only if you have the requisite valve adapter.

This effectively turns your Presta valve into a Schrader valve so you can fill it with air at the gas station.

These little brass or alloy adapters are small and easy to lose.
Thankfully, they're made by the zillions.

You've heard that the nice thing, the kind thing, to do is to carry a spare tune in your bag so you can hand it to a cyclist in need out on the road. That's something lots of regular bicyclists do, and it is a nice thing. But because of racing trickle-down in marketing and everything else, nine times out of ten that spare tube the well-meaning rider hands you is going to be a skinny, Presta-valved tube -- which is useless if you don't have that little adapter.

And then there's the whole hole thing.
You know, when you want to change out a tube and your rim is drilled for Schrader but all you have a presta tube? Relax. there's an adapter for that, too.
In fact, there are several ways to adapt that big fat Schrader hole for your presta tube. All of them require more little bits that can be easily lost and which are made in the zillions of millions.

I keep a little supply of these bits on hand in my home workshop, so that when someone brings in a wheel that is perfectly good but the presta valve has wiggled so much it now has an unrepairable hole at the base, I can swap in an adapter along with the new tube. (Because front and rear valves can then match. It's a small thing, but it's nice to do.)

With Schrader valves, there's the valve, and a tool to take it apart so you can replace it's internal workings. The springs wear out, or the tiny pin-head wears down.
This is what you need for that.

One tool. And replacement cores, which you can still find on the internet because chances are your local [US] bike shop hasn't carried them in decades.

Although the Schrader valve is simple to use and to maintain, no one can be bothered to fix it anymore. It's easier to just toss it and swap in a whole new tube.
Easier, but not necessarily cheaper.

A broken valve core is made of metal and can be recycled. A tube that is beyond repair cannot be. (You know that, right? You know that tires and tubes can only be burned in some remote developing country where the smoke can't possibly come back to haunt us and it's their problem now, whatever. You know that, right?)

This is why I keep a supply of Schrader valve cores and that simple little tool on hand.

Because if the valve is the culprit, I can fix it without having to replace the whole tube.
The fact is, Schrader valves last longer and I don't have to replace that valve core all that often; whereas Presta valves can fail if you look at them funny and you have to carry around those little adapters for every situation.

Okay, I'm getting a little silly, but really doesn't it make sense to simplify things where you can?
That's why all of my bikes use Schrader valve tubes exclusively. Because they are, in fact, a little more sustainable. And I'll take my sustainability where I can find it these days.
Rubber side down, and happy riding!

Sunday, May 6, 2018

bike hacks: stem shifters and cable housing stops

In my ongoing efforts to share more of my middle finger with the bicycle industry, here's today's bike hack.

1. Stem shifters were ubiquitous on tens of thousands of entry- to mid-level bikes sold in the USA from the 1960's to the 1980's. Easier to reach than shifters placed on the downtube, they worked just fine -- so fine that, for a relatively brief period in the 1980's, at least three manufacturers (Suntour, Shimano and Simplex) were offering very nice stem shifters with an internal spring-loaded ratchet mechanism (Suntour's "Power ratchet" was the smoothest of the three). Before it all ended, there was even an indexing model with a friction option, just like the mountain bike thumbies had.

Of course, because this is the bicycle industry we're talking about here, stem shifters went the way of the dodo when "Brifters" (brake-shift combo road levers) trickled down from pro racers to bikes for the great unwashed (the rest of us). With everything at your fingertips, you never had to take your hand off the hoods until you went into the drops to sprint. While that makes plenty of sense for racers, for entry-level road and touring bikes it's pointless -- and wasteful -- overkill.

(Warning: race technology trickle-down rant ahead.)

Never mind that brifters were far more vulnerable in a crash than stem or downtube shifters -- and, being made of a shockingly high percentage of plastic, far more delicate. Never mind that the complicated contortions often required for re-cabling brifters took away some of the best wrenching minutes of my life, never to return, while a lycra-clad customer fumed and fidgeted impatiently to get back on the road and finish his training ride to nowhere.
And finally, of course one brand was not easily compatible with another, meaning that you really had to work some serious voodoo to make your Shimano cogs and chain work with that Campy shifter. (And we used to joke that if you actually managed to make it work, rumor had it that one or the other company would send covert ops to kidnap you in the dead of night before you could tell other shop mechanics how you did it. Because planned obsolescence is the real patriotism.)

Since leaving the industry, I have made it my personal mission to avoid brifters like the plague on my home refurbishing projects. Not because they don't work -- they do -- but because it's not sustainable technology. Something that fragile and fussy has no business on any bicycle I lay my wrench on. Call me a crank, but since I mostly take old turds and turn them into real transportation, I have no worries.

Here's a lovely example of a refugee bike in progress. It came in with steel drops, suicide brake levers and a whole lot of rust. Since the bike is being turned into functional city transportation, off came the drops. But I saved the stem shifters, because they work and oh, hey! -- there's nothing wrong with them.

And look at how much room that leaves for a headlight or a bell. A very clean, classy look.

2. Cable stops, when and where you want them.
Here's a bike I recently sent off to Catholic Charities. A friend brought me the frameset with some parts, an ex-roommate's aborted fixie project. After taking off all the fixie bits, I rebuilt it as a multi-geared, practicel city bike. (Please notice the lovely stem shifters. Suntour Power Ratchets. They're pure friction,  incompatible with anything indexed and smooth like buttah. If you have any, I'll gladly accept them as donations for the cause.)


The frame had no hole drilled for a bottom bracket cable guide, meaning that, to use the front derailleur from my scrap pile, I'd have to fashion a seat-tube mounted cable stop with a short section of cable housing to make it all work.  Easy-peasy.

Helpful hints:
a. Wrap some cloth bar tape around the seat tube where you want the cable stop to go. The tape gives your clamp more purchase with less risk of stripping out the screw.

b. Make sure the unused side of the double stop is positioned so it won't interfere with the front derailleur function in any position. (I only mention this because some bikes with triples don't give you as much room to work with. I had to deal with this on one of my old bikes so I mention it now. You'll see in the photo that for this bike, it wasn't ever a problem.)


Dear Bicycle Industry: I'm disgusted with your insistence on pushing a trickle-down racing agenda in bicycle and component design. It's not "green", it's not cool and it sure as hell isn't sustainable. When coupled with your policy of purposely phasing out older technologies that still work just fine, it makes you all environmental pigs.
(Yeah, it's true, I never got over that conversation with my Shimano America rep back in the day where he chastised me and our shop for continuing to offer 5- and 6-speed freewheels, an "ancient" technology we had lots of demand for in our repair work, when our job was actually to stock and promote the newest bikes every year. Yes, he really said all that. So did his supervisor when I complained. Fuck you, Shimano. You murdered Suntour and now you're helping to murder the planet.)

Next time in Bike Hacks: Why disc brakes aren't the Second Coming.
Rubber side down, kids, and happy riding.