Thursday, December 31, 2009

The 8-Speed LHT

Well, the LHT project mentioned last time is rolling inexorably toward completion, but not without some predictable bumps in the road. Here’s another problem: Steve-O is an experienced cyclist. He’s put in enough miles to know exactly what he wants and needs out of a bike. What he lacks is any experience with what products are currently available and how a modern bike works. We discussed previously his expectation of 20,000 miles out of a drivetrain. At first blush, this seemed absofuckinglutely ridiculous, but I wanted to know where that expectation had come from. He had gotten that many miles out of a drivetrain once. I believe that drivetrain durability has increased due to better materials and manufacturing, two inevitable products of a technology-driven industry. So what would prevent him from getting 20,000 miles out of a modern drivetrain? Well, we also discussed the likelihood that Steve-O’s previous drivetrain was an outlier; one of those situations in which all the variables that affect longevity swung in the right direction. That’s not an adequate explanation.

Upon further consideration, I came to a startling realization. Steve-O has NEVER had a bike with indexed shifting. It’s true a severely worn chain is more prone to breakage, but if it’s coddled, that may not make any difference. What would become apparent far before that became an issue is the poor shifting performance brought about by a chain that had grown too flexible. Sure, Steve-O may get 20,000 miles out this drivetrain, but his shifting is gonna shit the bed long before his odometer trips five figures. That will be a fun conversation…

“Hey ABW, I was wondering if you can take a look at my shifting; it’s not hitting the gears.”

“Sure,” I’ll say, grabbing the chain-checker, as I do with pretty much every bike I put in the stand for diagnosis. I’ll pop it on the chain, press the little, black, pie-shaped wedge, bottoming it out, and then I’ll wiggle it back and forth, verifying that his chain is well past the point at which it alone can be replaced.

“Well, you need a new chain and cassette…” I’ll stoop to take a look at the teeth on his middle chainring, noting their hooked, shark-fin profile. “And maybe a middle chainring.”

There will be a pause while he digests this, and then we’ll get to the good part.

“You mean I paid 1700 bucks for this thing two years ago and it already needs a new drivetrain?”

I’ll bite my tongue, and my cheek, and do my best to explain to him that which I’ve tried to explain a dozen times before, and it will do no more good this time than it ever has in the past, and I’ll look at 8-speed cassettes and note that, since they are obsolete technology, the only one with a cog larger than 30 teeth is a MegaRange piece of shit, and he’ll bitch about the jump to the large cog, and it’ll all go round and round and round again. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back to Plan A. The LHT is sold as a complete bike with a 9-speed drivetrain. Aside from the extra cog, Steve-O had only minor quibbles with the rest of the parts spec. He was suspicious of the Andel cranks, but I noted they had forged arms and a common BCD, which makes them more than adequate. I told him they would probably work OK with an 8-speed chain, but he worried that the chainrings would be narrower than 8-speed rings, and thus less durable. Pause to bang head on top of bench. OK, we can swap to a Sugino crankset. Nothing wrong with Sugino.

Next problem was availability. Note that Steve-O’s last new bike was purchased 32 years ago. Well, the complete LHT with 26” wheels would not be available until spring. All of a sudden, it was important to have this new bike in time to do a tour in Texas this January. With that constraint, we didn’t have much choice but to buy the frame and parts and do a pro-build. No problem, since he’s particular about parts anyway, and this is an opportunity to get exactly what he wants. On to Plan B.

Immediately, gearing becomes the focus of discussion. He has Excel spreadsheets of the gear ratios of all his other bikes, I shit you not. He brings these in. He notes that his Kabuki has a granny of 22.3” and he’d like something a little smaller than that. No problem. He also notes that he’d like a top gear in the 110” range. Fuck. This brings up a whole new discussion, during which I try to explain things like the capacity of derailleurs, to no avail. I finally tell him flat out that, given the parts that I know to be available, he cannot have a 19” granny and a 110” top gear. He seems to grudgingly accept this.

I thought that was a victory, but it didn’t last. I put together an exhaustive parts list, based in part on feedback I’d gotten from a friend inside QBP, Fred. Fred was service manager at Any Bike Shop three service managers before me, and had earned Steve-O’s trust in a way I could only hope for. I was under the impression that Steve-O and Fred had discussed pricing, so I told Steve what it was gonna cost. Steve-O adds it up to arrive at a figure of about 1700 bucks. Pregnant pause. Steve-O goes to the computer and punches up Surly’s website, noting that MSRP for the LHT complete is 1100 bucks. The pause is now giving birth. Note, we’ve got the frame hanging in the shop. We’ve paid for it, and we’re sure as shit not eating it, but Steve-O decides at this point to question that $600.00 difference. I know, my fault for assuming Steve-O and Fred had discussed pricing, and my fault for assuming Steve-O understood that building a bike frame-up will always cost more than buying a complete bike. You know what they say about assuming…

Bossman and I start throwing out explanations, a tinge of desperation on the perimeter of our comments. We do not, nay, we cannot eat the cost of that frame. Other bikes shops might be able to, but we’re in dire straights here. Hell, maybe we’re in these dire straights because we get ourselves into situations like this, but I don’t think so, and I’m not going to dwell on that right now. We talk about how he’s getting a parts mix that fits his needs perfectly, and hand-built and tensioned wheels, and the quality of our pro-build, etc. He’s still not quite convinced, and patience, already thin, is waning. If he had said at that moment that he’d rather wait for the complete bikes and swap out the 9-speed stuff for 8, I would have walked out the door. That pregnant pause had given birth, and its offspring was writhing around on the floor, screaming its head off.

“OK, let’s do it.”

I said a silent prayer. Dear God or gods, if you’re out there, if you’re listening, and if you care, thank you for pulling Steve-O’s head out of his ass just long enough to acquiesce. I promise I will assemble this bike with as much care as I can muster. I will answer his gearing questions, and I will fiddle with his fit, and I will deal with his general obsessive compulsion, and I’ll not complain, as long as we make money on this fucking bike. Amen.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

New Beginnings

Well...shit. We just lost our biggest line. I guess I never like Trek anyway. Well, that's not true. Truth is, I respect them as a company, find no distinct fault with their products, but also never really found them to be particularly exciting. They're like Budweiser. Consistent, dependable, and likely to appeal to the greatest number of people. Great, but that also means you're not going to inspire the true connoisseurs. (As an aside, I just fucking spelled "connoisseur" correctly without looking it up. Fucking mad skills off the bike as well.) There's a reason Pegoretti sells only a few hundred frames a year - they don't appeal to the masses. But, to those for whom they are built, they are the most beautiful frames in the world.

I don't know what this means for me. Probably nothing. What difference does it make if I'm selling a Trek to a fat Midwesterner or a Giant or a Specialized or any of the other Big Guys? Still selling underappreciated bikes to DBs who'll neglect them and then complain when I tell them how much it'll cost to make it work again. Well, it means I get to field some awkward questions when people walk into a bike shop that's got four fucking bikes on the floor. Fuck.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Steve-O and More Planned Obsolescence

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to put these Angry Thoughts down on paper, but such is life. I’m compelled to mention the confluence of events that precipitated this post. I’ve already mentioned the way the cycling community in the Midwest disappears when it gets cold, like your testicles when you jump into 32 degree water. That is Exhibit A. Exhibit B is the organization to which I belong, which as of 12 months ago included three locations and now includes but one. Yeah, the last year has been tough. Well, the boss took a week off for personal reasons, and while he was away, a paycheck bounced. I’d like to say it was a horrible surprise, but it was the third time it’d happened, and I wasn’t surprised at all. We’d discussed laying me off in January anyway, since Uncle Sam has so much more money than we do. Well, when he got back, he asked if I wanted to take December off as well. I did. The shop has been driving me fucking bonkers for the last six weeks anyway, and I’ve got some personal projects I’ve been neglecting.

A couple of weeks ago, a regular customer, let’s call him Steve-O, stopped in. Steve-O is a fairly hardcore tourer, and the quintessential retrogrouch. Steve-O has never owned a new bike. He was now looking at the Long Haul Trucker from the Midwest’s favorite illegitimate child, Surly. I have nothing bad to say about the LHT. In fact, I own one myself, and if you put a gun to my head and told me to pick just one of my six bikes, it would be the LHT. My greatest hope in life is to find the female equivalent of the LHT: simple, sturdy, strong, and easy on the eyes in a utilitarian kind of way. She is a beautiful machine. I mean the bike, although I hope the woman will be a beautiful machine as well.

Steve-O’s problem with the LHT is not with the frame, but with the mix of components those crazy bastards at Surly have decided to hang on it. Put simply, he’s suspicious of the durability of a 9-speed drivetrain. Here we go.

At first blush, his logic seems sounds: in order to accommodate more gears, chains have gotten narrower. A narrower chain must contain less metal. A chain cannot be more durable if it contains less metal. Ergo, a 9-speed drivetrain is less durable.

I know what you’re thinking. You think you’re clever, but I’m a step ahead of you. You recognize that Steve-O’s logic does not take into account the quality of the metal, the construction of the chain, or the diligence with which you might care for your drivetrain. You’re thinking that you’d bust out some commentary about steel alloys, or bushinged vs. bushingless, and tell him that, in eleventy billion miles of riding on 9, 10, and even 11 speed drivetrains, you’ve never, ever, broken a chain. You think you’re so clever, you na├»ve son of a bitch. But you lack the advantage of having experienced Steve-O’s existing bikes. They are the most marvelous and neglected pieces of shit you have ever had the misfortune to lay eyes on. His bar tape hangs in tatters from the drops. His cable housing is riddled with cracks, and his cables are always, always, frayed. He brings his bike in, complaining of a “creak in the bottom bracket,” and it is always the chain, protesting its neglect in frequencies heard only by Andy, our loyal shop dog. With this knowledge, I fortified myself and made preparations to lose an argument.

“So, what are your reservations about the 9-speed drivetrain?”

“I read on a touring forum that some guy had broken a 9-speed chain.”

OK.

In my defense (or yours), I made all the aforementioned arguments. I had seen his bikes, but I thought he might understand that better alloys and better construction could yield a bike with more speeds and better durability, but he would hear nothing of it.

“In the good old days, you didn’t have to replace chains, or drivetrains. I’ve got 20,000* miles on the drivetrain of my Kabuki.” (* This is not a typo. That’s Twenty. Thousand. Miles.)

Deep breath. Collect your thoughts.

“Well, I’m afraid if your expectation is 20,000 miles out of a drivetrain, any drivetrain, you’re going to be disappointed. Chains just weren’t designed to last that long. I mean, that’s like hoping for 10,000 miles out of an oil change.”

HA! Check! There is no defense to the Automotive Analogy.

“No, I don’t expect 10,000 miles from an oil change, but I do expect 400,000 miles out of my cars.”

Fuck.

This tidbit of information revealed to me that I could not win this argument. Yes, some vehicles last for 400,000 miles. Some drivetrains last for 20,000 miles. Some people live to 110. They are the outliers, but it does happen, and if it happens, then it means that, in his mind, Steve-O’s drivetrain is as likely as any to last for 20,000 miles. It turns out there is a counter to the Automotive Analogy. It is the Outlier As a Standard Worldview.

I threw in the towel, because after all, what the fuck does it matter to me? My motto is: “Give me enough time, money, and beer, and I’ll fix a rainy day.” Sure, I can build you an LHT with an 8-speed drivetain. Give me time, money, and beer. While doing inventory, I came across a set of 8-speed Ultegra bar-end shifters. I shot Steve-O an email and told him that all we needed now was an 8-speed cassette and we’d be in business.