Friday, December 6, 2013

The Carbon Commodity Conundrum: What Causes It? (Pt 1)

Last time, we laid out what the Carbon Commodity Conundrum (CCC) is, and put forth a few contributing factors.  Today, we'll look at each in turn to better understand why people can be such amazing douchebags when it comes to crabon fibre bikes.

Very few cyclists are engineers

I don't have any data to support this, but "engineer" is not the most common profession, and composites engineer a smaller subset thereof.  I stand by my assumption that most cyclists are not engineers.  If you have data to refute this, bring it on.

Many of the physical characteristics of a carbon frame that affect its performance are not visible

With steel, you can see an imperfect weld.  They're lumpy, uneven, and full of voids.  You can see a fillet braze without a smooth radius.  You can see the difference between a nice lug and a not-nice lug.  Same for the welds on aluminum and titanium.

With carbon, not so much.  I'll stipulate that on a really shitty frame, you can see wrinkles or voids in the layup, and you may be able to see nastiness inside the seat tube.  Sometimes the frame components, like cable stops and dropouts, will look shitty.  I'm disregarding that level of frame, because I don't believe those are the frames this discussion is about.

Take any carbon frame that's manufactured overseas that is not visibly shitty, and it's much more difficult.  Much like you cannot see the butting on metal tubes, you cannot see the layups in a carbon frame, and it's not a problem to make a shitty frame that looks nice on the outside.  All you need is a smooth mold and somebody who knows which is the business end of the paint gun.

Add to this the fact that there is now such a thing as an "open mold."  An open mold is just that - a frame mold that is not licensed exclusively to any particular brand; it is open for use by any brand with the money to make an order.  Two frames made from the same open mold will look identical (or near enough for this discussion), but can have vastly different performance characteristics depending on the variables mentioned above.  Think of it this way: on a traditional, TIG welded steel frame, you can have straight gauge, heavy tubing with an outer diameter of 1.125", or you can have butted, thin walled tubing with an outer diameter of 1.125".  Assuming the welding appears of the same quality on both frames, you will have two frames that look the same but perform very differently.

It is impossible to quantify the overall performance of any bicycle/frame

"But what about when they say the new 2014 Kraptastic is 30% stiffer than the 2013 Kraptastic?!"  Here's the thing: you can quantify certain aspects of stiffness.  For instance, you can clamp a bicycle frame in a rigid jig and then thread into the bottom bracket shell a lever 1 foot long.  You can then hang a known weight off that lever (or at other strategic points), and you can then measure how much the frame bends or deflects.  Clamp another frame in the same jig and hang the same weights off it and measure again.  Compare the two.  If Frame A was deflected 1.0 mm and Frame B was deflected 0.7 mm, you can say Frame B is 30% stiffer [1.0 - 0.7 / 1.0 = .30(100%) = 30%].

But so the fuck what.

Nobody tells you how the frame deflected, so you have no way of knowing in what way it's "stiffer."  The industry trend has been "vertically compliant and laterally stiff."  We're lead to believe this means the frame is stiffer in all the ways that affect pedaling efficiency, so the energy you're putting into the pedal is transferred to forward motion rather than into deflection of the frame, all the while remaining vertically compliant so your scranus doesn't take such a beating.  I stand by my original interpretation: so the fuck what.  This is a single, fuzzy variable amongst dozens of other variables that will affect performance and comfort.  Slap on a different pair of wheels and you have a bike that will feel and perform completely differently.

Matt Phillips (test director for Bicycling Magazine) wrote a great piece directly related to this on his blog:  Product reviews, which are inherently subjective, exist because it is not possible to quantify the performance of a bike, which is what would be required if you wanted to objectively evaluate them.

So far, none of the above, collectively or individually, are the cause of the CCC.  The missing, secret ingredients are the newly found, pseudotransparency of the bike industry offered by the interwebs, and the mistrust in marketing it has created.  Next time...

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Carbon Commodity Conundrum: What Is It?

Well, we're into The Slow Season, which means I don't have a lot of tales to tell about how stupid my customers are and how smart I am, so time to delve deeper into the quirks of this incestuous little industry.  One I can't believe I haven't touched on yet, since it's getting more and more common, is what I'll heretofore refer to as the Carbon Commodity Conundrum (CCC).

Commodity: an economic good, as:
  • a product of agriculture or mining
  • an article of commerce especially when delivered for shipment
  • a mass-produced unspecialized product
Come to think of it, I do have one tale to tell that is directly related to the CCC.  Dude comes in with what looks from across the shop like a very nice, very fast carbon tri bike.  I immediately want to punch him in the throat, because that's the proper reaction to tri douches who clearly can more easily buy their speed than work for it.  Upon closer inspection, I'm delighted to see it's some no-name, generic frame with a mediocre paintjob.

"Whoa, nice bike...  What is that?"

"Oh...  It's a custom Pinarello...  A friend of mine has a connection at the factory..."

Oh god, this is too good to be true.  For the sake of getting him the fuck out of the shop, I just go along with his story, but as soon as he's out the door, I hop on the ol' interwebs.  It literally takes me 32 seconds to find this poor schmuck's frame on Alibaba.  I didn't get the back story, so I don't know if he was lying and deluding himself, or if he really got bent over by his "friend with the connection at the factory."  Ultimately, I don't care.

Another case in point.  QBP started a new brand, Foundry, and they seem to make some OK frames if you're into crabon fibre.  Nothing too fancy, OK prices, some innovation, and I like the understated graphics.  Do a search for "Foundry" on BikeRumor and check the comments under every single post.  They all get the same reaction: "Doood, I can score this exact frame from Hong Fu for 600 bucks.  This brand is a joke.  People who buy it are idiots."  There is then some back and forth from brand fanboys.  This always involves anecdotal evidence about their friend whose Hong Fu broke and now that friend has a TBI and will never ride again, to which the Hong Fu fanboys respond they have 4 frames and they've never had any issues, and both believe their individual experiences offer proof enough that Hong Fu/Foundry is awesome/a joke.

What is the real issue here?  The real issue is not whether Foundry/Hong Fu is a joke or not.  The real issue is that the average consumer in the bike industry is not equipped to decide if Hong Fu/Foundry is a joke.  Compounding the problem is the human tendency to accept that which supports what we want to believe, while rejecting that which refutes it.  That is the Carbon Commodity Conundrum: carbon fiber bicycle frames have become a commodity, just like field corn and computer chips.  There is too little to differentiate them to the untrained eye, and too little trust in the people responsible for selling them. 

As much as possible, let's start with and work from the facts:
  1. Very few cyclists are engineers, let alone composites engineers
  2. Many of the physical characteristics of a carbon frame that affect its performance (layups, types of carbon, resin to fiber ratio, etc) are not visible on the outside of the frame
  3. It is impossible to quantify the overall performance of any bicycle/frame (regardless of its material)
In the next installment of this enthralling series, we'll look at each of these in turn to better understand the CCC.

Now go ride your fucking bike.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

How To Ride Your Bike in Traffic

OR: I Hate Everybody On the Road, But I Still Obey Traffic Control Devices

I live in a fairly large city.  You've heard of it.  Somehow or another, it's made it onto a few "best of" and "most friendly" kinds of bike ranking lists, though it's most often listed as "up and coming" on those lists.  This translates as, "biking here still fucking sucks, though not as much as it did 5 years ago."  The city is full of aggressive, stupid, willfully ignorant, and most importantly, selfish drivers.  The kinds of drivers who will hold up 4 lanes of traffic in both directions so they can poorly execute a K-turn to nab a parking spot that ends up being too small for their fucking SUV anyway.  Like that.

Riding in the city is like Thunderdome.  There is nothing relaxing about it, you cannot let your guard down, and there is a source of aggravation at every single intersection and most stretches of road in between.  This is not a diatribe against drivers.  I own a car, I drive a car, and goddamit, sometimes, I even enjoy driving.

This is not a diatribe against cyclists, though in this city, they are at least as often a source of aggravation as the drivers.  But the fact is, it's much more difficult to seriously hurt somebody else when you're riding a bike as compared to if you're driving a car, and cyclists are my tribe.

I am also not going to regurgitate a bunch of sanctimonious shit about how noble is the bicycle and how relaxing is the commute by bike, and how you should do it because it will make you a better person.  Is all that true?  Well, yes.  Does saying that shit make you sound like an insufferable pedant?  Goddamned right it does.  And you know what is not likely to get more people riding bikes?  Insufferable pedants.

No, what I'm going to attempt to do is explain why I follow traffic control devices in this sea of anarchy, for reasons that are less often articulated by the insufferable pedants out there.

The last intersection I cross to get home is a big one, and because this is an Up And Coming Bike City, making a left through this intersection on a bike is fucking impossible unless you get on the sidewalk and use the crosswalk signal.  So I'm almost home, pull onto the sidewalk, and as I usually do, I swing my bike around the pole that has the walk signal button on it.  When I do this, I wind up pointing straight across the cross walk, so when I get the signal, I just let go of the pole and pedal off.  It also means that, as I'm swinging my bike into position, it looks like I may be darting into the intersection.  As I was making this maneuver the other day, I happened to make eye contact with the driver of a cement truck as it went past me.  I heard the tone of his gigantic engine change, heard the brakes, made eye contact, and I saw the absolute terror in his eyes.

Because he thought I was pulling out into the crosswalk.  He thought he was about to commit vehicular manslaughter. 

This is why I obey traffic control devices.  Because it's an attempt to meet a benchmark for predictability, and when you are predictable, you are safer.  The terror in the drivers eyes was because, if I had proceeded into the intersection, against the traffic control device, I would've been behaving in an unpredictable manner.  I would've taken him by surprise, so much so that he wouldn't have been able to do anything and he would've squashed me.

Let me reiterate this: When you are obeying traffic control devices, you are behaving in a predictable manner, and behaving in a predictable manner makes you safer.

It's like interacting with wild animals: no sudden movements.

Now, am I saying I've never rolled a red light?  Of course not, I'm not a fucking traffic angel.  But when I do, it's after I've stopped, surveyed the intersection, and ascertained that there are no cars around.  That's right.  If there are cars, even if they're half a block away, I stop.  Because that's what's expected.  Because that's predictable behavior.  Because, dare I say it, that is respectable behavior, and isn't that we bicycle martyrs are always harping about, being respected? 

Well how the fuck can we expect to be respected if we don't behave in a respectable manner?!

And this is why it drives me crazy when I see cyclists blowing stop signs.  You're fucking it up for everybody.  Drivers don't see individual cyclists misbehaving.  They see a culture of disrespect for the law, and it pisses them off because if they behaved like that, there would be consequences.  You do not earn respect by pissing people off.

So just ride your fucking bike, and for fuck's sake, stop at the fucking stop signs.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

My PF30 Creaks... We Have a Cream For That

About that Evolution of the BB string I've been neglecting: fuck it.  I still think it's interesting, but I think I made the point I was trying to make, and neither you nor I really care to take it any further.  To sum it up: bicycles, like organisms, are subject to competitive pressure, and the "fittest" designs will succeed when others fail.  In the bike industry, the following are pretty generally accepted as competitive pressures:
  • Weight
  • "Stiffness" which is really a measure of efficiency
  • Cost
  • Aesthetics
  • Aerodynamics
  • Durability
  • Other
Thus, if all else is equal, the lighter/stiffer/cheaper/better looking/more aerodynamic/more durable component is going to be more successful.  Enough said about that, but it does bear on where I'm headed next.

It seems that, without really thinking about it, I've come up with a catch phrase: "Just ride your fucking bike."  This sums up pretty well how I feel about bikes and what you should do with them, but it occurred to me the other day that some are no so lucky as to be able to do that.

"My bike is creaking again.  When I stand up or put a lot of pressure on the pedals.  And it's feeling kind of sluggish..."

This is a great customer of ours.  Let's call her Karen.  I roll Karen's bike (carbon, recognizable brand that's not one of the Big 5, PF30 BB, Red cranks) and toss it on the stand.  This is not the first time it's been in for creaking.  Fuck, this could be the 5th or 6th time we've had it in for creaking. 

I derail the chain and give the cranks a spin.  Smooth as a baby's ass.  I check the brakes and wheels.  Wheels true, no rubbing anywhere.  I tactfully let Karen know that, as far as I can tell with an admittedly cursory examination, the sluggishness is either tire pressure or her motor.  She concedes it could be the motor.  Great, but we still haven't addressed the creak.

That fucking PF30 bottom bracket.

Let me say this up front: the PF30 makes sense on several levels, but I do not believe it is a superior "standard" for most riders.  Take Karen for instance.  She's an enthusiast, puts on a respectable amount of miles every year, does a few long disease-type rides, and she's fucking loaded.  She is absolutely not competitive.  But she's riding a carbon bike, deep dish carbon wheels with 20/24 spokes, and light components.  We tell ourselves that this is a great all-around bike, but that's not fucking true - it's a race bike.  Karen wants to just ride her fucking bike, but she can't for more than 10 miles before it starts creaking again. 

I try to explain that sometimes, bikes make noise and it's OK and it's normal.  I tell her about my Salsa Spearfish, a great bike, and all the noises it makes (brakes, BB, suspension).  She's having none of it, and then I realize it: we're both stuck, she and I.  She's got a bike that's poorly suited to the kind of riding she does, and I'm stuck trying to polish that turd.  I'm an experienced mechanic, so I'm better equipped to hear and diagnose, to decide what needs attention and what's normal, but she is not.  I can't tell her to ignore the noises (even if she was willing to do that, which she is not) because sometimes, there are noises that do need attention lest something expensive break.  We didn't sell her the bike, so I can't even tell her that I can take measurements and talk to the manufacturer to see if the BB shell is within spec. 

We could blame the bike manufacturer, as so many internet douchebags do.  We could blame an unscrupulous sales person.  We could blame SRAM. 

But I blame us (except for Grant Peterson). 

We did this to ourselves.  We allowed ourselves to be convinced that we all needed lighterstifferfaster to get to the fucking coffee shop and to do our once-a-year disease ride, and we started to believe that a 15 pound bike made a difference when we're 30 pounds overweight, and we expected the poor fucking bike mechanics to be able to fix our silly-light wheels when they were designed for 120 pound climbing phenoms with a van full of team mechanics who are ready to tear down his bike at the end of the day.

Well fuck that shit.  I'm opening a bike shop.  It's called No Bullshit Bikes.  You come talk to me.  We'll sit down over a cup of coffee or a beer, and you'll tell me what kind of riding you like to do, and you're going to be fucking honest with me, you understand?  Don't ask for fucking Zipp 303s if all you do is ride the MS150.  And then I'm going to call on my decades of experience, and I'm going to put you on the bike that best suits your riding, and you're going to fucking trust me, you understand?  And when I quote you the price, you're not going to fucking balk, because you understand it's an investment, and it's not a fucking toy.  And you will NOT cite a fucking internet forum as evidence in support of what you do or don't want, you fucking bastard.  And your bike's going to work for a long time, and when things go wrong, it will be because stuff wore out after the expected amount of time, and I'll fix it for you for a reasonable fee.  And you know what?  You wanna know what the best fucking thing is?


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Secret Bike Mechanic

Goddamit, sometimes life just slaps you.  You know when you're doing something you really enjoy and believe it's something for which you have some talent, and then you find somebody who's doing it much better than you can hope to?  Yeah, like that.  Several astute readers forwarded the following along, and I'm going to plagiarize it, because why the fuck did this guy stop writing?  Yeah, I'm going to copy and paste straight from his blog in the hope he gets pissed off and sends me a C and D, just so I can get in contact with him to tell him to pick up the damn pen.

How not to make apple crumble

A customer in a small, independent delicatessen asks whether they have an apple pie available, freshly-baked but ready to go now. The proprietor replies that unfortunately they don't, but says he could certainly add one to his baking list for her, ready for collection tomorrow. The customer decides that's too long to wait and remarks that in any case the price seems a bit steep when she could easily just make an apple crumble herself. She buys some rolled oats, a bag of flour and several cooking apples, and asks the shopkeeper whether he has any advice on crumble baking. He mentions that it's good to stew the apples a little beforehand but cautions against overcooking it, and wishes her the best of luck with hers.

The next day the customer returns and berates the shopkeeper.
   "Those apples you sold me were horrible, they're really bitter. And there must have been something wrong with the flour or the oats, the crumble was completely dry and tasteless. What kind of refund can you give me?"

The shopkeeper, somewhat taken aback, apologises and says if there is a problem with the flour of course she can have a refund, but he's not had any other complaints, and he even uses the same flour himself. He enquires what kind of sugar she used in the crumble, and how much she added to the cooking apples.
   "What, you need sugar in crumble?" she replies. "You forgot to give me any sugar yesterday when I asked you how to make it."

Trying to remain polite, the shopkeeper explains:
   "Well, to he honest I assumed that if you were making it yourself you'd know more or less what ingredients were needed. We do sell recipe books if that would help..."
   "No, no, they're too expensive. I'll just take that bag of sugar you mentioned and try again this evening" says the customer.
   "Certainly, madam" says the shopkeeper, "that'll be £1.50 please".
   "Oh." says the customer, clearly displeased. "Doesn't it come with the apples, seeing as they're so bitter?"
   "No. Er, no. It's a separate item I'm afraid." says the shopkeeper, almost lost for words.
   "Can you at least give me a refund on the apples, seeing as they're wasted now?" the customer persists.
   "Well I'm sorry, but no, not really." says he. "The apples themselves didn't really have anything wrong with them did they?"
   "I'm not stupid" retorts the customer, apparently offended. "I can cook pasta and I've made loads of pot noodles. I've just not baked an actual crumble before. I don't suppose you could just quickly show me how could you? Or just quickly do it for me now, seeing as I'm buying all the ingredients from you?"
"I'm really sorry, but I don't have time". Says the shopkeeper. "I've got loads of orders for other customers still to make, and this gentleman here is waiting for me to serve him".
But fearing that he's now sounded too unhelpful, before the customer leaves the shopkeeper just checks whether she's got enough butter for her crumble mix.
   "I need butter as well?" asks the woman, incredulous. Then a suspicion crosses her mind: "You're not just trying to sell me more stuff now are you?"

Remembering the customer's original request, the shopkeeper decides to change tack. He gently suggests:
   "If you prefer, I could bake you an apple pie for tomorrow. In fact it might even work out cheaper than separately buying all..."
   "Oh yes, I saw your pies yesterday" the customer interrupts, "but then I found out you can get them in ASDA for 59p."

* * *

Does the customer sound unreasonable?

"delicatessen" for "bike shop";
"flour", "oats" and "apples" for "wheel", "tyre" and "inner tube";
"sugar" for "rim tape";
and "butter" for "tyre levers";
and all will become clear.

Funny what's considered acceptable in a bike shop isn't it?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The "W" Word

"Yes, my bike has a kickstand on it, and the little foot at the bottom of the kickstand fell off, so my bike fell over onto a post and it dented the top tube.  I'd like it considered for..."

I'm thinking, "Don't say it.  Don't you dare let that fucking word escape your lips..."


Goddamnit.  Even when the claim is legitimate, I hate the W-word.  There has never been a positive discussion around the warranty of a product, unless you shop at good ol' REI, in which case you could return an item they've never sold, or because you change your mind, or because you're a douchebag, or if you have a SRAM product, in which case they seem to have a shotgun approach to quality control, in which they anticipate a 50% return rate and plan accordingly.  I've heard Campy had a no questions asked warranty policy in the good ol' days as well, but I'm gonna corral this before it turns into a full blown, no holds barred, back when people had ethics, retrogrouchathon, but it does illustrate what a warranty is for, and what it is not for.

Read most warranties, and you will come across the following or something similar:  "This item is guaranteed for X years from date of purchase against defects in materials or worksmanship." 

Don't get me wrong.  I believe in protecting consumers, which is what a warranty is supposed to do.  That's where the clause, "defects in materials or worksmanship" come into play.  What that says is, "Hey, if we fucked this up, we'll make it right.  Mea culpa." 

What it does not say is, "Hey, we'll replace your shit even if it broke because you were any or all of the above: stupid, willfully ignorant, abusive, unlucky, and/or negligent."  Take some responsibility for the care and upkeep of your shit.  Pay attention to it, or make friends with people who will. 

And always, always remember: SHIT HAPPENS.

Monday, August 5, 2013

My Flat Tire Schema, Continued

"Hi, I was hoping you could help me pick out a tube."

"Sure.  What size?"

"Seven hundred by twenty-three."

"OK.  Presta or Schraeder?"


"Here you go."

"I'd also like to lodge a complaint."

I thought, "Yeah, well go fuck yourself.  Or find somebody who's going to give a shit.  They amount to the same thing as far as I'm concerned."

I said, "OK, what's going on?"

"Well, a while ago, one of you guys, I don't remember which, fixed a flat tire for me..."

I was afraid at this point he was going to tell me about a flat tire he'd gotten weeks or months after we'd allegedly fixed a flat for him and claim it was somehow our fault, as if a responsible bike shop would've installed a magic force field that would clear debris from the path of the tire.  That is the kind of shit up with which the ABW does not put.

But, it turns out he had a legitimate claim, maybe.  He got a flat, and when the mechanic was changing it, he said the tube was pinched between the tire and rim.  I know it happens, although when it does, at least on a road tire, the pressure blows everything up before the wheel makes it back on the bike, or the mechanic notices the growing bulge, quickly rolls the wheel out onto the sales floor, dives behind the counter, and covers his ears.  Ha ha, fuck you sales guys.

But, I know if the pinch is small enough, and the bead tight enough, it can happen like he claimed it happened, and that is no es bueno at all.  Imagine what could/would finally cause that tire to blow: increased pressure.  The kind of increased pressure that might be generated by heating the air in the tube.  The kind of heat that might be generated by a wheel sitting in a hot car.

Or by heavy braking because the bike is being piloted down mountain switchbacks.  No es bueno at all.

Thankfully, none of that happened, and I'm feeling like the grumpy douche I am for wanting to punch this guy in the throat for bringing up what sounds like a legitimate issue.  We then got to talking about the frustrations of flat tires, and how they seem to travel in packs.  This guy never got flats until he got that first flat, and then he got three in a couple months.

I could relate.  Believe it or don't, but I almost never get flat tires.  I used to tell myself some bullshit about how in tune I was with whatever garbage I had to ride over, and somehow telepathically guided my tires around the nasty bits capable of causing punctures.  Maybe.  As I get older, my ego gets more wrinkled and saggy, and I'd feel more comfortable making claims like that if somebody could show me data proving I actually get fewer flats than average, but I digress.

Last week, I got a flat on my bar bike.  It was a speedy one.  I could hear the leak when on the bike, and had to walk a couple blocks back home.  Because in addition to being an egomaniac I am also a magnificently cheap bastard, I brewed myself a cup of coffee and sat down to patch the hole.  15 minutes later, I'm back in business.

On the very next ride, same exact fucking thing happens.  Now, I had inflated the tube and found the hole.  Marked it with Sharpie.  Lined it up to the hot patch on the tire and tried to find the offending sharp object.  Nada.  Flipped tube 180 degrees.  Still nada.  I then carefully did the ol' visuotactile examination, running my hands carefully through the inside of the tire while looking at the outside.  As is so often the case, I found nothing and assumed whatever had punctured the tube was gone.

After the second flat, I did the same thing - inflated the tube, found the hole, and noted with glee that it was EXACTLY the same distance from the valve stem in the opposite direction from the first hole.  Now that's some data bitches.  This time, I turned the tire inside out, and there it was: a honkin' big piece of glass that had so neatly cut the tread it was fully encased in the rubber when viewed from the outside, but (I'm assuming) only extended into the interior of the tire when under load.  I dug it out and sealed up the cut with some super glue, patched the second hole, and slept well that night knowing I'd solved that issue.

What's my point?  FLAT TIRES FUCKING HAPPEN.  Even with my telepathic ability to ride between punctures, and my superhuman mechanical skills, and my Sherlockian powers of deduction, they happen.  If you can't accept that, riding bikes is going to be a whole lot less enjoyable.  Learn how to fix a flat.  Carry what you need to fix one on the road, or don't ride any further than you want to walk.  If you're buying a bike and the sales person doesn't mention this, find another bike shop.  If they do, they are not trying to rip you off.

And then ride your fucking bike.

Friday, July 26, 2013

BB "Standards": Square to Spline

Last post, we covered a little about evolution and the first branch of the BB Tree of Life: between cottered cranks and square taper cranks.  This post, we're going to dig a little deeper into the competitive pressures exerted on BB systems and talk about why ISIS (and others) are the next logical branch on the BB Tree of Life.  But first:

Evolution.  The gradual change in expressed genes due to the inherent advantage conferred by those traits over competing traits.  In the bike industry, it is the gradual change in the characteristics of technical systems due to advantages inherent in those systems as compared to other, competing systems.  In biology, competitive advantage is mind bogglingly broad.  It could be defined as faster, slower, shorter, stronger, lighter in color, etc.  It's not even worth trying to sort it out without context.

In the bike industry, it's a little easier.  I'd say the following are pretty generally accepted as competitive pressures:
  • Weight
  • "Stiffness" which is really a measure of efficiency
  • Cost
  • Aesthetics
  • Aerodynamics
  • Durability
  • Other
If we want to oversimplify for the sake of making a point, you might say that, if all else is equal - if all of the above variables are exactly the same, except for one, the lighter/stiffer/cheaper/better looking/more aerodynamic/more durable component is going to be more successful.  Some time when we're out for a beer, we should discuss which of those is most important and/or which actually exerts the most pressure on the market performance of a component.  Of course, in the real world, all else is never equal, so shit gets confusing (which is where marketing steps in, but that's another conversation).

So at some point in the past, the limitations of the cottered crank became apparent, and gave rise to the square taper BB system.  The square taper BB was much better, but because competitive pressures are relative, it was only a matter of time before somebody developed something "better."  In the case of bicycles, the pattern is to address the weakest link first, making it better, which exposes the next weakest link.  Prior to the 80s, bikes were made of relatively narrow diameter steel tubing.  Even the nicest frames would be considered "flexy" by today's standards, so the stiffness of the BB system was not the weakest link in the chain of performance, and since they were durable and inexpensive, they didn't get a lot of attention.

With the rise of alternative frame materials and larger diameter tubes, frames stopped being the most flexible (i.e. least efficient) component of the bicycle and other components started getting scrutinized, and at some point, some rider or manufacturer realized his (because during the time period in question, you can be sure it was a him) square taper BB was too flexible.  A high school physics student knows that larger diameter tubes are stiffer, and since they are stiffer, can use less material, which if done properly, can actually make a stiffer component that is also lighter (a lesson Cannondale and Klein capitalized on with their oversized aluminum frames).

With frame stiffness increasing, all other components would be scrutinized, and the BB was a logical place to focus since it's amongst the first mechanisms transferring the force from the legs into forward motion.  How do you make it stiffer?  You take a cue from physics and use a spindle that's larger diameter.  The first to try this was Magic Motorcycle Components with their crankset that was later licensed by Cannondale under their CODA brand name. 

You want to talk about a design ahead of its time?  Look into these cranks.  I hesitate to bring them up because the design of these cranks jumps so many steps we need to examine.  But hey, they were the first to try a larger diameter crank spindle. 

In the interest of keeping these digestible, we'll leave it there for now.  Do some digging on Magic Motorcycle and be prepared to be amazed.  Next time we'll talk about Octalink and why Magic Motorcycle/CODA didn't succeed.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

You're doin' it wrong

Going to pause the BB "Standard" Evolution/Bitching essays for a post about doing it wrong in all the right ways. 

A couple weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend a party that started with a mountain bike ride.  I had to fly to get there, which meant I was going to borrow a bike because flying with a bike and/or shipping a bike in any way is way fucking expensive.  I don't really have any problems with borrowing bikes; in fact, I think it's a great way to experience bikes that I don't want or can't afford.  But there are certain parts of my personal bikes that really are personal - shoes/pedals and helmet.  But, these are heavy and take up a lot of space in a suitcase.  With airlines charging for any checked bags these days, that means if I fly, I'm usually not going to be bringing shoes and pedals.

So for this trip, I packed my "workout shoes" which is to say the shoes I wear when I want to look like I'm going to work out, am working out, or just finished working out.  They're sporty.  They're also of the new minimal school and are not far removed from being barefoot.  They're flexy.  I also packed one pair of bib shorts.

And that's it.  I had "prepared" for this ride by bringing shorts and barefoot running shoes.  You're doin' it wrong.

The bike I was borrowing was fuggin amazing.  Fully rigid single speed, ti, light, lively, awesome.  Not a bike I could ever afford, ever.  We screwed on some plastic platform pedals in the parking lot.  From this friend I also borrowed a helmet.  Found out later it belongs to his wife.  She's understanding.  Also on this ride was my brother, who I found out later had never ridden a bike off road before.  On top of that, his bike was purchased when he was graduating high school about 50 years ago.  It's a Raleigh M40 with the old Shimano cantilever brakes whose plastic spring carriers all broke.  It was completely bone stock down to the brake pads and Greenfield kickstand.  Oh, did I mention my brother and I are both 6'2" tall?  It's a 16 or 17 inch frame.

So there it is; no gloves, no clipless, no water, no food.  Just me, a chamois, a bike, and a brother even more poorly equipped than me.  Read the mags.  Take your pick of any of the trash out there and they'll say you're doing it wrong. 

Know what?  IT WAS FUCKING AWESOME.  I'm not saying all the shit that goes with riding can't be fun, or that it doesn't affect the ride experience for the better.  But it just doesn't matter in the end.  Even when I swapped bikes with my brother and found myself on that shitty, tiny, heavy bike, it didn't matter.  I was still having a blast. 

So just ride your fucking bike.  Feel like it's too smallheavyshittyuglycheap?  Try riding it.  While you're riding, STOP THINKING ABOUT THE BIKE.  Look around.  Smile at the people you see.  Stop to appreciate the skylinehorizonmountainsflowershotchicks.  True story - if you're appreciating the experience, the bike and all the shit that go with it just become tiny, insignificant details.

Just ride your fucking bike!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Let's Bitch About BB "Standards!"

Jesus fuck, where to start.  Well, let's go a long way back, to establish a baseline for bitchiness in the bike industry.  I'm reading The Dancing Chain, by Frank Berto.  Amazing book.  Really well done, very complete look at the evolution of the bicycle drivetrain.  A little on the geeky side, but I'm into that kind of thing. 

It didn't take long to realize that there isn't a lot that's been truly new on a bike's drivetrain for a LONG time.  The Frenchies were experimenting with derailleurs that look remarkably like today's in the early 1900s.  Since then, it's been a steady progression of adding gears.  Most of the changes we note (e.g. wider rear hubs/dropouts) were and are the result of accommodating more gears.  So what.  So my point is, even way back then, there were the retro grouches who bitched about the additional gears, and planned obsolescence, and they were debating whether or not cycling was a feat of physical fitness or a technological contest.  Change some of the details, and you have today's stupid fucks forever bitching about the rise of disc brakes on road bikes.

Which brings us back to BBs, and importantly, to the process of evolution.  Let's start with evolution.  I'm going to simplify the shit out of this, because it's been a long time since I used my completely worthless biology degree (yes, I really have one), and because I trust if I get anything too wrong, some pedantic douchebag will be happy to correct me in the comments. 

If we tear away all the details, evolution is change in the frequency of expressed genes, or stated another way, it is change in how often we "see" different traits expressed.  With humans, those traits are things like hair color or height or cranial capacity, and what we "see" as humans evolve is an increase in cranial capacity and an increase in height.  Why?  Because those traits conferred a competitive advantage over humans who didn't have them. 

Bottom brackets.  Starting way back, we have the cottered crank.  This was a round spindle with a keyway machined into it.  The crankarm had a corresponding round hole and keyway.  The crankarm slipped loosely over the spindle, and the cotter was hammered into place and bolted tight to keep it tight.  For those lucky enough to have worked on cottered cranks, you know their weaknesses: the cotters need to be tightened regularly, are prone to rusting in place or otherwise getting stuck, and the whole system is flexy.  When those old farts got sick of dealing with those limitations, they developed the square taper bottom bracket, in which the crankarm features a tapered, square hole, and the BB spindle a corresponding square taper.  The crankarm is fitted over the spindle and a bolt pushes the crankarm tightly onto the spindle.

Thus, we are introduced to the first significant branch on the evolutionary tree of bottom bracket standards.  To the "left," we have cottered cranks, based on a loose fit held in place with a key, and to the "right," we have square taper cranks, held in place by friction generated by pressing the tapered hole of the crankarm onto the tapered spindle. 

Why?  The evolutionary pressure most easily identified as resulting in this change is durability.  Properly maintained, a square taper BB/crank requires much less maintenance than a cottered system.  Secondarily, you might argue the system is stiffer, but I have no data to support that claim.  In any case, the result was and is that the square taper system became virtually ubiquitous, and the cottered system all but became extinct.

Next post, we'll keep working our way up the tree to talk about why ISIS is just another version of the ol' square taper BB system.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Road Disc Brakes and Whiners

I'm surprised the discussion around road disc brakes has taken this long to raise my ire high enough to overcome my apathy and lethargy, but it finally has.  As reported on VeloNews, Bike Rumor, and elsewhere, Zipp has introduced a disc version of their 303, both in full carbon clincher and tubular versions.  As of now, it is not a disc-specific version of the rim, leading to much speculation about future generations of the wheel.  In addition to this the Ultra New SRAM Red is going to 11, and will feature hydro disc brakes.

I don't know why, but I cannot help reading the comments sections on these blogs.  Never has it done anything other than make me angry at the ignorance of those readers who have enough energy and misguided passion to spew their filth, comfortable in the anonymity offered by the interwebs (at least on Bike Rumor; VeloNews comments are tied to a Facebook profile, which is better than nothing, but close enough to anonymous).  I spent a solid half hour reading through the comments of readers as they vomited about the inferiority of road discs, how they are a solution to a problem that doesn't exist, and how unfair it is that SRAM has the audacity to introduce new products when they just introduced new products LAST YEAR.  I'll address these in turn:

1.  The Inferiority of Disc Brakes on a Road Bike

The argument usually goes like this, "I once read this blog post about a guy who crashed really hard because he was riding a road bike with disc brakes and they failed."  Most often, this argument is backed by an argument about issues of heat dissipation.

The issue of heat dissipation is a valid one, and one I don't believe has been totally addressed by the road disc technology we've seen thus far (I do not include the Ultra New Red hydros in this, because I haven't read any reviews of them yet), but heat dissipation was long ago addressed by mountain disc technology.  I cannot recall the last time I read a negative review of a mtb brake due to heat fade, although that was a frequent issue with first and second generations of mtn hydro brakes.  If road brakes are not there yet with respect to heat management, they will get there.

How?  My predictions:  consumers or brands or both will recognize that a 140mm rotor on the front is not adequate.  It may provide plenty of stopping power, but the shorter circumference (read smaller surface area, which is directly related to heat dissipation) and decreased mass are an insufficient heat sink.  160mm is will be the standard, at least in the front where it matters more.

Shimano has spent considerable resources developing heat dissipation technology.  By almost all accounts, their mtb disc brakes are excellent.  Other brands will follow suit, developing things like finned rotors, mixed-metal rotors, and radiators on calipers.  All this technology exists and has been proven on mtb discs.  It's only a matter of time before material and manufacturing technology advance enough to make weights acceptable for road bikes.

2.  The Disc Brake Solves a Problem That Doesn't Exist

Argument:  "I can already lock up the tires on my road bike with the caliper brakes.  Why would I need discs?"

Superficially, the argument is sound - road calipers are already strong enough to lock up the tires - for the science geeks out there, there are two types of friction:  static and sliding.  Static friction means the parts are stationary relative to each other.  Sliding friction means they're...well... sliding.  Simplistic explanation, but adequate for this discussion.  The force of static friction is always greater than the force of sliding friction, i.e. if you're locking up your tires, you are not slowing as quickly as possibly, no matter what.

The problem with this argument is it assumes an ideal environment, in which things like moisture and temperature are not considered, and in which the only variable being considered the the power of the brake.  It's just an inadequate way of evaluating the performance of a brake.

Consider modulation.  This is the ability to apply the brakes such that you do NOT lock up the wheels.  Thought of another way, it is the ability to finely adjust the amount of stopping power.  Better modulation means finer control over that power; worse modulation means poorer control over it.  In the olden days, when brakes had poor modulation, it was said they were either on or off.  Modulation is arguably a more important performance variable than power.  As many point out. nearly all braking systems on all bikes are now powerful enough to lock up the tires.  Other performance variables to improve are durability (never a high priority because if something lasts forever, you only sell it once), and modulation.  So, modulation gets better, and we're all safer and happier.

This argument also disregards the other components affected by moving the brake from the rim to the hub.  Most importantly, if a rim doesn't need a brake track, it can either be made lighter, or stronger at the same weight.  Either is better, as you're moving mass from the outside of the wheel, where it's harder to get it moving, to the center of the wheel, where it's easier.

I know what you're going to say here.  "They still can't make a disc wheelset and hydro disc brake set that together are lighter than current road wheels and brake systems."  True, but they will.  If there is an Axiom of The Bike Industry, it is that parts will always get lighter.

3.  How Dare SRAM Introduce New Products When They Just Did So Last Year

What?  Are you fucking kidding me?  I was blown away by these whiners out there.  "I'm so pissed because I just bough New Red, and now there Ultra New Red, and my Old Red sucks."  No, it doesn't.  Your 2013 Red is exactly as good as it was when you bought, minus the usual wear and tear.  It is your perception of it that changed.  New products come out annually, and it's been that way forever in the bike industry.  Maybe that another Axiom of The Bike Industry: brands will always come out with something newer and better.

What's even more interesting to me is that the arguments and complaints themselves haven't changed at all.  Every time a gear is added, people bitch because their old stuff won't work with new stuff.  Every time a new tool is required, mechanics bitch because they need to buy a new tool.  Every time a new technology is introduced, people are adamant that it CANNOT be as good as the old, tried and true technology.  Read "The Dancing Chain" by Frank Berto.  People bitched when they were figuring out how to offer two gears on a fixed gear bike!

Look, I'm not an early adopter.  My mtb had to be stolen before I considered moving to a 10 speed setup, and the same is true of my road bike and 11 speeds.  I'm not a racer, and on those occasions when I decide racing would be a good, if misguided, idea, I'm not nearly fast enough to push the performance envelope of my equipment.  For a guy like me, and for 98% of the bike industry, this is true, no matter what we or the market departments tell us.  It just.  Doesn't.  Matter.

But, as I have said in previous posts, things are better now.  Even when we disregard mushy variable around performance, we can agree that it is safer to not have to move your hands to shift your gears or apply your brakes.  Conceding diminishing returns, it is easier to pedal a lighter bike.  Metals and manufacturing are improved, so pieces like spokes and rims are stronger.  They're better.  Taken care of properly, there is not reason a bike of reasonable quality, with the appropriate maintenance, cannot last forever.  Yes, by the time you die, the only pieces of original equipment might be the frame and handlebars, but hey, it's the same soul, isn't it? 

Just ride your fucking bike, OK?  Just ride it, and love it.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Becoming the Old Guy

It's the slow season, so I don't have any regularly scheduled hours right now.  I go in as needed to close up or to cover if somebody has jury duty or an early flight.  I like it.  I like having all my evenings and weekends off, no questions asked, and I'll like it fine when things pick up in another month and I start getting put back on the schedule.  It's all good.

Last night, I was back in the shop for the first time in a little over a month.  In my absence, we'd hired a new sales lady...  Let's call her Gina.  I introduced myself to her, explained my schedule, what my day job was, etc.  I also met the new mechanic who will be doing our production stuff this summer - tune ups and the like.  He took a good look at my ugly as shit bar bike, paying particular attention to the Dunelt chain guard and DIY chain tensioner, made by cutting down an old Shimano 600 rear derailleur so it's only got one pulley.  I'd spent (foolishly?) a lot of time with a belt sander, taking off all extraneous bits of metal, making it nice and curvy.  But I digress.

So I met the newbies, and got caught up with the old farts, and I thought about Dave.  At the first shop I worked in, Dave was me.  He was older, married, with a little girl.  Dave was cool.  He taught me how to hop on the back wheel of my old Specialized Hardrock.  He taught me a couple tricks about fixing bikes, which I probably remember, but probably use often enough now that I forget which tricks were his and which came from the dozens of other wrenches I've worked with over the years.  He tried to convince me that riding the 26 miles into work was doable, when the longest ride I'd ever taken to that point, on my ol' Hardrock, was 12 miles, on the flatasapancake gravel roads around my hometown.  I didn't believe him, and never did it.  He was cool, and he was nice to me when I didn't know shit about shit. 

I realized last night, I could be Dave.  Trivial as it sounds, I don't take the responsibility lightly.  Fact is, I'm older and more experienced that a lot of these dipshits with whom I work.  I've learned a thing or two, and I know how to teach.  I try to be nice.  I try to show the pleasure in doing a job right even where nobody looks.  It matters.  I heard secondhand that two of the others, Skippy and Al, had been chatting about who would be the first to befriend me on the Face Books.  I don't know who won, but I'm "FBriends" with both of them.  It's flattering.

Dave, wherever you are, I hope I do the job of being the Cool Old Guy justice.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Fucking Electrical Tape...

Like many of you, I enjoy cycling blogs.  But not as much as I enjoy reading and responding to the completely asinine comments posted thereunder.  Recently, I decided to start the thread, commenting on a piece about Bilenky's AMAZING Wonder Woman Bike debuted at NAHBS.  The bike is amazing!  The paint job alone is estimated to be worth $3500 bucks.  The attention to detail is unwavering.


My gripe was, on a bike like that, where no detail is left untouched, the builder finished off the trick, two-tone bar tape with motherfucking black electrical tape.  The exact same shit that holds down the confetti tape on my trusty LHT.

Seriously, this doesn't make me angry.  It doesn't make me think less of Steve.  It doesn't even really detract from the bike.  What I can't believe is that, on a bike like that, the black electrical tape was deemed good enough.  There is no other part of that bike that didn't get taken to the next level.  Except the tape.

The other clever commentators did not agree with my assessment.  One asked if I was a builder.  Do I need to be a fucking builder to appreciate craftsmanship?  The guys from Indy Fab posted a picture of Sven Nys.  OK.  When I see Sven's bike being displayed at NAHBS because it exhibits an mind-blowingly stunning level of craftsmanship, you'll have made a point.  But, what was I expecting, posting on a fucking bike blog...

You have a right to ask what I would prefer.  A few thoughts, in no particular order, or maybe in order of my personal preference:

1.     A wrap of resin soaked thread.  Think of the guides on a nice fly rod.  Perfectly aligned, color coordinated, glossy finish, stunning

2.     Good ol' super glue.  This one may not work, as I don't know how well CVA sticks to the plastic tape used on the bike, but it's invisible.  It would show a rejection of the status quo.

3.    Something other than black?  I'm less enthusiastic about this one, as I do believe that if it had to be electrical tape, black was the right color.  Nah, disregard this one.  If it had to be electrical tape, black was the right choice.

So there you have it.  Me, an inglorious grease monkey, constantly flinging poo, criticizing a builder who shits more talent in a day than I can ever hope to possess.

But seriously, you take every other piece of that bike to the next level and leave the fucking black electrical tape...

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Death of the ABW?

Yes, I was Googling myself.  In doing so, I came across this article:

in Outside Magazine.  It's good.  Outside's got some pretty good writers.  And, for the most part, it's true.  Depending of course on the shop, bike mechanics and shops are increasingly put on display, and the overtly aggressive/condescending/douchebag bike mechanic's days could be numbered, and that's not a bad thing.

I'm here to say all the things I cannot to the idiots across the counter from me.  In person, I have to be polite and courteous, and I need to bite my tongue when you bring me your neglected bike and then question the quote I put together to fix it.  I'm OK with this.  I really am.  For the most part, my customers are calm, understanding, and reasonable.  Often, the worst reaction I have to deal with is a raised eyebrow and a "Wow, I didn't expect it to be that much," after which I explain to you how chains stretch and cogs wear and you nearly always understand and tell me to go ahead with the repair.  And you're happy you did, because when you get your bike back, it works again, better than you remembered it could.  Sometimes, you tell me it's just too much, and we back off on a couple things, and I do my best to educate you on what to expect, and I'm OK with this too.  If it's not a safety issue, I'm pretty happy to do as little or as much as you want me to.

So where does the Angry Bike Wrench come from?  The soul of the ABW lies in the disconnect in how we view bikes, and how you view your bike.

The ABW became a mechanic because he loved bikes and would tinker with them whether he got paid to do so or not.  In middle school, he was dissatisfied with his Huffy, and did what he could to make it better.  He quickly became frustrated with it, so he wandered into a bike shop and noticed what good bikes looked and felt like.  He saved his dollars and bought one.  Then he tinkered with that.  When he couldn't fix it himself, he took it to the shop, where he pestered the crusty old mechanic to teach him a thing or two.

In high school, when mowing lawns wasn't cutting it any more, he asked the crusty old mechanic for a job.  Crusty gave him a shot building kids' bikes.  The ABW showed some aptitude.  He got good at it.  Crusty let him do a tune-up.  The ABW got better at that too.  Now he had skills.  He still needed to look to Crusty for advice when he encountered something new, but for some reason, new info on bikes and how to fix them stuck in his head like other information didn't. 

In college, fixing bikes paid for rent and booze.  The ABW didn't need to look to others as often for advice on how to fix something.  The way he thought had changed.  He understood how things had to go together, so he know how they had to come apart.  His eyes knew what looked right and what didn't, and without thinking, he paid attention to how parts were oriented so he could put them back the same way.  Now, when presented with a part he hadn't worked on before, he had the mechanical foundation that allowed him to figure it out.

After college, the ABW didn't want to keep fixing bikes, but he was good at it, and when a "real" job wasn't quick in coming, he decided to get a gig at a shop, just to pay the bills, just until a real job came along.  His service manage left in a huff, and because he was the most experienced mechanic, he fell into the job.  The ABW learned business.

Outside the shop, years of riding had honed his senses.  When riding, he could feel a shifter out of adjustment, and he could fix it without even thinking about it.  He'd long ago ceased to give his bikes tune-ups, because maintenance of his personal fleet was constant.  He lubed and wiped down his chains after almost every ride.  He checked his cables, and a cable never went uncapped for longer than a ride.  His bikes were never stored outside, ever.  His bikes were tools, and some of them were bastards, but he loved and revered them, because they were his.

The ABW had learned to eat, sleep, breathe, and shit bikes.  Without trying, they had become his life, and his life had grudgingly come to depend on them.

And now you walk into his shop, with your bike that you left locked to a parking meter over the winter, and you wonder why he sneers at you?  You bring your bike in because it makes a funny sound when you squeeze the brakes, and you wonder why he's exasperated when he points out that your brake pads were worn out and needed to be replaced months ago, and now you've worn through the brake track on your rim and need to replace your wheel?  Your tires are rotted and worn through to the casing, and you wonder why he rolls his eyes when you balk at a thirty dollar tire?

He takes it personally.  He shouldn't, and he know he shouldn't, but he can't help it.  Bikes are his life, and they should not be treated like this.  That is the soul of the ABW and the fundamental reason it's so difficult for the ABW to relate to you and to your bike.  The problem is, the ABW isn't good for business or for the industry.  Belittling a customer is no way to win repeat business.  At best, it pisses people off.  At worst, it keeps people from having their bikes serviced, which means they don't enjoy riding their bike because it shifts like shit, so they don't ride as much, so they get fat and unhappy and don't buy any more bikes or service.  It's a nasty, downward spiral.

So the ABW exists in all bike mechanics, because we have a fundamentally different perception of what bikes are and how they should be cared for.  Good mechanics will temper their inner ABW.  Great mechanics will use their ABW as inspiration to make your bike as good as is possible to show you how good it can be, so you learn to revere your bike like he does.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Slow Season

The other day, I took 2 hours to do a 30 day check on a Trek 7.1 FX.  I know what you're thinking, and I was not fucking the dog, as many would assume.  I did all the usual things, but it being the slow season, I had time to do a couple things I would never take the time to do during the busy season.  Usually, I'd tweak the wheels with them in the frame.  This time, I put them in the truing stand.  Tension off?  I took the time to give each spoke half a turn and a lot of squeezes.  Those are some of the best-tensioned wheels on a 7.1 FX. 

We'd installed fenders on this one.  I noticed the front brake cable, where it jumps across the fender from one brake arm to the other, was making contact with the fender.  I checked the mounting hardware, and the fender was mounted as low as the slot would allow.  No problem.  I got out the Dremel and made the slot longer, dropped the fender a quarter inch, and no more contact.  I would NEVER take the time to do that during the silly season.

Everything had the kind of dirt and grit you'd expect after about a month of riding in all conditions.  We always wipe down the frame and wheels, but I took the time to fish the rag through all the nooks and crannies, around the chainstay bridge, behind the front derailleur, etc.  That bike left cleaner than when it was new.

The same is true for tune-ups performed during the slow season.  The bike gets cleaned better, the adjustments are more precise, and details that might be overlooked when we're slammed get attention.  Don't procrastinate, and don't pay for a tune-up during the summer.  Bring your bike to me in February, when my thumb is getting chapped because it's been up my ass for two months, and you'll get the best possible tune-up.  Period.