Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Towpath Scorcher: my Country Road Bob

I've owned any number of bikes over the years, but probably my favorite has been the Van Dessel “Country Road Bob” in its various incarnations. I got the frame used from a local racer seven or eight years ago, and had actually had it off the road for nearly a year, as some parts were worn out and others got scavenged to build up my Cannondale road bike, but recently acquired some new wheels, cranks and bars to build it up again. 
Not a bike for the shy.

Van Dessel, for those not familiar with the company, Van Dessel is a small company based in Mendham, NJ that designs and distributes some unique – and uniquely named – performance bicycles. Most of their bicycles, such as the “Gin & Trombones” (cyclocross), “Drag Strip Courage” (track) and “All Systems Go” (time trial) are pretty race-oriented, but they've always had one or two models like the now-discontinued “Country Road Bob” and it's spiritual successor, the “Whisky Tango Foxtrot” that were a bit weird, but extremely versatile.
The Bob I have, a 2002 model, is a singlespeed-only frame, with horizontal track-style rear drop outs (“fork ends” for the purists), and features a moderately zippy cyclocross geometry, carbon fork and a very distinctive look brought about by a curved tubeset and bold green paint job. 
A 3-inch drop from saddle to bars makes for a  nice sporty ride. .

The joy of the bike, other than it's “look at me” style, is that it's such a great go-anywhere, do-anything machine. I've normally had it set up as a fixed gear, and formerly had road bars on it, but would use it for everything from commuting and sporty pavement riding to cruises down the D&R Towpath to some light singletrack (sometimes I'd flip the wheel around to use it as a freewheeling singlespeed for my off-road jaunts, but more often I'd just keep it on the fixed side).
Not long ago, I was given the gift of a Surly “Open Bar” handlebar, which is a nice wide steel handlebar with about a 50-degree sweep, which is designed with singlespeed bikes in mind. I also acquired a set of fixed/singlespeed wheels and a few other bits and pieces, so I decided it was time to get the Bob back together. 
The curved parts of the bar also make for a surprisingly comfortable secondary hand position.

One of the less-ideal things about the old build, with dropped handlebars, was that it relied on centerpull cantilever brakes, rather than mountain-bike style linear pull brakes. The rear brake, in particular, with its long continuous cable housing and too-low cable stop never quite had the stopping power a big guy like me was looking for. When riding fixed this wasn't a problem, but when the bike was set up with a freewheel, I never felt confident in the brakes when riding at speed.
The new build uses mountain-bike style levers and a set of Promax linear-pulls, which offer much better stopping power.
The swept handlebars and curvy tubes put me in mind of the path racers ridden by turn-of-the-century “scorchers,” as aggressive cyclists were known back then, so I decided to run with it and put on a leather saddle and cork grips. 
Cork grips after a quick dunk into Bullseye Shellac

The saddle is a Velo Orange “Mod 1,” which the company is selling at a discount. I have a black version of this saddle on my road bike, and not only do I find it extremely comfortable for long rides at moderate effort, it has saddlebag loops which allow me to hang traditional-style saddlebags of various sizes on the back, rather than mounting a rack and panniers or trunk bag. For daily riding I just use a small tool bag, but for long commutes, day trips or touring I can add on my Carradice bag. I find that on bikes with sportier geometry, not only does a Carradice-style saddlebag look better but by putting the weight closer to rider rather than on the wheel, the handling is less affected. 
A Minnehaha saddle bag makes the perfect tool bag for day-to-day rides, a Carradice College bag works for bigger loads.

I went with a honey-brown saddle this time, purely because I thought it looked cool, and shellacked the grips to waterproof them and make them match the saddle better (again, rubber grips work just as well, I just think the cork is comfortable and looks cool). 
32mm tires roll over most stuff with no problem

42x17 gearing and 700x32c tires give me just shy of a 67-inch gear ratio, which gives me an on-pavement cruising speed comfortably in the high teens but still leaves me the leverage to get up hills and ride light off road. Right now the as-yet-unused freewheel side of the hub is also a 17-tooth, but I may find a slightly larger cog to give myself a better bail-out gear.
Fixed on one side and a short freehub on the other, with hard-to-find 135mm hub spacing. The wheelset came from a Marin singlespeed.

 Since I've got good brakes and don't need to rely on back-pedaling to help me stop anymore, I no longer feel the need to ride it with clipless pedals, so I have a pair of big, grippy Shimano BMX pedals to keep my sneakers from sliding off. 
Truvativ cranks do the job with just fine.

I've had it on a bunch of short rides and one 30-mile towpath jaunt, and it rides wonderfully. I intend to do a bit of light touring with it this fall, and look forward to seeing where my favorite bike takes me.
Where are we headed today?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Independence Day Musings: A Christian Nation?

As we celebrate the publication of that all-important American document, The Declaration of Independence, I can't help but also think of our current political climate, and some of the language that gets thrown around by various pretenders and pundits.
One phrase that always catches my attention is "a Christian Nation," as in "the United States was founded as a Christian nation, therefore, what you're doing is unAmerican."

The irony of using Christianity, whose fundamental texts call for peace and tolerance, to justify bigotry has been much written of elsewhere, and I won't go into that in detail here. Instead, I'd like to think about whether or not the U.S. was indeed founded on some sort of Christian principle, and what that means to us in the 21st Century.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were, indeed,  "Christian" men. While some were more traditional in their beliefs than others, all but one (Charles Carroll, a Roman Catholic) were aristocratic Anglo-Protestants. The language of the Declaration and the Constitution do contain references to God and The Creator, as was co mmon in formal documents of the day.

But looking at the content of both the Declaration and the Constitution, one would be hard pressed to find any justification for favoring one religion to exclusion of all others, in fact, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights explicitly forbid the government from doing so in several places, saying there can be no religious test for serving in office, and prohibiting the government from either endorsing or supressing any particular faith.

But what about intent? As I pointed out, the Framers were all Christian men, didn't they intend Christianity to dominate?

Well, first off, there has been entirely too much fetishisation of the "intent of the Framers" lately. While they were bright, courageous and well-educated men, they were just as fallible as any other bunch of mere mortals. In fact, one of the smartest thing they did was to leave a flexible set of laws that could be adapted to fit the changing needs of future generations and changed to correct their own oversights.

I would argue that, if anything, the United States was founded as a "pragmatic" nation more than a nation of any particular faith. And yet, there is in the Declaration a particularly Christian sentiment, included in one of the most famous sentences ever set to paper:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Most of recorded history, and much practial observation would serve to contradict this statement. Men (in the general sense of human beings) are NOT equal, some are born wealthy, some poor, some healthy, some sick, some have far more influence over the world around them than others. Many cultures, including that of the founding fathers, felt it was perfectly acceptable to hold other human beings as property.

Yet there in that one sentence, was stated the belief that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, there is something inherent to each human life that is of equal value to every other human life on the planet. That all all of us are, in some intangible way, of the same importance.

In this we see reflected the Christian teaching that the poor and the powerless are just as valued as kings and princes. It's a powerful (and sadly, often ignored) concept that is at the heart of the democratic ideal.

Unfortunately, this sense that all of us are equal usually falls by the wayside in the practial functioning of government, but maybe it's worth reminding ourselves of it from time to time.

And perhaps, more importantly, it directly contradicts the meaning of the small-minded  ones who so often throw out the "Christian Nation" flag to justify their own petty prejudices. If our Founding Fathers intended this to be a nation of Christian ideals, then the foremost ideal in their mind was that we are all brothers and sisters, regardless of the superficial distinctions of faith, lifestyle and circumstances.

Happy Fourth!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Things Your Bike Mechanic Wishes You Knew

This is a follow up to my last post "Talking to Your Bicycle Shop," which tried to address a few of the frequent miscommunications between shop employees and customers. Today I wanted to specifically share some thoughts from that mysterious back room where all the bike-fixing magic occurs.
While many shop employees do both repairs and sales, it's very common for the bike shop to be divided into two worlds: the customer service section in front, where the marginally socialized shop rats help customers select a bike or accessories, and the domain of the shop troll, who is far, far better with a derailleur adjustment than a conversation.
If these mechanics had the chance to speak to you frankly, here's a few things they might say:

- Don't lie about what happened.
There's actually a commonly used acronym in bike shops: JRA, which stands for "Just Riding Along," as in "I was just riding along and..." which is how far too many inquiries about repairs begin.
 First off, things don't get broken -and I don't mean "out of adjustment," I mean "broken-broken" - while one is just riding along. Something had to happen to bend, break or dislocate the parts that are malfunctioning. Maybe you dropped the bike, maybe it was on your car rack and you backed into the garage door, whatever, but when the mechanic looks at your noisy rear derailleur and sees it covered in gouges and scratches, he'll know it had to have banged into something.
Secondly, it makes the job harder. The more information the mechanic has about what happened, the more likely they are to quickly figure out the problem.
Believe it or not,  your mechanic is not there to judge you, and no matter how embarrassed you might be about what happened, they've probably seen something that tops it (I once had a bike that had the tires shot out by a .22. The customer actually asked me if it was a warranty issue), just tell the shop what happened, and they will try to fix it.

- "Some Guy on the Internet" is not an official repair manual.
There's a lot of good and useful information online... and there's five times as much useless nonsense. Sometimes it's hard to sift through it, especially on message boards. There's a certain type of person who gets an ego boost out of being considered an "expert" on something, who will offer their opinions and guesswork as legitimate advice. This sometimes only serves to muddy the waters, especially when the mechanic is confronted with a problem that he's familiar with, only to have a customer insist that a web site says it's a totally different problem.
This is not to say that one should not use the vast stores of knowledge available online, even experienced mechanics turn to the Web for answers (especially the information compiled by the late Sheldon Brown), but one should always take things with a grain of salt. It's hard to diagnose a problem without being able to put your hands on it, and even a great mechanic can only offer an educated guess via email.

-Sometimes, we really, really don't want you looking over our shoulder while we work
And sometimes, you really, really don't want to see what we're doing. For example, the shop I work at used to sell SIDI cycling shoes, which are handmade in Italy and easily cost well upwards of $300 a pair. We also sold Speedplay pedals. A popular combination among discerning cyclists was the Speedplay Frog pedal with the SIDI Dominator mountain bike shoes. However, through a design quirk, the opening in the pedals sole was always a bit too narrow to mount the cleat that went with the Frog. The simple solution was to take a Dremel tool and remove a bit of material from the sole of the shoe. This doesn't sound like a big deal until you think about it from the perspective of someone who just dropped several hundred dollars on a handmade Italian shoe, which is now about to be attacked with a grinding wheel. We usually said "we'll get these ready for you, why don't you come back for them in a bit."
Bicycle repair, sometimes involves bending, drilling, cutting or hammering on things, and when those "things" are particularly beloved, or even simply expensive, watching them receive a bit of tough love can be a bit anxiety-inducing.

-It's not rocket science, but it does take a bit of skill
One of my favorite things about bicycles is their simplicity, You can look at a bike, and see exactly how it goes together and how everything works. One author referred to the bicycle as the last technological advancement that could be understood by laymen.
However, it does take a bit of time and energy to learn how to work on them, especially some of the more esoteric problems that arise. There's nothing wrong with doing some of your own repair work and turning to a pro for other jobs. If I cut my finger, I can put a bandage on it, but if I break my leg, I'll probably want a doctor to look at it. By the same token, you should probably know how to change a flat tire, but you don't need to know how to lace a wheel or overhaul a hub.

-We've got other bikes to fix
Sometimes we get a customer who will come in on Saturday afternoon and say something like "it's really nice out and a want to ride, can you fix my bike today?" Sometimes all their bike needs is a bit of air in the tires and we can just pump them up and send them on their way, but other times it will take a bit of time. Most repairs on a bicycle take less than an hour to complete, but we can't have your bicycle back to you an hour after you drop it off.
Why not? Well, in order to make enough to(barely) live on the mechanic needs to have 6-8 hours of work each day. That means several bikes in the queue. All of those customers are waiting for those bikes, and the mechanic can only fix one at a time. In order to do same-day repairs, the shop needs to have all the previous day's repairs done, and a mechanic just standing around doing nothing. Most small shops can't afford to pay a mechanic to stand around when they're not bringing in repairs, so the guy or gal's workload is usually scheduled a day or two in advance. Bigger shops can sometimes afford to pull somebody off of a project to do a "priority" job, but it means somebody else is going to have to scramble to catch up.

-It's OK to tip you bike mechanic
I'm not going to say that being extra nice to the guy who fixes your ride will get you better service, or maybe encourage him to go a bit above and beyond on your next service, but I'm not going to say it won't either. Fixing bikes is a trade that takes years to learn to do well, but is pretty low-paying as far as trades go, a few bucks for lunch won't hurt any wrench-slingers pride.
And beer is always welcome.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Talking to Your Bike Shop

I've worked either full or part time in bicycle shops for around 12 years now, and have been actually following bicycle blogs for a few years less than that. In that time I've heard a lot of complaints about poor service and the difficulty in getting shop employees to understand just what the customer is looking for.
Unfortunately, some of this is just due to a lot of shop employees being inexperienced at retail, or racers who have a hard time imagining folks doing a different kind of riding than what they're into. There's not a lot that can be done about that, but it might be helpful to understand a few things about the rest of what goes on in shops.

Price - One of the biggest problems a lot of us face is simply affording a new bike, this applies to shop rats as much as any of our customers (maybe more so, bike shop salaries are nothing to brag about). Unfortunately the bicycles are sold on a fairly thin profit margin. As fuel prices have risen, the cost of shipping has increased as well, further cutting into profits. Local bike shops can't raise their prices too much to compensate, because they're already being undersold in many areas by large online retailers, so that means entry level bikes are often sold at just above cost.

Because of this, there is very little room to haggle over price, which makes it frustrating for shop owners when customers come in with the idea that there's more wiggle room than there really is. Some businesses are based on the idea that price is negotiable, but the bicycle industry isn't.

This is not to say that customers shouldn't try to get the best possible deal, though! While the margins on bicycles range from "sad" to "nearly imaginary" the markup on parts and accessories is often much better. Because of this, if one is buying a number of accessories or upgrades  shops can often offer a "package deal" on all the extras. If you're a good customer who's brings repeat business and a good attitude, a good shop will bend over backwards to give you a fair price and go the extra mile on service. Like a lot of small businesses, bike shops live and die by their repeat customers, and will try to take good care of them to keep them coming back.

On the other hand, like many embattled small businesspeople, bike shop owners can be stubborn, and trying to get pushy won't usually get you very far. And those razor-thin margins mean you might not have a lot of leverage. After all, when a customer says something like "I'd hate to see you lose a sale because you can't knock $50 off the price" the owner might come back with "I'm only making $45 profit on this bike, I won't lose any sleep over not selling it at a loss" (the language might be different, maybe).

On a final note, there's this whole internet thing. Sometimes a bike shop just can't beat the price of a Performance or Nashbar type shop. Heck, sometimes these big online retailers sell stuff for less than we get it wholesale! Every shop employee knows you buy stuff online, sometimes, if it's something our distributors don't carry, we buy stuff online too. Don't lie about it. In fact, we'll be happy to assemble that bike you bought online, for a reasonable fee, or do other work on things that come from an internet retailer, just as we'd work on a bike from another shop. The one really, really tacky thing to do, though, is to use the time, energy and know-how of your local bike shop to help you make an online purchase.

What I'm talking about here is coming in with a million questions about components, fit, materials and riding styles, getting measurements, test riding bikes and spending anywhere between a half-hour and two hours tapping the expertise of your local shop, then taking what you learned and buying your bike somewhere else.

A Little Knowledge - There's an old saying that states that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." What this means, in the context of a bicycle shop, is that just because someone read a couple articles or asked a few questions on internet forums, sometimes they think they're armed with all they need to know to get the perfect bike, and they can somehow outsmart the shop employees.

First of all, the shop employees, in a good shop anyway, aren't in competition with you. They're not trying to trick you or force something on you that doesn't suit you, they're trying to make sure you get a bike you'll enjoy so that you tell your friends how great the shop was and recommend them, and you'll come back happy and buy more stuff. Yes, they may have very strong opinions (may? will), but that doesn't mean they're trying to fool you.

A good bike sale is collaborative. You might have some ideas about what you want, the shop employee will listen to that, ask some questions and make a suggestion or two, and finally, give you a couple of options that you can check out and hopefully take for at least a short test ride. Eventually, the two of you will figure out what suits you best, although the shop guy might say "you'll really love Bike A" and you say, "hmmm, I kinda prefer Bike B." That's OK, it's your bike, and you're riding it, not the shop guy, but don't dismiss his opinion. Also, pay attention to the shop's "go to" bike for your particular riding style. Often there's one model that the shop has found offers the best value and suits the broadest range of riders. They'll often stock up on these and recommend them to a lot of riders, not because that's "what they have and they're trying to push them" but because "we like these and think most people will enjoy riding them."

These are just a couple of starting thoughts, but I welcome questions on other aspects of the shop experience, what do you worry about? What annoys you? What do you really want to know?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Musical Instrument Needed (or really, really wanted).

I've been wanting to get a bouzouki/octave mandolin for a couple years now, since I started playing mandolin. To sum up, an octave mandolin (and it's similar cousin, the bouzouki) is an instrument tuned the same as a mandolin, but an octave lower. This gives it a fuller sound, and makes it better suited to accompanying solo voice. Basically, it would fill the role of a guitar, but with a bit more of a unique sound, and (for me) be a bit more versatile.
I've tried a few times to build a "cigar box" version of this sort of thing, with mixed success. Decent instruments start around $500, and go on up from there. I can put in a bit of my own money, but as a single dad with responsibilities beyond musical performance, I can't dedicate too much of my "day job" money to this.
Help out if you can, if not, I totally understand. This isn't something I need to survive, but it's something that will help me with my side job as a musician, and potentially increase my earning potential.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Brief Meditation on Stuff

William Gibson's most recent book, “Zero History” is, among other things, a meditation on Stuff. The stuff we make, the stuff we buy, and where that stuff comes from.
There are other elements to the story, of course, but the central MacGuffin is an underground brand of clothes, based on early-Twentieth-Century workwear, called Gabriel Hound. The Hounds are sturdy, functional, and posses an aesthetic appeal that transcends the ephemera of fashion, and as a result are highly sought after by those in the know. They're contrasted with the lower-quality offerings of modern fashion, which offer neither the durability or lasting appeal of the smaller brand. 

There are other contrasts in the book, as well, between oddball open-source smartphones and the blandly ubiquitous iPhone, as well as between a working rock band and purely manufactured pop stars

There have also been some recent articles about a guy who advocates extreme minimalism. He gets by quite comfortably owning only 15-20 things, including clothing (one would assume frequent laundry days). Obviously not everyone can take things to that extreme, or would even want to, but it does raise the question of how much of the clutter most of us first world types is really necessary at all and how much is useless, or worse, a burden.

Now, a Life Without Stuff doesn't sound like too much fun, unless you're one of those ascetic philosopher types, in which case you can get by with maybe a blanket or a ticket to someplace with lax vagrancy laws. But a life with too much stuff means at some point you end up spending a lot of your time and money simply on acquiring, maintaining and storing your stuff, so that at some point your stuff ends up owning you. This can, of course, be circumvented by being extremely wealthy and having other people take care of your stuff, but that's not always an option.

So somewhere between “I need some stuff” and “I'm drowning in stuff” there's a happy medium where you can say, “I've got the stuff I need.” In this case it would make sense to make sure the stuff you do is have is good stuff, quality goods that serve their purpose and will hold up to repeated use. Unfortunately, this kind of stuff is hard to find in this mass-market day and age, and even high price doesn't necessarily bring with it high durability.

So let's first set out some guidelines for what constitutes good stuff, and maybe in the future we'll be able to identify things that are worth hanging on to.

It is well made out of durable materials
It performs a useful function
It doesn't become quickly obsolete or out of fashion
It can be modified or personalized to suit the owner's specific needs
It is no more complicated than absolutely necessary

Of course, there's a certain “I know it when I see it” element to quality as well, but these guidelines should be a good start.