Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Is it over yet?

I've been taking a short break from blogging recently. In the time of my absence all sort of random things happen - a couple new mass shootings, a few hundred more people died in car collisions, a car flew into outer space, Boston went into a week of mourning after lost Superbowl, and finally - summer weather arrived - even though it lasted only 2 days. You know - just typical things you would expect to happen in February in United States.

Anyway, some things need to end so others can start. This winter I've been using a "new" bike for my daily work commute. It's actually my 10-years old "long-distance tourer", or whatever the most appropriate name is, just converted this time to a flat bar all-weather rig. This means - drop bars are gone, fenders are in, front rack is installed and a new drivetrain is now in place. I switched from 2x10 to 1x11. Less gears, same range and more than enough I need for this type of riding.

A post shared by Dr J (@drj.bbb) on
All this means that now I don't have a dedicated travel/touring/exploration bicycle anymore... but that's temporary. Something new is coming. Hopefully soon.

Meanwhile, I'm waiting for spring to come and I hope winter is not coming back because I've just replaced studded tires with normal ones.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

16 Seconds

It's been over two years since Dr. Anita Kurmann was killed by a semi truck while riding her bicycle to work in Boston. And just like in virtually all other similar cases, police didn't press any charges and quickly closed the investigation, concluding that it was just another traffic "accident".

But as we know now, traffic accidents rarely happen. They're not caused by some higher power but by someone's distraction, lack of control or other human-dependent factors. As such, it's hard to accept someone's death (especially if that someone is your close relative), merely as collateral that we need to pay in order to keep the system going.

MassBike decided not to let Kurmann's death be forgotten and ran their own investigation. Results were published earlier this week. Usually, it's difficult to know what happened shortly before such a tragic collision, but this time we have a video showing exactly that.
Everyone's take on this may be different but you may notice various little details, such as:
  • Truck driver (Matthew Levari) had Kurmann in rear view mirror for 16 seconds - i.e. plenty of time to notice her, before he actually executed the turn.
  • The truck moved slightly left before turning right - a maneuver necessary for such large trucks to make tight turns, but also something that might have fooled Kurmann thinking the truck wasn't really about to turn right.
  • The truck had turning signal on, which Kurmann should have noticed (and maybe she did).
The video shows that Levari clearly broke Massachusetts law that strictly prohibits turning in front of cyclist who we just passed ("right hooking"). He essentially operated the same way as most truck drivers operate - with general disregard to many other road users. I noticed that myself many time while riding my bike - truck drivers control very large vehicles and as such feel empowered to "own" more of the road, consciously or subconsciously intimidating others with sheer size of their trucks. It's basically a straightforward approach - "you better pay attention to me and give me space if you don't want to be hit, as I may not pay attention to you".

Having said that, I have to also say that Kurmann made a mistake too and it costed her her life. Whoever rides bikes in the city knows well that whatever you do, you stay away from large trucks and never ever get between them and the curb. It's generally much safer to either let them go first and stay far behind or, if they're stopped, get far ahead of them to make sure drivers can see us. The spot where Kurmann ended up - right mid-way of semi's length, was the worst possible place should could've been.

There is also a question whether such giant vehicles should even be allowed in downtown Boston, which reminds me about another incident that happened recently on the other side of the globe, in Australia:
There is clearly a lot of wrong about that trucker's behavior as evidenced by his own video, but let's try to understand why he hates cyclists so much. He said:
"I've driven trucks for 16 years and I have been in situations where I'm trying to slow a 64.5 tonne truck when there's a truck coming the other way, and bike riders are the object I have had to miss. Another truck has ran off the road for that."
All this makes me think that clearly heavily-loaded semi trucks are difficult to stop effectively in a short distance, which raises a question whether they are inherently unsafe to be even allowed on many roads in the first place?

Finally, I want to focus on something else here - our police. Dismissing the case before even reviewing all evidence is unacceptable. Letting driver go without even a citation is unacceptable. Calling it merely an accident is unacceptable. For some reason, our police seems to pay more attention to road collisions involving two motor vehicles than those involving a pedestrian or a cyclist and a car.

This problem is much larger than Kurmann's death. It's a systemic problem that our police treats certain road crashes as more worthy a detailed investigation than others. Just like they seemingly treat some people as less important than others.

Police ranking of importance of road users looks essentially as follows:
  1. VIPs in their cars - the most privileged group
  2. other white people in their cars
  3. white people on bicycles
  4. people of color
  5. people of color on bicycles - the most "hunted" group, since not only they're not white, but also perform an activity considered to be "not normal" in America - they ride bicycles
 As Angie Schmitt from usa.streetsblog.org noticed:

Obviously, I don't know much about it as I'm white as arctic snow, but I think Angie is right. Riding a bicycle in America is something little kids do. Adults have cars. Adult on a bicycle is still considered abnormal in many parts of the country and if that person happens to be non-white, he/she is quickly targeted by police. By the same standard, if this person gets killed in traffic collision with a car or truck, police favors blaming the cyclist as the one "weirdo" on road who "was asking for trouble". As Angie points out:
We learned to accept death by vehicle the same way we accept mass shootings - it's apparently a part of American folklore - something so established that we can't imagine living in a world where such things just don't happen. In America, we call it freedom. Everywhere else, they call it stupidity.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Boston after snowfall - a giant middle finger to all cyclists and pedestrians

Who's afraid of the big, bad snow? Boston's Department of Public Works, for sure! This happens pretty much every winter season - when it comes to plowing, traffic lanes get priority while many sidewalks and bike lanes remain forgotten for weeks... waiting for spring to come and snow to melt.

The situation is not pretty as many excellent examples found on Twitter show. What can we learn from it?

Create a free storage space and it will get filled. Sometimes you may wonder how many cars parked in on-street spots in Boston get used on daily basis. Normally, it's not easy to figure that out without careful observation, but snowfall makes it easy:
Apparently, it's more than you may think. Many cars don't get moved everyday. They just park there for days, occupying expensive street real estate that could be used by others.
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Bike lanes are excellent... for storing snow. Everyone was so excited in the summer when new bike lanes were built in Boston. Unfortunately, half a year later we can clearly see what this space is best used for - snow storage. It's just seems so easy to push all the snow away from the street and parking spaces into bike lanes. No one uses them anyway, right?
And even if you wanted to, you'd better learn how to ride your bike on top of a giant snow bank:
But at least it seems that DPW has a sense of humor, requiring cyclists to ride in the bike lane buried in snow:
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Safe route to school is best taken in snowshoes and traction cleats. Otherwise, how do you expect your kids to cross huge snow piles and not break their legs on patches of ice?
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If you want a snow-free sidewalk, shovel it yourself. Don't count on DPW even though it's their job.
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Walk in the street just remember that "cars are going to hit you". At least that's what our mayor said. Considering how Boston treats its sidewalks, I'm guessing that "may use full lane" should apply also to pedestrians.
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That's all folks. Welcome to the city of "a car guy"!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Viking biking in New England?

I'm sitting at home, writing this and looking through the window at snowflakes dancing in the air. It's the snowstorm time. My workplace is closed. Roads are empty. Some snowplows pass by once a while. If you take a walk to your local supermarket you will find empty shelves and a few bored employees inside. This happens every single year in New England and every year we react the same way - with near panic, buying everything from store shelves like the Armageddon was coming.

Surprisingly though, it's also the best time in winter to ride a bike in the city. Overwhelming majority of American drivers don't like driving in snow and in fact, don't know how. Learning how to drive is not a requirement of driver licensing system here. Odd.

This means that when streets are completely free of traffic, they are also safe and as long as you are prepared to ride during snowfall, there is no reason you shouldn't.

Winter cycling is often called "Viking biking" - a catchy term first used by Mikael Colville-Andersen, I believe. Copenhagen has an impressive number of winter cyclists that puts to shame any other city in the world. People ride their bikes there not because they want to, but because it's simply the fastest type of transportation between two points in the downtown. Of course, Copenhagen made this happen by not only designing a vast network of protected bike lanes, but also properly maintaining them in winter. As such, while we in Boston use bikes with studded tries to get through those barely cleared bike paths, citizens of Copenhagen can ride on blacktop lanes using pretty much any bike they like.

Would I like to see this type of infrastructure here in Boston? Of course! But do I think that once we build it, we will see the same percentage of people on bicycles in winter months as there's in Copenhagen? I don't think so. That's because there are two more factors that need to be considered.

First - the weather. Comparing with Boston, Copenhagen enjoys relatively mild winters. Yes, temperature can drop to 15F (-10C) but that's quite rare. And while it rains and snows frequently in Denmark, it doesn't usually dump 2-3ft of snow overnight onto the city. In Boston however, the situation is quite different. I've been living here for the last 15 years and I remember maybe only 2 winters in that time when temperature didn't drop to -4F (-20C). It seems to be guaranteed in January just as winter blizzards are in our area. This doesn't mean you can't ride your bike in these conditions. But no matter what you say, there will be a significant number of people who will refuse to ride bikes when it gets this cold.
Second - the distance. People in Copenhagen use their bikes predominantly for short-distance trips, 2-10km long (1-6mi), and that's not a typical distance of an average American bike commuter. My ride to work is 10mi (16km) long and that's not long by American standards. Combine that with 0F weather and you may not find many enthusiasts who would want to do it, even if infrastructure is perfectly maintained.

I'm not sure Viking biking will ever gain popularity in New England but it would certainly become more common, at least on short distances, if we invest in building and maintaining a proper network of bike lanes. Nevertheless, there is a lot to like about cycling in winter. You should give it a try!

Friday, December 22, 2017

This year is done and it's time to move on!

This year is close to an end and 2018 is just around the corner. I don't know about you, but here are just a few things I wish happen in 2018:
  • This winter ends in March, not April.
  • I go for a week-long bike tour.
  • Congestion pricing is introduced in Boston Metro Area.
  • Newbury St and Hanover St in Boston are permanently closed to private vehicles and become bike+ped only zones.
  • There is a dedicated bus lane on Mass Ave all the way from Arlington to Harvard Square.
  • Parking minimums are dropped in Boston. Also, parking maximums are now in place.
  • It costs now $200/y to get a resident parking permit in downtown Boston. Second car permit costs $500. Third and more cars per household are not allowed.
  • No school drop-off by car is allowed anymore.
  • All mandatory helmet laws are lifted.
  • Shimano introduces a road groupset for the "unwashed masses" with 44/28T crankset and a 11-32T cassette. Also available in polished sliver finish.
  • Jagwire makes cable+housing kits that are actually designed for road bikes with disc brakes, so I don't have to buy two of them because the front cable is too short to reach brake caliper.
  • Senate passes a bill requiring all bicycle headlights used within the city limits to have horizontal beam cutoff to avoid blinding other road users. Also, strobe headlights are banned. This is modeled after German StVZO.
  • Elon Musk admits his tunneling idea was a brain fart and starts building a fleet of fast electric streetcars, buses and high-speed trains.
  • Lobbying, aka "legal bribing" becomes illegal in United States and is ruthlessly enforced with huge fines and imprisonment.
  • The president and vice-president resign and move to Florida to play golf full-time.

Wishing you all Merry Christmas and a Bikey New Year!
May Yehuda brings you lots of presents this year!

Friday, December 15, 2017

DIY - refinishing bicycle components

Sometimes you have to take matters in your own hands. As I wrote a while ago, I'm not particularly fond of the decision of major bicycle components manufacturers to offer their products exclusively in black finish. Too often we are left with little choice and if you are looking for a particular part for your bike, you can have it in black... or not have it at all. Typically, hubs, pedals or headsets are offered in multiple colors but handlebars, cranksets or even worse - derailleurs, are usually black only.

Because I'm working now on a new bicycle project, I need components that are not black but polished silver. That turned out to be quite difficult, especially considering some limitations I have to deal with. Therefore, I decided that if component makers are unable to provide what I need, I have to make it myself. Sort of.

The parts I want to use on my bike but don't have silver, polished finish I'm looking for are:
  1. My old Sugino OX601D crankset and chainrings. They are silver but with dull, bead blasted finish.
  2. TRP brake adapters (and all other adapters too). Come only in anodized black.
  3. Shimano RD-7800-GS 105 rear derailleur. A modern rear mech that's 11-speed compatible and comes in "silver" option... with a  black pulley cage.
The plan was to strip off black anodizing, sand and polish surface enough so it looks nearly mirror-like. Normally, you would want to use a tumbler or vibrating polisher to this type of work but since this equipment can be pricey and I have no access to it, I had to rely on less high-tech methods to get the finish I was looking for.

Fortunately, I have some work space in my basement and access to several handful tools. I found out that the best procedure is the following:
  1. Bead blast off all black anodizing.
  2. Sand with 400 grit paper.
  3. For tight corners use cushioned paper or pads. Those hard to reach areas can be sanded using steel brushes on Dremel tool (Very gently! Dremel is a high-speed tool and will erode aluminum surface if pushed too hard). 
  4. Sand with 600 grit paper.
  5. Sand with 1000 grit paper.
  6. Sand with 1400 grit cushioned pads. At this point parts will already have nice shiny finish.
  7. Polish with buffing wheel and emery compound.
  8. Finish with buffing wheel and white rouge compound.
My Sugino cranks in their original finish.

And after hand polishing. Minor scratches are still visible but overall I'm quite satisfied with this result.


This process takes time and patience but results are rewarding. I have now polished parts I was looking for. The original finish is gone and most tiny scratches are nicely blended in. This could be likely taken even further going down to finer grit sanding paper but I think it's unnecessary. These are bicycle components after all. They will get some new scratches in normal use so it's a bit pointless to make them look like a clean mirror.

Time to put it all together.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Developing standards

Ah, the ever-changing standards. We love them and hate them. You would think that standards are here for a reason - to make everyone's life easier by designing components that fit together. Unfortunately, reality is less than perfect and that's why we have this modern bottom bracket mess.
Obligatory XKCD comic.

Bicycle bottom brackets are a good example what trying to make good better may lead to. Nearly two decades ago, the most common bottom bracket type was the one with square tapers on a small, steel spindle, assembled into a sealed cartridge.
Square taper bottom bracket cartridge (Source: BikeRumor)

Then, lightweight cranksets arrived and with the tendency to make cranks stiffer, lighter and stronger, a larger-diameter spindle was needed. With bearings sitting inside the frame, there was no space for it so outboard bearings were developed, with cups threaded into the same BSA-threaded frame shell. That worked pretty well and still works today.

But then some companies took it a step further and tried to "improve" it by removing outboard cups and threads, by press-fitting bearings directly into frame. Multiple new "standards" appeared: BB90, BB86, PF30, BB386EVO... Most of them were less than perfect. With frequent tendency to creaking noises due to sub-standard part tolerances, cyclists started to abandon these inventions and go back to what worked just fine. In fact, that's why Chris King developed T47 standard (yes, yet another one) that uses threaded frame shell and can adapt any other BB type to work noise-free.

You may have your own preference and opinion what the best bottom bracket standard is and I'm not going to try to convince you otherwise.

That's not what I wanted to write about. I wanted to focus on... screws. You know, these little parts that hold all of it together.

Decades ago, most screws on bicycles had hex heads, requiring a multitude of various size spanners to make simplest adjustments. Headsets were threaded with large hex nut, cranks had cottered pins with hex head screws. It worked but wasn't pretty.
Hex head stem bolt with large-diameter hex hed nut securing threaded fork shaft. (Source: MyTenSpeeds).

Then things got better. Essentially all bicycle and component manufacturers switched to hex socket screws that require few hex keys (Allen wrenches) only. Thank God they chose metric screws, likely to utter disappointment of all Americans believing in their "standards".
Socket hex head screws are a norm in bicycle world today...

but will they soon be replaced by Torx standard?

This unification of screws was definitely well-received not only by cyclists but also bike mechanics. As a result, now, modern bikes can be put together with just few basic tools, notably the 4mm and 5mm hex keys. With these two small wrenches, you can assemble nearly the entire bike with a few exceptions that require (and always did) specialized solutions such as cassette, chain or headset cups.

Unfortunately, there is ongoing process of improving things that already work and as such we welcome our new overlords - Torx screws. It seems that some bike mechanics or users have problems with stripping of hex sockets, likely by using low quality tools. As such, Torx screws are becoming a new standard as those harder to strip. Do we need them? I'm not sure. But if you think you do, I suggest we replace all hex sockets with Torx and keep it consistent. We don't want to go back to the 1950-era of carrying a tool chest on every ride.