Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Three most important hidden components of your bike

We would probably all agree that the most important components of your bike are either the frame or wheels. Some may also argue that even more important is the saddle and handlebars, which define your riding comfort. But what about those hidden parts that you normally don't see, and which are absolutely critical for your bicycle to function properly? Here are the 3 most important invisible components of your bike:
 
Cables
Cables are hidden inside housings (sometimes not completely) and you normally don't pay attention to them as long as they operate your brakes and derailleurs. But keeping cables clean and damage-free is critical if you don't want to suddenly end up brakeless on the long downhill ending at the busy street. Or if you don't want to lose your gears, which happened to me once when the shifter cable for my 3-speed hub broke unexpectedly, forcing me to limp slowly (in the 1st gear) to the nearest bike store to seek a replacement.
Check the cables periodically to make sure they don't have any individual wires broken. That's how the bigger problems start. It's also a good idea to oil cables inside the housings a little. If you ride a lot in wet conditions (rain, mud) you should seriously consider upgrading to Teflon-coated cables and housings with insulated ferrules). Jagwire and Gore make good ones. But even if you generally avoid rain, it may be worth choosing insulated housings for your cables (or at least lubricate them periodically), should you ride a lot in winter. Frozen cables can be a serious problem.
 
Bearings
If you don't remember hubs with cup-and-cone bearings that required two wrenches to carefully adjust each bearing cone, you're still a kid. Fortunately, these old-fashioned hubs are pretty much gone today (unless you still ride an oldie from the 80's). We have sealed industrial bearings in all modern hubs, bottom brackets and headsets right now and these require much less wrenching than old cones but still some care. Good quality hubs will last many years unless you spend many miles in muck and mud. It is still a good idea to check on the wear of the bearings once a while and lubricate them when necessary. Should you feel any play in your headset, cranks or hubs, it's definitely time to check on bearings condition.
 
Air
Ok, air is not really a bicycle component but without it you definitely wouldn't go too far. From all the parts on your bike this is the one you literally can't see but it may be the most important one. For decades, it used to be quite simple. Mountain bikers and cyclo-cross racers would go for the lowest air pressure their tires can handle without risking a pinch flat. Road cyclists would go for the highest pressure their tires can handle without risking a blow out. Now that we are smarter and we have more tire options than ever, it isn't that simple anymore.
The current trend to move towards wider tires changes things quite a bit. Less air pressure would mean more traction and a more comfortable ride, provided that tires on your bikes are not made of a rock-hard rubber. For mountain bikers the biggest change would happen once they try a fat bike or put tires at least 3.0" wide on their 29ers. Running these at high pressure is a mistake.
 
Road cyclists should still keep the pressure high in their 23-25mm tires but once you start riding with 32-38mm tires on your road bike (provided it has enough clearance to fit them) forget about inflating them to whatever maximum pressure manufacturer specified. I currently ride at only 30/35 psi (front/rear) in my 35mm wide tires and I'm very happy with this setup.
 
Unless you ride on a perfectly smooth velodrome, small bumps are better damped by a low pressure, wider tire (that simply deflects and rolls over debris) instead of a high pressure, skinny one (that must jump over each small rock).

Friday, September 5, 2014

The summer is over - finally!

We had a few obscenely hot and humid days recently, which made me double-check the calendar to verify that it's September indeed. It felt more like middle of July to be honest.

But it is September finally, which must worry all kids as they go back to school and most parents when they sit in traffic following yellow buses every morning. I, on the other hand, am not worried at all. I'm excited for the cooler autumn weather to come and traffic doesn't apply to me that much. Another advantage of biking to work every day - September 1st is just another day in the calendar.

I took a break in writing here for some time, as I was enjoying a short vacation with my family. My brother who I haven't seen in 3 years, visited me last month, so it was a good time to finally finish building my Frankenbike. This way we both could move around by bikes. The new/old bike is really a nice machine. I realized that some of its components are 20 years old but they show very little wear and in general the whole thing feels and looks new.
I also decided to bite the bullet and invest a bit in my Poprad. I gave it a complete set of sealed cables and housing (Jagwire) and a new set of brakes - TRP CX9. They definitely deserve a proper review but so far my first impressions are very positive. CX9s are very easy to install and adjust and are extremely powerful compared to my old cantilevers. The only, slight, disadvantage is that it's close to impossible to adjust them for a very short lever travel as that would require keeping the pads super close to rims. In other words, STI brake levers require a longer pull in order to apply full braking power but it isn't really an issue at all.

***

Lots of other things happened this summer. A mother from South Carolina got locked up in a jail because she let her 9-year old daughter to play in the playground unsupervised. Apparently, in USA 9-year-olds are babies who can't be left alone for longer than 30 seconds. Yes, we do live our lives in fear.
***

Not too long time ago I wrote about the cyclists' perception of stop signs along the Minuteman Bikeway. Because so many drivers yield to bikers and pedestrians in road crossings (A good thing!), cyclists got used to it and now hardly ever stop at stop signs along this popular shared bike path. It may not be a bad thing, as long as they at least slow down and look both ways. By not completely stopping, they may actually be saving waiting drivers some time (And we all know drivers love to save precious seconds of their commutes). But can you be in trouble if you in fact obey the law to the letter? Apparently, yes! Motorists hate us if we run red lights, but when we stop at them, they punch us in the face.

***

The problem with the Minuteman Bikeway is obviously much broader than just the stop signs. There are number of "Lance Armstrong wannabes" on Minuteman who think it's a race track. Now that the town of Lexington completed a new paving on their section of the Minuteman and our local Armstrongs and Cipollinis don't have to ride on a bumpy surface anymore, I'm sure we will see more of them.

*** 

And at the end of today's post, a friendly reminder - if you need to kill someone, just roll him/her over with your car. In America, this can be your perfect crime. The chances you will be prosecuted for such "accident" are negligible. You're welcome!

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Phoenix Bike Project - part 3

It's been a long time since I started working on this bike. The last time I reported any progress was last October. Then the winter came and I had other things to take care of, so building the Frankenbike was put on a back burner for a while.
 
But recently things were better again. I got a free access to a really good bead blaster that stripped the frame of the old paint with ease. The only difficulty was reach all sides of the frame as the blaster's chamber was just big enough to fit the frame inside, but not big enough to rotate it around freely. Nevertheless, the last week my old/new frame was finally ready.
Putting all the parts together was then simply straightforward and within a single day the Phoenix Bike was reborn. I'm pretty happy with the final result. Even though the raw steel frame and fork looks nice and shiny for now, I'm sure it's not going to last like this for too long. I'm actually curious to see how much corrosion I'm going to find on this bike within the first year of use, keeping in mind that I won't use this bike when the weather is not perfectly dry (meaning no riding in rain or after rain). It's going to be my summer commuting bike.
Working with old components that I removed from the ancient bike I built 20 years ago was a pleasure. They are still in a very good condition so I'm happy I could give them a new life. After the first ride, I quickly discovered how fast this new bike is and how surprisingly comfortable the old Selle Italia Flite saddle was. The brakes were great, the bar end shifter works well with modern Alivio derailleur, the 39T chainring gives me a nice usable gear ratio range combined with the 11-34T, 8-speed cassette.
The only part of the bike that still needs my attention, I think, is the handlebars. I installed Soma Oxford Sparrow bars upside-down and they are actually very comfortable in this configuration, making for a very sporty riding position. But eventually, I think I'm going to try a bit more relaxed config by flipping the bars over and installing flat-bar brake levers instead. Especially that the bars I got are pretty wide and will be better suited for use with flat-bar levers anyway. I think I'm going to ride the bike with Oxford Sparrow bars in both positions for a while to figure out which one I like better.
My Soma Oxford Sparrow bars seem way too wide for the upside down installation, but they should work nicely when flipped over.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Sunday cycling and why you wear tight shorts on your ride

I see them almost weekly, but most often on weekends. Couples in their 60's, riding identical "hybrid" bikes (something that allows for a more upright, comfortable cycling position but is not a typical city bike - lacks fenders, chainguards, lights, etc.). They stroll slowly on a bike path clearly enjoying it. Would be an idyllic picture if it wasn't for what they wear on their ride. They both have reflective cycling jersey's or jackets on, cycling gloves, helmets, sunglasses and obviously padded, tight shorts. Wouldn't you think there is something wrong with this picture?
(A typical American family enjoying their weekend ride, I think. Source: sfgate.com)
 
If you have errands to run and take your car to a grocery store, do you dress like this
(A male representative of a typical race car driver as found on the Internet)
 
or you just wear whatever you happened to be wearing at a moment? When you want to go for a few miles-long bike ride to a grocery store, a café or a park would you dress like you are ready for a Tour de France stage? I guess not. So why would some people think they need some specific clothing to enjoy a bike ride?
 
I guess the answer is in the way American culture presents cyclists and cycling. In this country, cycling is still just a sport, something we do for recreation, fun, fitness. We don't see riding a bicycle simply as a... faster way of walking. A way to move from point A to B. In this sense, in America people on bicycles are cyclists, while in Denmark, Holland or China, they are just... well, people on bicycles. This way, even just riding to a café we feel like we need to put those padded shorts on, glasses, gloves and all the other superfluous gear. Those couples in their 60's certainly didn't use helmets, gloves and tight shorts when they were riding their bicycles in their childhood. That time they just enjoyed the freedom of moving around faster than on both feet. Someone or something must have told or showed them that this funky clothing is absolutely necessary to ride a bike in XIX century.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Are all STOP signs created equal?

I used to think so. Stop means stop, after all. But I am not so sure anymore, after I started riding my bike on Minuteman Bikeway more often.
Stop signs have obviously their purpose and even on a bicycle I obey the rules by stopping at them. However, the stop signs in places where a bike path crosses the street are a little bit different animals. Here is why:
  1. Riding on a bike path and approaching an intersection with a stop sign I'm required to stop my bike completely and verify if the road is clear on both sides before crossing it and continuing riding on the other side.
  2. At the same time, at least here in Massachusetts, drivers are required to yield to everyone (pedestrians or cyclists) who intend to cross the street, even if there is no stop or yield sign displayed.
  3. This creates a situation where both cyclists and drivers stop looking at each other, trying to figure out who would move first.
I noticed, while riding on Minuteman Bikeway to work every day that about 99% of drivers stop at the crosswalks seeing cyclists and pedestrians attempting to cross the street. This is good. However, because of it, the cyclists here got trained that all stop signs at Minuteman Bikeway intersections are only a "suggestion" to stop and most of them don't stop at all. Either they simply slow down significantly and after making sure that the road is clear, proceed to the other side of the intersection, or they don't even slow down at all, assuming that cars will stop for them. While the latter behavior may be just plain stupid or at least risky, it seems to me that cyclists who approach the intersection and seeing cars stopped there, ignore the stop signs and cross the street as quickly as possible, are actually saving those drivers time. We often hear from the motorists that "cyclists should obey all traffic laws to gain respect of motorists" but this situation makes me think that sometimes the same drivers would want us to break the law and get out of their way ASAP.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Urban bikes of the future?

If you happen to ride your bike to work in the city, chances are that your bike is similar to mine - it's just a cheap, steel bike with full size fenders, comfortable and relaxed riding position, limited number of gears and a rack or basket for your office bag. These bikes are not speed demons but they do their job very well, taking us to and from work places, running errands, etc.
 
Apparently, there are people who believe that modern city bikes are just way too old-fashioned and in XXI century we need something better. The organizers of Oregon Manifest Bike Design Project believe that urban bikes get not enough R&D within the bike industry and decided to change it by choosing 5 teams from 5 cities in United States, whose task was to design an "ultimate city bike" of XXI century.
 
Now it's time to choose the winner. The entries are:

Portland's "Solid"
 
My take:
+ belt drive (Nice, no more greasy chain)
+ long fenders
+ integrated lights
- too sporty geometry (The main problem I have with this bike is that its geometry looks too sporty. The handlebars are lower than the saddle, which may be useful if you ride on trails but it's nowhere close to a relaxed city-cruising position)
- no way to adjust the stem (The stem seems to be fully integrated so this bike must be made to order for a specific person. There is no way to make any adjustments)
- no loop frame (Riding in dress or getting on the bike with a child seat on the rear rack will be a problem)
- no drivetrain cover (Despite grease-free drivetrain a cover would still be useful. It would protect your pants or dress from being caught in the drivetrain or being splashed by water during rain.)
- smartphone-connected (Why everything has to be now smartphone connected? When I ride my bike I should be looking at the road ahead, not the screen on my phone)

San Francisco's "EVO"
My take:
+ modular cargo racks (Definitely a plus)
+ integrated lights
+ belt drive
- no loop frame (See above)
- integrated cable lock, no u-lock (Nice that the lock is integrated but it's only a cable lock)
- too short fenders (Especially front fender is way too short)
- no kickstand (Seriously? On a city bike?)

Seattle's "Denny"
 
My take:
+ integrated handlebars lock (Great idea and finally something new. The problem is that handlebars tubing is hollow, not solid like regular u-locks, so I doubt this is going to be durable enough)
+ electric assist (You may say this makes this vehicle a motorcycle but it is a very useful addition in very hilly cities. I guess you wouldn't know if you never had to bike uphill on a bike loaded with bags full of groceries)
+ integrated lights
+ belt drive
- no loop frame
- no fenders (Apparently, it doesn't rain in Seattle. Oh, wait... That little something at both wheels is a joke, not a fender. It's like the designers were trying to reinvent the wheel because the regular fenders are too "oldschool" so they just had to come up with something "new")

New York's "Merge"
 
My take:
+ collapsible, integrated rear rack (Kinda small, but a pretty neat idea)
+ integrated lights
+ belt drive
- no loop frame
- no fenders (I guess New Yorkers just switch to the subway when it rains. There is a rear fender-like thing but let's be serious and not call it a fender. They didn't bother to include the front fender at all. Plus why do fenders have to be hidden when not in use?)

Chicago's "Blackline"
 
My take:
+ belt drive
+ leather saddle
+ no loop frame, but here there is at least an attempt to lower the frame for easy mount/dismount
+ integrated lights
+ modular cargo racks
+ u-lock stored under the rack (Not fully integrated but they at least found a nice place for it)
- no fenders (Those tiny strips of metal over each wheel can't seriously be called fenders)
- 3-speed only, but that's probably enough in Chicago

To be honest, none of these bikes ticks all of my boxes and none of them makes me feel wanting to ride them. The problem with them is that they are not really urban. They have some features of urban bikes but... would you leave any of them chained to the fence in front of your apartment overnight? Would you want to ride these bikes in heavy rain? They all come with relatively maintenance-free drivetrain and integrated lights, which is great but at the same time they often feature minimalistic racks, fenders, kickstands. It almost looks like the designers didn't want to spoil the looks of their bikes by including "those dreadful fenders" by default. I guess they forgot we're talking about an utility bike here, not an art object.

If I had to choose, I would probably go with Chicago's "Blackline" but only after putting some proper fenders on this thing, raising the stem, adding a chainguard, replacing the rear rack with something useful... No, I guess that's too many changes. I just keep my old, (t)rusty Schwinn.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Should you be afraid to ride your bike in the city?

A reader left a comment under my Twitter post:
which in general I agree with. Almost. Those last words made me think about it more. Is fear really a good thing in U.S. cities considering we have very little proper cycling infrastructure? Sure, some fear is good. It stops us from doing some really stupid things. But should you be afraid to ride your bike in the city?
 
When it comes to riding a bicycle in the city, there are three pieces of the puzzle:
  1. First, cycling in the city should not require any special gear such as helmets, reflective vests, gloves, padded shorts, etc. A "gearless" cycling is simply more accessible.
  2. Second, a proper infrastructure is desirable as it increases safety and makes city biking more pleasant and efficient. Protected cycle paths are a good example, but other solutions come to mind as well.
  3. Third, and perhaps often omitted, part is driver's education and liability. In fact, I dare to say this is the most important one. Let me ask: would you rather bike in a city with very good infrastructure but 99% of drivers being hostile, even aggressive towards cyclists, or in a city with no infrastructure at all but 99% of drivers being very aware of bike riders, always slowing down next to them and giving them plenty of space when passing by? You may say, there is always that 1% so it's better to be fully separated, but even those protected cycle paths must cross with car traffic at some point.
So when I see a comment like the one above, I feel that something is missing there. Rewriting it as "With current infrastructure and hostile drivers, fear is good." makes it now sound much more complete.