Don’t give up the ship (er, bicycle)

I’ve been at my current job for a little over four months now, and one thing from my previous job that I’m still not completely over is the commute. My previous job involved a 5-6 mile commute which could easily be done by bicycle, or train if the weather didn’t cooperate. Now, my commute is by car, and while it isn’t bad in the morning the drive home is usually in quite a bit of traffic. Dealing with traffic every day has had a negative impact on my stress levels as well as my free time, and I seriously wish I could still bike to work.

Well, I can. Sort of.

Last weekend I pulled the bike out, cleaned and re-lubed everything, and went on a ride from my house to my office. The ride has three basic stages. The first five mile stage is the same route as my previous commute, from my house to the Charles River. This is not ideal in many ways, but there are bike lanes and I’m familiar with it. The next ten miles are all on separated bike trails, and is a combination of an older commute route I took when I lived in Newton and some new trails that are part of the Charles River Greenway. It’s flat, peaceful, and easy. The last three miles involve turning onto Main Street in Waltham, and merging with traffic. It’s not so bad, traffic-wise, but it’s also mostly uphill. After getting through the last gauntlet, I’m at the office, mostly in one piece and having already done my morning workout. If I were to leave at the same time I already do when driving, I’d have about half an hour to take a shower before going to my desk.

Seriously considering doing a 35 mile round trip once or twice a week has given me reason to consider my bike. My primary commuting bike (it’s not even worth joking about doing this ride on my single speed) is a 2012 Bianchi Volpe. I’ve been commuting on this bike since a month after I bought it, and it likely has somewhere in the neighborhood of 7-9000 miles on it (not a lot for a car, a  fair number for a bicycle). After washing it in preparation for the ride, I could see that the road grime had hidden a fair amount of surface damage, places where the paint had been scraped off and there was surface rust. All only cosmetic, but reminders that the bike has been through a lot. Beyond that, there are certain mechanical things about the bike that are an utter pain. The triple front derailleur has spent more time misaligned than aligned, and gives me gearing range I never, ever use. The cantilever brakes are a pain to change pads for, hard to align correctly, and only work well when it isn’t wet out. And beyond that, there are things intrinsic to the bike, like a relatively high weight and weird fit, that make me seriously think about getting something else.

My main problem with the idea of buying another bike is that my current riding profile would indicate that I purchase something very similar to the Volpe: A cyclocross, touring, or endurance road bike with rack and fender mounts. There are two things I’d like that the Bianchi doesn’t have: first, disc brakes, and second, a compact double crankset in the front instead of a triple. I could even replace the Volpe with another Volpe…in 2014 they started offering a disc Volpe and they’ve since changed the gearing to a compact instead of a triple. That does kind of justify my desires…even Bianchi wanted the bike equipped the same way I do.

I looked at modifying the Volpe and it’s essentially out of the question. Switching to a double would require about $250-300 in the form of a new crank, front derailleur and maybe also a bottom bracket. I can’t put disc brakes on, and switching from cantis to calipers, while not impossible, would require me to find crazy long-reach calipers that can accommodate my tires. So just those two issues would require at least $500, which is both more than the bike’s worth and also a larger chunk of a new bike than just the brakes and cranks.

So I’ve looked a little at new bikes. It’s really tough to justify spending the amount I did on the Volpe (1200-1500) when I already have a working bike, but it’s harder to justify spending less and getting a bike that is less of a bike than the one I already have. I’ve looked a bit at BikesDirect…it’s a good way at getting high-quality parts for not much money, and though I’d need to set the bike up myself that’s a perfect way to save money for a mechanically-inclined person. In contrast, buying even a kit to build a custom bike seems to cost double what the same specced bike does from a major vendor (Trek, Specialized, Cannondale, etc.). I’ve looked used, but the selection is very small and I’m also anxious about buying someone else’s stolen bike when looking for relatively new stuff (if you want a steel road bike from the 70s or 80s, though…go Craigslist).

I don’t know what I’d do with the Volpe if I bought a new bike. The bike itself is fine, though it needs a tune-up. There are pieces I may want to grab off of it, like the seat and the rack, but if I were to get rid of it it’d likely be as a whole bike. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Move on to something a little more modern, get the Volpe to someone who wouldn’t have been able to afford it new. Anyone ride a 54cm?

I haven’t made any decisions, but I’m going to keep biking either way. Time to think seriously about whether a better bike will help me spin out more miles. In the meanwhile, I think I’ll try the bike commute for real next week.

Bicycles, Reflective Writing

My Dad and the month of July

First, I want to apologize to any of my friends for whom this is news. I have not been shouting this from the rooftops, nor have I been in contact with everyone. For reasons that should be obvious, it’s been a stressful month and I’ve withdrawn a little as a result.

One month ago, on June 20th, my father was struck by a car while on his bicycle. He suffered a brain injury and spent quite a bit of time in the hospital. He’s home now, still recovering but making progress. It’s been a harrowing time, for myself and my brother but especially for my mother, who has found herself conscripted as the key contact for all the doctors, lawyers, and everyone else you get in touch with when there’s a bad surprise in your life.

I was not prepared for this, though for different reasons than most of my family. Like my father, I’m an avid cyclist. Unlike my father, the majority of my cycling mileage occurs in and around the city of Boston, especially in the last five years when I commuted to work by bicycle. I had been preparing for the possibility of a bike crash in the family…but I had been mentally preparing for the day I’d be hit by a car again (yes, again). Pedaling through traffic day after day, you inure yourself to the idea that eventually someone was going to come too close or make an error in judgment and you’d find yourself laid out in the street.

That didn’t happen. My father was riding home on a rural road, less than two miles from home. The road has a shoulder wide enough to ride on, and there were no traffic devices between him and home, not even a stop sign. He was hit by a driver who not only simply failed to regard mixed traffic, but also fled the scene after the crash. Yeah, it was a hit and run. This made everything all the more frustrating. Though I can’t comment on exactly what happened, both the location and the circumstances make it difficult for me to see any reason for this occurring other than a person who simply failed to drive.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter. My criticisms can’t undo the crash, and even if the offending driver stopped my Dad would have still been in the hospital and still had the injuries he did. It’s not useful to ponder what-ifs, especially as my Dad is still here, and that’s the direction my energies should go. He’s been talking about the bike he’s going to buy after everything gets resolved. That impresses the hell out of me.

There’s some point in the future this may return to normal. I haven’t been cycling all this month, though I can’t say for certain it’s related to the crash (I’m also fairly busy). For now though, I’m trying as best I can to help my parents while my Dad recovers. I’m very thankful for the support I’ve received from friends, co-workers and family…and here I must apologize again if I haven’t told you what was happening. With everything going on, I stepped back from a lot. It’s only after a recent and much needed vacation that I was able to clear my head and write this. In the long run, I’m sure both my Dad and myself are going to keep cycling…I can only hope that everyone I know does their part and keeps being cognizant of the many types of road users out there. It only takes one careless moment to change someone’s life forever.


The Urban Beater rides

With a few brake cable stays and a water bottle cage, I finished my single-speed bicycle build last Friday. I was able to ride around town a bit that day, and then took a slightly longer ride out on the Minuteman Bike Trail on Sunday.

The bike is just…breezy. It’s stable at speed but easy to turn in, it rolls nicely, and is just generally fun. I do feel how skinny the tires are, but they noticeably reduce the effort from stops. And low effort from stops is important, because there are no gears. Speaking of no gears, the bike is also kind of slow. It’s not very slow, but right now with the 44/15 gearing, I’ve got almost 3:1 reduction. In comparison, the 39/13 or 39/12 gearing which I usually end up with on the Bianchi (either the highest or second highest rear gear and the middle chainring) is either exactly 3 or 3.25:1. So doing the math out the difference isn’t huge, but both the presence of lower gears and the little gearing advantage at the top makes the Bianchi feel faster.

Speaking of the Bianchi. I rode to work yesterday and today, and riding the bikes back to back was interesting. For the first time, I really felt the difference in the amount of tire I had with the Bianchi. This is notable mostly because the Bianchi wears 32c road tires, not skinny but not exactly fat either. Still, the difference between 25 and 32 was a noticeable reduction in jarring and better maintaining speed over uneven pavement. The generally higher cadence I was able to maintain on the Bianchi made it feel a lot faster, though that’s likely due to the reduction in effort rather than the actual gearing difference discussed above. The Bianchi is heavier than the Motobecane, but while riding it’s pretty hard to feel the difference. The Bianchi carries the weight of the panniers well also. The one place the Motobecane’s weight was a major advantage was in multi-modal riding; I can throw it on my shoulder and carry it up and down stairs easily, something that is painful with the Bianchi and impossible when I have panniers on it.

The Motobecane is fulfilling its role as an urban beater well, and will be even better once I figure out how to ride it with as little baggage as possible (I rode with a backpack which was OK, but riding it without a pack was much better). There is one small upgrade in the works…after feeling out how the bike rides I’m probably going to change to bar-end brake levers, just simple ones like Tektro 4.1s. It’ll clean up the front end and make me feel more comfortable in a crouch on this bike, which right now leaves me without brake coverage. Unfortunately, this change would require new cables (longer than the current ones to cover lever position), new bar tape, and the levers themselves, so I’m probably going to leave it alone until I feel like ripping into the bike again.

Overall, my first build was a successful one. A few tweaks and this bike should serve me well for some time.


Continued bicycle adventures

I ran the 40-mile Hub on Wheels ride yesterday in Boston, and dealt with the 50-mile day (40 miles plus five to the ride and five back home) very well considering my lack of endurance training. The bike performed admirably, but there were several weak points in my setup that were revealed by spending three solid hours in the saddle. My hands got sore very quickly, so I’m looking at possible ways to adjust my handlebars. The setup is good enough for my commute so I’m hesitant to mess around with anything until I have a solid block of time. The issue is too much pressure on my hands, which is likely an indirect consequence of me having really long arms…the seat is already on the shorter side of correct height, but raising it any further would make the hand problem worse. To really fix the situation I’d likely need a new handlebar stem. Alternatively, a wider set of handlebars could make it easier for me to spend less time in the drops, which would also fix the issue.

Project fixie continues, though there has been no progress since being stalled by a stuck pedal. Partly due to this and partly due to both other bikes (mine and my girlfriend’s) in my stable making some degree of clicking noises from the pedal area, I’ve ordered some crank pulling tools (a crank puller and appropriately sized allen keys for the crank bolts) to fix all of these situations. As the crank threads on the fixie are likely stripped to hell by the stuck pedal, this probably should have been a course of action I took earlier.

I’ve been doing fairly well riding to work almost every day. I drove in today due to some evening plans that require a car, and man was it horrible. Biking really is a better transport solution for my needs, and is making me wonder if I can organize a future that precludes car ownership entirely. This winter will be the ultimate litmus test of that particular fantasy.


Project Urban Beater: That damn pedal

Despite many applications of liquid wrench and a lot of cursing, I have not yet been able to remove the left pedal on the bike. Before anyone says it: yes, the left pedal loosens clockwise and tightens counter-clockwise. I am aware.

Next step is to get a large cheater bar to put over the wrench, but I have not found a 2-3 foot long iron pipe hanging around my apartment. If I’m not able to make that work, I’ll have to take the bike to a shop where the pedal can be removed. Clearly, that is an absolute last resort.

Provided I can get the pedal off and the threads on the crank arm haven’t been stripped to hell, the next step is to put on some new parts, notably a new set of pedals and a seatpost clamp, so I can get the bike sized correctly. Then it’s time to install the front brake and make it rideable.


Triumphs so far

I was able to remove the cut seatpost clamp on the Motobecane with a needle-nose vise grip and patience. I’ve gotten one of the pedals off but the other is stuck.

I trued my rear wheel on the Bianchi, just enough to get my rear brakes installed correctly without rubbing. I did this by plucking each spoke. As long as you remember that the left and right spokes are different tensions, you can find the “flat” spoke and tighten it. This pulled out my big warp enough to install the brakes…which as I found have less throw on the back than they do on the front. Even so, they work better now.

Tomorrow I leave for the Beach, but I feel like I’ve made a good amount of progress with my bikes so far. When I return, I’m going to get the other pedal off the Motobecane, remove the old brake cable, and order some parts to start reassembling the bike. Magdalen’s bike also needs a bit more work, but hopefully nothing drastic.


Project Urban Beater

As I planned out a whole host of bicycle maintenance I completed this weekend (two sets of brakes, one set of tires, one new chain), I noted that I may want to acquire a second bicycle if I was planning to try and bike through the winter this year. Having a winter beater bike not only takes some wear off of your primary bike (not exactly my goal, considering how much I’ve thrashed my Bianchi) but also can be set up to be more robust for adverse conditions. Riding fixed-gear in the winter is recommended not only because the single-speed drivetrain is easier to maintain and has fewer places to gather road grit and dirt, but also because having no freewheel gives the rider a bit more control.

So after some craigslist searching for old frames with horizontal dropouts, I found a guy selling a Motobecane Track for a fraction of its retail price. Other than the brakes, which had been installed incorrectly, the bike was in great shape. Now, it’s sitting on the workstand in my basement, waiting to be transformed into the urban beater of my dreams.

The checklist for the project is relatively short, but even so the bike isn’t ready to ride yet. First and foremost, I need to fix the brakes issue. I’ve already removed the incorrectly installed rear caliper, and mocked up a Tektro R540 front that my Dad gifted to me from his own brake swap on his Trek. Next step is to cut the cable to size and actually hook up the brakes.

After that there’s only one more repair necessary: the bolt on the seatpost clamp has been sheared off. I don’t know whether it was an accident or done intentionally as an anti-theft action, but either way the seatpost is currently too tall for me and needs to be brought down. The clamp will have to be drilled out or removed some other way.

After those repair actions, there’s a few modifications I’d like to make.

Chain tugs: the bike has track forkends, so I’m going to put on a set of chain tugs to keep the chain tension constant and the rear axle aligned.

Handlebar: The flat bar on the bike is in pretty good shape, but I like road positioning so I’ll probably replace them with a set of either drop bars or bullhorn bars, depending on how much of a hipster I want to be.

Tires: The tires are 25mm, and skinny is actually good for all-season riding as long as you don’t encounter much ice. It isn’t urgent but putting on some Continental Grand Prixs will do wonders for tire durability.

Pedals: The pedals on there are a beaten up pair using Shimano SPD-SL clip-in shoes. I’m going to replace them with either SPD pedals for my current cleats or toe clips for safer winter operation.

Ancillaries: Light mounts will be essential. I’m researching a rack mount solution as well, but it’s not a top priority.

I’m excited for this. The Bianchi doesn’t give me any trouble, which is a good thing, but also means very little tinkering. I’ve been emboldened by doing my own chain, and now have a bike I can tinker with as well. The only downside is my quickly approaching the execution of the Velominati’s Rule 12: The correct number of bikes to have is n+1, where n is the number of bikes you currently have.