Four things a bicycle expert can do to help a friend

Picnic setup outside of a village shop in Newcastle, County Tipperary, Ireland. Photo taken by Julian Westerhout during a tandem tour, August 1, 2014.

Picnic setup outside of a village shop in Newcastle, County Tipperary, Ireland. Photo taken by Julian Westerhout during a tandem tour, August 1, 2014.

The worst axiom in English may be, “It’s just like riding a bicycle; you never forget.” The problem is many people think they know how to ride a bicycle, but a lot of them are wrong.

Riding a bicycle is more than balancing a bicycle long enough to move forward. It’s also riding a bicycle on the right side of the street, which in the United States is, ding-ding-ding, the right side of the street.

(By the way, how much do you really know about riding a bicycle?)

Given the number of United Statesians who ride on the left side of the street, a more accurate saying would be, “It’s just like riding a bicycle; the less you’re willing to learn, the less likely it is that anyone can convince you you’re doing it wrong.”

At the same time, it’s possible to know too much, especially when it comes to helping someone with a bicycle issue. That’s right: Your big bike brain can work against you.

What to do?

  1. Understand the problem. If your friend doesn’t ride because the chain is jammed against the chain stay, but you think your friend doesn’t ride because your friend doesn’t have a $10,000 bicycle, the two of you aren’t working on the same problem. Use the most important tools you have: your ears.
  2. Maintain friend-speed at all times. I don’t know your level of expertise. Maybe you move households with your cargo bike. Maybe your riding goal for this year is 75,000 miles. It doesn’t matter. What matters is helping, not overwhelming, your friend. If your friend wants to ride to a store three miles away, ride to the store with your friend–don’t invite your friend to next week’s double metric century.
  3. Check the tires. If I could wave a magic wand, everyone who buys a bicycle would buy a pump at the same time because bicycle tires lose air way faster than car tires. But since I don’t have a magic wand and you have a pump, offer to air the tires. If your friend only rides once in a while, your friend will be amazed by the difference.
  4. Make sure the saddle and seat post are securely attached. Most of the time, the problem with nuts and bolts isn’t that they fail, it’s that they come loose. A saddle that was at the right angle tips and slides backward; a seat post slides into the frame. Readjust and secure both items, and your friend will be more comfortable—and more likely to ride.

Now this might be where you say, “But there are a lot more ways to help a friend with a bicycle. There’s adjusting brakes and derailleurs, fine-tuning the person’s fit on the bike, teaching a person how to work on a bicycle, getting a friend to ride more often, encouraging a friend to get stronger, faster. And what about clothes?”

Here’s where I say, first thing, you’ve got the big bike brain. You may be right. Second thing, you’ve got the big bike brain; you may be wrong.

The only way to move forward is to weigh your enthusiasm for the bicycle against your friend’s interest in the bicycle. You have to keep everything in balance.

It is, after all, just like riding a bicycle.

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Maybe the most important thing to remember about the eccentric bottom bracket shell

Final destination for the SKF bottom bracket: the Co-Motion eccentric bottom bracket shell.

Final destination for an SKF bottom bracket: the Co-Motion eccentric bottom bracket shell.

Executive summary: There are two ways to install an eccentric bottom bracket shell. One of them is wrong.

When it comes to working on bicycles, having a process is great–as long as you recognize any changes in the work that might disrupt that process. If something changes and you don’t recognize it, an instinctual approach to the work is going to get in the way.

Just like it got in the way when I was working on my Co-Motion tandem. Here’s the story.

A single-rider bicycle has a right side and a left side. When you sit on the saddle, your right is the bike’s right. That’s good to know when you install a bottom bracket (the spindle and bearings between the right and left crank arms).

On frames with English threading, the right bottom bracket cup has a left-hand thread, which means you install the cup by turning it counterclockwise. The left cup has a right-hand thread (the good ol’ righty-tighty, lefty-loosey variety). Park Tool’s explanation of this includes pictures.

Tandems have a right side, too, but most of them also have a removable eccentric bottom bracket shell between the front cranks.

I pulled the eccentric bottom bracket shell so I could clean the inside of the frame. I should have remembered to keep track of which end was which.

I pulled the eccentric bottom bracket shell so I could clean the inside of the frame. I should have remembered to keep track of which end was which.

The front bottom bracket threads into this shell. It is secured, off center, within the shell (hence the adjective, eccentric). When you install the eccentric and rotate it within the frame, the distance changes between the front and rear bottom brackets, which makes it possible to tension the chain that connects the front and rear cranks.

Unfortunately, if you remove the bottom bracket from the eccentric and then, the eccentric from the frame, you may end up swapping the ends of the eccentric when you reinstall it.

Which is what I did. The left side of the shell ended up on the right side of the bike. I couldn’t install my new SKF bottom bracket and I had no idea why.

Bottom bracket orientation wasn’t part of my mental checklist.

On a bicycle without an eccentric, the bottom bracket shell can’t be reversed. It’s brazed or welded or glued into the rest of the frame.

Not recognizing how to solve the issue, I did the smart thing. I walked away from it and went back to reading Ann Patchett’s collection of essays, “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.” (If you like well-crafted essays, you’ll like this book.)

The goal: installing a new SKF bottom bracket into the tandem. The challenge:  figuring out why it didn't work--at first.

The goal: installing a new SKF bottom bracket. The challenge: figuring out why it didn’t fit–at first.

I didn’t think about the bike while I was reading. And, as often happens when I read, my eyes got tired and I put the book down. I still wasn’t thinking about the tandem.

Shortly thereafter, seemingly ex nihilo, the solution revealed itself: Remove and reverse the eccentric shell. To be more precise, remove and reverse the eccentric shell, dummy.

For me, it was Archimedes’ Eureka moment without the bathtub, which was great, because if I had to get naked every time I needed to solve a problem, I’d end up creating new problems no amount of book reading and napping could solve.

Jim Langley has a nice illustration that links bicycle parts and their names. (Turns out my tandem really has four bottom brackets.) I get stumped by bicycles all the time, but usually things work out, like the time I was trying to keep a folding bike from creaking.





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Word on the street: PVC Pete

PVC Pete and Mike Honnold. It must be Christmas.

PVC Pete and Mike Honnold. It must be Christmas.

Imagine the Wizard of Oz rewritten as a one-character play. That character? A lost soul, clearly not from around here, and totally without a brain, heart or courage. Rather than follow the yellow brick road, our protagonist follows the captain of a Burley tandem. Welcome to the world of PVC Pete, created by Mike Honnold, who also maintains the singular guide to bicycle parking in Peoria, Where’s the Rack, Peoria? (I talked to Mike about Where’s the Rack in 2013, the same year I interviewed a cartoonist who specializes in drawing robots, many of whom also ride bicycles.)

When did you start riding on the back of Mike Honnold’s tandem?

My circuits were activated the evening of October 23, 2014, by Mr. Michael Honnold. Mr. Honnold (what he prefers I call him) punctured his finger with an awl while assembling my knees, so I feel a bit more human than the typical robotic bicyclist. We took our first test ride the evening of October 24, when Mr. Honnold requested my assistance to retrieve the fruit of his looms, Master John Honnold, from Frau Debbie Burke, his mother in law. I’m told the ride was a success.

Here's the configuration for two people and a robot.

Here’s the configuration for two people and a robot.

Why bicycle? Why not aspire to factory work?

Factory work is for those industrial hillbilly robots from Fanuc and Cincinatti. What do you expect of robots with arms but no head? Literature? Bicycling is what most robots dream of doing, but few have the opportunity. Probably because they were not created by people with minds as flexible as Mr. Honnold’s.

What do you like best about riding?

Mr. Honnold has yet to install my joy circuit, so I don’t process the experience quite like the people I meet on the Rock Island Greenway. He did broker a deal on a romance processor, though, so I do enjoy the attention of the ladies.

Looks like your big skill is just hanging on to the back of the bike. Any goals for 2015?

I believe that's Springdale Mausoleum, which doesn't make any sense because PVC Pete is a robot, not a skeleton.

I believe that’s Springdale Mausoleum, which doesn’t make any sense because PVC Pete is a robot, not a skeleton.

What you call goals I call upgrades. Eyes would be great. I’d love to do some work on the side for Google Street View and map out new parts of Peoria and beyond. Servos for the legs and knees would be nice so I can venture out when Mr. Honnold is working. However, I assume traveling under my own power will have to wait for Mr. Honnold’s golden years.

Where do you do most of your riding and why?

Given the lack of servos, my riding preferences tend to mirror his. The area certainly has a lot to offer, especially when we ride by the junkyards of South Peoria. You wouldn’t believe how many relatives I’ve seen in those places. Or at least parts of them.

What do you do when you’re not on the bicycle?

I’m stuck at home coordinates. Most of the time I can be found at N40° 44.558′ W89° 37.305′ waiting for another tandem bike in hopes of a ride to a new destination. Otherwise, they enjoy my jokes and stories at the Peoria Brewing Company. I tend to close down the bar most nights.

Asimov’s Third Law of Robots is that a robot must protect its own existence as long as it doesn’t involve harm to human beings. How confident are you of your own future?

Gripping the handlebars

Gripping the handlebars

PVC is a fairly resilient material, so structurally I think I am fine for the time being. PVC cement on the other hand, that’s another story. One of my arms fell off while rolling down a brick street in Peoria, and Mr. Honnold has yet to repair the damage. I think he’s using it as an excuse to keep me from expanding my horizons.

People probably aren’t used to seeing a PVC rider on the back of a tandem. What kind of reactions do you get? How do you feel about them?

The stories I could tell–however, this is a carbon-based blog. Let’s just say that I get my fair share of attention. Folks either stare or scream/honk/yell. Sometimes people drive a few blocks ahead of us so they can take pictures as we ride by. Mr. Honnold also complains about getting the finger while riding. I’m not sure what he means by this, but I would be hesitant to accept a human finger from a stranger. For one thing, there’s precious little in my repair kit to trade for a finger. And for another, well, no servos.

Top leg joint

Top leg joint

Some believe that robots will eventually transcend their human creators. If engineers create their own non-human replacements, what do you see for robots in the future?

I intercepted an e-mail sent by Mr. Honnold to his friends a few weeks ago. It contained engineering prints, pictures and movies: all the information needed to create other robots like me.  Humans better tread lightly here, because most of them have never seen what damage a PVC robot can do on a tandem bicycle.

Two zip ties form one knee joint.

Two zip ties form one knee joint.

So, other robot riders may arise, but I predict the vast majority are doomed to factory work. The rest? Movie robots. Lots of robots in the movies, kicking butts and taking names–two things I’d be more than happy to do as soon as the servos show up.

And now, a few words from PVC Pete’s builder: Mike Honnold

Here’s the inspiration video. I can’t take credit for inventing this–just handy with PVC pipe and making things from video/pictures.  A few things to note:

You don't have to drink to sketch up the plans for PVC Pete. You don't have to...

You don’t have to drink to sketch up the plans for PVC Pete. You don’t have to…

1.  All parts were obtained from local Home Depot.  Aside from cutting the straight sections of PVC, nothing was modified from original. All PVC was attached with standard PVC cement.

2.  I modeled the bone “lengths” from my own body proportions so my chances of him working correctly the first time would be highest. I believe I had to buy (3) 5-foot lengths to get enough PVC with a little extra left over.

3.  Pete’s feet are attached to the pedals with some velcro straps made for bundling cord.  You could also use zip ties, but they hard harder to take off/remove.

Usually, parking a tandem in a front wheel rack is discouraged when the stoker has not dismounted.

Usually, parking a tandem in a front wheel rack is discouraged when the stoker has not dismounted.

4.  Pete’s hands are made so the PVC slips over the handlebar diameter.  This, combined with solid elbows and the seat connection, seem to be enough to keep him securely attached for most rides.

5.  Pete is attached to the seat with a couple of bungee straps.

6.  Knees are made with zip ties and/or rope.  Could also use hinges, but zip ties account for a little more inaccuracy in the construction.

7.  I put a PVC “tower” on his head so it would be easier to attach a hat.

8.  Finally, the arms and legs are semi-attached by removable caps.  This makes it easier to dress Pete in shorts and a jersey/pants should the costume be necessary.

For PVC Pete, last call looks a lot like first sitting at the bar.

For PVC Pete, last call looks a lot like first sitting at the bar.

Posted in Equipment, Other bicycles, Report from the road | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Peoria-born business gets ready to move next to its customers on the Rock Island Trail

The Bushwhacker building is just north of the Rock Island Greenway overpass and expected to open spring 2015.

The Bushwhacker building is just north of Peoria’s Rock Island Greenway overpass and expected to open spring 2015.

The steel for the Bushwhacker building, under construction north of the year-old Rock Island Greenway overpass, is in place, just a few months after the Peoria Planning and Zoning Commission gave the project its ok.

“Peoria’s Original Outdoor Store. Since 1971” first opened on Main Street, then moved a few miles north to the Metro Centre. The new Junction City building is another two miles to the northeast by road and the first structure in Peoria designed with Rock Island Greenway users in mind.

That includes people in Peoria Heights, the walkable next-door community that was home to Vitesse Cycle, the previous Trek dealer, until sold by its Normal, Illinois, owner to the manager, moved to North Hale Avenue off Pioneer Parkway–another of Peoria’s remarkably inhuman thoroughfares–and quickly left to oblivion’s tender mercies.

Bushwhacker, on the other hand, has experienced management, a broader product line and a prime location on its side. The stand-alone building will likely replace Vonachen’s Old Place, a restaurant closed in 2008 and later demolished, as Junction City’s focal point–in effect, turning the public face of the shopping center 180 degrees.

In addition to skis, kayaks, camping gear and technical clothing, Bushwhacker’s offerings include Trek, Giant, Cervélo and Surly bicycles.

And to think it’s right on my commuting route.

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Please be seated. The bicycle ride begins soon

Bicycle-rim bar stool within the New Belgium Hub inside the Denver (Colorado) International Airport.

In 2014, people sitting in front of computers worried that sitting was bad for people sitting in front of computers. Sitting didn’t care if you got your 30 minutes of exercise every day. Sitting was the new killer. Sitting was the new smoking.

People writing for people sitting in front of television cameras probably wondered whether sitting was bad for people writing for people sitting in front of television cameras.

And television viewers who confuse television with medical advice must have found the news hard to take sitting down, though scientists studying the effects of sitting were probably sitting down when they wrote this:

Could something as ordinary as sitting in chairs be plausibly grouped among other major health hazards? Are exercise scientists, medical professionals, and public policy-makers moving quickly enough on the basis of available evidence in making official recommendations on limiting sitting time?…We would suggest that, in the future, too much sitting might be considered in the same way as have other such insidious environmental and behavioral health hazards.

–Hamilton, Marc T. et al. “Too Little Exercise and Too Much Sitting: Inactivity Physiology and the Need for New Recommendations on Sedentary Behavior.” Current cardiovascular risk reports 2.4 (2008): 292–298. PMC. Web. 26 Dec. 2014.

Now we could probably use a few insights from the world of inactivity physiology–just as inactivity physiologists probably believe they could use an increase in funding. What’s more, they may be worth it.

Consider this: During the past year, inactivity researchers, supported by a generous dose of media-induced fear, most likely strengthened the standing desk industry more than Churchill, Hemingway and Jefferson combined. Indeed, I may build a standing desk and recommend you do the same.

But while the standing desk may save you and me, it won’t save civilization because civilization is based on sitting.

One can sit today because wolves are held at bay, fields of grain don’t run away like wild animals, and chess is not a physical pursuit. Aside from its connections to the television and automobile, sitting is a noble activity, a communal activity, a necessary activity.

Do we need to move around more? Certainly. Do we need to ignore our flexible knee joints and stand all the time? Certainly not.

I suggest we meet researchers halfway: by sitting on bicycles and rebuilding a culture and infrastructure that support sitting on bicycles. As much as some of us admire the persistence of standing cyclist Dean Mathias, we don’t need to promote standing.

We need to focus on quality sitting that extends human capability.

For example, if you want to read a book in a civilized manner, sitting allows you to focus your energies on comprehension. If you want to nurse a beer–or celebrate Cabernet Day–while reading a book, sitting eliminates much of the need to balance. If you want to play a cello while nursing a beverage while reading a book, sitting is downright mandatory.

And if you ridicule that last example, I say I will not use a bicycle website to denigrate the chosen instrument of Pablo Casals and Yo-Yo Ma.

In fact, I won’t stand for it.

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Co-Motion quint on the San Diego boardwalk


You’re next to the Pacific Ocean on Ocean Front Walk in San Diego. You’re working off another can’t-be-beat meal from the Mission Cafe. You see single-speed cruiser bikes everywhere. Since you come from 16 inches west of Peoria, you see your first paddle-stick-wielding longboard rider.

And then a time-space portal opens and a phantom, seemingly straight from the Midwest Tandem Rally in Fort Wayne, Indiana, appears: a family on a Co-Motion quint doing a slow roll along the 8-mph boardwalk.

Disc brakes? Derailleurs? At the beach? What kind of Marty McFly moment is this?


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Bicycle at land’s end


No, not the merchant. No, not the place of that name in England or India, Spain or Mexico.

This is land’s end in the broader sense: Here, the kingdom of foot and pedal, there, the kingdom of fin and whale.

Here is where direction matters.

Turn back and you have a continent to cross. Turn this way and the land behind you–filled with beauty and reason, undercut by fear and destruction, paved over, patched up and rolled out–is erased by water.

You consider joining land and water with a small rock, your position not requiring great strength or aim, but the timeless lovers are clearly engaged in an embrace hundreds of miles long. Even if the rock were sharp, its projection would be pointless.

So you leave the rock. You take a photograph. You return home.

The cornfield has no end.

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