Infrastructure maintenance and the role of magical thinking

Editor’s note: Riding a bicycle in Illinois is different from riding a bicycle in other places. If you’re reading this in the Netherlands, your reality may differ. Carry on.

Here’s a right of way covered with ice and snow because the park district doesn’t maintain it in the winter.

You may have a similar right of way in your area. The facility may be the responsibility of your local park district, city, county or state.

Why aren’t such trails, paths and sidewalks cleared? Obvious reasons include:

  • It takes effort
  • It takes money
  • It’s cold outside
  • It’s a recreational place; not an important place
  • It’s a place for them, not us
  • No one’s asking for it
  • No one’s voting for it
  • No one goes out in the winter without a car

Some reasons are true; some are partially true; some are false and unchallenged. But let’s set aside all of that for a second and consider another possibility.

Welcome to Hogwarts

Government believes things that come in twos, like feet and bicycle wheels, are magical things, capable of feats beyond the realm of physics.

At the same time it believes that things that come in fours, like car tires, are helpless things, firmly mired in the reality of this world and, if not assiduously cared for, in ice and snow at the side of the road.

If you believe in magic, you don’t plan for it and you don’t encourage it: It just happens. People on their own—old people, young people, people on bicycles, people with two feet, even people without feet—simply float over snowbanks and glide over ice flows.

Government believes the realm of people on their own does not intersect with the realms of gravity and friction coefficients.

It’s a wizard’s world after all

Look at any sidewalk under all the snow tossed to the side by the plow: Do you see footsteps? Maybe here and there, but nothing to indicate all the people who need that right of way.

Where are all the footsteps? You guessed it: magic. Just because you don’t see people levitating above the snow on the way to the grocery store doesn’t mean they aren’t.

It isn’t in the nature of magic to broadcast its existence.

Now consider the truly helpless: all those car and truck tires. Can you imagine if government believed in the magic of things that come in fours? Automobility would smother under winter’s forceful pillow. How would all those sport utility vehicles get through?

What’s that? You see SUVs do it all the time in television advertising?

You forget. Television, like the internet, is a magical thing. It doesn’t represent reality, unless you think it does and you act on that belief.

By the way, let me know how your parole hearing goes.

But we control the horizontal

In so far as it believes anything, and this may seem wildly counter to recent experience, government believes in reality. It makes sure that taxes are levied and monies are spent so a certain reality continues—since the twentieth century, so that cars and trucks, those helpless things that need our collective help to exist, keep moving in winter.

People on foot? People on bicycles? People in wheelchairs? Government doesn’t oppose them; it simply treats them the same as other magical things.
It ignores them, believing with all its collective heart that the levitation will continue.

And so we float.

And so we forget, as we bob along, that we the people are not separate from our government, but of it. That we share a common reality and the responsibility to suggest improvements to it.

Especially if some of our suggestions seem magical.

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How missing a goal turns into seven of them

When people ask me to suggest a bicycle, I ask them about their current bicycle and what kind of riding they want to do.

Sometimes I hear cautionary statements like, “I’m not a racer,” or “I’m not a professional.”

Of course: Most people who ride bicycles aren’t racers or professionals. Most of them are like me: riding for fun.

Oh, maybe there’s a part of me that recognizes I’m in better shape than if I didn’t ride, but I don’t ride for fitness.

I’m not a racer, after all.

But I do recognize the allure of goals. For three weeks in December I thought I’d finally developed one for 2020: to bicycle a certain round number of miles by the end of the year.

For me, a round number ends in a zero with a zero in front of that and another one in front of that. (If you’re Lael Wilcox, winner of the 4,200-mile Trans Am race in 2016, you regularly surpass a round number with four zeros in it.)

Achieving my late-found goal was mathematically possible—a modest jump in weekly mileage would do it. I could ride longer on Wednesdays and Sundays; if I rode just a bit before work on the other days I’d be there: roundnumberville.

But turns out I had other things to do:

  1. Go hiking
  2. Finish reading the Saturday/Sunday Wall Street Journal on Tuesday
  3. Write another week’s worth of haikus for 17syllableswestofpeoria
  4. Stay inside and warm when the weather dropped into the teens in both temperature and wind speed

Let me be clear: These are not excuses. But Number 4? Brrr.

And so I ended the year, not with 3,000 miles, but with 2,893 miles. Not a round number. And you know what?

I didn’t care about the round number after all.

I had a pretty good year. I rode more consistently than I have in a long time: a few miles a few days each week. Apparently, all those 15- to 30-mile rides add up. (My longest ride in a day this year was 40 miles.)

Consistency is more than the hobgoblin of little minds; it is the way I retain fitness over time, and despite not having a fitness goal, I know I enjoy my rides more the more evenly spaced my rides, which is not at all foolish.

(This essay is nearly over, no need for you to read it all. In fact, this might be the perfect time to study what Emerson had to say about a foolish consistency in context.)

I also rode farther than I have in a long time: 1,000 miles more than 2019; 1,500 miles more than 2018. This increase is not important, though it does indicate I finally figured out how to review annual mileage totals in Strava.

What is foolish is I now find myself making human-powered goals for 2021, and in January of all times. This is not a reasonable thing to do; neither is it reasonable to share them. But here they are:

  1. Ride 100 miles in a day
  2. Ride every day in April, fulfilling the 30 Days of Biking pledge
  3. Get back on the unicycle
  4. Longboard two miles from Pioneer Park to work on the Rock Island Greenway, which means I need to learn to…
  5. Ride a longboard. But I also plan to…
  6. Drink coffee in an organized way in October, by meeting the Coffeeneuring Challenge, and yes…
  7. Ride just past a round number in a year

Seven goals. If I were ambitious, I’d come up with ten, ten being a round number. But then again, and I have plenty of company…

I am not a professional.

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Eight Simple Steps to Finding Small Bicycle Parts in the Home Workshop

There’s a difference between organizing bicycle parts and finding them.

Finding parts is what you want to do.

  • You want those Shimano SPD cleats you bought five years ago because your old ones are finally worn out.
  • Arkel handlebar bag mounts so you can finish your commuter bike project.
  • A quick-release spring to replace the one that bounced into the weeds while you were fixing a flat.
  • That spare rubber foot for your Click-Stand so the tandem continues to stand upright when parked.
It’s not disorganized. Think of it as multi-use zoning. Once you find an empty spot for your next part, you’ll never have to move it again, unless you use it, of course.

Organizing parts is what you don’t want to do. Because you don’t have time to organize. Because when it comes to miscellaneous bicycle parts you’ve accumulated over 45 years, there’s no joy in organizing–let alone reorganizing to accommodate all the newer stuff that keeps on coming, like hydraulic hose, disc brake shoes, Torx bolts, extra charging cables and GPS-related miscellanea.

Sorry, Marie Kondo.

You’ve got things to do. Maybe you work for a living. Maybe you need to mow the yard. Maybe you want to catch up on your John McPhee-related reading (personal favorite: The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed). Or maybe, like a lot of people with a basement full of bicycle parts, you’d rather spend your spare time riding a bicycle.

Here’s the good news: Organizing–the tedious sorting of small, unrelated parts–is unnecessary. Moreover, organizing parts so similar things end up in the same box can actually slow you down when it comes to finding the exact part you’re looking for.

Organizing takes too much time

Here’s an example of the life-changing drudgery of organizing: Say you have a bunch of old-fashioned bottom-bracket cups that take caged ball bearings. One pair is French-threaded, one cup is Swiss-threaded, and seven are English-threaded. You think you need to organize so you put them all in the same container, labeled bottom brackets.

Now you need the Swiss cup for your 1970s Champion Team. How long is it going to take to find, to turn over in your hand and determine, yes, this cup is for the right-hand side of the bike, it has the French thread pattern, 35mm x 1, but tightens in the opposite direction to the French, which makes it Swiss?

Ain’t nobody got time for dat.

What’s that? You’re really organized? You attached a label to each cup with a beaded cable tie so you can tell French from Swiss from English without your glasses? You know what I’m going to say:

Ain’t really nobody got time for dat. Nobody. Plus, now you need a container for beaded cable ties. When was the last time you went for a bike ride anyway?

Let’s focus on what you really want to do: to find parts. Here’s what to do.

Lose the beaded cable ties, keep the containers

  1. Evaluate your containers. You want durability. Think plastic, aluminum or steel containers. Definitely think containers with lids. Lids keep things clean and stackable. If some of your containers are storage bins or tool chests with pull-out drawers, great.
  2. Evaluate your storage area. You want to keep your containers off the ground so you can sweep. If your storage area is in the basement, keeping things off the ground means keeping things away from water.
  3. Position containers wherever they fit. Let’s assume you have shelves, and those shelves are not uniformly arranged. Doesn’t matter. Fill them with containers. You might have room to stack two or three smaller containers in places. Do it.
  4. Number your containers. Work from left to right, top to bottom, of each separate set of shelves. All you need on the container is a number. Avoid the temptation of labels like quick releases or headset washers; words are evidence of organization, and organization is dat with which we ain’t got no time. You can use stick-on numbers from the hardware store or an oversize permanent marker. Doesn’t matter. Just make sure you can read the numbers from a good distance away.
  5. Add parts to one container at a time. If you have a dozen rear quick-release skewers for 135mm hubs and a small, single-compartment container, drop them in. If you have a larger container with 16 compartments of different sizes, put something different in each compartment. Got a 40-year-old Cyclo chain tool pin? Put it in the smallest compartment. Three linear-brake noodles? Next compartment. A dozen interchangeable derailleur cable housing caps? Next compartment.
  6. The more unlike each part is from the next within a container, the better. (For instance, the 16-compartment container in Step 5 is a dandy place to store that Swiss bottom bracket cup. Move the French cups to a second container and the English cups to a third.) This isn’t a bottom bracket box or a brake box or a derailleur box: It’s a bicycle parts container with a number on it.
  7. Before you move to the next container, update a simple, two-column spreadsheet. The first column describes the part, the second column is the container number. Describe the part in a meaningful way. Instead of writing small bolt, write Bolt, 5mm, or, if you store 5mm bolts of different lengths in different containers, write Bolt, 5mm, length 20mm (or whatever length you have). Choose a significant first word, like Bolt or Bell or Brake, so you can perform a useful digital sort of your spreadsheet.
  8. Once all your small parts are stored–or you’ve filled a couple of containers and need to go ride your bike–print the spreadsheet and display it prominently. When you pick up the project again, or as other parts come into your life, add them to an existing or new container, and update your paper spreadsheet. Once you’re sick of all the pen scratches on your paper spreadsheet, update the digital file and print a new copy.
Yeah, my system still has letters. I’m working on it.

Congratulations, you’ve left organizing behind, and you can find what you need.

Frequently Asked Questions I just made up

Q: Why do you do this?

A: I have lots of little bicycle parts that have no value when I can’t find them and immense value when I can. I also have a lousy memory. What was your name again?

Q: Do you really do this?

A: For the most part. I started with two sheets of stick-on letters when I decided to switch from Failed Organizer to Successful Finder, so I used them first. That’s when I realized the limitation of our 26-letter alphabet. Don’t do what I did. Start with numbers and stay with them. I find it difficult to distinguish the number one from a lower-case L and impossible to tell the difference between a zero and the letter O. Eventually I’ll go back and renumber everything. Won’t take long, but I’m in the middle of reading McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers, which, remarkably enough, conveys plenty of information despite the limitation of the same 26 letters.

Benefit from my mistake. Don’t use letters if you have more than 26 containers. Someday, you will.

Q: Have you ever thought of a simpler solution, like getting rid of a bunch of old parts?

A: My wife has.

Q: I’m parting out a bicycle with a broken frame, which means I need to store a bunch of parts. Do I need to sort everything immediately? How do I keep from being overwhelmed by incoming parts?

A: Excellent question about an important part of the system I forgot to mention: the Presort box. As you remove small parts, toss them in Presort to keep them isolated before you move them out to containers and update your spreadsheet. (If Presort seems familiar, it may be the “system” you used before you adopted the system described in this article.) Also, keep your teardowns modular: You don’t have to pull a broken rear derailleur apart for guide pulleys and anchor bolt. Chuck the whole unit into a container.

Q: So what happens when the container holding a given part is full? What if you get extra copies of the same part?

A: Let’s say you stored a Travel Agent cable-pull modifier in a small compartment in Container 12, and your friend, after finally replacing her thirty-year-old Weinmann brake levers with levers that actually match the cable travel of the linear-pull calipers on her bike, gifts you not one but two Travel Agents. You now have a couple of options: 1) Store the new parts in Container 25, which has only enough room for two Travel Agents, and update your spreadsheet to read Travel Agent/12,25, or 2) Store all three Travel Agents in Container 32, next to the SPD cleat bolts and original Spurcycle bicycle bell, and update your spreadsheet to read Travel Agent/32. (I’m kidding, of course. Nobody has a spare Spurcycle just laying around.)

Uniform presentation is not the goal. Your spreadsheet will tell you where you stored the stem extensions.

Q: Some small parts are bigger than others. Can I store unrelated parts–like a kickstand, a dropper post and a squeeze-bulb horn–in the same single-compartment container as long as the spreadsheet is accurate?

A: You absolutely can. It’s pretty easy to look at three to seven completely different parts and figure out which is which.

Q: Well, this is all fine and dandy, but what about the small parts I use all the time, like cables, crimps, cheap brake shoes and valve caps? Do I have to store them in a numbered container to keep the system working?

A: Not at all. We all have small parts we keep close to our tools. Just don’t let it get out of hand. If something is taking up working space and you haven’t needed it in a while, push it to a container. Keep overflow stock there, too. Then, when you’re about to run out at the bench, you can check the spreadsheet for the container and see if you need more.

Q: Why have the paper spreadsheet when you can do a word search of the digital spreadsheet?

A: My computer goes to sleep too fast. It’s not much of a burden, to wake it up and check the spreadsheet, but I’m worried about it becoming self-aware sooner than it otherwise would.

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Two rides, one morning

First ride

It’s rarely windy in Springdale Cemetery.

This is a plus if 1) you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to ride a bicycle in windy conditions and/or 2) worry about possible wind-related damage to mausoleums, ossuaries and obelisks, some weighing thousands of pounds and seemingly immune to anything short of a couple of tornadoes accompanied by a meteor strike, so, really, what are you worried about again?

But what Springdale lacks in wind it makes up for in short, sharp inclines and a road surface that could best be described as irregular–sometimes paved, sometimes lightly graveled, sometimes lightly graveled over pavement.

If you ride here, be careful: Gravel over pavement is not gravel; it’s an Etch-a-Sketch ready to erase you at any time. Keep your weight over the contact patch of your tires at all times or be prepared to patch the many points at which your clothes and skin make contact with the ground.

When I ride through Springdale, usually with my friend Robert, I keep score of the ride’s quality the same way I score golf: Zero is perfect–no falls off the bike, no golf balls lost.

And while a score of one is regrettable, I’ve never scored more than one on a ride (although I have recorded three on one golf course).

I’m happy to report today’s was a perfect ride.

That doesn’t mean it was easy.

Oh, for Robert it was easy. He’s been riding through Springdale for years, and his power-to-weight ratio handily exceeds my own.

He’s the perfect riding companion, though, always waiting for me at the top of the hill.

Every single one.

One part of me imagines that Robert likes to ride with me because he likes to ride with anyone. We humans are, after all, social animals.

Another part of me imagines that Robert likes to ride with me because my willingness to follow his line may indicate I am coachable. Here’s an imaginary conversation to underscore this possibility.

Climb this hill.

Right behind you, coach.

Jump this curb.

Following your line, coach.

Hang onto your Etch-a-Sketch.

Both knobs, sir. Yes, sir!

Go ahead, catch your breath.

As soon as I find it, coach.

Yet I suspect the real reason Robert rides with me is I keep showing up, like a lab rat more willing than expected to run through his maze. In other words, he keeps riding with me to find out why I keep riding with him.

The answer, of course, is shockingly simple: Riding a bicycle is cheaper than golf, at least while I keep scoring zero through Springdale.

Second ride

Finally, an honest-to-gosh headwind: 19 mph on Hakes Road, no less.

I couldn’t be happier.


Because I’m riding into the wind at the start of my the ride, and the wind is so strong that’s it’s unlikely to change direction before I get home, which means a tailwind on the way back.

Which means a free push.

By free I mean a push that costs me nothing except the effort I’m putting into moving against the wind as I head south, which I’ll forget about as soon as I head north.

After every tailwind ride I’m like somebody who loses a wallet full of money one day, forgets about it, and then gets excited by finding a quarter.

Hey, free quarter! Maybe someday I’ll find a wallet!

But right now, it’s hard to ignore the headwind because I’m riding a fixed-gear bicycle with a 64-inch gear.*

If I had a lower gear available, I’d use it. But when you have one gear, you keep grinding away.

You. With your hand up. You have a question?

Yes. Why are you riding a bicycle with just one gear?

Good question. I guess I ride this bicycle because it’s simple. Less to go wrong. And it’s quiet.

Sorry, I didn’t hear your answer. It’s pretty windy.

Yes, it is. And sunny. Beautiful day for a tailwind ride.

But it’s not a tailwind yet. Don’t you wish you were riding the bike you rode with Robert this morning? You’re pedaling so slowly…

I won’t be when I turn around.

But with the wind at your back, wouldn’t you be able to go faster if you could shift to a higher gear?

I like your curiosity. But surely there are others who would like to ask a question. How about you? What’s your question?

Why are you pedaling so slowly?

Don’t think about it as slow. Think about it being appropriate for the conditions.

But wouldn’t a bike with gears be more appropriate for the conditions?

Maybe, but what if the conditions change?

You mean what if the wind goes away and the world turns out to be flat?

Exactly. It’s possible that conditions will change as soon as I reach the next corner. The only way to find out is to keep pedaling.

I’ve never been stopped by a headwind.

But as I pass a country graveyard south of Edelstein, I’m rethinking my understanding of the wind’s effect on cemeteries.

That’s because I don’t see any mausoleums, ossuaries or obelisks. None.

Think of the sheer tonnage eliminated. The force involved, not just to upset them, but to erase them.


And yet I see not a single funereal structure beyond a small number of headstones inexplicably left behind.

Must have been a heck of a wind storm among the corn fields yesterday. Maybe a meteor. I’ll check the news when I get back home.


*A fixed-gear has one chainring and one cog. The cog is screwed onto the hub and held in place with a lock ring. There’s no freewheel mechanism. If the wheel is turning, so are the pedals. Now imagine pedaling a kid’s tricycle but the front wheel is 64 inches in diameter. That’s a 64-inch gear. A Specialized S-Works Roubaix, definitely not a fixed gear bicycle, has two chainrings in front and 11 cogs in the back, offering gears ranging from 30 inches to 122 inches. That’s a tall high gear—makes you wonder what kind of tailwind Specialized engineers regularly encounter.

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Three bits of bicycle knowledge everyone should possess

Bicycle tires naturally lose air

A bicycle tire doesn’t make for great literature, but it’s a pretty quick read.

If you drive a car and you’re like me, you go weeks, maybe months, before you check tire pressure.

Thanks to technology, you don’t even have to remind yourself to get out the air gauge–a dashboard light is your nanny. That’s when you find the tires on the van have dropped to 30 psi from 36 psi–though you probably knew something was wrong when you wanted to drive to Peoria but the van favored Kickapoo.

This laid-back monitoring strategy, questionable when it comes to cars, fails entirely when it comes to bicycles.

Compared to a car tire, a bicycle tire is thinner and holds less air at higher pressure. That’s the reason you need to check your tires daily (700×23 tires), weekly (700×28), every two weeks (700×38) or every three weeks (29 x 2.1). You have to replace that lost air or risk a flat tire when the inner tube is pinched between the ground and the rim.

Keep in mind these air-check intervals are only examples; you may find it necessary to check more often than suggested, or, in the unlikely case you’re running a super-thick Goodyear bicycle tire from 1953, less often.

How much air does your tire take? One method is to check the tire’s sidewall for an answer. You might see something like MIN 45 PSI/MAX 75 PSI. Split the difference and inflate to 60 psi.

Got a new bike? Get a new floor pump with a built-in gauge. Got an air compressor? Well then, use it.

Your rear derailleur is not a kickstand

Peace of mind is your bike at rest with nothing between the derailleur and the sun but sky.

This will seem pretty obvious. Your rear derailleur isn’t nearly as long as a kickstand; there’s no way it’ll hold your bike off the ground.

You’re absolutely right. So if you’ve been laying the bike down on the derailleur side, whether to park it or transport it inside a car, STOP DOING THAT RIGHT NOW.

If you lay your bicycle down, always lay it down chain side up. And if your bicycle should ever fall on the derailleur side, check to make sure the derailleur still hangs straight down, not toward the bottom of the rear tire.

Why is this important? If the derailleur is misaligned and you try to shift into the lowest gear (the biggest cog in back), you may shift the derailleur into the spokes instead.

The resulting chaos isn’t a kickstand either, though it may force you to park the bike.

A quick-release lever is not a wingnut

The difference between being ready to ride and not being ready is the difference between a secured quick release lever curving toward the bike (left) and an unsecured lever curving away from the bike (right).

There are two ways to use the quick release attachment on a bicycle wheel: the right way and the wrong way.

If you look at a quick-release lever and think it’s a one-sided wingnut, you’re using it the wrong way. You don’t spin the lever around and around until it seems tight enough–you spin it around and then FLIP IT OVER TO SECURE IT.

Chances are that your quick release lever has a curve to it. When the lever is open, it curves away from the the bicycle. When you flip the lever over to the closed position, the lever curves toward the bicycle.

That action, of flipping the lever over, employs a cam to securely clamp the quick release to both sides of the fork (at the front of the bicycle) or the frame (at the back of the bicycle).

Maybe a video will make this clear. If not, stop by the bike shop for help. You absolutely want to get this right.

Quick note to the bicycle expert

You know all this. Live it every day. It might even be said that you have a very particular set of skills. In any case, I leave you today with a few words from 2015 about sharing your knowledge with others.

(Those words are not here. They’re in the last link. In the paragraph just above this one. And by golly, if you don’t click that link, I will look for you, I will find you, and, well, let’s leave it at that.)

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