Taking a stand: A five-year-old gets his way

You hear a lot of stories at the bike shop.

The guy who, telling you why he’s buying a new, smart phone-connected helmet, includes in his story of a previous ride the phrase and when I came to. (Thoughtful.)

The gal who fixes her first flat tire 10 miles out on the trail by watching YouTube videos on her phone and calling the shop to double-check her research. (Thorough.)

The kids who decide to ride five times as far as they ever have and, on their successful journey to 100 miles in day, pedal along the interstate for thirty miles. (Naive confidence.)

And, of course, any story of mechanical mayhem that begins I was just riding along.

Here’s the latest story.

A five-year-old decided he wanted a kickstand on his bike. Maybe he had a kickstand and it failed; maybe he didn’t have a kickstand because he was just getting off training wheels—I didn’t hear that part of the story.

Anyway, he asked his dad to install a kickstand. And his dad promised he would.

But he didn’t.

Time went on. More requests, more promises.

No kickstand.

Consider the relative nature of time.

The kid, too young to understand adult things like how important it is to cut back the lawn you encouraged to grow in the first place, may have understood time as an idle train blocking the crossing ahead for no good reason.

The kid can’t move forward, can’t move around the train. He must wait, and waiting for the hands of a million-pound clock to move from one position to the next is something for which he does not have time.


The dad, way older than the kid, somewhat taller and unaware of time’s passage, may have been overwhelmed by Saint-Exupéry’s matters of consequence.

Maybe he had an endlessly revised to-do list of things he forgets. (Which didn’t include the kickstand because he forgot to include it among the things he forgets.)

The kid, unencumbered by school or job or missing keys, had a much simpler to-do list: get a kickstand.

One day the kid, tired of waiting for this simple, sensible upgrade, wheeled his bike in front of his parent, proudly pointing out the kickstand he had installed by himself.

Yes, the kickstand was backwards, but given the overall arc of the story, that’s a minor detail. No doubt the kid viewed the kickstand’s existence as more important than its immediate utility.

The kickstand may also have been loose and a little too long for the small bicycle. Again, I didn’t hear this part of the story, just guessing.

After all, a kickstand requires measurement and tailoring before installation.

Especially if the kickstand had recently held a much larger bicycle in place, the dad’s bike, for instance.

Which it had.

The dad found his bike leaning against the garage wall, just as the kid’s bike once leaned there.

And that’s how the dad came to update his to-do list.

We can only assume.











Posted in Equipment, Other bicycles, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The Invention of Nothing


If you like to ride road bikes and you’ve been paying attention to them for a few decades, you’ve noticed quite a bit of change, especially on the high end.

In the 1980s, indexed shifting replaced the need to manually center the rear derailleur under the cog. (Step out of the freewheel/cassette paradigm for a moment and indexed shifting has been around longer. Consider the evolution of the Sturmey Archer trigger shifter since 1938.)

Steel frames turned into aluminum and then carbon fiber frames. This is a bit confusing because excellent bicycle frames continue to be made out of all three materials. And don’t forget titanium.

Disc brakes are everywhere–and the majority of them are hydraulic. Where I work, I haven’t seen a new rim brake-equipped mountain bike on the floor in three years. As of 2019, linear-pull rim brakes are found mostly on children’s bikes and entry-level comfort bikes–and sidepull brakes are found on fewer and fewer road bikes. (In 2018, Jan Heine defended rim brakes in their center pull and cantilever forms, calling disc brake superiority a myth.)

Tires are wider, recognition that suspension losses force riders on ultra-narrow tires to work harder, regardless of how fast those skinny tires feel. Heine plays offense on this topic, writing that testing methodology, by eliminating suspension losses and the rider, clouded the issue for nearly a century.

And bicycle lights are so effective people use them during daylight hours.

Today it seems like the virtuous cycle of progress was inevitable. That once minor improvements were made, major improvements were only a matter of time.

Maybe it was. And maybe innovation will continue into the future. But maybe we’ll recognize some changes are nothing more than marketers spinning their collective wheels.

Who speaks for the spoke?

Take all the alternatives to the time-tested J-bend spoke.

A handful of J-bend spokes, properly tensioned between hub and rim, can support hundreds of pounds at full speed without adding any significant weight to the bicycle.

The J-bend part of the design? It keeps the spoke from turning as the wheel is built. All you really need is a spoke wrench to bring the wheel up to full tension.

Strong, simple, efficient and boring.

What’s the alternative? Straight spokes. All you need is a special hub that accepts the head of a straight spoke. And a rim that’s drilled so the spoke head is fully seated in the hub when under tension. And a pair of spoke pliers to keep the spoke from turning as you tension the wheel.

By eliminating the J-bend at the hub, straight spokes promise to eliminate spoke failures at the interface of spoke and hub.

Other experiments in recent years include:

• Softer (though lighter) aluminum nipples, which move spoke failures from the hub to the rim
• Carbon fiber spokes, which eliminate interchangeability among manufacturers
• Moving nipples from the rim to the hub, eliminating the space needed to turn a spoke wrench
• Changing the size of the nipples, setting off searches for spoke wrenches that fit
• Wheels with low numbers of spokes under ultra-high tension, making field adjustments difficult to impossible

It’s easy to look at the crooked end of a J-bend spoke and say that it’s a weak, flawed and horribly outdated design. But look at that list of alternative designs above–several of them are now obsolete, abandoned, and therefore unsupported by the marketers who promised to revolutionize the wheel. (Don’t worry, there’s plenty of busy work for them in the bottom bracket business.)

There’s no need to invent anything new (read that, proprietary) in spoke technology. But there’s plenty of need for higher-quality wheel building, because the best way to eliminate broken J-bend spokes is to evenly tension the wheel in the first place.

Want to see 70 years into the future of bicycle design? Take a look at the spokes on any entry- level to-mid-level road bike (and most high-end bikes, too).

The future will look like that.

Time travel works in reverse, too. Have a 1950s Peugeot PX50 with a broken spoke? No problem–your local bike shop probably has the right length spoke (and design) in stock.

If it’s not broke, why fix it?

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Fixing unnecessary noise when you can

The guy who owns the empty property next to me is running a generator to move water up and out of an otherwise unused well.

The water is piped out of the well to a five-gallon bucket a few feet away.

The water has been spilling out of that bucket and downhill into a dry creek for two days now and, waste aside—I worry whether he’s drawing down my own well—the generator noise is constant.

I will argue the noise is unnecessary, though it also suggests he’s getting ready to sell.

(Another possibility is that the well will become a backup water source for the houses on a manmade lake across the road. Given those folks predilection for watering their lawns like they’re in Levittown, this possibility also dims the future of my own well.)

But let’s think about that noise in context. Santa Fe railroad engines run on double tracks just north of both properties.

I rarely pay any attention to the trains—maybe when the windows are open and I’m talking to someone.

Train noise is irregular and louder than the generator. However, if you believe freight transportation is necessary, that freight trains should haul freight, and that the violence of high-speed interstate travel is best limited to a narrow access-limited corridor, the noise of the engines and the wheels on the track are not much different than squirrels running through the brush or the mewing call of catbirds.

It’s the sound of the country, of history, of necessity.

Necessity is also the measure that bicycle noise is measured against.

The sound of tires against payment. Necessary.

The sound of the pawls in a cassette hub or freewheel body, clicking away the measures of each pedaling pause. Necessary.

The sound of oh my god what kind of noise is that, must be somewhere in the drivetrain clicking, grinding, grating. Unnecessary.

It was this last noise that this week drove me crazy, that drives other people in other places on other bicycles crazy every week—the unnecessary noise of an otherwise perfect transportation option.

And I fixed it.

What sounded like the chain rubbing on the front derailleur cage was not related to the chain or the derailleur. It was not a loose pedal or a creaky handlebar or an uncooperative handlebar stem.

It was the seatpost.

I pulled the post out of the frame and removed the shim that allows it to fit this particular bicycle.

I cleaned everything—the post, the shim, the clamp that holds them in place, the inside of the seat tubes. I greased everything, reassembled the pieces and torqued the clamp to five Newton meters.

Unnecessary sound, gone. Bicycle bliss restored.

And the bicycle is once again ready to carry me away from the noise of the generator, the splash of waste, the hum of an imperfect future.

Too bad all my journeys are round trips.

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Buying a bicycle on your own

You know how to ride a bicycle. Why should buying it be any more difficult?

You walk into a shop or browse a website intent on the tangibles: construction, components, brand, color, whether it’s a road bike or recumbent, mountain bike or fixed gear, and the price.

You make your choice. You buy. Or not.

You may feel you’re on your own throughout the buying process.

The question for you, for the shop, for the online merchant is do you want to be.

Do you?

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Days of future passed at the 2019 Midwest Tandem Rally

How do you rate yourself as a climber? Faster than a few? Slower than most? Hoping for shorter climbs? Remembering the good old days?

I don’t consider myself a climber at all. Never have. And neither do people who pass my tandem on the slightest of inclines. I know I will be passed on group rides. I know I’m not in the best shape.

But even I was surprised to be passed by people on two specific bikes during the recent tandem rally in Columbus, Indiana.

One couple was riding a Hase Pino Allround, a half-upright, half-recumbent tandem similar to the Bilenky Viewpoint. (Imagine a front-load cargo bike where the cargo is a person pedaling the same bicycle as you but more comfortably.)

The other couple was cradled aboard a blue recumbent trike–the longest, lowest, heaviest two-seater of them all. (Image a Star Wars landspeeder without a body or repulsorlift.)

And both teams pulled away from me going uphill. On bicycles that could very well be voted “Most Improbable to Pass Anything at Any Time Unless Possibly Sandstone But Only When It’s Eroding.”

Yes, I know I’m a bit pudgy, and this is the first year in three that my stoker isn’t having a hip replaced, but come on. The only time these bikes should be able to pass me is when I’m fixing a flat tire–and taking my time.

In fact, I’d still be shaking my head over this weekend’s events if all I was considering was visual evidence of the impossible.

But my hearing is sometimes useful. And what I heard on the second pass by both machines—though alas, not the first pass–was the faint intervention of electric motors.

So, that was electric-assisted hill climbing. Well, good for them. They looked like they were having a good time.

As for myself, I was comforted by the immediate disappearance of the reality-distortion field.

Once again, we will control the horizontal.

IMG_4055 copy

The 2019 Midwest Tandem Rally. Unless you were me, you could feel the electricity in the air.

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The $14-thousand-dollar bike rack

On average I buy a car every 10.5 years.

I don’t do it because I like cars, or because I believe cars are an unmitigated good, or because Jesus would drive a car if everyone else did.

(I have nothing to base an opinion on but I think Jesus would still be hoofing it.)

In fact, I’m not so much buying a car as I’m buying a bike rack with a motor. Which I seem to do because so many other people have motors without bike racks.

(Not sure how they get around without the racks.)

One possible exception to the bike rack with a motor thing is my 1996 Mazda Miata. I really like it. As a car.

But I’m not nuts about it; if someone told me (and would make it happen) you can have Dutch-style infrastructure throughout America, today, if you agree to sell your Miata, I’d sell it for a cup of good organic coffee immediately, without hesitation.

I like coffee, too.

But I digress. Here’s a quick rundown of my history of bike racks with motors.

The 1987 Volkswagen Fox had rain gutters. This should commend it to any discerning individual. Seems silly to point this out, but rain did not stop falling simply because they quit putting rain gutters on cars.

You can attach a roof rack directly to rain gutters. Without gutters you need clips that snake into the opening between the door and the body.*

When all cars had rain gutters Yakima made a compatible rack tower. Just the one. That’s all you needed. Now Yakima makes clips. Dozens of ’em. Get a new car? Get a new set of clips.

I miss rain gutters.

I carried bicycles and tandems on top of the VW. When we moved out of the first house we owned, the Fox became a moving van. The last load was heavy enough to bottom out the suspension, which was good because it made it easier to lift the lawn mover to the top of everything else on the rack.

At five minutes to midnight.

The 2003 Ford Ranger sported a topper over the bed. I bolted the roof rack to the topper and carried bikes and tandems and boards and drywall and whatever. Then, to improve gas mileage, I started carrying the tandem at an angle with both wheels removed under the topper. It kinda fit; the tandem was protected from the weather and, to a lesser extent, from thieves who didn’t understand how flimsy that topper was.

Fast forward to a 2016 Dodge Grand Caravan. Like the VW and the Ford and the Mazda it’s a two seater, mainly because the center-row bench was in the way and the rack covers the Stow-n-Go seats in the back.

Boy, is this a great rack. Bike forks are attached to a wooden frame bolted to the floor.


I can even roll the tandem in rear wheel first, secure the fork and I’m ready to go—without removing leaky water bottles, the rear rack or the handlebar bag.

I could also easily fit four (maybe five!) single bicycles into the back, which makes it a lot easier to build bikes at home—where all my tools are positioned just so—and transport them to the shop.

It’s the best bike rack with a motor I’ve ever owned.

I just wish I didn’t feel like I needed it.

*Please, please do not tell me I forgot about suction-cup bike racks. I. Did. Not. Forget.

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Into the wind with Marie Kondo

It’s a short ride for some but not for us.

Not today.

We leave with the wind in our faces.

We return with the wind in our faces.

The math of these two statements cannot be denied; we pack the headwinds of two rides into one.

(We need to get better at packing, more selective. We gather all the winds of this ride together and consider each element separately: Does this gust bring us joy? It does not. Do we wish to harbor this breeze for future use? We do not. Do we marvel how a butterfly on the other side of the world, so recently a vulnerable caterpillar, could bring us to a crawl this side of Edelstein? Not even for a second. So how do we tidy up this ride Ms. Kondo?)

Yes, we stopped for breakfast in Princeville. That was our refuge, our goal. Breakfast is always our goal on this ride.

But the sign ahead is surely a sign of more significance than the county engineer intended. (And it gives us pause, as intended.)

We keep riding.

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