How the bicycle might have changed everything in 1994. Now, with footnotes

img_7643-1

SAAB claimed it was born from jets. This Miyata, from a company that’s made bicycles since the 1890s, could just as accurately sport a “Born from Guns” decal. (It doesn’t.)

An essay from the January/February 1994 issue of Upbeat magazine. The headline, pictures, captions and footnotes are new.

What with all the talk about the information highway, I got to thinking about that other highway out there: America’s everyday road system.[1] And I started wondering how the U.S. would respond if the Japanese invented a highly efficient mode of transportation. One that used no fossil fuels, didn’t pollute (not even a little), and actually improved the health of those people who chose to employ it. Would it be the missile gap all over again? In other words…

What if the Japanese had created the bicycle just yesterday?[2] What would be the president’s reaction? Would he direct the vice president to make a speech about the bright future of transportation and how the government needs to actively promote the use of bicycles? And not just promote the bicycle, but actually encourage it? Would billions be poured into research? Would Rodale Press quit publishing Organic Gardening in favor of High Tech Transit?[3] How would the Saudis take the news?

img_7640-1

The past, present and future of highly-efficient transportation. Russell’s 1981 Miyata 912, modified with 650B wheels, among other things. (Sorry, no Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor.)

Or would there be a super-secret American bicycle catch-up program like World War II’s Manhattan Project? “Sir, we believe the two-wheeled plan has merit, but none of the scientists are small enough for their fathers to hold them up while they attempt to pedal the machine.”

How would the movie industry portray the latest road-going innovation? “I’m the Derailleur. I’ll be back.” Arnold turns to his trusty dual-suspension carbon-fiber monocoque bicycle and races after his next victims, a pickup full of dirty dockworkers with tattoos like “Leave it or leave it” and “King of Leers.” The camera pans down from Arnold’s passionless face, across his bright lycra jersey, along the bike’s black and seamless frame to the downtube levers.[4] “No one expects a 63-tooth chainring,” he says to himself, grimly shifting the bicycle into the largest gear.

img_7642

As you go back in history, Shimano Ultegra cranks are eventually replaced by Shimano 600EX Arabesque cranks. But when you reverse direction and go forward again, Ultegra never seems to reappear. Fortunately, MKS Lambda pedals work throughout the continuum.

And back in the real world…

What of the hapless millions stuck with their old-tech automobiles? “Gosh Marge, soon the streets will be packed with people of the future thinking future kind of thoughts while pedaling their super-efficient, future kind of bicycles. Will we still be able to buy gas? Do you think they’ll make car paths for us? I just hope those biker people don’t develop aggressive attitudes.”

Okay folks, there are plenty of new bikes for everyone.[5,6] For those of you who won’t be pedaling, all we can hope for is that your automobiles don’t depreciate too quickly. Hey, first one in line gets to see Al Gore sweat.[7]


  1. Before the information highway arrived, my paragraphs were longer.
  2. Remember Japanese bicycles? How old are you, anyway?
  3. Rodale acquired Bicycling! magazine in the late 70s and Hearst completed its acquisition of Rodale in 2018. Check the Wayback Machine for Rodale’s picture of itself before the end.
  4. Back then I didn’t need to explain what downtube levers were. I don’t need to explain them today, either.
  5. The “plenty of new bikes” line was pre-pandemic. If you’re looking for sub-$1,000 bicycles in May 2020 the pickings are slim indeed.
  6. I miss Slim Pickens.
  7. In 2006, Rodale published Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It.
Posted in History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bicycle repair: Solving a puzzle without any edge pieces

IMG_7567 2

A bicycle in need of repair is a puzzle.

What shifter can you find to go with the freewheel or cassette you have? Is that dirty chain in the junk box a usable takeoff or something for a backyard sculpture? If the latter, how did it miss the garbage can?

The difference between a bicycle puzzle and a cardboard puzzle is you can usually replace the missing bits of a bicycle.

How old is it?

If the bicycle is mature enough—built before index shifting, press-fit bottom brackets, built before the word standard was redefined as non-standard—it doesn’t matter that the parts you have are not an exact match for the original parts.

In a friction-shifting puzzle you can swap rear derailleurs from different companies, as long as they all 1) sneak under the largest freewheel cog 2) handle all the chain it takes to shift from the smallest gear combination to the largest, and 3) come with a claw or fit the same dropout hanger.

It doesn’t matter that you’re exchanging the equivalent of blue sky for the middle of a cumulous cloud, a brick wall for a wooden spire, or a hydrangea for a redbud tree. When the puzzle piece fits, it works.

Analyzing the challenge.

When it doesn’t fit, the problem is sometimes obvious: A one-piece crank doesn’t play in a bicycle frame with a 68mm threaded bottom bracket; a 26-inch tire doesn’t mesh with a 24-inch rim.

Sometimes the problem is more subtle. Does the bearing cone for that one-piece crank have 24 or 28 threads per inch? Is the width of that 26-inch tire 1.75 or 1 3/4 inches? (Nope, not compatible; don’t do the math—it won’t help you).

What’s obvious and what’s subtle depends on who looks at the parts. If you don’t know left and right pedals unscrew in different directions, you’ll have a hard time understanding why the righty-tighty rule doesn’t apply to the left pedal.

A newer bicycle is a different kind of puzzle.

Some modern parts are more precisely made than they were in the past. This can be a good thing and a bad thing: a good thing because a drivetrain with oodles of cassette cogs can take you anywhere you want to go; a bad thing because a little inaccuracy—induced by a worn chain or jockey wheel, or a slightly misaligned derailleur hanger—can make you feel like you’re always going to be stuck in the Fifth Circle of Hell.IMG_7565

At the same time, some parts are problematic from the start.

I’m enough of a dinosaur to believe that a bottom bracket with proper British threading is not something to be lightly discarded in favor of a design that takes new parts and a freezer to fix.

(There are a ton of different bottom brackets out there. Maybe the problem with some of them isn’t the idea behind their designs—it’s the execution of it.)

I admire the clean lines of a bicycle with internal cable routing. However, tripling the time it takes the average rider to replace cables because internal guides weren’t part of the bill of materials is not a good strategy for manufacturers hoping for word of mouth leading to additional sales. Some makers do the engineering; others appear to be thinking out of sight out of mind. (If you’ve changed cables on one of the problematic bikes, you may also find yourself out of your mind.)

If you have a bicycle with a cheap bottom bracket and/or cable routing from hell, I feel for you. You don’t have a puzzle to solve. You have a torture chamber to escape.

If only it didn’t cost so much money to bribe the jailer.

Learning to make do.

Back to the old bike. Say you’re looking at an ancient front derailleur, a Simplex. No parallelogram swinging the cage from chainring to chainring—instead, it uses a pushrod design to shove the chain sideways. Maybe the screw that connects the cage to the rest of the mechanism is missing. Find a screw with the same thread as the old one and you’re good to go.

IMG_7574Almost.

The plastic clamp around the frame is broken and you don’t want to mess with it any longer. You pull off the Simplex, chuck it in a junk box (always saving parts—always) and bolt on a SunTour. Or maybe it’s time to install that Campy Nuovo Record you’ve been hanging onto since the 80s. Perfect.

Except the clamp of the new/old front derailleur is a different diameter than the bicycle’s seat tube. Ah, you need a shim. Maybe you cut one from an aluminum can; maybe you cut apart a reflector clamp for the right piece of plastic (shimmery being one of the better uses of plastic).

This is not what you’d do for a Handmade Bicycle Show entry, but if it gets your old bike on the road, shim up and ride.

Puzzle solving.

This is why you have a workshop—and by you I mean me. To make do. Tinker. Not always to spend money and bolt on someone else’s perfect solution. You’ve done that, you’ll do it again, and yep, there’s nothing like shiny, new and well-engineered bicycle parts.

Nope, today you’re doing the best you can with what you have because the solution works, it’s free and, most of all, because puzzles are fun.IMG_7569 2

They were fun when you replaced a broken coaster brake axle when you were 12, and they’re fun today.

Riding a bicycle? It’s a great thing. Fixing the bicycle used to quadruple your walking speed? Priceless. (Sometimes, literally priceless.)

It’s the best use of all those useless bits and pieces you have laying around, things that turned out to have a use after all.

Just as you hoped they might.

Posted in maintenance | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Brand and the bicycle: Elvis has left Italy

IMG_7322Remember when your parents named you? If you’re like me, you don’t. But if you ever applied for a job or visited a doctor, the evidence is overwhelming that, at some point, someone looked at you and thought, “I think this one looks like Elvis.”

Or whatever ridiculous name they stuck you with. I’m looking at you, Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Thanks to your name no one confuses you with your cousin Wilberforce. Likewise, a brand name is a dandy way to tell the difference between a Mr. Coffee Optimal Brew and a Technivorm Moccamaster KBG.

Your name identifies you. A brand name identifies the product that carries it; it distinguishes one product from another.

Brand name versus brand.

If you shorten brand name to brand, you’re talking about something different. Brand is the set of expectations people have for anything carrying a specific brand name.

You might see Brother (brand name) and think about how you can no longer connect your affordable laser printer to your wireless network (brand). You might see Google (brand name) and think “I can find anything” or “Big Brother knows who I am” (brand).

You might see Republican (brand name) and think drunken uncle (brand). Or maybe your drunken uncle (brand) is a Democrat (brand name). Quick check, is Fox News (brand name) on? How did your mother put up with that guy when they were kids?

I used to get paid to think about brand—what people thought about my company and how my company might influence people’s expectations. The company’s brand name didn’t change while I was there, but what its brand represented did.

The company, try as it might, didn’t have as much control of its brand as you might think.

No company does. Brother doesn’t. Google doesn’t. The world changes. People’s priorities change. What it means to be evil changes.

In short, brand changes. And the fine work your company did in 1910 or 1955 is judged differently by the people you hope to influence today—if, that is, the history of the company retains any influence at all.

The name of the bicycle: brand name.

What the name means to you: brand.

Take another look at that head badge in the picture. It’s attractive. It has some style to it. The brand name is spelled correctly. Motobecane U.S.A.

(That’s not a joke, by the way. One way to identify a counterfeit product is misspelling.)

So, brand name, check. The bicycle behind the badge is different from a Huffy or a Cervelo. This is not a bicycle from Belarus, Sweden or Venezuela.

What is this bicycle’s brand?

It depends on who answers the question. I could tell you what I think today and what I thought in 1977. You might have different, though equally valid, reactions to the brand.

That’s because brand is opinion.

Maybe you think this brand represents affordability, or something out of the ordinary, something you don’t see at the local bicycle shop.

The brand behind another brand name might elicit reactions like trend-setting or hand-crafted, traditional or cutting edge, detail-oriented or race-proven.

Let’s shift from rider perception to company intent.

A company that understands its brand plays to its strengths when it comes to market. The cargo bike company Yuba makes “bikes that carry more.” Chumba, based in Austin, Texas, prioritizes “making you a bike, made in USA, that will be fun to ride for years to come.”

What does Motobecane U.S.A. think of its brand? How is the company trying to influence people today?

Are they banking on the long French heritage of the brand? This is Motobecane U.S.A. Different company. Different badge.

One assumes the company hopes the brand name increases the visibility of its products. People still know that Motobecane means bikes, right? Would they judge the same bikes differently if they carried Phoenix or Forever decals?

The second half of the brand name doesn’t clarify the company’s intent. The bike is made by people whose first language is Mandarin Chinese, not whatever version of English is spoken in Chicago or San Diego.

So the U.S.A. part of the name probably means the same it means in a lot of industries: We hope somebody in the U.S.A. buys what we’re selling. Or that somebody in another country buys the North American connection—even if that connection is limited to a few people who know the telephone country code for Taiwan is 866.

Are you buying it?

Why do you buy a Motobecane? A Schwinn? What influences you when you compare Brompton and Tern folding bicycles? Catrike and Terra Trike recumbent tricycles? What’s the difference between Santana and Co-Motion tandem bicycles?

An investment company in Abu Dhabi now holds a majority interest in Colnago. Does that knowledge change your perception of the Colnago brand?

You may have the same name you were born with. But you’ve changed over the years. It’s safe to say the company that makes your bicycle has also changed.

Does it matter?

Posted in Business, Motobecane | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The breakfast ride: Ellen gets carded

Rode to Princeville for breakfast alfresco on Saturday. That’s when I realized the big difference between small businesses and public corporations.

(Given that some corporations are seemingly unaware of any difference between the two groups, this may be useful information for them.)

The difference is greeting cards.

Not email volume, online commerce capability, lobbying prowess or capitalism of the crony persuasion, but good old-fashioned paper greeting cards in paper envelopes—some delivered by the United States Postal Service, some in socially distanced person—all from friends and all saved for future reference by the owner.

Ellen of Ellen’s Diner.

Some greetings come from locals, the people who found the back of the diner a good place to determine and discuss the topic of the day.

Ellen,

We all miss you and are looking forward to being together again! This is getting crazy but feels like an end is in sight. Take care till then. See you soon!

Quite a few greetings come from the retirees who rode bicycles from Alta to Princeville for breakfast every Friday morning. Their cards consistently express the hope that the owner of their favorite hangout continues to hang in there.

Ellen,

You have been so good to the “biker boys” over the years. All of us have had you in our thoughts, as I’m sure you are having a struggle. Hang in there. We need you.

And…

Hang in there! See you soon I hope!

And…

Thank you for being such a good friend and host to me and the Friday biker group. We really appreciate it and hope to see you soon. Miss you. Enclosed is a small gift to help out. Hang in there.

Another envelope with a similar gift inside had just the words, “Stay open.”

That’s what Ellen is doing: staying open; cooking, cleaning, catching up on repairs; paying the bills and the people working for her; and providing carryout and curbside delivery Tuesday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.

And talk about safety—when she walks to the pharmacy down the street, she doesn’t cover just her nose and mouth. She covers her whole head.

She’s SpongeBob SquarePants, dammit.

(Unless she’s Chucky from Rugrats, two oversized heads being better than one. I think she said she has others.)

The only problem with her disguise: Everyone knows who wears the SquarePants in this town.

She’s the character who gets all those cards.

Posted in Report from the road | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

When you don’t see the problem, what do you call the solution?

IMG_7290

Now that we’ve thrown the Serenity prayer out the window, let’s set aside that big thing we can’t control in favor of one of the old things we shouldn’t have to.

Yes. The pedestrian/bicycle beg button. The thing  you’re supposed to push to get the green light to cross an intersection. The thing that’s almost as useful as an unconnected thermostat in an office building, which is another thing that promises control while delivering learned helplessness.

First, an apology.

This is a lousy picture. It’s hard to see what this is a picture of—that little out-of-focus post on the other side of the sidewalk.

Here’s why it’s lousy: I’m riding a bicycle and the button I’m supposed to use to trigger the traffic light is, what, about 20 feet away from the lane?

I’m pretty bad at estimating distances. Just spitballing, I’d say that button is farther away than economic recovery.

Anyway, this isn’t a dissertation on how cities prioritize the movement of people in cars and trucks over people on bicycles and foot. This isn’t even a complaint about beg buttons.

This is a question about the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Shouldn’t it be kicking in right about now?

I don’t expect Peoria to fix a problem—inadequate traffic control signals—that it’s never been able to identify. I waited on my bicycle for a car to trip traffic lights in 1985. I wait for a car to do the same thing today. A beg button is not a solution.

But what about the tech revolution? While the gods of Silicon Valley didn’t set out to destroy New York’s taxi business, they did a pretty good job. The pantheon of pasty white males in their mom’s basements didn’t set out to destroy the newspaper business, but they did a pretty good job.

As far as I know, the tech heads have never set out to destroy beg buttons, traffic lights and car-centric design.

So why hasn’t all that destruction happened already?

Why do we still have beg buttons?

In the absence of planning, shouldn’t it be easier to get around by now?

Posted in Infrastructure, Report from the road | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment