A brief history of how we got here: the speedometer

In the beginning, everything was slow. Everything here on Earth, that is. Comets traveled fast back then. Still do. And light traveled at about the same speed as it does today. But light comes from the Sun and that’s 93 million miles away, and that’s in space.

Up there. Not down here.

Here on terra firma, there was nothing more firma than terra in the old days. Unless a bit of that terra was less than firma and fell off a cliff.

Terminal velocity was always pretty fast. For a while.

But you never knew when something was going to fall off a cliff. Unless you pushed it. But even you knew how that would end.

It always did.

After a while, things picked up. The arrow, for instance. The arrow was pretty cool. But it was the wheel when things really got rolling.

One of our founding fathers, Peter “Maverick” Mitchell, said it best when he said there is more to life than increasing its speed. There is also measuring that speed. (Might have been Gandhi who said that, but, really, how fast was Gandhi?)

All of which brings us to the recent past and one vital question:

How fast are you going on a bicycle when you’re going fast–and how do you tell?

Before batteries

Before everything went all electronic-ky, there was the humble cable-driven speedometer. Down at the axle, a metal ring with two fingers stuck in the spokes propelled the cable through a right-angle gear. Up at the handlebars, the cable entered a small metal box sporting an analog dial and, usually, an odometer. Pretty simple, and yet–how did you choose among all the different models at your local Schwinn dealer?

(If you were on top of a lightweight racing bicycle in the late 1970s, drafting behind a barebones Ford Econoline and immune to the mechanical charms of on-bike instrumentation, you measured your progress toward 55 mph on the van’s speedometer, which you could see through the rear window, just past the driver’s arm.)

Electricity in the air

Bryan Allen had a battery-powered Erisman Pacemeter on board when he pedaled the Gossamer Condor airplane around a figure-8 course to win the Kremer prize in 1977. The Pacemeter had two analog dials–the second was a cadence monitor.

When Allen pedaled the Gossamer Albatross airplane across the English Channel in 1979, he lost track of speed when his batteries reached their expected lifespan two hours into the 2-hour-49-minute flight.*

Batteries get better

CatEye and Avocet released their bicycle computers in the 1980s. The relatively tiny CR2032 batteries in modern-day CatEye Urban Wireless and Padrone cyclocomputers keep going for a year or more. That’s perfect.

(Just remember, when it does come time to repower a wireless computer, you need two batteries, one in the head unit and one in the sensor near the wheel magnet.)

I used to have a CatEye on the handlebars of my single bikes, but when we got our first tandem in 1989, I moved the cyclocomputer to the back; given that most of my miles are on a bicycle for two, I haven’t spent much time since with a screen in front of me.

Batteries get worse

Even when I got a smart phone, I never had a handlebar holder for it. I’d start up the Strava app and stuff the phone in my back pocket. When I got back, I’d retrieve the phone, stop Strava and add weather information to the ride’s record. It was a great system that combined the inconvenience of waiting to see my speed with a dead battery.

Love dem surprises.

Of course by now you might have a separate GPS unit on the handlebars. Garmin, founded in 1989, launched the Forerunner 101 in 2003 and the Edge 205 in late 2005. In addition to speed and location, GPS-equipped riders can potentially monitor everything from pedaling cadence to power output in watts.

If all you need is speed and maybe distance, a GPS unit is overkill, especially when it comes to battery life. My new Wahoo Element Roam has a claimed battery life of 17 hours. A competitor, the Lezyne Mega XL, might ring up 48 hours.

Wow.

And that’s where we are in 2020. 1) The CatEye is perfect but not sexy, 2) everyone has a smart phone and 3) the data nerds have GPS units.

So what’s the next big step in monitoring bicycle speed?

Episode IV–A New Hope

What’s next is simplicity.

Consider a speedometer that anyone can make at home–without a cable, without batteries, and, importantly for those on a budget, without incurring the expense of launching a network of satellites into medium-Earth orbit and maintaining equipment and personnel for a master control station, an alternate master control station, 11 command and control antennas, and 16 monitoring sites. 

Consider the audio speedometer. What could be simpler? You don’t need the distraction of a screen. You need to keep your eyes on the road. Or the trail.

Or that squirrel over there.

By the way: squirrel!

All you need is a playing card and a proper wooden clothespin with a spring. Attach it to the seat stay of your bicycle. Right side, left side–it doesn’t matter which side the card is on, only that it comes into contact with the spokes as the wheel turns.

Feel the need for a ride? You’re ready to go. Just listen to your speedometer.

The faster you go, the louder the sound.

What’s that sound? Why, that’s the sound of speed, my friend.

You gotta be flying.

*Gossamer Odyssey, The Triumph of Human-Powered Flight, by Morton Grosser, pg. 250.

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Things that aren’t bicycles, including bicycles

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Theory: A bicycle is a bicycle unless it’s something else. What else could it be?

Let’s explore.

A bicycle that doesn’t go anywhere is an exercise machine. Or a kiddie ride. Or, as someone who is not me might say, a track bike.

A parked bicycle is an artifact. If it’s beautiful, it’s sculpture. If it’s ugly, it may still be sculpture. (A sculpture can be beautiful or ugly, though if a sculpture is defined solely by beauty or ugliness–if it doesn’t define, enrich, memorialize or challenge the enveloping culture–it isn’t much of a sculpture, and if the sculpture is non-representational it may not be much of a bicycle.)

Parked in front of a fast-food restaurant, a bicycle is an antidote to obesity. Parked in front of a bank, it’s a getaway vehicle. Parked because it needs repair, it’s a collection of parts. Parked because it can’t be fixed, it’s trash. Retrieved from the trash, it is nothing less than hope, all shiny and new.

(Note: A bicycle in a park may not be abandoned. Likewise, if a bicycle is abandoned it may not be parked.)

A bicycle in a book is a literary device that can be ridden by anyone who reads. If a bicycle is never ridden, it becomes another character within the infinity of unwritten Shakespearean tragedies. 

If a bicycle is super light, it’s incredible. If it’s traveling faster than light, it’s impossible.

A bicycle on a hook is a tool in storage. A bicycle on a car’s roof rack is backup transportation. A bicycle leaning against another bicycle is a kickstand. 

A bicycle that doesn’t fall over when released is a tricycle. If it’s likely to fall in any direction it’s a unicycle.

A bicycle that doesn’t exist is an idea. A bicycle that used to exist is a memory. A bicycle in a museum is a piano without keys, art without context, dance without movement.

But what is a bicycle? Because a bicycle can be a bicycle without…

Turns out it’s easier to say what a bicycle isn’t than what it is. A bicycle doesn’t seem to be time, a tree or a river, gravity, the wind or the sun though it links us with all those things.

Maybe a bicycle is a bicycle because it’s something else.

 

 

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Finding a new Peoria inside the old

img_0736Real estate agents say its all about location. So where do you want to be? A better Peoria? Here are a few ideas.

If you’re a real estate agent, look for and promote residential and business locations next to the Rock Island Greenway.

If you’re moving to Peoria, consider a house or apartment near the Greenway.

If you live next to the Greenway, use it. Use your feet or bicycle to explore and connect with Peoria. On the Greenway it’s a whole different place. Promise.

If you live a distance from the Greenway, check for residential streets that connect with it and, by so doing, connect with other human-scale streets in Peoria.

If you’re a small business near the Greenway, promote your location and promote yourself.

If you’re the Peoria Park District, keep up the good work–and look for ways to build and improve on that work. Intersection reimagining and winter maintenance would be great places to start.

If you’re any of the cities along the Rock Island Trail north of Peoria, promote your unique human-powered access to each other and the heart of Peoria–and work with anyone who will help to turn that state-managed trail into a regionally marketable thoroughfare with an all-season surface.

If you’re the city of Peoria, look for every opportunity to go beyond the car-centric planning of the twentieth century. One multi-use trail isn’t enough. Plan human-based spaces and connections.

Because planning just for cars is planning the past.

And people aren’t looking for the same old place.

 

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Shimano Dura Ace 7400 crank, tubeless tires and the art of deception

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring;
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.”

–Alexander Pope


You see the words Shimano Dura Ace, the phrase tubeless tires; you think to yourself, ah, now this will be a bike. And you’re not wrong. But it may not be the bike you’re expecting.

If you’re the kind of person who judges a bike by its parts, this is an interesting one. Besides sporting the most beautiful crank arms of the 1980s or any decade since, this bike also has tubeless Panaracer Gravel King tires in the recently introduced 700×50 size, Shimano SLX hydraulic brakes and a Biologic generator hub.

But if you’re the kind of person who judges a bike by its frame, this is not the kind of bike you usually judge. For this is a Walmart-dispensed Mongoose Deception. That’s right, the kind of thing you’d call a BSO (bicycle-shaped object), an aluminum recycling project, a nightmare.

And you’re not wrong. But it was the frame I had to work with.

It was easy enough to pull off the original parts: the stamped steel crank, the brakes, the chunky suspension fork with minimal travel.

The only part I kept besides the frame was the headset. It was, you guessed it, the headset I had to work with.

It was a little harder to strip off the enormous green decals, and I still haven’t removed all the stickum that held them in place.

(By the way, Deception. Is that not the worst and, at the same time, the most ironically honest name for a big-box bicycle?)

After disassembly, I had the basis for a 29er. I bought a fork and one-speed hub from Surly. I was gifted the hydraulic brakes. I already had the lights and generator hub. The tubeless-compatible Hayfield rims, abandoned for lighter fare, came from the latest-generation Specialized Sequoia, an adventure touring bike no longer offered by that company.

I’ll use the bike to commute to work along the relatively flat Rock Island Trail/Greenway from the Dunlap library to my job at Bushwhacker, the local outdoor store/bicycle shop. I’ve been waiting for a bit warmer weather and a whole lot drier trail.

In the meantime, I’m using it for midday coffee runs. The 40-year-old Eclipse pannier up front–modified with an Arkel cam-lock hook kit–is just the right size for a book, notebook, tools and pump. (I wrote about converting the Eclipse here.)

It looks like the Eclipse brand still exists, though the company has migrated to motorcycle accessories.

I, on the other hand, am pretty happy with the old designs.

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Standing up for single speed

Another winter, another project bike, and this one with a very simple drivetrain. Yep, a one speed.

Why a one speed?

It’s simple. A single chainring, a single freewheel, and an endless chain connecting the two. The only things simpler: 1) a fixed-gear setup–one gear, but no coasting, and 2) a direct drive as found on a child’s tricycle or old-fashioned highwheeler.

It’s elegant. It’s hard to exaggerate the impact of the chain drive on bicycle design. If you commanded a highwheeler/ordinary/penny farthing bike with a 50-inch front wheel in 1891, you could ride 10 mph all day on smooth roads, assuming you could find smooth roads. If you pedaled a safety bicycle with equal-size tires and chain drive in 1897, you could go just as fast or faster–without worrying about flying over the handlebars on a rough stretch of ground. And if you had a bicycle with a chain drive that incorporated a freewheel in 1910, well, you could fly down hills with your feet resting serenely on pedals attached to non-whirling-out-of-control crank arms.

It’s appropriate. I built this bike for an 18-mile commute on the Rock Island Trail, starting and ending at the library in Dunlap. The trail has its ups and downs but it’s relatively flat and mostly protected from the wind, which favors the one-speed approach.

It’s a challenge. Not a challenge to ride but a challenge to build. This particular bicycle frame, like most frames built since the 1990s, features vertical dropouts–the rear axle slides upward, not backward, before being secured into place. The advantage of the design is there’s no way for the axle to slip forward under load. The disadvantage is there’s no way to tension a one-speed’s chain without a derailleur or chain tensioner. You need just the right chainring/cog combination if you’re going to keep it simple, unless, perhaps, you use an Eccentric Eno hub like I did in 2013.

It’s compatible. Modern multi-speed drivetrains work best when the parts all come from one manufacturer. But a one speed works fine whether or not all the parts share the same name. It doesn’t matter whether the components are new or old designs, either. The crank on my bike came from the 1990s. The chainring, chain and freewheel are from the current century. Not sure, but the incorporation of such disparate technology may make me a Time Lord.

It’s light. No front or rear derailleurs. No shifters, cables or housing. One chainring and shorter chainring bolts. Up to twelve fewer cogs (remember, Rotor makes a 13-cog cassette) in the back. The chain is as short as it can be. What does subtracting all that stuff add up to? Less weight. Less maintenance. Less…stuff.

It’s what Alexandera Houchin rides. In 2019, Alexandera won the women’s Tour Divide on a one-speed Chumba Stella Titanium she pedaled through the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico. (When she’s not racing, training, studying or working, she writes a blog.)

It’s a reminder. When you were a kid, this was what you had. A one speed. And you were thrilled with it. You could move three to four times faster and farther on a bicycle than you could on foot.

By the way, you still can. And if, say, the Greenway bridge over Knoxville Avenue in Peoria feels a bit too steep on a single speed, do what I do. Lean forward and get out of the saddle.

Stand up.

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Your best bicycle ride

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Your best bicycle ride is your most recent solo ride.

Or the most recent time you rode with a friend.

Or the time you rode by yourself and your friend caught up with you on Grange Hall Road, not in a planned way but in that way that people who used to ride together every day but haven’t ridden together in years respond to opportunity and weather and potential routes the same way on the same day at very nearly the same time.

(You use the word serendipity because of rides like that and because serendipity is a fun word to say. Hey, you’ve got the time here. Go ahead and say it: serendipity. Fun, right? Your friend, by the way, used to say the word plethora. A lot. Like, all the time. All. The. Frickin’. Time. Despite that, you’re still friends. And that’s a good thing. After all, it’s not like you have a plethora of friends.)

Your friend was about to have a second child, about to name that child after a box of graham crackers, though upon reflection, you now concede that conversation was a long time ago and so it was less likely that crackers were in fact discussed by the nomenclature committee. Which you were not invited to join though you had plenty of suggestions. Graham. Wasn’t that a car maker back in the thirties? Does that make any more sense than the crackers? By the way, you seem to be out of graham crackers. Again.

Maybe the best ride was that time you challenged yourself.

Or maybe the best ride was the only race you ever won, more than forty years ago, because you counted laps in Mount Sterling and sprinted away from a pack filled with riders stronger than you who assumed someone else would count laps and that someone else would not be you. Because, let’s face it, you weren’t—you aren’t—that good at racing. Or math.

Forget that: The best ride was the time you outran that storm.

Or maybe it was the time you didn’t—the time you spent the afternoon at the Spirit of St. Louis airport drying out and drinking coffee. You and your friends cheering the landing and departure of each small airplane.

(There’s that friends thing again. But what do friends have to do with a great bicycle ride? You have to pedal your own bike, unless you’re hanging onto the saddle of an especially strong friend just cranking away between Danvers and Normal. Now that was a ride, like coasting down an amazing hill in a place you hadn’t seen a hill before or since.)

Or maybe the best ride was when a family outside of Jefferson City invited you to roll out your sleeping bag in the living room after a long day pedaling in weather colder than you were ready for. That was the first time you ate fried rabbit, remember? And it was good. Have you had rabbit in any of the years following that ride? No. You have not. Still, you remember that rabbit in Missouri every time one of its relatives tops the green beans in your garden in Illinois.

(You don’t even like green beans. Why do you care?)

But today, today was a great ride. Was it the longest? No. Was it the fastest? God no. Have you ever stepped on a scale without double-checking the warranty? No. You have not.

If you’re like me you’re a steady rider. Your current, average and maximum speeds during any given ride are so slow and so close to being the same thing that sometimes you stop by the side of the road to figure out whether you’re confusing your sense of momentum with your rate of metabolism.

You rest a finger along a prominent vein. You count your pulse for ten seconds and multiply by six. You are not good at math. But you know your pulse is racing.

That means, friends, that you are winning. That this is the best ride.

And it’s not over. Not yet.

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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.

Ironically.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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