Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category

NOW, with mechanical brakes

July 25, 2008 6 comments

A few weeks ago the hydraulic disk brakes on my bike tried to kill me.  I took it to the mechanic (it’s still under warranty) and said; “Put mechanical disk brakes on it”.  He said; “Naww, you don’t want to do that!”  So I said; “OK, I’ll give ‘em another shot.” 

Another shot at killing me, that is.  Last week they failed again.  In the space of one mile they stopped working.  Better than the previous time when they just suddenly quit, spraying hydraulic fluid everywhere, but still.

I again requested, but did not expect, that the bike shop install mechanical brakes.  There are many reasons why they could have legitimately refused.  For one, there’s really no way for the shop to be reimbursed; warranties cover repairs, not modifications.  For another, there are millions of bikes with hydraulic brakes and they’re generally considered the top braking solution.

But Bloomington Cycle & Fitness, 712 E Empire St in Bloomington, IL, went beyond the call to reassure a nervous customer and installed some very expensive mechanical brakes to replace the hydraulics.  (Click the pic for a closer view).

So my thanks to them, even if they are not convinced of my sanity.  If you live in McLean County, Illinois and you’re looking for a good bike shop, give them a visit.

  • Here’s a forum discussion on the pros and cons of hydro vs mech disc brakes

  • And after a few days, having used both hydraulic and mechanical disc brakes on the same bike, here’s my comparison: The hydraulic brakes had MASSIVE stopping power, but not as good control.  The mechanical brakes have notably less stopping power, but much finer control.
  • Please note in comments below that I do not think hydraulic brakes have any reliability problem; just the particular set on this particular bike. 


Elite transportation

June 27, 2008 12 comments

One of the trends I have noticed lately on campus is the explosive growth of custom bikes.  Somewhere there’s a bike shop that takes old but high-quality frames (maybe a 10-speed racer from the 1970’s) and tricks them out with the latest high-tech components, like track gears, double-wall wheels, and LED taillights.  These bikes are usually ridden in any weather, which I love to see.

But the majority of bikes I see creaking around are mass-produced cheapo machines from discount stores.  These pieces of junk are, in my not-so-humble opinion, the main reason that many adults regard bicycles as an impractical way to get around.  It is not possible to properly adjust their gears and brakes, so they don’t work well enough to be good mechanical stewards of the rider’s muscular energy.  In addition, nobody at a discount store will make sure the bike is adjusted correctly, which again makes them much harder to ride.

Many bike shops refuse to work on discount-store bikes.  It isn’t just elitism or dealer protectionism; it is literally a waste of time to try to fix them.  They are broken when they leave the factory.  I’m going to talk a little bit about how to distinguish a good bike from a crappy one. Because as bikers like to say,
“Friends don’t let friends ride junk”. More detail below the fold…

In this illustration are two bikes; a reasonably well-made bike (the black one) and a dime store special (the red one).  What makes one an example of practical transportation and the other an example of why Wal-Mart is not the answer to every material need?

The first clue is that the dime store bike is overly flashy for the price.  It just seems to be trying to impress you.  See the complicated frame? It’s a “soft tail” which means it has a shock-absorber system for both the front and rear wheels.  This is great if you are a professional rider and you need to handle 6-foot drops without breaking your back.  Billing itself as a “Power Climber” – LOL – it assumes you are in top competitive shape for riding.  But for getting around town, you’re going to lose a lot of energy squishing the rear shock absorber up and down.  Soft tail bikes can be done well but they start at about $600 – and this one was about $100.  It is, to put it bluntly, a fake, and it will work like one.

The other bike shown here is a diamond frame, which has a hard tail and is simpler and far more efficient. (More on frames later) It probably cost around $250 and was worth every penny.  And as we discuss the differences between them, I hope to show that it’s worth going well above even that figure.

The fat tires on both bikes are fine.  On city streets, you want fat tires.  I can ride right over a pot hole or a storm grate without much hazard on my bike (though I avoid them for comfort’s sake of course).

Take a look at the cranksets – the part you actually pedal.  In the dime store bike, it is a single forged piece of steel; cheap to manufacture but heavy.  (Be sure to lift any bike you’re thinking about buying.  Could you carry it up stairs?) At least it won’t break because you won’t ever ride this bike far enough to induce metal fatigue.  The crankset on the good bike is 3 pieces: a steel axle with two aluminum levers.  This makes sense because axles carry a far heavier load than crank arms. But I have seen crummy bikes with really cheap 3-piece cranksets.  It still comes down to the quality of the whole bike.

Plastic pedals appear on a lot of bikes up to about the $300 range but the better plastic pedals will be very sturdy and spin smoothly.  Cheap plastic pedals have a lot of friction and under heavy use, they break.  Really good pedals are usually cast, forged, or machined out of aluminum.

The dérailleurs (gear-shifting machinery) of a bike are usually made by Shimano or Suntour, but try a test ride and see how smoothly they work.  Either Shimano has a crap-line or somebody in China is making fake Shimano parts. (Unthinkable!) You should be able to shift gears smoothly and without incident. 

Brakes should be powerful and smooth – so powerful in fact that you will need to move your weight toward the rear of the bike when braking hard to avoid tipping over the handlebars.  (This motion will become automatic as you learn to ride)  If the brake mechanism looks cheap, and if the brake shoes do not align with the wheels, steer clear.  Disc brakes are great in wet weather.

Notice the seat tube – between the frame and the seat.  Both these bikes have steel seat tubes with horizontal-bolt adjusters at the top under the seat.  No advantage to either bike here but the best seat tubes are aluminum with a single vertical hex screw at the top that loosens the clamp for adjustment.  The seat itself should be well-made with a depression in the middle to avoid damaging your penile nerve.  To put it crudely, your weight should be borne on your ass-bones, not your crotch.

If you are of the female persuasion, you will want a woman’s seat on your bike.  (Since women no longer wear petticoats, there’s less distinction today between the sexes than there used to be in the design of the actual bike.  But bike seats are the beneficiary of a lot of anatomical refinements).  Some bike shops may change the seat on a new bike purchase.

Shock-absorbing front forks make things a lot easier on your wrists, and help keep the bike under control.  As you might imagine, this is a major area for clues on quality.  The cheap bike has an upper fork made of welded steel; it is both heavy and weak.  The “shocks” may be cheap springs with friction dampers, or they may actually be pneumatic with adjustable vents and locking for efficient travel on smooth roads.  But I’d rather have high-quality plain forks than low-quality shock forks.

The gooseneck is a quality indicator.  It’s the part that connects the handlebars to the frame.  Basically you’re looking for good quality finish.  I have seen cheap goosenecks break from metal fatigue.  Larger diameter tubing is better here.  Take a look at the handlebars.  Grips should be deeply textured and high quality – if they seem thin and cheap, they are.  Make sure the shifters are comfortable and easy to use.  (I hate “grip shifters” but they have infested even some high-quality bikes)

Study the frame.  Especially compare the cheap frames with the really expensive ones.  Quality beats complication every time.  And for general use, you want a diamond frame bike, so named for its triangular frame sections. The frame can be made of high-strength alloy steel, aluminum, titanium, or carbon fibre composite, but by the time you get to the last two you’re up in the stratosphere, price wise.

Really cheap bikes have steel wheels.  This matters because heavy wheels have double-inertia to overcome – you need to not only make them move forward, but turn as well.  Then comes aluminum, and then double-wall aluminum, and then carbon fibre composite.  Spokes are usually stainless steel but may be titanium or carbon fibre composite. 

Don’t buy a bike without riding it, and herein is the most important advice:  set aside your preconceptions of how much you will spend.  Test ride a really good bike (I mean something in the over-$500 range at a reputable bike shop) at the beginning of your bike shopping experience.  Have the bike shop adjust the seat for you and show you how to use the gears before you ride it.  If you are not familiar with bike gears, experiment with them a lot, shifting up and down (don’t worry about what “number” gear you’re in, just get a feel for them).  Test the bike thoroughly, at least ten minutes. (Leave a friend in the bike shop as collateral) Get a feel for the bike responding to you.

All good?  OK, now you can try the cheaper bikes.  Go ahead and try one of the Wal-Mart specials.  Go back to the bike shop and try something in the $300 range.  Try something in the over-$1,000 range.  Try different styles of bikes – mountain, hybrid, cruiser, etc. Try different bike shops – a really good bike shop is your friend. And keep in mind, that’s not necessarily the big bike shop – I recently bought a great bike from a mom ‘n pop store.  Take notes.  Take your time.  Now go home and think.  Don’t be in a hurry.  Go back and test-ride your most likely machines again.  Think about the bike as transportation.  Think about $4 gas.

One alternative is the aforementioned custom bike.  If you have a local bike shop with a reputation for creativity, they might have a stable of customized older bikes that would be a real pleasure to ride.  (This is something that certain bike shops do in the winter when business is way down – they rebuild and customize old bikes) I’d take a tricked-out 1965 English 3-speed over the “Power Climber” any day.  Recently I saw a fully-rebuilt Bridgestone MB3 in a bike shop for $225 – a bargain (since they sold for $500+ new). Some high-quality older bikes may have steel frames or wheels, but they used high-strength alloy steel so they were still fairly light.

Unless you are ready for major lifestyle changes, a bike is not a total replacement for a car.  My basic rule is; “Buy a cheaper car and a more expensive bike”.  Many of my friends have told me they never imagined how much fun it is to ride a really good bike.  And, how practical because they ride it enough to stop caring about the weather.  A couple have lost weight.  One even relinquished his parking space – a savings of about the cost of his bike each year.  A couple have told me; “You know it’s funny, but I really don’t care about the price of gas anymore”.  Easy to do when you cut your driving in half; I put about eight gallons of gas a month in my car.  Some months, less.

Elite transportation is muscle – your muscle.  To me, philosophically, it’s the purist, most elemental way to get around, whether you use a bike, rollerblades, a skateboard, a scooter, or just plain old shoe leather.  For too long we’ve let our cars dictate where we live, what we wear, where we shop, how we handle traffic, even what income we need to have.  We think that being owned by machines is something from science fiction, but if you can’t go up two flights of stairs on your own power without getting out of breath, what else would you call it?  So break loose, already.

What’s your favorite muscle-powered way to get around?

Quote of the day

June 15, 2008 1 comment

What?!!! I thought it was every American’s duty to spend, spend, spend:

“Given the way gas prices were going, the way traffic is, the difficulty of parking, I realized a car just wasn’t that cost-effective,” said Glynn, 41, a 5th-grade teacher in Bucktown. “So I never got around to buying another car.”
- Chicago Tribune: More commuters choose to pedal right past pumps, 15jun08

Yeah!  What he said!



Hydraulic brakes can fail

May 22, 2008 5 comments

A few years ago as I approached a busy intersection, the brakes on my Chevvy Astro went right to the floor.  I sailed through the red light and coasted to a stop on the other side.  A brake line had ruptured.  My survival was luck, not skill.

Then there’s today.  Two of my office mates and I were riding somewhat competitively back to the office after a coffee break, and I took a shortcut toward some stairs.  Though I was moving pretty fast, my bike has hydraulic disc brakes just like a car, so I knew I could drop a lot of speed before reaching them.


The brake handle collapsed and fluid gushed out.  NO front brakes.  On a bicycle, if you don’t know, the front brakes provide just about all of the stopping power.  Now I’m moving much too fast and about to go down some stairs… and then crash into a building.

It was a rough ride but I didn’t crash.  I don’t know how many thousands of hours I’ve spent on a bike in my life but they must have made a difference. And that (new) bike is going back to the shop.


March 28, 2008 Comments off

My friend Pete has been commuting on a bicycle for one year.  Here’s a sample:

  • I’ve noticed the seasons a bit more. Nuances in the way Summer slips into Fall and Fall slips into Winter are just stunning.

  • I’ve lost a bit of weight. I’m down at least 10 pounds due to biking…

There’s also a pic of his bike after a year’s commuting in all weather; it’s holding up very well (“Friends don’t let friends ride junk”) and so is he.  If you’re thinking about ditching the car, check it out.

Maglev derailed

March 27, 2008 3 comments

This just in from the “Department of flying cars”… German plans for maglev derailed.  Apparently they were too expensive.  Can anyone explain to me what pressing issue is solved by maglev trains that is not solved by trains with wheels?  I mean, the wheel’s been around a long time for a reason.

cold weather biking strategies

February 19, 2008 6 comments

I noticed this van parked on Normal Avenue while riding home from work this evening:

We have some heroically hard-core bikers on campus, riding minimalist track-bike style custom jobs with sew-up tires.  I go the luxury route, riding a mountain bike with 21 gears, KoolStop brake pads, extra-strength wheels, front shocks and fat tires.  It’s the bicycle equivalent of an SUV.  Since it’s often dark in the winter, my bike lights up like a UFO with LED taillight and headlight, and fully DOT-tape reflectorized, even the hubs and wheels.  One of my sons pointed out that while the illumination scheme protects me from the accidental collision, it’s easier targetting for those who are trying to hit me.

Anyway, bicycling in very cold weather requires some strategizing against the freezing of one’s ass.  Every cold-weather rider has their own coping mechanisms.  You won’t see many heavy winter coats; more likely windbreakers with layers.  I’ve even seen guys in Spandex well below zero.  Oversize helmets make room for stocking caps or hoods.  Gloves are an individual matter, ranging from ski gloves to thin high-tech materials.  There are lots of different kinds of face masks, which is in indication that none of them is perfect.

I’m a bit of a wimp; when the temperature drops to single digits and the wind picks up, my own kit is significant armor.  I wear a thin cotton jacket with a windbreaker shell, the hood pulled up over my stocking cap and a pair of ski goggles capped with a helmet. If that doesn’t sound like much, a 100kg person generates a lot of heat riding a bike.  My gloves are a pair of cotton glove liners in cheap cotton gloves, which works surprisingly well for under three bucks.

One thing I don’t do is listen to an iPod while I’m riding.  My hearing’s bad enough and the approach of a nearby truck is the sort of detail I prefer not to be surprised by. I also leave the bike at home when the streets are icy.  When they come up with a tire that really grips ice, I’ll ride on ice.

Another thing I noticed this evening is that when you ride across the Quad you needn’t stick to the sidewalks in cold weather.  Nobody’s out playing flag football and the frozen ground offers little rolling resistance.

Notes and links:

  • I don’t expect to save the world by riding my bike; it’s more of an accommodation to my low boredom threshold.

  • The van owner is right that riding a bike is environmentally better than driving a car, though.  Every little bit helps. Big bits help too: there’s a really big environmental bang for the buck to be had from shelling out for protection and restoration of tropical rain forests.  It might be much more cost-effective than some of the fancier carbon-sequestration schemes out there

Anyone up on rail technology?

November 7, 2007 4 comments

Anybody carrying around a cache of railroad technology knowledge?  Is this just a giant rail-slurper, or was it conditioning the rails it picked up somehow?

I’ll do a later post about this thing after I learn more.  There were old rails lying alongside the track in maybe 25-yard lengths.  This contrivance was followed by about a mile of flatcars and preceded by a crane with some workers.  As they came to each old section, they’d cut new bolt-holes with a cutting torch, and bolt the old rail to previous sections on the flatcars and slurp the rail up off the ground in mile-long lengths.  It was the damndest thing to watch…

Holding a short length of rail in my hands, I wouldn’t think it could be very flexible but I suppose it has a natural bend radius like anything else. As the men worked it and the machine slurped it up, it seemed about as flexible as dry spaghetti.  OK, dry spaghetti made of steel and weighing 139 pounds to the yard…

A question about highways

September 29, 2007 2 comments

I’m trying to figure something out.  Should Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) be subject to regulation, or should trucking companies be encouraged to set their own limits?  Explain.

Fastest bicycle, craziest rider

August 29, 2007 5 comments

A human being working at maximum output generates just about a kilowatt, or a scoche more than one horsepower.  It’s interesting to see how much you can do with only a little power:

Science Daily — This October, Jerrod Bouchard will attempt to become the fastest college student to be propelled by his or her own power.

Jerrod Bouchard (left) is determined to break the collegiate human land speed record this fall.  The senior in mechanical engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla, will try to break the collegiate human-powered land speed record of 61.5 mph Oct 1-6 in Battle Mountain, Nev.
- Student Hopes To Break Human Land Speed Record Using Bullet Shaped Bicycle

I can appreciate that.  Once I hit 26 mph on a straight-level riding my bike, but I about croaked from the effort.  The fastest I ever went on a bike was 55 mph, but that was headed down highway 12 on the East side of White Pass in Washington State, in about 1972.  A friend and I were bike-packing from Vancouver, BC to Ellensburg and we’d camped near the top.  On the way down, we got into the exhilaration of speed and pedaled like mad, tucked into the smallest cross-section we could muster.  (It’s also possible we had wind behind us – conditions were prit’ near ideal)  A Ford LTD pulled alongside us and the passenger grinned at us and flashed his hand 5-fingers-twice.  After a bit, we ran out of breath and coasted for miles, heading down into the Yakima valley.

Of course, we were idiots.  The sew-up tires on our bikes were not made for that kind of speed.  Nor was the road really smooth enough.  Sometimes you just look back at dumb things you did and wonder how the hell you survived…

Today instead of an Italian touring bike, I ride a Chinese mountain bike.  I probably never get over 20 mph anymore.  Pathetic.

Hope the guy breaks the speed record!  If he survives, it’ll probably help him get a job at some company that makes electric cars or something.