Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Build A Better Bike Box

There are times where a simple trunk bag won't do. Now, you could spend $30 on a Swagman Whee Pod or even $100 or so on a Otivia CargoCache trunk and have yourself a good quality lockable bike box, but there are a lot of inexpensive, water-resistant plastic boxes that appear to be made for going on the back of a bike but can't.

Boxes such as, for instance, the Plano 1412 Marine Box. For barely $17, I bought a 15" x 8" x 6.25" box of orange goodness.

Here it is, just resting on the rear rack of my office bike. It just looks at home there, and the bright orange color means it'll be highly visible in traffic. Even though I had recently improved my trunk box with a custom made taillight I didn't want to have to swap it out from one bike to another all the time.

Here's the Plano 1412 sitting next to my existing trunk box:

As large as the black box looks, it isn't that heavy and provides a spacious waterproof compartment for gear. It is particularly useful during the Five Boro Bike Tour to keep your half-eaten oatmeal cookie and souvineer T-shirt or bike jersey from being stolen or rained on. 

Now the hardware you see between the two boxes are what gives the one on the right its value: the screws go in through the shiny silver-colored brackets through the box and underneath the rack where they screw into the black pieces of hardware. While one may be wary when leaving a bag with all your valuables on your bike accessible to thieves with knowledge of Velcro, the lockable trunk box is the peace-of-mind alternative.

So, to make the Plano box work like the other one, I'd have to drill four holes in the box and then replicate the four pieces of hardware. 

The first step was easy: I used the 'nameplate offer and product registration' sheet that had come with the plano box as a template so I'd know where the holes should go.

Next, I found a long piece of flat steel and used a Sharpie to mark where it needed to be cut so I'd have four near-identical pieces of metal. Replicating the pieces above was easy with my 12" Ryobi Drill Press.

Now came the challenging part: replicating the bottom pieces. This would be easy if I knew where my tap-and-die set was (actually, I'm not even 100% sure I have one). Since I was out of luck, I needed to improvise.

I noticed the upper pieces got hot when I used the drill press on them to make the holes, so I thought I'd drill the holes for the bottom pieces. Then, using gloves, I'd quickly move the piece over to the bench vise so I could use an impact driver to force a bolt in, thereby threading the metal.

That didn't go well.

After pulling the damaged bolt out with a pair of vice grips, I decided to wait until the metal had cooled, and then I would balance a new bolt over the hole with the thumb and index finger of my left hand while pushing the bolt in hard with a low-speed power screwdriver with my right hand.

That also didn't go well.

After I washed the cut on my thumb with hot water and applied bacitracin and a Band-Aid, I cleaned up the mess and decided a new approach was necessary.

I returned to the drill press and made the holes bigger than the bolts that were going to go in them, but smaller than the nuts that had come with the bolts. I went into my welding room and plugged in the Lincoln Electric PowerMIG 140c and my exhaust fan. Then I secured the work to the welding table. Next, I put on the welding shirt, welding gloves and welding mask. My plan was to center the nuts over the openings in the steel and then quickly but delicately depress the trigger. I knew by experience that it was incredibly easy to melt steel, and seeing that these nuts were barely the size of my pinky's fingernail, I'd have to be careful. I placed a clamp on the first nut, put the wire against it, and carefully pulled the trigger.

That went well.

It may have been overkill, but each of the four nuts got at least three tiny welds to attach them to the steel. Once everything cooled down, I had my brackets and I was ready to put it all together.

It's excellent, and was worth the cut on my left thumb (it's better now). It's so sturdy when attached to a rear rack you can actually pick the whole bike up by using the handle on the Plano box. Even though I didn't take advantave of Plano's nameplate offer, I decided to personalize the box my way.  And since the 18-letter 'Bikeshop Playground' wouldn't fit, I had to come up with something shorter. 

Tell your friends about DIYBiking. It has all the fun of Bikeshop Playground with half the letters.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Building A Mountain Bike Step 5: Make It Go

This is the chain that I bought on the recommendation of M.C.: A KMC MZ9000 ordered from, and as you can see it comes with a quick link connector which makes the installation easy.

So I put the mountain bike on the Park Tool CS-9 workstand and put the chain on. It took only a few minutes and I was happy to be faced with a step that would be so easy and produce a big result. I threaded the chain all the way through and snapped on the quick release connector before taking a step back to admire my work look at what I had done.

That didn't go well.

I was puzzled. It didn't occur to me the chain would be too long, but here it was. I've been used to chains being too short. When I had to replace the chain on the recumbent, I bought three generic bike chains and spliced them all together to make it the right length. Building a new bike from scratch, I was a bit off.

Then I realized I had no idea of what position the front derailleur should be in for this, and if there was some Magic Link Number I wasn't aware of. The frame didn't come with instructions. The crankset didn't have them, either. Time for some guesswork.

First, I had to undo the quick link. As the name implies, it is in fact 'quick link' not 'quick unlink' so I struggled desperately with it to no avail.  I finally had to use my Park CT-5 mini chain tool and I took out a hunk of chain that had the quick link still in it.

My stupidity was minimized by the fact I was still having fun.

I also had an extra quick link in one of my 304 drawers. When I attached it to the chain, the derailleur pulled it tight, so it looked about right. Tentatively, I pushed down on the pedal. The bike sprung into life. The chain clattered against the cassette and the improperly-placed front derailleur, but it was actually moving. When I tried the shifters, which were still on the stand-in handlebars I had gotten from M.C., the chain moved shockingly easily from one ring to another, but it still clattered and rattled against the front derailler.

It was still progress. Meanwhile, my replacement handlebars and stem, which were the only parts I was waiting for at that point, still hadn't arrived, but I then realized that when I'd tear into that package, I'd at that point be hours from a mountain bike I put together myself.

In anticipation of the first ride, I pedaled the Dahon Matrix six miles north to the Mianus River Park, which is hundreds of acres of land on the Greenwich/Stamford border. At the parking lot I saw a few cars with empty bike racks on it. Good sign. I didn't ride the dirt roads far since the Matrix had such skinny tires, but it looked like a fun place to take the first ride. There was a little mud here and there, which made me remember how filthy M.C. and I looked when we rode together in Wallingford.

I took the long way back and pedaled to Greenwich Bicycles. Even though they had just moved into their new location on 35 Amogerone Crossway and were still getting set up, I found a Topeak Defender Rear Fender on the shelf, paid for it, and it stuck out of my saddlebag on the return ride to Stamford. Even though I learned later the fender didn't get the best reviews, I was determined to stay clean(er) on my soon-to-be-finished mountain bike...and extend the build time, even if only by a few minutes.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Transforming A Tag Sale Find With Help From Organized Clutter

Connecticut tag sales aren't always very good. Sometimes the person holding them uses a Bic ballpoint to write out an impossible-to-see sign that gets stapled on a pole near a busy road. Sometimes things are priced too high or are not priced at all. Sometimes you follow a series of 'huge tag sale' or 'multi-family' tag sale signs all the way out to the middle of nowhere just to find a lot of baby clothes and a Thighmaster.

Other times, you may get lucky and find this:

This, as I'm sure you know, is a hospital bedside table. When I bought it at a Mystic, Connecticut tag sale for $5 it had a different top and some stains on the metal legs (I wiped them off with disinfectant trying not to think what they were). It telescopes to different heights and has been useful moving around the shop.

But the top is from a leftover part of an art table I made for my wife, and I'd like to keep it looking nice since the hospital table sometimes gets called into service upstairs. I also wanted to pursue ways to make the shop easier to clean to begin with, especially when I clean bike chains.

Since my technique of soaking a chain in degreaser is only done in extreme circumstances, most of the time I use a bike stand and a series of chain-friendly degreasers and rags to clean a chain. I always end up getting blobs of grease on the shop floor, which, as you can see in the photographs, are interlocking plastic garage floor tiles. I highly recommend them, but when grease gets on the tiles, they can get tracked all over the shop, the basement stairs, the living room rug, and so on. And it takes longer to clean all of that up than it does to clean a bike chain.

So I hit on the idea of using the hospital table in conjunction with my bike workstand: provided the bike wasn't the recumbent (which takes ten-and-a-half feet of bike chain) I could position the bike so the entire drivetrain was directly over the hospital table to catch the grease. As a bonus, I thought, the surface could be covered with paper.

I quickly cut a piece of scrap plywood to size, and then I located a roll of builder's paper and quickly thought of a way to attach it to the plywood.

Since I was working too quickly I overlooked a few rather obvious points, the first being I was going to use some wimpy pieces of plywood to make a hanger for the paper roll.

That didn't go well.

As you can see I split the wood when I was attaching it to the tabletop, and even if I hadn't split the wood I had a much bigger problem: the heavy roll of paper wouldn't fit under where I envisioned it would go.

I scrapped the project and tossed the pieces of wood in the trash before turning back to my wall of Stack-On Compartment Storage Racks. The most popular version has 39 drawers, and I have six of those, plus three others from a different brand that add another 70 little plastic drawers, which give me a total of 304 little plastic drawers containing anything from wire ties, luggage locks, Band-Aids, parts from a toy locomotive, and so on. Since the drawers are clear plastic, I can look through and see a lot of new things I have bought and a whole lot of old things I have not thrown away.

It is truly a great and inspiring collection of organized clutter, and from one of the drawers I found what I thought would work:

Little braces. Perfect. I also used nuts and bolts from another drawer to keep them in place.

Then I realized I was getting ahead of myself once again: I needed a way to keep the plywood from sliding off the table. I arranged the plywood so it would be mostly centered on the hospital table and used a pencil to mark the edges.

Then I reached into the trash bag near my workbench and fished out the four bits of wood I had discarded minutes before. This time, I made pilot holes so they wouldn't split.

A wooden dowel was what I had planned to use for the roll of paper, and some carefully placed holes created a place where I could stick a random hitch pin to keep the dowel from coming off the eye bolts.

When that was done, I rolled the table away and pulled a sheet of paper over the plywood and took a step back. I decided I had liked what I had done.

I have to say, it works great. I let anything and everything drip from a bike chain onto it, and when I'm done I simply use a utility knife to cut the paper, throw it all away, and pull the roll again so I'm ready for the next project. The next time I have a lot of little kids over at the house, I may use it upstairs so they can have a perpetual roll of paper for coloring and drawing.

It's Sunday morning. It's not a bad day to cruise tag sales and try to find a hospital table, but if you only find ugly suitcases, VHS tapes, and Big Mouth Billy Bass don't get too discouraged.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Donut Lover's Guide To Bicycle Commuting: When You're In Greenwich

When I bought my Honda Element five years ago October, I knew it would be the only car between my wife and I for the forseable future. So when I landed on the Element while searching for a new car, the closest dealership was in Greenwich, Connecticut; a very wealthy suburb of New York City that borders Stamford. Those facts put together meant that if I were to drop the car off for a service, the Metro North would have to be involved, and once I bought it the folding Dahon Matrix played a key role.
Early Tuesday morning, I put the Matrix into the car and drove down I-95 south to take the Arch Street exit into Greenwich. A few quick turns took me past the iconic Miller Motorcars of Greenwich where I peeked at the Bentleys, the Ferraris and the other cars without bike racks as cool as mine.  After I took the first left past Greenwich Avenue, I arrived at the Honda dealership where I promptly removed the Matrix and stepped in to fill out paperwork for the 60,000 mile service.

Once I was finished I got on the bike and pedaled back the way I came, but I didn't have to go far. The Greenwich train station is less than a 1/4 mile from the Honda place, and seeing that there was a nice deli called The Olive Branch just next to it and I knew I'd have to wait for my train, I decided to stop for a donut.

When I went inside though, I was in for a slight letdown: the man behind the counter amiably told me they didn't have donuts that day, so I had to settle on a blueberry muffin. As I found out later, the muffin was quite good, but if you favor donuts The Olive Branch in Greenwich may not be the most reliable option. But the place is so nice you'll feel like you can check for donuts frequently.

With the muffin in the Dahon's saddlebags, I pushed the bike into the station and carried it up the stairs to the platform, where I pushed it gently along, past the men and women waiting to get to work on the next New York bound train, to get to the elevator so I could cross to the other side of the tracks.

Once I got there, I pulled out the little hex wrench I have to carry with the Matrix and transformed the bike into its Metro-North friendly form.

While I was waiting for my train, I paced up and down the platform just watching the morning, and I took a quick picture of the pedestrian bridge I had pushed the Dahon across just minutes before.

Shortly after, one of the new M-8 trains arrived to take the passengers waiting on the New York side to Manhattan.

I wasn't as lucky as those passengers: when my train arrived a few minutes later, it was one of the older, Don Draper-era trains that made headlines over the winter because they broke down frequently. But on the plus side, the ticket from Greenwich to Stamford is only $2.25, and even though the trains are old, they still move at a fast clip. I know this because I own a Garmin Edge 205 bike GPS - a fantastic bike computer in that it can be easily moved from one bike to another - and sometimes I forget to turn it off when I get on a train.

Since there weren't many people on the train, I unfolded the Dahon a minute or two before the train arrived in Stamford, and within fifteen seconds of the doors opening, I was on the road. I headed up Washington Boulevard and passed the Stamford Government Center (just beyond it is the Trump Parc Stamford building which still has units for sale). It was a bit chilly that morning but the sun had finally come out.

I arrived at work without incident, and leaned the Dahon against my office bike and set off on a typical white collar day, only I was expecting a call from Honda around lunchtime to tell me that they had found parrots living in the engine or some other issue that involved a delay and lots of extra money. As it turned out, my paranoia was unfounded: Around 11:30, the garage called and said the Element had no problems and I could pick it up after 1:00. I looked up the outbound train times and planned a just-in-time arrival so I could spend a little time riding around Greenwich. I then looked up the return train times but then remembered why I was going to Greenwich in the first place.

Upon arrival, I rode the Dahon past the Honda place and up some of the side streets. I debated whether I wanted to go to Greenwich Bicycles and say hello to the owner, Rob (who had sold me the Dahon Matrix in the first place) but knowing my inability to grasp time when I'm in a quality bike shop, I changed my mind and remembered my donut denial from earlier that morning.

So I stopped at the Black Forest Pastry Shop on Lewis Street. No donuts. Thwarted again. The black and white cookie I bought was an excellent stand-in.

After the indulgence, I decided to limit my treat intake to only one baked good per day of Honda service. Since the Element has been a pretty reliable car so far, I figured I wouldn't be able to resume the Greenwich Donut Search until mid-summer.

But the day after I got the car back, I received a catalog in the mail from Greenwich Bicycles, and they are having a big sale from April 1 through April 3. It looks like a great opportunity to check out new bikes, browse for new tools, and maybe, just maybe, find a donut in Greenwich. 

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Tandem in Branford

The coastal town of Branford, Connecticut is a stop on the Shore Line East or about an hour (by car) from Stamford if I-95 is in a good mood.

My wife wanted to take a trip there and do some biking together, and we decided to take...the tandem, which, as you can see from the photograph, looks an awful lot like my Dahon Matrix with a slightly modified trail-a-bike attached:

If you have a petite spouse/riding partner, it isn't a bad setup: as you can see I added a bigger chainring for the trail-a-bike for greater speed, a comfortable seat with a suspension seatpost, comfort-gel grips, a rear rack and a bottle holder. I also welded the detachable part to itself so there's very little play or vibration when we're moving. And, unlike a normal tandem, it fits in a car easily.

For this setup I sacrifice my Cane Creek Thudbuster for a solid seatpost which is semi-permanently attached to the trail-a-bike. It's not built for the races, for sure, but it's a nice way to take a meandering ride through a scenic town, and my wife planned to paint and sketch the shoreline once we were to arrive at Stony Creek; about eight miles from where we parked on the main thoroughfare.

We parked just across from a nice looking row of shops, and I took an inventory of possible places to stop for a snack before we set off.

The tandem does rather well in straightaways and level ground, and we mostly had both of those conditions as we rolled into a marina to check out the boats. Like I had discovered in my trip to Rowayton, the marina was deserted and just about every boat was still out of the water.

The closer we got to Stony Creek, the more shoreline we got to see.

The tandem does best on level ground, but neither of us were prepared for the hills: the tandem part has only one speed and the pedals do not have toe clips (and for reasons I cannot fathom I didn't bring my clipless pedals for the Dahon).

Despite the physical challenge, we eventually made it to scenic Stony Creek.

We pedaled out to the dock to see a ferry take off for the Thimble Islands.

My wife wanted to stop for a while and sketch. Meanwhile, I was interested in taking off on my own to check out a metal bridge I could see off in the distance.

In the past when we've taken the tandem out for a Couple's Ride/Sketching Session I've tucked the Dahon's good seat and seatpost into a saddlebags. Unfortunately, I couldn't find my saddlebags that morning (yeah, they are somewhere in the shop) and even though I brought along the much loved Thudbuster I left it in the car, parked eight miles away, because I never figured out how to bring it along.

Undaunted, I decided to allow my wife to sketch the shoreline and go biking with the empty tandem. She took off her water bottle and her kit bag on the back, and I rode it just so.

I find I get a couple of stares when I ride the tandem with nobody on the back. One day, I want to ride around alone on it with a frantic expression on my face and breathlessly ask passers-by: "Have you seen a little boy wandering around who answers to the name of Alvin...or Skip!?"

Since I wasn't in a playful mood, I just smiled at the cyclists and pedestrians I passed while I pedaled off to find the bridge. As it turned out I had stumbled across a real trail.

And before long, I came to the metal bridge. The Dahon did very well on the trail, and the empty tandem bounced and clattered over the bumps.

I disobeyed the last bullet point on the sign: I waited until no one was coming and then pedaled across the bridge. I stopped at the underpass up ahead to take a picture of the tandem in front of the graffiti wall.

I rode on.

And finally, I came to another bridge. This one didn't look like it had been built for a train.

Given the large number of pedestrians, I decided to turn back and see if my wife had finished with her sketch. She did, and she colored it in later and posted it on her blog.

We then began the ride back, and like most married couples, one of us was driving while the other one had the map. And like most married couples, we got lost, but briefly.

After finding our way back to to familiar territory in Branford, we stopped for a frozen yogurt milkshake at Ashley's Ice Cream. By the time we returned to the car and loaded up the tandem, it was 20 minutes to four on a Sunday, and that meant we had 20 minutes before Zane's Cycles would close. Luckiliy, the person behind the counter at Ashley's confirmed it was just a mile and a half away. When we drove up, I could tell right away this was my kind of shop.

I barely had fifteen minutes to browse the store, chat with employees, and admire the selection. I even found a nice new set of handlegrips. Zane's is a great shop and I was glad we made it there before closing. I even struck up a conversation with a mechanic and told him about my blog and my status as a sub-amatuer welder. I then asked if he had any bike frames that were being thrown away I could use for practice. He then said, 'Hang on a minute' and he checked the back of the store. 

And...I came home...with this! Look for it on a Saved From The Scrapheap post, and take a ride in Branford.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Snowbike Season (or: storing the odd-shaped bike)

When winter dawned this year, I was facing it, for the first time, with the right equipment.

A frame that I had picked out of a recycling bin in the Cove neighborhood of Stamford, some scrounged pedals, a seat post and a seat came together with the 26" Complete Ktrak Kit and created a vehicle that sneered expletives at every snowfall.

But now it's spring.

As you can see from the photo, my snowbike isn't exactly tiny and is quite long. When I transported it with my homemade Honda Element bike rack I had to mount the fork to the center, which left the rear track to stick between the front seats for the whole trip to the Adirondacks and back. Now, for the first time, I had to put it away for the season and don't have an abundant amount of basement space.

To store my more normal bikes I settled on a number of Crown Bolt Heavy-Duty Hangers (save for the recumbent which takes a slightly different one). You simply drill a small hole in the rafter in the basement ceiling and gently hang the bike by the front wheel. I haven't had a water problem in the basement in years, but I've slept well with the thought that at least 8" of water would have to fill the basement for the bikes to be touched, and if 9" of water ever did get into the basement, I'd have bigger worries than the condition of my bicycles.

Since the snowbike is so long with the ski attached, there's no way it would work on the hanger as it. So I remembered the Fuji Espree from the first Saved From The Scrapheap post: I used the rear wheel for the recumbent, but I still had the useless front wheel. This gave me an idea.

I had used bolt cutters before when I was first building the snowbike, and they once again came to my aid when the time came to put it away for the season. I liked that bolt cutters were bookending this project - much like the spinning license plate in Back to the Future I and III.

After fishing the little spoke bits out, I had this:

It still works, obviously. When I removed the front ski and stuck it on the snowbike fork, the uneven basement floor tried to roll it away from my workbench.

I then found a piece of mountain bike tire (unused) and cut it into a 3" length to cover it so it would stay put on the hook. I found a smaller hook from which I hung the ski.

When I was done, I truly realized that winter was over.

So the snowbike has been put away. It hangs proudly next to my Dahon Matrix.

And on the first full day of spring much of Connecticut (including Stamford) got snow. Not enough to justify taking the snowbike back out, but more than enough to annoy. I'm going to wait a while before I take the ice scraper out of the car

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Building A Mountain Bike Step 4: Make It Stop

Thanks to the helpful bike shop employee in M.C.'s hometown of Wallingford, I had one less step when I got to building the brakes. So now that I was done with Step 3, Consult an Expert I moved right along to Step 4: brakes.

I had only been recently introduced to disc brakes. My 2009 Dahon Matrix came with a set, and M.C. had long assured me I'd enjoy the reliability of disc brakes over caliper. He had been right about my longtime aversion to clipless pedals (once I went to clipless in 2006 I'll never ride with anything else) so I had no reason to doubt him on disc brakes.

The rotor above is 175mm, and you'll notice it has six holes in the middle for mounting to a wheel. If your bike has caliper brakes you need brake mounts for the hardware AND a wheel that is set up with the six holes. Disc brakes, which are more reliable and work better in wet weather than caliper brakes, are becoming more common on mountain bikes and the prices of non-disc brake wheels are often noticably cheaper (hence the great wheels I bought for my Office Bike).

One problem I had with this part of the build: the stem and handlebars I had ordered for the bike hadn't arrived. They were working their way across the country and the company I bought them from had sent me one of those links so you could see what phase of the transit your package was in. I didn't bother checking it, because there are only two phases a package can be in that interest me: 'Delivered' or 'Not Delivered.'

Since the package was 'Not Delivered' I left the stem and handlebar from M.C. on the bike so I wouldn't run the risk of making the cables too short.

When you identify which frame cable mounts are for which cables, they look rather impressive when you put them in place.

For this installation I used the same kit I had used for the snow bike, which is a Nashbar Mechanical Mountain Bike Disc set. It's a decent system for the price, and don't get intimidated when you take all the parts out of the bag.

It's all so simple, really: your goal is to make the bike stop when you squeeze the handle. The cable pulls the brake pads toward the rotor and the wheel slows down, and stops. The brake kit mounts on the frame with two holes, and, as noted with the snowbike project, there is some play in the openings so you can adjust the position of the brake around the rotor.

I had no need for bolt cutters with this bike frame. Unlike the snowbike, the brake went on easily, and with the levers on the stand-in handlebars, all it came to was adjustments. The little hex bolt was the most frequently adjusted bolt of the build so far. The cable needs to be taut, the rotor can't rub against the pads when your hand isn't on the brake, and the whole thing just needs to be perfect. A chain skipping on a derailleur or a bent outer chainring are all problems, but they're more of a 'nuisance' problem rather than a 'dangerous' problem. Not having brakes is a dangerous problem, so make sure you get it right.

Soon enough, I did get it right on both the front wheel and the back wheel.

You'll notice the wheel is spinning in this photo. I used my hand to spin the wheel as hard as I could, then I'd reach over for the brake lever and squeeze. The wheel would stop instantly. I'd spin it again and gently compress the lever, and the wheel slowed down. I did the same for the front wheel and got the same result.

Finally, I spun the rear wheel as hard as I could, and while it was still spinning I spun the front wheel as well. Then, instead of squeezing the brakes, I took a few steps back in the shop and was almost taken aback by what I saw on the Park Tool PCS-9: it looked like a mountain bike. It still had no chain or shifters, but it looked the part, and the spinning wheels were making the bike move back and forth slightly on the workstand, as if it wanted to get off. It was a Batman Begins moment: everything was taking shape, coming together, and the music from Hans Zimmer was building (I may have been listening to the soundtrack at the time).

Since that, I began checking the FedEx link for the handlebars package several times a day.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)