Monday, January 30, 2012

I've Got a Roomba In My Shop and I'm Not Afraid To Show It

If you want to keep your workshop clean, you have two options: clean your workshop regularly or change the definition of the word 'clean' to match whatever state your workshop is in. Either way, if someone asks if your shop is clean you can always spin your reply by starting with “Well, I wouldn't build computer chips in it, but...”

I admit that my wife and I have different definitions of the word, but I do like a 'clean' workshop. I don't like having to step over things and as you've noticed in earlier posts about my organized clutter, I like being able to find something within a month (two, tops) of starting a search for it. I'm not one of those people who can reach into a pile of stuff and find the exact item they were looking for, and the way I treat my tools, bikes and other stuff reflects that. Sort of. 

There's one thing I've found about keeping the shop clean: it's hard. Especially since it gets completely messy in what seems like a short amount of time. But I've done a lot of thinking and I'm convinced there is 'gateway clutter' that can quickly push a clean workshop to the dark side.

In my shop gateway clutter starts at the ground level. If I let just one tablespoon of sawdust stay on the floor for more than 24 hours it begins to spread. Before the 36 hour mark, there won't just be enough sawdust under my sneakers to build a few pieces of IKEA furniture, but there will be a banana seat on the workbench, a frame lying on the diner booth table, and enough parts on the floor to build at least three bikes – even if I only took apart one. For instance: one day I went to the shop just to add a bottle cage to one bike and by the time I was done I was left with this:

Yes, it all starts when stuff other than my feet and rolling tool cabinets touches the floors. If the same is true for your shop, I've found there are a couple of ways to stay ahead of the gateway clutter. The first one is a shop vac. I have a six horsepower Craftsman Wet Dry vac that is powerful, but it is also cumbersome and a chore to set up, especially since part of it is stored beneath the chop saw and the hose hangs near the water heater. When I realized that not wanting to commit to setting up a garbage truck-sized vacuum was leading me to avoid the task entirely, I went ahead and got what turned out to be the Fiat 500 of shop vacs:

This is a RYOBI ONE+ vacuum that, yes, runs on Ryobi's 18v battery. It's small, powerful, nimble - and if you buy one you'll have little recollection of how you got along without it before. As my wife and I discovered, it was not only useful in the shop, but it was perfect for vacuuming out the car. And getting rid of the spiderwebs in the fireplace. And getting the edges of the baseboards. And cleaning behind the bathroom sink. on. This vacuum's versatility became my shop's downfall as it hasn't been there to clean it in months. It only shows up from time to time for a fresh battery before promptly leaving again. What was the Fiat 500 turned into Kramer from Seinfeld (though it only borrows batteries; not turkey basters or sink strainers).

So I needed a vacuum that would only be used in the shop, be easy to use and wouldn't be likely to be brought elsewhere in the house. One day, on eBay, I found what I thought was the answer.

Stay with me just a moment: yes, this is a Roomba, a robotic vacuum cleaner from iRobot. Somewhat similar to the embarassing purchase of the A-Bike, it was really one of those days when I bid very low and couldn't believe my auction triumph later. I thought the Roomba would be able to handle the sawdust, dried mud from bike tires and metal filings that made up the gateway clutter in my workshop. I also thought it would be nice to not have to do any physical effort with the cleaning.

My wife's face showed an awful lot of skepticism when I explained all this.

When the Roomba arrived, I learned from flipping through the owner's manual that I could purchase a self-charging home base for this entry-level model so the robot could return to the base to charge itself when it was running low on power. For about $120 and a visit to, I could also buy a iRobot Scheduler and a charging base so the Roomba could be scheduled to go clean the shop on a regular basis without my input. Since that was more than twice what I paid for the Roomba and my used robot was unproven, I decided to hold off on such a commitment.

Turns out, the iRobot people should consider marketing this thing in bike stores. Because I found that when you clean several chunks of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom off your mountain bike, the dried mud lands on a small area.

The 'spot' button on the Roomba sends it spiraling about in a small area; thus cleaning said area.

All isn't perfect with the Roomba, at least with this model. For starters, it is quite noisy so I don't understand how anyone can just hang out in the room and watch it work. And since the travel patterns on the floor are a bit unpredictable I wasn't keen on staying in the shop anyway for fear of stepping on the thing. So, on the morning I decided to use it to clean the whole shop, I turned it on just before leaving for the day.

When I got home the Roomba was in a different part of the shop than it had been that morning, and at first glance the floor was clean. However, I noticed a few small spots it seemed to have missed. I wondered if it was running out of power before its time or if it was just confused about the perimeter of the shop. I decided I needed to find out if it was covering the entire shop floor, but as I was unwilling to watch it work or to cover the floor with white flour, I thought I could set up small obstacles that were light enough for the Roomba to knock over but large enough not to get caught in the wheels. After a few minutes of searching, I had my solution.

Yes, I had a lot of action figures when I was a kid. But only a small number of the toys survived their time with me (If you recall the film Toy Story, I was more of a 'Sid' than an 'Andy').

The extreme age may have discolored some of the survivor's limbs, but as you can see I have an identifiable B-Wing pilot, Chewbacca, The Guy Luke Knocks Into The Pit, Ewok 'A' and Ewok 'B' (I haven't played with these things in a quarter of a century. Like I'm supposed to remember their names), a circa 1977 R2-D2 and Indiana Jones disguised as a Nazi guard. I know Indiana Jones is not a member of the Star Wars cast, but I had a pretty active imagination growing up.

I decided to set the action figures up at various intervals around the floor. I figured if the Roomba could knock over them all, it was probably covering the entire workshop.

So on a Tuesday morning, I set the fully charged Roomba up, hit the button, and left the house to go to work. When I came home, I discovered the Roomba did in fact knock over all of the action figures. Some of them were quite a number of feet from where they had started, but they were all lying flat. My workshop had become a Kenner Jonestown.

Even though the floor wasn't completely clean, it was cleaner than it was before and I didn't have to vacuum it myself. Later, I discovered the battery just wasn't taking a good charge, and I ended up getting a replacement battery as a gift for Christmas. The Roomba has done a much better job since.

So, there you are. If you want to keep your shop clear of the gateway clutter and don't want the hassle of a shop vac,  a used Roomba might be the droid you're looking for.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Special Report: The First 2012 Snowstorm

If you live in Connecticut, now isn't the best time to be a committed cyclist. Yes, you can ride your bike indoors on a trainer or on rollers and if you want to ride outdoors, you can wear a large number of layers before setting off.

Unfortunately, there are limits. I can take being cold most of the time - I did live in New Hampshire for eleven years - and the day the picture of the Bike Friday was taken I was wearing five layers on my torso, two pairs of gloves and a balaclava. Unfortunately, what I own isn't a Louis Garneau Matrix balaclava, which is what my dad swears by, but a cheap alternative I was fooled by. As a result, my boogers froze, which is a Superman,-meet-Kryptonite! moment for me, so I turned back.

Yesterday was a different story. I did wear most of what I had worn before, but the wind after the first storm of 2012 the wind wasn't nearly as bad. The four-glove combo worked alright (that consists of thin wool gloves and traffic cone-colored ProMar Fish Gloves from Cabela's flagship store in East Hartford, Connecticut. I wanted them because I was interested in good gloves to wear while riding at night. It works fine but I will eventually break down and buy some lobster gloves. From what I understand I'll look like the Nightcrawler from X-Men dressed for winter, but I'll be warm).

As you can see I took a ride to West Beach. The timing for the snowbike was perfect in that the roads weren't plowed and the snow was fluffy and not too deep. I mistakenly donated the pedals of that bike to the Trifigura Foundation's Work & Learn Business Center during the Domus Bike Drive, so I borrowed the pair from the Dahon Matrix.

It was a huge breakthrough, because even though my feet were a little cold during the ride the snowbike moved faster and easier as I was wearing bike shoes and using clipless pedals rather than heavy boots. So I was able to make it to the end of Shippan Point before riding across the field and straight to West Beach. Meanwhile, Pacific Swim Bike Run had one of their classes that morning and posted a picture of it on Facebook: people lined up on carbon fiber works of art attached to trainers in their beautiful shop. I think it's only because they probably don't have enough snowbikes to go around.

I'm looking out the door right now and I can see the roads still aren't favorable, so either build a snowbike with a Ktrak kit or ride indoors this fine Sunday morning. Either way, dress accordingly.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Saved From the Scrapheap: The Mysterious Raleigh Sports

When we last left the ladies Raleigh Sports that nice woman in my neighborhood gave me, I had just cut the lock off in my attempt to think like a wily bike thief. Now I was left with a filthy, dusty and beautiful bike.

This three speed work of art was made in Nottingham, England. At first, all I had to go on for other information was by what was on the down tube, which told me the bike's point of retail origin was Vic's Cycle Shop in Stamford, Connecticut. The label said Vic's had Bicycles and Lawn Mowers “Sales & Service” and was located on 293 Shippan Avenue. Unfamiliar with any bike shop/lawn care equipment hybrids in my neighborhood, a quick bike ride to that address only yielded a laundromat.

Later, I did a Google search for Raleigh bicycles and came across a blog by a man named Sheldon Brown – and an article he wrote on how to tell how old a Raleigh three-speed was by checking for a two-digit number stamped on the Sturmey-Archer rear hub. I wiped off enough of the grime on the hub to find the number 72, which, if what he wrote was correct, meant the bike may have been made in 1972. But another clue on the frame (the word "Sports" printed on the down tube) suggested the manufacturing date was 1968. I wanted to send a note to Brown to ask him more questions about the article but discovered he had died in February of 2008.

Even though I couldn't find the bike's definitive birthdate and origin story, I did know that someone – in Shippan Point, where I live today – sure loved this bike and used it for city riding. Not only were there farmer's market-ready baskets on the back but a bell on the handlebars that I rather liked. 

The bike left England with a beautiful crank...that I thought had some turns left in it.

The baskets, the seat, the bell - everything about this bike screamed: we have to make a run to the grocery store. So I decided that's where it needed to go.

I set to work cleaning the Raleigh. Not only was there a lot of dust on every available surface, but the three-speed internal hub was frozen. I sprayed a little lubricant into the hub's opening and gave the cable a few pulls to free it up. I wasn't sure what else to do since the only thing I know about internal hubs is that you can't usually put bikes that have them on trainers.

Thankfully, the cracked tires held air. A quick ride across the shop floor told me that any ride outdoors this bike would take would be its last. So I waited until a sunny day and after putting on my helmet and getting on the surprisingly comfortable seat I pedaled slowly to Fairway. The old three speed hub decided to meet me more than halfway there by giving me two functional speeds which I attained with a dodgy shift lever. After a slow and somewhat jittery ride I chained the heavy Raleigh up and returned a few minutes later with my groceries.

Now I admit I don't usually eat bagettes, but you can't ride a bike like this from the grocery store without a bagette sticking out of the basket. It's part of the credentials.

I was able to get the bagette and the other groceries home safely (and slowly) and when I stopped the bike I knew it wasn't going to start up ever again. But I was glad to give it a last ride.

When I brought it back inside, I set it up on the PCS-12 and began the work of taking it apart. The tires and wheels went first, and the rusty fenders went next. The seat went into my box of seats, and the bell went into my drawer of bells and whistles in the 304. 

A lot of this great bike, I knew, was going to end up in the Metal Only bin at the Stamford recycling center. The stripped frame would end up on my Wall of Frame, but after cleaning it aggressively, I still couldn't take my eyes of that crank.

This bike didn't just need to go to the grocery store. It needed to be immortalized for all time.

After I removed the crank from the rest of the bike, I was able to clean it up even more. I then found a shadow box and carefully placed it inside. Once I had centered the crank, I drilled two holes in the back of the frame so I could insert some bolts and cap them with two nuts each – and earth magnets.

I had long determined that these magnets would be strong enough to hold the crank, so when I lowered it into the shadow box it held on. I found a place in my home and hung it on the wall. I ended up not learning a whole lot about this bike, but I sincerely thank Raleigh for making a great bike that lived as a practical machine and died as a work of art.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Handlebar Tape: Friend or Foe?

With most of my cycling history centered around mountain bikes, I never had any experience with the drop-style handlebars until I found them on a few Saved from the Scrapheap bikes. Who can forget the Fuji Espree with its black hockey stick tape and booger finish?

 Equally unforgettable was the Fuji Gran Tourer with its Huffy handlebar grips.
These two bikes made me wonder: just how hard do owners of drop-style handlebar bikes try to avoid putting on new handlebar tape? I assumed it must be more difficult than installing BMX grips or the Gran Tourer would have looked a little differently when I bought it at the estate sale.

It wasn't long before I was able to test my theory: The 1998 Bike Friday New World Tourist I bought over the summer was my first non-scrapheap bike with these style handlebars, and they came with tape that looked like this:
They weren't the most attractive handlebars in the world, and between whatever globe-trotting the bike had done before and its own travels as part of my fleet, they were showing some wear.
Not wanting to see these grips unravel or cram on Huffy grips, I went to Danny's Cycles in Stamford and bought some red Bontrager Gel handlebar tape for about $20. It came with two rolls as well as two 4” pieces with 3M adhesive on the back that I didn't know what to do with. It also came with two bar end caps that I did know what to do with, but because my bike has old bar end shifters I put the end caps in a drawer...with about half a dozen other end caps.
I removed the black electrical tape at the top of the handlebars and unraveled the old tape, which told me that when I'd start wrapping the new tape I'd begin at the bar ends. I pulled up the black rubber brake hood as I unraveled the tape and found something that told me what the 4” pieces of handlebar tape were for.

After I replaced the 4” pieces with the new tape, I wrapped the new stuff around itself on the bar ends (using a piece of matching red electrical tape to give it some extra grip) before moving up the handlebars, covering about ½ of the tape with each pass. I briefly worried I wouldn't have enough to do the whole handlebars but my fears were unfounded. In minutes I made it to the GPS mount and sealed the deal with some more electrical tape. Before long, this is what I was left with.

Wait: that's the 'Before' picture. Here's the 'After.'
I'm rather new at this, so I'm sure there may be some drop-style handlebar fans out there who will moan at my technique, but I was rather amazed at how easy it was to put better looking and more comfortable grips on a road bike. Why someone had instead chosen to cram Huffy grips onto the Fuji Gran Tourer would forever remain a mystery.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)