Thursday, September 27, 2012

Building An (Even) Better Bike Box

So I was at the recycling center the other day, and just outside of the Metal Only bin was a complete mountain bike.

And I didn't take it home. It wasn't interesting enough for a Saved from the Scrapheap post. Besides, when I peeked into the bin I saw something even better. But since there wasn't a lot in the bin and it was down at the bottom, the item was out of reach.

But I just had to have it. Improvising, I took a bungee cord from my car and hooked it on the third try. Indiana Jones would have been proud embarrassed.

This, as choosy motorcycle riders among you will know, is a Perry Scott cargo box. It looked as though it had seen a lot of miles– and possibly an accident of some kind given the scuff marks. No matter what, I want to believe someone filled the box with a Hefty bag filled with clothes and rode from Connecticut to Sturgis and back again.

I'd also like to believe the motorcycle it was sitting on it still in use today. The rest of it wasn't in the Metal Only bin (I wouldn't have tried to lasso it if it was).

Naturally, I thought this would look good on the back of a bicycle. But not just any bicycle. It would have to go on the Ruler of the Island of Misfit Toys: the 30-year-old recumbent. Not only would the Perry Scott box look interesting on the bike, but because of the rider position, it would be the only bike such a box could go on that wouldn't affect the drag coefficient (much).

After I took the picture of myself on the recumbent, I fully realized just how high my back and shoulders rise from the back of the seat, and there would be plenty of room for the Perry Scott box.

But I was first faced with two problems. The first one involved taking it off the metal frame it was mounted on, and that involved using spanners on rusty bolts that would shriek when finally loosened. While it was clamped in the jaws of the PCS-12, I realized that whatever motorcycle this had come from this had been sitting somewhere for quite a while. Not only was there an abandoned bee starter home on the metal frame, but when I got the last bolt off a stowaway jumped out and made a dash to the furnace for its freedom.

It was definitely feeling like I had gotten something for free at the recycling center – and that was fine by me.

When I got the box off, I placed it on the workbench and was slightly dismayed at the heavy weight. It is good quality plastic, after all. Even though I really liked the asthetics of the top rack, I reluctantly removed it to make the box lighter.

Once I removed the rack, I held the box and determined that yes, it was still heavy; far heavier than my other cargo boxes, but I was still interested in the extra trunk space.

After I gave it a good cleaning, I faced the second problem, which was the lock on the lid of the rack was open and missing the key. Unlike the professional bike cargo boxes and the better bike box I made last year, there was no other latch mechanism. It would surely pop open while riding, and it would look as though I was carrying a toilet on my back with the seat up.

As it turned out, it was an easy fix: I went to Keough's hardware store on High Ridge Road and an employee there led me straight to what I needed to replace the lock. I picked up a couple of other things too so I could properly finish the build.

I left Keough's with plastic bolts, some rubber washers from the plumbing section, and a six dollar lock mechanism. After I removed the old lock I did have to file the opening a little to make the new one fit, but once I did, it worked perfectly.

I was left with the stock knob at the top and I thought I'd replace that too, so I rummaged through a small collection of knobs stored in the 304 and tried my options, feeling as though I was shopping for kitchen cabinets.


Definitely no.

I ended up staying with the stock knob. After I put it back on, I assembled my plastic bolts and rubber washers in the four holes at the top (the result of removing the top rack) to keep the rain out. I then very carefully centered it on the bike rack and drilled the proper holes in the bottom for the mounting hardware, which I borrowed from the better bike box.

When I was done, I couldn't believe how good it looked and how much cargo space I had that I didn't have before. I then spent several amusing minutes putting things in the box just to see what would fit. It's the bike box equivalent of a clown car from the Ringling Brother's circus. It truly is. 

So far, I have taken the converted Perry Scott box more than 60 miles in a few days time. The bike seems to get even more attention; at a tag sale, a curious old man walked up to where I had leaned it and opened up the cargo box (which reminded me to keep it locked when I wasn't near it). I can also fit two bags of groceries in the back and any number of random tag sale finds.

So if you come across a Perry Scott box and you have a cool bike to put it on, do it: it's worth the extra weight and makes the bike – and biking – stand out. Thanks for reading.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Six Fewer Minutes

On weekday mornings, like many of you, I am owned by my clock. Often, I'll finish getting ready for the day and my clock will tell me whether I will ride my bike to work or whether I will drive.

It's three and a half miles to get to work. At a pace that won't later draw my co-workers away with my body odor, it takes about five or six minutes longer to ride the bike than to drive. And that's just what I can measure in riding time. If the bike isn't ready, I have to carry it up the basement stairs to the porch, and if the tires need inflating, that takes a little time too.

Naturally, I'd bike to work every day if I could. It's better for my health and it's better for my fellow commuters when they don't have to contend with a slow-moving 3,300 lb. Element that doesn't run yellow lights and never races up to a red. But sometimes, I need that extra five or six minutes each morning.

I got to thinking about the 'extra five or six minutes' recently when I learned that the Connecticut Department of Transportation was thinking about selling the land the Stamford train station parking garage is on to developers, and thus moving the parking garage away from the station.

See the little hamster Habitrail-like tube sticking out of the left side? That's the tunnel that leads to the parking garage, located conveniently across the street from the train station. When you park in the garage, this is what your walk to the station looks like. I wish bike parking was in there, too, but one thing at a time.

If the garage moves, it may scamper up to a quarter of a mile away from the station. That means no hamster tube, and that isn't sitting well to a lot of commuters. But seriously, though: how long is a quarter of a mile? I don't mean that in a how-many-beers-are-in-a-six-pack sense, I wanted to find out how much of a time commitment Stamford commuters would truly be in for.

So, around high noon on Sunday, I set off on a bike to find out. I took the Mystery Guest from South Norwalk because of its small size. However, I had added a key piece of equipment to the handlebars.

Yes, an old Micronta (does that brand even exist anymore?) G-Shock wristwatch with no band but a functioning 1/1000 of a second stopwatch. Plus, I had my Garmin bike GPS.

I knew the Garmin would do fine for the ¼ mile journey, but first I wanted to find out how long it would take to get to the parking garage under the existing system. For that, I reached into my backpack and pulled out another piece of equipment. I started my stopwatch and walked casually across the tube that connects the station to the garage.

Yes, my Measure Master from the Rolatape Corporation of Spokane, Washington (Like many of my tools, I really have no idea why I have it, but I do) gave me my first result: the length of the tube connecting the station to the garage measured about 71' and 6”. Barely a 20 second stroll. It's an extra four feet from the water fountains in the station, which was where I wanted to start the next test.

I returned the Measure Master to my backpack and stood once again at the water fountains, reasoning that commuters, when walking to the new parking garage, would probably have to start there unless the train had arrived on track four (I know my beloved Stamford train station).

I started the stopwatch and GPS at the same moment and strode to the escalator. I didn't walk down the escalator, reasoning that during rush hour it would be clogged with people. I learned two things while I did this: first, when you are paying attention to the time, escalators are slow. Second, the Mystery Guest of South Norwalk, with its 14” tires and short wheelbase, is made to ride on escalators.

The bike is also easy to walk, and walk it I did. With normal strides I headed past the hopelessly inadequate bike rack and made it to the end of the cab line. I easily crossed the street and headed down to the next one. I pushed the button and waited for the signal to cross. If I had a lot more time I would have made several walks and recorded the average, but the wait I had before crossing seemed neither long nor short.

I walked past the sign that read 'WELCOME TO THE DIYBIKING.COM TRANSITWAY' (or, rather, could say that someday) and noticed the sign for the bike lane. I remembered the days the transitway was being built in order to make it easier to get to the station, and I hoped that the nice bike and car lanes would continue to do that instead of bringing travelers to something like Starbucks or a Baby Gap.

I walked on, and the GPS passed the .22 mile mark. Keeping one eye on the sidewalk as I turned the corner onto Pacific Street and waited until I hit a quarter of a mile. It took some doing to keep the bike upright, but I was able to stop the stopwatch and the GPS counter at the same moment, just a short walk from Pacific Swim Bike Run.

The results?

The person who estimated it would take about five minutes to walk a quarter mile was only a little off. 5 minutes 40 seconds and 607/1000's of a second is closer to six minutes, but I give that time with an asterisk, which is:

*a donut-appreciating but otherwise fairly healthy 5'11” man in his mid thirties, walking without having to contend with a lot of other pedestrians, on a beautiful day, who didn't have to worry about rain or avoid puddles, easily crossing the Station Place road normally filled with traffic, and doesn't have to walk slower on snow or ice, can walk a quarter of a mile from the station in about six minutes.

I also need to point out I had absolutely nothing better to do that day but walk from a train station pushing a strange folding bike with a stopwatch and write a blog post about it. I don't have to do it every day, five days a week, fifty weeks a year. Not only would it be like having to pick the car instead of the bike to get to work every day but six more minutes to get to work each morning would mean six fewer minutes at home, six fewer minutes sleeping next to your spouse, and six fewer minutes to enjoy the last cup of coffee.

Six more minutes going to work also means six more minutes going home, which means six fewer minutes asking your loved ones how their day was, six fewer minutes to plan dinner and six fewer minutes to read your favorite cycling blog. It adds up to just over two full days a year a given Stamford car commuter would have to give to get to work (and that, of course, is if they stick with using the train. I worry a bunch of them will pick the car to get to work over the train, and that'll put more cars on the road – and that's something I certainly don't want).

I hope my state has the good sense to take the advice of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council and others and keep the parking garage connected to the station. And if anyone reading this has an opinion I hope they attend the public hearing this Thursday in Stamford. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Marty McFly Bikestand

If you don't know who Marty McFly is, then perhaps this blog is not for you.

Just as a refresher: he's the time-traveling teenager portrayed by Michael J. Fox in the Back to the Future trilogy. In key scenes in the first film, he used a skateboard to get around town. When he got to his destination, he'd smack his foot on the back of the board, sending it upward at a 90 degree angle where he could then pick it up without having to bend over to get it.

When I was ten, I wanted to be Marty McFly. So much so that my parents got me a skateboard that I used a lot and saw a tremendous amount of wear and tear. I even taped tiny flashlights to the front so I'd be safer at night. I still own it today and it bears many, many scars (and I still have scars on my knuckles from a bad – sorry, I meant 'gnarly' - crash I had way back when). Here it is, and in the photo I am pointing to the little burn mark on the front from that time I taped an Estes model rocket engine to the board, Wile E. Coyote style, back when Reagan was in office.

Now I bring all of this up because many children from the Back to the Future era may still be holding onto their skateboards and not know what to do with them. For a while I had been using mine from time to time when I need a light furniture dolly, but then one day I thought: why can't I build a rolling bike rack out of a skateboard? I knew there was no way I'd mangle my Variflex Concave Rad-Cut (really, that was the name) but...take a look at this one.

If you keep your eyes open at tag sales, you may come across people who do not have the same sentimental attachments to their Variflex skateboards as myself. This one had a sticker price of $3 on it and was in far better shape than spite of the graffiti someone had put on the back with liquid paper.

I thought about the rack I made with my dad last year and thought that I could simplify the design and make it mobile. So the first thing I did, naturally, was cut a big hole in the middle of the board: fans of old-school skateboards may want to avert your gaze:

Like the rack my dad and I made, this one was made for a specific bike: another 80's veteran, the Turner recumbent, with its 27” rear wheel. So I cut the hole (a couple of times) so the tire would sit in the whole and still stay off the ground. When I made the hole the right size, I set the bike in it.

It immediately tipped over.

I knew then I needed to use 2 x 4s to give the wheel extra space to grip. So I cut a couple to the right length and mounted them to the board. I then set the bike in it.

It immediately tipped over.

I knew then I needed something to hold the wheels further up on the tire, but I didn't have much lumber left. I found some aluminum pieces that I thought would work and used my drill press to cut holes for the screws. I then removed the burrs from the aluminum with the most adorable bench grinder the world has ever seen: I bought at the Harbor Freight store in New Haven. As you can see I created a special mount so I could use it by clamping it to the vise on my workstand.

When I had the aluminum pieces mounted to the back of the 2 x 4s, I set the bike in it.

It burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp.

Okay, the last part isn't true. It did stay up. Briefly. Turns out, the trucks on the skateboard made the whole thing rather tippy, but the aluminum did keep the bike in place.

I knew there was only one step left in the build: to remove the skateboard trucks and replace them with rigid casters. I did that. stayed up. So I was left with the strongest rolling bike stand I had ever built.

Now that the build is over, I realize that it actually had very little to do with skateboards, but 27 years since that movie first came out, it keeps inspiring me, so the Marty McFly Bike Stand name will stick. However, you could easily get similar results with a piece of plywood, which is often easier to find than a used Variflex Concave Rad-Cut. Remember that if you try to build one of your own. Thanks for reading.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)