Sunday, March 29, 2015

My Workshop at Rippowam Labs: How to Fix Up Your Bike For Spring

Yesterday, six days into the season of spring, I taught a workshop at the Rippowam Labs makerspace called “DIYBIKING.COM Presents: Fix Up Your Bike For Spring.”

It snowed all day. And I thought Mother Nature and I had settled on a safe word. 

I had already committed to biking to the class pulling along the bike trailer I made with my work stand and other bike tools on board (a nearly identical set to what I had during Red Hook, New York’s Bike Rodeo last year). 

I also decided to ride my city bike - and ride it completely untuned from when I rode it last back in early January. I know some skeptics don’t think waiting three months to ride a bike a long period of time to go between tune ups, but many of them did not live through The Day After Tomorrow-like winter Connecticut lived through. 

So I rode the bike to class without tuning it first. I don’t recommend doing that - I just wanted to create a teachable moment that hopefully wouldn’t be too teachable. 

I arrived slowly but safely, got my gear inside, and soon enough was able to talk about a subject I enjoy. But as a service to my readers who didn’t attend here’s a short list of rules I follow when fixing up your bike for spring. 

Clean the Bike 

The first thing to do is clean off the bike. There will be road grime - and depending on what you transport in the bottle carrier, smoothie stains or coffee stains. 

 You don’t need to be all toothbrush/detail oriented, but be thorough. If you take a rag or disposable cloth and wipe down the dust or road dirt from a bike, not only does it look a lot better but it gets your face close enough to the frame so you can see the components better. That way if something is amiss you can fix it before you go riding. If you don’t check the bike out first (as I don’t sometimes) trouble can result. Dangerous trouble, like walk-your-bike-along-a-gravel-trail-for-a-third-of-a-mile-hunting-for-a-missing-bolt trouble. 

Be Subtle 

That’s me on the left adjusting a limit screw on a rear derailleur on a bike someone had brought to the class. You'll notice I'm wearing rubber gloves since I think it's important not to be afraid to get your hands dirty but pack rubber gloves anyway.

It was around this time I talked about how a whole lot of stuff that needs to be done on a bike that needs an adjustment or tune up after a long period is subtle. It’s like R2-D2 fixing the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive by turning a tiny part a little bit to the right. 

If a bike chain rattles through the gears on the lowest or the highest, you need to adjust a limit screw. As I showed with my major overhaul of the recumbent, a tiny turn with a screwdriver is all that’s needed. And do not underestimate the importance of doing that: if a chain jumps between the gears and the wheel it can be bad.  When it happened to me I could have ended up a road pizza but was lucky enough just to have to push the bike home - and replace the chain and wheel. 

Check for Cable Stretch

Brake and derailleur cables go through extraordinary abuse and have to deal with so much force they stretch. Cyclists often don’t notice this until one can’t stop or they have to squeeze the brakes all the way to to the saddle to make the bike stop. Just squeeze the handle and check to see how much distance the brake pads need to travel before the hit the rim. If there’s a lot of space (and assuming your brakes are similar to mine) loosen the bolt holding the cable,  pull maybe an eighth of an inch (remember subtlety) of cable through, and retighten. If you don't know how to do this, find someone who does. 

With Lubrication, Less is More

When I was a kid I remember spraying WD-40 on my BMX chain like I was fumigating a house for termites. 

There’s a reason we grew out of such techniques.

After cleaning a chain, it’s much better to apply lubricant (NOT WD-40) drop by drop on each of the rollers. It takes a bit of patience but it is worth it - and I demonstrated it in the class: I took two pieces of identical bike chain, made the one marked with green wire ties wet, and sprinkled both with the contents of my welding room dustpan. The gritty sand and other debris stuck to the green chain, which means that it would travel through the derailleur and cogs and wear out both quickly - to say nothing of wearing out the chain. Get a small bottle of lubricant at your local bike store and it’ll last all season or longer if you apply it right. 

Don’t Take Chances With Tires

In the maintenance class, I talked about changing tires but I talked even more about ways to keep tires from going flat to begin with. That means keeping them properly inflated at all times (I’m talking to you, co-founder of Bike Stamford) and checking the tire itself for wear. 

On a trip to California last month I failed to do that, and you can see the photo above as evidence: I pedaled from Redwood City to San Francisco and back (more on that and why I was there in another post) but carelessly I did it on tires on last summer's bike trip in Brazil. I may not have gotten a flat during that punishing day, but nicks showed up in the tires and I ignored them.  

Until on the tail end of last month’s San Franscisco/Redwood City trip I suddenly felt a thump-thump-thump-thump sound and noticed my back tire looked like it was digesting a small animal. Thankfully, a mile from Chain Reaction Bicycles, I was able to buy a new tire before the old one could explode through the tread. 

Know When You’re Out of Your Depth

                          Pacific Swim Bike Run, a bike shop and training center on 575 Pacific St. in Stamford 

This is a lesson I still need to teach myself sometimes. Few DIYers can fix absolutely everything and there is no shame when something is above your intellectual pay grade. Not only that, but if there is something really complex that needs to be done (i.e., truing a wheel, replacing a bottom bracket, etc.) it often involves very specialized tools. You have to true a bike wheel quite a few times to come out even on the cost of a good truing stand. So find a local bike shop and bring the bike in. 

So with temperatures in Stamford creeping above freezing, I wish you all the best getting your bike set to go and taking a long ride to cure yourself of this toxic cabin fever. And if you missed my bike maintenance class, pass this link along - and check out the Rippowam Labs class schedule. You'll definitely find something you like. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

How Cities Kill (Failing That, Inconvenience) Cyclists and Pedestrians in Winter

I’m in Stamford, Connecticut and it’s still winter. I can tell because it is snowing again. 

What makes it especially jarring is that not four days ago I was applying sunscreen before biking in a T-shirt in Redwood City, California (more on why I was there in another post). 

So I had nearly forgotten just how well cities use winter as a tool to harass, confound and confuse cyclists and pedestrians - and how blind cities are to the fact that some of their most valuable public space could be put to better use than comforting empty motor vehicles. 

Let’s start with the road looks like immediately after a snowstorm.

When city streets are covered in snow, the cars that are parked alongside of the road get covered in snow, too. 

I figured that out on my own.

After a period of time - sometime between the middle of the snowstorm and, say July - a city plow will come by and plow the road.

It is usually at this point you’ll find people on Twitter whining about having their cars blocked in by snow (often using the hashtag - and I swear this is A Thing - #snowparking). 

But that isn’t the end of the story for the defenseless motor vehicle. Some people may spend a lot of time shoveling off a spot of public street that they want to claim as theirs when they bring their car back. These parking spots are sometimes guarded zealously. So much so, in fact, that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh recently said people can’t use lawn chairs, trash cans, or other creative parking space savers to ‘save’ their spot. 

Eventually, a person will want to get in their car and go somewhere. So they’ll dig open the driver’s door, start the car, let the engine warm up while they brush the snow off. Then they get back in their car and drive off.

Take a guess where the snow ends up a lot of the time. 

Of course, every Northeastern city goes to great lengths to make sure sidewalks are perfectly accessible during the winter. 

Yeah, I couldn’t keep a straight face when I wrote that.

What a lot of communities do is take care of a few sidewalks here and there but punt everything else foot traffic related to the individual property owners and their own sections of sidewalk. This of course results in an inconsistent quality of said sidewalks. 

So snow piles up on the sidewalks. It’s an easy place to put it. Another convenient place to store snow is in the shoulder of the road or in bike lanes. Dan Haar of the Hartford Courant took the time to point out that people use bikes to commute year-round, but cyclists are even less visible in cold weather than they are in warm, even as they are forced into the middle of the road when they don’t want to. 

And nearly every street has...wait for it...This Car.

Those of you who live in a part of the country where bathing suits and yoga mats aren’t sold in gas stations know what I’m talking about. I pass by one of these cars every time I leave my house.  The car never moves. It's forever immobilized like one of those volcano victims in Pompeii. The plow goes around - being careful not to hit the car - and the snow piles up.

Sadly, people who store their motor vehicles on public streets and don’t even use them never seem to ever get punished. But people who have to use the roads do - and if you are waiting for an emergency vehicle to arrive, you may have to wait a bit longer since the street is that much narrower. 

Now of course if you’re a cyclist, the problem is even worse. Not only are the racks covered in snow, but there are few places for you to carry your bike to the street - and it’s tough walking it on narrow, unplowed sidewalks. 

And then it snows again, and the Circle of Icy Winter Death continues: the snow falls, cars get first dibs on the clean pavement, and cycling and pedestrians just have to deal. 

But let’s think about something here: we’ve seen a tremendous number of articles over the past several months that a big problem is finding places to put the confectioners sugar (I mean, snow) after it has fallen. We put it on sidewalks, in bike lanes, pile it high on corners so people crossing the street are completely invisible to drivers - but we don’t think to ourselves that we also need to find a place to put motor vehicles when they aren’t in use and create a city where people don’t have to use them in the first place.

We also need to acknowledge just how valuable the real estate that a parked car takes up. The Transportation Committee in Stamford, tragically, decided recently that parking should stay cheap - when a much smarter move would have been to raise the price of parking and use the money to enable more car-free ways to get around. 

Owning a car in a city shouldn’t be - and, for many other reasons, can’t be - the only option a person has to get from one place to another. Before this snow is done melting, I hope legislators in municipalities across the country realize just how absurd coddling cars and punishing pedestrians and cyclists is. We all have better things to do with our time, money and creativity. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.