What I Did On My Summer Vacation

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I’ve been fortunate to be traveling around the West since March of this year – sort of a pre-retirement tour of places we already love or have always wanted to visit. Typically, we rent a house or apartment for 4-6 weeks and this gives us a chance to get to know the community. One good way to learn about a town is to volunteer – it’s a great way to meet the locals, learn what is important to them, and understand how they treat others in the community. There are a lot of volunteer opportunities from helping at a food bank to one-on-one literacy tutoring. My favorite volunteer activity has been working at bike co-ops. I enjoy the co-ops because I get to wrench on bikes and directly help people. Plus, I see immediate results from my efforts. I particularly enjoy teaching and helping others learn how to troubleshoot. I’ve worked with 5-year-old kids, families, retirees who use a bike as their primary transport, and a few homeless folks who hardly own more than the bike they rode to the shop.

I’ve helped at bike co-ops in Silver City, New Mexico (Bikeworks), Boise, Idaho (Boise Bicycle Project), and Missoula, Montana (Free Cycles Missoula). All three have distinct personalities that reflect the needs of the community, their funding, and the goals of their employees, founders and boards. You don’t have to know anything about bikes to help in any of these organizations – they will put you to work to the level of your knowledge and train you along the way. Some have structured volunteer programs and some assign you to where you are needed on any particular day. If you don’t have a lot of experience, you might initially be taking pedals off bikes or patching inner tubes.

In a typical day at Free Cycles Missoula, I would show up and start working on bikes they would later sell and also help folks who walked into the shop. In one day, I helped a Mom and her whip-smart 8-year-old daughter fix a flat, an Englishman on a cross-country bike tour, and a Sophomore at the University of Montana who was building a bike for himself in the ‘Build-A-Bike’ program. He was tearing the bike down to the bare frame and had a lot of work to do but was enjoying learning how to do it.

As a kid, I tinkered a lot and learned mechanical skills from my father, friends, and books but I think that in this era of ubiquitous electronic devices many kids don’t get the opportunity to work with their hands. Learning how to build and maintain a bike is empowering and fun for both kids and adults. Boise Bicycle Project has a great program for kids to teach them how to build up their own bike – they tear the bike down to the bearings and know every single part on the bike once they are done. At Freecycles, one 5-year-old boy let me help him build his bike. He was so proud when he jumped on it for a test ride that he giggled as he rode around. With that much pride, you know that he’s not going to leave his bike outside to rust in the rain.

During my time at the Boise Bicycle Project, I still remember what I learned from Charles Mitchell, the shop manager, and this theme is repeated at all 3 co-ops to different degrees; A volunteer or donor may initially see the co-op as a place that helps people fix their bikes, but the mission is grander than that. The mission can be about education in troubleshooting, self-reliance, patience, working with others and giving people control over a part of their lives. I also see that the co-ops can bring a broader cross-section of society together than many endeavors. In my work as an engineer over many years I was mostly around medium to high-income people, whereas at the co-ops I was fortunate to work with and learn from people across a much broader spectrum.

For a bike geek like myself, it’s also a chance to see different bikes from past decades since the co-ops get donations of all sorts of bikes and can be like a mini museum of bike history.

I had never seen this BMX bike with rear suspension but this almost mint example was at Bikeworks

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Every co-op has a large collection of donated bikes and parts and these ‘boneyard’ bikes are an important source of parts for repairs and new bikes

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These also provide an almost endless supply for art projects, parade floats, tall bikes, choppers and the like

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Or this parade float at Free Cycles powered by a side-by-side tandem

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One day in Missoula, I even met Erick, a fellow Tufts graduate, who had just finished his degree and was on his way to Seattle. It was great to help him a bit with his bike and see him get back on the road.

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I have never had a more satisfying volunteer experience and I strongly recommend you check out a bike co-op near you. Every child I’ve ever seen build a bike – it doesn’t matter how old it is, how bad the paint is or if the tires don’t match – EVERY kid has smiled when he or she rode that bike for the first time. I’ve seen down-and-out guys come in with barely functioning bikes and with a little help they walk out proudly knowing they fixed their bike and this means they can get to a job.

So, if you’re looking for a way to give back and at the same time learn more about bikes you can’t do better than to volunteer at a bike co-op. Have you done it? If so, let me know – I would love to hear what you learned.

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Steel Is Real (And Leather, Too)

 

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Having the words ‘Guaranteed World Finest Bicycle Precision Mechanism’ emblazoned proudly on the down tube of my Bridgestone town bike doesn’t mean the brakes work in the rain. The combination of crap side pull brakes, old pads and (the major factor) steel rims means that no amount of brake pumping will work once the rims are wet. It’s bad enough that I recently had to jump off the bike on a gentle downhill and run along it to stop.

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I got a set of the pads shown above after learning about the magic of the leather insert. Of course, my LBS didn’t have these since nobody has needed them since the 70’s. When I placed the order, I imagined some British pensioner getting an urgent call: ‘Nigel – can you make 2 more sets of leather brake pads? We have an order on Amazon and they need to go out tomorrow before tea’. Surprisingly, they arrived in just a couple days. We had a bit of drizzle the other day and I got to test them out – not epic rain, but enough to confirm that braking is better. It’s nice to know that this old bike will work for me a bit longer.

 

 

Why E-Bikes Are a Threat to Mountain Bike Trail Access

 

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Image courtesy of Honda

The typical discussion on the question of e-bike access to non-motorized trails typically goes something like this:

Proponent: “Why are you against e-bikes? They are quiet and don’t damage the trails”

Anti: “Because they will hurt our access to trails”

Proponent: “They shouldn’t – they are just like regular mountain bikes but with some help for the rider – they don’t hurt the trails”

Anti: “They are motorized – don’t you get it? They will get faster and faster as technology improves”

Proponent: “But they don’t have a throttle”

This typically goes on and on and there is never a resolution just like most discussions on social media. Multiple government agencies have come out with rulings that e-bikes should not be allowed on trails that exclude motorized vehicles. The whole motor vs non-motor seems obvious to me but some agencies haven’t ruled on the issue and some do allow e-bikes on trails. Some specifically allow them for people with a disability. I assume that the rules on e-bikes will be clarified over the next 2-3 years as the industry ramps up their offerings. E-bikes won’t sell unless people have a place to ride them so there is a fair bit of money lining up to change the laws to allow e-bikes on more trails.

I’ve been involved in MTB advocacy in some form or another since 1993 and I do see e-bikes as a threat. The sky is not falling – YET – but manufacturers and some vocal e-bike users want to change the laws so that e-bikes are allowed on trails that don’t currently allow them. It’s very hard to believe that this effort won’t affect those of us who choose not to ride with motor power. In general, the proponents argue that because e-bikes don’t have a throttle and are battery powered that they should be treated as a different class from internal combustion motorcycles. Industry types and some agencies may buy this distinction but I think it will be lost on the general public who, sensibly, will see a bike with a motor and ask, “Why can’t I ride my motorcycle on those trails?”.

My imaginary conversation between a member of the public and an elected official or administrator goes like this:

Public: “I was out on the Crest yesterday and I noticed that there were several people on electric mountain bikes. That’s really cool that you allow motor bikes up there now – thanks!”

Administrator: “Well, actually those are e-bikes – they are pedal-assisted bicycles, not motorized bikes”.

Public: “I don’t understand – they have motors, right?”

Administrator: “Well, they have 500 Watt electric motors but they don’t have a throttle”

Public: “So how do they work if they don’t have a throttle?”

Administrator: “Well you have to pedal and the motor helps out – sort of like the old mopeds”

Public: “So how do you know that the motor is only 500 Watts?”

Administrator: “Well we don’t know unless we inspect them”

Public: “How often do you inspect them?”

Administrator: “Never – we don’t have the budget for that”

Public: “So, riders could modify the drive system to make it faster?”

Administrator: “In theory, yes, but we haven’t seen that happen.”

Public: “So I’ve got a CRF125 and it would be great to ride it on these trails with my daughter on her CRF50 – so it’s OK if I ride up on the Crest?”

Administrator: “No – sorry – it has a gas motor and a throttle so you can’t ride it on non-motorized trails”

Public: “Wait – you just said that bikes with electric motors are OK – I don’t get it”

Administrator: “Yes, but those don’t have a throttle”

Public: “That seems totally arbitrary – they have a motor but you allow them on non-motorized trails??!! I need to talk to someone at the Forest Service – this is ridiculous. If they can ride electric motorbikes up there I should be able to ride my dirt bike there, too.”

Like I say this is my imagination working – the conversation won’t go exactly like this but will likely be similar. Next step is that the people who ride dirt bikes get their lobbyists and industry groups involved and Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha, Husqvarna, etc. see an opportunity to sell MX bikes and ATV’s in greater numbers. The government gets pressured and are left with a simple choice – allow e-bikes and other motorized vehicles or do a blanket ban on all motorized vehicles. A few people decide to use e-bikes on multi-use trails even where they are not allowed. Hikers and equestrians complain to the administrators. Since the administrators can’t easily tell the difference between (for example) a Specialized Turbo Levo Fattie and a non-motorized MTB, they are left with no choice but banning all MTB’s from those trails.

That’s one way you may lose access. Do you have other scenarios? Let me know.

See a Kid Smile

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Helped out on this slightly rainy day at the ‘Bikes for Tykes’ put on by the Salt Lake City Bicycle Collective. It was sponsored by Bingham Cyclery and several other local bike concerns. There is nothing like seeing a kid’s smile as he/she is presented with a new (or slightly used bike) and the joy they have pedaling around the playground afterwards. Sure put me in the Christmas spirit.

If you want donate please check out this link Bingham Cyclery

Turn off the music


There are 2 types of riders when it comes to the subject of listening to music while riding; those who do and those who don’t. Pretty basic. 

But in the category of music listeners there are a number of variants. Those who are reasonably responsible who use just one earbud so they can hear other trail users, those who don’t give a shit about other users and use 2 earbuds ensuring that they are a danger to other users, and the totally self-centered who play their music through a Bluetooth speaker that basically says ‘I don’t care about your outdoor experience, I’m going to impose my crappy music on you’. 

Both of these last 2 suck, but for different reasons. With the 2-earbud rider at least they only piss me off when they do something stupid like turn in front of me as I’m passing them because they couldn’t here me call ‘On your left’. Fortunately, this has only happened a few times and hasn’t been disastrous yet because I expect it to happen when the rider doesn’t acknowledge me. 

The Bluetooth rider is more clueless. He (and it has been a ‘he’ 100% of the time) thinks everyone wants to hear his music. Or maybe – ‘chicks dig it’. All I can promise is that for every 100 trail users he encounters, 100 won’t like his music. Either they don’t want to hear music (or phone calls, or motors, or any of the things they are escaping from) when they are on the trail. Or they just think, ‘your music sucks’. I can’t choose NOT to hear your music – you can choose to turn it off. 

So – just turn it off – don’t be a wanker. 

If Cycling is the New Golf, E-Bikes are the Handicap

shimano-electric-assistImage – Shimano

One of the reasons that golf is so popular in business is that people of different abilities can play together. It’s also a good game for socializing because there is a lot of time to chat during the game. I’m not a golfer so what I’m going to write here may be way off, but the whole idea of the handicap is that you can have people of differing abilities play the same round and then compare scores afterwards. So, for business it’s the great equalizer. Could you imagine people going swimming together? ‘Hey Bill – what do you say we race each other over 400 meters and then talk about the Westco project?’. It’s not going to happen. Or – ‘Steve & Jane – want to play some 2 on 2 hoops?’. Well if the last time Steve and Jane picked up a basketball was at age 13 when they played a game of HORSE, there is no way that 2 on 2 game is going to be any fun for either side if they are playing some ex-college basketball players.

For the brief time that I was in Sales I quickly realized what a disadvantage it was not to be a golfer. If money is the engine of capitalism, golf is clearly the lubricant. A few years ago, the phrase, ‘Cycling is the new golf’ became popular around some corners of Silicon Valley – well not my corner of the stagnant semiconductor capital equipment industry – but certainly among the social media/killer app/Sand Hill crowd. I still never got this because the difference in endurance between someone who rides a bike once a month and someone who rides 2-3 times a week can be quite stark. I just can’t see the casual cyclist (dare I say Fred?) hitting the Portola Loop and climbing Old La Honda with a Cat 3 leg shaver. Fred’s going to get dropped on the first Strava climbing segment that is over 1/10 of a mile.

But the other day it dawned on me – the e-bike is the great equalizer – to use a golfing term – the handicap – that allows people of varying ability to participate in the same event. Now all we need is a good way to express that handicap. Is it the number of watts your e-bike puts out? Maybe you add your bike wattage to your actual wattage? Or take this number and divide by your weight so you could have a power to weight handicap?transformer-electric-bicycle-black-b2-blk-zzzzzby-color-black-e65_grande

Image – Genesis

Still the e-bike analogy seems pretty weak. Even a noob golfer must swing the club (actually a bunch more times than a good golfer), still must walk the whole course (or ride in the same cart) but the e-bike rider can’t feel the same satisfaction as the ‘traditional’ rider, can he? If you keep up with the group on your e-bike it’s not because you earned it, right? You just paid to keep up just like you had called Uber for a lift. Just like anyone, I hate getting dropped but it builds toughness – I don’t know if there is anything more humbling that I experience on a regular basis than getting back to the coffee shop 10 minutes after my buddies.

As humbling as getting dropped can be, it makes me want to work harder and it reminds me that there is ALWAYS someone better out there. Plus, isn’t toughness one of the attributes we want to get out of our athletic pursuits? If that novice golfer had a battery-powered exoskeleton that allowed her to swing more consistently and strike the ball harder would that be allowed on the golf course? Why do we think a motorized bike is OK but not a motor-assist for the folks lifting at the gym?

I don’t have a problem with folks using e-bikes out on the road. If it gets them out there that’s fine. If it allows them to commute, ditch the car and reduce pollution that’s even better. But if you’re in a competitive group ride (whether it’s a loop with your buddies or on a Century) be honest that you are on an e-bike – don’t try to disguise it. If you’re happy that’s great – just be willing to talk about your handicap just like the golfers.

Now that I’ve said all that – don’t even get me started on mountain bikes with electric motors. I don’t care what you call them or what rationalizations you come up with – they are motorized bikes and please keep them off trails that are designated for human power only.