Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Another day, another broken spoke.

Well, then.

Friday, March 27, 2009


What people can become accustomed to is impressive. Commuting by bicycle is an interesting crucible.

I leave at 5:30 in the morning, and it takes a hair under two hours to make it to work. Thirty-two miles, door to door. Whining melts away. I cannot think about the rain, the dark, or the cold, how comfortable my bed might be. Commencement Bay is beautiful in the pre-dawn, a strange fusion of industrial and natural. Vashon Island’s green is nearly visible across the water; steam billows from smokestacks on the tideflats, the cranes of the port still silent. The trains slowly rattle along the tracks, clunking along as the load up past the grain silos.

Physical limits of man and machine reveal themselves as excuses and alternatives disappear. It’s a little north of twenty hours per week, if I do each leg, with eight hours of desk time in between rides. There is no way to do this without the fatigue settling into my legs as the week goes on.

Tacoma’s roads are famous mostly for their potholes, their cobbles. The Pacific Northwest is famous for its number of days with measurable precipitation.

In the past week, they’ve taken their toll. My fender snapped clean in half. A water bottle cage broke at the weld. Riding home on Tuesday, I broke a rear spoke cranking up the steep section of Peasley Canyon Way. With a rattling fender and squeaky, wobbling wheel, I limped the remaining fifteen miles home. I’d tell you about the headwind of doom, too, but then it would sound like one of those old-man stories.

I swapped the wheel out for a backup, and on my commute in on Tuesday I learned the hard way that the backup tire had seen a few too many miles of cobbles itself. The first flat, in the dark and drizzle of Dock street, I repaired fairly quickly, thanks to the magic of my Lezyne pressure drive pump, but apart from quickly sweeping the inside of the tire there was no chance to track down the real cause of the flat.

Fingers crossed, over the bridge and out of town, down now-infamous 20th until the interurban trail picks up past 74th, through the gravel and sporadically patched potholes that was once Barth Road. , up through the neighborhoods and all the way into Kent.

I think about accessibility as the cars trundle past along their commute. I try not to think of them as cattle. As I cross highway 167 on my way to the trail, I smile at the traffic that ritually snarls this stretch of the commute – and I consider how Seattle’s traffic is supposed to be light compared with the bigger urban centers of the country. I don’t even want to consider Los Angeles rush-hour commuters.

I make it until about five miles from work before the sucker goes flat again. This time, I limp to an underpass and find the problem – the last flat had been from something quite sharp, and a small section of the rubber is completely removed, leaving just the inner casing between air and road. I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did. Thankfully, I carry a boot, too, and a second tube.

On the road again, to arrive at my desk at two minutes to eight. It might’ve been a little more cinematic with a countdown timer, maybe something that goes boom, but, I’ll take it.

Today, I ride five miles to a café and drink coffee, read a book while awaiting a carpool from a coworker. This seems a great luxury, and makes the day feel like another part of the weekend.

A little extra energy in the legs for the ride home doesn’t hurt, either. They feel the week’s miles, the monotony of the flat, stable commute. They miss speed, they miss the tan lines, the variation.

Like clockwork, ninety minutes into the ride home, I feel how much I need dinner. As I roll over the bridge back into town, ready to put the day’s ride away, the last five miles stretch out before me. I take pacific to sixth instead of the water. Rolling along the cars, the quick flicks of urban traffic somehow don’t disappoint me the way the drone of the wide suburban roads and highways do.

I enjoy my rides, even in the rain and mud and sand and cold. But, once all that complaining about hard is done, I find that I am not a robot after all. I get cold, I run out of energy, I’m not as fresh four days into the week as on Monday. Both body and metal need maintenance.

Happy Friday.

Friday, March 20, 2009

"I didn't see you."

A phrase heard all too often by cyclists, and I heard it about a dozen times in a row this Tuesday. I’d be concerned that I wasn’t visible enough, but it was all from the same lady, and, yes, I had lights. Several.

It was a dark and rainy early morning, sure. I'll even go so far as to add "really rainy," but, still, paying attention would probably be a good thing.
Unlike the last lady that hit me with a car, this one stopped, and was ridiculously apologetic. On another positive note, nothing got seriously smashed up, though yours truly has a few bruises.

This is a big plus, because also unlike the other lady, this one does not have insurance – at least, that’s what I have to infer from “Um, well, um, I don’t have it with me.” You don’t know the name of your carrier. “Um, no, it’s not here.”

The route from home to work has one section where the all three road choices are
just terrible. I get out of Tacoma via the Puyallup River bridge, where you learn why the phrase “Tacoma Aroma” has become so stereotypical, and head east following the river. Then, I need to continue east. I can either continue on fast, poorly lit Pacific Highway (US 99) – this is a bad choice, gravel shoulders, casinos, and all. Or, I could go all the way to Levee road along the river, which is prettier and has no driveways on the south side but has a shoulder for a drop off. Bad call in the conditions.

This leaves heading along industrial, shoulderless 20th ave E, which at least has wide lines and a sidewalk, but semis and delivery vans turning onto and off of it along with spotty lighting make parts of it dicey.
Now, some people question whether it’s a great idea to be riding along roads like Schuster Parkway, which becomes 2 different highways and is a 4-lane split-level road with a 40-mph speed limit, but I’ve never had any trouble with drivers from behind me.

For me, 20th is the scariest part of the commute. The more driveways there are on a road, the worse it gets. I’d rather ride on an interstate than through some terribly sprawling suburban business districts. These are the places where I feel like a fly on a windshield, and silently fume about things like accessibility.
Tuesday was just like that.

Left-hook’d! (Ow, my sense of security!)

Middle-aged lady in a fairly clean Eagle Talon slows for the stop sign, turns left, and carries on straight into Yours Truly. Wham! Thankfully, she wasn’t going very fast, and punched the stop pedal instead of the go pedal in her panic.

In the impending instant before, I had two choices: either accelerate and go straight, hoping she’d miss, or slow and turn sharply left, along with the direction of her travel. I did the latter, figuring a likely lowspeed collision beat a possible higher speed one. It worked out okay, I guess, I slammed my right side against her left front fender, and emerged mostly unscathed. My knee banged my own top tube pretty well, and I’ve got a few bruises, but that’s pretty minor. Bike’s okay, too.

I was able to continue my ride to work just fine. The driver was pretty shaken up – I think a fair bit more than yours truly. “I’m sorry, honey,” she said, “I didn’t see you, I’m so sorry.” She had to freak out a bit more and hug me before she drove off.

Of course, perhaps she was shaken up by the possible consequences of her actions to me. Then again, perhaps it was that insurance information “Well, um, I don’t have it WITH me.”

No, I’ll bet you don’t.

It’s been a busy week. I ought to post this before I get out the door, even if I want to add more detail.

Friday, March 13, 2009

First Ride -- Shimano 7970 Di2

Electric. Shifters.

This has been tried before, you're right, but I'm too new to the sport to remember all of that Mektronic business.

So, when I see the blueshirts pull out a LaPierre with a funky-looking brick behind the front derailleur, I had to go investigate. Yes, that's Alex, with this prototype of the mouthful that Shimano calls "Dura Ace 7970 Di2." It's for real this time, ladies and gentlemen. Both Big S and Campagnolo have been developing electric groups for the past several years, but Shimano bit the bullet first and put theirs on the market.

On sale soon at a high-end bicycle shop near you, Di2 will cost you something like $3,000 for the basic 4-piece group -- that's STI shifters, both derailleurs, plus a battery and charger. On top of that, you'll need a crank, chain, and brakes, which Shimano STRONGLY recommends using Dura-Ace 7900 parts for. Expect bikes with this complete group to cost 5-figure amounts without too much trouble.

What do you get for that kind of coin? What's the benefit?

The short version is this: The front derailleur is effortless and perfect.

A few years ago, I did one of my first races, on a rolling course near Bellingham, WA, and I had it in my gung-ho mind that I was going to attack at a certain portion of the course. We were starting a big climb, and a guy a couple of rows in front of me started to accelerate, and I shifted into my big ring to go over the top.

Except, that's not what I did. Instead, I slowed too much and powered the chain over the side of the big ring. I wasn't slick enough to get it going before my rapidly diminishing momentum faded, so I had to climb off, throw the chain back on, and chase. I had the same level of suffering, but rather than off the front of the pack, I was off the back chasing.

All commentary about my skill notwithstanding, this would not have happened on Di2. The front derailleur is the most complicated part of this system, and as far as I could tell simply could not drop the chain. Seriously, this thing has laser alignment. Lasers, folks!

Even my two laps around the parking lot showed me the magic, and unbiased sources confirm it’s the same under full load up a gnarly hill. You can still shift.

We had a technical Q&A session with the Shimano dudes, and I asked them everything I could think of that would foul this up. Of course, everyone asks how long a charge of the battery lasts, and it’s not like a light where you recharge the thing daily. One zap a week ought to be fine. If you lose, wear out, or destroy yours, it’s also the only part of the system that “does not say Dura-Ace on it,” meaning it’s produced under contract, carries a 1-year warranty, and costs a relatively reasonable $99.99.

How about fitting the battery to smaller frames? Sure, you get a bottle-cage lifter that allows you that flexibility, and Alex said they had also gotten several other positions on the seat tube area to work fine.

What if the computer goes wonky on you? It won’t, but if you don’t believe me, you can hit this control button on your bars, and recalibrate the thing if you like.

Want to run your front shifter on your right hand? Can do.

What if you crash that $900 rear derailleur? Well, of course, it’s not indestructible, but the derailleur senses impact and retracts to the top of the cogs, making at least, um, crash-resistant.

Now, how about if you’re installing the wiring, or putting the bike on the car, and you cut the wiring harness? That, sir, is a $300 mistake you’ll only make once. Still, I wish they’d found a way to make the wiring harness more affordable. Shimano replied that perhaps as quantities went up, price would go down some, but they also advised that compatible frames will be able to run the wires completely internally, minimizing chances of damage.

As a guy who has loaded his bike into a van with 20 other bikes countless times, I’d be more than a little concerned about that one! Wireless is a no-go at least for now, though, because of higher battery drain and risk of cross-talk in the peloton causing exciting things to happen.

When riding the stuff, the way that you really notice that you’re riding electric is the mouse-click effort required to shift. On the front, this is a really big deal – no more high effort, long-travel sweep while trying to climb. The rear doesn’t feature a multiple shift feature, but you can rattle ‘em off as fast as you can touch the button. Automatic trim on the front derailleur means one can run fully cross-chained as much as you like, though I suppose it’d wear the chain faster.

Instead of thwacking, rifle-bolt shift sounds, the rear derailleur makes a quick “zzzzziiip,” like pulling down a zipper quickly. It feels more natural than I expected, though I mistakenly tried to move the brake lever to shift, like all other Shimano designs. On Di2, the shifters are both small buttons behind the brake levers, which only operate the brakes.

Two laps around the lot, and several chances to make Di2 foul up a shift all failed. It’s solid stuff.

In short, will I buy it? Right now, probably not.

Cost notwithstanding, though, given the choice, would I race on Di2? Absolutely. No questions asked.

That’s pretty impressive.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Life is busy, and the roads are long, but this won't fade off into the night.

Still, pause for air, everyone...