Tuesday, April 24, 2007

How to Talk to Your Bicycle Mechanic, part 4, or "It's dead, Jim"

I'm a bicycle mechanic, not a magician (faith healer, miracle worker, fill in your favorite McCoyism here)!

Yep, it's true. Sometimes a bike comes to me that is just beyond help, or hope. It's actually pretty rare, but that doesn't make it any easier.

I wanted to address these situations, because they are difficult, for both the owner and the mechanic, assuming the mechanic really cares about what they do. And let's assume that here, ok?

The most straightforward, but by no means easy variation on "it's dead" is when I discover some really serious damage to the frame, such as a crack in the tubes. Sometimes, dirt will hide such things from the owner, and even the mechanic, unless the bike is cleaned and examined closely. Upon discovering this kind of damage, I stop work, and contact the owner, if they are not already present (sometimes, rarely, we can catch it on the initial check in). A crack in the frame, anywhere, means "game over" in almost every case. The cost of repair is such that unless the bike has great collectible or sentimental value, that it just doesn't make sense to pursue that option. For the typical customer, a crack means a new bike, or at least a new frame. If it's within a warranty period and terms, that's better, obviously, but in many cases, it's just a loss.

The reason I say those cases are straightforward is because just about anyone can see and understand that a break in the frame of the bicycle means it's finished. Even the most optimistic rider can grasp "if I keep riding it, bad things will happen" when they see a crack. Not so the more subtle problems that I've seen, such as a bent frame. And depending on the location and nature of the damage, and the material of the frame, a bent frame may be salvageable. But even then, it's important that the customer understand that the bike has sustained damage which may affect it's long term safety and utility. And in some cases, a bent frame can not be made safely rideable. I've found that convincing people that this is true can be a big challenge, especially if they have been riding it in that condition for a while. It's my job to make sure they are told the truth about the damage, as well as my professional opinion on the best course of action to take. But I cannot force someone to give up on a damaged bike, and that puts me in a tough position. I hate the thought that someone might get hurt, but if I have laid it all out for them, and they choose to continue riding the bike, I can't stop them.

What I can and will do, in addition to warning the owner, is not allow myself to be pulled further into responsibility for any future problems. By that, I mean I can tell them I will not work on the bike in its damaged condition. If I feel the bike is not safely rideable, it would be irresponsible of me to do other repair work to get them back on the road. And it would be even worse for me to attempt a "repair" to the damage that will not work. What do I mean by that? Well, take a frame that has a bent fork, for instance, or a misaligned rear triangle assembly (the parts surrounding the back wheel)... If it's a steel frame, due to the nature of the material, I can sometimes safely "cold set" the frame or fork back into alignment. On the other hand, aluminum, a very common frame material these days, does not respond well to cold setting. In fact, aluminum is very prone to failure if bent and then re-bent back to its original shape. Titanium and carbon fiber are basically impossible to cold set.. in fact, carbon doesn't bend, it breaks. So if you bring me an aluminum bike that's been bent, I won't even try to straighten it, and I will discourage you from trying yourself. And yes, I have had someone propose that. Luckily, as it turns out, we found him another bike for such a good price he changed his mind.

It's important to point out here that any frame that has been bent in some way needs to be examined by a professional, and it's best to listen to what they say. Your bike was designed around certain angles and tubing configurations, and any alteration of those could adversely and dangerously alter the bike's ride qualities. I've had folks bring in bikes with forks bent back badly from hitting a curb or something, and getting them to understand that a) the metal has been fatigued, and depending on the severity, may fail later, and b) the handling of the bike is now compromised and could prove dangerous to the rider. It helps to show people clearly what I'm talking about... I use a straightedge, or a frame alignment tool to show the problem, and explain why it is a problem. Most of the time, with patience, people "get" it, and will follow my advice.

Another category of "dead" bike syndrome is when some component that is meant to be removable or adjustable becomes permanently fixed to the frame. This can happen due to rust or corrosion, or it can be caused by a chemical reaction between two different metals. The latter commonly occurs with seat posts and some types of stems. It's standard procedure when assembling most bicycles to grease those items when they are installed, providing a barrier between the two metals (typically steel and aluminum). If that step is neglected, it is possible over time for a chemical reaction (as I recall, it's called galvanic corrosion) to cause the two metals to bond to one another. As a mechanic, I can try a number of things to break that bond, but sometimes it just won't budge. If the seat or handlebar position is fine as it is, then it's not a huge problem, as long as the customer understands the limitations they now have. If there's any need ever to move or remove those items, you're stuck, literally and figuratively, and it's time to look at a new bike or frame.

In other cases, it may be rust or similar corrosion that is the culprit, and often that occurs in the bottom bracket... the area where the crank bearings reside. Moisture can collect there, as it's the low point on the frame, and if rust is allowed to take hold long enough, it can be impossible to remove or even adjust the bottom bracket bearing assembly. Again, your mechanic can try a bunch of different things, but sometimes it just won't move. And as I said above... if you can live with the fact that those parts are frozen, then the bike is still ridable, but most often it's time to shop for a new bike, or at least prepare for that when the frozen parts become a fatal problem for the bike.

I always find it hard when one or more of these problems crop up on a customer's bike, especially if I know they really like the bike. If it's "just a bike" to them, obviously it's not that big a deal... but many folks really become fond of their bicycles. It makes sense... my bikes, especially those I've had the longest, or ridden the most, are almost companions, having shared some good times with me. So it's hard to say goodbye, silly as it may sound to some. I understand that, so when I find a problem that I think is "fatal", I try to be honest, and make it clear that I understand that it may be hard for the customer to hear and accept. I want to fix all of them... but sometimes I can't... and it's important to explain why, so the customer knows I'm not just trying to sell them another bike, or am too lazy to fix it. I suppose there are people out there who approach it that way, but I've never met them, and I hope I never do.

Next: "It's not dead yet!" Or what happens when it's not a total loss, but is very, very far gone.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

I'm dreaming of a white...


Okay, as an April birthday kinda guy, living in the DC area, I honestly wasn't expecting snow on my birthday, but there it is outside. Not a lot... barely an inch I'd guess, but snow nonetheless. I'm pretty sure this is a first for me, even though I've lived other places where it might have been more likely.

Kinda cool. A remarkable contrast to this past Tuesday, when I took the pictures of the cormorants and of Tybalt in the grass.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Unintended messages

04-05-07_0850 copy.jpg
04-05-07_0850 copy.jpg,
originally uploaded by frickercycle.
Well, today I had one of those "am I seeing what I think I'm seeing?" moments.

I was behind a Metrobus, pulling out of a Metro rail station, and saw the advertisement on the back. They have a whole series of ads now about "negligent driving"... this one was SUPPOSED to say:

"Hey Slick! Check your email at work.

However, as you may be able to see in the photo (taken while we were stopped!), the ad was torn partly away, removing the "NEGLIGENT" part. When I looked more closely, I discovered that under this ad was a previous one, only one word of which was visible... the word "my".... Producing a message that said "My DRIVING KILLS"... Not the kind of message a Metrobus driver really wants to send... especially in light of some recent incidents involving Metro buses and fatalities.

i hope somebody at Metro notices this and fixes it... it's a really unfortunate quirk of fate or something.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

How to Talk to Your Bicycle Mechanic, part 3

Or perhaps this one should be called:

So, what should you expect of your mechanic in return?

Well, it's going to vary from shop to shop, mechanic to mechanic, and even day to day or hour to hour. Aside from philosophical differences, it often boils down to time. Did you bring your bike in on a warm, sunny Saturday in spring? So did everyone else, or so it seems to those of us with the tools in our hands. How about a rainy Tuesday mid-afternoon? Well, gosh, we'll have time to pore over your bike in detail and have a nice long talk about it... and your kids... your latest trip... your pets...

Get the picture? If we're really busy, we can't take as much time to examine the bike and diagnose its condition. I personally strive to do the best I can to thoroughly examine a bike that comes in on any day of the week, but I have to admit it's harder to be as thorough as I'd like on a busy weekend. What does that mean to you? Well, two things... one, any estimate you might get is less likely to be perfectly accurate... and two, that might lead to one or more followup phone calls if we discover things later on that were missed in the initial check in process.

Check in process? Yes, ideally every bike brought in to a shop should be checked over before the owner walks out the door. For that reason, our shop (and many others) ask you to be prepared to stick around while we look it over. That way, as I discover things, I can tell you about it and ask you questions, engage in a dialogue, and get closer to an accurate estimate before you leave. If you absolutely can't wait for this process, we will probably have to follow up with you by phone or email, which is likely to slow the process down and keep the bicycle from your hands longer.

So as I said above, part of this is a discussion. I'll ask you questions about the bike, about your past riding and even about your planned riding. Why? In addition to understanding how the bike has been used, it helps me to know how you envision using it in the future. Are you only going to take it out for a few rides each month, only putting a hundred or two miles on it over the warm season? Or is this the year you've decided you need to lose weight, or compete in a triathlon, or try that century ride? If I find that your chain is "stretched" (it doesn't really stretch, it just looks that way), but is still this side of "Oh my word, replace me!", your future plans will guide me in my recommendations. There's no point in having you spend anywhere from $50 to well over $100 on a new chain and related components if you're just going to go for the occasional short ramble with the kids. On the other hand, I'd be irresponsible to not urge you to replace all the needed parts if you are planning repeated long rides in the near future.

Now, armed with the physical evidence (Bike Mechanic, CSI!) and the information you and I have exchanged, I can put together an estimate for the service on your bike. Different folks handle this in different ways, but I always try to be pretty clear and complete as to what it says. In our shop, the majority of bikes brought in to us fall into the category of a "basic tuneup" or a "gear and brake tuneup", based on a few key things. What's the difference? Well, as the name implies, the "gear and brake" tuneup covers just that... making sure your gears and brakes are working safely and properly. The "basic tuneup takes it a step farther... for that we true the wheels if needed and adjust any bearings that may be out of adjustment, as well as giving the bike a wipe-down.

So, as an example, if your bike simply isn't shifting quite right, and the brakes just don't have the grab they should, and that's the extent of it, along with needing a shot of lube here or there, then we call it a "gear and brake" or "lite" tuneup. If I discover that either a wheel is out of true, or the bearings on more than one component have too much play or are rough, I'll bump it up to the "basic tuneup". How do I pick the threshold? Well, I look at the individual items needed beyond "lite", and if the cost of them by the piece is equal to or higher than the difference between "lite" and "basic", you get "basic", because it's more cost effective for you. Make sense?

Now, in every case, I also try hard to catch any parts that may be in need of replacement or close to it. Typically, the things that wear out on a bike are cables, cable housings, and brake pads. As a general rule, I'll include a rough dollar value in most estimates to cover the possibility that we might have to replace one or more of these items. I usually just add a lump sum of around $15 - 20 to cover that, unless your bike uses some really fancy pads or something (I'm not kidding... brake pads can be as cheap as $4 a pair to over $25, depending on the brake). From experience, I've learned that this gives me the leeway to replace a bad or marginal cable or bit of housing without having to call you up to check on it, and that way you get your bike back without delay. More often than not, actually, I don't eat up the full dollar figure I've allowed myself, which means we both get the pleasure of you not spending as much as you thought you would.

Now, on the subject of wear, I have to talk briefly about chains. Chains do wear out over time... grit and grime conspire with going round and round to produce wear on the rollers and pins that make up your chain. The result of this is that the spacing between rollers gets ever greater, as does the total length of the chain. This makes it look like the chain has literally stretched, but in reality it's just wear on the parts that make it all fit less precisely together. Anyway, if your chain has worn far enough to merit replacement, most mechanics in most circumstances will tell you that in addition to replacing the chain, you should also replace the "freewheel" or "cassette"... that cluster of sprockets on the back wheel. Are they trying to rip you off, selling you yet another expensive part? Well, no. The fact of the matter is, the increased distance between the rollers on your chain has produced wear on the teeth of your sprockets, grinding them to a shape that will no longer mesh properly with a new chain. The result is that you could actually end up with a drivetrain that feels worse than when you started, with slipping and skipping and other fun things. So why replace the chain at all? Well, because if you do it at reasonable intervals, the "chain rings" on the front crankset will last a LOT longer. You see, they are subject to the same kind of wear as the rear sprockets. The difference is, they generally last longer by their nature, and cost more to replace. So it's better to perodically replace the chain and sprockets, rather than wait and end up having to replace the entire drive train.

Now, no bike shop or mechanic is perfect. Sometimes I miss things. Sometimes I do have to call and tell you there's something else wrong with the bike. Especially if the bike was taken in on a busy day, or the person taking it in was one of the less experienced folks in the shop. Please bear with your mechanic if they have to give you bad news. They are not trying to rip you off, or milk more money from you. I've worked with a lot of mechanics, and every one of them has had the well-being of the owner and the bike at the forefront when it comes to recommendations for repairs. If your mechanic tells you you should have a new set of brake arms, you can probably believe them. I say probably because I know this isn't a perfect world, populated entirely by ethical people. But that goes back to the beginning... find a mechanic you can talk to, who seems to genuinely care about their work, and taking care of you and your bike, and you won't have to worry about following their advice.

Next time...

What about the dreaded "It's dead, Jim" scenario?

Spring! part 2

originally uploaded by frickercycle.
I had to add this... I got home from my ride yesterday, to be greeted by Tybalt, my little tabby buddy. He was sick a couple of weeks ago, scaring the heck out of me. He's fine now, and yesterday was just loving being out in the warm sun. One of his all time favorite things is to do the Adorable Kitty Flop when he sees you, then roll around in absolute pleasure for a while. As a former-non-cat-person, I didn't know just how charming something like that could be. That's him there, basking.


originally uploaded by frickercycle.
Yesterday I took a lovely ride from my home in Falls Church, Virginia, across the Potomac, and up the Capital Crescent Trail to Bethesda, Maryland. It was warm and sunny and gorgeous out. The trails in Virginia into the city are nice, but the Capital Crescent is a winner. Lots of trees, many in blossom right now, and some great views of the Potomac. Close to DC, the trail parallels the C&O Canal, one of my favorite rides. The Crescent, however, is paved, which is nice for skinnier tires. I was on the Miyata 210 commuter though, which now has 35 mm Pasela tires in place of the Nokian studs, so either path would have worked.

Anyway, along the river, I saw this cluster of cormorants looking out over the river. There were two other groups on other branches nearby, giving the whole thing the feeling of some sort of eerie gathering of dark birds. If I hadn't recognized them for what they were, it might have been creepy.

I ended up catching Metro train for part of the trip back, across the river in Virginia. It was only my second longish ride of spring, and much of it was up a long, steady climb (funny how that happens when you follow a river upstream), so I was kinda pooped. All told, I think I put on a little over 30 miles, at a pretty relaxed pace. A lovely ride on a lovely day. I also got to have lunch with Annie (she works in Bethesda), and ran an errand as well. A good day off .