Monday, September 4, 2017

in which rapha eats itself

It had to happen.

Rapha, for years the silliest and most overpriced bikewear maker on earth, has been bought with Walmart money, by a Walton grandson.

I am looking forward to witnessing the downfall of a brand that had grown so pretentious and ridiculous that it should’ve been shut down ages ago.
It’ll be interesting to see what used Rapha t-shirts sell for on eBay.
Will they go the way of Fender guitars (“pre-CBS” era versus “modern” era)?

This whole thing — and the way folks are wringing their hands over it — is making me laugh my ass off.

Rapha has been silly and overpriced for a very long time.
Remember that the high price of an item constitutes half its consumer allure.
People buy stuff because it's expensive. They wear Rapha precisely because it makes them look and feel wealthier to ride in a $200 jersey instead of a $5 t-shirt. Almost no one will admit it -- especially since, in more recent years, as Rapha's manufacturing expanded to more place around the globe, quality control has already diminished -- and consumers will have to confront the fact that they paid a crap ton of money for something that more and more resembles crap.

Rapha grew and thrived because it started out exclusive and expensive, and so attracted everyone who wanted to ape the rich. It will lose many of those those consumers for the same reason: rich people don't shop at Walmart -- or any of its subsidiaries.
So yes, I'm gloating,  and thoroughly enjoying the Schadenfreude of it all.
Sue me.

So let's see what happens to the brand.
Will "pre-Walmart" Raphaware become "collectible" and more "valuable" as a result of the takeover?
Will people who are "fans" of the brand (and everything that goes with it, including the race team they sponsor, the magazines of glossy-sexy photos they co-produce, and above all the "prestige" of owning something that says "RAPHA" -- because, money is sexy even when the sex is not) suddenly realize that they've been had?
Or will they actually feel a sense of loss over this piece of pretentious bike culture, a "culture" so fake it may well have been conceived in a circle jerk of "design" consultants?

It'll be interesting to watch.
Meanwhile, I'm gonna guess that Rapha stuff is going to go for cheap on eBay and craigslist.

And as before, lots of folks will still enjoy riding like this, on an older bicycle wearing nothing more than an old t-shirt and cutoffs.
(And sunscreen. Don't forget the sunscreen, kids.)

Happy riding.

Friday, September 1, 2017

the cycle of things, or how i came to think i need less than i used to think i need

When I first began working in he bicycle industry in 1994, I owned a 4-year-old Trek mountain bike that I'd basically ridden into the ground. In my first year as an apprentice, I learned how to overhaul the bearings on that bike, and had also found another used bike which I dismantled, overhauled, repainted and rebuilt under the watchful eye of the master mechanic who'd hired me.

By the time I returned to Portland and began working at Citybikes a year later, I knew how to overhaul and/or tune up a bicycle with derailleurs, caliper brakes and friction shifting. I would complete my apprenticeship (though not my education -- that would never be done) by learning how to overhaul three-speed hubs and deal with indexed shifting.

In the years between 1995 and 2012, when I worked full-time in the bike industry, I enjoyed a healthy worker discount that allowed me to buy and try all sorts of things, including different brake systems, cargo bikes, various trailers, and all manner of raingear and waterproof panniers.
When I left the industry in 2012, I was outfitted with far more than I actually needed, including five bicycles (the most I'd ever owned) and buckets of random parts, plus a full set of shop tools for my own use.

Five years later, I still have most of the tools, and have pared myself down to two bikes that I regularly ride. There's a trailer, too; but I use it so infrequently that I'm considering selling it, or trading it for a smaller trailer.

The upshot of all this is that, during my time in the industry, I got to try out all sorts of technologies as they passed through the shop, and learn about how they worked in real-life riding. And unlike many bicycle mechanics who've kept bits of everything they've ever tried, my nearly twenty years in the industry made me wary of every new thing that came down the pike. I disdained the racing-influenced, trickle-down of technologies that infected ordinary transportational bicycles. As more repairable metal components transitioned to throw-away plastic parts, I realized that many of the skills I had acquired early on were becoming obsolete. No one cared anymore if I could overhaul a freewheel; freewheels were relics of another age. No one cared anymore if Iknew how to replace the main spring in a rear derailleur; rear derailleurs became so cheaply made that they could simply be removed and replaced when the spring wore out -- and newer models had springs that were harder to remove by design, the bicycle industry's blatant version of a planned obsolescence which I came to loathe.
(below: photo of freewheel disassembly. Only serious hobbyists actually bother to do this anymore.)
Related image

(below: another, less ideal way to disassemble a freewheel. Does anyone even USE this old Park tool anymore?)
Related image

Today, I am quite happy to be done with the bike industry, and with the crow-like obsession with every shiny, new thing that manufacturers release each year. At home, I keep a small supply of old friction derailleurs and shifters, old canti and enttry-level V-brakes and levers; and just enough brake and gear cables and housing to allow me to fix up old bikes for refugee resettlement on my part-time, hobby-level basis. I am down to two bikes, and they both have friction shifting and freewheels; in fact, I've overhauled enough used freewheels to likely see me out, each one oiled and carefully wrapped in a plastic bag to keep from rusting in storage.

(below: photo of a freewheel vise, used to overhaul and swap cogs from threaded freewheels)
Image result for freewheel photos

I have more than enough bike stuff these days. And anytime I feel like I have too much, I winnow down.

That's why this Monday morning, I'm having a Labor Day bike parts sale, to clear out whatever feels "extra" and could be of use somewhere else. I still fix up old bikes (though I'll take a break for the Jewish High Holy Days), don't worry. I just do it on a smaller scale that's more manageable and keeps me relatively stress-free.

Owning isn't nearly as much fun as riding.
So wherever you are this weekend, enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

refugee bike update - august 2017

As of today, I've got four completed bikes that will be picked up this afternoon for handoff to Catholic Charities, where they will be distributed to newly arrived refugee families needing affordable transportation.

Just finished this one today:

I scored this back in May at the neighborhood cleanup drop-off site, after gently arguing with an entire family of scrap metal haulers (kids as young as six were helping out and I suspect that's how the family paid its bills). The head of the household told me, "we got dibs on basically every bike someone leaves here."

I verified this with the Neighborhood Association coordinator, who went over to the man and told him she had promised no such thing, and if I wanted to take home one or two bikes to fix up for charity, where was the harm in that?

The man did not appear to be embarrassed at all, simply annoyed that he'd have to share.

I took this bike and two more. One was so badly rusted inside, with a frozen stem and seatpost, that I decided to strip off everything useable for other bikes. The other two bikes, a tall Peugeot road bike and this old Giant, tuned up into decent, rideable bikes. (Note: I cover all finished bikes with random stickers and/or reflective tape to hide the brand names and hopefully reduce the risk of theft by people who know something about bikes.)

I'm especially pleased with this one. It was a bit of a mess, covered with rust and requiring replacement wheels, seat and handlebars. (The wheels came from the stripped-down bike).
I also swapped out the GripShift because, well, I just detest them unless they are basically new.
I decided to toss on a pair of stem shifters -- friction, of course -- that would work just fine and leave space on the handlebar for a bell and a handlebar bag. Everything else loosened up pretty nicely once I applied lube and let it soak in for a couple of days.
This bike would have ended up getting hauled to a metal recycling depot and dismantled, with anything non-metal bits going to the landfill. I was glad to save this bike and make it rideable again.
Is it cost-effective for a shop? Nope.
But it's just fine for me to do as a hobby, on my own time. Plus, it gives me a chance to keep my hand in things and do some bike-related problem-solving.

I am taking a short break from wrenching from now through the end of September, for the Jewish High Holy Days. I'll resume wrenching in early October.
Happy riding.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Ride report: Sunday Parkways Outer Northeast

Portland Sunday Parkways rolled out a new route in Outer NE yesterday.
I signed on as a mobile mechanic.
I did nor repair a single bicycle.
Instead, I spent two and a half hours being a mobile traffic cop.
Because of the eclipse, many regular volunteers weren't available. Which meant that many intersections along the route simply couldn't be staffed.
I found out later that there was almost NO Police presence along the route, either, because of budget constraints. Every high-traffic intersection was staffed by one or two professional flaggers in safety vests. In a couple of cases, volunteers helped control traffic flow at these intersections as well.

So I spent a lot of time helping motorists get in or out of the neighborhood, escorting their slowed cars across the route. And while most were patient, one was aggressive and threatening, even charging three of us on our bikes when he sped down the closed street toward us. Thankfully, there were three of us so we were able to block the car while one snapped a photo of his license plate.
Eventually we were able to divert the car off the course, but it was the scariest moment, and the hardest day I've ever had in ten years of volunteering at Parkways.

Hopefully PBOT will learn from this and have a plan for dealing with this kind of volunteer shortage in the future.

I will say that all the other volunteers I saw along the route were glad to be there, and so was every walker and bike rider. That gives me hope for the future of this nice residential route.
Next month -- Parkways Sellwood/SE on Sept. 24th. Be nice to each other and travel safely.

Monday, August 14, 2017

one-off Torah ark (crosspost from

I love the mystery of ritual as much as anyone else. I think that, given the choice between reading aloud from a Torah scroll or from a bound book, I'd rather read from the scroll. But as an Off-The-Grid specialist, I don't have access to a kosher scroll, either (and in fact, some rabbis are not super-thrilled with my dedication to facilitating Off-The-Grid celebrations for unaffiliated Jewish families, but that's another blog post).
This summer, the unaffiliated family of a B'nei Mitzvah student offered to purchase a non-kosher scroll, printed on heavy paper and glued to wooden poles so that their child would have a scroll to read from -- and then, in exchange for a few of the lessons, to give me the scroll to keep for use with future students.
I was deeply moved by this offer and accepted it humbly.
Then, I set about making a proper ark for my scroll. Because even a non-kosher scroll deserves to have a place of honor. The story is still kosher, right?

So here's what I came up with. it's made from assorted car and bicycle license plates, an abandoned wooden planter box, hinges and other hardware that came from my shed or from a local house parts recycler, and some paint that was left over from my time at the bike shop. It took some figuring out, and some modifying when I realized too late that the box wouldn't quite fit the scroll (I too one end apart, rebuilt it and added a "roof" made from a license plate). But in the end, it makes a fine, and a wonderfully whimsical, "SO Portland" home for my little Torah scroll. I couldn't have asked for it to turn out any better. And I am grateful to the family whose bright idea inspired me to make it.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

why don't more people learn to fix their stuff?

One of the beautiful things about getting everywhere by bicycle is that the technology is so elegantly simple that most minor repairs -- flat fixes, brake and derailleur adjustments -- can be done at roadside in minutes.
It's very satisfying to be able to fix a flat, hop back on and resume riding.
And if you were to pay a shop to fix a flat, they'd charge you between 8 and 12 bucks for parts and labor.
So why don't more people learn to deal with the small stuff themselves?

We've arrived at a point in the history of consumerism where more people would rather pay someone else to fix their stuff than to learn how to fix it themselves.
Now, I don't think it's wise to try and fix everything yourself, especially if you're inexperienced; I tend not to attempt to deal with my home's wiring, for example.
But so many of the things we own can be repaired at home for far less money than we'd spend to pay someone else to do it.
Bicycles are perfect example of this.

Once upon a time, lots of people were quite willing to fix their own stuff. Because fifty, sixty years ago, more of us had to. We didn't live near a repair shop or we simply didn't have the money to pay someone else. And thrift was considered a far greater virtue than it is today.

The problem with not fixing your stuff is that if you don't learn how to fix it, you don't fully own it.
People used to own their cars more, back when pulling the dashboard and rewiring the ignition switch was easier. Hell, I learned how to hotwire a car when I was seventeen. It wasn't hard once someone showed you how the system worked.
Today, most car dashboards have computers underneath. And hardly anyone works on their newer cars at home because of those computers.

Thankfully, most bicycles have yet to become so computerized. And older bikes abound, on craigslist and at yard sales. So why not learn how to do the basic stuff at home?
Fixing your own flat will save you $8-12.
Adjusting your own gears or brakes will save you $10-15.
And wiping down your bike's drivetrain every 2 weeks (once a month in the summer) and applying a light coating of oil when the chain runs dry will save you a lot of money on replacement parts, because you won't have to replace them quite as often if you do simple maintenance like this.

Depending on where you live, many bike shops offer basic maintenance classes. Some offer open wrenching nights where you can come in a rent their tools for cheap and work on your bike under the helpful eye of a shop mechanic. And if your local shop doesn't offer this, there are lots of good books and Youtube tutorials to help you get started. Here's a few:

Everybody's Bike Book by Tom Cuthbertson. One of the oldest and still one of the best for basic things like flat fixes, brake adjustments and the like.
The Park Tool Big Book of Bicycle Repair. Available at shops or on eBay. Covers the newer stuff including V-brakes and disc brakes, if you're so inclined. Lots of helpful photos along with concise instructions.
Park Tool and hundreds of others have posted videos on how to do all sorts of bike repairs.
Here's a basic idea of how to fix a flat, by the folks at Park Tool.

If you live in the city, you don't need to bring along more than a small pump, spare inner tube, patch kit and whatever tools you need to remove wheels and/or make very minor adjustments on brakes or gears. The whole thing will fit in a small pouch you can strap onto the underside of your saddle (and easily remove when you go indoors, to avoid theft).

 My basic repair kit, wrapped in a cloth roll and small enough to fit in a pocket of my saddlebag.

Below: Homemade patch kit, including homemade patches (from recycled inner tube squares and tin foil), levers and sandpaper, and tube of glue (sold separately at shops). It all fits in a repurposed cough drop tin.
Yes, your hands will get dirty. And you can wash them with soap and water. Really, it's not a big deal.
Own your stuff. Fix your stuff. And save some money.

Happy riding!