Thursday, September 29, 2005

Hips? Check. Knees? Check. Bike?

I have had one hip and two knees replaced. I've been riding my indoor Schwinn Airdyne, to keep my joints going. Now I'm ready to get back on my 30-year-old Schwinn Suburban.

My kids bought me a fancy Cannondale hybrid four years ago and I never felt comfortable on it. I probably rode it less than 50 miles. I took the Suburban to a shop for a tune-up, and they told me they couldn't get parts to fix my ten-speed gear system, so its in "uphill" mode—which is nice when I'm going uphill, but annoying when things are level.

Can a more modern set of gears be put on my old Schwinn bike, which I dearly love, and feel perfectly at home on?

—On the road again

If your doctor could find the parts to get your personal drivetrain back on the road, then doggone it—somebody ought to be able to do the same for your bike's. The short answer is yes, your Suburban can be retrofitted with a more modern system.

Shimano Tourney derailleurs and levers seem to me to be the best match in new parts that would fit your bike. The levers would be mounted right by the grips, so you wouldn't have to move your hands very far. The right-hand lever would click into place when shifting from one gear to another. The freewheel, chain, cables and cable housing also would need to be replaced. You would end up with 12 speeds instead of 10, but who's counting? It wouldn't be cheap to do—but you would likely still turn a tidy profit after selling the Cannondale. (Tell your kids it got stolen.)

However, I'm dismayed the shop couldn't come up with a part to make your existing components work. The Suburban shares most drivetrain parts in common with the retro-trendy Varsity and Continental, and lots of people in this town have experience fixing them. Have you tried the used-bike shops? City Bikes on Ankeny has a great room full of used parts for low cost.

One other thing about your bike, though: If you've ever ridden it in the rain, you know that its steel rims cause the brakes to lose nearly all their stopping power when wet. You can change to aluminum alloy rims, but that adds quite a lot to the cost. This is not an issue if you never ride in the rain, of course.

Monday, September 26, 2005

A case of the wobblies

I just bought an old (maybe too old) Peugeot and I am experiencing a problem when I pedal. The horizontal shaft that the two pedal assemblies are mounted to feels loose or wobbly. It's not a firm, solid, smooth revolution, but a floppy one.

I tried to tighten the bolt, but it didn't help much. Is there anything I can do—or did I "get the shaft," so to speak?

—Non-union but Wobbly nonetheless

Cut it out, Wobbly; bad puns and oblique references are the sole prerogative of the blog author. Didn't you read the fine print on the user agreement?

You didn't necessarily get the shaft; this is a pretty common deal on older bikes. Yours probably is old enough to have cottered cranks—the kind where a small, wedged bolt pierces the width of the crankarm and has a nut on one side ( like this). If so, the problem is probably that the nuts loosened years ago and the wedge parts of the cotters have worn down over time, allowing things to get sloppy. The solution would be to replace the cotters. Good news: cotters are cheap. Bad news: A special tool is needed to do it right. It's probably best to have a shop do it and charge you the twenty bucks or so.

There's a chance the problem could be in the bottom bracket—the bearings inside the frame, where the crankarms attach. If so, adjusting the cup and lockring on the left side of the frame might solve it. (Again, alas, special tools are needed to do it right—but it's a smaller labor charge than replacing cotters.)

It's also possible—but less likely—that the bearings inside are toast and need to be replaced (bigger labor charge). This could get tricky because your bike likely is old enough to have French-threaded bearing cups, which can be hard to find (but not necessarily expensive).

For some comfort in all this, create an account on eBay and then browse the "completed listings" to see how much collectors are paying for certain old Peugeots.

Clydesdale and then some: what to ride?

I'm a 280-pound guy, six feet tall. I used to be a football player. I want to ride a bike to the bus and around—you know—to lose a few. What type of bike should I get?

—Big Man Near Campus

Surprisingly, 280 and thereabouts often is not much of an issue. I used to work for a shop that supplied the 49ers training camp, and we had few equipment problems. Most types of bike should work if:

  • The bike is good quality—not a WalMart-type "toy" bike
  • It is in good working order
  • It's adjusted to fit you
  • Your riding style is laid back—no curb hopping or attacking the climbs or sprinting for traffic lights
  • You pump up the tires to full pressure every week without fail (important)

If you get a road-racing-type bike, put on the widest tires that will clear the frame--such as 28 or 32 millimeters wide instead of the more common 20-23. That will give you better ride quality and fewer flat tires.

If you get a mountain bike, you'll buy yourself some tolerance for a more aggressive riding style.

As with any new rider, you'll probably be more comfortable at first with a wide, cushy seat and high handlebars. As you get used to riding, the typical "sport" seats and riding positions will give you more speed and power.

So the best bet might be to start off with a "comfort-style" mountain bike, which has the wide, cushy seat and high bars. Then later you can change those items in favor of more sporty ones. Later still, maybe you would trade in favor of a skinny-tire bike.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Is it still safe to ride?

I keep reading and hearing about bike riders getting hit and killed. Is it still safe to ride in this town?

—Prudence in Portland

Dear Prudence (see Siouxsie and the Banshees),

My short answer is yes. The number of cyclists is way up over the last few years, but the number of bike accidents is about the same. That suggests it's actually gotten safer.

Compared to other cities and metro areas where I've ridden—Chicago, Sacramento, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Reno—this is cycling Nirvana. There are so many good routes and amenities and so much accommodation by motorists.

So why are we all feeling uneasy?

Eight riders have been killed this season, instead of the usual two for the whole year. More than four times as many, right? But those numbers are still too small to have statistical significance. That is, they could indicate just plain old "bad luck" rather than a trend.

But eight riders killed is more than significant in generating a lot of media exposure, whether the media are news stories, letters to the editor, blogs, roadside memorials, memorial rides, etc. Portland has a vibrant bike culture, and the culture is all over this one.

That's good but not all good, IMHO. One potential effect of any vibrant culture is to galvanize people into tribes, and make them see the larger whole as "us" vs "them." This balkanization fosters suspicion and hatred of "them" by a few crackpots—both those within the tribe and those outside. The crackpots get aggressive and militant, and that behavior gets echoed in the mainstream. (For echoes of suspicion, hatred, aggression and militancy by both cyclists and motorists, just skim the close-call reports on Bike Portland.)

So what does that mean for you on the road? There are never very many true crackpots (the rest are just posturing), so your chances of encountering one who's behind a wheel are slim. You still might get accidentally squashed—but again, that risk seems to have actually decreased. Besides, it's a risk we knowingly accept each time we saddle up and dance with dinosaurs. And that moderate but bracing risk—let's face it—is part of the appeal.

Nevertheless, how about some tips for reducing your risk?

• If you need to take the whole lane because of hazards such as getting doored, go ahead and do it if you can go at or near the speed of traffic. If you've got hazards on the right and traffic is way faster than you, that street sucks; find a different route. This is supposed to be fun and there's no need to martyr yourself.

• Always stop for stop signs, traffic lights, occupied crosswalks, and school buses; no exceptions unless it's noon and you're at a stop sign deep in the 'burbs where traffic is nonexistent between commute times.

• One of the great things about cycling is the ability to morph from vehicle to pedestrian and back as conditions dictate. But be careful, predictable, even methodical about how you do it: Ride on sidewalks only as a last resort. Before you use a crosswalk, stop, get off and walk.

• Wear a helmet. Duh.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Electra Townie: a "perfect fit"?

The Bike Portland blog has a recent post that touches on the marketing of the Electra Townie, a subtly new species of cruiser bike that's being touted as ideal for new riders in our fine city. (At Bike Portland, click on the small picture of the ad to read it.) But what if newbies couldn't take their Townies on the bus?

According to an insider who attended the recent kickoff for BTA's Bike Commute Challenge, a Townie was ceremoniously placed in a TriMet bus rack for a photo op—only it didn't fit. Apparently the laid-back cruise machine was too long for the rack. Seems like it might be too long to hang from a MAX bike rack as well.

The Townie looks pretty normal, but its longer, more laid-back stance means you can have full leg extension when pedaling, yet put your feet flat on the ground when stopped. Maybe such security is a fair tradeoff for the potential loss of public-transit access; maybe not. Caveat emptor.

When the chain won't stay

I’ve got a high-zoot road bike with sixteen speeds: an eight-cog cassette in back and two chainrings up front. Everything works just as it’s supposed to except once in a while the chain comes off the inner chainring.

Everything appears to be adjusted properly and I have no rubbing on the front derailleur in any gear. Once the chain came off from the bottom when my feet weren’t on the pedals (like I was pedaling backwards) but I couldn’t reproduce this by pedaling backwards.

I guess I can live with it jumping every other day, but I'm getting a little tired of wearing chain grease to the office. If you have some advice I’d gladly take it.

—Prometheus Unchained

If what you describe happens only when shifting up front, the fix could be as simple as tightening the front derailleur's inner limit screw a half-turn, so that the chain isn't moved quite so far "in" during the shift to the inner chainring. But I bet you've already tried that.

Sounds like your bike is as much as ten years old, so it may not have all the original parts; that doesn't bode well. Higher-quality bikes got a whole lot more susceptible to chaos theory in the early to mid '90s; one slightly mismatched replacement part, like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings, could throw off the whole drivetrain's performance.

I don't think the chain is the culprit; if it were, you would notice symptoms on the rear cogs much more than on the front chainrings. (An exception might be if you happen to have a nine-speed chain—narrower than necessary for your eight-speed cassette, and prone to wonky front shifting on chainrings that aren't spaced to match its lesser width.)

I think it's a chainline problem. That is, the bottom-bracket spindle—the rotating thing that the cranks attach to—may be too long, putting the chainrings too far "out," so that the chain is making unnatural angles in some gear combinations. (This wouldn't necessarily cause rubbing on the front derailleur.)

Some tests for you to perform: Is the chain more likely to jump ship when it's on the bigger (that is, the innermost) cogs in back? When you stand behind the bike and trace an imaginary line from between cogs 4 and 5 forward, does it line up between the two chainrings, or close to it? (A couple millimeters "in" or "out" won't matter much.)

You may need a bottom bracket with a shorter spindle. You can get them in a variety of lengths, but of course you need to know how long your current one is. Once you take the bottom bracket completely out, you'll see a sticker and/or a stamping that lists the spindle length. After the shorter spindle is in, don't forget to adjust the front derailleur's limit screws.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

For newbies: Which frame size?

Thanks for explaining standover height. I'm buying a bike for a friend who is about 5'10. What size frame would fit best? —M

Good lord, tell me this is not going to be a surprise gift. The chances of buying a good-fitting bike for someone else are about as good as dropping a laser shot down the garbage chute of the Death Star.

Frame size depends not so much on the rider's overall height as on the relationship between leg length and torso length. Another way to think of it: The frame ought to accommodate you lengthwise as well as heightwise. Men tend to have shorter legs but longer torsos at any given height compared to women, and bikes for dirt-trail use generally are not as tall as bikes for use only on pavement. It all factors in.

Here are some tips for the rider, whom you should bring along for test rides. Otherwise—use the Force, M.

Before test-riding, adjust the seat height so that the knee is still a little bent even at the bottom of the pedal stroke. If the seat doesn't go up high enough (watch for the "minimum insertion" mark on the seatpost), try a bigger bike. While riding, pay attention to how it feels not only height-wise, but lengthwise. Do you feel too far "ahead of" or "behind" the pedals? Is the handlebar far enough way that you don't feel cramped, and your back is not arched or humped? When you pedal, do your knees seem to overlap your elbows a lot, or just a little?

Even (especially) if the verdict is bad, measure how long the distance was from the seat to the handlebar. That will give you a useful comparison number for screening other bikes. If it feels close but not quite, keep in mind that the seat can be adjusted a little fore and aft, and the stem—the piece that connects the handlebar to the rest of the bike—can be replaced with one that's longer or shorter.

For newbies: standover height defined

I'm shopping for a used bike and looking at lots of online ads. What do they mean when people write about the "stand over height" of a bike? The rider I'm shopping for is 5'10". —M

Standover height is the height of the bike at the top bar of the frame—better known as "the point where your crotch hits if you slip off the pedals." It's a measure not of whether the bike fits the rider, but of whether the rider can safely get on and off the bike. Your crotch-to-floor measurement in riding shoes really ought to be at least a couple inches taller than the bike's standover height.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A ride under 50 bucks?

I need a bike for tooling around parks and on bike trails in the city and for short commutes to the MAX station. I'm not an avid cyclist, so I'm not interested in long or hard rides. Also, I don't want to spend more than 50 bucks.

Basically I don't need a fast or fancy bike. So what do you suggest? What specs and features should I look for?

—Simple Needs

Dear Simple,

First, props to you: Maybe you're a more avid cyclist than you think. By actually getting around on a bike, you'll be living stronger than a whole convoy of Spandex-clad Lance-alikes toting snob-cycles atop SUVs.

But Simple, geez! Fifty bucks isn't much to work with. Don't even bother comparing technical specs for that money. You'll need to hit garage sales and thrift stores, and the "features" to look for will be that the bike is (1) all there; (2) mostly rust-free; and (3) fits you fairly well. When you stand over it, you should have at least a couple inches between your crotch and the top of the frame—and you should be able to set the seat height so that your knee is still a little bent even at the bottom of the pedal stroke. (Tip: Sometimes ladies' bikes can be had a little cheaper, and you don't have to worry about crotch clearance.) Try haggling to get the bike for well under $50, and spend the rest to have it safety-checked and adjusted at your neighborhood bike shop.

You know you can bring your bike on MAX, right? That matters two ways: If you bring it along, you'll want your bike to be light for easy porting--and you may feel free to spend more on it, because it won't be sitting out as thief-bait all day.

If you can commit to, say, $150, you'll find relatively light, zippy machines—and competent service—in a used-bike shop such as City Bikes or the Community Cycling Center. Look for a medium-wide, comfy seat, and a handlebar that's not too low. Don't be scared off by a racing-style drop handlebar; it'll be fine as long as it's set high enough to be useful for you. If you can find a bike with full fenders, so much the better; you won't have to pay extra for them when the rain resumes. Good hunting!