Friday, September 28, 2012

What's in the Stand: Mr. Merckx Stopped by for a Visit


E. Merckx
This bike is just really pretty. Merckx frames, especially steel ones, have all kinds of neat little touches that show how much time and attention went into making the bike look totally pro. The paint is usually really nice, I like the retro look of the lettering and the head badge, and I'm a total sucker for the little EM logo on the seat stay caps and how they made it look like a bicycle. They usually have some kind of internal cable routing for the rear brake as well which I think really adds to the clean look of a road bike.
I would love to own an older Merckx frame someday, though that falls into the "unattainable fantasy" end of my bike-related hopes and dreams. They're expensive when they're new and a certain generation of these frames (the generation that I like) are fairly collectible. When you see a nice one it's usually owned by someone who knows what they have and they aren't willing to part with it for less than a small fortune. I've seen a few beat up Merckx frames that have been converted into townies by the Fixerati and it makes my heart sad every time. With a heavy sigh I'll concede that at least they are still being ridden and that, for better or worse, is what bikes were meant to do. For the present I'll restrain my affection for these bikes to pawing over someone else's ride while I have it in the repair stand.

All issues of provenance and manufacture aside, the bike brings two topics to mind; handlebar accessories and bicycle computers.

This bike's owner is a follower of the "Too Much is Never Enough" school of thought when it comes to handlebar accessories. He has aero bars, arm pads, and two different computers. That's a lot of stuff draped over, bolted to, and affixed to the handlebars. All of it is purpose specific, the owner could probably give you a sound explanation for why each particular item is there, and none of the reasons would be bad...but I don't like it. If we were to digress into discussions about personal taste in bike aesthetics, I would describe mine as being fairly minimalist. I like luggage, particularly handlebar bags for longer rides, and I do use a Garmin 500 on my personal bike, but there are ways to install such things where they don't make the bike look cluttered. I like handlebars to be clean, if only so I'm not having to reach around a whole bunch of stuff when I'm riding the bike. It's particularly noticeable on a bike like this where the overall aesthetic is a little retro, a little bit like race machines from the '70s. On a steel road frame with nice, narrow tubes I like things to be pretty stripped down, if only so it looks like it's about to be smashed through the mud and cobbles of the Spring Classics.

I'm usually confused by people's relationship with their cycling computers. More often than not I see bikes with either broken or non-functional computers on the handlebars. Even more strange are the bikes I handle with parts of broken computers still attached when the customer has just finished telling me that they don't have the other pieces any more. The same goes for light mounts. There are so many bicycles cruising around with broken or old light mounts attached to the handlebars, and more often than not the rider doesn't own the lights any more. It's crazy. Just take them off if you know you aren't going to use them any more.
This bike had two computers, a heart rate monitor and a Campagnolo Ergobrain setup. Both of them were set up in such a way that if you were to get out on the aero bars you would have them about six inches from your face. I suppose that's a good way to keep your eye on your heart rate but I would find it distracting. The Ergobrain computer is worth a mention because it's complicated, expensive, and doesn't exist anymore (though there are rumblings from the Campagnolo camp that they are going to implement a similar computer again sometime soon). The Campagnolo Ergobrain is a wired computer that has sensors that extend to a wheel magnet, and the ergo shifters. When it's properly set up it tells you all kinds of things, such as speed, cadence, mileage, and your particular gear combo at the moment. It's very similar to the Shimano Flightdeck computers and they have a similarly difficult set up procedure. The computer has to be installed when the bars are untaped so wires can be run along the handlebar and plugged into the shifters. Wires are also extended along the downtube to the sensor for the wheel magnet. When you program the computer you have to know the tooth count for every cog on your cassette and your chainrings so the computer can accurately generate your data given a particular gear ratio. It generates your cadence data by doing fancy math, which is odd since computers with actual cadence sensors have been around for about as long as this computer.

The man himself, Mr. Eddy Merckx


It all makes my head spin. The best thing that ever happened to cycling computers was the creation of Garmin's line of GPS-enabled goodies. When I got mine I became an immediate convert. They're small, they're easy to use, and they provide way more data than a computer like the Ergobrain or a Shimano Flightdeck ever could. It won't tell you what your current gear combo is, but I like to think that's reasonably easy to figure out without a computer (Hint: look between your knees at the gears).

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

John Evans

John Evans was, at least within the scope of Colorado history, a big cheese.

Originally from Ohio, he was a political mover and shaker long before he crossed the border into this fair mountain state. He was a teaching physician who founded two hospitals (Indiana Central State Hospital in Indianapolis, and Lakeside Hospital in Chicago, later known as Mercy Hospital). He founded the Illinois Medical Society and the Illinois Republican Party, he was a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln, and he helped found Northwestern University and was elected the first president of its Board of Trustees.

Because of his ties with the Lincoln presidency Evans was appointed the second governor of the Colorado Territory in 1862. Evans was a force to be reckoned with in the early years of the Colorado Territory. He had a personal background and a financial interest in railroads and a rail connection from Colorado through the mountains to Salt Lake City was high on his list of goals. The territorial legislature under Evans was quick to incorporate the Colorado and Pacific Wagon, Telegraph, and Railroad Company as a lure to bring investors to the area. While this didn't have the immediately desired effects of creating an extensive rail network throughout the west, pressure from territorial governments did lead to the passing of legislation that led to the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad.

While resident in Colorado Evans was also an important figure in the founding of the University of Denver, then known as Denver Seminary, which began life as a private Methodist college. To share a bizarre factoid, the University of Denver is still listed as "Denver Seminary" on all of its business and tax documents since the official name of the institution has never been changed. The Washington Park neighborhood developed around the University of Denver and was known, at the time, as South Denver, a separate city entirely. Evan's relationship with the university and the neighborhood that sprang up around it weren't always rosy though. Evans planned to open an 80-acre stock yard in South Denver, on land that would now fall between Logan and Clarkson, and Mississippi and Florida. His plan was to use the stock yard as a stagin area for Texas cattle that he would then transport around the country with the newly developed rail system. Residents of South Denver fought him on this matter and they were successful in stopping the development of the stockyard.

John Evans political career is marred by one of Colorado's most well known political gaffes and wartime tragedies. It was Evan's great misfortune to be in charge of the territory during the Sand Creek massacre. There is far more information on the Wikipedia page for the Sand Creek Massacre, but the long and short of it is that Colonel John Chivington, placed in charge of an Indian-fighting regiment of the territorial militia under Evan's authority, attacked a Cheyenne Indian camp on November 29, 1864. The massacre was so brutal, and so unprovoked, that it prompted a huge surge of anger and indignation, eventually leading to a Congressional inquiry. As a result of all this Evan's political career came screeching to a halt. Chivington had already been released form the Army by the time the Congressional inquiry was taking pace so he was not eligible for the dishonorable discharge that politicians in Washington D.C. felt he deserved.

Following his rather forced withdrawal from politics, Evans put his energy into developing Colorado's rail system. He was largely responsible for obtaining the land grants and resources necessary to develop the Union Pacific rail line from Cheyenne to Denver. Completed in 1870, this rail line opened Colorado to a huge tide of commerce, settlers, industry, and tourism. Evans remained the Colorado rail network's greatest financier until his death in 1897.

Getting There By Bike...
There are a lot of sites that are related to John Evans. The Rio Grande Railroad gave Evans a bell from e Rio Grande steam engine. The bell is located on the DU campus and you can walk right up and ring it since it still has the clapper inside. 
You could also ride your bike to either Evans, Colorado, or to Mt. Evans, both of which are named after him. If you felt like a really long trek you could go to Evanston, Illinois which was also named in his honor.
If you choose to visit the site of the Sand Creek massacre, it's located at Big Sandy Creek which is administered by the National Park Service who preserves the area as a historic monument.

Friday, September 21, 2012

What's in the Stand: It's Tandem-onium!

This bike represents the intersection of two areas of expertise. On the one hand we have tandems, your standard bicycle's bigger, bulkier, and more ungainly cousin. Large and complicated though they may be they at least offer the chance to carry a riding partner along with you. On the other hand we have folding bikes, long the nemesis of many experienced bike mechanics. Complicated, noisy (there are always way too many points of movement and lots of distinct opportunities for squeaking), and, I gotta say it, looking like something that should be ridden in a circus and not on the street, folding bikes of any brand are a source of head shaking no matter what the brand. But let's take this a step further shall we?

All Things Tandem
Tandems are unusual and expensive. The needs of the tandem cyclist, be they stoker or captain, are quite specific and are generally met with tandem-specific equipment. Even something as simple as replacing a cable requires a tandem-length cable which will set you back roughly twice what a normal cable would. Which leads to the second point which is where I reiterate that tandems, and repairs on tandems, can be quite expensive. Extra long cables and housing, the need for multiple chains, a surplus of cranks, a supply of Ibuprofen for your back after you've humped the thing in and out of the repair stand a few times...the list goes on. All this and they're a pain to store because they're so big. I'm sure there are many upsides to the life of a tandem cyclist, but I don't get to experience them because I'm too busy fixing other people's tandems.

Into the Fold
I'll for forthright and say that I don't like folding bikes. I've re-written this sentence a few times and I can't come up with a more diplomatic way to put it so I'll simply call a spade a spade and say that I am not a fan. I know many people who could not live they lives they lead without their folding bikes and because of this I have come to a grudging understanding of their place within the pantheon of bicycles. I've worked on loads of folding bikes, from all the major brands, and I feel that my opinions, though largely negative, have some basis in reality.  I've offended legions of Bike Friday and Brompton owners with the above statement so allow me to expand...
  • They are overly complicated. The key design feature of a folding bike (that they fold) introduces pivots, hinges, locks, latches, and quick release mechanisms into the frame. All of these are points of potential wear, damage, and noise. Since we know that entropy is the state of the universe, we can assume that all of the above features of a folding bike will slowly but surely break/fail/wear out. Bikes are wonderfully simple things but folding bikes are not.
  • The features outweigh performance. Because of their need to fold, folding bicycles make compromises in handling and design in order to incorporate this feature. Small wheels, twitchy steering, and flexy frames are all results of design choices made by engineers in order to facilitate either, a) ease in folding, or b) decreasing the overall size of the bike once folded.
  • They are heavy users of proprietary technology. These companies are developing products that are new and unique. It stands to reason that no one else is making parts for these frames. When something breaks (and it's always something small and really cheap, like a $2 circlip) more often than not it cripples the bike and the part has to be ordered from the manufacturer which means the bike lingers in the back of the store for two or three weeks. Not good for me, not good for the customer, and no fun for anyone involved.

On to the main event!
This bright blue Tandem Two'sday was my main project for the day.  This is a rare and striking beast, incorporating aspects of tandems and folding bikes into one magnificent testament to Bike Friday's engineers refusal to be bound by either conventional design or good taste. I've only seen a couple of these bikes in the flesh and it was kind of a treat to get to tear one down.

We re-cabled the bike which ate up the lion's share of my morning. The design uses Ritchey cable splitters which allows the bike to be broken down into pieces without having to undo cable pinch bolts. The upshot to this if you're touring is that you can disassemble and reassemble the bike and, if you cross your fingers, it should brake and shift without any other adjustments.One of the financial downsides to this system is that it uses two cables, so your cost for parts goes through the roof. To completely re-cable this bike with brand new stainless steel cables and lined derailleur housing costs about $80 in parts alone.

The cable splitters also add a lot of hardware to the bike, which can lead to problems if something gets misplaced. As in most things, proper organization is your friend. Replacing the cables and their associated parts was the most time consuming part of the repair, but also the most gratifying. It sounds odd, but there are generally not a lot of opportunities to completely dismantle and service something in a busy shop. Shocks and suspension forks and the rare internal hub are about it.

The other end of the bike that needed substantial work was the rear wheel, complete with drum brake and SRAM DualDrive components. The derailleur cables were more of the same complications that the same complications that the brakes offered, except for the part where I had to dismantle the shifter to run the new cables. I like the DualDrive setup and I find it very easy to work on. It's also quite reliable, combining the reliability of both an 8-speed drivetrain and a 3-speed internal hub. I've always thought that this setup was a really good solution for bike commuters, and now I've seen it used for a touring application. I have added these parts to a few of the fantasy bikes that I tend to build when I'm by myself on long rides.


The drum brake on the hub is not there to stop the bike in the course of normal use. There are V-brakes on both wheels to handle normal braking duties. The drum brake is actuated by a friction bar end shifter on the left-hand side of the captain's handlebars and it's intended to be used as a drag brake during long descents, or as a parking brake. You don't typically need to do much with drum brakes since they don't break down very often. The drum brake kind of pushed this wheel over the edge for me. It's a small wheel and with a cassette, a 3-speed hub, and a drum brake it looks like it's going to collapse under the weight of its constituent parts.

So how does it ride? Better than I thought it would and far better than it looks like it would ride. I can see the attraction to this bike for a couple who travels a lot. Outside of that very specific use I don't think I could find it a space in my stable. By the time I was wrapping up this project I was enjoying it quite a bit. It's big and weird and complicated, but it's also unique and requires a little bit more energy and thought than a normal repair. This job can be a lot of identical seeming bikes that all work the same. It's a treat to get pushed out of that space and have to wrestle with something new and different.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Chamberlin Observatory and Observatory Park

The Chamberlin Observatory is an astronomical observatory located in Observatory Park near the DU campus in southern Denver. Construction began in 1890 and the telescope there saw first light in 1894.

Chamberlin Observatory was designed by DU's first astronomy professor, Herbert Howe. It is modeled after the Carleton College Goodsell Observatory in Northfield, Minnesota. The creation of the astronomy program under Professor Howe, and the construction of the Chamberlin Observatory, were important first steps in solidifying an astronomy program that has run continuously since 1880.

The Observatory sits in a public park south of the DU campus. It was built with a large donation to DU from Humphrey B. Chamberlin. The park is nicely maintained (like most Denver city parks) and sees a lot of use from the surrounding neighborhood, especially the college students who occupy most of the nearby rentals.

There is also a little mini observatory in the park. I wasn't able to find out anything about the little guy, but it's neat nonetheless.

Getting There By Bike...

The park and the observatory front on Iliff St. I commute through the DU neighborhood on the way to and from work and Iliff, though not technically a bike boulevard or bike lane, has been my preferred route ever since school got back in. Asbury, the street I was using all summer long, passes right through the main common area of DU. Now that the students are back in town Asbury has proven to be a bit of a hassle since its typically covered with erratic drivers and students wandering blithely through traffic. Iliff, though it has slightly more cars, is just as direct and has fewer stop signs and wandering students.

Friday, September 14, 2012

What's in the Stand: Motobecane Grand Jubilee

Motobecanes are a point of contention in most bike shops. The brand was once one of the top three French bicycle manufacturers, the other two being Gitane and Peugeot. In their heyday all of these companies manufactured bikes that were worthy of the Tour de France. Unfortunately, here in the United States, we mostly see the dregs of their production line, the thousands of budget-oriented Bike Boom ten-speeds that these companies shipped overseas in order to make a quick buck. It's these Bike Boom-era relics that have created the groundswell of distaste for French bicycles in the bike shop world. Like most machines from the Bike Boom, these bicycles tend to be cheap, heavy, poorly functioning, and with really awful parts. They're hard to service and, particularly in the case of French bicycle manufacturers with their penchant for non-standard part sizing, they are becoming increasingly difficult to find replacement parts for.

This particular Motobecane stands in stark contrast to most Motobecanes that I have seen, and is a beautiful reminder of what the company was capable of. Made of high-quality steel, with some very elegant brazing and neat design touches, it's simply a great old bike. It helps that it shipped with Campagnolo components and that the owner has kept it in great shape. Based on the components on the frame this particular bike dates to the early 1980s, probably '81-'83. There are no particularly rare items to be found on it, but everything on the bike is nice, clean, works very well, and adds up to a vintage bike that's worth keeping. However, I would be heartbroken if some clueless hipster out there decided to turn this thing into a fixie. It's not going to win the Tour any more, and it might not be great for doing serious road riding, but its much cooler as a fully-geared functional road bike than as a bastardized fixie conversion with pursuit bars and purple Deep-V's.

The Maillard Helicomatic
There is one component on the bike that is worth mentioning, if only because it can cause problems down the road. Maillard, a French bicycle component manufacturer, developed the Helicomatic freehub system in the early '80s. It shipped on a large number of manufacturer's bikes, including Motobecane and early Trek road bikes, and was quite common at one point in time. The Helicomatic freehub was designed to step around some of the problems associated with multi-gear freewheels, specifically how hard it could be to get a freewheel unstuck from a hub (it usually involves large tools, a bench vice, and a special freewheel removal socket), and the fact that freewheels, especially once they began using six and seven gears, had a tendency to bend axles due to the unbalanced torque load that was placed upon the rear wheel.
The Maillard Helicomatic is elegant in its own way, and prefigures Shimano's freehub cassette body that would eventually come to dominate the bike market. The freewheel mechanism slides onto a rigid hub body that is covered with helical splines and is held in place with a lock ring. The lock ring was easy to remove with a special Maillard tool (or pipe wrench if the tool is not available, just be gentle), and the splines meant that the gears were easy to remove from the wheel. Placing the bearings farther outboard meant that the problem of bent axles could be avoided. The freewheel itself could also be disassembled so that custom gearing options could be created. The Maillard Helicomatic tool is worth mentioning because it's pretty neat in its own right. It had a splined lockring removal tool, a bottle opener, and a spoke wrench all in one handy package. They're hard to find these days since most of them have been relegated to bottle-opening duty by the bike mechanics of the world.
And now for the bad part...The system didn't work as well as it should have. The design of the freehub body meant that the rear wheels had to have higher dish which led to increased spoke breakage. The bearing assembly used a large number of small bearings, instead a smaller number of larger bearings, which meant that the hub cones wore out very quickly and they were prone to galling. The freewheel and hub designs are also completely proprietary and are no longer manufactured. This means that if you have a problem with your freehub or wheel the only option is to buy a new wheel with less antiquated parts. This is the most common scenario in a bike shop when a customer brings in a Helicomatic rear wheel. Because the hubs are essentially non-serviceable at this point in time what should have been a spoke replacement or a freewheel installation turns into the sale of a rear wheel with attendant drive train parts.

But this doesn't mean that you should go right out and replace all of your Helicomatic rear wheels with modern parts. These wheels worked fine-ish when they were in good shape. More than likely anyone should be able to use these parts until they explode and replace them when necessary. Just keep in mind that small issues could lead to replacing the back end of your bike.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Smith Ditch

Smith Ditch, or City Ditch, is a twenty-five mile long irrigation ditch that runs from the Platte River to the west, through downtown Denver and Washington Park.

Much of the history of the Front Range has water, or more typically the lack thereof, as a basic component. The first settlers were quick to build their communities alongside reliable water sources and as the population continued to grow water resources became increasingly valuable and effective water management became increasingly important. Wealthy land owners, men like John Wesley Iliff, were quick to buy existing water rights and insure that they had access to this relatively scarce resource in order to pursue their own building and business plans.

Smith Ditch was dug to irrigate crops and fields that would feed the booming population of Denver, Colorado during the heyday of the Pikes Peak Gold Rush. John W. Smith, namesake of both Smith Ditch and Smith Lake in Washington Park, was a wealthy man who settled in Denver in 1860, immediately after the city received its charter. In 1864 the city of Denver contracted with Smith to dig an irrigation ditch that would run from Littleton through South Denver. The original plan called for the ditch to be large enough to accommodate small flat-bottomed barges to ship goods around the city, but that never came to pass. The creation of this ditch would inadvertently influence the shape of modern Denver when Smith decided to route the ditch through an old buffalo wallow that was immediately south of the city. Using this area as a storage reservoir led to the creation of Smith Lake, one of the centerpieces of Washington Park and an anchor around which the community of South Denver was built. At the time of its construction Smith Ditch was described as an engineering marvel for using gravity alone to guide water through 25 miles of canal and irrigation ditch. It's path through the city defined the growth and development of neighborhoods as they drew on the water to develop trees and greenery in what was once a dusty and arid cityscape. The ditch also served as the source for spur ditches that routed the water in other directions, encouraging the development of even more neighborhoods as the population of Denver continued to develop.

Smith Ditch was purchased outright by the city of Denver in 1875 for $80,000, and Smith Lake was purchased by the city in 1910. Smith Ditch has been registered as a historic landmark and is protected under the city's historical preservation board.

Getting There By Bike...
Smith Ditch runs through the center of Washington Park. This is the only stretch of the ditch that is still above ground, the remaining length of Smith Ditch having been routed below ground in order to encourage development and safety. The ditch is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and continues to provide irrigation water to the park and several nearby neighborhoods, supporting the lush growth in Washington Park and many century-old trees that fill its immediate vicinity. Smith Ditch runs very close to Eugene Field's former house, near the southeast corner of Smith Lake.

Friday, September 7, 2012

What's in the Stand: Roof Racks and Garage Doors Don't Mix

If you hang out around bikes and bike shops long enough you'll hear the story of the guy who left his bike on the roof of his car as he drove into his garage and smashed his frame into very small pieces. The things is, it's not just a story but something that lots of people do very, very regularly. Not every day kind of regular, but more often than I would like to think about, and certainly more often than most bike owners would like to experience.

It's particularly sad when the bike is question is really, really nice. This example, in the form of an Orbea Diva carbon fiber road frame, falls into the "expensive" end of the bike pool. What was once your smooth riding 15-pound steed is now so much carbon junk for the landfill. It makes my heart hurt to see this.Please don't let this happen to your bike.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Eugene Field

Eugene Field was a newspaper writer, humorist, and children's poet. He was a resident of Denver from 1881 to 1883.

Eugene Field was a prominent writer and newspaper man in his day, with his gossipy, humorous articles appearing in newspapers around the country. Hailing from St. Louis, Missouri, he worked as an editor and writer at a number of papers in that state before moving to Denver in 1881. For the next two years he wrote for the Denver Tribune, finally leaving the state in 1883 to pursue a position at the Chicago Morning News where he wrote an extraordinarily popular column called "Sharps and Flats".

Though he was only resident in the city for a couple of years Eugene Field had a firm hold on the people of Denver. His satiric style and sarcastic sense of humor found much to poke fun at in what was then a booming and bustling frontier town. He found particular enjoyment in the aspects of Denver life that he thought to be hypocritical, especially the juxtaposition between the frontier language and muddy streets of his adopted home town, and the resident's claims towards gentility and civility. While in Colorado he traveled to Gold Hill, one of the first major mining boom towns, to see the Pikes Peak Gold Rush for himself and captured the spirit of the town in verse while staying at the Gold Hill Inn.

Field is best remembered for hi poetry, especially his work for children. Hailed as "the children's poet", or "the poet of childhood", Field wrote several collections of verse, nursery rhymes, and folk songs for younger audiences. Some of his more popular poems include "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod", "Little Boy Blue", and "The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat".

By the end of his life Field was known coast to coast for his humor and his children's poetry. It's odd to think that he could have been so unbelievably popular and that today there are few who could reference him and his work. After his death in 1895 there was an impressive bout of posthumous place-naming, especially in the Midwest, where there are approximately 25 of elementary schools that bear his name. Following his departure from Denver another resident, the Unsinkable Molly Brown of Titanic fame, purchased Field's former home and moved it to Washington Park where it served as the Eugene Field's branch of the Denver Public Library. Standing near his old home is a marble statue of the characters from one of his most enduring children's poems, "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod".

Getting There By Bike...
Eugene Field's former home and the statue of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod are both located on the eastern edge of Washington Park in southern Denver, on the corner of Franklin and Exposition. The current Eugene Field branch of the Denver Public Library was opened in 1979 and stands at the intersection of University and Ohio.