A Fine Rain

Since writing my last post, I’ve been thinking that it was perhaps a bit too negative — essentially a moan about the weather (though admittedly that is a characteristically British pastime!).

A much more positive view on the subject is taken by a couple of the characters in the novel That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis.

It’s been several years since I last read Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy, of which this book is the final instalment (I was going to say “third and final” but I realised this was slightly redundant since, with the notable exception of the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy trilogy, the number of books is clearly indicated in the word “trilogy”) and I haven’t had a chance to dig out my copy to check the names of the characters or precisely what they had to say about the weather. The gist of it, though, was that they enjoyed the weather in all its manifestations, not just the warm, sunny weather that most people would call “good”.

Ever since first reading the book (probably a good 25 years ago now) I have felt that this was a sensible policy to adopt, although I often fall far short of managing it and I think there are situations, when lives and livelihoods are threatened by by extreme meteorological conditions, that call for responses other than enjoyment. Most of the time, though, it’s better to aim to relish the variety of weather conditions — the warm summer sun, the soft refreshing rain, the power and majesty of a thunderstorm (a phenomenon which occurs very rarely in my part of the world – I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of full-on thunderstorms I’ve experienced since moving to North Wales nearly 20 years ago, and at least one of those was while I was on holiday elsewhere), the sheer beauty of a pristine snowfall, or whatever.

With that in mind, allow me to observe that I experienced a fine rain on my way home from work this evening.

The term “fine rain” is, of course, ambiguous and I must confess that the sense I was primarily thinking of as I cycled home was that sort of small, light raindrop that still somehow manages to totally get in your eyes and soak you through (despite wearing so-called waterproofs) within seconds, rather than a particularly excellent specimen of precipitation. Trying to think more positively about it, at least this sort of rain is relatively gentle (and quiet) compared to the heavy rain that I often have to contend with or, worse, hail (I still have a hard time trying to find any enjoyment in being outside in a hailstorm). Fine rain is more like a gentle, though persistent, caress and actually quite refreshing. Another nice thing about it is getting home and being able to change out of your wet clothes into nice dry, warm things. And it’s pretty good for the garden (if not experienced too often).

Despite those positives, I would definitely not think of it as being the sort of weather that would particularly make you want to eat ice cream. I was therefore rather surprised to see an ice cream van (complete with classic, slightly-out-of-tune jingle) driving down my road as I reached home.

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Hearing the weather

I woke up this morning to the sound of rain lashing against my windows, accompanied by wind. This is not unusual for where I live, especially at this time of year.

More or less my first conscious thought of the day was “The weather sounds pretty horrible today”. This was followed by a time of pondering the fact that if we can hear the weather at all it is usually a bad sign.

Obviously it’s quite possible for the weather to be very bad in complete silence, for example heavy snow. However, I am at a loss to think of anything that would be considered as good weather by most people in most circumstances that would make a significant noise. All the loud weather phenomena I can think of (heavy rain, strong wind, hail, thunder etc.) would definitely fit into the category of bad weather.

Fortunately by the time I actually set off for work, an hour or two after waking up, the rain had eased off substantially and the wind had dropped quite a bit. It was actually quite sunny (albeit still moderately breezy) by the time I cycled home, though it did start raining again fairly soon after I arrived.

Incremental Upgrade

My cycle ride to work this morning was definitely the wettest I’ve had so far this year (though with 11 months to go, I suspect it won’t retain that crown permanently).

This reminds me that I haven’t so far got round to mentioning that I got another new bike just after Easter last year.

My previous new bike had only come along about 15 months earlier but on that occasion I made what in hindsight was the mistake of going for the cheapest one I could find on eBay. It has a very heavy steel frame, needed some fairly major work (such as truing the wheels) to get it roadworthy in the first place and within just over a year it had got quite rusty and the bottom bracket had worn out, with several other components probably not all that far behind.

I’m fairly confident that I can repair the bottom bracket, and indeed I have by now got the replacement part I need although I haven’t got round to fitting it yet (it’s only been 9 months, after all!). This bike could at least still be useful as a backup, but I decided that since I use a bike on a more or less daily basis for my commute to work, and occasional longer rides, it would be better to bite the bullet and invest a little bit more in a slightly better one.

It turned out that “a little bit more” amounted to only around £100 (the first bike had been around £150, and the new one was valued at £300, about the same price as I’d paid for my bike before last about 16 years ago, but I picked it up cheap in a sale at my local branch of Halfords and even managed to get a pannier rack and mudguards out of my £250). So far I’ve only had to do minor routine maintenance (adjusting brake cables etc.) and repair a handful of punctures, but not had to take it off the road for any extended period or do any major repairs.

The new bike is, I think, technically classed as a hybrid. It’s got a nice sturdy (and lightweight) frame, 27″ wheels with relatively fat but not too knobbly tyres, reasonably low gearing (great for the steep hills round here) and no suspension. This latter was a deliberate choice, as I do the vast majority of my cycling on fairly well-surfaced roads, where suspension is not really necessary and is arguably counter-productive since some of the energy that would get transferred to forward motion instead gets eaten up by the up-down motion of the suspension. In other words, the bike is somewhat optimised for road use but can stand moderately heavy handling and at least occasional forays off-road, which is just what I need.

Apart from the slightly better build quality, this bike has two main features that I was particularly keen to get for the first time: disc brakes and trigger shifters.

Disc brakes have been around for a pretty long time but seem to be becoming a bit more common on relatively low-end bikes these days. They work by friction, just like pretty much any other sort of brake I can think of, but instead of pressing rubber pads against the rim of the wheel to obtain this friction (like rim brakes do — the clue is in the name), they have a separate metal disc (again, hence the name!) attached at the hub and rotating parallel to the wheel itself, and the brake pads are applied to this. The major benefit of this is that you get a lot more stopping power than a rim brake; presumably this due to the much smaller thickness involved, since you’re generating considerably less torque that close to the centre of rotation — essentially, if I’ve understood the physics correctly, you need to clamp the braking surface more firmly but that’s much easier to achieve. Another advantage is that the disc is much further away from the water and mud etc. that tend to reduce stopping power in wet weather. Since we get a lot of wet weather round here (and have quite a few steep hills to cycle down), this is a good thing. Mine are mechanically-actuated disc brakes, which means they are operated by steel cables just like on most rim brakes. Many, probably most, disc brakes are hydraulic, which give more stopping power (though the mechanical ones seem to me to give plenty) but tend to be a bit more fiddly to maintain.

Trigger shifters (for the gears) have also been around for quite a while. I’m fairly sure I remember seeing them in bike magazines back in the early 1990s but I’ve never previously had them on any of my bikes. With the twist-grip shifters on my old bike, I was beginning to find that my thumbs would get quite sore when changing gear, although I wasn’t sure whether the pain was caused by the gear shifting or a symptom of some other cause, such as general wear and tear. In any case, when I came to get the new bike I decided to take the opportunity if possible to try out trigger shifters instead and see if they were more comfortable. After a few days getting used to the system and remembering that I have to use the big lever to shift down and the small lever to shift up on the back gears, but the big lever to shift up and the small one to shift down on the front (which actually amounts to increasing the tension with the big lever and decreasing it with the small one in both cases), I have found them to be much easier on my thumbs. Another thing I like about them is the facility (on the back gears) to change down a couple of gears at once by pressing harder on the lever (you could possibly do the same thing to change up both chain rings at the front, but I rarely go down to the granny gear range anyway, and when I do I nearly always need the intermediate range for a bit before I’m ready to go all the way back up to the large chainring); this is particularly handy if you need to change in a hurry, such as one or two places on my regular commute where the gradient suddenly increases quite sharply.

All told, I’m very pleased with my (not so) new bike and look forward to travelling many more miles with it.

A true improvement

My trusty mountain bike has served me well for about 14 years. It has, however, been increasingly showing signs of wear and tear. Perhaps the most serious problem is that about 3 years ago I accidentally stripped the thread on the bottom bracket shell and since then I’ve had to rely on threadless bottom brackets. These are a handy invention but don’t seem to be quite as robust as the more traditional kind and, in consequence, I’ve had to replace the unit at least once per year since I started using them. At around £20 a pop, it would take a few years to amount to the cost of a new bike but it’s certainly quite frustrating and potentially takes the bike off the road for several days at a time (and necessitates a fairly long walk home pushing my suddenly non-functional bike if the component fails suddenly mid-ride).

Therefore, when the bracket went again a couple of weeks ago as I was cycling up a steep hill (fortunately within half a mile of home) I decided the time had come to get myself a new bike. This is actually a move I’ve been considering for at least a year and I had more or less decided to go for a hybrid bike this time. These are, as the name suggests, somewhere between a mountain bike and a racing/touring bike in style, generally with a relatively heavy non-suspension frame (the lack of suspension is actually a good thing if you’re sticking mostly to road riding, as suspension tends to soak up a lot of energy that would otherwise be translated into forward motion), fairly large, narrow wheels (again, more efficient on-road, though tough enough to withstand light off-road use), mudguards, a luggage rack, straight handlebars (positioned relatively high) and a wide, comfortable saddle.

I found a reasonable looking bike for a reasonable looking price on eBay, ordered it and was excited when it arrived a few days later. Putting it together was fairly straightforward and all seemed to be well.

I was somewhat less impressed the next morning when I set off to ride to work and discovered that the front tyre, which I’d pumped up the previous evening, was pancake flat. With no time to fix it, I leapt on my trusty reserve bike and headed in to the office. On my return, I checked out the inner tube and concluded that it had a faulty valve, so I threw it away and installed a spare.

For the next couple of days the bike functioned fine but I did notice that the front wheel had a very pronounced wobble. The hub and rim both appeared to be fine, so this was evidently a truing problem caused by improperly tensioned spokes, although a quick inspection didn’t turn up any that were obviously significantly tighter or looser than the rest. A quick google search indicated that this is not an uncommon problem on new bikes. One helpful video I watched (along the lines of “Top 5 maintenance tasks required on almost all new bikes” – which listed truing the wheels at no. 1) suggested that if a wheel was out of true it should be taken back to the seller to have them put it right; however, the video’s presenter conceded that this isn’t necessarily practical when you’ve bought the bike by mail order so this left me with the alternative of doing it myself.

In the past I’ve occasionally tried truing the wheels on my other bikes, with limited success (and only based on trying to understand written descriptions of the process rather than watching videos on how to do it). This time I watched a handful of videos and quickly came to the conclusion that the job should be reasonably straightforward and I wouldn’t need to invest in a wheel truing stand but probably would benefit from getting a reasonably sturdy bike maintenance stand (another purchase, like the new bike, which I’ve been considering for some time). I returned to eBay and found a decent looking one within my budget, so I ordered that (and a new spoke key for good measure, as my old one’s one of those cheap circular ones with about 8 different slots and it’s a real pain to try and get the right one – for the new one I went for a triangular thing with only the 3 sizes I’m likely to actually find on any bike in the wild) and sat back to wait for it to arrive (well, obviously I did other stuff while I was waiting, but none of it involving my new bike).

The spoke wrench arrived within a couple of days and the stand was here by this Monday, so I quickly assembled it, clamped up the bike and had a go at truing the front wheel following the advice in the videos I’d watched (supplemented by a quick glance in my bike maintenance book to check I’d correctly understood which way to turn the spoke nipples in order to tighten them). I won’t go into details here – if you want to true your own wheels (or just understand the process) you can easily google instructional materials for yourself. Suffice it to say that, within about half an hour, I’d got the wheel running more or less true. It’s not quite within the half millimetre that professional wheel builders apparently strive for, but considerably better than it was.

For the last couple of days I’ ve been riding the new bike again and so far it’s been working fine. Having a more or less true front wheel definitely seems to make quite a big difference, and I’m hoping it won’t require too regular adjustment (the back wheel seemed fine as it was, and again I hope that won’t need tweaking for a good long while yet).

Now I can concentrate on getting used to the slightly different riding position and gearing that my new bike has from the old one.

It’s behind you

I was skimming through my blog archives recently and I came across a post I wrote back in April but didn’t get round to publishing. It’s nice and short (compared to my usual essays) and made me chuckle when I reread it (having forgotten all about this idea since I first wrote it down), so here it is for your entertainment and edification:

When I was learning to drive, many moons ago, one of the basic lessons drummed into me was “Mirror – Signal – Manoeuvre”; in other words, before you make any significant change in your motion you should first check that the coast is clear (including, but not limited to, checking behind you with the aid of your mirrors), then signal your intention to other road users.

This is eminently sensible advice. It’s good for cyclists as well as drivers although, of course, it’s fairly unusual to find bikes equipped with mirrors. I know such things do exist but I can’t remember when (if, indeed, ever) I last saw one in the wild.

In order to keep the mnemonic letters MSM but make it a bit more appropriate for cyclists, I’ve taken to thinking of the first word as Monitor rather than Mirror.

It recently occurred to me that a further tweak could perhaps make it even more memorable. My new, and hopefully tastier, mnemonic is MSG – “Monitor – Signal – Go”.

Apart from sharing its initials with a popular food additive and saving a couple of syllables, this has the benefit of not requiring you to remember how to spell “manoeuvre” when you’re writing it down. 🙂

Something to torque about

For quite a long time now, I’ve had at least a theoretical grasp of the importance of correct torque settings for bike mechanics. Recently, though, I had practical confirmation of this — and of why my recent purchase of a torque wrench was money well spent. In the process I also discovered a handy alternative to my previously limited repertoire of ways of dealing with a stripped screw head.

Torque is essentially a measure of turning force and in this context it amounts to how tightly you do up your nuts (stop sniggering at the back there!). If you want to know more about the gory details, Google can furnish you with many happy hours of reading material.

The reason that torque is important for bike mechanics (and I’m sure also for many other engineering-related disciplines but I’ll try to stay focused here) is that if you don’t tighten up nuts and bolts sufficiently, parts tend to drop off the bike at inopportune moments, while if you overtighten them you not only make them harder than necessary to remove when the time comes for maintenance but run the risk of doing damage to various components. Unfortunately, while it’s generally fairly obvious which bits need to be tightened a lot and which bits can and should be left looser (though there may be a few surprises in store), it is pretty difficult – even with quite a lot of experience – to correctly judge torque settings by feel alone. As a rule of thumb, which seems to be borne out by my own experience, the tendency is to overtighten parts which shouldn’t be too tight and to insufficiently tighten ones which should be good and tight.

Having had a few bad experiences in both directions, I finally got round to getting myself a torque wrench about 3 years ago. I went for a traditional beam-type one since they are relatively cheap and robust. I already had a socket set (probably one of the single most useful tool purchases I’ve ever made, especially for non-specific bike tools) so this, along with a handy chart of torque settings found in the back of my bike repair handbook, enabled me to get at least into the right ballpark with my torque settings. The downside of the beam-type wrench is that it can be quite difficult to accurately read the scale as you need to be able to look at it head on to avoid parallax errors; this is sometimes virtually impossible to achieve while you’re actually using it (or maybe it’s just my poor technique?). Even if you do manage to get it at a good angle, this particular wrench doesn’t have a particularly finely grained scale so the results are necessarily fairly approximate.

I therefore decided a few weeks ago to invest a little bit more in a click-type wrench. This is basically a ratchet driver which is set up so you can set it to a desired torque setting and it will “click out” when you reach that level of torque. They are somewhat more delicate than the beam-type, and may need occasional recalibration, but as long as it’s well looked after a click-type wrench should work well for a good long time. It certainly makes it much easier to achieve a specific torque setting as you can feel rather than having to see when you get there.

The main disadvantage of click-type wrenches is that they tend to have a relatively limited operating range of possible torque settings, and it’s just about impossible to find a single wrench that will cover all the settings needed on a typical bike. I decided to start by getting one that would do the low-torque settings (mine goes up to 24Nm) since I’ve usually found I’m more likely to overtighten than undertighten things and my beam wrench also seems to work a bit better for giving it quite a bit of welly (to use the technical term). At some point I may also get a click-type wrench to cover the higher torque range, but it’s not a very high priority at the moment.

When my new torque wrench arrived the other day, I was enthusiastic to start straight away on checking that all the various fittings on my bike (or at least the low-torque ones) were tightened to appropriate levels. This went well until I got to one of the bolts holding the brake arms on to the frame. The bolts for these particular brakes (which I put on as replacements for the original front brakes a couple of years ago) appear to be made of aluminium and I discovered that last time I took them off for maintenance I overtightened one of them to the point that the recess had started to deform and the hex key would no longer grip sufficiently to be able to undo it. Looking on the bright side, it’s better to discover the problem now rather than waiting until the brake had seized up and needed imminent maintenance while I was stranded on a roadside miles away from home.

My usual trick when faced with a screw or bolt with a damaged head that will no longer take its usual driver is to use a hacksaw to cut a slot so that I can attempt to use a flathead screwdriver on it instead. Sometimes this works and often it doesn’t (not to mention being a non-starter when the entire bolt head is recessed and you can’t get in to cut it. On this occasion I tried my usual trick and it failed.

Since the brake is a pretty important component to be able to keep in good working order, I didn’t really have the option of giving up on it. I didn’t fancy trying to drill the bolt out in the hope that I could somehow cut a new thread and save the frame to be able attach the brake again. Nor was I quite ready to admit defeat and take the wretched thing to the bike shop, so I used the time-honoured research method known as Google to explore alternative ways of fixing the problem.

This turned up two possible solutions I’d previously been unaware of. One is a little gizmo known as a screw extractor — basically a drill bit that you use to drill into the stuck screw in such a way that it basically unscrews itself. The other is a little bottle of stuff which isn’t quite glue but seems to have the effect of providing a better grip so that your tool can get enough purchase on the damaged screw to be able to turn it. There appear to be several brands, pretty much all of them of American origin, which may or may not be the same stuff under the different labels (it seemed to be pretty vague about what’s actually in it); the cheapest I could find was one called Screw Medic (costing about £3 for a small bottle, but it’s supposed to have a pretty unlimited shelf-life and only require a couple of drops per application, so it should last a fair while). This latter option seems a bit more straightforward to use than the screw extractor but only work on screws with fairly light damage, while the extractor should get pretty much any screw out.

Undecided as to which option to go for, impatient to wait and try one before ordering the other if the first didn’t work, and figuring that knackered screwheads seem to crop up fairly often (perhaps due to my previous lack of care and attention to appropriate torque levels — or making sure I’m not using a Pozidriv screwdriver with Phillips screws or vice versa), I decided to order both. The Screw Medic was the first to arrive and was awaiting me when I got home from work this evening. I’m delighted to say that it worked wonderfully and I was easily able to unscrew the damaged bolt and replace it with the one that I’d saved from the old brake (evidently a steel bolt and much sturdier than the other, though I still took care to tighten it carefully to only the required 6Nm with my new torque wrench).

So when the screw extractor set (there are actually 4 or 5 different bits for different sizes of screw) arrives, hopefully in the next few days, it may be a while before I need to use it. And if I make good use of my torque wrench (and my Philips and Pozidriv screwdrivers) I may never need to use it. Which would be fine by me.

In praise of green goo

An occupational hazard of doing your own bike mechanics is that your hands are liable to get dirty.

Bike mechanics is certainly not the only thing I do that requires a bit of a clean up afterwards, but it’s definitely one of the activities most likely to stretch ordinary soap and water beyond the limit of what they can handle, especially if I’ve been working on the chain or other greasy bits of the bike.

Fortunately there are stronger cleaning agents out there than just soap and water.  Over the years I’ve tried several different ones with varying degrees of success.

Recently I’ve returned to swarfega, which I used to use quite often when I was growing up but haven’t touched for probably the best part of 20 years.  I discovered that it’s actually just about the most effective hand cleaning agent that I’ve tried.

As an added bonus, its distinctive aroma and green, gloopy appearance and texture give me a nice nostalgia trip every time I use it.  And you don’t need to use a huge amount even if your hands are properly grubby, so the small pot that I bought about a month ago should last me quite a long time.