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.

Fixing it before it brakes

There is an old adage which says “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  Apart from being a great way to wind up prescriptive grammar pedants, there is a lot of wisdom in that remark.

However, there is also an adage which says “A stitch in time saves nine” (i.e. if you fix a problem before it gets too big you can save yourself a lot of work later on).

When it comes to bike maintenance, it’s probably a good idea to find a balance between the two – to avoid unnecessary and potentially counter-productive futzing with stuff that’s working fine but to pick up on developing problems before they get too big, especially when it comes to important systems such as the brakes (arguably the single most important bit of a bike).

Flicking back through my last few cycling-related posts, I notice that the last time I mentioned which bike I was using (just over a year ago) it was my mountain bike.  At the time, my road bike was down for maintenance as I was unable to find a suitable freewheel tool to enable me to take the freewheel off the back wheel in order to replace a broken spoke.  Fairly shortly after that post, I gave up on looking for a freewheel tool, bought a cheap but reasonably effective pair of new wheels (so they would be a matched pair) and a freewheel with a standard modern fitting, and got the bike back on the road.  That was just as well, since a few months ago my mountain bike developed a problem with the bottom bracket (essentially, the thread on the shell seems to have stripped itself) which will probably be quite expensive to fix (if it’s actually possible) and I’m currently operating with just one bike again.

Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed my brakes were getting a bit sluggish (and they don’t have the greatest stopping power at the best of times, as they are only caliper brakes with fairly small pads, not nearly as good as the V-brakes on my mountain bike).  A couple of days ago I decided it would be a good idea to adjust them while I was still able to stop the bike (and I had a couple of other minor maintenance tasks to do at the same time).

As well as rotating the brake pads to achieve more uniform wear (there’s still plenty of rubber left on all of them but the front ones were wearing quite a bit faster than the back ones) and adjusting the spacing between the pads and the wheels, I decided it would be a good idea to change the rear brake cable since the old one was beginning to look a bit worn out.  I had bought a couple of replacement brake cables shortly after I last changed them (sometime last year, I think) as I usually like to keep spares of that kind of thing.

I’ve replaced quite a few cables on my bikes over the years and it’s a fairly easy job.  This time, however, I learned an important lesson about how not to do it.

Having slotted the appropriate end of the (inner) cable into the lever and fed it through the outer cable (which I wasn’t replacing), I connected it up to the brake caliper, adjusted it to give a decent gap between the brake and the wheel rim and then trimmed off the excess cable, leaving a couple of spare inches for adjustment.  I then went to test the brake and discovered that the cable had popped out of the lever while the tension was relaxed.  In order to get it back in, I had to undo it at the caliper end and pull it back through a bit.  Unfortunately it was a tiny bit too short to fasten safely in at that end once I’d got the other end reseated in the lever.

Rather than trying to attach it anyway and hope for the best, I decided the sensible course of action would be to chalk it up to experience and try again using my second spare cable.  This time, I made sure everything was attached at both ends and thoroughly tested before I cut off the excess cable!

The first cable wasn’t wasted either, as I decided to use that to replace the (much shorter) front brake cable which, although not as decayed as the back one, was beginning to show some signs of distress.  Hopefully both the new cables will last a reasonable while (at least until next Spring), and I’ve already ordered a couple more spares.

Back in the saddle

For most of the past 3 weeks, my bike has been down for maintenance so I have been having to walk to work. The problem was caused by a hub-related failure of the rear wheel, which necessitated getting a new wheel.  The parts I needed arrived towards the end of last week, but then I was away for the weekend and only got round to fixing it yesterday.

This morning I was enjoying cycling in to work again when I noticed that my rear tyre was looking suspiciously flat.  Since I had only pumped it up yesterday, in the process of changing the wheel, I knew that something was amiss.  I was able to reach the office safely enough on the tyre as it was and resolved to fix it after I’d finished work this afternoon, and before going home.

When I got down to it, I took out the inner tube (which I’ve patched a few times but has held up well for several years) and gave it a quick examination but there were no signs of fresh punctures.  It hadn’t completely deflated, so evidently the puncture was quite a slow one.  Since I had a spare tube with me, I decided to put that on the bike and save further examination of the old tube for later (or possibly just give it an honourable retirement).

As I was about to put the new tube onto the wheel, I realised that I had forgotten to put rim tape on it and hence the tube problem was probably caused by one or more of the spoke ends making a tiny hole in the tube.   My old wheel, from which I could salvage the rim tape, was at home but fortunately I had some PTFE tape to hand which would work fine for a temporary substitute (and in fact may be just as good long-term as a proper rim tape).

The next problem came when I tried to pump up the tyre and discovered that my pump has sustained some damage and no longer works.  I hadn’t noticed this as for the past few years I’ve been fortunate enough to only need to inflate my tyres when I’ve been at home and able to use my track pump.  The last time I had a tyre go flat while I was on the road, the tube exploded and took a fair chunk of the outer tyre (which was very old and turned out to be somewhat rotten) with it – so I had to push the bike home and didn’t even bother to try to fix it at the roadside.  Therefore, although I’ve been dutifully carrying my small pump with me as part of the basic tool kit I always carry on my bike it’s not actually been working, presumably, for some time.

The upshot of this is that I had to leave my bike at the office and walk home this evening.  Tomorrow, I’ll have to carry my track pump in (it should fit in a rucksack if I let it stick out at the top), pump up my tyre and ride home later.  Needless to say, I have now ordered a new pump to go in my travelling tool kit.

There are two main lessons I’ve learned from today’s exciting adventures.  The first is specifically bike related, which is to remember the rim tape when changing a wheel.  The other lesson is doubtless equally applicable to many other contexts, namely that it’s a good idea to periodically check any tools or supplies that you are relying on for emergency purposes to ensure that they will actually work when they are needed.

Incidentally, in case you’re a long-term reader of this blog (or have browsed through the archives of bike-related posts) and are wondering why I didn’t just use my spare bike while the other one was down for maintenance (which is, after all, the main reason I keep two bikes), it is that I have been unable to get hold of the freewheel tool I need to replace the broken spoke on the back wheel of that bike and therefore it is still out of action.  The problem is that it’s quite an old French bike and uses parts that are no longer standard.  I may have to resort to getting a new wheel for it (fortunately 27″ x 1 1/4″ wheels, while no longer in common use, are still available).

A cool tool

One of the blogs I keep an eye on is Gizmag, which I’m sure used to describe itself as “the emerging technology magazine”, although it now seems to have dropped that slogan.  According to its “About” page, Gizmag is over 10 years old and is “a celebration of human endeavor”; as you can see from the spelling it’s US based. The Gizmag owners say “We aim to inspire, not ridicule. We cover technology, not the politics or the money behind it.”  All in all, that seems to be a pretty laudable goal and it’s certainly a good blog to follow if you’re interested in technology.

One of the gadgets that recently featured was of particular interest to me as a cyclist.  This was the Nutter, a very cunning looking bike multi-tool.

Multi-tools are very popular amongst cyclists, as they enable you to carry several different screwdrivers and allen keys (and sometimes other things) in one small, handy package.  That’s great for taking with you on a bike for doing roadside repairs and could be used by more generally by cyclists on a tight budget, although I generally find it much easier to use dedicated tools when I’m working in the relative comfort of my own garage.

The small size of a multi-tool, which is one of its main strengths, is also one of its biggest weaknesses, since having very short handles they don’t provide much leverage and therefore make it harder to loosen very tight screws and allen bolts (or, conversely, to tighten them very hard — though for most purposes you can get things sufficiently tight with a good multitool).

The Nutter is designed to overcome this problem, by the simple expedient of making a longer tool.  It does this by combining it with a tyre lever, which is another tool that most sensible cyclists would carry as a matter of course.   From the photos, it looks a bit bigger than the tyre levers I usually use, but again the extra size would give more leverage and make it easier to get tyres on and off.  In any case, the increased size would be offset by the fact you wouldn’t need to carry separate tyre levers as well as the multitool.

In addition to the tyre lever and a fairly standard set of allen keys (aka hex keys) and screwdrivers – which are supplied as removable bits, rather than on separate shafts – the Nutter comes equipped with a 15mm spanner and a spoke spanner, as well as a handy carrying case.

Apparently the Nutter hasn’t yet gone on to the general market but if they become available at a price within my budget I’ll certainly consider getting one, as it looks like a very useful tool to have and a well-designed (and made) bit of kit.

Going to work on my bike

Today I had a day off work.  This was partly to use up one of the handful of days of annual leave that I have left, which are supposed to be used by the end of March, and partly because I needed to do a bit of bike maintenance (specifically, adjusting the gears after having done some work on the rear hub the other day).

As I was getting up this morning and trying to figure out how to fill my day, I found myself thinking “I’m going to work on my bike” and then realised that I could say the same thing, albeit with different intonation and a completely different meaning, most mornings.  It struck me that, while the spoken language makes fairly clear the difference between the two meanings (which could be paraphrased as “today I’ll be mostly doing bike maintenance” and “I am travelling to my workplace by means of my bicycle”), there’s no obvious way (e.g. by punctuation) to indicate in written English which meaning should be attached to this particular combination of words.  Obviously, it can always be rephrased to make the meaning clearer, or in the context of a longer passage of prose it would probably be fairly obvious what was meant, but as it stands it does seem to be an inherently ambiguous sentence in written form.

Thinking about this put me in mind of several other examples  of ambiguity I have recently encountered in written English.

The other day, while reading up on the different usages of the em-dash (—), en-dash (–) and hyphen (-), I came across a delightful example of a phrase whose unambiguous interpretation in written English relies upon correct punctuation (unlike the bike-related sentence above, it’s quite easy to disambiguate this with punctuation).  The phrase is “three hundred year old trees”.  This could be interpreted in 3 ways, which can be distinguished by insertion of hyphens at appropriate points.  They are:

  • three-hundred-year-old trees; i.e. an unspecified number of trees that are 300 years old
  • three hundred-year-old trees; i.e. 3 trees, each 100 years old
  • three hundred year-old trees; i.e. 300 trees, each 1 year old

In spoken English, of course, you would differentiate these three cases by where you placed the stresses and pauses in the utterance.  The context would probably also help to determine the meaning in both the spoken and written phrases if they were used as part of a longer speech.

A few days earlier, I found myself writing another phrase which had a potentially ambiguous interpretation.  I wrote about an event finishing with “a short talk by the town clock”.  Although it was clear to me that the “by” in this sentence indicated a physical location rather than the agent of the talk, and it would have been clear enough from the context what I meant, I decided it would be safer to rephrase it as “a short talk near the town clock”.

I’m sure pretty much any other language (with the  possible exception of Lojban) is also susceptible to ambiguities.  Of course, that’s all part of the fun of language!

It’s Bicycle Repair Man!

It’s been a while since my last post about bikes.  Since that time (last May, to be moderately precise), I’ve continued to cycle regularly to work most days, as well as a few longer bike rides (including a couple of roughly 25-mile round trips to gigs over in Bethesda), although my plans for a summer filled with long leisurely rides for fun were somewhat scuppered by the lack of a noticeable summer.  In all that time, I’ve not had to take any major maintenance downtime and, as far as I can recall, I’ve not really done (or needed to do) any work on my bike beyond an occasional cursory cleaning or pumping up the tyres and oiling the chain.

Until last night, that is.

The first day I rode my bike after my Christmas break (of just over a week), I noticed that the chain was occasionally going slack while I was pedalling.  At the time, it was only a fairly short-lived problem and had sorted itself out by the end of my first 3-mile ride to work, so I put it down to a week’s inactivity and rather cold weather causing the drivetrain to be a bit sluggish and didn’t think much more about it.

Yesterday, my bike was quite well behaved on the way into work but the chain started slackening again as soon as I left the office.  My first thought was that the rear derailleur might be sticking a bit and failing to provide the required tension, so I quickly nipped back to the office (where I keep a spare can of WD40 in case of emergencies – I have gaffer tape too, so I’ve got all bases covered :)) and gave the drivetrain a fairly liberal spray of oil.  This didn’t noticeably improve the situation on my ride home and I had plenty of time to analyse what was going on and come to the conclusion that the freewheel appeared to be sticking.  Once I got home I had access to my full set of bike tools and lubricants, so I preceded to spend the best part of the next hour tinkering with the bike to get it working properly again.

In order to get to the freewheel to inspect it properly, I had to take the rear wheel off the bike.  This gave me a good opportunity to give the whole undercarriage of the bike a slightly more comprehensive clean as well as to clean and lubricate the freewheel and sprockets.  This seems to have fixed the problem, at least for now, and the bike is running a lot more smoothly than it had.  I also took a bit of time to adjust the brakes.

I already mentioned when I wrote (about this time last year) about getting rid of my car that I much prefer bike mechanics to car mechanics.  Largely that’s because bikes are a lot simpler than cars and I have a much better (though still far from perfect) understanding of how they work.  Also the parts are generally somewhat more accessible on a bike than tucked away in the depths of a car’s engine.  The downside of that, of course, is that they are also somewhat more open to getting clogged up with dirt from the road.  I suppose the lesson I should take away from this is that it’s a good idea to take a bit of time out quite frequently to properly clean and lubricate the bike, rather than waiting for vital components to seize up.

On your bikes

It occurred to me after my last bike-related posted that I hadn’t given any updates on the previous bike situation, in which my mountain bike was down for some fairly serious repairs and I was waiting to get my old road bike back.

It took a while to get all the parts I needed to fix my bike.  Eventually I gave it a new bottom bracket, crankset and rear wheel (the latter obtained from Recycle Cycle Cymru for £10 and the others purchased new), as well as replacing the  gear and brake cables, brake pads and chain and giving the rear derailleur a thorough clean.

Changing both the chainrings (as part of the crankset) and the rear cogs (with the wheel) meant getting a whole new set of gear ratios, as the new components were different sizes to the old ones.  In general it seems that the gearing is slightly higher now than it was (although having changed my tyres at more or less the same time makes it hard to tell as the width of the tyres also made quite a big difference – in fact since changing to thinner tyres after first drafting this post, I’m inclined to suspect that the fatter tyres had a lot more to do with the increased cycling difficulty than any change in the gear ratios).  At some point I should probably try to dig out (or reconstruct) the gearing chart I once prepared for the original chainring/cog combinations and do a similar one for the new gears.

While waiting to get these repairs completed, I got my old bike, a Motobecane touring bike probably dating from the late 1970s (as the company went bust in about 1980), back from the friend I’d given it to (in whose shed it was sitting unused much as it had in mine).   When I first got it back my other bike was still in pieces, so I spent an evening working on this one to get it into working order so that I could avoid walking to work the next morning.  Most of that work consisted in adjusting the mudguards so they didn’t rub on the wheels.  I noticed that the tyres were looking a bit perished but decided they would do at least for a few weeks.

The bike performed reasonably well on my way into work, but when I was coming home I heard some ominous squeaking sounds from the rear wheel area.  On stopping to investigate I discovered that the retaining nut for the rear brake assembly was missing.  I’ve no idea whether it had fallen off while I was cycling or if it was already missing, as that’s one bit of the bike I didn’t check carefully (having ascertained that the brake itself was working).  I rode very carefully the rest of the way home and then took a trip (on foot) to my local hardware shop to get a replacement bolt (fortunately it’s a standard metric size) before riding again.

My next ride on that bike was on a Sunday afternoon and was designed to be a short circular route along some country lanes near my house.  I say “designed to be” because my front tyre (or at least the inner tube) exploded when I was about halfway round.  On inspection, it appeared that the sidewall of the outer tyre had given way, causing the inner tube to get caught between the tyre and the rim and leading to its swift, explosive demise.  I did have a spare tube on me, but with the outer tyre wall so broken I had to push the bike home (probably only about a mile or so, but still a lot harder work than cycling it) and then order a new pair of tyres.

By the time my new tyres, Schwalbe Marathons like I (later) put on my mountain bike, arrived I had got the other bike working again so there was less pressure to get the road bike back on the road.  When I did get round to putting the tyres on I managed to cycle about 10 yards before the new front inner tube exploded.  This time, I think it was because I didn’t take due care to ensure the inner tube wasn’t trapped under the edge of the outer tyre.   Naturally, that had been my only spare inner tube of a suitable size, so I then had to wait several more days to get another one.

I fitted the new  tube and got the tyres both pumped up a couple of weeks back, and have taken the bike out for a couple of tentative spins down the road (mostly to the postbox and back) without the tyres blowing up.  This afternoon, I made another attempt at doing my previous circular ride and was pleased to be able to get home in one piece.

I think I’ll probably stick with using the mountain bike for most purposes, not least because I find it has a somewhat more comfortable riding position.  However, it’s useful to know that I have another bike I can fall back on if I need to take that one off the road for a while for maintenance.  I’ll probably try to use the road bike from time to time as well, to ensure that it stays in good working order and feels loved.