Eccentrics and Other Devolutionary Tactics

New cars kill.

This is just wrong. We die while pedaling and lawyers spin nauseating fairy tales into skeins of cash for themselves and their clients and doilies to cover watermarks left by the inattentive. Is this what we want from our beloved American ingenuity?  We should make something good.  There are examples, but the trend is away from the production of things and toward the production of ideas (and a few billion hamburgers).

The end result of my job is the production of affordable apartments, but there are hundreds of people between me and as much as an asphalt shingle. My work is pretty abstract stuff. The direct daily product of my work is at most an Adobe Acrobat file or two. Would have made my grandfather’s head spin, but it works for me. I take pride in my work and am deeply grateful for the life it has given me. It wouldn’t work for everyone, though. Some people need something a bit more tactile. I get that. Feel it sometimes, too. I scratch the itch with my cycle wrenching hobby, but few have time, space and resources to lead a shadow life.

For those that can’t or won’t push mice around a six-inch square, I am glad that it is still possible to work at the production of bicycles in America. To get in the game you’ll probably have to move or start your own shop. Having cleared that hurdle, know that your customers will generally be the wealthy. Your bicycles will cost at least $3,000 with imported parts and at least $4,000 with parts made here. Likely much more. Your product will straddle the line between art and machine but your profits will be familiar to an artist.

This is not a new story.  Beginning in 1868, the earliest mounts (velocipedes followed by ordinaries, tricycles and safeties), were made by hand in small quantities and purchased by the wealthy for recreational use. The makers were often carriage makers who switched production to self-powered machines to cash in on the boom. Demand and prices were high for nearly 30 years during which time many entered the game and made a living producing what amounted to machines for recreation and sport. I imagine these were pretty good times.

Not long after pneumatic tires showed up (the final development that made the safeties of 1891 truly wonderful to ride), automobiles crashed the party. Who could resist the allure of locomotion without exertion? Demand for and thus prices of bicycles fell. Unless every possible efficiency was introduced into the production facility, there was no hope of surviving. Production efficiency means assembly lines. If your job remained, it suddenly become very tedious. The same tedium awaited you on the automobile assembly line after your bicycle employer folded. If you were lucky. Europe’s market was a bit gentler on the bicycle, but it was tough times in America for the bicycle.

Ironically, it was this market catastrophe that allowed the bicycle to shine as a tool to transport the masses. The machine was now affordable to a much wider audience and utility cycling was ready to take off.  Skinnier profits, but a chance to survive.  The foregoing history is mostly misconstrued and misremembered  from an excellent book.  You should read it and get the real story.

Some firms made a go of it.  Maybe Cannondale isn’t the best example of making a go of it, as they declared bankruptcy in 2003, but they were acquired and the brand marched forward.  Until 2007, you could get a Cannondale bicycle with a frame made in the USA and overseas parts for under $1,500. Half the price of the bicycles made by small shops in America today, but double the price of bicycles made in China.  The differences in price are attributable to scale and labor costs.  Cannondale had over the small producers an advantage of scale.  China has over everyone the advantage of cheap labor.   Small makers target the high-end market and the best survive.  China targets the rest of the world and is doing very well.  While Cannondales were made here, they were stuck in the middle.  Insufficent cache to attract the wealthy and too much overhead to compete against the Chinese.  Cannondale opted to stay in the game by moving production overseas. What do  its workers do now?

I want to live in a world in which people can live making things with their hands. While dreaming, let’s make the work enjoyable. Less assembly line and more craft. Maybe even some artistry. I want the Arts and Crafts movement to come back and take over our economy.  I can’t expect many to jump on board.  I haven’t, really.   My super special bicycles were made by a fellow who loves his work, but each was bought for less than the maker deserved.

When I return from dreams, I am happy to see people buy any bicycle. For many folks, that means heading to a discount store or a bicycle shop and buying a bike produced in China. Sometimes these imported bicycles can work out well (if they are put together with some competence and then actually ridden). The planets don’t very often line up so nicely. So many bicycles are purchased, tried for a few weekends and then forgotten.

Consider then buying one of the millions of well-preserved bicycles hidden in each and every garage in America. It is pretty easy to get a lot more bicycle for the money and the carbon footprint of buying used is considerably smaller. Again, I can’t expect folks to do what I can’t. New can be fun. It’s pretty common to find me in a bicycle shop looking at the shiny and new. Good that few appeal to me. Some do, though. In 2007 I bought this little number.  One of Cannondale’s last made here.

The model is a 1fg. Mass produced, so well under the price of the custom bicycles I have dreamed about, but made by folks in Bedford, Pensylvania! Good jobs (while they lasted).

It felt great to be in a bicycle shop when I bought the Cannondale.   Before that day I hadn’t bought a bicycle from a bicycle shop since 1992 (when I bought my first Bridgestone XO-1 from Olympia in Omaha, a gem of a shop). I’ve acquired plenty of other bicycles since 1992, but the purchases have been made mostly at garage sales or from eBay and Craigslist.

It’s sad how often I have gone to the net instead of a local shop. Weak, actually. I would rather be in a good bicycle shop than in anywhere on the planet, yet I rarely put my dollars there. Virtual cycle shops are very poor facsimiles. Well stocked when taken together, but where are the smells (except the ones I make, which are familiar and sad when not mixed with rubber and grease)?

The purchase of the Cannondale filled me with nostalgia. It happened way too quickly. I remembered seeing it a month earlier, found myself with some space in the budget, called to see if it was still there, jumped in a car, laid down the plastic and brought it home. No anticipation. I have very fond memories of picking up my first Cannondale (a yellow mountain bike) from a wood framed house converted to a bicycle shop in Lincoln. Rich was the owner. What was that place called? Deluxe? I had ordered it (it was a graduation gift for me, but my parents let me pick it out) and it took forever to show up. When it did, I was over to the place faster than twelve ounces disappear on a hot day.

The anticipatory goodness was never more savory than over the year my local Schwinn store in Lincoln put together my Redline Proline. I was just a kid, when tastes tasted more, smells smelled more and waiting hurt so good. Parts were ordered as I decided upon them and installed when they arrived.  Redline v-bars, Bullseye hubs on Araya rims. Tuff-Neck. Red Comp II tires.  I paid for it over time and for months, maybe a year, I made visits to the shop at least weekly to drop off payments and ride it around the parking lot. That was the way to buy a bicycle. Waiting made it extra special, but the bicycle shop setting had a lot to do with it.

What else do the real deal shops offer? People! In person! Workers or customers (I don’t care). People in bicycle shops are special folks and that specialness is too often lost over the pipes and on a screen.

Of course, the bicycles matter, too. Make them interesting, please. Really cool bicycles don’t even need to be for sale. The better shops each have a few special bicycles, and more than a few special bicycle bits, from days ago. Visit all these shops over time and you’ve been to a scattered site version of the Met, but for bicycles. It is better that these treasures aren’t for sale. Otherwise, they’d be long gone. Pedaled to death under the legs of adrenaline crazed (but fashion conscious) gear mashers.

All true, so true, but the shops I enjoy most of all sell used bicycles. There are excellent bicycles made today, but these can be ogled in the privacy of your own home. The cooler new ones won’t make it to, or survive long at, your local shop anyway. It is the used treasure that makes it worth the effort of leaving the couch. The thrill of the limited.  Not terribly limited, as surely thousands of wonderful examples have survived cycling booms arising around the oil crisis in the 1970s and the commercial introduction of the mountain bicycle in the 1980s.

Vintage bicycles are my passion. Not super vintage. 80s and 90s work for me.  Most of mine were made in Japan.  Better to focus on a narrow swatch when collecting, or everything might end up in your home.  Specialization also increases the chance that your tools fit the bicycles you buy.  I really love wrenching. Bums me out when I try to fix something only to learn the part manufacturer has changed the shape of a part and thwarted adjustment or removal without acquiring another new tool (and one that will very likely be used only a few times in your life).

Back to the Cannondale. I have always loved their beefy aluminum frames. I didn’t really appreciate this look until I saw it paired with huge tires on my graduation gift mountain bike. The fat tires made it all come together. Its yellow frame was (and still is) nice, but how can you argue with the clear coated metal on this one? Honest, it is. Love the lack of graphics on others, but I am learning to love the silly graphics on this one. Guns and skulls balanced with flowers and birds. Something for everyone! Very American, like a sailor’s decorated arms.

I added the pedals. Brutal, no? Brooklyn Machine Works is a very rad manufacturer. Of course I got the silver ones.  Too often parts are black as a way to reduce finishing costs.  The result can be lackluster.  See, for instance, the lifeless crank arm.  Looks pretty sad in juxtaposition.  

What’s not to like about this bike!? Suspension! This is my first and only bicycle with suspension. I don’t need it, so it is all downside. Even so, the headshock was probably the better way to go. One mechanism instead of two. Easy math.

What I did not appreciate at the shop is that the shock needs to be pumped up. Can’t easily pump it up without removing the wheel. I ride a different bicycle almost every day so I am always pumping up tires. When I ride this bicycle, I also get to pump up the shock. Or I just lock out suspension. When I lock it out, a few millimeters of slop remain, so I get to enjoy an unpleasant clunk every few seconds. I HATE NOISY BICYCLES! Noisy bicycles are either poorly designed or poorly maintained. Anything else? Sure! When I installed fenders, I had to cut a hole to retain access to the shock valve (and then all the winter gunk gets free access to the underside of the fork where the valve for the shock resides).

I have no love for the disc brakes either. Might love them if I was bombing down mountains and needed to keep my rims cool, but I am not. Ever. They don’t seem much stronger to me than rim brakes and I am always fiddling with them to keep them quiet. Either the pistons are lightly rubbing on the rotor, or the rotor is dirty. The disk and pads can be cleaned with alcohol, but what a pain!

Want to adjust the chain tension? Now the complaining can rain down in buckets. I’ll just tell the whole damn story.

There is an eccentric in the bottom bracket shell to do that. The eccentric spins in the shell. The bottom bracket is off-center in the eccentric. Spin the eccentric and the distance from the bottom bracket to the sprocket on the rear wheel changes and the chain tension changes. The eccentric is held in place by two wedges, one on each side. They are compressed against ramps on the eccentric when a hex head bolt is tightened. Tighten the bolt and the whole mechanism is locked into the bottom bracket shell. That much works fine. Want to free the eccentric? Good luck!

I read the instructions (after trying first blind, naturally). Supposed to loosen the retaining bolt a few turns. That was obvious. What wasn’t obvious is that the circlip and washer behind the head of the bolt are merely decoration. That, or they simply hold the bolt in place in case it comes loose on its own. Whatever! Rely on the circlip and washer to resist the force of the loosening bolt head (thinking that they are the magic that spreads the wedges out) and you will be sorely disappointed. They will deform and pop out before either eccentric wedge so much as notices the bicycle is in a repair stand.

The instructions confirm my guess that the circlip and washer are window dressing. After you to loosen the bolt a few turns (only a few turns so that you don’t dare touch the delicate washer and circlip) you are instructed to tap on the hex key to force the wedge on the other side free. If too much force is required, you are to take it to a mechanic. Admit defeat? No way. Something more like wailing force is needed, but it works once you get the courage/frustration needed to make it go. I hate designs that require hammering. How is that right? Could someone have stayed at the computer one more weekend to come up with a better design?

The first time I blamed the sticky wedge on the factory’s, indeed every factory’s, mysterious desire to use as little grease as possible.  Could it just be cost containment, or is there something I don’t know?  Most likely both.  After my first battle, I greased every surface with enough slippery stuff to keep a teenage boy happy over a handful of sessions. Still it stuck. Without even really riding the bicycle between goes. Sure a year or so had passed, but I had only ridden the thing a couple of times in the dry.

Oh, and the tapping trick they tell you about takes care of only one wedge. The one on the side opposite from the hex head you loosen. There is another on your side with no obvious way to pull it free. The instructions tell you to turn the eccentric after getting the far side wedge loose. No way! The one remaining is more than enough to hold that puppy tight (the old design had just one). On my third go I developed a trick to get the second wedge free. [Here is one of the few bits of real news in all of my posts, and what do you think are the odds of a perplexed Cannondale owner finding it?] The second wedge can be loosened by placing a hex in one of the two holes used to turn the eccentric (on the same side as the second wedge) and then pound the hex (effectively pushing on the eccentric) until the eccentric moves out from the bottom bracket. Be sure you are pounding on the side that doesn’t have the retention screw (which overlaps the bottom bracket shell). Going the other way wouldn’t work. Moving the eccentric through the shell has the same effect has pulling out the wedge, as the wedge stays in place while the shell moves, so the compression is released. Voila!

All this and I have only really needed to tighten the chain once (when I put on a new chain). The second time I battled the eccentric I was doing it just because time had passed. I have big fear of leaving compressed metals together too long (having allowed a seatpost to fuse into the frame of my first Cannondale, but that is another long and terrible tale). I simply wanted to see the eccentric move just to know it wasn’t fused. After I got it to move, I went ahead and removed it and again greased the heck out of every surface again. Torqued it to spec, I wasn’t happy with the chain tension, so I tried to free it again. Think it should be easy, just a minute later. Still had to wail on the old hexes way more than was comfortable. Bad design.

I think the split bottom bracket shell that tightens around an eccentric with two bolts might be better. Used to freak me out, but getting rid of these wedges seems like a real improvement! Here is a Raleigh XXIX with this set up. [Picture from here.]

Another approach is sliding dropouts. Paragon Machine Works makes these and they work well. They don’t make me comfortable (bolt on drop outs???!!!), but I have them on my ANT scorcher and they haven’t given me too much trouble.

I called the manufacturer for torque specs to ease my fears. They didn’t have any specs (they said just tighten them down). I am very light with the wrench, but here I felt an extra measure of security was called for. Even with a careful hand and a no leverage T hex wrench, I rounded the hex in one of the bolt heads. Had a hell of a time getting the bolt out after that. Hex head in an aluminum bolt (for something other than a light duty accessory)? Come on! The manufacturer was great, though, and sent me new bolts (steel this time) and even threw in new fancy adjusting bolts with knurled brass barrels.

The new bolts have worked great so far, but I wonder if steel bolts threaded into aluminum sliders (at least they look like aluminum) is a good idea. I think this is the combination that conspired (along with moisture and salt) to fuse the seatpost in the other Canondale.

What else? The Cannondale came with a unique for the sake of unique seat post. An I-beam design that limits your seat choice to seats made for the design. Can’t use any of the thousands of seats on the market with the nearly universal two rail seats. The seat was fine, if ugly, but I swapped in a traditional seatpost and seat. The plastic I-beam seat was just embarrassing. It was like sitting on a Betamax.

Even wonderful new bikes can be crazy! Not as crazy as new cars. The bicycles won’t make me go to sleep with deadly off gassing, but contemporary parts too often spoil an otherwise good machine. So many time-tested solutions are discarded to make room for the new (for the sake of sales).

The Cannondale didn’t need an eccentric bottom bracket until they decided to use disc brakes (can’t use good old horizontal drop-outs with a disc brake as the caliper is mounted to the frame and the rotor is mounted to the wheel–move the wheel in a sliding drop out and the caliper is no longer aligned with the rotor). I say toss the disc brakes and use horizontal sliders. Single speed riding is supposed to be trouble-free. Good luck adjusting the chain on this thing away from your shop.

We have one bicycle shop that sells used bicycles near here. It is a treasure. I wish we had more. What gets you off the couch and into a bicycle shop? I’d love to hear your stories, or just send a link to the shop.  Here’s one for you.  New to me, but I’d love to spend an afternoon there.  And start saving for a bicycle made by an artist who loves their job.  Over!

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9 responses to “Eccentrics and Other Devolutionary Tactics

  1. I really enjoyed this post. “Like sitting on a Betamax.” That got a giggle from me. I do envy you your bicycles. I’m trying to scrape out the space and the scratch to acquire a second mount.

  2. Thank you for your kind words.

    While you wait for the day you can get a second bicycle, know that I dream on having just one. Seems like my dream should be easy to make come true, but I have trouble selling even one (I love them all). I make lists in my head of which ones could be sold. I decide when the sales should happen. I pick the venue. All this, over and over, and I sell nothing!

    If you do get a second, which I think is often a good idea, stop there!

    Take care.

  3. This is your best blog post yet. Love it.

    • Thought it was a little wordy myself (about 3,500 words). I usually enjoy reading my posts (sometimes many times), but this one is a struggle to get through without some aggressive skimming. Glad you enjoyed it, though! Your comment means a lot to me!

  4. Pingback: Monday Miscellany: salt, bikes, food, a totebag you must buy, and, just maybe, me poisoning myself. « resistance is fertile

  5. Ah you know me, wordiness does not concern me. I’m a “more is more” kind of gal. Off to the beach now!

  6. This is extremely specialized stuff. Even if I knew how to ride a bike, it would still be alien to me. I know a lot about food and behavior but think I would need a PhD in food science or psychology to approximate the intricacy of your knowledge base. I’m not surprised, you really are an expert in EVERYTHING!
    I was thinking…there aught to be a camp for grown ups who’ve never learned to ride bikes! Yeah! Like a week long camping deal with wholesome meals. Along with lessons and the various bike paths designed at first for beginners and later to emulate real life riding, there would be tutorials on maintaining and fixing your bike two. This could become a reality if wasn’t the ONLY person in the world who didn’t know how to ride a bike. Actually, I’ve been “taught” twice as an adult but after a very bad accident, I never tried again so maybe this camp needs to include some sort of therapy.

    • I know a little about a few things, but to be impressed surely require an assumption that there is more going on in my head that I have yet to share. Since I started the blog, I have spewed into the posts almost everything I know. Nothing in reserve! If you read all 100 or so posts at all once, you will have the sum total of my knowledge. Knowing that, I will be surprised if you continue to be impressed. Thanks for the kind words, though.

      Love the idea of bicycle camp! I think kids and adults would both benefit. Learning to ride, then learning to ride in traffic, coupled with bicycle maintenance and maybe even welding! You are a creative genius! If I were smart, I’d start scouting locations and counsellors this minute and then send you an application packet. As it is, I think I am going to have a shave. I will keep your wonderful idea in my pocket, though. Thank you!

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