Sunday, December 16, 2007

Best Commuter Bike Ever Project, Part 3

With the paint is done, I turned to building the wheels. The front has a Shimano DH-3D71 generator hub with 32 holes. I laced it to a Velocity Aeroheat rim with black painted stainless steel spokes and red anodized aluminum nipples for a little bling. The tires are Ritchey Tom Slicks.

The rear hub is a Shimano Nexus 8 Premium. I laced it to another Velocity Aeroheat rim, but with 36 spokes.

The handlebars are Soma Sparrows. I really like these. Here is the bike with no fenders tires, or cables.

Here is the bike basically done except for cable routing. I have taped cables to the frame so that I can commute on it temporarily. It is a REALLY great ride. Whereas I have been able to sense mechanical loss in other internal hubs, I really don't feel any in this hub. It is great. And the generator hub is very low drag, too. I haven't weighed the bike, but even with both hubs it feels like it doesn't weigh much more than my Lemond Poprad road/cross bike. Here is a photo of the bike. Please excuse the massive stash of house paint, pesticides, and other junk. There's a foot of snow on the ground outside.

****NEWS FLASH****
I came across a titanium Merlin mountain bike frame and HAD to buy it. I am strongly considering transferring all of the components to the Merlin for no reason than I really like titanium. We'll see.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Best Commuter Bike Ever Project, Part 2

To get the bike ready for painting, I cleaned everything off with aerosol automotive brake cleaner. I figured this would be good for cleaning off grease and dirt. After it dried, I used a file to clean off the nicks that had been raised by chain suck by the previous owner. He had been a distributor of these frames, and this was his last frame, a demonstrator model. I then removed the derailleur hanger. I used blue painter's tape to mask the brake posts, bottom bracket threads, head tube openings, and seat tube opening.

I screwed in one of the bottle cage screws and balanced the bike on my bike stand with all of frame supported by this screw. Having painted my fixed gear commuter in the basement, I knew how to get the painting done without killing everyone in my house with the fumes. I open a window in the basement and aim a fan out the window and turn it on full blast. The bike stand is set up only a foot or two from the fan. All of the fumes are carried directly out the window. Two or three coats of primer, and it is good to go. So I painted it this way.

The resulting finish was a bit rough because the primer it came it was rough. I coated it with two coats of gloss clear, and this seems to have created a really nice finish. Kind of a hammered texture.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

New Orleans Cleanup -or- Our Basement Renovation Project

Our basement is our shame. When we moved in, it was pristine. But we have accumulated lots of stuff down there as time has passed. It is bad. Like really bad. To the point that we started to refer to it as the "9th Ward." I know it's insensitive, but it's pretty accurate.

Seeing the basement of our wonderful neighbors inspired us to clean the basement up and build a playroom for the kids in it. We didn't want to go whole hog because the ceilings are only 6'3" and we are worried that the basement might flood someday.

I won't document the whole thing here, but here are some highlights. We decided to wall in a playroom, creating three rooms in the basement--a playroom, an exercise room, and the storage/tool room. The boiler would be open to the storage room but have access through a door in the playroom.

The footers for the walls are extra tall. There are two pressure-treated 2x4s and one normal 2x4. That means three footers. Again, flood paranoia. I nailed the footers to the cement floor with a powder-actuated nail gun (the cheapest one from Home Depot, about $20). Then I framed it in with 2x4s. We know that with the ceilings being so low that this would never be "legal" square footage, but I tried to build it all to code anyway. Basically the process was to lay down footers, build walls where possible on the ground and then nail them to the footers. Framing in the stairwell walls was somewhat challenging because it required doing some modifications to the existing staircase. Then came drywall, mud and tape, sanding, and primer. We had some masonry work done to reseal the stucco on the lower part of the foundation wall so that cement wouldn't flake off when kids bump into it. We painted the floor with Rustoleum Basement Floor Epoxy paint. And the coup de grace, in my opinion, is the addition of foam tiles from These are really great. They insulate the floor and really transform it into a play space. You can fall on your elbows or knees with no ill effect.

The biggest disappointment is my experience with the three custom made Jeld-Wen doors from Home Depot. From start to finish, these doors have been a bad experience. Home Depot wasn't able to show me the doors I was ordering. Then when the doors arrived they looked nothing like what the salesperson had described to me. To top it off, the trim I paid for is missing. I can't get the "Millwork Expediter" (named Paul Nelson at the Watertown, Massachusetts Home Depot) to return a phone call or to track them down. Actually, to REALLY top it all off, the screws attaching the door hinges to the frames on two of the doors are stripped out. That is Jeld-Wen's fault. In my work I have occasion to look at operations in many companies. It is really difficult for companies to go this "last mile" in their operations, but this is where the real work is. It is one thing to strategize about this stuff, but the hard work is getting a little process like this one to work well repeatably. It is quite revealing to have an experience like this when I am dressed in my dirty jeans and am a normal customer. I spent about $500 on these doors, which is about 10% of what I have spent at Home Depot in the last five years. I may just start going to Lowe's, even though it is much farther away.

Anyway, we had a sleeping bag family slumber party the first night, and it was comfortable enough to sleep on. There is a bit more to do with baseboard and door trim. The photos below are from about the same vantage point, and show the process of construction.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Another Non-Trash Euro Rental

Just got back from a business tip to the UK. I was able to get a VW GTI from Hertz. It is an absolutely awesome car, apart from the fact that VW mistakenly placed the steering wheel on the right side of the car. A few quick notes:

1. The car is really competent at high speed. I went 125 mph with absolutely no drama. It was dead quiet, totally solid, and very confidence inspiring. It was accelerating pretty smartly at 125 in 6th gear when I ran out of cojones. I don't know what the top speed of this car is, but it sure felt like an honest-to-goodness 150-mph car.

2. Had the same experience with letting off the gas that I had in the diesel Ford in Germany. That is, after building lots of boost flooring the throttle for a while and then lifting off the gas, the car continues to accelerate. So is this a turbo thing, not just a turbo diesel thing? I have had a few turbo cars (Mazda 323GTX, Audi 5000S turbo), and I don't recall this behavior. But maybe I never noticed it. Another possibility is that the GTI's engine is a lot like a diesel engine in that is has no throttle butterflies (it is direct injection if I understand it correctly). Hmmm.

3. I used 3/4 tank of gas, and it cost me 40 pounds ($80 USD) to fill it up. Yikes!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Rollin' with the Homiez (and William Shatner)

There is a disturbing lack of respect in certain quarters for my taste in music. Actually, almost everyone in the world other than my wife thinks I have good taste in music. It is a source of some sadness for both of us. She has never gotten over the fact that I missed out on the superhip (in her mind, at least) "Grunge" years because I was in Italy when it was all going down. I won't even stoop to make fun of that genre because it is too easy. Seriously, making fun of the body odor, plaid shirts, and unintelligible lyrics is like shooting fish in a barrel. I am strong, so I will resist.

I think that the root of the problem (the problem being her disrespect, not my bad taste) is that it is quite difficult to make sense of my music. Walk by my office during the day and you may hear Handel, Christina Aguilera, the Beastie Boys, Snoop Dogg, CCR, Jose Carreras (but not that no-talent a** clown Pavarotti [may he rest in peace] and for that matter not Michael Bolton either]), the Chili Peppers, or William Shatner. I am an omnivore. So what radio station should I listen to when I am driving? They are all nice some of the time. But when you really get to jonesing for Boston or Erasure, how do you find them on the radio before the urge passes and you want to listen to Robert Earl Keen?

It turns out that this is what iPods were invented for. My car doesn't have a line-in jack on the dash for iPods, so I needed to do something clever. I found a solution on eBay in the form of a kit specifically made for my car. It is called the Dension Ice Link Plus. You have to pull off the dash around the radio (about a five minute job) and then plug it into the back of the radio. The kit tricks your radio into thinking your iPod is a cd changer. In fact, it translates commands from the radio buttons for your iPod, and these are passed along to the iPod so that it skips songs, etc. I mounted the iPod mount on the dash in a blank space. It looks pretty darned good if I do say so myself--a pretty sanitary installation. After a bit of difficulty with the initial setup, it works great. I couldn't be happier.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Best Commuter Bike Ever Project, Part 1

A few months ago I began to realize (for real) that my bike collection is too large. Other times when I have realized this, I was able to justify the collection by explaining that it wasn't worth much or that it didn't take too much space in the basement. But this time was different for some reason. So I decided to thin the herd by a few bikes, and then use the cash to buy a bike to replace four or so of the departed ones.

So I sold the Van Dessel (a few tears because it was the Best Commuter Bike Ever), the Redline Monocog (I have a Monocog Flight 29er, so it was starting to feel a bit redundant), the Redline Monocog 29er (OK, that was certainly redundant), and the Cannondale MTB with lots of cool XTR stuff (recently living on Ritchey Tom Slicks and serving as the kid trailer puller).

Flush with cash and space, I began to accumulate ideas for an awesome commuter bike. The idea with this bike would be to combine the best of the Cannondale and the Van Dessel--a perfect commuter bike that in a pinch can serve as a competent road bike, gravel trail touring bike (for this or this), or kid trailer hauler. Oh, and another very important use: the no-worries loaner bike for friends. It is nice to have a bike around that you can lend to a visiting friend or a friend who is temporarily between bikes. This means that all of the bike's functions should be intuitive, idiot proof, and should require no explanation. This is not the case with my fixed gear bike.

I considered briefly purchasing a Bianchi Milano, but decided not to for three reasons. First, it wasn't different enough from the Van Dessel I just sold. Second, it has an aluminum frame, and I wanted a smoother ride than aluminum can offer. And third, although I found the idea of the newer Shimano Nexus 8 hub very appealing, if I was going to get an internal hub I wanted the Ultegra-level Nexus 8 Premium.

The Milano framed my thinking about what I really wanted, so as I started to build the perfect commuter bike in my head, it looked a lot like a Milano. The attributes I came up with were the following:

1) As lightweight as possible. The Van Dessel was nice, but its 7-speed hub was heavy. I wanted something light.
2) Comfortable ride (so probably not aluminum frame)
3) 26" wheels. This allows for a wide range of tire options with lots of frame clearance
4) Internal hub gears, either a Shimano Nexus 8 Premium or a Rohloff (but that's too expensive)
5) Cantilever or V-Brakes. I like discs just fine, but they can be heavier and I really don't see a need for them on a commuter like this. And I say this with some experience, having commuted through New England winters.
6) Full coverage fenders
7) Comfortable handlebars. (I have never found a more comfortable grip position than the one offered by the bullhorns on my fixed gear bike. I wanted to approach this grip but with a mountain bike-diameter handlebar because the Nexus shifters fit this diameter handlebar.)
8) Generator hub to run the lights.
9) Although there are some pretty heavy parts here (like #4 and #8), I wanted to make it as light as possible.

So I began poking around for parts. On Craigslist, I found a like-new Cannondale Fifty Fifty in XL. The Cannondale is basically the bike I am looking for, but it has an aluminum frame and an eccentric bottom bracket. I don't think I want an EBB because of the complexity it introduces. I bought the bike thinking that I could swap all of the component onto a frame that fit my needs.

I started looking for steel, carbon fiber, and titanium MTB frames. Titanium MTB frames are ridiculously overpriced right now. I have to believe that they will fall in price soon. Steel is a little heavy for what I want to do with this commuter, and carbon, well, carbon is nice. As I searched eBay for carbon and titanium frames, I stumbled across a magnesium MTB frame for what seemed like a really good price. So I poked around on the Internet and found generally positive reviews of magnesium frames. Apparently they are all manufactured in Russia, and they are of high quality. Magnesium purportedly offers miraculous vibration damping characteristics. And it is light. Very light. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I ordered the frame.

The Mg frame arrived in a UPS box, and it felt as though the box was holding feathers. I was shocked. It is incredibly light. And the welds are beautiful. I couldn't be happier. Here is a photo (it is wet from rain, and a few nicks from chain suck have been touched up with primer):

My plan is to primer it and paint it with this cool titanium paint, creating confusion regarding the frame's construction material. I am going to have a friend cut me some cool vinyl decals that call attention to the fact that this is Mg and not Ti. More later.

Monday, September 17, 2007

I Sold the Porsche and Bought a Honda Civic, Sigh

Actually, that is a Honda Civic Si. With our family size changing, I decided to get a car that is roomier. Also, it will be easier to lend to other folks (including my wife) and I won't worry about it stranding me anywhere.

The car is a 2003 Honda Civic Si. I really like this car for a number of reasons. First, it reminds me of the Volkswagen GTI my father had when I was in high school. Something about a fast little hatchback really floats my boat. The seats are incredible, better than the seats in my Porsche. The engine is 2.0 liters, which is quite large for such a little car. Everything works--the A/C, the ABS, the heater. Finally, and this is a little hard get your head around unless you are as enlightened as I am, this car is nearly as much fun to drive as is the Porsche. Rev it up, snick snick the shifter, crank it around a corner. It is a blast to drive.

In the parlance of the kids these days, I have "killed" a few cars with this car. The most fun have been a Mini Cooper S (a long on ramp getting onto the freeway, accelerating from 0 to 85 mph) and a 2006 BMW M3 SMG (this wasn't fair because I caught the guy unaware at a stoplight. By the time he got on it I had gotten up to 50 in a 35 and had to slow down. At the next light I rolled down the window and apologized and chatted with him for a minute. Then he put it in launch control mode and lit up the rear tires for about 100 feet. I was grinning like an idiot for 10 minutes.) .

I am really thinking of putting a Jackson Racing Supercharger in... Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Grey, with a Chance of Falling Squirrels

When I was a young lad, I had a BB gun. One of the rules that came with the BB gun was that shooting animals was off limits. I only violated this rule one time, when I killed a magpie that was tormenting our cat. I still remember how bad I felt when I saw it dead on the ground. I am not a violent person, and its death really shocked me.

Why do I share this story? To make myself feel better about having become, to paraphrase J. Robert Oppenheimer (and the Bhagavad-Gita), death, the destroyer of squirrels around my house.

When we moved into our house, we thought that the squirrels in our yard were cute. They are. And they are smart. And, it turns out, they like our house. They like it so much that they found a way to get into our eaves and make a nest.

Not long after we noticed the scratching sounds in an upstairs wall, we found out that we were expecting a baby. This triggered an unexpected reaction in me. It must have come from deep in my caveman/alpha male brain. The reaction was that I felt a strong desire to kill every squirrel I could find near my cave, err, house. Not kill for the purpose of making stew. But to lay waste, like to protect my little pack. I had crazy thoughts--kill a squirrel and hang its body from a rope right where the other squirrels were likely to see it, deliver it on a private jet for interrogation by the secret police in Egypt or Syria, that sort of thing.

But the squirrel is a smart foe, and I decided that it should be possible to defeat it with a combination of reason and violence. So I started to pick apart the squirrel problem piece by piece. I developed the following premises, and it is on these premises that I built my plan:

1) Squirrels like easy access to food. If there is less easy access to food in a location, then that location will be a less attractive location in which to set up domicile.

2) Squirrels like an easy way to get onto my roof and thence into my eaves. They were walking from a tree branch directly onto our roof. If the access is made less easy, then they will be less likely to use the eaves as a nest. (Note here that I recognize that squirrels can climb anything and can walk across the power line connection to get to our roof. But I am looking for marginal effects that make it less likely that they will return).

3) In the short term, there is a finite supply of squirrels in any given location. Squirrels are territorial, and if they are removed from a particular area, it takes a while for other squirrel clans to move in.

4) A dead squirrel is less likely to nest in my eaves than is a living squirrel. A note here: Squirrels are not people. I don't go in for anthropomorphizing of animals. Squirrels are rodents. They are smart, but they are prey. I am an apex predator. Crocodiles eat wildebeests. Lions kill hyenas to prove a point. For one reason or another, I was born higher on the food chain than the squirrel. It is not only my prerogative to kill squirrels, it makes mother nature cry when I refuse to take my proper place in the circle of life. I don't do this for fun. My genes are less likely to be propagated out into the future if my offspring are living around plague-carrying rodents.

Well, that's a lot of talk for a simple plan. Basically, the plan was:

1) cut down any tree limb access to the roof
2) try to plug the hole under the siding that provides access to the eaves
3) spray the area down with squirrel repellent
4) bungee down garbage can lids
5) use a Chinese pellet gun to shoot any squirrel I see on my property

I have to say that cutting down the branches helped a lot. I am doubtful about the effectiveness of the other steps, except for number 5. I am pretty sure that one is working. I try to make it as painless as possible for the squirrels, following the Marine sniper motto of "one shot, one kill."

To my surprise and (and mild moral consternation), I have felt no remorse whatsoever each time I have sent a squirrel to the big acorn stash in the sky. And there have been a few that have made that journey in the last few months.

This plan worked really well for a while. The squirrels stopped getting into the roof for about two months. One morning a few days ago, we heard the familiar scratching inside the roof. They have returned. I went outside and saw a squirrel jumping from out roof into a tree limb six feet from the gutter. So cutting back the trees and killing the squirrels' relatives evidently is not enough. More steps will be taken. In the meantime, this video has inspired me. I am going to a medical supply store to get surgical tubing this week...

Monday, May 28, 2007

My Position has Evolved over Time

Today I went mountain biking with friends. I have decided to start documenting the routes we take. I bought a Garmin Etrex Vista Cx GPS unit along with a handlebar mount. It worked extremely well. Here is our route. The altitude data are flawed for the first .2 miles, but after that the GPS got dialed in. Check it out:

You can zoom to see things more clearly, or click on the altitude profile to see our altitude changes (the Y-axis on this graph is in meters). You can see that we did two ascents to the water tower. The drop at about mile 4.2 is where my buddy Dave went over the handlebars. The "Snow Cave" is at about mile 4.7.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Das Auto ist Fast

So today was a red-letter day for me. As shallow as it may seem, I got to live my lifelong dream of driving on the Autobahn in Germany. I drove from Munich to Nuremberg, a distance of around 180 KM (111 miles). This took around an hour. My rental car was yet another diesel with six-speed manual transmission, this time a Ford Mondeo wagon. I will say this until I am blue in the face--why can't the US manufacturers learn from their foreign subsidiaries? This is a really nice car, it is well made, it handles great, and it feels like more like a BMW than a Taurus. Too bad. I guess they tried in the 80's with the Merkur, and that didn't work. So maybe it is more complicated than I think. OK, so here are my observations in list form.

  1. I set a new personal speed record today. I saw a sustained 219 km/h (136 mph) on the speedometer. I know lots of people claim they have gone 160 mph on Interstate 70 or whatever, so this may not seem that impressive to them. But this was cruising along for 20 minute stretches at this speed, and the speedometer needle just would not quite make it to 220 km/h. The few times I had to get on the brakes, the Mondeo hauled it down to 140 or 100 km/h with no drama whatsoever. No shuddering from the brakes. I think most US cars would melt their hubcaps off if you were to try this.
  2. I was flying in formation with a few other cars, including (holy cow) a Volkswagen Caravelle TDI. This is the equivalent of the Eurovan in the US. Dude, all I can say is, wow. This thing is the size of a full-size US van, and it was going 135 mph. It seemed to be more affected by crosswinds than were the cars. Again, wow.
  3. Slowing down to normal speeds after going 135 mph feels like bending time and space. Speeds of 60 or 80 mph feel like walking pace. For getting from city to city, this is a really great alternative to flying in a plane.
  4. I identified two weird behaviors of the rental car, and I spent time hypothesizing about them while I drove. I assume that these behaviors are specific to all diesels, not just to Ford diesels.
    1. The first behavior occurs when the car is "speed shifted." Speed shifting (or at least that's what I am calling it) is when you upshift without taking your foot off of the throttle. You very briefly push in the clutch while very quickly moving up to the next gear. If you do it fast enough, the engine doesn't have a chance to get to spin up to redline while the clutch is in, and the car takes off quickly in the next gear. I tried this a few times because, when accelerating hard, it breaks my heart to waste all of the manifold pressure built up by the turbo when shifting. Anyway, I noticed after performing a full-throttle speed shift that when I arrived at the next gear the car would keep accelerating even if I lifted my foot off of the gas after the gear change. Make sense? For example, I floor the throttle in 5th, and as I approach redline, I briefly push in the clutch and switch into 6th without lifting off the gas. But once I am in 6th, if I lift off the throttle, the car continues to accelarate for a few seconds as though I were still flooring it. This is a bit disconcerting at first, bringing to mind the phrase (verboten in Ingolstadt) "unintended acceleration." My hypothesis is that excess intake manifold pressure, along with unburned fuel, builds up during these speedshifts, and this combination continues to power the car after the shift. As I write this, that sounds wrong, but it's my best explanation. Is this a common issue, known to truckers? Hmm.
    2. The second thing I noticed is that, at normal operating RPM on the highway, say around 2500-3000 RPM, the car produces peak power at 1/4 to 1/3 throttle. I first noticed this when I was cruising on the autobahn. If I applied a slight amount of throttle, the car would accelerate. But if I applied just a little more, the car seemed to produce slightly less power. The diminution in power was so small as to be almost imperceptible. But I think it was real. To test this, I only gave the car 1/3 throttle (the max I could give without feeling the slight loss in power) and the car accelerated smartly up to 210 km/h. So what is the rest of the throttle angle for? My hypothesis on this one is that in a diesel (I think), the air/fuel ratio can vary much more than in a gasoline engine with a throttle. So the perfect stoichiometric ratio only happens by coincidence when you are dumping fuel into the engine with the gas pedal at the rate that happens to match the quantity of air coming into the engine. I wonder if, at 3ooo RPM, that sweet spot just happens to be at 1/3 throttle pedal? If I had one of these cars, I would figure out a way to get an oxygen sensor into the exhaust stream and hook it up to a meter so that I could see what is going on in the engine. Hmmm.
  5. I visited BMW headquarters and got the full tour from a friend. Cool, cool, cool. They are building a massive wind tunnel on the grounds.
  6. Finally, I visited the Adidas headquarters in Herzogenaurach. There is a big factory outlet store there. It is big, but the deals are only so-so. It is worth it to see the cool stuff, but I was expecting to find bargain bins full of odd, special-edition Sambas. There were none of those.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

North American Handmade Bicycle Show

Here are some photos I took. Unfortunately, I don't have labels for all of them.

Sweet handlebars:

This bike was achingly beautiful. Really amazing work.

I picked up a pair of these sliding dropouts from Paragon at their stand. They will go on the frame I am building.

A really cool big 29er MTB.

A very early MTB on display at the Ritchey stand. Check out the motorcycle brake levers.

Very sweet bike that uses the Shimano 8-speed Alfine group. Check out the hand-carved handlebar and aluminum doodads. The pulley for the shifter cable is a nice touch. The builder said that his family had a background in aviation, and this is a nod to cable-and-pulley airplane controls.

Nice way to tie in the seat stays. I wish I knew who did this.

Another nice seat stay solution.

Craig Calfee's carbon fiber bike. Crazy cool. With some analysis, I think that a frame built like this could be incredible strong.

He is building a lot of bikes that combine carbon fiber and mother nature's nearly perfect composite, bamboo. Apparently these are really nice bikes to ride.

A tiny road bike. But really small.

Moulton-inspired delivery bike.

Rohloff hub.

Cool fairing reminiscent of racing motorcycles from 50s and 60s.

Mike Flanagan of A.N.T. Bikes is a true artist. I met him when I bought his drill press from him a while ago. He is a mensch--he mailed me the chuck key a few weeks later when he found it. Didn't need to, but did. Cool

Really sweet MTB.

I am thinking of copying this paint scheme for my bike.

The new Columbus XCR stainless tubeset. These are good guys.

Internal routing of hydraulic brake lines.

Nice bike

This dude was cool, and his bike was really nice.