Monday, December 14, 2009

Kids' road bikes

I got this idea yesterday, after spending an hour or so trying to find a decent children's road bike: start a company to make a decent children's road bike. I'm not sure how good an idea that is, really, but here's the thing -- they're really hard to find.

There are several racing bikes available with 24" (520) wheels. Trek makes one, Specialized makes one, Fuji makes one, Blue makes one. But they're all aluminum, and they're all racing bikes, not all-rounders like Juliana's old square-rigger Fuji. I've said before that I've never owned an aluminum bike, and I don't think I'd inflict one on either of my kids, either. Sure, they're lighter than a steel bike, and they don't rust. But based on my limited exposure to Cannondales and the like, I'm guessing they're not as comfortable to ride, either. Pretty much everything else is a mountain bike of some flavor, though I should note that there are also lots of department store road bikes in the mix, too. For example, you can't help but trip over dozens of GMC Denalis on Amazon or eBay, and that's a branding mash-up I really just don't understand.

I get that kids tend to be hard on their gear, but I'd love to see something like a junior Sam Hillborne. Actually, it probably doesn't even have to be lugged -- TIG it to keep the costs down -- a junior Kogswell P/R. Point is, something kid-sized, flexible, rackable and somewhat traditional. Problem is, it would probably be cost-prohibitive.

But set that aside for a moment. Picture a company that sold a wee little 20"-wheeled road bike -- call it a 6-speed to keep it simple and lose a couple of components. Spec things out on the inexpensive side, but not crap. Little city bars, maybe -- or allow for some build options, even. Then offer a 24"-wheeled bike that ups the ante on the components and gearing (12-speed). Then a 26" in 16 or 24 speeds. Finally a 650B or 700c bike the kid can ride straight through high school. All of them chromoly, all of them with bottle cage braze-ons, all of them rugged and equipped with rugged wheels and tires, and all equipped with lights and kick stands and good pedals that will withstand a kid's abuse. For the bigger bikes, offer racks for skateboards, baskets for pads, bags that hang from the racks and double as backpacks -- useful accessories for kids -- all through an e-store. Sell kits of stuff that kids should have on their bikes, and should learn how to use (pumps and spare tubes and patch kits in little seat wedges). Put educational clips on YouTube showing the kids how to use all that stuff.

And maybe even take them back in trade from their original owners for a fair value to encourage upgrades to the next size -- though if they're good, they'll hold their value on eBay. Sell the refurbs at a discount to start the process over again. Or maybe don't sell them at all -- lease them. Or maybe not -- needs more thought.

Anyway, the business model might not work. And given how litigious people are, it may be too risky, period. And I'm not sure how it would fare without a bricks-and-mortar presence for ogling bikes and accepting trades. But I like the idea and I've got to believe there's an opportunity to create a great brand in this space. Good kids' road bikes are just really hard to find.

All for now,


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wheel Building

I need a new pair of wheels.

I'm still thinking through the Columbia project, particularly with respect to rear brakes. But whether I get a set of cantilever posts brazed on or not, I'm still going to need a pair of wheels -- that defining trait of a bicycle.

It came to me with a pair, but they're not really what I want. The chromed steel rims don't have any braking surfaces, the hubs are not particularly smooth, and the coaster-brake rear hub has a ton of drag. I think they're probably 571 rims, rather than 559, but I still need to validate that.

I have parts to build a set of wheels up, now, as I think I've mentioned. A set of fat Sun rims in the 559 MTB standard, and a pair of SR hubs. The hubs probably started life years ago on a 10-speed, but the rear hub has been spaced for a single speed freewheel. These are 36-hole units, and the question is what to do with them.

For $200 or so, I could have a pair of wheels built at Wheelworks, and get something back that I'll likely never need to mess with. Or, for $200, I could go buy a wheel building stand plus a spoke tension gauge, plus maybe a copy of Jobst Brandt's wheelbuilding book. And then for still a little more, I can go buy a pile of spokes and nipples and set to work. My friend Steven, who gave me his Motobecane, knows how to build wheels. He may be able to help, even!

I've never built a wheel before, and nor have I had particular success attempting to true a wheel. I'm also not the most patient guy in the world, so I may not be an ideal candidate for wheel building. I'm sure they wouldn't be perfect, but it might be fun. And with any luck I'd have a skill to save me money long after this project is done. For instance, I could lace a set of 26" rims up to a set of road hubs to buy one more year out of Juli's Fuji, once she's grown a bit more. Or any number of other things.

Any advice from others who've tried it?

Looking beyond the wheels, I'm pretty close to having all the parts I need for that build. I bought a trio of Wald baskets, new and old (a new small front basket and a pair of NOS side baskets like Juli's for the rear). I have racks to hold up the baskets and brakes, but should buy new brake levers. I have a new Wald seatpost, and a new and wider Wald handlebar, too. The fork and headset and stem are covered. I haven't yet bought a new crank, bottom bracket, chainring or chain, but I have some ideas, there. I also bought a new set of pedals with half-inch quills. Once I get through the holidays, I'll tear it down and start to build it back up. I'd toyed with the idea of a repaint, again, but it's just too expensive to be worth it. And after all, its mission in life is to be a highly functional clunker.

All for now,



My dog Jake just ate a stick of butter off the counter. Brand new, and waiting for the butter dish to be clean (dishwasher). But now I'm just left with a clean wrapper and a very sheepish dog.

My hope is it will be good for his fur, and not make him puke in my bedroom tonight or suffer other gastrointestinal distress.

I love how he looks all guilty about it, at least. Didn't stop him from eating it, but he's perfectly aware that he wasn't supposed to.

All for now,


Friday, November 27, 2009

Rolling in the attic

Apart from painting, the last major project I completed in my house was to redo the attic.

When we moved in, the attic had one light bulb hanging from a cord in the ceiling, a separate (unlit) room, complete with doorway and walls made of wainscotting planks, wide pine board flooring and a sink at the bottom of the stairs. It was also filthy with dust and roofing crud, had no storm windows, and no floor in the addition over my daughters' bedroom (just open insulation). And via gaps in the antique exterior trimwork, it filled up every fall with ladybugs and brown stink bugs (neither of which was much in evidence when I was a kid, one town over, btw) that made their way into the house every spring, much to my wife's chagrin.

Today, it's completely different up there. It's not living space (the floor joists would have to be sistered up for that), but it's much more usable space than it was. I pulled out the room, replaced the stair treads, replaced the floor, added additional insulation underneath, added some storage shelves, added more lighting, insulated the end walls, hung a layer of that mylar bubble wrap stuff on the rafters, and generally made it a much brighter, cleaner more pleasant space to be.

The attic is mostly empty, but I store air conditioners up there off-season, and keep my camping gear up there, along with christmas decorations and the like. I've set aside a corner of the space for my daughters to use as an art studio, though they need a drawing table up there. Maybe a drafting table. I've also hung maps of the world, of the USA and of Massachusetts up there for the girls and me to plan places to visit together. One we checked off last summer was Provincetown. And with some luck, we'll head to Amsterdam next summer.

Getting to the point of this post, I also have my training rollers up there, set up in a riding stall I built while I was redoing everything. It's a great setup that I used "for real" the first time a few weekends ago, and maybe a half dozen times since. The rollers are Minouras that I got for Christmas a few years ago. They're nothing fancy, but they fold for storage and easy transport, and how fancy do they really need to be, anyway? The stall is about 30 inches wide, so it's a good width for rollers. I'm not crowded, but at the same time, it'd be pretty hard for me to get to a point where I fell off the rollers or tipped over far enough to hurt myself. I can actually use the full width of the rollers, and just about brush the wall on each side with my upper arm and shoulder, while riding at the outer edges of the drums. I reinforced the walls at about where my shoulders sit, so as to prevent accidentally busting through the blueboard. The stall is lit from above, and the rollers are sitting on interlocking foam pads. Not at all a bad place to spend some time in. I use the Kestrel, exclusively, up there.

For entertainment, I have an old Denon receiver sitting on a shelf next to the stall, with a pair of Cambridge Soundworks Model Six speakers to either side. The receiver pre-dates iPods and the like, but the CD inputs work just fine with my iPhone or my girls' iPods, so we can all listen to music whenever we're spending time up there.

The rollers are far more interesting than a clamp-in trainer, but because you can fall off, it's generally a good idea to use them in a hallway or doorway or stall like the one I built. The nice thing about rollers is they help you not only with your cadence and having a smooth spin, they also force you to be smooth in how you balance the bike, and give you the ability to play games with placing the bike on the rollers as you ride.

For a smooth spin, I tend to focus on spinning my ankles and feet in circles (vs. focusing on my quads and my leg stroke). A computer with speedometer, odometer ride time and cadence is perhaps not a must-have, but certainly a big plus in terms of getting to a consistent spin and keeping track of my workout. As for bike control, I sometimes lock my eyes onto a point on the maps opposite the stall, sometimes practice ranging from one edge of the drums to the other and back, and other times even try riding with my eyes closed. It's amazing how hard it is to tell what I'm doing by inner ear alone, by the way. Invariably I end up at the right edge of the drums, with my right shoulder up against the wall, when I do that. Don't take that as a recommendation to try riding with eyes closed.

The rollers feel a bit like riding on the road, effort-wise, except that there's really no coasting. Your body's forward momentum (considerable, in my case) doesn't play into anything, so the only thing that keeps the wheels spinning are the comparatively small rotational momentum of the drums and wheels, plus whatever energy you put into the drivetrain. So, stop pedaling and you've got only a couple of seconds to restart, unclip and get a leg down, or otherwise balance yourself.

I've heard rollers are hard on tires, but so far mine don't seem to be too bad that way. I need to replace the tires on the Kestrel in the spring anyway, so burning them out this winter is no big deal. On that subject, I recommend smooth tires, for the sake of vibration and noise -- no heavy treads, and I assume you're smart enough to stay clear of knobbies. Using the rollers (or the floor pump you see in the foreground at right) also terrifies my newly adopted dog, Jake, shown here with Ava. I keep him out of the attic while I ride, rather than risk giving him a heart attack. Fair warning.
In any case, I'm enjoying my riding stall while I can, though there are still no offers on the house, even though last spring it was virtually ladybug- and stink bug-free, courtesy of all the work I did. I won't claim to be a world-class cyclist or roller-user, and honestly I don't understand where people find more than 45 minutes or so to spend on a bike trainer -- a guy I had Thanksgiving dinner with yesterday says he spends hours on his. But I can bang out a 10 mile workout in less than an hour, including time getting dressed, grabbing a towel, filling a water bottle and the like, plus a few minutes at the end with the dumbells. And I expect that as I increase my frequency, fitness and pace, I'll be able to squeeze a few more miles into that hour window.

If I stay, I'm also planning to set up a workstand up there for the handful of bike projects I've got planned for the winter. As always seems to be the case, I've got some setup changes, maintenance updates and one major rebuild to do. More on those another day.

All for now,


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Adventures with Lawn Equipment

I think a guy flipped me off, today.

I was driving my contraption down the strip of grass alongside my road, in front of my house, picking up the last bits of leaves, which I'd blown there with my walk-behind leaf blower, through the slats of my picket fence. Just the remaining scraps, really, and 90% of their shredded remains were being captured inside the box on my trailer. The rest, along with some grass clippings, but surely nothing heavier were being blown out through the slightly bowed-out rear door on the box (an unfortunate shortcoming of the design of the current door, which isn't reinforced along its full height). Possibly miffed that he had to drive his car through some blowing leaf bits, he slowed, extended his arm across his passenger's chest and I think gave me the universally accepted North American symbol of contempt. Or maybe he was just saying "Hello." In fairness, I'm not certain.

But assuming he gave me the bird, it's funny what makes people indignant. This car no doubt travels down the highway at 70-80 mph, with sand, stones, errant bits of hardware and truck tire bits plinking off the paintwork at speed. In that context, are some airborne grass and leaves, driven through at maybe 20 mph, really cause for outrage? I was, after all, vacuuming the leaves up, not blowing them into the road and calling them removed (which would have been obnoxious and deserving of said gesture).

Anyway, no harm done. And in truth, this does highlight one of the shortcomings of my leafer box design -- it's not particularly well sealed. That's one of the things I need to fix for the next time I use it, whenever that proves to be. Here's a list of stuff I should improve upon:
  • Stiffen the rear door. This will be easy -- I just need to run some strapping down the full length of each side of the door, and then put an angle brace on the top to connect it to the strapping already running across the top. This should keep the door from bowing out and letting so many leaf bits escape. And whatever cracks remain should seal pretty quickly with grass and leaves.
  • Better door hinges. The ones I used are flimsy, and I need something stronger, along with a better mounting approach.
  • A better top seal than I've got today. Today I have a length of strapping running along the top of each side panel, and I screw the top panel into the edges of the strapping (an error prone process, given how narrow it is. The top is relatively flimsy and blows up with air pressure. If I relocate the strapping to the top panel as a stiffener along each internal edge, and then mount a 2x3 to the top edge of each side panel, just underneath the relocated strapping, I'll end up with both a stiffer top and a wider screw target for reassembly.
  • Better seals around the top vent and input chute. The T-shirts I'm using work great as seals and dust filters, but I need to sandwich them between layers of strapping to make them a bit tighter.
  • Brackets to hold the truck loader in place on the trailer. I just strap it down, now, and it drifts a bit -- sliding left and right with vibration (mostly right). Not a big deal, but I'd rather it moved around less.

And that's really about it. Otherwise, it's proven to be a pretty effective design (though the word "design" may be a bit grandiose for something that was cobbled together mostly by eye). The tractor needs some love, too:

  • A ring job. Or a new engine. Neither one really makes much sense from a cost-benefit perspective, of course. Oil is much cheaper. But I don't like blowing the stuff up into the sky, and I really don't want to cook the engine on this tractor
  • Some patching of the mower deck. Fiberglass cloth and resin should do it. Though maybe I should buy a welder and learn a new skill?
  • A new transmission brake strap. The one on there is feeble at best. Though I have to say that I didn't otherwise miss the independent brakes from the 430 the past few weekends. The tractor climbed just fine and never lost traction.
  • Repair to the lift. There's something broken in the linkage. Not sure what, but I'm guessing it's a worn or broken pivot bolt.
  • New drag wheels for the deck. I just need a pair of metal mower wheels to replace the ones on there (one of which is nylon and the other of which really belongs on my grill).
  • A new tube in the left rear tire. It loses air in a week's time. I suppose I could Slime it first, to see what that achieves.

Over the holiday weekend, I'll see to some of these things (mostly the box upgrades) before tearing it all apart and stashing the components until next year. Or until I move -- whichever comes first. As I disassemble the leafer, I need to use some care in organizing the contents of my barn. With any luck, I'll be able to fit everything on the main floor. I'm trying to empty the basement out, because if I sell it after snow lands, getting stuff out of the basement then will be much, much harder.

I'll also spend some time working on my little $200, 20" edging mower, assuming the parts I ordered today arrive by then. I've got major surging going on, which some Googling indicated is due to a deteriorated fuel diaphragm. It was a great mower the first season I had it, but it's been useless this year. Parts are on order, including a new oil cap for the leafer.

All for now,


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Last Time?

Getting the leaves off the ground every fall is the one true chore that this house presents. There are lots of smaller jobs that need to be done regularly, yes, but this one is awful by comparison. I've written about this before, but the first couple of years I did it with a rake and a tarp and it took three solid days of effort, spread across two weekends. I'm dead serious -- 24 or so solid hours of raking and dragging. I hated it. And of the 10 years I've been in the house, I've received material assistance only twice. Mechanization has offset the lack of support, though. First with a rented blower, then my own. Then adding my trailer into the mix, towed with my walk-behind, to cart the leaves from parts distant to the woods. Then finally to my contraption and its iterations.

This year, I 've so far run my leafing rig for maybe 8 hours, and gotten most of the work done. Down from 24 hours of raking, I can now get the leaves done in maybe 10 hours, most of which is spent riding my tractor in a standing or seated position, and instead of a disposal problem, the minced leaves (mostly maple) make a nice mulch to spread around erosion-prone areas of the yard.

Today I finished most of what was left. Juliana gave me an hour or so worth of help raking up along the picket fence and in places I can't really take my leafing rig. We made a good team, and she didn't really complain. She raked the dry, top layer out from along the fence, and then I followed behind, scraping the wet, wormy leaves out from underneath. Hard to say how much time she saved me, but it doesn't really matter -- her company alone was welcome. At first, she looked a little uncertain when I started raking after her, cleaning up the wet stuff, so I threw her a thumbs up and told her we made a great team, and she was all smiles after that.

Less than two hours this afternoon with my leafing rig got the space outside of the fenced yard and the back yard most of the way cleaned up. The leaves underneath were still wet, so some stuck to the grass, but they'll dry out overnight and I can get them up tomorrow. I just need to clean up alongside the house, in the garden beds and along the fence (inside, this time) in the front yard. Maybe an hour or so of raking, a bit of time with my blower and then an hour or so of sucking up the results with the rig.

Using my contraption was as much an adventure as it always seems to be. The oil smoke from the tractor is still pretty bad, despite using degunking stuff in the crankcase. And for the second time, the truck loader's engine popped a crankcase plug I'd improvised (Profile handlebar tape plug), blowing maybe a pint of motor oil all over hell and gone. I stole an oil cap from another engine, and that one worked (as designed) to finish the job. But now I need to go buy a new oil cap for the leaf blower, because I need to use it tomorrow.

Assuming I get everything done, that'll mark an even decade of cleaning up the leaves here at my house. Still no offers on the house, and my wife and I are meeting next Friday to talk about progress in settling. One thing we'll talk about is a buy-out figure for the house.

Last time with the leaves, here? Time will tell.

If I have to do it next year, I've got a list of improvements to make to the leafer. More on that tomorrow.

All for now,


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Leafing Rig, the Sequel

So far, so good with the 812.

I spent an hour or so today getting it ready to work as the front end of my leafing rig, then hooked it up and filled a couple of boxes before I ran out of light. To get it ready, I needed to do a handful of things to it:

  • Swap the hitch ball. It was too small, as I guessed it would be, but the mounting hole was sized for automotive hitch balls, rather than proprietary bits like my 430's was. Convenient, to say the least, and the 2" ball I'd had to adapt to the 430 bolted right on.
  • I mounted the Trac-Vac chute to it. The chute is a little banged up from 3 or 4 seasons mounted up to the 430. And it fit the 430's 40" deck better than this one's 50"-er, but I was able to make it work reasonably well.
  • I replaced a drag wheel on the deck. I actually took one from my gas grill, which I'd repaired with lawnmower wheels a few years ago. Home Depot specials, but metal centers, not nylon.
  • I adjusted the mixture screw on the carburetor to lean it out, some. I also dropped the idle speed a bit, because it seemed unnecessarily high.
  • I re-gapped the points, and reinstalled the points cover. That seems to have helped starting. It runs like a champ, actually. The smoke belching out is also just gray, now, so it looks like straight-up oil smoke. Needs new rings, it would seem -- or maybe they're just stuck. If I end up keeping the tractor for next year, I'll have to get that looked at.

Some quick points and impressions of my first couple of hours using it:

  • It's definitely not sissified. The tractor seems to go up hills just as readily as the 430 did, full trailer and all. It's got power aplenty and I don't get the sense that the hydrostatic transmission has a problem transmitting the torque to the ground.
  • The gearing is definitely more usable. It's got a fast reverse, two ranges and four speeds. The top gear is a sort of "road" gear in either range, and it helps me get out of the way much more readily when I have to loop onto the road to turn around (it happens).
  • The brakes stink. The independent axle brakes on the 430 were much more useful than the single transmission brake on the 812.
  • The hitch seems very sturdy, despite my misgivings about its design.
  • The deck seems a bit healthier than the one on my 430, but not radically so. It's wider, though, so I can actually snort up more leaves per pass. The leaves are nice and dry right now, which makes it easier too. If I hang onto it, a new pan might be worthwhile, but I'd need to pull it apart to see how all the pieces are doing, first. This deck, btw, looks exactly like the one that came with my walk-behind. That one had a spindle go bad, and I replaced it 5-6 years ago with a brand new Gravely 50" deck -- one of the last available after they stopped making them. The pan was in better shape than this one, and it had new drag wheels and other new parts on it. This is not the first day I've regretted discarding it, rather than keeping it around for parts.
  • The shape of this seat does not facilitate riding around with my girls, unfortunately.

Tomorrow I'm going to get back out there to make a bit more progress. I have Ava for the day, so we'll see what her appetite is for helping. First, I'll need to go over to the auto parts store to get a quart of oil, a container of Marvel Mystery Oil, and a new spark plug. I'll also get a container of some engine degunking stuff to mix with the oil in the hopes that its problem with smoking has more to do with stuck rings than worn cylinder walls. If that fails, mabe dump a little kerosene into the cylinder and let it leak down into the oil for a few days before having the engine pulled apart for new rings.

The plug is for the truck loader's engine. I broke the insulator off the old one yanking the wire off. It doesn't have a kill switch, you see. So I have to pull the plug wire, which is more comfortably done with a stick (or the handle of a rake, in this case) than a gloved hand -- less zapping involved that way, but unfortunately a bit more breakage of plugs.

And before I climb on, I'm going to grease up the spindles on the mower deck, as well. Anything with a grease fitting or cup, for that matter. I'm hoping I've learned my lesson re: lubricating stuff!

A lesson I already know is that I need to use a little restraint, here. I've already dreamed up a half dozen things I could do to it to improve it. But now is really not the time...

All for now,


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Gravely 812 Tractor

I mentioned the Gravely 812 that I just bought. At first glance, it looks much like the 430 I traded in for it, but mechanically it is substantially different.

There have been several distinct generations of "real" Gravely riders, plus a couple of dead evolutionary branches. Just a few words about the ones that seem most relevant, here. The first Gravely rider was a very pragmatic response from a smallish industrial company watching its market for small farming equipment disappear and the market for large residential and commercial mowers emerge. It was really more of a camouflaged Model L walk-behind tractor and sulky combination (complete with center articulation) than a rider in the tractor/car/go-cart sense. From what I can tell, few of these were made, and fewer still survive. I think it was called the Suburban or something like that. It was clever, but not what the market needed.

The second generation Gravely rider was the 400 series, of which my 430 was part. This was essentially a 500-series walk behind tractor transmission (itself an evolution of the L gearbox design), bolted into the back end of a tractor, with elaborate and stiff linkages to relocate control levers from a handlebar position to a panel between the operator's knees. The number designated an engine spec. A 424, for example, was a 12-hp Kohler. The 430 was an Onan 12. There were others, too.

Again, the 400 series was a very practical response from Gravely to the new market -- they took what they had and repurposed it, but this time in a more conventional and compelling way. The result was not particularly refined, but quite effective, in my experience. The big bronze drive gear and independent brakes pretty much made my 430 unstoppable, even when towing heavy loads of leaves around the yard -- a great choice for leafing duty in that regard. The rear tires pretty much churned away no matter the load (no belts or fluid drive to slip, and I never had a clutch give out), and if tire traction was low (say, on wet grass), I could lightly apply the appropriate rear brake for the slipping wheel, just like an ABS-based traction control system, forcing the differential to put the torque to the other wheel, which might have better traction. A little fancy footwork and it always made it up. You'll have to grant me just slightly slower response times than an ABS controller.

Anyway, it was a great tractor, and a complete beast, but the engine was let down by a bum fuel pump and a lax owner/operator, and it needs a heart transplant, now. The guy I traded it to seemed interested in slapping a Kohler on the back to replace the Onan, and selling it back to me. And maybe I'll need it back at some point. I'm actually pretty pleased that it went to the guy it did, in the manner it did. He's a guy who finds old tractors, fixes them up for short money, then sells them. With a new Delco starter solenoid, a new right axle seal, a new throttle cable and a replacement engine (which he's in a good position to find), it could readily serve someone else perfectly well. And he could make some money in the process. For my part, I got $50 off the 812 for it, and it's out of my way. All in all, something I'm content with.

But in the mean time I'm eager to figure out this new-fangled 812 model, which is a third-generation Gravely rider, and probably only 30 years or so old, vs. more like 40 for my 430. The 800 series looks all the world like a 400 series until you lift the engine cover (to which the seat bolts) and notice the entirely different gearbox sitting there. This one is a 4-speed hydrostatic transmission that I really don't know much about, other than that when you have one fool pushing a dead 400 and another fool pushing a dead 800, the fool that drew the hydrostatic transmission will easily win that race.

I really need to get out and about on this "new" 812 to see how it works, but here's what I'm hoping for:

  1. That the gearing will offer greater flexibility for picking up leaves than the 430 offered. With the 430, I had to essentially crawl around the yard in low range and high gear, spinning the blades at high speed but moving at a walking pace, to give the mower and sucker combo enough time to actually pick up all the leaves that passed under the deck each lap.
  2. That the rear hitch will be strong enough to support the trailer tongue. It looks stout, but overleveraged and undersupported. I doubt the ball that's on there is a 2", so need to check that out, too.
  3. That the transmission will be sufficiently oxen-like to pull the trailer up hills, and that the shift to a hydro didn't sissify the whole thing
  4. That the lack of independent/steering brakes won't be a problem when it comes to slick grassy hills
  5. That the whole thing will hold up long enough to do what I need it to this year with the leaves

Time will tell.

In the mean time, though, I got it running. And with a few words of wisdom and reassurance from the tractor's seller, I learned probably enough about small engine ignition systems to be dangerous. It's not what you'd call an easy starter. And neither is it what you'd call smokeless. But it runs, and if I can get the ignition points gap set a little more precisely (can't find my gap gauge), I'm sure both will improve.

Ignition points are essentially a little switch that tell the coil when to fire the spark plug, and for how long. The points gap is important because it essentially determines the precise ignition timing. Since the switch is opened and closed by the camshaft, a tighter gap will close earlier and stay closed longer than a wider gap, meaning the spark will come earlier in the ignition stroke and last longer. But too narrow a gap will make for too long a spark, and you can cook the points. I think mine are slightly wide right now, so the spark is essentially too late and short. Even so, it runs.

To get it working, I pulled off and reattached the connector to the ignition switch, installed a complete tune-up kit (points and gasket, condenser and plug -- I think I mentioned this last week), fiddled with the trigger wire from the points to the coil, messed with the choke, and ultimately resorted to starter fluid, once I had a spark. Making it run well should be relatively simple. Hopefully.

More as I learn more about how this generation of Gravely rider delivers the goods.

All for now,


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Big Weekend

Big weekend. Lots of changes.
  1. I swapped out my Gravely 430 with a blown engine for a Gravely 812 rider that currently won't start. It might be the ignition switch, grounding it out. Not sure. But it's a nicer machine than the one I had. At least I hope it will be, once it's running. I spent a bunch of time today both on the swapping logistics and trying to get it to run. I replaced the points, changed the condenser, changed the plug, and even swapped over the coil -- no joy. Will try the switch tomorrow.
  2. A good friend of mine moved to Amsterdam, and she'll probably be gone for a couple of years. So I helped her move her stuff into storage on Friday, then she spent about 24 hours experiencing my weekend-with-the-girls whirlwind. Dinner out Friday night. 8:30 soccer on Saturday morning. Trash. Laundry. Bake a cake. Clean the hamster cage. House showing. Soccer 2. Frost the cake. Carve Jack-o-lanterns. Hand the kids off to my wife for trick or treating, then off to the airport. It was fun to share. But crazy. The cake is fantastic. Hershey's recipe -- the best I've found, and I did a good job with this particular one.
  3. We adopted a Keeshond. Actually he is my aforementioned friend's, and while she's gone, we're going to take care of him. He's a good boy -- settling right in. The girls got to show him off at soccer, yesterday, and he was quite the draw. He's very fluffy, so it's understandable. I will be vacuuming every other day, I think, which is good anyway -- should help Juli's allergies.
  4. My broker (my mother) hosted an open house today. There's one couple that's apparently pretty interested, so we'll see what happens, there.
  5. I made a pot of black bean chili with a blend of sirloin tips and ground beef. I also used beer, a dried chili that I grew in my garden this summer, a sweet red bell pepper, a sweet onion, a bunch of different spices (notably some chipotle powder), and I even added some molasses to play around a bit. Tastes a bit like catsup/ketchup/catchup as a consequence of the last. But it's good. And there's no ketchup in it -- honest.

Anyway, a big weekend.

Not much going on with respect to bikes, though. I need to start making time in the mornings for the rollers.

All for now,


Sunday, October 25, 2009

What to do with a rusty old bike?

I've had a few minutes to look over the Columbia Speedliner my sister brought up to me from the auction of the family homestead. In the daylight, I mean. It's very complete, and with the exception of the front wheel (which has a different rim and tire on it than the rear), looks completely original.

Unfortunately, as you can see, it's also almost entirely rusty. The paint (which may once have been cream) is mostly gone, replaced by a light coating of rust over the whole frame and all bodywork and accessories. The chrome is all pretty much gone, too, from the handlebars, stem, cranks, rims and crash rail on the saddle. The whole thing looks as though it was ridden for a little while, crashed into something, fixed, and then put away for a very long time in a place offering protection from rain, but from not other forms of seasonal moisture. Too bad, really. The frame design has the same features I thought were cool on my Columbia -- the U-shaped seatstays and chainstay, the wishbone connectors to the bottom bracket and seat tube, and the integral kickstand.

But the question is what to do with it. On the one hand, it's pretty much complete. So for someone looking for a bike to dip in an acid tank and fully restore, this might be a decent choice. Except it's a Columbia, not a Schwinn. And it's a ladies' frame, not a men's. So I doubt seriously that it has any collector interest, given its condition.

I've had a few thoughts. First, throw it up on Craig's List and see if anything pops up. And second, cannibalize it for parts for my own Columbia, then FreeCycle it. It has a few parts of interest, after all.

For one, it has that two-speed Bendix rear hub with the handlebar cable shifter. I need to have a set of wheels built up for my own Columbia, and though I have a set of Suntour hubs ready and waiting, there's nothing that says I couldn't also get this coaster-brake 2-speed hub working again and built into my rear wheel. The shift linkage and shifter are frozen up, but the hub turns, and I'm sure I could rebuild it. And if I took that path, I wouldn't have to worry about setting up the Columbia's frame for a rear brake. And I wouldn't have a single speed, but rather a pair of gears to choose from. On the other hand, I'd probably have to work just as hard up hills as with a single speed, given the drag introduced by a coaster brake.

Then there's the kickstand. I haven't seen any others like the one I need for my Columbia, and here one presents itself. Even though this one is pretty rusty, it could be sanded, primed and then painted or even just twined and shellacked to present an interesting detail. There's a chance it wouldn't work in my bike's mount, but I should be able to check that out without too much difficulty.

The fork would also more authentically replace the fork my bike is currently in need of. Ditto the headset. Ditto the bottom bracket. But I want a front brake, and this fork wouldn't provide a solution for that. Plus it would still need to be sanded, primed and painted. Ditto the fenders. Ditto the chain guard. Ditto the mousetrap rear rack.

Cannibalize, restore or sell. What to do with a rusty old bike? If you have any opinions, I'm all ears. But I'm leaning towards cannibalization.

All for now,


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Another Columbia

As I understand things, my branch of the Ellsworth family has been in New England since the mid-1600's, starting with a land grant of a tract of farmland outside of Hartford. A lot of family history has unfolded for the Ellsworths outside of Hartford in the past 350 years, as you might expect.

A chapter of that history came to a close last weekend, with an auction. My great aunt will be the last Ellsworth to live in the farmhouse that has been at the center of the past couple of hundred years' worth of our family. Much of the land had already been sold off to pay for the care of her brother, before he died, and last weekend, much of the home's furnishings were sold at auction in a precursor to the sale of the property itself. This to pay for her own elderly care.

My younger sister went down to the auction, and called me excitedly about a Columbia that was for bid. She apparently went to town buying stuff, and filled Michael's truck with stuff of questionable value, sentimental or otherwise. My dad ended up having to haul the bike back my way. It was waiting for me tonight on the porch.

It's a mixte/ladies'-framed Columbia Speedliner from the mid-1950's, according to an ad I found:
It has a 2-speed Bendix rear hub shifted by what looks like a brake lever, rather than the kick-back two-speed Bendix hubs that some Schwinns used to have. This allows it to retain "positive foot braking". It should coast beatifully, according to the ad. And only 40 lbs!

It is complete with fenders, chainguard, a rear rack, and a dilapidated wooden child seat. The saddle has a crash rail on it, and it has a kickstand that looks like it'd work in my frame -- ah-ha! To that point, the frame is actually very similar to my Columbia in design, but lacking the second top tube (and in a mixte style, of course). Same wishbone seat and chain stays, and probably the same of most everything else. But I don't think it's retained any of its original paint, and very little of its chrome. It is probably a total loss, honestly. But it was won for a buck, so at least it was priced right.

I'll post a picture later. For now, it's taking up space in my barn, continuing its slow journey back to the iron ore from whence it sprang. I need to figure out what to do with it, at some point.

All for now,


Monday, October 19, 2009

Fall Cleaning

As mentioned I would last week, I've started selling off some of my Gravely 2-wheel tractor implements. I've posted four things to Craig's List, and have had one bite so far. Failing a sale, each will go onto eBay, next:

One (1) highly dangerous Gravely open-reel two-stage snowblower:
This thing is just crazy. It was my dad's when I was a kid, though he gave up on snowblowing sometime in my teens, and hired a plow guy instead. It looks like it was intended to consume small animals, just as much as throw snow. Not something you want to be messing around with near the business end. It absolutely devours snow, even icy stuff pushed into snowbanks and left to harden for weeks on end. This comes with a spare reel, which I picked up as a package with the rotary plow, below.

One (1) far less dangerous but still beastly Gravely quick hitch snowblower:
This one was my most recent acquisition. It's not as dangerous as the first, because you can adjust the chute remotely and it has side cutters rather than open sides. It's a lot wider than the first one, so it takes more power to run through deep snow. But in a normal snowfall, the extra width makes quick work of the driveway. The nice thing about this one, too, is it is very easy to get onto and off the tractor. The downsides are that the chute's remote lever is stiff and finicky, and that it doesn't feel securely mounted to the tractor. This one I bought from eBay several seasons ago. I'm keeping one much like it that's not a quick-hitch model and slightly narrower.

One (1) entirely unconventional Gravely rotary plow tilling/trenching device:
I bought this maybe 5 years ago and used it three seasons. It looks awfully funny, but it excels at destroying a patch of lawn to create a new garden bed. And it does a decent job of creating rows/hills as well. In that sense it's perfect for a serious gardener/small farmer with an acre or so to plow and hill. It's probably overkill for a home garden though. If the dirt shield isn't set right, it'll occasionally chuck rocks at your head as it works -- I always managed to duck, but a hockey goalie's mask might be a good accompaniment to this one. I have a spare gearbox for it and I think some other stuff as well. I'd planned to make a spreader for it, but that was in another life.

One (1) aftermarket angling plow blade:
This is not a Gravely part, and that shows, in that there's not a whit of cast iron on the thing. But it's a clever design that looks like it'd do the trick in terms of plowing walking paths through snow. It came on a tractor that I bought for parts out in the Hudson River Valley, and which I sold a year ago. I've never used it, but I bet it could be disassembled, sandblasted, painted, maybe updated with some replacement hardware, and serve someone well.

And once the leaves are up, the 430 tractor will be sold off as well. It's doing bang-up job on the leaves this season, as always -- blown engine or not.

All for now,


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Leaves and Tractors

Just a quick post today, as I'm off to San Francisco in a few hours to Oracle OpenWorld. Normally a trip I'd be looking forward to, as it's one of my favorite cities. But I'll be going out alone, this time, and in this case, the trip is also eating up time that feels scarce on several fronts -- time with the house, time with the girls, and time with a good friend who is moving away.

The girls and I did have a good day yesterday, at least. After Ava's soccer game, the three of us went to Tougas Farm in Northborough, MA, to pick some apples and find some good pumpkins. We filled two peck-sized bags. I largely stuck with softball-sized Cortland (and I'm totally serious about their size, btw) and smaller MacIntosh varieties, while Juli and Ava pretty much sprinted between rows grabbing whatever sounded interesting. We'll be in apples for weeks! We made out well from a pumpkin perspective as well. I got a good pie pumpkin and each of the girls has a Jack-o-lantern pumpkin, too, that we can carve in a couple of weeks, then set out on the porch.

In any case, leaves and tractors. Yesterday I finished assembling my leafing contraption. I'd gotten the box built a week ago, and installed the truck loader onto the front of the trailer yesterday. I filled the old Gravely 430 with the blown engine with gas (and oil), did the same with the truck loader, and they both fired up right away. Well, I first had to figure out that the fuel petcock on the truck loader was off, but it was fine after that.

The girls were outstanding stick collectors while I was finishing up the rig, and each of them took several laps around the yard on the tractor with me (in earplugs). I managed to get the grass cut and leaves vacuumed in the back yard and out along the road and driveway, which is a good start. Next weekend I'll have to mow along the fence to get the leaves and grass away from it, then do the whole yard.

The nice thing about this setup is that in 2-3 hours, I can clean up the whole property, save for flower beds. I just repeat the process every weekend once the leaves start to drop, until they've finished and the leaves are all in a pile.

Previously, I'd brought the leaves to our local transfer station, but starting last year, I've been using them to mulch my garden beds, mulch around trees, and to offset erosion at the edges of my leaching field. The worms are happy, and since nearly all of my trees are maples, the composting leaves are not chemically offensive to other plants. Not that I can tell, at any rate.

The rig is working well, or about as well as it always does. The stovepipe pulled apart yesterday, so I'll need to put it back together then tape it up again. And the tractor has a blown engine and a leaky main seal, so it really needs to be replaced at some point soon. But the replacement engine I installed on the vacuum for last season is running great, and apart from having to lube up the throttle/governor linkage yesterday, it's required no maintenance at all.

Once I get the leaves up, I'm going to start offloading some old Gravely equipment. I have two Gravely snowblower attachments that I'm not going to keep (don't ask why I have two extra snowblower implements). I have a home-made plow blade that I'll either scrap at the metal pile at the transfer station or send off as a freebie with one of the snowblowers. There's a rotary hoe that is a fine rototiller, but not likely something I'll need or use at my next home. And then there's the 430 tractor. I tried to Craigslist it last season to no avail, so I think I'm going to eBay it this time. I paid $430 for it, and assuming it survives this season, will have gotten I think 4 seasons out of it. I really don't expect to or need to get any money for it, but it would be a shame to just scrap it.

I'll hold onto the truck loader and other leafing rig components just in case I'll need them for my next home ownership experience, whether that's a year or more away. I'll also be keeping my extremely reliable Gravely walk-behind tractor, though it's been leaking a bit this season as well. Also not going up for sale are a snowblower attachment and the 50" deck that I bought new maybe 5 or 6 years ago. I can always shed these later, if I don't end up needing them at my next place.

All for now,


Sunday, October 4, 2009


It's almost leafing season, and today I'm procrastinating building up my leafing rig by blogging instead of doing that work. In truth, I don't really have time to get the rig built today anyway. I'll say more about that later, but first, I wanted to share a bit about my plans for the Columbia.

I mentioned last week that I've got sort of a vision for the straight bar heavyweight cruiser I bought over the summer, then promptly crashed. I should start by saying that this bike will never be more than a clunker. I'm not going to blast it down to bare metal and get it resprayed or otherwise restored. The vision is to make it a functional, fun utility bike. Something good for tooling around town on, picking up ice cream, milk, pizza or beer.

The bike is comprised of a solid frame, a decent set of cruiser wheels and tires, a too-short seatpost, an old sprung leather saddle, a set of kids' size cruiser handlebars and grips, a one-piece crankset, a junky set of pedals, a junk headset and a bent fork. It functioned before I crashed it, but it was an $80 bike, so it functioned about that well.

So what's the plan? Start by replacing stuff that won't work with stuff that will work, then add racks and baskets to round out the package as a utility bike. Simple. And, I've started collecting stuff to that end.

I have a replacement fork for it. It's a 1"-steerer version of the black Tange fork I put on the Paramount last winter. It's a crazy-strong mountain bike fork with cast dropouts and fat Prestige-tubing legs. It has cantilever bosses to accept a front brake, which also gives me two points from which to mount a front cantilever rack. The steerer is plenty long, and I'll leave some extra length to allow for plenty of bar height with a regular road stem.

I have a new Tioga BMX headset for it. I'll have to put it together with an old top nut from a road bike (the OEM top nut from my wife's Bianchi) so a road stem can pass through into the steerer. A BMX headset has a top nut sized for a smaller inside diameter steerer and stem, but swapping the top nut is an easy fix when using a fork with a non-BMX 1" threaded steerer.

I have a pair of racks for it. These are the two aluminum racks that were once on the Paramount when it was set up as a commuter. Front cantilever rack (cheap Nashbar unit), and a rear Blackburn rack sized for 26" wheels. I'll have to sort out the forward/top mount for the rear rack, since there are no rack braze-ons, but that shouldn't be hard.

I have a set of beefy Sun rims in 36-hole with Schraeder drilling, and a set of 36-hole SR hubs ready to be built into a set of wheels. I also have a single-speed freewheel.

I have a cantilever brakeset for it. These are old Dia-Compe wide-profile cantis that should offer plenty of bite. There's no way to mount the rears, but the fronts will be fine. I'm going to give some thought to a rear brake. Not sure how to pull that off given the frame's configuration, but I'd like the added stopping power. One option is to take the bike to a frame builder and have a set of braze-ons added, but that sort of violates the "no paint" tenet I spelled out above. Maybe someday.

On the Paramount today are a set of pedals that will be transferred over to this bike. The Paramount will get back its SPD-style Look pedals.

Still needed are a stem, a set of Nitto Albatross bars in CrMo, a longer seatpost and a nice pair of brake levers. I'm contemplating buying a second set of those pannier baskets I put on Juliana's bike, and maybe another Wald basket (a deep one) for the front rack. I also need to think about the crankset. The one on there is functional, but there are a couple of options to consider, there. First, I could pop in an MRP crank adapter and put on a 3-piece crankset with a nice, little chainring to give me plenty of power and not much speed. I'd probably save a pound or two in the process. Or, I could install a smaller front chainring and tolerate the heavy and battered one-piece crank (repacked, of course). I'll also need a new single-speed chain.

The current bars, stem, seatpost and wheelset will all go on eBay, and I need to start listing stuff pretty soon, actually. The crank may as well -- will have to see. I'll reuse the saddle, tires and tubes that are on there now. The result should be a fun and funky around-town utility bike, and the project should keep me busy, once I've gotten the leaves up and other outdoor activity starts to dry up.

All of this sort of assumes that I'll have space, time and money in my next life to keep this bicycling hobby/habit rolling. Today a "For Sale" sign went up in front of my house, and the first open house will be held later today -- in less than an hour as I post this. There are appointments to see the place next week, and with any luck, we'll get some decent offers quickly. It's a pretty house, inside and out. It has beautiful light and a lot of character and interesting details. It's a house to be proud of. I've enjoyed my time as its custodian, and I'm proud to be leaving it in better shape than when I arrived, just over a decade ago. But not just anyone wants an antique home, and the sale may take some time.

I'm ready to move on, and am looking forward to exploring my new path -- however it unfolds from here. I'll probably be shedding a lot of stuff as I leave the old path behind, and that's probably a healthy thing. But with luck, I won't have to leave any of the bikes at the curb, so to speak. Even this old bruiser Columbia that still needs so much work.

All for now,


Saturday, September 26, 2009


"Dad," Juliana asked, "can I play with your iPhone?"
"No", I responded. I was in the middle of trading IM's with a friend, after all.
"Living in the wilderness is hard" was the flat reply. Not a trace of emotion or sarcasm in her voice.

This was last Saturday night, just after she'd downed a S'more, sitting around the campfire after dinner. The tent was up, the Dinty Moore Beef Stew was down, and the fire was keeping us warm, now that the sun had retreated from the day's beautifully clear sky. The three of us had driven up to Tully Lake Campground that afternoon, set up our campsite then gone off to explore a bit before settling in for the evening.

Tully Lake is the campground I'd ridden to last year on my Schwinn, but this year I drove, and without bikes, at that. Nighttime temperatures were forecast to be frosty, and I didn't relish the idea of riding cold the next morning before packing up. Instead we brought our sneakers and hiked for entertainment. Turned out to be just as much fun anyway, and I didn't risk denting my car's roof with the gooseneck of the trailer bike, like I'd done when we took the bikes down to the Cape.

We started by heading up to Doane's Falls just outside the campground. There are several distinct falls and natural sluiceways where Lawrence Brook makes its way down an insanely steep little hill into Tully Lake. Tully Lake itself was created by the Tully Dam, a flood control dam built just after World War 2 out in Royalston, MA. Just as an aside, the top photo was shot from the top of the dam overlooking the lake.
Anyway, back to the falls. They've apparently been the site of several mills over the years, though none stands today. There are two obvious building foundations along the brook, and someone who knows what they're doing could probably identify other such sites. There's a trail that follows the falls and whether you're supposed to or not, there are a bunch of places to get close to the edge of the rocks overlooking the falls for a better look.

I have to say it's a bit nerve-wracking to hike with little kids in those conditions. The brook isn't a raging river, but it moves along fast enough at this point to wash someone away, especially someone small. Plus it's all rocks at this point -- no sandy bottom to break one's fall.

Neither of my girls has much experience in the woods, and Juli in particular tends to gallop along rather than moving with any degree of care. That's why we have a picket fence at the house, actually -- to keep her from running blindly into our busy street. She did a fair amount of stumbling and tripping along the path, as a result, but I don't think she ever fell. Ava is generally more cautious and seemed more open to my suggestions/requests to slow down and plant each foot with at least awareness, if not deliberation.

In any case, it's a pretty area and a good introduction to camping to the girls. You can park reasonably close to the sites, but the sites themselves are either right on the lake shore or in wooded patches that are nicely isolated from other sites.

The weather gave us only one challenge -- cold. I have a +35 bag, and the girls have Disney Princess bags that have no identifiable rating on them. We borrowed a friend's 4 person dome tent, which kept the condensation nicely at bay -- much better than my own tent (which is at least 30 years old, and acquired as points award from I think a Cub Scout fundraiser). It's time for an upgrade.

The girls slept on the Thermarests I picked up for backpacking at the Grand Canyon a dozen or more years ago, in clothes, in their bags and under fleece blankets. I slept on a poofier ground pad (getting too old for a Thermarest), in clothes in my bag, and then later in a fleece sweatshirt. I was awakened no less than 6 times in the night by Ava, who wanted me to stop snoring ("Daddy, stop doing that!" "Doing what?" "Making that noise!") or to change the batteries in a dimming flashlight (one was left on at all times) or to fix her blankets. We all slept cold, and I rebuilt the campfire the next morning to warm our bones. The frost was thick and clumpy on my car when we made our way up to fetch our breakfast and hit the bathrooms.

After breakfast, we took a guided hike around the campground, then made our own way back to the falls for a bit, and then over to the little recreation area for a game of horseshoes and to exercise the playground equipment over by the dam. All in all, a good 24 hour camping trip.

The only equipment-related challenge we had was my stove. I had a Camping Gaz campstove (note the past tense, there). It was an impressively compact and hot unit I bought probably 12 years ago for the aforementioned trip out west. I had also bought a large Camping Gaz propane/butane canister for it, because I figured it would make a more stable platform for cooking than the smaller one. Problem is, the flame burns so hot that unless you're cooking constantly with it, you just don't use much gas, so I had that same canister for 12 years, and it was still well over half full. With age, the seal on the canister's valve wasn't so good. Some gas escaped around the seal, causing some flaming down by the valve, which in turn melted the attachment point on the stove. Scratch one Camping Gaz stove.

I used it outside to boil a Caphalon spaghetti pot full of pasta the other day (which it did just as quickly as my Thermador range), let it burn for a few hours to try to burn the gas off, and then dropped it at the propane tank area of our recycling center yesterday. So in addition to a bigger and better tent, I need a new stove. Next time I'm going with a Trangia set (burner, stove and cookware). REI has a mini-set and Rivendell carries two larger sets that look like they'll trap the burner heat really well. Based on my experience with the Gaz setup, I really don't need what amounts to a blowtorch to cook with, and I like the idea of little refillable alcohol burners rather than tanks that become a disposal question later. Plus I keep denatured alcohol around for shellac, so I'll consolidate those two supplies into one.

I'd like to return with the girls for a similar trip next year, and this time maybe work in the bikes. Speaking of which, I've got a plan and have been gathering parts for the Columbia, and will share more about my goals for that bike next time.

All for now,


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Wald Baskets

Lately, I've been trying to make my bikes useful.

Bikes are already useful, of course -- for exercise, sightseeing, family fun, sport, and with bags and trailers, they can even carry cargo and stuff. But I've had this sort of fantasy, I suppose you'd call it, of being able to commute by bike or do a lot more shopping and stuff by bike. It's a fantasy because I live in Southborough and work in Lowell, which is a long way away, and because the closest supermarkets are either a very dangerous 5 miles away by bike or a less dangerous 7 miles away. Not insurmountable, but not five blocks south and two west, either. Short of the fantasy, I'd like at least some of my fleet to be able to schlep stuff around readily for when the opportunity arises.

I've got bags of various sizes on all of my bikes, and racks of various types on a couple of them (and more to come). Bags and racks make it easy to carry a snack or jacket, or lash something down to bring it with you. Oh -- to the snack thing: I've found that bananas tend to liquefy in handlebar bags. In the skin, so it's not messy -- but not appetizing either. Anyway, I've even got shopping bag panniers, and those are pretty useful for lugging stuff around or doing actual shopping. But they're not very rigid and won't carry heavy stuff very well.

When I was on vacation with the kids on the Cape this past summer, I was impressed with how handy Juliana's little white plastic handlebar basket was for beach duty, so a month or two back, I bought a Wald basket from Rivendell. It's the smaller of the two they sell. And it has pretty much sat around, since, while I figured out what to do with it. I don't have a sufficiently substantial front rack on any of my bikes to hold it, and the drop bars on all of my road bikes are narrow enough that I wasn't fond of the idea of mounting it up front.

The little Specialites TA rack on my front Mafac brake is teeny and really limited to steadying my front bag hanging from my Velo-Orange decaleur, or perhaps carrying a small box of Munchkins back from Dunkin Donuts. The saddle bag support on the Motobecane is not suitable for a basket, really -- just for holding up a saddle bag. One larger than the one currently on the bike, at that.

So that really leaves the rear Velo-Orange rack on the Schwinn as a likely perch -- at least until I rack-up the Columbia or Paramount. But today I got home from a Saturday at the office and figured I'd cable-tie it to the Schwinn and see how it looked. Looks fine, as it turns out, and should be out of the way of the gooseneck on the trailer bike, too (the concern for which is what kept me from just lashing it on here in the first place).

I'm not the only one in the family who needs to carry stuff on their bike, either. On my two most recent rides with the girls, Juli had a skateboard lashed to the modified Pletscher rack on her Fuji, and my handlebar bag was full of her body armor. Riding in pads isn't convenient, and the skateboard hung way off the back of her rack like a set of wheelie bars on a dragster -- it looked pretty silly. So I told her a week or so ago that I'd find a set of baskets for her Fuji. Which I did, as you can see, and they're now mounted to her bike.

As you can see, they're these neat pannier baskets with a lightly arched inner side. They came with all this crazy hardware designed for mounting them to either steel balloon-tire cruiser fenders or the rear supports of a banana seat. After a quick look-over this stuff, I gently put it back in its bag so as not to disturb the past, and proceeded to mount the baskets with a single Nitto band clamp wrapped around the frame of the Pletscher. Then I cable-tied each basket to several other points on the rack or its struts, mostly for added stability -- the clamp is really where the strength is -- however much that is. The mousetrap on the top of the Pletscher is unaffected by the baskets and is still an option for holding stuff down. The arched sides stand a little proud of the rack top, though, so they might get in the way of something wide and flat going up there. I think these look great, and I might get another set for myself.

When the girls were dropped off at the house today, I sent Juli out to the barn to take a look. She gave me an A+ on the job (I'm so proud). Her skateboard will fit just fine on one side and her pads in the other, though a bungee net is probably called for to keep everything in place. I'll pick up a pair at some point -- one for each of us.

In both cases (mine and hers, that is), the baskets appear to be uncoated steel wire, though they may be galvanized. I'll give them a light coating of car wax every once in a while to protect them and they shouldn't rust. Of course I don't expect them to last forever, especially Juli's -- kids are hard on their gear in this stretch.

Incidentally, Wald is a company that has made stuff for bicycles for over 100 years. If you go up on eBay and search on Wald Baskets, you'll find an amazing variety of new and old styles of baskets for bicycles -- sexy (if there is such a thing) and modern quick-release ones, and simple old-fashioned ones like the one I bought from Rivendell. Their website is also a good source of info for the stuff in current production, of course, but eBay seems more fun, somehow. They're still making bicycle components in Kentucky today -- a true rarity these days.

This post, by the way, marks my one year anniversary of blogging and of Bronze Gears. I'm enjoying sharing and hopefully my visitors are getting some value from what I've posted here.

All for now,


Monday, September 7, 2009

White Hole

I've discovered a new spatial phenomenon. It's similar to a black hole -- you know... collapsed star, all this matter compressed into this little teeny space, super gravity, light can't escape, etc. Well, a white hole is the same thing, except it's time that can't escape. Oh, and it's my house, not a collapsed star.

(Actually, there really is a white hole in astrophysics -- at least hypothetically. And the definition is a lot different than mine above. But I've already made up a new word in French on this blog, so let's just ignore that for now.)

I've noted before that my house consumes an astonishing amount of time, and that's never been more true than in the past month. Literally every weekend since my last post (four weeks ago) has been consumed with mostly housework. Plus many nights in between. I've been going like hell getting the place ready for listing.

The outside is now (professionally) painted, and much of the inside too. One room downstairs has been completely recolored. Most of the trim downstairs has been repainted, the upstairs and downstairs hall walls have been repainted in a lighter shade than they were, and in general, the place just looks fantastic. All I have left to do is to paint some grit-laden paint on the stairs to the basement, paint the front stair balusters (that'll be fun) and finish spackling and painting the ceiling in the downstairs front hall. A few more hours worth of work is all that's left and it's done.

By the way, there are 5 posts on the front porch, as you can see. Four of them were made by me (the one just to the left of the front door was made by the previous owner -- the rest are mine), along with a similar but shorter pair on the Kitchen porch. I wrote about starting one post here. As you can see (far left in the picture) it's done, and with the help of a friend, I put it in place earlier this summer. The old one broke into three pieces as we took it out, even though it looked mostly fine on the surface until last fall. Houses are exciting that way. Especially old ones.

The real question is what's next. I have a good feel for what the place is worth, and I could start over somewhere else with the cash I'd take out of the place. But I'm struggling with letting go of it. It's not just a nice and unique old house, it's been my home for the better part of the last a decade (notwithstanding the 9 months I was in Framingham). And it's essentially been a the source of a lifestyle -- making it mine and keeping it in shape has been a labor of love, a source of pride and a constant challenge to the skills I brought to the table when I moved in. It's a white hole, yes, devouring time like nobody's business. But's it's mine, and I'd like to hang onto it if I can. Not at the expense of everything else, mind you -- only if I can make it work.

Anyway, as I've been doing all of this work, I've stil managed to get some biking in. Last week I had my kids for a few days before the first day of school, and we got out for 14 miles or so. Juli strapped her stakeboard to her Pletscher rack, and we went over to her school's playground, stopping first for lunch at the local pizza place. Then this weekend I've logged two 24-mile days on my two older road bikes followed by a shorter ride today with the girls.

Riding them back to back I was struck by how different they are. The Schwinn is better sorted than the Motobecane, and it feels like a more modern bike, even though it's older. The brakes feel better, the shifters pull more cable and are more responsive, and the bike is more stable. It's also much stiffer in the frame than the Motobecane, which feels willowy by comparison. If I watch the big ring for deflection as I crank up hills, there's little to no flex in the Schwinn, where the Motobecane's big ring flexes a couple of millimeters left to right as I pedal. So the lower part of the main triangle is much stiffer on the Schwinn than the Motobecane. The trade-off, though, is that even with a Brooks Professional (vs. the wider B-17 on the Schwinn) and narrower tires, the ride quality of the Motobecane is sooooooo much more supple -- it's really a lovely bike. Anyway, it's fun having a bunch of bikes and experiencing their differences back and forth, back-to-back.

In terms of projects, I've been playing mostly with accessories the past few weeks, having bought a handful of Wald baskets (one for my use, and two for Juli's Fuji for schlepping her board and pads around). I'm still working out the installation of those, but I'm looking forward to having some carrying capacity. I also picked up a couple of new bags from Rivendell, and have been gathering parts to fix the front end of the Columbia. I have a fork, a headset, and a set of hubs. I still need a front brake cable hanger and a new stem and bars for it. Optionally, I need a new seatpost.

The short-term plan is to install the fork with the appropriate spacing on the steerer tube to handle a set of front brakes. Then replace the bars with adult-sized bars, and the stem with 22.2 stem to match the new fork. I'll have to cobble the headset together a bit, using a top nut that I have leftover from my wife's Bianchi project (the original steel top nut), but that's not hard.

And then when I'm ready to put a cantilever brake on the front (and I have a cool one to put on -- an old Dia-Compe) I'll need to figure out what to do about wheels. My thinking is to have a coaster brake setup with its fat tires, and a second set of wheels with a front canti brake only. I could mix it up I suppose, too. Easy enough to figure out. When the time comes, I'll get the hubs I picked up (SR suntour threaded hubs and a single speed freewheel) built up with some silver 26" rims and that'll be that.

That project may drag into the winter though. Fall is fast approaching (it was 50 degrees this morning), and that means that I've got only 4-5 more weeks before I have to start dealing with leaves and it's already time to think about taking the gardens down and putting all the vines into the compost pile. Whatever happens with staying or selling, I've got at least one more autumn here, and it's generally a lot of work.

All for now,


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Columbia Straight Bar Clunker

Today I took my kids to the Larz Anderson museum for a bike swap meet -- my second such excursion this year.

It was a short morning, but a good one. We met a friend of mine and her dog, and they joined us for a walk around the grounds and to look at the bikes and parts for sale. It was fun to watch the girls today -- they were looking forward to the bike show, but getting time with a dog (they really want a dog) was an unexpected bonus. He seemed to draw as much of a crowd as any of the bikes, especially with kids.

About halfway around the grounds, I saw an old straight-bar cruiser hanging on a rack. It was very much what I'd been thinking of when I wrote about picking up a Schwinn Cruiser a few weeks ago -- sort of halfway through the rework process. The bike had at one point been a Columbia De Luxe, but was wearing a modern fork and was missing all of its bodywork -- stripped to its essence. It wasn't a fancy bike (no complex construction techniques, here), but still an interesting design worthy of appreciation. In sum, it's a clunker. But the frame is very cool and I'm looking forward to tearing it apart and rebuilding everything. And for $80, it was perfect. There was actually a very similar Columbia there that wasn't rolling, but was more complete from a bodywork perspective. I skipped that one, but it's nice to know there are others out there, from a parts perspective. Schwinns appear to be growing on trees on eBay, but Columbias (made here in Massachusetts) not so much.

The frame has a very elegant design that makes me wonder why Schwinn ended up dominating the US bicycle market. The answer is probably that Schwinn built a better marketing and sales machine back in the day, but from a product perspective, the Columbia's frame is much more interesting to look at than contemporary Schwinns. For example, the top tube sweeps past the seat tube to intersect the seat stays in sort of a wishbone, rather than terminating at the seat tube. And the seat stays and chainstays are each formed from a single piece of tubing bent into a long U-shape. Also, there's a short tube running from the bottom bracket to the chainstays that's bisected by another tube that forms the kickstand mount. In any case, roughness aside, it's pretty cool to look at.

The parts on the bike appear to be a random mix of stuff, and it's hard to tell what, if anything, is original. The seatpost was turned upside down in the seat post to accommodate a sprung leather saddle and its clamp, which was made for a larger-diameter than the tapered end of the Columbia's post. The twin-rail sprung leather saddle is old and pretty cracked, but in usable condition. It's marked Dunelt, which as far as I know was a bike brand, not a saddle, so it may be an OEM Wrights or Brooks. The wheels are in decent shape. There's a Bendix coaster-brake rear hub and wide chrome rims in not too-terrible condition. I don't think they're S7 rims, which is probably a good thing. The headset is a generic chrome BMX piece, and the fork is a generic cantilever-brake BMX/MTB fork (with no installed brakes). The stem looks like a chrome Schwinn piece, or a knock-off. And the chrome bars look like kids cruiser bars. Blue grips and too narrow, but a nice bend. A bit of peppering in the chrome, but not awful. There's a generic 4-leaf clover chainring on the 1-piece crankset, and a set of metal-framed Wald pedals with rubber grips overlays (they're not rubber block pedals, in other words). There is no kickstand in that mount, unfortunately, but I'll look for one.

Mechanically, it works reasonably well. The bottom bracket and headset were recently repacked, and are oozing their share of fresh grease. And there's an obviously recent and generous application of oil on the chain, sprockets and pedals to quiet things down. Even so, there's a tick in the crank, and the coaster brake has a bit of a crunchiness to it as well. Both of which I can take care of during a teardown/rebuild.

Which I'll definitely have to do, because (as you can see) this afternoon I crashed headlong into a pallet full of cinderblocks, wrecking the junk fork. Seems you have to get used to having the right pedal position to adequately brake a coaster-brake bike. I remember reading something like that on Sheldon's website not too long ago. Should have paid more attention.

I wasn't hurt at all -- I wasn't going all that fast, and I stayed in the saddle, even. The poofy front tire served nicely as an airbag, and as I said, the fork crumpled, absorbing more of the impact. The legs bent back at the crown, and it's now scrap. The frame itself seems no worse for wear -- didn't see any signs of bending behind the head tube, probably because of the dual top tubes (and if it really didn't bend, that strength gives me a new appreciation for why the Rivendell Bombadil MTB was designed the way it was). I haven't checked the front wheel for damage, but am hopeful it didn't get all out of round on me -- I really don't want to spring for new wheels right now (though I may need to do that to support a front brake anyway).

So I now have another bike project, just when I was fresh out. This one will be equal parts cleanup, leather care and mechanical rebuild. There's another swap meet coming up in the next couple of weeks, and I already have a short parts list for it -- stem, seatpost, chainring, and most improbably, a Columbia kickstand. Should be fun figuring this one out!

All for now,


Saturday, August 1, 2009

Dedicated Time

Focus is a good thing.

And given that Juliana has a way of sponging up all of the attention that anyone present might have to offer, Ava doesn't get as much focus as her sister. From me, from my wife, from my parents -- anyone really. It's one of those things that's there in plain sight, that you want to do something about, but is very hard to address whenever both girls are present.

So we split them up this weekend -- yesterday I had Ava, and today my wife does. And vise-versa for Juli. It's amazing how much more I got out of Ava yesterday than I usually do. She's a sweet, adorable and playful little girl. And she's not as quiet one-on-one as she is when Juli is around -- not by a long shot.

Yesterday was a good day. I picked her up at 9:00 from her mother's apartment, and took her back to the house. We ran a couple of errands and I made a couple of phone calls relating to selling the place, then got the Schwinn Sports Tourer down from the barn ceiling and hooked up her trailer bike. I also pulled out my Nashbar shopping panniers and put them onto the Velo-Orange rack on the Schwinn, then loaded them up with pool stuff -- towels, sunscreen, flip-flops, noodle float, etc. The pool, you see, was the first item on the schedule Ava spelled out for us. Riding over was my idea.

The ride to the pool is just under 5 miles, and it's pretty flat. Even so, I was reminded of how noisy the Mafac front brake, in particular, became when I replaced the machined-sidewall rims with the polished alloy wheelset that came on the Motobecane. Not sure what I need to do there, besides try to wear the rims in a little and toe in the pads. But it's pretty loud and annoying, honestly.

After spending so much time on the Motobecane, switching to the Schwinn was interesting. The cockpit feels much more compact than the Motobecane, for some reason. I should do some measuring to see what the difference really is. And the ride quality is good, but the frame is not nearly as supple as the French bike's. The plump tires do a nice job of smoothing things out, though. The steering is fine, but I think I need to give the headset a little snugging-down. Also, I need to make some tweaks to the front derailleur, as it seems to rub a lot. Maybe the cage is just narrower than I'm used to.

On the ride over, Ava spent pretty much the whole ride talking and sharing what she was observing in the world around us. I noticed this much more than when I'm riding with the two of them, because though Juli is on her own bike, I'm spending as much time coaching and watching her -- helping to keep her safe -- as I am listening to Ava. Maybe more.

The pool was fun, but I got my iPhone pretty wet on the way back to the changing room, when a water botle with an open top leaked a third of its contents into the same bag my iPhone was in. I shook it out pretty good, but couldn't turn it off for several hours (it was stuck in a wierd loop). I'm hoping for the best, there; it's sitting in a ziploc bag with a bunch of rice (serving as a dessicant) down in the kitchen, and with any luck that'll do it. Or, Juli and I may be at the Apple store later today.

Wet phone aside, I have to say that shopping panniers are a pretty useful thing. They're out of the way, low and on the back of the bike, and they hold a good amount of stuff. If I had a job closer to home, I swear I could spend summers nearly car-free for most of my running around and commuting. Wire shopping baskets to hold reusable shopping bags would probably be even more useful, with a higher weight limit.

The ride back was fun, other than the noodle float uncurling a couple of times and popping out of the bag. And it was longer, because of all the stopping to fix the cargo, plus we detoured through a couple of neighborhoods where there are homes for sale. Nothing new to look at in the "non-money pit" and "5-year house" categories, but I'm trying to warm the girls up for a move. Juli is farther along than Ava on that score -- Ava just doesn't like talking about it, where Juli asks questions.

After cleaning up, our afternoon included a sushi lunch, an afternoon showing of "G-Force" the Disney movie centered around rodent commandos (which as was well done from a CGI perspective as Transformers or others like it, but also no less tedious from a story or dialogue perspective). Before dinner, Ava asked me to dance with her -- a curious blend of gymnastics and ballet, it turned out -- to music on her iPod. No, 5-year-olds don't need iPods, but they're good for certain situations. Like when my iPhone is sitting in a bag with uncooked white rice, for example. Her clip-on Shuffle sits in a bowl on the kitchen table most of the time.

Throughout the day, I was really struck by how much Ava just wanted to engage. She normally sort of hangs back, watching. I've even talked about that before up here. And I'd assumed that was just how she preferred things (I, myself am quiet that way in large social groups). But my sense now is that there's a dynamic at work that's triggered by the force of her sister's personality, which isn't good. But being aware means we can compensate and respond.

I have both girls together next weekend. We're going to ride, hit the pool, work on some house stuff together (siding the grain room on the barn) and head to the Lars Anderson Museum for a bike show on Sunday. I'm looking forward to all of it -- even if it's not quite as focused.

All for now,


Thursday, July 23, 2009


My girls and I took a week away from camp and work and getting the house in shape, and spent it at a house borrowed from a friend of my parents on Cape Cod. It was a short week (M-F), but it was still a lot of fun to be at the beach and away from our normal routine. And I managed to keep most of the work stuff at bay for the week. Most of it.

Apart from spending time at the beach (which Juli is drawn to; Ava not so much because she's a little afraid of waves), we drove up to Provincetown, read, ate greasy food at the house and at seafood places, and rode our bikes. I even bought a new carrier for my Thule bars so I could bring down Juli's mountain bike, my Paramount and the trailer bike for Ava, while also schlepping food, clothes, bedding and beach stuff needed for three people for 5 days in my little Mazda.

The bikes came in handy for getting to the beach, and Juli's little plastic handlebar basket was invaluable for carrying a pair of rolled-up beach towels. Enough so that I'm thinking about picking up a couple of Wald wire baskets to cable-tie to the various racks on our bikes when we need them. We also took a couple of longer rides - one around 5 miles and one just over 14.

The 14-miler was mostly on the Cape Cod Rail Trail, which starts in South Dennis, about two miles from the house we borrowed, which was in Dennis Port. And it was on that ride that I was reminded of how important praise is to kids. Well, people in general, when they do something well. But kids get a lot of negative feedback from adults -- particularly kids like Juliana who have strong wills and short attention spans -- and it's important to highlight for them what they're doing well.

At the head of the CCRT,we passed a youngish couple with their new baby about to set out on a ride. The parents were both trim and athletic and had nice bikes. Their baby was riding in a handlebar-mounted seat on Dad's bike, which I thought was both cool and a little scary, having always kept my kids low and in a Burly trailer when taking them out as infants and young toddlers. Anyway, we saw them, they saw us, and off we went, leaving just ahead of them. We kept up about a 16mph pace when we were rolling.

If you do the math, you can see we did about 5 miles each way on the trail. Just a little past the first rotary in Harwich. Probably half a dozen street crossings each way, and a couple quick stops for water breaks. During one of our water stops, the other threesome passed us, and we quickly overtook them shortly thereafter. I didn't hear this directly, but at around our halfway point, Juli told me that as she passed the group (Juli was at the tail of our procession most of the ride) the man remarked to his partner, "That kid can ride!" as she cruised past on her little 20" Performance mountain bike. Which, of course, she can.

My response at the time was to the effect that she is a strong rider, yes, and that it was neat that someone else had noticed. But of course I ride with Juli all the time, and I've spent the past few years coaching her with choosing gears and keeping up a spin -- I take Juli's riding strength as a given. It wasn't until later in the ride that the impact really sank in.

When we got back to the trail head, that litle family had beaten us back, having turned around a bit sooner than we had, and/or not dallied at the rotary on the way back like we did. We bumped into the dad as he walked from Barbara's Bike Shop back to the parking lot of the rail trail. He and I gave each other a "Hey" as we passed, but he made a point of telling Juli she is a really good rider. She was obviously proud, and it stayed with her for the next couple of days.

Juli is a wonderful girl, but in some ways she's a tough kid to parent. Bright, eloquent, strong-willed, artistic and always turning over what she can create. She's still working out how to get along well with others, and she's quirky enough not to fit in with many of the other children, particularly other girls. Her self esteem has suffered from the social challenges at school, from power struggles (strong willed, remember) at home and at school, and from the collapse of my marriage. She's having a tough run right now.

That other rider offered Juli genuine, unsolicited praise. Praise I've also offered, but in this case unencumbered by a parental relationship. I don't know if she will remember all of this in a year or five years, but I can say that in the moment it made her realize she's good at something. For a little girl struggling to find her place, it meant a lot.

And for that simple act -- of kindness, of enthusiasm, and of respect -- he has my gratitude.

All for now,


Saturday, July 18, 2009

Friendly Folks

Just a quick note. Last week on my second pass through my new loop, I encountered a fellow Motobecane owner and enthusiast. I'm more of a bike enthusiast in general, really, but I do really like the Motobecane a lot. More than my Schwinn, honestly, though that's a prettier bike.

Anyway, I was riding with a friend, and we were passed by a car carrying said enthusiast and her family. They pulled into their driveway not too far ahead of us, and as we passed, she called out. My ears are junk, so I turned around to see what was up, and in the process knocked my front fender askew for perhaps the tenth time that morning (the toe overlap when pedaling from the arches now showing its dark side). After several attempts to understand her from a distance, I finally gleaned that she was saying "Nice Motobecane!"

I stopped in front of her house to chat and to fix my fender. Turns out she has a handful of similar Motobecanes. We talked a bit about the fork replacement and the bikes in general, and she mentioned wanting to unload a blue 25" model she has tucked away somewhere. I left my contact info and hope that I'll hear from her at some point. I don't really need another bike, but mine is a 24" and it's just a smidge small in the seat tube for me, so a 25" wouldn't be a bad thing, either.

Anyway, it was a fun encounter and it came just a week after my ride and post about the Motobecane not getting any respect. Scratch that -- it would seem the bike just needs the right people around to respect it.

All for now,