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Science Friction

My Techno-geek post last Monday was intended to be a tongue in cheek humorous piece; I didn’t mean to cause friction, or a shift in attitude.

However, it did draw a surprising number of comments, both for and against. Many of them raising some interesting and valid points.

Some brought up the safety issue. You can argue after the fact that having the gear levers on the handlebars is safer, but that is not why this type of shifting was developed. It came about because the MTB market brought people into cycling who did not know how to operate a friction shift.

A mountain bike is one that anyone can jump on and ride, but a road bike, even with all the modern amenities still requires a degree of skill to ride. If for no other reason than it goes faster, and handles quicker.

One comment asked if I had noticed how many new cyclists are on the road; I will agree this is a good thing. However, this also means there is a lot of inexperienced riders out there, and it is inexperience that causes riders to touch wheels and fall, not that they are riding one handed.

When I started cycling in the early 1950s, we reached down between our legs to operate the front derailleur. I never heard of anyone falling while doing this, it was no more difficult than reaching down for a water bottle. Yet these type of derailleurs are now known as suicide shifters.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating we should go back to this type of equipment. However it seems we now live in an age where half the cycling population is hooked on single speed, fixed gear, and the other half swears by 10 speed, index shifting.

Surely, there is room in this mix for a few people like me, who have ridden with down-tube, friction shifting all our lives, and six gears is enough. When the supply of the old stuff runs out, I will have no choice but to switch, and I will do so before giving up riding. (I may even find I like it.)

The computer age has meant that products go from the design stage to actual product on the shelf in a far shorter time; robotics take over manufacture. There becomes less and less human involvement, and something is lost.

Frames were once built by craftsmen like myself and others, and there is a part of me in every frame I built. I also rode bikes and raced on them and learned a great deal along the way, a slow gathering of knowledge over many years.

Today with large corporations building bikes, there is not the same gathering of knowledge. Equipment is developed, and almost immediately becomes obsolete. Knowledge gathered is forgotten as they move on. Engineers who are not necessarily riders design bikes, and design is for the benefit of the manufacturer, not the consumer.

Richard Sachs said it best when he stated, “The threadless steerer was an answer to a problem that didn’t exist.”

The old style quill stem (Left.) worked fine, it was elegant and easy to adjust up and down. Now it is obsolete, not because it didn’t work, but because forks with threadless steering columns are easier to mass produce.

The quill stem was replaced with something ugly, in my opinion, and far from easy to adjust for height; sometimes you need to buy a whole new fork.

When I said, “Techno-geeks, keep your hands off my bike,” I was not putting down progress, but saying don’t discard everything good that has gone before.

When I said a mountain bike is easier to ride than a road bike I meant easier to ride on the road. I keep forgetting there are people who actually ride them off road; my apologies.


Saddle Height

When it comes to bike fit everyone is looking for a magic formula. There isn’t one, because there are so many variables in the human body.

This doesn’t mean that formulas are of no use. As long as we accept their limitations, they can often be a good place to start.

An extensive study on bicycle design was done at Loughborough University (Pronounced Luff-boro.) in England in the mid 1970s. Part of their report stated that saddle height, measured from the pedal surface to the top of the saddle, was equal to 109% of a rider’s inside leg measurement.

The way they arrived at this 109% was by measuring the inside leg of a large number cyclists, and at the same time measured the height of their saddles. 109% was the average; in reality, most of the cyclists measured would have been above or below this percentage. This is the nature of averages.

The 109% is a place to start; the saddle height for most people is going to be slightly up or down from this. I like the idea of a percentage because the longer a rider’s legs, their saddle is going proportionately higher. This means a greater distance from the saddle to the handlebars, (Drop.) which is what the larger rider needs.

Inside leg measurement is something that causes confusion; in America, (Always trying to abbreviate the English language.) it is referred to as “inseam.” People become confused with pant size which is not surprising because pants have a seam, legs do not.

I have also heard talk of “Pubic bone height.” (PBH) The pubic bone is part of the skeleton and I don’t see how you can measure its height without x-rays. I always measured inside leg from the perineum to the floor, without shoes.

The perineum in simple non medical terms is the fleshy part that is in contact with the saddle. I usually say, “Crotch to floor without shoes,” but I am trying to eliminate all confusion here.

The way I would measure someone was first have the customer pull their pants up tight into their crotch to get an accurate measurement. Place the end of a steel tape measure firmly against the perineum, and measure down the inside of one leg to the floor.

If you are not sure of your inside leg measurement, the most accurate way is to have someone measure you in the way I have just described.

Let’s use for example an inside leg of 33 inches. If you don’t have a metric tape measure, it is 33 x 2.54 = 84 cm. (Rounded to the nearest centimeter.)

84 x 109% = 91.5 cm. Remember this is the measurement from the pedal surface in its lowest position to the top of the saddle.

Deduct the crank length so you can measure from the center of the bottom bracket, which is easier. 175 cranks are in mm. so deduct 17.5 cm. from 91.5 = 74 cm. (See picture, left.)

I realize the distance to the pedal face is less than the crank length, but remember this is only a starting place. The saddle height will still need adjustment by actual riding experimentation.

The reason everyone with a 33 inch inside leg will not have the same saddle height is partly because of different shoe sizes. (Foot length.) A rider’s toe is pointing downwards at the bottom of a pedal stroke, a person with a longer foot needs the saddle higher, and vice versa for small feet.

Other factors effecting saddle height are the width of the rider’s pelvic bones, the width of the saddle, and whether the saddle is firm or soft.

Take a test ride, and if you can’t tell if the saddle is too high, or too low, raise it ¼ inch (6 mm.) and try again. It is easier to tell if a saddle is too high, rather than if it is too low. It is best to start on the high side and work down.

If the saddle is too high you will feel like you are stretching at the bottom of the pedal stroke, in extreme cases you will be rocking from side to side on the saddle. Come down a ¼ inch.

To pedal efficiently, legs need to move straight up and down like two pistons. The hip joint, like all joints, has a limit to its upper movement. To demonstrate this to yourself, stand in a doorway and support yourself, while lifting one knee as high as you can and hold it there with the other hand.

This is the upper limit to your hip movement. The only way you can make you knee go higher is to swing your upper leg outward, and your knee will then go another inch or so higher.

When pedaling, you do not want your legs splaying outwards at the top of each stroke; this is not an efficient way to pedal. If this is happening, your saddle is too low, too far back, or a combination of the two.

Leaning forward restricts your hip movement still further. Sit on the bike, leaning against a wall or a vehicle for support. In your lowest tuck position, see if you can lift your foot above the pedal when it is at the top of its stroke. In other words, you do not want to be at the absolute limit of your hip joint’s movement at the top of each pedal stroke.

Once you have your saddle set right, ride it for at least two weeks to become used to it. Then you can experiment by raising it small amounts 1/8 inch. (3 mm.) at a time. Ask yourself, “Does this feel better, or worse?”

Often raising the saddle slightly will immediately make you feel more powerful in your pedal stroke, and stronger while climbing. As the season progresses, you gain fitness, you loose fat from your backside, and muscles stretch, the saddle may need to go up again.


Truth in Fiction

When I started writing Prodigal Child in July of 2001, I had the option of writing my biography or a work of fiction.

I chose the latter because I felt it would have a wider audience; the life of a framebuilder would limit potential readers to bicycle enthusiasts.

At the time I was not even sure that bicycle enthusiasts would want to read about my life. Only a few years earlier, I had been abandoned by previously loyal customers for a new love, namely the mountain bike. I felt like a deserted spouse and in such times there is doubt and mistrust.

People who read Prodigal Child invariably ask me, “Is this your life?” The story, written in the first person, does read like a biography. I usually answer that the book is fiction, but that a lot of my life is in there.

There are obvious parallels with the book’s main character’s life and my own. His name, Eddie Conner, was chosen because my first name is Edward; I have always been known by my second name, David. The last name, Conner, I picked because it is a fairly common Irish name. My father was Irish as is Eddie’s father in the book, although the real name, Moulton, is an English name.

I suspect at some point my father’s ancestors migrated from England to Ireland, which would explain why his family were of the protestant faith in a predominantly catholic country. I have written here on this bike blog about my relationship with my father. It is of little surprise that Eddie Conner and his father have a similar relationship.

I am an ex-bicycle framebuilder, turned writer and songwriter. Eddie Conner is a songwriter, turned artist and metal sculptor. He also migrated to the US and lived in Southern California, as I did. Aside from these obvious parallels, what else is true?

I will probably never write my biography because much of it would sound an awful lot like Prodigal Child. Apart from that statement, it serves no purpose for me to say more. In the first chapter of the book Eddie Conner struggles in an interview with a magazine, because there are certain aspects of his life he would rather not reveal. I am no different.

A year or so ago, James Frey, wrote a book, purporting to be his biography. It was called “A million little pieces.” He was fortunate enough to get on the Oprah Winfrey show and his book became a best seller. It later proved to be a million little lies, a work of fiction.

There is probably more truth in my work of fiction than in Frey’s book. How much truth? That is for the reader to decide. Most authors draw from real life experiences when writing fiction; it also makes for more entertaining reading. If something sounds true, maybe it is true or maybe it is just skilled fiction writing.

By saying up front that my book is fiction I am not cheating anyone. It is a story worth reading; it is entertaining. Much of the story takes place during the early 1960s; an exciting era in Britain’s history as the music scene unfolded. I grew up in England during this period, so I write from first hand experience. The story also has a non-religious spiritual message.

A reviewer wrote:

“Who among us is not our own worst enemy? Which of us does not wish for a second chance? Which of us does not have an inner artist trying to break free? Prodigal Child is a satisfying and charming read because it deals convincingly with these very personal, yet universal, issues.”

Fellow bike blogger, Ed over at Cycledog, has just read and reviewed the book. has the book discounted. If you would like a signed copy, go to my profile on this blog and email me. If you would like a preview before you buy, the first four chapters are posted on my website.


Techno-geeks: Please leave my bike alone

Have you noticed how simplest things in life have become high tech when they don’t really need to? For example the paper towel dispensers in the restrooms at work, and in bars and restaurants.

What was wrong with just pulling on the paper, or operating a simple lever at the side? Every one of these new devices is different, so you stand there like an idiot with your hands dripping wet, trying to figure out where the “electronic eye” is.

Is it on the front, is it underneath; shouldn’t there be a little red light somewhere? You wave your hands all around this abominable black plastic box, which even looks like a piece of high tech equipment. Like a microwave oven or a CD player more than a simple towel dispenser.

Invariably someone will come to your rescue making you feel like a total retard. (That used to be a politically incorrect term, but no one ever uses it to refer to a mentally challenged person anymore, it is only used when referring the type of person who can’t operate a stupid paper towel dispenser.)

Why make the simple things in life high tech, when there is no good reason other than we can? Or because we have the technology. The makers of these “Black Box” towel dispensers will argue that by eliminating the handle, they eliminate a source of germs that could re-contaminate our clean hands.

Now wait a minute; every person using the towel dispenser has clean hands; they have just washed them. That’s why they need a paper towel. And, anyway after sterilizing our hands thoroughly, we grab the filthy door handle as we leave.

Why do we need electric can openers? One of the times we really need a can opener is during an emergency when the power is out.

Now the techno-geeks, always searching for more simple devices to make complicated are turning their attention to the bicycle, and toying with the idea of electronic gear shifting.

To be honest, I never got over index shifting in the late 1980s. At the time, the European cycling community scoffed at the idea, and so did Campagnolo. This was tantamount to a violinist needing marks on the neck of the fiddle to show where to place your fingers.

Of course, the engineers at Shimano knew better. They knew that in America there were people who actually did not know how to operate a friction shift lever. Maybe they had great foresight and could see this same nation of people, in the future, would not be able to operate a paper towel dispenser.

I always felt that index shifting was developed to cater to the “instant gratification” element. Nothing that requires a degree of skill, gives instant gratification. Muffing gear changes on a hill is no fun, but then neither is learning to play a musical instrument. However, the rewards are far greater once you master the skill. The satisfaction of doing something other people cannot, for a start.

In the case of indexed shifting, Shimano proved to be right, and Campagnolo spent years playing catch up. I will agree that indexed shifting has developed into something that is useful to all cyclists, including the pros. No one wants to go back to friction shifting, except old farts purists like me.

However, now there is talk about automatic shifting on a bicycle linked to a bicycle computer that will measure your heart rate and will automatically shift down when it senses you are trying too hard. Rather like the automatic transmission on a car.

Isn’t this taking the fun out of cycling? In the same way automatic transmissions took the fun out of driving. Cars used to be stick shift, with a clutch, and it took a certain amount of skill to drive one. Have you ever noticed that car adds on TV show people driving at speed, having fun, and shifting a stick shift? When in reality there are few such transmissions.

This is one of the main problems with car driving today; it has become so easy that people drive their car like they are sitting on their living room sofa. Eating, drinking, and talking on the phone. No one takes pride in being a good driver anymore. Would people be drinking coffee, and talking on the phone if they were driving a stick shift?

Will electronic shifting on a bike catch on? What about the weight-weenie? Batteries are heavy. How about this idea; an electronic eye on your handle bar stem. When your head is down and you are trying, it stays in a big gear, but when you sit up, it shifts down. I just hope it works better than the paper towel dispenser does.


Womankind: You can save Mankind

Everyone knows the benefits of commuting to work or school on a bicycle. It saves money, the exercise is good for you, zero carbon emissions, cuts down on congestion, etc, etc. However, getting people to do it on a large scale in the US is a completely different story.

I recently came across a delightful blog called “Copenhagen girls on bikes.” It's about the bicycle culture in Copenhagen, Denmark, where 35% of the population, 550,000 people ride their bike to work or school each day. Bicycles are an integral part of their culture.

Mikael and Aaron, the two guys behind the blog, state, “Perhaps we can inspire people in other countries to commute by bicycle or lobby for better bike conditions in their cities by providing a portrait of a city that lives and breathes bikes.”

A recent article in the New York Observer talked about a trend in that city of attractive women riding bicycles everywhere wearing skirts, dresses, and high heels.

One of the obstacles in getting people to ride bikes is that it is perceived as dangerous. The only reason it becomes dangerous is that drivers of cars and other vehicles are not aware of bicycles, and they just don’t see the bike rider. However, the more cyclists on the road the more visible they become.

If you are a lady on a bike, with your dress and hair flowing in the wind, you are probably the most visible person out there. What gentleman would object to slowing briefly before passing you with caution? What lady driver would not envy you?

Riding a bicycle you will burn 32 calories per mile. So a modest five mile trip, to work or shopping, and back home again will deplete you of 320 calories. That is a whopping 1,600 calories a five day week. Imagine how hard it would be to cut that amount from your diet; it is almost like not eating for a whole day. Plus you are toning your muscles and doing your heart and lungs a great service.

How do you ride a bike in high heels? I have not tried it, but actually I imagine it works fine, because you pedal with the sole of your shoe, not the heel. And when you come to a stop your toe is already extended downwards towards the road. Kind of like a built in kick stand. (See left.)

Ladies, if you do decide to ride, please follow the rules of the road. Don’t ride against the traffic flow. I don’t care what you were taught as a child, this is a highly dangerous practice.

Riding with the traffic, if it is not safe for a car to pass, they can at least slow and wait until it is safe. Riding towards traffic a driver suddenly comes upon you, often without warning. They can do nothing except put you, or themselves and others in danger.

Drivers merging onto a street are looking in the direction the traffic is coming from, and not expecting to find someone coming the wrong way.

Do not ride on the sidewalk; it is against the law, you are a danger to pedestrians. You also put yourself in grave danger at every road intersection you cross.

I would also advise against talking on a cell phone while riding. Your contemporaries in Copenhagen have the luxury of being in a city where people are aware of bikes, this is America and you need to be cautious and aware of other road users at all times.

In Copenhagen there are over 500,000 bicycles on the streets on any given day. That means almost that number less cars; imagine what an impact a fraction of that would have on the congestion in any American city. In addition, with this many bikes on the streets, how can drivers not be aware, and drive cautiously? This many bicycles make the streets a safer place for everyone.

If more bikes means greater safety, it also means more fun. A thirty something girl bike commuter from London, UK wrote in her “London Cycling Diary.”

“The highlight of my day, was cycling the length of Kensington High Street with a group of fellow cyclists. We were all strangers, but all of equal ability and we journeyed together for about a mile-and-a-half, taking up an entire lane and watching out for each other. We were traveling at the same speed as the motorized traffic and it felt good.”

The bicycle was one of the ways that women expressed their independence during the women’s suffrage movement in the late 1800s, early 1900s. Maybe it is time for the women of America to lead the way again. I gaurantee, men will follow.