Favorite Repairs of 2019

Chain is too long and wrong

2019 is dead and the new year is here. Before I put tool to bike in 2020 allow me to reflect on what (if anything) I learned from that first year of wrenching full time. In no particular order or preference here are some of the standout repairs.

Rance is listed first because he was our first customer. He is a busy guy who works two jobs and rides everywhere. The first bike he brought me was a fat bike with two seized mechanical disc brakes, a freewheel that couldn’t be removed and a rear wheel with ½” of play in the hub. I made his bike work and didn’t charge him a ton of money. He has since moved from the neighborhood but he still brings in his bikes and recommends me to others.

Julie is our neighbor next door. She brought in her bike for a tune-up, two tires, a bike computer, a light and a lock. As I did the work her tab was adding up and I was worried she would have sticker shock. Nope. Supporting a local business is what she wanted to do, and she insisted on paying full price for the tune-up (we had been running a Grand Opening special). I put a lot of effort into making a bike work right and when it leaves my only hope is that it gets ridden. This fall, after our first newsletter was published, Julie stopped back in to see how our business was doing and report back on how much fun she was having riding her bike.

Worn brake pad

Please apologize to your rotor.

Jonathan rides more real and virtual miles than anyone I know. Because I like working on bikes that get ridden, he is a great customer to have. His Felt was cursed with a crappy rear hub and he commissioned a wheel build. The twist: he wanted me to reuse the rim (so it matched the front). Building a wheel changes the rim in radial and lateral true and because of that reusing a rim for a new build is usually inadvisable. (Never ever reuse spokes and nipples.) But it all worked out and he’s happy. Jonathan also has the distinction of the most worn brake pads I’ve ever seen.

Mark is a recent transplant to the neighborhood. He had a mid 1980s Miyata that had been parked for awhile. The bike had a lot of good memories and he wanted to make some new ones. We embarked on a custom build that brought the bike into the 21st century with integrated shifting, an external bearing bottom bracket, wide cross section rims and baller Continental GP 5000 tires. He stopped by this fall to thank us for being here, and we thanked him for getting involved in bike advocacy.

Ovalized head tube

The headtube post facing and reaming. The bare metal shows where tube was ovalized.

Bob had a (sweet!) 2012 Salsa Vaya and he wanted to lighten the bike and improve its braking. His challenge was finding an affordable carbon disc fork for a 1 ⅛” steerer. I happened to have one. Simple fork and headset swap, right? Wrong. (Pro tip: don’t ride with a loose headset. If you can turn those spacers under your stem or if you feel a clunk from the front end, get that headset adjusted. The alternative may be an ovalized headtube.) I got Bob squared away and it was a win for me because sooner or later I had to use those expensive cutting tools.

Juan. I forget what bikes he owns. We just talk politics, urban planning, and religion. I do remember one bike he doesn’t own: a kid riding home from his shift at McDonald’s hit the curb next to Juan’s house and did a superman onto the lawn. While the rider recovered in the hospital Juan brought his bike to me for fixing. Later he brought us a squash that he grew.

Tyler owns a gorgeous purple 2017 Salsa Fargo that had bad shifting and way too much tire. The former owner had stuffed a 29” x 3.0” tire into a frame meant for something smaller. The remedy was a new wheelset with a narrower rim and 2.6” tire — which I happily built. Shrinking the tire allowed the rear wheel to be moved forward in the frame which, in turn, solved the shifting problem that had been vexing me. Tyler had exquisite taste in bikes and beer.

repairing a battery

My old man soldering a battery connector.

E-bike conversion trifecta: an Amazon-sourced trike, a recumbent, and a Cannondale Cujo were all given the gift of electricity. I didn’t hate working on one of these bikes — can you guess which? I can joke about them now but at the time I wasn’t laughing. Findings: 1) it is possible to electrify a trike on a budget; 2) a 750w motor generates A LOT of torque and it will shred a standard fork’s dropouts; 3) the only thing more frightening than riding a 2 wheel recumbent in traffic is doing it with a 750w motor slung on the front; 4) Bafang makes a damn fine mid-drive retrofit and has excellent customer service; and 5) no one knows shit about repairing these e-systems… except for my old man (see above photo). To our e-bike pioneers: I salute you guys and thank you for the opportunity to gain this knowledge.

Matt rides everywhere, all the time. He has a Trek fat bike and a Bamboo fixed gear. His bikes needed a lot of work. These are the service notes from one:

Pedals bearings/bushing were exhausted (replace pedals); chain and cassette were worn and not shifting properly (replaced both and installed new derailleur cable and 5mm housing); ultrasonic cleaning of derailleur and crank; rear brake pads were exhausted (replaced and cleaned rotor); rear caliper and rotor were misaligned (reset caliper pistons, cleaned mount/adaptor hardware, flushed caliper body with steam); removed and resurfaced front brakes pads; cleaned front rotor and realigned rotor and caliper; checked headset preload and stem bolt torque; cleaned frame/fork/wheels; adjusted rear derailleur; and inflated tires to ~ 20 psi.

Matt picked up his bikes and a few days later he chased down and tackled a bike thief to get one of them back. Matt brought the bike back to us to make it right. With a new derailleur hanger he was back in business. Have many happy miles, man, and see you next year.

Nick happened by on one of those days in late fall which was a gift — 70 degrees and sunny. He had with him a beautiful black Lemond Washoe with Dura Ace Di2 (9020). I charged the battery, updated the firmware, adjusted the derailleurs, and inflated the tires. Turns out that at one point he even worked with Lemond. This interaction checked all the boxes: Di2 bike (nice to have some variety after all those Diamondbacks), cool customer, and Lemond — hero — content.

Tall Nick came into our shop one day with a fixed gear that looked like he made it himself (he did). I de-tensioned and rebuilt both wheels on that bike. That was a time-consuming but simple task compared to pressing a Cane Creek EC40 into that frame. It was the hardest metal I have ever cut and then there’s the truly terrifying thing: removing metal from a handbuilt frame. Yeah, no backsies on that. 

Catherine had a late 90s Bianchi road bike and she wanted a more comfortable riding position. Rather than steering her towards a new bike we kept her beautiful Bianchi on the road by swapping her drop bars for straight bars and her STI levers for thumb shifters and brake levers. Because her drivetrain was 2×7 sourcing shifters that would work with her derailleurs was tricky — the selection was limited, many were out of stock, and I was working within a budget. The solution was to use a triple shifter with cable slack to get the correct about of pull. 

Updating the awning

My personal favorite repair: removing the pawn shop lettering from our awning.

Ryan’s custom asymmetrical wheels. When I lived in DC I was the go-to wheelbuilder for my friends. In 2019 one of them purchased a Guerilla Gravity (made in Colorado) and he commissioned a wheelset that used White Industries CLD+ Boost hubs and Stan’s Flow 29+ rims. It was 32 hole, silver spokes, brass nipples and 3-cross for both wheels. Here’s the catch: the frame was asymmetrical with a 3mm offset to the driveside.

I scratched my head about this for a week before I figured out how to build it. Build it just like a regular wheel until the spokes hit 90% tension. Then back off the truing stand feeler gauges until they are 3 mm from the rim. Finally, tighten the non driveside spokes until the rim contacts the left feeler gauge.

Making sure that any wheel is true and dished requires a calibrated truing stand and constant checking with the dishing gauge (never trust just one instrument… Boeing 737 Max). The final verification is seeing how the wheel sits in the frame. Is it too close to one of the chainstay? So it is always good to have the frame on hand when building a wheel and that is especially true when building something unusual as was the case here. But the frame was in Virginia so I was building blind. Gulp.

I packed up the wheels and shipped them to Ryan. The moment of truth happened about a week later when he dropped the wheels into the frame. They were dished perfectly. Heart attack averted and wheelbuilding hubris still in tact.

Thermometer in front of bike bells

The one repair we won’t be making is adding air conditioning. Because people would never leave!

Least Favorite Repairs

CenturyLink. When their contractors busted up our street to lay some cable. It was three days of jackhammering and lost business. They did fix our curb ramp (because I asked). I had my fill of watching people in wheelchairs nearly tip over due to the pothole.

Trek Road Bikes. This is going to seem petty but… the proper technique for wrapping drop bars is to start at the end and work your way towards the stem. Trek didn’t do this; they started at the stem and worked their way to the bar ends. What that means is that every time I have to replace a shift and/or brake cable and housing on a Trek with Shimano  5700/6700/7900 or newer I had to fully unwrap the bar tape. In addition to the 15-20 minutes this adds to a repair, the result never quite looks right because the bar tape has worn down and changed shape. SMH.

Honorable mention: Anything French


A Brief and Incomplete History of Our Corner

The holiday season has been slow and the weather has not been great, so with this extra time on my hands I have undertaken some deferred shop improvement projects and indulged my curiosities about our neighborhood’s history.

Our building dates back to 1916 when it opened as a hotel. We have yet to discover what type of business originally occupied the storefront but over the years it has been a toy store, an antiques dealer, a pawn shop, and it had been vacant for the last four years until we moved in. (Psst: next door is still for rent. Interested parties have proposed a law office, clothing consignment shop, coffee shop, and waffle shop. That last dream is my favorite.) The hotel upstairs has long given way to single room occupancy apartments — that, or catastrophic fire, seems to be the fate for most of those old hotels.

My project of discovering our corner’s history has involved a few hours (so far) of clicking through the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society. It has been fascinating journey and a highly recommended time-suck. 

Ninth and Robert circa 1936

Ninth and Robert Present Day

Trolley Track Removal 1954

Top: The view of our corner circa 1936. Source: MN Historical Society

Middle: A present day view of our corner. The parking lot has been replaced by structured parking. Diagonal from us, the Union Gospel Mission daycare has replaced a window glass company and daycare parking replaced the service station. Source: Google Maps

Bottom: Noooooooo! The removal of trolley tracks from our intersection. The Rossmor is visible in the background on the right. The photo is circa 1954. Photographer: St. Paul Dispatch-Pioneer Press. Source: MN Historical Society

Yes, it breaks my heart to see public transportation removed like that, but the deeper I got into this research, the more I realized how lucky we were to avoid the giant eraser of the Interstate Highway and urban renewal. Just a few blocks north, south and west of us, the city was being massively transformed.

Here is how the lead agency — the Housing and Redevelopment Authority — framed the moment and opportunity.

The six years from 1954 through 1960 will be years of great growth and physical change in St. Paul. A large part of the center of the city will be rebuilt through urban redevelopment while a program of related improvements both public and private will take place in all parts of the city.

An integrated development program spurred by private enterprise and public initiative and financed through private, federal, state and local funds is now entering on its most active phase. As part of this program, urban redevelopment projects of the St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority will make available more than 60 acres of choice land near the city center and adjacent to the State Capitol for private, commercial and residential building….

The St. Paul Redevelopment Program consists of two slum clearance projects financed by Federal loans and grants and local grants-in-aid. These projects are located immediately East and West of the Capitol Approach area and on the edge of the Central Business District. (“Redevelopment Rebuilds St. Paul,” Housing and Redevelopment Authority, 1954. Source: MN Historical Society)

Here is how all of that looked with before and after photos.

Capitol approach 1945

Capitol Redevelopment 1950s

Capitol Approach Present Day

Top: An aerial view of the Capitol Approach. Rice Street is the major North/South street to the left of the Capitol. Photo is circa 1945. Source: MN Historical Society  

Middle: The Housing and Redevelopment Authority’s proposed development plan for the Capitol campus. Note the areas marked as ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ redevelopment areas. The plan was drafted in 1957. Source: MN Historical Society

Bottom: The present day view of the Capitol Approach. The Interstate has been built and the designated areas have been redeveloped. The Western zone became a Sears (now closed) and the Eastern zone became the ever-expanding Regions Hospital.

A few hundred families used to live there. With this project and other forced relocations, the neighborhoods often featured substandard housing; unsanitary conditions; proximity to air ground and water pollution; and substandard infrastructure (unpaved roads and flood plains). These justifications for slum clearance are not new or unique to St. Paul; protecting the health, safety and welfare of residents is the charge of government and that responsibility gives it the power to undertake such projects. But… one has to wonder how underinvestment and lax code enforcement might have caused the neighborhoods to deteriorate and, in turn, to justify such a project.

The Housing and Redevelopment Authority’s narrative report on the Redevelopment Plan (1953) suggests that the Western Redevelopment area was a problem in search of a solution.

In addition to the foregoing indication of poor residential conditions, the area presents a serious tax deficit to the community. A study was made of the area bounded by Rice, Fuller, Farrington, and Carroll. It cost $371,800 in city expenditures and county welfare expenditures in 1950, but is repaying only $64,350 on these portions of the 1950 tax rate; thus leaving a deficit of $325,450 for the single year 1950, equivalent to $106 per person residing in the area. For comparison, Ward 7, an old but stable residential area lying west of the St. Paul Cathedral, bounded by Pleasant, St. Clair, Hamline and Carroll, cost $2,586,800 in city expenditures and county welfare expenditures in 1950; it will repay $1,464,700 on these portions of the 1950 tax rate. The resulting tax deficit of $1,122,100 divided by the Ward 7 population comes to $30 per person.

Not exactly a fair comparison in area or demographics. The map below uses Census blocks matched to recently released 2014-2018 ACS 5 year estimates of household income to approximate the redevelopment area (yellow) with the control (red). The 1950 income disparity was greater than 3:1. Now? Click the map below or this link for the most recent estimates

1950s Redevelopment

The redevelopment of downtown was not the only urban renewal underway in the 1950s and 1960s. Our family lives on the west side and since moving into the neighborhood we wondered why more development had not happened in the lowlands adjacent to Harriet Island. Actually, it had quite a bit of development once upon a time.

Wabasha Street South

The view from the West Side bluffs looking up Wabasha Street towards the Capitol and downtown. Photo is circa 1948. Source: MN Historical Society

The archives of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority have been very helpful in understanding the redevelopment of St. Paul. The MN Historical Society keeps memos, plans and photographs from the urban renewal era. Reading them fifty and sixty years later is kind of shocking. The following was written in reference to the Upper Levee Renewal Project, which affected an area adjacent to Shepard Road, beneath the High Bridge.

The area selected for urban renewal is about twelve acres in size and lies on the left bank of the Mississippi River, approximately one-half mile from the central business district of St. Paul. This river-front tract of land is known locally as the “Upper Levee.” The urban renewal area, occupied by a rather compact group of about ninety (90) structures, is situated in an industrial environment. This small “island” of housing, faces the Mississippi River, is backed by railroad yards and flanked on either side by heavy industry. Behind it rises the steep river bluffs and high over one end of the settlement, stretches the Smith Avenue bridge. The residents of this area are isolated from other residential areas and cut off from ready access to normal community services and amenities. Churches, schools, parks and shopping facilities are located above, on the bluff, at an inconvenient distance from the young and old residents who reside on the river bank below.

The dwellings in this area are generally old structures, inadequately sited and poorly equipped. The streets upon which they front and back are narrow and mostly unimproved. New public improvements, already approaching the area, will require rights-of-way through the settlement which will drastically reduce it in size. Such a change in the area probably will extinguish whatever social or community value the resident attach to the site as a place to live. Source: MN Historical Society

The neighborhood was known as Little Italy, but note how the report avoids calling the neighborhood by name or even calling it a neighborhood at all. But that last sentence is astonishing: the Authority is acknowledging that by building a 4 lane divided highway through the neighborhood, and demolishing some properties to do so, it will effectively kill it. Remember Mitt’s self-deportation plan from 2012? This is the urban planner’s version: self-eviction and resettlement. All that was written in 1956. More recently, the National Park Service wrote a history of the neighborhood.

This wasn’t the blog post I set out to write. Oh well. Ok, back to working on bikes and the next post which will either be about my favorite repairs of 2019 or the ridership of Nice Ride 2010-2019. 

Our Holiday Gift Guide A to Z

We have all this and much, more more. If nothing here strikes your fancy then we humbly suggest giving the gift of a Smallest Cog gift card (now available!). We will be open every day until Christmas. Yes, that also includes rare Tuesday hours for December 24, 10 am to 2 pm. Enjoy our gift guide and please share it with loved ones.

Happy holidays from Penelope, Amanda and Mark!

Studded tireA is for the All-City Macho Man
This is the bike I’ve fallen in love with. It has a custom built Shimano XT/DT Swiss wheelset, Shimano R7000 build kit, Shimano PLT seatpost, stem, and bars, and Zipp bar tape. It clears a 700 x 38 studded knobby. It is for sale but I may not want to give it up. (58 cm).

B is for Balaclavas and BarMits
Consider them to be standard issue for winter riding. $30 – $75.

Campy derailleurC is for Campagnolo
Boutique componentry from Italy that is (sadly) vanishingly rare. I adore it and have been riding it since 1996. Not many shops stock it and know how to work on it. We do. From $8 (shift cable) to Don’t Ask. 

D is for Dry Lube.
We beseech you to switch to it already. Your stuff will be vastly cleaner and will last longer. $7.30

E is for Electric Vehicles
We sell them! Teslas get all the attention but the e-bike is what will move us towards a more sustainable transportation system. An e-bike is 10x the efficiency of a Tesla, less than 1/10th the cost, way easier to park, and far less likely to earn you a speeding ticket. Bonus: it charges from any outlet so you don’t have this problem.

F is for Fat Bikes, Fairdales and Flasks
That’s an Ice Cream Truck in the background, a Krampus in the foreground, and the flask (not pictured) was in my hand. $25 – $2,000.

G is for gogglesG is for Gloves and Goggles
These are biking specific goggles which don’t fog and (bonus) fit over your eyeglasses. Most eyeglasses anyway, not the kind worn by Larry King, Harry Caray, or whatever the kids in Williamsburg are wearing these days. $35 – $40.

H is for Helmets
Because concussions are bad, m-kay? Ask me how I know. Wait, what was I talkin’ ‘bout? $23 – $45.

T shirt and flask

Book coverI is for Independent Bike Shops and Indoctrination
It’s never too early to start. $17.99.

J is for J & B Importers
They were the first B2B account we established. They helped us get on our feet. We are small and that can be hard when dealing with other brands and wholesalers. We always get good service from J & B and they are always happy to see Amanda and Penelope at Will Call.

K is for Kryptonite
Kryptonite was an early supporter of bike advocacy and that is why we sell their locks. $25 – $100. 

L is for Light and Motion
I have been using their products for more than a decade. They have good engineering, good build quality, good customer service, and they are assembled in the United States. (We try to domestically source as many of our products as possible. Not easy.) I use the Vis360 which is a helmet mounted light and battery. The helmet mount has some advantages over a bar mount: 1) you can’t forget it when you park your bike, so it won’t be stolen; 2) you can turn your head to shine a driver and get his attention; and 3) the high mount improves depth perception. $130 and worth it.

M is for Multitools and Mirrors
They are always in stock. $16 – $18.

NIte riderN is for Nite Rider
Don’t get excited, this isn’t about a sentient car and David Hasselhoff. Nite Rider is one of the oldest and best manufacturers of bicycle lighting systems. We’ve tried the others but Nite Rider is consistently the best: a durable product, secure mounting system, and affordable. We have 300, 500 and 850 lumen headlights. $30 – $75.

O is for One Less Car
If you don’t have a bumper then how will people know where you stand on the big questions of the day? Answer: declarative t-shirts! Perhaps you’re more lover than fighter? Got you covered there too. $19.99.

Repair bookP is for Park Tool Repair Book
Learn just enough to be dangerous. It also makes a fine coffee table book once you realize how much the tools cost. $29.95 (does not include tools!)

Q is for Quality Bicycle Products
They are based in Bloomington, MN, and are the largest bike parts distributor in the United States. Their in house brands include Surly, Salsa, Civia and All-City. They love biking and they recycle our used inner tubes. There’s a great park next to their HQ and you can even use their parking lot as a departure point. Word to the wise: don’t forget where you parked your Subaru or Jetta Wagon, because yours won’t be the only one.

R is for Red Light Runners
Which I see every day through our front door. When is this shit going to stop?

S is for Studded Tires and Skull Caps
Both are things we stock in sizes 26” x 2.0”, 700 x 35, 700 x 38, and 29” x 2.8”. They will last a couple seasons so they are well worth the money. $40 – $100.

Trainer tireT is for Trainer Tires and Torque Wrenches
Direct drive trainers are nice but they are expensive. For the plebs like me who will be wearing out a back tire indoors this winter, a trainer specific tire is highly recommended. Why? Because: 1) they don’t shed rubber so they are cleaner; 2) heat resistance means your basement won’t smell like a tire fire; 3) they are quiet; and 4) they are more cost effective than squaring off your expensive clinchers. $34.99 – $67.95.

U is for Unicycle
I purchased one, a 24” model. I am learning to ride it. Gulp. 

VasesV is for Vases
These are made by my mother in Mankato. The vases are from the thrift store and the patterns are decorative napkins. $4 – $10 depending on the size.

Wheel buildingW is for Wheel Builds
We have done a number of custom wheel builds this year. We charge $75 labor per wheel. We proudly charge more than other shops because our wheels are better.

X is for Xerxes Avenue
We would’ve named a St. Paul street but none begin with ‘X.’

Y is for the Y-Wrench
The 4/5/6 mm and 2/2.5/3 mm Y wrench is an indispensable tool for the amateur and professional mechanic alike. We happen to favor the Lezyne over the home team (Park Tool). $20.

Z is for Zipp Bar Tape
We love their wheels (made in Indianapolis!) and their (much more attainable) bar tape is just as good. It’s what we ride. $27.

Bike Theft in St. Paul

Why should you care about bike theft? The most straightforward reason is: because it could happen to you (if it hasn’t already). The less obvious answer: because 7 percent of bike theft victims quit riding entirely and 25 percent of victims ride less than before (Source: Project 529). Those numbers are significant; cost out an infrastructure solution that would increase your bike mode share by 7% and get a quarter of cyclist to ride more frequently. It would take many years and many millions in funding. Ending bike theft is one of the most cost effective ways to improve cycling. Now do we have your attention?

Before we opened a bike shop bike theft wasn’t something we gave much thought to. But nearly every day since we opened we heard stories of bike theft, and many days we heard more than one story. Now we care. The victims of bike theft run the demographic spread; in one week we took in bikes from a suit and tie guy, a lifeguard and a senior citizen on a fixed income. The losses were: a wheelset, a bent derailleur hanger, and a rear wheel and saddle (respectively). A new rear wheel is: $45 for the wheel, $15 for the tire, $8 for the inner tube, $15 for the freewheel (aka cogs), and $20 for labor. That’s north of a hundred bucks when tax is included. You may now be piecing together why someone would stop riding after a theft.

Theft Prevention

  1. Buy a good lock. U-locks and folding locks are the best; cable locks are the worst. We’re no longer stocking cable locks because when you buy one from us you’re (basically) paying to have someone (eventually) steal your bike. The better locks have theft coverage from $500 to $4000.
  2. Never park outside overnight. Give a thief enough time and he will break any lock. Take a look at the map below to see where you should never leave your bike overnight.
  3. Never leave your bike unlocked. We’ve heard many sad tales that start with ‘I just parked it in front of the store for a couple minutes while I ran in.’
  4. Be aware of your environment. Certain locations draw both bikers and thieves. (Why do you rob banks? Because that’s where the money is.) When you find a place to lock up, look around and see if there are people just sorta hanging out. If you get bad vibes then find somewhere else to lock up or bring your bike inside with you.
  5. Lock to something secure. Wiggle the rack, post or pole. If it moves or lifts out of the sidewalk then don’t use it. (Earn a merit badge by reporting it to 311.) The lock should go around the frame and a wheel (if possible). Keep the lock away from the ground because the thief can use the ground as leverage for a bolt cutter or jack.
  6. Register your bike and report theft. Do this now: take a photo of your bike, turn it over and record the serial number (found on the bb shell), put that information in a draft email and keep it… for that day… that most dreadful day. If you are a renter or homeowner with insurance, add the bike(s) to your policy. Register your bike. We like the National Bike Registry (Project 529). If your bike is stolen then please file a police report. Pretty please?
  7. Never purchase a stolen bike. Duh, right? Wrong. We get people coming through our door all the time asking if we buy parts. Nope. How much is this bike worth? We dunno; how much did you pay for it? Before you consider buying a used bike examine the bike and scrutinize the seller. Does the bike have obvious damage that might have been caused by a theft? Does the seller seem to know the bike? Does the bike have a backstory? Warning signs: not knowing the maintenance history, not knowing the mileage, not knowing the place of purchase, not knowing how to operate the shifters and brakes, and a bike that is the wrong size or wrong “application” for the seller. Finally, when in doubt, remember this: it is a crime to receive stolen property.
  8. Get better bike parking. Remember #3? There was nowhere to lock the bike. Here’s a fun thought experiment: Imagine that you are a driver and you don’t know if your destination will have any parking, and there’s a decent chance that your car will get stolen; do you roll the dice and drive, take the bus, or stay home? Parking policy is transportation policy.
  9. Help us make bike theft an issue.

Theft by the Numbers

St. Paul reports 916 bike thefts occurring during the period October 2014 through September 2019. So far the worst year has been 2016 with 189 thefts, however 2019 is on pace to surpass that with 184 thefts reported through September 30. Data point: the final quarter of the year — on average — accounts for 15% of the bike theft total. Conclusion: 2019 will be a record year.

[A]ccording to Project 529, of the hundreds of thousands of bikes recovered by police every year, less than 1% are registered and fewer than 5% are returned to their rightful owners.

And to further highlight the problem of bike thefts, it is estimated only 20% of stolen bikes are reported to police, more than 50% of stolen bikes used a cable lock instead of the more secure U-lock, and fewer than 20% of bike owners know the serial number on their bike.
(Source: Vancouver Urbanized)

Again, this is why we don’t sell cable locks and why when a bike comes in for a tune up we record its serial number and take its photo.

Bike theft appears to be a worse problem elsewhere. Last time we checked (late August), Minneapolis had logged more than 1,000 reported thefts. Now I know more people in Minneapolis ride, and it is a bigger city, but I have to wonder whether Minneapolis is also better at logging those thefts. Portland, Oregon’s law enforcement has assembled a task force to address their bike theft problem. Here’s what that looks like.

Theft by Location

We live in the age of BIG DATA, right? So it should be easy to figure out where bikes are being stolen. Wrong. The City of St. Paul doesn’t seem to geocode its crime data, and it semi-annonomizes street addresses by replacing the last digit of a street address with an X. For example, 137X UNIVERSITY AV W. Minneapolis, by contrast, does geocode its crime data, so making this map takes about 30 minutes once the dataset is located. Map of bike theft in Minneapolis

Compounding the challenge in St. Paul is that Ramsey County records address points as 1371 University Avenue West. So here’s what I did:

  • Using QGIS I changed the Ramsey County address points to read like St. Paul police address points. I changed the last digit of the street number to an X (1371 became 137X), I abbreviated the street type (Avenue became AV), I did the same with street direction (West became W), and I made the text string ALL CAPS.
  • Then I filtered the 220,000 line database of all reported crime in St. Paul (August 2014 to present day) looking for bike thefts. Throwing a bone here to St. Paul because it categorizes bike theft by monetary value (Under $500, $500-$1000, and over $1000).
  • Finally I joined databases to associate theft locations with actual addresses.
  • With that I was able to map just over 700 theft locations. The thefts which occurred near intersections were still problematic so I had to manually geocode 40 or 50 intersections. The final map captures about 95% of reported thefts. The thefts are transparent red dots (helps to show overlap) and the bike infrastructure appears as green line data. The light green buffer is what I used to count thefts one block on both sides of the University and Grand Avenue corridors.


  • If you turn off the street layer you can still figure out where the major streets are. Bike theft follows major streets.
  • Mapping theft by community council district shows that Union Park experienced a 3x increase in bike theft this year. There were 8 reported thefts in 2018 and 27 so far this year.
  • Looking at 1 block on both sides of the  University and Grand Avenue corridors captures more than 20% of all bike thefts in St. Paul. Downtown/Lowertown is also a hotspot at 13% of all thefts.


  • The St. Paul database only includes reported thefts.
  • While each theft is coded by property value (good!) that value assessment must be made by the victim and officer.
  • The accuracy of these pins isn’t perfect: we can drop the pin on the same block as where the theft occurred but we still won’t know which side of the street and whether the theft was mid block or at either end. Without geotagged crime data this is the best we can do.

Next steps
Working on those. For now we will keep advising our patrons about how to beat the thieves.

The Story of One Bike

He came in on Wednesday. I gathered his front brake wasn’t working. He was telling me more than that but his English wasn’t good and he was gasping for air. He looked like he didn’t have much in this world to call his own, so I adjusted his brake for free. It was a mechanical disc brake so I did the usual check. Wheel centered in the frame/fork? Yes. Lever pulls cable? Yes. Brake caliper arm actuates? Yes. Rotor is true? Yes. Wheel turns without rotor noise? Yes. Conclusion: turn the inboard pad adjuster in until the brake starts working. Ten minutes later he was out the door with a much safer bike. He graciously thanked me.

He must have liked our service and our prices because I saw him again the next day. This time he was carrying his bike. From across the shop I could immediately spot the problem.

Bent derailleur hanger

“Why Limit Screws are Important!”

This photo was taken after I had extracted both pieces of the rear derailleur from the spokes. The derailleur hanger (silver piece) was so bent I had to unbolt it to remove the rear wheel. The chain didn’t go without a fight: the freewheel had to come off. Public service announcement to shade tree mechanics and bike shops: CHECK THE F’ING LOWER LIMIT SCREW OF THE REAR DERAILLEUR BECAUSE WHEN YOU DON’T THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS.

I told the man this was no bueno, that he’d have to leave the bike with me, and that it’d be 20 bucks to fix. (That last part was a formality to remind people that we’re not a non profit.) He left his name and phone number. I told him it would be ready in the morning.

I parked his bike until nearly the end of the day. At 6:45 pm I began to comprehend the damage. The derailleur was toast. The wheel (thankfully) was ok. The chain was a goner. The hanger was more bent than anything I’ve seen.

Mid 90s K2 MTB

The organ donor displaying its new period correct XTR rear derailleur.

I had a derailleur that came off a mid 90’s K2. I had the chain — if it came to that. But the hanger? Those things are like snowflakes — their variations are endless and they are not interchangeable. I knew I didn’t have the one his bike needed and he probably didn’t have the $ pay for it anyway.

The part itself is a fairly complex shape requiring alignment along 3 axis for the derailleur to work properly AND have the piece fit the frame. The Park Tool derailleur alignment gauge can be used for simple realignments but for this job it was useless. (Also: you’re not supposed to use that tool on aluminum… because it will either break or accelerate metal fatigue.) It was time to see what the bench vise could do.

Using three nickels, then two, and finally one as an improvised mandrel the hanger began resembling its original shape. (Side note: I’d never tried this before, and figuring out this stuff is one thing I really love about being a mechanic.) It took about ten minutes from start to finish. Most of that was head scratching time.

I remounted the hanger to the bike and before installing the replacement derailleur I attempted to chase the hanger’s threads. There was almost nothing left of them. I think the derailleur was already loosely mounted before the incident. When it kicked it took the first 3 or 4 threads with it.

I cringed the entire time I was remounting the derailleur just trying not to cross thread it (and thus negating all that clever work with the bench vise). Once the wheel was back in the frame I did a little more bending. Final touches: trimming the ends of the derailleur housing loop (they were badly corroded), installing a new chain, and making DAMN SURE the derailleur’s limit screws were properly set. Finish time: 7:15 pm.

Finished product

The result. I would’ve taken a better pic but the customer was in a hurry.

The guy didn’t even wait for my phone call. He showed up the next morning at ten past ten. His wheeze was worse than the day before. He explained that he had slept under the bridge. The coffee cup in his hand was bought for him by a kindhearted cop. He said the bike was his only transportation. I told him it was ready and that rather than 20 bucks the cost was 10 bucks — which would cover the chain but none of my labor. He didn’t have it. I told him he could pay me when he had the money. Once more he graciously thanked me. 

Maybe I’ll see him again. Maybe not. 

Rounding Up

Adjusting smooth post front brake

With each purchase our customers will now have the option to round up to the next dollar amount. Each contribution supports our community service.

The community we serve consists of the people who work, live, play and pass through downtown. Not everyone can pay and that is hard for us to hear, because we know that their bike is often their most important possession. A flat tire can mean missed appointments; lack of brakes can end in a crash, injury, and medical bills.

So we do the work they need. Sometimes it is a quick adjustment of their brakes or derailleurs and the only cost to us is our time. Other times it requires parts like brake pads, cables, housings, tubes, tires or a chain and there is a cost.

Our trust in people is often rewarded: they return, money in hand. When the wallet is light, their word is their currency. We may see them next week or the first of the month or never again… and it is for this last instance that we are establishing our round-up fund.

It is heartening that the people who come through our door to buy something, say ‘hello’ and ‘welcome to the neighborhood,’ or get work done for cash or ‘credit’ — they all have one thing in common: they want us to succeed. The round-up fund is a way to help your fellow bicyclists in need and to ensure The Smallest Cog can continue to serve our community.



Confession: I was a tourist in the biking industry. Yes, I worked in a shop — the front and the back — but I wasn’t really in the business. I worked weekends and that landscape is vastly different than Monday – Friday. During the week is when warranty claims are filed, bills are paid, orders are received, the floor is stocked, and the professional mechanics do the deep work like tune ups, brake bleeds, and the improvisation required for working on odd French stuff and parts that are seized, rusted, or broken that need to be removed and replaced.

Now I do all of that. More than a few customers have been tickled by that fact. Why do they get a thrill out of learning they are speaking to the head mechanic, owner, and sole employee? I dunno but I can make some informed guesses:

1) Quality control. Shops that have n+1 employees will do inconsistent work because people are inconsistent. The person who takes your order for a wheel build may not be the person who does the build. The person who does the wheel build may or may not be the shop’s best builder.

A bike mechanic will never starve; they know this and it can lead to them setting their own rules. The work you get may depend heavily on how they spent the previous night. There’s also great variability in skill level because there’s little regulation over this vocation. There are schools, and there are manuals, but when it comes to getting a business license the only thing we had to prove was our business insurance met the minimums. The last thing that leads to inconsistent quality: shops are really stretched thin these days. I’ve heard of wait times in excess of 4 weeks. And try finding a bike shop without a ‘Help Wanted’ sign in the window. Corners are going to be cut.

We hear good and bad things about other shops. When the feedback is good, the person’s name is usually mentioned. When the feedback isn’t good, the story is usually about some guy in the service department who did less or more work than was expected, and didn’t bother explaining to the customer the reason(s) why.

This doesn’t happen at our shop. I am the only person working on your bike. When you leave your bike with me I will tell you what I plan to fix on your bike. When you pick up your bike I will tell you what I did to it and why. Your receipt will have a thorough explanation of the service performed. If the bike doesn’t perform to expectations I will work on it until it does. That is why we are able to guarantee our tune ups.

2) Accountability.

No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

When I imagine the life of an e-scooter I often resort to that Hobbesian quote (or as much of it as I can recall). It is a versatile quote and here I am using it to describe the reality of owning a self-financed start up business. Our family lives a thrilling existence in which one lawsuit, one large medical bill, too much bad weather, or an extended absence could end the dream. The possibility is ever present and it leads us to be very thorough in how we operate. This is why our service records are clear and wordy and the torque wrench gets a lot of use. I would wager our tune-ups, wheel builds and bike builds take about twice as long as other shops… because what I don’t want to see is you coming back through my door 5 minutes later or 24 hours later telling me that your bike wasn’t fixed right or something even worse than that.

3) Attitude. We love what we do. What do we do? We… behold an early 1990s Specialized Allez road bike because it was one of the first to use aluminum lugs and carbon tubes; donate our used cassettes, freewheels and chains to a neighborhood artist because… upcycle!; inflate your tires; valet park your bike while you are visiting Tin Whiskers or your parole officer… because bike theft is rampant; offer an opinion on how the city could make our streets and sidewalks more welcoming for pedestrians and cyclists; and show you how to adjust your mechanical disc brakes. And we also fix bikes! That pretty much covered yesterday. Today it will be something new.

See you soon!


Neighborhood Improvement

The Smallest Cog's Storefront

We kicked off bike to work week with a visit from our city council representative. Apart from the expected conversation about what the city is doing for/to bicyclists we chatted about our corner: Robert Street North and 9th Street East. Where are the street trees? Where are the trash cans and recycling receptacles? Where is the bike parking? Where is the pedestrian scale lighting? Where are the benches for the bus stop? Everywhere I look from my corner I see places for cars but very few places for people. Don’t we deserve nice things — just like the people who shop, dine and work on Grand Avenue?

One block up is a different story because in St. Paul the city relies on property redevelopment to make improvements to the sidewalks. Our neighbors across the street have sidewalk cafes, bike parking, and street trees. St. Paul is not atypical in this approach; most cities use the development approval process to leverage improvements that benefit the public. The problem with that approach is the properties that don’t turnover — like ours.

Depending on the private sector for improvements to public spaces is a form of divestment. And the results are predictable: storefronts will remain vacant and the unwelcoming sidewalk will attract undesirable uses.

We will keep sweeping and shoveling our sidewalk. We put out flowers and tables and chairs for when the weather is nice. Our awning is going to stay up because there’s no shelter at the bus stop. We will gladly surrender the parking space outside our door for use as a bike corral. But we’re not going to empty the trash can on the corner — that’s up to the City and it needs to do that more than once a week.

Wheel Building

Last week I got my first commission. It was for a rear wheel built upon an existing rim. About reusing wheel components: Hubs? Yes. Spokes and nipples? Never. Rims? Judgment call.

Photo of nipple washers.

Nipple washers are a must when working with lightweight rims (Stan’s) or when reusing a rim

There are many ways a wheel build can go wrong. You can get the lacing pattern wrong. You can get the spoke length wrong. You can have a 36 hole hub and a 32 hole rim. Your equipment can be poorly calibrated — truing stands need to be trued, even when they come out-of-the-box. Your wheelbuilder may be impatient. Rims may have slag around the spoke holes. The rim may be out-of-spec (circumference is too large or small) and/or not round. You can have a poor mix of hub, spoke, nipple, rim, and lacing pattern. Finally, and this list is not exhaustive, you can have improper tools.

I will choose only a few of these to expand upon (otherwise I’ll be writing all day on my off day).

Tools: Spoke wrenches come in different sizes and shapes. Spokes wrenches wear out and that can lead to the stripping of nipples because they won’t grip securely. We’re all familiar with the ubiquitous Park Tool red handled spoke wrench. It works for about 80% of the wheel build, but once you approach the ultimate spoke tension of a wheel, it becomes slippery to hold and its shape makes precision adjustments –1/16 of a turn — very difficult. At that point I transition to one of the excellent DT Swiss flat sided nipple wrenches. And always, always use the Twist-Resist spoke holder. Spoke wind-up is your enemy.

Assembly of components: There are certain combinations that just don’t work. Black spokes bind where they cross and when using them in a build the wheel requires more frequent stress relief. Aluminum nipples + any rim material = misery because aluminum nipples have more friction. The most challenging builds are: lightweight spokes (DT Swiss, Sapim CX Ray, or Sapim Laser), in black, with aluminum nipples. The spokes won’t slide together as the wheel tensions up, the spokes will rotate when turning the nipples, and the nipples will bind against the rim.

Rim quality control: No rim is truly round. Rims made by Hed usually are and that is why I prefer them. H Plus Son also seems to have good quality control. I haven’t built enough on Mavic to say either way. I have a first run of the new Open Pro UST (19 mm internal) and those built up ok.

The starting point of the rim determines the build experience and the quality of the wheel. When you build a wheel you change the shape of the rim. Build it up, build it down, and you will see that the rim which laid flat to start no longer does. This is why it is generally inadvisable to reuse a rim. But sometimes you do.

We start each wheel by selecting the right spokes, rim, hub and nipples. We recommend a suitable lacing pattern. Once we get it laced we leave a drop of Triflow between the nipple and spoke hole. We apply a drop of linseed oil to the spoke threads as thread lock. If we are reusing a hub we use spoke head washers to firmly seat the spoke head. If we are reusing a rim we use nipple washers to ensure even tensioning and to better distribute the spoke tension. Finally we build it slowly because cutting corners for speed leads to problems later.


We have found what we were looking for

Unlike Bono.

Gathering shells on the beach

I needed an image that communicated searching and finding. This is my mother shelling on Sanibel.

On one of the applications for one of the wholesalers I described our shop as being located at the dynamic corner of Robert Street North and 9th. This is turning out to be an understatement.

Through our door have walked artists, travelers, business owners, office workers and so many others whose stories are far different from my own. Yesterday I had a conversation with a builder about gentrification and displacement. A few hours later when the sun was low and I was getting ready to close up and crack a beer, a man pushing a walker came through our front door. He started name dropping Campagnolo, Shimano and Suntour. Turns out, his buddy in high school set up a shell company to buy bike parts at wholesale for his personal bike builds. Amazing. When we wrapped up he was talking about how he might harness one of the Lime scooters for a little extra speed. Brilliant.

We love our corner. It is a real crossroads which is something that we need more of… because it builds empathy. The last thing I overheard before I closed up shop last night was ‘there are some good restaurants up that way, and a great grocery store, but this is really a bad part of downtown.’ As the kids say: Thank U, Next!