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!

What are people riding?

dirty dirty chain

This one doesn’t need a doctor it needs a priest! The chain couldn’t be saved and this customer is a candidate for a wet condition/dry lube.

Last month Anne Lusk (Harvard School of Public Health) posted an article on CityLab entitled “You Can’t Design Bike-Friendly Cities Without Considering Race and Class.” Word! To sum up her argument: Put more bike lanes where people are riding because ‘the single biggest group of Americans who bike to work live in households that earn less than $10,000 yearly.

Since opening we’ve been doing a lot of work on bikes that have 7 speed freewheels and 8 speed cassettes. If there’s a disc brake in the equation, then it is most likely mechanical. These bikes are being ridden for transportation not recreation or fitness. The concerns of these customers don’t start with ‘we need more protected bike lanes’; it’s more like: ‘I need a good place to lock up my bike so I don’t have another one stolen.’

So, yeah, planners, think about the people who are really riding instead of those we are trying to entice to give up their cars. (Psst: Those people will be fine no matter what!)

What we are learning

Being a problem solver is the best part about being a bike mechanic. There’s usually a new challenge every day. Uneven wearing of the front brake pads? 1) check whether the wheel is properly inserted into the frame; 2) check whether the brake is properly centered and the pads equally spaced; 3) ask whether the customer has worked on his bike (actually, this is Step 0); 4) check the wheel’s dish; and 5) check the alignment of the fork’s dropouts. In general, the diagnostic should progress from least to most invasive cause/solution. So far we’ve seen two bikes with uneven front brake wear and both were caused by bent dropouts.

In my former assignment we didn’t see much of that. That’s probably a consequence of who we were serving: roadies riding carbon forks. I also wasn’t doing this…

Chasing and facing a bb

Chasing and facing a bottom bracket shell. New tools; new tricks. Had to bust out the Park Tool BTS-1 sooner or later. This is a Fairview frame we are building for sale.