Wednesday, December 18, 2019

A Couple of Stories and One Song for Christmas

One of the things I like about the Christmas season is revisiting some old favorites. In looking through the archives of this blog, I found these that I think are still enjoyable and timely.

A Cyclist's Christmas Story

Santa Is Just As Real As Bigfoot

Big Red Bicycle Christmas

I hope that whatever traditions you celebrate bring you comfort and joy and that the new year brings grand new adventures.

Kent Peterson
Eugene, OR USA

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Frank Berto, RIP

Frank Berto died last weekend. The bicycle world is richer because of his long and productive life, and poorer now with his passing.

A lot of what I know about bicycles, I learned from the many books and technical articles by Frank Berto. He brought scientific rigor and historical perspective to the pages of Bicycling! magazine (it used to have the ! mark in the title) and in recent years his work has appeared in Jan Heine's fine magazine, Bicycle Quarterly.

Frank didn't just write or accept things as "that's the way it's always been." He tested things, dove deep into history, built machines to test hypothesis, and then wrote beautifully and completely about the things he'd found. For my money his masterwork was his book, The Dancing Chain. This comprehensive analysis of the development of the derailleur-equipped bicycle is encyclopedic in scope, engagingly written and, to those of us who the rest of the world calls bike nerds, fascinating. Every book and article I've read by Frank Berto has been worthwhile and informative. His book, The Birth of Dirt, is a fine look at the origins of mountain biking.

Jan Heine wrote a brief tribute to Frank Berto on his blog at:

A longer feature on Frank Berto will appear in the next issue of Bicycle Quarterly.

Rest (or Ride) in peace, Frank.

Friday, December 13, 2019

How To Make Recycled Bike Chain Christmas Star Ornaments

Bike chains wear out. Grit eventually wears the pins so the chains effectively elongate and no longer mesh nicely with the cogs. Rather than throw the worn chains away, places like Resource Revival recycle them into various products. However, if you're handy and have an old chain and a bit of wire, you can do your own recycling and make some star-shaped Christmas ornaments.

I don't show the steps I did with a chain tool, but I use the tool to make little five link loops of chain. I also got a 100 foot roll of 28 gauge galvanized steel wire from the hardware store. It cost about four bucks and it's enough wire to do about 50 ornaments.

I cut about a two foot length of wire.

I flex the chain links into a star shape.

I loop the wire around the inner five pins, pulling it tight. I loop the wire around the inside three times.

Then I twist the ends of the wire together. The twisting snugs the wire tight and holds the links in the star shape.

I twist the two strands of wire together.

I loop the double twisted wire through one part of the star, which is now the top of the ornament.

I twist the loop of wire to form a hanging loop and then twist the last of the wire around the loop to secure it. If I have any excess, I just snip it off.

That's it. I suppose you could spray paint the stars festive colors, but I just leave mine silver.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

One of the pleasures of growing older is revisiting items from our youth. I am currently rereading the works of Kurt Vonnegut. This adventure was kicked off, in part, by the realization that now, at age 60, if I was asked to name my favorite Kurt Vonnegut book, I would say without hesitation, GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER, but I would be unable to tell you only the vaguest outlines of the plot. This seemed to me to be a flaw in my existence that was within my power to correct. I went to work.

I began, not with ROSEWATER, but with a book called BAGOMBO SNUFF BOX, a collection ironically subtitled as being a collection of Vonnegut's uncollected early fiction. I found the stories to be surprisingly normal and perhaps unsurprisingly, quite good. I also picked up KURT VONNEGUT: LETTERS, which is a wonderful collection of his correspondence, and the delightful biography/reading guide UNSTUCK IN TIME: A JOURNEY THROUGH KURT VONNEGUT'S LIFE AND NOVELS. After completing BAGOMBO SNUFF BOX, I set to work reading chapters of UNSTUCK together with the letters and the novels in the order they were written.

By now you may be wondering why I am telling you all this on a bicycle blog. I will make this clear in a few minutes, but I feel I have to tell you bit more about my journey. It's been quite fascinating, I thought I was proceeding chronologically forward, but it seems I've become unstuck in time.


Vonnegut's first novel, PLAYER PIANO is all about his time at General Electric (he worked in the PR department) and it is both a cautionary tale about workers being displaced by automation and perils of revolution. Parts of it read a hell of a lot like Andrew Yang's stump speeches. Kurt complained (I'm paraphrasing here), "I just wrote about what I saw at GE and they told me what I wrote was Science Fiction. That's how I became a Science Fiction writer." PLAYER PIANO is also what I would call 'fairly normal." The wildest parts are things that really happened at GE.

His second novel THE SIRENS OF TITAN is really the dawn of the Vonnegut we'd all come to know: weird space aliens, senseless war, a silly putty view of time. It's the early novel that almost all Vonnegut fans have read. I'd forgotten how good it was.

For his third novel, Vonnegut is back on earth with a really powerful story. I don't think I ever read this one in my youth. That was a mistake I'm glad I've now corrected. MOTHER NIGHT is a memoir of spy, an American who worked under deep cover as a Nazi propagandist. The question at the heart of the novel is "was he too good at his job?" This one is a real page turner, I plowed through it in a day.

Next up was CAT'S CRADLE, the book I probably remembered the best, the one that a lot of Vonnegut fans recall, the one with Ice Nine. It holds up quite well to a reread.

And finally I was up to GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER, which asks the question "is a man crazy to give away his wealth or is a society that hoards wealth crazy?" I think I first read this book when I was fifteen years old. I was cheering for Eliot Rosewater then and 45 years later I'm happy to report that I still am.

And then I was up to SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE. It took Vonnegut decades to write it and Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time. It has the horrors of war and I'm sure it's his masterpiece, but I don't think it shaped me and shook me the way some of Vonnegut's other books did. So it goes.


The way I'm rereading the books is an order I recommend unless you are a fourteen year old boy. I was a fourteen year old boy when I first read BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. It's vulgar, it's stupid, it's juvenile. I remember loving it as a kid and now in 2019 being about so many pages in sixty-year-old me was thinking, "man, this is horrible." And then, Kurt Vonnegut, who is a character in his own novel, says "hang on, I know this is horrible, but I'm going somewhere..." and he is and I hang in and I'm unstuck and I'm fourteen and sixty and gosh darn it he's made me young again. He couldn't do it for Kilgore Trout, but he did it for me. God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.

But what does this have to do with a bike blog?

I'm glad you asked.

Kilgore Trout wrote a novel that Kurt Vonnegut tells us about in BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. Trout's novel PLAGUE ON WHEELS describes a dying planet called Lingo-Three whose inhabitants resemble American Automobiles. They ate fossil fuels. The creatures were dying because they'd destroyed their planet's atmosphere. A tiny space traveler named Kago visited their planet before they all died and while he could not save them, he vowed to tell others in the universe about them so they would not be forgotten.

Kago came to Earth and in all innocence told Earthlings about automobiles. Vonnegut/Trout tells us, "Kago did not know that human beings could be as easily felled by a single idea as by cholera or the bubonic plague. There was no immunity to cuckoo ideas on earth." Also "Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity."

In 1973, this idea immunized 14-year-old Kent against the lure of automobiles. I never saw them as freedom machines, I saw them as folly. And 2019 Kent sees in the previous paragraph a very clear articulation of why he ran away screaming when he first encountered Facebook many years ago.


"Within a century of little Kago's arrival on earth, according to Trout's novel, every form of life on that once peaceful and moist and nourishing blue-green ball was dying or dead. Everywhere there were the shells of the great beetles which men had made and worshipped. They were automobiles. They had killed everything."

Kilgore Trout showed me that cars don't make sense and while I did get a driver's licence at sixteen and did for a few years own and drive a few cars, I ultimately left them behind. I haven't driven or owned a car in over three decades.

Similarly, I think it was an echo of Eliot Rosewater who told me I could be happy making my living with bicycles instead of continuing in the world where bits and bytes add up to big bucks. As my friend Mark said to me at the time, "If you can get used to making a whole lot less money, you can work in my bike shop." It turns out I could.

My great Vonnegut reread continues. I'm up to SLAPSTICK now. I will keep on rolling.

Kent Peterson
Eugene, OR USA

Monday, December 02, 2019

2 Bike Lights Compared: Wildken Smart Bike Light vs. Cycle Torch Shark 500

I have two headlights on my bike's handlebars, a Wildken Smart Bike Light and a Cycle Torch Shark 500. I rarely use both lights simultaneously, but I like having a backup in case the charge in one of the lights runs out. Also, while the two lights share some similarities, they approach the problem of lighting in two different ways.

Both lights are fairly small and have an internal lithium battery pack that is charged via a micro USB port. While neither of these lights would be my choice for riding all night brevets, they are ideal for commuting in an urban environment. Both lights will run about three hours on high beam, more on their lowest settings. When they need charging, a color coded LED lets me know and despite my paranoid, double light back-up system, I've never actually needed to use the second light. I just charge things up when I get home.

Where the lights differ is in their beam patterns, brightness and how that brightness is controlled. The Wildken Smart Bike Light meets the German K-Mark Standard, which means the beam is very nicely shaped in order to put the maximum of light on the road instead of into the eyes of oncoming travelers. Below is a picture of the Wildken's beam.

Unlike other bike lights I've used, the Wildken Smart Bike Light doesn't use the switch to toggle through various brightness settings. Instead, it has a photo sensor that it uses to decide how bright to make the beam. This means that on a very dark bike path, it's shining at maximum brightness. But if an oncoming cyclist or driver has a bright light, it will very courteously dim itself. On my commute, the beam adjusts itself as I pass under street lights or ride through tunnels.

The light also has a motion sensor so when I park the bike, it will shut itself off after a couple of minutes. Curiosity about just how smart this "smart light" would be was what fueled my buy decision and I have to say that in general, I'm impressed. For most of my urban riding, it's all the light I need.

The Cycle Torch Shark 500 is a more traditional bike light. It does have a semi-shaped beam, casting a flattened cone of light with a lot more spillover. I toggle through the various brightness settings manually and the brightest setting seems about twice as bright as what the Wildken Smart Bike Light will put out on the darkest trail. I'm more comfortable using the Cycle Torch Shark 500 for fast riding, I never feel like I'm over running the beam. In fairness, the Cycle Torch Shark 500 sells for about twice what the Wildken Smart Bike Light does.

Both lights seem to be fairly well made, but the Wildken has a more solid mount. The Shark has the standard silicone band mount and it tends to rotate a bit unless I really snug it down. But that's a minor problem, easily fixed with a bit of extra old innertube rubber under the strap.

The bottom line is I think these are both decent lights for the money. The Wildken is more civilized, the Shark is more powerful.