bike sale

A Business Case for Supporting the Arts

On a blustery Saturday morning, just as the first flakes of the season filled the air, it was standing room only in our bike shop. I talked to more people that day than I did in the month(s) prior. Even better was meeting people who never would have come into a bike shop on such a day (if at all). How? Art! On Saturday, November 12, Saint Peter held its inaugural Art Stroll, with 24 local artists and 16 venues, including our bike shop.

art by Judith

A representative sampling of Judith’s art. Fun, right?

What happened at our shop was the scene up and down Main Street (aka Highway 169) as locals mixed with out-of-towners to bring more foot traffic to our historic central business district than any event in recent memory. Hanging those nine paintings by our featured artist – the self-described Painter/Sculptor/Woman of Leisure – brought more people through the door than anything else we have tried.

It is almost a no-brainer for a business to become a venue for such an event. I say almost because there is an opportunity cost for involvement: there is time in set-up/teardown; I got one wheel laced in 8 hours and that was about it for wrenching; and those delicious vegan cupcakes we put out were free, but not to us. But so what! I choose to see the upside.

What do I mean by upside? Art collectors and connoisseurs drink coffee, buy household goods, shop for clothing, and ride bicycles – among other things. Their more salient quality for this discussion is possessing discretionary income and the desire to support local artists and local businesses. (Perhaps we are reaching the point where if you’re not shunning Amazon you are at least feeling a little bad about ordering from them!)

For readers now under the impression that I am a marketing genius, I counter with Exhibit A: our businesses’ (intentional?) lack of a marketing plan. Other than a few fliers we put up announcing our open, and our facade improvements, we are nearly 100% reliant on word-of-mouth, the loyalty of our St. Paul customers, and southern Minnesota’s latent demand for bike shop services. So when offering up our shop as a backdrop for a local artist, I had no idea I would be having casual compare/contrast/discuss conversations about early De Rosas and Pinarellos, or that a sizeable fraction of our patrons that day would be e-bike curious. Then there’s this important disclosure: Amanda, my wife, is one of the trio of Art Stroll organizers. So of course we would participate!

The Art Stroll was our opportunity to give back to a community that has been welcoming and generous to us. When our neighboring businesses are strong, so are we; when we struggle to fill vacant storefronts, we lose viability as a shopping destination. As such, we have a responsibility to help others when we can, and that’s why alongside Judith Foster’s art we featured some of the furniture art of Jovi Thomas, who is just getting her start and in need of exposure. (Perhaps the myopia of altruism will be supplanted by enlightened self-interest next time and Amanda will feature her papercuts and I will try to sell some bike shop t-shirts!)

wood burned clothing dresser

An example of the artistry of Jovi Thomas.

It is gratifying being part of something that challenges people’s expectations while winning universal acclaim. The closest I’ve come in recent memory was PARK(ing) Day 2015 when I was part of a team that transformed two parking spaces in downtown Washington DC into an oasis for reflection, socializing, people watching and eating delicious berry smoothies. And if I am being honest, I have to say my expectations were challenged as well: I knew we had a lot of talented people here, but I never thought of Saint Peter as an arts destination.

PARK(ing) Day 2015

The most valuable parkings spaces in all of DC on that day in September.

Lessons Learned

I offer these observations with a bit of remove from the planning and execution of the event. These conclusions are also flavored with a hint of confirmation bias from conclusions I have already drawn about what works and what doesn’t (169!) in downtown Saint Peter. Now without further delay, caveat, preamble, or apology:

People like art. The end result of the creative process is fascinating whether it yields poetry or painting, stained glass or object. Artists should have the opportunity to display and make a living. The public should have an opportunity to view, appreciate and consort with other aficionados. And while not every day can be an Art Stroll day, public art – murals, sculpture, music and other forms of creative expression – can provide such an outlet and connection beyond the confines of an annual event. In short,  more public art, please, Saint Peter!

Wayfinding is crucial. A well-designed brochure and a critical mass of destinations within walking distance ensures a well-attended event with prolonged engagement. But giving people things to see is only part of the equation; they need to know how to get there. Central business districts that don’t heed this lesson become one-stop-shops. Fairmont shows Saint Peter how to do it right.

way finding signage

Creative wayfinding in downtown Fairmont.

Give people reasons to visit and stay (and they will!). Bars host comedians and bands; coffee shops have poetry readings; bike shops sponsor races – all these things are done to draw people in, in hopes of keeping them there. Without question Third Street Tavern, the Saint Peter Food Co-op and River Rock all rang up a few extra sales thanks to hungry, thirsty art lovers. Now how about we consider designing the public realm with an eye on providing people comfortable places to rest, socialize, drink, eat and otherwise. Act like you want people to hang out downtown by providing shade in summer, warmth in fall and winter, places to rest, and beautiful, interesting things to look at.

artistic nook Henderson

A local example from Henderson of how a downtown can become a welcoming place for pedestrians.

What draws people is other people. This is an observation by Holly Whyte upon which the non-profit Project for Public Spaces was founded. As it turns out, and as deprivation during the Pandemic bore out, we want to be around other people. Throngs of people walking down Main Street gets other people interested in doing the same. It indicates a place is interesting and worth exploring. As a side benefit: drivers also notice this and they tend to slow down. And with that begins the virtuous cycle of slower streets making for better sidewalks and better places to do business, have a cup of coffee, or dinner.

A rising tide lifts all businesses. As stated already, but worth reiterating is that when the new brewery is packed, we’re going to be doing great as well. Yup, that’s right, there is a brewery coming to downtown Saint Peter. I am so happy to be the first one to tell you!

Cheers to the 2023 Saint Peter Art Stroll!!!

 

Cannondale ebike on left and RadPower ebike on right

The Triumph of the $1,000 E-Bike

Cannondale ebike on left and RadPower ebike on right

You gotta spend a lot of $ before your e-bike starts looking like a regular bike. For everyone else who doesn’t have $10k to drop on such a rig, behold the bike on the right… and get used to seeing more of them. No disrespect to Rad Power bikes; the RadMission is maybe the best e-bike at the $1k price point. But tons of disrespect to Cannondale for bring their thought experiment to market.


The direct to consumer model for selling bikes is here to stay. For a small shop like ours we can look at that reality in two ways: as a lost sale, or as an opportunity to provide value-added service once a box shows up on your doorstep. We see it as the latter and since opening in 2019 we have assembled Canyons, State Bicycles, and a few of the lesser known brands. We assemble the bike as if it were one of our own; we adjust the derailleurs and brakes; we true the wheels; we adjust the headset and wheel bearings; and we offer the customer a detailed assessment of the bicycle. This last part is crucial as we will help the customer file a warranty claim if something is amiss. And something often is amiss — with the exception of Canyons which are thoughtfully packaged and (even better) packaged using minimal plastic. In fact, their boxes are so good that customers hang onto them and use them whenever they need to ship a bike. The only thing that isn’t perfect is their headset design. But I’m off topic now.

One of the direct to consumer bikes we will be seeing a lot more of is the $1,000 ebike. Ebikes for the masses is something that excites us because they have the best potential to replace car trips. Ebikes need no charging infrastructure and they will proliferate even without the generous tax credit that drivers enjoy. I have assembled a few of these and worked on a few more, so here’s the answer to what a thousand bucks buys:

  • 36 – 48v battery (300 – 500 Wh) with onboard charging
  • 350 – 1000 watt rear wheel based motor
  • Multi-function display
  • Throttle and pedal assist
  • 1 x 7 speed drivetrain
  • Mechanical disc brakes
  • 60-80 lbs

Additional variables include wheel diameter and tire width; folding or not; and what accessories are included. What’s true of ebikes at this price point — and pretty much any ebike that’s less than $3k — is that they’re not great bikes. They’re not even good bikes because they’re equipped like a $300 mountain bike with $500 of motor and battery strapped to it. That means the shifting is going to be awful and the brakes will be even worse. And this is unfortunate because now that the motor has freed the designers of the burden of thinking about weight, they went ahead and, well, burdened the bike with weight. Should your reactor go critical mid ride, I hope, for your sake, that the way home is slightly downhill. Why slightly? See previous comment about underbraking.

Buying a $1000 ebike
Sure I spent the previous paragraph trashing the $1000 ebike, but I still think they are a good thing, and with some careful shopping you can end up with a safe bike that serves you well. Here are a few considerations:

Customer Service. This is the big advantage brick & mortar has over consumer direct sales. If I sell you a shitty bike then you can come down, get in my face, and tell me to fix it. I can’t put you into an endless customer service phone queue; I can’t ignore your multiple emails (usually submitted via a website form). Not many bike shops sell $1000 ebikes (for very good reasons) so when choosing a consumer direct brand look at the product, the product reviews, and the customer reviewers for resolving defects. Thirty day money back guarantees are great but what’s not great is shipping an 80lbs bike back to wherever it came from and hoping for your money back. I listed this consideration first because it is the most important.

Assembly. DO NOT DO IT YOURSELF. Take it to a shop, pay the money, get the piece of mind that comes with professional assembly of your underbraked landrocket. Buy a bell while you’re in the store. Seriously.

Wheel Size. There are two ways to go: conventional 700c/29er wheels or 20” wheels with 3-4” wide tires. The advantage of the former is that tire replacement, tube replacement, and spoke replacement can be done at any bike shop. The advantage of the latter is a lower center of gravity and a cushier ride. The big disadvantage of the fat and low bikes is availability of 20” x 3” tires and tubes. That back tire will wear out fast and those sizes are very hard to find under the best of circumstances. Just say no to fat tired ebikes. Trust me.

Brakes. Name brand hydraulic disc brakes are best. Look for brands equipped with Hayes, Magura, SRAM, Shimano, Tektro, and TRP. Pay extra if the upgrade from mechanical discs is an option. It is possible to find Tektro brakes and 180 mm rotors on a bike at this price point, but you will need to give up other stuff (gears). Cheap brake levers, cheap housing, cheap calipers, cheap brake pads, and cheap rotors = brakes I wouldn’t let a friend or enemy ride. That experience is the rule, not the exception.

Weight. Don’t be fooled by compact size: folding ebikes are just as heavy as regular ebikes. The only way to lose weight is paying more or simplifying the bike (see Rad Power Mission).

Motor and Range. A motor with 350 watts is plenty; a motor with 1000 watts is way too much. The more power the motor makes, the more it taxes the battery. Ride with the throttle or on max pedal assist and you will burn 25 Wh per mile. That means a 350 Wh battery will give you less than 20 miles at max power. That may be fine for most people but for a daily rider it means your battery will burn out after 2 years. I milked a 283 Wh battery for 55 miles using pedal assist 1, and pulling the twins for most of that. But I was doing a range test and trying to prove a point. Your mileage may vary. 

Recommendation
After seeing what has come through our front door, and looking at what is on the market at the moment, it would seem like the Rad Power Mission is the best bike, at this price point, for most people. Why I like it: it is under 50 lbs, the motor and battery are of good power and capacity, the brakes are head and shoulders above its peers, and the brand is established. Yes, it is a single speed but most ebike owners ride in the hardest gear and dial the assist to max, so does it really matter if you have 1 or 7 speeds?

Ebikes are a relatively new thing and longevity issues are only starting to emerge. These bikes tend to be hard on drivetrains, tires, and brakes. Those items should be replaced more frequently and always with ebike rated components. OEM mid-drive systems are proving more durable than OEM wheel based systems. These motors make A LOT of torque and over time that torque will lead to spoke breakage in wheel based systems. Once that happens, that wheel needs to be returned to the manufacturer for repair, as most bike shops don’t stock the spokes and aren’t willing to deal with truing a 20 lb wheel that uses motorcycle spokes — and may be shod with a motorcycle tire. Ask me how I know. ‘We don’t have the tools to work on your bike… but you should try Erik’s!’

When you are ready to buy, come talk to me or another bike shop. We’ll talk you through the pros and cons of the various options so you can make an informed buying decision. And who knows — maybe we’ll even have something on the floor that you like!

\m/ark

Postscript
Now that you’ve searched for a $1000 ebike you will be followed across the internet by banner ads for $1000 ebike. Careful what you search for!

 

The things we’re not carrying with us.

As we have mentioned, we are moving our shop to a new location. A new location means a new look for our sales floor and service area. No, we’re not going corporate; we’re just changing our aesthetic and maybe leaving behind some things that we no longer need. If you are interested in any of these please email us info@thesmallestcog.com. Pick-up must be at one of these times: late afternoon Wednesday (9/8), all day Thursday (9/9), and Friday morning (9/10).

Behind Door #1 in our Showcase Showdown we have this beautiful countertop! We scored it off Craigslist in early 2019. We got a set of kitchen cabinets from the Re:store and we built an exoskeleton of 2″x4″ around it to hold everything upright. The top has about a 1/2″ acrylic layer with some scuffs. We experimented with using polyurethane to cover scuffs and that worked well enough. This is perfect for a retail establishment or a she/he/they cave.

Price: $0. We will help you get it out the door and after that you are on your own. It will probably need to be dissembled to make it easier to haul. Warning: this thing is heavy and will require 2-4 people to move it.

Counter schematic

Additional dimensions: the top is 2-3″ thick and the assembly stands about 30″ tall when mounted to the cabinets

Counter frontal view

Photo of counter top showing wood pattern

The acrylic is so deep you might fall in!

Storage cabinets underneath the counter

The kitchen cabinets, Ikea cabinets (white) and supporting lumber are yours if you want them. (We prefer you take them.)

Behind Door #2 is this beautiful refrigerator/freezer! This thing had been in our kitchen. We moved it after I rendered the shop’s mini fridge inoperable. Side note: never use a screwdriver and hammer to chip ice from your freezer because you will puncture the refrigerant tubes.

Refrigerator

Refrigerator and microwave are both avaialble.

Price: $0. There is a small leak condensate in the refrigerator. Just stick a bowl under it and empty it weekly. The applicant is clean, odor-free, and works. You have to haul it away yourself.

Behind Door #3 is an infant/toddler motorized swing. This thing is a life saver… if your charge actually enjoys it. (Neither of our girls were into it.)

Price: $0. This was a gift to us; now it is a gift to you.

<Not pictured>

Important conditions:

  • Items much be picked up Wednesday (9/8 after noon); Thursday (9/9 all day); and Friday (9/10 morning).
  • We don’t have the time to provide additional information beyond what is here.
  • We don’t have the ability to help you beyond the front door of our shop. You leave with it and we’re not taking it back if you change your mind.
  • These are free but if you feel like making a contribution towards our customers’ unpaid balances, then we accept cash, check, and credit card.
  • Email us if you are interested in any of the above. Thanks!

That title is with apologies to Tim O’Brien. He was writer-in-residence at Mankato State University when I was in graduate school. I didn’t read any of his books but I can recommend his recent interview on Fresh Air. He has some profound thoughts about becoming a father late in life, which he beautifully articulates.

Robbed. Twice.

In the late hours of Saturday, May 1, someone threw a brick through one of our shop’s windows and stole our best bike. We built it custom from the frame up; we were proud of it; and so we put it in our window display. That night happened to be a hot one and so windows above us and across the street were open. Everyone heard the glass break and the burglary was reported immediately. But the thief was long gone.

brick

The $470 brick

The next morning we found out via email. I’d been waiting for this to happen. Bikes are in high demand and the neighborhood… well, it is still a bit transitional — after dark.

I left the girls and the dog with Mandy while I busted a move to the shop to 1) secure our inventory and 2) survey and clean up the damage. Much to my surprise and relief we hadn’t been looted because the window was boarded up. Unfortunately, the window glass wasn’t tempered, and there were razor-sharp shards almost to the back shop where I found the brick that was used.

Dylen, our first hire, came in early on a Sunday to help with clean up. We took home the most expensive bikes, locked up everything else, and asked customers to pick up their repaired bikes ASAP. Damage control phase completed, we commenced the recovery and revenge phases.

We were insured so we added up the expenses to make the claim:
$3400 58cm Fairdale with Campagnolo Potenza and Hope RX4 brakes
$1200 for a tempered 3’ x 8’ pane of glass and installation

That came to $4600. The policy had a $1000 deductible and — here is the fine print — it only covers cost. That Fairdale was only worth $2400 to the insurance company. At the moment we are $2k in the hole from the theft and that doesn’t even count the hours spent cleaning up, dealing with the insurance company and police, and fighting the City of Saint Paul.

Wait, what? A few days later I noticed a guy wearing khakis and a shirt with buttons loitering on our corner. He had a clipboard and that made him look official. I went out to talk to him wondering if he was the insurance adjustor. Nope, he was from Code and Inspections. He was there checking to make sure the plywood had been installed. Upon learning this I asked why and was told that we would soon be receiving an invoice from the City for the work.

Excuse me? We just got robbed and now you are sending us a bill for it? Fuck. Off. Saint. Paul. As I recovered from that news I asked him the same question that I have been asking ever since: Why don’t you bill the criminal? No one, not him, not my elected officials or their staff, has been able to come up with a satisfactory justification for the $470 we were invoiced. That’s $310 for materials and $160 for a City administrative fee.

Eventually I did hear back from my Council Member and Code and Inspections. The former wasn’t aware of this City practice and policy; the latter explained the process for appealing the assessment, which involves filling additional paperwork and making my case to the Council. Or something like that. The process wasn’t logical and I was too pissed off to play their game.

tree box

We all come from somewhere.

Instead, since May 2, 2021, I have shaded the City to everyone who asks about the plywood window on the front of our store. The plywood is going to stay there until the City buys back its brick which was used to smash our window ($470) and it changes its asinine policy of penalizing the victims of crime.

So what should the City have done? 1) prevent crime (but I realize that such a thing is unrealistic when something like 100 shots were fired that same night elsewhere in St. Paul); 2) contact me when my business has been broken into so I can secure it myself; and 3) failing those other things, go ahead and charge me the $470 but refund it when I install a new pane of glass — otherwise there’s little incentive for me to spend $1200 replacing the window when we’re already out $2,000.

We had said good-bye to downtown St. Paul a long time before this happened. This was just additional vindication of our decision to move our family and our business. We love the people we’ve met along the way, and they deserve way better from City Hall and their elected officials. 

What is our niche?

Storefront logo

As we close out our second season in the business we have been reflecting on who we are, what our niche is, and what our vision is for the next 5-10 years. Other people are asking us these questions too. Eighteen months after we opened our doors our responses to those questions remains the same: We are an independent, self-financed, service-focused bike shop which has built a customer base through advocacy, word-of-mouth, and (of course) great service. Our niche is that we are small and we are good.

Since opening we have by design and out of necessity pursued a slow growth business model. That’s how it goes when building a business powered by personal savings, a side hustle, and an AmEx card obtained when I had a salaried job. Four or five months in the business was generating enough cashflow that it was able to purchase inventory, pay rent, and set aside money for rent in the colder months. In that first year of operation I paid myself $3,000. 

This year has brought its own set of challenges. Our slow growth model doesn’t always interface well with the biking industry. Most days I wonder if we are the smallest cog in their machine. Our diminutive size means that we don’t enjoy volume discounts on tubes, tires, bikes, and everything else. We get it: It’s not just, it’s just business. But it is going to be a problem one day when the only bike shops still standing are Erik’s, Freewheel, and a handful of boutique shops. We don’t want to be Erik’s and we don’t want to be a boutique shop.

So is the neighborhood bike shop an anachronism or is it feasible? More to the point: Is any small scale retail viable in a space dominated by Amazon and large brick and mortar chains? Talk to us five years from now and maybe we’ll have your answer.

In the meantime we humbly suggest some changes to the retail environment which could allow new small businesses to bloom:

  1. Pass a living wage ordinance, like, yesterday. The smallest small business — ahem, us  — are usually exempted, but our competition, because they are bigger, takes the hit. And they damn well should be paying their people more. This was a record year for the biking industry and those front line workers should share some of the spoils for taking all the risks.
  2. Tax the hell out of vacant storefronts. That storefront is vacant for a few possible reasons including: the rent is too high, the demand is low, or the retail space needs to lose money as a write-off because it is part of someone’s investment portfolio. That vacant storefront imposes a cost on adjacent businesses because it can attract undesirable uses which, in turn, makes the street unwelcoming. Just ask any of our neighbors if opening our shop improved the corner and the neighborhood. Just ask us how much we’d like a tenant in the empty storefront next to our shop (yes, please!). Taxing vacancies might provide incentive for some landlords to look harder for a tenant, to lower their leasing rates, and it might even provide the city a revenue stream for addressing quality-of-life issues in the downtown area.
  3. Take a holistic approach to retail corridors and business development. Successful businesses rarely exist in a vacuum; they are often part of a looked-after corridor, node or district. A great example of a nearly-complete corridor is Grand Avenue because it has a critical mass of businesses; it has street trees and trash cans; and it is an interesting place to walk. But could be a lot better if traffic were slowed so pedestrians could safely cross the street. And when traffic slows good things happen. No one window shops at 40 mph. No one wants to dine in a parklet with adjacent traffic moving that fast.
  4. Work to attract and retain small businesses. Saint Paul (and other midsize to large cities) prefers the supernova approach to the thousand points of light approach when it comes to economic development. This approach manifests as ball parks, sports arenas, large convention halls, and Class A office space intended to lure big corporate fish. It almost always involves a sales tax levy to pay for the stuff and to build lots of structured parking. A less expensive, harder, but more sustainable approach would be to fund a small business liaison office which could help new businesses find space, connect with lenders, obtain business services (regulatory compliance, insurance, accounting, internet, healthcare, etc) at a subsidized rate. Where would we get the money for that? See #2.

These are all feasible ideas and none of them are original. COVID (or not), unrest (or not), recession (or not), there are small businesses that need help. What we have learned in 2020 is that when disruption happens it isn’t the agile that survives — as we might have been led to believe by Charles Darwin or Malcolm Gladwell; it is the already advantaged businesses that are in the best position to hang on (read: large PPP loans/grants) and even grow (Amazon, Instacart, and big box retail). This has to be corrected because the worst thing for Lake Street would be to rebuild as a corridor of wine bars and cheese shops operating in buildings owned by real estate investors. 

Our next blog post will be about real estate because that, probably more than any single factor, determines the success or failure of a business. The TL;DR is the rent is almost always too damn high.

 

Master and Servant: A review of me, Zwift and the Elite Suito

bike and trainer

Master and servant (not pictured). Pardon the clutter, I Zwift at the shop.

I don’t have fitness goals, I have lifestyle goals. I want to drink IPAs when desired, not count calories, and keep the same clothing size… because, while wardrobe churn is long overdue, I need to reserve my money for things lower down in Maslow’s hierarchy.

The User
Pursuant to my lifestyle goals I find myself on the road to nowhere with increasing frequency. I have an aging set of CycleOps rollers which I’ll spend 30 minutes on a few times per week. The rollers have magnetic resistance so I can get a workout without having to spin out a 53 x 11. I have a few self-imposed workouts I use:

Resistance 5/5

  • Start in 53 x 28 and pedal for 5 minutes. Then drop down to the next smaller cog (25t) and pedal for 5 more minutes. Then another cog and another 5. The goal is to get to 30 minutes without vomiting or putting a foot down, and keeping cadance in the 100-120 range. Trust me, this is hard.
  • Start in 53 x 28 and pedal for 5 minutes. Then drop down 3 cogs (19t) and pedal for 2 minutes. Then bump up one cog (21t) for 3 minutes. Then bump up one more to start the next 10 minute block.

Resistance 4/5

  • Follow the regimen of the first bullet point but start one cog down the stack (25t).

If I keep my heart rate at/above 150 bpm and my cadence ~110 rpm, then I get a good sweat and I feel the Bern riding home from the shop. But if the world is to keep turning and humanity is to keep improving then one’s reach should always exceed one’s grasp. And what I was reaching for (and failing to grasp) was another Lupulin IPA and/or slice of Pizza Luce (Fire breathing dragon, vegan style). I had to figure out how to burn more calories.

Rollers are a fun skill to master but they have downsides: noise, tire wear, and the need for constant focus by the rider. Thirty minutes is my limit when I’m staring at my front tire and metrics on my bike computer. Over the years I have heard tales of people spending 1, 2, even 3 hours on the stationary trainer. How were they doing it?

I decided to check out Zwift. A number of people I follow on Strava were using it, and so were some of our customers. Zwift has a 7 day free trial. There seemed to be no downside.

pairing screen in Zwift

Pairing your bluetooth devices is simple and the software is reliable.

Zwifting
I went to their website and downloaded the app to my iMac. I answered a few questions about my height and weight and then I was teleported to Watopia. Wapotia is a fantasy land populated by dinosaurs and people who sustain outputs of >5 watts/kg. The dinosaurs are more real than those TdF riders — none of whom I’ve caught and whose existence is only revealed by fleeting appearances on the slate of ‘Riders near me.’

Watopia seems to be a mash-up of Atlantis, Big Sur, the Italian Alps, and the Brady Bunch Tiki god episode. I set the graphics to 1080p which was all my 2013 iMac and Comcast connection could handle. At those settings you can expect a world reminiscent of Ridge Racer circa PS3 days.

But whatever, because riding in real life, I’m not trying to look at the scenery; I’m there to chase down the person in front of me while making sure the numbers of my bike computer are what they ought to be. On both counts Zwift is a great training partner — nay, enabler.

Time for a ride. I loaded the app and rotated my 27” monitor to face the rollers. The program helpfully locates and syncs with any bluetooth transmitters you use. I synced my heart rate monitor, cadence sensor, and speed sensor. For the program to recognize ANT+ devices it requires a ANT+ usb dongle for your computer.

The program also asks what trainer you use. Here’s where I encountered some difficulty. Zwift is compatible with dumb trainers (aka a trainer you don’t have plug in) but its database is limited. My rollers weren’t in the database so I selected ‘Generic Rollers’ for one ride and ‘Cyclops Mag trainer’ for the next ride. The first vastly underestimated my power while the other upped my FTP to the mid 300 watts after a 40 minute ride. Allow me to decode that: I’m not a Cat 1 racer in my mid 20s as Zwift was suggesting.

Compatibility and useability are different things. On a flat road Zwift takes a reading from your speed and cadence sensors and determines your power output. It works fine; go faster or slower by choosing a harder or easier gear, and you will do more or less work while pedaling. But when the road turns up the experience gets a little cartoonish: your speed starts to drop and the world around you slows down. WTF? Oh, you’re on a climb so to increase your speed you will need to increase your cadence or drop into a harder gear. In the game you will be moving at 5 mph but your wheel on the trainer may be moving at 25-30 mph. Hello dissonance!

But it all mostly works. Unless you are on rollers. Thanks to Zwift I ended a decade-long streak of riding the rollers without a fall. The next streak lasted 3 minutes. Then 2 minutes. Then 4 minutes. A pattern seemed to be emerging: when I got into the game (‘Close the gap!’) I paid less attention to my front wheel and, oops, there goes my balance. I needed a more stable platform if this was going to continue.

Direct Drive
There are three types of trainers: rollers, rear wheel trainers (your wheel contacts a roller; the roller provides the resistance); and direct drive trainers (remove the rear wheel and throw your chain on the trainer’s cassette). Sparing the tire is the big advantage of the direct drive trainer. A subset of these trainers is smart or dumb. Smart trainers plug in and can relay speed, cadence and power data. The newest generation of smart trainers can interface with Zwift and vary resistance according to terrain. The road pitches up and suddenly your effort increases. Goodbye dissonance!

I did some research on direct drive trainers. I checked my personal bank account. I considered power meters. The Elite Suito ($799) looked like the best value (1 month of Zwift and a Shimano R7000 11-28 cassette) and got positive reviews. I lept. A day later it was here.

Unboxing the Elite Suito
Direct drive trainers can be stupid heavy due to large flywheels. They can be loud. This trainer is neither. Pick it up by the handle (nice feature), place it on the floor, fold out the legs, and adjust the feet so the unit is level. Attach the bike by snapping the correct axle ends onto the trainer, lay the chain across a cog, nestle the frame’s dropouts onto the trainer, and close the quick release. Plug it in. Start Zwift. In less than 3 minutes you are ready to go.  No pairing problems. Nothing. Easy. Integrated. Seamless.

Things to keep in mind: 1) your derailleur may need an adjustment to optimize shifting (mine did — my hanger was a little bent); 2) you need to level the bike (I used a bubble level on the seat tube and adjusted the trainer’s feet; and 3) rear disc brake calipers need either a pad separator inserted or (better) the pads pulled and a bleed block inserted. I recommend this third precaution because it is too easy to squeeze the rear brake lever; without a rotor between the pads (remember removing the rear wheel?) you will dislodge the pistons. Oops! Now you’ve got hydraulic fluid all over your new trainer.

Zwift landing page

Once your sensors are paired it is time to select a course or workout. You can join others if you don’t want to ride solo.

Smart Zwifting
I love it. It is so much better than intervals on rollers. It is so much better than Zwifting on a dumb trainer. I joined on January 8 and have logged almost 8 hours, >150 miles, and 12k feet of climbing. That is probably double or triple what I would have ridden without Zwift and the Elite trainer. Here’s why:

  • Gamification. Early in this review I transitioned from calling Zwift an app to calling it a game. Zwift is constantly prodding you to go faster, to close the gap, to beat your old time, to up your watts per kg, etc. More evidence this is a game: it has a scoreboard. As you ride you accrue points. Said points can be used in the Zwift store to purchase virtual kit and custom bikes. I haven’t seen any prompting for in-app purchases — and I hope that’s not an option. Bottom line is that I’m extremely susceptible to this gamification so it does result in longer and faster rides.
  • Socializing. Every time that I’ve logged on there have been >2k people Zwifting. That’s pretty rad. While you ride you can see what countries people are representing. And while it is predominantly North America there is also plenty of representation by Asia and Europe. You can give and get thumbs-up from other riders. I usually log on between 5 and 6 pm so I have started recognizing names. That’s motivating too. 
  • Depth. Every day there are two worlds and multiple rides in each world from which to choose. Newbies can’t access all the rides, you have to unlock them by putting in your time. Watopia is a constant (described above) and the other world rotates with NYC, Richmond VA, London, Innsbruck and Yorkshire. My favorite so far is Innsbruck, Austria, which uses the 2018 World Championship Course. That day I wanted a 30-40 minute workout. An 8 mile course with 1400 feet of climbing? Hello! Yes, please!!
  • Variety. So far I have only ridden solo, but Zwift can connect you with other riders and you can even join races. I don’t like riding with other people IRL, so I think I will reprise my role as Plotz Solo.
  • Fitness. I am in this predicament because I had lifestyle goals to pursue. Buying into the virtual riding world wasn’t cheap, but that cost is now behind me, and it is up to me to make sure that money was well spent. My reality is that I am a time constrained cyclist, approaching middle age, working two jobs: my health and my financial security are intertwined, so it behooves me to invest in my health.
rider screen for zwift

That’s me in orange. The upper portion of the screen tells you wattage, hr, speed, elevation and milage. The left side shows information about the segment you are in. The right side shows you the riders near you, their speed, their effort, and their mileage that day.

Verdict
You can pay more for a smart trainer and you can pay less for a dumb trainer. The Elite Suito ($799) hits the sweet spot relative to its competition. If you pop for one (buy it from us!) then I highly recommend taking advantage of the one month of free Zwift. Drop by or give us a call if you have questions about the equipment or set up. We are always happy to chat. Catch you in Watopia! XOXOXO.

Bike: 2015 Cannondale Caad10 disc with Ultegra R8000 (Not for sale)
Trainer: Elite Suito ($799)
Accessories: 4iii heart rate monitor ($79)
iPhone mount: GoKase iPhone mount ($40)
Software: Zwift ($14.99/month)
Hardware: 2013 21″ iMac with 27″ external monitor

 

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.