"Bikes & Cycling" Archives

Dec 06 2017

Why You Need a Camera in Your Toolbox by Tamia Nelson

You don’t think “camera” when you draw up a list of essential bike tools? Well, maybe you ought to think again.

You won’t find a digital camera in most bike mechanics’ tool kits, but maybe it ought to be there. This is especially true if the mechanics in question have a little trouble seeing things close up. My misadventure with sweat-etched bar-end shifters — also called “barcons” — really brought this point home. Even with the help of my reading glasses, I couldn’t see the extent of the corrosion. In fact, I didn’t realize that what I saw was corrosion until I brought a 10-power hand lens to bear. But it was only when I turned to my camera that I got a really good look at the problem. And there was an unexpected bonus: My digital photos were easy to share round, which helped me get some badly needed advice from more experienced mechanics.

Barcon Corrosion Revealed by the Camera Photo on Tamiasoutside.com (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop

A digital camera also makes it easy to document complex procedures like swapping handlebars. Then, once the job is done, I have a permanent reference. So the next time I have to tackle the same chore, I won’t have to struggle to remember how I did it. (I won’t repeat any earlier mistakes, either!) The EXIF data embedded in each image is useful, too. It tells me how much time has passed since the repair or modification. And by comparing the time stamp on the first and last photo, I can also tell how much time it took to do the procedure.

Pretty neat, don’t you think? But there’s more. I collect my shop photos in an indexed file on my computer. The result? Over the years I’ve built up a fairly comprehensive album of repair and maintenance procedures, and that album keeps getting better. It’s like having a repair manual written just for me and my bikes. Which is why a digital camera is now a permanent part of my tool kit.

What about you? Have you been wishing that someone would write a better manual for your bike? If so, why not make your own? It’s easier than you might think. Just point and shoot and save. The camera and your computer will do the rest. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, isn’t it?

This article is an update of one originally published on 8 November 2011.

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Dec 03 2017

Bar(con) Talk: A Harrowing Tale of Bar-End Shifter Corrosion by Tamia Nelson

Some things look worse — far worse — the closer you look at them. That’s the case with bar-end (or barcon) corrosion. The scourge of bar-end corrosion can happen to anyone, even to cyclists who are diligent about keeping their bikes in fine working order. It’s happened to Tamia’s Surly Long Haul Trucker. And it’s been found on a Soma Smoothie built by a mechanic friend of hers. Has it happened to your bike? You’d better check. Today. Because the consequences of not nipping bar-end corrosion in the bud can make you feel faint.

I discovered the scourge of bar-end shifter corrosion when my Surly Long Haul Trucker was almost six years old, and with over 18000 miles on the clock. She’s — I named her Petra, and it suits her; she’s really been a rock — she’s my maid of all work for most everything from shopping to “amphibious” trekking. She’s held up well, despite the fact that a lot of the roads in my corner of the North Country are paved in gravel. And I’m not boasting when I say she’s been well-maintained. Petra is spoiled, in fact. Though she’s perfectly capable, I don’t ride her on winter roads. Liberal applications of salt and grit to local roads are killers of steel-framed bikes and ferrous components. I leave winter riding to my alloy mountain bike. But despite all the loving care I’ve given Petra — wiping her down after misty rides, keeping moving parts in fine fettle with just the right amount of lube — I was shocked discover that Petra had become …


The full horror of bar-con shifter corrosion must be seen to understand the sinking feeling I experienced in the pit of my stomach when I happened to discover it on Petra. Here are some photos of what it looks like:

Pretty dramatic stuff, eh? Yet the extent of the corrosion didn’t register until a week later. While I oil my shifters regularly, I don’t look at them closely  — I don’t often wear my reading glasses when I work on my bikes — and since both shifters had a slightly rough finish right out of the box, my fingertips weren’t much help, either. These are rather feeble excuses, of course. I should have been more attentive. After all, I sometimes rest my hands on the bar-end shifters for short periods when I’m on the road, and my hands sweat inordinately. Farwell ends a 30-mile ride with bone-dry hands, whereas I finish the distance with gloves that are so sweat-soaked that I can wring salt water from them. And salt isn’t kind to aluminum. I suppose it’s also possible that the leather of my cycling gloves contribute, if the tanning process left residues behind. I’ll never know.

Once I grasped the extent of the problem, however, I lost no time in getting a closer look, using my camera’s macro capabilities to bring me in real tight. (A camera makes a fine addition to the mechanic’s tool box, by the way.) The photos above were the result, and they made it clear that I needed to…


I turned to my store of gun-cleaning supplies, a relic of a time when I owned a lovely 20-gauge sidelock Arrieta side-by-side whose barrels had an unfortunate tendency to sprout surface rust after every heavy dew. The mainstay of my cleaning arsenal back then was a paste-like metal polish known as Flitz:

Flitz it Out Photo on Tamiasoutside.com (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop

The maker suggests that Flitz works as well on aluminum as it does on blued steel, so I figured I’d give it a try. (I ran a test on a bit of aluminum scrap first, though, just to be sure that the cure wouldn’t be worse than the disease. Primum non nocere has relevance in fields far removed from medicine.) Cotton patches and a Scotch-Brite scrubber rounded out my anti-corrosion battle gear, with a few Q-Tips thrown in for mopping up operations in tight corners. I left the 0000 steel wool in the box, though. Using steel wool on aluminum is asking for trouble. Small fragments of steel work their way into the softer aluminum, where they remain. The result? Rusty aluminum, of course!

The rest was easy. I removed the plastic covers from the levers (they slide off with encouragement), then daubed a little Flitz on the worst spots and started scrubbing. And when I say “a little,” I really do mean a little. A very small amount of Flitz goes a long way:

Flitz it On With a Swab Photo on Tamiasoutside.com (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop

And when a Q-Tip proved too bulky, I turned to a cotton patch wrapped around a toothpick. That delivered just enough of the sovereign remedy to even the tightest corners. Then it was time to start scrubbing:

Scotch-Brite Scrubby Photo on Tamiasoutside.com (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop

After that, I wiped off the resulting gunge:

Polish With a Cotton Patch Photo on Tamiasoutside.com (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop

All that remained was to lay down a gossamer coat of light oil on the shifter pods, levers, and through-bolts by way of benison, before squeezing a drop or two of oil into all pivot-points:

Lightly Coat With Oil Photo on Tamiasoutside.com (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop

Now I was ready to put the shifters through their paces, first on the workstand and then on the road. The result? A clean pass. Later in the year, I broke down the shifters into their component parts and was relieved to find that corrosion hadn’t spread to the internal workings.

The upshot? While my shifters will never regain their showroom shine — the pitting is too deep for that — I’ve succeeded in stopping the rot in its tracks. And you can be sure I do a better job cleaning Petra than I had been doing. Everything that my sweaty hands touches now gets a good wash, followed by a light dressing of oil. And what about you? Have you taken a close look at your shifters lately? If not, there’s no time like the present. I can’t be the only rider in the world with sweaty palms, can I?


An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the old saying states. It might be winter where you are, and your bike might be on the rack for the season, but take some time to check it right now. Even if the bike isn’t outfitted with bar-end shifters. And it it IS, then take a magnifying glass if you need to and make sure there isn’t any corrosion.

Why bother? If the photos above don’t convince you, then consider the experience of a friend of mine who is also a retired professional bike mechanic. He wrote this weekend to tell me he’d discovered corrosion on the barcons of the Soma Smoothie he built up some years ago. The corrosion is so bad on one of the cable ferrules that it’s become welded to the barcon pod and needs to be drilled out, with cables and casings replaced.

The bottom line? Spare yourself the trouble and expense of having to repair the results of corrosion. A little effort after each ride to inspect — and nip in the bud — corrosion before it becomes wide spread will pay off. Do it now.

This article is an update of one originally published on 12 April 2014.

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Nov 29 2017

How to Keep Your Hands Warm When Cycling in Cold Conditions by Tamia Nelson

Cold-weather cycling can be every bit as pleasurable as the fair-weather counterpart, but nothing can bring a winter ride to an end faster than numb hands. Here are some strategies to help avoid that.

Who likes bicycling with cold hands? Not me, and not you either, I’d be willing to bet. Not only can cold hands be painful, but they are unresponsive. Working shifters and brakes when fingers are numb is dangerous. But finding a way to keep hands and fingers warm and supple on cold rides isn’t as easy as simply keeping them warm. Warmth and dexterity must be reconciled. Mittens are the enemy of dexterity, while gloves don’t always manage to keep the hands warm in slicing cold winds. I’ve always favored gloves, but they’re not as warm as mittens. There’s more. A fabric’s ability to keep hands warm is a function of the thickness of insulation, yet if insulation is too thick, dexterity is hampered and it’s hard to get a solid grip on the bars.

So clothing hands for cold weather is a trade-off. What’s it to be, gloves or mittens? That depends. I prefer insulated fleece gloves for sub-freezing conditions…

Insulated Gloves

…though I’ll use mittens on my mountain bike, where I don’t require the same fine dexterity to operate the grip-shifters. If the gloves don’t keep my hands warm, I wear windstopper gloves as liners inside the fleece gloves. Here are the “naked” windstopper gloves:

Windstopper Gloves

They don’t appeal to you? Then how about a middle way? Lobster mitts provide the best of both gloves and mittens. Your index and middle fingers slip down into one wide slot, and ring and pinkie fingers slip into a second wide slot — that’s a picture of Farwell’s lobster mitt at the head of the article. They’re windproof and fleece-lined, which makes them good on their own in cool conditions, and for colder weather, a wool or fleece liner glove improves insulation.

Lobster Mitts and Insulated Gloves

The downside? You can’t wear mittens inside lobster gloves, and even more important, finding reasonably priced lobster mitts has become difficult. But keep your eyes peeled. I got a pair of unlined lobster mitts for less than USD15 on sale through Nashbar Bike a few years ago. They’re lightweight, windproof, and can be tucked into a corner of my handlebar bag, right next to toe-warmers, just in case I need them.

Warm Hands

The bottom line? Numb of painful hands can ruin a cold-weather bike ride, so it pays to give plenty of attention to keeping them warm. With a mix of insulating and wind-stopping layers, it’s possible to find a solution for every condition. Your hands and fingers will thank you.

This article is an update of one originally published on 31 December 2009.

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Nov 24 2017

It’s Alimentary: From Soup to Nuts to Soup Again —
A Cornucopia of Seasonal Treats by Tamia Nelson

Now that the shopping holiday season has begun in earnest, few of us are thinking about paddling — or cycling, come to that. (So many HyperMarts, so little time!) But we still have to eat, right?

No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds —
— Thomas Hood, “No!”

November is an indecisive month, teetering on the cusp between autumn and winter. At least that’s how it is in Canoe Country, and while the New Model Climate is now pushing the thermostat higher with every passing year, November is still full of surprises. On one day, we wake to summer‑like temperatures and balmy breezes. On the next, we look out on three inches of new snow.

And then there’s the sky. Gray is the dominant color note, a theme echoed by the gray hills and reflected in the ominously gray water. Only the stands of spruce and pine provide an occasional, and very welcome, visual respite. All in all, November doesn’t invite us to linger out of doors. Day trips are fun, but it’s hard to work up enthusiasm for anything more ambitious. A little bit of gray goes a long, long way. I’d rather camp in the drifts on a mountain col on a sunny (if arctic) February weekend than pitch a tent by the shore of a gunmetal gray pond on a monochrome November day. Yet the relentlessly gray days of November have their compensations. Thanksgiving comes in November, for one thing. (That’s for paddlers living in the bits of Canoe Country lying south of the Webster–Ashburton Treaty line, of course. Our neighbors to the north celebrated the holiday last month.) And Thanksgiving is a good time to sample the fruits of the year… Read more…

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