My debut into Downhill Series

Last weekend saw a downhill race event happening in Niseko, a little unusual one in that it was part of the Downhill Series organized and mostly done in the mainland. First time in Hokkaido, interesting format, so I jumped right in.

When I was on the national DH circuit about 15-20 years ago, the J-Series was the main focus, which has continued on to become today’s Coupe du Japon, the same national thing under a more chic name. On the other hand there is the newer Downhill Series, a private-run scheme kind of like the Eagle Cup back in the day IYKWIM.

So I went to race on my semi-vintage bike just like last year, photo courtesy of Kakusuke.

After all, what we said about these Norco bikes when we were the Japanese distributor was right; built tough, built to last. This photo is from the timed session on Saturday, and the race format is awesome in that you can have fun and be competitive throughout the weekend up to the final race time on Sunday.

I was horribly over-pumped for the timed session, which sent me off the bike 3 or 4 times, resulting in a bad chain suck that didn’t even allow me to keep both pedals level in the latter half. Nothing to be noted about my record of 4:59.863, more than a minute slower than the top pros.

For Sunday I was forced to take a different approach. Lots of taping on my legs and just staying away from crashes. Otherwise, my weekend would just leave me crushed and clueless. It worked, and I finished 11th overall, 27+ seconds slower than the winning pro Naoki Idegawa from Hiroshima, who made his August 6th count. Takusei, the fastest among the locals, was 15 seconds above me, not a minor difference at all.

People seem to think my rather poor run could be attributed to the equipment. I’d kind of like to think so, but actually I built a new wheel set for this, with my first tubeless setup and my first 27.5″ tire up front. I kept my good old 26″ tire from 16 years ago in the back, so that might have been a little stupid for sure. Either way, I’m happy I got to ride and have fun as well as try something new equipment-wise.

Quite randomly it got me thinking the future tire setup for downhills might be 29″ up front and 27.5″/26″ semi-fat convertible for the rear. Oh, mixed diameters banned by UCI? That may change anytime, anyhow. Everyone should have realized the UCI is not all it’s cracked up to be, no ultimate justice, when Peter Sagan was disqualified from the Tour de France this year.

Speaking of equipment, one may wonder why I was running protective glasses for DIY rather than proper goggles. It brings tears to my eyes when I try to explain, so I’ll try again on a later date.

At the end of the day, this great weekend at the national-level DH event coming to Hokkaido for the first time in decades would not have happened without Orie, an avid racer and landscaper in my neighborhood, who started participating in these events in the mainland a couple years ago and appealing for deployment to the north. So thanks and also congratulations on winning it as well. We’re all so proud of you.

Ain’t Boost standard nothing but a joke?

This talk will involve some technical stuff about MTB. It may not be interesting without relevant knowledge, but we’re sorry, we are not elaborating on all that because there is just too much.

Back when MTB was born, component standards were pretty simple, with dimensions of parts unified in most cases. Like if you buy MTB stuff somewhere, you can put it on yours. It was easy to mash two bikes into one. In the last decade or two, though, bike companies started coming up with their own standards, making it a nightmare for you if you wanted to build your own bike from scratch. The kind of diversification as seen in the wheel size starting from 26″ to also include 29″ and even 27.5″ later has happened to virtually every part of the bike and fitting standards therein.

On one hand, this is great. It has made it easier to build a bike that suits the rider’s build and preferences. It’s also just necessary sometimes to step out of existing standards if you are striving to create the ultimate industrial products. Without such attitudes, the Ahead system deriving from the MTB world would not have taken over all sport bike segments including road racers and BMX. We, too, employed our original BB standard for our Tanatos frame because it would just make some industrial sense to us that way.

On the other hand, as bike designers, we are skeptical about “new” standards without reasons. Case in point: Boost standard for MTB front hubs (accompanied by the new rear hub design, which we’ll skip on as there is just too much to mention).

Front hubs of sport bikes, mainly those equipped with multiple speeds, namely road and MTB, typically used to have a 9mm shaft with quick release. The width, called the over lock nut (OLD) length, was 100mm. In line with standardization of suspension forks and disc brakes, however, mountain bikes especially those in mechanically demanding usage such as downhill saw the rise of 20mm axles in 110mm width since around the end of the 20th century. The thicker axle was to compensate for the loss of rigidity owing to the structural limitations of suspension forks. The wider hub contributed to maintaining the lateral rigidity of the wheel with its greater spoke flange widths compensating for the space given to the disc rotor.

Then about a decade ago, the next standard with 15mm shaft and 100mm OLD appeared, claiming its merit in weight saving thanks to downsizing. I would say it’s 99% nonsense, with the remaining 1% being stingy reasons about stimulating new demands out of saturated markets. That’s what we suck at anyway hence is what we don’t care much about.

To put the design problem simple, the claim that the thinner tubing makes it lighter will get you something like the Alan road frame back in the day. Sure, it’s easier to make it light with smaller diameter, as long as you don’t care about rigidity. Those 20mm and 15mm hub shafts are usually made of aluminum, a material that usually has a better balance between weight, rigidity and strength if designed with a larger diameter with thinner wall thicknesses (specifics depends on material characteristics, but aluminum performs better with ever larger diameters typically). If they were serious about ultimate cross-country performance, it would have made more sense to create a thin-wall 20mm shaft. Sorry it’s not even theoretical analysis but pure gut feeling of mine, but I’d guess that’d be lighter and stronger than regular 15mm shafts. On a side note, hub manufacturers offer a bunch of hubs compatible with both 15/100 and 20/110, which realistically means there are’t many of those optimized for either standard.

Now, the industry has come up with new stuff, the Boost standard with 15mm shaft and 110mm OLD. If I’m to elaborate, the wider flange width ensures plenty of strength for large wheels, with proven lightweight. All the better than the previous 15/100, so why not replace your current one? To put it simple in my own words, that’s the death of 15mm standards. Lightweight-minded with all the sacrifice you could ever think of, as if in a case of a boxer with his hair shaved and teeth pulled out for weight loss, and he’s saying, yeah let’s go back to 110 heavyweight, I’ll show em what I’ve got. He’ll die. The longer span means more diameter needed to ensure rigidity anyway, right?

So here is my conclusion, full of biases based on personal preference so it’s up to you whether or not to swallow. The 15mm standards have gone in a full circle and are going to die off, handing their foothold back to the good ol’ 20/110. If the industry was serious about optimization they may land on something like 25/120, but it’s going to take a lot to rewrite whatever exists. We may witness the scene revert to 20/110 in a few years, and see a new struggle for the very best that may likely entail not only the dimensions but also the hub fixing mechanism in a decade or so that follows.

Hey escalator lambs

A week ago I was in Shanghai, attending the China Cycle Expo. It was technically my second time to visit mainland China, though the short day trip to Shenzhen from and back to Hong Kong last time doesn’t really count.

Of course my 7-day stay in Shanghai doesn’t make me an expert, but I did see and understand some stuff about China. If you have heard about the country having no order in traffic on roads, no bottom limit in food quality if you go for the cheapo, or no bottom limit in bike quality likewise, that’s probably true. Yet, there is at least one thing about China I absolutely fell in love with; there was something about the way people rode escalators.

I’ve always wished upon stars that the kind of people who never doubt the perceived golden rule that you need to stand on one side when using an escalator so as not to block those in a hurry shall die, as soon as possible.

I have done my share of walking, or even running, on escalators. That’s only optional, though, when there is space. Plus, I’ve never heard any escalator manufacturer or railway operator officially recommend such practice. If you take it as a natural right, or standing on one side in order for it as an inherent obligation, that only goes to show your lack of thinking, as if too much “reading the atmosphere” exercise replaced your brain with air.

In retrospect, the watershed moment that turned me into this escalator monster happened out of the blue at Shinagawa Station in Tokyo a few years back. I got off Yamanote Line and was going up on the escalator from the platform, heading for Haneda Airport. I had some luggage but moreover my foot hurt, or was broken to be precise, which hindered me from standing straight on one side leaving enough room for the hurrying type. There comes this man in a suit who starts bitching upon getting blocked. I’m nice enough on any day to advise him to run up the solid stairs if he were in a hurry, a simple point that he never seemed to understand on that sad day.

Generally speaking, it is not quite likely that the chance of your missing the most important moment in life without running up that escalator greatly exceed that of someone carrying large luggage, being able to hang onto the handrail on either specific side due to physical reasons, needing space for crutches, etc. Besides, it’s usually faster to run up the stairs if you are serious.

In China, or at least in Shanghai Metro, people would just flock around the escalator and get on it as a single organic entity. Sometimes, when crowded, each step may be occupied by two people standing side by side. It was not abnormal that I had such a comrade on the same step, young or old, guy or girl, something that almost never happens in Japan. I see that’s just normal the Chinese way as much as it should be anywhere, considering the even smaller personal space aboard the train anyway.

So here is the most important point: Escalators generate the highest overall transporting capacity when people flock in a big single line to ride them. That’s just based on my observation and contemplation so I’d be happy if human engineering or traffic engineering experts could discuss and simulate and agree or disagree, but I’m quite confident. For example, though no valid comparative statistics here, Sapporo seems to have longer lines before escalators at train and subway stations, which also take much longer to digest, in comparison to Shanghai, a city with about 13 times as much population. All that’s for the sake of a slightly faster travel time for the few that run, who are not even serious runners that use the stairs.

One concern I have is it seems some Chinese locals with some kind of high awareness don’t take the status quo positively. In the worst case, I may visit China again only to find a newly established “manner.” That’s my fear. I don’t think such self constriction with compliance-minded attempts thought out by fools should suit China. It should suit none, I know, but I know a case where such attempts have gone so far that it makes you wonder if it’s too late to return.

Requiem for a 76er

Once upon a time, there was a BMXer-turned-MTB pro rider named John Tomac who dominated the early mountainbike race scene. He later did road racing too, during which period I heard news about him crashing after attempting to avoid another racer who fell in front of him. By avoiding I mean, well he meant, bunnyhopping over. That kind of approach to things intrigues me. However, if something worse happens to those that take that kind of approach, I’m bummed.

Alpinist Ueli Steck reportedly passed away a few days ago. He’s not my personal friend but someone I’m a fan of, and someone born in the same year. What a bummer.

As you may know, Ueli a.k.a. the Swiss Machine was recognized most widely for his ultra high speed climbing, as in his infamous Eiger ascent in way less than three hours, as opposed to a few days it takes most world famous alpinists. Some say he was actually very precise and careful contrary to that public image, but I see no wonder. Without utmost carefulness, he wouldn’t have been climbing for decades. That is, one mistake can just be literally fatal.

One of the reasons I’m fascinated by such radical styles of mountaineering like what he has demonstrated is because of this insight that other sports like bike riding have in common. That’s about your stance as to how to handle the dilemma concerning safety, by which I mean it’s sometimes safer to forget about ropes and climb fast. Safety equipment such as bells and brakes, if equipped on Keirin bikes, will only make it more dangerous. Likewise, spending time on ensuring more safety in high altitudes than necessary is nothing but ridiculous in consideration of weather, fatigue, equipment weight, and other factors. Although, the “necessary” level largely depends on the skill of the person, so it’s virtually impossible to discuss it from a neutral, objective viewpoint. The only comprehensible index left will be, sadly, whether the person died in the mountains.

It breaks my heart that Ueli went to that side of the story, but the inspiration he has given to the world will still live on. Climb in peace.

That seasonal CAD fever

Just heard cherry blossoms have finally reached this area.

Meanwhile at NSP, I’ve been just drawing stuff all day long.

Working on an involute curve, which is often used for gears. Also a long time ago, God had to punch G codes for this curve into the machining center when creating the Ammonite, so he could use the finished piece as the base mold to mass-produce ammonites by injection molding in China or somewhere and distribute in all seven seas. That was about 400 million years ago, when 3D printers were not available.

Involute curves are also used for splines on shaft ends, such as drive shafts and steering shafts on automobile and some BB shaft/crank interface and rear sprocket interface on bikes. However, these curved splines have only been acquiring some popularity in the last few decades or so, and especially in the bike world, they have been hindered by old straight-cut splines. Take the square 9-spline for cassette cogs. It looks just like 9 Kim Jong-un’s arrayed on the circumference. Or the 48-spline standard in BMX. That’s based on SAE J500 or something, an obsolete standard. What it all means is nothing more than that these outdated stuff may perform poorly, break easily, and not make sense, though. Nothing serious.

By examining each and every mechanical element, preparing drawings and having factories make it, voila, you’ve got the best bike this planet has ever seen. Being a bike manufacturer is as simple as that. This way, we are striving to reinvent the wheel day after day.

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