Adding a 20t chainring

When you pedal a bike, your feet push pedals. Those pedals turn on arms. Those arms are called cranks. The cranks are attached together, and in the middle you have one or more rings with teeth on them, around which the chain moves when you pedal the bike. The whole apparatus is called a crankset, and those rings are called chainrings.

For example, this is the standard Bacchetta Giro 20 crankset with three chainrings on it. The chain is currently on the middle ring. The standard Bacchetta rings have 50 teeth, 39 teeth, and 30 teeth, from largest to smallest. This was the crankset on Valoria, my original Giro 20.

On the left you can see a Shimano Deore M590 crankset, with 44, 32, and 22-tooth chainrings. This is the crankset I installed on Valoria II. Having a 22-tooth ring in the smallest spot instead of the standard 30-tooth ring allows me to spin the pedals about 40% faster and still put out the same amount of power. That means I can carry all my touring gear up hills more easily. I can drop my maximum speed lower without straining my knees. My experience has shown me that with this chainring I can slow down to about 2.5 miles-per-hour and still keep the bike steady.

On the right you can see a 20-tooth chainring. This is what I intend to install onto the Shimano Deore M590 crankset, swapping it out with the 22-tooth chainring. It will speed up my cadence by 10% on top of the 40% speedup I already have.

Why is this worth doing? Why does this matter to me? I think the best way to explain this is with an experiment:

Take your bike outside. Now stack eight full-size bricks on the back of it. Yeah, the kind of bricks you build walls with. Now, get on the bike, and pedal those bricks up the steepest hill you can find, over and over again, until you’ve climbed the equivalent of 2000 feet with those bricks. Now repeat that exercise every day for two weeks.

Long-range bicycle riders are all a little bit crazy, because this is what they do. They make it manageable by climbing as slowly as they can. After a hundred hours pedaling like this, you are ready to do whatever it takes to go even a little bit slower; oh yes! If you’re lucky you can go slow enough that your digestion can actually keep up with this all-day energy demand, and you won’t starve to death right there on your bike! I’m only sort of joking.

So yeah, I’m putting this gear on. I’m going as low as I can go.

But this is a tricky operation, because the Shimano crankset isn’t designed to hold a ring that small. If I just bolted the new ring on without doing anything else, the chain would lay very awkwardly against the four posts holding the ring, and wouldn’t mesh with the teeth. The chain would slip along the ring unpredictably, or slip entirely off, causing me to lose control and crash the bike. And the chain itself would quickly become damaged as well.

So what I’m gonna do is, take the cranks off the bike, remove the 22-tooth ring, shave down the four posts with a Dremel tool, and put everything back together with the 20-tooth ring instead.

First things first. I’ve switched gears on the bike until I’m on the smallest front gear. Now I’m using my smallest L-shaped hex wrench to pull the chain off the gear as I turn the cranks, so the chain ends up resting on the boom of the recumbent. I want that greasy thing out of the way while I work.

This little wingnut gadget is called an “Adjusting Cap Tool“. It’s for removing the plastic plug on the left end of the axle, where the left crank is attached. Not something I’m going to be doing all the time, but something that definitely goes easier if I have this fancy little tool. When I removed the plug, I observed that it’s actually screwed in very loosely. I need to remember not to tighten it very much at all when I’m putting it back on later.

These items are strictly optional, but help the work go faster. The big thing is a combination speeder/breaker bar. Essentially a jointed handle that you can use to apply a lot of force and unstick bolts, or spin around like a crank to screw in bolts quickly. It’s the macho version of a wrench. The two smaller things are a 3/8" to 1/4" adapter and a 5mm hex bit socket. I used them like so:

I did not need to remove the bolts holding the left-side crank, I only needed to loosen them two or three turns. Then I used the Adjusting Cap Tool again:

There’s a little metal safety catch on the left-side crank. It’s a last line of defense to keep your crank from sliding off if you forget to tighten the bolts or one of them somehow breaks. Using the little ridge on the side of the Adjusting Cap Tool, I lifted it up, so I could pull the crank off.

With the left crank removed, the rest of the crankset can be pulled out from the right side.

At this point I sat down with the crankset and started tinkering. I had a 30-tooth chainring that I tried swapping out with the 32-tooth ring, but that didn’t fit. I gave up on it and removed the 22-tooth ring, and bolted the 20-tooth ring into place.

Marking the bolts with dots, clockwise, so they can be placed back in the same sockets afterwards. Also marking the region on each bolt to be shaved off.

With the bolts tightened down, the next thing I did was use a permanent marker to label the bolt heads, so I could shave them down the same way I was going to shave down the posts. Once they were marked I removed them again, and took off the 20-tooth ring, and prepared for carving.

This is a Dremel tool with a tungsten-carbide tip, specially designed to carve metal. You can get both for under 40 bucks, and they are well worth it. Being able to easily carve metal, plastic, and wood is a weirdly liberating ability.

Note also the earplugs. Gotta have those. Carving metal can be loud as heck.

I put in the earplugs, wrapped the crankset in a rag, set it on my lap, and began carving the four inner posts down with the Dremel tool, cutting a good-sized notch away from the outer edge of each post.

I had a hunch that I’d need to cut the notches deeper, but this was a good start. I moved on to the bolts.

By sticking a bolt sideways in a pair of vise-grips with the marking line on the outside, I was able to run the Dremel tool along the edge and smooth it down very easily. It only took a few minutes to do all four bolts this way.

I did the carving outside over a section of driveway next to a drain, and then I poured water on the ground to wash the aluminum dust down the drain, and then I washed the aluminum dust off the crankset. Then I took a shower and changed my clothes. I don’t want aluminum alloy dust on my skin or in my lungs, or on my cat’s feet!

Then I reassembled the whole crankset, with the new 20-tooth ring and the bolts in place, placed the chain on the ring, and rode around for a few minutes.

The result: Easily visible grease marks on all the spots where I needed to shave away more metal.

I took the crankset apart again and shaved away all the spots that had accumulated grease. Then I reassembled it for a second time, and did another test.

No grease marks this time. The shaved bolts and notches were perfect — and no bigger than they absolutely needed to be. I was definitely compromising the structural integrity of the lowest gear on my crankset, but at least I wasn’t compromising it more than I had to.

For the final assembly I made sure the bolts were tightened according to the instructions, and re-applied a bunch of lubricant.

Mission accomplished! So, what did I gain?

I loaded 65 pounds of gear onto the bike, using both racks and a backpack. Then I took a ride around Oakland, deliberately aiming for really steep hills. To my astonishment, I could pedal up all of them comfortably. My previous minimum speed had been about 2.5mph. Now I could drop all the way down to 1.9mph without losing stability. That is slower than a casual walking speed!

I know, I know. You’re saying, “what kind of brain-damaged lunatic actually wants to pedal a bike that slow, for hours at a time?” Well, before you judge cycle tourists, consider those people who run in place for hours every week on a treadmill inside “fitness centers”, looking at a television, or starting at a wall. At least we’re outside! Heh heh heh.

Okay, yes. We are lunatics.

Using USB-C to charge a Mavic Air?

Somewhere I got the crazy idea that it would be fun to bring a camera drone on my bike tours. Every bit of weight counts, of course, so I got a portable one called a Mavic Air.

It’s great, but it uses a custom battery that can only be charged with a large power adapter, and the adapter weighs half a pound. I’m already packing a 5-port USB charger that has one USB-C output suitable for charging a MacBook. That should put out more than enough voltage to charge the Mavic battery. Why can’t I use that?

Well, it turns out I can.

This is a little widget called a PD Buddy Sink. You can plug it into a USBC charger like so:

Then you can program it to ask for any voltage that a USBC power source can supply, and make it available. For example, 15 volts at 2 amps, which is enough to feed into this Mavic Air charger designed to plug into a vehicle’s accessory port:

I removed part of the casing to expose the wires, then linked them up to the PD Buddy Sink, like so:

Then I decided to get arts-and-craftsy. I formed a gross looking extension to the car adapter case, using some two-part epoxy and silicone glue. Now it looks like the adapter is digesting the PD Buddy. Mmm! Delicious!

Using my MacBook, I then programmed the PD Buddy Sink to ask my power adapter for 12.5 to 15 volts at 3 amps, with 15 volts preferred:

And after writing the configuration to the PD Buddy, I plugged it in, and presto! It started charging.

On the left, I’m using the 5-port USB charger to charge my MacBook, with a digital USBC power meter attached. The MacBook has negotiated for 20 volts and is getting about 19 volts. On the right, I’ve plugged the same USB charger into my Frankensteined car adapter, and it’s negotiated for 15 volts. Success!

(If you look closely you can see the adapter is pulling only 0.005 amps. That’s because the Mavic Air battery is fully charged.)

So, was it worth it? Well, I weighed my new Frankensteined adapter, and it’s a little less than 1/4th of a pound. So I’ve saved 1/4th of a pound, but I’ve lost the ability to charge my laptop and my battery at the same time, and lost the two extra USB ports that the power brick provided. Nah, it wasn’t really worth it. But I had a good time!

Shaaaame!

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” == “Where there’s smoke, there’s blindness.”

Outrage is now a mechanism to drive ad traffic. Like fear used to sell papers, now it’s outrage to deliver page views. The product is you, staking out your position in the middle of the mob, where you can feel safe. But the only way to win is not to play.

Did someone just say something stupid? Now it’s here on your screen, and you have a tiny chance of saying something back to the author. How dare they say something so stupid where you, and others, can go read it. It might reach other people – not the stupid author, not you, not your fellow angry commenters, but some potential other third party that is gullible or equally stupid – and reinforce their stupidity. You must stop it! You have to drown it out in recrimination and mockery or sarcastic politeness! Quick, the chance to strike a blow against some stupid words that are on your screen is passing with every second, as the replies stack up and the crowd grows. Swing your fist before the target is obscured beneath other fists!

Whom do you blame for the stupid thing on your screen? The person you don’t really know, who said it somewhere, at some point, a hundred or a thousand miles away? Or the chain of people who picked it up, and eagerly carried it all the way over to you and stuck it in your face? The chain is mostly anonymous. Hard to grasp. Ephemeral. And some of them are your friends – can you blame them? So much easier to accept their target as a gift and join in with the attack. An amusing and victimless crime — well, except for the victim, naturally, but whatever.

He always, always deserves it – not just the snarky ripostes, but the insults, the crank calls, the petitions for firing and destitution, the fraud and vandalism and trespassing. And hey – you didn’t want it to go that far, you just left a comment, and passed it on. … Which is exactly how and why it came to the attention of the worst actors in the mob.

The only way to win is not to play.

Did you ever stop to think that the person who wrote the stupid thing did not intend you – or anyone – to be the audience? Perhaps you think that doesn’t matter? Should everything said behind closed doors be sanitized for a global audience? That’s an impossible standard. But as long as it’s not you being held to it, it’s a fair one. Let the games begin.

The next time you feel the urge to ‘Like’ or comment under some political screed on Facebook, ask yourself what it will actually accomplish. Ask if the political screed changed your mind. Did it? No. It either made you agree, or disagree and chuck an angry comment beneath it. Either way you’ve just given it another little push, causing this waste of your time to perpetuate further into a waste of someone else’s, and more time on Facebook in general. A little scrap of your life is gone – gone! For nothing! Some electrons moved; that’s it! – and meanwhile, Facebook earned a little money from an advertiser by sticking an ad on the corner of your screen. You have just been rage-baited. You have just been used.

You have just contributed to the using of others, including your friends and family.

Remember the conspiracy theorists on the liberal fringe ten years ago, who liked to scream “wake up, sheeple”? Well there’s no conspiracy required here. Just the extension of marketing tactics into social networking technology. We’re all wide awake; our only failure is in failing to understand that our online activity is now subject to such heavy filtering and interference that our political arguments and virulent “public” shamings are almost entirely self-referential, like yelling “booo, hiss” at the rich oligarch on a movie screen after we’ve wordlessly paid 15 bucks to get inside the theatre. In our enthusiasm for what’s on the screen, we forget that everyone around us is already a customer, viewing something constructed by others to gather an audience: Rage is cathartic. You’ll pay for catharsis, and the net is designed to deliver.

Money talks. And money can also silence.

Where I live, the core of modern liberal culture spent the last 30 years haughtily mocking conservatives for being manipulated by fear of other religions, distrust of foreigners, and blind aggressive patriotism. “My country, right or wrong.” It was a convenient stereotype. Now the same liberals that dealt such mockery in the previous generation are in thrall to armchair political “activism” and abusive online culture wars, happily abandoning common sense and common courtesy for the chance to extoll the superiority of their barely-tested morals. The stereotypes they mocked 30 years ago are even less true today, yet their jeering is louder than ever, because an entire economic system has built up around exploiting their self-righteousness. They vent their rage inside a gigantic circus tent (replete with easy scapegoats and strawmen), constructed to reward them with a feeling of progressive accomplishment, while companies sell tickets at the door. This is the new middle-class pastime. This is the new Sunday Night Football. And it means about as much.

When you’re online hunting for a product, presenting the right search result to you is worth a nice chunk of money. But when you’re online because you’re following a compulsion to “make your voice heard”, that’s a whole lot more time online, during which you can be distracted by anything – because you’re not looking for anything in particular, except validation. An ad thrown at you just as you’re finding that validation is worth a lot to an advertiser. How many times have you finished making your comment, or airing your fetid complaint, or satisfying your righteousness, and sent your eyes wandering around the screen for the next thing to explore, while those happy chemicals are still percolating in your brain?

The product is you, delivered to the ads, with an open mind, ready to celebrate.

Turn off. Tune out. Drop the connection. Go outside. Change the real world. Forget this fake one.

The only way to win is not to play.

Valoria II: Seats and fitting

I ride my recumbent a lot, and I ride it wrong.

When I’m not doing tight maneuvers, I rest my arms way up on the handlebars. That means I position the handlebars way closer than normal.

To get the same setup on my new bike, I had to get a longer steering riser tube. After much discussion with Zach, we concluded that the easiest thing to do was ask Bacchetta to send us a riser tube meant for their Bella long-wheelbase bike. That worked beautifully except it was too long. So, it was time for another crude do-it-yourself adventure:

Marking how much I need to saw off.

This is a pipe cutting tool. You stick it on a pipe and spin it around. Pretty smart design!

Bacchetta’s handlebars are now really wide, like most other recumbent designs. It’s like steering a plow. Does this mean I have to get used to them?

Nah. I can just swap handlebars.

New bike in front, old bike in back. The alignment is almost the same. Now to swap the handlebars...

New bike, old handlebars. To keep the new shifters and brakes I had to swap them between bars, which meant removing the bar grips. They are very sticky. I'm still struggling with the one on the right!

Bacchetta’s seats no longer include the eyelets for directly attaching an under-seat rack. Does this mean I have to give mine up?

Nah. I can just swap seats and keep using my old one.

New version of recurve seat on the left, old seat on the right. Note the attachment point on the old seat for an under-seat rack.

Look at that crusty old thing! But it’s so comfortable…

The bolts connecting the support struts to the seat of a Bacchetta recumbent, after 20 years of use.

Top set: 20 years old. Bottom set: brand-new.

While I’m moving parts around, I might as well replace that worn out seat clamp on the old bike with a nice new one…

20-year-old seat clamp on the left, brand new seat clamp on the right. The design has evolved!

I can’t transfer the stickers from my old frame, but I can put equivalents on the new one:

Chococat in the lead!

Doin’ a lot of work on this bike… Things are starting to get messy!

You know what? I’m putting my arms on the same bars, and putting my butt on the same seat, so I’m basically riding the same bike. This bike isn’t “Valoria II”, it’s still just “Valoria”, but fancier.

That’s cool.

Valoria II: Rear rack

Me:
Is the Bacchetta “universal rear rack” suitable for touring?
Zach:
It is a relatively lightweight bolt together rack with a lot of adjustability. So not ideal for loaded touring but people have used it for that purpose. The weight rating is 25 kg.

It’s a pretty snazzy, minimalist-looking rack. (By the way, I found what looks like the generic version of it for about half as much money.) It took a very long time to assemble and position properly since I wanted it as high as possible off the ground. It also has some flex to it, which might not be a good thing. They say you want a rack to be as stiff as possible.

Could I really rely on this skinny little thing to carry 50 pounds over bumpy roads?

I went in search of other options. It was going to be an especially difficult search because of the weird positioning of the rack mount points on my 2016 Giro frame. They were sandwiched between the mounts for the seat struts and the disc brakes:

That is not much room to work with. The fact that I had to use spacers to fit Bacchetta’s own rack is an embarrassment. Would any other rack have struts narrow enough to fit without spacers? Is the distance between the rack arms going to be a problem?

Surly Rear Rack

(1260 grams, rated for 36kg)

Pros:
  • Strong
  • Has a handle
  • Adjustable height
  • Thin struts at mount points
Cons:
  • U.S.-style light mount
  • Very heavy

This was my go-to choice, except for the weight. I’ve always toured with an aluminum rack and found them plenty dependable. Heck, my frame is aluminum now. Moving to a steel rack seems kind of backwards.

Axiom Journey

(700 grams, rated for 70kg)

Pros:
  • Suspiciously high load rating
  • Good fit angle
Cons:
  • Crappy U.S.-style light mount
  • Handle is blocked

This was my second choice, except I would be giving up the handle. It’s hard to overstate how useful a rack handle is for moving the Giro around in tight spaces. Also, the light mount on this rack is a total afterthought, and their load rating seems really out of wack. Did they actually test that?

Topeak Uni Super Tourist DX

(875 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • Nice handle
  • Adjustable height
  • Good secondary bar placement
Cons:
  • Not quite European-style light mount (RedLite only)
  • Stupid proprietary mounting strip along the top

This would have been perfect except for that mounting plate. I wish Topeak would sell a good rack without that plate, but they apparently want to compel you to use only their bags.

Topeak Uni Explorer

(782 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • Nice handle
  • Adjustable height
Cons:
  • Not quite European-style light mount
  • Stupid mounting strip

A lighter option than the Super Tourist model with just as much capacity, but I’m still bothered by that mounting plate.

Topeak Explorer

(625 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • Nice handle
  • No-frills design
  • Best weight-to-capacity ratio of Topeak racks
Cons:
  • Not quite European-style light mount
  • Stupid mounting strip

A even lighter rack, without the height-adjustment hardware. I would have gone with this except I stubbornly kept looking and found a better option.

Blackburn EX-1 Rack

(535 grams, rated for 18.2kg)

Pros:
  • Has a handle
  • Minimalist design
Cons:
  • No light mount
  • Low maximum load does not inspire confidence

I really liked the look of this one but the weight capacity was just too low.

Blackburn Outpost Fat Bike Rear Rack

(1105 grams, rated for 31kg)

Pros:
  • Has a handle
  • Adjustable height
  • Secondary mount bars
Cons:
  • U.S.-style light mount

This is Blackburn’s more upscale offering. I had an idea that the articulated mounting arms would fit inside that narrow gap around the mount points on the Giro … but when I got a closer look they were too thick. Mounting this rack would require spacers just like the rest.

Ortlieb Bike Rack R2

(640 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • Has a handle
  • European-style light mount. Finally!
Cons:
  • Large amount of material around mount points

Interesting to see what Ortlieb wants to contribute to the rack market. Looks like they just want to make something that has their QL3 mounting system directly integrated. Good for them. Unfortunately the amount of reinforcement around the mount points makes them too big to fit on my frame without long spacers – long enough to widen the rack all the way beyond the top of the bolts that hold my seat struts in place. That’s an awful lot of extra strain on a rack.

When considering the Tubus racks I found this photo from The Touring Store very helpful:

Tubus Carry Titanium Rack

(470 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • VERY light
  • European-style light mount
  • Good lower rail placement
Cons:
  • No handle
  • Top rails are not very long
  • Expensive as hell

The base weight of this fancy rack is astonishingly low, but once you add in the mounting hardware it moves up and becomes merely impressive. Tubus has discontinued this rack but you can still find it around. I think it’s mostly good for bragging rights. The weight difference between this and an aluminum rack with the same capacity is less than the weight of a good-sized sandwich.

Tubus Logo Titan Rear Rack

(390 grams, rated for 30kg)

Pros:
  • VERY light
  • European-style light mount
  • Good lower rail placement
Cons:
  • Handle is narrow and hard to reach
  • Expensive as hell

Even lighter than the Tubus Carry, this was the flagship Tubus rack for a while, and it’s easy to see why. Titanium is a very sexy material and the rack design is almost perfect. Sadly, Tubus discontinued it. I would track one of these down and use it except there is a slightly better, and more road-tested option…

Tubus Cargo Evo

(530 grams, rated for 40kg)

Pros:
  • Has a good handle
  • European-style light mount
  • Good weight-to-capacity ratio
Cons:
  • No secondary mounting rail

This is a newer revision of the same rack I have on my Bridgestone upright bike. It has two differences: A better shape for the mount points, and a carrying handle. 40 kilograms of load capacity (88 pounds) is plenty, and the frame design is very stiff. It’s also much lighter than the Surly, and doesn’t need an adapter to mount a European-style tail light.

The Tubus Cargo is my choice.

The space between the rack mounting holes on the Giro frame, including the thickness of the frame itself, is exactly 150mm. That happens to be in the middle of the width tolerance for the Tubus Cargo:

This means I can put spacers on either side – up to a centimeter each – without compromising the rack.

Also, notice the way the mount points project inward, like the ends of a clamp. That gives me plenty of clearance around the bolt heads that stick out on the seat struts.

This is important because the rack ends are pretty wide:

If I didn’t have that extra space, I’d run into those bolts for sure.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so here’s a gallery showing how it turned out:

It's quite sturdy and I can't detect any flex in it, unlike the standard rack which flexed alarmingly with bags on it.
It's close, but the rack manages to leave space for both the disc brake assembly and the various bolt heads around it.
These are actually the arms from the standard Bacchetta adjustable rack. I liked the fit a little better. The arms that come with the Tubus work fine though.
Closeup of the spacers I needed to fit the rack to the frame.

Aluminum spacerThe aluminum spacer I used – visible in the fourth photo – came from Amazon. I know I paid too much for them but it was just too convenient to throw them in with some household goods in another order.

It only took a few test rides to know that I was dealing with a much, much better rack than the standard Bacchetta one. After a few months, during which I loaded it up with a huge pile of gear and sailed around Oakland for hours at a time, I was convinced that I’d made the right choice. The handle was perfect, the weight was low, the capacity was high, and the brake light mounted easily.

In the meantime, the Tubus rack that I’d put on my upright bike nearly ten years ago continued to be a workhorse. Just last week I used it to transport a truck battery across town.