Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nice bike mister

We have bikes.  A pair of inexpensive Giants which seem to do the job... though finding one big enough for me around here was a challenge. We also made a new friend to ride with who's from Sichuan province so knows the lingo and is keen to show us around. Exciting stuff!

A Giant Pop and Hunter, surveying the glittering delights of Yongchuan from our balcony
Perhaps even more exciting than this, I bought two of the greatest mugs I have ever seen. I'll be taking the left hand one to work and leaving it on my desk. I also bought the worst croissant I have ever eaten as part of my ongoing sampling tour of the world. Don't worry France... China isn't going to be out-competing you  in the breakfast delicacy market any time soon.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

This Old Town

Our first weekend in Yongchuan is nearly over and we spent it exploring our new home. Despite the heat we managed to run around the neighborhood and find the big new park and the "riverside" area of bars and restaurants. Later in the evening we went back with the gang of teachers and found the whole place violently illuminated in neon and a big sign letting us know we were in the appropriately named "Happy Drinking Place". Good times...

Today we took the bus into the old town and wandered around the back street markets away from the neon. We're looking forward to having a few useful words of Mandarin mastered so we can buy our vegetables in the crowded alleyways... 

Chili tricycle 

 A fresh duck

The proud owner of the fresh duck

Friday, August 26, 2011

Happy woman living town

Lina and I have been living in Yongchuan, Chongqing Province, China for 2 whole days now so it’s about time I had something to say about it.  The journey here was long but went very smoothly even with our vast amount of cycling and hiking gear in tow.  We have Dave to thank for getting us to the airport with very minimal faff and Dave and Ger for giving us a place to live in our last week in Vancouver (for a while).  Our last week was a whirlwind of last-minute chores and cramming as much fun as possible into 5 days.  The weather co-operated and we were able to get out mountain biking, running, food eating, dog walking, and beer drinking (thanks to Paul and Angie for the great leaving party!)  We also volunteered to help flag the course for a 5 Peaks Trail Run at Whistler.  It was great to get up into the mountains of BC one more time before we left and I think the runners were in for a treat, the course was fantastic (and of course superbly flagged).

A handstand in BC
Then all too soon, Monday arrived and it was time to leave for our temporary new lives.  Lina and I are now both teachers at a High School in the middle of China and residents of Yongchuan, a “small town” of 1 million people about 70 km away from Chongqing; one of the “Three Furnaces” of China.  We are attracting a lot of attention as 2 of less than 50 non-Chinese in the town.  Old people stare at us in amazement and small children wave as say “Hello!”  Though we’ve yet to teach anyone anything, the kids in summer school have been very curious and friendly towards us and I am optimistic that they will be great to have in our classes.  My ability to teach them English remains to be explored, but I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it.

Yongchuan was based around coal mining but is undergoing incredible development as a town for education.  New schools, universities, and all the accommodation and entertainments that go along with them are appearing at a rate that is hard for me to comprehend.  Though we’ve not had much chance to explore yet we have managed to get out for a run and will be buying some bikes soon to help us get around.  The local style seems to be to ride with a construction hard-hat (optional) and umbrella, plus as many children and vegetables as possible… whilst smoking.  I need to get onto that bandwagon.

A handstand in YC
Yongchuan is hardly an outdoor enthusiasts paradise as it’s currently well over 30 degrees and humid, but we don’t plan on letting that stop us from getting outside.  This afternoon I discovered the Olympic Stadium swimming pool has water in it, so we need to figure out if that means we can swim there.  I also discovered a park with a sandpit and some giant plastic gnomes.  Both this and another park which contains some talking mushrooms and tree-stumps have weird municipal exercise machines concreted into the ground.  Then of course there’s the rollerblading to music and municipal line-dancing in Peope’s Square at night.  I’m planning on developing some urban running routes which join my favourite Yongchuan oddities as a kind of athletic treasure-hunt.  Trust me, it’s the future.

Can you spot the following: construction, a topiary giraffe, and a plastic gnome.
On top of this wealth of fun, there are also some tantalizing hills lurking in the mist just outside town which we will have to explore when we have our pedal-powered wheels.  For now though, we are content that we are living in a town that is both “Livable” and “Smooth”, plus a “Happy woman living town”.  No more needs to be said.

Yesterday we visited the big city of 30 million people in Chongqing. We didn't have much time to look around, but were treated to an unexpected underground Chinese robo-pirate disco (a lot of flashing lights and robot pirates in a concrete cave) and an exciting dirt-road drive home as the highway was closed. Though it's noisy and busy, I am looking forward to visiting Chongqing again and exploring away from the tourist areas. I've read there are some traditional old wooden buildings attached to the cliffs in one part of town which I would love to see. For now, here are some photos:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What TIGgers do best

I’m writing this sitting on a Boeing 777, heading for China where Lina and I will spend the next year teaching in a Chongquing Maple Leaf High School.  Before my blog is diverted into a series of photographs of confusing signs, strange vegetables, and tales of whatever it is we get up to there I have some unfinished business to write about.

Here’s the story of an Englishman and an Irishman went to learn to build bicycles.

Conor and I spent two weeks together living in a teepee during the cool of the morning and the heat of the afternoon commuting into and (just) out of Ashland Oregon.  The purpose of all this was to learn how to weld and more specifically how to build a bike frame.  The United Bicycle Institute has been running frame building courses for many years and I have been intending to get on one for around 5 years, but It turned out that 2011 was the year I finally made it.  I wanted to do the Tungsten Inert Gas (TIG) welding course rather than bronze-brazing as I had heard it was harder (I like a challenge), and whilst less romantic than the age-old craft of brazing it seemed to me that TIG was a great way to get something built strong and fast.  Conor had been thinking something along the same lines, we said “let’s do it”, we paid our money, and the rest is history.
I could tell from the first day that the UBI instructors and out “celebrity guest instructor" Paul Sadoff had a wealth of experience to share both in framebuilding and importantly in teaching frame building.  One of the first messages was that anyone expecting to come away from the course with their perfect frame was going to be disappointed.  As instructor Gary said… “You’re beginner welders; you don’t deserve to do a great weld yet”.  Conor and I both took this to heart and set about designing a couple of functional bikes that we could use every day and would serve as our test mule for welding skills.  The next thing we learned was that that there really isn’t a right and a wrong way to design, build or fit a bike.  One man’s trash is another man’s treasure… but there are established norms that can help you come up with something that will at least work.  Paul has his way of doing things, and UBI uses another… we would use the tried and tested UBI methods to allow our class of 8 novice welders to walk away with a functional frame, news skills to practice, and a head full of new knowledge.

Our first 3 days were spent getting to grips with controlling the power of the welder using the foot pedal and establishing the electric arc between the electrode and the work.  On scraps of tube we drew lines in the surface using the molten “puddle” produced from the heat of the arc and got a feel for how much you could stomp on the pedal before you burned a hole through the tube.  We would all get used to the sinking feeling inside when you saw the edge of the tube glow bright red and curl away from what was supposed to be a joint.  To better control the heat of our weld we learned to use the pulser, a clever feature on the welders which allows you to set a cycle of strong pulses of power and pauses which prevent so much heat building up in the weld area.  Once we learned to time the movement of the electrode with the pulses, we could produce a string of weld “beads” along the metal as the puddle moved over the surface.  Our last step before actually welding something was to introduce the steel filler rod to the weld puddle, allowing us to actually join things together and fill in all those holes we were burning.  Putting all these things together, it was time for some practice.

Test piece number 1 was a T-joint of two tubes joined together at around 60 degrees to give us practice at joining tubes as well as welding on the inside of an acute angle.  The thin edges of the cut tube were happy to melt away and we had to learn to control the weld arc carefully to place the heat on the thicker metal.  The second test piece took things a step further, joining 3 tubes in a “grulon” triangle… complete with tricky inside corners and thin metal at the miters.

There's a hole in my grulon

With our test pieces done (or at least patched up well enough to pass our instructor’s inspection) it was time to move onto a real test.  Paul told us that an under heated weld could look neat on the outside, but if the metal had not been melted right through the joint it would be weak.  An overheated weld could look ugly and weaken the metal around the weld area, but this was preferable to a cold weld as a failure in the joint would happen much later in the frame’s life and more likely form a crack that grew slowly and would be spotted early rather than the frame falling apart at a bad weld.  So… our task was to weld a simulated frame joint (bottom bracket to seat tube) and then use a long lever to break it.  A positive result would be a break in the tube, rather than a separation of the weld, showing us that the weld was stronger than the tube and therefore not a weak point.

Throughout the first few days, we had discussions on frame design, angles, and fit.  We were able to take measurements from an adjustable frame fitting jig or our own bikes and bodies and apply them to our full-scale frame drawings.  The logic I followed was to draw in my seat and handlebar position and inseam length on the drawing and fit the tubes of the bike around these points plus the head tube and seat tube angles and bottom bracket height I wanted.  With a little tweaking to make it look right to Paul’s experienced eyes I was ready to measure angles and lengths from the drawing to select, cut and miter my tubes.  Tubing choice was a compromise of weight, strength and ease of welding which fitted with the theme of my frame being a good compromise of all factors, with the hope of coming out with something rideable.  We had all learned that our first frame was not the one to try and be too clever or inventive… better to leave that for our 3rd, or 4th… or 5th.

On our fourth day as bike builders we made the first weld on our first frame.  The bottom bracket shell to seat tube joint only required one miter made with a hole-saw on the vertical mill, the first of many we would make in the process of building our frames.  Making the first weld was a little like jumping into the freezing blue lake Conor and I swam in on our ride the week before… the anticipation was crippling, but once the torch was on there was nothing to do but get on with making the best weld we could.  The best weld I could make was not very impressive at this point, but following Paul’s advice I got a lot of heat into it and things looked pretty solid.

The next 4 or 5 days of work followed a cycle of demonstrations of the fixtures we would use to hold the various parts of the frame together while we welded, how to measure, clamp, and miter the tubes, and all-importantly an inspiring display of fast and precise welding from Paul (under the watchful eye of the class).  Paul and all the UBI instructors were extremely helpful, entertaining, and attentive through the intense days of cutting, filing, clamping, and welding.  My confidence in welding was growing and I really enjoyed how free from flames, smoke, or fumes the process of TIG is.  With the weld shielded by the invisible cloud of argon flowing from the torch there and no sparks (except when to do something wrong), and everything is clean and dry throughout the process.  The wear and tear on our nerves showed throughout the days and Conor and I were glad to commiserate our mistakes and celebrate our victories over coffee, beer, a swim in the reservoir, or riding our bikes.  We were glad for the weekend off and a chance to ride the trails overlooking Ashland and regain our composure for the final week… by the end of which we had to be finished.

The back end of our frames proved to be the real challenge, which explains why UBI leave this until the 2nd week of the course.  More drawings allowed me to work out the best shape of chainstay to allow clearance for fenders, the biggest tires possible, and the drivetrain on the opposite side.  It was a fine balance to come up with something that allowed all the parts I wanted to work together to fit into a confined space, but with some sage advice from Paul I was able to come up with a configuration that looked like it would work.  The most complicated (and frustrating) fixture was used to clamp the chainstays to the rear wheel dropouts and weld them in place… then the frame went back in the big adjustable jig to have the chainstays attached.

My frame now really resembled a bike, and it was even possible to put a rear wheel in place.  This served the purpose of checking the alignment of the back end of the frame.  Ham-fisted setting up of the fixtures and distortion from the heat of welding left things a bit wonky on my frame, but it was surprisingly easy to manhandle the chainstays straight before fixing them in place with the seatstays.  My choice of seatstay tubes was again a compromise of tire and fender clearance, combined with my wish to use old-school cantilever brakes.  My combination of road-style straight chainstays and cyclocross-style S-bend seatstays allowed all the things I wanted to fit on the frame to work in theory, so that’s the way Kermit developed (by now most of our frames had gained names).  Attaching the seatstays was another awkward procedure involving some trial-and-error mitering to get a perfect (or at least acceptable) fit, and trying to clamp everything still while I tacked the tubes together.  At one point I had to get a helper to flex the tubes into position while I made the tack and the stresses in the metal relaxed.  The rear triangle was the greatest demonstration of frame building as an art rather than a science.  With so many variables and heat distortion working to twist the frame apart as you weld it, having the “feel” or “knack” as us English folks would say seems to be the key to success.
Several of us in the class were able to get our frames all together with 2 days of the course left to go, whilst others hit problems requiring a little re-drawing or modification of the frame design to get things to work.  However, despite having something that looked like a bike I was hardly home-free.  At some point I had failed to align the rear end of the frame properly and was left with the rear wheel sitting at a strange angle.  This was not what I wanted and it was too late for any more manhandling (or “cold-setting” if you want to make it sound proper).  Luckily Paul had the suggestion of filing metal away from the dropouts, allowing the wheel to sit straight and then using the welder to build back the metal on the opposite side to the wheel would stay in place.  An afternoon of filing and unconventional welding later, my frame was looking much better and I was ready for the finishing touches.
Whilst I appreciate the elegant simplicity of bikes that are not festooned with every bracket, trinket, and contrivance going… this bike needed to be able to carry fenders, a rack, and some water bottles.  Working in Our Community Bikes has given be a loathing of poorly thought out attachments for these things that require bending of brackets, plastic clips, or other paraphernalia to get them attached.  I want to be able to drill a hole in my fender and bolt it straight on.  I think Paul was a little mystified by my keen attention to the placement of fender bridges and attachment holes on the frame, but he humored me as I got the hang of silver-brazing these things all over the place.  It’s worth noting at this point that I disliked silver brazing very much.  Sure, you get a nice neat joint and it’s much easier than welding… but all that messy flux, the soot and smoke and the big flame of the torch? Yuck.  I’m going to weld them on next time if I can learn to weld such tiny things successfully.

With my accessory attachments on and the flux cleaned away, all which was left was a round of reaming, facing, and tapping to clean up the threads and other surfaces of the frame where parts would attach.  My first frame, Kermit, was done! Fast forward a couple of weeks, one wedding, several aeroplane journeys, and a return to Vancouver I proudly showed off my creation to anyone who cared… and some who didn’t.  I thought Kermit would be languishing unpainted and unridden in storage until summer 2012 when Lina and I will return from China, but Conor had other ideas.  I had heard that YESS in nearby Surrey would powder-coat bike frames, and powder-coat was the finish of choice for an environmentally conscious bike builder who wants a durable finish.  Conor had contacted YESS and arranged to take our frames over on Friday morning where they would be done in an hour.  An hour? Unbelievable.  Struggling to accept that it could be this easy I couldn’t wait to see what Conor would bring along to our leaving party that evening.  So… on Paul and Angie’s excellent patio Kermit and I were re-united.  Kermit is a splendid green and the man at YESS even plugged all the holes to stop powdercoat getting into placed powdercoat shouldn’t be.  So Kermit is still unridden, but at least no-longer naked.  Kermit’s maiden voyage will hopefully be in August 2012 and l have a year to think up somewhere appropriate to go…

Friday, August 12, 2011

The clock don't stop for no-one

I can't work out whether that means the clock does stop, or if it makes no sense at all...  but that is the situation we found ourselves in today. Conor cut it down to the wire with some last minute frame finishing, whilst I fiddled around fixing a few of my mistakes and we both walked away with frames that we made ourselves. It's pretty amazing.

The UBI course was excellent and we both really enjoyed the company of our classmates and instructors. It's been a fantastic 2 weeks and I hope the first of many frames Conor and I produce on opposite sides of the Atlantic. From travelling and working on my favorite form of transport, Now I'm to start an epic overnight voyage by one of my least favorite as I fly all over North America to get to Ottawa for tomorrow morning. The reason for travelling is a happy one though... I'll be re-united with Lina after a month of being on separate adventures and celebrating Asta and Derek's wedding. Party time!

"Kermit" sunning himself in the parking lot

 Our instructor Paul has both great experience and a sense of humor...

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Looks like a bike

Barring some last-minute faff tomorrow, I have made a bike frame. This is exciting stuff... and one day I'll get to ride it. Until I can write something more meaningful, here are some more pictures.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tee-pee life

Conor and I have had a weekend away from the welding torch, so did our best to recuperate our strained eyes and nerves by swimming in the pool, holding down comfy chairs in the coffee shop, and of course getting out for a ride (followed by more swimming and chair-sitting). We are both recharged and ready for a second week of hot metal at UBI... we even washed our clothes. Tomorrow we start work on making somewhere for the back wheel to go, which seems like a good feature for a bicycle.

Our luxurious home in Ashland, plus an inventive washing-line

Conor kicking up some dust on "Catwalk"

Me, doing what Conor did.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Frame building photo update

It's been a week of learning, successes, failures, and the discovery of $1 pints which threatened to derail everything. Fortunately we're still on the straight and narrow and we both have something that has started to resemble a bicycle. Mine has become called "Kermit". It's not easy being (potentially) green.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely...

...type the complete works of William Shakespeare.  So a couple of chaps should be able to throw together some bike frames given enough time with a welder and some tubes. Right?

After 4 days of intense activity at UBI in Ashland, Conor and I have yet to produce a bike frame... but we have a pile of T-joints and triangular things called Grullions. Today things got really exciting, in that we drew plans of our frames-to-be and welded a piece of tube onto a bottom bracket shell, then snapped it off again with a big lever to see if we were actually managing to join things together. So far, so good.

An evolution of T-joints. From left to right: too cold, too hot, and about right (in places)
Can you tell what it is yet?

 Choosing how to build our frames has been pretty strenuous on the emotions. We're going to be putting a lot of effort into these over the next 6 days and it would be nice if they fitted, and perhaps even rode well. Conor and I have converged on both making something in the road-bike style, though Conor's will be very much larger than mine. We both want our iron gates to be durable and something we can ride around town, carry some gear on, and generally live day-to-day bicycling life with. We'll see what we end up with. One interesting thing is that once we started drawing and figuring out how our ideas would fit into place, it became obvious for both of us that our mental image of what we wanted wasn't really in touch with the reality of what we wanted to do with it. Luckily one of our instructors in Paul Sadoff of Rock Lobster Bicycles who has many, many years experience of taking people's ideas and turning them into bicycles. Let's hope we can absorb a little of that magic.

Conor's hands, about to conjurer some metal magic
Conor's hands harnessing the force of electricity
Of course there's also our excellent (and unusual) accommodations at the hippie hangout spa just outside of town. What's not to like about a pleasant bike commute to school, living in a Tee-pee, and hanging out on vintage Indian furniture in a giant tent in the evening with transcendental music and spicy tofu flowing freely? Maybe the fact we can also go mountain biking from town when the weather cools down enough and the BMX track that we pass on the way home. It's not a bad life.

Our homework room...