Disaster strikes

Cyclist selfie in front of red torii

Following the completion last weekend of Kuroko’s drivetrain upgrade, I finally set out Saturday on my first ride of the New Year. It’s a bit late for my first ride of the year — last year I did it on Jan. 6, with the Halfakid going for the first ride on his new bike. This year the Halfakid wasn’t available, but at least I was getting a Chinese New Year ride in.

Silent Running

The day dawned grey, but not too cold: the forecast high was 13C. It was chilly enough though when I stepped out on the windy balcony to do some fine-tuning of Kuroko’s new derailleurs before setting out with a double-handful of Nana’s famous onigiri. It took me a couple of minutes to convince the Garmin that we were riding — perhaps the two-month hiatus had affected it as much as it had me — and then I was in cruising mode.

The new drivetrain was performing flawlessly. There was no noise apart from the snk, snk of gear changes (and of course the ratcheting of the freehub). Shifts were swift and sure. The bottom bracket was free of play and not making any grinding noises.

As my pace increased I reached a gear where there was a little bit of rattle. “I’ll have to have another look at that,” I thought. I glanced down and discovered I was on the ninth gear and the lightbulb lit: The derailleur was fine, but it was time for me to move to the larger chainring. With the larger cogs on the cassette, I have to move onto the larger chainring at a lower speed than I’d previously done. As soon as I made the shift, we were back to the Silence of the Cogs.

I spent the first part of the ride, in city traffic, getting used to moving up to the larger chainring when I reached cruising speed. I’ll be shifting the front a lot more often this way, so it’s good the front derailleur was also working flawlessly.

The bike was working far better than I was, as the two-month break from cycling and the Christmas and New Year’s partying have taken their toll. I was sure I wasn’t going to set any records, but I just kept grinding. When I neared my office, I took a slight detour to make the climb there (the one I usually have on the way home) to try out my new lowest gear. It worked a charm as I slowly but surely made my way up the hill, and I arrived at the top feeling a lot fresher than I usually do there.

I can hear the steel pipes sing

I stopped at the workshop to spend another hour stripping the old paint off Ol’ Paint. I don’t have any photos of this because I’d forgotten to charge my phone. I spent a few minutes finding a charger in the office and left my phone to charge as I headed to the workshop. I noticed today that when I applied the spinning scouring pad to Ol’ Paint’s steel tubes, they would sound like organ pipes — at least the three main tubes with their open ends did. I spent about an hour at it, and I think I’ve reached the limit of what I can do with the regular power drill. I’ll have to pick up again next week with the Dremel.

On the road again

Paint stripping done for the day, I ate a couple of onigiri, changed back into my riding clothes, and headed down the Tamagawa cycling course. Finally away from traffic, I could listen to the new drivetrain clearly and appreciate the Silence of the Cogs. It was really a delight. I took a short break for water and then continued on my way to Haneda. I came across a detour on the path and ended up in traffic for less than half a kilometer (I’d missed the sign directing cyclists to the new path), and then it was full steam ahead. I had a bit of headwind but not enough to seriously crimp my style, and soon Kuroko and I were basking in the — erm — partial sunlight at Haneda.

Kuroko shows off her new gear(s)

Selfie of man in cycling helmet silhouetted against a cloudy sky

I sat on a stone in my usual park facing the torii and finished the onigiri. Nana messaged me that she was on her way to the residents board meeting, and I replied that I was on my way home.

Haneda peace shrine torii and river bank repair works
Reconstruction after last year’s typhoon

Disaster strikes!

The return trip was more silent running. I had the wind to my back now and was making good time. I hadn’t had a single missed shift all day. And then, on a switchback with jogging baseball players to dodge, I mixed up my gear levers, shifting the wrong way and then immediately back again. I heard a crunch from the drivetrain and then the shift completed and I continued on my way.

But all was not well in Cog City. The chain was making some noise on the rear cogs and occasionally trying to jump to a higher cog. This is usually an indication of the wrong cable tension, so I was fiddling with the barrel adjuster as I rode. I tried tighter and I tried looser, but the results were the same: more or less noise, but never silent and always with the occasional grab for a higher gear.

I stopped at a rest area. All the benches were full of other bikers — what looked like a large cycling club. I found a spot where I could lean Kuroko against a fence post and set down my bag and helmet to take a look.

Remembering that I’d had an issue with loose and missing dropout screws, I checked the rear wheel and thru axle for play: nothing. Lifting the rear wheel off the ground, I slowly ran through all the gears, first in one direction and then the other. The shifting was working as designed. I checked the alignment of the derailleur to make sure it was squarely under the cog: perfect.

Cycle rear cassette and chain with broken link
Missing link

And then I saw it: a broken chain link. Wow.

I’ve never had this issue before. I knew from reading other cycling adventures that I could use a chain tool to remove the broken link and rejoin the remaining chain. Depending on how many links I had to remove, I might not be able to access the lowest gear or two, but I should be able to get home. I got out my multitool and started fiddling with the chain tool. In the process I discovered that the pin was still in the chain at the site of the broken link (that’s why I was able to keep riding as far as I had), but I wasn’t able to line up the chain plates again to try to force it back into place. I also discovered in the process that I couldn’t use the chain tool as it was: it requires a second tool to actually turn the screw. (And you can believe I tried to turn it by hand, but no dice.)

Topeak Hexus II minitool
That thing at the top

After poking and prodding at it for a few minutes (and meanwhile the cycling club had mounted up and ridden on), I decided to try to limp home with it. There’s a bike shop I know at Futako Tamagawa (the store where I bought Ol’ Paint) and I trust the mechanic there a lot. So I put away the tool, picked up my bag and helmet and continued gingerly on my way. Unfortunately, within half a kilometer I heard the chain fall to the pavement and felt the cranks spinning with no resistance. The chain had finally broken completely, probably assisted by my efforts to work things back into place.

My options at this point were to try again with the tool (erm, same problem with needing another tool to use the tool), lock up Kuroko to some handy fence and catch a taxi, or walk. I was about 4km from the Futako bike shop. There might have been a closer bike store and I knew from experience (when Ol’ Paint’s rear hub locked up on the Halfakid) that I could probably find one via Google Maps. But I figured a 4km walk wouldn’t kill me, and I really do like the mechanic at the Futako shop.

So I messaged Nana to say that I was OK, that the chain had broken, and that it would be at least an hour by the time I reached the shop and got the chain fixed.

I picked up the chain and started walking. (I figured I couldn’t reuse the chain — except on a bike that took a shorter one — but I didn’t want to leave it on the path for it to tangle in another cyclist’s wheels, or throw it into the grass where it would be a danger to the workers who cut the grass.) I left the Garmin on to see how far I was walking.

Ahead of me I could see the red bridge across the Tamagawa that is Daisan Keihin (one of the highways between Tokyo and Yokohama). It didn’t look far, but I walked and walked and it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. A glance at the Garmin told me I was walking about 5-6km/h. Surely this is not an endless trek across the wastelands of the Sahara! My cleats ground against the pavement and I continued onward, finally passing under the red bridge.

And now just another two kilometers to Futagobashi, the bridge that will take me back across the river at Futako Tamagawa. I checked my phone for a response from Nana, and there was nothing. A few minutes later the Garmin informed me the phone was dangerously low on battery. I resolved not to use it again until I’d reached the bike shop.

Finally, across Futagobashi on the pedestrian walkway. This gets very narrow at the end, and I had to be careful to let others pass me without hooking them with my handlebars. Then it’s a climb up the hill — the same one I’d practiced in the morning with my low gear — and at last I was wheeling my bike through the shop door.

The mechanic looked up from where he was working on another bike behind the counter. “What’s up?” In answer I held up the broken chain in my hand. “Wow, bad luck! How many cogs on your cassette?” “Eleven.” “Oh no! I don’t have that kind!”

He was very apologetic as he held the shop door for me, but of course he’d done nothing wrong. His shop specializes in BMX, so it’s natural he didn’t have this chain in the store. I only felt badly for him because that’s twice in a row now where I’ve asked him for help and he wasn’t able to, although he remains willing to try despite the fact that I didn’t buy Kuroko from his store. So he’s not making a lot of money off me these days.

At this point I was less than 1km from the office, so I headed there. Part of the way was even downhill, so I mounted up and let Kuroko coast along those parts. At the office I locked Kuroko up and put the rain cover over the cockpit bag. I threw the broken chain into the pile of computer discards, and messaged Nana that I would be coming home by train. Luckily I had a change of clothes in my backpack (which I’d worn to the workshop when I was spending quality time with Ol’ Paint), and I keep a pair of street shoes under my desk. The phone still had a 10% charge, not enough for me to read Twitter all the way home, so I picked out a book to read from my bookshelf.

Park Tool chain tool
Park Tool chain tool

Before I left, I ordered a replacement chain, and that will arrive today. I’ll review the videos on sizing and installing a chain, and take the new chain and my proper chain tool to the office tomorrow.

GPS record of cycle ride to Haneda
Ride, interrupted

In the end I’d walked more than 5km, which made for an amusing 5km split and overall average speed.

Back in the saddle again

Bicycle in front of condo entrance

Today I’m happy to report the end (or nearly so) of the saga of Kuroko’s drivetrain upgrade. I had three goals in the upgrade:

  • A further improvement in climbing, from a larger rear cassette
  • Sorting out an issue with a sticking front shifter
  • And performing another (and hopefully last for some time) bottom bracket replacement
Removing the shift lever with a hex key
Removing the shift lever with a hex key

I began working on Dec. 1 and things immediately went sideways as I decided that I needed to replace the shift/brake levers in addition to everything else, to sort out the sticking shifter. I still recall vividly the half-hour wasted with a bike store employee who didn’t seem to understand a bike could have cable-operated disc brakes. With the time wasted, all I accomplished that day was installing the new levers.

Loosening the crankset bolt with a socket wrench
Loosening the crankset

Things went on hold then until Jan. 4, in part owing to a vacation and the New Year’s holiday. The Halfakid dropped in to lend a hand with new cables, installing the new derailleurs, and finally, attempting to replace the bottom bracket. We were able to remove the old (er … the one I installed in September last year) bottom bracket without much trouble, but when we tried to install the new one, of a different make and style, we discovered we needed a different tool.

Bottom bracket pressed halfway into shell
Half-way there

I finally got the tool and completed the bottom bracket installation on Jan. 11. Which brings us to today.

Replacing screws in a rear bicycle dropout
New screws for the dropout

The first thing I did was to replace the dropout screws I’d installed earlier this month with some better-fitting ones. These new screws fit more snugly and flush, and I remembered to use Loctite and not grease when I screwed them in.

Using a torque wrench to tighten a rear derailleur
Tightening the rear derailleur

That done, I needed to reinstall the new rear derailleur. I’d given the Halfakid the wrong orientation when I coached him on the install earlier this month, and it was immediately obvious when I wasn’t able to fit the rear wheel in place. A few long, hard stares at the instructions showed me the error of my ways, and all was soon good. The cable housing is a bit long, but I decided to tackle that another time.

Derailleur, wheel and cable
Derailleur, wheel and cable

Bicycle drivetrain with new chain sized to fit
Getting the length right

With the front and rear derailleurs installed, I had to cut the new chain to length and install it. I’m glad that I was taking my time at this point and checking everything twice, because I nearly forgot to run the chain through the rear derailleur before pressing in the final rivet. (Sizing the chain is done without running the chain through the derailleur.) I’m glad I noticed in time.

Bicycle in stand showing new derailleurs and chain
Drivetrain done and done

Finally it was time to adjust the brakes and derailleurs. The instructions for the new derailleurs are quite a bit more complicated — in part I followed the instructions, and in part I let tuition guide me. I played for some time with tension of the rear derailleur cable in particular. When I was finally satisfied, it was time for a shakedown ride!

Bicycle with helmet overlooking city
Ready to roll

Given the hour (and the fact I’m still overcoming a cough) I just went for a quick spin around the block. It was very satisfying to be back on the bike after a hiatus of two months. The new drivetrain is working well, although I didn’t encounter any hills steep enough to allow me to test out the new low gear. The rear derailleur is good but not yet in perfect adjustment, while the front is making a bit of noise on the larger chainring. Just a couple of tweaks needed and all should be good. And I need to remember to tighten up the front brake just a hair more while I’m at it.

Bicycle in front of condo entrance
Back home again

I’ll probably commute once or twice this week, and meanwhile I’ll hope for good weather on the weekend for the first proper ride of 2020!

Light at the end of the bottom bracket

Bottom bracket pressed halfway into shell
Park Tool HHP-2 on a shipping box
This thing is massive

Last weekend, the Halfakid and I were stymied in our attempt to insert a new bottom bracket by the lack of the proper tool. I ordered the tool from Amazon in the US and today I picked up where we left off. Unfortunately the Halfakid was not available to continue to help me today.

The Park Tool HHP-2 arrived on Thursday, and it is massive! I’ve seen it used in a number of bicycle assembly and maintenance videos, but I was just not prepared for how large and heavy it is. According to Amazon, it’s 3kg, but it feels closer to 10kg. By contrast, my Shimano bottom bracket tool is less than half a kilogram.

Bottom bracket, bottom bracket press and tool next to bicycle frame
Checking that I have everything

I spent a few minutes going over the instructions again before committing myself to the job. It seemed straightforward enough, but there are certain details to keep in mind — such as the fact it’s made to go in from the non-drive side only.

Bottom bracket pressed halfway into shell
Half-way there

I took a deep breath and made the plunge. The initial resistance was higher than I’d experienced with the previous bearings from FSA, but they had a plastic shell and this bbinfinite model is aluminum. After checking the alignment once again, I bore down on the handles and soon the thing was half-way done.

When the bottom bracket reached the opposite end of the shell, the big Park Tool press bottomed out: it just wouldn’t go any further. After I’d finished the job I realized that the two cup guides had come into contact in the middle. I should have reversed one so it would be pressing on the larger flange from outside the shell. At the time, though, I just removed the Park Tool press and continued with my Shimano press.

Bottom bracket partially inserted in bike frame, with tools and pressBottom bracket fully inserted in bike frame, with tools and press
Nearly there … and it’s done

After withdrawing the bearing press, the next step was to grease up the spindle and press it into the bearings. bbinfinite’s guide suggests putting the spindle in the freezer for half an hour to ease the job, but it wasn’t necessary — perhaps because it had scarcely reached 10C when I was doing this. At any rate, I was able to get the spindle in with just a couple of slaps with the flat of my hand against the crank. This was a good sign, as I’d always had to use a mallet with the FSA bearings.

Greased spindle ready to insert into bottom bracket
Greased spindle ready to insert into bottom bracket

Tightening bicycle crank with a torque wrench
Torquing the crank into place

Crank installed on left side of bike with proper spacing
Spacing looks OK

The final step was to put some more grease on the spindle and tighten on the crank and chainrings with a torque wrench. With the wrench I’ve got it’s a challenge to get the recommended 41NM, but I can always manage by putting my weight into it. With both cranks on (and pointing in opposite directions) I checked the clearance on the left crank. The wave washer should be slightly compressed, not fully, and it looked good to me.

Finally, the moment had come for a test spin! I gave it a few turns, and it’s smoother than it had been with the FSA bearings. It doesn’t run forever: just a couple of turns and it stops. But it’s definitely more free than before. There’s a clicking noise (not a grinding noise as the FSA bearings had been making) which I think is the aluminum collar inside the shell between the two bearings. I hope that with a few hundred kilometers the crankset will smooth out even more and the clicking will sort itself out.

Test spin with bbinfinite bottom bracket

How much longer must this go on?

So what remains to be done before Kuroko is ready to ride again? A number of smaller things: I’ve found some screws which will probably be a better fit for the rear drop-out, so I’ll put those in. I need to cut the new chain to length and install that. Finally, I need to adjust the brakes and the new derailleurs. I hope I can find time next weekend for that, and that the Halfakid can help out again. After all, he’s been waiting patiently for the first ride of 2020.


Detail of dropout with missing screws

Yesterday when we were putting a new rear derailleur on Kuroko we discovered that some of the screws for the modular dropout were missing — in fact, most of them were missing. And from the looks of the recesses in the frame, one of them has been missing at least since my ride in England.

I hadn’t paid enough attention to the dropouts before to realize they were modular, much less that they were held in by screws. A quick inspection showed that the other side was fine: all present and accounted for, and nice and snug. On the drive side, just one screw remaining, and holding in by a single thread. It has me wondering if this contributed to the earlier issue of the thru axle coming loose on a regular basis. And I’m sure a wiggly dropout would contribute to sloppy shifting.

A variety of similar screws
A variety of similar screws

Regardless, it would be unsafe to ride Kuroko in this condition. I needed replacements. I tried searching online for information, but nothing was forthcoming. So today I took the remaining screw and set out for the bike store. The clerk there was able to find something similar for me, but he was concerned the head shape was different and wouldn’t sell it to me.

Instead I went to Tokyu Hands and bought screws in three similar sizes, thinking that one would be a sure winner. Amusingly, the three varieties of screws at Tokyu Hands (not known for its bargain prices) cost pretty much the same as the one screw at the bike store.

Modular dropout in place with replacement screws
Good enough?

The first screw type I tried was a pretty good fit. Not perfect: the head is a bit round and stands out just slightly from the frame surface. But I think it’s good enough. If there’s a clearance issue I’ll cut down the 16mm screws to fit as they’ve got flat heads. Meanwhile, I put Loctite on the screws and tightened them up.

So who’s to blame?

Rear bicycle wheel and derailleur
Wheel and derailleur back in place

Obviously having a dropout fall off while I’m on a ride is a safety issue. I’m lucky it didn’t happen on one of the English canal paths or halfway around the Tour de Tohoku. How could this have come to pass?

I don’t really know where the blame lies. There’s not really a good reason to use a modular dropout on a production frame unless you use the same frame for a variety of models, some with thru axles and some with quick release. But given that’s what we have here, were the screws driven in by the maker or the bike shop that assembled it for me? I don’t know for certain, but I’m guessing the maker.

The final possibility is that I damaged the screws when I had the derailleur go into the spokes on that fateful day in England. I can’t completely rule that out. I do know that I was having the issue with the thru axle loosening up before that time.

Regardless of where the finger points, I now have something to add to my pre-ride checklist, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to carry spares on longer rides (particularly given they weigh next to nothing).

Kuroko maintenance continues

Loosening the crankset bolt with a socket wrench

Today, with the help of the Halfakid, I picked up where I’d left off the maintenance of Kuroko, begun more than a month ago!

At that time I decided I would replace the bottom bracket (again) as the bearings (just four or five months old at this point) were making a bit of noise, and the crank was not turning very freely.

Sad bottom bracket

I’ve had the replacement bottom bracket sitting in my den for months now, waiting for the right moment to install it. As I’ve already been through two sets of bearings from the maker of the crankset, FSA, I decided this time to give a different solution a try.

bbinfinite bottom bracket and tool
bbinfinite bottom bracket and tool

Today was cold and grey (while the last two days have been sunny and mild), and we both put on an extra layer before venturing out into the wind on the balcony. But we took the plunge. I quickly located the correct socket size and handed it to the Halfakid to loosen the crankset.

Loosening the crankset bolt with a socket wrench
Loosening the crankset

It took him a good few tries! He was obviously using more force than I’d used putting the crankset on, and it wasn’t budging. So we decided to take a break and look up the threading information to make sure we weren’t trying to turn it the wrong way. (Many threaded bottom brackets use a left-hand thread on the drive side, and I needed a sanity check to make sure the same wasn’t also true of the crankset.)

Reassured we were torquing in the proper direction, we returned to the balcony and then, with just a couple of more tries, the crank finally loosened. We had it off in a minute and then hammered the bearings out of the bottom bracket shell.

Screw in vice and grinding tool
The loud part — grinding down the screw

The new bottom bracket has a full aluminum shell, so we needed to grind down the screw that holds the cable guide to the outside of the bottom bracket shell. This took a few minutes with the help of the Dremel and a grinding wheel. It was pretty noisy, but (for a change) we didn’t bother the neighbor’s dog with our cacophony.

Bottom bracket shell showing protruding screwBottom bracket shell with screw ground down flush
Grinding down the screw until it’s flush

We were finally ready to install the new bottom bracket! We took a few minutes indoors to warm up while I went over the instructions once more, then once more again. We had all the tools and parts, and were ready to get the job done! So we thought. We got no more than a minute into the operation when we realized that my bottom bracket bearing press wasn’t long enough for the job. It’s made for bearings that are separate, and so doesn’t have the reach to go the whole way through first the integrated bearing set and then the bike’s BB shell.

Time for another break under the heater while I looked up the recommended BB tool. It’s not cheap. Amazon showed several sellers that could deliver it with a minimum wait of 10 days. Rakuten had a seller willing to take the order but without any commitment to a delivery date. I decided to check with the local bike shop before ordering.

Man in a hoodie manipulating a bicycle shift lever
Getting the cable out

With the bottom bracket fix on hold, we turned our attention to the parts we could take care today: replacing the rear derailleur and associated shift lever. We cut the cables for the existing rear derailleur and front brake and loosened the lever from the handlebars. We had a time of it trying to get the shift cable out of the lever, and in the end decided we didn’t actually need to get that done while standing in the cold wind.

The new cables threaded into the new shift lever a lot more easily than the old ones had come out, so we quickly mounted the new lever to the handlebar. Next we spent a couple of minutes trimming and adjusting the front brake. We didn’t get it perfect today, but that’s OK because I’ll check all the adjustments again once I’ve got the crankset back on.

Removing the sprocket with a sprocket tool and chain whip
Out with the old

Replacing the rear cassette was another job that turned out to be more difficult than expected. As I’d put the existing cassette on and used less than my full strength tightening it, I figured the Halfakid could remove it in a second. But, as with the crankset bolt, it turned out to be a lot more tight than expected. He finally got it turning after several tries and different positions to increase leverage.

With the old cassette off, we then fought with the packing of the new cassette. The sprockets were mounted on a plastic insert to hold them in place, and I spent some time trying to force out the insert or cut through it. Finally the Halfakid found out which way we needed to tug at the insert and then it popped out in a second. After that, the new cogs went onto the freehub in a minute, and with the application of a bit of grease, the Halfakid gave the cassette lockring a good tightening. (I doubt I’ll be able to get it off again without his help.

Bicycle wheel with shiny new cassette
In with the new

The final step for the day was mounting the new rear derailleur and attaching the shifting cable. But in the process we were in a for another shock, and this one a nasty one. While we were mounting the derailleur I noticed a loose screw on the inside of the dropout. A closer inspection showed that it was the only screw remaining of an original four meant to hold the dropout to the frame, and it was hanging by a single thread! The Halfakid tightened it up, but reported that it wouldn’t seat in and stop turning. So that might mean the frame threads are stripped. In any case, I have to figure out what size screw it is and find three replacements before I can ride the bike again. Meanwhile, the dropout certainly is loose, and this probably contributed to shifting issues I’ve had in the past.

I don’t know at what point the other screws were lost. It certainly points to a quality control issue, but I don’t know if it’s the manufacturer or the shop where I bought Kuroko — I rather suspect the former.

Between the bearing press being too short and the dropout screws missing, Kuroko is probably going to be laid up for at least another week. I’ll have to put of my first ride of the New Year for a while yet.