Thursday, February 28, 2013

Fiction - Robotron 2084'

NOTE:  This post is rated R for a single instance of mild strong language that I couldn’t bring myself to omit.


What follows is a work of fiction.  The normal disclaimers apply.  Even the language used, though it bears a strong resemblance to American English, is made-up and used fictitiously.  And yet, if you read this through to the end, you may decide there is an important kernel of Truth within.

Robotron: 2084

Okay, I’ve been spending a lot of time playing this video game but I think I’m done now.  It was just so nostalgic when I spotted the game in the little pizza place near the office I sometimes go to for lunch.  It’s almost exactly like the Robotron: 2084 console I used to play on in the pool hall on Pardall in Isla Vista, during my college days.  Surely you remember this game, though in your head you probably hear “Robo-tron” while I always called it “Robot-Ron.”  But this console, in the pizzeria, is a subtly different version called Robotron: 2084 (which I assume is pronounced “2084-prime”).

Physically it’s the same:  same small color screen, same utterly basic graphics, same two knobs (one to move in any direction, one to fire in any direction).  At first, even the gameplay is almost identical:  everything coming at your guy like a damn frenzy, certain enemies you can’t kill, and of course the humans you have to save.  At first the main thing you notice with 2084 is that the sound is better, like there’s a subwoofer in the cabinet.  But then you discover that your gun seems to overheat or need a reload or something, so you have to be a little more economical with your shots.  Hold the knob down for too long and it stops firing for a second or two.  This limitation increases as the game goes on.  And when you get into the higher levels, or waves, you get some different enemies to kill (which I’ll get to).  But mostly, it’s the same as ever.  I have no use for modern ultra-graphic first-person shooter games—once you get past the initial dazzle, they’re all the same boring crap—and don’t even get me started on Internet gaming.

So I have found Robotron: 2084 oddly addictive, as much as when I was in college and we all spent more time in study breaks (aka, playing Robotron) than studying.  I’ve found myself eating at the pizzeria more and more often, and playing the game longer and longer afterward.  It’s become routine to still be at it when the nearby high schoolers get out of school.  At first they seemed annoyed to find me here.  But I’m fricking good at this game, having probably spent more years playing it than this console has even been here, so they all hang around to watch after the first kid has put his quarter on the sill to claim the next game.  (The beauty of this console is it still only requires a quarter.  Maybe they couldn’t retrofit it.)

I have to confess, the chatter of the kids is part of the enjoyment.  I feel like one of those really old dudes at that one park in Chinatown who play Go or poker on the stone tables, their pals gathered around bobbing and prattling away.  Now and then I catch my reflection in the console screen, and—shadowy as it is—my thin face and receding hairline make it pretty obvious I’m kind of old for video games.  Sometimes these high schoolers ask me questions, but I don’t answer.  For one thing I’m concentrating too hard, and for another I’m kind of afraid of becoming like The Guru.

The Guru was this guy who used to play Gauntlet in the student center at the university in Boulder where I played video games as a teen.  This guy was way too old to be a college kid, and in fact looked (and often smelled) pretty close to homeless.  He had this scraggly beard and everything, and he was phenomenal at Gauntlet.  Maybe playing it had become, for him, the cheapest way to be indoors out of the cold.  He could go forever and kept up a constant monologue of advice and strategy.  My friend Bob, who loved Gauntlet, hung on the guy’s every word, but I think we all sort of pitied him.  I mean, a forty-something who’s that good at a video game?  Get a life!

Not that I should talk, canceling meetings and conference calls and even sometimes calling my wife to say I’m working late, all just to play Robotron: 2084.  Yes, I fully understand how lame that is.  But there’s just this one new enemy I couldn’t figure out how to kill, and felt for weeks like I was on the brink of a breakthrough—there was just something familiar about this enemy, and if I could figure out how to kill it I could finally clear this wave and see what the next one is like.  That’s all I want, I’ve been telling myself—to clear this one wave. 

The new enemy looks like a sidewinder snake.  It moves like lightning, and once it heads for you there’s nothing to do but flee.  Sure, the game has always had the Hulks that you can’t kill, but they’re pretty slow.  The Sidewinders are fast and ruthless, and when you get to the wave that has them, it doesn’t matter how many lives you have left.  You’re toast within minutes.

And yet, they seem vulnerable; when you manage to shoot them, they change color for just a second, and there’s this low sound, a throb you can feel through the knobs.  This is the part that seemed familiar somehow, even though it’s nothing like the original Robotron: 2084.  It was a code I had to crack!  I wish I could start each game where I left off, because getting to this wave takes a good while, and then I have precious little time to work out the riddle.  For this last minute or so the high school kids are no longer jabbering.  They just gasp.

And finally, I hit upon the answer.  The Sidewinders are a bit like the Pulsars in Tempest, my other favorite 1980s video game.  In Tempest you’re moving your claw-like shooter along the rim of a geometrically shaped hole, shooting beasts that come up from below, and at a certain level you get the Pulsars that, with their rhythmic pulses, electrify the whole segment they’re on.  Touch that segment and you’re dead.  

To defeat the Pulsars you have to get into their rhythm, so you can pop over and shoot them between pulses.  That was a major breakthrough in playing Tempest, and killing these Sidewinders turns out to be similar:  it’s all about rhythm!  When they are stretched out straight, shooting them does nothing.  But in the Z-shaped phase of their slithering, you can shoot them and you get that color thing and the throb sound.  What I’ve discovered is, it takes three hits to kill them—but if you’re shooting continuously, your gun overheats and you can’t take the third shot.  But if you pop them—a quick stab of the knob, perfectly in sync with the throb of their slither—they die after three hits!  As soon as I discover this, I’m slaughtering them like lambs and my teenage spectators are going nuts.

They have no idea how I’m doing it, you see.  They probably never played Tempest.  (Maybe this is how the creators of Robotron: 2084, who I picture as ageing nerd-hipsters with pure white ponytails who are happy to have one more retro-programming gig, show their respect for veteran gamers of their generation.)  As I perfect the sidewinder-killing technique I get closer and closer to that long-awaited next wave, and then suddenly:  I’m there.

The next level, though, is astonishing.  I’m braced for the most insane onslaught of all, but instead the screen is practically empty.  No Electrodes, no Grunts, no Hulks, no Sidewinders.  There are a few humans wandering around.  I head over to them to pick up some points, but my guy is moving more slowly now, and as I approach a human she seems repelled and just scoots away.  (She could have been turned evil, except there’s no sign of any Brains, or “Brain-fuckers” as we always called them.)  I keep waiting for the enemy attack but doesn’t come.  I risk flicking my eyes over to check out my score, and my jaw drops:  I’ve got the high-score!  I’ve finally outscored JOC!  (I assume that it’s just a coincidence that the initials at the top of the Robotron: 2084 scoreboard are the same as those of my old junior high buddy Joaquin … surely he hasn’t moved West like me, and taken up Robotron again?)

All that’s on the screen besides humans are these little flowers in vases.  I try to shoot one, but I have no gun!  Just these little hands I can waggle with that knob.  I go over to try to pick up a vase but just knock it over.  I try again.  I pick it up and walk with it, then it falls from my hands.   “Dude, your score drops every time you break a vase!” one of the teenagers says.  I look up.  It’s true, and what’s more, my score is gradually dropping all the time.  Soon it’s back below JOC’s high-score.  And the game isn’t fun anymore.  There’s nothing to do!

Eventually it dawns on me what this wave must be called:  retirement.

That would explain my guy’s sluggish speed, and why his gun got taken away (“He might hurt himself!”).  The other humans, far from looking to him as their savior, no longer want anything to do with him.  And the teenagers watching me are starting to get restless.  They’re just waiting for me to die.  My score falls and falls.  I’m no longer relevant.  Eventually the manager of the pizzeria comes over.  “Uh, sir?  Apparently you’ve kind of had your turn at this game?  These other customers are asking if I can pull the plug to reset it for them?”

I turn and leave, and head back to the office.  Thank God it’s just a game. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

From the Archives - Lost “Star Trek” Episode


From the time I was ten, I loved the late ‘60s TV show “Star Trek.” I bristled whenever some dumb kid called it “Star Track.” I even played “Star Trek” with the neighbor kids; I was always Kirk and my brother Max was always Spock. The show (in syndication) came on at 4 p.m. when I was in grade school and, for an enchanted year or two, my brothers and I were glued to our old black-and-white Panasonic TV every weekday afternoon. Our swim team era ended this family tradition, but I picked “Star Trek” back up in high school when it was on every night at ten. Years later, while in college, I turned my memories into this screenplay of sorts, which I mailed around to friends and family, for their amusement and in the service of an ulterior motive you will encounter shortly.

The Lost “Star Trek” Episode – November 13, 1989

Captain Kirk was furious now. “Dammit, Scotty, we must have more power!” It irked Kirk how proud Scotty was of the Starship Enterprise, when the ship seemed to Kirk to be chronically underpowered and frequently on the brink of failure. Scotty responded, testily because he was secretly sick of wearing the same red and black Lycra outfit day after day instead of a kilt that might give his boys more breathing room while further cementing his Scottish heritage, “Aye, cap’n, the ship’s about to be torn apart! I can’t nurse any more outta her without those new dilithium crystals!”

Kirk pounded the armrest of his chair. He turned to his first officer. “Spock ... WHY?” he demanded. The Vulcan raised one perfectly plucked eyebrow as he answered: “Captain, your question seems rather illogical, given a certain lack of parameters....” Kirk cut him off. “Look, I want answers and I want them now! I am responsible for the dining and dancing pleasure of 400 people on this ship! Chekov, what’s our status?” The impossibly young looking Russian with the dark, girlish bouffant looked up. He seemed to always be looking up, and not only because Kirk’s chair was deliberately raised above the rest of the bridge, as if to insure his ego against any possible challenge. Chekov always seemed to be in a little bit of a crouch, leaning over his workstation as though very, very tired, and yet he sounded positively chipper as he responded. “Vell, Captain, this wessel is in serious danger.” The other helmsman, Sulu, looked to be on the verge of grinning, but then he couldn’t help it. Some people have a face that just wants to smile, and though such people normally end up in sales, Sulu was one of them. For the moment Kirk was done talking to people, with all their quirks and uselessness. He decided to consult the ship’s computer. “Computer: is ... it ... possible, that we have entered a ... parallel universe, in which this ship’s power can come from some ... alternative energy source?

The computer hummed. “Work-ing ... situation possible ... power is available from certain formula of ancient Earth confection called cookies.” Kirk rubbed his chin thoughtfully, as if he had a goatee to stroke. “Computer: can you produce for me a ... recipe, for that formula?” Lights flashed. “Work-ing ... insufficient data.” Kirk again slammed down his fist. It was getting rather sore now, as he had been bashing it continually since the opening credits of the show. He turned to Dr. McCoy, who just happened to be on the bridge rather than in sick bay, where we can suppose he really belonged. “Bones ... can you develop a formula for these, these ... cookies?

McCoy was as irritable as ever. “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a dietician!” he spat. Spock, in an exasperatingly calm voice, intervened. “Would I be incorrect, Doctor, in presupposing that in your studies at the Star Fleet Academy, you were briefly exposed to the realm of medicine concerning nutrition?” Now McCoy was well and truly pissed off. “Well, pitchforks and pointed ears, that’s a typical green-blooded Vulcan thing to say! Why don’t you use your infallible logic to get us out of this mess!” As McCoy seemed almost angry enough for physical violence, a security guard named Jackson stepped in, ready to intervene. (Off screen, a technician named Brian queued up the standard fight music, just in case.) Kirk waved Jackson off, perhaps feeling a touch of remorse, for he knew that as with all security guards who take part in an episode, Jackson would surely die before the next commercial intermission.

Kirk had been blessed with an insight, which didn’t surprise him because precisely forty- three minutes into every episode, he was always blessed with an insight. He credited sharp script-writers for this ability. “Spock: is it possible that someone, a purveyor of some kind, somewhere in this galaxy, has the formula for these ... cookies we need?” Spock, as always, secretly wondered why Kirk would ask him such a question, since he was only a science officer who really shouldn’t be expected to know such things. “Well, captain, if we were to have Lieutenant Uhura send out a distress signal on all hailing frequencies, I would estimate our chances at approximately 40,000 to one.” Kirk hated it when Spock recited odds, because it reminded him of that hysterical gold robot from “Star Wars.” But Kirk liked these odds: anything better than million-to-one was good enough for this show.

He signaled Uhura, who fiddled with the little steel beehive in her ear. “I’m sorry, Captain, but there’s no response.” She was a bit frightened, since she in fact never seemed to get any response and had fallen back on the “transmissions are jammed” excuse so often, she wondered when Kirk might decide she was simply incompetent. Kirk rubbed his chin again. “That leaves us just one more option: our guest star. Spock, Bones, come with me.” Seconds later, the turbo elevator had brought them to the brig, where the dangerously hostile guest star, a tall and skinny twenty-year-old, was being held. The youth was alternating between smashing himself violently into the force field and writhing in pain.

“Nurse Chapel: why is this prisoner so hostile?” Kirk asked impatiently. The nurse, looking very beautiful in soft- focus, said, “Well, captain, have we ever had a guest star who wasn’t?” Kirk began to rub his chin thoughtfully as Jackson, the faithful security guard, shut off the force field. Suddenly, the scrawny adolescent flew into action, beating the hapless security guard over the head with a giant college textbook. Kirk launched himself at the kid, punching the hapless lad several times before McCoy stuck in the Hypo and Spock gave him the Vulcan neck pinch. Kirk wiped a trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth as McCoy ran his medical tricorder over the sprawled boy. McCoy looked up, and with a note of remorse in his voice, said, “He’s dead, Jim.”

As Kirk stared blankly back, Spock spoke up. “That seems highly illogical, given that this particular guest star is a prime specimen of an ancient Earth breed called ‘Albert,’ known for extreme physical prowess and an almost uncanny ability to survive under extreme stress.” The blond-haired corpse, seeming to agree with Spock, rose up and scratched its head thoughtfully. “Dammit, Spock, do you have to ruin everything?” shouted Dr. McCoy. “That was my favorite line, and you ruined it!” McCoy turned his attention to Jackson, who lay on the floor, his head twisted at a grotesque angle. Again McCoy looked up at the captain, looking grave. “He’s dead, Jim. And Spock—not a word from you this time!”

Spock began to speak but Nurse Chapel shushed him. Not that she’d have minded watching Spock denigrate the doctor once again. Nurse Chapel hated McCoy for his lumpy skin and the bags under his eyes, and secretly wished she could be assigned to a spaceship with more creamy-skinned Vulcans on it. She sighed, reflecting that on a planet like Vulcan, the males—free from raging hormones and philistine impulses—might actually design Starfleet uniforms with skirts longer than eight inches.

Before long Kirk returned with the Universal Translator, with which he hoped to communicate with the guest star. “I’m Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise, representing the United Federation of Planets and Starfleet Command,” he said. The amused guest star stuck out his hand. “Hi, I’m Dana. I’d just like to say I really enjoy your show. The original show, I mean—not that ‘Next Generation’ crap. You are way cooler than Picard.” Kirk shook off the compliment. “Look, I need to know where we can get these ... cookies, so we can bring our life support systems back up to full strength and save the ship.” He was taking a gamble: if the kid didn’t know, they were basically doomed since there were only five minutes left in the show and Star Trek rarely went into a second episode.

“Well, uh, I guess I could write home asking for some,” the kid replied. “But I can’t guarantee anything.” Kirk considered arguing, and possibly more fist fighting, but wanted to save a few minutes of the show for some witty repartee on the bridge at the very end. He figured things would work out somehow, as they always did. He couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed, though, as he was feeling less than typically heroic at how this one had come out. He wanted to hit out at someone, something, anything, but with the guest star behaving himself he had to settle for punching the intercom button. “Take her out of orbit, Mr. Sulu. Ahead warp factor two.”

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

More Q&A With Dr. Tyre

Dear Dr. Tyre,

I’ve been all over the Internet trying to get a straight answer to this question:  what’s the difference between the Continental Grand Prix 4000 and the 4000S?  Which one should I buy?

Len P, Louisville, KY

Dear Len,

The 4000S has Black Chili compound, which (according to the manufacturer) means that the rubber has “special nanometric carbon soot particles” in it that give the tire all the best characteristics of solid grip, low rolling resistance, and longevity.  (I like that these nanometric carbon soot particles are the “special” kind, not just the regular kind.)

The 4000 doesn’t have Black Chili, unless you get the all-black ones, which do.  Got that?  The only difference between the 4000S and the black 4000 is graphics.

Which should you ride?  Does the Black Chili actually mean anything?  Probably it’s a benefit, but can’t say for sure.  I can say, though, that there’s something twee about using brightly colored tires on your bike.  And do you really want to give up a potential functional benefit just for the sake of style?

By the way, the first time I was asked about 4000 vs. 4000S, by a friend, I hadn’t done my homework and replied, “You want the 4000S because it’s better.”  My friend asked why it’s better.  I replied, “Because I have it, and I only ride the best.”  If you invoke this line of reasoning and have your authority questioned, use your tire choice as evidence of your superior taste.  This rhetorical trick—technically a logical fallacy—is called Petitio Principii and is the backbone of many a successful argument. 

Dear Dr. Tyre,

Let’s get down to brass tacks.  What’s better:  clinchers or sew-ups?

Byron T, Boston, MA

Dear Byron,

That all depends on who’s buying.  If you’re on a pro team, with a crackerjack mechanic, and get all the tires you want, then tubulars (i.e., sew-ups) are still the best way to go.  They handle better because they deflect more in corners, are less vulnerable to pinch-flats, and are a lighter overall design since the rim doesn’t have to have the little shelf to hold the tire bead.  On the other hand, tubular tires cost a lot, are virtually worthless after you get a puncture, and are really hard to glue on properly.

Naturally, there are those who maintain that punctured tubulars can be repaired.  An e-mail thread among my bike club members a year or so ago dealt with this very topic, presided over by our club guru, Bob Muzzy, whose cred is established by this photo:

(Yes, that’s Greg Lemond.  Bob has just presented Greg with a signed photo of the two of them at the start line of a race in Belgium in 1980.)

Bob wrote the following: 
Now gather ‘round in a circle, youngsters, while I tell you a story about sew-up tire repair, long, long ago.  We used to fix our own!  That’s right.  And we got good, and fast, at it.  I swear I could do it faster than some of you can change a clincher flat…  Rarely is it necessary to replace the inner tube, valve and entire base tape.  I’ve even spliced in replacement sections of inner tube when there was a large blowout.  Say there was a 2” long rip in the tube.  I’d cut it out to square the ends, then splice back in a 4” section of tube from another salvaged tire; leaving 1” overlap on either end.  I have also replaced treads; shops used to sell replacements.  Most of the time the sidewall failed prior to the tread so this wasn’t a common repair.  It was easier to lay down a thin layer of shoe goo to build up the existing tread.  There must be instructional videos on youtube.   I’ve long suggested that this would be a great business for a young person.  
 My response was as follows
A buddy of mine started his own tubular repair service in the mid-  ‘80s.  He called it Professional Independent Sew-up Repair and didn’t realize what the initials spelled.  His business, which he ran out of my dad’s basement (he was couch-surfing there at the time) was booming right from the beginning; the only problem was, he never actually fixed any of the tires—he just took them  in.  Years later I found PISR’s backlog, still in the basement.  The PISR customer files were long gone, so there was no way to get the tires back to their owners.  So I took them, along with  the half dozen or so tires I’d punctured over the years, and gave them to another friend who had just started his own  tubular repair business.  Well, I pestered that guy every six months or so for the next three years, and then one day, amazingly, he gave me all the tires, fixed.  He was too embarrassed to accept any payment, though I tried to insist.  So, I went  back to training on sew-ups because I suddenly had this incredible inventory of tires, but they lasted an average of one  ride apiece before the stitching would blow.  I went through the whole lot of them in less than a month, I think.  Never  again!   Moral of the story?  Sewing up a sew-up is harder than a lot of people think, especially for those dang youngsters these  days...
To this tale, Bob replied, “Dana, you clearly hung around with a scoundrels and incompetents in your youth.  Your parents and I are glad to see you’ve straightened up.  A bit.  Your lame buddy simply used lousy thread.  A double thickness of sturdy waxed dental floss is recommended.”

Of course, puncture repair is only part of the story.  Guys roll tires (i.e., an improperly glued tire can roll off the rim, causing a crash), and did so even back in the day, when your average racer got a lot more involved in maintaining his bike than modern-day types (I’m sorry, but it has to be said).  I marshaled the Albany Criterium last year, and a dirtbag rolled a tire coming through a corner, crashing the guy behind him in the process.  The second guy (i.e., the innocent victim) let us fuss over him, but the first dude got the hell out of there, rightly fearing a tongue-lashing.

When I worked tech support for races in the ‘80s, I prided myself on being a hard-ass and flunking as many bikes as I could by rolling the tires off the rims with my hands.  Guys would complain and I’d remind them that I’d done them—and the rest of the peloton—a favor.  A properly glued tire should be impossible to push off a rim while inflated.  Alas, gluing tubular tires (like patching them) is a lost art.  So unless you have lots of money and you really know what you’re doing, just stick with clinchers.  The modern ones are very good.

Dear Dr. Tyre,

I’ve been dieting and have lost ten pounds over the winter (even though it meant huddling by the radiator a lot of the time).  Plus I have been working out in the gym, and am getting loads of base miles.  In other words, I’m really stepping up my game.  So I’m thinking:  is it time to go tubeless?

David M, San Diego, CA

Dear David,

Not to be a jerk or anything, but I frankly couldn’t care less about your training program, your “efforts,” your “game,” and your racing, and I’m sure my readers couldn’t, either.

Sorry, I guess I’m still riled up thinking about guys who roll tubular tires.  Anyway, my approach to tubeless tire systèmes is that, while they afford a pompous advice columnist the opportunity to throw around terms like “système,” they should be approached cautiously.  Will tubeless really catch on?  And if it does, will it be a lasting innovation, or just a fad?  I sat out the whole Biopace “revolution,” and while it’s easy to downplay oval chainrings now, a lot of people paid perfectly good money to replace their perfectly good round chainrings with Biopace, only to come full circle and pay more money to return to round chainrings.  Same with the roller-cam brakes and U-brakes that came after them.  Meanwhile, if the technology does end up sticking around, it’ll only get better and cheaper over time.  In my opinion, the only reason to go tubeless at this early stage is to show off (though maybe that’s reason enough for you).

Dear Dr. Tyre,

I’m going to make my own studded snow tires for my mountain bike!  Any advice?

Kate S, Buffalo, NY

Dear Kate,

While there are several web resources for this project (for example, here, here, and here), I haven’t come across one that addresses the biggest problem with this idea:  longevity.  The standard method is to use wood screws as studs.  Wood screws will wear down really, really fast.  This is not a story my people tell, but something I know myself. 

To get around this problem, you can buy expensive studded bike tires (e.g., this one) that have tungsten carbide studs, or you can try to buy the tungsten carbide studs by themselves to make your own studded tires with, as my brothers and I managed to do in the ‘80s.  It was terribly hard work, drilling a small hole in each tire knob and pushing the stud through by thumb.  I’m sure we’ll all have arthritis from the manufacturing process.  But the tires were indestructible!  I used to cruise into the garage at speed and lock up the rear wheel, carving grooves in the concrete.  We had to use Mr. Tuffys in the tires to protect the tubes, and the whole setup weighed a ton, but once you had the bike up to speed, it was good times.  I wish I had a photo, or for that matter the tires themselves.  Where did they go?  Who knows.  We all moved away from Colorado and the ‘rents must have pitched them.  A pity.  Anyway, here’s a photo of a proper (commercial) studded tire.

 Dear Dr. Tyre,

I’m kind of a connoisseur of print ads.  What is your favorite ad for a bike tire?

Sheila S, Boston, MA

Dear Sheila,

There are lots of great old ads for tires, but two of them leap readily to mind.  First, this one:

The other one, alas, I can’t find anywhere, but the following photo has much in common with it:  the same guy, on this same giant bike, pitched over in a turn at the same angle:

This second ad was for the new Avocet Fasgrip tire, which had no tread whatsoever.  It was sort of the Atkins diet of the bike tire world:  take everything we thought we knew about tires and reverse it.  Completely bald tires.  The actual ad showed the guy on a wet road, fearlessly banking over like that.  The text promised that the tire really would stick like glue in the wet, and I think it even gave some silly reasons why slick was better.

I guess if I have to pick between these two favorite ads—and I clearly do, based on your question—I’d go with the Clément ad because it doesn’t promise, or indeed even say, anything at all.  The man and woman seem to be fighting over the tire, but the woman looks bored.  Then there’s the guy in the back in the suit … what’s his story?  You might question whether this is a persuasive ad, but it sure worked on me.  I refer you to last week’s question about my favorite tire, and to the fact that Clément was a runner-up despite my never having tried it.  Its mystique owes a lot to this ad, I think.

The Avocet ad, meanwhile, didn’t convince me, but did convince my brother Geoff.  He completely trusted those tires, up to and until the rainy day on which he took the turn into the bike shop parking lot at breakneck speed and slid right out, crashing hard.  He ended up with close to thirty stitches in his chin.  From that day forward (actually, probably from the very beginning) we called the Avocet tires “Fas-slip.”  (To be honest, they probably weren’t any worse for traction than any other tire.  The ad alone is at fault in suggesting the impossible feat of cornering that hard in the wet.)

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Ask Dr. Tyre

NOTE:  This post is rater R for mild strong language.

Dear Dr. Tyre,

I’m trying to decide between the Continental 4000S and the Vredestein TriComp.  The reviews are totally confusing.  One guy says the Vredesteins “go square quite quickly” while the Continentals “wear like steel,” but another guys says the Vreddies’ durability is “on par with Gatorskins and better than Conti 4000.”  I find similarly conflicting info on the ride quality. One guy says the Vreddies “have a more 'foamy' feel than a 'balloony' feel,” and are more “supple and grippy” than the Contis.  Another guy says that compared to the Contis the Vreddies “felt slow,” and yet another guy says the Conti is more like “the proverbial Magic Carpet Ride.”  I’m so confused … please help!

Rudy P, Madison, WI

Dear Rudy,

Let me start by saying you should work for the Zagat guide, because your little snippets of quotation would fit right in.

I suppose I could wonder why your road tire smackdown is between these two, since there are countless other good tires out there.  But since they’re both popular tires, I’ll continue.  It’s tempting to believe that the conflicting reviews are a simple matter of cognitive dissonance:  people will praise whatever they shelled out money for.  But actually, I think comparisons in ride quality will always favor the most recent tire purchased.  Why?  Because almost nobody replaces tires until they’re worn out, and a new tire will always give a nicer ride than a worn-out one.  I recently bought some Vredestein TriComps, and though they felt slightly better than my Conti 4Ks, I realized I hadn’t had such a welcome feeling of increased luxury since I originally installed the 4Ks, which replaced—guess what?—a worn-out but otherwise identical pair of 4Ks.

Longevity is hard to measure.  It has to do with road quality, season, and rider weight (which, particularly in my case, isn’t even a constant).  On an objective note, the Contis have a handy wear indicator, which is very useful.

Still another objective decision point is country of origin.  The Contis are made in Germany, the Vreddies in Thailand.  As an expression of appreciation for the all-together-now Global Village, I like to make my bike as international as possible.  My bike has components from Spain, Japan, France, Italy, Romania, Taiwan, China, and Thailand; I had Germany represented until I got these Vreddies.  (My inner tubes are Thai, which heritage is now redundant.)  Alas, my bike is completely un-American. 

One more thing.  If your bike has really short chainstays and clearance is an issue, be aware that the 4K is a very high-profile tire.  The TriComp offers better clearance.

Dear Dr. Tyre,

What is a “boot”?

Brad H, Austin, TX

Dear Brad,

Say you’re on a ride and something slices your tire.  BLAM—major blowout, and though you have a spare tube, it’ll balloon out of the gash in the tire, and explode, as soon as you bring it up to pressure.  How do you get home?  Well, ideally your tool kit includes a small section of sidewall cut from an old tire.  You put this between the tube and tire, right where the gash is, and it protects the tube so you can get home.  Note, in the following photo, how you can see the light-colored boot peeking out from behind the gash; note also the slight bulge in the sidewall from it.

But what if you don’t have a proper boot?  Well, that’s where you improvise.  I’ve used paper money and even a nice green leaf as a boot.  I solicited my bike club to find out what other creative solutions have been employed; the list includes Powerbar wrappers, duct tape, mylar, semi-rigid plastic product packaging, and gel wrappers (“I think that that little bit of sticky excess gel which leaks out can be a benefit in this scenario, keeping the boot positioned while you install and pump up the tube”). 

My friend Craig told me, “I’ve only used a Washington a few times, and in deference to our first president, I always have him face inward, you know, in case you run over dog shit or something.  I wish I could write about a MacGyver moment where I wove the fibers of a young bamboo plant into a cloth, tapped a rubber tree with a bic pen and vulcanized the rubber using heat generated by rotating my wheel while applying my brake, but (a) I’ve never biked in a Southeast Asian rainforest, and (b) I’m not that smart.”

Another inspired boot tale was from my friend Dave, a former US Marine: 
Mountain bike night ride.  Descending some wooded single-track that for legal reasons I can’t name.  One of the riders has a sidewall blowout/tear, probably three or four inches long.  When it blew I thought we were coming under sniper fire....  What do we do?  Lights all focused on the tear ... anyone have a water bottle? check ... a knife? check ... cut the top and bottom off the bottle, slice the water bottle down the side, and wrap the bottle boot around the tube in the location of the tear/blowout.  Worked like a champ!  This might even work for a serious road tire blowout ... but what road rider actually carries a knife ... they all should, dang it ... it’s war out there.
I’d like to think it was a big badass buck knife.  This would be easy enough to find out, but I’d rather assume wrong that find it out was a basic Swiss army knife or something.

Dear Dr. Tyre,

What, in your opinion, is the best bike tire of all time?

Raphael N, Great Neck, NY

Dear Raphael,

That’s a tough one.  The Continental Top Touring 26x1.95 is an amazing tire for longevity; I put over 5,000 miles on a pair while touring, on a bike so laden it weighed between 150 and 180 pounds, and the tires weren’t even half-gone by the end.  But the Top Tourings were heavy, slow tires and not in the least romantic.

My all-time favorites list also includes the Clément Criterium Seta Extra, because it had a silk casing and of course the specialness that “Extra” implies.  I never actually rode them but I just enjoyed basking in their cultural perfume.  For pure racing satisfaction I loved the Egyptian cotton Vittoria CX/CG combo, and would have belligerently defended their top-rank reputation had anybody ever challenged it, which nobody ever did.  It would be tough to narrow it down and give the “best ever” reward to either of them, though, because you had to run the CX on the front and the CG on the rear.  I never questioned this—it was just wisdom handed down through the ages.  I loved those tires like a woman.

And yet, when it really comes down to it, my favorite tire of all time was actually this bad boy:

It’s the Wolber Champion de France (you can still buy them, here).  I never actually rode them, because they were absolutely the most unreliable, wretched tires on the face of the Earth.  This was in 1986, when I was racing as a junior in Boulder, Colorado, and our local 7-Eleven junior team was sponsored by Wolber.  In every single race at least one of the Slurpees would puncture.  Since every rider on that team seemed to be their star rider, a puncture would throw their team tactics into chaos, giving the rest of us a slightly better chance in the race.  So it was thrilling and gratifying every time one of those guys—faster, stronger, better equipped, better-coached, and in most cases better-looking than us—got a flat.  You might say these tires provided a more level playing field.  (Not in the BS Lance Armstrong sense, since doping doesn’t level the playing field, because it confers a greater advantage on a) those who have a naturally lower hematocrit and thus more to gain from EPO, and b) those who have the money and savvy to dope more effectively, which makes the race all about doping instead of all about prowess, tenacity, skill, intelligence, and all the other great things about real cycling.  But I digress.)

Dear Dr. Tyre,

Why do you spell your name “Tyre,” not “Tire”?

Gertrude S, Spokane, WA

Dear Trudy,

You don’t mind if I call you Trudy, do you?  Anyway, I think I can spot a loaded question.  You probably think I spell it “tyre” to be more Euro, or perhaps as a shout-out to my British readers.  But actually, it’s simply because that’s my name.  This isn’t a fake advice column, my surname really is Tyre, and I really do have a doctorate (a Ph.D. in Socioeconomic Geology of Subterranean Puddles, which has more to do with tires than you might guess).

Dear Dr. Tyre,

I am a long-time mountain biker with a whole lot of experience, and I’ve tried pretty much every mainstream mountain bike tire on the market.  I also have a master’s degree in finite element analysis.  And yet when I give people advice about tires, they never seem to listen.  They just go buy whatever hyped-up fashionable tire they feel like.  And yet people listen to you … what’s your secret?

Michael D, New Haven, CT

Dear Michael,

What makes you think people take my advice?  Look, I get paid based on how many readers are assumed to read my column, whether not I have ever actually helped anybody.  This is true of all advice columns.  Who in history has ever checked up on Dear Abby’s readers to make sure they were well served?  Answer:  nobody.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t steps you could take to enhance your cred.  I hate to break it to you, but nobody cares about your master’s degree.  If you want people to pay attention, you’re going to have to kick all their asses on an actual ride.  (I’m guessing that you haven’t yet done that.)

This isn’t to say nobody is taken in by a really good stream of blather.  I worked at a bike shop with this young buck who really could talk the talk.  He could describe exactly how this or that tire would behave on the trail.  “The Panaracer Smoke is grippy, but the knobs are like this shelf and it’ll suddenly drop you off and you can lose control.  I prefer the good old Ground Control.  It’s not the tightest tire out there but it’s very predictable so you can just kind of ‘feather it’ at the very edge of traction.”  I was very impressed until I actually rode with the guy.  He descended off-road like a fricking grandma.  He could have gone that fast on slicks.

Dear Dr. Tyre,

I’ve been all over YouTube looking for a instructional video about how to use tire levers.  The way some of these brutes drag the lever along the tire bead is downright frightening.  Surely that can’t be the right way to do it, can it?  Can you point me to a video of proper technique?

Samantha K, Emeryville, CA

Dear Samantha,

You are right to be skeptical of that technique.  And you sound hot!  Are you currently seeing anybody?  (Joking!)

Click here for a video of the proper technique, given by Dr. Tyre himself.