Practical Advice for Transportation Cycling

Sometimes, all that matters is getting from Point A to Point B as cheaply, safely and efficiently as possible. You don't need a fast bike, you don't need a pretty bike, and most of all you don't need an expensive bike, you just need one that works.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Toe Clip Straps

I've mentioned before that I don't care for toe clips on my pedals. I feel any performance advantage they give is offset by the inconvenience and increased potential for injury compared to clipless pedals or regular flat pedals.

However, the straps that are used to tighten the toe clips are just about the handiest thing out there. They can be used as a general-purpose tie-down for all sorts of things. For example:

Making a u-lock holster in a front basket
Also handy for keeping wine bottles from rolling around
 Or securing a musical instrument case so it can't bounce out of a rear basket

The mandolin is worth five or six times what the bike is, I DON'T want it flying off if I hit a pothole. 
You can also wrap a spare inner tube and a tire lever up in a rag, and use a toe clip strap to attach the bundle to the underside of your saddle, to make a minimalist flat repair kit, complete with a rag to wipe your hands on (assuming you've attached your pump somewhere else).

In short, these things are handy. My preference is to scrap the clips themselves, but save as many of these as you come across.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Project: Sub $100 Pack Mule

Since I've been living at Madison, I've been getting by with just one bicycle (technically I also have a folding bike, but its been sitting in the back of a closet for the most part).
My Country Road Bob is a great, versatile, fun-to-ride bike, and it's wonderful for getting around and going places, but it isn't the best at actually carrying stuff. The leaned-over riding position makes carrying anything too bulky in a backpack or bag uncomfortable, and I really didn't want to festoon my light, zippy machine with racks and baskets, as it's both fun to ride and easy to manuever up a flight of stairs or onto mass transit. I figured the ideal way to go about things would be to acquire a second bike that I could make a dedicated cargo hauler, and keep the Bob for pleasure riding and light loads (admittedly, most of my riding anyway).

Fortunately, I happen to have found work at a pretty cool shop that specializes in refurbishing used bikes, and a used mountain bike in my size happened to come through the door. I snagged before it hit the sales floor for about $50 and set about setting it up for my needs. The bike was pretty perfect for what I wanted, it's a fairly modern, low-end mountain bike in good condition. This meant that, for one, I wouldn't feel bad modifying it to meet my needs like I would a cool classic bike or more valuable new bike, and secondly, all the components are common and easy to replace if they break or wear out.

As I've mentioned before, I think basic mountain bikes are fairly well-suited to utility use.  The only thing that would have made it better would have been a rigid fork, making it easier to mount fenders and giving me one less moving part to worry about, but that's become a rarity these days, and the fork works fine for now (I'll break it eventually).

One of the first things I did was swap the handlebars for "butterfly" style trekking bars... just because really. These things are the Crocs of handlebars, kind of goofy-looking, but practical and comfy.

It's a Giant Boulder. Aptly named because with an XL frame it's pretty giant, and it weighs as much as a huge chunk of rock.
Then I added racks front and rear (all scavenged from used parts). I used hose clamps and zip ties to mount a basket to the front rack.

Mounting the basket over the wheel instead of on the handlebars lowers the center of gravity and gives extra room for those weird handlebars. 
Then in the back I attached a pair of Wald 582 folding baskets. These were the only thing I purchased new, but they were worth it.

I used a rack set up for 700c wheels, meaning it rides higher than normal, and attached the baskets as far back as I could because my big feet require a lot of room to avoid hitting the baskets with my heels. 
These baskets have room for one or two grocery bags, a duffel bag, breifcase, mandolin case or whatever moderately-sized load you want to put in them, but they collapse flat against the side of the rack when not in use, making it easier to park your bike in a narrow space, or on a croweded bike rack. They're pretty cool and I highly recommend them for commuting and shopping (and even touring if you're on a budget. Instead of high-end panniers, just drop a duffel bag in there). At just over $20 each, the pair of baskets was half the cost of the build, but they were worth it.

I also attached a mudguard to the underside of the rear rack to keep myself from getting road crud all up my back on wet days. At some point I'd like to put on a full fender set, but I was relying on what was cheap and what I could scrounge from the used parts pile, so the simple splashguard is doing the job for now. I put a less-squishy saddle on, and added a saddle leash to help prevent theft (the saddle and seatpost aren't worth much, but I've noticed that unsecured quick-release seatposts get stolen for no good reason in some neighborhoods). Some LED lights salvaged off a scrap-heap bike, and an old water-bottle cage completed the accessory outfitting.

When I was done I had a bike with an upright riding position, easy maintenance, decent cargo capacity and the ability to handle most terrain and weather conditions for under $100. Admittedly, I used some parts I had lying around, but I was also able to scrounge a lot from my local community bike center's pile of free parts, and save some money. Finding the right bike (especially for a tall guy like me) requires a bit of luck, but when it did come may way, I was able to make it and now have a very useful machine for relatively little cash.

Pretty sexy, right? Actually, maybe a bit TOO good-looking, I may have to slap on some tape and stickers to make it look a bit more battered than it really is.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Get some edjumacation

Hey all, I'll be teaching some beginning bicycle maintenance classes here in Madison, Wisconsin, at Freewheel Bikes. These will be starting next Tuesday, then running on the first and third Tuesdays of the month.

In the classes I'll be covering stuff from basic bike law, through fixing flats and derailleurs all the way to taking care of bearings.

There's no cost, but sign-up in advance is required. Check it out at the link below under "Bike Maintenance 101"

Freewheel Bikes Classes 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Blind Spot Awareness

Often, when I read about fatal bike/motor vehicle accidents in urban environments, the vehicle in question is a garbage truck, or tractor trailer or something like that. Why is that?

Obviously, the sheer size of these big trucks makes them more dangerous, and the fact that a cyclist or pedestrian is more likely to go under them when struck because of their height, but there's another factor at play that makes them particularly dangerous to cyclists: the blind spot.

Because of their size, height and the lack of usable windows, large trucks have sizeable blind spots, particularly on the non-driver side (AKA, the side which cyclists are most likely to be on in a normal traffic pattern). In the U.S., that means the right side of the vehicle, but to get an idea of just how large this blind spot is, check out this "mirror image" video from the U.K.

I spent some time driving a contractor van like this one for a job I had not too long ago, and I can tell you the right side blind spot on one of those is significant enough that you can't easily see a large car that's riding along the right side of the van, let alone a cyclist. This can be offset with mirrors to some degree, but it's still very hard to spot anything immediately to your right very quickly.

A regular passenger car has, or should have, a pretty clear view of their right side because of the passenger side windows, but with many vans and commercial trucks, this space is blocked by cargo or the design of the truck.

This doesn't excuse unsafe driving by those who operate these vehicles, especially since as professional drivers they should be operating at a higher standard than the average person behind the wheel, but it is important, as vulnerable road users, to be aware of where a vehicle's blinds spots may be. Since many bicycle commuters may not have driven a large truck, let alone a tractor-trailer, we might not have thought about this sort of thing, and could potentially put ourselves in a bad spot in regards to a turning truck.

Furthermore, especially in the case of rental trucks (Uhaul and Penske box trucks for example), we can't always count on the driver of the truck to have the experience or training to safely deal with the large blind spots on a truck. That guy in the 17-foot Uhual may have never driven anything bigger than a Honda Civic up to an hour ago, and suddenly he's on the road with you and your bicycle.

Be safe out there!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Heaven Isn't Too Far Awaaaaaaay: My New Hometown.

Don't get me wrong, I love bicycles, I love riding bicycles, and I love commuting by bike, but Central New Jersey is  not always the easiest, or the friendliest place to get around on two wheels (though it's far from the worst either). A few major life events later, though, and I've found myself in what has to be one of the bike-friendliest cities in the US: Madison, WI. 

I'm sure local Madisonians (is that what they call people here?) will be quick to point out that there are many flaws and challenges to riding here, and that someplace like Portland or Amsterdam is a lot easier to get around by pedal-power, but I'll tell you now, it's pretty sweet. 

One of the keys to happy cycling here is that much of the city is criss-crossed by off-street bicycle paths that look like this
See all that mid-day traffic that I'm not dealing with?
Or this
This is what the route to the grocery store looks like
Or this
To the right is a freakin' bike elevator to take you to the city center's street level!
Having a few of these trails mean you can plan your commute or route of errands to avoid mixing up with car traffic for some or even most of your ride, making for a much more relaxed experience (especially for a hardened arterial road veteran like myself), and even when you have to ride on the streets, a good system of bike lanes and infrastructure means you feel relatively safe, and more importantly, make it clear to drivers where to expect to see bicycles. This, and a high rate of ridership means that car/bike interactions are relatively civil and sane. 

Also, having driven around here a bit now, it's actually easier to get most places within a couple miles by bike. 

I think this is going to be interesting, and I'm looking forward to seeing and learning more about what a difference all the infrastructure, as well as the cultural differences, makes in the experience of transportation cycling. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What Has It Got In Its Pocketssss Part 2: My Preciousss, the Ringtool

Aha! Finally a ring-related review to follow along with my nonsensical Tolkien kick.

After a few postal mixups, the folks at Reductivist were kind enough to resend my Ringtool, and it arrived within a few days of shipping. For the first part of my review, I can, in fact, state that the makers of this tool are courteous and helpful in the case of postal SNAFUs!

So, on to the tool itself.

I recieved my Ringtool in a padded envelope, which contained this snazzy little recyclable packet.

Unboxing revealed this surprisingly compact little widget.
It's not actually that tiny, I'm kind of a Wookie

Around the circumference are 3,4,5,6 and 8mm Allen wrenches, a T25 Torx wrench, flat and phillips screwdrivers and a pair of notches for spoke nipples. the center of the tool, of course, acts as a bottle opener (I don't think you're allowed to make bicycle multitools without adding a bottle opener if there's room at all). The whole thing is made out of a single piece of stainless steel and is both light and sturdy-feeling.

Because of it's ring-shaped form factor, the thing easily attaches to a keyring, or better yet, a carabiner clip with your keys.
This is pretty convenient and plays into the Ringtools main purpose. It's not meant to replace a rack of shop-quality tools, or even a heavy-duty multitool for touring or serious adventures, but is rather geared towards being the "always with you" tool for commuters and casual riders (and possibly weight-conscious road riders). After all, the best set of Park or Pedro's wrenches aren't any help at all when you've got to make a quick fix or adjustment halfway home from work.

In fact, a neat thing about the ringtool as a commuting tool as that if you use a Timbuk2 messenger bag, or something similar, you can keep it on the keychain leash and just whip it out to quickly tighten a loose handlebar bolt or make a seat adjustment without even taking your bag off.
Of course none of these clever design features would be any use if they Ringtool sucked as a tool, and I'm happy to say it works really well.

I had a few quick tweaks on my commuter bike that I needed to do, so rather than reaching for my Park wrench, like I normally would, I decided to try them out with the Ringtool.

First, I installed a mini-pump bracket under my water bottle cage...
...which went without a hitch. Then I made a slight adjustment to my seat height...
...which worked just fine, but revealed the one minor shortcoming of the Ringtool's form factor.
If you look close at the above photo, you'll notice the 5mm wrench is bumping into the seatpost collar as I try to tighten the seat clamp bolt.

I won't call this a "problem" or "defect" so much as a shortcoming of the compact tool's design. In order to make the Ringtool pocket-friendly, the designer's kept the tool bits relatively short, which means they don't have the clearance that a full-size shop tool would have. I've run into similar issues with other multitools as well, and in cases like this, it just means you can't move the bolt through a full rotation without pulling the tool out and sticking it back into the bolt head, which is a minor inconvenience at worst. However, if you have any deeply recessed or difficult-to-reach bolts on your bike, you're going to to wait till you get home to adjust them.

Overall, though, the Ringtool works wonderfully. The bits are perfectly machined and engage bolt heads firmly. The disc-shaped form factor gives you plenty of leverage and I imagine in the case of a badly stuck bolt you could even jam a bar of some sort through the center to really bear down on it (probably not a recommended use, but the thing feels sturdy enough, and in fact the shortness of the bits makes them less prone to deforming than my shop wrenches in that case).

The only things the Ringtool can't handle are bolt-on axles, such as those on my commuter bike, but in that case I'd recommend supplementing it with either a cheap adjustable wrench or something like the Park SS-15, which would give you a pair of light, sturdy, do-it-all tools with no moving parts (and an overabundance of bottle openers).

The Ringtool is light, compact, well-designed and made in the U.S. All in all a great addition to any commuting cyclists keyring. At $28, it's priced competitively with a lot of basic multitools (most of which are bulkier, have more moving parts and usually some plastic pieces). Right now, to the best of my knowledge, it's not available in many local shops, but hopefully that will change, and in the mean time, you can get it directly from the manufacturer:

Ringtool by Reductivist