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.

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

Friday, September 5, 2014

Review Deferred: Reductivist Ringtool

A while back I mentioned I was going to put up a review of the Ringtool. My tool apparently got lost in shipping somewhere and hasn't arrived yet, so I haven't forgotten to blog, just put it off a bit.

I'm in a new, more bicycle-friendly location these days as well, and I'll have more to say about that soon enough. I should have a bit more free time in the next couple weeks to dedicate to blogging more semi-regularly.

Monday, August 25, 2014

What Has It Got In Its Pocketssss Part 1: Non-Bike Specific Multitools

I was recently talking with somebody about multitools for bicycling (if my previous post on multitools didn't clue you in, I've got a habit of accumulating the things), and the idea of carrying a Leatherman or similar tool for cycling came up.

After a bit of thought, I had to say that I didn't think a pliers-based multitool, while great in many situations, was all that useful for a cyclist, for a few reasons.

First off, weight. Not in the sense of "making your bike heavy and slowing you down." For the commuting cyclist I've said before that's a non-issue, but the fact that most Leatherman type tools are fairly heavy and bulky and don't ride in your front pants pocket too comfortably, especially when you're pedaling a bicycle. Of course, many folks who carry one keep it in a bag or belt pouch, which would negate that.

Cost is another issue. A well-made mutitool of this type generally costs anywhere from $50 to $100, which makes them a bit of a stretch for those on a budget, and means I personally would be a bit uncomfortable leaving it in a seat bag while I locked my bike outside.

Finally, pliers aren't actually all that useful for roadside bicycle repairs. You may occasionally find them useful enough to MacGyver something together every now and then, but for most of the nuts and bolts on a bike, you mostly just risk rounding them out and stripping them if they're at all tight, and you'd be hard pressed to securely tighten the nuts of a bolt-on rear wheel with multitool pliers. You'd do better carrying a small adjustable wrench, or even a few single crescent wrenches in the sizes you need.

However, while I haven't found pliers and bulky pocket tools all that useful, I do find myself reaching for a non-bike specific tool all the time, whether at work or on commutes, to make minor tweaks and adjustments. Specificaly, this:
No, not the can opener (I can't actually remember the last time I used the can opener on that thing), but the little flat screwdriver at the end. It turns out that the small screwdriver on most Swiss Army knives is perfect for adjusting derailleur limit screws and brake centering screws. When I tune up a bike, I always take it for a test ride afterwards, just to make sure it's working right, and often I have to make a few fine adjustments. Brake and derailleur cable adjustments can be made by barrel adjuster, but those two things in particular require a small screwdriver, so it's easier to pop out this than to have a screwdriver poking a hole in my pocket.

The rest of the tools come in handy too (this is the Pioneer model, for you fellow tool geeks out there), and a basic Swiss-Army knife is relatively inexpensive, durable and far less bulky in your pocket than a Leatherman tool (unless you get one of the big deluxe models that are four inches thick and contain a miniaturized hardware store).

On most modern bicycles, a Swiss Army knife combined with a 4,5,6 mm Allen wrench set will actually cover almost all your roadside repairs for commuting. Add a pump, spare tube and tire levers and you're good to go. No need to buy fancy, expensive multitools at all (no need, I say, but I still love buying fancy multitools for their own sake).

Speaking of fancy multitools, I'll be reviewing the Reductivist Ringtool for part two of "What Has It Got In Its Pocketssss" later this week. Yes, I'm on a weird Tolkein kick with my titles. No, there's no particular reason, but if anyone wants to treat it as a hint and buy me a Rivendell for my birthday, feel free! 

Friday, August 22, 2014

One Bike to Rule Them All

While casual riders or those who are strictly into the utility of cycling are perfectly content with only a single bike, most of us who like bicycles develop a habit of accumulating them, as we find one bike is suited to one type of riding more than another. In spite of this, we sometimes discuss the perfect "do it all" bike, like we'd ever be content with just a single toy. 

I know from long experience there is no ideal bike for every situation, but I also know that with the right bike you can get by just about anywhere, even if "ideal" isn't in the mix. It's a bit like a Swiss-Army knife or Leatherman, it's not so much about having the perfect tool for every job, but having a good-enough tool handy. 

This kind of thing is on my mind now because I'm about to make a move from my New Jersey base of operations to the snow-and-cheese-bound cycling paradise of Madison, Wisconsin. The thing is, as I move to one of the most bicycle-friendly areas I've ever seen, I'm only going to be able to bring one full-size bicycle for the time being (I will be putting others in storage and getting them later) so I've had to think hard about which one of my "fleet" will be coming with me. 

Of course, me being me, I had to overthink the whole thing, but I eventually decided on my Van Dessel "Country Road Bob" for a number of reasons. 
First off, Madison is not super-hilly, so a singlespeed drivetrail won't put me at a big disadvantage in getting around. After the move, I'm hoping to find a job working at a bicycle shop, but things will be up in the air and for the time being I won't have access to a full shop's worth of tools, so a basic, low-maintenance drivetrain will be easy to keep in good working order. With it's cyclocross frame and Mountain Bike style brakes, the Bob also has plenty of clearance for wider, knobby tires for winter riding, and with the hub flipped to the fixed-gear side, gives me plenty of control on slippery surfaces. Its fairly unique frame design and bright paint scheme makes it easy to spot from a distance and therefore a bit (not a lot) more theft resistant, and finally, if I'm going to be leaving my native turf, I'm bringing a bike from a New Jersey company with me. 

I did make some modifications to the bike, in preparation for it being my Number One ride again. The biggest of which was to replace the 12-year-old carbon fork with a steel one (All City Nature Boy, for those playing the home game). While I've never had trouble with the super-rugged Van Dessel fork, it's old, I'm heavy, and I expect to be putting a lot more mileage on the bike than I have been. But more so, this gave me the opportunity to use a longer steerer tube and raise the stem a bit. The Country Road Bob has a very short head tube, and with my seat height I had the handlebars about six inches below saddle level. This would be fine if I were trying to be athletic, or actually capable of riding fast, but for commuting in traffic I found it put a lot of strain on my neck and shoulders, so I now have a more comfortable, but swill sporty four-inch drop. The new fork also has braze-ons which will let me add a front fender if I feel the need (the old fork had no eyelets at all, even for a clip-on fender like I have on the rear). I chose this particular fork because it was nearly as light as the carbon one it replaced, had a rustproof treatment inside and out, and looked cooler than the other options. 

Otherwise I've installed one of my favorite all-around saddles on the bike, the Terry Liberator Y, and added a Minnehaha large saddlebag for tools and small items. With a couple of clip-on lights, I should be ready to hit the (new) town!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Books on Bikes

Just as man cannot live on bread alone, those interested in reading about bikes shouldn't try to get by on Blogs alone. Fortunately for me, one of my favorite bike bloggers, Bike Snob NYC, recently published his third book, "Bike Snob Abroad."

In this new book, as in his previous two, the Snob talks about his own history with cycling, from when he was a BMX riding punk wannabe living in Far Rockaway to his current life as cargo-bike riding family man living Brooklyn. This time, though, he contrasts his bike-related experiences in NYC with the joys of riding in other parts of the world, most notably in Amsterdam and London. It's an interesting look at how other places relate differently to transportation cycling and how, if everything goes well, the US cycling landscape could look a few decades from now.

It's also worth noting, if you read his blog, that in his books Bike Snob (aka Eben Weiss) is a bit less abrasive and a bit more thoughtful than in his daily posts. Not surprising, considering the differences in the two mediums (media? medii? medians?), but interesting nonetheless.

In addition to the Bike Snob books, another recent cycling-oriented text I've enjoyed, and mentioned before is Grant Petersen's "Just Ride," which offers some practical advice along with anecdotes and insight. As I've said before, I find myself agreeing with Petersen most of the time, but every now and then it seems he gets a bit caught up in the "unracer" thing of his, and seems to lose sight of the fact that for a lot of folks, trying to go fast on a bike is an end in itself, and a lot of fun. On the other hand, his livelihood depends on selling bikes targeted at the "unracing" crowd, and honestly he makes a lot of sense (and if I had the money, I'd buy one of his bikes myself over some equally-priced but far-less-comfy carbon race machine, so there is that).

Of course, people have been writing about bicycles since long before the 2010s, and there are a couple of great reads out there dating back to the 1800s and early 1900s when bikes were starting to move from a novelty to a common form of transport and recreation. Some of these works are hard to find in print, but readily available for free in eBook format.

Thomas Stevens' "Around the World on a Bicycle" is a fascinating read, not only for it's chronicle of his adventures on his high-wheeled chrome Columbia, but for its account of an America much changed from a century ago. Stevens wheeled his way from San Francisco eastward, pedaling (or often walking, since roads were rough to nonexistent, and the fat-tired mountain bike that could have handled the rocks and mud were still a century away) through the wild west to the Atlantic, through Europe and the Middle East, through many misadventures in China and finally into what he described as the peaceful and civilized Japan of the late-19th Century.

For a shorter and more humorous tale, Jerome K. Jerome's "Three Men on the Bummel" is still in print (and often sold in a single volume with his classic "Three Men in a Boat"). One of the great joys of Jerome's work is how fresh and relevant it still seems to the modern reader, and the descriptions of the often-ridiculous "anatomic" saddle designs, and the compulsive types who spend more time tinkering with their machines than actually riding them will resonate with modern cyclists as well. Part of the fun of this book is that, although the bicycles are an important part of the journey, the real story is of three lifelong friends on a road trip together, pulling pranks, making poor decisions and harassing each other as much as the locals along the way.

It's almost easier to find enjoyable stories about bike rides from a hundred years ago than it is to find them now. Authors such as H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle incorporated travel by bicycle into many of their stories, since it was a common enough way to get around at the time. A lot of the modern bike-related books seem to be focused on advocacy, advice or on the machines themselves, rather than the joys and adventures possible when off on a bike ride. I'm hoping, though, that as bikes become regarded as more normal and vacations by bicycle touring are becoming a bigger and bigger item, we'll see some modern equivalents of these two-wheeled travelogues.

Any of you readers have favorite bike-related books to share in the comments?