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, January 31, 2013

The Lockup

Unless you keep your bicycle indoors at home, and have a secure place to store it at work, eventually you're going to have to leave your bike unattended. Ideally, you'll have some way to make sure it's there when you get back.

Even if you're gone for a really long time.
This means you're going to have to use some sort of lock. The type, size, weight and cost of the lock is going to depend on how valuable your bike is,where you plan on leaving it and for how long. For an inexpensive bike that will be left parked in front of a coffee shop for a few minutes in a low-theft area, a lightweight cable lock will stop the "theft of opportunity," where someone is tempted by your unattended bike and rolls away because they're tired of walking. Whereas a high-theft area, such as an urban park or college campus (especially a college campus) might attract professional bike thieves who know they can score some easily resellable bikes and components, and come prepared with the tools and equipment to disable the average bike lock. These situations require stronger, heavier locks that will make the would-be bike thief move on to easier prey.

This, for example is how I lock my bike when I go to a typical New Jersey shopping mall. 
Cheap combination locks like these are easy to crack, and should be avoided for the most part (they'll still stop your bike from "rolling off" but they can usually be popped open with nothing more than a screwdriver). Whereas the other extreme of gigantic chain locks like these, while incredibly secure, can weigh in at 15-20 lbs, probably cost more than your beater bike, and are overkill for most commuters.

For most of us, a more moderate lock, both in size and price, will do the job. Aside from chain locks, there are cable locks, which are simply a length of heavy-duty cable attached to a locking mechanism, and there are U-locks, which are a U-shaped metal shackle closed at the end by a metal cylinder which contains the lock mechanism.

U-locks are generally stronger and more secure, but are heavier and take up more room in a bag or basket. They also are limited in what they can be attached to, meaning you can only lock your bike up to designated bicycle racks, handrails, signposts or similarly-sized objects.

Cable locks are generally lighter, but can be less secure, in part because they allow a would-be thief to move your bike around more easily to gain better leverage to break the lock. However, the same flexibility gives you the option of locking your bike to nonstandard posts, trees (where allowed, there's a fine of $1000 in NYC for locking to a tree) or whatever kind of attachment point you can find.

I own both types of lock, and use them in different situations, or if I'm really being paranoid, I use both of them at the same time (thieves usually use different tools on different types of lock, so having two types of lock means double the hassle to steal my ride). One other strategy I've used in the past, when I locked up in the same spot daily, was to simply leave my U-lock attached to the bike rack at work, so I didn't have to lug it back and forth.

There are lots of strategies for locking up your bike, and in future posts I hope to get some photos of locks "in the wild" to show you (if you've got particularly brilliant or stupid ones that you've seen, send them to me at velochelonian-at-gmail-dot-com), but the important thing is that you use a lock in the first place. Also bear in mind that no lock is unbreakable, but a good lock can make your bike difficult enough to steal that a would-be thief might move on to an easier target.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Get Off the Sidewalk!

There's a guy I see around town sometimes riding his bike. He's got a hi-viz yellow safety vest with reflective strips, multiple taillights and at least two headlights and he's always wearing a helmet, yet I've seen him almost get hit by cars on occasion, and he's almost collided with me while I was walking, and I'll be shocked if he isn't involved in a serious accident one of these days.

Why? He's always riding on the sidewalk. 

It may seem counter-intuitive at first. After all, it's safer walking on the sidewalk, and you're separated from motor vehicles by the curb and often a line of parked cars, doesn't that mean you're safer off the street? 

Nope. In fact, a report from the 1990s showed that you're nearly twice as likely to have an accident riding on the sidewalk as on the street, and if you're riding against the direction of street traffic on the sidewalk, you can double that, making you about four times as likely to get hit by a car. Other research has borne that out, showing that two major factors in bicycle/car collisions are riding on the sidewalk and riding against the flow of traffic. 

The main reason for this is the very thing that makes the novice rider feel safer on the sidewalk: isolation. While you may be protected from cars while you're tooling along on the pavement, you're also pretty much invisible to drivers, even attentive ones, who are focused on the road. You're screened by both obstacles (parked cars) and expectations (wheeled traffic is on the street, anything on the sidewalk is moving less than 4 mph). 

The problem comes when you come to an intersection. As you cross the road, cars that are making a turn or approaching a stop sign are looking for cars in the roadway. If they're a good driver, they're keeping an eye out for pedestrians as well, but here you are in the space reserved for pedestrians (again, averaging about 3mph) rolling along at anywhere from 8 to 15 mph. As a driver makes the turn, you on your bike roll into the picture too quickly for them to stop and before you know it, you're sprawled across their hood, or worse, under their wheels. 

This is compounded when riding against the flow of street traffic, as drivers are watching for cars traveling the other direction, and you surprise them by coming from the other one. Add to that the fact that, if the car is traveling in one direction at 20mph, and you're traveling in the other at 15mph, you're now colliding at an effective speed of 35mph, which is gonna hurt (it also reduces the amount of time you and the driver has to react, whereas if you're traveling in the same direction, the speed difference would only be 5mph, giving the car a LOT more time to not hit you). 

Riding against traffic is just as dangerous in the road as it is on the sidewalk, of course. The reason most cyclists who do it give is that they want to see traffic coming, and are afraid of being hit from behind. Statistically, however, collisions from the rear are the LEAST common type of accident, whereas turning cars hitting wrong-way cyclists are an unfortunately common occurrence. 

As for sidewalk riding, in addition to the danger of being hit by a car while crossing an intersection, there's a constant danger of colliding with a pedestrian, or being hit by a suddenly opened shop door (remember, due to fire codes, they ALL open outwards) or tangling with somebody's leashed dog. And while in the street cars are the big, fast and dangerous ones, if you're mixing with walkers on the sidewalk, suddenly YOU'RE the scary one. 

Bicycles are vehicles, and, on 25mph residental streets anyway, move at speeds closer to a motor vehicle than to a pedestrian. They belong in the road, and in almost all circumstances are safer when ridden there (there are exceptions, such as along 50mph arterial roads with no shoulder and no sidestreets, or over open-grate bridges, but these are just that, exceptions, and if you'll have a more enjoyable ride avoiding them anyway, if that's at all possible). The safest strategy is to be visible and predictable as possible. This means being in the street, riding with the flow of traffic. It means signaling turns (especially left turns) and using lights after dark and in poor visibility conditions, and it sometimes means taking the lane for yourself and making cars wait behind you until it's safe for you to move over and let them pass. 

And if some disgruntled motorist tells you to get on the sidewalk, tell 'em to stuff it, we were here first!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Choosing a Bike: Folding Bicycles

Not too long ago NJ Transit "clarified" one of their policies regarding bicycles on trains in a way that barred riders from bringing full-sized bikes through most of the stations in my area.

The policy has since been re-revised (now you just can't use full-size bikes at peak hours), but during the time it was in effect I got myself acquainted with a category of bicycle with which I didn't have much prior experience at all, the Folding Bike.

Folding bikes come in a wide range of styles, sizes and price ranges, from weird little A-frame things with tiny wheels to full-size Mountain Bikes with collapsible frames. Generally speaking, bikes with little wheels fold smaller, but can offer a rougher ride and, because of the extra-long seatpost and stems, tend to feel a bit more flexy to big and tall riders (and I'm both big and tall).

I started out my foray into the world of folding bikes with a vintage Raleigh, which was pretty great to ride, but didn't fold all that small. Unfortunately, it suffered from one of the curses of vintage bikes, nonstandard parts. The bottom bracket (the axle around with the cranks and pedals revolve) failed and affordable replacements haven't been made for a long, long time.

From there I decided to look at new Folders, and ended up with a Melon Slice, which is in a lot of ways fairly typical of folding bikes.
I had just returned a rental car. Just toss the bike in the trunk, drop off the car and pedal a few miles home. 

Many folding bikes have either 16" or 20" wheels, joined by a low-to-the-ground frame and sporting a high-rise handlebar stem and super-long seatpost to accomodate riders of different heights. The frame usually has some sort of hinge device in the middle, which lets you fold the bike so both wheels sit side-by-side. With the seatpost all the way down and the stem folded over, the bike is about the size of a largish suitcase.

The collapsible design does affect strength, and riders over 200 lbs have to be careful not to abuse these bikes (most of them have listed maximum weight limits between 225 and 240 lbs, although plenty of riders that exceed the weight limit ride Folders without incident), and riders of any weight probably want to avoid serious off-road riding.

On the other hand, within their limits Folding Bikes have a lot going for them. First of all, a lot of public transport options have restrictions on full-size bicycles, either all the time or during peak hours. A small-wheeled folding bike can usually ride on a train, bus or in a cab just about any time. You can also bring a Folding Bike in a lot of buildings where a full-size bike might not be allowed (you may need to have it in a bag of some sort, but most manufacturers offer a carrying case, and many bikes will easily fit in an oversized duffel bag).

Furthermore, the super-adjustability of a small-wheeled Folder means that they will accomodate a wide range of rider sizes. For example, I'm 6'3" and have a kid who's currently 5' tall. We can both ride the same folding bike, with just a seat adjustment. This makes a Folding bike a great bike to loan to an out-of-town friend who you'd like to take out for a ride, and because it can be folded up and put in the back of a closet or garage without taking up too much extra room. They're also great for people who have cramped living space, yet have to bring their bikes indoors with them.

More than a foot in height difference, but we can ride the same bike... one of us looks  more at home on it though. 

One will occasionally run into a place that won't let you bring your bike indoors, and locking up a folding bike can be a bit tricky. Because they often have a single long beam for a frame, rather than a traditional diamond, finding places through which to pass a U-lock can be tricky. Additionally, the easy-adjustment of the seatpost also makes it easy to steal, so you may have to experiment with various ways to lock your seat to the bike (or bring it with you, if you don't mind having a three-foot long piece of aluminium to carry along).

The other disadvantage of a Folding Bike is price. Because of their complexity, Folders cost more than similarly equipped non-collapsible bikes . There are budget  options, though,  such as Citizen Bikes, which, although I don't have any personal experience with them seem to offer a few decent no-frills options (even their "larger" bikes with the 20" rather than 16" tires are recommended for riders under 6 feet tall, though, so if you're like me you'll probably have to look elsewhere). Many major manufacturers such as Schwinn and Giant also offer a folder as part of their line, which may be available at the same price as an entry-level comfort bike, or slightly above. If your budget can extend to about $400, there are a large range of options, such as the Melon like I have, as well as bikes by Dahon and other companies.

Finally, there is one huge problem with Folding Bikes compared to full-sized bicycles, especially if you're a big guy with a beard like I am. No matter what you do or how you dress, you're gonna look like this.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Choosing a Bike: Singlespeed/Fixed-Gear

If low-maintenance and reliability are more important to you than variable gears, a Singlespeed bike might be the way to go.

Shifters and derailleurs are often the most expensive components on a bicycle, and the ones that require the most maintenance. On a bike with only one gearing option the only maintenance you might ever have to do is lube the chain and top off the tire pressure periodically. Also, if you leave your bike locked up outside, there are fewer components to be stolen or damaged. This reliability makes Singlespeed bikes particularly attractive for use in urban areas or on college campuses.

Riding a bike without shifters can also be a lot of fun. While at the high end of the cycling market, the range and complexity of drivetrains has been increasing (they're up to 11 rear cogs now), some riders find it satisfying to ignore the race for the "next best thing" and go for simplicity. Going up a hill? Pedal harder. Going down a hill? Pedal faster, or coast. Instead of worrying about being in the right gear, enjoy the ride.

Of course, the disadvantages of a Singlespeed bike are obvious. In hilly terrain there is no way to get an easier gear ratio, so you have to either stomp on the pedals and muscle through, or get off and walk. If you're trying for speed and can't shift to a higher gear, you'll always be limited by how fast you can spin your legs. Any choice of Singlespeed gear ratio must be a compromise.

Still, if your commute is relatively flat, you're a strong rider, or you don't mind walking up the occasional hill, you might consider a Singlespeed.
My Singlespeed Commuting/Trail/Touring/Whatever Bike

There are many types of bikes that fall in the Singlespeed category, in fact "Singlespeed" is probably less of a category in itself than a modifier. You can have Singlespeed Mountain Bikes, Singlespeed Road Bikes, Singlespeed City Bikes, etc. Pretty much any style of bicycle can be found in a one-speed option.

Fixed-Gear bikes are a specific sub-set of Singlespeed bikes. The difference between a Fixed-Gear and any other Singlespeed is that a Fixed-Gear or "Fixie" does not have a freewheel mechanism on the back wheel. The freewheel is what allows the wheel to turn when you stop pedaling, so without it, you can't coast. The rear cog of a Fixie is "fixed" in place on the hub, hence the name.

Early in cycling's evolution, all bikes were made this way, but by sometime in the early 1900s freewheel mechanisms became the norm, and Fixed-Gear bikes were used mostly for track racing. Some racers and club riders would put a fixed-cog rear wheel on their road bikes in the winter, though, in part to save their expensive derailleurs for racing season, in part because being forced to muscle up hills and spin at a high rate of rotation down hills was an excellent workout, and in part because a Fixed-Gear can offer a bit more control on slippery roads.

That last is of interest to the cycle commuter. Having the ability to control your speed by the pressure of your feet on the pedals offers a better sense of traction and control on snow and ice, as well as the ability to fine-tune your speed in stop-and-go traffic. In a sense it's similar to driving a car with a manual transmission.

But while the Fixed-Gear offers a great sense of control (and can be a lot of fun) you also have to bear in mind you can never stop pedaling, no matter how tired you are or what kind of maneuvering you're doing. This, along with the fact that hilly rides quickly become interval workouts, can make the Fixie a poor choice for the novice or casual rider, who might be more comfortable with a Singlespeed that can coast.

Monday is for Multitools!

One of my favorite things about bicycles is how easy they are to maintain with simple hand tools. While automobiles have increasingly become more computerized and reliant on hard-to-acquire equipment, most bike repairs require only a couple allen wrenches and a screwdriver.

With a little knowledge, you can usually fix most malfunctions right at the side of the road, as long as you have some basic know-how and the right wrench. While it's entirely possible to simply carry a handful of full-size tools with you on every ride, most cyclists opt for some sort of cycling-specific multitool.

Some of the multitools in my collection. From left to right: Topeak, Wrench Force, Crank Brothers and Park Tool.
Cycle-specific multitools range from the super-simple such as the Park Tool shown at right above, which is meant for singlespeed bikes and has tools to loosen axle bolts, change tires and open bottles, to kitchen-sink inclusiveness, such as the Topeak Alien on the left.

Allen wrenches, box wrenches, spoke wrenches bottle opener, screw driver, tire levers, chain tool and knife blade... I may have missed something.
At one point or another I've put every single tool on the Topeak Alien to use (especially the bottle opener),  and it's great if you tend to venture out on solo long distance rides, or if you're looking for a selection of tools for at-home tinkering, but it's overkill for most commuting. Also at around $40 retail, it's not something I would want to leave in a seat bag on a bike locked outdoors. The Crank Brothers tool shown third in line has a similar assortment of parts, less the tire levers and knife.

Most riders are perfectly fine with a smaller, less expensive tool, such as the Wrench Force tool I also have.

All the Allen wrench sizes you're likely to need, plus a philips and flatblade screwdriver. 
Most adjustments and minor repairs on a bicycle require either a 5 or 6mm Allen wrench, or a small flatblade screwdriver. With a tool like the one shown above (which can usually be found in the $10-20 range, sometimes even cheaper), you can adjust handlebars or seats, tighten cable anchor bolts and generally perform whatever little tweaks you need to get you and your bike home.

If you're anything like me, you'll probably accumulate a few of these tools over time, and if you own more than one bike, will likely have a tool kit for each. In my case, the inexpensive tools usually stay with the commuter bike, that's locked outdoors, while the more elaborate tools go with me on longer recreational treks.

Unless I'm leaving the bike locked up in a high-risk area, my multitools usually live in a saddlebag, often with a spare inner-tube, portable pump and other accessories.

The junk in my trunk. 
A portable tool, and a bit of know-how, can make the difference between a quick roadside repair and a long walk home.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Opinionated Blogger Friday: Put a Brake On It

So yesterday I talked about Fixed-Gear bicycles, and mentioned how great they are for urban and foul-weather riding.

If you do decide to give fixed-gear riding a try, and turn to the internet for advice, you'll find all sorts of contradictory advice, strongly-held opinions and outright stupidity. While there are a number of knowledgeable and trustworthy sources out there (such as myself, of course, but also the late Sheldon Brown, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of all bike shop Jedis), there's a lot of silliness masquerading as helpful advice.

Then, there's stuff like this

I saw "Premium Rush" and found it a fun, entertaining film with some fantastic and completely gratuitous stunt riding (which really makes it all the better), but that got hung up on one really stupid point: "brakes are bad." The male lead complains about how brakes are "dangerous" and urges his love interest to remove the front brake from her bike. To prove his point (spoiler) said female lead then has a crash caused by her inability to bunny hop a garbage can, a lack of skill apparently caused by having a brake on her bicycle (maybe it's made of Kryptonite or something and stops her from flying), and inspiring her to remove it.

There's a subset of Fixie riders, particularly those who lionize the NYC bike messenger image, who will insist that "real" or "authentic" cyclists will never use brakes on their Fixies. They'll go on about "purity" and "clean lines" and the zen-like state of "becoming one with the road." or whatnot.

Personally, having become "one with the road" one far too many occasions, I don't see the appeal, and am quite happy to put at least one brake on any Fixed-Gear bike I ride. And if I only use one brake, it's going to be a front brake, for two reasons.

First off, on a fixed-gear bike, you CAN slow and stop the bicycle by resisting the pedal spin, and even locking up the rear wheel if you're skilled enough and don't mind wearing out your tires at a ridiculous rate.

Secondly, most of your stopping power comes from the front brake, a fact which is often overlooked by anxious parents warning their kids not to "lock up" their front wheels, lest they go flying over the handlebars (a real possibility if you're riding a bike that's way too small for you or don't actually learn to use your brakes, because you avoided using the front out of fear that you'll go over the handlebars). The combination of resisting the pedal rotation on a fixie while simultaneously using a front brake probably provides better stopping power, and definitely more control, than just using two brakes on a freewheel-equipped bike.

See, even if you have mastered the dramatic, tire-shredding skid-stop, no matter how good you get at doing it, you'll still take longer to stop than if you just used a front brake. Sometimes, especially when mixing up with careless automobile drivers, you need to stop QUICK, and deliberately handicapping yourself by neglecting a brake this way can easily lead to accidentally handicapping yourself by losing the use of one or more limbs in a crash.

Yes, an awareness of traffic flow, and a the genius-level ability to plan three moves ahead while moving through traffic at speed are wonderful, but if your awareness and planning are that great, why not offer yourself another option by equipping your bike with a light and inexpensive device that will allow it to decelerate rapidly in a pinch? More often than not, brakeless riders can be seen picking their way slowly and tentatively down the street, ever alert for the need to execute some sort of awkward swerve or skid, while normal, sane, non-fashion-victim cyclists are out there enjoying themselves.

As the always entertaining and frequently wise curmudgeon known as BikeSnobNYC has pointed out, high-performance sportscars may feature the ability to accelerate and maneuver so well because of high-performance engines and high-performance steering, but they are expected have the ability to control that speed and not crash because they also come with high-performance brakes.

There are other reasons to put one or more brakes on your Fixie (for example, in certain circumstances you might want to ride it as a freewheeling Singlespeed, or a thrown chain could cause an emergency, etc), but the fact is, by reducing your stopping power, you necessarily limit your ability to go fast and have fun safely.

Just put a damn brake on it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Cold Snap!

As a quick note, while I was googling away to find images for yesterday's article on Beater bikes, I found there is actually a company from Canada called Beater Bikes, they make no-frills utility bicycles with fenders, racks, one gear and a coaster brake for prices slightly below entry-level bike shop prices. It seems like a fantastic idea to me and if they ever make it to some New Jersey area shops, I'd love to check one out. 

With the weather where I live dipping down into the single digits (Fahrenheit, it's been below zero Celsius on a regular basis for weeks), I thought it would be a good time to discuss some strategies for dealing with the cold.

First of all, if money is  no object, there is a ton of fantastic cold weather gear out there, both in high-tech synthetics and traditional wool. Most of it works fine, some of it works great, and none of it's cheap. You do get what you pay for, and if you're willing to take the plunge it's worth adding a few items to your riding wardrobe, but be prepared to spend a few hundred dollars for some good winter kit.

For me, the worst thing about cold weather is the wind chill. I'm usually fine with some brisk morning weather, and have lived in much colder places than I do, but when the wind kicks up, it's a whole different matter. Clothes that were warm enough a second ago suddenly feel like lace doilies and fingers and faces turn to pink icicles.

Even if the wind isn't blowing, riding along creates its own wind, which means the more you move, the colder you get, as shown in this chart:

via Chrome Capital
While this chart is aimed at motorcycle riders (although yes, it is possible to hit 60mph on a bicycle, but no, I don't recommend it, especially in the winter), it makes a good point or those of us on pedal-powered bikes. Look at the entry for 40 degrees. Now, that's cool, but by no means frigid. But once you get rolling at an easy-to-achieve 10mph, the wind chill drops your temperature to just below freezing. This morning when I left the house the temperature was only 10 degrees, and while on an errand across town I briefly kept pace with 25mph traffic downtown, so... ouch. 

So possibly the first winter riding tip I can offer is one that will cost you nothing: ride slower. Not only does slowing down a bit reduce the wind chill, but it gives you more time to watch out for snow and ice. Obviously, you still have to get where you're going, but leave yourself a little extra time and take it a bit easier if you can. Of course, you can also bundle up against the wind chill, in which case riding faster will mean you generate more heat, and you'll be warmer. With a little trial and error you'll find the sweet spot where "working hard enough to keep warm" and "not traveling fast enough to freeze" intersect. 

My other favorite free winter riding adaptation is to grow a beard. This may not be possible for all of you, either because of workplace policies, youth or gender. But if possible, letting your winter coat grow in a bit does offer a bit warmth (my beard was full of frost this morning from condensed breath, but it since the icy bits were stuck to my beard and mustache instead of my skin, I was fine) and may make a positive impression on your fellow cyclists and add to your bike shop cred. Of course, if you don't have it in you to grow a full beard, you can always go for the prosthetic option, or... just wear a scarf I guess. 

Gloves are essential, as your hands catch a lot of wind but don't move around enough to generate much warmth for themselves. In extreme cold a pair of ski gloves can offer both wind protection and insulation while still allowing you to work brake levers and shifters. For milder weather, I use a pair of work gloves. In particular I like the "mechanic style" gloves, which are elasticized to fit close to the hand and be less bulky than regular gloves. They are very similar to full-finger cycling gloves but at about half the price. 

In addition to fingers and faces, ears can be vulnerable to wind chill. If you don't wear a helmet, a simple beanie cap can help with this. If you are a helmet wearer, this can be trickier, as you need something thin enough to fit under your lid. There are commercial headbands, skullcaps and balaclavas (which also help with noses and chins) available, but in a pinch you can get by with a plain old bandanna. Simply fold it into a wide "sweatband" and instead of tucking it up over your ears, use it to cover them. Then put on your helmet (you may have to loosen it just a hair). 
The beard is already defrosted by this point
forgive the lousy cell-phone-indoors pics. Also, the goofy-looking model

As for the rest of your body, generally speaking, for short commutes, regular clothes and a jacket are fine (for example, for a quick couple of miles worth of errands this morning I wore jeans and a heavy sweatshirt), but on longer or more intense commutes you'll find that cotton clothing quickly soaks up moisture and loses any insulating properties it may have had. A number of studies have found that wet cotton actually transfers heat more quickly than bare skin, so you're better off naked than in wet jeans. You may have trouble explaining that to the police however, so wool, silk or synthetics may be your best bet. 

While cycling-specific gear, as mentioned above, can quickly get pricey, your local department store often has fitness wear in various moisture-wicking synthetics, and cheap thermal underwear is getting easier to find (avoid the waffle-knit cotton stuff, while it might be plenty warm when you're sitting still, once you sweat it's useless). Look to layer. For example, start out with a moisture-wicking shirt, put a fleece jacket or vest and then add a nylon windbreaker over top and you've got a good upper-body covering down to pretty cold temps. On your legs a pair of synthetic long-johns under some nylon wind pants will work wonders. Warm socks are a must as well. The other advantage of layers as opposed to super-heavy garments is that you can mix and match to suit a variety of weather conditions, rather than only using them on the coldest days. 

When I used to live up by Lake Ontario, and sub-zero winter weather was the norm, I turned to Military Surplus polypropylene base layers. These were about the weight and thickness of ordinary sweatpants and a sweatshirt, but way, way warmer. I you can find a set, throw a windblocking layer over top and you're good anywhere in the Lower 48. 

There's a saying in the Netherlands, or Denmark, or one of those countries where everybody rides bikes around like it's no big deal all year, that "there's no bad weather for riding, just bad equipment." With a small budget and a little planning, you can tackle the coldest winter rides with relative ease. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Cycling Broke: The Beater

I've been talking a lot about the different types of bikes on the market, but even the cheapest Mountain Bike in the bike shop is going to cost you a few hundred dollars. Sometimes, that's just too much money.

Maybe cash is too hard to come by, maybe you only need it for a little while, maybe you're locking it up in a location where anything worth more than a few bucks is pretty much certain to get stolen. Whatever the reason, you're looking to spend as little money as possible. Enter the Beater.

Image shamelessly ripped off from Beater Bicycle Works because it was just perfect
A Beater bike is a bike that is ugly, cheap and easy to maintain.  It's ugly because it gets beat on and abused, and also to make it unattractive to would-be bicycle thieves  It's cheap because it doesn't have to be expensive to get you where you're going, and if it does get stolen, it'll be easy to replace. It's low-maintenance because you really just want to ride the thing, not tinker with it.

The Beater, in short, is about as practical as a bike can possibly be.

While it may be cheap and ugly, the Beater shouldn't be a crappy bike. A poorly-made bike, or one that is too worn out to function properly is NOT a low-maintenance bike. When you throw a leg over your Beater you should know that you're going to get where you're going without having to worry about jammed gears or malfunctioning brakes. Department stores are full of Bike-Shaped-Objects that are entirely useless for daily transportation because the designers spent more money on flashy decals than on working parts. They're all Show and no Go. A good beater bike is the opposite of this, it's got no Show at all, but has plenty of Go.

Because of this, the best candidate is a decent bike that's past its prime. Old Mountain Bikes make great Beaters, as do 20-year-old hybrids, but probably the most common and most versatile style of bicycle is the old "Ten-Speed" road bike.

While nowadays "Ten Speed" refers to the number of cogs in the rear gear cluster, up until the 1980s it meant two chainrings up front and five cogs in the back. Regardless of manufacturer, these bikes had several common features,

  • 27x1 1/4" or 27x 1 3/8" tires
  • Two chainrings up front
  • Five or six cogs in the back
  • Friction shifters located on the handlebar stem (higher-end models had the shifters mounted on the frame, but stem shifters were the most common)
  • Centerpull or sidepull caliper brakes
  • Drop handlebars
  • Steel frame. 
Probably the greatest example of the "Ten Speed" was the Schwinn Varsity. There were lighter, faster and better-made bikes out there, but Varsities were EVERYWHERE from the 1960s to the 1980s, and, since they were made to be more-or-less indestructible, are incredibly easy to find today. 

These types of bikes offer a number of advantages to those looking for a cheap, reliable way to get around, 
  • mechanically simple, thus easy to maintain even for the non-mechanic
  • available cheap, often for less than $25 at yard sales, or free from the trash
  • easy to find parts for, either from bike shops or by finding one in the trash and scavenging what you need
  • easy to convert to other configurations, such as flat-bar, singlespeed or fixed-gear
  • tires roll faster than Mountain Bike tires, but are fat enough to dirt roads and gravel
Assuming everything is in good working order, you can just adjust the saddle height, pump up the tires and ride a lot of these bikes as-is with no worries, but if you're worried about that even looking too attractive to thieves, or if you just want to personalize your ride a bit, stickers and spray paint go a long way. 

Before and after pictures of  the bike my daughter rides to school, a mid-70s Varsity now known as the "Blue Zebra."
No matter what kind of bike you look to make into your beater, you should look to make sure it's mechanically sound. If the shifting doesn't work, you can always strip much of the system off or lock the derailleurs in place to make it a singlespeed,, so unless you've got a lot of hills to deal with, the  shifters are the least important thing. But if you need new tires, brakes or wheels the cost of replacing parts can quickly add up (unless, of course, you can scrounge parts off another old bike), and if the bearings are bad, it can require some mechanical know-how to get everything in working order. Finally, you should be wary of oddball threading or proprietary parts found on some older bikes (for example, some Raleighs made in Nottingham, England, or Schwinns made in Chicago),  that can make finding replacements difficult or expensive if there's something out of whack (I still have a Raleigh folding bike in the back of my shed that's in perfect working order except for the bottom bracket assembly, parts for which have not been easily available for more than 30 years). 

Perhaps the best thing about finding an old bike to use as a Beater is the fact that if you look in your own basement or your parents' garage, you may already have one. Chances are, there's a bike just sitting there languishing, with its tires soft and its brake pads calcified from disuse. A few minutes with the pump will perk up those tires and a bit of sandpaper will restore the grip to those brakes, and you'll be giving new purpose to a long-forgotten machine. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Opinionated Blogger Friday: To Helmet or Not To Helmet

Democrat vs Republican
Montague vs Capulet
Star Wars vs Star Trek
Madonna vs Gaga
Tastes Great vs Less Filling

For some reason, people like to get into pointless, drawn-out arguments that benefit nobody, and often wrap their self-image up in whatever side of the conflict they identify with, to the point that any argument for the other position seems a direct personal challenge. 

Cyclists, with a few exceptions, are people, and in spite of our obviously enlightened judgement in transportation choice, can be prone to the same pointless squabbling as other sectors of society. In particular, among those who ride for utility there has been a long-running and unnecessarily heated debate about whether or not to wear helmets while riding. 

On the pro-helmet side, the argument runs that helmets reduce the severity of head injury in the event of a crash, and lower the risk of death or permanent brain damage. The anti-helmet side often argues that helmets don't actually do all that much good and may actually increase the risk of crash or injury. 

Probably where this argument gets the fiercest is in the debate about laws that would require adults to wear helmets any time they ride a bicycle on the road. People on the strongly Pro-Helmet side argue that it would lower fatalities and reduce the burden on society caused by hospitals full of brain-damaged cyclists. Those on the strongly Anti-Helmet side argue that forcing people to wear helmets will make people quit cycling in vast numbers and establish in the public eye that riding a bicycle is inherently dangerous activity like BASE jumping or juggling chainsaws.

 I think the degree of vehemence on either side of the debate is often a little bit silly. I've read numerous articles, reports and studies, which were then followed up by studies that claimed to contradict whatever the previous study had shown. Based on all this reading, and about a dozen years in the bike industry, I've formed my own opinion on the subject (and no, I'm not going to link to ANY of the bazillion articles or studies I'm talking about. With my luck this would be the one thing I ever write that gets read by more than six people, and someone would have to post a link to a study that contradicts what I linked. Then someone would feel compelled to link to something else to argue with that, and so on into full on Link Battle. If growing up in the 80s taught me nothing else, it's that link fights, like Tic-Tac-Toe and Global Thermonuclear War are games that nobody wins). 

I have written about my opinion on helmet use before, and I'll sum it up again here. 

 Helmets do seem to help in some cases, and may save you from serious head injury or death in some crashes. And it does seem that in a large number of fatal bicycle crashes, head injury is the cause of death, so if you're going to protect anything, the noggin it should be. 

On the other hand, life-threatening bicycle crashes aren't that common, and in a lot of cases (especially ones involving cars), a the forces at work may be beyond what a helmet can protect against. 

From what I've seen, both through firsthand experience and through my reading, is that the situations where a helmet is most likely to be useful are 
  • Racing
  • Off-Road riding
  • Stunt riding
  • "Sporty" riding (high speed road riding for example)
  • Riding in icy or in slippery conditions
  • Young children or inexperienced riders
  • Riding WITH young children or inexperienced riders
(that last is because when you're riding with a kid, first you're setting an example, but you're also dividing your attention between where you're going and the wobbly, swerve-prone kid riding right next to you). 

Some situations where a helmet seems LEAST likely to be needed are
  • Rides on dedicated bike paths
  • Commuting on roads with bike lanes or relatively light traffic
  • Leisurely pleasure rides
You may be completely safe riding trails without ever wearing a helmet (although I've managed to hit myself in the head any number of times with low branches, rocks kicked up by tires and on one occasion my own bicycle, so that's the LAST place I'd ride helmetless), and you may get yourself into serious trouble riding through the park (especially if you run into unruly dogs or the aforementioned wobbly kids), but generally, the more aggressive the riding, the more likely you are to crash, simple as that. 

Personally, I wear my helmet MOST of the time when I ride, especially if I'm out mixing with car traffic. I may ride helmetless for short jaunts around town or on hot days when I'm more worried about heat that crashing, but at this point it's a habit for me. 

There are other reasons I wear a helmet, which are not directly related to impact protection. First of all, I usually put some reflective tape on my helmet, so when I ride after dark it makes me a bit more visible. Secondly, in my mind at least, wearing a helmet and riding a well-maintained bike marks me as someone who WANTS to ride a bike to get around, as opposed to someone forced to ride because my driver's license was taken away. There's a very common perception, at least where I live, that the only reason you'd be riding a bike to work is because you'd been busted for drunk driving. 

The final, and perhaps saddest reason I normally wear a helmet has to do with perceptions of responsibility. Regardless of the truth of the matter, one of the signs of a "responsible cyclist" is thought to be regular helmet use. If, God-forbid, I should get knocked over by a car, and end up in court over insurance money or whatnot, one of the inevitable questions that comes up will be "were you wearing a helmet?" You an argue (correctly) that this is dumb, but that doesn't mean it's not often true. 

Personally, I'm opposed to mandatory bicycle helmet laws for adults. I think educating more cyclists about safer riding techniques (stay off the sidewalk, ride with traffic, etc), make much more difference. Educating drivers about how to behave around cyclists and putting a bit of money into infrastructure to make streets more bike-friendly will also go a long way to reducing cycling injuries, but those kinds of things cost money, as opposed to just yelling at cyclists for not wearing helmets.

But if you ask me outright, "do you think I should wear one?" I'll tell you yes.  I figure if you're on the fence about it, helmets are cheap and relatively comfortable these days, might help and won't do you any harm, so you're better off with than without.

But whether you wear one or not, just don't get all preachy about it.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Choosing a Bike: Sport Comfort and Hybrid

A basic hybrid bike from Jamis
In the early days of bicycling the choice of riding surfaces pretty much ranged from "dirt roads" to "dirt roads" with the occasional exotic choices like "cobblestone."  While there were different styles of bikes, they were pretty much designed with the same kinds of conditions in mind.

By the late 20th Century, bicycle evolution had diverged into different, specialized, species. Some bikes were meant only for riding on the road, some bikes were meant for only riding off the road. Then someone had the idea of taking some of the speedy features of Road Bikes and some of the ruggedness of Mountain Bikes and creating an in-between bike that was... well, a lot like the bikes people have been riding for transportation all over the world for around a hundred years. 

Hybrid bikes usually have
  •  Wheels the same diameter as a Road Bike but with a fatter, lower-pressure tire or wheels the same diameter as a Mountain Bike but with a smoother tread design. 
  • A relatively upright riding position
  • Straight or slightly swept-back handlebars,
  •  Cushy seats, often with a shock-absorbing seatpost. 
  •  lower gearing than a racing-oriented bike. 
The variant with the Mountain Bike-sized wheels are sometimes referred to as "Comfort" or "Sport Comfort" bikes. There are other variations, including
  •  Trekking Bikes - that are set up for cycle-touring and long day trips
  • "Flat-Bar Road" or "Fitness" Bikes - faster riding, with a lighter weight and a more aggressive riding position
  • Dual-Sport Bikes - that are made for moderately serious off-road riding but still roll faster than a Mountain Bike on pavement
Whatever configuration a Hybrid comes in, they have a lot to offer as utilitarian transport. First of all, they are often very affordable, starting in the same $3-400 price range as basic mountain bikes. They also use the same shifters and brake systems as Mountain Bikes, making parts and repairs easy to manage. They usually have a full-complement of attachment points for racks, fenders and water bottles, making it easy to modify them with whatever accessories you need. 

The main disadvantage of a Hybrid Bike is the same as their main advantage: in making a bike that handles well in the widest range of conditions possible, manufacturers often make bikes that don't really excel at anything. They're clunky and slow compared to a real Road Bike, but not as tough or agile as a Mountain Bike. Some cyclists also find that the seating position on a typical Hybrid is too upright, making them work harder to maintain speed and putting too much weight straight down on the base of the spine.

 Also, weight is not the first priority in Hybrid design (it's not the second, or probably even the fifth, it's somewhere down below "nice color scheme"), so, while not as bad as a stereotypical Dutch city bike, they can still be a lot to carry up and down a couple flights of stairs. 

In spite of these drawbacks, Hybrids are worth looking into if you need an affordable, no-frills way to get from Point A to Point B. They're best for moderate distance commutes (under 15 miles) and can be modified to be comfortable for all-day riding. They're usually quite capable of accepting racks, bags and baskets to haul cargo, pets or kids. 

Some entry-level Hybrid bikes:

Basic Hybrid: Jamis Citizen 

Flat-Bar/Fitness: Specialized Sirrus

Sport-Comfort: Raleigh Venture 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Choosing a Bike: Road Bikes

Before launching into today's discussion of bicycle types, I thought I'd give you an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the media miracle that is Broke Bicyclist.

Here it is

I've got a label maker, and I'm not afraid to use it
And here

My bicycle repair skills are better than my handwriting, trust me

As you can see, I've got a lot of commuting-related topics jotted down (there's a couple more pages like that). In fact, I'd originally thought of collecting all this into single document and releasing it as an e-book, but came to the realization that that would actually require me to write it all first, and then proof read it, and then it's just too much like work.

So, on to the next category of bicycle: the Road Bike

My own bike shown here ready for an overnight trip.
Road Bikes are the sportscars of the cycling world. If you're interested in covering the most ground at the fastest speed with the least effort, this is the machine. The bike is built to be light but strong, with narrow tires to minimize road friction and air resistance, geometry designed to get as much of your muscle power to the pedals as possible, and curved handlebars that let you adapt your riding position to varying conditions and long hours in the saddle.

Despite their overall efficiency, Road Bikes have a few disadvantages as commuter machines. First and foremost, is their cost. Unlike Mountain Bikes, which have pricing starting in the $3-400 range, Road Bike prices usually start in the $8-900 range. Part of this is due to the fact that they're less popular than Mountain Bikes (which is in part because they're more expensive, which in part is because they're less popular, get it), and part of it is the technology used on the modern Road Bike. While the main frame of the bike made out of a variety of materials, including steel, aluminum, carbon fiber, titanium or bamboo (seriously), the fork of even entry-level Road Bikes is usually made of carbon fiber, which is generally more expensive than metal. Additionally, rather than having separate levers for brakes and gear shifting, Road Bikes usually use integrated shift/brake levers, a set of which can cost a couple hundred dollars at the low end and over $1,000 at the high end.

The majority of Road Bikes on the market are also based on the designs of professional racing bikes, or may  even be identical to the models ridden by pro racers. While this makes them great for racing, a lot of them are made with just enough clearance for the narrowest of tires, and even then leave no room for fenders. While narrow tires roll fast over smooth pavement, they generally provide less traction, cushion and flat-resistance than fatter tires.

Road Bikes also do not always have mounting points for racks and fenders (if there is room for them), meaning it's more difficult to carry stuff, and if you do rig up an attachment system, carrying too much extra weight might adversely affect the performance-oriented handling of the bike.

None of these things are necessarily deal-breakers. For one, experienced cyclists can and do guide those skinny tires through some pretty rough conditions on a regular basis, and there are a number of fender and rack systems meant to compensate for the lack of accommodation on sportier machines (on my bike pictured above, for example, I just used a large saddlebag to carry a change of clothes and gear, along with a small handlebar bag, the same setup that worked for a weekend tour has worked fine for longer commutes).

Additionally, as Road Bikes have once again become more popular, bike makers are offering models designed to appeal to folks who want to ride far and (relatively) fast, but are not interested in speed-at-all-costs racing machines. Bikes like the Cannondale Synapse or the Specialized Roubaix hark back to the old school "club rider" bikes and give you most of the speed of a racing bike, but with room for fatter tires, a more relaxed riding position and options for fenders and rack mounts. There are even companies such as Rivendell which specialize in versatile non-racing Road Bikes which will carry you and your gear over dirt, gravel or pavement without complaint (they're not cheap though).

Still, the cost of Road Bikes makes them less-than-ideal for the commuter on a budget, and there are really only two good reasons to look at one as your main commuter bike. First, you already have one, and don't want to buy another bike. Second, you have a regular commute of over 15 miles and you want to get there relatively quickly.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Choosing a bike: Mountain Bikes

Bicycles have part of American culture since they first became practical to mass produce. The first person to ride around the world (or at least ride the rideable parts) did so on a Columbia bicycle and started on the West Coast of the U.S., and American bicycle manufacturers have managed on occasion to revolutionize other forms of transportation as well. Around 1900 bicycle racing was the most popular sport, both at the professional and recreational level, in the country.

Over the past hundred-and-something years there have been a number of typically "American" bicycles. From the Great Depression to the 1960s the Cruiser bike was king, then the European racing influence brought us the Ten-Speed, then, sometime in the 70s a few guys in California decided to combine the sturdy frame and balloon tires of a Cruiser and the multispeed gearing of a racing bike and the Mountain Bike was born. Over the past three decades these rugged, versatile machines have become the most popular form of bicycle not only in the U.S., but in many other parts of the world. 

"That's all fine and dandy, and I'm glad America contributed something to the world other than the light bulb and Agent Orange," you say, "but what does that have to do with getting to work on time?" 

"Simple," says I, "in case you haven't noticed, if you're shopping for a bicycle on a budget, and you live somewhere between Canada and Mexico, most of your best choices are going to be Mountain Bikes."

Because Mountain Bikes (aka "MTBs" or "ATBs" or "All-Terrain Bicycles") are so popular, they're produced in the greatest number and in the widest range of price points, including at the very low end of the price spectrum. For between three and four hundred dollars, you can find a reasonably well-made bicycle with a sturdy frame, reliable brakes and a wide enough gear range to get you over just about anything. If you look into used bikes, you can probably find one for around $100 in perfectly good working order. 

Photo by Andy Armstrong via Wikimedia Commons

At the higher end of the price spectrum, you'll find all sorts of varying styles of bike aimed at the various specialized disciplines that have evolved out of just riding around off road, but at the affordable end, the end that you should be looking at as a utility cyclist, you'll mostly find a fairly basic design aimed at pavement and light trail use. Common features of your basic economy mountain bike include:

  • 26x1.95" Tires with a "center-ridge" tread (the tread is knobby at the edges, but lines up along the center to provide a fairly smooth surface for rolling along on pavement)
  • Linear Pull Brakes (aka "V-Brakes"), more expensive bikes often have disc brakes
  • A triple front crank, often with 22, 32 and 42-tooth chainrings
  • A seven-speed rear cluster, often with its largest cog being fairly large (32 or 34 teeth) to give an extremely low gear ratio when combined with the smallest chainring up front. 
  • Relatively upright seating position, but not quite as upright as a city bike
  • Cushy seat
  • Attachment points for water bottles, a rear rack and sometimes fenders
  • On the least expensive models, a rigid steel front fork, on slightly more expensive models a very basic front shock. No rear shock
  • Shimano or SRAM drivetrain components, often a combination of the two with very basic Shimano derailleurs controlled by SRAM MRX shifters
  • Aluminum single-wall rims with quick-release axles
  • Quick-release seatpost bolt
Right out off the showroom floor, a mountain bike makes a pretty decent commuter. It's sturdy, has all the gearing you need, can be tweaked for a fairly comfortable riding position (some models still have the traditional quill stem, which gives a few inches of adjustment, though threadless stems are becoming more common, even without an adjustable stem the riding position of a properly-sized mountain bike is usually pretty relaxed until you get into models designed for competitive riding) and isn't much bothered about dirt, rain and even snow. 

However, with a few more tweaks, it can be made into an even better utility bike. Most important for riding in anything except broad daylight is the addition of some form of lighting. There are a lot of different types of lighting, which will be the subject of a future post (or more likely, several) but the important thing is that you have a red one on the back, a white one on the front, and they're visible from some distance away. 

A rear rack will also both increase the carrying capacity of the bike (either by strapping stuff directly to it or by adding bags or baskets designed to attach to the rack) and provide some protection from road spray, preventing the "rooster tail" of grime up the back of your pants and shirt. To give yourself even better grime proofing a set of fenders will offer more grime protection (rain falling DOWN on you can be annoying enough, but the combination of water, dirt, motor oil and god-only-knows-what that your tires spray up at you off of wet roads is miserable). 

Water bottle cages are nice to have in the event that you're riding longer distances or in warm weather, or if you just want to carry a drink. 

If you're leaving your bike locked outside in area with even a moderate risk of theft, it's advisable to either replace the seatpost quick-release with a regular bolt, or incorporate a seat lock of some sort into your locking strategy. There are also locking skewers for the wheel axles, or you can use various locking strategies to secure the wheels better. 

A final tweak to make your mountain bike commute-friendly might be to replace the tires with a more pavement-oriented slick tire. Slick tires will roll a bit more quietly and with a bit less effort than knobbies and actually offer better grip on pavement. Don't worry about losing the ability to ride on unpaved bike paths, though, generally a fat tire with a smooth or light tread will handle dirt roads and light gravel just as well as the semi-knobbies the bike comes with. The only place you should feel any real loss of traction is in serious mud or snow. Another advantage to commuter tires is that many street tires come with some sort of flat protection built into the tire casing, which will help keep roadside debris from puncturing the inner tube. 

Tire swapping is not a huge priority though, unless you find yourself doing commutes of more than ten miles on pavement, in which case, a smoother, narrower tire (26x1.5" or even 1") that can run a higher pressure will cover the distance with less effort. 

So, to summarize the advantages of Mountain Bikes for transportation cycling
  • they can be found relatively inexpensively
  • they can be found just about anywhere
  • repair parts are common and usually in stock at most bike shops
  • they are sturdily built
  • they can accommodate wide tires that offer cushioning, flat protection and traction on a wide range of surfaces
  • they readily accept practical accessories. 
  • They are well suited to short-to-moderate trips (2-10 miles) and can be adapted for longer trips
Disadvantages of mountain bikes

  • compared to more road-oriented bikes, they can seem sluggish and require more energy to cover the same distance
  • Mountain Bike handlebars are usually straight or very slightly swept back, which puts the hands in a position which many riders may find uncomfortable after longer rides. 
  • MTB handlebars only offer a single hand position, which doesn't give you the chance to change riding position and move your hands around on longer rides
  • most Mountain Bikes, even at the lower price points, have suspension forks, which can make it difficult to mount a basket, rack or, in some cases, front fender without adversely affecting the handling and safety of the bike
As you can see, most of the disadvantages to using Mountain Bikes for transport riding have to do with longer distance riding. For trips of only a few miles they're hard to beat for the money, and a used mountain bike, particularly an old steel-framed bike by a reputable manufacturer can be nearly ideal for transportation riding. 

A quick note about going really cheap and looking at mountain bikes from big box stores (Walmart, Target, etc). It may be possible, if you're very picky and know what you're looking for, to get an acceptable bike there for relatively cheap. But there are a lot of possible pitfalls. First of all, department store bikes usually only come in one frame size, so if you're taller or shorter than average, a comfortable fit is going to be hard to find. Secondly, the quality of components is extremely variable, sometimes the brakes or derailleurs are almost unusable (and if the bike has disc brakes or rear shocks avoid it, period. I have never seen rear suspension or disc brakes on a department store bike that weren't complete crap). Third, the assembly is not generally of the same quality as that in a bicycle shop. By "not of the same quality" I mean "stuff is sometimes put on backwards."

Some examples

Jamis Trail X1

Trek 820

Giant Revel

Monday, January 14, 2013

Choosing a Bike: Commuter-Specific Bikes

For the next week or two, I'm going to explore the various types of bicycles out there, and discuss their relative merits and disadvantages when used for practical transportation.

A couple of things before I start:
First off, please note the title of this blog. I'm imagining that anyone really interested in reading this stuff is probably looking to save a few bucks, or may have very few bucks to begin with (a position with which I can very much sympathize), so I'm not going to be looking at spectacularly high-end machines. One of the most frustrating things a potential beginner in many fields will hear is "don't bother even trying unless you've got a large amount of money to spend."

For example, if Bob chimes in on a bicycle forum and says "hey, I start a new job on Monday, and I need a bike to get there, I've got $350 to spend, what's a good inexpensive bike?" and Charlie immediately responds with, "you're not going to find a good commuter bike for that little money, I'd save up until you have at least $950 to spend and get a Brand X Commuterficator," Charlie is neither answering the question, nor is he being helpful. Actually, he's being the opposite of helpful, because he's just going out of his way to discourage Bob under the guise of imparting words of wisdom. Charlie is being a tool, bad Charlie! Bob needs his bike right now, and for him $350 is probably a lot of money, the idea of having to save up more than twice that much before even contemplating actually going to work is both ridiculous and overwhelming. Hey, I'm sure Bob would be thrilled to ride to work on a Merlin Newsboy, but his budget is probably more Jamis X1

 For the most part, the kind of bikes I'll be using for examples will be in the $400-800 retail price range, and as we go along I'll talk about finding and reconditioning old bikes with a budget of under $100 (that's where the REAL Broke Cycling begins). Of course for any given style of bicycle there will be a wide variation of price options from "Yard Sale" through "Ludicrous," but the fact is that most bicycle-shop bikes start in price somewhere around $350 nowadays, so that's what we have to work with.

The other thing to keep in mind is that I'm talking about these bikes in terms of their ability to get you and your stuff from where you are to where you need to be. So when I say "time trial bikes tend to be bad choices for grocery shopping," you shouldn't be thinking, "but wouldn't want to do a time trial on a hybrid," because, well, you're on the wrong blog.

So, with all that out of the way, let's look at the most obvious category of commuter bikes: bikes that are actually marketed as commuter bikes.

You can tell it's for commuting because it says "Commuter" right on the side!
Pictured above is my own commuter-specific bike, or as I affectionately call it "My Tax Refund." I bought this in the spring of 2011 and have put over 5,000 miles on it since this picture was taken. I've also replaced the handlebars, fenders, cranks, tires, a rim, chain and a few other parts because I wore them out or broke them. It's a good bike and I ride it a lot, maybe in the not-too-distant future I'll put up a picture of what it looks like now. This specific model is made by Jamis, but it has a lot of traits in common with bikes that are marketed as "City" or "Commuter" specific bikes such as

  • Upright riding position
  • Fenders
  • A Chainguard
  • An internally geared hub
  • Heavy-duty tires
  • Attachment points for racks
  • Swept-back handlebars
  • A somewhat retro aesthetic
  • A kickstand
In addition to the stock setup, I had added to the bike 
  • Lights
  • A front basket
  • A rear rack
  • A large saddlebag
  • A water bottle cage
  • A more comfortable saddle
Commuter bikes are available in various wheel sizes, this particular one has 700c wheels (about the same diameter as a road racing bike, but with much fatter tires) but you can get them with mountain-bike-size 26" wheels or in a few oddball sizes as well. Different models come with different levels of accessories, and in the more expensive (over $1,000) price range, you will often find options such as integrated racks and dynamo lighting. 

This style of bicycle goes back a long way and before the industry started producing various narrowly-defined categories of (largely sport oriented) bikes, it was pretty much what people thought of when they thought "bicycle." 

In its modern incarnation it is often similar to a hybrid bicycle with commuting-specific add-ons. In fact, some companies simply use one of their hybrid frames and add fenders, a rack and some swoopy handlebars and call it a commuter bike. In most cases this is pretty much fine, because although they may cost a bit more than a basic hybrid, the price difference may still be less than if you'd added the accessories as aftermarket purchases (but do the math, sometimes you ARE better off just buying a hybrid or mountain bike and accessorizing to your satisfaction). 

Bikes like this tend to be good for short-to-medium range rides (say 2-10 miles) at a moderate pace. The upright riding position puts more weight on your tailbone and creates more wind resistance than a sportier configuration, but it's still entirely possible to use bikes like this for longer commutes, light touring and charity rides (I've done up 80 miles in a day on mine, while toting a camera and musical instrument). The handling tends to be pretty stable and predictable, and most of them can accommodate baskets and bags without too much difficulty. 

My particular bike has fenders, which are essential when you ride during or after rainy conditions, and a chain cover, which means I don't have to worry about my pants leg getting dirty or caught. It also has an internally-geared hub, which is a common feature on the higher-end of the price scale (my particular model retailed about $700 , not that I paid that much for it, and came with an 8-speed hub). Internally geared hubs are nice for transportation bikes because they are a sealed system, with most of the moving parts inside unlike derailleur systems. Because they don't use a front derailleur, they allow you to cover the chain, and they offer a fairly wide range of gearing. The disadvantages of internal gearhubs are higher prices (I damaged the rear rim once, and to replace the wheel would have cost about five times what it would have cost to replace a standard wheel, so I simply replaced the rim and laced it to the original hub), fewer gear options and a bit more hassle in fixing flats (gearhubs are always bolt-on, you can't use a quick-release axle). Overall, though, they're nice if you find a bike in your price range that has one. 

Other options are standard derailleur gearing (often only a rear derailleur in 7 or 8 speeds) or singlespeed bikes. Some singlespeed or internally-geared bikes may have a coaster brake, but many commuter bikes have some sort of handbrakes. 

From the transportation perspective, there are few disadvantages to this type of bike other than the fact that they tend to start at a higher price point ($500 and up). They are not particularly fast or agile, and are not made for extremely rough conditions, but will handle pavement and light trail use with relative ease and are usually zippier on the road than a mountain bike or cruiser. They tend to run a bit on the heavy side (particularly some of the traditional European style bikes such as the classic "Dutch Bikes" which can run upwards of 50 lbs) making some of them less-than-ideal if you live in an upstairs apartment and don't have a safe place to lock up at street level. 

Some examples of commuter-specific bikes (there are hundreds) in the sub-$700 price range:

Friday, January 11, 2013

All Them Excuses

As I write this, it's a rainy January day and I'm suffering from the same flu that about three-quarters of the country seems to have. There are a lot of things running through my mind, most of which are along the lines of,  "is 4 p.m. too early to go back to bed?" What is NOT running through my head is "gee, I really want to go for a bike ride."

It can be hard enough to get motivated to start riding when the weather is nice, and you're feeling well, and many would-be cycle commuters find it really easy to make excuses why they're not going to start riding to work today, or why they need to drive to the store this weekend.

Probably the best way to make sure you start riding everywhere is to simply sell your car (or have it break down and not have the money to fix it, which is a frequent motivator for Yours Truly), but sometimes the automobile is actually useful, and you may not be ready to make that kind of commitment to bicycle commuting just yet.

A lot of the same excuses come up, over and over: "it's too far," "I'm scared of traffic," "the weather is horrible." And if you look around the web, you'll find all sorts of responses to each of these. For example, if the trip is too far, you can drive or take a train part way, and bike the rest. Or there's a whole lot of fancy raingear and lighting out there to help you deal with the weather and the dark.

Over time, I plan to take on some of these things in detail, but here's the important thing to bear in mind: it's OK to not ride all the time. There's nobody saying you have to use a bike for 100% of your transportation needs (well, actually, if you look around the internet, there are people who will say that to you, but they're jerks and you can feel free to disregard them).

If you don't feel up to riding in the rain or snow, only ride when it's nice out. If you work a long way from home, maybe you can't ride to work. Instead of trying to bike the 50-mile round trip to work, start using your bike to make the 2-mile trip to the store.

Because for most of us, once we feel that biking is something we SHOULD do, we're not going to want to do it. Our inner 7-year-old screams "I don't wanna!" and we reach for the car keys. The trick to getting over the motivational hurdles is to start using a bike for the stuff that's fun. Start out riding to Sunday brunch, or to get a few things from the store. Pick errands that don't have a time limit and take a nice leisurely ride, make it a treat rather than an obligation.

And more often than not, as you get used to biking places, a lot of stuff that seemed too far away, or too hard to get to will start looking a lot more accessible, and you'll start riding to more places. Soon, if you have occasion to drive somewhere that you've been frequenting by bike, you'll find yourself getting annoyed at the hassle of looking for a parking spot.

But the thing is, even if you're riding every day and have gotten your routine down, there might come a day when it's pouring rain and you've got to carry something heavy or delicate. If you're doing things wrong, you'll feel guilty for tossing your cargo in the car. If you're a sane individual, you'll say "this kind of thing is the reason I still have a motor vehicle," and not worry about it.

Unless, of course, your car broke down and you don't get paid till next Friday. In which case, wear a raincoat.

Coming  Monday: Broke Bicyclist will start looking at the different types of bikes you can use for transportation cycling, and the advantages and disadvantages of each type.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Time to Launch

Sometimes, at the bike shop, we get a person who fired up by the urge to get in shape or high gas prices, decides to buy a bike and start riding to work. Sometimes they follow through with it, but sometimes they get the bike, get it home and tell themselves "I'll start as soon as the weather gets a bit nicer."
A lot of the time, this means that shiny new bike sits in the basement or garage and never gets ridden anywhere. But maybe sometimes it sits for a year or two, until all of the the sudden, the owner says, "yeah, it's time" and starts putting in the miles. Maybe it took a while to get motivated, maybe the situation wasn't right, but whatever it was, they just weren't ready, and now they are.

This blog has been a bit like that. I snagged the title some time ago with the intention of sharing common-sense advice, tips and ideas with would-be transportation cyclists, particularly those for who don't have a lot of extra cash to experiment with their transportation arrangements. But I put it aside because things were pretty crazy for me, and writing took a back seat to just making a living.

Well, I've got a bit more time and am, if not more organized, a bit more motivated these days, and it's time to start pedaling.

I've got a notebook full of ideas, including info on choosing a bike how to carry stuff and ideas for dealing with weather, enough for several months of regular posts. The goal will be to post once a weekday.

Wish me luck!

-Broke Bicyclist