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, February 28, 2013

The Difference Between Boys and Girls

Do you think anyone who didn't know you would notice if you borrowed your significant other's car? Unless you've got a spouse who drives something... unusual, nobody would be likely to notice at all, because, for the most part, cars don't have gender-specific designs (yes, they do tend to be marketed at different demographics, including by age and gender, but you can still drive your mom's car and only your close friends will laugh at you).

Bicycles have traditionally been different. First off, because the rider is also the engine, bicycle design has to be adapted to human anatomy, and bikes usually come in different sizes to fit taller or shorter riders (yet another reason to avoid department store bikes unless you're exactly average). But bicycles have also long had different designs based on gender, as well.

Jamis Hudson, Men's Frame

Jamis Hudson, Women's Frame
Women's bicycles have long been offered in a "step-through" design, the roots of which are based more in fashion than in practicality. Back when bicycles first became popular, in the late 1800s, women were expected to wear skirts, regardless of what activity they were engaged in The step-through frame of a women's bicycles allowed them to mount the bicycle without having to swing a leg high over the saddle, and to ride without the skirt bunching on the top tube.

The bicycle, in fact, had a fairly large affect in the turn-of-the-century women's movement, as it offered both increased personal mobility for middle-class women and a reason to encourage Rational Dress over the more restrictive garments typical of the time.

Advertisement from 1897 featuring a woman in cycling costume. Notice the baggy trousers to provide a skirt-like profile. 
The role of the bicycle in women's rights is a fascinating topic, but a bit beyond the scope of today's blog post. What's important for now is that, in spite of women's hard-won right to wear bifurcated garments in public becoming accepted fact, the design of bicycles made with women in mind reflects the preference of the day.

The diamond shape of the typical men's frame is a bit simpler to make, and provides more strength and lateral stiffness than a step-through frame of the same basic design, as well as more room to mount accessories and water bottles. As the men's market for sport cycling has commonly been bigger, diamond-framed bikes also were offered at higher price points and with better components than those available on step-through bikes. Because of this, female athletic cyclists often chose to ride "standard" bikes rather than a supposedly female-specific design.

In recent decades, as the percentage of women in competitive and sport cycling has grown, and with it market demand for performance-oriented bikes for both halves of the human race, a new type of "women's-specific" bike has emerged. These bikes have a design similar to standard bicycles, but with the geometry and proportion altered slightly to take into consideration the common physical differences between men and women.

Jamis Satellite and Satellite Femme (no, I'm not paid by Jamis, I just work at a shop that sells a lot of 'em so I have access to pictures).

The assumption being that compared to a man of the same height, a woman would typically have longer legs, a shorter torso, narrower shoulders, slightly shorter arms and smaller hands. As a result, the bike would have a shorter top tube in proportion to its seat tube, narrower handlebars and sometimes smaller brake/shift levers.

Of course, this design relies on sweeping generalizations, as not all women are proportioned the same. These fit some female cyclists (and on occasion, a shorter male cyclist) very well, and others not at all. Many women are fine riding a standard bike, or a standard bike with some modifications. Still, it's a useful option for those who haven't been able to find a standard-geometry bike to suit their needs.

But back to the "boys and girls" or rather "standard and step-through" frame designs. Is there a need for modern women to ride a step-through frame, or any reason a man shouldn't? Aside from fashion, the answer is, as you may expect "do whatever you feel like." Some men might feel a bit self-conscious riding a pink, step-through bike, but fortunately, most manufacturers offer step-through frames in at least one gender-neutral color (black).

There are a few very good reasons to choose a men's (standard, diamond-frame) bike, including:

  • Greater strength and rigidity
  • More room for water bottle cages, bags and pumps inside the frame triangle
  • Easier to hang on a car-mounted bicycle rack
On the other hand, advantages of a women's (step-through) frame include:
  • You don't have to swing your leg over it like a dog over a fire hydrant, which if you've got hip problems, is nice. 
  • If you're carrying a large rear load, or have a child seat on the back of your bike, it's much easier (and safer in the case of the kid carrier) to mount a step-through frame
  • The lack of a top tube makes the bike more adjustable to fit a wider range of riders, handy if it's a "guest" bike (and the reason that most bike-share bikes are designed this way). 
There are also bikes which are designed specifically as a unisex design with a step-through or low-standover frame, called mixtes (pronounces that... however you want, it's French). Mixte bikes traditionally have a double top tube that runs at a diagonal from the head tube to the rear dropouts, a design which results in a stronger, stiffer frame than a "ladies" step-though. 

 Modern Mixte by Soma Fabrications
These types of bikes are a good choice for those who want the ease of mounting but want either a stronger frame or something a bit less "girly" looking. 

What it really comes down to, is that you have to find a bicycle that fits you, and suits your needs, regardless of fashion or tradition. There's no reason to buy a "women's" bike if you don't want one, but on the other hand, there's no reason not to if that's what you think is the most sensible option. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Those Words We Use

Yesterday I posted about bike "saddles," preferring to use that term rather than "seat" for reasons of custom and, as a matter of fact, clarity (a "seat" implies you sit on it, legs in front like a chair or bench, a "saddle" is something you straddle like the thing on a bicycle or a horse).

But while you sit on a saddle, the saddle itself sits atop a seatpost, which made me realize that there are a ton of terms and jargon used in the bike industry that probably make no sense to anyone who hasn't been behind a shop counter. While I try to avoid using any more bike-specific jargon, there's a few terms to know that are helpful, not only to follow along on mine or other bike-related pages on the internet, but also to be able to communicate clearly with your bike shop.

I'm not going to to try to put together a comprehensive bicycle glossary, but give you a few of the most useful terms. For something more completist, see Sheldon Brown's work here.

By Category, rather than by alphabet:

General Terms:

Road Bike: A bicycle made for pavement riding. Built for light weight and aerodynamic efficiency, with narrow tires, a leaned-forward riding and no shock absorbers. Usually has drop handlebars and integrated brake-shift levers on newer models.

Mountain Bike: A bicycle made for off road use. Features fat tires with tread meant to grip on loose surfaces, and lower gearing than a road bike. Usually has at least a front shock-absorber, may also have one for the rear wheel.

Hybrid Bike: Made to be something between a road and mountain bike, often has straight handlebars and gearing higher than a mountain bike, but usually lower than a road bike. The tires will be fatter than most road bikes, but not have the tread design of an aggressive off-road machine.

Sport-Comfort Bike: Industry term for a type of hybrid bike that has mountain-bike sized (26") wheels. Often looks like a mountain bike, but with much higher handlebars, a cushier seat and smoother tire tread.

Flat-Bar Road Bike/Fitness Bike: A type of hybrid that is close to a road bike in geometry, gearing and tire size, but has straight handlebars and a more upright riding posture. Usually less expensive than a road bike due to simpler shifting mechanisms.

City Bike: Any bike designed for urban riding, usually some sort of hybrid.

Cruiser: A bike with very fat, low-pressure tires, a wide seat, dramatically swept handlebars and a very upright sitting position. Comfortable for short rides, but not ideal for getting up hills. Often referred to as a "beach cruiser" because of their popularity in flat, coastal areas and on boardwalks.

Touring Bike: A bike made for long-distance rides from one point to another, usually a variation on a road bike, but sometimes a hybrid or mountain bike. May be set up to carry heavy loads including camping gear, but some carry little more than a change of clothes and snacks.


Stem: The thing that attaches the handlebars to the bicycle. Comes in two flavors, Threadless (clamps onto the outside of the steering tube) and Quill (slides into the steering tube and fastens with an expander bolt).

Drop Handlebars: Road and racing bike handlebars that curve downward in a "ram's horn" shape.

Flat Bars: Straight handlebars

Riser Bars: Handlebars whose shape curves upwards from where they're clamped into the stem.

Bar ends: things that clamp onto the end of flat bars to give you an extra hand position

Aero Bars: extensions that allow you to lean forward with your elbows and forearms resting on the handlebars. Done for aerodynamics, not for comfort.

Grips: The coverings (usually rubber) that go on the handlebars to make them more comfortable for your hands

Bar Tape: a padded tape that wraps around drop bars to provide a gripping surface and some cushioning.


Brake Lever: The thing on the handlebar that you move to activate a brake

Coaster Brake: A type of brake contained in the rear hub of the bike, activated by turning the pedals backwards. Common on cruiser bikes and some city bikes.

Caliper Brake: A "U" shaped brake, common on road bikes, that attaches to the bicycle with a single bolt and grabs the rim of the wheel.

Cantiliver brake: A type of rim brake that attaches with two bolts, one on either side of the bicycle frame or fork. Comes in two flavors, Centerpull (a cable straddles the two brake arms, and another cable pulls upwards on it to pinch them together) or Linear Pull, aka "V-Brake" (the brake cable runs through the side of one arm and attaches to the other).

Disc Brake: A metal disc attaches to the center of the wheel. Brake calipers grab the disc rather than the wheel itself. Similar to brakes on cars or motorcycles, just smaller and more lightweight. Two flavors again, mechanical (a cable pulls a lever on the brake which moves the calipers) or hydraulic (uses special brake lines full of fluid, much like a car).

Brake cable: The cables that connect the brake to the brake lever. Usually made of a wound steel wire running through some sort of flexible housing made of metal coated in plastic. The cable and the housing are sometimes referred to as "inner and outer cable". Housing may be "full" (runs from the lever to the brake, covering the inner cable all the way) or interrupted (it ends in special brackets on the frame of the bike, leaving sections of inner cable exposed).

Brake Pads/Brake Shoes: The part of the brake, usually made of some sort of rubber compound, that grips the wheel to slow or stop it. Because of the friction involved, these are the quickest-wearing part of the bike. Easily replaced, and usually inexpensive, but you need to make sure you get the right style of pad for the type of brake you have (best bet is to bring the old, worn-out pad with you to the shop).


Wheel: The whole wheel, all the parts put together

Tire: The rubber part part that touches the ground. Will have different tread designs depending on use. Comes in many sizes. The thickness of tires can vary, but the inside diameter must match the wheel on which it is to be mounted. Making sure you have the right tire size can be really difficult, especially on older bikes, as there are a wide array of them, and they weren't well standardized till recent decades.

Tube/inner tube: The balloon-like thing inside the tire that holds the air. Usually, flats mean replacing the inner tube. Inner tubes are sized to match tires. Has a valve to put air in, which projects through a hole in the wheel.

Hub: The center of the wheel, which rotates around the axle.

Axle: The rod that runs through the center of the wheel and attaches it to the bicycle. The part of the wheel that doesn't spin. May use nuts or a quick-release mechanism to make it fit tightly.

Rim: The outer edge of the wheel, on which the tire mounts. Usually aluminum or steel.

Spokes: The rods that connect the hub to the rim. Tension on these keeps the wheel even, and minor irregularities can be worked out by adjusting the tension on specific spokes. The little widget that threads on one end of the spoke to attach to the rim and adjust tension is called the nipple.


Pedals: The little platforms on which you rest your feet

Crank: The assembly which transfers the movement of the pedals to the bike. Made up of two crankarms, a spindle to connect them and from one to three toothed sprockets called chainrings

Bottom Bracket: The bearing assembly attached to the bottom of the bicycle which allow the crank to rotate. The crank spindle is often attached to the bottom bracket, but not always.

Chain: the chain. Varies in width depending on how many gears are in the rear cluster. The wrong chain can lead to jammed drivetrains.

Freehweel: A type of gear cluster which screws directly onto the hub. The ratchet mechanism is contained in the freewheel itself, rather than part of the rear hub.

Cassette: A type of gear cluster which has no ratchet mechnism, attaches to a "freehub" rear hub, where the ratcheting mechanism is contained within the hub body itself.

Derailleur: The device which moves the chain from one cog to another. Front derailleurs mount by the cranks and move the chain from one chainring to the others, rear derailleurs hang below the rear axle and move the chain around the cassette or freewheel.

Shifter: The gadget on the handlebars (or sometimes, on older bikes, on the frame or stem) that controls the derailleurs by pulling on a cable. Cables are similar to brake cables above, but have different ends.

X-Speeds: When speaking about how many "speeds" a bike has, we refer to how many gears are on the rear cluster, because this affects shifter and chain choice. Bikes can have between one and 11 cogs in the rear, therefore in modern terminology, a "ten-speed" bike is a bike with ten rear cogs, and one, two or three chainrings (10-30 possible gear combinations). Front choices are called single, double, or triple, depending on how many chainrings there are. Therefore, a bike with two chainrings and nine cogs in the back would be referred to as a "9-speed double."
 This may seem counter-intuitive, but it makes finding parts and repairs a lot clearer (for example, if you say you have an "18-speed" does that mean you have a bike like that above or one with six rear cogs and three chainrings? Both exist, but the parts are not compatible at all). Most entry-level mountain bikes are 7-Speed triples.

Internal Gears/Gearhubs: The gearing mechanisms are all contained within the rear hub, withe no derailleurs. Between two and 14 gears are possible, and infinitely variable gearhubs exist.

Frame: The skeleton of the bike. Often diamond shaped, but there are variations.

Fork: The part of the bike that holds the front wheel. Consists of a steer tube (central part which goes through the frame to connect to the stem), crown (part where the fork splits), legs or blades (go on either side of the wheel) and dropouts (fittings where the axles attach. Mountain bike forks often have spring-loaded legs, in which case it's called a "suspension fork." Suspension forks are becoming common on hybrid and comfort bikes as well.

Head Tube: The tube at the front of the bike through which the fork's steer tube runs. The bearings in the head tube, which allow steering, are referred to as the "headset".

Top Tube: The tube at the top of the bike. May be parallel to the ground or angled.

Down Tube: The tube that runs down from the head tube to the bottom bracket shell

Bottom Bracket Shell: The tube, set perpendicular to the other tubing, through which the crank bearings run.

Seat Tube: The tube connecting the bottom bracket shell to the top tube. The seatpost slides in here, and is secured by a clamp just above the top tube (called, appropriately enough, the "seat clamp"). Often, when the size of a bike is given in inches or centimeters, it refers to the lengthy  of the seat tube. Longer seat tube=taller bike.

Seat stays: The twin tubes that run from near the top of the seat tube to the rear axle. May be two completely seperate tubes or joined in a "Y" shape before meeting the seat tube.

Chain stays: The tubes that run from the bottom bracket shell to the rear axle.

Dropouts: The place where the stays connect, containing fittings to attach the rear axle.

Bosses: any fittings attached to the frame to attach racks, brakes, water bottles or other accessories. Brake bosses usually look like posts sticking out of the frame or fork, whereas water bottle bosses are threaded nuts set into holes in the frame tube.

Hanger: fitting which attaches the rear derailleur to the frame. May be replaceable in case of damage.


Commuter: Sometimes used strictly to refer to someone who bikes to work, but as a broader term meaning anyone who uses as bike as transportation rather than just for sport. AKA "Transportation Cyclist" or "Utility Cyclist."

Racer: Someone who rides primarily to race, or to train for racing.

Fitness Cyclist: Someone who rides strictly for exercise.

Recreational Cyclist/ Family Cyclist: Someone who rides for fun, without specific fitness or transportation goals (most cyclists from other categories also ride recreationally).

Touring: Riding your bike to a destination at which you intend to stay overnight. Three-major categories of touring are "Loaded" (carry everything you need, including food and camping gear) "Credit Card" (carry just clothing and minimal gear, stay at hotels, B&Bs or friends' houses) and "Supported" (ride from site to site, but have someone else carry your gear, usually a tour company with a van).

MUP/MUT: Multi-Use Path/Trail, a place where cars aren't allowed, but bikes, walkers, joggers, etc are, as opposed to a dedicated bike path.

JRA: A bicycle-shop acronym for "Just Riding Along." Often used descriptively as in "bike makes a clicking noise JRA, check shifting," but sometimes used derisively when shop employees suspect a customer is lying to avoid admitting responsibility for damage, as in "customer says he was JRA when the rear derailleur spontaneously broke. Scuffed paint, gravel and ripped bar tape from apparently crashing the bike must have nothing to do with it."

Bummel: A somewhat-uncommon term probably used mostly just by me. Taken from Jerome K. Jerome's humorous cyclo-touring book "Three Men on the Bummel." It means a ride with no particular goal or destination, but a time limit. For example, if you have Sunday off, and if you hop on your bike and ride around all day just for the hell of it, you can be said to be "on the bummel." The same can be said if you have a few days off and go on an overnight trip, stopping when you see a likely motel or campground, not following a strictly planned route, but keeping in mind you've got to get to work on Monday. My favorite type of recreational riding, especially for day trips.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Getting to the Bottom of Saddle Choice

"Oh my god, that skinny little seat must be so uncomfortable!"

Every cyclist who rides a performance-oriented bike of one sort or another had heard that at some point, either from a complete non-cyclist or someone who rides an upright comfort bike. It's true, on the wrong bike, a narrow racing saddle would be completely inappropriate, but because of body position, sometimes a narrow perch works better.

Saddle choice is a very personal thing, as everyone's body is a bit different, but there are some generalities that apply to just about everyone.

  • Whatever saddle you choose, it should allow your weight to rest primarily on the bony points at the bottom of your pelvis, known as ischial tuberosities or "sit bones." 
  • Very soft saddles are like very soft mattresses, comfortable for a short period of time, but over a longer span will often create more pain than they cure. Overly squishy bike seats often result in pressure points, numbness and chafing. 
  • Too-hard saddles also cause discomfort and chafing, most riders come to prefer saddles that are firm and supportive, but not rock-hard
  • The more upright you sit, the wider you tend to want your saddle
  • The more leaned-over your riding position, the narrower you tend to prefer your saddle
  • Whatever shape of saddle you prefer, it shouldn't interfere with your ability to pedal smoothly
  • The angle of the saddle should be roughly parallel to the ground. Depending on a number of factors, you might find having the nose of the saddle pointed slightly down or slightly up to be most comfortable, but the key word is "slightly."
My own personal preference for an all-around comfortable saddle is the Terry Liberator, which I feel provides a good balance between cushion and support, is wide enough to give you a good platform without being so wide it gets in the way and has a center cutout which eliminates pressure and chafing regardless of what clothes you're riding in. I am also a fan of Brooks-style traditional leather saddles, which, although fairly stiff, have just enough flex to them for comfort, and mold to your posterior over time. I currently have leather saddles on a couple of my bikes, in particular ones sold by Velo-Orange, which, while they don't have the cachet of the Brooks, are a good value and hold up well. Leather saddles also have the additional benefit of having bag loops mounted on the back, which allows the use of a traditional saddlebag. 

Many comfort and hybrid bikes come with a relatively wide saddle, often with springs or shock-absorbers of some sort. These can be very comfortable on an upright commuter bike, and the springs can help soak up the jolts one feels while sitting in a very upright position (when leaned over in a sportier position, the legs and hands help take impacts, but as you sit more upright, more of your weight is placed straight down on your sit bones, so a bit of spring can be a blessing). Ideally, for an upright ride, a somewhat wide seat with springs and just enough padding or flex would be the way to go. A Brooks B-67 seems like a great option for this type of thing, but is a bit pricey for me. Something along these lines is probably a more economical option. The only thing to be wary of is that you don't get a saddle that's TOO wide, otherwise what often happens is you creep forward as you pedal, so you end up sitting on the nose of the saddle, which becomes very uncomfortable very quickly. 

On modern style-saddles, like the Liberator, I do like a cutout or center channel for commuting. Not because, as some sources would have you believe, because I'm concerned with the center of the seat cutting off blood flow and causing impotence, but because I often ride in regular jeans or khakis. Non-cycling pants usually have a seam running right up the center of the crotch, and a bike saddle with a cutout takes the pressure of the seam, which otherwise could increase chafing and saddle sores. 

There have been numerous attempts to completely redesign the bicycle saddle over the years, and the idea of a "noseless" design comes up periodically but never seems to catch on (Jerome K. Jerome talks about such a design in his 1900 account of a cycling trip he took with his buddies, so it's not a new concept at all). I have tried a few variations on this design and found them all to be extremely uncomfortable and inefficient. Normal bicycle seats are, as they're called, a "saddle," you sit astride them with your legs on either side of the seat, whereas noseless designs tend to be more of a "bench." Because of this, your legs tend to push against the front of the seat when you pedal, which I've found has the effect of pushing your body forward off the seat. When I've tried to ride on this sort of seat, I always found myself having to push back with my hands on the grips to keep from sliding forward, which got tiring really quickly. There are some who claim that these noseless designs are very comfortable on upright cruiser-type bikes, but mostly I've seen them on bikes that don't get ridden (because the owner finds they have a hard time riding them comfortably). 

Choosing the right saddle for you often takes a bit of trial and error, and you can only take another person's preferences as a starting point, unless you happen to have an exactly identical derriere (how do you even check that?), but somewhere between big, cruiser-style "tractor seats" and minimalist nightmares like this, it's likely you can find something that suits your needs. You'll have to bear in mind, though, that even the most comfortable seat requires a bit of acclimation on your part, and you're probably going to have to suffer through a bit of getting "reacquainted" if you haven't been riding much lately. 

As Jerome said in Three Men on the Bummel, back in 1900 "There may be a better land where bicycle saddles are made out of rainbow, stuffed with cloud; in this world the simplest thing is to get used to something hard."

Monday, February 25, 2013

Bar Ends: You're Doing It Wrong

On very short rides, commutes of just a mile or two for example, bicycle fit and body position are not vitally important. If you're only on the bike for ten minutes, you don't really have time to suffer any serious discomfort. 

But if your commute or errands are much further than that, your body position affects your comfort quite a bit, most notably at the handlebars and the saddle. I'll talk about saddles in a day or two, but right now I'd like to talk about handebars. 

Where your hands are has a lot of affect on your riding comfort. Handlebar height affects how far you lean over the bike, how much weight goes onto your hands and how much you have to flex your lower back. The "sweep," how much the handlebar grips are angled back, affects the angle your hands rest on the grips, which in turn affects your wrists and shoulders. Because there are a wide variety of preferences and requirements, there is quite a bit of variety in handlebar designs. Road and touring bikes usually have drop bars, whose distinctive "ram's horn" shape offers the chance to change grip positions over the course of long rides. City and commuting bikes, on the other hand, usually go for a single, fairly comfortable hand position, usually with swept back handlebars to put the shoulders in a relaxed stance. 

Swept-back handlebars with no rise. Many commuter bikes have bars that come up before sweeping back towards the rider. 
 And while there are no hard-and-fast rules as to how high the handlebars should be, most non-competitive riders find that a slight forward lean is the most comfortable, say, between 20 and 45 degrees. More lean than that makes you more aerodynamic, but puts more work on the hands and lower back, while sitting straight upright puts all your weight on your tailbone and makes it hard to pedal efficiently (there are those who are perfectly comfortable with their nose to the handlebars, though, and conversely plenty of city-bike riders who can go for miles with a ramrod-straight spine, I just find that the bulk of casual and commuter cyclists fall somewhere in between). My own preference puts my handlebars at about the same height as the seat, a bit higher for commuting and a bit lower for "sporty" riding.

While road and city bike handlebars offer the chance to position your arms at a comfortable angle, the most common mountain bike bars are either completely straight across or nearly so. This gives the rider great control over rocky ground, but is not actually all that ergonomically efficient. The hands are held at a fairly unnatural angle which many riders find uncomfortable on long rides.

A fairly simple solution is to install bar ends, which are attachments that bolt to the ends of the handlebars (hence the name) and give an additional hand position, or often, a couple different hand positions. This works pretty well, so long as you don't mount the bar ends at too steep an angle. They should be facing forward on the bike, at about the same angle as the handlebar stem. However, there's a tendency among those looking for a more upright riding position (usually on a bike that's way too small for them) to aim them straight up, or even face them backwards a bit to shorten the reach.

They're like antlers!
There's a couple reasons that this is a bad idea. First, this tends to put you at a really odd position in relation to the steering, but you can get used to the affect on the handling. A bigger problem is that because of the way your weight rests on the top of the bar ends, it can be very difficult to change position quickly to reach the brake levers. When the bar ends are positioned forwards, you simply move one or both hands back a bit and grab the brake, but here you have to let go of the bar end and reach under it to grab the brake lever. While this may not realistically take a large amount of time, on occasions when you find yourself needed to get to the brakes really quickly, fractions of a second make a big difference.

The third, and most dangerous problem, to my eye, comes when you're riding on the handlebars using the controls.
Size, angle and hairiness of arms may vary by rider. 
As you can see in the above photo, my forearm is right next to the curve of the bar end. Because the bike was equipped with twist-type shifters, I was actually having a lot of trouble changing gears due to the interference of the bar end. But worse than that, take a look at that picture and imagine me hitting a pothole, or slipping on some gravel or any other sudden event that results in my weight shifting forward quickly. A big, sturdy guy like me might get away without breaking my wrists, but I wouldn't want to bet my blogging career on it!

In short, while sticking a pair of upright-facing bar ends on a bike might seem a quick way to counter too-low handlebars, it's actually kind of stupid.

If you just need more height, there are a couple of options you can look at, which are not much more expensive than the above. First off, a taller stem can make a big difference, and handlebars with a built in rise also help (although if you make too dramatic of a change, you may have to swap out some cables, which if you're paying a shop to do it, might start to add up).

One of my own projects, a folding mountain bike. It's a bit small for me, so I added a longer seatpost and swapped the straight handlebars for a pair with a 3" rise. 
Other handlebar options to add comfort to a mountain or flat-bar type road bike include swapping to a pair of North Road style handlebars or go with the Euro-style touring bars known as "butterfly" or "trekking" bars (they're the Crocs of the bicycle world, god-awful ugly, but super-comfortable).

This isn't a stickup. When it comes to bar ends, you don't have to "reach for the sky!"

Friday, February 22, 2013

Opinionated Blogger Friday: That Thing Drivers Sometimes Do When They Think They're Being Helpful But It's Really Kind of Annoying

After you've been riding with traffic a while, you start to get a feel of the flow of things. It doesn't take long, really, the human brain, being the amazing machine it is, starts to recognize relative speed and direction, and to start predicting where cars are going to be based on where they are.

After a bit more time, you start to time your own moves, like when you're about to make a left turn, you get over to the left side of the lane, look at the line of oncoming cars and slow down a bit, getting your own speed just right to hit the next gap that's big enough for you to safely ride through.

Then somebody comes to a stop to let you turn, and your rhythm goes all to hell, and you nearly fall off the bike. They give you a big smile and wave you through magnanimously, while you struggle to get your feet back on the pedals and wave a less-than-heartfelt "thanks" to them.

It would be one thing if there was an unbroken line of cars zipping along at 900 mph and your only hope for making a turn alive is that someone, anyone, slows down a bit a and lets you go, but with normal traffic there are plenty of gaps and the person who does this always seems to be the LAST person in any line of cars.

It happens when you're trying to cross a busy intersection, too, or when you're approaching a four-way stop sign. The last 99 times things went a certain way, and you took your turn as if you were operating any other wheeled vehicle, but the hundredth time somebody changes the pattern, you're thrown a curve ball and you swing and miss.

On the list of nuisances that can befall a cyclist, this ranks pretty low. After all, when there are homicidal middle-managers in SUVs trying to smear you against parked cars, or drunken frat boys lobbing glass bottles at your head, someone being nice to you hardly counts as much of a problem.

But, aside from the fact that it messes up your flow and therefore totally blows your carefully cultivated sense of cool, there are a couple of problems inherent in this kind of behavior.

First off, it belies a common flaw in the way many Americans drive, which involves treating the brake and accelerator as on/off switches. You're either driving the speed limit or you're stopped, there's no sense of adjusting speed to accommodate road conditions. Not everyone drives this way, nor is it exclusive to U.S. drivers, but it's far less common in places where the streetscapes are more integrated, with pedestrians, cyclists and drivers adapting to each other on the fly.

The other reason this behavior is a negative indicator is that it means that, in some folks' eyes at least, bicycles are still a special case, not a normal part of traffic. On a bike you're still a bit childlike, to be treated with extra care rather than expected to be a responsible road user. This, in turn, reinforces the idea that bikes don't belong on the road with "grown up" vehicles, and makes it harder for cyclists to be accepted.

Overall, though, I'd rather someone throw off my groove by doing something unexpectedly nice, like waving me through a turn, than by doing something unexpectedly obnoxious, like accelerating to keep me from turning in front of them, or cutting me off to get to a parking space. Enough of the latter happens that when someone's unexpectedly generous, I'm more frustrated by my own uncool flailing than I ever could be at the driver!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Field Guide to North American Cyclists (On the Internet)

I wrote this a while back for my other blog, but figured I'd repost it here, because if there's anyone worth plagarizing, it's yourself. 

The bicycle has been with us for over a century, and in that time has evolved into a variety of forms and attracted  wide variety of riders, all united to some degree by their love of fast, human-powered transportation. The internet has been around for a few decades, and in that time has managed to divide the cycling world into a wide array of disparate and occasionally bitterly-divided factions.

Every cycling blog, forum and chat room, as well as just about any news article even vaguely related to cycling will draw out these folks en masse, each one of them ready to offer their take on the One True Way to enjoy the use of their two-wheeled conveyance. 

While it's impossible to keep up with the subcultures and fads that are rising and falling every moment on the internet, I've tried to compile a list of some of the most notable sorts. It's also worth noting that there are many hybrid cyclists, who show traits of one or more of these breeds. Please note that, while I've listed these various species using male pronouns for the sake of brevity (English being lacking in gender-neutral words to describe humans) each type has its female variant as well. 

The Weight Weenie:

Rides a road racing bike, although the chance that he or she actually races is only 50/50. Will spend hours poring over spec sheets to find the way to shave two paper-clips'-worth of weight off their bike. Will dismissively refer to other forum members' 20lbs bikes as "tanks" and sneer at the idea of carrying anything so bulky as a lock or multitool. Usually buys parts online and upgrades compulsively. 
Quote: "Well, it's an OK bike, but with a 32-ounce wheelset you might as well be dragging a coffee table behind you." 

The Bicycle Creationist:

To the Creationist, bicycle technology began and ended at some fixed date in the past, usually somewhere around 1970. Since then, everything about cycling has deteriorated, including frame materials, shifting quality and even the clothes riders wear. What modern riders might consider "dangerous flaws" in some older equipment, the Bicycle Creationist refers to as "endearing quirks." Hates clipless pedals and integrated brake-shifters with a passion and considers Rivendell Bicycles to be a bit "newfangled"
Quote: "Well, it's true that those stems did snap off and cause fatal crashes on a couple occasions, but you have to admit they were a lot better looking and had much more SOUL than these modern gadgets." 

The Dutchie:

The Dutchie is a hardcore transportation cyclist who believe that "proper" cycling can only take place on upright city bicycles whilst wearing street clothes. Will constantly talk up how much better bicycle culture is in European cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, and sneer at people who ride their mountain bikes to work. Will often spend upwards of $1,000 to import the European equivalent of a Schwinn Varsity.
Quote: "Yes, it takes me and two friends to lift my bicycle over a curb, but in in Denmark they have 43 miles of dedicated bicycle paths leading to each picnic table, so I would never  have to go over a curb to get to a public park."

Safety Man:

It's a dangerous world out there, and Safety Man is prepared for the worst. He never gets on a bike without a helmet, hi-visibility vest, gloves, protective eyewear, at least four taillights, a 300-lumen headlight, a backup headlight, pepper spray, a safety whistle, non-slip footwear, raingear (with reflective strips) a safety flag and six forms of ID. To Safety Man, "reasonable safety precautions" involve getting ready for "Mad Max" road scenarios.
Quote: "You can quote all the statistics you want, but if you're not wearing a reflectorized helmet with an emergency locator beacon, you're nothing more than an organ donor in training."

Anti-Helmet Guy:

Anti-Helmet Guy does not like to wear a bicycle helmet when riding. He really,really does not like to wear a helmet. However, instead of simply saying "I don't think my activity is risky enough to warrant protective headgear," Anti-Helmet Guy will, at the drop of a (non-protective) hat  reel off a list of statistics, factoids and anecdotal stories that will tell you under certain circumstances, when the moon is right and the wind from the Southwest if you land just so and are moving at a particular velocity in relation to a particular type of blacktop at a certain temperature a helmet just might result in slightly worse fatal injuries than the fatal injuries you would have incurred while not wearing a helmet in the same circumstances, therefore no one should ever wear a bicycle helmet. 
Quote: "Antarctica has no mandatory helmet laws, yet in 2009 there were no fatal cycling-related head injuries reported on the entire continent, see how forcing people to wear helmets puts them at risk?"

The Gaspipe Ironman:

The Gaspipe Ironman is the polar opposite of the Weight Weenie. He not only isn't worried about how heavy his bike is, he's proud of it. His greatest cycling-related joy is to describe how many lycra-clad road racers he's passed on tough climbs while riding a $79 girls' cruiser with a rusty chain he bought from the local department store 3 years ago. If the Gaspipe Ironman is to be believed, on a bike that actually fit him and had working gears, he'd have won last year's Tour de France by four hours. Fortunately for the cycling world, he has a 75 lbs Roadmaster to hold him off from a Championship Jersey monopoly.
Quote: "The local professional road racing team has learned to fear the squeaking of my unlubricated chain."

The Poller:

This cyclist won't buy so much as an inner tube without logging on to a cycling forum to ask if a particular brand is any good. Every day he'll post a question on some trivial bike-related matter, often prefaced by "the guy at my local shop told me I should do this, but..." The input of a dozen anonymous voices on the Internet are of more value to the Poller than any individual he could actually meet face-to-face. If the Poller's query is not answered on a cycling forum within 15 minutes, he will quickly reply to his own discussion thread with "hello?" or "does ANYBODY know anything about this?" The Poller is often most easily satisfied by running a Google search of his question and copy/pasting the results.
Quote: "bump!"

Retro-Smug Utili-Grouch:
The RSUG has been there, done that and bought the moisture-wicking, hidden-pocket 3/4-zip t-shirt. He's probably in the bike industry, or has worked in a shop in the past, raced a little and now, as he says, “just rides his bike.” His personal bicycle (or bicycles, he never only owns one) is often built of a mix of ancient parts salvaged from old ten-speeds and high tech modern components. He will make a point of nonchalantly stating that he just rides “for the sake of riding, and to get around” and “doesn't worry about things like weight,” yet when he thinks nobody is looking he'll compare eight different front baskets to find the lightest, most aerodynamic one to put on his commuter bike. He usually has a closet full of expensive cycling clothing, yet is most often seen riding around in cargo shorts and flip-flops.
Quote: “Proper nutrition is important after a long ride, which is why I've brought pizza AND beer.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Don't Ask Me, I'm Just Improvising

First off, let me apologize for disappearing for a while. Not only was it President's Day weekend, with all that extra kid-off-school time, but I was also working as Entertainment Director for this weird Scifi/Steampunk//Rennie/Goth/Alternative festival we do here in NJ, which meant lots of running around and being away from home for several days on end.

This year's festival was unusual in that we were holding it at two hotels which were about a half-mile apart. Because parking is always a challenge, and the shuttle bus service was packed, I brought my folding bicycle with me to run between the two buildings. While the wait between shuttle buses was anywhere from 15-30 minutes, I clocked the bike ride at about three minutes. It was pretty efficient, and ferrying various cables, microphones and last-minute info between the two buildings by bike was probably about as close as I'm ever going to get to being a bicycle messenger (I even had a walkie-talkie clipped to the strap of my messenger bag!).

I did run into some trouble on Friday night, though, when it started to rain. I have mentioned before just how useful fenders can be in those situations, but my folding bike has none. So of course, riding about in the rain resulted in an unflattering muddy streak on the seat of my trousers as well as an uncomfortable dampness in my nether regions.

The next morning, determined not to fall into the same soggy trap, I did what any Broke Bicyclist would do in that situation, I grabbed the duct tape and improvised. I happened to have a sheet of cardboard which was reinforced with some Styrofoam padding, and a roll of bright orange duct tape that I'd been using to mark cables and gear so nobody tripped over it. I cut the cardboard into a paddle shape, wrapped it in tape to make it waterproof, and taped the whole thing to my seatpost.

The rest of the weekend, in spite of damp streets, a bit more rain and snow flurries, my derriere was safe from sogginess. It had the added benefit of making me ever more visible to passing cars (many of which were driven by hungover convention-goers running on way too little sleep).

One of the beautiful things about a bicycle is that you can actually get away with stuff like this. I've made fenders with duct tape, fixed touring racks with zip ties, booted gashes in tires with candy bar wrappers and bent parts back into shape on the side of the road with my bare hands. Bicycles are simple enough that you can often come up for quick fixes for small problems, and even some major ones, with nothing more than simple tools, found objects, and a few seasons of MacGuyver reruns. As someone who thinks the hood of an automobile conceals a box full of black magic and alien technology, I'm often amazed at how easy hacking stuff together on a bicycle can be.

For many commuters and recreational riders, the biggest hurdle is getting used to the idea that it's OK to change things around. Not everybody is born to tinker, and some folks think that if it's not factory standard, it necessarily has to be inferior (to be fair, a nice set of plastic fenders would have done the job better than my cardboard creation, but my butt was dry, so it was good enough), but the best tool is the one that does the job you need it to do, and if that means modifying things with some zip ties and creativity, go for it.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Case for Baskets

When you said you could "carry a tune," I thought you meant...

There are many ways to carry a load of groceries home on a bicycle. If you have a capacious messenger bag, you can sling them across your back. If you have lots of pockets, you can distribute them about your person. If you like crashing you can hang them in bags from the ends of your handlebars so they swing wildly in the breeze. But for basic grocery-hauling convenience, it's hard to beat the humble basket. 

There are many variations on bicycle baskets, from the plastic milk crate zip-tied to a rack all the way up to high-end contrivances with built-in lock holsters, but one of the most common and most useful is the inexpensive wire basket. A handlebar-mounted basket makes it easy to toss in a few things, whether a book or a bag of groceries, and go without thinking too much about it. 

On most bikes, handlebar-mounted baskets like this one are a great for loads up to about 10 pounds. Beyond that, on many bikes, they will start to affect the handling (although how much they affect you depends on a lot of factors, many riders are comfortable carrying quite a bit more weight, and some bikes are specifically designed to haul a heavy front load). If you carry multiple bags of groceries at a time, or larger objects, adding rear mounted baskets might make hauling more weight easier, as weight over the rear wheel affects steering less dramatically than weight on the handlebar. 
With larger rear baskets, be sure you have enough room so that your heel doesn't bang into the basket when you pedal.

I'm particularly a fan of inexpensive wire baskets like those made by Wald. Not only are they inexpensive, but they're often sturdier and more reliable than flashier options. I've especially found wicker baskets to be more fashion than function, as they don't mount as securely and don't tend to have much capacity in proportion to what they weigh. 

Baskets do have their disadvantages. They don't offer any protection from weather, and, of course, smaller objects can easily fall out unless they're in some sort of bag. Overall though, for carrying small loads by bicycle, a basket is a cheap and effective option that has served the commuting cyclist for decades. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Fenders: Farewell Rooster Tail

If you ride in the rain, or after the rain, or when there's melting snow, or basically any time the road surface may be even slightly wet, you may have noticed that your bicycle's tires pick up water from the road and throw it up in the air behind you in a phenomenon known as "rooster tail." Not only does this spray of water cause a major inconvenience for anyone who might want to ride behind you, but it often sprays up the back of your shirt and pants. At best, this means you've got a wet back and rear end, at worst, the grit, oil residue and other crud that comes with the water picked up off the road will leave a stripe of disgusting muck up the back of your clothes.

Fenders are an easy way to avoid this. To a lot of regular bike commuters a decent set of fenders is what separates a practical transportation bike from a recreational machine.
Practical year-round!
Crud-protection can take a lot of forms. One of the most basic, multipurpose ways to protect yourself from a wet posterior is to install a rack on the back of your bike. Many commuter racks have a piece of solid metal running their length offering protection from road spray in addition to carrying capacity. If your rack doesn't have spray protection, a piece of milk-jug plastic and some zip ties can be used to improvise something, or even a plastic bag stretched over the rack in a pinch (make sure it doesn't hang down and catch in the wheel though!).

A slightly better option is a set of clip-on fenders. Clip-ons usually attach with straps or bungee cords of some sort to the seatpost or frame tubes. Some of them require a bracket to be attached to the bike permanently, to which allows quick installation or removal depending on whether you need fenders for that particular ride or not.
A clip-on fender on the rear of my Fixed-Gear bike protects my saddlebag, saddle, and myself from  road spray.
Users of clip-on fenders sometimes only use the rear fender to protect their pants and back from spray (and also leather or leather covered saddles, which should be protected especially in the winter from water mixed with road salt), as clip-on front fenders are of very variable quality and don't always do much to stop front-wheel spray (however, newer designs like those from Crud and SKS offer almost full coverage in a clip-on design). Another disadvantage of clip-ons is that they're pretty easy to steal, especially the very common type that attach to the seatpost of a bike with a quick-release strap, so they can be less than ideal for leaving on a bike locked outside.

Full-coverage fenders tend to cost a bit more, and take a bit of work to get in place, but once installed stay put and give better protection than most clip-on designs. Front fenders, especially, can be equipped with a mud-flap of rubber, leather or fabric that hangs nearly to the pavement, catching most of the front-wheel spray that would otherwise soak your shoes.
My commuter bike's front fender, with a short mud flap that offers some protection, but doesn't really help my shoes much.
A fender with a full-length mud flap, which should keep the slush out of your sneakers nicely.
You can find full fender sets in anything from black plastic, such as I have on my commuter, to steel, fancy aluminum, carbon fiber or even bamboo, and in varioius widths to suit the tire size of your bike. I've tried a few different types over the years, and prefer either SKS Chromoplastics or Planet Bike Freddy Fenders. These seem to do the job and not cost a fortune (unlike the bamboo ones, which I have yet to see sell for under $100).

There are a couple of potential drawbacks to full-coverage fenders. If you have to transport your bike in a car, and take the wheels off to make it fit, the fenders continue to take up room even with the wheels removed. Also, if you have a singlespeed or internally-geared bike, the rear fender might make changing a rear flat a bit trickier. Fenders that fit too close to the tire can get clogged up with mud or snow in the wrong conditions, and any fender can get a rock or stick jammed in it, but it's a rare occurrence. One common complaint with smaller bike in particular is that the front fender can extend far enough back that when the wheel is turned too far your toes might bang up against it while pedaling. Normally, you wouldn't be turning the wheel that far while riding and many cyclists ride with toe-overlap without a problem, but some find it extremely disconcerting.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Roadside Repairs: Suddenly Singlespeed

Sometimes, especially on an old clunker, you might find yourself with a serious shifting problem. This can be because of damage from a crash, something that happened while your bike was parked or just failure of an old component. But for whatever reason your ability to change gears is compromised.

In these cases, the repair may be beyond what you can accomplish at the side of the road, so your best "get home" solution is to lock your bike into a usable gear, usually one in the middle of it's shifting range.

The key to this is knowing how limit screws work.
Rear derailleur with clearly labeled high and low limit screws
The limit screws control how far a derailleur can move at either end of its swing. If a limit screw is too far out, the derailleur can overshift and drop the chain off the cogs, if the screw is too tight, the chain will not be able to move from one cog to the next.

Normally, this is a bad thing, but if you're looking for a quick fix to get you home, tightening the limit screws so the chain is stuck on a particular cog is just the thing you need to do.

First, you have to make sure the shifter cable is not an issue. If the problem is a damaged or broken cable to begin with, you probably don't have to worry much, but if the problem stems from the shifter, you'll probably have to cut or disconnect the cable using your multitool.

Once you've done that, you can simply tighten down the limit screws, while turning the cranks so the chain moves, until the chain moves onto a cog near the middle of the gear range
This may be easiest to accomplish if you turn the bike upside down and balance it on the seat and handlebars.
If you're doing this with your rear derailleur, you probably only have to turn the High limit screw, as the spring tension of the derailleur will automatically force it towards the high (outer end, smaller cogs) end of the gear cluster. A few turns of the screw will bring the chain towards the middle of the gear range, rather than forcing you to ride in your high gear the whole way home.

If you're working on the front derailleur, and you have a triple crankset, the derailleur spring tension is set to move the chain towards the lowest cog, so you'd simply tighten the Low limit screw until you got the chain to sit in the middle chainring (if it's a double crankset, the lower gear is probably adequate to ride home anyway, but triple cranksets have a super-low "granny gear" range which can make moving at any speed difficult).

Of course, you'll have to re-set the limit screws when you're fixing the actual problem, but being able to perform this simple hack can save you a long walk home!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Opinionated Blogger Friday: Protecting Yourself

I never really thought much about self-defense on a bicycle until the first time I got attacked by a dog.

I was tooling along happily on a quiet back road when all of the sudden a growling ball of teeth and anger was snapping at my front wheel. I hopped off and put the bike between me and the canine, using the frame to shove him away every time he made a lunge at my legs. While the dog in question wasn't particularly huge, he certainly looked willing and able to take a chunk out of my lycra-clad posterior. It was mildly frightening and really, really, REALLY annoying. Eventually, the dog's owner heard the commotion (by this point cars traveling in both directions were blocked by the spectacle, and horns were a-blaring) and came to my rescue. "He won't hurt you," she assured me in spite of all evidence to the contrary, "he's just curious." Eventually she managed to corral the critter and I was able to carry on my way, by that point my my mood was ruined and I took the short route home.

I heard later that the very same dog had indeed taken chunks out of cyclists before, and in one case managed to leave some permanent scarring. This being a fairly rural area not a lot was done about it and I learned to avoid that particular stretch of road whenever possible. I did take to carrying a small can of pepper spray on rides through farm country and ended up using it on another dog on one occasion.

In my many years of riding, mostly alone and through all sorts of places, I've had very few occasions to be afraid, but it has happened, either from barely-domesticated animals, irate drivers or a carload of drunk idiots looking to bully someone. And I'm a 6'3" Wookie-looking dude, not a prime target for any sort of harassment.

Let me say, for the record, bicycling is a pretty safe way to get around. Most of the bad things I dealt with happened out in the middle of nowhere, when I was riding by myself through isolated areas, and they mostly happened more than ten years ago, when cycling was even more marginal a means of transportation than it is now. On balance, the health benefits of riding far outweigh any risks of misadventure.

But, the fact remains that when it's just you on a bicycle, you ARE more vulnerable than you are when encased in a two-ton steel box. So what can you do to make yourself safer, or at least feel safer?

Well, when Thomas Stevens made the first-ever around-the-world bicycle trip, he brought a revolver with him, and had occasion to brandish it to ward off would-be attackers. But he made that trip in the 1880s, in the time of the actual Wild West, and he never actually used it while he was in America, except to try unsuccessfully to bag the occasional rabbit for dinner.

There are certainly those who advocate carrying a firearm while riding, either openly or concealed on your person, but I'm not one of them. I don't have any particularly strong feelings on guns personally, but I feel like being responsible for a firearm would add an entirely unwelcome level of complexity to what should be a simple bike ride (for one, I live in a state with very restrictive firearms laws, it's not worth the hassle). Maybe if I tended to ride in different circumstances, I might change my mind, but it's never come up, really. Generally, I've noticed the types of folks who bring a handgun along on bike rides are the types who bring guns with them everywhere else, and are just comfortable carrying guns. If that's you, go right ahead, as long as it's within the limit of local laws.

For what it's worth, while you hear news stories every now and then of drivers with handguns flipping out and and shooting at each other in fits of road rage, I can't think of ever hearing of a cyclist with a gun doing the same, so there's that.

For the rest of us, though, there are other ways to be protect ourselves. The first weapons in any cyclists arsenal are speed and maneuverability. On a bike you can go way faster than a person on foot, and you can go places that cars can't follow. Also, riding with a buddy on long treks through the middle of nowhere and carrying a mobile phone, both of which tactics are also helpful in the cases of crashes, breakdowns and sudden severe weather, where a handgun will be of no use whatsoever.
Of course, your iPhone may not be helpful in all riding conditions
I admit, after my run-in with that dog, I made a point of bringing a small can of pepper spray along on long solo rides, just in case. I stopped doing so when I moved out of that area, and haven't bothered with carrying anything other than a fairly substantial bike lock (yes, you can whack someone with a U-lock if you have to, no, I've never tried it). If you do feel the need to carry something extra for protection, pepper spray has the advantages of being lightweight, cheap and free from the licensing and carry restrictions that come with a handgun, so it's not a bad choice.

My feeling, overall, is that careless drivers, road hazards and slippery curves are the real dangers to bicyclists, and common sense and a well-planned route are the best self-defense you can get.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Bikes and Trains: Going the Last Mile

Folded and ready for boarding

Trains are great. Although they're huge and require a large amount of energy to get going, the ability to carry large amounts of stuff at a time means they can be significantly more energy-efficient than hauling the same amount of people or cargo by car or truck. Railways are also much cheaper and less disruptive to build than roads, requiring a much narrower corridor and simpler maintenance. As a passenger, you don't have to focus on driving and can instead use your commute to work on a laptop, read the paper or play Angry Birds, making that time a useful part of your day, rather than time wasted staring at the barely-moving bumper of the car in front of you.

Yes, trains are a great way to get around, except for one thing, what is known as the "Last Mile Problem." 

One of the biggest obstacles to getting people to use the train rather than drive is the fact that it's not always easy to get from home to the train station, and then from the train station to your eventual destination. The train can get you close to where you need to be, but unless you happen to work across the street from the railway, you're pretty much on your own. 

There have been any number of proposals for dealing with this problem, from improved taxi service to electric skateboards, but one of the simplest and most efficient means of station-to-destination transport always has been, and probably always will be, the bicycle (at least until private jetpacks are practical). 

There are three major ways to use a bicycle to get from your train to wherever you plan to work or play: 
  • Bike Share Programs: While these are relatively  new and only available in a few select urban areas, such as Washington DC, bike shares work great for railway commuters. You simply hop off your train, check out a bike, ride it to the check-in point nearest your destination, and go about your day. Obviously, to be practical, this means there has to be both a place to rent a bike at the station and one to return it near where you're headed, but with bike shares becoming increasingly popular, this may be a big part of mass transit's future. 
  • Bring your own bike on the train: Ride to the station, board the train with your bike, ride home. This is simple in theory but in a lot of cases may be quite complicated. Many rail lines have restrictions on bicycles during peak transit hours (aka "when you have to go to work"), which make figuring out your schedule something of a challenge. The easiest way to get around this is to use a folding bike, which are almost universally allowed on public transport. 
  • Leave a bike at the station: If you ride the same train every day, and only need an extra set of wheels at one end of the trip, simply parking a bike at the station might be the way to go. A nicer bike should be kept in a bike locker, but if that's not an option, it's best to get yourself a beater bike, as train stations tend to be hotspots for bike theft. 
Bicycles and trains complement each other extremely well, and many areas are starting to realize that, adding special cars and fittings to encourage cycling, however, there's still a long way to go in a lot of areas before we can all simply roll on and off the train without any hassle, so take some time and plan ahead. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Employer Objections?

Note: I'm still recovering from the flu, so apologize for being briefer and more incoherent than usual.

I was reading a post over on Lovely Bicycle the other day about the "Bicycle Friendly Workplace," which I thought was really interesting. Normally, when folks want a more "bicycle-friendly" employer they're talking about having showers at work, or secure parking. But it also got me thinking that on very rare occasions when employers actively oppose biking to work.

Most folks opinions of bicycle commuters is pretty neutral, they don't care about how you get to work, and most employers don't really care about your biking as long as you're there on time. Every now and then, though, you run into a boss who will object to your chosen mode of transportation. Usually these objections fall into a few recurring categories:

  • It doesn't mesh with the company image: Riding a bike is viewed as somehow undesirable and the boss worries clients won't take you seriously if you're seen commuting to work under your own power. This is pretty rare, but it does come up. Another variant has to do with the politicization of bicycle commuting in some circles, where it's viewed as a "tree-hugging liberal" activity that doesn't go with the company culture. For either of these to be overt is very rare, but in a more subtle form, supervisors or co-workers may view you as somehow odd or different, which affects interactions within work. It's dumb, and fortunately rare, but it happens. 
  • Safety/Liability objections: Some people get it in their head that riding a bicycle on the road is a highly dangerous activity, and will say they worry about you getting killed or injured on your way to work. While the numbers might show that you're far more likely to get hurt in a traffic accident while driving to work, the perception is still there that if you're not surrounded by a ton of metal you're taking wild risks. While a supervisor may give voice to this kind of objection in a workplace environment, but not be able to do anything about it, this kind of thinking has led to a number of school districts banning kids from riding bicycles to school. 
  • You'll be late/call out more: When you fill out a job application, there is often a question along the lines of "do you have reliable transportation?" While I'm often tempted to say "my legs work fine" or something similar, most employers actually mean "do you have a car?" Telling employers you plan to ride a bicycle will often solicit questions like "what will you do when it rains?" since some folks who don't ride regularly can't imagine that riding a bike in anything but ideal weather is near impossible. Oddly enough, some bosses expect you to have more trouble getting in on time if you bike, even though bikes are far less susceptible to the vagaries of traffic than automobiles. 
  • You'll be sweaty/disheveled/smelly: this speaks for itself. If it's hot out, you're going to get sweaty. Which means you'll probably want to use deodorant, and maybe change your shirt in the bathroom before punching in. For some reason the idea that you can get to work five minutes early and clean up in the bathroom never occurs to some bosses. 
  • Your bike will be parked in the way/will get stolen and you'll hold the company responsible: Great employers will let you bring your bike inside the building and put it somewhere safe, but most of them won't. Some employers will even complain about you locking up your bike on company property, because it's in the way, or might attract bike thieves, or simply doesn't look classy enough for the office (which is funny, considering my bike is WAY shinier and classier looking that my beat-up pickup truck). 
Ideally, you'll never run into any of these at your job, as they're increasingly rare, but it's always something to watch out for. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Sick Days

While people who bike regularly tend to have overall better health (and, as you can point out to your boss, take fewer sick days on average than more sedentary employees), sometimes you just get sick.
Days like that, you just have to ride a bit slower, or maybe just stay home, there's rarely anything to gain by pushing through it. If you have to go anywhere, dress warmer than the weather would normally warrant and drink lots of water.
One noteworthy "illness" which seems to clear up more quickly with gentle exercise is a mild to moderate hangover. Again, drink lots of fluids and go slow, but if you can get moving, working up a bit of a sweat clears out the remains of your overindulgence pretty handily sometimes. Also, say you drove to the bar on Saturday night, but had to take a cab home, riding your bicycle back to where you left your car will (um... so I've heard).
Of course, if you're a bike blogger and you're feeling under the weather, it's also a good excuse to deliver a shorter-than-usual post.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Buyer Beware! Things to Watch Out For When Shopping For Used Bikes

If you're looking for a bike on a budget, it's hard to go wrong with a good-quality used bike. A bike that's a bit old and out-of-date to the eye of the weekend racer or gear junkie might be the perfect choice for a commuter, and with a little searching, you my be able to find your next ride for next to nothing.

While the internet can be helpful in finding a good used bike, it's still best if you can take a look at it in person to make sure it lives up to your expectations.

Low mileage! Runs great!
With that in mind, here's what you should be looking for when checking out a potential bike purchase, what's not a big deal and what is a total dealbreaker.

Wheels and Tires

  • The tires are flat/soft: This is probably no big deal. Because rubber does bleed air over time, the bike may have just been sitting too long and the tires simply need to be pumped up. Even if you need to replace the inner tubes, they usually only cost about $5 each. 
  • Dry rot: If the surface of the tire is cracked or rotted looking, you'll probably have to replace the tire itself. If the rubber is coming off in chunks or the inner tube is starting to bulge through the tire, you definitely have to replace the tire to be safe. This is not difficult, but expect to pay at least $15-25 a tire. 
  • Bent rims: if the rim of the wheel is a few millimeters out of shape from left to right, it may be possible to "true" the wheel by adjusting spoke tension. However, if the wheel is noticeably bent (so much so that the tire hits the frame of the bike), has a large dent in it, is cracked in any way or is otherwise seriously damaged, you'll likely have to replace it, which could cost anywhere from about $40 up to over $100 each wheel. Road bike wheels and mountain bike wheels made for disc brakes are the most expensive. Also, wheels made from carbon fiber are less than ideal for commuting, and if they have any sign of damage at all are best not trusted. 
  • Loose hubs: if there is a small bit of wobble at the axle, you can usually eliminate it with some minor adjustments (which may, however, require some special wrenches to fit into the tight space between axle nuts), the same goes for wheels that are a bit too tight and don't spin freely. If the wheel is spinning unevenly and making clicking or popping noises, it's probably suffering from bad bearings. At best, this means replacing the axle bearings, which requires less than $10 in parts and some know-how. At worst, the hub of the wheel itself may be damaged, which will require replacing the whole thing. If the wheel flops around really loosely, or appears to be missing parts, assume it's damaged beyond hope. 
  • Broken spokes: if a single spoke is broken, it can usually be fixed by a bike shop or a home mechanic with some know-how. If two spokes or broken the wheel should be checked over carefully. If three or more spokes are broken, assume the wheel is shot. 
A severely dry-rotted tire with the tread falling off. Note also the cracked sidewall and exposed threads. 

This carbon-fiber wheels has a crack running from the bottom of the S all the way around. It's easy to miss upon a casual inspection, but could potentially lead to wheel failure and a serious crash. 


  • Brake pads are worn: Brake pads are easy to replace, and can usually be found for less than $10 a pair. Make sure to get the type of pad designed for the brakes on the bike (bring an old one into the shop with you to compare if you're not sure). 
  • Brake pads are hard: sometimes the brakes on bikes that sit for a long time oxidize and harden. This can lead to noise and poor braking, as the hardened pads won't grip as well as good pads. Often you can use a nail file or sandpaper to scrape away the hardened surface of the pads and restore their grip, otherwise, just replace them before riding.
  • Brakes squeal: This can be due to hardened pads, a dirty rim or from poor adjustment. As long as the brakes actually stop the bike noise can be adjusted out or ignored
  • Brakes are out of adjustment: Brake adjustments can usually be performed with basic hand tools, and in most cases are very simple. If the bike has caliper brakes or linear pull brakes this may involve only one or two points of adjustment. If the bike features traditional cantilever brakes, this may be somewhat more complicated.
  • Broken brakes: Many low-to-mid-level mountain bikes from the 1990s had Shimano Altus cantilever brakes. These brakes had a gray plastic piece between the brake body and where it attached to the frame of the bike that housed the return springs. Over time these spring housings almost always split. Replacement parts aren't made anymore, and you'll have to get whole new brake sets. Figure on a cost of $12-20 a wheel for basic replacement. Also, if you decide to replace the original cantilevers with modern linear-pull brakes, you'll also need to replace the brake levers, they're not compatible. 
  • Broken/rusted cables: Brake cables are about $5 each. If a cable looks worn or frayed expect to replace it. If the cable is slightly rusted, it's probably OK, but if it's severely rusted or binds in the cable housing, you'll have to replace it and possibly the housing as well. Road Bike and Mountain Bike style brakes use different ends on their brake cables, so make sure you get the right kind.
It's a bit hard to see from this angle, but the plastic housing is cracked right under the brake arm. 

Shifters and Derailleurs 
  • Broken/rusted cables: cables easily replaceable in MOST cases. In older SRAM grip shifters it can be hard to get the old cable out without damaging the shifter, and you may want to trust it to a bike shop (which will cost more). Most bikes use the same types of shift cables, with the exception of some old ten-speeds and modern Campagnolo shifters. Look carefully at the end of the cable and make sure you get one that matches. 
  • Broken shifters: shift levers on modern bikes can be the most complicated part of the whole thing, and therefore the most failure prone. Check the shifter to make sure it clicks through each gear and back. If it slips, jams or misses gears, assume you're going to have to replace it. In the case of a road bike with combination shift/brake levers, this could easily set you back $200 and could be a deal breaker. If it's an old-school friction shifter (no clicks), then it's probably indestructible and you won't have much to worry about. 
  • Bad adjustment: shift adjustments can be very easy and may not even require tools for minor problems. If the shifting is slow or seems to get caught between gears, you may just have to turn the adjusting barrel located on either the shifter or derailleur itself to fine tune it. Major shifting adjustments require tightening or loosening cables at the anchor bolts. 
  • Stuck derailleur: sometimes a derailleur will become so corroded it jams in place. If this is the case, it's probably dead and should be replaced (anywhere from $20-50 for basic stuff, much more for higher-end parts). However, first make sure the problem is the derailleur itself, not a rusted cable, which is easy to replace, or overtightened limit screws. Limit screws are a pair of small screws on each derailleur that control far it is able to move. If a poorly-informed mechanic overtightens these screws, the derailleur won't be able to move at all (if they're too loose, the chain will fall off the cogs). 
  • Bent derailleur hanger: The rear derailleur attaches to the frame near the rear axle. Sometimes this attachment point is part of the derailleur itself, other times it's a part of the frame. If it's part of the frame and somehow damaged, it can sometimes be bent back into place. If it's too badly bent, but is designed to be replaceable, expect to spend about $25-30 on a replacement part. If it's badly bent and non-replaceable (welded on) you're out of luck. 
Chain, cranks and gears

  • Rusted chain: if it's a little cosmetic rust, but the chain moves freely, you can lube it up and ride on. If the chain is binding or has stuck links, you'll need to replace it ($20-40)
  • Worn chain: this can be hard to spot, but if the chain is worn out, it will cause poor shifting. If it stretches badly enough, it can also cause wear on the gear teeth, especially the rear cogs, which can result in slipping and thrown cogs. This is only a concern on high-mileage bikes, as most chains will last for thousands of miles before showing ANY wear. 
  • Stripped gears/broken teeth: replacing the rear gear cluster (the cassette or freewheel, depending on what type) requires special tools and will cost anywhere from $20 on up. Most better-quality cranksets have removable chainrings, so you can replace worn out rings without having to replace the whole crank assembly, but cheaper ones are riveted, so it's all or nothing. Note that most newer cranks and cog sets have some teeth smaller than others, or oddly shaped, to make shifting smoother, so be sure the "broken" teeth you see are really not meant to be that way. 
  • Loose cranks: This can be a major hassle, especially on some older bikes. Sometimes the crank bearing assembly (aka bottom bracket) is adjustable, but often if there's more than a slight wobble, you'll end up replacing bearings in very least. Some older Italian or British bicycles use oddball threading that can make it hard to find replacement parts at an affordable price. If the bottom bracket is fine, but the cranks themselves are loose, expect to have to replace them, which can be pricey. 
Frame and Fork 
  • Scratched paint: not a big deal. On steel bicycle frames, it's good to cover chips and scratches with paint or even clear nail polish to prevent rust
  • Rust: surface rust on steel or corrosion on aluminum is usually harmless, and can be cleared up with steel wool and touch-up paint. However,  rust can weaken and ruin a steel frame if it's more than "skin deep." 
  • Dents: small dings on a steel frame can usually be ignored. Sharp dents or creases on aluminum may eventually turn into cracks, although it may take a long time. Major dents in any frame are bad news, and any sort of ding or chip in carbon fiber can lead to a crack down the road. 
  • Bent frames or forks: If it's a steel frame, and it's not bent bad, you can sometimes have it re-aligned, but not always. If it's aluminum, no. If it's badly bent, it's probably not fixable. Bent forks are bad news. 
  • Cracks: Cracks anywhere are a dealbreaker. 
  • Wrong size: if the frame is a bit smaller than is ideal you can get a longer seatpost and stem and make it work OK. It'll never be perfect, but it'll be OK. If it's way too small, forget it. If it's too big, there's nothing to be done, no matter how good of a deal it seems to be.