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.

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.

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