Practical Advice for Transportation Cycling

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

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Toe Clip Straps

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Project: Sub $100 Pack Mule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Get some edjumacation

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

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

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

Freewheel Bikes Classes 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Blind Spot Awareness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be safe out there!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

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

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

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

So, on to the tool itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ringtool by Reductivist

Friday, September 5, 2014

Review Deferred: Reductivist Ringtool

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

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

One Bike to Rule Them All

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

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

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

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

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

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