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, 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.