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.

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.

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