Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What's in your bag? An emergency toolkit for those longer rides

Early this month we got some fresh snow and judging by the weather it was hard to tell if spring was about to arrive. Fortunately, in the last week or so the situation got much better - it got warmer, flowers started popping out, new leaves showed up on trees and pollen got to be really annoying again.
Sherman's Bridge over Sudbury River in Sudbury, MA.

All this means that I started riding my other bike farther and longer again. And every time I pack on such a ride I don't really take much with me except a water bottle, a camera and a toolkit, which, fortunately pretty much never gets used, but always seems like an indispensable item. Let's take a closer look at it.

First of all, you see, if you are doing just a grocery ride to a store 2 miles away, any emergency toolkit makes likely little sense. In a worst case scenario when your bike breaks down, you can simply walk back home.

But if you are 30, 40 or 50 miles away from your house, it's a very good idea to have some kind of a plan B ready for those unforeseen situations. This could include:
  1. Not taking anything except a charged cellphone. If your bike breaks down, you will simply call your spouse or a friend for help. This may work if (1) your friend is available, (2) your cellphone gets a good signal reception, which isn't that obvious in more remote areas in the country and (3) you don't mind waiting for a while.
  2. Same as above but calling for a cab instead. Again, this may work and you may even wait less but it could be an expensive proposition, depending on how far from your house you are. Alternatively, you could ask to be dropped of at a nearest bike store that would fix your bike, if you are aware of such places nearby.
  3. The last option is to simply solve the problem yourself, which means that you would need to carry a simple emergency toolkit.
I don't know about you, but I prefer the last option and after some thinking and tinkering I came up with the following setup:
My emergency toolkit for all long rides.

Mini pump - Lezyne Road Drive (91g). I picked this mini pump a few years ago and since then it became my favorite pump for any longer bike rides. It's made nearly entirely out of aluminum and its build quality is simply fantastic. I have no problem inflating 28-35mm tires to 50+ psi, even though it may take a while. What I also like about Road Drive is the built-in rubber hose, which means much more freedom and better handling when inflating tires. You simply don't need to hold the pump tight against the valve.

Spare tube - Q Superlight 28-32mm (107g). I currently use Q tubes and have no issues with them. You may need a different size, depending on what tires you have on your bike. Even though it adds some bulk, I keep mine in the original box to protect it from any damage in the bag.

Two tire levers - Park Tool (2x13g). For some tires I would need just one, for others I don't actually need any levers at all. I still keep two around and Park Tool levers proved to be pretty much indestructible so far.

Tire boot - Park Tool (8g). After some really bad experience with Schwalbe tires a few years ago, I always keep a tire boot for those bad luck situations when a sidewall gets destroyed by sharp rocks or nails.

Patch kit - Park Tool (17g). With a spare tube, I should technically not need a separate patch kit. But you never know when that day comes when you get two punctures in the same tube in a short time...

Chain tool - Pedros RxM (58g), also comes with a spoke key. I removed this chain tool from Pedros RxM multitool. It's lightweight, small and usable when combined with a separate 5mm hex wrench.

Allen keys - stainless steel 5mm and 4mm, modified with a flat screwdriver (22g). Thanks to the unification of all screws on modern bicycles we don't need large tool sets anymore. I realized that probably 90% of all adjustments and repairs can be done with three simple tools: 5 and 4mm hex keys and a flat screwdriver (for adjusting derailleurs and brakes). These let me pretty much disassemble the entire bike into tiny bits with some exceptions such as removing pedals or the bottom bracket. Should any more serious conditions develop, it's better to take more extreme measures anyway, such as taking your bike to a local shop, rather than trying to fix it yourself, road-side.
To limit the number of tools further, I decided to modify a standard 4mm hex key and put a flat screwdriver on its long end, using a belt sander and some small files. The result is a wrench set that weighs just 22g and works surprisingly well for all small repairs and maintenance in emergency situations.

Latex gloves (20g). It's a good idea to pack two latex gloves unless you don't mind finishing your ride with greasy fingers.

Zip ties (2g). Those could be always useful and weigh almost nothing.

As you can see, my toolkit is relatively minimalistic (377g including a zip lock bag) and I don't use any multitools. The set of tools of my choice (chain tool, hex keys, spoke key and a screwdriver) weighs 90g. Not only this is less than any multitool that I know of but also separate tools are easier to use.

You could certainly go lighter if you switch to CO2 cartridges, use a smaller patch kit, only one tire lever and skip all those boxes and bags. However, I feel that overall those savings are not that significant (maybe about 70g). For now, I'm happy with just a manual pump and I don't have to worry about running out of compressed CO2.

That's what I use. What's in your bag?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The indifference of innovation

I have been taking part recently in an interesting discussion about bicycles offered in the general, popular market. It all started when I learned about a new bicycle manufacturer, trying to get a slice of the crowded space in the business of low-cost, budget bicycles (sub-$700).

While I realize that in such price range, there is not much room for any R&D and it may be difficult to be creative given limited resources, my biggest complain was that all of those bicycles looked pretty much exactly the same as many others, offered in this category. In other words, except of colors, minor differences in components and price, everything else was essentially the same. This makes me think that the company's strategy was to compete mainly on price, as they made no effort to offer anything original or at least, design-wise, a bit different than their competition.

The answer I heard to such argument was that this should come as no surprise, as all popular bicycles sold by leading manufacturers are nearly the same because "that's what people want". Really? Or is it exactly the opposite?

Leading bicycle brands offers are nearly the same because they simply copy each other, not trying to "reinvent the wheel" as this is too resource-intensive. They would rather follow the safe route and react to market demands, rather than trying to create that demand in the first place. This way if Trek makes a new road bike with fatter tires and disc brakes, Specialized will soon have one too, but only after both companies realize that there is enough money in this new niche. This makes me think - who is pushing all the innovation now - leading top-sellers or someone else?
Specialized Fatboy (top) or Trek Farley (bottom)? No matter, they are practically identical.

Some examples immediately come to mind and while they are not in the budget price range, they seem to tell us the story:
  • When Surly built their first fatbike, it looked like an odd, grotesque hobby project. Years later, not only all other smaller manufacturers offer fatbikes but pretty much every single market leader has one, Trek and Specialized included.
  • When Salsa built Bucksaw - their first full-suspension fatbike, it was completely new. Now such things are available from multiple other leading brands. This includes a growing popularity of other plus-sized bicycles (with 26"+, 27.5"+ and 29"+ wheels). These became popular before the largest manufacturers noticed this new business opportunity.
  • When gravel bikes (or now called adventure bikes) first showed up, only a handful of smaller brands offered them. Years later, it turned out that the largest companies love this new trend too, but only after such demand has been already created for them.
  • When wider road tires (for 700C and 650B wheels) gained popularity on the West Coast, thanks to small brands such as Compass Cycles, the main industry initially ignored this new trend. However, last year we have seen a 650Bx47mm tire from WTB - a leading bicycle tire manufacturer. Something tells me this is just the beginning...
Somehow all this makes me think that despite having plenty of resources and money, largest brands often prefer to take a safer R&D route and are afraid to try something new, sometimes seemingly completely insane (think - the first fatbike from Surly). It's the smaller market players who, despite limited resources, try to stand out in this crowd and are less afraid to push through some unconventional ideas. This may not be a general rule, but it certainly seems to be often the case.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Support you local bike store as long as they support you - and not a minute longer

I touched this topic three years ago. You probably have heard it a few times already that you should support your local bike store by buying things locally, even if they have higher prices. Their survival depends on you - the customer, and they are vital to the local economy.

It all sounds great and true until you quickly realize the sad fact that local stores don't often carry things you want to buy. Or actually, they rarely sell stuff you we are looking for, which was the main issue I pointed out in my original post. Surely, you can order things through you local store but... that's not much different than buying them online.

There is, however, that one situation where you should be really happy that you have a nice bike store nearby. It's when your bikes breaks down and you find out you need to replace some parts, you don't have time to wait for the package to arrive. Instead, you would rather take a short walk to a local bike store and buy what you need.

I have a bike store not too far from my house too. I usually don't shop there. After the last weekend, I'm pretty much convinced I will never ever shop there anymore.

I think I have enough of the unfriendly staff and their attitude, always trying to sell me the most expensive components they have, just because they know my bike badly needs a replacement. Once I was looking for a new 10-speed chain for my bike, they "only" had Dura-Ace for $50. The other time it was a piece of housing and a shift cable for my rusty commuter. They wanted $35 for it (when a basic one should cost no more than a third of that). Apparently, they install the best of the best housing even in the oldest and ugliest of bicycles people bring into their shop.

Whatever it is, I made my decision. I'm not supporting my local bike store because they fail to support me. I would rather drive a few miles to a well-known bike store in Belmont to get my emergency parts. At least I'm better served over there. And if I ever decide to buy something locally, please remind me not to with a friendly slap in the face.
Well, no matter. Spring is finally here... (Source: yehudamoon.com)

Friday, April 8, 2016

It's snow everywhere so it must be April

What's going on with this weather?! I have just returned back from Europe, visiting my family and my hometown. It was 65F (18C) back there, but when I landed at Logan, I was welcomed by snow. The next day (Wednesday) it was only 20F (-6C) in the morning and I had to dug up those thicker winter gloves I already put away for the next winter season.

The following day (Thursday) it was supposed to rain a lot and since I had to run some errands during the day that required motorized transport, I decided to drive to work. Or maybe it was because on the day before I ripped the chain on my bike just around the corner from my house. It has never happened to me before. No big loss, to be honest. I have a spare and that chain was scheduled for a replacement anyway.
Never broke a chain is such way. Either I have some superpower in my legs or those cheapest chains are not worth it.

Driving might have been a pretty good idea that day as in the afternoon roads turned into mountain rivers from all that sudden rain. I don't know about you but somehow I don't enjoy cycling in such conditions. No matter what you do, you get wet. Either from falling rain, splashed water or your own sweat under the waterproof clothing.

Speaking of rain gear, I'm thinking about buying new rain pants. The ones I have are pretty worn already and started to leak. It's likely going to be either Endura Tech-Pant overtrousers or Showers Pass Transit. Anyone has any experience with these, please let me know.

So here are my plans for this weekend: finishing unpacking, doing laundry, cleaning the bike after winter and replacing the chain. Fortunately, it's supposed to be sunny.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Local news: "We will never give away our parking spaces!"

The time for a change is now.

Long time ago, I wrote a little bit about major changes coming to my town - the plan to rebuild our main intersection and make it more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly. Obviously, as it nearly always happens in such situations, the project faced some strong opposition of "concerned citizens" or those who are so terrified by the loss of a few parking spaces and installation of a bike lane, that they would rather enjoy speeding cars, increased traffic and smell of exhaust fumes.

The construction is supposed to start in April. Right now, the Arlington Center intersection is still a mess. Back in the days this place was designed, the planners clearly had a goal to make it more pleasant for drivers. Pedestrians' experience was an afterthought and bicyclists... well, let's just say they didn't exist.

But it's not 1970's anymore. With more people on bikes traveling through this area and more people on foot, changes were definitely necessary. One of the major problems came with the opening of the now-popular Minuteman Bikeway. This shared path is abruptly cut off on one side of the intersection and then continues several hundred feet later on the other side. This disconnect is troublesome for all cyclists using the Bikeway on their daily commute, towards the Alewife Station.

The plan is now in place. You can download the whole thing here but keep in mind that it's very detailed. It's probably better to just take a peek at the "at glance" version.

Plan for the new Arlington Center.

The things I am most excited about include:

  • Curb extension (shown in red) - more space for people and shorter distance to cross. ("outrageous!")
  • Extension of the Bikeway to the edge of the intersection - no more riding on sidewalk. ("a massive waste!")
  • Bike lanes on both sides of the Massachusetts Ave - finally. ("blasphemy!")
  • Crossing signal for bicycles across the Mass Ave - safer way to cross this busy street. ("ridiculous!")

Things not to write home about:

  • Bike lanes next to high speed traffic and parked cars - cyclists will get doored. ("We will never give away our parking spaces!")
  • Bike lanes do not continue the full length of the Mass Ave. ("Yipee, more space for us!")
  • How will crossing signals be timed? Will crossing the street on a bicycle on or foot require long wait? ("Sure it will. Cars go first!")

As you can see, it seems that a loss of just a few parking spaces is seen as such a drastic economic hit to the well-being of our little town that there is no way we can expect a protected bike lane on Mass Ave any time soon, despite having plenty of space available ("After my dead body!").

Still, I'm glad these changes are coming. They are much needed and maybe they will be an ignition point to a much larger discussion later on. After all, it's not just a single intersection that needs to be rebuilt, but the entire length of Massachusetts Ave.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

One bike to rule them all?

If you have followed the news from the cycling world today, you may have heard about the "novel" convertible bike concept by a small German startup - 8bar Bikes. I suppose, the Mitte is their answer to this ancient question - if you could have only one bicycle, what would it be?

Many people would want something that is fast on roads but capable of off-road riding at the same time. There are already bicycles like these. Many adventure, gravel or cyclocross bikes fit pretty well into this category. But apparently, 8bar wasn't satisfied and they came up with their own solution. The Mitte is a road bike that "can change into a cyclocross bike within 15 minutes". This is done by swapping out the fork and tires. Also, the Mitte can become a touring rig with racks and fenders added.
Watching the video on their Kickstarter page today, I realized how close and how far at the same time this concept is from the idea I had about 2 years ago. I was trying to answer myself this one question - what would be my one-bike-to-rule-them-all solution?

The first problem I have with the Mitte is that swapping out the fork is not something trivial and not something I would want to do every time I go for a ride in different conditions. Then comes the problem of gearing. This bicycle is equipped with a standard road crankset and a wide-ish cassette - both good for the road, but not very much suitable for off-road riding. Overall, the Mitte is a compromise and feels a bit like a solution in search of a problem.

My take was a bit different. Instead of changing forks and altering the geometry, I would just leave everything pretty much the same, on or off road. That is, a road bike with a 72-71.5deg head angle and ~440mm chainstays may not the be raciest and most agile one, but it doesn't mean it wouldn't roll comfortably on road. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The trick to satisfy both uses is simply in swapping wheels - something that can be done in one minute and without tools. First, I thought that sliding dropouts (like those on the Mitte) are the answer, otherwise how else would you fit 700C-sized wheels with either road 28mm tires or off-road capable 1.95" ones? But then I realized one simple fact:
The outside wheel diameter for a 700C wheel with a 32mm tire is the same as a 650B wheel with a 2.0" tire.
This makes things simple. Just build a frame with enough clearance to fit 650B wheels with ~2.0" wide tires and a 135mm rear spacing (for hub compatibility), then swap out the wheels to ones with narrower tires if you want something faster on pavement. No need to fiddle with the fork.

Next, add a wide-range gearing such as a 46-30T crankset and 11-32T cassette and this way you could have a bicycle that does it all - it's still pretty fast on road and much more capable off-road than any cyclocross bike.

Thinking more about it I started to wonder why such solutions aren't advertised more? I quickly realized that this is not going to happen. Bicycle manufacturers don't want you to buy one bike that can be used anywhere. The want you to buy 2 or more "specialized" ones: a road bike, cross bike, gravel bike, a touring rig - who knows what else? I guess the only way to get a bike tailored to the ways you want it to ride is to have it custom built.

On the other hand, I already have one. It isn't as fast as those aero carbon machines and not nearly as off-road capable as a dedicated mountain bike, but it can handle various conditions surprisingly easily.

My road bike...
... and a "mountain bike". Same bike, slightly different package.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

"Why you no ride your bike?"

I don't know what happened to spring this year but summer has already arrived. It was 23C (74F) yesterday and this morning didn't feel much cooler either. I rode to work wearing no jacket, no gloves, no hat and just a short sleeve - something unimaginable in March a year ago.

The weather like this bring all kinds of cyclists onto the bike path. Some of them are now very recognizable to me, as those are the same ones who I usually see on the Minuteman Bikeway year round, except winter. Once warmer weather arrives, they restart their regular bike-to-work schedule.

Then, there are those who enter the bike path only in fair weather. By "fair", I mean something like at least 70F, sunny and no rain. Apparently, for most of folks out there, there is such thing as bicycling season and it doesn't include winter.

All of which brings me to ask this very important question - why don't you ride your bike year round?

Giving it some thought, I came up with a list of possible excuses (and my rebuttals):
  1. It's too cold - dress appropriately
  2. It's raining/snowing - see above
  3. It's getting dark early - get some lights
  4. My bicycle is too nice/expensive for it - get a cheap beater
  5. I would need to shower at work - no you don't, ride slowly and don't overdress
  6. I would need to change at work - use a bathroom?
Number 1 on the list is there above all others. I see more people cycling to work when it's warm but rainy than when it's cold and dry. For some reason people are scared of cold and once it drops below 30F they think their butts are going to freeze to saddles.
But seriously, if someone tells me that bicycling for transportation is stupid and doesn't make sense because you can only use those bike for like 2 months a year, I'm possibly going to kill them with my laughter. Interestingly, these kind of statements come often from people who live in a very favorable climate - bicycling-wise. Such as my hometown in Poland, where rain is scarce, temperatures are mild and snow in winter hasn't been seen in years. Still, you will hear frequently that bicycling in the city can't be done, because... you know, the weather.

That's not an excuse. No one says you should dare to bike to work in the middle of a thunderstorm and a downpour. But even those cool mornings or light drizzle are perfectly manageable. It always puzzled me that many more people use their bicycles for transportation in those "cold" countries in the north than those warm, nice places in the south. Which simply means that it's not about the weather.

Examples from Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Groningen, Berlin and many other cities show that if you want people cycle to work you need to provide infrastructure - something we usually lack here in the U.S. of A. But then why not try to ride to work in the week after Christmas? It's usually the best time of the year to start!

Or maybe I'm mistaken. Maybe it's something different? Perhaps people don't ride their bikes on daily basis because they can't answer some very basic questions, such as what is the optimum tire pressure?:
Hey, I'm mentioned on Bike Snob's blog - unimaginable!

Having said that, it was raining this afternoon, which made my commute back home much less pleasant. There were only a few other fellow cyclists on the bike path. Weirdos like me.