Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Racktime ShoulderIt handlebar bag review

Two years ago I bought my Racktime WorkIt Classic pannier as my main office bag. It has worked very well so far - it's roomy enough to hold all my usual office junk and it's easy to attach to and detach from the bike. However, as with nearly everything, after some time I discovered one serious issue with WorkIt Classic - the back of the bag gets very messy very easily in inclement weather (And we get lots of it in wintertime in Boston). Now I realize that ideally WorkIt should be used on a bike that has full side skirts on the rear wheel. This way less sand, mud, snow and rain would get onto the unprotected backside where the quick release system is attached.
This is how my WorkIt Classic looks after two years (and nearly 3 winters). Messy.
 
On top of that, I hardly ever carry my laptop to/from work so such a large pannier isn't really necessary on my daily commute. Not to mention that WorkIt works only with bikes that have rear racks.
 
All of these things made me look for another solution recently. That's why I decided to give Racktime another chance - with their ShoulderIt handlebar bag instead.
ShoulderIt is a handlebar bag, which means it sits high above the ground and far away from the elements. It should translate into less dirt and mud gathering on the underside of the bag. I will know for sure after the first winter season. It also means that ShoulderIt is smaller and 2x lighter than WorkIt - 15" x 11" x 4" (HxWxD) and 656g vs. 13" x 16.5" x 8" and 1300g. Plus, it will work on a bike without the rear rack. However, you would need to install the included quick release bracket on handlebars first.
WorkIt Classic and ShoulderIt side by side.
 
The decreased size and weight comes with a price, of course. ShoulderIt simply doesn't have as many features as its bigger brother. The bag doesn't expand and there is only one compartment, but similarly to WorkIt, it hides several smaller pockets inside (one of them with a zipper). There is also a small front pocket with a zipper - good place for your keys, badge, etc.
Unlike its bigger brother, ShoulderIt's shoulder strap is not detachable, but because it's permanently attached, ShoulderIt comes with a smart solution to securing the strap when the bag is mounted on handlebars. The large rear flap that usually covers quick release bracket on the backside can be simply flipped over and is then held by two hidden magnets. That takes care of keeping the shoulder strap secured during the ride.
As for the remaining features, there are a few reflective stripes sewn into the bag, double zipper on the top and one handlebar bracket by Ortlieb, with a lock. To be honest, I'm not sure why I should be bothered with locking the bag on my bike. The lock locks the bag but not its content, after all.
Overall, I'm very pleased with this purchase so far. The decreased size and weight means much more convenience when carrying this bag around, off the bike. There is a remaining question whether its lack of waterproofness is going to be a show stopper, but I can always try to use the rain cover that came with WorkIt with this bag too. And with the price of about $60, ShoulderIt is 2x cheaper than the bigger WorkIt.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Boston in the news

Lots of news about Boston recently. First, it turns out that our Beantown is one of the most walkable large cities in the U.S. That shouldn't be surprising - many Midwestern U.S. cities were pretty much built for cars, while Boston, being one of the oldest cities in America, still maintains its XVIII-XIX century layout.
Walk score for 10 the most walkable U.S. large cities (Source: WalkScore.com)
 
Next, apparently there is a chance that Boston could become America's first car-free city. To be honest, I have difficulty believing that this could happen by 2034, as the article predicts. But I would welcome kicking out cars from Newbury St in Back Bay and Hanover St in North End as soon as possible. These streets see a heavy foot traffic on daily basis and really there is little reason not to give them back to people.
 
Becoming car-free would obviously have to be a gradual process. Could it start now? In some places in Boston citizens already realized that not catering to cars in the middle of the city makes everyone's like easier. The temporary one way streets that were created this (very) snowy winter may stay here for good. Not only they improved traffic flow, reduced congestion, but also now there seem to be more space left for on-street parking and bike lanes.
 
Parking in Boston is, in general, a major problem. That's because it's... too cheap. At least according to Donald Shoup, who spent his life studying parking problems in large urban areas in America. He states it firmly - we have problems finding parking spaces in Boston because we pay too little: $1.25 per hour.
Cost of parking in Boston compared to other large U.S. cities
 
But the cost of metered on-street spaced is only one part of the problem. The other one is number of residential parking permits. Not only they are free in Boston (compared to $110/year or just $0.30/day in San Francisco) but the city issues too many of them. More than the parking spaces available!
 
To solve this problem Boston could introduce tiered residential parking permits (you pay e.g. $150/year for the first car but $500 for the second one and third one is not even allowed). But according to Shoup the best way to solve the general parking problem in the city is surge pricing. Thanks to intelligent meters price for on-street parking could be adjusted on hourly basis - it would go up when demand is high, motivating drivers to park for a shorter time and go down when demand drops. As a result, parking spaces are more efficiently utilized and drivers spend less time hunting for a free spot. It should also help eliminating some cars from the city - those that are rarely used but camp out in free spaces today.
This all means that if Boston really wants to become a car-free city some day, it should start with its parking spaces.
 
Meanwhile, just outside of Boston in my town of Arlington, police announced that this spring they will roll out "Operation Safe Streets". It's supposed to be an initiative to "focus on speeding, drivers who disregard traffic signals and stop signs, drivers who endanger pedestrians, distracted motorists, and those with an affinity for texting behind the wheel". That's nice, but isn't it what they are supposed to do anyway?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Another 14 Kickstarter inventions for your bicycle

There's been a bunch of new projects surfaced on Kickstarter and while some of them look quite interesting, others just beg to ask "why?" or "what for?". If you enjoyed the first part, read on. Let's look at them one by one (in no particular order):
 

This invention, pronounced "no-key", is well... a keyless bicycle lock. My biggest problem with Noke is that it tries to be smart.
 
It's Bluetooth-connected so you have to use your smartphone or smartwatch to lock/unlock it. It probably works quite well in California. Not sure if inventors tested it while wearing thick mittens at 0F weather, which would be fairly typical here in Boston.
 
On top of that, there is social sharing (obviously, because everyone wants to share their bike with others), loud alarm (because they are sooo effective at deterring car thieves that now we have one on the bike too) and GPS tracking (that could be useful in Amsterdam, but here in U.S. we have little chance of losing our bike among many others).
 
Then, there is a key. Wait, a key for a keyless lock? That's right. In case your smartphone battery has just died you can punch in your access code to unlock Noke, which makes it no different than many combination locks (provided that you would remember the combination that you use maybe once a year). Or, you can also order an optional Bluetooth fob, which turns Noke into a regular keyed lock. Pretty much.
 
My verdict: Interesting, but no thanks. My old u-lock works well even at less than 0F and when I leave my phone at home. It doesn't need charging and it's built from 5 parts instead of 105. It's just an u-lock and doesn't try to be a kitchen sink.
 

Another bike lock. This one is just plain dumb, that is, it's not a Bluetooth-Facebook-connected gizmo but a simple lock, which means I immediately like it much more.
 
When it comes to bike locks you can have them light, flexible and insecure (cable locks), heavy, flexible and secure (chain locks) or heavy, rigid and secure (u-locks) - 2 out of 3, as with nearly everything else in this world. LiteLok tries to be light, flexible and secure (3 out of 3). So is it? Well, not quite.
 
I believe it's secure and it's obviously flexible. But at claimed weight at (just) under 1kg (or 2.2lbs) it's much heavier than my Abus Granit Futura 64 Mini that weighs 692g. Sure, Granit is an u-lock so it's not flexible nor as secure as many heavier locks are. But I wouldn't use it (nor LiteLok) to lock my bike on street overnight anyway.
 
Having said that, there are two things of LiteLok that I like: the option to chain two of them together into a longer lock (even though any chain lock can do it) and the click-to-lock feature (that makes it better than u-locks).
 
My verdict: Not bad. It's a nice lock that surely works well. Not a particularly light one but it's lighter than most high-security u-locks. And it's flexible.
 

Let's stay with bike locks for a bit longer. Kadalock is similar to Noke just much less secure. It uses a thin cable to lock your bike, it needs to talk to your smartphone to lock/unlock, it has an alarm and it's obviously smart (Cloud-connected, social, etc.).
 
My verdict: I'll definitely pass on this one. Can't find any feature of this lock that I would like.
 

The last bike lock here. This one is really weird because it hides under your saddle. At first I didn't know what to think about this concept. It tries to solve the problem of storing the lock on your bicycle, but this usually isn't the most serious problem we have (unlike, e.g. finding a secure object to chain the bike to). The biggest issue with Seatylock is that you have to use the saddle that comes with the lock. That disqualifies this entire idea right from the start.
 
My verdict: Who cares if it works. If I can't bolt my favorite Brooks or An-Atomica saddle to it, it's useless.
 

Done with locks. Now something entirely different. Rapido is a pump head adapter - a tiny device that attempts to make your life a bit easier when inflating tires.
 
In general, it seems to be pretty useful if you happen to use several bikes with different tube valves and a pump that requires different valve adapters. Rapido may help solving the most annoying issue with modern Schrader valves.
 
The only problem I would expect with Rapido is its size. It may be a tight fit on some wheels, such as my rear Edgerunner wheel. It's has a small 20" rim so spokes sit pretty close to each other and the large disc brake rotor may get in the way.
 
My verdict: Looks good. For ~30 bucks it may be worth trying.


Cam Cycles sounds more like a bicycle manufacturer but these things are just wooden fenders. If you need fenders on you bike you may take a look. And go away. Here is why.
 
There are three problems with these fenders. One, they are made out of wood (which is not a problem) but like nearly all wooden or bamboo fenders they lack curved edges. They are just flat boards, which doesn't make them particularly effective as fenders.
 
Two, they are way too short. And I'm not talking about those super short ones shown on Kickstarter because they are likely just a toy. But even the regular Cam fenders would work much better if they were a few inches longer.
 
Three, the mudflaps are joke. They must be there only for decoration. Such short mudflaps on such a short fenders have simply no function.
 
My verdict: Poor design. If you want good fenders buy them from SKS, PlanetBike, VeloOrange, Honjo or PDW.
 

KP Cykler is a custom bicycle manufacturer from Denmark. They make custom brakeless, suicide fixies for Viking hipsters. That should give you idea about what you're dealing with. If you want a truly custom bike, build it yourself.
 
My verdict: Nothing new to see here. Another company like many others. And because I'm not a Viking, I'm not interested.
 

Holy shit, Gordon Ramsay is selling bicycles! Sutro is a custom urban bike "designed for city riding". It must be a Californian city though, where there is no winter, no rain and no night. Some place always sunny where people ride wearing shorts and sandals. Sutro costs over $1200 and comes with no fenders, no rear rack, no chainguard and no lights. But it can be ordered in one of 200 colors (wow!).
 
My verdict: Boring. Seriously for $1200 I would expect a little more. Sorry Gordon.
 

Another bike company but this one may actually offer something usable. The Dreamer is a Dutch-style urban bike with American twist. It comes with full fenders, chain and skirt guards, lights and a rear rack. Can't judge from the pictures how it rides, but it does look promising. Dreamer clearly doesn't have any top shelf components, just a basic steel frame, 7-speed freewheel drive and even it's integrated lights are battery (not generator) powered. But for $700 you can't expect much more.
 
My verdict: It may be a nice, simple urban bike. Has everything you would need to start your work commute in a $700 package.
 

And one more bicycle here. Vello is a "high performance folding bicycle". It folds (well, kind of) and it costs only $900 so it looks like Brompton's cheaper cousin.
 
My problem with Vello is that its folding ability seems limited. The mechanism is simple but it only shortens the entire bike a bit - far cry from what Brompton can do. Just picture that Vello is a middle-aged man who can bend down and barely touch his toes, while Brompton is a Russian 15-years old gymnast that can fit herself into a purse.
 
My verdict: Unless you really need a (barely) folding bike and can't afford a Brompton, go ahead and buy his poorer cousin.


Another bicycle. Lumen is a "retro-reflective city bicycle", which means it's a bike that glows in the dark. Well, sort of. It doesn't actually glow but it's highly reflective from all angles. The trick in Lumen is its frame and fork, coated with a special reflective paint. And while the presented bicycles aren't interesting at all, the paint may actually do the trick to keep you safer at night. But only if you don't mind glowing like a radioactive ghoul.
 
My verdict: Bikes are boring but Lumen paint is worth a try.


This one is actually really interesting. Jyrobike is a gyroscopic front wheel for your kid's bicycle. By gyroscopic action it can help your child tremendously with the early learn-to-ride process. With a built-in flywheel, I don't expect it to be particularly lightweight, but it's not designed for pro racers anyway.
 
It's for kids. Those youngest ones including those with some health problems (dyspraxia) who would have problems riding a two-wheel bicycle otherwise. For about $150 Jyrobike can be yours.

Then, there is a secret use for Jyrobike. If you put it on your adult bike (if only you can find a bigger version of it), use it for returning home at 3 a.m. from your favorite bar!
 
My verdict: Innovative!
 

Helmet totes are... just totes to put your helmet in (duh!) and they are supposed to solve the biggest problem cyclists face every day since the invention of wheel: "where do you put your helmet when you are not on your bicycle?". Because carrying it in your hand is so old-school.
 
I found a better solution to this problem: lose the helmet. You shouldn't need one in a well-designed city. But then I woke up and realized that I live in America.
 
My verdict: Get it if you need one. I don't.
 
Fix It Sticks

These are some little, sexy hex tools every cyclists should have. I mean, every cyclists should have a set of basic hex keys but not necessary Fix It Sticks. Why? For $25 you get a set of 2 stick tools with 4, 5, 6mm hex keys and a flat head driver. This set is supposed to weigh close to 51g. Is it worth it? Maybe. But for $0.62 you can buy 4mm and 5mm wrenches and spend some time to grind the end of the 4mm one to make a flat screwdriver blade. This 22g set will work for 90% of all on-road adjustments on your modern bike. For the remaining 10% there is always a bike shop nearby.

My verdict: Sleek and light, but most individual hex keys are cheaper, lighter and will work well too, despite being less sexy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"Don't blame street design for cyclists deaths"

That's what he said. Mr. Cox, that is, who is Wyoming's state DOT representative. Yes, it looks like in the state that has more bears than people, they figured it all out. Cyclists die on roads not because American roads are dangerous by design. It's because those cyclists are simply completely irresponsible!

But apparently, irresponsible cyclists are not only American problem. Down under in Australia some of them attempt riding their bikes and not wearing a helmet. Which, as we all know, is a serious crime punishable by immediate execution on spot. Recently, brave Australian police caught one such scofflaw in Melbourne but he got away somehow. Maybe because his last name was Schwarzenegger and who would want to argue with Mr. Terminator himself?

To be honest, Australia looks like one messed up country (not the only one though) with their mandatory helmet law. To make matters worse, now they also consider mandatory high visibility vests for all cyclists. I bet this means that Australian roads are so well designed that the only thing left to reach their Vision Zero goal is to dress all people on bikes in neon rags and styrofoam hats.

By the way, if they are so concerned about visibility of vehicles on roads, have they already banned all dark cars in Australia? No? Weird.

Another great example of how irresponsible and inconsiderate cyclists can be comes from UK. British police excels in eliminating those most dangerous criminals from society so no wonder little 4-year old Sophie caught their attention. She was clearly committing a serious crime by riding her bicycle on the sidewalk. Her place was obviously on the street between speeding taxis and heavy lorries. Thank you Grantham police. We all feel so much safer now.

There you go. In case you wonder how to deal with cyclists in your town, learn from the best. And when all methods fail you can always try to ban some of them from your streets. Remember, less cyclists means less irresponsible people on roads!

UPDATE (3/19): I have bad news for Mr. Cox from Wyoming. It seems that the roads in his state are not as safe as he would like to see them. They ranked as 2nd the most dangerous across the U.S. (after only Mississippi). That's surprising, considering that Wyoming is the least populous state in the Union. How did they manage to be the worst?

Not surprising is the position of Nantucket (not too far from my hometown) as the safest county in the United States. There are hardly any cars there.

Friday, March 6, 2015

What's the worst month for bike riding in Boston and why it's March?

Let's be honest, I don't mind winter. Actually, I even like it. But not in March. It's so obvious that it's going to snow a lot in January and February that I learned to accept it. It may be a bit more difficult to ride a bike because all bike paths are covered with snow but it doesn't even compare to the mess that happens in March. The snow on bike paths turns into ice. If you thought that it may be difficult to get through that snow on your way to work, try to ride on a skating rink. And a very bumpy one.
 That's how poorly plowed the Minuteman Trail was in Arlington, in February. I cursed whoever was supposed to plow it as it was extremely difficult to ride bike there.

However, now in March we can "enjoy" a skating rink-like experience on this popular bike path, which is even more unpleasant and dangerous than the situation from February.

Therefore, I officially declare March to be the worst month of the year. Here are the reasons why:
  1. It's still winter. Seriously, after 1.5m (5ft) of snow and two months of -20C (0F) temperatures, I had enough. Knowing that spring is coming, I would finally want to see those mountains of snow to melt and warmer weather to arrive. But no. March in Boston is usually still cold (such as -12C or 10F this morning) and  snow won't be completely gone until April.
  2. It's icy. Yes, it gets warmer in March - warmer than -15C but not really spring-warm yet. Average daily temperatures are around 0C (32F) and drop down at night. This makes everything melt during the day and freeze again at night, which translates into very icy roads in morning.
  3. It's ugly. Because snow starts to melt, it gets muddy, grey. Roads get messy and everything is covered with a mixture of melted snow, salt and sand.
  4. It's salty. Roads are white from salt and because snow melts now, the salty slush finds its way to all steel parts on your bike or car. Corrosion is imminent.
So there you go. March is not only bad weather-wise but also psychologically. We are all tired now of this winter and want it to end quickly. But the long month of March and slow transition into spring means that we still have to wait for the warmer weather to arrive.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Americans ride bikes. Sometimes.

This is the news: apparently, in the country that  ruined its public transportation (), designed its cities for cars, considers mandatory helmets for everyone (at least in California) or fluorescent clothing (at least in Wyoming) and hardly ever punishes drivers who run over pedestrians (even in crosswalks), many people still ride bicycles. Sometimes.

It turns out that "34% of Americans age three or older rode a bike at least once in 2014", which equals to 103.7 million people. That's a big number. But before you start thinking about America as the next Denmark or Holland, keep in mind that the key words in that statement are "at least once". This means that those who thought once about buying a bike and tried one for 5 minutes in their local bike store, count too.
 
What's more interesting that 57% of all those people rode bikes for recreation in 2014, which leaves us with the other 43% who rode bikes for... transportation, I suppose (?). That accounts for 44.6 million people or 14.6% of all Americans, as long as you assume that 16,193 U.S. adults surveyed in the study are representative for the entire population.
 
I would be really happy if we really had 44.6 million regular bike commuters in the United States but unfortunately the study tells us that's the number of people who commuted "at least once" in 2014, which doesn't make them regular at all.
 
On top of that, "48% of U.S. adults do not have access to a bike at home, and 52% worry about being hit by a car while riding" and that clearly doesn't paint a pretty picture of the status of our bicycling nation.
 
Interestingly, in about the same time as this study was published, Slashdot did their own online poll that surveyed over 20,000 people. Results are below. It seems that there are two groups of cyclists in... let's say America (We don't really know where the surveyed people came from as the poll was done online and Slashdot is by no means representative to any population as its main readers are IT engineers, developers, scientists, etc.).
The first group are the people who never ride bicycles or do it very rarely (most likely for recreation). That is sadly 45% of all responses. The second group (29%) rides bikes everyday or at least a few times a week. Those will likely be either people who regularly ride bicycles for sport/recreation or simply commute to work.
 
Even though it seems that many Americans spend at least some time on bike throughout the year, this number would definitely be much higher if only we could fix our road network. Then the worried 52% might eventually joint the happier minority.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Parking problems

This isn't funny anymore. This white stuff is everywhere and while roads and even (surprisingly) some bike paths are plowed quite well, the amount of snow this winter created a new kind of problem for me - with a place to park. To park a bicycle, that is. Not a car.

Bike advocates (myself included) like to point out the obvious fact that there is simply not enough space in the city to accommodate everyone's personal car (i.e. one per person). This makes other solutions such as public transportation or bicycles much more suitable in congested residential or commercial zones. Well, this winter I realized that there are exceptions to this rule but these seem to exists only because of our car-centric city planning.

What gets plowed first in winter? City streets. What gets low priority for snow removal? Sidewalks and bike paths (They become snow storage in winter months). And everyone follows this pattern, at least in my area. Everyone is expected to drive, roads are cleared of snow and parking lots too. Sidewalks - not so much (or not at all), so if you need to go to the store two blocks away you better drive there. Weird.

I know that I'm a bit of a weirdo, since in my building with hundreds of employees I'm the only person riding a bicycle to work, year round. This obviously means that clearing out the snow from the bike rack at the front door gets lowest possible priority from our maintenance crew. It simply never happens. The rack got buried in the snow a month ago, after the first blizzard and hasn't been cleaned up ever since. Facing this problem, I had to find another place to park my bike. The railing at the unused back door worked fine for the next few weeks but after the last weekend's snow storm, it got buried in the snow as well. I'm slowly running out of options. Since the beginning of the last week I've had to lock my bike to another railing at the loading dock.
This how NOT to lock your bike but believe me, I had no choice.

Meanwhile, everyone else who drives can enjoy a snow-free parking lot. You may say that my example is isolated because in downtown Boston the situation is probably quite the opposite. Huge snow banks resulted in reduced parking spaces on street and while you can chain your bike to any lamp post, you can't do the same with your car.
This is how you park your bike in Boston this winter.

However, this would be largely avoidable if you didn't have to drive into the city at all. The problem is, most public transportation systems in United States are slower and less efficient than driving your own car and most Americans who could bike to work, won't, because they picture cycling as sport, exclusively.

Fortunately, as of yesterday the white stuff seems to be melting slowly. By the end of this week I might start seeing the top of the bike rack at my workplace again.