Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The tentative utility cyclist gift guide: Fenders

When I drive, I don't wear any automobile-specific clothing. No flame retardant racing suit. No driving moccasins. And since Bike Year was conceived as an attempt to replace car trips with bike trips, I don't wear any bicycle-specific clothing either. No tights. No jersey. The clothes I wear at the office and in the supermarket are the same clothes I wore on the way there on my bike.

That's why fenders are important to me. They keep what's on the road from being on me, which is helpful since I don't make a costume change once I arrive at my destination. Unfortunately, fenders don't come standard on many bikes these days. Fortunately, almost any bike can be retrofitted with them. Plus, I think bikes look almost naked without fenders.

I've tried two varieties of after-market fenders. First I bought Planet Bike Freddy Fenders. Then I tried Zefal CAB fenders. Then I went back to the Freddy Fenders. The main advantage of the Freddy Fenders is their adjustability for different frame sizes and geometries.

Planet Bike even makes a fender for bikes that lack the eyelets for mounting fenders, called the SpeedEZ. One word of warning about these, however. When you unpack the fenders, throw away the rubber straps that are used to mount the fenders to the forks and seat stays. Use some zip ties instead. The rubber straps on my fenders began cracking after 30 days and had completely deteriorated within 60.

If you can't get with the plastic fenders, check out these beautiful things.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The tentative utlity cyclist gift guide: Where to buy

In response to my Nashbar-centric rack and pannier recommendation, Jim pointed out that you're more likely to talk to living person and maybe even the owner of the joint when you call a smaller outfit. And he's right. If I had remained on hold with Nashbar to learn the fate of the LDT rack, how much information could the operator have provided? Would he or she be able to talk knowingly about factory retooling in Guangdong Province or whatever it is that's disrupted the supply chain? Probably not.

In my defense, I aimed to provide suggestions that would get folks into utility cycling on the cheap. Nevertheless, I understand the arguments against spending money at a big national mail order house. If you are fond of your community and wish it to prosper, it makes sense to trade at a locally-owned bike shop. Your dollars will hang around instead of splitting town. Plus, this late in the holiday shopping game, it's probably easier to walk into a brick and mortar store instead of praying that the UPS delivery bicycle will pull up in front of the house with your gifts by Friday.

Unfortunately, at many local shops, bicycles are regarded as toys, exercise equipment or sporting goods — not vehicles. It's the nature of the business, I'm told. The real profit is in expensive bicycles with polonium frames, 802.11g wireless derailleurs and tires no wider than a human hair. While they must be good for something, these light, fast and expensive machines make lousy utility cycles. A dealer whose bottom line depends on moving high dollar machines isn't going to devote much floorspace to utility cycling accessories. If a customer drops $2,000 on a bicycle, better to have a boxes of $400 cycling shoes nearby rather than $20 panniers.

I'm lucky that the folks at my LBS understand that I use my bikes to haul groceries and commute to work. If you're not so lucky and can't spend your money at home, consider sending it to Minneapolis or West Newton.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The tentative utility cyclist gift guide: Rear rack and panniers

I could be wrong, but the ability to safely transport cargo is what separates the utility bicycles from, well, the bicycles. Sure, people can carry cargo in backpacks or messenger bags, but that would make them utility humans. Their bikes would remain bikes.

I see a lot of bikes around town equipped with rear racks. I don't see much carried on these racks, however, because a rear rack by itself is of limited usefulness, unless your tentative utility cyclist has a pocket full of bungee cords handy. Mating a rear rack with panniers drastically increases its capacity to haul stuff. But first things first.

There are some really amazing racks out there, but for a person just starting out in the exciting world of utility cycling, I would enthusiastically recommend the Nashbar LDT Rack. Only problem is, I just checked and it seems to have disappeared from the Nashbar Web site. Not wanting to disappoint you and the tentative utility cyclist on your shopping list, I called Nashbar to find out if LDT was gone for good. After about five minutes on hold, I gave up and that's why I hesitantly recommend the Bor Yeuh Urban Rear Rack, currently on sale for $12.99. I selected this rack because of its low price and the fact that it is fully adjustable and should fit a wide variety of aspiring utility bicycles. Also, the words Bor Yeuh sound tantalizingly exotic.

If your cyclist's bicycle does not have fittings designed for accepting the rack, here's the workaround: March into your local hardware store and ask for some insulated "P clamps." With the proper sized clamps, the rack will be secure.

Now you'll need panniers. How do you pronounce "panniers"? I have no idea, so I try not to say the word out loud. There is really beautiful bicycle luggage out there, but for a new utility cyclist, you can't go wrong with the Nashbar Townie Basket. As I type this, they are priced to move at $ 16.99 each. My townies have served me well over the last 18 months. They fold flat against the bike when not in use. The Townie does not feature a carrying strap or an internal frame, like some of the more expensive grocery bag panniers. Still the Townie has a hidden feature that's apparently too secret for Nashbar to publicly reveal: the hi-vis yellow rain hood that stuffs into a zippered compartment on the bottom of the pannier when not in use. Neat!

There is one design flaw to mention. The zippers of the rain cover pouches mentioned above are on the wheel-side of the panniers. This allows the zipper pulls to make contacts with the spokes. The pulls are not long enough to become fully involved in the spokes, but the sound is kind of annoying. Luckily, the situation is easily remedied by tucking the zipper pulls back into the pouch.

I welcome any comments from others who have used these products. Did they work for you? Do you have alternatives to recommend?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Gifts for the tentative utility cyclist

Has reading this blog inspired you to try utility cycling? I didn't think so. But humor me and pretend you've entertained the idea of using a bicycle for short errands and trips that currently put you behind the wheel.

Too far fetched?

OK. Try this: Imagine a family member, friend, coworker, or someone you saw on TV, who dreams about leaving the car in the driveway. Could this person be looking to get a little exercise without having to pay for a health club membership? Maybe he or she is troubled by the idea of financing both sides in the "War on Terror." Perhaps this person simply wants to become less car dependent. Does that make it easier? Good. I thought it might.

Next, let's imagine he or she already owns a bicycle that could be used as a utility cycle. It could be a mountain bike, a road bike or even a beach cruiser. It's your choice. Are you picturing the bike? Excellent. What color is it? Red? Mine too!

But now we have a problem. No matter what kind of bicycle you've chosen to imagine, it's probably like most bicycles sold in U. S. and A, in that it's not equipped for utility cycling. Since it has no lights, it cannot be legally ridden at night (at least not in my state). It cannot transport cargo, unless you count plastic shopping bags hung from the handlebars (I don't). In wet weather, its tires will spray the rider, fore and aft, with an undiluted coating of road grime (Good luck getting out those stains).

So how can this bike, designed for recreational rides on scenic thoroughfares, be transformed to perform practical purposes on city streets? We need a holiday miracle! This sounds like a job for Santa Claus you!

In the coming days, this blog will feature items I've used over the last 18 months in my utility cycling endeavors. You may consider them road tested and Bike Year approved. There's plenty of wonderful cycling gear out there, some of it handcrafted to last a lifetime. With this kind of equipment, utility cycling can be efficient, stylish and fun. Maybe even a little addictive.

But let's ease into this thing, shall we? Better to make sure your cyclist catches the bug before you spend bike-loads of bread on gifts that could wind up on eBay by March. If he or she is still at it by this time next year, it's probably safe to give the really nice stuff. Maybe next year I'll present "Gifts for the committed utility cyclist." But for now, we'll explore some of the more affordable, but still viable, utility cycling products. Stay tuned for tomorrow's exciting episode: "Rear Rack and Panniers."

Photo credit: MSU Bike Project

Monday, December 11, 2006

Scenes from my commute (Part 1)

Here's a photo from my morning commute route. It's 46th Street between Atlantic Avenue and Habersham Street. The fall color is provided by the sweetgum trees. The live oaks don't participate in autumn (but they do tend to eject lots of leaves in spring).

Friday, December 08, 2006

Where the 'P' stands for pedals

Via Bicycle Fixation, here's a story from "Vermont's Alternative Web Weekly" about the Burlington UPS distribution center using trailer-equipped bicycles to make deliveries in "in flatter sections of towns." There are interesting angles in this story.

First, the Bicycle Fixation gang suggests that UPS is, in a way, returning to its two-wheeled roots. And sure enough they're right. Bicycles are part of the company's genetic code. Here's information on the American Messenger Company, which later became known as the United Parcel Service, from the company's Web site:
In response to telephone calls received at their basement headquarters, messengers ran errands, delivered packages, and carried notes, baggage, and trays of food from restaurants. They made most deliveries on foot and used bicycles for longer trips.
Next (pun intended), a distribution center employee, who is described in the story as a "avid cyclist," dissuaded the bossman from purchasing bicycle-shaped objects from Wal-Mart and steered him toward some refurbished bicycles at a local shop. Bonus points for that.

But even the avid cyclist suggests some parcels just can't be dispatched by bicycle.
Not every package is suitable for delivery by bike, Lutz adds. “We’re not going to make a bike person haul around some big Pottery Barn box.”
I bet this machine could handle it.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

My MacGyver moment

On Friday, as I was getting ready to go home, I couldn't find my front light. I looked in my bag and in my office. No luck. I figured I had left it attached to the bike, which in my town is the same thing as leaving a sign taped to the handlebars that reads, "Please take this light home with you."

I found a flashlight in a desk drawer and lashed it to the handlebars with a bungee cord. Every time I hit a bump, the flashlight's beam would swing up into the trees. It was a constant struggle to keep it aimed toward oncoming traffic.

When I got home, I found my light in a deep, dark corner of my bag.