"Do they ride bicycles in America?" Aymo asked.
"They used to."
"Here is a great thing," Aymo said. "A bicycle is a splendid thing."
"I wish to Christ we had bicycles," Bonello said. "I'm no walker."
-Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1929 i
Who needs a book about bicycling? Actually, many people could benefit from one, though many of them don't even realize it. Buying and using a bicycle effectively is often counterintuitive. It's just a fact. Is locking your front wheel to your frame the best way to lock it? Nope. Do you imagine commuting to work on the same roads you take when you drive? Probably best to avoid those. Who would know what type of steel is best suited to your needs? However, all this is likely to determine whether someone loves a bike or hates it. You see, if you are relatively new to cycling, you probably aren't aware of many of the facets of bicycle culture. This, however, does not mean you must become some hoity-toity bike snob. It's just that, over the last 60 years, while America had its love affair with automobiles, other parts of the world were still nurturing large cycling cultures. Our country has, thus, lost much of its cycling heritage. Don't worry, though! It's all super easy to understand. Unfortunately, bikes, while simple, don't come with instructions. So, consider this book a general introduction to bicycling, but also an introduction to bike culture.
When one of my close friends came to visit me a few years ago, we rode bikes all around the city. He enjoyed it so much, he decided to buy a bike when he got home. He eventually told me what he was looking at and I helped him pick the bike that I thought had the best value. After a few initial rides, the bike was hung on the wall, remained unused for over a year, and was eventually sold. I was a little unsettled when I learned this. I came to realize that cycling is often more about your current living situation than about simply owning a bike. One of the main reasons he didn't use his bike is that getting it up and down the narrow stairs in his apartment wasn't easy. He was excited about the experience he'd had with me, but it really didn't translate to his environment. There are lots of different types of bikes! Some are more appropriate to different lifestyles than others. (I think a full-size folding bike would have suited him much better; I regret not suggesting it at the time.) This variety is something worth knowing if you are considering getting a bike for yourself, which is why I cover it thoroughly in Chapter 1.
Again, bicycles don't come with manuals. Riding your bike in the city isn't dangerous, but you really should know what you are doing. In Chapter 3, I cover some general guidelines about getting through trouble spots in traffic. Knowing what to expect on the road is helpful, but knowing what to do when locking up is important too. I cover bicycle security extensively in Chapter 4. You see, most people just don't lock their bikes properly. This is one of the reasons why bike theft is so rampant. It doesn't have to be this way! Here, I've highlighted the important bits so you can just skim through them if you live in a relatively safe neighborhood and aren't concerned about the details. Proper locking technique is something many cyclists never learn, but they certainly should. It can be quick, simple, and lightweight when you do it right, but will be clunky, heavy, and time-consuming when you do it wrong.
Even with proper locking technique, however, you can also find yourself in trouble if some part of your bike is damaged. This is why I included a section on general maintenance in Chapter 5. Whether it's comfort or performance, the condition of your bike will affect whether you want to ride or not. A little bit of waterproof grease and chain lube goes a long way, but wear is going to eventually happen, and you should be prepared. Worrying about flats is something that won't concern you when you know how to fix them in a couple minutes. When a common problem comes up, knowing what you can adjust yourself versus what needs to be done by a professional is quite valuable. It saves both time and money.
This book is for my written with close friends in mind. If the tone is informal or flippant, this is why. My inclination to write a book came as a way to help more of my friends with their bikes. As a result of the current increase of bicycling culture in the United States, a few of my friends have been interested in using a bike as transportation in the city. I started by sharing my experience, and gave advice whenever they asked. Surprisingly though, those "few" friends have become "many" of my friends (and family), more than I ever thought would ask. I eventually decided it would be better if I just wrote down this advice so people could pass the tips to each of their friends in turn.
I've also been concerned about some of the negative reactions that my friends have had when they started cycling. Many of them are shocked when they borrow one of my bikes. Their butt no longer hurts, and the bike is "so light." I know that peoples' first reactions to the bikes they buy can affect the way they view cycling for the rest of their life. Unfortunately, I haven't come across any field guides for buying a non-crap bike. So I made that my theme: How to make cycling never suck. I enjoy cycling, and I want others to as well. No matter what your experiences in the past, a bike can (and should) be comfortable, convenient, and fun.
While I am quite sure that everything in this book is entirely noncontroversial, the fact remains that some of the ideas I suggest may not be endorsed by certain bicycle manufacturers or may not be legal in your area. I ride my bicycle in exactly the way I present throughout this book. I believe it is safe, and encourage it. However, this book is presented as is, without any warranties (implied or otherwise) regarding its accuracy; you need to be aware of how your particular bicycle will behave with any change or modification, so I implore you to find and consult with a competent bicycle mechanic whom you trust, who is knowledgable about the make of your bike and its components. You should also be aware of any and all local, state, and federal laws, and abide by them. I want to give as much advice as I can, but whatever decisions you make about your bicycle are your own, and you make them at your own risk. I certainly hope you are not dissuaded, though. While certain things may not be applicable to you, the vast majority of this book should be.
"Long ago, Ben Graham taught me that 'Price is what you pay; value is what you get.'"
There are two ways people approach buying a bike. Some want something that is "cheap," others want something that is "nice." Both approaches are totally cool. Unfortunately, what "cheap" and "nice" mean to various people is wildly different. I tend to categorize these two perspectives into two distinct groups: those who want something disposable, and those who want something to last. I use the term "disposable" because some people seek out high-quality, yet very inexpensive, bikes from Craigslist to fix up and take care of, while others will often buy new (and expensive) bikes, but treat them poorly until they have wasted away, at which point they buy a new bike. These two methods involve different expectations, and will affect the type and quality of the bike to purchase. To maximize your value with either method, you will need to know some things about buying a bike. Since I'll be referring to prices that can fluctuate rapidly and can differ in different areas of the country, I want to point out that I'll be referring to prices from 2011 in U.S. dollars, and all prices are only estimates.
When first purchasing a bike, people usually have a general idea of what they want; however, there are many more types of bikes than most people know about. How can people know they don't want something they don't know about? There are enough types of bike such that I feel comfortable saying that if someone wants a bike for some particular use and is willing to pay for it, there is a bike perfectly suited to every need. I'll go through a reasonably in-depth list of the types of bikes out there, as most people aren't even aware that their ideal bike is waiting for them.
I'll start with those who want a cheap, disposable bike. Typically, this person simply isn't ready to commit to cycling; he or she just wants to try it out. Here, I want to make it clear: Bikes are not toys. They are vehicles. If you walk into a bike shop and tell someone that you just want something that does x, y, and z and costs less than $100, the response may be a bit awkward. If the shop is especially helpful, it will probably tell you to try Craigslist or that it's just not possible. There is often a real disconnect between how bicycles are viewed by an avid cyclist and by a layperson; this can make for some uncomfortable conversations during the initial sticker shock, but don't be dissuaded by a rude bike-shop employee. I'm here to help!
Essentially, the cheapest solution is a high-tensile strength steel single-speed (which is a bike with only one gear) or a used bike, and your best vendors will probably be Bikes Direct or Craigslist (respectively). If you live in a large enough city, you will also have the option of a bicycle cooperative. If there is a co-op in your city (you should check2), I highly recommend this route, as you can typically donate money (read: "buy") or volunteer your time in exchange for a solid used bike. Unfortunately, cooperatives are exceedingly rare, though they will only become more common if the demographic of bicycle commuters continues to grow. If you can get to a co-op, do it. It can help you to buy and maintain your bike at essentially no cost.
If you decide to shop on Craigslist, you should expect some immediate maintenance, unless you buy a bicycle that has been well taken care of or rarely used. If you are handy with the Internet and a 15-mm wrench, you should be in good shape. At a bike shop, however, even this minor maintenance may cost more than you paid for the bike. So be very careful with exceedingly inexpensive bikes. Later, I'll discuss some general guidelines and red flags to look for when buying used bikes, but if you really have no idea what you're doing, you should probably only look at single speeds, as they are easier to evaluate.
Now, I'm going to assume that you probably won't practice proper storage (no offense), which also points to buying a single-speed, as even when treated harshly, they tend to operate surprisingly well. The only real downside is if you live in a particularly hilly area, at which point gears start to make more sense. The real irony, unfortunately, is that cheap gear-shifting components tend to rust and wear rapidly. Thus, even if the bike is rarely used, when stored outside, it will still stay in better condition if it is a single-speed.
So, if you want to save yourself the time searching Craigslist takes, just go to Bikes Direct3 and navigate to the "single-speed/fixed-gear/track" section. (It is usually hidden as a subsection of the "road" section. Don't ask me why.) Here you can pick out the cheapest, lightest, and probably best overall value bike they have. It'll run about $300 for a chromoly-steel-frame bike (check the specs section to see what metal the frame and fork are made of). Without getting into the details, chromoly steel is a better alloy; you could buy high-tensile steel if you really don't care about the weight of your bike, though I can assure you that you will prefer chromoly. If you get a single-speed via this method, they will ship you a really decent bike, that will last, for cheap (yes, $300 is cheap for a quality, new bicycle). You will have to assemble it, but they come with simple instructions that anyone with a little patience and a tube of waterproof grease can follow. So browse around until you find something you like.
Finally, please, I beg you, do not buy a bike at a big-box retailer; they will sell you what is known as a "bike-shaped object." Even if it is new, it will probably start breaking down within a few weeks. Seriously, I'm not kidding.
If you aren't constrained by spending the absolute minimum, your choices are significantly greater. Here, I will go into some very specific styles of bikes, but none of these are hard-and-fast distinctions. There can be variations of each style; for example, a hard-tail mountain bike can be turned into more of a city bike if some subtle changes are made to the tires and handlebars. So while I will lay out many different styles, don't think you will be pigeonholed. My favorite variation is the cyclocross bike with city tires and a touring seat; I ride one and it is a remarkably nimble commuter.
Now before I start talking about different styles of bikes, I want to address a common misconception about step-through frames. There are bicycles designed for women (bicycles whose geometry is subtly adjusted to better suit female proportions), but this has nothing to do with step-through frames. Yes, many women may prefer the extra room because it makes it easier to ride in skirts and dresses, but without a skirt guard, these can be downright dangerous. Step-through frames offer a huge benefit when mounting and dismounting a bicycle loaded with a briefcase or a bag of groceries. The main reason a full-diamond frame is used is that that is the lightest and strongest form a bicycle can take. They are cheaper to manufacture. The idea that step-through frames are only for women is simply a myth. Consider them.
To continue the theme of bicycles for simple transportation, I start with city bikes, or urban bikes, because they are the ideal type of bike for getting around a neighborhood. There are many different styles, but most revolve around the theme of an upright riding position, swooped-back, comfortable handlebars, large saddles, and wide tires. Typically made of steel, they allow for a comfortable ride and will last a lifetime. Their features are ideal for many reasons: The handlebars provide plenty of room for baskets, racks, or headlights; the large saddles provide more comfort for casual riding; and the wider tires reduce PSI, which means they don't need to be re-inflated very often. The three most distinctive city bikes (in my opinion) are the Dutch Opa/Oma, the English three-speed, and the (often modified) classic ten-speed.
The Dutch city bike is, arguably, the most iconic, utilitarian bicycle. Its most recognizable feature is an integrated skirt guard, fender, and taillight. Often they will also have front and rear racks, as they are used as utility bikes in the Netherlands for everything from light shopping to serious cargo. The Oma (step-through version) is especially recognizable for its long, downward curving and step-through top tube, often reinforced to the down-tube. They are traditionally black, often with pale tires.
English three-speeds are quite similar to Dutch bikes. They were a hallmark of cycling, produced in England by companies such as Raleigh. These bikes have similar geometry to Dutch bikes, but the most notable differences are that the step-through frames are much more angular than their Dutch counterparts, they frequently come in earth tones rather than traditional black, and they typically lack a skirt guard. Their main feature is a three-speed internal transmission. This is useful for many reasons: It allows for a chain guard, can change gears while stopped (very useful at red lights), and does not require a delicate derailleur. Though the glory days of the English three-speed have come and gone, its style still abounds, especially with smaller bike manufacturers.
The classic ten-speed bicycle was prolific during the 1970s, and you can still find many of them on Craigslist today. Notable manufacturers are Peugeot, Mercier, Univega, and Nishiki. While technically these were road bikes, they have made a resurgence in America as city bikes, due to their easy conversion to single-speeds and their lasting quality. Buying a different set of handlebars is inexpensive, thus changing the riding position on an old ten-speed is very easy to do, especially since the shifters are typically mounted on the down tube, or stem. If the bike is converted to a single-speed (kits can be purchased for around $30), the shifters can be altogether removed.
Cruisers should also be considered as city bikes. These bikes are notable for their curving frames and fat tires. They often weigh more than their angular counterparts, but are perfectly useful in relatively flat terrain.
I want to point out that this is not an exhaustive list of city bikes by any means. There are also Italian, German, Scandinavian, Chinese, and Japanese city bikes, each with subtly different looks and features. Remember, these are only styles; you can get most of them from an American manufacturers. If you have the time and energy, I'd encourage you to scour the Internet to find the look that suits you best.
Road bikes are generally the standard bike people think of when using the term "bicycle." The idea of a road bike, however, is often far from the reality of the modern technology involved. While they can be affordable, they are performance bikes with price ranges that peak in the tens of thousands. They are often made of carbon fiber, but the lower-end models can be aluminum or steel. There are many different styles, from ultra-fast time-trial bikes to the near-cyclocross versions designed for the Paris-Roubeux race. If you want a bike for performance, you can get lots of help finding exactly what you want at your local bike shop or from your cycling community.
Touring bikes are also a type of road bicycle, though they are specifically designed for long travel. They have geometry for distances and eyelets for racks to store luggage. You can certainly tour your state, if not the entire country, on one of these bicycles. Tourers can ride 50 miles a day or more and still have time to see all the things that a cross-country journey entails. Touring bikes are, in large part, known for their comfort, especially their leather saddles, about which I'll go into more detail later.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the mountain bike became ubiquitous. While still technically a specialty bike, they are frequently converted into city bikes. One of the main issues you will face looking at these bikes is suspension. There are styles with front, rear, and full suspension, or even zero suspension. Mountain bikes are common, but very diverse. Bike shops are great resources for learning about the extensive varieties. Old mountain bikes are common on Craigslist, and often very cheap (especially hardtails from the '90s), so they can be a very good option if you are trying to save money on a quality bike.
Track bikes have had a dramatic return to fashion in the past decade. They are typically fixed-gear, which means that you can't coast. The rear cog is locked and spins with the rear wheel. While this may sound counterintuitive or unpleasant, I can assure you that fixed-gear bicycles are quite pleasant to ride after getting used to the different style of pedaling and adding brakes. Track-bike frames, however, are not defined by the fixed gear, but by their very steep, tight geometry that keeps the rider in a full-prone position. They traditionally do not come with brakes because they are designed for racing on a velodrome. They are performance bikes made for sprinting with full aerodynamics. The casual rider may be very unhappy on a track frame because of its geometry. However, not all bikes advertised as track bikes are actually made for the velodrome. Since their recent rise in fashion, many manufacturers are producing "track" bikes with much more relaxed geometry, often with brakes and in single-speed varieties. One can now get "flip-flop" hubs that allow the rider to ride either fixed- or free-wheel, depending on which side of the hub he or she is using. You can even buy "track" bikes with step-through frames (called "mixtes"), which is almost nonsensical, as a step-through frame would be inefficient in a velodrome. So, because of this current evolution, "track" bikes can be purchased very inexpensively and repurposed for city riding, which is probably a good thing for the cycling community, even if it bothers the taxonomists.
The term "hybrid" is a bit vague; while it technically means some hybrid of two styles of bicycle, generally, when you are asking for a hybrid bicycle you will be directed to either cyclocross bicycles or "hybrids" (which is a style in itself). The style called "hybrid" has become associated with a class of bicycles that is sort of similar to city bikes, but typically have mountain-bike components. There are other types of hybrid variations of bicycles, but these are too extensive for our purposes here.
I'll start with cyclocross bicycles. Cyclocross is a sport popular in Belgium that combines road-racing with riding on muddy trails and leaping off a bike to climb steep hills and jump barriers. It is one of the most dynamic sports in cycling culture, and necessitates a style of bicycle that is part road-racer, part off-road performer. The cyclocross (or "cross") bike is a light but reinforced aerodynamic bike, with wider-than-normal drop bars for better control in the mud; the shifting cables are re-routed so it is easier to carry, and it has knobby but still relatively thin tires. Cyclocross bikes can be found both in geared and single-speed/fixed-gear varieties.
I am particularly fond of the use of cyclocross bikes in urban environments for many reasons. First, they are performance bicycles; as such, they are generally fast and relatively light. Second, they are designed to be carried; this is more useful than you would imagine, especially if your home or workplace requires you to carry your bike up stairs. Next, they are designed for both the road and path; the knobby, slightly wider tires and wider handlebars provide significantly better control for those times when you need to travel on dirt. Plus, they are strong enough to endure the punishment of city riding (jumping curbs, potholes, gravel, etc).
"Hybrids," on the other hand, are a type of bicycle at the other end of the spectrum. They are more of a hybrid between city and mountain bikes. Typically, they have very relaxed geometry and put the rider in a totally upright position. They usually come with mountain-bike components, and, unless they are high-end, are often very heavy. I've never been much of a fan of these, as I see them as flawed versions of city bikes, but I don't want to be too harsh as this is a matter of taste. If you like the look and feel of a hybrid bicycle, you can certainly find very high-quality versions of them.
Folding bikes are fairly straightforward; they are bikes that can be collapsed or somehow made smaller for easy portage. While this industry is growing rapidly and their distinctions are immense, there are three main types of folding bikes: small wheel, full wheel, and split-frame folding bikes. Due to their engineering, they tend to be slightly heavier and can be expensive, but there are very affordable models available.
Small-wheeled folding bikes are the most noticeable. While many of them are marvels of engineering, they are generally regarded as visually unappealing (I don't share this view). The better-known brands are unique for their specific features, such as Brompton's super compact profile and Strida's long and slender fold. It should be noted that these bicycles, despite their appearance, ride almost exactly like a normal bike does, though the steering can be a bit tighter. The benefits of these bikes are obvious: portability and storage. Narrow staircases are no problem with folding bikes, so they are very beneficial for highly urban environments. With a small-wheeled folding bike, one often doesn't even need a lock, as the bicycles are allowed inside most shops and offices. They can be stored in a coat closet or in the trunk of a car, and they are almost always allowed on commuter rail. The smallest ones can even be brought onto airplanes as regular checked baggage.
Full-wheel models are much less noticeable than their smaller-wheeled counterparts. Chances are, if you live in a large city, you've probably seen quite a few and simply not realized it. While these can also be used for travel, the main uses for these bikes are getting in and out of buildings and ease in storage. The main benefit of the full wheel is that it is, essentially, indistinguishable from a normal bicycle in its ride. It is simply a bike that happens to fold up.
Split-frame folding bikes are bikes that are cut along their tubing, after which clamps are welded on that can hold the bike together. This allows the cyclist significantly greater ease in travel. Calling them "folding bikes" is slightly incorrect, as they merely are able to be separate into two pieces (they don't actually fold). Since this is often an after-market procedure, the cost and benefits can vary. They are usually only for people who are frequent tourers and are very particular about what they ride. Still, they're worth knowing about in case you have a bike you love and you really want to chop it in half.
Cargo bikes are arguably the most interesting types of bikes that exist. Since they are designed for particular purposes, the number and types of designs are always changing. Some cultures have traditional types of cargo bikes (notably Denmark), but bike companies are sprouting up around America that manufacture many of the best types of cargos from around the world. These bikes are not necessarily expensive, but the nicer, more interesting varieties are quite expensive, as they are generally purchased by businesses for the purpose of moving freight.
The first type of cargo bike is simply a fully equipped bicycle. It will have many of the following: front rack, rear rack, basket, panniers (rack mounting bags), and/or a trailer. These types of bicycles are perfect for shopping and are relatively inexpensive (since they are often just a modification of a regular bicycle). While one may first think that all these gadgets might be ugly, if one has a taste for design, beautiful racks and baskets aren't too hard to find.
Long-tail bikes, or long bikes, are excellent cargo bikes. This type of bicycle has and extended rear rack and moves the rear wheel significantly farther behind the seat. This provides a large platform for cargo and extended panniers. The rear wheel's position provides added support to the cargo. The primary benefit of this style of cargo bike is that the steering and control stays quite similar to that of a normal bicycle. The other benefit is the cost. Xtracycle sells conversion kits (named FreeRadical)4 that will turn your bicycle into a long-tail bike for as little as $335.
There are two main types of traditional Danish cargo bikes. The first is a three-wheeled cycle; the front two wheels support a very large container. They can also be insulated for cold storage (think: ice cream vendors) or for warm storage, and are effective for business-owners hauling bags of goods across town. While these cargo bikes are large (the front boxes can be as large as shopping carts), they are very quick.
The second type of Danish cargo bike is the flatbed. This true two-wheeled bicycle has a long flatbed between the rider and the smaller front wheel. It is designed to hold enormous amounts of cargo. If you can secure it to the flatbed, you can probably haul it. The rider sits upright behind the goods and rides it like a normal bicycle, unlike its three-wheeled counterparts. They may take a bit of getting used to, but can be are very fast and quite agile.
Similar to the flatbed, the Dutch bakfiets, or box bike, has a box- or wheelbarrow-shaped container where the flatbed would be. These icons of Amsterdam are frequently seen with two or three small children being cycled by their mother or father to the shops or parks. The real benefit of the box bike is its aesthetic appeal; they are beautiful, while staying inherently practical.
Finally, the only truly ugly cargo bicycle is the modern American delivery bicycle. However, what it lacks in beauty, it makes up in ability. Typically, it is some old or stolen mountain bike, a slapdash Frankenbike (a bike assembled from a myriad of random parts from other bikes), or, on occasion, an electric hybrid; the shopkeepers or deliverymen will then modify the front or back racks to have huge baskets that can carry dozens of orders around a city. I must say, while I don't really care for them, one has to admire the ingenuity of the deliveryman who pieced together one of these utilitarian monstrosities.
Recumbent bicycles are bicycles that place the rider's feet in front of his or her torso. These are, apparently, more difficult to learn to ride. The have some characteristics that are preferable to standard, prone bicycles. Primarily, they put the rider in a more aerodynamic position. They allow the cyclist to press against the frame of the bicycle to exert more power from each pedal stroke. Lastly, they have a real seat, instead of a saddle, which arguably provides a more comfortable ride.
The last bikes I want to talk about are all unique; they are BMX, trials, tall bikes, and swing bikes. BMX should be familiar to most people as they were very popular in the 1980s. They have a very low center of gravity and are used in dirt jumping and other types of "extreme" cycling (I hate that term but have no other way to refer to it). So if that is your thing, you should check them out.
Trials is a type of cycling that is basically defined by it being very difficult. Essentially, it challenges the rider to get over impossibly difficult objects without getting off the bike. Trials bikes usually have very low centers of gravity and step-through frames for better balance. If you have a chance to watch some videos of trials cyclists, you should; it's some of the most impressive bicycle riding that exists.
Tall bikes and swing bikes are not produced by any companies for legal reasons, but if you know a welder, you can make yourself one. Tall bikes are made from two frames welded on top of one another, generally with some supports welded on as well. These are modern incarnations of a lamplighter bikes from the era before the lightbulb. They are very fun to ride, putting you up above even large automobiles. Obviously, the downside to them is mounting and dismounting (which can be learned, but is quite difficult at first). For this reason, they tend to be fixed-gear bicycles, as this allows the rider to track stand (a method by which a cyclist can stay upright on a fixed-gear bicycle by rolling subtly back and forth).
Swing bikes are bicycles whose frames have hinges at the handlebars and at the seat. This allows the front wheel to move independently from the rear. I've never ridden one of these, but they appear to be a good time, assuming they're not too tricky to learn. Both tall bikes and swing bikes are very rare to see in public, but if you get a chance, each is quite remarkable.
Bicycles' subtle differences are usually very difficult to notice when shopping for one. Some affect the performance of the bike while others are aesthetic. I briefly want to go over what you will encounter in a basic, starter bicycle: steel, wheels, stems, lugs, and suspension.
First, there is the type of steel used in the frame. While you might be purchasing an aluminum or carbon-fiber bicycle, most intro-level bicycles are made of one of two types of steel: high-tensile (hi-tens) steel or chromoly (CRMO) steel. High-tensile steel is generally considered the lower quality of the two alloys. It is significantly heavier and rusts more readily. However, high-tensile steel's main benefit is that it is significantly cheaper. If you live in a generally flat city and don't see yourself ever needing to carry your bike, then you may not notice the difference. Chromoly steel is light and rust-resistant; this steel will allow a decently maintained bicycle to last a lifetime. It's just better, so make sure you check the specs for this.
Wheel size also varies. The two primary types of wheels are 26-inch and 700C. These sizes are meant to represent the diameter of the tire, 26 inches and 700mm, respectively, but the actual measurements of these wheels can vary wildly, so always consult your bike mechanic before purchasing new tires for your wheels. Typically, 26-inch wheels are for mountain bikes, while 700C are for the road, though there is significant variation. Many touring bikes have 26-inch wheels, and some mountain bikes have wider wheels somewhat equivalent to 700C, called "29ers." Tire widths are still variable within wheel sizes, so remember that buying a road bike doesn't means you need super-narrow tires, and that mountain bikes' wheels can be repurposed for the road. This choice of wheel size, however, is probably moot for most new-bike purchases, as most frames will only fit one type of wheel, but be aware of the wheel size when buying a used bike or any after-market components.
There are also two main types of stems to choose from. The stem is what connects your handlebars to your fork. Traditionally, stems were all quill stems (sometimes called threaded stems), but due to changes to bicycle design, there are also threadless stems. Each type of stem is specific to a type of fork. There are adapters, but it's not very practical to try and switch between the two. Quill stems usually have an aesthetic "7" shape and connect to handlebars via a pinch bolt. Threadless stems are often preferred because they typically have a "pop top" (also called a pillow block) connection to the handlebars. Stems with a pinch bolt require the cyclist to feed the handlebars snugly through the stem, after which the pinch bolt is tightened to hold the bars in place. This requires the cyclist to remove everything from the handlebars when removing them. A pop top has a faceplate that simply unscrews, allowing extremely easy access to the handlebars. If you plan on swapping your handlebars with any regularity, then a pop top is indispensable.
Lugs are also a unique feature of a bike. While modern bicycles' tubing is usually welded directly, lugs that connect tubing are commonly found on older or higher-end steel bicycles. Lugs these days are often intricate, beautiful accent pieces on handmade bicycles. While they may be obsolescent, some in the cycling community are still passionate about the aesthetic and functional value of lugs. For those who want that vintage bicycle look, a lugged frame is an absolute requirement.
Finally, there is suspension. Bicycle suspension comes in many variations, but the primary forms you will encounter are fork suspension, rear suspension, and occasionally, saddle suspension. Frame suspension is generally geared toward performance mountain biking. It's often very sophisticated and can be quite expensive. For most urban environments, anything beyond saddle suspension is probably superfluous. Just understand that there is a trade-off between mechanical efficiency and impact dampening. If you live in an area with cobblestones, excessive potholes, or rough trails, it might be worthwhile, but you will be losing valuable energy with every push of the pedals on flat pavement. For all intents and purposes here, buying a quality saddle and adjusting tire pressure will do more for your overall comfort than expensive frame-suspension systems.
A bicycle's geometry is going to affect how it fits you. You can get more aggressive geometry, which will put you in an aerodynamic position, or you can have more of an upright, relaxed geometry. Regardless of which type of geometry you choose, the bicycle needs to fit. A bike's size should reflect the length of the seat tube, in centimeters, from the center of the weld at the top tube to the center of the bottom bracket; unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Actually, many bike sizes are a measurement of the line between the center of the top and seat tube. Thus, bike fit can be counterintuitive, so it's a good idea to get some help from your mechanic. In addition, I tend to be of the school that thinks top-tube measurement is far more important than seat-tube length when sizing a bike, but top-tube length is not usually a measurement you can get without bringing a tape measure to the store with you.
You can always get fit at a high-end bicycle shop before choosing a bike. A fitting is not just you standing over a bike while the employee nods and says, "Looks good." There will be a machine in the shop that is designed for finding your ideal fit, measured to the millimeter. While this may be impractical for most people, it's an option that does exist, especially if one is going to buy an expensive or custom bike.
Without a machine, the best way to size a bike is to test-ride it. Adjust the saddle to the appropriate height (this is discussed more later, but try to get the seat high enough that you can comfortably pedal with your heels and forward enough that your knee is over the ball of your foot on your downstroke), make sure the bike is safe to ride, and take it out for a short distance. What you should be looking for is how the bike fits your arms and torso. Essentially, if the bike is too big, your torso will feel stretched out and you will feel too much pressure on your wrists. If the frame is too small, your torso will feel bunched up and your butt will feel too much pressure. If the bike is in the right range, you torso should feel comfortable and your weight will be distributed primarily on your legs. Don't worry, though, it doesn't have to fit you exactly; adjustments or different stems allow the handlebars to vary in position. You just want to make sure your bike size is within a good range.
Whether or not to have a derailleur, or derailer (the word just means "thing that causes derailment," but in French), is one of the most important decisions one makes when purchasing a bicycle. Unsurprisingly, some people are quite opinionated about whether or not to have gears. Since the recent rise of the fixed-gear bike and single-speed conversions, a good-spirited rivalry has opened in the bike community. Internal transmissions are the proverbial Switzerland of the two sides, since they have the elements of both. Nevertheless, there are benefits and costs to each.
The choice is heavily dependent on your local topography. Take three American cities: the relatively flat grid of New York City, the occasional gentle hills of Austin, and the (figurative) alpine cliffs of San Francisco. The only need for gearing in New York is the occasional bridge and slight grade; a single-speed will suit anyone who is physically fit, though there may be some soreness when acclimating. An alternative is a three-speed, internal or otherwise, for a little help on the bridges, but this isn't really necessary in Manhattan. Austin can really only be navigated easily with a three-speed at a minimum, unless one is extremely fit. While many Austinites ride the city on fixed-gear and single-speed bicycles, the west side of the city is simply too hilly to negotiate without some gearing. For San Francisco, I would suggest a wide range of gears. Ironically, however, San Francisco has a very large fixed-gear culture; probably because much of San Francisco can be negotiated without directly encountering the massive hills. There seems to be a culture of an altering of routes to suit the cyclist, rather than choosing a bicycle to suit the map. Other than topography, however, the decision between which style to go with is fairly straightforward.
The main benefit of a single-speed is simplicity. A fixed-gear or single-speed drive train is relatively indestructible. Even with enormous wear and tear, the entire unit can be replaced, easily, for under $100. Weight is another benefit. A single-speed drive train is (to my knowledge) the lightest drive train possible; it is also mostly silent. The downside, obviously, is that there is only one gear; however, a consolation is that, depending on the area where you live, you can adjust the gear ratio to suit the environment. Typically, this ratio is measured by the number of teeth on the front chain ring divided by the number of teeth on the rear cog (for example, I generally ride a 46/17 when in Austin, though a 46/22 is probably more suitable for the hills); however, this measurement is somewhat insufficient. The length of your cranks will affect the amount of effort it takes to pedal your bicycle (the technical measurement is inch-pounds, but this is a bit too advanced for our purposes). Anyway, you'll probably want to ask people in your community, or at your bike shop, if you don't know what ratio to use.
Derailleurs were an advanced technology when they were introduced to the cycling community. The benefits are obvious; with multiple gears, one can adjust one's cadence (the rate at which a person pedals) to suit the grade on any hill. Derailleurs are often misused, though, and abused due to negligence. There are always fewer usable gearings than advertised (e.g., an "18-speed" bicycle probably has 12 usable gears, and a few of those probably overlap). The reason is that the cyclist should keep the chain in a reasonably straight line between the front and rear chain rings. This means that when the inside of the front chain ring is used (typically the smallest ring in front), the chain should be shifted to the inside of the rear cassette as well (typically the largest ring in back), and vice versa. The idea is to keep the chainline relatively straight. If this isn't done, the chain is stretched sideways and can damage the cassette.
The disadvantages of derailleurs, however, are significant. First, one cannot shift gears when stopped. This can be very problematic in a city. Next, they require maintenance. Without proper maintenance, they will rapidly fall in to disrepair (though a tune-up will usually fix this). The problem is compounded in that derailleurs are a bit too complicated for the layperson to fix. While problems incurred by a single-speed are relatively intuitive, there are enough screws and barrels on a typical bicycle transmission to frighten your average beginner, and help from the bike shop costs money.
Finally, not all drive trains are created equal. The derailleur is just one of many components in a multi-gear drive train, and there is a cornucopia of different "levels" of components. This will dramatically affect the price of the bicycle. If you see two seemingly identical bicycles selling for two dramatically different prices, the discrepancy is probably caused by the quality and weight of its drive-train components. To go through all the brands and levels of drive-train components would be unpalatably tedious. So,when you are at your local bike shop, ask about the different levels of components they sell. Generally, you will encounter Shimano products, though SRAM and Campagnolo both make quality components. A quality bicycle will have Shimano's Tiagra (road), ALIVO, or DEORE (mountain) components or better.
Internal transmissions are, in my mind, the happy medium for city cycling. The primary benefit is the ability to shift while stopped; this is crucial in maintaining simplicity in an urban setting. Instead of the constant upward and downward shifting for stop signs and lights, the rider can concentrate on the road rather than on his or her chain's position. Another benefit is that modern internal transmissions aren't exposed to the elements, and they don't require nearly as much maintenance as a drive train with a cassette. They are slightly heavier than their derailleur counterparts, though, but this weight disadvantage is more than made up for by simplicity of use. Traditionally, an internal transmission hub only came with three gear ratios, but one can now get eight or even twelve speeds with an internal transmission. They are, however, expensive. Another downside is their noise; some of the models are quite loud and make clicking noises when in certain gears, though not all of them. Also, they can be broken in a serious crash. While a derailleur system isn't exactly tough, if one were to damage a hub with internal transmission, the entire transmission would be ruined, whereas a derailleur or cassette can easily be replaced on its own.
Regardless of whether you chose a derailleur or internal transmission, you will need shifters. Typically, bikes have trigger shifters (clickable shifters mounted on the handlebars) or friction shifters (metal tabs that move up and down on older bikes). However, there are shifters integrated into brakes, and grip shifters that are integrated where you hold the handlebars. The right shifters can greatly increase the riding experience, so make sure you consider your available options when looking at bikes to purchase.
The price ranges of bicycles for different vendors can be summed up only very generally. As a new cyclist, you will have limited knowledge as to what you are looking for, so here's what to expect. In a bike store, you will probably pay $600 at the bare minimum for anything made of chromoly steel, but I would expect to pay closer to between $800 and $1200. One benefit you should expect is a free cable adjustment between one to three months after purchase. Bicycle cables stretch when they are new and need to be adjusted after the first few months of riding. You may also get a free tune-up after one year of riding; this is somewhere between $60 and $100 of savings (assuming you plan on maintaining your bicycle). Sometimes there will be added benefits from the shop you go to: free adjustments, discounts on accessories or apparel, discounts at its café (many bike shops have commuter cafés), etc. Needless to say, there are some clearly identifiable benefits from buying a new bicycle from a bike shop.
If you go with an online retailer, like Bikes Direct, then you will probably be paying between $250 and $1000 for a standard introductory bike. This is a substantial savings, but there are serious downsides. First, you will have to assemble the bike yourself. It's not too hard, but if you find yourself without a set of Allen wrenches, you'll be paying out of pocket for those. Plus, I hope you are comfortable with looking online for how to make basic adjustments, because you will need to make adjustments to some of the cables within three months, and you will probably have to take it into a store if you don't know how. Don't be surprised if the shop owners charge you a high price for labor, as they will know you purchased your bike from an online discount retailer by its brand name. It'd probably be better if you at least know someone who is handy with bikes or are ready to learn.
If you shop on Craigslist, be ready to get savvy. While the shrewd cyclist can find incredible deals on this website, more often than not you will be rolling the dice. I wouldn't feel comfortable advising anyone to spend more than $350 on a Craigslist bike unless you know what you're doing. You can certainly find bikes for less than that, but you really need to know what to look for to take advantage of these bargains.
Finally, remember to budget for accessories and locks. You will need a good lock, helmet, lights, an air pump, a multi-tool, and a patch kit at minimum. These cost money, and when you skimp here, you put your own safety at risk. So remember to budget $100 at the absolute minimum for these. You can save money if you buy them online before you need them; otherwise, you may end up paying much more to get them immediately at a shop.
At this point, you should have a pretty reasonable idea of what you want. Now you need to know what you don't want. You can't check for everything on a used bike, but you can certainly check for the major issues. It is helpful to bring a friend, a length of string at least double the length of the bike, and a pen or marker to any bike evaluation. Keep an eye out for the following five red flags whenever you are considering a secondhand steel bike. Much of this advice applies to aluminum or carbon fiber, but secondhand steel bikes can be of exceedingly high quality and are common.
First, check the weight of the bicycle. This is generally a good indicator of a quality bicycle. An extremely heavy frame is probably made of high-tensile steel, or possibly worse. This means there may be rust or corrosion out of sight, especially inside the frame if the bike was improperly stored. This can cause numerous headaches, from damage to the bike's structural integrity to parts seizing in the frame. You can check for this by looking inside the frame with a flashlight and trying to adjust anything with threading, but if you are buying a used high-tensile steel bike with any serious age, make sure it is very inexpensive.
Next, check for rust or cracks on the outside of the bicycle. If there are any cracks anywhere on the frame, don't buy the bike. Also, any serious paint loss should be a red flag, as it could lead to rust in the near future. Make sure areas around the lugs or welds are rust-free. Rust on the these sections should be especially worrisome because it is potentially dangerous.
You'll want to check the drive train. This, however, can be difficult if you are not familiar with the way a worn-out drive train looks (this is discussed in Chapter 5). If you are unable to assess the cogs and derailleur, just check for any serious rust or significant hub wobbling as it spins, as this is a very bad sign. You should also try and ride it up an incline and check that the chain doesn't jump under pressure. If it does, this is a worn-out drive train that needs to be replaced. A rusted single-speed drive train is not as serious of a problem because the parts are cheap to replace and a lot more sturdy due to the lack of shifting, but make sure the chainline is straight.
Next, check the bearings. There are ball-bearings in the hubs, bottom bracket, and headset. Make sure these all spin smoothly and give little resistance. Bearings are rather inexpensive to replace if they're is all that's wrong with a nice bike, but bearings are fairly sturdy. If they were seriously damaged for some reason, I'd be concerned about a general lack of maintenance, and what other problems might be lurking.
Finally, to be truly careful, you must check to make sure the fork and rear triangle are straight. Checking the fork is simple; remove the front wheel and reset it. While the owner can make a wheel appear straight in a bent fork, if you replace the wheel yourself while visually checking, you'll be able to see if the wheel is off-kilter in the fork, indicating that it's bent. Also, you will need to check if the wheel is true when doing this (give it a spin and make sure it doesn't wobble much), as this might cause a false positive.
Checking whether the rear triangle is straight is a good idea. The easiest method is to test it with a very long string. It's a bit tricky to describe how to do this, but essentially, you want to measure the distance from the front of the bike to each rear dropout. If that distance is equal, then the rear triangle is fine. If there is any large discrepancy, then do not buy the bike as it will probably not ride straight. The way to do this is by taking a string and starting by holding it next to one dropout, then have a friend take the string around the head tube and bring it to the other rear dropout. Hold both ends firm and have your friend mark the center point at the head tube and then where the string hits the dropouts. Then remove the string and pull it taut without the bike to measure the two distances. If your marks line up, then you are probably safe. If there is any serious discrepancy, beware; either the front or rear triangle is probably bent, and the bicycle might not ride properly.
"Nothing is pleasant that is not spiced with variety."
Once you have a bike, there may be a few things you don't love about it. Upgrading the "touch points" on your bike is a great way to improve comfort. The touch points are your saddle, handlebars, and pedals. Each of these is integral to how you interact with a bike, so they are worth a second look. There are many other ways to improve your ride, too; for example, you might not know about skirt guards and panniers. (The former protects your clothing from getting caught in your rear wheel; the latter is a pack designed to fit on a bike to make carrying things easy.) Utilizing these types of accessories is key for turning a good experience into a great one.
The saddle is, arguably, the most important part of a bike. It is the heart of the three touch points. The comfort of your bike is primarily dependent on frame-fitting and saddle type. Unfortunately, an ill-fitting saddle can cause greater problems than simple discomfort. I strongly suggest getting fitted for an after-market saddle if you plan on riding for any serious length of time.
The first decision is what style of saddle you want. The main things to concentrate on are material, suspension, width, and cutout. Saddle material is generally either padded or leather. Padded saddles are the most common. They are typically just some kind of padding material over a plastic frame. They will usually be covered in either a fabric-, vinyl-, or leather-like material. When looking for a padded saddle, you will want it to be firm, not squishy. The goal is for it to distribute the weight on your sit bones ever so slightly without it pressing into your perineum (between your legs), so stay away from soft padding. Ideally, it will give like a properly inflated tire: firmly. Keep in mind that finding a good fit is tricky, so make sure to ask your mechanic for advice.
Padded saddles are preferable if you live in a particularly wet climate, as rain can ruin leather. They are also good if you are concerned with price. Padded saddles also come in a variety of colors. They are usually black, often white, but there are manufacturers that produce saddles in every color imaginable; I've seen them in plaid, or even sparkling purple, so personalization is extremely easy.
Leather is the other main saddle type. If you imagine the padded saddle as a firm desk chair, a stretched leather saddle is a hammock. The leather starts incredibly tight across the seat; as you use it, it stretches until your weight is evenly distributed across its surface. This essentially gives you a personal, custom fit. This custom fitting is complimented by a leather saddle's aesthetic value. Many leather-saddle manufactures make exceedingly beautiful ones. Some are imprinted with designs and most have warm, rich color tones. The primary downside of a leather saddle is its price. Even the lower-end saddles generally cost more than $100, and the price goes up from there. Another downside is that leather saddles are not typically weatherproof. This means that one would need to use a cover or plastic bag any time it rains or snows; it would also be advantageous to have fenders to prevent saturation from underneath. Finally, leather saddles are, unfortunately, magnets for theft; their nice looks and higher price can mean they will be targeted and must be camouflaged when locked up; it's worth keeping this in mind when considering an investment in a saddle.
Suspension is often found on leather touring saddles. There are two different types of seat suspension: suspension on the saddle itself, or on the seat post. Suspension on-saddle is generally confined to large springs at the rear of the seat. These allow the frame of the saddle some independence. If you have a particularly stiff frame — aluminum, for instance — some type of saddle suspension might work well.
While suspension can help, width is a more important factor when it comes to a saddle's comfort. If your saddle is not the appropriate width, your sit bones won't fall where they should and your butt will not be comfortable. You can have your sit bones measured at some higher-end shops, and you might want to consider this if you are looking to get an after-market saddle.
Narrower saddles can be dangerous if improperly fit. The human body, say, sitting on a chair, will have its weight properly distributed on the sit bones. On a saddle, however, weight con be distributed in between the legs. Unfortunately, the perineum nerve runs between the legs, and too much weigh compressing it can cause the genitals to go numb and potentially cause permanent damage. If your saddle is too narrow, you may be putting the entire weight of your body on very this delicate area. Studies have linked perineum damage from cycling to sexual disfunction6. Make sure you consult your doctor about these potential issues and consider purchasing an after-market saddle. Manufacturers know about these issues and have designed saddles with them in mind. First, there are no-nose saddles; these saddles come in many shapes and sizes, but their unifying feature is that they contact the body only around the sit bones. However, some of them seem quite odd indeed, and may be the result of marketing rather than science. The second type of perineum-relief saddles are those with cutouts. These cutouts leave a gap where your delicate areas are supposed to encounter pressure so as to prevent anything from pressing against your body at these points. Needless to say, I cannot provide any advice as to which of these, if any, actually provides any medical benefit, but I will say if you are experiencing any pain or numbness, it's probably best to talk to your doctor immediately and see if anything can be done.
The easiest way to individualize your bike is with a new set of handlebars. There are many to choose from; if you have a road bike, you can choose from traditional drops, ergonomic drops, or track drops. A city bike can use everything, from drops to straight bars, swooping North Road bars, or even pursuits (also called bullhorns). They are all relatively inexpensive. The only thing you need to take into account is whether they are compatible with your stem, shifters, and brake levers. Getting the sizing of your stem is a relatively simple task; you can just go to your local bike store and they will measure it for you. Getting bars that are compatible with your brake levers, on the other hand, is a different story altogether. It is somewhat straightforward, and somewhat a judgement call. Can you use long pull-brakes on mustache bars? Probably, but it would would certainly be a bad idea to use them on riser bars. Having accessible, easy-to-use brakes is obviously important; make sure you talk with your mechanic about yours before buying new handlebars.
Pedals are a relatively inexpensive improvement. There are metal pedals for added strength, big, fat BMX pedals, or one of the myriad versions of clipless pedals for improved performance. I'm of the opinion that BMX pedals are ideal for the casual rider7. They are typically very inexpensive, but still light and designed to be strong. They come in a wide variety of colors, so matching your bike is relatively simple. For added support, you can buy thick straps that hold your feet in place. So if your feet are causing you any discomfort, consider getting a new set of pedals.
Fenders, skirt guards, chain covers, and kickstands are all optional accessories with which you can individuate your bicycle. If you live in a rainy area, you will most certainly want fenders. Skirt guards have a hidden benefit in cold climates, because jackets often hang low enough to get caught in, or at least be dirtied by, the rear wheel8. These can easily be jury-rigged from a standard plastic fender by punching holes along the top and tying thread or mesh between the rear dropout and fender. Just be careful to trim anything loose so it won't get caught while riding. Chain covers are perfect for the businessman who wants neither to stain his slacks nor to roll them up. Kickstands, contrary to their childish image, are a borderline necessity for serious cargo cyclists, and often come with a beautifully constructed double kickstand that holds the rear wheel aloft (useful during repairs). Rear racks, along with panniers, make hauling groceries easy. The tiniest of riders can carry loads of supplies if panniers are utilized properly.
Bells and lights are significantly more necessary, and are required in many jurisdictions. There are hundreds of types of lights to suit any cyclist's needs: helmet-mounted, frame-mounted, or made from stretchy silicone to fit anywhere. There is significant choice, also, with bells, from the traditional large bell with its distinctive ring to specially designed Sögreni (Danish) bells that are as practical as they are beautiful9. Needless to say, you can spend a lot of time (and money) getting your bike exactly how you want it.
"A day or two since, a gentleman in Chicago, who has been practicing on a velocipede, for some time on the sidewalks, came out upon Indiana-avenue, and throwing down the gauntlet of defiance, dared a street car driver to race with him to Thirty-first street, the terminus of the track. The challenge was accepted by the car driver, although the latter had several lady passengers on board. The race began auspiciously, the horses being driven at a furious pace. The velocipede soon gained upon its competitor, and bade fair to distance it, when an unlucky crack in the sidewalk received the forewheel, leaving the other, in obedience to the law of its momentum, to turn a summersault, throwing the rider into the gutter. The car won the race on a 'foul.'"
-The New York Times, January 15, 186910
You are traffic, and if you plan on riding a bicycle around town, it's probably a good idea to have a reasonable knowledge of how to act. Unfortunately, there is no widespread cyclists' education to train riders, and there are many misconceptions about how to ride on the streets. Following some general guidelines, it's relatively easy to get around town in a safe, quick, and efficient manner. Now, before I begin, lights and a helmet: use them. Use lights at night, use them in the early morning hours, use them whenever it's dark. Get extra batteries for your lights; keep some in your bag. Reflectors suck; get lights. Use lights. Buy a helmet you will wear. It's worth spending a little extra money on one so that you won't hate it. I shouldn't even have to explain this.
Improving the way we look at our cities is a great way to prevent conflict. Think of the map of your city. If you are like me, you are thinking of roads, primarily high-speed, high-traffic roads. However, if you want a safe, pleasant cycling experience, it helps to create a gestalt shift in the way you see your city map. What do I mean? Cities with large transit systems have clear, alternative maps. When taking the subway uptown in New York City, one doesn't have to remember which subway line runs along Broadway (it's the N/Q/R trains below Times Square, and 1/2/3 above). In fact, in the subway, one doesn't think of routes in terms of roads at all. On subway maps, the roads almost disappear beneath the train lines. Now imagine you need figure out which way to take subway, but you only have a road map. You look the road map, then superimpose the subway map onto it in your mind. You "see" both maps, and you can "flip" them back an forth in your mind. This is a gestalt shift. This is useful very when looking at your city map in terms of cycling.
An automobile-centric map is typically the default when people visualize their city. Everyone has already learned it. What is intuitive about an automobile-centric map is that road size on the map typically correlates to actual road size. "You can't miss it" is an expression that is common for driving directions because major routes are physically large. Unfortunately, bike maps are quite the opposite. Safe routes are on small, generally unnoticed roads, hidden away in neighborhoods or parks. The reason new cyclists don't know of these routes is precisely because they aren't roads that are often driven on. For example, when I ride across Austin, I obviously don't take Mopac or I-35 (highways); I don't even take Lamar or Congress (major avenues). I ride on small, neighborhood roads, away from traffic all the way across town. However, I am only able to do this because I know the bike routes, cycle paths, and other facilities. I spent some time learning them. Ask someone in Austin if he knows where South Lamar is and there's a good chance he can tell you in detail, but ask him where Kenny Street is and he will probably have no idea. These roads are essentially parallel, but the first is a major thoroughfare (that can be frightening even with its bike lane), while the other is a bike-friendly route on a small, neighborhood road.
Now, if you are a new (or potential) cyclist, you probably think of the roads you'd typically drive on when contemplating a route, and could be terrified at the prospect of having to interact with the associated traffic. Of course, you probably don't need to ride on those busy roads at all. A bike map can calm those fears by showing the appropriate neighborhood routes with low traffic and slow speeds, though most of these maps could be improved. The best part is that these alternate routes probably won't even be out of the way; they might even save you some time. So drop by a cycling shop and see if there is a bike map of your city, and keep it in your bag or by your bike. It'll be useful if you need find an new route across town.
Unfortunately, cyclists must always ride defensively. Even though drivers can see you, often, perhaps through no fault of their own, they won't. Bicycle advocates have pointed out that there is safety in numbers when it comes to cycling11. This is not to say that riding in groups is safer than riding alone, but that drivers tend to see only what they expect to see. Thus, if there is a high prevalence of cycling in a community, the drivers in that community will literally be able to see and interact with a cyclist sooner and more safely. The other side of the coin, unfortunately, is that in less-cycled communities, automobile drivers may not see you, and you need to be wary of them; they can be quite dangerous with their blinders on.
Watch out for doors. The verb "doored" refers to when someone opens the door of a parked car immediately in front of a cyclist, causing the cyclist to swerve into traffic or crash into the door. This is probably the most serious danger that most new cyclists and, unfortunately, most people, don't know about. Cyclists are typically directed to the right side of the road where cars are parked; unfortunately, this is where people most frequently open doors, even if a bike lane is provided. Because of this, bike lanes on one-way streets are now being placed on the left side, as the number of passengers exiting cars here is orders of magnitude smaller. My advice here would be not to ride very quickly when in between traffic and parked cars. Check cars' rearview mirrors to see if anyone is in the driver's seat. Be aware of cars that have just parallel-parked in front of you; their drivers will probably be exiting. Be wary of cars that are idling or have their brake lights on. You never know when the driver may exit, but you do know the car is occupied. Just knowing a door may open is half the battle; use the whole bike lane, it's wide for a reason. Finally, take the lane when necessary. That is, if you feel unsafe, use the full lane. This is legal in almost all jurisdictions.
There are also more subtle aspects of interacting with cars. For example, make eye contact. Yes, get used to looking through the windshield and looking the driver in the eye. There is a person in that car; study him. Is he looking at you? Is he texting someone? Is he distracted? If he is looking at you, he probably sees you; if he isn't, he definitely doesn't, so proceed with caution. This simple trick is the best piece of defensive cycling I know. Always beware of cell phones, because distracted drivers do strange things. Look at them as you interact with them. It is not just a car, it is a person in a car.
There are also times at intersections when cars' actions should not be trusted. The two main scenarios one should look out for, are the 'right hook' and the 'left cross'. The right hook is the when a driver suddenly turns right into a cyclist at an intersection. There is really no way to anticipate this, but it's best to be aware of automobiles near you at an intersection. Try to avoid riding through the intersection when in the blind spot of a car. It's also a good idea to keep an eye on the front tire of cars that you think may be about to turn right it front of you. It's actually much easier than it seems.
The left cross can happen when a car opposite someone in an intersection turns left inattentively. They may be trying to sneak through a gap on a busy street, or they may be completely oblivious to cyclists altogether. Either way, be ready to avoid a collision of this type. Slow down before the intersection and try to see if this driver is anticipating you approaching. Have you made eye contact? Are you riding through just as a gap in traffic is created? Keep these things in mind and proceed with caution. It will become second nature once you start checking for it, trust me.
Always take the full lane when needed. Most state laws instruct the cyclist to stay as far to the right as is "practicable." Now, what "practicable" means is obviously intentionally vague, but I can tell you, it is rather "impracticable" to stay dangerously close to the curb, where damage to the pavement could leave you stuck between the curb and a passing car. Generally, I would suggest riding in the right tire-mark, but also taking the full lane when appropriate. This allows plenty of room for automobiles to pass when it is safe, but it also leaves the cyclist some enough space if a distracted automobile driver were to (accidentally) pass too close, while (accidentally) discharging the horn and (accidentally) shouting something inaudible while passing (these accidents do happen occasionally). While this might create a dangerous situation if the cyclist where up against drainage or a curb, taking the lane leaves the cyclist plenty of room to maneuver away from the car and to signal to the driver that he or she may consider a safer passing distance in the future.
"Undertaking" is a term for passing on the right, especially in that small space between the car and the curb. This is opposed to overtaking (passing on the left). Undertaking is extremely, and surprisingly, dangerous. Here, you won't know if they're turning, and they won't know you are there. The danger of undertaking increases with the size of the vehicle. Drivers of large trucks or busses have little or no chance of seeing you when you are on their passenger side. Obviously, this is especially dangerous at intersections, even when stopped at a red light. Always watch the front tire of a car when passing, on either side, especially at intersections. It is a better indicator of whether a car is turning than the blinker, I assure you.
Filtering is quite similar to undertaking. Filtering is when, at a red light in heavy traffic, a cyclist will split lanes to advance to the light. While I'm not going to outright tell you not to do this (I'd be lying if I said I've never done this), filtering should be discouraged, especially in dangerous areas. The dangers are, first, that the light may change when you're advancing; this can put the cyclist tightly in between two moving vehicles. Second, there is the danger identical to that of undertaking; if one advances to the right of a car intending to make a right turn without signaling (what's the harm?, they will presume, as they're in the far right lane with no one to yield to), they can turn into you without even realizing.
Again, remember that many drivers just don't pay as much attention as they should, especially with cell phones in the car. Others just don't understand the rules of the road. These drivers may be aggressive yielders. Expect to encounter aggressive yielders frequently in traffic. What do I mean by "aggressive"? The textbook example is a crosswalk that is not situated at an intersection. Drivers may be either ignorant of their duty to yield or intentionally ignore this duty; regardless, it is quite common (and probably safer) for pedestrians to yield to drivers in these crosswalks because of the risks involved with crossing as a two-ton automobile rapidly approaching. It is prudent to yield to aggressive drivers even though you have the right of way. Be careful, especially in areas that involve merging. Be careful when drivers have yield signs. Be careful at rotaries. The negative outcome is too great, no matter how small its probability of an accident. There is just no way to eliminate this behavior under the current transit paradigm.
Communication between vehicles can be difficult. You know who I notice are terrible at communicating on the road? Cyclists. Typically, the Spandex Crew (sorry, guys ... Lycra) is quite good at communication, as well as the over-30 crowd, but the vast majority of cyclists don't signal. Signaling is expected of automobiles for good reason; automobiles kill people. But it should also be expected of cyclists for the same reason; that is, because automobiles can kill you (plus it's polite), so be sure to signal when changing lanes or turning. Unfortunately, the proper hand signals are generally unknown to most drivers, but they will understand if you just stick your arm out in the direction you plan to go. You can do the arm up thing for turning right or the arm down for stopping, but I doubt if many people will remember these from Driver's Ed.
Also, remember to keep your eyes on the road. Cars behind you can see you. While I understand why people have this (mostly irrational) fear, it's really unnecessary. Few accidents are happen this way, and assuming you follow some general precautions (taking the lane when needed, lights, signaling, reflectors, etc.) it's better to direct your attention to other important causes of accidents. Generally, keeping your eyes forward, looking at the pavement, and concentrating on doors and cars turning are areas where you should be concentrating. Road conditions cause accidents. Potholes, loose gravel, or road work debris can sent you for a tumble without even encountering an automobile. The velocipede rider from the beginning of this chapter lost his race against the street car because of such an accident. So remember to concentrate on your surroundings, and slow down if you start to feel unsafe.
Another group one interacts with on the road is other cyclists. The most annoying thing you may encounter with other cyclists is salmoning in the bike lane. What is salmoning? In the same way that salmon swim against the current, bicycle salmon are those who ride against traffic flow. While this isn't too much of a problem in most areas, and is even generally legal in places (notably France), it does become a problem when it happens in the bike lane. The problem is that, while a bike lane on a one-way street is ideally on the left side (so as to reduce the chance of being doored), our convention for passing on the right forces the law abider into traffic, and thus, potential danger. For this reason I sternly hug the left side of these one-way bike lanes when encountering bike salmon. It can end up as a mild game of chicken, so make sure that you make eye contact and try to communicate with them. They can see oncoming traffic; you can't. It sometimes doesn't go over too well, but I'm not exactly worried about getting a hard time from someone who is putting my safety at risk because he or she can't be bothered to ride his or her bike one stupid block out of the way. I mean, can't people really be expected to take the extra fifteen seconds to actually follow the city's set bike routes? They are saving seconds (even up to a minute) off of their commute, so one can understand why they would need to cause their fellow cyclists grief; those precious seconds are the difference between the yellow jersey and second place! </rant>
As the culture of cycling becomes more prevalent, interactions between cyclists and pedestrians will become more respectable, but they are currently strained to some extent. At crosswalks, pedestrians have the right of way; be aware of them. It may be easy to avoid a pedestrian in a crosswalk, but being an aggressive yielder on a bicycle is still annoying and antisocial. If it is safe to pass, do slow down and acknowledge to the pedestrian that you see him or her, and don't inhibit his or her path. If you are turning at a green light, let pedestrians cross before advancing, especially at busy intersections. It's basic follow-the-rules type stuff that any pro-social rider would intuitively follow; however, it still seems to be a problem in many cities.
Now, there are pedestrians who behave badly, too. The main danger posed by pedestrians occurs when they step out in front of you without looking. This will happen frequently in intersections, in bike lanes, on trails, and even just in the street. Be ready for it. It's difficult for a culture to change, and pedestrians have been comfortable not having to watch for bicycles for many years; their ears listen for cars, and their eyes have been lazy. I, too, have been guilty of stepping into the bike lane without looking, and that is coming from a cyclist who usually watches out for bike salmon when crossing the street. A change to this behavior will take time, and there are a few solutions. You can simply shout when someone is stepping out in front of you, but you could also use a bell or a toed-out brake.
There is a paradox, however, with using a bell. You see, in areas where bicycles are common, a bell will cause the pedestrians to step away from the oncoming sound. This was illustrated by a Japanese filmmaker who brought a bell into a supermarket and even onto an escalator, showing the Pavlovian reaction as people stepped aside even in the most absurd locations12. Unfortunately, since bicycle bells often sound pleasant to many Americans that are not accustomed to hearing them, a bell will tend to cause people to turn toward the cyclist out of curiosity rather than step away. Indeed, for some reason, the sound of a bike bell creates interest from exactly the same type of people who casually stroll through bike lanes and along bike paths. Now, I do have a bell on my bike, and I recommend them, but a trick that I use to warn especially dull pedestrians that I am approaching is "toeing out" one of my brake pads. "Toeing in" a brake pad is when you make sure that the leading edging of the brake touches the rim last. This is done to reduce any loud squeaking noise when the brakes are applied. However, you can use that jarring squeak to gently frighten pedestrians. The key, though, is that you don't want you brakes to always create loud noises, but you can adjust the brake by bringing the leading edge in until it squeals when you firmly apply the brake, but is silent when you only lightly apply it. The effect is wonderful; oblivious pedestrians look immediately while (more importantly) stepping away from where the sound came from. Hilariously, on occasion I will get a comment about the poor quality of my bike as I pass, as though the squeak were unintentional. I want to insist here, however, that I always ring my bell where there is no immanent danger, but use the squeal of my brake only when someone is stepping into my path at a dangerously close distance.
Finally, many cyclists put themselves and others in danger simply due to their desire for speed and efficiency. The perennial complaint about cyclists is their disregard for the rules of the road, and while there are plenty of arguments for why the rules aren't ideal (they certainly aren't), there is still a difference between yielding at and blowing through a stop sign. I even see cyclists threading the needle of cross-traffic riding through red lights. It's not a race, and it's very dangerous to ride this way. Five seconds here, twenty seconds there; the amount of time saved is literally seconds, and people are willing to put their lives at risk for these seconds. Perhaps it's a culture of impatience, but both drivers and cyclists alike tend to use dangerous driving and riding to make up time on the road. It's simply safer to relax and take your time.
Another danger is road rage. I've read about more than a few instances of minor slights escalating to violence. I'm not advocating rolling over every time someone disrespects you on the road, I'm just pointing out that it can be dangerous. I've shouted things (though rarely) and made gestures (even more rarely, and only when I was clearly being mocked by the someone), and I've been put in unsafe situations because I did. While it's never ended with anything more than a shouting match, I have no reason to assume I'll be so lucky in the future. It's always safer to just let it slide. Haters are going to hate, and jerks will continue to be jerks. That isn't going to change because you put someone in their place, but if you do, realize that he is driving a two-ton potential weapon. The best thing to do if disrespected or put in danger intentionally by a driver is to get a plate number, and report it. Yes, you can (and probably should) call 911 to report someone driving dangerously. This way, if they are ever the cause of an accident, there will be a record of their behavior, showing it was not a fluke.
Lastly, try and keep the same perspective toward pedestrians as you expect automobiles to have with you. Pedestrians are slow and often don't get out of your way as you approach. Still, on most trails and many paths, they have a right to be there. Yes, it's annoying, but do maintain respect for them as human beings. Don't buzz them or shout commands that they get out of your way. It's one thing to give a friendly "on your left" as you approach a group of hikers or a couple walking abreast in the park, but don't get enraged if they fail to yield to you. While it's a bit antisocial on their part, it's still often well within their rights to enjoy their walk in the park without constantly being on the lookout for cyclists. In the end, we have to share public space for transport, whether we are on foot or on a bike or in a car. Our commutes will be best if we all relax and treat each other like human beings, even when mistakes create inefficiencies and inconveniences. Safety on the road requires attention, and the anxiety of anger and stress won't help, but a healthy perspective does. So, don't even attempt riding through Times Square.
"I mind my own business, I bother nobody, and what do I get? Trouble."
-The Beggar, Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves), 194813
You've seen them. Horrifying carcasses suspended from metal fences and poles; one wheel, often mutilated beyond recognition, hanging onto a lock and frame. Its body is rusted to the point of no return. Shudder to think of the reaction the owner had years ago upon discovering this tragedy. Bicycle theft does happen; perhaps an inevitability for some, though it's mostly preventable.
Here is one of the major unique factors of bicycle transportation: When you get where you are going, a bicycle must be secured. Since automobiles are meticulously registered, theft is more difficult to get away with (often, though, it is still a serious issue in many cities). Insurance is one option, but preventing the theft in the first place is relatively painless procedure; after all, your time and convenience must be worth something. An improperly locked bike isn't going to do the job. Lock poorly and you'll be wasting more time and money than if you'd never locked it at all.
Here's the rub: How you lock your bike is a much more important than simply that you lock your bike. We'll always have the problem of asymmetric information; that is, if you don't know how bikes are stolen, you won't be able to thwart a thief. You need to understand their methods and learn why some methods of locking are weak or even futile. The only way to know whether a bike is poorly locked is to learn what makes the lock inadequate. Now, before I go any further, I must provide a disclaimer. I am not advocating anyone stealing anything. Do not steal bicycles. It is one of the lowest forms of crime. Also, please don't write me letters chastising me for educating people about how they should lock their bikes, and why they shouldn't lock them other ways. Much of this advice may seem obvious, it is followed surprisingly infrequently.
What is the easiest way to steal a bike? Put simply, it is to hop on an unattended, unlocked bike and ride away. Yes, people commonly steal bikes by seeing them unaccompanied and taking them. As I write this, I am literally looking at just such a bike leaning unlocked on a fence outside a café, armed with one of the most expensive locks on the market hanging impotently around its frame, its owner deciding it wasn't worth the five seconds it would take to secure the bike while having a cup of coffee. Today it was not stolen, but such habitual, willful negligence is much more common than one would think. Simply put, always lock your bike when it is unattended, even if you can see it and are going in "for just a few seconds"; besides, by the end of this section, you will know how to secure your bike in fewer than a few seconds.
Careful, though: There are other ways to steal someone's bike in broad daylight without happening upon one unattended. For example, imagine a man on the street asks if he could test-ride your bicycle (after telling you how amazing it looks), and in a brief moment of altruism, you (the throughly flattered victim) consent. Alas, at this point, the thief will ride away quickly, after which it will occur to you what had actually transpired. I think it'd be a bit too harsh to blame the victim here (I don't think I'm quite ready to embrace the cynicism required to admit that no stranger is ever to be trusted), but it's probably safer not to let anyone you don't trust onto your bike (miserly as it may be).
Another method for (not) locking your bike is called "free-locking." This is when one merely locks one of the wheels to the frame and leaves it unattended, though immobilized. The proverb (as popularized by BikeSnobNYC) is that a free-locked bike is free for the taking14. Someone may simply throw the bike in the back of a truck and abscond to some nefarious bicycle (chop) shop where the actual deed is done.
Another method is an insecure anchor (a bike rack or pole, for example) where the post can be removed, making any attempt at locking superfluous. Is the rack you locked to wobbly? Is that signpost even stuck in the ground? How difficult would it be to remove that section of scaffolding? Always check how firm and secure whatever you are locking to is. You may be surprised at how insecure many anchors are. Similarly, after you look down to check how well that sign is planted in the ground, look up and think about how difficult it would be to toss the bike (lock and all) over the top of the sign. A loose chain can often be lofted over parking signs.
The cliché image of bike theft in most people's minds is that of a bicycle secured to a poll, missing a wheel, but in my mind it is always the rear wheel. Why? Because the rear wheel is actually significantly more valuable than the front wheel, it is also less often locked.
When a layperson looks at a rear wheel, they see a lot of gadgets; they see a cassette, axel, and tensioner interwoven by the chain. It looks complicated, so it must be difficult to take that wheel off, right? Wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. With few exceptions, the rear wheel is just as easy to remove as the front, perhaps requiring a single second to move the chain slightly to one side. Unfortunately, when someone loses his rear wheel (as opposed to the front wheel), he also loses his cassette or free wheel (the pricy little gadget holding the cogs that the chain uses). A painful and expensive tragedy to befall someone, leaving the bike unridable and often left to rust, forgotten.
Obviously, the best way to prevent wheel theft is to lock one's wheels; preventing this misfortune is much less cumbersome than one may imagine. I often encounter labyrinths of cables and chains holding all manner of parts and wheels together. The time it would take to disassemble such meticulous knots of steel and cables would make even Alexander the Great shudder15. The usual solution is a nut and bolt to secure the axle. This is simply an inconvenience for a thief (I'd bet you happen to have a wrench lying around the house, too). A real alternative to the heavy cables, locking skewers, I will address at length later, but suffice it to say there is an elegant solution to this inconvenience.
Finally, don't lock your bike to a tree. Do not lock your bike to a tree. There, I've said it twice. Yes, thieves will cut the tree down. Sure, it's unconscionable, but so is stealing a bike to begin with. Don't believe me? Here is video of it happening in New York City16. The result is that you have a stolen bike and you got a tree got cut down. It is illegal to lock a bike to a tree in most cities for exactly this reason. If you have any decency, find a poll, fence, or bike rack.
There are three primary implements the common thief employs: the pipe, the bolt cutter, and the hacksaw. The first two of these exploit subtle vulnerabilities in reasonably intuitive, but poor, locking systems; the latter is a brute-force method applied to cheap, weak locks. All of them can be frustrated simply by the use of quality locking methods and quality locks.
Let's start with a common type of cable lock. This is typically a very strong cable wrapped in some sort of soft plastic (you've seen it: that one at the store that isn't so expensive). It will have locking mechanisms at both ends, not loops. There is no obvious problem with this lock. It's strong and simple to use; it's intuitive. However, the key weakness is the point at which the lock and cable meet. The spot where a cable connects to the locking ends can be broken if very high torque is applied to the cable. How do you apply that kind of pressure without damaging the bicycle or the rack? You twist it. The cable lock is maneuvered into a position where it can be properly twisted, and a strong pipe is used directly underneath the lock and cable contact points. Imaging putting a rubber band around your wrist, then putting pencil under it and twisting the pencil. Twist ... torque ... torque ... pop! These types of cable locks may keep your bike safe from a passerby or a common unfortunate, but the clever young thief will be delighted at how easily he was able to "liberate" your bike from its fastenings.
The bolt cutter's use is more straightforward. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link; it just so happens here that the weakest link in that monstrous chain is the cheap padlock holding the ends together. Not all chains or padlocks are weak, but the good ones are generally very expensive. The speed at which this method can be employed is impressive. It would only take a matter of seconds to reveal the tool, break the lock, conceal any evidence, and ride away. Here again, it takes little expertise to exploit this weakness; trial and error alone would suffice.
Last, there is the hacksaw; however, this tool is not as efficient as the pipe and bolt cutter. It can take thieves tens of minutes in awkward positions to break a poorly manufactured U-lock, but it's intuitive and readily available. It requires brute force and is probably very difficult to execute; then again, how thick is that steel in the hardware-store U-lock, anyway? Many look like quite a bit of plastic with some metal in the middle. What alloy do they use? Why is it so inexpensive compared to the ones sold at bike stores? Not all U-locks are created equal. The sooner one learns this, the better. (Hopefully, the easy way, instead of staring down at the two pieces of a U-lock cut neatly into three).
The previous examples of theft can be avoided with proper locking technique. Here, however, we will look at some of the more uncommon, and much more sophisticated, methods of theft. There are ways to deter professional thieves, but methods tend to involve trickery and technique rather than hardened steel.
The angle grinder is the powerhouse of the serious thief. The problem is that an angle grinder can cut through even the most advanced U-locks in seconds, serious chains don't stand a chance against one, and even if there were a lock strong enough to withstand it, why not simply cut through the rack anchoring the bike? On the upside, angle grinders are extremely attention-grabbing. They are noisy, send sparks everywhere, and typically require a plug. Most important, they are expensive.
The jack is the U-lock's worst enemy. A hydraulic bottle-jack can be deployed rapidly to bend the U in the U-lock into a variety of unfortunate shapes, dislodging it from its housing. A mechanical scissor-jack can fit in to relatively tight spaces and still create incredibly high pressures. Worst of all, both of these can be employed silently in the middle of the night. It is the jack that makes the beneficial attributes of a good U-lock so counterintuitive (that smaller is better). Remember, a jack can't break a lock it can't fit into. Unfortunately, jacks come in all shapes and sizes, and there is probably some custom jack that can break any type of U-lock. Fortunately, even the most professional of thieves can't carry such an arsenal at all times, and it would be prohibitively expensive to do so as well. Here, good technique can minimize this risk.
Another way to get through a good lock is to just pull it until it snaps. This is how a winch can break your lock. A winch is a hook and cable, typically attached to a vehicle. When you have a bike locked to something relatively solid, the lock can be broken simply by pulling the lock (with the help of a large engine) until, under the extreme tension, it snaps. This is much more slapdash than a jack or angle grinder, because if the bike is anchored to something that isn't very solid, it might just uproot the anchor, which may not be easily removed. While this would technically get the job done, it would still require much more work on the part of the thief. Because this would draw much attention during the day, it is avoided by not having one's bike out overnight.
Another professional tactic of bike thieves is good, old-fashioned burglary. A few years ago, there was a relatively high-profile case within the my local cycling community. Extremely valuable bikes started disappearing from people's homes, strangely, with few traces of break-ins. It turned out that one of the newcomers to the cycling scene was "getting to know" the owners of high-end bikes, casing their houses, and robbing them when they were gone. After a while, he got caught, and had to explain why he had over $50,000 worth of stolen bicycles and equipment in his garage. If your are storing your bike at home (especially in a garage), it's probably a good idea to lock it to something solid just in case. Though it might be considered overkill, it shouldn't take much time at all if done properly.
Finally, there is the professional who steals parts off properly locked bikes on the street. Though this is quite rare, it's worth noting. It is essentially a crime of opportunity; someone can walk up to a well-locked bike with a few Allen wrenches and walk off with highly valuable parts, but considering that your average bike thief wouldn't know the difference between Shimano Dura-Ace STI shifters (that cost hundreds of dollars) and Tektro Aero Brake Levers (that cost tens of dollars), I have to qualify it as something only a professional would attempt. Knowing what parts are worth stealing, how insecure the parts are on the bike, and having the tools on hand to get at them makes this sort of theft exceedingly uncommon. There are more than a few ways to protect oneself, but it's very difficult to protect all the potentially valuable parts on one's bike from theft, especially against a knowledgeable thief.
Imagine you arrive at your destination, find a spot on the bike rack, pull a small U-lock out of your back pocket, lock through the frame where a small cable hangs, and walk away. Your bike is now secure from wheel to wheel, and it took five seconds. How is this possible? Simple, efficient locking technique.
When buying a U-lock, smaller is better. The reason for this can be derived from the previous study of how thieves operate. The larger the U-lock, the easier it will be to fit a jack inside, and the larger the area for the jack to deform the U. You want the lock to be tight against the frame and the anchor; no space to adjust the lock, meaning no space to fit a jack and no space to fit a hacksaw comfortably.
The first benefit you will experience using this method is lock portability. If you have a large enough butt, you'll be able to fit one of these mini U-locks into your back pocket. If your butt isn't big enough, don't worry: As you continue to cycle, your butt will grow as you build muscle. (Kidding! Well, sort of.) However, if for some reason your butt refuses to grow to sufficient size, you can easily use included or after-market mounts to secure your lock to your bike or belt while riding. I include after-market as a suggestion here because some of the mounts included are flimsy and can scratch your paint if not installed with the utmost care and attention.
However, not all U-locks are created equal. There are really three levels of quality when it comes to U-locks. The lowest is cheap, thin steel covered in plastic, typically sold at hardware or general stores; do try to avoid these. The first level of good U-locks is high-quality, single-side-locking U-locks that are easy to find in a bike shop. These are acceptable as long as they are not too big; I use one daily. Finally, the highest quality U-locks lock on both sides of the U and typically weighs significantly more (due to its tougher steel and more complex locking systems). It is about double the price of its single-sided counterparts. The benefit of locking on both sides is extra protection against jacks. It is much easier to stretch open a lock with a jack when one end is free. Still, it's always best to have a lock that a jack cannot fit into.
"But ... but ..." you say, "How am I supposed to secure my wheels if my U-lock is so small? Do I have to buy a cable to wrap around them?." You could buy a bulky, awkward, weighty cable simply to lock your wheels, or you could buy locking skewers.
Here I must digress. Typically, bicycles come with quick-release skewers (those little twistable arms that come on your bicycle wheel that make them easy to steal). Now imagine yourself near the front of the peloton racing in Le Tour, muscles burning and the wind at your back. You suddenly hit a piece of glass or a thorn in the road. Shock sets in; thoughts of years of training lost to the fortunes. Luckily, you have a team car behind you with a replacement wheel at the ready; plus, you've taken the time to grind away the lawyers' lips from your fork to ease transitions. The time you save using your quick-release skewers gets you back in the peloton before you fall dangerously far behind. Aren't quick-release skewers great?! Wait, what you mean you don't actually cycle competitively? Changing a wheel in under three seconds isn't important to you? What the hell are lawyer's lips, anyway?!
Confused? Me too. I hate quick-release skewers. They provide zero added benefit to the average cyclist, and make bicycle wheels effortless to steal. I hypothesize that they are somehow cheaper in the manufacturing process (or something to that effect), because I don't know anyone in their right mind who prefers these theft magnets to even the simplest alternative.
If I could give people one piece of advice on making their cycling experience better, it would be this: Buy locking skewers. (Unless you have a fixed-gear, and only if they are compatible with your hubs, obviously.) These little guys are relatively inexpensive (usually only slightly more expensive than that bulky cable) and add zero weight or hassle while securing both wheels. They are not undefeatable, but only a professional thief will be able to get past them. In addition to securing the wheels, they actually make the bike less attractive if stolen, as a simple flat tire will render the bike virtually unusable. Just don't lose the key (!), or at least record the model and serial numbers to order a replacement, and keep them with your bike's serial number. (Did you record your bike's serial number in case of theft? You should.) So, I ask you ... no, I beg you: Please spring for locking skewers.
I must, in full disclosure, point out the primary downside to locking skewers. One must, to remain practical, buy a set for each bicycle. This could be an issue if one owns many bicycles, but I'm assuming that a person who can afford many bicycles can also afford the convenience of locking skewers. The price is a slight inconvenience, but one well worth the trade-off.
The other alternative is bolt-on hubs. These come standard on most single-speed, three-speed, and fixed-gear bicycles. These are significantly better than quick-release skewers, and will generally deter passersby from stealing your wheels; however, any degenerate with access to a 15mm wrench will be able to get at your wheels in under a minute. There may be a keyed nut available, made especially for locking bolt-ons, but I don't know about it. Even with a fixed-gear bicycle, however, one can still replace the front hub with one that is compatible with a skewer.
Two other areas may need attention once you've secured your frame and wheels if you live in a high-crime area: the seat and the stem. There are various methods to locking one's seat, and I will discuss four in particular: three dos and one don't. Though when discussing how to lock one's seat, there is the issue of whether the seat is worth anything to begin with. Considering the various types of seats on the market, it might not be worth the effort. If you have a cheap seat and seat post, it may suffice to merely have an Allen wrench bolt; however, if your bike comes with a quick-release seat, it should be replaced (except in the case of multiple people riding the same bike, or a folding bike, or if you decide to take your seat with you when locking your bike, etc.). This is a cost-benefit analysis. If you have a sparkling new stretched-leather saddle (with a limited-edition topographical map of a famous bike route-impressed into it17), then you must protect your investment.
First, if your seat is worth anything, I suggest you actively engage in bike-seat camouflage. This involves putting a messy-looking plastic bag over you seat when it is unattended. This serves two purposes. The first is quite obvious: to hide the quality of your saddle from the ever-untrustworthy pedestrian. Second, it protects your saddle from the elements, specifically rain, if it is a leather one. A bag may heat your saddle if you live in warmer climates, so you may prefer bags in lighter colors (e.g., white instead of black), along with allowing proper ventilation.
Always secure the seat rather than the seat post. Now, the method I prefer is using a small, but quality, after-market seat cable. They are quite thin and inexpensive, thus they provide significant safety at minimal cost. The system here is to make a slipknot through one of the rails of the seat, and attach the other end to your U-lock when you lock your bike. It is best to secure the cable (via a velcro strap) so that the locking end hangs on the left side of the seat tube. Typically, one will lock the left side of his or her bike to an anchor (so as not to disturb the drive train), and having the cable waiting on the left side will expedite this.
Now, this method can be easily broken by professional thieves, either by using simple bolt cutters or possibly by torquing the cable (though this might damage the seat). However, with proper camouflaging, it would be difficult to reason how a thief would single out this particular saddle without premeditation.
A similar approach is the chain-in-tube method. This is the most frequent practice I see on the street and I generally support the idea. A bike chain is wrapped through the seat rails and under the seat stays. It is then placed in an old bike tube of similar length (to prevent scratching the paint and rusting) and is locked into place using a chain breaker18. The tube is then either patched or sealed with strong tape, after which the seat is secure. The obvious upside of this method is that it is a cheap, easy, and permanent deterrent. The downside is that it tends to be ugly and easily defeatable by anyone with a chain-breaker. However, for moderately priced seats in relatively crime-free areas, this method is more than satisfactory.
For extreme protection, I would suggest a combination of methods. First, use a cable (or chain in tube) to provide a holdfast against someone with tools. Then, superglue an appropriately sized ball-bearing into both the bolts holding the seat into place (the bolt holding the seat tube to the frame, and the bolt holding the seat to the seat tube). To remove these ball-bearings, one must apply nail polish remover to the glue and it will eventually come loose, restoring the function to the bolts. The benefit is that any thief will have to go to great lengths (multiple implements, and a significant amount of time) to steal the seat. The downside is that it will be nearly impossible to adjust the seat if someone else needs to use the bicycle.
Another option for extreme protection is specialty security bolts. These come in a variety of shapes (five-point Allen wrench bolts, Allen wrenches with holes in the center, star screws, etc.) and can be quite expensive. Professional thieves may possess these tools, but it's certainly effective for someone who is willing to spend the money for ease of adjustment. (Just don't lose that specialty Allen wrench!)
Finally, a word of warning: There are locking skewer-style replacements for quick-release saddles. I do not endorse these, because they are designed to go on the seat post's connection to the frame, leaving the contact between the seat post and saddle unprotected.
The contacts for the other significant parts of the bike are much more difficult to protect. There is the fork, handle bars, brake levers, and stem. Fortunately, for threadless forks, there are locking-top caps. Buying a locking-top cap will lock the fork and stem into place, but will not protect the handlebars (as the pop top can still be removed). To protect threaded stems and handlebars, the ball-bearing method can be used. Though this can be cumbersome, it's really the only solution short of buying expensive specialty bolts. For brake levers, unfortunately, there is no real solution. The contacts are usually too small and delicate to use the ball-bearing method, and anyone could simply cut the cables and tear grip tape (or grips) off to remove them. I really don't have a solution for this problem; fortunately, it doesn't seem to be much of an issue as far as general bike theft is concerned.
One issue you may encounter is how to lock to certain poles or fences. Your seat or pedals may get in the way if your lock is very small. The answer lies with clever locking technique. Often, you may find yourself with only a fence post or bulky parking meters to lock to. Unfortunately, your pedals and seat may push up against fencing and prevent you from getting the frame close enough to lock with much room to spare. This problem can be alleviated by locking through your left seat-stay. Your seat stays (the smaller tubing connecting the seat post to the rear wheel) are the widest sections of your frame. They will allow your seat to be much farther from the anchor compared to locking through the front triangle. The left side is preferred because it leaves the delicate bits of the drive train untouched.
Another reason to lock here is that the seat stays generally have a much smaller circumference when compared to top tubes and seat tubes. This will provide those precious extra millimeters when attempting to lock in tight spaces. While it's a bit trickier to get the lock around the stay without molesting the rear wheel or the brake, it's worth knowing for when you find yourself in a tight locking situation.
You can still get a cable through both wheels using this method (assuming I still haven't convinced you to buy locking skewers); just make a slipknot through the front wheel and connect the other end through the rear between the wheel and into the lock. Your seat cable should stretch far enough without any problems. I've found that this method allows me to lock securely in some of the most difficult situations. Occasionally, I must search for another place to lock, but very rarely.
The late cycling authority, Sheldon Brown, popularized one specific method now advocated by many. Using his method, one locks the rim of the rear wheel at a point inside the rear triangle. The brilliance to this method is that even if the rear wheel is removed, the frame cannot be stolen because the wheel won't fit through the rear triangle. It would have to be mangled beyond all recognition to be removed, and a thief is probably not interested in damaging the second most expensive section of the bicycle.
While this method is probably adequate for most low-crime areas, there are some drawbacks. First, the front wheel must be locked by some other means; if this is the case, why not just go all the way and spring for locking skewers?
Second, while the tension of the rim may discourage a thief from hack-sawing through the rear rim, it will certainly not prevent it. There is a video of a rim being sawed through without much difficulty19. It was an old rim and the spokes were rusted, but the fact that it took so little effort should be worrisome to anyone endorsing this method.
The modified Sheldon Brown technique is worth noting. You can actually fit a mini-U-lock through the rear rim, the left-side chain stay (near the bottom bracket), and an anchor with most bicycles. This locks both the real wheel and the frame together. It's pretty tricky to get it on properly, but if you have no other options, it's worth using. It's perfect for fixed-gear bicycles when locking skewers on the rear wheel are not an option.
Though I would not advise leaving a bike out for signifiant periods of time in a high-crime area, sometimes this is not an option. This is why heavy-duty chains exist. Make sure you buy quality at a bike shop, not a hardware store. These chains are probably the best protection against theft. However, the downside is cost and weight. They are extremely heavy, often weighing over ten pounds, and usually cost more than double the price of a quality U-lock. Still, these downsides can be justified.
The best way to use a heavy-duty chain is (what I call) "point-B locking," where, instead of taking the lock from point A to point B, you just leave it at point B. In this scenario, suppose you are a bicycle commuter and cannot bring your bike into the office. Ideally, there would be an alternative, such as a commuter hub where you could store you bike during the day, but these are exceptionally rare. You can avoid the weight of the lock by leaving it at point B. Yes, just leave your heavy chain locked to whatever anchor you lock your bike to. The main concern you should have is protecting the lock from the elements (rust), but you can coat the connecting pieces in waterproof grease, and most of these locks have a piece built in that cover the keyhole for this purpose. Second, there is the issue of dogs peeing on your lock. (This could happen, but it's not really a health concern, it's just gross; I probably shouldn't have even told you about it.) Also, it is a good idea to change up your locking habits fairly frequently, since you will probably be locking there regularly. Allowing for premeditated theft is a bad idea, so expect to carry the lock around some, but this should be relatively manageable.
The other purpose for these heavy chains is if you live in an area with no good bike racks or other anchors to lock to. They are very useful for locking to unusual anchors: lampposts, fencing, scaffolding (be careful that the scaffolding is secure, though, and cannot be removed with a wrench), barred windows, even exposed pipes; just don't use them to lock to trees. These locks are an expensive and heavy hassle, so unless you live in a major city (like New York City or Chicago), I wouldn't really recommend carrying one around with you.
The last use is not recommended, but I'll include it because I figure many of you planing on locking your bikes outside overnight anyway. If you have a crappy bike, or live in an especially low-crime area, you can use one of these large chains for locking your bicycle outside overnight. Your poor bike will slowly waste away, rusting in the exposure to the rain and humidity, but it's your decision. If you have a nice bike, however, it will probably still end up being stolen and, unfortunately, you will have to add that broken (expensive) chain to your loss, too.
So, suppose we have the good, the bad, and the ugly of bike locking. If the section we just covered was the "good" section, this would be the "ugly" section. These methods will work, but I continue to scratch my head each time I see their impracticality on the street.
First, large U-locks locked through the front tire, frame, and anchor; this protects your front tire, and frame, but nothing else. Large U-locks are generally easier to break than smaller U-locks, so, here, one is actually reducing the quality of protection while also creating unnecessary bulk and weight in transport. There is no added benefit. The only logic I can find to explain this phenomenon is that large locks simply look stronger when hanging on the rack at the bike store. Otherwise, I really have no explanation for why most U-locks I see are huge.
Second, bikes scattered around my neighborhood have large, bulky cables connecting the wheels to a U-lock. Now, this is a perfectly reasonable way to lock one's bike, but for just a few more dollars, one can purchase locking skewers. Also, I often see bikes where a cable is actually locking the bike to the anchor, not the U-lock. The U-lock should always take the priority to cables in protecting the frame. Cables are much easier to break than U-locks. By anchoring the frame with cables, one is putting the bike at significantly more risk without any added benefit.
Finally, one has to consider the extra weight and bulk of carrying these cables around. They must be slung around the torso or put in a bag while riding, though they often have dirt or grease on them from their contact with the bike and the elements, which creates the the possibility of stains. Plus, they make locking much more laborious: slinging cables around, and navigating spokes and tubing. No, locking skewers are simply a much more elegant solution. I can't imagine people wanting to go riding around with all those cables hanging from their body all the time once they understand the alternatives.
Now for bad locking technique. First and foremost, check to see if your lock has been recalled. In 2004, there was a highly publicized recall of U-locks with round keys because they could be opened with the body of a common plastic pen20. Those round keys have since been replaced with their flat-key counterparts. Also, most locks come with two (or sometimes three) keys. If you've decided to get a lock on Craigslist or eBay (something I wouldn't recommend), check to make sure they have given you all the keys, as it would not be too difficult to steal a bike if one still has one of the keys to the lock.
Oh, hey, did you find that cool, off-brand U-lock for cheap at the hardware store? Well, sorry, but it's very likely a piece of junk that can be broken with a crowbar. Without even getting into the quality of the steel, you can see that the circumference of the steel sections of these locks is much smaller than higher-quality U-locks. All that plastic they use to bulk it up isn't going to do anything for you when someone decides he wants your bike. The illusion may be good for moving cheap product, but it's not helping you protect your bike.
What about that convenient cable lock your friend has for his old bike? It's a huge cable, with a key or combination lock at the ends. Unfortunately, even the higher-quality cable locks are some of the easiest to break. The contact points of the cable and the locking mechanism can be broken if the lock is torqued enough. Don't buy a cable as a primary lock; stick with solid steel.
If you have a cable lock locked together with a padlock, then you have a lock that is dangerously weak. Anyone with a bolt cutter can break it easily, and there are a lot of thieves with bolt cutters. A crowbar could probably break it; heck, you could probably break it by hacking the spring mechanism21. I am shocked by the frequency at which I see this method. It may be acceptable if your bike is worth nothing, but if you do have a decent bike, you aren't going to have it for long if you are locking like this.
Some other techniques for preventing bike theft are lifestyle choices. First, and foremost, you should write down the serial number of your bike. Yes, do it now; it should be engraved underneath your bottom bracket (the lowest point on the frame). Put down this book, go write down the serial number, take a photo of your bicycle, and make a note of any identifying characteristics (a scrape in a discrete location, a unique sticker). Keep these on file (digital or physical copies) and register it with a local or national bicycle registry if you can. Do it so that if your bike were stolen tomorrow (or perhaps removed by the authorities for some reason), you will have all the pertinent information to give to the police. Do it now ... seriously.
Another thing I would suggest is putting a small note with your name, a statement of ownership, and contact information inside both of your tires. The simplest repair that someone unfamiliar with cycling will get is a tire change. If someone were to take your bike into a shop, the mechanics will always check the inside of the tire for any sharp debris; thus, he or she will fine the note and may be able to contact you in order to recover your bike. It's an easy way to possibly recover a stolen bike and will stay there for years after a theft.
There is also the habit of storing your bicycle inside. It's best to take it inside whenever you can, especially overnight. This can be difficult if you live in a fifth-floor walk-up, but there are bikes specifically designed to be carried (cyclocross and folding bikes). Here, the quality of your bike (as far as weight is concerned) is going to matter. A 15-pound single-speed is going to be easier to carry than a 35-pound cruiser. If you have a garage, you're in luck, but consider locking your bike when it's in the garage, as many people leave their garages unlocked (or even opened), and I do have a friend who lost his bike this way.
Uglification, the process of making a shiny new bike look old and beat-up, is another way to thwart thieves before they even think to steal your bike. I already talked about camouflaging your seat; this is essentially camouflaging your entire bike. This will also make your bike easily identifiable. People often use stickers or powder coating. I've even seen specialty stickers that look like cracks or dirt, specifically designed for bicycle uglification22. You don't want to be a target, and uglification will make your bike somewhat less attractive to potential thieves. The only downside is that your bike ends up less pretty.
Consider locking up next to poorly locked bikes. This is a bit of economics; if you were a thief, and you saw a poorly locked bike next to a well-locked bike, and assuming your fence will give you the same price regardless, which bike would you steal? The answer is certainly the poorly locked bike, as it's easier to steal and will probably take less time and effort. Now, obviously there are other factors, and without proper studies, one cannot know if there are any externalities or flaws with this intuition. So while I can't endorse this method in good faith (as I don't know if it is factually better), it seems intuitive to me, and if it seems that way to you, consider it.
Finally, if you happen upon someone stealing your bike, be careful. Your first reaction should be to call the police from a safe distance. Try to get a good look a the thief and remember his height, build, attire, appearance, and any other relevant facts. This will obviously be useful to any investigation, supposing he ends up stealing your bike.
Do not fall in love with your bike. There, I said it. Okay, I realize this is sometimes impossible; but at least try not to fall in love with your bike. I only say this because many bikes will be stolen. My bike could be stolen and your bike could be stolen no matter how well we lock and protect them, and the anguish I see when I read people's stories of loss breaks my heart. I don't want to kill the romance, but in the end, it's just welded steel covered in paint. Bikes are tools. An emotional bond is wonderful, but if misfortune befalls you, try and keep it in perspective.
While security devices can be expensive, I want to try to make an argument for why they are worth the money. For new bikes, this is fairly straight forward. Typically, I would suggest spending 10 to 15 percent of the purchase cost on locks. This means if your bike cost $800, you should expect to spend between $80 and $120 on locking devices. Spending this much should allow you a high-quality U-lock, skewers, and a seat cable. Try to include this amount when deciding how much you are willing to spend on a new bicycle. Combine this with good technique, and it should keep your bike as secure as reasonably possible for almost any threat.
Now suppose you purchase a used bike for very cheap, say, $150; how can you justify spending 25 to 50 percent of the purchase cost on locks? The answer here is with replacement costs. Unless you have access to a cooperative or other bicycle nonprofit, the cost of many replacement parts are going to rival buying an entirely new bike. Replacing a rear wheel, for example, could cost anywhere from 40 to 100 percent of your purchase price (depending on the availability of parts in your area). This would essentially make the bike worthless, as though the whole bike had been stolen. Here, protecting yourself, even with lower-quality, merely decent locks, may end up saving you money in the long run. However, I don't want to overstate the protection of low-quality locks. With a cheap, old bike, it may ultimately be mere chance that decides whether or not your bike will be targeted by thieves.
There is also the option of insurance against bicycle theft. It is often included in homeowner's or renter's insurance, or added at minimal cost. This is probably one of the best ways to be reimbursed in the event of professionals targeting your bike. There are costs, however, that will be incurred even if you have insurance; there are premiums and the cost of the time it takes to replace the bike. Insurance can be an addition to proper locking technique, not a replacement.
Improper locking technique also has costs to a community. Often, when wheels or parts are stolen on the street, the owner of the bike leaves the skeleton to rust without removing it. This is incredibly antisocial. There is a limited number of bike racks on the street, and that type of negligence and laziness inhibits responsible people from accessing these public spaces. It forces many to look for racks or posts further from their destinations, and may cause them to lock to a less secure anchor. Bikes left to rot clutter the street, block pedestrians from public space, and often create unsightly eyesores. There are many legal hurdles to removing them, and it usually takes months, if not years, for a community to act. Even if you can't find any value in such a piecemeal collection of parts and frame, I assure you, if you've had parts stolen, there are probably a few quality charities in your area that will be able to use all the leftover parts to help create useful, recycled bicycles for those less fortunate in your community.
So, I hope I have convinced you that bicycle security is more than just buying a lock. It's unfortunate that theft is so prevalent, but I hypothesize that with proper technique, it would be nearly eliminated. I might be wrong, though. Perhaps better locking would simply lead to better thieves; perhaps those that lock their bikes poorly do us the greatest favor by lowering thieves' expectations to the point where they are unwilling to buy, or at least deterred from buying, the tools that would put properly secured bikes at risk. No matter; it's not as if that is going to change any time soon. Even in the bicycling capitals of, say, Amsterdam, Portland, or even Copenhagen, poorly locked bikes are ubiquitous. Thus, to sum up, I started with the question, "What is the best way to get my bike stolen?" The answer is to have it stolen by a professional. Otherwise, I would not have put forth a decent effort protecting it. I am under no illusion that bikes can be secured from all threats; perhaps my bike will, one day, be the victim of an angle grinder, or perhaps some enterprising young thief will develop an ingenious and previously unknown method of dislodging a bicycle from its bulwarks, but I am quite certain that my bike will not be the victim of some halfwit with a crowbar. As for the bicycle thieves out there, I have nothing but distain and pity for them.
"Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance."
-Eugene Debs Hartke, Hocus Pocus, 199023
So you've had your bicycle for a while because you are locking it properly. Maybe it's newer, or maybe it's older; either way, there are a few things every cyclist should know about maintenance. Again, I would suggest finding a good bike mechanic in your area. It's important to have your own mechanic, because you could encounter serious problems if there were some peculiarity about your bike that made any of this advice counterproductive. So do check with a professional to see if anything is non-standard or unique before you start fiddling around. Unfortunately, your mechanic isn't going to be able to help you when you have a flat in the middle of nowhere, and it's cheaper and safer to know the basics if any of these types of minor emergencies arise.
The last thing I want this section to be is a manual (as I am neither inclined nor qualified to write one that is worth reading). Good manuals include Sheldon Brown's web page24, which is an amazing resource, or the Big Blue Book of Bicycle Repair25. No, what I want here is to relay to you the main problems my friends have encountered with their bikes.
Even before considering maintenance, there are three items that every cyclist should possess. These are the small pump, multi-tool, and patch kit, each of which is absolutely necessary. The pump is required at least weekly if you have thinner tires, but more important, you will need a small pump (or CO2 cartridge) to take with you if you ride any significant distance. The patch kit is needed, obviously, to patch a flat if you get one in the middle of nowhere. The multi-tool will serve to adjust almost anything on your bike that needs adjusting, from your handlebars to your seat to your brakes. If you have a buddy with these, you can ask to borrow any of these things when you ride, but don't be surprised if you get an annoyed response. These items are all affordable and easy to store.
Also, it's a good idea to take your bike into the shop for a tune-up once a year. This will prevent most problems, or will stop any existing problems from getting serious. Tune-ups can be moderately expensive, though, so it's worth finding a good, honest bike shop to to ensure quality. Also, remember that with the purchase of a new bike, there will be significant cable stretch within the first few months (as new cables stretch a lot), and you should expect, or at least ask, your bike shop to give you a free adjustment during this period. So expect new cables to mess with your shifting, and be ready to have them tightened.
Depending where you live, flat tires may be very infrequent or surprisingly common. The American Southwest has goat-head thorns that are the scourge of every off-road cyclist, and America's urban cities have plenty of broken glass lining their roads, just waiting for a tire to deflate. While you can purchase puncture-resistant tires and kits, they are often prohibitively expensive for the casual cyclist (a good mechanic should help you with this choice, as there are many useless gimmicks that promise flat-prevention). Learning to fix a flat tire is a skill that can (and probably will) save you from many borderline emergencies.
So let's say you have a flat. Now, assuming you ride your bike frequently, you probably have a puncture. (If you've left your bike in the garage for over a few months, the tube may have just lost pressure over time and can simply be re-inflated.) You may be be riding while it happens, but most likely, you will encounter the flat as you return to wherever you previously locked your bike or just before you plan on leaving (which is the worst if you are in a hurry). So, let's get started.
After changing a tire, the most frequent problem I see is people's pedals jumping. Essentially, when climbing or whenever the pedals are under stress, the pedals will jerk forward, often frightening or even causing the rider to briefly lose control. While it isn't particularly dangerous, it is certainly annoying. It's caused by the teeth on your cassette being worn down too far, combined with chain "stretch," which is really just chain wear (it's not actually getting stretched, but the gaps in the links get slightly wider with wear). Essentially, this is the beginning of the end for your drive train.
The process is as follows: Your chain pulls your cassette around, and they both rub on each other; then, over time, the cassette is worn so that the little U shapes (the slots in between the gears' teeth) get wider, and the cogs' teeth get rounded (though the illustration here is a bit exaggerated for clarity); also, the links of the chain are worn in such a way that a link of the chain will dig in even more on the cogs. This "jumping" happens because, as the slot and chain are worn, the edges of the teeth turn into little ramps. Under enough stress, the chain can get yanked over those little ramps, allowing the chain to move freely for a split second, causing the pedals to jerk forward.
Luckily, this is relatively easily diagnosed. If your pedals are jumping forward on you under stress, you should check the rear sprockets. Unless the cassette is new, then this is probably your problem. The next thing you may need to check is the front chain ring(s). The chain ring tends to wear at a much slower rate than the cassette, but when it does, its teeth start to look distinctively like shark teeth. If you see these signs on your drive train, it will probably need to be replaced, which may cost quite a bit, depending on how nice you want your components to be. So if it's not too much of a problem, you can usually keep riding on it carefully, but try to stay away from hills and keep a high cadence.
Also, more generally, it's good to think of the chain and cassette as a unified object. They wear together, and the chain and cassette wear are symbiotic. Don't go replacing the chain on your bike randomly. A new chain on an old cassette won't act properly and can damage the cassette even further.
Squeaking brakes can be almost unbearable; thankfully, they are easy to fix. Typically, what causes the problem is that the brakes are not "toed in." To "toe in" brakes means to make sure the forward edge of the brake touches the rim ever so slightly before the rest of the pad contacts the rim. This angle will be very slight, so the entire brake pad is still utilized when braking, but having the farthest-forward part touch first ensures that the brakes will be silent when engaged.
Brakes usually have a fairly intuitive system for adjusting their angle. There may be an asymmetric washer holding your brake pad to the brake; this can be adjusted to change the pitch of brake. If there isn't an asymmetric washer, you can just stick a little piece of rubber or something on the forward side of the brake attachment (I typically use a bit of electrical tape so I can adjust the width and thickness easily). If you are unsure, however, you should contact a mechanic, as brake failure can be very dangerous. Usually, though, brakes can be adjusted fairly simply, and if you do ask your mechanic how to do it yourself, he or she can probably teach you in a matter of minutes.
I noted earlier that it is possible to intentionally toe out the brake ever so slightly to make it squeak on purpose. This can be done to warn pedestrians of your presence in a highly attention-grabbing manner (as bells tend not to dissuade pedestrians from walking into your path). This may theoretically reduce the lifespan of your brake pad and rim; however, if done properly, the effect is probably negligible. Do be careful to use this sparingly, though, as even a slight adjustment can make a very loud noise, and you will probably have to hear that noise often when you stop.
Finally, if for some reason your brakes are toed in properly but they are still squeaking, it's probably a good idea to take it into the mechanic, as there may be something seriously wrong with them, such as being over-worn or faulty.
If you notice that your wheels wobble side-to-side as you ride (even slightly), then you may need to get your wheels trued. Wheel truing is something that is not too difficult to learn, however, for the casual rider, it's probably not worth it, as it is a relatively infrequent and inexpensive procedure. The solution is simply to take your bike into your local bike shop and let a mechanic get it perfect. There could be something wrong with the hub, which may need to be replaced, but that is usually prevented by your annual tune-up. However, wheels typically become untrue many times within the lifespan of a bicycle, and wheel-truing will become a rare, but familiar, part of your maintenance.
So if you go to shift gears and you chain starts jumping everywhere, not falling into place, then you have a problem. Unfortunately, this problem is a bit more difficult to diagnose, because it could be many, or even a series of, problems. It could be a worn-out drive train or a bent derailleur. It could be normal cable stretch, but it could also be that the limiter screws have been set improperly. Your best bet here is to take it in to a mechanic. It could be a two-second adjustment to the derailleur cable, or you could need bunch of new parts. Typically, however, this problem will only occur if one does not ever tune up his or her bike. Tune up your bikes, people!
It's a good idea to clean and oil the chain every once in a while, but there are differing opinions on whether the layperson will do more harm than good by cleaning his or her own chain. Oiling a dirty chain will certainly increase the rate at which it wears, and accidentally using a de-greaser when oiling the chain (a common mistake for laypeople) will absolutely destroy the drive train. First and foremost, you must be extremely careful when cleaning a chain on a fixed-gear. The rear wheel will spin while you clean it, and if you got anything caught between the sprockets and the chain, you could lose a finger. So I strongly advise people to use something to prevent rapid spinning as a precaution. I usually put something through the rear wheel and remove it only when adjusting the chain's position.
Anyway, there are different tiers to cleaning your chain. You can just do a quick-and-dirty cleaning, or a super-thorough cleaning. The cleaner, the better, obviously, but you'll want to at least clean the chain with a rag soaked in soap and water before applying chain lube. You can also soak the chain in a de-greaser before applying lube. Some go to more extreme measures, using magnets to remove metal shavings, contraptions that fit over the chain while riding, or even boiling the chain to loosen the muck. Regardless, if you get your bike tuned up once a year, the chain will be thoroughly cleaned and lubricated, though it's a good idea to properly clean a noisy chain if you are comfortable doing it on your own.
The last common problem I see is seat pain. Generally, comfortable riding is made up of three important pillars: bike fit, saddle width, and perineum safety.
Bike fit is paramount, but often overlooked, so some of this info is worth repeating. You can adjust handlebar height and distance forward and back; your saddle can also adjust up, down, forward, and back. However, top-tube length is most essential, in my opinion, because this determines, in large part, the amount of weight that will be on the saddle, as compared to the amount on the wrists and legs. While getting properly fit for a bike is generally more difficult for the beginning cyclist, you should try and consider it when looking for new bikes. Make sure that all your weight is not on your saddle, but also make sure your wrists won't be sore after a short ride. If you already have a bike and are having trouble, consider talking to a mechanic about your position, and consider adjusting it.
Seat choice is also one the causes of pain. Width is the primary concern here; those of us with larger behinds often need comically large saddles. Don't be dissuaded by this if you need one, though, it's not about having a big butt, it's about the distance between your sit bones. Wide sit bones on a narrow seat is a recipe for pain. Many bike shops have the ability to measure your sit bones for you, and since buying an after-market seat is advisable, consider getting your sit bones measured when you decide to invest into a quality seat.
Remember from the previous section on saddles that when it comes to padded saddles, firm is usually better than squishy. A good firmness feels like an inflated bike tire. While squishy may seem good when you press on it, when the weight of your entire body is on it, you may sink all the way through to the hard plastic at the base. Is your saddle's padding mostly gel? Is much of the padding soft rather than firm? If so, you may want to consider buying a firmer seat.
Also, getting the seat into position can also be a bit of a struggle; primarily, the height of your saddle should be such that you can hold your weight with your legs at all times. People sometimes have their seat too high, rather than too low. One trick you can use is to try to pedal with your heels; when you can pedal with your heels comfortably, i.e., when your hips aren't rocking back and forth, then your seat is probably just right. Next, try to get your knee over the ball of your foot on your downstroke. Seat angle is important and, typically, you will simply want the ends of your seat to be parallel with the ground. Occasionally I'll meet someone who prefers a downward tilt for one reason or another, but this is very rare.
Finally, perineum safety is always an important aspect of saddle comfort. You should talk to your doctor about perineum issues if you experience any pain or numbness in between your legs. While rare, caution should be used, as perineum damage can lead to sexual dysfunction in both men and women6. So, it's probably a good idea to talk to a doctor who knows about perineum issues if you notice anything worrisome, and consider a saddle that provides relief to the perineum. Pay attention to your body. If you are uncomfortable, you won't enjoy your ride. Finding a saddle to suit your specific needs is probably the easiest way to increase your quality of life as a cyclist.
"I think you can't really speak of the notion of a single community if you have to send someone for three months to find out what's going on, and it's going to take them another three months to get a report out, and then if you want to respond, it's going to take who knows how long... Then I think the sense of it being one community breaks down; but if you know instantly and respond within twenty-four hours, it's a very different sort of situation."
The cycling community has been growing rapidly in the last few years; however, it seems to be rather heterogeneous. Perhaps this is to be expected. Austin is an especially good example of a city with a very integrated cycling community. There are many blogs, but not too many that information is hard to find, and all of them work with the community to address cycling issues of political significance while also addressing group rides, races, and general news. Blogs are, arguably, integral in creating a cycling culture in a city. News organizations' editorial boards typically care little about cycling infrastructure, and when they do write about it, it is often presented in opinion pieces rather than news articles. Forums also offer an extremely easy way to access the cycling community. My favorite are the bicycling subsections of Reddit27. The "subreddits" on this site provide a forum for the general bicycling community (reddit.com/r/bicycling) as well as access to help with maintenance (/r/bikewrench), or bicycle-specific subreddits (/r/FixedGearBicycle or /r/cyclocross). If you want to get involved, start online; once there, you can learn about all of the other ways to engage your local community.
Group rides are another way for cyclists to engage. There are many different types of group rides, from early-morning long rides, for exercise or training, to evening social rides, where riders play games and prepare for a night out at cyclist-friendly venues.
Large social rides are often free. They are extremely beneficial to the cohesion of the community because every cyclist demographic is usually represented. They are safest when they respect the laws with regard to stopping at red lights and yielding at stop signs. This is a huge testament to the ride organizers, some of whom are very adamant about rule-following. Some rides have been more antisocial, but in general, ride-organizers are able to tame the herd mentality that some rides suffer from.
Cycling associations often organize group rides as a combination of community and safety on the road. They are usually free to association members and will typically start at a local bike shop. There are two main types of group rides that associations organize: classic rides and hosted rides. A classic ride will have one start, but different routes for different levels of riders. A beginner cyclist may become separated from the ride if he or she is slower that the group. Hosted rides are better for beginners. There will be a host who will ride in front and tell everyone about the potential obstacles; there are also usually two "sweeps," people who will ride in the back to make sure no one gets left behind, and one will often ride up to the front to communicate with the host. The sweeps are typically the best cyclists in the group, as they need to be able to ride back and forth along the group the entire time.
The main thing a beginner needs to be concerned about when going on a group ride is safety. Though social rides are more relaxed, if you plan on doing long rides where people will be in a paceline, you really should ask the other riders to teach you. The main concerns here are riding predictably, learning to adjust your position without an overcorrection, making sure you don't cross wheels, and keeping your head up. If your front wheel overlaps the rear wheel of the person in front of you, it can easily cause a serious wreck, so don't do it. You can still draft while being a few feet behind the bicycle in front of you. It's also very important to have enough water, to bring the appropriate equipment, to select a ride at the appropriate level, and to know whether the ride is “no-drop.” “No-drop” rides are those that will wait for all riders to join the group every few miles. These rides will typically be hosted, so make sure you ask. Next, bring enough water. In the heat of a Texas summer, you will need at least 20 ounces of water for every ten miles, maybe more. Bringing enough water is crucial. You can typically only fit two water-bottle cages on your frame's eyelets, so make sure you get seat-post-mounted cages or a Camelbak if you plan to go more than 20 miles. You will also want the following, at minimum: an extra tube or patch kit, a CO2 cartridge or frame pump, and tire levers. It's also a good idea to bring a multi-tool. Finally, when you are doing a classic ride, make sure that you have the route map and are fit enough for the ride level. Finding out your fitness level can be tricky, but you may be able to learn it by asking someone you are riding with or doing a time-trial designed to rate your skill level. It may seem annoying to make all this preparation if you want to just get out there and ride, but you'll be glad you did it when you are not stranded on the side of the road, 15 miles of hills from home.
Social rides are very large group rides that are more about community than fitness. They often involve some sort of stops or breaks simply for hanging out or playing games. A social ride is probably the most community-oriented of all the rides. If they grow very large, they can have considerable sway with local businesses. In the same way that concerts, karaoke, or trivia nights can bring customers to a bar on a typically quiet night, a popular social ride can often leverage its size and frequency to get large discounts at bars or restaurants where the riders decides to end. In general, the vast majority of social rides are free. They are significantly more prevalent in cities with large cycling communities, but if you live in a city without one, it may be beneficial for the cycling community as a whole to organize a semi-regular ride. Some social rides charge money to attend; I've always been put off by this type of ride, as I've always been suspicious that the coordinator is using the difference between the advertised discounts achieved and actual discounts obtained by ride leaders to pocket some profit. While I'm not saying that practice would be inherently bad — people who put in the serious effort organization an awesome ride shouldn't be ashamed of wanting compensation — I just value the benefit of community foremost from most social rides, which I'm not willing to pay for; any discounts are just a bonus.
Interestingly, the primary benefit of social rides for the cycling community is, arguably, political. Even more than blogs, large social rides are an extremely effective means of organizing coordinating support for proposed legislation with regards to cycling infrastructure. They provide an unparalleled venue for activists to talk about current issues, both casually and in depth. While a blog post can use all caps and italics to try to stress the importance of a city-council meeting regarding some proposed change to a busy intersection, a social ride can actually go to that intersection during the ride, illustrate the changes firsthand, and allow anyone with questions to ride along an expert for further discussion. Then, on the day of that crucial city-council meeting, the social ride can end at City Hall, thus making attendance and civic participation effortless. This connectivity is crucial to organizing thoughtful, effective legislative efforts. Beyond just politicking generally for bike-related issues, social rides provide a venue for the nuances that matter in creating a better infrastructure.
Critical Mass is a particularly notable and controversial social ride. While I'd almost rather not even mention it, it is so historically significant that leaving it out would be an error of omission. In 1992, Critical Mass was started in San Francisco. This was when mountain biking was all the rage in America and urban cycling was more of an aberration. The ride had no leaders, stated purpose, or route. It began to take place on the last Friday of every month, during rush hour; essentially, it became a way for urban cyclists to ride around the city without fear of automobile traffic. The name refers to the size of a group at which cyclists stop worrying about inattentive drivers; instead, their presence is so large that automobiles have no choice but to yield to the mass of cyclists. The purpose, initially, was arguably noble: to raise cycling awareness as a reminder to watch for cyclists on the road. It helped establish important precedents, like that cyclists following the rules of the road cannot be cited for obstructing traffic, because they are traffic. However, as time went by, cities started to earnestly change their policies toward cyclists. Unfortunately, during that same time, Critical Mass became significantly more unruly. It is now, essentially, an anarchic mass of cyclists that put themselves and others in danger on a frequent and attention-grabbing basis. The polite signs of the 1990s, such as thanking cars for waiting at lights for the Mass to pass, have been replaced by cyclists rolling into oncoming traffic, daring cars to hit them. Many of the founders of the ride have publicly denounced what it has become: a gigantic monthly act of bad publicity. Many attempts have been made to reintroduce etiquette to the ride, and counter-rides have been created (e.g., Critical Manners and Courteous Mass), most of which are no longer longer around, yet many of these counter-rides are the predecessors to modern, civil, social rides. Though Critical Mass now evokes a sharp division in the community, that the ride has dramatically affected the cycling community over the last two decades is undeniable.
While this book is really intended for the urban cyclist or the commuter, many people are interested in cycling as sport. There are two main types of races that involve the cycling community: criterium races and alley cats. Criterium races are organized, relatively safe, have a formal route, and are competitive. Alley cats are generally informal (often a group of friends), can be dangerous, have no formal route, and aren't usually taken very seriously. Neither is particularly a good idea for beginners until they are very comfortable on a bicycle.
Criterium races are short-course races; they are organized races that are quite competitive. Full disclosure: I'm not really involved with this community, but I'll try to summarize. If you are serious about getting into racing, I suggest contacting your local cycling associating and asking them how to join Category 5 races after learning to ride in a paceline. While Category 5 is technically for beginners, it can still be unsafe if you don't know what you are doing. Many beginners are not very good at the technique that makes racing at a high speed safe. Flying down hills and around tight banks at full speed is dangerous on its own; the idea of doing it surrounded by people that might not understand how to do so safely frightens me. You will need to learn how to handle yourself in a peloton, how to hold your line, etc. You should train and practice with groups before showing up to one of these types of races.
Alley cats are informal races of questionable legality; some areas prohibit any bicycle races that aren't formally sanctioned. While these races are usually associated with reckless fixed-gear cyclists flying headlong through red lights and cross traffic, there are a few safe and responsibly hosted alley cats. I would advise against beginners attending until they find a group that hosts safe races. An alley cat is typically a checkpoint-style race in which knowledge of the local terrain is as important as speed. While illegal activity and dangerous cycling are never required in these races, poorly planned alley cats often incentivize reckless cycling. I would obviously condemn any sort of dangerous cycling, and the reader should note the 2008 death of a Chicago cyclist while participating in one of these races28. Participation in alley cats can be safe if one does so in a responsible manner, and if the race takes place in a healthy environment. Yes, this means planning races with the intention of avoiding any major intersections; yes, this means stopping at stop signs; yes, this means stopping and waiting at red lights. I used to frequent a cyclocross alley cat in Austin that was held in a park after heavy rainfalls. It was perfectly safe and far from civilization (who wants to go for a walk through mud-soaked trails in the rain?). Lights and helmets were required, and a head count was taken at every lap. On the other hand, I've also avoided many alley cats that appeared to encourage dangerous and illegal activity, especially those that go through highly urbanized areas and are very short. The shorter the race and the more heavily trafficked the route, the more it would encourage a sprint mentality, and should thus be avoided. On a personal note, if you chose to ride in these races, please do so responsibly; don't participate if it means putting yourself or others in harm's way.
Bicycle-specific games are their own component in the bicycle community. With the exception of bike polo, they are typically side games played before or after races or during breaks in social rides. Each has its own skill set, but almost all of them require one to be good at balance; because of this, I'd recommend them with the caveat that they can all be dangerous if one isn't wearing a helmet (wrist guards may be good, too).
Bike polo is the most obvious game. One can often find a few cyclists on the weekends playing in empty parking lots or neglected tennis courts. You can recognize a polo player on the street by two distinctive features: He will typically have a couple polo mallets tied to his back or to his top tube, and his wheels will often be covered in solid pieces of cardboard or plastic to protect their spokes. The game is quite similar to polo. Mallets are generally made from old ski polls and pieces of PVC, which are used to whack a ball through a set of goals. The cyclist must stay mounted without touching the ground when on the court. If the player touches the ground, he or she must typically ride to the edge of center court before being allowed to engage again with the other polo players. Put the ball through the goals more than the other team, and you win. The trick is being able to stay up when moving at very slow speeds and when making extremely tight turns. It's quite fun, but I would recommend a helmet and wrist guards, because falling over at a complete stop can be painful.
Foot down is the second most popular game I've played. This is essentially a "last man standing" type of game. A group of riders will ride slowly in a circle and attempt to cause the other rider to lose his balance, forcing him to put his foot on the ground. As people are eliminated, they stand to the side and slowly move in, shrinking the size of the circle until only one rider remains. The purpose of this game is not to cause people to fall over, just to put a foot down; this is very important, because sportsmanlike conduct is essential to this game being safe and fun. There are really no formal rules, except to act in a friendly manner, i.e., "don't be a dick".
A slow race is a game in which players attempt to be the slowest person to cross some distance without touching the ground. Track stands and riding backward are usually illegal moves, and cyclists must reasonably aim toward the finish line (e.g., no weaving back and forth across the track to increase distance to travel). This is a game of skill and determination; simply being able to keep one's balance on a stopped bike is tricky, but doing it again and again over a long distance is quite mentally demanding. The game rarely ends by anyone actually crossing the finish line. It usually becomes a standoff between two people, each betting the other will fall in an attempt to not to give any ground. Sometimes two people far from the finish line will both fall trying to thwart each other, leaving someone significantly farther ahead the winner. Quite fun to watch.
Track-stand competitions are also good group games. Track stands are done using the direct-drive nature of fixed-gear bicycles. The rider can subtly adjust his or her balance by moving the bike ever so slightly back and forth. The competition typically begins with everyone in a track stand, at which point the person leading the game will shout "track stand" and the competition starts. Some beginners will fail and be out. After riders have done this so that it's clear they can balance, someone will shout out "one hand." The riders must all remove one hand from their handlebars and continue to track stand. Anyone who falls here is also out. Then "no hands" is called; this is a very difficult skill to master, but is doable. Then "one foot" is called, then "no feet." Anyone who is lucky enough to be standing when "no feet" is called will certainly fall.
Someone on a free-wheel bicycle can actually participate in a track stand competition as well. There are two ways to do a track stand with a free-wheel. The easier way to do it requires that the bike be on an incline. When on an incline, the free-wheel will roll backward if the rider is not engaging the pedals; however, when a free-wheel moves backward, it moves the pedals. The result is remarkably similar to the feel of a fixed-gear bicycle, but only if the rider is very smooth in his or her "grip" on the free-wheel. Any sudden momentum and the free-wheel can disengage, resulting in a loss of this grip.The second way a free-wheel bike rider can do a track stand is to use his foot or hand to "push" and "pull" the front wheel. This acts as a direct drive and allows the rider to track stand. This is very difficult, but with a significant amount of practice, a rider can learn to do this with enough ease to stay in a track-stand competition till the final rounds, as this method only requires one foot to balance.
I want to reiterate here that while bike rides, games, and races are all great ways to engage your cycling community, you need to be careful out there. Bike polo does involve falling off your bike frequently, road rides will make you dangerously dehydrated if you aren't prepared, and racing should only be engaged in with extreme caution. That said, engaging with one's community will pay dividends simply from becoming connected with cyclists more knowledge than oneself. Getting to know your neighbors means learning the shortcuts through the parks you didn't know about and learning where to be on-guard for potholes or thorns without having to learn first hand. Have fun, and stay active in your community.
"I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes."
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 185429
A common trope use to portray cyclists in a less-than-flattering light is Lycra. I've never owned any "cyclist clothing," nor do I intend to buy any. There are, however, changes in everyday behavior that result from using a bicycle as a means of transportation. Whether it's a more urban lifestyle, fresher produce, or a more passive approach to fitness, these characteristics result from the structure of life created by a bicycle. Here I want to discuss some of the consequences, both convenient and inconvenient, that one encounters through living by bike.
Some possible benefits of replacing automobile use with cycling are the economic benefits to one's living environment. The elimination of variable costs, such as gas, depreciation, and maintenance, can save a person quite a bit of money. Not having a car altogether will afford a person with far more options regarding a living space, as parking will not be a necessity, as well as additional savings on fixed costs such as insurance, car payments, and any related property taxes. These changes may present the ability to afford the same standard of living in a more urban living environment.
With dramatically less space needed, and more money in hand, one has the freedom to move toward amenities. If this is desirable, then the benefit is compounded by the fact that closer living arrangements imply an easier commute by bicycle. The pattern can be self-reinforcing and may change the living environment dramatically. Is a yard a particularly important feature if you've moved within walking distance of a large park? Is public transit a desirable option if you are no longer outside its service area? Will your social life improve with access to a higher population density? The answer to these questions will obviously be affected by each individual's preferences, but the potential is striking.
One of the problems sometimes caused by taking up cycling is that you may have to buy an entirely new wardrobe. This is not because you need any cycling-specific gear, but because you'll be in great shape. Cycling keeps you fit, even regular to-the-store-and-back cycling.
Improved health is often one reason why many people pick up cycling (unfortunately, this leads them to buy impractical, bicycles-as-sports-equipment-bikes in the process). Going to the gym any time soon? If you simply cycle to and from work, you will already be getting more exercise than most Americans, even if you work only a few miles from where you live30. If you spend an hour at the gym and half an hour each way to work stuck in traffic each day, cycling to work may save you an hour each day. Though you don't have to be a determined commuter to get positive health benefits. Just ride your bike when you go shopping every other day.
If you do plan on doing any shopping by bike (it's easier than you think!), I would suggest getting accessories to help you get your stuff home. On a trip to the grocery store, for example, the amount of groceries brought home will determine what will work best. For light shopping, anywhere at or below two (reasonably full) standard shopping bags, I would suggest either a nice backpack or a front- or rear- mounted basket. These options will get you there and back with ease. Generally, if you do have the benefits of more urban living environments, making multiple trips to shops or the grocery store throughout the week is very doable. This allows minimal amounts of modification to the bicycle and can even increase the variety of foods purchased, as spoilage isn't an issue when food is purchased on a more frequent basis. Now, this will probably be suitable for most young cyclists, but if you have a family of four, you're probably going to need a larger option.
If you are getting up to five shopping bags full of groceries, I would suggest panniers. Panniers are bags that mount next to your wheels. They are generally weatherproof, and depending on the size you get, you can probably fit two shopping bags of groceries per pannier. Typically, one is mounted on each side of the rear wheel, but a front rack can be added to utilize both wheels. This should be suitable for even large families, though it may require an extra trip on the holidays or if especially bulky items are purchased.
Finally, for shopping trips yielding over five shopping bags, or when moving extremely large items, I would recommend buying a cargo bike. Depending on the bike, these can fit upwards of a wheelbarrow's worth of purchases in the main cargo section; plus, panniers can usually be added to the wheels, and a backpack can even be worn comfortably if that still isn't enough space. For someone doing any serious amount of hauling for deliveries, or just for shopping, a cargo bike is a worthwhile investment.
One clear downside to bicycle commuting is bad weather. If you aren't familiar with bike culture, you might presume this means cycling isn't an option. This isn't the case. Admittedly, commuting by bicycle tends to wane in the colder months in the North and during the extremely hot months in the American South and Southwest. Rain and snow do typically put a damper on cyclists, but there are solutions. While no special clothing is required for cycling, clothing is available for inclement weather. Ever wonder what those little hats cyclist wear are for? During the summer, they protect their eyes from sweat or their necks from sunburn, but even though they breathe, they help trap enough heat in the winter to keep you warm.
If you live in a warm climate, there isn't much more you can do to keep cool than to drink lots of water and wear light colors. You'll probably still need to shower after a ride of any distance, even when wearing breathable fabrics. Luckily, if you have a commuter hub close to your job, you can grab a shower and coffee before work. Perhaps you have shower facilities at your workplace. If not, you have fewer options. One option is wearing cycling-specific warm-weather alternatives (typically Lycra) and sponging off when you get to work (I know, it sounds gross). More extreme bicycle commuters have gone as far as building home-brew showering facilities. If you do have problems commuting in the heat, you should talk to a local bike shop about organizing a commuter hub in your area.
For cold or rainy weather, cycling specific-pants offer weather resistance (normal looking ones, not just the Lycra ones). They will also, typically, have a higher waistband in the rear so as to prevent the pants from sagging too far down when riding. (I'm a cyclist, not a plumber!) They are typically available as full pants, or as a shell only. These versions usually are reinforced where they get more wear (in the crotch), to have a longer shelf life than regular pants in that regard. There are many companies that sell them, but they are typically high-end brands such as Outlier or Rapha; Levi's, however, has recently put out a cycling-specific version of its 511 jeans that are weather-resistant and tailored for cycling31.
Some jackets, unfortunately, will lift up at the shoulders as you lean forward on a bike. It's not an issue if you have a more upright riding position, but it can be annoying if you prefer aerodynamic efficiency. Cycling jackets have the shoulders sewn in such a way as to prevent this32(there are dress shirts sewn this way as well33). They will also typically have vent holes under the arms, to prevent overheating, and hoods designed to be effective at a high speed (if they are rain jackets). Cold-weather jackets for cycling may be a good investment if you plan on riding in the winter. They ideally will breathe in essential areas, but will be wind-resistant to prevent too much airflow from making you chilly.
The best part about winter, though, is the cute helmet coverings. There are many brands of helmet coverings for cold weather (they keep you warm) and they come in a variety of styles, from plaid hat shapes to fun cartoonish animal heads (I once saw a bear one that was, honestly, hilarious). They keep you cute when it's too cold to be anything but bundled up.
Winter weather also means snow and ice. If your are inclined to ride in the snow and ice, I would suggest getting studded tires. They are, essentially, the same idea as chains for cars, with embedded metal studs for the extra grip. While the studs are effective at making it safe to ride across snow and ice, this does not mean your bicycle will behave like it would in a normal, dry environment. Take it easy and you should be alright. Still, be careful on the snow or on ice, especially with turning, even if you're using studs.
Performance clothing is obviously available, not that it is particularly helpful to the casual or urban cyclist. The one notable exception, however, is cycling shoes. Cycling shoes give you the added benefit of forcing you to ride with good form, and their rigid soles help you to access your muscles more efficiently. This may save you some time and energy, and slipping on a new pair of shoes takes minimal effort at a destination (unlike changing an entire outfit). However, I'm hesitant to encourage people to get cycling shoes early on. Toe clips can easily be added to pedals to get most of the benefits of cycling shoes, and they require much less commitment. However, that said, if you start commuting to work daily, cycling shoes might be a good investment.
It's a warm spring afternoon, a Sunday. There is a farmers' market down the road your friends want to go to, but it's a little too far to walk. Your bicycle has a beautiful wooden rack you got last summer, and you haven't been out on it all winter. Too idyllic? Absolutely not. If I've done my job with this book, you should be able to ride a practical bike to that farmers market, fancy wooden rack in tow, for as little as $400 (assuming $200 at a co-op or Craigslist for a bicycle, $100 on security, and $100 on a fancy front rack (for this example, i'm using the Minoura King Carrier Large Front Basket). Now, I can't provide the farmers' market, and I certainly can't ensure the reasonable commute, but you should now be able to get around town safely with the skills you've gained. Go get your tiny U-lock and ignore that bulky cable your friends suggest (your locking skewers get that job done fine). When a friend's brakes squeak on the way, be sure to help him or her toe them in when you get there; you might just get a free farmers' market apple out of gratitude. So, you see, it's really not unrealistic at all; living on your bike (at least on the weekends) is totally doable.
I came to the realization while writing this book that I've lived, almost exclusively, a minimal-car lifestyle for over a decade, and much of that was spent on a bike. I have spent a great deal of time in cities with public transit — Boston and New York — and have always had relatively short commutes, but I am still of the mind that cycling can be a practical alternative for almost everyone's typical errands.
One of my favorite times on my bike is when I get to take the back roads to a coffee shop to read or study. While driving would probably be a couple minutes quicker, riding through a quiet, residential neighborhood is a pleasant escape from the parking lots and billboards of modern thoroughfares. Even if only a couple blocks away from the main street, you can see architecture and gardens instead of taillights and traffic signals. The contrast is especially apparent when you get into a park or on a cycle path, leaving the asphalt altogether. Here, I enjoy the surroundings even more, the fresh air and the space. It's a real "Sunday drive" where you can take it all in.
The best part, surprisingly, is that it often doesn't even take much more time. I go downtown, occasionally, with my friends in Austin. We all meet up at someone's place and informally caravan to where we were going. Typically, however, I show up before, or within minutes of, my friends arriving at our destination. Why? It's the parking, every time. Areas that have difficult parking often lead to significant amounts of time spent both searching for and walking from distant parking spaces. This is essentially a nonissue on a bicycle. If you know the area, you'll probably know a place to lock up every time. It's shocked my friend before, and will probably shock you as well. You really never realize how quickly you can get around on a bike until you get out there and do it.
So, since this is a book on advice, I thought I would leave you with some tips that are relevant, but don't explicitly fit into any of the previous chapters.
First, when starting out, take it slow. If you want to start commuting to work or go on a long ride, don't push yourself very hard for a while. Cycling can take some time to get used to, and you should expect some muscle soreness initially (as you would with any athletic activity). So try your route on the weekend before you try it in real time, and when you do try it for real, leave extra early just in case traffic affects the route you take (especially at intersections and busy crossings). Make sure you understand the fitness level needed to ride that distance. You don't want to get sore riding to work the first time and not have the muscles to get home comfortably. Taking it easy early on and drinking lots of water is the only safe way to start out. Oh, and learn to love bananas.
When you lock your bike up, don't just lock the top tube; your bike will fall down with the slightest nudge. Then, after it falls, it is a nuisance to pedestrians or could fall into the road, where it could easily be run over by a parking car. If you lock near your seat, you can prevent the bike from moving laterally, as the seat post will be in the way, and will also prevent the lock from falling vertically, as the top tube or seat stays will hold the lock up.
Next, if you ride at night, buy rechargeable batteries for your lights, or buy your batteries online and in bulk. Batteries can be expensive, and you will be using a lot of them. Luckily, modern rechargeables keep your LEDs bright for hours and only take an evening to recharge. For this reason, I would recommend staying away from the tiny lights that use coin batteries; they aren't as cheap in the long run as they initially appear on the shelf. Other than that, you can buy lights with built-in batteries that you can charge in the wall or even via USB. These tend to be extra bright if you keep them charging when at your desk.
If you have a fixed-gear, getting chain tension just right is tricky (if you don't have a fixed-gear bicycle, this paragraph will probably not make much sense). I don't really have a cure-all for getting it right every time, and you need to get your mechanic to teach you. Generally, though, you'll probably end up using something similar to this procedure. First, make sure you put the point of the front chain ring with the longest radius forward (every chain ring is slightly imperfect; this is extremely difficult to determine sometimes, so if you can find it, I would suggest marking it somehow). Also, make sure all your chain ring bolts are tight (if not, tighten them in a star pattern, skipping every other bolt as you go). Now, while pulling the chain tight, tighten the non-drive-side nut somewhat farther back than the drive-side nut, so that the wheel points somewhat to the left of the bottom bracket. Next, push the wheel straight in the frame and tighten the drive-side nut (this method will give you the leverage you need for good chain tension). Finally, loosen the non-drive-side nut and re-tighten it to make sure the wheel is set straight in the frame. Make sure the tension isn't too tight (I can't give you specifics on this; talk to your mechanic), and spin the wheel slowly to check for seizing (always be extremely careful when spinning a fixed-gear wheel for maintenance).
Also, grease is your friend; use it liberally. The only place you shouldn't put it is where your crank arm connects to the bottom bracket, and getting it on the chain is probably a bad idea. So buy a tube of waterproof grease and put it on anything with threads. You'll thank me when you meet someone with parts that have rusted to their frame. To get grease off your hands, there are heavy-duty, pumice hand cleaners that will get the job done quickly, but I find them generally unnecessary and just use dish soap if my hands are exceedingly dirty. Make sure to moisturize afterward, though, as these soaps can be tough on the hands.
Oh, did you remember to write down your bike's serial number? Stay safe out there, and enjoy life.
i A Farewell to Arms. 1929. First Scribner Classics ed. New York: Scribner, 1997. 188.
1 Letter from Warren E. Buffet to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Berkshire Hathaway Inc. 27 Feb 2009. 5. Shareholder letter.
2 You can find a bicycle coops here: http://www.bikecollectives.org/wiki/index.php?title=Community_Bicycle_Organizations .
4 Webpage for Xtracycle's conversion kits: http://www.xtracycle.com/cargo-bicycles/xtracycle-cargo-bicycles/xtracycle-freeradical.html .
5 Dictionary of Quotations: From Ancient and Modern, English and Foreign Sources. London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1899. 315.
7 Clipless pedals are called "clipless" because they do not have a visible "toe clip."" Toe clips are straps that hold your foot in place; clipless pedals allow one's foot to connect to the pedal with a mechanism on the bottom of the cycling shoe. Thus, while they are called "clipless" they still allow the rider to "clip in" to the pedal in the same way that they would with toe clips. This bizarre etymology is the source of much confusion.
8 A skirt guard can be seen on the dutch bicycle illustration in the previous chapter.
9 Sögreni bells on their webpage: http://sogrenibikes.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=1&products_id=2 .
10 "Race Between a Street Car and a Velocipede." New York Times 15 Jan 1869.
11 "Safety in numbers in Australia: more walkers and bicyclists, safer walking and bicycling." Health Promotion Journal of Australia 16. 2005. 47-51.
13 Ladri di Biciclette. De Sica Productions, 1948. Film.
14 "Grappling With Change: A Farewell to Summer and a Return to Arms." Weblog entry. Bike Snob NYC: Systematically and Mercilessly Disassembling, Flushing, Greasing, and Re-Packing the Cycling Culture. 8 Sept 2009. 15 June 2012 ( http://bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com/2009/09/grappling-with-change-farewell-to.html ).
15 He famously cut a big knot in half with his sword; if only they had had steel alloys back then!
17 Yes, this is a real saddle. It's called the Team Pro Alpe d'Huez ( http://www.brooksengland.com/catalogue-and-shop/editions/seasonal+editions/TEAM+PRO+Alpe+d'Huez/ ).
18 A chain breaker is a common tool for removing/attaching a bike chain.
20 "The Pen Is Mightier Than the Lock." The New York Times Sept. 17 2004 : Web.
21 "How to Open a Combination Lock With a Coke Can." eHow.com. Web. Accessed on 15 June 2012. ( http://www.ehow.com/how_7567461_open-combination-lock-coke-can.html ).
23 Hocus Pocus. New York, NY : Penguin, 1990.
25 Big Blue Book of Bicycle Repair, 2nd ed. Saint Paul, MN : Park Tool Company, 2008.
26 "A Conversation with Peter Singer," Nthposition, June 2004 ( http://www.nthposition.com/aconversationwithpeter.php ).
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