Thursday, November 20, 2008

Chainless Bikes? Yikes!

Ever 10 years or so a gimmick comes along to sell bikes that is supposed to be the next best thing; Elliptical chainrings spring to mind. Are belt-driven bicycles a flash in the pan or a revolution in cycling? My short answer will be that belt-driven bicycles will probably become popular for pedestrian cyclists, no pun intended, but not for high end racers.

Why Belt-Driven Cycles will likely become Popular:
For the non-professional or non-aficionado rider, belt-driven cycles could be very attractive. The belt does not need lubrication, ever. A side effect of this is that without lubrication, there is no chance to get black chain marks on your brooks brothers or Levis. It is argued that they are quieter than chained-bicycles, although my fixed-gear bike is virtually silent with a chain; this might have to do with the switch to a single gear pattern. It is argued that there is no maintenance needed for the belts, but this seems to be a self-fulfilling prophesy: if a belt fails, you replace it, there is no way to fix it. Others say the operation is smoother with a belt because of the wide gears and the noise-dampening properties of the rubber. Belts can't rust and they are supposed to last longer. Previous belt systems were prone to slippage and loosening after a long period of riding. The new, carbon-fiber-and-rubber belts are quite strong and stretch resistant. If Harley-Davidson thinks belts are bad-ass enough to use on their motorcycles, there is clearly no issue with the strength of belts. In sum, the ease of maintenance and lack of lubrication will be the biggest selling points of this system.

But wait, its Not All Roses:
There are a few disadvantages to the belt system. Right now, they are not as widely available. Trek Cycles is offering a number of bikes with belts, but they are not yet widespread. The gears that engage the belt are plastic and therefore not as strong and robust as typical metal chainrings. Another problem is shifting. There is no derailleur-style shifting possible. Any change in gear ratio must be through internal hubs. This is not necessarily a downside per se, as internal hubs are cleaner and robust, but they are not as widely available, again. Finally, and sadly, you cannot retrofit your chain-bicycle to a belt-bike. You know how you need that chain tool to take your chain off your bike because it goes through the back triangle? Yeah, belts don't come apart. This means that if you want to try and really evaluate a belt bike, you have to buy one. Ouch.

So What's Wrong with Chains?
There are clearly some things that nobody likes about chains. They are dirty, greasy, can stretch, need special tools, and can rust. On the other hand, they are very efficient mechanically, often measured in the high 90s percent-wise. Chain stretch doesn't happen over night, either. You need to log lots of hours before you will see a drop in performance with your chain. This mechanical advantage hopefully insures the survival of bicycle chains in racing and performance bicycles. I have heard a lot of people commenting on the feeling of "really feeling the bike" i.e., your pedaling is efficiently transferred into forward motion. I got the same sensation when I started riding fixed gear. Might it be that these people are excited about fixed gear feeling, not just the belt? Who knows.

Some links:
CNN's Story on Belt Bikes
Blog on Belt with lots of Comments
Another Blog

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Do you wear Headphones? What? Do you.. What?

Let's face it. The ride in can be boring and an mp3 player or radio can really break up the time. On the flip side you won't here that truck running the red light.

No Headphones!
There is a lot to be said for not wearing headphones. Just like wearing a helmet, using a light at night, and signaling your turns, being able to hear is a feel-good way to ride. I rely heavily on my ears to warn me about cars behind me or approaching hard-to-see corners. Also, if you are in a confrontation with a motorist, they might get you for wearing the headphones, just as they were on their cell phone.

Headphones Sometimes!
Alright, there are some times and places where headphones might be OK. Riding on your stand during the winter, obviously is no problem with music. Some people rock the 'phones on public bike trails. The argument goes that because there are no cars, there is less we need to listen for. I would say, sure, maybe, but when I go to pass you, I will call out, "on your left" and if you can't hear me and swerve and hit me, I am going to be really angry. My worry with listening to something on a straight, boring bicycle path, is that people zone out. This can obviously be dangerous. I have heard more than one horror story about people wearing headphones on bike trails. I know I have passed people, calling out hello before I pass, and the people still look surprised to see me.

Headphones Quietly!
Some folks wear headphones but at a very low level. If I wear headphones, I keep them way turned down. If I cannot hear my bike, they are too loud. This can be ok, depending on your riding environment. Not wearing headphones is best, still, as you can still zone out even at a low volume. Another problem is that if you are in an accident with a car, they can still get on you about wearing them.

Just one Headphone!
Here is a solution that might make both sides happy. Plus you get to look like a secret service agent. One side will obviously be blocked but it is infinitely better than both ears plugged up. Even better, get a phone/mp3 player/radio and use your hands free for all of them. The cons for this derivation are a much lighter shade of headphones quietly. 'Nough said.

Headphones Blaring!
It sounds absurd, but I have definitely heard a few people riding, especially on the trails, with headphones so loud I could hear what they were listening to. Obviously all of the previous cons apply to this: zoning out, not hearing contra-traffic, problems with drivers after an accident, etc. I really don't see any positive to listening to your music that loud on a bike. Go for a walk if you need to have it that loud.

"Bike-Safe" headphones.
Tips about headphones and other ways to be cool on your bicycle.
VA has a law against riding with two headphones in, I will try to find out about more states.
Sad news stories about accidents with headphone-wearers.
More blogs.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

$20 per Month for Bicycle Commuting?!

Check out this blog talking about this legislation.
This bill would give companies a $20 tax credit each month for each bike commuter. This $20 is supposed to be passed on to the Bicyclist. Even if that money isn't passed directly on to the commuter, it would build an environment of support for bicyclists at work. Not to mention a healthier workforce.


P.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer wears a bike pin instead of an American flag. His congressional website is a bike site. He is from Oregon, big surprise!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Build Yourself a Bike Trailer!

Do you need to carry large loads that wouldn't fit on your racks or in a pack? A bike trailer might be the answer for you. Basically these can be as big and strong as you want to make them. I have heard tell of folks hauling couches! There are a few ways to get a bike trailer, you can buy a bike-specific trailer, convert a child-carrier, or build your own from scratch. I built mine from scratch and am going to tell you what I learned and how to do it below.

Figure Out Your Plan
There are a few different designs out there. One-wheel designs are nice because they are narrow and glide well behind the bike. The problem is that they can be unstable, needing two mount points on the bicycle to keep from tipping over. Two-wheel designs are more stable and have a tighter turning radius than the one-wheelers. I originally made a one wheel design but could not get it stable enough and modified it to a two-wheel design.

Here is a schematic of the design I settled on:

A few components you will need to figure out in your design: wheels, frame, box, and bike mount.

Is bigger better? Well, I think larger wheels will be smoother and will give you a higher ground clearance. Also, the trailer will be more stable if it is mounted lower on the wheel, so a smaller wheel will put it underneath the trailer and thus less stable.

I made my frame out of wood. If I make another one, it will be out of 1" square metal pipe. It is lighter and more weather resistant. With wood, I used two screws and "L" or "T" brackets on each corner and join.

The box can be whatever you like. Mine is a wood frame with rope webbing making up the sides. I used plywood cut out into smooth corners to create the curves of my box. I laminated them together, three thick.

You can go even easier though, buy a stout plastic box with tightly-attaching lid. Really, anything that will fit between the wheels, will be just fine.

Bike Mount
Connecting your trailer to your bike safely gave me the most logistical difficulty as my track bike does not have good mount points on the rear drop out area. First, make sure your connecting arm is long enough that your back wheel will never reach the front of your box. Also, the bent-arm design keeps your wheel off of the connecting arm when you turn right (which kicks the end of the back wheel out to the left. A good way to make the angle strong is use a big hinge and plate to keep it steady. To connect the end of the arm to the back of your bike, you should get creative. I used 8" metal plates to make a strong eye-bolt mount point off my back left side. I mounted the plates using "P" mounts, which are basically a piece of thin metal bent into a "P" shape and covered in rubber. I used lock-nuts to attach the eye-bolt so that it is not 100% tight, but can swivel in its mount. Then I used another metal plate off the top of the connecting arm. I drop a bolt down through the top plate, then the eye-bolt, and a large washer on the other side, before tightening it down. Again, I used a locking nut to leave the front mount slightly loose so that it can swivel left and right.

Other Issues
There are a few things that you should keep in mind with a bike trailer. The materials used should be weatherproof. If you use wood, varnish it with marine spar varnish, for instance. Another problem is that trailers are low and sometimes hard for cars to see. You might want to get an orange flag on a 2-m flexible pole, as they have on kiddie trailers. Reflectors on the back couldn't hurt either. It also takes getting used to. Ride around a safe area before you take it on busy roads. Give yourself plenty of room to make corners and not clip cars.

Be creative! Look around, there are a number of different designs out there. Here are a few. Enjoy!

Woah, lots of designs here!
A blog dedicated to bike trailers!
Another design, here, and six here, too.
An entry about dog trailers.
More basic info at Wikipedia.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rant: Try Not to Hit Me, Jerk.

Sorry for the slight rant but I was almost hit three times by the same guy within one block.

Here we go.

I was riding on my usual route into school and about three blocks from school, I was passed by a brand new car. It turned down a street into the university property. There is parallel parking on the right, and slanted, nose-in-first parking on the left. I was riding up on his passenger side. I was about 1 meter behind him when he pulled off to the right into a parallel spot without signaling. My theory is that he couldn't signal because he was on his cell phone. So, I swerved off to the left and yelled out, "Hey, watch out!"
As I passed him on the front driver's side, he pulled out and I had to swerve to the left to avoid being hit by him. So I called out again.
About half a block later, he pulled in front of me to park again, without a signal! As I pulled past him he kept going around the parking lot so I followed him to give him a piece of my mind.
As he got out of his car, still on his cell phone, because boy, this guy could drive, almost hit bikers, not signal, AND talk on his cell phone all at the same time!
So I said, "Hey, would you mind using your blinker?"
He said, "Why don't you watch where you are going?!"
I responded, "If I wasn't watching where I was going, I would have hit you!"
His biting reply was, "whatever."
I left it with, "Boy that must be an important call!"

He walked away and I took down his license number and reported him to public safety.

If I had thought about it, it would have been a low speed crash, and his new car would have looked good with a nice scrape along the back passenger side as my bike ran into it.

Ok, I am pissed off, and I probably wouldn't want to have scrapped up his car, but if I am really tired of being ignored by drivers, especially on cell phones!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Oh Bags, How do I Love Thee...

There are lots of ways to carry your things on your bicycle. In panniers, trailers, baskets, balanced on your head, or in a back pack. There are great things about all of them (except maybe balancing things on your head) but this entry is about bags that go on your back. Although having a few drawbacks, the variety and usefulness of these bags vastly outweigh them. Carrying your load on your back lets you control the center of gravity of your bike in a leaned turn. With a load on my bike rack, I feel like my response time is sluggish and laggy. Another plus is when you get off your bicycle, your things are already with you, no carrying panniers around.

Traditional Backpacks.
A traditional backpack has a compartment with two straps that go over each shoulder evenly. This is probably one of the most common bags for carrying a moderate amount of things. The great thing about a backpack is the stability and even load bearing over both shoulders. Especially with a waist strap these bags can be cinched down tight to keep things from shifting. There is a wide variety of size, quality, and price. There are bike-specific backpacks but any functional backpack will work. I prefer these bags over satchels for carrying especially heavy loads. Be careful loading large backpacks for a bike ride. Do not pack as if you are going hiking, placing your heavy things on top to give you better balance. On a bike, you want a low center of gravity, so put the heaviest things at the bottom. Whatever your load, make sure it is a comfortably snug fit. Your load shifting around while riding can be dangerous if it throws you off balance.

Satchels. OK, OK, Messenger Bags.
I have loved this style of bag since I got one in 6th grade. The best part about a satchel is that you can swing it around and access your load while underway. Never fear though, they have secondary straps to keep them securely on your back the rest of the time. Although they can carry quite a lot, very heavy loads might be more difficult to distribute evenly, unlike backpacks. It takes a bit of practice but just make sure you pack so you have a flat side against your back. They do come in a wide variety of sizes and setups.

Things to Look for in a Bag.
Get a bag to fit your needs. One bag will not fit all situations. I suggest getting a daily commuter bag, either a backpack or a messenger bag, depending on your preference. Make sure it is large enough to carry your daily needs but not over-large, because that can become awkward. For backpacks, one nice feature is some system to let air circulate between your back and the bag. This avoids sweaty-back syndrome. For a messenger bag, find one that fits you and feels comfortable snugged down on your back. Make sure it has closing straps to keep the top closed. Lots have Velcro but I find straps more useful and secure. Some folks prefer a release on the front strap. My first one did not have one, but my current one does, and I do really like it. Be careful with overly-clunky snaps, such as those made of seat-belt buckles, as they tend to smash onto whatever you set it down on. For all bags, look for comfy should snaps and the ability to snug them down. You don't want your load shifting. Another thing to think about is waterproofing. Though not necessary, it is a big peace of mind for me to know my things will stay dry. You can get a waterproof bag by design, or by buying a few small "dry-bags" and putting them inside your non-waterproof bag. Make sure you get a chance to try on some bags before you buy. It has to be comfortable. If you want to buy online, go around and try the bags at a local store before shopping online.

The Bad.
Ok, backpacks and messenger bags aren't perfect. There are a few things of which you should be aware. A backpack will raise your center of gravity, possibly making you more unstable, depending on how strong of a rider you are. I find that with my load on my back, rather than my bike rack, I have more control over the weight in a leaned turn, etc. If you take a spill, the things in your bag might get banged up, but this is true for most carrying solutions on a bicycle. Another problem is the hot back. Having a big heavy load against your back can lead to a sweaty backpack footprint left behind. Some people prefer carrying their load on a rack for that reason.

Things to Avoid in a Bag.
Don't go cheap. A good bag will last you a long time. It is better to get a good bag you are happy with, than a cheap one that will fall apart at the worst possible time. Be careful of bags with the waterproof fabric on the outside. Some people like it because it sheds water more quickly but on the other hand, it does make your back wet more quickly than a fabric-covered bag.

Don't like the price?
Make your own! I made my own commuter bag. It turned out quite well, as you can see from the photo. I based on on the large-sized Chrome bag (Kremlin, I think). It is waterproof with an internal liner. It is HUGE and I have had little I can't carry. The duck fabric on the outside keeps me a bit cooler than if it was the PVC fabric as it wicks. I love telling the folks with the $200+ Chrome bags that mine cost about $25. Be creative and have a sewing machine with a strong needle.

Some Bag Reviews:
Banjo Brothers
Chrome Bag
Lots of Bags - good side-by-side comparison

Some Popular Messenger Bags (these sites also have backpacks; definitely shop around):
Timbuk2 - ballistic nylon covering, waterproof liner, padded strap, $85-135+
Manhattan Portage - ballistic nylon, straps, ergonomic, some waterproof, $50-100
Chrome - tough, waterproof, expensive but lifetime guarantee, $120-180

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Red Lights and Stop Signs: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

It happens to all of us while riding bike. We come up to a red light with clear visibility, and there are no cars coming. So do you stop your momentum and wait for the light or do you roll it? Well, I think there are about three things you can do. One, run the light without slowing down much. Two, slow down and stop to double check it is clear before rolling through. Or three, stopping to wait for the light to change. Let's lay out the pros and cons.

Pros for stopping at red lights and stop signs:

Its the law. Stopping and waiting at a stop sign or red light is the law, first and foremost. But, as you know and I will talk about below, there are a myriad of reasons and conditions under which rolling through isn't the same as a car doing it. Nevertheless, it is illegal to run the light or stop sign. Check and know your local laws.

It is safer. Clearly you will be more protected when you go through intersections protected by the light.

It makes bicyclists look bad. It can raise the ire of motorists and lower the perception of bicyclists. Just as cars which don't use their turn signals bother me, bikers running red lights probably really bothers some cars. Think about this next time you want to occupy the whole lane (as you are also legally entitled to do in many states). If you want the rights do you have to follow the law, too?

Good time to catch your breath and take a drink! This way, you don't feel like a bum taking a break if you are stopping for a red light.

Cons for stopping at red lights and stop signs:
For this, I am assuming it is a completely visible intersection where an approaching bicyclist can see if there are cars coming and it would be theoretically safe to roll through the intersection. I would NEVER advocate flying through blind intersections unless you have a death wish.

You can't trip the lights. Bikes are too light and have too little metal to trip the light changing sensors. You might be waiting for a good long time before you can ride through on a green.

"until the laws protect the bicycle, the laws do not apply to the bicycle" can be a well-made argument. Bikes won't just run lights or signs without looking. We have no crumple zones to protect us so we will be more careful going through an intersection. What about the cars running red light? What about the car that speeds past you and then cuts in front of you to turn? What about the car that pushed me into oncoming traffic because it made a right on red as I was coming through the opposing green light at about 20 miles per hour? Until cars start respecting me, why should I stop?

Could be dangerous. Depending on the part of town you are riding through, you might not want to stop. If this is the case, maybe you should reroute!

Loss of momentum. It is much easier for a car to step on the gas than for you to get back up to 20 miles per hour.

Why Wait? Because it is a grey area of bicyclist etiquette, and many pedestrians cross against the light if it is clear, running a red on a bicycle doesn't seem that bad. Also, a car can easily make up a few minutes from waiting at a long light by going faster, you might not be able to. This is especially true if it is raining; why just sit there waiting in the rain?

My Personal Stance:
Alright, my personal philosophy on this matter is that if I am not going to affect anybody around me, I will roll through a light. That is, if nobody will have to step on his or her brake or swerve or anything to avoid me, I will go through a light or stop sign. This is of course assuming that I can clearly see far enough down the cross street to make sure nobody is coming. Also, this is when I am riding alone. With a pack I will generally follow the lights or at least come to a complete stop and wait for everybody to form up before going through a clear intersection. Coming to a full stop is rather annoying, especially with a medium-high-ratio fixed gear bike.

Other blogs weigh in:
Two Cities Two Wheels
Out Here in the Middle