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Utility Cycling for Regular Folks

By Edited Jun 20, 2014 2 3

This is not an article about how to get in shape on a bicycle, or how to compete on a bicycle. If you have no intention of becoming an athlete, you'll feel welcome here.

At 50 years of age I began riding a bicycle everywhere I went... for seven years. Day or night, rain or shine, through good neighborhoods and bad, I rode. Bags of groceries, Chinese takeout, or a new lawnmower, I carried them all on or behind my bicycle. This article is about a bicycle lifestyle far removed from the athletic sport of cycling.

I call this kind of cycling everyday cycling, and it's like everyday driving. When you hop in your car to go the grocery store do you first put on a helmet, special shoes costing well over a hundred dollars, a garish skin tight top with pockets on the back for food, special gloves, and even special pants that have a padded contraption resembling a diaper sewn into them? Of course not. Bike riding to get around is just like walking or driving to get around, except that you're riding. And… you'll get rich! Well, Okay, you'll just save boatloads of money.

Things I'll cover in this article:

  • How to find a suitable bicycle for utility, or everyday riding.
  • How to equip your bike for utility cycling.
  • How to stay dry, or less wet in the rain.
  • How to equip your bicycle for night riding.
  • How to carry stuff on, or behind your bicycle.
  • What to carry in your emergency repair kit.
  • Observations on everyday cycling, where bicycles fall short of cars and why, along with my wish list for everyday cycling.

Start with a sturdy, simple bicycle. Avoid the latest whiz-bang wonders. There are good reasons for a simple bike.

  • It's inexpensive—saving you money for some practical goodies you'll want to add.
  • Basic maintenance is simple.
  • Readily available parts, often even WalMart has what you need.
  • It won't attract serious bicycle thieves, and if it is stolen, you’ll be able to afford another.

Rule one is that most any bike of decent construction will work. Rule two is that the simplest sturdy bike that does all you need… is all the bike you need. Here are some suggestions, but don't treat any of this as dogma—it's your call, work with what's available.

Girl and Bicycle

Your everyday get-around bike should be the right size. There are lots of theories about this, and the more knowledgeable the cyclist, the more likely his answer won't be right for you—because he's probably an athlete. My advice: sit on a few bikes, see what you feel safe and comfortable on. Above all, if you are going to ride more than 2 or 3 miles at a stretch, avoid the new "forward crank" bicycles. They are so very tempting—you can sit on a large bike and rest both feet flat on the ground. They look cool.

What the salesperson might not tell you about a forward-crank bike, is that when you ride one, most of your weight rests directly on your spine. Your butt will get sore sooner. A hard bump on a forward crank bicycle can really jar your back, even your noggin. A traditional bicycle distributes your weight better. If you insist on a forward-crank bike, get a suspension seatpost to spare your back. Popular suspension seatpost makers are XLC, Zoom, Avenir, and M-wave.

If you're going to buy, stay away from bicycles with suspension, i.e. front or rear shock absorbers. They add complexity. They add weight. They add maintenance. They make it harder to add saddlebags, baskets, etc. Bicycle suspensions suck up a tiny bit (or more) of your precious energy with every turn of the pedals. It adds up. There is very little suspension does, that simply standing when going over rough surfaces won't do as well. But if you already have a suspension bike, use it.

Adjust the seat height on your bicycle so that you can comfortably touch the ground with the balls of your feet (not flat-footed) when stopped. When riding you should not have to straighten your leg completely at the bottom of your pedal stroke, it should be slightly bent. You don't want the seat too low, as it is much harder to pedal efficiently when your knee is bent too much at the top of your stroke. Your ‘up' leg should not look like it's involved in a deep-knee bend when pedaling—if it is, pedaling will seem hard, very hard.

  • If multiple gears are required, a single front sprocket—called a chain ring—is often better than two or three chain rings.
    • A single chain ring is simpler to maintain—one less shifter and cable.
    • A chain guard to protect your pants will only fit over a single chain ring.
  • Consider a bicycle with an internal gear hub if you only need three to eight speeds. Nexus, Sturmey-Archer, and Sram all supply internally geared rear hubs.
    • Advantages
      • You can shift while stopped—very handy when you brake suddenly and get stuck in a high gear.
      • Your chain will last longer since the angle of the chain never changes.
      • A chain guard will fit.
      • The gears are protected from rain and snow.
      • They last far longer than exposed gears.
    • Disadvantages
      • Depending on the setup, they can turn a simple 10-minute flat fix into 30 to 45-minutes of work. Ask the seller to remove and reinstall the rear wheel (without a rack or special tools) before you buy—if you don't think you can learn to do it in ten minutes on the roadside, think twice.
      • They cost more.
  • If you plan to ride on very hilly roads you may need multiple chain rings.

How can your keep your pants free of grease and out of the chain ring? A chain guard is best, but I've often just used a shoestring to tie the cuff on my right leg so it doesn't flap around. Just make sure the shoestring is tied in such a way that it cannot get caught in the chain. A length of ordinary elastic (from the fabric store) with a bit of velcro on each end works great. There are reflective strips with velcro that you can wrap around your lower pant leg to prevent flapping, and keep you safe at night. There used to be light metal trouser clips—flexible C-bracelets really—to accomplish this job—you might get lucky and find some. Of course in a pinch you can just roll up your lower right pant leg.

About shifters. First, use what your bicycle has for now. If you need to replace shifters, lever-type (trigger) shifters are generally longer lasting, and safer to use—my opinion on this last—than twist-grip shifters. Most shifters are indexed these days—that simply means they click precisely from one gear to another, no finesse required. A good set of replacement shifters should cost $50, perhaps much less. Look for shifters such as the Shimano Altus or Rapidfire, or Sram X.3, or X.4. There is an older, low-tech type of shifter called a friction thumb shifter and Sunrace makes a set you can find on Amazon for as little as $7.00. I've been a happy user of these incredibly cheap shifters. Friction shifters are not-indexed and you have to ‘feel' them into gear—sounds hard, but it's not. Friction shifters work with any number of gears—not so indexed shifters.

A regular bicycle for everyday riding should be able to use tires at least 1.50" wide—so eyeball the forks. You'll sometimes ride on very poor surfaces and fatter tires will protect your rims much better. They also provide a bit of cushion. Avoid skinny racing tires. A quick note about tire sizes: a 26 x 1.50 tire is not the same size as a 26 x 1½ tire! "But they're mathematically equivalent"!, you protest. Protest all you want, but if you have an older bike with tires marked in fractions instead of decimals, you're in for a long day trying to find tires anywhere but online. Designations such as 26 x 1¾ represent tires from another era. You can find them if you look, but do you really want that hassle when you need a new tire fast? However, a 1.50, or 2.00 tube will fit a 1½ or 2—it's only the tires that will give you problems.

Flats. Punctures. You're going to get flats, and you need to know how to repair them quickly if you're going to be an everyday cyclist. Did I mention you're going to get flats? No, really! You will need two plastic tire levers and a patch kit. If your axles use bolts instead of quick-release skewers you'll need a wrench or two as well. The cold glue patches are quick and reliable. One big no-no—don't put the patch on while the glue is wet. Wait for it to become tacky—about 2 to 5 minutes. Check the inside of the tire to see if there is anything sharp still stuck in the tire. Get a bicycle patch kit at your local bike shop—they're in a little box containing some patches, a scrap of sandpaper, and rubber cement. Patch kits from the bike shop are generally better than patch kits from a big box store. You can try the pre-glued, just get me home, emergency patches if you want—they work, sometimes—but I'd rather just patch once. If you've practiced removing and reinstalling your wheels, fixing a punctured tube will take about 10 minutes.

Should you be unlucky enough to get a large puncture or cut in your tube and tire, a patch may not work on the tube, so carry a spare tube or two. Severe tire damage can sometimes be fixed with an emergency "boot patch". This is just something to reinforce the inside of the tire carcass—a Clif Bar wrapper, a bit of old tube, some tough fabric. Basically it's hernia truss for your bicycle tire.

What about puncture resistant tires? They're a good idea. Consider tires such as the Specialized Armadillo, or the Geax Street Runner. You won't find these tires at your big box store, but they're worth a trip to the bike shop and a couple of extra bucks. If you live in an area like inland Southern California with its abundance of "goathead stickers", you'll only get about one-fifth the flats. The Specialized Armadillo will take 80-100 psi making for a tough tire that rolls well.

A word about Schrader versus Presta valve stems. The rim of a bicycle wheel drilled for Schrader valve stems will have a bigger hole than one drilled for Presta valve stems. If they were as readily available everywhere, I'd use Prestas. They're not. If you have a choice use a bike with Schraders, but Prestas are not a deal breaker.

  • Schrader
    • Schrader valves are what cars have.
    • Schraders have a spring that keeps the valve from leaking air.
    • The tubes are everywhere: Target, Kmart, etc.
    • They use a standard nozzle for pumping.
  • Presta valves
    • They're skinnier than a Schrader
    • They use air pressure (not a spring) to keep the valve closed.
    • The tubes are only at bike shops, or some large sporting goods stores.
    • They use a non-standard nozzle, but inexpensive ($1) Schrader adapters that screw onto the stem are available at your bike shop. Portable bike pumps usually fit both types.

Handlebars. If you're young, or old but still limber, straight or nearly straight bars may suit you. I personally prefer handlebars like those found on 3-speeds in the 1960's—they allow a bit more upright riding position, and a natural hand position. Do a image search for 'vintage 3-speed bicycle'. Try not to drool. Avoid drop bars, or very wide cruiser bars—they're impractical for utility cycling.

If you truly intend to live as much of your life as possible using a bicycle, a better, more comfortable bicycle seat will top your, 'I want that', list. Ignore the those who insist a hard, narrow seat is more comfortable. Consider for a moment that those 'serious cyclists' who advise this are actually wearing a padded diaper like contraption in their skin-tight (or baggy) bicycle shorts. No, really! They call this embarrassing contraption a chamois (say 'shammy'). However there is some truth in their advice that too soft a saddle (bike speak for a seat) can cause problems. All that soft squishy material on a really soft seat has to go somewhere when pressed upon by half of your body's weight, often it will go to places you'd rather it didn't, causing discomfort and chafing. What you're looking for is a seat that is equal in softness to the ½ to ¾ inches of padding you would get if you were wearing those goofy riding britches.

If you are a man getting to that age where bicycle seats can aggravate a bladder or prostate problem, I going to come right out and give a plug to the best seat I know of for easing your discomfort—the Derri Air Hobson Easy Seat II. There is a very important caveat about this seat. To look at it you would think you should plant your buttocks in the hollows provided. Don't! You'll go flippin’ nuts, yea completely bonkers, from the weird sensation on your thighs. Sit with just your sit bones near the front edge of the seat—perch there, if you will. Also don't get a fancy cover, or special material for the cover of this seat. The standard seat has just the right amount of friction for control without chafing. I've got somewhere around 8000 miles on the Derri Air Hobson Easy Seat II. Without it, my bike riding days would have been over.

Ever wondered what the horn of a bicycle seat—the long narrow part projecting forward—is for? I learned at least one of the reasons when looking for a seat to relieve the nerve damage I caused when I listened to some 'serious cyclist' about how a hard seat was better—the horn creates an awareness of where the bicycle is, and aids a bit in lean steering. Sound like tripe to you? Borrow a hornless seat with a very smooth, slippery surface—the smooth ‘IT' seat for instance—and go for a ride with a lot of turns. You'll be convinced. Without just the right amount of friction, hornless seats are disorienting.

If you find yourself riding in the rain, or through puddles formed by poorly-aimed sprinklers, you'll come to appreciate those clever devices known as fenders. If there's a puddle of any size in your path you're going to get wet and muddy without fenders. I'll vouch for fenders from Planet Bike or SKS. I strongly advise against minimal fenders such as clip-on fenders—but feel free to learn the hard way. If you can find some used steel fenders, they'll work fine.

There are several approaches to staying dry or minimally wet in rain. A simple rain coat or poncho can do a fair job. Campmor makes a bicycle rain cape that I like but I still get wet from just above my knees. The rain cape has thumb loops under the front edge that stretch out the cape as you reach for the handle bars; you end up looking like a bright yellow pup tent floating down the road, but it works. If you have rain gear but no fenders, you'll get wet and dirty. Avoid rain pants, unless you live in Seattle—the condensation and sweat will make you miserable. There are some affordable, breathable rain jackets for cyclists, e.g. the O2 Rainwear Original Cycling Jacket. Some riders just wear jeans, t-shirt and tennis shoes, and take along dry clothes. Don't laugh, it works. A poncho plus an extra pair of dry pants and socks also works. Experiment—create your own system.

Riding at night is just part of the game for everyday cyclists. Do I need to tell you it's lights and reflectors? Bicycle headlights are usually mounted on the handlebars, but many riders like helmet-mounted bicycle headlights, some prefer both simultaneously. There was a time when decent bicycle lighting was strictly the domain of bicycle shops. Not so now. You can find some very adequate LED lighting systems at your local big box store in the $30-$40 range—Bell provides decent bicycle lights.

The very best lighting still comes from the bike shops. Battery powered systems provide the brightest lights but you have to remember to charge them. Battery types range from disposable AA and AAA batteries all the way up to rechargeable, high-power, long-life lithium-ion batteries, with lead-acid and NiCd (Nickel Cadmium) batteries filling out the mid-range. The arrival of longer-lasting, more powerful batteries has not only increased night-time safety, many riders have taken to riding with a bright bicycle headlight on during the day for increased visibility to drivers. The diameter of a bicycle light matters in one sense—automobile drivers associate large diameter lights with vehicles, so you may be safer with a larger diameter headlight. Your ability to see the road and objects on it will be good with either a small or a large diameter light. Here are a few manufacturers of quality battery-powered bicycle lights: Dinotte, CygoLite, NiteRider, Light and Motion, and Planet Bike.

Generator powered bicycle lighting systems don’t provide as much light as the high-end battery systems, but they are always ready to go, and if you ride in extremely cold weather a generator-powered system may outperform a battery powered system—batteries don’t like extreme cold. You can visit the website of Peter White Cycles for encyclopedic information on generator powered bicycle lighting systems. Note that there are two types of generators—wheel rubbers, and generator hubs that are built into the wheel. Both work well.

How do you get stuff around on a bicycle? I’m not talking about carrying your lunch. I’m talking about two or three bags of groceries, a suit to change into at work, or a new printer you want to take home from the big box store. Maybe you even want to tote your tent and other camping gear for a weekend in the woods. It’s all quite doable. There are innumerable varieties of small bags for storing small stuff: Handlebar bags, frame bags, seat bags, and small bags that sit on your rear rack. Such bags are easy to find and figure out. We’ll deal with strategies and equipment for carrying larger items for now. Many of the accessories described below simply won’t work (or work very well) with bicycles having front and rear suspension. Almost none of them that do work with suspended bikes will work as well as they do with non-suspended bikes.

On the front of your bicycle you have three main options for carrying stuff:

  • A basket, be it wire, wicker, or some other material. They’re inexpensive and readily available everywhere.
    • Some baskets can be removed and taken with you for shopping.
    • If you put a lot of weight in a basket the bicycle can go from stable to very unstable with a slight turn of the handlebars.
    • You must secure things with a bungee cord, or a cover if you ride over even small bumps at any speed—this is typical of all open-top bicycle cargo containers.
  • A front rack, often having a small rail around it for carrying boxes, bags, and what have you. In the context of this list, when I say front rack, I am excluding front racks that are a part of front pannier racks, i.e. saddlebag racks.
    • They’re usually a bit pricey.
    • They can carry a wider variety of cargo than a basket.
    • They look very cool.
    • The Sunlite Gold Tec Front Rack is an inexpensive example.
  • Front panniers and supporting racks. Pannier is bike speak for saddlebags.
    • The bags require racks that bolt to the forks.
    • The handle a bit better than baskets or front racks because they mount rather low.
    • They’re smaller than rear panniers as a rule, but not always.
    • The required racks often include a small horizontal rack between them—over the front wheel—to which small cargo, a sleeping bag, or a bicycle bag similar to the kind often seen on rear racks can be attached.
    • They tend to be pricey.

On the rear of your bicycle you have similar options but loads carried on the back do not affect your bicycle’s handling as much as loads carried on the front—so you can carry much more. For utility cycling a rear rack is nearly mandatory. You can mount a huge variety of cleverly designed ‘trunk bags’ to the flat horizontal surface of such a rack. Bontrager, Citizen, Topeak, and Electra are trunk bag brands. The Sunlite lockable bicycle trunk box is hard-bodied—for a bit of secure storage.

You can attach panniers to a rear rack. If you plan to use saddlebags (panniers) with your rear rack, have a look at the Axiom Journey Rear Rack. You’ll notice that the rearmost vertical supports don’t proceed directly to the rear axle dropouts but angle down and back before returning to join the front support. There’s a very important reason for this—it keeps panniers from bending, or flexing around the support, and perhaps even fouling the spokes. There are folding (and non-folding) wire baskets that can be mounted on your rear rack, and they cost far less than panniers (Wald makes such baskets).

I’m a big fan of panniers, specifically shopping bag panniers. The two best known choices for such saddlebags the Nashbar Townie bags, and the Arkel Shoppers. The Townies are very inexpensive, $18 to $20 per side (and yes, you can just use one). I’ve used them extensively. They’re rectangular and designed to accept standard paper grocery sacks. Since they are open at the top (although an elastic-hemmed nylon rain cover is provided) you’ll want to use a bungee cord or some such to keep your loads from bouncing out on rough roads. They have a highly visible 1”-wide reflective strip on all three exposed sides so they’re a safety item as well. The Arkel Shopper panniers are pricier, but you get what you pay for—the approach with them is to unclip them, take them into the store with you, fill them up and take them to the register, where ultimately they serve as your grocery bags. They don’t deform as much under load like the Townies do. Both bags will serve you well. Both bags fold flat against your rack when not loaded.

Panniers with zippers or straps and multiple compartments are available, indeed they’re the norm, and may be a better fit for your needs. There are even panniers designed to look like briefcases, and one pannier folds over the top of your rack and down both sides, thus functioning as a full garment bag for suits, etc. Popular brands of panniers are Arkel, Bontrager, Ortlieb, and Jandd. Waterproof panniers are widely available. Panniers clip on and off very quickly and easily.

A bike trailer can carry more weight and bulkier cargo. With a bike trailer, you can come much closer to the goal of replacing your car with your bike. I’ll focus on cargo trailers here since this article is about utility bicycling. Bicycle cargo trailers come in two main configurations—one-wheel inline trailers, and conventional trailers with a wheel on each side. The largest manufacturer of bike trailers is Burley. If you want to go with a single-wheel trailer, the Bob Yak is your best bet. At 12.5-lbs it’s one of the lightest trailers you will find, and it’s easy to forget it’s behind you as it tracks perfectly. You can ride over a curb at an angle with the Bob and it won’t turn over. Two-wheel bike trailers can and do turn over if you are not careful when riding on uneven surfaces. At normal speeds a small pothole can kick it onto its side instantly. You will quickly learn how to avoid such mishaps if you need the much larger carrying capacity of a two-wheel cargo trailer. If you can think of a bike trailer need, some manufacturer somewhere has built what you need.

Strive to be visible when riding your bike. You can increase your chances of being seen by drivers by:

  • Wearing a brightly colored reflective vest.
  • Using a headlight and taillight in addition to reflectors.
  • Adding reflective tape to your bike, helmet, and clothes.
  • Riding with (not against) traffic. Drivers check for traffic where they expect traffic to be. Be there!

As an everyday utility cyclist you will need an emergency kit for on the road repairs, and minor injuries. Your emergency tool kit should include:

  • A hose clamp: if your shift cable breaks you can clamp it to your frame with the hose clamp. Just get the bike in a medium gear and clamp the cable. Ride home and replace cable at your leisure.
  • Patch kit with two tire levers
  • Spare tube(s)
  • Something for a boot patch
  • Bicycle pump. One with a short length of hose is easier to use than one whose nozzle is connected rigidly to the pump body. The Topeak Road Morph, or Mountain Morph are good choices.
  • A mini-toolkit such as the Park Tool IB-3
  • Spare spokes, one long and short for rear wheel, one for front wheel. Tape them to a frame tube if necessary.
  • A few common bolts and nuts, 5-mm and 7-mm
  • A First Aid kit—you will fall sooner or later.

Things you will miss about a car when you become an everyday cyclist:

  • Always being comfortable and dry.
  • Not sweating in warm weather.
  • Just pressing on the gas pedal to go.
  • Being able to leave your shopping from Store-A safely in your vehicle while you continue shopping at Store- B.
  • Not having to deal with people thinking you’re nuts!

The item I find I miss the most with everyday cycling is secure storage of cargo. It is so nice to be able to just leave your shopping in the car, and walk away to do more shopping. Secure on-bike storage is number one on my wish list. You cannot really even safely leave accessories such as battery powered lights on your bike when you leave it unattended. My cycling daydreams revolve around a bike that I can walk away from without worries, just as though it were a car.

A couple of final thoughts. Taking your bike on the train or bus works just dandy, and greatly increases your range. If you live in an extremely hot area and riding just leaves you too sweaty when you reach your destination, consider a modern electric bicycle—you won't have to work so hard. An electric bike can also make cycling in a hilly area, say San Francisco, a realistic option for non-athletes. 

So go get yourself a sturdy practical bike and see if you can’t make it as an everyday cyclist. It really is rewarding—even if your friends all think you’re crazy.

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Comments

Jun 9, 2014 10:20pm
brent_writes
Wow!
That's some pretty serious cycling on your wife's part, Ian.

Thanks for reading,
Brent
Aug 28, 2014 6:37pm
shar-On
Wow I think you have covered everything in this article. I used to love riding but these days it is so risky with so much traffic. I wish that bikes were allowed to ride the opposite way to traffic, at least that way we could see vehicles heading in our direction and avoid accidents before they happen. Very comprehensive article.
Nov 5, 2014 5:06pm
brent_writes
Thanks shar-On,

I'm no longer active on infoBarrel, so I just saw your nice comment today.

I spent seven years riding everywhere, day and night, rain and shine, I even bought and pulled home a new lawnmower behind my bike. I don't ride anymore. Sometimes I really miss riding. I like you, do have concerns about the dangers of cycling.

Thanks,
Brent
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