Carbon-belts, internal hubs and everything else about drivetrains you need to know for your bike commute

Examining the best drivetrains for bicycle commuting.

You’ve no doubt ridden a bike driven by a chain. But have you tried one that’s powered by a carbon-fibre belt?

Both power a bike using the same principles, but there are some fundamental differences between them, including the fact that most bikes in the world — in fact, nearly all of them — are driven by chains.

Yet, there remains a small and (maybe) growing subset of people who swear by belts these days. So here, I examine the differences between the two types and offer some advice for your bike commute.

Derailleur vs internal hub

You all probably ride a bike with a derailleur – don’t all us North Americans? — but consider this video an argument in favour of a gearing alternative: the internal hub. These devices to change gears on your bike have long been ignored by those on the athletic side of cycling, but if you’re a commuter or urban transportation cyclist, here’s a look at why you might want to consider an internal hub.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Finding my way on a bike through the COVID-19 lockdown

I, like most of you, have been stuck at home for weeks now because of the COVID-19 lockdown, and I’m glad to be doing my part to help stop this virus.

But it hasn’t been easy. Being stuck home for weeks, frankly, sucks. But thankfully, I’ve still got my bike, and I still live in a jurisdiction where health officials are encouraging its use, as long as it’s being done while keeping appropriate distance from others to prevent the spread of the virus.

But riding a bike through a city these days is completely different than in the past. Here are the ways in which I’m trying to find my way through this crazy situation.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Why I don’t use a fat bike for my winter bicycle commute

That’s me riding a fat bike, but I’m not commuting!

Perhaps the most common question I get from winter cyclists these days is simple: Why don’t you ride a fat bike for your winter commute?

It’s true, I don’t. I ride a built-for-winter commuter bike that has non-rusting parts and skinny tires. But fat bikes are pretty amazing winter machines, and I’ve ridden plenty of fun miles on one. So here I lay out my case for why a fat bike isn’t my commuter choice, but maybe for you.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

My perfect winter bike has been upgraded – is it better?

My winters changed forever with a smiling dude with curly hair standing behind a bike in the lobby of a conference centre in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

It was an early edition of the Winter Cycling Congress, an annual event that brings winter bike lovers from all over the world together to discuss their favourite misunderstood transportation mode. I was on hand as a journalist-turned-speaker and the smiling dude was David Weiner of Priority Bicycles. Normally, bike conferences are filled with all kinds of bike-industry types flogging their wares, but something about Weiner’s bike stopped me.

I took a closer look and realized it was all there – all the ingredients in my perfect-fantasy winter bike, a wish-list honed over a decade of joy and heartbreak as a year-round bike commuter that included components imagined to withstand the bane of my winters: rust. It had an aluminium frame, a carbon belt drive instead of a chain, internal gears, disc brakes and great fenders. Hurry up and take my money, Mr. Weiner, please.

My original Priority Continuum. Photo by Tom Babin.

And for three winters I rode that Priority Continuum happily, until Weiner emerged again in the form of an email late last year letting me know that he had been hard at work improving the Continuum. The result was a new, improved bike. And did I want to try it? Hurry up and take my money, Mr. Weiner, please.

That improved bike is the Priority Continuum Onyx, and I’ve been riding it for the past few weeks through a Canadian winter. Basically, this is an upgrade to what I hoped, and what grew into, my perfect winter bike. Could it possibly be improved?

First, the upgrades. The Onyx has some differences from the early edition Continuum, and I’ve found most of them to be decided improvements, including the advanced badassness of the paint job (flat black gets two thumbs up from me).

First up is visibility, an important factor when you spend much of the winter riding in darkness. There are two significant improvements in the Onyx. First, is the esthetic design of the bike, which includes significant swaths of reflective paint, which is invisible unless light is directed at it (thereby keeping the rider illuminated without ruining the badassery of the colour scheme). Secondly is that the Onyx comes installed with both front and back lights powered by hub dynamos. In other words, the bike has lights that are powered by your pedalling, which means you never have to worry about external lighting. Hub dynamos are the norm in many bike-friendly countries, and it while the lights aren’t the brightest in the world – I’ll continue to use secondary external lights during the depths of winter – not having to remember to bring your light, charge it and turn it on is something you don’t know you love until you have it. It’s great.

There are a few design tweaks to the bike as well. The seat post is carbon fibre, a material that, when used in commuter bikes, normally prompts eye-rolls in me (do you really need to save a few ounces in weight on a bike that is saddled with your computer and lunch?). However, the back end of the Continuum is heavier than most bikes because of its drivetrain (more on that later), so I’ll take this as a welcome addition. The design also tweaks the dropouts in ways that simplify the addition of fenders and carrying racks, all of which are nice refinements.

Riding the new Priority Continuum Onyx. Photo by Tom Babin.

My favourite part of the original Continuum was always the drivetrain because it felt built for my winter. Instead of a rust-prone chain, it’s powered by a rust-free carbon belt drive, which has performed admirably (mostly) for the three years I’ve ridden it. The new Onyx is also built with an internal hub that uses Nuvinci technology – rather than a derailleur and stepped gears, the hub loosens and tightens based on tension, so the rider has almost an infinite number of gears. One improvement to the Onyx is that the range of that drivetrain has improved, meaning the rider can now shift to higher and lower “gears” than was possible in the past. The limited range on the old Continuum was a pet peeve of mine, and the new range is an improvement. It’s not perfect yet, but this is a winter bike, so rides are slower than summer rides anyway, so I can certainly live with this.

A note of caution: While I am a big fan of this drivetrain, it did pose a couple of problems in deep cold. During a particularly brutal sub -30 C (-22 F) cold snap one winter, the hub froze up on me a couple of times until the friction of my riding warmed things up. And I did snap the carbon belt in the extreme cold as well. Both problems are preventable – a little maintenance can keep the hub running and the manufacturer of the belt drives, Gates, does offer a cold-weather model. So be aware of this if you’re thinking about buying this bike.

There’s something a bit more intangible that I like about the Onyx as well. I find the Onyx to be a bit more efficient in the way it rides. It just feels like a cleaner, most productive bike to pedal, which is especially important in winter. I’m not sure how to account for this but the bike just feels like a more complete and refined package.

One final note on the new bike: Priority is an online bike seller, which comes with advantages and disadvantages. The key advantage is the price – at just over $1,000 US, this is a good price for a decent-quality commuter bike, especially one that seems to eat winters. The key disadvantage, other than having to assemble the bike yourself (which I quite enjoyed, in a DIY hunter-gatherer sort of way) is that it cuts out the local bike shop. Bike shops are essential to bike culture in a city, and it pains me to ride a bike that doesn’t involve a local connection. I try to support bike shops wherever I can, so this is something you should think about before buying a bike.

So did my perfect winter commuter bike improve? It certainly did, and I’m enjoying riding it through all that winter has thrown at me over the past few weeks. I wouldn’t say this is a universal winter bike because winter is so different everywhere. But if you ride through winters like mine, filled with sporadic snowfall, plentiful ice, and mountains of bike-destroying gravel, sand and salt, the new Priority Continuum Onyx should be on your shortlist.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Add lights to your bike for the Christmas season

Decorating your bike for Christmas is fun, but can also help make you more visible.

I’ve always wanted to do this, but never quite got deep enough into Clark Griswold mode to get it done. But this is the year I decorate my bike with Christmas lights. This is mostly for fun, but being more visible on the roads during the dark winter months isn’t a bad thing!

Check out my video below to see how I did it (spoiler alert: It’s super easy!).

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

The best bike lights for winter 2019

Which are the best lights to stay well-lit during this winter season?

As the days get darker, it’s important to be well lit on your bike commute. So I’m testing three lights to see which ones stack up the best.

The new Biolight PowerLight Mini.

The Beryl Laserlight, my favourite light from last season.

And a $15 wraparound handlebar light. Which one is best? Thanks to both Biolite and Beryl for sending me the lights to try.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Five things North American cities can learn about cycling from Manila

While cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen have adopted the bicycle as the future of transportation, it’s simply not the case for other places in the world. But there’s just as much to learn from those who lack as there is with those who prosper. So today, let’s take a look at the Philippine capital city of Manila.

As someone who bikes to work and has had to ride through EDSA (the capital’s busiest and most infamous highway) on a daily basis, believe me when I say that it wasn’t the leisurely ride that one would expect from the more developed areas of the world. Here, you’d be hard-pressed to find a portion of the metropolis that isn’t overcrowded. You’d think a city this congested would automatically resort to alternative means of transportation, and while Daydreaming in Paradise details that car sales have dropped for the first time in 7 years, Manila still has a long way to go. To its credit, the Philippines has taken a step in the right direction when it comes to making its cities more bike-friendly, so let’s see what lessons we can learn from Manila about cycling.

Manila isn’t not one of the world’s bike havens, but it has things to teach other cities. Photo by Christian Paul Del Rosario from Pexels.

Safety

Rappler reports that 1,127 people on bicycles died in crashes from 2005 to 2013, averaging to about 125 fatalities per year. As a response to this, the Philippines passed House Bill 8911, which mandates a 1.5-meter minimum overtaking distance from cyclists by motor vehicles in 2019.

Now consider how you may have taken safety for granted. Collisions happen all the time all over the world, and it can happen to you even in an environment that does its best to protect you. While you can’t control everything on the road, there are some things you can: Check your breaks, check on your tires, and most of all, remain alert at all times.

Bask in Nature

Because of the sub-optimal conditions afforded to cyclists in Manila, they’ve been forced to look for alternative spaces to scratch their cycling itch. For instance, the holiday town of Tagaytay is a two-hour car ride from Manila, and in it is one of the most breathtaking cycling trails in the world. The Twin Lakes Mountain Bike Trail is a 2.5 km that goes deep into a lush forest, all while giving you one of the best views of Taal Lake that you would have missed had you not gone on this trail.

Why not take your cycling away from the city once in a while? Go on a hike or a camping trip and bring your bike with you. While some cities are great for cycling, there’s just something about the great outdoors that cities will never be able to replicate.

Photo by Marfil Graganza Aquino from Pexels.

Ride on Sundays

In Manila, cycling is tantamount to a luxury. Some people set aside one day and head out to a trail or a park, and just take cycling as an opportunity to relax and unwind. Could you say that you’ve treated cycling the same way?

If you find yourself getting a little tired of cycling, why not try and view it as a treat? Use Sunday cycling as an opportunity to have fun instead of the usual slog that it may have turned into in your daily life.

Community Building

When things go awry and no one does anything about it, communities must rise to the occasion. This is what the National Bicycle Organization (NBO) is all about. The NBO organizes events and bicycle lessons in the Philippines in hopes of fostering a more bicycle-friendly city.

Remember that cycling doesn’t always have to be a solitary experience. Gather up some friends and take a ride together. What better way is there to build a community than a shared passion for cycling?

Remember why you do it

Considering how hard it is for cyclists in Manila, you’d have to wonder why anyone would still do it. Well, the short answer is: They like it. Despite all the hardships that cyclists go through, enthusiasts keep on and do it for the love of it.

You may have taken advantage of the experience of cycling, reducing it to nothing but a means to get from Point A to Point B. Think back to the times when you enjoyed doing it — this way, you may end up enjoying your daily rides more than usual.

Mandy Johnson has been a digital nomad long before the term became a buzzword for aspiring remote workers around the world. She spent four years living and working in the gridlocked traffic of beautiful Metro Manila, a daily puzzle that she sometimes solved with pedal power. When she’s not chasing after deadlines, she’s scouring the edges of the metro for new places to explore with her trusty mountain bike.

Urban transportation is being disrupted, but it isn’t big tech that’s doing it

The idea that big-tech will revolutionize urban transportation is fading more every day. Photo by Tom Babin.

The cry went out as soon as the news hit Twitter: “No! Now I’m going to have to buy a second car!”

That was the response from a co-worker when the news broke recently that Calgary, where I live, was among the handful of North American cities being abandoned by car-sharing company Car2go. When the company launched in Calgary in 2012, it was an unexpected hit. A car-centric oil town with middling transit, the fact car-sharing was an immediate success here (it was reported that Calgary had the second-highest number of Car2go members in North America) had people re-assessing the city’s culture of obligatory car ownership. 

Yet it was short-lived. The announcement of the company’s withdrawal from Calgary hit many people hard, particularly those living close to downtown who had come to rely on it as a second (or even first) vehicle. I felt that pain. Although my family has yet to cast off the yoke of the second family vehicle, I was a regular Car2go user and its convenience had always been a source of inspiration for that day when my family too could own one less car.

But the timing of Car2go’s change came at an interesting time, and it’s easy to see the withdrawal as a harbinger of a bigger change. Or if not a harbinger, at least a symbol of an imagined future that is getting more and more unlikely. 

As recently as a year ago, it was easy to envision a future in which technology truly changed the way we get around our cities. We seemed to be on the cusp of changing that old 1970s image of car-clogged freeways spewing carbon and chasing pedestrians away with a new future of transportation in which self-driving electric robot cars whisk us down safe, clean free-flowing streets. 

Uber was winning its fights against the taxi establishment. Tesla was rolling out cars with auto-pilot. Ford was investing in car-sharing and putting out ads like the one above. Silicon Valley companies were dropping off cheap and clean scooters all over our cities.  

Those days seem like a mirage now; an embarrassingly naive vision of an impossible future. Let’s count the ways in which this futurism bubble has been burst recently: 

You might be forgiven for cynically thinking that we just spend a decade and billions of investor dollars to figure out what society learned 80 years ago: Urban transportation is really hard, and perhaps impossible to make profitable. So far, we’ve yet to find a system of mass transportation that can survive without public subsidies (yes, that includes the private automobile and its subsidies in the form of the billions we spend to build a road network almost exclusively for them.)

Yet something else has been happening at the same time. Despite all of these problems, our cities are changing. But it has nothing to do with technology. 

Increasingly, cities are finally realizing that cars are ruining their downtowns and are doing something about it. After a cycling renaissance under its last civic administration, New York is turning some streets over to transit-only, and announced plans for congestion pricing, whereby all vehicles entering downtown would pay a fee, similar to other programs that have been in place for years in cities such as London. Madrid has banned many types of vehicles from its downtown in a bid to reduce carbon emissions. Paris is heading down the same path. Other cities, such as Stockholm, have already banned cars

Bike-share programs like Montreal’s Bixi are different than dockless programs in many ways, including the support and subsidization of the municipal government. Photo by Tom Babin

And although it’s still unfathomable to see Calgary take such measures in the short-term, my old-fashioned bicycle commute has slowly but surely gotten better in recent years. After the much-ballyhooed construction of a cycle-track network a half-decade ago, and a subsequent stalling of new infrastructure, tiny investments in improving bike infrastructure are finally paying off and making my commute safer and easier. By next year, it will be possible my ride to work will be nearly 100 per cent on bike paths and separated bike lanes.

So while it’s painful for many people to see that techo-upotian transportation future fade from vision, perhaps there’s a future vision that had always been there but had been nearly forgotten beneath the hype of transportation tech. This new/old vision is built on the idea that people, not cars, need to get around a city and that public investments are perhaps best made on the public. 

We’re a long way from achieving that vision — most of our cities still treat transit like welfare, investments in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure are still bedevilled with petty arguments, and it’s still nearly impossible to live in many parts of the continent without a car. As future visions, it’s not as sexy as the one Silicon Valley trumpeted. But this is the only one proven to work. 

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Testing the best ways to get around a city: Bike, e-bike and e-scooter

It’s an urban challenge we’ll all run into at some point: You need to get across the city quickly. What’s the best way?

To answer that, I decided to test three transportation options.

  1. My own bike.
  2. A dockless shared e-bike from Lime.
  3. A dockless shared e-scooter from Lime.

This isn’t only about speed. I’m also factoring in things such as costs and the all-important sweat factor. Any predictions?

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

A single-speed bike may be the key to your ultimate bike commute

It’s the forgotten step-child of the bike-commuting world, overlooked in favour of flashier models loaded with extras, like, you know, gears and shifters.

But there’s something magical about the simplicity of a single-speed bike. Lacking derailleurs and all the associated mechanics that come with them, single-speeds are the kind of bike you never have to think about. They rarely need maintenance. Your gears never go out of tune. Your derailleur never clicks in maladjustment. Your cassette never gets clogged with mud or ice. It just works.

But is all that worth the trade-off of never having a second gear? That was the question that drove the latest video in my commuter-challenge series. The goal of this series is to give you information about different kinds of bikes so you can make better decisions about your bike life. So far, I’ve tested the speed, effort and overall ride of a number of bikes: Road bikes, city bikes, electric bikes, mountain bikes. This time, the wild card was the single-speed.

Check it out below. You can see the other videos in my series here.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

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