Category: Bikes (Page 1 of 2)

Five ways to haul more stuff on your bike

Montreal Biking in summer

Anyone who rides a bike on a regular basis knows that good storage is essential. From your keys and a pump to a puncture repair kit, there are numerous different bits and pieces you need out on the road.

On top of that, there may be times when you have shopping to carry, need a change of clothes, and more. Rather than hanging bags from your handlebars or overloading your pockets, there are more practical, convenient options out there on the market.

Let’s look at five of the best.


Montreal Biking in summer

Backpacks

While the prospect of carrying a large, standard backpack just for your tire pump, wallet, and keys might seem like an unnecessary burden, there are more streamlined ones designed exclusively for cyclists. Small- to medium-sized packs are ideal for lightweight storage, and ensure you don’t need to put anything on the bike itself.

The best cycling backpacks usually feature a bladder for hands-free drinking, zip pockets for your valuables, and padded straps. Be sure to go for a design that suits your individual needs: if you commute to work and change clothes when you arrive, you’ll need a larger backpack. On the other hand, if you carry just a few things while mountain biking, go for the smallest size you can find.

Another benefit of backpacks is that you can keep them with you when you dismount easily.


Handlebar Bags

A handlebar bag can be your best pal while riding. A model with a quick-release function makes for a no-fuss solution, with no need to dismount for access.

These are perfect for carrying snacks, drinks, your wallet / purse, keys, repair kit, or a camera; if you’re planning to stop for a break, you should have room for a book or tablet, too. The best handlebar bags can also be carried over your shoulder, for when you leave your bike.

Handlebar bags work brilliantly for endurance cyclists, mountain bikers, and commuters alike.


Montreal Biking in summer

Baskets

The basket may not be for everybody, nor does it suit bikes for every application; if you have drop handlebars, you might even be unable to attach one in the first place. If you’re a dedicated mountain biker, of course, you’ll probably be unable to fit a basket onto your handlebars, not will it actually withstand the rigors of such vigorous riding.

If, however, you’re a commuter or just love to take leisurely rides, a basket is a fantastic storage solution.

Wicker baskets are common, with a rustic charm suited to quirky or colorful frames; metallic and wire mesh models are also extremely popular. These offer a high level of protection to the goods being carried, and while canvas baskets are foldable for easy storage, they offer little in the way of resilience.

Bicycle baskets may be attached to the handlebars, the frame’s front, or the rear, and carry numerous items without affecting your balance (provided you don’t overload it).


Urban Cycling in Calgary

Saddle Bags

Saddle bags are a neat, simple storage option. These are available in a massive selection of styles, sizes, and colors, to suit different needs.

For just the essentials – phone, keys, cash, repair kit – a smaller saddle bag will fit under your seat beautifully, out of the way. Larger bags are available though, and keep clothes, food, and drinks safe from the elements.

Some saddle bags also feature built-in LED lights, to help you stay visible and safe on nocturnal rides. You may prefer to buy a saddle bag with a Velcro strap, for easy attachment and detachment.


Panniers

Panniers are bags made to strap or clip to your bike’s front or back. These tend to carry more than baskets and saddle bags, and keep your body unrestricted; they’re also available in different sizes.

You should look for panniers featuring quick-release clips which are also secure, so you have no worries about them coming off while you’re pedaling away nor having to struggle to remove them.

Invest in panniers that are weatherproof, and that leave plenty of room for your heels (if attaching to the rear).

Each of these solutions helps you to bring everything you need with you while biking, be that spare clothes, bottled water, work docs, laptops, repair kits, food, or anything else. Have you thought about how these could make your biking life easier?

This post is sponsored by ofo, the bike-sharing company.

My perfect winter bike really exists, and I just bought it

Priority Continuum

The Priority Continuum, the perfect winter bike for my commute?

For years, I’ve ridden the same winter commuting bike, which I affectionately, but sometimes derisively, refer to as my p.o.s.: a crappy 20-year-old mountain bike whose best days were in the last century.

Finally got my new (to me) ride on the road for the season. #yycbike

I converted this 20-year-old Specialized to a single-speed in an attempt to avoid rust.

While I do have a soft spot in my heart for this bike, that spot often grows hard. The machine is an entirely practical choice: after the salty slush of my commute destroyed an older, beloved bike, I turned to this one begrudgingly. With minimal components and a frequently replaced chain, it does the job. It also, however, clicks when I pedal, has untrustworthy brakes, can’t take a bike rack, lacks the components for proper fenders, and often rides like it has a deflated soul.

Which leaves me wondering why I have never seen a bike specially made for winter commutes. I know what I would like: aluminum frame to resist rust, good fenders, a strong rack for waterproof panniers, disk brakes that work in the cold, internal gear hubs that keep out moisture, studded tires, and either a belt drive or some kind of chain guard to keep the drivetrain clean and dry. All at a price reasonable enough to remain practical. In other words: a practical, low-maintenance, affordable, rust-resistant bike. That bike may exist somewhere in the world, but it always felt as accessible as a mermaid.

I’ve long felt like this was a failure of the bike industry. Obsessed with selling high-end performance bikes, the fact that a winter commuter wasn’t readily available seemed like another miss by an industry that is only starting to catch on to the idea of bikes as a form of urban transportation.

But then, my own busty fish-damsel emerged from the sea in the form of a smiling dude named David standing in the lobby of a bike-industry event beside a rather plain looking bike. Something about that machine caught my eye, and I went in for a closer look. My heart skipped a beat. My knees weakened. Was this my dream winter bike?

Priority Continuum

My mermaid was David Weiner, founder of Priority Bicycles, a New York-based online retailer that specializes in practical, low-stress urban bikes. And he was hawking the Continuum under the idea that it was a four-season commuter bike. While I was skeptical at first, I quickly found the machine was like the Millennium Falcon in that she may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts:

Priority Continuum

Aluminum frame (to resist rust)? Check.

Priority Continuum

Belt drive and internally geared hub (to resist rust)? Check.

Priority Continuum

Decent fenders (to keep my ass dry)? Check.

Priority Continuum

Hydraulic disc brakes (for cold-weather stopping power)? Check.

Priority Continuum

Twist shifter (for use with warm mittens)? Check.

In fact, Weiner told me the Continuum was built specifically with year-round commuters in mind.

“Simply, I wanted to build bikes that my friends could ride year round without worrying about maintenance, and at an affordable price,” Weiner told me via email. “When we launched the EIGHT last year we were surprised with how well it sold in the winter season and how many customers were coming to us telling us that it was their winter commuter of choice. This of course made sense due to the rust/grease-free drivetrain.

“However, one complaint we had was that the hub could freeze in extreme temperatures.  We started to think that there must be a better solution… Hence we worked on upgrading the EIGHT with a NuVinci hub (ideal for sub-freezing weather and the ultimate in no maintenance) and some incredibly durable fenders.”

I was convinced. I pulled out my credit card and my order was placed within the week. A few days later, a big box arrived containing the first new bike I’ve ever purchased exclusively for use in winter. Just in time for a cold snap.

As far as cyclists go, I’m not much of a gear-head. While I perform basic bike maintenance myself, one of my ultimate goals in a winter commuter is to reduce maintenance. My big enemy in this fight has always been rust. In my icy, slushy city, salt is my Moriarty. And simply hosing off a bike after a commute is not an option in a city where hoses quickly freeze and stay frozen.

So riding my Continuum through the tail end of a Canadian winter has been a test. We’ve had a few bitingly cold days, a bit of late-season snow, and a whole lot of slush, ice and salt as we lurch into spring and the snow melts.

As you can see, rust can be relentless. It’s already hit some components.

Priority Continuum

Rust is already gathering on some parts of the bike, after only a few weeks of use.

But on the important parts, the Continuum is riding smooth and rust-free. The best part? I have spent almost no time thinking about the bike. I’m not worried about the chain, or the brakes or anything else. It just works.

Priority Continuum

The drive-train, thanks to the belt-drive and internal gears, is free of rust.

Is this the ultimate winter bike? I’m not quite ready to declare that (ask me in the middle of next February), but it’s been holding up very well for me. The NuVinci hub has withstood the cold, the belt drive has stayed smooth in the ice and snow, and the fenders have been keeping my ass dry.

I’m not yet ready to give up my old mantra that the ultimate winter bike is the one that works for you. But perhaps what’s more important is that the bike industry is finally coming around to the idea that people are riding bikes all year round in cities. Thanks Priority. It’s about time.

 

Will this high-tech machine be the e-bike that finally breaks through in North America?

Why are two icons of the Canadian automobile industry pouring resources into the creation of a electric bicycle being sold around the world?

For Frank Stronach and Fred Gingl, two Canadians who powered Magna into one of the world’s strongest auto-parts companies, the answer is simple: The future.

In the late 2000s, the pair, through Magna, purchased BionX and honed the company’s electric-bike-drive system. The system, which is integrated into the bike’s rear wheel and is powered by a battery affixed to the frame, offers an electric assist to the pedaling rider, and can now be found on e-bikes all over the world.

But in late 2016, the pair took the idea further in the form of a complete bike. The Elby is a high-end integrated e-bike that Gingl has high hopes for, not just as a business venture, but in helping push a fundamental change in our transportation system.

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“I’ve always wanted to change how we get around, even from my early days in the automotive industry,” Gingl wrote to me in an email. “The bike is an inherently efficient mobility solution with so many health benefits for the individual, not to mention the way it eases traffic congestion and abates pollution for us all.

“It’s been tried and true for over 100 years, but if we could work to build a bike with an adaptable, regenerative drive system, we could make it a convenient option for everyone, not just an efficient option. And if we can make it convenient, we can really change how we move from point A to point B.”

That ambition is obvious in the Elby. I’ve ridden e-bikes before, but none feel as complete. The machine feels like it was designed from scratch as an electric model, not a traditional bike supplemented with a motor.

Still, the big question remains: Will the Elby be the model that breaks through the North American market? E-bikes are already ubiquitous in China, and they are quickly being adopted in some European markets, after years of skepticism there. But in North America, reaction to the promise of e-bikes has always been an enthusiastic “meh.” Sales are on the rise, but they remain small.

The bike sure nails one of the requirements for North American tastes: Tech. Comparing the Elby to other brands is a bit like comparing an iPhone to an old Blackberry. When the Velofix mechanic who showed me the bike — the mobile bike shop has a deal to deliver and service Elbys — called it the “Tesla of e-bikes,” he wasn’t far off.

Gadgetry flows through nearly every part of the bike. Most importantly is the electric-assist motor. You can set it to four levels, depending on how much help you need. It also includes a throttle for those times when you’re feeling especially lazy. The motor tops out at about 30 km/h, to ensure it remains a bicycle in the eyes of the law in many jurisdictions.

The Elby also has a a mode that regenerates power from the back wheel to charge the battery, not dissimilar to an hybrid car. When descending a hill, tap it into regenerative mode to give the battery a jolt.  

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It’s powered by an on-board computer that can even be swapped out for your smartphone with a Bluetooth app that includes turn-by-turn navigation. That includes a USB port so you can charge your phone while you ride.

All that is pretty cool, but it’s all a bit secondary to the important part of any bike: How it gets you around.

On this, I found the Elby performs very well too. The 500 watt motor and range of 90 miles (144 kilometres) is bigger than most e-bikes, but I find this stat to be a bit of a non-starter. If you’re riding 150 kilometres in one go, kudos to you, but most commuters won’t go a fraction of that distance in a given trip. So in practice, that range means, basically, you need to plug it in for recharging less frequently.

With wide tires and nice stiff aluminum frame, the bike rides well, and it’s certainly an attention grabber. I had a few people cast a sideways glance at the step-through frame, but I like the design. Step-throughs are comfortable, easy to ride and criminally overlooked in North America. By building the hefty lithium-ion battery into the bottom of the frame, the Elby has a low centre of gravity that feels almost supernaturally stable (don’t test that too much, please).

Elby trumpets the toughness of the bikes, saying it was designed for all weather conditions. I certainly tested those claims, having given the bike a test through several weeks of the harshest winter we’ve faced in years. All in all, the bike held up well. The stable design and wide tires did well on ice roads and the snirt (for you sun-belters, that’s a slippery mixture of snow and dirt), and the pedal-assist certainly came in handy when plowing through small drifts of snow.

After years of having smartphones die in my pocket during -20 C commutes, I didn’t hold out much hope that the Elby’s battery would fare well in the cold, but it did surprisingly well. I certainly noticed a decline in longevity of the battery in such cold weather, but it never stranded me to pedal a 55-pound machine uphill all the way home without a little help. In fact, I came to reply on the pedal-assist so much that I had to start dressing warmer for my commutes, because I could no longer rely on my usual pedaling pace to warm my body from the inside.

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Back to that big question: Will the Elby be the model that finally drags e-bikes in the mainstream? Perhaps, but it first needs to overcome a problem of value.

I don’t mean price. In a world of $10,000 carbon-fibre full-suspension mountain bikes, The 9-speed Elby’s $3,700 US price tag isn’t astronomical, especially among e-bikes, but it’s a lot to expect in a culture that doesn’t value utility bikes enough. That’s the cultural problem that needs to be overcome.

Part of that will be identifying those who can benefit most from e-bikes. It’s become a bit of a cliche to say e-bikes are a boon for older riders who have lost a step, but it’s true. It’s also true that e-bikes are ultra-practical, especially for commuters. And trips to the grocery store are a breeze with a good set of panniers.

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This is the perfect time for e-bikes, which have been called the most environmentally friendly motorized machines ever devised. There’s a gap in most North American cities right now: As bike infrastructure is slowly built out, there are still long distances that many commuters must overcome to reach those bike lanes. The Elby can fill that gap.

“People have a greater understanding of the role technology can play in improving the quality of their lives, their communities, and the wider world. We’re aware of our impacts and want to be responsible with them, while also enjoying ourselves,” Gingl gold me.

“Elby’s the perfect solution for someone like that. Now all we need is safer commuting infrastructure to keep up with the abundance of electric vehicles that are about to hit the market.”

For more on ebikes, check out Folding Bike Zone’s Vital Electronic Bike Information. 

 

Here’s why all the reasons for licensing bikes fail

It’s the zombie of urban issues. The idea that refuses to die: Bicycle licences. Cue blood-curdling scream.

For those feeling uneasy about the growth of cycling on our city streets, one knee-jerk response always seems to be the suggestion that bicycle licences can somehow fix whatever problems they think exist. I’ve written much about licences in the past, but the issue still gets raised regularly, including in my inbox.

So in response, here are reasons that I think bicycle licensing is a bad idea:

Murky motivations

According to some opinion polls (and we know how accurate those are, right U.S. electoral college voters?), the idea of bicycle licensing is a popular one. But when you get a little closer to the issue, their reasons people support the idea vary. Is it to control scofflaw cyclists? Is it to raise money for bike infrastructure? Is it to register bicycles in case of theft?

With so many motivations, it’s difficult to determine which problem licensing is intended to fix. One of them? All of them? Because of that vagueness, proposals often strike me, not so much an argument in favour of licensing, as much as a scattershot attempt at finding some reason, any reason, to limit cycling.

If you feel like licensing can solve a true practical problem, then it’s worth discussing. But if you’re using bike licensing as a vague way of stopping something you don’t like, then your proposed solution is bound to be dumber than the sum of its parts.

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Registration is unruly

Over the decades, many cities (including my own, which ended back in the 1970s) have tried to licence bicycles, for a number of reasons. Nearly all of them have failed because it’s really difficult to operate a bicycle licensing program properly. It’s logistically challenging, time-consuming and expensive. It tends to fall to police or firefighters to manage it, and they usually have better things to do. It also requires mass buy-in from the public, which has proven impossible in many places. That’s why so few cities do it anymore.

An example: In 2010, San Jose, California abandoned its bike licensing program after decades because it was widely ignored and expensive to manage. “The program doesn’t make enough in fees to cover the cost for busy cops and firefighters to create and maintain a useful license database,” wrote the San Jose Mercury News. It was the same story in Toronto earlier this year when the idea was rejected. As it was in many other cities around the continent who have tried, and then rejected, bike licensing, usually after the requirement was widely ignored by bike-loving citizens.

In theory, it’s possible to operate a successful system (Honolulu has one of the rare systems that seems to actually work, if you don’t count those who ignore the law, and the homeless who see it as a pretense for cops to steal their bikes), but with so many cities trying and failing, it takes a special kind of stubborn to think it will work elsewhere. In other words: It’s been tried, and it’s failed. It’s time to move on.

There are better ways to control cyclists

Some people are understandably angered by cyclists who don’t obey the rules of the road. This is a real problem (caused often, I’d argue, because poor infrastructure gives cyclists few legal and safe options), and there are several ways that it can be deal with, including licensing. But since most cities can’t get their shit together to even operate a proper licencing system, it makes you wonder how effective the system would be in changing cyclist behaviour.

Besides, some cities have already devised a system to improve cyclist behaviour. It’s called bike-friendliness. Visit the world’s great bike cities, and you’ll see how a mix of education, bike infrastructure, and a culture of tolerance and mutual respect on the roads can solve those scofflaw woes.

But if that sounds like too much work, we could try another solution: simply enforcing the laws that already exist to manage the behaviour of all road users, including cyclists.

It rarely makes money

The idea of requiring cyclists to purchase a licence as a way of generating money to pay for new bike lanes makes intuitive sense. The problem is, it almost never works. As already discussed, the logistics of operating a city-wide bike licensing system are so complicated and expensive, they often cost more than any revenue they might bring in, especially if the licensing fee is low enough to encourage compliance. In fact, some programs end up costing taxpayers money rather than generating it.

On a larger scale, this is a question about user-pay government services. If you really think cyclists ought to pay for infrastructure, beyond the taxes they already pay, that’s a debate worth having (provided user-pay requirements are adopted for all road users, not just cyclists). That, however, is a separate conversation, except in the idea that licensing seems to to be an inefficient system for collecting that user fee.

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It doesn’t prevent theft

In many cities, bike theft is a problem. A big problem. But licensing doesn’t stop theft, it can only help reunite recovered bikes with their owners. That’s why you should record the serial numbers of your bikes, and report them if your bike is stolen. If you do so, you’ve just eliminated the need for a mandatory bike licensing program.

Because it’s stupid

Beyond the points listed above, my sense is that many of those who support bike licensing do so out of a warped sense of equity. This is the car-equivalency argument: motor vehicle operation requires a licence, therefore bicycle operation should too.

The problem is that bikes and cars are not the same. The reason we, as a society, require licensing and insurance for cars is because of the mind-boggling destructiveness of cars on both our property and our species — motor vehicles cause so much mayhem with such regularity that we require their operators to be tested for their skill, and have the capacity to pay for the destruction they will almost inevitably wreak.

Bikes are not like that, therefore the requirements should be different. Sure, bikes are involved in collisions, but compared to the destructiveness of cars, the damage inflicted by bikes is laughably small. On a personal level, the health benefits of riding a bike probably outweigh the risk, and you might reasonably win an argument saying that bikes offer a net health benefit to society. To think we should more heavily regulate something that benefits society as a whole is stupid. We should regulate things that harm society. Cycling should be encouraged.

To recap: There may be a good argument in favour of bike licences (and I hope you’ll let me know if you have one), but the graveyard of bike licensing is filled with the corpses of well-meaning initiatives that died because of bureaucracy, apathy, mismanagement, misguided notions and all-around stupidity. At some point, it will be time to kill this zombie for good.

Update

Thanks to the helpful tweet below, I adjust the wording of Calgary’s bike-sharing plans to reflect the fact it ended in the 1970s.

A Gen Xer’s guide to riding a fixed-gear bicycle

By pounding over the hills of San Francisco in a 1968 Ford Mustang GT, a scowling Steve McQueen, in the unfortunately spelled action movie Bullitt, managed to define coolness for a generation of baby boomers, in spite of the corduroy blazer.

But those days are long gone. These days, driving a muscle car in that manner is more likely to get you shunned by hordes of millennials waiting in line for the Google bus. For them, what’s more likely to impress, if a vehicle chase scene in a movie are what defines the outlook of a generation, is this one.

That’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Premium Rush, a chase scene masquerading as a B-list action movie that attempts to cash in on the generation-defining outsider esthetic of the bike messenger, and, more specifically, the bike: The fixie. Or, as the movie rather clumsily puts it: “Fixed gear. No brakes. Can’t stop. Don’t want to, either.”

You see fixies everywhere you see millennials these days, and not just the organic kale kombucha market: They are all over cities, typically with ostentatiously coloured rims and narrow handlebars, delivering their bare-headed passengers to their destinations via spanking new bike lanes.

For those of a more, well, experienced generation, however, the appeal of the fixie can be a little elusive. One gear that you can never stop pedalling? No brakes? Kids these days, sigh.

As somebody claiming a place, in outlook if not chronology, as a bridge between those generations, I decided to do my part to close that generation gap with my latest Shifter challenge. The ultimate millennial bicycle chore, albeit a simple one: Riding a fixie to the local craft brewery to pick up a six pack.

I’ve only dabbled with fixies in the past, so I’m not exaggerating the role of a fixie n00b. I convinced my cousin to lend my his well-trod machine, resplendent with bright orange rims, bullish pursuit handlebars and, thankfully, two sets of rim brakes (yeah, yeah: true authenticity would call for no brakes at all, but the learning curve of using pedals to stop is steeper than my tolerance for the risk of dropping a six pack).

The absence of sagging cables and dangling derailleurs gave the fixie some handsome and clean lines, so I knew had to match. I pulled on my skinniest jeans, wrapped a messenger bag around my shoulders, installed Snapchat on my phone, and I was off.

Hearing JGL say “the pedals never stop turning” is one thing. Actually pushing off on a bike when the wheels never stop turning is another. Your intellect may be ready for it, but your feet are not. The pedals of the fixie felt like a sentient being. They revolved independent of me, as I if they were driving and I was just a passenger. They felt like Google Car, for bikes, especially as I fumbled to get my Blundstone into the toe clips. (A side note: Pedal clips? Really? Sure, they worked for Stephen Roche in the 1987 Tour de France, but really?).

Still, once I got a rhythm down, I rode with few problems. For a while. It’s funny how a fixie makes you realize how often you coast on a bike. Like when you approach a curb and attempt to pull your front wheel over it. Try that sometime without stopping your spinning. It’s hard. And weird. I wouldn’t say it was dangerous, but wasn’t not dangerous.

I steered toward one of those steep and narrow foot bridges over a busy thoroughfare that Europeans point to as proof of our hatred of pedestrians, wishing only occasionally that I could shift gears on the way up. I rolled down the other side with my feet held wide and the pedals spinning furiously and independently. I was getting into a groove now.

Until I reached the brewery and encountered my next problem: for all its clean lines, there was nowhere on the bike to pack my beer. No rack. No basket. Not even one of those hipster leather beer carriers that I usually mock. I guess millennials are more practical than they are given credit for.

I emptied my six pack into my messenger bag and gingerly pedalled for home, hoping that my lurching cadence wouldn’t result in broken bottles. The rest of the way home was uneventful, but left me wondering why or if I would ever choose to ride a bike like this.

To recap: Compared to a plain old freewheel bike that you might see a Gen Xer ride (if most Gen Xers weren’t always driving expensive crossover SUVs two blocks to their kids’ school drop off because they are afraid little Johnny might get hit by someone else’s expensive crossover SUV who is also driving because of fear of other vehicles), the fixie has a few challenges: As a newbie, it was tough to get started. Difficult to stop. Challenging while climbing hills. Frightening to descend hills. Awkward to mount small curbs. And this model was definitely lacking in cargo space.

On the positive side: Well, the bike looks good. Fixie adherents often tout the control the fixed-gear provides, but lacking experience meant I felt the opposite. I did enjoy the responsiveness of the bike while rolling at speed, and with with time I may end up being able to do those rather awesome slide/stop things you see in alley cat videos, but until then, sorry millennials, but I’ll be hauling my beer in the ugly rack on the back of my plain old three-speed.

Update

Some riders of fixies came to their defence. Here’s a few of their thoughts:

 

Why it hurts so deeply when our bikes are stolen or vandalized

On my bicycle commute to work, I cross the river on an old iron bridge. During certain times of the year, after the ice has melted but before the spring runoff has muddied the water with sediment, when the light enters the water just right, I can see the floor of the river. There, resting forlornly at the bottom, is a bicycle. I can’t make out much detail beneath the water like that, but it looks like an old mountain bike. Nothing fancy, probably a 12-speed, or maybe 15, one of those default models that North Americans buy because they imagine themselves riding off-road like in the magazines but rarely do. This one, I imagine, spent most of its life being pedaled down pathways on Sundays before it ended up being indignantly tossed in the river. There it lies now, an alien in an underwater world.

Seeing a bike like this always makes me feel a little melancholic. Bicycles are nothing but tools for us, mass-produced items we use for a specific function. But somehow, they become more than that. Unlike, say, a hammer or a microwave oven, bicycles work themselves into our consciousness more than most of our tools. Perhaps it’s our reliance on them that builds that connection. They get us to our destinations. They keep us fit. They provide joy and recreation. They become companions and trusted friends. That’s why, I think, we react so strongly to images and stories of bicycle theft and vandalism, like that bike resting at the bottom of the river.

Des Velos Dans La Ville

Stories like this: In 2008, Toronto police tracked a bicycle thief to a cluttered local repair shop, where the store’s owner purchased the stolen item. They arrested the owner for dealing in stolen goods and unwittingly uncovered a massive and long-running bike theft ring spearheaded by a charismatic conspiracy theorist named Igor Kent. Police eventually recovered more than 3,000 stolen bikes stashed in all manner of repair around the city. What so outraged the city about the crime was its brazenness and the indifference of the police to it. Torontonians seethed over the incident, as if Kenk had come to embody the frustration of every bike theft, every bit of bike vandalism and all those years of police inertia. And yet, Kenk emerged as a somewhat sympathetic character. He even tried to reclaim the stolen goods from police upon his release from incarceration, saying he cared about the bikes more than anyone.

Both sides of this bizarre tale illustrate the special relationship we have with bicycles. For victims, such thefts feel intensely personal, like being robbed of a reliable friend. For the perpetrator, it’s difficult to imagine another device driving such emotional delusions and feelings of misplaced attachment and responsibility.  Driving both emotions, I think, beyond the simple economics of bike theft, is the communal nature of cycling. In most cities these days, to ride a bike makes you part of a club. Riding in a city breeds a kind of fellowship with others on bikes, a feeling that is both welcoming and exclusive. So when that fraternity is broken by theft or vandalism, the sense of betrayal can cut deeply. That’s why seeing those fragments of bikes scattered throughout the city instills such emotions: So many of us have felt the sting of bewilderment and betrayal that comes with bike theft and vandalism.

Yet, as much as our emotions fight the notion, bikes remain commodities. They are products that break and are discarded. They are stolen and stripped and resold. They are vandalized and tossed into rivers. No matter how much we love them, bikes can disappear at any time, so they are never really ours. We are only their stewards. They truly belong to the city. Bikes are part of a city as much as sidewalks and lampposts. Walk the streets and you’ll see the remnants of this relationship. Wheel-less frames still locked to racks. Old wheels rusting away in back alleys. Forgotten machines, stripped of saddles, shivering under blankets of snow. We may buy bikes, and act like we own them, but eventually they’ll be absorbed by the city.

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But this isn’t something to lament. This is what makes bicycles such a perfect part of life in the city. There’s an ecosystem at play, and bicycles are part it. The machines may break down, or be picked apart or abandoned, but they can always be reclaimed. Unlike most of the tools in our life these days, from mobile phones to electric cars, bikes remain the beautifully simple mechanical devices they’ve been for 100 years, which means we can understand them. We can tinker. With a few simple tools, they can be taken apart, adjusted, and put back into action by just about anyone. That old frame may look like it’s rusting away, but all it needs is a wrench to bring it back to life.

So that feeling that wells inside of me when I see that bike at the bottom of the river isn’t only loneliness. More importantly, it’s a reaction to the wasted potential of that machine, its removal from the patterns of life of the city. But that’s easy to fix. Someone just has to pull it from the river, fix it up, and take it for one more ride.

This is a translated excerpt from Des Velos Dans La Ville, a French-language photo book featuring the work of Laurent Chambaud and several writers, including the author of this post, Tom Babin. This except is copyrighted by Presses de l’EHESP, and reprinted with permission. You should buy the book! It’s available here.

Are our irrational consumer tastes holding us back from more bike-friendly lives?

Several years ago, Zak Pashak was in the market for a new bike. Not an expensive carbon-fibre race machine, or a $10,000 status symbol. He just wanted a simple, practical bike that wouldn’t require a lot of maintenance, time or money.

But he was quickly turned off by the athletic focus of the bike shops he visited, where salespeople pushed him toward tricked-out bikes well beyond his needs. Eventually, he found a bike that worked, but the experience planted a seed in his brain.

Today, Pashak is a bit of a folk hero of the American bike scene thanks to his company Detroit Bikes, which uses Motor City mechanical know-how to churn out American-made versions of that bike he had such trouble finding all those years ago: Simple, reliable, sturdy, well-made city bikes without needless bells and whistles.

“I just thought there’s people like me who want to buy a bike, and they can’t,” Pashak told me recently.

DetroitBikesManufacturing from Detroit Bikes on Vimeo.

 

But the market for such bikes in North American remains small, which leads to a bigger question: Why are so many North Americans reluctant to embrace the kind of bikes Pashak is building? And is that reluctance holding us back from more bike-friendly lives?

Several years ago, I had an almost identical experience as Pashak. After a tough winter of bike commuting, the constant need to fine-tune my slush-saddled commuter bike had sapped my already limited gearhead tendencies. At that point, I was in desperate need of a bike that wasn’t so damn needy.

Yet, I struggled to find one. After months of searching, I finally came across a bike so nondescript I might have missed it had my state of mind been different: Comfortable steel frame, three-speed internal hub, no-fuss matte black finish. It even had coaster brakes — I didn’t even know foot brakes were even a thing anymore.

Years later, I still ride this bike nearly every day, and I love it. It’s the easiest, most practical and efficient ride I own. Best of all, it demands almost nothing from me. 

The A-Type by Detroit Bikes.

Such city bikes are much easier to come by these days than even five years ago. But when shopping for a new ride, many consumers, especially those not already immersed in the bike world, tend to default to the standard machines we’ve been sold for several generations now: mountain-bike style frames brimming with gears, often upsold to include suspension systems and carbon parts.

These can be great bikes in the right situations (like, say, scaling a mountain), but for some casual city cyclists, they can be expensive, impractical and sensitive. The risk is bigger than just a consumer choice. If you’re trying to use your bike for more than recreation, it can be completely discouraging if that bike doesn’t support that kind of lifestyle. If you’re bike is uncomfortable, you’re less likely to ride on a sore ass. If it can’t carry stuff, you’re less likely to use it for errands and shopping trips. If it’s loaded with needless gears that are in constant need of adjustments to prevent them from annoying rattling and rough shifting, you’re less likely to choose the bike.

So why do so many of us buy them?

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Pashak likens it to the consumer demand for impractical SUVs. Most consumers have no need for off-roading gas-guzzling 4x4s, but they still sell by the bucketload. We tend to have a weakness for aspirational consumer goods, and we conflate stuff with lifestyle.

You really see a contrast when visiting the great bike cities of Europe, which are overflowing with practical, unsexy, well-used bikes in all manner of black. Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize says Danes see bikes, not as status symbols, but as household appliances (he likens them to vacuum cleaners, which was an apt analogy, until we also managed to turn vacuum cleaners into fetishized status items. Thanks, Dyson).

I’m not saying everybody needs the kind of bike that Pashak is building — hell, I’ve never even tried a Detroit Bikes model — I’ve just seen how my own practical ride has made it easier to choose a bike as my transportation choice more often. I still love my road bike and my mountain bike, but they stay in the garage when I’m headed to the pub or grocery store.

Where I see hope in this scenario is the always reliable North American quality of laziness. Perhaps the only thing we value more than consumer status symbols is convenience. And if you’re looking for convenience, not much beats a reliable, time-tested, ultra-practical, universally unsexy, plain old bicycle.

 

How to pass a bike in a car without killing anyone (or being a dick)

Some things about driving a car are difficult. Doing a 180-degree e-brake slide into a parking space, for example. Or that famous kickflip in the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun, which was so difficult nobody even attempted to replicate it for 40 years.

Another thing that’s difficult, apparently, is passing a person on a bike. A newish one-metre passing rule that has been adopted in Ontario, but is not yet being enforced, seems so difficult that drivers are outraged. It’s madness, it seems, to think that a grown adult with government-approved driving skills could possibly overtake a cyclist safely. The only options, if you believe the angry reaction, are maiming the cyclist or plunging headlong into oncoming traffic. The law, according to the reasoned comments in this CBC story, is “idiocy,” “sick,” and a “raging double standard.”

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We can empathize with the concern. After dominating the roads for the last 60 years with bully tactics and consequence-free killings, learning to share can be a challenge for some drivers.

But we’re here to help. Here are 10 tips for drivers trying to safely pass a cyclist on a road.

  1. Don’t kill anybody.
  2. If you approach a cyclist from behind, wait until it’s safe and then pass on the left, then give the person on the bike a wide berth, at least a metre (that’s about three feet). It’s OK to venture into the oncoming lane when doing so. Crossing that yellow line in this case is legal, and is preferable to killing that cyclist.
  3. If there are cars in the oncoming lane and you can’t get around that cyclist, just wait. There’s a pedal in your car next to the accelerator. If you press it, your car will slow down. Use it to reduce your speed and wait behind the cyclist until it is safe to pass.
  4. But what if there is a lot of traffic in the oncoming lane, and you can’t safely pass the cyclist? Good question. There are a few options here.
    1. You could lean on the horn to frighten the cyclist out of the way. Poor option: Dick move, and possibly illegal.
    2. You could rev your engine, preferably the six-cylinder type found in a half-ton pickup, and lurch toward the person on the bike to express your displeasure with having to wait. Poor option: Dick move, and possible illegal.
    3. You could accelerate and narrowly pass the cyclist, based on the theory that if you are going to endanger a person on the road, you might as well get it over with quickly. Poor option. Now illegal in Ontario, and many other places. Also a dick move.
    4. You could just wait until it is safe to pass. Good option. Legal, courteous and compliant with tip No. 1.
  5. But what if you want to obey tip 4d, but you have to wait behind that cyclist for a long time, like for 30 seconds, or even — gasp — a minute? That cyclist is slowing you, and all the people behind you, down too. Must you just sit there and wait until it’s safe? Even if you are in a hurry? The answer: Yep. Remember tip No. 1.
  6. But what if you’re really in a hurry? Like, say, you’re driving your daughter to soccer practice and you’re running a little behind, which means she’ll be punished with a set of pushups? Or you’re returning from an evening out and you want to get home in time for the season finale of the Bachelor, which promises the most dramatic rose ceremony ever, and that cyclist is just riding in that lane like she owns it, without even caring that she’s holding up the people behind her? Must you just sit there and wait, even if it annoys you? Yep. See tip No. 1.
  7. Imagine, for a moment, that person on a bike is driving a different vehicle, like a car. Perhaps a little Honda Civic, or, say, a Lada Riva. And she’s driving that Lada a little below the speed limit, and it’s holding you up. What would you do? You might get annoyed. You might vent a little frustration into your dashboard. But you probably wouldn’t try to roar past that Lada in the little space between the car and the traffic in the oncoming lane. You would probably recognize that person in a Lada has a right to the road that trumps your right to drive the maximum posted speed, even if it’s annoying. Got it? The same applies to a person on a bike.
  8. But driving too slow is against the law, you say. You can’t impede traffic. This is true. Kind of. Most jurisdictions have a law that requires road users to travel at a “normal and reasonable” rate to maintain the flow of traffic. But that doesn’t mean it’s illegal to drive slowly. The posted speed limit is a maximum, not a minimum. And if you are driving slower than that posted speed, you are often required to drive as close to the right of the lane as is practical. If you are on a bike, does “practical” mean that riding unsafely in the door zone, or in a gutter lane filled with dangerous debris and obstacles, just to appease the inpatient drivers behind you? I’m willing to bet most police officers and judges would err on the side of safety, rather than road efficiency or speed (because they see the consequences of reckless driving on the roads). So if you plan on arguing that you absolutely had to squeeze past a cyclist illegally because that cyclist was impeding the normal flow of traffic, good luck. Sure, you might win that argument, but it may be simpler to just wait until it’s safe to pass courteously. See tip No. 1.
  9. If you are a cyclist caught in this situation where you need to ride in such a way that traffic is building up behind you, my sympathies. This situation sucks. It’s stressful and unsafe. Yes, you have a right to do it, but consider those people behind you, and choose to pull out of the way occasionally to let those impatient drivers pass. Or better yet, find another way. Or even better, get your city council to build some separated infrastructure to eliminate such situations.
  10. See tip No. 1. Be safe.

Vehicular cycling is dead, just don’t bury the body yet

The biggest argument in urban cycling of the last 20 years is pretty much settled. So why are we still arguing about it?

After last week’s post about the ways Montreal managed to become one of the continent’s most bike-friendly cities, that old saw fired up again. Much of the commentary focused on the perceived shortfalls and benefits of vehicular cycling, which is a a philosophical and practical guide to getting around a city on a bike, described by its chief proponent John Forester like this: “Cyclists fare best,” he wrote in his 1976 book Effective Cycling, “when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.”

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For a long time, this was a dominant idea among North American bike advocates, but over the last 20 years, a counter theory grew that was, in some ways, the polar opposite. Rather than accepting bicycles as vehicles on a road, the new idea has cyclists being accommodated with dedicated infrastructure that keeps them segregated from cars.

Cue the bicycle culture wars, with factions on each side battling it out like Buckley versus Vidal (or, perhaps more accurately, Hitchens versus Hitchens) to the bafflement of outsiders who could never seem to understand why people who all loved bikes hated each other so much.

Today, the debate is pretty much over. There’s a winner, which means there’s also a loser. Vehicular cycling is dead. As an overarching theory designed to guide the way our transportation system develops, vehicular cycling is a mastodon. Bike lanes are being built everywhere in North America, and civic politicians are tripping over themselves to be seen as bike builders. 

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So why does vehicular cycling still have its defenders? I think it’s because in our nascent bike cities, vehicular cycling as a personal tool for getting around remains very much alive.

There’s a distinction that needs to be made here. Vehicular cycling is more than just a style of riding. It was a theory of transportation that was never fully adopted anywhere. Treating cyclists as vehicles on the road required more than just cyclists to take the lane. It required equal treatment by motorists and the law. It required mutual respect, the development of better skills among both cyclists and motorists, and the end to what Forester still refers to as the motorist-superiority/cyclist-inferiority complex. That didn’t happen.

What happened instead was some hearty bicycle lovers adopted the tenets of vehicular cycling in the way they got around cities. They started riding in the centre of lanes instead of cowering in the gutter lane. They asserted their rights to the road, and made those cross-traffic left-hand turns that make less confident cyclists gasp in horror. All of which pissed off those drivers who thought they owned the road.

And guess what? This works. This is the part of vehicular cycling that remains alive. If you have the skills and confidence to ride this way, it’s probably the best way of staying safe on the vast majority of North American streets. And even though bike lanes are being built all over North America, it’s going to be a long while before you’ll be able to get to all of your destinations exclusively on safe, separated bike routes.

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Don’t get me wrong. I’m a believer in bike infrastructure, and I think it needs to be built faster and more extensively in every North American city. I think vehicular cycling has failed, and it failed because it doesn’t work for the vast majority of people interested in cycling. I was almost giddy when I realized that, during a recent trip to Montreal, decent bike infrastructure meant I almost never had to make one of those hair-raising left-hand turns across rows of cars.

Yet, my city remains far from that state. So while I look forward to the day when I no longer have to rely on the tenets of vehicular cycling I have picked up over the years, I know that, from time to time, I’ll still be taking the lane.

Can a cargo bike pass the ultimate test of suburban life: A trip to Costco?

The bag of chips, inhumanely large, groaned under the strain when I heard the passerby say it: “Now that,” she said, “is the kind of bike you need for Costco.”

Mercifully, the bag didn’t explode and send a thousand kilograms of quinoa- and chia-infused tortilla skyward, but instead settled nicely into the saddle bags of my Xtracycle, which gave me a chance to collect my thoughts. “Yes, random passerby,” I thought. “This is exactly the kind of bike you need for a trip to Costco.”

This moment came about halfway into my recent urban cargo-bike experiment. After hearing about the benefits of cargo-bikes for years in Europe, I’m finally seeing more and more on North American streets these days. It’s easy to see why. They’re ultra-practical machines, capable of transporting all those loads of suburban life, from children to shopping bags. They’re the minivans of the bike world.

So I jumped at an offer from local bike shop BikeBike to give a cargo bike a whirl. But I didn’t just want a spin around the block. I needed a challenge; the ultimate test of the cargo bike as a modern suburban family vehicle, where I could test if a bicycle really can support our profligate North American consumerist lifestyles with the absurd conveniences we feel entitled to: Yep, a trip to Costco.

I convinced my 11-year-old son to tag along, both to bear witness and also help pick up the stray groceries that I imagined dropping from the bike as we rode home (I envisioned a slow-mo scene in which a barrel of cranberry juice dislodges itself and bounces down a hill before bursting into a tart tsumani that washes a school bus from the road), but since he was more keen to ride himself than suffer the indignity of watching his old man strain to push him up the hills, I turned down BikeBike’s offer a bakfiets. That’s a cargo-bike model you’ve probably seen in photos from Amsterdam, in which effortlessly sexy moms pedal kids sitting in a wooden box affixed to the front forks. Bikebike had such a model that came installed with a child seat that looked Lay-Z-Boy-esque in comfort, but I instead opted for an Xtracycle. On this model, most of the junk was in the trunk — a frame extension on the back could accommodate everything from straddling children to surfboards to, in my case, some massive panniers primed for bulk foodstuffs.

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Off we went, on a crisp Saturday morning. The Xtracycle handled more smoothly than I expected. Once I got riding, it felt like any other bicycle, save a rather wide turning radius. It’s not the lightest frame in the world, but I barely noticed its girth or weight while riding. Especially when we managed to discover a multiuse pathway that took us from a quiet residential street past the gauntlet of a big-box retail district, right up to the entrance to the Costco parking lot.

Normally I enter such places on a bike the same way a young wildebeest crosses a crocodile-infested African river. Tentative and alert, I ride almost expecting a GMC Suburban to unexpectedly leap from the shallows and clamp its jaws around my tender rump. But riding the Xtracycle felt different. This was where its additional size finally came to mean something to me. I was the king of the road, bitches, and those GMC Suburbans bowed to me for a change.

Amazingly, this Costco had a well-placed bike rack that looked like it had actually been used before. So we locked our machines, flashed our card, and entered the Shangri-La of bulk retail, where the food samples are plentiful and everybody appears tired.

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As far as test experiences go, we knew we had our limits. We wouldn’t be able to revel in an orgy of bulk groceries like we might had we been driving an F-150, but we pushed it as much as we dared. We loaded our cart with the staples on our list and a few giant bags of snacks packaged to make us think they are healthy, and got into the checkout line with hundreds of others who also didn’t want to be there. Before we left, though, we knew we had one more thing to do to make this an authentic Costco experience: I dropped $3 for two foot-long hot dogs, and we headed outside.

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As the hot dog rumbled in my gut, I loaded the panniers with our haul. Months worth of granola bars, prepper’s sized boxes of pasta and those faux-healthy tortillas —  the bike bags opened wide and took everything we threw at them. A few people stopped to gawk, cargo bikes being rare in these parts apparently, but once I cinched up the panniers with the attached straps, we were good to go.

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On the flat bits, the loaded cargo bike felt almost no different than it did before. But I dreaded the uphill, for good reason. This is where I started feeling the weight of all that food. So I quickly gave up any pride in a swift ascent and shifted down to the Xtracycle’s granny gear. With my legs spinning furiously, the hill proved little trouble. Before I knew it, we were cresting the rise near the Lamborghini dealership, where a few bored-by-the-recession salesman stared at us through the windows with dumbfounded looks on their faces. Try hauling this load with your $300,000 Italian engineering, bitches.

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About halfway home, things were going so well I decided we might as well do another errand on our trip. This made perfect sense for my suburban family test — no self-respecting suburban mom has time to restrict herself to just one errand on a Saturday morning. So we would do the same.

I took a slight detour and pedalled toward the shop where my lawn mower was in for a sharpening. My mower isn’t exactly a John Deere — it’s a 15-year-old push model — but still, it’s a lawn mower. After a little rearranging, and the help of a few bungee cords, we had it strapped onto the bike. Off we went, my son expressing a mix of dubiousness and embarrassment at the load that was trailing behind me.

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The Xtracycle, however, barely batted an eye. Loaded with groceries and a lawn mower, we turned toward home barely breaking a sweat (Ok, I sweated a little bit) where a neighbour, out gardening, stood and stared wordlessly as we rolled by.

As we unloaded, I felt a little pride in the Xtracycle. It passed this suburban test with barely a flinch, and I had grown a little attached to this big-hearted giant, in the same way you feel about Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride. Only later did I read that the bike is built to haul hundreds of pounds of gear — one person later told me he once used a cargo bike to move all of the furniture from his home — so our load, as impressive as it felt to us, was child’s play.

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But hauling capacity isn’t everything. The experience did prove that cargo bikes can live up to their claims of convenience and versatility. I reluctantly returned the ride after the test, thinking about all kinds of things I could do if I had my own cargo bike. Next stop: Home Depot.

 

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