Gear Talk

Standing Tall with Kickstands

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the Mountain View Voice on March 28, 2014.

The lowly kickstand is the Rodney Dangerfield of bike parts. It doesn’t get no respect. “A kickstand? Why would you want a kickstand?” I’ve heard that more times that I care to recall from bike shop workers, bike manufacturers and self-proclaimed avid cyclists. Prejudice against kickstands is a rare thing that roadies and mountain bikers agree on.

The anti-kickstand sentiment is not completely unfounded. On bikes designed for performance, not carrying gear, a kickstand’s benefits are outweighed by the cost of carrying the extra weight or the risk of frame damage by clamping a kickstand on bike frames made with lightweight tubing.

But kickstands are useful, even necessary, for certain bikes and certain situations. My rule of thumb is that for any bike with a basket or a rack for carrying a load, a kickstand is highly desirable, if not required. And for any “around town” errand bike where you’ll be stopping, locking up wherever you can, and then heading off to another stop, a kickstand is a very useful. The shorter the trip and the more you carry, the more a kickstand comes in handy and the less the weight matters.

I have kickstands on all my bikes that have racks and I can’t imagine how awkward loading and unloading groceries and other purchases would be without them. Since only one of my bikes was purchased with a kickstand, I had to research and decide on which kickstand was right for each bike. They’re not all the same.

Standard Single Leg Kickstand

This classic design represents probably 90% of the kickstands in use worldwide. It attaches to the frame between the chain stays just behind the bottom bracket and flips up by simply straightening the bike and kicking it back. I originally had one my errand bike, until I wore it out from overloading my bike with too many groceries.

Advantages

  • Available almost anywhere for less than $10.
  • Some models have an adjustable length shaft so you don’t have to cut it to fit your bike.

Disadvantages

  • Does not fit some bikes, especially performance road bikes, that don’t have space between the bottom bracket and the wheel for the mounting bracket.
  • Obstructs the pedals when down, which isn’t an issue until you roll your bike backwards, say in the garage or parking area.

Chainstay Single Leg Kickstand

Instead of mounting behind the bottom bracket, this kickstand mounts near the rear axle. I originally got this kickstand for my old steel road bike since it doesn’t have space for a standard kickstand’s mounting bracket. We also installed them on our touring bikes to handle a heavy load on the rear rack.

Advantages

  • Works on bikes that don’t have room behind the bottom bracket for the mounting bracket.
  • Does not obstruct pedals.
  • Costs about $20. More than the standard kickstand, but still pretty cheap.

Disadvantages

  • Harder to find, and only available in black.
  • A heavier load in the rear of the bike can make the front end swing around.
  • The way it sticks out in the up position is not subtle.

Double Leg Centerstand

More commonly found on motorcycles, this kickstand leans the bike fore and aft vs. leaning to one side. The two legs fold neatly to one side when not supporting the bike like the standard kickstand. I installed a centerstand on my Dutch bike due to its portly size. I liked it so much I installed another one on my errand bike after I wore out her original kickstand by carrying too many heavy groceries.

Advantages

  • Supports heavier bikes and heavier loads.
  • The bike remains upright, which makes it easier to load.
  • Even your friends that would never own a bike with a kickstand will think it’s cool.

Disadvantages

  • More expensive. About $50 for the Pletscher ESGE model shown here.
  • Load must be evenly distributed left to right or it will tip over.
  • With more weight in the back, the front wheel flops into the frame unless you have a wheel stabilizer.

The UpStand

Upstand Composite

When it’s holding up the bike, the UpStand looks similar to a chainstay mounted kickstand. But instead of kicking it away to start rolling, you remove the carbon-fiber stand from its tiny attachment tab installed on the rear wheel’s skewer, gently tugging to release the tiny magnet that holds it in place. The stand is shock-corded like a backpacking tent pole, so you can fold it and put it in a pocket or bag for the ride.

Advantages

  • Extremely lightweight at 40 grams total (15 grams for the attachment tab, 25 grams for the stand)
  • The stand removes completely when not in use, leaving the attachment tab nearly invisible.
  • Surprisingly stable, as long as you align the attachment tab at the proper 90 degrees.

Disadvantages

  • It’s not particularly cheap (about $1 a gram). But nothing carbon on a road bike is cheap, is it?
  • The stand folds up to half its length, but you still have to stow it somewhere.
  • Some of the kickstand convenience is lost when you have to dig the stand out of your pocket or seat bag.

Do you have kickstands on any of your bikes? If yes, which type works for you? If not, when would you consider installing a kickstand?

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Head to Toe Comfort for Rainy Day Riders

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the Mountain View Voice on March 1, 2014.

Years ago, when I first told people I intended to ride my bike to work every day, I often got the response, “Even when it rains?” I wasn’t sure what to say. I honestly didn’t know if I would commute in the rain or not. I had ridden my road bike in the rain plenty of times before, generally not by choice. With bikewear that stays warm when wet and dries quickly, a brimmed cycling cap and clip-on fenders, I could stay comfortable on the bike, but not dry. On arrival at home or work, it meant a quick shower and change into warm clothes.

The problem was that I preferred to ride in my work clothes rather than carry them since I already had a laptop to carry. I certainly didn’t want to risk sitting in my office in wet clothes, nor did I relish the idea of putting wet cycling clothes on at the end of the day for the commute home. At first, I wore a long jacket, wool leggings and tall boots, then changed into a skirt or pants at work. That got me through my first rainy season.

Rain Puddle

Still, I began a search for the elusive perfect head-to-toe rain gear, which now includes a knee length trench coat for light rain, a longer hooded rain coat for heavy rain, and an assortment of accessories for both me and the bike. With the right gear, I got through this week’s big storms without looking like a soggy mess on arrival.

Head
Helmet rain covers are popular, but I prefer a wool cycling cap with ear flaps. Helmet covers leave longer hair exposed to the rain, and unlike wool, they tend to trap heat so your head gets clammy. Helmets with adjustable sizing usually have no problem fitting over close-fitting caps, even with a short ponytail tucked into it, and the brim helps keep rain out of your eyes. Hoods worn either over or under the helmet can work too, but make sure the hood doesn’t block your view. Pro tip: If you wear glasses, choose a cap with a bigger brim.

Shoulders
Most people buy rain jackets for cycling, but unless you’re bent way forward on a road bike or carving trails on a mountain bike, I suggest going long. A thigh, knee or calf-length coat covers more of the legs, which like the back and shoulders bears the brunt of the rain. A double breasted coat will offer more thigh coverage when the coat spreads out as you sit down in the saddle. If the coat is waterproof, make sure it’s designed to allow body heat to escape through zippers or panels. For light rain, a quick-drying fabric coat is all you may need. Pro tip: a coat rack is a great way to dry out coats, caps, gloves and other items. I even bought one for work.

Knees
If you’ve ever gotten a pair of jeans soaked, you know they can take hours to dry. I tend to wear knee-length dresses and tights on rainy days. The dresses are short enough to stay under my coat and the tights dry almost immediately. If you prefer pants, wool or synthetic blends don’t soak up and retain water like cotton. Pro tip: If your coat is short, wear bike tights for the ride and change into your jeans or pants at work.

Red coat boots

Toes
Keeping your tootsies warm can make or break a ride. If you ride in clip-in cycling shoes, there are all kinds of waterproof shoe covers available that do a good job. But for commuting on a bike with flat pedals and fenders, leather ankle boots are a great way to keep the feet dry. For more coverage, you can go higher. These days my go-to rain boots are an inexpensive knee high boots made of synthetic material. Pro tip: to dry out shoes, boots and gloves quickly, stuff them with crumpled up newspaper.

Accessories for your Bike

Fenders: Most people know that a rear fender will keep dirty water from spraying up from your wheel and soaking your backside, but a front fender does the same for your lower legs and feet. Easy-to-install fenders are available for bikes that weren’t sold with them, including ones for road bikes that clip on and off quickly.

Waterproof bags: Many bike panniers come with lightweight, stowable rain covers that do a good job in the typical Bay Area storm. For heavier rain you can put water-sensitive items like laptops inside a plastic bag before putting them inside your bike bag.

Seat covers: If you have a leather saddle or if you’ll be parking your bike outside, a shower-cap style seat cover can keep your saddle dry and help it last longer.

Lights: Running your headlight and taillight when it’s raining will make you and your bike more visible. If the cars have their lights on, it’s a good idea for you to turn your bike lights on too.

What’s your strategy for staying dry in the rainy season? Is there critical clothing or gear that works for you?

Click here for more Bike Fun rain gear photos.

fenders-galore

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A New Bike for Christmas

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the Mountain View Voice on December 25, 2013.

It’s such a traditional Christmas gift that it’s almost a cliché: the new bike. I don’t remember ever waking up to find a bike under the Christmas tree, but I do remember that one year my father repainted my older sister’s outgrown bike and updated it just for me. Off came the 1960′s style handlebars and saddle and on went Stingray handlebars and a banana seat with bold flowers and a sissy bar. I was very excited to have a girly bike in the latest style.

As an adult, I appreciate even more that my father took the time to not only paint the frame and upgrade the worn parts, but to choose fashionable accessories for me. My dad is more of a “function over style” kind of guy. There were many crudely but effectively repaired items around our house to attest for his skill. I don’t have a photo of the bike, but it looked like this groovy one I found on Craigslist, except that mine was spray painted blue and had long handlebar tassels.

If Santa didn’t bring you a new bike this year, it’s not too late to get a groovy bike that you’ll love as much as I loved my faux Stingray. If you want a sleek road bike or a plush mountain bike, there’s plenty of advice at your local bike shop or on the internet to find the perfect bike for you. But if you’re looking for bike to ride around town doing errands, shopping or for a relatively short commute to work, you might want to consider a city bike instead (or adding a city bike to your stable of bikes).

Christmas Tree Bike

City bikes are designed for cross-town trips in street clothes, not about riding your fastest or getting a workout. For those reasons, city bikes have specific details that those bicycles don’t have, either because they add weight or get in the way when you’re charging down the trail. Properly equipped city bikes have fenders and chainguards to protect your clothes, racks and/or baskets to carry purchases, handy accessories like lights and bells, and flat pedals and kickstands so you can hop off and on quickly and easily.

At shops more oriented for recreational riding or racing, staff may not see the value for these very useful features. As someone who owns two city bikes and has helped a handful of friends find their perfect match, here are my top tips for buying the right city bike for you.

Don’t Be a Weight Weenie. When buying a road bike, the first thing most buyers do is pick it up. Road bikes are designed for speed and distance, and lighter weight can mean winning a race or finishing a century ride before they close the course. City bikes are designed to carry things so they need a heavier frame. And they’re designed for shorter distances, where slower speeds don’t make a big difference. Of course, if you have to carry it up stairs to an apartment or you live on a steep hill, you may want to check the weight. Just don’t obsess.

Frame the Question. You’ll need to decide whether you want a traditional diamond frame or a step through frame, aka a men’s bike or a women’s bike. Not that the decision lies with gender. Men sometimes choose a step-through so they don’t have to lift their leg high over the top tube. Women, especially ones who don’t wear skirts, sometimes choose the diamond frame. Side note: mixte frames, like the white one below, are said to be named for “mixed gender.”

Mixte or Dutchie

Upright, Not Uptight. Pedaling while upright feels odd at first if you’re used to a more aggressive position, but upright bikes are great for shorter urban trips because you can see what’s around you better. That also means others can see you better. You’ll still want to adjust the seat height and perhaps lower the bars a bit, but there’s little need for precise fitting. You won’t be bent over on the bike for hours and you won’t be locked into a single position on your pedals.

Size Matters, But Not So Much. Because they don’t require such precise fitting, city bikes come in fewer sizes than road bikes. You’ll know the size is right if you don’t feel crowded between the seat and handlebars or too stretched out. If the bike is too small you may feel perched too high once your saddle is adjusted to the right height. And if you’re sitting on the top tube, your frame is too big. Nothing new there.

Gear Up. Most city bikes have 3-8 gears with a reasonably wide range. If you live in a hilly area, buy accordingly. But gear ratio range matters more than the number of gears, and it can be hard to know the range without a test ride. City bikes often have internal gear hubs, which protect the gears from street grime and protect your clothing from gear grime. Internal gear hubs are more expensive than derailleur-based gearing.

Try Before You Buy. As with any bike purchase, a test ride will tell you a lot. Is it easy to get on and off? Is it the right size? Does it feel balanced and track straight? Does it brake well? Does it shift well? Does it seem well-built? Do you feel “one with the bike?” Did riding it make you smile?

Dick Test Riding Secret Service 4

A Lasting Relationship. Consider the bike shop and its staff. They should be knowledgeable, friendly and helpful, and take time to answer your questions. If they primarily sell other types of bikes, make sure they value city bikes and understand their specific needs. If they tell you that you don’t need a kickstand or fenders, go elsewhere. Finally, if you don’t like the staff enough to want to go back to the shop, don’t buy the bike there.

How well does your current bike work for errands and short commutes? Is it missing key features that you’d like in your next (or another) bike?

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Big Box Store, Little Bike Trailer

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the Mountain View Voice on December 12, 2013.

For the vast majority of my shopping trips, my bikes do a great job. Between a pair of oversized panniers in the back and an ample basket in the front, I can carry up to three bags of groceries filled to up to 40 pounds. I’ve also figured out how to attach garment bag to my rear rack for dry cleaning or for buying clothing at the mall. You’d be surprised how easy it can be to carry things on a bike if you’re creative.

But every once in a while I make one of those shopping trips where what I’m buying something too heavy or too bulky for my bike alone. So last year I asked Santa for a cute little bike cargo trailer.

It felt a little frivolous. After all, we have a car we can use for those rare shopping trips. But now that I have the trailer, I realize it’s pretty darn useful. Especially during those times, like right now, where driving to the mall or shopping center is painful and parking is a nightmare. So when our microwave gave up the ghost last week, I hitched up my little trailer and pedaled over to a few big box stores for some comparison shopping, holiday shoppers be damned.

Best Buy

Target, Costco and Best Buy are all within 2-3 miles from home and it wasn’t tough to plot a route that hit them all. Before I left home, I checked online for what each store carried and read the product reviews, but I wanted to buy locally so I could have a replacement immediately. You’d be surprised how some microwaves had really poor ratings after hundreds of reviews, by the way.

With the critical consumer data in hand, my little trailer and I rolled out in search of an oven with all the features I wanted, in the color I wanted and sized to fit my countertop. It took visiting all three stores, but I found the perfect oven. I probably should have measured to see if the box would fit in my trailer before checking out, but it fit nicely with several inches to spare. The ride home was delightfully uneventful and my new microwave fits my kitchen as well as it fit my trailer. Thank you, Santa.

Microwave in Trailer

If you haven’t done much shopping before by bike here are a few tips:

  • A rear rack with large panniers can carry more than you think. Most racks are built to carry at least 40 pounds.
  • Front baskets are great for overflow items, but be aware that heavy items up front can affect steering.
  • Bring bungee cords for securing bulky items on top of the rear rack or to secure them in a front basket. A deep pothole or hard bump can bounce your purchases right off of your bike.
  • Treat packing your purchases on your bike like a working a puzzle. Sometimes I'm sure I've bought too much, but it always works out. Knock on wood, I've never had to return anything.
  • If it’s dark or dim out, make sure your purchases don’t block your bike lights.
  • Bike trailers don’t have to be expensive. My cargo trailer cost $250 new and is holding up well after a year. Another alternative is buying a used child trailer from someone whose kids have outgrown it.
  • Parking can be more challenging for bikes with trailers. Bike racks are designed for single bikes and many are placed without enough room for the extra length of trailers. Bring an extra lock to secure the trailer, either to the bike or to the bike rack.

What’s the most awkward thing you’ve purchased by bike? What made it tough? What made it work?

Want to see 36 rolls of Costco toilet paper on a bike? Check out my Shop by Bike gallery for that and more.

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Bright Lights, Dark City

Spring forward, fall back. When you remembered to turn back your clocks did you remember to clip on your bike lights? Now that we’re back on Standard Time, sunset is just after 5:00 pm and it’s fully dark by 5:30. If you haven’t already turned on your bikes lights for your evening commute you almost certainly will this week.

When I first started bike commuting to work years ago, the end of Daylight Saving Time drove me off the bike, but not anymore. I now have bike lights that keep me visible to others, and keep the trail or street visible to me. Like most things, feeling comfortable and safe was a matter of having the right equipment.

I’ve gathered quite a number of lights over the years and learned through trial and error what works for me, which may not be what’s best for you. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Putting Your Best Light Forward
A white front light keeps you visible to oncoming vehicle and bike traffic as well as to people walking. To ride legally after dark, your front light must be visible from the front and side at 300 feet away, which is about one city block or five houses away. A basic $20-$30 light with fresh batteries will meet this legal standard and is good enough if you’ll be riding on slower-speed city streets with street lights. Most of these lights operate on standard batteries, but some are rechargeable through a USB connection.

If your routes take you on unlit trails or poorly-lit streets you’ll do well to invest in a more powerful light rated at 150 lumens or greater. Pricing for these lights starts at about $60 and virtually all feature rechargeable batteries. You’ll also want a powerful light if you’ll be riding on roads with speed limits of 35 or greater. At higher speeds, drivers need to see you from further away so they have enough time to react to you.

Aimed for Success
Front lights can be mounted on your bike’s helmet, handlebar or front fork. Helmet lights let you see around corners better and let you look down at your bike if something malfunctions. Handlebar or front fork lights work better in fog and don’t add extra weight to your head, which can be an issue for the more powerful lights which have heavier batteries.

In either case, make sure your front light is pointed at the roadway and not blinding oncoming traffic. That’s especially important for helmet lights, which are harder to adjust and mounted higher, and even more important when you’re using powerful lights. Blinding drivers doesn’t make you or anyone else any safer.

Brightening up the Rear
By law, your bike only needs a red reflector visible from 500 feet to the rear, but most riders use red lights, not just reflectors, for higher visibility. Like the front lights, more expensive rear lights are generally brighter, but the range is not as dramatic. Rear lights can be mounted on the bike or clipped to a rider’s backpack or pannier. Common bike mount locations are the seat post, the frame of the bike near the rear wheel (seat stay), or on the back of a rear rack. If you mount it on the bike, make sure any gear you carry or any clothing you wear doesn’t block the view.

To Blink or Not to Blink
Most bike lights offer both steady and blinking options. I set mine to blinking as the sun starts to go down and then switch to steady at dusk. I find a steady front light helps me see the road ahead better so I can avoid potholes and other obstacles. Steady lights also help other road users gauge your distance from them better than flashing lights. Also, super-bright flashing lights can be very distracting to drivers, other bicyclists and people walking. One day a man walking by actually thanked me for not setting my bright front light to flashing.

I do set my lights to flashing after dark in areas with a lot of other lighting distractions or when it’s raining at night. Or sometimes I set a smaller light to flash and my bigger main light to steady.

Looking for the Bright Side
Being visible from the side is often overlooked. The law only requires white reflectors on the wheels or tires with reflective sidewalls. I have both, but also have amber spoke lights for extra visibility. I’m a lot more comfortable approaching or rolling through an intersection knowing I’m visible from all directions, whether or not there’s a headlight hitting my wheels at the right angle.

Back it Up for the Unexpected
Don’t get left in the dark when your front light loses its charge or your rear light falls off your bike mid-ride. It’s worth buying and carrying a second pair of lights. One easy way is to mount an inexpensive “be seen” front light to your helmet and mount a more powerful one on your handlebars. The same works for the rear: mount a more powerful rear light on your bike, but clip an less expensive blinkie to your bag or helmet.

Are you and your bikes ready for this week’s early sunsets? What are your go-to night riding accessories?

Bike Lights Road

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Family Bikes: The Minivans of Bicycles

In the morning it’s school or day care drop-off. In the afternoon it’s pick-up then soccer practice, swim lessons or dance class. On the way or in between there’s shopping for groceries or craft supplies for school projects. For most, being a parent means lots of driving around town and waiting in long lines of cars. But in our area more and more parents are hopping on bikes instead of into minivans and SUVs for their “mom’s taxi” trips, especially now that there are more options for carrying kids and gear on bikes.

For the past 30 years, parents have had two basic options: mount a child seat on a rack over their bike’s rear wheel or drag a trailer behind it. More recently, single-wheeled trail-a-bikes that let a school-aged child pedal along have appeared, and now there are small child seats that mount just behind the handlebars too. These are all easy, relatively inexpensive options for converting a standard bike into a kid-hauling machine.

But for more kids and bigger loads, some local families have graduated to bikes that are designed from the wheels up for the job. Cargo and family bikes come in all shapes and sizes, each with advantages and disadvantages. Here are three basic types that local parents are piloting.

Long-Tail Bikes
Cherie lives with her husband and two children in Mountain View’s Jackson Park neighborhood. When her kids were toddlers she hooked a trailer to the back of her mountain bike took them with her on errands and to their favorite playgrounds all over town. But as they kids got heavier, she found it tougher to stay balanced starting and stopping and she didn’t have as much room for gear as she needed. So Cherie bought a long-tail Xtracycle family bike.

Long-tail bikes look like mountain bikes where someone grabbed the rear wheel and stretched the frame back. This longer wheelbase means there’s more space for a longer rear rack and larger panniers (saddle bags). For Cherie, that means room for up to three giggling kids and four oversized bags of groceries. And if her seven-year-old daughter gets too tired to ride her own bike mid-ride, Cherie can secure the front wheel of her daughter’s bike in a pannier and drag the bike behind while her daughter catches a ride on the rear rack.

Bucket Bikes

Even before her son started kindergarten in Dublin in the East Bay, Kristi had heard enough horror stories about long lines at school drop-off to push her to look for better options than driving. Walking the mile to school wasn’t a problem for her, but would have been a challenge for her son and his 2-year-old brother. She considered and rejected pulling a wagon due to the hills, and she didn’t think a stroller was a dignified way for her little man to roll up to school. After searching family bike options, Kristi went with a Madsen bucket bike.

Bucket bikes have longer wheelbases like long-tail bikes, but instead of a rear rack, they have a cargo bucket in the back, usually with a bench seat and room for extra gear. Even though she hadn’t ridden in years, Kristi found the bike comfortable immediately, making it easy to get started. Her sons love being in the fresh air riding in her Madsen, and she loves pedaling straight to the school entrance and skipping the queue of cars, as well as doing errands after work. She recently added an electric-assist motor so she can climb some of the steeper hills easier.

Box Bikes
If you’re in San Carlos and see a mother pedaling two towhead toddlers in a Dutch-style bakfiets, or box bike, it’s probably Tyra. Tyra’s husband was itching to buy this classic cargo bike, but until they moved to London she had no interest. After dragging kids and a stroller on buses and on the underground to get around the city, Tyra decided to give a bakfiets a chance. She loved it so much they shipped it here when they moved back to the US.

Dutch-style box bikes have a distinctive low-riding box in front of the bike rider instead of the rear like the bucket bikes. While there are three-wheeled models available, Tyra chose a classic two-wheeler from Bakfiets.nl because it rides more like a standard bike. She likes having her kids in front where it’s easy to keep an eye on them and to chat. Her Bakfiets.nl also has a rain cover that keeps her kids completely dry and comfortable on wet days. She was the only one who had to brave London’s infamous drizzle.

Replacing a Second Car
Tyra can get almost anywhere within 2-3 miles of her home in downtown San Carlos as easily on the bakfiets as in a car. That means she and her husband are able to share a single family car. Ditto for Cherie and Kristi. Having a family bike saves them the expense of buying and maintaining two cars. It also means they have more space in their garages for more bikes. As Kristi explained, family bikes can become an obsession.

Talk to Other Parents
These three bikes are just a taste of the many family bike options available. You’ll find long-tail bikes at several local shops, and A Street Bike Named Desire in Palo Alto sells European box bikes. But the best way to find one that works for you is to talk to parents, both in person and online, about their experiences. One great opportunity is Kidical Mass, a ride for kids and families on Saturday, October 19 that rolls from Eagle Park in Mountain View at 10am. There will be a wide variety of bikes on hand, and you can get straight advice from parents who use them day in and day out.

RESOURCES
Kidical Mass Ride: http://kidicalmassmountainview.weebly.com/
Family Bike Photos by Bike Fun: http://bit.ly/1aUh7a9

Cherie

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A Couple’s Guide to Pedaling in Tandem

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the Mountain View Voice online edition on September 22, 2013.

You’ve probably seen that unhappy couple on the bike path or on the road. They start off together and within seconds, one partner has zoomed ahead while the other struggles to keep up or gets left far behind. It doesn’t have to be that way. On a two-person tandem bicycle, a couple that rides at different speeds on individual bikes can stay together and chat easily for the whole ride.

Riding a tandem requires teamwork, though. The front rider (captain) does all the steering and braking, which means earning and keeping the trust of the rear rider (stoker). For most tandem bikes, the riders must pedal in synch at the same rate, which means compromise. When teamwork fails, the two-wheeled romance of a tandem can turn sour, earning tandems the harsh nickname “divorce machines.” A popular adage goes “Whichever way your relationship is going, a tandem will get you there faster.” How a couple rides a tandem together both reflects and intensifies their relationship, for better or for worse.

My husband and I bought a tandem as a wedding gift to ourselves. Our plan to ride it away from our wedding was far from unique, although our route for the post-wedding procession was a long twisty descent down Mt Hamilton. An epic windstorm kept us from riding that day, but we do take the big beast out from time to time and have mastered the necessary skills: how to start without wobbling, how to turn at slow speeds, how to stand on the bike to get over a rise, and most importantly, how to communicate and work effectively as a team. Well, 97% of the time anyway.

The usual advice on tandem success tells the stoker to “trust the captain” and tells the captain that “the stoker is always right.” To me, that advice falls short. The truth is that it’s all about consideration. The captain has to earn the confidence of the stoker to be an effective leader, and that only happens when the stoker believes his or her requests will be respected by the captain. Both partners need to be willing to follow.

In short, successful tandem teams are successful partnerships, which is what successful marriages are. I’m not an expert on tandems or marriages or even partnerships, but I’ve done 50+ mile rides in both the captain’s and stoker’s seat. I’ve finished every ride on good terms with my partners and learned a few things in the process.

Here are a few things I’ve learned as a captain:

  • Talk, talk, talk about what you’re about to do, especially with a new stoker. “I’m shifting”, “Coasting now,” “Bump ahead,” “Turning left,” “Standing.”
  • Encourage feedback from your stoker. “Is this gear comfortable?” “Was the speed OK on that downhill?”
  • Apologize if you make a mistake or do something your stoker isn’t comfortable with.
  • The turning radius and stopping distance required are much larger than you might expect.

Here are a few things I’ve learned as a stoker:

  • Be patient when the captain does something you don’t like. He or she wasn’t doing it to make you mad.
  • Be gentle when you ask the captain to do something differently. Lighthearted humor goes a long way.
  • Not having to steer gives you freedom to take photos, eat, stretch, etc. Just don’t wiggle too much.
  • For a quick power boost, you can stand and pedal while the captain stays seated. Just don’t rock the bike.

These tips are just a start. There’s a lot more specific advice on riding a tandem out there, but honestly the best way is to hop on, give it a whirl and work out the rough spots on the road. You’ll definitely learn a thing or two about yourself, your partner and your relationship, for better or for worse. And you can always ditch the bike.

By the way, tandems are not just for couples, they’re also a good option for parents and kids. They allow the parent to maintain safe control of the bike and the kid to still be an active participant. They’re great for school drop-off routes that have more challenging roads along the way, and you won’t need to leave a kid’s bike at school. They make three-person triple tandems too. I spotted a father with two empty seats and two child helmets dangling off the handlebars on Middlefield Road one morning during school drop-off time.

How to Get Started

Rent a Tandem. If you and your partner have never ridden a tandem before, it’s a good idea to try it out before making an expensive commitment. If you can’t borrow one from a friend, you can rent a tandem in San Francisco from most of the bike rental companies catering to tourists. Most offer upright “comfort” tandems. Blazing Saddles also offers light-weight road tandems, a triple tandem and one that puts the child in front.

Wherever you rent the bike, walk the bike to a calm, less congested area before you hop on. You’ll probably be wobbly at first and you don’t want to hurt yourselves or terrorize the people around you. You may find it easier to ride in Golden Gate Park during its Sunday road closures than in the busier Fisherman’s Wharf area.

Buy a Tandem. As a specialty item, only a select few bike shops carry tandems. Walt’s Bicycles in Sunnyvale offers both new and used tandems, including a lovely vintage Schwinn tandem. The Bicycle Outfitter in Los Altos sells more performance-oriented tandems, from road race worthy ones to ones designed for child-sized stokers. Both shops will let you test ride their tandems. The Bicycle Outfitter also offers daily rentals of two of their bikes. Finally, there’s a small but steady market for used tandems. After all, not all tandem bicycle partnerships work out.

Have you ever ridden a tandem? If so, what were the biggest challenges? If not, would you consider it?

Tandem Legs

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Adventures in Bay Area Bike Share

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the Mountain View Voice online edition on September 9, 2013.

It’s been just over a week since the Bay Area Bike Share pilot program opened for service in five cities: San Francisco, San Jose, Redwood City, Palo Alto and Mountain View. So far, 3000 people have bought annual, day or three day memberships to ride the bikes (including me) for a variety of reasons. Last week I chatted with people riding bike share bikes around town and asked them what they thought.

Sunday: On my way to Caltrain I met Brett, who was coming back from a ride on the Stevens Creek Trail to Shoreline Park and back. That’s a longer trip than the 30 minute free ride period so he paid $4 for an extra 30 minutes, but he didn’t mind. “I’m not a biker,” he said, “I’m trying this out to see if I like it before I buy a bike.” He was smiling as he docked his bike and headed for the Farmers Market.

Wednesday: On my way to work I ran into Alex and Dennis as they were undocking bikes at San Jose Diridon station. It was Alex’s third day commuting with bike share and she was thrilled. Before bike share, she took Caltrain from San Francisco, either bringing her bike aboard or taking a shuttle for the last mile to the office. With bike share, she won’t risk getting bumped due to overcrowding on the bike car, and she won’t miss the shuttle if her train is late. Like Alex, Dennis lives in San Francisco. He only works at his company’s San Jose office occasionally. Having a regional system that works in both cities is important to him.

Thursday: On my way home from work I met a man near the VTA Light Rail station who was heading home on a bike share bike. “I’m lucky to have a station near my home,” he said. I didn’t have time to ask him which station before he rode away, but he was headed toward either the bike share station at Rengstorff Park or the San Antonio Caltrain Station.

What about me? Unlike Brett, I already have a bike. Unlike Alex and Dennis, I don’t have a bike share station by my office. And unlike the last guy I met, there’s not a station by my home. So when did I use my annual membership? On a trip to San Francisco last weekend with a couple of friends. We had lunch in North Beach, watched a bicycle race at Levi Strauss Plaza and stopped in at the Ferry Building for a little shopping.

We learned that bike share is a great way to get around San Francisco’s downtown and waterfront, but made a few mistakes that show there’s a slight learning curve to using the system. The instructions on the Bay Area Bike Share web site and on the station kiosks are a good start, but to make your first trips more trouble-free than ours, here are a few things you should know.

Undocking the Bike
With my annual pass, checking out a bike is quick and easy. I pushed my key fob into a slot on the bike’s docking station and pulled back firmly on the handlebars to release the bike. Make sure the bike’s kickstand is up first, though. I banged my shin on the kickstand the first time.

A day pass requires using the kiosk at the station, inserting a credit card, giving them your mobile phone number, and going through a lot menus on the screen. In the end they give you a 5-digit code that you punch on the left side of the bike’s dock. For trips later that day, you’ll need to go back to the kiosk and insert your credit card to get a new 5-digit code. My friend Deanna had a few frustrating minutes trying to reuse her original code before realizing she needed to go back to the kiosk to get a new one. At least there are fewer menus to click through on the second trip, though.

Watch the Clock
The thirty minute no-extra-charge period goes by quicker than you think, so don’t play tourist and stop for photos too much along the way. To maximize time, plan your route and where you’ll dock your bike near your destination before you punch in your code or push in your key fob. You may want to adjust the seat height, put your bag in front holder, and put your helmet on before you undock the bike. And don’t forget to note your start time.

Docking the Bike
Docking the bike at a station near your destination sounds simple–you just push the bike into an available dock–but it’s easy to do it wrong. The trick is to line the bike up straight before pushing it in, hold both handlebars and push it in hard. You’ll know you’ve done it right if the dock’s green light turns on. To be sure it’s docked, you can also tug back on the bike to see if it releases. That’s the only way we could tell for sure at a few docks that were facing into the bright sun’s glare.

Dock Surfing
If you realize you may run over the 30 minute time limit, or know you’ll need more than that to get to your destination, try dock surfing. Dock surfing is simply swapping out bikes at an intermediate station along your route. If you’re a nervous Nellie like me and don’t want the stress of rushing, plan for an intermediate stop. With an annual pass, it’s pretty fast to grab a new bike.

Bike Malfunctions
One of the bikes my friend Michelle undocked was stuck in the lowest gear and wouldn’t shift. We returned it to the nearest station, pushed the repair button on the dock, and turned the seat around backwards. So if you see a bike with the seat turned 180 degrees backward, don’t try to undock it.

Download the App
Download the Cycle Finder app on your smart phone before your first trip. It shows station locations and number of available bikes and open docks in real time. It’s pretty basic but useful. If it only integrated recommended bike routes it out be outstanding. I kept finding myself flipping from map to map to navigate to the station in North Beach that was closest to our restaurant.

Security and Theft Prevention
Once you undock a bike you are responsible for the bike until it’s docked again. So don’t leave the bike unattended or locked anywhere other than an official station, and make sure it’s docked correctly. Also, with single and three day passes, don’t let anyone see or hear your code number. If you are slow to type it in and undock a bike someone could use it before you. The same is true of an annual members key fob. Guard it carefully and report it immediately if lost or stolen.

Have you tried the Bay Area Bike Share yet? If so, where did you go? Do you have any advice for other users? If not, where can you see yourself using it?

RESOURCES
Bay Area Bike Share web site: https://bayareabikeshare.com/
Bike Fun Photos from San Francisco http://bit.ly/13ym1bX

Deanna Bay Bridge Wide

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Ready or Not, Bike Share is Coming

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the online edition of the Mountain View Voice on August 9, 2013.

When I walked out of the Caltrain station in downtown San Jose this morning there it was: a long row of empty bike docking stations for Bay Area Bike Share. The bikes won’t show up until the program’s launch that’s scheduled for later this month, but after hearing about bike share plans for over a year, seeing the equipment on the streets of San Jose made it all very real. Bike share is coming.

Bike share programs are designed for short trips across town, not long commutes or recreation or fitness rides. Members check a bike out from one docking station, ride away, then check the bike into another station near their destination. Stations are located near popular destinations like transit, stores and restaurants, and ideally near offices and homes where many people begin their trips.

Bay Area Bike Share is being launched as a pilot program in five cities along popular Caltrain stops: San Francisco, Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View and San Jose. Membership plans cover all five cities and are available on a 24 hour, 3-day or annual basis ($9, $22, and $88, respectively). Trips shorter than 30 minutes are free; keeping bikes out longer than 30 minutes means stiff additional charges designed to discourage longer trips. Members are also liable for $1200 replacement fee for bikes that are lost or stolen, but once you re-dock the bike your liability ends.

Bike share may be new to the Bay Area, but it’s found in over 500 cities worldwide, most famously in Paris and London, and over a dozen North American cities, including New York City, Montreal, Washington D.C., Minneapolis, Toronto, Denver and Chicago. My niece Alison and her husband use the Capital Bikeshare in Washingon D.C. regularly to go to the grocery, to visit friends, and to go out on dinner dates in the evening. Their small apartment in Capitol Hill doesn’t offer much room for storing bikes so they appreciate having a bike share station a couple of blocks away.

The bikes for the Bay Area will be very similar to the bikes from D.C. and New York City. The biggest difference is that our bikes will have seven gears instead of the three so people can climb San Francisco’s hills more easily, and they’ll be painted seafoam green. For the bike geeks, that’s the classic celeste color of bikes made by Bianchi. Bellísimo!

My friends and I were lucky enough to get a chance to test ride them last week at Thursday Night Live on Castro Street two weeks ago. We’re all daily cyclists, so we can be a fussy group to please. First impressions were that the bikes were comfortable and easy to ride, nimble when turning at slow speeds, and slow relative to our usual bikes. I was impressed with how the bike adjusted to fit everyone from five foot tall Megan to my husband Dick who stands six foot two. The bikes are fully equipped with a covered chain to keep clothing clean, a front rack to carry a purse or grocery bag, a bell for alerting pedestrians, and always-on front and rear lights for safe riding after dark. See the photo link for closeups of the bike’s features.

As a one year pilot, the Bay Area program is starting small with 700 bikes in 70 stations. There will be seven stations in Mountain View near Castro Street, near San Antonio shopping center, and at Rengstorff Park. (See map link in resources below) With additional funding the program may be expanded to more bikes and/or stations in Mountain View and in other cities. I sure hope it is since our home is a mile from the nearest station.

Do you think bike share will be as successful in the Bay Area as in other cities? Why or why not? How and when do you think you’ll use it?

RESOURCES
Bay Area Bike Share Information: http://bayareabikeshare.com/
Bike Fun Bike Share Photos: http://bit.ly/14C8WBe

Bay Area Bike Share Wide

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Gear Up Your Ride: The Grocery Getter

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the online edition of the Mountain View Voice on July 25, 2013.

When people think of bicycling for practical reasons, bike commuting usually comes to mind first. But since
work commutes are often the longest trips we make all week, it may make more sense to bike around town for short errands at the pharmacy, post office, bank, coffee shop or grocery store instead. While it’s easy enough to slip a bottle of pills into your pocket or a small package to mail into a backpack, for errands like groceries you’ll want a bike that’s set up to carry a load. You need what my friend Katie calls her grocery getter.

My friend Katie works in the bicycle industry, which means she has all the hottest performance-oriented bicycles: sleek road bikes, plush mountain bikes and a custom cyclocross bike so hot it made the rounds as a display bike at trade shows internationally. What she didn’t have was a practical bike for errands.

But she did have an old 1990s mountain bike in the back of her garage. With a little work and the same cost as two trips to the gas pump we gave her old bike a new life as a grocery getter. First, we pumped her tires, checked the brakes, and lubricated the chain (just like I wrote about on May 24th) and wiped the bike down for good measure. Then we replaced her worn saddle with a spare she had on hand, and rode a couple of miles to her local bike shop to get geared up. She chose a rear rack, grocery-specific panniers and a kickstand which we installed ourselves in less than 30 minutes. Total cost was about $120.

We took a quick trip to the grocery store to test out her new set-up and found a new route through the neighborhood on the way back. Katie was thrilled. “I live within 2 mile of all the stores I need: Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, coffee, restaurants, the farmers market, so doing errands by bike makes sense,” she explained. “Panniers rock.”

If you’re thinking of setting your bike up for groceries or errands, here are some gear options to consider:

Rear racks support loads over your bike’s rear wheel, making for a stable ride. Most attach to the frame near the rear wheel axle and to the seat stays, the frame area just below the seat.

Panniers are bike-specific bags that attach to racks. Touring panniers are designed to be more aerodynamic and weather-proof for long trips, while boxy open-topped panniers like Katie chose are convenient for quick stops and shorter trips.

Baskets are usually mounted on the handlebars but can also be attached to a rear rack. Handlebar baskets are great for keeping things close at hand, like purses and small pets. Having weight on the handlebars affects steering more than when the weight is on the back, so be careful with a heavier load.

Elastic straps work well when you have an odd-shaped object or a few too many items to carry. The best ones are flat instead of round with two or three straps emerging from a single hook at each end, but I also keep micro-sized bungees on my bike just in case.

Kickstands are handy for making quick stops on errand runs and almost required when you’re carrying groceries on your bike. It’s a lot easier to load up when you don’t have to balance the bike too.

Bike trailers can carry far bigger loads than a bike alone. I use my cargo trailer when I’m buying the big stuff like 30 rolls of toilet paper at Costco, or when I want to buy more than three bags of groceries in one trip. Note that they’re less stable when empty. I learned the hard way.

More Tips for Selecting Gear
* When you go shopping for bike gear, ride your bike to the shop or otherwise take your bike with you. You want to make sure what you buy will fit your bike.
* Start small like Katie did. You can always add a front basket or buy a trailer.
* Make sure your racks, panniers and baskets don’t block your front or rear lights.

Tips for Shopping by Bike
* If you’re worried about buying more than you can carry, shop with a hand basket instead of a grocery cart. You can also test packing your items in your bags before you check out.
* During grocery checkout, either pack your bags yourself or expect to repack them at your bike. If you’re pinched for space, try removing some unneeded packaging.
* Realize that if you can’t pack it all, you can return items. I’ve had close calls, but I’ve always squeezed it in.
* To keep frozen food from melting, pack the cold items together and put them in a small insulated bag.
* With a heavy load, you may have to shift down a gear and may find can’t sprint for the light as easily.
* If you have multiple shopping stops, you can either bring the bags with you into the second store or take a risk and leave them on the bike, preferably covered. I’ve taken risks and never lost anything.

Is your bike set up for carrying groceries or other loads? What’s the biggest item or load you’ve carried?

Bike Fun Grocery Bike Photos: http://bit.ly/15hfqlK

Grocery Wide

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