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Category Archives: Gear Talk

The Perfect Bike Briefcase

Last October, when I was dressing for success for a meeting with the new CEO, I asked for your opinion: which bag I should choose to replace my unstylish briefcase pannier? The votes came in for the FastRider Black Charm Shopper, which I’d seen in the company’s online catalog, but couldn’t find for sale anywhere. When it wasn’t at the ultimate city bike shop in London, I almost gave up. And then, Eureka! I found it for sale online!

The shipping cost almost as much as the bag, but I had to have it. I ordered it in early December, which meant it didn’t arrive before I lost my job. But I don’t care. It’s lovely and I’m finding it useful for trips around town, like taking my laptop in to the Apple store. I even took it to Las Vegas for a conference and it worked like a charm.

How far would you go to get the perfect bag?

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Posted by on January 11, 2012 in Cycle Fashions, Gear Talk

 

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bike Lights

Decisions, decisions. It’s time to decorate our Christmas tree, starting with the lights. But which color? Red like last year? Traditional clear? Or Mardi Gras colors to honor my Louisiana heritage: purple, green and gold?

At least there’s one decision we won’t have to make–whether the lights should blink or not. Dick and I both prefer steady Christmas lights over blinking, which is why I don’t miss that crazy set we once had with three different blinking patterns. Every year we’d run through all the different modes and then settle on steady.

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With bike lights, though, Dick and I don’t agree. I’m all for keeping it steady, while Dick likes to flash. You could also say that I’m Paris while he’s London. Paris’ Velib bikes and the London’s Barclays bikes are both equipped with always-on front and rear lights. A great little feature not only for nighttime riding, but also for improving daytime visibility. And you don’t have to remember to turn them on, or remove them when you lock up the bike since they’re permanently attached and can’t be stolen. I wish my bikes were so well equipped.

But the difference is that the Velib lights burn steady while the Barclays flash, which to me reflects the two cities’ attitude toward urban cycling. Steady bright lights say to me: “I have lights like cars and motorcycles. I’m just another vehicle on the road.” In contrast, flashing lights shout out a strong warning message: “Be careful. Watch out. Don’t hit me.” The presumption is that drivers can’t be expected to see you.

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Philosophical arguments aside, here’s my case for steady vs. flashing:

  • With today’s bright lights, flashing ones can be very annoying to drivers, pedestrians and other cyclists. I refuse to ride behind Dick when he has his rear light flashing.
  • A steady front light will help you see the road ahead better so you can avoid potholes and other obstacles.
  • Steady lights help other road users gauge your distance from them better than flashing lights.

That said, there are times when I will set my lights to flashing:

  • At dusk, when there’s little contrast between the bike lights and the ambient light, I’ll set both front and rear lights to flashing.
  • After dark, when the route takes me through an area with a lot of lighting distractions, I’ll set the front to steady and have two red lights in the rear: one steady and one flashing.
  • Ditto for when it’s raining at night, for the same reason.

Finally, be aware that technically speaking, the California vehicle code only allows flashing lights to be used on emergency vehicles, a rarely enforced law that at least one cop with an attitude has used to harass cyclists with before. I wonder what that cop would have said if he had seen me with my Down Low Glow lights.

So, do you like to flash or keep your lights steady? Do you use the same mode for both front and rear, and for all occasions?

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8 Comments

Posted by on December 7, 2011 in Gear Talk

 

Small Bikes, Big City: A Quick Brompton Bike Review

Great things come in small packages. The little bicycles that could. The meek shall inherit the city. How many other cliches could I use as a title for this post? Any of these would be accurate.

Two full days touring London on Brompton folding bikes was enough to know that they are in many ways the ideal city bike. When engineer Andrew Ritchie fiddled with various folding bike designs in his apartment in the London district of Brompton, he was on to something big–in a small package. He didn’t just design a bike that folds compactly. He designed one that’s folds to a size hardly bigger than its 16″ wheeels, and tucks the messy and fragile parts between the wheels, and offers a ride that’s surprisingly close to larger wheeled bikes.

Here’s my quick take of the Brompton folding bikes, based on 30 kilometers of city riding:

  • The tiny bikes comfortably fit both 6’2″ Dick with his 35″ inseam and me with my 29″ inseam. Amazing.
  • The front end feels twitchy at first, but you adjust quickly.
  • The bag attaches to the head tube, not handlebars. It also feels odd at first, especially if the bag is full.
  • Once you’re rolling the bike handles like any other bike, even on rough pavement.
  • The low gear on the two speed models we rented is not low enough for any sort of hill.
  • Instead of a kickstand, you just fold in the rear wheel and voila! it stands alone.
  • The nose of the saddle is molded to fit your fingers, making it easier to carry.
  • Our rental model was fairly heavy to carry. If I had to carry it more than 100 feet I’d take the time to unfold it. Brompton offers lighter models. I wonder how much lighter they would feel.
  • Folded, the bikes took up less room on the underground than a small suitcase. We sat with ours in front of our knees and there was still room for people to pass down the aisle.
  • The hub generator lights work well, but since they go off after a minute or so of standing, I’d add small blinking lights too. I love built-in, hub generated lights. Taking things off the bike whenever you lock up is a real pain.

All in all, it’s a good little city bike. If I lived in a small apartment in the city and commuted by rail, I’d definitely consider getting one for my non-sport riding. Here’s a quick demo of Dick unfolding the bike. It takes him just over a minute, but with a little practice, I’m sure he could do it in half the time.

What about you? Would you get over the dork factor and ride a tiny wheeled folding bike?

 
2 Comments

Posted by on November 29, 2011 in Gear Talk

 

Velorution Prevails Where Barclays Fails

For shame, Barclays! The London cycle hire program your bank sponsors discriminates against Americans, whose credit cards lack “smart card” chips. And unlike the Velib system in Paris where you can buy a day pass online, the Barclays bikes require a smart card at the kiosk. Are they afraid that hordes of right-side-driving Americans will be massacred by aggressive black cabs and lumbering double-decker buses? Could be.

Riding these bikes was in my Top 5 things to do in London, so I was really bummed. Even though I was pretty sure we were out of luck, I had to ask the folks at Velorution, a bike shop focused on city bikes I had read about. The owner, Andre, confirmed that you either need a smart card or they can issue you a special card, but you have to be a London resident. But, he offered, Velorution rents Bromptom folding bikes at a reasonable rate. Interesting. I had never ridden a foldie and was intrigued.

While we were thinking about whether and how long we wanted to hire the Bromptons, we browsed through the store’s wide selection of bikes and gear. Of all the city bike-oriented stores we’ve been to, Velorution is one of the biggest, on par with Clever Cycles in Portland, Oregon. They also offer mail order, which could prove useful in the future. I searched the large selection of panniers, hoping to find the elusive Fast Rider Congres Black Charm. They didn’t offer anything comparable, but Matt took the time to look it up online and suggested I talk with their bag buyer when she came in to the shop later that afternoon.

Dick was immediately drawn to the Pedersen bikes with their hammock saddles and unusual truss frames. He took one out for a spin around the block and declared it felt natural with a comfortable seating position, despite its unusual look. “You have no idea how much I want this bike,” he confided. His birthday is tomorrow, but I don’t think there’s room in my luggage for a Pedersen.

Meanwhile, I moved on to helmets and clothing, where I found a delightful leopard helmet that I just had to have. A girl can never have too many helmets, can she? And there, amidst the dapper tweed coats and capes and smart modern jackets, I found the elusive Brooks rain cape. Last year, I searched for months for an outlet to buy this very cape which had received rave reviews at Interbike. And here it was at long last, unfortunately after I already have a cycle-specific rain coat I picked up in Amsterdam.

We left the store with a leopard helmet for me and two Brompton foldies for the rest of our trip. The Bromptons fit both of us well and only took a bit of adjusting for the markedly twitchy front end. We pedaled away from the shop as the sun went down and so our bike adventures in London began.

How far will you go for bike accessories or equipment? Would you pay the extra overseas shipping and taxes for a unique item?

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3 Comments

Posted by on November 25, 2011 in Gear Talk, Travel

 

SF Bike Expo in 150 Words and 15 Photos

It’s not Interbike or the North American Handmade Bike Show, but for the average Joe or Jane Biker the SF Bike Expo is the next best thing. A chance to see new products from smaller, often local, manufacturers, ogle bikes from custom builders and score some good deals on gear, as well as gently and not so gently used bikes and components. Oh, and a bike fashion show from Pedal Savvy. What’s not to love?

Dick and I hooked our biggest panniers on our touring bikes and headed up to the show on Caltrain, checked out the goods, bought a few things and rode a flat 35 miles home through the industrial spine of the San Francisco Peninsula. After pushing the pace to beat the sunset, we arrived home just as the last light faded from the horizon. If only we had bought those cool mini lights from Bookman we wouldn’t have had to hurry.

What’s your favorite new bike product? Bonus points if it’s from a small-scale manufacturer.

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Posted by on November 13, 2011 in Gear Talk

 

Gear Talk: Waterproof Panniers (or not)

Rain, rain, go away! But not before I test all my new rain gear. For the past couple of days I got my timing right and dodged the raindrops. But the steady ting-ting of raindrops on the skylight this morning signaled the moment of truth: would I ride to work in the rain?

Given all my new gear, I had to ride, and given this is California, the rain let up about 10 minutes into my ride. So I pulled over and tucked my nifty Dutch rain coat in my nifty bright yellow Dutch panniers.

Now the rain is over and the 10 day forecast shows nothing but sun. Yay! During the post-rain cleanup I decided to test the limits of my panniers. Just how waterproof are they anyway? Was I putting my laptop at risk riding in the rain? A garden hose, a stack of newspapers, a cooperative husband and an iPhone video later and I had my answer.

Have you ever done some crazy field testing of new equipment? Were the results accurate?

Note: Due to technical difficulties, the audio got dropped in the second half of the video. Do not adjust your player. What you missed were comments about the newspaper being completely dry even though I forgot to pull out the side flaps.

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2011 in Gear Talk

 

Gear Talk: Head to Toe Rain Coverage

The rainy season has come early to the San Francisco Bay Area this year, so I’m glad I brought home some great bike rain gear from Amsterdam. But I already owned a crucial piece of rain gear, made right here in the USA–my wool cycling cap.

If I’d never learned how awesome a wool cycling cap is in the rain, I’d probably would have bought a helmet cover, like my friend Julie did. Julie is a mountain biker forced onto the road for her work commute. Last year, she posted this photo on Facebook with the caption: “As if road riding wasn’t dorky enough as it is…”

You’re right Julie. Like most gear aimed at commuters, helmet covers are dorky. And they really don’t do the job anyway. They trap heat inside so your head gets clammy and your hair is still exposed to the rain. I stepped in with a little advice: “Darlin, you are in desperate need of a street style makeover! Return that plastic bag and buy a wool cycling cap today. I promise it will keep your head dry and your ‘do intact.”

What I didn’t do was show her how my wool cap works. So here’s to you, Julie, and all the other bike commuters looking for a better way to keep their heads dry in the rain.

Step 1: Tuck your hair into a classic small brimmed wool cycling cap, like my three panel cap from Walz. Why wool? Wool keeps you warm, but breathes so there’s no moisture build-up. There’s nothing like wool for keeping you comfy, regardless of the temperature.

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Step 2: Add helmet. Cycling caps are close fitting, so helmets with adjustable retention systems have no problem fitting over the cap. This arrangement will get you through the typical Bay Area wimpy rainstorm.

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Step 3: If it’s really pouring, you can always pull up the hood from your rain coat or jacket. But honestly, this level of coverage is rarely needed, at least not in the South Bay.

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Since we’ve got our heads covered (pun intended), let’s move down to toes. There are all kinds of booties for sale and I have some I use on my road bike with clipless pedals. But for commuting on a bike with fenders and flat pedals like Zella Mae, who needs them? Leather boots do the trick, with tights on cold days or without on days like today when it only pretended to be chilly.

Leather and wool, two classic materials that kick butt when it comes to wet weather riding.

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

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10 Comments

Posted by on October 5, 2011 in Gear Talk

 

Gear Talk: Bike Bling for After Dark

The hot weather may still feel like summer, but the early sunsets don’t lie. I’ve already flipped my lights on for my commute home twice this week. Years ago, when I first started commuting to work, the dark drove me off the bike, but not anymore. I have awesome bike lights that I almost look forward to using.

I’ve gathered quite a number of lights over the years, but I’m going to let you in on my favorites. First, and most important is the front light. My top pick: the NiteRider MiNewt USB. At 150 lumens, it’s bright enough for unlit bike paths, and the O-ring attachment for the headlamp and velcro for the battery make it easy to move the headlamp from bike to bike. It cost me about $90, but it’s worth every penny.

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I recharge the MiNewt at work with a simple USB connection, but since it runs for 6 hours on low intensity, I’m not left in the dark if I forget to top it off.

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Red rear lights are important too. For Zella, I wanted one that mounted permanently under my saddle so it would always be there. Once again, Cateye came through with this wide one that fits her perfectly.

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But my favorite lights are amber spoke lights from Cateye. These lights project in the most overlooked direction–from the side. I’m a lot more comfortable rolling through an intersection knowing I’m visible from all directions. They attach directly to the spokes, and turn off and on with a simple thumb-press.

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Finally, since you can never be too visible, I also have front, rear, wheel and pedal reflectors on my transportation bikes. And Zella Mae even has reflective sidewalls in her tires. Isn’t she sharp?

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Check out the video below to see how it all works together.

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

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2011 in Gear Talk

 

Amsterdam: Cycling Gear for a Rainy Day

Last fall, when I told people I intended to ride my bike to work every day, I often got the response, “but what about the rain?” The truth was, I didn’t know if I would ride in the rain or not. I prefer to ride in my work clothes rather than carry them, but didn’t want to risk sitting around wet all morning. And I’m not brave enough to ride with an umbrella like people do in Amsterdam.

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Thus I began my search for the elusive perfect cycling raincoat. The problem with most coats is that they are designed for walking, not sitting. When you sit, the coat spreads to expose your thighs–exactly where most of the rain hits you when cycling. I bought a vintage swing raincoat that’s full enough to cover my legs, but it’s a couple of sizes too big, and frumpy is not my thing. So I ended up using my standard poplin rain coat and settled for changing my pants to wool tights that stay warm when wet. An OK, but not ideal, solution.

So imagine my excitement when I found the perfect cycle-specific raincoat here in Amsterdam, with a special panel that protects the thighs when sitting. It’s made by Agu and runs large in case you want to buy it online.

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And while I was on a roll, I found a few other awesome items, like these yellow panniers from Clarijs made from rain slicker material. I think they’ll look great on Zella, and will keep my groceries super dry.

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I also found a rain cover for my saddle that should come in handy too. I appreciated it today when I came out of the Rijksmuseum to a dry saddle, unlike Dick who had to sit in the damp.

All this fab Dutch cycling gear almost has me looking forward to the California rainy season. Bring it on, El Niño!

Do you have anything special that you wear to ride in the rain or are you a fair weather rider?

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13 Comments

Posted by on September 17, 2011 in Around Town, Gear Talk

 

Gear Talk: Kickstand Reviews

“A kickstand? Why would you want a kickstand?” That was the response from the guy promoting Chris King‘s new line of Beloved Cycles at Mellow Johnny’s in Austin, when we were there last February for the Handmade Bike Show. Take a look at these two lovely bikes. Nice lines, beautiful colors, a delightful retro appeal. Perfect for trips to the coffee shop, to the drugstore, to visit friends except for one thing: no kickstands.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard prejudice against kickstands. It’s a rare thing that roadies and mountain bikers agree on. But kickstands are useful, even necessary, for certain bikes and certain situations. Here’s my take:

  • Road bike for racing or day rides: NO kickstand.
  • Mountain bike racing or trail rides: NO kickstand.
  • Any bike with a basket or rack for carrying stuff: Kickstand REQUIRED.
  • Any bike for errands around town, locking up for quick stops: Kickstand DESIRABLE.

I have kickstands on my bikes with racks and I love them. Since only one actually came 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. Dick installed one from Greenfield on the singlespeed he rides on our bike dates. I originally had one on Zella Mae, my errand bike, until I wore it out from putting too much load on it.

Advantages

  • Available almost anywhere for less than $10.
  • Some models have an adjustable length so you don’t have to cut the leg 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 Greenfield kickstand for Lily, my old steel road bike, since she 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.
  • Looks a bit dorky, doesn’t it?

Double Leg Centerstand
Most 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. I installed this Pletscher ESGE on Juliett, my Dutch bike due to her portly size. I liked it so much I installed another one on Zella Mae 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.

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?

 
23 Comments

Posted by on August 29, 2011 in Gear Talk

 
 
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