Wednesday, July 18, 2012

[LOABkw] Tools of the trade

Life On A Bike in KW is a series of posts about Chris' attempt to get as much done as possible on two wheels, while Erin takes the car out of town to observe birds. How cycle-friendly is KW? 

Erin is now at Rock Point, banding birds. I am officially car-less. More or less. For instance, I booked a car rental for the weekend after this one, to go visit her. The price shocked me... only $53 for a two day weekend rental? I wonder if I'm missing something. At that rate, you could rent a lot of weekends before you hit your typical lease or loan payment, assuming you don't need a car during the week.

Also, the rental agency (Avis) is a short walk from my home. That's a big deal: when I rent a car to travel for work, I insist on renting from that place. No pickup/drop-off hassle. Once again, the importance of geographic proximity over other aspects when you aren't driving yourself everywhere.

The Obligatory Gear Post

I backed myself into a corner, saying that the next thing I would blog about would be a "what I ride" post. Turns out, I don't like dictating my own blogging agenda beforehand. I like to go with the flow, write about whatever is on my mind.

Still, this is a post that needs writing, for this series to cover what I want it to. Since I've been cycle-commuting for twelve years, I've tried a lot of different products, clothes, clever ideas and gimmicks. A kind of darwinism of usefulness, and a new-found love for cycling minimalism, has whittled those down to the things that are truly valuable. I hope you find it interesting... or at least informative.

What I want to do is draw a line between what is truly important, what is helpful, and what is simply "nice to have". Cycling requires very little. Cyclists tend to accumulate stuff over time. If you're a gear fetishist-- and I admit, I used to be-- you could easily turn a cheap travel option into an expensive hobby. You have been warned.


In June, I put aside my undersized and beat-up Jamis, and bought a beautiful new Brodie Section.7 from King Street Cycles. This one has a few must-haves, like fenders and rear cargo rack. It still needs a chain guard, and will get one as soon as I'm biking in long pants again.

Section.7 and the things I ride with
(I recommend local retailers for bikes, as many of them offer free service on purchases. This is really helpful, if you're not the type to tear bikes down and put them back together again in rideable shape. Even though I've replaced the Jamis' whole transmission, I appreciate not having to monkey up this bike.)

Riding this bike has taught me some important lessons:

1. The right bike is much better than the wrong bike. The Jamis served me well, but was ill-fitted to my body and physical limitations. That sapped my motivation. I didn't want to spend money on a new bike when I had a working one, but I haven't regretted this purchase now that I finally made it.

Still, the corollary to this lesson is, any bike is better than no bike. If you want to get started, don't let the idea of "finding the perfect bike" get in the way. Chances are you'll need to ride a couple of years before you even know what the perfect bike is. I rode the Jamis for 12 years before I knew.

2. A beautiful bike will make you fearful. Bike theft is real. I bought a flashy bike. Now I stress about where I leave it. This is not a problem I had so much with the old Jamis.

If this idea bothers you, buy a used bike for cheap. Of course, when you do, try to make sure it's a legitimate sale and not "hot".

3. You don't need a billion gears. The Section.7 has a 7-speed shifter and no rear derailleur. In KW, that is enough. And now I understand how the Dutch get by with 3-speed bikes in their flat country.

The Jamis was a 21-speed and had a granny gear for steep hills (which I never used it on a road, it felt like surrender.) Turns out, I didn't need all that for city riding. Chances are you don't either.

The Brodie has a number of other nice features. I like twist-shifters, but that's a personal thing-- many hate them. The internal hub shifting system is a wonder for city riding. Simply put, I can shift at a stop... that simple fact has changed my world. Also the benefit of lower maintenance, as the hub is a sealed unit.

Okay, that's enough talking about the bike. Less text, more pictures!


Okay, let's get this out of the way first: I do not support mandatory helmet laws. I believe bicycle helmets have their place and provide some small safety benefit, and adults should be free to make their own risk assessment. The effects of mandatory helmet laws on cycling safety are complex, and sometimes detrimental. Read here if you want to understand more.

I do wear a helmet for a substantial portion of my cycling, because I am frequently trekking 9km through some busy traffic corridors, and I'll take any edge I can get. These days, I'm wearing a Bern Brentwood.

Size XXL.
You should replace your helmet every 5 or so years (recommendations vary) so this year I decided to move away from the "spaceship on your head" fluted style to something that I felt would provide some better side and back impact protection. There is a lot of debate about whether traditional helmets truly provide a safety benefit (especially when weighed against the effect of risk compensation) and while this is still not a helmet rated for being hit by a fast-moving car, I think it's a step up.

For short rides within my neighbourhood I will omit this. Sometimes this makes me uncomfortable, but the reaction is almost a superstitious one. I've gone 12 years without ever being hit by a car, so sometimes I wonder if I use a helmet as a totem. I have had a serious fall at over 30kph, but even then my head never touched the ground.


If I had written this a year ago, I'd have a lot more to say about clothes. But I've decided to put aside the cycling-specific clothes as much as I can... bike shorts, half-gloves, yellow-lensed glasses... whatever. By and large, I now cycle in my street clothes as much as possible. I will occasionally wear a loose-fitting synthetic cycling shirt, if it's excessively hot.

There may be more to say about clothes when the weather cools. If the weather ever cools. The short version is, have a decent jacket for wet weather, but you won't be biking in the rain that often. Apart from that, just bike in your clothes as much as you can. Or bring a change of clothes, if it helps. You don't need to wear a special uniform.


Pay attention. This is important.

City cycling inevitably means negotiating for space with cars. There are a number of things you should strongly consider having.

Don't skimp. Get a high quality rear flasher.
Get a rear flasher. And use it whenever you're on major roads, even in the daylight. A good one will be visible a hundred metres away in bright sun.

This is really valuable. I notice a big difference in the space cars give me on the road when I'm running this flasher. I believe it makes motorists aware of me earlier, which gives them more time to pass me in an orderly fashion, instead of a late reaction which results in a tight high-speed squeeze.

In combination with assertive lane placement (something I'll talk about some other time), that means that almost all drivers will pass me courteously on the worst roads.

The one above is a Planet Bike flasher from MEC. Not expensive. Get one.


Keep a front light for night rides.
The front reflector is legally required in most places. But I strongly recommend having a front light handy for riding after dark. If it flashes, that's helpful. You want it more to be seen, than to illuminate the road that streetlights are already shining on.

The Night Rider I have mounted on there is a fairly expensive new acquisition, enough to dazzle in daylight. At the very least, you should have a 1 watt LED lamp handy. And don't worry about batteries... unless you have a high-power light, they'll last for ever. (And if you have something brighter, it should be rechargeable.)

Deliberate mirror shot.
My left handlebar carries two vital tools: a mirror (another must-have for mixing with traffic) and a bell (a must-have for mixing with pedestrians.) Get a mirror and a bell. Use them.

The red switch on the right is something a little extra: an Air Zound air horn. It's somewhat handy, but I wouldn't whole-heartedly recommend it. It can really grab motorists' attention (or wake up the gaggle of ipod-wearing students blocking the entire trail.) But it makes you choose between horn and brakes, and you should always be choosing brakes.

It's astoundingly loud, though. And good value for money. I wish I could mount it closer to my thumb, but the twist shifter on the right handlebar gets in the way...


There's a lot of different products for carrying things in bikes.

Get a rear pannier rack. With that, you can get traditional pannier bags (MEC makes some great ones), or rear baskets. Refer back to the first photo to see each.

Speaking of which, I'm very fond of these Basil Memories baskets. They hook on and off very quickly, and have an integrated handle. Great for grocery shopping, though they do bang around noisily.

They should pay me an advertising fee.


What you get for a lock depends on your bike, location and level of paranoia. There's a lot of opinions about locks on the internet, and most of it will make you terrified to leave your bike anywhere ever again.

I have a Kryptonite U-lock and cable combo. The cable is a handy addition, allowing me to quickly run a noose through the frame and front wheel. Lets me relax a bit more about letting this bike out of my sight.

Final words

Hopefully, I've made this post descriptive but not prescriptive. This is what works for me, what works for you might be quite different. But take a look around... you may find exactly what's right for you.

For instance, yesterday I locked up at the supermarket next to a young lady with an awesome long tail. I admired her ride for its cargo capacity (200lb, she said.) She admired mine for its gearing and light weight. (I guess we checked out each other's equipment.)

It's great that there are finally so many purpose-built bikes showing up here in Canada. Utility cycling and commuting can be done with your bog-standard mountain bike, but gradually we're catching on to better alternatives. With bikes built for just getting around, infrastructure to make us welcome on the street and and at our destination, and learning to normalize cycling as a routine part of life, this community is shifting gear.

It's exciting to see.


  1. Erin has only been out of the city for a day and you're already chasing the (long) tail, eh?

    I want to concur with your suggestion of the Planet Bike Superflash, not as a cyclist (I don't own one yet) but as a driver. I saw this from miles away and when I caught up to the cyclist at an intersection, I actually rolled down my window to ask what kind of light it was. It's a totally different league than the crappy flasher I'm currently using.

    Also, an addendum to "Buy a used bike for cheap. Of course, when you do, try to make sure it's a legitimate sale and not "hot": it's easy to check -

    1. On a relted note, if you own a bike and you'd like to maximize your chances of recovery after theft, I recommend checking out for sticker kits. The Brodie and Erin's new bike are both tagged up.

      Not that I put a huge amount of faith in them, but at $10 (MEC discount) it ups the amount of effort to disguise a stolen bike.

  2. Great post! Can I repost. On waterloobijes.CA?