Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Urban Bike Commuter Tools Part 2 - Bags

The last post of New York Bike Commuter overviewed racks, an essential tool for commuters who want to haul important stuff like a clean change of clothes, a lock, books, etc with little effort.  Bike racks don't reach their hauling potential, however, without a bag draped over them.  This post gives a quick overview of bags that work best for commuting and running errands.

Bags come in three general categories relevant to urban riders: serious commuting bags for people who've got to bring a nice change of clothes to work, cheapo bags that will wrinkle your stuff but are light and easy to use day-to-day, and big grocery bags.  All hook onto a rear rack.  There are also some detachable baskets on the market, and a milk crate strapped to your rack is a great way to carry a basketball...but I digress.

Serious Commuting Bags: Pricey commuting bags earn their keep by getting fancy clothes to the workplace in fine shape.  Top end models have compartments that keep a suit smoothly folded and are waterproof in everything short of a Brooklyn tornado.  With this sort of bag the excuse "riding a bike means I'll look crappy at work" no longer applies.

6th Ave Brooklyn after last week's tornado
Jaand, Ortlieb and 2WG, among others, make panniers that run from about $100 up.  Many of these bags have compartments for books, a carrying handle and look reasonably briefcase-esque.  Thus, no one will suspect your green inclinations when walking into the office at the oil company.  Usually one bag is enough to carry work stuff: the bags are generally sold individually.  But these bags aren't much for general cargo duty - they tend to be tall and narrow so bulky stuff won't fit (top-of-rack bags are another good option for carrying clothes).

Ortlieb Downtown commuter bike bag

Cheapo Bags: If you don't mind wrinkled clothes, want to use your panniers for multiple purposes (which means keeping them hooked to the rack all the time) or simply don't want to spend much money, there are a zillion inexpensive (under $50) bags on the market.  Check the local bike shop, should have many of these, or online.

I use a $25 (on sale), two-sided Nashbar Daytrekker pannier that allows me to stuff a heavy chain lock and shoes in one side and put work clothes in the other.  The bag also works great for quick trips to the supermarket, a picnic and was even enough, tightly stuffed, for a weekend ride up the Hudson River (sleeping at a B&B).
Nashbar Daytrekker bag

Cheapo bags are likely to rip apart after 2-3 year but that's why they're cheap.  If they get stolen, no biggie.

Grocery Bags: These are big, square, wide open bags that allow serious grocery hauling (see top blog pic).  A pair will easily swallow a gallon of milk, cereal boxes and a six pack with room to spare.  Good grocery panniers should have rugged mounting hardware to ensure they won't fall off the rack, spilling Brooklyn IPA all over the road.  Seams should be rugged and the bag should have a flat plastic bottom to hold things level.

For many years I used a pair of bags from L.L. Bean.  They withstood a lot of abuse (they got sliced up but never ripped apart) although the mounting system could have been a bit more trustworthy.  REI sells Novara's 'Round Town grocery pannier, which looks like a more fashionable version of my old Bean bag.

Finally, a safety warning:  Really heavy loads can affect bike handling, making it harder to turn, or making it easy to fall over when at a stop, particularly if one side of the bike is much more loaded than the other.   Pack evenly (note that clothes bags are often used on one side of the bike only but, since clothes generally don't weigh much, the effect on handling is negligible). Also, use caution when moving from a stop - heavy loads are particularly treacherous at slow speeds: the faster you go, the less you notice the weight, until you have to make a quick turn.

Also, I've completely avoided front fork mounted racks and bags, which weigh down your front wheel and make it harrowing to swerve on a milisecond's notice, an important skill on the streets of NYC.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Urban Bike Commuter Tools - Racks

While riding to the Red Hook swimming pool a few weeks ago I managed to catch the attention of a woman driving by, who stretched her head out of her car window and gazed in my direction.

"Where'd you get that bag?!" she yelled out the window, pointing, unexpectedly, at the black nylon pannier draped over my bike rack.

I answered that I'd gotten it from BikeNashbar, for about 25 bucks on sale.

Her awe of my equipment made me realize that many folks who are new to bike commuting may not be aware of some of the tools that can, in fact, turn a bicycle into a practical tool of transportation.  So, in today's post I'm going to focus on the most essential of those tools: the bike rack (I'll get around to mountable bags, aka panniers, in my next post).

A bike without a rack is like a semi truck without a trailer or the Space Shuttle without its cargo bay, i.e. pretty much worthless. Seriously, while a bike will get you around, a bike with a rack lets you get around with your stuff, be it heavy books and laptop, groceries or whatever.

Rear bike rack

A decent rack costs around $40, with some popular manufacturers including Blackburn, Topeak and Trek.  A good aluminum rack is strong, capable of carrying 40+ pounds and surprisingly light itself so it won't weigh down a bike when unloaded.  Also, a solidly attached rear rack won't noticeably affect bike handling, which can be a problem when wearing a heavy backpack that raises a rider's center of gravity and causes backaches.  Racks save your back.

Racks are pretty straightforward, but there are a few mega important considerations to take into account when choosing one:

Size: racks are often sized to fit bikes based upon wheel size, i.e. a rack that works on a 26" wheeled mountain bike won't necessarily work on a hybrid or road bike with 700c wheels.  I've seen lots of incorrectly sized bike racks, the result being that the top of the rack isn't horizontal, which looks pretty goofy.  Stuff hauled on a sloping rack wants to slide off, defeating the purpose.

Some manufacturers offer adjustable-height racks (the "legs" of the rack are threaded allowing height to be adjusted up and down).  My personal prejudice based on absolutely no scientific data is that these racks add unnecessary complexity and moving parts to something that's supposed to be simple and reliable.  And, adjustable racks definitely weigh more.  So, shop around and find a solid rack that works for a particular bike.

Disc Brakes: Disc brakes have become popular on mountain bikes and, increasingly, on hybrid-style bikes that many urban commuters/Gothamites ride.  But disc brakes presented a problem for riders who wanted racks, since the bulky disc caliper tended to get in the way of the rack mounting point next to the wheel axle.  Rack manufacturers have figured out how to get around this problem (see the picture of a disc-specific rack below - see how the rack supports bend outward around the disc caliper) so take this into consideration when buying.

Disc brake-specific rack with child seat mounting hole to boot
Hauling kids: Rear-mounted child seats require a bike rack, and most child seats are specifically designed to work with a certain rack, i.e. seat and rack are sold together.  Check to see that the child seat can be easily unmounted leaving just the rack, which can be used for general hauling.

If you already have a rack on your bike and you decide you want to bring a little kid along beware that the rack you have probably won't work with a child seat.  Take a look at the picture above - this Topeak rack has a hole in the top platform. The hole is needed to mount the Topeak child seat. Other Topeak racks, with essentially similar designs, lack the hole...

Fame mounting: This important point relates to the bike itself, not the rack.  Most modern bikes come with rack mounting holes drilled directly into the seat stays (the tubes that run from just below the saddle to the rear wheel) but a few manufacturers still neglect to add them.  For example, a friend of mine recently bought an ultra hip Surly single speed.  After forking out $700 for what was to become his main urban ride my friend discovered that the bike lacked mounting holes in the seat stays. 

The bike shop rigged up a mount using steel and rubber straps wrapped around the frame, but the rack is kind of wobbly, is likely to scratch the bejeezus out of my friend's precious paint job and simply looks lame.  What's worse, due to the overall shakiness of the setup he can't haul much.

If you're on the market for a new bike, make sure the rack mounts are built in.

Removable racks: These racks, which mount directly to the seat post via a hefty clamp, are fairly popular among mountain bikers or anyone who might want to completely remove their rack when it's not needed.  They're generally a good option if you don't plan on carrying heavy loads.  Also try to find a removable rack that has railings that drop from both sides - this will allow you to hang a bag over the rack without having the bag sway back and forth, banging into the wheel.

Seat post mounted removable rack

And beware in the city - anything that's easily removed is easily stolen.