Bicycle Notes

Bicycle Touring versus Backpacking

Much more gear with bicycle touring—gear to maintain, gear that can break down and leave me stranded, gear that can be stolen when stopping in towns, gear that might not be allowed inside motel rooms.

Able to carry at least twice the load and go at least the same speed on dirt roads, or twice the speed on paved roads, thus allowing much further distances between water supplies. For me to be comfortable backpacking, there must be water every 25 miles or so, assuming warm weather, a well-worn mountain trail, and less than 3000 feet of ascent per day on average. I am capable of hiking 60 miles from one water supply to the next under the above conditions, by carrying 10+ liters of water and hiking 30+ miles/day, but I can't be comfortable doing this, nor can I do it day after day. With biking, I should be able to up the comfort range to 160 miles. This assumes I am able to travel 40 miles/day, start with 23 liters of water and drink 6 liters of water per day. In the worst case, the bike would break down at the half-way point, or 80 miles from water, and I would have about 12 liters of water remaining. This should be enough to allow me to walk 80 miles. The ability to comfortably go 160 miles between water supplies makes bike travel in the backcountry of the Great Basin and southwest desert areas of the United States fairly straightforward. Whereas travel by foot in those areas requires extensive planning and possibly caching water in advance. (Caching would make hiking pointless for me, since my goal with both hiking and biking is to simplify my life and create a simulacrum of the original human hunter-gatherer existence, not to complicate things with elaborate pre-trip planning, a rigid schedule, etc.)

Difficult or impossible to fix flats and otherwise repair/adjust bike with numb hands, so risky to bike tour when possibility of extended cold, and especially cold rain. On the other hand, bike touring when temps are below freezing at night but normally warm and dry during the day (such as the desert in winter) not a problem. Backpacking with the sort of gear I use can be done without risk in very harsh conditions, including extended periods of cold rain. Tarp can be easily setup with numb hands and can even be setup with one numb hand, in case the other arm or wrist is broken.

Biking on flat ground much more comfortable than backpacking in hot weather, since movement of the bike naturally creates a breeze and shirt not tightly pressed against body by backpack straps. Then again, pedalling or pushing bike uphill in hot weather will cause just as much perspiration and be just as uncomfortable as hiking uphill.

Biking allows moving quickly through and away from towns, by speeding along paved roads at 12 miles/hour. Where I live in Reno, for example, it takes about 7 miles along paved roads or paved bike path to get to the first dirt road, and then another 3 miles or so to get away from the sights and sounds of the city to the true backcountry. With a bike, I can cover that 10 miles in an hour. On foot, it would take 3 hours. For a day's excursion, with biking only about 25% of the time is spent getting to/from the backcountry, versus over 75% on foot. In other words, the excursion is hardly worth the effort if going on foot, since I don't particularly enjoy hiking through sprawled out cities of the United States.

Hiking with a heavy backpack on rugged ground is excellent for building strong bones, especially in the pelvis and legs. Partly this is due to weight-bearing, partly due to the shock of the feet hitting the ground and the impact propagating up the legs. Bicycling might build bone strength in the arms, if the riding position involves leaning forwards, but the sitting position does little for the bones of the legs and pelvis.

Ideal conditions for backpacking:

Ideal conditions for mountain bike touring:

Is a helmet necessary for safe bicycling?

Certainly wearing a helmet can add to safety, but it is far down the list of safety precautions:

  1. Avoid dangerous roads entirely and go slowly (no more than 15mph). Following this rule alone means that you run no more risk from bicycling than from falling down while running, and no one suggests everyone who runs should wear a helmet. Dangerous road includes any road with high-speed motor vehicle traffic.
  2. To reiterate, slow down. Kinetic energy is proportional to the square of velocity, thus a cyclist going 45mph has 9 times the kinetic energy of one moving 15mph. Compare yourself to a pedestrian, not to motor vehicles. Even 6mph is twice as fast as a pedestrian.
  3. Sit upright. The only reason to lean forwards is to go fast—see point 2. There are many ways a bicycle can crash unexpectedly: aluminum handlebars and other parts can fail suddenly due to metal fatigue; tire blowout; squirrel runs into spokes of front wheel and then causes bike to come to sudden halt when the squirrel hits forks; big potholes or other obstacles in road. All of these crashes are fairly common, as google searching will show. Falling at 15mph while sitting upright is like falling while running at 15mph, and most teenagers can run faster than that. Whereas falling while leaning aggressively forwards is more likely to cause serious injury. Aside from reducing the chances of a bad fall, sitting upright (on the sitbones) is more comfortable and lowers risk of long-term damage to the nerves in the perineal area.
  4. If you must ride around high-speed motor vehicles, ride defensively. Pretend you are invisible to motorists, especially because in some cases (such as riding towards the sun while it is near the horizon), you are invisible. Whenever you feel a trace of fear, get off the bike and walk it. Healthy fear is your friend. For most of us, the cost of an injury, in terms of future happiness, far outweighs any possible gains from winning a lawsuit or being awarded a disability pension. Think carefully about how fragile your body is, especially compared to rocks and metal motor vehicles. Visualize all the injuries you could suffer while biking: fractured skull, face smashed in, teeth knocked out, broken neck, broken back, shattered wrist, punctured organs, etc. A helmet might help prevent the fractured skull, but it will do nothing about the other injuries. Furthermore, a fractured skull often leads to death, and death means the end of all your problems. A broken neck, which a helmet does nothing to prevent, often leads to quadriplegia, which is a terrible way to live. And you'll be forced to live if you become a quadraplegic, because suicide will be difficult without control of your arms and legs.
  5. Install a large rear-view mirror (such as those made by Mirrycle), so as to be able to spot bad drivers approaching from the rear (drunk drivers, RVs driven by senile old people, drivers distacted by cellphones or screaming children, etc). Remember, you must assume you are invisible to motorists.
  6. Don't bike while drunk or on drugs.
  7. Don't bike in conditions of low visibility (night, dawn, dusk, fog) or where roads are slick from rain.
  8. Obey traffic laws. The main reason bicyclists disobey traffic laws is to go fast—see point 2.
  9. Wear a helmet, ideally a full motorcycle type helmet with face shield, plus gloves, knee and elbow protectors, long pants and shirt.

I have fallen a few times already on my bike, but I was going fairly slow and riding upright on a rugged dirt road, so the result was a fall to the side. In falls like this, there is far greater risk of breaking the wrist than hitting the head.

I have fallen numerous times while backpacking, and even bashed my head against a rock once so that the skin split open. But I wouldn't consider wearing a helmet while backpacking, nor have I ever seen anyone else wearing a helmet while backpacking. (Backpacking is to be distinguished from certain types of rock-climbing with ropes, where helmets are highly advisable.) I do wear a fur felt hat while backpacking. I credit that layer of fur felt with saving my head from being cut by branches and overhanging rocks on numerous occasions.

Horseback riders, at least those riding western-style saddles such as cowboys, don't wear helmets, and yet the distance they have to fall from their saddles is greater than for bicyclists. Nor are falls uncommon for horseback riders. Most horseback riders wear hats, either of fur felt or leather.

I once fell as a child while playing on the swingset, hit my forehead on some concrete, and split the skin open so that it required stitches. No indications of concussion, fortunately. And I probably fell and hit my head other times as a child. But no one suggests that children should wear helmets at all times while playing outdoors.

The Netherlands has a very high per capita rate of biking, but a low rate of head injuries among bikers, without mandatory helmet laws or widespread use of helmets. Bicyclists in the Netherlands tend to ride slowly, while sitting upright, on saddles that are positioned fairly low, and there are numerous bike paths to segregate bikes from motor vehicles.

[Update: Oct 2011] I was hit head-on by a car while biking in the city (t-intersection, car turned and accelerated to avoid cross-traffic and didn't notice me). I managed to leap off and avoid injury. Helmet would have done little to save me if I hadn't leapt off, since the major danger was to my legs (if the car had kept going and rolled over me) and arms (had I fallen awkwardly so as to break my wrist).

My plan is to continue wearing the same fur felt wide-brim hat while bicycling that I wear backpacking.


locks, cables, cable cutters

My original lock was the coiled Bell cable lock (220g). Using the Park cable cutters, I was able to quickly and almost effortlessly cut the 8mm cable. The 10mm cable in the top of the photo was almost equally quick and easy to cut, though the wider plastic casing did slow me down by a few seconds because it didn't fit so easily in the cable cutter jaws. The Park cable cutters are 7.5" long and weigh 318g and are thus easy to carry and conceal in a pocket or backpack. It would be very easy to slip up to a bike secured by a cable lock, quickly cut through the cable with these cutters, throw the cut cable and cutters into the handlebar bag and then ride off. The whole operation would look little different to passersby than someone unlocking the lock with a key. Cable locks are very insecure, in other words. Every bike owner should try cutting a few locking cables with cable cutters, just as an experiment.

A better idea is the YWS Ring Lock, from Velo Orange (390g), which attaches around a wheel, thus immobizing the bike. This lock requires bolt cutters or a hacksaw to cut, both of which will be much more conspicuous than cable cutters. The immobilized bike cannot be ridden, though it can be lifted up and put in a truck, or even carried by hand. If the bike were heavily loaded with panniers and other gear, it would have to be unloaded first before most people could pick it up, and this unloading process would be time-consuming and conspicuous. There are straps that allowing attaching the lock to the underside of the seat stays, but I found it simpler to put the lock in the saddle bag with my tools. Storing the lock in the saddle bag also allows it to be tested several times, locking and unlocking, before attaching to the wheel. This is to avoid the disaster of locking the bike up only to have the lock jam and then not be able to remove it without a hacksaw. This ring lock appears to be a much better locking solution than a cable lock. It might be advisable to combine the ring lock with a thin dual-loop cable (such the 5mm cable shown above, weighing 65g) secured to some fixed object, so as to make it evident to thieves that the bike is, in fact, locked, since this might not be obvious with the ring lock alone. By making it clear the bike is locked, opportunistic thieves will be less likely to attempt pedalling with the ring lock attached, only to crash when the ring lock hits the forks, possibly breaking some spokes or other parts of the bike in the process.

TiGr Mini Lock weighs about 490g, including all components, and can be used either to immobilize the bike like the YWS Ring lock, or it can attach the frame to a bike rack or other solid object. When secured around rear wheel and pedal crank, and thus simply immobilizing the bike, more conspicuous than YWS Ring lock, so less likelihood of opportunistic thief not realizing bike is locked and then breaking spokes when he tries to ride off with it while locked. Stores on underside of down tube, using water bottle mount, rather then taking up space in saddlebag like the YWS Ring lock. To avoid dust in the lock cylinder, I would recommend storing that piece separately, such as in the saddlebag, and only storing the bow piece on the understide of the down tube. Shouldn't ever need lubrication, but only use graphite lubes if lubrication is eventually required.

Another possibility is a small weatherproof padlock (105g) together with a thin 5mm dual-loop cable (65g) for a total of 270g. Such a thin cable is obviously trivial to cut with cable cutters, but that is actually an advantage. First, because the thinness is a constant reminder that cables are not secure. Second, because if the padlock jams for some reason, the 5mm cable can be cut with the Leatherman tool in my repair kit, as opposed to having to hunt up cable cutters or hacksaw. However, the padlock should be more resistant to jamming than other locks, because it is designed for marine conditions. There is even a plastic tab to keep the key opening covered.

Finally, there are U-locks, but these are quite heavy. The U-lock shown weighs 860g, for example. A U-lock passed through a wheel acts similarly to the ring-lock, but can also attach the bike to a fixed object, and then becomes a very secure solution, at least for small towns without a major bike theft problem.


Schwalbe's recommendations for tire inflation pressure. See also the bottom of their page on tire dimensions.

Schwalbe balloon bike (fat tire) site

photo of thorn chainguard

Sands Machine Grease recommendations. Finish Line Extreme Fluoro Grease, Dupont Krytox PTFE High Performance Lubricant, Dupont Krytox Grease are recommended for use with S&S couplers, and presumably for other anti-seize anti-galling applications, but not for bearings, bushings and other sliding applications.

Bike Failures. Rohloff flange failures, among other things.

Cycle Monkey. San Francisco Rohloff service for United States.

Cartridge hub servicing. Discusses use of Bicycle Research SBR-K, split-lip and CalVan #28 bearing extractors.

48 spoke Rohloff. By Aaron's Bike Shop in Seattle. Service center for Rohloff in United States.

Cozybeehive. Bicycle failure analysis by mechanical engineer.

Image of wind speeds across US.

Wind visualizer for US.

Central California Cycling. Recommend routes.

Bike Station. Discussion of Andra Rigida CSS rim technology.

Jeff Kruys's Schwalbe experiences, in the "Fun, Facts and Figures" sections of his trip journal here.

Wandering by Bicycle. Rohloff user who I met on my 2013 Mojave tour.

While Out Riding. Rohloff user who tours mostly in Arizona area.

Bicycling Physiology by John Forester. Explains why high-cadence pedalling ("spinning") is something the brain naturally resists, but is also the key to endurance cycling.

Guide to SMP saddles

Video showing little difference between clipless and platform pedals. I wouldn't give too much credence to this test. A double-blind test is impossible, but at least they could run the test multiple times and provide some incentive for the cyclist not to distort results to fit his preconceptions. Also, they didn't say if they used quality platform pedals (like Shimano Saint PD-MX80), with spikes to prevent slipping, or cheap platform pedals where slipping is common. My own view, shared by many other skeptics, is that clipless gives maybe 3% performance gain, which is enough to change the results of a race, but of little significance under non-race conditions and more than offset by the added risk of a nasty spill with clipless versus platform pedals when riding on rugged dirt roads.