About my bicycle(s)

February 11, 2023

There are more bikes like mine on the road nowadays, also more e-bikes on the road, I get more questions than I used to, which is nice actually, it is so heartening to see more people figuring out that they don’t need cars for every last trip.

But, the questions, the answers, I am bad at that, I excel at digressing and probably making people sorry they asked, so instead I thought I should write them all down, hopefully in a short and coherent form, then stick a QR code on the back “if you have questions about this bike….”

So, answers, to the questions:

This is a “long tail” cargo bike either designed by or based on a design by a company in California called XtraCycle.  I’ve been commuting on bikes like this a few times a week since 2006 (10 mile commute), every day since 2015 (6 mile commute), year round including winter and snow.  If the bike is green (Surly Big Dummy), the frame comes like this, but I customized the parts, if the bike is pink (XtraCycle EdgeRunner 11i), this is relatively close to as-sold.  You can buy a bike pretty much like this, if you want.  You can buy a bike like this with an e-assist, if you want.  They’re not cheap compared to “normal” bike, but they are cheap compared to a car, and in 2022 I drove and biked equal distances, and that includes a car trip from Florida to Massachusetts.

I buy most of the groceries riding this bike.  I have carried children and adults on the back; the official load limit is 200lbs, I have carried 250 and it was okay, though a lot of work.

This bike does not have an e-assist.  A day may come when I need e-assist, but it is not this day.  I can ride up most hills with most loads if I have to, but if there’s a way to avoid the hill, I just might take it.

The bike handles, very, very well.  I ride it no-hands often, including carrying loads of at least 100lbs.  I’ve also borrowed a friend’s very expensive road bike (Tom Kellogg Ti Spectrum) and according to my butt, the unloaded no-hands feel is exactly the same.

For the winter, I put a studded snow tire (Schwalbe Marathon Winter) on the front, and use a “snow tread” tire (Continental Top Contact Winter II Premium) on the rear year round (it has super traction in the summer and no particular increase in rolling friction or lack of durability, and I am lazy about swapping tires).  I wear regular shoes or boots, making about the same choices I would if walking, add bar mitts to protect my hands, and otherwise tend to underdress for the cold, but with a wind blocking jacket.  I wear a thin stretch polar fleece cap under my helmet.  Biking makes heat; I am big, the bike is big, I make a lot of heat.  Adjust your clothing to match your heat output, don’t be surprised if you warm up after the first mile (after years of experience, I plan for a “brisk” first mile, otherwise I have to take the clothes off anyway and I will have to take off more around mile four.  Dinking around my neighborhood, I dress plenty-warm because I won’t ride enough to warm up).

The worst weather is cold rain, the next worst weather is high heat + humidity.  If you’re biking to work, on those days a change of clothes is a good thing (I have a drawer by my desk, it has spare clothes in it, I very rarely use them).  But bad weather is rarer than people think (literally, I ride to work every day.  I should know.)

I am neither young nor slender; my main advantage is that I biked a lot when I was much younger and got pretty good at it, and in my 40s, when my annual physical started to be less fun, I realized that I needed more exercise, and that “old” people could ride bikes.  It didn’t hurt that we were busy fighting an immoral war over oil and had reelected the guy who started it; this seemed like a minor protest to me, I could send slightly less money to the oil companies.  The first month commuting was work, then I started to get stronger, as one does.  The first winter commuting I was somewhat randomly prepared and spent too much money on stuff I didn’t need.  At this point I have a tremendous advantage over someone starting “fresh”, because 16+ years and 40,000+ miles of biking in traffic in this area means that I’ve learned a little bit and acquired a bit of physical conditioning.  So, if you’re thinking about it, don’t wait, it won’t get any easier.

This bike does not have drop handlebars; it does not have mountain bike flat handlebars.  Those choices are intentional and for daily commuting and erranding use, you want these handlebars (52cm Nitto Bosco).  Yes they are skinny, yes they increase my air resistance, but I sit taller, can see, can be seen, am much more comfortable.  Flat bars and/or the leaned over posture can give you numb hands and fingers, for various reasons, it happens to lots of people, including me.

Yes the saddle is hard as a rock, that’s what works for me.  Well-padded saddles don’t work for me, I’ve tried them.  Your butt is not my butt, you might have a different preference.  I think the Brooks B17/Flyer is actually a good first bet for most men, on account of their history, popularity, and habitual use by men (but the Brooks Cambium is a very hard saddle, be careful of that.  Also, I tried one, and broke it).  “Terry” is another good choice, especially (as I understand it) for women.

I tend to wear a helmet riding in traffic, or in terrible conditions.  Off-road paths or in a low-traffic neighborhood, I don’t think it’s necessary.  I do however use lights that are powered by my front wheel and they have no off switch; if the bike is rolling, then they are on.  There’s research that shows that this prevents with-car crashes about as well as helmets protect your head in the event of a crash, and makes the need to dress “for visibility” somewhat irrelevant; the bike takes care of visibility for me.

Everyone vaguely able to should bike more; there are cargo bikes, e-bikes, e-cargo-bikes, trikes, e-cargo-trikes, you name it, you can get a bike that will do the job for a lot of the trips that you might drive today.  The exercise is really good for you if you can make it part of your routine, and at least in the Cambridge/Somerville area, it will cost you not much time, because driving here isn’t that fast.  Cars are bad for their drivers (lack of exercise), bad for other people (noise, pollution, crashes), bad for the country (murderous assholes get their money from selling oil, it’s a world market), and bad for the planet (climate change, it is a thing).  And if you think cars are actually a good thing, when was the last time you heard someone saying “what our neighborhood needs, is more cars.  Can we run a highway through here?”

I do most of my own maintenance and repairs.  Bike repair is not as user-friendly a business as car repair, I learned how over the years, so it is more convenient to do my own.  It is not hard, and takes only a few specialized tools (mostly, metric wrenches) that you could mostly stuff in a pair of jean pockets if you needed to (the pockets would however be heavy and lumpy).

Regarding specific equipment choices, in general I optimize for convenience, comfort, and safety:

  • I just use flat pedals, not cleats.  I have used cleats in the past, they caused me to ride less because of inconvenience of different shoes.  I don’t use toe clips either, they mess up your shoes, and delay transitions on/off the bike.  I don’t really need the additional power.  This also makes winter footwear easier to deal with.  Yes, I also own the incredibly expensive Lake Winter Mountain Bilking shoes, it’s nice, but not as sturdy as plain boots.
  • The tires are fat, not skinny, because (good) wide tires have lower rolling resistance which is what matters at most commuting speeds.  Fat tires require less frequent reinflation, are easier to remove/install if you get a flat, protect the rim from potholes, protect ME from potholes, and give a more comfortable ride.
  • I use internally geared hubs on cargo bikes because those allow me to change gears when I am stopped, make it easier to use a chain guard to keep my pants clean, and let me build a stronger rear wheel (freewheels require a “dished” wheel that is not as strong).
  • I have a shock seat post because the roads around here are terrible.  I run it pretty “stiff” because constant bouncing up and down seems to make my knees too tight; what I want is protection from the worst bumps, that might really hurt me (that is, old backs don’t like surprises).
  • I don’t bother to clean my chain, ever.  I do add lubrication, sometimes.  I replace chains about once a year, I am large, the bike is large, I destroy chains.  This sometimes requires replacing other parts of the drive train that get worn by a stretched chain.

If you have other questions, bother me in the comments, I’ll try to answer them.

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