The Low-Skill Backup Plan

When I started my experiment in car-free living back in 2004, I was living the orbit of a big city — Washington DC. So it I was already in the habit of using a taxi from time to time.

But the option of taking a taxi rarely is in the mental toolkit of many people who live in smaller cities, or suburbs. For a newcomer to bike commuting, one source of anxiety is the prospect of being inadequate for a roadside repair — you know, with a real toolkit (or a multi-tool, as the case may be).

Lezyne Rap 20 Large Tool
Before you try bike commuting, you must learn the name and purpose of each... Where did everybody go?

Back in DC, I couldn’t always count the ability to step to the curb and waive down a taxi within 30 seconds, so I had the numbers of my favorite taxi service already saved in my cell phone’s address book. I even had the cell phone number of my favorite driver. (Peter Asanga, a Cameroonian with a willing ear for my boring Peace Corps stories.)

Taxi Numbers in Cell PhoneWhen I moved to The Sticks (Flagstaff, Arizona) I eventually tried all of the local taxi services on the occasions when I couldn’t (or preferred not to) use a bike.

I stored them in my phone beginning with the word “Taxi” followed by the company name. (That way they are all grouped together alphabetically.)

One time when we had about eight people who needed to be shuttled to an event, and we only had a Toyota Corolla to carry them, I called a taxi. Easy. The numbers were already at hand — literally. When we arrived, we got some raised eyebrows. Wow! A taxi!

And I was thinking, It’s a taxi, not a freakin’ limo, you gol-dang hick.

(Speaking of taxis and Cameroon, eight people in a Corolla is nothing. That’s just the back seat.)

Even I forget about it sometimes. Occasionally I encounter a logistical conundrum, where I can almost hear my wife thinking, This is why we need a second car.

And I’ll be panicking, Think, Ted, THINK! If you don’t come up with something brilliant quickly, she’ll say it out loud! I know! TAXI!

I’ve flipped through many a book on biking, and many of them have a “Basic Mechanical Skills” section, which usually recommends that a new cyclist learn about pumping up the tires, fixing a flat, lubing a chain, etc.

I say screw that for now. Maybe forever. That’s why you have bike shops and/or friends with bike repair skills.

Something like 25 percent of Americans don’t know how to change a spare tire on a car. (I’m guessing that’s a low-ball estimate based on a poll which included people who are too ashamed to answer honestly on an anonymous survey that they don’t know how to change a spare). And of the 75 percent who supposedly can change a spare tire, a good chunk of them probably would only do it as a last resort. Some automakers don’t even include a spare tire anymore on some models. What does that tell you?

If mechanical cluelessness is not a barrier to driving a car, why should it be a barrier to riding a bike?

I do have the rudimentary skills and supplies for roadside repairs, and that gives me some peace of mind. But on a typical day, if I had to leave home without either my cell phone or my well-stocked saddlebag, I’d probably leave the saddlebag behind.

So if you are hesitant to try bike commuting because you don’t think you have the mechanical skills: hesitate no more. Have a someone competent check out your bike. If they try to teach you about maintenance, plug your ears, close your eyes and say Commute by Bike says that can wait!

Don’t forget your phone.

This phone thing was originally mentioned in “The Slackers Guide to Bike Commuting” — possibly my favorite of all the Commuting 101 posts.

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13 thoughts on “The Low-Skill Backup Plan”

  1. Janice in GA says:

    I’m the designated tire-changer for my family and my husband’s family when we’re all together. His family consists of him, his 3 brothers, stepdad, and mom. But I change the tires.

    I’ve stopped and helped strangers change tires before too.

    And I’m a 59 year old woman. O.o But my dad taught me well when I was young. 🙂

  2. Kevin Love says:

    I bicycle is far mechanically simpler than a car, and a good quality bicycle should never, ever break down.

    One example is my Pashley Roadster Sovereign, but other good brands like Batavus or Gazelle will be the same. My Schwalbe Marathon Plus puncture resistent tires have never got a puncture. Internal hub gears and internal hub brakes are maintenance-free and bombproof. These are all factory standard features on my bike. See:

    I’m a big guy, so mine is the large frame with the double top tube.

    Get a good bike, and never have a breakdown.

  3. mwmike says:

    I’ve completely worn out 4 sets of Conti Gatorskins and 2 sets of Specialized All Conditions without flatting. No Slime, no thick tubes, no patch kit, no pump – I love it.

  4. iambikeman417 says:

    I have commuted daily now for 13 years and have found that if you can change a bike tire that about all the skills you need I only carry a spare tube tire levers and a co2 inflater that is really all I have ever needed but it took several years to come to that conclusion slowly eliminating tools I didn’t use.

  5. Daniel says:

    Thats awesome. I just bought some Michlin puncture resistant tires and I’m looking forward to trying them out.

  6. Daniel says:

    Yeah bikes are simple machines and don’t take many tools to keep rolling. I let my bike shop pros take care of the major stuff but I always carry a patch kit, multi tool and chain breaker.


  7. BluesCat says:

    mwmike & Kevin – Y’know what that they say about how you’re tempting fate by bragging about how you haven’t had a flat? How you will be having a flat very shortly?

    The BluesCat will be paraphrasing the Cowardly Lion: “I do believe in flats! I do believe in flats! I do! I do!”

  8. My usual Plan B is public transportation, which is generally available where I live and work and bike. Google Transit makes finding the nearest stop much easier than it used to be. My other Plan B (when I need to haul people or stuff) is ZipCar, which makes it easy to get a car on the fly.

    Put enough miles on a bike and stuff will eventually happen, especially if you use a beater bike because of theft and tampering problems in your area. I’ve had derailleurs, pedals, cranks, chains and even a frame break during work commutes.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      My plan B is to patch the tire. But without consciously deciding, I’ve been riding without a patch kit all spring because I’ve been using my wife’s bike, and I live close enough to work that can push the in if I were to get a flat.

  9. Tim Sherman says:

    My bike tool, pump, and spare tube weigh one pound and two ounces. My cell phone weighs three ounces. I could lose two pounds and keep the repair stuff in the bag. My cell is always kept on my person in the case that I am somehow seperated from the bike.
    I just put new tires on a 2009 bike. I estimate the milage on the tires at a minimum of 5 to 6 thousand miles without a puncture flat. Tubes are the problem. The rubber at the stems wears out from pumping and weathering. I’ve found that the best tubes for commuting have a threaded valve with a locking nut. This keeps the rubber around the stem from being stressed while inflating. Without the locking nuts the tubes eventually leak slowly lowering the air pressure that requires more frequent inflating. What are the best quality tubes? With all of the ratings on bike stuff it is hard to find any advice on tubes. I need tubes that stay constant because I climb uphill on my commute home and am irritated with tubes that require more attention than brakes need for the downhill portion of my commute. Tubes?

  10. Joel says:

    I like the “Slackers’ Guide to Bike Commuting” advice on this website. I consider myself extremely mechanical but I try to never tempt fate by saying how well my bike is riding.

    I average 13 miles per day round-trip to my bus station about fifteen days per month. I have had no flats in nine months and I could fix one in about five minutes or less depending on how fast the adhesive cures and what type of air pump I have (small ones require A LOT of strokes!).
    My old bike is in very good shape but I agree with another poster about how some tampering goes on at bus stations (people sitting on your bike or force shifting gears without pedal movement). It is good to know rudimentary skills in order to save time.
    My car bike rack is light and prepared for my daughter or wife to rescue me in case of mechanical troubles on the commute. I even have a neighbor with a mini-van as an emergency standby.

    Cell phones are a game changer. Keep them charged and I am sure you will find a way to cope with a problem during your bike commute.

  11. Marcus says:

    Nice fun way to encourage people to ride your bike as a primary transportation. The taxi is a great back up plan. In medium size cities you can load your bike on a bus or some other sort of mass transit. Cheers

  12. listenermark says:

    “If mechanical cluelessness is not a barrier to driving a car, why should it be a barrier to riding a bike?” Hallelujah to that, anything to get more butts on bikes.

    I have also had great luck with Schwalbe Marathons. They last forever, handle well in the rain, and proven bulletproof for me.

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