No Regrets: Good, Cheap, Bike Commuting Accessories

I used to buy really low-quality bike accessories for myself. I’d walk into a bike shop and I’d be that tragic combination of ignorance and sticker shock. So I would buy crap.

The tragedy is that back then I had more spending power than I do now — what with a mortgage and all that other grown-up nonsense.

Frank Sinatra - My Way
Regrets, I’ve had a few, but most of all, those cheap-ass headlights…

I still have a pair of cheap, wobbly, Novarra panniers from 1989 that I suspect I will never use again. They now have a garage-sale value of three dollars. (Sucker.)

I still have a small collection of crappy low-power bike headlights that I might hand out to the unlit Ninja wannabes I see all the time. Even though they’re crap, they’re better than nothing.

I still have a flimsy nylon handlebar bag that I bought from an army surplus store. Put anything at all in it and it bounces and dangles like a scrotum on a kangaroo.

Now that I know better, I can upgrade. But I find myself admiring these guys who say things like, “I’ve had these ‘Rollers for ten years and they’re good as new.”

Non, je ne regrette rien - Edith Piaf
Les paniers, sont payé, balayé, oublié… (click for a translation)

If I’d had that kind of foresight, I wouldn’t have to upgrade now — and I would have saved money over time.

Suppose you want to set up a newly-minted bike commuter with some quality equipment — even if that commuter is you. And suppose you were thinking of cost savings over time.

I took a look around the shop today and asked myself, What would I get if I was trying to save money but still get value and quality — and not just get the cheap stuff like I used to get out of ignorance and misguided thrift?

I’ve already done two Holiday Gift Guides for 2012 (the first one, and yet another one), and I have no intention of doing a third.

But this is kind of like a third one, and this is what I came up with:

Racktime Foldit Rear Rack

Racktime Foldit Rear RackThis rear rack is the worst of the best — the entry-level rack from Racktime, which makes some mighty fine racks at higher prices. It’s for running errands around town or for short bike tours. It’s not made of high-tech alloy, but it can carry 55 pounds and only weighs about 1.5 pounds. If or when you upgrade, it’ll be because you’ve become a snob, a weight weenie, or have a carrying need beyond the average bike commuter.

What I actually use: Racktime Addit Rear Rack — just a notch above the Foldit.

Vaude Roadmaster Rear Panniers

Vaude Roadmaster Rear PanniersThis, truthfully, is the product that got me thinking about writing this post. These are very, very, okay panniers. A few good pockets, and a shoulder strap for carrying them around off the bike. They come as a pair. They’re 100 times better than my old Novarras. They include raincovers. And unlike many low-cost panniers, they pop onto your rack in seconds with a QMR attachment system — which is so much nicer than standing on your knees dealing with hooks on the end of bungees.   God, I hate that.
$118.99 Currently on Sale for $84.99

What I actually use: Ortlieb Back Roller Classics Panniers

CygoLite Metro 300 / Hotshot 2W USB Rechargeable Light Kit

CygoLite Metro 300 / Hotshot 2W USB Rechargeable Light KitWith no accessory is my regret deeper than it is with cheap bike lights. If I could have back all the money I’ve spent on lousy lights and batteries, I’m sure I could buy this light set from Cygolite.

What I actually use: Light and Motion Urban 500 headlight, a Light and Motion Vis 180 Tail Light, a Busch & Müller Toplight Flat Senso Tail Light.

CygoLite Rack Mount Bracket for Hotshot

CygoLite Rack Mount Bracket for HotshotIf you are going to mount that Hotshot tail light to a rear rack, you will need this. And with the combo discount you basically get it for free when you buy it at the same time as the light set.

All that comes to just a hair over $200.

Carrying a Laptop with That?

If you want to put a cherry on top of that setup, consider a high-quality sleeve for your/their laptop or tablet. Any of these will fit inside of the Vaude Roadmaster, and they will protect that precious computer from any of the sharp, pointy, scratchy hazards you’ve put inside of the pannier.

Timbuk2 Full-Cycle Envelope iPad Sleeve

Timbuk2 Full-Cycle Envelope iPad Sleeve

For iPads and the like.

Chrome Tactical Laptop Sleeve

Chrome Tactical Laptop Sleeve

For small and medium laptops
Medium $29.99
Large $39.99

Timbuk2 Crater Sleeve

Timbuk2 Crater Sleeve

For small to large laptops.

What I actually use: an Ortlieb Notebook Insert

Disclosure: I picked stuff sold by my employer, because that’s what I know best — not that there’s not other good stuff out there.

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22 thoughts on “No Regrets: Good, Cheap, Bike Commuting Accessories”

  1. Kevin Love says:

    Of course, every commuter bike sold by reputable brands like Gazelle, Pashley or Batavus comes with all this stuff (except the panniers) as factory standard equipment.

    And, of course, made to a much higher standard. 55 lb capacity rear rack? All the above mentioned brands come from the factory with standard racks that have no problem carrying a passenger.

    Perhaps the problem is not with buying cheap, crappy accessories but with buying a cheap, crappy bike that does not come with decent accessories as factory standard equipment.

  2. Ted Johnson says:

    Good point, Kevin. But then there are those of us who come to commuting via recreation. It never would have occurred to me to until recent years, to buy a commuting and get-around bike.

    The commuting and getting around was always was always an add-on for other purposes for which I bought a bike. Even my old panniers were purchased for my first experiment in bike touring.

    The other problem (so I’ve been told) is that bike shops don’t like to sell bikes with lots of standard accessories because the margins are pretty good on those accessories as add-ons. The rack and lights I recommended above come to about $123. For a LBS, that’s about $50 in profit — and even more if they can get the customer to upgrade to fancier stuff. A bike with standard accessories denies the LBS employee the opportunity to work as much sales magic on the customer.

  3. chunk says:

    – Cheep lights… Check!
    – Handle-bar bag that hangs like… Yeah got a couple of them
    – squishy seat cover… Ouch
    – Racoon saddle bag… I should give that to the dog.

    When I look at my treasured collection of cheep accessories I’m suddenly in fear that I could be on next-week’s episode of “Horders.”

  4. Ray Lovinggood says:

    I’ve got the Cygolite HotShot tail light, but haven’t installed it yet. I need to make an adapter that will fit the rack mount to my bike. The problem is the factory-supplied rack on my Fuji “Touring”. With the Cygolite rack-mount installed, the tail light can’t be slid on and off the mount due to an interfering cross bar on the rack. Grrrr! I just need some simple extensions made so I can lower the rack mount by about a half an inch.

    I would also like another rack that would have the side bars mounted offset to the sides from the main top rack. This would be so I could hang the baskets on the side bars without interfering with the bag that is strapped to the rack.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Ray: This hardware set for $3.99 is meant for Planet Bike Tail Lights, but that L-shaped bracket would work with the Cygolite adapter. I just don’t know if it will work with your rack.

      Just an idea.

      Planet Bike Rack Hardware |  | Bike Tech Shop

  5. Alan says:

    Good post, thanks for the recommendations. I suspect the huge majority of commuters, like me, don’t just buy a high-end commuting bike with racks and lights ready to roll. They repurpose an existing bike to see how it works and if it’s practical to ride to work. This makes the most sense amid is actually what I recommend. Thanks again.

  6. Chris G says:

    Buy cheap buy twice.

  7. norm says:

    Thanks! This post is exactly the kind of thing I love to read here. Great post!

    Durability is critical to me, so I thought the fact that you have panniers older than all my graduated-from-college kids was kind of awesome, actually. But I guess they last forever if you don’t use them because they stink.

    That Cygolite combo is also on my lust list, but I’m again curious to know how well it holds up to the vibration and battering the daily commute imparts. Anyone used this unit for a while on bad roads? One problem I have with cheap, AAA powered lights (like planet bike blinkies), is that the bumps make the batteries come loose and can even actuate the button. Not good.

  8. Kyle says:

    There’s something special about a solid commuter that is set up for under $100

  9. listenermark says:

    Kangaroo scrotum…..lovely visual…..the name of my next band.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Can I be in your band? I play bass.

      Speaking of scroti, A couple of years ago I picked up a 45 RPM record at a local used book store by a band called Scrotum Grinder, just because I liked the name. I didn’t much like the music.

  10. BluesCat says:

    Boy, do I ever hear everybody on this subject of cheap vs. quality vs. sufficient vs. adequate vs. just-what-the-doctor-ordered!

    I started commuting on a close-to-bottom-line-model Giant hard tail mountain bike. I got the cheapest, rail-hook-and-bungee-hook panniers I could find and used them for years; even putting them on the “real” commuter bike I bought for over twice the amount I paid for the Giant.

    I dealt with dirt-on-the-knees and chain-grease-on-the-knuckles problems of removing these bags from the rack all those years … then I ponied up the dough, earlier this year, for a Vaude Egger Commuter Pannier with the QMR system. (I talked about it in my Tips from the Cycling Sloth article.)

    Yea, Brethren! I have seen the Light! No more cheap sh…er…STUFF for the BluesCat!

    It occurs to me: If we could get a hundredth of the money which goes into Big Oil subsidies redirected into subsidizing quality bikes and accessories for American bike commuters, we’d probably be energy independent in a few weeks!

  11. Ray Lovinggood says:

    I have a Cygolite 250 that provided great service and really nice light that you can see where you are going, but it recently needed a repair. The light is normally used on my daily commuter bike, but I was on the North Carolina “Mountains to Coast” seven day ride on the road bike and the light died with three more days to ride. At the end of the ride, I mailed the light back to Cygolite in California and they replaced a circuit board. Since the light was beyond its one year warranty, this cost me $15.00. They didn’t tell me why the circuit board died, but I will be a bit suspicious of possible water intrusion. There’s a usb charging port on the rear of the light that is normally sealed with a rubber plug. That plug had disappeared from my light months ago and I was keeping the port “closed” with some aluminum-backed duct tape. On the “Mtns to Coast” ride, we had four days of rain and I suspect some of that rain might have worked its way into the light. Just my opinion.

    Also, I noted the light no longer had a tight fit on the handlebar mount. Why? I suspect vibrations. Not from riding, but from the bike being on front of a city bus for 70 miles a day, five days a week. It probaby vibrates A LOT out in the 70 mph breeze for most of those 70 miles. It wasn’t so loose that I feared it would fall off, but it rattled when I rode the bike and just annoyed me. I used a rubber band to hold it tight.

    When I sent the light off for repair (they replaced the circuit board, but I didn’t ask them to do anything about the loose mount), I bought a new 400 lumen Cygolite. With it, I stick it in my pocket when I put the bike on the bus rack.

    How good is the 250 lumen Cygolite? I’ve ridden a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway with a couple of tunnels that are curved and long. Get in the middle of the tunnel where you can’t see either end AND IT IS DARK! But with the 250 Cygolite and my amber colored sun glasses, I could still see where to point the bike. Yea, I like the light and now I have two: the 250 and the 400. Also have the HotShot tail light, yet to be mounted.

  12. Tim Sherman says:

    We just made our last mortgage payment. The first thing I did was to go to the dealer and buy a new vehicle. A bicycle for winter is what I need. I have been riding it for three weeks. I made my choices based on my commute not on price. I took the combined knowledge of my trips and picked a bike and accessories that improved my commute during nasty weather. This bike is not as fast as my good weather commuter but is safer. Wider tires and fenders, brighter lights, a front shock, lower gears and hydaulic brakes make it easier to navigate cold rain and wind. My good weather bike is a commuter/road bike hybrid. My new winter bike is a commuter/mountain bike hybrid. Buy the good stuff and have more bikes. I ride an old Schwinn Typhoon to the grocery store. How cheap is that? What I’m trying to say is get multiple bikes for multiple puposes and buy accessories to match those trips safely. Spend boldly. Ride freely. Be seen.

  13. Joel says:

    I am very torn on this subject. My bike must reside at the bus station all day on a regular rack. I cannot afford to lose a quality name brand bike. I converted an old bike for commuter purposes. I added a rear rack, panniers, fenders, and quality lights. Over the past 16 months, I have slowly upgraded all of the mechanics (I am fortunate enough to easily perform any mechanical task myself)and now have a wonderfully reliable means to commute.

    A few extra pounds of weight does not bother me. My frames are old school, hard front and back (no suspension systems) and no bouncy seats. Suspension systems tend to absorb riding energy and create additional maintenance expenses. An occasional stretch on the pedals accommodates the few large bumps on my ride. I am in the process of recycling an older frame for a winter bike with studs (ice and snow) for next to nothing in cost. I have an extra wheels for front and back ready on in my garage for quick change out if I have a problem during my commute. This allows me to fix problems during the weekend.

    I will give a shout out to Cygolites (front and rear), Bell, and Planet Bike as well as Topeak racks and bags. They have worn well with no complaints. I love my Planet Bike ATB
    60mm fenders combined with an old 2 liter cut soda bottle to extend the front fender to the ground. Absolutely no road spray at all on the drive train.

    My favorite piece of riding apparel, an ANSI rated lime green reflector vest with over 180 square inches of 3M reflector tape front and rear with 50 square inches to each side, I never bike without it. I complete the ensemble with a lime green helmet cover with additional reflective tape. Looks geeky as hell but every car gives me plenty of room.

    Did I mention that I like to ride my bike?

  14. norm says:

    Thanks, Ray, that is a great review. You’ve got right to the heart of the matter. Can these things hold up to regular use? Sounds like these are a little better than the cheapies in that regard, but there are some concerns.

  15. Paul in N.W. Gorgia says:

    I started off buying cheap, but I found that dependable options are what I needed. It took a lot of brain twisting, but now I only buy the product that will allow me to safely and reliable commute, shop and fill other transportation needs.
    -Dynamo hub powered B&M lights
    -Racks that can carry at least 50 pounds
    -fenders that are full and take normal abuse
    -comfortable saddle
    -paniers that lock to rack and do not fall off
    -Bicycles and trailers for different needs

    I expect a bike to cost me around 1,500 to 2,000 dollars, including clothes that are comfortable to ride in and deal with rainy weather. People say I can buy a cheap car for that, but it wound not last 8 or 10 years and it will cost thousands more to run each year.

  16. I agree Ted. I wish I had the forsight when I first started bike commuting to know that I would love it. I would have gone ahead and purchased the Breezer Uptown 8, which basicly came with everything I needed for an easy commute, day or night. But the price, combined with my own uncertainty in my ability to commit, propelled me to a less expensive (thought very good) bike that I had to accessorize. Eventually, I upgraded and sold my original bike to another newbie.

  17. Tim Sherman, I also believe in multiple bikes for multiple purposes. I use my Brompton for trips that involve the rail and where I can store it in my office. My Breezer is for trips involving groceries or long rides. Plus, having a few extra bikes is great for those days when you discover you’ve got a flat tire or other mechanical problem you don’t have time to quickly manage or when you’ve got house guests.

  18. Eric W says:

    Cygolight Hotshot is holding up perfectly after 9 months on LA potholes after the PB superflash tailight left me in West Hollywood. Very secure clip mounted on the end of the rack, where there’s lots of vibration.

    I recommend a little ingenuity to anyone still using AA or AAA batteries. A small rubber band around the batteries will help keep them in place and reduce connection issues. And PB superflashes need addition help to keep them from separating into a clip and a battery/LED part. Use a big rubber band or a platic tie or something.

  19. Matt says:

    I made my own rack mount with a small piece of square wood, a piece of PVC, and a screw. I sanded the edges of the wood until it slid tightly into the PVC pipe, then screwed it to the horizontal piece of my rack. Looks like a short stubby white seat post. The regular seat post mount fits right on it, presto your done. Cost – a few minutes finding the stuff in my garage and making it, maybe 15 total.

  20. norm says:

    Santa was good to me this year and I was able to get the Metro 300 and Hotshot lights (I must have been on the *very* good list). The seat post mount for the Hotshot is excellent. The handlebar mount for the Metro is less so, and it’s definitely working itself loose with vibration. So I’m thinking some foam friction tape on the bars will help (slight taper on the bars might be the essential problem), and I will figure out how to put a small lock washer on the handlebar mount’s thumbscrew in case that’s what’s working loose. The Metro’s handlebar mount also has a rotating platform for left-right adjustment of the beam, which is neat, but I can’t figure out how to lock that down. Here’s hoping for some long life from these gadgets! And sayonara, AAAs!

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