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A Bike for All Seasons. The Birth of a Sport Utility Bike

I want a bike that will do it all.

I want a Sport Utility Bike.

I want a bike that’s comfortable enough to ride all day, sturdy enough to haul an overnight sack, big enough to fit a guy over six foot tall, and reliable enough to go months between tune-ups.

I’ve ridden full-suspension mountain bikes that are plush enough to handle the biggest drops. I’ve ridden minimalist track bikes that will tear cartilage and blow flats all day long. I’ve ridden beach cruisers that can be beaten daily without complaint. I’ve ridden road bikes that were fast on the hills but hard on the back and hands. I’ve ridden cargo bikes that can haul a toddler, a dog and a keg of beer. I’ve captained tandems and piloted pedicabs. I’ve been around the block more than once.

While all of those bikes were good in their own way, I need a Sport Utility Bike, a bike that I can ride on road and off, on both sunny summer days and drizzly winter nights, with gear and without. I need a bike that I can use for both delivering sandwiches around a flat, gridded college campus and for exploring backcountry Alaskan trails. I need a bike that is both sporty and practical.

Trailer-cycle
BikeShopHub author Kristen Bonkoski tags along with a Sport Utility Bike.

Like many of the writers here at Bikeshophub.com, I ended up with a hardtail mountain bike,  the SUVs of the bicycle world. Hardtail mountain bikes are incredibly rigid and reliable without the rear suspension of more expensive and complicated bikes. And, they are also adaptable to a multitude of purposes.

BikeShopHub author Matt Maynard adventuring on a Sport Utility Bike.

While many riders opt for a suspension fork up front, a rigid fork paired with a fat front tire can provide just as much comfort, with the added bonus of better traction from a wider footprint. Fat tires are less prone to puncture. They dampen the shock load for not only the rider, but for the bike as well. Less stress on welds, threads, and bearings means that components aren’t as likely to break and will last longer.

“This is not quite the bike you want.”  The standard issue Trek Procaliber mountain bike was not what the author wanted, with its flat handlebars, suspension fork, robot-built wheels and plastic saddle.

After breaking yet another frame with a lifetime warranty, I had an XXL  Trek Procaliber aluminum frame to build my dream bike around.  I installed my old favorites from a decade of Sport Utility Biking, with the help of my Local Bike Shop. Being a big guy who can fold mass-produced wheelsets with only a glance, I commissioned a custom set of wheels, hand-built by a grey-haired bike mechanic.

The King of the Hill. “The Beast” stands proudly atop the tallest snowbank in Tidewater Virginia. 

I dubbed my creation, “The Beast.” It’s the biggest, beefiest bike I’ve ever owned. A Surly Karate Monkey fork up front offers the simplicity of a rigid fork, the vibration dampening of steel, and the ability to mount fenders and racks around a tire twenty-nine inches tall and three inches wide. The Mavic 821 rims are nigh-invulnerable, and offer the flexibility of riding with tires from thirty five to seventy five millimeters wide (1.5″ to 3″). The Brooks Conquest saddle combines the suppleness of leather and the cushioning of steel springs. The Jones H Bar handlebars offer plenty of ergonomic positions for my big paws.  The Ergon GP3 grips offer a stable platform that buffers my wrists from both chatter and hits. The Shimano Deore XT M8000 shifters  pair with the Shimano XT M8000 brake levers into a reliable, tunable, minimal control station. The Shimano Deore XT 2×11 drivetrain offers enough gears to get up most any mountain and zip across any valley. Down the line, I’ll be installing detachable polycarbonate  fenders and carry-all front racks. HYPERLINK THIS TO CATALOG.

 

The Beast shall rise from the depths of the Green Room. I assembled my Sport Utility Bike at 757 Makerspace.

I have a history of breaking frames.  I bought my first 21″ aluminum Gary Fisher Rig circa 2005. A year later, I cracked the frame at the weld between the seat tube and the bottom bracket. But Gary Fisher frames are sold with a lifetime warranty, so I got it replaced with the same size frame. A year later, I broke that frame at the top of the seat tube. So I returned my second frame for the updated, “G2” design. While the new design was beefier, I still managed to crack the frame at the bottom bracket within a couple of years. I repaired my bike with a composite lug, using the skills I had learned to build bamboo bicycles at the Brooklyn Bamboo Bike Studio. And sure enough, I cracked the frame again, just below the seatpost collar, which I repaired and rode again. While competing in the Tidewater Mountain Bike Challenge, a fellow racer suggested that I return my frame for a new, unbroken one, and then upgrade it with a composite lug beforeit breaks. Sometimes the simplest solutions are never seen. I took his advice to heart, and before I ever pedaled The Beast, I wrapped the bottom bracket in synthetic paracord, polyurethane foam and epoxy. Combined with the latest design advances, I’m confident that I’ll be able to ride The Beast for at least five years without breaking it.

The Beast stands taller than your average five-year-old.

One bike to rule them all,

One cause to bind them,

One man to find them all,

And in the darkness bind them.

Living the dream. Author Wesley Cheney delivers freaky fast sandwiches in the treacherous unplowed bike lanes of tidewater Norfolk, Virginia.
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Rolling Recumbent Part 2: Neuroplasticity and You!

“You can laugh at them now, Wesley,” my biking buddy Liz had told me a decade ago on a group ride, “But someday youre going to be one of those old guys on a recumbent.”

Well, that day has come. I’m a certifiably older, slightly goofy guy on a recumbent. On my first sandwich delivery of the day, the front fork on my favorite touring bike had cracked, folded and failed. I crashed in the middle of a brand new bike lane, and dislocated my shoulder. After I crashed I dragged my bike to a light post one-handed, locked it up, and walked the remaining block to make the delivery. I got a ride back to my car and drove myself to the emergency room for an $800 relocation session. I was achingly aware that I needed a way to keep pedaling, keep working my job and keep buying groceries. As soon as the Percocet and Advil had kicked in, I had texted my shade-tree bike engineer buddy, Byron, who builds and flips recumbent bicycles out of a trailer park by the Great Dismal Swamp. “Byron, I need a recumbent, fast. It’s gotta be comfortable and it’s gotta have some cargo capacity. Waddayagot?”

The BikeE was an attempt to mass produce and mass market recumbents. Unfortunately it succeed.
Nice try, but no ROI: The BikeE was an attempt to mass produce and mass market recumbents. Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed, due in no small part to the puny front wheel, which made handling squiggly, and amplified potholes.

I had ridden recumbent bicycles before, in one fashion or another. My mom had bought a BikeE recumbent in hopes that it would help her carpal tunnel syndrome. I had taken it for a brief ride, but being almost a foot taller than her, I didnt really fit the BikeE. My mom never adapted to the handling of her recumbent and found it cumbersome to transport, and ended up selling it. Several years ago I had built a tandem tow tricycle for a bicycle parade, which I had piloted in a relaxed, foot-forward, beach cruiser position.

The Tandem Tow Trike, aka T3, aka Frankenstein. Big enough to haul a small trailer in a Christmas parade for Bike Norfolk. Pilot: Wes Cheney. Stoker: BC Wilson.
Freaky, but not fast: The Tandem Tow Trike, aka T3, aka Frankenstein. Big enough to haul a small trailer in a Christmas parade for Bike Norfolk. Pilot: Wes Cheney. Stoker: BC Wilson. Top Speed: 10kmh @ 150rpm.

As it turned out, my buddy Byron had just the bike I was looking for. The vinyl shed next to his mobile home was a cycling pack rats haven: wheels and forks and frames shared space with a drill press, an oxyacetylene welder, and a truing stand. Byron showed off just the bike I’d had my heart set upon ten years ago, when I thought the pain in my hands would force me off my touring bike: a Burley Canto, circa 2002.

My new, old ride: a secondhand Burley Canto short-wheelbase recumbent bicycle.
My new, old ride: a secondhand Burley Canto recumbent bicycle.

Made in Oregon by a worker-owned company, the Burley Canto combined a beefy steel frame with standard, stock Shimano components. The asymmetrical tires, 26″ in the back and 20 in the front, allowed for a reasonably upright position. The frame extended past the bottom bracket to a second steering tube, allowing the Canto to be converted from a Short Wheel Base (SWB) to a Long Wheel Base (LWB). The longer the wheelbase of a bicycle, the plusher the ride. And conversely, the shorter the wheelbase, the more agile the handling. This is why beach cruisers arent nimble and BMX bikes arent smooth. Byrons Burley Canto was set up in SWB, and the handling was different, if not disconcerting.

I felt like I was riding a Lazy Boy welded atop a BMX bike. The handling was quick, but my feet were disconcertingly right in front of me. I was staring at my feet turning circles. My coordination was all off. I dumped it. I jumped off and ran it out a couple more times before I figured out how to launch, and then land, a recumbent. Learning to ride a recumbent was like learning to ski or skate. It was an exercise in neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to create new networks of neural connection, or learn. During childhood, the brain is constantly doing this. But in adulthood, the brain creates fewer new networks and relies on preexisting networks. It’s easier to learn to ride a bike or play the piano as a child than as an adult.

Attention DIY'ers: Rewire your own brain!
Attention DIY’ers: Rewire your own brain!

“It’s like watching a toddler stumble around,” a studio mate had remarked as I wobbled in figure eights in a parking lot. But after ten or twenty hours of riding, I felt basically proficient: I didn’t fall over at most traffic lights. I could ride down a curb. My launches and landings were mostly smooth. I could ride down a sidewalk without crashing into shrubbery. I was creating new neural networks. Just as with my upright bikes, the more I rode, the better I got.

Wear a good pair of hiking boots the first time you take a recumbent for a ride, and ride somewhere soft. If you dont like sharing your awkwardness publicly, stay away from parks. Riding a recumbent requires a similar, but different, set of skills than riding an upright “normal” bike. Your brain and body know how to balance a bike, but the body language that you are used to using doesnt apply the same. The center of gravity on a recumbent bike is lower, while the center of effort is both higher and farther from the center of gravity; On an upright bike, you stand over the pedals. It feels natural for your feet to move underneath your hips. It is an intuitive balancing act that some riders can extend into track stands, where their bike remains horizontally motionless but balanced.

Dont be surprised if you “run it out” the first time you hit the front brakes hard on a recumbent. Most upright bikes have more weight over the rear wheel than the front. That’s what makes wheelies possible.

Your recumbent can't do this... Due to the geometry of most recumbents, wheelies are impossible.
Your recumbent can’t do this… Due to rigid seatbacks, wheelies are impossible on recumbents.

On a recumbent more of the riders weight is on the front wheel, and with a short wheelbase bike the riders feet will be in front of the front wheel. A fistful of front brake on an upright bike will launch a rider over the handlebars and onto the
ground. But a fistful of front brake on a recumbent will just launch a rider upright, to land on their feet and run off their extra momentum. Low-speed accidents on a recumbent are more likely to harm a riders pride than their skin. Recumbents can stop remarkably fast, and skilled riders will “pop up” dramatically at the last second as the bike halts, transforming forward momentum into standing upright.

As with all my bikes, my Burley didn’t stay stock for long. I swapped out the handlebars and pedals, added a rear rack, fenders, old school thumb shifters, a front disc brake, and most importantly, upgraded the front wheel. The tires that originally came on my Burley were skinny and bald. They tended to twitch on cracks and debris. I found it all but impossible to ride over curbs with just a 20″ front wheel. I had on old 26″ suspension fork lying around from another project, as well as a disc brake and a decent 26″ front wheel. It took me a couple of hours to install a new front fork. The taller fork and wheel raised my reclining angle even further to the back. But after having ridden a recumbent for a couple of weeks, I had become more dexterous and confident, so the further adaptation wasn’t too challenging. The now symmetrical tires made the bike more stable in turns at all speeds. The handling was more natural and akin to my “real” bikes.

Behold, The Jimmy Bike:

“Quick, Robin, to the Jimmy-mobile!”
The backside cargo box has space for five drinks and a dozen sandwiches. That's enough to feed a hungry board of directors.
The backside cargo box has space for five drinks and a dozen sandwiches. That’s enough to feed a hungry board of directors.

The flat, sea-level street grid of Norfolk, Virginia makes for fast riding on a recumbent. Along the south edge of Old Dominion University campus is a long, wide street with two radar speed signs. On my fully-loaded Burley, I’m routinely clocked by the radar sign at 21mph. I get paid to ride” freaky fast,” and tipped in cash. On my recumbent, I’m living proof that neuroplasticity pays.

The Bicycle Courier.
“The Bicycle Courier.”

Don’t Miss Rolling Recumbent Part 1!

Wesley Cheney bikes for family, fun, profit and necessity in Norfolk, Virginia. He writes about bikes and kilts at Foto by Wes and (re)builds bamboo bikes and bamboo kayaks at 757 Makerspace. When he is not delivering sandwiches for Jimmy Johns on his bicycle, he aspires to earn (another) Bachelors in Music Education at his alma mater, Old Dominion University. Wesley loves leather saddles, full fenders, helmet-mounted lights and mirrors, platform pedals, front racks, double kickstands, and vintage friction Suntour Command shifters. He warbles on a flugelhorn, sings bass in the choir of Christ and Saint Luke’s Church, and studies ukulele under the amazing Skye Zentz.

 

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Bikes at War Part Two: The Great War

This is the second post of our 6 part series, Bicycles at War.

Part 1 Boers on Bikes

Part 3 The Bikes of WWII

Part 4 How the Bicycle Won the Vietnam War

Part 5 The Swiss Army Bicycle

Part 6 Bikes in the Cold War and Beyond


Adolf Hitler was a bike messenger? Yes, indeed. And a decorated one, at that. But more on that later.

The Fantastic Charge of the Light Brigade: Albert Robida's 1883 illustration of life in 1950s France.
The Fantastic Charge of a Light Brigade: Albert Robida’s 1883 illustration of future warfare.

If the Great War had been fought in accordance with the fantasies of armchair generals, then the bicyclist would have replaced the doughboy as the symbol of gallantry and heroism. Sadly, the war devolved to trenches, and bicycles, like horses, were relegated to the backlines.

Under Pressure: Commonwealth cyclists fix their bikes amidst a barrage.
Under Pressure: Commonwealth cyclists fix their bikes amidst a barrage (probably photographed during training).

Traditionally, mounted soldiers fought from atop their mounts. But ever since the invention of gunpowder, advances in military technology meant that massed infantry, with dedicated artillery support, could more and more easily hold their own against charging cavalry. The value of a horse in combat became less than its value in transporting the combatant, and correspondingly the vulnerability of a horse in combat became greater. Pragmatic generals recognized that it was better to move soldiers quickly on horseback, but then have them dismount before engaging in combat. These mounted infantrymen were a hybrid of the traditional cavalry and infantry, and were named dragoons, after the dragon-shaped firearms they carried in the French army. Dragoons in the 19th Century were the equivalent of airborne infantry in the 21st Century: they moved quickly on the battlefield, secured objectives by stealth and speed, and relied upon more heavily armed units to back them up.

A Few Smart Men Wanted for The London Cyclists Battalion.
A Few Smart Men Wanted for The London Cyclists Battalion. Ironically, the London Cyclists were sent to India without their bicycles, while Sikh troops were sent from India to the Western Front with bicycles.

Going into the Great War, the European powers had organized bicycle corps for three different roles; scouts on bicycles would move quietly and report back on the position of the enemy, the disposition of the terrain, and occasionally skirmish. Secondly, bicycle messengers would convey dispatches from the front line to the headquarters, and back. Finally, infantry mounted on bicycles would move quickly to exploit weaknesses uncovered by scouts, or be held in ready reserve to react quickly and shore up a defense. While not as traditionally glamorous as serving in the cavalry, bicycle infantry were popularly seen as the progressive vanguard of the 20th Century.

German Bicycle Infantry prepare to go to the front.
Achtung! German Bicycle Infantry prepare to go to the front.

As it was, the first season of fighting remained relatively fluid, with the German armies rushed through neutral Belgium in a flanking attack. The bicycle was a vital part of the rapid advance. Hordes of cyclists preceded the invading German columns, scouting ahead of the main group, seizing bridges, railheads and crossroads, and laying telephone lines. The Belgian and French responded in kind, as bicycle units conducted raids behind the German lines to blow up bridges, sever communication lines and attack supply lines. Stories abound of stealthy cyclists on both sides hearing cavalry approaching, and then dismounting, hiding, and ambushing them. Time and again brave bike scouts rushed back under fire to inform their advancing units that they were marching into a trap.

Wanted: A Few Good Bike Trailers. A British illustration of bicycle infantry advancing under fire, and towing a machine gun.
Wanted: A Few Good Bike Trailers. A British illustration of bicycle infantry advancing under fire, and towing a machine gun.

When the Colonials of Canada organized in 1914, five Cyclist Battalions were formed from the volunteers. They were trained as scouts and light infantry. They envisioned fighting a rearguard action against the advancing Germans, delaying the enemy whilst their Commonwealth brothers-in-arms retreated. However, by the time the First Contingent disembarked in St. Nazaire, France in February of 1915 the front lines had frozen, along with the muddy trenches. The Canadian boys rode their bicycles to the front, but dismounted and huddled in the mud alongside the rest. For the most part, the Canadian Cyclist Battalions were engaged in regular infantry duties, and only occasionally as messengers at the general headquarters. But, three years later, during the final Hundred Days Offensive, the Canadian Cyclists came into their own at the Battle of Amiens. Bicycle-mounted troops were able to keep up with the advancing tanks. And most notably, the first Allied soldier to cross the Bonn River into Germany was a Canadian cyclist.

Advance of the Bicycle Battalion.
Advance of the Cyclist Battalion. Muddy roads and skinny tires made for long slogs dismounted & walking.

As the war dragged on, the French bicycle unit were disbanded and the men sent to bolster other units already “decimated” on the front lines.* In the view of German Major Rudolf Thiess, this was a strategic error. A decade after the war he wrote Die Radfahrtruppe, or “The Bicycle Troops,” an analysis of the use of bicycles in the Great War by both sides. While the Germans maintained, and even expanded their bicycle units, the French did not, depriving the French of a quick-response reserve. In Thiess’s view, bicycle units should not merely be maintained, but also expanded. His view was prescient, as the German advance, and retreat, of the Second World War would depend greatly upon bicycles.

German bicycle infantry prepare to advance.
Out of the Woods: German bicycle infantry prepare to advance.

New analysis notwithstanding, the first Allied soldier of the Great War killed by enemy fire has traditionally been held to be Private John Parr, a Bri
tish reconnaissance cyclist who was killed while providing covering fire as his squad mate escaped from German cavalry in Belgium. But regardless of who killed John Parr, or where, one bicycle messenger of der Weltkrieg is more (in)famous than any other: Adolf Hitler.

The most infamous draft-dodging, conscientious objector, bicycle messenger you never knew you knew: Gefreiter Adolf Hitler.
The most infamous draft-dodging, conscientious-objecting bicycle messenger you never knew you knew: Gefreiter Adolf Hitler, Radfahrer bis Regiment.

Hitler is not often remembered as a conscientious objector or a draft dodger. But he did not want to be conscripted into the Austrian army, which in his words was a mixture of races, and at the age of 24 Hitler left his native Austria for neighboring Bavaria. He was deported back to Austria by the Bavarian police, where he failed an army physical exam, and he returned to Munich to paint landscapes barely fit for postcards. A 1924 Bavarian government report concluded that Hitler was allowed to join the Bavarian Army in error. As an Austrian citizen he should not have been allowed to enlist, and but rather deported. Regardless, by the end of the First Battle of Ypres, Hitlers regiment had been reduced to 600 men, from the original 3,600. Hitler was promoted from Schtze (Private) to Gefreiter (Corporal), and assigned to the post of Radfahrer bis Regiment (Regimental Bicyclist.) It was as a bike messenger that Hitler would earn two Iron Crosses, as documented by Ancestry.com, and one of his Iron Crosses was at the recommendation of a Jewish officer. Ironically though, as another blog has pointed out, Hitlers experience on a bicycle did not stop the Nazis from passing legislation to ban bikes from roads in favor of cars

While serving as a regimental bike messenger, Adolf Hitler earned two Iron Crosses.
Gefreiter Adolf Hitler, Fahrrader bis Regiment. While serving as a regimental bike messenger, Adolf Hitler earned two Iron Crosses.

Unfortunately, Hitler’s enamor of the automobile did not fit with Germany’s resources. Without the oilfields of Armenia and Azerbaijan, let alone Texas and Oklahoma, the Third Reich had to depend upon synthesizing coal for almost 80% of its liquid fuel. It was the bicycle therefore that made the Blitzkrieg advance possible, and bicycles that allowed the Wehrmacht to retreat. But more on that next month in Part Three of this continuing series.

 

Wesley Cheney bikes for family, fun, profit and necessity in Norfolk, Virginia. He writes about bikes and kilts at Foto by Wes and (re)builds bamboo bikes and bamboo kayaks at 757 Makerspace. When he is not delivering sandwiches for Jimmy Johns on his bicycle, he aspires to earn a BM in Music Education at his alma mater, Old Dominion University. Wesley loves leather saddles, full fenders, helmet-mounted lights and mirrors, platform pedals, front racks, double kickstands, and vintage friction Suntour Command shifters. He warbles on a flugelhorn, sings bass in the choir of Christ and Saint Lukes Church, and studies ukulele under the amazing Skye Zentz.

 

*Being a nitpicker, the author would like to point out that the literal and original meaning of “decimate” is to reduce by one tenth, not one half, and certainly not 90%.

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2010 NAHBS : Ant Bike, Mike Flanigan Short Film

The man behind Ant Bike, is Mike Flanigan. A great guy that was the original person to introduce me to great looking “utility bikes.” It was the summer that I was running a shop in Bedford, MA. I met Ant Bike Mike through the internet and one day he rode his lovely bike over to Bedford to meet me. His bike, and his personality were two things I will never forget. It made me excited to see what else he had up his sleeve, as well as excited to try this utility/commuter/day trip type of bike. Prior to meeting him I rode various bikes for commuting, but never anything perfect. Ranging from cyclocross, to fixie and true road, none of them were perfect.. I think my closest “perfect” bike that isn’t custom built would be Salsa Casseroll that I love so much.

Thank you Mike Flanigan, and I look forward to seeing you again in a few weeks at NAHBS.