Saturday, November 15, 2008

Depression Bicycling, Or How To Find Two Cheap Wheels

In my last post I described how I became a bicycle commuter, and the cost of the learning curve I experienced as I searched for what I consider to be the best and most reliable bicycle for a durable ride. My learning experience was pleasant and quite interesting for the most part, and I can remember the many hours I spent searching the Internet and doing research on the best type of bike for utilitarian transportation.

Such research and experimentation is almost always pleasant for those who have the time and money to engage in such activities. It is said that women enjoy shopping and men don't; however, I think that this statement is inaccurate. I believe that everyone enjoys shopping for things that are of personal interest. Thus one can find people who collect nice clothes and shoes, but one can also find people who collect hand tools, guns, books, guitars – and bicycles. (I never quite became a bicycle collector; I have bought only three bicycles since 2005, and have since sold one of them.)

I repeat: if one has the time, money and interest, researching and experimentation with various bicycles can be quite fun, and one can build up an impressive collection of complete bikes and spare components in the process of searching for the “dream” bike. But there is now a large and growing number of people for whom such a pursuit is entirely out of the question. These are the victims of the present slow-motion collapse of the American economy, people such as the employees of Circuit City, which recently filed for bankruptcy, or the employees of General Motors, which is on the deathwatch list right now, or employees of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, which are cutting jobs. Such people are now awaking or have been awaking over the last several months to find that a new and unexpected day has dawned on them, and that they have to make rapid readjustments. Bike commuting can help such people save money, but they need reliable, cheap and readily available bikes if bicycle commuting is to be a help in readjusting to a frugal lifestyle.

There are resources to help people who want or need to get quickly into bicycling on the cheap. One resource near where I live is the Citybikes Workers' Cooperative, located very near the downtown area of Portland, Oregon. I had the opportunity to interview a couple of their staff today, and I asked the following question:

Let's assume that there has been a sudden reduction in the amount of oil imported by the United States, a sudden spike in the price of oil and of petroleum products such as gasoline, a sudden worsening of the economy (perhaps a full-on crash), and a sudden lack of availability of foreign-made metal and rubber parts. Assume that all of these events happen at the same time. Let's also say that you live ten or fifteen miles away from where you work, and you wake up one morning to find that all these things have happened, and you have over $10,000 in credit card debt, a mortgage, and a gas-guzzling SUV, and your boss calls you in to his office and tells you that your company needs to cut your hours in half. Assuming that one of your first ideas for coping is to commute by bicycle in order to save money, what could you do to get on two wheels cheaply?

Tim Calvert of Citybikes had many things to say in response to my question. He began by pointing out the central role played by the bicycle in everyday life in Cuba shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba was deprived of inexpensive imported oil. He also mentioned Vietnam and its bicycle industry – an industry which builds incredibly simple, yet hard-wearing utilitarian steel-framed bikes which are used by the majority of the population. He suggested that the bicycle “culture” of Cuba and Vietnam might become widespread in the United States in the event of an extended and severe economic downturn.

He had the following suggestions for people who suddenly found themselves in the situation I outlined in my original question:

First, there are two ways to go when buying a bike. One can buy a cheap new bike from Wal-Mart, Target, Fred Meyer or Sports Authority for as little as $150.00. Or, one can search for a good cheap used bike. There are many sources for used bikes, such as classified ads, garage sales, Goodwill, the Salvation Army and Craigslist. A desirable bike will have a simple frame and be capable of carrying heavy loads. In Tim's opinion, it doesn't matter much whether the frame is made of aluminum or steel, as long as a person in economic difficulty can get his or her hands on a functional bike.

However, there are bikes to avoid. Tim warned against getting a bike with a suspension fork or any suspension components, since on an inexpensive bike, such components tend to break easily. Moreover, the suspension components make it hard to mount racks or baskets to the bike. Also, lightweight racers are a no-no (especially the carbon-fiber kind), since the act of riding such bikes day-in and day-out while carrying loads will quickly tear them up. The basic strategy, no matter what bike a person gets, is to get whatever you can with the limited amount of time and money you have, then simplify it.

When buying a used bike, invest in yourself as well. Specifically, learn basic maintenance up to and including the fixing of broken wheel spokes. The more a rider knows how to do for himself and the more he knows how to improvise, the less he will have to spend paying someone to fix his ride. Riders who learn maintenance should also invest in a handy set of tools. And speaking of wheels, one should get the strongest wheel and hub he or she can find, and the thickest tires. Thick tires may not be the favorites of the wanna-be racers, but in the event of severe economic troubles, rubber products may be quite scarce and thick tires will last a long time. (I remember a recent ride I undertook with a few people who had racing bikes and thin tires. They were easily able to go quite a bit faster than I could on my Surly LHT. But two of them got pinch flats during that ride, whereas I haven't had a flat in a few months (may the Lord continue to have mercy on me).) There are other tricks that can extend tire life, such as cutting the treaded middle from a tire that's worn out and using it as a liner inside a new tire. This increases the life of the new tire and reduces the likelihood of flats.

Baskets are good and handy, and can carry more cargo than most pannier bags. (I personally have seen many bikes equipped with plastic milk crates used as baskets and secured to bike racks with bungee cords or zip ties.) In a severe pinch, improvised racks can be made from a variety of materials, including wood and rope, if the need arises. Improvised bike trailers can also be easily fabricated.

But let's say that a person still has a job, yet has suddenly become aware of the precarious state of the economy and wants to prepare for hard times. Let's say also that bicycle commuting is a big part of that person's preparations, and that the person is willing to spend up to $500 toward getting a good set of wheels. Tim also had suggestions for persons in this category: first, get a bike that's comfortable and as strong as possible. A used steel non-suspension mountain bike is a good choice. Then equip it with fenders, racks and baskets. Next, buy tools and a good floor pump.

The last thing that Tim mentioned is that the homeless population in Portland (a significant portion of the total city population) is on the cutting edge when it comes to using bicycles as basic utilitarian transportation. They are the ones who display great inventiveness in building their own trailers, outfitting their bikes for comfortable long-distance journeys and hauling heavy cargoes by bike. One thing they don't do is to carry the small “portable” lightweight bike pumps sold in many shops, preferring to carry full floor pumps instead.

I talked next with John, another Citybikes co-op worker. His answers to my original question closely paralleled Tim's answers. He agreed that a person in sudden economic distress would do best by buying a used bike, especially if such a person did his own maintenance. He believed that in a sudden economic downturn, there would be shortages of tires and tubes, scrounging of used parts to make up for the unavailability of foreign-made new parts, the increased use of patched tubes and tires rather than throwing punctured tubes and tires away as is the case now, and an increase in the number of people who were interested in learning basic bike maintenance. A big part of bike maintenance of course is keeping one's bike out of the weather when it is not being ridden, and keeping its parts clean and well-oiled.

He also believed that a major economic downturn would hurt big manufacturers such as Giant and Trek, due to the fact that so many of their bikes are made overseas and shipped to the U.S. The failure of their business model would lead to the rise of more small-scale local American manufacturers. There are already some American manufacturers of components, whose products, while expensive, are very durable.

When it comes to frame materials, John believed firmly in steel, since it is much simpler to build a frame from steel tubing than from aluminum or carbon fiber. John had a very negative view of carbon-fiber components and carbon-fiber bikes, believing that such bikes cannot stand up to the rigors of daily use as utilitarian bicycles – especially if they must regularly carry large loads. (After my experience with a carbon-fiber seatpost, I must say that I agree with him.)

John agreed with Tim that a bike for hard times should be as simple as possible. This rules out disc brakes in his opinion, since they are expensive to fix and the brake rotors can be easily damaged. A good cantilever or linear pull brake is much simpler and more reliable. Also, friction shifters are simple, easy to fix and very long-lasting, as opposed to the expensive clicking “index” shifters popular nowadays. For night riding, a generator-powered set of lights would be ideal, as there would not be a need to purchase batteries. The generator for such a lighting system could be an inexpensive, tire-driven “bottle” type, such as the Busch & Muller Dymotec or something similar.

Like Tim, John also mentioned various inventive ways of setting up a bike to carry things, and he mentioned racks and homemade bike trailers. Citybikes also sells a product they call the “Bike Bucket,” a pannier container made out of a recycled detergent bucket. One can buy a Bike Bucket for $25 from them, as opposed to spending $75 to $100 for an Ortlieb pannier bag. Or, one can buy a used 5-gallon bucket and some hardware and make a “Bike Bucket” oneself.

John also had ideas for those who saw an economic collapse coming before it actually happened and who wanted to buy a bicycle as part of their preparations. He suggested that such people buy a steel-framed bike with cantilever brakes, double-walled heavy-duty aluminum rims, rear rack, and a seven or eight-speed rear cassette for those wanting a multi-speed bike. He did not recommend more than eight speeds for the rear cassette, since too many gears would make the drive train more fragile. He also suggested that such a bike be fitted with basic Shimano components, since if something broke, it would be easier to scrounge for a replacement. One bike that we both discussed is the KHS Urban-X, a steel-framed bike with many touring-specific features that is also quite inexpensive.

Both Tim and John provided very good advice for people who suddenly find themselves facing hard economic times and who choose bicycle commuting as part of their strategy for adaptation. One key that was common to the advice of both men is to get a simple, durable bike, and to stay away from lightweight, complicated racing machines. Unfortunately, the light/fast/racing culture is prevalent among many sellers of bicycles in the United States. I shall have more to say about this in my next post, where I discuss hindrances to bicycle commuting.

Hopefully my question and the answers that were given will be helpful to many people who are being forced to consider adaptive strategies for their own personal hard times. Below are some pictures from the interview. Enjoy!

Rear view of a "Bike Bucket"

A stack of "Bike Buckets" for sale

Here, John is refurbishing a used 1980's vintage Specialized steel mountain bike.

This is a picture of Tim next to his bicycle. He bought it used and customized it to fit his style of commuting. Note the "Bike Bucket" attached to the rear rack on the right side of the bike.


Xavier said...

Excellent article. Pawn shops are another source of bicycles. I acquired my Raleigh commuter bike from a pawn shop for $30.

Anonymous said...

BRAVO! Nice article. Sure would like to see more folks representing these ideas here in Eugene. I have had great luck at Revolution Cycles as they specialize in rebuilds and steel bikes. Cheers and keep up the good informative spread of information!