This is a really dumb pet peeve of mine, but one nonetheless: fixed gear bikes are not the same as single speed bikes. The experience of riding them is also very different.

Single speed bikes have exactly one gear combination; they ride the same as a gear bike but without shifting (imagine your bike got stuck in the 6th or 7th speed of 10: you’d be riding single speed). The benefit of this over a gear bike is lighter weight, better power transfer (because of a straighter chainline), and simplified maintenance. These are well suited to city riding, as you don’t do a lot of shifting anyway. (Or if you do, you could probably do fine without it.)

A fixed gear bike is a single speed in which the back wheel does not turn independently of the pedals. Therefore, you could ride it backwards; the pedals are always moving and transferring power between the wheel and and your legs. The maintenance on this type of bike is a wee bit less than a single speed (no freewheel means one fewer moving part), however it is cultish because it’s a totally different riding experience than a bike with a freewheel; you can immediately feel the responsiveness of the road surface and of the bike.

As an aside, Sturmey Archer makes an internal hub which rides fixed, but has 3 gears. It ruins the purity of the fixed gear bike, but sounds pretty fun to try out.


Easy ride, felt a little cold at the beginning, but I warmed up nicely.

Temperature: 33

Road condition: Dry, but some salt and sand from this weekend still around

Clothing: heavy winter jacket, Timberland shoes, Portland Design Works EVO bike gloves (I lost one of my wool gloves!), messenger bag

Comfort: Worked perfectly! I like the PDW EVO gloves I am using: they have a little vinyl mittens shield that folds down for wind protection. That part is a little light, though, and is getting kind of shredded from the ferocity of my grip.

(For those wondering, I took the day off work yesterday, so there was biking, but no commute.)

Edit: I looked down at my palms later and realized the gloves were EVO, not PDW. Thanks hubcyclist!

Today I’m going to follow up on my previous “Carrying Things” post by talking about big, bulky items. You know, the kind that don’t fit in yours, or anyone else’s bag, such as two weeks of laundry, a CSA share, another bike, or large packages of paper towels. These are the kinds of things I move with alarming frequency with the bike. The only practical way I’ve found to do it is with a front rack (I use a Cetma rack). Other methods, such as a back rack (a device created solely to eject cargo from your bike), or balancing on your handlebars (hard to steer when your arms are busy with other things) aren’t up to snuff. Good alternative I haven’t tried are a bucket bike (bakfiet), basket, or a trailer. Is anyone else moving moderately sized things with their bike?

Weather Today

It was a little warm today, beautifully sunny, but actually shockingly comfortable.

Temperature: 35 degrees

Road condition: Dry

Clothing: Heavy winter coat, Timberland shoes, messenger bag

Comfort: Tiny bit warm, easily solved by removing my gloves


Tires; Cool and Dry

February 9th, 2012

There are many kinds of tires; they vary in width, tread, puncture resistance, tubeless or tubed, and accessories. Road racers tend to ride very narrow tires (23 or 25 mm width) and with little to no tread; commuters and bike tourers ride wider tires (28 to 35 mm, sometimes higher) with some tread; mountain bikers ride wide tires (2 inches and up) with moderate to gigantic tread. Almost without exception, in snowy winter road riding, you can get away with a treaded tire, although studs give you the maximum level of safety. I have some 35mm aggressive tread tires which worked wonders last year in the snow, however, they’re useless on trails. I’d love to report on studs, but there’s yet to be any ice or snow worth its salt (har har) this year.

As a transportation biker, the most important thing to me is reliability, which means not having to stop for a flat. I always buy the more expensive tires (around $40 each), which have a Kevlar strip to resist punctures; once the tire tread starts showing little tears and becomes soft (the tire seems to absorb any sand or salt on the road), the its life is almost over. When I’ve gotten a few flats in a short period, then it’s time to replace it. However, the benefit of using these tires is that I get a flat once every six months or so; on my fixed gear bike, I realized recently I haven’t touched the wheels in over a year (granted, it gets less use now that it’s not my commuter).

Despite their reliability, I still carry (and know how to use) a flat fix kit. Most of the time it just takes up space at the bottom of my bag.


It was a very easy day of riding. I was wearing a suit today (and the weather isn’t crummy!) so I took the commuter, which was an unwelcome change, although I fixed the shifting and cleaned the chain, so it was a very smooth ride.

Temperature: 33 degrees

Road condition: Dry

Clothing: Heavy winter coat, rain pants (gotta keep those suit pants clean), Timberland shoes. I had the suit jacket in my panniers, if you’re wondering.

Comfort: It was noticeably warmer on the ride, and I had to go slow up the Longfellow Bridge to stay cool.

Cold and Dry; Quick Release

February 6th, 2012

Today may not have been colder, but I did leave much earlier than usual. The temperature was 26 degrees, and there was nothing else notable about the weather or road conditions – it was chilly on my face, but the riding quickly warmed me up. I certainly got into work faster without dodging all of those pesky cars. The ride made me realize how rarely a city cyclist goes without having to stop, turn, merge or dodge, as I did almost none of those things this morning. (That’s right, at 7 am not only is the traffic light, but you can go through buildings and ride on the water. Pretty sweet!)

Clothing: Heavy winter jacket, wool gloves, waterproof shoes.

I have developed a(nother?) pet peeve: quick release. I like them just fine, but I’m pretty sure upwards of 90% of bikers have no idea how to use them. I can actually say that with confidence because up until a few months ago, I had no idea how to use them. Neither did my sister: she once had her front wheel fall off while riding because of an improperly installed quick release.

Wrong way: Use the lever at the end to tighten them. When you have it good and cinched, then you’re good.

Wrong way: Tighten it down all the way with the lever open, then struggle to close it up. Use tools or get a hernia if necessary.

Right way (about halfway down the page): With the lever pointing straight out, tighten the nut until everything is snug and not droopy. Close the lever with it angled in a direction it won’t get caught on anything.

In looking for a guide on this, I think every guide on the internet has a “right way” and a “wrong way” to close your quick release. You’ve been warned.

Warmer and dry; Chains

February 1st, 2012

Today is supposed to be very warm, so I scaled down from the winter coat to a sweater plus rain jacket. I won’t repeat myself on how the fixed gear causes me to run warmer than usual, but today was another case in point of overheating. The temperature wasn’t actually so high – 37 degrees – but it sure felt warm.

Clothing: Light sweater, waterproof windbreaker, waterproof shoes, messenger bag. Light cotton (?) biking gloves.

If you canvas ten bicycle-inclined people and ask them about maintenance, nine of them will talk about the chain (and the other one will be clever). It bears repeating that if you do any of the following things, you need to clean and oil your chain at least once a month, and probably more often.

1. Ride your bike more than twice a week

2. Ride in rain or snow, even once

3. Store your bike outside

4. Ride off road

As regular transportation cyclists, we all see, and then hear, those bikers who are crawling along, straining their muscles to go five miles an hour, the bike shrieking as though in pain, and the chain recently dredged from the hold of the Titanic. We love to blog about them. I really wanted to make pamphlets to hand to bikers inching up the Longfellow Bridge in spring explaining how to do it (if anyone’s interested, I have other informational ideas, although the whole medium of unsolicited advice is a little obnoxious).  I’ll resist the desire to say more, except, clean your chain!

Cool and Dry; Tires

January 31st, 2012

Today was another uneventful winter commute. Dry ground (save the open fire hydrant on Cambridge Street in Beacon Hill), high 30s, nothing special to report. I took the fixed gear today because the forecast was nice. The lack of fenders (see, they’re useful even in fair weather!) made me nervous for my clothing through the aforementioned water on the street.

Clothing: Heavy winter coat, wool gloves, waterproof shoes. No rain pants; messenger bag.

True to form, the fixed gear made me ride harder than usual (I love the way it pushes you up hills!) and the messenger bag constricted me a little. I managed to break a sweat.

I haven’t pumped my tires the entire month. This is a luxury you have in the winter: air escapes much more slowly when the temperature is below 50 degrees. (I’m sure it has something to do with the rubber becoming more porous, but that’s a tire engineer’s concern.) In the summer, if you aren’t pumping the tires once per week, then you feel as though you’re riding on a wet sock.

The reasons to stay on top of tire pressure are for performance (avoiding “wet sock” syndrome) and for “pinch flat” prevention. I also think that tires which are generally puncture resistant (from road debris) also perform better at higher pressure as they can scatter the debris as you ride instead of flopping down on its sharp edges.

Cool and Clear; Bright Lights

January 30th, 2012

Although there were flurries when I woke up this morning, it was dry and clear when I actually left for work. A little wind and 37 degrees.

Clothing: Heavy winter coat, light biking gloves, waterproof shoes.

On my mountain bike, I carry a very bright light in case I get caught on the trail in the dark. While that didn’t happen this weekend, I did end up riding that bike home after dark, so I used it (in flashing mode) on the road. Wow, what a difference bright lights make. Normally, cars are aware of you with a bike light; with a super bright and flashing light, some actually get out of the way. On College Ave in Davis Square, I actually had a car move toward the center of the lane so I could get by more easily.

I can’t wait do get my home-made dynamo light out there: it is rated at 4 times the intensity of the “bright” mode from my mountain bike.

Wet, wet, wet; More Fenders

January 27th, 2012

I knew it was dreary outside when I left, but within five minutes it was an outright downpour. As I was waiting at a light (with three cyclists behind me, mind you), the next person in line says to me, “If I had known it would be like this, I would have taken the bus.” I scanned over his bike, a mountain frame with wide tires, and noted, “No fenders, huh?”

I first understood the need for fenders in wetter weather than this. It was fall and I had ridden to my dad’s house without sight of rain, and only a light fall coat for protection. On the trip home (late, perhaps midnight), the rain was just straight downpour; the bike sent a gritty spray of sand up my back and also into my face. The bearings in the chain received a very heavy sludge that slowed my riding despite my desire to get home as soon as possible. I later found sand inside my pants.

Needless to say, I bought fenders the next week and have never regretted it for a second. Only much later, in a different heavy downpour I was compelled to ride through did I learn the value of proper rain attire, but that’s a story for another time.

Today’s ride went quickly because it was engaging: 43 degrees and water cooling on my face kept my body temperature down while I steered around relatively heavy traffic.

Clothing: Same as yesterday, heavy winter coat, wool gloves, rain pants, waterproof shoes. I got some water running down my socks, and that annoying “is everything inside my coat wet?” feeling, but it wasn’t. I did wish I had a hood today, though. I was so drenched my coworker thought I looked like a character from a horror movie.

Spring Is Here (?); Bags

January 24th, 2012

I should announce in advance any time I have to wear a suit to work: it is highly correlated with weird weather. Often it’s a heavy storm or cold snap, but today it appears to be freakishly warm (46 degrees this morning).

Technically, wearing a suit is no different from wearing other clothing. However, for me it adds a few complications: the jacket (what to do with it, as it’s long and sticks out of coats), cleanliness (you don’t want to get grit or slush on that bad boy), and the shoes (I usually leave my shoes at my desk). If this were most any other season, I might consider just wearing everything. Since this is the Dirty Season (winter to the lay person), I wear my rain pants, any coat, my normal bike-to-work shoes, and pack the jacket and shoes in panniers.

Clothing: Rain jacket, rain pants, waterproof shoes. No gloves.

I got a little warm riding in despite the light clothing. The key is airflow. I already had the tie knotted, and the shirt tucked in; the rain clothes add extra constriction. However, the biggest factor that kept me from getting actually sweaty was the bag. Any kind of bag on your body (whether two strap backpack or a messenger bag) will effectively increase the temperature by at least 10 degrees. The reason is airflow, for two reasons. The first is that there’s no air whatsoever under the straps: your body tries to remove heat, and so it sweats and nothing can escape. This ends up soaking your clothing in weird patches. Second, the straps obstruct any air from circulating between your skin and the openings in your clothing (around your neck, arms, and maybe lower back), which raises your overall temperature. If I want to arrive someplace presentable, I go for panniers.

Since I’m recommending them, I’ll go ahead and say that most any pannier will work. I have Axiom Typhoon LX panniers because that’s what the store had when I urgently needed a bigger bag the night before leaving on a touring trip. (It turns out the saying is true that you will fill whatever size bag you have, however.) They’re dry bag style, totally waterproof, and a giant sack. That’s not ideal because whatever you need is inevitably on the bottom of the sack, however the waterproof property and tough material makes these a good buy.

No ride today

January 20th, 2012

I didn’t ride in today, as I’m going to NYC for the weekend. That’s too bad, as I won’t get to ride on snow today.

In future posts, I’ll try to break up the monotony of the “Weather” theme by talking about practical things from the day’s ride I wish I had known sooner. Some probably topics are equipment (racks, fenders, bags), maintenance (chain, brakes, storage), and road riding (etiquette, laws, safety, routes).

For today, I’ll mention the most recent maintenance I did on my Crosscheck: tightening the headset. You see, as with any second hand bike purchase, there were plenty of maintenance items that needed to be done. In fact, as my standards for ride quality go up, I find that second hand bikes need an extreme overhaul: new cables, new brake pads, brake tuning, wheel hub cleaning, drive train cleaning, new tires. Like many bike dorks, I try to do the work myself.

In the case of this bike, I wanted to convert it from single speed to geared (I basically bought a really expensive frame at the end of the day), so lots of parts had to go. I also discovered a mysterious wobble when using only the front brakes. It turned out it was a combination of three things: loose front hub axle nuts (i.e. the wheel itself was loose from the frame), worn brake pads, and a loose headset. Immediately after making those changes, the wobble would go away, but gradually return. I would tighten the headset incredibly tight, temporarily solve the problem, and then later have it return.

Fast forward to this weekend. Fed up with eight months of this wobble problem, I brought the bike into Broadway Bicycle School. I described the problem, and the mechanic suspected it was an insufficiently seated star nut: there just wasn’t enough leverage connecting the headset cap to the steerer tube, hence the wobble when braking. As soon as we pulled off the headset cap (I should mention at this point the headset is threadless), not only was the mechanic proven correct (the star nut was seated about 1/4 inch down instead of the 1 1/2 or 2 inches it should have been), but from my latest cranking down on the headset cap, I had actually pulled one end of the star nut out of the steerer tube entirely!

Our first fix, to just punch the star nut to its proper location despite being deformed, didn’t last long. So I was back in the shop last night to bang that star nut all the way out of the way and then insert a new one. This should solve the problem permanently, which is pretty satisfying.