Sunday, February 1, 2015

Capable/Affordable Touring/Commuting Bikes

When people ask me "what type of bike should I buy" I almost always steer them in the same direction. Mostly because I'm highly biased toward a particular type of riding, but also because I know that most people don't want to race, they just want to have fun, do practical things, and not be limited by their bike.

Thats why I almost always steer them towards 80's-90's (and early 00's) mountain bikes. Why? Several reasons:

1. they are typically abundant on craigslist
2. often undervalued
3. very versatile

I like this era of mountain bikes because with a few small modifications, you can get nearly all of the bells and whistles that you find on today's hybrid and touring bicycles but often for much less than you'd spend on a brand new bike.

One project that I've been particularly jazzed about lately is my wife's bike. With the help of Planet Bike and Amazon I have turned this forgotten old garage find into a sturdy, capable city cruiser and family tourer.

I originally bought this bike for $80! Considering how reliable and versatile it's been I consider that the steal of a century. In my earlier, less-experienced bike years I bought some really crappy bikes for my wife and finally the little experience I've gained has paid off.

Take a walk with me and I'll walk you through some of the features and upgrades I've made.

First off - handlebars. Originally they were your garden-variety flat bar which is fine for singular uses, but can be limiting in that it it forces the rider forward on the hands - a slightly more aggressive riding position. I swapped those out for some North Road touring type handlebars which allows the rider to sit more upright which is more comfortable (typically), especially when you aren't racing anywhere and time is not of the essence. I also outfitted the cockpit with a few creature comforts including the otterbox mount for her phone as well as a Planet Bike Lunch Box for wallet, keys, phone, sunscreen, snacks, etc. The Lunch Box is really roomy and could easily fit a small jacket as well. Love it.

Every bike needs a basket - or rather - you don't realize how handy having a front basket is until you have one on your bike. This is a wald basket mounted to a Sunlite front rack.  This whole solution will set you back about $30 bucks and immediately turns your bike into a capable city bike. Throw a back pack in there or a sack of groceries and you are living like the Dutch already!

One thing that needed improvement was my wife's kickstand situation. She had the classic one-legged variety so we upped the ante with a double kickstand. It's definitely heavier and slightly bulky, but it's so easy to use and makes your bike really stable. This variety was pretty economical found on amazon here.

The pedals that came with the bike were plastic, and sorta narrow. This makes for a smaller area to place your foot and does give way to some flexing. For short trips it's not that big of a deal, but over the course of several days or with a heavy load the flexing can lead to expedited foot-fatigue. We opted for some wider pedals that give better support and would work with our favorite summer bike touring footwear.

One item of intriuge is this fun little number called a wheel stabilizer. Sort of an odd looking item, but with very nice benefits. It does two things:
  1. Stabilizes your steering when riding your bike with a load in the front (on a basket or rack).
  2. Stops your handlebars from swinging side to side when you dismount your bike.
Can you live with out this? Absolutely - but for $13 it's not going to break the bank and it is sort of fun to enhance your riding experience ever so subtly.

The caboose. Just a few things to note here. Added a lady specific saddle, rack, and fenders. All of the aforementioned items came from Planet Bike who I cannot endorse enough. They are right at the exact nexus of affordability and quality, and their customer service is second to none. Fenders are nice, year round and for such a simple rack it has performed even under the most formidable loads.

Here's the whole bike. It's nothing fancy and wouldn't win any second glances amongst bike snobs - but it was super afordable, is comfortable, and is incredibly capable of nearly any task my wife uses it for. I love this bike.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

S24O to Blackwell Forest Preserve

Last weekend the boys and I did a quick bike camping trip to the Blackwell Forest Preserve in Wheaton, Illinois. By my recollection, this is the closest place to legally bike camp (mileage wise) for most of Chicago so it's really the go-to place for first timers or anyone looking for a little bike + camping adventure.

I had been out there previously while my wife and kids were visiting family in Colorado, and liked it enough to go back, this time fully loaded with kids and gear.

It was a muggy day as you can see  - I was drenched before we even headed out. But sprits were high and I was excited at the adventure.

For the route - I trusted in the all-seeing eye of the Google Maps app. Now that they have a "bike" option, it has become an indespensible tool for route planning on roads I've never travelled before. With very few exceptions, it puts you on good, low volume roads or roads with bike lanes and paths almost all of the time.

The first 1/3 of the trip took us through residential streets in Chicago, Norrige, Harwood Heights, Oak Park, Maywood, and perhaps some others as we made our way to the Illinois Prairie Path.

While I did enjoy the tour through some of the Chicago suburban neighborhoods, it was a relief to finally be on the path. For longer trips and tours with young children, I think finding a nice separated path should be among the first things on the agenda. They are much more conducive to discovery, conversation, a relaxed pace, without the stress of traffic or worrying about stops, etc.

Dropped a water bottle.

The Prairie path is along the stretch we took is probably 1/4 paved, 3/4 crushed limestone. Hard-packed with the exception of previous rain, the path can accommodate most bike types. You'll see a lot of the "spandex" crowd if you are going on a weekend. Of course, the ideal tire would be bigger and something with a little traction on it for the occasions that the path is a little sandy or wet.

It had rained A LOT the previous night, as can be seen in this picture. This picture punctuates so many wonderful things about bike camping and bike camping with children. We never would've seen something like this had we been scurrying to our destination in a car, nor would we be inclined to get out, look, talk, and ask questions. This "image" was seared into their brain, and made up the bulk of our conversation on the way to and from our campsite.

Milestones, goals, markers - these things are important to children and to a bike camping trip. For us, it was important to look forward to Dairy Queen in Wheaton. I had told the boys about it from the get go, and we all knew it was coming. Ice cream tastes so much better when you've been in the hot sun sweating it out!

After the stop at DQ, we had a short last leg to the campground. As mentioned earlier, I had been before and was pleased with our spot.

At Blackwell, reservations are made on the phone. Don't ask them to give you recommendations on spots, they told me they "weren't allowed. My advice, look on the camp site pdf and then cross reference it with a satellite view on Google Maps. By my recollection, there are a few sites that offer a bit more "remote" feeling than others.

The campsites are well maintained, have tables, fire pits, and electricity (great for charging a phone). You can also purchase firewood for $5 a bundle. The bundles are very generous in size and if you are only staying one night, one bundle is plenty of wood.

Admittedly, our dinner and dining in general was a bit on the spartan side. Hot dogs (with buns) for dinner, and then smores for dessert. I brought some lasagna Ashley had made from the night before to warm in the fire. It was delicious. My advice, if you are going to warm/cook food on the fire and unless you have super-heavy duty tinfoil, TRIPLE wrap it. Even a double wrap isn't stout enough.

After dinner we enjoyed a little bit more of the Forest Preserve, which is very scenic/pastoral.

After our stroll, we hit the hay. The boys crashed hard. They were so tired and almost nothing is more satisfying than seeing your children sleep soundly after a day when you know they've filled their brains with interesting things.

One issue we had that night was - we did have some courteous neighbor issues. As in, the most heinous  campers you could ever imagine. Fortunately, they did not wake the boys or else there would've been real trouble.

Eventually, I drifted off to sleep and was hoping that with my boys being early risers, I could return the favor to our neighbors. No luck, they were early risers too.

We leisurely packed up and headed back the way we came. It was very fun to talk with my sons about what their favorite parts of the trip were (smores, sleeping in a sleeping bag), and what kind of animals we "wish" we could've seen.

Blackwell is $30/night for non-Dupage county residents, which isn't nothing - but in the grand scheme of things, worth every penny for the experience I had with my sons.

The next closest place I've found is Illinois Beach State Park. It's about 40 miles away and offers similar amenities. It does offer Lake Michigan views with a walk, but overall the facilities and amenities at Blackwell are superior. Price is roughly the same.

I need to get better at my "selfie" game - capturing me and the boys on the bike simultaneously. I'd also like to incorporate more video somehow too. Overall the trip was great and I can see us definitely going back next summer. Blackwell is open Between May and September.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Family Bike Tour Gear Review & Logistics Wrap Up

After blogging on my other site about our multi-day family bike camping-tour, I decided I also wanted to talk "gear" as well because that was a big part of the trip, but the family blog isn't the best venue for that.

During and after the trip I made a few mental notes of things I'd change or improve upon. I also wanted to go through everything we had in case any one was interested in that type of thing. I know I am.  I don't think this is an exhaustive list of everything you need, but rather, one of many reference points available for family bike touring.

Ashley's Bike.

Ashley's bike is a Trek 820 "Multitrack." As best I can tell, it is a late 90's to early 2000's steel mountain bike frame. Mountain bikes can make great touring bikes. Stout tubing, and braze-ons for racks and fenders, with clearance for big comfy tires. 

Her bike also features:

For cargo:

Aside from an old Specialized (who's totally in my doghouse for giving crap customer service) saddle, everything else is stock Shimano components.

Ashley's bike performed fantastic. The tires couldn't have been better suited for what we were riding. Ashley, like me, rides in a very upright position on this bike and both Ashley's sister and her brother in law commented that they liked our upright position and said it looked more comfortable. On a family tour, you aren't going fast - so being aero offers you little benefit unless you are facing SERIOUS headwinds. We didn't, so being upright was great.

What I would change on Ashley's bike

I'd like her to have more stability when stopping the bike. Her single leg kickstand withstood the pressure it was under - just barely.

This double leg kickstand looks pretty nice.

We were also on some dusty parts that kicked up a lot of dirt into our little feller's eyes when they were in the trailer (more on that fiasco later).

Ashley's fenders are the economy version of Planet Bike's offerings. Next time around, I'd like her to have the Cascadias. I have these on my Xtracycle and love them. Planet Bike fenders are super tough, easy to install, and nice to look at (for a plastic fender).

Ashley's saddle is pretty, lame. An old hand me down from one of my old bikes. I'd like to see Ashley on one of these puppies.

It also just occurred to me that I should ask Ashley what she would change about her bike. Classic husband move.

Ashley reminded me that her pedals could use improving. Right now they are just basic, plastic/generic nothing fancy, hence, no support. Wider, platform pedals do a better job of distributing the weight over your foot and can make a difference over the course of several days of hard riding.

I have a clear blue version of these on the Xtracycle and they are fine. I have heard many bike-tourers rave about the MKS "Lambda" as well.

David's bike, the Xtracycle, "Chewbika"

This is a mid-late 80's Giant Chinook. It was originally a more royal blue with red & white accents, but a little scuffed up. As a birthday present, I had it powdercoated "Saphirblau". Or... a more dark blue for you non-german speaking folk.

Chewbika features the following:

Nitto M-12 front rack
Wald 137 Basket
Nitto Dirt Drop Stem
Nitto Albatross Handlebars
Shimano Ultegra Bar End Shifters
Aforementioned Platform Pedals
Old DiaCompe Crankset
Brooks Flyer Special Saddle
Xtracycle Free Radical Kit
Xtracycle Kickback Kickstand

Other modifications to the Xtracycle to make it child friendly include:
"Hacked" (literally) Bell Child Seat (for Ed, age 22 months)
Re-purposed Crazy Creek (style, REI Brand) chair (for George, aged 4). Also purchased some nice nylon straps & buckles from REI for a lap/seat belt.

The set up also included my caboose, the Bob Yak. I sort of improvised this set up. It being our first tour, I wasn't sure how much room we'd need so I erred on the side of being able to carry enough stuff to supply the Duggar Family. Also included on my Bob was the DrySak.

I do not regret this decision, and I can't say that it affected the handling of the bike too much, other than making it heavier and balance became a little precarious when loading/unloading the boys. I cannot imagine trying to do what we did, and not having the Xtracycle Kickback Kickstand. It was crucial.

As for the Bob - it is a great trailer. It is supposed to attach through the rear quick release on your bike, and is very sturdy. It carried all of our sleeping gear (tent, bags, pads, pillows) in the water proof DrySak. If you want to try touring and don't want to do ANYTHING to your existing bike, you can buy a Bob and become nearly tour ready.

Going forward, I think I'd like to utilize the cargo bags of the Xtracycle better, before resorting to the Bob. We were also assisting our family with some of their larger gear which made taking the Bob a little more necessary. It also was fortuitous in that it allowed us to pull our "wounded soldier" back to home base.

Here I am on the final leg of our tour, pulling two boys, the Bob Yak, and our injured Burley Bee. We have had the Bee for 4 years and it has been a great addition to our family. It was the device that allowed us to first bike as a family, when George was only 6 months old.

About the Bee:

We had been having some issues with the wheels, prior to the trip. Nothing serious, but in retrospect, a variable we should've accounted for BEFORE starting a tour.  Heard some clicking, and sometimes had some issues with the quick release mechanisms.  Long story short, one of the wheel's assembly blew out making it impossible to secure without rendering the wheel totally useless. So, we abandoned it on the side of the trail, tried to hide it as best we could, and hoped we could pick it up on the way back.

Fortunately, it was still there and I hauled it out the last 20 or so miles. Just so lucky that the Xtracycle and other bikes traveling with us could make up the slack.

We have since replaced both the wheels and now it rides as great as ever. I think Burley makes great products and endorse them without hesitation. Much better quality than entry-level offerings at other big box stores.

Camping Equipment

I've spent a good deal going into the bikes, but that was only half the story. We also spent a good deal of time in camp, and camping.  We used some camping equipment that performed admirably, and less than ideal. Just want to go over an idea of what we brought and what we might leave home next time.

Out tent is a Mountain Hardware Lightwedge 3. We have had this tent for about 5 years and I love it. It is light, easy to set up, waterproof, and nice to look at. It has nice functional "roof" pockets that are perfect for stowing the things you have on you just before you go to bed (cell phones, glasses, flashlights, etc.) This is the first tent of our marriage, and as such, pre-dates our children. At the time, a 3 man tent felt like a luxury. Now, with two children, it is VERY tight confines. We can make it work for the next year or so, but very soon we will be in the market for a 4 man.

It packs up pretty small, and is only 5-ish pounds so is definitely a decent bike-touring tent. 

Sleeping bags:
Dad - REI
Mom - Kelty
Son 1 (4) - Kelty
Son 2 (22 mo.) Disney

All of this was fine for summer camping. I'm ashamed of my second son's sleeping bag but he loves it and was just fine for the summer. Fall temps might require some warm pj's to go with it.

We have a couple of these camp pillows from REI and they are fine, but they don't pack down that small so I'm interested in options that minimize bulk.

Sleeping pads - a key area of concern because I knew we were going to be tired at the end of the day and a fitful night of sleep just wasn't going to cut it.  In our prior camping adventures, Ashley and I had always used his & hers REI camping pads. They were ok - but if I'm going to be honest with myself I think that most of the "thermorest" style pads offer little comfort beyond sleeping on the bare ground.

Enter Big Agnes to the rescue.  I remember reading a review somewheres on the internet by some bike-campy folk who really liked their Big Agnes pads. I ordered two.

Air Core

The AirCore is a complete revelation. So comfortable. Easy to inflate deflate. Slept on it once and really enjoyed it.

The Clearview is a good idea - and "feels" about the same as the Aircore, but is a real pain to deflate. The material sticks together and is very difficult to get all of the air out. Left me very frustrated - I returned it once we got home and got an Aircore for myself.

The boys used our old REI pads and had no complaints : ).

Other camping odds & ends.

Found some roasting sticks at a local grocery store. Are pretty small and go easily inside the pannier of the Xtracycle. Will bring those again.

The real unsung hero of our trip was our Igloo 2 Gallon Water Jug.  Not for the weight conscious, this thing was incredibly valuable for supporting a thirsty group of 9 people during a summer tour.  We all had water bottles and would fastidiously fill them up at stops, but it was SO nice to have ice-cold water after our bottles had been emptied or warmed by the sun. I don't think I'll ever tour without this bad boy.

Bought a "rugged Personal Size" lantern that was WAY too big. Will leave that home next time. Plus, summer time means longer days so light was rarely an issue. More of a car camping item, and for fall/spring when days are shorter.


We were pretty simple on this one. Both the Mrs. and I opted for Chacos on the feet. Don't regret this decision at all. Chacos are really sturdy and provide great arch support. Plus, they are conducive to adventuring and are impervious to rain/water so in many aspects they make an ideal touring shoe. Some people thing you need toe protection and wear the (in my opinion, hideous) Keen shoe. I'm not a Keen hater, I have some of their shoes for regular bike commuting, though like Crocs, I think Keens are cuter on children than adults.

We both wore entry-level bike shorts from Performance bike. I opted for some basic nylon gym shorts on top of those and some basic underwear. For the most part I was pretty comfortable, though by day 4 my rear end was pretty tired.

I wore basic t-shirts for the top - two of the days I had "athletic" type shirts made of some synthetic material that stinks to high-heaven at the end of the day, and two cotton-blends. Both performed ok. Not really into lycra-kits.

The kids wore basic summer clothes - t-shirts, shorts, and crocs.

That is about all of the essentials for this tour. We are planning another, shorter tour for Labor Day weekend.  Perhaps in Wisconsin.

Please let me know if you have any questions, or need further explaining/advice. Would love to hear from any one interested.

Friday, October 26, 2012


Working slowly on getting this blog back up and kicking. Lots of idears rattling around.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Bike Trains

Bike trains are one tool for bikey families to get their kids biking with other kids and families, to school in a safe and fun environment.

Check out this awesome bike train in Portland.

For more information on bike trains - visit the national safe routes site.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Importance of Rough-housing

Nothing could bring more happiness to my dad-soul!

The Importance of Rough-housing

Thursday, March 3, 2011

montana-izing my road bike

Daily bicycle commuting in Montana has some serious perks, and also its challenges. Gone are the days of my 24 round trip, traffic filled trek. Replaced with a much more scenic jaunt (with only two traffic lights).

While the length of the commute has changed, so have my needs for my road bike. It seems as winter begins to wane up here, there are periods where the roads are bone dry for more than several weeks at a time. During this time, I can give my winter rig a much needed break, but more importantly not ride the studded tires on dry road. Considering they were the most expensive tires I've ever purchased (though worth it), I want to get my money's worth out of them.

So that means I get to ride my road bike. I made some slight changes to it and wanted to show it off a little.

I got rid of the 700x25 continental gator skins, and upgraded to the 700x30 schwalbe cyclocross tires. The schwalbe's offer me a little more cushion, and also flexibility for biking home in an unexpected snow storm and or in the great sand dunes bike lanes on my commute home.  I got rid of my beloved honjo fenders, and opted for some very charming "fluted" fenders from Velo Orange on sale. 

My winter bike is utilizing my rear rack and panniers, (it's nice to have extra storage space in the winter for gear substitutions), so I still needed a little something to tote my lunch and belongings to / from work.  After a little searching on the internets and via recommendation from Russ Roca - I settled on the Little Dear by Swift Industries.  It is a very handsome bag, holds all my belongings splendidly, and is slightly larger than all the other saddle bags I found in its class.  Definitely recommend.

I had a basket on nitto m-12 rack earlier... but it failed so now I'm reticent to try that again.  I think I'd like to use it as a front bag support and ultimately... one day... the support for a dual-dynamo front light arrangement. That would be so awesome.

I'd love to hear about any winter/spring adjustments you've made to your bikes... or problems that you are currently wrestling with on how to make your bike fit your commuting transportation needs.