Most Americans have bikes in their garages. And unfortunately, that's where the bikes
stay. The poor bikes rarely get fresh air and exercise; they rarely have the fun of seeing
who's out in the neighborhood - and of course, that goes for the bike owners too!
Now isn't it a shame that American bikes don't get used like those in some other
countries? Why do the French and German bikes get to make so many more shopping trips? Why
do the Danish and Dutch bikes get to ride to work with their owners so often? Why do the
American bikes sit sadly in the dark?
Maybe it's the fenders. Maybe those poor American bikes are feeling naked without
fenders, and are too embarrassed to show themselves!
OK, maybe it's not the nakedness. But it certainly is true that a bike with fenders is
a more practical machine in most climates. It's more likely to be taken out when the roads
are a bit moist or when the skies are a bit threatening. There's less dirty road spray,
and no wet stripes up the cyclist's back. The bike and the rider stay much cleaner and
And that includes the chain and sprockets, too. This is important! After flat tires,
the chain is the worst maintenance annoyance on a bike. But if you've got fenders, your
front wheel throws much less dust and road soup on your chain. Your chain needs less
lubrication, it stays cleaner and it lasts longer.
So why don't American bikes come with fenders, like sensible bikes in most of the
world? It's an image thing! Americans buy rugged-looking SUVs to drive to the grocery.
They buy tough- looking mountain bikes, or sophisticated-looking road racers, to pedal on
an afternoon jaunt. You've gotta look cool! And the cool off-road dudes and road racers
don't use fenders, because they've got to shave every ounce!
Well, maybe it's time to admit that we're not trekking across the outback, and we're
not climbing the Pyrenees just behind Lance. We're using our bikes to get out, see the
sights and get some exercise. If fenders allow us to worry less about the weather, we'll
see more sights and get more exercise. We'll be in better shape when we do
trek the outback, and ... well, maybe we'll be able to keep Lance in sight a few seconds
Are there negatives about using fenders? If you're worried about the extra weight, don't
worry, you'll never notice it. Modern plastic fenders weigh only one pound - the same
as your lightest sweater. But if you like, it's easy to put them on for the rain, and take
them off to save weight, once they've been adjusted to your bike. I can do mine in just
How about some "shorty" fenders, for even less weight? How about some
"clip on" fenders that snap on with no tools? Unfortunately, these aren't nearly
as good. To really keep you and your bike clean, it's best to go with traditional
full-coverage fenders. In fact, it's even better to extend them a bit! Cut a mud flap out
of a plastic bottle and bolt it to the bottom of your front fender. The next time you ride
through a puddle, you'll see it shield your feet from an unwelcome shower.
Fenders - a classy European look, a clean bike, a longer-lasting chain, and the ability
to handle wet roads without worries. What joy!
OK, fenders can make it more pleasant when the weather gets uncooperatively wet. The
more it rains in your area, the more sense they make.
But the weather gets uncooperatively dark each and every night! To handle
that, you need lights. And these aren't optional, folks. You NEED lights!
"But I've got reflectors", you say. Yes, the Consumer Products Safety
Commission has decided that bikes must come with reflectors. The good part is, uninformed
cyclists riding in the dark with no lights may be seen because of the reflectors.
The bad part is, most people seem to think that reflectors are all they need!
But all reflectors can do is reflect headlights back to the driver. (Get it?
"Reflectors"?) If they break, bend, or get dirty, they won't even do that. If
the driver has one headlight out, there's much less chance he'll see your bike. And
there's no way the reflectors can let you see the hazards of the road,
like potholes, slippery gravel, and foolish wrong-way cyclists who might run right into
you! After all, if someone is foolish enough to ride facing traffic, they're almost
certainly not sharp enough to use a headlight!
The solution? You need your own lights. In fact, that's the law in every state of the
Union, and in every province in Canada. Headlights are always mandatory in the dark;
taillights are mandatory in some areas, and highly recommended everywhere.
There are different designs of lights. Here are your choices:
Disposable-battery lights: These are the ones powered by standard
flashlight batteries, which clip onto handlebars and are easily removed. They cost about
$10 to $20. They're adequate for being seen, but few of them light the road very well.
Most people start with these, and keep them as spares once they upgrade. Typical power is
1.25 to 2 watts.
Generator Lights: My personal favorite, but hard to find. Typical cost
might be about $20 to $40. The generator and headlight mount permanently on your bike, so
they're always ready to use. They are a bit harder for an amateur to install, and they
slow you down a tiny bit when you ride, since the generator is driven by your bike tire.
But these things make the Energizer Bunny look like a slacker. Long after he tires out,
your generator will be going, and going, and going! Typical power is 2.4 to 3 watts.
That's plenty for city streets with lights, and many people find it adequate for unlit
roads, as well. But if you feel you need more?
Big Rechargeable Lights: If you demand the brightest and money is no
object, you can buy a high-wattage light with a separate rechargeable battery that will
light up the neighborhood. Unfortunately, these typically cost $100 or more, weigh at
least a couple pounds, and require careful charging and maintenance to keep the expensive
(over $50) battery from dying an early death. In return, you get enough light to bomb down
hills at 25 mph, even if you're riding off-road - from 10 watts up to 35 watts! Many
riders feel this makes the investment very worthwhile.
Taillights: These days, there is very little reason to choose anything
but a battery-powered LED twinkling light. They've taken over the market for good reasons:
they're very visible, and the batteries last almost forever. Just don't forget to check
them once in a while, to make sure that "almost forever" didn't just end!
Whatever your take on the advantages and disadvantages, you must _never_ ride in the
dark without lights. Reflectors can help, light colored clothing can help, but riding
without lights is one of the worst mistakes you can make on a bike. Get lights, and you'll
find that riding at night, with your headlight showing the way, can open up a new world.
If you want to do anything practical with your bike, you'll need a rack of some sort.
Again, the racers don't use them - but they don't race to an office job or the library!
Carrying books, groceries, briefcases - or even fishing poles, fast-food dinners, bike
wheels, or welding torches - is difficult, dangerous or impossible without a rack. But
with a rack and a couple bungee cords, I've carried all these and much more.
If you're really into adventure, a good strong rack can carry "panniers" or
nylon bags, into which you can stuff a small tent, a sleeping bag, a camping stove and
some food - all that you need for an overnight camping trip on your bike. And if one
night's not enough, there's always a week's tour, or maybe a month...
A rear rack weighs perhaps two pounds, and costs perhaps $20 to $40. Get one that's
strong and very rigid. All major joints should be welded. Most people leave their racks
permanently on their bikes, but it's possible to do the "easy on, easy off"
trick as with fenders. You can take it off in just a couple minutes, if the local racing
team needs your help.
Small loads or large rigid loads can be strapped onto a bike rack with bungee cords.
But big loads like a week's worth of groceries or camping gear must be somehow contained.
Dangly things like extra jackets or oddities like extension cords must be kept out of the
spokes. The solution? Bags!
Bike bags are the catch-alls, the places to shove your extra banana for that long ride,
the swim trunks you're going to need when you get to the pool, the camera for that
award-winning shot, the binoculars to watch that soaring hawk, the tools in case you get a
flat, and the lock which keeps your bike safe. They're handy!
For light to medium loads (up to a few pounds), some folks prefer "seat bags"
which hang from the bike seat, while others prefer handlebar bags. Seat bags typically
hold less volume, and can't be reached while the bike is moving. Handlebar bags may feel
funny if loaded with too much weight. I prefer the instant access of the handlebar bag,
and I never notice any effect on handling. Perhaps I've just learned to deal with it.
Moving up in capacity, you can buy "trunk bags" which fasten to the top of a
rear rack. These handy rectangular bags can usually hold a six-pack or a couple sweaters
in their main compartment, and a hat, a paperback book, your wallet, four maps, and half a
dozen other odd bits in their outside pockets. If you've already got a rear rack, they're
a good way to go.
Backpacks are used by some cyclists, and they are the easiest to carry off the bike -
no "detach" time! But they have serious disadvantages. First, heavy loads can
shift a bit and affect your balance. Second, there are the comfort disadvantages of sore
shoulders and a sweaty back. But worst, every pound you throw in the pack becomes another
pound on your saddle! Don't be surprised if your bottom complains about the extra load!
Save these bags for short rides with light loads.
"Messenger bags" are the new kids on the block, and the larger versions of
these sling-over-the- shoulder bags are champions for carrying big, odd-shaped loads. If
you want to carry a dozen art posters or a men's suit, these bags can swallow the load,
and (like a backpack) carry it off the bike when you jog up the stairs. But choose
carefully - some are not as stable as you might like. Be sure the bag won't slide around
and affect stability or interfere with pedaling. And think twice about a long trip with a
heavy load hanging on one shoulder!
"Panniers" are the heavy-load champions which hang from bike racks. This is
how you carry $75 worth of groceries, or the gear you need to ride across Pennsylvania on
your own. You can buy ones that close with flaps, drawstrings or zippers to keep your
goodies in and keep most of the rain out. Or you can buy open-top ones which are specially
designed to carry a paper grocery bag in each pannier. You can buy panniers to straddle
your front wheel as well as your rear wheel, for your serious expeditions - west to
California, or east to Maine!
As always, the trick is to pick what's best for your own application. I've always got a
handlebar bag on my bike. Usually I've got a small seat bag or a rear rack to help out,
too. If it's time to buy groceries, I hook on my grocery panniers, and when it's time to
really travel, my bike sports a full set of panniers, front and rear.
Finding the Gear
So where do you buy these things?
Well, a few of them might be in your local Mega-Mart. They may carry the weakest bike
headlights and smallest seat bags, and if you're very lucky, a low-quality generator set.
A real bike shop will do much better. Good ones will fit you up with racks, bags, and
better lights. But you may be surprised to find that fenders and good generator sets are
not in stock, unless utility cycling is very big in your area. Again, it's a problem of
image or fashion - if something's too out-of-fashion, it doesn't pay the bike shop to keep
it in stock! But don't be afraid to talk about special orders. Many shops are happy to do
this, especially for steady customers.
If those options don't work, we now live in a mail-order world, with easy web access.
The big mail-order bike companies have everything except generator lights. A few
companies, like Peter
White Cycles or The
Yellow Jersey carry these, including even expensive, sophisticated, high-efficiency
models. Another source of practical accessories is Harris Cyclery.
But the Weight!
"Wait a minute! You said a pound for the fenders, two pounds for the rack, and
what... a pound or two for the light, and maybe two pounds for the bags? That's seven
pounds! If I wanted a bike that was seven pounds heavier, I'd have spent $500 fewer
Well, it's true, bike accessories aren't weightless - at least, not yet! But what's
better, a 22 pound bike that gets ridden perhaps once a week, or a 29 pound bike that gets
ridden almost every day?
I know what my answer is! That's why my bike has all the practical
accessories: fenders for cleanliness, lights for safety at night, racks and bags for
And as we cruise down the street, we pass all those sad, naked bikes sitting in
garages, wishing they could come out for a ride! - Frank Krygowski