Wednesday, October 21, 2009

In The Bag (Part 2)

As you may recall, part 1 of this series gave a general breakdown of the types of bags you can use to commute with some pros and cons of each type. Now, as promised, I'll give some quickie reviews of actual brands and models that I've tested on the not-so-mean streets. I'm leaving out the "experimental" bags and sticking with ones that I've really tested hard over time. Note that (as usual) none of these were "sponsored" in any way -- I either paid for the bag with my own grubby bills or it was a gift from a mystified relative who didn't really know what they were buying or why. And, as usual, if a link in this post goes to the product on Amazon, your purchase over there will eventually result in some kind of tiny kickback for yours truly. Think of it as "supporting the blog" -- insofar as any money I make here goes toward buying more stuff to talk about here. If the link goes anywhere other than Amazon, I don't make one stinkin' red cent. Ah well.


These were the first bags I ever bought specifically for a bike commute, and I've become a big fan of all things Jandd based on the 10 years they have now lived on at least one of my bikes. The materials and construction are about as tough as a Paris-Roubaix rider's backside, and when the hardware is properly adjusted, they lock to the rack with absolutely zero sway. The expanders can take them from fairly sleek to touring-kit devouring (in fact, I've done a three-day tour with just these bags and a couple things strapped on my rack). Downsides? They are very water-resistant, but the zippers and hardware holes make them just short of waterproof. Like most panniers, they're a bit awkward to carry off the bike -- two (snapped together with the thick leather handle) are wide and bulky, while one leaves poky mounting hardware exposed (including the stainless hooks that can scratch up rack rails in use). And, that mounting hardware is definitely designed for extended tours rather than day-to-day utility cycling. It takes some finagling to get the bags on and off the bike (a minor nuisance that becomes a major annoyance when you do it twice a day in heavy gloves), and they don't always swap nicely from one rack to another without a fairly involved hardware re-adjustment. But, if you're a one-bike commuter who values toughness and stability over quick-release convenience, they'll likely outlast whatever bike you put them on.


I confess, I'm such a bag hound, I'm now on my second medium T2 messenger. The first was my "I'm a grown-up with a real job, time to reward myself" gift when we moved to Des Moines, a custom in no-longer-available waxed cotton canvas. For whatever reason, I temporarily lost my taste for M-bags shortly after, never quite liking the way it hung on my back, and ended up selling it. Duh. So several years later, there I was replacing it with the same thing in non-custom Cordura. I know that the T2 messenger is so fixie-hipster ubiquitous these days that it's a cliche to even sling one on, but I'm also convinced there's a good reason for the popularity beyond just hype. The waterproof liner actually works, the bag stays (mostly) where it belongs on your back when the straps are properly adjusted, and you really can spin it around to grab something out of it like a real messenger on a double-rush. The medium size has been the "just right" for me -- I can't fill a large with my commute gear, so it flops around half-empty and twice as uncomfortable. You're still going to get Sweaty Back Syndrome from it (especially if you sweat like I do), but that's pretty unavoidable with a bag you wear. More-hardarse-than-I guys report that these won't hold up to "real" messengering, but I certainly haven't been able to wear mine out in "civilian" duty. If I have to carry a laptop, this is what I use.


I bought this as a reaction to my Jandd Mini-Mountains, hoping to find a "perfect" pannier to address their quibbly shortcomings. Of course, looking at the Arkel site, it seems like they've redesigned this bag a couple times since I got mine, so the bag you buy today won't look at all like my construction-orange "vintage" one. What I like about the UB is that it's just one giant bag with a couple little pockets here and there. It's actually designed as an uber-fancy grocery-bag pannier, but for my needs, it's an ideal commuting pannier. You just dump your stuff in, lock it on the rack, and get gone. The Arkel mounting hardware is quicker on/off, more thick-glove-friendly, and easier to adjust than the Jandds -- and that's the first generation. The latest iteration is (reportedly) even easier to use, incorporating a "pull the handle to release" feature. Like just about any pannier, the UB is awkward off the bike, kind of unbalanced and poky. The flat bottom is nice when you reach your destination, though -- it sits up for unloading rather than toppling over. So, whenever I need to carry more stuff than I really should, I reach for Big Orange.


This was kind of a fluke impulse purchase, because, well, I'm a bag fiend. I tried REI's bike-specific Novara commuter backpack and loathed it... too heavy, too uncomfortable, and just way over-designed for anything short of "expedition commuting" (for example, if your office is on the summit of K2). So I returned it, but on my way out of the store, I noticed this little yellow backpack that seemed like everything the commuter wasn't: lightweight, close-fitting, simple, compressible, comfy, and relatively cheap. It's basically a big hydration pack without the bladder (though it has a pocket and hose access point if you want to add one). The minimalist straps keep the load right where it needs to be, and the bag itself adds almost no weight to my commuting kit. Like any backpack, it will cause Sweaty Back Syndrome, but the small footprint back there (backprint?) helps a lot. Downsides? Well, it is small. My laptop won't fit, and if I need to pack a pair of shoes with my clothes/lunch, things get pretty tight. The stuff-sack-style opening pretty much sends rain an engraved invitation, too. And, since it's not designed for any sport that puts the wearer in traffic, it is sadly lacking in reflective details. Still, this bag continues to impress me the more I use it, outperforming stuff that costs twice (and thrice!) as much. Nice work, REI, and not just because I'm a card-carrying member. (Stupid fun detail: The orange buckle on the chest strap is actually a very loud whistle that both scares the snot out of motorists
and does a cool blowing-across-a-bottle noise when I'm riding at terminal velocity.)

So, there you have it, and I hope that it wasn't too spammy-sounding. If there are any other bags you'd like to see reviewed, just let me know. Considering how many bike bags I've bought, tried, stashed in the garage, passed to friends, and/or resold, I'm sure whatever you're looking for will wind up in my arsenal eventually... and at least I can justify it as "for the good of the blog" if it eventually winds up here too.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Suspension of Disbelief

I'll warn my regular readers right up front: The wonky disc in my lower back is flaring up, which has me in a not-so-pleasant mood. There's something about a relentless, droning, knife-like pain shooting down your leg that will do that to a fella. Thankfully, my Angel of Chiropractic Care is going to set me straight tomorrow, so I'll be back to my usual charming self.

In the meantime, I'm grumpy, and I think I'll point that grumpiness at a trend in new bikes that drives me nuts. Calling it a "trend" might imply that it's actually trendy, but this has really been going on since I was in the biz a decade ago. I absolutely cannot STAND the proliferation of cheap suspension parts on just about every new bike imaginable. Clunky, sticky seatposts, pounds and pounds of bouncy forks that always feel like a loose headset... I hate 'em.

Let's start at the seatposts. In theory, I'm all for a suspension post executed well... they're a simple way to isolate high-frequency bumps from your rump. They're especially helpful on a tandem when the captain is too inconsiderate to call out bumps (ask me how I know). But execute that thing to hit the price point on a $250-$300 bike and you might as well just put an accordion boot around a regular seatpost. I can't tell you the number of those monstrosities I fought with, trying to find that sweet spot between "doesn't budge" and "makes the saddle nose swing like a compass needle." I saw more than a few come in for 30-day checkups completely stuck at their lowest position, their riders blissfully unaware. Oh, and of course, when they
do move, there's the squeaking. The infernal squeaking. The only place these things came in handy was when you squished them down on the sales floor to show just how (theoretically) comfy they were -- which probably used up their only compression anyway.

On the front end, it seems like a suspension fork is now about as optional as a wheel, and the same race to the lowest common denominator has taken place. The most laughable thing is that most of these bikes now feature the comfort-bike equivalent of ape-hangers: tall head tubes, giraffe-like stems, and riser bars that put the rider's hands about nostril-high. Here's a tip: If your knuckles almost graze the garage door, you don't have any weight on your hands... which means you couldn't feel your suspension fork even if it did provide any useful suspension. It's just spec-sheet cotton candy, designed to make Bike A look $50 more valuable than Bike B.

So, when I rule the world, what will my perfect $250-$300 bike look like? You can bet that it will have no cruddy suspension gee-gaws front or rear... just a regular old seatpost and a rigid steel fork (because, to paraphrase an engineer pal, failure modes are important when a part is keeping your face off the pavement). It will have MASSIVE tire clearances so "comfort-oriented" customers can jam some massive rubber in there... since that's a cheap suspension system that actually works. And it won't sell for beans, since there won't be anything for the salesperson to squish. Sigh...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Let's Get Visible, Visible

Good grief, what is it with the 80s music references? And how much of my brain is devoted to bad lyrics anyway?

But I digress, as usual. With the days getting shorter and shorter, it's time for the cycle commuter to start thinking about lighting up. Will a good set of lights keep you from getting mowed down by a text-messaging teen in Mom's Canyonero? Probably not. But assuming your lights survive the crash, they might help bystanders find where your bike ended up. "Well, would you look at that? The neighbor's dog must've treed a Schwinn!"

When it comes to making a good target on the roads, I am a huge, unapologetic fan of the Planet Bike Superflash LED taillight. Now, there are new rules out there for bloggers about product endorsements and whatnot, so let me state this with absolute clarity to keep the G-men off my back: I WAS NOT GIVEN ONE THIN DIME OR ANY FREEBIES FOR THIS REVIEW. In fact, I own three Superflashes: Two I paid for (full retail pop) out of my own pocket, and the third was a gift from my in-laws (who are NOT employees of Planet Bike). That said, if you click on the Amazon links below and buy a Superflash based on my glowing (pun intended, sorry) recommendation, a few pence trickle back to me. Everyone feeling sufficiently disclosed? Good!

There's some debate among my commuter pals (virtual and otherwise) about the prudence of a flashing rear light. Some tremble at the thought of a drunk getting fixated on the flasher and driving into it like a Buick-cocooned moth being drawn to the flame. Others claim that the flashing prevents people from judging distance, making it more likely that they'll mow you down while their pea-sized brains try to compute advanced calculus at 70 miles per hour. Still others find it inconsiderate to blast trailing cyclists with the equivalent of a phaser on stun.

Thankfully, I was an English major, so matters of human psychology and physiology (and calculus, for that matter) are beyond my grasp. And if you're riding behind me, well, get up front and take a pull once in a while, why don'tchya? So I run at least one (sometimes two) Superflashes on strobe mode when things get dark. And in my limited pseudo-scientific experiments (see English major above), I find that drivers give these things a VERY WIDE berth. I hear the car coming, brace myself for the close pass, and all of a sudden, the car backs off and swings way around me. And that, as they say, is priceless.

(If you ARE concerned about target fixation, depth perception, or enraged wheelsuckers, the Superflash has a steady mode. Happy now?)

There are reports about the interwebs that Superflashes aren't completely weatherproof, though I can't corroborate that. Mine live on seatstays, below the fender line, getting hosed quite a bit, and they still do their thing. If one would ever quit, I've had very positive experiences with Planet Bike customer service, so I'm not too worried there.

I will say that the pop-off case, convenient though it may be for battery changes, can pop off at inopportune times (like when a clumsy rider kicks it) leaving behind just a belt clip and useless clamshell as everything that makes the light a light goes clattering down the road with the back half. And while hipsters may dig the white case (to match their Deep-Vs and Ourys), I could do without it. I even went so far as to swap in the back half of a Planet Bike Blinky 7 (which shares the same shell) for a more subtle look. Planet Bike must have heard the gripes from oldsters like me, since they now offer a "stealth" version with a black case, clear lens, and the same retina-scarring red LEDs.

So, there you have it. The Planet Bike Superflash: Probably the most protection you can get for under $25 -- unless you buy condoms at Costco, of course.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Signs, Signs, Everywhere There's Signs

Closing is November 6. And local readers, if you're trying to move a hunk of Des Moines property, call Kelly. She's been a rock star.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go happy-dance around that sign like it's a tiny Spinal Tap Stonehenge.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Shop The Monkey

My secret plan to latch on to my wife's lucrative graphic design career so I can leave the cubicle and live in my jammies as a kept blogger is off to an auspicious start!

Carla has just started her own storefront on Cafe Press, selling stuff imprinted with her soon-to-be-famous "typemonkey" design: T-shirts, hoodies, notebooks, stickers, ornaments, you name it. So, if you're a fan of typography (and who isn't?) or a fan of monkeys (and who isn't?) or -- even better -- a fan of typography and monkeys, check it out.

Remember, proceeds from Typemonkey Designs might allow me to blog more -- but please don't let that deter you!

(Editor's note: No, you aren't seeing things. I did write a second draft of the title of this post, which probably says more about me than I'd like to admit in a public forum. But if you noticed, it probably says quite a bit about you, doesn't it?)


For three days straight, my commute has been marred by a song stuck in my head.

Not just any song, mind you. "Respect Yourself" by Bruce Willis. Yes, a lame one-hit-wonder of the 80s by a TV star attempting to cross over into music -- complete with more irony than anything Alanis Morrisette ever recorded, since Bruce never would have recorded "Respect Yourself" if he'd had a shred of self-respect in the first place.

It's become a self-fulfilling prophecy... I get on the bike and think, "Geez, I wonder if that stupid song is going to get stuck in my head again?" Whammo, there it is.

So, in an attempt to get it out, I'm going to make the rest of you suffer. Please listen to the whole thing in the hopes that it will leave my brain-space for yours. And don't make me give you a pop quiz on the lyrics later to prove that you've done your assignment!

Editor's After-The-Fact Note: Huh, look at that! I guess Bruce Willis and/or his management and/or anyone else who cares about his dignity find this song appropriately humiliating and are attempting to expunge all evidence of it from YouTube. Well, you're off the hook for the quiz, but I would ask that you remember this pearl of wisdom: "If you don't respect yourself, ain't nobody gonna give a good cahoot." And let me tell you, there's just nothing worse than finding yourself stuck with a bad cahoot, or -- heaven forfend -- no cahoot at all.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

An Open Letter To Des Moines Area Regional Transit

Dear DART,

It's been a rough couple years, hasn't it? According to a WHO-TV investigation, your buses have hit seven pedestrians in Des Moines since 2006. And while I'm no student of physics, I know that in a bus versus pedestrian accident, the pedestrian always loses.

A friend and coworker of mine happened to be one of those pedestrians in the wrong crosswalk following the wrong "walk" signal at the wrong time when one of your bus drivers made a left turn and ran her over. I do not exaggerate: She was
run over by a bus. Imagine for a second what that felt like. Imagine for a second what the rest of her life is going to be like. Will she recover from the physical injuries? I don't know. My experience with less-gruesome but still life-altering accidents tells me that her body will never be the same. Will she recover emotionally? Will she still be the perpetually laughing person I remember? I hope so.

As a cyclist in downtown Des Moines, I may be a little over-sensitized to your presence. After all, just about everything on the road is bigger and faster than I am, and your buses are some of the biggest, fastest predators I encounter. I've never had a near miss at the hands of one of your drivers, but I've also learned to give them a wide berth. When I get off the bike and live among the pedestrians, my head is on a swivel. Honestly, I feel safer crossing
against the lights where I can see what's going to hit me and -- hopefully -- your driver can see me before that happens.

So what has your answer been? A policy of -- get this -- having your drivers
honk whenever they make a turn. Do you think that your 40-foot diesel behemoths are somehow sneaking up on us? That if you just add a little more noise pollution the problem will go away?

Let me propose a different solution. Rather than making our streets a Darwinian "I warned you with my horn, so it's not my fault if you don't move" tangle of fear and noise, why not adopt a policy that places the burden of responsibility and safety on the
least vulnerable actor in the situation? Instead of expecting a fragile human body to get out of your way, why not instruct your drivers that anything smaller than their bus (be it pedestrian, cyclist, or Toyota Prius) gets the right of way no matter what -- with the light, against the light, in a crosswalk, in the middle of the block, wherever. If it means a bus has to come to a dead stop before making a turn so the driver can get a clear view, so be it. Is that really more inconvenient than putting tire tracks on another human being? And if it is, so what?

Don't get me wrong: I'm a huge supporter of public transportation. I was a die-hard DART rider (though it was the MTA in those days) when I first moved to Des Moines. As a cyclist, I'd much rather deal with fifty people going downtown in one of your buses than dodge each one of those fifty people driving alone.

But you gotta stop running over my friends and blaming them. Go pick on someone your own size, why don't you?

Scattershot Updates from Cycle Central

Just a few random shotgun-blast newsbits from The Cycle World Headquarters. Pull!

We've accepted an offer on the World Headquarters and placed an offer on the New and Improved World Headquarters -- with a man-cave/bike palace that's actually connected to the humanoid living space. Knock wood, cross fingers, blah blah blah, but if all the bizarre Tetris pieces of the real estate game drop into place, we will close both deals on November 6, two days shy of my birthday. Happy birthday to me! Aw, it's a bigger mortgage payment? You shouldn't have!
LIMPSTRONG 3.0 CANCELLED: I know, I know, after all that buildup, with the pledges pouring in and the new t-shirt design finalized, and now this? The final stages of The Crud are hanging on longer than expected, and I'm contending with some (ahem) "issues" in the (ahem) "saddle area" that have pretty much limited me to short commute miles. Trust me, you don't want to know more. I imagine you probably didn't want to know that much. Bottom line (okay, pun intended), between this and moving, I'm not going to have enough in my legs to put in a hundred this year.

I've now "finished" this bike about four times. This time, I swear I've got it. 44x17 fixed, Michelin slicks, Nitto bullhorn bars, Tektro inverse brake lever, and a long-as-all-gitout Tektro dual-pivot caliper up front. Smooth, comfy and speedy, at least when the motor is running at 100%. The only remaining decision is fenders... my chrome Walds are on there now, but as I don't see using 38-year-old steel as a rain bike, I'm thinking about taking them off and making this my dry-day weight weenie bike. Pictures to come if it ever stops raining.

I groused about them in a previous post (and pal Steve F. rightly called me on the "clip-on fenders/no clip-on racks" hypocrisy), but I saw something last week that changed my mind. Fellow J-name commuter guy Jacob (we have two Jasons and a Jacob sharing rack space) has fitted one of those seatpost-mounted monstrosities on the seat tube of his Schwinn singlespeed commuter, below the seat cluster and between the seatstays. Sure, it only works on big frames with sidepull brakes, and I'm guessing you don't want to do it on your super-fancy lightweight unobtanium frame, but it looks (and, I assume, works) so much better sitting right above the rear wheel where a rack belongs. Very slick. Again, I'll try to grab a picture some other time.