Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The future of personal transportation

I chipped in my 2 cents about fuel prices a few days ago, and I would like to expand on that a bit today with a discussion more specifically about bicycles. I've been getting around almost exclusively by bike since 2004. I started out motivated by environmental and geopolitical values and a basic understanding of the implications of our limited energy supply. But now I just think the bicycle lifestyle is a better way to live. Bicycles have been a force for good in my life, causing me to slow down, inspiring me to be more local, and along the way I got healthier (mentally and physically). I take tremendous comfort in the idea of being able to move independently around the city or out into the countryside under my own power. I do make use of buses and the train, and I tend to walk between 3 and 7 miles most days, but nothing gives me the freedom, ease, and speed of mobility that I get from my bicycle. I'm not anti-car, but driving, to me, resembles an unpleasant, somewhat frightening chore, and I only do it as a last resort, usually after much procrastinating (writing this post is actually an example of this procrastination). And if you believe as I do that the future of cars and energy is at best uncertain, then it makes sense to figure out a transportation modality that doesn't have so much dependency on the system as we know it.

I have immersed myself in bicycles - riding them, selling them, servicing them, reading/thinking about them - continuously for 7 years, and I have developed some opinions that I think may be of value for bicycle transportationalists, both experienced and novice. Since I have spent much time thinking about an uncertain future, and how bicycles play into it, I also have a few specific ideas on what is, and is not, desirable on a bicycle for long-term future transportation.

First of all, I wholeheartedly reject the notion that the Dutch, the Danish, the Chinese, or the 1950s French/English somehow have a monopoly on the wisdom of transportational cycling. The bikes that were developed and ridden in these places tend to be products of a specific time and geography and culture that, in my opinion, is not 100% transferable to Jim Thill's bicycle priorities in 2011 Minneapolis. This is not to say that these other bike cultures didn't give us some good ideas, just that they aren't the last word. For example, internal gear hubs, a hallmark of the oft-romanticized Dutch city bikes, for all their potential advantages, continually fall short of (hyper-inflated) expectations and have a number of significant downsides. Again, I'm not saying you shouldn't use an IGH, just that there is no free lunch. If you are buying a bicycle from me, I will be happy to discuss the trade-offs with you at length.

Here is my daily rider:
In 1992, the frame started its life as a Trek "Multi-Track" bicycle. The Multi-Track was an early attempt at a crossover or "hybrid" bike, which, in a nutshell, was a road/cross bike with mountain-bike style handlebars and drivetrain and better tire clearance than a typical road bike. This frame was rescued from a scrap heap by a friend and traded to me for rusty lumps of metal. After I obtained the frame, I turned it into a fixed-gear. It has a generator lighting system, fenders, and both front and rear racks (loaded with groceries in the picture). Tires up to 700x38 fit with fenders. It is reasonably comfortable, but not heavy and ponderous. In fact, with my summer tires on it, this bike is fun and sporty, and I have ridden it up to 150 miles in one day. Not bad for a grocery-getter! Fixed-gears have few moving parts, and are therefore among the more reliable, lower-maintenance bikes you can ride. And since it is generally acceptable to run a fixed-gear without a rear brake grinding on the rim, the wear and tear on the rear wheel is minimal. With a modest inventory of chains, chainrings, cogs, tires/tubes, bearings, and some occasional cleaning and lubing, I could reasonably expect to ride this bike with minimal ongoing expense for many, many years. Fixed-gears are limited, of course, in that they just have one gear, and the rider can't coast down hills. This may be fine for a reasonably fit (and zesty!) rider like me in a reasonably flat place like Minneapolis, but some of us will be willing to trade off the easier maintenance schedule for gears and coasting. Keep reading.

If a utilitarian fixed-gear is not your style, I have just one bicycle to suggest: The Surly Long Haul Trucker with 26" wheels and the stock part-spec, more or less (with flexibility to suit individual desires, quirks, and fetishes, of course). This bike has all the attributes I want - relatively affordable, sturdy, high quality parts that are commonplace AND easy to service or replace, and it is made specifically to carry your shit, whether we're talking camping gear through the Tetons, veggies from the farmer's market, or ammo to your apocalyptic zombie-proof bunker. In the past I have suggested that cyclists concerned about an uncertain future should buy TWO of these bikes, one in the appropriate size, and one in a smaller size for old age to account for possible skeletal shrinkage (keep that one in the box for easy storage). Having two identical bikes builds in redundancy in parts. The drivetrain parts of the LHT are interchangeable, for better or worse, with parts from many old mountain bikes and most of the cheap bikes sold at Wal-Mart. In a pinch, parts from a Wal-Mart bike that somebody else threw away may keep your LHT going down the road! And what the heck, if you do buy two, the unused one may actually be a stable investment, with a better rate of appreciation than a money market account, and more tangible utility than, say, jewelry.


chiggins said...

I have just one bicycle to suggest: The Surly Long Haul Trucker with 26" wheels and the stock part-spec, more or less

I echo this with only one exception: I could not get the Tektro Oryx cantis to stop chattering on the front, no matter what I did or what kind of pads I put on them. My LBS's mech-staff noted that the bushings on them just weren't that great, and an upgrade to some shimano cantis totally took care of the problem.

That said, I'd have to put real effort into putting words together to describe my devotion to my Trucker.

I also helped another parent from my kids' school build one into an Xtracycle. I had reservations going in, but it turned out to be a splendid platform for it.

Snakebite said...

I look forward to a zesty conversation regarding IGH's on no particular H.C. Saturday morning ride.

Anonymous said...

Well, I already have 2 LHT's, although I don't have a spare one in a box yet :)

Mark W

Bald-n-Surly said...

Thanks for feeding my apocalyptic tendencies.

Cellarrat said...

Chiggins set you saddle cable lower with canti's, that can help alot with fork chatter

Mauricio Babilonia said...

Another vote for the LHT. I got one when they came out in 2004, and thousands of miles later it's still going strong. I've used the old Shimano wide-profile cantis and Tektro CR-720's, both with very satisfying results.

Anonymous said...

Having a well lubed bike that is mechanically sound is all we need and the LHT represents a true standard in simplicity. Thanks for keeping the message simple. I'm reminded of that New England saying, "Wherever you are you are already there.

Anonymous said...


I like the long hauler, but i have always been concerned about it's somewhat ponderous heft. I have read many less then charitable reviews concerning it's weight and an associated 'dead' feeling when either accelerating from a stop or during spirited riding. do you have any suggestions for a lighter weight machine? I can't imagine the LHT is the only choice. I also don't believe i would purchase two.

Thank you

Anonymous said...

One additional thought/quibble - wouldn't 700c be preferable to 26" due to it's superior rolling characteristics?

krisz said...

First of all, I wholeheartedly reject the notion that the Dutch, the Danish, the Chinese, or the 1950s French/English somehow have a monopoly on the wisdom of transportational cycling.

Funny you say this... I was born and grew up in Middle-Eastern Europe (Serbia and Hungary) then lived ~5 years in France but have never heard of such a thing.

The idea that people over in Europe think they have a monopoly over "the wisdom of transportational cycling" is what people in the US think, this idea most likely originates most from the US side of the Atlantic.

Using fixed gear bicycles in daily commute, even transporting cargo? Where I grew up, everyone used single-speed, coaster-brake equipped bikes and no-one realized that they actually miss out on something by not riding fixed.

I agree that fixed gear is the most bombproof solution, but it is far from optimal for many. And yes, I ride a LHT...:)

Jim Thill said...

My points exactly, krisz. Lots of American cycling people have put other cycling cultures on a pedestal. This is not to disparage those other cultures, but to encourage a more open-minded view of how bikes fit into our individual lives. I have roughly as much interest in owning a 60-lb Dutch roadster as I do in owning a 15-lb TdF-inspired race bike. For me, the middle way - semi-sporty "all-rounder" - suits most of my needs close to perfectly.

I have two fixed-gears, neither of which bears much resemblance to the (formerly) trendier approaches to fixed-gear. Again, I'm looking to expand the usual notions, rather than categorize, pigeon-hole, and alienate.

Bujiatang said...

@ Anon

I have a short framed Instigator with a rear rack and it makes for a hell of a commuter. The bike rides faster than I would expect, absorbs the nasty potholes of St Paul and looks awesome with 2.3 inch Big Apples. The way I have it set up it weighs about fifteen pounds less than my wife's LHT.

krisz said...

For those worried about the weight of the LHT / any bike: LHT 58cm frameset weighs 7.4 lbs while a Litespeed C1 carbon frameset is around 2 lbs. This means that apart of the intrinsic difference of 5.5 lbs between the framesets, the extra weight comes from the components one uses to build up a bike.

To conlcude : no, LHT is not heavy but you can make it so.

Anonymous said...

I don't know exactly when I bought my Long Haul Trucker but it was probably 5 or 6 years ago (the year they had the Dr. Pepper red color) and at first I didn't like it's neutral handling and heavy weight.

Through the years and various work commutes, from 18 miles a day on dedicated bucolic suburban bike paths to 4 miles a day in the dense urban streets, the Long Haul Trucker has revealed it's simple beauty to me. Day in and day out and through various configurations it outlasted all my other bikes and became my only bike.

It's basic transportation that lasts forever. I love it. I've been carless for 3 years now and the Long Haul Trucker frame has never failed. Wheels have busted and tires and chains have worn out and component threads have stripped, but the frame is still performing flawlessly.

The bike even still looks good. Minor scratches and dulling of the shine has set in, but the frame is outperforming the components and a little TLC goes a long ways, it just goes on and on.

Best bike I've ever had by a long shot. I ride mine every day as basic transportation. The Long Haul Trucker rolls on year after year. - stacey graham

Adam said...

Anon, if the LHT is too heavy and rigid a touring bike, consider test riding a Jamis Aurora or Aurora Elite, and comparing that ride to the LHT. Some who love the LHT's inherent stiffness and girth quibble that the Aurora is too light and nimble. Mind you, I've never test ridden one myself, but that is an impression I've gotten from others. They are otherwise very similar touring bicycles in component quality and price.

Everett H said...

I have a Surly Big Dummy which I use to transport my girls to school and go to school myself with laptop and books; it is an awesome bike. I also have a Surly LHT that I use as my zippy commuter. After using the Dummy for a week, the LHT feels like a Ferrari.

So I suppose it is all a matter of perspective. I would not get rid of either.The LHT is great.