Taking the concept of survival bicycling to the next level requires turning up the volume on the basics as well as adding another layer of preparedness and confidence. The first place to start is properly fitting the bike to your body and your needs.
This article is Part 2 in the Survival Bicycling Series – Read Part 1
A bad fit will cause injury, inefficiency, and insecurity. Here are the three main fit considerations, and with a little practice, you will be able to eyeball the fit when you switch bikes saving the fine adjustments for later.
1. Saddle height and angle: The seat or saddle as its called, should be positioned for proper knee extension and pedal pressure. Level the saddle (avoid tipping it down) and sit comfortably. Now place the ball of your foot on the center of the pedal directly over the spindle. Your knees should not go completely straight (or pop) when the pedal spins through the bottom of its rotation. And just as important your knee should not remain fairly bent throughout the pedal stroke. A straight knee is dangerously hard on the joint, and a bent knee is inefficient and causes excessive stress on the leg muscles as well as the joint. Use a handhold to balance on the bike and spin the pedals backwards adjusting the seat post height for a smooth, round pedal cycle, not a square, or pogo stick. And never over tighten the seat post binder bolt or quick release lever.
2. Handlebar position: the neck, back, arms, and weight distribution are controlled by the distance and height of the handlebars compared to the saddle. The more upright, the more weight on your butt and on the rear wheel. While comfort might increase, you lose pedaling power and increase wind resistance. If 90 degrees is fully upright, and zero degrees is a flat back like a triathlete in aero position, something in the 60 to 80 degree range is an effective riding position unless trying to outrun a bad guy or a bear. The issue with weight distribution has mostly to do with control when on rough or gravelly surfaces. Since weight equals traction you want to be able to shift your weight forward or backward depending on the need.
3. Hand position is the final critical fit concern. How and where you grip the handlebars makes a big difference in comfort and control. Brake levers and shifters should fit naturally into your hands while riding, and be second nature to operate. There is usually an inverse relationship between speed and comfort. If you plan on spending most of your time tooling around town, then placing the cockpit controls within easy reach is fine. But if you plan on riding aggressively, the controls must be positioned and operated under more extreme conditions–maybe while hanging on for dear life!
Tandem bicycles, or bicycles built for two are much more than just a two-person bike, they are an entirely different riding experience. The survival aspects of a tandem are many including the ability to carry an injured partner, add a young child or two, and even taking shifts doing the work. The captain, or rider in front, controls the steering, shifting and braking, but either the captain or the stoker (the rear rider) can do the pedal work, but normally both do. Due to the close and uniform proximity of the riders, communication is easy and quite enjoyable.
The captain usually has his hands full, but the stoker can navigate, serve food, and even shoot a gun accurately while riding–well, about as accurately as shooting from a moving car. In a true SHTF situation, the stoker can even stand up and shoot forward over the captain’s head turning your bicycle into an assault vehicle or ultimate pedal-powered poaching pickup.
An add-on pseudo-tandem option is something called a Trail-a-Bike. It is a single wheeled contraption that mounts onto the seat post of almost any bike (or tandem for that matter) adding another seat and drivetrain. The Trail-a-Bike works only for younger kids due to weight and fit limitations, but its utilitarian value when the SHTF can’t be underestimated. You could even go so far as to strap the child to the bike and they could fall asleep while you pedaled along to your bug out location. I say this with some experience since one of my kids actually fell asleep on a Trail-a-Bike as we were riding through the trails of Yellowstone National Park. I do feel bad for not noticing sooner, but even slumped over the handlebars, we did cover some distance.
Trailers are one of the best survival accessories you can put on a bike. Outside of quality, the only other main decision is if you want one or two wheels. The classic kid-carrying bike trailer is a two-wheeled design where a majority of the weight rests on the trailer’s tires. One-wheeled trailers split the load roughly in half between the bike’s rear wheel and the trailer’s single wheel.
So why would you want a single-wheel trailer? Great question. In reality, the single wheel design handles rough terrain better, has a lower center of gravity, and tracks much more predictably. Two-wheeled trailers are very easy to crash into trees, catch on building corners, and sideswipe curbs because the distance between the wheels is about the same as a set of handlebars, but sticking out three feet behind you. A well-made single-wheel trailer like the B.O.B. Yak is ideal for non-human cargo. It follows you like a train car due to the articulation of the hitch back behind the rear wheel rather than at the rear axle like most two-wheel trailer designs. Basically, in a turn the B.O.B. wheel follows in the path of your rear bike wheel rather than cutting the corner.
So why would you want a two-wheeled trailer? Great question. Two-wheels keep the trailer upright as well as assume a disproportionate amount of the payload weight. They are great for hauling kids, groceries, and larger items. Trailers of the two-wheeled variety can also convert to strollers and handcarts. By adding a third wheel to the nose of the trailer, it can run double duty earning its keep both on and off the bike. If the trailer has a roll cage, then it becomes a small mobile shelter as well as keeping the cargo safer than if exposed to the elements.
A straight line between the wheels on a two-wheel trailer runs perpendicular to the direction of travel. So when you hit a bump with a two-wheeler, the entire trailer bounces up in the air. While a bouncing two-wheel trailer can be the beginning of a disaster, single-wheel trailers love to go airborne and seem to relish in racking up frequent flyer miles. A quick spin around YouTube will document this fact as mountain bikers race down rough trails with a single-wheel trailer in tow. A two-wheeled trailer would likely have flown off the trail at the first turn, and either wrapped itself around a tree, or dragged the bike over the edge into oblivion.
So if your anticipated trailer needs include kid cargo, paved streets or smooth wide trails, look for two wheels. But if your plans involve tight turns, bumpy roads, or single track trails, then opt for one wheel.
Racks are an important solution for carrying equipment on a bike, but in most cases, they can move the center of gravity dangerously high if you don’t pack correctly. Unlike roof-top racks on a car, balance is essential for efficient and safe riding. As weight moves further above the ground, its lateral movement one way requires a noticeable equal and opposite force the other way causing a back and forth sway that if not dampened quickly will lead to the same fate as a drunken ice skater.
Panniers are the name for the saddlebags designed attach to the sides of a bike rack. Panniers can be complex and expensive, or little more than re-purposed day packs. The key is they have to attach firmly, allow unobstructed pedaling and steering, and keep their fingers out of the spokes and drivetrain. Panniers are great for securing heavier items below the top of the tire. As weight moves above the tire, the lateral forces are more likely to tilt the bike rather than just push against it. And it is not unusual for a loaded bicycle to flip over backwards when dismounted if too much weight is packed behind the rear axle.
The most common pannier placement is on a rear rack, but smaller versions are made for front racks. While proper weight distribution is essential on a rear rack, it is even more critical on a front rack. Steering is the first casualty of added front-wheel weight, and braking is a close second. When slowing, the forces during deceleration are transferred to the front wheel impeding your ability to steer, and thus remain balanced. These are just words of caution and should in no way prevent you from experimenting with your ride. And similar to backpacking, put the heavy stuff down low, and the lighter, bulkier stuff higher up.
Pulling the Rip Cord:
Just because you can make your survival bike do the heavy lifting doesn’t mean you should count on it with your most important survival tools. You must be able to jettison your bike if necessary, or lose it to marauders. Unless you know that you will be 100% safe, keep your essentials on your body. Another friendly reminder is that it’s easy to over pack or get sloppy with equipment decisions when you don’t have to bear the weight of your stuff directly on your body. Remember, ounces equal pounds, and pounds equal pain.
With that said, you can ride a bike while carrying a backpack–a real backpack loaded to the gills with all your camping gear. The first rude awakening of this carry method, however, will be felt in your neck because you cannot raise your head upright to easily look forward. And it’s only made worse if you are leaning more forward in your bike fit. Next will be your arms and hands since you now have much more weight on those contact points. Finally, your butt will be screaming because your range of motion is reduced likely including the inability to stand up on the pedals to get the blood flowing again. So count on backpack biking as a short-term solution. But softer, smaller day packs can be carried 24/7 with few concerns.
Water is a big deal, and there are plenty of carry options. The obvious ones are frame-mounted water bottles, and hydration bladders. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Bike bottles are small and rigid, bladders are large but easy to puncture. So use them all. And distribute the water around the bike, trailer and on your body especially when you don’t know where your next water source will come from.
With water, no matter how or how much you carry, you need to drink it for it to do any good. Camelbak, a leader in backpack water systems popularized the catchphrase “Hydrate or Die.” While obvious on the surface, the implications of the new device were dramatic. We could go further and go harder if we drank a little bit more often than a lot of water occasionally. The Camelbak revolution began with no more than an IV bag and a clothespin. And after 25 years, you rarely encounter a off road biker or even American soldier without one.
The beauty of the bike is that fixed weight like water does not consume riding energy near as much as does rotating weight. That means once your bike is in motion, the pedal force required to keep it in motion is not that great unless climbing a hill. If the weight does not move around like wheels spinning, pedals turning, or packs swaying side to side, the energy cost of maintaining level forward motion with a few more pounds is almost unnoticeable. And that includes the weight on your back.
Your familiarity with the path or road you are riding is critical in choosing an appropriate speed. It is very easy to over-ride your stopping distance meaning that if you detect an obstacle in your path in the dark, it’s probably too late to stop before introducing yourself. And that’s in the best of times given that you even saw the thing before you hit it. You won’t always have plenty of fully charged batteries and working lights. With weak lighting or candle lanterns, you won’t be able to ride fast enough to safely maintain your balance so walk the bike instead.
Bike mounted lights are the default lighting source, since the lights can ride around almost invisible until needed. The problem is that they are usually fixed to the handlebars so they only point where the handlebars are aimed. Like weapon-mounted lights, the benefits are the same, but so are the limitations. The light always points in the direction you are going, but you cannot point the light in other directions easily. Headlamps are an excellent option, but if that’s all you have, they generate their own issues. In pure darkness, the moment you turn your headlamp to the side to inspect a sound or intersection, everything in front of you goes black. By the time you point your head forward again, it might be too late to react. So the solution is to have both, and use what’s needed when you need it.
But it’s not always that simple. If you are bouncing down a trail or dirt road at night, a handlebar mounted light will be shooting its beam all over the place as you steer around potholes and rocks. Corners are even worse because with only a handlebar mounted light, you cannot see what’s around the bend until after you’ve committed to the turn. In that case, a headlamp will be more useful since the roles are reversed compared to the scenario in the previous paragraph. You can put your headlamp light where you want it and keep it there.
Obviously the problem gets worse with speed because you not only need time to react, you also need a few tenths of a second of brain-time to sequence the steps necessary to remain balanced after passing by the obstruction. Cars can steer back and forth without concern for balance, but a turn to the right on a bike is accomplished only by starting with a quick turn to the left that causes you to start falling in the direction you want to turn. Only then can you steer to the right by balancing the cornering forces with gravity. If you cannot make that lightening fast twitch in the opposite direction, you will have only two choices: go straight or crash. Or I guess only one choice if going straight is the same as crashing. You know that feeling where you ride too close to an edge and discover you cannot turn away? That’s what I’m talking about.
Riding with a flashlight in hand is a viable solution, but a risky one. Two bad things can happen. Option One: You will drop your light most likely breaking it or sending the batteries skittering across the street. And Option Two: You won’t have enough fingers necessary to slam on the brakes without initiating Option One as well.
Crashing your bike is a fact of life, but what you wear and do during the crash has a lot to do with the result. Therefore you have to plan for the inevitable outcome of a crash. The main contact points when you hit the ground will likely be your hands, head, knees and feet. A helmet and gloves are the two most common crash-ready articles of clothing. Bike racers shave their legs to minimize the effects of skidding across pavement, but mountain bikers have resorted to shorts that extend over their knees.
The biggest challenge maybe more with your bike than your body. Wheels are often the first victims of a crash. Flats, bent rims, and really bent rims affectionately known as potato chips should be expected. A crash-induced flat is most likely from a “snake bite” or compressing of the tire until the inner tube is pinched between the edges of the rim and the obstacle. Keep in mind that you may now have two holes in your tube requiring two patches, and there might be a ding in the rim in need of inspection. If you happen to potato chip a rim (yes, potato chip can be a verb), you might actually be able to muscle it back into service by literally placing it on hard ground, putting your hands on opposite sides of the rim, and give it everything you’ve got to bend it back. If you cannot do it by hand, you can always jump on it because you certainly cannot damage the rim any more…unless you land in the spokes.
Eye Wear is another thing to take seriously. It’s one thing to walk into a eye-poking stick, but quite another to ride into one. Plus all the hazards of insects, rocks tossed up by the tires, and dust in your eyes at 30mph. Sunglasses, shooting glasses, goggles, and shop safety glasses are all great. Don’t bug out without them.
Advanced Tool Kit:
In Survival Bicycling part 1, a simple toolkit was outlined. Assuming the listed items from part one are already in your kit, you can take your tool set to the next level by adding the following six more items:
1. Crank puller. Pulling a crank spider is necessary to access the bottom bracket as well as swap out the crank with a different one. I prefer the simple crank puller designs that require a socket or wrench rather than one with an integrated handle.
2. 14mm and 15mm sockets and ratchet. Crank bolt are likely either 14 or 15mm. The other popular bolt head size is 8mm hex so maybe toss one of those in the bag as well. Sockets are needed to fit into the crank arm so the sockets are not completely overlapped by the adjustable wrenches. Wheels that bolt on are usually 15mm as well.
3. Chain whip. A spoked wheel is a feat of engineering, but also something that cannot be built on the fly. For that reason you will need to cannibalize bike parts as you go. The chain whip is used to unscrew a freewheel from a rear hub. Two are used in the shop, but one will with do most of the work if you can anchor the freewheel from spinning.
4. Cassette lockring tool. Modern cassettes (the gear cluster on the rear hub) are held on with special lockrings. While you could fabricate a tool to do the job, it is much easier to just drop in the lockring tool, grab it with your adjustable wrench, and solve your problem.
5. 8-inch or larger wide-jaw adjustable wrench. Older or inexpensive bikes still use a large headset nut, something in the neighborhood of 32mm. If there were only one size, then only one wrench would be needed, so hedge your bets in a SHTF with something like the Channellock 8WCB.
6. Repair stand. A stand can be as simple as hooking your bike seat over a low branch, or strap hanging from a rafter. If you plan on servicing bikes on a regular basis, a portable workstand makes the job much safer, easier, and faster.
Replacement parts to have on hand:
Duct tape. Wrapping half-a-dozen yards or more around your bike pump barrel is a common practice. You want to keep the tape out of the weather or it will disintegrate rapidly.
One-inch and two-inch long 3/16” diameter bolts with nuts and lock washers. These emergency replacements might require some creative attachments, but can get you back on the road.
Four inch section of mountain bike tire sidewall, and three-inch section of road bike tire sidewall. Just find an old tire and cut it up for when you damage your working tire’s sidewall. Using duct tape, anchor the sidewall patch inside the tire, and carefully inflate. You might need to run low pressure depending on the severity of the damage, so watch for pinch flats (snakebites) if you hit any bumps.
One inch and two inch diameter hose clamps. These make great anchor points on frame tubes, and can even get you home if your frame breaks in the right place. Think of them as splints for broken bike bones.
Bungee cords. In addition to securing odd shaped cargo to a bike frame, like canoe paddles or 2x4s, elastic cords can be used to tension systems like derailers whose springs have snapped.
Bike theft, whether due to random opportunity or by gunpoint is a reality. Here are several quick ways you can make your bike unrideable, and it just might be the difference between slight inconvenience and total loss. The duration of the disablement depends on what you do, but if it looks like you might have to leave your bike unattended, or an approaching bad guy might want to take it, if you have even a few seconds, you can knock the bike out of commission or cause a problem that hopefully will require more troubleshooting effort than the thief will want to put into the bike. If you have only a few moments, use the tool-free options, but if you have more time, supplement the tool-free ones with a couple quick twists of a wrench. Honestly, it is possible to literally make a quick problem that only a bike mechanic would identify right away, and if the robber does not have his own bike, there’s a good chance he’ll be befuddled long enough to either give up, or give you time to slip away and wait. Keep in mind that you have to undo your work so that may play into what you do as well.
Tool Free Options:
The fastest thing you can do is make a large gear shift without pedaling. The moment anyone tries to ride the bike it will change gears with a violent crunching sound causing brief disorientation. The best option, if you have one, is to shift into the highest gears because then pedaling forward will be the most difficult due to the ascending gear ratio.
Brakes are the next quick target. All three of these options take about the same amount of time, but one can be done subtly with one hand. The simple solution is to twist the cable tension barrel on the brake lever. As it tightens, it will stretch the cable causing the brake pads to rub the rim or disk. Assuming you are standing on or next to your bike, or even rolling slowly, you can feel the brakes activate. If you turn too far, you will just initiate a version of the second option which is to release the cable somehow. You can either pop it free at the brake lever, or disengage it at the wheel where there should be a fast way to do it so inflated tires can be installed or removed. Usually it just involves unhooking a cable or connector, or flip a lever. The bike is still rideable, but it has no brakes.
The third is similar to the first. Something can be wedged into the brake mechanism or lever activating the brake. It can be small like a rock, or large like a tee shirt. The goal is to keep the wheels from spinning so be creative. On the brake lever side, just pull the lever tight and insert something into the newly opened space between the lever and clamp. On the brake side, squeeze the brake against the rim and look for a place you can stuff something to keep it activated. Disk brakes are a little too sensitive to mess with on the wheel side, so you might truly put it out of commission if not careful.
You can flip open the quick releases levers that hold the wheels tight to the frame. Better yet, remove the levers completely with a few extra spins. If someone happens to ride away, they won’t get far. About as far as the first bump to be exact.
A disconnected bike chain renders the entire drivetrain unusable, and even likely to make a significant imprint of the pedal cage on the thief’s shin when they try to ride. To “throw the chain” as it’s called, just use your toe or thumb to push the bottom part of the chain to the left as you pedal backwards until the chain falls free of the chain rings (the big gears connected to the pedals). To reinstall the chain, you might be able to use the front derailleur to shift it back in place while gently pedaling forward, or just reverse the procedure and re-engage the chain by nudging the chain to the right while turning the crank backwards. If you want to add a visual clue that the bike is disabled, you can push the chain off to the right side and loop it over the pedal allowing it to hang worthlessly touching the ground.
Spokes are a great place to boobytrap your bike. Anything stuck in them causes a delay. Straps, buckles, even the tied arms of a sweatshirt. The clog will only be made worse when the bike is moved so sometime slack works to your advantage.
Options that require tools:
Loosen, or better yet remove the seat and and seatpost. One lefty-loosey turn with a 5mm allen wrench should do the trick.
Loosen the handlebar stem from the steerer tube. Depending on the bike, it might be a single bolt on the top of the stem. A hammer-nudge on the bolt might be needed after loosening, or you could leave it to come loose on its own. If any speed is involved when the compression bolt breaks free, there will be a significant crash and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Newer headsets may have two allen bolts on the vertical clamp that tightens onto the steerer tube. A variation on this is to cause the steering mechanism to be too tight, but that risks damage to the bearings if someone forces it to turn.
Deflating the tires is effective but time consuming on both ends. Obviously one flat requires only half the total time, but its still just as potent. If you do deflate one tire, make it the front because it will be more obvious, and hopefully do less tire damage if the thief rides the bike since there is less weight on the front tire.
Finally, a couple of parting tips:
Slime your wheels. Slime is a flat-fixing compound that really works. It’s squirted into the tubes, or pre-installed in new tubes. If you get a puncture, it’s fixed from the inside while you are still riding.
Monitor your tube and tire needs and inventory. A garage full of bikes and trailers likely requires several different tire and tube sizes, and it’s easy to forget the kid’s bikes in your quest to outfit your ultimate survival bike.
Higher-end bikes can be a little temperamental. Just like fancy Italian sports cars, some of the racing mountain bikes are a little high strung and require more specialized maintenance and tools. A SHTF scenario is not the time to run out of shock oil or hydraulic fluid.
And lastly, start riding now. As in today. Don’t wait until you are forced to ride a bike before practicing your survival biking techniques.