Monday, February 6, 2012

Gearing up for a successful commute

A good friend of mine is looking to start commuting via bike. His first question to me was what he needed in terms of gear. He picked up a nice mountain bike from Southern Tier Bike Project affiliate, Steve. As the middle-man in this transaction, it became my responsibility to try to give him some basics in terms of what he needed to keep himself safe and on the road. Hopefully this will offer a bit of guidance.

  • HELMET: There has been enough written about the importance of protecting your skull. It really is as simple as just putting one on every time you get on your bike. Fortunately, you may be able to get away without picking one up new. I actually found mine in my backyard. It appears to be in fine shape and I haven't had any issues with it (but also haven't been in a crash, fortunately). It is quite comfortable and very adjustable. I like having a visor, as it keeps sun and heavy rain off of your face. The Salvation Army here in Binghamton also does carry helmets. I'd strongly recommend very carefully checking any used helmet for cracks and dents. For twenty dollars or so, you can pick up a helmet new. Or better yet, support your local bike shop and pick one up there! Stats on Helmets 
  • Some sort of chain lubricant and rags: At the start of winter, I went to my car mechanic and asked for a gallon of used motor oil. Given the slushy mess here in upstate NY which characterizes winter, this was an excellent investment. After a ride in the rain or , I clean and lube my chain. Bike shops sell better lube, for more money, but for my purposes, the motor oil works just fine. Its just important to remember to clean excess oil off of the chain, as it can gather dirt and gravel. Any old clothing will function as a rag. 
  • Essentials for fixing a flat: 
    • Extra Tube: Carrying a spare tube will not make it necessary to patch a tube on the side of the road. There are occasionally holes that cannot be patched (ie near the valve stem). I have one "thorn resistant" tube in my front tire. I am yet to have a flat with this bike, but I attribute that more to my big, thick tires. 
    • Patch Kit: These can be picked up at bike shops for a few bucks. If I get a flat, I throw my spare tube in, and at my convenience, patch the punctured tube for the future. 
    • Pump: The one I use is listed here. It gets difficult to pump smaller pumps when pressure goes up, but they will certainly get you to your destination. 
    • Tire Irons: These are used for removing and putting the tire on the rim in case of a flat. I quantified them as free below because you can simply use the back end of old spoons or fork. Plastic is a bit better, as you are less likely to further rip your tube when taking it off. 
  • Fenders: A real luxury in lousy weather. They keep everything, including the rider drier and cleaner. I've spent my fair share of time with mud and water all over my face and back. 
  • Bike specific multi-tool: For people who live in the Binghamton area, there is a little secret with regards to bike tools: At SUNY Binghamton, a gentleman buys multitools and sells them for $10 a piece. Go to the the Office of Outdoor Pursuits and ask! They are not top of the line, as the pedal wrench and chain tool tend to break, but the variety of wrenches and Allen keys are great. My first bike did not have quick release wheels, so I carried an adjustable crescent wrench, available for cheap at your local hardware store. 
  • Lock appropriate for your location: Here in Binghamton, bikes get stolen pretty regularly, but usually because of being left totally unlocked. I picked up this fairly heavy U lock from Amazon, and leave my bike with no fear of it getting stolen. It also has a cable to go around the front wheel, which is a nice luxury. 
  • Backpack: Having a back rack and panniers is a very nice luxury, but not totally necessary. Any backpack will work to carry the items necessary to patch a tire, and your lunch and a change of clothing. I commuted with my laptop in a backpack for 3 months over the summer, and had no issues.  

Hopefully this should get bike commuters on their way!

Update: 2/15/12: I'd like to take a moment to introduce my good friend and partner in crime, Lenny D. Lenny lived here in Binghamton and commuted for years year round. He completed a trip across the US this summer, and has tons of knowledge about cycling. He was kind enough to write up an addendum to this post, but Blogger wouldn't let him post it. Here is what he says:

Hi Isaac! I'm happy to see you doing this blog, helping the community that I now love from afar.

This is a good, practical list, and I like that you keep costs in mind. I want to put in my 2 cents about gear and safety.

I know that this article is about gear, but knowing how to ride in traffic is far more important than a helmet or any other equipment. If I could get every bike commuter to do just one thing, it would be to read the article How to Not Get Hit by Cars at It is a no-nonsense page explaining common types of crashes and how to avoid them.

As for helmets, they are useless for most types of injuries you can get biking (road rash, broken bones, etc), but they protect you from brain injury, so I always wear mine. A bicycle helmet, as opposed to a skate/BMX helmet, works by providing a layer of crushable foam, which is no longer effective after it has been crushed in a crash. I'd strongly recommend picking up a cheap new helmet rather than a used one. Also important is a good tight fit. If you get hit by a car, your head can hit the car first, then the pavement. If your helmet is loose and gets knocked off in the collision, you will have no protection when you hit the ground. You should not be able to slide the helmet off your head when it is buckled. The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute at has lots of good information, such as "Cheap vs. Expensive Helmets: Lab tests showed no difference in impact protection."

I think a piece of equipment that is at least as important as a helmet is a front and rear light. How many times have you been driving in the evening only to notice a bicyclist at the last second? Reflectors just don't work very well. You can get a kit with both a front and rear light for around 20 bucks, which will make you much more visible to drivers. A true headlight or headlamp that actually lights your way will be more expensive, but as a minimum, bikers should make themselves visible to others.

In addition to getting a lock, make sure you know how to use it! Here is an article -

Keep up the good work!

A very sincere thanks to Lenny for this added material. He has much more experience at this than I do, and his input is really, really helpful!
I'd like to echo the importance of read How to Not Get Hit by Cars at If someone had suggested this to me when I started riding, I certainly would have been much safer off the bat. I was planning on adding more about lights in the post specific to night riding. I like the strategy of not being hit in the first place. One quote there 
Here are a couple more useful links for locking up bikes effectively:
Hal is a funny character who grades locking jobs in NYC. NYC obviously has a much higher risk for theft than Binghamton, but there are lessons to be learned. 


  1. How very cool to have a Binghamton Biking blog!

    Great to meet you, courtesy of Augie!

    I'm a member of STBC and have a website at

    I'm very much hoping and planning that this will be the year I complete my first multi-day touring trip on my Specialized Tricross Double!


  2. Hello Don,
    There's nothing quite as completely joyous as touring. I saw some of the planning that is going on via email. If I could get off work, I'd be quite interested in joining, but unfortunately this summer, I'm going to be limited to weekend trips.
    That's a gorgeous looking bike you've got!! If I could give you one piece of advice on multi-day touring it is be flexible as possible. There will be roadblocks, and the whole trip is not going to be perfect. Augie has put it well to me: You're on your bike, approach every obstacle as a challenge that you can handle. I'm going to write up a lot more about the tour I went on in the future.
    Hope to meet you in person soon!