Category: Advanced Commuter Tips

A couple weeks ago, we discussed foglights for bikes. It was decided that low-mounted lights would be perfect for cutting through thick fog.

Well, our man in Reno (Quinn) decided to do some real-world testing of this setup. Based on his experiences setting up the original system, he did some tinkering and added another light to his bicycle. Here’s the setup:

The foglight setup

The fork-mounted lights are Cateye HL-EL 410 LED lights with rotational bases. The handlebar-mounted light is a Cateye HL-EL 220 with 5 LEDs. The mounts that come with the 410s tended to slip a little on the fork blades, so Quinn wrapped the clamping areas with cloth-based electrical tape (“friction tape”). Alternatively, one could use a dedicated fork mount such as those sold by Terracycles.

Quinn provided us with a series of test photos that showed the light pattern and intensity against a freshly-painted white garage door. These test photos were shot at a variety of distances. I could discern no difference between the test photo of all three lights on and the photo with just the fork-mounted lights on. Those little fork-mounted lights are BRIGHT!

After riding in some crappy weather, Quinn reports that fork-mounted lights are the way to go. The light is further away from a rider’s eyes, reducing distraction and helping preserve night vision. I’d still run a small “be seen” light up on the handlebars, though, to help motorists determine what that weird oncoming shape is. Two low-mounted lights might confuse a motorist, especially since that’s an unusual place to see lights (hovering mere inches from the ground)!

Here’s another shot of the two mounted lights:

Fork mounts

Quinn is running regular disposable batteries and he reports that with five 1/2 hour nighttime commutes and 2-3 weekend rides, the batteries in those 410 lights last about a month. That’s pretty good!

This (or similar) setup might be a good thing to try if your nighttime commute often includes rain or fog. Heck, this might be a great setup for ANY nighttime riding, and really maximizes the potential of those inexpensive LED lights on the market. If you can’t afford something high-end like NiteRiders or DiNottes, this might be just the ticket to being able to see the road at night and in bad weather.

Thanks for the pictures, tests and setup information, Quinn — you’re advancing the science of nighttime bicycle commuting!

Quinn sent in the following question:

“Commuters know about the ‘right hook’ — what about the opposite? By that I mean those drivers who creep behind you for a city block, when if they drove at speed they would clear the intersection before you got there. How do other commuters deal with them?”

This is another manifestation of the “overly courteous” driver. I’m sure many of us have been in similar situations…the driver hanging back instead of passing us, the driver waving us through at a four-way-stop intersection even though it is clearly their turn to proceed, etc.

What this stems from is that many motorists are blissfully unaware of the laws regarding bicycles on the roadway. In most (if not all) states, bicycles are considered vehicles, and have the same rights (and the same responsibilities) as motor vehicles such as cars. Or, if said motorist IS aware of the laws, they are just trying to be nice by being excessively cautious.

While these behaviors are not usually dangerous, they can be quite annoying.
Really, the best way to deal with these situations is with a smile — if you had time to talk with these motorists and to teach them the ins and outs of sharing the road with bicycles, that would be great, but folks rarely have that kind of time. It’s better to just heed that wave-through (giving a thank-you wave of your own) or deal with the creeper. I’ve heard of cyclists stooping over to retrieve a waterbottle, pretending to be so engrossed in getting a drink or looking around that the opposing motorist at that stop sign just gives up and goes through…but that technique has its own share of issues.

In short, be gracious, be thankful and above all, do it with a smile — facing an overly-courteous motorist is a million times better than facing a road rager!!

Have a cycling-related question? Just Ask Jack! Click on the link in the right-hand column to send me your questions.

Quinn sent in the following question:

“What is a good fog headlight? I have a 5-LED Cat Eye on my bars, and the fog hit tonight and I had about a 20ft visibility. Not Fun!”

That’s a good question, Quinn! As I researched this, Quinn and I suspected that a low-mounted, tight-beamed light would be the ideal “fog cutter”, but despite my proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and the high humidity here in Florida, it’s never foggy here, so I was really just guessing at this point.

So, I recruited someone I KNEW would have some excellent insight to this problem: champion of bicycle advocacy, low-budget bike tinkerer extraordinaire and fellow blogger Kent Peterson. Apparently, things tend to be a bit foggy in the Pacific Northwest where Kent does a lot of his riding. Here’s what he had to say:

“It was a foggy ride in this morning so I got a chance to double check my thoughts on this. So here are a couple of things.

Yep, a tight beam is what you want for fog. My choice would be a Planet Bike Blaze headlight and a Planet Bike Super Flash for the rear. In fog, backscatter from helmet lights can be a problem so I often don’t use my helmet light when it’s foggy. It’s best to have a light mounted as low as you can. Something like a Terracycles mount will let you put a light down on the fork.”

In the meantime, Quinn tried a setup on his bike. Here’s a picture of the low-mounted light (sorry for the grainy photos — unlike his namesake “Q” from the James Bond movies, OUR Q only has a PDA-based camera instead of a bag full of high tech goodies!):

The low-mounted light

Kent mentioned some problems with a helmet-mounted light creating “backscatter” — much like a car’s headlights in the fog, lights mounted at eye level tend to make vision worse rather than better in the fog. I suppose this is why a car’s foglights are mounted low…often well below the bumper. It appears the trick is to get light under the fog to improve distance vision. In the picture below, Quinn shows both a fork-mounted light and a handlebar-mounted light. Perhaps the handlebar-mounted light should be shut off during heavy fog rides?

High and low lights

The only drawback to riding with only the low-mounted light on is the “be seen” aspect of bicycle lights. Running with only the low-mounted light on may not allow oncoming cars to see you as well, or they may not be able to perceive what or where exactly you are in dense fog (“What on earth is that low light creeping along the ground?”).

It seems to me that being well-lit from the rear (for overtaking cars) is more important in fog than for oncoming motorists to see you and your lights. In this case, I wholeheartedly second Kent’s recommendation of the Planet Bike “Super Flash”…I run one on my dedicated commuter bike, and that little light packs a BIG whallop — an intense, far-reaching blast of light!

Don’t forget, also, wearing as much reflective gear as you can — and throw some DOT reflective tape on parts of your bike, too. There is no such thing as being “too conspicous” out there!

Thanks, Quinn, for the question, and special thanks to Kent Peterson for his insight!

Have a cycling-related question? Just Ask Jack! Click on the link in the right-hand column to send me your questions.

I was talking with Jeff about his new Sekine project the other day, and he was curious about how to fit wheels into this old frame — he had tried a modern set of wheels off his road bike, and the hub was way too wide to fit between the dropouts.

I told him that I was having a related problem with an old bike that I resurrected. In my case, though, I had a hub that fit just fine between the dropouts, but I had to add axle spacers to “build out” the proper “over-locknut dimension” (O.L.D.) so everything fit properly. Over time, though, I found out that my axle spacers were causing me some problems. I had some old 1mm thick axle spacers in my spare parts boxes, and they were no longer viable — they were warped or something, so I couldn’t adjust an excessive amount of play out of my rear hub bearings…I decided to remove them and reset my frame’s dropout spacing to fit the “native” 120mm O.L.D.

The culprits: old axle spacers that were no longer flat, causing excessive play in the bearings.

Old axle spacers

To respace a frame, you will need a length of threaded rod (“allthread”), some large washers and nuts to fit the rod, and an accurate metric ruler or precision calipers. I used 3/8″ allthread since it was closest to the diameter of the hub axle I am using.

Start out by taking the rear wheel out of the frame and measuring the dropout spacing from the inside face to the opposite inside face, like so:

Measuring dropout spacing

Here, it shows a spacing of 126mm. The second step is to insert the allthread and washers into the dropouts as shown below:

Allthread ready to push those chainstays together!

Simply crank on the nuts with an appropriate wrench — and do it evenly…a half-turn on each side at a time so everything stays aligned. Remove the allthread and washers periodically to check your progress. You may have to go pretty far past your “target” width so the chainstays and dropouts finish off at the appropriate distance. I squeezed my frame down to about 105mm before the respacing “took”, leaving me with a perfect 120mm spacing. Once the axle spacers were removed from my hub, I was able to get rid of the bearing play and everything was rock-solid once again!

Want to spread out your rear triangle rather than squeezing it down? Simply install the allthread with the washers on the INSIDES of the dropouts and twist those nuts accordingly.

I should add at this point that this method only works with steel frames. While it can be done to a certain degree with an aluminum bike frame, I don’t really recommend it — if you only have to squeeze or spread the dropouts a couple millimeters, it’s probably OK to use this method on an aluminum frame. DO NOT attempt this method on a carbon frame, though, unless you really want to break something!

For Jeff’s application, I think a “flip-flop” hub might be a perfect solution — plenty of room on the axle for proper spacers, if needed (just buy NEW spacers that you know are flat!), and room for a 5 or 6-speed cluster on the freewheel side of the hub.

The other thing Jeff wanted to do was go from the Sekine frame’s native 27″ wheels down to a more modern and versatile set of 700c wheels. Going to 700c wheels is better in the long run because there is much better availability of tires and rims for this size.

Doing the swap is easy enough to do, since 700c wheels are a bit smaller in diameter and will easily fit into such a frame. The one sticking point, though, might be finding brakes that have enough “reach” to work with the new, smaller wheels. Sheldon Brown offers a kludgy, but acceptable brake drop method, but I think it is a bit more elegant to find appropriate long-reach brakes…Ebay might be a good source, or you could always go for a modern set of Tektro long-reach badboys.

I want to add in a plug for fellow Floridians and master wheel builders Bicyclewheels.com. For about $100 or so, you can buy a handbuilt, rock-solid set of wheels. I went for their bottom-shelf 700c flip-flop set with Formula hubs on Weinmann rims…not expecting too much, but I can say that I’ve BEAT on these wheels: rolling down stairs, riding on 2 miles of cobblestones every day that I commute, etc. The wheels are still as true as the day they came in the mail!

So, get out there and tinker…there’s lots of good stuff you can do right at home to bring an old frame back to life, even with more modern components!

The other day, Moe and were talking about an article idea: presenting ways to repair common bicycle breakdowns without tools. If you were stranded out in the middle of nowhere without tools, could you fix a broken derailleur, repair a flat tire, reconnect a broken chain? It sounded like a great idea for an article — tips that could be QUITE useful in an emergency.

After some research, though, we found very little to go on…

Take a broken or damaged derailleur — while it might be possible to “massage” a bent cage or hanger back into place without tools, what about if the derailleur is completely trashed, or you snap a cable out in the wilds? If you had a screwdriver, you could turn the high/low adjustment screws enough to force the derailleur to stay in one place, resulting in a rideable (if not exactly comfortable) singlespeed configuration that could get you back to civilization. Without a screwdriver or knife blade to turn those screws, though, you’re dead in the water…

Same with a broken chain — without SOME kind of tool, connecting a broken chain is virtually impossible. You must have a way to punch out the pins in the chain to remove a mangled section or to get the chain ready to lash together with a piece of wire. Back in the old days, before I had amassed a large collection of bicycle tools, my friends and I would use a finishing nail and a hammer to drive the pins in and out. In a pinch, I suppose you could use a nail or similar sharp piece of metal and a fist-sized rock to pound in a pin and bind the two broken ends of the chain with a piece of wire looped through the links’ pin holes. But, this qualifies as still needing tools. Strike two for our great idea!

I did manage to find a couple tool-less wheel and tire repair tricks, though. Master tinkerer, expert ratrod builder and funny guy Gerry Lauzon of Montreal has a nice tutorial on fixing a taco-ed rim on his blog.

Another trick (one which I hope to never have to try) is one I saw in Barbara Savage’s excellent Miles From Nowhere: A Round the World Bicycle Adventure…at least that’s where I think I remember seeing it! Anyway, she got a flat tire out in the wilds somewhere, and she wound up stuffing clothing into the tire to replace the tube. That made the bike rideable enough that she could keep going until she reached a place where she could properly fix her tube.

Finally, a lot of people know that gashes in a tire’s sidewall can be repaired temporarily (or even permanently) by a piece or two of duct tape. Did you know that a folded dollar bill or an empty Powerbar wrapper also work excellently as emergency tire boots?

I guess the moral of this story is don’t travel without tools. At minimum, carry a patch kit and tire levers, a pump, a small screwdriver and a set of hex keys. There are plenty of multitools on the market that have all the tools you might need (including chain tools on several models) to facilitate an emergency roadside repair. If you insist on traveling light and don’t want to carry any tools, at least bring a cellphone with you so you can call for help when (not if) you get stranded.

And, if any of you have had to “MacGyver” any emergency repairs, we’d love to hear about ’em. Leave those stories and tips in the comment section below.