Just Ask Jack

Just Ask Jack — The Need for Speed?

Ben C. sent in the following question:

“I have a 2003 Giant Boulder SE I converted to a commuter bike by slapping on some 26 x 1.6 slick continentals. I have also made a rear bike rack for my luggage.

Anyhow, my problem is that I would like to get more speed out of it. When I leave for work, I go down the hill and coast around 25mph. If I really try, I hit 36mph but I run out of gears and am pedaling very fast. I have to climb the same hill on the way home. My bike is a 21 speed. 3 rings on the crank and 7 on the cassette. I do have a granny gear. I used to mountain bike with RL.

What can I do to increase my speed without sacrificing my ability to ride uphill? I ride 9 miles one way and takes me about 35-40minutes. If I get lots of green light, then it takes me about 30 to 35 minutes. My goal is to be able to shorten my ride to 25 to 30 minutes.”

Here is the bike in question:
Check out that rack!

This bike was featured on our site a while back, and is also featured on PVC Plans.

Anyhow, there are a few things you could do to wring out more speed from your commuter bike. There are some fairly cheap methods, and others that may require a bit more money.

First, the cheap method: find some narrower tires. 26″ x 1.6″ tires are nice and cushy, but they’re just too porky for road use. If you can, find some 1″ or 1.25″ tires and decrease your rolling resistance. An additional benefit of narrower tires is that they tend to be able to hold a higher pressure, allowing you to really pump those tires until they’re hard — thus reducing rolling resistance even more (with the sacrifice of a little comfort).

Second, let’s play with the gearing: after talking with Ben, I learned that he is running a 14-34 7 speed cassette with a triple mountain crank (46T-34T-23T). He also indicated that the cassette’s freehub is slipping — a PERFECT time for an upgrade! I asked Ben about his gearing uses, and he mentioned that he rarely uses the little ring up front. There are several methods to changing up the gearing on this bike. The first could be as simple as finding a bigger big ring…perhaps a 49 or 50 tooth ring for the outermost position. Alternatively, since the little inner ring isn’t used so much, switching to a double like a compact road crankset might make sense. Traditionally, compact road doubles come with a 50T outer and a 36T inner. This kills two birds with one stone — a bigger gear for mashing at high speed, and a smaller ring for hillclimbing.

compact road double

Now, there are also several methods to tinkering with the gearing in back. Since the freehub has gone bad, might as well buy an 8-speed model…it will bolt right onto that existing hub with no other modification. Then, you can choose from a wide variety of pre-made cassettes with 11 or 12 tooth first-position cogs going up to 32 or 34 tooth 8th-position cogs. This will also give a bit more speed on the low end and still leave plenty of ratios for climbing hills. My favorite is to create a “custom” cassette by grinding/punching out the rivets that hold a cassette together and rearranging the stack with cogs of my own choosing…you might even be able to salvage a couple used cassettes from your LBS so that you’ve got plenty of cogs to select from.

The only drawback to upping the cog count in back is that you’ll also have to find another shifter. In this case, Ben is using a 7-speed thumb shifter. I’m not sure if it can be switched to friction-mode…if so, a 7 speed thumb shifter should be able to handle 8 cogs in back. If not, an alternative shift controller might be needed — and there are plenty available like twist shifters, trigger shifters and others.

Playing with your gearing can be fun — there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to get some more speed out of your rig and still have gear ratios available for climbing. If you’re interested in tackling something like this, visualizing the gearing choices and ratios on paper can be a good start. Sheldon Brown has an easy-to-use calculator on his site — just plug in the tooth counts front and rear and hit the “calculate” button! Ben, thanks for sending in your question…good luck and have fun out there!

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

Just Ask Jack — Overly Courteous Drivers?

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.

Just Ask Jack — Foglights for Bikes?

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.

Just Ask Jack — Still a Commuter?

One of our readers posted the following questions the other day:

“If you commute to work but bring all your work clothes on the Monday that you drive to work are you still considered a commuter? Lets say that you live oh…36 miles from you job and it takes about two hours to get there (one way) and you park your truck half way — is that still commuting to work?”

The way I see it, you are a bicycle commuter if you do even a portion of your commute via bicycle. I don’t care if you live 10 blocks or 20 miles from your job…as long as you bike, you qualify!!!

Bringing a load of work clothes on Monday (with the car) is a time-honored method many commuters use. It’s not cheating…merely a great way to make sure you look presentable at work. The other four days are on the bike, so don’t even feel guilty if you’re driving that one day…

Multi-modal commuting is quickly becoming a viable way for folks to reduce their impact on the environment, get some exercise and enjoy nature. Quite a few people bicycle to their nearest bus or train station, load themselves and their bikes onto said bus or train and get off at a station close to their jobs. Still others drive their cars partway and ride the remainder. I have a friend and coworker who takes the cross-Bay bus from St. Petersburg to Tampa (Hi David!) and rides his bike to work from the bus depot. He’s getting some fresh air, he’s reducing his impact on the environment and he is saving significant wear and tear (and expense) on his vehicle.

The bottom line is that there is no “one right way” to commute via bicycle. You’ve got to stick with what works for you and discard other methods. Now get out there and ride!

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

Just Ask Jack — Red Light Procedure?

Lance sent in the following question:

“I’ve been okay with traffic protocol except for this one thing. In the instance of a red light and there are several cars in front and in back of me, is it proper procedure to stop behind the car that’s in front of me as any other car would do or do cyclists have the right to pass everyone like a motorcycle and come to a stop right at the crosswalk?

I’ve been stopping behind cars so they don’t get p*ssed at me but I’m nowhere close to sure that it’s the right thing to do.?

Lance, first of all, it is NOT ok for motorcyclists to pass everyone on the right to get a favorable spot at the front of the line. This is a version of “lane splitting?, which is commonly practiced by motorcyclists (and a good number of bike commuters), but is absolutely illegal in most jurisdictions.

A technique for solving this traffic protocol riddle that I have found useful is to sneak up on the right until you are in the second or third position in line…and stop between cars rather than alongside one of the cars. Then, when the light turns green, you let the first and/or second car do their thing while you get up to speed, get clipped in to your pedals, etc. Oftentimes, that first or second car will make an unannounced right turn, so by hanging back for the first few seconds, you avoid the dreaded “right hook“. Once I’m rolling at speed, I try to hog the lane a bit (getting out into the middle of the lane and standing up) to prevent other motorists from trying to hook a right (or a left) in front of me until I am clear of the intersection.

I mention “sneaking up? on the right side of cars because I have found that doing it blatantly really pisses motorists off. If you do it slowly and steadily (being careful to avoid rearview mirrors and the like), you are less likely to step on any toes.

Regardless, there are a few considerations to keep in mind when passing on the right, particularly if there are any driveways or parking-lot entrances between you and the light. If there’s any spot where a car could conceivably turn right (into your path), be extremely cautious or forgo right-hand passing altogether. Better safe than sorry, I always say! Also, gauge the amount of room you have on the right — if you’re passing and you run out of room between the cars and the curb, you can get screwed pretty quickly. Finally, be wary of the rare but extremely painful right-hand “door zone? — someone suddenly getting out on the right-hand side and throwing their door open to step out onto the sidewalk will ruin your day in a heartbeat!

Blind adherence to motorist laws is as dangerous as being a total scofflaw. Please, use common sense and judgement for your own safety. If breaking a motorist law turns out to be safer for you, by all means DO SO!

Here are some collision avoidance tips from the folks at Pay particular attention to collision types 3, 4 and 5.

And, since we here at are not lawyers, it is up to you, our readers, to check all applicable local laws for your situation. In some municipalities, passing on the right will get you a pricey ticket (or worse). Be safe, be smart and be aware!

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