Category Archives: Gear

Getting Down With My BMX Self

I was never one of those kids in the 70’s who took to BMX – I was too big, too ungainly and couldn’t grow my hair long enough.  But I’ve found that the world of BMX offers some great gear for bike commuting, particularly when it comes to pedals.

For those of us who wear street clothes when riding (or something reasonably non-technical, like Chrome’s excellent shoes), the world of clipless pedals is irrelevant.  The problem is that many basic bike pedals don’t really cut it, either.  In rainy conditions, it can be hard to keep your feet on standard platform pedals.  Plus, many pedals aren’t very sturdy.  The set that came on my rain bike broke the first time I rode it – apparently they weren’t designed with a 220-lb rider pedaling single speed uphill in mind.

But BMX pedals . . . freed from the road cycling world’s obsession with minimizing weight, BMX pedals are beefy and solid, designed to provide maximum contact between shoe and pedal.  I’ve now upgraded my rain bike to this setup:

Those are Diamondback Bigfoot pedals.  They weigh something like a pound for the pair.  But they’re indestructible, and with that width and a series of fixed-height pins, there’s little risk of foot slippage.  I’ve also added a set of Burro pedal straps for added security and fixed-gear riding.


Helmets and Risk Compensation

An add-on to my recent Commute By Bike post regarding “4 Myths About Helmets and Safety:”  I pointed out that the theory of “risk compensation” – that adding riskier elements to one’s ride because one is wearing a helmet would offset the helmet’s safety benefits – didn’t ring true to me.  Sure, I’m worried about my head, but I’ve got knees, elbows, shoulders, hands and other body parts to worry about, too.

(As an aside, my most painful bike injury occurred when I was 13, and involved a night ride, no end caps on my handlebars, loose-fitting pants and a collision with a large dog.  That memory still smarts.)

But – if I had one of these on my helmet, all bets are off.  This video is reminiscent of the beginning of my commute up Pike Street every evening:

Review – Chrome Bike Shoes

For nearly two years, I commuted in my work shoes.  With an in-city commute of only 3 miles each way, who needs bike shoes?

Those who’d rather not ruin good shoes, that’s who.

After seeing my favorite pair of Doc Martens succumb to daily thrashing from road grit and “pedal bend”, I decided I needed some purpose-built shoes for the bike.  Problem is, most bike shoes are high-tech contraptions built for cleats or specialized pedals.  Even my mountain bike shoes didn’t feel right for city riding.

I tried an old pair of Vans for a while, and while serviceable, the sole was too thin and bendy for my taste.  So I bought these shoes from San Francisco-based Chrome.  They’re made for city riding, and have a number of smart features:  semi-rigid shank in the sole for stiffness, a “garage” to keep the laces from flying around and multiple steel-grommeted holes for ventilation.  Here’s what they look like after 6 months of daily wear:

chrome bike shoes

These things are sturdily-built.  There’s no chance the cordura uppers are going to rip; the sole will wear out or separate from the upper before that happens.  Speaking of the soles, they break down in a way familiar to anyone who has worn Chuck Taylors or All Stars, with the edges of the rubber sole chafing and separating from the central sole unit:

chrome bike shoes 2

The reflective deal on the back fell off one shoe pretty quick, but all told these soles seem way more durable than the Converse products.  Besides bike wear, I’ve also worn these around quite a bit.  Unlike most bike shoes, they’re very comfortable for walking.  I even get the occassional admiring comment on them – and trust me, that doesn’t happen a lot to this 42 year old father of two.

“Kursk” shoes from Chrome; highly recommended.

Single Speed Gearing (part 2)

My previous post on single speed gearing covered all of the convoluted ground of figuring out the “gain ratio” to compare gearing between different types of bikes.  But it can be simplified to just the “tooth ratio”, as long as you’re comparing bikes with reasonably similar wheel/tire sizes.

I mean, maybe you care more about the details if you’re racing the thing, but I’m talking about riding around town, right?

So the tooth ratio I’ve stuck with on my daily rider is 2.67.  Some may call it laziness, but I prefer to think of it as, uh, Salsa’s excellent build design- I’ve stuck with the 48/18 gearing that came standard on my Cassaroll.

As it turns out, this ratio is quite similar to the popular single speed setup of a 42 tooth chainring and 16 tooth freewheel cog, which clocks in a tooth ratio of 2.63.  In fact, that’s the setup on my rain bike, but because that beast (a Marin 29’er) has bigger wheels the gain ratio is very, very close to that of my Salsa.

However, there’s no need to stick with what comes standard – a new freewheel cog costs about $10-$15 and can be replaced in minutes.

Here’s a handy chart for comparing tooth ratio across different single speed gearing setups.  I’ve highlighted the most common configurations:

single speed gearing chart

Single Speed Gearing

It took me months from the time I first started thinking about going single speed to when I finally plunked down the cash for my Salsa Cassaroll.  What finally put me over the top was:

  1. Realizing I was 42, and that it wouldn’t be too long before ascending Capitol Hill on a single speed would be a physical impossibility; and
  2. Finally getting a grip on gearing, “gain ratios” and what it would mean to do the ascent in a relatively high gear.

Trying to figure out gearing was HARD.  I really didn’t want to walk my bike up the hill.  I finally stumbled on Sheldon Brown’s site, which contains a highly-illuminating formula for figuring out the gain ratio of gearing (thus allowing me to compare the gearing on my 9-speed urban destroyer commute bike with the single speed of my dreams). Here’s how the formula works.  It looks more complicated than it really is:

  1. Determine the wheel radius.  Note that wheel radius is influenced by tire depth; a 700 x 28 road tire has a radius of 336 mm, vs a 44 mm tire on the same wheel which has a radius of 354 mm.  Refer to Sheldon’s handy-dandy chart.
  2. Divide the wheel radius by crank length (use consistent measurements for each – millimeters or inches) to get the “radius ratio.”  For the old urban destroyer, this yielded a radius ratio of 1.906 (324 mm wheel radius/170 mm crank length).
  3. Divide the number of teeth on the chainring by the number of teeth on the rear sprocket (let’s call this the “tooth ratio”).  For third gear on the destroyer – the gear I typically used to climb the hill – this was 38/18, or 2.11.
  4. Multiply the radius ratio by the tooth ratio to get the gain ratio – which can then be compared, apples-to-apples, to the gain ratio on any other bike.  Third gear on the destroyer? 1.906 x 2.11 = 4.024.

Now, most of the single speed road bikes I looked at had radius ratios around 2.00.  That meant that getting gearing equivalent to what I was currently climbing the hill with would require a tooth ratio of around 2/1.  While that would make it easy to climb the hill, it would be impossible to ride at any speed with such gearing.

The trick was to find a tooth ratio setup high enough to allow some speed on the flats but not so high I’d be unable to climb.  In talking to people riding single and fixed gear bikes up the hill, this seemed to indicate a ratio of a little less than 3.00 (one popular single speed configuration is 42/16).

I saw one guy riding a track bike up Pine with a setup of something like 52/12, but he looked like he weighed in at about what I did at age 9, so I ruled that configuration out.

Here’s where it got daunting:  a 42/16 configuration has a tooth ratio of 2.63.  Multiplying that by a radius ratio of 2.00 equaled 5.26 – which is about what 7th gear was like on the urban destroyer.  Gulp.  I tried climbing the hill in that gear a couple of times, but always had to gear down after a block or two.

Ultimately, I just took a leap of faith and went for it.  More on that later.