Braak!
Lock up your hindbrain, it's Andy's Bucket-o-Memes
Bike Kit Reviews

Riding around, I see a lot of cyclists using a lot of gadgets and gizmos. Some of them are making their lives easier; some are making their lives a hell of a lot harder just so they can look cool. This page is a run-down of the goodies you might be tempted to slap onto your bike, strap to your bod, or stash in the garage - and some uncomplicated opinons about whether or not they're worth your hard-earned loot.

These reviews are based purely on my opinion and that of others I've listened to. Since I ride mostly on urban and fast-rural roads, I can't really comment of a piece of kit's suitability for off-road or race use. And no-one's given me any freebies (yet - hint!) to say anything nice.

Most of the time, I won't obsess about brand names too much - but feel free to label-chase if that's your thing.

Contents

Handlebar Ends

These chaps turned up a few years ago and were quite the gimmick among the hardcore offroaders. Handlebar ends are long prongs that protrude forward and up from the ends of your handlebars; they usually screw on with a strong clamp, and are available in a variety of sizes and finishes.

The were designed to add some versatility to the otherwise limited number of hand positions you have on a straight mountain-bike style handlebar. In truth they add just one position, but it's a very useful one. When honking, you get a much better pull from a bar-end than you ever could from a straight bar.

In addition to giving you that option on extra power, bar-ends also protect your hands and handlebars from snags. Out in the wilderness where they were designed, I guess they were meant to keep your bars from getting caught up in branches and other foliage; in the city they allow you to ride closer to walls, buses, etc than you would normally dare. The inward curve of most bar ends deflects an impact, rather than whipping your bars around and pitching you into the 'crete. Thus protected, you can ride a little closer to the envelope - risk compensation I know, but it certainly cuts down journey times.

Andy's Opinion: Urban essentials. There's not much to choose from one brand to another; so just get some that are comfy in your hands, match your budget and go with your colour scheme.

Lights

In traffic, at night, the best way to stay safe is to be seen and to be able to see where you're going. That means lights. It means good lights - there is no point in putting poor lights on your bike just to keep the police happy. You're much more likely to get in trouble than to get pulled over - trust me on this, I know.

(Spits out teeth and looks sheepish)

To be seen you need to throw a wide white beam forward. To see, you need to be able to see the road immediately ahead, but also to see the road as far ahead as your braking distance. Serious night-riding lamps often have two bulbs, one focused short and one long, to give this dual-beam effect.

Seeing where you're going is usually a minor consideration for the urban cyclist. Most of your route is lit with streetlights, and you're not as likely to come across deer and fallen trees cutting through the centre of town as you are in the country. I'm an urban creature mostly, so while there are some excellent dark-cycling lights on the market, I'll concentrate on the "please spot me and don't hit me" breed of lamps.

Legally, you are required to display a forward-facing white lamp and a rearward-facing red lamp at any time when visibility is impaired. This includes fog, heavy rain, tunnels, and a host of other bits of road. Practically, it's smart to show lights whenever you think they'll enhance your visibility. My driving instructor has a handy guide for when to use lights: "Look at the professional drivers - bus drivers, lorry drivers. When they turn their lights on, you follow."

So what types of light are there? Well, you have two considerations: the nature of the bit that actually lights up, and the power supply.

For rear lights, there is only one serious contender now: the high-brightness LED. These give much better battery life than conventional lightbulbs and are almost indestructible, as well as being much smaller and lighter. Some brands use one monster LED; others use a set of three or more. These are usually surrounded by a plastic reflector/lens that spreads the glow to the legally-required size of lamp.

Some rear LED lights flash, some are steady. In my experience as a motorist, flashing lights are harder to pinpoint: I know there's a bike over there somewhere, but I have to concentrate to locate it. With a steady light my unconscious rangefinder - the one that routinely avoids trees and kerbs and other vehicles in the daytime - can be left to do its work. Some cyclists say that forcing the motorist to concentrate is a good thing: he's thinking about you. I disagree. Flashing lights break a driver's concentration and introduce extra possibility of error. I would always use a steady light; and the battery consumption is not that much more really.

Front lights are another matter. Here we have green and white LEDs, and regular and halogen bulbs. The choice is easy, though. LEDs are pants for front lights. The quirk of semiconductors that makes them excellent at emitting red light also makes them hopeless at emitting white light. It's just not bright enough to be worth having, and often these lights are actually dimmer than a reflector. The green ones are simply useless; don't waste your time or money. When it comes to conventional bulbs, the performance difference between a halogen and regular bulb is clear. The cost difference is usually only a couple of pounds, and it's the difference between a bright white light and a sickly yellowish one.

What makes a halogen bulb brighter than a regular one? A lightbulb is a coil of wire in a near-vacuum. It gets hot and glows when current is passed through it. But hot metal likes to react with gases - which would consume the coil and blow the bulb. There is a limit to how hot a coil can be before it burns out, and if the bulb is filled with halogen gases then that limit is significantly higher. More heat equals more light. For a really good technical explanation of lighting technologies, click here.

Okay, so you've chosen your lights, now how are they going to be powered? You have a choice of generating the power yourself or using batteries.

Self-generation usually means a dynamo. There are lots on the market, from the conventional "bottle" dynamo which runs on the tyre wall and can be spavined onto almost any bike, to low-resistance dynamos that mount under the crank and again run off the tyre, to dynamos built into the hubs of your wheels - which have almost no resistance at all, but are a bit pricey. Dynamos are great, but have one drawback - when you stop, the lights go out. This isn't illegal, but it's hardly going to win a RoSPA accolade either. A new generation of dynamo lights such as the Standlicht are now available that have a storage cell in them giving you a couple of minutes' light while stationary - and from all accounts, they're pretty nifty.

Going to batteries, you can use conventional ones and throw them away, or go green and use rechargeables. Replacing ordinary batteries with conventional nickel-cadmium (NiCad) batteries is the easy solution, but nicads are noted for being a bit gutless in the power department. It's wise to keep a spare set charged up. Higher-performance rechargeables like the phenomenal Lightstick are available - at a price - and if you do a lot of night riding they are an excellent option. Commute through the winter and the cost of disposable batteries soon mounts up, and anyway the bike is such a green mode of transport, why spoil things by using all those icky chemicals?

One advantage of dynamos or rechargeables is that you're less likely to be mean in using them "to save batteries." More light = more visibility: don't scrimp!

Andy's Opinion: For casual use a battery-powered LED rear and halogen front light is the way to go, but they will devour batteries in the winter. Get rechargeables. If you're doing a lot of night riding, it is seriously worth investing in a good lighting rig; top-flight sets are truly awesome. If your lights are detachable (most battery sets are) make sure you detach them before the villains do. And avoid those manky green LEDs.

Trailers

So you have a load of stuff. And you need to get it from A to B. But it's bigger than you usually take on your bike. What to do?

You could do it the wussy way, and throw it in your car. You could. But if you're interested in really doing the bikes-not-cars thing, you could also get a luggage trailer for your bike.

We got one as a shared house resource, originally to collect the weekly veg box, and within a couple of months, were using it so much that we needed to get another. Each will carry a Big Damn Load, which means we can do the weekly shop without needing to use the car. This is a Good Thing and comes highly recommended; although it's not effortless, it is very, very satisfying.

There are two types of trailer and three types of hitching:

One-wheel trailers have low rolling resistance and so are very fast, ideally suited for longer distances. The BOB range of one-wheelers is canonical, and there will be more about them later. Two-wheel trailers are more stable at low speeds, and some can carry massive loads, which mikes them good for lugging around town, but I'd be wary of taking one out on a long haul.

The three places a trailer can hitch are at the rear axle, the rear stay and the seat post. To be honest, there doesn't seem to be much in it: most one-wheelers hitch at the axle, and two-wheelers seem split about 50/50 between the other two hitching points. What's important is that the trailer doesn't adversely affect the handling of the bike, and that it's quick and easy to hook up and detach.

Bob Yak trailers

BOB Trailers The trailers we bought are both Bob Yaks. The Yak takes up to about 40kg, and unloaded will remain stable at 30mph as long as there's not an ugly crosswind. Loaded to the max, you need to stay around 15mph or things get ... interesting. The Yak is a one-wheel trailer, which we found suited out daily rides of around 20 miles - a two-wheeler on that distance would be a grisly lug. We opted for the 28+ model - 28 meaning it will fit something bigger than a naked 26" wheel and + meaning that it comes with a huge waterproof bag. Go for the bag.

In use, they've been flawless. They're not cheap - over 200 each - but they are beautifully made. One thing to bear in mind, though: both of our Yaks have had pretty wobbly wheels when they arrived. Since there is only one wheel, the stability of your load depends directly on how smoothly that wheel is running. Ask your bike shop to re-tension and true the wheel before you collect it.

Hitching is simple and quick, and in ride, they're lovely - following the line of the bike tightly enough that you can happily chug along towpaths or traffic-jam between gridlocked lanes without fear.

Want more info on how marvellous these things are? Take a look at the Bob Trailers site or mail me for an extended frothy praise-fest.

Andy's Opinion: Trailers are a great way to extend the use of your bike beyond moving just you - particularly for local multi-stop shopping trips. If you're serious about using your bike as transport, then a trailer ought to be on your list. Choose carefully, because they're not cheap, but well worth it.

Fume Filters & Facemasks

So you're out there in the traffic, stuck behind White Van Man's aged Transit that's coughing out a cubic metre of particulate exhaust every heartbeat. Every breath you take sucks in a lungful of skanky diesel soot and you can feel the grime on your teeth and eyeballs. What can you do about it?

Well you might buy a fume filter. They're all more or less the same; a mask of some sort that straps onto your lower face, some sort of filter (usually a layer of activated charcoal - the odour eater in OdorEaters), and if you're lucky, vent valves. The idea is that all that crap in the air is trapped in the filter, giving you nice clean air to breathe.

They look great: the final element in your urban assault ninja cycle-terrorist's faceless stormtrooper outfit. Gnarly and way cool. Hardcore.

The problem is that to trap the gack, you have to pass the air over a surface and you have to do it slowly to allow the adsorption to take place. So the filter is usually a sort of foamy meshy web affair - lots of surface area. And it slows down the rate at which air passes through - to give it time.

But if you're cycling hard, you already need all that air to get to your lungs as fast as possible. It's your fuel. So you end up breathless, sucking against the mask to draw breath, then huffing it hard to get it out in time (hence the escape valves on the better masks, which let the air get out a little faster). A filter mask massively impairs your lungs' performance, and that slows you down and makes you breathless. If you wear glasses, they steam up, too.

But what about all that muck in the air?

Well here are some things to think on: A motorist, over the same distance as a cyclist in urban traffic, inhales nearly three times as much exhaust as a cyclist. How? The air intakes for cars are at engine-height; in a jam they just suck in those fumes from the car in front. Those guys in their boxes are gassing one another. Out and above, where the cyclists are, the air is much cleaner.

Perhaps motorists ought to wear filter masks. They, at least, don't need to breathe hard.

Diagram illustrating the difference in air quality for drivers and cyclists.  It's no accident that the icons of fumes look like piles of poo.

Andy's Opinion: Facemasks and filters are almost unmitigated pants. Unless you buy one for the look and don't mind having to suck hard to breathe, skip it. "Urban Survival, Environmental Protection," quotes one major manufaturer. If you need toys like this to survive, you're in trouble. And why hide from your environment rather than fix it? You would be better off spending the money on your local clean air campaign or a Friends of the Earth membership. There is one exception to this: asthma sufferers and other allergic types can get enough benefit from a facemask to offset the hindrance of the thing. If traffic fumes give you an attack, try one.

Helmets

Helmets are a dangerously emotive topic. There are very few hard facts, and lots of statistics conjured up by the pro- and anti-helmet lobbies. Let's start by clearing one thing up:

Cycling is not a dangerous activity. It's other road users that are dangerous to cyclists. If you make yourself visible and ride well, there is no reason why anyone should hit you.
This is important to remember. A motorcyclist, travelling at speeds up to 100 mph, has a requirement to wear a helmet simply to hold his brain together if he comes off. A cyclist isn't going to have that kind of accident. Cyclists have no basic requirement to protect themselves because they are not doing anything dangerous.

What this means is that when you wear a helmet, when you put on that Mushroom Warrior lid, you are not saying, "I wear this as reasonable protection from the hazards I might expect when cycling." You are saying, "I wear this to protect myself from your incompetence, motorists."

Okay, so after dissing statistics, I'm going to wield some of my own. Cycle injuries fall into two categories: "I fell off my bike" and "Some tosser hit me." In the former category are grazes, broken wrists, collarbones, and face-plants. Nasty, painful - but mostly not fatal. In the second category are the high-speed head impacts, spinal column injuries and massive blunt trauma. In other words, cycling is safe, motorists are dangerous. Quelle surprise.

Right, introductory rant over. If you decide to sport a helmet, what sort of helmet should you wear? They are all fundamentally the same: a polystyrene cradle that sits on top of your head, designed to protect you from three types of impact:

  1. Head-forward, to stop your brain-pan from caving in.
  2. Side-on, to stop your fragile temples from caving in if some psycho pulls out on you or you are knocked sideways onto the tarmac.
  3. The top of your head - the Human Torpedo impact, more common than you might think.
You'll note that a helmet doesn't protect your spine or your face. It's also worth noting that a helmet is sacrificial - in an impact, it is crushed and mangled, using up the energy that would otherwise have crushed and mangled you. That's why you should never buy a second-hand helmet; you might not be able to see that crushing and a used helmet is no use at all.

Now, all helmets on sale carry either the BSI kitemark, or the equivalent Euro or US test mark. They say don't buy one without a mark, but I've never seen an unmarked one offered for sale. The tests are all pretty similar - the US one is the toughest - so you really only have to juggle the following parameters:

  • How cool do you want to be? Cash buys airflow, which keeps you comfortable.

  • How cool do you want to be? Cash also buys funky styling, which stops you feeling like a prat and makes you more likely to wear the thing.

In other words it all comes down to money; no surprise there. But don't be guilt-tripped by salesmen and that insidious poster ("Does your kid have 100 feet and a 20 head?") into paying more than you feel you ought. If you like that 35 lid, if it's comfy and fits well and you like the look, go with it.

So how do I choose a helmet? Okay, rule one: don't buy mail-order. You need to try a helmet on before you buy. Go to a good bike shop, somewhere with a nice big range, and try them on. Bike helmets either come with little foam pads to make them comfy, or with some kind of adjustable straps inside. Play around. Take your time. You're going to rely on this thing for your life; twenty minutes in the shop is hardly an excessive investment in time. Have the salesman adjust the straps for you (and if he doesn't know how, leave!). A helmet should sit snug but not tight on your head (it shouldn't perch on top like a policeman's helmet, or come down over your ears). The straps should be comfortable and shouldn't obstrut your ears. If you habitually wear glasses, or earrings, or a ponytail, or dreadlocks, make sure the helmet is comfy to wear with them.

Then once you've bought it, wear it!

Andy's Opinion: The jury is out on the value of helmets, but they are proven to increase many cyclists' confidence (see the article on risk compensation). A confident cyclist is a safe cyclist, so if you're intimidated by urban riding, get one.

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