Tips for Utilitarian Cycling, Part 1

Episode summary

00:00 | Intro
04:21 | Feeling safe on your bike
18:09 | Biking within budget
27:24 | Mechanical trouble
33:20 | Security
36:14 | Hauling cargo
42:25 | Outro

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Our theme song is Tanz den Dobberstein, and our interstitial song is Puck’s Blues. Both tracks used by permission of their creator, Erik Brandt. Find out more about his band The Urban Hillbilly Quartet on their website.

This episode originally appeared on The Extra Dimension, a show Ian actively produced from 2015 to 2020 about the social and ethical implications of technology.

This episode was hosted and edited by Ian R Buck, with transcript by the indominable Mike Allen. Christy Marsden is our awesome guest booker, and technical assistance is provided by the super professional Brian Mitchell. If you’re able to help make sure this team gets paid for the hard work they do, please consider donating. We really appreciate it!


Ian: [00:00:00] I like to wear a high visibility vest when I’m out and about, which gets pretty interesting when I like go grocery shopping. And then people in the grocery store are asking me questions about where stuff is. I am not, in fact an employee.

Melody: [00:00:14] I think that’s amazing that people think that you work at grocery stores. I also think that people will think you’re a nerd, which is great. And also, if you ever want to do some reconnaissance and like do some graffiti or anything else illegal, you just wear a safety vest and you can get away with anything. So yeah.

[00:00:27] [Music]

Ian: [00:00:32] Welcome to the Podcast, the show where we shape transportation and land use to make our world a better place. Coming to you from beautiful Frogtown Saint Paul, Minnesota, I am your host, Ian R. Buck. Today’s episode is a bit of a guide for people who want to bike more for transportation. I have a conversation with fellow bike commuter Melody Hoffman about the challenges we have encountered with utilitarian biking and the solutions that we’ve come up with. This conversation originally appeared on The Extra Dimension, a podcast that I actively produced from 2015 to 2020 about the social and ethical implications of technology. Find the show notes and a transcript of the episode at And with that, let’s hop back in time to a conversation from summer 2019. [Wayne’s World temporal shift doodly-doos] So, Melody.

Melody: [00:01:28] Hello.

Ian: [00:01:29] You have been biking for, I think, quite a bit longer than I have as like your primary form of transportation. And you’ve also seen this from like the academic side as well, right? You’ve done a few like studies at the university level regarding biking related stuff.

Melody: [00:01:50] Yeah, I started biking as an adult in college in Milwaukee because I realized that it was quicker to get to school that way than driving my car and trying to find a place to park. And then when I got all the way up to my PhD in Minneapolis, I decided to do my entire dissertation on bike advocacy. But looking more at how racism and gentrification and classism gets interwoven into some forms of bike advocacy. Not our topic today, but I’ve done studies on that, and then I’ve also looked a lot into how law enforcement interact with bicyclists through citations and, you know, kind of thinking through whether law enforcement is the best method or one of the best methods to get bicyclists to change their behavior and drivers to change their behavior. Again, not topics that we’re talking about today, but that’s some of my academic background.

Ian: [00:02:37] Yeah. And definitely, definitely good stuff to understand, but not necessarily if you just want to get out there and and bike on your own.

Melody: [00:02:48] I will say that in my research, you know, African American, African and Latinx people are often harassed by the police. And so sometimes that is a barrier to getting people out on bikes. So one challenge that we’re probably not going to talk about much as middle class white people is fearing law enforcement or fearing being very visible. If we were undocumented or had a warrant for, you know, for something, we’d be talking about this a little bit differently in terms of our relationship with the police. So I just wanted to throw that out there because it does. Unfortunately, in this country, race does impact how you’re seen in the public. And when we’re biking, we’re very visible. And I know we often feel very vulnerable. And if you add a marginalized race to it, it gets, you know, even more tenuous.

Ian: [00:03:32] Yeah. Yeah, kind of… it’s kind of the inverse of a few comments that I saw from people online where they were talking about like ways to avoid looking like you’re a cyclists after you’ve gotten off of the bike. But in this case, it’s like because of our perceptions of race, you know, like black people who are on bicycles aren’t perceived as like true cyclists, quote unquote.

Melody: [00:04:00] Yeah, exactly. And they’re often seen as suspect – police and, you know, white citizens will be like, I think that guy stole a bike, you know, just because he’s black and he’s riding a nice bike, you know? So there’s lots of lots of layers to all of that.

Ian: [00:04:14] Yep. Yeah.

[00:04:22] [Music]

Ian: [00:04:22] So the first challenge that I have heard from a lot of people is not feeling safe while out on the roads. That’s definitely yeah. Like the number one thing even from experience cyclists that, you know, you hear people complaining about having to deal with with cars and, you know, the fear of getting hit by cars and stuff like that. So I yeah, a few things that I have found that really, really help is number one, like building up your knowledge of how bicycles interface with the rest of the road. I think, you know, more than any equipment or or anything like that, just knowing knowing how things are supposed to work is going to help you a lot.

Melody: [00:05:07] And to piggyback off of that, I would also say just knowing your rights as a bicyclist on the road, so like you do have the right to a full lane of of like what we think of as a car lane at any time. If there’s a bike lane, you know, you’re supposed to be using the bike lane and you’re supposed to be over to the right as far as possible. But you still get like a 3 foot, ahh it depends on your city, but like 3 to 5 feet away from a parked car as well for your safety. I think sometimes when bikes, or people just start to learn what their rights are on the road. They can start to feel a little bit more confident. So make sure that you’re aware. I mean, just remember that you have the right to a full lane. It doesn’t matter what the drivers say, it’s your legal right, and it makes you feel safer if you you take up that space.

Ian: [00:05:54] Especially when you’re like about to take a left turn, you know, you have to take a lane in order to get over there, you know, to be able to safely take a left turn.

Melody: [00:06:04] Yeah. It’s not safe to stay in the bike lane and try to take I don’t even know what that would be. The safest way to be a bicyclist on the road is to behave like you are a vehicle. So going over to the left lane, obeying traffic lights, stop signs we can talk about, you can roll through those, but like be predictable. And the way the best way to be predictable is to just use the same rules that you know about being a driver as a bicyclist. And that’s what the law expects you to do as well.

Ian: [00:06:32] Yeah. And signaling – signaling is a big part of being predictable.

Melody: [00:06:37] Yes. And how do you signal in Ian… Or what do you signal for?

Ian: [00:06:41] I signal for primarily turns.

Melody: [00:06:45] Yeah, me too. Yeah. Oh, doing group rides is so, so helpful to feeling more confident on the road. Yeah, I would say contact bike shops and they usually have connections. Also, if you identify as trans, women, or femme, Grease Rag is a really helpful organization that has they run a lot of different rides, including POC-only rides. So if you identify as a person of color that is also a woman, trans, or femme, they have a ride for you. So there’s a ride for everybody, especially in big cities. Just contact your bike shops and those are super helpful. I did that all the time when I lived in Milwaukee, when I first started riding. Even riding around with two or three other people it just gives you a little bit more confidence when you’re learning how to ride around your city.

Ian: [00:07:32] As for equipment that you can get to be safer, uh… helmet of course, that’s the big one. I like to wear a high visibility vest when I’m out and about, which gets pretty interesting when I like go grocery shopping. And then people in the grocery store are asking me questions about where stuff is. I am not, in fact an employee.

Melody: [00:07:54] I think that’s amazing that people think that you work at grocery stores. I also think that people will think you’re a nerd, which is great. Some people will. But it’s, I feel like, much more confident when I have those nerdy things on like a high-vis vest. And also if you ever want to do some reconnaissance and like do some graffiti or anything else illegal, you just wear a safety vest and you can get away with anything. So…

Ian: [00:08:15] Yeah. [Laughing]

Melody: [00:08:16] …And they sell them at Ragstock, which is strange. You don’t have to go to a cycling bicycling store and pay like 50 bucks for a high-vis vest. You can find these things in malls and Aldi has great access to helmets and lights. They sell those. So.

Ian: [00:08:32] Right. And I you did remind me that one of the reasons I like using a vest instead of getting like some bike specific, like really bright jackets and stuff like that is I can wear whatever the heck I want and then just put the vest over it. And then when I get to a place, I take the vest off and I put it in my bag and then I’m…

Melody: [00:08:52] That’s really smart.

Ian: [00:08:52] You know? Yeah. It’s just yeah. Whatever. Sunglasses I would actually categorize as a safety thing as well for a couple of reasons. They help you see through like glaring sunlight, but they also help like keep the wind out of your eyes so you can keep your eyes open more often. And I in particular really like my pair of sunglasses that have interchangeable lenses. So they’ve got like just a yellow tinted lens that I can wear at night.

Melody: [00:09:20] Really?!

Ian: [00:09:21] Uh huh.

Melody: [00:09:22] Oh, I need those just for general life purposes.

Ian: [00:09:25] Speaking of writing at night. Lights. Lights are super important.

Melody: [00:09:28] Ah, you have to have lights. Yeah, like helmets. I understand. The arguments for and against were a pro helmet podcast. Lights. You have to have them. It is so hard to see bicyclists when you don’t have lights on. It’s like a necessity.

Ian: [00:09:44] And also it’s hard for you to see stuff.

Melody: [00:09:45] Yes.

Ian: [00:09:45] Like if you don’t have a good headlight, then I mean, potholes are going to be ten times worse.

Melody: [00:09:51] Especially in the Midwest.

Ian: [00:09:53] Yeah. Yeah.

Melody: [00:09:54] But how do you deal? Because lights can be very expensive, like the lights that can really illuminate the road. So there’s like safety ones, you know, like cheap, cheap, cheap ones, you know, will get be enough for you to be visible to other people and other drivers. If you’re going to be biking at night a lot and you need like what was saying like pot, you need to look out for potholes and other weird things in the street. I say invest. I don’t know what 30, 40 bucks in a front light.

Ian: [00:10:25] Yeah. Yeah, I have one that outputs like 500 lumens and that was like 50 bucks. So I definitely don’t leave my lights on if I’m going to be locking up my bike somewhere for an extended period of time, I just take them off and tuck them in my bag. Yeah.

Melody: [00:10:41] Yes, do that.

Ian: [00:10:44] It’s one extra little thing. But like, you know, it makes it so that you can bike at all times of the day and you’re not just like limited, especially in the winter, you know, to the daylight hours.

Melody: [00:10:56] Yes. And same with the helmet, too. If you don’t want to bring your helmet in to wherever you’re going, you can hook your helmet into your lock when you’re locking. Yeah, just as a a tip.

Ian: [00:11:07] Google Maps, I would also argue…

Melody: [00:11:09] [singing] yes!

Ian: [00:11:09] …is like a is a safety thing. You probably know that it can like route you around on a car and/or like you can choose transit as an option. But way, way over on the right, there’s bicycling and Google has surprisingly good data for a lot of municipalities on bike friendly routes in like not just off street trails, but also they know like which streets have bike lanes and even like which streets are low enough like vehicular traffic volume that even if they don’t have bike specific infrastructure, they’ll be safer for you to bike on. And so, yeah, I use Google Maps every day to navigate my way around and yeah, like also having a phone mount on my handlebars so that I can have that turn by turn directions like visible in front of me very, very helpful. So I don’t accidentally like miss my turn.

Melody: [00:12:07] And of course with any kind of directions I will say don’t trust them fully. Like Google Maps has led me astray in a few places, especially around North Minneapolis, where just we are forgotten about in numerous ways. Sometimes Google Maps doesn’t get that like Linwood Avenue is closed right now and they’re still routing me through Glenwood, which is it’s cool because sometimes when roads are closed, the nice thing about bicyclists is that like, we don’t always have to follow the rules, so we could be on the sidewalk if there’s a road that’s closed.

Ian: [00:12:37] Yeah. Yeah.

Melody: [00:12:37] So I think Google Maps kind of like gives us that ability. But in this case, you cannot access the road. At any rate, just be careful about that. And then in terms of having if you don’t like looking down at your screen, Bluetooth speakers now are really affordable. And so sometimes what I do is I don’t have my phone out, but I’ll have the directions on my speaker, so then it’ll just tell me that way. So if you don’t like looking down at a screen, you can always get a Bluetooth speaker. Also helpful because then you can listen to music and music makes biking even more fun.

Ian: [00:13:09] Yep, yep. I go the route of having some Bluetooth headphones and and I just have like one earbud in my right ear and then I leave my left ear open so I can hear traffic.

Melody: [00:13:20] Always do that. You wouldn’t suggest putting both headphones in.

Ian: [00:13:23] No that would. That’d be really dumb.

Melody: [00:13:26] You really need to hear it. The thing that you’ll realize once you bike more and more is that you use your sense of hearing so much on the road. You can tell. Can you tell? Ian Like, I feel like I asked you this before, but like a car, you can tell how fast a car is coming. Just how it sounds behind you.

Ian: [00:13:42] Yeah, yeah.

Melody: [00:13:43] It’s like all this guy is not going to give me any space. I bet you 3… 2… 1… like, yep. So like yeah so use. Yeah you need to don’t have both headphones in very important.

Ian: [00:13:53] Yeah and we actually on a related show to the Extra Dimension on Second Opinion I’ve been reviewing a few different headphones and one of them was bone conduction headphones, which kind of like rest on your temple area in front of your ears so you can still hear everything around you. It doesn’t isolate you from the world, but you can also hear like what the, what the little headphones are saying.

Melody: [00:14:19] That’s cool. How much are those? $2 million?

Ian: [00:14:22] The ones that I was testing were 90 bucks.

Melody: [00:14:25] Well, that’s not too bad.

Ian: [00:14:26] You know, it occurs to me as we talk about all of this equipment that you can be getting to make your time cycling easier, that it might be really useful to have some reviews of specific pieces of equipment that that I’ve used. So if you’re interested in seeing some biking-specific reviews over on Second Opinion, let us know and I’ll make sure to get a bunch of those on our on our list. One, one more thing to talk about with Google Maps in the wintertime especially, I think I might start doing instead of like bike routing, I’ll tell it to just have me like I’m a car but avoid highways because a lot of the like bike specific paths and stuff during the winter are not plowed as well as roads are. So I think I’m just going to have to make that concession like, okay, just put me on a road and I’ll deal with it.

Melody: [00:15:26] I would counter that by saying it depends, because when I was biking to the U from Uptown, so that’s a good chunk of 5 to 7 miles. In my experience, the greenway, which is a path that goes east and west through our city that got that got plowed before the side streets did. So I think it depends. Take a look at what your bike infrastructure is around your house during the wintertime and see like what the schedule is for the plows. But to Ian’s point, riding on the main drags is very safe in the winter because there’s so much car traffic that a lot of the snow gets cleared that way as well.

Ian: [00:16:06] Yeah, yeah. And yeah, you live over there in the comparatively biking utopia of Minneapolis over in Saint Paul. Yeah, I ended up trying to go.

Melody: [00:16:18] That’s right. I’m so sorry. I forget about Saint Paul.

Ian: [00:16:22] So speaking of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul divide.

Melody: [00:16:25] Oh, yes.

Ian: [00:16:26] Living in an area with good bike infrastructure, like that is a choice that you can make. And if if you want to live in an area that doesn’t have the best bike infrastructure, you can get involved and push your city and county to build more bike infrastructure. You know, look around, see if there’s something like the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition or Minneapolis Our Streets in your area and start advocating. Yeah and yeah like like we said like if you feel really really unsafe on a road, it’s usually legal for you to bike on a sidewalk. But keep in mind that, like, if you’re going faster than a pedestrian would, it’s probably safer for you to be on the road.

Melody: [00:17:07] Yeah, but the few times that I’ve had run-ins with cars, I have not been following the rules of the road. Like one time I was on a sidewalk, and then the second time, instead of taking instead of taking the lane to take a left turn, I went way over into the opposing lane’s traffic, you know?

Ian: [00:17:24] Oh!

Melody: [00:17:25] And again, drivers don’t see you that way, right? They’re not thinking that a bicyclist is going to come around the corner. So I know sometimes it feels safer to be on the sidewalk and I’m not going to deny anybody’s experience. I would just like to say that it’s perhaps safer on the road than you might think, especially if you use your rights to the lane. And also you could think about a different road to take, if possible. Just go down one block and usually you can find a a safer and more chill street.

Ian: [00:17:57] Yeah, yeah, yeah. You use your best judgment in any given situation. That’s. Another challenge that I’ve heard is that bikes and bike equipment are expensive.

Melody: [00:18:15] Yeah, we just started talking about headphones and lights and locks and helmets. Like, what are we up to here? You know?

Ian: [00:18:23] Yeah, it’s. Yeah, and definitely when you’re like shopping around for a bike, it is important to keep in mind the prices of the additional things that you’re going to be buying for it. Right. You know, because a a bare bike with with none of these add-ons on it is going to be, you know, a significant fraction of the price, but it’s still only a fraction of the price. But, yeah, you don’t you don’t have to get like, you know, the the racing grade road bikes and, you know, you can you can adjust the price to fit most budgets. Also consider that like if you are going all in and you replace your car with a bike, then you can definitely afford some really, really nice bike stuff for for less money probably than than what you’re saving by not having a car. And this is actually one of the reasons that I wanted to do this episode this summer is because I have had my current bike for exactly one year. So I went and did some math on on how much I had spent on it. And in total it came out to be about 1600 dollars, 1200 of which was just like buying the bike and all of the add ons in the first place.

Melody: [00:19:36] And that’s a very footnote. That… it is a very expensive bike.

Ian: [00:19:40] Yeah.

Melody: [00:19:40] So if people are like I have no I do not have 1200 dollars, let me tell you, you can get a good bike for $300 or $400. Yeah. So you can continue with his math. Sorry. It was just that’s…

Ian: [00:19:50] Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Melody: [00:19:50] …it’s expensive.

Ian: [00:19:50] No. Yeah. I was going from Yeah. In high school like my first major purchase was like a $400 mountain bike and I, and I bought that because I thought like, oh yeah, I’m going to be a hard core like mountain bike, always off off road, yadda yadda. And then I became an adult and I’m like, I’m just commuting to work every day, you know? And so finally, finally got around to actually getting, like, something that’s more… more worthy of the road. Yeah. So, so then, you know, that leaves like I spent about $400 on maintenance over the course of a year, which is really not bad at all. And if you’ve been riding your bike, you know, just recreationally it, you know, that might sound absurd like wow, $400 to maintain a bike for a year. But consider that like when you’re riding it every day for your basic utility, like you’re going to be putting way, way more distance on that thing than you ever would, just by like taking it out once or twice a week to go around Lake Phalen. So we can compare this price to something like, you know, if you just use public transit here in the Twin Cities, Metro transits, like, 31 day passes. If you get 12 of those, that’ll be $1100 because I think those are 90 bucks each. If you buy a car, of course, this is going to be highly variable as well. But like, you know, my understanding is you you’re going to be spending a few thousand dollars at least to get like a decent car that isn’t going to break down on you. And then like gas can be $40 a month or so. Insurance is like 100 bucks a month. That’s not even I don’t even know how much maintenance for a car is, but it’s got to be more than a than a bike, right?

Melody: [00:21:37] Well. Oh, it’s so much more than a bike. I mean, you got to get an oil change at least every 3000 miles. So, having a car is very expensive. And even if you have a car, if you can even cut out one or two trips using your bicycle, that’s saving you money right there as well. If money is something of a concern to you. And, of course, the more trips that you can cut out from your car, the more money you’ll save. But it is… Having a bike is very, I think. Why do people think it’s expensive, Ian? What’s where is the misconception coming from?

Ian: [00:22:10] I mean, I think that the misconception is coming from the fact that like the most visible part of bike culture is the hardcore nuts who, yeah, go all in on the equipment and, you know, bike it at 35 kilometers an hour down the street. And, you know, you see them and they’ve got like a carbon fiber bodied bike that’s super light and it costs like $7,000 or whatever it meant. I saw some crazy bikes on the MS150. Hoo!

Melody: [00:22:41] I’m sure. I’m sure. Yeah. And those are all just very expensive and not needed to be are utilitarian cyclist if you just want to get around the city.

Ian: [00:22:51] Yeah. Yeah. No.

Melody: [00:22:52] Although some people on the flip side when people ask me about used bikes, they only want to spend like $100 or $200 because I’m thinking they’re thinking, okay, when I was a kid, bikes cost like basically nothing. So as an adult, what it’s probably be $100 or $200. And what I say to them is, “There’s a sweet spot that you have to figure out, but sometimes buying those really, really cheap bikes, they’re going to break often, they’re going to be uncomfortable. There’s going to be things wrong with them. They’re going to be older. And so if you can save up some money and get a, you know, a $300 or $400 bike, you’re going to love it and you’re just going to end up riding it more.” So, yeah, that’s my that’s my thing about cost. How do you feel about like…

Ian: [00:23:32] Yeah, I think, I think that yeah, three or $400 is a good general rule probably for like the, the base price that you would want to look for. And yeah, just, just generally like having a bike that isn’t going to slow you down, right? You know, like I as a person, I want to be the slowest part of a system, whether it’s my bike or my computer or whatever. Right. I want.

Melody: [00:23:59] Oh, I like that.

Ian: [00:24:00] Yeah. Like I want it to be waiting for me, not me waiting for it. And that was like that was the big change when I went from a mountain bike to a road bike was like, “Oh my gosh, oh, I actually really, really enjoy this.” Now, of course I liked biking before, but now it’s like, “I can’t not bike fast.”

Melody: [00:24:20] Right.

Ian: [00:24:22] When I’m on this thing, it, it encourages me to just push myself a little bit harder. So yeah, the price of a bike build can really get as large or as small as you need it to. And really the important thing is that you just find a bike that is going to be good for your particular needs, right? If you have a more sensitive back, you might want a recumbent bike. If you’re going to be hauling a lot of stuff, a cargo bike might be good for you. If you are going to be biking like longer distances or trying to go. If you need to go faster than you can feasibly go without some assistance, then an e-bike might be great. I really do believe that e-bikes are a great solution for like 85% of people to be able to replace their cars with the bike because they are just so much more efficient than a car, but they still give you enough assistance for you to be able to go long distances at, you know, a relatively high speed and and to, you know, live your daily life without a car. When I was shopping around for my new bike last summer and I was thinking about, you know, what kinds of what kind of bike was I going to want? I seriously was considering getting like a big old cargo bike because I knew how much like stuff I haul around on a regular basis. But then I remembered that, oh yeah. I also do end up taking my bike on buses and on and on the light rail on a fairly regular basis. And so really a traditional-framed safety bike was really the only way for me to go for that.

Melody: [00:26:12] I think it’ll be less frustrating if you get a decent bike and also in terms of maintenance, you know, when you get a flat tire on a car, it’s to fix it 100, you’ve got to tow it. I mean, it could be hundreds of dollars.

Ian: [00:26:26] Oh yeah.

Melody: [00:26:27] If you get a… I couldn’t believe this when I had it when I had a bike as an adult, when you get a flat tire like they can fix it at the bike shop for like 30 bucks, or you can do it yourself. You can, you know, take the tube out and fix your flat.

Ian: [00:26:39] A new inner tube costs like $7.

Melody: [00:26:41] Yeah. It’s so after you have a car and then you go into a bike shop and you get things fixed. It is so cheap. It is so cheap. And so if you just make that initial investment, the bike is going to last you a super, super long time. And then if anything goes wrong, the cost is so minimal to fix if you bring it into bike shop. And so many bike shops are teaching people how to do their own maintenance and there’s books out there that you can do it yourself and it saves even more money. So the affordability thing, I hope we’ve the way that we’ve talked about it, we’ve debunked any kind of myths, but it is a super affordable form of transportation. And that’s how the technology has been since it was invented.

Ian: [00:27:18] Yeah. Yeah.

[00:27:24] [Music]

Ian: [00:27:24] So speaking of mechanical troubles, yeah, that’s another concern that I’ve heard people talking about is like, what if I have mechanical trouble while I’m out and about? And yeah, once again, this is going to be a much more of a concern than if you are riding recreationally, because when you really start putting on more distance, like, it’s more likely that things might go wrong while you’re out there. Right? So I always have like a basic repair kit with me. I just have a little saddlebag that that hangs underneath my seat. And in there I have a spare inner tube, some tire hooks, a patch kit, which I only use for emergencies. I used to I used to be of the attitude that like, “oh, yeah, I’m going to use patch kits all the time…”

[00:28:07] Me too.

[00:28:07] “…So that I can like get the most, you know, because I was like, I don’t want to waste rubber. I want to save the environment by not…” Okay. But like patch, like patches only last for so long and I only use patch kits if I like have two flat tires during a ride and then I can patch one of the ones that Yeah. That has, that has a hole.

Melody: [00:28:29] And for the listeners out there it’s you don’t get flats all the time.

Ian: [00:28:35] No you really don’t.

Melody: [00:28:35] Again, back to what you invest in. I’ve noticed that if I buy like a slightly nicer tire than the bottom-rung value one, I get less flats. And so a bike shop can always, if you’re like, worried about getting flats, you’d be like, I just want a really tough tire. And then they’ll, they’ll suggest one for you. So as long as… And also like after you put on a lot of miles, the tires start wearing down just like on a vehicle. And so you need to get them replaced because they’ll start producing flats for you. But in general, like I rarely get flats. Like I used to get flats all the time when I was doing it Ian-style. But I think investing in better tires will help. So don’t I don’t want you to think, even though we’re focusing on flats, that as a bicyclist you get flats all the time.

Ian: [00:29:19] Yeah. No, it’s just the most likely thing that can go wrong.

Melody: [00:29:21] Yes. It happens. It happens.

Ian: [00:29:24] And then the other thing that I didn’t realize until after so I had this patch kit, like this repair kit put together. And then one time I got a flat and I changed it out and I’m like, “Wait, wait, there’s no air in this new tire. I need a pump!” And so that was when I realized that I needed to buy a little portable pump to attach to my frame. But now that I have one, whenever I’m on a group ride, I am everybody’s best friend. Because if anybody gets like a flat, I’m the one that they have to come to pump it up again.

Melody: [00:29:54] It’s like having a first aid kit. It’s like…

Ian: [00:29:57] Yeah!

Melody: [00:29:57] …it’s the bike first aid kit. And I would add to this packet of tools is also to have a bus pass or some bus money because if you’re in, I think I don’t want to say most cities, but in a lot of cities that I’ve been to, buses have bike racks now in front of their buses. So if you get a flat, you could always just throw your bike on a bus or bring it on to the light rail.

Ian: [00:30:17] Yeah. And like anywhere that you are within biking distance of getting to like where you’re trying to go, you’re probably also within busing distance.

Melody: [00:30:25] So yes.

Ian: [00:30:27] And then I also just have like a little multi-tool that has it looks like an, you know, a pocket knife, but it folds out and it just has like, you know, different sized allen wrenches on it because most things on a bike, if you’re going to have to like adjust them a little bit they take allen wrenches a phillips head as.

Melody: [00:30:46] Well super helpful. Everybody should have a multi tool very affordable. It’s great it’s great to have on the road.

Ian: [00:30:52] And then there’s a little bit of knowledge that you should have, of course, just how to do those basic repairs, how to change a tire, how to like, Oh, my fenders are a little bit wonky and rubbing against the tire. How can I like? What do I need to what tension do I need to adjust to to move it into place? And then also, like, learning how to recognize when you need to take it into the shop to do things. So like I, yeah, I haven’t, I probably could learn how to change a chain and like change a cassette because those are the two things that I have to take it in for the most often. But I haven’t, I haven’t gotten to the point where I feel like I need to do that at home.

Melody: [00:31:33] If you are somebody who is interested in learning the manual labor of bikes, there’s this great book called Chainbreaker [Bike Book], and it started off as a zine decades ago at this point, and it’s just written from a very accessible standpoint and it explains bikes through illustration and using words as well. And that’s kind of mine’s all greasy and dirty because I often go to it. If I don’t, it’s like, “Yeah, I’d like to know how to tighten up my brakes.” And oftentimes with some of these repairs, it’s all about having the specific tool. So like, if you wanted to change your chain, no pun intended, you need a chain-breaker and you don’t have that tool at home. Like no toolbox comes with a chain breaker. Or if your stem of your bike is like kind of wobbly, you need a specific wrench that that is the size of a specific nut on our bikes, right. That only bikes shop sell. So if you do go to bike shops, ask about open shop nights and those are nights where they open up the shop and you can use their tools to kind of explore some aspects of your bike. And that’s how I learned how to do a lot of things. And then you don’t have to invest in those tools unless you get really into it and then you can buy one.

Ian: [00:32:45] Yeah, it doesn’t take long to learn how to fix just about everything on on bikes. They’re very simple machines.

Melody: [00:32:50] They are. And the technology has stayed the same since the 1890s, which is fascinating in terms of technology. Like it’s all the same. We have not innovated at all because it’s… It works.

Ian: [00:33:04] Yeah, I think most of the innovation probably has come from like new materials, you know, like lighter, lighter things to make this out of. But it’s all the same shape still.

Melody: [00:33:14] Yep.

Ian: [00:33:14] Yeah.

[00:33:19] [Music]

Ian: [00:33:20] Related to the expense of all of this stuff. You want to protect your investment, right?

Melody: [00:33:25] Mhmm.

Ian: [00:33:26] So getting a good lock is definitely important. The reason that I bought a new bike a year ago was because my old mountain bike got stolen. It was locked up and somebody just cut right through the cable lock that I had. So I definitely I’m a fan of folding locks now. They’re they look a little weird. A lot of people don’t realize that, that it’s a lock when it’s attached to my bike, but it basically, like when you unfolded and open it up, it kind of looks like a chain, you know, because it makes a full circle and but it’s almost as solid and thick as like a u lock, which is kind of, you know, usually held up as like the gold standard for the hardest locks to to get through. And so I think I think folding locks really like strike a good balance between like, yeah, the hard, like the security of a U-lock and the flexibility of a cable lock. I might change my tune, you know, if I, if my current bike ever does get stolen. But it hasn’t yet.

Melody: [00:34:31] No, I think I’ve heard good things about those foldable locks. And just to reiterate what Ian was saying, the cable locks are worthless. Like, it’s so easy to break through those. And so you are going to have to spend some money on a lock. But like he said, it’s like protecting your investment.

Ian: [00:34:48] Yeah.

Melody: [00:34:49] So, keep that in mind is another important investment to make into your biking. But yeah, don’t use a cable lock. It’s like you’re just, you’re just crossing your fingers at that point.

Ian: [00:34:59] [Laughing] Yeah. And like, one, one thing that I think people don’t really take into consideration is like, “How am I going to attach this lock to my bike?” Right? You know, with a u-lock. Yeah. You can like you can mount it to the frame if you’ve got like a clip that, that attaches to the frame. The folding lock has like a little sleeve basically that it slots into and you know, so then like they’re not rattling around and, and getting in the way while you’re riding. Having, having stuff attached to your bike that like moves and slides. I’m not a fan of because then like weight shifting and you know, it can rub against your your bike and like mess up the paint job and stuff. So I, yeah, I try to have things as like secured down as possible.

Melody: [00:35:50] Yeah.

Ian: [00:35:51] Batten down the hatches.

Melody: [00:35:52] But we could also. Don’t you like when I was a dumb 22 year old, I used to get a giant bike messenger bag and throw everything in my backpack, like my u lock and my lights and then and my groceries. And then I developed, like, horrible shoulder problems. Surprise, surprise.

[00:36:14] [Music]

Melody: [00:36:15] So [laughing] I switched to panniers. Are you a fan of panniers?

Ian: [00:36:18] I am, yes. This brings us very nicely into our next challenge, which is you cannot haul stuff while biking. It’s hard to transport stuff around. Yeah, a cargo rack and some panniers. Panniers? I don’t know. It’s French. They let you carry, like a lot of stuff, a lot more stuff than you would expect.

Melody: [00:36:35] Yes. Or if you’re like me and you have a problem when you go to Target and you buy too much crap, it keeps you from buying crap that you don’t need.

Ian: [00:36:42] You’ll definitely learn to kind of judge how much stuff you can reasonably fit into the bags that you have. You know, once you’ve had them for a while and you and you are familiar with them. But yeah, just like simply having a rear rack over your back tire with some panniers, you can even, you know, get like a milk crate and like bungee cord it to the top of your of your rack and, you know, add some some extra cargo space that way. I’ve… I recently took the plunge and got a front rack as well. So now I can have like two sets of panniers and…

Melody: [00:37:21] Wow.

Ian: [00:37:21] …And yeah, I did that mostly for bike touring.

Melody: [00:37:25] Totally.

Ian: [00:37:25] Like it’s going to, it’s going to be it’s definitely going to be useful here in the cities, especially since I like I have a cargo net on top of my front rack now. So like if I want something really bulky or like awkwardly shaped, then I can just like put it on top of that platform and put the cargo net over it.

Melody: [00:37:43] Yeah. Yeah. And maybe this is particular to who I am, but I find it really enjoyable to as like a challenge to try to get the stuff that I have home on a bike, you know? Like even so if I run out of space, it’s like, “Oh, it’s kind of annoying,” but I figure something out, you know? And like the other day I went out to lunch with a friend downtown and I stopped in to Nordstrom Rack to like, there was some shoes on clearance. And I was like, Oh my God, I didn’t bring my bags with me. But the checkout person was like, “Oh, here, use this plastic bag. It’s really nice to bike with. I biked home with it before,” and caveat: Yes, I should not be using more plastic bags when I have tons at home, but in that moment I had an uh-oh moment and she just hooked me up with this bag and I like tied it to my handlebar. And I got home and I was like, Oh, cool. Like, look at. I figured this out by myself and this other person helped. And so it’s kind of just a fun challenge as well. And especially in cities where people bike a lot like they’ll help people will help you out. People will help you figure it out. You know, I’ve never have you ever had to leave something because you couldn’t get it home on a bike.

Ian: [00:38:48] Yeah. What? Like, not very often, but once or twice. Yeah, I just realized, like, oh, wait, this isn’t going to work. Let me not check out with this item.

Melody: [00:38:57] Oh, so you’ve put stuff back like before. You like, have purchased it?

Ian: [00:39:00] Yeah. Yeah.

Melody: [00:39:01] I remember one time I bought kitty litter and it was like a really heavy bag. And I put it on the back of my bike with a rack with a bungee cord, but like the bungee, like, didn’t cut through the bag, but it kind of broke the like, vacuum seal. And so it was just like annoying to get home, you know? It was like it would just sway back and forth. But I will say the most annoying times that I’ve been on my bike trying to get stuff home was when I insisted I’m putting it on my back with backpacks. It was like my back was about to crumble and I was just too cool for school. It’s like, “I’m not going to get these bags and put them on my racks, man. Like, that’s nerdy.” But now I’ve accepted it and it’s…

Ian: [00:39:40] Yeah, no. Getting everything all the weight off of your body is essential. Like, I don’t even. I won’t even bike around if I still have my keys in my pocket. Like I have to put that in my bag.

Melody: [00:39:53] Oh, wow.

Ian: [00:39:53] [Laughing]

Melody: [00:39:55] You go all out.

Ian: [00:39:56] Yeah, yeah, I might be. Maybe I’m being a little bit too picky, but, like, you know, it’s I’ve gotten used to not having anything. Nothing’s holding me down, man.

Melody: [00:40:05] That’s good. I’m glad. I’m glad. I like our dynamic here. You’re like the going all-out, getting all the gear, and I’m like the DIY punk that messed up for a long time and is now seeing a chiropractor but can tell you of the things not to do to not be in that situation.

Ian: [00:40:19] I did start off this like doing more DIY stuff like like when I first moved back into the cities and I became determined to never ever own a car for my, my, my first birthday. In that situation, I just asked my parents, I was like, hey, you don’t need to buy me anything. But like, you guys still have that toddler trailer, right? That, that you hook up to a bike and then you can, like, haul a couple of tiny children with you, right? And they’re like, Yeah. And I’m like, I want that so I can go grocery shopping. So even before I had like a cargo rack on my bike, that was my solution. And trailers, oh, my God, they hold tons of stuff.

Melody: [00:40:56] They’re so fun. And people think there’s children in them. And then they give you all this room because they don’t want to hit children on a trailer.

Ian: [00:41:03] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Melody: [00:41:04] It’s amazing.

Ian: [00:41:05] Even on group rides, I’ve had a couple of times where like, like if I was planning on going grocery shopping after the group ride, I had a couple of people saying like, Oh. Who’s in the trailer? I’m like “uh… grocery bags.”

Melody: [00:41:15] Bags. Yes. And they’re cheap, by the way, like because there are so many generations of bike trailers now, you can find one on Craigslist for like 100 bucks. So if you are… I don’t know what in what world you live in and which you would be hauling a lot of things, you can do it with trailers. My friend Lo, they haul like I don’t eat 50 pounds worth of pickles every week to the farmers market. I mean, it is…

Ian: [00:41:40] Wow.

Melody: [00:41:40] If you want to nerd out on the cargo thing, there’s a whole world into cargo bikes, like how to haul things. Like I have a friend in Portland, they’ve hauled a couch before bookshelves. You know, they have like a system, like a cargo system. But you can do it, you can do it, or you can just rent a truck. It’s fine. Nobody is going to blame. Like, don’t shame yourself if you’re like, I have to get a truck. Like, Yes, that’s why some of us have cars because sometimes it’s just easier to move things. We live in the United States. Gas is affordable. It’s okay if you need to move things.

Ian: [00:42:11] And here’s the thing. Like, even if you own a car, you’re probably going to encounter times where you cannot haul large things in your car. Right. And you might have to rent a truck.

Melody: [00:42:20] That’s true.

Ian: [00:42:21] Hey, bicyclists do that, too!

Melody: [00:42:23] Yep.

Ian: [00:42:23] There you go.

Ian: [00:42:25] Thanks for joining us for this episode of podcast. But wait, there’s more! Melody and I had so much to discuss. It ended up being too long for just one episode. Tune in to the next episode to hear how we deal with all kinds of weather, long distance touring and a few challenges that we have not yet found solutions to. In the meantime, here’s how you can connect with Melody online.

Melody: [00:42:49] My website is You can find me on Twitter at [@MLH_ARCC] and you can shoot me an email at You can call me… Just kidding.

[00:43:08] [Music]

Ian: [00:43:09] What’s your Geocities?

Melody: [00:43:11] Dude, I had one a long time ago for a band that I loved and I can’t remember the. I wish I could remember the address now.

Ian: [00:43:19] This show is released under a Creative Commons attribution, non commercial, non derivative license, so feel free to republish the episode as long as you are not altering it and you are not profiting from it. The music in this episode is by Eric Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet. This episode was hosted and edited by me, Ian R. Buck with transcript by the indomitable Mike Allen. Christy Marsden is our awesome guest-booker, and technical assistance is provided by the super professional, Brian Mitchell. If you’re able to help make sure this team gets paid for the hard work that they do, please consider donating at We really appreciate it. If you have feedback or ideas for future episodes, drop us a line at Until next time, take care.

About Ian R Buck

Co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition, podcaster, and teacher. Ian gets around via bike and public transportation. "You don't need a parachute to skydive; you just need a parachute to skydive twice!"

2 thoughts on “Tips for Utilitarian Cycling, Part 1

  1. Ted Duepner

    Big fan of the bluetooth speaker and directions in group rides where everyone can hear the directions called out too.
    LOL to Ian’s commentary on costs of car ownership “gas is like $40/month.” I think national average used to be $150-$200 but certainly it’s higher than that now.

    1. Ian R Buck Moderator   Post author

      Hahaha, this was long before I started seeing estimates of the full cost of car ownership being ~$10,000 per year. I’ve never owned a car, so I had trouble imagining the scope of the problem!


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