All The Bicycle-Related Knowledge I Have, In Q&A Form

It was 70 degrees out yesterday in Chicago. Seventy, people! That means, of course, that I’ve been riding my bike for the last few weeks, because really, once you hit about 35 it’s pretty safe to bike.

That being said, I know so many people who are afraid either to use their bicycle as their primary mode of transportation or to bike at all, mainly because of a deficit of knowledge and experience. They have questions, like, What do you do if you get a flat tire? Am I going to get hit by a car? Aren’t bicycles tremendously expensive to maintain?

Fantastic news, bike newbs! I am a moderately avid cyclist who was once in your position, and because I had the crazy notion last year that I would travel the country on my bike, I know how to perform basic maintenance and fixes. Have no fear, all will be explained, and you will be on your way to both savings and glorious quadriceps in no time.

Q: Am I going to get hit by a car and die?

A: It’s not likely either that you will get hit by a car or that you will die if you do, although it’s true that cycling deaths are no joke and still happen too often thanks in no small part to a road infrastructure that’s designed for motorists, not cyclists. That’s changing in a lot of places, though, and generally speaking, motorists are pretty paranoid about hitting bikes. If you go out to ride right now, I guarantee that you will find yourself being trailed – at your pace – by a car who is scared to death to pass you.

Cycling is just like driving: You have to do it defensively. Being aware of your surroundings and getting out of the way of reckless motorists will do wonders for your safety.

Q: Do I have to wear a helmet?

A: Yes, you do.

Q: Awwww, come on.

A: Wear a fucking helmet, goddamn it. It is so, so irresponsible not to. I’ve been in a minor collision that could have landed me with a cracked skull if I hadn’t been wearing a helmet. And look, I wash my hair once a week. A helmet mats my hair to my head. I still do it, because I care more about my skull than my hair. I know all the stats about how drivers treat cyclists with helmets versus cyclists without helmets, and none of that matters if you have a freak accident, graze a bumper, and your head hits the ground the wrong way. It’s just such an easy precaution to take. Just get a Bern helmet, they’re pretty cute.

Q: What is it like to get doored?

A: For those of you who don’t know, “getting doored” means that some careless driver opens their door into the bike lane in front of you and you don’t have time to stop, so you hit the door and are launched one way or the other from your bike. I got doored by a drunk guy in front of a brewery, and it totaled my bike — the frame was bent just enough from the impact that it was unrideable.

To answer the question: It’s pretty painful to get a concussion or bang up your limbs no matter how you do it. The important thing to remember when you get doored is to get the person’s insurance information, and if they won’t give it to you, to take down their license plate number and call the cops. Motorists are not exempt from the rules of the road just because they’re parked, and they still have to watch out for and accommodate cyclists.

Q: Should I get a fixie?

A: You should get a fixie with a flip-flop hub and front and rear brakes, because if you’re interested in riding fixed, just know that it will tear up your knees and get old after a while, and you’ll want to go back to freewheel. Seriously: Braking with the force of your legs is rough on your joints. If you ride fixed, take glucosamine supplements.

But I do love single-speed bikes, especially for city biking. They’re light, they’re narrow, they’re a joy to ride. I have an 18-speed touring bike right now and while it’s great for hauling groceries, it’s heavy, it has riser bars, and I want my single-speed back in the worst way.

Q: Does it matter what kind of handlebars I get?

A: YES. Riser and cruiser bars are straight across and only have one place to put your hands, which locks your wrists, elbows, shoulders, back, and pelvis into the same position. This is very bad for your body and will result in soreness and stiffness if you do a lot of biking.

Bullhorn and drop bars are preferable by a long shot. They give you at least three different ways to hold the handlebars so that when your arms or back get tired on a long ride, you have options.

Q: Do I have to spend a gajillion dollars on a bike?

A: Nope! You do kind of get what you pay for with bikes, especially in terms of parts, and that can become important if the spokes of your wheels are wonky and they’re giving you flats all the time, if your tires are thin and crappy, and especially if your brakes suck. Here’s some good news: This Takara bike from Amazon is a pretty well-built single-speed, and it comes with good rims and tires, plus front and rear brakes (when I bought it, it came with Shimano brakes, but that may not be the case now). It’s $200. That’s about as much as you should spend if you’re just getting into biking, although if you order your bike online, it will also be worthwhile to either have it built and tuned up at a shop or to have a professional show you how to build it. The only bummer is that it only comes in two sizes.

Q: Oh yeah, what size bike should I get?

A: Get measured at a bike shop. If you don’t have one near you, here’s a frame size calculator.

Frame size is super, super important, in my opinion. You’ll tip over all the time on a frame that’s too big, and you’ll be all hunched and uncomfortable on a frame that’s too small. When you ride, you want to have a big enough frame and the seat high enough that you can extend your leg almost completely at the bottom of your pedal stroke, and that you can comfortably stand on the ball of your foot at a light.

Q: I’m a woman, so should I get a women’s bike?

A: Oh, you mean a step-through? Seriously, how do men not love step-through bikes? It’s so much easier to dismount from them.

Anyway, no, you don’t have to, bike frames are unisex and manufacturers who say “women’s” and “men’s” instead of “step-through” and “diamond” are asshats. If you’re going to be riding in skirts or dresses a lot, you might want to consider a step-through frame. You can ride on a diamond frame in a skirt or dress, but it’s not as comfortable and mounting/dismounting will be a little precarious. Personally, I don’t like riding in skirts either way. That all being said, plenty of men wear skirts and plenty more women wear pants, so let’s all stop gendering our fucking bike frames.

Q: Isn’t my bike mechanic going to upcharge me for all sorts of stuff?

A: Yep! I mean, all respect, but no bike mechanic is going to be like, “Oh, you could just fix this flat tire with a patch kit.” Instead, they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, you definitely need a new tube,” and then charge you $17 every time you get a flat.

The best solution for this problem is to learn how to perform basic maintenance yourself. Most cities have bike cooperatives where you can learn to do this stuff at low or no cost (Chicago’s Recyclery is a prime example). You should know how and be prepared to patch a tube, replace a tube, do at least a quick-and-dirty brake tune-up, lube your chain, identify problems, and assemble and disassemble your bike. That will take care of the most common problems you’ll have, and you can save your money for when it counts and you really need your mechanic’s expertise. Keep in mind: It’s still way less expensive to fix a bike than it is to own and fix a car.

Because I love great bike shops, I want to humbly recommend Heritage Bicycles in Chicago, if you happen to be local and on the North side. Their mechanics are friendly and do not bullshit the customers, they will sell you small parts if you can do a fix yourself but lack a part you need, the prices are fair, and you can get coffee while you wait. I don’t own a Heritage bike, but I hear they’re quite good, too. All of this is what you should be looking for when you look for a bike shop.

Q: OK, so what all do I need to buy if I’m going to get a bike?

A: Well, a bike, a helmet, pedals you like (a lot of bikes come with plastic pedals, which I looooooooathe – I always replace them with metal pedals), and safety lights. By the way, everyone rides with their safety lights on the “flashing” position. WHY. Blinking lights cause tired drivers to drift toward you. Ride with your safety lights on steady.

Then, for maintenance, get a good floor pump, a good portable mini-pump, a good multitool, tire levers, a patch kit, chain lube, and some wrenches in the right size for the hardware on your bike. That will take care of the majority of the maintenance you’ll do.

Q: What is proper etiquette?

A: Well, in regards to other cyclists, let them know when you’re passing. You can yell “on your left!”, but I really like using a bell instead. The point is just to get their attention and a bell is much cheerier than a yell.

In regards to turning: I know it’s really scary to learn how to balance well enough to do hand signals, but it is so, so helpful if you do. For reference, traditional hand signals dictate that you always use your left arm. Holding it straight out means you’re turning left, and holding it at a ninety-degree angle means you’re turning right. However, I live in a city that’s full of five- and six-way intersections, so more often, I just point in the general direction of the way I’ll be turning or merging, and motorists and cyclists get the picture.

I know some people think it’s not cool to use crosswalks to turn, but I DGAF. I work my way through crosswalks to get to the point in an intersection where I need to be all the time. It’s easier and often safer and faster than getting in a left-turn lane.

In terms of bike lanes: You are entitled, by law, to ride in the middle of the lane with the cars if you need to. Most motorists think that because there’s a bike lane, cyclists are supposed to stay in it. I see bike lanes as a courtesy that cyclists extend to motorists, because they let motorists know where we will be most of the time.

Motorists, if a cyclist is riding in traffic, it’s probably for one of the following reasons: The bike lane has disappeared on the approach to an intersection; a bike lane does not exist; cars have parked in the bike lane; there are pedestrians in the bike lane; a car is opening its door; a bike lane does not exist and there is no parking on the street, but cars in the right lane are so far over that the cyclist can’t safely ride on the right. Or any number of other reasons. If a cyclist is in traffic, it’s rare that they’re there just to piss off motorists. Please assume the best of us, because we’re really just trying to protect our safety.

Q: I do not know how to ride a bike. Is there a way to learn now that I’m an adult?

A: Yep! You can do training wheels, or you can get an adult trike, which sounds like it might be unhip, but honestly, adult trikes look SO FUCKING COOL to me. They usually have giant baskets on the back. Man, to make a grocery run with a trike…

Q: Anything else I need to know?

A: Cycling is fun! If you’re scared, just try a little bit at a time. You’ll get used to it soon, you’ll learn how to interact with everyone else on the road, and you’ll find that generally, other people are good-hearted and looking out for your safety. So get on your bike and ride!

[Image via Flickr]

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