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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Amphibious Paddler

Paddlers' Wheels — Bikes for Boaters

By Tamia Nelson

September 7, 2004

There's no doubt about it. Scouting for new places to paddle can be exciting. Occasionally, though, the excitement gets out of hand. A lot of less-traveled ways to the water are old carriage roads or overgrown jeep trails. These aren't always kind to cars, and breaking down in the middle of nowhere isn't everybody's idea of a good time. Just ask Farwell, who busted a VW Beetle's oil pan on a boulder, high in the mountains. That's why it sometimes pays to scout by bike.

Bikes can go almost anywhere. Better yet, once you get your road legs, bikes eat up the miles at a surprisingly fast clip. There's no better way to explore your neighborhood. (How big is your neighborhood? Well, how strong are your legs? For most of us, fifty-mile round trips are within reach: twenty-five out and twenty-five back. This makes your "neighborhood" something like 1 million acres. Hardy folks may find they can go twice as far in a day. Their neighborhood is four times as large.) That's not all. Cycling is a great exercise, too, targeting the very muscles that don't get much of a workout on the water.

In short, scouting by bike lets you check out nearby waterways without risking your family car or handing over all your paycheck to Big Oil. And it's fun, into the bargain. You can even haul a boat to the water with a bike. But you have to have the right boat — and the right bike.

First things first. What makes a bike the right bike for a boater? One answer — and not the worst, by any means — is "Any bike you've got." If the wheels on your old iron horse are still going round, and you don't want to spend money at the start, simply use what you have. Just bear its limitations in mind. The cruiser you used on your paper route thirty years ago isn't the best choice for a twenty-five-mile road trip. Nor will the club racer you rode in the eighties make a very good beast of burden.

But suppose you don't have a bike of any description in your garage. OK. Job One — after learning to ride, of course — is to get a bike and outfit it. If the hottest thing on wheels when you were a kid was a three-speed "English racer," you're in for a surprise. There's now a bewildering array of models and types: road bikes in a range of exotic materials from carbon to titanium, mountain bikes in at least two flavors (hardtail and full suspension), hybrids with road-bike wheels and mountain-bike frames, "comfort" bikes, recumbents… With so much to choose from, how do you decide?

Just keep things simple. It's a little like choosing your first boat. You wanted something that was both versatile and forgiving. No single boat you looked at did everything superbly well, but you shopped around till you found one that did most things well enough to suit you: an all-rounder, in other words. That was the boat you bought. You want the same thing from your first bike. You need a bike that can make good time on the highway but will also hold up to the pounding of a rutted logging road. And you want something that can carry a load. For most folks, this means a hardtail (front-suspension-only) mountain bike or — if you're happier sitting more or less upright — a so-called comfort bike. (A comfort bike is built on a somewhat modified mountain-bike frame. A broader saddle, sprung seatpost, and riser handlebars make it possible to sit comfortably erect and still pedal efficiently.) Both are all-rounders. Either one will negotiate asphalt and gravel with equal aplomb, climb and descend any hills you're likely to encounter this side of the Hindu Kush, and carry 30-50 pounds of gear with reasonable grace (or tow an even larger load in a trailer). Are you having trouble picturing what I'm talking about? Then see if this doesn't help…

Naming of Parts


The Nature of the Beast

Doesn't look too much like the bikes of yesteryear, does it? The frame's top tube — most likely, the frame will be made of either steel or aluminum, and both materials work fine — drops down, increasing clearance and making mounting and dismounting easier. The 'bars don't droop and curve back on themselves. And the front fork looks like something you'd find on a motorcycle.

Now let's move in for a closer inspection.


A Bicycle Built For You

  • Hanging On  Straight bars (I'll drop the apostrophe from here on out) are just that — straight. Most mountain bikes have 'em. Riser bars…well…riser bars rise, making the ends higher than the center and permitting a more upright seating position. This is good in traffic, and it's also easier on some folks' troublesome backs.

  • Smoothing It  Shock-absorbers on a bike? Why not? It looks a little jarring to some, though. Farwell, who still goes into ecstasies over his long-lost Schwinn Paramount, snorted and pawed the ground when he saw his first suspension bike. Now that he's ridden through a few thousand pot-holes without needing to fix a flat or true a wheel, however, I'm hearing a lot less about that Paramount. And there are other advantages, too. I like to know what's coming up behind me, particularly on the highway. If you remember how bar-mounted rear-view mirrors used to vibrate, you'll appreciate the steady picture you get through a mirror mounted on a bike with a suspension fork.

    Comfort bikes have suspension seatposts, as well. It sounds like a good idea, and maybe it is — for some. There's no denying that rutted roads and jeep trails kick your butt when you're on a bike. I find the constant spring-loaded bounce a little wearing, though. I'd rather have all that energy go into moving me forward. And there's another chapter to the story. Most mountain bikes now have rear suspension, as well. That's good news for downhill racers, I suppose, but it's not much use to a pedaling paddler. We need to carry lots of stuff, and it's nearly impossible to fit a rear rack to the frame of a full-suspension bike. Too many moving parts. (One common fix, the seatpost rack, seldom holds more than 20 or 25 pounds. That's just not enough.)

  • Shifting for Yourself  It's never been easier. With click-stop ("indexed") twist-grip shifters you don't even have to remove your hands from the bars to change gears. Trigger shifters — another common choice — can be operated with a thumb or finger. Both are big improvements over the down-tube shifters of the early ten-speeds.

  • Gearing Up (or Down)  Most mountain and comfort bikes offer somewhere between 21 and 27 "speeds," or gear-ratios, ranging between 20 and 100 inches. (In the US, bikes' gear-ratios are labeled by equivalent wheel size. Driving a 100-inch high gear is like riding an old penny-farthing bicycle with a front wheel having a diameter of 100 inches. Talk about flying on the flats! Pushing a 20-inch low gear, on the other hand, is like pedaling a kid's tricycle. It's slow, but you'll make it to the top of all but the steepest hills without walking.) Even though there's some redundancy and a few combinations are off-limits — small chainring to small cog, for example — you'll find a gear to suit almost any terrain.

  • Stopping  Sometimes you want to slow down in a hurry. If you ever struggled to keep cheap sidepull brakes from dragging, or cursed the easy-skid tendency of coaster brakes on your paper-route bike, you'll find the V-brakes on many mountain and comfort bikes a joy to use. Linear descendents of the cantilever brakes used on tandems and cyclocross bikes, V-brakes are powerful enough to bring even a heavily-loaded bike to a stop on a mountain road, yet so easy to modulate that you can brake on rain-slick asphalt and not skid out of control. Unfortunately, more and more bikes are now being fitted with disc brakes. Efficient? You bet. But much too fussy for me. Hydraulic lines on a bike? Give me a brake…er…break!

  • Pedaling  Once upon a time, the hallmark of the "serious" bike was toe-clips and straps. No longer. Now it's "clipless" pedals that you lock into like a downhill ski-binding. Include me out. Clipless pedals are safe and reliable, but each brand needs a special cleat, and all of them place a lot of strain on your shoes' uppers. You'll need specialty bike shoes, and these aren't cheap. Moreover, I don't like having my footwear dictated by the guy who designed my pedal. Toe-clips? They're great for highway trips, but they take a little getting used to. Because I'm frequently on and off my bike every few minutes on the trail, and because I change shoes and boots to meet conditions, I make do with the bottom-of-the-line bear-trap pedals favored by BMX riders. Less efficient? Sure. But try pedaling in pacs on any other kind. (CAUTION! Extended road trips are hard on the feet. If that's your trip, get a proper bike shoe, whatever type of pedal you favor. Your feet will thank you.)

  • Where the Rubber Meets the Road  The 27-inch wheel that used to be standard on "good" bikes is now nearly extinct. Most road bikes have 700C wheels and slick tires. They're great on the highway, but lousy on the trail. Touring cyclists and cyclocross racers often mount wider, more robust 700C tires, but these come at a price. On the other hand, mountain bikes let you run everything from slicks to knobbies to studded snow-tires, and many of them are dirt cheap. My choice? An all-round 26 x 1.9 semi-slick. They're fast enough on the road (I'm happy averaging 16 mph or so on the flats), but still ready to take on the ruts and rocks when you leave the highways for the byways.

  • Saddle Up!  Comfort bikes come with wide, soft saddles, and these are certainly comfortable enough on short rides. As you venture farther from home, however, you may find that you want something firmer and narrower. Fortunately, replacing a saddle is just about the easiest thing you can do to customize a bike, and you don't have to spend a fortune. Experiment. And if you're a woman, don't assume that you have to have a woman's saddle. I find Farwell's saddle more comfortable than my own, even if it isn't labeled "Speed She."


But Does It Fit?

Size matters. The best bike is no good to you if it doesn't fit. Too large a frame, and you'll have to stand on tippy-toe to mount and dismount. (You'll also risk painful injury.) Too small, and you'll feel like a clown in a circus act. But it's easy to get the right size. Just swing your leg over the top tube and straddle the bike you're interested in. (Straddle the top tube, that is, not the saddle.) Feet flat on the ground? Good. Now lift the front wheel. Can you raise it at least four inches before the top tube starts to intrude uncomfortably into your personal space? Perfect. (If you're planning to ride on what mountain bikers call "single-track" you'll want more clearance — six inches plus, say. But I stick to jeep roads and I get by with less.)

This method won't work for drop or "women's" frames, of course, but not too many women ride women's frames these days. It won't work for mail-order bikes, either. The solution? Ask the seller to help you choose the right size when you place your order, and then check it when it arrives.


Accessories Before the Fact

No canoe or kayak is ready for the water right off a dealer's rack, and no bike is ready for the road right out of the shop. Here's a list of must-have add-ons.

  • Helmet  Not really an accessory for your bike, but vitally important anyway. How much is your head worth? At least twenty bucks? Then get a helmet, make sure it fits properly, and wear it whenever you're on your bike. You wouldn't paddle without a PFD, would you? Then don't ride without a helmet.

  • Mini Pump  Flats happen, even to good riders, and there aren't many gas stations on backcountry roads and trails. Unless you ride solids — urethane-filled tires that are puncture-proof— you'll need a pump you can carry with you. Try it out before you need it. You don't want to discover that it doesn't work when you're twenty miles from the last paved road. (CAUTION! The inner tubes on most mountain and comfort bikes have Schrader valves, but a few have Presta fittings. Be sure your pump works with the valves on your bike.)

  • Repair Kit  Don't leave home without a spare tube, a patch kit (self-stick "instant" patches work fine), and a basic assortment of tools: tire levers, a jackknife-like multi-tool with screwdriver and Allen (hex) wrenches, a chain tool, and a spoke wrench. Belt-and-suspenders types will add 8mm and 9mm open-end wrenches, a crank bolt wrench, crank extractor, cassette or freewheel remover, bottom-bracket tool, headset wrench, and cone wrenches, along with a spare rear axle and an assortment of spokes. Sound like a lot to carry? It is. Until you need it. Then it's worth its weight in gold. A take-along repair manual is useful, too, particularly if you're not an ace mechanic. Rob Van der Plas' Roadside Bicycle Repairs is good, if a little dated. (Read it before you need it.)

  • Water Bottle and Cage  Thirst is a dangerous thing. You want at least one water bottle. For that matter, two are better than one, and three are better than two. Most bikes come with mounts for at least two cages. Use them. And get the largest water bottles your frame can accommodate.

  • Bell  Required by law in many places, these aren't toys. All of them will let a pedestrian know you're coming. The loudest ones yield such a piercing "Ping!" that they'll even waken a dozing commuter before he pulls out of his driveway and into your path. (Don't take your hands off the brakes, though.)

  • Lights and Reflectors  Also required by law in most places, and a good idea even if you never plan to be out on the road after dark. You never know when you'll be late, or when the fog will roll in. The reflectors that come with most bikes aren't enough by themselves. Get an LED taillight and a headlight — the new generation of white LEDs is bright! — and carry a headlamp, too. It makes after-dark repairs easier.

  • Rear-View Mirror  Satchel Paige was wrong. You want to look back. Often. Make it easy on yourself. Install a mirror on the left end of your bars (the right end in the UK) so you can see what's gaining on you. This can be a lifesaver in traffic.

  • Bike Lock  Do your bit to keep honest men (and women) honest. A cable or chain lock is more useful than a U-lock when you have to lock your bike to a tree.

  • Seat and Bar Bags  You'll want a place to put all your stuff, won't you? These will do the trick — till you need to pack a boat and camping gear, at any rate.


Now get ready to…

Shop Till You Drop

What should you expect to pay? Less than US$300 will buy you a serviceable all-rounder, even if you won't win any plaudits from the bike snobs. Spend a couple of hundred more, though, and they'll start to take notice. Is even $300 too much? Then buy a used bike. And don't forget to budget for all the must-have accessories. If you can't scrounge or scavenge what you'll need, these can easily add a couple of hundred to the total. It's money well spent.

Where should you buy your bike? Wherever you can find what you want. I've bought bikes at bike shops and big-box chains, and from mail-order catalog companies, as well. Some needed a little tweaking to make them road- and trail-worthy, but all of them worked. Of course, a good local bike shop — LBS to hard-core riders — can be a great place to buy a bike. But not every LBS is good.

A case in point. Not long ago I went into an LBS, looking for a bracket for my front fender. Not only did the clerk not have the bracket I needed — and no inclination to help me find a suitable substitute in his parts bin — but he also hinted that it was high time I ditched my old nag of a utility bike for a thoroughbred filly. And what's more, he just happened to have what I needed in stock. Before I could open my mouth to remind him I'd come into his shop looking for a bracket and not a new bike, he wheeled the filly out onto the showroom floor. She cost a grand, and looked it. More importantly, though, she wouldn't have lasted a minute on a jeep trail. I want my bike to carry me, not the other way round. It was No Sale, and I didn't bother staying to chat.

Later, I found the bracket I needed at Radio Shack. (They thought it was an antenna clamp, but I knew better.) And I'll probably buy my next bike from a mail-order house, too. You may have better luck than I did, however. So when you're ready got go shopping, check out your LBS first.

Why should scouting new places to paddle have to be a chore? Make it part of the adventure, instead — get on your bike. But be warned. Old carriage roads and muddy jeep trails aren't for fine-boned thoroughbreds. A stocky, sturdy carthorse is what you want. Get a bike that can take a licking and keep on tick-tick-ticking along. And then hit the road in search of waters new!

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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