Bicycle as Pickup Truck
–John B. Gilpin
Many riders regard their bicycles like sports cars. Here I discuss the bicycle as an instrument for working trips, especially the carriage of cargo.
The focus is not on impressive feats or specialized vehicles but merely on what ordinary folks can usefully do with ordinary bicycles. What I write is necessarily shaped by my own experience, and the intent is to suggest possibilities, not write a prescription.
I assume the reader has basic bicycle skills, but that s/he is new to using a bike as a serious work vehicle. I err on the side of providing detail, and much of what I say is elementary.
The Bicycle does not need to be anything fancy. Most household errands don’t involve long distances, so high technology is not required, and in fact, it is not recommended. See next section. My own bike is a Dunelt 3-speed that I bought second-hand for $40 in 1987. The only modification is a smaller rear sprocket to up the gears a little, and that is just a personal preference in the local flat terrain.
Perhaps worth mentioning is that for decades I have preferred using “open frame” (“ladies'”) bikes. Open frames are less strong, but I have never bent or broken a frame, and the open-frame variety is far easier to handle with a heavy load.
Fenders are recommended. I have also found it helpful to have a mudflap on the front fender. I made one from a piece of old boot, punched with two small grommets, and secured to the fender stays with pieces of discarded shoestring.
Security has two aspects: (1) A bicycle with market value too low to be of interest to a thief looking for a bicycle to sell. (2) An obsessively consistent habit of always locking the bike when going out of sight of it, even for 30 seconds.
Besides its unfashionable 3-speed technology and its normal signs of age, my bicycle has a front fender and chainguard from a junk bike (the originals having died years ago), and a conspicuously non-matching set of pedals. All of these things make the bike less interesting to steal and, because readily identifiable, risky for a thief to be seen with.
The lock can be quite primitive. Its only purpose is to ward off opportunists. I use a 3-digit combination-lock-cum-chain that I bought on sale in antiquity for $2.99. Threading the chain through an old innertube, and tying the end of the tube to the end of the chain with one link sticking out, protects the bike and makes the chain easier to handle. It is, of course, always best to lock the bike to something if possible.
Cheap locks like this wear out after while, and I manage to lose one every few years, so I buy several when I luck onto a sale.
The lock-chain combination mentioned comes new with a plastic sheath on the chain, but the plastic becomes brittle and breaks off in a year or two. That’s when I replace it with an innertube, which lasts indefinitely.
An advantage of using this kind of lock is that it can be opened easily in the dark. If you set all the little tabs at “9” (or “1”), it’s easy to count the detents by feel.
Carriage begins with a carrier. Again, nothing fancy is required. The one I’ve used for many years cost me $7.99.
Folding wire rear baskets have provided the best combination of usefulness, compactness, and low weight. Important is to get ones that when deployed are level with the carrier. See below. Mine have no identifying label, and I got them so long ago I don’t remember the make. But a shop should be able to provide something appropriate.
I have always mercilessly overloaded my carrier and baskets. The carrier has never complained, but the baskets I use gradually come apart at the places where the wires cross. I keep them patched with plastic-covered twist-ties, but one day I will have to look for new ones. One caveat — the screws that attach carrier stays to bike frame, if loaded heavily enough, can shear off. Recommended are stainless steel ones from the hardware store. That kind have worked well.
I keep a couple medium-length bungee cords hooked on the carrier, one rather longer than the other, giving three lengths altogether. A typical use, when full grocery sacks are in the baskets, is to secure a 10-pound sack of potatoes (sometimes two) to the carrier.
The reason for specifying baskets that open out level with the carrier is to allow carriage of big/heavy loads. Place a slab of cardboard clear across the opened baskets and secure the load well with bungee cords of whatever length needed. A typical use for me is carrying a 50-pound sack of rolled oats. The cardboard helps support the load and also serves to protect it from damage.
Thin cardboard in the bottom of each basket (thin enough to stay inside when the basket is closed) helps protect things being carried. Experience has shown that ordinary pasteboard deteriorates with exposure and, even more inconveniently, can blow away in the wind when a load is removed. A report cover from a stationery store is just the right size; the front can go in one basket, the back in the other. If necessary, holes in the covers can be made with an ordinary hand paper punch applied with vigor. Attaching them to the baskets with a couple cable-ties each makes them secure.
Cable-ties, by the way, are great. Simple to use and strong. Find ’em cheap at the hardware store.
On the front, a good-quality plastic woven wicker-type basket. I’ve found that baskets woven of round material are generally better than those whose strands are flat. Cut to size and place in the bottom something like a piece of plastic grid (mine is from an old stacking bin). This protects the bottom of the basket from wear, at least doubling the basket’s life.
The little leather belts often supplied with front baskets typically break quickly. A couple lengths of narrow plastic strap of the kind used to secure cardboard boxes for shipping work much better. Just tie square knots in the strap and pull them good and tight. An added dab of glue on each knot for insurance doesn’t hurt.
Only small loads should be carried in the front on a bicycle, and the plastic basket is adequate for those. It is light weight, lasts a long time, and often obviates deploying one of the rear baskets. And it provides a super-convenient place for tossing the security lock/chain.
Frequently useful to have handy are some grocery-type plastic bags. I usually carry several in my over-the-shoulder bag, and keep three or four tied around my seat post for backups. A simple overhand knot is sufficient to hold a bag on the post. I have many times been glad to have extra bags with me, such as when shopping at super-discount grocery store, Aldi’s. When necessary, bags also can be used as strong emergency ties.
Packs are another important dimension. I have several, accumulated over the years. One, a really huge backpack, I’ve so far used mainly for carrying loads of styrofoam peanuts to packaging places for re-use. (I toss the peanuts in a big UPS plastic bag until it’s full, twist-tie it shut, then put the full sack in the backpack. Quick and clean.)
An old canvas military pack of more normal size is outfitted with a cardboard box liner and used for general loads, especially of things that wouldn’t like jouncing in a rear basket, or of things that must be carried for a distance before or after the biking part of the trip. A particularly handy use is to carry produce and frozen food in the summertime. Early refrigerators used corrugated cardboard as insulation, and even the one layer of an ordinary box helps a lot. I try to keep frozen food in the middle of the load, with bagged produce on top and bottom and around the sides. A cardboard “lid” for the box, fashioned for the purpose, and held in place by the pack’s cover flap, helps too.
A pack-frame sans pack allows things of strange shapes and sizes to be transported easily. More work for bungee cords. There are all sorts of pack frames. The one I have found so useful is L-shaped, so there is a little sort of shelf at the bottom that helps to support things being carried.
Several over-the-shoulder bags of various kinds are occasionally useful. The default, which I have with me most of the time, is an orange nylon one that is quite strong and weighs almost nothing. It’s adequate, for example, for carrying several library books.
At one point my wife came home from a sale with a canvas “tote-bag” the same shape and a bit larger than a paper grocery bag and with stout handles. A wonderful advance over paper bags!
Describing all these is just to give you an idea of the variety of things that can be useful. Rummage around to see what you’ve already got, then just keep your eyes open for new possibilities.
Rain, snow, etc. can be a nuisance. Sometimes it’s wise to just postpone or forget some intended trip. But a few simple countermeasures can take you a long way.
First are the fenders and mudflap already mentioned. Second is a good-quality poncho. Mine, a so-called Space Poncho, was purchased long ago, and they apparently are not available any more. When I can no longer repair mine with duct tape, I’ll go to a bike shop and look over the ponchos made especially for biking.
The important characteristics are, (1) it must be big enough to cover you, to protect a backpack or over-the-shoulder bag of reasonable size, and to cover the handlebars and front basket, (2) it must be heavy enough to be stable in ordinary wind conditions, and (3) it must have some means to be kept in control when the wind is gusty. Bike ponchos, I understand, have finger-loops for this purpose. Control is important, because it can be disconcerting to have the poncho suddenly wrap itself around your head. (I just tuck a small fold under my fingers on each side.)
Although a poncho of the necessary weight will not fit in your pocket, simply folding or rolling it up and carrying it in a plastic bag of the grocery-store sort makes it pretty easy to keep track of. It will stuff easily into the front basket, or into an over-the-shoulder bag, or under the bungee cords on the carrier, for take-along in iffy weather. Having it in a bag also makes it easier to carry around away from the bike.
The part about the poncho covering the handlebars and front basket is not mainly to keep those things dry. It is mainly to keep you dry. Letting the poncho hang down on your own side of the handlebars gives you wet[ter] pantlegs and feet.
It took me years of trying different things to settle on poncho-over-the-handlebars as the usually best rain-clothes compromise. In pouring rain, a rubber or vinyl rain-suit is even better, but if you need to ride far, you just exchange rain-soaked for sweat-soaked.
In real rain, boots are very much to the point, the higher the better, up to the knee. The old plastic-bags-over-the-shoes trick helps with getting boots on and off.
In sprinkles, or when things are just wet from previous rain, rubbers are more convenient. Since rubbers can be hard to put on and off, I have a pair of old shoes that I keep with rubbers always on them for use at such times.
Better solutions than those described here may exist for rain protection. There is lots of new technology around, and I haven’t spent the money necessary to check it all out.
Cold is basically not a problem. Biking, especially with a load, generates internal heat. Because so many people ski, snowmobile, hunt, etc, lots of alternatives are available for warm clothing. For bicycling, the familiar principle of layering is especially important, so that accommodation can be made to changing conditions, like going into a store. Special attention to hat, gloves, and shoes/boots is advised, so that they do not interfere with safe handling of the bicycle.
Down to around zero or so, simple cotton work gloves pulled on over cheap knit gloves provide sufficient warmth while still allowing good manipulability. Many gloves designed for cold weather have such puffy fingers that even the simple movements required to use handbrakes and gearlevers can be awkward. With the cloth gloves, ends of the fingers may get cold at first, but they warm up again as riding continues. Cloth gloves, of course, are viable only so long as the gloves don’t get wet. But when it is really cold, dampness is usually not a problem.
In extremely cold weather, goggles and/or some sort of mask over the nose and mouth can be helpful. A simple handkerchief tied over the face western-outlaw style has generally been sufficient for me. A pressed fiberglass dust mask of the kind used for sanding/etc also works well, and some people find it easier to deal with than a kerchief. Hardware stores sell these in packs of 10 for $1 or so. A mask can be re-used a number of times, unless your nose runs a lot.
In summer, be sure to protect the back of the neck. And I always ride with some kind of gloves on. In summer, I prefer the white cotton work gloves with black dots on the palms. They protect from the sun and provide a good grip.
Safety is a crucial concern. Using a bicycle as a work vehicle implies trips at night, in bad weather, etc, which recreational riders usually avoid. Frequent inspection of the bicycle and minor maintenance are important. Pay special attention to tires, brakes, and the integrity of carrier and baskets. A breakdown miles from home with a loaded bike is at best a hassle; if it happens while crossing a high-traffic street, it can be a catastrophe.
An important item to keep in mind is route choice. Stay off main streets as much as possible. Get a bike routes map if one is available for your locality, then use it with discretion. Your criteria for a good route may differ from those of the mapmaker. Try out a route ahead of time before depending on it with a load.
Always strive to ride in ways that will be predictable to drivers. Ride slower and with extra care when loaded, and yield the right-of-way to anybody who wants it. Follow the usual “rules of the road” and try not to make unexpected changes in direction/speed. Give hand signals. Be courteous. Etc. And learn the characteristic faults of drivers in order to reduce surprises. A common one is the guy who speeds past you then does a sharp right turn directly in front of you. I’m so used to this I don’t even cuss any more.
Other familiar things:
Reflectors: clear one pointing forward, red one/s pointing backward. I have a clear one attached to the front of the front basket with pieces of shoestring, and red ones on the seat, the carrier, and the fender. Clear or yellow reflectors on both wheels, and on pedals, are good, too. If I had ready means to do it, I would have reflective finish on my entire bicycle. In the jargon of the day, these are “passive” measures, meaning that once you have implemented them, they work for you every time you ride without you having to do anything more each time.
Similar things, almost as passive, are highly-visible clothes — jackets, hats, raingear, etc. Most of my outdoor wardrobe now is bright yellow, international orange, or lime green.
Finally, a generator-driven light. Mine clamps to the front fork and takes only a lever-press to engage. It is a cheap one (to discourage theft) that noticeably increases pedal effort, especially in cold weather. But it is always available when needed, and it has been very reliable. I also have picked up a battery-driven LED light that is worn on the head like a miner’s lamp ($5.99 at Walgreens). This is handy because the light points wherever you look, and it takes no extra pedal effort at all.
Final safety thought: As indicated earlier, when riding loaded all the usual bike safety tips become much more important. Beware of rain that makes brakes work less well, wet leaves or sand on the roadway that can make it almost as slippery as ice, unpredictable drivers, etc. When loaded you have less ability to execute quick maneuvers than you are used to, so keep alert, think, and look ahead.