Money well spent

This article was published in 2002, in Newsletter 40.

Local sixth form college students can sometimes get money to look after a bike in lieu of a bus pass for getting to school. Douglas De Lacey was asked by a young relative for advice.

Dear Peter,

Thank you for your letter. I’m delighted you’re planning to cycle into college daily, and therefore want to invest your £90 ‘free bus pass’ money in improving your bike. You may need to add a little more to that, but it will be worth it.

What should you do for it? The two major factors are safety and comfort. Don’t waste money on bike toys till you have addressed these.

I assume as a matter of course that you will maintain it well, especially the brakes. I use a ‘finger-and-thumb’ test: if I can’t pull the brakes on with one finger, they need maintenance. If I can trap my thumb between the lever and handlebar, they need maintenance. Check the brake blocks regularly and replace them before they are worn out. Safety is worth paying for.

Image as described adjacent
Dynamo lights are high on the list for economy, reliability and long-term low running cost

You have a dynamo; if you didn’t that would have to be high on your priorities. If you tot up a few sets of batteries for conventional lamps, which never work anyway just when you want them, the cost is not high. I’d also add front and rear LEDs which are nowadays remarkably bright: just make sure you don’t have them in ‘flash’ mode if they are fixed to the bike.

Another thing worth having, though not relying on, is a mirror. Good cycling, like good driving, entails a constant reading of the road and this is so much easier if you don’t have to be constantly looking behind you. But always look behind before performing any manoeuvre – apart from anything else, it warns other road users of your intention. You can get mirrors to fit on the handlebars or on a helmet; many of my friends very much like the latter.

Buy decent rain clothes; but whatever you wear add reflective legbands (which double as trouser clips) and a fluorescent belt; and (at least for the winter) armbands or gloves with fluorescent or reflective strips, so your hand signals are visible.

Tyres contribute to both safety and comfort. Replace them before they are worn too thin. I tend to do this each autumn to ensure good grip on wet and slippy winter days. Keep them properly inflated to increase comfort and reduce wear; buy a stirrup pump with a pressure gauge because 75 psi is much firmer than you’d think. Before you use the pump check for thorns, flints or glass, which will otherwise worm their way through the tyre and cause punctures.

You’ll need an emergency repair kit, and I always carry a brand new tube in mine. There’s no future sitting in the pouring rain trying to get a patch to stick to a wet and dirty tube. Replace the tube and do the repair (if at all) in the comfort of home. I also carry rubber gloves, a mini pump, a multitool and a small adjustable spanner.

Your bike came with a horseshoe lock, but you’ll need more. It seems to me there are two different types of thief: the opportunist whom a fairly simple lock will discourage, and the professional whom almost nothing will discourage. The best you can hope for is to make your bike more difficult to steal than the next: I use three separate locks and at least one I try to attach to something immovable while one locks the front wheel to the frame. Oh, and make sure that the bike is postcoded and carries a big flashy sticker to say so. That’s as good as another lock, since thieves will realise they cannot easily sell it on. The only time I had a bike stolen, it was at the police station even before I reported it – because the young gentleman in charge of it couldn’t tell an admirably suspicious policeman what the postcode was.

On the comfort side, I’d add a gel saddle cover even to a gel saddle. My experience suggests it also significantly cuts down wear and tear on the trousers.

How are you planning to carry things? A rack and sturdy panniers are far more comfortable than even a well-fitting rucksack, and will be essential if you go touring in the holidays.

No doubt there’s lots I have forgotten. You may think I forgot helmets. I hadn’t – the debate still rages as to whether they do actually contribute to safety or not. At the least high visibility and good grip on the road are much more significant factors. Avoiding an accident in the first place is a far better policy than minimising the damage during one.

You may know the excellent series of articles on cycle maintenance in recent issues of the Campaign Newsletter. You may also find the rec.bicycles FAQ useful.

Very best wishes, and safe cycling!