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Rohloff Speedhub Review

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I’ve been commuting to work via bus and bike for more than 3 years, and my primary commuter bike must be durable, low-maintenance, and work in all weather conditions.  Last year, I purchased a Rohloff Speedhub for my Surly Troll commuter, and after a year and about 1,000 miles on the Rohloff, I’m ready to offer a review.

Bikes in Europe that are used for daily transportation often have internally geared hubs (IGH) that seal the bike’s gears within the hub of the rear wheel.  IGHs such as the Rohloff need less frequent cleaning than standard derailleur gear systems and provide reliable performance even when the bike is exposed to rain, snow, dirt, and road grime.  Because part of my commute is on a dirt trail and part of it is exposed to harsh weather on a bus bike rack, an IGH seemed like a good investment for me.  Further, because I use my bike on a daily basis, the lower maintenance of an IGH seemed especially appealing.  Because of the design of the Rohloff’s shifter mechanism, shifter cables never need to be adjusted and shifting is always spot on.  Finally, I needed an IGH with a wide range of gears, because I live in an area with steep hills and my ride home takes me through short downhill sections, long uphill sections, and up some shorter, fairly steep grades.

There are a number of IGH hubs available, and I did a good deal of research beforehand.  I wanted something that would approximate the choice of gears I had with the Troll’s stock 3 x 9 drivetrain.  Because of my need for a wide range of gears, the choice came down to the Rohloff, the Shimano Alfine 11, or the NuVinci 360 (which is actually not a geared hub, but a CVT).  The gear range of the Rohloff, with its 14 speeds, was the widest by far, but it was also more expensive than the others.  While most reviewers liked the Shimano and NuVinci and I am sure they are fine pieces of machinery, there were occasional reviewers who reported problems.  By contrast, I couldn’t find any reviewer who’d experienced mechanical problems with the Rohloff under normal use.  My trusted bike mechanics at Topanga Creek Bicycles, who have sold a number of Rohloffs to customers and know the Rohloff reps, also reported that they’d never seen or heard of one failing mechanically.  Zero.  The consensus seemed to be that the Rohloff was a marvel of German engineering.  I decided to save my pennies and get the Rohloff (see Sheldon Brown’s website for technical specs).

After a year, I can say that I have not been disappointed. In fact, if anything it has exceeded my expectations.  In general, the Speedhub has performed flawlessly.  It shifts crisply and quickly.  I love the way I can shift several gear levels at a time, and can shift at a standstill (a great advantage for commuting in stop-and-go conditions).  On numerous occasions I’ve used the entire range of gears, so I appreciate having the range.  Because of the 14 speeds, I’m always able to find the right gear for any terrain.  The sealed hub keeps the gears from getting dirty under adverse conditions.  I have a bomb-proof drivetrain on my daily commuter bike that provides me with trouble-free shifting and a wide range of gears.

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Shifting the Rohloff is a little different than shifting a derailleur-geared bike.  With a derailleur, the crank needs to be spinning in order to shift gears.  With an IGH one can shift while standing still, but not while applying pressure to the pedals.  Some people don’t like the feel of an IGH for that reason.  The first time I rode the bike, I got caught mid-shift, and had to back off and ease off my pedal stroke before trying to shift.  I quickly learned how to briefly ease up (usually at the top of my pedal stroke) when shifting, and I soon reached the point where I could rapidly shift on the fly without losing momentum or pedal cadence.

Maintenance is super easy.  When I remove my chain to clean it, I simply wipe off the front chainring and the rear cog, re-mount the clean chain and, voila, done!  Once a year, Rohloff recommends draining and replacing the gear oil in the hub, which I did this summer.  It took me about 20 minutes to complete the operation (most of the time involved letting the old oil settle to the bottom of the hub before extraction), but it was pretty easy, even with my limited mechanical skills.  Changing the  oil is done with the wheel on the bike, and the instructions provided with the Rohloff oil change kit are easy to follow.  The only tool necessary is a 3mm allen key for the hub’s drain plug.

Are there any downsides?  A few minor points.  The Rohloff is a bit heavier than most rear cassette/derailleur systems.  Not by much, but if you’re a weight weenie, it’s probably not for you.  The Rohloff can also be a little noisier than a properly adjusted derailleur system. In the lower 7 gears, the hub produces a soft buzz of gear noise when spinning.  This is normal and is a result of the extremely close tolerances required to engineer 14 speeds in a small hub, but does not seem to affect performance.  In my estimation, these minor downsides do not outweigh the reliability, performance, and low maintenance of the hub.

For most people who ride a bike occasionally, or primarily for recreation, or who don’t need the extreme gear range, it’s safe to say the price of the Rohloff probably wouldn’t be worth it.  For me, however, my bike is essentially my car and the money I’ve saved on gas and parking in the last year has already paid for a little over half the cost.  I can’t be sure that the Shimano or NuVinci wouldn’t have been serviceable but I couldn’t be happier with the Rohloff.  I wanted an IGH that I wouldn’t have to baby, had as wide a range of gears as possible, and would provide many miles of trouble-free service.  The Rohloff has not disappointed.

Bomb-proof drivetrain on my Surly Troll commuter.

Bomb-proof drivetrain on my Surly Troll commuter.

E-bikes

One month ago, I got my wife an e-assist bike hoping that she’d accompany me on some of my errands and rides around town.  Four weeks and over 100 miles later, the bike has exceeded both our expectations and raised my awareness of the potential of e-assist bikes to further demonstrate the viability of bicycling as a transportation mode.

E-assist bikes like my wife’s Pedego City Commuter are basically standard bikes that use a small electric motor to assist the rider in pedaling the bicycle uphill, into a strong headwind, or for acceleration when needed.  A small rechargeable battery mounted unobtrusively on the rear rack provides energy for the nearly silent motor.  The bike can be ridden with or without power, and the City Commuter has a variety of settings that allow the rider to choose different levels of electronic assistance to the pedals depending on the rider’s ability and the terrain.

My wife’s previous bike was a fairly standard 21-speed hybrid bike that was comfortable for her on flat ground, but, because of arthritis in her hip and knee, she always had a difficult time pedaling up the steep hills near our home and, as a result, she rarely joined me on my bike rides, and when she did, she complained of soreness in her knees and hip afterwards.  We were both frustrated that she was unable to share the freedom, enjoyment, and healthy lifestyle of the bicycle with me.

pedego city commuter

I started researching e-assist bikes online and in several local shops, and on a recent trip to Seal Beach, I stopped by the Pedego shop in town and test rode their City Commuter.  I was impressed with the features and the fact that the Pedego has 5 different levels of pedal assist, an attractive design, and practical features such as a 7-speed rear cassette, a rear rack, front and rear lights, disc brakes, and fenders.  I also like the fact that Pedego routes the bike’s electric wires through the frame and integrates the battery into the rear rack, which preserves its clean lines.  You can hardly tell it’s an e-bike unless you look closely.

By allowing the rider to dial in how much pedaling effort they are willing or able to provide, an e-assist bike extends the range and practicality of cycling for a wider variety of people.  People who aren’t in great shape, have arthritis, or other physical limitations that may keep them off a regular bike, those who live in hilly areas (like I do), who want to haul a loaded bike trailer, or who want to commute by bike, but don’t want to show up sweaty are just some who might benefit from an e-assist bike.  They make it realistic for more people to go car-free or car-lite.

My wife and I joke about her “cheater bike” but she feels great and she’s riding way more than I ever thought she would.  She loves riding it and she’s even starting to substitute some short car trips for her bike.  It has really been a game-changer for her.  Our next step is to get a set of panniers so she can run more errands with her bike.

Purists may grouse about the power assist, but I’m convinced that e-assist bikes are a valuable option for many people.  The battery and motor add weight, but that hasn’t really been an issue since the e-assist function more than compensates.  They’re also not cheap, as far as bikes go.  Figure on spending something in the range of $1,600 – $2,400 for a new one, depending on the features.  This may initially limit the market share for e-assist bikes.  However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see prices come down as they gain popularity.

E-assist bikes aren’t for everybody, but I think they are here to stay, they are loads of fun, and they have a great deal of potential to get more people out of their cars.

Bike Cargo Trailers

“But you can’t go to the grocery store on a bicycle!” a neighbor dismissively claimed, when I tried to explain how we might encourage more people to use their bikes instead of their cars.  I’ll never forget her words or her contemptuous tone.  That conversation spurred me to prove her wrong, to prove that not only can you go to the grocery store on a bicycle, but with the help of an inexpensive cargo trailer, you can haul quite a bit of cargo, have fun, get exercise, save gas (and maybe the planet) while you’re at it.

As I’ve shown in an earlier post, an inexpensive pair of grocery panniers on your bike will enable you to carry two or three full-size grocery bags on your bike.  A front basket can help you carry more.  But what about those large grocery loads?  What about families whose shopping requires more than two or three shopping bags per trip?  In order to shop for the whole family, a cargo trailer takes your bike to a whole new level and enables you to leave your car at home for even the most sizable grocery runs and errands.  With my cargo trailer I can easily haul about half a week’s worth of groceries for a family of four.  For me, this might mean going to the store twice a week instead of once a week, but since it’s fun and I get exercise, the extra trip has added benefits.

My Croozer cargo trailer is shown above, only about 1/2-full, with about 30 lbs of groceries from my local farmers’ market.  When not in use it folds down to a small size, quickly attaches to my bike, and comes with a nylon cover that keeps my cargo from falling out.  The interior cargo area of the trailer measures 28 inches long, 19 inches wide, and 12 inches deep.  This lightweight, medium duty trailer is rated to about 65 lbs towing capacity and holds about 6 full-size grocery bags (I’ve actually towed a little more than 65 lbs with the Croozer, but the manufacturer does not recommend it).  I’ve also used the trailer to haul picnic supplies, hardware, office supplies, etc.  I’ve even hauled rocks (yes, rocks), from the local canyon to use for natural decoration in my garden.

The trailer’s towing arm (shown below) attaches to a small metal hitch connected to your rear wheel hub that is easy to install.  You do notice the extra weight when the trailer is fully loaded, as is to be expected, but simply shifting into a lower gear is sufficient for me to deal with the extra weight and the trailer rolls smoothly behind my bike, even when loaded.  I’d recommend a bike with mountain-bike gearing if you’re going to pull a trailer in a hilly area like I do, and remember to give yourself more braking distance when going downhill towing a load.  The trailer does not affect the balance of the bike as much as loaded panniers do, but I wouldn’t recommend taking corners at racing speed while hauling a cargo trailer.  Despite these caveats, the trailer is remarkably smooth and easy to pull.  Having used the Croozer for a little more than a year, my main complaint about this design is that there are very few places on the trailer to hook a bungee or cargo net for oversized or shifty loads.

There are numerous other bike trailer options out there, including bike trailers for towing kids, dogs, and other gear, and in a later post I will review the Surly Ted cargo trailer, which is a bit more heavy-duty and has a towing capacity of 300 lbs.  Specially designed cargo bikes can also be an option for carrying large, heavy loads, and a number of manufacturers are producing them, including Surly, Soma, Civia, Trek, Bullitt, and Cetma, just to name a few.  Front-loading cargo bikes called “bakfiets” have been popular in the Netherlands for years, where people use them for all manner of transportation needs.  Such bikes are beginning to catch on here in the U.S., as gas prices go higher and people gain a heightened awareness of the connection between our automobile habit and climate change.  There is even a group of like-minded cargo bike enthusiasts on facebook.  While specially-designed cargo bikes have some advantages, I like the trailer option, because you don’t have to buy a separate cargo bike (they can be quite expensive), and you can detach and fold up the Croozer cargo trailer when not in use.

Occasionally, I still use my car for hauling really heavy, oversized loads, but my cargo trailer enables me to carry 95 percent of my family’s grocery and other goods by bike, and I get a great workout while I’m at it.  The addition of the cargo trailer has made it possible for me to go “car-lite” and leave the car at home for a wide variety of errands.  I know that most Americans aren’t going to give up their cars (I still have one, after all), but my response to my skeptical neighbor is that not only can you go to the grocery store on a bicycle, you can bring home quite a large load of groceries, get exercise, and have fun doing it.

Bike Baskets and Racks

As I use my bike for errands and everyday transportation, I’ve found the wire bicycle basket to be a great way to tote a variety of small to medium items, increasing the practicality of my bike (pictured is my Surly Long Haul Trucker).  As shown above, I’ve stashed my swim gear in the basket when going to swim some laps and I’ve secured it with a small elastic cargo net.  The basket also works great when I’m at the grocery store or farmer’s market, and if I’m carrying stuff in my panniers, I know I’ve always got room for any overflow in my basket.  I’ve had this setup on my LHT for years, and this review, as with all my reviews, is offered as an unsolicited testimonial about gear I actually use.

The basket pictured is a Wald 139 basket that is 18 inches wide by 13 inches deep by 6 inches high.  Wald is a small family-owned company that makes a variety of bike accessories and bicycle baskets of all shapes and sizes.  They’ve been making wire bike baskets like these with the same quality for over 100 years, and they’ve got a classic look.  Well-designed functionality never goes out of style.  My basket is the perfect size for a camera bag, a couple of small pizzas, baguettes, a couple of bottles of wine, or a laptop, or books . . . whatever, really.

The Wald basket comes with mounting struts that attach to your front wheel axle, but my basket is mounted with zip ties on a Pass and Stow front “Porteur” rack.  This setup works well for me because it’s got a clean look and I can easily remove the basket without removing the whole rack.  So, if I need to carry, say, three extra large pizzas, or take a large box to the post office (both of which I’ve done), I just remove the wire basket and my Pass and Stow porteur rack will handle the oversized load.  Porteur racks get their name from the French delivery bikes of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s that had flat front racks on them, so that oversized items could be carried on the bike.  It’s good to see these practical racks making a comeback (Cetma, Soma, Velo Orange, and Paul Component Engineering also make quality porteur racks, but overall I think the Pass and Stow is the most well-designed).  The Pass and Stow rack is hand made by Matt Feeney in San Francisco.  Matt has designed a sturdy, elegant front rack that will hold up to 60 lbs, and is easy to mount on the eyelets of my front fork.  I’ve carried all manner of cargo on my Pass and Stow rack, and it really increases the utility of the bike.  It’s also got a well-designed mount for a front light, which allows you to mount a light on the underside of the rack instead of cluttering up your handlebars.

In Europe and Asia, where bikes are often used for utilitarian purposes, you regularly see bikes with racks, bags, and baskets, because people carry stuff on their bikes.  Unfortunately, in the United States, most bicycle companies market bikes as purely fitness or recreational toys, and, depending on the bike shop you visit, it can be hard to find bikes ready to buy with such accessories.  However, as more Americans use bikes for transportation and commuting, this is beginning to change, and bicycle companies are offering “city bikes” or hybrids that will accommodate racks and baskets.  Having racks and baskets to carry things with makes it much easier and more practical to incorporate your bike into your “real life.”  And that, for me, is the whole idea.

Rear View Mirror

About 2 months ago I decided to try a rear view mirror for my bicycle commuting.  I had been thinking about getting one for some time, but hesitated because (vanity, thy name is boyonabike) I thought they looked geeky.  Well, who am I kidding?  I look geeky anyway, so why not go full geek mode?  After 2 months of using the mirror, I am sorry I waited so long.

There are several kinds of rear view mirrors for bicycles.  Some fit on the end of a handlebar, others clip to a rider’s glasses, and this one sticks on the side of a helmet.  The mirror is adjustable so with a little bit of experimentation you can angle it just right, so that a quick glance will enable you to see what is behind you.  It also easily detatches from the base (which remains on the side of your helmet), so you can take it off if you don’t want to use it or want to pack your helmet.  I initially thought I probably would take it off for most rides, but after two months I find it so useful I keep it on my helmet at all times.

The mirror is extremely helpful in a number of common bicycling situations.  For example, you’re riding along a street where there’s no bike lane (which is the majority of streets where I ride).  Ahead, parked cars along the curb will force you to move further into the traffic lane (“taking the lane”).  Your mirror allows you to quickly assess whether there are cars coming up from behind, how close they are, and how fast they’re going.  Another important use of the bike mirror is when preparing to make a left turn, especially if you have to cross a lane of roadway to get into a left turn lane.  As with a car’s side view mirror, itr makes changing lanes easier and safer.  Finally, it just gives me a greater sense of safety and control to know where all cars are at all times when I’m riding.

The mirror does take some getting used to, and it has some minor drawbacks (besides looking bike-geeky).  First, the presence of the mirror, though small (approximately 1.75 in. high and 1.25 in. wide), does create a tiny blind spot behind it on your left side.  However, you quickly learn that a small turn of the head gives you a full range of vision to your left.  Next, in my opinion, keep your glances in the mirror short, so that you continue to be fully aware of things up ahead of you, such as road hazards or car doors when riding past parked cars.  Nevertheless, the mirror allows the glance to be much quicker than turning your head to look behind you, and makes it less likely that you’ll miss something ahead of you  Again, with a little practice, the quick glance becomes second nature.

Overall, I find the rear view mirror to be a very helpful device that increases my awareness of what’s behind me, and it increases my safety because I no longer have to turn my head to see behind me.  Having used it on my helmet for about 8 weeks, I really miss it on those short rides when I don’t wear my helmet.

Would I recommend the mirror?  Absolutely.  Will you look geeky?  Maybe, but I’ve decided that bike-geekdom is the new cool.

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