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We think deep thoughts about things, and this blog is where we tell you about them.  

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This might not be the time to buy a bike.

By Peter Buck, 30 October 2020

Yep... I said what I said.  If you're in a hurry or on a tight budget, this is probably not the best time to buy a new bike.  Market conditions resulting from COVID-19 have led to production shortages with skyrocketing demand for the past 6+ months.  As a result, bike manufacturers have run out of the components they need in order to build their frames into complete bicycles - and in some cases, they're out of the frames as well.

What this means for consumers is that bikes in many price ranges are completely sold out.  If the bike you've been eyeing is out of stock, you do have a few options:

  1. You can settle for whatever new bike you can find, wherever you can find it.  This means you might find a great deal on a leftover model or demo bike, but it also means you might talk yourself into settling for something off-brand or even something from Amazon.  Do not give in to an Amazon bike.  Do.  Not.
  2. You can roll the dice on a used bike.  This means trolling the used market for likely-overpriced bikes from people who know the market is on their side.  This isn't to say that all used bikes are a bad idea, but you should use all available resources including checking eBay sold items (not just "completed" but actually SOLD).
  3. You can work with your local dealer to figure out whether a frame or frameset may be available for the bike you'd been looking at.  Even if manufacturer's websites say a bike is unavailable in your size, there may be a frame (likely lots of frames) sitting there ready to go.  Remember, it's components that are an issue right now, not necessarily frames... and it's not all components that are out of stock, either.  More on that in a moment.
  4. You can wait.  The market will recover at some point, after all.  Maybe your old bike needs a little work but isn't really in very bad shape - bring it to your local bike shop for some help if you need it!

Lately, I've been finding that the best option is #3.  Work with you local dealer to find a frame, and then have them build it up (or help you build it up) using the components that are available.  Shimano and SRAM are having a lot of issues keeping up with demand right now, with dealers being told that some Shimano parts may not come til May 2021 and some SRAM components may not show up til December 2020 or January 2021.

So what is available?  Look to smaller companies to do what they've always done - excel during difficult times by adapting to market conditions and overcoming barriers.  Companies from Garbaruk in Europe (Poland) to Velo Orange in the USA (Maryland) are still getting it done.  Leonardi, S-Ride, and BOX all have options available.  And if you haven't taken a look at Sunrace in the last few years, you're missing out - they've really stepped up their game and are putting out some top-level products at good prices.

Bottom line is that if you're willing to think outside the confines of the "big two" brands that everyone knows, you can still find some great options, get some great deals, and most importantly spend some time on the trails this fall!

Adventure racing

Bikepacking the C&O Towpath.

By Lidia G., 10 September 2020

With summer coming to an end and the heat starting to fade, bike camping is a great social distance activity you can do with a couple of your fellow biker friends.  The 184 mile long C&O canal towpath trail, which starts in Georgetown Waterfront and ends in Cumberland, Maryland, offers beautiful scenery and numerous camping spots along the trail.

C&O Canal Lockhouse

My friends and I have bike camped many times along the trail. Here are some tips and pointers on where to stop, what to pack, and what to expect along my favorite section of the trail between Georgetown and Harpers Ferry.

Where to stop

The first camping site is located 15 miles out from the trail starting point, near Great Falls at Marsden Tract Group Campground. If you are willing to travel an additional 15 miles for a more secluded area you will be able to camp at Horsepen Branch. From there, bike camping options are available every 4 miles. The last campsite is located 10 miles from Harpers Ferry. By then you will have traveled around 50 miles. Well done! To celebrate, you can hit up the Smoketown Brewing Station in Brunswick and camp at Brunswick Family Campground.

"Bike Washington" is a phenomenal web resource that covers every possible aspect of the C&O system as well as other trails in the area.  Visit them at http://bikewashington.org/canal/plan-camping.php

At the campsite

  1. Table with benches.
  2. Fire pit.
  3. Port-a-potty.
  4. Some sites have water, but this can be unreliable especially as a result of COVID.  We recommend filling up all your water containers at every opportunity, which may be at a location that does not offer camping (visitors center, e.g.).  Keep your eyes peeled!
  5. No trash receptacle.  Pack in, pack out!

Your bike

The trail consists of numerous terrains, including concrete, gravel, and dirt. I recommend equipping your bike with gravel tires. You will have a better grip on the road and lower probability of flats. Check out our other blog posts for more detailed information on prepping your bike for an adventure ride.

There are many ways to outfit your bike for bike camping. I am 5’3 and have a small Kona Sutra touring bike (pictured left), which is fitted with a rack.  For small trips, I only use 25-liter panniers. It is enough space to fit camping gear (minus the tent and sleeping bag), clothes, and food. The tent and the sleeping bag are strapped on top of the back rack. Tall people with bigger bike frame can use a seat post bag (pictured left).  My friend has a 16-litter bag, it fits his tent and clothes.

In case of a flat, bring extra tubes, a pump, and tire levers.  An excellent video that helped me when I first learned how to change a flat can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2HMwOHyfsc

What to pack

  1. Tent. I have a backpacking tent that weighs 4 pounds, made by Big Agnes. Mine is big enough for two but is compact enough to easily secure on the bike.
  2. Sleeping bag.
  3. Sleeping pad.
  4. Pillow (optional).
  5. Hammock (optional).
  6. Water filter. There is often drinkable water at the site. You can avoid bringing extra by purifying the water from Potomac.
  7. Fire starter.
  8. Jet boil or other stove depending on what you plan to cook.
  9. Bug spray.
  10. Toiletry bag. Wipes.
  11. Toilet paper.
  12. First Aid Kit.
  13. Rope with carabiner for the bear bag set up. While there are few on bears on C&O, there are rodents who are happy to have your food.

Clothes

This all depends on the weather and how comfortable you are with being stinky and dirty. I try to bring clothes that are pack small and sandals that don’t take a lot of space.

  1. “Day one” bike outfit.
  2. Non-bike shoes for camp relaxing.
  3. Non-bike outfit for camp relaxing.
  4. “Day two” bike outfit. I usually use the same top from day 1. At the end of the first day, I hang the jersey on the tent to air out.
  5. Depending on the weather, pack long sleeves, pants, and wool socks.

Food and liquids

Since there are no stores near, plan your meal in advance.

  1. The easiest meal is hot dogs, which can be cooked over the fire. That is my go-to meal. If I am feeling fancy, I will bring mac and cheese or beans to cook in the jet boil.
  2. Snacks, snacks, snacks.  It is recommended to eat something every 90 min on the ride.  I usually fill my bike with granola bars that can be easily eaten without stopping.  Constant consumption of snacks will help your body to maintain energy and not fade throughout the ride.
  3. Water.  I carry a platypus backpack, which holds 4 liters and has a lot of room for snacks.
  4. Electrolytes.  They help replenish minerals that the water can’t.  I dissolve a tablet in my water bottle and store it in the bottle cage where it can be reached easily.

Biking after the rain

If you decided to hit the trail after rain, here is what to expect:

  1. Giant muddy puddles.
  2. Fallen trees.
  3. The freshest air.

I hope this information gets you started on your adventure. If you need any help prepping your bike for C&O adventures, Handy Bikes is happy to help!

---

Lidia is a mechanic and team member at Handy Bikes since early 2020.  She has bikepacked the C&O extensively, and completed a trip across the country by bicycle in 2019 along the Adventure Cycling Association’s Western Express route from San Francisco to Pueblo, and then the TransAmerica from Pueblo to Washington, DC.

Must-Have Gear for Multi-Day Adventures.

By Peter Buck, 26 August 2020

We're going to ignore the obvious things here like personal hygiene, food, and clothing, because those are highly personalized choices.  And also because at Handy Bikes we're focused on mechanics and technicalities of the gear itself.  Here's a quick list, with details on each:

  • Cargo carrying capability.  Don't let someone tell you it HAS to be a particular type.  If all you've got for now is rear panniers and a backpack, that's ok!  You don't need to run out and get the latest most expensive seat or handlebar bag to get rolling.  As you go, you will learn that seat bags impact bike handling, rear panniers affect your center of gravity, handlebar bags make your steering feel different -- and you will decide what setup you like best.  Don't let others make that decision for you based on their preferences or budget.
  • Toolkit.  Including spare quick link, chain tool, and tube (even if you're tubeless), plus inflation (CO2 is great but have manual pump capability as well) and the usual hex/torx keys.
  • Water filtration capability.   Carry fluids as well, obviously, but don't underestimate how much water you're going to need!  A quality filter can literally be a lifesaver.
  • Shelter.  Your choice on tent, hammock, bivvy sack, sleeping pad, tarp - no matter how good the weather forecast is though, don't bring nothing.
  • Electrolytes.  I said I wasn't going to talk about food, but this is the exception - too much water by itself is almost as bad as too little water.  Some form of powdered mix is my go-to, rather than carrying separate bottles of 
  • Toilet paper/baby wipes.   Yup...I've forgotten them too.  Just saying.

There will always be that one thing you forget or the one (heavy) thing you bring that you didn't need.  The best way to do this is to DO THIS.  Get out there, experiment, keep track of your own preferences, and let us know your favorites!



Wheel Builds.

By Peter Buck, 23 August 2020

If you're going to want to go bikepacking or adventuring, you're going to have some very specific needs when it comes to your wheels -- and building a custom set of wheels to meet those needs is the best way to meet them.  Dynamo hubs, 650b (27.5" - henceforth simply '650b') diameter, disc brakes versus rim brakes, thru axles of various diameters and offsets and boost spacing -- there are a slew of options.  

We at Handy Bikes are all big fans of big tires - that is, using the widest tire that fits on a given bike's current wheelset - and building a custom set of wheels can make that happen through use of wider rims.  Custom wheels also allow for uncommon configurations, such as older frames that don't have thru-axle capability in the rear, but may have a new fork that is thru-axle -- one isn't always going to be able to find a set of wheels off the shelf that matches the specs needed for the situation at hand.  This is especially true if a dynamo hub is being used, particularly in conjunction with 650b wheels.  For whatever reason, there aren't a lot of off-the-shelf options, and that's where we can help.

I'm currently building up a set of 650b HED Belgium Eroica tubeless-ready rims with a Shimano Metrea DH-UR700-3D Dynamo front hub (450 grams!) for one of my own bikes.  I haven't decided on the rear hub yet, but both wheels are 32h, meaning 32 spokes. The greater the number of spokes, the stronger and more resilient the wheel.  When it comes to bikepacking in particular, one wants to have a wheel that will support a fully loaded bicycle plus rider, and still be able to take the bumps and bruises of off-road riding.  I therefore recommend no fewer than 32 spokes for front or rear, and sometimes 36 spokes for the rear wheel if we know the conditions will be particularly harsh.

When selecting the rims to use for my wheel build, I opted for 650b even though the frame and fork I'm using were originally intended for 700c, which is a larger diameter wheel most commonly found on road and hybrid bikes.  The tradeoff of using smaller diameter wheels is that I'll be able to use the wider tires - planning to use 27.5 x 2.1" width which is roughly equivalent to 700x50c.   

Once I get the set built up I'll post info about the dynamo hub including the Sinewave Cycles USB power converter I'll be using with it - we stock all Sinewave Cycles products so give us a shout if you want to check them out.  Free installation if you purchase through us directly!

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Drivetrain Options.

By Peter Buck, 17 August 2020

When it comes to drivetrain options, trying to decide what you need can be overwhelming.  This writeup will give you some thoughts on a good way ahead if your goal is a simple, capable, and durable wide-range drivetrain for bikepacking, adventure racing, mountain biking, or touring.

We're big fans of 1x (pronounced "one-by") drivetrains.  Advancements in technology and components in the last few years have been huge, and riders can now achieve the entire spectrum of gear ratios they used to have on a 3x9 setup - and then some - by using a single chainring in the front and a wide range cassette in the back.  Coupled with an appropriate derailleur and shifter, 1x systems yield drivetrains that are less complex, with fewer moving parts, and with less weight than older systems.

Question: Is it worth going to a 12 speed system? Answer: Probably not for most normal people. If you're like us, you'd rather spend your extra money on experiences or travel than sinking it all into your drivetrain. We think 1x12 systems are too costly without much extra benefit right now. Mechanically speaking, 12 speed systems are also more fragile and finicky due to the larger number of gears crammed in there - and a finicky fragile system is not what you want to be dealing with out on the trail.

Our go-to recommendation is a 1x10 drivetrain using a wide-range cassette.  Depending on your needs, you can go all the way up to a 46t cassette (!!!!) for steep climbs with fully loaded bikes.  And yes, I know SRAM's new Eagle 12 speed setups can give you a 50t cassette, but if you need to go THAT low you can swap to a smaller front chainring and still be under budget compared to a 12 speed conversion.

What brands should you go to, or avoid?  Shimano used to be the best of the best, and they did a great job of branding and advertising in the 90s and 00s.   As a result, even my parents can tell you that Shimano is the BEST.  Are they really though?  Even as a shop owner, I go back and forth - there'll be a post soon about Shimano vs others in general.  I've become a really big fan of SRAM though, and often recommend them when building up a new system.  

SRAM's GX rear derailleurs are our go-to workhorse for 1x10 systems.  They have great cost to value and get the job done well, over all kinds of terrain.  Their max cassette size is 36t, but with an extender from Wheels Manufacturing that can be increased to 40, 42, or 46t.  We couple them with SRAM's simple flat-bar mountain bike shifters, and have been very pleased with the results.  You can also go with "thumbies" (thumb shifters, for the uninitiated) by MicroShift that are SRAM compatible and are surprisingly good quality.

Shimano does of course make great products, I just think they're overrated sometimes at the expense of brands.  They also make it difficult for independent shops like us to work with them by limiting our access to parts at competitive prices, while selling online at lower prices than what they sell to us as "wholesale".  We do like some of Shimano's products though, particularly the Shimano Deore XT RD-M780/M770 series rear derailleurs for 10 speed systems.  Shimano compatible thumbies from several companies are available, as well as extenders from Wolf Tooth that bring regular cassette maximums of 36t up to 42t and 46t.

Regardless of what brand you want to go with, we've got you covered on sourcing and installing parts.  You'll want to make sure you have a narrow-wide chain-retaining chainring for any 1x system, and a derailleur that has a clutch system like the two mentioned above.  We're happy to talk drivetrains any time - drop us a line!