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birthday bicycle goodies (Yakkay, PoCampo & Ortlieb)

I just turned 49.  So I bought myself a party hat.

Really, one of the geekiest, least-appealing (to me, anyway) aspects of bicycle commuting is the wearing of the bike helmet.  As I’ve written about before, I AM a believer; I won’t ride without a helmet, but it doesn’t mean I love how I look in them.

Last year I read about a new helmet design by Yakkay – a street-inspired helmet design with interchangeable covers (hats).  I loved the idea, loved the pictures I saw, and I knew I really wanted one.  Sadly, they were not yet available in the US.  As this winter started kicking into gear, colder temperatures on the way, I re-visited the idea of purchasing a Yakkay, and hooked up with a wonderful gal, Lavinia, from LondonCycleChic.  With her help and a few clicks of the mouse, I got my beautiful new “birthday” hat, complete with removable fleecy ear covers and snappy tweed cover.  Even better news, the LondonCycleChic folks tell me that they are working on “opening a little US antenna in March 2010” … which I figure will be just in time for me to order a sweet summer cover. 😀

Anyway, they were great people to do business with, and I really look forward to them expanding stateside.  You can also follow one of their peeps on Twitter (@CazCyclechic), and they have a terrific LondonCycleChic blog, full of great London cycle fashion photos and articles.

Another great birthday gift came from my Dad and his wife – nifty little Po Campo handlebar bag.  Po Campo is a Chicago-based company (my “home town”), and my Dad was kind enough to send me a gift certificate which I used to pick out this great little black and white bag.

Po Campo bicycle clutch

Clip on handlebar straps - Po Campo clutch

Although it’s not very big, it’s just enough to carry a wallet, phone, and a few small essentials for quick commute to an appointment or other errand when I don’t need to carry much.   I also like the front pocket – perfect for easy access to my phone. (Not while riding, of course).  Mostly, I love that it is on the front of the bike – rather than on the back or over my shoulder – easy to see and easy to access.

The final piece of commuting gear I have finally acquired – and really, more essential than the rest – are a set of Ortlieb Back-Roller Classic waterproof panniers.  I cannot count how many times I have been out – at the Y, around town, errand-running – and I have gotten caught in an unexpected rain shower.  Stuff gets soaked – wallet, phone, extra clothes, camera, books, etc.  I can tuck this into a side-loader on the Xtracycle, or I can put it on the rear rack of my commuter bike or the eBike.  And everything stays dry – no matter what I encounter or find I have to ride through.

Ortlieb Back-Roller Classic waterproof pannier

Aside from the waterproof-ness, things I especially like (putting it way ahead of other panniers we’ve owned):

  • Great easy-access top opening – no zippers or flaps to mess with.  Simply roll down the top (constructed much like a typical dry-bag, with plastic strip on edge), and clip the strap over the top.
  • Slim profile, multi-pocket inner organizer – perfect to stash a wallet or phone, doesn’t take away from the main large storage space.
  • Superior rack attachment system – the top hooks can be customized with inserts, to fit a variety of different diameter rack rails. They don’t just “hang” on the rack rails, they actually close around the rail (see photo below).  The 2 top hooks can be adjusted (spacing between the two hooks), and the bottom QL2 hook is fully adjustable/rotatable as well – invaluable features I’ve not found on other panniers.
  • Two large reflective “spots” on both side panels of the bags, making them interchangeable on either side of the rack.  I’ve also found that I can easily attach a Blinky to the top of the shoulder strap when the bag is mounted on the rack – perfect positioning.
  • And did I mention they are fully waterproof?

I love the ease of access to the main compartment when it’s mounted on the bike.  Nice wide opening, quick and easy to access and load.  I don’t know the exact specs on the capacity, but they can hold a lot. And the bag is a breeze to take on and off of the rack.  You simply pull up on the top handle-strap (which is attached to the quick-release tabs on the top hooks), and pull straight up.

Pull the handle to release the top clips from the rack

Finally, a nice shoulder strap (that is secured to the front of the bag when not in use), makes it great to carry in and out of your destination – from the office to a quick stop at the store.

Off bike, carrying with the shoulder strap

Using the shoulder strap

And did I mention they are fully waterproof?!

Out of everything next to the Xtracycle, I don’t know how I managed without these for so long.  Indespensible, in my opinion – because you never know when wet weather might hit.  Design-wise, I don’t think I will ever buy another brand of pannier – these are just so well-designed from every angle.

So that’s it.  I’m older now.  But also a tiny bit more stylish (I think) when I’m out on the bike!

electric bike

eZip Trailz

A little over a month ago we did it.  Went “rogue” and bought an electric bike. I know, I know – I’ve heard the cries:  “what’s wrong with your legs?”, “hey, isn’t that cheating?”.   I have to admit I had reservations.  Venturing into what seemed like “pseudo-cycling” did feel a bit traitorous.  If it wasn’t human-powered, why not just drive a car?

We made at least three trips to Chattanooga Electric Bikes.  I took test drives.  I left, undecided.  I went back again and took another test drive.  I left.  It was hard to bring myself to make the sacrilegious leap to something that I viewed as, yes – the wimp’s way out.  I adored getting around on the Xtracycle, enjoyed long rides on the road bike, and even occasional errand-running on my mtn-bike-turned-commuter-bike … but something kept pulling me toward some electrical assistance. (Maybe it was my impending 49th birthday and fading sense of invincibility?)

Like the days I took l road rides (40+ mi), and arrived home to find out I needed to get into town for some reason (shopping, an appointment, an errand) – and I just didn’t feel like getting back in the saddle and humping up “The Big Hill”.  Also the days when I headed to the Y for swimming and weight training – it’s a nasty uphill slog on bad roads with alot of traffic; my least favorite ride. Many times I’d arrive at the Y, swim, and cut my routine short, because I knew I had to save some leg power to get back home through it all.  Over the past two years, I have discovered that I don’t have the super-powers that I may have had 20 years ago, and sometimes – especially on multi-trip days – a slightly “easier” ride would be very welcome.

So finally, after making Mark nearly crazy with my indecision, we made the plunge and bought the eZip Trailz.  We debated doing a conversion of one of the other (mtn) bikes in the garage, but in the end decided on the Trailz, largely because the pretty small difference in price didn’t seem to justify a conversion ($350+ conversion vs. $500 for complete bike), and there were some questions on compatibility of gearing, etc.

The other factor was the difference in controls.  With the conversion, we’d end up with a single “throttle” lever; the Trailz has a twist throttle with two modes: PAS (Peddle Assist) and TAG (Twist And Go?).  And the final factor (I am sorry to have to say this), the conversions we saw done by the guys at Chattanooga Hybrids were, well, a bit sloppy (wiring, etc.).  We just didn’t get the impression that they were too experienced in bike-building.

eZip Trailz throttle control, TAG/PAS switch

eZip Trails throttle & TAG/PAS switch

So, we got it home, made a few minor modifications – added fenders, lights, and replaced grips and pedals.  Took it out for a real-world test drive – a trip to the Y – and it performed very nicely.  I mostly rode in the TAG mode – allowing me to pedal nearly all of the time, except for places I wanted a little extra power (going up hills).  Riding this in this mode, you can really feel the weight of the bike – it’s a bit of a tank, honestly.  According to the manufacturer’s specs, the bike weighs approximately 70 lbs with one battery (battery alone weighs roughly 12 lbs).  The stock “comfort” tires were another dislike.  And on the very first trip, I managed to get a flat on the way home – a small staple punctured the rear tire.   Then and there, I realized puncture-proof tires were mandatory.

Which brings me to my biggest complaint about the bike at this point.  I’ve done my share of repairing flats, replacing tubes, out on the road – but repairing a rear flat/changing a rear tube or tire on this bike is a royal PAIN. To begin with, there is no documentation available on how to remove and disconnect the rear wheel from the motor and drive – and it is not a job you want to attempt out on the road.  We discovered – only thru internet comments left by other owners – that you have to virtually dis-assemble the whole rear end, removing the motor and drive chain, yadda, yadda, yadda.  Making things even less easy to deal with, the motor is hard-wired (vs. a quick disconnect), so I had to physically hold up the motor housing, while Mark was removing the wheel, etc.  It was a timely, pain-in-the-ass job that I definitely didn’t want to have to deal with again anytime soon, so we promptly replaced the tires with Bontrager Hardcase puncture-proofs.  We also changed the skewer on the front wheel, swapping in a quick-release (a stupid manufacturer omission, in my opinion).


Get puncture-proof tires, PRONTO! You don't want to have to mess with changing a rear flat.

After making the little list of modifications, I have ridden the eBike about once a week, mostly to the Y to swim, but also a trip or two up The Big Hill for a few errands.  After some experimenting, I have found that riding in the PAS (Peddle Assist) mode seems to be the best option for me.  After a few pedal strokes, you can feel the motor slightly “kick in”, but you still have to pedal, downshift on hills, and ride like a normal bike – you feel like you are actually pedaling a bike.  As soon as you break or coast, the assist stops.  I’ve found that it really resembles riding a normal bike on a flatter terrain; you feel the assist primarily when climbing a hill, and you still have to use some leg power.  I can still break a sweat, I can still get the heart pumping – it just tends to “flatten” out a ride on rolling or hilly terrain.

I haven’t quite figured out how many miles I can get on a single charge; I’m finding it largely depends on how much assist and/or throttle frequency is involved.  I know I can travel more than 20 miles in PAS mode around here, hills included.

12 Lbs of battery - locks onto rear rack. Charging time: 6 hrs

Bottom line (to date): It’s not a bike I believe I will be riding most of the time, but it’s an excellent alternative to driving a car when I just can’t ride a “real” bike.  It’s definitely more of a bicycle than, say, a scooter.  To use it to it’s potential, you need to pedal and shift gears, etc.  If you are looking to drive it “throttle-only”, I think you may be disappointed; I don’t think the battery capacity and power is adequate enough for riding without pedalling – at least for any kind of distance.  I expect it to be a great option in the scorching heat of summer when I need to arrive somewhere and not be a complete sweat-ball.  I’m hoping that Mark and the boys will give it a go occasionally when they need to get somewhere – rather than driving the car.  Aside from the few initial flaws (tires, etc.) we’ve discovered and dealt with, I think it’s a good value for the pricepoint.

Mostly, I really believe that eBikes in general can be a great transportation alternative to people who maybe can’t fully commit to 100% human-powered bicycle commuting.  I can see so many types of people riding bikes like this one – a great alternative to driving a car.  I’ll continue to evaluate, and let you know.