This is a guest post submitted by Sean at Yunt.Net. I know some of you question the use of a bike as a survival vehicle and I understand their limitations. However I think there will be situations or locations in which they will be practical. Just think of them as another possible tool, especially as thing start to stabilize.
A case for the bicycle as a survival vehicle
By Sean on October 19, 2010
Attributes of a practical survival bicycle
- Off road capable
- Inexpensive – upfront and recurring maintenance
- Carry capacity
There are two different schools of thought to this problem: Mountain bike or road/touring bike. Both can be durable, but in different ways. Riding down a flight of stairs is a little different than riding 40 miles on a gravel road. The typical downhill mountain bike probably would not be comfortable or efficient to ride beyond a trivial distance (< 10 miles) on the road. While a solid touring bike can carry 50+lbs of gear while traveling 15mph or faster over a great distance. At the same time, narrow 23mm (fast) road tires will become pretty useless on a muddy dirt road.
One thing I learned from riding long distance events, is its far better to keep moving at a consistent pace, than to have a lighting fast pace interrupted with mechanical issues. This is most often observed with tire selection. Rotational weight probably has the greatest impact to exertion of the riding. Lighter wheels and tires will make you at least feel faster. However, there are diminishing returns when your tires puncture frequently or your wheels fall out of true, or start breaking spokes. Think tortoise vs. hare.
Durability vs. Serviceability
This is a classic argument that has been made for everything from personal computers to military small arms.
Mac vs. PC – “A Mac doesn’t break” vs. “I can fix a PC when it breaks”. Of course things can always go wrong, so choosing something more durable while neglecting to prepare for maintenance is foolish. If you are handy, have all the needed tools and don’t mind tinkering, you can save a lot of money upfront buying a quality, but older model bicycle. Particularly for wheel hubs, I’m a believer in loose ball bearings, as opposed to the modern cartridge style bearings. While it does take some skill and knowledge to properly “load” ball bearings correctly, in a desperate situation replacement steel ball bearings are much more likely to be found than cartridge bearings that are often proprietary to a specific component manufacturer. For other parts, like bottom brackets or pedals, it’s less of an issue as those can be replaced with salvaged parts from other bikes. If you destroy your hubs, you’ve destroyed your wheels – unless you understand how to build wheels (which is an entire topic of itself).
Durable specs and parts list
- MTB drive train with 8 speeds max
- 26″ rims
- steel frame
- consider solid, bolt-on axles
- lots of braze-ons
- friction shifters
- steel chain rings
- quality tires
Serviceable specs and parts list
- loose ball – cup and cone bearings wherever possible (BB, Headset, hubs)
- Shimano freehubs (LX/XT, 105/Ultegra are the sweet spots)
- Shimano freewheels (while heavier than cassettes, they are easier to maintain)
- standardized ISO/JIS threading – avoid exotic compatibility issues
Real world examples
Assuming you want a complete rig ready to roll for ~$200 there are many options on Craigslist.
I’d personally go for older, but higher quality and budget some money for a tune-up. Figure at least $50 to put some new tires, brakes, chain and probably all the cables as well. Much of this work can be done by the novice home mechanic, and some tasks like running new cables might be better left to experienced folks. See the resources below for great links on how to do all this work yourself. Just know that proper bicycle tools really are important for many of these jobs.
My personal recommendations for used bikes would be vintage mountain bikes (late 1980s), or even older road/touring bikes (10 speeds from the early 1980s).
The mountain bikes from that period were typically made of steel, had rigid forks (no suspension or shocks) and all the threads are likely to be of the most common (Japanese/ISO) specifications. That means these are the most interchangeable from a parts swap perspective. Additionally with some lighter, slick tires they can serve as heavy duty urban bikes, and even touring bikes when fitted with racks, bags or other carrier systems. The wheel sizes are most typically 26″, and run inner tubes with “shraeder” valves. These are what most automobiles use, so finding a compatible air pump is easy. The drive train often consists of 6, 7 or 8 speed rear cassettes. These are slightly obsolete, but the upside is those chains are slightly wider than the latest 9 and 10 speed chains and all things equal, they will last a little longer. The low gearing on mountain bikes makes for easy hill climbing, even with cargo (your personal fitness level may vary). One weakness on an old or cheap mountain bike might be the shifters. Some of the early indexed mountain bike shifters known as “rapid fire”, or other trade names, didn’t always perform or hold up to abuse very well. If you just want something that works, consider some friction shifters. These can be had from places like nashbar for next to nothing. Cheapo friction shifters also serve as great spare parts should your index shifting ever fail, or operate badly enough to severely annoy you.
Older road bikes will be a little more challenging for a few reasons, but still make good preparedness vehicle options for cheap. The upside is mobility. Most have 27″ wheels (these are slightly larger than modern road bikes with 700c spec wheels), and cheap tires can still be found – but probably not at Walmart. These large wheels make for easy rolling, and with a light load and proper tune up, a healthy person can comfortably push a bike at 15-20mph for hours at a time. If you are in a situation where you need mobility, and will likely be traveling paved roads, a road bike of some variety will beat out the mountain bike. Maintenance and parts interchangeability can be more complicated. During the “golden age” or bicycles in the 1970s, many were imported from Europe. Bikes built based on French, Swiss and some extent Italian specs, are either obsolete or at least very obscure. You might not be able to service a bottom bracket on a 35 year old French bike, unless you have access to a machine shop, or are willing to spend a lot of money for vintage parts on eBay. In general, Japanese bikes from the 70′s and 80′s don’t have quite the same compatibility issues, but you do have older technology to deal with. Most of these bikes will shift using down tube shifters in friction mode. These manually loosen or pull cables which move derailleurs inward or outward from the cogs. As the cables stretch or derailleurs fall our of alignment, you can manually nudge the friction shifter lever and quickly resolve most issues.
In all cases, mechanical knowledge, and specifically bike repair knowledge will be very helpful. I highly recommend viewing the below links. There is a lifetime worth of knowledge, I’ve maybe mastered 5-10% of it on a good day