Using a Bike for Short Journeys – Part 2

[UaBfSJ Part 1]

BasketLights, locks and luggage – how to match your bike to your life and make it at least as convenient as the alternatives…

In the mid-noughties I spent a year living and working in a german town just north of Nuremberg. Even for Germany it’s quite a special place from the point of view of cycling and at that time had a modal share of 33%, meaning a third of all journeys in the town were being made by bike. One of the first things to strike me, other than the bikes when I strayed onto the cycle path, was the sight of men riding bikes with baskets. Years of social conditioning caused my cultural compass to spin everytime I saw a basket not paired with the fairer sex. What was it all about?

Convenience. The human/bike interface managed with a minimum of fuss by dropping any loose paraphernalia into the basket at the beginning of a journey and hooking it out again at the end. Plenty of cyclists that I recognised as ‘normal for the UK’ commuting longer distances, or perhaps regularly touring at the weekends and in the holidays, were using Ortlieb panniers but they were in the minority. For the various local jaunts that take from five to fifteen minutes, attaching, detaching and lugging around an expensive cycle specific luggage system appeared to be more of a hinderance than a help.

The basket is simple and versatile. Whatever you’re leaving the house with (bag, jacket, library books), whatever you’re coming back with (bread, eggs, beer) can all be dropped into this open access universal storage solution. Whether it’s wicker, wire, wood or even a plastic crate advertising a reassuringly manly beer brand, once firmly attached to the bike it’s unlikely to get nicked.

Poor security, or just the fear of things being pinched, is another barrier to regular bike use. Even for those that persevere, what seems like a sensible value-for-money solution can turn into a royal PITA if you can’t rely on it being on the bike when you return. Lights are a prime example.

BikeLightBecause lights aren’t always needed they’re generally considered an accessory. Someone who begins cycling over the summer months might not find themselves on a bike after dark until September and even then it’s probably occasional. If the lights will rarely be used why not get the cheapest? It’s silly to spend more on something you hardly use, right? That line of reasoning usually leads to detachable battery powered lights which although they’ve been chosen because they’re cheaper, it doesn’t mean having them nicked is OK so they’re never left on the bike.

This works for some people – tidy people with perfect memories and predictable lives. If you’re the kind of person who forgets to go to the loo before setting out on a long journey, can’t remember where you last saw your passport, or can’t predict when you’ll next be out beyond sunset, this will be the beginning of a series of infuriating fumbles in the dark that you failed to put a price on in the shop.

The first time you’ll need them they’ll be in the kitchen draw, the next time in your other bag, the fourth or fifth time the batteries will be flat and if you were organised enough to buy a spare pack (and remembered to bring them with you) you’ll drop the front light trying to clip the battery cover back on, in the rain, simultaneously cracking the case and breaking the switch that turns it on.

It’s not the end of the world, it’ll only take 30 minutes or so to push the bike home, less if you ride all the way on the pavement, but still plenty of time to reflect on the money you saved and what you did with it.

The alternative is to accept that you’re fallible and you’d like some lights that aren’t. Bike lights have improved dramatically in recent years and the combination of a hub dynamo and a quality front and rear LED light can be relied upon from one year to the next without the hassle of batteries or blown bulbs. Consistent illumination at the flick of a switch, automatic even, continuing for several minutes when stopped at junctions. I’ve never had dynamo lights stolen from a bike and I don’t know anyone else that has. They’re secure and convenient.


Cardiff (from Cyclestreet’s photomap)

Emerging from a shop to find someone’s walked off with your wheels isn’t. Not only will you have to walk home you’ll have to carry the bike as well as the shopping. More often than not this’ll be down to another gift from the world of cyclesport; the quick release lever.

In cycle racing punctures are inevitable. Rolling resistance and weight are the key parameters when choosing racing tyres so the focus shifts to managing the flat when it happens. With a team car or a sacrificial domestique on hand to provide Sir Wiggo and Froome Dog with replacement wheels, the QR lever gets them back in the race within a few seconds.

For our ten minute trip to the library there’s little to be gained by arriving 30 seconds ahead of schedule and unless you’re the leader of a political party with a chauffeur in tow you’re unlikely to have instant access to a spare wheel. In our world, the real world, the primary goals are avoiding punctures in the first place and hanging on to our wheels. This is best achieved by purchasing a pair of the virtually puncture-proof Marathon Plus tyres from Schwalbe and steering clear of quick release wheels. That’s not to say there aren’t bike thieves out there with spanners, but you’ll have lengthened the odds by not making it so ridiculously easy for them.

Those odds will shorten considerably again if you leave your bike parked somewhere for several days though. The peace-of-mind solution for minimising your losses is a decent D-lock stored on the bike so it’s there when you need it. But bike parking’s not just about big locks. There’s a whole other side to the equation that we have little or no control over and I’ll be lumping that together with the other stuff that lurks beyond the garden gate in part 3.

Others have cracked this nut in the UK. A D-lock tucked into a back pocket for pinning a colour coordinated front wheel to its partner with lights attached to a messenger bag. That works too. Not a lifestyle choice most of the public will ever make, and a different MO to the one I’m advocating, but taken in the round it fits the profile of those who regularly make their local journeys by bike. A hipster roaming around Hackney and a vicar’s wife dropping off cakes to the WI share the key to short journeys – no matter where they’re going, their bike suits their clothes.

9 thoughts on “Using a Bike for Short Journeys – Part 2

  1. dexey

    I’ve a wire basket on my ‘town’ bike and an IG hub but realised that the walk in is more calories consumed even if I bus back (for free) with a heavy load of second hand books :0)
    My Big Apple tyres were doing well, puncture wise, when I was using that bike and were more comfy than the Marathon pluses.
    For just town i like flashing lights on my helmet. There’s enough light in this small city to not need anything else.

  2. Dave H

    A big basket on the handlebars can be a liability as it moves with the steering and thus can make handling tricky at low speed. far better is the porteur rack style used of delivery bikes ad adopted by Moulton and Brompton for their carrying systems fixing the weight of the freight to the main frame and (with small wheels permitting some incredible loads to be carried)

  3. Kevin Hickman Post author

    At the Cycling and Society Research Symposium a guy researching the Dublinbikes scheme said many interviewees commented on how great the baskets were – even though they wouldn’t consider fitting one to their own bikes. It seems baskets aren’t cool even if hire bikes are, but I expect the hire bikes will help normalise them. Just as living in Germany did for me.

    There’s a nice pick of a hire nike and basket on the Cycling in Dublin blog

  4. dexey

    I found my basket fine to use and no effect on the steering at all, and I’m way beyond worrying if I am cool or not. It’s a very effective quick and easy carry system for small loads like books. I wouldn’t put a weeks groceries in it :0)

  5. Walker

    Great series Kevin. Looking forward to Part III. Basket fashion is quite easy to deal with. If you’re a hipster, baskets are hip. If you’re over 50, then you likely also happen to be an original hipster so, baskets are hip for you too. For those who don’t fit neatly in to either hipster crowd, or don’t eat at Bistroteque, there’s the tried and true issue of function over form, to be “in” is to be functional, putting form over function is so out of date.

  6. Hannah C

    I agree lights and locks are an endless source of faff. I recently found three rear LED lights in a drawer – and all of them worked…. Unfortunately with locks it is a bit of a situation where lock security is almost linearly associated with lock weight, and usually the frame connector thing breaks about a month after you install it, so you are left with lugging it around in a bag or banging your knees off it constantly, trapped in an endless cycle of angst of “It’s so bloody heavy” / “My bike is going to get nicked, I should have bought the bigger lock”….

    I recently bought a road bike (my older hybrid is hilariously oversized and was doing my back in with 16 miles per day) but I have done my best to hybridise it between fast commuter and about-the-town pootler. So, rack and ortelib panniers with spd shoes (and lots of lycra) for the everyday run to work, but platform reflectors (so I can cycle in normal shoes) and one of these for popping to the shops. It’s a bit of a compromise, and the bent-over position isn’t as comfortable on short journeys, but it seems to work well! The detachable basket is brilliant – I can take it into the shop and use it as I would a normal wire basket (it’s very sturdy), so it is not one more thing that you are lugging around. It would be really lovely to have a key-locking bike with a stand that I could just leave outside the supermarket, but unless I could buy one for <£150 the sheer stress of leaving it outside in South London, not fixed to an immovable object, would be horrible….

    1. Kevin Hickman Post author

      That’s a great basket Hannah, not come across that style before.

      Not surprisingly, dutch style secondhand bikes are more abundant in the Netherlands and at a fairly reasonable price, certainly within the £150 limit, if that’s what you meant. Getting a bike that would serve both purposes though – shopping and a fast commute – for that price would be a tall order.

      Until that style of cycling becomes common prices here for that type of bike are going to remain high and your bike is going to remain more likely to get nicked. My default bike is a Brompton with the canvas folding basket and I don’t take any chances with that. I’ve got a 300mm long Abus D-lock that I feed through the saddle rails when not in use so it just hangs off the back of the saddle. At 300mm, if I’m leaving the bike anywhere for long time, it’s long enough to feed through both wheels and frame when folded and lock to a post. Not lost it yet despite leaving it outside pubs, cafes, etc in London and Oxford. It’s not a lightweight option, but like you say, the level of stress wondering whether it’ll still be there would be horrible otherwise.


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