When you mention bicycles in the context of survival preparation, most people roll their eyes. I used to feel the same way. The image of pedaling through the apocalypse with mushroom clouds in the background is almost comical. But, after buying a motor kit as a toy and trying it out for a while, I have completely changed my opinion. These are serious machines that may fit a niche in your survival plans. They fit my plans perfectly.
We are much more likely to experience a severe economic decline rather than a collapse. In fact, a lot of people would argue that we are already in the middle of it. High gas prices and chronic shortages are more likely than a total meltdown of society. Blocked or debris-filled streets are much more likely than the end of the world. If you live in a good area for bikes, and expect extreme gas prices, bikes start to make a lot of sense. Even without a motor, bikes are not a bad emergency form of transportation, but if you mount a small motor, they suddenly become a very viable transportation tool. Without readily available fuel or working phone lines or when roads are blocked by debris, face to face meetings and short errands around town become a real problem. A motorbike can be a perfect solution.
I commute to work on a motorized mountain bike. I bought the kit on Amazon for under $150 and it moves my bike along at about 25 mph. Since I built it myself, I can repair almost anything that goes wrong with it. Spares are currently cheap, so I keep quite a lot of spare parts on hand. In fact, I have two bikes now and spares for both. They get over 100mpg and I expect I can keep them moving long after all the SUVs are off the roads.
The engine kits I am talking about are made in China and mount onto most bike frames as long as there is room inside the frame (no ladies bikes or rear suspension types). They are basically a big chainsaw engine with a drive chain and a better muffler. They generate about 2.5 to 3 horsepower. They are available via mail order and cheap and easy to mount. They turn a normal beach cruiser into a mini-dirt-bike.
Advantages and disadvantages:
1. Speed. Pedal powered bikes are not as useful because they are slow and require a level of fitness and commitment that may be beyond many of us. A 20 or 30 mile trip becomes an ordeal on a normal pedal bike, especially without paved roads. Motor bikes can move 10-20 MPH on almost any road or trail all day long without breaking a sweat. On a level paved road, they can cruise along at up to 30mph (with a speed sprocket). (One of my bikes is geared for a maximum speed of 25 MPH and high power at lower speeds, the other is geared for 35 MPH). This is comparable to a car inside most towns and allows you to cover serious distances without serious effort. Your bike carries well over 50 miles of fuel in a 2 liter tank and you can easily triple that by carrying a one gallon gas can. (You could easily get over 75 miles per tank, but I am being conservative.) A 50 mile round trip is not an excessive distance for one of these bikes.
2. Economy. This is the biggest reason to choose one of these bikes over a small motorcycle. The cost of a new bike and motor kit is well under $300. A full accessory and spares package including cargo system, cables, tires, spare carb, inner-tubes and everything electronic on the bike will cost less than $300 more. You can even store a whole new kit for less than $150. Buying a systemized kit with full spares will cost less than $600 total outlay. This is half the price of a commercial mo-ped with no spares or accessories.
Adding 2 stroke oil to gasoline raises the price by about a dollar per gallon. This is more than offset by the added mileage you enjoy. These bikes get between 100-150 mpg on the average. Economical speed is roughly 20mph and can get a little better than 150mpg. If 2 stroke oil becomes hard to find or too expensive, you can use regular motor oil by just changing the mix ratio a little. While this is not as efficient as real 2 stroke oil, it works just fine and won’t damage your engine. Buy a 1 gallon gas can and store all your fuel in larger cans. This allows you to easily mix fuel by filling the 1 gallon can half full, dumping a 4 oz bottle of oil into it and then topping it off with gasoline. One gallon will fill your tank twice.
These engines burn any kind of gasoline a car will burn and then some. They are not very choosy about fuels. They will burn E-85 or you can even mix up to 1/20 kerosene or heating oil and they will burn it without even noticing the difference.
Last, but not least, you can (and have to) do all of your own maintenance and repair work, so you won’t ever be paying a mechanic (or looking for one). This sounds discouraging until you realize just how simple these machines are to maintain and repair. The ability to keep these bikes running in a crisis is a major selling point for me. I understand everything about them and can keep them on the road without help.
These engines are not designed to last as long as a car. You can expect about 10000 miles or so from an engine, depending on how hard you ride it. Or another way of looking at it, I can commute to work for over 2 years before I need a new $70 engine. The bike tires and brakes won’t last nearly that long.
3. Easy maintenance. You can tear your bike and engine apart and do maintenance that would be impossible on a car, or even a motorcycle. Replacing a head-gasket on a car requires a fully stocked garage and trained mechanics, but I can do it on my bike engine in about an hour and even make my own replacement gaskets out of junk laying around the house. Notice I said easy maintenance rather than no maintenance. You will have to maintain your bike and that requires about an hour a week if you commute on it. This is much more trouble than a car. If you are afraid to get your hands greasy, these bikes are not for you.
4. Simplicity. There is not much to go wrong. These engines use a carburetor that is little more than a sliding valve made up of a pin and a bigger hole for air. They also have a bowl to hold gas and a little float valve to regulate fuel. They suck the fuel into the crank case (this lubes it too) where it vaporizes and gets sucked into the piston. During the next compression stroke, most of it is burned. Whatever doesn’t burn gets spit out the exhaust. If your mixture is wrong or you have water in your fuel, the bike coughs a little, spits out the water and keeps right on moving. They are air cooled by fins on the engine block. The simplicity is elegant. You can repair it easily if it ever goes wrong.
All the electronics on the bike (one chip) are contained in a Capacitor Discharge Ignition (CDI) unit smaller than a pack of cigarettes that costs about $15 counting postage. Keeping a spare CDI unit insulated with aluminum foil in a metal ammo can pretty much makes your bike EMP proof.
Buying a kit:
If you are considering building one of these, I recommend you start out by visiting the Motor Bicycling web site. This is a motorbike blog where the fanatics go to talk. They are an excellent resource if you run into issues building or maintaining your bike. Check out their sponsors to get a look at current prices. You might be surprised at how low the prices are.
If you want, you can buy a complete kit with a bike ready to assemble for well under $300 from Bikeberry. I bought my last kit (A 66cc Grubee Skyhawk kit) from them and was very satisfied with the quality of the kit and the service. They are highly thought of in the motorbike community. You can save a few dollars by ordering from a mail order company. The service is mostly what you are paying for. I have bought two kits from two different companies and the products are the same and have nothing to do with the price. Both of them are mostly identical and both worked just great.
5. Lack of red tape: While these kits are EPA approved, In most states, motorized bicycles require no registration, tags, taxes or special licence to operate. They are just bikes. In my State, they require a helmet and a driver’s licence to operate and cannot be operated by minors. That’s all. Check your local laws before you buy one though because some states are more restrictive. (The People’s Republic of Kalifornia, for instance, has outlawed 2 stroke engines for road use, so if you live there, forget about a 2 stroke and look into a 4 stroke kit at the web sites I just mentioned).
6. Too dangerous to use after a total meltdown. If society crumbles and law enforcement fails, riding any bike or motorcycle will become dangerous. Any travel after law enforcement fails will be hazardous, but it’s suicidal on a bike.
Assembling your kit:
Get some decent instructions! The instructions that come with the kits are horrible. They are poorly translated from Chinese and not worth reading unless you need a laugh. You can get good instructions at these sites:
All of these engines are similar and all bikes are slightly different, so feel free to improvise. You will need some mechanical aptitude and a few tools to assemble one, but nothing spectacular. My first kit took 9 hours to assemble, including a lot of searching on the Internet to find instructions. Building my second kit took maybe 2 hours (really 3 hours because I also had to assemble the bike).
I bought a pretty good tool kit at an auto parts store for $30. It included a full (metric and USA) socket set, hex key set, pliers and a complete set of wrenches. That’s all you will need, but an electric drill and hacksaw might be useful too. This is a good weekend project for a complete beginner. Check out the instructions at the links above to see the scope of the work, but don’t get discouraged. It’s easier than it looks.
Tips for getting the most out of your bike:
Buy a heavy steel frame bike. All expensive bikes are optimized for low weight and high speed, but many of them won’t carry any cargo and won’t hold up to this level of abuse. You will be adding 20 pounds to the bike with a motor kit and may be hauling over 400 pounds counting yourself, so saving 10 pounds by spending more for a weaker frame makes no sense.
Don’t worry too much about weight. Your bike is going to be almost as fast as a racing bike anyway and you won’t be pedaling it much. Schwinn makes a “beach cruiser” frame in several configurations that are strong and cheap and work great. The cheapest Schwinn cruisers work about as well as the more expensive models. You won’t need more than one gear unless you just want more or anticipate pedaling long distances without the motor. The 7-speed models are a little easier to convert to a motorbike than the single speed models with coaster brakes, but either will work. You will want a better rack on it than Schwinn provides, so why pay for it twice? The object is to buy a frame that’s strong enough and large enough to make a good cargo hauler.
The big tires on cruiser frames are pretty good on dirt tracks, sand or mud and still give you a smooth ride on streets. I don’t advise mountain bike “knobby” tires unless you intend to ride off road on rough trails most of the time. You will probably prefer staying on roads to take advantage of higher speeds and you will appreciate the smoother ride. You can customize your bike for either purpose by getting an optional speed or power sprocket, but the standard 44 tooth rear sprocket is a pretty good compromise, with a top speed of something like 25mph and enough power to pull a trailer. (With the speed sprocket, you may find that your bike moves faster than you want to go on a cheap cruiser bike anyway. 25 mph is fast on a bike, but 35mph is scary on a bike.)
Get a good cargo carrying system. I have used both panniers and baskets and like them both. A pannier system is sort of like a large laptop case on each side of the rear wheel and perhaps another day-pack sized bag on top. If you choose baskets, you can mount a large one on the rack and two more bolted along the rear wheel. Whichever system you choose, A good rear rack is essential, so don’t scrimp and buy a cheap one. I recommend the “Topeak Explorer Bike Rack” which costs under $30 on Amazon. It’s not the best, but it’s inexpensive and well built. A good rack allows you to carry quite a lot of cargo. Don’t try to wear a backpack on a bike. It makes you top-heavy and unstable and tires you. I can fit a fully loaded day-pack or patrol pack easily in a basket on my rack and hardly notice the weight. The same weight on my back would be unsafe.
To be truly useful in a long term or EMP emergency, you should probably have a trailer for your bike. Even a baby-carrier allows you to haul at least four bags of groceries or a couple of Jerry cans of water or fuel with ease. You can fit a very heavy bug-out bag in one of these trailers with room and weight to spare. These bikes behave pretty well with a cargo trailer, you just have to keep your speed low enough to keep the trailer from self-destructing. I recommend the “Aosom Bicycle Bike Cargo Trailer-red and Black ” which costs about $130 on Amazon and carries up to 180 pounds. This trailer shouldn’t be hauled much faster than 15-20mph with a heavy load or it may break. Go easy on the throttle when you are hauling a trailer and really slow down if the road is bad.
Make sure your brakes are up to the task, especially with a trailer. Most bikes are made to go a maximum of 20 mph with a normal cruising speed of about 12 mph. You will be moving much faster than that. Accidents at 30mph are much more serious than accidents at 10mph. If you can find a bike with disk brakes, it will stop better, especially on wet roads. Be sure to wear a helmet and long pants.
Get an aftermarket spark plug. In fact, get a couple so you have spares. They are cheap. These bikes use a cheap Chinese plug and get a little better performance with a name-brand part. Spark gap is not critical. Gap your plug anywhere between .025″-.035 and it will work fine.
NGK B5HS or B7HS
Autolite 4093 or 425
Clean out your gas tank before you mount it…at least look in there and see if it’s full of rust or dirt. One of my tanks was coated inside with motor oil and was full of metal filings. If the tank is rusted, put several hundred BBs or a length of chain in there and shake the tank for a few minutes to remove any loose rust and then wash the tank out with about 1/4 cup of fuel mix (being very careful! Gasoline is explosive.)
Remove the covers from both sides to expose the magneto and transmission and clean out any metal shavings you find. Re-grease the gears. You have to lube the gears periodically anyway, might as well start out right. You should grease the gears every 50 miles or so or they won’t last. You don’t need anything special. Any grease will work, but lithium grease comes highly recommended. A tube of grease will last you basically forever. You only use a tiny amount each time. In an emergency, you could probably use Crisco or tallow.
While you have the covers off, take a good look behind the magneto flywheel- there is a seal behind it, and if it is not properly seated, do that with a wooden dowel, not a screw driver. Just gently push it in evenly all the way around. Wipe out any dirt or metal shavings.
Use a fuel filter. Buy one if your kit doesn’t come with one. As TEOTWAWKI transportation, you never know when you will need to burn really dirty fuel. A fuel filter costs about 2 dollars and mounts in seconds. These engines don’t mind a little dirt, but sand in the fuel line can ruin them. Even a really cheap 80 cent filter makes your fuel system worry free.
A better aftermarket air filter might be a good idea if you anticipate riding in dusty conditions. They cost about $10 at any auto parts store or you can order it when you order your spare bike parts.
Make sure your chain is aligned and lubed. Take your time when you mount the rear sprocket. Keep it perfectly aligned and you will have a smoother ride and less wear. You can do this by spinning the wheel and holding a pencil against the sprocket. Tighten bolts next to high spots until the pencil makes a complete ring around the sprocket. It takes an extra 5 minutes but it’s worth the effort. After you ride the bike a couple of hours, check it again. Once your sprocket is aligned, put a drop of Locktite on each bolt and you can forget about your sprocket. It will stay aligned.
Don’t ever use WD-40 or other penetrating oils on your chain to lubricate it. They wash out the remaining real lube and then evaporate. Use any good chain oil or motor oil if you must and then wipe off the excess so the chain won’t pick up dirt as bad. The same goes for the pulley/tensioner. Don’t make the chain too tight. About 1″ of play is fine. You should probably wipe down and re-lube your chain about every 50 miles to keep road grit from wearing your sprockets and chain.
Use a thread-locker such as Locktite (or at least nail polish) on every bolt you ever touch with a wrench. Without it, bolts vibrate loose in no time. Even bolts with lock-washers should get a drop of locktite. Never over-tighten the head bolts, or any bolt that goes into aluminum- 10-to-15 ft/lbs. is enough. The locktite will keep everything secure and trouble free.
Carry tools. This is not a car. Bikes require frequent tinkering to keep rolling. You will need to carry a small tool kit to allow you to effect repairs on the road. I carry a leatherman, hex key-ring, spark plug wrench, bone wrench, spare cable, air pump, spare tube and patch kit and pliers (also a little tube of locktite). These tools (except for the spare tube and hand pump) fit conveniently in a US Army M16 cleaning kit pouch. I carry a length of 550 cord wound around the kit to allow me to hoist the bike if I ever need to. These are the same tools I use in my garage. With these few tools and parts I find that I can fix pretty much anything that can break. I have only used the kit twice, once to help another biker, and once to replace a broken clutch cable, but it was nice to have and takes up little space.
Armor your tires. Your tires are your weakest spot. TEOTWAWKI probably won’t have clean, litter free streets. Buy some self sealing tubes and tire armor and install them. Tire armor strips are heavy plastic strips that fit between the tire and inner-tube and prevent most punctures. All of the objections bikers have to these are related to the extra weight they add. Weight is not a problem for you, so feel free to armor plate your tubes. If you get a puncture, try to remove the object that caused it and then simply rotate the tire to place the leak at the lowest point and re-inflate the tire and it will probably seal itself. You should also carry a spare tube with your tool kit, just in case. It’s hard to patch self sealing tubes, so carry a standard weight tube as a spare. If the worst happens and you have an unsealable flat, you can be rolling again in less than 10 minutes.
If you buy lights for nigh time running, I recommend a LED battery system that can be quickly dismounted and used as a flashlight. Standardize your batteries with the ones you already store. Old-school generator lights are a pain to keep adjusted and running a light off the magneto is not as easy or useful as a system that dismounts.
SHAKE IT DOWN!
All bicycles need to be ridden before they are reliable. When you first buy a bike everything seems to go wrong for the first hundred miles or so. Things fall off or vibrate loose. You find that the seat hurts your backside, or the mirrors aren’t properly aligned. Put a couple of hundred miles on it so you break in the motor and get all your accessories working. At the end of the break-in, you will have a safe reliable ride. At that point, if you want, you can drain the fuel and mothball the bike for emergencies by letting some of the pressure out of the tires and hanging it up on hooks in your garage. It will be ready to fuel up and ride when you need it.
To “systemize” your bike, you will need some spares. Any time you have to buy a part, buy a second one as a spare. You will want to keep spare inner tubes and a couple of tires, a spark plug, several spare brake cables and brake pads. You will want clutch pads too. A spare chain make sense. Ride your bike for a couple of hundred miles and you will have a good idea of which parts are starting to wear. You will also need some lubricants such as chain oil and grease.
Buy at least enough 2 stroke [gas mixing] oil for the gasoline you store. Five 5 gallon cans of gas and 25 x 4 oz bottles of oil will carry your bike 2,500 miles, or about 4 months of moderate (150 miles a week) around-town use. I would recommend storing twice that much oil and rotating it to allow you to continue another 2,500 miles range if you have the opportunity to fill your fuel cans occasionally. That way, you won’t have to resort to burning motor oil for a long time. You can lower the ratio of oil to gas slightly and gain some engine performance, but I use 1:32 mix (4 oz oil to a gallon of gas) and it works well enough.
If you ever have to burn motor oil, use normal 10W30 and increase the amount of oil to 1:16 (double the amount compared to 2 stroke oil). It will create clouds of gray smoke, and reduce your power slightly but it won’t hurt your engine. This is the recommended ratio from the manufacturer and is supposedly a common practice in China.
When gasoline is scarce or too expensive to afford, or the roads are choked by debris, a motorbike can give you the ability to move around your community freely even when cars can’t. In a pinch, it can haul a surprising amount of cargo over almost any terrain for very long distances. They are simple, cheap, durable and sip gas. You may be able to keep one rolling long after the cars stop. A motorbike may fit a niche in your survival strategy.