A Few Words on Bicycles, by Semper Bike

About 17 years ago I realized that I could not do all the things that I had done when I was in my 20s. I use to play pick-up basketball for hours, play soccer, stay up way too late, hike lots of miles, and a lot of other things, and not feel too much pain the next day. Well, I’m 47 now and I can barely run or do anything that requires lateral movement like soccer or basketball due to multiple operations on my ankles, knee and back. About the only things that I can do pain-free is swim and ride a bike. I still walk but it is always accompanied by the ever-present arthritis to remind me that I am no longer 25…but I digress. As I said, 17 years ago I decided it would be cool to ride my bicycle across the US. Now, up until this decision, I had never owned a real road bike and had probably never ridden more than 10 miles but I was determined and left the west coast in June of 1995 and rode until I saw the Atlantic Ocean 52 days later. I’ll describe some lessons learned during this journey.

I realized I could do anything I put my mind to. I also realized the amazing versatility of bike riding. Not only did I get in phenomenal shape, it also taught me about road ‘survival’ skills. Having spent 20 years in the military, I am pretty sure of myself in regard to surviving in the wild but when I road coast to coast, I became much more road savvy than I had ever been. I learned to listen to the sound of approaching cars from the rear and could tell if they were going to come too close or give me a wide berth.  I also learned how much weight you could easily carry on your bike if you needed to. When I started the trip, my panniers (the bags that hang on your front and rear wheels) carried upwards of 80 pounds of gear. During the trip I slimmed down my load but in a survival situation, when speed is not of the essence, you can store a lot of gear in those panniers. 

I also learned to approach a town with caution and decide on an entry point that gave me options to get out quickly. I never allowed myself to get into a position that only allowed me one way out so that if danger came from that direction, I had other places to go.

I also became very adept at bicycle care and maintenance and could change a flat, put on a new tire, true a bike wheel, tighten spokes (even if one broke), and keep the bike running until I could get to a repair shop. I learned how to ride in a neutral position so that my hands and arms didn’t fall asleep. These are basic skills you should develop now so that the first time you need them is not when the SHTF.  Being proficient in all things related to bike travel is a huge advantage and adds another piece to your survival repertoire.

Although I never used one, I saw several long distance bike riders towing a trailer. This would be a very good essential item in a survival situation.  Let’s say your water source is a couple of miles away and you don’t want to walk and fuel is way too expensive to use the truck. The bike and trailer will get you there faster and transport multiple gallons of water. The ancillary benefit is that you are also in ten times better shape if you are biking regularly than driving a vehicle and the beautiful thing about it is, it’s one of those activities that can be done completely under the radar because training in plain sight is no issue.   Just outfit the family with decent bikes and start riding every weekend! Add some adventure to it and have friends drop you off on a rail-trail path and bike your way home. Pack along food and water and you are building your family’s survival quotient ten-fold.

My first trip across country was brainless to say the least. I simply bought a bike at a local store (a Trek 1220), picked up some gas station maps and traced a route and went for it. I spent the first week in the Mohave Desert and knew nothing about what it would take to make it through. I think God certainly had pity on me and put certain people into my path as it would have been impossible to make it without them. I met a guy named Rodney in the middle of the Mohave and he had been biking cross-country every year for the last six years. He probably saved my life or at least some severe discomfort when he gave me the right information at exactly the right time I needed it to make it across the desert.  I can simply say that God’s grace is sufficient for me. Anyway, I don’t suggest you do the same thing as I did and make sure you prepare for any trip longer than a few miles. Do a competent map study, and be proficient at riding before you hop on your touring bike. I only rode my bike twice before hitting the road for my 3,500 mile trip. (Not good, to say the least.)

Ever since that trip I have become a biking enthusiast. I ride mountain bikes and road bikes, although I prefer the off-road version now; I simply hate riding next to tractor-trailers and semis! The mountain bike also offers an additional option of getting off the hardball roads quickly and quietly if the need arises. Although you will not make the same speeds on a mountain bike as a road bike, in a SHTF scenario, speed is not your best option, stealth and versatility are.

The benefits of having a “bike” option are cost, simplicity, exercise and fitness, training under the radar, fuel savings, flexibility and versatility. Since my first croos country trip, I have completed two more cross-country rides and have become that much more proficient in the area of bicycle maintenance but you do not have to do any long distance trips to do the same. Start local, start riding your bike to get the paper or to do an errand. Get the kids involved. Find a rail-trail near your home and start doing weekend trips to ride on them. Plan a biking/camping adventure with them. Do some research and get a decent set of panniers for each bike in your home. Practice riding with a heavier load. Get a full complement of bicycle repair tools and equipment. I have an extra set of tubes for each tire and I also have two extra tires that I twist into a figure-8, then fold in half and stuff in my panniers. The longer you ride the more maintenance you will have to do to keep the bike running but that is its own reward in proficiency.  I always carried two methods of tire inflation. I carry three CO2 cartridges and a nozzle so I can quick fill a tire in a few seconds. I also keep a decent hand pump along as well. Don’t skimp on a hand pump, spend the extra dollars and get a good one that can pump up a road tire to 60 p.s.i. if need be.  Some pumps don’t cut the mustard on this capability so do some diligent research. Also make sure you know the difference between Presta and Schrader valves, and have the capability to pump into each type. Most gas stations can’t fill the Presta valves but a simple $1.50 conversion bit gives you this capability. I learned this one the hard way, don’t make the same mistake. Know the difference and be prepared.

Whenever I ride, I have several dollars in change in my handlebar pouch. I cannot tell you the number of times I pulled into gas stations and stores after they closed and found a working soda and candy machine outside. Having a supply of change is a lifesaver in some cases. I once was riding on route 66 between Kingman and Seligman, Arizona and pulled into an old decrepit gas station that looked like it hadn’t pumped any gas in decades. The only thing that worked was the soda machine and it didn’t have a slot for dollar bills; it was another one of those moments when I knew God was watching out for me.

Another item that is indispensable is tire liners. I use Mr. Tuffy’s tire liners but there are several on the market that should do the trick. Although it adds weight to your bike, they are worth every cent. I biked nearly 1,200 miles before I got my first flat on my first bike trip and have had similar results on all my long distance rides. A cheap alternative to store bought liners is to save your old tires and cut off the wire rims. Insert the remaining rubber into the tires and then put the tubes in and you have a home remedy to help prevent flat tires. This option is really only effective if your old tires are of the smooth variety. A knobby mountain bike tire will not fit snugly into a new one, even with the wire rimes cut off. You should also carry green “slime” which is a quick repair goop that you fill directly into your tubes. It fills the hole from the inside (provided it’s not too big) and allows you to continue to use a damaged tube without patching. Bike stores even sell tubes with the slime already pre-filled in the tubes. Tires can also help in the flat prevention department. Specialized makes an Armadillo tire that is pretty tough against flats. The only downside is that the tire is pretty stiff and isn’t for someone who wants a real smooth ride but if we are talking a SHTF scenario, these are money for preventing flats.

This brings me to my next point; patches. There are now lots of different options than the old standard vulcanizing patches we all grew up with. There are quick fix patches that are a time saver and are very useful to quickly patch a tire without having to wait five minutes before the glue sets on an old standard repair patch kit. The tradeoff is that most quick fix patches will not last as long as the standard patch but I developed a plan when I rode where I would quick fix any flat and then when I was safe in my overnight dwelling, I would re-examine my tubes, replace with new ones and re-patch if necessary. I never wanted to spend too much time on the side of the road patching a tire. In the event someone took notice who might want to do me harm, you want to get rolling as quickly as possible.

Bottom line: If you are looking at a true survival scenario, use as many of these options as you can to keep you bikes running on the roads and trails.
It also illustrates a point about traveling alone. I rode cross country in 1995, 1998 and 2003 and did all three trips solo. If I were to do it again, I would probably find someone who would do it with me. I was packing iron my 1st and 2nd trips, (Mr. S&W .357 Magnum on my first trip and Mr. Colt .45 on my second) but rode the third one without heavy metal since I was more aware of the state by state rules regarding firearms and probably was not riding in accordance with established concealed carry laws. I had a cell phone on that most recent trip unlike the first two but going solo, with or without a firearm, would be ill-advised in a survival situation. 

On my second cross country bike trip, I ran across an interesting individual in Tennessee. I can’t remember his name but he told me that people around the area called him the “can man” because he picked up cans along the roadside and turned them in for cash. He told me he bought his last truck with the money he saved from collecting cans. It took him several years but he was retired and just road up and down the state roads, about 40 miles each day, and did his thing and had a very healthy outlook on life. He had rigged up a rear seat platform with several milk crates which he used to keep his cans in and had a broom handle extension on his handlebars so he could walk and balance his load at the same time. It reminded me of the stories of the Viet Cong bringing supplies into South Vietnam on the Ho Chi Minh Trail but his little broomstick handle allowed him to walk upright while pushing the bike and not hunched over the way you normally do. I thought about this for a bit and realized the utility that this had to offer in a SHTF scenario. Let’s say you have to beat feet off a road or trail quickly to avoid a confrontation. This little set up allows you to quickly and efficiently push the bike through any type of brush or up a hill so you can cover ground that can’t be ridden and get back to a place where you can ride.  I’m not advocating keeping a broom handle taped to your handlebars 24/7, just keep the option open to use if the need arises. You could even attach the handle to you bike frame and use some duct tape to attach it to the handlebars in a pinch. [JWR Adds: With most handlebars, a pair of 3.5″ Aero-seal hose clamps Stainless Steel of Aero-seal style hose clamps would work better than tape.]
To make a short story a little bit longer, bikes are awesome and can be fitted to do a ton of stuff in a SHTF scenario. They should be a part of anyone’s survival bag of tricks but the time to get proficient is not after the balloon goes up but as soon as possible to get the family ready and have a lot of fun doing it. Use the internet and get savvy about your bike skills. There is a good online resource by Jim Langley, which covers a lot of the basics of bike repair and maintenance. Good luck and God Speed!