This article will focus on the bicycle as a transportation solution in a situation where the electrical grid has failed, and petroleum products are either completely unavailable or in extremely limited supply. Given those parameters, I will not be discussing E-Bikes. I also have no experience with them. I bought a hybrid bicycle in early 2005 due to a fuel spike that was killing my budget. With further deployments and changes in employment the bicycle was set aside and gather dust in the garage. My semi-serious foray into cycling only begins a couple years ago when I pulled the old hybrid out of storage. After an overhaul at the local cycling shop, I spent a summer and autumn on it learning the limitations of a hybrid while cycling over the gravel roads and trails in the region. From the beginning of this, I began to think of the bicycles’ utility in an extended grid-down scenario. It is only now, that I’ve started to put some thoughts on paper.
The early forerunner of the modern bicycle was developed about 200 years ago. The Laufmaschine first appeared in 1817. The rider balanced on it and powered by walking. Forty years passed until the appearance of the earliest Boneshakers, Penny Farthings, and Velocipedes that are recognizable as bicycles today. Over the last century and a half bicycle development has led to several specialty designs:
Road Bikes. This is a specialty bicycle designed to go fast and not much else. Geared for speed rather than durabiilty or cargo capacity. Prices can range anywhere from a couple hundred in a big box store to the many thousands of dollars at a specialty bike shop. These are often constructed with very light with aircraft aluminum or carbon fiber. They are only suitable for paved roads due to the narrow, high-pressure tires. Might be okay on some rail-trails that have finer chat, but due to the pressure in the tires, blow-outs become more likely. They are absolutely not suited for gravel roads. They are not really built for carrying much in the way of gear. There will likely be a couple hard points for water bottles, an air pump, and a small bag for tools.
Mountain Bikes. These are best for off-road, technical, or unimproved trails. While they can be used on gravel or pavement, they will be slower than the lighter gravel or road varieties. They are sturdily built with knobby tires and geared for power rather than speed. Often used in the cycling community for “bike packing.” This is due to their rugged nature and many hard points for accessories. A variety of water bottles, panniers, racks, lights, air pumps, bags, and other accessories may easily be attached. These are quite a bit heavier and slower than other types.
Commuter or hybrid. I have heard these terms used interchangeably. Initially developed as a cross between a road (racing) bicycle and a mountain bicycle. As you might guess, it was developed for those who could use it to commute to the office. I was doing this back in 2005, when I was living in a medium sized city. My daily commute to work along city trails extended eleven miles from my home to the office across town. I did this for several months while gas prices were elevated. As a side benefit, I got into excellent physical condition while doing so. A hybrid is bit more comfortable as the rider is more upright. The gearing is not as fast as a road bike, nor as powerful as a mountain. There are typically a number of hard points so you are able to attach a variety of water bottles, panniers, racks, lights, air pumps, bags, and other accessories.
Recumbents. I have no experience with these. The rider is in a seated, almost reclined position and much lower to the ground. Initially I thought this might be an advantage, but they might be difficult to dismount. I have not seen them with panniers due to their geometry but have seen some with a small trailer attached. Each time I have seen one, it has been manned by an older adult. They seem to be built with comfort over utility in mind. As I said, I have no experience with these and could well be wrong.
Gravel Bikes. These are a cross between mountain and road bike. The gearing allows for a fair amount of speed and power. It also has wider tires allowing for easier negotiation of gravel roads and trails. Slower than road bikes or hybrids, faster than mountain. As with the mountain bike a variety of water bottles, panniers, racks, lights, air pumps, bags, and other accessories can be attached. This is my current bicycle.
Adult tricycles. This might be a better solution if you are older with balance issues. I have no personal experience with these either, but they seem more intuitively useful than the recumbent. Most that I’ve seen are fitted with a basket in the back and one could be placed in the front. These may also be fitted with a trailer for additional carrying capacity. Wide tire models are out there making them appropriate for gravel roads or rail-trails. They are heavier as there is more materiel in them, which will also reduce your speed.
Single Gear. I was surprised to find that there is a market for single-gear bicycles and even a category for them in races. They do have some maintenance and weight advantages over the derailleur types. However, I think the disadvantages in speed and power when hauling a load far outweigh any advantages.
We’ve all seen, (probably) the cyclist out on the road dressed out like he’s in the Tour de France. I don’t recommend the bright-colored outerwear after TEOTWAWKI. Before that, I very much do. You want to be as visible as possible if you are sharing any roads with motor vehicles at all.
Helmets. A helmet is a must and, as with motorcycling, it is not an item with which to be miserly. I recommend purchasing from a local bicycle shop as they will ensure a proper fit. They come in black or you can use a rattle can of subdued paint on it.
Shoes. Personally, I do not use specific cycling shoes. Those are for competitive racers and are not suited anything but the bicycle. This means that if you must get off quickly due to a tactical issue, you won’t really be able to walk.
Clothing. The only piece of cycling specific clothing I recommend for use after the grid goes down is the bicycle short. These are made of spandex or other wicking material. But most importantly, they have a cushion sewed into the seat! I have become far more appreciative of this with age!
Use a blousing rubber or something like it to keep your pants leg out of the chain. Many of today’s bicycles do not have a chain shroud as your banana-seat bikes did, back in the 70s.
Lighting. I recommend using bright LED lights facing both front and rear until after TEOTWAWKI. At that point there may a need for a lower profile. Until such time, you want to be visible on any road that you share with motor vehicles.
Racks. These are necessary for attaching the panniers, top bags, and tying off other gear.
Panniers. These are more commonly known as saddle bags and more commonly thought of as a motorcycle accessory. They can hold several pounds of gear or supplies and range from flimsy light canvas to more sturdy designs. Some are sold with a “top bag” that fastens to the rack and lays across both panniers.
In one of the panniers, you will want to keep a few tools available for immediate repairs. Crescent wrenches,
Allen wrenches, needle nose pliers. Spare links for the chain would be a good idea as well as a few spare inner tubes. A small air pump is a necessity. Some of these are specifically designed to affix to hard points on the frame and may not need to go in a saddle bag. There are also cartridges that can fill a tire in an emergency. I carry a couple of these as well.
A side note on tires: When I started riding again a couple years ago, I was not aware that self-sealing tires had been developed for cycling. The only self-sealing tires I had any experience with were for military vehicles. They do work. I was 55 miles into a 57-mile ride on a Rail-Trail here in the Midwest when I hear a loud “pop” followed by hissing. In the time it took me to get stopped and dismount, the hissing had stopped, and the puncture had sealed. While the pressure was a bit low, but more than sufficient to get me the last couple of miles back to the truck. I recommend this over trying to switch out inner tubes far from home.
Trailers. Trailers with up to 300-pound capacity are available. However, consider your own capacity, 80–100-pound trailers may be more reasonable. You’ll want to determine your effort versus hauling capacity. The more stuff you carry and tow, the slower you will move. Prices on these vary. If you are proficient with metals and have the ability, constructing your own may be the way to go.
Bicycle shops vs. Online
You can buy less expensively at a big box store and get lower quality. You can also buy online and not see your purchase until it arrives. Personally, I like using the local bicycle shop, especially since I was starting more or less as a novice. Yes, the price was higher, but was more than offset by being able to ask questions of the staff. Bicycle shops will also provide you with a proper fitting which will reduce the incidence of injury. The local one here also puts on classes on maintenance and holds events throughout the year.
With the decline of railroads, at least on shorter and less profitable lines, in America rails are increasingly abandoned. Many of these have been turned over to state governments or private conservancy organizations and are being developed as multi-use trails for hikers, runners, cyclists. In at least one case this has included horseback riding. These rail-trails are increasingly connecting many small towns in the Midwest. In a post-TEOTWAWKI scenario these trails will likely function as busy, alternative lines-of-communication or LOCs. These will allow you to stay off paved or gravel roads where you might have a higher profile. A well-known example is the Katy Trial formerly part of the MKT Line (Missouri-Kansas-Texas) running 240 miles from Clinton, MO to Maachens, MO (north of St. Louis). There are several rail-trails being developed in Kansas, though not yet as extensively as in Missouri. These are spreading nationwide. Any rail-trails (or rail lines not developed to trails or even still in use) in the vicinity of your retreat should be considered when planning security patrols. In addition to being a friendly LOC, they may also be considered a “natural line of drift” though not so much as a road.
This article has briefly discussed how a bicycle can be an effective mode of transportation in a long-term grid down situation. As a final thought, I suggest you learn the rules of the road and ride defensively. We’ve all been angry at the Lance Armstrong wannabe who blows through red lights and stop signs. They seem to have no knowledge of physics. Don’t be that guy. Remember, when on a bicycle if you are in a collision with a motor vehicle, you will lose, even if you are in the right.