Many of us plan to use bicycles for transportation during TEOTWAWKI, or we’ll use them as bug out vehicles in the event that roadways are snarled. The need to take the bike off-road will necessitate that you have mountain bikes. Not only are mountain bikes best suited for off-road travel, they have the ability to pull a light trailer. In addition, the rider sits a little more upright on a mountain bike than on a road bike. This gives the rider a wider range of vision to look for threats, as well as giving the ability to wear a backpack or rucksack.
All bikes with the mountain bike moniker are not created equal. The bikes that are sold at the big box stores as mountain bikes are not built for off-road riding. They are fine for cruising around your neighborhood and possibly riding on smooth double-track (dirt roads made by off-road vehicle wheel tracks). These bikes will not hold up to the rigors of TEOTWAWKI. In my opinion, the brands to avoid include Next, Roadmaster, Ozona, or Pacific.
Mountain bikes come in two styles– hardtail and softtail. Hardtail bikes do not have any type of shock absorber or spring on the rear of the frame. The ride is rougher on this style of bike, but there are fewer things to break. A softtail has a rear suspension that makes riding over rough terrain a little less hard on the body parts, but this is one more thing that can break. Under most riding conditions, a hard tail is the better choice. Mountain bikes also come with or without front shock absorbers. Get one with the front shocks.
A low-end, true mountain bike from a bike shop will begin at about $500 and can quickly run into the thousands. The reason is that they are constructed to withstand trail riding under very difficult conditions. The rims are double-walled to withstand hitting rocks, roots, and holes on the trail without bending. Even double-walled rims can taco (yes, that means fold up like a taco), if the rider is over 200 pounds and tries a turn in deep sand. The frames on quality mountain bikes also have double and sometimes triple thickness of metal, where all of the joints are welded together and are double/triple welded for strength. This is called double-butting or triple-butting. The cheap mountain bikes have single-walled rims and are single-butted; they will break under off-road conditions.
The drive train or transmission is the heart of your bike and, thus, is the most expensive part. If you are going to spend extra money on the bike, spend it on the drive train. The chain rings (the front gears) on cheap bikes are stamped metal, and the teeth are prone to bending when you ride over a log or a rock. Quality chain rings are made of higher quality metal and are machined so that the chain shifts smoothly from one ring to another. The highest quality chain rings can even be shifted while climbing under a load without jamming or jumping off the ring. The second part of the transmission is the rear gears. Mountain bikes usually come with nine gears in a gear ratio suitable for climbing steep inclines.
Derailleurs are the things that shift the chain onto the different gears. They are activated via a shifter, located on the handlebars near the grips. There is a derailleur for the three front chain rings and one for the rear gears. The derailleurs on cheap bikes are made of weak metals (sometimes aluminum) or even plastic. The derailleurs on a quality bike are made to withstand trail conditions and hard riding. There are two major brands– Shimano and SRAM. The derailleurs come in varying levels of quality and associated expense. Shimano derailleurs, in order of lowest to highest quality, are Shimano SIS, Tourney, Altus, Acera, Alivio, Deore, SLX, XT, Zee, and XTR. The SIS, Tourney, and Altus are entry-level derailleurs, while the last three would be used by pro racers. Think of the SIS as a Jeep Liberty and the XTR as a Baja racer. Which one would you want to take across the Baja desert? Acera- through XT-level derailleurs would be good choices, based on my riding experience, for most off-road riding. They will provide the durability needed, while shifting reliably and smoothly. The SCRAM brand derailleurs begin at X3 for the lowest end with the X0, XX and XX1 at the top end. Both brands are excellent. A quality Shimano or SRAM chain completes the drive train. Once you know what to look for, good deals on used bikes can be found on e-bay or Craigslist. Just do not buy a used bike until you know what to look for.
If you just go buy a bike off the rack, you may be disappointed if you don’t get the right size to fit you. A bike that is too short will cause serious knee injuries. A bike that is too tall for you will stretch you too much and impede your balance. Mountain bike sizes are measured in inches. You measure the seat tube from the top of the crank to the top of the seat tube. I am 5’9” and I ride a 17” bike comfortably. Have the bike shop fit you to a bike. It makes all of the difference in the world when riding 20 miles or more to have a bike that fits you properly and is adjusted correctly. If the employees don’t know how to fit you to a bike, then go to another bike shop. This one is run by amateurs.
Many preppers buy equipment and place it up on a shelf until it’s needed for TEOTWAWKI. Don’t make this mistake with your mountain bike. If you don’t ride regularly, the first time that you ride may be a miserable experience. Your thighs will be burning after a few miles, and the part where your body meets the bike seat will be extremely tender. You must ride your bike regularly to build the conditioning you will need, especially if you plan to use bikes as your BOV. You can cover up to 100 miles a day on a mountain bike if you are properly conditioned. Most of us won’t be able to make anywhere near that mileage. If you plan on pulling a trailer, you need to practice pulling it loaded to develop the conditioning needed as well as the balance.
In addition to general conditioning, riding off-road requires some skills. Negotiating trails requires that you develop a sense of balance to keep from getting bucked off. Going up and down hills also requires a specific set of skills. Going up a steep hill may require that you stand up on the pedals to get maximum power, yet you have to keep most of your weight over the rear wheel to maintain traction. Riding down a steep hill requires that you slide off the seat and hover your weight further back on the bike to keep from going over the handle bars. The proper use of the front and rear brakes is also an acquired skill when riding downhill. During the bug out is not the time to be learning how to ride your mountain bike. Most mountain biking clubs are great at helping beginners learn the basic skills. Check to see if there is one in your area.
- A Chain Tool. Chains stretch through use, and links must sometimes be removed to maintain the proper length. If your chain is too long, it can jump off the gears or cause the derailleurs not to shift properly. Chains also break and can be reconnected by removing the broken link and rejoining the chain. You absolutely must have a chain breaking tool to remove and re-insert the link pins. I’ve watched many a mountain biker walking his bike to the trailhead because he didn’t carry this small tool.
- Tire Repair Tools. The basic list of tire repair tools you need include:
- two tire levers
- an air pump or CO2 dispenser, and
- a spare inner tube (or more) or a patch kit.
It is much faster to just replace the tube and patch the damaged tube later when you are secure and have more time. Fixing a flat tire is a skill that you should practice ahead of time. I know a guy that can change the tube in a tire and be back on the trail in less than a minute, but it takes me more than five minutes on a good day. When the SHTF, you don’t want to be trying to figure out how to fix your flat. I suggest having a supply of tubes with you. Off road, you will encounter thorns, broken glass, old barbed wire, and many other tire hazards. If you have the money, you can buy tires lined with Kevlar that are not puncture proof but are very puncture resistant. You can also get tubes filled with green slime that seals small punctures and will keep you rolling until you can get to safety. Buy lots of spare tubes and a few spare tires while they are available. Also, buy lots of tube patches.
- Hex wrenches. Most things that need tightening on a mountain bike require hex wrenches. Three sizes of hex wrenches will take care of most things that work their way loose. Spoke wrenches are used to tighten loose spokes. Spokes must be kept at the proper tightness to prevent the rim from going out of round. You may also want to carry a few spare spokes. Broken spokes are easy to replace, but they require the spoke wrench to tighten them to the proper tightness. A multi-tool will take care of most other needs.
- A few miscellaneous items and instruction book. The other things that I carry with me are zip ties, electrical tape, and small pieces of wire. The final thing you need to learn is how to make minor repairs to your bike and keep everything in adjustment. Derailleurs require minor adjustments to keep them shifting properly. Brake pads wear and must be adjusted. Chains either stretch or break and must be adjusted or repaired. Zinn & the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance by Leonard Zinn is the standard reference book for maintaining your mountain bike.
Mountain biking is a great sport. It provides you with a little adrenaline rush, while keeping you at a high level of fitness. In addition, I’ve met some great people in the sport. Yet, the critical thing is to buy a quality bike and learn how to ride it.