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2009-08-12

Two wheels good: To bring or borrow a boat bike


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The question of shore-side transport on passagemakers comes up surprisingly frequently on various sailing forums.

Getting to the shore is something we've already addressed: We have two tenders: a motor-ready, rowable, folding Portabote, and a motor-ready, sail-capable, rowable and "nesting" fibreglass dinghy. A light, air-cooled Honda 2 outboard motor is shared as needed, and four knots, no problem is the result.

What to do when you reach land is another question. Humping supplies at the end of stretched arms or inside backpacks is an option, but this leaves the ship's provisioners at the mercy of local taxi services (when existing) or simply the willingness to walk on often indifferent local roads in usually constant tropical heat.

Some folk, of course, get their International Driver's Licences and rent vehicles. This is not always possible, particularly in smaller places where private cars may be non-existent or in constant use by the locals. Public transit may also be spotty.

Many cruisers, therefore, choose to bring bicycles aboard. A popular choice is a small-wheeled folding bike, for compactness and ease of transport to and from shore.

A problem, of course, is corrosion. Keeping the ferrous bits of a bike rust-free without getting oil on the deck is a challenge, as it keeping them out of the sea itself if stowed, as is typical, on the rail and not down below. As long as the bike is made entirely of aluminum, it's good. This is rare, however, and can be very expensive, as welds in this metal are tricky.

The folding aspect is one thing (particularly on a small boat...that bike could lash to the mast easily). But the main objection remains corrosion. Our current, if subject to revision, opinion on shoreside bikes is NOT to bring them with us, despite having the space and even the inclination to do so.

Instead, we will bring bike tools, bike racks and a waterproof pannier "system" that can double as "cargo bags" in the tenders:
Waterproof and therefore appropriate for the bottom of the tenders.



Ortliebs come recommended. They are pricy, but evidently superior.


Our working assumption is that crappy bikes are available everywhere, and the words for "bicycle" aren't so different around the world that finding one would be a challenge. So our plan is to hit the shore and buy a "beater" for $20, put on our racks and our good locks, and use them as shoreside transport. When we are leaving a given area, we remove the racks and the panniers and the locks and sell the bikes for $10, probably with bonus bike grease and tuned up. Cost to us: ten bucks and no bikes to store. If we are cruising inshore around an entire country or between islands, we can opt to carry the bikes aboard on a temporary basis.

Many years and kilos ago, I used to be a bike courier and can fix all but the most modern of bikes (like Hayes hydraulic brakes...I don't want to know...) But we are unlikely to be acquiring anything above some Chinese steel mountain bike with caliper brakes (and I can bring better pads easily), and this will save space and the monumental hassle of having a bike that stays folded in the hold or lashed under Sunbrella to the rail 95% of the time, never mind the trouble of bringing a bike from boat to shore in one piece.

I'd be willing to be persuaded that my "no bike left aboard" idea is silly.

An esteemed reader of this proposal on a sailing forum asked "but how much time do you have to spend fixing the bikes before they're usable? Personally I love the idea of the fold-up one. I think I might be persuaded to actually take them somewhere and actually ride it if it's that easy to transport. Beats breaking out with the big ass bike rack and hooking it up to the trailer hitch."

Well, I agree. If you are coastal cruising or cruising from the same club or even doing a "there-and-back" trip of under a month's duration, yes, I would get a bike to keep and figure out a stowage solution.

But I am discussing this from a passagemaker's point of view: We will go from place to place and probably anchor for a few weeks at a time. It is easier to spend one hour altering and adjusting a cheapo "land" bike in a given month, say, than to make space and spend money on a personal bike with amazing folding capacities that would inevitably (unless made entirely from aluminum with a rubber belt drive instead of a steel chain) corrode on deck, even if wrapped up, and get in the way below (and corrode not quite so fast!).

The assumption here as well is that bringing a fancy folder made from space-age materials immediately marks you and your bike when locked as "rich foreigner with expensive bike I can fence". You might as well wear a "ROB ME" sign. While our size, complexions and language will underline our foreignness in most places, I wish to keep the "flashiness" of our relative wealth to a minimum. We want to be seen, if at all, as travellers, not tourists waving Western affluence, such as that is these days, in the local faces. Some space bike would probably do that. A four-times recycled 1992 mountain bike with cracked tires? Not so much..

If we get the local equivalent of a rustbucket CCM 15-speed (think "Schwinn", Americans, or "Raleigh", Brits), clean it up, lube the moving parts and put on the racks and panniers, the result is that your bike looks like a local bike when you take off the panniers to go shopping. It attracts little or no interest from the locals, or the local "bad element".

This is why, among other reasons, we will rust-proof our steel boat, but won't bother with waxing it or otherwise making it visibly "pristine from a distance": This is protective colouration. Why make yourself a target? I learned this the hard way years ago when I was a bike courier with a new, fancy bike. It got stolen, rather embarrassingly quickly. I bought a non-descript beater and swapped in some decent parts like very good brakes and shifters. I then applied "courier grime", which consisted of affixing various counter-culture or rock band logo stickers on the bike, and daubing grease on selected parts of the frame, followed by powdered brown chalk and Vaseline paste artistically applied. It made the bike look like a complete rolling piece of garbage, even though functionally, it was kept in top gear, so to speak.

I follow this today: My $1,300 mountain bike is equipped with narrow, high pressure slicks, Presta valves, Hayes disc brakes, 27 gears and carbon fibre this and that. But it is coloured a dour slate grey and is a very boring object at which to look. The mind of a thief is the mind of a magpie: shiny attracts attention. My bike runs like a dream, but sucks the life (visually speaking) out of its immediate surroundings. And what's that obscuring the maker's decals?

"Courier grime".

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