Cycling Accessories

If it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen. (Current cycling wisdom)

The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize. (Steel Magnolias)

Accessories are things you take on a ride that aren’t strictly part of the bike but that attach to it or are carried by you. The distinction between components and accessories matters because bike shops tend to have sales on “accessories.” I remember the day my bike shop had one, and I tried to buy a tube on sale and was told coldly, “Tubes aren’t accessories.”

Data Recorders

These are the devices that tell you your current speed, your average speed, your top speed, your distance, the time of day, elapsed time on the ride, your heart rate, your elevation and elevation gain, the temperature, your pedal cadence, your route, your watts per hour, your average mileage per ride this year, where the nearest coffee shop is…. The more you pay, the more the gadget tells you.

You need information, even if you’re a Luddite or don’t care what your speed is, because:

  • It tells you how far you’ve come and how far you still have to go.
  • It tells you when you’re warmed up.
  • It motivates you—to ride harder, longer, higher.
  • It tells you when you’re overdoing it.
  • It tells you when your training session is done and you can quit.
  • It keeps you from getting lost.
  • It tells you how much of the climbing is still ahead of you.
  • It lets you calculate how much longer the ride is going to take.

Some of this stuff is just interesting. Some of it is important for training. But some of it is necessary for basic safety: where you are, how far it is to your car, how to get to the nearest food, how to summon help.

We’ll talk about 5 types of data collectors: computers, “Garmins,” smartphones, heart rate monitors, and power meters.

Computers

All data collectors are, strictly speaking, computers, but in cycling the term is reserved for the simplest kind of data tool, a simple calculator that in its most basic form will tell you your speed, distance, elapsed time, and not much else for $25. More elaborate ones can cost up to $250 and tell you things like elevation and elevation gain, heart rate, maximum heart rate, and cadence. Its advantages are it’s relatively cheap, easy to use, always on the bike, needs a battery replacement only every year or so, and is relatively failure-proof. Your big decision will be whether or not to spring for elevation data. It’s an expensive add-on, and an indulgence—you never need to know how high you are or how many feet you climbed today—but elevation gain is one of cycling’s great motivators and I am happy to pay for it, just so I can say, “Hey, today I climbed 5,000 ft.!”

Garmins”

These are computers with GPS capability, so you can find out where you are, plot a route home, download a course route and get turn-by-turn directions to follow it, and on and on. Garmin calls these things “cycling computers,” but the term “computer” is used as above, so cyclists tend to call these things “Garmins,” since Garmin rules the market (the other serious competitor being Wahoo). Garmins are tremendously powerful. They routinely interface with your home computer and thus do all sorts of computations with your ride data—tell you your mileage total for the year at the touch of a button, compute watts per hour and maximum wattage output, and on and on. The disadvantages are many: Garmins are expensive ($200-$400), they need recharging nightly, so you have to take them off the bike and thus often leave them on your dresser when you go for the ride, they only work when they can get a satellite signal, and they’re complicated to program and operate. Nevertheless, most riders are happy to live with these drawbacks to have the data, and it’s a rare road rider who doesn’t have one.

A cycling computer has no satellite connection, so it calculates distance and speed by timing wheel rotation and calculates elevation gain by barometric pressure. A Garmin calculates distance, speed, and elevation by tracking satellite signals and referencing maps. This means the Garmin’s figures are much more accurate.

How you feel about Garmins is determined by two things: how you feel about technology generally, and how good you are at programming. Garmins have a capacity to reduce the ride to numbers. More and more pro cyclists are accused of staring at their Garmins as they ride (Tour de France winner Chris Froome never lifts his eyes from his during a race), and many riders now like to say, “If you don’t post the ride on Strava it didn’t happen.” The logical end of this mentality is, we all do our riding at home on trainers hooked to the internet, staring at our readouts, which is exactly where the sport is going (google “Zwift”).

In addition to the philosophical issues, Garmins are complicated by themselves, and the interfaces between them and a computer and the internet are complicated. Once, at a cycling expo, I passed the Garmin tent and dropped in to get a demonstration of its wonders. Show me how it can plot a route for me, I asked. No problem, said the sales rep. He fiddled with the gadget for ten minutes, then asked his fellow rep for help, then confessed he couldn’t do it. “Must be a weak signal,” he alibied. Some people consider this sort of complexity fun. I don’t. But I’m certainly in the minority.

One difference between computers and Garmins is, since a Garmin measures speed and distance via satellites, tire size has no effect on its numbers. A computer calculates its numbers using the speed of the wheel rotation, so when you change tire size the distance traveled in one rotation changes, and you have to recalibrate the computer.

Smartphones

A smartphone with a mapping app will do the essential thing a Garmin does: tell you where you are and how to get to point X. Since you’ll probably be carrying one anyway, to phone for help or tell your spouse you’re going to be late, it may make the Garmin redundant.

Heart Rate Monitors

The HRM does one thing: tell you how fast your heart is beating, which turns out to be a measure of how hard you’re working. To the novice it seems like the most esoteric of devices, but in fact you can’t live without it:

  • It tells you when you’re warmed up.
  • It tells you when you’re not working, when you’re working a little, when you’re working a lot, and when you’re working full out.
  • It tells you when you’re coming down with a cold.
  • It tells you when you have heat exhaustion.
  • It tells you when you’re trying too hard.
  • It tells you if you can maintain this pace all the way up the hill.
  • It guides all of your training.

Here’s a good example of the power of the HRM: if I’m riding a difficult century with a lot of climbing and I know I need to save my matches, I’ll order myself to never let my HRM get over 120 on the flats and 130 on the climbs—bingo, instant energy conservation. More instruction on using a HRM is in the Training chapter.

All HRM’s are basically the same, a strap across your chest (or rarely wrist) and a read-out in your computer (or on your wrist), and they all cost about the same amount, so there is no reason to favor one brand over another. They have no bells and whistles, which is a relief. A high-end computer or a Garmin will include a HRM, in which case you don’t need to buy a separate unit.

HRM’s have three quirks that can drive you nuts if you don’t know about them. 1) They need moisture to make a contact good enough to produce a signal, so they often won’t read until you sweat a little. So for the first 15 minutes of the ride the HRM often tells you you’re dead. You can minimize the problem by smearing the HRM sensor with a conductive jelly, sold in bike shops. 2) They’re programmed to read an impossibly high number when they don’t get a good signal, so sometimes when you’re warming up the HRM says your heart is ticking over at 250 bpm. 3) Wind can cause your clothing to flutter and simulate a rapid heart rate, so HRM’s often read 200 or more on windy days or fast descents.

Power Meters

A power meter is a device you stick in your rear hub, crank, or pedal to tell you how many watts of energy you’re producing at a given moment. It’s a training tool, and at first it seems to duplicate what an HRM does, but the two are completely different. The HRM tells you how hard you’re working. The PM tells you how much production you’re getting from the work. The two only seem similar. For instance, if you’re sick or recovering from an illness or it’s an usually hot day, you may find your HR soaring with very little wattage showing on your PM. If you tell yourself, “I produce 300 watts on training rides” and set out to do that, you’ll kill yourself.

Power meters are of great interest to racers, who care mightily about how much power they’re producing and need to monitor how much their power output is increasing. They’re of little use to recreational riders, and I don’t know a single non-racer who owns one. And they’re expensive—$500 to $2000. There is a slight weight penalty.

OK, there is one time when I’d love to have a PM: when I’m experimenting with different riding positions, techniques, or hardware. I move back on the saddle, or I move from the hoods to the drops on a climb, or I concentrate on driving my knees up on the pedal stroke, and I want to know, am I producing more or less power by that change? In such cases, an increase or loss of 10 watts might be important, and it’s imperceivable without a PM. I wish someone would invent a velcro-able PM I could rent for such occasions.

On-the-Bike Tools

We’re not talking about the tools you have in your garage here, but the tools you carry on a ride. With the exception of the mini-pump, they all go in your seat pack. Seat packs come in all sizes, and the bigger they are the more useful they are and the dorkier they make you look, so many riders use the smallest one they can get by with. As I have grown older, my seat pack has grown bigger. Some larger seat packs have an expand-o feature where you can open a zipper and almost double the storage area, a nice feature for long, unsupported rides where you’re carrying a lot of food or storing a lot of clothing (though highly uncool, of course).

Tire inflation

You need some way to inflate the new tube when you get a flat. There are two systems, both of which have major drawbacks:

The mini-pump is a tiny version of your floor pump at home. The problems with mini-pumps are:

1) They’re very small, so they throw very little air with each pump. So you’re looking at perhaps 300-400 strokes to fill that tube. Exhausting.

2) They’re very weak, so they top out at around 80 psi, unless you’re the Hulk.

3) Most mini-pumps are highly unergonomic and attach to the tube’s valve stem poorly, so you end up pumping half your air into the atmosphere instead of the tube. So now you’re up to 600-800 strokes. And the more the pressure in the tube rises, the more air you lose from the poor connection. Very frustrating.

4) They’re either too big to go in a seat pack or too small to be useful.

The best solution to these problems is, get a mini-pump that is small but beautifully engineered and has a hose that screws directly onto the tube’s valve stem. That way all the air you pump goes into the tube and nowhere else. Mount it to your bike frame. Lezyne makes pumps like these, and I can’t imagine using anything else.

You might think you can solve problem #1 by getting a mini-pump with a large barrel, but the laws of physics are against you. The fatter a pump gets, the lower will be the maximum pressure it can reach. So you face Hobson’s Choice: do you favor small/slow/high pressure or big/fast/low pressure?

CO2 cartridges are tiny scuba tanks with just enough air to get your tube up to riding pressure. The system actually consists of two parts, the air tank itself and an inflator, which connects the tank to the tube’s valve stem. The problems with CO2 cartridges are:

1) They’re hard on the environment—you use a cartridge once and throw it away.

2) Each cartridge does only one flat, so you end up having to carry two or more, and when you’re out of cartridges you’re up the creek.

3) They’re limited in the amount of air each delivers, and the amount of air they hold is just enough to get a tire up to riding pressure, so if you have any leakage at all during the fill (and you usually will), you end up with a half-inflated tube.

4) They fill the tube in one fast gush, so it’s common to pinch the tube between the tire and the rim and pinch-flat it immediately or in the next five minutes.

5) It’s common to have a flat on the road and discover that the cartridge you’ve been carrying around is a used one, thus empty of air, because you forgot to swap it out after the last flat.

But they have one advantage which is enough to sell them to racers: they’re much, much faster than mini-pumps—like, 4 seconds vs. 4 minutes.

There is a solution to problem #3: get a cartridge valve that screws directly to the tube’s valve stem, so there’s no risk of leakage. And guess who makes such a cartridge valve? Lezyne, the master designer.

Cartridges are expensive if you buy them in LBS’s—as much as $3 each. You can buy them in bulk with confidence online for as little as $1.

Since mini-pumps and cartridges have their weaknesses, the sensible solution would be to carry a frame pump, a 2-foot pump that clips to your frame along the top tube. All road bikes used to have one, back in 1965. Frame pumps work great: they’re easy to handle and they throw lots of air. But they’ve gone so far out of fashion your bike probably doesn’t have the means to carry one now. Progress doesn’t always make things better.

Multi-Tool

You can do most bike repairs with a couple of well-chosen Allen wrenches, but for any unsupported long ride you’ll want a complete multi-tool, a little tool-kit-in-one that’s a tool fetishist’s delight.

Choosing a multi-tool (and there are dozens) comes down to weight vs. utility. The more the multi-tool can do, the heavier it is. The biggest decision is if you want a chain-breaker or not. It’s the heaviest part of the multi-tool, but without it you’re helpless in the face of a broken chain (admittedly a rare problem for roadies). If you decide to get the chain-break, try it before buying—many chain breaks on multi-tools are next to impossible to use.

Patch Kit

Every LBS has the same tiny patch kit, for about $2. Don’t open the tube of glue, because it will dry out and be useless when you need it in three months. Make sure you carry a nail or something pointy to open the tube with when you do need it.

Tools that are discussed elsewhere or need no explanation

  • I tube
  • 2-3 tire irons
  • 1 bandaid
  • 1 Handi-Wipe
  • 1 single-shot packet of sunblock
  • 1 single-shot packet of bug spray
  • 1 tire boot patch
  • 1 packet of instant patches (they’re get you home, barely)
  • 1 20-dollar bill
  • 1 expired credit card (so you aren’t screwed when you lose it)
  • 1 valve stem extender (so you can use someone else’s tube with a short stem)
  • 1 quick-link
  • 1 tiny roll of Gorilla tape (make your own)
  • 1 foot of wire or twist-tie (to wire your derailleur out of the way when it explodes)
  • Aspirin or other pain med

A couple of asides on Handi-Wipes:

The Handi-Wipe will dry out in the 6 months it sits in your seat pack, but the cleaner is still there, so moisten it with water from your water and it will be like new.

To men: even if you don’t mind dirt, women do, and you don’t know gratitude until you offer your Handi-Wipe to a woman who has been working on her chain in the middle of a ride.

And if you forget your tire irons, here’s a MacGyverism every cyclist should know: you can remove a tire from a rim using the levers on your wheel skewers, if you have skewers. Remove the skewers from the wheels first.

Hydration Systems

Water Bottles

You have four choices to make when buying water bottles:

1. They come in two sizes, standard and large. Large is a little more difficult to get in and out of your water bottle cage. Small doesn’t hold enough water for a long, hot ride, even if you take two.

2. They’re made in two materials, straight plastic and Purist (brand) plastic, sold by Specialized. Purist water bottles have a high-tech inner lining that almost entirely prevents mold, which is a royal pain in conventional water bottles. I wouldn’t consider using a water bottle that wasn’t a Purist. The Purist lining is delicate, so don’t scrub it with anything but the softest of bottle brushes.

3. Some water bottles are mini-thermoses—they have insulation to keep the water cold a bit longer. The effect isn’t overwhelming, but every little bit helps on hot rides. I use only insulated bottles in the summer. There are Purist insulated bottles, but LBS’s rarely stock them—you should be able to order them.

4. There are two types of nozzle. One is a little plunger that pulls open and pushes shut. The other is a kind of light-weight baffle that has no moving parts. The latter is easier to drink out of, but get the former if you ever plan to put the water bottle in a backpack or bag, because the latter leaks when not kept upright.

You don’t have to buy water bottles, ever. A water bottle is the most common form of cyclist swag, so if you do centuries or go to bike events or expos you’ll get more free bottles than you can use. But they probably won’t be Purist bottles.

Water Bottle Cages

Your only decision here is, do you want wire or carbon? Carbon is lighter—roughly half the weight—and not much more expensive (if you buy Asian knock-offs, which work fine), but less springy, so it holds the bottle a little less securely. I’ve had water bottles go flying on chattery descents. It’s also more fragile, so it can get broken when your bike is being loaded in and out of cars.

It’s a tradition for your LBS to throw in a water bottle and cage when you buy a bike.

Hydration Packs

On long rides, two large water bottles won’t be enough. You can always bum water at farmhouses and mini-marts (people are always good-natured about this), or carry a water filter and drink out of creeks, or you can wear a hydration pack, a water bladder in a backpack with a syphon tube running to your mouth. Many riders call a hydration pack a “Camelbak,” the original and most popular brand.

A large hydration pack can hold the equivalent of 3 large water bottles. It makes drinking easy, so you drink more often (which is a good thing), and it doubles as storage space for tools and clothes. It isn’t uncomfortable. There are two drawbacks: 1) there’s a high Fred factor (like carrying a banana in your pocket); 2) you don’t want to put electrolytes or other supplements in one, because you’ll have to clean the bladder after every ride, and it’s a major chore. If you ignore me on this, make sure you get a hydration pack with a very wide bladder mouth to make cleaning easy(er).

Other Stuff

Fenders

Fenders are sweet in the rain, for you and the rider behind you, because a bike sends a rooster tail of water straight back and up from its tires, up your spine and into the face of the guy on your wheel. The downtube is its own fender, so you really only need one, for the rear wheel. A dedicated road bike won’t have mounts for permanent fenders, so you’ll want light plastic strap-on ones. Some strap to your seat post. They work fine.

Lights

Lights come in all forms and prices from things like penlights to things like searchlights. They use three kinds of power source: disposable batteries (AAA’s or AA’s), plug-in recharging, and—for lights with awesome candlepower—massive batteries that sit in your water bottle cage. Which one you choose depends on how long your night rides are, how frequent, how much light you need, and how good you are at remembering to retrieve electronic gadgets from charging stations. The light you need most is the strobe at your back, alerting cars behind you that you’re there. Carry one on any ride where you might be out after dark. Urban riders have them permanently installed (somewhere around the rear of the saddle) and have them on whenever they ride.

Mirrors

There are little cycling mirrors that look like dentists’ mirrors and tell you if there’s a car behind you. They may affix to your helmet, your glasses temple, or the end of your drops. They all apparently work well, and most urban riders wouldn’t dream of riding without one, but I don’t, because I don’t ride in traffic much and it’s Fred behavior. As soon as the Tour de France riders have mirrors, I’ll get one.

Road ID

This is a bracelet you wear while riding that tells EMT’s how to find your personal data on the internet in case of accident. You buy a membership, which must be renewed each year for about $15. It doesn’t show your blood type, as most people assume—it just tells the authorities where to find such info. This means you can put as much information on the site as you wish—list 10 friends’ phone numbers if you want. I think it’s essential.

Curly laces

When on days with large temperature swings, you strip off layers as the temp rises. Those layers have to be stored somewhere. Seat packs and jersey pockets are good for one garment at the most. The solution is curly laces, shoelaces in a springy, tight spiral that were trendy with pre-teens years ago. Buy them online, since stores no longer stock them. Tie them to your saddle rails, one to a rail, so you’ve got two braids of equal length hanging from each rail, and use them to tie down your rolled-up layers, exactly the way you’ve seen cowboys tie their jackets or bedrolls to the back of their saddles in western movies. It’s a little-known trick, it costs about $1, and it will change your life. Without curly laces, you will always be tempted to ride under-dressed.