Another broken spoke. My heart sank. My bike tour was going nowhere fast, and it had barely even begun. I had too much weight on two cheap wheels, too flimsy for a Clydesdale like myself. I needed a trailer.
I felt my goals were modest enough: I wanted to bike the “Golden Circle” from Haines, Alaska, through the Yukon Territory and British Columbia and back to Skagway, Alaska in less than four days. I would be crossing two major mountain passes and riding six hundred kilometers on the Haines Highway, the Alaska Highway, and the Klondike Highway. I could not afford to have spokes breaking. It would be three hundred kilometers between bike shops and gas stations. I only had one emergency spoke with me.
Admittedly, it was a problem partially of my own creation. I was riding a Trek Alpha 1.1 entry-level road bike. If I’d read the fine print on the warranty, I’d have seen that I exceeded the maximum recommended weight. But I’d been hesitant to ship my favorite touring bike from Virginia to Alaska for my first season as a bike tour guide. I didn’t know if I’d really need it. Instead, I bought a used rental bike from my shop. And promptly started breaking spokes.
If I was going to make it any farther than the ferry dock in Haines, I was going to need another wheel. I didn’t have the time or the funds to buy another bike, even if there were any 63cm touring bikes available, anyway. (Did I mention that I’m almost always the tallest guy in any room?) But there was a BOB Yak Trailer for rent at Sockeye Cycle Co. And I had ridden many miles with a BOB in tow before.
I bike by the seat of my pants, literally. The feel of my bike comes through my seat, through my pedals, through my handlebars. Different roads, different trails, and different bikes all feel distinct and different. If I really want to get in touch with nature, I ride my skinny, high-pressure tires down a rutted gravel road. There’s nature, pounding my palms and soles mercilessly. The same holds true for carrying loads on bikes. The location, size, and volume of cargo directly affect how a bike feels in motion. To the seat of my pants, cargo carried in trailers is more stable and less tiring than cargo carried on bike racks. And carrying cargo in a backpack is even more of an exertion than carrying cargo on a bike rack.
Bicycles are physics in motion. And carrying cargo on a bicycle is an act of compounded physics. In addition to balancing myself atop two wheels, I’m also balancing a static load. The higher that load is above my pedals and wheels, the more work I have to do. Lower loads are less work. Handlebar bags and baskets are great for quick access, but when they’re overloaded they make a bike harder to handle, both in motion and standing still. Watching my bike flop over on its kickstand and spill a couple of smoothies over a couple of sandwiches made me swear off handlebar baskets once and for all. Feeling my shoulders ache under the pinch of overloaded backpacks was one thing, but it was another matter to feel the wind gust and jerk bulky backpacks. It taught me that it’s not just the weight of a load that matters, but also the volume. Biking is like sailing. Air resistance is everything. Tucking down into my drops lets me pedal faster into a headwind. The location of loads makes a difference in how the wind feels. Higher loads place the center of resistance to the wind higher on the bike, and require more work, making the bike more finicky and twitchy, and leaving me craving more burritos. Whereas lower loads are easier.
The same load carried in a trailer will be more stable than carried on a bike. When it comes to moving cargo on a bike, two wheels are good. But three, or more, wheels are better. Moving my cargo from my back and my bike to a trailer made all the difference in not only the amount of energy required to ride but also decreased the strain on my bike. The biggest difference was in the number of flat tires and broken spokes that I had to deal with. I already weigh over a hundred kilo. I’m big enough to be mistaken for a (svelte) linebacker. My spokes don’t need the added stress of extra weight. By moving my cargo to a trailer, I removed weight from my rear wheel, moved the center of mass below my bike hubs, and lowered the center of wind resistance. Furthermore, I was able to carry bigger loads, both in terms of weight and volume. The only trade off was that I was carrying more deadweight. Even empty, a bike cargo trailer weighs at least twice as much as a pair of panniers and a set of racks.
BARGAIN GEAR ISN’T ALWAYS A BARGAIN
You get what you pay for. Buying a bike rack at a big box store may be easy on the wallet, but it doesn’t make for reliable gear. If you’re only using a bike rack once a month or once per season, then it may do just fine. But if you plan on loading your panniers every day, carrying groceries home, bringing books to class or paying the rent by delivering food, then you’ll want to invest in a quality rack.
The replacement spoke sang as I plucked it on the truing stand at Sockeye Cycle. I swapped the skewer on my rear wheel, set my wheel back in the dropouts, and mounted a rental Yak B.O.B. (Beast of Burden) trailer onto the rear of my bike. With my spare clothes, bivouac sack and food transferred from sitting high over the rear wheel to sitting down low behind my bike, I now had a more stable ride, and I was stressing my rear wheel less. Four days and six hundred kilometers later I was exhausted, but happy that I’d made the switch. I only wished that I’d done so sooner.
When I finished my own private odyssey a few days later, I unclipped the BOB trailer and lickety-split, I had a little, lightweight road bike again. Unlike a cargo bike or a touring bike that is always loaded down with racks, the BOB Yak is easy to detach and store when it’s not needed.
And, it looks darn cool.
Author Wesley Cheney leads bicycle tours in Alaska and Virginia, blogs at The Kilted Writer, and delivers freaky fast sandwiches in the off-season.