Making Winter Biking More Comfortable with Electric Gloves

electrically heated gloves

Winter biking can be excruciatingly uncomfortable in Ithaca. (It can also be dangerous—see Making Winter Biking Safer.) This winter I developed two bike accessories to combat the cold: electric bike gloves and a bike canopy (which is still in development).

If I bike an errand longer than a few miles and the temperature is in the teens, my fingers and toes tend to go numb. Numb is okay until I stop and warm up; I then become doubled over in pain as my extremities thaw. I’ve tried all kinds of gloves to no avail. And I discovered that if I wore several gloves at a time my fingers still got cold because their circulation was lessened. Finally I hit upon the idea of using electric socks and glove liners. Personal electric power is just one of the many design opportunities presented by electric bikes that have yet to be explored (while the transportation industry wastes their time with stupid technologies like hybrid cars and hydrogen power). The electric socks and glove liners I bought (from Brookstone) were powered by a total of 12 AA non-rechargeable batteries that you had to strap to your limbs (three batteries for each limb). I realized that with a little inventiveness I could power them all with the bike battery instead.

Using the bike battery required figuring out how to get the electricity from the battery to my extremities. First I lined my coat and some snow pants with wiring using safety pins, and then I added Anderson connectors and a central connection block. Anderson connectors are a wonderful kind of connector for inventing things. You can just crimp the wires on and then snap together as many connectors as you need.

I also needed some way to step down the voltage from the battery’s 36 volts to the electric clothing’s 4.5 volts. I found that ebikes.ca sells such a converter especially made for electric bikes. (These are the same folks that made my front and rear LED flashers.) A word of caution: I learned from experience that if you plug the converter in backwards sparks will shoot out of it. However, it still works! I marked all my 6-volt connections with purple tape.

Finally I wanted an easy way to connect my clothing to the battery as I got on and off the bike. I expected that some sort of slick magnetic breakaway connectors like the ones Macintosh computers have would be available. There was nothing. Two possibilities—the Belkin BreakFree or Replay breakaway headphone adapter advertised in 2007 and 2008—are nowhere to be found. I suspect that Apple has a patent on magnetic breakaway connectors that is preventing others from selling them. So I ended up just using my Anderson connectors.

The results: after some trial and error it worked. One problem was that the wires I used were old and they broke a few times. (Once my left foot suddenly grew uncomfortably warm while my hands suddenly became cold.) Also I was nervous that I might damage my expensive LiPoFe4 battery. It is true that LiPo batteries can be damaged by either too much charging voltage or dropping too low in voltage. However, most of them also have very sophisticated battery management systems built in to prevent this. Finally it was too inconvenient to attach and detach the wires all the time so I started using an old NiCd battery instead.

Next year maybe I’ll explore some alternatives such as handlebar muffs or windscreens or heated handlebars grips. I wonder if it’s possible to find flat wiring that you can sew into a garment. And here’s another design opportunity: one problem with biking in winter is that you are too hot on the uphills and too cold on the downhills. With electric garments you can control the heat. One way to do it is that you could have a clutch to spin the motor on downhills and switch on the garment connection. Or you could use the computer to sense your speed and switch on the garment connection when you are going over say 15mph. I’ll keep you posted.

Making Winter Biking Safer

After my bad fall last December I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make winter riding safer. The first step was to install studded snow tires for both wheels. My fall was caused by only having a snow tire on the back wheel; my front wheel slid out from under me when I was going downhill at 20mph with my daughter on the back of the bike (she was unhurt). There is no good reason not to wear snow tires during winter. My tires of choice are the Schwalbe Marathon Winters, which are designed for icy pavement rather than deep snow.

Another safety factor is simply learning to recognize danger. Some conditions are more dangerous than others. Just before my fall last December I had ridden five miles without incident. It was only when I turned onto a new road that things became dangerous. The new road was recently plowed and the shoulder had a thin layer of innocent-looking slush. Unbeknownst to me the slush hid a layer of ice that was my undoing. I’ve since learned to recognize this “killer slush” and avoid it.

Another danger to watch out for is of course the legendary “black ice” (see photo above) which is caused by melting snow forming puddles which then turn into patches of ice in unexpected places. Now when I ride in the winter I periodically set my foot down to test the slipperyness of the road. If it’s too slippery I either walk my bike or resort to “outrigger mode” (described in the last paragraph).

After my fall I imagined all sorts of technological fixes that would enable bikes to handle snow and ice better (see some of my sketches below, and see http://www.ktrakcycle.com/ for a seemingly successful commercial product). Could bikes have anti-lock brakes? Apparently motorcycles do, and electric bikes already have the electricity and the computing power that is required. Could bikes have roll bars? How about caterpillar treads?

I also wondered whether a trike would be less likely to flop over when it encountered ice. I made a lot of sketches of trikes, and contemplated Xtracycle to trike conversions. I imagined  outrigger wheels that could perhaps fit into the Xtracycle H-rack mounts and prevent a bike from falling over, kind of like giant training wheels for adults. However, someone I know who rides a trike says that in the same situation as my fall a trike would probably flip over rather than lay onto its side. I scuttled my plans for constructing outriggers until I was riding with my son Jasper last week in packed-snow conditions. The going was so difficult that he simply stuck out his legs, planted his feet on the road and let the motor move him along. It struck me that here are the outriggers I was looking for—our legs! They were right here all along at the end of our torsos. So for riding on packed snow I recommend lowering your seat, taking off your toe clips, letting some air out of your tires, taking your feet off the pedals, and taking off. This style of riding wouldn’t have been possible without the advent of electric motors for bikes. Now how about roller-shoes for pavement or ski-shoes for deep snow?

Bicycle Canopy Research

I’ve been doing a little research on bicycle canopies. There are surprisingly few examples out there. Here are a few that come up on the top of a web search.
(Update: check out my own canopy design and instructions for making it.)

The Environmentalist

Top of the list is the Bicycle Canopy Company. The name sounds promising but the product does not look much better than my prototype. Owner Jill Nerkowski writes “I joined my landscaping and gardening experience with  bicycle mechanics and came up with my idea for a traveling greenhouse…This bicycle canopy can be constructed in your home, with ordinary household tools and easy to purchase materials.” You have to give her credit for her massive amounts of hutzpah. She looks like a lovable kook but hey, there but for the grace of God go I :-).
http://jillnerkowski.weebly.com
http://jillnerkowski.wordpress.com/about/

The Seeker

Farther down the list is someone who back in 2005 announced his search for any sort of bicycle canopy. He concluded that most of the work being done so far to create a weatherproof bike has been the creation of velomobiles: short bullet-shaped bicycles with a hard enclosure. Velomobiles don’t seem to be good car-replacement vehicles. The tend to emphasize speed, they are expensive and they weigh a lot. I can’t imagine them carrying cargo or a passenger.
http://greenash.net.au/posts/thoughts/in-search-of-an-all-weather-bike

The Bent

I came across this guy Joe Kochanowski who has made over 50 recumbent (a.k.a bent) bicycles over the last twenty years, some of them enclosed like a velomobile. He writes “I am not married so I can do things like overhaul a car engine in my living room without anyone complaining.” I admit to a bit of envy. Go Joe.
http://www.outsideconnection.com/gallant/hpv/joe/

The European

As usual the Europeans are way ahead of us in bicycle technology. The French have brought to market what appears to be the only commercially successful bike canopy I’ve seen.
http://www.veltop.eu/index.php?en

Here’s a cute review by a young citizen:
http://velocoque.free.fr/spip.php?article27

Conclusion

I’m concluding that the bike canopy field is wide open. My design has many elements that I haven’t seen elsewhere: integration with the open-source Xtracycle standard; cold-weather insulation; use on an electric cargo bike; and the highly flexible conestoga design. What I’ve seen is canopies designed for either speed or light rain protection. I haven’t seen any designs that are a serious approach to car-replacement.

For some reason I haven’t seen any Xtracycle canopies. You’d think this would be a popular idea in rainy Portland Oregon which is a nexus of the bike movement. I think the Xtracycle is uniquely suitable for a canopy because both the driver and passenger are on the same bike. This allows one large canopy. The main protection needs to be for the passenger and cargo (perhaps using aerogel insulation which is extremely efficient, thin, and lightweight and may someday be available transparent). The driver, who will be hot from exertion, just needs to be protected from rain and wind. (In my experience I get quite hot biking even in the coldest weather. Maybe a very well insulated canopy could allow the driver’s excess body to warm the passenger.) I think a design that emphasizes covering a passenger will also be easier for the general public to accept. People have already seen plenty of bike trailers with such coverings. With an Xtracycle, it’s a small step to extend the passenger covering to the driver.

Another design opportunity is that the Xtracycle allows you to connect a canopy much farther forward and back than other bikes. The forward connection can even be to the sides of the pedals without interfering with the pedals. If you’ve ever carried lumber on an Xtracycle equipped with the Long Loader accessory you know what I mean.

Another design opportunity: the canopy provides a place to put your flexible thin-film solar panels.

Another design opportunity: the power of an electric bike makes it possible to have a heavier perhaps wooden “wagon” that you can just chuck stuff into or even lock it up. I can imagine a pick-up truck like bicycle. Maybe the bottom of the wagon should be curved like a Conestoga wagon so the cargo doesn’t fly out. Then you just attach a canopy when necessary.

I commend the brave souls noted in this post for the work they’ve done to advance the cause of making bicycles practical for year-round use. I am perplexed that this cause has been completely abandoned by industry, government, and yes, even bicycle manufacturers.

Passenger Canopy Protoype

I conceived of and constructed this canopy in less than an hour. The design was inspired by conestoga wagons. The canopy consists of two hoops made out of 10-foot-long metal tubing that I duct-taped to the corners of my Xtracycle cargo van extension. I then duct-taped two cross-braces to the hoops and covered the whole thing with Tyvek house wrap.

Thea and I took it for a test drive this afternoon. It was surprisingly successful for a working prototype. The biggest flaw was that the Tyvek was incredibly noisy. We figured we should use nylon fabric such as the fabric a tent fly uses instead. And it would be great if the passenger could zip up the enclosure front and back. Also it would be nice if the hoops spread out more to the front and back like a conestoga wagon, but with some adjustment possible so as not to hit the driver. Would it be possible to make a third hoop that partially covered the driver?

I can imagine finding the time to sew a canopy like this. I would also want to replace the metal hoops with fiberglass tent poles and replace the duct tape with cross-ways clamps.

Rain

socksIt’s raining. Jasper and I biked to his school and got completely soaked. Even I have to admit that biking in the rain nullifies the primary reason for biking: that biking is fun. Biking in the rain is not fun. Something must be done about this.

I am idealistic. I feel that bikes can replace cars as Americans’ mode of transportation for trips less than 10 miles. However I recognize that people have concerns about/biases against using a bicycle:

  • I get sweaty and exhausted going up a hill
  • I can’t carry my stuff
  • I can’t carry a passenger
  • I can’t go very far
  • it’s too expensive
  • it’s too slow
  • it’s dangerous
  • it’s uncomfortable in rainy or cold weather

I feel that all of these concerns will be answered with existing technology, market forces, city planning and perhaps a bit of well-placed propaganda. The advent of the electric cargo bike addresses the first four concerns here: believe me with such a bike it is no problem for you the average person to carry your kid and four bags of groceries up and down steep hills for several miles. Try it.

Expensive. An electric cargo bike is an expensive bike. But it is a very inexpensive “car”. My bike costs what the Clarkbergs pay for repairs to our car for a couple of years. And as more people buy electric cargo bikes their price will plummet.

Slow. Yes biking is slow. Relax everybody, slow is good. Enjoy the ride.

Dangerous. Studies show that as the number of bicyclists on the street increases, safety increases thereby attracting more bicyclists. You can see where this will go. Once the first few intrepid every-day bicyclists (not just you crusty weird obnoxious bike commuters already out there!) take to the streets, the rest will follow, exponentially.

Uncomfortable. This is the one concern that I still share with yet-to-be-bicyclists. Maybe some forward-thinking garment designer can come up with a solution. Maybe we should just do what our ancestors did when the weather was bad: stay home.

If we can fix the rain issue, I think this bicycling revolution is going to take the experts by surprise. The media sees everything from a motorist’s perspective, as if no alternative exists. It pains me to read about our Cash for Clunkers program to encourage people to drive cars that get 20-something miles per gallon, or people who buy a Toyota Prius so that they can brag about getting 40 mile per gallon. An electric cargo bike gets the equivalent of 2000 miles per gallon. And I read a lot of articles about how we need to bailout General Motors, about how such-and-such automotive technology is going to change the world and fix the climate, about how we need to generate such-and-such amount of solar, wind, and water energy to power our automotive fleet in the future. Screw the automotive fleet, we don’t need it. What we need is better rain pants.

SKS Chainboard: solving the greasy pant leg problem

SKS Chainboard
The SKS Chainboard in action

A significant deterrent to everyday bike riding is the prospect of getting chain grease on your clothing. European city bikes generally solve this problem with internal hub gears and partial or full or chainguards. The internal hub gearing also reduces the maintenance.

But here in the US, most bikes now have both front and rear derailleurs. And it’s just about impossible to find a chainguard that works in combination with derailleurs. But the new SKS Chainboard seems to be just that.

Read Patrick’s review of the SKS Chainboard on the Velocouture blog for a full review.

Surprisingly dry bike commuting in a $10 jacket

Today I tried a cheap nylon jacket for rain protection. Like, “ten dollars” cheap. The jacket I wore is from Eastbay, and is discounted from $40 to $10.

It kept me completely dry for a 10 minute bike commute through the pouring rain. Ten minutes is enough time for cotton clothing to get drenched. It’s also enough time for me to get from home to grocery or from the office back home. It’s enough time for a $150 Marmot Oracle rain jacket to begin to leak through the pockets.

That’s precisely why I’m trying the backup jacket– I’m sending in the Marmot jacket for what I believe is a design flaw and which I expect they’ll take care of through the warranty process.

I was so surprised by the performance of the Eastbay jacket, I went online to check to see if it made any claims to be waterproofing. The jacket does not even classify itself as a rain jacket, but simply “water repellent”.

From what I’ve learned about what “water repellent” means, a chemical was probably applied to the nylon, which causes the water to bead-up and roll off, rather than soaking through. Over time, this feature will work less and less well. They are spray-on solutions than can be applied to later to rejuvinate the effect, but from what I’ve read they often don’t work as good as the original repellency.

This also means that had I taken a longer ride, I’m sure the jacket would have eventually soaked through, which a waterproof jacket should not do. Further, waterproof jackets have taped seams, and sometimes have special waterproof zippers, while this jacket does not.

What I’m saying is that the Eastbay jacket is not a magic alternative to the quality of a waterproof/breathable jacket. However, it may just be “good enough” for some around town trips, despite perhaps being less durable. At $10, or even $40, it’s certainly worth a shot for staying comfortable in the rain.

Bike Gear and Clothing Recommendations for Commuting in the Rain

My solutions for comfortable clothing and dry gear.

Rainy day gorge tour
I was afraid of the rain. The car used to protect me from it when I got around. After several years of being car-free, I’ve been able to replace this fear with an understanding of how to stay comfortable when bike commuting in the rain.

What I’ve learned along the way that is the staying comfortable in the rain takes an all or nothing approach: Repel it or enjoy it.

Here are my strategies for both cases.

Continue reading Bike Gear and Clothing Recommendations for Commuting in the Rain

Everyday Gloves for Cool Weather Cycling

Wind Glove and Liner Glove I recently wrote about Bicycling Mittens for Five Degrees. That’s a solution for an extreme, so today I want to Back the Truck Up, and describe the gloves that I find work best for everyday bicycle commuting in cooler whether.
The qualities I find are important are:

  1. Wind Protection. This is the primary purpose.
  2. Light Insulation, to take the edge off.
  3. Comfort. Not too tight.
  4. Functional, so they don’t get in the way of braking.
  5. Compact. Easy to carry when not in use.

Continue reading Everyday Gloves for Cool Weather Cycling

Constructing a Bicycle Wind Shield

photo of head gear for winter bicycling

The cold wind pressed harder against me as the bike accelerated down Bridge Avenue. Despite the freezing wind chill, I remained comfortable behind my wind shield.

The key things I’ve learned about keeping my head warm on a bicycle are 1. The comfort of my face contributes a lot to my overall perceived comfort. 2. In cooler temperatures, blocking wind is the key to a comfortable face and 3. A lot of the wind I’m blocking is generated from pedaling itself.
Continue reading Constructing a Bicycle Wind Shield