Submitted by: Minnesota Nate
I’m a young bike nerd, only partially interested in survivalism, but interested none the less. I skimmed/read a little over half of the comments to the article, The Best Survival Bicycle, so hopefully I won’t be redundant, but here are my very thorough considerations, roughly part by part.
First I will stand behind the “STEEL IS REAL” motto for material considerations. Many people aren’t aware but bikes of different eras and styles have different rear axle widths. A steel frame can be bent to accept virtually any common size you may need in the event of scavenging for a new wheel. Front wheels remain relatively consistent, but a steel fork wouldn’t hurt either. The overall weight of your bike only matters to any notable degree when climbing. It is said roughly 70% or effort in pedaling an average bike, is wind resistance.
CHAIN & FRAME
Having No CHAIN, does NOT make a bicycle obsolete. The first bi-peds invented were like the little “strider” bikes you can train kids with, designed essentially to extend the length of a running stride. Won’t help you much on the uphills aside form maybe hauling gear, but on flat or downhill surfaces, having wheels, seat and handlebars can be of benefit. That being said consider a frame that is one size too small (or just a mountain bike). If you are fitted on a ROAD bike at a bike shop, they’ll put you on a frame that lets you reach the bottom of the pedal stroke. In the event of no chain and no replacement chain, you may want to be able to lower the seat to where your feat comfortably touch the ground for “striding”.
Nobody’s really been talking about bearings much from what I’ve seen but it is a big deal. Two basic types. Sealed vs Unsealed. Advantage of sealed is little to no maintenance. Advantage to unsealed is well, you CAN maintain (or rebuild) them if needed.
For the hubs on your wheels, I would be inclined to suggest sealed bearings, and as long as you have some kind of light oil to give them occasionally (the same thing you’ll need to keep your chain from rusting) your bearings will be in good shape for many years. If you have experience rebuilding unsealed hubs, then they might last you longer in the long run, but that also may depend on availability of new balls, and cones.
The headset bearings shouldn’t be much of a concern. They get very little abuse assuming they are not loose during riding, so just keep them snugged up, and you’re golden in that department.
The BOTTOM BRACKET bearings (where your cranks turn) will be a tie with your back wheel bearings for the most likely to have a problem, and hardest to effectively fix. Most bikes will require at least three specialty tools for servicing any sealed or unsealed bottom bracket assembly, and same goes for rear hub actually. However, “external” bottom bracket bearings were developed several years ago, and are becoming more common. They have to be used with a matching crank assembly, but their advantage is that you don’t necessarily need specialty tools to remove the cranks and spindle, and the bearings (and shells) could be potentially removed with a channel lock pliers. Id say get a QUALITY set of EXTERNAL bottom bracket bearings, and maybe a spare set, and you’re golden there too (maybe a steel chairing would be nice too.
29″ MOUNTAIN BIKES are now quite popular. Here is the great part. They are mountain bikes, so they are built a bit stronger than road bikes, and CAN accept mountain bike sized tires (the frame needs enough clearance). But the wondrous thing is that a majority of 29″ mountain bike rims CAN MOUNT A MAJORITY OF 700c ROAD TIRES! So you can have a road (with common road sized tires) OR a mountain bike (with what are now common mountain bike tires!) in one bike. Just make sure to stock up on lots of tubes I guess.
Speaking of TUBES. An old man once told me as a kid he used to water (grow) sprouts (not sure what variety) inside his tires to “inflate” them as a kid… so there is always that haywire method if you’re desperate enough. I’ve seen bikes with 20 year old inner tubes, still holding air though… so if you take care of your tubes (keep them inflated so you don’t get “pinch flats” and don’t run over sharp crap via using your eyes to not do so) you can have tubes last at least a few years.
But here is another unfortunate hint. They don’t make tubes like they used to, so don’t buy the cheap stuff, and in any case, cheaper or not, buy tubes that are BIGGER THAN YOUR TIRE SIZE (in terms of girth). So if your tire is a 700 x 25c (a common road tire size) stock up on 700 x 28 or even 32c tubes. Tubes are all meant for “ranges” of tire size anyway, and going up in size (to a point of course) generally just means the rubber is less stressed out at max pressure, and therefore THICKER. Less likely to fail at seams, and probably even less likely to puncture or pinch flat. I run over-sized tubes on all three of my road rigs already, and have great success. CHEAP TUBES will still fail more often though. They will literally just fall apart at s rubber seam at some point.
They come in different weights and builds. High quality tires, are generally light “folding” tires. This means they have good ride quality and have less rotational weight, but are also thinner. Steel bead (non folding) tires are cheaper, and a bit heavier. If you go into a bike store, the steal beds are the ones hanging on hooks in tire shape. Folding are well, folded and zip tied on some island kiosk.
For a “survival” bike, I would look for the most puncture resistant steel bead tire you can find. Schwalbe brand would be ideal. Its what they stock on “city” bike program bikes, because of their reliability. Anyhow these more bomb proof tires will not have a super optimal ride feel (less supple) but will be more durable. Case in point, I once got a flat on my rear 700X25c Specialized armadillo tire. Its kind of their overkill hybrid trail tire I think. I rode it WITHOUT ANY AIR at least 3 miles, by leaning forward on the bike and de-weighting the back wheel, because the tire had that much support in and of itself. Now, I’m not saying you can ride these things without air everywhere, but If I were to consider stuffing my tires with something like sprouts or rags or cotton balls or old clothes, whatever, I would rather have a more rigid tie to do that with, than a high end lightweight. A thick good quality steel bead tire will likely be more puncture resistant as well.
Big issue right? Right! Probably the hardest. Here are a few things to consider. GET A CHAIN TOOL! regardless of what bike you get (unless it is belt drive, which is maybe something to consider…) Chains wear out and need replacement, and need to be sized appropriately as well. You cannot do any of this without a chain tool, which pushes the pin in and out of the links for replacement/sizing. ONE EXCEPTION! On a single speed bike, you can get an even number of teeth on the front chain-ring, and mark ONE of the teeth with a gouge or cut. Do the same to an EVEN toothed rear single speed cog. You know how a chain alternates between outside links, and inside links? Now make sure those marked teeth, regardless of weather the wheel is taken on or off (for a flat fix for example), ALWAYS are set to engage into the same style link opening (inside or outside link portion). If you do this, regardless of how stretched your chain gets, your chain cannot slip for all of eternity. It has to do with the chain only stretching every other link, and the bushing configuration etc.
Another thing. Everything but a fixed gear bike, comes with one more set of bearings I didn’t mention earlier. FREEWHEEL bearings, or on cassette hubs the “freewheel body” bearings. If a single speed bike’s freewheel fails, the bike simply BECOMES A FIXED GEAR BIKE! Yahoo, now you can just take your brakes of too and just slow your feet down to slow down… Just hope the bearings don’t start working again when you don’t expect it haha! So the only saving grace to have gears OR a single speed (easily anyway) is to either get an older bike that has a “horizontal dropout”, or if you like the newer mountain bike idea, some type of mobile dropout. Lucky for anyone looking to buy a newer mountain bike, single speed mountain biking (and steel frames) are in fashion RIGHT NOW, so you can get a steel mountain bike that is DESIGNED to easily switch between gears or no gears. It takes a little know how (and a few tools and pare parts) to understand how to make this conversion effectively in either direction, but maybe worth knowing.
Don’t waste your money on clip-in (clip-less they are called) shoe pedal combos. You’ll have to wear shoes that are hard to walk/run/climb in, and will increase your chances of an injury while on the bike. If you’re going coast to coast for some ungodly reason, then maybe reconsider.
You don’t NEED brakes. You ride a bike to go, not stop. If you really need to stop, you can honestly just put your feet down in an emergency, or in most survival scenario cases you really may not need to be stopping at every damn stop light. Never plan to put hydraulic disk brakes on a survival rig. Too technical. Rim brakes are fine, but they do over long periods of time, actually remove the sidewall of the rim, eventually destroying you wheel even if nothing else is wrong with them, but it does take a while. If you’re breaking in sandy conditions, less time is needed. Common sense stuff.
A survival bike probably also only really needs one brake. Front brakes are more efficient and valuable and will prevent premature wear of tires, so learn how to properly use a front brake, and save the parts from your rear brake for spares for your front, regardless of if you have mechanical rim or disk brakes. You could choose to “store” the spares ON the bike haha, which just means you don’t use the rear brakes until your fronts are shot, and then migrate the parts, but that may take some discipline. If you have rim brakes, just take the pads out of the brakes or something, and you won’t be able to use them prematurely!
Here is some pricing perspective. I recently spent a around $1200 (and that’s the low end for decent mountain bikes) on a custom built mountain bike. I did not intentionally build a survival bike, but rather the lightest most durable mountain bike I could at the best price, turns out that happens to fit the bill for “a versatile and durable bike” probably what you want in a survival bike.
That price got me a modern steel mountain bike frame, with a convert-able dropout system (single speed or gears), sealed hubs on 29″ wheels front and back, the sealed EXTERNAL bottom bracket with matching crank set and top of the line shifting components. I run a 1×9 meaning no gears in the front, just 9 in the back. Lighter, and all the gears you could realistically need, just a little harder on your chain). Dual MECHANICAL disc brakes.
Did I buy stuff on sale during the winter? Yes. You could go in to a bike shop with a laundry list of what you want (all the good stuff I mentioned), and have them order and build something like this for around maybe $1800 -$2000, or find a pre built bike if a similar design for a little more. It will be hard to find sealed hubs stock on a bike less than 3K though probably. At the other end of the spectrum, you could get an old steel road frame with horizontal dropouts, and turn it into a pretty rugged single speed for probably as little as $200 -$300. Just be sure to insist on sealed bearing wheels. The EXTERNAL bottom bracket will likely tip you over that price range a bit as well.
The old steel road frame rebuild is by far the more economical option (and lots of bike shop guys would be EAGER to help you make it happen by the way), you just wont have the mountain bike tire option, and certainly not disk brakes, but honestly I don’t think either of those are much of a compromise. The first option is only better because MOUNTAIN BIKING IS AWESOME! It draws you into the woods, as opposed to the exhaust filled streets, and will put you into a more well rounded physical shape than road riding.
Hope this can be of help! Bikes Rock!
Ken adds… This is all great information to digest and consider. Having said that, don’t be discouraged by the many options and prices that are available to you. Everyone has their own budget. From a preparedness standpoint, I believe that having a cheap bicycle is better than having none at all. If your budget is small, pick one up at a yard sale or a cheap one somewhere. It may not last, but it will be something to have for emergency, and something that will hopefully get you involved with riding. This will then build upon itself as your interest grows, and you can later build yourself a better bike 😉