Posted by: hagengreen | November 28, 2009

Filling the gap: a bike commuter’s dilemma in commuting

I take the plunge into the blogosphere! It’s been on my mind for a few months by now. I’ve come up with several ideas for topics – usually as I’m feverishly pedaling the fixie towards my day job. In contrast, driving to work allows the brain to zone out thanks to the monotonous scenery and simplistic nature of driving an automobile. On the bicycle, you teeter on two wheels with nearly a 1/2” patch of rubber gripping the road. At about 160lbs of fixed-gear goodness, my locomotive pales in comparison to the 3000lb missiles, not to mention the nearly 5000lb “sport” utilities screaming down the road no more than 5 feet away. As you can imagine, intriguing thoughts cross my mind throughout the duration of the commute. One of those thoughts is the topic of this post which is inspired by a project I just completed over the Thanksgiving holiday. I’ll use this post to get the wheels rolling; I hope to be inspired to post again soon to share other topics passing through my mind.

One of the “big ideas” I’ve been floating around lately is a culmination of frustration around several key pieces of the cyclist’s commute: that is, before and after the commute itself. The times when I prepare to engage or disengage from the elements of the great Northwest. Most of my preparation before the commute happens in the garage. I slip on knee warmers, wool socks, road shoes, and booties when the sky is falling bits of wetness. I’ve never had a place to sit in the garage; it’s a careful 1-legged balancing act of leaning against the wall and holding a hand out to balance my awkwardly contorted torso as I lean over to strap each foot in shoes that aren’t designed for anything but pedaling a bicycle. Simply put: I needed somewhere to sit. That simple realization tipped the first domino…

Cycling gear is habitually smelly. No matter how often you wash or how hard you try, it’s a fact of life for cyclists; especially for commuters. Moreover, my fiancée hates when I bring my gear indoors to dry after a wet commute. Not only does it smell, but it drips. And I’m pretty sure it’s not pure rainwater, either. Unfortunately the gear doesn’t fully dry overnight in the garage. It’s too cold and there’s nearly no airflow. Ask any cyclist how they feel about putting on wet gear and you’ll understand. I hate myself every time I put on wet clothes and head into 40-degree rain and wind to go dance amongst the rush hour commuters. This is yet another problem I’ve been meaning to solve.

Finally, I’ve needed a place to put my gear. I can say with confidence that commuter cyclists are experts in creatively hanging gear all over their bike. The booties can hang on the handlebar hoods, gloves slip on the bar ends, helmet slips over the tip of the seat, socks hang over the top tube, and the heart monitor strap over the bars. I suppose it’s the least of my concerns, but given that stuff doesn’t fully dry hanging on the bike anyway, it’s more impetus to solve the problem.

I’m an engineer at heart. At work I solve problems by assessing risk and then hatching up ideas that are supposed to get things to a better state than if I did nothing. I took my engineering discipline and applied it to my commuter dilemmas to invent what I call The Bike Bencher. I started by making a list of requirements, and sketching out a few designs. (I’m a big fan of clipboards and grid-lined paper.) Unlike my day job, this project doesn’t cater to people all over the world so the customer is easy: myself. My plans were based on personal experience and what I thought was right. For example, I like the height and depth of the chairs in my kitchen nook, so I used the same measurements for for the bench sit height and depth. (Clearly that same height and depth likely wouldn’t work for everyone.)

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On another page I came up with a list of materials, including the number of 2×4’s, lag bolts, and hooks I needed to pick up from my neighborhood Lowes. Here’s the list of materials. It’s not complete as I added other items later in the process.

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Then I set out (in the car!) to pick up the wood, fan, and other larger/heavier items I couldn’t transport on my bike. I got home and went to work measuring and cutting. Since this is the first woodworking project I’ve ever done, I basically followed my plans and kept close watch as it came together. The project ended up taking much longer than it should have taken (but not longer than I anticipated) because I was too cheap to use anything but the hack saw I already owned. Yes, cutting 2×4 and 2×6 pieces of wood with a hack saw is hard work. If you want a good upper-body workout, there’s absolutely no need to go to the gym. Another cheapness is not having a scaffold to hold the wood while cutting. So I nice improvised by putting my extension ladder against the wall and on the opposite side a smaller painter’s step ladder. I held the wood with one hand and hacked away with the other. Simple, beautiful, and pretty much worked, besides the last bit of wood that breaks off when the piece is nearly cut through. Good thing I had some fine-grid sandpaper on hand. I also used the sandpaper extensively to smooth out all exposed pieces of the Bencher. And I know you’re itching to ask: the answer is yes, I have a power drill.

One of the key pieces of the bench is the wind tunnel. I designed the underside of the bench to allow for a fan and closed off sides to blow air from one end to the other. Its purpose is to keep smelly clothes away from sight and smell and allow them to dry efficiently and be ready for the next morning – the latter is the principal driving factor, of course. The design called for cedar on the backside to help squelch the stench and a porous “floor” so any drips aren’t held in the tunnel. You can see the fan off to the right. The cover held by my hand is that thick plastic matting to easily allow for roller chairs to move across carpet.

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There are several neat aspects of the bench that came out nicer than I originally thought. I used 4 pivoting wheels under the bench to allow for free movement (2 of the wheels are lockable). The fan fit perfectly given the 16” opening at the end of the bench. To maximize the velocity and efficiency of the fan, I used some extra matting to cover the small space above the fan but below the seating area. It also acts as a small barrier for any water that could mistakenly get into the fan from above. Finally the electrical components of the bench worked out better than expected. When explaining this project to my friend Matt, he had a great idea to use a gang box for the timer and socket to drive the fan. I had never put together a gang box before (let alone heard of one), but it was pretty easy to get right. I’m a bit weary when it comes to working with 120V AC, but thanks to double-checking measurements on a simple voltmeter all my concerns were squashed. I also put efficient 7W CFC lights on a motion sensor on the underside of the top of the bench to keep the area lit up despite the garage door light turning off a minute after arriving home from the commute.

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Nearly two full days, the Bencher came out as you see in these pictures. I’m very happy with how the project went and would do it all over again the same way. I learned several lessons about word working (e.g., don’t use wood glue, just use a lag bolt instead), how to put together a gang box, and maximizing airflow through a tunnel.

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What’s left? I have some other ideas on the backburner to make the Bencher even better, like adding a dehumidifier (perhaps just a fan on the end blowing out?) and a humidity sensor to better determine how long to drive the fans to dry the stuff in the tunnel. I’ve also thought about staining the wood to add more character and durability. My fiancée told me I should have made it collapsible – sounds like a great design requirement for Bencher v2! I’m careful not to jump into any improvements too quickly. I haven’t even had a chance to come home soaking wet from a ride home to see how it’ll perform.

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