Adding a 20t chainring

When you pedal a bike, your feet push pedals. Those pedals turn on arms. Those arms are called cranks. The cranks are attached together, and in the middle you have one or more rings with teeth on them, around which the chain moves when you pedal the bike. The whole apparatus is called a crankset, and those rings are called chainrings.

For example, this is the standard Bacchetta Giro 20 crankset with three chainrings on it. The chain is currently on the middle ring. The standard Bacchetta rings have 50 teeth, 39 teeth, and 30 teeth, from largest to smallest. This was the crankset on Valoria, my original Giro 20.

On the left you can see a Shimano Deore M590 crankset, with 44, 32, and 22-tooth chainrings. This is the crankset I installed on Valoria II. Having a 22-tooth ring in the smallest spot instead of the standard 30-tooth ring allows me to spin the pedals about 40% faster and still put out the same amount of power. That means I can carry all my touring gear up hills more easily. I can drop my maximum speed lower without straining my knees. My experience has shown me that with this chainring I can slow down to about 2.5 miles-per-hour and still keep the bike steady.

On the right you can see a 20-tooth chainring. This is what I intend to install onto the Shimano Deore M590 crankset, swapping it out with the 22-tooth chainring. It will speed up my cadence by 10% on top of the 40% speedup I already have.

Why is this worth doing? Why does this matter to me? I think the best way to explain this is with an experiment:

Take your bike outside. Now stack eight full-size bricks on the back of it. Yeah, the kind of bricks you build walls with. Now, get on the bike, and pedal those bricks up the steepest hill you can find, over and over again, until you’ve climbed the equivalent of 2000 feet with those bricks. Now repeat that exercise every day for two weeks.

Long-range bicycle riders are all a little bit crazy, because this is what they do. They make it manageable by climbing as slowly as they can. After a hundred hours pedaling like this, you are ready to do whatever it takes to go even a little bit slower; oh yes! If you’re lucky you can go slow enough that your digestion can actually keep up with this all-day energy demand, and you won’t starve to death right there on your bike! I’m only sort of joking.

So yeah, I’m putting this gear on. I’m going as low as I can go.

But this is a tricky operation, because the Shimano crankset isn’t designed to hold a ring that small. If I just bolted the new ring on without doing anything else, the chain would lay very awkwardly against the four posts holding the ring, and wouldn’t mesh with the teeth. The chain would slip along the ring unpredictably, or slip entirely off, causing me to lose control and crash the bike. And the chain itself would quickly become damaged as well.

So what I’m gonna do is, take the cranks off the bike, remove the 22-tooth ring, shave down the four posts with a Dremel tool, and put everything back together with the 20-tooth ring instead.

First things first. I’ve switched gears on the bike until I’m on the smallest front gear. Now I’m using my smallest L-shaped hex wrench to pull the chain off the gear as I turn the cranks, so the chain ends up resting on the boom of the recumbent. I want that greasy thing out of the way while I work.

This little wingnut gadget is called an “Adjusting Cap Tool“. It’s for removing the plastic plug on the left end of the axle, where the left crank is attached. Not something I’m going to be doing all the time, but something that definitely goes easier if I have this fancy little tool. When I removed the plug, I observed that it’s actually screwed in very loosely. I need to remember not to tighten it very much at all when I’m putting it back on later.

These items are strictly optional, but help the work go faster. The big thing is a combination speeder/breaker bar. Essentially a jointed handle that you can use to apply a lot of force and unstick bolts, or spin around like a crank to screw in bolts quickly. It’s the macho version of a wrench. The two smaller things are a 3/8" to 1/4" adapter and a 5mm hex bit socket. I used them like so:

I did not need to remove the bolts holding the left-side crank, I only needed to loosen them two or three turns. Then I used the Adjusting Cap Tool again:

There’s a little metal safety catch on the left-side crank. It’s a last line of defense to keep your crank from sliding off if you forget to tighten the bolts or one of them somehow breaks. Using the little ridge on the side of the Adjusting Cap Tool, I lifted it up, so I could pull the crank off.

With the left crank removed, the rest of the crankset can be pulled out from the right side.

At this point I sat down with the crankset and started tinkering. I had a 30-tooth chainring that I tried swapping out with the 32-tooth ring, but that didn’t fit. I gave up on it and removed the 22-tooth ring, and bolted the 20-tooth ring into place.

Marking the bolts with dots, clockwise, so they can be placed back in the same sockets afterwards. Also marking the region on each bolt to be shaved off.

With the bolts tightened down, the next thing I did was use a permanent marker to label the bolt heads, so I could shave them down the same way I was going to shave down the posts. Once they were marked I removed them again, and took off the 20-tooth ring, and prepared for carving.

This is a Dremel tool with a tungsten-carbide tip, specially designed to carve metal. You can get both for under 40 bucks, and they are well worth it. Being able to easily carve metal, plastic, and wood is a weirdly liberating ability.

Note also the earplugs. Gotta have those. Carving metal can be loud as heck.

I put in the earplugs, wrapped the crankset in a rag, set it on my lap, and began carving the four inner posts down with the Dremel tool, cutting a good-sized notch away from the outer edge of each post.

I had a hunch that I’d need to cut the notches deeper, but this was a good start. I moved on to the bolts.

By sticking a bolt sideways in a pair of vise-grips with the marking line on the outside, I was able to run the Dremel tool along the edge and smooth it down very easily. It only took a few minutes to do all four bolts this way.

I did the carving outside over a section of driveway next to a drain, and then I poured water on the ground to wash the aluminum dust down the drain, and then I washed the aluminum dust off the crankset. Then I took a shower and changed my clothes. I don’t want aluminum alloy dust on my skin or in my lungs, or on my cat’s feet!

Then I reassembled the whole crankset, with the new 20-tooth ring and the bolts in place, placed the chain on the ring, and rode around for a few minutes.

The result: Easily visible grease marks on all the spots where I needed to shave away more metal.

I took the crankset apart again and shaved away all the spots that had accumulated grease. Then I reassembled it for a second time, and did another test.

No grease marks this time. The shaved bolts and notches were perfect — and no bigger than they absolutely needed to be. I was definitely compromising the structural integrity of the lowest gear on my crankset, but at least I wasn’t compromising it more than I had to.

For the final assembly I made sure the bolts were tightened according to the instructions, and re-applied a bunch of lubricant.

Mission accomplished! So, what did I gain?

I loaded 65 pounds of gear onto the bike, using both racks and a backpack. Then I took a ride around Oakland, deliberately aiming for really steep hills. To my astonishment, I could pedal up all of them comfortably. My previous minimum speed had been about 2.5mph. Now I could drop all the way down to 1.9mph without losing stability. That is slower than a casual walking speed!

I know, I know. You’re saying, “what kind of brain-damaged lunatic actually wants to pedal a bike that slow, for hours at a time?” Well, before you judge cycle tourists, consider those people who run in place for hours every week on a treadmill inside “fitness centers”, looking at a television, or starting at a wall. At least we’re outside! Heh heh heh.

Okay, yes. We are lunatics.

How to pass a bicyclist on the road

(This post is based on a stack exchange answer I wrote recently, which in turn was based on this post from 7 years ago.)

Are Cyclists Just Jerks?

So you’re driving down a nice country road. In the distance you spot a cyclist.

You slow down, wait a while behind the cyclist for the opposite lane to clear, then swing out to give the cyclist plenty of space as you pass by. You’re pretty sure you’re doing exactly the right thing, but as you pass, the cyclist makes a rude gesture at you. Whoah, what’s up with that? What a jerk! Are bicyclists always this rude?

No, bicyclists are almost never this rude. But something that bicyclists often are, is nervous around cars. When you’re driving a car and you pass a bicyclist – even in a very respectable way – you may be unfairly judged by that cyclist. Spend enough time on the road and it will happen. And it hurts, and feels unfair.

To reduce the sting of that judgement, it helps to have some perspective on the situation:

The Ambiguity Of Cars

When you’re on a bicycle, cars are death monsters. You spend your time trying to keep distance from them. You wish they would all just disappear. Even when they’re trying to be friendly. It’s like you’re walking around in the woods, and suddenly you’re approached by a woodcutter who wants to have a friendly chat with you, but he’s carrying a running chainsaw casually in one hand, and walking really fast. What are his intentions?

Same sort of thing with drivers zooming up to you. People don’t even realize their mistake, because most people have never had it happen to them. Cross-country bicyclists deal with it all the time. (I am one of those.)

People will cruise up within inches of you at a stoplight and ask “where ya goin’?”, expecting an answer while you’re madly trying to determine if they intend to go straight or turn right when the light changes, potentially obliterating your bicycle and ending your life. If you don’t respond, you’re being rude. It sucks for everyone. People will honk their horns at you as they drive by, startling you as you attempt to balance on a narrow strip of shoulder, and unless you look up into their window and parse their faces and their upraised hands, you’ll never know if they were honking because they want to encourage you and cheer you on, or because they hate the sight of you and intend to plow you into a ditch.

People will slow down to a crawl behind you, stacking up the traffic, even though you’ve given them the entire open lane to pass you by, while you ride over rocks and garbage in the gutter to make yourself as small as possible. They will hover there, and you have no idea if they are displaying chivalry and waiting for a clear oncoming lane so they can veer into it and give you a wide, respectful berth – or if they are malevolently cursing you for having the nerve to ride such a ridiculously slow contraption on their highway, and getting ready to scream at you or throw something at you from an open window as they shoot forward. You have no idea because you can hear them, but you can’t see them. Or if you have a rearview mirror (like I do, and like I recommend every cyclist obtain), you can see them well enough to know there’s a car there, but you still can’t see their faces. In all of these situations, people are either trying to be model citizens—or they are planning to seriously endanger you—and you have absolutely no idea which it is until it happens.

I was driving my car across Nevada once. It was sweltering outside. I passed a cyclist slowly rolling in the other direction and I knew he would be thirsty. I turned around at a pullout and went back the other direction, passed him again, then went another half a mile ahead of him before I slowed down and stopped. Then I shut off the car, got out with the water bottle in my hand, clearly visible, and waited there while he closed the distance. It was a gallon of water and he was grinning ear-to-ear as I handed it to him, and sure enough he drank half of it on the spot, in one go. He’d underestimated the heat of the day and I knew he had another 50 miles to go. We had a great chat about touring and took a few photos together.

I wouldn’t have known to approach him that way if I hadn’t already had a dozen encounters of my own on long tours. And I have to take the rarity of this knowledge into account, for however long I ride: People just aren’t going to know what it’s like. It’s always going to be ambiguous. They will always scare you without intending to. And you just gotta accept that your life is in their hands and hope they mean well.

So, it’s a scary situation, and there aren’t very many good ways to reduce that fear. But there are a few:

How To Pass A Cyclist

  1. When you’re interacting with a bicyclist, never honk your horn. If they’re new to the road, just the sheer surprise of it might make them accidentally steer into a ditch. With experienced riders, you can sometimes toot your horn after you’ve passed them, while also waving to show you’re not furious, but usually just waving works as well. Believe me, they’re got their eyes on you at that point, they’ll probably see you wave. And that’ll make them smile and feel relieved, which is great. We’re all on an adventure together!
  2. When you need to pass them, be assured that they see you and are trying to do what they can to make that pass happen, so you can both be rid of each other as soon as possible. With this is mind, try to hang back as far as you can while still keeping your own view of the situation in the oncoming lane. The closer you hover by a cyclist, and the longer the time, the more nervous they become. What’s worse, sometimes long-range cyclists attract a lot of attention just because of their gear, and people will hover behind them just out of curiosity, which they find frustrating, especially when there are other cars around to complicate things. But that’s not your situation, and it’s rare in general. Do your best to drift back as far from them as you can until the opportunity to pass presents itself. The very fact that you are drifting back—that you were closer and now you’re farther—will signal to them that you are taking things seriously and understand their perspective. That said, number three:
  3. Pass as soon as you safely can! Get out from behind them and get on your way as soon as the visibility and the space is adequate. If you’re not on a busy road, chances are the cyclist was riding in relative peace and quiet until you appeared, and is eager to get back to that, rather than this constant state of panic. The longer you linger back there the higher his/her panic will rise. Every cyclist, everywhere, would much rather have you ahead of them than behind. All that deadly force is then pointed the other way!

Please employ these tactics. Every cyclist on the road will appreciate it, even if some of them still react badly in the moment. It’s sometimes just a no-win situation that way. But believe me, most of us really get it—we’re all drivers too (unless you’re in a dense urban environment where cars are optional)—and we’ll truly appreciate that you hung back, then made your move ASAP. The almost businesslike appearance of this when it’s executed well is especially refreshing.

Taming handlebar cables

I have not yet found a way to completely tame the weird squiggles that brake and shifter cables make on a recumbent, but these TerraCycle clamp-on cable guides help quite a lot:

Yeah, these are an indulgence, because you can hold your cables in place with a handful of zipties if you position them right. But these guides really do clean up that problem area on the steering mast, and I’m sure they’ll last longer than any other component…

(If you’re getting these for a Giro 20 recumbent steering riser, get the 1 1/4 kind, not the 1 1/8 kind.)

A larger mirror for recumbent riding

When you’re riding a recumbent, a rearview mirror is essential, whether it’s mounted on your handlebars or on your helmet. You can’t turn around in your seat for a quick glance behind you.

I prefer a handlebar mirror, because I can view it with two eyeballs instead of one, and my eyes don’t have to adjust as much when I switch between looking at it and looking at the road ahead. So I bought a Busch & Muller “Cycle Star Mirror”. I’ve never been satisfied with it though, because it’s too small and the support rod hits against my hand when I’m resting my arms on the handlebars. Then I upgraded to a Busch & Muller “Cycle Star 80” and solved both those problems:

Now I can see a huge chunk of the road, and there’s room for my hands. The mirror is heavier so it tends to vibrate more, but it’s still way more useful. I put some plastic epoxy in the adjustable base to cut the vibration down to almost nothing, and now I’m pretty confident that I’ve found the best recumbent mirror there is.

Wiring up a tail light: How to keep it out of the way?

If you’re riding at night, you need a tail light. If you’re riding a lot, you want one that’s wired in, so you never leave it at home by accident and never need to worry about powering it. But how do you wire the thing up?

In the past, my solution has been to ziptie the wire to the frame and the rack, but more than once I’ve accidentally broken the wire while moving the bike around or arranging heavy gear. So now I’m trying something else: Plastic adhesive!

I taped the wire down over the fender, leaving most of it exposed, and then I busted out the JB-Weld.

Using some rubber gloves and a paper towel, I applied enough adhesive to cover the wire, then cleaned up around it to make a smooth ridge running almost the entire length of the fender. When that was set, I peeled off the tape and covered the remaining gaps.

The result: A wire that is as out of the way as possible, safe from corrosion, and won’t get snagged by rack equipment.