Bicycle iPhone and USB Charging – Introduction and Rant

No matter how unique or bizarre your project is, there is some weirdo out there who has already completed a similar project, and put it on the internet for your benefit. That is the primary function of the internet: To connect you with weirdos. (Many of those wierdos also run storefronts.) Just a little detective work can put you in touch with the experts of the field – even if that field is only about the size of a putting green – and save you months of trial-and-error and lots of money.

In the case of a bicycle-powered USB charger, I am that weirdo. Or at least, I thought I was, until I went online and discovered that dozens of other weirdos had already beat me to it. Long-distance cyclists love their gadgets, and many of them have built or bought systems to charge their gadgets as they ride. Many of these sytems are documented online.

These tutorials are scattered all over bicycling forums and personal websites. Collected together, they represent an impressive amount of advice and information. Unfortunately they all make big assumptions about the skill of the reader. For example, a tutorial written by an electrical engineer usually just contains a picture of a schematic, with absolutely no guidance on how to read one. The design might be great, but how the heck is anyone without an engineering degree supposed to build it?

As I worked through my own project, I would often be stopped cold by simple questions, which none of the tutorials bothered to answer. A tutorial would say, “wire the batteries up.” But how do I attach wires to a battery? Is it OK to solder them? Do I need to use a welder? Where the hell am I going to get welding equipment? Should I just clip the wires on instead? Where do I get the clips? Et cetera.

I have tried to collect these questions, and the answers I found, in this document as an attempt to consolidate things. As much for myself as for others.

While I was reading all these tutorials and digging around, something else happened too. I realized that there were a lot of different activities, sporting events, and organizations that cyclists could participate in, most of which I’d never heard. It was a scene, just like marble collecting when I was in Middle School, and card games in High School, complete with its own lingo: "Touring", "brevets", "headsets", "beater bikes", the "door prize"… A great big rabbit-hole to get lost down.

I didn’t even know that there was an official word – "touring" – to describe the kind of long-range bike-camp-bike activity I’d been wanting to do. Apparently the practice of going camping via bicycle is part of general European culture, but around here (California), traditions are very different. Here in California, if you go camping, you’re either a backpacker, or you stay camped in one place, and either way you get to your starting point by riding in a car. The physical structure of my neighborhood and city makes it obvious to me that almost no one is interested in "touring" via bike.

The Rant Part

Since I live in North America, cars and trucks are the backbone to my food supply, my work environment, and my social life. Since I live in a large city, literally everything I see is constructed with cars in mind. The very worst example would be the drive-through burger joint, where you can burn more money in gasoline waiting for food than you will spend on the food itself. The example I feel the most nostalgia for is the drive-in movie theatre, where you can run around, watch a double-feature, and have a tailgate party all at the same time. This infrastructure of cars has created enormous wealth, power, and freedom for millions of people. But it has also created an environment extremely hostile to bicyclists.

In this country, if it’s wide and flat, it’s either the interior of a mini-mall, or it’s owned by cars, and cyclists are an afterthought. Streets are built with narrow bike lanes inches away from speeding traffic on one side, and people opening car doors and bursting out of driveways on the other. The bike lanes begin and end without warning, forcing cyclists across turn lanes and up onto sidewalks. And if you make hand signals to indicate the lane change, most drivers can’t comprehend them, and will just assume you’re making a rude gesture. In fact, when you’re on a bike, most drivers appear to actively resent you. Sometimes it seems like the only reason they don’t bash you into the ditch is because they’re afraid of a lawsuit.

I live in San Jose, which is both large and oppressive enough to contain people who see bicyclists as targets for abuse. (These people are the rare exception on otherwise friendly streets, but when you meet them, you remember them.) I really like riding my bike, but when some meathead out on the road casually attempts to kill me, for a laugh, it’s a little demoralizing. For a while afterwards I dream about moving to some island nation where there’s nowhere for cars to drive except off the end of the pier. I never stop riding, though. I really love it.

Bikes and cars just don’t mix. 95 percent of bicyclist deaths every year involve collision with a vehicle. Ninety five percent. Get away from cars, and your risk factor drops enormously, plus it’s quieter and the air is fresher. Life is too short to stay in the suburbs anyway, and it’s too short to spend it all inside a car. In fact, screw this whole frustrating, isolating, expensive, car-worshipping paradigm. You can escape it! A bicycle can take you there!

And to everyone who has ever driven their car past bicyclists, only to park at a fitness center: Don’t let fear control you. There are local resources to help you integrate bicycling with your life, and cycle safely. You can spend that 50 dollar membership fee at your favorite restaurant instead (and still get in great shape). And there will be less post-modern irony in your life. Heh heh heh.

Ah, I seem to have climbed up on a soap box. Let me just step down. Theeeere we go.

I don’t expect the whole city to change so that I can commute to work safer. I do expect that those changes are inevitable, because of fuel supply and pollution concerns … but I don’t think I’ll see them completed in my lifetime. Meanwhile, I must deal with the risks in today’s harsh environment, using the tools at hand.

So now we come to a relevant question: If I’m going to put electronic gadgetry on my bike, am I increasing my risk?

Gadgets and Safety

The usage of gadgets while bicycling has some controversy attached to it. GPS displays, music players, two-way radios, phones, cup holders, cameras, et cetera all distract a cyclist from the road. Everyone agrees that distraction is dangerous. Furthermore, the classes of gadgets form a progression from least distracting to most distracting, and everyone (at least, everyone ranting on the forums) agrees on the order of the progression. A phone is worse than a two-way radio is worse than an iPod is worse than a GPS display is worse than a cycling computer is worse than a (mounted) camera. The controversy arises because some people are comfortable with a higher level of distraction than others.

For example, riders who listen to music will savagely criticize any fellow bicyclist who admits to using a hands-free cell-phone or a two-way radio. This controversy is mild compared to the debate over helmet laws – people in the "scene" will have libertarian hissy-fits about those that go on for pages – but there is still disagreement.

Well, I want ALL OF THESE gadgets. Also, I feel that the appropriate distraction level is context-sensitive. While commuting to work, for example, low-volume music is about as much as I can handle. But coming home from work, the streets are usually empty for most of my ride. I may wish to talk on the phone for that part. And if I’m biking cross-country on a lonely road that’s clear for miles in either direction, why not listen to an audiobook, or even fart around with a camera, or get really posh and put some iced tea in a cup holder?

The gadget I plan to use the most is the iPhone. In fact, the existence of this particular gadget is a big part of my motivation for building the electrical system. With one lightweight device I can hold a phone conversation, listen to music, monitor my location, and take pictures … simultaneously. (Yes, the music pauses while the phone rings … but after you answer the call, you can just unpause it, and hear the caller and the music mixed together.) And the power consumption is low enough that I can charge the thing perpetually as I ride. When I stop, I can detach it, and look up local resources, read news, and send email. I don’t even need to be near a wireless access point.

Aren’t you afraid the phone will fall off and break on the pavement and cost you a lot of money?

I’ve used three mounts, one for the original iPhone, one for the iPhone 3G, and one for the iPhone 4/4S. All were designed and manufactured by RAM Mounts and hold the phone in place brilliantly. Potholes that have knocked my sunglasses off have not budged the iPhone one bit.

You’re riding around in traffic poking that thing? Are you nuts?

When I’m in traffic I don’t look at the phone. If someone calls I ignore it. But when I’m stopped at an intersection or going down an empty road, the touch-based interface of the device is easily the most convenient way to do what I want. I can look at a map, my route, and my location, just by dragging around with a single fingertip.

If you think physical buttons would be easier, consider this: A touch-based interface still has buttons. It’s just that in many cases, the buttons are the information. If you’re looking at a map, for example, and want to drag it around or zoom in, the whole map is the button. You’re simultaneously looking at what you want to read, and at the location you need to press to acheive some effect. That means less time spent looking around in general. Also, you can “press” virtual buttons just by tapping lightly, instead of pressing hard and potentially throwing yourself off balance. (Yes, it happens!)

Try it sometime. It’s twice as convenient as any traditional bicycling map gadget. And it can show satellite imagery. And it’s a phone!! What’s not to like? When my wife calls and wants to know where to pick me up, I just poke a few buttons, and a second later she gets an email with my GPS location coded into a link, pinpointing my location in Google Maps. Maybe five years from now this will seem mundane, but today in 2008 it blows my mind. The damn thing is bona-fide magic, and it weighs less than a deck of cards.

Can you actually charge an iPhone perpetually as you ride a bike?
Yes, and without much physical effort. You just need to generate your electricity the right way. Details to follow.

So that’s my vision: Get on the bike, ride out into the boonies until I’m almost entirely off-grid, and fart around. Then come back. With a battery system and only a couple of lightweight gadgets, I can do all the communicating I need to do and still have plenty of space and weight capacity left for food and casual camping gear.

The focus of this document – post rant, at least – is the electrical system, but other equipment choices I made will be described as well. I learned a lot doing this.

The Starting Point

This is my bike at the start of the project. It’s your average mountain bike, except for the weird-looking handlebars. All the components on it are at least ten years old, excepting the add-on rack and the rear tire which was replaced earlier this year when the old one got shredded on a curb.

I could start listing off the various brand names of the components… Who made the shifters, who made the frame, et cetera, like all the other gearheads do … but it honestly doesn’t matter. I bought it used, and I have no idea what I’m riding. All I do know is that it’s a mountain bike, and that the handlebars are weird.

Why use a mountain bike as a starting point?

Because, experts agree: it’s a good one. I need something with a heavy enough frame to support the gear I’m going to be carrying with it. 180-pound me plus as much as 75 pounds of food and gear is way too much for a street bike to carry safely. Put too much gear on a too-thin bike and you get what’s called a "shimmy" effect while riding it.

(Actually, the term "mountain bike" is almost an anachronism. The classifications can get much more complicated. You can find bikes custom built from the frame on up, for high-speed racing, long-distance touring, short-distance touring, rock-hopping, stunts, riding mountain trails, or tooling around downtown. If I had an extra four thousand bucks lying around, I could easily drop the full amount on any one of these. Well, actually, I’d rather spend the money on food, and keep my bike. Hah.)

Anyway, this is the canvas upon which I will wreak my do-it-yourself havoc!

My complete bicycle electrical system has five pieces, some of which need to be assembled in order. Those five pieces are:

  1. The generator
  2. The lighting system
  3. The battery pack
  4. The charging circuit
  5. Accessories and controls

Onward to The Generator!

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