Archive for the 'Bikes & Cycling' Category

May 17 2017

The Threat of Tick-Borne Disease to Cyclists, Campers, Hikers, and Paddlers by Tamia Nelson

Global warming and mass tourism are breaking down barriers to the spread of formerly rare diseases born by ticks. If you’re a bacterium, a protozoan pathogen, or a virus, this is good news. But if you’re a cyclist, camper, hiker, or paddler, it’s not so great. Is the spread of tick-borne disease a tick(ing) time bomb?

To make a long story short, in early spring last year I picked up a hitchhiker when on a short hike through deer country. Here she is in situ:

Sister Traveler in Situ

It’s not a great photo, so I’ve outlined her body in the accompanying black-and-white shot to make her easier to see. She’s wasn’t much bigger than the head of a straight pin. The bruise left by her excavations was three times as large as she was. And yes, she was a “she,” a female deer tick (Ixodes scapularis). The proportions of the scutum (the dark dorsal “shield” visible in the photos below) give the game away.

A Parting of the Ways

As you can see, we parted company before she could drink her fill. Her comparatively svelte figure tells you that. Now here’s a closer look at a second tick — Farwell plucked this one from his thigh a couple of years back — displaying the belly of the beast:

A Ventral View

The saw-like hypostome, visible in the upper right of the photo, is the tick’s sheet anchor, and because Farwell’s clumsy surgery left the shielding palps behind — he dug them out of his flesh later — you can get a particularly good view of his wee tormenter’s barbed holdfast. That toothy hypostome also explains why removing a tick can be a rather, er, ticklish job. The sawteeth serve the same purpose as the barbs on a harpoon. But so deft is the little beast that her initial thrust is painless. At least it was in my case.

I scrubbed the skin around the wound with isopropanol, and the next day I headed off to urgent care for a prophylactic dose of doxycycline. I had more luck than I deserved. A Lyme titer run on blood drawn five weeks later was negative. It seems that Nemesis was content to let me off with a warning. This time.


Or would you rather take steps to avoid trouble in the first place? I bet I know the answer. And you’d be right to prefer prevention to cure.

Previously unaffected regions of the States and adjacent Canadian provinces are no longer a safe haven from Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections. The northern latitudes are warming up fast, and the ebb and flow of global tourism ensures that no infectious disease can remain confined to one location for very long.

Moreover, Lyme disease is far from the most serious tick-borne malady. Rocky Mountain spotted fever has already spread well beyond the bounds suggested by the name, and the Powassan virus — first reported in Powassan, Ontario, this virus can cause a deadly tick-borne encephalitis — is already established in tick populations throughout eastern Canada and the northeastern and midwestern United States. The upshot? We’ll be hearing a lot more about ticks in the years to come. So …


Suddenly ticks were big news. As the world slowly warms up, tick-borne diseases are being seen in places they haven’t been noticed before. Lyme disease-infected deer ticks were virtually unknown in New York’s Adirondack Mountains in 2005. Now they’re commonplace. Their steady northward advance continues, too. In short, we can’t run, and we can’t hide. (Unless we want to live life in a La-Z-Boy, and even then, we’d need to keep a close eye on Fido. Is he Breaking Bad?)

Still, you’re safe while ON and IN the water. Ticks aren’t aquatic. And neither are we. So whenever you need to meet nature’s call by parking your bike, leaving your boat, or stepping off trail to “water the bushes,” chances are good that ticks are waiting to welcome you. Camping in the wild? It’s dinner time for ticks!


The six-legged larvae are smaller than a poppy seed. The eight-legged nymphs aren’t much bigger. Adults aren’t exactly megafauna.

Life Stages of a Deer Tick

The nymphs and adults cling to vegetation with their rear legs, extending their clawed forelegs in what some lyrical boffin has labeled questing behavior. When a suitable host passes by — be he a mouse, a moose, or a man — the leggy tick grabs hold and hangs on. Which is why every prudent person takes precautions. In other words, Be Prepared! You’ll find some suggestions at the CDC website.

In a hurry? Then here’s the executive summary:

  1. Wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt when afield. Light colors are best — they make it easier to spot a prospecting tick.
  2. Pull your socks up (over your pants legs), and wear a hat with a wide brim. If you want extra protection, you can get clothing impregnated with permethrin, a highly persistent synthetic pyrethroid that kills ticks and mosquitoes on contact. But it also kills fish and aquatic invertebrates, and it sickens cats.
  3. If you have less enthusiasm for total environmental warfare may wish to eschew permethrin in favor of repellents like DEET or picaridin, a newish alternative.
  4. At day’s end, inspect your body. Give special attention to hairline, ears, armpits, groin, and the cleft between your cheeks. If you’re not a contortionist, you’ll probably need to ask a family member or friend to help. Don’t be shy. Then head for the showers. And be sure to wash your hair.


Remove it. Fine-point forceps will do the job, or you can use a “tick spoon.” (I followed the advice described by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.) Dispatch the tick in the campfire or retain it to show the doc. Owners of alcohol cookers like the Trangia have an advantage here: They have a ready supply of preservative.

Once you’ve dislodged your unwanted guest, it’s just a matter of waiting to learn if you’ve been infected with a tick-borne pathogen. This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. While the bull’s-eye rash often seen in Lyme disease is now a staple of summer recreation stories in local papers, it’s absent in a large proportion of cases, and the early symptoms of the “malaria-like” babesiosis (an increasingly common co-infection) are subtle and easily missed. That said, if you can see a doc within 72 hours, you can get a prophylactic dose of doxycycline to forestall Lyme disease. But be warned: This will do nothing to protect against babesiosis or tick-borne encephalitis.

Of course, if you’re halfway through a Big Trip, you may be days (or even weeks) from sivilization. The best advice in this case? Get to a doc as soon as you can. Then do as she tells you.


It would be good to know that effective vaccines were readily available. But the only Lyme disease vaccine licensed for human use in the United States was withdrawn from the market in 2002. (If you’re a dog, however, you’re in luck. You have your choice of three. It’s a dog’s life, right?) There are also vaccines against Eurasian tick-borne encephalitis available in Canada and Europe, but none is licensed in the United States, and the value of these vaccines against Powassan virus is unknown. That’s unfortunate, since Powassan encephalitis kills one in ten afflicted individuals — older people would appear to be at greatest risk — with half of the survivors suffering severe, permanent neurological injury.

This makes rather grim reading, I admit. Perhaps you think I’ve exaggerated the risk posed by tick-borne diseases. And perhaps I have. It’s hard to know. At its best, the epidemiological data we have is spotty and unreliable. For instance, it’s estimated that the number of cases of Lyme disease reported to the CDC is only ten percent of the true number. Which means that, for now, the only useful rule of thumb is what I’ve sometimes called the “Fletcher Principle”:


Consider this: Our knowledge of the distribution of tick-borne pathogens in North America is far from complete, and statistics about the incidence of many tick-borne diseases in humans are little better. And as I said, appropriate vaccines are either hard to come by or nonexistent. So we have no choice: If in doubt, doubt.

Does this mean we should tread fearfully whenever we step foot away from the clear, well-trod path? Good question. For my part, I’m not ready to don a hazmat coverall when I leave the house. But I’m a lot more careful than I used to be. The climate clock is ticking, and it ticks for all of us.

This article was adapted from one originally published on 7 June 2016 at

Further Reading


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Apr 24 2017

Cyclists, Be Bright & Be Alert by Tamia Nelson

The recent tragic death of a popular professional racing cyclist highlights the importance to all of who ride a bike of doing what you can to improve the odds that you’ll make it home safely.

If you follow professional bike racing, no doubt you’ll have heard of the tragic death of Italian Michele Scarponi of the Astana team. On the morning of 22 April 2017, only days after winning a stage in the Tour of the Alps, Michele left on a training ride in his home town of Filottrano, Italy. A few kilometers from home, he was struck by a van turning across his lane en route to a side road. The collision killed Michele Scarponi.

So what does this untimely death mean for the rest of us? Just this: It’s a wake-up call to all of us who go forth on two wheels. So many cyclists I see on the road are dressed in dark clothing and without reflectors or blinking lights, seemingly unaware that it’s in their interest to be bright enough to be noticed by motorists. Of course, motorists bear some (most?) of the blame for collisions with cyclists. As the bigger, more powerful road users, motorists carry an extra moral (if not always enforced legal) responsibility to exercise caution. Having said this, many motorists don’t seem to realize their responsibility, nor do some seem to care. After all, in a collision—whoever is at fault—it’s the cyclist who will suffer more, and all too often the cyclist is killed.

The upshot? If you are a cyclist, do what you can to be seen and to ride defensively. It does no good to be absolutely certain that you’re in the right if the result is that you’re hit by a car. There’s no doubt you’ll be the one who suffers the most. Wear bright clothing. Light up. And keep your eyes and ears alert for what others are doing and what they may do. Stay alive and well.

One last note to the loved ones of Michele Scarponi. My heartfelt condolences. He will be sadly missed.

Further Reading


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Apr 15 2017

Be Prepared for Roadside Repairs by Tamia Nelson

Heading out for your first road ride of the season? Then don’t forget to stow basic roadside repair tools on your bike. Because stuff happens.

You’re the better part of an hour from home on your bike, enjoying the first day-long ride through the countryside that you’ve had since last autumn, and you’re on your own. But then trouble strikes. It could be a persistent knock with each revolution of the cranks. Or a front derailleur cable that gives up the ghost. Or maybe you hit a deep pothole and sheared a spoke on the drive side of your rear wheel. What do you do? Pull out your cell phone and call someone to come and pick you up? Is there cellphone coverage where you’re likely to meet with trouble?

A five-mile ride down the road brings me to a dead zone with no cell coverage, and it stays that way for another 25 miles. There are no other services to be found, either. There aren’t even many houses. Yet it’s a great place to ride, with paved roads and wide shoulders, challenging grades, little traffic, and beautiful scenery—rich woods, verdant wetlands, and rolling hills. With luck, I might also glimpse an ambling bear. But it’s not a great place to meet with mechanical trouble. So I…

Always Tool Up to Ride

Here’s a review of what’s inside my seat bag:

  • Spare tire tube
  • Self-adhesive patches
  • Tire levers
  • Hex wrenches
  • Spoke wrench
  • Chain tool
  • Multi-tool
  • Vinyl gloves
  • Cotton rags

The seat bag is all I really need for local rides. For longer trips, though, when a walk back home would take me more than an hour or two, I bring a more complete inventory of tools in a quart-sized ziplock bag. I call this my roadside repair kit, and I carry it in my handlebar bag. Is my roadside repair kit heavy? Yes, but it’s not any heavier than a large, filled water bottle. I can live with the extra weight, especially considering the peace of mind it provides. Here’s a look at what the kit contains:

Petra's Tools Photo (c) Tamia Nelson

And here’s what’s what:

  • Tire patch kit
  • Combo Phillips and slotted screwdriver
  • 8 mm Allen key
  • 8 mm and 10 mm combo open-ended wrench
  • Cone wrenches (13/15 mm and 17/18 mm)
  • Combo wrench (31 mm and 36 mm headset spanner and 13/15 mm cone/pedal wrench)
  • Lifu mini crank extractor
  • Stein cassette remover
  • Bottom bracket tool (not shown)
  • Spare brake and derailleur cables (not shown)
  • Rubber buffers cut from old inner tube (used to keep tools from clattering)
  • Vinyl gloves

Most of these will be familiar to amateur mechanics, but there are two tools which aren’t so common—The Lifu mini crank extractor is on the left, and on the right is a J. A. Stein cassette remover by J. A. Stein (this one fits a Shimano cassette).

Petra's Special Tools Photo (c) Tamia Nelson

Don’t Forget Spare Cables

I carry spare brake and derailleur cables in a pocket in my ‘bar bag. These cables are not interchangeable, and to make matters more confusing still, different makers’ components require differently configured molded heads. So-called “universal” derailleur cables have a barrel head on one end and a disk head on the other. You cut off the end that you don’t need. It’s easiest to do this at home, by the way, using a cable cutter that doesn’t fray the wire. Brake cables are available with barrel heads (the name compounds the confusion, because these look just like the disk heads on derailleur cables) or mushrooms. Some universal brake cables are available, too, and as with universal derailleur cables, it’s best to do the preliminary cutting at home.

Here are some photos to help cut through the fog of confusing terms:

Petra's Tools

The cables in the picture above are Teflon-coated. Note that the brake cable is thicker than the derailleur cable. The brake cable is intended for standard drop-bar levers. Linear-brake levers require cables that look like this:

Petra's Tools

These cables are not Teflon coated. Note the barrel head on the brake cable. (The head on the derailleur cable is nearly identical to that in the preceding photo, despite having a different code stamped on it.)

To repeat what I said earlier: If you buy universal brake or derailleur cables, it’s best to trim off the unneeded head at home using a good pair of cable cutters. If you ever have to cut a cable on the road with the wire cutter on a pair of multi-tool pliers, you’ll see why it makes sense to do the job in advance. Not only will you get blisters in places you’ve never had blisters before, but the cut end of the cable is almost sure to be badly frayed. Good luck in threading that through the housing!

Is all of this a lot of trouble to go to just to prepare for an unlikely breakdown? I don’t think so.

Be Prepared

Routine pre-ride checks and post-ride inspections help prevent nasty surprises on the road, but no preventative maintenance program is foolproof. Stuff happens, and when it does, I prefer self-sufficiency to dependency. In conjunction with the tools I carry in the saddle bag, my roadside repair kit allows me to meet almost any emergency. I can tighten loose pedals and cranks, adjust cones on pedals and wheels, tweak the threaded headset on my mountain bike, replace a spoke (I carry spares), pull a crank so I can tighten or service a bottom bracket, and remove (or snug down) any of the many fasteners on any of my bikes. The bottle opener on the combination headset wrench comes in handy, too.

But maybe you blanch at the idea of doing any repairs. Have no fear, though:

You Can Do It!

If you can change a flat tire, you can learn how to maintain and repair your bike. Believe me, it’s worth the effort. You can’t always phone home, and it’s best not to rely on the kindness of strangers. More importantly, working on your bike makes you a better cyclist. A bicycle is personal transportation in its purest form. So why not get better acquainted with yours?


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Apr 12 2017

Are Your Feets Too Big? Toe Overlap and the Cautious Cyclist by Tamia Nelson

Toe overlap seems high on the list of some cyclists’ concerns. What about it? Are your feets too big? Well, I’ve got news for you. It’s usually No Big Deal.

If you’re a cyclist with biggish feet who rides a smallish frame, you’ve probably noticed that your toes occasionally rub against your front fender when you make tight turns at low speed. This is usually No Big Deal, though if the bump comes at the wrong time—or if you (a) don’t have fenders, (b) ride a fixie, or (c) are having a really bad day—it can bring you down. The phenomenon used to be called “toe-clip overlap,” but since few riders nowadays use toe clips, it’s often shortened to “toe overlap.” And here’s how it looks from the rider’s seat:

Toe Overlap (c) Tamia Nelson

The overlap shown above is considerable. Overlap is dependent on…

  • Your bike’s frame size and geometry
  • Wheel and tire size
  • Crank length
  • Whether you’ve fitted fenders
  • Whether or not you use toe clips
  • The size of your feet

Tight, short-wheelbase racing frames are less forgiving than long, laid-back tourers, while the combination of big (700C) wheels on small frames makes for bigger problems. (Which is why some makers—Surly is one—fit smaller 26-inch wheels on smaller frames.) Fenders and toe clips further reduce clearance, as do long cranks, though at least the fenders give you an audible warning that you’re about to make contact with the wheel. Do I have to explain why big feet increase the likelihood of overlap? I didn’t think so.

OK. Toe-clip overlap is like the weather. It happens. And some people get rained on. If you’re one of the unlucky ones, you’ll want to know what you can do about it. Well, here’s some good news: You really don’t have to do much. Overlap isn’t a concern when you’re going straight. Even when you head into a turn at speed, your lean does most of the work. Your bars—and therefore your front wheel—hardly move from the straight-ahead position. So overlap becomes a problem only when you have to make tight turns at low speeds, and your first few close calls usually teach you how much to backpedal in order to avoid being brought down. Fixie riders can’t do this, of course, which is why overlap is more of a nuisance for them.

All in all, though, it just isn’t something most of us need to worry about. Of course, if you’re unlucky enough to experience a lot of overlap, and if you often need to negotiate heavily traveled roads at slow speeds, dodging and weaving around potholes and double-parked cars, you’ll want to put in some practice time in an empty parking lot before venturing out onto the mean streets. (Wear your helmet. Elbow pads might be a good idea, too. Parking-lot asphalt is unforgiving stuff.) For the rest of us, however, toe-clip overlap really is No Big Deal. It’s certainly not a good reason to reject an otherwise satisfactory frame—even if your feets are too big!

Sitting Pretty (c) Tamia Nelson

This article is an update of one originally published on 15 April 2014.

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