Monday, October 30, 2017

Scrounging a Bicycle

There are a great many uses for a scrounged bicycle in the world of prepping. In its original form, you can use it for transportation, entertainment, and exercise; you can break it down and part it out for raw materials for projects or sell the pieces as trade goods; and with some work, you can even use it as a power generator.

The problem is that a lot of people don't know how to obtain a scrounged bike. Fortunately for them, I have many years of experience with this; I make a hobby out of acquiring donor bikes and combining spare components into working units, which I then either sell for a small profit or give away to people who could not otherwise afford one.

I've found that the single best place to acquire free bicycles is in college towns. This is due to a turnover of high population that wants low cost transportation and a tendency to leave those bikes behind when they graduate, since the cost of bringing them back home wouldn't be worth the cost. 

My personal favorite source is college town apartment complexes. It amazes me how many of them have bikes literally piled up in a corner, and have to pay someone to haul them off, because people leave them behind. Once, a couple of phone calls and offering to print up a flyer that they can tape to the bikes asking if the owner is still around yielded more usable bikes than could fit into a one ton truck and a hauled trailer, and none of them needed repairs beyond a patched tire.

Thrift stores often receive too many donations to actually use all of them, and in my experience will actually throw away a certain percentage of things that come in. If you spend a few weekends volunteering for a few hours, they are usually happy to let you have first pick of the rejects as they come in (and sometimes even some of the good stuff). There is often nothing wrong with these other than cosmetic issues such as scratches or light rust.

Bicycle co-ops are also a great place to source inexpensive (or even free) bicycles, if you have one in your city or nearby. If you need one for transportation, they are usually fixed to the point that they work well enough for travel. If you need one for a project (making one into a generator, for example) they will often have components sitting around that they will give you for free, and since many of them are very into DIY, they might even help you assemble the project if you ask nicely.

Finally comes dumpster diving. There is nothing wrong with this, but I leave it as the last resort, because bikes found there tend to have more issues than bikes from other sources. That said, I have seen brand new racing bikes come out of dumpsters behind a mall, with nothing wrong with them but a flat tire.

Try to have a second person with you, especially when dumpster diving. People get hurt, from simple scratches to broken bones.

Wear gloves if you are not sure what the bike has on it, or if it in an overgrown area. I have been stung by wasps because I had disturbed their home. It was unpleasant, and I do not recommend it.

Wear a helmet. When you are riding a bike, a helmet can make a difference between a long hospitalization and/or death, and a funny story that you tell your friends. If you are in an accident, replace the helmet if it got bumped. Your life is worth looking like a dork, so long as you are a living dork.

I strongly recommend getting permission from property owners before going dumpster diving on their property. If you choose not to do this, be aware that there may be legal consequences afterwards.

A quick phone call ("Hello [apartment complex], do you have any bicycles that you need removed?") can save a lot of time and energy when it comes to finding donor bikes.

I find that people are remarkably open to someone offering to remove what they see as trash in order to recycle it, and will sometimes offer to help or even pay you to remove the bicycle from their property.

I have also found that apartment complexes with high turnover tend to be more than happy to have someone haul the bikes off, since a lot of them get left by previous tenants.

Getting It Home
Some lucky few of you will be close enough to the source of the bike, and find one in good enough condition, that you will be able to ride it home. Others will either have a pickup truck, or have a friend who does. Failing that, however, there are several options.

Consider public transportation, as you will often be fairly near to a bus stop, especially in a college town. People may give you an odd look, but it is a lot easier to haul a bike around on a bus for a few miles and then drag it home than to haul a bike with flat tires for ten miles. Public transit will also get you a remarkable distance, so if you do some research and make some phone calls before hand, you may be able to pick up multiple bikes for nothing more than the cost of a bus ticket.

Depending on the number of bikes that you are obtaining, you may want to rent a truck. A U-Haul or similar can be rented for about twenty dollars a day plus mileage and fuel.

If you remove the wheels using a crescent wrench, a great many cars can actually fit a bike in the trunk. My accord can fit my commuter bike with the wheels still on it, because the seat folds down.

If you are stuck with dragging it home, make sure to bring plenty of some sort of penetrating lube, and a water bottle. I have done this, and it was not fun.

Basic Tools
  • Adjustable wrench, crescent style for removing parts like wheels (or putting them back on)
  • Small pump for tire inflation
  • Emergency tire inflator. Sometimes the easiest way to deal with a flat is with something like this. It inflates and seals the tire, but will eventually eat through the tube.
  • Hacksaw. If you have to cut through a lock that was left on the bike (sometimes because the person who owns it lost the key), this can be very useful.
  • Rag to clean off goop, especially when it gets on your hands.
  • Cleaner. LOC, Simple green, or even heavily diluted dish soap in a spray bottle. Just to clean off the worst of whatever may be on the bike.
  • Lube. A decent aerosol lube can be a major help for everything from stuck bolts to rusty chains. 
  • Helmet. When you ride it, wear a helmet. Don’t get killed.
  •  to keep your hands from getting poked by a random piece of wire or bit of rusted steel. Also good for bikes that have been in especially nasty conditions. These don't have to be expensive, just something leather palmed and cheap.
  • Tire patch kit.
  • Bike Chain/Bike lockHaving your bike stolen really sucks, so make sure to lock it up.
  • A cheap backpack to hold all this stuff. 

A Few Useful Tips
Whenever I have to commute on a nice-looking bike, I cover it in bumper stickers and/or cheap spray paint. I call this "urban camouflage" and it makes the bike look unique, and not as nice, so it is much less likely to be targeted by thieves. I understand that this may not be for everyone.

If you want to keep it nice, paint a custom scheme (even if it is just a stripe or two) on the bike using a nice enamel. It makes it much easier to track if it gets stolen. 

Keep a picture of the bike on your phone and in your email.

Don’t ride a bike with flat tires. It is not just harder to pedal, it will also destroy the rims, making it impossible for them to hold air anymore.

Having a paper trail can help to avoid police problems. Even if all you have is a record of text messages or emails showing that you have permission to remove the bikes, it can save a lot of hassle. My preferred method is a piece of paper with a signature saying something like “Scott Bascom has agreed to help me remove these bikes from my property” or something similar. Getting stopped by the police while you are doing what looks like stealing bikes is fairly stressful, and showing that you are just removing trash tends to get a good response.

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