An Ode to Bikes in The End of The World

“Why aren’t they just riding bikes?”

Me- watching people start a car that would have a long-dead battery, flat tires and bad gas.

If you want to know how ingrained cars are to American culture, and how we truly view bicycles, all you have to do is watch a post-apocalypse movie or television series. Regardless of whether it’s a nuclear winter, zombie infestation, or fungus/virus/bacteria pandemic, etc, we are led to believe that in a near future where society has collapsed, most of the population has died, and our heroes are left to scavenge what remains, they can somehow still operate motor vehicles with some regularity, and they would rather die than ride a bike.

Seems fun but this is a Hollywood fantasy.

The truth is, you won’t be driving much. At all.

Modern cars are extremely complex machines that require a lot of maintenance. The idea that you can just hop into any car, yank some wires from the dash and drive away is a terrible cliche. Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re a seasoned car thief and know all about getting past steering wheel locks, shift locks, and other anti-theft systems like programmed keys… the fact remains that batteries drain, gas goes bad, tires go flat, computers and modules fail, and you’re not going anywhere in an automatic car with a dead battery (and with every passing year, there are fewer and fewer cars with manual transmissions to be found).

Assuming you had a key or could bypass all of these issues (or you found an older car with no power steering that had a diesel engine and manual transmission that you could push start) you would still need to stockpile parts to keep it running (fuel, brake pads, brake and hydraulic fluids, coolant, hoses, motor oil, oil filters, etc.), and then you would have to know how to maintain it and have the tools, equipment, and space to do so.

Even if you did find the perfect car and had everything you needed to maintain it, where are you going to drive? Many roads and streets would be clogged with wrecked and abandoned vehicles and you are completely reliant on having a driveable path to wherever you are going. One missing bridge could require miles of detours to access a particular place, and one good bash to the front end could crush your radiator, leaving you stranded.

*by the way, attaching a bunch of armor to your vehicle to protect it and the things and people inside of it would destroy your mileage in a world where fuel would be extremely difficult to come by.

Assuming you had access to a shop and all the tools to build this, WHERE ARE YOU GETTING FUEL?
Sure you can convert to biodiesel or build a still to make ethanol, but come on… this is not going to be the norm.

Not to mention, cars are loud- they alert everything and everyone that you are coming. The idea that you are going to build a badass lifted, armored truck with a super loud exhaust to terrify everyone as you speed into their encampment on a raiding mission may make for great entertainment but in reality, it’s ridiculous. You’re only giving yourself away and you are one slashed tire or cut brake line away from walking or worse. What are you going to do? Tow it home?

*I am sure that somewhere out there, there is a person with a biodiesel or woodgas powered armored apocalypse truck with run flat tires and massive stockpiles of fuel buried on their property but I’m pretty sure we can agree that this is not the norm, and the majority of people don’t possess the skills or knowledge to modify and fabricate custom post-apocalypse automobiles (this includes solar powered electric cars).

Horses are not the answer.

Okay so we’ve determined the use of motor vehicles in a post-apocalyptic world would be pretty rare as they would require a vast amount of time and resources to keep them running, not to mention the effort required to keep other people from taking them from you.

What about horses, though? If the amount of massive pickup trucks in suburban neighborhoods that never haul stuff tell us anything, it’s that a lot of us secretly view ourselves as rugged cowboys, here to tame a wild land and bend it to our will. So it’s not surprising that we see people on TV after the apocalypse running around on horses (complete with cowboy hats and rifles).

Yee Haw! -The Walking Dead

The reality is that horses require care. Unlike a car, they require fuel and maintenance even when they aren’t being used. They need far more food and water than you and I do, and they need to be kept healthy. What will you do if your horse falls ill? What if your horse takes a bad step and becomes lame? Do you have access to a vet? Do you have farrier skills? Will you dress your horse in some kind of armor to protect it from bullets, arrows, blades, etc? You could be seriously injured if your horse were to kick you or buck you off. Do you even know how to ride a horse?

The truth is, the amount of people who have the knowledge and skill to successfully care for and ride a horse in a full-on societal collapse is minimal. That’s not to say that somewhere out there, people couldn’t band together to form a community that relies on horses for many tasks -they could- but the vast majority of people are not going to be “cowboying” through the remnants of our world on an untrained horse they found in a field.

In fact, unless you enter the post-apocalyptic world in an established and secure community where most of your needs are met, the idea of feeding, watering, and taking care of a horse would be ridiculous (especially if you, yourself, are starving and your trusty equine friend is beginning to look delicious).

Look, I know it looks great on screen when our hero narrowly escapes death by jumping up into the saddle, kicking the haunches of their steed, and galloping away as they put perfectly placed bullets into whatever is chasing them, but let’s be one hundred percent honest about this: in a world where everyone is scavenging to survive, a horse is a large target and one well placed round will net your enemies hundreds of pounds of horse meat, leaving you to run for your life on foot (assuming you aren’t severely injured when it keels over with you on it).

Isn’t it amazing how everyone has clean hats and Carhartt jackets twenty years after the entire world collapses? -The Last Of Us

The often overlooked and humble bicycle.

Bicycles require no fuel, food, or water, and they need very little maintenance for the benefits they provide. They are fast, maneuverable, virtually silent, can be easily carried or stowed away, and can pack an astounding amount of stuff on them.

It’s always baffling to me when people in these movies and shows run out of gas and just choose to walk for days as if they have no other viable option (apparently there is an endless supply of shoes to be scavenged in the wasteland future, but no bikes).

Riding a bike requires far less effort than walking, and if you have minimal bike handling skills, you can traverse landscapes that no automobile can (no car or truck is taking the single track shortcut and I’ve passed 4x4s on forest road descents because I can just bunny hop ruts and dodge potholes).

They are also far more efficient than horses. Regardless of what you see in movies, an average modern horse can only walk about 25-30 miles a day (it drops to only 2 miles at full speed). Depending on the terrain, many people can traverse the same distances (or more) on a bike with far fewer calories required to do so. The more you ride a bicycle, the stronger you get. The stronger you get, the further you can go.

There are very few places that this setup would not be capable of taking you.

Even in a country as car-centric as the United States, it is estimated that our garages and homes house at least one-hundred-million bicycles, and depending on the disaster, most of them would still be in pretty good condition because they were hardly used (because we drive everywhere). So why are there seemingly no bikes in these post-collapse worlds?

Bikes are resilient and can be fixed with basic hand tools (seriously, a small multi-tool with a chainbreaker will cover A LOT of repairs and those multi-tools can often be found in the under seat pack on a bike). Plus, most bikes can sit for years and still be ridden with no more effort than pumping up the tires and adding a little oil to the chain (as a mechanic I can personally attest to this, you wouldn’t believe the bikes I’ve had in my stand that are more or less functional after spending 25+ years in the depths of a shed. Yes, even the tires are often rideable).

Can some bikes be overly complicated? Sure, but you aren’t going to be riding around on a high-end race machine with wireless electronic shifting in the end times, okay? You’re going to find something that works (preferably with big tires and mechanical shifting and brakes).

*Someone is going to want to argue about portable solar banks and the viability of charging modern components and e-bikes and I’ll just say that yes it’s possible, but not necessarily reliable, okay?

90’s mountain bikes with 26″ wheels like this one are literally everywhere, and make for very versatile and reliable transportation.

These bikes are plentiful, easy to work on, and they share a lot of components, which means that you can strip parts from other bikes you find and keep them for later (brake pads, tubes, chains, and cables don’t take up a lot of room). Most of them have mounts for racks to carry your gear and they’ll clear a relatively large tire (speaking of tires, there are millions of tubes out there and you can line your tires with extra tubes, tire liners, or even Tyvek for extra puncture protection, and pumps are portable and provide air forever).

What if you come across a missing bridge, downed trees, locked gates, or other obstacles? You can carry your bike or push it if you have to (hike-a-bike). You can even take your bike with you inside of places that cars and horses simply won’t go.

*I’m aware that not all bikes are created equally- I don’t realistically think that a Mongoose from Wal-Mart is going to be up for surviving the end of the world, but that Mongoose has salvageable parts, including brake pads, cables, tubes, and tires. Are they the best brake pads? No, but they’re better than no brake pads, and besides, you’d be surprised how long a low-end department store bike will last before it completely fails due to lack of grease and badly adjusted bearings. Seriously, go visit a college campus and take a look at how many bikes from the 70s and 80s are pulling daily commute duty on the original tires, rusted cables, and a chain that hasn’t seen lube in three years.

What’s realistic vs. what’s entertaining

I get that having our hero pedal into town on a bicycle doesn’t make for very good TV, but maybe we’re just not being imaginative enough. If we’re expected to believe that everyone is an expert marksman, can competently ride a horse, or manufacture ethanol and maintain a fleet of vehicles that run on it, then why can’t we believe that your average person can ride a bike like this?

How would this not make great TV?

This is far faster than a horse and no car (or whatever is chasing you) is going to be able to follow you. And if you think that cheap bikes aren’t up to the task, here’s proof that even a $200 Huffy can put up with far more abuse than most people are capable of dishing out.

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Published by joeski

Look Fast. Ride Slow

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