I wrote the following
article for the April 1998 issue of CQ-VHF magazine. They published it as
their "Mobile Special" on pages 24 .. 28 of that issue.
Why Put a Perfectly Good Ham Rig on a Bicycle?
A ham cyclist looks at the benefits of combining his
two favorite hobbies -- benefits to both cycling and ham radio.
Why would anyone put a ham radio on a bicycle? Sure, there are a few
interesting people who have done some very innovative things, such as Steve
Roberts, N4RVE, who built a large computer/radio trailer on his bicycle, which
he calls the "Behemoth" (see this month's cover and Steve's article
in this issue -- ed.). But is this really bicycling? Is this
really ham radio?
Useful and Valuable
As a bicyclist for 28 years and a ham for seven, I have proven to myself that
ham radios belong on bicycles. They're useful and sometimes critically
valuable. They're fun and unobtrusive enough that even the most die-hard
racing cyclist can easily afford the weight penalty. In fact, I entered
the amateur community because I am a bicyclist and saw what ham radio could do
for me. But most ham/cyclists I know have followed a different path.
They were hams first who became interested in bicycling later.
In this article, I'd like to share with you what excites me about the
bicycle/radio combination and, hopefully, get you thinking about joining the fun
yourself. I'll talk about:
- Why I find putting a radio on my bicycle to be fun, and what's in it for you
in your daily routine?
- The bicycle/radio setup. It's actually quite simple!
- The innovative fringe. Want to try bicycle-mobile HF, CW, or packet?
- My own "shack-on-a-bike"
Why "Ham-on-a-Bike" is Fun
I'm a creature of leisure just like the rest of you. If I'm not having
fun, I won't do it. I don't bicycle in the rain, and I am certainly not an
"exercise freak." My radio is on the bike because that's where
it belongs: it's fun to use and very useful while I am pedaling.
Most of my conversations are social, but I've also arranged a few rendezvous
as I've ridden, sometimes with hams I've never met before. I've lso
started out riding toward areas with different weather and checked the forecast
along the way (the weather at the San Francisco Bay can be very different than
the weather at points only 30 miles away). And I've used my radio to call
for help, both for myself and for others, as well as to telephone home because
I'm having too much fun to arrive for dinner on schedule. I rode on Field
Day last year and limited myself to only contacts which were made while in
motion. My score of less than 10 won't break any records, but I was doing
the ride for fun and didn't operate much.
Frankly, I only put my radio on my bicycle because it is useful to have and
fun to use. And these two hobbies complement each other nicely.
Sometimes I'll ride quietly and just monitor the radio; sometimes, I'll actively
chat with friends on the repeater, much as you would do when commuting in an
automobile. Other times, I'll seek out other unusual people to chat with
(the simplex calling frequency of 146.520 MHz is good for this). Last
summer, I was bicycling through the suburbs while talking with a friend on top
of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park (100 air miles away), as he related the
previous evening's ham-assisted helicopter rescue. That was a memorable
ride, and it wasn't because of the route that I took!
I haven't tried to work the Mir space station while riding, but I do have a
QSL card from the NASA special-event station celebrating the 20th anniversary of
the Pioneer 10 space probe. I particularly like this card because it
doesn't say "special event station" and it appears to be from the
space probe itself ... plus, it confirms "bicycle mobile." This
is DX on a whole new level!
What Kind of Station?
Getting the most out of your bicycle/ham setup takes a bit of preparation,
but the rewards are well worth it. Try to answer for yourself the five
questions below. If you're not sure of the answers, the BMHA (Bicycle
Mobile Hams of America, see "resources") can help.
- Do I want to use my radio while in motion, or only while stopped
somewhere? (I use mine in motion.)
- If it's to be used just while stopped, is a simple HT/rubber duck
combination enough? (I use an HT, but with a 1/4-wave whip antenna).
If so, then stick the radio in a jersey pocket or handlebar bag and start
- If in motion, how do I keep control of the bicycle while using the
radio? (The BMHA has zillions of suggestions on this topic.) I
use a handlebar-mounted radio and an elaborate but inexpensive setup
consisting of a PTT (push-to-talk) switch on my handlebars and an in-the-ear
"intra-aural" microphone that is extremely easy to use.
- How will I power my radio? HT battery packs or something more
robust? (I use the standard battery packs that came with my Kenwood
HT, and pack a spare in my handlebar bag.)
- Will I operate just VHF, or do I want to try HF/CW/packet or other
modes? (I'm just a VHF mobiler, on 2 meters and 70 centimeters, and
although I have occasionally brought along my packet station, I'm too
chicken to type on the keyboard while in motion.)
Public Service Aspects
Not all of us are involved in ARES/RACES or other public service groups, but,
here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the next big earthquake is always on our
minds. My own town of Sunnyvale, 50 miles south of San Francisco, would be
chopped into seven separate areas if the bridges were to fall. Automobiles
would be useless, but a bicycle can go anywhere where you can carry it. A
bicycle-mobile radio will become a priceless asset when we experience the
A non-automobile mobile radio is useful in almost any public safety, outdoor,
or crowd-control event. In my area, the main events are bicycle tours,
equestrian events, and large gatherings in which areas of several city blocks
square are closed to automobiles. In each of these situations, it's a real
asset for the hams to be mobile, but automobiles are not a viable choice. Putting the ham on a bicycle is the ideal alternative: we have the
mobility of motorized traffic, but can thread our way through the densest
packing of event-goers. We have the presence of a pedestrian, but the
staying power and mobility of the fully-supported vehicle.
The next time you participate in or monitor the next local event, listen for
situations reporting in as "Bicycle One" or "Bicycle Mobile
Two" -- and see what they can do. I'm sure you'll be amazed and
Personal Safety and Public Safety
But using a radio on a bicycle is a responsibility. You've all read
newspaper articles about automobile accidents caused by one or both drivers
becoming distracted by a cellular telephone. This is publicity that we
don't want in the bicycle community! And an accident caused by inattention
on a bicycle can really ruin your day -- probably more than an equivalent
transgression inside a better-protected automobile.
Ham radio on a bicycle, just like ham radio inside a moving car, can be very
safe. You simply need to follow several simple rules:
- Always fasten your seatbelt (OK this one doesn't apply to a bicycle -- I
left it here to show just how simple and universal these guidelines are --
if you don't have the discipline to fasten your seatbelt in your automobile,
then I don't want to meet you on a bicycle.)
- Keep both hands on the handlebars. Your first responsibility to to
keep control of your bicycle. If you have a separate speaker-mic or
handheld radio, then you have to take one hand off of the handlebars in
order to use it. This is fine on city streets, but please stay off the
air (and in control of your vehicle) while descending the local mountain
- Your microphone has a dangerous cord. You don't want it to get
tangled in your front wheel if you drop it; it's gonna ruin your day if it
does. I've used two approaches to reduce the risk:
- a microphone cord which isn't long enough to reach the wheel, and;
- a cord which is fragile enough that it will break easily if caught and
not tangle in the wheel.
My current choice is Option #2 (with a secure mounting setup at my
helmet). Neither of these options has to be elaborate. To shorten
my microphone cord and get it in the right position, I've simply taped the
middle of the cord to my brake cable above the handlebar -- now the mic will
dangle an inch or two above the front wheel if dropped. Similarly, my
in-the-ear microphone is attached to my helmet strap with a large paper clip.
- Watch your local laws concerning earphones. My state allows you to
cover one ear, but not both. In fact, my style of earphone also lets
me hear background sounds, so I have "open ears," with one ear
augmented by radio speech. "Walkman-style" headphones can be
dangerous, not only because they cover both ears, but also because their
users often turn up the volume to drown out local sounds. Be
responsible: you are listening to communicate; not to distract.
Communications audio does not need to be loud enough to drown out local
traffic noise, and you'll be safer if it doesn't.
- Have Fun. You're doing this because you enjoy it. If it
isn't fun, you won't pay attention, and you won't be getting or providing
any value. Experiment with your setup. Find a relationship with
your bicycle and your radio that works for you. I can assure you that
it will become a life-long passion.
Cell phones as a Substitute -- Not!
Cellular telephones are becoming incredibly popular. They're easy to
use and don't even require an FCC license. They'll take over what ham
radio is doing, right? WRONG! While cell phones have their benefits,
they don't match what a ham radio can do, particularly in the RF-difficult areas
where many bicyclists like to ride.
A few months ago, I wrote an article for the BMHA newsletter (see
"Resources" to get a sample copy) that discussed this topic. It
was called "The Cellular Ham" and was later reprinted in several more
club newsletters. My points seem to have made a hit with these respective
editors, so I'll repeat them briefly here:
- Safety -- RF from both ham radios and cell phones is not much of a
worry. Safety from dropping your microphone into your front wheel is
of greater concern and has been covered above.
- Size and Weight -- Ham radios and cell phones are now small enough
and light enough that size and weight are no longer an issue if you're
buying a unit specifically for bicycling use.
- License -- An FCC license is required for a ham HT, but not for a
- Cost -- Cell phone service costs a lot (particularly here in the
San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most expensive cell phone markets in the
nation). Ham radio service costs nothing, although it is considered
good form to join one or more repeater groups and pay nominal dues.
- Where they work -- Both work in most areas. Both are
virtually assured of a connection in metropolitan or high-traffic
areas. In the mountains, however, ham radio has the edge because of
where hams tend to mount repeaters, and the ham has a choice of target
frequencies (and, therefore, locations) to contact, while the cell phone
user only has access to the system's antenna towers, usually located along
- Emergency use -- the cell phone can dial "911" (which
will most likely connect you to the Highway Patrol), while the ham can
choose whom to contact. But the ham has to know who to contact, or
this advantage is removed.
- Ham radio is "open" -- a cell phone is easier, and more
private, for calling home, but ham radio is a many-person experience.
The whole group can hear what is said (you can call over the mountain with
"This is AA6WK, can someone tell me what the weather is like over at
the beach?" or perhaps "AA6WK broke a spoke, is there anyone who
has an old-style Regina freewheel tool?"). With a cell phone,
such inquires are difficult, expensive, or just plain impossible.
- Preference -- I ended my article with "your mileage may
vary," and you may a prefer either a cell phone or a ham radio while
you bicycle. I am lucky enough to own both, but my cell phone stays
home while my ham radio is a faithful companion on my bicycle whenever I
The Innovative Fringe
In my role as an assistant newsletter editor for the BMHA, I've seen a number
of interesting applications of ham radios and bicycles. I have already
mentioned Steve Roberts, N4RVE, and his "Behemoth" bicycle.
There are also many BMHA members who take QRP (low-power) rigs into the woods
and mountaintops on bicycle tours and have a tremendous time with both the sport
of bicycling and the hobby of ham radio. Many of these intrepid souls hang
up small solar arrays as they bicycle and recharge their batteries for the next
night of calling "CQ."
Several have found handheld transceivers that operate on the world-spanning
HF bands and can make contacts several thousand miles away while pedaling
along. And a few brave souls have even mounted CW paddles on their
handlebars. They don't use a straight key (one of my favorite quotes is
"don't use a straight key -- you'll sound as if you are trying to send
CW while pedaling a bicycle"! How true.) As I mentioned
before, I'd even tried bicycle-mobile packet. Your opportunities are
limited only by your imagination.
I'm pretty much a low-key radio/bicyclist. Because bicycling is my
"first love," I've built my radio setup to match my riding style
rather than vice-versa. In the equipment department, I use a Kenwood
TH-77A dual-band HT connected to an in-the-ear microphone (trade name "EarTalk"
that I purchased via mail-order). My antenna is a homebrew 1/4-wave whip,
but I've also used 1/2-wave AEA "Hotrod"
antennas with lots of success. I use the radio's standard battery pack (I
carry a spare) and, as I mentioned, my microphone cord is fragile enough (by
design) that it will break away in an accident.
How do I mount it all? I used to carry my radio in a handlebar bag, but
a few years ago, I decided to carve up an ole headlight holder, which now holds
the radio mounted nicely on my handlebar where I can see and manipulate it with
ease. My antenna mount design is where I was most creative; the base of my
antenna is cabled to the bottom of my handlebar bag, and it projects up through
a loop in a piece of string which is attached to both brake levers. This
provides a soft-but-sturdy two-point suspension to hold the antenna securely, on
even the bumpiest of roads, without putting much strain on the radio or the
What Are You Waiting For?
It's time for you to start riding and hamming. Start now. Have
fun. You can put your radio on your bicycle, and you will
have fun. Contact the BMHA and they'll get you started in the right
direction. As a local advertising slogan says, "I guarantee
it." I hope to see you on the roads and on the air.