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.

By Skip La Fetra, AA6WK

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 pedaling.
  • 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 "big one."

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 impressed.

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 roads.
  • 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:
    1. a microphone cord which isn't long enough to reach the wheel, and;
    2. 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 cell phone.
  • 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 major highways.
  • 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 travel.

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.

My "Shack-on-a-Bike"

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 antenna connectors.

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.


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