Cycling for Fun and Profit
Cycling for Fun and Profit
Since I don't have anything particularly exciting to write about photography today (nope, I haven't given it up, I just don't feel like writing about it), I'm writing about something related to another pursuit of mine -- cycling. I have taken a quite a few pictures of bicycles and while cycling, too, so to keep it slightly on-topic I'll illustrate it with them and add a few tips for successful photography off a bike.
With the price of oil steadily marching towards the hundred-bucks-a-barrel limit, all kinds of formerly crunchy-granola concepts like energy conservation and biofuels are suddenly being taken very seriously by Men in Suits. One such crunchy-granola concept, at least in certain parts of the world, is cycling as a serious form of transport. It has a quite a few advantages -- it's zero-emission, quiet, inexpensive, doesn't use any fuel, and does marvels for your health, assuming you manage to stay in the saddle most of the time and keep a helmet on in case you don't. It's also faster than transportation by car... if you're in a congested urban area. Besides, it's fun, and bikes are lovely enough to make the inner gearhead in all of us rejoice. So if you've already gotten your dream camera, built up your collection of lenses and tripods, built your very own photo workstation and backup system, directing your gearheadedness towards something that actually has gears (most of the time) could be fun. If you're a complete newbie to cycling, read on -- this little article is for you. On the other hand, if you're French or Italian, go read something else; there's nothing I can tell you about bikes that you don't already know, besides which you'd probably disagree with much of what I have to say, and I don't want your hate mail, thank you very much.
"Beirut by Bike: For A Better Environment." Beirut is one place where it takes balls to bike -- the traffic is not exactly friendly. Then again, if you know what you're doing, I bet you can really slice through the congestion...
Bicycles -- What Are They For?
If you're like most people, your idea about cycling probably falls under one of the following categories:
- Kid stuff. You probably owned and rode a bike when you were a kid. I hope, anyway, since it's kinda tough to start if you're pushing gray hairs.
- Stuff for dirtheads, bike messengers, skateboarders, and other generally suspicious characters.
- Isn't that what Lance Armstrong does? Or was he the guy with the trumpet?
Lance Armstrong, one of the greatest cyclists who ever lived. No, wait...!
While dirt biking, road racing, and play are perfectly legitimate uses for bikes, there's a lot more to it than that. Regular people can effectively use bikes for fun, utility, and exercise -- cycling is just about the most intense aerobic workout you can get, and it hurts a lot less than most workouts once you get your butt used to the saddle. I dislike gyms; the light is poor, the scenery uninspiring (well, most of the time), and that one two-meter tall, 120-kilo black guy always makes me feel terribly inferior. Exercise biking is worst of all; you pedal like mad and never get anywhere, the posture is bad, the saddle is bad, with any luck the bike is halfway broken too, and it's small consolation that you're unlikely to crash. It's nothing even remotely like hopping on your bike, pointing it towards the horizon, and spooling up the road like silk thread, with the wind on your face, the scenery changing, and the feel of your blood flowing through your newly energized body. Once you're used to the saddle, you can do afternoon circuits of 30-50 km easily (it'll take you an hour or two), and the "double century" (200 miles over 24 hours) is certainly within reach of anyone without major health problems -- although not without training for it.
Bonnieux at dusk. I took this photo on my evening circuit in the Luberon, so I guess it counts as cycling for exercise rather than touring.
Then there's utility cycling -- basically, using a bike as a way to get from A to B, perhaps transporting some stuff. If you live in the city, it's a lot faster and less complicated to zip through downtown in the saddle than sit in traffic in your car, or frantically run after the bus you just missed. Rain can put a bit of a damper on it, of course. But in fair weather, for trips up to about ten kilometers (six miles) in urban areas, a bike is the quickest way to go -- and you get a very nice workout into the bargain.
A real cyclist won't let a spot of rain spoil his day.
Finally, there's touring -- cycling not just for exercise, and not just to get from A to B, but to go places, meet people, and see things. This can be anything from a day trip with a packed lunch to the crazy voyage through all of Eurasia that that one guy did. I've never felt such a sense of complete freedom as when touring -- you're completely free to go anywhere you like, if there's a road or at least hard path that goes there, and there's some strength left in your legs to get you there. A regular, non-competition-athlete kind of guy can easily do 100-150 km (60-90 miles or so) a day on a fully loaded bike, with the occasional day off to charge up the batteries.
Get To The "Which One Should I Buy" bit already!
Fine, fine. Or rather, I'll tell you which one not to buy (unless you really know what you're doing, in which case you shouldn't be reading this):
Any really, really cheap bike. If it costs less than about 250 dollars/euros, even on special offer, it's almost certainly junk.
- Anything with rear suspension.
- Anything resembling the torture instruments the Dutch inflict on themselves.
- A road racer.
- Anything marketed as a "city bike."
- A BMX bike, unicycle, fixed-gear, downhill bike with gi-normous tires, Custom Cruiser, expensive touring bike or cyclocross bike, or any other specialty bike.
A so-called Dutch bicycle. This one's hiding, because it doesn't want to cause any pain to anyone by having them ride it. Avoid. They're heavy, wobbly, slow, hard to maneuver, hard to stop, and give you a very poor riding posture. I once rode one right into some rose bushes when coming back from a party one summer night; took me weeks to get all the thorns out. On the upside, they can be rather pretty, if well made, they last forever with minimal maintenance, and riding a Dutch bike is great cardiovascular exercise, even if most pedestrians will overtake you.
But I want a...!
Fine, go ahead. Just don't blame me when it all goes wrong. All the bikes on the above "avoid" list have their legitimate uses, and if you're sure that your needs fit one of those legitimate uses, knock yerself out. (I have two road racers myself.) But if you drop four grand on a super-duper fully-suspended lacquer-painted downhill marvel, don't be surprised when (a) you'll find that it's not that great at going up hills, and (b) it got stolen 24 hours after you bought it. However, be especially skeptical of "city bikes" and really cheap bikes -- there really aren't many things they can do that something else couldn't do better and (in the medium term) cheaper.
Screw custom cruisers and bling-bling Klein downhill bikes. Tandem's the way to go if you want to get some attention -- and offer them a ride too.
Really, tell me. What should I buy?
Since you insist, dear imaginary reader.
If we cross out cheap junk bikes, Dutch bikes, racers, downhill bikes, and specialty bikes, what does that leave us?
Fitness bikes. If your main use is exercise, go for it. However, if you need to leave it unattended outdoors, go with something else: it'll get stolen, and even if you're insured, it gets annoying to replace a bike that you've just managed to break in. In my opinion, a fitness bike is the only "specialty" bike a novice might want to consider, since it's an excellent ride, easily adaptable to different missions, and much more approachable and versatile than e.g. a road racer (which, I can tell you, is not much fun in a city full of curbs, tram tracks, sewer lids, and similar fun).
Trekking bikes or "hybrids." If your main use is urban utility cycling with some fitness and touring thrown in, a trekker or "hybrid" is probably your best bet. They're not as pricey as fitness bikes and therefore less attractive to thieves, they ride reasonably nicely, and they can be easily adapted for a variety of different uses. (A hybrid is basically a mountain bike with bigger wheels, and a trekker is basically a hybrid kitted up with baggage racks.)
Mountain bikes. If price was not a consideration, I'd only recommend a mountain bike if you intend to bike off-road, and in that case I would urge you to save up and get a good one costing a grand or more. However, for some reason they're very popular, and therefore if you're looking for a bargain, you're much more likely to find it in a mountain bike than a trekker or fitness bike. While most mountain bikes are just about useless for anything in the state in which they're sold, they're easy to adapt for a number of missions, including utility, fitness, and even touring. So, if your main concern is utility cycling, especially in an old-world-y city with lots of curbs, cobblestones, tramway tracks, potholes, sewer lids, and such, a mountain bike may be just your thing. I would steer you away from disk brakes, though -- they're thief magnets, and they add cost and weight to a bike without really providing any benefits you'd notice unless you're actually blazing down a muddy path somewhere.
A decent bike can be had for about 350 euros/dollars, less if you find a special offer or buy off-season, more if you want to dress it up a bit. Decent mountain bikes are the cheapest, and decent fitness bikes are the priciest: expect to spend about 500 and up on a fitness bike. Trekkers are somewhere between the two.
Don't get one of these. Either it'll scare the living daylights out of you and make you stop cycling altogether, or a spin on open road on it will make every other type of bike feel like complete rubbish. And you can't really ride it in the city because you'll smash the rims on curbs and it'll get stolen them minute you look in another direction. And you'll look pretty silly into the bargain. Oh, and you can get a half-dozen perfectly serviceable bikes for the cost of just one of these.
What to watch out for?
Look out for pigs with lipstick. That is, junk bikes that have had one or two flashy and expensive parts hung on them -- typically the rear derailer and/or a disk brake. If you see an obviously expensive part on an obviously cheap bike, it's almost certainly a pig with lipstick, and you should avoid it. Pigs with lipstick cost about as much, or just a hair less, than the minimum price you'd expect to pay for a solid entry-level all-rounder. So if you see a Shimano Deore XT derailer on a bike costing 300 bucks, a warning bell should go off -- that part belongs on a bike with a four-figure price tag.
Poor Brandy. Nobody deserves a bike like this: this one's a pig with a lot of really cheap lipstick on.
On the other hand, shop towards the end of the season, when the stores are clearing out the bikes to make room for snowboards. Big chains are perfectly acceptable places to find bargains on last year's bikes -- my sister got her extremely solid road bike from InterSport for a song, since she bought it in mid-winter. Mid-price big-chain brands like Nakamura, Nishiki, Insera, Scott, or Decathlon are sort of like the Toyotas of bikes -- there's nothing particularly exciting about them, but they'll get the job done just fine at a reasonable price. There's absolutely nothing wrong with buying your bike from a supermarket or general sports store, as long as you avoid the pigs with lipstick who also like to lair there.
The "Shimano series" of mountain-bike components which you'll find on most MTB's and hybrids, from most to least expensive, is XTR, Deore XT, Deore LX, Deore, Alivio, Acera-X, Nexave, and then some number-coded stuff. XTR is pure bling, while Nexave borders on junk. Acera-X is still just a bit dodgy, but everything from Alivio to Deore XT is worth what it costs. The corresponding series for road parts is Dura-Ace, Ultegra, 105, Tiagra, and Sora. (The latter is funny because it's Finnish for "gravel" which is one place you don't want to take a Sora-equipped bike.) However, Shimano doesn't make any really shoddy road parts; Sora is roughly at the level of Alivio or Acera-X, so there's not anything wrong with, say, a fitness bike that mixes Sora and Deore. However, beware of bikes with wildly different levels of components mixed together -- an Alivio-based bike can be nicely jazzed up with LX or XT shifters and rear derailer, but Acera-X or anything below it does not belong with Deore XT or LX. It can be a bit hard to detect cheap-outs, though, since there are plenty of manufacturers of perfectly good hubs, bottom brackets, cranksets, and brakes, and if you don't really know what to look for it might not be easy to see whether a hub is cheap junk or well in line with the rest of the bike. The TANSTAAFL principle is a pretty good guide for bikes too -- if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Okay, I got my bike. Now what?
Change the tires.
Seriously. Especially if it's a mountain bike, and most likely if it's a hybrid or trekker. Fitness bikes, road bikes, and touring bikes tend to come with pretty good to excellent tires installed. However, almost all mass-market mountain bikes are just about useless for anything when you take them out of the store. This is because they're not solid enough for off-road use, but they're too heavy for on-road use. Luckily this bit is easy and cheap to fix.
Just change the tires.
My commute/utility bike: a decent mass-market MTB I bought at a clearance sale. I replaced the knobbly tires with some one-inch slicks from Continental, added mud guards, and reversed the stem to give a deeper cycling posture. I picked a smaller frame than "ideal" for the same reason -- in this class of MTB, my size frame would have been too upright for my taste, whereas with this one there's just enough room to raise the seatpost and lower the handlebars to give a reasonably efficient posture that's still suitable for riding in traffic. These pretty simple changes turned a tractor into a pretty good ride -- and one with better components and therefore better feel and durability than a comparably priced hybrid or trekker. It also looks ordinary enough that with any luck the junkie will grab the fancier-looking one with the disk brake instead...
Most mountain bikes (and some trekkers, go figure) come with knobbly horrors sitting on the rims. They'll make the bike handle like a tractor, and sound like one too. Get rid of them. Buy slicks or semi-slicks instead. New tires turn a pretty lackluster mountain-bike into an excellent city bike. Nothing fancy, mind, but something that'll get you moving just fine. Factor in about 40 euros/dollars for a new pair of light, quality tires and, if necessary, inner tubes, and change them the minute you get home. Even better if you can get the shop to swap them for you. Knobbly tires are only useful for mud and sand; even serious mountain bikers cycling on hard tracks use semi-slicks instead. Mud tires are worse than useless on a MTB of this caliber, since it's not really tough enough to do all-terrain, and on roads they'll only make things worse. If you don't intend to go off-road, don't be shy about getting quite thin tires -- one-inch tires on a mountain bike are fine for city use.
I've used tires from Michelin, Hutchinson, Nokian, and Continental on various bikes I've owned. The only one that has failed to disappoint me even once is Continental, so nowadays I just stick with them. If they make bad tires, I haven't come across them yet. Conversely, I've never been happy with any set of Hutchinsons I've had.
Ironically, the one mission a cheapish mountain bike cannot be readily made to perform well is... mountain biking. Off-road cycling puts extreme stresses on a bike, and you're not likely to find one that's really suited for it under a grand or so. In particular, the suspension forks on cheap bikes can't take it. Upgrading a cheap bike to be genuinely useful for off-road isn't usually worth the trouble. However, the cheap mountain bike is quite easy to adapt for any number of other missions: with pretty small modifications, it can make an excellent urban commute or utility bike, fitness bike, or even touring bike. Swapping the knobbly tires for slicks and lowering the handlebars by 10 cm or more is the starting point for all mods.
- MTB to Fitness Bike
- The fitness bike should be light to pedal and fun to ride. Go with the narrowest slicks your rims will take -- typically around one inch. At least Hutchinson also makes slicks with a central ridge that supposedly decreases friction; I've tried them and didn't like them -- they did roll well, but made the bike distinctly wobbly when cornering, which is a trade-off I don't want to make. The best I've used are Continental Sport Contacts. Drop the handlebars as low as you can: turn the stem upside down, and remove all the shims you can from below it. Saw off a bit from the fork's vertical tube if you have to (or move one or two on top of the stem if you're lazy, but not so many that they tower will impale you if you take a spill). Replace the pedals with clipless locking pedals, and learn to ride with them. Strip down everything else you can. If you feel like modding more, swap your chainrings for something one size larger -- they'll give your long gears a bit more pull. If you want to mod even more, try to find a stiff, light front fork, and replace the cheap suspension fork with it. The result won't go quite as fast as a real fitness bike, but it'll be surprisingly close -- and cost a lot less.
- MTB to Utility Bike
- The utility bike should handle all kinds of weather, not be terribly attractive to thieves, and should get you from A to B with a minimum of fuss. So, start as above, but leave the chainwheels and pedals alone and perhaps leave a couple more shims under the stem for a slightly higher posture. Add mudguards and, if you like, a baggage rack. If you can find a way to attach a U-lock to the frame without having it get in the way, great. You may even want to add a stand that clips to the bottom of the rear triangle. If your pedals aren't much good, replace with studded "downhill" pedals -- they grip your sole well, you can ride them with any kind of shoes, and there's no delay in getting onto or off them. If your city is particularly lumpy or has particularly poor weather, you might want to use slightly wider semi-slicks instead of narrow slicks -- I used to have Continental Double Fighters on two of my MTB's, and liked them a lot (although they get a bit slippery when it's wet). What with the other stuff you've piled on it it won't be the fastest bike on the block, but it'll still be a much better ride than any "city bike," Dutch bike, or indeed stock mountain bike you'll find. Of course, leave off everything you don't need -- don't put on a rack if you don't need one.
- MTB to Touring Bike
- A touring bike must be able to haul big loads up hills even with a tired rider, must stop when told to stop, must not break down, and should let the rider change postures while riding: they're not built for speed as much as for endurance. Purpose-built touring bikes are much more expensive than you'd think, but if you're a serious tourer, you should probably look into one. However, inexpensive MTB's actually make for pretty good touring bikes: while they may not be quite strong enough for rock-hopping, they're plenty strong for hauling stuff over hardtop and dirt road, the ridiculously-short gears will actually become useful when hauling a full load of gear up a hill against the wind with a full day's cycling weighing down on you, and the brakes are good enough to stop a fully-loaded tourer going downhill too. Even the suspension fork comes into its own as it's good enough to smooth out bumps in the road, even if it can't really handle the rigors of a rocky path. Start by doing the same mods as for a fitness bike, including the pedals, but leave the gears alone -- you'll need the short ratios when going fully loaded up a hill. Add good mudguards and racks both in the back and the front (don't cheap out here!), a hub dynamo-driven headlight and red rear light, and reflectors. Finish up by adding a "triathlon" attachment to the handlebars: it'll let you switch postures as you spool away the miles.
Mudguards. The only thing more annoying than a bike with mudguards on a sunny day is a bike without them on a rainy one. If you intend to cycle in wet weather at all, get mudguards. Ideally, get nice, specially fitted ones that clamp onto the frame at at least three points, but failing that, "snap-on" mudguards are better than nothing.
Pedal clips or "clipless" locking pedals plus shoes. If you cycle a lot, they'll make your spinning smoother on the road and improve control over your bike in the city -- with no risk of your foot accidentally coming off the pedal, quick moves are a lot steadier. I by far prefer MTB-style pedals with recessed cleats; road-style pedals are much fussier to get into and out of, the shoes are almost impossible to walk in, and they don't have any benefits that I've noticed. Pedal clips are a better bet for utility bikes since you can ride them with any shoes. For reasonably short city trips, flat, spiked, grippy "downhill" pedals are excellent, but they might be a bit of an expensive upgrade for a utility bike.
Padded shorts and other cycling gear. While a few hundred kilometers in the saddle will get the job done too, they do make adjusting to the saddle less painful. Be very careful about choosing your underwear if you intend to do longer rides -- seams in the wrong places can chafe you raw. Other cycling gear -- jerseys, gloves, tights, and so on -- are highly functional and also worth considering, especially if you start racking up them miles. My Freddie Mercury tights, padded gloves, and polyester jersey saved my skin (not my life, just my skin) once when I took a moderately nasty spill on asphalt -- I got away with a few minor bruises, while regular clothes would definitely have meant a quite a lot of asphalt rash. Shame about the Freddy Mercury style, though -- I don't quite have the je-ne-sais-quoi to pull off that look very well.
Baggage racks. Plural, one for the back, one for the front. But only if you intend to go trekking; for short distances of urban utility cycling a backpack is much less of a hassle.
"Bike computer." Sort of like a fancy speedometer. It won't make you go any faster, but it's nice to know how much you're cycling and how fast you're doing it. I use Sigma-branded ones (nothing to do with the optics manufacturer, as far as I know.)
Lights, if you intend to cycle at night. Invest in a hub dynamo driven one if you ride at night a lot; otherwise a halogen lamp with batteries will get you out of trouble just fine. White light in front, steady red light in the back. Flashing red lights are no good; they actually make it more difficult to see how far you are, and don't draw the attention any better than regular ones.
MTB-style pedals on my other road bike. Let the purists scoff.
And that's about it, really. Don't burden your bike with stuff you don't actually need, it'll only weigh you down, break, and get in the way. Carry the U-lock in your backpack or messenger bag. Or if you find a way to attach it to the frame that (a) doesn't get in the way, (b) doesn't start flapping around when you hit a bump, and (c) won't break off, let me know what it is, since I haven't found one yet. I would also advise you against jollying up your bike with fancier parts -- parts are way more expensive when sold separately than when already attached to a bike, so don't upgrade after-market; find one with the stuff you want already on it. But if you insist, upgrade your rims.
Why rims? Because of rotating mass. You don't need to accelerate just yourself, but also expend energy on getting the wheels to turn. The lighter they are, the more quickly your bike will respond to your pedaling. This is one reason why swapping your heavy, knobbly tires for light, smooth ones will make such a difference. So don't cheap out on the tires, and if you really need to upgrade something, upgrade the rims. On cheapish bikes, the manufacturer has often cheaped out on the rims, too.
Thanks a bundle, I just crashed/got shin splints/ran off the road!
Your fault for not learning decent cycling technique. Get a book that describes the basics; John Forester's "Effective Cycling" is a pretty good if opinionated and slightly outdated tome on all aspects of cycling. However, in a very small nutshell:
Wear a helmet. Seriously. It can save your life or your brains.
Learn to brake properly. The front handbrake is your main brake. The rear brake is there in case the front brake fails, and for long descents when you want to avoid overheating. Learn to stop the bike quickly in a controlled fashion using only the front brake, even in a sudden situation. A few hours of practice will do wonders.
Spin, don't crank. Adjust the saddle so that if you sit on it your toes just reach the ground and your leg is almost but not quite extended at the bottom of the downstroke, with the ball of your foot on the pedal. Pedal pretty quickly, and follow the rotation of the pedals with both your feet instead of pushing down and doing nothing on the upstroke. (Clips help.) Your pedaling cadence should be at least 80 rotations per minute; if you can do 120, good for you. However, keep your shoulders and arms relaxed; you should not be bouncing up and down in the saddle, and your shoulders should stay perfectly level.
Take your place in traffic. It's almost always better to cycle among traffic than on so-called bike lanes even if they exist. In urban traffic, cycle well in the lane, so cars are forced to change lanes to overtake (which will happen less than you think, at the speeds urban traffic goes) -- otherwise you'll get caught between the cars and the curb which is not fun for anyone. Signal clearly what you intend to do, and respect the rules of the road -- you're not allowed to run a red light or jostle a pedestrian any more than motorized traffic. However, do get your cycling technique up to scratch before going into urban traffic -- if you can't handle sudden stops or other reactions to quick situations, don't go in there. Cycling on the open road is much less stressful since quite often there's a wide shoulder to cycle on, and if there's not, the road is wide enough for cars to be able to overtake you with room to spare. Just don't get surprised by the gust that hits you when a truck passes. Urban bike lanes are mostly a complete washout (other than in a few enlightened cities like Stockholm, Sweden, where they actually work) -- they're crawling with pedestrians, delivery vans, heaps of material for road work, dogs, debris, and just about everything else.
Wear a helmet. I mean it. This one saved my father's life, or at least his brains, which are quite useful even for someone working in academe.
The nice thing about bikes is that there's nothing in them that you can't do by yourself, if you're even slightly technically inclined. No power tools, welding, soldering, or other specialty skills are needed. You can even build your own from off-the-shelf parts, if you like, although it really doesn't make much sense unless you want to go for some high-end stuff... or unless you're scrounging for components off rejects. There are plenty of bike repair manuals available at fine bookshops everywhere, and the Internet is chock-full of information too.
Most bike adjustments are really easy to make. It took me about five minutes to reverse the stem and move a spacer up to give me a deeper riding posture. It does help to know what you're doing, though -- if you don't understand how the bearing here works, you won't be able to adjust it after doing the work.
However, if you just want to ride the damn thing, you might as well rely on bike repair shops to do the stuff for you. Even so, you're the one who needs to figure out when something's wrong, and do the extremely-basic maintenance to keep it ship-shape. Extremely-basic maintenance means:
Hosing it off when it gets muddy. A garden hose will get the job fine. Just hose the damn thing off from all sides, and you're done. If you're feeling picky, take a dishbrush and some hot water with detergent in it, and wash it before hosing. No need to avoid anything in particular; bikes don't mind getting wet as long as they're allowed to dry afterwards.
Keeping it lubed. This means spraying a liberal amount of thick grease on the chain every once in a while (yes, I said thick) and the cables where they go in the casings, and some thin oil everywhere else there are moving parts -- the derailers, the shifters, the hinges in the brakes. Modern hubs don't need to be serviced, like, ever, unless you notice something wrong (see below).
Keeping your tires inflated. Bicycle tires are small and fairly thin. This means they lose pressure fast. Top them up at least once every week or two; more often if you have very narrow tires. Get a decent full-size pump you can stand on the floor and that has a pressure gauge on it. Presta valves are nicer than Schrader valves (the kind that's on car tires).
Monitoring it. A bike that's properly lubed and adjusted will run smoothly, silently except for the tick-tick-tick of the freewheel, and the brakes will bite hard but quietly and with no scratching or squealing sounds. If it's making a noise, isn't shifting properly, isn't braking properly, or similar stuff, there's something wrong.
This one's probably beyond repair.
Common sense is pretty good at diagnosing bike problems. If you brakes are squealing, chances are there's something wrong with the, uh, brakes. A few common problems are:
Squealing brakes. This means the pads are crooked. Have them adjusted (or do it yourself).
Scratchy brakes. This means that there are bits of metal and/or rock embedded in the pads. Spring the brakes open, remove the wheel, and use a spike to dig them out. If the problem recurs, replace with better pads. I swear by Kool-Stop pads; I always buy them when my pads wear out.
Sloppy brakes. This means that either (a) your brake pads are wearing out, or (b) your brake cable has stretched. Check for (a), and if they look very worn, replace them. If (b), tighten up the cable from the screw on your brake handle, or if out of adjustment room, by loosening the nut that attaches to the brake and pulling the cable out a little. Or see above under "squealing brakes."
Poor shifting. Most often this just means that you need to lube your chain: it'll only shift if it's lubed also on the outside. That's why I say use thick spray-on grease on the chain. Yeah, your chain will turn black and look ugly, but it'll damn well work -- and the nice, shiny, clean chain that's been lubed with thin "Teflon lube" won't. Yeah, it may wear out just a bit sooner than if you regularly clean it in petrol, but if you've ridden enough to wear out your chain, you've damn well earned a new one.
Poor shifting after lubing chain. Assuming your gears were properly adjusted to start with (as they should be out of the store), it means your shifter cable has stretched. Tighten up by adjusting the screw that goes into your derailer.
Noises from hub. Remove wheel, grab axle with your fingers, spin. If it feels like there are pebbles inside, your bearings are wearing out. Have them replaced.
Slop when pedaling. Clunk-clunk. Your cranks are loose. Tighten them at once before they get damaged and you have to buy new ones. Most cranks can be tightened with a simple Allen key (although you need a special tool to remove them).
Rattle from wheel, and/or the brakes go whizz-whizz-whizz. Your rim is crooked, probably because your robot-built spokes have loosened up. Have them tightened and the wheel trued immediately; if you put it off, your rim will go permanently crooked and you'll break some spokes. (Personally, this is the bike maintenance chore I like the least, so although I do know how to do it, I often leave it to the pros who do it better.)
Fisherman's bike, Tyre, Lebanon. There is one thing to be said about Dutch bikes, at least the good ones: they last practically for ever.
Appendix: The Used Market
If you know what you're looking for, you might want to shop used. Bikes are durable. If they're not allowed to rust and not run over by a car, they'll last a long time. However, the used-bike market is at least as dodgy as the used-car market, perhaps more so given the role of bike theft in the drug culture. So, if you see a promising second-hand bike, give it some serious consideration. However, check:
The hubs. Grip the axle between your finger and thumb, and spin. A really good wheel should spin smooth as silk. Moderately good ones can have some slight roughness in the spin. But if it feels like there are pebbles in there instead of ball bearings, forget it and go with the next one.
Rust. A small amount of superficial rust is fine, but if the cables are rusty enough to have gone brown, you'll likely have to swap them, and it's possible that the hubs and other bearings in the bike need servicing due to moisture having penetrated them. In other words, probably not the trouble, unless it's a free-of-charge hand-me-down.
Wear on the sprockets. If they're worn enough to have become "hook-like," the bike has been ridden a lot, and you're very likely looking at changing the sprockets, chain, and cables at least. Again, worth it for a hand-me-down with a good frame, or an undamaged, high-quality classic steel-frame bike you can get for the cost of the frame, but that's about it. Avoid aluminum-frame bikes with worn sprockets -- aluminum fatigues, and while there's probably a lot of life in it yet, the frame isn't "good as new" by any stretch of the term.
The suspension fork. If it has one. I'd be rather leery of buying a used bike with a suspension fork anyway. Check that it works as advertised, that all the adjustments do what they're supposed to, and that there's no oil leaking out from anywhere (on higher-end, oil-damped forks).
The frame. Look for any dings bigger than simple marks on the paint. Check that the tubes all line up and the frame is symmetrical and straight -- a nasty spill or similar accident can ruin the geometry of a frame. Classic steel frames are the safest bet, and are really nice rides to boot. If the tubes are made by Columbus, give it extra consideration. Steel is forever unless allowed to rust or run over by a car, and while it's a bit heavier than aluminum (but not much, at any given quality point) the ride is very nice. Aluminum frames are fine as long as they haven't been ridden to death. Composites are rare to come across but can vary from good to excellent; just make sure they haven't been dinged up which can cause them to delaminate. Titanium frames are even rarer, and are about as durable as steel frames -- but there's a lot of spread in quality. So be careful.
Bicycle in lavender, Provence, France. This is a Kona Kilauea, my favorite MTB ever: no suspension, really good steel frame, excellent components. It goes up hills practically by itself, although without the suspension the going can get a bit rough at times. It's been through a lot, including the crash that resulted in the helmet shown above, and is still going strong. They don't make 'em like this anymore...
If you're looking to build a thief-proof utility bike, scrounge. Look for bikes that other people have abandoned (there are two in my office's parking garage right now, and I'm pretty sure that a couple of the ones in my home building's basement are abandons too). Or ask for hand-me-downs. If you have no bike at all, any bike that can be made to go again is better than nothing. On abandoned bikes, the tires will go first, the cables second. Most of the rest is probably salvageable. If you have the choice, try to find a rusty but originally high-quality steel-frame bike, and fix/adapt it up. MTB's can be treated as explained above, and road bikes can be converted into "fitness bikes" by swapping the curved handlebar with a straight one. To refurb an abandoned bike, be prepared to do some work, including truing the wheels and servicing the hubs, steering, and bottom bracket, and expect to have to replace the cables, tires, inner tubes, and possibly saddle. It's fun, though, and you'll end up with a surprisingly good ride that is virtually thief-proof.
I'm not sure that whoever salvaged this one was out to get the best ride possible... but it works, it looks kinda funky, and is unlikely to get stolen by some junkie looking for a fix.
Afterword: Cycling and photography
My liking of cycling and bicycles plays a significant part in my photography. Bikes feature in lots of my pictures. I don't particularly go out to look for them, but they tend to catch my eye and so end up in the photos. I also combine cycling and photography. Cycling is a great way to extend your photography opportunities, especially if you're into landscapes and such. You're a much more intimate part of the scenery than if you were looking at it from a car window, but you have the kind of mobility that you wouldn't have if you were on foot. Of course, you won't be able to haul as much gear as by car, but if you think ahead, you can get pretty far.
"Left Out." Bikes somehow crop up in my pictures even if they're not the main subject...
I usually take a compact camera with me on just any ol' ride, and occasionally even catch something worth shooting. A compact is easy, since I can just stick it in the saddle bag or the back pocket of my jersey. However, I'll often pack an SLR and a couple of lenses. In this case, I'll bring a small camera backpack -- I use a Lowepro MicroTrekker -- and pack the stuff there. I can even add a travel tripod on the side of the bag if needed. A monopod is pretty pointless, since the bike makes for excellent "improvised" support.
Bike photography. I usually do get out of the saddle to get the shot, though -- if I try to cycle and photograph simultaneously, both suffer. I have thought of taping a camera to the handlebars, though, and seeing what comes out...