The Apocalypse Bicycle

It seems to be a perennial among humans, the tendency among some to expect the End Times. Whether it was mediaeval Europeans who prepared for a Biblical Armageddon at the first sight of an astronomical phenomenon, 19th-century religious sects busy expecting a Noah’s flood, cold-war survivalists with bunkers under the lawn, or modern-day preppers buying survival gear, we have a weakness for thinking that Time’s Up even when history shows us repeatedly that it isn’t. Popular culture has even told us that the post-apocalyptic world will be kinda cool, with Mad Max-style rusty-looking jacked-up muscle cars and Tina Turner belting out ballads, but the truth is likely to be a lot less attractive. Getting away from danger at faster than walking pace as a starving refugee would likely be a life-or-death struggle without the industrial supply chain that keeps our 21st-century luxury cars on the road, so something more practical would be called for.

[Don Scott] has written a paper describing an extremely straightforward solution to the problem of post-apocalyptic transport, which he calls the Apocalypse Bicycle. As you might expect it’s a two-wheeler, though it’s not the kind of machine on which you’d lead a break-away from the Tour de France peloton. Instead this is a bicycle pared down to its minimum,, without advanced materials and with everything chosen for durability and reliability. Bearings would have grease nipples, for instance, the chain would be completely enclosed for better retention of lubrication, and the wheels would be designed to have strips of salvaged tyre attached to them. Interestingly, the machine would also be designed not to attract attention, with muted matte colours, and no chrome. It occurs to us that many of the durability features of this machine are also those that appear on the rental bicycles owned by bike sharing companies that have been spread liberally on the streets of many cities.

You might wonder what use the idea might have, and why a prepper might consider one alongside their tins of survival rations. But it’s also worth considering that these machines have a real application in the here-and-now, rather than just an imagined one in an apocalyptic future. Many Hackaday readers are fortunate enough to live in countries unaffected by wars or natural disasters, but there are plenty of places today where an aid agency dropping in a load of these machines could save lives.

Apocalyptic cycling has featured little here. But we have brought you at least one bike made from wood.

66 thoughts on “The Apocalypse Bicycle

  1. This guy lost me at “solid rubber tires.” I regularly ride a loaded cargo bike through the city, not unlike the situations he envisions, and my Schwalbe Marathons haven’t failed me yet. Good old-fashioned “Mr. Tuffy” tire liners work pretty well, too.

    1. it’s a hard compromise to accept but if you don’t have a limitless supply of fresh inner tubes for $2 at the local shop then solid tires start to look more attractive. i have had bikes go years without a flat but it always eventually happens. heck, tires themselves rarely last 5 years.

        1. Read “The Hiding Place” by Corrie Ten Boom. There is a description in that story about bicycles in apocalyptic Germany during WW2. Think riding on rims. They didn’t even have a source of solid rubber and what became the main reason not to just ride on rims, was noise.

        2. I’ve kept a patch kit with me all the time, but often discover that the rubber solution dries up after the first time I use it. Check yours; you might be in for a nasty surprise if you’re out of town when the inevitable puncture comes.

      1. Too bad the “solid tires” can’t be engineered to have an internal air cavity built in. Maybe a 1.5″ in diameter cavity to provide the cusioning ride of an innertube type tire. It would be combined with the thickness of a solid tire on the tread side. Best of both worlds

        1. Off road motorcycles (enduro, harescrambles, ISDE) will use a mousse (?) which is a foamed tube to put inside the tire instead of an inner tube. They can’t take lots of heat/speed. I’ve also heard of someone trying tennis balls inside instead. I think it got made into a product

        2. The Apocalypse Bicycle design includes a sprung seat and stem, to soften the ride. Also, the provision to bolt strips of old tire onto the rims would be really important in badly degraded environments.

    2. There are self-skinned foam replacements for inner tubes available for many common bike tire sizes. Of course they weigh more and rolling resistance is higher, ride is rougher. But they never go flat.

      1. I think one can patch tubes with bits from old tubes. But I am not sure about the glue, it’s an limited support, so it have to be organic. Maybe use the goo from tree?

        The article has a big flaw, it doesn’t account for peoples creativity in a apocalypse.
        Eventually people will learn to vulcanize by themselves to repair tires, it’s not so difficult as one would like to think, so some may figure a way to make tires to earn “money”.

        There’s already a well proven place for these issues: Cuba.
        They had to develop their own solution for supplies. And it’s still a lot of old bicycles (and cars) there.

        Seriosly, cannot American think beyond of your own country?

        1. Get off your stoned horse. While many of us certainly are Americans what does that possibly have to do with anything? This is HaD most of us have seen the YouTube videos of people in South American and Asia patching tires using galvanized rubber. Some of us might have tried it. What makes you think any of us aren’t aware? Did someone say its impossible?

          The reason that option isn’t remotely practical for a “survivalist bike” is because it requires special tools and materials. Namely a lot of heat a piece of metal (maybe a few) and whatever that wonderful goop is made of. However if your running from a hoard of slavers or rapists you won’t have time to patch a tire. Us silly “Americans” might not patch our tires the see way but that doesn’t mean were unaware it just means we’d rather buy a kit and carry it with us then don’t the hard (better) way.

          Your coming off as Xenophobic or Nationalistic that helps no one in the HaD community. I’m an American but I’d gladly discuss and share knowledge with my ideological enemy’s that’s what makes is hackers. (Screw China)

    3. I did a 4 hr/day highway and in city commute in a developing nation with civil conflict issues for three years. The Schwable marathon only surrendered to nail puncture tube damage twice both times without ruing the Kevlar weave; but the bead is always a 20 min of hell to get back on and damn they are pricey. Still the best damn road bicycle tires I have ever used and the wear rate is incredible probably at least 3-5x better without counting the resistance to road hazard destruction compared to any other tire I have ever used.

    4. If you have never once had to stop at a shop to have air put in (or had your schedule delayed for a stop worth the hand pump) then more power to you. For the rest of us living in the really really world, this is a problem which solid tires can definitely solve.

    5. 30 years ago I had solid tyres on my “mountain bike”. was the company.

      The tread was like an octopus arm looking like lots of suckers.
      I used to as a kid of course slide the rear tyre all over the place.
      That bike took a lot of abuse bearing in mind i was also doing 3 paper rounds to give myself an income, and much riding of bikes back then.

      I still had the bike and the tyre a few years ago.
      Given some 25yrs had passed since new it was still ok to ride on.

  2. I think this type of a bicycle would be perfect for people that are homeless. Durable, long lasting, low maintenance, and easy to source parts for.
    A standard method for attaching an electric motor would be nice. Either to use for assisted pedaling or for use as a generator.

    1. Most places I have worked(fire/paramedic ret) the police destroy property like tents and bicycles with a few knife slashes before waking and moving on homeless people in areas they are not permitted so it cant be kept and then can be thrown out rather than moved along with the person.

        1. Here in the US, cops can straight up MURDER people and the worse punishment they get is fired (and then hired at a different police department). Destroying a homeless person’s belongings isn’t even going to earn a verbal reprimand.

          1. BastetFurry: you cannot have a proper “outcry” against the police in a police state, they’d get beaten and dispersed, without any media coverage, a pointless activity.

    2. Why would the homeless need bicycles? Maybe they do, or some do, but it’s just something else to worry about. They may need to travel at times, but I think they try to stay in the same area. Of course, if they are panhandling they may make enough so bypass travel is okay, but not every panhandler is homeless, and not every homeless person panhandles. But if you have bad shoes, can’t keep clean and are forced to keep moving a lot, moving around a lot is a liability. A bicycle might give more range, but it implies there’s a reason to always be going across town.

      My friend Helen, who was homeless, tried very hard to not “look homeless”. So she didn’t carry things around, and unless she really needed a bike, it was just one more thing she’d have to worry about. She didn’t panhandle, she didn’t collect cans, she didn’t have a shopping cart of belongings. She did have hiding places for some things she wanted to keep.

      You can’t help people until you first listen to them. There are lots of stereotypes about the homeless, and thus lots of solutions to impose upon them, but people need to listen to them. They don’t want to be homeless, maybe a few exceptions, but staying in a shelter may not be what they want. For most, they’ve lost everything, which makes it so hard to “come back”. But if all they see is institution, that’s probably not what they want either. They need to be seen as people first, not some “problem” to get off the sidewalks.


      1. There’s also a habit of stereotyping them all as a singular ‘style’, with identical problems and identical solutions. Or trivialising things that can be life-changing as luxuries that we don’t think homeless people should have.

        I have a sibling who’s always between the streets and squats. More often than not he knows where he’s staying tonight, but perhaps not tomorrow night. Whenever it comes to helping him out, the priorities are always making sure he has shoes, socks, and a smartphone.

        Shoes & socks because they wear out fast. A smartphone because it helps him find work, it helps him access government services, and it helps him keep in touch with friends & family who can always help. If you can’t contact your support network, you have no support network. If they can’t reach you, they can’t send you anything.

        I constantly read of people thinking this is some kind of luxury that homeless people don’t deserve. But being that any work he finds is incredibly casual (here today, gone tomorrow, 2 hours here, 2 hours there), he needs to be able to find out work’s available ASAP, accept it ASAP, and get there ASAP. It’s the difference between spending his sunday morning earning a bit of cash to help put up market stalls, or spending his sunday panhandling. We’d rather see “them” working than panhandling, but seem to believe the kinda of employment open to them sends emails scheduling tasks a week ahead, with plenty of time for his next visit to a library to respond.

        Now, I’m not sure bicycles would particularly help him. Everything he owns is stolen constantly, so I can’t see why a bicycle would be any different. But for someone else, if a bicycle means they can find work further afield, it could be hugely significant. Homelessness isn’t camping – they have needs beyond sleep & food.

        1. I’m sure there are many reason for being homeless, and there is no single solution to deal with it. Don’t really understand how family and ‘friends’, can’t or won’t, help them get back on their feet. A lot of the ones I’ve known, are living on the street, from their own bad choices, but never admit it, they’re the victim, not responsible. I think responsibility is the key point, they don’t want to be responsible adults, punch the time clock every day, pay the bills, buy the groceries. It’s a lot of work and stress, then you have to balance in some fun and enjoyment into the budget. Credit was/is easy to get, and easy to use badly, if you lack responsibility, (been debt free for 12 years, might credit score might suck, and I’ll suffer a little if I ever need a loan). Lot of people wanted more house than the could afford, or that new car experience, where their income and savings could support it. Then there are the drugs, alcohol, and criminal acts, that sort of limit full time employment prospects. Sex offenders are often homeless around here, personally, believe they should still be locked up. Their are restrictions on how close they reside near children, even if their crime didn’t involve children. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement maintains a very detail sex offender tracker on their website. Most sex offenders aren’t welcome, and neighbors aren’t shy about expressing their thoughts.
          I don’t know how to handle the homeless problem, but I have a hunch a good portion are hiding from something in their past. A regular job, would bring attention, and eventual they would have to face the same problem, they ran from. They start paying taxes, the debt collectors would soon be calling. Legal problems would soon be discovered as well. I know just handing out the freebies isn’t helping, since once you have everything you need, no reason to change. Usually the entitlements are quite generous, and fairly easy to convert the surplus to cash. Got a hunch quite a few of those ‘Homeless bikes’, would be sold or traded, though they would say stollen, for pity, and maybe a shiny new one to sell.
          Plenty of resources, and places for the homeless to get help, and not just a handout. If they want to get off the street living, they have the operatunity, and some do. Just seems like most just show up for the free stuff.

        2. “A smartphone because it helps him find work, it helps him access government services, and it helps him keep in touch with friends & family who can always help. If you can’t contact your support network, you have no support network. If they can’t reach you, they can’t send you anything.”

          Something to keep in mind next time a “mobile internet isn’t good enough” debate springs up. Especially as we try to populate the rural areas.

      2. Hereabouts (Edmonton, Alberta) lots of very poor folk use bicycles, bicycles with trailers, or shopping carts to pick bottles, or to try to hold onto their meager possessions.

  3. My father (’27-’92,) said bikes in his day had chains which were removed, and as needed, coiled in a tin of grease which was melted on a stove, then hung overnight to drip back into the can. The AB should have a minimalist toolkit, such as 60’s Honda mc’s had. They did “everything.” Socket were driven via a handle-less screwdriver shank. A grease or oil can should be a piece of this AB. Horse shoes wear out nails. Long riders carried a few spare nails and had a pistol butt. Solid tire pieces will wear out a bolt in 10 or 20 country miles.

    1. Some guys use melted paraffin wax to lubricate the chain. The method is similar to yours: put wax in tin, heat over stove, put chain in, let it soak, then take it out before the wax hardens. :P

      1. “Boiling the chain” was common practice before O-ring sealed motorcycle chains were available. There are kits consisting of a can of hard grease which you put on the stove. When it melts, you coil up the chain in it an leave it in for ten minutes, before you let it drip off.

  4. Ditch the chain for shaft drive. All the Nike Town bikes in Portland have that instead of chains. And in reality you dont need grease zerks on the bearings. Most bikes are lubricated once in their lives and thats enough.

    1. when i worked as a bike mechanic i almost never threw out dead bearings because most of them could be refurbished with minimal effort. the ones that couldnt be fixed were usually from the lower quality bikes.

      1. And I used to do maintenance on machine tools. Really the only time you see bearings actually go bad is from overloading which would be basically impossible on a bicycle or contamination. So maybe if you are riding up to your axles in water you might have an issue but at that point a grease zerk is not going to help much.

        1. The typical overloading situation on bicycle is riding over a curb too fast, giving a sudden impulse that pits the bearing races a bit. I guess flushing out the metal particles by adding more grease might help some, but just overrating the bearings enough might be more effective.

    2. Chains are really standard items, shaft drives are pretty weird still. Also, try changing the ratios with a shaft. I’ve torn down my higher end bikes, and they did need it, even though the ride was still good and there was no noise coming from the hubs. On the other hand, it is really easy to oil a hub that isn’t sealed right in.

  5. I would think a three or four wheel design would be more practical, since we are looking at basic transportation, which would include carrying more than the rider. You wouldn’t be out racing around, just having fun, or just for exercise. You’d be out looking for food and supplies. Likely needing to carry some tools and other gear, maybe some weapons. Two wheels are fine on smooth, even roads, but a lot more work on rough or unpaved roads. Yeah, lots of people ride off roads, through wooded areas, great fun, take a spill now and then, no big deal, great exercise. But if a bicycle is for transportation, and a step up from walking, something more stable, and heavier load capacity would be much more practical over speed an agility.

    Our current doomsday prediction, is Global Warming. Wonder how well rubber tires will hold up on hot pavement anyway, but then again there probably won’t be anymore rubber trees before it gets that hot anyway. The tires are consumable anyway, they won’t last years. under daily use, rough road conditions. The heat and humidity of the warmer climate really does a number on rubber and plastics. I know from experience, live in Florida. I’d look for an alternative tire material, something that can be found and formed as needed. If you could just stop by the local bike shop, Walmart, or order online, you probably would need this sort of bike in the first place, since you have the cash, and the sources to get whatever you want.

    1. maybe throw on mounting brackets so that 2 bikes could be linked up side by side. stick a ball joint on the handlebar, so that the steering could be tied together. maybe even have a power transfer sprocket to tie the drive chains together (and also serve as a pto so you can use it for various pedal powered mechanisms, just pedal in reverse to avoid engaging the freewheel mechanism).

      1. The power transfer sprocket is an unnecessary complication (adds weight, violates KISS principle). The mounting bracket sounds like a good idea, but unless it can be used to carry loads, it’s not as useful as a sidecar.

    2. “Our current doomsday prediction, is Global Warming. Wonder how well rubber tires will hold up on hot pavement anyway, but then again there probably won’t be anymore rubber trees before it gets that hot anyway. ”

      Tires will be popping like popcorn then.

  6. You want an apocalyptic bike? Just buy an old British roadster.

    I have just done a 150km ride on a 70 year old bike, and 30km of the ride was on very rough tracks used for The Highland Trail 550 .

    No need to reinvent the wheel as they say. :)

  7. The first few bikes were just wooden wheels with wooden spokes assembled as basically a board with a seat propelled by pushing against the ground with your feet and lots of cooking fat to lube the wooden axles. I’ve no idea where you’re going to get these chains and sprockets from, that’s pretty highly evolved metal work and anybody capable of it is going to be rather busy with daggers, swords, horseshoes, and the like.

  8. “we have a weakness for thinking that Time’s Up even when history shows us repeatedly that it isn’t”
    Except for large chunks of the world; CAR, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, …

  9. Bowden cables would be first to go. I notice from videos etc. in the poorer parts of the world, brakes seem to be some kind linkage based instead of cabled. Those cheap bikes from Walmart always die and hit the stream when un-greased cables rust at the sump and seize or break. I notice that those new rental bikes sit out in the rain and have long cables with the valley in the middle. I wonder what their service record will be.

  10. Regarding punctures and air tubes – when I wore out a tyre from too much skidding as a child – I cut off its sides and used the remains as an inner layer on a replacement tyre – subsequently never had any problems with punctures while in Africa.

    1. In my region most lyres have a Kevlar or similar layer in them to prevent puncture.
      That does raise the price slightly, but it pays itself back in less repairs and in frustration prevention.
      Oh and anger prevention because every weekend the assholes come out of the woodwork to get drunk and then purposefully throw glass on key bicycle path crossings. (I think it’s the drunk ones, and hope they at least have that vague excuse).

  11. For a dutchman, this paper is just pathetic. He describes a dutch bike from the 1930’s and with wooden tires from the ’40. Just a month ago i was riding a very heavy duty transportfiets with the grease nipples, 2″ wide rims and a thicker chain than usual. It was build in 1938 and only needed a new chain and tires when i got it. Unfortunately it was stolen :( now i drive a flimsy. ’70 bike. Oh and reverse pedal braking is very common around here as they need virtually no maintenance. Of course we don’t have real mountains here…

    1. There are other important aspects to the Apocalypse Bicycle design. Unisex frame, child standing platform, smaller wheels, strong racks, the ability to manually reconfigure the gear ratios. Nothing about it is heckishly original bit by bit, but the whole thing together is pretty different from more traditional designs.

  12. What I find interesting that I once not too long ago they had an item on TV where they were giving some people in Africa bicycles, and the interesting part is how quick the people, including adults, learned to ride them.
    Odd since in other region it’s not only hard to convince adults to start using bicycles but it takes quite some time before they are stable cyclists. Whereas in that African country (can’t recall which one) people were happy and proficient in virtually no time, minutes or seconds. And they did not have the best roads mind you, mostly dirt roads.

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