Riding With An Action Camera On Your Bicycle

Background Reading


gopro-video-cyclingLike many “fads” riding on your bicycle with an action camera has become fashionable. The idea behind this is to record the license plate number of any vehicle that might strike you from behind while riding along the shoulder of the road. Or perhaps to allow you to capture images of a driver who pulls alongside you and tosses hot coffee (or worse) provided you have the foresight to be looking in his direction. And because these cameras can capture audio they make it easier to document verbal aggression when it occurs. But do they represent your best options? And more to the point how would you use one on a daily basis to protect yourself?

Any DrawBacks?

A good top of the line GoPro Hero 3+ can set you back about $400. With that cost comes a small trove of accessories including:

  • waterproof and weather resistant cases
  • adapters for mounting your camera to your helmet or handlebars
  • straps to place a camera on your body

So your first task at hand will be to sort out how you want to wear the camera. Will it be mounted to your helmet or worn on around your chest or back? And if you decide to wear it on the helmet will it point to the front or the rear? It is also possible with the chest harness assemblies to have it mounted on your chest (the preferred method) or you can turn it around to wear on the back.

I should mention too that there are handlebar mounts available that allow you to situate the camera upfront by your handlebar stem or even pointing rearward from your seat post. In every instance how you mount the camera will mean extra weight on your bike. And if you decide to mount it on your helmet that too will mean additional weight that you might feel in your neck. Nothing terrible mind you, but you should anticipate having to try it out before you either buy or determine (once bought) afterwards where to mount it. If you have a small body and a slender neck you might not like the helmet mount positions that are far forward.

The Video Usage Protocol

Lots of folks buy these cameras (or at least think they want to) before ever considering how they are to be used. These cameras are essentially movie cameras (at least that is the most obvious use for them). And they do a really nice job of creating a first person Point of View (POV) movie experience. The more dramatic your ride situation the better when it comes to enjoying the movie afterwards.

But when you are riding to work in traffic, do you really need to have a movie of your ride? Or more to the point will you be able to mount the camera on a Monday and ride every day of the week without a great deal of hassle? In a word, no. There are issues surrounding a camera like this that you might want to know before you buy.

The battery usage on a GoPro is relatively short. In movie mode you expect to get perhaps an hour and a half of video. Now if you have a problem with a motorist at some point in your ride, you will need to ensure that your battery is still working at that time otherwise you have been wearing a rather expensive bauble on our head for a few miles with nothing to show for it.

But how about finding that place on the video clip where he nearly hit you? Well that will involve having a laptop device with enough hard drive space to allow you to use some sort of video editing software to “scrub” through the the clip to find it. Then you may have to transfer that bit of video to a different file to use in either reporting him to the police or in court should you have lawsuit in mind.

GoPro does have a video utility (GoPro Studio) and so does your Apple Laptop (iMovie). Both require some expertise in learning to use it effectively. And of course there is the disk space I spoke about earlier. You will need lots of disk space to accommodate video editing.

The Time Lapse Usage Protocol

Memory Cards

Memory Cards

Okay, so you have some idea of the issues surrounding the use of the camera in video mode. There are other ways of effectively gathering a record of your automobile encounters. The next to discuss is “time lapse” image making. You can set up your GoPro to capture images at regular intervals until your battery is drained or you run out of card space. Oops! We did not consider cards yet did we?

Make a note to yourself to have me discuss memory cards later. These by the way are what pass as the recording media for video cameras these days. In the past it was tapes. Not anymore. Everyone is using memory cards. Some like the microSDHC cards are small. But some are half again as big and are really tiny.

Whatever size of card you use (GoPro uses the smaller of the two) it will have to be one that records quickly and has a high number of rewrites possible before it begins to fail. No memory card lasts forever. Eventually you will need to replace it with another one.

Okay, getting back to the “time lapse” approach. You could decide to take a snapshot of your surroundings every 0.5 seconds. That would pretty much insure that no matter when the automobile encounter occurred you would have pictures of it. Most cameras like the GoPro will let you stretch out the lag time between photos to as much as a full second or perhaps even more. Why would you want to use this approach? In a word convenience.

With time lapse you can open your trove of images in something like iPhoto and very quickly find the ones which show the license plate number of that dastardly motorist who “nearly hit” you. You can then insert this photo into the that angry email you place to dash off to the watch commander in your precinct so that he can give this motorist a ticket for his impertinence. And hey, should it turn out that you managed to capture an image of one of the squad cars park in “your bike lane“, well it just serves them right.

The battery usage during time lapse is a bit less than in full video mode as well. And more to the point is the fact that your hard drive memory requirements are reduced. This makes sense if you think about it. Assuming that you are taking videos which are “full frame” they are just like snapshots made “full frame” but the time lapse between them is quite short. After all most movies are made at a frame rate of nearly 30 frames per second. So by taking images even at 1 second intervals or even 60 second intervals you can capture all of the information you might need without all the hassle of scrubbing through video.

Video requires quite a lot of hard drive space for a not very long bit of video. And scrubbing through the video is time consuming. So you really need to think long and hard about your usage protocol to find something that you will not mind doing on a daily basis.

The Lazy Person’s Usage Protocol

I know, I know! You are not lazy. I’m talking about, some other person. Wink, wink!

But nevertheless, let’s entertain the idea of finding a lazy man’s approach together. What if we could sort of combine the time lapse idea with full video and whittle down the size of the video you might need to scrub and the time it takes to do the scrubbing so that you are always able to quickly identify the salient piece of video that you need to use against that nasty motorist!

Well there is the “loop mode” variety of video making. In this setting your camera will take video for say five minutes and then automatically overwrite the previous loop it took for the previous 5 minute segment. So on your video card you always have at most a five second length of video to scrub through. Sweet!

But this does have a bit of a catch. So let’s say you are riding along and you have a driver call your relationship with your sainted mother into question. You have the guys voice and his visage on the camera and you want to preserve this for as long as needed. Well old chum, you will probably want to pull over to the curb and remove the video card and insert a fresh one. That might take a minute or two (especially with the GoPro) since you will have to remove those mittens, find that extra card stuffed somewhere down in your pannier (under a ton of dry socks and skivvies) and after opening the waterproof case and removing your precious proof that you were wronged, you can then insert the new card and close everything back up and be on your way.

And you probably want to check that your battery level is sufficient for the rest of your trip to the office (or home). If it is too low then that second battery you had to buy will now have to be fished out and inserted before closing everything up. Whew! This so much fun, right?

More Good Stuff To Consider

When you get to your laptop you can now scrub through that short bit of video and find that nasty parts to use in court. Oh wait. What happens if the encounter with that car resulted in your being knocked unconscious? Well, there is the problem that during the collision you were knocked off your bike into the nearby woods and for some reason that expensive camera flew further back into the bushes.

When you are finally found (hopefully alive) they cart you off to the hospital and Officer Friendly or someone else carries your bike back to the impound area to await your retrieval. Meanwhile your camera (and that precious video card which would nail the bastard that hit you, assuming of course everything was working properly and the lighting was good enough, and …) is for the moment lost.

With my luck the neighborhood kids would be out tromping through the woods and find it and take it home to use to produce “selfies“. But in the course of things the incriminating video would get erased or otherwise reused to capture a reasonable likeness of the butts of three teenagers bent on “mooning” visitors to their FaceBook pages.

Hey, nobody said this would be easy!

The Nurse In The Recovery Ward

GoPro Hero 3 Face

GoPro Hero 3 Face

So between hits of morphine and blood letting you awake to see a nice nurse standing over you and you say to her, “where am I?” She smiles and tells you not to exert yourself and fluffs your pillow before turning out the lights to the room and leaving you in the dark silence. But your realize that calling out is not being to be easy because of the tubing they have shoved down your windpipe.

During the night you have a dream about something small and square that looks like it should be important to you. You peer at it blankly before realizing that it looks like a tiny camera. And then it dawns on you that you own one! Hurrah! You doze off and wake in the morning with another nurse by your side and she is taking your temperature and again fluffing your pillow.

You gesture for a writing pad and ask for a pen. She brings one and you write “GoPro“. Well actually it is illegible scrawl but you think it says “GoPro“. She thinks you are asking her name and smiles sweetly saying, “my name is Jennie“. She fluffs up your pillow and leaves again.

When you finally remember that each bed has a call button near it you ring and she returns. You gesture for the writing pad and this time you use block lettering to write “CAMERA“. As it turns out the volunteer organization that visits to cheer up the invalids is there and she walks into the hall and brings back a portly fellow with a point-and-shoot camera and he takes a picture of you. The flash is blinding and he promises to bring you a print the next time they return. Your eyes well up with tears. You need that camera that you paid $400 for and especially the little tiny card that you have inside it to identify the fellow that struck you and fled the scene.

Hit Rewind

The Narrative clip is a lightweight wearable camera, capable of shooting 5-megapixel images. You clip it to your lapel and it shoots two photos a minute. Jim Tuttle/NPR

The Narrative clip is a lightweight wearable camera, capable of shooting 5-megapixel images. You clip it to your lapel and it shoots two photos a minute.
Jim Tuttle/NPR

Now it might seem that this is an overly dramatic recounting of something that might never happen. But it could.

Isn’t there something that could do the job without all the fuss and bother? Well, there might be. It won’t capture sound so you won’t be able to hear that nasty guy besmirching your mother’s memory. But it will capture images every 30-seconds all day long. You can even wear it attached to your riding jersey or you winter coat. It clips to your clothing so you could wear it facing forwards or backwards. Sweet!

Now you remember it all. That nurse was wearing one of these and she mentioned it to her colleague. She thought you were cute and was glad that she had a photo of you.

You begin to wonder about how this might work. It takes singles only every 30 seconds. And you can offload the images. The battery life is quite good. And you see some of the images and realize that they are not half bad!

Tom Lemke, of Chicago, wears a helmet-mounted GoPro camera as he stops at Daley Plaza on his morning commute . 7:24 pm, February 24, 2014 MICHAEL TERCHA, CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Tom Lemke, of Chicago, wears a helmet-mounted GoPro camera as he stops at Daley Plaza on his morning commute .
7:24 pm, February 24, 2014

But will the guys you meet up with each Friday after work at the bicycle rider pub respect you for having something this small? After all these guys have helmets that are wickedly adorned with all manner of stuff.

Some have lights and action cameras and others have a laser beam capable of detecting where their heads (and thus their cameras) are pointed. Nope this simple device will get laughed out of the joint.

You settle back and continue to sip your pint of ale and listen to the conversations swirling around you. Life is good! You managed to live through a harrowing experience and despite the cast on your arm you can still ride your Divvy bike back and forth to work each day.

Yeah, your Mom keeps asking if you would not rather move back into your old room (at least until you heal) but you kiss her and say no. You need to keep riding because along with folks like the ones you see commuting each day, the world is eventually going to be saved by your collective efforts.

So as the gang is making its way back to their locked bikes you head off to the bus stop. On the way home you decide to pull out your iPhone and start a thread about your “brush with death” on the local “Whine and Jeez Club” Forum. You manage to get a good shot of your scar and the cast itself. You promise the gang that tomorrow you will ride to work early enough to make the photo-op that the local cycling advocacy group has arranged to kick off the spring riding season.

While you are busy pecking away into your iPhone a couple of toughs board the bus. These must be some of the Section 8 crowd that you have heard about on the forum. One guy called them “animals“. You instinctively reach for your wallet. Then you realize that they may have spotted the iPhone.

You stand up and quickly exit the bus at the next stop. You are eight blocks from home but you grimace and ignore the pain and the bitter cold. You just hope that they don’t double back looking for you. So another night in the Mean Streets of the City have passed. You kind of wonder if life here has been worth it in the long run.

Mom keeps talking about the girl next-door whom you dated in high school and she says that she asks about you all the time. But no one from your small town realizes how very important your mission is. Saving the world and making the streets green is something that people will remember long after your cast is removed and you are in a nursing home.

You smile and let yourself into your apartment door.