Thursday, August 18, 2005

Utility bikes, off the rack?

While I was waiting my turn at the counter at the LBS yesterday, I wandered around the shop and looked at the bicycles on display. They could be divided into four categories: road bikes, mountain bikes, comfort bikes (I've included "beach cruisers" in this category) and children's bikes. I suppose there could be a fifth that includes recumbents, folding bicycles and other flavors that don't fit into the other four categories. But there weren't any of those on display at my local bike shop, which I believe to be fairly typical of most.

Another category not available for purchase: utility bikes. There were plenty of bicycles that could be used for recreational purposes, but none that were properly set up to serve as a person's primary or sole mode of transportation and cargo hauling. It's true that by modifying bicycles of the first three categories, with parts and accessories available at the store, a customer could create a utility cycle. However, there weren't any available "off the rack."

From my short tenure in the realm of utility cycling, I've learned that most people start with a road, mountain or comfort bike and repurpose it for utility cycling. And I must admit that fiddling with a bike, looking through bicycle accessory catalogs and fine-tuning my rig are appealing rituals of the UC cult. Yet it also occurs to me that the roll-your-own ethic of utility cycling may pose a barrier to potential converts. Some folks don't want to mess with all the details.

After all, when you pick out a new Toyota Camry on the lot, you don't then have to walk to another part of the dealership to select a trunk or order the headlights from third party vendor. I expect some potential utility cyclists would like to ride their purchases straight off the sales floor and to the grocery store. That's the way it works when you buy a car, right? You settle on the price, sign on the line and drive it off the lot.

If we want people to replace their cars with bikes, I think the buying experience should be similar. (Except for the price). I am aware of some manufacturers, such as Breezer, that are producing nearly complete utility bicycles. I suspect some high volume shops in larger communities are bundling bikes with accessories and displaying them this way. I hope this trickles down into more modest shops in smaller towns.

Meanwhile, in the background, operations like Xtracycle and Cleverchimp are really expanding the notion of what a bike can do. I think their products occupy the same place in the market today that early SUVs like the International Harvester Scout did in the early 1970s. They were specialized vehicles available to consumers who needed their particular capabilities, but not something people generally drove around town.

We all know the rest of the story. Today you don't need to go to a ranch or wilderness preserve to see the Scout's contemporary counterparts in action. Perhaps one day sport utility bikes (to borrow a term used by the Xtracycle people) will be as ubiquitous as SUVs are today. I look forward to walking into the local bike store and seeing Strokemonkey-equipped Xtracycles and other SUBs parked along models from the other categories.

After work today, I headed to the Jen Library to do a little research. Saw only one other cyclist on the way there, a dude on a beach cruiser weaving from one side of the street to the other as he slowly made his way. There were plenty of students' bicycles in the racks at the library, as usual. On the way home, near the corner of Habersham and Henry streets, I saw I gentleman stepping back to admire his beach cruiser, which was parked on the sidewalk. It had so many blinking red and blue lights on the back, it looked like a thin slice of a squad car. "Looks good," I said. "Alright now!" was his reply.


Jim said...

Great minds think alike. I did a blog on bike categories today, too. Different angle though.

snorty said...

There are a few other off-the-rack utility bikes besides the Breezer, but only the Novara Fusion is available here. In Europe, you can get a few different styles of utility bikes depending on your needs. That leaves us to create our own bikes here in the US. I took a touring bike and turned it into one. I added fenders, moustache bars, different cranks, a Brooks saddle, etc. The fun part of this process is getting the parts from various sources. The other thing I like is tinkering with the bike until it just seems right for me. The link is to the Randonee I converted into a commuter. It's great fun to ride, and much easier than my mountain bike on the road.

Anonymous said...

I was in my LBS again two days ago and overheard the owner saying to a customer how popular utility bikes are becoming.

By the way, my URL has changed. Same blog, just a new address. I'm now at