Friday, June 04, 2010

Picking the Right Bike, Part One

What kind of bike is best for commuting and running errands around Savannah? A bike is a bike is a bike, right? Aren't they all pretty much the same? You certainly might get that impression from reading sellers' vague descriptions of their bicycles for sale on Savannah Craiglist. An ad for an automobile written in a similar fashion would look like this:
Car is red in color with some black. Looks nice. Has gears. Just put air in tires. I haven't driven it too much. One of the breaks [sic] doesn't always work. Don't need it anymore so I am selling. E-mail to see photo. Location: Savannah. It's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests.

Try to picture this car in your head. My image is a 1991 Toyota station wagon. Yours could be a 1975 Pontiac Gran Prix. When asked what they drive, most people will tell you the make, model and year. But ask some people to describe their bicycles and they'll lapse into some sort of bicycular prosopagnosia. "I don't know, I think it's a Huffy? It's blue!"

The truth is not all bicycles are the same and some are better for commuting and utility cycling than others. Some brands and models are better than others. And when it comes to bikes, newer isn't always better. Make, model and year are details you need to know. And there's more. Bikes set up specifically to transport you and your stuff to work and around town, day or night, have features that are usually missing from bikes designed for purely recreational use.

Back when I stated this blog, I lamented the fact that it was nearly impossible to buy a bicycle equipped for commuting and daily transportation. Installation of aftermarket parts was almost always necessary. But that's all changed now. Almost every major bicycle manufacturer offers at least one such model, like the Trek Belleville above. Some offer complete lines. Today you should be able to walk into most of our local bike shops* and ride out on a proper commuting/utility bike.

Sometimes described as "urban bikes," they usually share some common characteristics that make them ideally suited for safe and comfortable daily use:

  • Rigid forks (No shocks or other sproingy things)
  • Fenders
  • Front and rear lights
  • Front and rear (or both) cargo racks
  • Wide but smooth (not knobby) tires
  • A single gear or limited number of gears
  • An upright riding position

"But I've seen bikes that have 124 gears," you say. "Don't I need all those cogs and chainrings?"

No. It's flat here and many people do just fine on single speed bikes. Others like three- or five-speed drive trains. Ten speeds is the absolute ceiling. Anything more than that is overkill.

"But I've seen bikes with springs or shocks on the seat, seat post, handlebar stem, and front and rear wheels," you say. "Won't I be uncomfortable on a bike without them?"

Unless your daily commute includes riding over River Street's cobblestones or you have spine or other joint problems, the answer is no. Rigid frame bikes are perfectly capable of navigating most of our streets. And there's more good news. Without all the shocks and springs to absorb your pedaling efforts, more of your energy is transmitted into moving the bike. I strongly recommend tires on the wider end of the spectrum. They'll cushion the ride a bit. But more importantly, street surfaces and other road features such as drainage grates can grab and hold narrow tires. The bike will stop moving but you won't. I like a tire that can roll over, not into these obstacles.

* I should note here that buying a bicycle from a bicycle shop is far and away a better idea than buying a bike from Walmart or K-Mart. I know, I know. They sell bikes for less than $100. Yes, Yes. I saw that bike at Target that has almost all of the things on the list above. But here's the thing: You get what you pay for in terms of product and service. The bikes at discount stores are generally made of the cheapest components and materials, then assembled by bored teenagers. Meanwhile, the least expensive bike on the sales floor at a reputable local bike shop will always be superior to anything you find in the sporting goods department or toy aisle at the big box. What's more, the professionals at the local bike shop will see that your bike is properly assembled and adjusted before you wheel it away. Finally, they will make sure you buy a bike that fits you. This is critically important and will be discussed in a future post.

Now you're asking, "What if I can't afford a brand new 'urban' bike?" Or maybe, "I already have a bike or know someone who will give me one. How can I tell if it is good candidate for conversion to commuting and transportational use?

We'll answer these questions in the next exciting installment.

1 comment:

Nicole said...

Sounds great, but what do I do with my bike when I'm not using it? I see many stripped bike corpses still chained up where their owners left them all around NYC. My apartment is too small to hold my bike, let alone two bikes for me an my boyfriend. What can we do about these issues?