Versatility

Jack of Many Trades

The diversity of specialized bikes available today may be greater than at any other time in history. Just think, you can go out today and purchase a cargo bike to carry 400 lbs., a folding bike that’s small enough to fit in the trunk of a sub-compact car, or a fully-suspended mountain bike to blast down a dirt road at over 40 miles per hour.

Bikes such as those listed above are highly specialized, while others are designed to be used for a wider variety of purposes. These jack-of-all-trades bikes have been somewhat pushed aside by specialized machines over the past couple of decades, but with a growing interest in using bikes for utility and transportation, versatile bikes are making a big comeback.

Every bike, even those that are designed for a narrow use, can be ridden in at least a small range of circumstances outside of its comfort zone. For example, a fair number of people use their racing bikes for commuting, and while these bikes don’t have facility for hauling cargo, riders work around the limitations of their bikes by using backpacks and messenger bags. And while a mountain bike may not be ideal for road riding, I’ve seen plenty of people ride long distances on the road on mountain bikes outfitted with street tires.

We tend to like bikes that are designed from the start with versatility in mind. Sure, we have specialized bikes like folders, and they’re wonderful for solving very specific problems, but our everyday, go-to bikes are those that help us accomplish a variety of tasks with minimal effort.

A bike that fits our personal conception of “versatile” will, at minimum:

  • be able to haul a week’s worth of groceries for one;
  • roll well enough to cover 30+ miles on the road with minimal effort;
  • handle well on a dirt path;
  • fit standard bike facilities such as bus racks and bike lockers;
  • have sufficiently wide gearing within a range that’s suitable for local terrain; and
  • be set-up to handle changing weather and lighting conditions.

Each person’s list is going to be different depending upon their needs, but the wider the range of tasks any one bike can help a person accomplish, the more it’s likely to be used for everyday utility and transportation, and the more satisfying it’s likely to be to the utility/transpo bicyclist.

27 Responses to “Versatility”

  • Moopheus says:

    So far, I’m finding my new Jamis (Aurora elite) to fit this description pretty well. I’ll let you know how it handles different weather conditions in January.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    For me, a bike’s versatility is inherently limited by its saddle and handlebar position. If it is an upright bike, I can use it for transportation in the city and for hauling things, but not for long-distance rides or touring, as my hands grow numb. If it is a bike with drop bars, I can use it for long distance rides and for loaded touring – but not for transportation in the city, as I find it uncomfortable to constantly stop and start in a leaned over position. So that is the main determinant of versatility for me, and I can never commute on a bike with drop bars or take very long trips on an upright bike.

  • Sharper says:

    Slap some fenders on my twelve year old Specialized HardRock to go along with the swept-back cruiser bars and narrower tires I put on and the comfortable saddle I’m still looking for (anyone selling a b72 or b17 cheap?), and my indestructible all-purpose bike will be six for six…

  • voyage says:

    Cycling makes me think of Venn Diagrams, you know: when we were little school children…

  • James says:

    I have a 20 year old Gary Fisher Tiburon (suspension fork/seat post hybrid), Planet Bike fenders, VO Porteur bars/Porteur front/rear racks, Cats Eye/Planet Bike Blaze 2w lights, 35mm front/32mm rear street tires, Brooks B17, and Felt Backpedal platforms ($2 from a swap meet). Some pretty faces came and went, but this one just keeps on truckin’. A slam dunk 6×6 Frankenstein.

  • Doug R. says:

    I just need to add carrying racks to my Sam Hill, and I think I am all the “versatile” I need to be?

    I do however, commute on a great little Giant “Rapid” compact roadie. I use a back pack with it to go to work etc. The river duties require suspension for adventure etc. I use a variety of mountains: Gary fishers to Scott carbons, so there is the dilemma for me, not one bike really fits all my needs? (I am a bike aoholic though). LOL!

  • Erich Zechar says:

    The more I ride different kinds of bikes, the less inclined I am to agree with you about the definition of versatile bikes. In my experience, every single bike I’ve ever owned other than a full-on race bike fits the above definition of a versatile bike – just add a rear rack. I own a wide range of bikes and each one is better at doing one thing than the others – cruising, road riding, or off-roading – but each of them can do all the tasks you’ve outlined above with ease, and so can just about any bike you’ll buy at a bike shop.
    I understand the appeal of the Sam Hillborne and country bikes, as these can do your errands and take you on a long tour too, but bikes like the Loring and other “errand” bikes strike me as the opposite of versatile. As good as they are at hauling groceries, they don’t seem practical for much else. Might as well go whole-hog and get a truly specialized bike like a big Dummy or a Bakfiets.

  • Alan says:

    @Erich

    “The more I ride different kinds of bikes, the less inclined I am to agree with you about the definition of versatile bikes. In my experience, every single bike I’ve ever owned other than a full-on race bike fits the above definition of a versatile bike – just add a rear rack.”

    It sounds to me as if you made informed choices and were fortunate to own a number of versatile bikes – congrats! :-) I see many people commuting on full-on carbon race bikes, suspended mountain bikes, beach cruisers, and track bikes, none of which meet the criteria I laid out in the OP.

    “…but bikes like the Loring and other “errand” bikes strike me as the opposite of versatile. As good as they are at hauling groceries, they don’t seem practical for much else. Might as well go whole-hog and get a truly specialized bike like a big Dummy or a Bakfiets”

    I’ve ridden Big Dummys and box bikes, and I have a cargo bike in the house right now, but I find them unsatisfying to ride (heavy and cumbersome; the bicycle equivalent of a motorhome or semi truck) and really only ideal for one thing: carrying massive loads. Since I only carry massive loads about once every three years, I find them to be pretty much dust collectors in my house. Much more versatile, useful, and satisfying for my needs is a bike like the Loring that has more-than-adequate (for me) carrying capacity because of the front and rear cargo racks, while also being nimble and maneuverable enough to enjoy on a 20 mile jaunt across town and back, while also being sized appropriately to fit on a bus or train rack in case I wander too far and need a little help getting home… :-)

    Differing needs, differing solutions…

    Alan

  • James says:

    I posted about my Fisher hybrid bike above. Just to confirm the distance issue, I took what turned into a leisurely 37 mile ride this lovely Sunday morning. The group rides were out in force, everyone done up in spandex and carbon being de rigueur..(I suspect they were riding in support of Lance).

    But as I relaxed my way along, I noticed the cafe’s had a considerable number of riders sitting around, talking about it. I stopped for water once or twice, and when I had a word, I heard this was an “easy” day, 22 miles, and 60-80 were more the norm, but on a semi regular basis. When I said I use my bike in place of a car this time of year, I got funny looks, and, “Yeah, where you live, it’s good for that.”

    So I pedaled my way off toward home, and left them to their own devices. I am reminded of The Tortoise and The Hare, but the fact is they didn’t do anything today I didn’t do more of, and I’m not so sure my overall milage isn’t as much as theirs. So much for high tech.

  • Cal M. says:

    My Rivendell Saluki with fenders, racks and basket meets your definition. I also have and had two other bikes that are all purpose. My Surley Lht with 2.2 inch schwalbes, fenders and racks and my cannondale mountain bike when it had rack and fenders for winter roads. All great bikes! The rivendell with 650b pari motos is my favorite.

  • Sharper says:

    Addendum:
    To get to a party last night 6 miles away from my apartment, I took the Raleigh Competition I use as my commuter. Within a minute of my arrival, another bicyclist rolled in, and we started talking about bicycles and riding, including how we’d stopped on the way to bring some beverages.

    If you want to summarize the original post, try the quote that came up during that chat:

    I like bikes that let me bring a six-pack home from anywhere.

  • Brian C says:

    I find I am no longer fascinated by the latest creation for the wanna-be Lance crowd. All of the bikes I own have racks – the absence of this would mean it is not versatile enough to meet my criteria.

    I do love having a range of appropriate steeds – light and fast for longer rides, sturdier with good racks for more utilitarian purposes. And a trailer for stuff that will not fit on the bike (which I can tow behind my touring bike, my utility bike or the recumbent trike we have).

  • dynaryder says:

    My ’06 Novara Safari hits all your minimum points above. It’s plenty fast with Marathon Supremes,and with studded tires it got me through DC’s Snowpocalyse. It’s been my daily commuter,grocery hauler,and even survived a few months of being beaten around the polo court.

  • kanishka says:

    i feel like defending folders for being lumped in specialized. my goals for a bike are versatility, utility as you, and i started out using an old road bike for such a purpose. but as i realized that my bike was stopping me from taking regional buses and trains, i decided folding was a must have criteria.

    * be able to haul a week’s worth of groceries for one;
    -folders actually can accomdate more luggage around the frame with distance between seatpost and tire, of course trailers are bike agnostic as well.

    * roll well enough to cover 30+ miles on the road with minimal effort;
    -easily met by some within folding models

    * handle well on a dirt path;
    -very limited in folding community. i don’t think i’ve ever found myself saying i would rather take a dirt path to my destination than the parallel road, so i don’t include this in my versatility criteria

    * fit standard bike facilities such as bus racks and bike lockers;
    -16″ fit with most (if not, just fold), 20″ fit with everything.

    * have sufficiently wide gearing within a range that’s suitable for local terrain; and
    -majority of folders meet this criteria

    * be set-up to handle changing weather and lighting conditions.
    -can easily adapt any bike to meet this. more an accessorizing issue

    i would add: be able to throw in your or your friend’s car to the list. but if you have ridden a variety of 20″ and 16″ and find them generally rolling a little slower than your regular sized bikes, then i’ll take the categorization as “specialized” as valid

  • Mike says:

    It is so nice to see such versatility coming from both big and small bicycle companies. Unfortunately, I’ve still been having a hard time finding the perfect bike/frame that is versatile enough for me: steel frame, disc brake compatible, rack/fender mounts, 700c wheels, track-style dropouts. The Civia Bryant absolutely nailed all of these things, but the frame isn’t cheap and the paint and color weren’t my preference.

    What do I see this morning, but Civia’s 2011 catalog with a new model called the Kingfield, which looks like a Bryant with what appears to be a permanent dropout rather than the switchable one. It even looks like the paint may be powdercoat, which I think is ideal for everyday use. So I could run a fixed gear setup, or switch to an Alfine hub, run fenders and front and rear racks, and still have a speedy ride.

    Perfect.

  • Mike says:

    I should add that I have no idea how much the frame will cost, which may ding the proclamation of “perfect”.

  • Scott says:

    Hi Mike,

    You’re one of the first to see our upcoming catalog. I’m actually a little curious how it got routed to you. Regardless, you’re pretty close in your assessment of the Kingfield.

    We’re still working on final details leading into production. Pricing isn’t finalized, but it will be less than the Bryant, continuing on with the theme of flagship model and price point variant.

    Hyland -> Linden
    Loring -> Midtown
    Bryant -> Kingfield and Prospect

  • Scott says:

    Hmm, that explains it… I see we put our 2011 catalog on our site a little early.

  • Alan says:

    @Scott

    Aw shucks, I wanted to see it before you removed it… :-) (I didn’t know it was there until you mentioned it).

    Alan

  • Scott says:

    Soon enough, Alan. Soon enough. :)

    We’re introducing it to our dealers in the next week and the general public shortly after that.

  • Dave Kee says:

    Lovely Bicycle! says:
    … but not for long-distance rides or touring, as my hands grow numb.
    And: … but not for transportation in the city, as I find it uncomfortable to constantly stop and start in a leaned over position.

    Lovely Bicycle: There is probably a recumbent bike out there for you, or at least a crank forward. You don’t have to be uncomfortable on a bike.

  • Mike says:

    Ah, whoops. Well the new stuff looks really cool (I won’t say anything else!).

  • Pete says:

    Mike-
    Not sure how you are ever going to find a more versatile frame than the Bryant. Given all it can do, and some of the really nice details it has, the price hardly seems excessive. I was “this” close to buying one when I decided to bite the bullet and spring for a Sam Hillborne instead. Even still, the Sam won’t do discs or allow you to run a belt.
    Maybe you are asking a bit much for bike to do everything, AND be cheap! :)

  • Matt says:

    Mike (or Scott),

    I know you have taken a vow of silence…but…is a shimano afline 11 speed in the lineup for the 2011 Bryant? Front Dyno Hub?

    Anyone know if the Surly Nice racks fit on the Bryant?

    Thanks

  • Scott says:

    Hi Matt,

    The Alfine 11 question has surpassed “when are you guys doing a Hyland belt drive” as our #1 question…

    So, in response, no. It’s not on the Bryant. Let me qualify that. We want it on the Bryant. Shimano just won’t support a drop bar shifter for it. I’ve asked them point blank for one and their response is “I’d personally like one, but unless we can sell 10,000 of them, it’s a no go”. We’re looking at it for other models until someone can get a drop bar shifter done for it.

    Related, I just received a sample of an Alfine 11 set.

    It’s cool. It’s very cool.

    Nice rack = should be no problem.

  • Alan says:

    @Scott

    “So, in response, no. It’s not on the Bryant”

    So, it begs the the next obvious question…. why not a flat bar Bryant with Alfine 11? :-)

    Alan

  • Matt says:

    Scott,

    That’s disappointing news about the lack of a drop bar shifter, though with the buzz around the Alfine 11, I have a feeling its just a matter of time before it happens. I’m not so sure about a flat bar Bryant, but perhaps a trekking bar or an albatross setup like Alan’s could work?

    Glad to hear about the Nice Racks, I want to use the Bryant for touring as well as commuting.

    Thanks for the reply.

 
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