Apples to Oranges or Splitting Hairs?

Apples & Oranges

We transpo bicyclists spend a lot of time talking among ourselves about what makes a good bike for commuting, getting around, and getting things done. It makes for fun discussion and I never seem to tire of it. For me, there’s a short list of basic requirements any bike I use for daily transportation should have (your list is probably different):

  • Tires over 30mm in width
  • Fenders
  • Lights
  • Front and rear racks
  • A comfortable saddle
  • Sufficiently low and wide gearing
  • Sufficiently powerful brakes
  • And, finally (and most importantly), it should fit

Once I go beyond those basic requirements, I’m pretty sure I’ve entered the realm of splitting hairs. Things such as frame material, dropout design, drivetrain design, TIG versus lugged, sloped versus level, high versus low (trail), quill versus threadless, and on-and-on, are, in my opinion, subjective and personal, and I certainly don’t think they’ll keep most bikes from getting the job done.

In my stable, I have two bikes that I normally think of as being as different as apples and oranges, but when I step back and look at them from outside the little transpo bike bubble I live in, they really are very similar. My Rivendell Sam Hillborne and my Civia Loring seem quite different when looked at from my usual narrow perspective, but when compared to a carbon racing bike, a downhill mountain bike, or even a simple fixed gear city bike, their similarities suddenly jump out. The fact is, as much as I focus in on the differences between the two bikes, they both perfectly meet all of the requirements on my “must-have” list.

This tendency to focus in on the subtle differences between our specialized machines is normal human stuff. I see the same type of thing (and partake in it) in all sorts of endeavors ranging from photography, to fly fishing, to cooking and music. I think many of us enjoy digging deeply into our specialized niches, regardless of whether what we’re doing is actually comparing apples to oranges or just splitting hairs.

20 Responses to “Apples to Oranges or Splitting Hairs?”

  • Andy says:

    I think there’s one main feature that applies to everyone, and the rest are minute details. It should be something that you enjoy riding every time you want to. For winter commuters, that probably does include lights, fenders, wider tires, etc. For a summer-lovin cyclist, that could be a single speed beach cruiser. As long as you keep grabbing it every day, it must be good enough and have the parts and accessories needed to keep us coming back.

    I find that my cx/touring/commuter fits nearly all uses, but isn’t as great for a few. I also have a race bike and a mtn bike to fit those niches that the cx can’t do so well.

  • jwp says:

    i think to most commuters even this simple list is splitting hairs. based on the bikes and people i see riding them, most commuters have 2 basic requirements:
    1. a bike that works
    2. motivation

  • Daniel M says:

    I have said before that I love this site’s dual focus on practical, everyday, bike advocacy combined with all-out bike obsession by way of sensuous photography and detailed technical discussions. In the bike gallery we see everything from multi-thousand dollar custom bikes to garage sale bikes that the owners have proudly pressed into service on a minimal budget.

    For someone who is considering becoming an everyday transport rider with little previous bicycling background, his or her initial everyday experience on the bike will hardly be affected by whether the bike is aluminum or steel, whether the frame is lugged or TIGed, whether their stem is threaded or not, etc. What matters is getting such a person on a bike in the first place.

    We do a great service to such a person when we tell him or her to ride a bike that fits them, puts them in a comfortable position, with wide tires, fenders and racks so the bike serves them as much as possible and not the other way around.

    After a few years, a new rider may develop some likes and dislikes which may inform their future bike purchases, and if such a person starts to wonder what frame material, handlebar, type of brake he or she wants on their next bike, well we seem to have a highly informed and somewhat opinionated (!) community here to engage with in discussion.

    I went from an aluminum, flat-bar hybrid, to a steel, drop-bar cyclocross bike, to a Hillborne. Choosing the latter had a lot to do with my experience of the things I liked and disliked about the previous bikes. More importantly, what really got me into biking in the first place was a low-end Schwinn mountain bike when I was 11 years old in 1985. I couldn’t have told you the first technical detail about it, except that it had 15 speeds. I just rode it.

  • JohanZ says:

    One additional requirement for those who do multi-mode commutes: the bicycle has to be light enough to heave onto and off of the train or bus or whatever (but I’m thinking of Caltrain).

  • Micheal Blue says:

    To your list of should haves I would even add “step through design”, for everyday use. Even though I’m a guy, I appreciate my folder’s lack of top tube. It makes it easier to handle
    in a stop-and-go traffic, and can even save one’s bacon. For example, today I was chugging
    through some shallow snow drifts and at one spot had a really close call. Even though I had studded winter tires, in this particular snow drifts they slipped and I found my head getting dangerously close to the ground. I was able to recover just in time, thanks to having no top tube and being able to get off the bike quickly. Had a top tube been there, it would almost certainly prevent my dismount and as a result I would kiss the ground.
    Also, smaller diameter wheels help here in Toronto, as I may legally ride the bike (20″ wheels) on the sidewalk. Sometimes it comes handy when the road is jammed with cars.

  • Mark K says:

    Good article, Alan. I have to agree with the commenters above, getting someone on a bike that fits, is useful and they’ll love riding is paramount. The rest will fall into place with time in the saddle.

    Oh and this: Tires over 30mm in diameter That’s quite a wide range of tire diameters! ;-) Did you mean over 30mm in width?

  • Alan says:

    @Mark K

    “Oh and this: Tires over 30mm in diameter That’s quite a wide range of tire diameters! ;-) Did you mean over 30mm in width?”

    Yeah, yeah… :-) What I meant was tire cross-section diameter. I’m assuming you were thinking wheel diameter?

    (Had to rib you back a little… ;-)).


    PS – I made the correction – thanks!

  • Andy says:

    I think it does get a little nit-picky to put any sort of specifics to tire size. Plenty of people commute on 23mm tires and do just fine. I use a variety between 23-35, but have never felt that wide tires matter more unless I’m on really loose ground (deep snow or sand). Even for winter riding here, I’ve been using 28 in front and 35 in rear – My view is that in slush/snow, a narrower tire is actually better because it cuts through it, where a wide tire is more likely to slide on top of it. Just my view though

  • kfg says:

    First on my list are wheels that are reasonably round. Next is something to push on to make ‘em rotate. Beyond that I can make do if I have to.

    And where does a simple fixed gear city Sam Hillborne fit into all of this?

  • 300 Pound Gorilla says:

    I think tire width is hair splitting. Tire width/pressure has a lot to do with weight/road surface. Right now, I’m on 35mm wide tires at 85psi. They are very narrow, high pressure for my 300 pounds/crappy pavement. It doesn’t stop me from riding. Heck, I had 23mm at 170psi a couple years ago. I guess it’s not a basic requirement, but wide, low pressure tires sure make the ride a lot nicer. I’m patiently waiting for the day when I can justify buying Big Apples. That might be a while though. I’m on 2 year old Marathons. Looks like they have at least another 2 years to go. My bike is 99% of my transportation. I never dreamed I’d have tires last this long.

  • Randy says:

    I’d say this is a great list for those of us that have been long-time commuters. Most people that don’t ride bikes don’t understand why i would want/need a front rack, for example. To me it makes perfect sense, but to those outside of this niche, not so much. They’ll just think any old bike will do.

  • Roland Smith says:

    Your list looks pretty much complete. I would add two things though that I would consider essentials.

    First, a functioning lock, preferably with the possibility to fasten the bike to a bike rack or lamp post.

    Second, storage for a basic repair kit (enough to fix a flat and tighten bolts) I tend to carry it in my cycling bag that always goes with me on the bike. The important thing is to have it where cou cannot forget it when you go cycling. :-)

  • Larry says:

    On an entirely tangential note, absolutely wonderful accompanying photo. Reminds me of a classic National Geographic (?) cover photo of a line of pears on a windowsill.

    Also reminds me that one of the things I miss about California (I lived in the Bay area for two years, a long time ago) is the exceptional quality and variety of the produce.

  • Alan says:

    Thanks, Larry; it’s much appreciated.

    We are so lucky to have such a wide variety of year-round fresh produce here. It’s one of the reasons we’ll probably never leave the area.

    Speaking of, did anyone happen to notice the apple green Civia Loring and orange Sam Hillborne hidden in the background bokeh? :-)


  • Daniel M says:

    I noticed the Loring but not the Hillborne. I certainly wouldn’t expect to see a photo without any bikes in it!

  • Mr. S. says:

    I like that you pointed out these are your preferences. As one of my two commute bikes is as yours, and one is a fixie, my list differs:
    * Tires of 28mm for dry; 32mm+ wet; 55mm snow
    * Fenders
    * Lights
    * Racks, or frame/saddle/bar bags
    * A comfortable saddle!!
    * Sufficient gearing, which is sometimes one gear
    * Sufficiently powerful brakes, on the fixie too
    * It must fit!
    * It must be steel, unless the tires are fat

  • Alistair says:

    How about one more, just to add a little controversy because it’s late.

    You don’t know exactly how much it weighs.

    By that I mean to the nearest half pound (or 200 grams). After all my morning coffee weights over a pound (yes, I had to look that up)

    Cheers, Alistair

  • Don says:

    I like the idea that the rider may want to be able to carry it up a flight of stairs, say. This can still vary considerably by an individual’s size and upper-body strength, but the requirement seems reasonable, at least in urban use. It is for this reason that I remain on the alu/steel fence for transport bikes. Because while my steel frame is hefted easily enough, the aluminum one is considerably easier to schlep, and sometimes transpo bikes need to be schlepped.

  • Mr. S. says:

    “My morning coffee weights over a pound (yes, I had to look that up).” That’s why I love using metric: 500ml of coffee equals 500g, and everything is calculable in base ten. There’s also the fact that as a Canadian I can travel to every country, but the US, and understand the measurements…

  • Bliss Chick says:

    Here’s to the differences! A friend recently said that the proper number of bikes is n+1. :)

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