Pigeonholes are for the Birds

Civia Bryant
A contradiction? Not really…

A number of people have expressed puzzlement about the fact that I regularly ride a traditional lugged-steel bike with old school components such as friction shifters, high profile cantilever brakes, a Brooks saddle, and a quill stem; a modern tig-welded bike with a carbon belt drive, internal gear hub, threadless headset/stem, and brifters; and, a 3-speed folding bike made in Great Britain. The underlying assumption seems to be that a person should stake out a position on bike design and become a proponent of that particular school forevermore.

My guess is that this expectation grows from our procilvity to see bicycles as an extension of ourselves, as a way of expressing our aesthetic values, much like our choices in clothing, home decor, and automobiles. I certainly understand this. I too am conscious of the image I portray when on my bikes, and there are any number of bikes I’d be uncomfortable riding in public (my wife’s old hot pink cruiser comes to mind).

The problem with limiting ourselves to one style of bicycle is that we miss out on so much. Nearly every type of well-designed bike offers some advantage over another. Let’s look at the three bikes described above.

The old school bike is delicate and beautiful. The lug work and small diameter tubes hark back to a time when many things were simpler, including bicycles. It’s a bike that’s easy to understand, and that familiarity breeds fondness. The frame is flexible in a good way, the geometry is conservative and comfortable, and the drivetrain and brakes are predicatable and reliable.

The modern bike is tig-welded which reduces costs and allows the use of non-standard tube diameters and frame geometries. This makes it easier to design a stiff, but lightweight frame. The belt drive and IGH require zero maintenance while providing ultra-smooth, all-weather performance. The combo brake/shifter places the controls at the rider’s fingertips for city riding in heavy traffic, and the disc brakes modulate nicely and remain powerful even when wet and dirty.

The folder offers the obvious advantages of being compact and versatile. It’s a tiny package that doesn’t give up too much in ride quality to larger bikes. Best of all, it opens up many multi-modal commuting and travel options.

None of this is to say a person needs more than one bike. The point is that it behooves bicyclists to be open to bike designs that don’t immediately fit within their current school of preference. We do ourselves a disservice by taking too strong of a position and hunkering down; doing so limits our experiences and cuts us off from the potential to learn something new. And you never know, you just might find that you love that carbon racing bike or long wheelbase recumbent afterall.

11 Responses to “Pigeonholes are for the Birds”

  • John Ferguson says:

    Different horses for different courses. While it’s true that a single bike can be ridden in all sorts of conditions, it sure is nice to have a dedicated trail bike, a dedicated grocery bike, a dedicated commuter and a dedicated fast road bike. It’s certainly an investment, but together you can have all these bikes for less money and less parking space than a single car.

    I currently have 5 bikes and I regularly ride 4 of them. My kids notice and wonder why I don’t ride the shiny red single speed road bike – I guess I’ll have to bust that one out for the commute once in awhile now that the weather’s better.

    Here’s an idea – don’t assume that you know what kind of person another cyclist is because of what they ride. Reserve that judgement until you actually have gotten to know them and treat everyone who rides as a potential friend and riding partner. Say hi, wave, nod, whatever you would do if you saw someone riding a bike just like yours. We’re all in this together – no need to slice it by *what kind* of cyclist you are.

    Unless you’re a unicyclist who juggles – those guys are just weird.. (kidding!)

  • Dale Fernandez says:

    I believe those who judge others by their choice of bicycle should really stop taking themselves too seriously. I myself have a stable of bikes. I’ve realized people who’ve incorporated bicycling as their conveyance of choice enjoy the satisfaction of either personalizing their bike with accessories or maybe building their own. People will always have an innate need to express themselves, even if it is the “Lone Wolf” taking his Olympic track bike out for a spin in Central park.


  • Don says:

    I see this as a predominantly economic topic: the more limited one’s budget, the more one is going to sweat out bike purchase decisions and weigh them on personal terms. It is fun to turn it into a philosophical question, but to do so assumes one is financially free to choose any of the options and perhaps more than one.

    To a lot of folks, it is investing in more than one bike that surprises, at least when it moves beyond the typical one nice bike and one beater. What’s funny is it would be highly unusual if a bike owner had several budget production bikes in the stable. The more bikes in a collection, the more each one is likely to cost. What price love?

  • Jim Raines says:

    I’ve been trying to articulate this for a while now. You do a good job of it Alan.

    You see it everywhere – bars should be above/below level, IGH/derailleurs best thing in the world, thin/fat tyres FTW, high/low/no viz clothing, slow down/speed up, leather this/carbon that. I’ve seen self confessed utility cyclists declare commuters as racing ‘imitators’. Whatever spins your cranks, it’s nice to see people loving what they are doing!

    But it is divisive and negative to see other cycle/cycling styles as contradictory or negative. I think a lot of it comes from self re-inforcement, “What I am doing is the best, so other styles are not as good”. But I don’t think there are enough of us riding that we can afford to be divided.

    The bike or the way it is being ridden doesn’t matter so much as that someone is out for a ride…

    I always make an effort to say hi to someone I pass when I ride, unconditionally. My bike is not pretty, but that $150 second hand bike has taken me 1,500km in the last 6 months, saved about $200 in gas at about $6/gal here, and dropped my heart rate about 15%.

    But it’s about the ride, and the ride is about me, and saying hi to you!

  • Elliott @ Austin On Two Wheels says:

    Good post, Alan, but you need to get over being self conscience about the pink cruiser. ;)

  • Graham says:

    @ Elliott – That’s pretty funny, because that’s almost exactly what I was thinking. Of course this is coming from the big guy who “races” wearing a watermelon helmet, so perhaps I’m not the best judge of such things.

  • Cymba says:

    I too have 5 bikes, and I choose between them based on purpose and mood. I think the biggest thing is that they are all an extension of me because I love bikes. 3 of them are rebuilt from rescued frames or great deals (the other 2 are my racers) and I built them all up to suit me regardless of style. I think this was a great topic.

  • bongobike says:

    People who don’t ride recumbents are plain weird. ;-)

  • Don says:

    Another way to frame these discussions is to say every option on a bike is a trade-off, so each build is a set of priorities. You can value things you don’t use; they just may not apply, so you don’t use them. So the discussion then becomes about usage and applications, which can get personal, then political.

  • Sally Hinchcliffe (aka townmouse) says:

    Great post and +1 on the pink cruiser. Pictures please!

  • dominic furfaro says:

    To have a stable of bikes is a luxury of space, ie garage. It is also less about shiny, new and latest technology. Our bikes are shared among family members and friends. We are in a city where these bikes get plenty of usage because it’s easy to do. It’s how we roll!

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