Why We Ride

Hillborne Fall Colors

Probably the question we’re most frequently asked by our non-bicycling friends and colleagues is, “Why do you ride bicycles for transportation?”

Underpinning everything we do here at EcoVelo is the desire to reduce our dependence on the automobile while encouraging others to do the same. We strongly believe reducing automobile use can improve our neighborhoods, our cities, and ultimately, the world. While this is reason enough to leave our car in the garage, truth be told, there are other, more personal (selfish?) reasons why we ride bikes, including:

Taken together, these benefits make a compelling case for transportational bicycling, and on a personal level, they make bicycle riding an extremely important part of our daily lives!

Alan & Michael

Starting Slow

Bike Trail

When approaching others about taking up bike commuting and utility riding, it’s important to remember that hopping on a bicycle and sharing the road with motorists can be quite intimidating to those who haven’t previously ridden bicycles as an adult. Those who are already riding bikes for sport or recreation may find it easy to make the transition to riding for transportation, but those with less experience need time and positive experiences to build their confidence as riders.

When talking with potential newcomers, suggesting an occasional short trip to a local grocery store or coffee shop might be better than suggesting they immediately jump into a full-fledged commute. In the case of my wife, she took short rides on backstreets and trails long before venturing out onto main arterials. Over time, she extended the length of her rides, and as those rides became longer, she also moved onto larger, busier streets. This slow building process enabled her to improve her skills and build her confidence at a rate that matched the conditions in which she was riding.

A number of studies have shown that the number one reason more people don’t ride bicycles is the fear of sharing the road with cars. The U.S. is sorely lacking in subjectively safe infrastructure in the form of separated bike lanes and trails, and unfortunately this is not likely to change in the near future. In the meantime, it’s important to remember how intimidating our roads can sometimes be. We should encourage newcomers by suggesting that it’s OK to start slow and small before eventually stepping up to the larger challenges when they’re ready.

Bike Weight and Multi-Modal Commuting

Lifting a Bike

With the popularity of European-style commuting bikes on the rise here in the U.S., the average weight of a typical transpo bike is also on the rise. U.S.-style hybrids, mountain bikes, and touring bikes, all commonly used for commuting here, averagely weigh in the 30-35 lb. range (for example, my fully outfitted Surly Long Haul Trucker weighs 32 lbs. with front and rear racks, kickstand, fenders, and lights). On the other hand, many traditional Euro-style city bikes tip the scales at 40-50 lbs. or more. This extra 10-15 lbs. is largely inconsequential for those who have point-to-point commutes over relatively flat terrain, but it can be a real problem for those who take their bike on transit as part of their commute.

Commuters and utility bicyclists are rarely accused of being “weight-weenies”; afterall, a 30+ lb. bike is anything but “light” by today’s standards.

Here’s a case in point. A friend purchased a Dutch city bike to use as her primary commuter. She liked the upright seating position, internal gears and brakes, full chain case, integrated lighting, and overall style of this type of bike. It’s a lovely bike that appeared to be perfect for her intended use. It was a little difficult to hoist onto the train, but she parked the bike in the aisle and all was good—for a while. Eventually, the conductors tired of too many bikes in the aisles (it’s a safety hazard) and they started making everyone place their bikes in the vertical wall racks. As it turns out, the bike is too heavy for her to hoist onto the racks, so now she’s looking at lighter weight alternatives.

Commuters and utility bicyclists are rarely accused of being “weight-weenies”; afterall, a 30+ lb. bike is anything but “light” by today’s standards. But, there are some circumstances where excess weight can be a real hindrance, even to the point that an otherwise perfectly matched bike becomes a mis-match for its intended use. So while we aren’t ready to start counting grams any time soon, it does behoove multi-modal bike commuters to keep an eye on overall weight when outfitting a bike that will be taken on trains and buses.

None of this is a dig at Euro/Dutch-style bikes. They’re wonderfully appointed and make perfect commuter/utility bikes for many people. They’ve been refined over many decades in some of the most bike-friendly countries in the world, and their functionality transfers well to many U.S. cities. They do tend to be heavy though, and since there’s a trend in commuting and transpo circles to show little-to-no regard to weight, it’s not a bad idea to remember that a bike can be so heavy as to severely hinder its functionality in a least some circumstances.

Cable-Actuated Disc Brakes

Cable-Actuated Disc Brake

While I prefer the aesthetics of a delicate, high profile cantilever or a classic, dual-pivot caliper, I have to admit that nothing quite beats the overall performance of a high-quality, cable-actuated disc brake (also known as “mechanical” disc brakes) for year-round commuting. Drum/roller brakes are heavy and generally provide only mediocre braking performance, and most every other type of performance brake uses the rim wall for a braking surface, a fact that guarantees your rims will be toast long before your hubs go. Rim brakes can sometimes be poor performers in wet conditions, they make a mess in the rain, and the caliper variety rarely provide sufficient clearance for robust tires and fenders. Hydraulic discs are typically more powerful than mechanical discs, but arguably, the difficulties associated with cutting fluid lines and bleeding brake systems are not a fair trade for their slightly better performance over their easier to set-up and maintain cousins. A high-quality mechanical disc brake such as the Avid BB7 combines the simplicity and user-friendliness of cable actuation, with excellent all-weather performance and long-term, wheel-friendly reliability. Setting aside aesthetic considerations and tradition, cable-actuated discs are hard to beat from the standpoint of pure functionality.

Avid Cable-Actuated Disc Brakes

Self Image and Sloping Top Tubes

Betty Foy and Detour Deluxe

Mixtes were traditionally known as “women’s” or “girls” bikes, the concept being a low top tube is more well-suited to riding and mounting/dismounting in a skirt. As that stereotype has begun to fade in recent years, more gender-neutral frame designs with low-slung top tubes are showing up. Two examples that come to mind are the Rivendell Yves Gomez and the Civia Loring. When I was a kid, a boy wouldn’t be caught dead on a “girls” frame, but these days, more people of both genders are appreciating the ease of use step-through frames provide.

Ironically, some of the most “macho” frames out there have steeply sloping top tubes and nearly qualify as “step-through”. I’m thinking of modern mountain bike frames and some compact road frames. These frames differ from traditional step-throughs in that they don’t have the seat tube that extends vertically above the sloping top tube (thus requiring extremely long seat posts), but otherwise the top tubes can be nearly as low as on some mixtes.

Take a look at the photo above. I think it’s interesting that these designs are fairly similar, yet because they come from different lineages our perceptions of them are so different. The Raleigh on the right is clearly gender neutral, yet the mixte is clearly a “woman’s” bike. Of course, the way they’re outfitted plays a big part in this case; the pale blue paint and wicker basket exude a definite feminine vibe, whereas the silver and black motif of the Raleigh is more “manly”.

Rivendell came up against this self-image issue frequently enough that they took their Betty Foy mixte, painted it black, and renamed it the “Yves Gomez” for those men who wanted a step-through but didn’t feel comfortable riding what they perceived to be a woman’s bike. I have to admit, if I was going to buy a Betty for myself, I’d probably go with the Yves version instead. That’s probably a reflection of my own insecurities more than anything… LOL.

Loring Lens Test

A bike that does a great job of blurring the line between what is traditionally thought of as a woman’s bike and a man’s bike is the Civia Loring (above). The top tube just slightly swoops, and it’s just barely low enough to step over, yet the bike doesn’t clearly say “girl’s bike” or “boy’s bike”. The 2012 Gotham from Novara (below) does the same thing with its mixte-ish top tube and black paint. I think these designs are subtle and genius, and I really appreciate the fact that they so successfully mix up and mess with the old streotypes.

Novara Gotham

The New Vintage

Rivendell Sam Hillborne
Rivendell Sam Hillborne

I cut my teeth on bikes in the 1970s and ‘80s when lugged steel and friction shifting were the norm. While I very much appreciate and enjoy the performance advantages of modern, high-tech commuters, I’m probably the most fond of old school bikes that are true to my roots. My Rivendell is a good example of a bike that draws style tips and technology from the past, but brings them forward to the present day in a functional package that doesn’t make compromises in performance. It’s a bike that’s at least as good as—if not better than—the vintage bikes from which it draws inspiration.

Velo Orange Polyvalent
Velo Orange Polyvalent

With the rise of Cycle Chic and retro-chic over the past few years, we’re seeing an increasing number of new bikes that are designed to look like old bikes. From pseudo Dutch bikes, to French constructeur look-alikes, more-and-more of what I like to call “neo-vintage” designs are showing up on the market. Many of these bikes are quite attractive and provide a nice alternative to the somewhat generic bikes that have dominated the market for the past couple of decades.

Electra Ticino
Electra Ticino
Trek Cocoa
Trek Cocoa

While many of these bikes are well made using modern materials and reliable components, there is a small minority that are merely low quality imports dressed up to look like something they’re not. In many ways, they’re not much different than the fully-suspended “mountain bikes” sold at big box stores; these fake MTBs aren’t actually built to be ridden off road, and some of these new retro-imposters also promise an unrealistic level of reliability and performance.

WalMart Hollandia
Walmart Hollandia

I’m excited about this new wave of vintage-inspired bikes. Because they’re visually attractive, I believe they’ll appeal to a wider audience than the generic “hybrids” that have been so prevalent for the past 20 years. My only worry is that because vintage bikes are becoming a fashion statement, we may see an increasing number of poorly designed and built bikes dressed up in vintage clothing. What we certainly don’t need is a new wave of neo-vintage bikes that promise more than they can deliver.

What’s the Hurry?

The idea that bicycling is a sport is still deeply ingrained in the psyche of most Americans. Replacing a car with a bicycle is still seen as a bit odd, if not completely eccentric. And the idea of riding a bike slowly, and in street clothes, is unthinkable for many people, bicyclists and non-bicyclists alike. We still have some work to do!

The fear of cars tops many surveys asking why people are resistant to bike commuting, but the fear of sweat is always up there too.

The fear of cars tops many surveys asking why people are resistant to bike commuting, but the fear of sweat is always up there too. In talking to people around my office, you’d think perspiring only ever happens on a bicycle and that it’s something to be avoided at all costs. Well, I have a pair of secrets for you: 1) a little sweat never hurt anyone; and 2) it’s possible to ride a bicycle and perspire no more than if you were taking a leisurely stroll around the neighborhood.

I think it’s that bicycling=sport thing that trips up many potential bike commuters, especially those who don’t see themselves as athletes. In many areas outside of our few bicycling meccas (Davis, Portland, Boulder, Minneapolis, etc.) the majority of our role models are racers-in-training, consequently many people don’t believe it’s possible to ride a bike as an adult any way other than full-tilt and in full-kit.

Consider the following. The difference in effort required between averaging 10mph or 15mph on a bicycle is about equivalent to the difference between a casual walk or a jog/run. In other words, it’s the difference between barely sweating or really sweating. Now consider the average bike commute is somewhere around 5 miles either direction. At 10mph, the commute will take 30 minutes, and at 15mph the commute will take 20 minutes. So for a difference of 20 minutes out of a person’s day (10 minutes either direction), it’s possible to completely ameliorate the issue of sweat and bicycling. Seems like a reasonable trade-off to me.

Of course, there are times and places where no amount of “taking it easy” will prevent someone from perspiring (Arizona in August at high noon, for example), but I’d argue that even walking will cause someone to perspire in those conditions, so an easy bike ride is no worse. And if a person’s inclination is to ride hard, there are still ways to overcome the sweat issue including showers at work (if they’re available), sponge baths, and various hygiene products.

Sweat and bicycling do not necessarily go hand-in-hand! Perhaps potential street-clothes-commuters need to take a lesson out of racing’s playbook and start using heart rate monitors, not to set a high target for fitness, but a low ceiling to stay cool and sweat-free.

© 2011 EcoVelo™