The Low Hanging Fruit

Crossover Commuter

Surveys show that a large majority of bicycle trips in the U.S. are made solely for recreation and exercise, with only a small percentage made for commuting and other utilitarian purposes. These numbers support my experience. I know many dedicated cyclists who ride their bikes long distances for recreation and/or training but don’t use their bikes for commuting or even short errands.

I believe these existing sport cyclists represent our best opportunity to increase the number of transportational bicyclists on the road. They already understand the health benefits of bicycling, they’re well-invested in gear, and they’re well-acclimated to riding in traffic and sharing the road with cars. The only thing missing is the desire to use their bicycle for transportation.

A majority of existing recruitment efforts appear to be directed at non-bicyclists, with what appears to be only minimal efforts directed at existing sport cyclists. These already enthusiastic riders are the low hanging fruit of transpo bicycle advocacy. I believe advocates need to bridge the gap between sport and transport and figure out a way to persuade these existing cyclists to consider using their bicycles to replace at least some of their car trips. Solving this puzzle is likely to result in a high success rate and good return on investment in the effort to get more people using bicycles for transportation.

I’m curious to know how you came to riding your bicycle for transportation as an adult. Did you start out riding for recreation or fitness first, then later come to use your bicycle for transportation, or did you take up riding for transportation right from the start?

Why did you first start riding a bicycle as an adult?

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Not So Different Afterall

Two Strangers
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At first glance these bikes seem very different. The Rivendell on the left is lugged and painted, with a mixte frame and 650B wheels. The Civia on the right is tig-welded and powder-coated, with a sloping top tube and 700C. The Riv’s racks are polished silver from Nitto, and it has a sprung Brooks saddle, wicker basket, and Albatross bars. The Civia’s racks are industrial black from Tubus and Pass & Stow, and it has a Selle An-Atomica saddle, drop bars, and brifters. Even their drivetrains are different, the Riv’s being a traditional chain and derailleur, the Civia’s being a belt drive with internal gear hub.

It’s only when looking deeper that it becomes apparent how similar they are. They both have nice handling frames made of steel. They both have kickstands (ah, kickstands). Their robust tires and wheels are good for riding on both pavement and dirt. They’re both capable of carrying a significant load while also covering a distance with ease. They’re practical, reliable, comfortable, and efficient bicycles that both make marvelous car replacements. As it turns out, when it comes to the things that really matter, they’re not so different afterall.

The Subjective and Ever-Changing Nature of Comfort

Bryant at Sunset

Over the years I’ve gone through what seems like an endless array of different bike set-ups, from fully laid-back recumbent “high racers”, to compact drop bar racing bikes, bolt upright British roadsters, and flat bar city bikes. Despite the extreme differences in how they were set-up, during the periods when I rode those bikes I always had at least a brief time when they felt perfectly comfortable.

Humans are amazingly adaptable, and I chalk up the ability to be comfortable on such as wide variety of bikes more to that than anything. Some of the more aggressive bikes from the collection were ridden when I was in my 20’s and 30’s, which may also have a lot to do with it. There’s no doubt that youth—and the flexibility and resistance to injury that come with it—play a major role in which bikes we can and can’t ride.

As I’ve gotten older (I’ll be 50 this year), my tolerance for extreme bike set-ups has diminished.

As I’ve gotten older (I’ll be 50 this year), my tolerance for extreme bike set-ups has diminished. Racing bikes with deep drops wreak havoc on my neck, while roadsters that place me in a bolt-upright position cause problems in, ahem, “other” areas (at least on long rides). I suspect this intolerance to riding positions on the edges of the spectrum will only increase in the future. This may have something to do with the fact that a high percentage of recumbent riders are middle-aged or beyond (recumbents are known for being remarkably comfortable).

What works best for me now is a handlebar set at roughly the same height as the saddle, a medium width saddle, and a handlebar that provides multiple hand positions. For me, at this particular time, this set-up offers the best compromise and overall comfort for the variety of conditions in which I ride. It’ll be interesting to see if this changes over the coming years, and if so, in what way. The fact that I’ve gone through so many changes up to this point leads me to believe there’s likely to be many more on the horizon.

Every Household Needs a Pack Mule

Civia Loring

As much as I enjoy a variety of different types of bikes, from traditional roadsters and touring bikes, to folders, high-tech commuters, and recumbents, the most useful for living car-lite have to be those that are set-up for conveniently hauling things. A bike with a catch-all platform in front and a heavy-duty rack with a pair of large panniers in back is just tremendously useful for day-to-day living. And if that bike is designed from the ground up with the appropriate geometry, clearances, and frame stiffness for cargo hauling, it’ll end up being one of the most ridden bikes in the stable of just about any car-lite or car-free household.

The Civia shown above is probably the least photographed bike in our stable, yet it’s one of the most frequently ridden. I use it for nearly every quick trip under two miles, whether it be to the grocery store, library, restaurant, coffee shop, or a friend’s house. It’s the bike that requires the least amount of fuss while taking care of the humdrum errands that crop up nearly every day.

Whether it’s a pretty purpose-made bike like the Civia, a longbike or Xtracycle conversion, a Dutch bakfiets, or even a vintage mountain bike repurposed with the addition of a pair of heavy-duty racks, every car-lite/car-free household should have at least one bike that serves as a reliable pack mule.

Disclosure: Civia is a sponsor of this website.

Baby Steps

Waiting on the Trail
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I’ve been riding bicycles my entire life, but some people might find it surprising that my wife only took up riding as an adult around 5 years ago. She started tentatively, testing the waters on short rides on bike trails and local streets, eventually working up to the point of confidently navigating city streets in heavy traffic. It was a slow building process that took a number of years and couldn’t be rushed.

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.

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.

It’s the Dress

It's the Dress

We took a casual ride over to a favorite restaurant for lunch today and along the way I couldn’t help but notice how much more courteous the drivers were being than usual. In two cases, drivers sitting at side streets waiting for us to pass actually put their cars in reverse and backed up a couple of feet to clearly signal that they weren’t going to pull in front of us. Neither needed to move out of the way; the moves were clearly a sign of courtesy.

When we arrived at the restaurant, I asked Michael, “Did you notice that?” She unhesitatingly responded with, “It’s the dress.” Her matter-of-fact response surprised me. Perhaps I’m just clueless, but I had no idea a person’s manner of dress on a bike could have such a noticeable effect on motorist behavior. Both of us were wearing sandals and riding upright bikes, which may have contributed to the overall picture.

We may be making some assumptions here, but Michael is 100% convinced that how she dresses affects how motorists respond to her. Whether or not this was the reason behind the courteous drivers we encountered today, one thing’s for sure; I never get that kind of treatment when I’m geared-up on my “serious” commuter bike. Who knows, perhaps there’s more to the British passing clearance study than I thought.

How about you? Have you found that how you dress affects how motorists respond to you?

Does how you dress affect how motorists respond to you?

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