It’s not uncommon for dedicated bicyclists to respond to the beginning of Bike Month with, “Every month is bike month.” I totally get the sentiment, but I think it’s safe to say already committed bicyclists are not the intended audience for the various events going on around the country this month. Bike Month primarily exists to attract the attention of that large majority of people who never give bicycling a thought throughout the rest of the year. Bike Month events create opportunities to share information about the benefits of bike commuting while reaching out to newcomers with technical assitance to ensure they have positive commuting experiences. In other words, Bike Month events provide perhaps the best opportunities of the year to recruit new bike commuters and welcome them into the community!
Bikes outfitted with upright-style handlebars (i.e., North Road or Albatross) are easier to fit than bikes outfitted with drops. My theory is that we each have a comfortable “zone” determined by flexibility (primarily) and other physiological factors, and upright bars put us in roughly the middle of that range. The upright position provided by these handlebars mimics the seated positions we experience in our everyday lives such as working at a computer, eating at a dining table, or (gasp) driving a car. Consequently, when fitting a bike set-up for an upright riding position, relatively large adjustments to bar height and fore-aft reach have only a minor effect on comfort.
Usually, drop bars require a longer/lower reach than upright bars (there are exceptions). These bars place the rider in a more stretched out, bent over position, closer to the physiological limits of comfort for most casual riders. Because they test a rider’s flexibility more than upright bars, smaller adjustments have a more profound effect on fit and comfort when running drop-style bars.
A recent case in point is my new Civia. It came outfitted with a 110mm stem which placed me in a riding position that tested the limits of my flexibility. I rode it like this for the past few weeks, but the reach was clearly too far, with the result being a sore back and shoulder. I recently swapped the stock stem for an otherwise identical 100mm stem. I’d be hard pressed to notice a 10mm adjustment on a bike with upright bars, but on the Civia, with its more stretched out and leaned over riding position, that small adjustment was like going from a too-small shoe to a shoe that perfectly fits.
To take the shoe analogy a bit further (work with me – it’s not perfect… :-)), I suppose one can think of upright bars as house slippers and drop bars as hiking boots. A house slipper that’s a little to small or a little too large is not a big deal. On the other hand, a hiking boot that’s even a 1/2 size off can cause all sorts of problems. That doesn’t make hiking boots bad, but it does mean it’s worth the effort to get the fit just right.
The highest historical gas prices we’ve seen in the U.S. were in 2008. That was the summer we saw $4 per gallon and a corresponding explosion in the number of bike commuters across the country. Locally, you could barely squeeze a bike on our commuter trains and waiting lists for bike lockers were running months long. That was also the year the bicycle industry woke up to the commuter market, with the selection of dedicated transpo bikes greatly expanding as a result. By December of the same year, gas prices dropped to under $2 per gallon and things went back to business as usual, with the influx of new bike commuters vanishing nearly as quickly as they appeared. The bicycle industry took a big hit the following year due to ramping up for a highly anticipated, but mostly unfulfilled, spike in business.
Retail gasoline prices topped $4 per gallon in California this week. The reaction doesn’t seem nearly as intense as it was in ’08. As a matter of fact, there doesn’t appear to be any reaction at all on the commuting routes I ride. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been there before, or perhaps it’s because people have been expecting it, but there appears to be a general nonchalance about the idea of $4 per gallon gasoline this time around.
I wonder what it’s going to take to trigger another spike in the number of bike commuters like we saw in 2008? A repeat of $4 per gallon gas is clearly not going to do it. I wonder if $5 will do it, or will it take $6 per gallon? What do you think?
I have a friend who rides only the most exquisite and rarefied handmade bicycles. His bikes are always perfectly appointed to match the style and era from which they came. He’s a true aficionado. I have another friend who rides a big box mountain bike for transportation. He’s only concerned with basic functionality and as long as his bike gets him to where he needs to go, he could care less how it looks or where it came from. He’s a user of bicycles, but he’s anything but what most people think of as a “cyclist”. In both cases, their approaches to bicycling are clear and obvious expressions of their differing personalities.
Most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes. Within the broad spectrum between fetishism and pure practicality exists a myriad of niches to which we can knowingly or unknowingly assign ourselves. Some of us outfit our bikes with leather, cotton, and cork while only using retro parts such as friction shifters, freewheels, and cottered cranks; others insist upon the latest in high tech gadgetry such as carbon belts, internal gear hubs, and STI shifters; while others choose to ride only fixed gear bikes tricked out with matching anodized components. Wherever each of us falls in the spectrum, the bike we choose to ride (and the way we outfit it) often says something about who we are and how we want the world to see us.
Personally, I’m a bit of a chameleon. I certainly lean toward preferring the classic look of lugged frames, gently curved handlebars, and level top tubes, but, I can also get excited about modern, high-tech bikes, particularly when the technology makes sense and provides real advantages in functionality. Probably more important to me than the particular style of a bike is that the parts and accessories installed on it are a good aesthetic match for the bike. For example, to my eye, many modern bikes don’t pair well with Brooks saddles, hammered fenders, and shellaced bar tape, while rubber hand grips, synthetic racing saddles, and STI shifters look out of place on a vintage frame.
I still haven’t decided who’s the more evolved bicyclist; my friend who rides the handmade bikes or my friend who rides the department store bikes. I suppose it doesn’t matter; what really counts is that they’re both out there on the road enjoying bicycles in their own unique way.
There’s a time-honored tradition of hunting down old, but good quality bicycles and re-purposing them for commuting and utility use. Japanese-made, lugged-steel touring and mountain bikes from the late 1980s and early ‘90s seem to be particularly popular candidates for resurrection, probably because of their high quality frames and relatively low prices. This activity seems to be growing in popularity, most likely driven by the SS/fixie craze as well as our poor economy. As you’d expect, these old bikes are starting to fetch higher prices as the demand has increased and the finite supply has inevitably dwindled.
Of course, refurbs aren’t limited to bikes from a particular era or of a particular quality. A friend who works at a bike kitchen does a ton of rebuilds based upon no-name frames from various countries and eras. He also happens to have an interest in old Schwinns and he’s restored a number of nice ones to near original condition. Then there’s the cult of the Raleigh 3-speed, which is a whole world unto itself.
Probably because I cut my biking teeth during that era, the lugged steel bikes mentioned above hold a particular fascination for me. I’ve yet to do a refurb, but if I did, I’d probably be looking at a lugged-steel Trek touring bike, a Specialized Stumpjumper, or perhaps even a Bridgestone XO-1, though it’s my understanding that the Bridgestone and the Treks (particularly the 720) have been fetching high prices for some time now.
I’d be curious to hear from those who are riding refurbed bikes that are at least 20 years old. What are you riding and what type of modifications were required? What was your motivation for refurbing an old bike: cost savings, the vintage vibe, the green aspect, or something else?
Recumbents, crank forwards, cargo bikes, and longtails are all wonderful, specialized machines, optimized to do their thing particularly well. Among other things, they offer increased comfort, hauling capacity, and efficiency. The one place they all fall short is interfacing with public facilities designed for standard-sized bikes.
When gas prices spike again, and particularly if they stay there this time around, more people than ever will take to bicycles (not unlike they did in the summer of 2008). When that happens, we’re going to see increasing numbers of people using bikes for all or part of their existing commutes. While the idea of re-urbanization is wonderful, in large urban areas it’s likely that a majority of the workforce will continue to commute from the suburbs, even after converting to public transit and/or active transportation.
For many of these people who have 15-30 mile commutes or more, a pure bike commute is probably unsustainable. This means we’re going to see more bike commuters taking advantage of public facilities including transit bike racks and City bike parking facilities. Their bikes will need to fall within a standard footprint to seamlessly interface with these facilities. We’re going to need more bikes that provide some of the advantages of the specialized bikes mentioned above, while still falling within what I’d consider a “standard footprint”.
For comfort, these bikes should have high quality, ergonomic saddles, enough clearance for high flotation tires, and handlebar systems that provide plenty of adjustability.
For hauling, they should have front and rear racks with both top platforms and pannier mounts. And the racks should have much more capacity than most racks supplied with bikes today – I’m thinking something around 40 lbs. up front, and say 80 lbs. in the rear. The frames need to be stiff and tough and able to withstand hauling 100 lbs. plus rider on a regular basis.
These bikes need to be efficient enough that people don’t have to work unreasonably hard to get to where they’re going. On upright bikes, aerodynamics and comfort work against each other, but keeping weight reasonably low (say in the 30 lb. range), and drivetrain and rolling efficiency high, should be a priority.
And most importantly, they need to be no longer or taller than a standard touring bike with a wheelbase under 44″ so they can successfully interface with standard bike facilities.
There are bikes on the market that meet the above criteria, but very few are delivered directly from the factory outfitted as described. In the future, we’ll need more bikes like these available at corner bike shops. Let’s hope manufacturers are looking ahead and planning for the inevitable next wave of new bike commuters.
My friend’s father who is in his 70’s has recently taken up riding a bicycle for transportation. He’s absolutely on fire about it, doing his grocery shopping and errands on his bike, while riding around for fun and exercise on days when he has no other reason to ride. He’s doing all of this on a Schwinn hybrid he picked up at Wal-Mart for $199. Mechanically the bike is a real nightmare, but between his son and I we’ve managed to keep it on the road. He likes the bike because it has fat tires (he runs them at 45-50 psi), a soft saddle, and an adjustable stem with upright bars that place the grips at least 6” above the saddle.
For fun, I let him try out the Raleigh Detour Deluxe I have on loan. [For the uninitiated, the Detour Deluxe is a well-appointed, mid-level commuting bike that many people feel may be one of the best values in a fully-outfitted commuter for 2011. The review is coming, I promise. —ed.] We went on a 20-mile ride around town so he could see what a “real” bike feels like. He quite liked the Alfine/Nexus shifting, but otherwise he didn’t seem all that impressed. His comments revolved around the fact that the Raleigh’s ride is more rough than what he’s accustomed to (undoubtedly due to the tires, which have a smaller cross-section and require a higher pressure than those on his bike), and the reach to the bars (which is further than on his bike), causing him back and saddle pain. So while he clearly appreciated the technical superiority and build quality of the Raleigh, I was left with the feeling that he still prefers his big box Schwinn with its balloon tires and high handlebars.
To be perfectly clear, none of this has the least bit to do with the Raleigh’s suitability as a commuting bike; it is, in fact, a tremendous value and an excellent bike (yeah, I know, finish the review already). The point, I think, is that matching a bike to a person’s needs is far more important than the technical details we so enjoy discussing here on the blog. This point is so crucial that, like in the case of my friend’s father, a mechanically far superior bicycle may seem less desirable than a junker when a bike’s attibutes are not well-aligned with with the needs of the rider. It may have absolutely nothing to do with a bike’s quality, and everything to do with whatever a particular rider deems vital for the way he/she rides.