Here’s a video showing the output from Calhoun Cycle’s three most popular dynamo headlights.
Let’s list some of the characteristics that define a good touring bicycle:
- It should be comfortable
- It should be reliable and tough
- It should be able to carry heavy loads
- It should have sufficiently wide range gearing
- It should have sufficient clearance for robust tires and fenders
- It should have numerous braze-ons for mounting racks, fenders, water bottles, and lights
- It should have long chainstays to prevent pedal-to-pannier conflicts
- It should be made from a frame material that is both strong and compliant (as opposed to fragile and rigid)
Perhaps I’ve left a thing or two off of the list, but any bike that meets the above criteria would make a nice touring bike. And guess what? That’s exactly the same list I’d compile for a good commuting/utility bike.
It’s wonderful that we’re seeing more-and-more commuter-specific bikes coming to the market. It’s an indication that bicycling for transportation is growing and that the bicycle industry has taken notice. Certainly, the more and better commuter/utility bikes we have available, the more likely it is that newcomers will give bike commuting a serious look.
There is also an entire range of bicycles labeled as “touring bikes” that are extremely well-appointed for commuting and utility bicycling. These bikes are the beneficiaries of a long lineage going back to the 1980’s and beyond. In some cases, they represent the most refined cargo hauling bikes on the market.
Following are just a few touring bikes that double quite well as commuting/utility bikes:
- Surly Long Haul Trucker
- Salsa Casseroll
- Rivendell Atlantis
- Velo Orange Rando
- Soma Saga
- Raleigh Sojurn
- Co-Motion Americano
Of course, if touring bikes make good commuting/utility bikes, it follows that at least some commuting bikes function well as touring bikes. For example, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to use my commuter for light touring.
The take away is that touring and commuting bikes are essentially cut from the same cloth. There’s a tremendous amount of crossover among these two categories and, in fact, some of the best commuting/utility bikes on the market don’t have the words “commute” or “cargo” in either their name or their description.
California vehicle code mandates that any bike operated in darkness is required to have a front headlight that emits a white beam visible from 300 feet and a red rear reflector that’s visible from 500 feet when illuminated by motor vehicle high beams. The law also mandates reflectors on both pedals or the rider’s ankles, and side reflectors or tires with reflective sidewalls. The headlight can be attached to either the bicycle or the rider. Check the vehicle code for the jurisdiction in which you ride to be sure you’re meeting at least the minimum requirements.
The simplest and least expensive lighting set-up is a white LED headlight on the front, and a red blinking LED on the back. Small, but surprisingly powerful, AA- and AAA-powered lights are available for under $50 each. Mount the headlight on your handlebar and the red blinkie on your seat post (or rack), and you’re good to go. I also highly recommend rechargeable batteries and a battery charger as part of any battery-powered lighting system. View my post on minimalist lighting systems for more on battery-powered lights.
For those who regularly ride in the dark, a dynamo lighting system provides reliable, battery-free lighting that’s always available at the flip of a switch. Power is provided by either a bottle or hub dynamo. Bottle dynamos mount on the bicycle frame and have a small roller that rotates against the tire to generate current. Hub dynamos (aka generator hubs) have the generator built right into the hub. In recent years, hub dynamos have far surpassed bottle dynamos in efficiency and popularity. Dynamo lighting systems are more expensive than small battery-powered systems, and unless they come pre-installed from the factory, they also require a more involved installation process. That said, they provide the benefit of always-available lighting, a real advantage for everyday, year-around commuting and utility use.
Easily moved from bike to bike
Always available (like automobile lights)
Bolted to bike (semi-theft proof)
Can be tricky to install
Not easily moved from bike to bike
After using mostly battery-powered lights for the past couple of years, I’ve recently returned to running a dynamo system. Despite the above mentioned drawbacks, I’m quite pleased to be battery-free again; it’s hard to overstate the convenience and confidence that comes with always-available, high-quality lighting.
My current favorite dynamo headlight is the E3 Pro from Supernova. The beam provides an excellent compromise between coverage and intensity, and the housing, emitter, and wires are exceptionally high-quality. Combined with any decent dynamo hub (I’m running a Shimano Alfine), it makes for a high performing and reliable set-up. You can read more about the E3 Pro and its matching tail light in my review from a couple of months ago.
I receive a surprising number of emails from people who are having technical difficulties with their new bikes. Among others, the issues include squealing brakes, mis-shifting drivetrains, wobbly wheels, loose bearings, and even parts that simply fall off of their bikes. Often, these bikes are less than 6 months old and the owners are perplexed and frustrated, questioning their purchase and blaming the designers/manufacturers for their woes.
Every new bike I’ve purchased has had issues within the first couple of months of use. And in almost every case, the problems were a result of new parts settling in and causing things to go out of adjustment. Regardless of whether we’re talking about a $100 bike from Wal-Mart or a $10,000 Trek Madone, nuts, bolts, bearings, and cables will settle-in within the first few months causing parts to come loose and shifters and brakes to go out of adjustment. This is all a normal part of the break-in process.
Most reputable dealers offer a one-time free tune-up to customers who purchase bikes at their shops. They’re typically offered within the first three months of purchase, with some shops even offering multiple free tune-ups spread over the entire first year. When shopping for a new bike, be sure to ask about your shop’s free tune-up policy, and after making your purchase, take full advantage. It’s good business on their part, and it can be a real benefit to you. By keeping everything tight and properly adjusted, your bike will ride more smoothly and safely, and you’ll avoid any potentially more serious (and expensive) issues in the future.
I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time riding at least six different drivetrains over the past year including a reversible single speed/fixed gear hub; a 1×9 with a track crank and 9-speed cassette; a touring triple with an 8-speed cassette; a chain-driven SRAM i-Motion 9 internal gear hub; a chain-driven Shimano Alfine 8 internal gear hub; and, a belt-driven Shimano Alfine 11 internal gear hub.* The following is not intended to be an exhaustive overview of the myriad drivetrains on the market; these are just my thoughts and impressions regarding these particular set-ups.
Single Speed / Fixed Gear Drivetrain
I think the main attraction of single speed and fixed gear drivetrains is that they’re simple and bullet-proof. There’s an appeal to stripping a bike down to its bare essentials, eliminating the need for shifting and fussing with derailleur trim, etc. Eliminating a geared drivetrain is a weight savings as well. The obvious downside to single speed drivetrains is that you’re stuck with only one gain ratio, which may not work for people who live in hilly areas or for those who have physical limitations such as bad knees (which includes many of us over 40 who played sports or rode bikes their entire lives).
1×9 Derailleur Drivetrain
A 1×9 derailleur drivetrain uses a single, track-style crank up front and 9-speed cassette in the rear. I really enjoyed the 1×9 on my old Surly. It was clean and simple, and the linear shifting was similar to the internal gear hubs on my other bikes. Certainly, if a person needs a wider range of gears, a double or triple makes more sense, but for city riding in relatively flat areas, the 1×9 is a good compromise that offers at least some of the advantages of single speed and IGH drivetrains.
Touring Triple Drivetrain
For versatility it’s hard to beat a touring triple drivetrain. A triple provides the widest range of gears while still remaining relatively lightweight and simple to set-up and repair. With three chainrings up front and 7-10 sprockets in the rear, there is great potential for customization within the range of the system. Disadvantages include the need for relatively high maintenance (due to exposure to the elements); a steep learning curve for beginners due to the complexity of overlapping ratios and multiple shifters, etc.; susceptibility to damage in public bike racks; and incompatibility with most chain guards.
Shimano Alfine 8-speed IGH
It’s no secret that I very much like the Alfine internal gear hubs. A number of commuting bikes that I tested over the past two years were spec’d with the Alfine 8 including the Breezer Finesse, the Raleigh Alley Way, and a pair of Civias. At this point the Alfine IGH is a mature product with low failure rates and superb performance when used for its intended purpose (commuting). When combined with the Rapid-Fire shifter, shifts are clean, quick, and accurate. One major advantage of this and other high-quality internal gear hubs is that they can be shifted while stopped, coasting, or under power. Disadvantages include a limited gear range when compared to a touring triple; the need for either horizontal dropouts, an eccentric bottom bracket, or a chain tensioner to tension the chain; and added weight when compared to single speed or derailleur drivetrains.
SRAM i-Motion 9-speed IGH
The i-Motion 9 is an internal gear hub from SRAM that competes directly with the Shimano Alfine 8. I’ve enjoyed using this hub on my Civia Loring. Besides the obvious advantage of having one extra gear, the i-Motion also covers a wider range and has more evenly spaced ratios than the Alfine 8. The smaller, more even steps between gears are a real advantage over the Alfine’s somewhat inconsistent spacing. The i-Motion is also easier to remove and re-install in the event of a roadside flat. Disadvantages include shifting performance that is not quite as smooth as the Alfine’s, and a limited selection of shifters, all of which are twist-type.
Belt-driven Shimano Alfine 11-speed IGH
The only difference between a belt-driven and chain-driven Alfine IGH is the sprocket; the internal parts and shifting performance are identical. The new Alfine 11 IGH is a major step up from the 8-speed in performance (and unfortunately, cost); it’s smoother, quieter, and the gear ratios are more evenly spaced over a wider range. The 11-speed runs in an oil bath which makes it easier to service and should result in longer life and fewer failures when compared to the grease-lubed 8-speed. When combined with Gates’ new CenterTrack belt drive, the result is buttery smooth and nearly silent, almost like riding a well-oiled single speed drivetrain. If you’re already on-board with internal gear hubs, this is the next step that really completes the package. Disadvantages include those mentioned above, as well as the need for a frame specifically designed to allow installation of a one-piece drive belt.
*I’m currently evaluating a NuVinci N360 CVP; I’ll provide a detailed report on that hub at a later date.
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.
We receive a surprising number of inquiries regarding chain waxing, so we pulled together the links to our articles to (hopefully) clear up any lingering questions on the subject.