Tuesday 13 August 2013

Your Ride...

The Bicycle

In order to cycle commute you need a bicycle. In this post I will make some general suggestions as to what kind of bike you need, and I will discuss what I use. However, I do not intend to endorse any particular brands or companies. I’m not trying to sell you anything. If I mention the brands I use it is so you can look up the equipment yourself and see its specifications, and if you want you can find cheaper alternates. As will become apparent as we move forward, there are many different ways to cycle safely; no one piece of equipment is perfect for every application. Use these suggestions as just that, suggestions. I find that in most cases there are usually cheaper substitutes for expensive riding equipment, you just need to improvise.

When you ride as much as I do, you become quite attached to your bike. I have had bikes stolen, and I have had bikes smashed by cars, but other than that I have never replaced a bicycle. Like many technologies, you tend to work around the limitations rather than replace. How many times have you jerry-rigged something so it works rather than replace it? Why not just get something newer, something better? The thing is, you become attuned to the way your bicycle works, and sometimes familiar is more important than new or expensive. We live in a “throwaway” culture, and it is helpful to remember that keeping something working is just as important as trying something new. It is also in the vested interests of bike companies (and for that matter companies that make any product) to convince you that you need to have the newest product in their stable. Don’t believe the hype, bikes are comparatively simple, remarkably efficient and well-designed transportation technologies. Take care of your bike, keep it serviced and cleaned and it can last you for years.

It is also important to realize that if you do decide to purchase (say you don’t currently have a bicycle) you don’t need to break the bank to buy one. You can buy used, and there are usually a range of bicycles available to you in any given price range. Don’t be conned into buying something crazy expensive because it is “safer”. For the most part, modern bicycles share many of the same components and safety features. As a result, safety has just as much to do with how you ride and what kind of bike you ride as what brand of bike you ride, assuming that you keep the bike properly maintained. You can get better performance from a more expensive bike in many cases, but from a safety perspective the main risk associated with a less expensive bike is that cheaper components might break down more often.

Case in point, two years ago after I was hit by a car while on my high-end mountain bike I was without wheels for a few months. My neighbor generously offered me his old beater mountain bike. My original bike cost in the $800 range, the replacement put my friend back about $250. The brakes on his beater were rusty, as was the chain, it squeaked when you rode and the gear changers were out of date. But the bike got the job done, the brakes worked, the gear shifters worked, and the bike got me to work safely for several months until the insurance money kicked in.

Urban cycling can be done with any kind of bicycle, a racing bike, a recumbent, a “fixie”, a cruiser, a road bike, a mountain bike or a hybrid (“commuter”) bike. However, certain varieties of bicycle are better for the long distance urban commuter. It is to that subject I now turn.

Racing Bikes
Racing bikes are excellent for speed but their thin tires just beg to be caught in sewer grates, potholes, streetcar tracks and pavement cracks. Thin tires increase your road speed as there is less tire surface in contact with the road, and thus less frictional resistance. Speed, of course, can be a good thing (as my buddy Peter always used to say, “friction is your friend, without it you couldn’t even stand up”), but thin tires have their risks. I once saw a cyclist down on the pavement, his neck at an odd angle, with the paramedics surrounding him. His bicycle was half standing, the thin front tire jammed in a sewer grate slot. The city of Toronto uses diagonal sewer grate slot patterns to keep cyclists from getting their tires stuck in this way, but I gathered that the cyclist in question must have turned his wheel at precisely the wrong time and the tire became jammed (not to mention that offset slot patterns change as the circular cover “turns” when cars drive over it). Thin tires require fairly constant vigilance to avoid these sorts of problems in the urban cycling environment; city roads are frequently in bad enough shape that there are plenty of dangers on the pavement.

Another issue with racing bikes is that they tend to be lighter (to go faster), which means that you feel every last bump and crevice when you ride. When I switched from my second last bike to my previous one I tried out a high-end racing bike as the salesman was convinced I would love it compared to the mountain bike I had been riding. “That’s a mini-van”, he told me of my old bike, “this is a finely tuned racecar”. I took the bike out for a test spin and I found the experience to be jarring. Again, city roads tend to be in fairly bad shape, cracks, potholes, bumps, etc., which makes riding a lighter bike a bit of a shakefest. Thus, unless you have a particularly smooth road on your commute this can be an issue. On that note, they repaved the major road closest to my home last year; I was so grateful I felt like singing.

Racing bikes also tend to have the curved back and under handlebar design that works well for high speed cycling. When you bend down and forward to hang on to curved back handlebars you reduce your profile, and thus experience less wind resistance. This is good for speed, but on long distance commutes can be bad for your back and neck. This is somewhat of a personal choice, I know cyclists who prefer to be hunched over for long periods and do not experience discomfort, but I find it does, particularly in the neck. When you ride bent over you tilt your head up so you can see forward, this pinches your neck and can create pain in your upper back and shoulders.

I know bending forward while riding is the cause of this particular problem as I was experiencing this neck pain until I saw a physiotherapist who suggested that the problem might come from my cycling position. He suggested a whole host of solutions, from regular physiotherapy sessions to muscle relaxants to decreasing my cycling frequency. I wasn’t interested in any of these solutions, and I had been professionally fitted to the bike when I bought it so I knew that this wasn’t the problem. To solve the problem I decided to “sit up” at regular intervals during my ride and that did the trick almost immediately.

Sometimes simple solutions are better.

The last advantage to straight handlebars is that they are generally wider, so there are a greater range of positions for your hands. One thing about long distance commuting is that you are vulnerable to repetitive strain injuries, injuries that result from doing the same thing many times. Having a greater range of positions for the hands keeps you from being in the same position all of the time. I have a pair of posts added to the end of my handlebars, these posts are vertical and give me the option of varying my hand position, also allowing me to sit back further while holding on to the handlebars.

Racing bikes (at least newly purchased ones) also tend to be on the expensive side compared to other varieties of bike. In order to be light racing bikes are made of expensive composites and light but durable metals. You pay for this when you buy a racing bike. It is true that the other varieties of bike are going up in price, and you can certainly get very expensive versions of them, and it is certainly possible to by a comparatively cheap racing bike, but for the most part racing bikes will cost you more.

The safety concerns I mention here (sewer grates, streetcar tracks, potholes) can be mitigated if you are 
extra vigilant on the road, but here’s the problem: long distance cycling is just that, long distance, and that implies you will be on the road for a while. This just makes the odds of you hitting one of these obstacles all the greater, and the need for vigilance all the more prominent. As a result, unless you are willing to put in the extra effort and play the odds, I would not recommend a racing bike for long distance urban commutes.

Recumbent Bikes
Recumbents are an interesting case in the cycling world. A recumbent bike has you sitting back with your legs very close to straight ahead rather than oriented down. Recumbents are generally better for your back as you are less hunched over, they have straight handlebars rather than the curved down design of the racing bike, and they are also quite fast as they lower your profile and reduce your wind resistance. The land speed record for cycling was set with a recumbent bike, something that irritates many racing cyclists to no end.

However, recumbents have disadvantages. They tend to be quite expensive, as they are less common. They are also lower to the ground, if you have seen anyone driving a recumbent bike they often have a long pole with a flag on it on the back of the bike, in order to increase their visibility. My main concern with this sort of bicycle would be my visibility on the road. In principle the flag should get a driver’s attention, but in practice low lying objects are below the field of vision for drivers (especially in mini-vans and trucks where you generally sit much higher up), so I would be cautious riding this sort of bike for long distances.

Fixed Gear Bicycles
Fixed gear bicycles or “fixie’s” are frequently used by bike couriers and “hard core” cyclists. Fixed gear bikes were originally designed for racetracks where there is no automobile traffic or pedestrians around. As a result fixie’s often do not have brakes on them. They have only one gear, no shifters or derailers are needed, making them mechanically simpler and less prone to breakdown. They also tend to have thinner tires like racing bikes.

The trick to riding a fixed gear bike is that you have no gear system available to you, which means two things. One, when you ride up a hill you can’t “gear down” as you go, which makes steep hills a pain. Two, when you go down a hill you have to keep up with your pedals as they increase in rotation speed. When you are going fairly fast this can be a significant challenge. Add to these concerns the fact that you don’t have brakes, which means you can only slow down by slowing down your pedaling of the bike. The net result of these factors is that you tend to become a very strong cyclist when you ride a fixed gear bike, you have to work hard going both up and down hills, and you have to slow the bike down with your legs as you have no brakes.

Some people I know swear by fixed gear bikes. The cycling experience really is different, and they like the fact that so much of the control involved in cycling comes from them and not the bike’s gear system or brakes. For long haul urban cycling however, I would not recommend a fixed gear bike. Unless you live on the prairies chances are you have a few hills on your route, which means more work on a fixed gear bike. And I can’t even imagine cycling safely in the city without brakes. I don’t care how good you are at anticipating traffic and slowing down your bike with just your legs, cycling long distances in traffic without brakes is not something I would endorse. Add to this the concerns associated with thinner tires and fixed gear bikes are not the best choice for long distance urban commuting.

Cruisers, or “granny bikes” as a friend of mine calls them, are generally heavier, solid bikes with a small number of gears (usually three), big seats, large handlebars, bigger tires, and, increasingly, enclosed gear/chain systems. The cruisers that are popular today are based on the model of the “Amsterdam bike”. They are meant for cyclists who are not in a rush and want to have a solid, reliable bike. Enclosed gears and chain although not a feature of all cruisers, are meant to reduce the possibility of dirt and particulates interfering with the bike’s regular operation.

Cruisers are ideal for city riding in many ways, they are solid and well-built so breakdowns are not as much of an issue, their bigger tires are safer, and their enclosed gear system reduces the chances of mechanical failure. However, for long distance urban cycling cruisers have liabilities. First, they are heavier, which counts for more on long commutes, but more importantly they tend to have very few gears, which can be a problem when you are riding in the city.

One of the things I took a while to realize when I started riding in the city was that gear shifting isn’t just about making pedaling easier or harder, it is also a part of controlling your bike. I gear shift constantly when I ride, I shift up to increase my speed, I shift down when I’m going up a steep hill or to decrease my speed. However, gear shifting influences your speed differently depending on what speed you are starting at when you shift gears.

For example, say I’m at an intersection waiting for the light to change. I start riding, and then I gear up, for the first few seconds this will slow me down, as gearing up makes pushing the pedals harder. Once I get the bike rolling I will start to speed up, but the initial reaction to gearing up from a standing start is to slow you down. I once quantified this observation by looking at my cycling computer and watching my speed change during a standing start/gearing up maneuver. I started cycling and when I shifted my gears up my speed went down initially, then slowly started to increase. If you are cycling along at a good speed and you gear up the same thing happens but it is less noticeable as you “catch up” to the higher gear faster. Similarly, if you gear down when you are going slowly you initially speed up, and then very quickly you “catch up” to the cadence of the bike and slow down.

As a result of all of this I like the flexibility of having a lot of gears to use. I also use “gearing up” to slow down the bike when I am concerned about reaction times and traffic. Rather than hitting the brakes all the time, I gear up, which makes the pedaling harder, and this slows me down temporarily. I came to realize how much I use gear shifting in my ride this past cycling season when I rode through the winter. On one particular day my gear system just gave up the ghost. My rear derailleur stopped working entirely, so all I had was the three gears available to me on the front cog (where my pedals connected to the bike), which meant that I essentially had three options for pedalling, really hard, moderate and really easy. From a cycling perspective this meant that I found it remarkably difficult to find a comfortable cycling speed, I was either spinning the pedals madly and not going anywhere, or pushing so hard I thought I was going to blow a muscle. As a result of concerns like these, I would not recommend a cruiser for long distance urban cycling.

Road Bikes
I have a soft spot for road bikes. They get a bit of a bum rap in the cycling world as they are seen as “old fashioned”, and they are often cheaper and are not seen as “specialized”. Racing bikes are specially designed for speed, mountain bikes are specially designed for rough trails, road bikes are the generic bike, OK at everything, not particularly special at anything. For some people this means they are less preferable.

However, road bikes have many features that make them appealing for long distance urban cycling. One, they have medium sized tires, which is better on the road. Two, they have multiple gears, which I find useful in urban cycling. Three, they are not ultra-light, so they don’t give you the rough ride that a racing bike can give you. They are also quite solid, which means that they can take a fair bit of road abuse. For example, up here in Canada we have a store called Canadian Tire, and Canadian Tire sold cheap but solid road bikes for years, affectionately called “Canadian Tire Specials.” When I cycle toured in Europe with my friend David I rode a high end Bianchi racing bike, he rode a Canadian Tire special. I had multiple flats, blew out my spokes twice, and eventually had to replace my front wheel as it bent from repeated exposure to cobblestones. David’s bike was slower than mine, but fine for the entire trip.

In general, if you want a reliable entry bike for long distance urban commuting the standard road bike is a good choice. It has the additional advantage that road bikes, although they can be expensive, have a good range of lower cost models that you can get at non-specialty shops.

Mountain Bikes
Mountain bikes are the mirror opposite twin of racing bikes. They are heavier (though there are a range of weights available, lighter mountain bikes tend to be very expensive) and more durable, but slower on the road. They have fat tires, which also decreases their speed. As a result many cyclists don’t want mountain bikes as they want to go fast. However, mountain bikes are ideal for long distance urban cycling.
When you have a long commute in front of you, your enemies (in addition to traffic) are mechanical breakdowns and road conditions, and mountain bikes deal with both very well. There is nothing more annoying that having your bike break down halfway through a long commute. Mountain bikes are designed to take a significant amount of abuse, and it has been my experience that they are for all practical purposes invincible on the roads. My previous two urban riding bikes were mountain bikes and I made it through three cycling seasons without a single mechanical breakdown other than flat tires on them. I could hit the road and not worry about mechanical problems as the bike could easily handle whatever road riding put in my way. 

Added to this was the advantage of fat tires, which meant that I didn’t have to be unduly concerned with bumps, potholes, streetcar tracks, sewer grates and cracks. All of this translates into a much smoother ride. Given that some city roads are in disastrously bad shape, a smoother ride can be very important. If you have a long commute over roads in bad condition a fat set of tires and a heavy bike are your best friends.

Mountain bikes have other advantages. They have multiple gears and straight handlebars, both preferable for long distance urban cycling. They also come in a wide range of prices, so you don’t have to break the bank to try one out. For long distance urban cycling, the mountain bike is probably the safest option, reliable, comfortable and pretty much indestructible. The primary disadvantage to mountain bikes is speed, fat tires and a heavier bike means they tend to be slower. In addition, most mountain bikes come with “knobby” tires that are great off road but not really necessary on road, and they also slow you down.

Especially for the new cycle commuter, the peace of mind that comes from not having to be as concerned with breakdowns and being better protected from road hazards seems to me to be a conclusive argument for the utility of the mountain bike. So why not use a mountain bike? The most common argument I hear is that the mountain bike is too slow, specifically its fat tires and the upright position of the rider (due to the fact the mountain bike does not have curved down handlebars) means that the bike is generally slower than road bikes or racing bikes. Since I find mountain bikes to be much safer on the road they still strike me as a preferable option.

Hybrid or Commuter Bikes
Cycling manufacturers are tuned in to current trends, and they have capitalized on the desire of many people to cycle to work in the city by introducing a “new” bike design, the “hybrid” or “commuter” bike. Not surprisingly, hybrids tend to combine all of the best features I have mentioned above. They are solid and well built, they have medium sized tires, they have multiple gears, they have straight handlebars, and they are lighter than most mountain bikes but heavier than most racing bikes. They also tend to be built to facilitate things like panniers and baskets to allow commuters to transport day to day materials to and from their destinations.

The only significant issue I have found with hybrid bikes is that they tend to be on the expensive side. Although every variety of bike has an expensive version, I find road bikes and mountain bikes have a greater range of affordable options, most of the hybrid bikes I have seen don’t come in cheaper versions. They are generally cheaper than racing bikes and recumbents, but that’s about it.

After a string of mountain bikes I have now switched to a hybrid bike, I currently ride a Kona Dew Plus, and I am very satisfied with its performance and durability. My main reason for switching had to do with the fact that mountain bikes, though durable and comfortable, are not designed for “fast rolling” on the road. When you are riding it is not only the weight of the bike that is an issue but also how well the bike rolls on the road. I noticed this as soon as I started riding my hybrid bike. I could, for example, coast much longer on the hybrid than I could on my mountain bike. This, combined with a lighter weight, sped up my ride noticeably.

In short, for the long distance urban commuter hybrid bicycles are pretty much ideal.

Modifying Bikes
Having reviewed a range of different cycling designs, it is worth noting that you can avoid the downfalls of particular bicycles by modifying them for your use. You don’t necessarily need to go out and get a new bike if your old bike can be changed to meet your needs. For example, I have used mountain bikes for my urban cycling, but I have generally switched out the knobby tires that came with the bike for “slicks” or road tires. 

You can also get “fatter” tires for your racing bike if you like something light but dislike the risks associated with very thin tires. You can switch out the backwards and down curved handlebars on your bike for straight handlebars, though this can be complicated if your gear shifting system and brakes are internalized to the handlebars. You can install brakes on a fixed gear bike, something that I have seen on several occasions.

In general, you can customize your ride to alleviate some of the concerns mentioned above. If you are not mechanically inclined you will have to pay someone else to do it, but a small modification to a bike may make a world of difference. If you currently have a bike that is not ideal for long distance urban riding, modifications are much cheaper than buying a new bike, so they are worth considering.

Used Bikes
Just like cars, there is a huge aftermarket for used bikes. This is in part due to the fact that bikes are often stolen and resold, so you should always be thoughtful about the individual or business selling you the bike. Still, for those who want to minimize the costs associated with cycling, a used bike is an excellent option.

A word of warning though: even the most seasoned cyclist can fail to notice problems with a bicycle. We tend to think of technologies as fixed, but in reality they are changing. Chains and brake cables stretch over time, gear cogs become worn, tires bald, etc. Thus, if you choose to buy a used bike it is imperative (if you aren’t mechanically inclined and knowledgeable about bicycles) to take your purchase to a reputable bike shop and have a complete tune up done on the bike, replacing whatever components your mechanic deems necessary. If you are commuting long distance in traffic you want to minimize breakdowns for reasons of convenience and safety. Although I have been fortunate in that any flats or breakdowns I have had have not led to accidents, I would not want to blow a tire or lose a break cable while moving at high velocity down a steep hill in traffic. You don’t have to buy an expensive new bike to have a safe bike, you just need to do your due diligence and make sure it is in good shape before you hit the road.

There will of course be individuals who recommend a particular brand of bike over others, and it is certainly true that not all bikes of a particular kind are created equal. A few years back I bought a KHS Mountain Decent, a mountain bike intended for racing. It was light, sleek, the gears shifted seamlessly and it was solid on the road. It was certainly the best mountain bike I had ever used. However it was expensive, and it wasn’t any safer than my other mountain bikes. It was also the bike that was totaled in my accident, being on the best bike I had ever driven didn’t stop the car that hit me. Don’t confuse price with safety.

In summary, if you want a very safe bike for long distance urban commuting your best bet is a mountain bike, a hybrid or a road bike. Mountain bikes have the slight edge as they are very durable and have bigger tires, but other than that a commuter, or a solid road bike, is just as safe and just as functional. Racing bikes, recumbents, fixed gear bikes and cruisers all have either safety or functional concerns that make them less than ideal choices for the urban commuter.



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