Thursday, April 20, 2006

Commuter Bike Considerations

I've been giving a series of talks about bike commuting. This is pretty much what I said at today's talk at the Seattle Bikestation.

Commuter Bike Considerations: Riding to Work is Not the Tour de France

By Kent Peterson, Bicycle Alliance of Washington

I’m going to start by talking not about bikes, but about shoes. I’m guessing here but I’ll bet that the odds are pretty good that you own more than one pair of shoes. If you go to a fancy party you probably wear different shoes than you would to go hiking on Mount Si. If you are going to jog around Green Lake, you’ll probably choose shoes that are designed for running.

Well, bikes are like shoes, there are different kinds of bikes and some kinds are better for some things than others. And like shoes, the single most important thing with a bike is fit. Bikes come in different sizes and if your bike doesn’t fit you, you’ll never get comfortable. So the first thing I tell people about bikes is to go to a good bike shop, talk to somebody who knows bikes and get a bike that fits.

A bike not only has to be a good fit for you, it should be a good fit for the riding you are planning on doing. If you are planning on using your bike for commuting, riding back and forth from home to work or school, you should get a good commuting bike. Unfortunately much of the bike business is geared around racing bikes or extreme downhill mountain bikes or various things other than commuting, so as a customer, you may have to do some digging to find the right kind of bike. Remember riding to work is not the Tour de France. The bike that is right for Lance Armstrong probably isn’t the best bike for your trip to work.

Let’s start at the bottom and talk about tires. Lance rides really skinny, really high pressure racing tires. Lance rides on really smooth roads in France, roads that have been swept and fans write his name on the road. When Lance has a flat tire, there is a car right there with a spare wheel and a mechanic to swap in the new wheel. When you ride to work, the road probably has potholes. Fans probably don’t write your name on the road but people may yell things at you as you ride. If you have a flat tire, you are the person who has to deal with it.

So a commuter bike should probably have bigger, tougher tires than what Lance has on his bike. Some people commute on “mountain” bikes, some people commute on “road” bikes, but the important thing is that your bike has tires appropriate to the task. Returning to the idea of shoes, tires are like the shoes for your bike.

Lance knows that higher pressure tires roll easier and lighter tires roll better than heavy ones. The important thing is to find the right tire for the job. If you are riding a mountain bike on the road big, knobby, low-pressure tires are probably slowing you down. You can probably fit your bike with a slicker, high-pressure tire that is still tough enough for the potholed streets. On the other hand, if you have very skinny, very light racing tires on your road bike, you may pinch flat on the edge of a pothole or be undone by a patch of broken glass, so you probably want to look at getting a tougher road tire. There are a variety of good, tough tires out there and two that I’ve used and like are the Specialized Armadillo and the Schwalbe Marathon XR.

Some road bikes have better clearance than others for running fatter tires. A lot of modern “racing” bikes can only fit tires that are about 23 mm wide and such a bike probably isn’t as well suited to commuting as something with more tire clearance like a “touring” or “sport touring” bike. Tire clearance doesn’t just give you room to run different size tires, it also gives you room to mount fenders on your bike.

Most bikes are sold without fenders but it rains a lot around here and fenders really do a lot to keep you dry. Lance doesn’t have to worry about fenders, when he’s done with his ride; he’s done with his work. When you are done with your ride, you are at work. It’s better if you’re dry when you get there.

Lance’s job is to go fast and everything on his bike is made to help him go fast. Riding your bike fast is not your job, you are riding to your job and some parts of your bike are there to help you be safe and comfortable. Lance has his handlebars lower than his saddle so he can crank out a lot of power and be lower and more aerodynamic. You might be more comfortable with your handlebars somewhat higher so you have less pressure on your hands. It might be better for you to be more upright. You may be less aerodynamic but you might find it easier to look around.

Speaking of looking around, I’m a big fan of the bicycle mirror. Some people have mirrors mounted on their handlebars, some people have mirrors mounted on their helmets. Some people don’t use mirrors at all but you probably wouldn’t drive a car that didn’t have rear view mirrors and I’ve found that a bike mirror is a very handy bit of gear.

Lance doesn’t have to worry about carrying as much stuff as you do. Lance maybe has to carry a water bottle and a Powerbar. Those are good things for you to carry but Powerbar doesn’t sponsor you so maybe you’ll carry tastier snacks. You don’t have that handy team mechanic so you probably want to carry a tire pump and a spare tube and a few other tools. You may want to carry a change of clothes, a rain jacket and maybe you need to carry some other stuff for work as well.

There are various ways to carry stuff. Some folks use a backpack and some use a messenger bag. A lot of people use a rack and some kind of luggage like a trunk bag or panniers. Other options are a handlebar bag, baskets or a bag that attaches to the bike saddle. A commuting bike doesn’t just carry you, it also carries your stuff. Figure out what you need to take and figure out a solution that works for you.

One item that you’ll probably be carrying is a good bike lock. When Lance finishes his ride, somebody makes sure his bike is safe. When you finish your ride, you are the one who makes sure your bike is safe. A good lock is essential and so is good locking technique. Different areas have different problems with crime but in general it’s up to you to make sure your bike and its various parts stay in your possession. Some commuters avoid lugging a huge lock with them by leaving the big lock attached to the bike rack at their office but if you opt for this technique you want to be certain that you never, ever leave your unlocked bike “just for a minute” to dash into a store. A minute is all it takes to lose your bike.

When Lance is racing, he knows everyone is looking to see where he is. When you are commuting it’s safest to assume people aren’t looking for you. So it’s best to do what you can to make yourself seen and heard. For riding at night, lights and reflectors are essential. Any time, day or night, bright light colored clothing is a good idea. Lance has to earn his yellow jersey but bright yellow vests are available at almost any bike shop. A bell or a horn is another thing that Lance would never have on his bike but it might be very handy item to have on yours.

So far I’ve mostly talked about things that you might want that a racer like Lance won’t need, but now I’d like to flip things around a bit. There are some things that make sense on a racing bike that might not make sense on a commuting bike.

Almost all bicycle racers use clipless pedals and special shoes. Lance rides in shoes with very stiff soles and cleats that stick out. Great for racing but bad for walking around. Now a lot of “serious” cyclists will tell you how much more efficient you are with clipless pedals and fancy shoes but maybe you don’t need all that for commuting. Many mountain bike shoes are almost as stiff as road shoes but they have recessed cleats so you can actually walk like a human while wearing those shoes. Other options are old-fashioned toe clips or Power Grips. With toe clips or Power Grips you can ride in more “normal” shoes.

Racing bikes may be geared for going fast but for commuting with a load of stuff you want to make sure you have gears that are low enough to get you up whatever hills you’ll encounter. Lance can climb big mountains with racing gearing. The odds are pretty good you’ll want lower gears than what Lance uses. Again, a good bike shop can give you guidance about selecting the proper gears. Don’t get caught up in having a lot of gears, some folks commute on one speed or three speed bikes and do fine. The key is having the right gearing for your commute.

As I mentioned earlier, some people commute on “road” bikes and some on “mountain” bikes and there are a lot of different kinds of bikes. If you are looking at commuting on a mountain bike, complex suspension systems are probably not going to do much but slow you down. In the case of a mountain bike, gearing that comes in handy for climbing a steep rock-strewn slope may be too low for your commute.

My favorite commute bikes are simple. No fancy suspensions. No super expensive carbon bits that cost twice as much because they are three grams lighter than last year’s bits. A good frame with good clearances for sensible tires and fenders. A good way to carry stuff. A bike that isn’t too pretty so thieves might take the nicer looking bike parked next to mine.

Bike commuting is not the Tour de France. You are not Lance Armstrong. You don’t need to be. All you need is a good bike and I hope I’ve helped you understand a little more about what to look for in a good commuting bicycle.
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