Wednesday, 27 October 2010

New commuter - which bike?

This question comes up very often on many bicycle forums I tend to read. Now since most of these forums are dominated by a very specific breed of cyclists the answers are a little biased.

Now let's look at a person, who heard about cycling, wants to cycle and needs advice. Since bicycle culture in UK is pretty much non existant they haven't got a clue what they are doing. They've seen people going around on road bikes and now when they ask about what to buy they find out that they need carbon frame, clipless pedals (oh wait for you clipped-in moment), ultegra groupset, mitts, shoes that accomodate cleats, jerseys, helmet and an array of computers, clip on lights and bibs or gilets. Alternatively it's a fixie/hybrid/MTB.

Nobody ever says "Look, this really depends on what you want to do with your bike". If you want to race, by all means go for carbon rims and v-bars. But - if you want your bicycle to be a versatile transport think about these things

1) You don't have to wear special clothes to cycle
2) You want a bicycle that let's you carry some cargo
3) You want a bicycle that can brave the elements
4) You want a bicycle that needs hardly any maintenance
5) You want a bicycle that's durable
6) You want a bicycle that's comfortable

Now some will say that first of all you need a bike that's light and fast and that's very true - when you race. But riding in an urban environment is not about racing - I meet most people that overtake me waiting at the next set of lights. Now let me elaborate a little bit about the points above

1) I found having to change before and after the ride quite annoying. I also found out that the Dutch and Copenhageners ride in their everyday clothes. Just as you don't change to walk you shouldn't have to change for riding your bike (bar racing). It's much more convenient. Keyword: Full Chain Guard

2) After riding with a backpack I had my back all wet - not very pleasant. So I installed a rack on my racing bike to carry my work stuff with me. When I wanted to pop out to the shop to get some groceries I found that I needed a basket. In the end I ending up putting together something that didn't really belong on a racing bike, but did so because of the need for it. Think ahead. Keyword: Basket, Pannier Rack and Panniers, Front Carrier; For bigger cargo: Bakfiets, Long John

3)My racing bike did come with some puny and ineffective mudguards. They did hardly anything to stop that water from the puddles from splashing on my legs. My current bike (Pashley Princess) has beautiful full metal mudguards which are ideal for the winter weather. I go through puddles at full speed without worrying. Keyword: Full Mudguards

4) Derailleurs, exposed chain, rim brakes - the things people put on their bikes to save weight mean they have to maintain them in order for them to work. You need to clean the chain and the derailleur after every rain, lube them, adjust them, change brake pads etc. This is not something you want to do with your everyday bike - you need it to run properly with minimum maintenance. Keywords: Hub Gears, Drum Brakes, Hub Dynamo, Full Chain Guard

5)Racing bikes are made light so but that's at the expense of durability. In the end you want a bicycle to withstand the race. What happens after that is not your concern. Now with your everyday bike you need to take into account - the bicycle falling over, riding on a daily basis, weather, perhaps little collisions. Keywords: Quality Steel Frame

6) The cycling position for racing bikes is for improved power and aerodynamics. It's not meant to be comfortable. It's fun for some time, but not for long. If you don't enjoy your ride, what's the point. Keyword: Upright Riding Position.

Visit for ideas. Also I would recommend workcycles blog ( and especially the FAQ.


  1. I agree whole heartedly, however this does not fit with the UK (or the whole English speaking world) cycle industry's business model. This regards the bicycle as a toy or as sports equipment, rather than a practical means of transport. As demand strengthens things may change, but there is a lot of vested interest at stake, so there will be resistance (just look at the profit margin on a cycle helmet).

    The other problem is infrastructure. I would love to have a cargo bike as it would fit very well with my transport needs, but as a flat dweller I have no where to store it.

  2. Kim, thanks for the comment. This is true that the industry will push for what makes them most money - new gadgets, ultra light this and that.
    There is a demand already, but it will grow when people realize what they need - it's just that when you want to start cycling the image of a MAMIL is what comes to mind Nowadays and I want to change it.
    About storage - it's true that it's sometimes risky. I have the benefit of a communal garden which allows me to store my bikes. However do take into account that proper bikes are meant to live outdoors, so if you secure it properly no one should nick your cargo bike. Especially that it would be super hard to sell and easily identifiable by the Police.

  3. Personally I would like to see more secure on street cycle parking made available, as I it wouldn't be possible to get a cargo bike into my back green and there has already been a bike stolen from there. But hey, who knows what the future might bring, I live in hope.

  4. Ah yes, there's many things like this that need to change before we make UK into second Netherlands. The good thing is that it will grow exponentially - better infrastructure produces more people who ride their bikes, which in turn pressurizes the councils to put in more provisions.
    So basically people who use bikes as transport now make UK better not for themselves but for future generations. (Doesn't that make you feel good? :) )

  5. Funny, I was dreaming the other night that I was writing a feature for a newspaper, say the Standard, on the beginners guide to bike commuting, which woudl have included a section on what to buy, and Lo! here it is.

    Agree with everything you say, but I might add two things:

    Step-through frames - I think men should overcome the notion that these are 'ladies' bicycles and think about their practicality. If you want to wear a suit or a heavy overcoat it would make life easier. OK, so you wouldn't choose pink!

    You don't have to go to a specialist to get one. True, the chain stores' websites don't make them easy to find ("Classic" at Halfords but part of "Hybrid" at Evans) but they have a range of trad bikes by Pashley, Dawes, Viva, Ridgeback and others which meet most of your criteria except perhaps on brakes.

    I would also have commented how in London you rarely need the range of derailleur gears, and as well as maintenance benefits, a hub can change down while stationary so if you get caught by a light, you don't have to wobble away in top gear!