What kind of bike is right for you?

CC BY 2.0 The family bikes/ Lloyd Alter

My Marin bike was stolen last week. It was totally my fault; I left it in front of my house while I went inside to get my garage door opener, got distracted and forgot about it, and of course by the next morning it was gone. However I am not without wheels; there are quite a few bikes hanging around in our family, and they all serve different purposes in different places and seasons. Now that I have to decide what to ride, I have been thinking about the pluses and minuses of each kind of bike.

I ride mostly in the city, and have become a fan of what Elly Blue calls Slow Biking. She writes that slow is satisfying; "You see everything. Each cat has a chance to say hello". Slow is safe; this absolutely true. I have time to look in side mirror to avoid the door prize, to avoid pedestrians stepping out from between cars. She doesn't mention that slow is easy- you don't work up a sweat and are perfectly comfortable in regular city clothes.

Road bike

Norco road bikeNorco Road Bike/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
I didn't used to think like that; for years I used a road bike, this Norco that I bought at a police auction for thirty bucks twenty years ago. Road bikes with drop handles have some real advantages; they are light and fast, and your weight is distributed among the pedals, the seat and the handlebars so they are much easier on the bum. I even wore clip-on bike shoes.

This is really dumb when riding in the city. I once hurt myself when a woman stepped out in front of me and I had to jam on the brakes. I couldn't get my feet out in time and fell over on my side and hit my elbow. It could have been much worse; I was lucky there were no cars racing by me.

Also, the skinny tires don't have a whole lot of shock absorption, and some Toronto streets can shake your teeth out. Streetcar tracks were nightmares. I reached the point in life where I wanted a bit more comfort and passed it on to my daughter.

If you like a drop handlebar, there are cyclocross bikes that have wider tires and are designed for rougher conditions, and touring bikes; which, according to the great bike guide at Century Cycle, " have a more relaxed frame design so that the rider is more upright, for more comfort when riding long distances for multiple days at a time. They have a lower gear range compared to regular road bikes, to allow for carrying heavy loads up steep hills. They also make good commuter bicycles, because of their durability and ability to carry heavy loads."

Mountain Bike

Iron Horse mountain bikethe only photo of my Iron Horse mountain bike/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Mountain bikes soak up the bumps in the road very nicely with their heavy frame and shock absorbing forks. The wide knobby tires are great for winter riding, and the disk brakes work better in snow and slush than calliper brakes, although they are more complex and susceptible to salt damage. The wide range of gear choices make it easy to climb hills.

But I found it to be really heavy, a slog to ride, and not a lot of fun. All those features that make it great off-road just add weight in the city.

Hybrid Bike

hybrid bikeCentury Cycle Hybrid Bike/Promo image

Hybrid bikes were designed to combine the best of road bikes and mountain bikes. Century Cycle writes:

They can be ridden on paved roads, but are not as lightweight or efficient as road bikes. They are ideal for paved or unpaved bike trails, but are not appropriate for rough off-road mountain bike trails. The tires are usually a medium-width with a semi-smooth tread, to provide a fairly smooth ride on pavement, but enough grip and cushion on unpaved trails.

I have never owned a hybrid, but it seems to me to be the worst of both worlds, and I believe that it has pretty much been made obsolete by the urban and cruiser bike.

Urban Bike

My bikeLloyd Alter's ride/CC BY 2.0
I have called this class of bike an urban bike, as City Bike sounds too much like Citibike. Others call it a cruiser but that's not a good description either. Here's my stolen bike, photographed for an article on riding all winter.

For relatively flat cities like Toronto, this is the perfect bike. It's relatively inexpensive, light, fast and minimal, no gears (mine had two gears that changed when you backpedalled) nothing more than you need. With a carrier and a pannier I could carry just about anything on it. I found my Marin a lot of fun to ride and will miss it.

Dutch Bike

emma's electraEmma's Electra/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Also called a city bike or an urban bike; my daughter loves the riding position, the comfort, and the look. They all have fenders, chain guards, and of course, a straw basket. This is the kind of bike one can use in their everyday life, in normal clothes. They have become very trendy and fashionable among women, but they are also strong and last forever, which is why they are so common in places like Holland; they are workhorses. I would have thought it was a bit heavy, but my daughter uses it for a 12 mile round trip to work. She used to ride the road bike and finds that while this is heavier and slower, it is a lot more comfortable.

Cargo Bike

Meeting MikaelMikael Colville-Andersen on a bike/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

When visiting Copenhagen, i was surprised to see bike activist Mikael Colville-Andersen using a cargo bike for his every day riding. I was also surprised that I had trouble keeping up with him. That's because he is on a Bullitt, described as " not just a good cargo bike — it’s the funkiest and fastest cargo bike in the world....All the packhorse power of the original Danish “Long John”, but with the width, feel and ride of a normal bike."

kidsLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In Copenhagen you see all kinds of cargo bikes being put to everyday use, and I'm seeing more and more of them in Toronto as the bike culture expands. I would have thought they are slow and heavy, but I can see shooting around town on a Bullitt.

Folding Bike

strida on streetLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Now that my urban bike is gone, it's back to my Strida. It's actually a terrific city bike because it is so easy to fold and take inside with you, to avoid theft; I have even checked it in cloakrooms. It can also be used for multi-modal biking; it fits under the seat on the subway, so in winter if I don't want to ride home in the dark after teaching downtown, I can take transit for most of the way and ride the last mile. It is a bit more work and a bit slower than the urban bike, and I found that when I had both, I went for the bigger bike.

folding bike hanging in closet photo

It is also a bit slower, which tends to keep you out of danger, and a lot more maneuverable because of the smaller wheels. For people who live in apartments, you can easily carry it up and store it in a closet; Graham Hill even designed hooks to hang his Stridas up like overcoats.

What's the right bike for you?

bosch bikeLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

As I think I have shown here, each type of bike has its advantages and disadvantages. I found the Urban Bike to be the best all-round, year round bike for me, but find the Strida a close second. Others will have different needs.

I suspect that as boomer cyclists age, the electric assisted bike, or Pedalec, like the Bosch-powered one shown above will become popular. These are solid bikes that kick in a boost when you need it, letting riders cover longer distances and climb steeper hills.

What kind of bike is right for you?
I've had them all, and there are pluses and minus to each kind of bike.

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