Buying a Bike, Pt. 2: Common Bike Categories
Although it has been a cruel March so far, we're bound to get that tantalizing taste of spring soon! If you are coming out of hibernation and planning your biking season, now it the time to get ready.
What type of bike?
The question "what is the best bike?", is still best answered by "it's the one that's best for you". But, unless you've already been riding for a while, and know exactly what you're looking for, determining "what is best for you" will still take a little detective work. Thinking about the following can help to narrow down your choices:
- Are you a recreational rider, and plan to use your bike occasionally in nice weather, or will you depend on it for your daily commute or errands?
- Do you have to carry children or cargo?
- Is your commute very long, or do you wish to combine biking with transit?
- Do you prefer a lightweight, speedy bike, or is comfort a more important consideration?
- Do you need a bike that has to serve two or more distinctly different purposes, such as commuting and training for an athletic event, or a longer summertime tour?
- Where do you plan to store or park your bike?
With the exception of very highly specialized bikes (eg. triathlon, bmx or dual-suspension mountain bikes), most bikes can be successfully adapted to most urban riding styles. However, these questions, and many others, will help you and the salesperson assisting you, zero in on the features that are most important to you, and help you select the most suitable bike for your needs.
Let's examine some more common types of bicycles, and take look at ways they are particularly well-suited to urban travel:
Thanks to their versatility, utility and ease of use, hybrid bikes made urban biking accessible and convenient for all. Unless you're prepared to invest in a fleet of bicycles for different cycling needs, a hybrid is a great choice, because it adapts well to a variety of uses. Hybrids usually offer a fairly upright (or adjustable) sitting position, and come equipped with smooth street tires. They readily accept racks and fenders, and are sometimes available with commuter-specific accessories. Though many hybrids focus on comfort at a reasonable price, performance models are also available. Hybrids can stand up to the rigors of long-distance riding, however they do not give you options of varying your hand positions, as drop-handlebar bikes do. (More on Hybrids here.)
Folding Bikes. At Cosmic Bikes, we especially love English-made Brompton folding bikes. If ordinary bikes give you freedom to move around the city with ease and sidestep traffic woes, folding bikes crank that freedom up another notch. For the urban commuter, they offer the ultimate in versatility and flexibility, allowing you to combine biking with transit, taxi cabs, and giving you access to storage and security options unavailable to standard bikes. Because they are easy to store at home or at the office, and relatively easy to take in and out of buildings, they never need to be locked outside. They fit a wide variety of riders, and can be shared by members of the same household, or loaned to out-of-town visitors. And that's just for local commuting. For the traveler with a folding bike, the world is your oyster. (More on Bromptons here.)
City Bikes, Three-Speeds & Cruisers. A low-maintenance option that offers an upright riding position, and allows you to wear normal clothes (even skirts!). Many bikes in this category come with internal or simplified gearing and braking systems, as well as fenders and chainguards, and sometimes carrying racks. This makes the bikes simpler to maintain, helps protect your work clothes, and makes them a practical around-town choice. If you are not too concerned about speed, a basic bike of this sort will carry you dependably over just about any distance in the city, in style and comfort.
Touring and Gravel Bikes. Though not specifically designed for urban travel, these bikes lend themselves well to longer commutes, giving the rider a more athletic and efficient riding posture. Drop handlebars offer multiple hand positions, a useful feature on longer rides. Though not as light as performance road bikes, they are built for fast-paced riding and long days in the saddle. They are sturdy enough to carry significant loads and roll over both urban streets and gravel roads. They are durable and versatile, with wider frame clearances to accept a variety of urban tires, and eyelets for easy installation of fenders and racks. They typically come with stockier wheelsets that can withstand the beating they'll get on potholes. An exploding category that bridges the gap between Gravel and Mountain bikes is Adventure Bikes. These take off on the Gravel Bike idea with even wider tires, and sometimes slightly smaller wheels, making them great bikes to go where no man has gone before.
Single-Speed Urban Bikes (aka "Fixies"). Ideal for the minimalist urban commuter: light, fast, uncluttered, easily thrown over the shoulder for the fourth-floor walk-up. If you install a light fender set, skip a rack and carry a messenger backpack instead, you'll have the quintessential no-frills personal transportation bike. A single-speed bike typically somes with a "flop-flop" hub which allows the bike to be quickly converted from a free-wheeling one-speed to fixed-gear, hence: Fixies. Important: fixies must have at least one working brake to be street-legal in Illinois. Caveat: internet Fixies have tempting prices, but you definitely get what you pay for -- a cheap, flimsy bike (sometimes without brakes). Bonus: you can get a quality Single-Speed from your local bikes shop for a lot less than a typical Hybrid.
Trail Bikes & Hardail Mountain Bikes. Though less popular in urban areas than they once were, for many riders, traditional mountain bikes are still a great choice. If you own an older Mountain Bike, and can't or don't want to buy a new bike right now, some simple conversions will turn into into a great urban vehicle. The smaller wheels and tighter main triangle of these bikes give the rider a different type of control in stop-and-go city traffic. They make great, tough, bouncy urban vehicles once you change out the knobby tires. It you don't actually ride off-road too much, throw on some fenders and a rack.
Ultimately, what defines any bike is not what it is, but how it is used. Our goal at Cosmic Bikes is to help you find a bike you will actually enjoy using, ride often and get your money's worth. Well-loved bikes are what we love to see. They take on a well-worn patina, and personalized touches like stickers, and signs of use, like scratches and nicks. They have fenders, racks, and carriers like panniers, milk crates, even plastic wastepaper bins! These are all sure signs that the owner uses the bike and carries stuff on it. It is rare that someone who rides more than occasionally is perfectly happy with the bike exactly as it came out of the factory.
If you ride a bike in Chicago, you have character. Let your bike reflect that.