Thursday, August 25, 2005

The perfect commuting bike…

There is no one bicycle that does everything well. Track bikes are fast and responsive, but the ride is punishing. Likewise, most racing bikes sacrifice comfort for speed. Touring bikes, like my Bianchi, are clearly comfortable, but don’t sprint or climb well.

Most people come into cycling for recreation, as I’ve said before. The vast majority of bikes in the shops are built with the recreational cyclist in mind. That’s what capitalism is all about, after all, giving the people what they want.

But those of us who ride for transportation have a different set of priorities. We start with a ‘normal’ bike, and add those things we need to get back and forth to work. Commuter bikes often need racks and lights. Fenders are a welcome addition to those of us who ride in all weather.

When I came in through the north gate this morning, the bike racks at that end of the maintenance base were almost full. They’ve actually experienced a bicycle-parking crunch at shift change when the in-coming crews cannot find space to lock up their bikes. The company doubled the rack space, and it’s still not enough.

Most of the commuters are on mountain bikes, many with slick tires rather than knobbies. MTBs are a good choice due to their rugged tires, but the upright seating position makes riding into the wind more difficult. Gearing is usually lower overall when compared to a road bike, but that’s not a big factor.

A few people commute on road bikes, often high-end road bikes. These are the same guys who do centuries on the weekends or use their commute to train for racing.

I’ve even seen a tandem on that north rack! How’s that for a commuter!

Depending on the wind and weather, I’ve been riding three bikes, two fixed gears and the Bianchi. One fixie is set up with fenders, lights, and a rack. It’s an ancient Centurion and I use it as my foul weather commuter. One big advantage of a fixed gear for bad weather is the relative ease of maintenance. This bike has sealed hub bearings and an old Campy bottom bracket assembly. It’s not light and it’s certainly not pretty, but it’s as reliable as a brick.

The Bianchi is getting to be high-mileage. It needs a thorough overhaul, and some parts should be replaced. The rear derailleur, for instance, is both bent and slightly twisted. The cogs and chain are worn. I love this bike because it’s as comfortable as an old armchair, so I’ll undoubtedly keep it on the road as long as possible.

But I was thinking about a replacement this morning, having an idle pipe-dream as I rode to work. I was speculating about the ‘ideal’ commuter bike, a bike specifically made to transport a middle-aged, slightly over weight guy to work and back in comfort and safety.

What follows is my opinion regarding a good commuter. Feel free to differ!

The frame geometry would have to be similar to the Bianchi with a slightly shorter top tube than down tube, and it would have to be equipped with dropped handlebars and a rise stem. This is a good compromise between speed and comfort, considering the ever-present wind here in Oklahoma. The seating position isn’t bolt upright like on an MTB, nor is it a racer’s crouch.

The ideal bike would have integral lights and fenders, similar to those Giant folding bikes with headlights integrated into the handlebar. Since I’m a belt-and-suspenders kind of guy, I’d like dual power systems for the lights, perhaps a generator hub with a battery backup. Internal wiring would be nice too, because I’m always snagging wires on things. For that matter, a solar cell would be a good addition in order to keep the battery charged. The rear fender would have an integrated tail light/reflector.

Another idea stolen from motorcycles would incorporate an integrated baggage carrier molded into the back end of a bicycle. It would house all the electronics and batteries, as well as provide storage space. Additionally, it could have a retractable cable lock for modest security. Of course, shiny, nicely molded-in carriers presume that you will never drop the bike. That may not be the best idea for a klutz like me.

I liked the old Raleigh three-speeds with a locking fork, also similar to motorcycle practice. The fork turned to one side and locked, making it impossible to ride away on the bike. It’s possible to pick the bike up and walk away with it, but the DL-1 weighed 45 pounds! You could walk, but you wouldn’t walk very far or very fast!

I’ve thought about mounting a small white light on the back of the bike. It would be very low power and it would be aimed forward. This would illuminate my back and helmet, giving perspective to an overtaking motorist. A simple light or reflector bobbing along in the dark doesn’t convey distance information to a driver, but a human silhouette certainly does.

One big factor with any commuter bike is maintenance and reliability. The two go hand-in-hand. A well maintained bike is less likely to strand the rider somewhere between work and home, and I’ve always been a fan of the KISS approach. (Keep it simple, stupid!) That’s why I like fixed gears. But there’s another drive system that should offer low maintenance/high reliability, and that’s the Shimano Nexus internally geared hub. Think of it as a Sturmey Archer for the new millennium.

When last I checked, Nexus offered both 4 speed and 7 speed hubs. Laced into a good quality aluminum rim, these would be ideal for a commuter bike. They also offer the ability to shift when stopped, and since the chain doesn’t have to move side to side, it should last a very long time. A fully enclosed chainguard would complete the drivetrain

One last thing about the drivetrain – ordinary pedals or those Shimano PD-M324 double-sided ones, with an SPD clip on one side and an ordinary pedal on the other – offer a good spot to mount the humble pedal reflector. These reflectors really catch a motorist’s eye because their motion instantly identifies the vehicle up ahead as a bicycle.

I know there are some Sturmey Archer fixed gear hubs available on E-Bay from time to time. These are multiple speed fixed gear hubs, but frankly, they’re considered big time collectibles and fetch astonishingly high prices. I wouldn’t want to use one on a daily commuter. It’s just not right. There are some other fixed gear conversions available for internally geared hubs, but I’m not at all familiar with them.

Also, it wouldn’t be right to take an old, high-end bike and put it into service as a commuter. I know the collectors love pristine old bikes, and I’m afraid that if one fell into my hands, I’d ride the snot out of it.

One last thing, and it’s on every cyclist’s wish list: I’d want all the above and I’d want it to be as light as possible. (Talk about wanting your ice cream toasted!) The Bianchi with lights, fenders, and baggage, weighs about 45 pounds, just like one of the old Raleigh DL-1s. I’m no lightweight, but it would still be nice to have a lighter bike to slog up the hills on the way home!


Blogger Yokota Fritz said...

Cool, Ed. My fixie is an old Centurion also. I abuse that poor thing.

For from-the-rear perspective, I mount two red lights on my rear rack side by side. I've read that helps oncoming traffic judge distance a little better.

10:38 PM  
Blogger Yokota Fritz said...

Oh, I forgot to mention earlier -- here's a recently built fixie using the 3-speed Archer Sturmey hub.

The most outstanding feature is the drive componentry and chain are all on the left side of the bike.

12:09 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I reckon a flatbar handlebar is better for commuting. I ride in Canberra, Australia, and a flatbar means you have a quicker response time when you have to brake and the gear shifters are just a thumb/finger move rather than a hand move for brake/shift on a dropbar.
While I can go fast, (I ride a flatbar roadbike) I am also concerned about stopping quickly and keeping safe in the busy traffic here.

9:32 PM  
Blogger Ed W said...

I've tried flat bars, Peter, but when the wind picks up here in Oklahoma, I feel like a big sail fighting a headwind. I prefer dropped bars, and I usually ride with my hands on top of the levers.

9:39 PM  

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