Amazing Bikes: City Bikes
All about city bikes: practical bikes for everyday transport. How to choose and how to use...
Posted by Peter Eland on Thursday 31 Mar 2011
Mention cycling and it often raises images of lycra clad racers, or heavily laden tourers, but for most people who cycle, their bike is simply a method of transport. Around the world, millions of people get on their bikes to get to work, to go shopping or to visit friends. And while you can do these things on any bike, there are certain qualities that make a bike ideal for utility.
What are the benefits of utility cycling?
For most people, using a bike means door-to-door travel. Your bike can live in your shed, or indoors, no matter how crowded the street you live on and there's nearly always somewhere to lock a bike up, free, near your destination. You're not tied to a bus timetable, and once in town you can get off and push if you need access to an area reserved for pedestrians.
If you can use your bike for everything, and go car free, then you can make a massive annual saving on tax, insurance, MOT and so on. But even if you still need to run a car, swapping to your bike for short journeys will save you fuel and wear and tear - most engines are at their least efficient when used for short trips in urban traffic.
It may seem unlikely, but in urban situations a bike is often as fast as, or faster than, a car, especially when you factor in time spent parking. Bikes can filter through traffic jams, and often take advantage of cycle routes that take shortcuts. Your local council may produce a map showing cycle paths and reccommended routes, to help you plan journeys efficiently.
There's no need to go to the gym, if you're pedalling every day - so you save time and money you might otherwise spend on organised exercise. And the benefits aren't just physical - your mental wellbeing can be improved by being active and out in the fresh air, instead of cooped up in a metal box, fuming at traffic. And on the subject of fumes, the air breathed by cyclists is often cleaner than that recirculated inside a car.
If you enjoy cycling, then why not do it as often as possible, even if it's just down to the shop for a newspaper. And while you're out, you can travel at a pace that allows you to be in touch with your surroundings. You might see a friend walking along the pavement - it's easy to stop and say hello, or have a look at an interesting shop window. If you have a regular routine, you might find you see the same people everyday, and exchange a nod or a hello, in a way you'd be unlikely to in a car.
Of course, there can be hurdles to overcome. The weather can be offputting, riding in traffic requires some confidence and skill, and you are limited in how much you can carry. But these are all factors that can be overcome with the right equipment and attitude - more of that later.
Bikes for City Cycling
A bike used for utility cycling needs to be a strong and reliable workhorse. Brakes and gears need to be able to cope with day-to-day use, with gritty, salty water on the roads in winter. It shouldn't be too precious - parked up in a row of town centre bike racks, sooner or later, it'll get scratched. City bikes generally have a fairly upright riding postion, which takes the weight off your arms and shoulders, and allows you to look around easily without craning your neck.
For reliability and low maintenance, hub gears and brakes are ideal. Everything is contained in the centre of the wheel, where the wet and road dirt can't get to them. Hub gears will also allow you to have a chain guard - a totally enclosed chain will wear out much less quickly than an exposed one, and there's the added advantage of keeping your trouser legs out of the oily bit. The days of hub gears limiting you to 3 speeds are gone - modern hubs allow you to have up to 11 gears easily - 14 if you opt for the legendary Rohloff.
To protect your bike and your clothes (and other cyclists behind you!) from water spattering up off the road, have mudguards fitted. And for true utility, you'll need to carry stuff, so have a rack as well, for panniers. A rucksack is ok for small loads, but uncomfortable and unstable for a large amount of stuff. Finally, make sure you have lights - even if you don't intend to ride at night, you might get caught out at dusk, or in heavy rain or fog. A dynamo set wired onto the bike is ideal and fuss free, but even relatively cheap modern LED battery lights give impressive levels of light and long run-times from one set of batteries. Consider having a back-up set too, in case one fails or so that you can have one set on steady and the other on flashing - a good way to attract drivers' attention.
So, if you want a dedicated city bike, do you buy new, or second-hand?
New City Bikes
If you're buying a bike for urban riding new, expect to pay from £250 upwards. Much less, and it'll be heavy, with poor quality components which are difficult to adjust - brakes that rub, gears that skip and so on. Most bike shops will have a range of traditional roadster type bikes in this price range, generally with derailleur gears and rim brakes, which will be perfectly adequate, but will require a little bit of maintenance.
A hub geared bike may cost a little more - starting at £300-400, but will pay you back with reliabilty and ease of use. Three speed hubs are still available at the bottom end of the price range, but pay a bit more and you can have seven or eight gears. There are plenty of brands to choose from - Ridgeback, Trek, Dawes and Giant to name but a few, with styling that ranges from traditional to modern. Visit a few local bikes shops to see what they have in stock.
The nation best associated with utility cycling is probably The Netherlands, and Dutch style bikes are increasingly popular over here in the UK, especially in flatter areas. The riding position tends to be very upright, and the bikes very solidly built - good for longevity, but also sometimes on the heavy side. If you'd like to sail along in a stately fashion, and don't care about speed, then a Dutch bike is ideal. Importers include Amstel, Amsterdammers and Cambridge Dutch Bikes. Dutch manufacturer Gazelle also has numerous dealers in the UK.
If you want to spend a bit more, a number of manufacturers can provide a high end city bike, with the very best components - things like integrated dynamo lighting, wide range hub gears, good quality pannier rack and so on. German brand Fahrrad Manufaktur for example, offer a Rohloff-equipped 14 speed bike. Other companies like Koga-Miyata allow you to select components for your ideal bike online or at a dealer, and then have it built up for you.
Given that a utility bike is used day after day, and probably in all weathers, you may not want to spend a lot of money on a new bike. This is where the 'hack' bike comes in. A 'hack' was originally the second rate horse a gentleman rode in order to keep his best horse fresh for the hunt, and later it came to mean a winter training bike for a road racer. Now, it's a bike used for mundane utility - something that can take a bit of punishment and keep on going. It'll look very ordinary, maybe a bit scruffy, but with some care in choosing components, it can be tailor-made for your needs.
An old touring bike or early mountain bike is a good start, perhaps with drop bars replaced by flat ones for a more upright position in traffic. Choose gears and brakes according to how much maintenance you want to do, and what your frame will accept. Let a bit of grime build up on it, to make it less attractive to thieves, and ignore the odd scratch in the paint - just keep the chain oiled, and the tyres pumped up and use it every day!
There are a few fears and objections that often come up when people think about cycling, all of which can be countered with the right equipment and attitude.
There is certainly more traffic on our roads than ever before, and many people are understandably intimidated by it. But with the right knowledge, and perhaps some formal training, cycling can be quite safe.
Firstly, you must be able to rely on your bike. A frame that is the right size for you, brakes that work well, gears that shift when you want them to, and not when you don't, lights that are bright and not obscured by your bag or coat: these all help you interact well with other traffic.
Secondly, you should be confident, but not cocky. Don't cower close to the kerb - apart from the gutter probably harbouring glass or other tyre puncturing debris, being too close to the kerb gives you nowhere to swerve to, and puts you in line with slippy metal drain covers. Ride a metre or so out - you'll be in drivers' line of sight, and will discourage many from overtaking at narrow points. Keep up a speed you feel comfortable with, but don't go too fast for the conditions - what if that traffic light changes, or that pedestrian steps out, can you stop in time? Look ahead, and anticipate potential dangers. At the same time, listen out for vehicles behind you, and glance back regularly, so that you're not taken by surprise. These are all things that a good driver should do too, and many experienced cyclists are also very good drivers, because they've learnt excellent awareness and anticipation.
If you come across a really intimidating junction, or conditions suddenly become temporarily difficult (a sudden very heavy downpour for example, or fog, or ice), remember that you have an advantage over a nervous driver - you can stop, get off, and become a pedestrian until you feel happy to ride on. There's no shame in knowing your limits.
Thirdly, if you need it, get advice and help. Most local councils offer adult cycle training to help new cyclists brush up on their skills. You can find details of local instructors via the Cyclists Touring Club or from your own local council. You may be able to find a bike buddy to accompany on a regular journey to give you advice and tips, or help you plan the nicest route.
If you prefer, you can read up on the best techniques - the key text is probably Cyclecraft by John Franklin, which explains just how to tackle various conditions, and how to develop the good habits that will keep you safe. Richard Ballantine's City Cycling is also very useful - and his Bicycle Book has been inspiring cyclists in various editions now for nearly 40 years!
Bicycles are, sadly, a prime target for thieves. Easily portable, and saleable, and often left unattended. But there are things you can do to lessen the risk of losing your bike.
First, get a good lock. A good rule is to spend about 10% of the value of the bike on a lock. D-locks, the type with a metal hoop and cross piece, are generally felt to be the best. Look for one with a decent security rating, and attack time - thieves generally want to get in and out quickly and a lock that resists for 5 minutes as opposed to 1 might make all the difference. Get the best you can afford. Beware of cheap cable locks, even if they look really beefy - much of that thickness could be the plastic coating, easily cut with boltcroppers or even a decent knife. Best of all, carry two locks, with different mechanisms - many bike thieves will be equipped to deal with one but not the other, or won't want to spend too much time fiddling with one bike.
Then, lock your bike up and lock it securely. It only takes a second to wheel away an unlocked bike, so if it's going to be out of your reach for a moment, even just popping into a shop, lock it, even if you only put a lock through the wheel and frame. (Incidentally, if you have to lock a bike like this, lock the front wheel to the frame, instead of the back one. It's harder to wheel a bike away while lifting the handlebars, than the saddle) Preferably, lock it to something secure - don't make the mistake of locking it to a bollard, where it can be lifted off. If there is one available, a 'Sheffield' stand is the best sort of bike rack - the upsidedown U-shaped racks often ranged in rows. The more public the place, the better - thieves like to work without the risk of being disturbed. Lock as much of the bike to the stand as you can - get your lock through the frame and a wheel if possible. Beware of the sort of rack you jam one wheel into - apart from only allowing you to lock the wheel and not the frame, these are often referred to as 'wheelbenders' for good reason.
If your bike has quick release wheels and saddle, change them for standard skewers and bolts - quick release for you also means quick release for a thief, and coming back to a bike with no saddle or front wheel is as infuriating as it is inconvenient.
Finally, make your bike as undesirable as possible. A grubby, unfashionable, anonymous bike, with mismatched components isn't going to be easily saleable for much money, and a decent lock will make the effort of stealing it more than it's worth. If your bike isn't old enough to have accummulated the necessary scuffs and scratches, you can always give it a rough coat of Hammerite, or stick gaffer tape round the tubes.
Cyclists hate punctures. Some develop intricate superstitions about even mentioning the word, some brazenly proclaim that they never get them - but they do. Fixing one at the side of the road in the cold and wet is miserable, but there are things you can do to avoid falling prey to them.
Firstly, choose tyres with some puncture resistance. Go for a good brand like Schwalbe, Vredestein or Continental, and choose a type with a puncture protection layer. If you want even more protection, fill your inner tubes with a sealant like Slime which seals up holes. Keep your tyres pumped up hard, as a hard tyre is more resistant to puncturing. The maximum pressure wil be moulded into the side of the tyre - get as close to it as you can - keeping a 'track' pump with a gauge at home helps you to top tyres up easily.
In case you do get a puncture, carry a spare inner tube - it's much easier to put a spare tube in, and fix the hole in the old one later at home in the warm. And practice both changing the tube, and fixing the hole before you get a real flat tyre. Getting a wheel out, and a tyre off, are both easier once you have the knack, and again, it's easier to practice at home. There are lots of bike maintenance books with step-by-step instructions, and there are also online video guides like Bicycle Tutor. Or get an old hand to show you - they'll probably have plenty of little tips to make it easier.
If you build cycling into your everyday life, then sooner or later, you're going to be out in less than ideal weather. But it needn't be a problem. In all but the heaviest rain, a waterproof jacket will keep your upper body dry. For your legs, you can either use full waterproof trousers, or something like Rainlegs, which keep your thighs dry while not being too hot or sweaty. If you choose to wear cycle specific shorts, or quick drying fabrics, then it may not even matter if your legs do get wet - they'll dry again quickly.
In snow and ice, you may need to add a few layers to keep warm, but staying upright will be your more immediate concern. In fact fresh snow can be relatively easy to cycle on, but rutted frozen snow, or sheet ice are more treacherous. If you think you'll make good use of them, studded ice tyres
such as the Marathon Winter are available - otherwise the key is to ride smoothly, look well ahead to avoid the need for sudden braking, and if in doubt, get off and walk.
Wind is the one weather condition a cyclist can do little about - a strong headwind is demoralisingly like going uphill for ever, sidewinds push you about on the road, and tailwinds seem very rare. Riding into the wind you might find that tucking down into a more aerodynamic position helps - but do remember to keep looking forward! In blustery sidewinds, allow yourself space on the road, and be extra aware of passing traffic. If you get a prolonged tailwind - enjoy it!
So, with the right bike, the right equipment and the right attitude, you can get out there and ride whatever the conditions, and you may find that all those little errands become much more fun!
Note that each of these guides is something of a work in progress:
we'll be updating, adding links to relevant reviews from the magazine
and more as time goes on. Please do get in touch or leave a comment
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