When I graduated from University, my parents offered to get me a graduation present, or to just give me some cash to do with as I pleased. My family is very practical this way; you can ask for gifts and have us find something along the lines that you are asking for, or simply get the money and spend it how you choose. Some people think that this takes away from the spirit of gift-giving, and if that’s how you feel, that’s cool. We’ve always found that it eliminates those awkward situations where you hint about something all year round, then get annoyed when you open something that is not at all what you wanted. I’ve also found that there’s plenty of room left for surprise in this approach, so it’s all good with regards to that.
Anyhow, I’m digressing. The point is that about 5 years ago, I got a bike for graduation. For the first three years of my post-university life, Bay and I rented apartments that were very shy on storage space, and we had to leave the bike at my parent’s place. As a result, it really didn’t see much use. The next year we moved into our condo, in the process of moving, painting, buying furniture, and everything else, I kind of forgot that I even had a bike waiting for me.
Towards the end of Fall this year, I remembered I had a hog waiting for me at my parents and brought it back with me. I started riding the bike the same way I do everything – gradually. However, as time has passed, and the weather has improved, I’ve become more and more enamoured with the sport, to the point that I no longer see it as simply a way to cross-train fitness to play better squash, but as a something worth pursuing on its own.
I’m going to mention some of the benefits of biking, and give a quick run down of what your options if you think you may be interested in getting a chopper yourself.
Biking offers a number of obvious benefits. Chief among those is that it’s an excellent form of cardiovascular workout. Cardiovascular workouts are ones that keep your heart rate at a moderately-elevated range for a decent amount of time. They exercise and strengthen your heart and your lungs, and are efficient workouts to burn fat (and we all want that right?).
Biking gets you out of the house, and it doesn’t require a lot of preparation on your part to start. This might seem like a small benefit, but the longer and more involved the process is to actually begin your workout, the more chance you have to talk yourself out of actually doing it (I’m sure we can all remember times when we’ve talked ourselves out of going to the gym, simply by thinking about the annoying walk there before we even start the workout). Grab your bike and your keys, and leave the house. Start riding. Worry about where you’re going to go once you’re on the bike.
Riding also fits very easily into other parts of your life. Although I initially started riding to train my cardio, I quickly started making it my primary means of transportation. Instead of driving to my friend Steve’s on a Friday night, I started asking myself, “Why wouldn’t I just bike there?”. Instead of driving to the store to pick up a few select groceries I need for dinner tonight, why not bike there? Why not bike to dance class instead of driving? Once you start hopping on a bike regularly, you’ll notice a couple of things: you start to see other places where it makes sense to take your bike instead of a car, and it takes a lot less time to get somewhere on a bike than you might think. Riding from our place downtown to Town and Country shopping center, near the start of the Island Highway, takes roughly the same amount of time on a bike or a car, given that a bicyclist has the benefit of taking the Galloping Goose trail and avoiding all traffic.
Unlike jogging, the motion used to propel yourself forward on a bike is one that is impact-free. Don’t get me wrong – I like jogging a lot. It’s just murder on the knees, especially if you’re on pavement. A biker doesn’t have to worry about these problems. Riding every day will strengthen the muscles around your knees and activate the joint, ensuring that you retain mobility for a long time to come.
One of our favorite things about biking is that we see so much more of the city that we live in. When you’re walking, you’re constrained to a small area, as you can only cover so much ground in a given amount of time. When you’re driving, you’re focus is on the road, other drivers, and getting to your destination. But on a bike, you can explore. You’ve got the time to seek out new areas that you haven’t been before, and explore new streets. Since starting to ride, I’ve become much more acquainted with Uplands, James Bay, Esquimalt, Ten Mile Point, and Oak Bay. It may seem trivial, but it is kind of neat to develop a familiarity with your home town.
Okay, enough wanking about the reasons to start biking. What are the choices you have when buying a bike?
Your choices are generally three-fold, with some less-common and more trendy variations on top of those first three.
The Mountain Bike
A mountain bike is a bike that is specifically targeted for off-road riding. They generally have a well suspended frame, which allows the bike to absorb a lot of shock that comes from riding on rocky terrain and taking drops as needed, and a frame that can take some (lots of) punishment.
Mountain bikes also come equipped with a hefty set of tires, in order to better grip the uneven ground that you’ll be riding on. You can take a mountain bike on the road, but you’re going to notice some disadvantages.
For one, the extra thickness of the tires, and the multitude of treading, is going to mean that you have extra friction with the road, which will slow you down. It won’t feel like riding in sand, but it’ll feel a fair bit soupier than if you were on one of the other options.
The heavier frame on the mountain bike is also going to lead to added weight that you need to pedal around. On off-road terrain, this isn’t going to be a problem, as you don’t really have any other choice, and your riding is more geared to short spurts than to longer endurance riding.
The suspension on a mountain bike’s frame will mean that riding on a road feels a little soggier. Every time you turn your pedals, some of your downward momentum is going to be absorbed by the suspension. It won’t wreck your ride, but again, the little things add up.
A mountain bike is a great choice if you’re a thrill seeker and like going for that kind of ride. Downhill, highly technical riding, with a potential to fly over your handlebars and hurt yourself. It’s not for me, but it’s a lot of fun for those that like it.
The Road Bike
Road bikes represent the antithesis of the mountain bike. Their frames have zero suspension, because they are designed specifically to be ridden … on the road. Our roads are designed so that they provide as smooth a ride as possible, and so suspension is only going to slow you down.
The frames on road bikes are much lighter than those of a mountain bike, as you will not be putting them through much abuse. The alloy that they use to make the frame will also be more rigid. The composition of the frame and the lack of suspension on a road bike means that they won’t be able to withstand nearly the kind of punishment that a mountain bike could, but they will provide a much crisper and responsive ride when you’re on the terrain that they are intended for (roads, obviously). When I talk ab
out “punishment”, I don’t mean something akin to riding off a sidewalk’s curb. I mean taking the bike off a six to ten foot drop. Road bike frames can handle some abuse – just not a lot.
The tires of a road bike are optimized for riding on the road, which means that they will have narrow tires with as little tread as possible. The width of the tires are optimized to minimize the amount of friction you have to overcome, but provide enough that you can accelerate and pedal at a good speed.
Road bikes often come with a set of drop handlebars, which are designed to allow the rider to lean forward when they ride, creating a streamlined shape. The handlebars are also closer together, bringing the hands closer, and creating a V shape relative to your elbows. This also serves to streamline the rider and allow for faster rides. Road bikes obviously come with shifting and braking components that work with these kind of handlebars.
All of the features of a road bike make them great to use in the confines of a city, where you are guaranteed well-maintained roads. These features also make the bike suck as soon as you get off of pavement. While it’s possible to take a road bike on to trails, even the slightest bit of loose gravel can cause problems for your tires ability to stay in contact and provide you enough friction to effectively pedal. The rigid frame and lack of suspension on a road bike will make a ride on a bumpy trail quite a bit less comfortable, as each shock will be transferred up through the frame and into your arms and legs.
The Hybrid Bike
A hybrid bike represents the midpoint between the two bikes mentioned above. The frame is slightly less rigid than a road bike’s, and will usually have some form of shocks on the front forks, and possibly on the seat. These shocks will often have a feature allowing them to be locked out so that you can turn them off when you’re riding on the road, which means you can have the benefit of shocks when you need them, and turn that off when you want the more responsive ride on the road.
The bike’s frame will be a fair bit sturdier than a road bike, but not as much as a mountain bike, providing a good compromise between the ability to take some abuse and a bike that isn’t too heavy.
Hybrid’s usually have handle bars that are more similar to those of a mountain bike, and are outfitted with tires that are smooth in the middle (allowing for good riding on the road), and treaded on the outer edges (giving you good grip whenever you dip to the side, especially useful on trails).
If you don’t have a specific use in mind for your bike, I think the hybrid is your best choice. It’s never going to be a good as a mountain bike for off-road technical riding, and you’ll never be able to ride quite as fast as a lightweight road bike on the road, but you won’t be prevented from doing either of these activities.
These are the main three types of bikes, but there are a few more esoteric offerings out there as well.
Townie bikes have been popular in the past five years or so, especially with women. Townie bikes are designed as commuter bikes, and are designed for comfort. The handlebars are generally built for the rider to sit fairly upright, rather than bent forward, and often come with other attachments like handlebar baskets, or a basket behind the seat.
Some people refer to these bikes as commuter bikes, and I think that’s probably fair. If your primary intent in owning a bike is to get from point A to point B, this is a bike that will do you well. The upright design of the handlebars will provide a comfortable ride, and this type of riding is rarely about pushing yourself.
These bikes have a very romantic appeal to them, and evoke images of cycling through Paris streets on a sunny weekend, with fresh-picked flowers in the handle basket, along with a couple of baguettes. If you primarily intend to use your bike to ride casually around the city, this is a great choice.
However, the things that make this bike romantic also make it impractical for serious exercise. Upright handlebars create a poor rider profile for getting any decent speed up, as you will not at all be streamlined. If you want a bike that looks cute and is comfortable, this is the one for you. If you think that you may want to use this bike for an actual workout, I wouldn’t recommend it.
The Single Gear and the Fixie
The Single Gear bike (not the correct name, but I don’t know what it is) and its counterpart, the Fixie, have started to replace the townie as the latest trend. Both of these bikes have grown out of the minimalist and bike courier movements, and are in abundance in Victoria.
The single gear bike is exactly what it sounds like. A bike with just one gear position available to the rider. Bikes like this will be lighter than most bikes, because the added weight of a the gears and a shifting mechanism are not present. These bikes will typically come with drop handlebars, and two brakes, and that’s it. Pretty minimal right? Although these bikes are certainly very trendy, I don’t personally think they are a good idea. Having gears allows you to make your mechanical work as efficient as possible. I’m a big fan of minimalism, in general, but I think that this approach unnecessarily cuts out a useful function on a bike, and by buying a bike like this, you limit where you can take your bike. Having said that, I suspect that bikes like this would probably cost less, due to the fact that there are less components being purchased.
Think that sounded minimal? Well, the fixie goes one step further, fixing the pedals to the rotation of your tire, meaning that one full circle of your pedals correlates directly to one full rotation of your tire. For this reason, fixies do not allow the rider to coast or back-pedal, and are not as mechanically efficient (meaning you require more energy input to achieve the same amount of work) as bikes with a system of gears. Some claims have been made that this encourages better biking as the rider is forced to pedal through corners and adjust their speed appropriately. I personally think this is a needless contrivance, but if people enjoy riding them, that’s cool.
Depending on how far you want to take it, fixies can be found with two brakes (one for each tire), only one brake (I’m not sure which tire you would put this on – presumably the back?), or no brakes at all (in which case you are completely reliant on using your legs to slow down the rotation of the tires). As of late, it has been popular to replace the drop handle bars with a completely straight handlebar. This is about as minimal as you can get: Two tires, a frame, a piece of metal for a handlebar, and pedals.
Although minimalism and trendiness certainly have their appeal, it’s still possible that the single gear bike may serve you well. However, I don’t personally see the value in a fixie, other than for aesthetic appeal. If that’s your game, then go for it. If not, treat the purchase of your bike as an investment, and go for something that will serve you in the short- and the long-term.
Get a bike!
That about covers as much about bikes as I’m comfortable discussing with my own knowledge. If you consider your options and choose wisely, a good bike is an investment that will serve you well for a very long time, and, provided you are the type of individual that will use one if you have one, will directly correlate to you leading a healthier, happier life.