By Steve Drace
It’s worth analyzing why and how you want to ride, and what you hope to get out of it. Unlike running, which requires little more than shoes, socks, shorts, and a top, cycling requires a certain commitment to equipment. But the kind and quality of equipment you choose is a function of the kind of riding you expect to do (and your budget, of course.)
Types of Bicycles
There are a surprisingly large number of bicycle types, but the three basic styles are road bikes, mountain bikes, and utility bikes.
Steel: Steelman custom frame
Road bikes are essentially racing bikes. They are designed for speed, for covering a given distance in the shortest time possible and with a minimum amount of energy. They use smooth, thin tires and wheels that reduce rolling resistance, and have the drop handle bars and thin seats that mystify noncyclists. This is the style of bike that serious cyclists gravitate towards because it is the style used for both racing and those organized distance rides, usually “centuries” or hundred-mile rides, that your neighbor seems to ride nearly every weekend.
Road bikes used to be made of steel, and traditionalists continue to believe that the most comfortable and responsive ride is on a bike built with steel tubing. But steel is comparatively heavy, and can rust, and for years the alternative was aluminum which, while lighter and impervious to rain, gave an appreciably harsher ride. A second, much more expensive but very light, metal alternative is titanium, known for its uses in the aerospace industry.
Carbon: Cervelo S3
Today, the material all the frame builders have migrated to is carbon fiber. Initially used only in the most expensive frames, it is now possible to consider carbon for even an entry-level bike. Among the many advantages of carbon are very light weight, and weather resistance. Many in the bicycling industry believe that within five years, all mass-produced bike frames will be made of carbon and, but for boutique custom frames, it will be impossible to find a bike made of metal.
Santa Cruz Tallboy
The second most common bike found today is the mountain bike. Designed with front and rear suspension, mountain bikes were created to be ridden off road and come in a variety of styles including cross country and downhill. Rather than the thin, smooth tires of a road bike, mountain bike tires are smaller in diameter, much wider and have a knobby tread to grip the dirt. And rather than the bent-over position common on a road bike, mountain bikes are ridden in a more upright position and the handlebars are straight. For that reason many think the mountain bike would be a good solution for a more ‘reasonable’ ride on the road.
They would be wrong; the knobby tires create a high degree of rolling resistance and the suspension, so useful on a trail, is just added weight on the road. Rather, they should consider a utility bike.
If the aggressive posture and the thin tires of a road bike seems a bit more than you’re willing to take on, the solution is a utility bike. Utility bikes are utilitarian; they can be used for commuting, running errands, or just peddling around town. They generally have large diameter, 700c wheels, like road bikes but with much wider tires, and the same minimal tread to reduce rolling resistance. They also have a much more relaxed, vertical posture, which helps when playing nice with cars is of maximum importance, as is the case when commuting. Furthermore, unlike road and mountain bikes which have external derailleurs used for shifting into easier or harder gears, utility bikes frequently have internal hub gearing which increases ease of use and maintenance. Finally, utility bikes frequently have front and read fenders as well as chain guards, allowing the rider to ride in street clothes rather than lycra cycling togs.
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This is far from an exhaustive survey on bicycle types; you’ll also see single-speed track bikes, essentially road bikes without multiple gears, first popularized by bicycle messengers, but since adopted by the urban hipster; or BMX bikes, which look like little mountain bikes that are used to race on dirt tracks and for doing tricks that defy belief; or recumbents, whose riders are in what is essentially a horizontal position used by those for a variety of reasons, not least because back problems prohibit them from riding upright. There are touring bikes with saddle bags for long journeys, beach cruisers with fat tires that get riders to and onto the beach, and even unicycles, which are occasionally used even by people who don’t juggle.
Should you have some sense for what kind of riding you want to do and on what kind of bike you want to do it, you can do yourself no greater favor than to find a local bike store that you feel comfortable in. The expertise and passion on offer at the typical neighborhood bike store is invaluable, and their ability and willingness to answer your questions is key to getting the maximum enjoyment out of your new found hobby for years to come.
And this is important, because cycling is truly a life sport, like golf or swimming or tennis. I’ll illustrate with a story: I was back East visiting my friend Ken, and we decided to ride out from DC to Mount Vernon, around 25 miles. This was fairly early in the season, and we were marveling at what physical specimens we were and how, at the drop of a hat, we could grind out 50 miles, no problem. Once we arrived, an elderly gentleman, also in cycling togs, started hovering about and finally approached us, asking if we knew where the closest burger joint might be. Without being rude, but thinking to ourselves; “We don’t eat burgers, our bodies are temples,” we told him we had no idea where the nearest fast food restaurant was. Undeterred, he asked if we had ridden out from DC. With only a slight puffing out of our chests, we assured him that, indeed, we had. He then proceeded to tell us how he had just ridden all the way across the country — from LA north to San Francisco and then across the continent all the way to Delaware — ocean to ocean — with his wife following in a motor home (and no doubt fueled all along the way with hamburgers, fries, and shakes) He was 76 years old and had averaged around 100 miles a day, across the entire continent. He was awesome!
So quit sitting there in your car as we ride by. Join us! You’ll never regret it!
Steve Drace has competed on a national and intercollegiate level through college. He played and enjoyed those sports that came easy to him (i.e. required no eye-hand coordination and depended on the overabundance of fast twitch muscles in his legs.) After his last season of college football, he quit playing any and all sports for 25 years. Then, at the urging of a friend and with the objective of loosing some weight, he started cycling — and found his passion. He has achieved the coveted California Triple Crown, which requires the completion of three double centuries (200 miles each) in single season. In all of these endeavors, he would finish in the middle of the pack on a good day. Let’s not discuss his bad days…
The curious thing is that while cycling is the first sport he truly loves and the only sport he has so seriously trained for, he has never been better than middling, and this after an early sports career of some distinction. Nothing more dramatically demonstrates that he rides for the love of it.
Take Your Cycling To Zenergo!
On Zenergo (join! it’s free and it’s easy!) you can bring together your bike-riding friends and post pictures and documents, comment among yourselves, and maintain your cycling calendar. You can also find cycling groups and cycling events in your area.
You can make your cycling profile searchable so biking enthusiasts in our area looking for riding partners can find you (and you, them). Notice how Steve has spelled out his cycling interests — you can add as much or as little detail as you like, which helps in finding just the right partner.
Your Activity Profile lets you spell out as much detail about your interest as you want.