Biking is another activity that takes us back to being kids. The feeling when you were first able to ride a bike on your own, and the freedom of how far you could go under your own power. A lot of our cities our getting more bike friendly now, with good bike lanes or car-free bikepaths. If you’re not comfortable with traffic, you can find a safe route through proper planning that combines quiet residential streets and streets with good bike lanes. Or you can always throw the bike in a trunk or on a bike rack and take it to the trailhead of a bikepath.
The other obstacle can be comfort. I discuss ways to deal with that below.
As for type of bike, I recommend a more upright bike like a “comfort bike” or a hybrid for most people, especially starting out. These have flat bar handlebars that feel more natural than road-bike style “drop bars”. If you don’t think you’ll ever want to go off pavement, a “flat bar road bike” is a good choice, because they have skinnier tires and you can go pretty fast. Otherwise a hybrid with fatter tires and at least front suspension will do well on road or dirt.
Gearing of your bike is another issue. If you are not used to shifting, it may seem simpler to get a single-speed bike so you don’t have to worry about it. I’d be cautious of that if your neighborhood is at all hilly. Slopes that don’t seem too bad in a car can be difficult on a bike without the right gearing. Most people that don’t like to shift or aren’t used to it can get by with a bike that has only a rear derailleur- With modern index shifting you don’t have to fuss with it because one click automatically shifts it up or down one gear. Or you can get internal hub gears which are even easier. Your lbs (local bike shop) people can show you all this.
An interesting option if you are not used to biking is a bike with cranks a little further forward like cruisers or the Electra Townie (which is similar to the classic position on Dutch bikes). You can put your feet flat on the ground without getting off the saddle. I also think they look cool. My mom never rode a bike much as a kid and tried to take up biking as an adult. On her first ride she fell at the first stop sign because she didn’t remember she had to get off the saddle for her feet to reach the ground. She scraped her knee pretty badly and was turned off to cycling for life. This would not have happened on the Townie!
Other manufacturers have come out with bikes with this position now too. Electra has also paid homage to Dutch bikes with the “Amsterdam”, similar to the Townie but with fenders, a rack, and a full chain guard and a skirt guard. In Holland and other countries like Denmark where lots of cycling is done for utility purposes, this is the typical type of bike. I love the Dutch name for them: Omafiets (“Grandma’s bike). People cycle in their everyday clothes, including dresses, not special cycling clothes. This is nicely described in Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality by Melissa and Chris Bruntlett.
There is an interesting and fun comparison of flat bar vs. drop bar road bikes by the guys at global cycling network on youtube entitled “Flat Bar Vs Drop Bar Road Bikes | Comfort, Speed & Ease”. I loved their high-tech tests. They concluded drop bars get the nod on speed while flat bars are a bit better on agility, like riding in traffic.
I have a couple of things to add from my experience. It is true drop bars offer multiple riding positions (“the tops”, “the hoods”, and “the drops”). And todays bikes with drop bars have a lot of padding on the brake hoods, making that a comfortable position. Flat bars have only one position, but you can add another with bar ends.
Many of the people I ride with have drop bars, but I almost never see them riding in the drops, so they don’t use the speed advantage. You can also get a speed boost by putting aerobar clip-ons on your flat bars, which is what I do for time trialing. This is a good idea if you do a combination of city and country riding. The flat bars are great to make you nimble around traffic, while the aerobars let you cruise fast in the country. That worked well for me when I had a bike commute that started in the country and ended downtown.
There is only one thing I miss from drop bars: going fast downhill. You definitely don’t want to be in the aerobars on steep downhills because you don’t have enough control- it feels squirrely. In the drops you can be pretty aerodynamic, with your fingers near the brakes if needed, and with great control. The closest you can get to that with flat bars is bending your arms so you can hunch over the bars, which I find uncomfortable after a while. All of this is less of an issue for me in my later years because I’m not as intrepid of a descender as I once was. While this advice, and the demonstrations on the youtube video, may be helpful, everyone is different when it comes to comfort. If you are just starting out and are unsure of flat bars vs drop, I recommend finding out for yourself with a long test ride of both.
Saddle comfort is a big issue. You can start out with shorter rides and gradually increase them, as your butt toughens up over time. Don’t worry, that happens internally, it’s not like you get giant visible callouses on your butt. Well-designed modern saddles address an important issue of pressure in the genital area for both men and women.
Your weight should be transferred to the saddle mainly from the “sit bones” (ischial tuberosity) and not by the soft tissue in the genital region. And pressure on the perineal nerve should be minimum. Solutions include cutouts and padded bumps under the sit bones with a pressure relieving trough in between. A saddle which puts pressure on the perineal nerve can cause temporary penile numbness in men and possible longer term effects. Pressure in the genital area can cause vaginal discomfort in women. A good saddle should prevent all of the above and your bike shop should help you with fitting one.
An interesting variation of biking is standing up to pedal using a higher gear. This is more comfortable, a great workout, and feels more like running (but impact-free). There are special running bikes like the Elliptigo that more closely mimic running, which some people swear by. Personally I find standup pedaling on a regular bike just as enjoyable. Top gear on my trek hybrid is about 120 inches, which is more than enough. My other bike, a Bike Friday Superpro, has a top gear of 91 which is a bit brisk for standing but I still enjoy it. Gear inches are described below.
The easiest thing to do is just standing up occasionally for a short period to take a “butt break”. Or, if you have big enough gears, like a 48 tooth chainring up front and an 11 tooth gear in the back, you can pedal standing for longer periods at a comfortable pace. With flat bars you can also make the position nice and upright with bar ends. I just gang two pairs together as shown in the picture above, so when I stand up I’m not hunched over. There is zero discomfort pedaling this way, and I find the motion as relaxing as running. It’s a good workout too.
The longest I’ve stood for is about 2½ hours. I decided that since this felt kind of like running, I’d see how long it took me to standup-pedal for 26.2 miles, and it took 2 hours 28 minutes. And I felt great afterwards because there was no pounding. So now I can brag I’m a 2:28 marathoner (ok, maybe with a little asterisk next to it).
Another option for comfort is riding a recumbent, with the downside that they are pricier than upright bikes since it’s a smaller market. It’s important to find a good dealer and go on long test rides. For a while I had back and neck issues on conventional bikes, compounded by the fact I spent too much time hunched over a computer with poor posture, and recumbents worked well to solve this. I had good luck with Rans and Bacchetta recumbents, but there are a lot of good brands reviewed at www.bentrideronline.com.
One warning is that a recumbent is not a guarantee of comfort. There is a phenomenon called “recumbutt” because you are sitting on your glute muscles, which can interfere with the blood flow to them while they are working. This can lead to restricted blood flow to the muscles (ischemia), which causes an achy feeling. I had this badly with a couple of brands, which is why long test rides are a good idea. I was fine on the Rans and Bacchetta bikes, but everyone’s anatomy is a bit different.
Some people who are older have balance issues on bikes, and a trike is a good alternative. This does not have to be one of those big upright ones with the basket between the rear wheels. There are also higher performance recumbent trikes, some of which also fold for transport (www.bentrideronline.com).
Recently electric-assist has become very popular for bikes, and there are many quality options available now. It needs a full book to do this topic justice, and you need a recently written one because the technology is evolving quickly. Ebikes: A Buyer’s Guide: Understand Ebikes And Buy The One That’s Best For You, by Paul Fox is a good concise recent book. Electric assist bikes still let you get a good workout, they just help you to go faster or climb hills better.
I have a friend who is now 80 that has one, he describes it as “always having a tailwind”. When he was 65 and I was 50 he could leave me in the dust on a bike, especially climbing. Now he’s slowing down a bit so has trouble keeping up on group rides. Electric assist solved the problem.
Another good use regardless of your age is commuting. You can use a high level of assist on your way to work and show up fast without sweating on your way there. On your way home you can get a good workout by using less assist. Finally, they are useful in extending your range. I do lots of errands in Morgan Hill on my bike because it is a pretty compact town. Sometimes I need to get to further away locations that take too long by bike, but electric assist increases my average speed and make it more feasible to get there. So I finally gave in to temptation and got an electric-assist upgrade to my Trek hybrid for my last birthday. It does the job really well. I now take my bike on trips that I used to go on by car, up to 20 miles or so, and love it. I still get a great workout- I put out the same amount of effort, I just go faster. Also, when I stand up to pedal I don’t use the assist. There’s a lot of useful info on electric bikes on the youtube channel ElectricBikeReview.com.
Conventional bike gearing is calculated using the number of teeth on the chainring in the front divided by the number of teeth on the sprocket in the back. This, multiplied times your wheel size, gives the gear inches. This is an interesting number which dates back to the old “penny farthing” bikes with the huge front wheel. The gear inches is the size of the wheel on one of those high wheelers that would be equivalent to the gear you are in on your bike. The higher this number, the further you go with a single revolution, but the harder it is to pedal.
Here’s an example: my highest gear on my hybrid is a 48 tooth chainring, with an 11 tooth gear on the cassette in the back. 48/11 is 4.36, so that’s like having a wheel 4.36 times as big as my actual one. My wheel is 28″, to the gear inches is 4.36 times 28 = 122. So I’d have to have a penny farthing with a 10 foot diameter wheel to be equivalent to that! I’d need a stepladder to get on it, if I had the nerve to ride it (unlikely)! This is the English system of gearing.
A similar European system is to calculate “meters of development”. Multiply the ratio of teeth in front to teeth in back times “pi” times the wheel size in meters. This gives how far the bike will go with one turn of the cranks. For example, my wheel size is 28″ or 0.71 meters, so the development of my highest gear is 4.36 times pi times 0.71 = 9.72 meters. So my bike will travel 9.72 meters, or 32 feet, with one turn of the cranks in that gear.
For internal hub gears there’s an additional factor. You still divide the chainring teeth by the sprocket in back. But then you multiply by a gear ratio for the hub. For example the famous Sturmey-Archer 3 speed hub has ratios of 0.75 in first, 1 in second gear, and 1.33 in third gear. So if you have a 26″ wheel, 44 teeth up front and 14 in back, and you’re in 3rd gear, you get 44/14 times 1.33 times 26 = 109 for your gear inches.
If this is all getting a bit too nerdy the folks at your lbs (local bike shop) can help you figure out the bike with the right gearing if you describe your riding conditions (how fast, how hilly, etc).
[Update 08/24/21] The situation has changed since I wrote this. There are now a bewildering amount of choices, and the advent of fairly lightweight electric bikes has added some other new alternatives. It is nice to see all this innovation for bikes geared towards us “regular” folks. Those that want high-end performance bikes can find their way, but there’s a bewildering array of choices for the rest of us. So I will right an update on getting started with the right bike. In the meantime, I have found a good website with bike information and reviews for various bike categories, which I recommend trying out.
I don’t want to end on a techy note so how about this instead: