I gave some advice about this in a previous post, but that was four years ago and there are some updates, especially about choosing the right bike. There’s been a lot of innovation and growth in the bike industry, so an update is in order.
Traffic Fear:-A major barrier for most people to biking outside is fear of motor vehicle traffic. Understandably so, it’s not comforting to share the road with heavy fast-moving vehicles. If we can’t overcome this barrier, we may as well stick to talking about indoor cycling. But there are ways to get past it:
- People feel much safer on paths separated from traffic. If you’re fortunate enough to have those in your area, but don’t have a good route to get to them, you can always chuck your bike in the trunk or on a rack and drive to the start. I had friends who love to ride on our Coyote Creek trail but did not feel safe on the street so would just drive to the start of the trail. That’s a great way to start out. They’ve since moved further north, but if they were still here I’d have tried to also coax them out onto some of the safe pleasant streets of Morgan Hill they were missing out on.
- Residential neighborhoods often have quieter traffic because drivers are careful about children that may be playing.
- If you’re biking for any other reason other than commuting, it is much better at any other time than morning and evening rush hours. There are fewer vehicles and the drivers are more courteous and relaxed.
- If you use bike lanes, and they are not as well thought out as the ones in Amsterdam or Copenhagen, you feel safe except at intersections. The issue of right-turning vehicles is the main one. This is less of an issue in my area because the bike lanes become dotted lines and often turn green, which alert both drivers and cyclists to the situation. Drivers will carefully look for bikes before merging into this turn lane. This is again much better at all times but rush hour, during which there can be aggravated and distracted drivers.
- You can map out safe and pleasant routes with your car first and then later use them for bike outings. I feel safe riding on pretty much any road in my town, but some are a lot more pleasant than others. When I ride in our larger and busier neighbor to the north, San Jose, I stick to streets that I know are quieter and/or have well-designed bike lanes.
Choosing the right bike:
There are by 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 have plenty of options, too, but they can find their own way. I want to help guide through the large array of choices for the rest of us. I gave some guidance on basic choices of bike types and comfort issues such as saddle design in a previous post. But there’s been rapid innovation in the four years since I wrote that. I happen to live in the town which has the World Corporate headquarters of Specialized bikes, and my great local bike shop is a Specialized dealer, so I’m a fan of them, so forgive me if I use them more in my examples. There are many worthy competitive brand like Giant, Trek, Cannondale, etc.
- As a newcomer looking at comfortable and inexpensive bikes, there are more options. What was originally considered a comfort bike was a hybrid of road and mountain bikes. But now there are “plush” road bikes, such as the Specialized Roubaix, that have more relaxed geometry and work on rougher roads, and there is a new “gravel” bike category of bikes that can handle even rougher terrain. Technology from these bikes is trickling down to lower end bikes.
- A good piece of now-mature technology is hydroformed aluminum, which allows lightweight, inexpensive, but attractive aluminum frames to be prevalent. And good quality carbon frames have also come down in price.
- A really good piece of tech that is much more prevalent and inexpensive is disk brakes. These have better stopping power, even in the wet, but add little weight. And they allow much wider tires to be used. My Sirrus has 38 mm tires on it, that allow me to go on some seriously rough surfaces, but it still rolls fast enough on the roads so I can keep up on group rides. But just by getting a spare set of narrower road oriented tires, and adding on some inexpensive clip-on aerobars, I could easily make it faster on the road if I wanted to do a time trial. This versatility without breaking the bank is nice, and disk brakes make it possible. You can get a quality lightweight bike with disk brakes and decent components new for about US $800.
- I mentioned “crank forward” bikes like the Electra Townie in my previous post. These are a great option for beginners, because you can put your feet on the ground without getting off the saddle so it feels more secure. Trek has acquired Electra and has kept this line quite active. There are also many good electric assist versions of Townies now.
- By far the biggest change has been the surge in popularity of electric bikes. Manufacturers have also done a great job of smoothly integrating elecric-assistinto the frame design. And now local bike shops will enthusiastically support them. I especially like the advent of more lightweight ebikes like the Specialized “SL” series. These are not as powerful as some of the larger heavier motors, but plenty good enough to do the job. I like the Specialized concept of “2X you”: The lighter weight motors can match your power up to one hundred percent. So when you’re riding it feels suddenly like you’re twice as powerful. These are still not feather-weight Tour de France bikes, but can get down below 30 lbs. total weight for the bike. That’s reasonable to lift onto a bike rack or into a trunk, which many of my local group of older riders routinely do. These bikes allow riders of widely varying abilities to ride together. Some have regular bikes, some have ebikes and use less assist, and some use more assist. The great equalizer. The main problem with these bikes is still price. They’re getting better, so you can get a name brand model starting about US$3000, but that still high for a lot of people. It’s a lot more affordable if you’re using it instead of a car, though.
- Support for electric bikes is of major importance, and that is covered nicely if you buy a name brand at a bike shop, they’ll take good care of it for you. It is a reason I would not recommend getting an add-on electric assist kit unless you have someone locally that can work on it or are clever enough to work on the electrics yourself. My electric assist kit served me well for two years, I had fun, and put lots of miles on it. Then I started to have issues, and my local bike shop, and others in the area, did not want to touch it, and I had bought it from someone fifty miles away. I tried fixing it myself and was unsuccessful. An ebike may well be in my future when I need help keeping up, but I’ll only do it when I can get it from a local shop.
I have found a good website with bike information and reviews for various bike categories, which I recommend trying out. This site has good reviews of various bikes, and some nice rider stories.
There hasn’t been too much change in this area since my previous post. The most important point is that there is a tradeoff between comfort and speed. A lot of changes to make your position on the bike more aerodynamic also make you more “hunched over”. I’m to the point where upright and comfortable is more important these days, as long as I can keep up on group rides. But electric assist gets rid of this trade-off. You can be as upright as you like, kick in with a little assist, and be just as fast.
And there is always the option of a recumbent. I’d recommend trying out a nice upright setup on a hybrid, including a crank-forward one like the Townie, first. And give your butt a little time to adjust. I got back into biking after a more than 20 year absence when I got arthritis. I’d been an avid rider, then switched to running, then came back. During that 20 years my butt had completely forgotten that it is ok to be on a saddle. I started out with a decent hybrid and comfortable saddle. On my first ride my butt was whining within 5 minutes. I gutted it out for half an hour, and went home demoralized thinking about selling the bike. But I went out the next time and made it 35 minutes. Within about a week it wasn’t so bad, within two weeks I was fine.
I recommend going through this trial because there is a lot of convenience to having a local bike shop for conventional bikes. If you are lucky enough to have a local recumbent dealer that is a fine option too (mine is over sixty miles away).
But I do love my recumbent, too, and am willing to tinker with it myself to have it as an option. They can be a great comfort choice for cruising around on. One other trade off is they are not the best for riding around town. For example, they’re a bit more awkward starting off on than a conventional bike, which is an issue if you have to stop at traffic signals. If I have an errand to run I grab my hybrid, not my recumbent. But for a long cruise, the recumbent calls to me… If you want to learn more about these, here’s a couple of links:
There a lot of different configurations with recumbents, starting with the issue of tricycles vs bicycles. For example, there is short wheelbase (with the cranks out in front of the forks, like mine, or long wheelbase. The former take up less room and are easier to store and transport. The book The Recumbent Bicycle by Gunnar Fehlau, is a great overview. It’s a little dated, from 2004, but you can get the latest details from the two sites above. I think you can see why I recommended a local bike shop and uprights first. Unless you have a local recumbent dealer, recumbents are a rabbit hole you can disappear down (or a fascinating hobby, depending on your point of view).