Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Building The Perfect Beast

Editor's Note: Oh, who am I kidding? If this thing had an editor, the following post would have been up three days ago, and it would have been half as long.

If you're reading this blog for expert advice on riding fast, catching air, shredding singletrack, beating your buddies up the next big hill, or eating the right combination of nutrient-enhanced goops and bars to stave off the bonk, you are most definitely in the wrong place. However, I have used a bicycle to get to and from work since I started earning a paycheck... zoinks, 21 years ago? Holy, cow, my commuter self is legal to drink! So I do consider myself a quasi-expert on what someone needs to get to work on two wheels.

During those years, I've seen plenty of companies try -- and fail -- to come up with the "ultimate" mass-appeal commuter bike.
The reason? Simple. In the same way that everyone's family is dysfunctional in its own special way, every commute offers up a unique set of challenges. I offer these excerpts from my own sordid history as a bicycle commuter as proof:

Summer Custodian, age 16
DISTANCE/CONDITIONS: Approx. 2 miles, flat, asphalt.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS: Usually wearing work boots half-dissolved by cleaning fluids.

College Student, age 18-[REDACTED]
DISTANCE/CONDITIONS: Varied, multi-surface, campus with some short, nasty hills.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS: Usually wearing work boots not dissolved by chemicals, cut-off jeans and de-sleeved flannel shirts -- it was a grunge thing. Let's move on, shall we?

Warm Body Teaching Freshman Comp, age 25
DISTANCE/CONDITIONS: 2 miles, city streets, exceedingly hostile drivers (aside to Columbus, OH motorists: What exactly is your damage?)
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS: Schlepping boat-loads of books, student papers, and everything else that wouldn't fit in the office I shared with a dozen other migrant academic laborers.

Bicycle Mechanic, age 27
DISTANCE/CONDITIONS: 22 miles, rural roads, hills that made me cry and my knees creak.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS: When you work in a bike shop, your bike CANNOT be dorky, unless you like ridicule from your coworkers and wary sideways glances from your customers.

Corporate Cube Monkey, present day
DISTANCE/CONDITIONS: 2 miles on the short way, 9 on the long way, everything from trails to urban (yes, "for Des Moines") traffic.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS: Nearby cube-drones would prefer that I don't stink.

So as you can see, finding a bike optimized for one or two of these commutes is no problem. Finding one that can do all of them? Good luck.
I do think, however, that there are some general criteria that you should keep in mind when you're choosing a commuter bike or optimizing one of your current rides for the trip to and from work.

RELIABILITY: Do not -- I repeat, do NOT -- ride some fragile and/or crappy bike, break down on the way to work, and tell your boss that you're late because your bike broke. You just make the rest of us look like schmucks, and frankly, I do that just fine on my own. Get wheels with lots of spokes and some tough tires. A commute is not the place for your super-light seven-spoke wheels and sausage-casing-thin race tires. Sure, the thick-treaded, Kevlar-belted things may ride rough and 36 spokes per wheel add a couple ounces, but they spare you that roadside flat fix or spoke replacement at 7:53 when you have that big 8:00 meeting.

VISIBILITY: If it's too pretty to slather with reflective tape, it's probably not the bike you want to commute on. Ditto on all the blinkies you can fit on the thing (I like the extra-annoying Planet Bike Superflash. Don't let drivers use the bogus "I didn't see you" excuse. If anything, they should have to use the "My retinas were burned out by some kind of unidentified low-flying orb of dazzling light" excuse.

LOAD-CARRYING CAPACITY: This one's a toss-up. If you like carrying your stuff on your person (in a messenger bag or backpack), then the ability to schlep on the bike might not be a huge selling point. But, if you want the load on the mule instead of on you, make sure it can handle it. I can't speak to loading the front of the bike (see Bicycle Quarterly for that), but rear loads need a couple things. First, look for rack eyelets on the seatstays and dropouts. You can bodge with clamps, but bolt-ons are more reliable. Second, check the length of the bike's chainstays. If you're using panniers on your rack, you want to make sure that they sit far enough back that you won't kick them. And get a real rack! Don't even think about using one of those diving board things that clamp to a seatpost. They're the faux-hawk of luggage carrying: Grow the real thing or shave that ridiculous abomination off.

SCHMUTZ-DEFLECTORS: Whether you ride in your civilian duds or full kit, fenders are a happy addition to any commuting steed. Maybe you have a shower at work, but does your bike? All that crud on drivetrain and brakes will eventually count against you on the reliability factor mentioned above. Plus, it's one more surface to slather with reflective tape! Double bonus: If your bike actually has room for full fenders, it probably has room for those wide tires I mentioned above. If not, clip-ons are a tolerable substitute.

THE FUN FACTOR: This one trips up a lot of people. They read glowing praise for some Dutch-inspired, bolt-upright roadster and its wonderful practicality without looking deep into their cycle-souls to think about what they actually like to ride. Do you want to sit straighter than Grant Petersen in a back brace? Does that look cool to you? Do you find it enjoyable to ride like that? Then heck yes, go for the roadster. But if your cycle-self yearns to feel racy, admit it to yourself and figure out a way to commutify your go-fast. If you dread getting on the bike -- no matter how "practical" it might be -- you won't keep commuting. So if your bike violates everything I've said above but you really can't wait to sling a leg over it in the morning, that's the perfect commute bike for you.


Christopher Johnson said...

Ahh...wisdom overflows. Teach us more.

john said...

"And get a real rack! Don't even think about using one of those diving board things that clamp to a seatpost. They're the faux-hawk of luggage carrying: Grow the real thing or shave that ridiculous abomination off."

Love it, Jason!

Steve Fuller said...

Clip on fenders are OK, but clip on racks aren't?

Jason T. Nunemaker said...

Steve -- that's correct. Deal with it. :-)

Okay, okay, so you got me. I don't know why I'll tolerate clip-on fenders (which the late, great Sheldon Brown so eloquently described as "crap") but I despise clip-on racks. Maybe it's because decent clip-on fenders (not those stupid "hunk of plastic on the downtube/seatpost-mounted butt crack protector" combinations) sit down over the wheel where they belong, while a seatpost rack/trunk just hangs out there in space like a giant cycle-goiter.

Yes, I have issues.