Friday, September 20, 2013

How To Get More People Biking

Three words: Low bottom brackets.

Seriously. Let the rider get their foot on the ground more comfortably without leaving the saddle, and a ton of intimidation factor goes bye-bye.

Now, you can say that Electra got there ahead of me with their whole "flat foot technology" thing, but having owned and ridden a Townie, I think they overdid it a bit.

Sure, they got my foot on the ground (flat, even), but at what expense? My butt was back there in another zip code. If all I ever wanted to do was amble down the boardwalk to a Jack Johnson album, it would have been perfect. But if the road turned uphill at all, ugh. And even the downhills were terrifying. I didn't feel like I was riding it so much as I was sitting on the back of it and hanging on. For its purpose, and within the limitations of its design brief, it was fine. But it didn't feel like I want a bicycle to feel.

The a-ha moment for me was when my better half first tootled about on her Raleigh 20. She'd tried a few other single bikes (even the Townie) and just didn't feel confident on them. At speed, no problem -- this is a woman who can make a tandem go like a surface-to-air missile. But stops and starts were awkward at best. On the little Raleigh, though, she was a champ. Not because of the little wheels (my Swift folder also uses 20" wheels, and she hated it), but because of the "low end of normal" bottom bracket height. She had her full leg extension for pedaling, but could still step down without any gymnastics. That's all it took.

Lest you think this is just something for beginners, I have the low BB bug too. My Clubman has a claimed 75mm of drop (defined as the distance between the bottom bracket center and an imaginary line drawn between the axle centerlines), which is quite a bit by production bike standards. I don't know the drop on my Swift (it may be a "rise" thanks to the smaller wheels), but it definitely sits higher off the ground. In city riding, I only get off the Clubman's saddle if I know I'm going to be stopped for a while -- otherwise, I just put a foot down, because I can (despite the fact that I've upsized the stock 700x25 tires to 700x32s). On the Swift, no way. I feel like a teetering circus bear.

Are there downsides to low bottom brackets? Yes. If you pedal through corners on a low-BB bike, you're going to scrape a pedal, and you might crash. Simple solution: Don't pedal through corners! (Which is to say that low bottom brackets might not be so hot for fixed gears.) But for most folks, I think the benefits outweigh the risks.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to see if BB height is a fashion item that changes over the years. My first good bike was a beautiful Raleigh Gran Sport, c. 1974. The BB was only 10 1/2" above the ground, and the cranks were 165mm, IIRC. It had sport-touring geometry, and you were expected to not pedal going around every corner. I liked that bike, rode it for 14 years, and then had a custom bike made by Gordon Borthwick that copied the BB height. 11 years after that, I had a travel/touring/commuting bike built by Rich Powers based on the Borthwick's dimensions, and the 10 1/2" high BB lived for another generation.

I think it's great. It's not intended for use as a crit bike, but for a daily rider that will end up stopping and starting in traffic, it's wonderful.

Steve in Peoria,
who still gets nostalgic for that Gran Sport (is there a prettier color than lagoon blue??)