How to Choose a City Bike

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A free man is he whose life depends on as few external factors as possible. When it comes to ‘traveling in the city’, this factor is not always best… controllable. So go get your bike.

If we are all city cyclists – whether we like it or not –  and if some of us get to use our super-specialized bicycles by city roads, sidewalks, curbs and potholes, we eventually get to think of a bicycle “specially” meant for this purpose. Whether you already have the “toy”, but it’s too precious for urban wear or you don’t have it yet but you want to become more mobile, here are some things that are worth taking into account.

In this purchase guide we speak about general principles and types of bike, not about brands, so as not to disadvantage or create or prejudices in your quest. We mention this because many people are guided by the prejudices of others when they buy the bike.

Generally, when we hear of “city bikes” we are inclined to think of something like an ambulant shed. It’s not always so: viable and elegant alternatives have been lately produced. It is no longer considered that a city bike must have all possible accessories, because no matter how cruel, the city is not quite a jungle, therefore the bicycle shouldn’t look like a caravan, an oasis of survival or a tank.

And then the question arises: what should we consider when buying a city bicycle?

After years of discussions with many city riders, both beginners on starting to ride a bike, and experienced riders, we drew some conclusions:

(From the very beginning I mention that I discuss only utility selection criteria and exclude the stylistic ones, which would complicate the discussion, because if by all means you want a cruiser that looks like a Harley just “to hang around in town”, you surely won’t focus on such futile aspects like: lightness, hubs that are not penetrated by the first raindrops, handlebars that don’t hit you while cycling etc. The only issue you are interested in is appearance and you only ride your bike on holidays.)

So:

– Your city bike must be reliable, meaning it should safely take you where you need to go.

– It must be maneuverable, especially at low and medium speeds, common in the urban environments

– It must be easy to carry when you’re not sitting on it, so as not to become a nuisance when you get off it. So, your bike should be as light and responsive as possible, but, of course, with no compromise in strength.

– It must be comfortable, and suit your style of riding, which does not necessarily mean it should look like a sofa, but be friendly and efficient both at low and high speeds. Frame geometry is the main actor here.

– It must not be susceptible to potholes and curbs – first fear for most novice bike riders. So, resistance!

– It must have effective brakes – “what if something jumps in front of me?” – is the second biggest fear of the rider. So, safety!

– Last but not least, your bike should represent you; it is where its adequacy reaches its sweet spot, so that people understand at first glance how and why you use it.

Reliability

Perhaps the first thing you have to look at if you’ve found your “princess” is if “she” is equipped according to her purpose. Rotation parts such as hubs, pedals, headset should not have any plays in them, they shouldn’t be no-name and if they are encapsulated, so much the better. In other words, a hub bearing is more reliable than a cone and ball bearing one. It also lasts you longer because water won’t penetrate it.

The material the frame and the fork are made from is also crucial. An aluminum frame is sometimes lighter but is aging in time and is more sensitive to stress and cracks. However, it doesn’t rust.

Again, hi-tech materials such as carbon or kevlar are welcome if you can afford them, but it depends very much on where they are on the bike and on how you use them, as they are most sensitive.

A carbon fork for instance is likely to crack under a 120 kg rider, but if you are a delicate 45 kg lady and want easy cycling, it’s worth considering carbon-kevlar transmission, carbon fork, etc. In other words, a light, 9-10 kg bike at least.

If you choose a folding bike, you should also pay attention to the type of the lock system, hinge strength, components material. There are many variables and many brands here too, and the price is generally directly proportional to the quality and inversely proportional to the weight.

Geometry

The form of the frame strongly dictates your pedaling.  If you’re more like a dreamer and contemplative by nature and want to enjoy sightseeing, by proud and haughty urban cycling, then you need a shorter frame and tall handlebars to sit up straight. It should be noted, however, that you need more flexibility of the saddle, meaning that it should be very soft or be provided with a suspension, because, in spite of existing preconceived ideas, the upright riding position makes your backbone take over all road shocks, stressing your spine more than when leaning on the handlebars, in which case the weight of the trunk is flexibly taken over throughout the body and hands.

I insist on this issue because many friends of mine who are complaining of back pains are still inclined to believe that the upright riding position is, by definition, the healthiest one.

On the other hand, there is the more ‘bent’ cycling geometry, a speedier one, for which you do not necessarily need shock absorbing saddle, but you’ll have to use your hands a little bit more. It is the position of most “active” riders.

Geometry also includes the size of the bike itself, with all that it implies. A short bike, with closer wheels provides better handling allowing you to take curves tight, which is desirable in the city, just as with cars. There is a “smart” among all categories of bikes, but generally the first thing that dictates handling is the wheel/wheels size. I say so because there are bicycles with wheels of different diameters. For example handling is more related to the front wheel, while speed increase depends on the back wheel.

The form of the frame has many variables that we’ll discuss in more detail later, but the most noticeable is the difference between low-step frames and those with  top tube. We detail.

Speaking of comfortableness and ‘contemplative’ style, it is worth mentioning here the use of rearview mirrors. You should know that in order to adapt to two different views (real-virtual), your brain needs relatively the same amount of time that you would use for slightly turning your head and using peripheral vision. Anyway, rearview mirrors are funny gadgets, but only useful when they are convex! If you have to stare at the rearview mirror and wait until you see the car behind you, then you can throw that flat mirror of yours in the first eco-bin you come across.

Size and Weight

First you must honestly question yourself about the type and frequency of use of your bicycle, the most important variable here being the distance covered daily.

Let’s take an example:

You have a job downtown and live in a dormitory-neighborhood in the city’s outskirts. The job is very strict, delays are excluded and you are liable to be penalized or simply kicked out. You ride your bike daily to get to your job and back home, you ride it rarely after work to ride about with friends, and never during working hours, since you don’t have any errands to do.

In this case you need quite a fast bike, with large 28 wheels, increased advance on longer roads, unpretentious with bumps but not necessarily a suspension one, and not with small wheels to soak up all road imperfections. A folding bike is the least inspired option in this case. You do not need small wheels and the high maneuverability they provide, all you want is to ride fast enough, you are not interested in taking your bike in your office because it is not expensive and the doorman will take care of it anyway, and the next ride is riding homewards.

Another case would be the one in which you have to make a short trip to the office but many and frequent trips throughout the day. In this case, obviously, a small- wheeled folding bike is gaining ground. However you should consider a small, light and low, perhaps even a low-step one, usually called ‘a women specific bike because it has a low frame, which and allows stepping over it. It helps if your work involves several ascents and descents of the saddle than pedaling itself.

I approached these two diametrically opposed cases to define certain types of bicycles, but there are hybrid alternatives that satisfy both extremes with minimal losses.

Again, adequacy must be brought into question. While not any small bike is lightweight or foldable, not all big bikes are heavy.

And, again, while in terms shockproof steel is still sacred, it gives great trouble in point of weight, although not all steel bikes are heavy! Sure, bikes in hypermarkets are out of the question, either made of steel or aluminum, they weigh the same, they are poorly equipped etc. Just that steel bikes are even heavier.

We bring STEEL into question as it has been reconsidered and has become popular again for urban cycling, thanks to the security it provides. Old bicycle frame manufacturers have started manufacturing fine steel frames just on the account of the long life of this material, and the fact that carefully crafted tubes can even compete with aluminum (or carbon!) in point of weight and high resistance to stress. Steel does not crack, has no hidden defects, and, in case it bends, you can see it for yourself and take a decision on what to do. Carbon or aluminum may fail without prior warnings, through wearing off (aluminum) or hits (carbon). This is the reason why steel is still in favor with the vast majority of bicycle manufacturers in countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, England and Switzerland, where the bicycle is still “a smaller car”.

Durability

Since we have already discussed about frame material, in this chapter related to resistance, after frame/fork issues, special attention should be paid to wheel rims.

Wheels are worth being addressed by following criteria such as shape/section and weight, NOT the material they are made of. If someone told me that he was using steel wheel rims because steel is more durable, the first thing I demonstrated  was that the wheel was untrue. Furthermore, steel wheels are generally an attribute of the distant past … There had been such pretty and beautiful wooden wheels (replacing carbon) in the ancient racing bikes, but at present we can hardly speak of anything other than wheels made of aluminum.

It is the shape of the wheel rim that gives it strength. A high rim and 2-3 walls of resistance will always be more solid than a simple rim, regardless of the material, and less sensitive to misalignment.Again, the form of warhead (deep V) bigger or smaller is a bonus for resistance.

Another significant resistance element of the rim/wheel is whether it is has nipples or not. I mean if the spokes go straight into the rim and pull it, they can expand and enlarge the rim hole in which they are set. Spokes are made of steel and wheel rims are made of aluminum. A steel nipple mediates this “tense” relationship, causing tension due to stretch to apply on a larger portion around the hole in the aluminum rim.

So here’s another thing to keep in sight.

Safety

I said that the brakes are the parts most discussed when it comes to safety, beyond materials, frame and wheels, already addressed. Ability to stop a bicycle in time when needed is one of the things that a buyer does not forget when looking for a bike, but then again, attention must be paid to preconceived ideas.

Disc brakes are by far the most effective in point of response, especially because they do not take weather into account – wet or dry, they do their job. Yet they do not very often equip city-bikes! And they are more expensive, too. Most times you will see cantilever brakes, V-brakes, or coaster brake. I mean the old, famous and beloved hub brakes!

1. So, just words of praise about disk brakes, the only bad exceptions being where they are too strong and may cause the bike to slip on wet surface or slime in wintertime. But these are rather isolated cases, most common being fear of throwing yourself over the handlebars, front brake too firm. But this too, is more of a myth. Generally, it’s girls who perpetuate it, maybe because they tend to be surprised and frightened when jamming on the brakes. Yet, you rarely use control in such cases..

2.Cantilever brakes are the most common, the one provided with pads on the rim. Here, like in the case of V-brake pads really matter, as they are the ones that give the brake response time. Under moisture conditions they don’t respond as clamp-on disk brakes, but for this purpose there are special pads with several kinds of rubber on the same pad, 2-3 ways to get to the rim in different conditions: dry-wet-cold.

3. Coaster brakes are still highly appreciated because they have the efficiency of a disk brake, taking no account of weather. In addition, it does not “complicate” the appearance of the bike, with cables or extra levers, simplicity being much appreciated in city bikes. Let’s note that not all ‘coaster’ bikes are single-speed! There are hubs able to incorporate sprockets and brakes, which simplifies the aspect quite a lot and they also have the advantage that all their mechanism is isolated from the weather, in other words – reliable!

4. Last but not least, the fixie trend should be mentioned, in which the rear brake is basically an “engine” brake, which makes it most verifiable in point of grip. Fixers do not lose ground control, even in slippery conditions, and in any other conditions they can put a brake on the front wheel, if they don’t belong to the most purist category, of course. However, much has been said and written about increased control on a fixie, but this is not our aim now.

Elegance

If I haven’t insisted on this goal is only because this tutorial is meant to be a technical one. I speak of those who buy a city bike while already having a more “dedicated” one, so they wish for a “delicate” one, too – especially the female segment. And with good reason! Like I said, in point of look, the claims are similar to buying a car.

To sum up, fact is that desirable and undesirable events in the city can put you in trouble if your bike is not ready for them, which may limit your freedom of movement. So the wrong bike may make you wonder “what have I got this thing for?” Suitability – that’s all about it: from a long ride for which you don’t realize your bike is not ready ‘cause its wheels are too small and make you consider taking the subway, to a sharp hole bending your wheel rims after the first kilometer or breaking your wheel so you walk home carrying your bike along, or, worse, you get pulled over and  wait for a friend to come and  stuff the whole mess in his car trunk, wheels all crooked and blocked.

All this being said, from the moment you decide you want a city-bike and not a mountain bike, which you know would resist anything whatsoever, dilemmas arise. That’s why you read this tutorial. Now, enjoy your shopping!

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