Monday, January 09, 2012

Real commuter bikes: Why they are necessary

One thing that I dislike about the cycling movement in the US is that it (still) seems to be dominated by what I would call "specialist" riders: road-bike and mountain-bike enthusiasts. By "enthusiast" I mean people who might drive their bike to a place in order to best utilize it for the purpose of riding smoothly and quickly on paved roads or race downhill and over rough terrain. These aren't usually the bikes that people would use for comfortable commuting. It's something that I've noticed as one thing that is very different between cycling culture in the US and in other countries with large bike-using populations. I personally think that one way of improving the biking culture in the US (as opposed to some places that are already "bike friendly") is to create the prototypical "US commuter bike".

A recent short YouTube film that takes one through the basic features of a Dutch commuter bike merely emphasized a major point about commuter bikes in the Netherlands: the comfort for the rider and the robustness of the design:

And this isn't only with the Dutch. From Denmark there is the Velorbis (and bikes like it):

In Japan, there is the ubiquitous mamachari:

Even when I was growing up in Japan (during the late '80s), I would see policemen, postmen, and mothers riding these mamachari (or versions of bike that looked a lot like them) up and down the lanes and roads. Every kōban (a police box that would serve as a neighborhood "post" for one or two policemen) would invariably have such a bike sitting outside of it, ready for use. I even saw (as I was riding around on my entry-level Bridgestone road bike) one electric assist mamachari that easily glided past me on one of the climbs up to my school (which was perched up on a hill with a steep grade).

The thing that all of these bikes have is a common design that speaks to people in those countries and announces, "I am the common bike." Its basic form is not fancy, although you can definitely customize them and make them more fancy. Its basic use is almost purely one of utility. And it is this form that you see chained up and parked throughout cities, instead of mountain bikes and road bikes (which can operate as commuters, but aren't necessarily the best for that purpose, at least IMHO).

Now, I don't have anything against those who are specialist cyclists, but my point is that if the general populace is to change their opinion about cycling as a valid method of transportation, then one of the things that they have to get rid of is the mental image of spandex-clad weekend road-bikers or downhill/off-road dirt-bikers and (instead) be able to include (to a large extent) the sedate and relatively untaxing ease of a commuter bike.

You will likely say, "But, Umlud, there already are commuter bikes from the major bike companies in the US." Indeed, I owned a so-called commuter bike. However, it was (still, in my opinion) not an optimal commuter bike (IMHO), because its ride wasn't a comfortable one for a person with a goal of reaching his or her destination without too much strain of cycling. In other words, it was a more-upright posture than a mountain bike with more road-worthy tires, but it seemed (to me) to be more of a means of cutting costs than providing a good alternative means for transportation. After riding my bike for two years, I learned that my daily commute of 3 miles each way (plus occasional wanderings of up to 10 miles) was too much for that particular model of high-middle-end bike. WTF? My neighbor's mamachari had still been going strong after more than a decade of daily use. (And, yes, I took my commuter bike in for maintenance and repairs.) It just doesn't seem like Giant (and possibly other manufacturers) weren't really investing strongly in the commuter bike market. (Perhaps it was because people tend to have a strange expectation of what $500 will buy in a new not-road bike.)

True, my solution - to buy a custom-made bike - was not to build a commuter bike for comfort, but for durability (something that my previous bike lacked) in all weather (also something that my last bike couldn't do) with the ability to haul decent weight (got sturdy front and back racks on my bike). Oh, it's not the most comfortable bike to ride for hours on end, but it will get me (surprisingly quickly and smoothly) from my home to work with a (usually) minimum amount of fuss every day of the year.

Still, in the end, I really do believe that one thing that needs changing in the US is the perception about what constitutes a bike rider. As for myself, I'm a guy who really doesn't care much about what others think of some of my choices, and for that I was able to build a really awesome bike - one which has been (according to people at Great Lakes Cycling) copied and modified by people around town. (Apparently my design for an efficient, low-maintenance, all-weather bike was a hit.) However, I also had a strong idea about the type of things that I wanted to do with my bike and an imaginative guy at Great Lakes Cycling to bounce ideas and designs off of (well, he proposed a lot of designs, and I queried him about various aspects of them), and I knew from the outset that I didn't want a traditional bike (i.e., like those being sold on the racks in the store). Even now, I go in and talk with the team there about how to make my bike even more awesome for my needs - changing the handlebars, adding a dynamo hub, etc. - all to make something that (I hope) will become my ultimate commuting and middle-distance bike that so obviously doesn't fit into any other category than "commuter". This is why I am such a fan of things like the "Best Utility Bike" competition that took place in Portland; without a national biking culture, a bike prototype is needed. (Well, that's one path to making the US more of a cycling nation, but not the only one.)

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