It’s been a while since I wrote a post for this blog, and I’m going to go ahead and blame winter. What a winter it was -- there were a lot of days I didn’t want to leave my house, period, let alone ride my bicycle in sub-freezing temperatures, often with snow and ice on the ground. Part of the reason I love biking so much is that it makes my life easier, and bundling up for the insane wind chill on my bike was starting to feel like more trouble than it was worth. (Not that I didn’t do it -- read my Philly Pedals article about my epic ride from NYC to DC at the beginning of March if you’re curious about cold-weather biking.) But I was as ready for spring to arrive as the next person, bicyclist or not.
And it’s here! Finally. In the world of bikes, that means that local bike shops are bustling with folks interested in finding their perfect bike. Over the years, I’ve had many friends ask me for advice about what kind of bike to buy, and I always do my best to listen carefully to their needs and give a customized answer. I’ve realized, though, that there’s one common theme I always come back to. So I want to shout it from the rooftops here, for anyone contemplating a bike purchase to consider. If you’re planning to use your bike for transportation around Philadelphia…
TRY AN UPRIGHT BIKE.
What do I mean by upright bike? I mean a bike where you can sit up relatively straight on the seat and the handlebars are either straight out to the side (flat bars) or swoop up a bit (upright bars, moustache bars, they go by a lot of names), rather than drops, those road-bike handlebars that curve down, and you have to lean forward to hold onto. In the Netherlands, and other places where bikes are a normal form of transportation, almost everyone rides upright bikes around town. (In fact, upright bikes are often called “Dutch-style bikes”). In the U.S., our small-but-growing bike culture has inherited a lot of assumptions from the sport of bicycling. Thus, we have a city full of folks riding bikes with drop bars for transportation around town. I’m here to push back against that a little bit.
Of course, a sleek, light, fast bike with drop bars is a beautiful machine for recreational long rides and racing. Even a Dutch guy out for a 100 kilometer ride would use a road bike, not an upright bike. But I’ve found that for city riding, the benefits of upright bikes (like my own dear hybrid, Helena) are plentiful:
Upright bikes are comfortable. I’ve had friends (and my boyfriend) complain of back pain after riding road bikes for a while. There are always adjustments to be made to make such bikes more comfortable, but I’ve never once been made uncomfortable by my bike. Friends used to road bikes have borrowed my bike for a spin around the block and commented on how comfy it is to ride. You wouldn’t buy a car that made your neck hurt every time you drove it. You deserve comfortable transportation.
Upright bikes let you see what’s happening. When I find myself riding a bike with drop bars in the city, I feel the constant urge to sit up and look around. City riding definitely requires attentiveness to your surroundings (don’t hit that rogue pedestrian! avoid that parked car door! make eye contact with that motorist at the intersection so they don’t hit you!), and I find it much easier to maintain that attentiveness on an upright bike. I also feel more visible to motorists on an upright bike -- and visibility is paramount when you’re riding in traffic. It makes sense to sport an “aggressive” riding position (leaned forward) if your goal is to be aerodynamic. But when I’m cruising down 15th street, my goal is to see and be seen.
Upright bikes tend to come with the all the (commuter) trappings. This one is important. To really use a bike for everyday transportation, it helps to have fenders to keep you dry when you pedal through a puddle, a rear rack you can bungee things onto or hang pannier bags on, and/or a basket to carry stuff. These are the types of amenities that are easily added on to upright, Dutch-style bikes, if they don’t come standard. But some (not all) road bikes don’t have the proper geometry to add on a rack or fenders, leaving you stuck with a less-than-ideal setup for everyday transportation biking. In addition, upright bikes tend to come with slightly thicker tires, a plus for navigating trolley tracks and such in Philly streets.
Upright bikes are stylish. Style is personal and subjective, so I know not everyone’s going to agree with me here. But in my opinion, if you’re looking for that “cycle chic” look, rather than a sporty look, upright bikes are the way to go. And not just for the ladies -- to me, nothing is more dashing than a well-dressed dude on an upright bicycle pedaling around Philly. (Take note, boyfriend.) Need some examples? The Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog is a great place to get inspired by just how GOOD people can look while riding a (generally upright) bike for transportation.
Don’t get me wrong -- if you’re comfortable and happy on your current drop-bar bike, I’m not trying to pressure you into switching. (Although -- you should know that on some types of road bikes, it is possible to switch out your drop bars for upright bars!) If you also use your bike for a lot of long, fast rides, of course it makes sense to have a road bike. But for newbies testing the waters and considering buying a bike to get around town, I hope I’ve convinced you to at least test-ride an upright bike. Who knows -- you might fall in love.