Choosing a bike.
There seem to be more different bikes on the market than there are different cars. With so many brands and so much attention paid to appearance, it is hard to not loose sight of the fact that they are all machines.
Bikes are fantastic machines. Indeed, they are awesome. They give us freedom to get around independently when every alternative means of transport has major drawbacks. It is not surprising that we become very attached to our bikes. Train disruption. Fuel supply problems. Traffic congestion. Not a problem for the cyclists.
But how can you make sense of the large range of available bikes so as to choose one for yourself?
The starting point is the question of what you want to use the bike for? Even that is not simple. Surely "riding" is the answer. And how are you supposed to know what type of riding you will do? Such things can't be all known in advance. Life is a long adventure. The bike will last for many years and you may do all sorts of riding in that time. Versatility and durability must high on the list of features.
Some bike characteristics are best seen as points on a continuum. Some are additional (extra) features which a bike may or may not have. When you get further into detail there is "type", such as different transmission and brake systems.
Below are some comments on of the broader subjects in bike design.
- bike length. Short bikes, which includes racing bikes, are more manouverable which may be good in traffic. Part of the way they became short was by using thin tyres. Bigger tyres, which are more comfortable, result in longer bikes. Wishing to use panniers pushes the length out a bit more. Your heels will hit the panniers unless you have longer chainstays.
- tyre size. Thin tyres are faster, but have to be pumped up frequently, wear out faster and get more punctures. Fatter tyres are slower but last longer, get fewer punctures, are softer to ride and are safer on rough roads, such as we find in many cities.
- gear number and range. Gears allow you to vary the number of times the pedals turn for a given distance travelled. You control how concentrated your energy is on the road. A single-gear bike may be lightweight and inexpensive. But you may have to walk up some hills. If you have a wide range of gears you can be still pedaling whether you are going uphill slowly, down hill fast or just cruising. The more you want to carry shopping or luggage of any kind, and the more your terrain is hilly, the more you need gears with a wide range. A five-fold difference between top and bottom is generally the bench mark for multi-purpose bikes, including touring bikes. The difference between the lowest and the highest gear should be at least 500% in the touring and multi-urban uses. However the wider range rear cassettes weigh more. And internal gear systems are heavier again.
- wheel strength. You will notice thinner rims and fewer spokes on some bikes. Light weight wheels are not strong. This may be ok on good surfaces with no load. Bike wheels take a beating with occasional potholes sometimes being unavoidable. Stronger wheels are more durable. Wheel damage can leave you stranded and is very inconvenient. Especially if you are trying to get to work on time. The sudden stopping and jarring that can happen in cycle commuting is best done on strong wheels. For long distance touring it is necessary to have strong wheels. 36 spokes per wheel is standard. There are some wheels with 32 spokes and the only reason is that 4 spokes (8 per bike) saves just under 60 grams at the expense of some reliability.
- "fair weather" or 24/7. The idea of riding in lovely and sunny weather is pretty nice. We all want to do that. But will you ride in the dark at all? If you come to a tunnel will you have to stop? Will you ride in rain? If it starts raining when we are already riding, most of us just keep going. We go through it. Bikes without lights or mudguards are cheaper and lighter. Bikes that come equipped with them already, have them designed right into the bike with a better end result. In Europe there is not a touring bike on the market that does not have a rack, mudguards and lights integrated into the design. Somehow Australia , New Zealand, the USA and Canada were left out of that. Most bikes in shops in these countries are designed for dry weather and day-time riding.
- colours. People used to claim yellow was safer. Perhaps it is but the visibility of the cyclist is the main issue. Only one colour does not show the dirt much. Black! Recently on a blog a guy said he did not ride in rain because he didn't like letting his bike get dirty. Maybe it was a light colour. But a light colour can look really good! Custom paint jobs are available and if you have your heart set on a particular colour, don't buy a bike that happens to have that colour. Get the best bike are then get it repainted. It is not hard to arrange.
- short and long trip handlebars. Many bikes were not expected to be ridden for hours on end. That is not a fault at all as most people do ride on short journeys. If you are sure you will only be on short rides then there is less need to be concerned about the handlebars. The longer the rides are, the more the bike needs to be comfortable where you hold onto it. Multiple holding positions on the handlebars allow you to move around and this is the essential difference.
- frame and fork materials. The lightest, stiffest (and most expensive) bike frames are made from carbon fibre. Although stiff, these frames are known to not survive falls or crashes well and are not easily repaired. At the other end of the range is steel which is economical, heavier but very durable, and repairable. In between, as far as weight goes, is aluminium. Surprisingly this material is not as light as you'd think when used in bike frames. Steel is three times stiffer so aluminium frames have to use fatter tubes and thicker tubing walls. There is a slight sense of impermanence around alloy bike frames when compared to steel.
- weight. The importance of a bike's weight is exaggerated a lot. You must look at what benefits you get in return for any added weight. For example, a middle size tyre is much heavier than a thin one. But the heavier tyre is softer to ride and gets virtually no punctures. A dynamo front hub is heavier than a regular hub on a bike that has no lights. High quality bikes range from about 8 to 16 kg. The difference is a relatively small percentage of the entire weight of the bike, your body and clothes and whatever luggage you are carrying. Weight is important but it is best to decide the functional issues first, then worry about the weight afterwards.
- fit for purpose. You are lucky if you know in advance exactly what the bike's purpose is. For most of us, bikes have no single role and are more like allies in our daily lives. You can broaden the uses a bike has in your life by selecting for better quality, more reliability and durability across the whole bike, integration of lighting and luggage carrying into the design, and a balancing of comfort and efficiency.
The parallel between touring and urban bikes.
We talk about commuting and touring but some people have tried to subdivide touring itself into different types of touring.
The biggest single difference between commuting (general urban use) and bike touring, is how long you are on the bike for on a single day. In the city you also carry stuff, you ride on some poor quality roads, there are hills, it gets dark, it rains, you need to warn those pedestrians you are coming, etc. These things happen in commuting as they do in touring. So the applications are remarkably similar. But when you are touring, the towns are whatever distance apart that they are and you can't expect to be on the bike for only one hour a day. It might be six hours, or even more. If you are camping you have more flexibility but you still ride for several hours.
Preparedness for riding for longer periods is what differentiates the World Randonneurs from most other urban bikes. Both comfort and efficiency become big issues and have to be addressed in a single machine. There are trade-offs between the two concepts. Attending too much to one can be negative on the other.
From the comfort angle, you want to be able to change your posture or position whilst riding. This gets down to handlebar styles. So called flat-bar-road-bikes and hybrid-bikes don't offer the chance to change position. Wanting to move around becomes an issue after an hour of riding.
Another implication of using your bike for touring is that it needs to be tough and long-wearing. When you are touring you don't want a single technical problem. If one does arise you want it to be able to fix it on the spot. You don't want to find you need some rare part, or a tool that is not available. Having a website you can access to get mechanical information about your bike can also be very handy.
You will appreciate in the city, just as much as in the country, the high reliability of the World Randonneur. These bikes mostly get no flats. Broken spokes are unknown. No parts need replacement in the first 4-5,000km. Then it is only the front brake pads. Long distance touring bikes are made to last.
If bike touring is still in the future for you, yet you are keen to use your bike on a daily basis as your prime means of transportation, the Vivente World Randonneur is designed for you.
In our range, you will be choosing between the posture positions of trekking bars and drop bars. If you choose drop bars you will then be choosing between gear levers in the brake levers (STI) and barend levers The three bikes are similar in price ($1,800-2,000) and most equipment is the same on all models. You will get used to which ever handlebar and shift lever you start with. The initial choice is worth spending a bit of time thinking over. But there is no right answer.
We think all bikes are pretty good. But there are important differences. Check out our Technical tab for more discussion about some of the classic bike design issues. We hope you will opt for a bike that enables you to go travelling. It you end up touring and it changes your life you will be rewarded for doing this research.
Some number crunching.
Are there ways of making sense of the price differences in bikes? The saying that you "get what you pay for" doesn't help much. It is not always true. Plus, the most expensive bikes are not appropriate for normal daily use.
We took a different approach to helping you put the cost of a $2,000 bike into perspective. We did an exercise to work out what the financial savings are when someone converts from driving to cycling to work. The annual saving for most people will be more than the cost of a new World Randonneur each year. The calculations are here.
Get a good versatile bike and save more than the cost of it in the first year.
Other benefits if you replace a car journey with a bike commute include:
- your own health benefit - you live longer and feel better. You are relieved of some of the annoying things about cars, eg, finding parking spaces for them.
- social benefits - you assist in reducing road congestion, allowing for example, busses to move more freely; you make it safer for other bikes on the road (by removing a car); you reduce the national health bill.
- environmental benefits - every litre of petrol burned produces 2.16kg of CO2. More than the weight of the fuel. Remarkable but true. Car production and use are such a serious environmental problem for the planet that it seems inevitable that eventually private car use will be more restricted than it has been.
Cycle touring is also very economical. In January 2013 a group of 4 VWRs went on an 18 day tour in South India. All local costs (hotels, food and airport transfers) cost only $350 for each person. No skimping either!
Get a bike that encourages you to ride more by being up for everything and never giving you any trouble.