It’s such a traditional Christmas gift that it’s almost a cliché: the new bike. I don’t remember ever waking up to find a bike under the Christmas tree, but I do remember that one year my father repainted my older sister’s outgrown bike and updated it just for me. Off came the 1960′s style handlebars and saddle and on went Stingray handlebars and a banana seat with bold flowers and a sissy bar. I was very excited to have a girly bike in the latest style.
As an adult, I appreciate even more that my father took the time to not only paint the frame and upgrade the worn parts, but to choose fashionable accessories for me. My dad is more of a “function over style” kind of guy. There were many crudely but effectively repaired items around our house to attest for his skill. I don’t have a photo of the bike, but it looked like this groovy one I found on Craigslist, except that mine was spray painted blue and had long handlebar tassels.
If Santa didn’t bring you a new bike this year, it’s not too late to get a groovy bike that you’ll love as much as I loved my faux Stingray. If you want a sleek road bike or a plush mountain bike, there’s plenty of advice at your local bike shop or on the internet to find the perfect bike for you. But if you’re looking for bike to ride around town doing errands, shopping or for a relatively short commute to work, you might want to consider a city bike instead (or adding a city bike to your stable of bikes).
City bikes are designed for cross-town trips in street clothes, not about riding your fastest or getting a workout. For those reasons, city bikes have specific details that those bicycles don’t have, either because they add weight or get in the way when you’re charging down the trail. Properly equipped city bikes have fenders and chainguards to protect your clothes, racks and/or baskets to carry purchases, handy accessories like lights and bells, and flat pedals and kickstands so you can hop off and on quickly and easily.
At shops more oriented for recreational riding or racing, staff may not see the value for these very useful features. As someone who owns two city bikes and has helped a handful of friends find their perfect match, here are my top tips for buying the right city bike for you.
Don’t Be a Weight Weenie. When buying a road bike, the first thing most buyers do is pick it up. Road bikes are designed for speed and distance, and lighter weight can mean winning a race or finishing a century ride before they close the course. City bikes are designed to carry things so they need a heavier frame. And they’re designed for shorter distances, where slower speeds don’t make a big difference. Of course, if you have to carry it up stairs to an apartment or you live on a steep hill, you may want to check the weight. Just don’t obsess.
Frame the Question. You’ll need to decide whether you want a traditional diamond frame or a step through frame, aka a men’s bike or a women’s bike. Not that the decision lies with gender. Men sometimes choose a step-through so they don’t have to lift their leg high over the top tube. Women, especially ones who don’t wear skirts, sometimes choose the diamond frame. Side note: mixte frames, like the white one below, are said to be named for “mixed gender.”
Upright, Not Uptight. Pedaling while upright feels odd at first if you’re used to a more aggressive position, but upright bikes are great for shorter urban trips because you can see what’s around you better. That also means others can see you better. You’ll still want to adjust the seat height and perhaps lower the bars a bit, but there’s little need for precise fitting. You won’t be bent over on the bike for hours and you won’t be locked into a single position on your pedals.
Size Matters, But Not So Much. Because they don’t require such precise fitting, city bikes come in fewer sizes than road bikes. You’ll know the size is right if you don’t feel crowded between the seat and handlebars or too stretched out. If the bike is too small you may feel perched too high once your saddle is adjusted to the right height. And if you’re sitting on the top tube, your frame is too big. Nothing new there.
Gear Up. Most city bikes have 3-8 gears with a reasonably wide range. If you live in a hilly area, buy accordingly. But gear ratio range matters more than the number of gears, and it can be hard to know the range without a test ride. City bikes often have internal gear hubs, which protect the gears from street grime and protect your clothing from gear grime. Internal gear hubs are more expensive than derailleur-based gearing.
Try Before You Buy. As with any bike purchase, a test ride will tell you a lot. Is it easy to get on and off? Is it the right size? Does it feel balanced and track straight? Does it brake well? Does it shift well? Does it seem well-built? Do you feel “one with the bike?” Did riding it make you smile?
A Lasting Relationship. Consider the bike shop and its staff. They should be knowledgeable, friendly and helpful, and take time to answer your questions. If they primarily sell other types of bikes, make sure they value city bikes and understand their specific needs. If they tell you that you don’t need a kickstand or fenders, go elsewhere. Finally, if you don’t like the staff enough to want to go back to the shop, don’t buy the bike there.
How well does your current bike work for errands and short commutes? Is it missing key features that you’d like in your next (or another) bike?