My friend Deanna was so excited to have a new job just two miles from home. The location was a small business district, much closer and more convenient than the bike commute she'd had for years to a Silicon Valley office park. After only two weeks, she texted me the bad news: "My bike was stolen outside my office. Will you help me shop for a new one?"
Having ridden that commuter bike for years, Deanna knew the value of a riding a bike with a rack and panniers for comfort, and flat pedals for hop-on-and-off convenience. But with her new job she needed to upgrade to a real city bike, one that she could ride every single day regardless of the weather. The city’s monthly-only car parking permit system meant her fair-weather-only bike commute days were over.
For her new bike Deanna wanted fenders and a chain-guard since she'd be riding in street clothes in potentially wet weather and there's no shower at her new job. She also wanted a step through frame to make it easier to mount and dismount in a dress and with a load, and she was definitely hoping for something more stylish than her old 1990's Trek hybrid.
Bike shopping with Deanna reminded me of how different it was than buying a road or mountain bike. 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. And the shop staff may or may not get why you need them. Here are some things to think about if you're in the market for a city bike.
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 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. 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. 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 city with steep hills, 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.
Deanna and I visited four bike shops before we found a bike to test ride that met her basic requirements. But she found her perfect match in a lovely sage Linus mixte and she's back rolling again, this time with a much stronger lock.
What do you appreciate most about your city bike? If you don’t have a city bike, what city bike feature do you wish your bike had?
About Janet LaFleur
Janet LaFleur's love affair with the bicycle began with a crush on her first red tricycle that she pedaled in circles on the driveway. The crush grew into full-blown passion when her dad threw Stingray handlebars and a banana seat on her older sister's outgrown bicycle. Suddenly, the whole neighborhood was hers to explore as her friends and she cruised around with her handlebar tassels streaming backwards.
Fast forward a few decades and not much has changed. Janet and her husband Dick live on the San Francisco peninsula in Mountain View, a block away from Mountain View's original bike boulevard. They ride their bikes almost every day, for commuting to work, for doing errands, for visiting friends, for going out to dinner and for taking longer rides in the hills on the weekends. Janet LaFleur writes both her own blog "One Woman. Many Bicycles" and also "Bike Fun" for the Mountain View Voice.