Practical Advice for Transportation Cycling

Sometimes, all that matters is getting from Point A to Point B as cheaply, safely and efficiently as possible. You don't need a fast bike, you don't need a pretty bike, and most of all you don't need an expensive bike, you just need one that works.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Choosing a bike: Mountain Bikes

Bicycles have part of American culture since they first became practical to mass produce. The first person to ride around the world (or at least ride the rideable parts) did so on a Columbia bicycle and started on the West Coast of the U.S., and American bicycle manufacturers have managed on occasion to revolutionize other forms of transportation as well. Around 1900 bicycle racing was the most popular sport, both at the professional and recreational level, in the country.

Over the past hundred-and-something years there have been a number of typically "American" bicycles. From the Great Depression to the 1960s the Cruiser bike was king, then the European racing influence brought us the Ten-Speed, then, sometime in the 70s a few guys in California decided to combine the sturdy frame and balloon tires of a Cruiser and the multispeed gearing of a racing bike and the Mountain Bike was born. Over the past three decades these rugged, versatile machines have become the most popular form of bicycle not only in the U.S., but in many other parts of the world. 

"That's all fine and dandy, and I'm glad America contributed something to the world other than the light bulb and Agent Orange," you say, "but what does that have to do with getting to work on time?" 

"Simple," says I, "in case you haven't noticed, if you're shopping for a bicycle on a budget, and you live somewhere between Canada and Mexico, most of your best choices are going to be Mountain Bikes."

Because Mountain Bikes (aka "MTBs" or "ATBs" or "All-Terrain Bicycles") are so popular, they're produced in the greatest number and in the widest range of price points, including at the very low end of the price spectrum. For between three and four hundred dollars, you can find a reasonably well-made bicycle with a sturdy frame, reliable brakes and a wide enough gear range to get you over just about anything. If you look into used bikes, you can probably find one for around $100 in perfectly good working order. 

Photo by Andy Armstrong via Wikimedia Commons

At the higher end of the price spectrum, you'll find all sorts of varying styles of bike aimed at the various specialized disciplines that have evolved out of just riding around off road, but at the affordable end, the end that you should be looking at as a utility cyclist, you'll mostly find a fairly basic design aimed at pavement and light trail use. Common features of your basic economy mountain bike include:

  • 26x1.95" Tires with a "center-ridge" tread (the tread is knobby at the edges, but lines up along the center to provide a fairly smooth surface for rolling along on pavement)
  • Linear Pull Brakes (aka "V-Brakes"), more expensive bikes often have disc brakes
  • A triple front crank, often with 22, 32 and 42-tooth chainrings
  • A seven-speed rear cluster, often with its largest cog being fairly large (32 or 34 teeth) to give an extremely low gear ratio when combined with the smallest chainring up front. 
  • Relatively upright seating position, but not quite as upright as a city bike
  • Cushy seat
  • Attachment points for water bottles, a rear rack and sometimes fenders
  • On the least expensive models, a rigid steel front fork, on slightly more expensive models a very basic front shock. No rear shock
  • Shimano or SRAM drivetrain components, often a combination of the two with very basic Shimano derailleurs controlled by SRAM MRX shifters
  • Aluminum single-wall rims with quick-release axles
  • Quick-release seatpost bolt
Right out off the showroom floor, a mountain bike makes a pretty decent commuter. It's sturdy, has all the gearing you need, can be tweaked for a fairly comfortable riding position (some models still have the traditional quill stem, which gives a few inches of adjustment, though threadless stems are becoming more common, even without an adjustable stem the riding position of a properly-sized mountain bike is usually pretty relaxed until you get into models designed for competitive riding) and isn't much bothered about dirt, rain and even snow. 

However, with a few more tweaks, it can be made into an even better utility bike. Most important for riding in anything except broad daylight is the addition of some form of lighting. There are a lot of different types of lighting, which will be the subject of a future post (or more likely, several) but the important thing is that you have a red one on the back, a white one on the front, and they're visible from some distance away. 

A rear rack will also both increase the carrying capacity of the bike (either by strapping stuff directly to it or by adding bags or baskets designed to attach to the rack) and provide some protection from road spray, preventing the "rooster tail" of grime up the back of your pants and shirt. To give yourself even better grime proofing a set of fenders will offer more grime protection (rain falling DOWN on you can be annoying enough, but the combination of water, dirt, motor oil and god-only-knows-what that your tires spray up at you off of wet roads is miserable). 

Water bottle cages are nice to have in the event that you're riding longer distances or in warm weather, or if you just want to carry a drink. 

If you're leaving your bike locked outside in area with even a moderate risk of theft, it's advisable to either replace the seatpost quick-release with a regular bolt, or incorporate a seat lock of some sort into your locking strategy. There are also locking skewers for the wheel axles, or you can use various locking strategies to secure the wheels better. 

A final tweak to make your mountain bike commute-friendly might be to replace the tires with a more pavement-oriented slick tire. Slick tires will roll a bit more quietly and with a bit less effort than knobbies and actually offer better grip on pavement. Don't worry about losing the ability to ride on unpaved bike paths, though, generally a fat tire with a smooth or light tread will handle dirt roads and light gravel just as well as the semi-knobbies the bike comes with. The only place you should feel any real loss of traction is in serious mud or snow. Another advantage to commuter tires is that many street tires come with some sort of flat protection built into the tire casing, which will help keep roadside debris from puncturing the inner tube. 

Tire swapping is not a huge priority though, unless you find yourself doing commutes of more than ten miles on pavement, in which case, a smoother, narrower tire (26x1.5" or even 1") that can run a higher pressure will cover the distance with less effort. 

So, to summarize the advantages of Mountain Bikes for transportation cycling
  • they can be found relatively inexpensively
  • they can be found just about anywhere
  • repair parts are common and usually in stock at most bike shops
  • they are sturdily built
  • they can accommodate wide tires that offer cushioning, flat protection and traction on a wide range of surfaces
  • they readily accept practical accessories. 
  • They are well suited to short-to-moderate trips (2-10 miles) and can be adapted for longer trips
Disadvantages of mountain bikes

  • compared to more road-oriented bikes, they can seem sluggish and require more energy to cover the same distance
  • Mountain Bike handlebars are usually straight or very slightly swept back, which puts the hands in a position which many riders may find uncomfortable after longer rides. 
  • MTB handlebars only offer a single hand position, which doesn't give you the chance to change riding position and move your hands around on longer rides
  • most Mountain Bikes, even at the lower price points, have suspension forks, which can make it difficult to mount a basket, rack or, in some cases, front fender without adversely affecting the handling and safety of the bike
As you can see, most of the disadvantages to using Mountain Bikes for transport riding have to do with longer distance riding. For trips of only a few miles they're hard to beat for the money, and a used mountain bike, particularly an old steel-framed bike by a reputable manufacturer can be nearly ideal for transportation riding. 

A quick note about going really cheap and looking at mountain bikes from big box stores (Walmart, Target, etc). It may be possible, if you're very picky and know what you're looking for, to get an acceptable bike there for relatively cheap. But there are a lot of possible pitfalls. First of all, department store bikes usually only come in one frame size, so if you're taller or shorter than average, a comfortable fit is going to be hard to find. Secondly, the quality of components is extremely variable, sometimes the brakes or derailleurs are almost unusable (and if the bike has disc brakes or rear shocks avoid it, period. I have never seen rear suspension or disc brakes on a department store bike that weren't complete crap). Third, the assembly is not generally of the same quality as that in a bicycle shop. By "not of the same quality" I mean "stuff is sometimes put on backwards."

Some examples

Jamis Trail X1

Trek 820

Giant Revel

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