Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Top Ten Things I want in my Next Bike

It's bound to happen. I'm going to need a new bike. Putting 4500 miles a year on a bike takes a toll, and eventually the cost and trouble to keep the ever-deteriorating wreck in good working condition is going to exceed the cost and trouble of just replacing it. I'm four years into my latest commuter bike, a 2005 Specialized Crossroads, and it's holding up relatively well; but it's definitely well into middle age by now. The front fork shocks have frozen in place; one brake lever is crooked after my 16-year-old son accidentally rammed it into the lawnmower with a '74 beetle; the brakes shriek; mysterious rattles are appearing.

I purchased this bike without a great deal of research, and I've come to regret that decision. By not fully checking out its ergonomic suitability, I've consigned myself to chronically aching wrists and elbows. My next bike will be precisely the bike I want, scientifically fitted to my body dimensions and commuting habits. Although it's a year or two off yet, now's the time to figure out exactly what it is I value in a bike. For no particularly good reason, I've decided to list my desires in the form of a top ten list. Let's get started...

10. Economical

Since this is a count-down, the fact that "Economical" heads the list means that it's the least important attribute. At this time in my life I have a bit of disposable income, and I'm more willing to pay for and less willing to compromise on features that are important to me. That said, we're still talking low thousands here, not top-of-the-line, diamond-encrusted opulence. I'm all about practicality, not sparkle.

9. Performance

Performance is a nice-to-have, but it will be the first thing I compromise on if it means getting items 1-8. I'm not about to suddenly develop an interest in racing that was completely absent in my first 49 years of life.

8. Comfort

This is a hard one to define, actually. You'll notice I've got "Ergonomic" higher in the list as a separate item. The distinction I see is that a comfortable ride may not necessarily be the one that's best for my body over hundreds of hours of riding. It's certainly more comfortable to ride upright, but my experience has been that my spine must be in a horizontalish, suspended position, rather than an upright, compressed position, or I'll get back pains.

But within the constraints of an ergonomic position, I want a comfortable bike. How about a nice seat that doesn't iron permanent wrinkles in my bum? Cushioned handlebars, shock absorbers — bring 'em on!

7. Minimal Maintenance

I've written before about the high monetary cost of maintenance. Of equal concern to me is the high time cost. Every two weeks (about every 200 miles) I clean and oil my chain. This is a sort of middle-of-the-road position — I know some people to do it after every ride! — but for the kind of riding I do every two weeks seems sufficient. Every three months I replace my chain. Brakes need readjusting, wheels need truing, and cables stretch, requiring adjustments in gearing; these things I leave to the professionals, whom I visit a couple times a year.

Contrast this to my car. Aside from the need to keep feeding it gas, it pretty much just runs. Once a year I get a major tuneup and replace the synthetic oil, and it's good for 10,000 more miles. There's no reason a bike can't be equally reliable — for the right cost, of course.

Here's where my desires start to diverge pretty far from your standard off-the-shelf bike. The only good way to avoid frequent chain maintenance is to get rid of the chain, or at least enclose it to protect it from the elements. I think my next bike will have to have one of these features.

6. Pimpability

I attach quite a lot of peripherals to my bike:
  • a comp
  • a rack
  • a waterproof, lockable, removable trunk
  • a bell
  • a kickstand
  • fenders (decent ones, not those ridiculous 1-point-of-attachment toys)
  • a water bottle
  • strong headlight with a 6-hour battery
  • taillight
  • Kryptonite lock
  • toolkit
Not every bike is amenable to taking so many attachments. It was pretty tricky keeping my rear rack attachment from interfering with the disc brakes on my current bike. So my next bike will have to be able to accept all of the above attachments without undue hardship.

5. Reliability

This is similar to Minimal Maintenance, but on a shorter time scale. When I leave in the morning, I want to be assured (as much as possible) that I will arrive at my destination without a breakdown. This means no flat tires, no broken chains, no broken spokes, no snapped cables. After replacing the inferior rear wheel on my Specialized and installing flat-resistant tires, my current bike has been quite reliable. I can only remember two incidents in four years that cut short my commute. One was a broken shifter that would let me shift to a higher gear but not back to a lower gear (no way I could climb the final hill to my house!), and one was a flat tire that went unnoticed for so long that I totally destroyed the sidewall, making tube replacement impossible.

4. Ruggedness

This is similar to reliability, but is more related to the load I put on it. I tend to carry a lot of stuff with me when I commute: a change of clothes, my lunch, a notebook, whatever book(s) I'm currently reading, my medicine kit, etc. This adds up to enough weight that a normal aluminum rack won't stand up to the strain. After snapping three or four $40 aluminum racks I finally bought a hefty $100 stainless steel rack from Germany (rated at 100+ pounds) that can handle the abuse I give it. My bike needs to be made of similar stuff.

I've had skinny-tired racers that go out of true if you ride over too large a pebble; I need something that doesn't mind if I ride off (or onto) a curb, or hit a pothole full-tilt with a 30-pound load.

I want dray horse that just works day after day, not a temperamental thoroughbred that can race like the wind but whose leg is apt to snap at any moment.

3. Ergonomic

Now we're getting to the really important stuff. I'm getting tired of sore wrists and elbows, and I think it can be fixed if I get a bike better fitted to my riding habits. (Of course, I might just be getting old, in which case there's nothing I can do about it. But it's worth a try).

I have never had a bike fitting, but I'll be getting one for my next bike. I hope they know what they're doing...

2. Safety

You might think that safety is more a matter of riding habits than a characteristic of a bike, and you may be right, but that's not the whole story. I've toyed with the idea of getting toe clips, but this trades off safety for performance. (Don't try to tell me toe clips are just as safe once you get used to them. They just aren't. Admit it, you know it's true). Since Safety is #2 and Performance is way back at #9, toe clips lose out. I want to be free to jump clear of my bike whenever I want and as quickly as I can.

This also plays into the decision about whether to go for an incumbent-style bike. It seems like a neat idea, and Ergonomic is way up at #3, but I'm worried that a low-slung rider is less visible on a city street that an upright one. Let me know if you think I'm wrong about this, but it seems logical.

1. Practical in the Rain

Since I ride in all weather conditions except snow, I need a bike that can handle wet Seattle winters. Most bikes have all their mechanical bits right out there in the weather, making them subject to rust, grit buildup, and water damage. An automobile, by contrast, protects all the sensitive stuff inside a weather-proof cocoon. What's wrong with doing the same thing for a bike?

I've touched on this already, but chain and gear maintenance are some of the most onerous things about regular bike commuting. What if you put all that stuff inside a cocoon? There are a few types of bikes out there now that either enclose the chain in a weather-resistant housing, or do away with it altogether with a direct-drive mechanism. Gearing can also be enclosed in a hub like the 3-speeds of old. I wish there were a greater variety and a longer history on these innovations so I could be more confident of their long-term durability, but I must say that they attract my attention strongly. I may have to experiment with one on my next purchase.

So where does this leave me? I don't have a particular bike in mind yet, but I'm certainly open to suggestions.