What follows are highly subjective opinions about the highly subjective subject of bicycles.
1. The worst bike in a proper bike shop is a thousand times better than the best bike in a department store.
2. Many first time (or first time in a while) bicycle buyers walk into the local bike shop unsure of what they are looking for. As a result many end up on hybrids, bikes which attempt to combine the characteristics of a mountain bike and a road bike. Many riders enjoy their hybrids, and I wouldn’t want to put anyone off a bike they enjoy, but I recommend against them. The shortcomings of the hybrid are quickly revealed to those who find they like cycling and want to try mountain biking or more serious road rides. They are too flimsy for the former and too clunky for the latter (clunky at best; I raced my first mountain bike race ever on a hybrid equipped, in homage to 1990s mountain bike legend John Tomac, with road bike drop handlebars. The first lap went fine until the course suddenly descended a ski slope. I reached the bottom, just not on my bike.)
Instead of a hybrid, consider either a proper mountain bike or a roadie. A mountain bike with slick tires will roll on the road as well as any hybrid, and a quick switch to knobbies will open up worlds of off road fun. To my mind, this is the best option for most new cyclists. Alternatively, a proper road (or, even better, cyclocross) bike will be much more fun to ride on the streets, and if drop bars put you off, many bike shops will be happy to exchange them for flat bars.
I take the subject of “hybrids” personally. A few years ago I rode the Otway Odyssey 100km mountain bike race on my cyclocross bike. That evening, feeling sore and a little proud of myself I was sitting in the Apollo Bay pub when I overheard a loud voice behind me say: ‘Oh yeah, and did you see the guy who rode a hybrid?’ Whoever you are, you wounded me. A cyclocross bike is to a hybrid as the Guggenheim is to a multi-deck car park. Ce n’est pas la même chose.
3. Many lower-end mountain and hybrid bikes come with terrible suspension forks. The money you pay for this “feature” is money not spent on the frame, wheels and components which determine whether a bike is nice to ride. These cheaper forks are unnecessary on the street and dangerous off road. When the fork packs it in, replacement of the dastardly boat anchor will be expensive. Far better to try to find one of the few entry-level bikes available with a rigid fork. If you get serious about mountain biking, the lack of suspension will make you a better rider while you save up for a top notch suspension fork.
4. Euro-style street bikes make people look cool and while I totally understand their popularity on the streets of Paris and Milan, consider carefully whether they are the best choice for your particular hilly and imperfect city.
5. Kids love BMX bikes. A kid who looks ready to fall off his or her first mountain bike, glides around like a natural on a BMX. Until a kid learns to steer and pedal, big wheels are a distraction, and the skills learned on a BMX will make them safer riders when they trade up to a full-size bike. Pro racers like Robbie McEwen and Sven Nys learned their otherworldly bike handling skills on BMX bikes, and though I learned to ride on one, every time I meet a decent sized-log I regret not learning to bunny hop properly while I had the chance.
6. It is perfectly natural to want to ride a shiny new bike, but there are a lot of excellent bargains to be had on second-hand equipment, especially at the high end. Used bikes seem to shed value faster than cars.
7. Once you get into riding, clipless pedals and a decent pair of cycling shoes are one of the best upgrades you can make. You may hate them at first (I can remember riding up and down a suburban street for an hour completely unable to clip into my first pair), but being able to both pull up and push down on the pedals makes a huge difference. Among the new gear which has come along since I started, I’m also a big fan of disc brakes and tubeless tires for mountain bikes, suspension much less so.
8. Once you’re hooked on bikes, it’s great fun to build up your own, choosing the frame and every component individually.
9. Keep your old parts in a quiet corner somewhere. Eventually you will accumulate enough to build up another bike.
10. I’ve never regretted buying a tool.
11. A rusty chain is the saddest thing in the world.
12. It is a good idea to learn how to fix a flat. Carry a spare tube and offer it to others in need.
14. Helmets have become a fraught issue in Australia, where they have been compulsory for nearly twenty years. Some cycling advocates have been campaigning against these laws in recent months, blaming compulsory helmets for discouraging cycling, contributing to public health problems like obesity, and unwittingly making life more dangerous for those who do ride since there are fewer bikes on the road. Let’s be sensible, the argument goes, most riders are not racing the Tour de France (professionals were required helmets in 2003) and what you wear on your head ought to be a matter of personal choice.
Helmets save lives. I know people who have avoided serious head injury (or worse) thanks to their skid lids. I have seen their cracked helmets. I know that you can fall off at the most unexpected times, at low speeds or high, off road or on. I would find it very weird to ride without one. My militantly pro-helmet stance withered when I went to Paris and saw that the Vélibs and all the good things they imply would be completely unworkable if everyone had to wear helmets. The same goes for Barcelona, London and other cities with flourishing bike share programs (the troubles of Melbourne’s bike sharing scheme support the conclusion that bike share and helmets don’t mix).
The ideal would be a situation in which helmet use is normative, but optional for adult non-racers. Certainly there should be an exemption for bike share programs. Getting more riders on bikes ought to be the priority, but until Sydney and Melbourne become Copenhagens of the south, it is silly to pretend that the European ideal of upright bikes and hair blowing in the wind can simply be imported by everyone dressing the part. Cycling is not as dangerous as it may seem from afar, but you can never fully control the circumstances in which you ride.
In other words, please wear a helmet.
THE LEARNING CURVE
15. For an adult, taking up cycling will feel very awkward at first. New muscles will hurt, modest hills will seem impossible (on one of my first ever serious road rides, I can remember walking up Prospect Street in Belmont, MA, mostly because it didn’t seem right to push the pedals as hard as would have been required to reach the top). The answer is to keep at it; the learning curve is steeper than the Koppenberg. Soon hills and distances which seemed impossible will be nothing. Most who give up riding, I think, do so soon after starting out. They ride until their chain gets rusty and then it all stops being fun (see #11).
16. If you decide to take up racing, the learning curve is as steep as for a new recreational rider, but much longer. Still, a lot of people race just for fun. My impression is that the world of mountain bike racing is still more beginner-friendly than the road, with cyclocross (if you’re lucky enough to live in a hotbed) friendlier than either. Road racers are understandably (and literally) a tense bunch, since all it takes to hit the deck with fifty others is some dude swerving to avoid a pebble he thought he saw. In mountain biking it is liberating to know that falling off is usually your own fault, and most of nature’s surfaces are more forgiving than asphalt.
17. Tout est politique (surtout les vélos). In big New World cities like New York and Sydney, bikes are right on the cusp of becoming mainstream transportation — inroads have been made, quickly, and yet the changes which would fully establish cycling are still dreams. The anti-cycling lobby seeks to portray cyclists as smug when no other community (that I have experienced) is more welcoming of newcomers. It sounds nice to reassure motorists that we can all share the road but ultimately, out there on the streets, bikes and cars don’t mix. The former aren’t going away and the glory days of the latter are undeniably behind us. As with a hybrid descending a ski slope, something has to give.
I intended to write about urban cycling for a while, but what finally forced me to actually tap something out was New South Wales roads minister Duncan Gay’s recent criticism of Sydney’s cycleways (please drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org). After observing a new cycleway from the comfort of his taxpayer-funded automobile, Gay warned cyclists that they should “use the cycleways or you could lose them.” Such comments, whatever their intention, dehumanize cyclists and, when weaponized in the petri dish of commercial television news and talk radio, give those who would use their cars as weapons just that little bit more self-justification. In such a context, whether you are a pro racer driving your Subaru to the local criterium or a kid on a BMX, you’re equals on the same side of the same fight. Enfin, tous qui pédalent sont cyclistes.
THE FUTURE CITY IS A LIGHTWEIGHT CITY
18. The renaissance of the bicycle coincides with the global rise of the city. We are constantly reminded, at least in architecture and similar circles, that for the first time in history more people now live in cities than not, and yet no one quite seems to know what to do with this information. Is this to be the end of the world? Sometimes the rhetoric is apocalyptic and sometimes just kind of accepting of whatever “the market” decides Dubai or Kinsasha or Sydney ought to be. Cities are, like, automatically sustainable, right?
Compared to such forces, your bicycle seems tiny, and yet it implies a world – or at least a street which traverses a world. It is pat but useful to say that in the twentieth century air conditioning ruined architecture and cars, cities (pat because cars, by requiring buildings to sit on top of car parks, did their bit to kill architecture too). Those two inventions, however idealistic their original intent, created vested interests against which the bicycle and all that is decent and righteous in the world now fight. But that is much too abstract. We need to show how the bicycle will transform the physical city for the better, for everyone. Urban life existed quite happily before the car. Watch any Hollywood biblical epic and consider that, however Victor Mature or Tony Curtis got to the studio that morning, they spent their days gallivanting around scale models of radically experimental cities, where you could have heard footsteps in the streets. Ancient Rome with high speed rail, trams and bicycles is pretty much the sort of city we should be building. It’s a long shot, but our new urban world could be halfway decent after all.
Either way, happy riding…