Sunday, February 8, 2009

comfortable doesn't have to be ugly

There are various reasons people feel like bicycling isn't a practical form of transportation. One of them is finding a bike that is both comfortable and efficient. That is why many of us drive cars for our primary mode of transportation, because they are comfortable and it is familiar. While comparing bicycles with cars is kind of a fruitless task - it is helpful to know that there are things you can do to get the best of both worlds (comfort and efficiency/speed) out of bicycles.

On one hand, beach cruisers and mountain bikes can be very comfortable to ride - but their designs make them less appealing for more than short trips. Beach cruisers often lack gearing that allows you to travel at a nice speed, and mountain bikes have wide, knobby tires which greatly reduce efficiency on the road.

On the other hand, road bikes are built for speed and efficiency, but are sometimes less comfortable because they require a more aggressive riding position. By aggressive, I mean they require you to lean forward out toward your handlebars (as opposed to a beach cruiser which allows you to sit perfectly straight).

A good way to get both comfort and efficiency is by slightly modifying a road bike. I've taken my 1989 330 Trek and converted it from an entry-level road bike - to a much more comfortable city bike.

My Trek as I bought it - made it more ideal for "racing" or recreational riding where speed was of the essence. It featured "drop" handlebars which allow riders to get in aerodynamic positions. It also had a sport saddle which are typically lighter in weight, thus making it easier to ride at faster speeds. The shifters are also located on the downtube. While this is not the common practice now, this was the prominent design for most racing bicycles from the late 70's to the early 90's.

I've made several changes to my bike that make it really, really fun to ride in the city. First, I changed the handlebars from drops to mustache. For me, this provides a much more comfortable braking position than typical drop handlebars, and their design also allows me to sit more upright.

I also replaced the stem that had a downward degree slope with an upward one. This places my handlebars at a much higher level, making them essentially even with my saddle. Again, this puts me in a very comfortable riding position.

I've also switched the downtube shifters to bar-end shifters. These are are a real dream come true. I was used to downtube shifters, and had become somewhat proficient at shifting, but I did not enjoy the position it put me in when I had to shift, because you have to reach down and take your hand(s) off the handlebar. Bar-end shifters allow you to just slightly move your hand to shift - easily going about your business.

Finally - I sacrificed the weight of the saddle and got a Brooks leather saddle. What I sacrificed in weight, I more than made up in aesthetics and comfort. Brooks saddles are a financial investment, but properly maintained they will last a lifetime. They have a ravenous following with little design modifications in the past century they have been making them. Something must be right.

Finally, I added fenders. Mine are nothing fancy, and I've already put them to good use as it's rained a lot this past week. Fenders help protect your bike from road grime during the rain, and they also spare you from the dreaded rooster-tail.

With a few modifications - you can transform a road bike into a great commuter-errand bike. I still would like to put a front/rear rack on it - but I haven't found the bargains I'm looking for.

What changes/improvements to your bike have you made that has made it more enjoyable to ride? Anything I neglected?


ubrayj02 said...

I've found that starting with a frame that has eyelets and mounting points for fenders, racks, and different styles of brakes (cantilever and caliper) is a great starting point.

The bike I use now (and will use until the frame melts) doesn't have any of that and it can be a pain to deal with.

david said...

that is really good advice josef. are you talking about that black schwinn?

Norm Nielsen said...

Thanks for posting this. I'm doing the same thing to an old road bike. I chopped my drops and turned them upside down to make bullhorns. The old aero brakes clamp on nice and put you in a great position to grab them. Next I'm working on bar end shifters to put in the tops of the bullhorns. I like your idea about the stem. I think I'll look around for one too.