Welcome to the very first installment of this column about bikes! Here we’ll talk how-tos, gear guides, politics and history, travelling and anything else that comes to mind – all while making terrible jokes about putting our legs round things.
Cycling’s great for your health, wallet and the environment – and there’s the chance of queer ladies checking out how cute you look on your ride. What’s not to love? Maybe you’re just getting started, or maybe you’re finally planning to move up from the bike your parents bought you when you were a teenager. Today we’ll look into what to consider when you’re buying a bike.
Set a budget – but don’t spend all of it on your bike. You’ll need some of that to pay for a lock, accessories and a first tune-up (for new bikes) within about 6-8 weeks of purchase.
Do your research. Bike choices can be overwhelming and without an idea of what you want, you might find yourself pressured into getting whatever the store’s trying to clear stock of. (Definitely listen to salespeople, but ask why they’re recommending what they are.) The last part of this post will go through some things to consider when you’re bike-shopping.
Talk to your friends! Borrow their bikes for a test ride. Ask them what they like or don’t like about it, especially if you have similar interests or a similar commute.
Test the bike out. See if you can get 15-20min to get a feel of how the bike works over different road conditions, turns, gear changes and so on. Most major bike shops will allow you to do this while holding onto your credit card or some form of ID as collateral. If you purchase a bike online (which is often cheaper), be sure to check out their returns policy.
Get what’s comfortable. In the end it really just boils down to what makes you happy. Sure, it might not be the fanciest or sleekest bike, but do you like riding it? You might even just end up getting whatever you think is prettiest and that is totally okay too.
Bikes can be expensive, especially if you need one that’s going to be used frequently for years. Looking for used bikes in stores or online (e.g. eBay, Gumtree, Craigslist) can get you a quality bicycle without breaking the bank if you keep these few things in mind.
Look for visible signs of damage. Walk away from anything that indicates frame or fork damage (cracks, wrinkled paint, dents, deep rust). Other problems might be fixable cheaply but it always helps to seek expert advice, which could be just a knowledgeable friend.
Check for safety! This is super important: even if there’s no obvious damage, it helps to have a mechanic look over it to make sure everything’s working as it should.
Beware of stolen bikes. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Look for ads that contain photos/descriptions of the actual bike and not just generic information copied from catalogues. Ask the seller where they got the bike and for proof of purchase, its frame number (which you can check against online databases) and some form of ID or address.
Consider unconventional sources. Bikes are abandoned pretty often and you might find security guards or building administrators looking to get rid of them – just ask! A friend of mine got a bike for free at the end of the school year from those that’d been left behind at halls. Check out police auctions or ask bike hire shops if they’re looking to get rid of old models.
Finding The Bike That’s Right For You
Road bikes or racers are lightweight bikes designed for speed on smooth tarmac surfaces. Mountain bikes or MTBs are for off-road cycling; they’re heavier, feature more suspension or cushioning to deal with rocky surfaces and wider tires for greater traction. Hybrid bikes are anything in between and tend to be used for commuting. Bike manufacturers often indicate if a hybrid is best suited for trekking, urban/city commuting, comfort riding and so on.
1. Carrera TDF Road Bike [review]
2. Carrera Kraken Mountain Bike [review]
3. Boardman Performance Hybrid Team 2012/2013 [review]
4. Mango MB Mess Urban Bike
Using scare quotes here because gendering bikes is not only problematic but misleading too – choose your bike according to your needs and body measurements, not gender. Women’s bikes tend to have slanted crossbars to make it easier for you to lift your leg over it, which is especially useful if you wear skirts or dresses. Crossbar height is also important to prevent injury (which is why mountain bikes often have slanted bars): when you jump forward off the seat, there must be adequate space between the bar and your crotch. Women’s bikes are also useful for those with wider hips, smaller frames or shorter torsos and arms.
1. Specialized Dolce Equipped Women’s 2014 Road Bike
2. Specialized Myka Disc SE 26 Women’s 2014 Mountain Bike
3. Mango The Curve Urban Bike
4. Giant Sedona Women’s 2014 Comfort Bike
Most low-end to mid-range bikes that you’ll come across will be made of steel, which is cheap, versatile and strong but dense, though there are also much fancier (and pricier) alloys. Aluminium is less dense but more fragile, so thicker frames that compensate for this might not end up being much lighter than steel. Titanium and carbon fibre are high-quality materials common in high-end bikes – but if you’re turning to cycling for environmental reasons, beware the latter’s carbon footprint. Bamboo is becoming increasingly popular as an environmentally sustainable, flexible, shock-absorbing and aesthetically appealing material, but still commands a pretty steep price tag as a relatively niche product.
1. Schwinn Coffee 1 [review]
2. Raleigh Airlite 100 2011/2012 [review]
3. Planet X SL Pro Carbon [review]
4. Bamboobee Revolution Nostalgic
Folding bikes are great when you’re short on space or take another form of transport for part of your commute. Small ones that fold up quickly are super convenient on the bus or tube, though they handle bumps and potholes a little more poorly. Full-size folding bikes are bulky to carry around but can be squeezed into small flats.
1. Brompton S1E
2. Tern Joe C21
3. Montague Crosstown 2013
4. Dahon Boardwalk D8
Most bicycles have between 3 and 27 gears, which can be adjusted to make spinning the pedals easier or harder when accelerating, going up hills or against the wind. Single-speed bikes only have a single gear ratio (i.e. no derailleur or hub gears) and fixed-gear single-speed bikes or fixies do away with the freewheel mechanism, so the pedals are constantly in motion and coasting isn’t possible. Fixies tend to be lighter, cheaper, more efficient and come in loads of colours, but don’t get them if you live in a hilly area or are averse to being called a hipster. If you’re planning to tackle traffic, please install brakes on your fixie!
1. Mango Fresher Urban Bike
2. Pure Fix Glow-in-the-Dark Urban Fixie
3. Pitango Custom Urban Bike
4. State Bicycle Co. Vice
When you get your bike, take the time to get to know it: ride for about an hour in a park or non-stressful traffic conditions to get used to how it handles. Bring it back to the shop or seller as soon as possible if you run into any problems. Have fun!
Awesome, very useful guide!
I will just add that if you want to carry things around check if the bike has a back rack (or count it in your budget to add later) so you can then purchase bike bags.
Wish I had this 2 years ago, when I had just arrived in the Netherlands and needed to buy one (ended up overpaying, but it was a really nice bike)
I totally made the mistake of not accounting for accessories in my original budget and so I never bought a bike rack, and I… still haven’t. Inertia, y’all! It’s a thing. THAT BEING SAID I have this hunch that the next article is gonna be all about things like racks and panniers and other accessories. Just a feeling I get.
Or at least make sure that your bike has been pre-drilled for a rear rack. Some bikes aren’t. Gotta keep your options open.
Great article, I already bought a bike, but this is really informative, and gave me a lot of depth in why my bike is the way it is.
I started looking into getting a bike a couple months ago, there are somethings in this article that I didn’t even consider. Thanks for the tips!
Very timely guide, as I’ve just decided to start training for my first Triathalon, and need to get back on a bike : )
I do feel you are slightly down playing the potential benefits of a bike designed for a “woman’s” geometry (however problematic the terminology) at the very least a “woman’s” saddle can make a real difference to comfort. Any decent bike shop will have a tech who can measure any individual human and make the appropriate recommendations
Would also be great if you could put a line about the importance of wearing helmets/reflective gear in the main body of the article
Ah I’m sorry about that, I didn’t intend to come off that way at all! As someone who’s physically smaller than average and who doesn’t believe that most people really need the additional strength that a horizontal crossbar gives over a slanted one, I am a big fan of women’s bikes. I just wish that the variations in frame geometry that are associated with women’s bikes were identified as design features and are incorporated into bicycles across all ranges, instead of being categorised as a gendered thing on their own, y’know?
Thanks for clarifying!
HOLD UP I just noticed you said that you’re about to start training for a TRIATHLON so… WOW. Good luck and maybe tell us all about it on Autostraddle someday! I would be so excited to read that.
this is such a sweet thread, i really like it. i’m scared of riding a bike so nothing here is really for me but i enjoyed this interaction. that’s all.
In a couple of weeks I am planning to teach someone who is scared of bikes (and thunder and hand dryers and bugs and– it goes on for a bit) how to cycle, and if I am successful I totally plan to write about it here. I mean it is probably not going to be completely relevant to your life because said “someone” is a my 7yo brother, but still!
Thank you! I’m a Grad student, but should be submitting just after the holidays. I wanted a project to ward off the post doc blues : )
It’s certainly going to be a challenge: at the moment I can only swim breast stroke, will be using my old MTB, and as yet can only run for about ten minutes!
But… Hopefully it’ll be fun, get me fit, and I’d like to try and raise some money for charity too.
Thanks for the encouragement, I’ll keep you posted : )
Let me know if you need any swimming tips – I am a former swimming instructor and a current swimming enthusiast :D
I am also thinking about doing a triathlon! The only thing that’s holding me back is the bike – I can already swim and run :D
Hi Dina: you really should give Tri a try! I signed up for a couple of events just yesterday. All the books seem to suggest that swimming is the most technical discipline so you’ve got a great head start there.
I’m going to get some lessons from an instructor to help me with technique, and have been looking at a programme called Swim Smooth. Any tips appreciated!
We just inherited some old bikes from my gf’s grandpa. Once I get over this winter hell virus, looking forward to going down to the basement and checking them out. Hoping the rust is just surface and the frames are sturdy. Any advice on painting bikes?
If you want it done well (and have the dosh to spare) – give it to specialist to sand it properly and have them spray paint it.
I love re-done old bikes.
If you don’t have the money – I know a lot of people who just slapped on their favourite colour and it worked just fine for them.
I also really like highly personalized bikes with like flowers or cool colour schemes or some funny self designed labels or sayings.
Oooh – I totally forgot : protect all moving parts, either remove them or put some cloth or cling film or similar stuff around it.
It sucks having stuff just stuck because the paint seeped into cracks and gaps, dried and made it immobile.
Use automotive paint, and before hand, remove the rust and as much paint as you can using a treated steel wool pad. They sell them at automotive stores. I would be very careful, and get those bikes safetied at a bike shop or get a mechanic’s help at a community shop and do it yourself. If the bikes are old, the rust could have eaten the frame away too much to be safe for riding, but the components might be useable. If you are painting, go to a community shop and use their tools to strip all the parts off the frame, and remove the wheels. If you get paint on the brake pads or the braking surface of the rim, you won’t be able to stop effectively. Paint will also interfere with the action of the chain, cables and derailleurs.
i took apart my bike and tried painting it this summer; i technically failed, then paid someone to sand it down and paint it for me! BUT, it is definitely doable, i only failed because i tried sanding it by hand, which took forever, was v. painful(!!), and also ineffective — if you have an electric sander though, you should be golden!
If you are doing it for aesthetic reasons, I’d say pay someone. Self paint jobs are hard and usually look like, well, self paint jobs. If it is a steel frame I’d say leave it be. It will take a very long time for the bike to rust enough to matter. I have a second hand bike with a bunch of rust spots and its been going fine for a few years now.
Thanks for all the help, guys! I definitely don’t have the money for a professional, but there is a sort of community organization that has a bike workshop where I can get help for the more technical parts/making sure I don’t paint myself a death trap. But I have been told they don’t offer help with painting because of limited space or something.
you may enjoy this:
also, regular dutch city bikes are way more comfortable in your everyday (work) wear than all these sports bikes. i mean, unless you live in a super hilly area..
You may enjoy the story Free Love by Ali Smith : )
!! yes, one of my favourite authors actually
Oh that’s great! She’s really not widely enough read, what’s your favourite? An impossible question, I know ; )
ugh that is so hard. every short story collection i read of hers i thought, no THIS one is my favourite..
anyway, i think maybe ‘free love & other stories ‘, but also ‘other stories & other stories’? that one was fairly queer if i remember correctly
i think my favourite novel is ‘there but for the’ (it’s interesting how she keeps exploring the same theme in her novels)
although i also really enjoyed ‘girl meets boy’ (should have been ‘boi’ though), which is pretty different from her other novels
ok i really love ali smith ;)
Ooooh – I love you, Autostraddle!
Bikes are only like my favourite subject and as I work in the bike industry myself I really like this article.
It is really well done and contains a really good deal of information for buying – my hat off to you.
I would also recommend checking out the smaller sized “women” modells as not only are the saddles more specific for female-bodied people (hope this is worded ok for MOC peeps) but also the whole frame construction – shorter top tube and maybe headtube, slightly different angle on it and usually the handle bar set up is better geared towards smaller people with shorter upper bodies.
They also often have shorter crank arms which make sense for shorter legs..
Downside I think are usually the cutesy “women specific” colour schemes that make me want to barf all over it, but there have been some changes to that.
I would also very very strongly recommend a test ride for at least 15mins.
And defo take somebody with you who knows a bit about bikes if you buy it used – bike safety first!
If you are also looking into buying a lock – look for recommendations and tests online.
Abus, Kryptonite and Trelock come to my mind and also Pitlock or similar systems if you are planning on buying higher priced upgrades that shouldn’t be stolen easy.
There is nothing more depressing or hurtful than seeing all that is left of your priced bikebaby is the curl-lock that has been just cut clean through.
If you think building up a bike yourself – that CAN be quite expensive actually if you want nice parts on it.
Ebay or similar platforms might be the solution but even there bike parts can be pricey.
I would weigh it thoroughly as there are some good deals for new bikes out there as this years models are being sold for good prices right now as 2014 models are well into being rolled out right now.
I love everything you’ve said here! I am SO tempted to get a new bike exactly because of the phasing out of old models thing (yay arbitrary obsolescence), but also I already have two bikes in two countries and at any one point of time I can only sit my ass on one so I probably shouldn’t. :(
There is a Bamboo Bicycle Club in London that allows you to build a bike for actually less than what most pre-made bamboo bikes are selling for right now, which sounds super awesome, but I’ve not personally been so I don’t know what the process is like.
Just want to mention from painful experience how Kryptonite “U-Locks” (as is) are actually not that hard to break. I had several bikes stolen (one in NYC and one in San Francisco) and they used freon to freeze the lock to make it brittle, hit it with a hammer and shatter it. There are ways to make the U-Locks more resistant to breaking (using plumbing pipe joints in the vulnerable areas) but never think these locks are going to give you real safety if bike thieves are motivated enough.
How did I get here?
Existential question, or a bug on the new site? I can probably help you with one of these things. But just one.
FIKRI I DON’T KNOW HOW I GOT HERE BECAUSE AS I STATED ABOVE BIKE-RIDING TERRIFIES ME BUT GOOD GRIEF I’M GLAD I DID BECAUSE YOUR PRESENCE IN THIS THREAD IS CONSISTENTLY ASTOUNDING AND LOVELY. <3
Another thing to consider that I didn’t know until my friends pointed me in the right direction – consider “crank forward” or “flat foot” technology if you have trouble reaching the ground from your seat and feel unstable on your bike. This is a common problem for people who have longer torsos and shorter legs. Simply getting a smaller frame might not be the right fit, because it can put your knees up too high. But a frame where the crank is forward from your feet can help. Electra makes these types of bikes, as do other manufacturers. Just hunt around on the terms “crank forward” or “flat foot” and you’ll find other examples.
For anyone new to cycling or simply new to thinking about cycling, you are not often meant to be able to reach the ground from your seat with a flat foot, only your toes or the balls of your feet. When stopped, e.g. waiting at a stop light or sign, you are supposed to dismount your seat and stand over your top tube (referred to in the article as a crossbar), which you ideally have 1-2″ clearance over from your crotch.
I agree with Steph, though, in that if this makes you feel really uncomfortable then you ought to look into other options.
I’m dreaming about a several-week Europe/UK bike trip this summer…if anyone has any tips/suggestions/knowledge of routes/urge to meet up while I’m over there, let me know!!
Good luck with that!
I’m a total nOOb, so can’t really offer any advice, but believe it or not, next year’s Tour de France kicks off in the UK, and the route they’re taking is brutal, but also beautiful
HEY I am actually planning a post-graduation trip (so around June/July) on continental Europe myself, and a bunch of shorter trips in the UK leading up to it over the course of the next half a year or so, and it’s a thing I will (hopefully) be writing about here. I would totally be up for discussing potential meet-ups, routes, tips, etc. – probably not immediately, because this is a longish-term plan, but please feel free to drop me a message if you’re so inclined.
super happy this is on autostraddle! i just got really into bikes this summer, and just finished building my own custom bike. can’t wait to read more from this column.
YES excited for more bike articles! can we do an open thread where everyone posts photos of their bikes and talks about why they love them??
I already took advantage of the original post to post photos of both my bikes (the Tern Joe C21 and the Bamboobee Revolution Nostalgic) so YOU KNOW please go ahead and post your bike photos/feelings/anything any time and anywhere. BE THE OPEN THREAD YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD.
YES! Bicycles make the world go ’round.
Be kind to your local bike shop. They are absolutely there to help you. But, please, for the love of all things two-wheeled, don’t go pump them for sizing advice, component details, etc. only to waltz off to you neighborhood Wally-World to pick up some big-box-store bicycle-shaped-object. Yes, bike shops are generally more expensive, but if you value things like, oh say, wheels that are actually round and forks installed not-backwards, it’s worth the extra bucks. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had customers show up with a brand spankin’ new Walmart bike that needs $100 worth of tuning up before it can roll out the door functioning safely. Build a relationship with a local bike shop and, if they’re worth their salt, they’ll take care of you and your ride for many years to come.
Yeeeeppp. The night I moved to Chicago my nice-ish bike got stolen and my mom, trying to be helpful, showed up a couple weeks later with a bottom-of-the-line mountain bike from Walmart. One of the brakes stopped working very quickly, and when I took it to the shop the mechanic showed me that it had actually been put together from TWO HALVES OF ENTIRELY DIFFERENT BRAKES. What the hell, Walmart.
My favorite type of bikes is “city bikes” – which are pretty new outside of Northern Europe. They have features for riding in an urban environment – racks, baskets, lights, fenders for the rain, steel frames so they’re sturdier on rough roads, etc. The most important feature is that they’re UPRIGHT, so you sit up and can see all around you easily. The cute and famous “Dutch bikes” are one type of these, but they tend to be heavier and less suited to hills than American city bikes.
Some good and adorable American city bike companies are Public, Linus, Bowery Lane, and Civia. My favorite shape are the “mixtes” style – unisex with a slanted frame you can easily step-through.
Cat sweaters AND a new bicycle column all on the same day! Swoon.
Also, “Straddle This” bike frame sticker plz.
Or maybe basket and horn/bell?
I *need* one of those stickers and a T : )
This is immensely helpful! I’ve been contemplating getting a bike for too long, and with all this information, I have no reason to keep putting off.
I can’t comment on any of the particular bikes, but when I last bought a bike around 5-6 years ago, I was told to avoid Schwin as their quality went down the hill(while price really didn’t follow) since they were bought out and the factories were moved outsourced away from the North America. Other than that I think we should have a Autostraddle day(or week) of bike riding going on.
Also, I didn’t see a mention of unisex bikes, though they are a little less common.
Really, all bicycles are unisex!
Bicycles make me so happy!
To bad this wasn’t around when i brought my bike. I have this cute red schwinn mountain bike that works wonder when I’m biking in downtown.
Yes! I seriously need help investing in a new bike. I hope there are more bike and cycling related articles in the future.
I’m a mechanic and I’ve built some custom bicycles! If you have any questions and you’re feeling uncertain about other resources then you can send a PM my way.
Thanks for this, Fikri! It totally rocked.
Autostraddle how did you know I need to get a different bike soon??
Yay bicycles! I have a used “men’s” Nishiki mountain bike that I love with every fiber of my being, even now when I’m commuting home in the middle of the night in the freezing cold, swearing the entire way because I’ve been as yet too cheap to invest in fenders/wind resistant gloves/a functional hat/helmet/earmuff combination. This to say I’d love a follow up on winter bike accessories.
Today I proved scientifically that the tube at peak hour makes me far sweatier and more miserable than making the commute by bike, no matter what the weather. By “scientifically” I mean “my clothes really stank at the end of it all.”
I def understand putting off buying all the extra stuff but omg HELMETS. GLOVES. So important. Next week’s post is gonna be exactly for people like the likes of you (and me for the longest time, tbh).
HELMETS, HELMETS, HELMETS! I’m looking forward to this post. Whenever I see people biking without helmets… it’s just so unbelievably frustrating. It’s such a simple tool that can keep you so safe. WEAR A HELMET!
Don’t worry, I wear a helmet. I just have a huge head/lots of hair, so I can’t fit anything warm underneath it. My ears and scalp are unhappy, but my brain is protected.
Maybe there are ear muffs that can sit back on your neck instead of on top of your head like some headphones. That way at least you could keep your ears warm. I can’t fit anything under my helmet to keep my head/ears warm, either, and I don’t have a lot of hair, so I empathise.
I have so many questions about bikes! I was 21 when I first learned how to ride one and I just got whatever walmart had on sale and I kind of destroyed it within a year. But now I want a new bike and I want to do it right. I shall use this series as my guide.
What are gears doing? Like….why are there sometimes 27 but other times there are 3 and all of them feel like I’m biking through mud?
Should I get a basket in the front or one of those back double basket situations?
What is up with bikes that make you lean forward when you ride versus bikes where you can sit up straight?! I rode one of those lean forward ones once and I almost lost a boob.
What do commuters do when it is raining? I saw someone on a bike holding an umbrella once but I need both hands. I am not coordinated.
Do people really own those tandem bikes? Can you ride one by yourself if you need to? How do I convince people to go halfsies with me on one?
I would really like streamers on my handlebars but they don’t seem to make those for adult sized people. DIY post?!
Why are some bike tires gigantic?
Where can I find a helmet that can go over my hair if I have an afro that day?
One time I had a professor who had a chainless bike. I never actually saw him ride it so I’m not convinced it wasn’t a figment of my imagination. This isn’t a question.
i second most of these questions (all of them really but some do not apply to me personally however i still would like answers for those too).
Can’t help with most of those but my family did have, not one but two, tandems when I was growing up. That way we could go on super long rides without worrying that my brother or I would get too tired to get wherever we were going/home. They were great, when we were tired we just stopped pedaling! I’ve ridden them a couple of times as an adult, alone and with someone else, and both ways they are pretty hard/weird to steer. I assume that you’d get used to it after a while though.
Not sure how to get someone to go splitsies on buying one. But I bet that lots of people would be willing to ride it with you if you had one.
I am imagining your family as the models for images that come in picture frames.
I’m no super-expert but I do cycle a fair bit so will try to tackle some of these…
Gears, as I think Fikri mentioned, make it harder or easier to turn the pedals. A smaller number makes it easier (use when you’re going up that giant hill!) and a larger number makes it harder (for getting speed down that giant hill!). Some cyclists talk about their cadence (how quickly you turn the pedals) and what is optimal for particular conditions. I’ve heard that having a higher cadence by pedaling more quickly on lower gears is better for your health. Bikes with more gears tend to have less difference between the gears – think of the contrast between a timeline that has years, vs. one that has days, or whether or not your watch has a second hand. I know I tend to use a minority of my gears on most rides.
Baskets…I have a rear rack that can hold a basket or a set of panniers as needed. If you’re carrying a little bit of light stuff with you, just about any solution will probably work. If you have lots of stuff, you’ll want to stay balanced in the front and the rear. A set of double panniers for the rear of the bike tends to be good, then you can also use a handlebar bag if you have some excess stuff. You probably only need a front rack if you’re touring or otherwise super intense!
How far forward you lean is an aerodynamic thing. People who want speed will get ones that have lower handlebars and so you lean forward. Cruiser bikes are more upright. Use whatever’s most comfortable.
In the rain, I wear rain pants, a rain coat, waterproof covers for my shoes, a rain cover for my backpack, etc. It can get a bit sweaty in there so having moisture-wicking clothes underneath is essential. Waterproof gloves will save your sanity. Biking with an umbrella is unwieldy and unsafe. Biking in the winter makes me feel super badass.
You probably have to just squish down your afro into a helmet, and then fix it when you get to your destination. There are now invisible bike helmets but those cost 400 euros and you have to buy them over the internet from Sweden.
Chainless bikes are a thing :)
Thank you for your help and information! Invisible bike helmets look so much more useful than regular ones. I didn’t now that rain outfits existed and I’m pretty sure I need one even if I’m not biking.
OK, so, Dragon’s responses were pretty sound. I thought I’d add if you wanted to get a little more technical and in depth.
Gears change the ratio of your ride. Each gear has a different amount of teeth… hence the size differences from gear to gear, considering the teeth need to be the same distance apart, or the chain will skip, and a skipping chain can fall off of your bicycle (danger!!!).
Something easy to remember is that you only really need gears if you ever ride over hills, or non-flat places. If you are an inner-city commuter somewhere like New York or a lot of south western United States capitals, you don’t need gears. However, if you commute over hills, having gears reduces the amount of effort you need to put into your ride. Alternately, if you ever go off road (e.g. hobby riding like mountain biking, or a cross-state/country/etc trip) then the gears will make your ride more efficient.
Imagine this: your chainring (the toothed part at the bottom of the frame) is attached to your crank (a lever), which is attached to your pedal, which you… pedal. This is called your crankset. If you type this term into Google or Amazon or something, you’ll get a fine image. Now, say that has 46 teeth. Hold on to that thought. A single speed bicycle (which can be further categorised as fixed gear or freewheel) will only have one chainring (if it has others they’re just extra weight).
At the back of your bicycle, on the same axle as your wheel, you have a cog (to get an image of these, search for something like “fixed gear cog” or “bicycle cog”). It’s like a small version of your chainring, because it’s a small, round, toothed piece of metal. Again, a single speed bicycle will only have one. A hybrid or mountain bicycle will usually have more. Imagine that this cog has 16 teeth.
This means that your gear ratio is 46/16. Convert that to a decimal and it’s 2.875. That means that the cog revolves almost 3 times every time you pedal the crankring in a circle, so if you had a 60/30 gear ratio, then the cog would revolve 2 times every time you pedaled a full circle.
If that number gets lower, then it’s easier to accelerate, and easier to control the bicycle at slower speeds, but it’s harder to get faster (i.e. your max speed is less). A higher number means that you accelerate slower, but your top speed is higher.
Therefore, if you want to be able to accelerate faster, such as shoot off as soon as you see the light go from red to green, then you either want more teeth on your chainring or less teeth on your cog. Oppositionally, if you want a higher top speed—either less teeth on your chainring, or more on your cog.
This is relevant to hills in the exact same way that shifting is relevant to cars. Switching gears when riding up a hill & decreasing your ratio (from 46/16 to 46/23 for example) makes it easier to pedal up, even though your wheel only does two rotations for every pedal.
If you feel like you are cycling through mud, you are probably experiencing a really low gear ratio, e.g. closer to 1:1 than to 4:1 (a normal racing ratio).
Hopefully that helps break down some gear basics!
When deciding on which basket is right for you, just think about the things you are normally carrying and where you want that weight to be. Whichever side you add more weight to will cause the tyre to lose air more quickly, which is why a rear tyre usually loses air more frequently than a front tyre—the driver/engine of the bicycle is positioned closer to the rear tyre.
If you ever carry things that might roll around in a basket, I’d stick to rear ones, because otherwise they could throw your handlebars around and make you turn sporadically, which would be very dangerous!!! Imagine having a liter of tonic in your front basket and you ride over a bump so it tips and rolls over abruptly when you are in a bicycle lane near traffic. If that happens in a rear basket on the side (I’m imagining two of them, one on either side) than you’ve already adjusted to that additional asymmetrical weight; it rolling around won’t do much.
Leaning forward versus sitting up straight is a discussion about “crouch.” Leaning forward, like Dragon said, is about being aerodynamic, and bicycles that have you do that are intended to reduce drag. An aggressive posture comes from having low handlebars and a high seat (if you use it). On the other hand, a seated posture is usually seen on cruisers. Low seat, high bars. Think of your goals while riding a bicycle—comfort, or speed? Even those adjectives don’t quite accurately juxtapose the two options, because I’m a fellow who’s much more comfy with a steep crouch, so long as my neck doesn’t ache from the angle at which I view the road.
I can’t speak for rainy riding so much because I live in a pretty dry place. Last time I was caught in a monsoon I stuck it out under a petrol station overhang. People in cars kept giving me weird looks while I waited it out. I had paper bags from running grocery errands so I didn’t want to take the risk of riding, although honestly I love riding in the rain otherwise! I recommend not to wear glasses, which is like driving without wind shield wipers.
People really DO own those tandem bicycles, and I often see them ridden by one! I’m not a specialist in humans as much as bicycles so I can’t help with your halfsies dilemma.
Here are some cool DIY bicycle streamers, but I vote yes to more DIY posts about bicycle customisation/bicycles in general.
To simplify tyres and their relationship with road debris, imagine cutting a pizza with a pizza cutter versus “cutting” a pizza with a skateboard wheel. The pizza cutter makes its way, but the skateboard wheel will continue on its merry way unconcerned with the debris around or in front of it… basically just rolling over the pizza/debris.
Some bicycle tyres are gigantic because more tyre = more chance of making contact with the ground. Bigger tyres are particularly relevant for off-road, dirt road, and mountain bikers. When you’re on an uneven surface of rocks, hopefully your tyre consistently manages to make enough contact with the ground to keep you up and not slip over. Treads help, too. Wider tyres are better for cornering because when you are leaning over one way, so is your wheel, and if you have less wheel area then you can hit your rim from leaning over. Thicker tyres make travelling through rain or snow quite negligible, although treadless tyres are better for snow because your tyre is making more contact with the snow, so there’s more compacted snow beneath you.
Otherwise, larger tyres means you can put in less pressure, which makes your ride feel smoother.
Thinner tyres and higher pressure means you can feel really slight changes in the road easier, e.g. a pebble or a 3cm crack. I like that because I feel really connected to my physical community by knowing exactly where the road is awful and where it is good. They’re more aerodynamic and the rims are often lighter weight. Less weight on your bicycle means less effort. This is mostly for people who race, deliver, and carry bicycles up the stairs.
I recommend leaving early for your destination and fixing up your afro after you arrive.
I know you said that it wasn’t a question but chainless bicycle just means something that isn’t a chain is doing the same thing a chain would, like a little rubber belt or something.
Hope any of that helps! Apologies for being a bit loquacious.
Thank you! Your loquaciousness was necessary and appreciated! Using the ratios for the gears cleared things up A LOT.
Absolutely! I tried to keep it as concise as possible without leaving anything out. Feel free to message me if you have any other curiosities.
I didn’t even know an Autostraddle bike column was missing from my life until it happened.
The fact that there are bikes made of bamboo and bikes that glow in the dark >>>
I’m tempted to sell my current bike just so I can get one of the ones on this list.
There’s one that is both made of bamboo and glows in the dark made by Schwinn—the Schwinn Vestige!!!
Mmmm, bikes. I got my Surly Cross-Check this summer in the lovely color “Foamy Hospital Green.” It’s served me well navigating the jungle of Minneapolis and on long-ass rides to Wisconsin.
Autostraddle you read my mind. I was just thinking about trying to look for a bike, but was unsure of where to start. You’re the bomb.
So happy this column is starting – autostraddle strikes again! Bought a new bike last month and have begun cycling to work, makes for a much nicer commute, even in the winter months.
I dreamed of having a folding bike in college, so I could take it inside with me everywhere, and prevent theft. I love New Haven..but I had three bikes stolen in my four years at school there.
Crossing my fingers that we have an article on building (folding?!) bikes! so much bike love.
I wouldn’t recommend Pure Fix to anyone who is making a serious investment, particularly on a first bicycle. At least, not unless you are willing to contact the company with any complaints. They have iffy quality control but wonderful customer service. Every set of wheels I have ordered from them has been really out of true, and one set was even aesthetically knicked, which only matters considering I bought them as an aesthetic upgrade. They were keen to send me replacements, though!
State Bicycle Co. is a good starter brand. They’re lightweight and aesthetically pleasing, and if it makes anyone feel any better they’re a pretty small company and growing rapidly. Some of the stuff they sell is unnecessary/overpriced. I’d recommend getting a lock, lights, and foot straps from other places.
I am really pleased with this article, so bravo to Fikri. Being queer and cycling are pretty much both my #1 gigs so this is a wonderful intersection of interests.
I am simultaneously timid to critique the article, but moreso frustrated with gendering of bicycles. I know that it is common and normative, but so is saying that makeup is for women and short haircuts are for men, right? and there are ways to definitely have avoided gender in the piece at all.
A traditional frame (confusingly juxtaposed as men’s or unisex frames) is known as a diamond frame because the perimeter of the frame (top tube, down tube, chain stays, seat stays) create a vaguely rhombus shape.
A step-through frame is often confused for being “women’s” frames, where the top tube is diagonal. Historically, this is because only women were supposed to wear dresses and had to be modest about flashing their underoos when swinging their legs over a bicycle, so the step through made that whole mounting process easier. In modernity, step-through frames are understood as easy for people wearing flowing or tight clothes to mount or alternately for people with joint problems. There really isn’t any need for a gendered restriction! After all, people of any gender can wear a dress or have joint problems, or just prefer the aesthetic.
The top tubes can be round like in a beach cruiser or straight like their diamond counterparts, and there are loads of variations on them. They’re easier to step on and off of in the same way that a motorscooter is easier to step off of than some motorcycles.
A good honourable mention would be the unique mixte frame, which uses two top tubes (called “lateral tubes” in this case) lead all of the way down to the rear axle instead of the seat tube.
I would add: definitely get a vagina-friendly (aka women’s) bike seat. It makes a huge difference!
Get your bike fitted to your height.
And get a road bike. Mountain bikes are a pain in the ass in the city. They’re heavy, slow, and not sleek.
I super agree with making sure your bike is adjusted to the right height. It’s so much more comfortable and efficient that way! I could be wrong, but to my best understanding, your seat height should be high enough so that your leg is basically fully extended at the bottom of your pedal stroke, and the handlebars should be approximately the same height as the seat. But it all depends on personal comfort, I guess!
Don’t buy a bike without a good lock. Just say no to cable locks! Ask me how I know this? If you don’t like ulocks, abus makes great folding locks. They’re expensive but less expensive than a new bike.
Also, this time of year especially, lights!
Lights and a lock should come with every bike purchase. It’s something you have to add into the cost when you’re looking for a bike unless you already have them.
I’ve been hoping to see more bike stuff on autostraddle. This makes me so happy. I would love love love to see a basic maintenance article. There’s so much stuff you can learn to do yourself just from watching youtube videos.
Do not buy a bicycle if you cannot afford what you need to ride the bicycle—as Jo said: at least a u-lock, lights (these are a legal requirement in most places), and especially foot retention (cages, straps) if you are buying a brakeless fixed gear off of Craigslist or somewhere.
Choose your seat by how far apart your sit bones are. Try out hard and soft ones and see what works for you.
Pretty excited to see State Bicycle Co. on here. Grew up with the guy who started it and have to say I love my State bike. Great column. Great advice from other commenters. Late to the party but happy to see this nonetheless.