Thursday, 29 August 2013


In addition to their being a bewildering array of bicycles to purchase, there are a staggering number of bicycle accessories you can buy. As with bicycles, you have to be aware that to a certain degree products from different companies are very similar. There are of course exceptions, and to a degree price can be a good indicator of quality differences. Sometimes the $40 bike light is better than the $10 bike light, so shop around, read online reviews and take advice from knowledgeable bike shop employees.

However, there are two things you want to be careful of, don’t be convinced that you need all of the accessories that are on offer, some things you don’t need for a safe ride, and don’t be convinced to purchase the most expensive version of a particular piece of equipment. As I said before, greater price does not necessarily equate with greater safety. There are plenty of websites that do product reviews, thus I won’t be doing that here.

I will not cover all of the possible equipment you can buy for your bicycle, as it would not be possible I suspect. Instead I will review the equipment that may be of interest for long-distance urban cycling. As much as possible I will try and indicate the things you really need to have versus the things that would be helpful but not necessary. As with the post on bikes, I am not endorsing any particular brands. Finally, some of the standard accessories for cycling won’t be mentioned as they pertain to different concerns (e.g. clothing will be discussed in a post on seasonal weather variations, lights when discussing night riding). The list is in no particular order.

In many countries helmets are mandatory equipment, and you could face a fine for not wearing one. Most doctors, and most bike shop employees, will recommend that you wear one. I always wear one. When I had my accident, my head bounced off the pavement and my helmet cracked, which of course is a good thing, I would much rather crack my helmet than my head.

Helmets need to be properly fitted, a loose helmet won’t be much help in an accident, and a tight helmet can be very uncomfortable. If you are unsure about fitting your helmet get some help when you pick it up. As with bikes, there are a large variety of helmets, and they each have their own particular advantages. The jury is still out on some of the claims of difference between helmets. For example, the now classic swept back helmet design is being challenged by the “round helmet” design that has bike helmets looking more and more like motorcycle helmets. I don’t know if one or the other is safer, and until studies are done I won’t endorse either kind.

One of the chief problems with bike helmets is that they suffer from the “you may never need them” issue. With the exception of my one auto collision, I have never hit my head while on my bike. When you have ridden your bike for many years without your helmet coming into play it is tempting to think that you can just forget about it. And then there is the argument that if you are going to wear a helmet you should probably also wear kneepads, elbow pads, etc. Both of these points are probably true, I made it approximately 34 years before my helmet came into play in an accident.

Nonetheless, this is another case where you have to keep the bigger picture in mind, and a bit of cost benefit analysis is useful. Yes, you may never need it, but if you don’t have it when you have a head trauma accident the consequences can be significant, and the cost is so minor that it is in your best interest to purchase and wear a helmet. Forester points out that 75% of cycling fatalities come from head injuries. Whatever you do avoid what I often see on the road, people cycling with their helmets hanging off their bikes. If you go to the trouble of buying a helmet you might as well wear it!

The same argument applies to cycling gloves. If you have ever taken a dive on the bicycle you would know that you often go down palms first. Getting “road rash” on your hands is very painful and remarkably inconvenient; you use your hands for a lot. So although it is unlikely that you will need them, cycling gloves are another good investment. And the fates have a way of messing with you on these issues. Case in point, last year I forgot my cycling gloves on the way out the door one day. I had just purchased a new bike, and as is often the case, I had a fall while riding as I wasn’t used to the new ride. I landed on my palms and scraped them up. I had worn my gloves every other day that cycling season, the one day I forgot them was the one day I needed them.

Bells, like helmets, are mandatory in some places, so you may be facing fines if you don’t have one on the bike. I used to ride without a bell, until I realized that bikes are quiet. Unlike cars, a bicycle is comparatively noiseless on the road. This means that motorists, and many pedestrians, will never hear you coming. I had wondered why pedestrians would sometimes jump five feet in the air when I cycled by, and then I realized it was because they had no idea I was there until I was right beside them. As an interesting aside, car companies are currently contemplating giving electric cars artificial noise generating equipment, as electric cars are so quiet that they are a safety hazard on the road. In short, a bell, and a comparatively loud bell, is a crucial piece of safety equipment on a bicycle.

It is important however to use a bell intelligently. For example, you can’t assume that motorists will hear your bell when you ring it. A car with the windows rolled up has a degree of sound insulation. Add to that the fact that people often drive with the stereo on, and they may simply not hear you. Ditto for pedestrians, who frequently have earphones in and might not hear the bell.

Not only that, but with all of the traffic and all of the competing noises, it is sometimes difficult to isolate where the bell is located. Car horns are really loud; it is usually possible to determine the general location of a car when it sounds a horn. With bicycle bells it is not always so clear. Add to that that many cyclists aren’t where they are supposed to be on the road and a bell is an imperfect tool for alerting motorists and pedestrians to your presence.

The best piece of advice I can give here is to use the bell in addition to other methods to maximize safety. So, for example, when you ring the bell you should also start slowing down a bit in case the car driver or pedestrian does not hear your bell, or chooses to ignore it. Don’t assume the bell has got their attention and caused them to react the way you want them to. Until the motorist or pedestrian either acknowledges your presence directly or behaves in a way that indicates they are reacting to you (e.g. the pedestrian moves the side, the car switches lanes) it is always safer to assume that they are not going to do what you want and to slow your approach in anticipation.

I went to a conference in Ottawa a few years back, and I stayed with a friend of mine named Dan. Dan lived in the downtown core, a few miles from the conference site. I could have taken public transit to the conference, or grabbed a cab and expensed it, but I decided I wanted to ride a bike there instead. Dan had a mountain bike and he was more than happy to let me use it, so the first morning of the conference off I went on Dan’s bike. Within about five minutes of starting my ride I realized I would have to get a mirror for the bike, as I found myself constantly looking down where the mirror was located on my bike, and there was nothing there. Fortunately I knew several bike shops in the city, and I cycled over to one immediately to grab a mirror.

I hadn’t realized how much I used the mirror until it was gone. If you were to ask me to list the top three safety features for bicycles a mirror would be near the top of that list for a few reasons. For example, one of the interesting things about bicycles is that when you turn your body the handlebars turn with you. Unless you are very diligent, it is very easy to turn your torso when you turn your head, and the bike turns with it, and considering that you ride to the right of traffic, you end up turning into traffic when you do this. Needless to say this is unwise.

I check my mirrors constantly while driving, it allows me to anticipate traffic problems and make safer decisions on the road. You still need to shoulder check if you want to make a lane change or a turn mind you, just like car mirrors bike mirrors do not give full rear visibility, but you can get a lot of use out of a mirror when you are just driving forwards but you want to be aware of approaching traffic.

There are a number of different kinds of mirrors available. I have tried helmet mounted mirrors and I found 
them very frustrating. I spent most of my time with the helmet mirror trying to “find” what was behind me in the mirror, and I decided it was not safe to continue using it. I now use two mirrors, both mounted on my left handlebar. One of the mirrors is mounted underneath the handlebar, and is oriented to provide me with a good view when I am sitting forward in my seat. The other is mounted over my handlebar, and is oriented to be used when I am standing up or sitting back in the seat. Having two mirrors means that I can always get a good view of what is behind me. In addition my top mirror is a concave mirror, so it gives a wide range of vision. If I were on a motorcycle or scooter and I was not pulled over to the right of the lane most of the time I would want mirrors on my right handlebar as well.

Forester claims that mirrors are unnecessary, and even unsafe, something that surprised me. He argues that any significant activity on the road (a turn or a lane change for example) that requires you to know what is happening behind you requires a proper shoulder check as mirrors provide a limited view. The only way to have a comprehensive view of what is behind you is to do a shoulder check. Thus mirrors tend to deceive people into thinking they have a sufficient view of what is behind them, and should not be used. Forester believes that any competent cyclist should practice the shoulder check maneuver enough that they don’t turn their handlebars while doing it, and thus that the risks associated with it are minimal. Forester ultimately believes that mirrors are for cyclists that have undue fear of overtaking traffic, and thus that their purpose is primarily psychological.

I disagree with Forester about mirrors on two fronts. First, he has a tendency to reject options unless they are optimal, since mirrors don’t give you a complete view of what is behind you (according to Forester) they are to be rejected. However, cars use mirrors that do not give you a comprehensive view of what is behind you either, yet they can still be used to great advantage. I agree that you must do a shoulder check before any lane change or turn, but that does not mean that mirrors are unnecessary. Mirrors allow you to check oncoming traffic on a more regular basis, and I find it useful to know what approaching traffic is doing so I can anticipate. When I’m doing a mirror check I’m generally looking for one of a few things: a string or succession of 18 wheel trucks, a clear road behind me, or someone signaling a right turn.

When I spot a string or succession of large trucks I often exit the road and let them pass, spotting them in the mirror means I have more time to pick an exit point. When I see a clear road behind me I can, for example, sit up and back in the saddle and let go of my handlebars for a while. “Riding up” like this varies your cycling position (which is good for the back) and works out different leg muscles (good for your fitness), but I never do it in traffic as I want my hands on the wheel so to speak whenever there is traffic around.

Cars with right turn signals on that approach you from behind can be a significant risk to the cyclist, as they are often interested in making a right before the next major intersection (say a private driveway) so they are in the position of either waiting behind you (as they don’t think there is room to pass you on the left and cut back in) or going around you. For less experienced car drivers this can be a difficult choice, and in more than one case I have seen a motorist (in my rear view) hesitate for a while then at the last minute decide to overtake and turn, cutting me off. Because I was watching them in the rearview I knew what they were trying to do and when they moved to pass me I slowed down giving them room to make their turn.

I have found that there are innumerable traffic situations like this, where knowing what’s happening behind you, even if only through the “incomplete” picture provided by a mirror, can be invaluable to safe cycling. You have to check regularly with mirrors to use them properly, as cars can come into the road at any time from driveways and small intersections, but a mirror check can tell me what is happening in my immediate vicinity at a glance. When I am in my car I do mirror checks every 10-20 seconds or so, something recommended by my driving instructor. I do so as well on the bike.

I also disagree with Forester’s claim that mirrors have significantly limited visibility. My regular mirror gives me a complete view of all the lanes behind me, and a perfectly adequate view of the cars that are passing me to the left. Yes, it cuts off the image at the corners as it is small, and yes, it takes a bit of practice to be able to see back long distances, a shoulder check allows you to see further back faster. Still, I can see the immediate traffic, and as long as I regularly check the mirror I can find cars that have joined the road. In addition, the mirror allows you to keep a regular check on the road, and with practice you can see back just as accurately for long distances as you can with a shoulder check. In addition, you can look in the mirror for a longer period of time than you do with a shoulder check. Shoulder checks tend to be very fast and far between, mirror checks can be longer, or you can string together a series of them to get a good view of the traffic behind you.

I think that Forester may be thinking of the blind spots of cars and equating them with bikes. Cars have blind spots as they are wide, the mirrors on either door can’t capture all that is behind them, and the main rearview mirror can’t catch everything at the periphery. On a bike however the mirror can catch everything behind the bicycle, so there is no “blind spot” on the left. Your body blocks you from seeing behind you on the right, but when I am stopped at an intersection I can tilt the bike and use the rear view mirror to see who is in the right hand lane behind me.

The key to making all of this work is to have your mirror at the right angle to capture as much of the traffic as possible. It is also important to keep the mirror tightly adjusted so it doesn’t move around too much. I carry an allen key set at all times so I can tighten my mirrors if needed. I also use two mirrors, one low slung that is adjusted for visibility when I am seated, and another set high with for use when I am standing or sitting up. In addition, the top mirror has a convex lens so it gives a good view of your peripheral area. Again, I would never make an actual lane change without shoulder checking just to be sure, but keeping an eye on traffic in the mirror lets me know, for example, how long I will have to wait to make that turn. In addition, the ease of using the mirror (after you have experience with it), combined with the fact you only have to avert your eyes, not turn your body, imply that it is worth considering.

Jeff, a friend of mine that used to be a bicycle courier once told me that he didn’t bother with a mirror; he simply rides where he is supposed to ride and that’s that. I respect this view, which is essentially Forester’s, what I disagree with is that this is the only safe way to drive. As long as you take some time to learn how to use them, and as long as you are doing proper shoulder checks before turns and lane changes, mirrors give you more information on traffic, information that allows you to make better riding choices and to anticipate concerns. Add to this that they eliminate the need to physically turn around (and thus potentially turn the bike handles) and I see mirrors as an essential cycling tool for the new urban commuter.

There are a number of different tires available for your bike. Most road bikes come with equipped with slicks, regular tires designed for normal road and trail use. There are also more advanced tires with special grooves designed for wet conditions. There are “knobby” tires that are standard issue on mountain bikes; these are intended to improve your grip on loose soil and dirt. For years I have been using slicks on the road, regular tires have been more than enough to get the job done. A few important caveats here though: I do zero off-road riding on my regular commute and I ride most often in dry conditions. Depending on your regular route and general weather conditions special rain tires or knobby tires might be worthwhile. I will say though that knobby tires are very noticeable in terms of speed loss on longer commutes.

Recently, however, I have found that the roads have gotten worse. Whether that be due to the city cutting back on road cleanup to save money, or just a general increase in traffic that leads to more detritus on the road, there has been a definite change. When I went to my bike shop grousing about this they confirmed what I had discovered, many people had come in to complain about the same thing. Over my last cycling season I had a total of 9 flat tires, a new record for me.

I don’t normally advocate for “new” or “high-tech” equipment, as I find that it is seldom that much better than regular equipment. However, I had finally had enough of the flats last season so I tried a special “puncture resistant” tire by Bontrager. It was well worth the cost, as I have been 8 months without a flat tire. Flat tires are a significant concern for long distance cycling, and although special tires are not necessary, I would recommend some degree of "puncture resistance" in your chosen model of tire to save yourself inconvenience and add to your safety on the road.

Shoes, Pedal Clips and Cages
When I first started cycling in the city I noticed other cyclists with special shoes and funny small pedals, these were pedal clips. Pedal clips are designed so you can snap your shoe into the pedal. There are advantages to this, it keeps your foot in one place, maximizes the power of your pedaling, and allows you to pull up on the pedals as well as pushing down. Cycling shoes also improve your cycling efficiency as the shoes have hard soles, not soft soles like regular shoes. This allows you to transfer more of the force from your pedaling to the pedals. You remove your feet from pedal clips by twisting them out.

I don’t use pedal clips myself as I am not comfortable with the removal process, I don’t trust that my foot can come out of the pedal clip in a hurry. I know many people who use pedal clips who swear that removing your foot is very easy. However, when you are in the process of having an accident I would prefer not to have to try and do anything to remove my feet from the pedals. Just to put a fine point on it, I was hit by a car while cycling a few years back. I did not have pedal clips on, and as a result I flew off the bike rather than staying on it. I had no time to react and remove my feet. Flying off the bike saved my life, if I had stayed on the bike I would have ended up under the car rather than a distance away from it.

As a result of this I use pedal cages, straps that loop above the pedals. I keep them extremely loose so my feet slip out on their own if I fall from the bike. They still keep my feet in aligned and allow me to pull up on the pedals as I ride if I want to. I also wear cycling shoes to improve the efficiency of my ride. You don’t necessarily need pedal clips or cages for safety, though they do keep your feet on the pedals, which is helpful. When you are riding hard slipping off the pedals can lead to significant injury or a crash, so I tend to use something on my foot.

Disc Brakes
This is not necessarily a piece of equipment that you buy for your bike as much as a piece of equipment that now comes standard on some bikes and not others. Until my most recent purchase I had always had “cantilever” brakes, basically metal arms with brake pads, when you wanted to stop you pulled the brake cable, which moved the arms with the brake pads to “pinch” the wheel just below the tire edge.
Cantilever brakes work by creating friction between the rubber and the metal wheel frame. It is a fairly efficient system, and for the majority of slow to medium speed riding it is effective in stopping you fairly quickly. Wet weather can reduce the efficiency of cantilever brakes, they can become loose, and brake pads can wear down. If you keep them well tuned they will last a long time as they are mechanically simple, and they are relatively easy to disconnect when you are changing a tire. For road riding I have found well-maintained cantilever brakes to be more than adequate.

Disc brakes have a pair of “pincers” that essentially grab a disc mounted on the wheel axle. The chief difference between this kind of brake and a cantilever brake is that you can stop very quickly. The first time I used disc brakes I found that the bike stopped much sooner than I expected and I felt my body shoot forwards over the handlebars. So I have a mixed recommendation for disc brakes. I tend to prefer my brakes softer, but I do like the fact I can stop in a much shorter distance if needed. Since I drive a bit on the slower side, disc brakes are actually a good choice, as I can stop suddenly if I want to and if I want to stop more gradually I just “pump” the brakes in short bursts rather than jam them on for extended period. I have changed 1 flat with a disc brake system, the rear in this case, and it worked without significant complication. I would recommend disc brakes for long distance urban cycling, but with the caveat that you need to ride with them for a bit to get used to the increased power, and they are better if you ride on the slower side.

Repair Gear
I commute to work, so if the bike needs any major repairs on route I’m calling a cab to pick me up or I’m taking the bike on the bus. I can’t spend a half hour fiddling with my spokes or realigning my wheels. Minor repairs should be possible though, and I carry a small amount of repair gear to deal with those situations. I carry a multi-tool with Allen keys and assorted screwdriver heads, as well as a small wrench that fits various nuts on the bike. This allows me to tighten any components (e.g. mirrors, bells, pedals, derailleurs, brakes) and is needed when I’m changing a tire. I usually have a rag that can be used to wipe the grease off my hands if the chain comes off and has to be remounted.

All of my other equipment is for changing tires. I carry a small bike pump, a replacement tire tube, and three plastic clamps that allow me to pull back the tire from the wheel to get at the tube. I don’t carry a patch kit as I don’t have the time to find and patch a hole on the road, I can do that at home. Generally you can remove whatever punctured the tube from the tire and just replace the punctured tube. The plastic clamps are a must have, they wedge under the tire and clamp to a spoke, pulling the tire off the wheel. You place one, then run another between the wheel and the tire and clamp it further down. At this point the tire is starting to come off the wheel. A third clamp, slid along further, usually gets the tire off completely. I have done it with two clamps before, and even during very cold weather with one. It is quite simply very difficult to get a tire off without some sort of lever to put between the tire and the wheel. It is almost impossible to do with your fingers.

I don’t see the need for any other repair equipment as anything more elaborate and I wouldn’t have the time to fix it anyway. And this is urban cycling, not deep woods or abandoned country road cycling, so other transport options (cabs, buses, a helpful friend with a car) exist. Changing a tire takes about 15 minutes tops for a rear tire that is a bit more complex as you have to reposition the gear system and derailleur. Front tires can be done in less than 10 minutes. You could carry more tubes if you are more concerned, and you can also carry air cartridges that inflate tires quickly, and pressure gauges if you are worried about getting accurate air pressure.

As a point of interest you should always keep your tires near the top end of their pressure values. All tires are labeled with a range of acceptable pressures, keeping to the top range is important as underinflated tires can sag and pinch and even shear off the inflation nozzle as they move during cycling. This happened to me repeatedly one season until I figured out that I was underinflating my tires. Because you are commuting a long distance weight matters, and I wouldn't recommend anything I didn't think was important. A bike pump, a tire tube, a multi-tool and a few clamps adds a pound and a bit to your ride, and it adds up. Still this minimum package of equipment will see you through many smaller road impediments.

They don’t look particularly sexy, but fenders are a good idea for regular long distance cycling. Being on the road a long time just amplifies the impact of smaller factors like water from the road. Getting sprayed for a short time while riding on a wet road is no big deal, being on the bike for an hour and getting sprayed is altogether different. As an additional benefit when you ride over loose rocky soil fenders will keep you from being pelted with stones as you ride.

Compass and Map
Yes, I know, you have a GPS in your phone so there is no need for a compass and map. Good enough, however, phone batteries die, data connections go down, data coverage is not complete in all areas of the city… there are plenty of reasons why your phone may not always be a reliable guide. Think of it this way, if you commute every day, you are bound to have a day when your phone is not working or not charged. This is why an old school map and compass combination is never a bad idea. I have a compass/bell on my handlebars (thanks Dave and Victoria!) that works quite well, and I always keep a cycling map stuffed in the back of my pannier. I used to keep it in a clear map sleeve on a handlebar mounted case, but I gave up the case a while back.

So why should you always carry a map and compass? Well, part of the enjoyment associated with cycling long distances in the city is that you quite often end up “exploring” alternate routes. Sometimes your favorite route is blocked due to construction; sometimes you just want to switch it up. I have taken detours when I have found a bike trail entrance I was unaware of, or seen a connecting street that might save me a busy main route or a difficult hill. Side streets are the secret weapon of the safety conscious cyclist, and a map and compass can allow you to explore your options.

But even without the map a compass can help you get your bearings. For example, when I have become, ahem, misdirected in the past I have often simply pointed myself in the right general direction and cycled until I hit a road or trail I recognized. I work in the Northwest corner of the city, but I live South/central, some days I simply ride South and East in whatever combination suits me until I get close enough to home to join up with my regular route. This works particularly well when there are construction related detours. As long as you have a compass and a map you are never lost for long.

Panniers and Cases
There are any number of different kinds of bags (when you hang a bag off a bike it’s called a pannier) that you can use on your bicycle. For most of these you will need to have a rack mounted on the bike over the back wheel. Some panniers are bags, some are collapsible cages that can be opened to form baskets. You can also get panniers for the front wheel, but they often come without a rack and bolt on directly to the wheel hub or the bike fork. You can also get cases that hang off the front of your handlebars (many have a clear sleeve on top for maps), cases that stretch between the crossbars of your bike, cases that fit under the seat, etc.

The number, size and combination of bags, cases or cages you use is of course up to your personal preference. I for example do not like panniers that hang off the side of a rack as they have the potential to unbalance your ride unless you ensure that the panniers on both sides are equally filled. As a result I have a top mounted bag on my back wheel rack. I have also used a handlebar case to hold miscellaneous objects and mount my map. 

When you are cycling long distance your goal should be to minimize the load you carry. Over the long distance commute every pound counts, and after years of regular commuting I can feel the difference in my bike that even a book makes. I’m so ruthless about minimizing my load that I eliminated my front case from the bike last season as it forced me to cut down on the load I bring back and forth. Still, as you are commuting there will often be work related materials going back and forth. Whatever you choose to carry, I would recommend letting the bike take the load. Long distance cycling while wearing a backpack can be more taxing than it looks. I once rode to work with a colleague who was doing the ride for the first time. He had his laptop in a backpack, and I had suggested beforehand to put everything on the bike. About 20 minutes into the ride he started to complain about the weight, and we weren’t even half way there.

This point may seem counterintuitive, you can see bike couriers on the road all the time with backpacks, but trust me, any load you carry on your body can become a pain. Panniers allow you to transfer the weight to the bike and keep your body free from restraint. And depending on the loads you carry, it is better to have a heavy load lower (on the bike rather than on  your back) for balance purposes.

I don’t generally lock up my bike, I’m not confident that a lock will prevent a determined thief. I keep my bike in my office and in my garage. I always carry a light, small cable lock on the bike when I’m riding. It’s not that strong, but it will do for a quick one minute run into a store. For the most part I rarely lock up the bike. Still, there are times that I have to run errands on the way home, or I may be going out to meet friends in a bar or restaurant and I decide to take my bike.

There is no way of stopping a determined thief, but you can improve your odds. First, carry at least two locks of different kinds, bike thieves are less likely to have the equipment needed to break two kinds of locks. There are kryptonite or “U” locks, cable locks, chain locks, whatever varieties you choose make sure they are big enough to give you greater freedom in where you can lock up the bike. Short locks can be a hassle when there are a lot of other bikes sharing a lock area (e.g. at a bike rack). When locking your bike, interlace your locks so they are not just locked to the post but to each other. None of this will make theft impossible, but the point is to make removal more complicated so the thief will go for an easier mark.

Location is also important when locking the bike. You want a public location, with lots of traffic. I like to lock the bike outside of a banking machine or near a gas station where there is likely to be video surveillance of some kind. You should also “strip” the bike of all easily removed accessories. I leave my mirrors on as they are bolted in and would take some work with a tool to remove. I take off my cycle computer and lights as they are easily removed. One of my locks is a long cable lock, and I lace it through the posts under my seat. A determined thief might be able to detach the seat to get the cable out if they had the right kind of tool (in my case a wrench), but again, it’s all about slowing them down and making it more complicated.

Bicycle Computers
Several years back I picked up a cycle computer as I was curious about my cycling performance, specifically I wanted to quantify my riding a bit more. The computer told me the time, my maximum speed, my average speed and the distance I travelled. At first I was interested in my average speed, which hovered around 14 miles per hour for most long distance trips. I later became interested in keeping track of how many miles I was riding per season, and the computer helped me to keep track of that (particularly when I went on new routes and detours and needed to get information on how long these routes and detours were).

I’m a big believer in gathering statistics on any activity; I believe you can see things by collecting this sort of information that would normally pass your notice. For example, on a series of rides I tried to increase my riding speed to speed up the trips. I noticed over time that my average speed was staying about the same, implying that despite my periodic bursts of speed my overall trip time was about the same.

At this point in my riding experience I don’t bother with the computer any more. I ride regular routes and I know how long they take and how fast I am going. Pretty much the only thing I use the computer for is the clock. In general I would recommend a cycling computer to new commuters so you can keep track of the parameters of different routes and make more informed decisions as to which routes are best. For example, it is often hard to quantify how far you have travelled when your route varies from week to week (before you have settled on a route) and the cycle computer can take your subjective experience of the ride and give you some objective data on how far the route in question actually is. This is useful as some routes, when mapped out, look unduely complicated, but when you have had the opportunity to ride them and determine distances they can turn out to be shorter options.

When you are in the car a windshield protects you from the air that blows into your face and from any objects that might hit your eyes. When you are on a motorcycle a helmet visor (for those who use helmets) serves the same function. On a bike you have no such protection. This is a significant issue, as an object striking you in the eyes (even something small like an insect) can cause you to lose control of the bike while in traffic. Not only that, but on windier days (particularly in the cold weather) your eyes can water quite a bit, which impairs visibility. Thus some form of eye protection is important.

I wear prescription glasses so I always have something in front of my eyes, for those who don’t wear glasses, sunglasses are the obvious solution. If you are riding on particularly overcast days or at night it is possible to obtain “shooting glasses”, yellow tinted glasses that are supposed to highlight your visual field. When I wore contact lenses many years ago I tried a pair of these shooting glasses and found them to be as advertised, e.g. they did make my field of vision crisper and clearer.

These are the major accessories that I would suggest thinking about for urban cycle commuting. Some I haven’t mentioned as I will discuss them later when I talk about weather conditions and day and night riding. Others, though useful, are not necessary and are more up to the individual rider.



Friday, 23 August 2013

Safety on the Road

When I started blogging about urban cycling I decided that my focus would be on safety. Year after year I see more cyclists on the roads, and I have spoken with many who have wanted to ride. Not only that, but the range of reasons for cycling has increased as well. People are becoming more self-conscious about exercise, and cycle commuting is a “free lunch” so to speak, getting exercise and getting to work at the same time. There is also the economic benefit, no paying for parking or gas, or transit pass. There are initial sunk costs, but they are quickly made up. Then there are environmental benefits, less pollution and less reliance on a non-renewable resources.

So there are a lot of reasons to ride.

I believe that for the majority of NEW riders, the primary concern with cycling is safety. I will say more about some dissenting opinions later, but for now let’s take that as a given. I believe that cycling is poised to become a much larger part of everyone’s transit experience as economies change and technological networks change to accommodate environmental and energy realities, and as such, that a discussion of safety is crucially important. If people thought they could cycle safely they would be much more likely to do it.

With that in mind, how do you assess the safety of road riding?

Well, I have about 1200 hours of urban cycling under my belt, over 5 years. Toronto, as it happens, has one of the worst traffic commuting times in the world, so that suggests that my experience would be representative of other major urban centers.

I have also done some research, and my go to source for cycling statistics is John Forester, a US cycling advocate. I disagree with Forester about several things, but I respect his experience and his use of statistics and scientific evidence.

So what do the stats say about cycling safety?

First off, experience matters.


Forester compares “club” cyclists (cyclists that have joined a riding club where they can learn safe riding methods and compare experiences with others) to non-club cyclists, and shows that non-club cyclists get in more accidents. Or as he puts it, the number of miles you ride per accident (or the number of miles on average that you ride before you get in one) goes up with time on the road and time spent in cycling clubs, so experience matters to safety.

However, the novice driver, by definition, has little experience, so you need some other solution if you want safe riding for new drivers.

You need rules and suggested methods for riding.

What rules and methods work?

I will present two answers to this question.

The first answer is general, the other specific.

The specific answer is to consider various traffic situations and discuss what to do. I will do that in later posts.

Here instead I will start with some general principles, based on my understanding of the statistics.

Breaking it Down: The Numbers
According to Forester, 38% of bike-car collisions occur when the cyclist is following the rules of the road. I will ignore the fact that this leaves 62% of our cyclists not following the rules of the road when the accident happens. I know that breaking the rules can be bad, so I’m more interested in what happens when you follow them.

What Forester’s statistic tells me is that accidents can occur even if you are doing what you are supposed to do, so doing what you are supposed to do isn’t enough if you want a safe ride. Let that sink in for a moment, as it has some profound consequences. If 38% of car-bike collisions happen when the bike rider is obeying the law, then if you always obey the law on the road while cycling you have a non-trivial chance of getting into an accident.

Thus breaking the law must be necessary in certain contexts. More on that later.

Now just to give you a comparison, of bike-car collisions, 7% occur when riding on the sidewalk. So you are 31% more likely, almost a third more likely, to be hit when you are riding where you are supposed to be on the road than when you are on the sidewalk, where it is often illegal to ride.

That seem odd to you?

It should, because it flies in the face of what you are told about cycling.

89% of-car bike collisions occur at intersections, when passing through or turning. 7% happen when you are being overtaken by a car coming from behind. Again, the stats prove your instincts wrong, most of us feel more threatened by the overtaking traffic (as we can’t see it coming unless we turn or look in a mirror) but the intersection, which we can see ahead of time, is far deadlier.

So what do you figure is the difference, why are bike car collisions so much more likely to happen at intersections? Why do accidents happen when you are doing what you are supposed to be doing?
Leaving out the obvious candidates like drunk drivers, panicking drivers who make the wrong decision, etc., it strikes me that there are two obvious problems here: visibility and speed.

When cars are coming up behind you they can see you. Overtaking accidents occur when a cyclist is driving at night without proper reflectors or lights, when they rejoin traffic unexpectedly (say coming off a sidewalk), or when the driver makes a right turn across their bow as he thinks he can make the turn before the cyclist gets there but he cuts them off.

Visibility helps with the first two problems. Riding at night with reflectors and lights, and not moving in and out of traffic unexpectedly. If you bomb down the sidewalk and then through pedestrian cross walk cars come to the intersection to make a right turn, look for pedestrians, and start to make the turn. If you are coming up fast on the sidewalk you can easily arrive when the turn is being made but not be seen. Bikes are fast and silent. Making yourself visible means that most cars just go around you. I ride up Keele Street to work every day, Keele is quite busy and the cars are fast. However, unless the traffic is bumper to bumper the cars tend to leave the right lane for me and pass in the left. If the traffic is bumper to bumper I just ride up the side of the road. In both cases as I am visible they generally go around me, or I go around them.

Motorists don’t, for the most part, want the hassle of hitting you and dealing with the consequences, they just want to get on with their day and get past you. So visibility is key.

At intersections the issue becomes reacting to the changing traffic situation. This is where speed is added to visibility as an issue. When you are riding on the road you need to be seen as you can’t compete with the cars when they are going fast, and when they are going slow and you are passing them you want to be seen so no one opens a door in your path or cuts you off with a right turn. Being visible allows others to go around you.

At intersections decision making comes into it. Say you are at a busy four way intersection, cars are lined up at all four spots. You roll up in a bike lane and arrive at the front of the line of cars. When do you go? In the sequence you arrived? Perhaps, but you can’t always be seen by the other cars, particularly when the lead cars beside you are vans or large trucks. Personally, I wait until the lead car beside me drives straight through and I ride out with it, effectively protecting my exposed flank and allowing me to avoid having to negotiate my position with other cars.

At traffic lights I have encountered the opposite problem, I’m visible, but many motorists try to “jump the turn”. I’m going straight through an intersection and the car across from me in the oncoming lane is signaling a left turn across my path. When the light changes I have the right of way, but the car is faster and can make a quick turn across the intersection before I’m even half way out. So they will often make the turn despite me coming through.

I have also seen many cyclists jump the light, they wait on the red, and when the last car has gone through the intersection they start to enter even though the light hasn’t changed. It gives them at best a few seconds, but it happens a lot.

Well, if 89% of car bike collisions happen in intersections, and in 62% of car bike collisions the bike was not following the rules of the road, you can see why I would be skeptical of the safety of jumping the light. Cars move fast, and stragglers can arrive at the intersection late. All this suggests that cyclists need to obey the law at intersections, and that they should focus on being visible and driving at a speed that allows them to react to the changing traffic situation.

23% of bike-car collisions happen when a cyclist is entering a roadway from a sidewalk, driveway or other road. This happens, I suspect, as the cyclist is not noticed, and thus the driver either doesn’t give the space or reacts badly to the attempt to enter traffic. Once I came to understand the dangers of re-entering moving traffic I started to wait until the road was empty before entering, at least when I was not completing the turn in sequence with traffic at a light. “Empty” is a relative term, what this means is that I’m not rejoining the flow of existing traffic, I’m waiting for a break in that flow and entering the road then. This gives me time to adjust the bike, but more importantly it allows me to be visible to traffic approaching from behind me.

There is more to say, but that’s enough for today. Visibility and speed are important to safety. Riding fast gives you less time to react to traffic situations, and makes it more likely you will appear when a motorist isn’t expecting you. Riding without considering visibility means that you will frequently find yourself unnoticed when a car is moving into your space.



Here are a few more pics:

 The Humber Trail near the Weston Road exit

The East/West portion of the Finch Hydro Corridor Recreation Trail at York University

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Your Ride...

The Bicycle

In order to cycle commute you need a bicycle. In this post I will make some general suggestions as to what kind of bike you need, and I will discuss what I use. However, I do not intend to endorse any particular brands or companies. I’m not trying to sell you anything. If I mention the brands I use it is so you can look up the equipment yourself and see its specifications, and if you want you can find cheaper alternates. As will become apparent as we move forward, there are many different ways to cycle safely; no one piece of equipment is perfect for every application. Use these suggestions as just that, suggestions. I find that in most cases there are usually cheaper substitutes for expensive riding equipment, you just need to improvise.

When you ride as much as I do, you become quite attached to your bike. I have had bikes stolen, and I have had bikes smashed by cars, but other than that I have never replaced a bicycle. Like many technologies, you tend to work around the limitations rather than replace. How many times have you jerry-rigged something so it works rather than replace it? Why not just get something newer, something better? The thing is, you become attuned to the way your bicycle works, and sometimes familiar is more important than new or expensive. We live in a “throwaway” culture, and it is helpful to remember that keeping something working is just as important as trying something new. It is also in the vested interests of bike companies (and for that matter companies that make any product) to convince you that you need to have the newest product in their stable. Don’t believe the hype, bikes are comparatively simple, remarkably efficient and well-designed transportation technologies. Take care of your bike, keep it serviced and cleaned and it can last you for years.

It is also important to realize that if you do decide to purchase (say you don’t currently have a bicycle) you don’t need to break the bank to buy one. You can buy used, and there are usually a range of bicycles available to you in any given price range. Don’t be conned into buying something crazy expensive because it is “safer”. For the most part, modern bicycles share many of the same components and safety features. As a result, safety has just as much to do with how you ride and what kind of bike you ride as what brand of bike you ride, assuming that you keep the bike properly maintained. You can get better performance from a more expensive bike in many cases, but from a safety perspective the main risk associated with a less expensive bike is that cheaper components might break down more often.

Case in point, two years ago after I was hit by a car while on my high-end mountain bike I was without wheels for a few months. My neighbor generously offered me his old beater mountain bike. My original bike cost in the $800 range, the replacement put my friend back about $250. The brakes on his beater were rusty, as was the chain, it squeaked when you rode and the gear changers were out of date. But the bike got the job done, the brakes worked, the gear shifters worked, and the bike got me to work safely for several months until the insurance money kicked in.

Urban cycling can be done with any kind of bicycle, a racing bike, a recumbent, a “fixie”, a cruiser, a road bike, a mountain bike or a hybrid (“commuter”) bike. However, certain varieties of bicycle are better for the long distance urban commuter. It is to that subject I now turn.

Racing Bikes
Racing bikes are excellent for speed but their thin tires just beg to be caught in sewer grates, potholes, streetcar tracks and pavement cracks. Thin tires increase your road speed as there is less tire surface in contact with the road, and thus less frictional resistance. Speed, of course, can be a good thing (as my buddy Peter always used to say, “friction is your friend, without it you couldn’t even stand up”), but thin tires have their risks. I once saw a cyclist down on the pavement, his neck at an odd angle, with the paramedics surrounding him. His bicycle was half standing, the thin front tire jammed in a sewer grate slot. The city of Toronto uses diagonal sewer grate slot patterns to keep cyclists from getting their tires stuck in this way, but I gathered that the cyclist in question must have turned his wheel at precisely the wrong time and the tire became jammed (not to mention that offset slot patterns change as the circular cover “turns” when cars drive over it). Thin tires require fairly constant vigilance to avoid these sorts of problems in the urban cycling environment; city roads are frequently in bad enough shape that there are plenty of dangers on the pavement.

Another issue with racing bikes is that they tend to be lighter (to go faster), which means that you feel every last bump and crevice when you ride. When I switched from my second last bike to my previous one I tried out a high-end racing bike as the salesman was convinced I would love it compared to the mountain bike I had been riding. “That’s a mini-van”, he told me of my old bike, “this is a finely tuned racecar”. I took the bike out for a test spin and I found the experience to be jarring. Again, city roads tend to be in fairly bad shape, cracks, potholes, bumps, etc., which makes riding a lighter bike a bit of a shakefest. Thus, unless you have a particularly smooth road on your commute this can be an issue. On that note, they repaved the major road closest to my home last year; I was so grateful I felt like singing.

Racing bikes also tend to have the curved back and under handlebar design that works well for high speed cycling. When you bend down and forward to hang on to curved back handlebars you reduce your profile, and thus experience less wind resistance. This is good for speed, but on long distance commutes can be bad for your back and neck. This is somewhat of a personal choice, I know cyclists who prefer to be hunched over for long periods and do not experience discomfort, but I find it does, particularly in the neck. When you ride bent over you tilt your head up so you can see forward, this pinches your neck and can create pain in your upper back and shoulders.

I know bending forward while riding is the cause of this particular problem as I was experiencing this neck pain until I saw a physiotherapist who suggested that the problem might come from my cycling position. He suggested a whole host of solutions, from regular physiotherapy sessions to muscle relaxants to decreasing my cycling frequency. I wasn’t interested in any of these solutions, and I had been professionally fitted to the bike when I bought it so I knew that this wasn’t the problem. To solve the problem I decided to “sit up” at regular intervals during my ride and that did the trick almost immediately.

Sometimes simple solutions are better.

The last advantage to straight handlebars is that they are generally wider, so there are a greater range of positions for your hands. One thing about long distance commuting is that you are vulnerable to repetitive strain injuries, injuries that result from doing the same thing many times. Having a greater range of positions for the hands keeps you from being in the same position all of the time. I have a pair of posts added to the end of my handlebars, these posts are vertical and give me the option of varying my hand position, also allowing me to sit back further while holding on to the handlebars.

Racing bikes (at least newly purchased ones) also tend to be on the expensive side compared to other varieties of bike. In order to be light racing bikes are made of expensive composites and light but durable metals. You pay for this when you buy a racing bike. It is true that the other varieties of bike are going up in price, and you can certainly get very expensive versions of them, and it is certainly possible to by a comparatively cheap racing bike, but for the most part racing bikes will cost you more.

The safety concerns I mention here (sewer grates, streetcar tracks, potholes) can be mitigated if you are 
extra vigilant on the road, but here’s the problem: long distance cycling is just that, long distance, and that implies you will be on the road for a while. This just makes the odds of you hitting one of these obstacles all the greater, and the need for vigilance all the more prominent. As a result, unless you are willing to put in the extra effort and play the odds, I would not recommend a racing bike for long distance urban commutes.

Recumbent Bikes
Recumbents are an interesting case in the cycling world. A recumbent bike has you sitting back with your legs very close to straight ahead rather than oriented down. Recumbents are generally better for your back as you are less hunched over, they have straight handlebars rather than the curved down design of the racing bike, and they are also quite fast as they lower your profile and reduce your wind resistance. The land speed record for cycling was set with a recumbent bike, something that irritates many racing cyclists to no end.

However, recumbents have disadvantages. They tend to be quite expensive, as they are less common. They are also lower to the ground, if you have seen anyone driving a recumbent bike they often have a long pole with a flag on it on the back of the bike, in order to increase their visibility. My main concern with this sort of bicycle would be my visibility on the road. In principle the flag should get a driver’s attention, but in practice low lying objects are below the field of vision for drivers (especially in mini-vans and trucks where you generally sit much higher up), so I would be cautious riding this sort of bike for long distances.

Fixed Gear Bicycles
Fixed gear bicycles or “fixie’s” are frequently used by bike couriers and “hard core” cyclists. Fixed gear bikes were originally designed for racetracks where there is no automobile traffic or pedestrians around. As a result fixie’s often do not have brakes on them. They have only one gear, no shifters or derailers are needed, making them mechanically simpler and less prone to breakdown. They also tend to have thinner tires like racing bikes.

The trick to riding a fixed gear bike is that you have no gear system available to you, which means two things. One, when you ride up a hill you can’t “gear down” as you go, which makes steep hills a pain. Two, when you go down a hill you have to keep up with your pedals as they increase in rotation speed. When you are going fairly fast this can be a significant challenge. Add to these concerns the fact that you don’t have brakes, which means you can only slow down by slowing down your pedaling of the bike. The net result of these factors is that you tend to become a very strong cyclist when you ride a fixed gear bike, you have to work hard going both up and down hills, and you have to slow the bike down with your legs as you have no brakes.

Some people I know swear by fixed gear bikes. The cycling experience really is different, and they like the fact that so much of the control involved in cycling comes from them and not the bike’s gear system or brakes. For long haul urban cycling however, I would not recommend a fixed gear bike. Unless you live on the prairies chances are you have a few hills on your route, which means more work on a fixed gear bike. And I can’t even imagine cycling safely in the city without brakes. I don’t care how good you are at anticipating traffic and slowing down your bike with just your legs, cycling long distances in traffic without brakes is not something I would endorse. Add to this the concerns associated with thinner tires and fixed gear bikes are not the best choice for long distance urban commuting.

Cruisers, or “granny bikes” as a friend of mine calls them, are generally heavier, solid bikes with a small number of gears (usually three), big seats, large handlebars, bigger tires, and, increasingly, enclosed gear/chain systems. The cruisers that are popular today are based on the model of the “Amsterdam bike”. They are meant for cyclists who are not in a rush and want to have a solid, reliable bike. Enclosed gears and chain although not a feature of all cruisers, are meant to reduce the possibility of dirt and particulates interfering with the bike’s regular operation.

Cruisers are ideal for city riding in many ways, they are solid and well-built so breakdowns are not as much of an issue, their bigger tires are safer, and their enclosed gear system reduces the chances of mechanical failure. However, for long distance urban cycling cruisers have liabilities. First, they are heavier, which counts for more on long commutes, but more importantly they tend to have very few gears, which can be a problem when you are riding in the city.

One of the things I took a while to realize when I started riding in the city was that gear shifting isn’t just about making pedaling easier or harder, it is also a part of controlling your bike. I gear shift constantly when I ride, I shift up to increase my speed, I shift down when I’m going up a steep hill or to decrease my speed. However, gear shifting influences your speed differently depending on what speed you are starting at when you shift gears.

For example, say I’m at an intersection waiting for the light to change. I start riding, and then I gear up, for the first few seconds this will slow me down, as gearing up makes pushing the pedals harder. Once I get the bike rolling I will start to speed up, but the initial reaction to gearing up from a standing start is to slow you down. I once quantified this observation by looking at my cycling computer and watching my speed change during a standing start/gearing up maneuver. I started cycling and when I shifted my gears up my speed went down initially, then slowly started to increase. If you are cycling along at a good speed and you gear up the same thing happens but it is less noticeable as you “catch up” to the higher gear faster. Similarly, if you gear down when you are going slowly you initially speed up, and then very quickly you “catch up” to the cadence of the bike and slow down.

As a result of all of this I like the flexibility of having a lot of gears to use. I also use “gearing up” to slow down the bike when I am concerned about reaction times and traffic. Rather than hitting the brakes all the time, I gear up, which makes the pedaling harder, and this slows me down temporarily. I came to realize how much I use gear shifting in my ride this past cycling season when I rode through the winter. On one particular day my gear system just gave up the ghost. My rear derailleur stopped working entirely, so all I had was the three gears available to me on the front cog (where my pedals connected to the bike), which meant that I essentially had three options for pedalling, really hard, moderate and really easy. From a cycling perspective this meant that I found it remarkably difficult to find a comfortable cycling speed, I was either spinning the pedals madly and not going anywhere, or pushing so hard I thought I was going to blow a muscle. As a result of concerns like these, I would not recommend a cruiser for long distance urban cycling.

Road Bikes
I have a soft spot for road bikes. They get a bit of a bum rap in the cycling world as they are seen as “old fashioned”, and they are often cheaper and are not seen as “specialized”. Racing bikes are specially designed for speed, mountain bikes are specially designed for rough trails, road bikes are the generic bike, OK at everything, not particularly special at anything. For some people this means they are less preferable.

However, road bikes have many features that make them appealing for long distance urban cycling. One, they have medium sized tires, which is better on the road. Two, they have multiple gears, which I find useful in urban cycling. Three, they are not ultra-light, so they don’t give you the rough ride that a racing bike can give you. They are also quite solid, which means that they can take a fair bit of road abuse. For example, up here in Canada we have a store called Canadian Tire, and Canadian Tire sold cheap but solid road bikes for years, affectionately called “Canadian Tire Specials.” When I cycle toured in Europe with my friend David I rode a high end Bianchi racing bike, he rode a Canadian Tire special. I had multiple flats, blew out my spokes twice, and eventually had to replace my front wheel as it bent from repeated exposure to cobblestones. David’s bike was slower than mine, but fine for the entire trip.

In general, if you want a reliable entry bike for long distance urban commuting the standard road bike is a good choice. It has the additional advantage that road bikes, although they can be expensive, have a good range of lower cost models that you can get at non-specialty shops.

Mountain Bikes
Mountain bikes are the mirror opposite twin of racing bikes. They are heavier (though there are a range of weights available, lighter mountain bikes tend to be very expensive) and more durable, but slower on the road. They have fat tires, which also decreases their speed. As a result many cyclists don’t want mountain bikes as they want to go fast. However, mountain bikes are ideal for long distance urban cycling.
When you have a long commute in front of you, your enemies (in addition to traffic) are mechanical breakdowns and road conditions, and mountain bikes deal with both very well. There is nothing more annoying that having your bike break down halfway through a long commute. Mountain bikes are designed to take a significant amount of abuse, and it has been my experience that they are for all practical purposes invincible on the roads. My previous two urban riding bikes were mountain bikes and I made it through three cycling seasons without a single mechanical breakdown other than flat tires on them. I could hit the road and not worry about mechanical problems as the bike could easily handle whatever road riding put in my way. 

Added to this was the advantage of fat tires, which meant that I didn’t have to be unduly concerned with bumps, potholes, streetcar tracks, sewer grates and cracks. All of this translates into a much smoother ride. Given that some city roads are in disastrously bad shape, a smoother ride can be very important. If you have a long commute over roads in bad condition a fat set of tires and a heavy bike are your best friends.

Mountain bikes have other advantages. They have multiple gears and straight handlebars, both preferable for long distance urban cycling. They also come in a wide range of prices, so you don’t have to break the bank to try one out. For long distance urban cycling, the mountain bike is probably the safest option, reliable, comfortable and pretty much indestructible. The primary disadvantage to mountain bikes is speed, fat tires and a heavier bike means they tend to be slower. In addition, most mountain bikes come with “knobby” tires that are great off road but not really necessary on road, and they also slow you down.

Especially for the new cycle commuter, the peace of mind that comes from not having to be as concerned with breakdowns and being better protected from road hazards seems to me to be a conclusive argument for the utility of the mountain bike. So why not use a mountain bike? The most common argument I hear is that the mountain bike is too slow, specifically its fat tires and the upright position of the rider (due to the fact the mountain bike does not have curved down handlebars) means that the bike is generally slower than road bikes or racing bikes. Since I find mountain bikes to be much safer on the road they still strike me as a preferable option.

Hybrid or Commuter Bikes
Cycling manufacturers are tuned in to current trends, and they have capitalized on the desire of many people to cycle to work in the city by introducing a “new” bike design, the “hybrid” or “commuter” bike. Not surprisingly, hybrids tend to combine all of the best features I have mentioned above. They are solid and well built, they have medium sized tires, they have multiple gears, they have straight handlebars, and they are lighter than most mountain bikes but heavier than most racing bikes. They also tend to be built to facilitate things like panniers and baskets to allow commuters to transport day to day materials to and from their destinations.

The only significant issue I have found with hybrid bikes is that they tend to be on the expensive side. Although every variety of bike has an expensive version, I find road bikes and mountain bikes have a greater range of affordable options, most of the hybrid bikes I have seen don’t come in cheaper versions. They are generally cheaper than racing bikes and recumbents, but that’s about it.

After a string of mountain bikes I have now switched to a hybrid bike, I currently ride a Kona Dew Plus, and I am very satisfied with its performance and durability. My main reason for switching had to do with the fact that mountain bikes, though durable and comfortable, are not designed for “fast rolling” on the road. When you are riding it is not only the weight of the bike that is an issue but also how well the bike rolls on the road. I noticed this as soon as I started riding my hybrid bike. I could, for example, coast much longer on the hybrid than I could on my mountain bike. This, combined with a lighter weight, sped up my ride noticeably.

In short, for the long distance urban commuter hybrid bicycles are pretty much ideal.

Modifying Bikes
Having reviewed a range of different cycling designs, it is worth noting that you can avoid the downfalls of particular bicycles by modifying them for your use. You don’t necessarily need to go out and get a new bike if your old bike can be changed to meet your needs. For example, I have used mountain bikes for my urban cycling, but I have generally switched out the knobby tires that came with the bike for “slicks” or road tires. 

You can also get “fatter” tires for your racing bike if you like something light but dislike the risks associated with very thin tires. You can switch out the backwards and down curved handlebars on your bike for straight handlebars, though this can be complicated if your gear shifting system and brakes are internalized to the handlebars. You can install brakes on a fixed gear bike, something that I have seen on several occasions.

In general, you can customize your ride to alleviate some of the concerns mentioned above. If you are not mechanically inclined you will have to pay someone else to do it, but a small modification to a bike may make a world of difference. If you currently have a bike that is not ideal for long distance urban riding, modifications are much cheaper than buying a new bike, so they are worth considering.

Used Bikes
Just like cars, there is a huge aftermarket for used bikes. This is in part due to the fact that bikes are often stolen and resold, so you should always be thoughtful about the individual or business selling you the bike. Still, for those who want to minimize the costs associated with cycling, a used bike is an excellent option.

A word of warning though: even the most seasoned cyclist can fail to notice problems with a bicycle. We tend to think of technologies as fixed, but in reality they are changing. Chains and brake cables stretch over time, gear cogs become worn, tires bald, etc. Thus, if you choose to buy a used bike it is imperative (if you aren’t mechanically inclined and knowledgeable about bicycles) to take your purchase to a reputable bike shop and have a complete tune up done on the bike, replacing whatever components your mechanic deems necessary. If you are commuting long distance in traffic you want to minimize breakdowns for reasons of convenience and safety. Although I have been fortunate in that any flats or breakdowns I have had have not led to accidents, I would not want to blow a tire or lose a break cable while moving at high velocity down a steep hill in traffic. You don’t have to buy an expensive new bike to have a safe bike, you just need to do your due diligence and make sure it is in good shape before you hit the road.

There will of course be individuals who recommend a particular brand of bike over others, and it is certainly true that not all bikes of a particular kind are created equal. A few years back I bought a KHS Mountain Decent, a mountain bike intended for racing. It was light, sleek, the gears shifted seamlessly and it was solid on the road. It was certainly the best mountain bike I had ever used. However it was expensive, and it wasn’t any safer than my other mountain bikes. It was also the bike that was totaled in my accident, being on the best bike I had ever driven didn’t stop the car that hit me. Don’t confuse price with safety.

In summary, if you want a very safe bike for long distance urban commuting your best bet is a mountain bike, a hybrid or a road bike. Mountain bikes have the slight edge as they are very durable and have bigger tires, but other than that a commuter, or a solid road bike, is just as safe and just as functional. Racing bikes, recumbents, fixed gear bikes and cruisers all have either safety or functional concerns that make them less than ideal choices for the urban commuter.