Recently I got a new bike, and it marked a turn in my life as a biker. I thought I would run through how I have changed recently because I find it interesting.
When I was young I had bikes, but the only bike that I remember is an adult tricycle that I rode for a while (a year, perhaps?) until it broke. Later in high school I got a Diamondback Hybrid that I enjoyed riding quite a bit. I rode it all over my town several times listening to my earphones. It wasn’t hard to retrace the same sections of town over and over when it’s only 2.4 square miles.
(something like this Diamondback)
Sometime after having been in college for a year or two I brought my bicycle up to Chicago. Within short order it was stolen. I don’t remember the circumstances, but I don’t think it was my fault. I shortly thereafter bought another bike (used this time), which was promptly stolen out of my back yard, and this time it was clearly my fault because I left it hidden but unlocked.
With two bikes being stolen I stuck with my car for the next few years. After moving to Minneapolis something led both me and Elizabeth to look for bikes. I bought a Raleigh 3-speed, and she bought a Rollfast 3-speed. I was specifically looking for a bike that would have an upright ride because I was very wary of riding a bike where I would have to hunch up my shoulders and lean over a lot. If I wasn’t comfortable I wouldn’t ride, I thought.
Somehow I got it into my head that I wanted to be more local and to ride more often – with Basil, our only child at that time. We bought a used Burley trailer, and Basil just hated it. My mother bought us a Bobike Mini, and he and I both loved it by comparison. However, my knees hit the seat, and I had to lean down over him to get to the handlebars. The shoulder hunching I feared was happening.
I didn’t feel comfortable on the Raleigh and sought a better solution for family hauling. This is when I started learning about Dutch bicycles. It appeared that they were more comfortable, waterproof, and indestructible, and some were really meant for family transportation. I wanted to find a bike that could do it all – a weekday commuter that could take the whole family to church and get all the groceries.
I convinced Elizabeth to let me buy a Workcycles Fr8, with the hope that we could both ride it with the kids. Quickly after getting it we found out only I could ride it, which was a major disappointment. However, it was an absolute joy to ride with Basil on the front – for him and for me, and it was extremely comfortable.
That is… when it was on level ground. I found when I went to work and back on this bicycle that it was very difficult getting up hills. This was undoubtedly due to it’s being nearly 75 lbs unloaded. Just after getting it put together at a local bike shop I took it back to have the cables adjusted and asked if it was normal to have so much rolling resistance from the dynamo hub. The bike just didn’t seem to *go* very easily, even in its easiest gear of 8 (Shimano Nexus internal hub).
Shortly thereafter, I found a used Gazelle on Craigslist that I decided was a great deal and was worth getting as a winter bike. I did get it but didn’t think it was as comfortable as the Fr8. The handlebars did not go as high, and the frame size was actually too big, making it hard for me to put my feet on the ground and balance myself at stops.
(something very much like this Gazelle)
Now with three bikes I never rode the Raleigh and ended up giving it to my brother when he moved to town.
The bike shop guys convinced me that if I rode the Gazelle during the winter I would destroy it and it was “too cool” of a bike to trash in that way. The creator of the Fr8, in Amsterdam, seconded that opinion by email. I decided to ride the more weatherproof Fr8 during the winter, and on January 7th I slipped on some ice and broke my ankle under 75 lbs of bike. The bike, of course, didn’t have a scratch on it. Quite a tank.
I had a lot of time to think about bike riding as I lay on my back during the recovery. Slowly it occurred to me that it was perhaps the weight of the Fr8 that contributed to my injury. It also occurred to me how intimidated I was to ride my bike any great distance from my home because of what a chore it was to get around – and I was completely intimidated to go anywhere that involved hills. I have never yet gone to the St. Paul Bicycle Coalition, because I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep up on one of their rides. Almost every time I rode it to work and back I would have pain in my knees for the rest of the day. I would comment to Elizabeth on those few days I didn’t feel knee pain, as if I was building strength that would eventually make that pain go away.
Before I had fully recovered I had decided to sell the Fr8. But what was I going to get instead?
I thought what I wanted was a folding bike – a Brompton. Why? Because it was the opposite of the Fr8 in almost every way. It was small and light, and I could take it anywhere, whether by carrying it or riding it. It might not be able to carry children, however. I spent many hours reading about them and trying to figure out how to use one to carry children. When I was finally up and well and able to test ride one for a couple of hours I decided that it wasn’t as comfortable as I was hoping. With that major drawback I had to ask myself how often I would actually need to fold it, and the answer was a very clear never.
I started then to look at much less expensive options for replacing the Fr8. I wanted something lighter but still with low maintenance. If possible, I wanted hub gearing, hub brakes, and a hub generator. Low and behold something popped up on Craigslist. It was another old Raleigh that had all of these features. I went to take a look at it and it needed a little bit of work, which helped to lower the price a bunch. I then invested money in the bike to replace the handlebars (increasing cockpit room for comfort and child hauling) and grips. I also replaced the cog on the internal gear hub to make the Sturmey Archer better for riding up hills.
This bike has been a fantastic bike for almost everything. It is a joy to ride with children and without. The cockpit is not as large as the Fr8, so I do hit my knees on the front child seat occasionally, but I have never hurt my knees going to work and back.
I decided to take this bike on the St. Paul Classic bike ride with my friend, Dan. Each of us took our oldest child, as well. That meant I took Basil on a 30 mile bike ride around the city of St. Paul with my 3-speed. Well, after a big hill at around the 15 mile mark, my knees gave out on me, and I was in a lot of pain. I had to walk the bike a few times, and I really slowed Dan down (he was towing a trailer and had a lot of gear options).
That experience convinced me that as much as I love the simplicity of a 3-speed internally geared hub, it is not enough for me to ride around the city of St. Paul without injuring myself. I finally wanted to move beyond an internally geared hub. I wanted something I could ride all around the city without being intimidated by hills. I started looking for a 10-speed road bike.
A Fuji? A French bike like a Peugot? An old Schwinn or Raleigh? I had no real idea where to start or what to look for. I didn’t even know what kind of handlebar positions or brake levers were important. Where do you put your hands with drop bars? I didn’t know what size I would need, and I thought it ridiculous to pay someone to measure me.
On Craigslist I happened to see one day a listing for a Surly CrossCheck at what seemed to be an amazing price. It was more than I was planning to spend, but it appeared that it could be an investment, even if it did not fit and I learned to hate road bikes. I drove to Minneapolis that very day to check it out after work, and it was light, smooth, and responsive. I wasn’t sure it was the right size or that I would like riding it, but I reminded myself that at that price I could easily get my money back.
The next day I rode it to work and my shoulders hurt from leaning over so much. On the other hand, I zoomed up hills without a lot of effort, and I was nowhere near having knee pain. It was incredibly liberating to not fear hills or distances. Within two days the shoulder pain had disappeared.
I used to give myself 30 minutes to ride to school and ended up using almost all of them. I think it was about 27 minutes by Fr8. With the CrossCheck I think I’ve managed to get my time down to about 18 minutes, which includes an inconvenient detour. Google Maps says my standard route should take 23 minutes, but I have no idea how they calculate this.
I’ve changed the rear cassette in order to have a couple easier gears for eventual hill climbing in other parts of the city, and I replaced the disposable pedals the fella sold to me on the bike. I still think I should buy a high rise stem to make the bike fit me a bit better, but based on my current comfort level I don’t really think I have to.
After this experience, I don’t think I’ll turn back. Perhaps I will become disenchanted with derailleurs after some major, expensive complication. Or I will develop back problems from leaning over too much. But the difference in my confidence as a rider changes my situation completely. I want to commute by bike and get around as much as possible without a car, and while my previous bike preferences were super comfortable on flat ground, they restricted my range of distance far too much.
I now plan to keep three bikes:
1. The Gazelle will be a snow bike, equipped with studded tires
2. The Raleigh will be for child hauling with the mounted seats (these don’t work on the Surly)
3. The Surly will be for everything else
Do I really need to keep all three?
- I like the Gazelle better than the Raleigh for snow because it has a full chaincase, and I’m not sure I can get this for the Raleigh. If I could I might be able to just switch out tires and ditch the Gazelle.
- I like the Raleigh best for child hauling because the Gazelle is unsafe with kids (large frame size), and I prefer bike mounted seats to the Burley (the Surly can take kids in the trailer)
When it’s snowy I will be restricted by riding the Gazelle, but I don’t plan to do a lot of snow riding outside of commuting. When I’m taking kids I’ll rarely be going too far, but if I need to I can hook up the Burley to the Surly and go farther.
I don’t expect this to be my lifelong bike set-up, but I do plan to own a multi-speed road bike as my primary ride, and I have been avoiding anything even remotely like a road bike for the last five years.
Thank you, St. Paul Classic. Thank you, broken ankle.