It’s the forgotten step-child of the bike-commuting world, overlooked in favour of flashier models loaded with extras, like, you know, gears and shifters.
But there’s something magical about the simplicity of a single-speed bike. Lacking derailleurs and all the associated mechanics that come with them, single-speeds are the kind of bike you never have to think about. They rarely need maintenance. Your gears never go out of tune. Your derailleur never clicks in maladjustment. Your cassette never gets clogged with mud or ice. It just works.
But is all that worth the trade-off of never having a second gear? That was the question that drove the latest video in my commuter-challenge series. The goal of this series is to give you information about different kinds of bikes so you can make better decisions about your bike life. So far, I’ve tested the speed, effort and overall ride of a number of bikes: Road bikes, city bikes, electric bikes, mountain bikes. This time, the wild card was the single-speed.
There are plenty of good reasons why pedal or coaster brakes are pretty rare these days — disc brakes are better in almost every way. But there’s an important reason why I love old-fashioned coaster brakes on my bike.
It’s all about making the bike easy to use for short, urban, practical trips.
Check it out, along with 5 tips for making short trips on your bike as easy and convenient as possible.
It’s not a rare occasion to hear me rant about the impracticality of most bikes I see on the streets these days. Loaded with too much tech, too many gears, and too much equipment built for racing, too many people don’t ride bikes fit for an urban lifestyle.
But sometimes, you come across a bike that is unique, beautiful and cool enough to overcome my ranting tendencies. That bike is The Greaser: a beast of an e-bike built in the style of a 1950’s cafe racer motorcycle that makes no sense on a lot of levels. It’s big, heavy, unruly and completely fun to ride.
The bike is built by Michael Blast, and it was loaned to me by a retail shop called Toys for Boys, which also sells truckloads of the bikes online. If nothing else, the bike is a head-turner: everywhere I went, people stopped me to talk about the bike.
If you’re in the market for a day-to-day urban bike, this probably isn’t for you. But if you love the look of this bike, and are in the market for a cruising bike that draws attention, get out that credit card.
Gaps in bike infrastructure can add up to big problems for cyclists. Photo by Tom Babin.
If you commute by bike, you’ve come across the little compromises. These are the little bits of missing bike infrastructure – a lane that ends prematurely, a painted lane instead of a separated lane, a gap between two bike paths. In many North American cities, these little compromises are everywhere.
On their own, they are no big deal. But when you’re trying to get around a city on a bike, these little one-offs add up to a system that, frankly, sucks. On a practical level, they can be dangerous. On a philosophical level, each one is like a little poke reminding you that, as a cyclist, you aren’t as important as other road users.
Here are two little compromises on my regular commute that illustrate just how irksome they can be. On their own, they are nothing big. But taken together, they are part of a pattern that makes riding a bike unnecessarily difficult.
It started as a well-meaning attempt to offer some alternatives to backpacks. Backpacks are great, obviously, but sometimes when using a bicycle for getting around a city, a backpack can be a burden. A sweaty, heavy, burden.
With a front basket and a back rack, your bike is primed for hauling stuff. Photo by Tom Babin.
Things went a little awry, however, when Doug got involved. Doug is a guy in my neighbourhood who has seen the cargo-bike light. When he got wind of my attempts at offering advice on hauling stuff on a bike, he rolled in. A few days later, I was recording him helping his friend move a couch on that bike, thereby offering further evidence that there is very little that can’t be hauled on a bicycle in your day-to-day life.
Sure those clouds look ominous on Stranger Things, but look at those dope bikes!
One of the things I love about watching Stranger things on Netflix is the scenes of the preteen heroes riding their bikes around their messed-up town. Yes, I’m a bike nerd.
The kids’ bikes are more than just props. The bikes separate the kids from the adult world and give them the freedom to explore. It’s an old Spielbergian trope—think of the scenes in E.T. and The Goonies in which bikes are the vehicle to escape the destructiveness of the adult world. It wasn’t a coincidence that E.T.’s defining scene is a bike rising off the ground to escape the adults.
That ain’t no carbon-fiber full-suspension downhill bike Elliot rode in E.T.
These days, there’s a kind of sad nostalgia to these scenes in Stranger Things because they seem so far off the lives of kids today. It’s easy to glorify the past, but the decline in bicycle use among kids, especially riding to school, is well documented and severe: Our irrational fear of abduction, our (slightly more) rational fear of cars, the proliferation of automobiles, the abandonment of local schools (both by choice and by poor city planning), our automobile-centric lives.
But a more practical thought dawned on me while watching Stranger Things. Maybe the bikes we give kids to ride these days are part of the problem.
Look back at those bikes being used by those on-screen kids: Single-speed steel-frames. Banana-seats. Chopper handlebars. First-gen BMX.
Compare that to the kids bikes you see at bike shops today. Full-suspension mountain bikes. Carbon parts. Front and back derailleurs overloaded with gears. Specialty frames. It’s even worse at the local Wal-Mart: Horribly built mountain bikes with faux suspension systems and never-in-tune gears.
While the technology on these bikes has no doubt improved, something feels like it’s been lost in this transition. These are purpose-built machines, and as such, they aren’t always practical. They can’t take a beating like those old bikes. Sensitive derailleurs are constantly getting knocked out of whack. There’s no place to double a friend. They can’t carry stuff. The chainrings eat jean cuffs. They need regular tune-ups. Scratches ruin their resale value and infuriate parents hoping to recoup their costs.
Perhaps even worse is that bikes have changed from an implement of childhood to an implement of sports. Bikes can expand the limits of a kids’ world. They can offer freedom, self-reliance, exploration and risk, all things that kids are starved for these days. But when bikes are only used for sports or when it’s time to “go for a bike ride,” those other elements are lost.
Bicycle culture among kids has changed, so most pre-teens would probably rather be caught dead than ride one of those Stranger Things bikes. But if there’s a kid in your life, give some thought to a sturdy single speed with a chain guard and a rack for carrying stuff. It may not impress much alongside those expensive carbon-framed full-suspension mountain bikes at the school bike rack. But it will stand up to the weather, it won’t stop working if it gets dropped in the wrong spot, and parents won’t freak out if it gets a scratch. It may just become what it once was: the vehicle of childhood.
At the tail end of last season, I did what I once thought I would never do: I bought a winter bike.
For nearly a decade, I rode a crappy, 20-year-old single-speed mountain bike because, mostly, I feared riding a good bike. Winter in my city rust: salt, slush, muck and grime that eat components unimaginably fast. I learned my lesson the hard way, and after I buried that old beloved bike, I vowed never to destroy a good machine again.
The Priority Continuum, the perfect winter bike? Photo by Tom Babin.
Still. In the back of my mind, I always thought that some day, I would find a bike that had what I considered the perfect specs for a rust-repellent winter machine: Aluminum frame, belt drive, internal gears, disc brakes and an overall winter hardiness. Then, unimaginably, I came across a bike with all those components in the Priority Continuum. I snapped the bike up at the tail end of last season, but didn’t really get a chance to test it through a real winter.
That wasn’t a problem this year. Though one of the coldest and snowiest winters I can remember, I rode the Continuum through it all. With the season coming to an end, a few people have asked me about it. So I made the video above to give an update on how the bike has held up.
The short answer to the question is easy: When should you ride a bike? Always. Any trip is better on a bike. It’s more fun, healthy and invigorating than driving a car. It’s often faster than public transit and always faster than walking. And it’s more affordable than Uber, a taxi or car-sharing program. In short, it’s, like, the best thing ever.
But using a bike for every trip in the real world only works if you’re a Dutch idealist or some kind of neighbourhood shut-in. Sadly, for the rest of us, particularly us North Americans, choosing a bike for many trips is a conscious choice. And as such, there are factors that go into making that choice. As someone who has spent years manipulating situations to accommodate bike rides, here is some advice on when it’s advisable to choose a bicycle.
Short trips in your community are the low-hanging fruit of a bike life. Photo by Tom Babin.
In the ’hood
Research from multiple countries has found that bikes work best, and are the chosen as a transportation mode most often, for trips that are shorter than five kilometres. These are the no-brainer bike trips. At that distance, almost nothing is as fast in an urban setting as a bike. Most trips of this length can be completed without breaking a sweat (emphasis on most), you can roll right up to your destination rather than parking on the far side of an absurdly big parking lot, and you’ll arrive riding a wave of feel-good pheromones.
So maximize the number of times you choose a bike for short trips. Neighbourhood errands, trips to the local pub, joy rides for ice cream – all of these are the low-hanging fruit of a bike life. And put the grocery store at the top of your list. With a simple rack and basket, you will be surprised how many bags of groceries you can hump home with ease. And if you find yourself enjoying those grocery trips a little too much, look at buying a cargo bike. I once took a cargo bike to Costco on an experimental jaunt, and I managed to fill my cupboards for days.
Bicycle commuting is a surefire way of transforming what, for many people, is the worst part of the day into the best. With more workplaces offering amenities to cater to bicycle commuters, such as bike lockers and showers, it’s also easier to ride for longer distances and not worrying about getting too sweaty or rumpled on the way.
It’s not just you. If you have kids, riding with them to school sets them up for mind and body success in myriad ways. Plus, they’ll be burning off excess energy that might otherwise be directed at annoying you.
Either way, commuting is a simple way to get more saddle time in your life.
What date night isn’t made better with a bike? Photo by Tom Babin.
Automobile transportation is implied in many of our destinations. But it needn’t be. There are many times when a bike makes more sense. Few things are better after gorging yourself at a dinner party than a refreshing ride home. Date night on a bike is like two dates in one – nobody remembers the romance of the car ride home from a Nicholas Sparks movie, but they will if it’s a bike ride. Need to drop your car off for repairs (because, damn, those things require a lot of service)? Put your bike in the trunk and ride home. Home Depot? I’ve done it. New refrigerator need to be picked up? Yep, I met that person and their cargo bike. There are also endless photos on the Internet of couples riding their bikes to their wedding. Because why not?
If you have heavy hauling needs or are partial to Costco, consider a cargo bike. Photo by Tom Babin.
The difficult part about living in a city that was built for cars is the long distances between places you need to get to. This can be discouraging if you have multiple places to be and your chosen mode of transportation is a bicycle. Unless you’re up for logging hero miles crisscrossing a sprawling city to impress your Strava friends, there is another solution. Go multi-modal. Most city buses and commuter trains these days welcome bikes, so take advantage. Bringing a bike on transit not only gives you more time on the two wheels, it shortens the amount of time for what planners like to call the first and last mile. This method of combining a bike with another method of commuting is also part of the reason bike-sharing programs have taken off in so many cities. You can take public transit most of the way to your destination, and then hop on a short-term rental bike for those last few blocks.
Just do it
You don’t have to be a automobile-hating zealot to recognize that replacing car time in your life for bike time will make your life better. If you aren’t ready to ditch your car completely, there are plenty of opportunities to make your life better with time in the saddle. You just have to find them.
One of the participants of the annual Moscow Winter Bike Parade. Photo by Tom Babin.
It was the Russian dude in full furs riding a replica penny-farthing (kopeck-farthing?) that did it for me. When I saw this guy roll by the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square yelling shout-outs to hundreds of fellow cyclists around him, I knew this wasn’t the city I once thought it was.
That moment came midway through the third annual Moscow Winter Bike Parade, a rolling party through the streets surrounding the Kremlin that attracted more than 4,000 people dressed for the weather and a good time. It was one of the most fun group rides I’ve ever been on – so fun it nearly obliterated my image of the city as a haven for gigantic multi-lane ring roads clogged with endless rows of barely moving automobiles.
I chose the word “nearly” deliberately. For as awesome as the bike parade was, one can’t leave Moscow without aggressively piloted cars as one of the city’s defining images. It’s a megalopolis built on the automobile, and when not part of a group ride, using a bicycle to get around the city feels about as safe as being a Cold War-era spy.
The bike parade rolled right past St. Basil’s Cathedral at Red Square. Photo by Tom Babin.
(I will, however, spare a moment to gush about the city’s metro system: wide, efficient, affordable, well-planned and spotted with beautifully built stations, the system moves up to nine-million people a day. If you can’t get your head around that, just imagine standing at a station as packed 12-car trains empty out every 90 seconds).
But I was in Moscow as an invited speaker at the Winter Cycling Congress, and if any place can highlight the green shoots of a more bikeable city, the conference centre was the place. Guided by the team at Let’s bike it!, aMoscow-based group that advocates for more people-oriented street design, I was given a tour of what could be the start of something big.
In the last couple of years, city officials (with nudges from such groups as Let’s bike it!), have started to look more seriously at improving the plight of pedestrians and cyclists as a way of easing its horrific congestion problems. A handful of separated bike lanes have been built recently. A bike-share system now operates through the summer months. Pedestrian streets have been improved. Even the new national traffic laws have been adjusted to make it easier to build pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, according to Nikolai Asaul, the deputy minister of transport. “(Cycling) is not safe enough, and comfort is not a priority,” he told the Congress. “For us, it’s a revolution in the minds of our urban planners.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a North American national politician supporting cycling so strongly.
I was also impressed with the winter hardiness of Muscovites (although I felt a little perverse pride in being one of the few people who visits Moscow to warm up). Having a positive relationship with winter is a key part of the best winter-bike cities, and Moscow has this in spades. The city was filled with outdoor winter festivals, light displays, and thousands of people on the streets dressed to enjoy the day, no matter the weather.
In the wake of the winter bike parade, I found it easy to get swept up in the optimism of the moment, but the reality is that Moscow faces some big challenges if it is serious about improving the city’s livability through cycling. And those go beyond the usual urban challenges of space, design and street culture.
Vladimir Kumov, a Moscow bike advocate (centre, blue jacket), is helping the city adopt more bike- and pedestrian-friendly projects. Photo by Tom Babin.
Russia’s political culture has not traditionally been built on grassroots involvement, so those passionate young bike advocates from all over Russia who attended the Winter Cycling Congress face an additional challenge of building a culture of engagement between citizens and municipal officials. While nearly every Russian I spoke with expressed optimism that Russian officials are increasingly open to the idea of active transportation, this kind of political/cultural change is never easy.
I was also heartened by the interest in winter cycling by Muscovites. The conference was crawling with media, and drawing 4,000 people out for a bike ride on a -10 C day in the snow is not easy, even in cities with more of a bike culture. This has not gone unnoticed by Let’s Bike It organizers.
“If you go out in Moscow, you’ll see how many problems we have, and we want to show the government and the people in Russia how we can change it,” I was told by Vladimir Kumov, the founder of Let’s Bike It. “Eight years ago when I started Let’s Bike It, Moscow was a car city. Traffic jams, and no space for pedestrians and cyclists. In the last five or six years, it’s started to change.”
And if you ask the dude in fur on the penny-farthing, he’d probably agree.
As a rootless, tribeless and bike-agnostic cyclist, I ride anything with two wheels. My daily rides can range from fast road bikes when I’m looking for a workout, to a city cruiser when I’m on a slow roll to the pub. But I’ve often wondered which method was best for my commute to work.
So I decided to test three methods to compare:
1. A slow bike, ridden safely on bike lanes and separated bike paths.
2. A fast road bike, ridden as quickly as possible on the most direct route, no matter how much traffic I might confront or how much of a asshole I might be while on the road.
3. A mountain bike, ridden in the most direct route possible, whether a road exists or not.
I tracked each ride on the app Strava, and took note of a few more subjective measurements. Here are the results:
My city bike: comfortable, sure and steady.
The slow ride
Distance: 9.1 kilometres (bike lanes aren’t always the most direct route)
Average speed: 19.6 km/h.
Description: It was an easy and relaxing ride that felt safe. I arrived at work feeling energized, but not worn out. And best of all: no shower required once I arrived at the office.
Technically a cyclocross bike, this ride is light, fast and gets around quickly.
The road bike
Distance: 7.4 kilometres (I took the most direct roads possible, no matter the traffic volume)
Average speed: 25.6 km/h
Description: It was a fast, aggressive ride, and it felt that way. Being alongside rows of traffic for most of the ride doesn’t make for the most relaxing experience, especially when you need to cut across those lanes of traffic to make a left turn. And since I was channeling the stereotypical asshole cyclist, I took stop signs more like suggestions, which undoubtedly annoyed others on the street. I arrived sweaty, buzzing and a little harried.
This hard-tail mountain bike is a dream on single-track.
The mountain bike
Distance: 7.9 kilometres (I thought cutting through green spaces would save distance, but it didn’t really, partly because my navigation was bad. Who knew roads were actually direct and efficient?!)
Average speed: 20.3 km/h
Description: While it was fun finding single-track through urban parks, this was by far the most work. I arrived sopping and wheezing. This proved what you probably already knew: Getting around in a city works best on roads that were built for exactly that.
Sorry for the disappointment, but this didn’t really clear anything up for me. I still see myself using both the slow city bike and the fast road bike at times (the mountain bike, well, I’ll save that for the mountains). My advice: Choose your favourite style and enjoy every minute of it.