May 18, 2013

Allen Afield: Hybrid bicycle can be a novice cyclist's best choice

By Ken Allen

In spring, folks wanting to get into bicycling seek advice from me about what model to buy, and my answer begins with a question. Does the novice wants to ride paved roads, forest trails or both?

Many predictably ask for a compromise that works on pavement as well as on light-duty forest paths -- the latter say gravel roads or trails minus big rocks, deep sand, long, steep drops, etc. That info narrows the choices.

My suggestion provides an inexpensive compromise between a road bike and mountainbike -- a hybrid bicycle with 28 to 33mm (and wider) tires, flat handlebar and grip shifters. Hybrids also go by the name "cross" bike, because they are literally a cross between a road and mountainbike.

Older newbies often want to hit highways exclusively, so I urge them toward road bikes -- and often fail -- because they gravitate toward wider tires on a hybrid. (More on this later.) Younger beginners often have a yen to pedal down a mountainside or along ridge tops -- mountainbike country.

Serious pedalers may go 60 to 150 miles per week, depending on age and condition, which sounds like a lot to novices. However, even slow pokes average 12 mph, so in an hour, they pedal 12 miles, and in two hours cover 24 miles. Multiply that by five days per week -- 60 to 120 miles like nothing. These people making it a way of life can justify spending more on bicycles.

My adult bicycling phase started pretty much as many folks did. I began with an ultra-inexpensive bike from a lawn sale to see if I liked the sport -- a $7.50 purchase to be exact -- chump change.

Then, 20 years ago at L.L.Bean, I bought a neat cross bicycle for $500, the green-colored Acadia model -- not to be confused with the newer, Schwinn-built Acadia Cruiser that replaced my model in Bean's inventory.

The old, narrow-tubed, steel frame Acadia looked snazzy like an old-fashioned road bike except for the wider 33mm tires, flat bar and grip shifters, a reasonably priced machine.

I adored that early 1990s Acadia and rode it for a decade, but it was too slow on flat stretches to suit me. Eventually I bought road bicycles with 50-tooth chainrings and a small, 11-tooth option on the freewheel -- a fast combination. I ran 23mm tires that create far less friction than fatter ones.

My first road bike had three chainrings -- too cumbersome in my opinion. My current road bike has two chainrings, which gives me all the gear choices the heart desires. It weighs 18 pounds -- very fast.

I go to the trouble of explaining my adult bicycling history, because many pedalers have followed a similar evolution. They start with a heavier, fatter-tire bicycle and then grow into a much lighter, skinny-tire model.

And as writer friend Bill Sheldon of Rhode Island once told me, "A road bike is like a Porsche, but a mountainbike is more like an SUV."

Here's a digression about road bikes. Though most newbies have never tried a bike with 23 to 25mm tires, a majority quickly admit that skinny tires bother them, a wicked universal thought with many newcomers.

I try to soothe their apprehension, but a tire the diameter of a man's thumb frightens beginners, eyeballing such narrow rubber for the first time. They think, "Too tippy," and often nothing I say alleviates the trepidation.

(Continued on page 2)

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