Wednesday, December 11, 2013
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.
Folks starting with a hybrid or mountainbike have wasted no money on the first choice if they decide to buy a road bicycle later, because they realize that owning a bike exclusively for highways and another for woodland excursions offers "versatility" with a capital V.
1. A road bicycle for fast pedaling on pavement provides exercise, recreation and transportation, the latter say pedaling to work, stores, etc.
2. A flat-bar hybrid serves for light-duty off-road (fishing, hunting, birdwatching, etc.), and a mountainbike works for heavy- and light-duty off road. The latter usually has smaller chainrings than a hybrid, which makes climbing easier. In short, it's an SUV -- multipurpose to the core.
A quick point: Beginners on road bicycles worry about drop bars as being uncomfortable, because they must bend forward more than with flat bars. I don't mind that position and, more importantly, drop bars give me different places to hold my hands, more comfortable than holding the old paws in the same place from start to finish, as we tend to do with flat bars.
Whatever the bicycle, a professional should help with fitting choices. I thought I knew plenty about fit, but an L.L.Bean pro with measuring tools and sharp eyes picked up a flaw in my road-bike fit. My saddle was a 1/4 inch too low, and raising it made a difference in pedaling comfort.
If folks have their hearts set on riding roads, I strongly suggest getting a road bike, but I also understand how narrow tires make newcomers leery. For those folks, a hybrid bike works until they become comfortable enough on a bike to buy the equivalent of a sports car -- and then they have a second bicycle for ramming highways and the first bike for forest pedaling.
That's the best of both worlds, and this month is the time to start.
Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: