What is a city bike and why are they practical
What is a city bike? Many people will tell you it is just a commuter bike but that leads to the whole pile of other issues as everyone's idea is different. Go to the corner of your street and watch what people commute on. You will see carbon road bikes, hybrids with full mudguards and lights, fixies, mountain bikes and you may even see that crazy guy riding a fat bike. The more we think, the more complicated it becomes, it does not have to be that way. In short a city bike is for frequent rides in urban areas but lets go a little deeper then that.
I like to think of a commuter bike as the king of city bikes.
It is possible to find a few bikes that make excellent city bikes, the other bikes that people use are simply because they happen to own them. What we need in a city bike is one that is reliable and simple to use, the simplicity in itself is what makes your bike reliable. With more and more cities building proper cycling infrastructure we do not then need suspension or really wide tyres, both of these add weight and suspension in particular will require more maintenance and servicing, driving up the price of your bike and helping to keep it off road longer as is needs serviced and in the city you will never really need them.
As we delve into more depth of what makes a great commuting city bike, it is worth noting that people tend to fall into two categories. We have people who want to do their commute fast and look great and we have people who want to plod along and sit upright. Many of those in the second category do so because they feel safer, this may not necessarily be true and I'm going to make the case that the first group has a bike that is something many people seem to forget you can have when you buy a city bike. Fun.
When we come down to it, cycling is fun, even if we are doing it for purely utilitarian perspectives. If you have fun you will enjoy it more and be much more likely to pick up your bike and go for a ride. The fitter you get, the more fun you will have and before you know it not only will you be commuting to work but you will also be riding all over the city and finding new places and having new adventures, this is what cycling can do for you.
As such I would recommend a fixie as a great city bike and also a great commuter. There are many reasons why a fixie makes a great commuter but firstly I will go over a few points that people are fearful of and explain why they may be wrong and why the fixie is the king of city bikes.
The first one is tired. Many people think that the skinny tires you have on a fixie make it more likely to slip or slide on the road. This is because people do not think the tires offer enough grip, this is a misnomer. It is brought about by the fact that people have become so accustomed to cars, cars have tires with tread patterns for grip but a 15” wide car tire is different from a 25mm road bike tire. The car tire being so wide can aquaplane, a 25mm wide tire can not aquaplane without breaking the laws of physics. The reason these tires have a tread pattern is so as to make it easier to sell in a shop.
We then on some models have issues about the bars. People again are scared, this time they are scared of drop handlebars. Drop handlebars are bars like you would see on a road bike, people worry about them being more dangerous than flat bars. I, like many others, have clipped something and fallen more times using flat bars than I have using drop bars, it is mostly an issue of using your spatial awareness. If people can drive lorries and buses, it should not be too difficult to work out where your bars are.
The next issue with drop bars is that people think they are uncomfortable. For this I want you to carry out a little experiment. Stand up, put your arms at your sides, now bend your arms at the elbow so your forearm is parallel to the ground, now look at your hands. Your hands in the perfect position for sitting on brake hoods or sitting in the drops. You would have to turn them to ride flat bars, which then in a much more unnatural position for your body. If you are still worried about flat bars, have you thought of bullhorn bars, the way they rise up will also put your hands in the same position as the drop bar.
When considering a city bike many people feel that they need 27 gears. You do not need 27 gears on a commuting bike. In fact, on a 27-speed bicycle, you will probably only have 6 or 7 different gears, the rest are all duplicates of each other. Working in the bike trade for a decade I have also seen time and time again that people pretty much only ever use 3 of these available gears as well. It costs a lot more in service parts to run this type of bike, using it for commuting you can expect to change a chain a couple of times a year and if you do not you will be looking at a $200+ repair bill come next year for a worn drive train, this can make your bicycle effectively a pile of junk.
A fixie stops this, as you do not have a cassette or freewheel with a chain moving up and down the gears, you save on the wear and tear of these consumables. The single speed chain is also a bit thicker and can, therefore, last longer than a geared chain.
This brings us to the biggest reason many people will not buy a fixie, it has one gear. Well, technically it has 3. Sit down and pedal, stand up and pedal and get off and push. Flippancy aside, this can be a strong reason to buy a fixie. You will then look more closely at your urban environment and work out a strategy to ride properly, be that taking a little more speed into a hill or calming down a little bit on a descent.
Hills are a reason that people want gears. Yet even with gears, most cyclists do not tackle hills correctly and you will find in most urban environments you do not come across nightmarish hills. If you also look at hill climbing races, you will find people there on fixed gear bikes. There is a reason for that, if you turn the pedals at the bottom of the hill, they will actually push your feet around as you climb so a little effort at the bottom and you could be making less effort than the person on the geared bike on that rat race home at night. It's like a little motor helping you out and is a weird experience the first time you try it.
The idea of a fixed gear and not being able to stop pedalling may also be stopping you from realizing what a great city bike a fixie is. If you run brakes you can still slow down as normal, just your pedalling gets slower, the same if you run just a front brake. It is a skill and like all skills, you can learn it and become your own master, the first time you complete that long cycle on a fixed will make sure you come back time and time again to riding your bike. Just remember the Tour de France was designed as a multi-day fixed gear race, so you are harking back to cycling's early age and showing your appreciation to the foregone masters of the sport.
If you would still like to coast, many fixies come with a rear flip flop hub. This means that one side of the hub is fixed and the other allows the running of a freewheel which will allow you to coast. You can then easy swap your wheel around and pick and choose how you want to ride that day.
The best thing about running a fixie as a city bike though is that if you want to go faster you pedal faster, you want to go slower you pedal slower. This is way more fun than it sounds and it allows you to feel a direct connection with the bike and the road. This brings us back to fun and you will find that most of them have a fun geometry.
By this, I mean the angles that the frame is built using. On many hybrids, you sit up and you feel nothing, you are just there peddling but you feel disconnected, going round corners feels the same as going in a straight line. They never feel good to bunnyhop over stuff and descending is just a chore. A fixie, however, will scream around corners, going downhill it will want to go faster. These things are fun. A city bike should be fun, so do not be put off by the one gear, get a fixie and enjoy cycling.