Wednesday, 2 November 2011

"Dream machines" and "daily drivers"

Question: What bike is the "best"?
Answer: Depends what you want to do with it!

It is easy to flick through web pages of exotic, expensive cycles, and form the impression that the more one pays

for a bike, the better it must be.
However, one must also think of the mode in which the cycle will be employed.
A lightweight, carbon-framed, racer with super-skinny tyres is hardly the best bike to go shopping on!

I used to work with a man called Shaun who had two bikes - a fancy £5000 (c.$8000) bike he used for amateur time-trials etc., and a £500 (c.$800) bike he used for riding to work, and that workplace had CCTV cameras in the car park, and 24/7 security staff. Several of the folks at the site where I used to work had similar, £500 ($800), bikes for commuting, and they came from a "high street multiple" retailer, and were bought on a cycle-to-work scheme where, in essence, the users buy the bikes in installments which are deducted by their employer from their wages/salaries (the legal and tax situation is slightly more complicated, but, for a user, a lot of that detail is taken care of by their employer)

I ride a cheap, old, unfashionable little folding bike, which I park up in the cycle racks at work in the day. One of the best things is that it is very unlikely to be stolen. I have a rear pannier rack and a clip-on front basket on my bike which means I can put my backpack in the basket rather than on my back for the ride to/from work, which makes for a much more pleasant ride.
The rear pannier rack will take standard pannier mountings, including our Bike Bins panniers (although the heel clearance is very tight - see earlier article for a review of the Bike Bins panniers), so it can move about 15kg (33lbs) of shopping (5kg in each pannier, and 5 kg in the front basket).
I bought my bike when I lived in "bedsit land", and, in such circumstances space is often at a premium, so folding bikes are very handy. Mine is 20 years old, but similar bikes can be bought new today for £120-£150 ($190-$240), and about £10 ($16) for the front basket. In its current, well-used, state, my bike is worth maybe £25 ($40)

My wife rides a cheap "hybrid"-style bike, which has a rear pannier rack, and a large wire, fixed, front basket. It gets left outside the local school for an afternoon each week, where my wife does voluntary work. Occasionally the bike gets knocked over by excited kids rushing out of school and/or careless mums chatting/texting instead of looking where they are going. It also gets used for the shopping quite a bit, and can, in conjunction with our Bike Bins panniers, take a load of 20-25kg (44-55lbs) of groceries. It cost less than £100 ($160), new, three years ago, but the basket and panniers cost about the same again. In its
current, well-used, state, Anna's bike is worth maybe £20 ($32), plus maybe an extra £30-£50 ($50-$80) for the large "Basil" front basket and pair of Bike Bins panniers! Yep, the luggage is worth more, now, than the bike!

So, which bike is best?
  • The £5000 racing bike?
  • One of the £500 "mountain" bikes?
  • My wife's bike, at around £200 new, including basket and panniers, but now worth perhaps a third of that?
  • Or mine, at around £150 new, but now worth about £25?

So, the best is, clearly,  ...
Well, it's not so clear!
  • The racing bike is the fastest by a long shot! If you want to do a bit of amateur/club riding, and enjoy that sort of thing as a hobby, and have the money to spend, it is clearly the best choice.
  • The £500 "mountain" bike is the best on gravel and crossing fields etc. It will handle reasonable over potholes, and can stand a bit of bumping up and down kerbs. But front baskets are more complicated to fit to bikes with suspension, as are rear pannier racks.
  • Anna's "no-suspension" "hybrid" carries by far the most shopping. The lack of front suspension allows for the easy fitment of a front rack, or, in Anna's case, a decent-sized front basket with an support mounted to the front axle, which will take a load of 10 to 15kg (22-33lbs)
  • My folder fits in the boot of almost any car without taking the wheels off. Indeed, some folders even fit inside suitcases, and can be taken on aeroplanes as regular luggage. My folder can also handle about 2/3rds the amount of shopping that Anna's bike can.

And what about parking?
  • Which would you be the most worried about if you parked it in a town centre for 30 minutes?
  • What about if you parked it near a bar/pub for 2 hours in the evening?
  • What about if you left it at work all day?
  • What about if you parked it at a railway station all day?
How will you use the bike?
  • Will the bike be used on mostly tarmac/asphalt, or will it be used "off-road"?
  • How far will you be riding it every day? up to 5 miles, 10 miles, 25 miles+?
  • Will you do at least some shopping on the bike? (I see so many stylish bikes being used with a bag of shopping dangling precariously from the handlebars!)
  • Will the bike be used for "multi-modal transport" (which is a fancy way of saying using it for two or more types of transport during a journey, e.g. cycle, take bike on train, cycle)? Different forms of transport have different regulations concerning bikes - e.g. rules about wheel size and whether it has to fold up into a bag to be allowed on buses, underground/metro trains, and such like.
  • Will the bike be carried by car? On top, on the back, or inside (perhaps folded)?
A further saving is that cheap bikes don't need to be insured - if they are stolen (which is not very likely!) you can just buy another one!
Similarly, if they wear out and need expensive parts to fix, either use second-hand ("pre-loved") parts, or get another similar cheap  bike, and cannibalise the worst one for parts for the better one :-)

For the kind of riding Anna and I do (almost entirely on tarmac/asphalt, with a journey length rarely over two miles each way, parked in a moderately insecure location, and doing some shopping) cheaper/unfashionable, with a decent load capacity, is better.

Anna's bike suits her usage needs nicely.
My folder is not so clear a choice - I bought it when I had limited storage space, a small car, and enjoyed multi-modal transport (such as driving to France, and cycling while there). These days my circumstances have changed. The main reason I use my folder rather than buy a "regular" bike is that I already have my folder, so it is cheaper than buying another bike! If I wear the folder out (or repair becomes uneconomic), then I may or may not choose a folder next time - I might well choose a bike like Anna's!!

So I hope I have made it clear that there is no clear "best bike". One type of bike is best for certain tasks, while others are best for other tasks.

The Americans have a word for a cheap, old, unfashionable bike - a "beater".
Sometimes it's hard to beat a "beater"!