For most of the past two years I have primarily been a walker. I had been living in a loft above a downtown commercial building and had abundant retail opportunities within a few blocks of me, so there was hardly a reason to ride a bike, much less drive. In fact, I gave away my bikes to people who could use them because I hated to see them gathering dust.
A few months ago, however, I moved to Riverside, CA, to go to grad school. Riverside is quite a bicycle friendly town (by California standards). It has well marked bike lanes in most major streets and bicycle buttons on many intersections. In general, I have found that motorists here hate cyclists much less than those in Los Angeles (who deliberately tried to kill me a couple of times). Too, most of the stores were much further from my new apartment than they had been from my old one. The supermarket is about a five mile round trip. I have no problem walking five miles to buy groceries, but it gets 110ºF (43ºC) here in the summer, and it was impossible to buy frozen food without it melting before I got home. I decided it was time to buy another bike.
After a long search, I settled on the Union Flyer from Gran Royal. I have now been riding it for nearly two weeks, and feel ready to write a review.
When I chose the bike, I knew I needed something simple and basic. After commuting for years on an 18 speed road bike, I knew I didn’t want to mess around with any more derailers or skinny high-pressure tires. Also I didn’t want anything too fancy because it would be locked on campus at all hours and was likely to get stolen or vandalized. The Union Flyer seemed to fit the bill and, at $140 (on sale at Nashbar) the price was right.
The bike has classic lines, reminiscent of English Raleigh and Hercules bikes from the mid-20th century. Gran Royal calls it a “single-speed comfort bike” but most of the world would probably think of it as just an ordinary. It uses an American style one-piece bottom bracket–not surprising, since Gran Royal is owned by a BMX company. All the other components, from the 700×32 wheels to the threadless headset, are modern and metric. The only brake is a Shimano coaster hub.
- The design is simple, and should need very little maintenance beyond repacking the hubs every couple thousand miles. This is a bike that will probably last longer than I will.
- The price, as mentioned above, was quite affordable.
- The frame is heavy, but the welding is clean and the alignment is good. Steel is real!
- The bike has full fenders and a chain guard so I can wear nice pants without them getting trashed. The overall look of the bike is quite classy and gets noticed by people around the bike rack.
All in all, I am delighted.
- The paint is pretty but seems overly delicate. Already I have several small paint chips. I can see myself repainting the whole bike in a year or two, or even getting it powder coated.
- The hand grips get a little slippery when my hands are sweaty (see above about the hot summers here). I am thinking about trying a different brand.
- I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the coaster brake. I like the simplicity of it, but I am having to revise my whole riding style. For example, when stopped in traffic at an intersection it is impossible to track-stand. Also, to get going, I need to change feet. I have accidentally locked the back wheel a couple of times when I was bunny-hopping potholes and brought my feet back too far. I think that most of these problems have more to do with changing my technique than with any problem with the bike itself, however.
- The bike comes standard with a 44T chainwheel and an 18T cog. This works out to be about a 5.5 gain ratio (using Sheldon Brown’s calculator) which is probably fine for a bike path, but is a little too high a gear to climb a hill with a load of groceries. I installed a 20T cog (5.0 ratio) and realized an immediate gain in rideability (total cost less than $10, including shipping).
Changes I Would Like To See
- Rod Brakes – Which are almost impossible to find in this country, but this bike would be a perfect application. They would be as durable as the coaster, but much more effective.
- Lower Gearing – As described above. 44X18 seems perfect.
Of course the rod brakes are a fantasy and the gearing is cheap to change in the field. I am really rather happy with this bike as it is.
Several of my less bike-literate friends have asked me to explain this latest trend in bicycles. Basically, I would define an “urban bike” as any bicycle that survives in the urban environment. This is tougher than it sounds because the hazards are many. A bike that somehow avoids being stolen might be destroyed by or quickly discarded because it is too heavy, too slow, or too temperamental for commuting use. In a moment, I will explain three different takes on the concept (including my own). Always keep in mind, however, that the bike that works for you is always the perfect bike. I currently belong to a bike club at work. There are about 5 active members and no two of us have bikes that similar. All of these bikes are ridden in group rides every week however in places like East LA, Hollywood, and Whittier. By my rule, they are all “urban” bikes because they work for their riders.
When the bicycle industry talks about urban bikes, they usually mean a kind of all-around bicycle. These bikes are a bit lighter than a mountain bike, a bit sportier than a comfort bike, and cheaper than most road bikes. The bars are usually flat, the forks are usually rigid, and the tires are medium wide. Actually, I think this sort of bike has much to recommend it. For the last two decades most bikes sold in this country have been mountain bikes that were ridiculously unsuited to city riding. I can think of few things sillier than riding a full suspension mountain bike in the city. Most people will rarely go on single track and are best served by a simple all-around bike.
There is another paradigm which comes not from the bike companies, but from the bike subculture itself. Bicycle messengers have been common in North American cities for many years. Many of them started out with more-or less stock road and mountain bikes. As time passed however, they created a very distinctive style of bike. In the last few years many of younger riders who have never worked as messengers have adopted this style. In general, these bikes are built on light-weight frames, usually steel (the better to survive the inevitable wrecks). They tend to have drop bars, or sometimes “bull horns”. Quick release wheels and seat post clamps are shunned because they make it too easy to steel parts off the bike. A front brake is considered optional. A rear break is considered a nuisance. Most importantly of all, these bikes are single-speed or, even more commonly, fixed gear. Dérailleurs are simply not considered worth the weight, expense, and hassle.
Urban fixed gear bikes are highly optimized for aggressive riding in the thick of inner-city traffic. Their riders tend to have a high level of physical fitness and technique (or else they don’t last long in that kind of riding anyway). They are certainly not appropriate for all riders. However, if you are an advanced cyclist who regularly needs to get around a downtown area in a hurry, you should probably check into them.
A few months ago, when I felt recuperated enough from my injuries to begin riding again, I was faced with the need to choose a bike. I have owned dozens of them over the years and worked on hundreds for other people, so I had a pretty good idea of what I needed. Unfortunately, I had one big constraint: I only had about $100 to blow. Lucky for me, I almost immediately found an early ’90s Nishiki at the goodwill for $30. I repacked all the bearings, put cushy commuter tires on it, and chopped the original steel bars into bull horns, and threw away the back brake (it drags on the new tires and I never use it anyway). I had enough money left over to get a good pair of break levers and some bar tape. (I put on both levers so it wouldn’t look lopsided).
My bike doesn’t look like much (a big plus, because bike thieves are less likely to notice it). I have been very happy with it, however. It keeps up quite easily with my friend’s nice road bikes, not to mention Hollywood traffic. My only beef is that, at 25.5 lbs, it is a little heavy to carry up subway staircases. I plan to swap on more allow components as time goes on. So far, I have resisted the urge to convert it to a single speed/fixed gear. I can’t say what will happen as I get in better shape, however.
I realize that my answer to the original question of “what is an urban bike” lacks brevity. I hope, though, that I have at least demonstrated the range of possibilities within the class.
In 2006 I was a casualty of war. The war I refer to is the struggle of ordinary people like me against the forces of big oil and the automotive companies and the car culture they have created to enslave humanity. I dared to walk along an American road and was run down and crippled by the enemy, a car. Ironically I, who have been car light or car free since I was 15, was forced to use a car extensively for the next two years because of my injuries. Only recently have I returned to the bicycle as my primary means of transportation (supplemented by trains and the bus). The war goes on. I am back on active duty. I still think we can win.
I am not speaking metaphorically. This is a real war. Many people on both sides have been killed by one of mans deadliest weapons—the automobile. Real violence erupts all the time. In the last two weeks two drivers have screamed threats of bodily harm at me because they resented the fact that I was driving in traffic. Even though my left arm is still crippled, I realized that it was my duty to stand and fight. Luckily, they proved less willing than me to suffer physical injury for their beliefs. Had they had superiority of numbers I’m sure I would have suffered a severe beating.
In the last few weeks I have been trying to assess the direction of transportation activism in this country. I’m pleased to see that the ranks of bicycle activists, transportation reformers, and mass transit advocates have swollen in the wake of the latest gas crises. Terrific! They are my brothers in arms and I salute them. Unfortunately, their strategies are critically flawed.
The usual argument goes like this: “If we improve mass transit, build bike paths, improve the bikes themselves, and educate people about fitness then they will all abandon their cars and flock to our side.” This will not work. Here in Los Angeles we have one of the largest and biggest bus and subway systems in the country, yet LA is the very heartland of the evil car culture. Bike paths are great for a nice Sunday morning ride, but they don’t tend to go to any of the places we work or shop or live. Bikes are already awesome. People are lazy. As long as cars are cheap and assessable they are going to drive them. The fact that they are destroying the planet and endangering the lives of themselves and their neighbors will always be secondary to their own comfort and convenience.
The the only way to fight the car culture is a head-on attack. The only way to eliminate cars from the road is to make them hard to acquire, expensive to drive, and eventually illegal to own or produce. In my next few entries I will explore ways to attack the car culture. Few of them will be easy. In fact, most of them will take a lot of time, money, and courage. This is a real war, remember?
I also reserve the right to slip in a few useful bicycle or woodworking shop tips and perhaps an amusing fire sprinkler anecdote or two—just to lighten the mood.