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.