Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

02 December 2012

What's Your Idea Of A "City Bike"?

What is your idea of a "city bike"?

Some--including Grant Petersen of Rivendell--think that an old mountain bike with a good rack is, if not ideal, then at least the best possible.

Others, such as hipsters and some messengers would tell you that a fixed-gear bike is the only thing you should ride in the concrete canyons.  They would argue for the sheer simplicity of it.  A few would even go for a pure track bike with no brakes and a tight wheelbase, which makes them maneuverable.

Then there are those who want a plush bike to ride over sewer grates, potholes and all of the other hazards of the urban landscape.  Such riders--particularly those who do no other riding but their commutes--might opt for a hybrid or mountain bike with suspension in the front fork, and even in the rear.  Or they might ride cruisers or other fat-tired bikes.

There's also the English three-speed camp.  They are probably the most immune to fads:  Such riders will clatter along on their vintage Raleighs, Dunelts, Rudges and other machines from Albion.  Because they're immune to fads (at least in bikes), they never think of their mounts as "vintage," even if they those bikes were made before they were born.

Cousins, if you will, to the English three-speed crowd are the ones who like Dutch-style city bikes.  Some might also argue that these cyclists are variants of the comfort-bike crowd.  The difference is that, not only are the Dutch bikes built for comfort and durability, they also come with features that you may have never thought of having on your bike but "might come in handy", such as built-in locks and lighting.

And then there are those who like the speed and nimbleness of the road bike, but want a more upright riding position and a bit more style.  They're the ones who ride French-style city bikes and porteurs, which are based wholly or in part by the elegant machines made by constructeurs such as Rene Herse and Alex Singer.

Finally, there are the rat-rodders.  In other words, any bike that looks like it's been to hell and back is the right bike for the city.  Lots of cyclists here in New York follow that credo, which makes a lot of sense when you have to park your bike in high-theft areas.  The rat-rod can be just about any kind of bike; these days, the majority (at least here in New York) seem to be ten- or twelve-speeds from the '70's or '80's, or mountain bikes from the '90's.  Think of the guy (Yes, he's almost always a guy.) who delivers your supper from the Chinese restaurant or diner:  He probably brought your meal on a "rat-rod."

A variant on the rat-rodder is the urban cyclist who rides a Frankenbike.  You've seen them: the Specialized Rockhoppers with Schwinn Varsity rear wheels; the Peugeot ten-speeds with high-rise bars and forks in a color (and style) that clashes with everything else on the bike.

In the nearly three decades in which I've been riding in New York, and through the years I biked the boulevards of Paris---and while biking on trips to other large cities like London, Prague, Amsterdam and San Francisco, I have seen my notions of the "ideal" city bike evolve and change.  Sometimes I want comfort; other times, I want a bike that I can leave in urban combat zones as well as those areas--like the neighborhood around St. Mark's Place--to which thieves gravitate.  At times, I've craved speed and the ability to slice between parked cars and belching buses; at other times, I've worried about preserving dental work.  But I've always thought about what's practical for my errands, commutes and other ride-and-park activities like shopping.  And, of course, I've changed, and so has the city in which I live.

What's your ideal city bike?  Has your idea of it changed?  If so, how?


  1. It depends how far I have to go. I have an old loopframe 3 speed which is easy as it is comfortable and easy to mount and dismount, no matter what I am wearing, and it's easy to look over my shoulder but it can't go terribly fast. If I'm going any long distance I like to ride one of my faster bikes.

  2. There was a time when all I rode was my men's style mountain bike (Trek Antelope) and I would've poo-pooed the idea of a bike specific to city riding. But I've changed my perception. I still like the idea of a wide-tire bike, but one with more style. For city riding/errands up to 20 miles, I've been using an old Ross Mount Saint Helens women's frame mountain bike because of the step-through ease. It has racks, and still retains the ability to ride sidewalks, rough roads, and some dirt, plus I've recently added white-wall tires and mustache bars for style and comfort.

  3. The best city bike is the bike you are on.

  4. Newcastle, Annie and Steve--I agree with all of you. All of your comments help to make my point: There is no single "city bike." It might well be the most fluid category of two-wheeled human-powered vehicles.

  5. For me it seems to be an old fat tired cruiser bike with a 2 speed kickback rear hub and a rack or basket.
    The bike in the last photo in your post belongs to a friend of mine.

  6. Randy: I like the bike. I meant to provide an attribution, but I lost the URL for the website. If you have it, could you send it? Thanks!

  7. He doesn't have a website or blog. Image was probably taken from Ratrodbikes.com or his Facebook. Thanks.