19 January 2013

The Current State Of My Bicycle Commuting

From Bike Commuters

This post is a response to a comment Kiyomi made on "The States of Bicycle Commuting."

About ten years ago, I would have turned my nose up at any bike with upright bars.  In fact, about the only kind of bike I'd ride without dropped bars was a mountain bike: I was a fairly active off-road rider and sometimes commuted on off-road bikes.  

I also wouldn't have been caught dead on a bike with an internally geared or coaster brake hub, a steel frame that wasn't chrome-moly (i.e., Tange, Ishiwata or Columbus) or maganese-moly (Reynolds or Vitus) tubing.  And I certainly would not have tainted any of my bikes with--gasp!--a kickstand.

Now, the latter accessory simply couldn't have fit on some of the racing bikes I've had.  But even on the bikes I've had with more relaxed geometry (my off-road, touring and cyclo-cross bikes), there would have been a practical reason not to have a kickstand:  It might not have been a good idea to clamp one onto such bikes, which tend to have thinner tubing than more utilitarian machines.

But, over the past decade or so, my life changed in a few ways.  Some of them had to do, of course, with my gender transition.  When I started, I wanted a women's or mixte bike because, well, they were "women's" bikes.  (At no point, though, did I consider giving up my diamond-framed bikes.) Also, I wanted to continue riding to work. In the old days, I used to ride in bike shorts or tights and jerseys/jackets because I didn't want to ride in anything else.  Sometimes I would ride in a pair of khaki or corduroy trousers, depending on the weather, and a button-down shirt to which I could add a tie, vest or jacket (I used to keep those things at work) as needed. I also used to keep a pair of shoes, in case I was too lazy to carry, or forgot, a pair into which I could change from my bike shoes.  

When I started living and working as female, though, I found that I had to be better-dressed than I was when I worked as a male.  (Truthfully, I also wanted to dress better:  In those days, I was still experimenting with different looks).  That meant more time to get dressed.  Also, I'd begun to wear make-up, and I was starting to take more care of my hair.  So, making myself "presentable" for work was taking me at least twice as long as it did when I was working as Nick.

Also, in those days, I would sometimes shower and change in the men's locker room before starting work. Of course, once I started my transition, that was not an option.  I wouldn't have wanted to do that, anyway--I never liked being naked (and vulnerable) in a men's environment.  

As buoyant as I felt when I started my transition, I still wasn't quite ready to change in a women's locker room. I take that back:  If anything, I wanted to shower and get dressed among other women.  But I hadn't yet had my surgery--it would be several years away--and I wasn't ready to deal with the possible repercussions of being met by campus security officers if someone who objected to my being there called them.  

So, I wanted to ride in more or less the same clothes in which I worked.  I was willing to bring a change of shoes, and maybe an accessory or two as well as a couple of cosmetic items. But I didn't want to go through the intricacies of having to, essentially, make myself over once I got to work.

It was around that time that women's and mixte frames started to appeal to me. Some of the commuters I rode in days past were equipped with fenders, usually because I added them.  So fenders were nothing new to me; however, they had more appeal to me when I stared to ride in skirts or even women's 
pants (which, I found, were more delicate and soiled more easily than men's pants).  I also started to appreciate chainguards.

I also rode a couple of bikes with internally-geared hubs.  Even though I had a three-speed in my pre-adolescent years, I couldn't quite cotton to one--or to a five- or seven-speed internally geared hub. They felt clumsy and inefficient compared to hubs with cassettes, freewheels or fixed cogs.  Plus, at least one never quite shifted right, in spite of the efforts of three mechanics whose work I've always trusted.  

So now I'm commuting on Vera, a Mercian mixte with a lively, pleasant ride. Just for the heck of it, I've ridden her in shorts and enjoyed it, but I can wear just about anything short of a wedding gown (which I don't plan on wearing) and not have to worry about ruining my clothes or being constricted.  

I had been riding her with an upright bar that's a bit like a flipped-over North Road bar. But over the past few months, I've been riding her with a Velo Orange Porteur bar, on which I'm not quite as bent over as I am with my dropped bars, but not quite as upright as on, say, a Raleigh three-speed.  

If you're used to riding lightweight bikes with dropped bars, or even mountain bikes with flat bars, the best way to get a commuter, I think, is to find a bike that has a geometry and ride that's at least somewhat like a bike you currently ride and to change the handlebars and seat, unless the geometry of the bike is such that it will not ride well with those changes.  


  1. Nice post. We are all so different when it comes to bars. Personally I've never liked drop bars as they are uncomfortable to me. The last couple years I've experimented with taking vintage lightweight road bikes and putting Northroad bars and fenders on them. It is a good mix for me and they make a nice commuter.

  2. It is quite interesting how our bike preference can change over the years. I found I prefer a more upright ride now and that has to do with visibilty and neck strain. My touring bike now sports a mustache bar instead of drop bar. For a commuter (workplace 22 miles round trip) I alternate between an old rigid mountain bike with skinny tires and the tourer. I like your advice regarding creating a commuter bike. It also has the added advantage of repurposing an older bike.

  3. Lucky Chow and Annie, Thank you for sharing your experiences of how you and your bikes have evolved. I'd be interested in knowing more. I'd be open to the idea of your writing a guest blog about you and your bikes.

    1. That's very nice of you. I would enjoy doing that on my latest, a 1981 Schwinn Voyageur 11.8. I will see if I can put something together you would enjoy.

  4. Thanks for posting this, Justine. While I love my road bikes, I find that commuting on them leads me to want push hard and go fast, leading to me being a sweaty mess when I get to work. This means I have to carry a change of clothes and allow enough time to cool down and clean up before I can start work. I bought the IGH bike for "dog biking" (riding with my friend and his dog - speed adjusted to what is comfortable for the dog) and "sit up and smell the roses" riding. I hope that riding this bike to work will allow me to get there looking more presentable. Of course, since I'll be going slower, I'll probably have to leave just as early. So far, I have not noticed any sluggishness with the Shimano IGH but I have not tried riding it back-to-back with my road bikes.

  5. Kiyomi--Riding a slower bike means, of course, that you will indeed have to leave just as early as you would if you had to change clothes at work. However, the convenience of arriving "presentable" at work can outweigh that. Plus, if you have one of those jobs in which people are making demands of you the moment you walk in the door, it can be nice to have fewer things to think about (showering and changing) as you start your day.