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I Have a Dream, A Two-Wheeled Dream
August 11, 2010 7:29 AM   Subscribe

Dream bike: I know what I want but how can I get it? Am I going to have to go to a custom shop and it is going to cost tons? Is there an easier way? What are the right terms to use when explaining it to a bike dude?

What I want:

1. A road bike frame (that is what ten-speed frames are, yes?)
2. With tires that are three-speed fat (not tiny, not cruiser);
3. Single speed with coaster brakes (I hate gears, I hate hand brakes);
4. Probably drop handlebars (though I am open to other options if they are better).

This would be used for commuting around NYC, mostly short rides for where there is bad subway juju (eg, Cobble Hill to Park Slope) and then maybe eventually riding to work.

I would like to reiterate that despite the fact that there are some moderate hills, I despise gears with all my heart and frankly, I don't want wires all over my bike. I also only want a pedal brake.

Thanks for any pointers.
posted by dame to Travel & Transportation (39 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
You can build this yourself. Really easy. The only tools you're going to need are Allen keys, tire levers and a hand pump.

One thing though, coaster brakes are really unsafe for street riding. Seriously seriously seriously consider making a tiny concession to cables and adding a front hand brake as well.
posted by 256 at 7:43 AM on August 11, 2010


I'm going to assume you know the drawbacks of ONLY having a coaster brake. It only acts on your rear wheel, and even locking up your rear wheel will not stop you at speed: you'll only skid. The reason that coaster brake bikes usually have a front brake is because the front brake is what does the stopping. The rear brake is great for slowing you down, but if you're going anywhere over ten miles an hour, you need a front brake. Especially in the city. And your desire for a road bike frame and drop handlebars signals that you'll be going at some speed. Just know that there will be times when you won't be able to stop as quickly as you need/want to.

Now. All that said, what you want is pretty simple. You're looking at building a bike from parts, which is something any local bike shop (LBS) can do. You just need to pick a frame that has some tire clearance (maybe 30c) and is sized for 700c tires. A cyclocross bike or something from Surly is probably your best bet. The rear wheel might have to be built by hand, since coaster brake hubs are different from standard freewheel hubs. I've never retrofit a coaster brake to a normal road frame, but I'm fairly certain it's not difficult-- a brace has to be added between the non-drive side of the rear hub and the left chainstay.

Long story short: yes, it's possible, even easy, but I highly recommend (and would guess your LBS will recommend) adding an "emergency brake" that acts on your front wheel. Even if you don't use it 99% of the time, you'll be happy you have it that last 1%. Talk to your LBS-- it sounds like you know what to ask for.
posted by supercres at 7:43 AM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is probably pretty easy with an off the rack frame; a cyclocross specific frame (road-style but larger wheel clearances among other things) would definitely fit the size tires you want. You might actually be able to fit them on a regular road frame, a bike shop would know. Aside from that, all you really need is a rear wheel built with a single speed coaster brake hub and a single chainring crankset which would probably not be that expensive, again, check with a bike shop.
posted by ghharr at 7:45 AM on August 11, 2010


1.Buy an old ten speed.
1a. Make sure it has clearance for fatter tires. Most older ones will if you're not using the brakes, especially if it has 27" wheels and you put 700s on.
2. Get a back wheel with a coaster brake hub built in, or else buy one and have the wheel built up. Not too expensive.
3. Replace the front chainring if you want, or just set the chain on one of the rings and leave it.
4. Please install at least a little front brake. It's very few wires and makes a huge difference in safety.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:45 AM on August 11, 2010


Oh, forgot a link. If you want road-bike geometry with mondo (i.e., bigger-than-road-bike) tire clearance, try Surly, especially the Steamroller. Don't be scared off by the "fixie" description-- it will fit a coaster brake just fine, and a front brake too. Since you're running singlespeed, you'll want something with either track fork ends, like the Steamroller, or horizontal dropouts, like the Cross-check, though that has canti brake bosses that you don't need.

The Steamroller will fit 38mm tires, and the Cross-check goes up to a ridiculous 45mm with fenders. (I also recommend permanent fenders for commuting.)
posted by supercres at 7:50 AM on August 11, 2010


For one thing it depends on what you mean by a road bike frame. Do you mean specifically road geometry, or do you just not want suspension?

Is your tire preference based on experience or just a visceral aversion to overly thin or fat tires? I find that when I'm riding I don't even think about whether I have knobby mtn bike tires or hybrid tires or skinny road tires. Road tires are by far the most efficient, but I wouldn't make much of a fuss about them one way or the other.

I feel like your best options are either a fixie--probably not a good idea if you don't ride much--or a single speed with a free wheel and only a front (hand) brake. That would be only 1 wire on the bike, and it would be about ten inches long from the handlebars to the front caliper. If your aversion is having to squeeze a metal bar to slow down, I would suggest:

1. Giving it more of a try. If you've ridden extensively on bikes with hand brakes and still hate it, then
2. Go to a local bike shop and poke around. You'd probably either need something custom or give up one or more criteria.
posted by resiny at 7:50 AM on August 11, 2010


Since it will be a coaster and not a fixed gear, track ends or horizontal dropouuts aren't necessary: you can put a chain tensioner on the chainstay.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:52 AM on August 11, 2010


If you're looking for cheap, you could buy this bike and these wheels.

Just pop on the wheels, buy whatever width of tires pleases you, and remove the rear hand brake.
posted by 256 at 7:52 AM on August 11, 2010


Yeah, coaster brakes are death traps for many reasons - the big two being that your rear brake is the minority of stopping power, so you're more likely to skid than stop, and that if your feet come off the pedals or a pedal gets stuck, you're kaput. Basically, they aren't popular for a good reason.

But, it's not... entirely possible to build this yourself with those three tools, unless building = changing parts on an existing bike. I'd add, at the very least, a chain tool, bottom bracket tools, headset tools, and a mallet. That is, if you're going from a frame up.
posted by tmcw at 7:53 AM on August 11, 2010


or a single speed with a free wheel and only a front (hand) brake

No no no no no. This is almost as dangerous -- or possibly more dangerous, depending on terrain -- than only having a back brake. You need some sort of stopping mechanism on both wheels for city riding. When you're running at speed, rear is for slowing, front is for stopping. You need the rear to slow you enough to not flip over your handlebars when just yanking the front brake.
posted by supercres at 7:55 AM on August 11, 2010


Since it will be a coaster and not a fixed gear, track ends or horizontal dropouuts aren't necessary: you can put a chain tensioner on the chainstay.

Incorrect. Anything that requires backwards force on the pedals to work won't work with a chain tensioner.
posted by supercres at 7:58 AM on August 11, 2010


No no no no no. This is almost as dangerous -- or possibly more dangerous, depending on terrain -- than only having a back brake. You need some sort of stopping mechanism on both wheels for city riding. When you're running at speed, rear is for slowing, front is for stopping. You need the rear to slow you enough to not flip over your handlebars when just yanking the front brake.

This is not even remotely true. Having just a front brake is far far safer than just a rear brake, and very nearly as safe as having both.

(Ex-bike-courier who worked daily for four years on a freewheel singlespeed with just a front brake. And I know this is veering off-topic, but discussions of brake-layout are at least a little germane to the OP.)

posted by 256 at 7:59 AM on August 11, 2010


If you really hate gears and brakes, you sound like a ur-hipster/messenger fixie rider. Learn to skid and make peace with the fact that your next ride could be your last. Plus all the newest fixies come with fat tires too.
posted by Michael Pemulis at 8:02 AM on August 11, 2010


You need the rear to slow you enough to not flip over your handlebars when just yanking the front brake.

That's ridiculous. You prevent stoppies by learning good braking technique, not relying on a back brake to magically prevent you from going over the bars. I personally would always ride with all the brake I can get, but good technique will stop you exactly as fast with just the front as with the back.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 8:03 AM on August 11, 2010


The Surly Crosscheck frame fits fat tires. I would lace some 45c wheels to a 3-speed hub, and though you hate brakes, I would fit a front brake on the bike. You said you have moderate hills, and you'll burn out a coaster brake pretty quickly if that's all you have. Also, the 3-speed hub will make the hills a bit more manageable.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:07 AM on August 11, 2010


Having just a front brake is far far safer than just a rear brake, and very nearly as safe as having both.

Okay, I exaggerated. I agree with your first point, but not the second.

If you're going down any sort of hill, especially as a less-experienced rider, you want that back brake, especially for emergency stops to keep from getting right-hooked. Just having a front brake requires learning to use it to just barely edge up against the stopping-without-going-over-handlebars line. For couriers, sure. Not for a commuter new to the whole endeavor.

You never know what points the OP will pick up on, and I felt the need to speak out against that one.

posted by supercres at 8:08 AM on August 11, 2010


Incorrect. Anything that requires backwards force on the pedals to work won't work with a chain tensioner.

I swear I've seen ones that fixed in place rather than being spring-loaded, but I can't find it now so maybe I was just imagining them?
posted by Dr.Enormous at 8:10 AM on August 11, 2010


256: He is correct. For a single speed, you'd want both front and rear brakes. On a fixed gear, you only need a front brake. The difference is that on a fixed gear you have a sense of the traction on the back wheel, which lets you know how hard you can pull that front brake. On a single speed, you have no traction at all... unless you have a rear brake. Hence, the danger of flipping over your handlebars when pulling the front brake too much.
posted by two lights above the sea at 8:14 AM on August 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you're going down any sort of hill, especially as a less-experienced rider, you want that back brake, especially for emergency stops to keep from getting right-hooked.

Granted. I definitely think that an inexperienced rider should have both (but should focus on using the front more than the back). My statement that just front is nearly as safe as both does presuppose rather a lot of bicycle experience. And even so, a rear brake can be a lifesaver if you ever ride in icy conditions.

posted by 256 at 8:15 AM on August 11, 2010


I swear I've seen ones that fixed in place

I'm sure it's possible to jury-rig them like that, but I don't know if I'd trust that to keep my chain on. Certainly not fixed, and probably not with a coaster either. I'd go the half-link route before I used a tensioner on either of those.

As far as front-brake stopping goes, good technique will only get you so far. Sheldon's article points out the times when you really don't want to just rely on the front brake. And of course, that assumes "good technique", which does take some time to learn.
posted by supercres at 8:17 AM on August 11, 2010


Thanks so far, everyone. I have ridden bikes in the city with just rear brakes — I commuted in Brooklyn with one for two years about five years ago. I have also ridden a bike with hand brakes (that one for about a year, just around Greenpoint and Williamsburg) and it felt less safe to me.

I am open to having my mind changed, but I really really hate handbrakes for these reasons: The front brake, when it works, makes me feel like I am going to die. Hand brakes are always sucky and broken and bike shop dudes are kinda jackasses, so I don't want to spend all my time going into shops to get treated poorly, just to get these annoying brakes that make me feel like I am going to die fixed. Also, I grew up riding coasters, and feel more comfortable when my bike skids: it skids the same way, I know how to anticipate it, I feel okay with it.

Finally, I don't tend to go crazy fast, I just want a light, smallish frame with nothing on it and I prefer the way drop bars look. A straight bar though would be totally fine. Super thin tires make me feel like I am going to topple, especially considering the state our roads are in. Plus, I have been given to understand they are more likely to pop (but with everything on this, I might be wrong.)
posted by dame at 8:30 AM on August 11, 2010


Here is a $225 Schwinn that meets most of your needs. Get a coaster brake back wheel for maybe $60, and some fatter tires. Those caliper brakes will probably accommodate 28mm tires. Another vote for keeping the front brake, though. Coaster brakes are really for boardwalk cruisers.
posted by fixedgear at 8:30 AM on August 11, 2010


Given your concerns, I would recommend looking around Sheldon Brown's site (RIP). He addresses a lot of what you talk about, including the front-brake fear.

If your brakes are "always sucky and broken", you need better brakes. I find calipers to be much less finicky than cantis or side-pull MTB-style brakes. I have this one on my fixed (yes, front only :) ); it's cheap and it's been absolutely adequate. Occasionally I'll have to re-center it by hand, and I've changed the pads once in two years (which probably isn't enough). Of course, if you have a bigger tire, you'll have to find a "long-reach" caliper like this one.

Tell your LBS what you want. If they give you an attitude or other shit, threaten to go elsewhere, or just do it without threatening. (Be forewarned: telling them you don't want a hand brake will cause some sort of reaction.) Describing basically a standard road-frame single speed with a coaster plus front brake, and clearance for wider tires, should not be cause for them to give you any grief.

Refusing to patronize a place that does give you grief is doing everyone a favor.
posted by supercres at 8:45 AM on August 11, 2010


It sounds like you've had some experiences with really crappy old brakes that were bad in the first place, then never maintained at all. The extent of work your brakes should need consist of:

1. Periodic adjustment as cables stretch. Unless it gets really bad, this can be done just by turning a little screw on the brake. You turn it until the pads are as close as possible without rubbing the wheel, then you pump the brakes a few times to make sure they're still springing back off the rim, then you're done.

2. Replacing the pads every so often. This can be done with an allen wrench in about 5 minutes. Unscrew the old ones, screw on the new ones, readjust the screw.

3. Maybe the occasional drop of lube on the ends, though opinions differ on this.

The thing is, hand brakes provide infinitely more stopping power when used correctly; it's just not even close. In any city, this is absolutely critical for safety. If the bike store people are jerks (many are), brakes in particular are something you can do yourself with very few tools, but realistically if they're set up well in the first place, you'll barely need to touch them for years at a time. A girl was just killed two days ago a block away from me coming down a hill. She may have just run the light, or her brakes may have failed. All I know is that you absolutely cannot reliably stop safely at the bottom of that hill with only a coaster.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 8:46 AM on August 11, 2010


If your brakes are "always sucky and broken", you need better brakes.

This. Also, you *will* need to maintain your bike no matter what, albeit at an interval of several years. Brake maintenance isn't rocket science.
posted by schmod at 9:01 AM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also: Fixedgear (the user) is recommending caliper brakes.

This should tell you something.
posted by schmod at 9:33 AM on August 11, 2010


I'm also going to throw in with the crowd that you should strongly consider a set of good caliper brakes on whatever bike you choose. While you feel the cables detract from the bike's aesthetics, I think that after you ride a bike with properly adjusted hand brakes that you won't want to be without them afterwards. And yes, the rear brake only provides a fraction of the power of the front, there's two situations I can think of where you'd want it 1) front brake fails - you have the rear as backup 2) riding on a very bad surface - you want to use the rear brake more as you don't want braking to affect your steering.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 9:46 AM on August 11, 2010


Finally, I don't tend to go crazy fast, I just want a light, smallish frame with nothing on it and I prefer the way drop bars look. A straight bar though would be totally fine. Super thin tires make me feel like I am going to topple, especially considering the state our roads are in. Plus, I have been given to understand they are more likely to pop (but with everything on this, I might be wrong.)

A drop bar is totally doable, but start with a bike sized for one. Modifying a mountain bike with drop bars can be less than safe because the bar sizes are different and also uncomfortable unless you shorten the stem. If this is your first bike with drop bars, put the top of the handlebars at the level of the top of the seat, or even an inch above. Most shops will assemble bikes like this with the bars too low for casual riders. If you're used to a more aero crouch, knock yourself out.

For a fixed-length chain, you need a bike with horizontal dropouts (or track forks) to get the tension right. This either means an old bike from the 80s or 90s, a track bike or one of the new fixed-gear frames. The Surlies mentioned above do this very well as cheaply as anyone, but any "fixed gear" frame will work. I really like my Cross-check.

If you have any kind of hills at all, I'd echo considering at least a 3-speed internal rear hub. They look really clean and require almost no maintenance. You can get these with coaster brakes too.

I'd also hate to build a bike that had only a coaster though. They really don't give you enough stopping power. I'd hate to see you doored because you just had a coaster and slid into a crash. At least take a front. The cross-brakes are a nice compromise. They can be used as a solo brake lever or as a secondary "interrupter" as shown. You might find you have better control with this style.

Finally, consider a chain guard on your bike. If you're going to a single-cog rear, it's a natural addition. It lowers maintenance on the chain, it gets less dirty, and it keeps your pantlegs clean too. Win-win.
posted by bonehead at 10:07 AM on August 11, 2010


Thanks again, all this info is awesome.

I have escaped being doored, going downhill with only coaster brakes. I commuted down a reasonably steep hill, with coaster brakes, and never had trouble stopping at the bottom (I just sat lightly on the brakes all the way down). I hear everyone, and I'll consider it, and read the linked site, but ... Am I just crazy lucky? Am I just slow enough that I don't need max breaking power? Something else?
posted by dame at 10:15 AM on August 11, 2010


Lots of good advice here already (especially the advice to not ride with only a coaster brake), but, if you want to buy a new bike (I wouldn't, but I probably enjoy working on old bikes more than you do), Swobo makes some that you might like.
posted by box at 10:20 AM on August 11, 2010


8If you're looking for cheap, you could buy this bike and these wheels. (256)

256, do you know what these wheels were originally built to do? The pairing of deep-section rims with a coaster hub is strange because if you're going fast enough to care about the aerodynamics of your wheel, coaster brakes are utterly inadequate and you'd probably ditch them just to save the weight.

I'm a bit worried this might be a novelty item that wasn't intended for actual use.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:37 AM on August 11, 2010


The problem isn't the expected; it's the unexpected. The hill by my house is steep, sure, but you could easily go down with only a coaster brake. Except that right at the bottom, directly before the intersection, there is a mess of potholes that make stopping really hard, because your wheels have only intermittent contact with the road. If you know about these, any old brake will stop you because you'll adjust for it and start stopping much earlier. If you don't, you'll need more than a coaster (also, coaster brakes work pretty fine up until the point where suddenly they just stop braking at all). Likewise for cars pulling out from hidden drives or alleys. You probably can get away with just a coaster brake, but you'll never be able to safely take new routes or have a little fun going faster down a hill, and there will always be the chance that one day you'll push back and nothing will happen. You don't have to always use the front brake--just practice enough with it that when you need it, it will be there.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 10:43 AM on August 11, 2010


I'm a bit worried this might be a novelty item that wasn't intended for actual use.

It's a bit of a novelty item, just because there's not much demand for coaster breaks outside of beach cruiser type bikes. That said, this is a real product and every component of that wheel is made by a reputable manufacturer.

You can find people who own these wheels talking about them here.
posted by 256 at 11:02 AM on August 11, 2010


Just to clarify the singlespeed/fixie dropout issue - horizontal drops allow you to set the tension on the chain, which should be constant and somewhat high as there isn't a derailleur or other gears involved to keep the chain on. You only have the teeth of the cogs to rely on. You can *sometimes* get lucky with vertical drops and using a chain half link to get the exact length of chain needed with vertical drops. Otherwise you use a tensioner that keeps tension on the chain like a derailleur does, many of which bolt to the same hole and can be pretty trick looking.

Don't underestimate the power of youtube for maintanence tricks and tips also. I've worked on all my own bikes for 20 years and recently discovered some awesome tricks to brake setup for example (can't browse yt where I am currently, otherwise I'd post a link).

Not all bike shops folks are dicks. When you find one that is, find another shop.
posted by Big_B at 11:13 AM on August 11, 2010


Not all bike shops folks are dicks...

True. But it can be especially frustrating to be a woman in a bike store and to get talked down to by employees who assume that you're there for a new comfy seat thingie for your Huffy, when what you want is NOS Campy high flange 36 hole hubs for your latest rebuild.
posted by applemeat at 12:16 PM on August 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Something like this. No coaster brake, but you can get a shop to build a wheel with something like this and take off the brakes if you want.

I really hate to serve as echo chamber and to go against your explicit instructions, but I'll caution you against the coaster brake (alone) too. But--if you're not going faster than typical cruiser speeds (including downhill) than you'll probably be OK. Another problem with coasters is on prolonged descents; they can heat up. If you're just riding a cruiser with drop bars than it doesn't matter too much.

Oh, one other thing--the frame geometry of a bike with a coaster brake makes it easier for one to put weight on the pedal backwards. A road bike will be not as easy to get weight back there, as your feet will be more behind you (relatively) than on a cruiser.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 12:29 PM on August 11, 2010


Nthing the Surly Crosscheck.

There are also a lot of nice simple single-speeds out there on the market.

You could also do a vintage 10-speed conversion by downgrading to only one gear.

Like everyone else, I would suggest that you not go with a coaster brake.

And there are tons of nice LBS folks here in Brooklyn. I highly recommend Brooklyn Bike and Board on Vanderbilt between Bergen and Dean. There's also Bespoke Bikes in Fort Greene, who are not only friendly but also specialize in this sort of custom or semi-custom build.
posted by Sara C. at 2:17 PM on August 11, 2010


Thanks everyone. I marked some best answers (especially Sara C. for letting me know where there is a nearby LBS not full of jerks).

I may also get a front brake, even if I don't use it.
posted by dame at 11:16 AM on August 12, 2010


Be careful–bike riding is addictive!
posted by Mister_A at 4:55 AM on August 15, 2010


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