Design me a cost-no-object urban bike.
May 23, 2009 7:01 AM   Subscribe

Specify me a cost-no-object urban bike.

Intended use: Short to medium distance city errands. (Grocery hauling ability essential.)

Criteria: Ruggedness over lightweight. Comfort over speed. "Cost-no-object" meaning "top quality always a bargain" - not $500 volume knobs.

Any brand recommendations for wheels, brakes, lights, panniers, pumps, etc. are welcome.
posted by Joe Beese to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
@wfrgms: I think that's a little harsh. The OP specified an urban bike for "short to medium distance city errands." That rules out a road bike, ATB, and three-wheeler.

OP: If you want an off-the-shelf solution, take a look at the Breezer Uptown8, which Bicycle Quarterly reviewed favorably (the editor and reviewer, Jan Heine, is quite picky). I have one, with a U frame, and it works great. Slap a couple Wald baskets on the side of the rack and you can haul a lot of groceries. I'm considering adding a porteur rack on front.

If you want to build up a bike, try looking at a Kogswell P/R frame: great value for money and designed to carry stuff. 650B wheels mean a more limited set of tire choices but there are some good ones out there. With the P/R you could build a bike that would be great for errands but that could also be used for longer day rides or even touring by swapping some accessories.

And for hauling even more stuff, there are several possibilities: get a trailer, or look at the various cargo cycles out there, like the Xtracycle (available as a conversion for a regular bike or with specialized frames, such as the Surly Big Dummy), the Dutch Bakfiets (n.b. Bakfiets, box bike, is singular; the plural is Bakfietsen), etc.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:53 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Damn, wiffergams, seems a little excessive. Why don't you take a rice pill. The guy has a very clear question.

Joe, Any hybrid or mountain bike will work for your purposes. It's road and track bikes that are built for performance over comfort. I had a trex F/X 7.2 that I loved until I started getting really into biking for speed/distance that got me around town just fine. Just fit it with a trunk bag or even a basket in the front, and you'll be good.

Who knows if you make riding this thing a habit, you may not be jobese anymore.
posted by orville sash at 7:55 AM on May 23, 2009

Kona Ute. Man, I've recommended this bike so many times I need to make a little macro for it. I had the 2008 model and when it got stolen I waited a few months for the 2009 instead of getting a different bike.

I have carried in my 2009 (at once): 2 full-size (41 keys/120 button) accordions, a lawn chair, and a music stand. Or, all the groceries I have needed for the week. Or a printer in its box. Or a dozen large political lawn signs.

As well, I've ridden it 20 km/day for 7 days straight, or one day of 50km. No major discomfort.

The double kickstand on the 2k9 is great, you've got disk brakes on the front for when you're loaded down, cork handlebars are nice in the winter (no heat transmission). It'll probably be worth your time to buy a second of the big orange bags, otherwise you can run into some counterbalancing issues.

The big problem is that it is both heavy-ish (not terrible, since it's aluminum) and only 16-speed, so if you live in a city with lots of hills you're not going to have a fun time when you're hauling.

I got mine for about $900 CDN.

If you get an LED light for the back, as well you should, make sure it's one that'll work on the back of the bike, not on your seat post. A velcro-strappable one should work fine, a locking collar-type might not.
posted by Lemurrhea at 7:58 AM on May 23, 2009

Response by poster: wfrgms: "I'm not sure if, "do all my product research for me, and put together a shopping list so I don't have to," qualifies as a good use of AskMe."

Assumes facts not in evidence.

For example: I've done enough research to establish that, say, the Cannondale Bad Boy Ultra might be a good starting point - but also that it has several components which could stand improvement. And my results from googles like "best bicycle disc brakes" have been scattershot.

And while a 30 year old Schwinn might be adequate, the question is about optimal - to whatever degree there is any consensus.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:10 AM on May 23, 2009

Mod note: Comment removed. Please try not to be a jerk when asking for clarifications, or just stay out of the thread.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:12 AM on May 23, 2009

Along the lines of the Ute above, I was going to suggest an Xtracycle fitted out to your specs. More expensive than the Kona Ute, but on the other hand, I've known a lot of Xtracycle riders and seen a lot of them in the wild; I have never seen a Kona bike in the wild and have only just recently started seeing them pop up in shops. There may or may not be a reason the Kona bikes are less expensive.
posted by padraigin at 8:26 AM on May 23, 2009

Although brianogilvie thinks the question rules out a 3-wheeler, I'm going to recommend a trike anyway. A recumbent specifically, since the upright riding posture is very comfortable and the seat is basically a comfy lawn chair.

Greenspeed, an Australian company, makes a whole bunch of recumbent trikes. We have 2, a tandem and a folding solo, and they are great. We use the tandem for shlepping groceries over the hills of San Francisco, and with mountain-bike-style gearing* and huge panniers, it gets the job done with about the least effort and most comfort you could expect. Ian, the guy who owns Greenspeed, can build trikes to order and will send you instructions for measuring yourself so he can rig up the right size frame, cranks, etc. There are also adjustment points on the frame, just like on a normal bike, so you can fine-tune it. Apart from the frame, all the components are standard bike parts so you can swap stuff out if you like tinkering optimizing your ride.

The disadvantages are: trikes don't fit the usual infrastructure (bike racks, bike carriers, etc). Not a problem for locking it up while you're in the grocery store - you can always find a lamp post or something - but you can't take them on a bus or plane. Unless you get the folding model, it won't fit in your car either. However, I wouldn't be concerned that the low silhouette would make you less visible to motorists: in my experience, drivers often do a double-take at the sight of that weird contraption at the side of the road. I think drivers mentally blank out on regular bikes as "familiar, no threat" whereas a trike is "unfamiliar, pay attention!" Anyway, we get loads of honks and waves when we ride the tandem.

Feel free to MeFiMail me if you want further information, opinions, experiences, etc.

*The tandem comes with 2 clusters and a hub, so we have 63 gears! Not all unique of course, but our lowest gear is lower than a normal mountain bike. Which is important for us out-of-shape couch potatoes; I don't think we'd ride at all if we didn't have some serious mechanical advantage.
posted by Quietgal at 8:53 AM on May 23, 2009

One way to choose a bike for "short to medium distance city errands" without being lost amongst the options would be to refine your criteria a bit. You really want to find bike that's reliable and rugged, and won't be stolen while you're running said errands.

Brand recommendations are, at some level, about preference and marketing; there are an enormous number of component makers that would be well suited to running urban errands. There are some critical-path types of choices involved in picking a bike out, though, which can help to narrow down your selection. First and foremost, are you looking to buy an off-the-rack bike, or build it/have it built from components? The latter will be significantly more expensive, but it obviously gives you more latitude for choosing what you're riding.

Either way is probably fine for what you've described. I rode a Trek for years before becoming interested in (and financially capable of!) building from scratch. Here are my component guidelines that should apply to either scenario:

Cro-moly frame: steel is a hell of lot sturdier than aluminum or carbon fiber, but flexes nicely enough to be comfortable.

No suspension: Suspension is pointless in the average urban environment, unless you're riding a bike where the frame can't take the shocks, which won't be a problem with steel. It's wasted money and weight, and I'd expect it makes your bike more of a target for thieves.

High quality, firm saddle: Avoid the gel-pack saddles, and get a firm, well made one. Gel and soft foam are the opposite of what you'd think; they compress and become uncomfortable as you ride, whereas a firm saddle allows your sit bones to do what they're meant to do.

Very high quality hubs: If you want to spend money, do it here. Your hub is the fastest rotating part on the bike, and it's what your cranks (ultimately) turn. I like Chris King's line of hubs, although they're expensive enough to make me concerned about leaving my bike locked up outside; I tend to ride for speed, not errand-handling, so that's not as much of a concern for me as it would be for you.

Hand-built, high-quality wheels: See the notes on hubs. Buy something strong and known for quality, and have a skilled LBS (local bike shop) mechanic hand-build and true them.

Reasonable, but not top-of-the-line derailleurs: You're going to do a lot of wear and tear here. Shimano's Tiagra and Ultegra lines are probably fine; price tends to correlate to weight once you're at this level, and since you're not racing, you don't need to go crazy on buying the top-of-the-line. At some point, you might notice a quarter-second delay in shifting -- and if/when that matters to you, you're probably not running errands any longer.

Sturdy cranks and pedals: Buy clipless if you possibly can; the inconvenience of wearing special shoes is outweighed by the mechanical advantage they confer when pedaling. You want firm, strong pedals and cranks; again, think durability over weight saving here, as the lighter materials used in racing cranks aren't meant to stand up to daily abuse.

I hope that helps! Feel free to send me a note if I can clarify or help with anything, and remember that at some point, the bike is just the device that gets you out there riding. Don't get so lost in the hardware that you forget to simply sit down and start pedaling!
posted by ellF at 9:07 AM on May 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

I was going to bring up the Xtracycle but Padraigin beat me to it.

If the two piece bolt together frame of the Xtracycle makes you question the concept, Surly makes an extended frame under the name "big dummy". Here's a fully outfitted version but if you have a donor bike you could just buy the frame and transplant everything.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:09 AM on May 23, 2009

Hey Joe Beese—I don't know how heavy you are, but if you're above 220 or so you're probably going to want to take that into account when looking at frames/bikes/tires. I'm not really savvy enough to know where to point you, or if people above have already been doing it, but I do know that it's been a concern for my bigger friends. Here's the "Clydesdales/Athenas" sub-forum from Bike Forum, if you haven't already run across it.
posted by felix grundy at 9:14 AM on May 23, 2009

My urban fantasy bike is:

The Amazing Surly Pugsley!

I would prefer to substitute a slick tire for the ones shown in the link. The Pugsley will take up to 4" tires, but the largest slicks I've been able to find are Maxxis Hookworms at 2.5".

The huge low pressure tires of the Pugsley will give you the most comfortable ride you are ever likely to find, and it will go anywhere under almost any conditions. If you are a big guy, your heft will come in pretty handy pedaling this thing.
posted by jamjam at 9:22 AM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

No suspension: Suspension is pointless in the average urban environment, unless you're riding a bike where the frame can't take the shocks, which won't be a problem with steel.

I used to think like you, but then I got a bike with front shocks and you are Dead Wrong. In cities you end up riding alongside cars on the bumpiest part of the road. Everyday there are potholes that you can't avoid. Front shocks do wonders to save your wrists from the repetitive strain of riding on bad tarmac.

I ride all over Melbourne on a cheap Giant (Chinese brand) steel-frame bike with bottom-rung Shimano gears and I am very happy with it. The fact that it was for sale at The Freedom Machine (bike shop where they know their stuff) gave me the confidence that it would be an unexpensive machine but not cheap shit. Often the cheapest bike from a reputable shop is better than the higher-ticket ones from a non-specialist shop. Don't buy your bike anywhere where you can also buy food in bulk.

One extra advantage of getting a solid, unexpensive bike is that it's less of a thief magnet.
posted by kandinski at 10:02 AM on May 23, 2009

I've been seeing a lot of the Xtracycles around this year, and the people I've stopped and talked to say that they hold up well under pretty heavy use, and ride really well with a heavy load.

That said, damn you jamjam -- I am now lusting for that Pugsley in a way that I haven't since I wanted my first ten speed in fifth grade. (It actually strikes me as the bicycle version of the amazing Rokon motorcycle, which I also have an unhealthy lust for.)
posted by Forktine at 10:18 AM on May 23, 2009

Expensive bike + urban area = stolen bike.

Ideal urban bike is a beater you can replace for twenty bucks. If you're only going short distances, it doesn't even matter if it doesn't fit very well. Just make sure the brakes work. Keep watching craigslist, cheap bikes come up all the time most places.
posted by rikschell at 11:09 AM on May 23, 2009

I have a MARIN MUIRWOODS that it simply the most confortable bike I've ever had. Practical too!
posted by cameronfromedinburgh at 11:34 AM on May 23, 2009

@kandinski: I've been riding a Surly Crosscheck on Boston streets for years -- I completely disagree that shocks are worthwhile. I've yet to injure my wrists from riding; I switch between the hoods, bars, and drops as the road conditions dictate, which may attribute for that. As far as potholes go, even in rush hour traffic I can swing around them. I am vastly in favor of mechanical simplicity on a bike, aside from in the hubs; shocks just aren't necessary, in my experience and opinion, unless you're riding off-road.

Completely agree with you on the rest of your comment, though!
posted by ellF at 12:17 PM on May 23, 2009

Civia makes some very nice retro-ish porteur style bikes. They have planetary gear hubs in the rear wheel instead of the more common derailleur, which is nice for urban riding and requires less maintenance. Pretty pricey though at $1000 - $1700. Surly is also another good option. A Long Haul Trucker with some racks or baskets or panniers is a good option at $1095. Oh, and don't get shock absorbers, they will just slow you down on pavement.
posted by kurtroehl at 1:23 PM on May 23, 2009

I have a Breezer Uptown also. It's a great bike. Incredibly reliable, has survived 3 Boston winters with only 1 repair, I love the internal hub gear because it doesn't rust as easily, comes with fenders... generally a good work horse. I haul groceries in it every week. It even handles having an extra person sit on the back rack. It cost something like $300. I'd highly recommend it.
posted by Cygnet at 4:52 PM on May 23, 2009

in the end, comfort is probably more about a padded seat and other accessories (handle bags etc etc) that you can buy for $5-$20 each than anything else.. so i'd second the advice to buy a cheap bike.
posted by 3mendo at 10:56 PM on May 23, 2009

Hand-built, high-quality wheels

Yes, this. Brand isn't as important as how well it's built. And get some locking skewers like Pitlocks so you don't have to carry more than one lock. Speaking of which...

And, really, cost no object (in the "top quality always a bargain" sense)? Build up something around a Rohloff Speedhub. I think my ideal errand bike is a Surly Big Dummy with a Rohloff.

While ellF's advice is pretty spot-on, I have to disagree with the recommendation of clipless pedals. I have pedals on my short-to-medium-distance-city-errand Xtracycle which are clipless on one side and platform on the other, and I stopped using the clipless side after a few months because when I'm just running to the store a couple miles away, it isn't worth it to switch shoes. A nice middle ground between clipless and platforms is platforms with Power Grips. Some of the mechanical advantage of clipless with none of the hassle of special shoes. And even mountain bike shoes with recessed cleats are a hassle, in my opinion. I have hardwood floors, and those cleats are only mostly recessed.

And my results from googles like "best bicycle disc brakes" have been scattershot.

Magura Gustav M, no question. Best for this particular application? I dunno. Probably overkill, honestly, unless you're a big guy like me and are going to be carrying big loads down steep hills.

Best panniers (if you don't get a dedicated cargo bike): Ortlieb Back Rollers

Best frame pump: Topeak Morph (I have the Road Morph; the Turbo has a better pressure gauge.)

Best lights (for being seen, not necessarily for seeing by): Planet Bike Blaze 1W and Superflash (or if money really is no object, the Dinotte 140R taillight)

Whatever you get, also get a good lock. If you live in a high-bike-theft city, a really good lock. Make sure the bike's covered by your homeowners/renters insurance, if it's an expensive bike. And register it.
posted by hades at 11:35 PM on May 23, 2009

Check out Here's a thread I posted awhile back while musing about my new build. And here's my cost-no-object urban bike.
posted by anthill at 6:51 AM on May 28, 2009

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