What kind of zippy bike to get?
September 2, 2009 10:58 PM   Subscribe

What bike to get? Indulge me, oh mighty bike warriors. Road, cyclocross, touring, zippy.

I've done my best to make a responsible bike purchase, one that recognized my needs/desires/limitations. I wanted slow and steady, reliable, reasonable, maybe even cute. I'm tiny: 4'11" which has been a huge hurdle in finding a good bike as well: still no bike after patient searching over the last year-and-a-half.

Tired of whinging I went to a bike shop two days ago and tried the polar opposite of these bikes to mix it up:Trek 1.5. And I hauled ass up this hill that would have murdered me on any of my Dutch-commuter-hybrid tests. I was shocked, liberated. Wowed. All of the sudden hills didn't seem like something to avoid, they seemed like mere pimples I was empowered to leap. I wanted one.

I can afford one too, not fancy, but good: $1500. But I know it's not practical to use a road bike in the city for a daily bike. I still want an awesome bike, but one with fenders (light ones--gotta keep the speed!) and a small rack (I'm a realist after all). I tested the Surly Long Haul Trucker and have been dreaming about the Buena Vista Soma Mixte but maybe there are some good options I don't know about? (Remember, little person here--difficult to fit). Custom? Jamis?

I want to go fast. But I need just a wee tad of practicality too.
posted by readymade to Travel & Transportation (32 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I know this probably isn't the answer you're looking for, but I spent about $50 on a Fuji sport 10 that is almost as old as I am. I assure you, my mile time on it is probably better then 90% of the mountain bike riding population's, no matter how much time or money they spend on their bikes. In the unlikely event that someone steals it, well, I'll be almost as pissed about losing the lock as I will about losing the bike. For $1500 there is a lot of room for practicality in a used bike, even if you are 4'11" and the available selection might be a little thin.
posted by 517 at 11:26 PM on September 2, 2009

Best answer: "I know it's not practical to use a road bike in the city for a daily bike" -- I'd say that a good-quality road bike is actually far more practical for daily use in the city than a commuter or hybrid, and will be far more enjoyable if you decide to use it for riding other than just commuting. Keep in mind you can put a rack and fenders on most road bikes. You mentioned cyclocross in your header -- you might want to check out the Soma Double Cross or Surly Cross Check. Both come in a really wide ranges of frame sizes, and cyclocross bikes are great "do anything" bikes. The extra tire clearance makes fitting fenders a snap.
posted by zombiedance at 11:48 PM on September 2, 2009

...a used bike, even if you are 4'11" and the available selection might be a little thin

Therein lies the rub. I'm a fan of cheap decades-old road bikes (I ride one myself), but when my girlfriend was looking for something fast, light and used she couldn't find anything that fit. She eventually got a Felt ZW40 and is really happy with it. I'd look into anything with woman-specific geometry, but pass on the mixte or other traditionally women's style frames (i.e. no top tube), unless you regularly bike in long skirts.
posted by hydrophonic at 12:09 AM on September 3, 2009

Second on the Surly Cross Check. It's a bike that makes me happy every time I ride it. I use it for my daily commute across town, and then on weekends I take it out for long, fast rides in the hills. With a rack on it, I've done multi-day tours, and it's been great. It's quick, but a lot less twitchy than my previous road bike (which I think mostly comes down to the fact that it has room for bigger tires). And, unlike the road bike, it doesn't blink when I swerve off of the pavement.
posted by aneel at 12:20 AM on September 3, 2009

I ride a soma double cross frame as a commuter and weekend bike and I love it, however I'm 6'5" and 250lbs and consequently I probably have a very different riding experience that you do in nearly all conditions and road types.
posted by iamabot at 12:44 AM on September 3, 2009

Best answer: Your budget is big enough to work with - you should be able to get a nice bike for much less than $1500.

Both the cross check and double cross mentioned above come in 42, 46, and 50 cm sizes, one of which should work for you. However, most companies use nominal sizing, so check the actual frame measurements before committing to buy.

Alternatively, you could look to used women and short-people specific frames. Both Terry and Centurion made road and touring frames in the 80s and 90s with a 24" front wheel and 700c rear. This style allowed for a lower standover height. They come up on ebay from time to time in the $200-400 range, complete. If you add a rack and some fenders you'll be well on your way to a great commuter bike. Terry is still making bikes - some of their new models might fit within your budget.
posted by stachemaster at 1:28 AM on September 3, 2009

But I know it's not practical to use a road bike in the city for a daily bike.

With some small changes, you can make a practical hybrid feel like a road bike. Specifically, switch to skinny high-pressure slicks. Many people think that slicks are bad for commuters, but I've ridded for years on them in SF, rain and shine, and love 'em.
posted by zippy at 1:36 AM on September 3, 2009

I'd say that a good-quality road bike is actually far more practical for daily use in the city than a commuter or hybrid

While road bikes are zippy and therefore more likely to be fun, they quite often lack the bosses and clearances for adding fenders, racks, and lighting that make a commuter bike practical. Road bike packages also include expensive components that require more frequent care and which do not hold up to the elements as well as more rugged commuter options. Surly frames are nice, though, and perhaps a good compromise.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:07 AM on September 3, 2009

Re: the dutch commuter hybrids ... you gotta remember that they are not designed for hills ... in Holland probably the biggest hill any of them see is a bridge over a canal. Serious Dutch bike riders have a city bike for their groceries, and a real bike (like your trek) for real riding, which includes mountains
posted by jannw at 2:20 AM on September 3, 2009

Best answer: I can see how you can't find anything, because I can think of about 200 bikes that would fit the bill, but none are easy to get hold of in America.
That being said, I would look to see if you could afford the Salsa Casseroll, it is a far superior bike to the long haul trucker. Or you could look for a non-mainstream company which produce touring frames, they probably will have an Audax frame ( that is a touring/racing hybrid bike capable of carrying around 15kg on the front and back) that will suit your requirements. In the UK I would suggest you try the Thorn MK3 or the Condor Fratello.

There are many reasons why using your proper racing bike around town is not recomended. The only people I know who do this are people who can either a) afford to replace their bike if they crash it, lose it, wear it out quickly, or b) who work for a bike company which provides them with free use of the bike and free servicing. You also have to think about equipment transfer, do you need work clothes, lunch, papers or lap top to be transported? If so are you comfortable carrying this stuff on your back? I would not be.

Town bikes don't have to be heavy at your price range German Hybrids like Fahrrad Manufaktur are awesome bikes, but their availability stateside is limited (perhaps nonexistant).
posted by munchbunch at 4:30 AM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

But I know it's not practical to use a road bike in the city for a daily bike.

Says who?

I think the whole notion that hybrids are best for city riding is a big fat crock. The thing that gets beat up most on bad roads are the wheels. If you buy a cheap bike, the wheels will be cheap, no matter whether you get a road, mtn or hybrid. I ride only a road bike on my daily commute. Get the Trek! It's fun to go fast!
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 4:39 AM on September 3, 2009

Plenty of people use road bikes for commuting. Best bet is some sort of light tourer, I'd say - AKA 'audax' in the UK. The Condor Fratello mentioned above is great, but not available in the USA as far as I know.

I hate hybrids because the flat bars make my hands go numb, so I'd always recommend drop bars. Good in traffic, too. And always slick tyres.

Good luck
posted by ComfySofa at 4:51 AM on September 3, 2009

Oh, boy, does this sound familiar. I'm a 5'1" woman who's been hauling a 40 pound mountain bike up and down Toronto hills, and even though I'm losing weight and getting fitter from the effort, I've been casting a longing look at zippier bikes, too.

Both weight and gearing will factor into how well you tackle hills, so as awesome as it is to find a bike you can lift with one finger, watch out for being so charmed by featherweight that you give up other important qualities. Does the bike you love have a good range of gearing, solid components, and, as mentioned above, can it be tricked out as a commuter bike? If you buy new from a shop, it's likely that they will trade out the cassette that usually comes with a model to one more suited for your needs, so go in there asking for exactly what you want.

Small and extra small frames are out there for under $1000 , let alone under $1500. I tried out a size S Giant Avail 3 at a local shop and was quite tempted by it. The women's geometry fit stubby little me, and I think the XS or S might fit you, too. I also tried a 48 cm Specialized Dolce at another shop that fit pretty well, and this bike goes as small as 44 cm.

One thing I found disconcerting about these bikes after years on a mountain bike was the brifters/integrated shifters and brakes in the drops. You'll want to shift your position around when riding for long distances, and when you're riding in the city you probably want to be upright more often, so if the models you look at don't already have an extra set of brakes on the handlebar, they can be added by the shop.

Don't forget Craigslist. You can try out some bikes in the shops, but may be able to find the same model, or last year's model, for a discount on CL. The advantage of buying from a shop is the personalized fitting and the "free" servicing available after your purchase, but if you or a knowledgeable friend think a CL bike is still in great shape, the price discount is probably worth it.
posted by maudlin at 5:13 AM on September 3, 2009

If you have space to store more than one bike, I'd suggest having two bikes - a commute-friendly one that can accommodate fenders and racks, and a zippy one for when you just want to ride. Which is your priority right now? One thing to note is that a bike outfitted for commuting is going to be heavier and less zippy than one set up for weekend racing, just because there's more stuff attached to your bike.

One of the regular riders on local weekend rides is a very tiny woman on a Specialized Sequoia, outfitted with racks and all. She can (and does) ride all day on it, uphill, downhill, flats.

(My commuter is a Trek 7.3 FX, has a back rack and front and back and fenders, and not as zippy as a racing bike, but far less twitchy, stops on a dime and I don't worry about it getting banged up on bike racks.)
posted by needled at 5:21 AM on September 3, 2009

Iro makes a frame specifically for short people. I've ridden their regular sized frames built as single speed bikes and they're fantastic. I assume the Heidi is as good. However, their site has changed (for the worse) lately and the Heidi's not there anymore. Perhaps they could tell you who's got stock, however.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 5:47 AM on September 3, 2009

While I love my Surly Crosscheck, it doesn't have the same zip as my road bike. If you loved the zip of the 1.5, go for it!
posted by Mountain Goatse at 5:52 AM on September 3, 2009

I commuted a few thousand miles on a Marin hybrid, which worked very well. After a year of commuting, I decided to do a 180-mile charity ride across Maine. While it is not a race, it was still a more significant ride than I had been doing. The one thing I did was switch to 23mm slick tires - that and having a proper fit made more of a difference than anything else.

This spring I switched to a Jamis Aurora (2008 model). While it is not a racing bike, it is nicer than my ten-year-old hyrbrid and has drop bars, etc. Since it is a touring bike, it was easy to add fenders and a rack. It is definitely zippier, especially when it comes to accelerating. It's been working fine as my daily ride, but I am going to switch back to the hybrid once the snow returns.

I take the Jamis for longer weekend rides, up mountains, etc. and really the rack and fenders don't add that much weight by themselves. Sure, if I was going to actually race I suppose I'd take them off but otherwise they are not making much of a difference.
posted by mikepop at 6:04 AM on September 3, 2009

You mentioned Jamis - Their website lists a few nice bicycles that may fit the bill. If a dealer is close to you it would definitely be worth taking a look/spin.
posted by csmason at 6:10 AM on September 3, 2009

Best answer: I nth the Surly Crosscheck and would add the Bianchi Volpe to the mix. The Volpe is also a steel bike with all the appropriate places to add fenders and racks, but comes with brifters (shifters integrated with brake levers). The Volpe is my favorite all around bike right now.

For either bike, I'd consider swapping the stock tires out for a smoother tire, but still kind of wide. I ride a Continental Contact in 28 and they are fast, puncture resistant, and slightly more comfy on bad roads.
posted by advicepig at 6:44 AM on September 3, 2009

Cyclocross bikes are often recommended for your usage, because they have the clearance for fenders and the frame bosses for fenders/racks. They usually only have one set of holes per wheel vice two, but you can usually use one longer bolt for both rack and fender.

One thing we didn't consider when my wife (5'3" tall) bought her bike was that the 700c wheels are a bit big when you start getting to the shorter riders; you might have better luck fitting something with smaller wheels. Obviously this makes finding said wheels, tires and tubes somewhat harder as they're somewhat less common.

A (relatively) cheap, lightweight cyclocross bike is the Fantom Cross Team Titanium , currently $1795. The retailer gets mixed reviews, but I would say generally positive. Goes down to a 49cm, which may be a smidge too big. And of course it's 700c, which contradicts my earlier advice.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 6:49 AM on September 3, 2009

I will be watching this thread with interest, as I could have written the question myself. Currently riding a Trek 7.2 wsd hybrid to/from work and on long 40+mile rides. I too want something zippier than my lumbering hybrid, and dammit I want it practical enough to ride on my commute since that's the bulk of my miles!

I haven't done any serious shopping yet as I won't be able to afford anything til next year, but Surly Crosscheck and Bianchi Volpe are on my list.

My one piece of advice would be to avoid the women's style/ step-through frames. It's what I have on my hybrid and I've had to do all kinds of hacks and buy accessories to get it to function like a regular frame shape - carrying water bottles, fitting on our car rack, locking up in the city, etc. It's possible a women's frame with slimmer tubes than mine wouldn't have the same problems, but just keep that in mind. The tubes are so close together that I can't get the water bottle out of the cage while I'm riding.

Craigslist is useless, at least here in Chicago (OMG if I see another "ladies vintage Schwinn Varsity" I might have to punch someone) and for someone as short as us (5'1" here).
posted by misskaz at 7:36 AM on September 3, 2009

Response by poster: WOW! Thanks, all, for your insights, compassion and hope for me.

I too have been trawling CL for years looking for good bikes, misskaz. I have dipped into those waters and have discovered that I know just enough to be dangerous. Twice I've bought bikes that seemed right, twice I put them back on CL. So part of what I'm purchasing with a really nice bike is someone else's wisdom, which obviously I need. And I have a daily puddler; I want a higher performance bitch who will haul my bones up the hills in Portland with a malevolent giggle.

But I've been to a number of bike shops where the help has been mixed to appalling. Yesterday, in the quest to try a Jamis frame, I went to a shop that had some. After I explained what I was looking for, the owner pointed me rather patronizingly to the exact opposite of what I described: a lumbering hybrid. I've ridden these types of bikes since my teens; I know it's what I DON'T want. When I pointed to the Surly's across the shop, he perked up a bit ("Oh, I didn't know you would be interested in those") but in fitting me for the long haul trucker (they didn't have a Cross Check in my size) he kept making references to my height in an apologetic way. I'm not mentally challenged, I'm just short! Crikey.

The best place I've been to has also been the most expensive (racing bikes, custom road bikes, used bikes running in the $$$) but when I walked in they made me feel like a) I wasn't crazy and b) yes, I really was hard to fit but I had options. I may have to go to them and put myself in their hands. Plus, they had Soma's, which seem like a good possibility. Other than that, Surly's seem like the consensus here--and there are other bike shops that have them in town other than ol' Mr. Patronizing.

I don't mind making some sacrifices for speed to make the thing practical--I just didn't know exactly what those sacrifices are, having not even considered the possibility until a few days ago. It seems like cyclocross bikes are the answer: a more solid ride, less fragile frames, a little heavier but a lot more practical in the city. But still fast enough and light enough to haul me effortlessly up hills. Is this correct?

Thanks, all. I had no-one else to look to but you!
posted by readymade at 9:15 AM on September 3, 2009

I really like the Bianchi too - I couldn't find a Volpe, but I picked up an Eros on Craigslist. They're steel, zippy, maneuverable, and durable. Many of the models have the bosses and braze-ons for fenders and racks.
posted by foodmapper at 9:32 AM on September 3, 2009

Response by poster: That Salsa Casseroll looks pretty promising! Thanks! I'm going to find it today to test ride it. Otherwise, back to my favorite shop so far to plunk down some ducats.
posted by readymade at 10:00 AM on September 3, 2009

As if you needed it, another vote for the Cross Check here. I bought one in May and I love love LOVE it for my ~10 mile one-way commute. It's not as zippy as my road bike but after commuting for 10 years on a tank of a mountain bike equipped with slicks, it's got enough. It's like a station wagon -- doesn't have the performance of a sports car, but it's not terrible and you can haul a little bit of stuff with it. I hope the sizing works out for you!
posted by harkin banks at 11:10 AM on September 3, 2009

Response by poster: So, a little update: tried the Salsa Casseroll in their smallest frame (45 cm). A dreamy bike, too big for me. Reach was far too long, lots of toe crossover (possibly solved by different pedals). Awesome bike though, and soooo pretty. A girl a few inches taller than me tried it after I had, and I think she really liked it. Possibility for a 5'2" woman, perhaps? And so light!

Tried a Bianchi WSD 105 Triple (44 cm) road bike; great fit, stuck with no rack, no fenders again. I tell you, its torture! It's like I need to learn how to make frames myself that fill the need of us tiny practical road riders.

Next stop, Cross Check.
posted by readymade at 12:57 PM on September 3, 2009

Response by poster: Finally, I went back to my most favored bike shop. Just the nicest, most helpful guy in the world. We weighed out all the pros and cons of Surly Cross Check vs. Soma Double Cross (too heavy vs. too tall standover height). Custom fabrication too costly, so we went back to the Buena Vista.

Since this is a custom job from the frame up, once we had come back around to the Soma Buena Vista (42 cm), he took my measurements from the ground up. Firstly, turns out I've lost .5 inch of height, so Jeebus if I'm not just under 4'11". Second, my reach is so short that my geometry is really unusual; tiny overall height + long legs (cranks are normal length: 170 mm) + short reach (46cm) = crazy unusual sizing. Not even the Bianchi WSD had such a short reach; when he looked at the overall measurements when all was said and done, he said he literally could not think of another bike that would fit me.

This may go a long was to explaining why I've been so woefully unsuccessful shopping for bikes for so long.

I think if you are even a smidge taller than me, the other bikes mentioned above might work for you (a tiny woman came in with her bike, to which I said, "Hey, she's about my size--" He just looked at her quickly and said, "Nope. Bigger." But she had a nice Masi, so apparently that would be an option for you shrimps out there).

Let this be a business opportunity to you entrepreneurs out there: short people need bike-love too!
posted by readymade at 3:16 PM on September 3, 2009

Response by poster: Also, if any of you short Portland bike riders want the same sort of awesome attention and thorough consideration of all your needs and liabilities (like being a freak of nature like me), I highly recommend Veloce Bicycles. Dmitry is a prince among men, and not a whiff of patronizing in him.

It speaks to the man that when I was in there a few days ago, there were avid and enthusiastic women riders who were falling over themselves to encourage me to have Dmitry make my bike. All of them sympathized with my plight, and all clearly thought Dmitry was the guy who could make something work for me.

I'll let you know when I get the finished product, but he's been great this whole time.
posted by readymade at 3:30 PM on September 3, 2009

Marinoni will custom build you a frame for about $700 (they're $750 Canadian). I had a Pista built earlier this summer. It's fantastic.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 4:57 PM on September 3, 2009

I wouldn't give up on lighter hybrids completely. It should be easy to find a 15" frame in some aluminum frame carbon forked bike. Marin has the Point Reyes, the Fairfax, the Lucas Valley, and the Mill Valley, for example.

Note: The differences between those models are permutations of 26" or 700c wheels, V brakes or disc brakes, and 8 or 9 speed cassette. 8 speed is cheaper to maintain, and V brakes are probably lighter while still being very effective. You might not be able to get the lighter low-spoke-count wheels in an 8 speed bike though.

I have dipped into those waters and have discovered that I know just enough to be dangerous. Twice I've bought bikes that seemed right, twice I put them back on CL. So part of what I'm purchasing with a really nice bike is someone else's wisdom, which obviously I need.

Ya.. What you really need is a consultant, except in the end that wouldn't really work either :P At least find somebody to go with you though. Best if the friend is knowledgeable, but anybody will do. The more defense you have against a salesman the better.
posted by Chuckles at 10:36 PM on September 3, 2009

I just want to thank you, readymade, for coming back and sharing your experiences! It's really helpful. I'm 5'1" and I have the opposite proportions as you - longer torso and short legs. So all the detail you're providing is really helpful and interesting, and it cheers me to think there are options out there for me when I'm ready to shop.
posted by misskaz at 7:19 AM on September 4, 2009

Response by poster: misskaz: The Salsa Casseroll (thanks munchbunch!) was without a doubt my favorite bike of the ones I mentioned here. If you have a long torso it may work for you. I think because bike shops are getting their 2010 stock in, many bikes from '09 are going on sale too. The Bianchi I tried was originally 1800 marked down twice to 1200 (partly due to the freakishly small size, I suspect, which in the end may get you a great deal on a bike you love).

In the end, I didn't need any defense against hungry, commission-fed salespeople because there were no frames for me: I wasn't going to find my bike no matter where I went. But Chuckles is right; if you know someone who both understands bikes and understands your desires, drag them along. Especially if you want some dark mojo against the somewhat patronizing 'tude that rolls off of some of the bike elitists.

Any of the Surly's mentioned may be great for you, and very versatile in terms of build if you go to a shop and start from the frame set. And even though everyone said, "avoid mixte, avoid step-thru" on a road frame, it was the only frame that would work for me and my weird Velociraptor body: big legs, tiny little arms. Good fortune since they just released it this year....
posted by readymade at 10:21 AM on September 4, 2009

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