Should I buy an urban cruiser bike, and is a single-speed version going to make me happy?
March 20, 2012 1:29 AM   Subscribe

About to buy a city bike. Are urban cruisers as good as I've heard? Is a single-speed bike comfortable for commuting? Best brands of same in Canada?

Last year I tried to go cheap for a commuter bike and got a spectacular lemon from Canadian Tire. Having learned my lesson, I've picked out a reputable and reasonably priced bike shop, and I'm willing to spend more this time, but not crazy more - a max of $400-500 preferably. The low end urban cruisers fit this price range.
I'm a terribly out of shape older lady and don't need a performance bike, but I would like to be able to choose to challenge myself during the ride to work as my shape improves with the daily biking.
In case I'm using the terminology wrong, this is the sort of bike I'm talking about.

1. I read an article saying that urban cruiser bikes - the sort used by Bixi et al - are actually the most comfortable and practical for commuting, especially for a more casual rider like myself. Do the experienced bike crowd here agree with this?

2. I also know they come with no gears (one gear?), three gears, or more. I'm thinking I'd like three gears so I can amp up the challenge of the ride when necessary; back when I was in shape I generally just kept my bike on the hardest gear. My commute is more or less level so no hills.
Single-speed are the cheapest though, and I'd like to hear from people who love them and people who hate them.

3. Brands. I see Norco, which is a name I know as good, but also Electra (no idea), Genesis (no idea). Is there a name you trust for an affordable but reliable commuter cruiser?
posted by L'Estrange Fruit to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You say you've chosen a bike shop, and that's your absolute best first step. Go in and tell them what you're looking to do with the bike, what your commute is like, and how much you're willing to spend. Ride several as far as they'll let you ride them. Then choose the one that feels best. Be picky - if none of the bikes they show you feels just right, go to another local bike shop and try some others. But also be flexible - they may steer you towards a style you hadn't considered.

$400-500 should get you a nice selection of commuter styles. It's also the time of year when last year's models are getting cleared out. I wouldn't be too concerned about brands - most are made in a handful of factories in Taiwan. A good bike shop will carry brands with good frames, which is (arguably) the most important part.

I do think you're better off with at least a handful of gears. Hills may not be a problem but being able to shift to the proper gear for a quicker getaway from a traffic light is important. And while you're up for a challenge now, some days your knees or back might hurt, in which case you might appreciate the flexibility.
posted by OHSnap at 2:21 AM on March 20, 2012

Best answer: I had a bike like the sort you describe a couple years ago that I got for the purpose of commuting. I really hated it. It was heavy and awkward. Last year I tried a hybrid Miele and fell in love. It was around $500. It is so much easier - easier to pedal, easier to maneuver, etc.

All of which is to say I would recommend 5 gears (three at minimum). Also, as OHSnap said, definitely try every style of bike you can afford so that you don't turn out like me and decide you hate the bike you bought and have to start the search all over again.

And yes, as soon as you step up a level from Canadian Tire and go to a good bike shop the brand issue isn't too crucial.

Just get something you love from the outset!
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 4:24 AM on March 20, 2012

Best answer: I've known two ladies who purchased 'urban cruiser' types for commuting and neither were super happy with them. The issue is that they are super heavy so wrangling them around to lock them or whatever is kind of a pain. They're also much worse on hills but since your commute is fairly flat that may not matter for you.

Personally I would look more at the bikes described as "Urban Performance" in that Norco link. They may be more expensive but they will be much lighter and better-riding.
posted by ghharr at 5:15 AM on March 20, 2012

Best answer: A woman I work with who matches your description got one of the Electra bikes, and was happy with it and is still riding it 2 years later. Her commute to work is about 4 miles. It has seven gears, but it is fairly hilly around here.

Get what feels great now. If you find you want get back into riding a lot you'll probably want to get a different bike anyway, so don't try to compromise on something that feels sort-of-ok now but might be better in the future.

Try stuff at the bike shop. If you can get away with the single speed, go for it and then trade it in for a different bike next year, when you will probably want more than three gears!
posted by mikepop at 5:53 AM on March 20, 2012

Are you beholden to the "urban cruiser" style bike? If not, you may want to research "comfort bikes" a little bit more. They have the same upright geometry, are designed to be pretty smooth as a commuter, and doing a quick spot of research they seem to have a lower pricepoint than the cruisers. They should also have ample gearing for you to choose your speed.

There a lot of info on comfort bikes in this thread. My dad (68yo) has a Specialized brand comfort bike that he got from REI and he loves it.
posted by Think_Long at 6:06 AM on March 20, 2012

Try out a bunch of different styles! You will know pretty soon which is comfy. If you can rent a bike for half a day, even better. Take a few spins on bixi. Make sure the seat is the right height - I thought the bixi (cabi here in dc) bikes were really uncomfy until I adjusted the seat up just one notch. Now I think they are like riding on a pillow!

I think the key elements you want are sitting upright, and having a step-through frame (the kind that doesn't make you swing your leg up to get on.) You may be able to find that combination in several styles of bike, so try them all out.
posted by yarly at 6:31 AM on March 20, 2012

Best answer: I would strongly recommend that you:

1) Test ride bikes in a typical city environment. I know that you said that your commute is pretty flat, but IIRC, there is a bigass mountain right in the middle of the island. If you ever has reason to drop by McGill or to cross the center of the city, you want to know that you and your bike can handle it.

2) Balance the cool looks and many recommendations you will get for "comfort" bikes with the way YOU actually feel when you ride one compared to a hybrid that will have you ride in a slightly lower position.

I know that I have a habit of getting cranky-to-evangelical about the potential perils of cruisers in AskMe. I know that other people feel completely comfortable in these upright frames, and some people feel less comfortable in less upright bikes (they want to be able to see around them more easily, or putting a little more weight on their hands versus their butt actually makes them sore).

But my experience on different bikes at different levels of fitness have left me feeling that an upright bike with relatively few gears is AWFUL if you have to go up an incline or carry a load in panniers on your back rack. These bikes are usually heavier than a comparable hybrid, and the upright position means that it's hard to engage your torso to work with your legs when you pedal.

The bike shop should be able to offer a variety of bikes for you to try. If they try to sell you on just one or two, feel free to go to another store and see what they have.

Cruiser or comfort bike: potential problems with overall weight and that upright position (your bio-mechanics may vary).

Single speed: easy maintenance, but choosing the right gear ratio for your environment is tricky even for a fit person with great knees.

Gears: I can see how 3, 5 or 7 gears may seem more sensible than 21 or 28 gears. You may have already seen that there are a lot of gear settings that seem redundant or which seem too hard or easy. But that number of gears offers your the finest gradations in ease of pedalling. If a 21 or 28 bike feels good, don't throw it over for fewer gears unless that other bike feels as good to ride. You will probably be bringing a bike to a shop for spring tune-ups instead of doing it yourself, so they will be able to deal with any number of gears just fine.

Last thing: I like that while you're aware of your current level of fitness, you're also ready to challenge yourself a little. Don't hamstring yourself with a bike that is too limited and too heavy to make riding pleasant NOW. And please, please, please: try to stay out of the hardest gears. I know that it can feel good to mash the pedals, but your knees will thank you if you take it easier on them.
posted by maudlin at 6:59 AM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My SO has a similar bike (Trek Allant, I think). It's OK. She actually makes good time on it, and having gears really helps. The catch is that it's sort of a tank. Very heavy, and pretty big. Not terribly nimble for city riding. It's cute if you're in an environment that is good for biking (bike paths etc.), but it's a little hairy if you're riding in dense traffic. And it's a pain to lift, if you have to take it up or down stairs at any point (we have a bike room in the basement of our apartment building, and getting her bike in and out is a pain).

However, other than that, it's a real nice ride. If you go to a reputable shop, they'll get you the right size--very important!

I don't know the brands you're describing (but I'm no expert). Trek is good.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:01 AM on March 20, 2012

Best answer: Since you're in Montreal, I'd suggest looking at Devinci bikes. They're based in Chicoutimi and they make a quality bike. I've had a tourer under the Eclipse badge, but made by Devinci for almost 15 years that's still as good as new.

They make a comfort bike, which I'd suggest pricing out at a couple of shops around town. I don't know the Montreal bike scene at all, but that's a good brand to keep an eye out for.

MEC also has some good deals on bikes. Their Midtown are closest to what you want, though a fair bit more expensive. MEC does a dependably good bike for the price and has a good quality shop attached, ime. If a shop can beat MEC, take the deal, but they're a good baseline for what you should expect at a certain price point.

It's going to be a challenge to find something much better than a department store bike like the CT bike or that Nalco in your price range. Most bike shops will have something at that level, but you will want to shop carefully.

You don't want:
- any kind of active suspension, in the forks or frame. It's junk at that price level, and just adds weight to the bike. Look for straight tubes, not rubber shock absorbers or springs
- bad assembly. If the bike doesn't shift smoothly, or the brakes squeak, or don't return properly, pass. A shop that can't properly prep a bike is not one you want to do business with. This is one reason why CT and Walmart are bad places to buy bikes.
- Big knobby tires. On the road, this will make your hands numb, your but sore and the bike harder to pedal. You want smooth tires.

You do want:
- extras, like a built-in carry rack for the back, cages (holders) for water bottles, free adjustment to you when you buy, repairs/tune-up for a year when you buy.
- Names on all of you components if possible. There's a fair difference in quality between unbranded bike components---the bits that move the chain around and the brakes---and the branded ones. Look at the back wheel and the front sprocket. If it has a name written on it, you're good. If not, judge accordingly (brakes are often not labeled, but you should be able to ask the sales person what the brakes are). It's not that the unbranded stuff will not work, but it's not as durable and may not shift as well. The exact levels of the names aren't that important, but having a branded component is, ime.

Another option is to buy used, but now is the worst time of year to do that. Still, if you keep your eyes open, there are good deals to be had. Don't be scared of an older bike. Anything built in the past decade is likely pretty good.
posted by bonehead at 7:38 AM on March 20, 2012

Our shop is currently custom assembling a comfort bike similar to this for a customer. It's going to be extremely plush and tricked out when it's done. It's ridiculous.

Anyway, solid advice so far. Test ride as much as you can.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:39 AM on March 20, 2012

Best answer: Any of the Norco bikes on that page will likely be OK. However, you will be better off with one of the multi gear versions if you have any hills to tackle. I wouldn't worry about weight, so much as perceived weight. All the bikes on that page are likely almost all aluminum, and are reasonably lightweight. The big difference with the beach cruiser-like models is that they look like they have fat balloon tires, usually 26x2.125 size. While this size tire tends to be very durable, inexpensive and ubiquitous, they also tend to be heavier, and more importantly, feel heavier when you're powering the bike.

I'm a big fan of single speed beach cruiser style bikes, particularly if ease of maintenance is of utmost importance. However in your case, a narrower-tire, multi gear bike sounds like it may be a better fit.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:49 AM on March 20, 2012

Best answer: Also, try to avoid suspension (front or rear) if you can. They unnecessarily add weight and again perceived weight, converting your energy into useless up and down motion when you need it most converted into forward motion.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:58 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a Trek FX WSD. It's a really great hybrid -- almost a flat bar street bike. It's fast and light enough to do heavy traffic in a major Canadian city and reach a good speed on a trail. A bit out of the $400-$500 range, though. But, during my search, I also tried Norcos...the Norco Yorkville, in fact. It's light despite appearances, it's cute, and it performs about 90% as well as the Trek. I think it has 18 speeds. They make it in a step through that feels pretty sturdy. Might be worth considering.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 8:16 AM on March 20, 2012

Best answer: Urban cruiser 'single-speed' bikes are great fro the novice if the environment is flat. This is why they're so common and popular, at the beach. However, if you have any hills to contend with on your commute, gears are your friend.
posted by Rash at 8:40 AM on March 20, 2012

Best answer: Cruiser bikes are not great for commuting. The Norco City Glide, however, may suit your needs.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:01 AM on March 20, 2012

Best answer: Ugh. I have a 3-speed Electra, and while it's a nice bike, it's heavy and slow. I've abandoned it for a lightweight bike that is much faster.
posted by sugarbomb at 10:12 AM on March 20, 2012

Best answer: Seeing as how you are in Montreal, you do have a rather large hill to contend with if you want to get around for reasons other than your commute. If, as you say, you are not in the best shape, a single-speed bike may not be ideal for this terrain. A heavy single-speed would be even less ideal.

Dutch style bikes, such as the Electras you mention, or Batavus. Often have internal gearing in the hub of the rear wheel. Traditionally this has been three-speed, but more recently you can get 6- or 8- speed hubs on some models. Both linus and Public now make this type of bike in North America. Many people select these bikes on the basis of practicality and aesthetics, but the issue with them is that they are still quite heavy. This has to do with the design, and the type of steel used in the frame. Remember, the original designs come from a country with almost no hills.

You may also be tempted by a beach cruiser. This will very likely not suit your needs- the laid back design produces very inefficient power transfer, and while they look fancy and are extremely stable, they are extremely heavy and exhausting to pedal for any distance. These may sometimes be called comfort bikes, but they are not that practical.

Another option is the modern commuter or urban hybrid. Along with the Devinci mentioned above, and some of your Norcos (Norco, by the way, has kind of a mixed reputation- they have a solid history but turned out a bunch of garbage in the 80s and 90s. Apparently, they have improved again), you might also look at a Trek or an Opus. These will have lighter aluminum frames, lighter wheels, and external shifters with more gear options. Several may have disk brakes, which are great for wet or otherwise difficult conditions. They're a bit pricier, but you're paying for (lack of) weight, better-quality and more durable components, and greater reliability.

Again, though, your best bet is to check out your local independent bike shops, and try a number of different bikes until you find the one you like. Make sure they adjust the one you pick to suit your height and riding style, and don't be afraid to go back to the shop if it needs further adjustment once you've purchased it.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:33 AM on March 20, 2012

Best answer: Excellent comments so far. Keep in mind that bikes, in general, are a compromise between comfort and speed. Beach cruisers are the most comfortable, and frustrating difficult to pedal anywhere. Road race bikes are uncomfortable to sit on because you should be putting all of your weight on the pedals if you're racing. Decide where you'd like to be on the comfort-speed spectrum.

The two biggest determiners of bike speed/comfort are rolling resistance and aerodynamics (at low and high speeds, respectively). Rolling resistance is proportional to tire pressure. Because of manufacturing constraints, maximum tire pressure is proportional to tire width. If you decide you'd like your new bike to be faster and less comfortable, get skinnier tires and keep them at maximum inflation. Most bikes have clearance for slightly wider tires.

Aerodynamics are most influenced by posture, or the difference in height between the handlebars and seat. Road racers may have handlebars a foot lower than the seat, but you're probably better starting close to level. If that's uncomfortable, raise the handlebars. Ask your bike shop about this or get an adjustable stem to start. You're not changing the seat height because there is only one correct seat height for your hip-to-foot length.

Sitting up straight is comfortable at first but compresses your spine with each bump. Folding forward to absorb the impact with your arms is much better for you. The really wide comfy seats are designed for an upright posture and the narrow road racer seats are designed for the forward-rotated hips of a horizontal back. Choose an appropriate seat along this spectrum to correspond to your posture if you significantly change your bike's handlebar height.

Also keep in mind that most experienced bicyclists unweight their saddles and loosen their arms when they're about to hit a bump. This takes practice but makes biking much less fatiguing. Take a one-day cycling techniques/safety class and you won't regret it.

Don't worry about weight too much, especially if you're carrying a bag and a three pound lock.
posted by nemp at 12:24 PM on March 20, 2012

Response by poster: After all of this excellent advice, I went to a different shop, Solocycle - a small one-man band in my neck of the woods that was recommended by a friend whose family has been using it for ten years. I explained my needs, he picked out a couple of suitable second-hand hybrids that had been completely fitted out by his own hands. I rode one around the block and fell in love instantly.
Not only was the price good, but it came with a list of the issues it had when it was first brought in, all of the repairs and new parts by brand name, and a personalized bike biography ("... its former owner said she called it "The Jolly Jumper," after the trusty steed of Lucky Luke."). He gave me a crash course in bike maintenance and spent 5-10 minutes checking and tweaking it before letting me ride away, and it comes with checkups and a guarantee.

Many thanks, Metafilter! If it wasn't for you all, I'd have gone and paid more for a new and probably unsuitable bike, instead of the fabulous (and soon to be renamed) Jolly Jumper. Awesome.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 4:47 PM on March 21, 2012

Response by poster: And here she is!
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 4:52 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oops, my friend hadn't been going there for ten years, as the shop hasn't been around that long. :D
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 4:57 PM on March 21, 2012

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