Good bike for long distance biking?
June 13, 2013 2:08 PM   Subscribe

Biking from Pittsburgh to DC: what is the best bike for me?? [novice biker]

I would like to take a biking trip from Pittsburgh to DC, ideally in the fall. I know how to ride a bike, but don't really practice much. My boyfriend and I recently did a day trip by bike where it became very obvious that my old, small bike would not cut it. So now I'm in the market.

My question: what are some specific features or styles I should be looking for? Road bike? Mountain bike? Hybrid bike? How many gears? I assume I don't want a fixed gear bike.

What are some accessories that would be particularly helpful on day trips or long distance trips?

We live in the city so I will need to be able to practice riding on streets as well as eventually do long distance on pavement or gravel.

Relevant facts:
- female
- 27 years old
- physically fit but not hardcore about it
- tall (5'9")
- will buy used or new
- don't want anything fancy or super expensive, but willing to spend money

One thing I definitely need is a good padded seat - the regular bike seats hurt my ass so bad that it kind of prematurely stops the party.

posted by amicamentis to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Get padded bike shorts and a seat designed for longer distances (little padding) Also riding more will help you acclimatize to the bike seat.
posted by captaincrouton at 2:24 PM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm sure people will chime in here with suggestions specific to make and model, but I'd recommend choosing a good seat (saddle) and getting some practice on it before committing to spending 300+ miles on it. Spend some time breaking it in!
posted by klausman at 2:25 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Either a road (drop bar) bike or a hybrid for sure. Going through a lot of cities and I think some hills I'd lean toward a hybrid with 3 chainrings in front and 7 or 8 cogs in back. It will run a bit slower(1-2 mph, maybe), but will be easier to maneuver in cities and have a gearing range to meet all the hills.

For the saddle, what may be your problem is you need a female specific saddle. It's not so much the amount of padding as having a structure that's just wide enough to keep the weight on your sit bones (which are proportionally farther apart on women than men) and OFF your female parts. Modern saddles, male or female, also tend to have channels designed to keep the pressure off the soft bits. Terry used to be a good brand and I assume still are - they've branched out into ergo saddles for men as well, but they got their start making women's saddles back when it was considered a novel idea.

I recommend a bike shop for all this - the slight differences in cost are well worth it if you're going on a long tour.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:25 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

The classic answer is called a Touring Bicycle. That's a "racing" bike, meaning drop handlebars, but with a frame geometry which has less-twitchy steering than a regular road bike, fatter tires, lower gear ratios and attachment points for racks and panniers. I have one of these styles of bikes, and, if you like the drop-style handlebars, these can be very comfortable bikes for long rides. The Trek 520 is a classic example of the design, though there are many others.

Lots of people prefer a more upright posture and flatter bars, so hybrid bikes are popular too. These designs share many of the features of the touring bikes, and are also a very viable choice. Personally, I find the lack of options for hand positions and the upright posture more tiring at the end of a day, but lots of people put lots of distance on hybrid bikes.

Any bike can work for touring, if it suits you, from racing bike to ATB. It's important to find a frame geometry that suits. A "bike fit", done by a good bike shop, is probably one of the most important things you can do in buying any bike you'll be putting a lot of time on.

For saddles, be careful with the padding. It can feel comfortable on shortish rides, under an hour say, but I've known a number of people to have chafing issues of an intimate nature after long use. I mucked about with saddles for years before finally setting on a leather Brooks saddle as my long-distance choice. It's the best, most-comfortable saddle I've ever ridden. Saddles are very personal though. A lot of women seem to like Terry saddles. Terry also makes great bikes.
posted by bonehead at 2:26 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

First thing: try all the bikes even close to your size available at any local bike shop, whatever the variety of bike, even if it's not the kind you can see yourself with or it's way out of your spending range. You'll get a good idea what the different features and fit styles are (bike geometry is tricky stuff!) Seriously, ride a bunch of bikes. There is no substitute for this step, and it doesn't cost anything but time.

You might like to try some of the fit calculators online or in bicycle books as well. Remember, the most important number for you fit-wise is not standover height but effective top-tube length. If the reach is appropriate, you're very unlikely to have any problems with clearance over the top tube.

Once you've got a good idea what sort of fit you need, you'll have more options for looking at used bikes. If you can't find anything appropriate in the used market, there are budget options new.

What style of bike you want depends on what you're going to use it for. If you plan to take gear with you to go camping on your Pittsburgh-DC trip, then look into a bike that can handle that -- touring bikes are usually best for touring; they're set up to hold racks and panniers and gear and are very sturdy. They're also pretty versatile for use around the city, commuting, etc.

As for the saddle, make sure you check the width of your sit bones and get a saddle that supports them correctly. Here's a fancy way to check sit bone width, but you can do it yourself with a ruler. There are lots of different ways saddles can fit badly, and padding may not fix the issue (it may even make it worse).
posted by asperity at 2:26 PM on June 13, 2013

Nthing padded shorts, and again (perhaps even more obviously) - women's specific models. These days they come in both traditional tights or styles that look like hiking/walking style. I wll say there are some practical advantages to tights, and you can always throw on some shorts over them when going in shops if you feel conspicuous.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:29 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Padding in the pants, not on your seat, is my rule.
posted by bonehead at 2:31 PM on June 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Bicycle: for a trip like that, I'd suggest a touring bike or a performance-oriented hybrid. A few examples of touring bikes: Trek 520, Jamis Aurora, Surly Long Haul Trucker, and the Fuji Touring. Performance-oriented hybrids include the Jamis Coda or Jamis Allegro. Choice depends in part on whether you want drop handlebars or flat bars. You could also consider a bike like the Raleigh Clubman that is intended more for long day rides but that can carry bags for a light tour. The number of gears isn't as important as the lowest gear. If you're going through the Appalachians with a loaded bicycle, you want a low gear around 20 inches. Many touring bikes are actually geared too high (seriously, who is going to want to pedal a touring bike at 30 mph?), but a good bike shop can swap out the crankset for a lower gear for a reasonable price.

Saddle: soft is not good. A soft saddle compresses your soft tissues, because your ischial protuberances sink into the soft material, which then presses on other parts of your butt. It's best to get a relatively hard saddle and accustom yourself to it by taking longer rides. Bonehead's and asperity's comments are good. Thinly padded bike shorts are also helpful, not so much for the padding (see above) but because they don't have seams in the crotch; on a long ride, that's important. You might also find chamois cream helpful for preventing chafing on long rides; I use it if I'm going to be out for more than 50 miles, especially if it's hot.

Accessories: this could be a long list, but I think the essentials are a spare tube, a patch kit, a portable pump, tire levers, and a multitool for basic repairs; decent LED headlight and taillight in case you're caught out after dark (or feel like riding before dawn); a small seat pack to carry tools and lights when you're not using them; a rack and panniers for touring, and either a handlebar bag (for stuff like camera, wallet, etc. that you want easily accessible and in sight) with a map case on top, or a map case to mount on the handlebars.

Highly recommended: fenders (unless you never get caught in the rain) and a bike computer so you know how far you've gone, and hence, if you're following a planned route, how far it is to your destination. You can get a decent computer cheap (Cateye and Sigma are good brands), or you can spring for a bike-oriented GPS computer.

If you're rusty at riding with other traffic (I say "other" because you are traffic too), take a look at John Allen's Bicycling Street Smarts, which is excellent and free in the online version. You might also take a look at the late, great Sheldon Brown's articles for beginners. Raymond Bridge's Sierra Club guide to bike touring is comprehensive and thoughtful.

Last but not least, a couple of great resources for bike touring are Neil Gunton's Crazy Guy on a Bike website (thousands of touring journals and articles) and the Adventure Cycling Association, which publishes maps and guides for several cross-country routes. There's also, which is basically couchsurfing for touring cyclists.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:50 PM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Check out your local bike shops and see if they have a loaner saddle program (some here in the DC area do, surprisingly). That's a great way to try out some really expensive, midrange, and low end saddles and find one that you like. If not, I'd definitely consider a women's Brooks saddle and put 3-500 miles on before your tour to get it nice and broken in. There are few things as comfortable for a long ride as a well broken in and conditioned Brooks saddle. They're kind of pricey (~$100) but they last forever if you take care of them and are hard to beat in terms of comfort.

Whatever you do - don't get a padded seat cover and don't use a low end bike with a shocks. Get some really good padded shorts and a comfortable saddle and just spend some time getting your body used to them and your seat broken and you'll be good to go. You really want to be as comfortable and efficient as possible if you're going to be riding 8-10 hours a day.

As far as touring bikes go, you can't go wrong with the Trek 520, the Surly Long Haul Trucker (or Cross Check), or any of the other many steel touring bikes out there on the market. Hybrids aren't bad for touring (they're a comfortable ride) but they're not nearly efficient as a true touring bike. One thing you definitely want to spring for is a good bike fitting and good clipless shoes.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 2:52 PM on June 13, 2013

Oh, one more thing: I don't know what the bike shop scene is like in Pittsburgh, but some shops are staffed by racers or racer-wannabes who will try to steer you toward a road bike with crazy thin tires and a too-aggressive position, and if you don't like that, they'll give up on you or steer you toward a cruiser. Reading up a little bit on touring bikes or hybrids and having a sense of what you might want to try is a good idea. I like the vibe on the Thick Bikes website. People on Yelp and Google Plus like Kraynick's Bike Shop for parts and service--makes me want to visit them!
posted by brianogilvie at 3:08 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Touring bikes are great if you're doing self-supporting touring - that is, that you are either carrying everything you need (tent, clothes, cooking equipment, etc) in bags/panniers on your bike or towing the items behind you in a trailer. That said, there are other tours other than self-supported - you can either go with "credit card touring" (staying at hotels and buying foods) or "supported touring" (having other people carry everything you need and feed you). For a first go, I'd suggest one of those because they're easier. You're already looking at the difficulty of starting serious cycling and adjusting to your bike; I don't think it's necessary to add on the element of carrying a significant amount of weight on your bike. As a practical matter, touring bikes are slow, and I'd rather get to where I'm going quickly.

Since you asked for specifics, this is what I think:

Road bike?

I think this is what you're going to want, in either a touring style (for self-supported touring), or "endurance" style (for credit-card/supported touring). I can give you particular suggestions with some further info; feel free to contact me.

Mountain bike?

I wouldn't go here; the weight of the bike will be a pain. Unless you want to tour by biking through a forest (for which I'd commend you, but also call you crazy), you won't get anything in exchange for the weight.

Hybrid bike?

Possible, and actually sort of popular. However, I don't understand how people can deal with the lack of available hand positions for extended biking.

How many gears?

Don't think of this as "how many" but range of gearing. A bike can have high gearing (high speed/high effort), low gearing (low speed/low effort), or a mixture of both. I concur with many people above that you want low gearing, probably in the form of a triple crank (three front chain rings to pick from) with a wide range rear cassette.

I assume I don't want a fixed gear bike.

I'm not sure anyone has explicitly said this, but I'd strongly discourage a fixed gear bike for your first go. This is actually not a bad idea, per se, just not something to start out with.

If you want to do this in September, you should start deliberately training very quickly - as in, now. There's a big step between doing a 50-60 mile ride once in a while (which many even unfit riders are able to do) and doing a 50-60 mile ride on five or six consecutive days. You can find many training schedules online to give you an idea of intensity, but a common rule of thumb is to increase your mileage or elevation gain by 10% each week (not both) until you can easily ride about 1/2 to 2/3 of the mileage you expect. In other words, for a ~300 mile trip, you should be aiming to be able to do a 150-200 mile week reasonably close to the trip date. The week before the tour, it is common to "taper" (aka stop working so hard and eat a lot of pizza).

One thing I definitely need is a good padded seat

As others have said, this is a very common novice mistake. For long distances, you actually want a stiff saddle/seat, but with padded bike shorts.
posted by saeculorum at 3:11 PM on June 13, 2013

One thing I definitely need is a good padded seat - the regular bike seats hurt my ass so bad that it kind of prematurely stops the party.

Other people have addressed this, but pain after riding on a well-fitting firm saddle is a hump that you get over fairly quickly--probably within a week or two of regular rides. Don't overdo it at first, but try to ride regularly for at least 20 or 30 minutes, increasing as your butt toughens up.

The reason this is so important is that while soft saddles are more comfortable for short rides, over longer periods they mash nerves and cut off blood flow over your whole perenium, leading to all kinds of soreness and trouble. A hard saddle ideally supports only your ischial tuberosities/sit bones, which can take the abuse. However, this means that your saddle needs to fit you correctly, meaning that it 1) provides a platform for your sit bones and 2) doesn't put much pressure any other spots. Finding a saddle which does this can be challenging--many are too narrow, especially for women, or don't have a dip or cutout in the center to relieve pressure there--and it's very possible that your current firm saddle is a poor fit and would never be comfortable.

The choice is personal, but I like the (leather, not waterproof) Brooks B-17, or, if you want a waterproof saddle in awesome colors, the Soma Ensho.
posted by pullayup at 3:13 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Highly recommended: fenders

Doubly recommended because (I'm guessing that you'll take the Great Allegheny Passage) the trail is crushed limestone. When this stuff gets wet, it produces thin, gritty mud that coats your bike and strips the lubricant off of your chain. Fenders will go a long way toward keeping you and your bike clean.
posted by pullayup at 3:28 PM on June 13, 2013

Are you planning on taking the Great Allegheny Passage trail from Pittsburgh to DC, or are you planning on riding the whole way on paved roads with traffic and stuff? If you're taking the trail, people's answers should take into account the surface you'll be riding on. A touring bike would probably be OK on the crushed stone of the Allegheny trail and even the rougher surfaces of the C & O, but a hybrid, trail bike, or hardtail mountain bike might be more appropriate.

Don't buy (or reject) a bike based on its seat (saddle); that part can be easily swapped out for something that's chosen specifically for your body and your riding distance. A new saddle might cost $50-$100 but will be well worth it for your comfort on a multi-day ride. If you order a brand new bike from a really good local bike shop, they might even swap the saddle for free.

You mention you're a tall female. The saddles you've tried might be too narrow for your pelvis. For example, I can't use most standard men's or women's bike seats comfortably because the wide part at the back of the saddle is still too narrow for me and it sinks into the soft flesh between my sit bones, causing pain over the long haul. On the other hand, a too-wide saddle is not generally regarded as a good choice for distance riding, either. If you can find a local bike store that does fittings, ask if you can get your ass measured for the proper saddle width. I am serious: you need the assometer (here's a YouTube introduction to the device).
posted by Orinda at 3:30 PM on June 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

I agree with pretty much everyone here. Get a touring or sport-touring road bike. Drop bars give you 3-4 hand positions. Flat bars give you one hand position. You want to be able to change your posture when you're in the saddle for a long time.

Don't get an overstuffed saddle. That assometer that Orinda linked to sounds like a brilliant idea. Finding the right saddle can be a PITA (no pun intended).
posted by adamrice at 4:50 PM on June 13, 2013

Firm seat, good shorts and a lot of chamois butter. (Get Hoo Ha Ride Glide - you'll thank me.)

Many companies make women's specific bikes and these might work for you. Or not. Don't be sold on a bike just because it a women's specific design. It really depends on your body type. You want to go to a bike shop that does a detailed bike fit and then lets you come back for a refit in a few weeks. As you become a more frequent rider, your posture on the bike changes. A refit will help you get more power per pedal stroke and a more comfy ride.

My distance bike is a beautiful vintage French mixte. While it's a great bike with top of the line components and Reynolds 531 frame, the reason I love the bike is its fit. The geometry of that bike is so damn comfortable I can ride and ride and ride. A perfect fit is incredibly important for a randonneur ride.
posted by 26.2 at 5:01 PM on June 13, 2013

A little off topic but if you're doing Pittsburgh to DC on the C&O this is a great resource.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 6:01 PM on June 13, 2013

A good pair of puncture-resistant tyres will save you huge amounts of annoyance. There are a few different kinds; I've been using Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres for about 5 years now and haven't had a single puncture.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 8:46 PM on June 13, 2013

When you buy your bike, buy (or get them to recommend) a pannier rack and fit it. Mine took a couple of hours and three people to get on properly.
posted by kadia_a at 11:09 PM on June 13, 2013

Response by poster: Oh my goodness, these answers so far are wonderful. Great tips about padded seats and bike shorts and sit bones! I am planning on taking the Great Allegheny Passage so the terrain will be different than straight pavement. Thank you all so much!
posted by amicamentis at 3:42 AM on June 14, 2013

One thing you should definitely consider getting is a GoPro (or similar "action" camera) to document your ride. I have the lowest version (white, $200) but it does a really good job (the 1080p looks really good) and, more importantly, lets me share my rides with friends and family quickly. If you've got the extra funds get two and set the second one up on the rear of your bike.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 6:11 AM on June 14, 2013

Flat bars give you one hand position. You want to be able to change your posture when you're in the saddle for a long time.
True, but if you prefer flat bars, I'd recommend getting Ergon grips, ideally with bar ends to give you at least two riding positions. The GP3 is one model, though there are others with larger or smaller ends.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:05 AM on June 14, 2013

Seconding ATBHs' recommendation of the Schwalbes, but whatever you get, make sure they are 28 mm tires. I've toured with 28s, and I could pretty much ride over anything.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 2:12 PM on June 14, 2013

28 mm are what I like too. If you end up with an imperial bike tire system, that's 1 1/4". Personally I find the 25 mm/1" too narrow (and therefore uncomfortable on hour 6) and the 32mm/1-1/2" a bit too big (and therefore slow and tiresome).

Flat slick are also ideal. Bike tires on the road have no need for tread: slicks have better traction on wet or dry pavement than knobby tires. Tread just produces drag on the road, and will make your days just that much longer. There is an argument for wanting some tread if you're going to be riding on unpaved paths, but that's pretty marginal utility on a touring bike.
posted by bonehead at 2:59 PM on June 14, 2013

Here's a bike I'm riding that would work well for your trip.

Best of both worlds. Total frankenbike. I rode it 46 miles on trails last night, and if it can handle that, it can handle gravel roads no problem when it's loaded for touring.

What you're looking at:

  • It's a fairly small women's mountain frame (I'm 6'0" and this is a 15.5" frame, which is tiny, but I wanted something with a short top tube because we're using.....)
  • Shallow drop bars (in the drops I have the perfect riding position, but I can move my hands to the tops or to the hoods for variety, which is important on longer rides. Rides over 30 miles with only 1 hand position are murder)
  • Surly Troll Fork. (This fork is awesome. The bike originally came with a front shock with 80mm of travel, and this fork is designed to replace 100mm travel, so it raises the front end just a tad. It can also accommodate a front rack and fenders, or you can do what I'm doing and mount two water bottle cages to the front. With my camelbak, two cages in the frame, and two cages on the fork, I'm rolling out in the middle of freaking nowhere with 180oz of water. This fork is a Surly fork, so you can put just about any width tire you dream of on it. I'm rolling 2.1".
  • Bar end shifters. Perfect for touring because if you destroy your derailleur hanger or derailleur, you can flip it to friction mode (no tools required) and get along just fine. They're reliable and easy to work with.
  • BB7 Disc Brakes - Road. Best. Brakes. Ever. You can go hydraulic if you want, but if you're looking for the best bang for the buck, look no further. Pads are independently adjustable, so once you get your cable tension set you never touch the cable again. Plenty of stopping power, plenty of modulation, just the way it's supposed to work.
  • 2.1" Tires. These are converted to tubeless using the ghetto tubeless method, which is super cheap (you just need a 20" tube and a bottle of Stan's) and reliable. Lets me run a lower pressure for a softer ride and more grip, and I don't have to worry about pinch flats.

    This bike freaking rocks, and I think it would be perfect for what you want to do. It's very comfortable on the road, it's nimble on the trail. It's fairly robust and durable (I rode it off an 8' drop accidentally last night and destroyed a brake lever and broke the chain, but we fixed the chain on the trail and I rode the rest of the way with just the front brake, ain't no thing). Consider something like this for what you're going to do. It's sorta adventure toury slash mountain friendly slash indestructible commutery. It's a cross bike with wider tires and a shorter top tube. It's a mountain bike with a rigid fork and drop bars. I don't really know what to call this frankenbike, but I'm in love with it, and if I were going to do your ride on something anything less smooth than road, this is the bike I'd do it on.

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