Help me buy & ride a bicycle
July 23, 2014 12:24 PM   Subscribe

I live in Seattle, land of hills and bicycling. I'm moving from a very hilly area to a flatter (but no place in Seattle is "flat") area, and would like to start cycling more. I hate cycling on hills. They are the bane of my existence. However, having only cycled up hills on single-speed cycles, I suspect this aversion could be overcome with the right cycle.

I will not be commuting on my bicycle. I plan to cycle maybe 2-3 miles each way, max - mostly for doing errands, etc, in my neighbourhood (Ballard, for the curious).

I believe I've identified the two most important criteria for my future cycle, but definitely need input on a) what else I'm not thinking of and b) what reasonably priced (under $700) cycles meet my criteria.

1) I would like a cruiser. Even hybrids feel too 'bent over' and give me anxiety about my safety, as well as hurting my tush and making my back ache.
2) The cruiser should not be single-speed. The biggest thing I hate about cycling is hills, Seattle is made of hills, and so I need something with gears. But how many?

Weight, within reason, is not an issue - I will not be carrying this up the stairs of a 4th floor walkup. However, I am willing to pay more for lighter weight, provided the weight reduction is noteworthy.

Other items to consider:
I will be biking part of the time with my 10-year old son.
I would like to be able to source the bike locally.

Please also recommend specific "make your life easier" upgrades - bike locks, better kickstands, blogs to read, whatever.

Thank you!
posted by dotgirl to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I have a slightly older model of this bike, which would fit all of your criteria other than price. Globe is a sub-brand of Specialized so I'm pretty sure you'll be able to find it in Seattle.

I love it, it has more gears than I know what to do with and it's got a totally upright riding position. I carried it up two flights of stairs every day for a year and didn't die. Maybe a used model would be in your price range?
posted by cilantro at 12:32 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

"How many gears" is not really the question, probably, it's the "range of gears" that is important, i.e. how easy the easiest gear is compared to the hardest one. Having "more gears" just gives you finer gradation between them. Probably almost any bike with more than one gear is going to be fine for you as long as the easiest one is easy enough and the hardest one is "fast enough" for you on flat ground.

There are associated calculations but there's almost no point in going in to them - find a bike and try it and you'll figure out in a few minutes whether it meets your qualifications.

P.S. hills do get easier, just keep doing them.
posted by RustyBrooks at 12:51 PM on July 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Maybe the Jamis Citizen 1 or maybe their commuter line. I'm not from your area but it looks like the bike shop named "Bikesport" in your areas sells the Jamis brand.

It is likely your bike shop will tell you that a slightly bent over bike position will distribute your body over your hands and bottom for a more comfortable position. Give it a try if you can.
posted by bdc34 at 12:59 PM on July 23, 2014

If you want something more upright than a hybrid, I have heard good things (second hand; I am not local to Seattle and can only say that I've cheerfully drooled over their selection) about the Dutch Bike Company in Ballard. The bikes they sell are primarily upright in nature, and they or a similar bike shop will be better able to speak to handling them on Seattle hills than I will. By "similar bike shop," I mean one specializing in cruisers and "transport/city" cycles as opposed to road bikes or mountain bikes or hybrids; I love REI and have been a member there for over two decades, but their bike selection skews heavily to weekend athletic warriors.

The Linus bikes the DBC sells are within your price range and upright, and I found those bikes to be responsive. I was in the market for a new step-through city bike last year, and the Linus Dutchi, which they have at DBC, was a finalist. I ended up with a Papillionaire Sommer 3-speed, as the smallest Linus was still a bit big for me. The Bobbin Birdie was also in my top three, though if I was looking this summer, I'd probably consider the Bobbin Metropole as well because more gears, though I'm not sure what range they cover without taking it out for a ride. My Sommer puts me in a fairly upright position, and I love it. But I ride it primarily within a 3-5 mile radius, and not on any particularly steep hills (I don't trust Boston drivers even when there are bike lanes; I'm certainly not going to try hills that don't even have that!). These were all around the $600-$700 range last summer.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 1:35 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

You do not want a "cruiser". A cruiser, by definition, is a single-speed bike.

This type of bike is quite impractical for hilly country, due to the weight, the lack of gears, and the low saddle position of older models. ~ Sheldon Brown

A seven-speed hub might not provide you with the needed gear-ratio for Seattle hills. What you want is a double-butted aluminium, 700C wheel hybrid. For dealing with Seattle hills, it's best to go with the Shimano Nexus 8-speed hub, or a triple chain-ring/derailleur gear set-up, with no front shock. You will want to find a bike with a shorter top-tube, which provides a more upright riding posture. This can easily be further modified with an adjustable stem. You can get one of these as an add-on for your bike, for around $30. Get thee online, find some local bike shops, call them up with these criteria, identify three that carry such models, then go in for some fittings. This is critical for your comfort, and is actually the most important part of this process. You are not shopping so much for a bike, as you are for a shop, and a proper fitting.

You'll want an Abus U-Lock and cable for your wheels for theft mitigation, a 3-arm rear-rack, and a set of panniers for your grocery-getting/errand running.

Sheldon Brown is your source for all cycling related queries. Any question you ever have about anything cycling related can be answered there.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 1:44 PM on July 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Cascade Bicycle Club looks to be Seattle's major local bike community organization---you might try asking on their forum for references to a bike shop nearish you.

Most shops can order from a much wider variety of brands than they carry in stock in the shop, so the fact that they don't list a given brand online, or that a brand doesn't list them as a stockist, doesn't mean you can't get what you want. Remembering that (a) you're giving these people a fair amount of your money, and (b) you'll want to keep going back to them for service, additional accessories, and so on, in my opinion it's much more important to find a shop that fits you first; a good shop will then help you find a bike that fits you.
posted by FlyingMonkey at 2:03 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might consider a crank-forward (semi-recumbent) bike like those from Electra, to get an upright riding position and a reasonable range of gears while not lowering the saddle too far. The Electra Townie Original 7D retails for under $500 and I'm sure you'll find a local dealer. The Balloon model would have more comfortable tires. Ask them to lower the gearing by using a larger rear sprocket than usual; if you're not interested in pedaling fast downhill, it's better to have a low low gear than a high high gear.

As others have said, you don't need suspension. You should have fenders (it rains, and on city streets the liquid that your tires throw at you isn't just water!), a good rear rack, panniers to carry stuff, maybe a front basket to carry your purse/laptop/other valuables so it's in your sight, a U lock to secure the bike, and a cable to secure the front wheel. Some people think a helmet is essential. Having lived in Germany and France and traveled in the Netherlands, I don't think it's necessary for riding at low speeds, but if you plan to go fast, it's not a bad idea.

There are lots of interesting blogs and websites out there. You could do worse than to visit Lovely Bicycle (whose author started as a novice) and look at the list of links in the right hand column (scroll down below the ads and photos). The magazine Bicycle Times aims at a more utility-cycling oriented crowd than Bicycling (pushes major manufacturers' stuff) and Bicycle Quarterly (hard to sum up, but one emphasis is on comfortable fast bikes for long rides of up to 1200 km/750 miles).

Hills get easier the more you do them. I used to dislike them. Now I seek them out, and I find that the hills I used to think were serious challenges are now often no more than little bumps.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:25 PM on July 23, 2014

Oops, I mistakenly thought that the Townie 7D had an internally geared hub. It has a 7-speed derailleur drivetrain with a 14-34 rear cassette. That's not bad. In that case, the shop could reduce the gearing by using a smaller chainring in front.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:33 PM on July 23, 2014

I know nothing about bikes. However, I have a slightly older version of this bike that I use to commute 3x a week to work (18 miles round trip) on a combination of paved roads and dirt paths. I have one really long steep hill on the way home. The bike has eight speeds which I really only use on the one big hill. I sit almost entirely upright (a requirement for me because I have a bad back). It is rather heavy. It cost around $700 at the local bike store.
I also use it on weekends to run short errands and put everything in my panniers which hook to my bike. I ride with my 10-year-old son when I am running errands without any problems.
posted by notcomputersavvy06 at 2:39 PM on July 23, 2014

Electra Townie 21D
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 2:49 PM on July 23, 2014

> P.S. hills do get easier, just keep doing them.

"It doesn't get easier, you just get faster" -- Greg LeMond (first only American to win the Tour de France)

The first half-mile of my 2.5-mile ride to work is a nearly 200-foot climb; after nearly two years I don't really dread it any less, but I can do it in about 6 minutes. /sigh. Pittsburgh...

(But no, really: if you keep riding the same hill as far as you can, you'll find that line eventually gets higher and higher. Supposedly the best advice is, when you can go no further, to pull over, stop, and catch your breath, then ride a bit further; I've read this is better for building your riding endurance than stopping and walking the rest of the way.)
posted by FlyingMonkey at 2:55 PM on July 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

For everyone not in Seattle, hills probably means something else. On several areas there are stairs for sidewalks, steep stairs. I don't have a recommendation except the widest range. Perhaps discuss actual alpine gearing, really low and slow is better than pushing it up hill when you need to.

Also timing the hill when practical helps, basically getting up some speed on the approach and down shifting steadily as it get steeper until too much. A little 'timing' goes a long way, but yeah, from the Center up Queen Anne does not allow any running start. ;-)

There's an organization in Boston called Bikes not Bombs that builds up from an old frame per your specifications, worked out great for me. I have no idau if there is something like that in Seattle, there should be. Perhaps find something close to what you want at a yard sale and have a shop refit whats needed?
posted by sammyo at 3:42 PM on July 23, 2014

You may find the Electra Townie to your liking! I had one for several years -- it was my first bike, and I rode it on hills* in Olympia. Go for the 21-speed for sure, for hills around here I probably wouldn't do any fewer speeds than that.

* Some of the hills. There's hills in this town that I just can't do on any bike, ever. Sometimes it's okay to walk.
posted by epersonae at 4:33 PM on July 23, 2014

For everyone not in Seattle, hills probably means something else. On several areas there are stairs for sidewalks, steep stairs. I don't have a recommendation except the widest range.

Yep. This why I didn't recommend the Townie in response to the OP's stated anxiety. The crank-forward design of the Townie moves the center of gravity too far back for efficient hill-climbing. Add to this; the loss of power that such designs entail, the use of straight-gauge alloy over lighter double-butted, the steel front fork, and the big fat heavy balloon tires on 26" wheels make that design a poor second over-all choice for Seattle's hills.

I see that the local Electra dealer in the OP's neck of the woods is Montlake Bicycle Shop. I recommend that you go there, find a knowledgeable and experienced person to properly fit you to a Townie 21d and 2 other 700C wheel double-butted frames at similar price-points, and then go ride them up some nearby steep hills.

The most basic saddle adjustment is the height. Most bicyclists have their saddles too low, so that their knees are excessively bent as they pedal. This makes cycling much more tiring for a given speed, and is likely to cause harm to the knees.
A common reason for keeping the saddle set too low is that most bicyclists have never learned the proper technique for mounting and dismounting, so they find it convenient to be able to put a foot [or both feet -- John Allen] down to steady the bicycle while they are stopped. With older bicycles, it was sometimes possible to put a toe down at a stop with the saddle properly adjusted, especially for riders with large feet. Due to the higher bottom brackets common on newer bicycles, especially mountain bikes, it is no longer possible to do this. If you ride a mountain bike, and are able to balance it while stopped and seated, it is a sure sign that your saddle is too low. This is also true of most hybrids.

Having the saddle too low makes it harder to carry much of your weight on your legs, so you will sit with more weight on the saddle. This, in itself, is likely to increase saddle discomfort.
~ Sheldon Brown

A new-rider's anxiety often stems from a lack of understanding of why saddle-height is set the way it is, and inexperience. Remove the lack of understanding, adjust the saddle height a bit lower than the theoretic most efficient height, show them how to get on and off, and they will almost invariably choose to ride the lighter, faster, more efficient, and fun bike, over the heavier and slower one.

It has been my experience that showing a causal rider how to properly mount and dismount a properly-fitted bicycle assuages those early fears, and that very few riders will choose a crank-forward design after test-riding both types, especially if they have to tackle any kinds of hills.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 4:43 PM on July 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Supposedly the best advice is, when you can go no further, to pull over, stop, and catch your breath, then ride a bit further; I've read this is better for building your riding endurance than stopping and walking the rest of the way.

This is totally true. You may also find that psychological factors are more limiting than physical. When I first tried this technique to climb Hogg's Hollow in Toronto, I stopped twice on day one, once on day two, and didn't stop at all on day three. I did not make any incredible physical gains over three days, but I learned what I could do. (I don't go and ride HH for fun these days -- l I tolerate rather than embrace hills -- but I know I can handle if necessary.)

Re your bike choice: I think PareidoliaticBoy is giving you some good advice. No one can argue you into liking less upright bike position if you aren't emotionally comfortable with it, but your physical comfort may be improved if the total fit, including saddle height, is correct.

In my experience, riding a more upright bike up even a modest hill is more difficult than riding a moderate mountain bike or hybrid like this one. Note that saddle and handlebars are at the same height, so while I crouch a bit compared to an upright bike, it's not a deep crouch. I find that riding an upright bike is like riding an armchair on wheels, while my core feels more engaged / I feel as if I'm riding in rather than on the bike when I'm a little less upright.

Your experience may vary. When you try out the recommended more upright models, try to ride them in an area that is about as hilly as your neighbourhood. You may find that you're fine, or you may find that a less upright bike feels better going uphill.

Good luck, and happy test rides!
posted by maudlin at 9:09 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree you should avoid the word 'cruiser' or 'hybrid.' What you want is called a city bike. And lighter does make those hills abut easier.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:42 PM on July 23, 2014

No one can argue you into liking less upright bike position if you aren't emotionally comfortable with it, but your physical comfort may be improved if the total fit, including saddle height, is correct.

100% agree with this. Many riders conflate riding comfort with riding posture. These two are not the same thing. Choosing a bike is all about picking the tool to do the job you want it to, and then creating a comfortable riding posture. The OP's needs-description perfectly matches the parameters of a performance hybrid. But, these bikes tend to come stock designed to produce a balanced riding posture, where the center of gravity is in more forward, in the middle of the bike.

Many shops and riders think that bike sizing is about the so-called frame size, when this isn't the case. Every person is unique, and a frame design which works well for one person, won't work well for another. When you are test-riding bikes, you aren't testing them for performance. You are testing them to see how that manufacturer's frame geometry works with your unique body. You are testing them for fit. This is especially a problem for female riders.

As an example of this, women tend to have longer legs proportionately to their upper torsos than do most men, whom bike geometry is still mostly designed for. As a result, when a female rider finds a unisex bike where the stand-over height works for her, the top-tube length will then often stretch the rider out too much, causing them to put pressure on their wrists and elbows, and to slide forward on the saddle. For this reason , bikes with shorter top tubes tend to fit female riders better. Women's shoulders are often not as wide as men's, as well, so the wider bar widths designed for men tend to exacerbate this problem, the solution here is to get the shop to get the bars narrower.

Choosing a bike in this category with a shorter top-tube length, or greater seat-tube angle, will create a more upright position than a similar bike with in the same "size" with a longer top-tube, or slacker seat-tube angle. This is why I've suggested a double-butted alloy performance hybrid for weight reduction and low-rolling resistance, but to swap out the OEM stem for an adjustable one. This plan will allow the OP to fine-tune the distance from the bar to the saddle to suit her immediate needs as she gets going creating the relaxed upright position she seeks. Chances are, as she gets more comfortable on the bike and more experienced, she'll want to decrease the stem angle to produce less rise with more reach, and a more balanced riding posture, to tackle those pesky Seattle hills.

The good news, dotgirl, is that you don't actually need to learn any of this crap, as you will be able to tell what works for you simply by riding different bikes that have been properly sized for your specific body proportions.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 10:53 PM on July 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

I have had a look at the website of Montlake, the local Townie dealer I linked above, dotgirl, and that shop looks to be a really good starting point. They carry a wide variety of bike styles and they have a ride to suit almost any need; so aren't invested in promoting any particular solution. They have knowledgeable and long-term staff, they offer a free ownership maintenance class, along with custom fittings, and a great post-purchase maintenance plan. I'd be really surprised if you weren't well looked-after there.

I think that you should test-ride a couple of these Giant female-specific hybrids there. See if they have an Escape I W and an Escape City W in your size. These two bikes are at the upper and lower ends of the price spectrum of where you should be, for the kind of riding you say that you want to do. The City comes equipped with a rack, fenders, and kickstand. They add weight, but these are things you'll likely want to add on anyway. It has lower-level components than the Escape I, but in my opinion, is more than adequate for your needs. This will be an excellent test for what you're trying to do.

Ride the City first, then the 1. Find a hill, ride up and down it a couple of times. You won't like the saddle on the Escape 1. Get the shop to swap seat-posts and saddles for the OEM saddle included with the City before your test-ride on the 1. Then, try this Cannondale Quick Women's 4. Try the Townie next, up the same hills. Talk to the shop about how the differences in geometry of these 3 frame designs work or don't work for your specific/unique body. Ask them for input about what they think works best for you, and why.

Discuss with them about how an adjustable stem, wider saddle, cutting the bars, etc. would help fit these bikes better for your size/needs, and how this will impact the final cost, should you choose one of them.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 12:52 AM on July 24, 2014

I think PareidoliaticBoy may have already sold you with his great, detailed advice, but I want to jump up and down and confirm that an adjustable stem on the right bike is an awesome way to adjust the bike to your changing needs.

I bought my Marin hybrid, with an adjustable stem, from a casual downtown cyclist who mostly rode east-west (in Toronto, that's a pretty flat terrain). I live further north in a moderately hilly area and ride all over the place, so I can't escape hills. Before my test ride, I dropped the handlebars so my hands and saddle were even and got a comfortable, power-supporting ride.

Once I had the Marin fixed up, I sold my old hybrid that, on paper, many people would argue was the superior, comfortable bike but was actually a frame size that was a little too large for me (masked by it being a step-through). My buyer, slightly taller than me, was going to ride under similar conditions and she found that adjusting that stem to drop her hands just a bit gave her the perfect ride, too.
posted by maudlin at 6:46 AM on July 24, 2014

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