Sunday, 18 October 2015

Bicycle.Next — beginnings

I believe that a major contributor to why I have been so hugely overweight most of my life is that I never found any sources of physical recreation I enjoyed, leading me to an almost completely sedentary lifestyle. Therefore, an important part of my journey in 2015 to lose weight and keep it off has been to seek out such activity. So far, I’ve had three successes.

I fell in love with Zumba almost as soon as I tried it. I’ll write about it more another time, but it makes me very happy and I can’t imagine a life without it now.

And I’ve developed a weird relationship with running. I can’t say that I enjoy it exactly; at least, not while I’m actually doing it. But I love the sense of challenge and achievement that I get from progressively improving my best times, and from completing events that are longer and harder than my usual runs. And friends in the ParkRun community have made me feel so welcome and at home. So, running will be an ongoing part of my life too.

Then there’s cycling, which has kind of snuck up on me.

I started riding a bike as a way to build “free” exercise into my day. That is, cycling to and from work wasn’t going to take any more time or create any greater inconvenience than public transport did already. I had never ridden a bike before, so I taught myself, bought myself my first bike—an elegant-looking cruiser—and off I went. At the time, I thought I was buying a bike for a single purpose: travelling only between work and home. However, almost immediately, I found myself cycling for all kinds of short trips. Bicycle had quickly become my primary means of transportation. Use-case one.

I soon discovered local communities of other cyclists who also enjoyed riding stylish, elegant bikes on short jaunts: the Style Over Speed group, and the Brisbane Bicycle Explorers’ Club. With them, I enjoyed joining my first group rides. Cycling had now crossed over into recreation, not just transportation. A second use-case.

The very day that I bought my bike, a friend challenged me to participate in a 100-km ride in five months’ time. Up to that point, I had ridden a bike on exactly three occasions, and covered a total distance of little over 5 kilometres. Of course, the idea was irresistible to me! Over the coming weeks and months, I became increasingly confident and competent on rides of up to around 10km, but I had no experience of what lay beyond; and certainly no idea of whether I could make it ten times that distance. So in August, I set out on some longer rides.

Almost every Sunday morning, I ventured further out along the bike paths. I started with rides around 30 km, which became rides of around 50 km, then 70 km, until on the first Sunday in October I rode 90 km. It was clear that I could certainly go the distance, but it also became increasingly clear that my commuter bike with its heavy steel frame, crude drivetrain components, and basic gears was particularly ill-suited to long-distance rides. I found I liked these longer rides, but Brisbane’s hilly terrain made parts of them extremely laborious. This severely restricted my speed, and therefore my range if I didn’t want to spend all day in the saddle. So, a third use-case had emerged, and it seemed quickly obvious that no single bike would suit all three cases well.

Breaking them down:
  • Style rides:  my cruiser is already perfect! A (modern) road bike would be out of place here. 
  • Transport: my cruiser is pretty good, but better hubs and gears, lighter tyres, and swapping some steel components for aluminium will improve her, and I plan to make those changes progressively over time. A road bike is less well suited to this for me because of its diminished carrying capacity, lack of mudguards, pneumatic tyres (I run solid tyres on the cruiser—for when you absolutely, positively know you won't be late somewhere because of a puncture, or be changing a tyre in your good clothes), and having to worry a lot more about security. 
  • Long-distance recreational rides: the hunt is on for a separate bike to satisfy this third use case—a road bike.

So, updating the criteria I had for my original commuting use-case, what I’d ideally like from a road bike is:
  • Comfortable — Initial research has disclosed a class of road bikes optimised for longer-distance rides. Known as “endurance” or sometimes “marathon” bikes, they’re set up for a little more comfort over long distance at the expense of a little speed due to their higher riding posture. In other words, they’re exactly what I’m looking for, since racing is not on the agenda.
  • Lightweight — Weights of around half that of my 16-kg commuter certainly make road bikes easier to move up hills and less tiring over long distances. I’ve decided to focus my search on bikes with carbon frames.
  • Step-through frame. I still want a bike where the frame is less likely to take me down with it if the bike topples, or injure me with its top tube.
  • Pretty! I love my cruiser—I love looking at her, I love thinking about her. I need to love any other bike I buy too. I once bought a very sensible, reliable car that I ended up loathing for years because it had so little personality or flair. I won’t make that mistake again. 
  • (I dropped a fifth criterion—platform pedals—when I learned that bikes in the class I’m looking at here don’t come with pedals. And even if they did, they’re trivial to swap over).
I do not believe I will find a bike to satisfy all these criteria. In particular, lightness and the step-through frame appear to be incompatible wants. At least, I haven’t been able to find anybody making really light-weight step-through road bikes. Step-through road bikes of any kind at all are extremely few and far between.

Anyway, the preliminary, online research is done; some brands and models have been noted, and the search can now begin in earnest.

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