Wednesday, January 28, 2015

High Performance Upright: Towards a New Category?

I curated this Flickr gallery to start cataloguing and expressing a type of bicycle that I would like to use this oh-so-neglected blog to highlight, discuss, and promote. This is a type of bicycle that I have become interested in over the past couple of years through my own riding and tinkering, through my work in a small bike shop focused on fun, practical bikes, and through my participation in certain online niche cycling communities, namely the Rivendell Owners’ Bunch, the iBOB list, and the larger Flickr cycling community

I struggled to name the Flickr gallery as I started to build it, because I don’t think that this type of bicycle is as of yet instantiated enough in cycling culture to have a named category strongly associated with it. As this type of bike started to become a regular occurrence at the shop where I worked the past couple of years, my boss there started calling the category “High Quality Casual.” Certainly, this started to get to some of what this category is about, because at first glance these bikes seemed similar in overall configuration to a “hybrid” or “sport comfort” bike. However, the bikes I’m referring to generally have a higher quality of frame and components than is typically found on a bike intended for someone who doesn’t want to spend more than, say, $1000 on a bicycle, and takes a relatively non-strenuous approach to riding. However, I don’t think that “High Quality Casual” fully captures what this category is about for me.

The strongest similarity between the category of bicycle that I’m trying to describe and “casual” bikes is the handlebar setup, particularly the shape of the handlebars and their position. Perhaps the biggest identifying feature is some type of swept-back upright handlebar, set so the grips are near, at, or above saddle height. And it is exactly this feature which causes many “real” (read, not “casual”) cyclists to dismiss such a setup offhand. “Oh, I like to do long rides/ride quickly/climb hills/go touring so that type of setup isn’t going to work for me.” Or, “that’d be great if were just commuting, but I want to use this bike for recreational riding as well.” In short: upright handlebars aren’t really appropriate for any type of riding where performance matters, right?

Here’s the thing: since I built up my Surly Long Haul Trucker with an upright handlebar setup almost two years ago, it has become my preferred bicycle for pretty much everything, including long day rides, fast rides, rides with lots of climbing, and, as of this past August when I did the SF-LA route on it, touring as well. Namely: riding where performance matters. The handlebars don't hold me back; in fact, they make it easier and more comfortable to get the most out of my bike. Before this, in my first ~ten years as a “serious” cyclist, the bikes I used for these purposes all had drop bars. Sure, some of them were funky drop bar setups, with wide, flared, shallow-drop bars set at or above seat height, but they were all drop bar bikes, because that’s what you needed to really get the most out of your bike and yourself. The Surly changed all that. It showed me that a bike with an upright, comfortable riding position can also be a high-performance bicycle. It can come close to that holy grail for many cyclists, the one bike that can do pretty much everything.

Thus, it is this combination of upright comfort and high performance that really defines the category I’m getting at here. In addition to upright bars, these bikes have frames made from high-quality materials (mostly some type of chromoly steel) that balance strength, light weight, and ride quality. These bikes have lightweight wheels and fast, supple (though not necessarily skinny) tires. They have high-quality, high-performance drivetrains that shift cleanly and easily, with gearing appropriate to the terrain they are designed to encounter. They have highly effective braking systems for good control, and they handle well on variety of surfaces. In short, they are every bit as efficient as modern bikes can be, but without the drop bars or low, flat, straight handlebars traditionally associated with performance.

So, the Flickr gallery was named “High Performance Upright Bikes,” and that’s what I’m going to try to flesh out in some upcoming posts. Certainly, it’s not the catchiest name and it is kind of a mouthful, but I do think it’s the clearest description of the category I’m trying to describe.