Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Right Bike for NYC (and Dreaming of My Next Set of Wheels)

New York is a truly vast city.  The distance from Coney Island, at the southeastern tip of Brooklyn, to the northernmost point of Manhattan at Inwood is more than 25 miles. In between there are 8 million residents and literally thousands of congested roads in all states of repair.

For bicyclists, New York at its best is a welcoming place to ride and, at its worst, life endangering. The city welcomes riders more fully every year as new bike lanes are established, many of which are fully separated from motor traffic and even have their own bicycle traffic lights.  As a result, and due to the pro-cycling advocacy of non-profits such as Transportation Alternatives, the number of New Yorkers who commute by bicycle to and from work has, per my observation, risen dramatically over the decade I’ve lived here.  Where I was once one of a few lonely cycling pioneers on the city’s roads, today I often find myself caught in heavy bicycle traffic during rush hour, frequently becoming part of an ad hoc bicycle convoy as I ride southward on 2nd Avenue toward the Manhattan Bridge and my apartment in Brooklyn.

Commutes in New York can be long, the traffic can be frightening and fierce, and the potholes jarring. For bicyclists, all of this means that the choice of bicycle is very important to making a commute manageable and enjoyable (yes, even in NYC it can be fun to ride a bike – there’s no better way to quickly and intimately take in the city’s diverse neighborhoods, sights and smells than on two wheels).

My ride to work is 8.5 miles each way, or about 45 minutes in the saddle once traffic lights, congestion and detours are factored in. A classic road bike would be best under most circumstances for such a long ride, but not in New York. Here I need to have my environment in clear and easy view, and only an upright bicycle such as a mountain bike or hybrid allows for that.  I ride a 6 year old Kona Dew Deluxe, which has a relaxed road geometry and flat handle bar along with skinny road tires, 24 speeds and disc brakes.  The bike is the best compromise I’ve found for longer urban distances. The road geometry and skinny tires keep weight down, making it easy to maintain speed and keep up with traffic. The short wheelbase allows the bike to turn quickly while the disc brakes help me to stop very quickly and securely when an emergency looms. The brakes are a particular wonder, they have amazing power and are extremely durable. I’m still on my first pair of brake shoes even though I use the brakes heavily, and often.

The tradeoff for quickness and speed is a jarring ride. The skinny tires roll smoothly on the best pavement, but their high pressure tubes transmit jolts from every expansion joint, crack and undulation in the pavement. On certain days, when I’m tired or maybe haven’t spent much time on the bike of late and am a bit out of shape, I feel abused by the bike’s ride harshness. When I’m in my groove, strong and agile, the jolts that are transmitted through handlebar, seat and pedals feel, more positively, like just one more way that New York city is reaching up to challenge me to be faster, tougher and more resilient. On those days I get a rush out of dodging in and out of traffic, and appreciate the easy speed I can maintain while riding along the city’s smoother protected bike lanes. These are the times when I know that I’d never want to navigate the city by mountain bike. Too much work for too little velocity. The classic road racing bike would be too dangerous, I wouldn’t be able to easily look up and around to see what’s coming, at what I have to avoid, and I’d miss many of the sights that make riding through the city such a unique and exciting experience.

Lately, I’ve been contemplating buying a second bike for longer rides. The Kona is great for daily jaunts of up to 10 or 12 miles. But if the ride gets longer, the hybrid setup starts to become more of a burden than an enabler.  It isn’t a bike that I’d be comfortable taking on the New York Century bike ride every September. After 25 miles, the shortest ride available that day, I’d have had enough.

Yesterday I happened by a local bike shop and stopped in for a look around. On the wall there was a Specialized Allez road racing bike, bottom-of-the-line model, for a price that I could conceivably afford. The shop hand said he’d make me a deal (no better time to buy a bike in New York than winter). I’m weighing the purchase. On one hand, with the new bike I’d be able to go for longer rides around Prospect Park and really get a chance to get my legs in shape.  I also imagine taking the bike up to Westchester, or out to Pennsylvania from time to time for a true long distance country ride. Hey, I have a significant birthday coming up, why not live it up.

On the other hand, rational logic tells me that I’m the father of two young boys. When would I have time for said long rides?  I live cramped in a single floor apartment where the entry hall is already clogged by two strollers, a tricycle, multiple mops, buckets, boxes of toys and, yes, the Kona.  Where would I put a second bike?  How would I get that past my wife?  And, hey, shouldn’t I be putting aside my money for a mortgage down payment..... Ahh, oy, aargh.

One thing I do know.  When the slush outside dries up, I’m going to stop by that bike shop for a test ride.


Bemopti123 said...

I live in the outerboroughs. Meaning Queens. I have space to put my collection of bicycles that date back to my graduate school days back in Kansas (2 of them) and several others I acquire as of late. I bought an Allez, which was in the middle range of the models. It is an excellent road bicycle and after you have been riding your Kona, you will be for a treat. The Specialized Allez Apex Compact which I have is smoother than my 2 other steel rides. Amazing.

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Andrew Brown said...

I currently have a Specialized Sirrus for my commuting. I am contemplating going cyclocross with my next bike. Part of my rational is that the "lower end" cyclocross bikes are really becoming super commuters. Another part of my rational is that when I road the century last year I kept passing road bikes that had flats and broken spokes. My short list now includes the Kona Jake, the Bianchi Volpe and a few others. My issue is that I have to lock up outside during the day and the early evening so I will have to carry 2 New York Kryptonite locks. What do you lock up with?