Are you looking for an activity that’s low-impact, burns lots of calories, strengthens your heart, tightens and tones your legs, hips, and glutes, builds endurance, and transports you where you want to go quickly and efficiently? Biking might be just the thing. In this article, I’ll cover everything you need to know about biking, from types of bikes and how to select one to how to get started.
What is the history of biking?
The search for a “human-powered” vehicle was first described by French mathematician Jacques Ozanam in his 1696 publication Recreations Mathematiques et Physiques, in which he describes the advantages of “a device in which one can drive oneself wherever one pleases, without horses.” His publication featured a design by Dr. Elie Richard for a massive four-wheeled carriage which could be steered in front by the driver and pedaled in the back by a servant who stepped up and down to drive the axel. This predecessor of the modern bicycle lasted for more than 100 years without significant modification despite many attempts to do so.
It wasn’t until 1813 when Karl von Drais, a German baron, built a four-wheeled vehicle that carried two to four passengers in which one or more riders worked a crank with their legs while another steered the device with a tiller. This didn’t exactly catch on, and so in 1817, von Drais introduced what became known as a draisine or velocipede (from the Latin words meaning fast foot). It was a slender vehicle made almost entirely of wood except for the iron tires which were positioned in a straight line. The rider sat almost completely erect and drove the device forward by pushing off the ground with one foot, then the other, as if walking or running. Drais was able to reach speeds a high as 12 miles per hour, and his device caught the attention of the public. In 1818, he rode more than 50 miles from Mannheim to Frankfurt and received patents from France and Germany.
Over the next century, the velocipede underwent many modifications as technology improved. In the 1860s the term bicycle was introduced. By the early 1890s, bicycling had caught on. Bicycles were safer, pneumatic (air-filled) tires made bicycles faster, and more than 150,000 bicycles had been sold in the United States alone. The improvement in speed naturally sparked road races, and thus long- and short-distance races sprouted up all over Europe and the United States (the Michelin Company sponsored a 260-mile race from Paris to its headquarters in Clermont-Ferrand). Racetracks and cycling clubs grew in popularity (the League of American Wheelmen, still in existence and now called the League of American Bicyclists, lobbied for better roads for cyclists and automobiles), and by the end of the 1800s, bicycling was common as a method for recreation and commuting to work. By the 1890s, there were more than 25 bicycle manufacturers alone in Chicago, including the newcomer, Arnold, Schwinn and Company.
By the mid-1930s, European bicycle manufacturers were building lightweight bicycles made of alloy materials (most bikes weighed more than 50 pounds up until then), the geometry of bicycles was changing to create more comfortable and faster bicycles, and gears were introduced to make the riding easier and faster. Ten-speed derailleur bikes became very popular in the 1970s, although they had been invented before the turn of the century in Europe. By the 1980s, high-tech and lightweight frames were made of titanium, alloys of aluminum, and finally carbon fiber (the frame of the road model used by Lance Armstrong weighed only 2.5 pounds!).
Today more than 15-20 million new bicycles are sold each year in the United States, and according to a bicycle survey sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, approximately 57 million people age 16 or older rode a bicycle at least once during the summer of 2002. Can 57 million be wrong? Bicycling can fulfill a multitude of purposes, and if you’re not pedaling, now may be the time!
What are the types of bicycles?
You’re in for a shock if it has been years since you’ve shopped for a bicycle. It’s no longer just five- or 10-speed men’s and women’s bikes. Today you have many choices depending on your interest and goals. In the text below, I’ve described seven different types of bicycles to choose from:traditional (Cruiser), hybrid, racing, touring, mountain, folding, and adult trike. I’ve also included a glossary of terms to help you through the myriad of stuff that makes up biking.
Traditional or cruiser bikes
These are the Cadillacs of bikes. The types and styles these bikes come in are as varied as the numerous models of luxury vehicles available. They are built with one thing in mind…comfort. But comfort comes at a cost; these bikes are heavy, weighing as much as 35-50 pounds. Adding to the weight are the optional front-suspension forks (like a shock absorber on a car), anywhere from one to 21 gears, wide tires (there has been a recent resurgence of the old-style balloon tire because of its “retro” good looks and reliability), spring-suspension seats (seat-post suspension on some), step-through design which means large and heavy tubular frame design for stability, fenders, front and rear lights, air pumps, and racks or baskets to carry your stuff. The handlebars are high so that you sit upright; the advantage to this geometry is that it reduces strain on your neck and back and makes it easier to see where you are going and easier to be seen, but the disadvantage is that you go slower because you are less aerodynamic when you sit up. But traditional bikes aren’t built for speed! These bikes are perfect for leisurely riding around town and for commuting. This is a very stable bike and good for beginners.
Hybrid bikes are a cross between a mountain bike and a road bike. They first appeared in the late 1980s and have gained popularity in the past five to 10 years. Hybrids are probably the best all-around bike since they combine the best features of mountain and road bikes. They are fast, sturdy, and handle well on tarmac (they can take a small pothole) as well as on light trails. You can ride them leisurely around town, comfortably on longer rides, and off road when the need arises (but not on extreme trails). Frames are typically made of carbon fiber or aluminum alloy to keep them lightweight and fast but durable, and they typically have 21-27 gears (making long-distance riding and hills more manageable). The saddle is wider than a racing saddle but narrower than a big, cushy, spring-loaded one (you ride faster on a narrow saddle). Some hybrids come with an adjustable handlebar stem so that you can raise or lower the handlebars for slow, casual riding (sitting upright), or fast riding while leaning forward. Front forks on hybrids may be wide enough to accommodate avariety of tire sizes; wide, knobby, mountain-bike tires for more shock absorbtion and stability in rain, snow, or rough roads; or thinner road tires when you want to ride fast on smooth streets. Hybrids can be fixed up with fenders for commuting (to keep water from splashing on your slacks), a chain guard (to keep the chain oil off your clothes), kickstands, and lights. All of theses accessories add weight to the bike but make it safer and cleaner for riding around town. The hybrid is the one to choose if you’re looking for an all-around bike that you can use in the city, around town, for longer rides in the country, and even for light, off-road paths. It’s an excellent choice for beginners.
Racing or road bike
This is not the bike for a beginner or for those getting back into biking after a multi-decade hiatus. These bikes are made of ultra-light composite fibers and are built for speed (this is the type Lance Armstrong and the others bikers ride in the Tour de France). They feature very thin tires (at very high pressure, which make them fast but bumpy), drop handlebars (you ride very hunched over to cut down on wind resistance), narrow saddle, and many gears (gears on racing bikes are very close together, which allows the rider to match the gear precisely for the conditions). There are no frills, no reflectors, no kickstand, no fenders. They are designed to be as lightweight and aerodynamic as possible.
Touring bikes are designed for long-distance, multi-day, or weeklong adventures. They are built for reliability, strength, and comfort. They are lighter than a hybrid or mountain bike but heavier than a racing bike. The handlebars can be adjusted to drop down for speed or be upright for more comfort and taking in the scenery. They are fitted with front and rear panniers to carry all your stuff and at least 21 gears to get you up the steepest hills even with all the excess baggage. Although this bike is built for the demands of long-distance riding, you could use it around town as a commuting bike as well.
Mountain bikes are perfect for riding in the rain, snow, and of course, over rocks, tree roots, or pretty much whatever else the trail throws at you. The frames are made from composite materials to keep the weight down but the durability high (you don’t want the frame to fail while you’re riding over rocks and roots). Mountain bikes have suspension in the front which increases traction and comfort (some do not, which means the rider should be very skilled to negotiate the terrain safely), and sometimes there is suspension in the rear as well (full-suspension). Suspension adds weight to the bike, and so there is a trade-off between comfort, safety, and weight. Mountain bikes typically have 21-27 gears, although there is a recent trend for minimalist, single-gear mountain bikes. Brake design has shifted from rim brakes to disc brakes because of the superior stopping and the ability to stay dry and clean, which means better performance in the rain and the dirt. Wheels come in different widths and diameter depending on the terrain and style of riding (trails, jumping, etc.). The tires are knobby to increase traction and use tubed or tubeless designs. Tubeless tires resist the type of flat called a pinch flat, where the inner tube gets caught (pinched) between the rim and the tire. A pinch flat differs from a puncture flat, where an object (nail or glass) punctures the tire and the tube. The riding position is upright so you can see where you’re going.
Mountain-bike riding has various degrees of technicality depending on how tough the trail is, and so you ought to find someone with mountain-biking experience to show you the ropes or find a class to get you started. Your local bike shop probably has information on mountain-bike instruction (where to go, who will teach you, difficulty of the trails, etc.).
I have a particular fondness for folding bikes (I own two of them). They’re great for riding around town (the upright posture allows you to be seen by cars and pedestrians and allows you to see everything, too), they accelerate and maneuver through traffic better than larger bikes, they’re great for commuting to work (fold it up and bring it inside), and you can fold one up and put it in the trunk of your car or pack it in a backpack (the bike manufacturers’ custom design), duffel bag, or suitcase and take it with you on a bus, train, or plane.
Folding bikes are nothing new. They are very popular in Europe and Asia and have been around since World War II, when soldiers used them for transportation.
Folding bikes use smaller wheels than standard size bikes, typically 16 or 20 inches compared with 26 inches. Folding is made possible through the use of hinges and clamps. Most manufacturers use hinges in the middle of the frame and clamps so you can lower or remove the seat post and steering stem. The end result is a bike folded in half, not much longer than the diameter of the wheels and not much wider than two and a half to three times the width of the bike unfolded. Foldable pedals are available to keep the width tight. The entire folding process can take less than one minute when you get good at it.
Folding bikes are heavier than you might think. Some can weigh as much as 25 pounds or even more. The reason is that the frames must be thick because of the long seat post and handlebar stem, which make the bike somewhat unstable compared to traditional sized diamond-frame bikes. But this is not really a downside because the bike is not built for racing (although there are folding bike races these days); rather, it is built for getting it out of the way in small spaces, getting where you need to go, commuting, and packing it up to travel if you need to. They’re a great investment if you have any of these needs.
Bike riding is a terrific activity for individuals of all ages. It’s easy on the joints, gets the heart rate elevated, and is good for flexibility and strength in the legs. But balance is an issue for some people, and the fear and risk of falling is legitimate. The solution is simple…adult tricycles or trikes. They’re grown-up three-wheelers, and they’re awesome and stylish. They’re heavy duty (some can support up to 300 pounds), they have baskets for carrying packages so you can do your errands, and they provide almost everyone an opportunity for exercise and freedom of movement for those individuals who might not be able to get around. With adult trikes, there’s really no excuse for not getting out there.
Glossary of biking terms
Aerodynamic: cuts down on wind resistance. Generally in biking, this refers to the frame design and how much you lean forward while riding. The more forward and down you are, the more aerodynamic you are, which allows you to ride faster.
Alloy: a mixture of different metals that are combined to take the best features from each. For instance, aluminum alloys are used for bicycle frames to keep them light because aluminum is very lightweight, but because it’s not an innately stout metal, the addition of other, stronger metals gives the bike the strength and durability it needs.
Cage or toe-clip pedals: a platform pedal with a strap and a cage or clip that your foot slips into. It keeps your foot on the pedal and allows for pulling up on the upstroke of the pedal cycle to add additional power. The disadvantage is that your foot is in the cage, and if you were to fall, you must pull your foot out backward to release it. The strap should not be set so tight that your foot cannot release quickly.
Carbon fiber: a light but strong material used for frame tubing. It’s also known as graphite.
Chrome moly: Short for chromium molybdenum, it’s an alloy that is stronger and heavier than aluminum, but because it’s more flexible, it absorbs bumps better. Aluminum by itself tends to be stiff, so the alloy helps.
Clipless pedals: A bit of a misnomer, clipless pedals actually have a clip on them that allows a cycling shoe to clip in to it (clipless originally meant without a toe clip and the term stuck). This system allows the rider to push down and pull up during the pedal stroke to add additional power. Clipless pedals are for experienced bikers because of the potential danger of being attached to the pedal, and they typically are used only on aggressive hybrid or racing bikes.
Cycling shoe: Special shoes that attach to the clip-in system on the pedal via a cleat in the bottom of the shoe. The rider snaps the shoe cleat into or on the pedal with downward pressure and releases it quickly with a twist. Beginners do not need cycling shoes, but as you ride longer and faster, a cycling shoe and clipless pedal may become more appealing.
Diamond frame: A high top tube makes the frame diamond-shaped. This is the traditional, “men’s” bike, where the rider must sling his leg over the back of the bike to mount it. It is by design more stable than a step-through frame, but technology and materials today make step-throughs just as stable and safe.
Derailleur: A device that guides a bicycle chain from one sprocket to another in order to change gears. It works when the rider pulls on a shift lever (located on the handlebars), which pulls a cable that moves the derailleur. There are generally two derailleurs on a geared bike – one front and one rear – although some bikes have only one derailleur on the rear (which makes it harder to pedal). The rear derailleur controls from three to eight sprockets on the back wheel, and the front derailleur controls two to three sprockets on the pedal crank. Importantly, derailleurs only work when the bike is moving, so don’t try to change gears when the bike is idle or when you are pedaling backward. Good technique while riding is to drop to a lower gear as you stop your bike so that the next time you get on you are already in a lower gear for an easy start.
Disc brakes: These brakes function better in the rain than rim brakes because they are located at the center of the wheel, which means they stay drier and cleaner. The disadvantage of disc brakes is the increased cost, greater weight, and maintenance. There are two types of disc brakes: hydraulic and mechanical. Hydraulic brakes push fluid through a hose to squeeze the pads together; mechanical brakes pull one pad toward the disc with a cable (a simpler and less expensive design than hydraulic).
Drop handlebar: handlebar that is curved forward and down so the rider can lean way over or sit more upright depending on conditions. It’s used for racing bikes.
Fork: the front part of the bike frame that holds the wheel.
Geometry: This describes the shape of the bike frame. Geometry of the frame affects how you fit on the bike and how the bike performs. For instance, aggressive geometry means the bike is designed for optimal aerodynamics and speed (the frame will slant forward and the handlebars will be drop-down so that the rider leans way forward).
Handlebar stem: the part that connects the handlebar to the fork.
Knobby tire: a tire with “knobs” that stick out from the tire for maximum traction on trails.
Panniers: These are baskets or bags that attach to bicycles to carry your stuff. Some are small for commuting (laptops, briefcase, etc.), while some may be bigger and hard-framed to carry groceries, while others are designed to hold sleeping bags, food, and others supplies for long-distance road and camping adventures where you might be out there for days or even weeks.
Platform pedal: the standard type of pedal where the rider can rest his foot on either side of the frame and the surface is flat. They are made of plastic, hardened rubber, or metal and typically have some grooves to keep traction with your shoe. The only disadvantage to this type of pedal is that your foot can slip off, but it’s the most common type of pedal that you see on hybrid and traditional bikes.
Rim brakes: A brake system where small rubber pads pinch down on the metal ring that holds the tire and the tube. This is the type of brake system you’re likely to have on a hybrid or traditional bike.
Saddle: the seat of a bicycle. The narrower the saddle, the faster you can go. Racing bikes use very narrow saddles.
Schraeder valve: the wide valve that you see on most inner tubes.
Presta valve: a valve used for thin tires. It’s smaller than a Schraeder valve.
Seat post: the tubular part of the frame that the saddle attaches to. The seat post can be adjusted up and down to fit your leg length.
Step-through frame: This is the old-fashioned “ladies” bike where the top tube (crossbar) is low (in comparison to a diamond frame). Traditionally this was used so women wearing skirts could get on their bikes by stepping through the middle of the bike. Step-through designs are typically weaker than diamond designs but with today’s technology the step-through frame can be beefed up for more durability and stiffness.
Tire: the rubber part of the wheel that contacts the road when you bike. Inside the tire is an inner tube that acts like a bladder and inflates with air. Tires come in various widths and tread depending on the purpose of your bike. A mountain bike will have wide, knobby tires for maximum traction, whereas a racing bike will have very thin and high-pressure tires to reduce resistance and increase speed.
Wheel: the part of the bike that consists of the tire, inner tube, hub, and spokes (not to be confused with the tire).
What size bike should I choose?
The standard wheel size is 26 inches (diameter), and so there’s not much decision there. The most important issue is frame size (which is measured in inches in the United States). Here are some guidelines for frame sizing when straddling the bike with both feet flat on the ground.
Racing, hybrid and touring bikes: a minimum of 1-inch clearance between the bottom of your crotch and the top tube of the frame.
Mountain bikes: a minimum of 3 inches of clearance between the bottom of your crotch and the top tube of the frame.
The distance from the saddle to the handlebars should also be considered, since the longer the bike frame the more you will lean forward when riding, which may or may not be desirable. Leaning forward is faster, but it may not be the posture you want. If you’re looking for speed, then leaning forward is more aerodynamic and that’s what you want; but if you suffer from an easily aggravated back or you’re looking for a bike to just cruise around in, commute to work, or do errands, then a more upright posture is all you need.
How do I choose what bike to buy?
As you can see, there are many choices. Think about what your goals and needs are. For instance, if you’re a beginner, then a hybrid or a traditional cruiser will be your best bet. Whether you’ve decided or not, the best thing to do is head down to your local bike shop, discuss your options with the salesperson, let the salesperson fit you properly, and then try some of the bikes out on the road. Your bike should feel stable, comfortable, and simple to use (gears and brakes should work without a hitch). I don’t recommend buying a bike online because your bike will need adjustments, and it’s going to be difficult to know for sure if it will feel right if you don’t try it first.
Can I adjust my bike?
Yes. Seat posts can be adjusted up and down, and some saddles can be tilted forward and back. Adjust your seat post so that your leg is almost straight at the bottom of a pedal cycle. Handlebar stems can also be adjusted up and down on some bikes. Adjust your handlebar stem until your arms are in a comfortable position; there is no standard height for the handlebars.
How do I go about getting started bicycling?
“It’s like riding a bike, you never forget!” This is true! We have muscle memory for riding, and it will come back to you even if you haven’t ridden since you were a kid. I’ve taught adults how to ride again after more than 30 years of not riding! And if you’ve never ridden, you can learn. Check with your local bike shop to see if they offer lessons, and if you don’t have a bike, check for rentals. Rental bikes are typically heavy-duty mountain bikes, and so they are stable, sturdy, and relatively easy to ride. It might take more than one lesson if you’re a beginner, but chances are you’ll be riding after an hour or two of instruction. And don’t forget adult trikes if two-wheel riding isn’t ever going to do it for you!
Where can I ride my bike?
Local parks are the obvious choice, but check your local recreation department or bike shop for trails you may not know about. In some locations, communities close main thoroughfares on weekends for people to bike on, and many cities are also designating bike lanes on the road. Many areas also boast a strong community of riders who gather frequently for short rides. This is an excellent opportunity to learn of the best riding trails in your area and make some new friends.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization that converts unused railroad corridors into trails for biking and walking. They have more than 100,000 members and supporters and have built nearly 13,600 miles of rail-trails throughout the United States. Check them out online to see if there’s a trail near you (http://www.railtrails.org/).