If you look around Toronto, you’ll see a wide variety of people on bikes. Many ride whatever was cheapest and available, be it a hand-me-down, used bike, or Canadian Tire junker. Others have more specific tastes that run into the thousands of dollars.
There’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach to cycling, so let me get some of my personal preferences out of the way: I like going fast. The longer your ride, the less practical a casual pace becomes. I love the fact that I can often travel faster than the TTC over medium distances. I like long rides, and the longer you ride in Toronto, the more likely you are to run into some hills.
Needless to say, the prospect of riding a heavy Dutch-style bike offers no appeal to me whatsoever. Ditto a fixed-gear bike: I suppose it’s great for keeping maintenance costs low and getting around downtown, but I want some different gearing options when faced with a hill.
But I don’t judge. I may sigh inside when I see a bike with a chain in dire need of oil or a seat that’s far too low, but everyone has their own thing. And once you move into the more expensive range of bikes, it’s probably safe to say that it’s been chosen for in response to the rider’s specific tastes.
A bike is often my second choice of transportation. If I can walk somewhere within 20-30 minutes, I’ll usually do so. Cycling might get me there a bit faster, but also slows me down with locking and unlocking, and carries with it the possibility of theft or vandalism. When I bike, it’s usually for mid-to-long range trips; if you only ever use your bike for puttering around downtown, everything I’m about to say may be utterly useless to you.
And as we shall soon discover, I don’t care how I look while I’m cycling. To be fair, I don’t really care how I look most of the time; some occasions call for proper clothes, while others call for sitting around in whatever’s comfortable. Some cycling gear may appear dorky, but it also has a specific purpose.
You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on bike gear. But a few good gear choices here and there can add a lot to your ride.
For pure practicality, I love the Trek FX line of hybrid bikes. There’s a good range of variety – the basic model goes for around $500, and fancier models get up into the thousands. It easily fits a rack and it’ll support some weight during your commute, but it’s also light and fast enough to be fun to ride just for the heck of it.
I bought a decent road bike last summer which I absolutely love, but the FX is still a great bike for almost anything you need.
(Some day, I hope to upgrade to one of these for commuting purposes.)
Fashion & Function
You don’t need to get all decked out in lycra to ride a bike. On the other hand, the increasingly popular notion of “cycle chic” – wearing “regular”, fashionable clothes while biking – isn’t always practical. I’ve heard people suggest you wear the same clothes for biking as you do for walking, but that opens up a wide range of options. Some people have a pair of comfortable walking shoes and a pair of formal business shoes. Sometimes on a hot day in the summer, I’ll bring a change of shirt with me when walking just so I don’t arrive at work a sweaty mess.
If you have a 10-20 minute casual ride, it probably doesn’t matter what you wear. But if you need to ride farther and faster, sweat will eventually become a problem. My preference while commuting has generally been to change clothes completely. Far from being an inconvenience, I find it remarkably practical and freeing. It saves me from worrying about what I do when I’m riding: I can move quickly and know there’s a stick of deoderant and a clean shirt waiting for me at work, and I don’t have to worry about puddles or rain.
Yes, I know: They look stupid. For a long time, I never even considered them. But as I started going on longer and longer rides, I realized that regular shorts or pants just weren’t comfortable. There are two main areas where bike shorts help:
The padding is obvious. Having a bit of cushion in certain areas can make you a lot more comfortable as you spend more time on the bike.
(While we’re talking about your butt and your genitals, remember: the softests saddle isn’t always the best one – choose a seat that suits your riding style, and try to get it “fitted” and adjusted as much as possible)
The other factor is the form-fitting fabric. Regular shorts & underwear can bunch up, get sweaty, and rub against you in places you’d rather not be rubbed. Bike shorts may be silly, but they’re incredibly comfortable if you start going for longer rides in hotter weather.
I’ve found that “entry level” shorts – say, $40 or less – may feel padded in the store, but are less than satisfactory when you get out on the road. You don’t want to dive in and buy an expensive pair (though if you have the cash, I strongly recommend a pair of these), but try to remember you’ll get what you pay for.
One important reminder about bike shorts: like anything else, they won’t last forever. Unlike other shorts, they may develop a certain transparent quality when they’ve been around for too many years. I once got stuck behind a guy on Queen’s Quay who should have retired his pair at least a year ago. It was unpleasant.
If the fashion faux-pas of shorts appalls you, the prospect of being physically attached to your pedals may give you a panic attack. But really, it’s cool. Don’t worry.
The concept behind clip-in shoes (though most modern models are referred to as “clipless”, for reasons that only make sense if you understand the history of bicycle pedals) is simple: When you ride with normal shoes & pedals, only half of your leg motion is propelling the bike. You push down, and then your leg is kind of useless until the other leg pushes it to the top again.
So with shoes that are clipped in to the pedals, you can push down, and then pull up. You can go faster this way, but perhaps more important is that climbing hills just got a whole lot easier.
But what about falling over? Well, yeah, that’ll probably happen once or twice. I’ve only fallen down once, the first time I went riding with my new shoes and pedals. I slowed down as I approached a red light, fidgeted and tried to get my foot out, slowed down some more, still couldn’t get my foot out, slowed to the pace of a toddler, and then I fell over.
It was far more embarrassing than it was painful.
But it only happens once or twice, and you quickly get the knack of twisting your foot to disconnect. And in an emergency, I’ve managed to yank my foot out of the pedal without much thought. If you’re really afraid, you could try some spinning classes – not only will you get the hang of getting in and out of the pedals, but you’ll also fine-tune your new pushing-and-pulling pedal stroke.
Back to the shoes: You may have seen the shoes serious road cyclists wear, and you’d be right if you think they look a little silly. They’re made for pedalling, not for walking – balance is a little precarious, and they’re not at all comfortable for walking; I once had to walk across Exhibition Place from the Martin Goodman Trail due to a flat tire and busted valve, and it wasn’t fun.
But there’s a wide range of shoes available, and some of them might not even look like “cycling shoes”. Commuter shoes have clip-in cleats recessed into a fairly normal-looking sole, so they’re perfectly good for walking around while you’re running errands. They’ll never be as comfortable as normal walking shoes – the sole is stiffer, and the cleat in the middle can create some traction problems – but they offer a reasonable compromise.
If you’re unsure about committing to bike shoes, you can also find pedals that acommodate both a “clip” and a regular shoe.
Riding around with your feet clipped into your pedals is a strange experience, but once you get used to it, it’s hard to go back.
Hey, I just wrote about helmets. You should totally wear one.
I don’t have a lot of specific advice for choosing a helmet, other than that you should wear one you might like. You can buy a safe helmet for a fairly low price ($30-40), but if you find it uncomfortable and hate the colour, you might not wear it as much. I prefer something fairly light with some good ventilation, but your mileage may vary.
Some Things You Should Have
The further you go from home – or a convenient TTC trip – the more likely it is a problem will ruin your ride, if not your entire day. It’s impossible to prepare for every situation, but it’s easy to be prepared for the most common problems.
- A patch kit – most of the time, you can fix your inner tube in 5-10 minutes.
- A spare inner tube – because sometimes you can’t. I once patched a tube, only to have a broken valve render it useless; another time, I ran over a nail that went right through the tube and embedded itself in the rim.
- A portable pump or CO2 inflater. Patching a tube doesn’t help if you can’t fill it with air. CO2 inflaters have their pros and cons: They’ll inflate your tire much fuller and faster than a hand pump, but they’re single-use, so you’ll need to bring at least one spare, just in case.
- A multi-tool kit. You cand find a basic one for $10-20 – a solid collection of allan keys and wrenches won’t fix everything, but may fix enough to allow you to limp home.
- A TTC token. Because sometimes, you can’t fix everything.
All of these things – plus my cellphone, and sometimes an energy bar or two – will fit in my small seat bag. Like a helmet, you may not need them, but you’ll want them when you do. This actually doesn’t fit with my “Cycle Dork” theme, as you could probably carry them around in a very fashionable bag.
In addition to the portable pump, get yourself a good floor pump for home. A full-inflated tire is a happy tire – you’ll move faster, and be less susceptible to “pinch flats” (when a slightly-deflated tire gets caught against the rim of the wheel).