What Makes a Bike a City Bike?

14 Jun

Maybe it’s the warm weather or the long days, but in the last month I’ve had more requests from friends about city bikes: What should I look for? Which bikes do you recommend? Where should I go to buy one? Considering these questions came from experienced road racers that taught me bike skills over the years, I was flattered.

Before I can answer what bikes I recommend or where to find one, let’s start with the basics: Just what makes a bike a city bike anyway? First, a city bike is designed for cross-town trips in street clothes–you’ll hop on and pedal away. City bikes are not about riding your fastest or getting a workout. They’re about getting from point A to point B with minimal preparation. City bikes are about dressing for the destination, not the ride.

This means that city bikes have details that performance bicycles–both road and dirt–don’t have, either because they add weight or get in the way when you’re hucking off a boulder. First on the list are flat pedals. How can you hop on and go if you have to change shoes or clack around in shoes that have cleats at your destination?

Next is a basket or rack to carry your briefcase, your groceries, your purse or your jacket. If you carry things on your bike, you’ll want a kickstand. It’s too much work to balance the bike when you’re loading gear. And city bikes have upright geometries, so you can relax as you pedal and have a clear view of the city around you.

A good city bike also comes with handy features that few bikes for sale in North America offer:

  • Fenders: if you want to ride in the rain or after a rain
  • Front and rear lights: if you want to ride after dark
  • Chain guard: if you want to ride in pants
  • Step-through frame: if you want to ride in a dress
  • Bell: if you want to ride on paths shared with walkers

It’s interesting to me that most of these features were standard on American bikes until the 1970s when 10-speed bicycles pushed the industry toward racing-style performance at the expense of all-around usefulness, comfort and just plain fun. I don’t know why the market couldn’t support both. I know my garage does.

What do you appreciate most about your city bike? If you don’t have a city bike, what city bike feature do you wish your bike had?


Posted by on June 14, 2012 in Around Town, Gear Talk


15 responses to “What Makes a Bike a City Bike?

  1. Frank Peters

    June 14, 2012 at 12:29 am

    Fat tires for a comfy ride!

    Another great post!

    • ladyfleur

      June 14, 2012 at 10:08 am

      Of course, how did I forget to mention the fat tires!

  2. Vicki

    June 14, 2012 at 2:22 am

    Flat protection. I have it on my bikes and would not like riding to work if I had flats with any sort of frequency. I would also not want to ride with drop bars in the city, and a loopframe makes it much easier to get on and off the bike with some elegance rather than lifting my leg over the saddle.

    • ladyfleur

      June 14, 2012 at 10:12 am

      Definitely agree about tough tires that are designed to resist flats, especially since I ride for about 1/2 mile on gravel every day. I don’t particularly like drop bars in the city for the reason you cite, but also because as soon as I get lower and more aerodynamic I end up riding faster and sweating more. There’s something about that position that makes me want to push harder.

  3. Rachel Unger

    June 14, 2012 at 9:45 am

    I will admit, sometimes I do want a chainguard… but for the most part, my Vita does the job. I hopped on it this Monday, wearing heels, and pedaled to the park behind the library. My saddlebag had the blanket, bowls, utensils, and rice. I bungeed the curry tupperware to the top of the rack. It worked. I got some strange looks, but it worked. Part of it is that I bought a bike that could have a rack, and I do all my rides in sneakers. My setup allows for city riding from the start.

    That said, I really do wish that it would support a kickstand. Apparently I can do one that installs on the bottom bar, alongside the back wheel… if I special-order it. Grump.

    • ladyfleur

      June 14, 2012 at 10:07 am

      I don’t have a chainguard on Zella, my old mountain bike that I converted to a city bike. I was able to add the rack, basket, fenders and flat pedals, but not a chain guard. It’s not a problem most of the time, but I hate having to tie back a pants leg. It’s just so dorky.

      I definitely agree about the kickstand. You should just special order the one that installs near the rear wheel. I bought one for my old road bike converted to touring and it works well. Photos are here:

      Your picnic behind the library sounds really sweet. But I’m curious about the heels. Were you trying to impress someone (i.e. a date) or were you just dressing up for yourself (something I completely approved of)?

      • Rachel Unger

        June 14, 2012 at 10:48 am

        Mostly, I think I felt like it should be a date, and I felt like dressing up for it. Spur of the moment impulse.

        Also, my boyfriend and I had gone to an open house this weekend. It was hilariously bad. They had clearly realized that the house was stuck in the 70’s and so they ran with it. One of the things they did was have a pair of high heels “artfully” scattered across a white shag rug in the bedroom. I made a point of “artfully” scattering my heels on the edge of the picnic blanket. So the dressy impulse ended up having some humor to go with it.

      • ladyfleur

        June 14, 2012 at 10:53 am

        Rachel, tell me you took a photo of the scattered heels on the picnic blanket. You can’t keep that to yourself.

      • Rachel Unger

        June 14, 2012 at 11:21 am

        Alas, no. It didn’t occur to me. 🙂

  4. frank8265

    June 14, 2012 at 11:05 am

    Plenty of choice in good city bikes here in the Netherlands. One very crucial thing is a good lock.
    The best thing of my Batavus Old Dutch is the upright position. The worst thing is no quick release on the wheels. Takes forever to change of fix a tyre on the back wheel.

    • ladyfleur

      June 14, 2012 at 11:18 am

      Yes, the Netherlands has the best selection of city bikes. After going all over the area test riding bikes from Pashley, Pilen and WorkCycles, my husband ended up having to order his Secret Service bike from the Netherlands since they don’t stock his large sized frame locally.

      And yes, a good lock is a necessity. Depending on where I go I carry either a U-lock or a less secure cable lock. I do wish I had one of those rear wheel locks most Dutch bikes have for the quick dashes into the store or coffee shop.

    • Chiu

      July 13, 2012 at 4:12 pm

      If you only have a flat, it’s possible to not remove the wheel at all, which is what I’ve done in the past on my city bike.

  5. Jennifer

    June 17, 2012 at 7:27 am

    I just picked up my Public Bikes C3 on Friday after work and took it for my first errand yesterday. 13 miles and I was sweating a lot. Granted it was a hot day but it cast doubts on my plan to dress up and ride to work on Monday. Trying out skirts today to see how/if that works in reality.

  6. ladyfleur

    June 17, 2012 at 8:26 am

    Jennifer, congratulations on the new bike! Here in the SF Bay Area it’s always much cooler in the morning so it’s a lot easier to avoid sweating. And Friday and yesterday were exceptionally hot and it’s supposed to cool off a lot by Monday. I’d go for it.


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