Britain has all the wrong sorts of bikes

In my earlier post “So many beautiful road bikes but” I was commenting on the number of “proper” road bikes I saw while driving to Rothley and back. Earlier this evening I cycled towards Leicester (Harrison Road Methodist Church) on my new road bike.



This time I saw several families cycling together, probably on their way back from Watermead or Abbey Park.

Sadly, the day’s experiences reinforced my view that one of the biggest problems facing the growth of riding bikes as transport in the UK.

We are riding the wrong bikes!

Road Bikes are the Wrong Bikes

Yesterday, I was a good example of that. I rode 3.5 miles to an evening service on my new road bike. It was completely unnecessary and not at all suitable (my excuse was that I just wanted to ride my new bike). It meant I needed to change from cycling shoes with clips when I got there, it meant that when I was too warm cycling there I had nowhere to put my jacket, it was too fast a bike to feel appropriate on footways shared (legally) with pedestrians, it’s speed means that British cycling infrastructure feels too slow (tempting you towards a dual network where fast cyclists use the road and the rest use the crap provided at as little cost as possible), it meant I had to watch for debris including glass and the lower handlebars make it harder to watch for bad drivers. Oh and despite the much higher riding speed by the time you have swapped your shoes four times (each end of each ride) you have used up all the time you saved (and if I hadn’t ridden in my “work” clothes including clerical shirt it would have taken even longer).

The more people we see on fast road bikes the harder it is to campaign for a safe, convenient segregated infrastructure. The addition to speed that makes car drivers so dangerous also infects cyclists. So we read of commuter cyclists who thrive on adrenaline and who use their commutes for race training. We see the barely disguised race bikes sold as being ideal for commuters. We breed cyclists who are unhappy with a gentle pace in your work clothes sharing a segregated infrastructure with school children riding to school.

This high speed view of “commuter” cyclists fostered by the “sport” image of bike that they ride is actually a false picture of speed. Look at this article (inc video) of a 5 km commute by bike in ’s-Hertogenbosch. Or the video in this post showing longer routes between towns. The Dutch make commuting using a bike fast by making it direct and non-stop not by making people ride super fast sports bikes in lycra. Then the commuters don’t need special clothing, they don’t need to shower or change when they get to work and they can use the same routes as school children, elderly people going shopping, students going clubbing etc.

For cycling in Britain our obsession with using sports bike for transport is holding us back from demanding the infrastructure to make cycling a safe, convenient, pleasant choice for all people.

Mountain Bikes are the wrong bikes

On the other hand, when you see people riding bikes to the shops or out with the children they are also generally riding the wrong sorts of bikes. We frequently see people riding from the supermarket on a full suspension mountain bike with plastic bags hanging from the handlebars. Or out for a short ride in the park with their children also while riding a full suspension mountain bike. A Dutch style bike (maybe with 8 gears instead of 3 for the hillier parts of the UK) would be so much more convenient, comfortable, faster and lower maintenance. When you are struggling with shopping on a bike with no rack, no basket, nowhere to carry things it is no wonder you ride on the pavement.

Mountain bikes as generally sold are useless for general transport:

  • no way to carry things
  • no mudguards to keep you dry and clean
  • no chainguard to keep your clothes clean
  • knobbly tyres to slow you down
  • no lights
  • full suspension makes them very heavy (and difficult to fit racks to)

We need modern, clean, low maintenance practical bikes in the UK for commuters and for everyone else. Bikes like this Workcycles GR8

WorkCycles GR8

When commuters, shoppers etc ride bikes like this, then maybe we will be encouraged to ask for real Dutch cycle infrastructure that is safe, convenient and segregated. Then we will be able to see cycling as transport return to normality.

Oh and as well as that our bike rides to work, the shops etc will all become a lot nicer!

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  1. Can I recommend being seduced by Nick Lobnitz, or more correctly, his Paper Bike for the next n+1 moment.

    It is the only steel bike frame that can be hot dip galvanised, because it has no ‘closed’ tubes (the expanding air and heat will blow out brazing or the contracting air will do this – at less than 15psi –

    Really comfortable to ride and built to require a minimum of attention AND take a belt drive without having to had a special split frame at the back…..

  2. While I agree that we generally ride the wrong bikes for general transport (we will know when we are winning when most of the bicycles in the shops have mudguards), I think there is much to be said for the traditional tourer.

    With a strong light frame, carriers, mudguards, moderate tyres (28/32mm) lights, a good range of gears (preferably hub) etc. it is a very good compromise for commuting, shppping and longer recreational rides in the countryside.

    • John,

      Yes. But interesting that the drop handlebar touring bike is so much a British thing. We are a small island yet our touring bikes are more like racing bikes than on the continent. Why is that?

  3. Yes yes agree, agree, if I knew then what I know now I could have saved a lot of money – specialist bike shops are as much to blame as the high street’s BSOs.
    Not sure how to highlight the (potential) joy (once they sort infrastructure out) of just riding a bike to get from a to b. Overshadowed at present by day-glow “cycle wear” and a testosterone fuelled subculture.

  4. I agree with you about the need for more practical bikes, but something puzzles me; you seem to assume that the fact that a road bike is capable of higher speeds means it has to be ridden fast, and has to involve special footwear. If you simply change the pedals, and make them go round less frequently, you will find those problems solved! But I do know how frustrating it can be. Even riding to work on my 3-speed sit-up-and-beg (very comfortable) Raleigh, I have to restrain myself when that mountain biker comes puffing past up the hill “let him go, don’t get too warm…..”

    • Martin,

      Incapable? Well maybe not, but absolutely does encourage spirited riding at high practicality cost (carrying stuff, robustness). Crouched position on a racing saddle is much less comfy in normal clothing.

  5. It’s like with sports cars- yes, you can drive them carefully and slowly, but everything about them encourages you into driving like a loon.

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