And The Horse You Road in On

I have been riding this bike a lot:

That’ll change, it always changes. I move from bike to bike like a mariachi band moving from table to table. But at the moment the bikes I’m riding the most are that one and this one:

The Milwaukee is the “recreational” one and the Homer is the “commuting” one. I hesitate to use either term because in a way they’re both misleading: one sounds fun and the other sounds onerous, but in fact I enjoy them both. If anything, it’s the commuting that’s recreational, since I choose to do it when I could just as easily take the subway, whereas the “recreational” riding is mandatory, since my both my physical and mental well-being depend on it and for me there really is no other viable option–like, I’m not taking up pickleball. For me it’s bikes or nothing.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that I’ve been spending probably half my riding time on the Milwaukee and half on the Homer, and I gotta say if you like to ride bikes then you can do a lot worse.

Given how much time I’ve been spending on the Milwaukee, I’ve also been thinking about a lot about road bikes, and what we generally call “road cycling.” Over the years I’ve had an evolving relationship with road bikes: I’ve been the solitary young newbie dork; the serious bike racer dork; the former bike racer dork trying to rebel against roadiedom by squeezing 28mm tires into short-reach calipers and wearing clothing that doesn’t match; and of course the solitary old seen-it-all dork I am today. But the one constant–besides the sheer persistence of my utter dorkitude–has been the presence of a road bike in my life, even when I’ve attempted to spurn them and turn as far from them as possible:

For years, road cycling has been synonymous with stupid rules, extreme anal retention, general humorlessness, and insufferable elitism. However, I’ve recently come to appreciate that, despite the undeniable existence of riders who exhibit every one of those attributes, road cycling is fundamentally the most accessible form of riding. This is not to say it’s for everybody; if you hate riding road bikes you hate riding road bikes and I’d never try to talk you into loving them, in the same way I hope you’ll never try to talk me into your recumbent. (If you hate road bikes I’m just assuming you ride a recumbent.) But it is to say I’ve realized how much I like road bikes and there’s no longer any sense in fighting it. Here’s what I like about them:


I mean sure, they’re not all simple. You can overcomplicate anything with batteries and fluids and plastic and stuff:

Fundamentally though they’re extremely simple machines. Look at this one, for example:

[Classic Cycle]

It’s over 50 years old. What can’t you do on this thing that you can’t do on a road bike today? Yeah, newer bikes are more refined, but one thing I’ve learned from all the old ones I’ve gotten to ride thanks to Classic Cycle is that whatever you’re riding you get used to it pretty quick. For five minutes you’re like, “How did people ever shift like this?” Then a week later you’re like, “The road bike was basically perfected 70 years ago, why do we need any more than this?”

This is because the bikes are simple. A diamond frame, a handlebar that allows you multiple hand positions, and a few different gears. (Whether it’s five or ten or twelve of them really doesn’t matter all that much.) It’s light and strong. You can use it to ride around the city or to climb a mountain range. There are bikes that will carry more stuff or take you deeper into the woods or that may be easier for the inexperienced cyclist to handle. But I’m not sure there’s any other type of bike that will allow you to do so much with so little.

They’re Fast

[Chronicle Books]

Even if you’re not interested in racing or Strava KOMs or Cat 6-ing people in the bike lane it’s good to have a bike that’s fast. It doesn’t have to be aero or put you in some crazy position or be uncomfortable or impractical to ride. Any decent road bike set up to fit you properly will be inherently fast–maybe not as fast as it possibly can be in the “marginal gains” sense (who cares anyway?), but as fast as anybody needs a bicycle to be.

So why is it good to have a fast bike? The same reason it’s good to have a fast Internet connection: more bandwidth. I couldn’t care less about being faster than anybody else, but as a person with responsibilities sometimes I want to be able to go as far as I can in the time allotted to me. This isn’t always the case–sometimes I’ll prioritize comfort, or carrying capacity, or the ability to ride on rough terrain–but when I want maximum value out of my cycling dollar than nothing beats the road bike in terms of sheer efficiency. It’s like ordering a cocktail instead of a beer.

They’re Cheap

No, they’re not all cheap:

But thanks to the ubiquity of the road bike and the fact that it’s been around for so long there are a lot of cheap ones to be had–like cheap-as-the-pedals-on-that-plastic-bike cheap:

And despite what you may read elsewhere you’ll give up little to nothing over newer, fancier ones–and anything you do give up you’ll more than make up for in mechanical simplicity and the convenience that comes with it.

You Can Do It Anywhere

[My ass, Specialized.]

Way more of us live surrounded by ordinary roads than the sorts of vast wilderness areas we see on the bike company websites and the outdoor lifestyle websites that peddle their wares for them. Granted, some of these ordinary roads are pretty horrible–so horrible that maybe getting in a car and driving to the vast wilderness area is an attractive proposition for you depending on where you live. Still, for those of us whose lives are too busy to afford us a “lifestyle,” a road bike is the best choice for an adventure that can begin as soon as we walk out the front door.

They’re The Essence Of What Bicycles Are All About

See this guy?

Laugh if you will, but he’s your forebear. That’s where it all started. He’s standing next to the first pedal-powered machine that could carry people efficiently across long distances. Every race and group ride and cycling club owes its existence to this guy and his mustachioed riding buddies, as well as all the women riders who ditched their skirts for bloomers. By 1903 his bike would have looked like this–not all that different from a road bike today, at least if you squint:

Then over the next few decades they got the gears sorted out, now here we are.

This is a road bike:

I’d also argue that this is a road bike:

And probably what annoys me so much about gravel bikes is that they’re also just road bikes, only with some extra tire clearance, just like the road bikes once had except for the brief (in the grand scheme of things) turn-of-the-last-century period when the industry became obsessed with short-reach brakes for some reason:

Road bikes have always been able to go lots of places, which is why we probably should never had started calling them road bikes and just called them “bikes.” I’m not sure when “road bike” became the dominant term–probably when mountain bikes became a thing and the industry needed more explicit marketing terms to differentiate them. (Come to think of it, the mountain bike category is probably what caused road bike brake reach to shrink.) But sporty drop-bar bicycles are timeless and versatile, and what we now call road bikes are so much fun that even people who don’t like road bikes like road bikes.

So I’ll always love road bikes…until it gets cold again, at which point I’ll write pretty much the same thing, only about mountain bikes.

Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: