5 Pro Tips: Shopping for a City Bicycle

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A city bike – a bicycle built for navigating potholes, traffic, and schlepping your groceries – can be a wonderful primary mode of transportation for getting around daily. So maybe you've decided to join the ranks of city bicyclists pedaling about, but you aren't sure where to begin? Well take a gander at these tips for shopping for your first city bike...

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Although I've got 5+ years of urban bike riding experience under my belt, I turned to proprietor of Houndstooth Road, Jae Schmidt and Dan Nguyen-Tan of PUBLIC Bikes, for additional expert information about picking out a city bicycle. Houndstooth Road is one of the top spots in my new neck of the woods for fine city bikes (and one of the handful of brick and mortar dealers in the USA for some European bikes), and Jae has created a place where riders novice and experienced feel comfortable perusing. PUBLIC Bikes out of San Francisco is known for their colorful and affordable city bikes in a variety of styles, and they've been spotlighted here at Apartment Therapy more than a few times for their design conscious offerings.

But before we dive into tips for choosing a city bike, let's define what exactly makes a city bike best suited for riding city streets. Jae explained it's primarily the bicycle's geometry; most people in the States tend to think of anything upright without racing tires as a cruiser. A city bike is upright, but designed to be nimble and offers quicker maneuvering around traffic and pedestrians. A city bike also typically has medium width, higher pressure tires, mud-guards, and often a rear rack for hauling small loads like groceries.

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5 Tips for Shopping For Your First City Bike

  1. Narrow Down What You Need & Want. Jae suggests asking yourself these questions to help find the city bike of your dreams: How are you going to use the bike as a tool in your life? What are you going to do with it and where are going to store it? Do you live in a walk up? What kind of cargo do you want to carry? By answering these questions, you'll have a better idea of what your must-haves will be when it comes to your bike
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  2. How Upright Do You Want to Be? While seating position with city bikes is all relatively upright compared to other bicycle styles, there are variations between city bikes. Dutch, Italian, and English styles all vary. Top-tube, step-through, vs. mixte. These are all styles of city bikes and all have varying degrees of upright seating positions. To help determine your ideal seating position, think about any possible health restrictions and the condition of your back. This will determine how upright you want to be. Jae's tip for a quick way to judge how upright you'll be seated on any bike is to look at the handlebar and seat position. Handlebars several inches higher than the seat will offer an more upright seating position.
  3. Don't Automatically Go for the Cheapest. Budget will undoubtedly narrow down options, but I'm in agreement with Dan when he says, "You get what you pay for, to a certain extent, in terms of components and parts. For example, some city bikes only feature a coaster brake or back pedal brake, which might be fine if you're just riding along a flat boardwalk but not sufficient braking power for any downhill." Brakes become even more important when it comes to riding in wet or icy weather. As Jae points out, rim brakes are lighter and less expensive, but generally don't stop as well in inclement weather. However, expect price points of over $1,000 in the US for the heavier and better performing in inclement weather drum brakes.
  4. Opt for Steel Over Aluminium. Both Jae and Dan were in agreement that steel frames are better than aluminum for city bikes. Aluminum is lighter and stiffer, and there's more shock to the body when you hit those potholes. Steel is strong, durable, and absorbs the bumps from city riding much better than aluminum.
  5. Don't Assume That More Gears is Better. As Dan points out,"it's not the gears, but the gear ratios that are key." Even riding around the hills of San Francisco and Atlanta, 7-8 gears is plenty. Instead of putting your money towards 9+ gears, opt for an internally geared hub instead, which Jae calls a "bulletproof design." This type of gear hub does not get clogged with debris, ice, or snow, and there's no way to knock it out of alignment on a crowded bike rack. While an internally geared hub is going to make for a slightly heavier bike, the durability and much less long-term maintenance make the weight increase well worth it.

Of course this is just a starting point for shopping for your first city bike, but we hope these tips allow you to enter your local bike shop better informed before making a purchase. In addition to picking up your bike, don't forget a helmet, lights, bike pump, a durable lock, and whatever you need to carry your cargo like as pannier or basket!

Thanks to Dan, Jae, and photographer, Omar Gonzalez!

(Image credits: Omar Gonzalez)