There are more bike types than ever, but let’s not lose sight of the essentials, says Rob Ainsley
The generic media image of a bike has changed over the years. 1950s: town runabout, probably a Raleigh. 1990s: mountain bike. Now: road bike. Except on promo literature for train companies and property developers. They only show folders, so they can claim to be bike-friendly without the effort of providing any space for them.
My bike stable covers those four types. But marketing labs breed new strains every season. Auction site eBay lists nearly 40 categories, from Balance to Urban - Fixed Gear, via Dutch, Fat, Freeride, and intriguingly ‘Saxonette’, which sounds more like a wind instrument. And still doesn’t cover everything, no ‘Winter bike’ for instance.
The ploy of inventing novel genres means more buying temptation, but we should keep some perspective. Bikes can serve many roles. I’ve been round town on my mountain bike, gone off road on my tourer, toured on my folder, and folded my town bike into a car boot.
Unfortunately that last occasion was after a lorry crushed it while parked, and I had to get the remains home. Every bike can be a folding bike, if only once. As many who’ve risked their prize road bike on a plane can testify.
My favourite bike, my bespoke steel tourer, is the most versatile. It’s bliss to tour on, obviously, but can be so many other things with tweaking. Endurance/ audax? Remove the front pannier rack. Gravel/ adventure? Remove the mudguards and rear rack. Cyclocross? Switch to fatter tyres. Triathlon bike? Simply change the bars, wheels and frame, and rider.
So, boundaries can be fuzzy. But decent infrastructure – for which read ‘surfaces’ – means you can have good experiences on any bike. This struck me when I met up with two friends recently to cycle in Belgium, a country that has some fuzzy boundaries itself, not only the French/ Flemish business – Google ‘Baarle’.
One friend joined us between 200km day rides, so was on his endurance bike: a carbon Trek Domane with long-distance essentials such as lightweight saddlebag, hub-driven USB charger and sound system. The other friend was backpacking, so hired a basic hybrid. I’d arrived by coach, so was on my folder. The Trek had cost 10 times more than my folder, and the folder had cost 10 times more than the week’s hybrid hire.
Despite the range in bike types, we had equally enjoyable cycling. We were after all in Flanders, Dutch-speaking and very much Dutch-biking in character. Outside the cobbled old town centres (a literal pain in the backside thanks to my small wheels), cycle tracks and roads were beautifully smooth. Infrastructure is better than the UK’s. It’s installing a network of Fietssnelwegen (bike freeways), longdistance high-quality routes linking towns, often running parallel to railways. Together with great permeability in towns – oneway streets for motors are always two-way for bikes, and cycle paths generally have priority at junctions – and excellent driver behaviour (very patient and courteous) it meant we all had good experiences, regardless of bike genre, speed of progress, or luggage carried.
Immediately after, I was in London three times in the space of a week on different bikes – folder, tourer, town – but covering the same area each time, on its brilliant developing system of segregated, wide-ish, joyous cycle tracks. I enjoyed similarly positive results.
Good cycle infrastructure enables all types of rider. In London and Flanders the bike paths were plied by fast roadies, slow Dutch bikes, recumbents, e-bikes, mountain bikes, wheelchairs, skates… and all happy. You don’t need a gravel bike for the towpath, or an endurance bike for the seven-sides-of-an-octagon Sustrans route to the town centre. Infrastructure trumps marketing.
So, all these are good logical arguments that I don’t need another bike, but not quite clinching. Winter is coming, and we know a winter bike is an essential. A less precious, reserve bike, good and comfortable enough for a long day’s ride, but one you don’t worry about so much in mud and rain, even outside overnight. A prudent investment, to protect your more valuable bikes. I’m not fussy over detail: I might use it in summer too. I’ll tell eBay to add a new category...
Decent infrastructure means you can have good experiences on any bike